Saturday, December 31, 2016
I saw a headline a couple of weeks ago that declared the movie star dead. That proclamation was based on the disappointing box office opening of this film. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt have had great success in films in the last few years. Lawrence has arguably been the most bankable star, man or woman, since the start of the Hunger Games series, and Pratt starred in the colossus "Jurassic World" and "Guardians of the Galaxy". Their pairing may have been the reason this film finally got a greenlight after years in development hell. The lower than expected returns are supposedly an indicator that star power can"t save a movie. The truth is, a movie succeeds or fails for many reasons, and while the star may be one of those reasons, there are usually others. The weakness of this films performance should not be unjustly laid at the feet of the two leads.
"Passengers" is sold to us as a love story in space. The trailers make the film look like an adventure with the star crossed lovers battling to save themselves and the ship they are traveling on. I'm going to avoid spoilers as usual, but I will say that there is a twist in this story that is much darker and deeper than the film clips suggest. Maybe this is not a great movie, but it was better than I expected and the production values are top notch so I think I can recommend it to people who like science fiction and a lot of drama thrown in.
The provocative part of the story occurs for reasons that audiences will understand but may be horrified by. There is an interesting "what would you do? question at the heart of the film. The follow up question of how to handle the choice that is made is less complex because the story takes a very traditional turn into action tension and drama. The second act of the film is where all of the real emotion is and when the story veers back to the usual plot points, there is less that is interesting about it. For the vast majority of the movie, the two leads are the sole human characters on the ship. Michael Sheen, who is great, does have a side part to play, but he essentially is a tool for exposition and philosophy to be engorged in out loud. Lawrence and Pratt have to sell the human elements. I thought their chemistry was solid and that they made a somewhat believable couple under the circumstances.
The failure of this movie to connect with audiences may have more to do with marketing than anything else. The trailers and ads ignore the real conflict of the film entirely and focus on the romance and adventure. There is a hint of a secret plot but that is a red herring, every shot with Lawrence Fishburne and Andy Garcia in it is misleading to the audience. Garcia must have a fantastic agent to get billing and paid for his contribution to the film. I suspect there may have been more of the story that got trimmed, and in the long run that is probably best.
The appearance of Fishburne in the film, signals the start of the last section of the movie and a return to standard action adventure activity. The idea that a solo engineer and a well read but not expert passenger, can handle the issues that crop up is a little hard to swallow, but since the whole idea of the film is hard to swallow to begin with I guess I can live with it. The action beats are not surprising but the special effects work is solid and there is one final twist that does pay off from the earlier section. In essence it helps redeem the film and make it a bit more worthy. "Passengers" is not an essential film but it is entertaining and it should make for a good date night film for all those future "Netflix and Chill" evenings ahead.
Friday, December 30, 2016
Several old favorites were in my list of older films that I saw again on the big screen at some point this year. Every film you see listed here has a post if you are interested. Just check the archive list for 2016.
I would be a little alarmed at the number of adults at a 10:15 am screening of what is basically a kids movie, except for the fact that the three of us who went to see it were also all adults. "Sing" delivers pretty much what it promises in all the promotional material. This is a film cobbled together around the premise of animals singing in an "Idol/Voice/X-Factor" style competition. If you like those sorts of reality competition shows, than this is likely to please you. If you just like anthropomorphized animals in cartoon form, while this should satisfy you as well.
Buster Moon is a koala bear who falls in love with the theater as a kid. Every choir singer, high school actor, or member of the glee club can identify with that. If you did dramatic interp on the speech team, worked as a stage hand on a high school play production, or you were an aspiring rock singer with a group of your friends forming a band, you have the bug. It is an infection that makes live performance so much fun and invigorating that you can get over your self consciousness and be willing to stand in front of an audience and potentially look foolish, just on the off chance that someone else might enjoy it. "Sing" is all about that idea. While there is a little bit of that "can do" theme in the film and story, most of what makes up the movie is a cartoon version of performance.
I've got nothing against cartoons at all. I love animated movies and Bugs and Daffy filled my childhood with beloved memories. I never really looked to cartoons to give me life lessons. So the thinness of the theme in this film does not really bother me because it is really just there to help make the running time worthwhile. The story is very episodic with Buster as a Brooks-like producer trying to put together the successful show that has eluded him. His plot-line involve financial shenanigans and theatrical mishaps. Rosita is a pig mama to bacon factory of piglets, she also longs to sing. Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon reunite from the film "Mud" to voice Buster and Rosita. Rosita and her family have all the Rube Goldberg devices from a Road Runner cartoon in their segments of the story. There is also a plot about gamblers after a cheating card player and a shy talent who is literally the elephant in the room. Kids will laugh at the fart jokes and adults will enjoy sampling the wide range of music performances in the film.
This movie comes from the same studio that brought us "Despicable Me" and it's sequel, as well as the "Minions" movie. I thought last year's "Minions" was mostly an excuse to string together pop hits and fill the movie with something more interesting than the story. "Sing" solves that problem by making all the pop hits be the story and therefore freeing us the obligation to shoehorn all the songs into the movie. I don't know that the personalities of the characters matter that much. So many voice actors get used just for atmosphere and not for any other reason. The singers are all fine but no performance stood out in a way that would make it a signature moment in the film.
The movie is lite and entertaining enough for the holiday season. Kids home for the Christmas Vacation will be able to see this with parents who will not hate watching the "let's put on a show" attitude of the characters. No one is going to have this on their list of greatest animated movies ever, but it combines the animal world of a film like "Zootopia" with singing performances that are entertaining enough for the short time that each one of them runs.
Wednesday, December 28, 2016
This is my first opportunity to write about this film for this blog. The Egyptian Theater in Hollywood California has obtained a new 70mm print of of the film and they screened it nine times during the holiday season. We made it to the final screening, and to be honest, I'm kicking myself for missing the eight prior screenings. My daughter went with me and she is apparently not a fan of the film. I saw another blogger recently dismiss 2001 as over hyped and boring. Everyone will of course see a film through their own prism, and that is probably why I am willing to go to bat for a movie that does not need any defense from me at all. "2001: A Space Odyssey" is one of the great achievements of cinema. It is one of the reasons that I can look people who think those of us who dislike a film like "The Tree of Life" are intellectually shallow, and say "Bullshit". This film is more profound, deep and well made than a dozen avant-garde movies that today's audiences might respond to.
I have watched it a dozen times on home video and in theaters since those days and every time I find new things about the movie to appreciate. Since we won't be getting any more Stanley Kubrick films, we have to make due assessing the legacy he left us, and that is a rabbit hole I love going down. At last nights screening, I saw and heard a half dozen things that made me think about the themes of the film or the technique of the film maker. I probably won't get to all of them today, but I hope there will be future opportunities to write about and share my thoughts on this film.
The print last night was struck from a road show version of the film, so it included an overture, an intermission and exit music. The lights are lowered before the start of the film, but not entirely. As the music plays, you are bombarded with a variety of classical and tonal music that seems ethereal to start with. You can tell from the mood being established that this is not going to be your average popcorn munching experience in the dark. The sound design of the film starts before the movie does and then comes that opening, the one that has been parodied and copied ever since it first startled audiences in 1968.
The juxtaposition of the stunning space imagery with the Dawn of Man sequence that the movie starts with is one of the things that seems to befuddle people. The posters and title promise space adventure but the movie begins with a long section devoted to ape like creatures learning to use tools. "2001" plants the idea that human development may have been achieved by extra-terrestrial intervention. While this is not necessarily at odds with Judaeo-Christian beliefs (maybe the monolith is God planting a seed from the tree of wisdom) , it certainly is a novel approach. The idea that creatures who forage for food, ignore the animals around them as a potential source of nourishment, and then huddle in fear of the night, could be given a slight push to start the evolutionary process is original and deep. Kubrick lets us see the small changes in these creatures and then in a cascade of images we discover tool use and everything changes. The final shot of this sequence, when the man-ape flings the bone he has used as a weapon into the air and as it comes down a quick edit turns the falling object into a modern satellite is one of the great edits in film history. Along with Lawrence blowing the match out in "Lawrence of Arabia", Kubrick and Lean create an artistic standard for editing which will define all future films.
