Review: The Founder

Standard

Founder.jpg

During the 2000s Michael Keaton’s film career had fallen into the abyss. It was a mixture of non-starters and thankless roles in films no one liked much where he played the father of a popular young female star of the time. It appeared the comedic and dramatic talents he’d displayed in 1980s and 1990s cinema weren’t going to be seen on the big screen again.

But out of nowhere he came right back into the spotlight in the past couple of years, getting rave reviews for prominent roles in two consecutive Best Picture winners (Birdman & Spotlight). And his performance in John Lee Hancock’s ‘The Founder’ may be the best work he’s ever done.

In this true story, Keaton stars as Ray Kroc, a struggling salesman in mid-1950s America with a wife (Laura Dern) tired of their struggles and his long absences on the road. His life changes when he is intrigued by a fast food restaurant called McDonalds run by two brothers (Nick Offerman & John Carroll Lynch) that seems far superior to all the other diners he’s been at throughout the country. In a marvellous extended sequence, the McDonald brothers explain how they came up with a restaurant that delivers burgers faster and more efficiently than anyone else around. Kroc sees the enormous potential and starts up franchises of the format to great success. But soon the McDonalds & Kroc come into major conflict into how the business should be run and Kroc pulls out all the stops to win the battle.

There are multiple reasons as to why ‘The Founder’ works so well; firstly in demonstrating the battle between the McDonalds and Kroc and how they’re a metaphor for how America operated during the 20th century. The McDonalds belong to the first half of that century, utilising hard work and knowhow to develop a successful, well-run business that they can take pride in. For them that’s the American Dream.

But unfortunately for them they’re now in the 2nd half of the 20th Century and a different mindset amongst American business and culture is developing, represented by Kroc. It isn’t enough to be a good stand-alone small business, you’ve got to expand and dominate the market. Not only should you look to expand statewide, but countrywide and then globally.

Kroc is the personification of this mentality. He may not have created the McDonalds concept but he knows how to market and exploit it and in the latter stages of 20th Century America that becomes more significant. Constantly throughout the film we see Kroc chaffing at the restrictions imposed on him to exploit the brand by the old-style, more considered McDonalds brothers and something has got to give. Eventually Kroc transforms into a ruthless businessman who (notwithstanding a large lump sum) takes everything from the brothers, right down to their surname.

For this to convince (even though it’s a true story) we have to be convinced that Kroc is transformed from a likeable, frustrated, battling salesman to the ruthless businessman who will destroy and discard anyone who doesn’t fit into his mindset. It’s a difficult challenge but Keaton is fully up to the task. The role is a great fit of not only his manic comedy energy but the ruthlessness and cold-blooded nature he displayed in his more villainous roles. He doesn’t make Kroc a hero or even entirely a villain but a real characterisation of someone who was sinking in life and decided that to rise above the waves he wouldn’t let anyone stand in his way, not even his wife.

In the early stages of the film I was dreading the domestic scenes between Kroc and his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) as I thought it would go through the standard domestic clichés that films like this do; but here it’s far more interesting. We see in the early scenes when Kroc is struggling that while there’s a level of discontent between the two, they seem to get along fine. If Kroc had remained a battling salesman all his life, they probably would’ve stayed married till death; but this isn’t that story. As Kroc becomes successful and admired for his business acumen, it’s clear that it’s leading to a rift in the marriage because the roles have become reversed. When he was struggling, she could mildly admonish him for not being stable enough for them to enjoy their middle-class existence. But when he becomes a successful entrepreneur, he has desires for an upper-class elite lifestyle and she is stuck in wanting the modest suburban existence. Even though the end for them comes in a sudden and callous manner, it makes sense with how their relationship deteriorated.

Director John Lee Hancock takes an interesting style to the film. Considering there’s pretty ruthless behaviour and devastated individuals during the latter stages, he could’ve easily made it into a downbeat, sombre affair about the ruthlessness of modern American capitalism but instead gives it a fairly breezy, light touch (perhaps because he’s more sympathetic to Kroc’s behaviour than most would be?). In anycase, I think it works well as it treats Kroc objectively instead of one-note monster, and giving insight into how and why he became the ruthless and cruel corporate power he was.

