Movie Reviews - 2017 postsMonday May 22, 2017
Movie Review: The Farthest (2017)
During the end credits, one of the talking heads/scientists questions the off-camera documentarian’s use of the word “she” to describe the two Voyagers that we sent into space in 1977 to collect data and send out a multilingual message of greeting, Mozart and Chuck Berry to other potential life forms. He says, no, we don’t anthropomorphize the Voyager spacecraft, adding, with a twinkle, “They wouldn’t like it.”
We need that twinkle because anthropomorphizing Voyager is part of what we, and this doc, have been doing for 90 minutes. It’s why the doc has such emotional heft.
12 billion and counting
“The Farthest” is a good intro doc for idiots like me who haven’t been paying attention. I mostly knew Voyager from its reincarnation as V’ger in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” I didn’t know both Voyagers were still out there. I didn’t know that in 2012 Voyager I became the first man-made object to reach interstellar space. I didn’t know what “interstellar space” was.
Distance is a big part of the anthropomorphization. We see (through digital animation) how far it’s gone, and we see (through actual photos it’s sent back) how far away we are, and we can’t help but feel a pang of ... loss? Concern? Solicitousness? It travels at 10 miles per second, to where no man has gone before, and it’s surrounded by the vast cold and not much else. It doesn’t even have close encounters with planets anymore: Jupiter, Saturn, and for Voyager 2, Uranus and Neptune. It doesn’t even have the company of the other Voyager: Voyager 1 is years ahead of 2 and on a different trajectory. Our greatest stories, from Iliad/Odyssey to “The Wizard of Oz,” are about going out and returning home, and the Voyagers can’t do the second. They can only send back messages. Increasingly distant messages.
That may be the thing that stunned me most watching this. How do we still communicate with these guys? How are we able to tell 2 to turn and take a picture of our solar system as it’s leaving it? I sometimes have trouble getting a signal from a router down the hallway and we can communicate with a spacecraft 2.7 billion miles away? Or, now, 12 billion miles?
And this is with mid-’70s technology! Each is the size of a gangly bus, and for each, its total memory is, according to one scientist, “240 thousand times less than in your smart phone.” You do a double-take. “Wait, did he say 240 or ... Really? 240 thousand? Whoooaaaaa.” You think of all Voyager has done despite those limitations, and all that we haven’t with the world at our fingertips.
We get a few pop culture moments. The Beatles, or one of its reps, apparently turned down the chance to be on the gold record we sent into the farthest reaches of space, which is why Chuck Berry is on it instead. (Are the Rolling Stones miffed they weren’t asked?) We see a clip of SNL psychics talking up the future news in 1978, one of whom, Steve Martin, says the big news story will be the four words we hear back from the farthest reaches of space, which indicate intelligent life elsewhere: “Send more Chuck Berry.” But there’s no “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” or other sci-fi incarnations here. It’s science.
I kept flashing on sci-fi, though. Ten years ago, I wrote a short history of alien-invasion movies for MSNBC, and what stood out during the research—the long hours watching those hokey movies—was the absolute paranoia of ’50s movies versus Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1977:
At no point does anyone in Spielberg’s movie worry that the aliens might be less than kind. Sure, they kidnap our military pilots and small children, and they’ve obviously got superior technology. But look at the lights! Look at the pretty lights!
The Voyagers, which were sent into space the same year “Close Encounters” was released, assumed benevolence, too. We not only sent our music and messages and photos, we indicated where we were in case anyone wanted to come visit. Can you imagine if NASA attempted that today? What Fox News would say? Or Rush or Drudge? One scientist/talking head says here, “There’s never going to be another mission like it. It’s the first and last of its own kind,” but I’m curious why. Why aren’t we interested enough to make it happen again? Because of the paranoia? Because there’s no money in it? Because in space, no one can hear you profit?
