Movie Reviews - 2016 postsSaturday January 28, 2017
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.
Movie Review: Jackie (2016)
Hollywood has done up the JFK assassination every which way. We’ve seen it from the perspective of the president (many), conspirators to kill the president (“Executive Action”), and the doctors, nurses and FBI men in Dallas the day the president was killed (“Parkland”). We’ve seen movies about men who doubted the official version of the assassination (“JFK”), about the man who killed the assassin (“Ruby”), and about a man who travels back in time to kill the assassin before he can kill the president (“11/22/63”).
Here, Hollywood finally gets around to telling the story from the perspective of the woman sitting next to him in the car.
Myth > History
“Jackie” is an atmospheric movie—a powerful rendering of one of the saddest weekends in American history—but it’s also interested in story. More, it’s interested in story-making and mythmaking, and the difference between the two.
It’s really a tale of post-traumatic stress disorder. Our perspective is Jackie’s (Natalie Portman) throughout. The camera stays close to her face, and we feel her horror, her attempt to process what can’t be processed: wiping her husband’s blood off her face in the Air Force One bathroom; standing stunned as LBJ takes the oath of office; refusing Linda Bird’s entreaties to change out of the blood-splattered pink Chanel suit she was wearing that day. “Let them see what they’ve done,” she says, eyes flashing. She doesn’t remove it until she’s back in the White House, where she showers the blood and viscera of her husband out of her hair. There’s that sad moment telling Caroline and John-John that daddy won’t be coming home. It’s extra sad because we never imagined the scene before, but yes, somebody had to tell them and apparently it was her. One of the many awful tasks she assigned herself that weekend.
The key moment, for both the movie and history, occurs as she rides with Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) in the ambulance taking JFK to the D.C. hospital. She asks the driver and passenger-seat nurse if they know who James Garfield was. They don’t. Then she asks about Abraham Lincoln. Of course they know him.
The rest is her fight to make sure her husband isn’t forgotten like Garfield but remembered like Lincoln.
The movie comes in four parts:
- Jackie being interviewed at Hyannis Port by a journalist (Billy Cruddup), the weekend after the funeral weekend
- Long flashbacks to the assassination and its aftermath—particularly the logistics of the burial and the funeral
- Short flashbacks to the 1962 TV special, “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy”
- Jackie’s talks with an Irish priest (John Hurt), as her stillborn babies are reinterred next to their father in Arlington National Cemetery the week after she talks to the journalist.
The parts are at odds with each other: 1) and 2) are about myth-making. Jackie knew people forgot men but remembered myths, so she made JFK’s funeral, his final burial place at Arlington, and his short presidency—comparing it to the big Broadway hit of the day, “Camelot”—mythic. The point of the ’62 White House special was the opposite: It was about bringing history to life. Bill Walton (Richard E. Grant), who helped her redecorate the White House and show it off in that TV special, tells her how important it all was. “They need to know that real men actually lived here,” he says. “Not ghosts and storybook legends. People who faced adversity and overcame it.” But she doesn’t want Kennedy to become Garfield, a forgotten relic of history, so she makes him mythic. She fights everyone in this endeavor.
The Kennedy family originally want a burial site in Massachusetts, but Jackie nixes it (“I don’t mean to upset your mother,” she tells Bobby, “but Brookline is no place to bury a president.”); then she personally chooses the spot at Arlington so many of us have since visited.
LBJ and his team are wary of her funeral plans that mimic Lincoln’s—particularly the dignitaries walking out in the open behind Jack’s casket. At this point they don’t know if Oswald was a lone nut or if there are others out there. For example, there are death threats against visiting French president Charles De Gaulle—and so they suggest bullet-proof cars. They keep going back and forth on this. There’s a great scene between Jackie and LBJ aide Jack Valenti (Max Casella), where, amid the stifled politeness, he seems to get his way. Then just before leaving she says this:
Inform them that I will walk with Jack tomorrow. Alone if necessary. And tell General De Gaulle, if he wishes to ride in an armored car—or in a tank for that matter—I won’t blame him. And I’m sure the tens of millions of people watching won’t either.
She battles the journalist, too. This was the part of the movie I bought into the least, to be honest, even before I knew Cruddup was Teddy White, a Kennedy family friend. Here’s a guy who has access to the most sympathetic woman in the world two weeks after the assassination, and though that access obviously comes with strings attached—she gets to dictate what does or does not wind up in the article—it’s still one of the biggest scoops of the decade. Yet Cruddup seems to shrug his way through the interview. He seems exasperated. There’s an exchange later with the priest, where Jackie asks him what men see in her now:
Priest: Sadness. Compassion. [pause] Desire, maybe. You’re still a young woman, Mrs. Kennedy.