Overall, ‘The Founder’ is an excellent film that amongst its other virtues gives fascinating insight and detail into how McDonalds became the worldwide phenomenon it still is today. And it also contains at its centre an outstanding Michael Keaton performance that might enable him to get the Oscar some thought he was going to get a couple of years ago.

Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Standard

I’m not sure whether I liked Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It smelled like a cash grab–of course J.K. Rowling, who wrote the thing, doesn’t need it, but I’m sure Warner Brothers appreciates it. The book upon which it is based is a textbook mentioned in one of the Harry Potter books, but the film is its own creation, spun out of the bestiary that is the book. It is mildly diverting, but has little of the charm of the Potter series. To overuse a phrase, it is “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The plot concerns the author of the book, Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne at his most puppyish) who is visiting New York. He is carrying a suitcase full of magical beasts. It is 1926, and there is an evil wizard about who is trying to provoke a war between wizards and “nonmaj’s” (muggles in England). A few of the creatures manage to escape, and Scamander is arrested by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who will become his ally (and if I recognized the twinkle in her eye, his love interest). There is also a nonmaj baker involved (Dan Fogler) who provides most of the interesting moments in the film.

Having already known there are to be four more films in this series, I kind of felt the weight of the whole project. If it had been a one and done it might have been more psychologically pleasing, but to think that this stretches for another eight hours plus is Peter Jacksonian. We’re not sure who the villain is until the end of the film, and we get a surprise guest as the head bad guy, who says he can not be held. I guess he’s right.

The film is pretty grim for young children. Two people are killed in rather gruesome fashion, and while some of the creatures are cute (the favorite of most would probably the the thing that looks like a platypus and steals shiny objects, or the oversized rhino-thing that wants to mate with Fogler) but there’s not enough of them to make much of an impact. Sitting here two days later after seeing it and I can’t even remember their names.

I’m sure this will tie in more with the Potter series. Album Dumbledore was mentioned as being the only teacher who didn’ want Redmayne kicked out of Hogwarts, but a reason wasn’t given. Maybe we’ll see a young Dumbledore eventually. But keeping all this arcana straight can be headache-inducing.

I imagine Potter enthusiasts will like this film, but I can’t be sure about the rest of us. I’m thumbs sideways on it. I won’t rush out to see the next one, which will also be directed by David Yates. Really, another film where a city is destroyed, and then put back together (see Doctor Strange)?

HAGEBOC 2016 – Week Three

Standard

office-christmas-party-postermiss-sloanelalaland-poster

SCORES AS OF 12/6/16:

James – 10
Juan – 7
Joe Webb – 6
Nick – 4
Marco – 3
Rob – 3
Jackrabbit Slim – 2

HAGEBOC – WEEKEND OF DECEMBER 9TH, 2016.  

What will Office Christmas Party earn from Friday to Sunday?  (Closest wins 4 points, second closest 2 points. 2 bonus points for being within 250k)

Bonus #1

What will Miss Sloane earn from Friday to Sunday?  (Closest wins 4 points, second closest 2 points. 2 bonus points for being within 250k)

Bonus #2

What will La La Land earn in limited release from Friday to Sunday?  (Closest wins 4 points, second closest 2 points.  No bonus for being within 250k on this one)

 

Answers are due on Friday, December 9th by noon EST.  Good luck!

HAGEBOC 2016 – Week Three (or Two)

Standard

HAGEBOC

Someone STILL needs to come up with a new logo

Juan – 6
Joe Webb – 6 (or 2)
James – 5 (or 3)
Nick – 4 (or 2)
Rob – 2
Jackrabbit Slim – 2
Marco – 1

HAGEBOC – December 2-4, 2016:

Predict the #1 film & gross of the weekend.

The one who predicts closest to the total Friday to Sunday gross for the #1 film wins 4 points. Runner-up gains 2 points. Predicting within $500k earns 2 extra points.

