Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Interstellar



For seven weeks now I have avoided reading any reviews of this film because I wanted to experience it with a clear and open mind. This would usually have been a film that would have been an opening night must for me, but circumstances have put it off for a substantial period. I can now add my two cents to the discussion, although at this point most of you will have formed your own opinions. "Interstellar" is maybe the most ambitious, intelligent and creative science fiction films made in the last fifty years. It has no fantasy elements to it, and it is deeply seated in the hard science realm of quantum physics, but it is more than anything a story about human beings rather than technology.

The Nolan brothers have a pretty clear opinion on how our science dollars are spent. The idea that short term objectives should take precedence over long term goals is an anathema to them. An early scene at young Murphy Cooper's school tells us exactly what foolishness comes from being narrow focused. It also shows how dangerous the conspiracy theories that thrive on the internet are. There is also a healthy bit of skepticism concerning federalization of the education process. Almost none of this is important to the plot but it is essential to the sensibilities of the film maker. This is a "can do" civilization and we need to keep that belief in something greater alive.

A seemingly terminal malaise has settled over the Earth as blight is decimating agriculture and the population of the planet has been diminished by a variety of  circumstances. Matthew McConaughey is Cooper, an engineer and former NASA pilot who has been relegated to the role of farmer, as has most of the world in trying to cope with massive famine. He and his ten year old daughter Murph, discover an anomaly with gravity that leads them to a secret plan to save civilization in one form or another. The team is lead by another father/daughter combination physicist Professor Brand, Nolan regular Michael Caine, and his daughter played by Anne Hathaway. They need Cooper to lead an expedition to a different star system that is being explored for habitable planets. Of the dozen scout ships sent forth only three appear to have survived and found somewhere promising. Because travel through a worm hole in space allows them to reach those destinations in relatively short times on a human scale, the passage of time on Earth will be longer and Cooper's family will grow old before he will ever make it back. This is the point where most of us who have only a passing knowledge of science need to have some exposition. The pacing of the first act is leisurely with a building sense of dread. Once the mission starts, there are some pauses in the action to bring everyone up to speed on the physics. This becomes a time travel story in the sense that different groups will be experiencing time in different ways during the course of the story. I'm sure there are experts out there who will nit pick the science here the way that was done for "Gravity" last year.  As a viewer of the film, I felt sufficiently informed to be able to follow the ideas up through the climax of the film. Once we arrive at the final explanation, I did feel a little lost, even though I could follow the story line. The pace of the movie picks up and with that urgency, the exposition becomes more visual in nature and as a consequence more abstract.

We are told early on that love is the only thing other than time and gravity that transcends space. The purpose of this movie is to show that this is true. Cooper undertakes this mission reluctantly because he sees it is the only possibility of saving his family. Saving humanity matters of course but it is the survival instinct and the love of one's children that drive us to reach a little further. It is a theory that is expounded upon by a late arriving character in the story. It is also told under harrowing and unpleasant circumstances, but it is nevertheless true as Cooper will reveal. The complexity of love and the ability of that emotions to drive our actions is front and center in the story and it usually makes sense. There are some places where the story telling depends on withholding love and then letting love solve a puzzle that don't always work but they still seem to be honest ideas.

In many ways this film is a counter weight to "2001: A Space Odyssey". Kubrick's view of space travel and human evolution is cold and calculating. In that story we seek knowledge because of our intellect, here we are doing the same thing out of desperation. In "2001" it is the machine that betrays us, in "Interstellar" the betrayals are human in nature. The Discovery travels through space without contact on another planet, The Endurance travels through time and space, encountering planets and other explorers in attempting to seed another galaxy. "Space Odyssey" begins at the dawn of man, "Interstellar" begins at what appears to be man's sunset. The psychedelic trip though time in 1968 was a metaphysical journey without any clear explanations, a similar event in the current film is all explanation (although admittedly not well understood). Human evolution in the Arthur C. Clarke story is a result of extraterrestrial intelligence intervening to make it possible, the Nolan brothers have the audacity to believe that human beings might be the ones who are responsible for our own advances. Both stories feature artificial intelligence in the form of on board computer systems, but "Interstellar" makes those characters, mobile and warm. The idea of sacrificing a computer is objectionable to Brand when faced with the need, because of the personification of TARS. Dave and Frank pay lip service (get it?) to HAL being a member of the team, but TARS and CASE participate in the actions and behave as team members, even to the point of making a "2001" joke.

Christopher Nolan is nothing if not ambitious. This is a story with creativity grounded in science. A fantasy writer can invent any kind of planet and populate it with whatever creatures they choose. "Avatar" is a good example. James Cameron makes dragons and tigers and bears of a different sort. Nolan has to conceptualize two worlds  for the explorers to visit that need to seem realistic and dangerous. Neither of the two planets is very hospitable to humans but not because the indigenous life forms are going to eat us. The ecosystems of the two worlds just are not going to work for human habitation. The water laden planet that absorbs so much of the time for our team is actually spectacular to look at and to contemplate. The frozen world that hides a secret is equally well conceived and  even more believable. Neither one will take us out of the science based story that we are in, they reflect the realities of our choices much more.

The human dangers are the one place where there might be some questions about the story telling. There are two different acts of humans that are questionable from a moral standpoint. I don't want to give away anything that could be a reason for suspense or emotional surprise to the audience but I will say that both of these choices seemed questionable to me. in a longer film, the ideas might be the basis for discussion and the central focus or theme of the picture, in this context they feel a little too much like plot bridges to create drama. They work, but they may do so at the expense of the heart of the real story here.

Cooper frequently jokes with the mechanical members of the crew over their honesty and humor settings. He turns them up or down as necessity dictates. Using a similar measurement, this film is near a ninety-five percent on the creativity and thoughtfulness scale and only slightly lower, say ninety percent on a story telling standard. The actors are all excellent and the cast is really filled with people who know what they are doing. A couple of the performers play against type and do well. Hathaway and McConaughey are the show and I thought they were both effective at conveying the characters, especially at moments of emotional depth. Jessica Chastain is usually excellent, here she was merely satisfactory, having been cast in the most thankless role in the film. Young Mackenzie Foy is the brightest spark in the movie although her character's truculence is a bit off putting, you can easily believe her intelligence. "Interstellar" was a wonderful experience and a great intellectual challenge that is carried off with authority.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Unbroken



When I first saw the trailer/interview preview for this movie almost a year ago, I made a bold prediction that it would be the Oscar winner for Best picture this year. I can't withdraw that prediction completely because the story of Louis Zamperini is still as inspiring as ever and the movie is very competently put together. There is however something missing from the film and as a result it does not live up to my lofty expectations. While it remains one of the few films this year to attempt to tell an adult story with an inspiring message, it is only in the last few minutes of the movie, when the coda of Zamerini's life is given to us that the emotions match the story.

The film touches on many of the key moments that make the story extraordinarily, but it misses a few moments that are also important in tone and spirit of the subject's life. The first thing I noticed was the lack of background on his friendship with fellow survivor and pilot Phil Phillips. Their earlier close call is shown but the relationship between them is hinted at rather than featured. The sequence by which they ended up in the plane they eventually crashed in does little to show how the flyers felt about the weapons that were being produced and the sense of fate that often accompanied their flights. The decision to tell the story as a series of flashbacks in the first half of the movie makes sense. An hour on the two rafts in the ocean without some relief would make the story feel slow. The structure robs the narrative of the drive and promise that Louis had as he climbed the ladder of track and field royalty and as the intervention of service in the military changed all of that. Not to mention that it left out entirely his time at U.S.C. where he encountered a Japanese student who would later come back into the story. All of the cuts are made to keep focus on the endurance of the survival story but it leaves that story without the emotional context it needs. The childhood thuggery was displaced by the sports enthusiasm but even that could not suppress the mischievous nature that Louis had, a nature that lead to a confrontation during the Olympics with his theft of a Nazi flag. 

