Monday, December 30, 2019

2019 on KAMAD in Review

Do You Feel Lucky?
The last year had a number of great movie moments for me. In addition to new films, there were Special Presentations, Film Festivals, and a few other memorable events that might be worth tracking down. I'm going to summarize some highlights (and low lights) and provide you with quick links if you are interested in exploring a little.

As you probably are aware, I have been the co-host of the LAMBCAST for well over a year now. In my capacity, I have appeared on 40 podcasts through the Large Association of Movie Blogs. Several of the shows were solo efforts when my Podcast Partner was unable or unwilling to cover a subject.  I won't list all of those shows here but there are a few I do want to draw your attention to.

Happy Birthday




As part of my benefit as co-host, all the choices for Movie of the Month in my Birthday Month of February were mine. The LAMB voted and "Tombstone" was the winner.

Journey into Espionage Territory

We began a year long discussion of all 24 EON James Bond Films in anticipation of the upcoming final Daniel Craig Bond film. These discussions go deep and sometimes the podcasts get a little long. If you are a James Bond Fan however, they are essential.














Bonus feature: 

I was invited to be a guest on the Exploding Helicopter Podcast totalk about "You Only Live Twice", with lots of chopperfireballs.



Podcast Highlight of the Year.


I traveled to London and we had a meet up with some of my fellow Lambs, Including the Host of the Podcast Jay Cluitt. We all went to a film together and then at dinner that night and breakfast the next day, we recorded a live podcast. It was a blast, and if you listen, you can hear us eating while we talk.



Oh Yeah,...

Amanda and I started our own Podcast also. It's called "Catching Up", we are covering old series of TV programs that we missed or never finished on their original go round. Currently we are working through "Supernatural", you can find the podcast here. Please follow if you are interested.
https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/hollywoodconsumer




As usual, my movie going is not limited to new releases. Whenever I get the chance, I want to see classic films on the big screen.

So here are a few I revisited this year.

Malcolm McDowell




Summertime Fun




A Double Feature that includes the annual Jaws visit in the summertime.


Another Irresistible Force


Of Course

and then Again

Two From the Original Movie Blog Project




Classic Horror from the 1980s



All Day Marathon



TCM Film Festival










Documentaries

I enjoy a good documentary, but they are often screened on Television and fall outside of the purpose of the blog. This year however, I saw four documentary films in a movie theater and I am happy to recommend them all.



The Dregs

They can't all be great. Whenever you go to the movies, we all hope what we are going to see will be amazing. Sometimes however we are going to be disappointed.  Here are five films that really let me down. 




Two of these movies have been getting a lot of positive feedback from critics and other bloggers. "Us" was out loud laughable, I could not take it seriously. "The Lighthouse" I actively hated. Annoying and like watching through dirty cheese cloth. 

Personal Connections

Two of my friends were involved in movie related projects this year.

David Brook, one of the LAMBs we met up with was the editor on a terrific independent film that I would strongly urge you to search out.


My long time blogging Colleague Eric Friedman, who has a blog you all should enjoy reading, published a book this year and I was happy to review it. 

You can order it on Amazon as a Kindle or paperback. Do so, you will enjoy.



Happy New Year Everyone. 




Saturday, December 28, 2019

Personal Favorite Moments from 2019 Films

I saw quite a few movies this last year and almost a third of them would get a strong recommendation from me. Although there were some mundane films on my list (a top 10 is coming soon to a blog near you), even films without enough to recommend them to everyone might have something that is worth sharing. Be careful, there are mild spoilers along the way.

Night Time Running a Century Ago


We can start with something from the best films however. This is a clip from "1917" that illustrates why Roger Deakins will probably win his second Academy Award this year. The light and shadows in this chase scene are perfectly captured and you can still tell what is going on in the scene. The gunfire flare is shown in the dark as the ricochets bounce through the light. Great composition and fantastic lighting.




Embracing the Void

I had mixed feelings about "Joker"  but there is nothing wrong with the Joaquin Phoenix performance. I have heard some complain about the use of "Rock and Roll Pt.2" in this scene, primarily because of the issues surrounding the original artist. Try to ignore that and hear the music in your head as Arthur Fleck must have. Having given in to his murderous rage, Joker feels joyfully empowered and is living in the moment. Phoenix energizes the dance with that emotion and you can see the power flow into a dark purpose toward the end.



Gorey Violent Death Well Played

One of my favorite films this year that did not make my top ten was the terrific creature feature "Crawl". Basically it is an alligators gone wild movie, but it is well told and has a lot of fun but gruesome scenes like the one below. The first ten seconds or so should give you the idea.






A Dream within a Dream, If Only



The Beatles inspired "Yesterday" was charming in a number of ways, but the most emotional kicker for me was the scene that plays out one of the consequences of the alternate history timeline our hero finds himself in. Spoiler Alert!!!




Rule of Thumb, if there is a Dog in the Story, there is a Reason


John Wick 3: Parabellum was a lot of fun and does exactly what you want it to do. This is a violent action picture with a ridiculous premise and an outrageous number of deaths. That said, Halle Berry almost steals the show in the segment she is in, but her four legged costars steal the scenes from her. Here is a collection of dog material that will satisfy the animal lover in you.




In a Film Filled with Fan Service, This Paid Off for Me


In an incredibly long and complicated conclusion to the Avenger's story, a battle between all the MCU heroes and Thanos takes place at the climax, and we see what we always knew was true,
Captain America is worthy...




