Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Finest Hours

There may be films that deserve their box office fate. I have yet to see "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" so I can't say it does not earn it's economic failure. I can say I've seen a number of films over the years that should have been more successful and popular than they turned out to be. Unfortunately, this film looks like it will fall into that second category; an excellent film that will not connect with the audience for some reason. It is difficult for me to fathom why that is the case, since it features a young popular actor in the lead, terrific special effects, and a dramatic story that is worth telling. Maybe the January release date or the sobering real life drama are scaring people awy. Or maybe we have finally gotten to the point where adult films don't draw anyone in if they don't feature blood, sex, violence and language that would put an old time sailor to shame.

The Coast Guard is a misunderstood and sometimes overlooked part of our military, but their action contribute on a daily basis to our security and even more important to safety on the seas. This is a true story about the efforts of a small Coast Guard crew, in an undersized boat, fighting the elements to save a large group of men in a maritime disaster. I have always appreciated when movies show competent people doing their jobs and managing to make the world better. The engineers at NASA are a good example but so are the teachers in our schools and the hospital staffs that try to help us. They are not always perfect, but when everyone does their best, then the results are rewarding, That's really what this film is about. Not just the Coast Guard crew but the men who survived the break up of their ship in hurricane like conditions, but managed to give themselves enough time to allow help to arrive.

As old fashioned as a salute to the flag or a boy scout troop, "The Finest Hours" is very straightforward in it's story telling. There is a small back story about the man who led the rescue and his future bride, and hints of a failed previous rescue,but other than that the movie sticks to a straight narrative of the events, following the Coast Guard process and in a parallel narrative, the efforts of the crew of the Pendelton, the sinking ship, to save themselves. There is not an ironic view of the events, or any social commentary offered, it is simply a rescue story, well told both visually and in the narrative. Certainly some events may have been enhanced for the film but nothing untoward happens from a cinematic perspective. Maybe modern audience won't get chocked up by the way the sailors volunteered for what is essentially a suicide mission, but I know I did. These men signed up for the purpose of making a difference and they did not shirk their responsibility, even when it was a threat to their survival.

Chris Pine plays Bernie Webster, (at one time described as a bosom's mate. I don't know the ranks well enough to say, but he captains the rescue boat. Pine in the early scenes is portrayed as an uncertain innocent. He even has to have his girlfriend ask him to marry him. He does not seem like the decision making leader, but rather a stalwart man, capable of doing a job, but reluctant to assert himself. The post war setting in Massachusetts looked very authentic to me. The women wore dresses and the men wore collared shirts and they dance and drive like real people, not like the cartoon caricatures of people we see in movies today. Casey Afflect plays the chief engineer of the broken tanker and he is equally quiet but needs to step up if the men on his ship are to survive. There was not a lot of melodrama in the ship side story, just the usual stress that a life threatening experience is likely to produce. The land based drama is a bit thicker but it never overwhelms the basic story.

There are heroic moments and close calls and a number of lucky breaks depicted in the film. At one point it looked like Eric Bana's  Commander Cluff was going to be a bad guy in the story, instead he turns out to simply be the level headed military structure that the system depends on. He has to make tough choices and they are not always correct, but there was never any level of malevolence in those orders. Holliday Granger is the pretty girl that Pine leaves at home but serves as our surrogate for worry during the adventure. Everyone looks great in the period costumes and they all carry off those northeaster accents admirably. Ben Foster is a sturdy number two on the rescue boat, and he has become a very solid character actor, especially in these military based stories. Everyone was excellent, and I noticed that Carter Burwell did the music for this. He was able to better serve this film than the other weekend film I saw on which he also worked, yesterday's disappointing "Hail, Caesar!"  I would strongly recommend this film to all of you who don't mind an old fashioned drama, brought together by competent pros.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Hail, Caesar!

