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 Batman Lego Movie

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Perhaps the most interesting credit for The Batman Lego Movie is that the Executive Producer is Steve Mnuchin, our brand new Secretary of Treasury in the Trump administration. That makes some sense, because this iteration of Batman makes the caped crusader seem just like a certain orange-hued billionaire president.

As I guessed last March, The Batman Lego Movie is far better than Batman v. Superman, but it isn’t as charming as The Lego Movie. I mean, you can’t go wrong when one of the first gags in the movie is that a plane belongs to McGuffin Airways (a McGuffin being a term Alfred Hitchcock used), but at times it is so busy that I felt a bit overwhelmed (I misread the times for my theater and ended up watching the 3-D version, which might not have helped).

Batman was an amusing supporting player in The Lego Movie, and Will Arnett is back in his own adventure. He is solipsistic, narcissistic, thin-skinned, and a bit power mad, and doesn’t learn from his own mistakes, just like a certain president. He also has trouble saying he’s sorry. In short, he’s a basket case.

The message of the film is that everyone has to work together to make things happen, with the new Gotham City Police Commissioner, Barbara Gordon (voiced by Rosario Dawson) emphasizing cooperation with Batman instead of just calling for his help. Meanwhile Batman’s arch villain, The Joker (Zach Galifinakis) is upset when Batman tells him he doesn’t need him. Batman zaps him to something called the Phantom Zone, where the worst villains are kept, crossing genres with King Kong, Sauron, and Voldemort. The Joker frees them all, creating mayhem in Gotham City.

Other DC characters are on board, most specifically Robin (Michael Cera) and loyal butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes, who does not voice Voldemort, even though he played him in the films. Weird). There are also brief appearances by the Flash, Green Lantern, and other DC characters such as Condiment King, who really is a DC villain. The Joker tells us to Google him.

With Arnett’s growling voice, there is much humor mined from Batman’s loneliness. He eats re-heated lobster thermidore, then retires to a private screeing room to watch Jerry Maguire, at which he howls with laughter. Everything about this Batman is so silly and childish, but it is in line with the Batman mythos, as there is a meta sensibility, going back to the ’60s TV show and even the serials of the ’40s.

I would have liked it more if it had dialed down the sappy message, made the action scenes a little less seizure-inducing, and concentrated on the comedy.

Review: Nocturnal Animals

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Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford’s second feature, is the cinematic equivalent of gilding the lily. It is a film within a film, and the film within is a nice, tough desert noir, as if adapted from a pulp novel by Jim Thompson. If left to stand alone, it would have been powerful and satisfying. But, not leaving well enough alone, that film is wrapped with another, far less interesting film that mostly features Amy Adams staring into space.

The premise is that Adams, a gallery owner, receives a manuscript from her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal), who had always been a struggling writer. As she reads the book, it is acted out for us, with Gyllenhaal playing a second role as the father of a family accosted by hoodlums on a Texas highway. They kidnap and murder his wife and daughter (the wife is played by Adams look-alike Isla Fisher), and the crime is investigated by Michael Shannon (Oscar-nominated).

Every so often, when something dramatic happens in the book, Adams looks up, shocked (perhaps because her look-alike is brutally murdered in the book). We see flashbacks of how the couple met, wed, and divorced. She basically gave up on him and his supposed weakness (her mother, Laura Linney, warns her of it) and ends up with a rich man (Armie Hammer). As the shell of the film progresses, it becomes clear that Gyllenhaal has written the book as a giant fuck-you to Adams.

But all of that melodrama detracts from the terrific core of the movie. Shannon is terrific, as is Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays the lead scumbag. This part of the film crackles with intensity, and is expertly shot and designed (the “killing” trailer certainly looks the part). There are interesting questions about justice, and the ending is as brutal as I’ve seen in a while.

But that’s not the end of all of Nocturnal Animals, because there is the “real life” coda that kind of lets the air out of the tires. The book that it is based on, I presume, had the same structure, but Ford would have better off just shooting the noir part. In fact, I think it might do everyone well to re-release it at some point doing just that.

Random Thread for February, 2017

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I’ve had my copy of Film Comment for a while but just leafed through it for the first time. Here is the results of their annual poll of the best films of the year (2016, of course).