Jackie (wistful): I used to make them smile.
Cruddup's journalist displays little of these feelings. He seems to be rolling his eyes through the endeavor.
Myth relies on history
The casting is a mixed bag. Loved Portman. Caspar Philipson, the Danish actor they got for JFK, is an astonishing look-alike—particularly the eyes—but also a teeny man. Bobby towers over him when it was the opposite in real life. I didn’t buy Cruddup as the journalist, and I didn’t buy Sarsgaard as Bobby—he wasn’t forceful enough or crisp enough. I loved John Hurt as the priest, but even he seemed to have too little sympathy for the most sympathetic woman in the world. At the same time, their scenes together are the best in the movie. Maybe because all the bullshit has receded? It’s Truth with a capital “T”: life, death, confession.
Indeed, my favorite exchange, not just in this movie but for most 2016 movies, is the priest’s recounting of the parable of the blind man. Jackie is wondering what kind of God would allow not only the assassination but also the loss of her two babies, including one in August, and he says the following as they walk in Arlington National Cemetery:
Let me share with you a parable. [pause] Jesus once passed a blind beggar on the road, and his disciples asked: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was made blind so that the works of God could be revealed in him.” ...
Right now you are blind. Not because you’ve sinned. But because you’ve been chosen—so that the works of God may be revealed in you.
I’m an agnostic—in almost everything, really—but if you’re going to reconcile the horrors of the world with a personal, omnipotent God, this is a beautiful way.
“Jackie” was written by Noah Oppenheim, a producer of the “Today” show (of all things), and directed by Chilean director Pablo Larraín (“No”), and it's a deeply felt movie and much recommended. Uncommented upon? Jackie created the myth of Camelot, but it was subsequent history that made that myth resonate. This is the myth:
Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot
Yet if LBJ hadn’t led to Nixon who led to Reagan; if the Gulf of Tonkin resolution hadn’t gotten us into a full-scale war in Vietnam; if the civil rights movement hadn’t led to the Black Power movement, and if the rich hadn’t kept getting richer and the poor kept getting screwed, it might not have felt like a brief, shining moment. Her metaphor would’ve been an addled thought from a distraught woman. Instead, it feels like the truth.
Movie Review: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)
I’ve been hearing end-of-the-year buzz that “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” is a way underrated movie; that it’s actually, you know, good. Some go further: Some suggest it’s this generation’s “This Is Spinal Tap.”
If so, pity this generation.
I know it’s unfair to compare a contemporary with a classic. But since others raised the issue...
Why ‘joke’ is less funny
“Spinal Tap”’s humor grew out of the conventions of real music documentaries, while “Pop” feels as if it’s riffing on copies of copies of copies of copies. “Tap” is grounded. Its cities on the tour are real. Its main characters may be idiots but there’s something human about them. They’re half caricature/half character, while “Pop”’s Conner4Real (Andy Samberg) is all caricature. There’s no there there. Conner is just a joke, and the movie treats him as a joke. When you do this, ironically, you remove a lot of the funny.
There’s a trajectory to Tap’s downfall, and it follows their American concert tour—east coast to west coast. Their humiliations start small but grow: a canceled date in Boston (“I wouldn’t worry about it, though, it’s not a big college town”), a misplaced hotel reservation in Memphis, flak over the album cover. For a time, Tap seems oblivious to it all; they still think they’re on top of the world. Then the humilations deepen: second billing at a Holiday Inn, a no-show album signing, playing an Air Force Base. Their onstage humiliations are human-sized and serve to prick their pomposity: Nigel can’t stand back up again after bending back in classic rock-out pose; Derek’s “pod” doesn’t open; they get lost beneath the arena in Cleveland and the Stonehenge props are tiny rather than towering.
Conner’s humiliations are outsized and less funny. To jazz up his act, he goes for a quick-change bit, but has to hide his junk to make it work, and a wardrobe malfunction reveals him to be seemingly dickless. (I like that, backstage, his handlers try to assure him that no one noticed.) To bury that story—as if it wouldn’t be a meme forever—his publicist (Sarah Silverman) suggests he propose to his girlfriend (Imogen Poots), which he does, with Seal singing her favorite song and her favorite animals (wolves) nearby. But the singing upsets the wolves, who attack the guests and turn the garden party into bloody chaos.
Meanwhile, his opening act, Hunter (Chris Redd), eclipses him in popularity, not to mention vindictiveness. But when Conner asks his manager, Harry (Tim Meadows), to kick him off the tour, he discovers Hunter is Harry’s client, too. It’s Conner who goes back home, the tour a failure, his career seemingly over.