Sudden Self Awareness Hurts, and Amuses at the Same Time



Here is one that comes from a movie that did virtually no business. Five years ago, Seth Rogan was "it", but that form of humor seems to have passed with the times. I still found this turn in the film very funny and so damn true. From "Long Shot",a reveal that is NSFW.






Most of Our Communication is Non-Verbal



One of the criticisms of Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon A Time in Hollywood" was that Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate had so few lines of dialogue. This is the sort of thinking that we might have mocked if we were hearing about some star counting up the number of words in the script and comparing them to other actors on the shoot. The power of the performance is not necessarily in the dialogue. Look at these three moments. Sharon Tate was a vivacious young woman, who loved her life and was excited about even small things. She could show that without saying a word. It's a beautiful performance.









D.C. Remembers what Comics are for


You know what the DC Universe has been missing through all the iterations it has gone through recently? Fun.

That's right, comic books are supposed to be fun. I have nothing against the profound or surprising but I want a sense of excitement, adventure and enthusiasm to go with my superpoweres. You know who provided that this year? Not the MCU with three films but the DCU, with one that finally gets it right. Let's joyfully embrace the idea and have some kick ass fun. Shazam! if just damn fun.






Reconciliation with Yourself as Well as Others


The amazing Jessie Buckley gave my favorite performance of the year in a little movie that most of you will need to catch up with. "Wild Rose" is a film about a Scottish girl who wants to be a country singer, and has to learn the hard lessons that the songs she sings are about. The climax of the film features a song that the actress co-wrote and performs herself. Along with the injustice of being ignored by the Academy for her acting, she and her fellow scribes will probably be ignored in the song category here. People who don't like Country music, usually don't like the stereotype of that genre. This is the real thing, not a parody.




Those are a few of my favorite moments from the last year of cinema. What do you think? If you have some favorites be sure to share, I'll check them out, I promise..

Thursday, December 26, 2019

1917



The reason you wait till the end of the year to give your top films of the year is simple, movies like this. Here is a film that has a limited release merely to qualify for awards consideration. It is currently playing in just 11 theaters across the country. It is however getting a major push from the studio, including TV advertising, to build for a wide release in January. That will attempt to capitalize on the critical response and word of mouth developed in the narrow window currently in place. It should work for some pretty basic reasons.

This is the Best film of the year. Maybe that is premature since there are still five days left in the year and several films I have yet to see, but I feel pretty confident of my claim. Writer/Director Sam Mendes has taken stories passed down from his grandfather to create a vision of "The Great War" which is horrifying, compelling and tension filled. He and his co-writer Kristy Wilson Cairns have crafted a straightforward, time based adventure story and told it as a real world event. This feels like an incident that could have been a part of the war, even if it is not based on a real historical event.

The camera follows two soldiers chosen for a time sensitive mission as they must cross into enemy territory to deliver a message. The plot is laid out in a single sentence but the movie is more compelling than that brief description. The film is shot as if we the audience were a third member of the mission, observing everything from the perspective of our two protagonists. We are briefed, we have to wade through the back field of trenches to get to the front and we need to crouch down with them along the way. Much has been made of the notion that it is shot as if it was all one take. Since it took three months to shoot, and we know how a movie is complicated to make, it obviously can't really be a single shot, but you will be hard pressed to see the seams. There were only two moments when Mendes used the same technique as Alfred Hitchcock when filming "Rope". We alo have a passage of time that is accomplished by a character blackout. The movie still feels all of a single piece and is all the more hypnotic as a result.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins has turned in another stunning piece of work for Mendes. Having made "Skyfall" the best looking James Bond film ever, he uses some of the same lighting tools to make the landscape of France in the Spring of 1917, alternatingly ugly to encounter and beautiful to behold.  The nighttime chase through the ruins of the town near the final destination of the mission, is imagined as a variation of hell, with red flames projecting shadows on rubble and destroyed edifices while gun shots ring out and ricochet with sparks in the gloom. Our protagonist and the enemy are all able to use those shadows to hide in, but unlike the mudpile that is "The Lighthouse", Deakins allows us to see what is going on and fear what we can see. Thomas Newman, who has scored 14 Academy Award nomination without winning, can clear a place on the shelf for this score which ratchets up the tension at the right moment, but does so in a sparse manner that does not draw attention to itself.

Landscapes and locations are a key part of the story telling and Mendes shows us these places in sustained tension filled reveals. The ruins of a farmhouse feel like a foreshadowing of a haunted moment. Cherry trees are shown as devices to covey the wanton destruction of war and simultaneously,  the promise that war is a passing moment in the land's history. There are desolate moments in the film where the bodies of the dead are an impediment to the mission, and the act of getting through a landscape without vomiting should be the basis for awarding a medal.  Years ago, I heard some film maker say that all war films are really anti-war films because inevitably, there is tragic waste revealed by the machinations of war. I don't know if that is true for all other films but it is certainly true with "1917".

There are two central figures we follow in the story and those actors, Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are excellent in meeting the demands made of them. Lance Corporal Blake is determined  and motivated by his personal desire to save his brother. Lance Corporal Schofield is more cynical and war weary, but proves to be a stalwart partner in the enterprise. The physical efforts required to do the roles is daunting merely to think of much less to perform.