  1. Toni Erdmann
  2. Moonlight
  3. Elle
  4. Cemetery of Splendor
  5. Certain Women
  6. Paterson
  7. Manchester by the Sea
  8. Aquarius
  9. Things to Come
  10. No Home Movie
  11. The Lobster
  12. Right Now, Wrong Then
  13. Love & Friendship
  14. Cameraperson
  15. Kaili Blues
  16. The Handmaiden
  17. Everybody Wants Some!!
  18. The Fits
  19. Neruda
  20. The Other Side

Of all the movies I see each year, both in theaters and other ways, I’ve only seen six of these. I disagree about Elle, which I didn’t care for. My Netflix queue is already to capacity so it may be awhile until I get to these. Anyone seen any of the more obscure ones?

Review: Hidden Figures

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Hidden Figures is a perfectly acceptable film about a subject that makes all but the most hardened Klansmen feel all mushy inside: black women played an important part of putting men into space, and they faced discrimination, indignity, and were relegated into footnotes in history. It is well acted and has the requisite big beats–such as when Kevin Costner tears down a “Colored Women’s Bathroom” sign and Mahershala Ali proposes to Taraji P. Henson in front of her whole family.

But what Hidden Figures is not is one of the best movies of the year. It was written and directed by the numbers by Theodore Melfi, and since it “based on true events” one would have to read the original book to know exactly what happened–parts of the film feel inauthentic. Would IBM guys really not know how to operate their own machine, while Octavia Spencer could do it by reading a book about Fortran? Maybe so, but the scene feels loaded.

The notion that Hidden Figures is better than Silence, or 20th Century Women, or Loving is ludicrous. It is simply a crowd-pleaser that will make black people proud and white people content that they would not be so racist way back then.

The three core women of the story are Henson, as a mathematical genius and the main focus of the story; Spencer as a woman who manages a large pool of black women who work on an assignment basis and wants to be promoted to supervisor; and Janelle Monae as a black woman who wants to be an engineer but has to take classes at an all-white high school to achieve it. They all have arcs that it doesn’t take a spoiler to know will end well for them (Henson’s character, Katherine G. Johnson, who is still alive, was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom at age 97), but were short-changed by the history books (none was mentioned in The Right Stuff, for example).

This is all well and good, and will make the viewer happy, but it is not an artful picture; it hums along like a TV-movie. I have nothing against it as such, but when it gets a nomination for Best Picture instead of better films, it gores my ox a bit.

I did like the acting, particularly by Henson. Spencer got a nomination, and she is kind of specializing in a cliche–the motherly black woman who is wise and patient. Henson has most of the big scenes, but Spencer has the best line, when she is told by her supervisor, Kirsten Dunst, “I really have nothing against you people.” Spencer smiles and says, “I know you believe that.” I also thought Monae, who is renowned as a recording artist, makes a fine actress, proving it here and in Moonlight. Ali, who was nominated for his role as a drug dealer in Moonlight, here plays a completely different character, an upright colonel in the National Guard.

Costner steals almost every scene he is in, playing a guy who just wants to get the job done, and really doesn’t care about race or gender or protocol. It is unfortunate though that the role is yet another white guy whose help is indispensable. Jim Parsons, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, plays yet another uptight genius.

Review: 20th Century Women

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Mike Mills, in his third film, has become an even stronger writer-director. I thought his last film, Beginners, had a lot of promise, and it is paying off in 20th Century Women. When I read over my review of Beginners (I hardly ever remember movies any more, just whether I like them) I see that the main character had an eccentric mother. Apparently this is autobiographical. In Beginners it was about his father, but 20th Century Women is about mothers.

Set in Santa Barbara in 1979 (my time period) 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) has the normal concerns, but also some very bizarre ones. His best friend is a girl two years older than him (Elle Fanning) that will have sleepovers but not have sex with him (though she has sex with many other guys). His mother, Annette Bening, was a working woman even back in the Depression, and has a curious view of life. She’s an extremely permissive parent, sticking up for Jamie when he misses too much school. She fears she is knowing him less every day, and enlists Fanning and a boarder, Bohemian photographer Greta Gerwig, to help raise him.

There is a male presence in the house, another boarder who is remodeling the house (a precise metaphor for the constant state of unfixedness in the family), Billy Crudup. But he’s a man-child, who has plenty of affairs but doesn’t know how to relate to women. Bening has to teach him how to ask a woman to dance.