BONUS

  1. Will Jackie’s per theater average come in ABOVE or BELOW Natalie Portman’s last opening weekend average (A Tale of Love & Darkness, $18,585)?

LOGO BONUS: Come up with a HAGEBOC 2016 logo. 1 point per entry per person (maximum of 1pt).

Answers are due on Thursday, December 1st by 11:59 pm blog time, except the logo which is due by Monday December 5th 12:00pm blog time.  Good luck!

Review: Loving

Standard

Loving v. Virginia, from 1967, is well known to civil rights lawyers and civil liberties buffs like me. While I knew the basic facts–that an interracial couple had sued and their victory did away with anti-miscegenation laws for all time–I did not know about the lives of the plaintiffs. I thank Jeff Nichols for letting me know in his thoughtful and extremely understated film Loving (thankfully, the couple had an incredibly ironic last name–Lipschitz wouldn’t have done it).

Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and his wife Mildred (Ruth Negga) lived in a part of Virginia that didn’t have that much of a problem with mixed race marriages. We don’t know how their families dealt with the relationship, but her family is accepting of him and mostly his mother is accepting of her. Who isn’t accepting is the county sheriff, who gets a tip that they’ve gone off to D.C. to marry and when they get back they are arrested.

They accept a plea bargain that lets them avoid jail time as long as they get out of the state and don’t come back at the same time. They sneak back for the birth of a child and get caught again, but are let go. Eventually Negga can’t take city life and they move back to a different county in the middle of absolute nowhere. She decides to write to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who passes on her letter to the ACLU (imagine such a letter to Jefferson Sessions, who probably still believes in anti-miscegenation laws) and she soon has lawyers tackling the case.

What makes Loving fantastic is what it’s not. The Lovings were simple people, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. He worked construction, she kept house, and while literate, they were not highly educated and didn’t have much to say. I think of one scene where Edgerton comes home to find a TV crew in the house. He doesn’t like it, but Negga tells him she thinks it will help. In a lesser movie he would have given a speech about how they don’t have to have their privacy invaded, ya da ya da, but the man was incapable of such a thing, and has nothing to say. His silence speaks more than a phony speech.

Dignity is a word that is thrown around a lot, and in the case of black people can be a double-edged compliment (Sidney Poitier was frequently called “dignified” by people who had no other compliment to pay him) but in Loving, these two people are dignified. They go through with it because they love each other. They will be helping a lot of other people (Negga seems more interested than that than Edgerton) but most of all is the simple truth that they love each other and want to live together as husband and wife like anybody else. Try to keep a dry eye when the lawyer asks Edgerton if he wants him to say anything on his behalf to the Supreme Court: “Just tell the judge I love my wife,” is all he wants to say (though it’s not shown, the lawyer did say that).

Nichols, writer and director of a number of equally quiet and thoughtful indies (Midnight Special being a loud outlier) turns out to be a perfect person for this assignment. That may hurt Edgerton and Negga for awards, because they have no big scenery chewing moments, (no “Oscar clip,” as they say) but should be remembered. This film is also extremely timely, as it provided a basis for the recent gay marriage ruling (the unanimous decision by Earl Warren said that “marriage is an inherent right”) and that so many of our rights are under threat of being rolled back that we could use a reminder of those who fought and won these rights in the first place.

Loving is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Every American should see it.

Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Standard

As the Beatles sang, “I just had to look, having read the book,” Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, was a terrific book, but Ang Lee’s film gets the plot points but misses the bigger picture. The screenplay by Jean-Christophe Castelli can’t hope to capture Fountain’s descriptions of the decadence of a Thanksgiving Cowboys’ game, but instead reduces it all to pedantic speechifying.

The film matches the book almost beat for beat. Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is a nobody from Texas who finds himself a hero in the Iraq War. He and his company, “Bravo,” are treated as heroes at the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving game. Their unctuous owner (Steve Martin, capturing Jerry Jones without imitating him) sees their story as something that can turn around the view of the war.

Meanwhile, Chris Tucker is an agent who is trying to pitch Bravo’s story to the movies, and Billy’s sister (Kristen Stewart, in her usual depressed state) wants Billy not to redeploy and get an honorable discharge.

