Movie Reviews - 2016 postsWednesday March 29, 2017
Movie Review: Rules Don't Apply (2016)
He waited too long.
Principal shooting on “Rules Don’t Apply” took place in 2014, but writer-director Warren Beatty kept tinkering with it throughout 2015, and the movie didn’t open until November 23, 2016—two weeks and a day after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. And these are the first words the still-shellshocked citizens of the U.S. got to see on screen:
“Never check an interesting fact.”
— Howard Hughes
(names and dates have been changed)
What’s supposed to be a sly wink at the audience, something to make us laugh at the chicanery of it all—and maybe even recall one of the most famous lines in movie history: “When the legend becomes fact ... print the legend,” from John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”—instead, post-Trump, comes off as a kind of horror about what we’ve allowed everyone to get away with, the truth-less, factcheck-less world in which we now spin. It immediately sets the wrong tone.
Then it get worse.
To be honest, I don’t know what Beatty was thinking. I don’t know what he thought the story was.
Here’s the story as I see it: In 1958, two kids fall in love but Howard Hughes (Beatty) gets in the way. She gets pregnant (by Hughes), he stays employed (by Hughes), and then six years later, in Acapulco, they rally ’round the old man enough that he’s able to rise up from his dementia and beat back a charlatan autobiographer. Yay! Then boy and girl go off into the sunset—with Hughes’ now 5-year-old kid in tow—even as the old man sinks back into silence and darkness.
The girl is Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) a devout Baptist and the “Apple Blossom Queen” of Virginia, who arrives in Hollywood in 1958 with her suspicious, demanding mother, Lucy (Annette Bening, wasted), ready to take a screen test for the Hughes-produced film “Stella Starlight.” The boy is Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a devout Methodist low-level employee of Hughes and wannabe real estate tycoon who drives Marla and 25 other Hughes starlets to and from school, dance lessons, auditions, etc., even as he’s constantly warned by his superior, Levar Mathis (Matthew Broderick), not to get involved with them—and even as Levar does his level best to do just that. To no dramatic effect. Or plot point. Or anything.
There’s a great early shot of, I guess, Sunset Boulevard in 1958, done with, I imagine, lots of CGI, that made me happy. This is what CGI is for, I thought: resurrecting history. There’s also a nice montage of picking up the va-va-voomy starlets, as well as a fascinating moment when the girls get their weekly paychecks via clipboard dropped from a second-floor window like—as Lucy accurately states—a fishing line. But the movie loses itself quickly. Beatty, or his editors, of Fox, rush through the early scenes. In one seven-minute stretch, I counted 14 separate scenes—three involving Frank’s visit with his girl and her family back in Fresno, which could’ve been cut altogether. But Beatty keeps them while giving short shrift to the others.
Where’s the emotional resonance? At one point, Lucy is lambasting Frank again from the backseat about how it’s been two weeks and Hughes hasn’t even seen Marla yet, and when is she going to get her screentest, and why isn’t he, Frank, doing something about it? Finally fed up, Fred pulls over, turns, and tells her he’s never seen Mr. Hughes, either. Ah ha! Except we’re already aware of this. Painfully so. The scene might’ve worked, if, say, the point-of-view had been Marla’s throughout, with Hollywood a dreamscape, and the driver mysterious and handsome, and then ... Oh! He’s just like me. He’s just another employee in the dark. Instead, this clunker.
We get a lot of clunkers. There’s a Bobby Darin joke that falls flatter than almost any line I’ve heard. Then it’s repeated 10 minutes later.
It all builds toward finally seeing the reclusive Hughes. She goes first, meeting him in his darkened bungalow at the Beverly Hills hotel, where she anticipates a pass or worse. Instead, he’s a Warren Beatty character: distracted, kooky, harmless. She’s served a TV dinner rather than a sumptuous meal, and sax rather than sex, and when he looms close and points to her chest it’s to talk about the Rayon in her blouse rather than paw at what’s beneath it.
