Movie Reviews - 2015 postsSaturday May 28, 2016
Movie Review: Ma Ma (2015)
I’m having trouble articulating the utter absurdity of Julio Medem’s “Ma Ma,” starring Penelope Cruz: its icky mix of tragedy and wish-fulfillment fantasy; the glory of Woman as life hands her lemons from which she makes a lemon-scented cathedral.
Bear with me. And remember: I’m just the messenger here.
What Magda wants
As the movie opens, Magda (Cruz), whose husband has just left her for one of his philosophy students, is told by her handsome, friendly, singing gynecologist, Julian (Asier Etxeqneia), that she has stage-3 breast cancer in one breast. She will lose it. There will be chemo. She will lose her hair. Deep breath.
Immediately afterwards, at her son’s futbol game, she meets Arturo (Luis Tosar), a bald, bearded, bushy-eyebrowed scout for Real Madrid, who, as he’s praising her son’s futbol skills, receives a phone call that there was a car accident and his daughter is dead and his wife in a coma. He faints. Magda to the rescue! She gets him to the hospital, then visits him daily after her own chemotherapy treatments. He’s forever collapsing, she’s forever strong. Eventually she loses her hair and her breast, he loses his wife, then she and he, with her son, Dani (Teo Planell), travel to the coast for a vacation, where he and she, on the second day, kiss on the beach.
Cut to: the following January. By now she’s married to Arturo and her hair has grown back into a cute pixie cut, though Penelope—sorry, Magda—keeps covering it with an awful wig. Girls. Plus she and Arturo haven’t had sex yet; he has trouble getting it up. Plus, though Dani likes Arturo, he’s acting weird around her, because of the breast thing.
She mentions all of this in passing to Julian at a follow-up appointment, during which he finds, oops, more cancer, stage 4 now and incurable. He gives her six months to live.
So she sues the quack for a million euros.
Kidding. She quietly informs Arturo that she’s going to die, then quietly demands they have sex on the couch. Somehow the added pressure, not to mention tragic circumstances, helps. The deed is done, and shortly thereafter, hey, she’s going to have a baby.
Sadly, the baby dies in utero when she dies of cancer after five months. It’s quite gruesome.
Kidding. The ever-upbeat Magda just wants three things from the rest of her days:
- a girl
- to live long enough to give birth to this girl
- no, to live long enough to hold this girl in her arms
Guess which one of those things doesn’t happen? Right: None of them.
Wait, I didn’t even get into the Natasha thing, did I? Oh god.
OK, so the movie actually opens on a frozen tundra, where, during the credit sequence, a small blonde girl, 5 maybe, slowly makes her impassive, dead-eyed way toward the camera. Later we see a framed photo of this girl on Julian’s desk. His daughter? No. It’s the girl that Julian and his wife are thinking about adopting from Siberia. Magda encourages it because she says yes to life. But Julian eventually says no to his wife and the girl. So the girl stays in Siberia yet remains in the picture because Magda keeps imagining her in everyday situations. Dani is in the backseat talking futbol, and there’s the impassive blonde girl next to him. They’re all frolicking in the ocean, and there’s the dead-eyed blonde girl swimming around them. It’s super creepy but I don’t know if the movie recognizes it as super creepy. I think the movie sees it as somehow beautiful. More of Magda’s great yesness.
Nothing else happens with Natasha, by the way. Magda just keeps imagining her, then names her own daughter “Natasha” in her honor, but for all we know the real Natasha remains parentless and frozen, not to mention dead-eyed, in Siberia. Sorry, kid.
The movie does one thing I like. At different times, it shows us a close-up of Magda’s heart pumping away. Like during the first kiss with Arturo, it thumps harder. And during the first (and only?) sex with Arturo, it thumps really hard. Then at the end, after the baby is delivered via cesarean section, it thumps steady as we hear mother being united with daughter. Then it slows. Then it stops. Then the screen goes dark.
“Well,” I thought. “Nice ending anyway.”
