Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Battle Of The Sexes

Standard

BOTSGoing by the title, one would think the prime focus of the Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris directed film ‘Battle Of The Sexes’ would be the bizarre only-in-the-70s tennis match between top women’s player Billie Jean King and 55 year-old former tennis champ Bobby Riggs that caught the public’s imagination and became seen as a defining event in feminism of that era.

And yet over the course of the film it’s clear the filmmakers are more interested in other issues and the match itself almost feels like a subplot as opposed to the central narrative it’s treated as. It’s one of the reasons the film doesn’t have the impact it could’ve.

The film begins with King (Emma Stone) acclaimed as the best tennis player in the world and winning another Grand Slam title, but major challenges are on the horizon. Firstly, the blatant sexism of tennis authorities who almost gleefully pay women considerably less than men sees King spearhead the daunting challenge of launching a separate women’s tour. As well, a chance meeting with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) forces King to confront her lesbianism and the difficulties that entails for her marriage to Larry (Austin Stowell) and as a public figure in 1970s America.

With the pressures amounting rapidly, an offer from openly chauvinist long-retired tennis player Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) to play a match as a literal battle of the sexes seems like the last thing that would interest her; but instead she accepts and it becomes one of the triumphant events in her life.

The only time BOTS really comes alive is when it covers the romantic relationship King has with Marilyn as the contradictions in her personal life become untenable. It would’ve been much easier for her due to her public profile, career and happy marriage to deny her true self, but the sheer magnetism she feels for Marilyn makes it impossible. BOTS effectively conveys how all the conventions one is supposed to adhere to in life can become irrelevant when you meet the right person and the romanticism that takes hold.

Apart from these segments, BOTS feels disappointingly rote and by-the-numbers. This is especially so for the plot involving the breakaway women’s tour which King led which could’ve been a fascinating topic but the treatment here is dispiritingly superficial, as if they just did a summary of the key points from a Wikipedia page on it.

Also, the film seems merely happy just to recreate the 1970s gaudiness of the actual ‘Battle Of The Sexes’ tennis match itself without even delving into any of the issues surrounding it. For example, we constantly see how seriously King takes her tennis and wants the sport to be taken serious (and women playing it as being respected). Yet she is taking part in a match that feels like something PT Barnum dreamt up (King arrives in on a float) that almost feels like its mocking tennis in more ways than one. Also, why did an event so corny and gaudy become one of the defining cultural events of its era? Alas, the film doesn’t event attempt to look into these issues.

The film is a bit more interesting when focussing on Bobby Riggs whom it portrays surprisingly sympathetically. They don’t really portray him as a genuine sexist pig, but as a rather sad middle-aged man playing up that angle knowing that will get the maximum attention and publicity from someone who desperately misses the adulation and spotlight he had in his tennis career.

In truth, it feels like the filmmakers really wanted to make a biopic of King but that would’ve been a harder sell than the more box office concept of making a film about an iconic 1970s event.

As it is, BOTS feels limited by the sheer clunkiness of its script. There’s an early scene where King (meeting sexist tennis authorities) just blurts out they’ll start their own women’s tour; it comes across as inauthentic and heavy-handed because the film wants a lazy, shorthand way of telling the audience what will happen in the film next. There’s also a family dinner scene with a bored Riggs where his son wonders how many peppercorns there are in the salt shaker. Knowing before watching the film that Riggs was a notorious gambler, I knew that this was put in solely so Riggs could react and eventually ask his son whether he wanted to bet on it with his disapproving wife looking on (an ongoing theme throughout the film). Again, it just felt like a script too heavy-handed and lazy in pushing the film’s themes.

I don’t want to be too negative on BOTS. It’s a relatively easy film to watch with a few nice scenes and Stone and Carrell are fine in their performances (although I doubt they’ll be awards-worthy). And from a technical perspective, the film looks convincing in the finale as you really believe it’s them playing the tennis match.

But overall, BOTS could’ve and should’ve been a better film than it is.

Advertisements

Review: mother!

Standard

The biggest news coming from the opening weekend of mother! was that it received an F rating from Cinemascore, which is apparently hard to do. I saw the film yesterday, and it certainly doesn’t rate an F (I’d give it a B), so what happened? One, it wasn’t marketed properly–when people hate a movie, it’s often because they didn’t get the movie they thought they were going to get. mother! was marketed as a run-of-the-mill horror film, and it is not. Two, there’s an old saying in theater that satire is what closes on a Saturday night. I’d say Biblical allegories would be included in that category. The truth probably is that most people didn’t get it.

I’m not sitting here saying I’m superior, because I didn’t get it, either. I could write about what I thought was going on, but I had no firm theory. It reminded me of other works, such as Edward Albee’s play A Delicate Balance, where guests come to stay and don’t leave, or Rosemary’s Baby, but I read an interview in Vanity Fair with director Darren Aronofsky, who explains what it is. I’m reluctant to spoil anyone’s encounter with it, lets just say that a sound understanding of Genesis is involved.

