Movie Reviews - 2015 posts
Monday January 25, 2016
Movie Review: The Hateful Eight (2015)
Halfway through, I felt something I rarely feel in a Quentin Tarantino movie: Boredom.
Tarantino’s movies are like “My Dinner with Andre” directed by Sam Peckinpah: they're long conversations punctuated by violence. And if the conversations are good (and usually they are), and the violence isn’t too excessive (well...), then I leave the theater happy and energized. Here, the stories are kinda lame and the violence over-the-top.
Kurt Russell may be at fault, too. He plays John “The Hangman” Ruth, a bounty hunter who is taking a prize catch, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, welcome back), worth $10,000, to Red Rock, via stagecoach that’s trying to stay one step ahead of a blizzard. Along the way they pick up two separate passengers in the middle of nowhere: Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), another bounty hunter, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), whose father used to run a post-Civil War Confederate gang in the west, and who claims he’s going to Red Rock to become its next sheriff.
Eventually, the blizzard catches up to them and they’re forced to lodge at Minnie’s (Dana Gourrier), but, oddly, Minnie isn’t there, and Ruth takes a long slow look at the other guests: the flamboyantly British Oswaldo Mobry (Tim Roth), who claims to be the hangman of Red Rock; the quiet Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), sitting near the fire and writing his life story; and Gen. Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a cranky old Confederate officer who was responsible for a massacre in Louisiana.
Holding the floor
It’s a movie about shifting suspicions and loyalties. Of course Mannix (named for the ’60s TV detective played by Mike Conners) and Smithers (for Waylon?) don’t much like Warren, while Warren is suspicious of Bob (Demian Bichir), a Mexican who claims to be running Minnie’s in her absence. Warren, you see, knows things. He’s privy to information. So are most of the others. (In this Wyoming standoff, in fact, who isn’t holding secret intel? I think just Ruth and Mannix.) And it all comes to a boil when Warren goads Gen. Smithers to go for a gun. He does this by telling him a story.
That’s classic QT: In a Tarantino movie, the one with the story is the one in control. You hold the power by holding the floor. Sadly, Maj. Warren’s story is hardly a classic.
Seems Gen. Smithers’ son was in Wyoming to kill Warren—a notorious Northern renegade with a bounty on his head—but Warren got the upper hand, marched the kid naked through the snow; and when the kid begged for a blanket, he forced him to go down on him; then he killed him anyway. We never know if this story is real or designed to mess with the aged mind of Gen. Smithers, whom Warren despises, but either way the General listens to the story way too long to feel real. He would’ve gone for the gun much earlier. When he does, of course, he’s dead. And in the meantime, with everyone distracted, someone’s poisoned the coffee, and both Ruth and the stage coach driver suffer a long, horrid, blood-spewing death from it. That’s when Warren really takes over the movie.
And this is when it gets interesting. So it made me think that either Kurt Russell isn’t charismatic enough, or his character, Ruth, is too grumbling and irascible to be the main guy. In the first half, he held the floor and the result was “meh.” After his death, Maj. Warren holds the floor, we get Sam Jackson’s clear voice ringing out, and I was intrigued.
It helps, I suppose, that by this point the movie has become a whodunit. Who poisoned the coffee? To what end? And who will be the last man standing? (Full disclosure: no one.)
What about Bob?
“Hateful Eight” shares other Tarantino tropes. The enclosed nature of the standoff is like “Reservoir Dogs.” Like in “Pulp Fiction,” there’s a man with a gun (Daisy’s brother, played by Channing Tatum) hidden away as Sam Jackson rages on; unlike in “Pulp Fiction,” the hidden guy doesn’t miss his mark. We get an extensive flashback to make sense of what’s going on—as in “Dogs,” “Fiction,” etc.—but it’s wholly unnecessary here. We get it: Daisy’s gang came in and killed Minnie and the others. Onward already.
My favorite part of the movie is the detective work. Bob says Minnie left earlier in the week to visit her mother, but Warren knows: 1) Minnie hates Mexicans, and 2) the stew tastes like Minnie’s stew, which means she couldn’t have left earlier in the week. So why doesn’t he share this info with Ruth? More, why does he go after the toothless general first—allowing Gage to poison the coffee that kills Ruth? Once we know the whole story, Warren’s actions don’t make much sense.
“Hateful Eight” is long on runtime (167 minutes), long on viscera, and short on wit. It's lesser Tarantino. Possibly least Tarantino.
Tuesday January 19, 2016
Movie Review: Spotlight (2015)
For a drama about uncovering the Catholic church child molestation scandal, “Spotlight” is surprisingly undramatic. What’s the most dramatic moment? Racing to a copy machine before a government office closes? A lawyer circling a list of names? Its tone throughout is matter-of-fact. You might even call it objective.
Director Tom McCarthy keeps making good movies (“Station Agent,” “Win Win”), but as an actor his most famous role is probably Scott Templeton, the Baltimore Sun reporter who fabricated details and quotes and, well, people, in the fifth season of “The Wire.” Now he—Scotty Templeton!—has given us the best movie about investigative journalism since “The Insider.”
The more interesting point of comparison, though, may be with “All the President’s Men.” Both movies feature Ben Bradlee: Sr. (Jason Robards) in the first, Jr. (John Slattery, doomed to play bon vivants) here. Both movies focus on uncovering the corruption of powerful institutions (the White House, the Catholic Church) that loom large over their respective cities (D.C., Boston). The difference is in the numbers. For Woodward and Bernstein, the investigative thrust is toward the one: What did the president know and when did he know it? In “Spotlight,” the investigative thrust is toward the many. The question isn’t “How high does it go?” but “How widespread is it?” At first we have one child-abusing priest, then three; then 13; then 87. Each time, the newer number is met with incredulity. It seems an impossibly cynical suggestion. Then it’s eclipsed.
It takes a village
There aren’t many movie characters that intrigued me more this past year than Liev Schreiber’s Marty Baron. He arrives at The Boston Globe from Florida with the reputation as a hatchet man. Is he? We wonder, along with Bradlee, and Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), the head of the four-person Spotlight investigative team. Will they lose headcount? Is Spotlight being cut altogether? There’s an initial tentativeness around Baron that feels real, and he doesn’t help matters by being a slightly odd duck. He’s soft-spoken, seemingly distracted but actually focused. His oddities, his stranger-in-a-strange-land persona, jumpstarts the investigation, since he sees Boston with fresh eyes. If Schreiber had had more screentime, I think he would’ve been nominated for an Oscar.
Each member of the Spotlight team has a particular focus. The hyperactive Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) sniffs around the offices of attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who represents more than 50 plaintiffs in separate lawsuits against the Catholic Church, and who is not impressed with the Globe’s coverage thus far. Initially he’s not helpful. But he appreciates Rezendes’ doggedness, and eventually his work, and he keeps pointing the way. He’s this movie’s Deep Throat, except they meet on park benches in the afternoon rather than parking garages at 3 a.m.
Meanwhile, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) goes door-to-door to find victims and victimizers, while Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) realizes halfway through the investigation that a kind of halfway house for abusive priests is a block away from where he’s raising his kids; that’s when it gets personal for him. (Sidenote: Critics keep talking up how much the actors actually look like journalists, and it’s particularly true for James with his soup-strained moustache; but it’s not true at all for McAdams. Sorry. Bless your heart, Rachel, you give it a go, but you’re still way too pretty for print journalism.)
Robby is the guy who deals with the mucky-mucks and poo-bahs. At one point, he accuses a rich, seemingly slick PI-plaintiff attorney, Eric Macleish (Billy Crudup), of making money off abuse, and Macleish tosses it back in his face. He alerted the paper years ago, he says; and the paper did nothing. Do we ever get closure on this? Who’s at fault? Robby? Bradlee?
The larger message is that no one is clean. “If it takes a village to raise a child,” Garabedian says later, “it takes a village to abuse one.”
Tell me the half of it
“Spotlight” is a treasure trove of great dialogue. Early on, Baron is telling Robby how he wants to find a way to make the paper essential to its readers:
Robby: I like to think it already is.
Baron [pause, assessment]: Fair enough.
Or this moment when Pfeiffer is drawing out an abuse victim in the shadow of a nearby church:
Pfeiffer: Joe, did you ever try to tell anyone?
Joe: Like who—a priest?
Even this, as Rezendes sits with a beleaguered Garabedian, who really is begging to tell his story, during a lunch break from the local courthouse:
Garabedian: You don’t know the half of it.
Rezendes: Tell me the half of it, Mitch.
