Friday, September 13, 2019

Breaking Away 40th Anniversary Screening Egyptian Theater: American Cinematique

It has been nine years since my original post on this film from the Summer of 1979. I'm sure that I have revisited this movie at least once in that time but not in a theater so it was not included in any post that I have done in the intervening decade. Since the original post was included in my "Movie A Day" project, it is heavy with personal remembrances and observations about the events in my life when I first saw the film. "Breaking Away" was a movie that was released at a pivotal time in my life and that is one reason I cherish it.



Other than my personal reflections however, there are a huge number of reasons to love this movie and they were all on display last night at the Egyptian Theater. The American Cinematique had wrangled up a large portion of the cast to come and talk to us about the film, and the stories they shared about their casting, acting and behind the scenes moments were fascinating. First however, a few notes about the movie itself.

For those of you who are not familiar with the film, let me give you a quick thumbnail infocluster to bring you up to speed. "Breaking Away" is a combination of "Rocky" and "Stand by Me", with a slightly older cast, no serious threat of violence, and bicycles instead of boxing gloves. It is a positive twist on the coming of age story, one where the family is strengthened by the events of the film rather than damaged by them. Dave, the enthusiastic cyclist played by Dennis Christopher, is a young man in search of himself, but somewhat blinded by his friendships with the high school buddies he hangs out with. His father despairs of him ever doing something with his life and is even more frustrated by the personae his son has adopted, as an Italian immigrant. Dave is not delusional or deranged, he is merely caught up in his idol worship of the Italian Cycling team from Cinzano. The fantasy feeds his own skills and determination when training and it offers a refuge from the uncertainty of the future.

Although his friends are a major component of the film, and they are listed as the lead characters of the movie, the real relationships that are the basis of what happens are those that Dave has with his parents. Oscar Nominated Barbara Barrie, is a supportive, patient and soothing rock that Dave can always feel as the foundation of his existence. We learned last night, that the critical scene where she shows Dave her Passport and dreams of the things it might represent to her and others, was largely improvised by the two actors. Her smile and demeanor, and the way she holds the passport up for him to see as she subtly suggests he take advantages of all the opportunities before him, is probably the moment that cinched her recognition by the Academy.

As great as Barbara Barrie is in the film, she is matched moment by moment by the actor Paul
Dooley playing Dave's exasperated father. Mr. Dooley was present last night for the screening. He sat in the row behind me and was there for half an hour at least before the movie began. One fan approached him in search of an autograph which he graciously provided. I am a long time resident of Southern California. Celebrity sightings are not uncommon and I have always tried to be polite and non-intrusive, but I have to admit his presence got the best of me last night. Instead of remaining detached and respectful of his space, I did approach him as I headed up to the lobby before the show, I offered my hand and a brief admiration of his performance. As I'm sure he has heard a thousand times before, I shared how his performance reminded me of my own father and he smiled and said that he modeled his role on his father. He mentioned that fact again in the conversation after the film with the whole audience, but for that moment, it felt like we were sharing a thought just between the two of us. I have always maintained that he was overlooked that year for acting honors and I hope that the good wishes of fans like me can compensate a bit for that oversight. In the movie he is gruff, romantic, sarcastic and ultimately the kind of father that all of us would love to have.

Mike, Cyril, and Moocher are the three friends that Dave has tied his fate to at the moment. The screenplay, which won the Academy Award that year, treats each of these characters in a complete way. Not all of their problems are solved at the end of the movie, but we know them better and they are on a clearer path than before the story unfolded. Dennis Quaid is the embittered Mike, a high school football star doomed to watch other young men achieve athletic success at the University while he fades away. Mike is not a sympathetic character for much of the film. He acts like a local bully as a way of retaining some sense of worth, and he demeans his friends when they suggest that they need to move on. Of the four young men, he needs to do the most maturing if his life is to get better.

Cyril and Moocher are less critical to the main events but they are essential to understand the relational dynamics going on. Cyril is the put upon, sad faced joker of the group. He is the Eeyore to Dave's Pooh. Daniel Stern, who has had a terrific career starring in comedies that most of us know well, was also present last night. He talked about his own casting, and how he really was not sure that he'd gotten the part. This was his first film and his enthusiasm was infectious. He and Dennis Christopher had to keep prompting one another on memories of shooting the film. Before he sat down, he proudly displayed the Cutters t-shirt he was wearing under his jacket. While there is certainly progress in the growing up of the kids in the story, as I said before, not everything is resolved. In the group celebration shot near the end of the movie, everyone has someone to celebrate with except Cyril, who still looks lost despite the accomplishment of the group. A good acting and directing choice. Moocher has a young wife and unbridled optimism at the future. Jackie Earle Haley was not present last night but all the cast members were very enthusiastic about what he brought to the film, and they recalled at the time, he was the biggest name in the cast having recently done the Bad News Bears movies.

Also attending the screening was actor Hart Bochner who played the Fraternity boy antagonist, Rod. Islands in the Stream". Although Rod might be seen as the bad guy in the movie, he really has little malice in his part. Most of the time he is reacting to the townskids. When the college kids go to the quarry to swim, the Cutters give them the cold shoulder. He reacts like a jealous boyfriend when the girl he is dating gets flowers and serenaded by an "Italian" exchange student. The only time he really seems to be a douche is when he is hitting on another co-ed as he drives her around campus. Bochner has a very effective moment of empathy and self loathing when Mike bashes his head on the quarry wall while racing Rod. Bochner also had to prompt Dennis Christopher on a couple of his memories about training for the movie.
This was only his second movie, after a film I wrote about earlier this summer "

One memory that Christopher did not need to be prompted on was the first day of shooting. He was extremely unhappy with the costumes and hairstyle that had been chosen for him. The implication was that he was a greaser rather than the naive young man embracing a fantasy identity. His self doubts were communicated to director Peter Yates and the actor and director altered to character to more closely reflect Dave as Dennis Christopher conceived him. It was a wise choice because Dave need to be the sympathetic center of the story and the other perspective would have undermined the audience reaction.

Both Stern and Christopher were moved by their participation in this film, early in their careers. Paul Dooley proudly stated that it was the best movie he ever appeared in and he thought it was his own best performance. I can't think of a reason to second guess any of these men. They also spoke very highly of the work done by actress Robyn Douglass who played Kathy, the girl that Dave is pursuing in his fake persona. All of them were also effusive in citing director Peter Yates as having a strong influence of the film. One of them mentioned how interesting it was that it took a British director to find the truth in an American family. Yates also helped shepard what were two screenplays into one, which turned the story into a more complete picture.

It is evenings like this which make living in the Los Angeles area worthwhile and the American Cinematique, whatever financial or management issues it might be facing, still knows how to put on a show.

courtesy American Cinematique

Monday, September 9, 2019

Ready or Not



Human beings are incredibly complex animals. While it is true that we have the same basic physical characteristics as other animals, for the moment, we are the only ones who can create elaborate stories to amuse ourselves. The detail, intricacy and inventiveness of some stories is amazing. The MCU has woven together twenty or so films so that ideas are connected in fairly logical ways. That is amazing. What is also amazing are the premises that we can invent for a story to exist in. "Ready or Not" doesn't have the internal logic of a comic book universe. It does not unify a variety of different story lines into a coherent single narrative like some films attempt to do [ex: Babel, Crash etc.]. This movie has only one idea, but it is a pretty good one. New members of a rich family must participate in a game ritual before they are truly accepted into the clan. That's all, except of course it isn't.