One place where a viewer who criticizes this film can at least find some ground is found in the next segment. Dr. Heywood Floyd's trip to the Moon to deal with the discovery of an alien object, becomes a chance to show off some visually. There are three segments where we track a space vehicle as it makes a landing or approach. The space plane has to synchronize with the rotating space station (all to the Classical score that is leisurely and idyllic.] We soon get another great effects moment as the Lunar Lander approaches the surface of the moonbase and a gaping hole with teeth-like doors opening to receive it, provides us another chance to marvel at the four million year jump in time that the transition edit allows. Finally, there is the space bus which transports Floyd and the other scientists to the excavation site, and it is all computer screens and sound effects to show off the technological innovation of mankind but also the director. The pace of each of these episodes is slow and deliberate. The fact that they are nearly back to back might make the film seem repetitive. In addition, the segments between each of these landings is separated with interactions in which the characters engage in banalities with only the slightest amount of exposition. Kubrick's characters are really drawn in a cold manner. I don't mean that they are heartless but that their personalities display almost no personality or human warmth. Even the phone call Floyd has with his young daughter feels perfunctory. While conceding that these moments are longer than most people are used to today, it can also be said that all films prior to the 1980s were slower at coming to the point. Sometimes the brushstrokes rather than the images are what distinguish "art" from a mere representation. I would say that these are some indulgences that an artist like Kubrick is entitled to make and that in the scheme of things, they make the picture work better in other parts of the story.
The sound emitted by the monolith both for early man and for Dr. Floyd's group, is mercilessly loud and penetrating. The audience will experience the same things the actors do. Again, this is a deliberate choice that the director is responsible for, and it works. Maybe it is a little annoying, but it makes the sections with long periods of silence even more effective.
Once we are on Discovery One, the silence takes over again. There will be moments punctuated with sounds and with music, but frequently, the mundane tasks of the three active crew members are surrounded with no sound at all. There is a reason that Ridley Scott's "Alien" was promoted with the phrase "In space, no one can hear you scream." The vacuum of space overpowers the technology of man. As awesome as the difference 4 million years in time can make in human technology, it is suddenly dwarfed by the enormity of space and the thundering silence that is returned as we shout out in defiance of those barriers to human exploration. The astronauts labored breathing as the do an EVA to replace a part of the communication system is loud and ever present, until suddenly it isn't. We can see poor Frank's body tumbling silently through space, and there is no warning or outcry. Only when HAL decides to erase the other human crew do we get a return to sound levels that are loud and powerful. The warnings that go off as the astronauts in hibernation die with no visible violence, are all mechanical. When Dave chooses to enter through the airlock, the exploding bolts and the violent ejection of astronaut from the pod are shown silently, until an atmosphere can be restored.
What should be the most obvious sound element and yet it could be easily overlooked, is the voice of HAL 9000. Douglas Rain deserves special mention because his is the dominant role in the last half of the movie. Hall is just personable enough to be easy to interact with, but the voice is so measured and unflappable, that no one would confuse him with a human, except by comparison to the two cold Kubrickian astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole. Hal fits into their band of awake travelers just right. It is not until Dave becomes desperate enough to re-enter the vehicle in the dramatic fashion that was open to him, that either of these characters displays much emotion. The volume and distortion of HAL's voice is one of those sound elements that make this movie work so well. There was one visual element that I thought added a bit to the drama of Dave's act of desperation. As he has the pod release the body of Frank, the arms of the pod pull back up into a crooked position and they resemble the arms of a boxer, surging forward to confront their opponent in the center of the ring. Stanley Kubrick was a perfectionist, and I have no doubt that the image was purposeful.
Maybe the most controversial part of the film is the trip through time and space as Dave takes his pod and enters the giant monolith orbiting Jupiter. The light show and special effects might seem quaint to audiences used to CGI intense scenes in all kinds of films. It may have been a little indulgent, but it is not nearly as long as some people complain it is, and if you watch the images closely, you will see foreshadowing of events related to the birth of a new human entity. Those hippies who wanted to use this segment to supplement their high, give critics of the film an entree into pointing out the excesses of these moments. Focusing on the visual instead of the metaphysical elements at this point is exactly the opposite of what one should be doing.
Even though he made one of the greatest comedies of all time, "Dr. Strangelove", Kubrick is rarely thought of as a humorist. Although this film is serious and there are dry stretches with no warm characters to relate to, Kubrick manages to find the funny in a few spots. One obvious example is Dr, Floyd having to read the ten part directions for using a zero gravity toilet.
If you are not familiar, here it is for you:
In another moment of humor, that exists in tragic circumstances, HAL pleads with Dave to respond to him and to allow him to go on with the mission.
"Look Dave, I can see you're really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over."
I mentioned earlier that last night's screening was a road show version that includes an intermission. The break here occurs at the most chilling moment in the film for the audience. Frank and Dave have taken precautions to avoid being overheard by HAL as they consider what to do if they discover HAL is malfunctioning. The final shot before the lights come on is a silent shifting of the camera from Frank's lips moving to Dave's lips movie as we look through the pod window and we realize that HAL can understand everything that is being said. The lights come up and there is a ten minute interval for us to ponder what might be coming.
The break at the screening was certainly longer than 10 minutes, and it needed to be. Unlike most public events, the line at the men's room was the one that snaked down the lobby, while the women's facilities had no visible line at all. This may be a reflection of the slightly male heavy geek culture intruding into the practicality of plumbing. The Egyptian hold more than six hundred people and it was essentially packed last night. We sat in the back right corner of the balcony for this show. The size of the screen and the 70mm projection meant that just about every seat in the house would be acceptable.
|Our view of the Ceiling at the Egyptian last night.|
This movie is not really about character and although there is a plot, it is very abstract in nature. The "sequel" "2010: The Year We Make Contact" is a much more traditional story. It is not ground breaking and certainly not as cerebral as this film is, but it is definitely more accessible. This may be a topic we tackle when we finally get around to starting the podcast we have been promising to launch.
These are not all my thoughts on this film, but they will serve as a staring point for now. If you have not seen "2001" on the big screen, do yourself a solid and find an opportunity to do so. If the theater sound is set up correctly, and you get a 70mm print, you will find it to be a very different experience, and one that you can talk about for a long time with your friends. My kid may be happy to wait ten years to see this again, but I'd be willing to go again tonight if I had the opportunity.
Monday, December 26, 2016
Since Gene Hackman, my favorite actor , retired a dozen years ago, he has been replaced in my esteem by another American actor who embodies the potential of everyman in dramatic situations. I first saw Denzel Washington in a comedy with George Segal as his father, back in the very early 1980s. The movie was "Carbon Copy" and it was not very good but Denzel was. Since then, he has won two Academy Awards and starred in a string of box office successes that would please any acting career. Earlier this year he appeared in a remake of "The Magnificent Seven", which was solid if not spectacular. He has now directed himself in his third film as a director, the screen version of the August Wilson play, "Fences".
As a director, Denzel has stuck closely to the boundaries of a stage play. There are one or two moments that move the scenes beyond where most of the play is set, but the vast majority of the film still is located in the kitchen and the backyard of his character Troy Maxson. The play addresses issues of black life in the first half of the last century. Troy is a man who has turned himself around from a thug in his teen years to a responsible adult in middle age, but he has deep resentments against the society that restricted his potential because of the color of his skin, and like all of us, he has difficulty escaping the shadow of his own family. As a consequence, we see that he is a stern father while being a loving husband. His views of family are solid but he also has some strong views on masculinity that threaten the peaceful life he has found and they undermine the progress that he has made.
