Review: Miles Ahead

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What a strange movie Miles Ahead is. Don Cheadle co-wrote, directed, and stars in the film about one of the greatest geniuses of jazz (or, as Davis called it, “social music”) but this is not a cradle-to-grave biopic. There’s no moment when a young boy touches a trumpet for the first time, no moment of discovery, no Behind the Music-style rise and fall.

Instead, Cheadle focuses on two parts of Davis’ life. The most prominent is in the late ’70s, when Davis stopped playing music for five years, and didn’t even touch his horn. He is in a dispute with Columbia Records, and a reporter from Rolling Stone (Ewan McGregor) comes knocking on his door. Davis first wants to shoot him, but then lets him tag along, mostly because he has a driver’s license.

The other segment of Davis’ life is at the top of his career, perhaps the late ’50s, when he plays with his own quintet and meets and weds his first wife, Frances Taylor. The most notable part of these flashbacks are when he is arrested for loitering right in front of the club he is playing, with his name on the poster.

But most of the film is ’70s Davis, wearing a red tracksuit, snorting coke, and playing with guns. The issue is tapes that Davis has made that Columbia insists they own. Michael Stuhlbarg plays an unscrupulous executive (a tautology) who employs a young trumpet player to steal them, and Davis and McGregor, like a mixed-race Starsky and Hutch, try to get them back.

Clearly Cheadle is a fan of Davis’, but I’m at a loss to explain how this is the testament to his devotion. I came away knowing little about Davis or his music, as Cheadle has turned him into an action figure. McGregor’s character is a complete fabrication, as I imagine are the gunfights and car chases are. We hear the music, but there’s no context. I’ve read more interesting things about Davis–how his father helped him kick a heroin habit, about how he said he would like to spend the last hour of his life choking a white man, or his marriage to Cicely Tyson. But none of that is here. What’s next–John Coltrane solving a murder?

Cheadle is very good at Davis, and gets the raspy voice and mannerisms down. What fails the movie is the cockamamie plot. I suggest those unfamiliar with Davis find themselves a good documentary, or just listen to the records.

AGEBOC 2016 – WEEK ONE

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Welcome to AGEBOC 2016!

No change in the scoring system this year (4 points awarded to the person with the closest guess, 2 to the runner-up.  A 2 point bonus for being within 500k.  Bonus questions can and will vary in value.  Good luck!

WEEKEND OF MAY 6, 2016:

What will Captain America: Civil War gross this weekend?

BONUS #1:

What will Captain America: Civil War gross during Thursday night/Midnight shows?  Closest guess earns 2 points.  Second closest earns 1 point.

BONUS #2 (FOR JAMES AND JOE ONLY):

Time for some old business. Thanks to a tie between Joe and James, HAGEBOC 2015 remains undecided.  I think it’s fitting that we settle things with the weekend gross of yesterday’s news, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.  Closest guess wins it all.

Answers are due on Thursday, May 5th by 12:00 pm EST.

Opening in Las Vegas, April 29, 2016

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This is the last weekend before the summer season begins, so it’s light on interest, but there are a few things that I would to like to see.

I’ll start with Green Room (79), an indie directed by Jeremy Saulnier, who made the excellent if bloody Blue Ruin. It’s about a rock band who witnesses a murder by neo-Nazis, led by Patrick Stewart of all people. Lawrence Toppman: “The whole movie has a matter-of-factness that extends not just to the final photographic montage but the last line of dialogue. We can’t ask for more from this genre, and we often get much less.”

I like almost everything about Hemingway, so there is Papa: Hemingway in Cuba (37), which shows us the bearded writer in the ’50s in Havana. Giovanni Ribisi stars as a young writer who befriends him. Probably a rental. Stephanie Merry: “On paper, this is an extraordinary story. But the careless production values blunt its impact. The score is obtrusive and generic; the sound editing makes a shootout sound reminiscent of an old Western; continuity errors abound.”

The major multiplex opening this week is Keanu (63), the first feature by the comedy team of Key and Peel. I have seen bits of pieces of their show, and like everything I’ve seen, but the general criticism is Keanu is a sketch extended to feature-film length. Michael Phillips: “The movie is hit-and-miss in an unusually clear-cut way. It’s funny for 45-50 minutes. Then it’s strained and abrasive and entirely too devoted to action-movie tropes for 45-50 minutes, minus end credits. I can recommend the first half.”

