Saturday, July 22, 2017


 A few months ago, I saw a film that was set in the aftermath of the events of Dunkirk. "Their Finest" was a personal drama set during the London Blitz. Up to this point it has been my favorite film of the year. It has now been supplanted by a film that features the events that are referred to in the first movie. I have been anticipating Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk' for several months, ever since the first teaser trailer showed up on the local cinema screens. I have seen eight of his films and much like the first ten years of Pixar, I was never disappointed. There is however that first time when your expectations will exceed the results. We will have to hold on for another film for that to happen. "Dunkirk" is a dramatic success without strong characters, a tension filled story for an historical event that people know the outcome for already, and a technical achievement that relies on the directors eye more than every special effect in the book.

Let's look at those accomplishments in that order. Fionn Whitehead is starring in his first film, and he manages to give a credible performance without a large amount of dialogue and with no back story. His character is one of nearly 400,000 men trapped against the sea by the enemy forces after a military failure in the early part of World War II. Beyond running and searching for a place to relieve himself, the only way we know anything about his character are his actions. He is empathetic, but also fearful. He manages to get to the front of a line of soldiers waiting to embark on a hospital ship by using his cleverness and his empathy. He wordlessly connects with another soldier as they collaborate ways to escape from the beach. A third soldier enters the picture as they escape from a sinking ship, he is played by Harry Styles, another character that we can only judge from his behavior in interacting with the other two. This is so not a traditional war story designed around characters that we will care about and feel an emotional bond to. These three main characters from the troops trapped on the beach are ciphers standing in for all the other men trapped there as well. No one talks about their girlfriend at home, or reminisces about their dog, or tells a story of their battlefield experience. They unambiguously try to survive and escape. That pretty much sums up everything which focuses on them. The same is true of Tom Hardy's character, Farrier, a Spitfire pilot who joins the battle and has maybe a dozen lines in the story but is on screen maybe more than anyone else. It is another opportunity for him to act while hiding behind a mask. In this film he gets to do more than hook his thumbs in his suspenders but we only see his face at the very end. We know his emotions only through the choices he makes as a pilot in combat. He is heroic, thoughtful and practical. All of that has to be conveyed with few props and no other actor on screen to play off of. The closest we come to characters that we might identify with and care about are the three men heading to "Dunkirk" as part of a flotilla of rescue boats. Mark Rylance is the captain, accompanied by his son and a seventeen year old boy who sometimes serves as a mate on their pleasure boat. Mr. Dawson knows what it is they will be facing. When the three pick up a stranded soldier on a ship that has sunk, there is more dialogue than anywhere else in the film. Because of the interaction and the small amount of background we get, it ends up that the most emotional investment we have in any characters are those in the civilians rather than the troops.  That's about as close to a negative thing I have to say about the film characters.

Nolan made a decision to tell three basic lines of story in the film. Each is highlighted early in the film with a title card indicating where and when the events we are watching took place in the context of the experience. What he has managed to do is build stories that have completely different timelines into a single whole where everything synchronizes in the third act. The vessel at sea is a story that takes a full day. The aircraft battles occur in a two hour window. The story of the land bound soldiers occurs over several days. Each story line has small little conflicts and extended moments of tension, but as the climax gets closer, we see those stories intersecting and the brilliant score by Hans Zimmer begins to speed up its pace, For most of the movie it si background music that feels like minutes ticking against a clock. The more time passes, the more tense it becomes. At the climax, the score is more traditional with some of the same themes but accelerated into ticking seconds rather than minutes. The story of the soldiers involves several near misses, both in the sense of death and in being rescued. Those moments play out very much in bursts of energy followed by moments of calm. Most of the time on the small boat is more lethargic and there are brief moments of energy that pass rather quickly. Almost every moment in the plane's cockpit involves aerial combat. Each segment there is brief but filled with action. Nolan mixes these moments expertly to keep the flow of the story going. The characters in each of these scenarios get different resolutions as well. Each outcome feels authentic given the circumstances.

