Saturday, July 25, 2015

Mr. Holmes

The conceit of this movie is that Sherlock Holmes was a real person and that his life of private consulting was well known due to the writings of Dr. Watson. There are movies made about him and and tourists flock to his supposed address and he is now 93 in 1947 England. From that premise we proceed into a personal mystery that Holmes is trying to unravel before his death. He is also plagued with senility that fogs his memory, much in the manner of early stage Alzheimer's disease. The character of Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain at this point. The estate of Conan Doyle controls ten stories but any person with enough creativity can invent and publish or produce a Holmes tale. That may account for why he has been one of the most widely portrayed fictional characters in cinema. This movie is sort of a coda to his adventures and it is primarily a vehicle for the amazing Sir Ian McKellen.

Many years ago, I heard a critic (Rod Lurie) refer to these English produced character pieces as "tea on the lawn pictures".  I understand completely the idea behind that description, so many films in this vain offer no action, subtle drama, and an overriding sense that the locations are the primary purpose for people watching this. Anyone hoping for McKellen to throw down like Gandalf or Magneto need not bother showing up for this film. It is languidly paced and beautifully composed and an intricate character study across a thirty year chasm in the life of the world's greatest detective. If you are willing to listen however, you will be rewarded by some clever dialogue, intricate plotting and an ultimately warm story of old age and regret. Oh, and that is not to mention a spectacular performance by a seasoned actor in a tailor made part.

Admittedly the quiet countryside and remote farm that Mr. Holmes now occupies will meet the criteria of a "tea on the lawn" movie. There are even several scenes involving the consumption of tea but they never take place out of doors so that label would be a misnomer. Holmes is trying desperately to halt his oncoming memory loss and restore enough of his powers of observation, to help him complete the true story of his last case. He is dissatisfied with the version told by Dr. Watson, and he knows that it must be wrong because there is no other logical way to explain his retirement from the practice of detective work thirty years earlier. As he tries to solve the mystery of that case, he is simultaneously working with the son of his housekeeper to preserve the apiary he keeps and discover what is causing an outbreak of deaths among the bee colony. At the start of the film it seemed unlikely that this would be an older mentor type of story but that is what it morphs into and that is when the story becomes emotionally involving. The partial details and slow reveal of the tale from original mystery from 1917 are not particularly compelling. That is because the story is dribbled out in small bits and we never get a chance to relate to anyone but Holmes as the information appears. When the plot becomes the subject of a manuscript that Holmes shares with young Roger, then we have the motivation to pay attention and appreciate the detective work.

The performance of Ian McKellen is truly excellent. It is easy to accept him as the sixtyish Holmes in the flashback parts of the story. He is in reality about half way between the two ages that he plays here. The younger version has the strong posture of an older but still vigorous man. His back is straight and his head is up. Simple make-up and hairstyle work add to the illusion of a younger man, and his manner is more forceful and articulate. As the much older 93 year old, McKellen gets the physical parts just right. He is slower in all things, his facial expressions often belie a humor that the younger version of himself would not approve of. Again the low key make up work is effective while being impalpable. This helps immensely with the drama as the sadness of lonely isolation has taken a toll on the main character. As a victim of increasing senility, his face needs to covey the kind of vacant expression of someone who is intellectually trapped inside a failing organ like the brain. Sir Ian is  very persuasive in conveying that tone. It is dangerous to make early predictions about awards at the end of the year, so many other delights await us, but it is highly likely that this will be another nominated performance for him.

Young Milo Parker is an effective foil for McKellen to sharpen his performance with. As Roger, Parker conveys the kind of sharp wit and openness to tutelage that an old Sherlock Holmes would need to stir himself. He is also quite believable as the somewhat truculent child of a war widow struggling to keep her and her son's heads above water after the war. The tension that comes from having to be nursemaid to the infirm old man when that is not really what she is being paid for makes the mother character seem unpleasant, when what she really is is desperate herself. I was happy to see Laura Linney in that part. She has worked so much in television recently that her absence from the big screen has been notable. She is all wound up temper and frustration through much of the film and when she gets a chance to release those emotions it does stir the drama up in the last act. I was also impressed with the music of Carter Burwell who has collaborated with director Bill Condon on several earlier films. I wonder if it was his work that is being played on the "glass armonica" featured in the story.