The script is by the playwright himself, so it is no surprise that the dialogue sounds like the words of a play. Even though the dialect and slang are of a particular culture and time, the words sometimes sound so complete in their sentences, that you might wonder who the characters are cribbing from. What plays on the stage often works because we are so willing to suspend our disbelief due to the context. In a film, I think audiences expect things to play out a little more naturalistically. Characteres talk over one another in films, actions take place in the background, visuals drive our interest in the story. A play requires turn taking to be able to follow what is being said, the scenes are set in locations that are not likely to have wild visuals that draw our eye because the focus is supposed to be on the characters. There is nothing wrong with the story here, and the performances are top notch, but the film never moves or feels like real life, it feels like a play.
The dialogue however is a joy to listen to when it is being delivered by consummate professionals like Denzel and his co-star Viola Davis. The two leads are convincing as a long married couple at odds over the life of their teenage son, and the crisis that raises it's head in the second act. Mr. Washington has the right degree of belligerence and resignation in his voice. When events are against him, he gets his dander up and spouts off like a man certain of his position. When faced with his own failings however, he becomes truculent and the warmth that he often displayed along with a good deal of humor becomes sullenness that is not very appealing. Viola Davis is the most supportive partner a man could have, and at times she seems to be the most powerful force in her husbands life. When Rose is confronted with Troy's weakness, she is defiant herself, but ustimately becomes a passive force for good. Davis meets both challenges directly and she will probably win the award she deserved back in 2011 for "The Help".
Steven Henderson, who had a small one scene role in "Manchester by the Sea", a film I saw earlier this week, has a much more substantial part here. As Troy's oldest friend, he provides wise counsel that largely gets ignored. He is the voice of the audience, yelling for Troy to try to think about an issue in another way, but who ultimately understands the intransigence of his friend. Having played the part on Broadway, he seems to have the relationship mastered. Mykelti Williamson has played a variety of roles over the years. He was memorable as the stony Elliston Limehouse in the TV series "Justified". As Troy's combat injured brother with reduced mental capacity, he seems to be repeating his most famous role as Bubba Blue in "Forrest Gump". Denzel the director must be aware of the similarity of the characters, and while Williamson does a good job, the comparison is going to linger over the performance and that seems to be a shame.
I don't want to sound down on the film. I thought it was well made and there were a couple of nice things the director added to the mix. The golden gate that Saint Peter is manning was nicely visualized, and the use of old murals in the city buildings added some texture to the story. This is a film worthy for the performances and the dialogue. If you are unlikely to ever see the play that the movie is based on, by all means check this out. If you are a theater person, expect a very familiar and comfortable experience. As a film, it is a little talky and workmanlike in it's visualizations.
Friday, December 23, 2016
Jason Bateman has the straightman role once again, Jennifer Aniston plays a bitch, and everyone else manages to fit their character stereotype without having to work very hard. An IT company is closing down some branches, and rival siblings of the late company founder have different attitudes about it. In order to land an old school tech client, looking for a unique company, the current managers of the branch scheduled for closing go all out in order to throw a raucous Christmas party, to show their family ties and creative spirits.
The film plays on every fantasy of old school holiday parties you can imagine. Drunken confession, check. Photocopies of private parts, Check (plus an update with a 3D printer). Casual, ill advised hook ups that lead to awkward day after exchanges, you betcha. Throw in a hooker, a bunch of cocaine, and some loose cash and you have the movie.
It won't rot your brain, but it will insult your intelligence with fart jokes and physical humor that defies the ability of modern medicine to repair.
I had popcorn, Coke Zero with both lemon and lime, and three or four chuckles. This film will never be on anybody's Christmas Movie Draft List, and it will be forgotten by the time the New Year gets here. Everyone earned their pay, and I got out of my wife's hair for two hours. Merry Christmas.
I'd considered a video post for this film comment so that you could hear the tone in my voice as I spoke about it. I have been told by family members and some of my students that I have a way of sounding that can be harsh and sharp and bitingly dismissive, often without any intention. Well let me say, I have every intention with this review but I thought better than to subject you to the bile of my notes in an auditory fashion and will leave them to your imagination instead. I hated this movie. I hated the characters, I hated the attitude, and I hated that I was so irritated by it. The trailer suggests that this is a thriller with a revenge theme built in. There is a revenge theme in the movie, but the thriller part is all a distraction to show off creative story telling tools which only makes the movie more irritating.
Director Tom Ford made one movie before this, the well respected "A Single Man". He is apparently best known as a fashion designer. In this movie it shows. The film is full of images that are designed to evoke a reaction. Amy Adam's character Susan, has a house that is all clean lines, grey and black contrasts, and there is almost nothing to suggest that human beings actually live there. It is as if it were put together by a sales stager for Hollywood mansions. The offices she works in look like outtakes from the set of "2001", round rooms with tiered levels all in white. Since she is an art dealer/curator and Ford moves in those circles, maybe he has it right, but the impact is to make the pretentiousness that he seemingly is mocking, feel even more pretentious. If you can get past the opening titles without thinking about how hypocritically artsy they are, maybe you will be able to enjoy this film. I prefer the way Susan sees it, she speaks of her opening that night as being "Shit". You might think that Ford is saying the same thing, but that is not the attitude the camera takes nor is it the viewpoint of the editing. There is nothing subtle about the way this movie is made. Ford even goes so far as to have the word REVENGE, mocked up as a piece of art on display at the offices of Susan's company.
The one aspect of the film that I do admire is the narrative structure of the film. There are three stories being told simultaneously, and that works to make the connections between them understandable. Jake Gyllenhaal plays two parts, Susan's ex husband Edward and the lead character in the novel that Edward has written, Tony a husband and father. We get plenty of Tony's stopry and if it had been the plot of the film without all of the literary and personal baggage surrounding it, this might have been an effectively dark thriller. Instead, it turns out to be a piece of work designed to be a big "FU" to his ex wife. We barely get any of that story and Ford the scrip[t writer relies on a five minute piece of exposition with Laura Linney, as a way of short cutting that part of the story. It just does not work. Armie Hammer plays Susan's current husband and his moments in the film feel so thin that they might just be some applique that Ford is putting on his dress to try and make it more interesting. Again, it doesn't work.
There were two references that occurred to me as I was watching this movie.The first is "The World According to Besenhaver" a novel within a novel, from the book The World According to Garp". In that book, the violent and revolting story is told as a way of expunging a character's guilt. The author becomes famous for the book but ultimately has very negative feeling about it's success. "Nocturnal Animals" is the title of the book Edward has written and dedicated to his ex-wife. Rather than exorcising his demons, the story allows them to run wild and attempt to punish Susan for her abandonment of their life. In the visualization of the story, Tony's wife and daughter are doppelgangers for Susan and her own daughter. The anguish and destruction of Tony as a character is Edward vomiting his bile on Susan's consciousness. The second reference that this film evoked in me was to a film called "The Rapture". In that film, a woman who finds redemption in her life in Christianity, has it ripped away from her in the most cosmic manner imaginable. This film has two equally unfulfilling endings, one for the novel and one for the lead character. Having devoted two hours to the film, I felt ripped off by an incomplete resolution to one story and an unsatisfying but at least understandable ending to the other.