I suspect I will do a revisit on this film, and when I do I will have more to say about the themes and the story. For the moment however, my mouth is agape at the technical excellence of the film and the emotional experience that I was put into by the choices of the director. That's why I think it is deserving of the label I gave it at the start of this review. Best of 2019. 

Little Women (2019)



For forty years, I have gone to a movie on Christmas day with my family. Some of those choices were terrific ways to spend a family holiday, including "Galaxy Quest", "Dream Girls", and "The Greatest Showman". Other choices were dismal failures that we had hoped would be good but were in fact sad failures; "Toys" and "First Family" being the biggest let downs. Occasionally we made a left field choice, a film we wanted to see but was not exactly holiday fare, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and "The Hateful Eight" come to mind, not exactly heartwarming.

In 1994, our first year in the new house, I took my seven and five year old daughters to see "Little Women" starring Winnona Ryder and Susan Sarandon. It was a very fond memory and it stood as a pretty definitive version of the film as far as I was concerned. I was not particularly excited about this new version, even when I knew that it would feature Saoise Ronan and be directed by Greta Gerwig. Although I admired their previous collaboration, "Lady Bird", I was not blown away by it the way so many others were. I saw a few flaws and it probably did not quite resonate with me because of my age and gender. Well none of that effected me with this adaption of the Louisa May Alcott novel, this is a luminous telling of the story that is flawlessly performed, very well written, and may be the most beautiful film you see this year.

I must shamefully acknowledge that I have never read the original novel, in spite of the fact that my wife identified it as her favorite book when she was younger.  As a consequence of this oversight I can't say for certain how faithful to the book the story is, but it certainly feels authentic. The one minor criticism I have of the screenplay and direction is the non-linear approach to the material. It is structured as a series of scenes, some of which flash back seven years and some which are contemporary to the setting after the Civil War. The ages of the actresses in the main roles are such that they can pass for teens or twenties , but we don't always know which period we are in. A haircut helps in a couple of places, but a few times it took several moments for me to be able to contextualize what was happening on the screen at that moment.

The strongest addition to the film as told by Gerwig, the screenwriter as well as director, is the detail in the lives of two of the sisters who were often overlooked in earlier versions. Actress Florence Pugh infuses Amy March with more personality than any of the other versions, and the script shows her at both her worst and best. She is loathsome as a vindictive little sister who takes revenge on her sisters creative efforts but she is noble when it comes to choosing a husband and redeeming a character she has herself condemned. Emma Watson as Meg March also makes what is often a cardboard role into an important part of the narrative. Eliza Scanlen is heartbreaking as the sister with the darkest story resolution, but regardless of those characters, it is still a story about Jo. Saoise Ronan is front and center even when she is not on screen. Her frustrating petulance is matched by the frustrating limitations placed on a young woman of the time. You can choose to see this as a feminist screed but that is a mistake, this is a pretty accurate portrayal of a woman's life in the mid 19th century of the U.S. Ronan manages to be fierce so often that it is a shock when she is so effective as pitiful and desperate in a confessional moment with her on-screen mother played by Laura Dern. 

Some attention to the technical production should also be made. The set design is realistic and detailed. The selection of locations feels authentic and the world that the women occupy, even in a place that is hard to replicate like New York in 1865, is convincing. The number of extras in a scene, the mix of roads that are paved and unpaved and the signage on the stores will pass very critical inspection.

There are a variety of supporting players, such as Chris Cooper (my second film of his within a week) and Meryl Streep. Timothée Chalamet as Laurie was presented in the least sympathetic way I have seen in the four screen adaptions I will have on the podcast, but he does have a nicely executed scene of personal despair when he is rejected by Jo as husband material.

Maybe the one other criticism I have of the screenplay is the way the resolution is presented as a hypothetical writer's plot device rather than an authentic romantic climax. It plays out on the screen nicely, but it does seem to be tampering with the story for modern reasons rather than fidelity to the work. (Again, that may be inaccurate since I have not read the book).

"Little Women comes at the end of the year for the usual reason, it is a prestige picture that is hoping fpr awards attention to enhance it's potential box office and audience response. This is a strategy that should work. The theater was packed, there was a smattering of applause at the end, but more than that, I think I will be with the majority of critics who see this as one of the best films of 2019.


Sunday, December 22, 2019

Jumanji: The Next Level



What can I say, it's a sequel to an entertaining film. It tries to up the ante and add more characters and change the location a bit, but it basically is a second round of the game and there is not much to add to that.

So here is a brief description of the updates that worked to make this feel a bit more unique. First, the elderly characters that have been added strain the story a bit. Danny DeVito is fine before they get to the game, but his persona as played by Dwayne Johnson is not quite as fun as it should be. The character is passive at first, slowly becoming more aggressive as he discovers his abilities, but that change is a little inconsistent. Danny Glover's character is a cliche that basically robs Kevin Hart of the ability to be as funny as he is capable of being.

Second, there are some new elements of the game that are fun. The characters encounter a mysterious water body that when they enter, their switch avatars. It is introduced in a side encounter and then completely discarded until later in the movie. When it does come back, we end up with the character assignments that worked so well in the first film and there is suddenly a lot more energy in the film. The concept that a player can take on the avatar of an animal is a fun one, and it does get the script out of a morose side story that was introduced for almost no reason.