I'm not a film maker or much of a photographer, but I can notice when something is being done effectively in showing us a story. The aviation combat scenes are primarily shot fro a perspective immediately next to the fuselage over the wings of the plane. The only time we see a pilots eye view is when there is targeting and the enemy is being shot at. All of the scenes of the pilots are in close up inside of the cockpit. The vastness of the beaches and the number of British and allied forces hoping for rescue are emphasized with wide shots that put the figures in perspective. The beaches are not crowed but rather they are dotted with need lines of men queuing up for rides that never seem to arrive. The scenes set on the ocean show the ships traveling across the channel, but they are not bunched together until the end. The "Moonstone", the yacht that Rypance captains, is small in contrast to the military vessels that are sometimes sinking in her wake. All of the ships are made more insignificant by the smoke  climbing into the sky on the horizon. The deadly action that starts off the film is directed at a frantic pace, with the same high levels of dread that marked "Saving Private Ryan", but without the conspicuous violence.  The deadliest moments involve the participants struggles inside of the various craft they board, Fire and drowning are the most pronounced threats in this view to the events. Nolan reminds us that the danger is not simply a bullet or a bomb, although there are plenty of those, but panic and hubris can take a soldier as well.

It is not spin to turn this military failure into a false victory.  The expedition onto the continent had failed, miserably. There was however a victory in the retreat that took place. Tacitus said it best, "He that fights and runs away, may turn and fight another day: but he who is in battle slain, Will never rise to fight again." These words are not the excuse of a coward but the logic of a realist. The British people were able to see that this successful retreat would enable them to continue to fight. Nolan's story shows the shame on the faces of the soldiers returning home as well as their relief. It is the enthusiastic embrace by the public that makes the event a victory in the long run. "Their Finest" showed how that might be turned into a morale booster in the darkest hour of the war. "Dunkirk" shows us the sacrifice and courage it took to stand this bitter turn of events and grow from it. Later this year we will get a film featuring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. The film ends with a piece of Churchill Rhetoric, designed to rally the citizens of Great Britain, but also to plead with America. The events depicted in the film give credence to his words.

He that fights and runs away, May turn and fight another day; But he that is in battle slain, Will never rise to fight again. Tacitus
Read more at:

 "Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old."

This is a story that needs to be understood by new generations. Nolan gives the events a context that most of us need and does so with a degree of technical excellence that is superlative.  If it is not emotionally wrenching in every segment, it still has a heart that we can all admire.

Jaws Video Review

My daughter is a "Jaws" fanatic, and she did a series of shark movie reviews leading up the "Shark Week".

Here is here video review of her favorite movie, because after all, I don't have enough "Jaws" content on my site.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Man Who Would Be King [ Movies I Want Everyone to See]


Review by Richard Kirkham

 [ This essay was originally Published on the deleted site "Fogs Movie Reviews" in the Fall of 2013]

All you film fans out there who were born after 1970 are about to eat your hearts out. You may know that the 70s were the second golden age of Hollywood, after all that's when "Star Wars", "The Godfather", and "Alien" all started. You may even be aware that the greatest adventure film ever made, "Jaws", was released in the Summer of 1975. It would be a solid argument to make that 1975 was the apex of Hollywood film making in that decade. Here is a partial list of the movies released that year: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, Barry Lyndon, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Rollerball, Three Days of the Condor, Shampoo, Nashville, Seven Beauties, Cousin cousine,The Passenger as well as the aforementioned fish story. " That is a list of essential films for anyone who loves movies to partake of. Buried in the avalanche of great films from that year, is the one film that stars Michael Caine and Sean Connery together as the leading men (each had a small part in "A Bridge Too Far") and as a bonus it was directed by John Huston.

"The Man Who Would be King" was a dream project for John Huston. He had tried to put together a version of the movie as far back as the 1950. His original choices for leads were Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. That was the royalty of the earlier film generation. When he finally did get to put the story in front of the cameras it was to feature the royalty of the next generation of movie stars. While other names had been mentioned, someone (likely Paul Newman who turned down the film) suggested that Huston stick to using British actors. That was the best advise Huston could get because this movie is a quintessentially British story focused on a time period when the English Empire was at it's height and the ambitions of men who were it's subjects knew no bounds. It is this condition that allows our lead characters to work so well in the tale.man_who_would_be_king_blu-ray_3_
Peachy Carnahan and Daniel Dravot are recently retired British non commissioned soldiers who decide the world at home is not big enough for the likes of them. They have developed a strategy to make themselves Kings. In particular, rulers of Kafiristan, a remote region of Afghanistan

Daniel Dravot:" In any place where they fight, a man who knows how to drill men can always be a King. We shall go to those parts and say to any King we find - "D'you want to vanquish your foes?' and we will show him how to drill men; for that we know better than anything else. Then we will subvert that King and seize his Throne and establish a Dynasty."