There are flashbacks to the events of the war, when Billy was unable to save his Sergeant, (Vin Diesel), a Buddhist given to pontification. The surviving sergeant (well-played by Garret Hedlund) is a no-nonsense bullshit detector. The other guys of the company aren’t as well-rounded, given time constraints. But Billy does get to make out with a Cowboys’ cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh), who in the book was emphasized as an Evangelical.

The book succeeded, but the movie fails, to show how pageantry and meaningless spectacle does nothing to celebrate the troops’ sacrifice, but only makes them political pawns and extras in their own celebration. Frankly, I thought if this movie ever got made they wouldn’t get cooperation from the NFL or the Cowboys, since they are mocked so relentlessly in the book. They even keep the part where Destiny’s Child is the performing musical act, and we get a view of the back of Beyonce (it would have been great had she agreed to do a cameo).

What Billy Lynn may best be remembered for is Lee’s decision to shoot a version of it in 120 frames-per-second 3D, an odd choice for a dramedy. Of course, that is only available in five theaters world-wide. I saw the drab old 24 fps version. Maybe I should have made the drive to L.A. to see the other one, it probably would have much more exciting.

Opening in Las Vegas, Thanksgiving Weekend, 2016

Standard

A cornucopia of fims opening this weekend, some for almost every taste.

The likely box officer winner this weekend is Moana (81), an animated film from Walt Disney. A studio ever interesed in diversity, this time the story is about the people of Oceania. My interest in this is whether Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote songs for the film, will get an Oscar, thus completing his EGOT.

Some Oscar contenders for above the line nominations opening this weekend include Loving (79), directed by Jeff Nichols, about the couple whose Supreme Court case ended anti-miscegenation laws. As we enter the age of Trump, it’s always good to be reminded the battles we’ve already fought and don’t need to fight again.

Allied (60) is a World War II drama with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as French-resistance fighters that is being compared to Casablanca, at least in its plot. The trailer looks strong, I’ll probably catch it eventually. Directed by Robert Zemeckis.

Warren Beatty has wanted to make a film about Howard Hughes, and he finally did in Rules Don’t Apply (60) , but it seems to be something of a romantic comedy, which is odd, with Hughes not the central character. I had thought Beatty retired, so I’d be curious to see what he’s up to (of course, I never did get around to see his last film, Town and Country) but it may have to wait for home video.

Finally is Bad Santa 2 (40). I yield to no one in my appreciation of the first film, which was over a decade ago, and is as vulgarly funny as any film I’ve ever seen, but none of the creative team remain and this one is getting harsh reviews. I probably will yield to temptation and at least rent it some day.

 

 

HAGEBOC 2016 – Week Two

Standard

HAGEBOC

Someone needs to come up with a new logo

Joe Webb – 4
Nick – 2
Juan – 0
Jackrabbit Slim – 0
James – 0
Marco – 0
Rob – 0

HAGEBOC – November 25-27, 2016:

What will Moana gross Fri-Sun? Closest wins 4 points, second closest 2 points. 2 bonus points for being within 500k.

BONUS

Guess the top 3 – in order – movies on Thanksgiving Day only. (1 point awarded for each correct answer)

Answers are due on Thursday, November 24th by 10:00 pm blog time.  Good luck!

Review: The Edge of Seventeen

Standard

The teen film is a huge genre that breaks down into subgenres. There’s the epic party genre, the homely girl takes off her glasses and gets the cute guy genre, or the observe, the nerdy guy gets the cute girl genre. The best teen films are those who avoid cliches and tell it like it is–that high school is a kind of hell.

The Edge of Seventeen, which does indulge a bit in the nerdy guy genre, is one of the better ten films of recent years, and reminded me a lot of Ghost World, in that both films are about a girl who just can’t connect with her cohort, and when it seems like a long-time friend betrays her, she just about melts down.