Changing the local of the action from a jungle to the desert is not a bad choice. We still get a wild sequence with killer Mandrills and that felt a little out of place, but bouncing between scenarios of a video game probably is pretty standard stuff for players. I also liked that the game avatar moved from a jeep to a plane to deliver the original game plan for the crew. Suddenly it felt like an Indiana Jones rip off even more than it did originally. I enjoyed a couple of the pop song choices for this film. Having seen Chris Isaak just a couple of days ago, when "Wicked Game" started playing, my smile got a little bigger. I also enjoyed the call back of the character "Nora" and the casting choice there. I don't know if others will notice it, but I did.

I have to say pretty much the same thing for "The Next Level" that I did for "Welcome to the Jungle",  it's a perfectly acceptable family film that will entertain you for it's running time. It is not trying to be anything other than that, so it hits it target. I think I enjoyed it a little less than the previous entry, but like a lot of confections, the second helping is never as great as the first. 

Friday, December 20, 2019

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker



This is Christmas week, so many of you will be anticipating the holiday and gifts under the tree. When you were young, you probably dreamed of the best toy, the most awesome electronic device or maybe a puppy. Did you ever get a knockoff or a stuffed animal instead?  It was probably a perfectly decent gift but it was not what you wanted and the thought is overwhelmed by disappointment, regardless of how much you ultimately enjoyed the substitute. Get ready for the same kind of feeling. "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" is a Star Wars movie, it's just not the one you wanted.

Regardless of where you come down on the Star Wars movies, whether you are a prequel hater or you liked what Rian Johnson did with "The Last Jedi", this one will probably confound you. My main objection to the film is that the plotline is a mess of interrelated incidents that feel like a string of those plastic monkeys that come in a barrel. You have to hook the next one with the last one, and you do that by what is available to you rather than what might be most logical. For instance, a twist involving C3PO comes up as a complication. A big chink of the film id directed at addressing that point and suddenly that point becomes irrelevant and a different issue comes up that the heroes must overcome. The tracks made by each of these developments are so apparent that it might as well be a diagram/flowsheet on the screen. Unfortunately, several times, when you follow the path it is a dead end designed to merely fill the plot with opportunities for more planets, creatures and battles. Say what you will about the awful "Phantom Menace", at least the plot points were all relevant to the story. The stitches on this amalgam of retcon and repair from the previous film is just to obvious.

Another reason that it feels so paint by the numbers is the introduction of an old character, being plugged into a the story, primarily for the nostalgia factor. This sort of fan service will be rewarding to we long time acolytes but the reappearance of at least four characters that were either dead or absent from the previous two sequels is sometimes just awkward. At least we were spared a return of Hayden Christensen. There is a major plot point which is probably not a spoiler if you have watched the trailer or heard anyone talking about the film before it was released. If you are worried about a spoiler that's not really a secret, skip to the next paragraph. A major Sith figure returns to the story and it feels incredibly inorganic. It is used to explain some of the events of the previous film, but mostly, we just needed a main figure to turn into the ultimate "big bad" so that the story arc of one on the major characters here can play out and repeat a redirection trope from the original trilogy. Thirty-six years ago, when a second Death Star was introduced into the plot, some fans groused about a lack of creativity, but at least it made sense that the Empire would be relying on it's existing technology to continue their program for enslaving the Galaxy. The fleet that suddenly appears in this story, complete with enough personnel to manage it, makes no sense whatever.The two sentence explanation is a major irritant. When we discover that each one of these thousand ships is capable of doing what the Death Star did, or what the Planet Killer could, nothing in the story feels right anymore.

For two movies we have been watching the character arc of Rey and Kylo Ren get more involved and more apparent where it it headed. I did like that ultimately this is the A-plot of the movie. There are a couple of revelations and memories that come back to answer the questions we had about the prior film, but those points seem relatively contrived. Why can a memory accomplish what a flesh and body person could not? Does the heritage of Rey really need to go down the plat it did or is this just a way to justify the main plot? The reveal has a momentary injection of adrenaline but it doesn't take long for it to turn into a WTF development. I was perfectly content with the return of a character in an ethereal form,  but I recognize it for what it is, fan service. This is the conclusion of the nine part "Skywalker" story, so fans are going to want a lot of these things, whether they are necessary or not.

Other characters that were introduced in "The Force Awakens", continue to be in the story, largely without purpose and squandering what made them worth in that film.  Poe and Finn should have been the kinds of characters that Leia and Han were in the original trilogy. In those first movies, those characters had a story arc and their actions mattered in the long run. No one seems to have figured out what to do with the new secondary characters except plug them in for exposition or as appendixes to the main story arc. Did you think the character of Rose was going to be relevant after being introduced in the last film, well guess again. General Leia Organa has a more developed part and a bigger role in the story and Carrie Fisher is of course entirely in this film through archive footage and some technical wizardry. That was not a problem for me, but obviously J.J. Abrams and his team of writers thought that was more important than doing something with new characters. I liked the fact that Chewbacca and C3PO have story time given to them, but it again feels like this is because this is the last film they will appear in rather than it was necessary for the plot.

I didn't count but it felt like there were a half dozen separate light saber battles in the film, most of them involving Rey and Kilo Ren. I did not hate this but a little bit goes a long way and the drama of a one on one confrontation gets undermined when it is repeated and all that is being accomplished is an opportunity for some different sword-work. Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone needed one big duel to make the point, and it was a climax of the movie. These light saber battles feel like a version of tantric sex, lots of foreplay and then deferred payoff. The spectacle of the fight on the water was great to look at but it had no point, like many of the plot threads in the rest of the movie.

