Sunday, February 9, 2020

Best Picture Showcase Day Two




Four films are on tap today, including the one I have not yet seen, Parasite. I'll have comments about all/of the films as we go along, but I will try to have more in depth commentary on Parasite when we get to it. I sat in the same seat that I had last week and again visited with Gary and his son Bradley.  They had remembered taking with Amanda a couple of years ago and they recognized me as one of the frequent trivia winners.  So although I was without my usual crew, I did have fans to talk with about the films.



All of the films in this years showcase are pretty heavy in some emotional way. While there are comedic moments in most of them, there is not one film nominated who has as it's principle focus, making us laugh. The closest we get to that was the first film of this Saturday'

JoJo Rabbit


There is a lot to laugh at in this fantasy film about the waning days of World War Two. It is told from the perspective of a ten year old boy who has made Adolph Hitler his imaginary friend. The film mocks the notion of radical nationalism and it shows fanaticism in some pretty silly ways. The preposterous claims about Jews made by the Nazis come in for some pretty funny exaggeration, and the hopelessness of the war is told through the story of two kids, a teenager and a mother who struggles to be supportive to her child while remaining true to her ethics. The movie takes a pretty dramatic turn and I could hear the whole audience respond to it as we were watching in the dark. This provides another reason to enjoy theatrical exhibition of movies where the collective experience adds to the power of the film.


Once Upon A Time In Hollywood



This has been my go to film this last year. I've seen it twice on the big screen in it's summer release, I watched it on a plane and once on home video, so today marks the fifth time I saw the film since it came out last July. I was hot on the film before it opened, warm after the first viewing, but heated up substantially with each subsequent visit. Leonardo DiCaprio is the lead, nominated for Best Actor, but the movie belongs to the guy carrying his load, Brad Pitt as stuntman/gofer Cliff Booth. Pitt gets three big fight scenes and excels in all of them. He makes Cliff a laconic throwback to old school Hollywood stuntmen and at the same time a transition to the new Hollywood. Leo's Rick Dalton will have a harder time adjusting to the new ways but the film gives them both a little hope at the conclusion. The revisionist history of this film is the most compelling thing about it. If you don't stick around for the last fifteen minutes, you are missing one of the most violent and joyful conclusions of a fairy tale ever told.


Parasite


This is the one that I had not yet seen and about which there has been so much talk. Director Bong Joon Ho is the toast of the film world and the movie won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It is the top rated film of 2019 on the LAMB, and I saw several on-line rankings that said it was the best film of the decade. Okay, here is the thing, it is great, extremely well written and acted, it however is being overcooked and it will be endangered of having a backlash if people keep pushing the greatest ever narrative.

Somehow, this became a film that is about income inequity, and I think a lot of social warriors want to jump on that to do a little virtue signalling.  That seems like a bad idea to me because the have nots appear to not have from bad choices. They all have talents but in a cliche worthy of a superhero movie, "if only they used their talent for good rather than evil". The Kims ingratiate themselves into the Park household by being the kinds of employees that you would want. Mr. Kim knows the roads and learns a Mercedes well enough to be a good driver, his wife is the kind of housekeeper for the Parks that she never is at home. The daughter may be faking the art therapy thing, but she is having a positive effect on the Parks son. Ki-Woo, the son,  is a capable tutor but his lack of University status might hold him back. It's not really clear why the two offspring who are so gifted are not at university. This may be a place where the implication is poverty, but that is subtle at best.

What is clear is that the Kims delight in taking advantage of the Parks. They maneuver two people out of jobs in devious ways and they congratulate themselves for doing so. The only fault that the Parks seem to have that might justify the audience sympathy for the Kims, is a not very realistic olfactory failing. The Kims smell like poverty. When that becomes the trigger for an unfortunate event later in the film, it certainly seems to be overblown.

The movie reminded me of a cross between "The Sting" and "Fargo". There is a confidence game being played that runs out of control by unanticipated events. Those surprises are the kinds of things that provoked the violence in the Coen Brothers movie. From the beginning however, in Fargo we have two low lifes that we know are killers, so the explosions of violence seem reasonable to the characters. The twist in this film turns people who were not particularly nice but who were not killers, into potentially violent actors. The sort of stuff that we might have laughed at as innocuous petty crime becomes something very dark, very quickly. A new layer of social class is being brought in and it is even more inequitable. So the metaphor begins again. The metaphor even becomes a theme in the story and that is a little obvious as well.

I'm not saying there is anything wrong with the film. There may be something wrong with the folks who are over analyzing it as social commentary, and that is something that put me off a bit. I'm reacting to the reaction rather than the movie. 

1917



This continued to be my favorite film of the year, even after viewing all the others. Several people in the audience as I was walking out at the end of a long day were overheard saying "well, they saved the best for last". I think that was true.   The gimmick of the film, being shot as if one continuous take, is a technical marvel but it also works for dramatic purposes. This was an intensely dangerous and stress filled day in the lives of two ordinary soldiers. When we see that they are part of a large army and we get hints about the equally dangerous days that each of those other soldiers that we see our two leads passing are having, it is even more compelling.

If Roger Deakins doesn't win for cinematography, something is just wrong. The complexity of the shots is hard to believe given how smoothly the images float in front of us. The expertise required to handle the night time scenes is also worthy of an award all on it's own. The composition and lighting of those sequences are both beautiful and nightmarish.

