Category Archives: Reviews

Review: A Ghost Story

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David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is unlike any movie I’ve ever seen, and for the most part, that’s a good thing. The title is literal, but it’s not the kind of ghost story we’re used to, which is also good. Instead of a fright-fest, it’s a meditation on time and grief.

A couple, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, live in a small ranch house. The film has very little dialogue, which is good, because I couldn’t hear what the two were saying anyway. I do know that Mara wanted to leave the house, but Affleck felt an affinity for it.

Early on Affleck is killed in a car accident. Mara identifies him in a hospital, but after a while he rises and starts walking, covered in his sheet like a kid at Halloween. No one sees him. A portal to, I suppose, the great beyond opens up, but he chooses not to enter it, and walks back to his house, where he will stay for a long, long time.

Mara eventually moves out, but Affleck is rooted to the spot. She never sees him, but he can make himself known. When she comes home after a date with another man he makes the lights flicker and knocks books off a shelf. There is a ghost in the house next door (wearing a floral sheet) that he can communicate with silently.

Different people come and go in the house. A single mother and her children are driven out by his antics. Other people move in, and we get the longest bit of dialogue when a man delivers a long monologue about how nothing really matters because we’re all going to get swallowed by the sun. Affleck makes the lights flicker after he’s done.

There’s more that includes time-bending. Time for Affleck as a ghost is different than hours, as years go by like seconds. All the while he tries to chip away at paint to get a note that Mara left in a crack in a door jamb.

A Ghost Story is not scary, but it is spooky. Lowery’s choice to have Affleck covered in a shroud was a good one. It might seem silly on paper, but having people going about their business while a shroud-covered man watches them silently is arresting. He has two black holes in the sheet, but we can’t see his eyes.

The film is very slow moving. For the first fifteen minutes or so I thought it would be torture, because there’s a long scene of Mara eating an entire pie, But it picks up and becomes absorbing.

Kudos also to Daniel Hart, who composed an excellent score.

Review: Detroit

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As someone who grew up in the Detroit Metropolitan area, I’m always interested in films and books set in Detroit. Not that I ever went there, except to go to Tiger games. When I lived there in the ’70s it was a cesspool of human misery, and I believe things have only gotten worse.

The turning point for Detroit’s future was in July, 1967, when a race riot broke out and lasted four days. Forty-three were dead, 7,200 arrested, and 2,000 buildings destroyed (most by fire). The white flight that had already started accelerated, and the city, which was once the fifth-largest by population in the United States, is now the 18th. In 1950, the population was 1.8 million, today it is about 672,000, one third of what it was.

Kathryn Bigelow has made a film, simply called Detroit, that showcases the riot, or more specifically, what is known as the Algiers Motel Incident, in which police killed three young black men. I’ve got to imagine the Detroit Chamber of Commerce is real happy that a movie called Detroit is all about violence and police brutality.

I found the film enthralling, with the heart of the movie the night of the incident, which was the third night of the riot. The film begins oddly, with a cartoon telling us about the Great Migration. Then we see the start of the riot, when a blind pig (an illegal bar) is raided while throwing a party for two returning servicemen back from Vietnam. When everyone is arrested (all black), a crowd gathers and somebody throws a bottle at the police and that sets it off.

This part is rather sketchy, and jumps from “Day 1” to “Day 2” to “Day 3” so quickly I thought it was going awfully fast. But what screenwriter Mark Boal has done is rather clumsily introduced the Algiers Motel section. The motel, a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes, was full of people that night. A singer (a brilliant Algee Smith) and his friend decide to stay there for the night, and take a room in an old house behind the motel called the Annex. There are bunch of young men there–I don’t know why, I guess it was a hangout. Smith meets two white women by the pool (it is unclear if they are prostitutes or just pretending to be). The girls taken them back to the annex.

One of the young men (Jason Mitchell) decides to egg on the police and National Guard by firing a starter’s pistol out the window. Naturally, the police and Guard take this seriously, and pinpoint it to that house. Three cops bust in, kill Mitchell without so much as a “put your hands up” and then line up everyone else against the wall. They are told that they must reveal the name of the shooter and where the gun is or they will all be killed.