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem star as a couple living in a big, beautiful house that she is renovating (She says she wants to make it a paradise–Garden of Eden?) He’s a poet, so we know immediately this isn’t reality because I don’t think anyone makes a living solely writing poems, especially with a house that big. He’s got writer’s block, though. One day a stranger, a doctor played by Ed Harris, shows up. Barden invites him to stay the night, and Lawrence is incredulous. She’s even more so when Harris’ wife, Michelle Pfeiffer shows up. They are followed by their two sons, arguing about the will. One kills the other (this is the only Biblical reference I picked up on–Cain and Abel) and Lawrence is stunned that a funeral gathering is taking place in her house.

She becomes pregnant, and time passes. Bardem writes a poem that becomes so admired that people flock to the house to congratulate him. Thus proceeds the conclusion, that involves Lawrence giving birth and, well, let me leave it that. I will only say that it is gruesome, and there are a few things that just don’t play in Peoria.

Even though I didn’t understand it, I didn’t have the visceral dislike that apparently most of America had. At least it was interesting, if obscure. The camera moves disorientingly, following Lawrence as she goes everywhere. The house is dark. The basement has what appears to be a magic tunnel. When Lawrence touches the walls, she senses some sort of presence. But it’s not ghosts, it’s something much more fundamental. Another clue is that she is always barefoot. The first and last lines of the film are “Baby?”

The performances are also strange. Lawrence, due to the nature of the role, has to be passive and reactive, while Bardem is purposely mysterious (there’s a constant, “Why are you doing this?” and “I can’t put them out” vibe between them). I wonder if Harris and Pfeiffer even knew what they were playing. Once you understand who Pfeiffer is supposed to be, it’s sort of funny that she plays it bitchy.

I have to give Paramount Pictures the guts to spend 30 million dollars on this. I don’t think they’ll make it back, but I think it will find a home on VOD. If anything, it’s a great conversation piece.

Review: It

Standard

I read Stephen King’s It about thirty years ago, and I forgot a lot of it (I read the summary on Wikipedia and was aghast at how much was gone from my brain). I don’t even remember if I saw the mini-series from 1990, although Tim Curry’s Pennywise the Clown is now a ubiquitous example of coulrophobia. Therefore, I’m not sure if I realized just what It is until I saw the new film, directed by Andy Muschietti. It is a metaphor for puberty.

The decision to break this into two films, the first featuring only the children (the book divides into alternating viewpoints of the kids and their adult selves) streamlines things and makes the metaphor pop more. The children, all at about that age, deal with an evil entity that more often than not takes the form of a devilish clown. This clown feeds on the fear of children (much like Freddy Krueger) and what do children fear? Turning into adults.

The book was more detailed about the children’s fears–it included mummies and werewolves, and there are none here, but I’m particularly struck about how the film treats the one girl, Beverly Marsh, played excellently by Sophia Lillis. In one scene she is in a drugstore, buying Tampax, so nervously it seems like the first time (she also swipes a pack of cigarettes). Her father, who is clearly molesting her, discovers her feminine hygiene product and asks her if she is still his little girl. Later, It will manifest itself as blood spewing out of her bathroom sink.

Becoming an adult also means turning on one’s parents, and here three kids do so (we don’t meet all the parents), two of them killing their own fathers, which seems very Joseph Campbell. The other, the hypochondriac Eddie, finds out his drugs are placebos and rebels against his Munchhausen Syndrome mother.

That being said, It is only an okay movie. There’s a lot to chew on, psychologically speaking, but the direction is simple and repetitive. We get a scene, then a scare, a scene and a scare, a scene and a scare. Believe it or not, there is a limit to how many times a clown popping out of nowhere can scare you. But some scenes are absolutely top-notch, including the first one, when Georgie’s boat goes down the sewer and we first meet Pennywise, as played by Bill Skarsgaard. He is terrifying, with his malevolent giggles, and the only problem I had was even a kid as young as Georgie would run like fucking mad, boat or no boat.

It is in the tradition of kids’ adventures movies that are constructed like World War II platoons–the stutterer (and leader), the funny kid, the hypochondriac, the fat kid, the black kid, the Jewish kid, and the girl, who is falsely rumored to be a slut. There is comfort in this, as it reminds us of better outings, such as Stranger Things (the excellently named Finn Wolfhard is in both casts). To me it hearkens back to teen lit like the Hardy Boys or The Three Investigators, where kids are smarter than adults and solve the problem with teamwork.