I did mention the two leads in my previous review but I'm not sure I gave them as much credit as they deserve. Dean-Charles Chapman as the determined younger brother who is given this mission because he will be motivated to carry it out, is a stand in for all of us who are naive enough to think that mere will alone is enough to accomplish a task. He of course does show that he has more than will, but his naivete is frustrating to us emotionally and another victim of the horrors that war is. George MacKay as the slightly more weary companion, imbues the film with the valor that an ignoble soldier finds in trying to do right by his commanders and friends. Either of them would have been valid choices for awards consideration despite their lack of star status.


Friday, February 7, 2020

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn



If ever a film announced itself as a feminist battle cry for comic book respect, "Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn" is the title they would probably choose. The idea here is to liberate not only Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel, but every woman in the world from the patriarchal culture that they are being choked to death in. I think it's great that there is a comic book figure that is empowering to women, I just am a little concerned that they have to be murdering sociopaths. "Deadpool" seems like a caricature of super heroes, with his nihilistic humor and snarky social commentary. "Harley Quinn" is supposed to be taken differently, but I'm not sure how, and we may have skipped the part that is being parodied. 

I thought the quick telling of her backstory and the break up with her relationship to the Joker was clever. There is a combination of flashbacks, cartoons and first person narration that gets us through this relatively quickly and with some efficiency. The same efficiency does not apply to the secondary women in the story who need to be liberated as well. Detective Montoya gets ignored by the idiot men around her, multiple times, and it is only when she is egregiously second-guessed and suspended, in the mode of every movie cop trope you can find except the partner who dies, that she sees the need for some liberation. "The Huntress" is an assassin with a mission, who is saved as a child by a bad man who deposits her with other bad men to make her badass, but those men  disappear twenty seconds after her story is recounted. She has always been alone except for the gangster father she wants to avenge. So I guess what she needs to be liberated from is the family stricture that requires her to operate on a blood debt. "Black Canary" need to be liberated from the clutches of a man who sees her as a possession and doesn't recognize her worth. He treats her as a slave and she acts the part really well.

The other female character in the story is a neighborhood girl who has parents that argue while she hones her skills as a thief and pick-pocket. She is already liberated from any sense of right or wrong, so I guess she is supposed to be a role model for the suppressed women in the story and a chip off of the Harley Block. The reality is that the film stacks up so many straw men [that is an intentional double meaning] that the films sense of justice feels manufactured and that undermines the main point. I'm probably taking this too seriously, some of you are muttering to yourselves right now "it's just a comic book movie". It is just a comic book movie which is why all the other stuff is standing in the way.

Margot Robbie made this character her own in "Suicide Squad" back in 2016, and it is no surprise here that she is the main draw. The problem is that a little of the character goes a long way, but we get a lot of the character and it makes her distinctiveness feel littler. From an action point of view, the fight scenes and shootouts are staged in a visually arresting manner but sometimes there is a little too much layered on top, For instance, every scene depicting women kicking men's asses, is accompanied by an empowering hard rock song about the power of bad ass women. It underlines, puts it in bold and points at it in such an obvious way that the action sometimes feels less organic to the events in the story and simply one more place to pump up the girl power.

In addition to overselling Harley, the make her antagonist feckless. He is a villain who is so narcissistic, that much like Kylo Ren, he has a superfluous mask simply to draw attention to himself. It literally serves no other function, since everyone including the police know that he is "Black Mask". Ewan McGregor squawks and screams through the role as if he is Al Pacino playing the Joker. His only super power appears to be reckless inflated opinion of himself. What value is there in a heroine who takes down this pile of nothingness?

I like the production design when the characters are on the streets battling it out, and there is a funky set that is the location for the climax confrontation which was fun. I probably sound silly complaining about the cartoonish characters when we are talking about a movie that is a cartoon, but there was never a time I thought the women leads were in jeopardy. Harley by herself repeatedly takes out squads of hulking henchmen, so why would we worry about the outcome when she has four backup players to fight a small army?

Truth be told, I found the movie entertaining on a simplistic level. If we have to choose between the sets of characters on the screen, of course we are going to root for the women. It just lacks the kind of balance that would make the film feel substantive, and you can tell that it wears its ideology on it's sleeve. That detracts a little from the fun, but it also makes the value of that ideology feel cheap. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

2020 Oscar Nominated Shorts Live Action/Animation



The Documentary shorts were not playing at my theater so I will have to look for them, but here are just some brief comments on the two sets of Oscar Nominated Shorts that I did get a chance to see.

A Sister

This was a dramatic short based on a call to emergency services by a woman who is being sexually assaulted by an acquaintance and is being driven around by her assailant. She has to make the call seem as if it is innocuous because she is in danger. It was quite taught and we never see anyone except the Emergency Services dispatcher clearly. It was quite tense.

Brotherhood

I can't say it is an apology for the ISIS fighters in Syria but it is a different perspective which is certainly it's intent. The lives of a family in Tunisia are affected by the choices made by one of the sons. The narrative takes a couple of twists that would be more meaningful to someone with knowledge of the internal legal system of that Middle Eastern nation. The whole experience has got to be miserable, lucky us we get to share it.