Hailee Steinfeld is absolutely terrific as Nadine, who is 17 and has always felt inferior to her older brother (Blake Jenner), an Adonis who does everything right. Her mother, Kyra Sedgwick, is at wit’s end, dealing with her husband’s death and Steinfeld’s difficult behavior. There’s really only two people Steinfeld can talk to her–her constantly bemused history teacher (Woody Harrelson) and her BFF since second grade, Haley Lu Richardson.

Then, horror of horrors, Richardson hooks up with Jenner, and Steinfeld can’t take it. Some sisters might thrill to their friend dating their brother, but to Steinfeld her brother is everything she hates, and she gives Richardson an ultimatum. Needless to say, it does not go well.

The Edge of Seventeen was written and directed, in her directorial debut, by Kelly Fremon Craig, who seems to remember what a minefield school was. Steinfeld’s character, like Enid in Ghost World, is a precocious girl who has a terrific vocabulary but lousy social skills. She is narcissistic to the point of having trouble seeing the point of view of anyone else. But we root for her, maybe because of her intelligence (unlike a movie like Juno, though, Nadine is not given encyclopedic knowledge of punk bands or any other esoterica) or maybe just because most people can empathize with her being torn between family and a misguided self-righteousness.

There are a few cliches, such as Steinfeld being torn between the bad boy (Alexander Calvert), whom she mistakenly sends a pornographic instant message, and the nerdy good guy (Hayden Szeto). Who she will choose is pretty much a dead giveaway, and in a long-held fantasy of nerds, the guy who gets her does it with his art work.

But despite certain familiar tropes, The Edge of Seventeen is elevated by smart dialogue and a scintillating lead performance. This is Steinfeld’s first real chance to shine since her debut in True Grit, and it is heartening to know that was not a one and done.

Opening in Las Vegas, November 18, 2016

Standard

Lots of high profile openings this week, including the launch of another J.K. Rowling empire.

That’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (65), which if I understand correctly Rowling published as mainly a picture book. Well, they’re turning that into five movies. It’s the same world as Harry Potter only in New York in the ’20s. Joe Webb, I hope we get a review from you, because you know this stuff best. Moira Macdonald: “So there’s room for improvement in the “Fantastic Beasts” universe; perhaps we’ll see it in the next installment or two. Meanwhile — even if you, like me, are a bit Pottered out and wish Rowling would devote herself instead to her marvelous Cormoran Strike detective-novel series (magic comes in many forms) — it’s still a pleasure to revisit the author’s world.”

A teen movie, with a title taken from a Stevie Nicks song? Could be dreadful (though I’m a Nicks fan, I admit it) but The Edge of Seventeen (77) is getting great reviews. Hailee Steinfeld is the teen. Barry Hertz: “If hell is other people, then high school is a four-year journey through all nine levels of Dante-ish misery. But while most teen-centric films skip over this harsh reality, The Edge of Seventeen embraces it with a refreshing zeal.”

Most of the conversation about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (53) has been about Ang Lee’s use of 12o frames per second (the usual is 24). But unless you live in L.A. or New York or Hong Kong, you haven’t been able to see that. I read the book, which was fantastic, so I’ll probably end up seeing this despite it’s lackluster reviews. Rodrigo Perez: “Lee’s clearly going for a hyper-realness with these images, but it undermines the drama and the few beats of moving honesty about who we are, duty and sacrifice. Ang Lee is undoubtedly a visionary filmmaker, but the distracting unpleasantness of his movie’s highly attuned visual clarity, makes for an undiscerning and artificial experience the eye just won’t follow.”

We have another example of a boxing movie when boxing has waned to almost nothing as a popular sport in the U.S., which I find fascinating. Bleed for This (62) is a true story about a boxer who came back from a devastating injury. Matt Soller Zeitz: “Bleed for This” starts out like a traditional underdog-fighter-makes-good flick, based on a true story, pivots and becomes something else, then goes back to being traditional.”

 

Review: Arrival

Standard

There have been many films about what happens when the aliens arrive. Therefore, expecting one to be original and thoughtful, as well as having some genuine excitement might be unwise. I’m happy to report that Arrival, directed by Denis Villenueve, is a thinking person’s sci-fi, and has a luminous performance by Amy Adams.

