Sunday, February 28, 2016

AMC Tenth Anniversay Best Picture Showcase Day Two

With the beautiful Santa Anita racetrack, right outside of our theater, on a lovely winter day in Southern California, we spent eleven hours in a dark movie house seeing the remaining best picture nominees yesterday. Today is Oscar Sunday so we will see what actually wins, but for the moment my impressions of the final films.


This is a very sweet and sentimental love story about an Irish girl who comes to America and falls for both her new life and a young man. The courage that it takes someone to get up and move halfway around the world and start over is amazing. I saw a Hollywood Reporter story about an actor's ballot and he ranted anonymously about how immigration was not really like this and that if you wanted to know how it was, see America, America.  I'm all for exploring the many variations on the immigrant experience but I suspect they are as divergent as the cultures that people came from. I sat watching this with my friend who's Mother had a very similar experience coming from Ireland and she said it was not dissimilar to this film. The Irish Catholic immigration story from 1950 is probably different from the Italian Catholic story of 1900. So let's take this for what it is rather than what someone else thinks it should be.

A young girl has little hope of a satisfactory life in her native land, and her enterprising older sister arranges for her to move to New York and start anew. The production design here is the kind of thing that makes me want to return to those days. The Department stores were elegant, the cars were huge, and the clothes were vibrant and becoming to both men and women. I know it is a technicolor wash of the old days but it looked completely dreamlike and wonderful. The village in Ireland was quaint but gorgeous and the streets of New York were vibrant and active.  The screenplay by Nick Hornby is filled with words that sound like they were spoken in 1952, both in the world and in the movies. Actress Saoirse Ronan is excellent in the part and she seems luminescent despite supposedly being  the plain Jane in her circle of friends at home and in New York.

The story takes a dramatic turn that forces us to think about what the choices in life we make really mean. It seems for a while that the hopes she carries are tested by the dreams of her youth. In the end, the audience is satisfied that the right choice is made and there was a point to all the process that we watched. I doubt that the film will win but as I said to my companions, if it does, it will be a victory I can live with, all of the movies nominated this year are worthy in my opinion.


This is a movie that uses so many things that Hollywood films have loved over the years. There is a political mystery, being unraveled by journalists, fighting a seemingly implacable foe. There is also no rooting for the other side because the evil that is being fought against is the worst kind of crime and the hubris of the institution is one of the most unforgivable sins imaginable. There is enough finger pointing to go around by the end of the story that even the journalists themselves do not emerge unscathed.  There is a collection of colorful characters and the ensemble acting is top notch.

I did think that the usually reliable Mark Ruffalo was the weak link in the cast. He was not bad, but I could see his performance so much more obvioulsy than everyone else. This is the fault of the screenplay which gives him one scene of histrionics that feels very out of place with everything else we have been shown. Michael Keaton was extremely good and of the cast I'd have picked him for the acting honors rather than Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams. Maybe the biggest performance that is over looked however belongs to Stanley Tucci, as a quirky attorney, filing lawsuits that never get the attention and the punitive damages that they deserve. His fury is so controlled it is disturbing. He seems odd but he may be the most stable of the lawyers involved in the whole mess. Familiar TV actor Jamey Sheridan and Movie idol turned character actor Billy Crudup are attorneys who do their jobs and live by their code of ethics, but each seems unsatisfied and unable to do anything about it.

The functioning newspaper in the film may be a relic of the past, but it is a good contrast to the dysfunctional strategy of the Catholic Church hierarchy to address a true evil by treating it as a character flaw the equivalent of  being an alcoholic. That they cared more for the priests that made up their order than they did for their parishioners is the thing that will damn them to the hell they earned. That this movie manages to unwrap this horror in the calm, deliberate manner that it does is perhaps it's most impressive feature. It is not my favorite film of all the nominees, but If i were a voter, I'd cast my vote for this movie which manages to make a serious story into a thriller with a conclusion that is only satisfying in the sense that the truth was uncovered. Director Tom McCarthy made a film a few years ago that I really liked, "Win,Win" and he has made another seriously entertaining film about a hard subject to look at.

The Martian

From a purely entertainment point of view, this was my favorite of the films nominated. "The Martian" takes a great near future speculative science story and turns it into a tense two hour rescue comedy. The idea that this is a comedy may seem strange, that was my view when it was nominated in that category by the Golden Globes, but it is pretty funny, and I know it had a lot more laughs than some of the alleged comedies of Will Farrel. So, OK, it's a comedy by that standard. I like the idea of science being used to tell a story but it is a fiction and some of the science here feels a little tacked on to get us out of the conundrums the story put us in in the first place.

Matt Damon may not be one of my favorite people, but he is a fine actor and he has to carry the movie with a star like performance. Like Russel Crowe from fifteen years ago in "Gladiator" director Ridley Scott has taken a big screen "movie star type performance" and surrounded it with technical marvels and enough drama to keep us enthralled for the run of the picture. This is just solid big screen entertainment. Scott was not nominated which seems to suggest that the film has little chance of winning, but it has every chance of being watched repeatedly for years to come, unlike a few other good, but not repeatable, films on the list.

The Revenant

While it is still an excellent film, and it may be the movie to beat this year, a second viewing highlights some of my original evaluation of the movie. It is longer than it needs to be, it is a little more self important than it has earned any right to be, and sometimes it is simply so grim that we should all get an award for enduring it. If Leonardo DiCaprio wins for best actor because of the rigors of making the movie, then we need to retroactively give Harrison Ford an Oscar for some of his Indiana Jones films. The degree of difficulty standard seems to be applying here. This is a film that was next to impossible to make and contained some breathtaking images, but maybe it could use a little work with the script.