It’s these five characters who exist in a little world. There’s a lot of Wes Anderson in this film–he also makes films about unconventional families and Mills adds Andersonian touches such as title cards telling us when characters were born and focusing on the books they are reading. There’s also a great emphasis on music–mostly the Talking Heads (Zumann is beaten for liking them, defamed as an “art fag”) and other punk groups of the period.

Motherhood, and its effects on a child, is the spine of the film. Bening has her own influence on Zumann, even if she never seems to get mad at him no matter what he does (a late scene has her participating in a dangerous stunt with him that reminded me of the end of The Royal Tenenbaums when Gene Hackman and Ben Stiller ride on the back of a truck), but there are other kinds of mothers. Gerwig, a lonely person who looks for solace in art and music, is recovering from cervical cancer, caused by her mother taking a fertility drug. Fanning, who at seventeen is far too intense for that age, is the daughter of a therapist who includes her in teen group therapy, a huge ethical lapse that drives them apart (it is well known that the children of mental health professionals are crazier than most).

All the performances are fine, but it’s Bening’s show. She should have been nominated for an Oscar, as her line readings and facial expressions are thrillingly authentic. She wears no makeup, wears Birkenstocks and smokes Salems (there is more smoking in this film than any I can recall that doesn’t star Humphrey Bogart) and seems to have given up on happiness, which drives Zumann crazy. But Gerwig, one of America’s more interesting actresses these days, and Fanning are almost as good.

Mills is a director to watch. 20th Century Women was one of the best of 2016.

Opening in Las Vegas, January 27, 2017

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Quiet week, as I catch up with Oscar nominees.

One holdover from 2016 that did not get a nomination is Gold (50) , with Matthew McConaughey playing a sleazy prospector. It is the lowest opening of McConaughey’s career, so maybe the McConaughsance is over.

I don’t know if this reflects on my memory or the quality of the films, but I honestly can’t remember if I’ve seen a Resident Evil film. I think I saw the one that takes place in a Las Vegas covered with dirt, but I don’t know. The latest, promisingly titled Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (54) (at least until the reboot) will probably go unseen by me.

Finally there’s A Dog’s Purpose (43), which seems wholesome enough–a dog is reincarnated through several owners, and eventually returns to the owner he had in childhood. But a controversial video about a German Shepherd forced to swim in turbulent water has ignited anger from animal rights groups.

The 89th Oscars: The Hollywood Reach-Around

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“Who do I have to blow to get nominated?”

People who don’t like the Oscars often cite the notion that it is a bunch of Hollywood elites congratulating themselves. This was further elucidated, especially by conservatives, after Meryl Streep went off on Donald Trump at the Golden Globes. To this I say–well, duh. Of course entertainment awards are mutual masturbation sessions. Do the Oscars mean anything? Except for a boost in box office for some films, absolutely not. They are garish, silly, and often boring. But I am fascinated by them.

I can pinpoint my interest in the Oscars. For the 1971 awards, Life magazine (is there anyone old enough here to remember it?) ran a two-page spread with a picture of all the nominees. I didn’t know who most of them were (Jeff Bridges, who’s he?) but something about it compelled interest. My parents let me stay up, even though I was only ten years old, and I haven’t missed a show since then. I have studied and handicapped Oscars for years, I think because they combine my love of movies with my love of sports. These people are really like horses at the big race.

So, for those who have a kernel of interest, this year had two big stories. One is that La La Land tied a record, set by All About Eve and Titanic, for most nominations with 14. This was pretty much expected, and the film has to be considered a runaway favorite (if Damien Chazelle wins the DGA, it’s all over). This will make for a boring awards show, especially for those who hate the film (and I have heard from some). There is a backlash against it by those who find it silly, unrealistic, and without any depth. But I doubt this backlash will effect any voters–they are all in the movie industry, Note some of the recent Best Picture winners–Argo and The Artist. Both about Hollywood. The suspense on February 26th will be whether La La Land breaks the record for wins, which is now a three-way tie between Ben-Hur, Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. 