As a device for entertaining us, "Ready or Not" is a morbid little piece of film making that takes it's premise seriously, in spite of how preposterous it is. There are exit strategies available to the young couple which would abrogate all that follows, but that would deny us the pleasure of seeing the premise play out. So forget how the rules are supposed to work. Don't worry about internal consistency. Just sit back and watch the mayhem, root for the heroine and laugh at the gruesome macabre sense of humor that the story tellers have come up with.  Samara Weaving , a doppelganger for  Margot Robbie, plays Grace, the bride who is joining the eccentric and ultimately evil Le Domas family. Once the trap has been sprung, the movie is a series of escapes, close calls, character reveals and assorted Road Runner/Coyote antics, all with a heavy dose of violence.

The nice part of the story is we will actually like Grace. She is not a gold digger, she just happened to fall in love with the wrong man. The collection of misfits in the family is fun to watch because their privilege is so clearly on the surface and so exaggerated, no one will take this as a serious commentary on the haves and the have nots.  If you read a review of this movie that takes that point of view, be careful, the author is just full of it and you are being indoctrinated rather than informed by reading such clap trap. This is purely a work of imagination, a disturbed imagination, but certainly one that wants to amuse us rather than comment on the world around us. Grace discovers her situation, takes an appropriate amount of time to adjust to it, and then acts in a way that any of us might try as well. She continues to be a sound human being, and each time the horrible people she is up against try to take advantage of that. When at the end, the nature of the family "curse/agreement" is explained, it may seem over the top, but remember, this is just a story to entertain you.

The family is filled with quirky Aunts, entitled parents, climbing nephews and nieces, and some pretty unsympathetic help. This is another one of the places that makes little sense given the rules established in the story. Why the housekeepers and butler would be part of the ritual is not really explained, but why are you asking? This is about playing a game for no reason other than the fun of it. When random characters are dispatched by accident we will laugh at the sadistic way the writers found to visualize it on screen. As we see how inept some of the family is, we will be amused when those are the people who cause the mistakes or suffer the consequences of said mistakes.  All that we want is to keep rooting for the sympathetic Grace and wait for the comeuppance the family is earning for itself. The twists and turns are what this is all about.

Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell and Adam Brody are faces I know from other films and that may be why they leave the biggest impression. Czerny is the cavalier head of the family who can't believe that anyone might challenge the established order of their universe. He also is the exasperated voice of the family when the unfortunate relatives screw up. MacDowell has moved from being the ingenue in the story, to being the main romantic lead, and now to the matron role that aging actresses get saddled with. The false sympathy she conveys shows that she has grown as an actress, who had to be dubbed in her first film, to someone who is competent in conveying a character, regardless of how realistic that character is. Adam Brody is on the brink of outgrowing the young callow characters he is playing in most things, but he got more to do in this film than he did in "Shazam!" earlier this year.

It says something about people when they can invent the scenario that comes up here. It might say even more about us that we could be amused by that scenario. This is a dark hearted comedy thriller. If you have the kind of sensibility that allows for you to laugh a a stranger's unfortunate demise, then you will probably enjoy this film. If you require that a story be logically consistent and exist in a real world scenario, better you stay away. If you have a sick appreciation of the absurd however, you will find this movie a romp right down your alley. Now all we have to do, is figure out which kind of player you are.


Saturday, September 7, 2019

It Chapter Two



Two years ago, the trailer for "It" built enough anticipation to make a slightly above average horror film, into a monster hit. That original trailer showed us next to nothing, other than the scene that introduces us to Pennywise the clown, in the gutter, tempting little Georgie. When the rest of the film showed up, it could not live up to that terrifying and suspenseful three minutes. They certainly tried with some clever effects and good performances from the young cast. Fans of the book knew there was more coming and naturally Chapter Two was a forgone conclusion.

The pattern repeats itself here. The first film gives us the promise of something special, and we waited two years for it. What we got was pretty average and not nearly as scary as that original trailer for the first film. The trailers for this movie also gave away too many of the creepy moments that would work better as a surprise.

I will say that the opening of the film works very well. A brutal confrontation with small town bigots actually makes us wish for Pennywise to show up and dispatch these a**holes as soon as possible, but first we are reminded about how evil the clown is, and that his return under any circumstances would not be desirable. After a few chilling images that suggest things have started up again, we get a basic quest film story. First the heroes must gather, most reluctantly. Then each of them has to complete a quest individually, in order to proceed to battle, and then finally they all have to come together and work as a team. If you've seen it once, you've seen it a thousand times.

Probably because the book was so dense, there is some exposition that has to be rushed. It sure seems awkward when one character basically roofies another with psychedelic activated natural juices to get him to share his visions. It was also unclear why, after all the losers have gathered and been subjected to a psychic attack from Pennywise, that they still need to be convinced. The idea that their memories have faded after leaving town is an interesting one but not very well explored. Since the film ends up being the better part of three hours anyway, maybe trim the bloated visual effects at the end, and build and solve this mystery at the beginning. 

The individual quests are reasonably entertaining, but there is an element of repetitiveness to them. After the first jump scare with a truly disturbing visual effect, the subsequent experience are a series of diminishing returns that rob the story of any drive and frequently take us down a path of confusion that is never really developed or needed. Jessica Chastain as the grown version ofthe lone girl in the first film is fine.  Bev's trip down memory lane was the standout in this set of moments, but it was also the one that was featured in the original teaser trailer so that the only surprize is the last minute creature effect that gives us a jump scare. Maybe I'm a little jaded having watched two other horror films the day before, but I had none of the anticipation of dread that filled the first film.

There is a running joke about how Bill played by James McAvoy, as a grown man who is now an author of thrillers, is not very good at creating endings for his story. We get that joke at least three times, including a delivery of the punchline by the actual author of this story. I suppose the point of this was to prepare us for the let down of an ending we get here. The best moments of emotional satisfaction in the relationships between the characters, get drowned out by an overblown CGI sequence which features the cast chanting a message that feels pretty hollow. It also goes on, and on. Some many things that had to be condensed, were reduced to give us more of this, the least interesting and frightening part of the film. The coda has some nice moments, Bill Hader steals most of the movie and there is a clever bookend that ties in to the introduction, but the voice over material is overwrought and goes on far too long as well.

"It Chapter Two" is a disappointment from a horror perspective but it is visually inventive and there are a few jump scares that will probably satisfy fans. I really wanted to like it better. Unfortunately, that was true of the original film as well. The adult casting of the kids from the original is solid. Those kids are also back in a series of flashback points that elaborate on the end of the first film and fill in some narrative spots for this story.   

Friday, September 6, 2019

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark



The short stories that this film is based on were apparently popular for several years and encouraged an interactive view of reading, with deliberate shouting at jump scare moments or a cleverly timed flashlight or hand touch. This is just the thing for adolescent ghost stories, told at a camp, retreat or sleepover. The film repeats the concept if not the exact stories. It is directed at a maturing tween audience, thus it is rated PG-13, with a good amount of creepiness but a very short supply of gore. It is a family friendly horror film that can be appreciated by mild core fans rather than just the hard cores gore crowd.

Back in the 1980s, this might have been an anthology film, like "Creepshow", "Cat's Eye", "Twilight Zone:The Movie" or "Tales From the Dark Side". Someone, probably co-screenwriter and producer Guillermo del Toro, decided to string the stories together in a single narrative that feels very episodic anyway. The concept does have the advantage of giving the audience a little more time to care about the main characters and what is going to happen to them. The thread of the book written by a spirit as a story plays out is just enough to make the plot work at moving forward coherently.

"Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" plays like a demented version of "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory". As each victim gets singled out by a specialized need they have and it gets woven into the story, characters start to disappear. Unlike the Chocolate Factory however, there are no Ommpa Lumpas to make things right afterward. While it starts out as a haunted house movie, it really follows the curse plotline much more of the time. The doomed protagonists try to figure out what fate will befall them, and then the group reacts. There are some pretty good sight gags and more than a few jump scares to keep us interested. There are a couple of things however that don't make a lot of sense.

Setting the story in the week between Halloween and the Election of 1968 does not seem necessary. Everytime we get some background on the Vietnam War or the campaign, it takes us out of the main idea of the story and redirects our attention. There is one minor plot point that might require this time period, but it seems so obscure and last minute when it gets dropped in, that most of the audience, especially the kids that this is directed at, will shrug their shoulders and wonder why this is being presented as a history lesson instead of a contemporary story.

This is a movie that will have a long future at Halloween film events focusing on kids. Maybe we can stop pretending that "Hocus Pocus" is a good Halloween movie, and instead get kids to watch something like this. It sure does feel like it is being set up for a series of sequel type films, but the producers may have painted themselves into a nostalgia corner with the time setting. I guess we will see in a couple of years. 

47 Meters Down: Uncaged



As is readily apparent on this site,we have a soft spot for shark movies. We even see the bad ones, although I have to admit, I've missed a few of the "Sharknado" sequels. Two years ago there was a fun surprise when a movie which was saved from straight to video got a theatrical release and "47 Meters Down" turned out to be a modest hit. It was also a solid summer shark feature with an interesting premise, the perspectives of the shark attacks will be underwater rather than on the surface. Here we are two years later and it is time for a sequel of sorts.

Director Johannes Roberts returns to the subject of sharks underwater with a different cast and modified premise. So the only thing that you need to know from the original film is that there are sharks, otherwise the two stories are completely unrelated to each other. This one starts off with a pretty standard high school girls story. A awkward outcast is tortured at her new school by a Queen Bee and her minions. Her step sister refuses to step in and a tension filled family dynamic is set up. The father in the blended family, played by John Corbett, is an archaeologist, working on a sunken Mayan set of ruins. He attempts to have the two reluctant sisters bond over an expedition to a Great White Diving experience, but the more popular sister's friends have a different plan in store and in an attempt to try to bond, the reluctant sister accompanies the group of friends. It turns out that one of the girls is dating the Dad's assistant and he has shown her the access point to the underwater caverns. You can pretty much guess what happens from there.

The four girls all seem interesting and are stereo-typically cute, and they engage in the sort of group think behavior that would be likely in those circumstances. The underwater sequences are filmed in a supposed maze of ruins with a Mayan alter in the center. The girls believe their father is operating on the far end of the site so they think they can get away with this expedition. Cue the sharks. Oh and by the way, they are not just sharks. Since they have evolved in an enclosed area, their are sightless. That's right, the threat will come from blind shark, Great Whites in particular. The second threat, which is a repeat of the premise in the original film, comes from the dwindling air supply of the four girls. Modern radio systems seem to allow the girls to speak to one another or anyone else in range while underwater, so that eliminates the need for a lot of pantomime or hand signals. They can scream in fear and offer narrative exposition as necessary.

So a combination of disoriented divers, cave ins, strong currents and of course blind sharks, are used to create the suspense of this film for the rest of the run time. The logic of what is happening is not exactly credible, but it is way ahead of "Sharknados" and as a result, real tension does build up. There are plenty of jump scares and a few moments of release, but like all films that involve jeopardy in nature, there is always one more thing that can go wrong. Let me assure you that plenty of people die from shark attack and that the visualization is effective if not as horrifying as the deaths we saw earlier in the summer in "Crawl".

The alligator movie is a lot better than this film is, but I am not asking too much of this, just that it entertain me with shark related peril for a while, it does that. The director is competent in making the underwater action thrilling is not always entirely plausible. The four actresses have some TV credits and a couple of movies but they are largely fresh faces. Two of those fresh faces however belong to families that you are likely to know. Sistine Stallone, who plays the bratty friend makes her film debut in this movie, following a path blazed by her father, who you all know as Rocky. Corinne Foxx, the slightly older step-sister is the progeny of actor Jamie Foxx. After they are all underwater, it is hard to evaluate any of the actresses on their thespian skills, but no one makes the kind of misstep that would otherwise ruin this slightly preposterous nature thriller.

  

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Lawrence of Arabia End of Summer 2019



OK, yes, we went to see Lawrence again. I know this is getting a little redundant, but as I have said in the past, if you can see a movie you love on the big screen, jump at the chance. After all, life is short and you never know when the opportunity will arise again. We had planned on going to this Fathom event on Sunday, but after two late nights before and some planning of a birthday for the next day, we slid back into the Wednesday afternoon screening. This was the full roadshow presentation, with Overture and intermission. TCM Host Ben Mankiewicz introduced the film with some details about the casting process. Apparently a lot of money was spent on a screen test of Albert Finney but he fell out. Marlon Brando never responded to offers and when O'Toole was tested, halfway thru the test, Lean stopped and felt he had found his star.

I always try to find a little something different to emphasize about a film that I have written about before. It has gotten tougher over the years, because of the number of times I have seen certain films [Jaws and Lawrence stand out, but you can add almost every Bond film as well], to find a new angle. As I was sitting in the theater and the lights had gone completely out for the overture (modern theaters don't quite get it), I was immersed in the score without any other sensory data. That inspired me to try and pay particular attention to the sound design of the film and the music cues. "Lawrence" is a film that is noted for it's visual sweep and rightly so. I think it is also true that it is aurally a majestic piece of work as well.

The Academy Award winning score by Maurice Jarre is noteworthy because of the familiar title theme, but there is so much more in this film that the music enhances. The familiar melody reoccurs of course but there are other sections of music that are quiet and contemplative or strident and martial. They are integrated into the action seamlessly in every scene in the movie. What is also well crafted by David Lean and Jarre is the absence of music in some sections. The desert at night is often quiet. When Lawrence is thinking about the idea of attacking Aqaba there is an ominous score but as they travel under the stars later, it is eerily quiet.



In past posts I have mentioned the sound of the  creaking tent poles in Faisal's tent as the wind moves over the structure. There are dozens of other moments where the sound is equally important. At the well, listen to the echo as Tafas tosses the goatskin receptacle down to gather up some water for he and Lawrence. The ominous silence foreshadows the visual scene that is about to take place. When Lawrence is singing out to the echo and it is being heard by Brighton, the effect is staggering at suggesting the distances at which they are communicating with one another. The sound of the camels and horses at Auda's camp is like thunder rolling over the dunes. Train whistles and steamboat horns also jump out at times, creating the equivalent of an audio jump scare. The clanging of two ladles, hanging from the animal of the retreating Turkish troops, builds an anticipation of the bloodbath that is about to begin.