This scene lasts about an hour and is dominated by Will Poulter as the chief sadist. Poulter, who looks kind of like Howdy Doody, is only 24, making the contrast severe–how could a young, fresh-faced guy be so sadistic? Also, Poulter had killed a man earlier in the day, shooting him in the back for stealing groceries.

The scene is harrowing, as Poulter and two other cops beat and terrorize everyone, including the two women (it didn’t help that they found two white women with a black man in the same room, even though nothing was going on). Observing is a black security guard (John Boyega).

Three people will end up dead, and the film ends, somewhat anticlimactically, with a trial. I won’t spoil it, but given that today it is almost impossible to convict a policeman for brutality, even when there is video evidence, the verdict is not surprising.

It’s amazing that this took place fifty years ago and is still extremely relevant. Though the film has its flaws (for one thing, nobody can say for certain what happened, so the script is making guesses and assumptions, which is why the officers involved, though their names were changed, are suing).

So, this will make not only the tourism industry of Detroit (is there one? Other than for sports or to tour Motown’s first building, there’s no reason to go) and policemen all over the country mad. It will also make the viewer mad, that people got away with this then, and are getting away with it now.

Review: Dunkirk

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Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s latest film, is getting rave reviews and is penciled in as the first sure-fire Oscar nominee. Therefore, I ended up puzzled and disappointed. I recommend Dunkirk, but not enthusiastically.

It is of course about the evacuation of British and French troops from a corner of France across the English Channel, after the Germans had beat them back and cornered them. 300,000 men were jammed onto the beach, waiting for the Germans to capture or kill them. It’s a big deal in England, not as much in the U.S. because they weren’t involved (it was 1940). For a certain generation, Dunkirk is a major part of the English consciousness, even though it was a retreat.

Nolan, who loves to go non-linear, divides the story into three parts, basically land, air, and sea. The land, or The Mole (not the burrowing mammal but a pier and jetty thrusting out into the Channel) covers one week ot time, The Sea covers one day, and The Air one hour. This makes for some time-bending that can be very confusing, as we go from daylight to night and then back again.

I’ll start with the best, and that’s The Air, which covers a couple of spitfire pilots who are the only air cover the soldiers have. Although we get a cliche of a gas gauge not working, the storyline here is clear and precise–shoot down German dive bombers. And they do, in some of the most thrilling dogfight footage I’ve seen (the best, I think, is Wings, way back in 1927, because they used actual planes).

Tom Hardy is the ace, but he doesn’t say much (when a German plane goes into the drink, he calmly says, “He’s down for the count”). Mostly we only see his eyes, as he’s wearing an oxygen mask, but Hardy’s eyes do all the talking. The one bit of genuine excitement in the film is when Hardy has to decide, on low fuel, whether to fly back to England or shoot down a bomber headed for a ship laden with men. What do you think he does?

The Sea has Mark Rylance as a proper Englishman, dressed in sweater and tie, taking his boat out to help rescue the soldiers. This is probably the most memorable part of the history, as hundreds of “Little Ships” aided in the cause. He is accompanied by his son and a teenage friend, and they pick up a man sitting atop the wreckage of his ship (Cillian Murphy). He is suffering from what we now call PTSD and when he hears that Rylance is taking the ship towards Dunkirk he is enraged–that’s the last place he wants to go.

The Mole is the section I had the most trouble with. It kicks off with a soldier (Fionn Whitehead) surviving a fusillade of German guns. He and another soldier, whom he meets burying another soldier, try to get aboard a ship going out while holding a stretcher bearing another man. From then on I had to check Wikipedia to see what happened, as the soldiers all look alike and there is absolutely no characterization. They are also largely indecipherable, with thick accents. They go to one ship, then jump off when it’s hit, get on another ship, same thing, then get in an empty fishing boat and get shot at. At this point I had completely lost the thread.

The other part of The Mole is Kenneth Branagh as the naval commander standing at the end of the pier, peering off to see England. His job is mainly to say “Home” in warm tones, while shedding a British tear. Really, what this section needed was title cards that said simply, “Day 1,” “Day 4,” etc., to give the audience some perspective on the time passed. Otherwise it appears that Branagh has been standing at the end of that pier for the whole week.