Except the movie doesn’t end there. It gives us an overhead shot of the now-dead Magda staring straight into the camera with the mastectomy scar on her right side and the newborn baby quivering in her left arm.
And that’s not the end of it, either. We get an epilogue, maybe four months later, in which the three men in Magda’s life, Dani, Arturo, and Julian, the handsome, singing, housecall-making gynecologist quack, gather around the baby, feed it a bottle, and sing the song Julian sang to Magda at the beach, something like “Eso es vivir,” which lists off all the things life is about. It’s “Three Men and a Baby.” It’s all the life that the upbeat death of Magda has created. More, because Magda has told Dani that the soul is eternal, and that after she dies she’ll stay near him, he thinks the baby is Magda reincarnated. And he calls the baby “Mama.”
That’s some fucked-up shit right there.
People keep calling this movie “inspiring” but for me it just inspired an urge to run out of the theater. Screaming.
Movie Review: Concussion (2015)
There’s a good story here but this isn’t it.
A man of science discovers something horrible about a powerful American business and tries to push past PR and corporate lawyers to get word out. In the process he’s harassed, belittled, besmirched. He’s an ordinary man under extraordinary pressure, but ultimately, through perseverance, and sacrifice, and the good works of a few others, the word gets out. And the world changes a little for the better.
That’s a good story. It’s “The Insider,” after all. So why doesn’t it work here?
It should actually work better here, since, in “The Insider,” Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) battles Big Tobacco, an institution many rely upon but nobody loves. Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is going up against football. He’s a foreigner telling America that their favorite sport is killing their favorite sons—and maybe their own sons. He’s going up against a corporation that “owns a day of the week,” as his boss, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), tells him. He should have half the country against him. He should have every goombah on every street corner getting in his face. He, and we, should feel immense pressure.
Nope. The movie blows it from the beginning.
Seven degrees of Will Smith
We’re introduced to Dr. Omalu when he’s an expert witness in a nondescript trial and he’s asked to state his credentials. First, he mentions a degree from Nigeria. Suspect, right? Like an email from a Nigerian prince. But then he mentions another degree, and another, each more impressive than the last. Many are from America, one is from the UK. He has to keep interrupting the (opposing?) counsel to, in effect, toot his own horn. Then he looks at the jury with a self-satisfied smile.
Wow, is that wrong. Have him be slightly embarrassed at least. Or have someone else mention the degrees. It’s such a tone-deaf scene that our hero, who is supposed to be modest and circumspect, comes off as annoying.
Omalu makes his living as a quirky Pittsburgh coroner who listens to R&B while dissecting the dead; he talks to the dead to find out their secrets. He’s got the respect of the head of the department, Dr. Wecht, but not so much from his immediate superior, Sullivan (Mike O’Malley), who fumes meaninglessly on the sidelines. Is Sullivan racist? Just an asshole? Who knows? He’s a straw man.
Then one of Pittsburgh’s favorite sons, former Steelers center Mike Webster (David Morse wearing a Frankenstein forehead), winds up on Omalu’s table after killing himself at the age of 50, and Omalu, through extensive research, including using $20,000 of his own money for tests, discovers a new form of brain trauma. He names it “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy,” or CTE, and his findings are subsequently published in a medical journal. That’s when the harassment from the NFL begins.
How is this harassment dramatized? Well, Omalu gets a few angry phone calls. He’s yelled at by an NFL official. His wife, Prema (the impossibly beautiful Gugu Mbatha-Raw), pregnant with his child, is followed in her car—maybe—and then has a miscarriage. The harassment should be menacing, all-encompassing, but it feels like wisps of nothing.
Mostly, the NFL just doesn’t listen to him. This exchange is indicative:
Wecht: Did you think the NFL would thank you?
Wecht: What for?
Omalu: For knowing.