"Mr. Holmes" is a slow moving but very rewarding film. It will appeal to independent cinema fans of course but it looked to me from the audience that I saw it with that it is resonating with a different group. People over the age of fifty filled the theater today (personal disclaimer, that will include me). Everyone was very receptive to the film and there was a nice round of applause at the end of the movie. This is not a common occurrence in films, much less ones that attract a geriatric audience, but it is another indicator that there may be hope for this movie at awards time. The Academy is notoriously old and this demographic is served very well by this high quality production. I don't think my appreciation for this movie is simply a counter reaction to having to endure "Minions" and "Terminator Genysis" earlier this month. I simply think this is one of the best films I've seen this year.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Monday, July 20, 2015

Double Indemnity

Last year I participated in a blogathon dedicated to Billy Wilder. My choice was "The Lost Weekend", a dated melodrama that won the Academy Award for Best picture and bestowed upon Mr. Wilder his first two Oscars after five previous nominations. Two of those nominations were for this film which is screening as part of a TCM/Fathom Event promoting the new Blu Ray release of "Double Indemnity".  It was more deserving of the awards than "The Lost Weekend" but then the Academy is notorious for being just behind the curve.

This is a terrific film noir, set in Los Angeles and featuring some of the snappiest dialogue you are likely to encounter in a theater.

Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He'll be in then.
Walter Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren't you?
Walter Neff: Yeah, I was, but I'm sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter Neff: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I'd say around ninety.
Walter Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter Neff: Suppose it doesn't take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
Walter Neff: That tears it. 

Barbara Stanwyck is hot in her platinum blonde hair and white sweater. It's easy to see why Walter Neff fell into her plan so easily. Like all noir vixens, she is duplicitous and irresistible.  Even with the Hayes code still in force, the innuendo in this film is pretty smoking. The famous meetings at Jerry's Market as Neff and Phyllis cruise up and down the aisles of canned vegetables and boxed baby formula are still enticing and fun to watch. If you are from Southern California, it's also interesting to hear all the local references to neighborhoods and institutions. Both USC and UCLA get a nod in the film. Glendale, Santa Monica and Los Feliz are also named. I got a kick out of seeing Walter stop at a drive-in diner and get served a beer on a tray like he was at Bobs or Twoheys. There is also a musical interlude at the Hollywood Bowl.

Edward G. Robinson gets one of his best roles in this movie as the insurance investigator who can't be fooled. There are so many small pieces to his character that make him so interesting. His vest pockets are stuffed with pens and pencils and cigars in nearly every scene. He never seems to have a match and Walter is always so accommodating. I probably was emulating Clint Eastwood when I learned how to light a safety match with my thumbnail, but I could easily have fit into this time period with the way everyone lights up their cigarette or cigar with just a flick of the thumb. Robinson also talks about that "little man" in his chest that won't let him rest until he has done right by the case. He continues to absently tap his own chest as a visual reminder that there is another character located inside of him

The story of the step daughter and her boyfriend, some times distracts from the main focus but I recognize they are effective plot devices to allow the story to simmer more as it comes to a hard boil. The femme fatale and the cold hearted sap she falls in with are epitomized by the two leads in this film. Along with "the Postman Always Rings Twice", these are the essential tropes of a dark film from this period. Wilder's own "Sunset Boulevard" uses the same flashback plot structure as this movie. We know the fate of the lead character at the start of the film, we just have to have the story told back to us in a way that makes it compelling, and the first person descriptions allow some great observations.  Tough talking guys who call their obsessively powerful women "Baby" and hard as flint women who hide some of their emotions behind sunglasses are just what is called for on a hot day in July.

Walter Neff: Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money - and a woman - and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?

After all the films I saw at the TCM Festival and the Fathom screenings of "Jaws" that I attended last month, these events are feeling more and more like the way I want to see older films. The slide show for the event listed five or six upcoming events that will also be bringing me back to the theater under the umbrella of TCM.