Then it’s his turn, meeting Hughes for 3 a.m. burgers on folding chairs in front of Hughes’ massive airplane, The Hercules—just one of the many Hughes bio bits Beatty tries to pack in. In this six-year period, 1958 to 1963, we get references to Jane Russell’s bra (really from 1943) as well as the faux autobiography (really from 1972). Hughes is in a plane crash, Hughes is testifying before Congress, Hughes exhibits the OCD habits that will undo him. He’s increasingly paranoid that his underlings will declare him mentally incompetent and put him in an institution. Then he learns that if he’s married, he can’t be committed without his wife’s approval. And that sets up the movie’s turning point.
Here’s how it’s set up:
- Frank and Marla finally give in to their lustful passions (think: “Splendor in the Grass”) but it ends abruptly, even before clothes are removed.
- Immediate after, Levar takes her to Hughes’ bungalow because Hughes requested a tryst with “the MM girl”—but he meant Marilyn Monroe.
- Marla, feeling guilty over the makeout session with Frank, discovers the champagne there, and gets bombed while waiting.
- He discovers the thing about the wife.
- He proposes to her.
- They have sex.
Apparently Beatty first thought of this project back in the 1970s, and if he’d pulled it off earlier, with him in the lead, it might’ve worked. I mean, Hughes in ’58 was relatively young: 53 years old. He was Brad Pitt’s age now. But Beatty at the time of filming? 77. Worse, he was 52 years older than the female lead. Again: Ick. Sorry, Warren, but some rules do apply.
Hughes, scatter-brained and unethical, winds up marrying Jean Peters and escaping to Las Vegas, then Nicaragua, then London. Marla winds up pregnant. She and Frank wind up on the outs because 1) he sees engagement ring and assumes there’s another guy, 2) she doesn’t tell him about Hughes, 3) he doesn’t figure it out until the 11th hour. Quarter to midnight, more like.
What a mess. I get the feeling Beatty wants us to cheer as, buoyed by Marla’s sudden reappearance in Acapulco with her son, whom he recognizes as his son, meaning his DNA will continue on and he can live forever (don’t ask), buoyed by this, the clouds in his mind momentarily dissipate, he comes alive again, and he unmasks his biographer—the spurned boyfriend of one of his starlets six years earlier—as a charlatan. But ... he’s still Hughes. All that shit still happened. There’s no Hollywood ending here, but Beatty, or Fox, makes one out of it—right up to the boy chasing after the girl to let her know, finally know, how much she means to him.
You know what would’ve made a better movie? The story of another 1958 ingénue from Virginia, Warren Beatty, landing in Hollywood just as the old studio system was dying; and how he and his generation, via “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate,” created, for a time, what took its place: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
When the legend sucks, print the facts.
Movie Review: Moonlight (2016)
There is an early exchange between our main character, a kid called Little (Alex R. Hibbert), and Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer who has begun to act as his big brother. We wonder for a time whether Juan has an ulterior motive. Is he trying to turn Little into a corner kid? Something worse? But doubts about Juan are extinguished by the doubt we see in Juan’s own face. Even he can’t fathom why he’s doing it. He seems confused by his own actions. Sure, the kid reminds him of himself as a boy, but don’t others? Why this one? I guess that’s the question all of us ask ourselves when we fall in love: Why this one?
The exchange is mostly monologue—Juan’s. That’s true of most of Little’s exchanges. He doesn’t say much. But when he does it has impact. It hits you in the gut.
Juan is telling Little about his experience coming to Miami from Cuba, running around, not knowing any better. He recalls a time when an old lady stopped him and said she would call him “Blue,” because, she says, in the moonlight black boys look blue.
Little: Is your name Blue?
Juan [laughs]: Nah. At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.
Much of the rest of the movie is how Little lets everyone else make that decision for him.
Who he’s going to be
The movie is split into three parts, each named for either the nickname or real name of our main character:
In the first, he’s about 10. The second ... 16 or so? By the time he’s Black, he’s in his late 20s and no longer little.