I like that, but it’s not exactly dramatic. In “The Insider,” Wigand actually suffered. He lost his job, his wife, his home, his self-esteem. The FBI harasses him. His journalistic counterpart, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), wonders over this. He makes accusations in the form of questions—maybe Brown & Williamson has former agents on its payroll, and maybe current agents have been promised cushy jobs, and maybe he should start investigating—and he gets them to back off. Here, the FBI harasses ... Dr. Wecht. They indict him on 84 counts. A title card at the end tells us he was ultimately exonerated but ... did he do it? Is it bullshit? Is Omalu so clean they can’t touch him?
Seriously, if the government is in cahoots with the NFL, as implied, why doesn’t immigration go after him? He’s not even a citizen until 2015. Instead, he and his impossibly beautiful wife simply leave Pittsburgh for So Cal—but not before the well-mannered Omalu takes an axe to a wall at his home in frustration. And in poignant slow-motion.
Are you ready for some football?
Is writer-director Peter Landesman (the underrated “Parkland”) not director enough for this? Is Smith not actor enough? Did Sony’s corporate hand get too involved?
I liked the scene at the University of Pittsburgh where Dr. Steve DeKosky (excellent cameo by Eddie Marsan) realizes the validity of Omalu’s findings—and their repercussions. I liked Brooks throughout. I liked looking at Mbatha-Raw.
But the movie is heavy-handed in all the wrong places, and goes out of its way not to alienate football fans and the NFL. Every other character has to talk about how beautiful football is. Every other scene contains some take on America—mostly how great we are. The story is about a horrifying way that American football and American business is fucked up, and the movie keeps patting these villains on the back.
Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2 (2015)
And so it ends with a whimper. Mine.
Yes, we’re finally done with this thing that began four years ago, when we were all so much younger and smarter. Now we can step back and see the glorious arc that is “The Hunger Games” tetralogy:
- Part 1: Katniss becomes reluctant hero.
- Part 2: Katniss becomes reluctant symbol.
- Part 3: Katniss becomes reluctant soldier.
- Part 4: Katniss reluctantly chooses which boy she loves during a revolution.
Did anyone else think about Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” watching this? In “Sleeper,” Woody wakes up in the future, becomes part of a rebellion, led by Erno, against the tyrannical “Leader,” who—Woody finds out—has been completely destroyed save for his nose, which the Powers That Be are saving for a cloning experiment. Woody steals the nose and gets away with the girl, Diane Keaton, who still believes in Erno’s rebellion. At the end, Woody tells her: “Don’t you understand—in six months we’ll be stealing Erno’s nose!”
Erno here is Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), the leader of the rebellion, which is being orchestrated by former “Hunger Games” showrunner Plutarch Heavensbee. Since Plutarch is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died two years ago, he can only do so much in this movie. That said, Hoffman dead is still a better actor than Liam Hemsworth alive.
So: Revolution at hand, Coin sends Katniss into the Capitol with a team of favorite TV show characters:
- Remy Danton, “House of Cards”
- Margaery Tyrell, “Game of Thrones”
- Foggy Nelson, “Daredevil”
- Dr. Valentin Narciss, “Boardwalk Empire,” et al.
- Ro Laren, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” et al. (I've missed you)
Plus the two boys she must choose between: Thor’s brother, Gale, who is tall, handsome and dull; and little Peeta, who is forever in need of saving, and who has been brainwashed by the government and now wants to kill Katniss. What’s a girl to do?
Their mission? To film heroics that will incite the masses. It’s also implied that Coin actually wants Katniss dead. One less obstacle to power, she supposes.
The team journeys across empty cityscapes, outraces a flood of oil (don’t ask), are assumed dead, aren’t, hide underground, are attacked by slimy creatures, and in the end Katniss and Gale wear hoodies and join the Capitol folks in the long walkup to the presidential palace, where the evil Pres. Snow (Donald Sutherland, the best thing in the series) is encouraging everyone to gather. Then bombs fall and many people die, including Katniss’ sister Primrose (Willow Shields), who is the reason Katniss sacrificed everything in the first place. The bombs are blamed on Pres. Snow but we find out, bit by bit, that the rebellion did it. It was Coin, who declares herself interim president, sets up a “Hunger Games” for the Capitol’s children, and lets Katniss kill Snow in the public square with bow and arrow. She introduces her, standing on a platform 100 feet behind Snow, right in the line of fire.
