Sunday, January 21, 2018

Den of Thieves



If it's time for your weekly testosterone injection, here it is in a two hour-twenty minute dosage. This film has maybe three or for women with lines, and only one of them has more than a couple, and she is peripheral to the story. So this film will not be passing the Bechdel test this week. Instead, it will be filling the screen with about two hours of macho scumbags comparing the size of their members by the load carried in their modified AR.

This story is about how the good guys are the ones who kidnap and torture people to get information from them. That should tell you that the bad guys are even worse. This is the nightmare visualization of a major crimes unit in the L.A. Sheriff's Department, led by "Big Nick" a bad man with a badge. They square off against Merriman and his crew of mostly former Marines who apparently are not interested in a regular form of employment. Seemingly stuck between them is "Donnie" a bartender with a criminal record for holding the fastest speeding ticket in California. He may be demeaned by the members of the outlaw crew, and teased about his penis size by the cops, but there is more here going on than anyone know.

Gerald Butler is one of the producers on this film, a role that has allowed him to be featured in several of these kinds of movies in the last ten years. As Nick, he comes across as arrogant, dangerous and full of the masculinity that would be referred to as "toxic" by some members of our culture.  Pablo Schreiber is Merriman, the master mind with ice water in his veins. He is curt, judgmental and playing the angles. Nick and Merriman become a thing that drives the whole second act of the film.

Imagine that scene from "Heat" where cop and criminal take ten minutes to converse like people. This film is sort of the same idea, only instead of courtesy and plain spoken honesty, we get a game of one upsmanship. They trade insults in a restaurant, match skill at a shooting range and score with the same girl. All this is in a effort to show who is the biggest dog in the pound. This is a long slog with a lot of side routes. We get back story on each character, we learn of their weaknesses, but mostly we build tension because the release is what the last section of the film is all about.

Like all heist films, we are not let in on all the machinations that the master criminal has planned. There will be twists and turns and events that we can't figure out at first. For example, I can't figure out how the criminal crew got from Montebello to Downtown Los Angeles in five minutes on a Friday afternoon. The cops are also unpredictable, they start trying to apprehend the fleeing suspects in a traffic jam [the most realistic scene in the movie] where everyone will be in the killing fields between the cops and the robbers. The truth is once the fireworks start, it doesn't matter if anything makes sense, because the adrenaline rush you've been waiting for is kicking in and you just want to sit back and take it all in. 

At the close of the film there is a reveal that has been hinted at in a few places but was not particularly well set up. The flashbacks establish a little bit of background but it still feels like a cheap exit to the plot. It is enjoyable, but it takes all the grittiness of the film and turns it into a "Fast and Furious " moment that just seems out of place. The thought is not a bad one, but like a lot of these complex double agenda films, it depends on one character knowing ahead of time what every other character is going to do. It is simply more ambitious than it has any right to be, it does not feel earned.

The action is bookend in the film. The opening shootout is brutal and the final chase and gunfight is pretty exciting. Since none of the characters are very much emotionally invested, there is not much satisfaction in how things finally wind up. As stupid as all of it ultimately is, it runs the same amount of time as a couple of widely acclaimed films [The Tree of Life/Call Me By Your Name] and I was never bored by this the way I was by those pretentious pieces of art. Maybe there is nothing about this movie that is worth remembering, but it would not be something I'd avoid if it comes across the radar down the road. At least at the end I would know that I was being entertained momentarily. 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

12 Strong



For a number of years, films about the War on Terror seemed to be cursed under a shroud of bad box office.  "The Hurt Locker" award for Best Picture not withstanding, these films were relegated to a pile of failure and artistic disappointment. Matt Damon could not bring people into "Green Zone" The combined talents of Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford actually kept audiences at bay in "Lions for Lambs". The less said about "Stop Loss", Rendition" and "In the Valley of Elah" the better. It seemed for some reason, Americans in particular were not interested in the subject. It turns out that what they were not interested in was being told what a failure military action is, and that the War on Terror is not worth fighting.

