Author Archives: Jackrabbit Slim

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

Review: The Mummy (1932)

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Scared away by the horrid reviews, I passed on seeing the newest version of The Mummy. But I did not despair, for in my DVD collection is the original film, released in 1932, and directed by Karl Freund. It certainly does not have the action of the new film, it hardly has any action at all, but it manages to create an atmosphere of creepiness and dread that enthralls (and it’s only 73 minutes long).

After the success of Dracula and Frankenstein, Universal chairman Carl Laemmle wanted to add a mummy picture to his stable of horror characters. There was no definitive text, unlike the others, so he commissioned story ideas. The discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 had captured the public’s imagination, and Egyptian decor (including Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater, which still stands today) swept the nation. There was also the added element of a so-called curse, which killed anyone who was associated with the discovery of the tomb.

Finally a script by John Balderston, who had adapted the plays of Dracula and Frankenstein, was made. Freund was the cameraman for such classics as Metropolis, The Last Laugh, and Dracula. He was noted for a moving camera (interestingly, at the end of his career he worked on I Love Lucy). This being the 1930s, when special effects where rudimentary, much of the action happens off-screen, letting the viewer imagine what is happening.

This starts in the opening scene. A tomb has been unearthed, and the mummy discovered has not been embalmed, indicating he was buried alive. The archaeologists determine that his name was Imhotep, and he was punished for sacrilege. They also open a box, which warns anyone not to open it lest they be cursed. Inside is a scroll that we later learn has a spell that can raise the dead. Imhotep (Boris Karloff, under eight hours worth of makeup) awakens. But we don’t see him move. Instead, we see a closeup of his hand on the scroll, snatching it. The worker bursts into hysterical laughter seeing the mummy walk, but all we see is a few bandages dragging out the door.

Cut to a few years later. Imhotep now goes by the name Ardath Bey. He helps the archaeologists find the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon, for the ulterior motive that he was in love with her. He had been buried alive when he tried to revive her dead body, now he wants to try again. But then he discovers a woman (Zita Johann) who looks uncannily like her. He realizes she is the Princess reincarnated, and instead of reviving her mummy, can simply kill her and immediately raise her from the dead.

For today’s audiences, The Mummy may be very slow going. The joke about Mummy pictures was how could anybody be hurt by one, they’re so slow. Well, Ardath Bey has certain powers that defy distance. He has a pool that can look into the past or present (he shows Johann her past life). He can look into it on a subject and by squeezing his hand give them a heart attack. And, of course, Karloff has one of the best stares in all of movie history. The key lighting on his eyes make his closeups very unnerving. “He’s a strange one,” one of the characters says about him. He has no idea.

This version of The Mummy is one of those romance across times, very much like Dracula (and the Dracula film made by Francis Coppola years later) that gives the monster some sympathy.

The rest of the cast is fine. Johann was an established stage actress who looks like Betty Boop; she later quit Hollywood, disenchanted with it. She marched into Irving Thalberg’s office and asked him, “How can you make such garbage?” Thalberg replied, “For the money, Zita.” Edward Van Sloan is, I believe, the only actor to appear in Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. He played Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula, and plays pretty much the same part here, the only scientist who believes in the supernatural elements of what is going on.

The Mummy spawned a number of lesser sequels from Universal, but this film is the one to watch, especially if the new one leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

Review: Wonder Woman

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Wonder Woman is not only a hit movie, it’s a sociological phenomenon. All over the Internet there are arguments about whether the film is properly feminist: yes and no. I’ll leave that discussion to the women’s study majors, but as a middle-aged man I can’ recall seeing a film that has a woman battling bad guys for her own reasons, without making her choices based on a man (although she almost kisses one) and passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. If I had a young girl, I’d be proud to take her to the film. For once, DC is ahead of the curve, with Marvel still not planning a Black Widow film (but Captain Marvel is coming).

So I’ll primarily discuss how Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins (who amazingly had not made a film since 2003’s Monster), works as a movie. For the most part, it is a smashing success. It takes the old origin story, makes it interesting, and then poses moral questions that are perhaps more than the average multiplex viewer has to deal with. It also has kick-ass action.

The prologue sees Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) receiving from Bruce Wayne the original plate of a photograph taken during World War I, which gives away that she’s not exactly mortal. The story behind that photo reminds me of the Saturday Night Live sketch that has Superman landing in Germany, not the U.S., and becoming Uber Man. Fortunately, Diana ends up on the side of the Allies in the first World War, because the pilot who enters the idyllic world of the Amazons is an American working for British intelligence (Chris Pine). If the Red Baron had been the first to breach the field on invisibility around the island, everything might have changed.

