Category Archives: Reviews

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.

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.

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.

Review: Personal Shopper

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For his last film, Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas cast Kristen Stewart as a personal assistant, and at the time I wrote about what a strange job that must be. Essentially, you’re an extension of someone, but you do the less glamorous things. You’re around someone rich and glamorous, but only get to orbit in their world, not take part in it.

In his follow-up film, the even better Personal Shopper, he again has Stewart in a job that destroys the identity, that of the title. She is a moorless American living in Paris and working for a socialite, going to fancy stores and picking clothing and accessories for her. It’s not a hard job, but it certainly isn’t rewarding in a sense of personal satisfaction.

The film is also a ghost story. Stewart had a twin brother who died of a congenital heart defect, one that she shares but is under close supervision for. Before her sister-in-law sells the house, Stewart attempts to see, or feel, if her brother is still there.

This makes for some creepy viewing, as Stewart seems to attract ghosts wherever she goes. She also gets involved in a murder (I won’t say of who) and a mysterious person who texts her as she goes to London and back. This scene is both fraught with suspense and a gamble–in this day and age, texts are a common form of communication, but if you would told me watching someone text for ten minutes would be exciting I would have been dubious.

Stewart is Assayas’ muse. You get the feeling he wrote the film for her. She is a big star, and did the star routine backwards–she started with the mega-hit and then went to independent films. She has made many small and interesting films, and the more I see of her the more I realize how talented she is. If you judge her talent by the Twilight films you’re making a mistake, even though she does seem to take roles that are sullen and emotionally locked people. But in Personal Shopper Assayas brings more out of her than any director I’ve seen. She is a sad person, yes. Maybe she should do a screwball comedy.

As with all of Assayas’ films (and I’ve seen seven of them, I think) they are not always easily deciphered. In Clouds of Sils Maria Stewart’s character disappears and is not seen again with no explanation. In Personal Shopper, there is a scene late in the film when she meets someone in a hotel. We don’t know what happens, though it would seem to be a key scene. It’s almost like someone cut the scene out and forgot to put it back in. You never leave an Assayas film with all the answers.

Personal Shopper, I think, is ultimately about identity. A twin has lost her other half, and is the eyes of another person though she can never wear her clothes (or her skin). She frequently says she wants to be someone else, and there is an electrifying though quiet moment when she tries on her boss’s clothes (which is forbidden, which makes it even more exciting for her). Does she envy her boss being rich and famous? Not really, I think she just envies that she is someone else.

 

Review: Get Out

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On the surface, Get Out is a basic horror film, largely structured around The Stepford Wives (the original, not the horrible remake). If every character had been white, or race had not been commented on, it would have been a solid thriller. But write and director Jordan Peele added another level, which makes Get Out a great conversation piece. It’s a metaphor for our so-called post-racial society.

Peele is one half of Key & Peele, the great comedy duo, and I’ve seen this film described as a comedy, but I wasn’t doing a lot of laughing, as it’s as creepy as hell. I don’t want to give too much away, as I had no idea what was coming, but a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) is visiting his white girlfriend’s (Allison Williams) family for the first time. He’s worried, of course, as he’s from the city and the parents are both doctors and live in the leafy suburbs. Williams assures him they are not racist.

When he gets there, though, something is odd. They treat him politely, almost too much so. And what’s with the servants, two black people who act as if they are lobotomized? It becomes even more odd when a party is thrown, and all the white guests patronize him, like making sure they let him know that they know Tiger Woods or asking him about the “American black experience.” When the one black guest, who also seems somewhat vacant, has a moment of lucidity, he tells Kaluuya to “Get out!”

What we have is a genuinely scary horror film combined with a racial commentary. This is nothing new–over forty years there was Blacula–but Peele makes some interesting commentaries on the persistence of black stereotypes–one woman at the party feels his bicep, as if he were on a slave auction block. The home of Williams’ parents (played eerily by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) has an almost plantation vibe, though you can’t quite put your finger on why.

Peele show great promise as a filmmaker. The direction is basic, as he doesn’t employ too many tricks and lets the story breathe.  Sometimes the foreshadowing is a bit oversold–early in the film Williams and Kaluuya hit a deer on the road. Later we see a closeup of a deer’s head trophy on the wall. It’s not hard to figure out what will happen to that trophy.

Review: Beauty and the Beast

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It is certainly not unreasonable to see Disney remaking many of their classic animated films as live-action as cynical cash grab. The question of “Why remake a great film,” especially only 25 years later, is usually answered simply with, “to make money.” But while watching Bill Condon’s version of Beauty and the Beast, the cynicism washes away almost immediately, from the use of the Beast’s castle taking the place of Sleeping Beauty’s castle in the logo opening. This Beauty and the Beast is not just a remake of the original, it’s a tribute to the movie-making process.