I suppose it will win for cinematography, because so often, the movie with the most beautiful locations gets that award. I was a bit weary of the fish eye view of the trees that was used as a transition so often and if J.J Abrams can be criticized for "camera flare" can we give Alejandro  Iñárritu a special award for "lens fog"? At least three times he lets the camera deliberately get close enough to the action to get fog on the lens, taking us out of the movie in spite of the effort to use this technique to bring us in. 

The film is full of ponderous moments and spiritual flim flam, but it also contains some really impressive moments. Most of these take place in the first thirty minutes of the movie. The attack on the trappers camp and then the bear attack would probably be enough to make this a great film. Unfortunately, for every solid moment like that, there is a dreamlike sequence of skulls, burned churches, and haunted trees to remind you that this movie is supposed to be a spiritual journey and not just a revenge movie. Frankly, "The Grey" did that more effectively, I just wish they had stuck to the adventure.

The poster giveaway at the AMC Showcase was not as satisfying as it has been in the past. They have chosen to go with mini-posters this year and they lack the artwork that marked all the Best Picture nominees. On the other hand the embossed lettering and the Tenth Anniversary slogan, "I Saw the Best Back to Back" is a very nice design.

 Till next year, thanks AMC.

Eddie the Eagle

"I always turn to the sports page first. The sports page records people's accomplishments; the front page nothing but man's failures."-- Chief Justice of the U.S. Earl Warren

I love some sports because of the drama inherent in the competition. I love all sports ultimately because of the drama inherent in taking a sport seriously and trying to do your best. "Eddie the Eagle" might at first seem an odd subject for an inspirational story. The real world character appeared to be a bit of a joke at the time he made his Olympic appearance, and let's face it. he was not a winner by any stretch of the imagination. He was however different, and judged by the true spirit of the Olympic games, he may be one of the biggest winners of all time. It's unfortunate in my mind that the world as become so cynical, that a sweet, inspiring movie like this will be crushed underfoot by other films that will be forgotten in a week, despite their budgets. 

This is a small story about an unusual character,  it fits into the "Inspirational Failure" category of films pioneered by the original "Rocky". Since the main events of the story really did happen, it has a place in popular culture outside of the movie context and it is hard to understand why it would not be more successful, except that "upbeat" and "inspiring" seem to have become negative descriptions in Hollywood these days. Eddie was not a fool, and in fact he was portrayed as a competent skier ( and in real life, he narrowly missed being on the British Downhill skiing team). What is accurate is that he switched to ski jumping to give himself a better chance at making the Olympics, even though he had little experience. 

Taron Edgerton from last years great "Kingsman: The Secret Service"  plays the adult Eddie after a quick opening section showing Eddie as a child and as a teen. One of the things that help make this movie work is that it does not spend a long time following the child Eddie but uses him simply to set up the contemporary version. It keeps the story focused and it avoids some of the wandering that traditional biopics sometimes get lost in. We get to know him as the awkward, sincere and somewhat innocent athlete who strives to be the best he can, but falls short of the Olympic ideal that he holds out for himself. The movie plays up a battle and antagonism between himself and the British Olympic Committee as a way of building tension and I thought that the largely fictional characters played by Hugh Jackman and Christopher Walken help get the focus on the issue of his desire rather than on the showboating. The IOC has since instituted qualifying rules that would keep out someone like this, but much like the Jamaican Bobsled team, these are the kinds of stories that make sports so compelling. Competition at elite levels is important, but we need the "Rudy" type characters to be able to be part of the pageant of sport as well. 

This movie gets a lot of comedic value out of the situation, but never at the expense of the character. He always comes across as passionate and a big dreamer. Exactly the kind of person who would ask a world champion for some tips and who would not mean it ironically. I doubt that it is true but there was a nice moment when Eddie is going up the lift for his big moment when he encounters the World's Greatest shi jumper, and they share a moment that is about sports and not about winning. If we could get that kind of moment more often in real life, people who see sports as unimportant or distracting from more significant pursuits would get a chance to know the impact that sports can have on character. We have far too many examples of negative sports characters that have dominated the world lately, it's really important to have some from the other end of the spectrum on a regular basis to balance out the less pleasant aspects of competition. 

Jackman plays a cliche role created for the purpose of making the story "more" than just the journey of Eddie, and I liked the fact that he was willing to be in the background for much of the film. The director, actor Dexter Fletcher, manages to make us cringe with every vertigo inducing view of the ski jumps and we flinch when we see the mistakes that inevitably are part of the world of ski jumping. If you are too young to remeber "the Agony of Defeat" take a quick look at this clip:

A ski accident happens at 70 miles an hour and it isn't pretty. Several times I looked over and saw my daughter cringing behind her hands as the true danger of the sport was exhibited. Ultimately, the thrill of victory, even a small one, seems to be enough to get a dedicated person to take the risk. "Eddie the Eagle" is a touching reminder that while not all of us are gold medalists, it is our hearts that ultimately make a soar like eagles.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

TCM Fathom Event The Maltese Falcon

I love an opportunity to see classic films on the big screen. Today the film was "The Maltese Falcon", celebrating it's 75th Anniversary. TCM provides a nationwide venue through Fathom events and the theater was relatively full for a Sunday afternoon.I've seen this dozens of times but I was lucky enough that the first time was in a revival theater back in the 1970s.