The Neighbors Window

This one starts off slightly salacious and then it's tone shifts. The perspective we see for most of the story is not the only one and that is the point. In the end it was quite moving. As a story it is very clever and the lead Actress was very effective, especially at the end.

Saria

Maybe the most depressing of the short films on the program. Particularly since it based on rel world events. An orphanage in Guatemala is more prison camp than home for teen girls. The young actresses are solid with very little backstory to inform their characters. You will be infuriated at the end of the movie, it is an advocacy docudrama that is only barely a fictional narrative.

Nefta Football Club

There is an element of danger is this second short film set in the Middle East. In the end however it turns out to be the most comedic of the films and the one that you can enjoy on a pure entertainment level.







Instead of posting the individual Trailers, let me direct you to the site where you can see all of those trailers and find information about where they are screening near your location. Click Here. 




Animated Shorts


This program included the five nominated films plus four or five others that I neglected to write down so my memory will be hit or miss on those.

Daughter




This was done in an interesting medium but not necessarily one that is attractive. The abstract nature of the story makes it somewhat hard to relate to despite the universal themes that it appears to be drawing on. Obviously done with meticulous care because each frame looks like stop motion although I can't say for sure that it is not a combination of computer and hand drawn work. 






Hair Love




This was a Kickstarter funded project and the animation looks very traditional. There is a twist at the end that will tug on the heartstrings a bit, and it ends up being one of the least depressing of the animated shorts on the program. There is a good chance this will be the winner because of it's take on the complicated relationship of those with African heritage and their hair in Western Culture. 







Kitbull




This was my personal favorite although it is unlikely to win. This was done by some of the folks at Pixar and it is as usual, a perfect blend of sentiment and art told without words. I am a sucker for animal stories and this features two animals that I found charming and well personified by the artists. 







Mémorable




This French entry may be the most depressing animated film I have seen in a long time. It is a Twelve minute mediation on the ravages of Alzheimer's disease, told using a form of claymation. It looks odd at times but it is very effective at conveying the confusion and desperation of those suffering from the disease and those who love them. It is sad to think about the number of people who will experience some of the things depicted here. 




Sister




This one was the most surprising of the animated shorts. It comes from China and there is a reason that is the source of the story. The animation is stop motion with fuzz covered figures that look like stuffed versions of people. The relationship of a brother to his sister in this ultimately sad story is explored with some humor but a lot of pathos.  






Recommended


Henrietta Bulkowski




A young woman with a severe back deformity, which forces her to always look down, seeks to become a pilot, even if she has to build her own plane. It features a vocal performance by Actor Chris Cooper. The animation is odd, it looks like stop motion using dolls. I'm not sure why it would not have made the cut against some of the other films that were included.





Hors Piste




The most clearly comic film included in the animated shorts. It is reminiscent of a Looney Tunes Roadrunner cartoon, with a series of unfortunate incidents befuddling a mountain rescue team. The computer animation is excellent, and you will cringe and laugh simultaneously. 






Maestro 




The shortest of the short films, it is basically a musical interlude performed by a number of critters that you might find in the backyard or nearby woods. The animation is very detailed computer work. I guess I'm just a sucker for the animal tales because I loved this one as well. 







There was at least one other short that played in this mini-festival, but I can't remember it at the moment. If it comes to me I will come back and share it.



I can include at least two of the animated films here for you to watch, as they are available on YouTube.






Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The Lamb Devours the Oscars [Best Supporting Actor]

brad and company
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We here at the LAMB love Oscar talk, not so much because the Awards are so meaningful, they often are not, but because they focus our attention on all kinds of details. We get five or more nominees in twenty four categories, many of which would not normally be the subject of our usual discussions. This category is one of the big eight so you might have had a little discussion on these choices, so get prepared for a little more.

This year, in this group, there are no first time nominees. In fact, everyone in this classification already had an Academy Award. They all have multiple nominations in the past, and two of the nominees have multiple awards for acting. So this is old hands time and not really a place to make up for a past injustice. Only Brad Pitt has not won an acting award from the Academy, but he has the comfort of a Best Picture Oscar as a producer on "12 Years a Slave".
The range of characters represented here is impressive. A Union boss, a gangster, a TV Icon, a Pope and a down at the heals Stuntman. All of these characters come alive in a variety of ways and probably deserve the nominations they received. Looking around, I don't see any significant Snubs in this division. So let's celebrate each of the nominated performances with some gusto.

Anthony Hopkins-The Two Popes/Pope Benedict XVI


Pope Anthony

It's been 22 years since Sir Anthony Hopkins was a nominee, which seems hard to believe. His performance as Benedict is quiet and confounding at times. We are never quite clear on what motivates this man of high intellect and deeply held religious convictions to surrender his papacy, especially to a man with whom he has significant doctrinal disagreements. We can however see the humanity in the man and his desire to advance the church in troubling times. His nomination may in part be a reflection of mastering Latin and a little bit of German. At the end of his trail, is a warm relationship with his successor and a sense of relief on his mind which we can see in the actors face. Hopkins does indulge in what I have always seen as his most obvious acting tic frequently. He has a particular way of saying the word "Yes" that he falls back on three or four times in this film.