Anyway, when Diana, who was raised by the Amazons, an all-female class of warrior who live in peace in an island that I would to live on (even without it being all-female–it’s got lots of waterfalls) wants to help end the war, she is told not to go by her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). There are numerous references to what Diana “really is,” and I don’t think you’ll be surprised by the answer. She believes that Aries, the god of war, is behind the conflagration, and if she kills him with a sword dubbed the “God Killer” all will be well.

Act II is the fish out of war section, where Diana has to blend in to London in 1918 (she is even given glasses, in perhaps a meta nod to Clark Kent and Superman). Lucy Davis, who was once Dawn Tinsley on The Office, is the comic relief here as Pine’s secretary. Pine knows that though the Germans are close to surrendering, a German general (Danny Huston) is conducting experiments with powerful gas weapons, concocted by a young lady called Dr. Poison (Elana Ayana). The British leaders tell Pine to stand down, as nothing should interfere with the armistice. Pine, with Diana and a rag-tag and diverse group of mercenaries, team up to put a stop to the poison experiments while Diana looks for Aries.

The interesting arguments raised by the film are two: Diana believes that once Aries is dead, there will be no more war, while Pine delicately tries to tell her that it’s not that simple, that mankind is innately flawed and war will continue anyway. When she finally confronts Aries (no spoiling here on who it is) he tries to convince her that the complete destruction of mankind will bring the world back to the peaceful paradise it was before they existed. He’s right, but she takes the Beatles approach : All you need is love.

In some ways Diana is naive about humans–she’s only just met them–and in future films perhaps we’ll see her more jaded. But Gadot is able to make her a very convincing character, one of the better performances by a hero in a comic book film (the villains usually get the good parts). And even though Mr. Gloom and Doom, Zack Snyder, is one of the credited screenwriters, Wonder Woman is unlike his Superman films. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and even a few jokes (mostly from Davis and Saïd Taghmaoui as one of Pine’s small army. “I am both frightened and aroused,” he says, watching Diana dispatch a few German soldiers with ease.

This is what the Slate article picks up on: Diana is hot. Gadot is, after all, one of the world’s most beautiful women. Should the film have ignored that? Perhaps. But Wonder Woman is still a landmark film in the comic book genre (we can forget the lamentable 2004 film of Catwoman). Its success, I hope, will spawn more.

Opening in Las Vegas, May 26, 2017

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As James mentioned, it seems like Memorial Day weekend used to be a bigger deal for new movies. This year we get the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, getting awful reviews, and a movie based on a TV show that was never known for being any good. Instead, I’m going to an Indian pow wow.

I think we know now why Johnny Depp continues to make the Pirate films. It’s usually the big star who has bailed after two or three, but there he is, in Pirate of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (38). I saw the first two, and even bythe second film I smelled cash grab. I can’t imagine who actually wants to see this, but apparently it will do enough business to keep Depp afloat during his spend like Nicolas Cage period. If he keeps it up he’ll end up like Nicolas Cage).

The other megaplex opening this weeekend is Baywatch (38), and I also can’t imagine who will go see this. Die hard The Rock fans? Boys who like girls in swimsuits will probably wait to watch this at home, so they can fap to Alexandra Daddario. What enrages me is that money that could have spent on an actually good film was wasted on this nonsense.

On Netflix this weekend is War Machine (51), starring Brad Pitt in a dark comedy about the military. I might check it out, though dark comedy is tough to do right.

Also opening this weekend are The Lovers, featuring Debra Winger, who has been doing talk shows explaining where she’s been all these years, and Chuck, with Liev Schreiber as Chuck Wepner, supposedly the inspiration for Rocky (this was settled out of court, with Stallone throwing some money Wepner’s way).

For those having a holiday-weekend, enjoy!

Review: Alien: Covenant

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In the first moments of Alien: Covenant, I had a sinking feeling. I saw Prometheus, as I’ve seen all of the Alien films, but I couldn’t remember anything about it except that the fuel was plotted by scientists acting stupidly. But then the characters of Covenant started filling me in. Fear not if you haven’t seen Prometheus, they will explain it all to you.