The most successful sequence in the film concerns the crash of the plane and the extraordinary survival story on the rafts. The forty five days depicted here are replete with harrowing moments of physical threat from man and nature as well as the despair that anyone in those circumstances is likely to face. The crash itself is a piece of technical film making that rivals the special effects in large action pictures but is so much more meaningful because it depicts a reality rather than the fanciful. It does not involves elves and orcs dancing across a chasm over a collapsing tower. That fanciful image can be put together in a number of ways because it is a fiction. The B-24 crash that killed eight of the eleven crew members has to ring true and it does. The unpleasant six weeks that followed is visualized with accuracy, probably a combination of make-up special effects and acting talent. The interaction of the men as they cope with mind numbing tedium and spirit crushing fear was nicely detailed in small exchanges and moments. Those who have read the book know how they trio wondered at their ability to survive after breaking the 24 day record for being adrift at sea set by Eddie Rickenbacker and crew the year before. The degree of exposure, dehydration and malnutrition is had to imagine. All of this ends up being a prelude to the elements of the movie that Director Angelina Jolie, and the screen writers choose to focus on, the internment in the Japanese prison camps.

The malicious nature of the captors is well portrayed by Japanese musician/actor Takamasa Ishihara. "The Bird" as he was known by the P.O.W.s , had a sadistic nature that made him a sought after war criminal once the hostilities ended. The suffering that Zamperini especially endured at his hands makes the later story of Louis forgiveness and redemption more meaningful. The film however summarizes all of that in  some post script title cards rather than taking time to show us that transformation. Actor Jack O'Connell has to portray the physical strength and power of endurance that Zamperini displays but never gets much of a chance to connect with the spiritual. Emaciated, tortured, worked to near extinction, the body work is evident but the spirit is only shown in those contexts where abuse provokes it. The result is that the movie feels like a more brutal version of "Bridge on the River Kwai" or "King Rat" rather than the spiritual journey that the history really reflects. Domhnall Gleeson's Phil disappears from the story and the religious seeds that he plants are not show to sprout much in the duration of the war.

I suspect that the movie will be criticized by others for the same reasons I've made, regarding the film that it is not rather than the one that is given to us. There is so much promise in the way the movie is visualized and acted that it feels a shame that the ultimate emotional point only occurs when we see the real Louis Zamperini in some clips at the end . As a matter of heroism, "Unbroken" feels rich and well developed. The circumstances are set up and depicted with real honesty, it simply does not connect the way that the real historical figure managed to do with his own words and deeds.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Sunday, December 21, 2014

As You Wish: An Evening with Cary Elwes

When this book was first published a few weeks ago, it immediately popped up on my list of most desirable Christmas gifts to give or to receive. After all, "The Princess Bride" may be everyone's favorite childhood movie from the 1980s. It is beloved by millions and it is so endlessly quotable that it is probably recognizable, even to those who have not seen it, "Inconceivable."

My daughter Amanda is much quicker to act on some things than I am and she had the book ordered for her mother before I could say, "When I was your age, television was called books." We tried to keep it a secret from her that the book even existed. That was a tall task and it was likely she'd heard about it. Anyway, after the book arrived, my daughter received a Christmas gift from her friend Kili, a pass to a special screening of "The Princess Bride", along with a Q and A session with the man in Black himself, the star of the film and author of the book, Cary Elwes. "Lucky Kid" I cursed under my breath". Kili was going to go with her before she returned home to Hawaii to spend the holidays with her family. Unfortunately, the book tour schedule got changed and the date for the screening rolled back a weekend. Kili would already be gone and she offered Amanda her pass as well. Since it was a gift for her Mother, I insisted she take her Mom with her to the show.

My wife is a wonderful woman but she does have a couple of health issues that make some activities difficult. Vertigo, a bad hip and a neurological condition that influence her gait, make it hard to be as mobile as she would like to be. The screening was to be at an historic movie palace in downtown L.A., and they were not sure about the parking situation and the theater is not exactly handicapped friendly. They decided they would need some help, so they twisted my arm and forced me to buy a ticket to the event as well. Now they did not have to worry about parking and there would be back up on some of the hard to navigate parts of the evening.



So last night we went downtown to the Broadway district that the hipsters and others are trying to revive. I dropped them off at the theater, parked in a building structure that is part of one of the Jewelry Exchange buildings in the neighborhood and then i joined them in line to wait for admission. We got there early so the difficult issues could be managed, but the event did not open until 6 pm. A half hour wait was pleasant enough,and the busy streets at Christmas time felt very much like a Holiday evening.

The event is sponsored by a coalition of local eateries that sold their foods in the lower lobby of the theater. Wrist bands were provided for those who had purchased an advance copy of the book, which they received just inside the door, and then they were entitled to the priority line up to get their book signed. There was a second line for crashers like me who had only purchased tickets for the movie and Q and A. I had the copy that Amanda had bought for her mother and all three of us waited in two different lines.
The signing was to be done on the stage which meant that we entered on stage left, crossed the downstage area, got our signature and then exited stage right through the wings.The problem is that there is a set of narrow stairs leading from the auditorium up to the left stage area. The doorway at the end of the narrow passage is also undersized, this beautiful auditorium was built in 1911 and designed for Vaudeville before movies started playing a dozen years later. This was one of the tricky parts of the evening. The ladies with their priority wristbands went first and there were some especially nice volunteers from the organization that helped my wife navigate these obstacles with my daughter while I was far back in the other line. When I saw how much trouble they'd had getting up. I abandoned my spot in line and raced to the other side after they got their books signed and helped her get through an even smaller door on stage right.

The Palace theater is one of a number of old movie palaces in downtown that have been largely abandoned but for which a conservancy has struggled to save. There are a lot of restoration features to admire, and it has two balcony suite area above the main floor. There are some gorgeous old style paintings on either side of the stage and the proscenium is also very impressive.

There are several inserted pieces of art in circular cutouts on the ceiling as you can see here.

Another reason for my presence at the event came when my wife needed to visit the bathroom. It is not located on the main floor. There are bathrooms on the balcony level and in the basement area. Each choice offered two sets of deep stairways that are rife with danger for the vertigo afflicted, it was at least thirty steps regardless of which direction we chose and there is no elevator. We took the stairs down and it took a couple of minutes to get there. We also had to maneuver around the traffic of people purchasing and eating dinner and desserts from the restaurants that were participating that night. The Gentlemen's  room was large with marble stalls and modern fixtures, but my wife told me that she broke out laughing when the first stall in the ladies room was marked "Handicapped". Without an elevator, unless someone in a wheelchair can apparate as they do at Hogwarts, it is unclear who gets first call on that location.

When it was my turn to make way through the narrow left stage area and meet Mr, Elwes, I was happy that I decided to come after all (sarcasm is intended here). The line got shorter, my chance to shake hands and say thank you for all he did in the movie and for coming to the event arrived and he was charming as all get out. Maybe the British accent makes the common pleasantries we might exchange in a situation like this feel more significant, but it was still a fun moment.
My daughter user a better phone camera than I had to capture the moment from the audience perspective, so that is me in the burnt orange shirt, lumbering over to greet the Man in Black.As he signed I mentioned that I had heard him on the "Mark and Lynda" podcast and appreciated that he was using some new tools for reaching the audience he wants to connect with. He smiled and said thank you and the moment was officially over.


After a longer than expected break between the signing and the start of the program, Cary Elwes came back out on stage and showed again that he is quite the raconteur. I had listened to him promoting "Saw" ten years ago on the Mark and Brian radio show and he was hypnotic when he told the story of being a p.a. on "Superman" and essentially having to wrangle Marlon Brando. He was a guest on their show several more times was was always gracious and interesting. Last night was no exception.
Having chosen a very appropriate wardrobe for the evening, he answered a few questions from the Organization's representative for the evening. She wisely let him range all over the place as he told several interesting behind the scenes stories about the making of the film. 

Mr. Elwes frequently did spot on imitations of several of the participants in the movie, including director Rob Reiner and Co-Stars Wallace Shawn and Andre the Giant. If you read the book you will know the story of Andre the Giant's intestinal eruption on the first day he was shooting. Cary got at least five minutes of laughs from this scatological moment and no one seemed the least offended. If anything they were even more endeared with Fezzick after this.