I like Coen Brothers movies as much as the next person. I do think they have a sense of humor that fits their film making skills well, when there is a coherent plot driven story that has a solid end point in mind. When they have stretched out into comedy, they are a little more hit and miss. "Raising Arizona" and "O Brother Where Art Thou?" are examples of their success with straight comedy, solid home runs. "The Hudsucker Proxy" and "The Lady Killers" are illustrations of a swing and a miss. Sticking with the baseball metaphor, "Hail, Caesar!" is a foul tip. It makes contact but never reaches the field of play enough to create any sense of it being an essential film.

The story, as it is, mostly follows the travails of Eddie Mannix, the "Head of Physical Production", whatever that means , at Capital Pictures. This is the same real life character played by Bob Hoskins in "Hollywoodland" a decade ago. Instead a a sober and somewhat ominous figure as he was presented in that film, here as played by Josh Brolin, he is a guilt ridden workaholic who has doubts about the value of his job but does it extremely well. Although there are comic aspects to what goes on, Brolin never plays him as a fool, and it is the circus around him that provides most of the laughs. As straight man to a variety of insane people, Brolin still manages to be occasionally funny while remaining a realistic character. The same cannot be said for most of the other featured players.

Scarlett Johansson is barely in the film, and her character has almost no personality except for boredom. George Cloony seems to be reprising his role as a dimwit with delusions of deep thought like his character from "O'Brother". His very last scene he actually does what a movie star should do, but the purpose is to subvert the moment for a laugh. Ralph Fiennes has one solid scene and then another where he is mostly background. Tilda Swinton is playing dual characters, who are basically the same person anyway, and the part requires no real talent except being bitchy and tall. Francis McDormand and Jonah Hill each have one scene, and neither of them is connected to the main story [Main story being a euphemism for "plot point used to sell the movie"] . This film is all over the place, it leaves the biggest stars struggling to find something to do and it never develops any sense of urgency.

It's 1951, and the studio system can see the future, and so can a group of communist writers. Those forces clash against a background of studio intrigue, none of which seems to be particularly connected to anything else going on in the film. The location however does give us an opportunity to see some fun parodies of film making from the era. Alden Ehrenreich should be the breakout star of the movie. He plays a Singing cowboy star who is cast in a sophisticated drama and becomes incidentally tied up with the kidnapping plot highlighted in the trailer. He is quite good playing a guy out of his depths in some circumstances but at the top of the heap in others. Had his story been the centerpiece of the film, I think the movie would have held together a lot better. The other high point of the film is Channing Tatum, lampooning the star system with a turn as a movie hoofer with a secret. The dance number he stars in is the best moment in the movie, it is well staged, funny as heck and should get a laugh from all those who see homoeroticism in every 50s film.

I'm glad that artists as successful as the Cohen Brothers are, can take chances and work in different film genres and experiment. I just wish that this film had been more successful. There are several great scenes and good laughs, but it barely resembles a film and it is clearly full of indulgences that feel like someone is taking advantage of their position. I would never tell people to stay away, but unless you are a completest, you will be perfectly fine waiting for their next attempt. No one wants to be disappointed with a movie they chose to see and I think most people will find this film to be just that.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

58 Moments I've Loved from Movies I've seen in my Lifetime.

So I'm another year older today and I'd like to celebrate by giving you all a gift. This post has 58 links, moments, or videos that I've enjoyed over my lifetime. This is not a list of the best moments, or one from each year that I have been alive, but since I was born in 58 and am turning 58, it just seemed like a good number of items to share.  Hope you all find something to make your day a little brighter, be careful, thar be spoilers in some of them posts.

1. The Opening Narrative and Pictures From Disney's Beauty and the Beast

"For who could ever learn to love a beast?"

2. Jackie Chan in Rumble in the Bronx

Jackie Chan is an artist in his field. I actually choked up when watching this movie because he is to martial arts what Fred Astaire was to dancing.

3. Casablanca La Marseillaise

If you ever wondered how Elsa could have ended up with Victor Laszlo.

4. The Opening Credits of Superman (1978)

John Williams Kicks Ass, Computer generated titles like we have never seen before and a nostalgic hook with a real movie screen curtain.

5. Carl Denham Enthusiastically recruits Ann Darrow for a Voyage.

The passion at that moment he sees Ann and tries to convince her to go with his crew to a far off place, that would have been enough for me to go to. "It's money and adventure and fame!"