Visually the film is stunning, shot in blues and grays and olive greens by Hoyte van Hoytema. There are many scenes (too many really) of ships going down, and men trapped underwater. One scene, with an oil slick on fire and men underwater beneath it, is hauntingly filmed, as the men have to make a terrible choice–drown or burn.

The score, by Hans Zimmer, is typical Zimmer–too much by half. He uses a lot of metronomic sounds to ramp up the tension. Sometimes it fits and sometimes it’s overwhelming, as the film is loud enough already.

I was all set to enjoy Dunkirk, but it just didn’t do it for me. It’s just okay.

Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

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This century’s Planet of the Apes trilogy is unique among film franchises–each film is better than the last. After an excellent Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which followed a so-so Rise of the Planet of the Apes, War of the Planet of Apes is top-notch, a thrilling summer movie that is also extremely though-provoking.

Picking up from where Dawn ended, Koba is dead and Caesar (Andy Serkis) wants peace. If humans will leave the apes alone in the forest, he is content. But that is not to be. Scouts, including Caesar’s son Rocket, talk of an area beyond the forest and into the desert where they could relocate. But a force of humans, led by the mysterious Colonel (Woody Harrelson) attack, leaving Rocket and Caesar’s wife Cornelia dead.

Caesar now wants revenge, and wants to go it alone, but three other apes, including Maurice, the thoughtful orangutan, come with him. Along the way they pick up a human child, who has lost the ability to speak (that will be important, but I will say no more now). They also find a chimp, who calls himself Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) who was in a zoo but has lived by himself a long time. He is comic relief, as he is clumsy and wears human clothes.

This film reminded me a of a lot of things. It reminded me of other movies, like Apocalypse Now (Harrelson brings some of Brando and some of Duvall), The Great Escape, and there’s a shot of the heads of three apes poking over a rock ledge that took me right to the scene in the Wizard of Oz of Dorothy’s three friends outside the Witch’s castle. Given that some apes are crucified, there are also Biblical overtones.

The movie’s themes are even broader. One of the aspects that is very disturbing are the “donkeys,” apes that are working with the humans on the promise that they will be spared. This could make you think of black men who fought for the Confederacy (or Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen in Django Unchained). What would it take to make you fight against your own kind?

War of the Planet of the Apes is ably directed by Matthew Reeves, who handles full scale war scenes as well as intimate scenes. He is helped by the exquisite acting of Serkis, and also Karin Konoval as Maurice. The special effects and the acting combine to make it easy to see what these apes are thinking just by their facial expressions (Caesar is usually looking very intense and determined, and pissed off)/ I would have no trouble at all if Serkis is nominated for an acting award for his work–acting is acting.

My only quibble is there are a couple of coincidences at the end that lead to an otherwise satisfying close to the trilogy. You might find yourself wiping away a tear by the end.

War of the Planet of the Apes is first-class entertainment.

 

Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

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Oh how I wish I could have watched Spider-Man: Homecoming with fresh eyes. There were a lot of little kids at a fairly busy Tuesday matinee today, and I wish, like them, I didn’t know about how this was the third Spider-Man in the last 15 years and the difference between Sony and Columbia and was just able to enjoy it like an eight-year-old. To its credit, I did feel like an eight-year-old part of the time, enough that I recommend it.

First of all, I have to get around my purist objections. It started with Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man’s debut in the MCU. What? Mentored and supplied by Tony Stark? Treated like a snot-nosed kid by the rest of the Avengers? Heresy. Spider-Man was created before Iron Man (albeit by just about six months) but Spider-Man has always been the most important Marvel character of the Silver Age and beyond (and, to my thinking, the most powerful) and Peter Parker created all of his own gadgets–he didn’t no stinkin’ Tony Stark. But in the MCU, I guess Iron Man is king, so I have to accept it.

That being said, Tom Holland, who is actually 21, does pass for a 15-year-old, true to the character’s origins. He is not yet at home with his powers, and doesn’t quite know how to use Stark’s suit. This makes for a lot of slapstick, maybe too much (I like my Spider-Man confident and sarcastic) but as authentic as a superhero movie can be. If you had awkward high school years, you may flash back while watching.