From the beginning of the film, sound swallows us up before there is any dialogue. Lawrence's motorcycle revs up as he takes off from his starting point and it ratchets up and down as he cruises through the English countryside. Note however the distinct difference in sound when the vehicle travels over the rise and we hear a hushed spinning of the wheels rather than the engine roar we had before. Every step of this film had little moments of genius like that, and then Jarre's music cue would top it off immaculately. Frankly, I could have sat in the theater in the dark and listened to the score on the sound system and been happy. My emotions can be easily manipulated with the right musical note. Once again, my whole body shuddered with delight at the artistry of the film makers when we go to intermission.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Farewell



Here is another opportunity to visit with a different culture and see how it contrasts to the one you likely fit in. An immigrant Chinese Family returns to China to see an ill grandmother, but the extent of the illness is to be kept from the woman because of family expectations. When the granddaughter and her parents express their doubts about this choice, they explain to her Uncle, that it would not even be possible to keep this information from the woman, in the U.S. it would be illegal.  That's a pretty stark contrast in values and there are other places where the differences come up as well.

Billi, the character played by star Awkafina, is devoted to her grandmother, speaking to her on the phone on a regular basis, even though it has been years since they have been together. Her parents are willing to go along with the charade, both out of duty but also because they too believe it is a wise thing to do. Billi is invited to not travel to the makeshift wedding of her cousin that has been established as the subterfuge to justify all the family members arriving simultaneously. Her parents do not believe she can be trusted to withhold her grief from Grandma [Nai Nai]. This is certainly true as the story goes on, because Billi cannot retrain herself from going to China and she is not a good enough actor to hide the fact that something is wrong. Awkafina on the other hand seems to be a good enough actress to show us all of those things about Billi, sometimes in narrative but usually in demonstration. Her bowed head and slumped shoulders are a giveaway that she is beaten down by life but especially by this moment in her life.

This story may pose an additional issue that is unrelated to a specific culture but is connected to all of us and our health. Ask yourself, "How important is my attitude toward the management of a heath crisis?" A doctor telling you that you only have so long to live, might actually be accelerating your decay by taking whatever wind out of your sails you may have had. Depression has got to contribute to the decline in quality of life and the foreknowledge of your diagnosis is certainly going to be depressing. There may in fact be people out there who are pursuing a different type of youth in Asia [That's a pun folks, not a misunderstanding of the word].

The story is ultimately a heart warming experience with a family in a period of crisis. In the long run, it is a family that does have each others best interests at heart so the conflicts are minor rather than melodramatic. Nai Nai is a hoot, she says the right thing at the right time and her loving attitude toward everyone is something we could all hope for. The one thing that will stand out for most people is that eating is a critical part of these relationships, and as we see food being prepared, served, argued about and consumed, you will certainly wonder where you can get some of the dishes that are featured.

On a side note: This film is primarily in Mandarin with English subtitles. There are many sections in English but at least two thirds are in non-english formats. There were three large groups of families who came to see the movie which is great, but the one family that sat next to us proved a bit of a problem. The seven or eight year old boy was clearly not interested and apparently not capable of reading effectively. His mother narrated all of the film that was not in English and it was incredibly distracting despite the fact she was not particularly loud. So we are hearing the words in one language, reading them in another, and hearing them again in the second language. It was an annoying echo that undermined the experience substantially, and when the mother had to explain some things to the child, it was even more problematic. This was a bad choice for them and it was a worse one for us. 

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Peanut Butter Falcon



I like all kinds of movies. Hollywood should adore a fan like me because I will turn out for the next tentpole blockbuster in the MCU, or a mainstream drama with major stars, or a gross out comedy or horror film. I also have a fondness for movies like our current subject, offbeat character pieces about subcultures and locations with which I am completely unfamiliar. Two examples from the last few years stick out for illustration purposes. "Moonlight", the Best Picture winner featuring the history of a gay black drug dealer. That is not something that connects with my experience in any way but it was compelling. "Mud", which should have been a Best Picture winner explores a Mississippi river community and the tangled relationships between adults and children, I thought it was the best film I saw in the year it came out. So in what ways are these films like "The Peanut Butter Falcon"?

Let me give you a thumbnail sketch of the movie and lets see if you can connect the dots. We have a Downs Syndrome, young adult, obsessive about TV style wrestling, who lives in the outer banks of North Carolina and gets involved with a disgraced crab fisherman. These are all cultures that I have had little or no contact with and my guess is most of the rest of us lack that connection as well. And this movie manages to bring us into those worlds, create a sense of empathy with those characters and build an emotional story that we will be engaged with for the time we spend with them. This is story telling rather than spectacle and I think that is as worthy of my time and money as any comic book movie would be.

Some might be put off by the presence of Shia LeBeouf in the cast. As a celebrity, he is problematic. Many of his antics are off putting and his persona might be objectionable. I really don't care much about those sort of things. As an actor I have found him to be fairly consistent in turning in quality performances, both in CGI behemoths and in independent projects. This is probably his best work as an actor that I can remember. His manner of speech is not quite dominated by an accent as it is representative of a lifestyle and culture.  While much of that is the dialogue he has been given, he has to find a way for it to seem natural, and he does that quite well. The physical aspects of his performance are also solid. He is a young man, beaten down by circumstances and haunted by guilt. He is capable of enjoying moments of levity but you can see in most of his scenes that there is a shadow that hangs over him and that it pushes down on him physically as well as emotionally. The best news is, he is not really the star of the picture and all of his work is a reflection that he is a supporting character in the story, even though he has a substantial amount of the screen time.

Newcomer Zack Gottsagen is the real star of the film. He is an actor with Downs syndrome who has to carry the weight of the story on his shoulders. His openness is the main hook that makes the performance viable. Although he is playing a character with the same condition he has, that character has distinctive behaviors and attitudes that are part of the script. Toward the end of the movie, there is a moment of doubt and fear that has never existed in his character Zac, prior to that instant. The actor makes it real and that is one of the places that makes this a true performance and not just stunt casting. He builds credible relations with the other two major players and a series of other characters as well.

Although the movie focuses on the relationship between the two actors I've mentioned so far, there are several others that deserve to be mentioned, not the least of whom is Dakota Johnson. This young woman has the good fortune or curse of having been the lead in the series of Mommy Porn films based on Twilight fan fiction which became so popular a few years ago. The movies are widely derided and it would be easy to dismiss her as a pretty face without commensurate talent. That would be a mistake. She was quite good in last year's "Bad Times at the El Royale" and she is touching and sincere in this film as well. She is a conflicted care giver who knows how difficult life for Zac can be, but she can also see the impact that the relationship Zac has with LaBeouf's character  is a positive one. There are three terrific actors in relatively small parts in the rest of the film, all three are former Academy Award nominees. John Hawkes is cast in his usual redneck image and he is the villain of the piece in spite of his character being largely in the right concerning his dispute with LaBeouf's Tyler.  Bruce Dern is in the early scenes as a sympathetic resident in Zac's care facility, and he adds some spunk to the proceedings early on. Finally, Thomas Haden Church may have the best character part since his role in "Sideways", as a wrestling figure from the past who is an inspiration to Zac.

The film has a great deal of humor based on character to offer us. Tyler does not start out very sympathetic either as a person or towards Zac. The film suggests that good will can manifest good relations and that those are the things we should value above everything else. The lack of good will exhibited by the facility administrators, the crab fishing rivals and a broken down wrestler are the reasons we can't appreciate their behaviors, even when they are somewhat understandable. Tyler on the other hand, in spite of his criminal acts, turns out to have good will in his heart, the story attempts to show us how someone can recover that by caring for another person. Sometimes these kinds of films are refereed to as "feel-good" movies.  Unfortunately that label might be seen as some as disparaging. In my opinion, this is a movie that makes you feel good because it plays honestly with the characters, not because it manipulates them or us. 