The performers are all fine in portraying characters that are flawed, but ultimately those characters are reprehensible. Susan is the shallow and unsatisfied woman her mother predicts she will be. Hammer never establishes any character that would matter. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays a character that we all might enjoy seeing tortured to death. Gyllenhaal is sympathetic as Edward when he and Susan are together, but as the unseen author of the manuscript, he is a monster. Only Michael Shannon as the fictional Bobby Andes, a West Texas detective with a strong sense of justice elicits any of our sympathy. The film is clever and well shot and acted but it will make you want to take a long hot shower before you go out into civilized society again. The dark characters of Gyllenhaal's movie "Nightcrawler" were also awful, but that movie had something to say about the world and especially the media. This movie is a cruel joke played on an audience who might be expecting a thriller and who are subsequently tortured themselves by having to endure the unpleasantness that passes for art in Mr. Ford's film.
Thursday, December 22, 2016
Not exactly a feel good film for the Christmas Holiday, but an impressive family film about the ties that bind us and the fact that they do so in multiple ways. There are many, many things to admire about this film, from the sterling performances to the complex way in which the story unfolds and most especially for the ambiguous ending that resolves only an immediate issue but not the deeper needs of the main character. Manchester bu the Sea is a well made film that is worth the pain that you sometimes have to get through to be able to understand the characters.
Casey Affleck has been a solid actor for years. His side kick roles in the Ocean's 11 films show that he can be comedic when called upon, but he also has serious dramatic chops. Earlier this year he was quietly heroic in "The Finest Hours". In this film he is also quiet, but in a much different style of performance. His character "Lee", has a tragic background that follows him wherever he goes but most especially in his hometown. He is forced to return to "Manchester By the Sea" for another tragic passage in his life, and the confluence of the two events are enough to give anyone a depression that would feel overwhelming. That his character is able to cope to some degree is the one outward sign of inner strength. Affleck doesn't really raise his voice often, he is not bitingly sarcastic but the audience can see that he is masking turmoil which makes it nearly impossible for him to manage the family obligation he finds himself in.
I have not seen director Kenneth Lonergan's second feature but his first was the affecting and slow moving "You Can Count on Me", which came out sixteen years ago. This movie does seem to fit into his sweet-spot, a family drama with imperfect people, taking their time to try and work out their problems. There are several wordless moments in the film where the actors perform in an almost classic silent film manner. Watching Afflect's face conveys ninety percent of what we need to know in most scenes. There are instances where you can see his self loathing percolating to the surface just before the bubble pops and a moment of catharsis, which is even more damaging to him, takes over. The will it takes to hold things together is substantial. There is plenty of angst to go around but there are also moments of human connection that are heartfelt and sometimes amusing. The contentious relationship Lee has with his nephew Patrick is punctuated by love and off beat humor. Lucas Hedges plays Patrick as a self confident but needy adolescent. Sometimes he needs to be smothered with attention and other times he needs to be left alone. Of course Lee usually chooses wrong, but when he does get it right, there is a sense of hopefulness that lingers long enough to make the story bearable.
The structure of the film is similar to a second film I will be commenting on today. There are contemporary events and then there are several flashbacks that occur in no particular order which trace back the history of our characters. Lee's guilt cannot allow him to move forward but moving forward is what is needed for Patrick. I never found the narrative confusing and the jumps back and forth in the story often set the tone for an upcoming incident in a way that would have required a huge amount of exposition if the story were told differently. This is a film without a clear ending, but it does let us know that the path to the future is not entirely bleak.
There are some secondary characters that intrude on the story and did little to advance the plot such as it is. Patrick's estranged Mother briefly returns to his life but it is a dead end that only shows how essential Lee is to getting things right for Patrick. The uncomfortable lunch that Patrick and his Mother and her new boyfriend share, is an emotional dry well. On the other had, the scenes with Lee's ex-wife, Randi, played by Michelle Williams, are in fact heart breaking. She wants him to find the forgiveness that he cannot give himself and her own spirit is limited because he can't. Every family has bumps in the road, some derail the family entirely, this is a film about two of those kinds of events and how they intertwine. This is a great movie that is hard to experience but has at it's core an honest portrayal of the sort of depression that is based on real life and not just on manufactured emotions as you will sometimes find in other films.
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
A couple of East Coasters, not out of school for a decade, have captured the magic of the Hollywood Dream factory in a way that has not been seen, much less heard, in an eternity. Just as "The Artist" reflected the memory of the early days of the film business before sound came along to change everything, "La La Land" pays tribute to the golden age of musicals while updating them to contemporary days. If you have not already seen this film, and you are sitting there reading these comments, what the hell? You could use the few minutes this takes to read to stand in line and get your tickets for what is going to be one of the best movie experiences of your year. No spoilers here, this movie is terrific.
Writer director Damien Chazelle and his musical partner Justin Hurwitz have found the heart of a 50's musical in 2016 Los Angeles. Starting with a throwback version of the Summit Entertainment logo and expanding the screen to Cinemascope before any footage is run, we feel like we are in for a real studio experience. The dazzling song and dance number on the Freeway overpass that starts the film is choreographed with vigor and whimsy. Angelenos have been known to leave their cars in a traffic snarl like the one shown here, but never to move rhythmically atop their own vehicles much less those of their fellow Sig-Alert victims(Non-residents will have to look that one up). When the back door of a box truck is thrown up and a latin combo playing jazz infused dance music is already in full swing, you know that this is a fantasy that takes itself with a grain of salt but also with a good deal of conviction. The fact that it is capped off by the usual L.A. driver salute to his fellow travelers just tells you that this is not a form to be locked away in the past.
The clever lyrics to Hurwitz's songs are provided by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. If you listen carefully you can here both bravado and wistfulness in the same tune. The story concerns two dreamers who find one another with some difficulty in the grind that is trying to make it in the business of this company town. Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a talented jazz pianist struggling to survive by playing music gigs that are far below his talent. Emma Stone is the aspiring actress who makes a living with her nose pressed right up against the window of her dream, as a barista at the coffee house on the Warner Brothers lot. That setting provides multiple opportunities for this to be both a backstage musical and a more straightforward narrative singing story. The sets sometimes mimic the locations used throughout the film. The choices of which must have been influenced by a dozen other movies with Hollywood history.
Angel's Flight has not been operational for a couple of years and since it's restoration in 1996, it has been closed down on and off a few times. Never mind that this funicular doesn't really operate, this is a movie about lovers in Los Angeles, and we need to believe. There is of course no way that Stone's character Mia can run across the city from the Westside to South Pasadena to meet Sebastian at the Rialto, or that the Rialto is permanently closed, again, this is a movie where your fantasy counts more than a trivia thing like physics. The sequence in the Griffith Park Observatory plays out like the Gene Kelly envisioned ballet from "That's Entertainment" or "An American in Paris". In fact at one point in the film, Gosling practically dances with a prop street light, evoking the ghost of Kelly in this film.
Chazelle manages the tricky feat of having his cake and eating it as well. The star crossed love affair both fails and succeeds through the magic of musical story telling. While jazz style music may not at first seem a natural fit for a Hollywood Musical, the director finds a number of ways to make it work. Interestingly enough, there is even a number that betrays Sebastian's ideals and leaves Mia nonplussed, while still being entertaining and valid. Just like Mia, we are not quite sure how to take the moment, but we are also swept up in it. John Legend stretches whatever acting chops he aspires to as a jazz musician that knows how to make that career work, and he wants to take Sebastian along for the ride.
Two years ago, I made "Whiplash" my favorite film of 2014. Chazelle wrote and directed that film as well and the whole milieu of jazz music came to life in a completely different fashion. That movie was frenetic and shot with a style that seems fitting to the music it emphasized. Even though this movie uses the same kind of music, the direction here is fluid and models the graceful dance moves of people like Kelly, Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. The camera follows our two lovers slowly as they walk across "Suicide Bridge" at night. The slow pan from inside the car,across the Rialto Theater after it has closed does a subtle but effective job of indicating an important transition in the story. The camera glides and pirouettes just as the actors do in their dance scenes with phantasmagoric images of Los Angeles swirl in the background.