I haven’t seen the first Disney Beauty and the Beast in many years (for that matter, I haven’t seen the Jean Cocteau version) so I don’t know what if anything is different. It seems the same. Belle (Emma Watson) is a bibliophile in a provincial French town. She is pursued by a callow egomaniac, Gaston (Luke Evans) who is determined to marry her, despite not having a thing in common with her.

Meanwhile, an equally callow prince, after turning away an old woman from his castle, gets a curse put on him, turning him into something that mostly looks a mountain goat with sharp teeth. His staff are turned into objects, though they can talk and move. The old woman, who turns out to be an enchantress (not a witch, thank you) gives him the time it takes for a rose to lose all its petals. He must fall in love, and get someone to fall in love with him, or be stuck forever. But he isn’t optimistic–“Who would love a beast?” He must not know about furry conventions.

Through the actions of Belle’s father, a kindly artist (Kevin Kline), she gets herself imprisoned by the Beast (Dan Stevens, motion-captured). The staff, led by Lumiere, a candlestick, and Cogsworth, a clock, try to push the two together. Here is where there is some present-day discomfort: is this the Stockholm Syndrome? Does this give hope to every guy who would love to kidnap Emma Watson and make her love them? It’s a touchy area, but the script walks a fine line–they fall in love because they find things in common. Luckily there is not Trump/Clinton disagreement to break the deal.

The film is absolutely sumptuous. Count on Oscar nominations for costume and production design. The overall look is classic fairy tale, though there are real things mentioned, like Shakespeare and the Champs-Elysee. But there is also a contemporary feel to it. It moves quickly, and there is a meta nature to it, particularly from Josh Gad as Gaston’s companion. There was big brouhaha among the religious right about Gad playing a gay character, with august figures like Franklin Graham calling for a boycott. Gad is playing a gay character, no doubt about it, and there are also three swordsman who are put into women’s dresses who seem to be very happy about it. I also appreciated the stage-like casting, with a lot of diversity. There are interracial relationships, and it made me all warm and gooey inside.

The cast acquits itself. Everyone wondered about Watson’s singing ability, and while I wouldn’t advise a recording career, she was fine. It’s tough when you put great singers like Audra McDonald in the cast to compare. Emma Thompson is Mrs. Potts, Ewan McGregor is Lumiere, and Ian McKellen is Cogsworth. McKellen, after a long and largely obscure (at least in America) classical-stage career, has now been in numerous box office hits. He also has the funniest line of the film at the end, which I won’t spoil.

The film is getting good but not strong reviews, and it seems most of them have to do with the business aspects. But one can only review the film before you, not the reasons for its existence. On that level, I had a fine time with Beauty and the Beast. It’s a magical two hours.

Review: Kong: Skull Island

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Here’s a rarity–a blockbuster, tent-pole picture that doesn’t play dumb and is satisfying on almost every level. It also has a King Kong that doesn’t have a thing for white women, removing the racist stigma of three previous American Kong films.

Set in 1973, Kong: Skull Island is sort of a mash-up between Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Apocalypse Now (lest we miss that connection, there is a character named Conrad, after the author of Heart of Darkness, and another named Marlow, who was the protagonist of that novel). John Goodman plays a scientist who works for a government agency that searches for monsters, which is a stretch of the imagination, and he has satellite photos of an uncharted island. Along with a few other scientists, he is able to wrangle an Army escort.

This brings Samuel L. Jackson into the picture, as a the colonel of a helicopter squad just about ready to go home after the peace treaty (when you’re in a movie, never do anything dangerous when you’re about to retire or be sent home). Jackson, with his dead-eyed stare, is very good, less of the parody of himself that he has become (he doesn’t say motherfucker, but he does emit a “Bitch, please!” Also on the ride are a professional tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and a photojournalist (Brie Larson).

What’s unique about Kong: Skull Island is there is no teasing. In many monster movies, such as the first King Kong, which is a great picture, you don’t see the creature until well into the movie. That is not true here. As the helicopters fly in, Kong is there, swatting them out of the sky. Since the soundtrack is a boomer playlist, instead of Wagner playing as the copters go in, it’s Black Sabbath.

Many men of his men are killed and Jackson wants revenge. But, as the party is split into two, the civilians (Hiddleston, Larson, and Goodman et. al.) discover an inhabitant on the island, John C. Reilly, who crash-landed during World War II. He’s the Colonel Kurtz of the story (though he is named Marlow), who lives with an indigenous tribe and tells them all about Kong. “He’s like a God here,” he says, and the protector of the tribe from underground dwelling lizard-like creatures.

That’s a lot stuff, but it keeps things moving. There are some great action scenes. Kong will, of course, eventually tee off against the “big one,” and it’s a great fight. A few characters are surprisingly killed off, and there is a real sense of danger.