Joe Pesci-The Irishman/Russell Bufalino


Gangster Pesci

Mr. Pesci is batting .500 in this classification up to this point. His previous nominations came in Martin Scorsese projects, and surprise, he gets a third nomination after coming out of retirement for another Scorsese film. Again he is a gangster, but this time a more mellow and thoughtful hood than the volatile Tommy DeVito of Goodfellas. This role is not particularity showy and in fact, I thought it could have been played by a number of other actors. What he brings is the gravitas of his past performances to pump up a character who is largely peripheral to the main plot. He does have some nice scenes with DeNiro as he nudges the Irish thug into his crime family so there is something here, I would be surprised if this was his second win.   

Tom Hanks- A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood/Fred Rogers


Mr. Hanks Neighborhood

Mr. Rogers was such a culturally recognized figure that it takes a pretty delicate performance to avoid doing an impression that would end up as a parody. There have been plenty of those over the years. Tom Hanks uses his quiet distinctive voice very effectively in bringing Rogers into the story. His deliberate pacing and even modulation are pitch perfect. It helps that the lines are also so well written. The most brilliant aspect of the performance is the recognition that Fred Rogers is not really the protagonist in the story, he is a critical secondary character.  Rogers was known for being famously kind and polite, so it made perfect sense to have the man that many would say is the nicest guy in Hollywood portray him. Hanks is not a doppelganger for Rogers, but hair, makeup and costumes also go a long way in making this a truly credible performance.

Al Pacino-The Irishman/Jimmy Hoffa


Hoffa

I grew up in a world where Jimmy Hoffa was as famous a public figure as any President or Senator or Governor. He was a powerful man who had a loyal union and he was not shy about battling the government over his authority. Al Pacino has been frequently bellicose in his performances since winning the Best Actor Oscar for being just that in "Scent of a Woman" in 1992. This is his first nomination since then, maybe it is a sign that he needs to adjust his style, because when he did so in "The Irishman", he was so much more effective. He still plays a tough guy but he is disarmingly quiet in many of the big moments in the film. The way he seems to connect with the main characters daughter, effortlessly is a good example of that. Pacino conveys the pig headed nature of the Union Boss, and the obtuse way in which he responds to the gangster partners he has made is demonstrated in many scenes in the film.  He is the standout in this his first collaboration with Martin Scorsese.


Brad Pitt-Once Upon a Time in Hollywood/Cliff Booth


brad

This character is one of the most appealing features in a film stacked with actors doing great work and Tarantino moments that will stick with us for a lifetime. Pitt takes this detached, knockabout companion of TV star Rick Dalton, and turns him into a charming, sharp and ultimately lethal character.  It is never clear to me, how the line between Leading Actor and Supporting Actor is drawn. Pitt uses his magnetic smile and aw shucks demeanor to great effect when he faces down Bruce Lee, the Manson Family and his own dog. Cliff holds his posture in a manner that suggests he is casual, but in any situation we can see he is really the alpha, even if he is willing to pretend otherwise. He takes many of the essential qualities of Kurt Russell, and underplays them, especially in his few scenes with Kurt himself. The clincher of Pitt's performance however is the stop at the Spahn Ranch where he deals with those damn hippies. This is my pick for the winner in this group. 

Monday, February 3, 2020

Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in his Own Words



He is not known by a clever turn of an Acronym like "the Notorious RBG", and it is unlikely that he will be a bobble-head available at Hot Topic or Spenser's Gifts, but he certainly is a well know and controversial figure. I'd guess that he was one of the Justices that the average American would be able to name from the Supreme Court, and that may not always be for good reasons. Regardless of how you feel about his judicial perspective and role  on the court, I think you would find this film interesting in the way many biographical documentaries are. This one also has the benefit of his personal narration.

Maybe narration is the wrong term, exposition might be more appropriate. The sub-title of the film is incredibly accurate, this is Justice Thomas as he sees himself. The director and producer had thirty hours of first hand, single camera interviews with him and they have culled the story down to a manageable two hour narrative of the Justices life. It can basically be broken down into a three act structure, with a bit of an epilogue. He describes his childhood, being raised mostly by his grandfather up through the seminary school he dropped out of angry over the indifference of his class mates and the Catholic church to the assassination of Martin Luther King. The middle section describes his political evolution in college and then as a law student and young lawyer. He falls into public service with a Republican, which was the last thing he ever expected. Finally, there is the professional career that should be crowned by his appointment to the highest court in the land but was overshadowed by accusations of sexual harassment.

The first half of the story is told in much the same way that Ken Burns tells his stories. There are archival pictures and film clips used to create the exposition as Thomas speaks. In some places there are simple filmed segments of places that Thomas grew up in or simulations of the viewpoint he might have had. There are no actors in the film however so it never feels like a docudrama. There are some musical underscores but none of them has any heavy drama to them, this is not a film about recreating the emotional experiences that he went through.

The photographs and archival material gives way as Thomas becomes a public figure in the Reagan administration and there is video and film footage that can be plugged in to provide historical context. Of course the greatest amount of that material comes during the hearings on his nomination in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired at the time by Senator Joe Biden. The Vice President and now candidate for President, does not come off very well in the few minutes he is on screen. The rogue's gallery of Senators in the hearing also seem slightly sinister, whether they were advocates or opponents of his nomination. The other narrator that we hear from extensively in this section is Mrs. Thomas, who aggressively defends her husband as he is being grilled by the panel and raked over the coals by the media.