I love that 9/11, of all days, is a kind of annoyance in this story; it interrupts the story, as it interrupted all of our stories. I like the looming churches, and all they signify, and the AOL billboard outside the Globe offices, and all it signifies. It’s a reminder of the other battle journalists are fighting—against obsolescence. “Spotlight” shows us the necessity of good investigative journalism even as we are creating the circumstances—by what we buy, what we click on—that will soon restrict its efficacy. The last words we hear are Robby’s, picking up a phone. “This is Spotlight,” he says. The story is out, the phones are ringing, the work continues. It should be triumphant; and it is. But it also feels like the end of something.
Friday January 15, 2016
Movie Review: The Revenant (2015)
Glass is an interesting choice for the name of a man who doesn’t break, but it turns out it’s not a choice.
Hugh Glass was part of an expedition that went up the Missouri river, from South Dakota to Montana, on a fur-trading expedition in the early 1820s. He was attacked by a bear, left for dead by a man named Fitzgerald, survived, sought revenge. It’s all there. In real life, of course, the revenge isn’t as clean as in the movie. And it’s not clean in the movie.
“The Revenant” (meaning: one who has returned, particularly from the dead) is a shifting landscape of betrayal and revenge; it’s a movie you feel as much as see. In old westerns, arrows flew threw the air like toothpicks; here they have heft and force. The bear is fast, monstrous; you feel its weight as it smashes Leonardo DiCaprio’s face into the mud, and its hot breath literally fogs the camera. The power of the river current is overwhelming, the chill of the wind debilitating. It’s a palpable movie. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu could’ve called it, “The Unrelentant,” because it doesn’t stop.
It’s also gorgeously filmed, and one of the best movies of the year.
The turnin’ of the earth
It’s actually a collision of two westerns, isn’t it? The story is set in motion by Elk Dog (Duane Howard), the leader of the Arikara tribe, who is searching for his kidnapped daughter, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o). That’s why the fur-trading expedition is attacked—mistakenly, it turns out, they had nothing to do with Powaqa—and why Glass and the men flee down the Missouri, then take to land. They’re pursued. In this way, Elk Dog is a Native American version of John Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards, in John Ford’s “The Searchers.” Ironic, given Ethan’s thoughts on the matter:
Injun will chase a thing till he thinks he’s chased it enough. Then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there’s such a thing as a critter that’ll just keep comin’ on. So we’ll find ’em in the end, I promise you. We'll find ’em. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.
Glass’ story, meanwhile, is a western tale of revenge a la “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” He loses everything and becomes revenge personified; but he never becomes wish-fulfillment fantasy in the way Clint Eastwood does. He’s too broken; it’s all too awful.
In fleeing the Arikara, fur pelts—the whole point of the expedition—have to be left behind, and that doesn’t sit right with Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy); and in a backwoods Maryland accent so thick it makes Bain’s enunciation in “The Dark Knight Rises” seem as precise as John Houseman’s, he bitches, threatens, and casts aspersions on Glass and his half-breed son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). There’s a good line from Glass berating Hawk for his intemperance in native Pawnee: “They don’t hear you; they only see the color of your face.”
It’s a dirty world Inarritu recreates, but there’s something extra dirty about Fitzgerald. Once almost scalped, he now scalps. He complains about Indians stealing from the dead even as he does the same. He feels screwed, and is: After all that work and risk, we find he still owes the company store.
His most awful moment may be when he confronts Glass, rendered immobile and helpless by the bear attack, and offers to end his pain if he’ll only signal by blinking. It’s like making the signal breathing. Fitzgerald needs Glass to die so he can move on, but he wants permission and rigs the game. Or does he? We watch Glass’ helpless face, his eyes struggling not to blink; but then he seems to acquiesce. He closes them completely. Later, in their climactic struggle, Fitzgerald will bring this up. “You and me, we had a deal,” he says. But as Fitzgerald tries to suffocate Glass, and as Glass struggles, Hawk arrives, attacks Fitzgerald, and is killed himself. Then Glass is tossed into a hastily dug grave. “We buried him proper,” Fitzgerald says later. Everything the man touches turns to dishonor.
It’s a long road back for Glass, and Inarritu doesn’t allow him (or us) any cinematic shortcuts. We see him go through animal stages: crawling on all fours; eating small birds, and raw fish, and liver. It’s almost a triumph when he can walk upright again, a man again, but a man with one thing in mind: revenge. Which is its own burden. At one point, Glass is saved by a lone Pawnee, Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud), trying to reconnect with his tribe, who tells him, “Revenge is in the creator’s hands, not man’s.” Glass will think back on this as he finally has his hands around Fitzgerald’s throat. It’s the high ground, but he—and we—don’t want it. Instead, he takes a middle ground. He lets the current, and the Arikara, take Fitzgerald.
There are still honorable men in this world: Hikuc; Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), the expedition leader; Bridger (Will Poulter, quite good), Fitzgerald’s unwilling partner, who is not witness to Fitzgerald’s crimes, and remains haunted by their actions. Each man surprised me a little. The modern western gives us the cackling and the profane, suggesting this was the norm in a harsh, lawless world. These guys seem honorable despite that world. Or maybe because of it. To distinguish themselves from it. To keep it at a distance.
Of course, they don’t end well. Capt. Henry counsels Glass against pursuing Fitzgerald but accompanies him anyway; he’s scalped for this trouble. And Hikuc? After saving Glass’ life, he’s strung up by French forces—the ones who kidnapped Powaqa in the first place—who hang a sign around his neck: On est tous des sauvages. “We are all savages.” Not quite. The savages survive.
Light as a principle of survival
Nature may be the most savage of all. Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki film both the grandeur and horror of nature, along with the smallness of man (both ways) against that landscape. In a great article in Film Comment, David Thomson says the use of natural light in the film “addresses mankind’s relationship with nature before electricity.” He call it “a principle of survival,” which is exactly right. So often in this movie light means life, or a chance at it. It bursts through, and we’re grateful.
Near the end, after Glass lets the Arikara take Fitzgerald, he kneels on all fours by the river, spent, as the Indians pass. They don’t kill him—he freed Powaqa from the French—but they, and she, are not exactly grateful. She views him imperiously from above. That’s the feel of nature, too. If it views us, that’s how it views us.
Some of my favorite moments have nothing to do with the plot: the avalanche in the distance after Capt. Henry’s death; Glass and Hikuc catching snowflakes on their tongue. Is it too improbable? Too much? Maybe. When it was over, I was exhausted. I thought, “Beautiful, but I doubt if I’ll ever want to see it again.” It’s a day later and I want to see it again.
Tuesday January 12, 2016
Movie Review: Goodnight Mommy (2015)
The original German title for “Goodnight Mommy” is “Ich Seh, Ich Seh” or “I see, I see,” which is ironic since I didn’t see the film’s central conceit. Near the end, when it’s revealed, I went, “Holy shit.” Long pause. “Right.” Longer pause. “Of course.”
It’s a moody, atmospheric film that’s majorly fucked up. I flashed early to “Lord of the Flies,” thinking that, of the twin boys, the more favored one, Elias, was like Ralph, the benevolent leader, while the one with mommy problems, Lukas, was Jack, who appeals to our worst instincts. Which one would dominate? I also wondered this early on: Who’s really in danger here—the mother (Susanne Wuest) or the kids (Elias and Lukas Schwarz)? From the conversation surrounding the movie, not to mention its trailer, not to mention the poster, I assumed the mother would become menaced. But she’s so awful in the early going, I began to doubt this.
The key is in one of the first conversations with the mother. Playing outside in cornfields (cf. “Children of the Corn”), the boys come home to find their mother with her head bandaged from an operation. Was she in an accident? Did she have plastic surgery? She’s curt, demands quiet and darkness. She keeps pulling the blinds. The boys’ clothes are muddy and she demands they strip near the laundry and take a shower. Then she feeds them. We see her pouring a glass of juice for Elias, and we get this conversation:
Elias: Lukas wants some, too.
Mother: Then he can ask me himself.
Elias: You only made supper for me.
Mother: You know why.
[Mother goes away; Lukas drinks the juice.]
Elias to Lukas: You should apologize.
[Lukas shakes head.]
That’s the key right there, and I’m stunned I didn’t see it. It helps, of course, that in English, and I assume in German, the singular and plural form of “you” is the same. I don’t know how they’ll translate this in China, for example, where the language differentiates: ni for you and ni-men for all of you.
The mother seems like an awful person—harsh and brittle. She doesn’t want visitors. “If anyone asks,” she explains, “tell them I’m ill.” Putting ointment on her damaged face, she shoots an accusatory bloodshot eye at one of the boys. (It helps, too, that we keep mixing up the boys.) When someone actually stops by, and one of the boys pads gently into her room to wake her, she pretends to be asleep; when he leaves, she crunches harshly on the snack she’d been hiding in her mouth. It was at this point that I wondered if the boys were in danger from her.