But what I most appreciated was Larson was not set up as the Fay Wray/Jessica Lange/Naomi Watts character. She’s a woman in man’s field, no nonsense about her job. Kong does not become enamored with her (Hiddleston does, sort of), so we lose the fear-of-miscegenation angle that the previous films have unfortunately displayed (see the scene in Inglorious Basterds where the original King Kong is discussed as a metaphor for American slaves).

The film was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose only previous feature was a Sundance film, The Kings of Summer. Unlike some indie directors, like Josh Trank, Vogt-Roberts seems right at home in big-budget land. I also liked the cinematography of Larry Fong, who gives Skull Island unearthly light that makes a viewer feel just a bit uncomfortable. Fong has shot many of Zack Snyder’s films, that you can hardly see at all, so it’s nice to see Fong out from under Snyder’s untalented thumb.

Kong will be back, and if you stick through the credits you’ll see the connection to Godzilla. I already feel like that the climactic fight in Kong: Skull Island was a fight with a giant lizard, so the upcoming film may be overkill. But I’ll buy a ticket.

Review: Logan

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Logan is getting some great reviews, I think partially because though it’s a Marvel property it doesn’t seem like one. No cities are destroyed, there’s no Spandex, and it’s far more character-driven that most comic-book films.

However, though I liked Logan for the most part, let’s not go overboard. This, the swan song of Hugh Jackman playing the role of Logan/Wolverine, has some effective moments and good performances, as well as some savage action scenes (no cities may be destroyed, but more than one person loses their head) there is not a lot of originality to the script, by director James Mangold. While I was watching I thought of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and also Stranger Things (which, granted, came out after Logan was written). A writer on the Cracked website compares it point by point to Children of Men, and it’s very convincing.

The year is 2029. and Logan is working as a limo driver. Mutants have ceased being born (I may have missed something in the canon, otherwise I don’t know why this is). He drinks a lot and is starting to feel the effects of age (he is over two-hundred years old). His healing properties are far slower, and he walks with a limp.

Logan also cares for Professor Charles Xavier, who has a brain disorder–when he doesn’t take his medicine his mind can create an earthquake-like occurrence. He is being kept in a toppled water tank near the Mexican border.

Xavier has picked up the presence of another mutant, a girl called Laura. She is brought to Logan from Mexico City by a nurse who has witnessed a genetic experiment to create mutants by artificial means. Thus, Laura, who is largely mute through most of the film, bears an uncanny resemblance to Eleven from Stranger Things, except Laura’s power is to be a baby Wolverine, clawing and ripping at her foes.

Of course, the evil corporation that is conducting the experiments has people looking for her, especially Boyd Holbrook, as a man with a mechanical arm. Logan and Xavier set out taking her to a haven for mutants in North Dakota for crossing into Canada (the immigration aspects are interesting, given the times we live in).

The gruff hero helping a child (as it turns out, children) is as old as movies, it seems, and Logan doesn’t really further the genre. Jackman, who has played Wolverine in eight films now, still manages to make the character interesting, especially in his frailties (though he still can use those claws). Patrick Stewart, as Xavier, who is also likely done with the character, goes out on a high note, although some may consider his British stage acting a bit hammy. It occurred to me that this might be an opportunity for Stewart to get an Oscar nomination (he’s never had one), but at this time last year I was thinking about John Goodman for 10 Cloverfield Lane.

I dare not spoil what happens here, but it is poignant without being too awash in sentimentality. It’s a fitting end for both Logan and Xavier’s characters, but as a guy who wrote for Marvel Comics once told me, “No one stays dead except for Uncle Ben.”

Logan, at two hours and seventeen minutes, is a bit too long, and has too many cliches, but it’s okay and a must for X-Men fans.

Review: Toni Erdmann

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Toni Erdmann, nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, was named best film of 2016 by Cahiers du Cinema, Sight & Sound, and Film Comment. Therefore, I couldn’t help but have my expectations too high. To be sure, Toni Erdmann has moments of brilliance, but over a two-hour-forty-minute running time they are spaced a bit too far apart. But I will say this–there are scenes that I won’t forget for a long time.

The film is about a retired music teacher (Peter Simonischek) who likes to pull people’s legs. At the very outset he pulls ours–he tells a package delivery man that his brother is just out of jail for mail bombs and is eating dog food. He comes back to the door as his brother, but it’s him, with fake teeth. It took me a moment or two to realize there was no brother.

Simoischek lives with a very old dog, and is barely in touch with his daughter Sandra Huller, who was a big-shot business consultant living in Bucharest. When his dog dies, he has nothing better to do than fly to Bucharest and surprise her. It will turn her life upside down.