So what happens? He becomes a better person, of course. He once fronted a boy band, The Style Boyz, and he reconciles with the estranged members he screwed over: DJ Owen (Jorma Taccone), and lyricist Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer). All along, we’ve been following the latter, who, after a stab at a solo career, has been farming and woodcarving in Colorado. Both are treated as jokes—as if anyone could enjoy such things, so far away from the limelight—with the former having a typical comedy punchline: he’s been farming weed, yo. All three reunite on the “Poppy” awards, and are back on top. Added bonus: Hunter is a dick to Mariah Carey onstage, so no one likes him anymore. Because it’s never enough for you to succeed; your enemies have to fail.
‘I feel young again! I feel ... 38!’
It’s interesting to note the need for a villain. Does “Tap” have a villain? You could argue the Yoko-Ono-ish Jeanine Pettibone (June Chadwick), who controls David, and causes the riff with Nigel, and who takes over from their seemingly incompetent manager, Ian Faith. She has a bit of a comeuppance as well: Ian returns, and in Japan, where Spinal Tap is resurrected, the two eye each other warily. But all of it is much subtler than “Popstar”'s disimissal of Hunter.
You know what’s amazing to me? Andy Samberg is actually older in “Popstar” than Michael McKean and Christopher Guest were in “Spinal Tap”: 38 years vs. 37 and 36. I still think of Samberg as the next generation but “Lazy Sunday” was more than 10 years ago.
The Lonely Island guys give us a few good parody songs: “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song),” along with Conner’s would-be testimonial to gay marriage, “Equal Rights,” in which he continually insists, “I’m not gay.” But there’s nothing as clever as marrying the bombast of gangster rap with a very ordinary, very white Sunday afternoon.
One of the biggest problems for me is that “Popstar” doubles down on the very thing it should be satirizing: celebrity culture. 50 Cent, Carrie Underwood and Simon Cowell, as the mockumentary’s talking heads, act like they’re in the on the joke, when, to me, they’re part of the problem. But the movie sees them as part of the solution.
A few years ago, Samberg co-starred as the son of Adam Sandler in the dreary comedy, “That’s My Boy.” Not yet, but he’s becoming dangerously close.
Movie Review: Doctor Strange (2016)
Am I the only one who sees a metaphor for the 2016 election in this movie? Hear me out.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, doomed to play brilliant but pompous) plays a brilliant but pompous neurosurgeon who gets into a car accident and damages the nerves of his steady hands, rendering him useless and purposeless. But after hearing of a paraplegic who learned to walk again, he travels to Katmandu and trains at Kamar-Taj under the Ancient One (a bald Tilda Swinton), with the idea of eventually curing himself and returning to practice. Instead, he becomes “Master of the Mystic Arts”; and instead of saving one person, or several people, he saves the whole damn universe.
But he makes an enemy in the process: his friend, and one-time mentor, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Why?
OK, back up a bit, because it’s actually fairly clever what Strange does.
The movie opens with Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his team of bad guys/one hot girl stealing pages from an ancient book that allow them to tap into the power of Dormammu, the dark dimension. For some reason, these guys also invite Dormammu into our universe, and that’s destroying everything, particularly Hong Kong. So Strange uses the Eye of Agamotto (don’t ask) to turn back time; then he travels to the dark dimension, where he creates an infinite time loop so that every time Dormammu kills him, he returns to battle again. It’s sort of like “Groundhog Day” or “End of Tomorrow” but in miniature. I like this bit. He knows he can’t beat Dormammu so he lets it get bored until it agrees to leave the Earth alone. He outsmarts it.
So why does Mordo have a problem with this? Because bending time is forbidden.
Mordo, you see, is a stickler, a puritan. He’d rather have the world end than break the rules to save it. He was earlier incensed that the Ancient One tapped into Dormammu’s dark power to keep living, even though, in the long run, she was doing good.
And that’s the metaphor:
- Ancient One = Hillary
- Dormammu = Trump
- Tapping into Dormammu's power = Paid speech to Goldman Sachs
- Mordo = Bernie, or a Bernie Bro
Things worked out better in their universe.
Overall, “Doctor Strange” is efficient and fun but it’s hardly breaking new ground. On the contrary, it’s going over much of the same ground that “Iron Man” did eight years ago: The vainglorious man with Ronald Colman moustache (now goatee) brought low, then raised higher with greater powers and greater purpose. I guess Stan and Jack liked that storyline.
Once Strange arrives in Katmandu, the various concerns/tensions are all resolved with such facility as to seem facile:
- Will the Ancient One accept him? Yes.
- Is he too egotistical to learn the mystic arts? He is ... but he does anyway.
- Will he just cure himself and go back to his pompous ways, lording it over second-raters like Michael Stuhlbarg? Nope.
- Will he be seduced by “the Dark Side” like Kaecilius? Nope.