Does it lose something in the third act? For me, for a time, it does. For a time, Chiron lost my sympathy. He had it in the first two.
He’s small and picked-upon, living in the housing projects of Liberty City in Miami with his mom, Paula (Naomie Harris), a crack addict who is too busy looking for her next fix to look after, or even care about, her own son. It’s up to others to do it for her: Juan, who teaches him to swim, and his girl, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), who feeds him and cares for him, and Little’s friend Kevin, who gives him advice: “See, you just gotta show them niggas you ain’t soft.” That’s the key to Kevin, who’s bigger, louder, occupies his space in the world. Little retreats from the world. He takes baths. I identified.
One of Little’s hit-you-in-the-guts lines is near the end of the first act. Juan has just had a showdown with Teresa, who, against neighborhood etiquette and common sense, is smoking crack in a car near the drug dealers, and Juan is ready to rip her a new one. But she senses his vulnerability; her son is his vulnerability, and she uses it. She uses the fact that he cares and she doesn’t, and back at his place, Juan and Teresa and Little sitting around the dining table like a family, Little drops a non sequitur like a bomb: “Am I a faggot?” I thought Juan’s response was a little cautious, a little PC, but then he’s hit in the gut with the next question: “Do you sell drugs?” Little is making sense of the world. The man saving him is the man destroying his mother. Juan owns to it but the admission, and Little’s quick exit, crumples him.
By the next act Juan is gone—a funeral is mentioned in passing—and his place in the story is taken by what Juan kept at bay: the bullies of the world, specifically Terrel (Patrick Decile) and his toadies, who pick on Chiron (Ashton Saunders) in class and in the schoolyard and follow him home, mocking his mother, his pants, his supposed sexual preference. Kevin isn’t part of that; he’s just nearby, bragging about this or that girl he did this or that with; then suddenly he’s at the beach with Chiron, who fled there at night, and the two share a joint and a sexual moment. You sense the world opening up to Chiron: Maybe it can be this; maybe it can be beautiful. The next day it slams shut. Terrel demands Kevin pick a fight with Chiron, and he does. Kevin gives in to the demands of the world, Chiron doesn’t and gets hurt for it—both physically and emotionally—and he snaps. I had friends in high school who snapped in similar ways, but less violent ways. Chiron busts a chair over Terrel’s back, and the authorities, who never acted throughout Terrel’s long reign of terror, now act: They put Chiron in juvey.
By the third act, the skinny kid is gone. Now he’s got a body like a superhero, and a grill like a drug dealer. He is a drug dealer. In Atlanta. It’s how he survived. We get the story piecemeal after Kevin (Andre Holland, Wendell Smith in “42”) phones out of the blue, and Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now Black—Kevin’s nickname for him in Act II—goes to see him in the Cuban restaurant Kevin runs in Miami. It’s a small place but I like the atmosphere of it and Kevin’s pride in it. That said, this part drags a bit. Maybe because I don’t identify with Black here? We don’t know exactly what he’s up to—Love? Revenge? Both?—and it’s pulling teeth getting anything out of him. I wonder where the kid I identified with went.
Where did he go? He went to a harder place and became a person who could survive there. That, too, when I figured it out, I identified with. The hardest thing is to remain sensitive in a hard world. The world closes you off, bit by bit, or all at once. It happened to me on some level and it happened to Chiron.
Eventually, back at Kevin’s place, he reveals where Little and Chiron are—still inside—when he says the most devastating line of the year:
You’re the only man who’s ever touched me. The only one. I haven’t really touched anyone, since.
The mind reels at the sadness of it all.
And the Oscar goes to...
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, from a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, “Moonlight” is as beautifully structured as a short story or novella. It deserves its accolades and awards. It’s even more powerful during the second viewing.
I particularly like how intimately it’s photographed. We’re never far away from our lead—Little, Chiron, Black. We often seem to be following right behind him as if we’re bullies following him home from school or guardian angels looking after him. Helpless guardian angels.