You see where this is going, right? Katniss steals Erno’s nose. The mob then kills Snow on its own.
“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1” is not all horrible. Sam Claflin as Finnick Odair is good, but he dies in the tunnels (shame), while Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson, also interesting, aren’t given enough to do (again). I love it when Snow is giving a speech but his broadcast is usurped by Pres. Coin—a sign of her power—and she quotes Snow on Katniss: “A face 'picked from the masses' he called her,” she says. “Plucked,” he corrects, if only to himself.
Another good bit: As Peeta recovers, he keeps asking Katniss what’s real/not real. I.e., what truly happened to him and or what was he programmed to believe happened? She keeps telling him: real/not real. Then after all the shit goes down, and Gale reveals himself to be a simple-minded soldier (or something), Katniss winds back in District Whatever with Peeta, and then in bed with Peeta; and since he's a sensitive sort, we get this exchange:
Peeta: You love me: Real or not real?
Katniss: [Pause] Real.
Hey, that's actually a nice ending!
Except it fades back in. Idiots. We fast-forward several years to when Peeta and Katniss have two kids and play with them outdoors. He’s by a stream, she’s under a tree. She looks even more distant than before, less “there.” I guess it’s supposed to be peaceful? She says some unnecessary lines in voiceover. Then “The Hunger Games,” which grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide, finally, mercifully, joins the ranks of The Fallen.
Movie Review: 45 Years (2015)
On the Monday morning before her 45th wedding anniversary, which will be celebrated with friends on Saturday, Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) goes for a walk in the flat fields of the English countryside with her dog Max, says hello to the postman, a former student, then greets her husband, Geoff (Tom Courtenay), still unshaven and in his bathrobe, in the kitchen. One of the letters in her hand is for him. The contents of it will affect the next five days, and taint their previous 45 years.
“They found her,” he says.
From the trailer I thought the missing person was their daughter, but it’s Katya, his first love. In 1962, he’d been hiking with her in the Swiss Alps when she’d fallen into a fissure. Thanks to global warming, the glacier melted enough that her body, perfectly preserved, was visible if unreachable. It’s a good metaphor for first loves—preserved in ice, irretrievable—and in her late 70s Kate suddenly finds herself competing with a woman 50 years younger; with all of that cold perfection.
Variations in e minor
Their relationship changes subtly and immediately. Geoff tries to probe the depths of his feelings in solitude, which causes Kate to try to get closer. Biscuits in the backyard? Tea? Camera placement highlights this. In the frame, we often see her face, not his. Sometimes we don’t see him at all, as if he isn’t there anymore. In a way, he’s not. He’s visiting the attic in the middle of the night, going into town, mumbling to himself on park benches. Is he returning to Switzerland to see her body? He would like to, but at his age he can’t climb that mountain anymore. Another good metaphor for the past. So he stays where he is; but a fissure develops.
Like themes in a song, we keep getting variations on that awful moment in 1962. Geoff tells Kate he’d hired a guide, a German, who’d fancied himself a Jack Kerouac type. (Kate laughs, knowing how much Geoff dislikes Kerouac—which makes me like Geoff all the more.) Katya spoke German, too, Geoff no, so you get a sense of Geoff being left behind. He allowed himself to be left behind, literally; the other two hiked ahead. He talks about hearing Katya laugh, and how, in his jealousy, he hated her in that moment. Then he heard her cry out as she fell.
What Kate doesn’t explore (the movie either) is how much guilt Geoff must feel about all of this. If he hadn’t been sulking, he would’ve been walking with them; and if he’d been walking with them, would she have died? Is that what he’s doing on the park bench? Arguing against Katya? Kerouac? Himself?