The long and winding road
“The Farthest” isn’t even an American documentary. It’s Irish. It’s written and directed by Emer Reynolds, who works as an editor in the Irish film industry, but who’s done a few documentaries over the years: shorts one, TV ones, one on the Cuban Missile Crisis, and now this. She’s a big science geek, and did a whistle-stop tour of the U.S. to interview our extant Voyager scientists. What she comes away with is glorious.
Reynolds gives us a lot of shots of the earth looking up from a deep below, and we get the computer simulations of the Voyagers, as well as the actual photos they took, but what makes the doc work—and cue John Ford, please—is the human faces of these scientists: their smarts, enthusiasms, and pure joy in the journey. That we sent this piece of ourselves out there, and it’s still going, and it will likely still be going when you and I and all of our loved ones are long dead. “Four billion years from now,” says one, “when our sun turns into a red giant, Voyager is still going to be trucking out there, through the stars. We’ll still be out there.”
Movie Review: The Big Sick (2017)
“The Big Sick” is the funniest movie I’ve seen in years. It’s the best romantic comedy I’ve seen in longer than that. Its humor is sometimes whimsical, sometimes brutal, but always honest. It moves like life but makes us laugh more.
I went in not knowing much—other than the movie was written by and starred Kumail Nanjiani, Dinesh of “Silicon Valley”—and if you’re like me and you like not knowing much of the story, stop reading now. Seriously. Come back after you’ve seen it. Spoiler alert redux.
My wife Patricia read a piece in The New Yorker about it, so she knew this much going in: “Sick” is based on Nanjiani’s relationship with co-writer, and now wife, Emily V. Gordon. That’s why it feels like life. It mostly is.
Boy meets girl’s parents
Nanjiani plays Kumail, a first-generation Pakistani-American and struggling stand-up comedian who makes a living as an Uber driver. He’s treading water but doesn’t seem to mind. Nanjiani isn’t a great actor but he often has an amused gleam in his eyes—like he’s holding onto a secret or a joke, and to share it would just be too good. Weekends he visits his parents in a Chicago suburb, and his mom is forever trying to fix him up with single Pakistani girls. He’s got a box at home with their photos. He calls it the Ex-files.
One night after his set, he’s talking up a cute girl, Emily (Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of Elia), who “whoo-ed” during his set, and he teases her about heckling him. She gives as good as she gets. Their repartee is charming. They sleep together that night, and as she’s getting ready to go, he objects: They haven’t had sex again yet. She: “I’m just not that kind of girl—I only have sex once on the first date.” They’re that rarity: the Hollywood movie couple who feel like they should be together.
Life proceeds. He’s up for a prestigious Montreal comedy gig, Mom keeps bringing in Pakistani girls for weekend dinners but he doesn’t let his parents know about Emily. It’s bad enough he’s an Uber driver/stand-up comedian rather than a doctor. But to date outside the religion? That would kill them. Or excommunicate him.
Eventually, Emily finds the Ex-files box, questions him, realizes he’s never told his parents they’re dating, and, in tears, asks if he can imagine a world in which they end up together. “I don’t know,” he says, so she ends it. Like the “Seinfeld” Band-Aid.
It would’ve ended there—without much of a story—but one night her roommate phones to tell him Emily is in the hospital. Why does the roommate send him? Why doesn’t she go? Who knows? At first, the illness doesn’t seem serious, then it does. The doctor, in fact, wants to put her in a medically induced coma, and Kumail is the only one who can give permission. A nurse informs him gravely that he should call her family. It’s a “shit gets real” moment and he’s not ready for it. He doesn’t know how to contact her parents, and, when he takes her phone by the bedside stand, he doesn’t know her password to get in. She’s unconscious next to him; so knowing what he’s doing is very, very unethical, he borrows her thumb. Shit gets real but remains funny.
The parents are Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), and when they show up they’re dismissive. They literally dismiss Kumail. This is the guy, after all, who hurt their little girl. Why is he even hanging around? But he stays.
The amazing thing? This is the brunt of the movie. It’s mostly about Kumail growing closer to Emily’s parents while Emily is in a coma. Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, girl winds up in medically induced coma, boy hangs out with her parents. For rom-coms, this is a breath of fresh air.
