Movie Reviews - 2016 postsWednesday February 08, 2017
Movie Review: Central Intelligence (2016)
Early in the movie, Bob Stone, nee Robbie Wheirdicht (Dwayne Johnson), the former fat kid turned CIA agent, and Calvin “The Jet” Joyner (Kevin Hart), the former BMOC turned accountant, return to their old high school, which, for Bob, was the scene of countless humiliations. The deepest was probably the one that opened the movie—when bullies toss Robbie stark naked into the middle of a school assembly. Everyone laughs. Except Calvin. He’s sympathetic and gives him his letterman’s jacket to cover himself up. Robbie/Bob never forgot that small act of kindness. He also never gave the jacket back.
Anyway, back in the old hallways, Calvin tries to bring this up—the humiliations—but Bob dismisses them, saying he doesn’t even think about them anymore.
Bob: Here’s the secret. You know what I did, Jet? I took all that stuff and I balled it up real tight and then I shoved it way down deep. And I just pretty much ignore it.
Calvin: That sounds ... really unhealthy, Bob.
The movie has a few such laugh-out-loud moments, and this was my favorite. I’ve loved The Rock since late ’90s WWF (I actually watched that shit for awhile), and Hart since seeing “The Z Shirt” sketch on SNL, and the two have great chemistry together. They’re the reason the movie works as well as it does. Plus we get a few choice cameos—particularly Jason Bateman as the former high school bully who may or may not have found religion.
But overall? Meh.
It’s another opposites-attract buddy action-comedy, with Hart playing the staid guy and Johnson the well-meaning but potential crazy CIA agent who may have gone rogue. This last bit is supposed to provide tension throughout—is Bob really a traitor?—when it does no such thing. Might as well ask: Is The Rock a traitor? No. So why bother? Because it gives Calvin no way out since even the CIA is after their asses? I guess. But the way the filmmakers prolonged the tension into the last reel was insulting.
Not to mention this: In the end, Bob gets his redemption at the high school reunion while Calvin gives up his staid job for a life of action in the CIA. I.e., he leaves behind the job most of us have (if we're lucky) for something that, when I was growing up, was morally suspect. Cf., Col. Flagg. Of course, since 1995, the CIA has had liaisons in Hollywood and have looked better as a result. Maybe accountants need a liaison.
The screenplay was written by two “Mindy Project” dudes, Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen, with an assist from director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who also wrote-directed “Dodgeball” and “We’re the Millers.” His next project is “We’re the Millers 2.” Yes. Sadly, we are.
Movie Review: 20th Century Women (2016)
“20th Century Women” is a coming-of-age movie set in 1979—the year before we elected Reagan and everything began to go to hell.
It’s bittersweet, as all true coming-of-age movies are. The sweet is youth and discovery; the bitter is all that’s left unsaid and undone. It’s about the moment that’s gone forever and can never be reclaimed except through art.
I’d call the movie a character study but it’s really a characters study. The 15-year-old protagonist, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), lives with his iconoclastic mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), in a big, drafty, fixer-upper in Santa Barbara populated by two renters: the mellow, ex-hippie handyman William (Billy Crudup), and the 25-year-old cancer survivor/photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who teaches Jamie about punk rock and encourages him to get out. Meanwhile, his best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), two years older, is half an adolescent boy’s wet dream. She’s the pretty girl who climbs through his bedroom window to sleep with him. Except it’s just that: sleep. No fooling around. She fools around with other guys, but with him it’s “just friends.” He handles this with more equanimity than I would have.
Still, his mother is worried. She was born in 1924 (I love that the movie tells us when every character was born), came of age during the Depression and World War II, and, while generally liberal in outlook, doesn’t get what the world is coming to. She doesn’t get punk music and its fashions, and can’t understand why teenage boys would engage in something as stupid as “the fainting game,” in which another kid pushes on your diaphragm and you keep breathing out until you faint. Jamie’s faint lasts a half hour and includes a trip to the hospital. After that, Dorothea decides she needs help raising him. She turns to Abbie and Julie, who question her choice. “What about William?” they ask. But Jamie doesn’t connect to men, says the mother; he connects with women.