The movie to avoid this week is yet another of Garry Marshall’s holiday-based films, this time Mother’s Day (17). With Julia Roberts and Jennifer Aniston. Joe Morgenstern: “You can survive this comedy, which was directed by Garry Marshall and written by too many people to shame by naming, but only if you’re immune to febrile calculation complicated by chronic ineptitude.”

Also this week is an animated film based on a video game, Ratchet and Clank (31) and to show how far Vince Vaughn’s career has fallen, Term Life (tbd), which is hardly getting a release. Directed by Peter Billingsley, Ralphie from A Christmas Story.

Taxi Driver 40th Anniversary

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It’s the fortieth anniversary of Taxi Driver. Well, February 8th was the date it was released, but a few days ago the film’s anniversary was celebrated at the Tribeca Film Festival, so I thought it would be a good time to discuss it.

This is at least my third time viewing the film, and it gets better every time. It is one of the best American films ever made, and push comes to shove, I would select it as Martin Scorsese’s best film. It is still striking and relevant, even if New York City is far cleaner than it was 40 years ago.

From the opening shot of the yellow cab emerging out of the steam, Taxi Driver is like a fever dream, a hallucination. Our hero, or antihero, Travis Bickle, has problems with fantasy and reality. We don’t know where he comes from–probably the plains or southwest, given his penchant for cowboy boots–but he is an ex-Marine, looking for a job that will take up the hours that he can’t sleep.

“All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets,” says Robert De Niro as Bickle, a man who fancies himself a white knight. But, as another character will say of him, he is a “walking contradiction.” He has old-fashioned ideas about morality, but spends his time in the porno theaters of Times Square, as if he didn’t know there were other kinds of movies. He is lonely, which is a spine of the film–the characters are driven by a kind of loneliness, whether it’s Bickle or Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy, the beautiful girl who takes a chance by going out on a date with him only to be taken to a Swedish sex film.

Amazingly, Taxi Driver was originally going to be set in Los Angeles, but New York has far more cabs, and the city at that time was a nightmare of crime and debauchery. Just a few years later I remember walking down 42nd Street between 7th and 8th and it felt like you were taking your life in your hands. Prostitution and drugs were everywhere. Bickle was absolutely right.

But Bickle is driven by something deeper than a citizen’s outrage. He is probably schizophrenic–the script was in part based on the diaries of Arthur Bremer, who shot George Wallace–and show a mind ravaged by a lack of intimacy and simple human connection.

The script has Bickle in parallel situations–his pursuit of Shepherd (who had already played a shiksa goddess in The Heartbreak Kid a few years earlier) and his attempt at being the savior of Iris (Jodie Foster), a twelve-year old prostitute. His rage at being spurned by Shepherd is transferable–when his attempt at assassinating the candidate she works for fails, he turns his attention at Foster’s pimp (Harvey Keitel) and other scumbags associated with her degradation. I was just talking to a friend who was at the Beacon Theater for the anniversary and she reminded me how there two diner scenes–one with De Niro and Shepherd, one with De Niro and Foster. In a certain way, his wooing of Shepherd doesn’t turn out, but his “wooing” of Foster does, if we are to believe the epilogue of the film.

The ending–brilliantly shot. De Niro, his hair cut into a mohawk, engaging in the mocking small talk he uses in his mirror scene (“you talking to me?”), only now it’s “Do I know you?” with Keitel. The carnage of three dead and De Niro wounded, out of bullets for a suicide. The cops come in, De Niro raises a bloody finger to his head to mime shooting himself, and then the breathtaking pan, shot from above, out of the room, down the bloody hallway, out into the street.

The comes the epilogue. Bickle is a hero for taking out a Mafioso and a couple of street thugs. Foster’s father writes his thanks. De Niro is friendly with the other cabbies (who call him “Killer”), and then he takes Shepherd, now interested again, as a fare. She is photographed as an angel with billowing hair as he views her form the rearview mirror, congratulates her on the candidate’s success, and dismisses her as he drops her off.

Many have interpreted this as a fantasy of Bickle’s, or his dying thoughts. It’s easy to interpret it that way, although Scorsese and Paul Schrader, the screenwriter, say it’s not. Schrader says take a look at the last shot, with De Niro looking into the camera, from the rear view mirror (we see a lot De Niro’s eyes, looking, judging. He tells a Secret Service agent he’d be a good agent, because he’s very observant) and you can see he’s a ticking time bomb–he’s not done.