I wanted real emotions in the movie and I felt like I was simply being run through the process. I understand why the Rey and Leia dynamic was handicapped, but so many other relationships were as well. Finn and Ray needed to be going somewhere and there is a humorous thread about that which gets tugged on but not followed. Finn and Poe have a friendship which should be explored more, but they are rushing through so many plot complications, we don't feel like they have the connection we expect of them. A love interest for Poe comes out of nowhere and then goes no where. There are two adorable new characters, a mono wheeled droid and a tiny monkey hacker, their presence does nothing for the plot except create a diversion while the next thing is coming along.

Long standing fans of the series will like the movie well enough. It is going to be measured by the other films in the series. But do we really want the legacy to finish on the note that "at least it was better than "The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones"? That seems to me a sad way to finish off the pivotal film franchise of  the last fifty years. That's like opening your Christmas present and being grateful that it wasn't underwear and socks.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Richard Jewell



Let's get the film's big criticism right up front. The screenwriter and director are accused of slandering the name of the dead journalist who first publicly pointed a finger at Richard Jewell as the Olympic Bomber. Kathy Scruggs as portrayed by Olivia Wilde in the film, was a hard charging, not very bashful crime reporter who was looking for a "scoop" so to speak in the case that took place in the town she worked in. The irony of a journalist being besmirched by innuendo in a piece of  dramatic entertainment, when in a newspaper she did the same thing to an innocent man is not lost on most of us. The inference that she offered sex for a tip to an FBI agent is a fictional speculation of how she obtained this inside information. She never revealed her source, and in fact was nearly jailed for refusing to do so by a judge.  It is reported that she was a somewhat wild figure in the confluence of police and journalists on her beat. The screenwriter put two and two together and came up with a dramatic tool to show us how she might have done it. Miss Scruggs has been dead for 18 years so it is legally not possible to slander her. Richard Jewell was publicly accused by her stories, without anything more than a piece of gossip, and he was alive to be roasted by the ensuing firestorm. Let's suppose for a moment that the come on from Miss Scruggs was left out of the film, would what happened to Richard Jewell be any less tragic? No, but the character of the reporter would have no way of claiming to have an informant. That is a plot hole that should not exist in a well told story. It is a two minute scene in a film that more than two hours in length. People judging the movie based on this is disproportionate.

Having set that aside for the moment, the film itself is very effective at recalling the time and place of the events depicted. There is a substantial opening act that shows us who Richard Jewell was. He seems to have been overly enthusiastic in his pursuit of doing right. The campus security job he has is lost because he does what is asked of him but it conflicts with what is within his scope. You don't get the impression that he is motivated by power or the notion that he is in control, in other words he is not the "asshole" that he is warned not to become. He just wants to follow procedure and have people be protected. He continues to believe in what he sees as being right.

Anyone in a position of authority is likely to ruffle some feathers. It is easy to make an inference that a police officer is getting off on their power, especially when you are the one on the other end. I know I have felt that way a couple of times in casual contact with police. It goes the other way as well, people instinctively react to the perceived power of the police. The idea that there is a profile and you are being judged by that is a reality. The accuracy of such a profile still needs to be verified, and this film shows the FBI struggling to fulfill their own prophesy. The trailer lays out the problem here immediately, the two most powerful forces in the world are basically trying to nail Jewell for something he did not do.

Anyone watching the political scene these days will get flashes of deja vu because this stuff goes on constantly today. The FBI seems to have a number of troublesome issues that have been disclosed over the last fifty years, and the political element has been one that continues to be prevalent. The media is a little sensitive about being called out when they are indulging in speculation about the facts. The righteousness of journalists can't change the truth, sometimes they get it wrong. This was certainly one of those places.

Clint Eastwood continues to be one of the best directors working in Hollywood today. This story builds very effectively and we don't even get to the bombing until the second act. The section where all of the attack plays out is effectively staged and there is real tension as the bomb is discovered and the authorities, including Jewell try to deal with it. This sequence shows how Richard Jewell's strong desire to be a law enforcement officer is a good thing. His insistence on following the protocols probably saved dozens of lives, which makes his subsequent vilification all the more unjust. Sure the FBI needs to follow every lead, but to ignore exculpatory information, in pursuit of a profile that is thin to begin with is preposterous.  The fact that the journalist is shown to believe this well before the bureau is an attempt to rehabilitate her character as well.

Sam Rockwell continues to show that he is a leading actor in a character actors clothes. He plays the attorney defending Jewell as the professional skeptic he needed to be. He brings the rage that the deferential suspect seems incapable of displaying. At times that disgust has to be directed at his client who seems programmed to sabotage himself at every turn. Paul Walter Hauser deserves accolades for not only resembling Jewell but for showing us the hopes, and frustrations of the title character. We can see that he is flawed, but Hauser makes him sympathetic at every turn, even when he does the stupid things his attorney advises against. Kathy Bates has one scene that presents some histrionics but she still undersells the moment so her character remains real and completely sympathetic. Jewell's Mother is collateral damage in this process, another example of how the great forces of the law and press can grind someone down indirectly.