It takes a village
Let me add: I love this movie. It’s almost tailor-made for me.
In 1979, I was about Jamie’s age, 16, and the product of divorce, as he was. Except my family split up along gender lines. I stayed with my father and older brother in south Minneapolis, while my mother and younger sister moved to Timonium, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore. We saw each other twice a year. Our side was all testosterone: the liberal, bookish, short-tempered version.
You know what I needed back then? This movie. Its matter-of-fact sexual lessons. Mine came from the usual wrong sources—Hugh Hefner, Hollywood, the shadowy intel of peers—while Jamie is helped out by a houseful of women. Abbie gives him two books, “Our Bodies, Our Selves” and “Sisterhood is Powerful,” a 1970 collection of feminist essays. There’s a great scene at the skate park when another kid brags about his sexual prowess and Jamie attempts to educate him about how women have orgasms. That, and the Talking Heads shirt Jamie is wearing (instead of true punk like Black Flag), leads to a fight, and a great moment when Dorothea is doctoring Jamie’s wounds back home:
Dorothea: What was the fight about?
Jamie [after a pause]: Clitoral stimulation.
It’s a crime Bening didn’t get an Oscar nomination for lead actress. Dorothea has this piercing look as she tries to fathom the world, and even though she comes away dumbfounded she keeps doing it. She keeps trying. But at 55, the world keeps getting away from her.
She’s there, all the time, whether inviting the fire chief to her house for dinner without a hint of flirtation, or with face scrunched as she tries to figure out what Black Flag is singing about. It’s a great homage to that generation of women—the ones who went to work during World War II and never lost the taste for it; who didn’t go quietly back into the home. Apparently it’s an homage to writer-director Mike Mills' own mother, just as his previous work, “Beginners,” from 2011, with Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, was an homage to his father. I think this movie is better. A lot better. There’s more life in it. There’s wisdom.
Here’s Abbie to Jamie:
Whatever you think your life is going to be like, just know it’s not going to be anything like that.
Here’s Jamie and Julie discussing women’s orgasms. She admits neither she nor her friends have them. So why have sex? he asks.
There’s other reasons. The way they look at me, the way they all get a little desperate at some point. The little sounds they make. [She imitates.] And their bodies. You don’t know exactly how they’re gonna look or smell or feel or whatever until you do it.
Julie, at this point, is worried she’s pregnant but she isn’t. Abbie is worried that the cancer will prevent her from having kids, but she has them. We keep finding out where our characters will wind up, and it helps heighten the current moment. Seeing Abbie in her early 30s, with her husband, house and two kids, which is everything she wanted in 1979, it’s nice but melancholy. We’re happy for her but she’s become someone else. Who is this guy she's with? Where’s the girl we knew?
I’ve always had a problem with Greta Gerwig but I love her here. Crudup gives one of his best performances, as does Bening in a career of great performances. Is Mills some kind of genius? It’s beyond the dialogue. If you take the original meaning of director—one who directs actors—who was better in 2016?
Longing for meaning
Some of the movie’s wisdom is even presidential. There’s a scene at one of Dorothea’s dinner parties where everyone gathers around the TV to watch Jimmy Carter giving his infamous “malaise” speech. Afterwards, the men in the room all declare him dead in the water, while Dorothea calls the speech beautiful. Both are right. Telling people they have no confidence isn’t a great way to give people confidence. At the same time, Carter nails what’s wrong with us:
There is a growing disrespect for government, the schools, the news media, and other institutions. ... Too many of us now tend to worship self indulgence and consumption. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself, involved in the search for freedom. We are at a turning point in our history. The path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest, down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom. It is a certain route to failure.