The acting in the film is great, starting with De Niro, who captures the contradictions, and improvised the memorable “Are you talkin’ to me?” (De Niro, at the screening, says for forty years people are still saying that line to him). We can never be sure if he’s some kind of autistic savant or a genuine dummy. He says he doesn’t know what “moonlighting” means, but uses the word “venal.” He acts like a country bumpkin with the Secret Service agent and the presidential candidate, but I’m sure that’s an act. Does he really think that taking a woman to a porn movie is appropriate? We can’t be sure.

He was nominated for an Oscar, and so was Jodie Foster. I found it interesting to read the other actresses who were auditioned–Mariel Hemingway, Linda Blair, Carrie Fisher, Melanie Griffith, Bo Derek (!), all of whom refused. Foster, who was already a seasoned pro, was deemed psychologically fit enough and found the experience fun and interesting. I imagine that Keitel, who had to perform a scene with her of romance and tenderness, probably found that more difficult than Foster did.

Also terrific is Albert Brooks, who as Shepherd’s co-worker gave the film comic relief. He clearly has a boner for Shepherd, and can’t believe that a weirdo like De Niro could walk in off the street and get a date. It’s very funny how Brooks spies on their conversation, his head poking around a column.

I also want to mention Scorsese’s cameo, where he plays a Satanic-looking passenger spying on his wife in another man’s apartment, and telling De Niro how he’s going to kill her with a .44 magnum. This is the first gun that Bickle will buy.

If that weren’t enough, the score by Bernard Hermann, his last, is magnificent. It’s full of brass, including the romantic saxophone riff to represent Bickle. It runs counter to what we are seeing–a lonely man going mad in a small, dingy room, but accompanied by the kind of sax solo that we’re using to hearing in love scenes.

Taxi Driver is an example of the perfect combination of script, director, cast, and social anxiety. It taps into our fears, both of immorality and decay and of loneliness. It is a masterpiece and an American classic.

Opening in Las Vegas, April 22nd, 2016

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Getting right to it, we have one of the first megabombs of the year. The Huntsman: Winter’s War  (35), a prequel to the Snow White film a few years ago, got smoked by The Jungle Book, and got horrific reviews. I guess we don’t need to expect any more of these. Kimberly Jones: “The actors are all game, but the job’s beneath them – Hemsworth, a pro, and a real champ at faking enthusiasm for this dud; Theron, still doing camp but this time with no tempering complexity or empathy; Blunt, stuck playing a frost-bitten Mommie Dearest.”

The rest of this film’s openings are limited release. I’m most intrigued by Miles Ahead (64), Don Cheadle’s look at the great jazzman Miles Davis. I’m a bit wary of a film, though, that uses a white reporter as an in to tell a black man’s story. Mike D’Angelo: “So give Don Cheadle credit for innovation, at least: His Miles Davis biopic (which he directed, co-wrote, and stars in), Miles Ahead, tackles the problem head-on… by inventing cinematic things for Davis to do when he’s not playing music, including ludicrous car chases and gunfights.”

I read the book A Hologram for the King (59) but I never pictured someone like Tom Hanks in the role of a washed up salesman in a Middle East kingdom. Justin Chang: “A Hologram for the King arrives at its feel-good conclusion honestly enough, but its cultural engagement feels tentative, even secondhand: The movie conjures no shortage of potent images, but push a bit deeper and your fist closes on empty air.”

The problem I’m having with Elvis & Nixon (59) is that I can’t picture the lead actors in their roles–Michael Shannon as Elvis, and Kevin Spacey as Nixon, even after watching the trailer. To make a movie out a single photograph seems thin. Jesse Hassenger: “As much as the movie sidesteps biographical conventions with its narrow frame and playful tone, it can’t avoid a separate cliché that plagues this sort of material: Elvis & Nixon is basically a diverting TV movie given a theatrical release.”

 

Review: Everybody Wants Some!!

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In baseball parlance, Everybody Wants Some!! is right in my wheelhouse. It is set in 1980 (the last three days of August, to be precise), when I was the exact same age as the characters. It is focused on baseball players (although I had a brief, ignominious baseball career, one year of Little League, I have always loved the game) and it has the kind of dialogue I love, a loose, rambling style in which characters talk about everything and nothing simultaneously.