Much is being made about the lack of success for this film at the moment. If you are skipping it because it seems too political, you are making a mistake. It simply points out the real danger that anyone, regardless of their politics could fall into. If the controversy about the presentation of the journalist discourages you, remember that it is a film, and with dramatization some narrative tools work, whether we believe they are fair or not. There are some great performances and a compelling story here, don't skip it because of misdirected desire for purity. Story telling is what movies are about, and this one tells a hell of a story, and does so well.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood



It was just over a year ago that we got a documentary about Mr. Roger's Neighborhood with the title "Won't You be My Neighbor", and it was very satisfying. So that begs the question, why are we getting another film on the subject?  The answer is complex. While this film has the trimmings of a biopic, the subject of the biography is less Fred Rogers than investigative reporter Tom Junod who is called Lloyd Vogel in this film. His fictionalized story is really about the impact of meeting Mister Rogers had on his life. When a movie is "inspired by" real events, there is probably a great deal of difference between the story and reality. I am sure this is the case here, except when it comes to the sincerity of how Fred Rogers moves us.

The film is told in a truly original and interesting style. The writers,  Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster and the director,  Marielle Heller, have chosen to make the film as if it is an extended episode of "Mister Rogers Neighborhood". The main character is introduced by Mister Rogers on his program as a friend. He then tells the story of Lloyd as one of the direct, simple and profound stories that you could find on the show.  Ultimately it gets embellished with elements of the show including songs, puppets and the neighborhood made of miniature houses and buildings. This is a full blown drama about a man's life, but it is being told by another man who better understands the issues being faced than the protagonist does.

Tom Hanks embodies Fred Rogers in a pitch perfect rendition of his voice and demeanor. When moments come up that suggest from the magazine writer's point of view that something is off about Fred Rogers, Tom Hanks calm, grounded and moral persona reclaims the ground and makes us a little embarrassed for even thinking as the writer did for a minute. This is a reflection of the original article that Tom Junod wrote for Esquire "Can You Say..."Hero?"." We writes in Mister Rogers voice and relates incidents that reveal who Mister Rogers is, in the same soft manner as the subject himself. That this is successfully transferred to a film is a admirable achievement and the work of the director, writers and Tom Hanks is responsible for this.

A number of plot points will seem a little conventional to seasoned movie goers. There is estrangement between father and son. A parallel story concerns the relationship a new father is building with his son. Death inevitably creeps into the narrative as a dramatic tool to pull us in to the world the actors are portraying, but it all works very well. Chris Cooper is an actor I am always glad to see in a movie and he shows up here as a cliche, but finishes as a crescendo. Matthew Rhys plays the writer/son/bio-subject and he is also fine in the film. There are many moments of drama that he has to carry, but there are moments of levity that he manages to make real as well.

I really liked this film. I can't say that it is one of the best of the year, there is a lot about it that is strange and may be a little too abstract. If you can buy in to the premise, it will take you to some emotional points that are worth experiencing. but without the element of Fred Rogers, they would come across as cliches. I felt better as a human being after seeing it, and I'm not sure anyone needs a better recommendation for seeing it than that.


Thursday, December 12, 2019

Meet Me in St. Louis [Fathom Events)



Numbers ending in zero or five are ripe for look backs. Since we are about to move to 2020, see how many blogs are posting their best films of the last decade. This film goes back a lot further than a decade, this is the 75th [see there is that 5] anniversary of the release of Meet Me in St. Louis, one of the great MGM musicals of all time and maybe the high-point of Judy Garland's career in musicals. Maybe you love "A Star is Born" or recognize that "The Wizard of Oz" is a classic but there is no denying that Judy was at her luminous best form in this film. When you see the Technicolor images on a theater screen, you will know why she was a star.

It was just a couple of months ago that I heaped praise on Renee Zellweger for her performance in the biopic about Garland "Judy". As great as she was, the real thing is still so much better and this was a chance to see an old favorite back up on the big screen. A year ago it was Movie of the Month for Christmas on the Lambcast, and the show was hosted by my daughter Amanda who had been the sponsor of the film in the first place. There was a little controversy over whether it really is a Christmas movie, since only the third act featured Christmas as a subject. The following three minutes settles that issue.




As great as Judy Garland and Margaret O'Brien are in the picture, I would like to single out Lew Ayers and Mary Astor who play the parents in the movie. They are the foundation of the family and without the sincere family foundation that they create, the movie might have seemed a little silly. Their most charming scene occurs right after the uproar created when Mr. Smith announces they are moving to New York. Everyone is upset but Mother soothes the nerves with a piano tune that Father sings to and the two of them remind everyone what is most essential in their lives, it is a terrific moment in a film filled with terrific songs and moments, and it is all centered on someone other than Garland for a few minutes. By the way, by the time the scene finishes, you will desperately want a piece of cake.

As we walked out of the theater, Amanda turned to me and said, "Now it's Christmas Time."  I 100% agree. I felt uplifted by the experience and nostalgic for the Christmases of my own past. I suspect we may be watching it again before the season is over, but it was a real treat to see it in a theater with dozens of other fans, all glad that there was a 5 at the end of the anniversary this year.