6. Rocky Training Montage "Gonna Fly Now"

Rocky Balboa is a great character and the power of the image combined with the story amps us up for the last act.

7. Robin of Locksley swaggers into the enemies lair and throws down the gauntlet.

Errol Flynn owned this role on the day he was born. My favorite film, and this may be my favorite scene. The by play with Robin and Prince John is priceless.

8. Strother Martin In True Grit

Mattie Ross: Now I'm sure you'll find a buyer for those ponies very soon.
Col. G. Stonehill: I have a tentative offer of ten dollars a head from the soapworks at Little Rock.
Mattie Ross: It seems such a shame to render such spirited horseflesh into soap.
Col. G. Stonehill: I'm confident the deal will fall through. 

The resignation and frustration of every frustrated man comes out in nearly every sentence he utters in his exchanges with Mattie Ross.

9. The Final Shot of Planet of the Apes

 If ever there was a kick in the face, this was it. I was ten and it left a mark. What a movie!

10. I'm Spartacus

Real honor chosen over slavery. If only we could all be so bold.

11. Dumbo: Baby Mine

Anybody with a Mother and everybody who loves animals, should be moved by this.

12. The Rainbow Connection

One of the reasons that Paul Williams is a National Treasure.

I also love the reprise finale.

Write your own ending.

13. The Long, Long shadows of "The Quick and the Dead"

It takes a long slow pan to reveal the first appearance of Ace Hanlon.

Herod stands in the center of the street for one of the gunfights.

Elle casts a shadow as she gets ready to ride.

A silhouette provides the outcome of the final shootout.

14. George Baily Saves Mr. Gower from a Horrible Mistake.

Forgive the awful colorized version, and see the decency of a young man and the gratitude of a desperate and devastated old man. One of a dozen heartrending moments from this great film.

15. The Last Scene in the Maltese Falcon

The ending is not always happy. Lesson Learned.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Fathom Events/TCM Series

In preparation for this Fathom Event, I went back to an excellent post written my my friend Michael for his own blog three years ago. "An Appreciation: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" is well worth your time. There are nuances that I found really interesting and anybody who loves Butch and Sundance should love it. I also know that sitting somewhere on the other side of town, Michael was enjoying the same experience I was because there is no way he would miss an opportunity to see this wonderful film on the big screen.

I myself wrote about this film for the final post I did for "Fogs Movie Reviews", a site that I contributed to for several months before its ultimate retirement. That post was about the three great Westerns of 1969. Today I am going to focus exclusively on the George Roy Hill film. As Ben Mankiewicz said in his intro to the film today, it was the biggest film of 1969.That was an understatement, it made over a hundred million dollars and that was more than twice as much as any other film made that year. I first saw the movie with my friend Don Hayes when his family took me with them to a drive-in theater to see the flick, that was probably late 1969 or early 1970.

The secret of the films success is so easy to identify after watching the movie again, that it surprises me. There are three essential ingredients that make this movie sing. First is the star pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. In old Hollywood, they say you could feel the chemistry of stars in a film. Bogart and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn, Flynn and DeHavilland all had charisma together that made their films fly. Here is a match between same gendered co-stars that had the same effect. Their only other outing together is the Academy Award winning "The Sting". That's a pretty good track record for casting. From the opening sequence, the two of them showed perfect comic timing, playing off of one another's facial expressions and body language. In the long sequence of the film where they are fleeing the pursuing super posse, they sweat and squirm and kibbutz with a real relationship that seems built on years together as outlaws. Mankiewicz mentioned some of the original choices for the film cast and I can't imagine Jack Lemmon as Butch but I could see Steve McQueen as Sundance. Lucky for us that we had to wait for that Newman/McQueen flick until 1974.