Written and directed by Richard Linklater, he has called it a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused, his 1993 film about the last day of high school in a Texas town in 1976. In some ways it is also a sequel to Boyhood, which ended with Linklater’s protagonist on his first weekend of college, where we begin here.

Everybody Wants Some!! does not have much of a plot. Jake (Blake Jenner) is the audience’s way in to the world of these players, who live in donated houses off campus. He is a freshman pitcher (he finds that the hitters don’t much care for pitchers) and he, and we, are quickly introduced to the menagerie of characters; McReynolds, the great hitter and preening cock-of-the-walk (Tyler Hoechlin); Finn, the loquacious philosopher (Glenn Powell), Willoughby, the California hippie and bong enthusiast (Wyatt Russell), and Autry, nicknamed Beuter (William Britton), the hayseed who is constantly on the phone with his girlfriend back home. Jake quickly fits in, mostly because he takes the ribbing and gentle hazing good-naturedly (a gag involves him unknowingly lifting his face ino the nether regions of another freshmen). They are all likeable and a gas to be around, except for Niles (Juston Street), the pitcher who claims to have thrown a ball 95 miles an hour and calls himself “Raw Dog.”

Basically we are in these guys’ company for two hours as they have an odyssey through the pop culture of the time. The music, as usual in a Linklater film, is spot on (I came home and immediately bought the soundtrack). Jake arrives in an Oldsmobile 442 with The Knack’s infectious “My Sharona” playing on the radio. Later, the boys will sing along to “Rapper’s Delight,” and Willoughby, who favors Pink Floyd, will put down Van Halen (who provided the title) as corporate. The guys will visit a disco, where they wear floral-patterned shirts and tight pants, a country bar, where they will dance to “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” and a punk venue, where the band sings a punk version of the Gilligan’s Island theme song. The film ends with classes beginning, and the Cars playing “Good Times Roll.” Perfect.

The only real plot thread is Jake’s attempts to woo a girl, winningly played by Zoey Deutsch, as the kind of college girl that any guy would give their eye teeth for. What’s great about their relationship is that it develops naturally, and you can see that they actually like each other, unlike films where couples only get together because the script demands it. Deutsch invites Jake to a party put on by her tribe, the theater arts crowd, and the team comes along. All the artsy-fartsy stuff is on display, like people dressed as Alice in Wonderland characters, but the players don’t mock it or disparage it–they just go with the flow, and this bonhomie gives the film a kind of zest that defies you to dislike it.

The performers, to me, are all unknowns and all talented. I especially liked Powell, but he has the best character to play, a guy who pontificates joyfully on all subjects, and can be seen reading Kerouac while smoking a pipe. Russell, who is the offspring of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, makes a great stereotypical Californian, who sets the bong record for smoke inhalation and goes through his pitching motion in the nude. Hoechlin is the kind of guy who gets enraged at losing a ping-pong game, but has such a great swing that he can slice a pitched ball in twain with an ax (whoever taught these guys to play ball did a great job).

There are so many great lines in the film that I’ve forgotten most of them, and will have to see it again. A sure bet to be on my year’s best of list.

Opening in Las Vegas, April 15, 2016

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A big Disney film and another bad Kevin Costner film. Just another typical weekend of openings.

The big Disney film is The Jungle Book (78), one of three films coming out soon based on the Kipling book. However, this one is more based on the Disney animated film from 1967, which I saw in its first run! The film is getting generally good reviews, mostly for the special effects, because it’s not really a live-action film (except for Mowgli). I’m sure Joe Webb will let us know how it is. Joe Walsh: “While there is the odd bum note, The Jungle Book is an immersive, visually breathtaking family adventure and a welcome addition to their new spate of live-action reimaginings.”

The bad Kevin Costner movie is Criminal (38), in what looks like another bomb for Costner. When will TV be next? His best work of the last decade was in The Hatfield and McCoys. He’s trying the Liam Neeson route but it’s not working. Also starring Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot. Stephen Witty: “Quick, what do you call it when a movie takes both of the year’s biggest breakout action stars and wastes them in a bad Kevin Costner movie? Criminal.”