Two films, "American Sniper" and "Lone Survivor"  dispelled the notion that Americans were indifferent to the subject or worn out by the themes. It was the viewpoint that seemed to alter the trajectory of films set in the War on Terror. We were not disinterested in seeing films about this war, we were turned off by the negative tenor these movies took toward the political decisions being made. When the movies focus on the hard work and sacrifice made by Americans in fighting the war, rather that fighting the politics, the movies seemed to succeed. "13 Hours" set up a military disaster but showed it from a perspective of respect for the men involved. Today's film also features a number, it is also based on declassified information and it shows the heroism of our soldiers rather than their faults. Look, no one wants to live in a world where we can't see flawed people and decisions. But we certainly should not be limited to them and a movie like "12 Strong" tells us why.

The threats from Al Qaeda and the Taliban were real. 3000 people died on September 11, 2001 but the people of Afghanistan had been suffering for years under torturous conditions imposed by fervent believers in the interpretation of Islam that had taken control of their country.  The Taliban shelter Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda forces, and they carried out their own form of totalitarian domestic terrorism under the guise of a Nation. This film focuses on the initial military incursion by the U.S. into that territory after the 9/11 attacks. It is a complex world where alliances come together and fall apart on a weekly basis. There is tribalism that makes diplomatic matters difficult to manage. Into that situation, America sent a dozen soldiers to begin the fight and attempt to create a unified opposition to the ruling Taliban.

This movie has a few of the touchstones of a sentimental war story. There is a family at home, there is a band of brothers, and there are heroic acts by most of the men involved. There is a difference however. This story is really focused on the details of the confrontation and the difficulties of finding and keeping allies. There are only a couple of scenes where home comes up as a subject. The characters are not defined by quirks or ethnic identity or by particular personality types. This is a procedural film where the process is the real star and the men involved, while critical, are not the hook that the story hangs by. Chris Hemsworth is fine in the role as Captain Nelson, but the character is muted for much of the film. With the exception of the opening, and a moment of frustration with inconsistent allies, he is never a commanding central figure. He is the leader of the team, but it is not his personality, history or family that causes us to follow him, it is his professionalism in trying to carry out a complex assignment. His character had not been combat tested before this mission, and even though there is a small reference to his baptism under fire, the story is not about him personally. Michael Shannon plays his second in command and he always comes across as a serious and thoughtful soldier, a man who knows what his job is. There are a dozen Special Forces troops on this team, and we do meet them but rarely get to know them. We know what they job is, we know what their capabilities are but as I said, this is not really a character piece.

The director of this movie is Nicolai Fuglsig. I have not heard of him before and there is not much on his IMDB page. He does a very credible job keeping the battle sequences riveting and coherent. This is a war where they really are not uniforms and the battle lines are not drawn as clearly as we might like. He made a helicopter ride into the territories pretty exciting, even though there is no gunfire or enemy action involved. The horseback combat is also done well and is shot form plenty of angles, including from above, which helps keep the events straight in our heads.

As with most of these stories where ther is an actual historical record, the truth turns out to be as involving as the movie. The twelve men on the mission are accounted for with the real life counter parts. Several text cars at the end tell us the information we need about the after the story story. There continue to be political elements with some of the characters. Navid Negahban has had a prolific career in the last two decades playing variations of Middle Eastern characters. He is General Dostrum in this film, a man who remained part of the Afghanistan rebuilding as the war continues to this day. Negahban is impressive in the scenes he has with Hemsworth, where he conveys a cagey warrior who is suspicious and potentially duplicitous for his own purposes.

Clearly, a movie that celebrates an important victory is going to resonate more with American audiences than one that dwells on a failure. This is an efficient summary of the early part of the War in Afghanistan and maybe it can show a bit more clearly what problems the U.S. faced. Inclement weather, mountainous terrain, uncertainty about the forces you are working with and a vicious enemy. We sent good, well trained men into this situation and they came out with what might have been the greatest defeat for Al Qaeda short of killing Bin Laden. I'm willing to let the tense music, visual fireworks and the story details pull me in. If it is less than emotionally manipulative, I don't see that as a fault, here it is it's virtue.
 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Commuter



Liam Neeson and I have a standing date in the winter months. He shows up to kick some ass and I show up to watch him do it. For the last two years however he has stood me up. Unless I'm willing to give him credit for "A Monster Calls" where he did a vocal performance, he has made me go six months of winter without killing anyone on screen. That's too long and I don't like it. So of course I was happy to see that he had a January mind numb-er coming out this year.  He has make some exceptionally good action films but he has also made some that are there to simply divert us for a couple of hours, no complaint, and this is a genre picture with no aspirations except to entertain us.