Before they begin this quest, they make the acquaintance of an English journalist working in India as well. This journalist turns out to be Rudyard Kipling, who wrote the story on which the film is based. These encounters with Kipling becomes the bookends for the film and give the story an even greater sense of adventure and  mystery. While the story itself is fantastic, the characters are ground in reality and the presence of Kipling as future narrator of the tale is all the more needed to set the mood. If you have not seen this film, be assured that when you get to the end you will empathize with the Kipling character and stare in wonder at the proof of it all. The tie in to the story concerns the masonic brotherhood that the English characters share in common. There are some great curves that follow from this early revelation. Christopher Plummer is unrecognizable in the role and he strikes just the right tone of concerned bemusement in the first act and utter astonishment in the conclusion.man_who_would_be_king_blu-ray_2_
After assisting the two adventurers, Kipling fades from the story and the focus is on the travel to Kafiristan. There are several exciting incidents on the road but eventually the spine of the story begins when they arrive and connect with the remnants of an earlier English expedition. The lone survivor is a gurkha soldier named Billy Fish. He becomes their interpreter and confidant. His part in the story reminds us that the relationship of the British to their Empire was not always hostile. These fierce hill people fought valiantly alongside their English counterparts in many battles over the last two hundred years. While the relationship is not one of equality, the two adventurers are not condescending to their third partner, in fact they trust him implicitly.

The second act of the film focuses on the battles and strategy that the two employ to gain the power that brought them to the remote land to begin with. There are several small incidents that test their friendship and commitment. There is a great deal of humor involved in the training sequences and in some of the moments of conquest. That humor may be viewed as politically incorrect at times, but it is not so much based on racism as ethnocentricity. The world is still a brutal place, and while those of us living in Western cultures might view some of the behaviors as relics of the past, it may not be as true as we wish. Of course the intercultural conflicts go both directions since the English soldiers are viewed just as differently by the tribesmen they encounter as we might treat a alien from another world.
All of this is offered up though through the performances of two of the greatest screen personae of the last fifty years of film. Connery and Caine are both Award winning performers from the generation of actors that came out of England in the sixties. Along with Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole and Richard Harris, they represent that moment in time when the culture of Great Britain was the Beatles and James Bond. Here they are in an adventure story that harkens to the glory days of the Empire and much as the Western is a romanticism of American history, a film like this served the same purpose for the English. Connery plays Daniel Dravot as the more blustery of the two itinerant soldiers. He uses his commanding voice and fierce expression to cow his enemies and establish a position of power with others. He can however take on a warm quality as he does with Kipling at one point and his subjects later on in the film. The dividing point for the two characters comes when Danny becomes infatuated with a local beauty that he sees as cementing the legacy of Alexander he has come to see himself playing.  The beautiful Mrs. Caine was cast in the part at the last minute as soon as John Huston met her.
Peachy Carnehan has the more subdued character. Caine is more sly and cautious, except for the scene on the train in the opening of the film. Peachy does get his dander up but almost always it is in response to his partner and not the other characters. It is Michael Caine's  delivery of the opening framing story that gives the tale it's magical quality.

Rudyard Kipling:"Carnehan!."
Peachy Carnehan: "The same - and not the same, who sat besides you in the first class carriage, on the train to Marwar Junction, three summers and a thousand years ago."

It is that prologue that sucks us in and makes us want to know what has transpired in the intervening three years. Caine has a breathless line reading that is haunting and fits really well with the coda of the story. It is his willingness to hold back his voice at times that allows the ruse these two perpetuate on the populace to work. He is the brains of the outfit but he has to stand back to let his partner gain the power that both of them seek. You can also see it in his face and posture when Danny gets full of himself and Peachy has to let some of the air out of who would be king 10
Connery has said that this is his favorite film that he appeared in. I heard him say it in person at the Archlight Cinerama Dome Theater in Hollywood three years ago. He did a short five to ten minute introduction of the film at one of the AFI Night at the Movies events. It is easy to see why he would feel this way. He and Michael Caine get to play larger than life characters who are a little bit crazed. There is action, drama, comedy and suspense throughout the story.  While there are a number of other elements of the film that make it memorable and worthy, all of them would be for naught if the two actors at the heart of the story were not perfect.

The film was nominated for four Academy Awards: art direction, costume design,editing and screenplay. Amazingly it did not win any of those categories. Even more amazing is that the two leads and the fine supporting performance from Plummer were not recognized at all. It is ideal to imagine that this was a result of the lushness of the films of the period. It was clearly not the inadequacy of the work done by the film makers. The score is by Maurice Jarre, the man responsible for the music of "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Dr. Zhivago". So you can expect the music to reflect the grandeur of the setting and the heroics and faults of the two main characters. If you listen to the opening track that accompanies the titles, you will hear echos of "Gunga Din" and those 1960s classics as well.