After a long hiatus, there’s another Barber Shop movie, this one called Barbershop: The Next Cut. (66) I’ve never seen one of these films, but they look like generally fun entertainment. Jesse Hassenger: “Though this series is built on comic looseness, it’s that sincerity that carries through its minor comedic missteps, like underusing Hall and leaning too heavily on Cedric’s wacky-old-man shtick.”

James Franco stars in The Adderall Diaries (41), an adaption of a memoir by Stephen Elliott. Getting mixed reviews, and that typifies Franco’s career–at times he’s brilliant, at other times he’s barely watchable. Guy Lodge: “Franco’s cultivated impenetrability makes for a pain-ridden but peculiarly passionless experience, with multiple clashing subplots — on such insufficiently explored themes as parental abuse, uxoricide and masochism — obstructing an already opaque character study.”

The best film this week is no doubt Everybody Wants Some!! (84), Richard Linklater’s “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused, set in 1980 among college baseball players. I’ve seen it, and a review will be up tomorrow, and I doubt I will have a more fun time at the movies this year. Stephanie Zacharek: “Everybody Wants Some!! is a seemingly straightforward picture that’s surprisingly stealthy in capturing the joy and exaltation of being an almost-adult but still feeling young, of messing around and messing up, of waiting and hoping for the chance to meet a guy or girl you really like.”

Review: Midnight Special

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Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols’ fourth film, is two films in one. One of them is a very good drama about a father’s love for his son. The other is science fiction, and it’s pretty awful. Fortunately, the former is good enough to make me recommend the film, but be prepared for some eye-rolling.

The film starts with two men (Micheal Shannon and Joel Edgerton), and a small boy (Jaeden Lieberher) on the run, hiding out in a motel. Only over the course of the film do we learn details: Shannon is the boy’s father, and he has snatched him from a religious cult, run by Sam Shepard. Edgerton is a childhood friend and Texas state trooper, who is a friend we all need, because he even goes so far as to shoot another cop. The boy has some sort of power that makes him wear swim goggles and stay out of daylight.

Shepard’s henchmen are after the boy, as is the federal government, including a geeky NSA agent (Adam Driver). The kid is able to pull a satellite out of the sky, knowing it was spying on him. He also shoots light beams out his eyes, but it’s unclear what this does.

Midnight Special is essentially a chase movie, with Shannon trying to get the kid to a certain spot at a certain time, with the coordinates and dates given to him by his son. The church thinks he’s going to save them from the end of the world, and the government probably wants to use him as a weapon. All of this is pretty suspenseful.

However, the sci-fi aspects are kind of warmed over Spielberg (I thought of Close Encounters of the Third Kind many times during the film). Nichols’ first three features dealt with the wordly, and were more accomplished, though Take Shelter has some connection to this one, given the fear that the lead actor (Shannon, in both cases) expresses. But I found this aspect of the plot to be childish and not well thought out. I have to keep this short to avoid spoilers, but the ending is pretty ridiculous, given it’s similarities to Close Encounters, and even almost forty years later not up to that film’s emotional power or special effects.

What does work is the relationship with Shannon and Lieberher. Shannon is one of our best actors, and the kid, while not given a lot to do, is very capable. The love between is palpable, and when the kid’s mother, Kirsten Dunst, is added to the mix, if becomes a nice family drama.

If Midnight Special had left out the paranormal aspects I would have liked it a lot better.

Random thread for April 2016

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Reading  the sad news of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace child star Jake Lloyd’s legal and mental troubles made me think back to this interview he did at a Star Wars convention back in 2009.

It’s clearly an interview that doesn’t go well and many in the YT comments blame the interviewer (he does ask some inane questions) but for mine it’s pretty clear that Lloyd is passive-aggressive from the word go and not only hates doing the interview, but seems to half-hate that he’s at the convention and back in the public spotlight. Seeing this interview and reading about his troubles would surely put off any parent from having their child do acting.

A Decade in Film: 1994

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A chronological list of releases can be found here.

1) Best of 1994 or top five?
2) Most disappointing of 1994 (or bottom five if you want to go that route)?
3) Most underrated or underseen? (Example: “reviews weren’t great, but it’s genius because) OR (“No one saw it, but this is why they should…”)
4) Favorite performance(s) of the year?
5) Favorite scene/sequence of the year?
6) Most memorable (good or bad) theatergoing experience of the year?
7) Most influential film/performance/style/director?