The other, larger story, is that seven actors of color were nominated, a record (six of them are of African lineage, one is East Indian). Three black women are nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category, a record for any acting category. Barry Jenkins is the fourth black Best Director nominee, and in a first, a black woman was nominated in the Best Editing category (both for Moonlight). Two black men, Denzel Washington and Pharrell Williams, are producers in the Best Picture category, and three of the Best Picture nominees are about black American life.

I think this last sentence is key–I may be incredibly naive, but I don’t think there’s racism at work in the nominating process. This year saw a lot of black nominees because there were good movies with a lot of black actors. If Hollywood continues to make these films, #OscarsSoWhite will permanently go out of business.

But certainly there is a historic lack of representation of black winners. I was struck by two factoids from his year’s nominations: Viola Davis is the first woman to receive three nominations, and Octavia Spencer is the first black woman to receive a nomination after she had won.

Snubs? Well, there are always some, even if they have to be invented. I suppose the closest thing to one is Amy Adams getting passed over for Arrival even after it got all the necessary nominations for a Best Picture win–director, screenplay, and editing. I suppose her nomination went to Ruth Negga of Loving, who gave a very good but understated performance–no obvious clip for her–which goes against a lot of Oscar history. Or maybe it’s Meryl Streep, getting nominated for a technically good but ultimately frivolous role in Florence Foster Jenkins. It’s Streep’s 20th nomination; she has lost more times than the runner-up, Katharine Hepburn, was nominated.

Another supposed snub was Deadpool getting completely shut out. After nominations from the PGA and WGA, some Oscar ninnies were giddily wondering if it would get a Best Picture nomination. Except for Heath Ledger’s nomination for The Dark Knight, no comic book movie has ever gotten an above the line nomination, and it wasn’t about to start with Deadpool. Let’s get real.

A few perpetual bridesmaids: Kevin O’Connell got his 21st nomination for Sound Mixing for Hacksaw Ridge. He has never won, and holds the record for Oscar futility. He’s in the same category with Greg P. Russell, who has now 17 nominations without a win (this time for 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi). They will probably both lose to La La Land.

In the music category, Thomas Newman got a nod for Passengers. His family has wracked up a lot of Oscar nominations. Uncle Alfred had 43 nominations and nine wins. Cousin Randy has twenty nominations and two wins, but didn’t win until his 16th try. So Thomas can take solace, he now has 14 nominations without ever winning.

Over the next 33 days I’ll put up my thoughts on who will win, as I always do. It might be pretty easy this year, although I’m already struggling over who will win Best Makeup and Hair Design.

Opening in Las Vegas, January 20

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Who would have thought M. Night Shamalyan had a comeback in him? Split (64), a thriller about a man with multiple-personality disorder, earned a whopping 40 million this weekend. Shamalyan was thisclose to being permanently relegated to television. Maybe there are second acts in people’s lives. I probably won’t see this, though, and wait for DVD.

Underperforming was xXx: The Return of Xander Cage (42), maybe because of its stupid capitalization. I’m surprised this didn’t do better, because it looks for all the world like another Fast and Furious film, and they all do well. Not likely to see this one, ever.

The Founder (67), a 2016 holdover and Oscar hopeful for Michael Keaton, was reviewed by our own Marco. Seems interesting–the story of the ruthlessness of Ray Kroc, who bought McDonald’s and turned it into one of the largest brands in the world. Still, I’ll probably wait for DVD.

The movie I’m most likely to see in theaters is 20th Century Women (83), the second film from Mike Mills, who also made Beginners. Looks like a family drama set in 1979, a year I remember very well. Oscar buzz for Annete Bening and Greta Gerwig.

 

Review: Elle

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Elle, which recently won two Golden Globes, is a disturbing, interesting, but not entirely satisfying psychological thriller directed by Paul Verhoeven with an electrifying performance by Isabelle Huppert. I left the film figuratively scratching my head. What did I just see?

The film begins in black, with the sounds of a struggle. Then we see a cat, calmly watching as its owner is raped. The woman is Huppert, her assailant is wearing a ski-mask. He leaves, and she calmly cleans up the broken vases and takes a bath, the blood from her invasion soaking the bubbles. As she’s taking a bath, your mind is screaming–“you’re destroying evidence,” but she has no thought of reporting the crime to the police.

Turns out Huppert is the CEO of a video game company that creates very violent games, and she is the daughter of an infamous mass murderer. She thinks about revenge, and purchases items to protect her, like mace and an ax, and when the perpetrator leaves her little notes and texts suggesting he’s closer to her than she thinks, she doesn’t really freak out, I mean, not like I would.