A second story involved Andre the Giant in a more peripheral manner. He basically egged Cary on to take a ride on his three wheeled ATV on the set one day. That short moment ended up with an injury that might have threatened Elwes job and put the movie substantially off schedule. That it was all worked out with an amiable director, a paranoid actor and a somewhat understated set nurse is one of the miracles of "The Princess Bride".

Everyone enjoyed the stories he told of Billy Crystal's shooting days and the improvisational way that he made "Miracle Max" come to life. The fact that Cary and Rob Reiner basically got booted from their own set because they could not contain their laughter while Billy was riffing during his scenes is also very funny. The tribute he paid to Wallace Shawn was great and if you can imagine it, we were spared the sight of Danny DeVito as Vizzini because of costs but also because Rob Reiner just thought Shawn was funny in the way he spoke. The insecure Mr. Shawn it seems was told by his agent that they had originally wanted DeVito, and the specter of his ghost hung over Shawn's head for the whole time he was on the set.

Since the Interview started late and went longer than expected, there was not time to take audience questions but no one was grousing.  We had all been entertained by a masterful story teller about some of the episodes that occurred during the film of a favorite film. He closed and introduced the film by asking us all to "have fun storming the castle,".

At this point, because the structure I parked in closed at ten and the difficulty of exiting while the movie ran because of my wife's walker and vertigo, we decided to skip the screening of the movie. I walked her to the foyer and told her to wait while I got the car, our daughter went downstairs to use the bathroom, and Dolores was standing there alone. Sure enough, while the movie was playing inside, Cary Elwes came out front and saw her standing there and started talking with her. He was incredibly kind and she told him how she reads the novel of the book to her students in the third and fourth grade classes she teaches and then how the kids write letters to the characters. "Buttercup" is frequently told she can trust the Man in Black in those letters. He was amused and quite impressed with the activity. He thanked her and another teacher who had come out to the lobby and came up to them while they were speaking. That woman also taught in the same city as my wife although in an adjoining district. He said he really appreciated the hard work that teachers do and wished them both a nice holiday as he left. Of course my daughter and I only saw him walking away, so this turned into a very special moment for Dolores, which is what got this Christmas present started in the first place.

"Let me explain.
No, there is too much. Let me sum up."

It was a wonderful evening.



Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies



This movie provides a very satisfactory conclusion to a trilogy that could easily have been a single long film. Despite the bloat and excess and labored weaving of the story here with the later "Lord of the Rings" films, fans of the children's adventure novel that this is based on will recognize much of what takes place. The visualizations are spectacular as is standard at this point and the action is furious.

The first correct step that Peter Jackson took in starting off the film was to return with Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice of Smaug (and Sauron). The tidbit of conversation that Smaug engages Bard the Bowman with, is a little extra touch to the character. There are also some flashback scenes where he provides an ominous warning about the power of the dwarf's  gold to corrupt Thornin, much the way theRing of Power works on other beings in the story. This adds some of the gravitas that the series continually seeks in these new films. While such seriousness was the subject of the Rings trilogy, it has always felt as if it was being shoehorned onto the current project. At least in some spots like this, it feels like it fits rather than cramping our toes into a narrow pont.

It would be an easy warning to anyone who is not interested in long sequences of warfare, to simply point to the title and ward them off that way. This movie revels in the variety of dismemberment and violence the sides can bring to one another. Be-headings, sword penetrations, skulls being crushed all roll across the screen on multiple occasions, sometimes with sweeping moments of slo-motion photography to bring it all home. Many times it is accompanied by the quick cutting shaky cam process we have seen in so many other films. The grandeur of some of those sequences demands it. As Legolas stands off against the major domo of the white orc Azog, Bolg, there are arrows flying and swords crossing against a mountain backdrop and a crumbling castle tower that looks incredible and does defy the laws of physics but works anyway. It's not clear why there is a frozen pond for Thornin and Azog to navigate through their fight but it adds some tension and fills the movie with a series of multiple climaxes.

Bilbo, as he did in the book, mostly gets lost in the crowded battlefield but did have his chances to shine as a character. His decision on the Arkenstone is clearly conveyed and his conflicted loyalty is shown to be motivated by the right instincts. Thorin's redemption is a lot more appropriate in this film than it might have been in a short version of the movie. It is a little histrionic but that builds the climax of full engagement on the battlefield so I could accept it.  The romance between Kili and Tauriel is effective even if it is part of the extra stuffing the movie does not really need.

I had to remind myself that Christopher Lee is 92, but then I also had to remind myself that most of his appearance is CG enhanced combat so it is not quite as impressive as it would seem. Still he holds the screen when he is on, although the sequence with Cate Blanchet and Hugo Weaving feels like an out take from "Return of the King". When Billy Connelly's voice boomed over the speakers we all had a good laugh and cheered, he brought a little more of the charm of the novel with him. Once again, most of the Dwarfs get short shrift but there are also some excellent scenes for the four or so who do get a little more screen time.

I've said it before in the other two reviews in this series, someone will cut all of this material together into a coherent two and a half hour film, and we will see something like what J.R.R.Tolkien had in mind. For now we can wallow in the excess and glory of Peter Jackson's version of the story. A fitting end to our time in Middle Earth.


Friday, December 19, 2014

Foxcatcher



There is a lot to admire in this film. The performances are excellent, the story is compelling, and it is beautifully shot. There are several reservations that I have with the film and they are likely to be director's choices. The movie is deliberately paced. The music is designed to emphasize the pacing, and there needs to be a little more of a point of view as to what is going on. I know it is based on real events, but the subjects that get focused on never stay targets for long.

Everybody is talking about Steve Carrell in this part and we should begin there. I have always thought that he was a solid actor and I have seen some films where he is not a very nice character. Best known for his comedic roles, he is of course getting acclaim by stepping out of that comfort zone. I thought his desperate turn as a cuckold husband in "Crazy, Stupid, Love" was effective enough to show his acting chops, but because it was a comedy based drama, he got a little overlooked.  This film will not be mistaken as a comedy. Channing Tatum and Steve Carrell smile like twice in the two plus hours this movie runs.  Carrell's main technique is to keep his face impassive for 90% of the story and to keep his chin and nose up in the air. It feels a little mannered, but along with the make-up work it is an amazing transformation.

Tatum also has a surly expression for most of the film. In fact as a character, we know that there is something wrong with him when his look is relaxed and easy going. The story takes several turns that allow him to  show off something other than his dance skills and physical training. I could have lived in ignorant bliss without having to watch the vomiting that takes place at a dramatic turning point for the three main characters. Everyone else is getting attention but it is his character that is the center of the story and he acquits himself very well.

Once again, Mark Ruffalo shows why he is a splendid addition to almost any movie. His natural ebullience is kept in check and his usual low key manner fits the character he is playing perfectly. His best scene is an awkward moment recording a short interview piece for a documentary produced by the would be coach and millionaire played by Carrell. His character, David, struggles with the words he needs to say what is in his heart about John du Pont. Ultimately his in-articulation may be the straw that breaks the camel's back in the story. We know that there is something not quite right about the millionaire wannabe wrestling coach, and we spend two hours waiting for the eruption. When it occurs, it is sadly sudden and mundane in spite of our horror at what took place.

Sometimes the movie seems to be about the emptiness of du Pont's life. For long periods it looks like the film is going to focus on sibling rivalry that is secretly felt. I guess that the truth is that the film maker's want us to know that our unstable rich guy had mommy issues but without her presence, he has no anchor to keep him from drifting off. I certainly hope that the message was not to suggest that the values the killer espoused were insincere or wrong. They represent the one thing about du Pont that makes him less of a monster. His needy narcissism is what lead to the tragedy, not the desire for excellence and restoring values to the sports world.