Movie Review: A Man Called Ove (2016)
Ove (Rolf Lassgård) is the quintessential grumpy old man with a heart of gold—Swedish version. He’s a widower who spends his days nitpicking over minor violations in block association rules, visiting his wife’s grave, and trying to kill himself. The neighbors keep interrupting these attempts to ask for favors. They keep blithely assuming he’s a sweetheart even though he’s shown them nothing but contempt.
It works. During the course of the movie, amid his grumblings, Ove: helps his new neighbors back their trailer into their driveway, loans them a ladder, drives them to the hospital, babysits their kids, fixes their dishwasher, teaches the Iranian wife to drive, repairs a bike, takes in a stray cat, takes in a gay kid who’s been kicked out by his homophobic dad, and saves the life of a stranger about to be run over by a train.
Then in the final showdown, he rallies the neighbors to prevent social services from taking Rune (Börge Lundberg), his onetime friend and rival for block association president, now wheelchair-bound after a stroke, and placing him in an institution against his and his wife’s wishes.
With grumpy old men like this, who needs friends?
You see early on where the movie’s going, and it gets there without many surprises. It’s about simple joys, loves, lives. Tragedy keeps intersecting with joy, but none of it feels particularly real.
- Tragedy: His father is proudly showing his teenage son’s grades around the railyard when he gets run over by a train.
- Heroism/tragedy: Shortly thereafter, he runs into a burning building to save his neighbors’ lives but gets no praise or backslaps, simply a sneer from social services, the villainous “Whiteshirts” of his imagination, who allow his own home to burn to the ground because they’re going to demolish it anyway.
- Joy: Now homeless, sleeping on a train, he runs into a beautiful, intelligent woman, Sonja (Ida Engvoll, looking like a “Twin Peaks”-era Sherilyn Fenn), and she does most of the heavy lifting to get them to the altar. What does she see in him? Who knows? He’s a tall hayseed, not particularly attractive, who can barely string two words together. But the movies are the movies.
- Tragedy: In a tour group in Spain when she’s six months pregnant, the bus goes over an embankment and Sonja loses the baby and the ability to walk.
- Overcoming tragedy: Denied teaching positions because she’s in a wheelchair, Ove builds a ramp in the rain that finally gets her the job.
None of it is grounded. The tragedy isn’t painful, the joy isn’t uplifting. It’s not life; it’s life packed in styrofoam peanuts.
There’s a kind of connective tissue between the tragedies and his old-man persnicketiness, since if people had simply been more careful most of the tragedies could’ve been avoided; but it’s not deep. There’s a kind of humor in the world’s various intrusion into his many failed attempts to kill himself, but it wears fast.
I did have one moment of true joy watching the film. Ove is reminiscing about first meeting, and discovering a kindred spirit in, Rune. Both are sticklers for block association rules, neighborhood enforcers who chase after scofflaws, and on their way to a great friendship. “Until,” Ove narrates, “we finally discovered the small difference.” Then we get a scene where young Ove, his face a mixture of confusion and betrayal, realizes Rune prefers Volvos to Saabs. That was brilliant. I laughed so hard at that.
But there wasn’t enough of it. I’ve heard the novel is better, as novels tend to be.
Movie Review: Allied (2016)
The first thing I didn’t buy in “Allied” was Brad Pitt as a Canadian from Ottawa who parachutes into North Africa in 1942 and pretends to be the Parisian husband of Marion Cotillard in front of other French speakers and Parisians. The movie gets away with it by having Cotillard tease him about his Quebec accent, then tutor him to speak Parisian. Here’s the bigger problem: There aren’t many actors who seem more American, and less Canadian, than the Oklahoma-born-and-raised Pitt. Imagine Michael Fassbender in the part and things click.
The second thing I didn’t buy was that after their successful We’ll-always-have-Casablanca mission, Pitt and Cotillard (Max and Marianne) get married and move to pre-D-Day London, where he continues spy activities while she becomes a mom and housewife. Really? She ran the Casablanca operation. She kept schooling him. Suddenly she’s taking her piece off the table? With Paris still occupied? The movie gets away with it with this second-half reveal: She isn’t the real Marianne Beausejour. The real Marianne Beausejour was killed and she’s a German spy. But then we have to buy Marion Cotillard as German, not to mention a Nazi.