No one will mistake the two leads for professional singers but their voices are pure and sincere and work wonders at achingly evoking the desire on their parts for their dreams to come true. The hundreds of dancers employed in the big numbers and the musicians that play in the clubs and on stage are all excellent. He has only a small part near the end of the film, but Tom Everett Scott reminded me of an adult version of the character that you are most likely to know him from, another jazz enthusiast at that. The film is a love letter to movie musicals and a great movie musical in itself. It is the opposite of the line that Gosling says at one point, "It's Los Angeles, where they worship everything and value nothing." The movie respects but does not deitize the films of the past and it values every contribution those movies made. "La La Land" is likely to be my favorite film of the year, if you see it and experience it the way I did, I suspect your feelings will be the same.
This is a film that I was driven to see entirely because of the reviews, word of mouth and buzz surrounding it. The subject matter is so out of my wheelhouse as to be in another city not just in another neighborhood. It's not that I am uninterested in stories about diverse cultures, but drug dealing and homosexuality seem like an odd mix, and the last time they were in a film I remember seeing was "Less than Zero", which involved white suburbanites from economically well to do families, and I did not care for it almost thirty years ago, how would a much older and more cynical man be able to appreciate this? As it turns out, pretty well. I can certainly admire the movie and I think I have found themes in the film that were there for us to discover, but I may have brought some of my own along with me.
For anyone unfamiliar with the title, it is a three part story chronicling the life a boy who grows to adulthood, with a lengthy stop over in adolescence. As a child, Chiron, is known as "Little" and his story starts when he encounters a man who becomes a mentor/savior/role-model. The curveball the film throws at us is that man is a drug dealer. Juan, is maybe the most sympathetic character in the whole film, but he is not a perfect person and if we can't believe his story, nothing else in the movie will make any sense. Mahershala Ali is an actor I'm sure I have encountered in other projects, but never in a role as memorable for me at least as this. He is hard in the ways you expect someone in that profession is likely to be, but he manages to be a three dimensional person and not just a stereotype. One of the themes that I get from the film is that we all need to think about who people are and not just what they are. Juan takes an interest in Little almost by accident, but he sees some of himself in the child. His open minded acceptance of what Little might become seems at odds with the thug culture that is usually shown to us in movies, and it is that perspective that makes the film valuable. Even though Juan only exists in the first third of the movie, we will feel his presence for the rest of the story.
Little is put upon by school mates and his own mother, an excellent Naomi Harris. The harm that the drug culture can do to people who are not the users themselves will be evident to everyone. People who think it is a victim-less crime have never lived with or loved an addict. Even at a young age, while his Mom appears to be holding it together, Little senses that something in his life is wrong. When your only role model is a compassionate man who also happens to deal death and misery to weak souls, you are bound to be conflicted. This whole film is a character study that plays out as if it were a stage drama. The pacing and dialogue feel thoughtful and deliberate, in a way that is almost antithetical to modern films. There is nothing in the film except one scene that could not be told on the stage. The framing of the characters and the use of the camera is not startling or inventive but it is efficient in focusing on the characters. The one sequence that would be difficult to do on stage however is a pivotal one that has implications in the rest of the film. Juan teaches Little to swim in the ocean when they visit the beach. It is a moment that is freeing to our main character, and it is the start of his realization that he can be many things, some of which he has not imagined yet.
Another example of the stagebound nature of the story is the use of three acts and the black screen transitions between the sections. Even though there are subtitles that identify our character by different names at each stage of his life, the numbering that accompanies those names just reminds us that this is a signpost for the next stage of the story. The middle section concerns the life of Chiron in high school. He is a quiet kid who is bullied primarily because he is seen as soft. Kids "gaydar" becomes a justification for petty humiliations and brutal shows of machismo. Chiron had one friend other than Juan as a kid. Kevin is a bit of a nonconformist, who helps Chiron manage the world on occasion. Kevin however has his own weaknesses and those become devastating in multiple ways on his friend. This is the second major relationship of the three segments and it is the one that grows the most over Chiron's life story. This is a movie that tries very hard to tell an authentic story about troubled youth without simply imposing a cultural stereotype in for the purpose of diversity. These characters, as unfamiliar to someone from such a different background as I, feel organic. This is a genuine story of a culture not a fable tailored to an ethnic group. That is the thing that I most appreciated about the movie.
The actors who portray the two growing boys throughout the lifespan of the film do a tremendous job creating personality for their characters. The three who portray Kevin move him from a light hearted second banana to a central figure in the life of his friend. The serious portrayal in the last sections necessary to sell the denouement of those characters arcs. Chiron, now known as Black, is portrayed by a man who clearly has devoted serious time to sculpting his body. The desire on the part of the character to redefine himself simply means that he molds himself into the most accessible form from his life experience. The physical differences are dramatic but the personality ticks and non-verbal references are all consistent which makes the transformation seem real again.
This is a very good character piece that is well acted and performed. The direction does emphasize the staginess of some of the conflict, but it never detracts from the story. We can all learn to be a little more patient and thoughtful about the people we encounter or even simply read about if we take the time to see films like this. I can't say it is one of my favorites, simply because as interesting as it was the first time, I don't think it will hold the same level of fascination for me at least on subsequent viewings. There is much to admire in the film, but not much to love. It will earn and deserve many accolades, but I'm afraid that it will simply be a part of my movie history, rather than a defining point in that history. That's just my take, some of you will be able to take away more.
Monday, December 19, 2016
This is the first of the Star Wars Universe films that I did not see on opening day. It's not that I did not want to, but someone in the house had other commitments and the likelihood was that if I went without them, we would have had our own war on our hands. So in addition to avoiding spoilers for months, I had to avoid reviews, tweets, and tidbits of knowledge for an extra few days in order to make this experience more complete. I'm sure many of you have done the same kinds of things and believe me, I will stick to my no-spoiler policy for these comments, but I can say that this is probably my favorite of the Star Wars movies since the original trilogy was completed in 1983. "Rogue One" feels like an integral part of the story, without having to rely on the characters we have from the other films. There is a small amount of bleed over, but for the most part this is a newly original part of the galactic battles taking place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Unlike last years "The Force Awakens", this film occurs prior to the original "Star Wars". It is not a repeat of the plot points from that film like Episode VII, it is however a supplement to the story that ends up deepening the events of the original trilogy and setting up a number of story threads that we have already seen completed in other films. One thing that is definitely true about this new film is that it may be the darkest of all of the movies with the possible exception of "Revenge of the Sith" which after all did include the murder of children as a plot point. At the conclusion of the film, there will be a realization about how dark this movie really is, that is only leavened by a call back piece of fan service that I think is totally justified.
The first third of the story introduces so many new characters, that it is a whirlwind to observe. Frankly, there were so many names and they were so hard to remember and distinguish from one another, that ultimately I just stopped trying. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is our heroine, and whoever she is encountering at any given moment was the only character that mattered. Character development here may not be as important as in the continuing story, since this is a stand alone film, but it means that some of the events that take place in the film will not have the emotional impact that they would in the longer running series. Believe me however, there are plenty of strong emotional elements, and if a character was not fully explored for this story, it is usually so that the plot and action could be kept moving. There are some characters however that manage to make a mark without much more than a unique look or ambiguous reference to the past. I suspect a fan favorite will be K-2SO, an Imperial Droid reconditioned to work for the rebel alliance. There is a great deal of humor in the lines and situations where that character is included, and the voice work of Alan Tudyk is just right for the part.