It helps, of course, that it’s Romano (the dry comedian as actor) and Hunter (the great actress who kills at angry, deadpan comedy). The looks she gives Kumail are priceless, but not as priceless as the moment she first walks into her daughter’s apartment, sees the familiar stuff, smells her daughter’s clothes. That's so touching. Later, we get this laugh-out-loud exchange between Romano and Nanjiani, one of many great ones:
Terry: Let me tell you something, Kumail. Love isn’t easy. That’s why they call it love.
Kumail: (Pause) I don’t really get that.
Terry: I know. I thought I could just start saying something, and something smart would come out.
Since I didn’t know this was based on real life—that the film’s co-writer is the woman in the coma—I kept going back and forth on what should happen. Obviously I didn’t want Emily to die. But would the movie be better for it? More memorable? Where could they go with the story if she survived?
Here’s where they go: The doctors finally figure out what’s wrong, she’s brought back, everyone’s happy, and she basically looks at Kumail and says, “Why are you here?” He’s grown in the relationship but she’s still back at square one.
“The Big Sick,” directed by Michael Showalter (“The Baxter,” “Wet Hot American Summer”), is a Judd Apatow production, which means it goes on a bit longer than it probably should: 119 minutes rather than the traditional 90 for rom-coms. But the extra time is taken up by life’s twists and turns, its ragged edges. And the movie still ends on a grace note that’s satisfying.
How lovely to get such a round portrait of this Pakistani family, too, which is both new to us and universal. The story of America is the story of assimilation; we encounter it over and over again in our history and literature—Irish-Americans, Southern-Americans, Jewish-Americans, African-Americans. Now this. When the great confrontation between Kumail and his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) finally arrives, he asks them, essentially: Why did you come to America? Why continue with the old ways when we arrived here for the new? It’s a winning argument that doesn’t win—not immediately anyway. More ragged edges.
I feel like I’m still not telling you the best stuff about “The Big Sick.” The best stuff is the comedy—including a 9/11 line that absolutely killed when the movie played the opening of the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival. I missed a lot because of the laughter ringing in the theater throughout the movie. I’m ready to see it again.
Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
This was the beginning of my review of “Guardians of the Galaxy” three years ago:
We know how the roller coaster goes. Our heroes, misfits all, fight more with each other than with the bad guys, but eventually, through a series of adventures and misadventures, they abandon the more pungent aspects of their personalities for the greater good and come together for the final, big battle, with swirling dervishes going pew-pew-pew, and, somehow, against impossible odds ... win!
That’s pretty much the description for the sequel, too.
With the original I asked the follow-up, “Do they make the roller-coaster ride fun?” I answered yes.
The sequel? Eh.
Sure, there are good bits. I particularly like the scene with the empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff)—who looks like a manga character as insect, all big eyes and probing antennae—who innocently reveals that our hero, Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), has feelings for the sexy green alien, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), causing Drax (Dave Bautista), his muscle-bound compatriot, to totally crack up. He points at him and shouts: “She just told everyone you deepest, darkest secret! You must be so embarrassed!” Even more brilliantly, he tells Mantis, bouncing up and down in his seat, “Do me! Do me!” I’ll never forget seeing that in the “Guardians” trailer before “Star Wars: Rogue One” last December, and how much my nephew, Ryan, laughed. It brought him such joy. Which brought me such joy.
There’s a lot of that kind of humor in the movie: our heroes as kids/pets (Baby Groot), or innocent adolescents (Drax), or rough/tough adolescents (Rocket Raccoon). The adult in the room is Gamora. The one woman. The rest are boys.
Have the Guardians reverted? Obviously Groot has—he’s Baby Groot now—but so did Drax. In the first movie, his main bit was an inability to comprehend metaphor. Even when Rocket explained that everything went over his head, he responded, somewhat affronted, “Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast.” Here, metaphor isn’t mentioned. Instead, he simply blurts out inappropriate comments. But at least they're funny. It's why he’s my favorite character in the movie.