As the story unfolds and you witness the relationship between Danny and Peachy, you will see why Huston thought of Bogart and Gable and later Redford and Newman. There is great byplay with the two actors. At one point they had hoped to share the screen again, this time with their pal Roger Moore, in a version of James Clavell's Tai Pan.  It is something to lament that this coupling of actors could not be accommodated later on. That makes it all the more important to treasure this match up of two great actors the likes of which we may never see again.

Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Big Sick

Two days ago, on Friday morning, I went to see this film. I usually post my thoughts immediately following a movie experience because I want the story and impact to be fresh in my head while I am writing about it. Once in a while, when the movie is late, I will wait until the next day. I have put this off for 72 hours because the subject matter involves a young woman with a severe infection and a life threatening hospitalization. On Saturday, I attended a memorial service for a young woman who had a severe infection and did not make it. I had not realized how the movie was going to play out before I went in or I might ave waited a little longer to see it. The timing as a result was awkward and my emotions were clouded with the personal turmoil I was going through. I know that the story is not the same but some of the similarities made it feel awkward to watch this as the comedic experience it is intended to be. With this declaration now out there, I think I can share my impression in a more honest way and you the reader will be able to judge if I am being fair in either direction.

This is a romantic comedy, a genre that usually has little respect among film bloggers because of the dependence on certain tropes in story telling. "The Big Sick" will not be guilty of any of those, except in the most general sense that it is a love story with several twists. The turns this movie makes though feel fresh and while the end plays out as if it was any other rom-com, the middle is decidedly different. There are three reasons that this movie fits into a class of films higher than most movies of this type. To begin with, there is a different type of culture clash. Plenty of romances feature people from different backgrounds and the misunderstandings and complications that can arise from that. Two solid examples of those types of films would be "Mystic Pizza" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding".  "The Big Sick" has a cultural story behind it, but it is not about the romantic partners fitting in with one anothers in-group, it is the inability of one person in the relationship to be able to resolve the distancing that he must go through for both his family culture and his romantic /professional culture. Kumail Nanjinai plays himself. He is a comedian, struggling to make it in Chicago. He is also a Pakistani-American, which puts him in "the other" classification to some audiences and probably some of his friends as well. He engages in the family traditions of sharing a weekly meal, Muslim prayers and potential arranged marriage, all to please his family and maintain those cultural norms. Kumail is not serious about his faith and is largely just indulging his parents when they bring attractive Pakistani women to the weekly meals. He knows he is rapidly becoming an out member of his own group when he starts dating a white woman from a much more traditional background. There is quite a bit of funny stuff in the balancing act he is playing with his family. His stand up to me seemed to me marginally better than his pathetic room mate, but it is not clear how he will be able to make his very humorous personality come out in a stand up performance. All of his best lines are delivered to the girl that he is falling for.

A second reason that the film is different enough from most others in the genre is that the complication that separates the two lovers is not merely the culture clash but the medical crisis that I was a little sensitive about. There are some dramatic turns that occur during the middle of the film that I was unprepared for. The girl is played by Zoe Kazan, who I loved so much in the film "What If ?' back in 2014. Emily is a bright girl with a great sense of humor, but she is wounded by Kamail and that is the consequence of the cultural issue I already mentioned. Kamail however steps back into the relationship in a one sided manner. I don't like giving the story away, let's just say that a coma is not automatically a plot device that you would think up for this kind of film ("While You Were Sleeping" excepted).  When Emily's parents enter the story there are several more directions the film takes. There is something compelling about watching awkward comedy situations. I know several people who hate films based on awkwardness but it feels very honest at times and when a performer is at the center of an awkward moment it seems even more tangible. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are very good as the parents of the girl Kamail has broken up. Handling the circumstances forces Kamail to be less than forthright at times and the parents are very direct. [If you are looking for sleeper picks for your supporting actor nomination pools at the end of the year, keep these two in mind, they are great.] I probably did not respond as strongly to some of what happens here because of the context I mentioned in the opening. Hospitals to me are inherently unfunny, and with personal experiences floating in your head, it's possible to miss the comedy that comes from some tragedies. [You know the formula "Tragedy + Time =Comedy", I think I needed a little more time.]