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Art of Racing in the Rain



If you look at this film from a cinematic perspective, you are unlikely to be impressed. It is well shot but there is nothing innovative here. The story is melodramatic, male weepy material, and the dog narrates. Those would be things that turn off serious film buffs but they are exactly the kinds of things that would sell this movie to a specific audience and make it work. Well, I'm that audience and guess what, on an emotional level it works. Movies where the dog is a featured character have been around forever and they usually are designed for one purpose, to wring as many tears out of a person as possible. Check that off the list, this movie brings the tears for dog lovers everywhere. From the opening scene, we know how the movie is going to end, and that includes not just the metaphorical puddle but a real one as well.

I've never seen "This is Us" the television series that features the star of this movie Milo Ventimiglia. He is apparently quite strong in that role since he has been Emmy nominated three years in a row, but this is my introduction to his work and he is fine. I don't know that there is much he can do with the role because he is basically a human punching bag with a side kick. The character of Denny Swift is an aspiring race car driver, who has opportunities snatched away from him and side roads in his life that turn into bad trips. All of that is tolerable because he has a dog with him to remind himself of the possibilities in life that he talks about regularly.

Amanda Seyfried has reached the stage in life where she has gone from playing the ingenue to playing the young mother. Her romance with Denny is swift and their life together is beautiful, until it is time for more stuff to hit the fan, then she becomes another plot point in the story. Human characters elicit empathy in movies when we are engaged in their lives, so the events that overtake her don't have the same impact as the third major character in the film. That third character is the one we will have all the emotional connection to. That third character is the dog.

Enzo is the name of the dog. He is played by at least three different golden retrievers, as a pup, a young healthy dog and the older wiser pooch we meet at the beginning of the story and at the end. In the first five minutes, the conclusion is foreshadowed and we get an hour and a half to gird ourselves for the denouement. It's still not enough time. In addition to being the world's friendliest looking dog, Enzo has the gravelly and still slightly whiney voice of Kevin Costner. The actor never appears on screen but he is the star of this movie, telling us the story from the perspective of the dog. I hope he got paid well because he earns all the emotional beats for the film's narratives. Speaking of getting paid, I am looking in the mailbox for our residual check. Look at these pictures.


Our dog may very well have snuck off and filmed this movie while we were not looking. The number of times there was an expression on Enzo's face that I have seen on our own dog's face is too numerous to catalog. If you control for lighting, these dogs are the same and even have the same inner voice (dog owners know what I mean).


There is nothing subtle about where this is heading. The manipulative plot devise that involves a custody dispute aside, the dog's arc is the backbone of the story. Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan have the thankless roles of antagonists in the later part of the story and Gary Cole provides his usual welcome presence in i small part as a mentor of sorts to Denny.  The best acting however is done by the dog and everyone knows that this is his film and let him walk away with the movie on all four paws. Bring your tissues because you will weep if you are a person who loves a dog.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Angel Has Fallen



So if it drives you crazy to see action films, franchised to extreme and you hate Gerard Butler and wonder who it is you can blame, well here I am baby. Let me have it. These movies would be a guilty pleasure except I have no guilt and those of you Butler haters out there can just move on, I have yet to fall out of love with the action flicks he is churning out in the last few years. "Olympus Has Fallen" started this series and it was definitely the superior of the White House under attack films of that year. "London Has Fallen" is not a particularly strong follow up to that first adventure of Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, but it did have a lot of combat scenes that were fun to watch up to a point. This third entry is not as clever as the first, but much more effective than the second.

Morgan Freeman is now President, although that seems to have been the case since 1998 [Maybe the Longest Term in Office Ever]. Some malarkey about new foreign policy constraints and the use of civilian contractors for military support is the plot point that moves the narrative forward. It really doesn't matter because all we really want is agent Banning kicking butts and causing mayhem wherever he turns up. Fortunately that's what we get. The man about to be named director of the Secret Service is framed to take the fall for an assassination of the man he is supposed to be protecting. There was no secret who the villain is, let's face it, you don't cast Danny Huston as a friendly and supportive sidekick. There is a man behind the man villain as well and although I was pretty sure what was going to be coming, there was a short period where they thew me off the track for two scenes and I thought my stereotypical assumption would turn out to be wrong. Nope, I was right, they just paused a beat before getting to it.

The middle of the film is a chase sequence that works pretty well and is different enough from the events in the second film to avoid feeling like a rehash. Mike has to escape both legitimate authority but also the bad guys who are trying to complete the frame. There are some shoot outs, a truck and car chase and Mike occasionally has to sit down with a headache.   Buckloads of good guys and bad guys get killed in the first sections of the film. The opening attack wipes out dozens of Secret Service agents. Turnaround is fair play and dozens of bad guys chasing Mike get creamed as well. Nick Nolte appears in the film and provides a big lift to the movie with a performance as a paranoid survivalist with a connection to our hero. Maybe laughing was inappropriate when a battalion of men is randomly blown to bits, but the demented glee of the character and the audiences joy in seeing tome turnabout left most of my matinee crowd chuckling.

I've not seen "Felon" or "Snitch" so I can't say exactly what Director Ric Roman Waugh's style is. This film makes it look very efficient and clear. There are some creative shots in the drone attack near the start of the film, and the opening "combat" sequence is distinctive so that we do get an idea that it is more video game than actual combat.  Overblown action scenes at the end don't usually make much narrative sense but they usually don't need to. They simply have to get us the resolution we are hoping for in an entertaining way. Bingo! that's what we got. The film cuts down on the name recognition talent the first two films used to get our attention, and doubles down with quality second tier players. Instead of Angela Basset we get Jada Pinket-Smith, leave out Melissa Leo, Jackie Earle Haley and Robert Forester and insert Tim Blake Nelson, Lance Reddick and Piper Perabo.  You don't need to have seen either of the earlier films to appreciate this one, just know that the cast change is unimportant, this series is all about action.

Well there is some political and topical material, these movies are not satires directed at any particular perspective. We don't know the party of the President, we don't have a lot of strum und drang involving high minded principles. This is straight 80s style action. Good guys and bad guys going at each other with some elaborate set pieces and enough personality in the background to keep us hanging on through the slower parts. I suspect the demographic for this will skew older. My reasoning is that the audience for this wants to stay awake, they don't really care about being woke. Now let's have Mike take his knife with the President to Moscow or Beijing. Time to kill some totalitarians, not just entrepreneurs. 

Monday, August 19, 2019

Where'd You Go, Bernadette



When you have a movie that you are not sure who the audience is, and it comes from a company that has shown incompetence when it comes to marketing, you get a film like this. Annapura Studios is on the brink of bankruptcy, not because of a creative vacuum but rather a lack of business sense. This is an arthouse style film, with bigger ambitions, which is going to be swallowed and spit out by the brutal dumping ground that late August often is. The film is not bad, it's just not anything that you can tell somebody it is. The team putting this into theaters is telling us it's a comedy, but you won't laugh much, you will smile occasionally and I think you may end up feeling a little sad afterward.

Not having read the book, I will tell you what I can fathom from the film. Bernadette Fox is a genius artist/architect who has had a serious mental problem after the outcome of one of her brilliant projects. Cate Blanchett has cornered the market on quirky female characters for twenty years now. If you want accents, get Meryl, if you want quirk, Cate is your date. As usual, she delivers a fine performance with a combination of comedic timing and appropriate dramatic punch at the right moments. Billy Crudup is her equally genius engineering type husband. Between the two of them, wealth is an afterthought. Foremost in their thoughts is their daughter Bee, played by newcomer Emma Nelson. Bernadette's problems are beginning to overwhelm her husband and  they create some issue for her fiercely loyal daughter as well.