Oddly, once the battles begin, Mordo begins to worry not that Strange will be seduced by the dark side but that he doesn’t have the will to fight the dark side. It’s a concern introduced at the 11th hour and dismissed at 11: 10, and was never a concern of ours. If there’s one thing Strange isn’t, it’s a quitter.
Collecting comics in the 1970s, Doctor Strange was never one of my favorite superheroes. I didn’t understand his powers, I don’t like alternative dimensions that look like a sketchy part of outer space, and I’m generally not a fan of vainglorious men with Ronald Colman moustaches. But somehow Marvel Entertainment makes this movie work.
Think of that. Marvel can take one of its lamest characters, run him through three screenwriters, hand him off to a director mostly known for shitty horror flicks (“Devil’s Knot,” “Sinister 2”), and wah-lah: a fun flick that mixes elements of “Kung Fu,” “Groundhog Day,” and the mindbending landscapes of MC Escher. Hell, they even throw in a bit of “The Greatest American Hero”: a man doing comic battle with his superpowered clothes.
Cf., DC, which can’t even put the two most popular superheroes in the world together without making a crap salad.
Movie Review: Manchester By the Sea (2016)
Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea” unfolds slowly and naturally. It’s like life in that we make assumptions about the people we’re watching. It’s not like life in that we get to stick around to see how our assumptions are wrong.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a handyman/super for four apartment buildings in Quincy, Mass., near Boston. He does his work calmly, competently, but with something missing, some spark. Early on, he seems to have the patience of Job. He shovels the sidewalks, fixes the drips, unclogs the toilets without complaint. At one point he overhears a tenant say she’s attracted to him, and she gives him a tip, but he doesn’t respond. Because he just unclogged her toilet and that’s no way to begin a relationship? Later, at a bar with a beer, he doesn’t respond to another woman’s flirtations. Then it’s near closing, he eyes two guys across the bar, and you think: Of course. He’s gay.
Then he picks a fight with the two guys. Turns out he’s not gay, not calm, doesn’t have the patience of Job.
Slowly, as he heads north to the titular town to deal with the sudden heart attack/death of his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), we find out how he got this way.
At the local high school, he’s twice referred to as the Lee Chandler, and we wonder if he was a star athlete. Nope. When his brother’s will is read and he discovers he’s the guardian of 15-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges), he almost flips out. “I’m just a backup,” he says. Later, in flashback, we see him with a wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), and one ... two ... three kids? Really? So he doesn’t seem like a backup there. And hey, what happened to those kids anyway?
That, of course, turns out to be the answer to everything: Why Lee is living in a small, cramped basement apartment in Quincy, why he’s full of rage, why something is missing from him, why he can’t return to Manchester-By-the-Sea.
A few years ago I read a great piece by David Grann in The New Yorker about Cameron Todd Williams, a Texas man who was put to death for setting a fire that killed his wife and three girls—except he probably didn’t set that fire. The state of Texas probably executed an innocent man. I kept flashing to it, watching this movie, since Lee’s tragedy is similar. Drunk one night in a cold house, Lee starts a fire in the fireplace to warm up his girls, then walks down to the nearest convenience store to get more beer. When he returns his house is ablaze. His wife makes it out, his kids don’t.
The difference is that Lee isn’t charged with murder but wants to be. When the cops tell him he’s free to go, he tries to blow his brains out in the station. That’s why the basement apartment in Quincy. It’s his punishment, his prison. He’s doing life without parole. It’s also why he doesn’t want to leave—particularly for Manchester By the Sea, which just dredges everything up.
Thus the movie’s main conflict is set up: Lee, the new guardian, doesn’t want to stay in Manchester, but Patrick, with friends and girlfriends and school, and a father’s boat he wants to return to, doesn’t want to leave. Patrick has the better up-front argument, Lee the better buried argument. But even as this argument gets unburied, we see Lee making a go at it. We see him asking for work. We see him running into his ex. This is a powerful scene, and it also upends our assumptions. We expect that he’ll want forgiveness from Randi and she won’t give it. Instead, she has more than forgiveness; she has love. And he finds this unbearable. “No, you don’t understand,” he says, breaking away from her. “There’s nothing there.” Williams is so good in this one scene she might win an Oscar for it.
I still remember Roger Ebert’s review of “The World According to Garp.” Watching, he kept thinking, “This is nice ... this is nice ... this is nice,” but for all of those nice scenes the movie never added up to anything meaningful. I think a lot of indie movies are like that. “Manchester” isn’t. All of its small scenes add up. The movie doesn’t give us a happy ending (as with studio films) or tragic ending (as with indies), but balances on that razor-thin line of honesty and understanding; of things that aren’t said and things that don’t need to be said. Its redemption is small, but more poignant for its smallness. For Christ’s sake, go see it.