Last on my list of reasons this film is able to overcome the burdens shared by most romantic comedies is that the line to the resolution is not a straight one. A conventional film would have used a moment from near the end of the medical situation to wrap things up. This film is different. The main character is defiant of the consequences his family wants to impose on him. He fails at the chance he has to make it to the comedy festival that could change the trajectory of his career, and his romance seems to have fizzled out. It's the little bit of extra effort in the third act that makes the movie work. It still comes out the way we want it to, but the road is not as smooth and easy as it could have been if done in a more conventional manner.

You are probably aware that this movie has received glowing reviews and high ratings on meta-critic sites. It deserves that recognition but don't be mislead into believing that this film is transformative or experimental. "The Big Sick" is certainly inventive, and there are distinct twists in the story that make it memorable but at the end of the day, it is an entertainment. I know that it is based on a real experience, but my guess is that the real life incidents were closer to the things we want to avoid than the things this film wants us to embrace. Think of films like "The Full Monty", "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Juno", and you will have a pretty good idea of where this is going. It is genre bending and innovative, but beware the hyperbole.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Willard (1971)

Well, it took almost 40 years. But I got to see Willard again in its original form. Shout factory and Scream have released the film in a special package which includes a DVD and Blu Ray and it has a second audio track with actor Bruce Davison. So that it is actually is a very special of presentation of the film. The only previous video releases that have been available were a VHS edition that ais long, long been out of print. There was as well  a laser disc version that was all pan and scan and it is also been out of print for a long time. It has never been released on DVD before and the only dvd versions were copies of the VHS presentation. You could watch the movie on YouTube but it would be a second or third generation copy from the VHS and that's hardly worth the effort. It's not exactly clear why the film has been in limbo for the past 35 years,  but it was definitely worth waiting for, the film is as good as I remembered and there are some things about it that are actually much better than my memory on allowed me to recall.

Those of you who are unfamiliar, this is the story of a boy and his rat. Bruce Davison plays the young Willard Stiles, a put upon accountant in a firm that his father created. After his father's death  death, the company was taken over by his business partner an unfriendly guy named Martin played by Academy Award winning actor Ernest Borgnine. Willard has a lot in common with Norman Bates. He's relatively quiet, very smart, and socially awkward. He desperately needs a girlfriend. He also has substantial mother issues like Mr. Bates. In this case though,Willard's mother is actually alive at the start of the story. She is played by veteran actress Elsa Lanchester, who most of you would be familiar with as the bride of Frankenstein. This was one of her last film roles. Willard has no friends of his own, he basically gets by with the friends of his mother. They are overbearing, elderly and full of advice that he doesn't want. They all think that, he needs to be more in. assertive. Basically, their birthday wish for him is that he be less of a wimp. Davidson is a thin, pale man with doe eyes. In that regard is is different than Norman Bates, who was dark and had those deep set, dark circled eyes. Each of them of course have difficulty with their mothers, and in relating to the opposite sex. Willard is much less dysfunctional than Norman was. he ia a  withdrawn 27 year old man, and he spends a substantial amount of time in the garden. It is there that he begins to interact with some rats that are overtaking the ancient house that he had his mother occupy. Somehow, he manages to begin training, the rats, so that they can recognize his commands.

All of this of course requires a good deal of suspension of disbelief., but in a film like this, it works pretty effectively. There are some cute montage type sequences where the rats perform some tricks. They begin to move at his command. Since I haven't seen the movie for probably 30 years or more. I was surprised about how much of it I remembered. The main story is definitely something that was easy for me to recall. There was only one sequence that I had forgotten but once it started playing out. I had a much more vivid memory of it. This ends up being a revenge story. Willard views Martin as an oppressor who is responsible for his father's death. A man who stole the company that he rightfully should own. A man who put so much pressure on his family that his mother dies in an unhappy state, leaving a guileless  Willard alone. Of course, he is not quite alone. He has his 2 best friends. Socrates is a white rat that Willard is especially fond of. Socrates is allowed to have special privileges in the house. Ben is a much smarter rat than any of the others.  He constantly finds his way into the house even after Willard has made attempts to keep him out. Willard however cannot stay mad at Ben and he includes him in most of his escapades along with Socrates.