Once I got that out of the way, I hunkered down for a very scary thrill ride, even if it requires the use of the “idiot plot” and very old and moldy horror-film cliches (any character than has to go off on their own but “will be right back” is goner). Again, we have trained people, on an uncharted planet, seeing something they don’t recognize, and tapping it just to see what happens. We also have characters trusting androids who are acting suspiciously like Bond villains.

But aside from all that, Alien: Covenant is gruesome fun. Ridley Scott is the director (as we was for the original Alien, now 38 years old, and Prometheus) and it forms a bridge between those two films (although if the box office is good enough, maybe they can wedge another film in there). A crew of fifteen is on a colonization mission, carrying 2,000 people to an Earth-like planet. They are in suspended animation (we see a lot of films like this, including the recent Passengers, and I have to wonder, why doesn’t their hair grow while they are asleep?) but are awoken early due to a stellar flare. The captain, James Franco, is incinerated in his pod, so Billy Crudup takes command.

On a spacewalk, another crew member (Danny McBride) gets a rogue signal of someone singing a John Denver song. They track the origin to another planet that meets qualification for habitation. Crudup decides that instead of traveling another seven years to their original destination, they will go there and check it out. Katherine Waterston, second in command, thinks is a bad idea. Lesson: listen to Katherine Waterston.

This planet turns out to be the Prometheus planet. If you remember that film, only the android David (Michael Fassbender) “survived.” He’s still there, having reattached his head. I’ll leave what he’s up to for your surprise. The Covenant crew also has an android who is also played by Michael Fassbender, Walter (apparently Wayland Industries, the corporation behind all of this, liked Fassbender’s face so much they made many more). This involves neat scenes where Fassbender acts with himself.

Anyhoo, suffice it to say that the planet is thick with the H. R. Giger-created aliens, which I see are referred to as xenomorphs, and they wreak havoc, as one by one the crew are killed off in horrible ways. These films have become a kind of And Then There Were None game, guessing who will live and who will die, That’s fun, in a dumb kind of way. In addition to the idiot plot, there is a twist at the end that I saw way ahead of time, and I’m sure anyone who has ever seen a movie can figure out (but of course, the crew can’t). It helps if you know your romantic poets.

So there is some eye-rolling involved with Alien: Covenant but also some really good scares and a nice sense of dread that permeates the film. A smarter script would have made this one of the best of the series.

Opening in Las Vegas, May 19, 2017

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In the sixth Alien film (the first was 38 years ago!) Ridley Scott helms Alien: Covenant (66), which is both a sequel (to Prometheus) and a pre-quel (to Aliens 1-4). It’s getting good enough reviews that I think I’ll venture out. I’m surprised to realize I’ve seen all the Alien films in their original releases (even Alien 4, but that was because of Winona Ryder).

Everything, Everything (51) seems like a take on the old Boy in the Bubble movie (who else remembers Glynnis O’Connor?). Probably will do a lot of business on Friday nights with teen girls and then disappear into oblivion.

The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul (41) is a reboot. It’s been five years since the last one (where has the time gone?) and the kids had to be replaced. My sixth-graders love these books, probably because they are written in a handwriting font and take about ten minutes to read. Needless to say, I’ve never seen one of these and hope never to.

Richard Gere is now playing old men (again, where has the time gone?) and his latest is Norman (76), which is subtitled “The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.” It’s hard to tell what this movie is about, and despite its decent reviews, the title and Gere seem to be pushing me away.

Robert De Niro

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deniroRobert De Niro has been all over the place lately. Now 73 years old, he has been showing up for panel discussions on important anniversaries of his films (last year it was the 40th for Taxi Driver, this year it was the 45th for The Godfather, though he was the only cast member on the panel who was not in it, he was only in The Godfather, Part II). He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama last year (that would not be a likely award from President Trump, whom De Niro said he wanted to punch in the face) and was this year’s recipient of The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Chaplin Award (and thus is on the cover of this month’s Film Comment). He has already won the AFI Life Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, and the Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award. He has won two Academy Awards, with a total of seven nominations.

Over on Go-Go-Rama in the coming weeks I’ll be having my own retrospective of his career, as I haven’t had a chance to write about many of his films. His career, as most cinephiles know, has had its up and downs. From 1973, when he burst on the scene in two films, Bang the Drum Slowly and Mean Streets, to the early ’80s, when he chalked up four Oscar nominations, he was part of the new Hollywood, a young firebrand, the heir to Brando (he even played the younger version of Brando’s Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Part II).