The film begins at the end of the first Avengers film, with the clean up of the alien attack on New York City. Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) has the contract, but is given the bum’s rush by the government. He steals a few alien artifacts found on the job and his crew set up a criminal enterprise, with Keaton inventing a winged harness that enables him to fly.

Meanwhile, Spider-Man has helped Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in the intramural squabble among the Avengers, and hopelessly awaits his next mission. He is a sophomore in high school, and has a crush on a pretty girl named Liz (Laura Harrier) and a nerdy best friend (a wonderful Jacob Batalon).

Downey wants Holland to concentrate on small-time crooks, but when Holland stops an ATM robbery he realizes he’s on to something big, and takes on Keaton, aka the Vulture. He almost causes the Staten Island Ferry to sink, so Downey takes the suit away, but of course Spider-Man will save the day.

Spider-Man has always been my favorite superhero. He was the first to have normal problems, like catching colds, and had a great wit long before Deadpool. Some of the changes to the character, such as having Aunt May played by a vibrant Marisa Tomei rather than an old lady (Tomei is 52–hard to believe) make sense. But watching Holland play Spider-Man as a noob is a little disconcerting. And where is his Spider sense?

The action scenes are fairly routine–the director is John Watts, who has only made two small films, but he doesn’t embarrass himself. The climactic fight between Spidey and the Vulture is in the dark, and somewhat confusing. Oh, and it wasn’t lost on me that Keaton is playing a winged villain after playing Batman and then Birdman. He must have had a good laugh when he got the script, and kudos to him for having the sense of humor to play the part.

Mostly, Spider-Man: Homecoming is just okay. It’s nice nostalgia–in the opening credits we hear a symphonic version of the old cartoon theme–a few very funny lines (Batalon, when aiding Spidey on a school computer, vamps an excuse to a teacher: “I was watching porn.”). There is also a terrific twist in the film that though highly coincidental I didn’t see coming.

I really want to see his next film, when presumably Iron Man can get the fuck out of the way. Spider-Man, in the comics, was never an Avenger–he was a loner, a rogue. Let him do his own thing next time.

Review: The Beguiled (2017)

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The Beguiled is Sofia Coppola’s strangely toothless remake of Don Siegel’s film from 1971 that was a Clint Eastwood vehicle. Coppola has said she wanted to focus more on the women, and that’s true, but she has also removed almost all of the lurid, Southern Gothic nature of the previous film, and instead has presented a bland entertainment.

The story of the two films is pretty much identical–a wounded Union soldier, in this case Colin Farrell, is found by one of the girls of a largely abandoned boarding school. She helps him, and much to her reluctance, the headmistress (Nicole Kidman), takes him in. The presence of a man in a female-only enclave stirs up desires and jealousies, especially those of the spinster teacher (Kirsten Dunst) and a precocious teenager (Elle Fanning) that leads to tragedy.

The only way in which Coppola’s film exceeds Siegel’s is the way it looks–the cinematography is stunning. Coppola changes the location from Mississippi to Virginia, and I’m not sure how much Spanish moss there is in Virginia, but Philippe Le Sourd does a magnificent job of capturing the moonlight and magnolias South.

But here is what Coppola has removed, and I think to the detriment–in the 1971 film, the headmistress had an incestuous affair with her brother. There is a scene in which Confederate troops show menace and threaten rape. The nubile teenager tells her age as 17, and basically throws herself at Eastwood. The climactic scene, which I won’t reveal here, is a prolonged, suspenseful scene in Siegel’s film, but in the Coppola version it’s over in about thirty seconds.

Perhaps most importantly, Coppola does not retain the slave character played by Mae Mercer in the 1971 film (it is explained away in one line–“the slave have run off”). Many critics have written that Coppola has made a Civil War film that doesn’t even talk about the issues of the Civil War. Indeed, this could have just as easily been a German soldier in a French school, or an American soldier in a Japanese one, or so on.

But I think that’s a little unfair, because all of Coppola’s films are about people who are trapped, mostly women. Whether it’s Tokyo, the Chateau Marmont, or Versailles, she’s interested in characters who are invisibly chained to a way of life. But in The Beguiled, who is trapped? Kidman and the girls, as prisoners of the way of life that is “gone with the wind?” Or Farrell, who is literally a prisoner of a school full of girls who lock him in his room and basically emasculate him.