A few days later, we get another variation when Geoff is in town and Kate ascends into the attic. I like how her dog Max whimpers as she prepares to go up, as if he knows there’s danger there, as if he knows this is not regular behavior. He knows the man goes up the ladder, not the woman. But up she goes, into his past. I also like how, in the opening credits, white type against a black screen, we hear a whirring and a clicking. I thought, “Slides?” Yes. After going through his old notebook, its pages mottled and thickened by age, she views the slides he’s been viewing. It’s a great, silent scene: the blurred images of Katya on the right side of the screen, with Kate on the left, in focus, and hardening. She and Geoff have very few photos of themselves—her call—and no kids. Now she discovers Geoff has all of these photos of Katya, perfectly preserved; and in the slides, it’s obvious that Katya was pregnant when she died. So it’s not just his old love that’s forever frozen in the Alps but his unborn child. The slides contain the beginning of a life he tragically didn’t lead. Which makes Kate what? The life he tragically did?
(The pregnancy revelation does raise questions. Why were they hiking in the mountains if she was pregnant? And why the jealousy? Would Kerouac really have come on to a pregnant woman? Would Geoff really have been so jealous? Pregnancy is a different dynamic—woman as mother rather than sex object—so skews things a bit, even as it deepens them.)
More things in their careful world are changing. Each day, the first thing we first see is Kate walking the fields with Max. But by Thursday, no, and Friday she wakes to a note next to her: “I’ve taken the bus into town. Sorry.” Saturday, the day of their anniversary celebration, Geoff wakes her up with tea and breakfast. Now he’s the one trying to get close again—like biscuits in the backyard—and later we get an interlude. She’s digging in the garage and comes across some J.S. Bach sheet music. “Found it!” she calls out. Then she goes into the living room and plays it. But in the entire scene, we never see or hear Geoff. She’s calling out to no one, playing for no one.
How I knew
The Bach is an anomaly. The music we get for most of the movie, and which plays at their anniversary celebration, is ’60s pop. It’s “true love” music: “The only one for me is you/And you for me/So happy together,” etc. That night, in fact, they dance to “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by the Platters, which is about as lush and romantic a pop song as there is:
They asked me how I knew
My true love was true
I of course replied
Something here inside
Cannot be denied
But it’s the opposite of romantic here. By now Kate knows, or feels, that she’s not the true love of the song, so she hardens and stiffens in Geoff’s arms, even as he (compensating?) gets looser, loopier. You could say she’s dancing to some other woman’s song on some other woman’s anniversary. Because 45 years? Who does a black-tie celebration for that? That’s why the title of the movie is so perfect. The big one is the 50th, and that’s Katya’s. It’s been 50 years since she died. Is nothing Kate’s? Even their names: “Katya” is exotic, romantic; “Kate,” in comparison, can’t help but sound quotidian. It doesn't compare.
For all of the movie’s quiet power, though, I found myself disappointed in Kate. Almost everyone has their (albeit less tragic) past love, their Katya on ice, and part of aging, part of wisdom, is to accept that, and them. It’s to not buy into the bullshit of the pop song. Charlotte Rampling usually plays smarter, more wordly women.
Even so, “45 Years,” written and directed by Andrew Haigh (HBO’s “Looking”), from a short story by David Constantine, is the epitome of the quiet-but-powerful movie. It’s about what ties us to the past, and what divides us in the present. It’s the unknowability of the heart, and of the other person. It’s the misstep that isn’t righted.
Movie Review: The Hateful Eight (2015)
Halfway through, I felt something I rarely feel in a Quentin Tarantino movie: Boredom.
Tarantino’s movies are like “My Dinner with Andre” directed by Sam Peckinpah: they're long conversations punctuated by violence. And if the conversations are good (and usually they are), and the violence isn’t too excessive (well...), then I leave the theater happy and energized. Here, the stories are kinda lame and the violence over-the-top.