"Foxcatcher" will get many award mentions but it is not a film that reaches high enough to be "the Best". It is well made but as compelling as the story was, the lethargy it employs in it's telling makes it much less effective than it might have been outside of the performance categories.
 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Octopussy in the Movie Rob James Bond Blogathon

http://movierob.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/007-december-octopussy-1983-kirkham-a-movie-a-day/
Click on the poster to visit the post on Movie Robs site. Thanks for letting me play.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Nightcrawler



This is a sad, sick, twisted story. The morality level of the people it depicts is zero, the light it sheds on the news gathering business is harsh and it makes the City of Angels look like a pretty awful place to be. All that aside, the movie is brilliant at building tension, compelling us to watch those things that are not pleasant, and it contains an amazing performance from it's lead, Jake Gyllenhaal. Along with "Whiplash", we may have a candidate for the worst creature pretending to be a human being in a movie this year.

Louis Bloom is an intense young man. He appears to be maladjusted and if you looked at him closely, he might be a high functioning sufferer of Asperger syndrome. He is socially awkward with a very distinct manner of speaking. He is also lightning quick at learning things and he is smart enough to know where to find the information he needs or the pressure points to push to get what he wants. He also has no scruples whatever. He steals as is necessary, he lies when it serves his purpose and he has become a manipulator of the first order. It is not a life of crime that he excels at however. He dreams big and with the shortcuts he is willing to take, in his new avocation, he might very well be the next media king.

Gyllenhaal has the mannerisms and quirks of this character nailed. It is a very different performance from him than we have expected over the last few years. He is usually the quiet brooding type. I have not yet seen "End of Watch", but his performance in "Prisoners", "Zodiac" and "Brokeback Mountain" are very different from what he does here. He looks like he is maniacal at times. His eyes are wide, there is a slight sheen to his skin, his hair appears to be slightly greasy. Louis also dresses like a guy who wants to fit in, not like one who actually does. The thing that most distinguishes the performance though is the control he manages over his voice. The cadence of deliver suggests a degree of energy that he is suppressing at all times.  His language is calculated and measured. The script by Dan Gilroy, sounds like it was written by someone who has absorbed the lesson that Quentin Tarantino has been sharing for twenty plus years, talk can be fascinating. This is not the verbal poetry of a Tarantino character per se. Louis barely utters a pejorative or curse word in the story. Yet you know his mind well from the way he phrases his negotiations with various characters. There is a degree of earnestness that comes out very clearly. Not the friendly form of sincerity, but the deadly serious determination that goes with his madness.

The story involves Louis climb into the local news business as a provider of video images to a local channel. He falls into the business but he quickly learns the ropes and reads the trades and researches on line. He has a devastating piece of dialogue that summarizes how local news processes all of the material they present on a daily basis. His calculation of the amount of time devoted to local crime stories is enough to make you want to scream any time a news program comes on, because he is balls on accurate.  Any of you reading this from somewhere other than L.A. might be surprised to learn that Kent Schocknek, Pat Harvey, Rick Chambers, Rick Garcia and Sharon Tay, are all real local news personalities. They are not acting, they are simply playing themselves in the movie. It floors me that they would agree to appear in a film so clearly condemning the business they are in. Bill Paxton is a cutthroat competitor in the same business and he ends up being someone you sympathize with. Rene Russo plays a news producer and her fierce persona and professional insecurities may be the one element of the story that I doubt, but not for any reason in her performance. She bravely plays her age and status in in the world of
media entertainment and news. She is past her sell by date and her character is struggling to maintain a foothold in a very competitive business. I'd say her performance is also noteworthy and again, not very inspiring for future journalists out there.

There are two extremely harrowing scenes in the film, one action based and the other suspense grounded. The crime scene filming has only an off screen piece of action in it but it creates an aura of dread that is thick. That same type of dread comes back as Louis and his assistant begin to follow a pair of criminals, waiting for the right video moment. The climax to this storyline is horrifying and action packed. The movie is mostly a slow burn with a great script and an amazing performance anchoring it. You may want to bathe after seeing this film, but you definitely want to see it. 

Hector and the Search for Happiness



If you saw the Ben Stiller version of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", you will find yourself experiencing a strong sense of deja vu when watching this film. The concept is very much the same. A man who leads a good but maybe not fulfilling life, sets out to discover what is missing. It involves a lot of world travel and adventures and ultimately it leads back to love. I do want to give a shout out to the AMC Stubbs program for providing a coupon for two free tickets. Word of mouth will probably not turn this into a huge hit, but the offer did a good job filling up a theater for an early afternoon screening.

Simon Pegg has been in some of my favorite films in the last few years. He is comic genius in the Star Trek films and also Mission Impossible series. He is also the lead in the so called "Cornetto Triliogy" of "Shaun of the Dead", "Hot Fuzz" and "The World's End". He is able to mix his low key humor with a certain amount of pathos and channel it well in this film in which he is the principle character and on which the film focuses for it's entirety.

The movie does not break any ground but it is shot in some nice creative ways. There is a subtle use of animation for transitions between the episodes and the camera usually holds steady instead of floating around as it did in the Walter Mitty film. A combination of video screens, skype, CCTV also add a little bit of creativity to the way the movie is told. However, the movie is a very straight drama with some big slices of humor and there is nothing too surprising in any of it.

Hector's trip to China starts things rolling with a canard that everyone will be familiar with, befriending a lonely rich guy. Hector being naive in the world does not see the twist in his story that we see coming. His take on love ends up being sadder than he expected, but exactly what we expect. The most mundane part of the film involves his seeking enlightenment at a monastery in the lower Himalayas. This section has one of the two best jokes in the film, let's just say, check your calender before you climb the mountain. The most surprising section of the film involves his time in Africa, where he goes from supreme satisfaction, to fear, joy terror and joy again. The shortest segment and the one that works the best actually takes place on a plane. Even though the idea seems to be a stretch, it plays as the most thoughtful moments in the film.

The cast is full of names and faces that you will recognize.   Stellan Skarsgard is a banker, Jean Reno a drug lord, Toni Collette a lost love and Christopher Plummer is a fellow psychiatrist studying the same issue as Hector but with a very different approach.  Rosamund Pike is Hector's long suffering girl friend and she is lovely as usual but not nearly as compelling as she was in her other film this fall, "Gone Girl". The platitudes are nicely revealed and undermined and then confirmed as the story demands. It will leave you mostly satisfied, although not nearly as nourished as you would hope.
 


Thursday, December 4, 2014

SPECTRE Announcement







A Year from now. Something to anticipate with relish.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Big Hero 6



Disney Studios has moved from being stogy to contemporary in a few short years. Once upon a time they were fairy tale tellers with an occasional foray into cute. Now they seem to alternate with regularity between the classic Princess stories that they have told well for seventy years and the very modern stuff like "Wreck it Ralph" and "Frankenweeine". Last year was "Frozen" so we are due up for something non-traditional, the answer is "Big Hero 6".

Happy to say it is a winner although my admiration for it is tempered a little bit by some of the prejudices I have from many years of watching manga and anime from a distance. The story takes place in a future city San Fransokyo, which looks like San Francisco at first, and is even introduced with the standard ocean flyover shot of Fisherman's Wharf. Just like a "Dirty Harry" movie. As the town focuses however, it is a Hodgepodge of traditional S.F. sights and Asian influenced modifications. It's not clear if the whole town was bought by some corporation from Japan, or the universe is simply altered because of some population trend. That's always been one of my issues with this stuff, it is just enough like the real world to pull you in and then something out of left field shows up and changes things without any explanation. As a kid I liked "Astro Boy" and "Gigantor" but I knew they were off. "Speed Racer" worked for me as a film because nothing in it pretended to be real, it was all overdone. This movie does the same kind of thing. Our hero, who is named Hiro, is a genius kid who turns his nose up at using his smarts at anything as mundane as University Research. He then finds he loves the idea when his brother takes him on a tour, and tries to gain admission with a special project that will wow the engineering crowd. It does, and he immediately supersedes anything that everyone else is doing and we have no reason for him to get wrapped up in the University except the plot demands it. Just more of the stuff that makes no sense but that everyone in these media take for granted and just go with. I try to do that but sometimes it just nags at me and takes me out of the story.