If I had not seen the original film (which I did over the weekend) I might have liked this better, as it does not compare well. If I hadn’t, I might have though to myself, “Is that all there is?” but I know that there is more, and Coppola took it out and added not much of anything.

Review: Marty (1955)

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MartyViewed on its own today, it may be hard to appreciate how significant the 1955 winner of the Best Picture Oscar ‘Marty’ was at the time of its release; British film critic Leslie Halliwell called it “a breath of spring” for Hollywood and just watching the film today on its own merits, it may be hard to appreciate that perspective.

But in the context of what had come before it in American cinema (especially since talkies came in), its significance and impact is much easier to understand. The realism in how the characters in ‘Marty’ behaved and especially how they talked had barely been seen previously in Hollywood mainstream cinema.

Take for example, the most dominant film studio of the 1930s and 1940s, MGM. Their films primarily had smart, usually well-to-do characters always being able to deliver clipped, sharp dialogue full of insights and memorable one-liners. Even a studio like Warner Bros in this era which was much more associated with working-class people (and gangsters) had the same issue.It was hardly naturalistic but it was for the most part extremely effective cinema; after all, it wasn’t called the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood for no reason.

Due to a myriad of factors, Hollywood cinema had a sense of staleness in the early-to-mid 1950s as the medium of television were providing a freshness and realism that was missing from increasingly bombastic, overproduced Hollywood films.

One of the most prominent writers in this medium was Paddy Chayefsky and he was employed to do an expanded version of his TV play ‘Marty’ for the big screen and his script broke all the rules for what constituted quality dialogue in a film. He eschewed having snappy, ‘clever’ dialogue to capture the ‘marvellous world of the ordinary’ of how people really talked. What he menat was capturing how people often ramble, say things that are nothing to do with a group conversation, how they have trouble articulating themselves and the repetition of words. This last aspect is particularly notable as the repeated phrases one hears during the film (“It was a very nice affair” “What do you want to do tonight?”) stay in one’s memory.

But apart from that highly significant aspect, how does ‘Marty’ stand up as a film today?

The film’s story focuses on the title character, a mid-30s bachelor Italian butcher (Ernest Borgnine) whose low self-esteem is exacerbated by associates and family pressuring him to finding the loving partner he’s always longed for. From a situation of hopelessness, things turn for when he falls in love with a teacher at a dance named Clara (Betsy Blair) but for their own selfish reasons those who wanted him married disapprove of this new relationship, putting Marty in a seemingly untenable position.

Chayefsky’s script sharply captures how Marty’s lack of self-esteem and self-worth is reflected by the people who associates with, particularly Angie (Joe Mantell). It appears they are best friends but Angie never seems to provide any real friendship or support to Marty. Indeed when Marty meets Clara, Angie tries to undermine it and just really wants to keep Marty down to his level for his own selfish reasons. If Marty were to marry Clara it’s safe to say Angie would quickly disappear from his life.

Another extremely well-written scene (and the high point of the film) is when Marty’s widowed mother (Esther Minciotti) and widowed aunt Catherine (Augusta Ciolli) converse about moving in together. Catherine is full of bitterness and spite and initially one is repelled by her. But over the course of the scene we see the source of her unhappiness and how as a widow she feels unwanted by her children and is lonely and without purpose in life. By the end of the scene she is defeated and accepting of her fate. It’s a marvellously acted, deeply moving scene with profound insight; something you don’t get often in any scene in any film.

Overall though, it has to be said the passage of time hasn’t served ‘Marty’ particularly well. What felt fresh and unique in 1955 has been imitated so often in the decades since that it feels a bit restricted and formal now, as if trapped by the conventions that it created. And this exposes its weaknesses such as its rather stiff direction by director Delbert Mann, making his winning of the Best Director Oscar that year rather baffling in hindsight.

Overall, ‘Marty’ remains a likable, slice-of-life film with oodles of charm and is highly significant in the history of American 20th Century film. But is it a film which still holds up as being the only film to win both the Best Picture Oscar & Palme D’Or? Not really.

Review: Baby Driver

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Have you ever been driving and imagined if someone, like the cops, was chasing you? What shortcuts would you take? Could you maneuver through those two trucks ahead? And all of this is happening while you’re playing a great driving song on your stereo.