One of the things that made last years "Guardians of the Galaxy" so much fun was the tone of the story. Yes it did feature a threat to the entire universe and that is pretty heavy, but every character who was conflicted and depressed at times, usually had a sense of humor and the whole enterprise came off as fun rather than angst inducing. The big Marvel film from earlier this year "Avengers: Age of Ultron" is weighed down with sad backstory and depressing philosophy and while it was entertaining, it was also very heavy. This film and story manages to be closer to the Guardians end of the spectrum rather than the Avengers end. Even though there are Avengers tie ins, this is a lighter, more amusing take on the super hero mythos and a solid way to launch another character from the Marvel Universe.

My kids have accused me of having a man-crush on Paul Rudd. That is mostly because he stars in the greatest film of 2008, "Role Models". He is a surprising choice for a super hero movie but a very reasonable one for a comedy, and there is a lot of comedy in this film. While he is not a physical specimen like Chris Helmsworth, Rudd is in good shape and has an appealing face that is average rather than chiseled. His selection reminds me of the decision made before the first Tim Burton Batman film, to cast comedic actor Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight. The suit will do the action material just fine, it is the story that takes place around those scenes that requires the right kind of choice and this one is a hit. Rudd has a sardonic quality to his voice that matches well with the disillusioned ex-con who goes to prison for being a crusader in a hacking scheme. He is given enough background for us to sympathize with him but we also know he is capable of making a bad choice or two.

The original "Ant-Man" is Hank Pym, played by Michael Douglas. There is an early scene where the CGI budget for the film is largely spent on making Douglas his "Romancing the Stone" are once more. It is very effective and the change in appearance to more contemporary dates is almost startling. There is some exposition about how he lost his company to the apprentice that is now running things. Darren Cross (perhaps not the most subtle of name for a villain character ,-D.Cross) is a genius but has apparently given in to megalomania in part due to exposure to the processes required to develop the material that allows a man to reduce his size to that of an insect. That Pym still has contact with the company as it is reaching a critical deal point is a little hard to believe, but than it is typical of this format that the acolyte wants to impress the mentor as he passes him by. Corey Stoll is a familiar face from action films and TV shows and this is his chance to step into what would usually be the role played by Mark Strong, who was I guess, not available.

Some of the powers of "Ant-Man" are a bit strange. The ability to control ants sounds like one of the oddest super powers to come along. I'm surprised that President Obama did not have it on his list instead of being able to speak all languages. After all, ants outnumber humans substantially and if universal communication is important, you ought to start with the creature that is most prevalent on the planet (outside of termites anyway). The ant connection allows a lot of problems to be fixed in an interesting visual manner, and Scott Lang ( alias Ant-Man) manages to make a humorous connection to the creatures and even imbue one of them with enough emotional weight that what happens to one of billions of insects may actually matter to you. The speed with which he can change size and escape detection is also pretty cool. There is a technology though that seems to minimize this advantage and that makes a fight scene in the middle and end of the movie work a little better. Scott also has a couple of weapons that Hank has created for him that harness the molecular technology that powers the suit. Not much time is spent explaining them but when they are used they both create reasonable solutions to situations and amusing comedy bits as well.

Evangeline Lilly is Pym's disaffected daughter and she will have an important role to play, but right now she is not really a romantic interest for Rudd as Scott. The ex-wife and mother of Scott's daughter is played by Judy Greer, in her fourth movie of the summer season (Jurassic World, Tommorowland and Entourage) but as in those other films, she is underused ( and today just happens to be her birthday, so Happy Birthday Judy). Bobby Cannavale plays the cop/future step father to Scott's child and he doesn't get the suave role he had in "Spy" but he does get to do the comedy material pretty well. Michael Peña does comedy as well and the way he tells a story, reminds me too much of some people I know. Overall it is an interesting cast and the tone of the film is a good change of pace for these comic book films. It looks like there are some future adventures that we will not have to wait to long for, if you have not yet heard, you should sit through all of the credits. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Terminator Genisys

I suppose it is faint praise to say "I didn't hate it", but that was my first impression of the new version of "The Terminator". I was highly dubious when confronted by the most recent trailer (not the one above) which gives away more plot elements than most of today's narrative revealing advertisements do. This is an attempt to make "Terminator" a continuing project without the messiness of having to deal with the narratives from previous versions of the story told in other sequels. The creators here have the right fulcrum for moving us to that point, but they use it so often, it is nearly impossible to keep track of all the variations.