In a sequence that is for the most part, an innocuous revenge moment, something that might qualify as an innocent prank, Willard packs up several of his rats and releases them at his bosses Anniversary Party, a party that he himself was not invited to. Of course there is a major disruption. The rats climb up on to the tables and start eating the food. and the guests all panic, adults squealing like children and climbing onto chairs. Willard's boss has a plan to take over the house that Willard and his mother occupied. After the death of his mother, Willard discovers that there is a mortgage and back taxes on the property. Martin plans on buying the house from Willard when he can no longer afford to keep the house and then plowing it down and building a large apartment building. It is a beautiful old house but it is also rundown. It looks like it would be difficult for Willard to be able to bring it up to standard. When he receives a notice from the tax assessor that the house is going to be sold for back taxes, he desperately turns to some of his mother's old friends. People that he is alienated. He seeks financial assistance from them. They scarf and once again give him the advice that he doesn't want, he should sell the house. That would play into Martins plans and Willard has no intention of doing that. Instead, in desperation, Willard hatched a plan to use the rats to perform a robbery at the house where he knows a substantial sum of cash is being kept. That was the sequence that I hadn't remembered. Watching the rats gnaw through the bedroom door, where sleeping couple is resting was actually a very creepy moment.

Willard finally gets bold enough to ask the young woman who is been hired as a temp, to join him. for dinner. She played by a young Sandra Locke. She starred in several Clint Eastwood films and was his partner for a decade. She was also an Academy Award nominee the year before this film came out. She has the same large innocent eye and sweet face that Bruce Davison has. Both of them look young and innocent but we know that Willard is a bit disturbed. Behind his facade are some deep seeded anger. The film was shot in Los Angeles in the 1970s. The house that they used for Willard's home is an actual home that is still there The interiors were not shot on a set but it was the actual interior of the house. The only set built to be part of the house was the basement section. The office that Willard and his partner work at was definitely from the 70s.. There is wood paneling, gold carpet and industrial style furniture and file cabinets. The set design in the film is extravagant. When they are in Willard's home. One nice touche is a large grand father clock in the entryway that Willard maintains as best he can and it becomes an object that is envied by Martin.

The film is sold as a Horror Story, but for 3/4 of the run of the film it is a sweet drama.about a sad man who is lonely and begins to reach out. to some rats and to an equally quiet girl. However, as the plot develops, Willard becomes more and more desperate. There are in fact, many horror elements in the climax. The film is more creepy than frightening. Although if the thought of rats does disturb you than the film might very well be as frightening as it is promoted to be. The movie is packed with a lot of well known character actors from the 1970s. Including J Pat O'Malley, the aforementioned  Elsa Lanchester. A number of peripheral actors you might even recognize. If you pay attention to the details. The performance of Bruce Davison himself is what that sells this movie. Davidson has continued to have a successful career as a character actor. In fact, he is an Academy Award nominee himself. 4 or 5 years ago. I saw him as one of 16 character actors in a documentary titled. "That guy in that thing".  Several recognizable faces talk about their experiences as character actors in the Hollywood of the last 30 years. Davidson has work steadily. He even has had 2 or 3 TV series. where he was the star or a featured player. But he never reached the height of stardom that might have been expected of a young actor of his type. Probably because he spent the next 10 years of his career typecast as a weirdo. I saw this film when I was 13 years old of course, it was perfect for a young man of that age. That probably accounts for why I remembered it so well. I believe I also read the source book titled "The Ratman's notebook, but that part I can't really remember. I've waited a long time to revisit this film. And well modern audiences may find it to be a little slow. I like the way the character develops. I like the performances, and in the end, I kinda like the rats.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Everybody knows that Sony Pictures botched their re-boot of the Spider-man movies with the last two outings. "The Amazing Spider-man" in 2012 was a satisfactory start to a new series but seemed to be covering a lot of familiar territory. The sequel, "The Amazing Spider-man 2" was a complete mess which screwed up the storyline, wiped out an important character prematurely, and basically repeated every mistake made in the third film in the original Spider-Man trilogy. When Marvel and Sony worked out a deal to get Spider-Man into the MCU, they took a huge step in fixing the things that were wrong with the films. The arrival on the scene of Spider-Man in the terrific "Captain America: Civil War" showed the promise of a young new actor in the part. The story can be about a teenager.

I think that Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were well cast but played the role much more maturely than the character was originally supposed to be. Since Peter/Spidey show up in Civil War without having another version of the origin story, we get to skip that as well and get right to the fun stuff. Here, young Tom Holland (21) can pass for a fifteen year old. He has a baby face and a voice that certainly will not intimidate anyone, so it works. What also works is his desire to be an Avenger. Even though he has incredible powers and a history with the Avenger team, he still feels like a wannabee and that motivates him to act in a manner contrary to the advise of his "mentor" Tony Stark. Holland is completely believable as a nearly ADHD genius who wants to rush home from school and do some good. His desire to be one of the big guys reminds you of a puppy, anxious to please it's owner but so clumsy in doing so that it upturns the furniture and cocks up the works. The first trilogy and the reboot, all focus on romance, but this film focuses on Spider-Man himself and his struggle to find a place in an era of super-heroes. There is a romance with a surprising turn, but it is not the main point of Peter Parker's life in this film.