Diego Luna as Cassian Andor is supposed to be a conflicted character, and his relationship with Jyn is an uncertain one. There are several moments of the film that are ominous because we don't really know how his character is going to play things out. Jones is tough and unpredictable, while Luna is shady and enigmatic. In fact, there are elements to their two characters that I suppose are designed to represent the edge between the good and the dark sides of "the force". About halfway through we get an answer, but it does not keep the two lead characters from having a continuing substrata of tension and distrust. It may also be the actor's accent that made it difficult at times for me to pick out which character who was not present in a scene was being referred to. My ear for articulate pronunciation was hampered by my unfamiliarity with the sounds of his speech patterns. Another character that I quite enjoyed was Bodhi, the pilot, played by Riz Ahmed. While the characters exist more than thirty years apart, he seems to be the foreshadowing embodiment of the kinds of doubts that produce the new hero in Episode VII, Finn.
There are a half dozen or so characters who have appeared in another Star Wars film and show up briefly in this one. It is no surprise that Darth Vader is in the movie, his character was teased in the trailer. Some of the other recurring characters have only the briefest of moments in the film and are really just there for fan service, although that was totally welcome by me. Two or three of those characters however are a major component of the plot and one of them is the saving grace of what might otherwise be a very downbeat outcome for the film. One member of our group was a little resentful of this character being in the film at all, suggesting that a shadow or silhouette might have sufficed. I would strongly disagree. I think the choice made was exactly right and provides the emotional kick that the movie needs to make it fit in with the rest of the films. It will probably be a discussion point on a great many podcasts but I will not step into spoilers here, as tempted as I am to defend this choice.
Another thing that makes this movie feel like a tangential story to the original trilogy is the effort to make practical sets and effects a part of the film making. There is plenty of CGI to go around, but many of the environments are clearly real set locations and not computer based backgrounds. There were more animatronic puppets and costumes in the film than in any of the prequel films and even more than "The Force Awakens". Director Gareth Edwards, who's only previous work I'd seen was "Godzilla", does a good job of making sense of the story given some of the convoluted plot elements and ambiguous characters a script cobbled together by four writers provided. In the long run, a lot of the movie works because Edwards keeps the story moving fast enough that we don't have time to ask questions about motivations and history. The main characters are introduced with some efficiency, although I think we could do with a bit more back story on Jyn before she is unceremoniously "rescued".
Lets say that in the end there were plenty of space battles, heroic sacrifices and light saber lore to keep the audience happy. The surprises in the film are well earned and even the nods to the other stories that are included are not obnoxious, they are just enough to keep the legions of Star Wars fans engaged. "Rogue One " has at least three great emotional beats that will make your throat choke up a bit. It also has a climax that next to "The Empire Strikes Back" is emotionally satisfying without being particularly happy. The Galaxy is a pretty big place and there is room for a multitude of stories about the ride and fall of the empire. Just as happens in movies about WWII, there are some stories that cross paths, but there are others that take place simultaneously which can be just as compelling as a single thread of history. "Rogue One" may be a stand alone story, but it is also an outstanding story that fills in Galactic Rebellion history, without detracting from the main event. As a fan, I'm happy to say "More please".
Thursday, December 15, 2016
This was the Christmas Themed Movie of the Month for December. Join me and several other movie bloggers in looking at Catwoman and The Penguin as they take on the caped crusader.
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
If you have not already voted on the Lambcast Christmas Draft Poll. please take a minute to go there and vote for my slate of films. I did not get the Muppets , Die Hard or Gremlins, but I do have a superior set of five to the other candidates.
Just click on the picture and make Ralphie and George Bailey happy.
I have reviews up for two of my five films, you can look at those here.
Just click on the picture and make Ralphie and George Bailey happy.
I have reviews up for two of my five films, you can look at those here.
Sunday, December 4, 2016
WARNING!!! The above trailer is a Red Band, it contains extreme language.
This film is far more accomplished and thoughtful than it has any right to be. You might expect a large serving of teenage angst, served with a side of sexual exploitation and finished off with a dessert of sweet homilies. While it does have some common ancestry with the John Hughes films of the 1980s, "The Edge of Seventeen" has a far more realistic view of life as an adolescent than teen comedies usually manage. It also has a strange relationship that is central to the tone of the movie but not to the plot. The history teacher as confidant is a twisted but honest relationship with an adult that every seventeen year old ought to have. Maybe not with their teacher but with some adult figure in their life.
Hailee Steinfeld is Nadine, a bright, cynical and nice looking junior at her High School. She is however socially awkward and compensates with a bitterness that is only tempered by her life long friendship with Krista, played by another Hayley, Hayley Lu Richardson. When that friendship is threatened, Nadine finds herself at wits end, acting out in ways that she sometimes regrets but also speaking without the restraint that another voice usually provides her. Even in adulthood, a friend can be an influence on our behavior in both positive and negative ways. When the loss of a friendship occurs in the depths of adolescent angst, the consequences are likely to be earth shattering, at least for the kids involved.
Writer/Director Kelly Fremon Craig seems to get the mindset that is a seventeen year old girls. The world is against her one moment, and then incredibly great the next. Nadine is often a figure of sympathy but just as often, she is unpleasant and spiteful. That is the reason that her sparring matches with Woody Harrelson's Mr. Bruner are so inspired. Harrelson is a High School teacher that is not really inspirational like Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society", or sympathetic like Nick Nolte in "Teachers" (notice how dated my references are? Yeah, I'm old) , instead he is just an average man who has enough life experience to recognize a drama queen and separate it from a future tragedy. Instead of taking her suicide threat seriously and turning her emotional tantrum into an even bigger deal, he counters her with the same biting, sardonic attitude that she exudes. She may not recognize it, but he is a kindred soul who has managed to live life with some satisfaction, in spite of the bitter attitude he owns and can see reflected in Nadine. He has the advantage of having grown up. Not everyone reaches that degree of maturity, and it is Craig's writing that lets us see that Nadine's future does not have to be horrible, all she has to do is look at the guy in front of her.
Because Nadine's story does have a bitter piece of tragedy in it, we are able to understand her anger a little more. That does not excuse the way in which she treats her Mother and Brother. These two characters are also imperfect, but they manage to grow a little in the course of the film. Kyra Sedgwick is Nadine's Mother Mona. She is prickly and self centered and a little desperate. In other words, she is Nadine in thirty years. Blake Jenner is Darian, her perfect older brother. I saw Jenner earlier this year in "Everybody Wants Some!" . His character is not a antagonist, but Nadine wants to make him one. His big emotional scene near the end of the film felt really honest without goingover the top. Another great find in the movie is Hayden Szeto ( what is with all the first names starting with Hay in this movie). He plays a classmate of Nadines, who actually wants a relationship, but for whom Nadine is too blinded by her attitude to take seriously. He was terrific as a quiet kid with a lot more depth to him than anyone would notice, a common character in these kinds of movies but one that is probably as real as any other.
The film does have it's share of laughs but it is closer in tone to "Pretty in Pink" than "Sixteen Candles". The bittersweet nature of growing up gets mixed with some outrageous moments of dialogue or action. There is a bonus animated sequence in the movie that also provokes both laughter and a sharp jab of honest teen age self righteousness. My daughter has a friend who saw this film and thought she was going in to see a teen comedy, and instead she said she saw a movie about a teenager. That's a very fair assessment of the film. It is ultimately more serious than comedic, but those moments of humor are what help make the characterizations here acceptable. It is a bit strange that one relationship in the film can be managed with a simple text of two letters, but it is a credit to the director, that those two letters are so satisfying. That sort of thing happens a lot in the movie and it is what makes this film special.