And we went that route. It’s kind of astonishing to listen to today. Carter was treating us as adults but we weren’t. “20th Century Women” is about a boy progressing just as the country was regressing. That second part isn’t bittersweet; these days, it's just bitter.
Movie Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
A British girl, born to a Danish and Irish couple, and raised by an African-American man, teams up with a cute Mexican dude, two Chinese guys, and a Brit-Pakistani, not to mention a straightforwardly rude American droid, to steal the Death Star plans that wind up in R2-D2 in “Stars Wars IV: A New Hope.” You’d think with this kind of casting, which is so international it makes the U.N. seem monochromatic, that the movie would’ve done better abroad. It did fine: $500 mil and counting. But “Star Wars” movies tend to make 52%-56% of their gross overseas, while “Rogue One,” despite the cast, has managed just 49 percent.
If this doesn’t change, what does that say about all of the carefully constructed international casts Hollywood keeps putting together?
It's almost enough to make you want to go back to just white dudes.
Y Tu Rebellion Tambien
The one intriguing aspect of “Rogue One” for me is that instead of thinking, “OK, how are they going to get out of this one?”—as we normally do—here, if you know the backstory, if you know this is essentially “Star Wars 3.5,” you’re thinking: “OK, how are they going to die?”
None of these rebels are going to make it into other stories. We know that. Wasn’t there even a line in “Star Wars” about the rebels who sacrificed for the Death Star plans? So that’s what we anticipate: sacrifice rather than triumph. Which I found mildly interesting. For a few minutes.
But director Gareth Edwards (“Godzilla”), and screenwriters Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”) and Tony Gilroy (Bourne movies), still blow it. For the sacrifice of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to have meaning, you have to care about them, and I didn’t. Not the way I cared about Obi-wan Kenobi in 1977. Not the way I cared about Rey and Finn last year. I’m not sure why this is. Because I like Daisy Ridley and Felicity Jones leaves me cold? Because Rey’s background is mysterious and Jyn’s is not? Because Jyn seems petulant throughout and Rey is determined? All of the above?
As for Cassian, well, it’s nice that Luna finally gets his blockbuster close-up nearly 15 years after “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” but ... a rebel leader? I didn’t buy it. He’s too pretty, too slight. His backstory is opaque—he lets Jyn know that he lost family, too, so she’ll stop thinking the galaxy revolves around her—but it’s not intriguing. His great dilemma is whether or not to assassinate Jyn’s father. We know which way he’ll go. His morality is our universe’s rather than his.
The filmmakers want to give us a slightly more complex world but within the same whooshy roller-coaster ride, and the combo isn’t great. Just once I’d like to see the heroes get out of a scrape by a mile rather than inches. I’d like them to look at their watches and go, “Oh yeah, we’ve got plenty of time.”
The entire movie is an attempt to explain away a “Star Wars” plot hole: Why did the Empire design a Death Star with such an obvious flaw as this exhaust port? Turns out it’s a feature not a bug. The architect, Jyn’s father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), designed the flaw so the weapon could be destroyed. Except ... if that's the case, couldn’t he have made it more accessible? You need the Force to make it work. You need a young Jedi making a million-to-one shot. Plus it raises more plot holes. Why didn’t Galen talk about the design flaw in the message he leaked out? Or why didn’t he simply leak the Death Star schematics? In some ways, the attempted correction is worse than the plot hole—particularly if, per this video, you didn’t think it was much of a plot hole.
We get to visit three new “Star Wars” planets in the sand/ice/swamp mode:
- The Tibet one
- The rainy one
- Palm Beach
The Tibet one is where they receive the message from Galen. The rainy one is where Galen isn’t assassinated by Cassian (but dies anyway). The Palm Beach one is where the Empire’s records, including the Death Star plans, are stored. The Empire blows it up anyway. Records, schmecords. It blows up Tibet, too. It keeps testing the Death Star on a city-wide scale. Alderaan was never the first. Once again, each new “Star Wars” movie adds incongruity to the original.