The direction of George Roy Hill is another piece to the success of the film. Hill has managed a number of films with a nostalgic feel, including "The Sting" and "The Great Waldo Pepper". He may not have been as stylish as other film directors but he had an eye and an ear that would let the past come to light and I think his creative use of music cues, sepia tones and timing of comic scenes accouts for a lot of the reasons that people can love this movie. The first five or ten minutes of the movie look like the nickelodeon feature that plays behind the titles. When the three main characters head off to Bolivia, they make a stop in NYC near the turn of the 20th century and the photo montage delivers enough information that we don't need the extended film sequence that had to be condensed for reasons of studio politics. The lighting choices for most of the night scenes feel very distinctive from other films at the time. Of curse he was aided by Conrad Hall's cinematography.

Finally, the most important ingredient in the whole concoction is the script by William Goldman. He had done extensive research, and for the spine of the story, the opening tag that declares "Most of What Follows is True" is mostly correct. Long time fans of "The Princess Bride" will be able to recognize the attitude of some of these characters. They are non-conformists with a wicked sense of humor and a streak of fatalism about them, for instance when Sundance turns his back on Butch as he kids that he is stealing Etta from him, he mutters "Take her".  That sounded like the Man in Black and Prince Humperdink all at once. Percy Garris mocking the two bandits turned payroll guards as Morons, is just priceless. Sheriff Bledsoe, played by Jeff Corey, speaks wisdom without the humor when he points out that times have changed and that the two outlaws have outlived their minor legend. Sundance complains about where they have landed in Bolivia, "this might be the garden spot of the whole country." The gallows humor is abundant and it is one of the most wonderful things that Goldman contributed to the story. Goldman wrote in one of his books that this was one of two real life stories that he thought were instantly compelling and cinematic. Somehow they managed to neuter "The Ghost and the Darkness" but thank heavens this story was brought to life by the right set of artists.

The movie will be playing two more times this coming Wednesday, I can't think of anything you might be doing that would be more enjoyable for two hours than taking in this film. Get thee to a TCM/Fathom participating theater and set yourself down for the best time to be had in 1969 and so far, 2016.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

A minor disclaimer here, I don't hate Michael Bay and I also have all the respect in the world for America's fighting forces. With that said, we can get some of the political stuff out of the way. This movie does not lay the blame for the failure to protect Ambassador Chris Stevens on anyone. It does describe in detail the events of that fateful September 11, eleven years after the same date in NYC. I know there are people in that part of the world who simply want to be left alone to live their lives. Ideally under a government that protects and nurtures them. It is very hard to imagine from the first hand description provided by the men who told this story, how we are going to be able to help them do that and how we are supposed to be able to tell the good guys from the bad. This part of the world is loaded with groups armed to the teeth who want nothing less than absolute control over they fellow man. Libya and Syria are failed states that have a long way to go before diplomacy will be of much benefit.

One of the striking things about the whole incident is how hopeful Americans were, including the Ambassador, and how sad it is that those hopes have largely been crushed. This film shows that it was not a lack of fortitude on the part of the Americans on the ground that are responsible for those failures. This is primarily a salute to the warriors that we have asked to go into these places to try and make a difference. If this were a work of fiction, I know that some people would be criticizing the cliche story points of men separated from their families or the comradery of warriors in battle. The reason those things are cliches however is because they are true and they mean something to the people involved. The actors and director do an outstanding job in this film in presenting men who live for this kind of service but also the way they dread the price that they pay to self actualize this way.

Technically, these guys were not soldiers at the time, they were private contractors doing the job of soldiers. The story shows how the chain of command becomes problematic when this private security team, filled with the best kinds of former military personnel, has to but heads with the CIA and State department officials they are working with. Since they were employees of the agency, they deserve the status of heroes rather than mercenaries, which is a term some have used to describe these kinds of private contractors. The men in this story see their loyalty to the U.S., it's mission in the area and the people on the ground they are there to protect. John Krasinski and James Badge Dale play the two main figures in the story, Jack and Rone. Their relationship goes back to earlier service but the work they are doing and the co-workers on their team are clearly part of a brotherhood as evidence by the loyalty they show one another. Others at the scene made sacrifices as well and all of them fit well into the stereotype of single minded military guys with hearts of gold. If half the stuff that is shown in this film is depicted accurately, they are heroes many times over.