Some horror films are relentless throughout; the point is to exhaust us (“It Follows” is a good example). Others are often supernatural mysteries to be solved (“El Orfanato,” “The Others”). This one has a bit of mystery, but it’s mostly looming dread. We wonder two things: 1) When will it get bad?; 2) How bad will it get?
We realize, bit by bit, there was an accident, and a marital separation, and the mother is trying to start over. This humanizes her in our eyes. At the same time, the boys begin to feel that the mother isn’t their mother. They have nightmares about her; they begin to demonize her. It’s a clean cross: The more human she seems to us, the more demonic to them.
Eventually they tie her to her bed, ask questions, demand that she prove she’s their mother. She’s an idiot for not responding immediately and authoritatively, but she doesn’t. They demand to know where her birthmark went (it was on her face, and got lost in the accident), so, with a magnifying glass, and the sun from the nearby window, they try to burn one in. When she cries, the put masking tape over her mouth. Later they glue her mouth shut with superglue. It’s all so horrible. She fails at her one chance at escape, and wakes to find herself glued the ground, one eye glued horribly shut. And it’s here that we get the big reveal. This is what she says to Elias:
I’ll play along. I’ll talk to Lukas again. Lukas will be alive. [Pause] Elias. It’s not your fault that Lukas died.
But it’s too late by that point.
Writer-directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz open their film with footage of a happy mother and children singing on TV, a la the Von Trapps. We’re in rural Austria, after all. But it’s a different rural Austria. So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, good night. Mommy.
Friday January 08, 2016
Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
What’s your favorite moment? Mine is the lightsaber lying in the snow and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) trying to beckon it with the Force, and struggling, and confused by the struggling, but finally the lightsaber breaks free and flies towards him—and, whoops, past him—and into the hand of Rey (Daisy Ridley), who stares at it in wonder, and then takes up the Jedi pose as the music wells. I had tears in my eyes after that.
And I knew it was going to happen. That’s the thing. It was totally telegraphed. But still. Tears.
A lot of the movie was totally telegraphed. Certainly (and again, please accept this spoiler alert) the death of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) at the hands of his son, Kylo Ren, on the walkway over the giant chasm in the heart of the Starkiller Base, which is like the Death Star to the 100th power, as all of the principle characters, and I mean all of them, Chewie and Rey and Finn (John Boyega), watch in horror. That scene did nothing for me. Although, I have to admit, after Han is cut by the lightsaber but before he falls forever into the void, I liked it when he caresses his son’s cheek. It’s not only a tender gesture but a kind of exquisite revenge. Kylo, after all, is fighting to stay on the dark side, and, for him, love hurts. “I want to be free of this pain,” he says, right before he sticks it in. So Han, in a way, sticks it back.
But most of my favorite moments in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” involve Rey. Ridley lights up the screen with the force of her face, and the humanity in it. I think I’ve got a crush.
Here’s the problem everyone’s identified: She’s a bit of a quick study. What’s the first time we see Luke Skywalker summon anything with the power of the Force? Is it his lightsaber in the snow, as he hangs upside down in the wampa’s cave in “The Empire Strikes Back”? That’s after how much training and how many months/years? Rey, she does it after, what, a day or two? And with no training? And with a Jedi master also trying to summon it away from her? But I get why Disney and writer-director J.J. Abrams went this route. Our attention spans are shorter than they were a long time ago, in movie theaters far, far away.
Rey of New Hope
So Rey is the key to it all. She’s the awakening of the title, the ray of hope, the big question mark. “Who’s the girl?” they keep asking in the movie. “Yeah, who is she?” we keep asking after the movie. Is she a Skywalker? Luke’s daughter? Probably not. If I had to guess, I’d guess Kenobi. She avoids detection in the Starkiller Base the way Obi-wan did in the Death Star.
Here’s what we know about her:
- She’s a scavenger on the desert planet Jakku.
- Apparently she was abandoned there as a child, and she’s been living hand-to-mouth ever since.
- At the same time, she wants/needs to go back to Jakku, because she feels ... her family is coming back? Is that right? So is she deluded or far-seeing? Deluded, I think. I think that’s why Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) later tells her, “The belonging you seek is not behind you, it’s ahead.”
I do hope there’s not much of a connection to the Skywalkers. The “Star Wars” universe collapses in on itself way too often; way too many roads lead back to Anakin. I’d rather this one didn’t. Plus, if it was Luke, then he was the one who abandoned her. Which would be a total dick move.
Instead, he simply abandons the galaxy. First he saves it (in “The Return of the Jedi”); then, at some point, he trains young Jedis/Padowans but Kylo Ren, son of Han and Leia, turns to the Dark Side, like his grandfather (Darth Vader, yo), and slaughters the rest of the students. We see a flash of the massacre when Rey touches Luke’s lightsaber in Maz’s cantina basement. This is why Luke leaves to a distant part of the galaxy. And that’s why the Empire strikes back (this time as the “First Order”), and we get our oppressive regime again along with our embattled underdogs again. It’s as if the Ewoks never danced.
So it’s odd that Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), this movie’s Emperor, is desperate to find the map to Luke, hidden in the droid BB8. “If Skywalker returns,” he says, “a new Jedi will rise.” Really? Didn’t he already try that? And didn’t it lead to a massacre? So what are you afraid of?
But that’s the plot device that drives the movie, and, yeah, the movie is similar to “Star Wars IV: A New Hope.” Way similar. Intel is hidden in a droid (BB8), who winds up on a desert planet and is befriended by an orphan who is powerful in the Force (Rey), along with a dude who keeps trying to get away from the Rebellion even as he keeps returning to it (Finn). We’ve seen this story before. There’s just so many similarities it’s not worth going into.
It’s also not the first time J.J. Abrams has copied off of George Lucas’ paper (see: “Star Trek” in 2009). Not to mention Steven Spielberg’s (see: “Super 8” in 2011). Do you know “Direct the movie you want to see”? Well, Abrams directs the movies he wanted to see when he was 13.
So why does it work?
One word: personality. The new characters are fun, and the actors who play them exude charm and humanity. Plus the dialogue works. Imagine that: the dialogue. In a Star Wars movie. Take that, prequels!
Finn tries to lead Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) off the First Order’s ship.
Finn (sotto voce): OK, stay calm, stay calm.
Poe: I am calm.
Finn: I’m talking to myself.
Han to Chewie on an ice planet: Oh really, you’re cold?
Finn to Capt. Phasma: I’m in charge! I’m in charge!
Han: Bring it down.
But you know who gets short shrift here? Leia. Again.
After “Jedi,” anyone with a mind went, “Wait, weren’t they twins? So why is it all about Luke? Why is Leia in a bikini and chained to Jabba the Hutt when she too has the power of the Force?” Rey, in this movie, is a way to restore some (gender) balance to the Force. Which she does. But Leia still gets short shrift. She’s a general now, rather than a mere princess, but what does she really do? Has a few scenes with Han. Nags him a bit. About their son. Even this is wrong. Somehow it’s up to Han to turn Kylo Ren around when it’s from Leia that he inherited the Force, and it’s Leia’s father he’s obsessed with. So why doesn’t she go after him? Probably because we’d rather see Han/Harrison in action than Leia/Carrie. But from their perspective it makes no sense.
I’ll still take it. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is what the Star Wars universe is supposed to be: fun. We get desert planets, forest planets, ice planets, water planets. The good guys win, the bad guys stay in power (for the next movie), and my man Luke makes an appearance at the 11th hour and 59th minute. Better, they give us new blood: Rey and Finn and BB8 and Poe, and you’re confident these guys will carry the mantle. You hope the filmmakers realize that. You hope the sequels won’t be so derivative. You hope Abrams and Disney know that the belonging we seek is not behind us, it’s ahead.
Thursday January 07, 2016
Movie Review: The Big Short (2015)
“The Big Short” is the important, eat-your-vegetables movie that goes down like an ice cream sundae. It’s got big stars, zips, is fun. It shows us Margot Robbie in a bathtub, talking directly to the camera and using the word “fuck.” True, the actual quote is “Now fuck off,” but feel free to extrapolate.
It also concerns one of the most earthshaking events in our lifetime: the global financial meltdown of 2007-08. Before the closing title credits we get some of the numbers: $5 trillion lost, 8 million jobs lost, 6 million homes lost. And that’s just in America. So why did it happen?
For more than a decade, easy money was made (in mortgage-backed securities) in a way that seemed risk-free, so the powers-that-be kept upping the ante until it was no longer risk-free. Until it sank the world economy.
It also happened because regulation was nowhere. Regulation (in the form of the SEC and ratings agencies, such as Moody’s and S&P) was in bed with Wall Street. Sometimes literally, as the movie suggests.