The Jedi's anger translator
I like Mads but he bored me here. Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera with his respirator comes off as either C-grade Darth or Frank Booth in the making. I was happy to see a real martial artist (Donnie Yen) playing a Jedi, Chirrit Imwe, and he gets off the best line in the film (“Are you kidding me? I’m blind.”); and I liked the Buddhist mantra he chants, a variation of “Star Wars”’ most famous line (“I am one with the Force, the Force is with me”); but having the gun-toting Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) behind him is a little like having Obama’s anger translator along for the ride.
The parallels to our world used to be vague but now they’re more explicit, and I don’t think that’s a good thing. Chirrit is too much Tibetan Buddhist; the rebels on the final assault are too much like U.S. troops before Normandy. The fanboys’ love for Darth Vader is also made more explicit—disturbingly so. In the end, when he takes on all the pasty-faced rebel forces, tossing them around like so many rag dolls, the film revels in it. It thrills at it. It’s saying: “We know this is what you really want. And so do we.”
Two dead actors make appearances: Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher. Both look fake and video-gamey. CG hasn’t been able to recreate the life in the eye yet, so we’re safe for the moment. I think of John Ford’s line about what to shoot on a rainy day in Monument Valley: “The most interesting and exciting thing in the whole world: the human face.” That’s still there, if enough of us are interested; if too many of us haven’t already gone over to the dark side.
Movie Review: The Legend of Tarzan (2016)
Why does Hollywood keep trying to put a modern spin on classic stories (“Lone Ranger,” “Green Hornet”) from a more racist, patriarchal time? It never works. As in “Lone Ranger,” the hero here gets short shrift. We don’t get to see Tarzan being Tarzan until about 40 minutes in. And even then, it’s a little too CG. Give me Johnny Weissmuller any day.
Hell, no one even falls into quicksand. What a rook.
Tarzan, Lord of Greystoke Manor
“The Legend of Tarzan” doesn’t begin badly. An opening title card tells us European powers have divvied up the African Congo at the 1884 Berlin Conference, but King Leopold of Belgium has run up massive debt trying to exploit his portion’s ivory and mineral riches. So he sends his trusted assistant Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to discover “the legendary diamonds of Opar.”
That’s a nice mix of real history (Berlin conference) and 1920s-era adventure stories for boys (diamonds of Opar). Rom’s party winds up massacred by the natives, and it’s just him versus this huge warrior. Rom improbably wins. The trial chief (Djimon Hounsou) then cuts a deal: the diamonds in exchange for ... Tarzan.
CUT TO: London, where John Clayton/Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgaard) now lives with his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), as the stately Earl of Greystoke.
Wait, what? No discovery of Tarzan? He’s already been discovered? And civilized?
He also doesn’t want to go back to Africa. He’s invited by Leopold, through the British P.M. (Jim Broadbent, wasted), but declines. Because he senses it’s a trap? Either way, it’s up to George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), the highly improbable (OK, impossible), trash-talking, 19th-century, African-American envoy, to tell him Leopold is enslaving the Africans again, so they should return to free them. Even that doesn’t work. But Jane wants to go, so sure.
In Africa, they stay with a tribe they know, and we get some backstory: how Tarzan used his body to shield Jane from a crazed Mangani ape; how she cared for him after that. Then, at night, Rom arrives to kidnap both Tarzan and Jane. Why Jane? As a control? Seems like extra work. No matter. Williams manages to free Tarzan before they get on the boat, but Rom keeps going because he knows Tarzan will follow to rescue Jane.
Get that? The biggest problem with Tarzan in 2016 is the racist aspect of it, the “white god” aspect of it, and Tarzan’s early fumblings here, and Williams rescue of him, help alleviate that for modern audiences. But it also lessens the legend. What good is Tarzan if he needs rescue by a 60-year-old dude, who, as they go in pursuit of Rom, can hardly keep up? The members of the tribe can, and they can swing from vines, too, with Tarzan, and this is also supposed to alleviate some of the racism. It actually does the opposite. You wonder:
- How much stronger/faster is Tarzan than these guys? If he is, why? If he isn’t, why is he a legend? Just because he’s white?