You know who isn’t my favorite character? Star Lord. “Vol. 2” is a star-driven vehicle, and the main plot centers around that star (Peter’s reunion with his father, a Celestial named Ego, played with brio by Kurt Russell), but Peter/Pratt is surprisingly passive and unfunny throughout. He lets everyone else get the good lines. I don’t know if it’s because Pratt is super magnanimous or if he’s already bored with it.
I was often bored with it. How many blaster fights do we need? Worse, they’re battles without consequence, since we know none of our favorite characters will die. Until they telegraph the great sacrifice of the one who will: Yondu (Michael Rooker), Peter’s asshole surrogate father, who is here redeemed. He gives up himself to save his only son. You know the quote from “Wizard of Oz”: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard”? Writer-director James Gunn seems to strive for that feeling with Star-Lord. He’s always looking for his biological father (Ego), while his real dad (Yondu) was always in his own back yard. But it's forced. It's not good. Plus “Oz” gave us great songs.
So does “Vol. 2,” I suppose. The movie doubles down on a conceit of the first film: traversing the galaxy in the future, our heroes rely on low-tech entertainment (a Walkman) and forgotten Top 40 hits of the ’70s. That second cassette includes ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” Looking Glass’ “Brandy,” Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights” and “Come a Little Bit Closer” by Jay and the Americans. We also get more '80s-era pop-culture references: David Hasselhoff, “Moonlighting,” Heather Locklear. I found these more annoying than the songs.
I did like the Zune joke. Before the final battle, Ego crushes Peter’s Walkman, so in the denouement, Yondu’s loyal lieutenant, Kraglin (Sean Gunn, James’ brother), hands him a replacement, the Zune, which he says everyone listens to on Earth. Big laughs from the Seattle crowd. It was nice to see Sylvester Stallone, too, but he shows up to no purpose. And what’s with that credits sequence with Ving Rhames and Michelle Yeoh? Are they a team? They’re not talking spin-off, are they? Please, no.
Again, “Vol. 2” is kind of fun, has some laughs, but there's too much pew-pew. There are too many battles without consequence. One wonders if there will ever be consequences for all of our battles without consequence.
Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)
I enjoyed it. The songs were catchy, the characters fun, and if you’re going to spend two hours watching something it helps to have Emma Watson in it. She’s just a pleasure to look at—even if, by the movie’s absurd light, she’s the village outcast. What an odd village! Everyone is obsessed with Belle (Watson) and Gaston (Luke Evans), but love him (the loudmouthed jerk) and hate her (the polite, studious one). It’s like the 2016 election all over again.
I like the feminist aspect of it. Belle is smart, courageous, proactive, isn’t looking to be rescued, and in the end upends the fairy tale trope: her kiss awakens the prince.
But I don’t quite get why the father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), keeps the mother’s death from her as if there was something shameful in it. It’s the plague; just tell her. And why is LeFou (Josh Gad) considered a positive character? He doesn’t help at all. He’s Smithers to Gaston’s Mr. Burns but without the true loyalty of Smithers. He’s willing to smear Maurice and Belle for the love of Gaston, but once Gaston dies it’s off to dance with the movie’s one other gay character. “Progress.”
And does anyone else have questions about fairy-tale versions of crime and punishment?
It began with hypertrychosis
The movie is based, of course, on the hugely successful 1991 Disney animated movie, which was based on the 18th-century fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, which was adapted from the original French fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. She, supposedly, was inspired by the real-life story of Petrus Gonsalvus, a 16th-century courtier who suffered from hypertrychosis, or abnormal hair growth of the face and body, but managed to marry and have kids anyway.
So what is the Prince’s crime that he becomes a beast? It changes over time. Sometimes, it’s not even a crime:
- Villeneuve: He resists the seductions of an evil fairy.
- Beaumont: He refuses to let a fairy in from the rain.
- 1946 Jean Cocteau film: His parents didn’t believe in spirits.