Obviously feel free to answer only the questions you’re interested in or to write/respond to something else entirely. The lists themselves are just a starting point to foster discussion.

Movies Opening in New Haven – Weekend of April 8th, 2016

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Happy 1 million+ views, Gone Elsewhere!

There’s not really much of interest opening this week, so I’ll keep this mercifully short.  Best bet is probably Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation (RT: 91%, MC: 76%) which is available digitally beginning today.

The Boss:  Melissa McCarthy / Kristen Bell comedy.

Despite the reviews, strong Friday numbers indicate that McCarthy’s winning streak should continue this weekend.  It will probably be down to the wire to see if this or the floundering Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice earns the weekend’s top spot.

Rotten Tomatoes:: 19%, Metacritic: 40%

Personal interest factor: 1

Hardcore HarryFirst-person action film, probably best enjoyed with an ice cold Red Bull and brain damage. Critics are applauding the picture’s inventiveness but lamenting the barely-there script’s weaknesses. Bad movie sign Hall of Famer Sharlto Copley and Tim Roth are the only recognizable names in the cast.

Rotten Tomatoes:: 55%, Metacritic: 51%

Personal interest factor: 2

DemolitionJake Gyllenhaal is earning high marks for his work as a destructive (literally) widower, but the film apparently can’t decide if it’s an edgy indie or a feel-good studio picture. Why Fox Searchlight is going wide with this is a mystery to me.  Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyer’s Club, Wild) directs.

Rotten Tomatoes:: 52%, Metacritic: 50%

Personal interest factor: 2

Opening in Las Vegas, April 1, 2016

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Unfortunately, this week’s slate of new films is not a joke.

The only film I could even possibly considering seeing is Eye in the Sky (72), a thoughtful look at drone warfare and collateral damage. Notable for being the last film of Alan Rickman. Joe Morgenstern: “Eye in the Sky is literally all over the map in its depiction of drone warfare, and right on target, if flagrantly contrived, in examining the ethics of killing by remote control.”

In the music bio-pic category we have I Saw the Light  (45), the Hank Williams story. Williams led a short, turbulent life, but apparently this film does not do it justice. Bill Goodykoontz: “The problem is the movie itself – the script, the editing, the construction, all of which combine to make the whole thing feel flat, lifeless and confusing.”

Meet the Blacks (tbd), which I’m guessing has nothing to do with Meet Joe Black, is a parody of the Purge films, with a black family moving into a white neighborhood. Not screened for critics. Keith Uhlich: “A wrongheaded, utterly incompetent, and nearly laugh-free satire.”

And finally we have the awkwardly titled God’s Not Dead 2 (21) (wouldn’t God Is Still Not Dead work better?), which is yet another example of how the Christian right perpetuates their persecution complex. As an atheist, shouldn’t I be offended that nonbelievers are being portrayed as villains? (in truth, atheists are the most discriminated against minority), but do I get my panties in a twist? No, because I realize hardly anyone will watch this film. Jordan Hoffman: “God’s Not Dead 2 is a much better movie than God’s Not Dead, but that’s a bit like saying a glass of milk left on the table hasn’t curdled and is merely sour.”

 

Review–Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

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Late in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Anderson Cooper, in one of the film’s countless celebrity cameos, says, “It’s not clear what just happened.” I think Anderson speaks for all of us, as this film, pitting two of the most iconic American figures against each other, is pretty much incoherent. However, it is not the disaster that some are calling it. It’s a great idea in the wrong hands.

Those hands are Zack Snyder, perhaps the worst high-profile director in Hollywood today (that’s a high bar, considering Michael Bay and Brett Ratner still walk the Earth). But he makes the studio money, and though Batman v. Superman was ripped by critics, it still set box office records. For all those people who saw the movie this weekend, it’s a shame that this wasn’t properly handled.

For one thing, I liked Ben Affleck as Batman. There, I said it. His Bruce Wayne is a little older, thicker in the middle (but still buff) and angry. Wayne Manor is a ruin (I suppose why will be addressed in a future film) and lives instead in a modern house with floor-to-ceiling windows (but where is the Batcave?). Alfred, played with gruff authority by Jeremy Irons, tinkers underground, while Affleck is having casual sex (he also, I believe, utters the first curse word in the character’s history, a softly muttered “Oh, shit”). After years of battling criminals, he’s pissed off at the arrival of Superman from the sky, who is being treated like a god even after destroying most of Metropolis in his fight with General Zod.