- No, it’s because he was raised by apes. But why did the ape mother decide to rescue the baby Tarzan and raise him as her own? Did she never come across black babies? Does she do it just because he’s white?
- Wait, isn’t this just a white man’s fantasy that if one of ours was raised in the jungle we would be so much stronger/faster/smarter than the Africans that we would be lords of the jungle?
Yeah, that’s not good.
Hug it out, bra
Tarzan movies tend to be damsel-in-distress movies, too, and “The Legend of Tarzan” is no different, even if it tries to fudge things by making Robbie’s Jane “feisty.” But she’s still the damsel in need of rescuing. She’s still forced to endure meals and insinuating conversation with Christoph Waltz.
In the last half hour, screenwriters Craig Brewer and Adam Cozad (“Hustle & Flow” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” respectively), and director David Yates (four Harry Potter movies), finally let Tarzan be Tarzan, but by then you’re bored to death, and the phony CG doesn’t help. There’s also reconciliation and understanding with the tribal chief, who wanted to kill Tarzan because Tarzan killed his son (because his son killed Tarzan’s mom), but Tarzan cries, and admits his mistake, and ... Jesus. Rom gets his via crocodiles. Tarzan and Williams get bromance jokey. Tarzan and Jane stay in Africa.
What a failure. I don’t know who thought this story structure was a good idea—that the discovery of Tarzan was the boring part. I don’t know who thought making the tribesmen mini-Tarzans and bringing Sam Jackson along for the ride would alleviate the racism.
To me, if you’re going to do Tarzan in the 21st century, you need to give the ape mother a reason to raise Tarzan besides the fact that he’s white. (In “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” (1985), it’s because she recently lost her own baby.) It would also help to clarify why a human raised by apes would become so much stronger and faster than other humans.
Another way to alleviate the racism: You could make Tarzan black.
Scott Rudin: Call me.
Movie Review: Fences (2016)
It felt too much like a play.
I know: It was a play—a Pulitzer-Prize-winner by August Wilson, part of his “Pittsburgh Cycle” which documented the African-American experience every decade in the 20th century. This was the 1950s one. Even so, adapting for the screen, I wanted it a little more cinematic. We don’t get out of that backyard much. Plus we get great heaps of monologue the way you do in plays rather than movies. The movies would show rather than tell but this movie keeps telling and telling and telling.
Of course, that’s part of the point, isn’t it? You could say that Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), the 53-year-old garbage man/patriarch of the Maxson clan, hides his volatility with volubility. Or maybe his volubility is a symptom of his volatility. He keeps talking so he doesn’t do something worse. And in that talk, in his constant myth-making and challenges to others—which only his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), seems to stand up to—he creates more tension. By having him talk less, you remove that tension.
Even so, I could’ve used less talk. Or maybe I wanted the tension to lead elsewhere? Explode in a different way? I wanted to care more about Troy than I did. He doesn’t let you care about him, then wonders where you went. That’s the point of him, too. He's a man who builds fences.
Death of a Garbageman
It’s similar to “Death of a Salesman,” isn’t it? Both Troy Maxson and Willy Loman are denied career advancement. In Troy’s case, it’s obviously racism (he was a great baseball player before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier), and in Willy’s it’s, what, simply the underside of the American dream? Or, as some have suggested, it could be a veiled anti-Semitism.