There have been a thousand things said about this film, most of them said by people far more eloquent and learned than me, but maybe not as enthusiastic. I love this movie for the dialogue, the performances and the production design. It makes me want to live in San Francisco in 1941.  Today I watched every time Sam Spade rolled a cigarette and then lit it with a match ir lighter that was right on the desk, table or nightstand where he found himself. Each of those beautiful items looked at home on the sets and in the offices of that world. I never smoked but I want to have those items of elegance spread out over my house.

Even though I've seen each movie more than a dozen times, today was the first time I realized that Miles Archer was also the DA in "Miracle on 34th Street". It's a bit like driving down the same road every day for a year and then looking up suddenly and seeing that there is a bookstore or restaurant there on the road that you never saw before. You feel a little foolish at first but you are glad to be out of your stupor for a moment. Everyone else in the cast is always so memorable, and Jerome Cowan had just the one scene (and his death) so early in the movie that I guess you sort of forget he was there.

Every little moment with Peter Lorre is worth the price of admission. He is so fey and belligerent and feckless but at the same time lethal. When Bogart slaps him around and tells him that he'll like it when he does so, you can see the fear and anger in his face. Elisha Cook Jr. was a familiar character actor in movies and TV shows all my life and I remember when I first saw this how young he looked in contrast to his more grizzled later years. Ward Bond is in so many John Wayne and Errol Flynn pictures, you might forget he was also in "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Gone with the Wind". Sydney Greenstreet explaining all the kinds of men he does not trust would make a good set of memes for any social media site.

The best part of the film though is Humphrey Bogart trying to figure out Mary Astor and playing with her lies the whole time.

" We didn't exactly believe your story, Miss O'Shaughnessy. We believed your 200 dollars."

Mary Astor was terrific as the bad girl trying to pull the wool over the eyes of everyone in the story and playing coy the whole time. She and Bogart are terrific in the movie and they worked together again in Across the Pacific a couple of years later. The TCM intro and exit were the usual well crafted moments that give you just enough to anticipate and then remind you of what it was you just enjoyed.

AMC Tenth Anniversary Best Picture Showcase

It's been an amazing ten years that AMC Theaters have put on the Best picture Showcase. In 2007, there were only five films nominated, continuing a long tradition since the 1940s of only including five films in the top category. In 2009 there was a change in the nomination process and up to 10 films would be honored as Best Picture Nominees. That's when the Showcase evolved into a two day affair spread over two weekends. Since then we have had two years of ten nominations, two years of nine nominations and two years of eight nominations. While it is nice when extra films are included, the four a day weekends are a little easier to get through than the two five a day weekends they had when the rules first changed. Someday though, I hope to tackle the 24 hour marathon when they have eight to ten films play back to back in a single 24 hour period.
Shane, the AMC host for the event at Santa Anita

So this year, for some reason, I've not seen as many of the nominees as usual. That means I don't have a lot of reviews to link back to. I will try yo make my comments extensive enough to give you a sense of the film, without necessarily giving you a full review. 

Bridge of Spies

How it is that I missed a Steven Spielberg film, starring Tom Hanks and featuring Cold War spy intrigue is a mystery to me. I think that Mr. Spielberg has reached the point where everyone seems to take for granted that his films are going to be good. A bit like Meryl Streep, his movies get nominated a lot but don't usually end up taking the prose. This is his third nominated film in the last five years, he has had eleven Best Picture Nominations in his career, but only one has taken home the top prize. It gets to the point where we just expect great work from him and then don't need to confirm it with an award. As an artist with a high degree of consistency, Spielberg is hard to match and he has another excellent film with this movie.

The production design of this film is meticulous. The late fifties and early sixties are evoked in the subway rides and the vistas they reveal. Sometimes we are moving through an elevated train in Brooklyn, and other times crossing the border between East and West Berlin. The data that was being gathered by the Soviet agent is never described or explained, only the context of his arrest and the times. Tom Hanks Manhattan attorney works in the sort of firm you imagine would be found at the time, with big oak desks and solid doors with engraved nameplates to indicate the partner who's office we are in. The bleak apartments and prisons of the Communist dominated sections of Germany are contrasted with lush Western hotels and meeting rooms. Only the Soviet courtroom where Francis Gary Powers is convicted, has the grandeur of the western locations. 
Working without John Williams for the first time in forever, the music of Thomas Newman is dramatic without having a signature touch. Hanks is as usual excellent, but the stand out in a not quite wordless but certainly an economized set of lines is British Theater star Mark Rylance, playing a Soviet agent who remains unperturbed by his predicament. The impenetrable web of lies that the east Germans, Soviets and Americans  share with one another, has to be translated by the boy scout of an attorney played by Hanks, and there are national security issues in every step. It plays out effectively with the usual Spielberg professionalism and eye for details. The parallel images of boys jumping over neighbors back fences in New York and families being machine gunned as they try to cross the new wall in Berlin, is just one mark of that eye that Spielberg has for connecting the visual with the emotional. 