On a technical level, the movie looks good. The special effects are up to snuff and there are several spots where practical effects seem to be used instead of the now dominant paintbrush of CGI. Believe me, there is plenty of CGI also, but the frequent car chases, crashes, and combat scenes are much more realistic than you would find in most computer generated effects. The opening sequences which are set in the future and feature Reese and John Connor are actually a well told story of that relationship and the events leading up to the original insertion of a Terminator into 1984. The mix of elements from the original into this current version was effective, and although Bill Paxton's punk character is recast, you would almost believe that the sequence was lifted whole cloth from the first movie. Almost immediately though the plot twists start and it is apparent that a complete revision is being undertaken.

Time travel stories are always interesting, at least they are to me, but they can be confounding. It would be helpful to have Doc Brown in the basement with a chalkboard, diagramming all the possible contingencies so that we can keep track of what is going on. Everyone who loves cinema wants a movie that is thought provoking as well as entertaining. The problem with this movie is that the thoughts provoked have nothing to do with morality, politics, society or history. Your brain will start thinking about the mechanisms of the story rather than the implications of the characters choices. Instead of pondering what choice would be the most ethical to make, or whether we as a society are surrendering too much power to the technology we use, you are left wondering "how did this timeline get started, or what happens to the future if John Conner kills his own parents, or how do we get John Conner when his parents don't seem to be getting together?" You end up thinking about the machine that is driving the plot rather than the social implications. That turns the discussion into a nerd fest rather than a philosophical imponderable. Kyle Reese says it himself in more than one scene, this story is hard to keep track of. "Pops" may come along and say it is rather simple, but that does not make it so.

Instead of lingering on plot loopholes or time travel conundrums, I want to discuss for a moment the philosophical question, is Skynet already happening? In 1984, before we had the sort of internet and dependance on technology that exist now, it was scary enough to contemplate. Today, Google and Apple know almost everything that everyone does. The NSA is mining that data, most of us operate electronically in banking, services, communication and almost every other part of our lives. The "Genisys" app in this movie is not far removed from the kind of technological innovation that is going on right now. Earlier this year, there was the spy film "Kingsmen: The Secret Service" which postulated a nefarious takeover of technology that was more cartoon like but which could be plausible because just as in this movie, it recognizes that we are all wired in to each other in some way. A couple of weeks ago, I saw a story about an A.I. experiment where the computer got a bit nasty with the the programmers. That's just the kind of thing that might make us believe that the combination of Artificial Intelligence and widespread dependence on computer technology might not be a match made in heaven. "Terminator Genisys" touches oh so briefly on this concept, but it is mostly focused on building an action plot to attach visual spectacle to.

I don't watch "Game of Thrones" so I am largely unfamiliar with the work of Emilia Clark. She is made up to resemble Linda Hamilton enough to sell the idea that she is the same character. Jai Courtney is an actor I can't quite seem to warm up to. I'm not sure he is being cast correctly but someone has decided he is the next big thing, I'm not sure he's not the next Sam Worthington. Jason Clarke is an actor that I have admired in a number of films but he seems to be directed here to play the character of John Conner a bit over the top in the opening and then a little too subdued in later sections. Arnold continues to be Arnold. I am so much happier with him as the Terminator than as Governor that a couple of awkward moments don't even register. There are some pieces of humor plugged into his part and the usual stoic mannerisms seem to be working. The explanation of his aging is acceptable and I thought the three different time periods he appeared in seemed matched appropriately.