There is a marvelous relationship built between the automated health care provider and the young boy Hiro. Even though Baymax never really develops any emotion, Hiro seems to provide enough for both of them. The fact that Baymax was programmed and slaved over by Hiro's older brother Tadashi, makes it poignant even though it is really mechanical. The idea of the health care robot is a bit absurd but it allows the character to sound as if he is emotionally invested despite it mostly being programming.  I guess if Will Robinson can grow such an attachment, and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise can relate to "Data", we should be forgiving that the screen writers want us to do the same thing. There are still a lot of other elements that come together randomly which make the movie fun but also quite nonsensical. I enjoyed the conversion of Tadashi and Hiro's friends into a superhero team, but it happens so quickly and also with more brilliance than any University could have provided, that it still seems odd. It wasn't until two thirds of the way though and I accidentally noticed how many of them there were, that I suddenly got the title of the movie.

I will say that I could see the villain coming pretty early in the process, but it was not clear what the motivation was until a coincidence reveals it. That's another one of those things that threw me off, the accidental nature of all of this coming together. This is a movie that should be like "The Incredibles", with a background in technology and superhero worship, but it is missing the back story that made that movie work so well and the solutions come so fast that it rarely felt like the team was struggling. T.J. Miller completes a 2014 trifecta of clueless characters with a role as a slacker kid with a wish to be part of the nerd school and Alan Tudyk voices another Disney film after his turn in "Wreck it Ralph", this time playing a self centered Steve Jobs type character. Scott Adsit does a nice even voiced job as Baymax. I recognized James Cromwell's voice long before I remembered him and that scares me a little since I used to be a wiz at that kind of stuff.

This movie was very entertaining and I thought it looked great. There are concepts in the story that worked and a few that don't. This is not going to be a classic that everyone will remember as their favorite film from youth, but it will make a lot of film goers happy and what more do you want from a cartoon imitating a manga style comic? 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1



Well it was a sad Saturday this weekend. In addition to the mediocre effort put in by my team against their arch rivals, Katniss and Company played at only a slightly higher level. "Mockingjay Part 1 will not leave a stink in the room the way our coach did on the field, but it will be a good argument to stop splitting up books and turning a series of three into a series of four or more. [Oh, and the same might be said for turning one book into three movies, but we will have to see how that comes out next month.]

Abandoning most of the science fiction elements found in the original story and films, the new "Hunger Games" movie becomes a political science paper aimed at discussing the roots of revolution. The idea of Katniss as the face of a revolt, fomented by the previously unknown forces from District 13, is straight propaganda analysis. The committee evaluation of the video prop piece she completes encapsulates this whole movie.   Why is she an inspiration and why is she not working as one in our film? Jennifer Lawrence has been very good in the previous "Hunger Games" movies, but she is less natural and interesting in this movie than she has been in anything I have seen her in. Most of this is because she has become a pawn, like she was in the original stories, but this time the action is controlled by a group of mundane cave dwellers who's motives seem to be a bit murky. She is not called on to use her wits or overcome an obstacle, she is a piece of agitprop set decoration for a larger conflict. 

Much of the weakness in the film is directly from the weaknesses of the novel on which it is based. "Mockingjay was a limp ending to a young adult trilogy that simply ran out of steam and ended as quickly as it could. The Tributes from the first two stories are put on the sidelines while the revolution plays out between rebelling colonies and the Capital. There were some hints of the problems the rebels had wielding power in the novel. The prep team is abused and the citizens are required to live a regimented lifestyle that would deny them even the most mundane pleasures. The Castro like character of President Coin is hardly suggested in this film. All of the interesting elements of a not very interesting book are taken out when transferring it to the screen. The action in the film is limited to three or four moments when CGI battles are carried out with Katniss as the star of a recruitment commercial.

The strengths of the movie are in some unusual places. Elizabeth Banks as the frivolous Effie Trinket, gets to make a few comic moments zing without having to rely on over the top costuming and make up. Woody Harrelson's  Haymitch character is missing for most of the movie, but every time he shows up, the movie got better. The best piece of casting and the most accurately realized character is Donald Sutherland as President Snow. It is perhaps unfortunate for the movie that the highlight of the film is a skype session between Snow and Katniss at the end of the movie. Their interaction has more sparks in it than anything else that takes place in this two hour place holder.

With a nice dedication at the end of the movie to their co-worker who has passed, the film should be a fond reminder of Philip Seymour Hoffman and his talent. Watching his performance however foreshadows the plight he faced. He looks tired and flaccid in the part and there is no energy or personality in Plutarch Havensbee. His co-star from almost two decades ago in "Magnolia", Boogie Nights" and "The Big Lebowski" Julianne Moore, is a little better. As the calculating leader of District 13, she is impervious and distant in the way called for by the plot. Liam Hemsworth continues to be little more than a plot device to keep Katniss from accepting her devotion to Peeta. Gale gets some action scenes in the movie but he does little except move through the scenery.

The movie looks good and the characters are given a chance to continue their story. The problem is that the story is losing steam as it becomes less about our heroic Tribute and more about the political intrigues of Panem. The hallucinatory gas attacks and the city destroying matrix that were parts of the book are no longer present. Faceless citizens revolt in the lumber and energy districts and a jingle is all we have to show their commitment. This movie will be a box office smash, but it will not be a treasured volume in the "Hunger Games" canon.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Edward Scissorhands



Once upon a time, movie goers embraced Tim Burton and his mildly weird vision of the world.  It was a time of wonder when Michael Keaton and Johnny Depp were fairly new to the world and the cynics and haters did not assume that a movie would suck because Burton had cast them in another one of his movies. It was a time when Danny Elfman found a musical voice in the world of Tim Burton and angry mobs did not march the corridors of the movie complex looking for tomatoes to throw. Like the fable I just shared with you, "Edward Scissorhands is a gentle parable on tolerance, if it were made today audiences would yell"sellout" and then post snarky comments on "Twitter".

I'm going to look at this as if it were 1990 all over again. A movie trailer would bring a tear to your eye rather than a snort through your nose. This movie is so whimsical and sweet that it would be advisable to check your blood sugar before you start watching it. It is almost so sweet that you forget what a bitch Kathy Baker's character was and you can overlook the fact that the sad eyed innocent of the story kills the rival for his love interest. Instead, everyone's memory will be of the kitschy topiary, the pastel colored houses and clothes and the dreamy version of Johnny Depp when his tattoo did not say "wino forever". We will recall how chipper Diane Wiest's Peg is and how beautiful it was when Winona Ryder spun around in the snow made by Edward as he turned to ice sculpture in his frustration.

This was a Christmas time release, it is a cult hit of course but, it might have had a bigger box office start if it did not open the same week as "Home Alone". I recall the topiary from the movie being featured on the medians of Beverly Hills during the holiday season. This was a movie made for date nights and sentimentalists and driving through the richest shopping areas in the world at the time, the presence of leafy tyrannosaurs and dancing ballerinas just seemed the right way to draw attention to an offbeat love story during the season. Whereas we once embraced the oddball character at the heart of the movie and his cinematic progenitor, today we look at them the same way the citizens of the cul-de-sac from the movie did. What we loved we are now embarrassed to have taken to heart, and the guy with the wild hair (Burton not Edward) is viewed with suspicion.

My own kids can be pretty cynical at times but they are both nostalgic for this movie. This is one of the few of the AMC Classic Series that I could convince them both to go to. It so happens that I was able to bribe my wife into accompanying us and she of course has fond memories of the movie as well. Vincent Price was priceless in this his last role, and everyone one else did a terrific job being clueless, blind, hostile and befuddled all at once. Kathy Baker did the sultry lonely housewife bit with just the right amount of tartness thrown in. Alan Arkin is so clueless and says the most inane and wise things at the same time, he creates a template for characters he will play for the next twenty four years. Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder were just beautiful together. She was so popular at the time that she had a second film in the top ten the same week, "Mermaids". Edward is all naivete, wrapped up in leather with sharp objects for hands, no wonder he became a fetish item for shoppers at Hot Topic over the years.