This is the fourth film he has made with Jaume Collet-Serra as director, and like the other three, it is an action film with a unique premise. Neeson is a guy who has been doing a middle class job, in a mundane corporate life, for a decade now, and suddenly he is immersed in a conspiracy and is forced to call on some old skills. You see he is also a former cop. That at least explains why he is able to think the way he does and handle himself pretty well when the fan makes contact with the feces.

Collet-Serra is a competent action director. I really liked his shark movie from two years ago, it was stylish and beautifully shot. There is one fairly artistic touch to this film and it happens during the opening. Neeson's character goes through a number of days, minute by minute, almost Groundhog Day like.  We see how similar each day of his life has been. There are minor variations of daily issues but the routine is the same. It is as if the life is mundane and you don't really need to see everything that happens each day because it changes so little. The montage is the pre-title sequence and it does a nice job creating exposition without ever telling us a plot point. We know his life from the outset. This day however turns out a bit different. His work situation changes, his routine is disrupted and a stranger enters his life with a weird proposition. The next thing we know, he is jumping between train cars, engaging in deadly hand to hand combat and trying to outwit a antagonist who apparently knows everything except the one piece of information she wants Neeson's character to find out.

There is no real surprise that the reason he is connected to the plot here is that he was a cop. Now just which one of the former co-workers is the bad guy? When you have name actors in parts that seem much to small for them, that is usually a tip-off that more is coming. In this film there are two possibilities, and the story keeps you guessing up to the climax, when it seems it could be either of the two, and then there is the turn and it is revealed. So we had some cat and mouse, some procedural and a couple of action sequences up to this point. Finally, there is a Spartacus moment and you will appreciate characters that maybe you didn't think much of before. There are two Macguffins, a person and something they are carrying. In the end, neither is very interesting but we do get to see the psychological test that the antagonist has set up for us. Vera Farmiga has about the same number of scenes as her costar from the Conjuring films, Patrick Wilson, has. They never have any scenes together and it does seem odd that the casting went this way given their history together in movies. It's not important, it's just a quirk I noticed.

Long time character actor Johnathan Banks has a brief role and he was fine. Sam Neil is another name that is dangled as a suspect for us and you can certainly see why they went that way. Elizabeth McGovern is Neeson's wife, with very little screen time and no character at all. This is an entertaining couple of hours that will leave no marks and doesn't require additional viewings once everything has been revealed. I'm just glad there are still mid-level action films being produced for weekend consumption in the deadest part of the year. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

TCM BIg Screen Classic: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre



So it's time again to celebrate an anniversary of a classic film. This week it is John Huston"s "Treasure of the Sierra Madre", starring Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt and the director's father Walter Huston. It is a tale of desperation, paranoia, greed and ultimately madness. I've probably seen it a dozen times over the years but I don't think I've seen it on the big screen since the seventies. It would most likely have been at a revival theater in those days, but it was presented in a digital format this evening at a local AMC as part of the ongoing programming from TCM and Fathom events.

If any of you are unfamiliar with the film, let me provide a very brief synopsis. Bogart is Fred C. Dobbs, an American down on his luck and trapped in Mexico without the funds to get anywhere. He and another American become partners with a third, much older American in a prospecting venture that takes them far into the wilderness. There the search for and discovery of gold tests their mettle and the limits of their morality. The film is a cautionary tale on the subject of greed, but even more so on the issue of trust and character.