The film starts off on the wrong foot with once again showing the murder of Batman’s parents. By my count we’ve seen this in three films–enough already. Then we get the young Bruce Wayne falling in a hole and being surrounded by bats. Instead of being afraid of them, as Christopher Nolan’s Batman was, Affleck is levitated by them, literally. This was included, I suppose, as both characters are mama’s boys, with the crucial fact being that there mother’s names are Martha.

I won’t try to summarize the whole movie because it has enough in there for several movies, with many beginnings and endings. Suffice it to say that the tiff between superheroes is egged on by Lex Luthor, this time played by a twitchy Jesse Eisenberg. He’s a rich dude who is troubled by Superman being treated like a god, and there’s some good dialogue in there, rife with Nietzschian overtones, if only we could listen to it and not want to punch Eisenberg in the face. He wants to get his hands on Kryptonite so Superman can be defeated (when you create a superhero with only one weakness, it kind of limits plot possibilities).

So when these two stand off against each other, with Superman’s overwhelming strength matched by Batman’s cunning, I had to admit I was kind of stirred. Their fight scene, like the rest of the action, has too many concrete walls being broken, but I found this to be the best part of the movie, despite Batman’s ridiculous body armor. I also thought there were other good ideas raised. Early in the film, Superman rescues Lois Lane from African terrorists. How would Superman deal with ISIS, or Boko Haram, or Hamas? One of the uncomfortable things about reckoning with superheroes is that they can’t exist in the real world. Superman sees a girl trapped in a burning building in Juarez. Seconds later he’s there, rescuing her. What a world like that be?

The film also lays out the future D.C. Universe films (there are ten films with release dates so far). Most prominently we get Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. She slinks through the film like a sexy panther, catching Affleck’s eye, but doesn’t do battle until the end of the film. Next year she will get her first film, and I’m hopeful, as long as Snyder has nothing to do with it.

So watching Batman v. Superman is a draining and mostly depressing experience. It’s kind of like being bludgeoned, as Snyder has no ability at subtly. He uses one of his favorite things–a bullet in slow motion–over and over again, and a movie at two and a half hours does not need slow motion footage. The atmosphere is mostly dark and brooding, and it made me long for the light touch of Marvel in films like Guardians of the the Galaxy and The Avengers. For whatever their weaknesses are, at least they are fun. Batman v. Superman is like a funeral (which the film ends with, but I’m not telling you whose).

There is hope, though. Before the film a trailer for The Lego Batman Movie ran. I am sure that will be a much better film.

Opening in Las Vegas, March 25, 2016

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The long knives are out for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (44), the latest atrocity from Zack Snyder. After ruining Superman, he seems intent on ruining Batman, and that he’s behind the Justice League of America films makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit. The reviews are scathing–one called it the “Showgirls of superhero films.” I think I have to see it, although I would probably do much better by enjoying this fine weather with a nice, long walk than spend two and a half hours in darkened theater. Fionnuala Halligan: “Gorging on bombast and self-importance, swamped by its own mythology, Batman v Superman is loud, sprawling, and distracted. The action jumps around almost as fast as a man can fly, but nowhere near as smoothly.”

I resisted seeing My Big Fat Greek Wedding for a long time, and when I finally saw it I understood why. It did get an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, one of the many major crimes by the Academy over the years. Now, 14 years later, we have My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (39), and it seems that Nia Vardalos should have remained a “whatever happened to?” case. Finonnuala Halligan: “Even given that lazy stereotyping is the point of her schtick, Vardalos’ broad routine hasn’t aged well, her heavily-(and widely-) accented ‘oily’ Greek family an uncomfortable, almost retro fit for today’s global sensitivities. Apart from that, the gags just aren’t that funny.”

The one film opening this week getting decent reviews is Hello, My Name Is Doris (62), but most of the accolades are going to Sally Field, who is the first performer of the year we can put on an Oscar shortlist. It’s also nice to see a movie about loneliness among the elderly, though I’m sure the average age of those seeing this movie will be higher than the speed limit. John DeFore: “It’s not nearly funny enough to call a comedy, but its seriousness about her lonely life is undercut by its depiction of her frankly ridiculous behavior.”