What Huppert and Verhoeven do in this film is make a victim of a crime a horrible person. There are many subplots (too many) that show her as an awful human being. She is disgusted by her elderly mother’s romance with a younger man. She is sleeping with her best friend’s husband. She isn’t helping matters with her son, who is having a baby with a monstrous young woman (when it becomes obvious that the child is not his, she is the only one who points it out). But because she is being stalked by some kind of psycho, we cut her some slack. A lot of slack.

Then the film takes a turn that I imagine might anger many feminists–it angered me. I don’t want to go into it, but let’s just say when she finds out who her rapist is (and I figured it out pretty easily) she doesn’t react the way we want her to, or the way the film is marketed. This isn’t so much a revenge film as a film about a woman who is seriously fucked up, long before she was raped.

Other than Huppert’s clever performance, Elle is far too sordid and unpleasant for me to recommend.

Review: Silence

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If you know that Martin Scorsese, early in his life, wanted to be a priest, you can understand why one of his passions was bringing Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence to the screen. It is about Jesuit priests in seventeenth-century Japan, and their struggle to avoid apostatizing themselves in the face of persecutors.

This is a stunning film, both visually and intellectually. Within there is a mini-course on theology, and while some scenes seem redundant (there is a bit too much torture and execution for my tastes–we get it) it is almost always gripping, despite it’s near three-hour length.

Silence follows a familiar trope in films, from The Searchers (one of Scorsese’s favorite films) to Saving Private Ryan–the search and rescue film. A priest, played by Liam Neeson, is forced to apostatize (that is, renounce his faith) by the inquisitors of Japan, who are Buddhists and outlaw Christianity. Word of this reaches the head priest in Macao (Ciaran Hinds). Both of these characters, I was interested to read, were real people.

Hinds briefs two young Jesuits (who are fictional and played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver). They don’t believe that Neeson has given up his faith, and are determined to track him down, even though it is highly dangerous for them to set foot in Japan. They go anyway, led by a guide (Yosuke Kubozuko) who has apostatized many times, and will many times again, believe he can be absolved by confession. The two priests find a small community of Christians living in hiding.

The title Silence comes from the fundamental trouble with the priests; faith–why is God silent in the face of such suffering? It also shows how Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, is rooted in suffering, and that the promise of paradise after death comforts those that are suffering. It becomes a test, led the inquisitor (a very good Issey Ogata), and a simple one–deny your faith, and you will go free. If you do not deny it, you will die. He takes this further after Garfield is captured–if he will renounce his faith, Ogata will let many Christians go free. If Garfield refuses, they will be killed.

The film, while at times being very violent, is mostly talk. There are many conversations about faith and absolution–between Garfield and Driver, Garfield and Ogata (their conversations are central to the film) and then a stunning scene between Neeson and Garfield, where Neeson explains why Christianity can not take hold in Japan (today only about one percent of Japan is Christian). In a way, Silence is like My Dinner With Andre with the topic as religion with the chance that one of their heads will be cut off.

The acting is impressive. Garfield has had a good year, with this film beside Hacksaw Ridge, in two very different roles (though both about devout men). Driver, who suddenly seems to be all over the place, has a smaller role but I think a more interesting one, as he plainly struggles more with his faith, while Neeson really only has a cameo but knocks it out of the park. The Japanese actors are all terrific, especially Ogata, who is a man who smiles as he tells you you will be tortured.

Silence has a few false endings, but I think ends with the right shot, which I certainly won’t reveal here. I think how one views the film will depend on their own religious beliefs. As a nonbeliever, I kind of felt sad that so many people went to hideous deaths out of a sense of duty to Jesus Christ, but at the same time I had to admire their courage. I would have said anything to stay alive, but just crossed my fingers behind my back.

Opening in Las Vegas, January 13, 2017

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Lots of expansions of Oscar bait this week, plus some usual January trash.

The long-awaited Martin Scorsese film, Silence (79) is the top release this week. Scorsese has wanted to make this movie for nearly thirty years. As someone who has seen all of Scorsese’s film (and I do mean all) I’ll be there tomorrow, even though it’s an almost three-hour film about missionaries in Japan (seems more Kundun that Mean Streets).