Back in 1991, I took my two small children, 3 and 5 at the time, to see "Beauty and the Beast". It was one of my favorite memories of their childhood and my fatherhood. They loved the movie and my oldest was so passionately involved that she cried out to warn Belle and the Beast when the villagers are led by Gaston in an attack on the castle. Three years ago, I saw "Frozen" and I imagined that little girls would love it much as my kids had responded to the '91 film, and it seems they did. My youngest daughter, 26 at the time was unimpressed, and while I thought it was a fine film, it did not have the same impact on me as the early film did. Today I saw a movie that reminded me so much of that late November 1991 experience, I wished I had two small children to share it with. Nostalgia, not being what it once was, leaves me to respond to this movie mostly on my own. "Moana" is great.
|Pins a got as a Premiere Stubbs Card Holder at The AMC Theater Today|
I don't think I even saw a teaser for the movie before we went today. I'd listened to a podcast or two where it had been discussed, and since I mostly avoid reading reviews until after I have seen a movie, this was really more surprise than I had anticipated. The look of the animation is marvelous. The characters are designed to accurately depict south sea island people and the characters of "Moana", her father and grandmother but especially "Maui" are spectacularly authentic and beautiful. The opening sequence with Moana as a toddler, being called to the ocean is charming as all get out. Even the animated water tentacle that reminded me so much of the early CGI work in "The Abyss" had personality to it. The island home is lush and the people, songs and way of life are the sorts of things that drab landlubbers are going to dream of when they imagine escaping to a deserted island and retiring to the good life.
There are some of the same patterns of defiance, growth and independence by a young girl that I saw in the story of Belle 25 years ago. There is also a character song like in so many of these films, where the heroine sings of her dreams and obligations and the burden that she feels. So it might seem that the story is conventional Disney Princess territory. I think that's going to be a cliche that gets used anytime a young girl is the featured character in a Disney story and I think it's a little unfair. "Moana" is very different, especially in one of the most important ways. Unlike Ariel, Belle, Mulan, Rapunzel and the rest, there is no love story here. Romance is not part of this equation, unless you count the love that Moana has for her island home and people. This is a very straightforward quest film with high adventure and a lot of humor built in, but there is no subplot about marriage or choosing the one you feel the most for. The writers of the story seem to have drawn heavily from Polynesian mythology, but almost certainly there are the usual Disney variations to keep the story on track and simplify the points being made. I thought it was a unique perspective and made the peoples of the area so interesting to me. There were some similar themes in "Whale Rider" from 2002.
Auli'i Cravalho is a nice discovery as the voice of "Moana". I loved the line readings she gives as she practices the speech she plans on giving to Maui when she tracks him down. The greatest treasure in the film however is the presence of a man who might have at one time been a punchline in the film business, but today stands astride the movie world as a major star and an ambassador of goodwill from film makers everywhere. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has charisma oozing out of his whole body, and it fills the screen here, even though he does not appear on the screen and only his voice is used to act his character. The animators do their job to make Maui fun and interesting. He is a bit of a goat to begin with, but a very confident demi-god and able to ignore his own transgression, up to a point. His performance of the Lin-Manuel Miranda song, "You're Welcome", is right up there with "Gaston" and "Prince Ali" as odes to characters that are self inflated and hysterical at the same time. The use of tribal tattoos on his body to tell his backstory and his faults is a brilliant story telling trick that works very well for an animated feature. It's one of the many things that reminded me of that soon to be live action film, just as the film makers in Beauty and the Beast found a way to make the story sing with the anthropomorphic furniture, the drawing on Maui's body let us know more about the character without having to leave the main plot.
There are at least two very entertaining sequences where Maui and Moana have to work together to overcome adversaries. The Kakamora warrior attack will remind you of every Mad Max film. The chase across the ocean looks like something right out of "Fury Road". While I was less impressed with the fight against Tamatoa, the jewel encrusted crab monster, it still had a number of clever bits to it and again, it shows the creativity of the film from a number of different points. There were times in which I felt I was watching something a little more strange than is expected from a Disney film. The Ocean voyage was sometimes reminiscent of a Japanese Anime film. There were some meta jokes about the whole "Princess" concept, and the focus on the two main characters was much more involved than the usual pack of side kicks and comic relief.
This has been a particularly good year for animated features. For once , Pixar is unlikely to be the favorite at Oscar Time. I might still give the edge to "Kubo and the Two Strings", but "Moana" is a worthy entry and I thought it was very much more fulfilling than even some of the most financially successful animated films this year. If you have kids, take them and make it a special holiday excursion. Get them some popcorn, go Christmas shopping afterwards, and laugh with them over the jokes in this movie. I think you will be making a memory for them which will be something they can treasure decades from now. I wish I had grand kids that I could have taken to see this movie, but if you go because of anything I wrote here, it will be a little bit like I was there, taking you to see it. Merry Christmas memories to you.
Sunday, November 27, 2016
This movie feels really old fashioned and stilted. Usually a Robert Zemekis film is dynamic and the performances are energetic. The two quite attractive stars are mostly just being attractive and it frequently feels like they are play acting instead of acting acting. I am having a hard time putting my finger on it, but this film feels like a misfire to me. Maybe it would have been more intriguing if the premise of the film were not given up in the trailers, and instead we were allowed to find the drama on our own. Instead, I felt like I was watching for clues and waiting for a tell as the story played ourt.
So may shortcuts in story are necessary to keep a film going, but there are really a lot of steps missing in the opening of the film. Brad Pitt puts on his Paul Henreid white suit and traipses around Casablanca looking for the letters of transit. No wait, that's a different and much better film. Instead he acts surly toward his contacts and disregards his own personal rules when operating behind enemy lines. The most attractive woman in the country is his implanted contact, and together they plot an act of terror that in war time counts as espionage activity. It requires a brutal disregard of emotions, except of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walked into his. Whoops, slipped again. In truth, nothing will bring characters with no common background together quicker than participating in an assassination.
The contrivances in the first part of the film that are designed to sell Pitt and Marion Cotillard as a couple are cute but don't really make sense since her husband really is supposed to be a stranger to the city. Their romantic clutch in the car in the desert reminded me so much of that moment when she pulled the gun on him and demanded the letters of transit for her husband, damn, I keep slipping. The next thing you know they escape French Morocco and he awaits her arrival in Paris, I mean London.
A montage of events come by in a blur, including the birth of their child in the midst of a blitz that sees her delivering on the street while all around are being bombed. It is perhaps the second corniest moment in the film, and we are expected to accept it without much preparation or set up, it just happens. When the turn that was revealed from the very first trailer arrives, we get a sequence of events that is too cliched to believe. Pitt disobeys orders and conducts his own investigation. Peter Lorre shows up at a party at their house and begs for Pitt to hide him, no, sorry again, a guy who mysteriously sells jewellery to lonely housewives during the war, appears along with every horny couple in London looking for a place to shag. Pitt chases down leads in a reckless manner, including his own expedition into Nazi occupied France where Captain Renault lies for him to the German High Command. No, that's not right, a local French policeman sells the resistance out to the Nazis and a battle occurs where our hero single handily defeats the Germans, before he flies back to England on a plane he commandeered from the Royal Air Force and managed to get to the Continent and back on without stirring any anti-aircraft fire.
True love triumphs in the end as the situation is resolved. I have done the best that I can to avoid spoilers but I will say that Boogie and Claude Raines do not walk off into a beautiful friendship. Instead another pair walks off into the future with the aura of love hanging over them. Maybe I make it sound like I did not like this film. I liked it well enough but not well enough to suggest that anyone else bother to see it. I frequently have low standards when it comes to romantic-WWII movies and desert intrigue. My guess is most of you do not.
Saturday, November 26, 2016
Director Warren Beatty has wanted to do a biopic about Howard Hughes for years. After Scorsese put together "The Aviator" more than a decade ago, I thought he would have abandoned the project. Instead, it seems he retooled it to focus on a different aspect of the legendary billionaire's life, and turned it into a fantasy love story where the main figure is only tangentially a part of the romance. Hughes is the most interesting character in this film, but he is not the lead. Earlier this year I thought that "Swiss Army Man" might be the strangest film I saw in 2016, we now have a worthy competitor for that title.
