Category Archives: Reviews

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.

Review: Bright Lights Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (TV) (2016)

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When a documentary on the famed mother/daughter combination called ‘Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher And Debbie Reynolds’ was in the works last year, it already promised to be a notable event.

Reynolds and then Fisher both had been part of pop culture for over 60 years and had rather similar careers; both had one film that defined their lives, both were multi-talented enough that when their film careers stalled they were able to successfully branch out into other areas (Fisher with screenwriting, Reynolds on Broadway and cabaret) and both had messy private lives that often played out in public

But when they tragically died almost simultaneously late last year, this documentary carried extra weight and poignancy to it and its release was brought forward due to public interest.

The documentary isn’t a traditional biography on Reynolds & Fisher; it’s more a potted history of them mixed with fly-on-the-wall observations of their lives interspersed with old home movies. Also, while this documentary is portrayed as a joint Reynolds/Fisher take, it really is largely from Fisher’s point of view and is mainly her story and her perspectives on her mother and life in general.

As a take on Carrie Fisher’s life, the overall impression one gets is that she was finally at peace with herself and the life she had lived. She was at peace with the tumult of her childhood when her father Eddie Fisher left her mother for Elizabeth Taylor which became a huge international story. While it isn’t directly said, clearly the whole saga had a major impact on her psyche for decades; how could it not?

We see Carrie at peace with her relationship with Debbie, which had at times been on rocky ground in previous decades. We see them live next door to each other with both of them bantering and conversing like they’re an older version of the mother/daughter from The Gilmore Girls.

Also, we see Carrie at peace in her relationship with her father Eddie Fisher. In perhaps the most poignant segment of the documentary, we see Carrie taking care of Eddie only months before his death in 2010. To see Eddie – once one of the most popular singers in America – sickly and incapacitated sharing tender moments with a daughter who’d he had a difficult relationship with, is genuinely moving.

And we see Carrie at peace with her eternal fame from the Star Wars franchise. We see her at a fan convention (something she only took to late in life) signing autographs and conversing with people of all ages who see her as a heroic figure. Fame overwhelmed her when it hit in the late 70s (especially as she had no desire to be an actress) but as she discusses after the convention she clearly has come to terms with how much her role and performance have meant to others.

A great asset of the documentary is the plethora of home movie footage it shows of Reynolds/Fisher in the early years right down to Carrie at The Great Wall Of China in the 1980s. The most significant home movie footage from a Reynolds cabaret show in the early 1970s where a reluctant Carrie is brought on to stage to impressively sing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. To then see Reynolds in the present day get emotional at how Carrie never wanted to sing publicly is touching.

As for Reynolds, we get to see her perform in the present day in her one-woman shows. It’s rather sad in one way as she clearly struggles at times (her health problems are a constant theme throughout the documentary) but the admiring older audience at the shows don’t seem to mind and are glad that she’s still performing after so many decades.

As a documentary, ‘Bright Lights’ is rather frustrating at times. It jumps about in time constantly and feels a bit messy, although the closing stages surrounding Debbie receiving a SAG Lifetime Achievement award helps give it focus. Also, one feels that the documentary might’ve had better structure and purpose if the documentary had been told from the perspective of Carrie’s brother Todd (who does provide observation & narration on occasion).

But perhaps ‘Bright Lights’ is better served by its rather messy style than being a more traditional style as it isn’t about providing a comprehensive analysis of Debbie & Carrie’s lives, but capturing what made them tick and observing the chaos and contradictions they lived through. And especially with Carrie, it does seem to capture her essence as a personality and what made her so appealing to the public during her life.

Overall, ‘Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher And Debbie Reynolds’ is a worthy celebration of two remarkable lives.

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.

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’.

Review: Jackie

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I was born during the Kennedy administration, so Jackie Kennedy (and later Onassis) was always one of the most famous women in the world while I was growing up, until her death in 1994. But she was also mysterious, rarely giving interviews. I remember the first time I heard her speak, in a clip from her ballyhooed television tour of the White House. It was shocking–she had a breathy, baby-doll voice, sounding all the world like an empty-headed debutante. But she was much more complicated.

Jackie is an interesting film, directed by a Chilean, Pablo Larrain, and starring Natalie Portman as the recently widowed First Lady. The framing of the film is an interview by Theodore H. White (played by Billy Crudup, but credited only as “the Journalist”) that Jackie gives him a week after the assassination. It was in this interview that she mentioned JFK’s habit of listening to the original cast recording of the Broadway musical Camelot, thus supplying America a metaphor for his presidency.