This is an example of "they don't make em like that anymore" because the world has changed. Kids want to be empowered not misfit, they want passion not tenderness, and sweet in the views of most kids these days, is the territory of children's films. Maybe it's best not to listen to me, after all, I still like Johnny Depp, and I still like Tim Burton, and "Edward Scissorhands" is one of the few modern fairy tales that can warm my heart. I'm just a big marshmallow, and this movie roasts me over the fire still.
 


Friday, November 14, 2014

Whiplash



Last week I wrote a post about one of the inspiring teacher movies from the past. "Teachers" was pessimistic but still managed to find the sort of inspirational hope that movies like "Dead Poets Society" and "To Sir with Love" thrive on. "Whiplash" is another film about a teacher and a student that that aspire to reach heights of greatness, but it is a very different animal. Remove any thought of Mr. Holland and his music based heart affirming teaching methods. The process in this film would make old school football coaches like Vince Lombardi look like wimps.

Terrance Fletcher is a terrifying nightmare of a teacher. Like many monsters, he can appear benign and even avuncular at the moments he chooses. He talks sweet to a little girl, he passionately remembers a former student to his current students as he learns of that former students death. All of that is a mask for what he really is, a maniacal taskmaster with a standard of perfection that only he can fathom. All the members of his Jazz Band at the music conservatory that he teaches at know that monster. He never hides it from them, instead he unleashes it to bully the musicians into the exacting execution of  music that he hears in his head. He justifies the process he uses as a motivational tool to try and find the true musical genius he imagines will emerge from the forge of his personality. The story of Charlie Parker is mentioned several times as a template of sorts for the kind of transformative moment he is seeking.

Andrew Neiman is a student at the school, his passion is drumming and he crosses paths with Fletcher and he becomes possessed by the desire to reach that level of genius. The question becomes, how much does a person need to endure to live up to their potential? Andrew may discover talent that he would have a hard time reaching otherwise, but it will cost him a great many things. These two characters are played by actors who are basically living out the plot of the movie. J.K Simmons and Miles Teller have had to do something extraordinary to make this movie work. Teller must have devoted countless hours to playing the drums in a manner that would hold up the story of promise that needs to be pushed beyond the extreme. His dramatic skills are amazing but when combined with the technical drum wizardry he is tasked with portraying, the performance is awesome.

The monster is played by Simmons. What kind of actor's tools allow a man to shed his own ego and become something loathsome? Sometimes the script deceives you, maybe it is all about inspiring a musician to go beyond his best. "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'." This is his manifesto and he lives it. It doesn't hurt that he is a sadist of the first order who can't see the other point of view. When Andrew mentions the notion that the next Charlie Parker could be discouraged, Fletcher in his superior sounding attitude simply says "Charlie Parker would not be discouraged". This is the question begging answer of a sociopath. His cold eyes and stark dress and his manner of speaking should be a sign, like the rattle on a snakes tail, that something bad is going to happen. At the climax of the movie, that you can see anything other than the monster is a tribute to the quiet genius of this performance.

The movie is shot with a dizzying set of musical moments that build more tension than you can imagine. The close ups, fast cuts, and pacing of some of these moments, creates the type of anticipation that a great sports film or a classic thriller might develop. The dramatic moments work because the two actors are so effective. The temper tantrums that both of these men engage in could be laughable if you did not believe in the validity of their characters. Andrew has his charms but he is only slightly less horrifying than his mentor. The callous way he tosses out the one person who cares about him other than his father is an illustration of his ego as well. Two people who have little to give the world except their talent, make a fascinating duo. The story will screw with your head and you will doubt the common sense concerning human nature that you walked in with.  Greatness may have a price, and in this movie, the price is your soul.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hollywood Costume Exhibit

Hollywood Costume Exhibit

http://www.oscars.org/hollywoodcostume/
 So this afternoon, I spent a delightful couple of hours down at the future home of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, looking at the history and mystery of costume design. There are literally hundreds of costumes from the last hundred years of motion pictures. Imagine seeing the outfit that Charlie Chaplin created for his first Hal Roach films. Hanging from the ceiling in a horizontal position is Christopher Reeves version of the Superman costume. Dorothy's gingham dress and the Ruby slippers also make an appearance.

The exhibit makes use of extensive multimedia tools and the latest forms of computer digitized images. At several stops there is a tabletop display that features designs, scenes, and backstage information about the costumes and the pictures they are featured in. Sitting on either side of the table were high backed chairs that contained video screens featuring the director and the costume designer, as if they were have a conversation across the table with each other and with us. Quentin Tarantino and Sharen Davis discuss the Django Unchained costumes, Martin Scorsese and Sandy Powell marvel at how Daniel Day Lewis makes Bill the Butcher look both stylish and deadly when he dons her designs.

Several displays featured historical progress of costuming and discussed the nature of special effects, censorship and history on the clothes that the stars wear in the movies.  There was a selection of costumes that showed how the Queen of England has been depicted in films, from Bette Davis to Helen Mirren and a dozen other Queens as well. There was a look back at Westerns, and War Pictures as well as more contemporary films like the "Oceans Eleven" film series. Errol Flynn is crossing swords with Johnny Depp and Elizabeth Taylor and Claudette Colbert are vying for most glamorous version of "Cleopatra".

The use of teleprompters and holographic style images of the stars seemed to put the actors in the designs right in front of you at times. You enter though a short passage lined with the eight Oscars that Edith Head won, dramatically lighted with some background on the most famous costumer of all time. The exhibit hall is very dark so that the light on the costumes brings out all of the details and colors dramatically. It was a little tough for my vertigo inflicted spouse but she made it through without stumbling (the same could not be said for me).

My two favorite displays were the Indiana Jones deconstruction of the classic adventurer's wardrobe, and the dozen or so costumes worn by Meryl Streep,each of which was accompanied by a video screen with the marvelous actor discussing how the images came together with the characters. Each piece of Indy's ensemble was dissected for it's use in building the character as a functioning field archeologist and devil man care swashbuckler. 

Young film goers will be thrilled to see costumes from a dozen Superhero films, including X-Men, The Dark Knight, Iron Man and Captain America. Spider man was on the wall and I almost missed him. There was also an interesting review of motion capture work and James Cameron discussed how real costumes have to be created before you can digitally animate them such as was done in Avatar. Admissions cost is twenty bucks and parking is likely to run about twelve dollars. A real movie fan will feel that it was money well spent. How often do you get to walk the red carpet with the stars of Hollywood history, and get to find out who they are wearing without having to shout at them?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Batman (1989)



AMC is once again responsible for me missing new films in the theaters to revisit an old film that I loved. This week it is the Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson version of "Batman" directed by Tim Burton. It is twenty-five years after the movie opened, there have been three sequels to this series and a reboot version that had three films in it's history. A year and a half from now, we will be getting a Batman vs. Superman film. So it seems that Batman is all the rage. It was not always that way.

After the pop cultural phenomena of TV's Batman, the concept lay dormant for twenty plus years. The comic book world did not forget, but nearly everybody else did. When the project was announced, i read an analysis of character brands by popularity and the desire of advertisers to be affiliated with them. Batman was near the bottom of the list. When it was announced that Michael Keaton, who had just played a deranged ghost in Tim Burton's previous film, was cast as the caped crusader, the outcry was loud. And then a funny thing happened. The trailer you see above was put into theaters. It is actually kind of crude, it has no temp score, no voice of doom narration and there is not a story hook in sight. Despite all of it's failing, the trailer was a stupendous success. People were going to movies that the trailer was playing with, just to see the trailer [remember, no internet my friends]. The look of the movie, the malevolent smile of the Joker, and the much parodied but nonetheless iconic intro, "I'm Batman", lit a fuse that has not been seen much since.