Arrival has a twist that I can not in good conscience reveal or even hint at, but the film as a whole is concerned with time. As with many sci-fi works (off the top of my head I think of the Tralfamidoreans in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five) we learn that not all creatures experience time linearly. Let me leave it at that.

Adams plays a linguistics professor who is called on to help the whole military-industrial complex to communicate with aliens who have landed in seemingly random spots around the globe. Their ships look like giant contact lenses, they look like octopi (except with seven legs, so they are called heptapods) and their written language look like Rorschach tests. Adams is able to break the code but the bellicose Chinese are suspicious and threaten hostile action. Can Adams manage to save the day? Klaatu Barada Nikto!

Jeremy Renner co-stars as a theoretical physicist and Forrest Whitaker is a gruff colonel, but the film belongs to Adams. Once you understand the sequence of events, you will replay the movie in your head and realize that Adams has done a remarkable job in not giving it away. I am glad that she abandoned the Disney princess stuff and has done some very diverse work in the last few years, and this may be her best performance yet.

The “here come the aliens” movie this reminded me most of is Contact, which was based on a book by Carl Sagan, so it had some scientific chops. Arrival seems to be scientifically sound, although I don’t follow Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Twitter feed to find out what was not true or possible. But I wonder if any film has really captured what would happen if extraterrestrials were to make an appearance on Earth. Would we go apeshit? Would we head for the hills, or start shooting at them? Arrival suggests, and I would agree, that it would be science v. hysteria. Interestingly, this film makes no mention of religion, which The Day the Earth Stood Still was forced to do.

Review: Moonlight

Standard

The movie that Moonlight most reminded me of was Boyhood, though of course there are many differences. But it told one young man’s story, from a boy of about ten to a man of about twenty-five, in three discrete sections. Moonlight uses three actors to play Chiron, aka Little, aka Black, but the effect is something of the same–the evolution of a human being. But unlike Boyhood, which told the story of a straight white kid with two parents in his life, Moonlight is about a fatherless gay black male, and his struggle for identity.

Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight is set in Miami. The first act has Chiron, called “Little,” being chase by a group of boys. He finds refuge in an abandoned building, and is found by Mahershala Ali as the local drug dealer. Ali, unable to get his home address out of him, takes him home and is mothered by Ali’s girlfriend (Janelle Morae).

Eventually Ali takes him home and finds that the boy’s mother (Naomie Harris) is an angry woman. Little hates her, and spends a lot of time with Ali and Monae. One night Ali finds that crack under his control has been sold to Harris, whom he confronts, but she will have none of it. Later, in a quiet scene that has the power of a mule kick, Little (played by Alex Hibbert), asks Ali what a faggot is, and whether he (Hibbert) is one. Then he asks Ali if he sells drugs, and if his mother takes them. The shame on Ali’s face is heartbreaking.

Act II is when Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is in high school. He has one friend, Kevin, but mostly is taunted by bullies. He’s not exactly out, but everyone assumes he is gay. He and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) meet on the beach and smoke pot. Though Kevin is ostensibly straight, he gives Chiron a loving handjob. But Kevin will betray him, and it leads to Chiron being led away in handcuffs.

In Act III, now called Black (a nickname Kevin gave him) Chiron is out of jail and living the life that Ali used to lead, dealing drugs in Atlanta. He gets a call from Kevin, apologizing, though it’s ten years later. Chiron is inspired to drive back down to Miami to meet him in the restaurant where Kevin works. The scene is fraught with tension, as we don’t know what Chiron has in mind.

Moonlight is intriguing but put me off a bit, partly because I went in with high expectations. The dialogue by Chiron is, and I’m sure quite intentionally, stiff and almost inarticulate. He says very little, and when he does talk he doesn’t express himself. He’s almost a supporting player in his own life story. At times his passivity will drive you crazy, but then he acts with rage and it’s too much. I will say this, though, a decision not to give him any thought voiceovers was a good one. It lets us fill in the blanks.