But then his career went into decline. He did make what I think is one of his greatest performances, King of Comedy, in 1983, but then took projects seemingly without reading the script. We get marginal stuff like Angel Heart, The Mission (it did get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture but he was miscast), True Confessions, and the turkey Falling in Love, with Meryl Streep. I liked Midnight Run and his amusing turn in The Untouchables, but We’re No Angels? Stanley and Iris? (I can still hear his plea to Jane Fonda–“Teach me how to read!”).

His career picked up, thanks to Scorsese again, with Goodfellas in 1990, though interestingly his role was the least flamboyant. He followed that with two more Oscar nominations: Awakenings, and the way-over-the-top Cape Fear (which has become iconic–if you hear somebody laughing way too loud in a movie theater, you will think of De Niro in that film).

Then he went into the wilderness awhile, with some good films, like Heat, Casino, and Wag the Dog, and some terrible ones, like The Fan. He worked a lot, probably too much to keep his legacy from streak marks. Some projects seemed promising–playing The Creature in Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a re-imagining of Great Expectations by Alfonso Cuaron, Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, but weren’t his best work.

It was in 1999 that De Niro made a jump to comedy. Nobody thought of him associated with comedy, but Billy Crystal invited him to play a mobster in Analyze This, and De Niro’s career changed, not entirely for the better. In the Film Comment interview, De Niro says that he was always been comfortable with comedy–his first two films, Hi Mom! and Greetings were both comedies, but after Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and then Raging Bull especially, branded him as an intense dramatic actor.

Analyze This was okay, and Meet the Parents was okay, but there is no reckoning for The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Showtime with Eddie Murphy, or his latest outrage, Bad Grandpa.

Interspersed with those films has been good work in smaller films. David O. Russell seems to have made a mission of resurrecting De Niro’s good name with Silver Lining’s Playbook (his most recent Oscar nomination), American Hustle, and Joy. Other than those films, he has made an astounding 40 films this century, most of them forgettable. Will anybody remember The Intern? Hands of Stone? The Comedian? Killing Season? The Family? Being Flynn? De Niro seems to have succumbed to the inability to say no to any script that ends up in his in-box.

But De Niro, despite tarnishing his legacy with these films, is still one of America’s greatest actors. If he had stopped with, say, Wag the Dog, it would be almost unparalleled. He, along with Jack Nicholson, is the greatest American actor of the last quarter of the 20th century. His performances in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull will be remembered as long as we have movies. “You talkin’ to me?” (which he improvised) is one of the most iconic lines in film history.

What about De Niro made him so great? He’s hard to pinpoint. He’s a bit of a chameleon–his weight gain for Raging Bull is famous, he shaved his head into a mohawk for Taxi Driver, he seemed to look different in every film. He was not a matinée idol, but I’ve talked to women who find him very sexy. His rage and intensity are what he is best known for: the Russian roulette scene in The Deerhunter, his profane battles with Joe Pesci in Raging Bull, his baseball-bat wielding in The Untouchables, his psychopathy in Cape Fear (“Come out, come out, wherever you are”), his brutal stomping of a man in Goodfellas, but De Niro has also played roles that are quietly intense, such as Heat (I don’t believe he ever raises his voice in that role, he lets Pacino do the screaming), most of The Deerhunter, and young Vito in The Godfather, Part II, in which he builds his empire with little more than whispers.

It’s a shame that the phrase “a new Robert De Niro film” means almost nothing these days, compared to what it did forty years ago, but we’ve got the means to see this great stuff, anytime we want.

Please share your favorite De Niro role in the comments.

Opening in Las Vegas, May 12, 2017

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Two high profile films, both seem like critical and box office disappointments.

I have waited and waited for a good King Arthur movie. I suppose the best is John Boorman’s Excalibur (technically speaking, the best movie with King Arthur is Monty Python and the Holy Grail), but since then has been shit like First Knight and King Arthur, which supposes that he was a Russian. There’s great stories out there, but few directors want to stick with it and turn it something else. So does Guy Ritchie in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (41), which looks like the first big bomb of the summer. During an interview Kenneth Lonergan said he wanted to make a film of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. Someone, please greenlight that.

Amy Schumer’s star is still on the rise, but her latest film, Snatched (46), could slow her down. Trainwreck was okay, but lacked the cuttinge edge of her TV show and stand-up act. It’s nice that she wanted to give Goldie Hawn a role, but the film isn’t impressing many.

Also this week is The Wall (57), a war film about two soldiers pinned down by Iraqi snipers. Stars Aaron-Taylor Johnson and directed by Doug Liman. Seems like a rental.