On the surface, what he have here is a movie about a woman planning a funeral. The events are from the landing in Dallas to the funeral itself, then the interview, with flashbacks to the tour of the White House. The players are all there: Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, John Carroll Lynch as LBJ, along with actors representing LBJ’s assistant Jack Valenti (who would for years be the head of the MPAA), Lady Bird Johnson, and Greta Gerwig as the White House social secretary and Jackie’s school friend. Jackie is determined that he not be buried in Massachusetts, but at Arlington, and that there be a procession from the Capitol to the church.

While this is the skeleton of the film, Jackie is really about iconography and legacy. For someone my age, and perhaps those younger, there are many touchstones of our collective memories–the pink suit, bloodied, and the pillbox hat, the caisson carrying the casket, the riderless horse, the image of the Lincoln speeding away, JFK cradled in Jackie’s arms after she instinctively tried to grab a piece of his head from the trunk of the car. I was astonished that Larrain and screenwriter did not include John-John’s salute, which for many Americans was too much to bear.

Through her grief, Jackie is aware that she is molding a legacy. We see her in her private moments, and there is almost a feeling of uncomfortableness. She takes a shower, the blood washing off her skin. She smokes incessantly, though she tells Crudup pointedly that she does not smoke–she has full editorial control of the interview.

The film is short, and is mostly a collage of images, told out of order, a portrait of grief and legacy-building. Portman nails the voice, as well as being very convincing in her duality–the public face, and the private woman who is nobody’s fool.

Jackie isn’t quite the film I expected. It has an experimental feel to it. It’s very talky, with a long scene between Portman and a priest (John Hurt) on the nature of suffering. This film is not cheerful, and is much more thoughtful than entertaining, but for Baby Boomers it will have resonance.

Review: Fences

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Here’s what I learned while watching Fences: Denzel Washington is a great actor, and this is one of this greatest performances, but Denzel Washington is not a great director.

August Wilson’s play was years in the making. He wrote the screenplay well over a decade ago (he died in 2005) and insisted that it be directed by a black director. Finally Washington got it made, and it is a showcase of great acting and some brutally powerful dialogue. But Washington’s ham-fisted direction, along with an ending that defies belief (I’ve never read or seen the play, so I don’t know if that was Wilson’s idea) hamper what could have been a great film, but it merely a good one.

Washington plays Troy Maxson, a garbageman in Pittsburgh in the late ’50s. He is bitter, because he was a great baseball player but never got a chance at the Majors (he says that Jackie Robinson couldn’t have even made some of the teams he played on). He has a devoted but weary wife (Viola Davis) and a teenage son (Jovan Adepo), who wants to play college football, but Washington doesn’t trust that football will do right by him (to show how different times were then from now, when a college scholarship for an inner city black youth is like a golden ticket). He also has a son from a previous marriage (Russell Hornsby) who is a musician, which Washington doesn’t approve of.

Washington mostly sits in his backyard, drinking gin and telling tall tales with his friend and co-worker (Stephen McKinley Henderson). He talks about wrestling with Death for three days and three nights. He has also been building a fence for ages. This is the central metaphor of the play and film, signifying the title. Henderson tells him at one point, “Fences can keep people out, or they can keep people in.”

There are some highly-charged moments in the play, dealing with circumstances I don’t wish to spoil, since I didn’t know they were coming. But Washington makes no real attempt to “break open” the play, including only a few minor scenes that are not set in his house or yard. I’m not a person who believes a film based on a play has to be broken out, but Fences seems claustrophobic. Of course, maybe this was Washington’s intention. I’m sure it was not his intention to have strangely framed scenes, with characters wandering off a distance before cutting to a close two shot of them, or characters at the edge of a frame for no particular reason. There is also some instances of weather to heighten dramatic effect, something I find to be lazy.

But as for Washington’s performance, wow! This cements his status as one of the great American actors, ever. He’s made some bad movies, sure, and even possibly some bad performances, but this character is fully realized, and every emotion is etched on his face. He’s a voluble character, but it’s his few quiet moments that ring with me. Davis is no less his match, and surely will win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She has a couple of big scenes, letting Washington know where their relationship stands.

The screenplay has some very funny dialogue, too, but a few stagey scenes that don’t work, such as Washington telling his best friend and son how he left home at the age of fourteen. Surely that would have come up before in their relationships, but it needed to laid out as exposition for what would come next. It’s a bit clumsy,

Fences is a crowd-pleaser, and it is great to see a film about the black experience in America by a black director with a black cast. As the film is full of baseball metaphors, Fences is a clean single, but not a home run.