- 1991 Disney film: He refuses a rose from a beggar/enchantress in exchange for shelter.
Here, it’s the rose again. Also excessive taxation of the villagers to fund his lavish, lipsticked lifestyle. That should really be the bigger crime. And is it? Did the beggar/enchantress pick him because of the taxes? After all, why would she need shelter? She’s an enchantress. How hard is it to conjure up an umbrella?
If she picked on him for a reason, if it wasn’t simply happenstance, that leads to another plothole: How does Gaston get away with what he does? It’s more than bugging Belle with the marriage proposals; he actually leaves Maurice in the woods to be eaten by wolves. And when Maurice is saved (by the beggar/enchantress) and tells his tale, Gaston convinces the villagers that the old man, with his tales of “magic castles” and “a beast,” is crazy, and arranges for him to be sent to an insane asylum. Moments later, Belle shows up with proof of the Beast, which would make you think the crowd would turn on Gaston—since he was obviously lying before. Nope. He gets the villagers to turn on her, then leads a charge on the castle to kill the Beast.
Yet no spell for him? Or the villagers, who are so easily swayed toward injustice? Just the prince for the thing with the rose? And why are the prince’s courtiers also punished? According to the film, it’s because they were complicit in the Prince’s assholedom. But ... Chip, the boy? Really? And the little dog, too? They’re at fault? And all the adults totally bought into the bullshit and weren’t just trying to survive in undemocratic times? Hell, the courtiers actually got it worse than the Prince did. I mean, what would you rather be—a magnificent beast or a clock?
Moving, and movement
The story is full of such oddities. If the Beast knows that he has to get a girl to fall in love with him, he’s doing a poor, grumpy job of it at the beginning. And though the living household items seem sweet, and in love with love, they have skin in the game. They have to get these two idiots to fall in love—or die. They should be on their game, and condemning every act of incompetence by Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) or Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald). BTW: Since this whole thing originated with the French, couldn’t we have hired someone French to play Lumiere (Ewan McGregor)? Was Jean Dujardin busy or something? Could Romain Duris not sing?
I did like how Belle’s loyalty softens his heart, and Beast’s vulnerability softens hers. I like their mutual love of literature. That said, the most moving moment for me wasn’t in the love story but when the last rose petal fell and the clocks and candelabras disappeared into their form without a trace. Yet even here, even as my heart was cracking a bit, my head was saying: Yeah, but really the spell should’ve already been broken. They already love each other. It shouldn’t be a requirement that she say it aloud.
As for the big dance at the end? With the villagers? Those assholes who follow whatever idiotic scheme Gaston has and would probably vote for Trump if given the chance? Release the hounds.
Movie Review: Kong: Skull Island (2017)
From the trailer, not to mention early reviews, it looked fast, furious and entertaining—and it was. It’s a roller-coaster movie and I wasn’t bored. That doesn’t happen often. I’d take this movie 100 times over any of the “Fast & Furious” or “Transformers” crapfests.
How did they make it work? First, they didn’t call it “King Kong.” That removes some of the weight of cinematic history. Allows you to be light and loose and less ponderous. Allows you to let John C. Reilly improvise.
More importantly, the filmmakers got rid of some of the baggage of the traditional King Kong narrative, which hasn’t aged well over the years, particularly:
- The capture of the white girl by the black natives, then offering her up to Kong as sacrifice.
- Kong’s sexual infatuation with the girl. No playing with boobies here.
- Bringing Kong back to NYC. Seriously, c’mon.
- “Twas beauty killed the beast.”
This beast lives. Sequels, yo. More than that. As Marvel has its Marvel-verse, so Warner Bros. will have its Monster-verse: Godzilla, Kong, et al. It’s leading up to the big 2020 confrontation “Godzilla vs. Kong.” Directed by Zack Snyder, since he did so well with “Batman v. Superman.”
Kidding. About Snyder. But the monster-verse, yes, that’s happening.
The Kongs of Summer
Are passports required when indie film people wind up in big-budget Hollywood tentpole films? If so, a lot of passports must have been issued for this one.