The side characters in this story all add to the freshness of the film. They are not merely cutouts to be plugged in for narrative purpose but real flesh and blood  people who matter to the story. Jacob Batalon plays Peter's friend Ned, another nerdy kid who accidentally discovers that his friend is the neighborhood hero that he has seen on YouTube. Ned is nearly irrepressible in his enthusiasm for sharing in Peter's secret. He wants to share it but even more than that, he wants to be a part of it. He offers advice, asks annoying questions and genereally plays Jiminy Cricket to Holland's Pinocchio. Since they both attend a school for gifted students, Ned is certainly as bright as Peter, but he and Peter are still young and they make social mistakes and act on impulse sometimes. Marisa Tomei, plays the youngest version of Aunt May yet. She is just in her late forties or early fifties and even the committed Tony Stark has sexist things to say about her. Tomei has been an excellent actress in films for almost three decades. Anyone who thinks her Academy award for "My Cousin Vinnie" was a fluke, did not see that movie. Her May is not to far a stretch from Mona Lisa Vito. She is more streetwise, flirty and sharp than any of the actresses who have played this character before. I won't spoil the quote but I will say she has the final line of the story and it will bring a big laugh. Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan has appeared in three of the "Iron Man" films but has barely registered because there was not much to his part [even though he directed the first two]. Happy is a happy addition to the Spider-Man story. As the contact for Peter Parker to the Avengers, he is the perfect balance between exasperated and impatient. He gets a laugh on screen every time from simple facial expressions.

As with most action stories, whether they are set in a comic book universe, the spy world, or everyday dramas, the villain is a tipping point for the direction of the story.  Since Iron Man is the template they are following somewhat with this approach, let's use those films as examples. The Iron Monger in the original film had a great actor and a well developed part, the film is stronger as a result. Whiplash is a cipher in Iron Man 2 and The Mandarin is a red herring in 3, both films are less successful from a narrative position. "Spider-Man Homecoming" does not have those weaknesses, instead it has the strength of the first Iron Man, a great actor in a well developed part.  Michael Keaton plays a third winged character, after two turns as Batman and a self referential role as Birdman in the recent Academy Award winner. Adrian Toomes is a character that we can feel empathy for early on. He is pushed in the direction of crime by circumstances that are outlined at the start of the film, but his actions are not driven by revenge but rather the need for financial security for himself and his crew. While it is not clear how he expects to keep a low key presence, given the nature of his new enterprise,  the so called "Vulture" is not really malevolent. His threats to Spider-Man are dire, but in the context in which they are issued they are really negotiation points. There is no spite or lust for revenge, this is a character who is taking advantage of the skills he has and the opportunities that are presented to him. The main caper at the climax of the film is something he enters into very reluctantly. He is not a monster, and Keaton is a great choice to play this working class villain who aspires for so much but also chooses to fly under the radar. Frankly there is a twist in the film that I did not see coming, but looking back it might make sense to those who have closely followed the Spider-Man Franchise. That twist gives Keaton a chance to strut some of his best stuff. He has those great facial ticks and a range in his voice that can go from jocular to threatening in an instant. I thought he added immeasurably to the success of this film.

The screenplay balances the intimate story of Peter Parker and his family and friends, with the two parallel plotlines of the Vulture and The Avengers. Peter is an effective hero occasionally but he also makes the kinds of brash mistakes that any headstrong kid might make. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, knows all to well the trouble he can be getting himself into by aiding in Peter's development as a hero, but he lacks the requisite supervisory capacity to guide Parker correctly. Happy and Tony together are the indifferent parents that need to put their foot down but also need to listen empathetically. Stark is too narcissistic to realize this and happy is too busy. There is great humor throughout the story and it comes naturally in the incidents that crop up and the characters that have been developed. There are the usual story patches that allow Spider-Man to be around when it is necessary, but they do not show too much and with all stories in a comic book universe, they need to be forgiven a little.