It also happened because you and I let it happen; because we’re perpetually distracted.
Country club/stripper club
There’s a great early line about Lewis Ranieri, a bond trader with Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street investment firm, in the 1980s:
He changed your life more than Michael Jordan, the iPod and YouTube put together.
This is how things used to work. Banks loaned you money for a house, you paid it back with interest, end of story. Wall Street wasn’t interested because each mortgage was small potatoes and required too much work to figure out the risk-factor of the individual homeowner. It was Ranieri’s genius to take a bunch of mortgages, cut them up, and bundle them together as mortgage-backed securities, which minimized risk and turned small potatoes into big ones. Suddenly, bankers went from the country club to the stripper club, and your mortgage was no longer held by the bank but by ... I don’t even really know. I guess the investment firm? No, the investors? Apologies in advance if/when I use the incorrect nomenclature. I’m sure, throughout, I’ll be talking about this stuff like someone talking up the number of “points” a baseball team scores.
But I understand this much: Because there was risk-free money to be made, the banks kept expanding to whom they would loan money, and the terms of those loans; and in the end we got subprime mortgages.
We get a sense of that expansion when Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) and his hedge-fund team travel to Florida in 2005 to investigate whether they should short (bet against) the housing market. They meet an exotic dancer who owns/is flipping five houses, and two douchebag brokers making a killing by selling homes to people who can’t afford them. Our hedge-fund guys also meet the future: neighborhoods abandoned by people unable to pay their mortgages when the adjustable rates go up.
“The Big Short” follows four main storylines:
- Michael Burry M.D. (Christian Bale), whose lack of social skills is offset by his math skills. He sees the looming disaster first when the internet bust of 2001 doesn’t correlate to a dip in Silicon Valley housing prices; in fact, they go up.
- Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who follows Burry’s coattails from inside Wall Street but can’t get many others to sign on. Conventional wisdom says a bet against the housing market is a sucker’s bet.
- Mark Baum’s team, which gets involved because of: 1) a wrong number; 2) Baum’s desire to stick it to Wall Street.
- Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock): Two Colorado garage hedge-fund guys who follow Burry’s lead, and, with a reluctant neighbor/mentor, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), try to cash in.
Bale is wonderfully off, Gosling a sharp sword. Carrell is grasping, empathetic and the movie’s moral center, while Pitt shows us a quieter morality. He’s a man who left Wall Street long ago; he’s trying to cleanse himself. Behind the bushy beard and longish hair, Pitt barely moves a facial muscle; he acts with his eyes. He sees the looming disaster and knows it’s a double-edged sword. They all do. They know that in sticking it to Wall Street, everyone suffers.
There’s a nice early scene when Burry visits Goldman Sachs, and lets the suits in the conference room know he wants to bet against the real estate market by buying credit default swaps. $5 million? they suggest. $100 million, he answers. They can’t believe their luck. As he leaves, you see them all laughing and high-fiving one another. Then he goes to Deutsche Bank and others and does the same. He winds up betting against the housing market to the tune of $1.3 billion.
Here’s the question the movie doesn’t answer: How much did these credit default swaps, and subsequent ones, help sink the system? I.e., how less bad would it have been if these guys hadn’t gotten skin in the game?
Writer-director Adam McKay, mostly known for Will Ferrell comedies (“Talladega Nights,” “The Other Guys,” “Anchorman”), keeps us both entertained and informed. He intercuts with relevant quotes (“It ain’t what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.” – Mark Twain), and cuts away from the action to have stars (Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain) explain the more complicated details of the financial system. Characters constantly break the fourth wall, particularly Gosling’s Vennett.
I could’ve done without the star interludes, to be honest. Robbie in a bathtub was more distracting than informative, and having Selena Gomez, all of 23, explain CDOs was just annoying.
But the script, written with Charles Randolph (“The Interpreter”), from the book by Michael Lewis, is super sharp:
- “It’s like 2+2 = fish.”
- “Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I‘ll have my wife’s brother arrested.”
- “The truth is like poetry, and most people hate poetry.”
I thrilled at the intelligence of this movie. I can see myself watching it again and again.
One of my favorite exchanges is during the Florida trip, when the douchebag brokers keep talking up the dupes to whom they sell subprime mortgages. Baum, confused, talks sotto voce with his team:
Baum: I don't get it. Why are they confessing?
Moses: They‘re not confessing.
Collins: They’re bragging.
In America, every braggart is confessing; you just need to listen.
Thursday December 17, 2015
Movie Review: Entourage (2015)
This is the first line we hear. It comes from Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon), as the boys of the title (Drama, E, Turtle) are taking a speed boat to a yacht, where movie star Vince (Adrian Grenier) is partying with bikini-clad and/or topless starlets:
I may have to jerk it before we even get there!
Believe it or not, that's as classy as it gets. That's its high point in class.
Last summer, “Entourage” got slammed for being horribly misogynistic—for showing slinky women humping stars and their hangers on without showing them as fully developed characters—but it’s actually worse than that. Because the more we see of a woman, the worse she is.
Take the tribulations of E (Kevin Connolly). Please. Longtime girlfriend Sloan (Emmanuelle Chriqui) is pregnant with his child, but she broke it off with him for sleeping with ... I forget. Some relation. In the past. Anyway, he’s now humping some blonde starlet (Sabina Gadecki), who texts him, “I want your cock”; but then she breaks it off with him a minute later. I forget why. That night, he meets a nice brunette and bangs her in Turtle’s room. The next day, just as Sloan is saying she’s ready to make it work again, Blondie texts him that she’s pregnant. Oops. At the restaurant where they’re supposed to meet, Brunette shows up and confesses she’s got an STD. Oops again.
Punchline? They’re roommates, and messing with him because he had the temerity to sleep with both of them on the same day: Blondie in the morning when they were dating, and Brunette 12 hours later after Blondie broke up with him. They’re getting back at E for ... um ... what exactly?
Meanwhile, the better female characters from the TV show—Ari’s wife, Shauna, Dana Gordon—are given zilch to do.
The main plot point is Vince’s latest movie, “Hyde,” which he’s also directing. So far, he’s spent $100 million but needs more. So the moneyman, Texas yahoo Larsen McCredle (Billy Bob Thornton), sends his yahoo-er son, Travis (Haley Joel Osment), to LA to see if it’s worth it. He says it’s not. He says Johnny, who has a supporting role, has to go; then he says Vince has to go. His recommendation, in other words, is to throw away the star of the film and eat the $100 million and start over. That’s like getting rid of Johnny Depp in a Johnny Depp movie. Why would he ever suggest such a thing? Because, it turns out, Vince is schtupping Emily Ratajkowski, the girl from the “Blurred Lines” video, and Travis wants to bone her, too.
So our boys win by meeting someone even douchier than they are.
God, maybe this thing is even more insulting to men.
“Hyde,” of course, winds up critically acclaimed, grosses $450 worldwide, and Drama wins a Golden Globe for best supporting actor. At the podium he shouts “Victory!” his catchphrase from “Viking Quest,” the bad 1990s-era TV show he starred in. That’s our merciful end.
“Entourage,” in contrast, was critically maligned (20% from top critics on RT) and died at the box office ($32 mil, despite debuting in more than 3,000 theaters). In terms of TV adaptations, if you adjust for inflation, it’s 66th out of 84, behind such humdingers as “My Favorite Martian,” “The Nude Bomb” and “A Very Brady Sequel.’
Here’s the bright side.
One, Turtle is always wearing a Yankees cap, so it’s nice to associate those bastards with this shitty movie.
Two, the people here, the stars and players of L.A., are so shallow and pointless that it may help us take at least one step toward curing our long, international, nightmarish obsession with celebrity.
Three, the ride is most assuredly over.
Wednesday December 16, 2015
Movie Review: In the Heart of the Sea (2015)
After it’s over, when we’re back in Nantucket, 1821, the merchants that sent the men of the Essex out to sea in search of whale oil are about to hold an inquiry into its sinking; and the two men who were at odds for much of the voyage, Capt. George Pollard (Benjamin Walker, reminding me of a young Colin Firth) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth, AKA Thor), are asked to lie. They’re asked to lie twice, actually. The merchants want them to lie about the cannibalism for obvious reasons, but they also want them to lie about the white whale. Don’t say at the edge of the earth there’s a monster that sinks ships. That would be ... bad for business.
Chase, who would have been captain of the Essex if not for his lowly birth, and who is offered a captaincy if only he’ll go along with this plan, is stunned that they don’t want to hear the truth; and he admonishes the men who, in his words, want to “whitewash the truth for profit.” And he walks out the door and into another life.