Dobbs is never a particularly nice guy but he seems decent enough and he has some reasonable limitations and goals when we first meet him. Curtin, the character played by Holt is similar in circumstances but maybe just slightly less jaded, at least until both of them are betrayed by a man who gives them jobs but refuses to come up with the money he owes them. This plants the seeds of distrust in both of them, but Dobbs seems to be the most vulnerable to suspicion after that incident. The third member of their partnership is Howard, an American who has found and lost riches as a prospector all over the world. After a couple of lucky breaks, they manage to put together a grub stake and travel into the mountains of Mexico in search of gold.

Walter Huston won an Academy Award as Howard, the old prospector with a ton of wisdom concerning both mining and human nature. The difficulty of the project takes its toll on the two younger men, but they struggle along, managing to overcome brief periods of suspicion but building greater and greater pressure as the film goes along. Huston is a joy to watch in his performance. He is wizened and gleeful and disparaging from scene to scene. His performance is memorable, and even though he admits to having some of the same faults as the other two, he is the most sympathetic character in the story.

If there are two characters that define Bogart as a cinema figure, the first would be Rick Blaine from Casablanca, but a close second would be Fred C. Dobbs. Here is a clip from a Bugs Bunny cartoon that first introduced me to this character.



The opening section shows a beaten man, but one who still has a sense of morality about him. Bogart tightens his belt from hunger, licks his lips from thirst and keeps his eyes downcast from shame as he begs for assistance from fellow Americans. Still he is generous enough to share a cigarette with another man down on his luck and to pick up a bigger share of the grub stake when the project starts. We can see in his manner however that he is becoming more paranoid by the minute once fortune smiles down on them. All three have a moment of morality failing when they choose what to do about an interloper on the trail, but they are spared having to live with the consequences by luck. Holt has a moment of weakness when he considers the idea of allowing Dobbs to stay buried in a mine collapse, but ultimately pulls himself out of it. Bogart just can't get out of those doubts. Two or three times he is shown how wrong he is to be suspicious but he never learns to get over those doubts and he succumbs to a failed moral choice. Huston's was the stand out performance but Bogart is no slouch. I suspect that the nature of his character prevented as much praise as the performance probably deserved.

The music by Max Steiner is another outstanding feature of the film. And let's not forget that the movie contains the frequently misquoted lines about badges.  The film is playing two more times in theaters this week. For some reason those screenings are on Tuesday instead of the usual Fathom/TCM Wednesday schedule. So all you old movie weirdos out there, put on your stinking badges, travel back 70 years, and enjoy a classic on the big screen.


Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Florida Project [Q & A with Willem DaFoe]



This has been on my radar for a while, it opened back in October at the nearest art house theater, but I was unable to make it over in time to catch it before it went away. Fortunately, with some Oscar buzz and awards season all around us, the lucky opportunities crop up here in the L.A. area on a frequent basis. We got an email from the American Cinematique that they were holding a screening at the Egyptian and that Willem DaFoe would be on hand for a Q and A. Here is where I love technology, I bought tickets within three minutes on line and we were set.

In what feels like a Cinema Verite film, "The Florida Project" follows the life of a child, living on the edge of poverty and being destitute. Moonee is six, it is summertime, and Disneyworld is almost next door. That sounds like heaven for a child but the truth of this story is that dreams are not always as close as we want them to be. Moonee's Mom is Halley, a women who seems to have no plans or purpose. She seems to be getting by on some sort of assistance and an entrepreneurial use of wholesale perfume that she can purchase at a discount. They live in a budget motel that sits among the commercial pilot fish businesses surrounding the Magic Kingdom.  Far from being a downer however, "The Florida Project" is full of the exuberance of  childhood innocence. Moonee is not a particularly likable kid. Like her mother, she has little respect for those who don't go her way and she has a mouth to match. That however does not make her bad, but it does show that she needs a lot more attention and a better role model than she is getting.

Actor Willem DaFoe plays Bobby, the manager of the hotel. He is the one professional actor in the cast, everyone else is just getting started or is playing a close version of themselves. They are all very good but DaFoe holds things together in spite of being a somewhat peripheral character to the main events. The ragtag community that seems to have developed in the motels in the area is greatly enhanced by Bobby's tolerance of the characters, despite his frequently justified exasperation with them.