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

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I had a great time at Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. Sure, it’s not as fresh and original as the first film, but the formula–wisecracking heroes, a soundtrack of ’70s hits, and this time a baby tree–works like magic.

Second films sometimes work better because there is no origin story. The film opens with the Guardians, sort of heroes for hire, battling a large monster. This serves as the credits scene, and the battle is secondary to Baby Groot dancing to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” Baby Groot (if you don’t remember, Groot was killed in the first film but regrown in a pot) is for the kids in the audience. Adults will probably say they find him tiresome, but will probably be lying.

The Guardians go to get their pay from The Sovereigns, a people who have evolved into near perfection. Their queen (Elizabeth Debicki) looks like Charlize Theron after a bronzing. All looks good but Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) steals the batteries they were sent to rescue. The Sovereigns don’t like this and send a fleet of ships after them.

The plot only gets more complicated after that, but suffice it to say that Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) meets his biological father, Kurt Russell, who takes human form but is really a planet called Ego. Russell takes him to his world, which is a paradise. But we’ve seen enough of these movies to know that paradises never are what they seem.

Also involved is Michael Rooker as Pratt’s surrogate father, who is a Ravager, or a kind of scavenger/thief. He has been ousted by the greater group of Ravagers, led by Sylvester Stallone, of all people, for breaking the Ravager code. A post-credit sequence (one of five) indicates that Stallone will be back in a far greater role.

But the plot is secondary to the sheer fun of this film. While Baby Groot gets a lot “aws” and laughs (Rooker and Cooper try to get him to steal something, with hilariously futile attempts), I think Dave Bautista as Drax, the musclebound but slightly obtuse member, steals the show. He gets a lot of great lines. There is also the “unspoken” romance between Pratt and Zoe Saldana as Gamora. Pratt gets meta when he compares their relationship to Sam and Diane in Cheers. He might have used the relationship in Moonlighting, but remember that that show went straight downhill after Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis finally did it.

And of course there’s the soundtrack. In addition to “Mr. Blue Sky,” the moldy oldie “Brandy,” a one-hit wonder by Looking Glass, plays an actual part of the plot (Russell calls it the greatest composition in the history of music). and I never thought I’d see an action scene set to Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights.”

If this film isn’t as good as the first one, I reply with a hearty, “So what?” It’s still better than almost any of the DC films. I think there’s one more movie in this franchise before it’s done, maybe two.

Opening in Las Vegas, May 5, 2017

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The only megaplex opening this weekend is Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2, (67), which is critic proof. Most seem to say it’s got the same stuff as the first film, but just not as original (well, duh). I’ll be there opening week, as I am part fanboy (but not all). Love the use of Sweet’s “Fox on the Run” in the trailer.

The only other film opening this weekend in Vegas is The Dinner (58), starring Steve Coogan. No, it’s not one of those films with Rob Bryden where they do impressions of Michael Caine, it’s a drama with Richard Gere and Laura Linney. I like Coogan immensely, but seeing him do an American accent in a dramatic film just takes everything I like about him away.

Review: The Circle

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I haven’t read Dave Eggers’ book, The Circle, but I’m guessing it’s a satire. If it’s anything like the script of the film adaptation, by James Ponsoldt, it would have to be, or otherwise it should have never been published. The problem is, Ponsoldt’s should have been satire. It is not.

The Circle is supposed to be some kind of warning about how social media is removing our privacy, and I must admit it worked a little bit–I wondered if I should just get off Facebook on the drive home, but I didn’t. Certainly there are privacy issues today. Most everything is on camera, and our information is bought and sold like Pokemon cards. But this film is so simplistic it plays like Paranoia for Dummies.

Emma Watson plays a cubicle drone (the first indication this film is wrong is that she works taking phone calls at the water company but doesn’t have a headset, she uses an actual phone) who through her friend gets an interview at The Circle, which is like Facebook, Google, etc. In her interview she’s asked “Joan Baez or Joan Crawford” and snaps back, “Joan Didion.” (This is what passes for intellectual banter, I guess). She gets the book and works in “Customer Experience.” The campus is like a huge playground, with yoga classes and volleyball courts–it’s a nice send-up of those big Silicon Valley companies (and reminds me of the job Homer Simpson gets that turns out to be with a James Bond villain).