I'm not sure I have recovered from seeing this movie yet. A dark story that will horrify and inspire simultaneously, "Room" may be the best acted film nominated this year. Young Brie Larson is almost certainly going to be the winner of the Best Actress award. Her portrayal of a wounded lioness trying to raise her cub while at the same time learning to live with the damage done to her was remarkable. She works with a child actor equally gifted at this stage, Jacob Tremblay. The two of them are the focus of the film almost entirely, even in scenes with other actors, including accomplished veterans, they form the kind of symbiotic performance that makes your heart melt in one moment and freeze in the next. 

The story is told effectively in the first half, with limited camera movement in a claustrophobic space that induces hopelessness. Even after the two emerge from the location of the first five years of young Jack's life, they seem to still be trapped in that space. It is surprising that Jack, who has known nothing but "room" his whole life is the one who exits the cocoon with the least amount of difficulty. His mother Joy seems at first to be ready to be back in the world but the trauma of her experience is more likely to haunt her for a much longer time than her tough little kid. The scene where her parents and step father sit and confront the elephant in the room will show you how everyone was traumatized by the experience and also give you hope that Joy can recover. Her philosophy toward her son and his existence is humane and righteous, and the fact that her father can't really deal with it crushes her despite her new won status. 

The story is never exploitative, which says a lot for the screenplay and the director. It could have been a horror film or a melodrama, instead it is an opportunity to consider the reality that all sorts of crime perpetrate on our psyches. You may recoil at the suggestion of the media that Joy may have missed an opportunity at one point to spare her child, unfortunately you will also recognize the brutal nature of the news to find any point of controversy to exploit for interest sake. She is a young woman who survived a horrible tragedy, finds a way to rescue herself and her child and then gets second guessed by someone who can't see that her life is still coming apart in spite of the fact that she is restored to her family. Anyone who doesn't love animals may not get it, but the healing power of both real and imaginary dogs will cover you with a final warm message. 

Mad Max: Fury Road

My third favorite film of the last year, Mad Max Fury Road is the kind of movie that I loved as a kid and would never expect to be nominated for Best Picture. Action films are often seen as mere entertainment and despite the fact that they have been put together in polished and inventive ways, they are mostly neglected at awards season. This is the fourth film in a series that has not been active for thirty years. As a reboot it expands the vision of the director and takes the real. in camera effects that make us movie fans, and puts them on the screen like they did in the days of Ben Hur. 

 There is also much more of story here than you may at first believe. While the whole movie is a chase film, it is also a film that empowers it's female characters and pushes back against the brutish domination of women that is often seen in action films. Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult are the real lead characters They play wounded souls who are aided reluctantly by the titular hero. 

The Big Short

I am clearly not as smart as I'd wish to be. Even with Margot Robbie in a bathtub and Anthony Bourdain making metaphors in the kitchen. a lot of the financial hocus pocus this film was trying to show us was invisible to me. I have a vague understanding of the concepts but an unclear vision of how it was carried out. In an interesting way, none of the groups pictured in this story are the bad guys. They saw what was coming and did make a killing on it, but they simply screwed the real bad guys, whop were the incompetent and indifferent Wall Street types everyone worries about.

Written and directed as if it were a thriller. "The Big Short introduces us to a variety of characters that deserve admiration for their acumen and criticism for their scruples. It was put together from a non-fiction work that tried to explain how the economic meltdown of 2008 came about. According to the screenplay, avarice and stupidity combined with circumstances to bring about a situation where the housing market collapsed on itself. A combination of economic gurus, hedge fund analysts and up and comers anticipated the collapse and created a way to short the market that greedy banks and investment houses were all too willing to try to take advantage of. 

The hit and run nature of the story does not give us much chance to care about the characters. We learn that Steve Carrell's character has a tragedy, that Christian Bale's character is a genius with no ability to connect to people, and that the character of Ryan Gosling is a weasel who simply cares about getting richer. Most of the action consists of people talking and screaming. Sometimes they are doing so in a humorous way, and every time they prove how stupid someone from an investment company. a government agency or a newspaper is, we get more depressed. After seeing "The Wolf of Wall Street" a couple of years ago, the director and screenwriter Adam McKay seems to have followed the director's crib sheet and he tells the story through narration, comic freezes, and outrageous moments of human foibles. It's a good film but I was not as impressed with it as I thought I might be. At least we skipped most of the drug use and sex parties of the Scorsese film. 

Next week, the other four films, two of which I have seen and look forward to seeing again.

Monday, February 15, 2016


Violent, vile, irreverent, and generally self aware, "Deadpool" has got to be the sort of film that fans of the Marvel comic book were looking for. Not being a comics guy myself, I can't say how true the film is to the spirit of the character, all I can say is that the film character makes me want to read the comics. This film was a blast from the start to the finish and it will make some people want to accalim it the greatest film ever and others predict the end of civilization as we know it. While it is substantially different from anything that has come before it, I can say that the spirit of the movie is in line with "Kick Ass" and "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World". It is not quite a parody of comic book films, but it does act as if those movies are there to be mocked, inspired by and definitely commented on.

Ryan Reynolds is playing this character for a second time. In "Wolverine Origins" he played the mercenary Wade Wilson. I saw that movie one time and I have a vague recollection of it, but I do know that a lot of people thought he was cast right and they immediately started lobbying for a stand alone "Deadpool" film. After the misbegotten "Green Lantern" it's a wonder that anyone let Reynold near another comic book character. Then he was in "R.I.P.D." and came close to never being in anything again. Someone had faith however and their faith has been rewarded. Reynold seems the perfect match for this comic icon. He starts as pretty boy gorgeous, and is transformed into mildly hideous, but only someone as good looking as he was could imagine that his true love would not be able to stay with him with the disfigurement caused by his mutation being released. Wade Wilson was not a good guy, but he was less bad than others and aware of his own faults to the point that he had a loose code of conduct. The condensed romance that serves as the background for most of the film is centered on the warped personalities of the two lovers more than mere physical attraction, and that is the ultimate payoff at the end of the story here.