Both men have loyal wives whom they cheat on. Both have two boys with problems of their own and a neighbor/friend with whom they drink/play cards. There’s even the brother that’s there but not. Willy’s brother is Ben, the embodiment of the American dream, who walked into the jungle when he was 17 and walked out at 21—and by God he was rich! He’s dead now, but he continues to haunt Willy. Troy’s brother is the not-subtly-named Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson, Bubba of “Forrest Gump”), who is physically there but mentally not. He was shot during World War II and now has a metal plate in his head. He goes around selling fruit on the streets of Pittsburgh, with a toy trumpet strung to him, claiming to have been to St. Peter’s gate. For his injury in service to his country, Gabriel got $3,000 from the feds that Troy used to buy the house they live in. Gabriel used to live there, too; now he’s homeless. Troy feels guilty about all of this. He’s haunted by his brother as much as Willy is.
In the end, both men die. In the end, the wives give speeches defending them. In the end, attention must be paid.
As the movie opens, Troy is making the rounds in Pittsburgh clinging to the back of a truck and jawing with his friend, Bono (an excellent Stephen Henderson). He’s got complaints. Number one is that only whites drive the trucks. He’s officially complained about this, and now he’s worried because the deputy commissioner wants to see him. But it’s Friday, he’s got a pint of gin, and he and Bono drink it in his backyard and swap stories. Well, Troy does most of the swapping.
Let’s ask the screenwriting 101 question: What does the guy want?
He wants his oldest son from another marriage, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), to be more responsible. Lyons plays jazz at a club, he’s got sketchy friends, he keeps borrowing hard-earned money from Troy. We get 10 minutes of arguing over 10 dollars before Rose (rather than Troy) relents. The money exchanges hands but there are no good feelings about it.
He wants his youngest son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), to not make the same mistakes he made. Troy was a great baseball player, he was denied opportunity because of the color line, and he doesn’t want it to happen to Cory. Except that’s the last war; the color line is, if not gone, at least traversable. Besides, the boy is getting college scholarship offers to play football, and Troy wants him to learn a trade? It’s college! That’s how you get ahead in America. Everybody knows that. It annoyed me that no one could make this argument stick. But then, there’s a sense that Troy doesn’t want his son to succeed. Troy wants to remain rooster in his own henhouse, and that stops if Cory gets educated.
What else does Troy want? He wants gin on Friday, an audience for his stories. He wants his son to help him build the titular fence in the backyard. His biggest want takes place off-screen: He has an affair with a younger woman at work that leads to a child. The affair was a place where he didn’t have to be responsible, but this irresponsibility simply creates more responsibility—for Rose, in particular, who has to raise the child, a girl, when the mother dies giving birth. It also leads to Troy’s estrangement from both Rose and Bono. The final estrangement is with Cory, who, afraid of his father, and unable to physically beat his father, joins the U.S. Marines.
One of the few things Troy wants and gets? His meeting with the deputy commissioner goes well, and he becomes the man driving the truck rather than hauling the trash. He breaks the color barrier! He’s Jackie Robinson! Except it’s not what he wants. Instead of being on the back of the truck, jawing, he’s up front, alone, with no one to talk to. A Troy without an audience is a Troy who can’t mythologize himself, and he shrinks. By the end of the movie, his main conversation is with death.
A rose is a rose
This is the third movie that Denzel has directed and he doesn’t do a poor job of it, but I’m not a fan of underlining points and Denzel is: the rose falling from Rose’s hands; the portraits of MLK and JFK on the wall. I already see it; I don’t need Denzel to then tap me on the shoulder and say, “You see that? Right there? That. You see? That.”
As an actor, though, I could watch him all day. Someone wrote recently that Denzel is the best over-actor in the world and there’s something there. The actor playing Cory is fine but too small in stature for the role; I want him to at least look like he could challenge his father. Viola Davis is a national treasure.
The coda at the end, on the day of Troy’s funeral, is one of the more interesting scenes in the movie. Maybe because you have that sweet interplay between Cory, returning home in uniform, and his new half-sister, Raynell (Saniyya Sidney), who’s adorable, and who, if you forward-date (she turns 18 in ... 1975 or so), has a chance in life. Or maybe because Troy’s voice is finally silent.