This movie feels like a 1980s Meryl Streep feature. The story meanders and there are interesting characters, but there does not seem to be a point to the film except for the characters. There is a little bit of plot drama toward the end which makes the movie a lot more fulfilling but it depends and turning a couple of characters away from each other to get that drama. In the 1930s, Bernadette would be a madcap heiress that everybody indulges but in these times we can see she is emotionally and mentally challenged and indulging her has not really helped.

Director Richard Linklater has put the story together with cryptic notes about what sent her over the edge, most of which are revealed bit by bit as a video on YouTube. This gets some terrific actors in the movie in tiny parts that add to the whole quite well. David Paymer, Steve Zahn, Megan Mullally and Laurence Fishburne pop up and fill the background canvas of the story with needed color. Kristen Wiig is a harried neighbor who is played as an antagonist but has a deeper role to provide as the movie goes on. Judy Greer also has a more engaged part and she conveys a sympathy and insightfulness that Bernadette could use but like everything else she runs away from. I don't know that the resolution of the story is a pragmatic solution, after all mania is still a disorder, but for the audience it is emotionally satisfying.

"Where'd You Go, Bernadette"  is an odd concoction of ideas and characters. It worked well enough at times but I do think the choices about the Father/Daughter dynamic in the last third of the movie are problematic, at least when it comes to relating to the younger character. There are some sincere motivations but there is a bit of belligerence which was not evident earlier in the story and it feel inauthentic when directed at the other parent. That choice was especially iffy because of the crisis that the family faces.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Good Boys



I'm all for good will for original films. I don't want the world of movies reduced to Comic Book spectaculars and star driven franchises. There need to be good movies in all different classifications. Here is a tween comedy, with a risque script, foul mouthed kids and tons of sex and drug jokes. It's really fine and you should go see it, but be warned, the film is not as funny as it is being hyped up to be. This is a solid double for a summer youth comedy, it is not "Animal House" or "Superbad". In fact, as the movie goes along, the title becomes more and more apt.

Three kids, who are friends, are reaching maturity and like all insecure kids, they look for validation from their peer group. Most of what follows you have seen before, it's just that this time the kids use some language that they just don't use correctly. They find answers in the wrong places, and they make a couple of bad choices along the way. It is standard comedy material with the age twist being the main hook to the film.

The title gives away the main point of the film. Despite the hi jinks and foul language, these truly are three good kids just dealing with oncoming adolescence. They are friends, you know the kind of friends we have seen in movies like "Stand By Me" and Television shows like "Stranger Things". The story arc doesn't force them into a deep discussion of their relationships, there is too much insanity to focus on, but you can see that it is coming. All the kids question one another actions, with the best intentions but are incapable of diverting from doing something awkward and usually stupid. 

Unfortunately, the best gags are in the trailer. Those moments play pretty well but there are some punch lines from the trailer that are missing in the film and the humor is softened a bit as a result. I had at least two hard laughs at things that you haven't seen yet so that feels like a strong recommendation to make, but everything else is merely amusing rather than thigh slapping -spit in you eye uproarious.

I don't want to steer you away from "Good Boys", they are in fact pretty good. The sweet and sentimental aspects at the end of the movie are fine, it just may not be what you were expecting. If you can control your projected love of the idea of the film, you will be fine. Lower your sights and have a good time. 

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Blinded By the Light



So I actually saw this Monday night, at a screening that was promoted for Springsteen fans. I'm a fan of the Boss but my fandom does not go very deep. I probably would not be considered a true fan by most Springsteen devotees because I've never been to a live show and I don't own every album. I do appreciate his music however and I did start listening to him in the 1970s so I do have a pretty good idea how some people can be affected by the music and spirit of the songs. The reason it took me three more days to post on this is simple, I exhausted a lot of my thoughts about this movie discussing it with my daughter right afterwards, and it has taken this long to get the steam up to actually write about the movie.

First of all, I've seen two previous films from director Gurinder Chadra, "Bend it Like Beckham" and "Bride and Prejudice". I enjoyed the hell of them and have resisted each a couple of times. Her themes are heavily focused on the cultural divide, particularly between the British and those of her former colonies. That vein is rich enough to explore repeatedly, and this film does so also, no big surprise. What I did find surprising was how closely this movie matched "Bend it Like Beckham". The story arc is exactly the same and the emotional beats are repeated in the same order as well. You simply switch the genders of the leads, and change from soccer to music and it is the same story. Now since seventeen years have intervened between the two films that may not seem like such a big deal, but it undermines the originality of the Springsteen premise and it is one of the things holding my evaluation of the film back a little bit.

The main subject of the disagreement I had with my daughter concerns the emotional beat at the end of the movie. There is a reconciliation between parent and child and she felt that moment was not earned. The lack of previous emotional engagement and empathy by our main character with his father, seemed to her to undermine the payoff and make it seem manipulative rather than organic. While I can see her point, I do think that there were some moments that would justify the turn at the end and because the father has been portrayed without any empathy for his son, it might be very natural for a son to fail to exhibit empathy himself prior to the climax. The other aspect of it that I am both pleased and annoyed with concerns the setting of that moment. As a public speaking instructor, I appreciate any time a speech is the focus of a dramatic story [See "Darkest Hour"]. That said, it is becoming a bit of a cliche that at the wedding, graduation, retirement party, birthday etc., someone will reveal an emotional epiphany during a speech with a large audience present to heighten the moment. It is a little contrived but it works which is why you see it so often.

Young Viveik Kalra plays the put upon and morose Javed, a Brit of Pakistani heritage who faces the difficult task of straddling two cultures and having a hard time finding himself in either one. When an acquaintance, Roops, introduces him to the music of American Bruce Springsteen, suddenly Javed begins to take root in something more personal. Like a lot of fans, he goes overboard but he is not wrong in seeing his life in the music and lyrics of the Boss. The things that make this film delightful are those moments of transition. He hears the music in his head, we see the lyrics on the screen in interesting inserts and the settings reflect the inner voice. Sometimes the self reflection is a little too on the nose and angsty.   Like all teen movies however, from "Blackboard Jungle", "Fast Times at Ridgemont High", "The Breakfast Club", and this year's "Booksmart", there is a tendency to do that, again, to heighten our emotional reaction.

"Blinded By the Light" is filled with some charming characters as well. Javed'd childhood friend Matt, is an aspiring musician who is deep into the synth pop of the late 1980s. Eliza is the rebellious classmate that Javed falls for and her knee jerk political interpretation of the world is amusing at times. Matt's Dad is an old school rock type who identifies more with Javed than his own son, and apparently his Dad style joshing is a little too hard for Matt to take. Best of all however is the elderly neighbor who imparts some great words of wisdom into the story and provides the ray of light that might have been snuffed out by some heavy handed social commentary.

The best moment in the movie for me involved a joyous fantasy sequence where Javed and Roops take control of the school radio program and play an unauthorized set of Springsteen for the classes. I was afraid I might have embarrassed my daughter because I found myself singing the lyrics out loud along with the Boss on screen. The exuberance of the moment, by the three young characters and the choice of song, were irresistible to me.  The film may have some flaws but what ever missteps it takes are usually compensated for with a great piece of music and a clever scripted moment every few scenes.