The movie is filled with violence of the type that we have come to expect in a hard "R" rated movie. You will see dismemberment, decapitation, splattered brains and torture of a wide variety. If that does not appeal to you, stay way. If on the other hand those things are selling points for you, get ready for a steady diet of satisfying money shots with bad guys getting pummeled and the hero going full James Franco for one scene. All the while, Deadpool provides his own commentary track on the film and the actions. He is the one to make a reference to "127 Hours". He actually names the two main actors who have played Charles Xavier in the X-Men films. This character makes no pretenses toward being real or serious, he is a send up of all those other mutants that populate the Marvel Universe. His real super power is not that he is indestructible, it is that he can't shut up. Thank goodness because a steady stream of trash talk and sarcastic self reference keeps this moving along at a jolly clip.

Instead of getting into the plot, you can know all you need to know about the film by hearing about the opening credits. The actors are not listed by name, they are described by type "Villain with British Accent" for instance. Reynolds own cover of "People" magazine naming him as the "Sexiest Man Alive" is used as a throw away visual reference to his being in the movie. The writers give themselves the credit as the real heroes of the story. I laughed out loud from the very beginning of the film. The opening scene is actually a middle of the story event that we flash back and forth to several times during the film. The character, speaks to the audience as active observers and reminds us of points that have been made or will need to be returned to. The script is a miracle of filthy talk, childish humor and clever cultural references. It is delivered with a sardonic cynicism that plays exceptionally well to an audience overwhelmed by the number of super hero movies they have been subjected to in the past few years. "Deadpool" is a palate cleanser of sorts, designed to have all of the action of a comic movie, but built to entertain people who are jaded by those very action motifs.

Attitude is what this film is all about, bad attitude. You will be hard pressed to find a two minute segment where something is not offensive to someone. I did see several people bringing kids to the film and I wondered how they will explain the doggy style sex jokes to them when asked. There are references to erections, testicles and vagina's everywhere. I don't know what the old folks are thinking, but they better not complain because everyone was warned early on that this was not a safe X-Men movie. It still has a sense of fun for the non-vile people out there as well. Wait through the credits and you will get a Samuel Jackson joke and a tribute to 80s films as well. This may not be everybodies cup of tea, but I would certainly be happy to put on another pot and sit down to further afternoons with this irresponsible jerk, who is as funny as hell.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

SPECTRE Reconsidered

There are very few films that I see in theaters more than once anymore. Except for the occasional classic, a return visit to a theater for a contemporary film is rarely needed. I have a subscription service through DISH and Netflix and Amazon give me plenty of opportunities to see recent films again, without having to make a trip. There are however exceptions and one of the film series that I will take in as often as possible in a theater is James Bond.

It is no secret if you have visited this site before that I am a 007 fanatic. I had a lot of fun last year coming up with 7 things I loved for each of the EON James Bond films. This was all in aid of the debut of SPECTRE, the most recent addition to the James Bond canon. As a fan there is always something satisfying about a new episode with 007, but it is also easy to be disappointed, especially in light of how great the previous chapter was. Inevitably, SPECTRE was going to suffer a little by comparison to the previous film. Bond's ancestral home is destroyed, his Aston Martin DB5 is massacred, and his boss steps off the stage in a thrilling ending with a villain that was exceptional. It's hard to find ways to make what comes next feel compelling. The screenwriters did find a hook to try and keep things at this heightened level, they make all of the events in the previous three Bond films the design of a secret organization with a strong hidden connection to 007 himself.

I suspect most Bond fans would have been happy to move on and start with some stand alone assignments. That's exactly the way I felt at the end of Skyfall, we were at a new beginning. To quote Michael Corleone, "Just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in again."  SPECTRE ends up with a Jerry rigged connection to the three previous Daniel Craig films. I originally wrote that this was my biggest problem with the movie. I did not see the film as a failure, but I was less enthusiastic than I might have been. There was however a beacon of hope that might alter my opinion a bit. As an enthusiastic fan, I'd purchased a special pass that came as a steel engraved card with my name on it and the SPECTRE Octopus logo. It entitled me to see the film once every day, in any format that it was playing in at a Regal Theater. I took advantage of my financial commitment and as a result I have now seen the movie more than a half dozen times on the big screen. This has given me a chance to adjust to some of the rapid character points and clumsy plot development that I was originally hesitant about. It also gave me the ability to see a couple of things that are actually important to the ability of the Bond films to continue to entertain.

Ever since the departure of Pierce Brosnan as Bond, the producers have tried to get Bond back to basics and turn the character into a more reality based character. Gone are the invisible cars and avalanche surfing days. They have been replaced by extensive scenes of torture and casual cruelty. Casino Royale features a grim Bond freshly minted into the 00 ranks. His opponent LeChiffre is a terrorist financier who manipulates the situation through a romantic mole. It turns out that there is a secret figure behind the plot that emerges at the end, Mr. White. In the follow up, Mr. White is a figure in a mysterious consortium called Quantum, and they have their fingers everywhere, including at the side of M. Suddenly, this organization looks like it will be the main opponent for Bond in future films. When we move to the third Craig film though, Quantum has disappeared and it seems like a rogue hacker that Bond is up against. According to the plot of the current film all of these are linked together under an umbrella organization, with a name familiar to Bond fans from the 60s.