If the answer is yes, which I must admit is my answer, then that will only add to your enjoyment of Baby Driver, a car chase movie with just enough heart and humor to make it meaningful. It’s complete nonsense, but it’s a helluva lot of fun.

Ansel Elgort is Baby, a driver for a crime boss (Kevin Spacey). He has permanent tinnitus, a ringing in the ears, so he constantly listens to music to drown it out (he has several iPods, depending on his mood). The music allows him to focus on what he’s doing, namely, driving to elude police. Spacey swears by him, especially since Elgort tried to steal Spacey’s car and is now paying him back.

The film is built around three car chases. The first is a bank in downtown Atlanta. They get away, but the actual robbers can’t quite understand Elgort, who never talks and always has ear buds. Turns out he lives a quiet life with his foster father (his parents were killed in the crash that damaged his hearing) who happens to be black, deaf, and wheelchair-bound (talk about laying it on thick).

Elgort wants out, and has just one job to do. In the meantime he meets a waitress (Lily James) with whom he instantly falls in love (looking at her, it’s not difficult to believe). The second heist involves an armored car and a citizen with a gun gets involved, but they still get away. Spacey declares them square, but he still wants him to drive for him, and threatens him, the foster father, and James to boot if he backs out.

This leads to the climax, which is an attempted robbery of a post office, and Elgort has tricks up his sleeve. Well, not really, mostly he wings it. I’ll stop there, because the action is suspenseful and the ending is not quite what we expect.

Are there problems with Baby Driver? Yes. For one thing, if I were Spacey, some kind of criminal genius, I’d plan robberies that didn’t involve high risk shootouts and car chases. He should watch Hell or High Water to see how it should be done–get in and out before the police are even there.

Second, as lovely a vision Lily James is, her character is a total non-entity, with no backstory. She is close to Manic Pixie Dreamgirl territory, existing just to give the hero something to live for. Then she becomes the girl that gets in danger and has to be saved. We also have the villain with the Rasputin-like ability to stay alive, no matter the bullets or car crashes.

But the good about Baby Driver, written and directed by Edgar Wright, far outweighs the cliches. For one thing, it’s funny, and has a couple of great supporting performances by two of the bank robbers. Jamie Foxx is Bats, who is probably insane, and doesn’t make friends easily. But the movie really gets stolen by Jon Hamm as a former Wall Street trader, who had “debts that would make a white man blush,” and has turned crook. He has married a Latina (a movie with two great beauties is a definite plus from where I am sitting), Eiza Gonzalez, and is completely dedicated to her. So, when something happens to her…

Spacey is also great, as he is now specializing in playing villains. He doesn’t do the thing expected of him at the crucial time, making the film more interesting. Elgort is pretty much a blank, but he’s supposed to be, and he occupies space as well as anyone. And he has a baby face.

The other “cast member” of the film that makes it work is the soundtrack, much of it actually heard by the actors. We get some of the usual, like Golden Earrings’s “Radar Love,” the greatest driving song ever, to a great foot and car chase set to Focus’ “Hocus Pocus.” I will probably have to pick up the soundtrack album–I just hope that while I’m listening to it in the car I don’t end up speeding.

Review: Cars 3

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Cars 3 is the 2nd sequel no one asked for, coming 6 years after the 1st sequel no one asked for, which came 5 years after the original. If my numerology is correct that means we have Cars 4 to look 4ward (see what I did there) to in 2025. Now, when I say no one asked for it I’m being facetious of course. Clearly the Cars franchise has been the most ‘merchandise-able’ of all the Pixar films so if cranking out a new film every half dozen years sells another billion dollars in branded items then you’d have to be financially crazy NOT to do it.

Beyond the cynicism, however, this film already had another negative stacked against it: Cars 2. Or, rather, the majority critical and audience response to Cars 2. I personally enjoyed that film even more than the first (though it’s been a long time since I’ve seen either so that could have changed) but if you find yourself in the aforementioned majority let me put your mind at ease! As far as I can remember, Cars 3 makes absolutely no reference (not even a whiff) to anything that happened in Cars 2. In fact, I believe you don’t even have to see the original to enjoy this one. Certainly some of the jokes may get lost, but the flashbacks are spoonfed well enough that no prior knowledge is required.