Justice Thomas explains the basis of his judicial temperament and the originalism that drives that perspective. There is a bit of a coda that tells us a bit more about him as a person in this day. He is a Nebraska Cornhusker Fan, and an RV enthusiast who likes to travel the backroads of America. If you admire the Justice, you will certainly appreciate the film, but even if you are a critic and opponent of his views, I think you will find it an interesting and even handed telling of his story, and that story is important.
 

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Best Picture Showcase Day One



This year there are only seven of the nine films nominated because Netflix did not make The Irishman and Marriage Story available for exhibition.  Day one of the Showcase features Ford v Ferrari,  Joker and Little Women.

Ford v Ferrari


I loved this movie when I first saw it and my opinion has not changed.  This is a great story with several terrific performances.  Matt Damon literally chews the screen because he is either eating or working a piece of gum in 90% of the scenes he is in. Christian Bale is the real star, the physicality of his performance is amazing in those shots set in the cars he is driving. There are several racing scenes and he manages to match the tension in each of them with just enough to not oversell it. It's a shame the Academy could not find room for him among this year's lead actors.

Two other things impressed me even more as I was rewatching the film. The editing of the movie is very effective at showing the characters and building excitement into the story. The music was also a strong asset to the storytelling,  I liked how it created an aura of the 1960s without using source music.

Joker


This film gave me conflicting reactions when I first saw it. The story bravely confronts the stigma of mental illness and shows that society is Ill equipped to manage it. It is also a bit of a cheat since we can never be sure that what we are seeing isn't just the mental machinations of a disturbed mind. That bothered me far less on a second viewing,  I had an idea this time about how the inconsistency might work , so when an incident is shown I could look at it two ways more readily.

I've seen some criticism of Todd Phillips directing nomination, but he is the one responsible for the composition of the shots, some of which mirror traditional comic book iconography,  but there are others that subvert them in various ways. This is a patient film that doesn't rush to simply get to the thrilling parts. The performance by Joaquin Phoenix is even more impressive on a second viewing because you can get past the physical transformation and watch the emotional wreck that Arthur Fleck is, and see the stewing eruptions with nice subtlety. The music for this movie is also hauntingly disturbing,  as it should be.

Little Women


For the life of me I have a hard time understanding how Greta Gerwig isn't nominated as director, this film looks great,  the performances are top notch and it is emotionally satisfyingly. She did a retooling of the story to make the three love stories work better than they have in the earlier versions.  The final sequences also allow the film to have it both ways in regards to Jo and her Independence.

The only problems I had were a couple of tin eared woke lines that drew attention to themselves.  The interactions with the Mr. Dashwood character worked well enough on its own to convey the frustrating perspective that women Submitted to a century and a half ago.

These were all fine films but I suspect that the big contenders will be in next week's line-up.


Friday, January 31, 2020

The Rhythm Section



EON films, who bring us the 007 pictures, have branched out only slightly with this gritty espionage revenge film. It is still a story filled with hidden agenda's, violence and international intrigue, but unlike Bond, it is stripped of any glamour. No one is going to want to sleep with the hero or be the hero, it's not that kind of a movie.

Actress Blake Lively has been cast against type here. She plays not a glamour girl, but a young woman, drowning in sorry who has flushed her life away. Her self loathing at surviving a tragedy that took her whole family has lead her to the most degradation you can imagine. It is only the spark of revenge that stirs her from the soon to be death she is earning herself and leads her to become immersed in a nearly equally degrading vocation.Imagine bits of Le Femme Nikita crossed with  Munich and then take out any sense of fantasy and you get this plot.

The transition from near dead flotsam, to capable undercover operative is achieved using a long more drawn out process than we usually get in a movie like this. Most of the time, there is a rush to the action sequences and the intrigue, here the story labors over the misery that this transition will require. It is pretty effective at showing what rot it is to think someone can become an expert at hand to hand combat in twelve easy montages. Stephanie, our lead character attempts to slip on the skin of an international assassin who has been killed. She needs to use that cover to pursue the mysterious figure behind the deaths of her parents and nearly 300 others. To sell that however, she has to do some dirty deeds that she may not be ready for.

There are a few threads that don't quite add up but as the story picks up steam, we are not necessarily going to care about that. The credibility of this film goes up with the awkwardness of Stephanie's evolution. She never becomes a lethal instrument that is finely tuned, there is too much humanity left in her, at least until the climax. We have a pretty good idea what is coming and fortunately it does not require ninja skills and martial arts, but something that is in her skill set.

Jude Law is a mentor figure with his own motives for assisting her, but you would never know he thought she could accomplish anything. The indifference in the training section was a nice change of pace for that trope. The only other actor that I was familiar with was Sterling K. Brown, who plays a connection that might lead her to the unknown person she is pursuing. I know him from his series of appearances on "Supernatural", some of which are discussed on our podcast.

I can mostly recommend the film. It is not the entertaining Liam Neeson  revenge substitute I was hoping for, but it still made me glad I saw it. The early slog of misery and slow burn is rewarded with some craft and emotional depth, even if the ultimate resolution is a little too pat.