I started out by saying I'm not a hater of Michael Bay. That does not mean I will defend his "Transformers" movies, they are for the most part, loud mechanical exercises in cinematic excess. He can however build tension, stir patriotism and explode things in a way that make the story he is telling invigorating. It looks like he just needs a good story to make a good movie and here he has one. Back in 2001, he was celebrated for a shot in the trailer for the then upcoming "Pearl Harbor". It was a point of view sequence of a torpedo bomb being dropped during the December 7th attack. The movie never lived up to the awesomeness of that shot but it was clear that he had a good eye and the technical ability to make something like that feel real to us. We are presented with a couple of similar shots in this film and they work dramatically in the climactic battle that produces the biggest emotional tolls in the film. There are a few of his other excesses on display that show he directed the film but don't manage to take us out of the experience. John Woo likes flying birds, Michael Bay likes windblown cloth floating over the scenes of mayhem as a serene counterpoint to those events. There is a lot of shaky camera work in the film as well so if you get motion sickness let me recommend that you sit near the back of the theater.

The tension in the lead up to the critical day is thick, but not nearly as deep as the tautness during the firefight. The visualization of what must have happened to Ambassador Stevens is compelling, although the final script of his death is speculative. The fight at the CIA Annex however is well documented by the men who survived it and wrote the book that this movie is based on. It is never clear who is on your side and who is simply waiting to kill you. This was an ongoing conundrum for the tech team in the compound, who needed to know who to shoot and which lives to spare. That's a tough question to have to ask when there is gunfire and weapons all around you. It looks that the team did the best that anyone could have hoped for under the circumstances. I was incredibly moved by the final screen shots of the film and it was a reminder that what we saw for the previous two hours was not a make believe story, thought up to entertain us, but a dramatization of real events, designed to honor those who gave all for their country and their fellow warriors.

Friday, January 15, 2016


This is a movie that never manages to be greater than the sum of it's parts. In fact, it might be a little less because it builds up such a strong desire to be great. Instead, it is simply good enough to dramatize it's subject and give us an historical context, but as a movie it just seems to be lacking something. Despite the ultimately unsatisfying dramatic elements, it does contain an effective performance from star Will Smith.

I can say that the N.F.L. definitely comes off as the bad guy here and that may be a just conclusion. The story may have been simplified for dramatic reasons but it comes off as a Snidely Whiplash type character, abusing it's naive and innocent partner. The players are mostly portrayed as helpless and clueless saps who were disposed of by the league when their usefulness was done. I have incredible sympathy for the bewildering experience that some of the players in the story seem to have gone through. David Morse portrayal of Steelers legend Mike Webster is heart breaking and horrifying. The effects of CTE and the players who suffered, might be a more dramatic story to tell. Instead, we get a solid C.S.I. episode, inflated by a conspiracy theory and punctuated with the American Dream of a Nigerian immigrant. It is a hybrid of a film that is satisfying to none of those elements.

Smith plays the Dr., a pathologist in Pittsburgh, who discovers a pattern of injuries in pro football players that contributes to a variety of mental issues and suicidal/homicidal behavior. We get just enough science to know that his theory is accurate, without really understanding the explanation or the doubts that the league might have had about it. Instead, the film plays up incidents of boorish behavior by fans of the game who think the doctor is out to destroy the game. The N.F.L. is suddenly equated with the tobacco industry and the paranoia of Jeffery Wigand is transferred to Dr. Omalu. If you believe the film, agents of the N.F.L. created a Federal probe of Omalu's boss and personal hero, cost him his job, and caused the death of his child in utero.

There are long conversations where Smith's character philosophizes on the American Dream, and seems to ache for it, but his version of the dream lacks any commitment past the facade. He is really a gifted and brilliant scientist, who lacks the ability to relate to the coworkers at his job, the sympathetic scientists who support him, or the players and fans who might be terrified by his discovery. He is given a speech at the end where he pays lip service to some of the emotional needs that come with the consequences of the disease he has discovered. The only time the position of the league is represented , the words are put into the mouth of a craven physician who is so stereotypically a sellout that he does not seem to be a real character.