Also, if you have had enough of Mater and/or Larry the Cable Guy you’ll be happy to know that his shtick and character are toned down (relatively speaking) for this film. He definitely has a presence here, but appears in very small doses at well spaced intervals.

When I first heard of Cars 3 my reaction was “Oh no.” Upon seeing the first trailer, however, my mood changed. I was a sucker for Days of Thunder and seeing the sparks fly while Lightning McQueen crashes on the track set my mind buzzing. Maybe it would end up being a grittier comeback story with some consequences that require sacrifice. The first few previews didn’t focus on the humor, and I warmed up to the idea of actually seeing this in the theater.

With those caveats out of the way I can now get to the review (thanks for sticking with me this far).

Cars 3 is absolutely unnecessary. That thought kept playing through my mind during the middle hour of the film. However the ending wraps up Lightning McQueen’s journey so well that I couldn’t help but feel glad that I saw it. I didn’t recognize the names of any of the writers or the director but even before knowing that this definitely felt like a “lesser” Pixar film.

The opening 15-20 minutes are exhilarating as we once again find Lightning McQueen on the racetrack. He’s still racking up plenty of wins and keeping it fun with his friends who always try to one-up each other with pranks on and off the track. It’s a lighthearted easy life until a newcomer – Jackson Storm – arrives on the scene and proceeds to blow away the competition with ease. Comments are made about McQueen’s age and one-by-one his old friends retire (some forcibly so) and get replaced with rookies in the model of sleek ‘next-gen’ racers like Jackson Storm.

The new cars are sleeker and more electronically connected than McQueen. They have a much higher top speed, more sophisticated training methods and know the optimal racing path for the conditions on every track. Lightning isn’t one to go down without a fight but when he finds himself the odd (and old) man out in his latest race he gets distracted and suffers an horrific crash that probably pushed the limits of the G rating. (I thought the fade-to-black here would have been a good place for title card)

Four months later McQueen is still recuperating in Radiator Springs and the question on everyone’s mind is “Will Lightning McQueen ever race again?” We are treated to some terrific flashbacks involving his old mentor Doc Hudson. Doc’s memory is a huge presence in this film and is much of the heart of this film while we witness Lightning’s journey mirroring the great Hudson Hornet’s story. The next hour, or so, is Lightning trying to find his way back to the racetrack for one more try to see if he’s still got the ‘stuff’ Doc said he had in the first movie.

This is where things begin to drag for a while. It’s not exactly boring, but even throwing a demolition derby in the middle of things didn’t quite liven it up to heart-pumping levels. That actually happens in the final 20 minutes of the film at Lightning’s make-it-or-break it race. A decision is made in the middle of that race that almost had me groaning but, as I said, it actually ends up coming full circle for Lightning McQueen and I think elevated the movie as a whole.

Outside of #95, the characters in this film go from mostly woefully under-developed (Storm, and a new sponsor “Mr.” Sterling) to afterthoughts (most of the original cast, some with different voices) to the almost fully-realized Cruz Ramirez. Cars 3 is really the Cruz & Lightning story for most of the runtime. Cruz is hired as a youthful trainer to get the old guy fit enough to compete with the youngsters. Their butting of heads recalls the Lightning McQueen of the original film but he has gotten a little wiser in his old age. And her exuberance is palpable enough to make their onscreen chemistry (non-romantic) believable.

Speaking of reality, the animation is phenomenal. The photo-realism of the racetracks and mountain scenery (a trip to the smoky mountains of the Carolinas was a real treat in 3-D) is unparalleled. Pixar continues to deliver the most amazing animated visual quality around.

PIXAR SHORTS: Lou, while cute and clever, feels like a lesser-short as well. An elementary-aged bully is terrorized by the items he (may have) lifted from other children. When reminded of how he was previously bullied he decides to turn over a new leaf and actually ends up enjoying it.

Review: The Mummy (1932)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Wonder Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Slums Of Beverly Hills (1998)

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SlumsDespite getting good critical reviews, the US low-budget film ‘Slums Of Beverly Hills’ went largely unnoticed when it was released in 1998. That’s a pity because not only is it a fine film in its own right but it’s an interesting insight into US independent cinema in the 1990s and since then.