This movie is a disjointed drama which takes strong comedic elements and focuses on them without maintaining the tone very well. Hughes' eccentricities are a big part of what drives the story, and the greatest asset the film has is Beatty's performance as the sometimes manic genius/playboy that could give Tony Stark a few lessons in arrogance. Beatty is sometimes genial and quiet as he interacts with the two young people who have entered his sphere. He seems quirky and charming but not particularly mad. As the story goes on though, the quirks become obsessions and the charm turns into dangerous mania. Beatty has been a notoriously odd interview subject for his whole career. In a Rolling Stone story in the early 1990s, his pauses and quirks were the featured players and deserved their own story. What he has done here is turn those peculiarities into a character that fits the billionaire eccentric to a tea. His performance is a combination of befuddle silences and questioning expressions as he sits in semi-dark locations and frequently refuses to interact with his business associates and confidants. I'm not sure how much is acting and how much is just Beatty putting his real self in front of the camera.
The two young people who mix in the life of Hughes are Alden Ehrenreich's Frank Forbes, an ambitious young Methodist from Fresno and Lily Collins who plays Marla Mabrey, a contest winner from Virginia. Both of them are employees of Howard but in very different capacities. She is a contract player for a film that Hughes appears to have no intention of ever producing, while he is a driver for her and eventually Hughes himself. When the story is about the budding attraction they feel for each other and the complications of their religious upbringing, is is a mildly dull romance. When Hughes stirs things up, it becomes more interesting but it takes so long to get to that point, and once we do, there are so many tangents that get followed, that the story loses any focus. Except for the song that Collins writes, we don't really get why Howard is drawn to Marla, except that she might be venereal disease free.
The film is loaded with stuff that I would like regardless of the subject. Most of it is centered in Southern California and Las Vegas in the late 50's and early 60's. As stock footage of Hollywood Boulevard from the era is rolled out in the background, I could remember the look of the locations myself, having spent a lot of time in Hollywood as a kid. There are some very nice touches as the town becomes a player in the story. The house where Marla awaits her big chance is in the hills above the Hollywood Bowl, so he nights are filled with classical music from the L.A. Philharmonic. Palm Springs is referred to as a dream destination for weekends out of town. And the Beverly Hills Hotel, which still looks much the way it did at the time, becomes a place where Hughes can play hide and seek from the people he needs to speak with but won't. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel gives an appropriate romantic era look to the proceedings which also does a lot to sell the movie.
The problems with the film are it's pacing and schizophrenic story telling. There are truly moments of pleasure as the story develops, but in the end it feels like the life Hughes himself must have lead, chaotic and neurotic. The charm of the actors is not really enough to make the film come alive and it meanders around, showing a great sense of style but without any purpose. I'm glad I saw this but I can't say it is a good film. For every moment of wonder and joy, there are two that just induce shoulder shrugging and impatience.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
No one should need my encouragement to see this masterpiece. It is four years older than I am and it is widely recognized as one of the greatest films ever made, in any language. In preparation for an extensive discussion on the new "Magnificent Seven" remake and it's progenitors, I went to the library and checked out the Criterion version of this classic. I will probably never do that again because after watching it, I am simply waiting for my cash flow to be sufficient to obtain the bluray for myself. This movie is simply wonderful.
Set four hundred years ago, the well known story concerns a village of farmers under the threat of bandits raiding and stealing their crops, choosing to go in search of Samurai to help defend them. This three and a half hour film predates the epics of the 60s and was only challenged in the scale of the story telling by "Gone With the Wind". From the village to a large city and back to a countryside with farms, mountains, temples and hidden forts of bandits, Seven Samurai is full of adventure, drama, humor and tragedy. It feels deep in many places without wallowing in self importance or histrionics. The characters are memorable and the film making will impress.
If I have any criticism at all, it concerns the opening section of the film where the villagers discover they will soon be targets of another raid. The wailing and hair pulling that goes on is loud and prolonged. One could almost lose sympathy for the downtrodden peasants who are on the brink of starvation in spite of how hard they work. Once they decide on their plan however, the story calms down and follows a well worn path of a group seeking a champion. Their attempts to find heroes are limited by the fact that all they have to offer by way of payment is food and shelter. Fortunately they come across an aging warrior who seems to fit their needs perfectly.
The recruiting sequence takes a while but it helps reveal the character of the various soldiers about to join this army. Some are wily, some cautious, and some are brash. The details of the process are one of the small joys that the film provides and it would be wrong to spoil it for anyone who has not yet seen the film. Toshiro Mifune arrives in the film in the form of a man claiming to be samurai but revealed to be a fraud. That discovery fails to discourage him and he worms his way into the group and ultimately commands their respect and friendship despite some of his eccentricities. As Kikuchiyo, Mifune prances and struts and generally tries to B.S. his way to status. While there are six other stories of the samurai, his is the one that commands center stage. Mifune is magnetic to watch and the character draws us in even as he seems to be a bit big for his britches, and that I mean literally. Kikuchiyo wears a dead warriors vestments and they are brief in the modesty department.
I will be doing a post on the 1960 "Magnificent Seven" and there are comparisons in story points everywhere. Kyuzo, the taciturn master swordsman, proves himself in a match that is repeated beat for beat by James Coburn six years later. Kambei"s act of chivalry is mirrored with Yul Bryner's defiance of the racist cowboys when burying a dead Indian. Horst Bucholz catches fish in the same manner as Mifune, by hand. The depth of Seven Samurai involves a more elaborate set of back stories for each of the samurai, and the villagers also have more character traits and histories. "Magnificent Seven" also condenses two characters into one by making the romance happen to the young outsider instead of tho another character.
The battle sequences in Seven Samurai are all easy to follow as is the tactic that Kambei is employing. The goal is to take out as many of the bandits, one by one as they can. Two of the Samurai go outside of the village to accomplish some of this but mostly, the plot involves allowing only one or two of the raiders to enter the village at a time. The time setting does allow for muskets but they are not plentiful and they become the first targets of the Seven since they represent an nearly invisible threat. Of course in the Western version, nearly everyone is armed with guns. The confrontations take place less frequently and the shootouts are not always as interesting as swordplay, especially when it starts raining. The photography in Kurosawa's film is in glorious black and white and the scenes with rain and fire jump out dramatically in this medium. Faces, especially Mifune's are lit with dramatic shadowing and the intensity of the characters can be see, even when there are not close ups, but when there are, it is even better.
The samurai traditions of honor hang over the choices these characters make. They may be mercenaries but they are not likely to cut and run or be bought off. In the Western version, it would be expected that some of these characters would be less committed. The family traditions and cultural expectations in feudal Japan seem to preclude such treachery, at least as far as the peasants are concerned. In fact, one element this film contains is a sacrifice make by a woman. This is a moment and a motivation that did not make it into the Americanized version, the wife of one of the villagers, who has been taken as a "comfort" prisoner, allows the marauding samurai to gain access to the bandits hideout without tipping them off. She also accepts a death that would cleanse the unclean last weeks of her life with fire. It was a haunting image.
Kurosawa has filled the movie with images that will inspire and haunt us for years. Mifune stomping around the village, cursing the peasants and being bolder than is appropriate for samurai is one example. When he raises the emblematic flag of the village defenders, it is a moment of chivalry that will bring a lump to your throat.
He defies the enemy and inspires his companions and the villagers with that one bold statement. The other image that visually tells the story is the tally parchment on which Kambei keeps track of how many of the enemy have fallen.
This is a glorious classic that deserves to be seen by everyone. The black and white photography and subtitles are a barrier to some, but five minutes in, no one will notice that they are watching a film set four hundred years ago, shot almost seventy years ago, and in a language that they don't speak. Instead they will marvel at the accomplished direction and look of the film. They will have their eyes drawn to one of the great actors of the last century and they will be sucked in by an oft told tale that still works.