This movie, in other words, puts together the most American of actors and the most French of actresses and makes them Canadian and German, respectively.
But the main thing I didn’t buy was Max’s reaction to the reveal that his wife, and the mother of his child, is really a Nazi spy. Good god.
‘I need to protect my family’
He tries to flee with her and the baby to Canada. He’s ready to betray his country, western democracy and freedom for a pretty face.
OK, if any woman is worth it, it’s Cotillard. But, dramatically, how much can the hero put personal love above country and duty and not lose our sympathy? The movie wants to evoke the romanticism of “Casablanca” but it’s really the anti-“Casablanca.” It’s telling us that the problems in this crazy world don’t amount to a hill of beans next to three little people.
Pitt’s been here before, by the way, in a different world war: World War Z. Remember? The zombie virus strikes and Pitt’s character uses his wits and contacts to get aboard a virus-free aircraft carrier in the Atlantic, run by the U.S. government, which is searching for an antidote. They want Pitt involved. They want to send him to South Korea to help save the world. His reaction?
“I’m not your guy. I need to protect my family.”
Uhhh, dude? This is howyou protect your family. Really, this is the only way to protect your family. Added bonus: You help save the human race.
Here, Marianne reveals that, yes, she was a German spy but then she fell in love with him. Yes, she sent top-secret communiqués from London to Germany (Nazi, Germany), but only because the Germans found her, and threatened their daughter! What else could she do?
Somehow, he sees the logic in this. It could be bullshit for all he knows. She could be a full-throated, anti-Semitic, sieg-heiling, Leni Riefenstahl-watching Nazi, but he buys it, and tries to help her/them escape. When they’re caught, she has to kill herself to free him. So our heroine is a traitor who does a good deed in the end, while our hero is a man of inaction who doesn’t.
No wonder everyone was disappointed in this thing. What Rick said about himself with modesty is true of Pitt’s Max: He’s no good at being noble.
The movie starts well, despite the miscast Pitt. I particularly liked the rooftop scenes, where men go after making love to their wives, and how Max uses the excuse of the nosy neighbor to try to steal a kiss and how Marianne sees through the ruse. Check out Cotillard’s face during this scene, the myriad realizations/emotions crossing her face in seconds. Such a great actress.
The London scenes were OK. At least we had Jared Harris, always a pleasure, as Max’s commanding officer. He is good at being noble. At the airport, he tells MPs that Max shot and killed Marianne, that his friend did his duty, even as Max slumps there, an abject figure. It’s more echoes of “Casablanca,” a kind of “round up the usual suspects” on the airport tarmac. It should’ve been the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but it’s the end of a less-than-beautiful movie.
Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
It’s Mel Gibson, so it’s God and gore again. Question: Is it God because of the gore? In Mel’s worldview, does the gore—the suffering, the awareness that we are meat and food for rats —lead us to God? Make us search beyond ourselves? Lift us up?
I liked “Hacksaw Ridge,” by the way. The first half is sweet, the second half harrowing and bloody. It’s mildly, unapologetically corny and not overlong.
But it begins by stealing from one of the greatest movies ever made.
The Thin Red Likeness
This is the open. We get slow-motion shots of war in the Pacific: men charging and yelling and screaming in pain and dying; and all the while a voiceover with a thick Southern accent talks about God:
Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? Walked with? The brother. The friend. Darkness and light, strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face?
Sorry, that’s Pvt. Train from Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line,” one of the greatest movies ever made. This is what we hear in “Hacksaw Ridge.” It’s the voice of our main character, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the second conscientious objector, after Sgt. York, to win the Medal of Honor, and the first to do so without carrying a weapon:
Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the Earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and His understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall. But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar like wings on eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not grow faint.