I have heard talk of a potential backlash on comic based films. There is a danger of burnout in the audience. That will certainly be true if every film in the genre has to invent or resurrect an alien threat, a maniacal genius bent on revenge, or a scientific accident that creates some kind of chaos. When you have a film like this or the recent "Wonder Woman" where the settings are fresh and the characters compelling, you don't have to have burnout. The creators of the MCU have found compelling stories about half the time. The hope for the immediate future is that "Thor Raganok" will be closer to "Ant-Man", "Guardians of the Galaxy" and this film rather than Iron Man 2 and 3 or "The Age of Ultron". WW holds out the hope that DC is on the brink of making the same discovery. What entertains us is not empty spectacle but stories that are involving with characters we can like or identify with. If you get some well deserved humor in there without shoehorning it in, all the better. "Spider-Man Homecoming" was not a film that I was particularly desperate to see or hopeful for. It turns out to be a wonderful re-invigoration of not just that character, but of our whole desire for comic book films. There are little details in the movie that add to the experience and I don't want to spoil them for you, but from the moment the Marvel Logo streams on to the screen, if you listen, you will know that the film makers want you to be entertained, and they find some good ways to do that.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Baby Driver

While I was tempted at one point to suggest that the hyperbole around this film was a bit over the top, I got closer to the end of the film and realized that I was wrong. This movie may not be able to be oversold to the audience that it is made for. Baby Driver hits the notes, plays a nice melody, and has a crescendo that will build and satisfy like  the final movement of a symphony. All these music references are relevant because the song score for this movie is an integral character and you need to be able to grove to it to appreciate the way the film is put together.

In fairness to all of you, I will say upfront that I am an Edgar Wright fan. His off kilter story development and flashy cinematic style is strong enough to make a mundane story work, but it usually does so within the constraints of the universe that he has created. People who don't like "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" are put off by how excessive the imagination seems to be. That film however is a comic book story that is designed to flaunt convention and dazzle us with flash. "Baby Driver" is full of flash, but not the kind of cinematic magic that you see in every other action film these days. There are not bullets tossed in the air and then magically landed into the chamber of a gun as it is twirlling in slow motion through the air. Lots of movies will have those moments (in fact I saw that very thing in the trailer for "The Dark Tower" which played before this film). The synchronized cinematic moments have to do with the soundtrack and the pop songs that populate it. The music matches the driving, shooting and running action on the screen. Yet when Baby, as played by Ansel Elgort, drives a car or runs across the screen, if is not obviously digitally enhanced. The moves look real.

The story is not new. There are standard gangster tropes throughout the film. The crews have nicknames, the main character is involved against his will, the brains behind the plots are ruthless and there are innocents that are used as leverage against our hero. Yet for every trite moment, there is a variation or twist that makes the story pay off for the character. An eight year old is used for cover in the process of casing a job, and the kid does a better job than the criminal. When there is a car chase, the cars really get damaged and the criminals shook up. The innocent romantic interest is tougher than we expect her to be, and the big boss turns out to have more empathy than you would have imagined given the stereotype that is set up. There is a seemingly indestructible bad guy who keeps going like the energizer bunny, but he is a character that is motivated by romantic revenge not simply the story requirements.

Except for the style of filming and the ability to use camera angles and editing tools so very smoothly, this feels like a 1970s heist picture. Everyone knows that something will have to go wrong, the interesting things in the story are what things go wrong and how they play out. It's as if this film is the grandchild of "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" crossed with "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3". The bad guys make  few mistakes but when they do, a double cross or a shift in loyalty is coming. Jamie Foxx and John Hamm are effectively grim and disturbed as members oif the violent crew of criminals. Eiza González is perhaps the most blood thirsty of the gang, so there is a feminist moment for you. Lily James as Deborah, Baby's love interest kept reminding me of one of the girls from the original "Twin Peaks". Maybe because she is a waitress (trope #243), she just seemed a lot like Shelly Johnson. Baby is over his head in the violence department, but he is never afraid for himself. He is smart, but clearly not as smart as Doc, the mastermind played by Kevin Spacey, in a role he feels like was tailored for him. He has played enough bad guys that this part is hardly a challenge but it still feels natural.

The practical car stunts and gritty character moments are the things that make this film enjoyable for an old timer like me. I only knew half of the songs that were used in the film, but all of them felt right for the moment and the fact that they are not as well worn as the songs used in a lot of other films, is a plus from my point of view. There were a few moments in the middle of the film that are not action heavy and I started to wonder if the film was moving off track, but it was just a counter tempo and a character theme and we get right back to the melody after those brief solos. "Baby Driver" is definitely gritty and stylish. It is not a garish shoot-em up, but rather a fast paced heist movie with a strong 70s feel. Just the thing to help rescue the movies from the summer doldrums of films like the "Transformers" sequel or "The Mummy".  Be sure to buy the song soundtrack, but make sure you get it on vinyl.