The conspiracy gets deeper, the violence levels affecting the general population gets greater, and Bond and MI-6 are like the boy plugging the dyke with their finger. At this point the series is getting murky and it begins to feel a little like an X-Files episode with the tag line "Trust No One."  I don't need a jet pack or submersible car, but I would like a little fun to go along with the adventure. In going "Bourne" the producers were at risk of losing much of what made James Bond fun for several generations. SPECTRE does not return us to the parody days of Brosnan and Roger Moore, but it finally does restore a sense of humor to the movie series. So let me spend some time praising the virtues a a little levity in the newest film.

The cold opening has a couple of moments that bring a smile to our faces. Bond stalks his prey behind a deaths-head mask and suit and has a local beauty for cover while he does so. When he gets her to the hotel room and kisses her, we might be expecting a romantic clutch but instead when she turns back to him after climbing on the bed, she is taken aback by his near instant transformation into a regular suit with an angry looking weapon at his side. He steps out and says he'll just be a moment. Finally a laugh in a Daniel Craig film. [To be fair there were a couple in Skyfall but this movie is clearly more engaged in Bond's humorous side.] He does get a Roger Moore moment when as the building that he shot into collapsed and then triggered a similar collapse in the one he is occupying, he ends up landing on a couch after dropping a couple of stories, with a sconce in his hand. A second laugh in the pre title sequence, this might be a laugh fest.

We also get a return to the traditional byplay with Miss Moneypenny. They don't quite flirt but it seems as if they could. When she delivers material to his apartment at night, there is a subtle joke about his lack of effort at decorating. When he reaches out to her in the middle of a car chase, at three in the morning, he comments on her having a male guest at her place at that time of night. This is the possessive James Bond we knew from the old days, paying attention only when it suits him.
Bond juxtaposes his bad ass assassin facade with a jesters grin when he dispatches two killers sent to kill the widow of his first target. She claims that it will be a no use for him to intervene because in five minutes there will be another killer at her door. His response "Just enough time for a drink." A little gallows humor to ingratiate himself with a key informant. Thank you Mr. Bond. When he boldly bluffs his way into a secret meeting of the phantom group, he  calls the screener an asshole as he introduces himself as Mickey Mouse, oh yeah, in Italian. When the head of SPECTRE reveals himself at the meeting to James, he does it with a little cuckoo call. The bad guys have a sense of humor as well.

Only one moment of humor feels exaggerated in a way that is similar to a Roger Moore Bond. During the car chase in Rome, Bond's DB10 ends up behind a slow moving mini-Fiat. The driver comically remains in front of Bond until pushed into a parking spot and then the airbag goes off. That felt very clown like. Bond's exit from the car before he parks it in the Tiber river is also a bit over the top, but only in the same way that the ejector seat was in Goldfinger.  Most of the humor in the film plays off of the way Bond expresses himself. He remains cool and cocky, even when being tied up to be tortured. They don't go quite as far as to make a joke based on the bad guy scratching his testicles (like they did in Casino Royale) but there is a moment of levity before Christoph Watlz reveals his character's new name. Bond speaks softly and greets the white Persian cat that walks across his lap in a casual way. No joke, just a moment of incongruous levity.

A second issue that I need to reconsider is the title song. When I first heard the Sam Smith tune "Writings on the Wall", I was underwhelmed. His breathy deliver and wan styling seemed too soft for a James Bond film. When you watch the opening credits and see the nude silhouette of Daniel Craig, surrounded by faceless girls and octopus tentacles, it is almost laughable.

But once you get over the novelty of that image, it is both frighting and sad, and that's what the story is ultimately about. The sadness of uncertainty, especially about love. The tune becomes a haunting reminder of all the losses for Craig's Bond, and the fear that he can never have the real love and stability that he professes to want. A lot of people have said that they see this movie as a remake of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. They believe the relationship with Madeleine is doomed. If that is true, then the music has perfectly captured that notion. I'm not a 100% convinced but I am a lot closer to seeing this as a lesser Shirley Bassey effort rather than a miserable Madonna failure.

My final criticism in the original review was about the climax of the film. The damsel in distress card is played and that is such a conventional moment. It was also arrived at quickly and without much sense. Madeleine leaves Bond abruptly, disappears and ends up tied to the railroad tracks, oops, sorry, tied up in the building about to explode, and Bond has to find her. Their exit from the building is really solid however and the music score pumps up the boat/helicopter chase pretty well. I love the fact that M,Q, and Moneypenny have something to do at the end, but it is a little disconcerting that the new intelligence agency, that is supposed to be state of the art, has no alarms, guards or obvious security. The anti-terror squad shows up at a helicopter crash in less than a minute, but the head of the new inter-agency intelligence network takes a header 15 stories down into the lobby of the headquarters and no one shows up except our crew.

Finally, although it comes before the credits, there is a bit of a stinger and the producers know exactly where to hit a real Bond fan to make us want more. A miraculous resurrection is lingered over with a shot of the historically significant gear shift knob, and 007s oldest ally comes in to slap us awake at the exit. Cue the original theme played over the scene in perfect placement and now I want to see the movie again and I can't wait until the next installment shows up. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

2016 (2015) Oscar Nominated Shorts

This is the second year I was lucky enough to find the Shorts HD Channel program of Oscar Nominated Short Live Action and Animated Films program at a nearby theater. These films are often the unsung gems of the film year. They are all excellent examples of what can be accomplished in their format and if you find this program playing anywhere near you be sure to check it out.