Ford v Ferrari



Let me start by saying, I am not a fan of racing. I have nothing against it but the idea of watching cars travel at high speeds is attractive to me for about five minutes. After the first thrill, it seems like a lot of waiting around. I know I am an exception because NASCAR is incredibly popular and the Indy car circuit has been around for more than a century. The same can be said for formula one racing which enjoys international enthusiasm that I can't muster. With that out of the way, I can say I am a fan of  racing films. Several years ago, I listed "Rush"  as my second favorite movie of that year. Earlier this year I enjoyed "the Art of Racing in the Rain". I even liked the Stallone racing film and "Days of Thunder". So how is it that I ended up liking this film so much?

My appreciation for a film about a subject that I am not well versed in or passionate about comes down to the simple fact that film making is all about controlling the audience perspective. As an illustration, I posted a list a few years ago of my favorite sports films, three of the ten films were hockey movies. I've never been to a hockey game, I've never watched a whole hockey game on television and the idea of a sport played on ice is appalling to me, I hate the cold. Film makers however, are not worried about the contest, they know the outcome already. They don't worry about the rules, they can ignore them or alter them to suit their purpose. What screenwriters and directors do care about is the audience, what is it we want out of the experience? That is the thing that makes a movie like this work for us.

In "Ford v Ferrari" we see the races from the best angles. We focus on the key moments and not all the drudge work that gets to those points. Best of all, in a racing film we are in the cockpit and we see the race from the perspective of the driver as well. That creates the drama that keeps us focused on the story of watching someone drive a car. In this film Christian Bale plays driver Ken Miles and his character is one worth following. He is a hothead who also happens to be an excellent driver. His volatile relationship with the car designer and the corporation that is backing the team is emphasized not just in scenes played out in garages and offices, but while he is driving the vehicle they are all counting on. I think he nails the English accent spot on [those of you who don't get the joke are excused from making a comment on my ignorance]. He has to act opposite a big movie star, a child and a piece of machinery. He makes each of those relationships work in a realistic way.

My friend Doug is a big race fan and he will tell you how there is a better story somewhere else, or how the film is not accurate is some way that matters to race fans. The rest of us don't have to worry about that because we know what we are seeing is a fictionalized version of the events. Like all story tellers, the three screenwriters and the director, exaggerate to make a joke work or emphasize a dramatic beat with a piece of information that we need just at the right moment. The film does center on racing, but most of Matt Damon's work is in the garage or board room rather than behind the wheel. The background on the Ford Company attempt to purchase Ferrari may not have happened in the sequential order that the film presents but that presentation makes the rivalry more meaningful and interesting. You could easily be fooled into thinking that Christian Bale also played Henry Ford II, since the portrayal is a mirror image of the Dick Cheny performance he was responsible for last year. 

Since the events depicted are based on real historical incidents, you will be aware of the outcome of some of the suspenseful moments, but James Mangold manages to make them suspenseful anyway. Having worked with Christian Bale in "3:10 to Yuma", Mangold probably felt comfortable in the casting of Bale and Damon in parts that were originally scheduled to go to Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. While I would have enjoyed seeing those two reunited on screen, I think this pairing works really well. The loyalty but pragmatism of Damon as Carrol Shelby is a good counterpoint to the flashier Ken Miles and it is to Damon's credit that he lets Bale drive not only the vehicle but the film as well.


Friday, December 6, 2019

No Safe Spaces



This is a documentary from what would traditionally be described as the conservative perspective, but the issues are so broad and important to the culture that liberal politicians and commentators are in agreement on many points. When you have Van Jones and Barack Obama suggesting that the problem these right wingers are pointing out are real, I think we can move past the political lines and move to the cultural front that this movie wants to be focused on.

Like most documentaries about ideas, there are a lot of talking heads involved in the discussion. Talk show host Dennis Prager is a well known conservative with a nationally syndicated radio program. Adam Carolla is a comedian/podcaster with the most downloaded podcast in the world. Their friendship is based on the commonality that the world has lost it's common sense and we are forgetting our values. They may disagree on a large number of issues but the threat to free speech binds them together and they have made multiple appearances to share their views. So it is no surprise that much of the footage is derived from some of these joint appearances. The other thing that you will find in documentaries of this sort is archival footage of current and recent events. The most galvanizing moments in the film have to do with video and film of speech presentations being disrupted and violence being used to silence views that others do not agree with. There is a long segment on Berkeley as a source of some violent outbursts but it is far from the only example that is illustrated.

The thing the film does effectively is catalog the numerous recent campus based illustrations of suppressed speech and give us some perspective on how this has become a standard form of closing down dissenting views. There are a couple of clever cartoon interludes that inject some humor and a decidedly condescending view of those who want to create "safe" space or control "hate speech". Some of the talking heads that show up are well known public intellectual figures such as Cornel West and Jordan Peterson. Peterson gets a substantial amount of focus as an individual who has been subjected to much of the shouting by the other side. All of the academics who are presented in the film, regardless of their political leanings, agree that the purpose of the first amendment is to allow a market place of ideas to weed out the bad from the good, rather than presupposing the correctness of one position before a debate has even begun.

As a college instructor for 40 years, I can say from experience in my public speaking and argumentation classes that there has been a shift in the way students engage in conflict. There is a hive mentality on some issues but the bigger point is that dissenters are fearful of being socially chastised for making an argument. The issues of Illegal Immigration and Same Sex Marriage are two areas where speaking one point of view, even if addressed as a rational objectively based claims has almost disappeared. I don't see a shortage of evidence or value conflict on those points, I do see fear. Colleges are so obsessed with progressive goals that they are ignoring the means of achieving them that are progressive and have become reactionaries themselves. The film uses relatively innocuous issues that turned into major kerfuffles at Evergreen State University to illustrate the point. The experience of the two faculty members who ultimately were driven out and had to sue to get treated fairly is told in a very personal way.