In the audience, long fed up with the film, I thought, “Hey, that’s a good description of Hollywood, isn’t it? We whitewash the truth for profit.” But movies do this a lot: chastise characters for doing the very thing the movies do. I should make a list.
That said, Ron Howard, who’s directed some very good movies (“Splash,” “Parenthood,” “Apollo 13,” “The Missing”), and screenwriter Charles Leavitt, who’s written one (“Blood Diamond”; otherwise, it’s “K-PAX,” “The Express,” and the like), do attempt some kind of verisimilitude. They go places most mainstream movies won’t; they attempt to remind us how long ago 1820 was in terms of attitudes about class.
I just wish it worked better.
Stuck at sea
It’s an odd mix of storytelling methods:
- It sprawls like a 19th century novel.
- It looks at times, like a 1940s film. Some of the shots gave me the same vibe I got with Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse”: like the director was trying to imitate John Ford.
- It includes the unpalatable truths of a post-Hays code film.
- Plus CGI whales.
The movie focuses on the main characters (which is good) but they’re not interesting characters (which is bad). Pollard has a line to Chase near the end: “You were born to do this job, I was just born into it.” But it comes too late; and it’s obvious to us from the get-go.
I admire that Howard refrains from demonizing Pollard and making a hero of Chase; unfortunately, in his restraint, he makes them both rather unlikeable. So we’re stuck at sea with two unlikeable characters, along with a host of others who look interesting but don’t have much to do. Cillian Murphy is on board as Matthew Joy; and he seems an early version of an alcoholic, but to what end? Does it matter if he picks up the bottle again? There’s a fucking white whale out there, remember. Frank Dillane does a good job as Henry Coffin, nephew to Pollard, and thus more privileged than the other men, while Joseph Mawle’s Benjamin looks like a seafaring man from the 19th century. Glancing at Mawle’s CV, in fact, one wonders if he ever gets out of that century. But his character isn’t given much to do, either.
Or The Whale
Here’s the framing device: The last survivor of the Essex, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson in 1850, Tom Holland in the 1810s), tells the story to Herman Melville (Ben Wishaw), who will, of course, use it to write the great American novel, “Moby Dick.” So occasionally we cut back to this pair: interrupting the story for the storytellers. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it’s necessary. (No matter what they told you in writing class, kids, cannibalism is better told than shown.) But we don’t get much of a sense of the younger Nickerson. He’s like the other crewmembers: just younger and greener.
It was fun when the whale showed up. I was like, “Hey, this is a revenge flick!” But it’s a revenge flick that focuses on the bad guys, whom we’re somehow supposed to somehow care about. I didn't.
Bad title, too.
Monday December 14, 2015
Movie Review: Sicario (2015)
We get quiet interludes throughout, otherworldly, overhead shots that make the desert landscape around the U.S.-Mexican border seem like the moon. It seems like another world. Which it is. That’s the point that director Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (everything) seem to be making. That’s what FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is finding out. She’s not in Kansas anymore.
Kate is our eyes and ears here. She’s our main character, the most important person to the story—or so we assume in the beginning. But “Sicario” is good at upending tropes. We may, for example, be learning everything along with Kate, and rooting for her, but she’s not the most important person to the story. You could argue she’s not even our main character.
You could argue she’s the least important person to the story.
In the dark
The movie opens in Chandler, Ariz., as an FBI SWAT team, led by Kate and Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), crash through the wall of a bleached-out house in their armor-plated HUMVEE, sending sprawling a Mexican dude watching TV. For a second you think, “Wow, that’s excessive.” Then Kate and Reggie are shot at. They discover bodies in the wall, 41 total, heads wrapped in smeared, bloodied plastic. In a shed out back, an IED is tripped and two officers die. It’s a warning from the filmmakers: our notion of “excessive” will keep changing.
In a conference room, we meet Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the man heading a task force to take down cartel leader Manuel Diaz (Bernardo P. Saracino). Wearing flip flops, Matt sizes up Kate and Reggie and ultimately opts to put Kate on his team. He seems pleased with her background and gumption. Too pleased? There’s something off about his reaction. He seems effusive and dismissive at the same time.
So Kate goes from the smartest in the class to the dumbest, with the teacher showing no interest in helping her catch up. Why is she there? What’s her purpose? Who’s running things anyway? DOD? CIA? The men around her are Delta Force, brawny, bearded combat veterans who share a history, a shorthand, a breezy, ball-busting attitude. The two outsiders are Kate and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a quiet Columbian who has nightmares, cold eyes, and a tragic past.
The first op is an incursion into Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, to extract Diaz’s brother, Guillermo (Edgar Arreola), from prison. The team has a fleet of black SUVs and cooperation from the Juarez police—as much as it can be trusted. Juarez, we find, is virtually lawless. Mutilated bodies hang from overpasses and sporadic automatic weapons fire is heard in the distance. The difficulty with the extradition, Kate is told, is on the way back, at the border-crossing; and indeed, instead of the clear path they’ve been given throughout, they’re stuck in traffic on the bridge. Everyone’s suddenly alert, wary. A gunfight breaks out, but we never really know if the gangbangers were gunning for Matt’s team or each other. We remain, like Kate, in the dark.
She’s interested in process, in building a case, and objects to Matt’s extralegal methods. Guillermo is tortured by Alejandro, laundered money is seized, a corrupt American cop beaten. “This is the future, Kate,” Matt says to her. At one point, he and Reggie have this exchange:
Reggie (to Kate): You OK?
Matt: She’s alright.
Reggie: I didn’t ask you.
Matt: And yet I answered.
What’s Matt’s goal? To make enough noise on the U.S. side so Diaz will go see his boss on the Mexican side. “Then we’ll know where his boss is,” he says.
But it’s more than He’s playing the long game. He’s doing with the drug trade what we did in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in ’54 and Chile in ’73.
In the beginning, we’re told that “sicario” means hitman in Mexico, so throughout we’re wondering who the title character is. Kate? Or the Mexican cop with the wife and kid and drinking problem that we keep cutting back to? Do their paths cross? Does he take her out or she him?
Neither. It’s after a tunnel between Mexico and the U.S. is found (so much for your giant wall, Mr. Trump), during an op in the dark with night goggles, that all of our tropes are upended.
Kate and Reggie, bringing up the rear, exchange gunfire with a narco, and Kate takes him down. She’s pissed. You finally feel she’s fed up and taking control of a chaotic, lawless situation. On the Mexican side, she finds Alejandro with a gun on our Mexican cop, who’s delivering drugs, and she yells at Alejandro, “Move away from him right now!”
And Alejandro shoots her in the chest.
She’s wearing body armor so she doesn’t die. But as he stands over her, he says, with a modicum of heat, “Don’t ever point a weapon at me again.” Then he moves forward with Silvio to take out the cartel leader, while she returns to the U.S., where the rest of the team is waiting. In her anger, she attacks Matt.
And he decks her.
That’s when we get the rest of the story.
Why is she along? Because any CIA operation on U.S. soil needs FBI cover. What is the mission? To send Alejandro through the tunnel to get the leader of the cartel, who killed his wife and daughter. He’s the sicario. More, he’s part of the Medellin cartel that held power in the early 1990s. The CIA is working with him to restore the Columbians to power, so they can return some sense of order to the border. It’s “providing a measure of order that we can control,” Matt says. It regime change.
And Kate? Our hero? She’s a dupe, a stooge. There’s hardly a moment in the movie where she’s not out of her element. She goes into the bank when she shouldn’t, takes home a local corrupt cop who tries to kill her, and winds up signing an exonerating paper for the CIA at gunpoint. “You look like a little girl when you’re scared,” Alejandro tells her at the end. He urges her to leave the area. “You are not a wolf. And this is the land of wolves now.”
“Sicario” is a stunning movie: visually, dramatically, ethically. How true is it? I’m sure liberties were taken. The larger truth is about how thin our veneer of civilization is, and how brutal things can be—and are, somewhere, right now. Most movies are wish-fulfillment fantasy. We leave the theater thinking we’re stronger, braver, better-looking than we are. Not here. I left thinking I was like Kate, and the world was full of wolves.
Sunday December 13, 2015
Movie Review: Magic Mike XXL (2015)
Did you like that, ladies? Was it good for you? Well, just so you know, my name is Erik, and I'm your movie reviewer today. Ladies, do you mind if I refer to y'all as queens? Because every last one of you out there is a queen, and don't you ever forget it. Now ... are you ready to be disappointed? Are you ready to be bored out of your skull ? Are you ready to meet that special kind of beast that makes you feel trapped and lost and hopeless? That makes you check your cellphone every five minutes for something, god, something ELSE? Then get yourself ready for “Magic Mike! X! X! L!”