Review: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

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Midnight_CowboyThere are many reasons as to why the 1969 film ‘Midnight Cowboy’ was such a success (winning Best Picture Oscar of that year) and is still a highly-regarded film today. The acting, the visual style, the characterisations, the Nilsson hit song accompanying it would all be valid reasons.

But for mine Midnight Cowboy’s greatest strength is its use of New York (where the majority of the film takes place) which is so vivid that it’s an essential part of the film.

When you hear of how films make a city or town appealing, it’s usually through a combination of beautifying the place through picturesque shots that highlights its natural beauty. Not so with New York in Midnight Cowboy. The city is shown as grimy, dirty, vaguely dangerous and full of desperate people on the edge of oblivion. And yet, personally speaking, I found it fascinating and captivating. It made me almost wish I could go back in time to visit the city at the end of the 1960s.

The prime amount of credit for this should go to British director John Schlesinger who was making his first film in America after consistent success during the 1960s in England. He comes in with fresh eyes onto New York and his fascination with New York is conveyed marvelously to the viewer. Sure, the city may be a troubled place but it’s bursting with such human intensity that one’s humanism can only increase after viewing the film.

The story in Midnight Cowboy concerns Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a naive Texan who believes his destiny is to travel to New York and be a highly-acclaimed prostitute for well-to-do women. Unsurprisingly, the reality doesn’t match his dreams as he is unable to get work, is scammed by con men and is out on the streets trying to find his next meal. Then, when he runs into the con man who scammed him, Enrico ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), after initial hostility they form an unlikely friendship. Will they be able to find a way to get out of their dire situation and onto a better life?

For all the technical skill the film displays, the heart of the film is the relationship and friendship between Buck and Rizzo and the exceptional performances of Voight & Hoffman that make it feel so real and moving. While both are equally impressive Hoffman’s performance is the greater achievement because he was just coming off the sensational debut success of ‘The Graduate’ and instead of settling for commercial roles he took the challenge of doing an unlikable character role and created a sympathetic and fascinating characterisation. While The Graduate is what made Hoffman’s career, it is Midnight Cowboy which would be the guide to how his career would turn out.

Midnight Cowboy is a technical triumph for Schlesinger he uses every flashy technical trick – monochrome segments, flash-backs, fantasy sequences, jump cuts, rapid montages – without losing any of the gritty realism essential to the film’s success.

The reason that the film’s technical tricks feel organic and not self-indulgent showing-off is that they often relate directly to a character’s thoughts or provide insight towards them. For example there’s an early scene where Joe is travelling on a bus to New York listening to a radio discussion on women discussing romance when it suddenly switches to a visual montage of wealthy women expressing their desires, culminating in how they want Joe. The fantasy montage ends with Joe screeching in delight. It’s a marvellous example of Joe’s naivety, backed up by detailed technical cinematic skill.
My favourite example of visual trickery is when we see Joe making the same lonely walk (with his radio) down a New York sidewalk and there is intercutting between him doing it during day and night. Within the space of a few seconds, Schlesinger has conveyed how monotonously lonely life is for Joe.

Midnight Cowboy is not only a visual feast but subtly an aural one as well. Joe carries around for much of his time in New York a portable transistor radio which he seems to have on at all times and almost feels like his only friend. The range of noise and chatter coming from the radio highlight how overwhelming and chaotic living in New York would be for someone who came from a rural backdrop (and to us the viewer). When Joe has to sell the radio for money and it gets switched off, it symbolically feels like he is on the verge of oblivion.

The film isn’t flawless – occasionally it overplays its visual style and it turns from naturalistic and necessary to being rather garish and overbaked. An example is a sex scene between Joe and a wealthy woman where they’re rolling on the TV remote which means we see a montage of TV shows while they’re having sex. It doesn’t really add up to much.

More significantly, there’s a late scene where Joe – in desperate need to take an ill Rizzo to Florida – has an aborted homosexual encounter with an older man which ends with Joe violently beats him up to get the necessary money. The scene really doesn’t convince because the characterisation of Joe up to this point suggest that he is capable of such desperation and brutality.

Despite this, Midnight Cowboy almost 50 years after its release holds up as an outstanding film of its era and two great central characterisations. And yes, it does make one want to travel to New York.