Live by Night (48) the fourth feature of by Ben Affleck, seems to be his first dud. That’s too bad, because I read the book and kind of wanted to see it. Reviews indicate what I suspected–there’s too much in the book for a two-hour movie. He should have made an epic or a miniseries. It’s an old-fashioned gangster tale, and yes, it takes place in Boston (among other places).

Speaking of Boston, Patriots Day (70) is getting decent reviews, except in the Boston area (there’s some gripes about Mark Wahlberg playing a composite character). I can’t see myself actually paying money to see a Peter Berg film. I did that once for Very Bad Things and got what I deserved. I may see it on home video.

Elle (89) just won Isabelle Huppert a Golden Globe, as well as Best Foreign Film. While Huppert, a great actress who has never been nominated for an Oscar, may get one, the film will not, as it’s not on the shortlist. Anyway, the film is a highly regarded if violent film from Paul Verhoeven. When’s the last good movie this guy made?

The January trash starts with Monster Trucks (41), which seems like an idea based on putting the words monster and truck together and going from there. So, these trucks have actual monsters in them. Not my cup of tea.

Sleepless (28) shows how far Jamie Foxx has fallen. Topic for discussion: can Foxx’s career be saved? Typical cop film. Set in Las Vegas. May have to rent someday to see if any local landmarks are used.

Finally, The Bye Bye Man (35) seems to be an attempt to cash in on the Slender Man rumors as well as the creepy clown phenomenon. Tonights showings will be full of teenagers.

 

 

Opening in Las Vegas, January 6, 2017

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Two leftovers from 2016 and 2017’s first new release! And of course it’s shitty.

Sorry to say, but Hidden Figures (74) looks dreadful. It’s certainly a worthy story–African American women who were mathemiticians helping the space program, now getting their due, and it may pick up some Oscar nominations, but the trailer makes it seem like a pandering exercise in “see, black women are smart, too.” Anybody who doesn’t know that already doesn’t deserve to be able to go to the movies. I’d much rather see a documentary on the subject.

A bit more intriguing to me, though I probably won’t see it in a theater, is A Monster Calls (76). It looks like a variation on the very popular theme of the beleaguered kid having his own personal bodyguard to wreak havoc on his enemies. When I was a kid I longed to have a robot like the one in Lost in Space to avenge myself against bullies. “Danger, Will Robinson!” I have a feeling the monster in this film is just inside the kid’s head, but I don’t know for sure.

The fifth in the series, Underworld: Blood Wars (20) is a typically horrible film that gets released the first weekend of the year. I guess it’s counter-programming for all the good movies that are out there now. “Gee, Martha, there’s so many of these durn quality films out there, I want to see something really stupid.” Well, here you go. I actually saw one or two of these movies on DVD just to see Kate Beckinsale. I’m not dead, you know.

By the way, not all January releases used to be terrible. The Grapes of Wrath was actually released in the first week of January, 1940, when all types of movies were released at all times of the year. Topic for discussion: what’s the best movie you can rememeber that was released in January? (and I don’t mean an expansion of a movie released in December).

Review: Lion

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After watching Lion I thought about when people say a movie is “manipulative.” Usually that’s not a compliment, but I think all movies and books and plays are manipulative. The creators are trying to make us feel a certain way, to set us up for the cry, the laugh, or the thrill. When someone says a movie is too manipulative, it’s usually because the manipulation is obvious. A good movie manipulates you without you even knowing it. Lion is a movie where you feel manipulated at every turn.

Lion is not a bad movie. It’s directed competently by Garth Davis in his debut, and he is able to incorporate Google Earth as part of the story without it seeming completely ridiculous. The acting, especially by Dev Patel, is strong. But the script by Luke Davies, and even the entire premise, is full of road signs telling us how to feel and when.

The story, which is true, has a little Indian boy following his brother to take a train to a job. The older boy leaves his brother to sleep on a bench, but the little brother gets curious and finds himself on an empty train, where he falls asleep. He awakes on a moving and empty train, with doors that won’t open. The train finally stops in Calcutta, a thousand miles away. He doesn’t know his mother’s name (and she is illiterate) and butchers the name of his home town.