This is all funny but then we are expected to think that there’s a total buy-in at the company. Watson takes the weekend to go kayaking alone in San Francisco Bay and goes to party at her parents’ house (her dad is Bill Paxton, his last role). She’s gently admonished that she didn’t attend any events at The Circle. She is encouraged to be part of a community, and doing things alone seems to be frowned upon. I’ve worked at companies like these, when everybody knows no one wants to have anything to do with work after quitting time except administration. It’s an introvert’s nightmare.

The CEO of The Circle is a Jobsian figure played by Tom Hanks, who thinks knowing everything is the ideal. He’s Big Brother in blue jeans, and his second-in-command is Patton Oswalt, who wears a suit but has the same idea. They want to have all information stored in the same place–The Circle–and the employees clap like seals at the notion.

After Watson has a kayaking accident but is saved by the use of drones, she is recruited to have her life put on display, wearing a camera and putting cameras in her residence (she seems to live on campus). So she is basically a willing Truman Show volunteer, and the whole film falls apart. We are led to believe Watson’s character is intelligent, but she suggests that voting be made mandatory and that people register and vote via The Circle, like a good little fascist. It’s only a tragedy that wakes her up, and we really don’t see the transformation.

The Circle would have been much better if it followed one of two directions–make it so over the top that it’s satire, or make it much more morally slippery, and seduce the audience like Watson is seduced. Instead, her character is made completely stupid while Hanks and Oswalt are obvious villains. The movie is a bowl of mush.

Review: The Lost City of Z

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I wanted to see The Lost City of Z for two reasons: I love stories about explorers going into uncharted lands, and I read the book. The film, written and directed by James Gray from David Grann’s book, is a solid effort, but it’s like a dish that smells good but is missing an ingredient.

There had long been a legend among European explorers of South America about El Dorado, the city of gold. It was pretty much a fairy tale by the twentieth century, but a British officer, Percy Fawcett, hired by the Royal Geographical Society to settle a border dispute between Bolivia and Brazil, came to believe that somewhere deep in the jungle there was a lost civilization, which he called Z (Zed in the British). Over the course of three expeditions, he pushed farther into the Amazon, but never found it.

Gray is dutiful to the facts of the book, though Fawcett, played by Charlie Hunnam, really isn’t a character as much as a means to an end. Grann’s book spelled out more of his eccentricities, but here he’s just a guy on a mission. The only really interesting character is James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), a polar explorer who believes in Fawcett and joins him on his second mission, but does not fare well.

On Fawcett’s third expedition, over a decade after his previous one, his son (Tom Holland) joins him on the search for the lost civilization, but they disappeared and were never found.

All of this is what might be called a pretty good yarn, with indigenous people throwing spears and dangerous rivers and snakes and infected wounds (the book is full of descriptions of things that can kill you or make your life miserable) but there is a sense of incompleteneness, probably because Fawcett did not succeed and Gray can only guess at what happened to him (it’s one of the reasons I had a problem with Zodiac–a movie that doesn’t catch the killer is missing an ending). He was ahead of his time in believing that the so-called savages of Amazonia were not backward and capable of a civilization, and believe that women (including his wife, ably played by Sienna Miller) were intellectual equals.

The movie is more interesting than entertaining, and probably would have been served better as a Ken Burns-style documentary. In the book, Grann writes participatory journalism, as he covers some of the ground that Fawcett did, but this is completely cut from the film.

So, a near-miss for James Gray, who finally made a movie set outside New York. Maybe he was a little out of his depth.

Opening in Las Vegas, April 7, 2017

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Crap at the multiplexes, but in the art houses some interesting stuff. It can’t be a bad week when a new Werner Herzog movie comes out.

That film is Queen of the Desert (39), which unfortunately is getting bad reviews. It stars Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell, who was the female Lawrence of Arabia. Herzog has been mostly in the documentary field for quite a few years, and may have lost his touch on narrative filmmaking, but I would like to see this, perhaps on DVD.

The other interesting film that I would like to see someday is Your Name (79), an anime feature that has two high schoolers exchanging bodies. It’s not a Studio Ghibli film, but was a huge hit in Japan, becoming the fourth-highest grossing film in that country’s history.

Now for the crap. Of all the movies to remake, why Going in Style, a 1979 film starring George Burns. I suppose every thirty or forty years this film will be remade with a trio of codgers. This version (50) stars Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin, directed by Zach Braff. It seems to have standard old people humor, like the hilarity of an elderly person trying pot.

And for the kids and the parents who must suffer for them, there’s Smurfs: The Lost Village (40). Nothing more needs to be said.