Live Action Shorts

Let me warn you right off the bat, that this is a grueling experience. Of the five films nominated, only one has a fairly light subject and somewhat sunny demeanor. The remaining four all are excellent but display varying amounts of grimness that will be a challenge to get through. Three of them in particular might be so disturbing ass to cause you to rethink having the experience. 

Ave Maria

The program started with the lightest of the films, a cross cultural dip into religious practices complicated by being set in the West Bank. Some of it is slap stick like in it's humor but most of it will seem familiar to anyone who has a complicated relationship with their family or their religious customs.

SHOK (Friend)

This is a devastating slice of life about the horrors of the Serbian genocides of the 1990s. It is centered around the friendship of two preteen boys, struggling to live in war torn Serbia/Albania. Reflecting on it afterwards made me tear up and hope to heaven that such awful behaviors can be wiped from the planet. Imagine some of the attitudes of the Nazis, transplanted to modern day Eastern Europe and you will know what might be coming. As a story, it might be the strongest of the films.

Everything will be OK

There is a haunted tone around the story in spite of several moments of warmth. A creeping desperation seems to seep out of the main character, a divorced German father who is spoiling his daughter on his visitation weekend. Sadness surrounds the movie even more as we begin to see where the movie is headed. The end is heartbreaking, regardless of what you think about the actions the father is taking.

Day One

An American woman of Afghan heritage joins an army platoon on it's mission in Afghanistan as a translator. The complicated cultural and political issues are explored in a tense sequence of events involving a surprising development in the process of trying to run down a maker of IEDs. There is humanity in everyone that we meet but there is also heart break and danger. This was the film that seemed most accomplished to me from a cinematic point of view. It is shot and directed very effectively and the actors are all convincing.


Human communication is a necessity for us to exist as functioning beings. Imagine having the emotions and vocabulary to be a great romantic with a streak of poetry and philosophy, but you are denied the ability to exercise those gifts by a communication disorder. This movie had sadness on longing in almost every frame. It ends with a brief moment of hope that makes it worth the effort to sit through one man's personal tragedy.

Animated Shorts

 Sanjay's Super Team

This years Pixar offering is an ode to a Father Son relationship, based in cultural traditions but challenged by modern media. Wordless but poignant for all, it is the most accessible film of the five that were nominated.

Bear Story

If you have ever read a John Irving novel, you should be well prepared for how morose a bear can be. This is an absolutely beautiful and amazing piece of animation that gives you a ticket to the saddest circus ever. The most depressed people in the world are apparently animators.

World of Tomorrow

One of my students happened to recommend this to me the other day, I did not realize it was animated nor did I know it was nominated. There is a sarcastic wit to the film and it offers a depressing interpretation of the future. Cleverly written and performed by the voice actors, it is the least amazing artistic achievement, but it does have some terrific dialogue.

We Can't Live without Cosmos

This was a delightful piece of entertainment that takes a sober turn but never seems to be morose. A couple of astronauts in training find ways to amuse and prepare themselves for the great adventure in space. They are kindred spirits that cannot be separated by distance or existing in different dimensions. It's a little weird but very accessible anyway.


This film is from animation master Richard Williams, who is responsible for the animation in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." It is a depiction of a battle during Athenian and Spartan wars. It features nudity and violence that is pretty graphic for an animated project. It is a traditional hand drawn project that was completed over a number of years. The pencil drawings are the most impressive thing I saw in the animated program. I would probably choose this as the winner if I were voting.

There were three or four other Animated shorts but I did not write down the titles and after looking around on line for half an hour trying to find a list, I gave up. The ones listed above are the nominated films this year. 


Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Finest Hours

There may be films that deserve their box office fate. I have yet to see "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" so I can't say it does not earn it's economic failure. I can say I've seen a number of films over the years that should have been more successful and popular than they turned out to be. Unfortunately, this film looks like it will fall into that second category; an excellent film that will not connect with the audience for some reason. It is difficult for me to fathom why that is the case, since it features a young popular actor in the lead, terrific special effects, and a dramatic story that is worth telling. Maybe the January release date or the sobering real life drama are scaring people awy. Or maybe we have finally gotten to the point where adult films don't draw anyone in if they don't feature blood, sex, violence and language that would put an old time sailor to shame.

The Coast Guard is a misunderstood and sometimes overlooked part of our military, but their action contribute on a daily basis to our security and even more important to safety on the seas. This is a true story about the efforts of a small Coast Guard crew, in an undersized boat, fighting the elements to save a large group of men in a maritime disaster. I have always appreciated when movies show competent people doing their jobs and managing to make the world better. The engineers at NASA are a good example but so are the teachers in our schools and the hospital staffs that try to help us. They are not always perfect, but when everyone does their best, then the results are rewarding, That's really what this film is about. Not just the Coast Guard crew but the men who survived the break up of their ship in hurricane like conditions, but managed to give themselves enough time to allow help to arrive.