Review: Miss Sloane

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On its facade, Miss Sloane is about the sleazy nature of doing business in Washington. But behind it is an interesting commentary on feminism and the notion of “You’ve come a long way, baby.” It also features a blazing performance by Jessica Chastain, one of our finest actresses.

The subject is lobbying. A lobbyist is a person who, like a lawyer (I think most of them are) takes a client to try to influence lawmakers to give that client what they want. These lobbyists don’t usually care what their client wants, therefore lobbyists are also people who have no trouble sleeping at night. The infantile, very naive part of my brain wonders why there are lobbyists at all–don’t our representatives vote for what they believe in, reflecting their constituents’ will? Boy, am I stupid.

Chastain is a lobbyist and very good at her job. Her firm is being courted by what I presume is the NRA, but the initials are never spoken aloud. They are worried about a bill that would apply background checks to all sales, including within families, etc. (a bill like this just passed in Nevada, amazingly). They would like Chastain to go after the female voter and make guns seem more feminine. She laughs at them–she is personally for gun control. Sam Waterston, her boss, is angry (as he should be) and she is lured away by the firm represented by the Brady people. It turns out she has principles.

So there’s a lot of cross-talk about gun control, but this is only a smoke screen. The movie is really about Chastain and the special character in movies of the hard-driven career woman. She is the spiritual daughter of Faye Dunaway in Network, even to the point where she realizes she will never have a relationship or family, so gets her jollies with male escorts. She also sleeps as little as possible, getting through the day on uppers.

This got me to thinking–would this be the same movie with a male lead? Or would it have been a movie at all? The script is an original one by Jonathan Perera. I assume, given the title, that it was always about a woman. Some movies have changed the genders of the lead, but I think Perera, consciously or not, has written a parable about career women that once again shows the emptiness of the life of a woman who puts all her life into her career. It’s becoming kind of a cliche.

That being said, the film is okay without being great. It is built around a huge twist at the end that I won’t dare reveal but that makes you look back at the whole film in your head and isn’t entirely plausible. It is directed by John Madden, now out of the Exotic Marigold Hotel, with a breakneck intensity that could have had some moments of space–it’s hard to find room to breathe in its pacing.

But whatever plaudits this film deserves all belong to Chastain. She’s had a very busy career, and been in good movies and bad, and I haven’t seen all of them (I’d still like to catch up with her version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie) but she is in firm control here. Though the character is a cliche, she makes her real, and finds moments of authenticity that aren’t in the script.

Miss Sloane, if anything, will make you disgusted to be am American, and compel you to take a shower. Lobbyists, it is implied, are the ones that control the strings of government. They lie, cheat, and blackmail. All of that I believe.

Review: La La Land

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There is a scene in La La Land where Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, on their first date, visit the Griffith Observatory (this is after a screening of Rebel Without a Cause, which is also set there). The two have no trouble getting inside the closed building, and operate all the contraptions. Surrounded by a dome of stars, they lift from the ground and dance in mid-air.

This scene says a lot about La La Land, most of it good. It is unabashedly nostalgic, unapologetically romantic, and doesn’t have a bit of gravitas. But it is thoroughly enjoyable, and those who don’t want things to get heavy at the movies will enjoy it more than those who do.

The film was written and directed by Damien Chazelle, even before he made Whiplash. That film got him some credibility, so it was somewhat easier to get an old-fashioned musical with new songs made. Almost all musicals these days are based on Broadway shows or use well-known songs–Chazelle was taking a huge risk. He also took a risk in using two stars who are not known for their singing and dancing.

The movie starts with a traffic jam in L.A., and everyone starts singing and dancing. Two of the motorists have a little road rage. One is a barista and aspiring actress (Stone), the other is a jazz pianist (Gosling). They will meet cute a few times–once when he is fired from his job for playing jazz at a restaurant and not Christmas carols, and at a party where he is reduced to wearing a red vinyl jacket and play ’80s hits.

He worships classic jazz, even owning a stool belonging to Hoagy Carmichael;she struggles at auditions, enduring rude behavior while she’s in the middle of a crying scene. The two will fall in love while encouraging each other’s dreams, even while the process of achieving them will drive them apart.