Kurt Russell may be at fault, too. He plays John “The Hangman” Ruth, a bounty hunter who is taking a prize catch, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, welcome back), worth $10,000, to Red Rock, via stagecoach that’s trying to stay one step ahead of a blizzard. Along the way they pick up two separate passengers in the middle of nowhere: Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), another bounty hunter, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), whose father used to run a post-Civil War Confederate gang in the west, and who claims he’s going to Red Rock to become its next sheriff.
Eventually, the blizzard catches up to them and they’re forced to lodge at Minnie’s (Dana Gourrier), but, oddly, Minnie isn’t there, and Ruth takes a long slow look at the other guests: the flamboyantly British Oswaldo Mobry (Tim Roth), who claims to be the hangman of Red Rock; the quiet Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), sitting near the fire and writing his life story; and Gen. Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a cranky old Confederate officer who was responsible for a massacre in Louisiana.
Holding the floor
It’s a movie about shifting suspicions and loyalties. Of course Mannix (named for the ’60s TV detective played by Mike Conners) and Smithers (for Waylon?) don’t much like Warren, while Warren is suspicious of Bob (Demian Bichir), a Mexican who claims to be running Minnie’s in her absence. Warren, you see, knows things. He’s privy to information. So are most of the others. (In this Wyoming standoff, in fact, who isn’t holding secret intel? I think just Ruth and Mannix.) And it all comes to a boil when Warren goads Gen. Smithers to go for a gun. He does this by telling him a story.
That’s classic QT: In a Tarantino movie, the one with the story is the one in control. You hold the power by holding the floor. Sadly, Maj. Warren’s story is hardly a classic.
Seems Gen. Smithers’ son was in Wyoming to kill Warren—a notorious Northern renegade with a bounty on his head—but Warren got the upper hand, marched the kid naked through the snow; and when the kid begged for a blanket, he forced him to go down on him; then he killed him anyway. We never know if this story is real or designed to mess with the aged mind of Gen. Smithers, whom Warren despises, but either way the General listens to the story way too long to feel real. He would’ve gone for the gun much earlier. When he does, of course, he’s dead. And in the meantime, with everyone distracted, someone’s poisoned the coffee, and both Ruth and the stage coach driver suffer a long, horrid, blood-spewing death from it. That’s when Warren really takes over the movie.
And this is when it gets interesting. So it made me think that either Kurt Russell isn’t charismatic enough, or his character, Ruth, is too grumbling and irascible to be the main guy. In the first half, he held the floor and the result was “meh.” After his death, Maj. Warren holds the floor, we get Sam Jackson’s clear voice ringing out, and I was intrigued.
It helps, I suppose, that by this point the movie has become a whodunit. Who poisoned the coffee? To what end? And who will be the last man standing? (Full disclosure: no one.)
What about Bob?
“Hateful Eight” shares other Tarantino tropes. The enclosed nature of the standoff is like “Reservoir Dogs.” Like in “Pulp Fiction,” there’s a man with a gun (Daisy’s brother, played by Channing Tatum) hidden away as Sam Jackson rages on; unlike in “Pulp Fiction,” the hidden guy doesn’t miss his mark. We get an extensive flashback to make sense of what’s going on—as in “Dogs,” “Fiction,” etc.—but it’s wholly unnecessary here. We get it: Daisy’s gang came in and killed Minnie and the others. Onward already.
My favorite part of the movie is the detective work. Bob says Minnie left earlier in the week to visit her mother, but Warren knows: 1) Minnie hates Mexicans, and 2) the stew tastes like Minnie’s stew, which means she couldn’t have left earlier in the week. So why doesn’t he share this info with Ruth? More, why does he go after the toothless general first—allowing Gage to poison the coffee that kills Ruth? Once we know the whole story, Warren’s actions don’t make much sense.
“Hateful Eight” is long on runtime (167 minutes), long on viscera, and short on wit. It's lesser Tarantino. Possibly least Tarantino.