Will Smith does a nice job disappearing into the role of a dedicated physician, trying to solve a problem. In the long run the film comes across like a star vehicle designed to show off his chops. The accent and immigration angle are played up to give the story more narrative heft, but it is the least interesting part of the film. Roger Goodell was not having a good year before this movie came out, if it had been a bigger hit there might be something for the N.F.L. to worry about. Because the picture comes off as a polemic, instead of being an inspiring story of discovery, it tastes like medicine that might be good for us, but sometimes , the cure feels worse than the symptoms.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Revenant

Back in 1971, I saw the Richard Harris, John Huston film "Man in the Wilderness". I was a Boy Scout at the time and while not an expert woodsman, I always thought that I might have what it takes to get through an experience like the one portrayed in the film. That is the fantasy of youth, that we are as great as we might aspire to be. As I watched what is essentially a remake of that film, forty-five years later, I have no illusions. If this were me, I would die. It would be painful and the cold would drive me mad before actually doing me in. The makers of the current film pile on so many obstacles that I'm not sure anyone could visualize themselves in the role that Leonardo DiCaprio plays. As a result, the movie plays less like an adventure film and more like an endurance test. It is well made and has some fantastic sequences but there is a lot to get through and some of it will test your patience.

A trapper, abandoned by his party after being mortally injured, would naturally feel resentment and seek revenge on those who turned their back on him. This story is more direct in building a revenge theme specific to a particular individual than was the case in the 1971 version of the tale. There is also a theme of forgiveness and redemption that follows the character of Hugh Glass. His struggle in punctuated with spiritual messages from past misdeeds as well as visions of his future. The Indians that are tracking him may be profiting from the raid they conduct on his companions but there is another purpose as well, one that mirrors the story of our abandoned frontiersman. It sometimes feels like an awkward attempt to add some balance to the story, but it can occasionally be confusing as well.

I'm inclined to say that the film is centered around three action segments that will dazzle the audience and build immense tension. The first ten or fifteen minutes of the movie involve a violent attack on a group and there are some harsh images that will sometimes be disconcerting. It is staged in a manner that feels very natural and accurate, which makes it even more ominous as it plays out. There is a rumor going around that at Academy Screenings of the film, many older members of the body have walked out in disgust at the level of violence depicted. I don't think it compares the "Saving Private Ryan" levels but it does take one's breath to imagine the intensity of fear that would accompany this event. A short while later is the visual moment that will be the signature image from the film, an attack by a grizzly on the lead character, which leaves him in his near dead condition. Finally, there is a confrontation at the end of the film that quenches the thirst for revenge but also stops short of accepting the consequences of that action. It is a choice that fits in with some of the spiritual elements that the movie has advanced, but it feels like a cliche.

Cliches may be the one weakness of the film. The villain of the piece is a cliche racist that eary on we might understand, but as the story develops we have less and less reason to hope for any resolution other than his annihilation. The wilderness sequences are spectacular to look at but there are so many times when an amazing idea is followed up with an obvious moment. I think I first saw an animal used the way Han uses his tauntan in the "Empire Strikes Back" in an old Robert Taylor movie. After a very creative action moment, the movie inserts a sequence much like this for no particular reason except that it is a survival film and this is one of the survival cliches that has been around a long time. Every chase has a component to it that is fresh and then a moment that is cliched. It is all shot so beautifully that you may not care, but because the pace of the film is so leisurely, I frequently found time to think about things like this. The film is almost two and a half hours long and in many places it feels that way. A little economy of storytelling would make this picture more effective, but that is not to say what we got was a disappointment, it was just not the tension filled action piece that is sold to us. There is a lot of navel gazing at times and it slows down the film enough to notice that you are watching a film.

DiCaprio is fine in the movie although I did not find his performance to be the one that will finally get him his Oscar. In fact, at one point, I had to knock myself out of an internal dialogue because Leo was repeating a moment from "The Wolf of Wall Street" only this time it was for dramatic purposes rather than comedic ones. That is not the kind of thing you want in your head while you are watching an intense drama like this.