Seriously. This movie is a mix of indie films and exploitation flicks but the duller aspects of each. It’s hard bodies performing simulated sex acts (mostly on stage, but also in workshops and convenience stores) interrupted by conversations so boring they seem improvised by actors with no training whatsoever in improv.
And it wasn't just me. I didn’t see the first movie, but Patricia did, and liked it. This one, not so much. She missed Matthew McConaughey. She wanted less talk and more dancing. And by dancing, she means dancing, not dudes giving lap dances.
The first dance we see is actually good. It’s three years later, and Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) runs a small, struggling carpentry business. He’s in his workshop late one night when a song comes on, and he busts a move. Several moves. It’s impressive. His whole body is as slippery as a wet bar of soap. It's like Yuen Biao combined with John Travolta. So he decides to join the old gang—Ken, Tito, Tarzan, and Big Dick Richie—for one last fling: a roadtrip to a stripper convention in Atlanta.
Then the conversations begin. Dear god. You know how in “Star Trek” movies all the minor players have to have their scene? Here's one with Chekov, Sulu, Uhura; here's Trois, Dr. Crusher, Geordi, Worf? Well, the road trip is like that. Everyone has to have their heart-to-heart, their makeup chat, their bromance, with Mike. They quote Oprah, meditate, admit their failings. They come clean. Here's Mike (I think) to Ken (I think):
If there's anybody that was jealous, it was me. Every time I would come
over to your apartment... remember? I'd put on your Tide commercial. That shit was dope.
They also decide to abandon the old stale numbers (fireman, cop) for something new and exciting: Just being themselves: Male entertainers, bro. They’re celebrating this decision when Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias) crashes the van, leaving them without an MC or transportation.
Ah, but Mike has a friend nearby! OK, an ex: Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), who now runs a swanky, exclusive stripclub for wealthy Georgian ladies, which seems just a G-string away from being a brothel. She’s a little pissed off at the Double-M for ditching her way back when, so she strings him along, makes him dance, makes all the boys dance, and then says no to being their MC anyway. But she loans them her car and driver, Andre (Donald Glover), who’s a rapper and self-important. He carries with him a quiet assuredness that is more annoying for being quiet. Not sure how that works.
Where does he drive them? Some mansion. Why do they go there? I forget. Who’s there? More wealthy, attractive older women, including Nancy (Andie MacDowell), whose daughter—and here’s the thing—just happens to be the hot chick Mike met on the beach a few days earlier: Zoe (Amber Heard). So is it a giant coincidence they wind up at Nancy’s mansion where Zoe also lives? If so, that's one gigantic mother of a coincidence.
Anyway, Elizabeth Banks, with a way-too-thick Georgian accent, shows up as the stripper-convention gatekeeper, but it’s Rome to the 11th-hour rescue. She shows up, gets the boys in, MCs for them (parodied above), and they all do their new, non-fireman routines, most of which are various forms of simulated sex acts. Then, in the afterglow, they watch fireworks. Then mercy.
Friday December 11, 2015
Movie Review: Trumbo (2015)
“Trumbo” is the fourth Hollywood feature film to tackle the Hollywood blacklist—after “The Front” (great), “Guilty by Suspicion” (meh) and “The Majestic” (blah). It’s also, ironically, the first to use the real names of the blacklisted.
John McNamara’s script is witty, director Jay Roach’s direction is zippy, but do we have too much fun? We're dealing with a dark moment in American history, after all; a kind that, growing up, I thought we’d grown past; a kind that, I’ve found, never goes away. Too many people are too willing to demonize others for power and advantage; too many of us are too frightened to do anything about it.
But I am grateful for the perspective “Trumbo” gives. This is from the first 10 minutes alone:
- Many Americans became communists because of the Great Depression.
- The Soviet Union was our ally during World War II.
- While the U.S.S.R. fought the Nazis, guess who didn’t? John Fucking Wayne.
That said, I would’ve begun later, with the 1957 Academy Awards ceremony, in which Deborah Kerr announces the nominees for Best Motion Picture Story, then the winner: Robert Rich for “The Brave One.” At the actual ceremony, Jesse Lasky, Jr., the vice president of the screenwriters guild, who had also written the screenplay for “The Ten Commandments,” immediately bounded to the stage to accept the award on Rich’s behalf, but in my version of “Trumbo” I would have left Ms. Kerr up there to act flummoxed, to hem and haw, and to suggest the Hollywood machinery grinding to a halt. The Academy, after all, had just given one of its major awards to a man who didn’t exist—or who only existed because of right-wing pressure and various forms of industry cowardice, and I would’ve augmented that fact. Robert Rich? Robert Rich? Robert Rich?
From there, I’d flash back to whatever year you’d begin. Maybe 1943 when Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) joined the American Communist Party.
The movie actually begins around 1947, when various post-war pressures, augmented by HUAC, the FBI and the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA), are coming down upon the Hollywood community like an iron curtain.
At the time, Trumbo was one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood. Also one of the wealthiest. His friend, Arlen Hird, a more committed communist, and a composite of several blacklisted writers (played in no-nonsense manner by Louis C.K.), comments upon this:
Hird: You talk like a radical but you live like a rich guy. .... I don’t think you’re willing to lose all of this just to do the right thing.
Trumbo: Well, I despise martyrdom, and I won’t fight for a lost cause. So you’re right. I’m not willing to lose it all, certainly not to them. But I am willing to risk it all. That’s where the radical and the rich guy make a perfect combination. The radical may fight with the purity of Jesus, but the rich guy wins with the cunning of Satan.
Cranston practically twirls his moustache with delight with these lines but Hird gets the last word: “Just please shut up.”
That’s really Hird’s role: keeping honest a man who is: 1) too in love with his own voice, and 2) not a committed leftist, in Hird’s view. Those two factors also make Trumbo’s downfall tragic in our eyes. His bombastic voice is stilled for no real reason. His life is upended by pro-capitalist forces via anti-capitalist methods. They don’t let the free market work. More irony.
Actually, it gets worse, and this bears repeating: Under the banner of anti-communism, conservative Republicans attacked American movies, a massively successful capitalist enterprise. Hollywood was a brand that not only dominated the world but spoke almost completely to conservative values: family, democracy, cowboys, justice, happy endings. It was about absolutes (good and evil) over relativism. In its wildest dreams, the MPA could hardly come up with a better program than what Hollywood delivered 99.99% of the time. Yet MPA and others were stuck on that .01%. They couldn’t see the forest for that twig over there. No, not that one. The other one.
So after testifying before Congress as one of the Hollywood 10, Trumbo goes to jail, then can’t get work; then he works undercover, and cheaply, for Frank King (John Goodman), who runs his own B-movie operation, and who doesn’t give a crap for the MPA and HUAC. Goodman portrays him as a bat-wielding iconoclast, but I’m curious: Why couldn’t HUAC simply call him to testify? And do to him what they did to everyone else? I’m also curious why Trumbo didn’t try to write novels again, like “Johnny Got His Gun.” Not lucrative enough? Were screenplays his medium? Were novels too difficult?
The Trumbo/Hird relationship is the best in the movie, but when Hird dies, the chief internal conflict for Trumbo is within the family. It's not particularly satisfying. He’s breaking his back, almost literally, to provide for them under the worst circumstances, but eventually his teenage daughter, Niki (Elle Fanning), revolts because he’s not paying enough attention to her. I think we’re supposed to sympathize with her, but, given the circumstances, she comes off as a spoiled child.
From there, we get: Robert Rich, the battle between Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger over who will first give Trumbo screen credit, the end of the blacklist.
Moguls and shtetls
It’s a great supporting cast: Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, Alan Tudyk as Ian McKellan Hunter, Helen Mirren chewing scenery as former starlet and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. She brings to heel the studio bosses—all East European Jews—by suggesting that the shtetl, and anti-Semitism, isn’t so far in the past, particularly for powerful Jews who have corrupted gentile starlets.
“Trumbo” doesn't quite sing the way it should, but it's a good history lesson for those who need it. These days, sadly, many people seem to.
Thursday December 10, 2015
Movie Review: It Follows (2015)
It’s a metaphor for STDs, as well as time and death. It’s a warning against sex and a warning to have sex. It’s also a horror version of the relentlessness of the Terminator—as if the Terminator weren’t horror enough.
“It”is the it of “It Follows,” which turns out to be a great title. Because we don’t know enough about “It” to call it anything more than “It”—that most open-ended of pronouns. About all we know is what the title tells us: It follows. And It kills.
I’m not a horror fan but I like some high-end horror: “The Babadook,” “The Others,” “El Orfanato,” “The Conjuring,” “The Changeling.” This fits with those. It’s quiet, moody, beautifully photographed, nightmarish. It lets the horror come to us.