This film won’t be for everyone, whether or not it has a gay theme. It can be slow going, but it builds a quiet momentum. The third act I think is the weakest (though the two actors who now play Chiron and Kevin, Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland, are terrific) because it can’t match the fireworks of the first two acts, instead it just kind of smolders.

But despite my slight reservations, this is a very good film and is likely to be an Oscar contender. Expect nominations for Ali and Harris. She was reluctant to play yet another horrible black mother, which is too much of a cliche, but she is brilliant.

Opening in Las Vegas, November 11, 2016

Standard

I have a three-day weekend, so I may see two movies this weekend, as that is how many good movies (hopefully) are opening this week, which makes for a relative goldmine.

Arrival (82) is yet another “the aliens are here” movie, but reviews indicate it’s very thoughtful, with a good performance by Amy Adams, and the director, Denis Villenueve, is no Michael Bay.  Bilge Ebiri: “for most of its running time, Arrival is entrancing, intimate, and moving — a sci-fi movie that looks not up at the stars but rather deep within.”

The other movie that I want to see is getting almost impossible good reviews, and is a likely Best Picture Oscar nominee. That’s Moonlight (99), based on an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney (I saw a trilogy of his plays, usually set in backwater Louisiana, when I lived in Princeton) that covers the life of a gay black man through three stages in his life. Brian Tallerico: “Moonlight is a film that is both lyrical and deeply grounded in its character work, a balancing act that’s breathtaking to behold. It is one of those rare pieces of filmmaking that stays completely focused on its characters while also feeling like it’s dealing with universal themes about identity, sexuality, family, and, most of all, masculinity.”

I feel funny writing about films that have all black casts that are clearly geared toward the black community. I mean, are films that have all white casts geared toward whites only? I suppose not, but Almost Christmas (53) will probably be attended by overwhelmingly black audiences. It doesn’t help that it’s getting mediocre reviews. It is a step forward that these films are being made by other directors than Tyler Perry. David Lewis: “Almost Christmas would have been less clunky if it had focused more on the family’s loss of its matriarch, and allowed the comic elements to naturally arise as the characters struggle with the new family dynamic. Instead, we get too many slapstick set pieces and extraneous subplots that bog down the proceedings.”

Not screened for critics is the horror film Shut In (tbd), which inexplicably stars Naomi Watts. One critic has published a review, and I doubt it’s an outlier. Bill Zwecker: “This is a disappointing waste of good acting talent, coupled with a very pedantic and not very intriguing story from first-time screenwriter Christina Hodson.”

Review: Doctor Strange

Standard

I had fun at Doctor Strange, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s fourteenth picture, mostly because it was a trippy outing, kind of a prolonged trip to an occult items store. But two days after seeing it, I’ve kind of lost the thrill, and in the long run it still had Marvel’s typical strengths and weaknesses–a great sense of humor, but a fondness for mass mayhem and bludgeoning.

Doctor Strange the character has been around since 1963, but he was never a major player in the Marvel Universe. He had his own book, but mostly he just popped up in other superheroes titles when they encountered magical villains. But I always liked that he existed–it provided a counterpoint to the mostly scientific and technical angle of Marvel heroes–he didn’t need adamantium, or Jarvis–he was just a fucking sorcerer.

This film is an origin story. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stephen Strange, an extremely arrogant neurosurgeon. He is speeding along a road in a sleek sports car when he crashes and loses the use of his hands. He tries everything, but when medicine fails, he goes to Nepal, where of course everyone goes when they seek spirituality (actually, that would be Tibet, but the makers did not want to offend the Chinese–lots of money there, you know). He meets a woman called The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who eventually teaches him about the other worlds of existence.

He’s a fast learner, and will cross paths with a rogue sorcerer played by Mads Mikkelson, who wants to learn the secret of immortality (although this somehow gives him eye crud). Cumberbatch will fight him and his minions and eventually outwit some godly creature called Dormammu. With a doohickey that can control time, he will also save Hong Kong.