- Its director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who looks like reclusive Joaquin Phoenix, has only one feature film under his belt: the coming-of-age flick “The Kings of Summer,” which grossed a total of $1.3 million in the summer of 2013. Probably cost a fraction of that. This one was budgeted for $185 million. Talk about zero to 60.
- Remember Brie Larson, the troubled counselor in “Short Term 12”? Now she’s in Kong Kong’s palm. She’ll be Captain Marvel next year.
- The “me” in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (2015), Thomas Mann, is one of Sam Jackson’s soldiers. He gets off some good lines. He’s the one who keeps reminding everyone that what’s happening is crazy.
- Easy E and Dr. Dre from “Straight Outta Compton” have strong supporting roles.
The mistake of the recent “Godzilla” was to hide Godzilla for most of the movie, as if it were the thing we feared, like the shark in “Jaws,” rather than the hero. “Kong” doesn’t make that mistake. “Kong” knows we want immensity and gives it to us right away.
We start in 1944. Two planes are shot down, one American and one Japanese, and the soldiers square off, ineptly; then the Japanese guy chases the American guy with a hari-kari sword through the jungle. They’re wrestling near a cliff when Kong emerges and stuns our soldiers—as well as us. He’s about four times the size we’re used to. 100 feet tall? More? Oddly, I flashed onto “Lord of the Flies” during this scene. Just as the battle of the kids on the island isn’t the real battle (they’re eventually picked up by soldiers), so our soldiers think they’re enemies but Skull Island swiftly disabuses them of the notion.
During the opening credits we get years of news reports until we land, surprisingly, in 1973. It’s surprising because nobody looks like they live in 1973: hair, fashions, all wrong, at least for the non-military personnel. As for the military, well, they’re kind of listening to “Vietnam war movie” songs: “Time Has Come Today” by the Chambers Brothers and “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. Both are from 1967. That’s old shit by ’73. Why not “Brand New Key” by Melanie or “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast” by Wayne Newton? It was a relief when “Ziggy Stardust” made an appearance.
John Goodman plays Bill Randa, who works for an organization called Monarch that’s trying to prove monsters exists. But it’s only when Randa’s assistant (Corey Hawkins), argues that this shrouded island in the South Pacific may be scientifically useful during the Cold War that the mission is funded.
Others have other motivations for the journey. The tracker, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), former MIG, is paid well. The photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), senses a story. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) is adrift with the Vietnam war ending. He wants another war, and he gets one, becoming Ahab to Kong’s white whale.
John C. Reilly steals all of his scenes as Hank Marlow, that American pilot still living/surviving on the island 28 years later, but some of the small roles stand out, too. Chopper pilot Toby Kebbell has a good line reading when they first spot Kong (“Is that a monkey?”) and I like the calm in his voice after he’s swatted from the sky and he’s radioing his position. Shea Whigham, Nucky’s screw-up brother in “Boardwalk Empire,” has a great misreading of the Androcles myth (he thinks Androcles killed the lion with the thorn), and the actor still has that great defeatist heaviness about him. He knows shit is fucked. Even his great sacrifice goes for naught.
And the Oscar goes to...
But the best actor in the movie is probably Kong. The computer graphics are amazing, and the movie never lets us forget his immensity. He also makes the most of his close-up. When Brie Larson strokes his face, you see, in his eyes, how lonely he is. He’s king, but the last of his kind. He rules, but he has no one. It’s a touching scene. I don’t know how they did the eyes so well.
Kong is also our hero, forever acting as Kong ex machina to save the puny humans from “Skull crawlers,” which live beneath ground, and which are huge lizardy things with bare heads. They’re the least interesting part of the movie. If the filmmakers really wanted to freak us out, a nest of giant ants would’ve sufficed.
We get echoes of/homages to “Apocalypse Now” (in the poster no less) but mostly “Kong” is just a ride. I don’t know if it’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys, but it has it all over giant fucking robots.