The movie is ambitious and attempts to put all of the elements of the story we have come to know into play. Judgement Day has been shifted somehow and that is one of the unclear lines of thinking created by the multiple time line angle. We don't yet know how Terminator 2.0 gets sent to protect Sarah at age nine, it looks like this is being set up as a series of films and that will be a plot point for another entry. The movie is under-performing in the U.S. market (largely I suspect because of the lingering demand for Dinosaur mayhem). Internationally it may do well enough to justify continuing the series. I don't think anyone will become emotionally invested in the story enough to be disappointed if this is the last in the series, but I won't roll my eyes in disbelief if a new entry is eventually announced either.

If you would like a ranking as a way of assessing this opinion, I'd put the first two films on a level all their own. I prefer the original to Terminator 2 but that is mostly because I love that last sequence with the stop motion and puppetry. "Terminator Genisys" and "Terminator: Rise of the Machines" are also pretty equivalent, to each other. They are action generating plots and each has some spectacular stunt work but neither has the depth or imagination of the first two films. "Terminator Salvation" is a vague memory. I enjoyed it well enough at the time but it is six years later and I have never rewatched it since then so it must not have impressed me that much. I'd be willing to see this film again but I will never be willing to try and figure out all the time line confusion that this entry in the series introduces.

Saturday, July 11, 2015


Much as happened with "Cars 2", secondary characters have been given the lead in a sequel and it craps out. What is cute for brief interludes in a complete story becomes boring as the feature attraction. There are many elements in this film that are clever and fun but the material needs to exist in a context that you can care about and there is no real point or goal for the story other than to be an engine for the next bit. I was a real fan of the original "Despicable Me" and I thought that "Despicable Me 2" lived up to the quality of the original, even if it was not quite as strong. I like the Minions but I did not like their stand alone film.

The movie starts off promisingly, with a clever delivery of the Universal Theme music as the credits start. The first ten minutes of the film are summarized very effectively by the main trailer. We are told of the origins of the Minions and their need to serve the most evil figure they can find. This was a little dicey from my point of view, it leads me to think that Minions would be in places that no one would ever be making a animated comedy about. This point needed to be worked on a little more because it creates a dark theme that is disturbingly distracting. If the Minions had some kind of attachment disorder that draws them to megalomaniacal  figures, then it would not have quite the same undertone.

Once the longer history of the Minions is told, we are dropped into the situation where they are isolated and without a figure to follow. Three Minions go in search of a new evil character to follow. It turns out that the majority of the film is set in the 1960s, and there are only two reasons that this was done. First it is a prequel story to the events of the other films, but more importantly, it allows the film makers to raid the pop charts of the sixties for familiar tunes that the audience will latch onto for brief set pieces. The music is not an enhancement to the story telling, it is an attractant, a form of social pheromone designed to keep the adults engaged while the childish behaviors on screen delight the kids. I enjoyed hearing the Turtles, Box Tops, Stones, Kinks and assorted other icons of the period, but the tunes have almost nothing to do with the material going on in the story. It seems pretty shameless to me that this was just being done for obvious commercial reasons rather than making the story take flight, these interludes look like they paper over any need for narrative energy. I guess I should not really be surprised. The movie really is just a marketing tool anyway.

Minions are working for a corporate overlord who is selling toys, not really selling a movie. When "The Care Bears", and "He-Man" and "G.I. Joe" were accused of it in the 1980s in TV shows and Movies, it was not as annoying as this is. This movie is more subtle, but still just a big ad for product.

I wanted to like this movie. I still find the Minions cute and if they are used in the right way, they can be funny. This movie ran out of steam for me as soon as the main evil character appears. The senseless nature of the Minions recruitment and the stupid plot points that follow are the laziest kind of storytelling one can imagine. When Sandra Bullock's character tells the three Minions a bedtime story and makes up the plot on the spot and just uses the situation they are in at the time, she was actually doing more work than the writer of this film.

Those of you who are sick of the Minions will be gloating over this disappointment. It is going to be a leading candidate for negative lists at the end of the year. Those of us who still like the Minions will be able to move on and go back to the original two films without being wrong. In the film it is often the Minions who cause a plan to go awry, it was not the characters of the Minions who failed here, this time it was the person they served.