There is one warning I have to give however. There is an ugly equivocation of 1980s political thought with racism and intolerance. The loathsome National Front Youth movement is implied as an extension of Thatcherism and that is appalling. The suggestion that the source of economic misery were the policies of the government is front and center in the last part of the film. The teacher at the school takes a straightforward political position on a financial point and that is a legitimate idea expressed by the character and the film makers. However, the heavy handed symbolism of the National Front assholes giving  a Nazi salute is juxtaposed with images of Thatcher and Reagan waving at an audience and it is an ugly piece of political hyperbole that dampened the story. The caricature of Eliza's parents, the conservatives, as passive racists is also a bit distasteful but probably within the bounds of the story telling.  If you can leave aside the unnecessary political potshots at historical figures, you will enjoy the film. It's not perfect but I loved most of it.  

Monday, August 12, 2019

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Hobbs and Shaw



Remember how much backlash there was to the last Pierce Brosnan Bond film?  You know the one with the surfing and parasailing ski sequence and let's not forget the invisible car. People moaned so much about those elements that they dumped Pierce, rebooted the whole 007 series and went back to basics as much as possible. Now imagine that the producers had ignored fan grousing and only paid attention to the box office, after all "Die Another Day" was a huge success. The result would have been a series of films that got more outlandish and cartoon like  and the series would simply be a mechanical assembly of parts to pick our pockets every few years. That's basically what happened with the "Fast and Furious" series. "Hobbs and Shaw" is a road runner cartoon without the plot.

Both Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson are charismatic action stars who remain able to open a movie on their own. This team up is a spin off of the "Fast and Furious" films where their characters have basically established a tenuous working relationship but a terrible personal relationship. In other words, they were ripe for a bickering buddy comedy, so hear it is. This film could have been quite successful just putting the two of them in a car, plane or locked room together and let them verbally and physically battle it out. That however would be too subtle for this series. When you are making a deep fried Twinkie, you might as well dip it in chocolate, dust it with powdered sugar, add some sprinkles and then provide some whipped cream to dip it in as you are consuming it. There is nothing that is off the table in these movies and if you are in the mood to over indulge in CGI mayhem, hokey plot twists and some scenery chewing performances, then this is a movie for you.

The chase scene through London in the early part of the film is a good example of this excess. The Maclaren that our duo are using to escape the bad guys is instantaneously able to turn without skidding, hit the perfect speed in a bit of cross traffic and generally out perform the Batmobile on city streets. It is pursed by a magic motorcycle that can levitate, defy the concept of inertia and survive collisions that would disable a military vehicle weighting a hundred times as much. Later in the movie there is a vehicle that does a 360 degree rotation in mid-air. Even though the Bond film ruined their stunt with a pipe whistle effect, you could see that it was real and impressive. In this film, it is simply one more CGI moment to stack on the pyre. By the time the climax shows up, we are already overstuffed with these visual confections and the resolution means much less. You have to suspend disbelief and common sense to enjoy this stuff. If you are willing, then go for it.

On a side note, like many other films of the last few years, there are a number of sequences that take place over the credits, mid-credits and at the end of the credits.  People, if you are holding your bladders to get through something in the middle of this film without missing anything, you are defeating your purpose when you leave your trash in the aisle and rush out of the theater with the commencement of the closing music.  You won't be missing anything essential, but you would not have missed anything essential an hour earlier if you visited the loo then. There are some very amusing moments in those last minute appearances of our characters, why skip a good joke? To get to the parking lot five minutes earlier? It makes no sense. Maybe a dozen people out of the couple hundred in the theater stuck it out for those bits. People, you paid for this and you are leaving product on the plate uneaten. Shame on you.

You could rightly describe the first "Fast and Furious" as "Point Break" with cars. "Hobbs and Shaw" is "Lethal Weapon, 2, 3 and 4" with spies instead of cops. If it's hot where you live and the local cinema has good air conditioning, this is perfectly satisfactory. Maybe the best part however is next winter, when you are channel surfing and this is on, you can watch it again and it will feel like a new experience because there was nothing notable about it the first time around. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood



I came to this film with the highest of expectations. It was my most anticipated film of this year, the trailer is fantastic and it covers a period of time that I lived through and remember. The subject of the movie is Hollywood itself and it's made by Quentin Tarantino. Through the roof were my hopes for the film. Let me preface my more in-depth comments by saying first that I loved the movie, but in total, there are issues and my expectations may have hindered some of my reaction to the movie in both positive and negative ways. As always, this is a personal reflection of how I saw the elements coming together, your mileage may vary.

The best thing you can do for yourself in seeing this film is not to read anything about it beforehand. I'm not simply talking about spoilers, I'm really referring to the impressions that people will have and the surprise that comes from the discovery of what this movie really is. I stayed away from every review and every press release about the movie. It was impossible to avoid some things but I lucked out in that no one revealed how this movie really develops. This is a warning: While I will avoid spoilers, to discuss this film requires that certain concepts be explained and that may inhibit your own reaction to the movie. Proceed with caution or come back after you have seen it.

Tarantino makes movies that are a little bit like a buffet. There are dozens of things to choose from when you want to focus on them, but if you don't have a plan, you may miss something important, or worse, you can mix dessert choices that simply don't pair well. From my point of view, he has lingered over some aspects of the film too long and not offered a main course that is fully satisfying. However, the side dishes are solid and the main confection that comes at the end of the story makes the whole thing worth taking in. I notice that many of the people I follow have done rankings of the Tarantino catalog as part of the process of discussing the movie and it seems fitting to offer a little bit of insight in that direction here. Without giving you a complete nine film ranking, I can say that this movie is better in my opinion than "The Hateful Eight" and "Deathproof" but it does not quite scale the heights of "Pulp Fiction" or "Inglorious Basterds". So that may be an indicator of my tastes and a way for you to measure the film as a consequence.

The three main actors all are terrific but the standout for me is Brad Pitt. As Cliff Booth, the stunt double/gofer to DiCaprio's Western TV Star Rick Dalton, Pitt gets to be amused, sardonic, detached and invested in a lot of different scenes. His back story is completely unnecessary to the plot but as a character point it is interesting. Which is exactly the kind of thing that Tarantino adds to his stories all of the time. The existence of the scene where he faces off against Bruce Lee only means something at the end of the movie and that may be one of those points that you can see coming and that I am hesitant to get into too much detail about. The same is true of his home life with his pit bull Brandy. There will be a payoff down the road and we can see that something is coming but we don't know exactly what. Brad Pitt's best scene however may be a long sequence at the Spahn Ranch, where he encounters something that makes him extremely suspicious and sets up another pay off later on. Although there is a dialogue with two central characters in the sequence, it is really just his facial expressions and general demeanor that makes Pitt sparkle in these scenes.

DiCaprio has a less flashy role here than he did in "Django Unchained", his previous film with Tarantino. His best moments are on the set of a television show he is guesting on, with a conversation between himself and a young actor (because the word actress is meaningless) and also a conversation he has with himself. In previous films by Tarantino, there is a heavy emphasis on language and conversation. Jules and Vincent are compelling because of the way they take mundane subjects and treat them seriously. Col. Landa hoovers over the conversations he has with the French Dairy Farmer, Shoshanna in her disguise and Lt. Aldo Raine, as if he is a vulture looking for a scrap of dialogue he can rip out and feast on. In "Reservoir Dogs" the opening sequence debating tipping is magnetic. Unfortunately, there is nothing that rises to those heights in this film. The one place that Tarantino may have matched his earlier high standards is in the employment of violence in key moments of the film.