Smell ya later
Writer-director David Robert Mitchell (“The Myth of the American Sleepover”) shows us the consequences in a kind of cold open. A barefoot teenage girl runs screaming from her house as if pursued, is persuaded back inside the house, then bolts. She peels out in her car. The next morning we see her by the beach, dead. The bottom half of one leg is twisted toward her head; the bottom half of the other leg is missing. Consequences.
At which point we begin to follow Jay (Maika Monroe), a pretty blonde teenager in various stages of legginess (shorts, swimsuit, underwear), hanging with friends and family in a suburb of Detroit. It’s mostly friends. Are adults around? I don’t remember them much. Jay’s coterie, including sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), smart girl Yara (Olivia Luccardi, the Velma of the group), and nerdy boy Paul (Keir Gilchrist, mooning after Jay), watch bad 1950s horror/monster movies on TV while she goes on a date with a new guy, Hugh (Jake Weary). They seem stuck and purposeless. It kind of reminds me of summers after fifth or sixth grade, when all the kids in the neighborhood would watch “Andy Griffith” reruns, stupid game shows, and play cards like “War.” Before sex kicked in.
Here, sex kicks in. Jay and Hugh have the classic teenage kind—in the backseat of a big American car—before he administers the classic postcoital chloroform. When Jay wakes, she’s tied to a chair in the sketchy area under a bridge, and Hugh is trying to explain all about “It.”
Because Hugh was infected, and she had sex with him, she’s now infected; and It, who was pursuing him, is now pursuing her. It walks, It doesn’t run, and only the infected can see It. It also changes form. It can be anything: man, woman, white, black, young, old. You won’t know it’s It until It gets you. And the only way to get rid of It is to pay it forward: have sex with someone else. But if It catches and kills that someone else, then It’ll come back for you.
Those are the rules. Smell ya later.
It seems awful, what Hugh does to Jay, but it turns out to be a masterstroke of strategy compared with what Jay and her friends wind up doing. Hugh is Eisenhower at D-Day in comparison.
The friends initially don’t know whether to believe Jay or not—since they can’t see It—but at a beach they flee to, It grabs Jay by the hair, and they fight it off and flee again. They keep fleeing and returning. They keep going out to come back. Kind of the cycle the girl in the beginning took—serpentine. The older neighbor boy with the hot rod, Greg (Daniel Zovatto), joins them, and ends up having sex with Jay, but doesn’t seem to realize the gravity of the situation. He’s young, and stupid with youth, and you look at him and go, “Yeah, he’s dead.” Which he is. Which means It’s going after Jay again.
Why do they set up the final confrontation in the swimming pool? When did they figure out It doesn’t swim? And why did they think they could electrocute It? It’s really one of the worst strategies ever. Sit Jay in the middle of a pool, surrounded by appliances, and wait for It to show up. When It does, It’s the first to use the appliances—throwing them at Jay helpless in the pool. After Paul shoots, It falls in the pool, but grabs a fleeing Jay. She escapes with bruises around her ankle after Paul keeps shooting It. Is It dead? She crawls forward to peer into the pool. You half-expect It to leap out again, per every horror film ever, but Mitchell is made of better stuff. Instead, he shows us the pool filling with blood.
Except the nightmare doesn’t go away. Jay finally has sex with Paul, then Paul visits some prostitutes, and that’s how they pay it forward; that’s how they get rid of It—if It still lives. But it’s a bad strategy. Sure, the prostitute will have sex with John, and John with his wife (maybe), and she with ... ? Who? Won’t It get her, then him, then the prostitute, and Paul and Jay will be running again?
That’s the fear. So the movie ends with Paul and Jay walking in the neighborhood, holding hands less from love than fear, while someone walks behind them. Is it It? Who knows?
Great ending. It doesn’t let us know. It doesn’t let us out.
I have so many questions:
- What about condoms? Is it the sex act itself that leaves its calling card or something else?
- Is there any way to put a tracking device on It?
- Who discovered all this intel in the first place?
- If It can only walk, and not use transportation, then why not lure It to L.A. and go live in New York? Walking that, according to Google, would take 909 hours, or 37.8 days, assuming an entity that never gets tired. That’s some breathing room. After 30 days, say, then fly back to L.A. And so on. Or would It wise up eventually and be waiting for you in one or the other places?
- What if you moved to Europe? Or Taiwan? It’s an island nation. Can It even get there?
- What if one link in the chain is already dead? Would It skip it or come to a halt?
I have so many questions, David Robert Mitchell. I’m glad you answered none of them.
Wednesday December 09, 2015
Movie Review: Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2015)
The story of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the Israeli Go-Go Boys of Cannon Films, who were responsible for some of the worst movies of the 1980s (“Invasion U.S.A.,” “Bolero,” “Hercules,” “Going Bananas”), turns out to be much more interesting than any of the stories they produced. Low bar, yes.
A key, early line in Mark Hartley’s zippy documentary comes from Mark Rosenthal, the screenwriter for “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” the final, awful nail in that revered superhero franchise:
I hold them in huge affection even though they ruined our movie.
That’s the dichotomy of the documentary. Golan and Globus made shitty movies but were fun guys. People who worked with them liked them. They certainly imitated them. All of the talking heads here trot out their hellbent, gesticulating Israeli Jew.
But then the movies. Holy crap, the movies.
Boobs watching boobs
It was partly a result of economics. Cannon pre-sold the international distribution rights to movies based upon the poster; then they’d make the movie with that money. It was a kind of Ponzi scheme. It was a juggling act. They had 10 to 15 balls in the air at the same time. If they were low-budget balls, they could continue to juggle pretty easily. Once they became big-budget balls (signing Sylvester Stallone to a two-picture $25 million deal), things began to drop.
But their shitty movies were also a matter of taste—in that they didn’t have any. They sincerely thought, for example, that Brooke Shields would win an Oscar for “Sahara.” At which point Hartley cuts to Shields delivering one of the worst line readings ever: “I wish we could stay here forever. But we risked our lives taking this short cut.” Cannon wound up killing her career, such as it was.
Sure, they dabbled in A-list talent. They produced John Cassavetes’ “Love Streams,” Andrei Konchalovsky’s “Maria’s Lovers” and “Runaway Train,” Franco Zeffirelli’s “Otello” with Placido Domingo.
But mostly Cannon Films went all in with lowest-common denominator crap: strong men and naked women. Think of it as boobs watching boobs. Worse, some of the most gratuitous, graphic rape scenes in the history of cinema belong to them, since they kept hiring director Michael Winner (“Death Wish II” and “3,” “The Wicked Lady”), who is described by both Marina Siritis and Alex Winter as a virtual sadist on the set. “They put a stamp on pop culture,” says “American Ninja” star Michael Dudikoff of Golan and Globus. Yes, sadly.
Does Hartley have a little too much fun with all of this? The documentary is boom boom boom. We barely hold on anything or anyone for more than 10 seconds. It’s a documentary cut the way that Cannon made movies: without looking back.
Meanwhile the doc glosses over the following:
- Cannon’s place in the history of exploitation cinema (they didn’t operate in a vaccum)
- Cannon’s negative impact on the culture
- Box office
Box office is mentioned only in general terms—whether a movie was a hit or a flop. It would have been interesting to know, for example, that “Breakin’,” the 1984 quickie on the urban dance craze, starring Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quinones, Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers and Lucinda Dickey—the “Solid Gold” dancer that Golan was determinded to make a big, big star—grossed $38 million in 1984. That made it the 18th biggest hit of the year, ahead of “The Terminator,” “All of Me,” and “The Killing Fields.” But then they made the quickier sequel, whose absurd subtitle became the title of this doc, and released it (absurdly) the week before Christmas 1984. And that was that.
They lacked even a modicum of patience. One of the more telling lines is from Stephen Tokin, who wrote the screenplay for the 1990 straight-to-video “Captain America” for Golan after the two Israeli cousins went separate ways. He says:
The problem is they loved cinema in the abstract. I don’t think, in my experience, that they really knew what it was like to love something so much that you were patient, and took the time, and went through the pain of seeing it through draft after draft after draft—admitting to yourself that it might not be right yet.
“He’s no ninja!”
“Electric Boogaloo” gives us great tales from the trenches of low-budget filmmaking. On location in the Philippines, for example, they lost their lead for the first “American Ninja” movie, but happened to find spaghetti western star Franco Nero in a nearby Manilla restaurant and hired him. Despite the fact that he: 1) didn’t know martial arts, 2) wasn’t American, and 3) couldn’t even do a passable American accent. So he was dubbed. I also like how they had two Chuck Norris “Missing in Action” movies in the can—one good, one bad. The good one was the second one, chronologically, so they released it first, so it wouldn’t damage the brand. Then they released the other as a prequel: “Missing in Action 2: The Beginning.”