In an original music, there are a couple of things that are keys to success. One is the songs, of course. They were written by Justin Hurwitz, with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. While you may not be humming them after you leave the theater, they are engaging enough, especially a ballad Stone sings during an audition (called “Audition”). Stone is the better singer, Gosling the better dancer, and while the film hearkens back to the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, these two are no match for the old pros. La La Land is more like the French film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, who had an equally musically handicapped Catherine Deneuve.

If Stone is not the greatest singer in the world, she does give the film most of its energy. She is a consummate comedic actress (she shows this every time she hosts Saturday Night Live) and makes us feel the character’s every emotion. Gosling, while not quite as interesting, acquits himself well, especially considering he didn’t know how to play piano before the filming began. The film was supposed to star Miles Teller and Emma Watson, which would have been interesting but not as good.

Chazelle also chooses a very colorful palette. Stone’s dresses, designed by Mary Zophres, encompass almost all of the primary colors, and Los Angeles is depicted as someplace magical (Stone has to walk through Hollywood late at night and not only is there no danger, there are no people–this is not a realistic film). I’m also amazed, and somewhat awestruck, that Chazelle at no time utilizes the Hollywood sign, a major cliche in any film about the place.

Will this film win the Oscar for Best Picture? It might, if voters want to go for something escapist to retreat from the horrible year we’ve just been through. Though there is conflict, and some will find the ending a let-down, it is an ode to how movies have always existed in the minds of dreamers, to take us away from problems, not to put them before us.

Review: Manchester by the Sea

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Manchester by the Sea may not be the season’s feel-good movie, but it is one of the best, and Casey Affleck will be tough to beat for Best Actor honors come Oscar time.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (it’s hard to believe this is only his third film) the film is a searing look at grief and the ties of family, and even though it is steeped in tragedy, it has a rude humor to it, I am somewhat familiar with the part of Massachusetts where it takes place (and was filmed) and they get that right, too, with the gray skies and serene but forbidding ocean.

The story is pretty simple: Affleck plays a man living a life of quiet desperation in a one-room basement apartment, working as a maintenance man in Boston. One day he gets a call–his brother, who has a history of heart trouble, is in the hospital. By the time he gets up the coast, his brother is dead. He is astounded at the reading of the will to discover that he has been entrusted guardianship of his nephew, a teenager (Lucas Hedges). The boy’s mother is an alcoholic who spent time in a psych ward.

Despite his love for his nephew, Affleck is aghast at this. He doesn’t want to leave Boston, and when we consider that he gets a free house and an income from his brother’s estate, we wonder why. But it is slowly revealed that Affleck has an ex-wife in town (Michelle Williams) and has dealt with tragedy before, and the good times he spent on his brother’s boat with his nephew can’t compensate for his loss.

Don’t let the somber nature of this film scare you away. The dialogue is brimming with humor, especially the sparring of Affleck and Hedges. Affleck discovers Hedges basically has a dream life–he is on the hockey team, in a band, and has two girlfriends. He is sleeping with one, but the other has only progressed to “basement stuff.” In one absurdly funny scene, Hedges enlists Affleck to keep his girlfriend’s mother distracted while he has sex with his girlfriend in her room.

The film is long, but moves by quickly. Lonergan and editor Jennifer Larne have seamlessly intercut flashbacks. In one scene, when a doctor is taking Affleck to the morgue to see his brother, there’s a cut to a scene with the brother (Kyle Chandler) very much alive in a hospital bed, being told of his condition. There’s an initial “wait a minute” moment, but then we understand and after that, without use of changing Affleck’s appearance (it would have been easy to give him a beard or something in flashbacks) we instinctively know when we are in flashback.

The performances are all top-notch. Williams only has a few scenes, but one of them is a doozy, when she runs into Affleck with her baby from another husband and apologizes to him, and he just can’t take it. Hedges, who was in Moonlight Kingdom (thought I don’t remember him in it, but one of his girlfriends is played by Kara Hayward, who was the young lead in that film) is a future star. But it’s Affleck’s movie. I’ve read that Matt Damon was initially to play the part (and direct) and then John Krasinski (who ended up producing) but for whatever qualities they have Affleck is the right choice. He’s a broken man, a shell of himself, and the weariness shows on his face. One particular moment sticks with me. He has at his brother’s funeral and meets Williams’ new husband for the first time. He doesn’t say anything, but they way his eyes wander over his man shows us what he’s thinking. It’s a wonderful performance.

I haven’t seen everything yet, and I haven’t quite sorted out what my favorite film of the year is yet, but it just may be Manchester by the Sea.

Review: The Founder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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