There has been some on-line criticism of the shortage of dialogue for Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. There is an explanation for this but again, let me warn you, it's not a spoiler but it will alter your perception of the story...she is a red herring.  Polanski and Tate are peripheral to what the ultimate outcome is. If that sounds strange because you thought this was a film about the Manson Murders, well, be ready for that Tarantino twist. This is a wish fulfillment fairy tale, in the mode of his best film in my opinion "Inglorious Basterds".  The movie takes us down a path of detailed history about Hollywood in 1969, and at the last minute rewrites it. The details up to the climax are all presented honestly, mixed with the fictional story of the declining career of Rick Dalton, but then there is a sharp right turn. Most of his work before this could be classified as revenge film cinema, and this will neatly fit into that classification.

The last fifteen minutes of the movie made everything that was overly long and unfocused in the first two hours irrelevant. Maybe the foreplay was inelegant and slow. It does not matter when the climax is so satisfying that you want to stand up and cheer even though you are witnessing a violent fiction. We want the scum that the Manson Family was, to get the retribution that they so richly deserve and society has denied. We want the sweet Sharon Tate and her innocent friends to be spared from the gruesome history we know exists. We want Rick Dalton to emerge from the crumbling Hollywood system that is taking down his career with some dignity and the hope that things will be better. And we want all of that with the signature overkill that Tarantino employs in most of his movies. This is not a genre take off like Django or Kill Bill and DeathProof. This is an original film that uses our willingness to suspend disbelief to get a result that we dream would be the truth.

I'm going back to see this again on Friday, and I plan on posting a second version of this review in video form. In that I will get into the technical pleasures of the movie and the historical context that made it so enticing for me. For now I will simply say that the movie turns what might have been a disappointment into a triumph. It's a great magic trick, but it does take a while to play out.

Video Update

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Young Sherlock Holmes


Inspired by a post from one of my on-line friends, I revisited this film today and decided to include it in the summer look back project, "films lost in time". This really should not be a lost film but given it's lack of box office success and the the fact that it is not yet available on blu ray, I suspect that most of today's audience is only vaguely familiar with it. 

This should have been a smashing success given it's pedigree and release. Steve Spielberg is one of the Executive Producers and his team made up the rest of those responsible for bringing this to the screen. The Director was Barry Levinson, who had directed "The Natural" the year before and would go on to direct and win the Academy Award for "Rain Man" three years later. The script comes from Chris Columbus who had written "Gremlins" and "The Goonies" before this and who would go on to make a few films that will feel very familiar after seeing this (more on that later). This was released in the U.S. during the holiday season of 1985 and it basically tanked. The box office was mild to low and barely matched the production cost. So what went wrong, again, I'll delay that for a few paragraphs. Let's talk about the movie first.

The idea of retconning Sherlock Holmes into a youthful action character is not a bad one. In the original books, we learn of Holmes and Watson meeting as they take up rooms together on Baker Street, but this scenario makes them schoolmates at a posh academic institution in Victorian England. Holmes has already mastered the art of deduction as he calls it [frankly it is mostly inductive sign reasoning and a little hard to believe at times]. 

As the two young future archetypes are meeting, a series of deaths are taking place in London. We witness a mysterious figure using a small blow gun to shoot darts at several older gentlemen. Those men begin to have fantastic hallucinations which result in deaths that appear to be suicides. From the start of the film, it is clear that the film makers want to dazzle us with special effects as part of the excitement of the movie. Articulated puppets and stop motion animation are used early on to bring horrific images to life. 
 
The most likely reason this film would be historically significant is that it contains one of the earliest CGI effects on screen to achieve the images the film makers wanted. A priest is attacked by a figure that climbs out of a stained glass window. This sequence explains why the films lone Academy Award Nomination was for Visual Effects. The Knight becomes a three dimensional image which strikes terror into the elderly man who runs into the street and is mowed down by a carriage. 

Although primitive by today's standards, it was jaw dropping at the time and I remember Siskel and Ebert talking about it and one of them picking it as their choice in their annual Oscar handicapping show. 

The story centers around the two well known characters and a third one invented for this enterprise.  A confirmed bachelor like Holmes is during most of his film history, must have a woman in his past to explain his predilection. So Columbus creates Elizabeth, the niece of a character in the story and Holmes love interest. This will require that Watson and Holmes have to rescue Elizabeth on more than one occasion. That's right, she is a damsel in distress for most of the last third of the film. The development of Holmes as a character is pretty good in the story. He is interested in unique subjects, he has an eccentric mentor, and he is admired by many and despised by a few elitists. His friendship with the new boy does not help him win the affection of either his belligerent teacher or the light blond future MP that he makes an enemy. Does any of this sound familiar to you? It should because it is likely that Harry Potter and friends grew out of this kind of stew. The fact that Chris Columbus who directed the first two Harry Potter films also wrote the screenplay here, seems like a lot more than just coincidence.

Let's add another interesting parallel, young future Dr. Watson looks like a chubbier version of you know who.

With so many things going for it, what caused this film to fail with a broad audience? Speaking simply as a movie fan I think I can point to two things. The most criticized parts of the previous year's "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" are resurrected to provide the villain and motives here. There is virtually no surprise when the antagonist is revealed, so the suspense is missing for the most part. When to secret society perpetrating the crimes is revealed, it is a moment right out of the very dark Indiana Jones movie. 
 Acolytes surround a hapless victim overseen by an evil priest of an alien religious cult and a towering figure of the spirit that they worship. In a true "what the hell" moment, we discover that there are other murders connected to this story and suddenly the plot shifts to a completely different issue. Foreshadowing his future emotionally stunted growth, Holmes cries out and alerts everyone there to his presence. And none of this seems to be well connected to the logical procedural method Holmes supposedly follows. Instead, a series of chance insights leads to the discovery of an underground temple. 

Holmes and Watson have to become Butch and Sundance and it is just not as credible at this point as it needs to be. The action points start driving the plot instead of the character points. 
Holmes and Watson have to become the Wright Bothers at one point, and although the scene is fun, it feels tacked on rather than organic to the Holmes tradition of investigation. 

One other thing that I think sabotages the film, and this is a spoiler so if you haven'y yet viewed the movie and don't want to be ticked off before doing so, stop now and come back later.

Holmes fails. 

All the build up and eventual destruction and the outcome is depressing and undermines the spirit of the film. Someone must have thought it was creatively challenging to finish on this note. Here is the way it came across to me. "Ho,ho, ho, your [character not to be identified by me] dies, Merry Christmas. Hope you and the family enjoyed this." If you did the same thing to any of the other successful Spielbergian type movies at the time, you would get the same dismal box office result. "Goonies" would not be a beloved 80s touchstone, "Cocoon" would have stalled Ron Howard's career, and "Raiders" would be an experiment that failed. 

Despite the dramatic faults of the movie, it had a lot of other things to recommend it. The setting and sets were very nicely utilized and they look great. The costumes and the actors fit into the world that was created very effectively. 

Bruce Broughton was nominated for the Academy Award for his music in "Silverado" from earlier in the year, and his work here is alo excellent. The theme tune will be a pretty simple earworm that will remind you every time you hear it of this film. 

For those of you who think the Marvel Films invented the post title credit scene, stick around for the end of this movie. Clearly there were hopes of a sequel, but when a movie under-performs like this, you are not going to get Part II. Although Nicolas Rowe does reprise the character in a brief cameo in the far superior "Mr. Holmes" which I guess we can call "Old Sherlock Holmes".