This is what they did; they wheeled and dealed.
But bottom line? They made shitty movies, ruined careers, ripped off moviegoers. They added so much awfulness to a world that doesn’t need any more of it. I would've liked a mea culpa here amid the laughter.
Monday December 07, 2015
Movie Review: Suffragette (2015)
“Suffragette” is one of those fall prestige pictures we suffer through: sympathetic characters fighting historical injustices we’ve long corrected. These types of films should make us feel good—since society has long corrected these things—but they rarely do. There’s a weight to them that should be the burden of the injustice but often feels like the weight of self-importance.
“12 Years a Slave” had the advantage of being based upon an historical document, while the lead was a person who actually existed. “Suffragette” includes a few such people in supporting roles (Emmeline Pankhurst), but most, including the lead, are either composites or fiction.
For all that, it’s not bad.
Taking a Mulligan
It helps that Carey Mulligan plays Maud Watts, a 24-year-old laundress, wife and mother, who, during the course of the film, changes from someone on the sidelines to a major actor in the movement. Remember at the 2000 Academy Awards when producers thanked Russell Crowe for filling “a whole arena with the force of your face”? Mulligan is like that on a gentler note. Two scenes in particular stand out: when she testifies before a government committee looking into granting women the right to vote; and when she looks up, beaming with hope, as Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) rallies a crowd after they are once again denied that right. Something about Mulligan makes me fall in love with her almost every time I see her.
Maud gets into the movement gradually but her life is upended rapidly. She initially denies being a suffragette (cf., a lot of folks with “feminist”), but after she’s jailed for the first time, she loses, in succession: her home, husband, son, job. She has no rights in the matter. That’s what she’s fighting for.
Losing her son is particularly heartbreaking, but then she gets over it. A little too quickly, really. She throws herself headlong into the movement. She helps bomb mailboxes and cut telegraph wires—the hacking of its day.
Others flit in and out of the movement. When the going gets tough, they go. This includes Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), the co-worker who initially recruits Maud, and Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a pharmacist, older and steadier and determined. When it's decided to confront King George V on Derby Day, only Maud and Emily Davison (Natalie Press) make it to the track. When they are prevented from confronting the king, Emily makes herself a martyr: She walks onto the track during the race and is trampled to death.
Watching, I didn’t realize this was a seminal event in the British suffragette moment, so kudos to director Sarah Gavron (“Brick Lane”) and screenwriter Abi Morgan (“Iron Lady,” “The Invisible Woman”) for making me learn something. But it’s still an odd ending. Emily is trampled, there’s a march in her honor, and the fictional march is replaced by historical footage of the actual event. I like that. Then we get a timeline of women’s suffrage throughout the world. I like that, too. In Britain it was 1918—or five years after Davison’s death. And that was just for propertied women over 30. Younger, poor women didn’t get the vote until 1928—or 15 years after Davison’s death. So the connection between climax and resolution feels tenuous, which it shouldn’t in drama but often is in life. The arc of the moral universe, etc. Not sure how you fix that in historical drama.
But I do appreciate the timeline. 1971, Switzerland? Really?
There was a mild controversy about the film before it opened, when Mulligan, Streep, et al., were photographed wearing T-shirts with words from Pankhurst: “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” Some black people objected. They felt the condition of white, working-class women in early 20th century Britain wasn’t akin to slavery. And it wasn’t. But it’s a silly objection. You’re making our side look bad. “Suffragette” isn’t the enemy.
Besides, if you’re going to object to the shirt, object on logical grounds. Generally, if you posit, “I’d rather be X than Y,” X should be somewhat pejorative, too, and maybe in 1905 “rebel” was viewed that way. But by 2015? Everyone wants to be a rebel. Even one unhip enough to actually have a cause.
Saturday November 28, 2015
Movie Review: Spectre (2015)
Daniel Craig is still wearing a suit that’s too tight and an attitude that’s too tight. His James Bond still starts the movie disgraced and cut loose by MI6—despite all the times he’s saved the world. He still looks like he’s not having much fun.
Seriously, when was the last time James Bond had any fun? Before 9/11, I think. So I guess the terrorists won. Or the feminists.
To me, the quintessential Bond suffers through the fights to get to the girls. Craig’s Bond suffers through the girls to get to the fights. He seems to take no delight in women. Or in general.
In the last movie, “Skyfall,” we finally got the rebooted Q and Moneypenny, and this time we finally get the rebooted Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) and SPECTRE, and everything is all finally tied together. The villains in the previous three movies—Le Chiffre, Dominic Greene, Raoul Silva? All SPECTRE. Because SPECTRE is a dastardly, secret organization that is interested in...
Um, what is it interested in again? Besides world domination? And taunting James Bond?
Well, in this movie, it’s interested in Big Data. He who holds the most information wins. Sexy.
Here’s my favorite aspect of the movie. SPECTRE is working behind the scenes to put online a global security network called Nine Eyes, which will be able to watch us everywhere, including going to the bathroom or something, but that’s not the point. The point is how SPECTRE gets governments to go along with this plan: It blows things up in those countries, terrorists are blamed, then those governments overreact and go along with the plan. Pushed, cultures abandon core values.
No lesson for us there, right?
My least-favorite part of the movie is related. Consolidating the world’s chaos under one secret global network is the kind of conspiratorial plot that leads, in our world, to talk of Freemasons and Illuminati. So be careful, Hollywood. The last thing we need is more paranoiacs.
“Spectre” opens in Mexico City on The Day of the Dead, as Bond abandons a beauty in a hotel room to track an assassin, Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), who was planning on blowing up some building or other. Instead, Sciarra’s hotel room is blown up, but both he and Bond survive for: 1) a nonchalant pursuit through celebratory crowds (apparently the explosion didn’t deter the party atmosphere); and 2) a battle aboard a helicopter that swerves precariously above those crowds. Sciarra winds up dead, Bond pulls the helicopter out of its nose-dive, but the Guardian still blares a headline reading OUTRAGE IN MEXICO. Outrage? For the explosion? Or because people kept partying after the explosion? Or because of the helicopter? I’m confused.
M (Ralph Fiennes) is outraged anyway, because it looks like Bond went rogue. Later, Bond reveals to Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) that he’d been sent after Sciarra by the previous M (Judi Dench), via a prerecorded message he received after her death. Why didn’t she just send him after Blofeld? Did she know about Sciarra but not Blofeld? Isn’t that like knowing one of the 9/11 hijackers but not Osama bin Laden?
Anyway, with the help of Moneypenny and Q (Ben Whishaw), Bond whizzes around the globe and fills in the blanks. In Rome, he schtups Sciarra’s widow (Monica Bellucci), infiltrates a secret SPECTRE meeting, witnesses the superstrong henchman, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista, quite good), doing his “Game of Thrones” thing to another assassin’s eyeballs, and is then pursued through Rome’s streets, steps and along its canals before escaping to a mountain cabin in Austria, where he confronts the now dying and contrite founder of Quantum, a subdivision of SPECTRE. Did you know that Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) was in the first two Bond reboots? I’d forgotten, sadly. A lot of the movie is like this. The filmmakers assume small details from previous films will be fascinating to us. They go “Ta da!” and I just sit there, blinking.
In the cabin, White asks Bond to look after his supersmart, superhot daughter, Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), which is like asking a tiger to look after a T-bone, then he kills himself. Bond finds/rescues/beds Swann and continues his exotic globetrotting until he’s face-to-face with Blofeld, née Franz Oberhauser, who was supposed to have been killed in an avalanche when he was like 16. He’s also Bond’s half brother or something? I guess he’s the son of the man who adopted Bond? Or taught him to ski? So there’s a vague Cain and Abel rivalry. Consider it another “ta da!” moment that falls flat.
World without end
The second part of the story takes place in London, where C (Andrew Scott) is consolidating power and putting online Nine Eyes, that global security network that will watch all of us go the bathroom. We know within half a second that C is no good—and most likely SPECTRE—because: 1) Bond doesn’t like him, and 2) he’s played by the actor who plays Moriarity on the BBC TV show “Sherlock.” Apparently Iwan Rheon was unavailable.
You know the rest. In London, M, Q and Moneypenny square off against C, while Bond is captured, brutally tortured, then runs through a series of improbably designed labyrinths to save the girl and get the bad guy.
It’s implied that Bond retires at the end of the movie. Sure. The world might not need Bond but Eon Productions does. So, as the saying goes, James Bond will return, and go through the same hoops and hurdles, world without end. No wonder he’s uptight. Sisyphus wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs, either.
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