This is all good and exciting and held my interest, but it seemed superficial. Just like the Iron Man films throw around technical jargon, Doctor Strange uses metaphysical buzzwords. I hope a second film gives us more insight into just how you can make a sword of light out of thin air. Some scenes are very amusing in that Marvel sort of way–such as when Cumberbatch uses his astral body to fight bad guys while his friend (Rachel McAdams) operates on his corporeal body. I also hope the next film has him using his usual oath–“By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!”

It’s a good cast, also with Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I fear will be a villain in the next movie (his character, Baron Mordor, is an enemy of Strange in the comics). Cumberbatch, who I like because though he’s a British actor with serious Shakespearean chops, takes on all kinds of roles, from Sherlock Holmes to the voice of Smaug, makes a terrific wizard and looks good in the Cloak of Levitation (comic geeks may get a nice little rush when he first puts it on, or rather, when it first puts itself on). The Sanctum Sanctorum looks great, too. Kudos to the productions design.

The special effects are very much like those that were in Inception–cities folding in on themselves, and shifting like rotating a picture in Photoshop. Frankly they didn’t do a lot for me–but it takes a lot for special effects to be impressive, since it’s just about all been done.

A tease tells us that Strange will interact with other Marvel characters. I would love to see him in a Midnight Sons film, that would include other supernatural heroes like Hellstorm, Morbius, Werewolf by Night, and Ghost Rider (but not Nicolas Cage, thank you). Doctor Strange was a member of that team and it would rock.

Review: Hacksaw Ridge

Standard

After seeing Mel Gibson’s films, here’s one thing we can gather: he likes his religious served up with lots of violence. Despite his making The Passion of the Christ, deep down he’s an Old Testament guy–an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. In Hacksaw Ridge he tells the story of a pacifist with one of the most bloody battle scenes ever put on film.

But here’s the thing–it’s a great battle scene, and to show anything less violent would be a disservice to those who fought. Like Steven Spielberg’s Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan, Gibson’s Okinawa will go down as difficult but brilliant filmmaking. The only problems is that the battle only takes up the second half of Hacksaw Ridge.

Andrew Garfield stars as Desmond Doss, a real man who shunned violence. We see him hit his brother in the head with a brick as a child and feel bad about it, and he later takes away a gun from his drunken father (a very good Hugh Weaving) and swears from then on he will never touch a gun. When World War II breaks out, he feels it’s his duty to serve, and wants to be a medic. But it turns out to be a medic you have to pass rifle training.

So we get old-fashioned scenes of Garfield being treated with contempt by his platoon-mates and his superiors, notably Vince Vaughn as his sergeant and Sam Worthington as his captain. Oh, and his platoon are standard-issue 1940s diversity, white-style: Italian, Pole, guy from Brooklyn, guy from Texas. Everyone will misjudge Doss as a coward, and everyone will look at him slack-jawed as the film ends.That and a sweet but inconsequential romance with a nurse (Teresa Palmer) make Hacksaw Ridge eye-rolling in its early stages, the kind of film they don’t make anymore for a reason.

But then, after Doss is given permission to become a medic without holding a weapon (Weaving, a World War I vet, pulls a string), and the men try to take the titular place, the film goes into a place of horror and nightmare. They have to climb a rope ladder up a cliff and face the Japanese on top. By the time Doss and his colleagues go up, the Allies have been repulsed six times, but must take it. And so we see viscera–intestines, bodies blown to bits, stray legs, caved in faces, rats eating dead bodies, men set ablaze by flamethrowers, you name it. My sister asked me if her fourteen-year-old son should see it, and I warned her, it’s not for the faint of heart, even today’s kids.

Gibson knows how to do this. He doubles down on the viciousness of Braveheart, and even surpasses the gore of Passion of the Christ, which I liked but found one of the most violent films I’ve ever seen. You could either say he’s a stickler for realism or a sadist, or maybe both.

In any event, Doss, sans firearm, manages to drag 75 wounded me to their safety. I’m not sure of the message though–did his faith carry him through, or was he incredibly lucky, for surely there were many men with faith who died on that ridge. What matters is that along with cinematographer Simon Duggan and editor John Gilbert, along with fine work by Garfield and Weaving, Gibson has made half of a very good film.