He ends up in an orphanage, where he is taken in by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and grows up to be Dev Patel. He has a pretty nice life, though the couple adopt a second Indian child who has a lot of problems. But when Patel gets to be in his twenties he starts to think more about his family left in India, and how they must have gone crazy looking for him. Some friends, including his girlfriend, Rooney Mara, urge him to use Google Earth, because he remembers certain things about the train station. He gets obsessed, looking at every train station within a certain radius of Calcutta.

So what, exactly, is the point of Lion? We know how this puppy is going to end from before we even take our seats, if we read anything about it or even look at the poster. Is it simply to have a good cry? Is it to highlight the atrocious way India takes care of its children (an end card states that 80,000 Indian children go missing every year, which kind of startled me, not because of the number, which is horrible, but because the film was not a polemic)? I’m not really sure. Okay, I did get teary at the end–it would be hard not to unless you have a piece of coal for a heart, but I hated myself for it.

Lion is really a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie with top-drawer talent. For people who like that sort of thing, go for it. But it’s being mentioned as a Best Picture Oscar contender and this is very wrong. Patel, should he get a nomination, would be worthy. Kidman has a weepy scene that may earn her a nomination, but it’s only because she’s Nicole Kidman. An unknown actress wouldn’t get a sniff.

 

Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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I’m not a Star Wars geek–there were many characters in Rogue One: A Star Wars story that have appeared in other Star Wars films, but I didn’t recognize them (except for the crustacean-like Admiral, who memorably said “It’s a trap!”). Therefore, there may be many subtleties I missed. But the first “stand-alone” Star Wars picture was a well-done action yarn, with an especially strong last act.

In the grand scheme of things, Rogue One falls just before Star Wars IV: A New Hope, or to everybody else the first Star Wars. In fact, for those coming cold into this film there might be some confusion (my girlfriend, who had only seen Star Wars VII last year, had to be filled in at several points). So stand-alone is a bit of a misnomer, because events in this film lead directly to the next film.

That event is stealing the plans for the Death Star, which is blown up in Star Wars IV (sorry for the 40-year-old spoiler). At the outset of this film, a scientist (Mads Mikkelsen) who is essential to building the Death Star, is forcibly returned after trying to disappear. His wife is killed by the villain of his piece, a project manager of sorts who is constantly looking for approval. Played by Ben Mendelsohn, he seems right out of every office I worked in.

Mikkelson’s daughter escapes, and is raised by a rebel (Forest Whitaker, in a very bizarre performance). She grows up to be Felicity Jones, and she’s something of a juvenile delinquent, but a defecting Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed) delivers a hologram that indicates that Mikkelsen has intentionally built a flaw into the Death Star. The Rebel Alliance uses a hotshot pilot (Diego Luna) and his droid (Alan Tudyk) to use her to get to her father and the plans to the planet-size weapon.

Whew. That’s all established in the first act, the rest is a mixture of comic book dialogue and spaceships fighting each other. This is where the film is least interesting–the transformation of Jones and Luna (who starts to see her as something more than just as a cog) is too melodramatic–but when Jones and Luna get a little team together, including Ahmed, Donnie Yen as a Zatiochi-like blind swordsman, and Jiang Wen, who looks like Genghis Khan, the film started to click (the diversity of this group was very refreshing, also).

The last act may contain the most memorable scene of the character who has appeared in seven of the eight Star Wars films–Darth Vader. He has a kick-ass fight scene that really gets the blood pumping. Of all the characters in this series, he may be George Lucas’s greatest creation, seen only in shadow at first, but introduced by his theme song (does any movie character have their own recognizable theme?).

I am certainly not going to spoil the end, but don’t expect a direct sequel. I take it the next film is about Han Solo’s early years, and then we get Star Wars VIII. But this film, directed competently by Gareth Edwards, as there is no end in sight for the number of stories that can be told.

A quick word about using CGI to resurrect dead characters: Peter Cushing, who died many years ago, was sort of photo-shopped into his film as General Tarken, a part he played in the first film. Apparently they had permission from Cushing’s family, but I don’t like it. The CGI is not entirely convincing. And (read no further if you haven’t seen the film yet) the inclusion of a young Carrie Fisher as Princes Leia was especially disturbing. Of course, when the film was released Fisher was very much alive, but seeing her like that after her death was jarring. There’s nothing they could about it, of course, but I’m just sayin’.