As a cultural touchstone, the original Burton "Batman" was the last of a phenomena. There are certainly films, including super hero films, that have made a gazillion dollars and been exploited on tee-shirts and lunch boxes since this movie came out, but nothing reached the enthusiasm that this movie projected. The closest we've come in the years since have been the Harry Potter films, but it is not the same. The logo, the soundtrack, pictures and toys were overwhelming. On opening night, there were lines and parties. At the Orange Cinemadome that I went to for the opening night screening, there were beach balls bouncing around the geodesic shaped dome and the whole audience was doing "the wave" from front to back and then side to side. I had collected the trading cards like they were cash, and the popularity of the film lasted all summer. This was a four quadrant hit that brought in money at a rate that had never before been seen. Today, the first weekend take of fifty one million would look like a meager take, but in 1989 it was a record. The world is a different place now, multiple screens and advance shows are the norm. "Batman" created a world where that could happen. 

The film does not have the emotional heft of the "Dark Knight" movies of Christopher Nolan. Those films create a reality based vision of Gotham that is too real sometimes. Tim Burton's Gotham is all back alleys and overcrowded skyscrapers that expand as if they are pyramids turned on point. Even in the daylight the city is dark. All the gangsters and cops wear hats and the Mayor looks like Ed Koch. The batmobile from this movie is the car of every kids dreams. The tumbler from the Nolan films is practical and very cool, but it looks like a tank. This batmobile looks like a rocket with wings that might be flown by someone really scary or really cool. The color of the film pops at times in just the right ways to evoke the comics, but without becoming the neon and pastel joke that the Shumacher films became.

It will be an continuing debate as to whether Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson did the superior job in the role of the Joker. Ledger had a better writer but Jack had the better costumer and make up artist. Both rip into their parts with gusto. I was just surprised at how much I liked Jack's take on the material in this film. They are different universes and today, Jack Nicholson filled his version of it. I think I can say that Michael Keaton is the more fun Bruce Wayne. He is not tortured like Christian Bale's Wayne is. His pain comes from a different kind of psychosis and it is more fun to watch. Nolan's Batman may be a better action figure, but Keaton is the more likable alter ego.

Comparing Apples to Oranges is possible when you reduce them to their lowest common denominator, but why would we want to do that?  A glass of orange juice is perfect at the right time, and the fact that I had O.J. for breakfast, doesn't mean I won't want apple pie for dessert. Today I got to enjoy a 25 year old movie that made me feel for a few minutes like it was 1989 again, and everyone would be talking about this at school tomorrow.

St. Vincent



Frankly, I'd be willing to give up an Academy Award nomination to Bill Murray for the performance he gives before the opening credits are even finished. He has the look of this character nailed, there is a distinct accent that he uses without any hesitation, and the dance he does with himself to the jukebox music was worth the price of admission. I was sold on this movie almost instantly based on the character and the actor. It's pretty nice that there are so many other things going for it as well.

Vincent is an apparently unpleasant man, eeking out an existence on a reverse mortgage and occasional betting on the ponies.  He is in desperate financial shape but never seems to let it bother him too much. When the new neighbor ends up needing some after school supervision for her son, Vincent falls into the job. Yes this is a buddy picture and it is about the redemption of a character that seems irredeemable, but it is not exactly that.  The character never becomes less cantankerous than he starts out as. He still has all the flaws at the end of the movie that he does at the beginning. The story is unique because instead of changing the character, we are forced to change our perspective. We learn about the character through his connection with the nine year old boy he is taking care of. It may be a highly sentimentalized view but that is ultimately what this movie is, a sentimental view of someone hard to be sentimental about.

Vincent's attitude towards the rest of the world is not hard to understand. People let him down, they don't respond to him in any way that he can fathom and since he is semi-inebriated during most of the story, he can't really help himself. Oliver, the kid in the story, sees Vincent for what he is because he has no expectations and prejudices yet. The character is a smart kid but not much like those kids you see on a sitcom. He appreciates any effort that Vincent makes to help him, because he can't really believe anyone else will. Gambling, fighting and lying are not the lessons that most of us would want our kids to learn, but politeness and attentiveness are. Oliver learns from both positive and negative experiences with Vincent.

Since her sudden rise to success just a couple of years ago, Melissa McCarthy has become a punching bag for misogynists in the comedy world. There is a lot of hate that gets written about her and some of it may stem from the fact that the characters she has played were repetitive stereotypes. She tones it down here and plays a real human being in pain who is having a difficult time adjusting to new living circumstances. She never tries to upstage Murray, instead she delivers the comic lines in a normal manner that makes the movie seem more real than it could ever be. Naomi Watts does a lived in, hard life, unsympathetic, Russian immigrant persona as if she were made for it. My guess is that the make up work here is so subtle that it will not be noticed and instead people with think she got smacked down by her career.

The climax of the movie is another one of those presentations in front of an audience that seem to be typical in underdog stories. Like "About a Boy" from more than a decade ago, a public performance rescues a nasty character from himself. Bill Murray is no Hugh Grant. He is not lovable or cute. He is however one of the funniest men on the planet and a damn good actor. St. Vincent gives him a showcase for both talents. In my mind, he has met the requirement for performing miracles that would allow him the title status of this movie.  

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Saw 10th Anniversary Release



Some how I managed to go a decade without seeing this or any of the sequels (of which there are six, they came out annually for six straight years). I had no intention of seeing it today either but when we went to see John Wick yesterday, the AMC theater had mini-posters to give out and I'm afraid I'm an impulse buyer.  My kid likes horror films, there was an early show at a discount price, and I had to ask myself "why are you avoiding this?"

The answer is that I am not interested in the "torture porn" version of horror that this movie seems to have launched. I have no desire to watch human suffering for pleasure. When gore or dismemberment are done in pursuit of a story, then I can get behind it, but a slow scene with detailed moments of painful suffering brought to us by the SFX wizards of movies does not attract me. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that at least as far as the first movie is concerned, this is not horror based but rather a thriller with horror elements. It turns out this movie was far less graphic than a lot of other films I have in my past, and the disturbing scenarios are played out largely off screen.

So I"m ten years late to the party and telling most of you something you already know, "Saw" is an effective, low budget thriller that is full of plot holes but survives on the tricky premise it is based on. A serial killer who has the brains to engage in elaborate puzzles that lead to self inflicted death seems to be a stretch.  Most serial killers that are featured in film and television could qualify as geniuses and may be able to earn a doctorate at MIT. None of them seems close to the real life monsters that John Wayne Gacy, Angelo Bouno and Kenneth Bianci, or Richard Ramirez. The best character of a serial killer was Hannibal Lecter and he even he did not engage in the complicated "game-playing" that seems to be required of every new entry in the genre. Still. it is a movie only, and the idea of a two character drama played out in a locked room has all kinds of things going for it. There is still a lot of material outside of the room that has to be dealt with, but the main focus is on the two victims and their efforts to solve the puzzle of their imprisonment.

Co-screenwriter Leigh Whannell matches up well with veteran Cary Elwes as the two men, chained in a room and prompted to betray each other while at the same time trying to help each other. Elwes gets some pretty trite dialogue to spout, but he does it convincingly and in the last quarter of the movie, his desperation feels real. "Adam", Whannell's character, seems more genuine and the performance is much more solid from the get go. Danny Glover as the obsessed detective ends up chewing too much scenery in the final third of the film. Before his character goes off the rails, he seemed to be part of a legitimate police procedural. In a rush to wrap up the story, too many silly things have to happen.

To be honest, the most hard to watch scene for me was Adam's search for a clue in the toilet next to where he is chained up. A similar scene in "Trainspotting" is actually more vomit inducing. The kills are also not worse than any slasher film featuring Jason, Freddy, or Michael Myers.  All of "Jigsaw's" previous killings are only partially shown and the toilet scene was the one incident in the movie that the director seemed to linger over. The dramatic scene with the saw is much more implied than shown and the movie makes the right choice in avoiding becoming a gore fest, although the posters, trailers and other promotional material sell it that way. I don't know that this choice will be sustained in the other pictures in the series.

I'm not sure I will ever see any of the sequels. It seems unlikely that the simplicity of the concept will sustain itself for long before the need to satiate the morbid demand for audience shock begins to outweigh story considerations. I have to admire the execution of the plot and the direction of the film under modest financial circumstances. Some of the reviews from 10 years ago suggested that this was a vile film. Those comments were way over the top and in comparison to some of the things that have come after, Saw pales in the grotesque department. I appreciate special releases of older movies and the week that this was in theaters for Halloween was fine for me. Now next year, for the Fourth of July, could we please have the anagram version of this movie in theaters for a week to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of it's release. Seven days of Brody, Hooper and Quint chasing after a shark is at least as deserved as this this anniversary release was.