Set in 1976, the film focuses on the Abromowtiz family (single father, three children) who are living a dismal existence in an endless series of dismal motels while their ne’er-do-well father Murray (Alan Arkin) can’t provide them a stable existence. This is told from the perspective of teenage daughter Vivian (Natasha Lyonne) who – because of a lack of stable adult authority figures – has to stumble through the experiences teenage girls go through on her own.

The film doesn’t really have a narrative as such, it’s more of a snapshot of this particular family in this particular era and on that level it succeeds very well. We see the ethos and mindset of a family that has had better times and probably a comfortable middle-class existence in the past, that is now struggling to keep their heads above water. Also, despite its limited budget it convincingly captures of the period feel of life in 1970s American suburbia without resorting to clichés (most of the time anyway).

A big factor in the film’s success is Lyonne’s performance. Her role is the centrepiece of the film and it’s a fairly challenging role to play; if she’d stumbled, the film probably would’ve fallen apart. But she’s excellent in persuasively conveying a teenager who’s a mixture of insecurity, daring, awkwardness and brashness. She helps make Vivian and likable without pandering to the audience’s sympathies and it’s not surprising that after being stalled by personal troubles in the 2000s, Lyonne has gone on to a successful acting career with the talent on display here.

The smartest move writer/director Tamara Jenkins does is that it doesn’t try to make this a story of triumph where troubled characters with deep flaws overcome their problems to create a phony triumphant ending. She’s more interesting in portraying them as they are and with great empathy in how they bumble from one experience to another in life.

This is best demonstrated in the character of family cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei), who stays with the family after running away from a rehab clinic. She’s clearly a frazzled mess, so totally lost in life that her desperate and delusional attempt to become a nurse is only going to end in failure. But the film treats her compassionately and for how all her flaws she has good soul and a confidant for Vivian. Wherever her life goes post-1976, you can’t help but wish her well.

The appearance of Alan Arkin as the hapless father is interesting in a context beyond the film itself. He had an excellent run in US cinema from roughly 1966 to 1980 as the ‘New Hollywood’ era of wanting challenging stories and real, unconventional characters created a culture where someone with his idiosyncratic, character-based talents could become a significant star.

But in the 1980s as Hollywood turned to special-effects, big-budget, bombastic films with even more bombastic personalities, Arkin’s talents fell out of favour and seemed that his career may drift away. But in the 1990s there was a revival of sorts of the independent, outsider, eccentric, lower-budget style of cinema and films like this were symbolic of that and that’s where Arkin prospered and he’s clearly having a great time with this role.

For all its strengths and appeal, ‘Slums Of Beverly Hills’ isn’t a perfect film. It’s shambling, non-narrative structure is one of its charms but can be a weakness as on occasion it feels rather shambling and messy. A section involving Murray’s interactions with a new love interest (a wasted Jessica Walter) goes nowhere, a segment where Vivian actually goes to a doctor to inquire about breast reduction surgery doesn’t convince on many levels and there’s a scene where an interaction between Murray and Rita that turns perverse that the film doesn’t really know how to handle.

Also, while it avoids most of the clichés of nostalgia films set in the 1970s, it does indulge a lot in the common one of showing TV footage from many popular shows of the day. Apparently there’s an unwritten rule in Hollywood that any film set in the 1970s has to have a scene where someone is watching Archie Bunker or Mannix.

Probably the film’s biggest issue is that it lacks that level of social penetration and insight that the best of ‘New Hollywood’ independent 1970s cinema had. It displays empathy and sympathy for the central family but the in-depth social detail that could make their plight more penetrating isn’t there. Instead it replaces this with a level of quirkiness (a common trait of modern US indy cinema), which is best illustrated by a supporting character’s seeming total fascination surrounding Charles Manson and his infamous murders; there’s even a scene where he takes Vivian & Rita to where apparently Manson and his ‘family’ committed their murders. It really doesn’t add much to the film.

But despite these issues, ‘Slums Of Beverly Hills’ is a fine film well worth seeking out. Jenkins has only made one film since then but does have another in the works; naturally as reflective of the late 2010s cinema, it’s being produced by Netflix.

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.