One of the things that came up in the discussion after the film last night was the script. The movie often feels improvised and as a result very realistic. DaFoe was adamant that there was indeed a script and that is largely what was shot, but he also said that the kids were encouraged to "play act" the way they thought the scenes would work. Kids do and say things spontaneously, and a lot of that ends up being kept in the film along with the original actions and dialogue.  It seems obvious that this is especially true of the scenes with the kids. There is no way they could have been memorizing those lines and performing the way they did while still coming off so naturally. Brooklynn Prince is a fireball of a personality and she clearly injects Moonee with personality plus.

The actor did mention that the sequence with the ice machine was developed after the film had been started. It is so subtle, you might not be aware that the second character is supposed to be Bobby's son. It was a small touch to the film to help establish that the character of Bobby had a background that was not all that different from some of the tenants of the hotel.

Bria Vinaite plays the Mom who clearly loves her child but is not very well prepared to take care of her. She draws out the belligerence of the character while also imbuing her with a sense of love and caring for her daughter. Watching the story, it is likely that you will feel frustrated so often with these two. Moonee can be excused because she is a kid and doesn't always understand the nature of her own actions. Halley though is an adult and she just can't seem to put things into a perspective that seems adult like. DaFoe revealed that during some scenes, Director Sean Baker had Vinaite wearing an earpiece and gave her directions when the camera was far back from the scene. Many of the episodes where she is selling perfume to the tourists involved him directing her from across the street.

This movie shows friendships that are built and those that are destroyed and some that just abruptly end because of the circumstances. For the kids, it involves a little heartache and at the end of the movie, Moonee and her recently acquired best friend Jancey appear in a scene that may be real or may be fantasy. Someone directly asked that question of DaFoe last night and like a true artist he shrugged his shoulders and said "you tell me."
                                 

Willem DaFoe is frequently mentioned as a contender for the Supporting Actor Award at this years Oscars, and certainly this was his reason for making the appearance. The show was sold out and while the movie received a warm reaction from the audience, it was the actor who the crowd seemed most responsive to. I'd say a good 80% of the time was spent on "the Florida Project" but several other roles and films were mentioned as well. I was most interested to learn that Wes Anderson's approach to two of the films he made with the actor were completely different. "The Life Aquatic" was much looser and while not really improvisational, Anderson allowed the actors huge latitudes in how the dialogue and characterless played out. On the other hand, DaFoe described the animatics that Anderson had created for "The Grand Budapest Hotel", including voices and dialogue done by Anderson himself. DaFoe laughed and said it could easily have been released in that form, the attention to detail was so thoroughly planned. 


My overall impression of "The Florida Project" is positive with some reservations. It does meander a lot. There are elements that are very sad which sometimes seem to be glossed over. The actions of the Mom and Daughter seem to be real and reflect their point in life, but that does not make them forgivable, only understandable. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

In Praise of Physical Media

I am a realist, I am not blind to what I see coming with the technology available now and in the immediate future. I have plenty of students who don't watch anything on network TV. Most have never seen a Laser Disc, few an LP and soon, the small number who remember VHS will grow to be called "old".  My daughter went to a sale at a Barnes and Noble that was closing, and she heard an eight year old ask when he saw a tool for opening a CD, "What's a CD?" The times they are a changing.



At the start of the year, one of the "Old Movie Weirdos" that I follow on twitter and Facebook [both of which are already severely dated from the millennial perspective] shared this little incident at the close of the previous year.


Streaming is the present, I'm not sure what the future is, but I know there are things about the past that we are going to miss and it makes me a little sad. The past is not dead just yet however and there were two examples of physical media that came into my life in the last few weeks that I wanted to share and praise.