Saturday, November 1, 2014

John Wick



This has been the busiest October I can remember in years. A ton of stuff has happened and much of it was not good. As a result, I've fallen several weeks behind on the "30 Years On Project", and it has been three weeks since I went to a movie (my last two posts were a week late). That being said, when I finally did get a chance to see a film, I pigged out on a low brow action film instead of a high profile prestige movie. It was a very satisfying meal and the popcorn chaser was excellent, uhmm, I've missed popcorn almost as much as going to a movie. Keanu Reeves entertained us today in the revenge story of "John Wick".

I'm sure I've said this in some other post about a film with these sorts of characters, but it appears that the most in demand job is not physical therapist, engineer, or administrative professional. According to the movies, professional hitman is the career of the decade and Keanu as John Wick happens to be the most dangerous. The storyline has him retired and grieving his lost wife. He manages to feel some hope because she has left him a puppy to help him get through his mourning. Dumb-ass Russian gangster types make the mistake of both stealing his prized Mustang, but killing the dog as well. That may be a spoiler if you have not seen the trailer, in which case I'm sorry, but I think everyone headed into see this, knows that Wick is pulled back into his vocation by the injustice of this act.

Earlier this week, I invented a quote to use in my class for an Impromptu speech topic, "Never trust a man who doesn't love a dog." I know I can't ever forgive Michael Vick and while I don't dislike people who don't care for dogs, I do not understand them. An addendum to the invented quote should also be "Don't ever screw with another man's best four legged friend." Dirty Harry got downright nasty when someone kicked his dog, John Wick goes even further, the Russian mobsters go down like [insert tasteless cheerleader joke here]. I'd like to see this again, just to engage in my own tally of dead crooks that Wick leaves in his wake. I know that a dozen get killed in the first main confrontation, and that is only twenty minutes or so into the movie. This is the sort of over the top violence fantasy that can only exist in a movie that is not really all that good but is as entertaining as hell. If I ever have the time, I might try to reproduce the splendid statistical analysis my on-line friend Dan Fogarty did on the Schwarzenegger classic "Commando". Wanton death on a scale like this deserves it's own special kind of foolish attention.

There are a host of actors in the film that are almost always a welcome addition to a movie. Ian MacShane, John Legazamo and Willem DeFoe all lend a hand to make this a little better than it has any right to be. We also enjoyed the fact that the guy who plays "Mayhem" in all those insurance ads that run during college football season, got a chance to have a few more lines, even though in the end, he gets treated a lot like he does in those ads. Michael Nyqvist, the guy who is the journalist hero in the "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" films (the Swedish Originals), is the main Russian mobster in this movie, it is his son who does the stupid crime that sets off  mobster killing time. He also does a pretty good job being a loathsome character that deserves what he gets.

If you are a regular reader of this site, you know that I am a sucker for revenge based films. Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington have lead the way in the last few years but I'm happy to add Mr. Reeves to the pool of killers of miscreants that I enjoyed spending time with. I may be one of the few people to see "47 Ronin" much less actually like it. This role requires the deadpan delivery and mopey expression that Keanu Reeves is known for. He also gets to use the physical skills that he has been employing for the twenty years since "Speed" made him an action hero. There is not any subtlety or surprise in anything that happens in this story, but it is efficiently told and cathartic for all of us dog lovers who would like ten minutes with Mr. Vick tied to a chair and a baseball bat in our hands. It is a fantasy, not a serious film and that's exactly the sort of stuff I was in the mood for. 


Friday, October 17, 2014

Annabelle KAMAD Video Review

http://kirkhamamovieaday.blogspot.com/2014/10/annabelle.html


The Judge



It's been a week since I saw this movie. I'm sorry about being late on the post, it has been a tough week here at KAMAD. We lost a four legged member of the family and while getting out of the house to a movie relieved some of the depression, I could just not find the enthusiasm to write. It will probably never stop hurting but I am a lot more functional a week later so I thought I better get to this before I gave up on it entirely. This is one of those rare films that come around now, a straight dramatic story driven by the performances of the stars. There are a few twists but none of them are "Gone Girl" head slams. The story set up is pretty simple. Professionally successful but personally screwed up hot shot lawyer Robert Downey Jr. gets word that his mother has passed away and he travels back to the home town he escaped from for her funeral. The town is not the only thing that he was running from, Hank also has been avoiding his father Joseph. A stern family man in Hank's memory and an iron willed judge for the community. While home and tentatively negotiating the troubled waters of his family, Hank is forced to stand up for his father who may have been involved in a deadly accident that was more than an accident.

Robert Duvall is "the Judge" and his relationship with his son Hank is the core of the movie. There is a mystery and a murder trial, but that is all in aid of forcing these two to confront the past and come to some form of detente while they still can. The two stars are as sharp as can be in their parts. Each plays the defensive victim and the recriminating accuser from time to time. While Downey has the biggest slice of dialogue and action, Duvall's character is the focus of the story. As the plot unfurls, we discover layers of character and story that give Joseph Palmer a lot more development than he gets from simply donning the robes of office. Legal dramas have played fast and loose with courtroom procedure since movies first started and this is no exception. Imagine if you had someone that you resented in the witness chair and you wanted to both protect them and at the same time uncover some personal history under oath. It would never play in a real court but on the set of a Hollywood drama, it is the kind of thing that justifies making the movie in the first place. The script is really not great. In fact, I swear I saw the same plot a couple of weeks ago in a comedy. A son returns home to deal with the death of a parent. Unresolved conflicts with siblings bubble to the surface, tension exists, a mentally challenged character utters wise things, an old girlfriend get tossed into the mix and issues of paternity and trust come up every few minutes. Just like the comedy "This is Where I leave You",there is another curve thrown at you almost to a five minute metronome. Just to be sure that it is taken dramatically, "The Judge" also throws in a tornado.

The supporting cast is also good. Vincent D'Onofrio is the big brother who has a tragic past and the burden of looking out for the family as a sandwich adult. His wife and kids are in the movie but I don't think they had any lines. Most of D'Onofrio's work is done non-verbally and he is best in those scenes where he shrugs his shoulders or looks at his brother with a meaningful glance. Vera Farmiga is the old girlfriend abandoned by Hank and now much more in control than she was twenty years earlier. Billy Bob Thornton can almost steal a movie with his eyebrows and he attempts it here. As the prosecutor going after "The Judge" he initially seems to be a malevolent force for Downey to overcome but as the trial plays out, he is a needed foil for the Judge and the son to be able to confront their demons. By the way Hollywood, more Billy Bob Thornton please.

The problems with the movie are the potboiler plot and the need to fit in several turns that give each of the lead actors some chances to shine. Downey gets to have a romantic clinch with Farmiga, that ends because he has questions and doubts that he is doing the right thing. His young daughter is used to give him the warmth that he lacks in any other aspect of the characters life. She also gives Duvall an opportunity to show the warmth that Hank always wished for but never felt he was getting from his dad. There is a traumatic scene in the bathroom as the ailing Judge fails to keep his secrets from his son because his body is failing him. The courtroom scene with Duvall on the stand and Downey asking questions is the lynchpin of the movie and it works well enough to keep us involved. When the Judge recalls the words that the dead man spoke to him, I personally would have been fine if Joseph Palmer had gone all Denzel on him. 

"The Judge" is a solid piece of entertainment that can't reach greatness because of the overblown plot and the cliche strewn story line. The actors in the film elevate it to slightly above average, but the performances themselves are also handicapped by a script that lays it on way too thick. So on the charge of being overly dramatic, I find "The Judge" guilty. I hereby sentence it to limited box office success and no awards season potential. It is not a bad film, but Downey and Duvall are accessories to cinematic excess that means that their chance to work together here is less successful than any movie fan would hope for.