Monday, January 27, 2020

The Last of Sheila (1973)



Another night at the movies with an old friend from the 1970s.  "The Last of Sheila" is a terrific murder mystery set among the Hollywood elite and on the French Riviera. It features an all star cast and a delightfully convoluted plot that finishes with one of the most cynical endings you will ever encounter. 

The most interesting aspect of the film from my perspective is that it was written by Composer Stephen Sondheim and Actor Anthony Perkins. The moderator of the discussion last night, told us he had visited Sondheim's apartment to interview him on several occasions and that the entry hall was filled with puzzles and games.  Sondheim and Perkins were famous for throwing parties that featured elaborate mystery games and scavenger hunts. It seems that they were encouraged to adapt their hobby into a script that could be made into a film based on the kinds of puzzle searches that made up for their parties. Of course there has to be a spine for the story and that is provided by the types of people that they would have at their parties, you know, Hollywood types and entertainment professionals.
There are seven principle performers in the story. James Coburn is a movie producer, who's rich wife was killed in a hit and run accident a year before. He plans an elaborate week on his yacht in the South of France for six guests who were at the party the night his wife died. He has discovered a variety of secrets about them and he uses those as cruel clues to torment his guests as part of the game. The main reason that they put up with such bullying behavior is that they each need something from their friend, a job, financing for a film project, or paying off a long held personal favor. The story then plays out through the game over the days cruising the ports and nights playing scavenger hunt puzzles to solve the game.

Of course there is a murder and everyone is suspect. During the course of the film, there are lots of clues dropped as characters interact and scramble to solve the puzzle. Actor Ian McShane, who is a ubiquitous presence in movies and tv shows these days, plays the hanger on husband of starlet Raquel Welch. He looks incredibly young and handsome in contrast to his older craggy self in films like the John Wick series. Raquel is the weak link in the film, whispering most of her lines but still looking the part. Her best scene is her final brushoff of her secret lover. 

Dyan Cannon plays an talent agent based on her own agent Sue Mengers, a legendary Hollywood figure. Cannon is always a hoot in the films she appears in. Her role in this movie is mostly for comic relief as her character has only minor connections to the murder plot. If you are interested in seeing her in a more developed part in a murder mystery, I strongly recommend "Deathtrap" where her costars are Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. She was one of the guests for the conversation following the screening so more on her later. 

The late Joan Hackett has a sympathetic and juicy role as the rich wife of screenwriting hack Richard Benjamin. They played off of one another really well and the complicated little game they play between each other regarding their consumption of beverages is one of the clues that move us forward in the game. 

The film however, belongs to three performers who take the screen and make it crackle in dialogue, emotional desperation and cleverness. Richard Benjamin as the needy screen writer is also the clever guest who appears to be at the head of the pack when it comes to playing the game. The greatest moment in the film comes from his character Tom, when he explains that he doesn't have any gloves. I nearly bust a gut at that moment. Coburn is brutally charming and repellent simultaneously. He uses his amazing smile as a weapon to deflect responses from the victims of his cruel asides. His manipulation of everyone else still does not justify what happens but each time he is on screen, the tension level for all the party guests goes up.

No one will be surprised that James Mason's fading director is the acting apex of the film. He feigns interest in the game quite effectively, but on his face you can see he is really evaluating all the other contestants more that the clues. In the confrontation sequence in the climax, as he explains what has been happening, his voice never waivers but his eyes and body give way to the insecurity he suddenly finds himself in. His denouement is perfect in reflecting the cynical power structures in Hollywood, I loved his performance. 

The Conversation


After the film had screened, film Historian Foster Hirsch interviewed the two guests for the evening. Dyan Cannon and Richard Benjamin. Both of them were engaging and free with stories, although most of the information they shared was already well known.

Cannon talked about how she modeled her performance on her friend and agent Sue Mengers, who knew that she was in fact the inspiration for the character that she was asking her client to play. Dyan told us about enjoying the time filming on the beaches of southern  France and about adding some pounds to her frame to play the agent, still not unflattering. 

Richard Benjamin recounted how he traveled one day on a break from filming with his costar James Coburn in his newly acquired Ferrari. Neither of them had their passports with them as Coburn flew down the coast at 140 mph toward the Italian border. When asked for their papers Coburn took off his sunglasses and smiled and the border guard said "Ah, Mr. Flynt, welcome" and waived them through.  When they returned to France, virtually the same thing happened with the gendarmes controlling the French Border. 

Benjamin also mused about how much luck was involved in the business. He was fortunate to be cast in a play, that lead to several other jobs and ultimately allowed him to direct as well.  He mostly allowed events to move him into the job of director. Dyan Cannon, who has also directed a few things contrasted his experience with her own, a woman in the 1970s trying to get a directing gig needed a much more organized plan. 

Cannon has several projects she is working on, the one she spoke of at the TCMFF a couple of years ago is still on her plate, a musical based on her life. The play will include material on her life as Mrs. Cary Grant and she intends to star in it. She looks like she could nail it, she seemed to be a healthy octogenarian with good doctors and plenty of energy. Benjamin quipped that he was available. 