Having a fairly solid position to start with the director of the movie, Justin Folk, allows the story to lose momentum in several places. The main reason is the shifting of subject matter.   Instead of a driving focus on the value issue, we get taken to a number of side issues that while interesting, seem to be interjected without figuring out how they are connected to the main point or the previous piece of information. It's not clear why Jordan Peterson is wandering around Adam Carolla's garage and car collection. Shooting Dennis Prager as he drives down the freeway must be some kind of commentary on something, but I can't tell what. As a consequence the story feels like a series of events are being strung together without a strong direction to them and that they are being randomly critiqued without the unifying theme that the movie desperately wants to have.

For true believers, this film with spark up your anger and frustrate the heck out of you. I remember how one of my coaches, John Gossett a PhD. who wrote his dissertation on prior restraint, used to emphasize that the first amendment says congress will make " NO law ...abridging the freedom of speech." The danger presented by restriction on free speech that come from non-governmental social media is the issue that needs more development, instead we got a panel discussion between five comedians without any memorable moments. This were  lost opportunities to dig deeper. I admire the desire to tackle this issue and I agree that it is significant and potentially dangerous to the country to ignore it. I just wish the skill of the writer and director had stayed more with the issues they see as important rather than throwing everything into the pot and hoping it made a stew. 

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Lord of the Rings: One Day Trilogy Event



As a fan of the American Cinematique and the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, I look forward to big movies presented on the big screen on a regular basis. New exclusives like "The Irishman" or old favorites like "Lawrence of Arabia" make sense on the extra large screen at this theater. Yesterday however was pushing it to the extremes a little bit. All three Lord of the Rings films, in the extended editions on 35mm is really big, and frankly intimidating. This is at least a twelve hour commitment so you better not have any other plans this weekend.

It was way back in 2011 that I did posts on the extended editions and their theatrical release. Those screenings were basically extended commercials for the upcoming blu-ray release of the films. Unlike the most recent experience however, the films screened one at a time over the course of three different Tuesday nights. This was all three films in an indulgent day of film going. I was not at all shocked to see that the event was sold out and that it was heavily attended bu cosplaying fans of the series. We had to strategize a bit to work out being able to do this and survive. Fortunately, the programmers planned a thirty minute break between each film so we could run out and get something to eat or simply some fresh air before the next stage of our Middle Earth journey began.

Of the three films, my personal favorite has always been the first chapter "The Fellowship of the Ring". Peter Jackson's world building is so well set up in this film that all of the grand moments in the second and third chapters feel more natural as a result. I recognize that the whole trilogy was largely shot at the same time and we are getting three segments of one film with each entry, but you have to start somewhere and the Shire is a great start. Hobbiton and Bag's End are exactly how I envisioned them when I read the books as a kid. The one thing that took a couple of minutes to get used to was the look of the hobbits. Their depiction is a lot more subtle than my imagination but it only took a short while to adjust. This is also the simplest of narratives since the story focuses on one group for the most part and two sections of the journey. The second and third acts distribute the characters into multiple locations and time lines so they are not as elegantly straightforward as the first chapter.

"The Two Towers" seems to be a popular favorite with many on-line fans citing it as the best episode of the three. Like many second acts, the character development in this material is more substantial. There is more background on Aragorn and Merry and Pippin become characters that are more than simply the comic relief. The introduction of Gollum/Smeagol is a technical advancement and an unexpectedly poignant performance from Andy Serkis. I also think that Brad Dourif as Grimma/Wormtongue has the right amount of villainous flourish to make the film sparkle among the often grim characters. Everyone probably has a favorite character in the series, I am particularly fond of Theoden and the portrayal by Bernard Hill starts in this film and gets even better in the follow up.

We had succeeded in seeing the first two films in a 35mm format, but about a half hour into the third film, the management realized that the print they were given by the studio was the original theatrical version rather than the extended edition. After a survey of the audience, they switched to the extended edition that they had available on blu-ray. This presented two issues for the patient but tired audience. The bigger issue was that they started the film over, so that meant we sat thru the first 30 minutes a second time. This resulted in a finish for the day, well after 2 am. The other issue is that the blu ray actually has the film split on two disks, so there will be a delay break in the middle of a battle scene to make this switch. Being the owner of more than a thousand laser discs, this did not bother me at all, but you could tell that many in the audience were disconcerted about the technology.

While it is frequently lampooned for it's multiple endings, "The Return of the King" needs all of those beats to make the wrap up as satisfying as it is.  Everyone who has a part to play in the film gets some moments on the screen to shine. Boromir comes back for a flashback in the extended edition and it retroactively enriches his character in the first film. The battle scenes are the impressive feat of this chapter of the series and they are spectacular. Just as Andy Serkis was neglected at awards time, it is a shame that Sean Astin was left out of the supporting actor race, his interpretation of Sam Gamgee is definitive in my opinion and it could have been over the top but instead it was just right.

The wisdom of a thirteen plus hour commitment to a film day might be questionable but the emotional satisfaction more than compensates. I hope to catch up on a little sleep later today, but I don't regret doing this and if you love these films as well, take a chance when you get the opportunity to indulge.