It’s interesting comparing the two voiceovers. Malick’s is all question marks. It’s uncertain, questioning, probing. It’s trying to translate the awful dichotomy of the world into the oneness we long for.
Doss’ voiceover begins with a question, too, but it already has the answer (God), which it then tells us. It’s not even Doss telling us; it’s Isaiah 40, 28-31. What it says prefigures the movie’s big moment—Doss, all alone at night, rescuing 75 wounded men, one by one, who were left behind on Hacksaw Ridge—but the promise within the verse sounds odd to my secular ears. It’s a little too quid pro quo: You give God belief, He gives you energy. It’s full of the suspect promises of a late-night infomercial. Apparently God is to us as spinach is to Popeye.
From that Malick-esque open, we cut to 16 years earlier and two brothers hiking and playing and fighting in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In the midst of a wrestling match on the lawn, young Desmond picks up a rock and clocks his brother, nearly killing him. In the horrified aftermath, he stands before a religious painting and its depiction of Cain and Abel, so near to what he himself did, and finds God.
Now a leap forward. Desmond is in his early 20s helping out at church when there’s a car accident out front. (The streets of rural Virginia, 1941, prove suprisingly dangerous in this film.) His makeshift tourniquet saves a leg, and at the hospital he comes across a beautiful nurse, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), whom he stares at starry-eyed. Their courtship is sweet. Then war calls. Despite being a Seventh-day Adventist who won’t touch a gun, Desmond signs up. He needs to do his duty.
A few thoughts on his platoon:
- I never bought Vince Vaughn as the tough-talking drill sergeant. He’s not actor enough. Also not in shape enough. At one point, he threatens his men during a march by saying they’ll have to keep going until he drops. Me: “I’ll take those odds.”
- At least, in this quintessential story, Vaughn is American. Everyone else, and I mean everyone else, is Aussie: mom (Rachel Griffiths), pop (Hugo Weaving), girl (Palmer); Smitty, Teach, Grease, Vito; Capt., Lt. Col., Col. Was it cheaper this way? Is Mel just prejudiced against Americans?
- The platoon itself is all walks of life: the tough Brooklynite, the cowboy, the Jew, the hillbilly, the card shark. Was it really like this back then? Or was it only like this in the movies back then?
- Speaking of: There’s an odd character, Zane (Luke Pegler, Aussie), who is nicknamed “Hollywood” because he loves his own looks so much. He’s got a cheesy Clark Gable moustache and a body that’s way too buff for the times. We first meet him naked, doing chinups. Once at Okinawa he's a bit cowardly. Is this Mel’s attack on Tinsel Town? Full of preeners whose muscle doesn’t match their spirit or soul?
I was a bit confused by the date they landed on Okinawa. You get the sense Doss signed up shortly after Pearl Harbor (he did: April 1, 1942), yet after basic training it’s suddenly May 1945. Where have they been for three years? Turns out Leyte and Guam, where Doss won the Bronze Star, but, for dramatic effect, Mel skips this and pretends the platoon is green.
That said, he handles the main set piece—Hacksaw Ridge, a.ka. the Maeda Escarpment—well. Does he go over-the-top with his battle scenes? Probably. It’s Mel. But we get a real feel for what it’s like to face a group of men trying to kill you. Also for how quickly our bodies become hamburger.
Aussie cast, Chinese aud
You know what’s shocking about “Hacksaw Ridge” besides the carnage? The fact that it took so long for Hollywood to tell the story. But apparently Doss didn’t want his story told. In the 1950s, producer Hal B. Wallis gave it a shot, with WWII hero Audie Murphy in the lead, but Doss wouldn’t budge. It wasn’t until 2001, two years before his death, that he was finally convinced that his story should be seen on the silver screen.
Another shocker: Where was the audience? The people who say Hollywood is ignoring them and their values? This thing has God, country, good reviews, Academy Award nominations, and it was helmed by their man, crazy Mel, whose “Passion of the Christ” grossed $370 million in 2004. Yet “Hacksaw” grossed almost as much in China ($62 million) as it did here ($66). USA? USA? USA?