He tags along at a reception at an American embassy and embarrasses her in front of a CEO whose business she’s trying to win (he tells the man he has hired a substitute daughter who will clip his toenails). After she think he’s gone, she goes out for dinner with friends and he shows up in a bad, long-haired wig, wearing those awful fake teeth, and claiming to be Toni Erdmann, who is friend of the Romanian tennis player Ion Tiriac, and is in town for Tiriac’s turtle’s funeral. Huller does not blow the whistle on him, and despite herself becomes enmeshed in his masquerade.

So what is writer-director Maren Ade trying to tell us? That “Toni Erdmann” is bringing happiness into the hum-drum, all-business life of his daughter? She is very uptight, but is also kinky. One scene I will never forget is when she makes her lover, a colleague, masturbate onto a pastry, which she then eats. If the dad is the free spirit who knows the secret to happiness, I’m not sure it’s posing as the German ambassador while your daughter watches her career go down the drain.

Ade could use a better editor. Some scenes go on way too long. I think of when father and daughter visit a local family’s house for Easter. He pushes her to sing “The Greatest Love of All,” all verses. It’s a naked moment for Huller, but it’s so cringe-worthy, even though she’s not a bad singer, that I wanted to crawl under the chair.

And speaking of naked moments–the scene everyone who has seen it will talk about is when Huller is giving a birthday brunch. She is so frustrated while getting dressed that she answers the door wearing only panties. It’s a female friend, so nothing is too shocking, but then she decides it’s going to be a naked party. She takes off the panties, and no one is allowed to stay who isn’t naked. This leads to some amusing scenes of full frontal nudity (there are two penises seen in this movie, so at least it’s fair). Then, if that weren’t enough, Simonischek shows up wearing a huge furry costume that is apparently a Bulgarian folk character that drives away evil spirits.

To me, Toni Erdmann’s particular moments don’t add up and instead it’s just a series of strange events. I’m not sure Huller learned anything, nor did Simonischek. I read one review that says it’s a long film but never self-indulgent; I think almost the whole movie is self-indulgent (there are also a lot of scenes about the oil business that are completely unnecessary).

German comedies are unusual–it is said to be one of the world’s shortest books (along with Italian war heroes or the Amish phone book)–and though Toni Erdmann is at times very funny, it fails when it tries to balance it with pathos. It’s a noble effort, and I’m glad I saw it, but best film of the year? No.

Review: The Salesman

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The first action of The Salesman is an apartment building starting to collapse. It’s an apt metaphor for Asghard Farhadi’s film, another in which he examines how a marriage falls apart. The building does not completely come down, but is uninhabitable, and there is a large crack in the bedroom of Edam and Rana, a young married couple.

Played by Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti, respectively, the couple are part of a Tehranian middle class. He teaches literature in high school, and both are taking part in a community theater production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (Hosseini is Willy Loman, hence the title).

One of their co-stars, made aware of their search for a new apartment, is a landlord who has a place. They like it, though the previous tenant has left a lot of of her stuff. Slowly it unfolds that she was a prostitute (that word is never used–she was “promiscuous,” “had a lot of male visitors,” etc.

One night, Alidoosti comes home earlier from a production, while Hosseini meets with censors (one of the several Iranian touches). The door buzzes and, thinking it’s her husband, she buzzes him in and opens the door. But as we watch the door slowly swing open from inertia, we realize that it’s not Hosseini coming up. As Anthony Lane pointed out in his review, it’s a scene Michael Haneke would love.

Alidoosti is attacked, but she does not see her attacker. When Hosseini realizes who was the previous tenant, he thinks it is one of her clients, who mistakes Alidoosti (who was in the shower) for the whore. He goes about trying to track this person down. In another Iranian touch, and what makes it entirely different from a Western film, the couple do not consult the police. In the U.S. a woman brought into an ER with a head wound would automatically attract police presence, but in Tehran it is thought better to just keep it quiet.

Eventualy Husseini finds his man, and it’s in a most ingenious fashion that Farhadi introduces him. This leads to a socko finish, an entire last act in one space–the fractured apartment, where Hosseini decides to enact revenge. Alidosti wants to forgive him, and tells Hosseini if he doesn’t let him go their marriage is over. Suddenly the stakes are much higher than Hosseini can handle.

The Salesman makes for gripping drama, and Farhadi is a very clever man. Not only does he use the metaphor of the crumbling building at the beginning, but he begins and ends the film with someone being carried down stairs. Hosseini does at the beginning, rescuing a disabled man, while at the end another man is carried down the stairs, dying, while Hosseeini does nothing.

The one thing I have not been able to figure out is, why Death of a Salesman? Clearly Farhadi chose this play specifically, one of the greats of the American theater, as his background story. But the parallels between the stories and the characters don’t seem to be there. Death of a Salesman is essentially about how a man wastes his life in pursuit of an ever-out-of-reach dream, and ends up failing his family. What is has to do with The Salesman I will have to ponder more.

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.

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.