As old fashioned as a salute to the flag or a boy scout troop, "The Finest Hours" is very straightforward in it's story telling. There is a small back story about the man who led the rescue and his future bride, and hints of a failed previous rescue,but other than that the movie sticks to a straight narrative of the events, following the Coast Guard process and in a parallel narrative, the efforts of the crew of the Pendelton, the sinking ship, to save themselves. There is not an ironic view of the events, or any social commentary offered, it is simply a rescue story, well told both visually and in the narrative. Certainly some events may have been enhanced for the film but nothing untoward happens from a cinematic perspective. Maybe modern audience won't get chocked up by the way the sailors volunteered for what is essentially a suicide mission, but I know I did. These men signed up for the purpose of making a difference and they did not shirk their responsibility, even when it was a threat to their survival.

Chris Pine plays Bernie Webster, (at one time described as a bosom's mate. I don't know the ranks well enough to say, but he captains the rescue boat. Pine in the early scenes is portrayed as an uncertain innocent. He even has to have his girlfriend ask him to marry him. He does not seem like the decision making leader, but rather a stalwart man, capable of doing a job, but reluctant to assert himself. The post war setting in Massachusetts looked very authentic to me. The women wore dresses and the men wore collared shirts and they dance and drive like real people, not like the cartoon caricatures of people we see in movies today. Casey Afflect plays the chief engineer of the broken tanker and he is equally quiet but needs to step up if the men on his ship are to survive. There was not a lot of melodrama in the ship side story, just the usual stress that a life threatening experience is likely to produce. The land based drama is a bit thicker but it never overwhelms the basic story.

There are heroic moments and close calls and a number of lucky breaks depicted in the film. At one point it looked like Eric Bana's  Commander Cluff was going to be a bad guy in the story, instead he turns out to simply be the level headed military structure that the system depends on. He has to make tough choices and they are not always correct, but there was never any level of malevolence in those orders. Holliday Granger is the pretty girl that Pine leaves at home but serves as our surrogate for worry during the adventure. Everyone looks great in the period costumes and they all carry off those northeaster accents admirably. Ben Foster is a sturdy number two on the rescue boat, and he has become a very solid character actor, especially in these military based stories. Everyone was excellent, and I noticed that Carter Burwell did the music for this. He was able to better serve this film than the other weekend film I saw on which he also worked, yesterday's disappointing "Hail, Caesar!"  I would strongly recommend this film to all of you who don't mind an old fashioned drama, brought together by competent pros.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Hail, Caesar!

I like Coen Brothers movies as much as the next person. I do think they have a sense of humor that fits their film making skills well, when there is a coherent plot driven story that has a solid end point in mind. When they have stretched out into comedy, they are a little more hit and miss. "Raising Arizona" and "O Brother Where Art Thou?" are examples of their success with straight comedy, solid home runs. "The Hudsucker Proxy" and "The Lady Killers" are illustrations of a swing and a miss. Sticking with the baseball metaphor, "Hail, Caesar!" is a foul tip. It makes contact but never reaches the field of play enough to create any sense of it being an essential film.

The story, as it is, mostly follows the travails of Eddie Mannix, the "Head of Physical Production", whatever that means , at Capital Pictures. This is the same real life character played by Bob Hoskins in "Hollywoodland" a decade ago. Instead a a sober and somewhat ominous figure as he was presented in that film, here as played by Josh Brolin, he is a guilt ridden workaholic who has doubts about the value of his job but does it extremely well. Although there are comic aspects to what goes on, Brolin never plays him as a fool, and it is the circus around him that provides most of the laughs. As straight man to a variety of insane people, Brolin still manages to be occasionally funny while remaining a realistic character. The same cannot be said for most of the other featured players.

Scarlett Johansson is barely in the film, and her character has almost no personality except for boredom. George Cloony seems to be reprising his role as a dimwit with delusions of deep thought like his character from "O'Brother". His very last scene he actually does what a movie star should do, but the purpose is to subvert the moment for a laugh. Ralph Fiennes has one solid scene and then another where he is mostly background. Tilda Swinton is playing dual characters, who are basically the same person anyway, and the part requires no real talent except being bitchy and tall. Francis McDormand and Jonah Hill each have one scene, and neither of them is connected to the main story [Main story being a euphemism for "plot point used to sell the movie"] . This film is all over the place, it leaves the biggest stars struggling to find something to do and it never develops any sense of urgency.

It's 1951, and the studio system can see the future, and so can a group of communist writers. Those forces clash against a background of studio intrigue, none of which seems to be particularly connected to anything else going on in the film. The location however does give us an opportunity to see some fun parodies of film making from the era. Alden Ehrenreich should be the breakout star of the movie. He plays a Singing cowboy star who is cast in a sophisticated drama and becomes incidentally tied up with the kidnapping plot highlighted in the trailer. He is quite good playing a guy out of his depths in some circumstances but at the top of the heap in others. Had his story been the centerpiece of the film, I think the movie would have held together a lot better. The other high point of the film is Channing Tatum, lampooning the star system with a turn as a movie hoofer with a secret. The dance number he stars in is the best moment in the movie, it is well staged, funny as heck and should get a laugh from all those who see homoeroticism in every 50s film.

I'm glad that artists as successful as the Cohen Brothers are, can take chances and work in different film genres and experiment. I just wish that this film had been more successful. There are several great scenes and good laughs, but it barely resembles a film and it is clearly full of indulgences that feel like someone is taking advantage of their position. I would never tell people to stay away, but unless you are a completest, you will be perfectly fine waiting for their next attempt. No one wants to be disappointed with a movie they chose to see and I think most people will find this film to be just that.