I also had the pleasure of being seated with one of my podcasting friends Kristen Lopez from Ticklish Business and Journeys in Classic Film. She was there with her mother who was a big fan of the film, and there was a small service dog who sat quietly next to me on Mom's lap through the whole film. We chatted a bit before the movie and I said good bye to them as we moved through the lobby of the Egyptian Theater. Had I waited a few more minutes I might have been rewarded, Kristin posted a picture of herself with Dyan Cannon that must have been taken just a little while after I said goodbye. Nice for her. 



Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Gentlemen



If ever there was someone who clearly benefited from the rise of independent cinema through the wedge of Quentin Tarantino, it was Guy Ritchie.  His take on English gangsters propelled him into prominence and he has had some great opportunities ever since. Maybe all of his films have not been successes, but after shepherding the live action remake of Aladdin to a worldwide box office of over a billion dollars, his failures will be overlooked for a while. He returns to his natural milieu with "The Gentleman", a violent comical take on the economics of the marijuana business. It is filled with the sort of off kilter characters that "Snatch", "Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Rocknrolla" also overflowed with. Even though Vinnie Jones and Jason Statham are missing, "The Gentlemen" will take it's rightful place alongside those rough cut gems.

The cast is chock full of Richie regulars but features some newcomers as well. Co-producer Matthew McConaughey is given star billing and while he earns it, there are several standout performances along the way. Charlie Hunnam, who starred in the Ritchie misfire "King Arthur" is a sturdy second banana to McConaughey's crime lord.  He is all quiet coiled professionalism, waiting to be provoked into action. Henry Golding who has made a name for himself as a romantic lead in "Crazy Rich Asians" and "Last Christmas" gets to play a heavy in this film and he is cynically effective as a self absorbed hoodlum on the make and maybe stretching past his reach too soon.  Eddie Marsan, a veteran of the two Guy Ritche Sherlock Holmes movies, plays a belligerent newspaper publisher. The resolution to his part of the story is one of the images we are fortunately spared from viewing.

It is two big names playing supporting parts that steal this movie and make it so enjoyable to watch. I could have sworn that Colin Farrell was a veteran of the crime films Ritchie made in his early days, but this seems to be their first film together. You know how Tarantino has filled the mouth of Samel L. Jackson with amazing dialogue in their collaborations? while this feels the same way. Farrel delivers the lines that Ritchie has written as if they have worked together for decades. He gets the intonations, relational status and emotional equivalency exactly right. Some things just go together perfectly. So to the list of milk and cookies, peanut butter and jelly, and James Bond and Martinis, add Colin Farrell to Guy Ritchie.

As great as Farrell is in his almost tangential role, there is another well established actor who basically steals the film in a wholly unexpected manner. Hugh Grant has been a light romantic comedian for most of his career. As he is aging out of the romantic lead casting, he has found his true niche as a character actor. In "Florence Foster Jenkins" he gave a sympathetic performance backing up Meryl Streep. In "Paddington 2" he delightfully plays the villain and deserved even more awards attention. Unfortunately, this fil gets a January release here in the States and by next December, people will have forgotten how great he is here. Grant plays a investigator/journalist/detective who tries to take what he finds out about the drug kingpin as a way of both blackmailing the gangster and breaking into the movie business. He is also the narrator of the film, who provides exposition, transitions and color to the events being described. Usually Grant has a proper sounding pronunciation and delicate manner of expression, but not his character Dexter. He is a foul mouthed, dirty minded, over confident and smug creature. Visually he is barely recognizable as the world famous actor he is, but vocally and with many mannerisms, you will not know that this is the same guy who wooed Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, Sandra Bullock and many more.

The dialogues, violence and complicated machinations of the plot are the things that you expect in a Guy Ritchie crime film. The elegant turns of phrase that McConaughey uses as he engages his potential business partners and his enemies is a great example of the screenwriter's strengths. Hunnam and Farrell with their mild deferential styles contrasted to what we see both are capable of are a plus with the dialogue and the action. Although it seems that the events in the story are spinning out as a series of unplanned obstacles, there is always a way that those moments tie back into the plot, usually in a surprising way.  At least it will be a surprise if you have never seen one of Ritchie's earlier gangster films. If you have, you know to expect the unexpected, but you will be able afterwards to say, Of course. 

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Bad Boys for Life



Not that anyone ever took these films seriously, but after "Hot Fuzz" and "Team America", it seemed to me that the secret was out that these movies are sort of a parody of real cop movies. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider did long surveillance in seedy conditions, ate and drank crappy food in cramped cars and mostly the car chases were collision courses in old cars. Cops drew their guns but were careful about firing, and if they weren't the ending was downbeat rather than celebratory. The early Michael Bay films took action to extremes, mixed the improbable with some humor and amped up the violence. It was a formula for success twenty years ago. Apparently, it still works in spite of the passage of time and the mocking of tropes that has gone on since the last time Will Smith and Martin Lawrence saddled up to sing and shoot.

I saw both of the previous films once each. I enjoyed them at the time but I have almost no recall of plot or other characters. The movies are strictly disposable entertainment. Nothing wrong  with that, but if I'm going to put a Michael Bay film on repeatedly, it's going to be "The Rock". I did not have high expectations for the film but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it while I was in the theater. Bay does not direct [Although he does make an appearance], the directing team of Bilal Fallah and Adil El Arbi have the reins and they ride this pony for all it's worth. It does not have the pacing of a Bay film, but everything else is there, glamour, explosions, over the top violence and shiny images and people. It's like the 80s never died and "Miami Vice" became the biggest influence on movie making since "Jaws".