"Stranger Things" is a TV Series that appears on Netflix, so it is readily stream-able for anyone interested who subscribes to the service. It does seem however that someone out there is a genius at marketing because my daughter got a gift for me at Christmas that is so meta, it should be studied in communication schools around the country. I received Season 1 of Stranger Things as a a Blu Ray set, but it is packaged in the most amazingly appropriate manner imaginable.  The show is set in 1984, at the start of the Home Video Revolution. VHS had defeated Beta as the format for home video and it stood astride the home entertainment market place like a colossus, about to get even bigger. So what could be more retro/meta/perfect than packaging this 2016 product as an eighties piece of merchandise?

 That's right my friends, it is delivered to you in a VHS style box. Complete with the details that most of us from an older
generation remember from a thousand trips to the video store.  There is a color coded sticker on the cover so that the crew at your video store [well before Blockbuster in 1984] will be able to restock it in the right place. Down on the corner there are some details about the "tape" specifications.

Please notice that your VHS is in hi-fi, so you can hook it up to your audio receiver and listen to it loud. Don't neglect to examine the details on the back cover for more information but also for a perfect replication of the design of those boxes. Including the FBI warning that was so ubiquitous. Just this alone should justify owning this in physical form. How would you enjoy all the retro references and nostalgia without it. But as they used to say in the infomercials of the day, don't answer yet , because you also get...
the inside of the VHS box, a container for the DVDs that will make you laugh and cry simultaneously for your long lost youth. 

 That's right, the container box is a cardboard duplicate of a VHS tape, with a window on the tape box and another sticker. This one tells you to "Be Kind, Rewind". Because returning your tape without rewinding it was rude and often resulted in an extra fee. Now streamers may have access to their material on any device and be able to watch wherever there is an internet connection available to them, but they will miss out on the tangible goodies that often came with old school media. I had Kiss albums that included a Toy Pop Gun, a multi-part puzzle, and most came with some kind of poster as well. The people who put this box together did not forget you.
Located on the inside of the box lid is a pocket containing an "exclusive" Stranger Things mini poster. Available only to those who purchased this Video copy.  I'm sorry, but that is just the kind of catnip that will get a hoarder like me to bite. When the E.T. VHS came out, you could be assured it was "official" if the lifting cover on the tape was gree rather than black. That dumb piece of merchandising probably sold them an extra million copies so that people could keep one pristine. 


OK, I know it is marketing that is yanking me in to make this purchase, but it was inexpensive, and worth twice what my daughter paid. (She actually bought one for herself as well.)

The second piece of marketing that makes an old guy like me appreciate physical media is something I have been enamored with for just over a year now. I still have nearly a thousand Laser Discs that I treasure and try to display. If you watch the video at the start of this post, you will see a sort of "Un-Boxing" of the Classic Jaws Laser Disc release. We made that at least six years ago but it shows you how a format that had been dead for more than a decade still held fascination for me. Well last year, Disney did some marketing for Great Britain that is not available here yet. They have "Big Sleeve Editions" of their Bu-Ray/DVD releases, that mimic the old Laser Disc packaging. 


The drawback of these products is that the DVD is region coded so that they will not work on most U.S. players, but the Blu Rays work just fine. In addition to the 12" covers, the jackets have a beautiful interior gatefold to show off additional artwork. There is an exterior sleeve with a mirror front edge to match the front cover, but when you take off the sleeve, the specifications disappear and another nice image is made available. Each disc comes with four special 12" image inserts that make the package even more special. 

Yesterday, after searching ebay and converting dollars into pounds, I obtained a "Big Sleeve Edition" of the most recent Guardians of the Galaxy film. 

Look at these images and reveille in the joy of thoughtful marketing for film enthusiasts. 


The Back cover without the sleeve.



And now the contents which yield a bounty of fun for obsessive fans and collectors. 



There is a three song vinyl ep with songs from the score and the final credits. Just the kind of bonus to attract people who still think owning something tangible is more pleasurable than visiting something that you don't really possess. 

This is one of the four art inserts and it would be enough by itself to get my blood hot for this sort of product. This is just too much fun, and I can't understand why we want the future to come and take it all away from us. 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Lambcast Movie of the Month: Ishtar



KAMAD hosts the MOTM on the Lambcast. The show features a looonnng trivia game of my creation but the length has more to do with how much fun everyone is having than any complexity to the game.