Before he put on the fat suit and dressed as a transvestite, Martin Lawrence was a pretty reliable comic actor in action films and urban based comedies. This movie reminds us of why he was a star for most of the 90s. Maybe he has worked more sparingly in the last few years because the material did not fit him, but for this film it does. Will Smith is still the first name above the title but Lawrence is the acting hero in this movie. The comedy is not slapstick but based on a couple of premises. The usual trope of retirement is used to gain some sympathy. His character is also a new Grandpa.  It is the second premise that I appreciated more though. His character Marcus has emotional regrets about the violence he has inflicted on the world and he is trying to make good on a deal with God to be a better man. Of course by the end that will fly out the window, but until it does it gives Lawrence plenty of opportunities to riff on his characters self doubts and the more conservative person he has become as a father/grandfather figure.

Will Smith plays Will Smith. He is still cock of the walk confident and handsome. Yet he is also getting older and some acknowledgement of that was called for. The turn in the third act seems a little close to his film from last year but I won't say too much. The plot does try to introduce new blood into the storyline and you can see the blueprint being laid down for future episodes of the series. It's probably a good idea that he follows the lead of Tom Cruise, make a franchise film in your comfort zone every couple of years, and people will not notice when the mediocre films flop as much.

The action is insane at times, including a climax in a burning hotel that features a helicopter explosion inside of an abandoned building. The motorcycle chase can't stand up to the Mission Impossible standards that have set the bar recently, but there are some good moments and a lot of gunplay to go with it. I don't think this edition of the buddy cop franchise is necessarily better than the previous two, but since it is recent, I can remember a bit more of what happened. Give me a couple of years and it will fade too. Then maybe I can watch all of them again before the inevitable "Bad Boys 4" gets unleashed. 

Friday, January 10, 2020

Underwater



If you were to make a list of signs that a movie is in potential trouble, one of the first things that will jump out at you is the timeline from filming to release. "Underwater" was filmed in 2017, this is 2020, that means it has been percolating for three years. A second indicator that you are in trouble is that you have a horror film opening in January. The first month of the year is the graveyard of the dregs for new releases. It is for counter programming to the big holiday releases that are still playing and collecting on their critical acclaim. Studios notoriously put films they have no faith in out at this time of year. Horror films often are the pawns in a game of movie release chess and they are sacrificed at this time all the time. Finally, Kristen Stewart, action star, is just not a description that anyone will pull out of their memory. So "Underwater" has a few strikes against it before the lights go down.

On the other hand, there were some rumors from early punters that it is better than you would expect.  I don't think I've ever mentioned "Rotten Tomatoes" as a resource for any review I have ever done on this site, but "Underwater" was rated "Fresh" on the web site for the ticket purchase, so as I always do, I hoped for the best. Francis Bacon said "Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper." My dinner this evening was not very good. I can't say the film is terrible, but I can tell you it is not good, and there are several reasons.

To start with the first failing, the story attempts something that just doesn't work very well. Most films like this set up the characters by letting us meet them in the normal course of their lives. We usually get a map of the environment so we can get a fix on the eventual horizon. There will be some foreshadowing which increases the tension before the main story begins. "Underwater" eschews this approach, plunging us into the story without any set up except some cryptic headlines briefly flashed on the screen during the credit sequence. We know nothing about the job, the technology or the people before disaster strikes. So the film is going to depend on spectacle to draw us in, and this is a story set almost seven miles underwater, where there is no light and no horizon. We can't really tell what has happened to the station that the characters are on, except from the inside, and it looks like any other building collapse interior you have seen in a movie.

When we finally do get a set of six characters set up in an escape plan, you can pretty much say who is going to die and the order in which they are going to go. This is a horror film that is so conventional that it reinforces one of the oldest tropes a a black character in horror. This is a concept that has been parodied in horror comedies for years.  I'll let you figure out everything else, but if you have seen an action disaster film or horror film in the last fifty years, you will know. At least with "Alien" we got to care about those characters before their demise.

The dialogue in the film is almost imperceptible at times. Vincent Cassel's accent is laid on a little thick at times and everyone else practically whispers. Meanwhile, the dialogue and exposition are drown out by the cacophony of alarms, explosions and screaming. The exposition is so vague that we have no idea what the goal is that we should be rooting for. I guess we are just supposed to hope that they don't all die, but it is not clear before what. T.J. Miller, whose presence is another indicator of how long ago this movie was made, could easily be mistaken for playing the same part as he did in "Cloverfield". When we finally get the reveal of what is out there in the murky water, it looks like a prequel to that creature feature.

One other way that the film sinks to mediocrity, is by splicing on an environmentalist theme and then adding a dollop of corporate conspiracy to finish off the recipe. The end credits suggest more elements to the story that never appeared to be critical to what was happening. You can't just retro fit the movie which has played out with some theme that makes no sense.   Anyway, I am a sucker for crappy January films. So far this is my best film of the year and my worst. Let's see how it all pans out when "Dolittle" arrives in a week.