The children are all very good, particularly Lillis, who looks so much like Amy Adams that they will have to get Adams to play Beverly in the next film (Lillis has already played a young Adams in an HBO series). I also liked Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben, the chubby kid, who writes a romantic poem to Beverly, is precocious enough to have researched and figured out that It comes out of hiding every 27 years, but is also enough of a kid to haplessly try to take his project home from school on his bike. The kid actors here convince you they’re are kids, not miniature adults.

The art direction on the house where It is hiding is also well done. It seems in every neighborhood there is that abandoned house that every kid is fascinated by. This one looks like every house I ever had a nightmare about. Skarsgaard’s make-up is great, and the special effects are great but don’t over do it.

There are some logistical problems, such as if It is so omnipotent (he can make a slide carousel go berserk) than how can he be defeated by physical means (it seems to me that you can’t beat up a demon with a baseball bat). But at least they don’t include all of King’s fooforall about the macroverse and the giant turtle that created the universe. They also, thank god, don’t include the head-scratchingly wrong scene he wrote in which Beverly has sex with all the boys. Instead, this is reduced to a simple Sleeping Beauty-style kiss.

It is a pretty good horror flick, nothing more, but in this day and age when horror movies are as disposable as Kleenex that’s no small feat. I will be very interested to see Chapter Two, and given the box office, there may be more chapters after that.

Review: Ingrid Goes West

Standard

Black humor is hard, because walking the thin line between funny and mordant is precarious. Some films end up being too silly, and others tilt the way of mawkish. Ingrid Goes West almost falls off on the side of mawkishness, but manages to be a poignant commentary on the role of social media in the lives of the lonely.

Aubrey Plaza stars as someone we don’t know too much about, other than that she is prone to stalking. The film opens with her crashing the wedding of an acquaintance and getting institutionalized. Her mother has recently died, and we get the impression she was her only companion. But then she discovers one of those new breeds of celebrity I have a hard time understanding–the social media celebrity, who gathers followers and then gets paid by companies to praise their brands.

This is Elizabeth Olsen (the second film I’ve seen with her in a week) and she impresses Plaza with her exquisite taste, whether it’s food, clothing, decorating, or books. With the money her mother left her, she decides to move to Venice Beach, California and befriend Olsen.

She starts with the dubious plan of kidnapping her dog and returning it, which works. Plaza and Olsen strike up a friendship (also with Olsen’s husband, a hipster with a man-bun played well by Wyatt Russell), and she also develops an attraction with her neighbor, O’Shea Jackson Jr. What’s interesting about Plaza’s character is that when she feels as if she’s liked and appreciated she behaves perfectly normally. It’s only when her friendship is threatened, as it is by the arrival of Olsen’s loutish brother, than she starts getting crazy.

The film was directed by Matt Spicer and co-written by Spicer and David Branson Smith. I found the script’s insight into social media and our nation’s craze for our phones to be spot-on. “Where’s my phone?” is the first thing that Plaza says upon awakening in a hospital bed. She spends her days and nights going through Instagram, robotically clicking “heart” on all the pictures. She appears to have no inner life, only a need to be attached to those she sees on her phone. She’s like the technologically advanced Eleanor Rigby.

One is left with questions. Was she employed? Was she able to function in society? The script could have rounded her out a tad more. Otherwise, this film is as sharp about social media addiction as The Lost Weekend was about alcoholism. It’s just another way to fill our lonely lives.

Review: Wind River

Standard

Wind River, Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut, is a solid crime drama, not as expansive as the films of his scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water. He doesn’t seem to be aiming as high, and that’s fine. This is the kind of movie that when you’re struggling to agree to something on VOD everyone should be okay with.

The film is set on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, Jeremy Renner, a worker for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (he hunts predators, hint) finds a young woman, dead. She was a friend of his teenage daughter, who died three years earlier. The young woman ran several miles, barefoot, through the snow.

Since an Indian reservation is federal land, the FBI must be brought in. That’s in the person of Elizabeth Olsen, who is not very experienced (she arrives in frigid Wyoming wearing only a windbreaker). She, the tribal police chief (a very good Graham Greene) and Renner investigate (Renner, who is not law enforcement, ends up involved because of his tracking ability).

It really isn’t much of a mystery. The law visits the trailer of three stoners and there’s some violence. Renner, tracking some mountain lions, finds a clue that isn’t even fully explained, and we see what happened to the young woman and her boyfriend before there’s a final gunfight. The film is not really a whodunit, it seems more an excuse to show the way of life of rez Indians (it’s not a pretty sight). At the end of the film, there is a P.S.A. tacked on that seems out of place, as the film didn’t seem like a polemic.

But I can’t be hard on this film. It’s not great, but there’s nothing wrong with it. In addition to Greene, there’s another good performance by Gil Birmingham as the murdered girl’s father.

Sheridan has proved himself as a screenwriter, but I need to see more from him as a director to see if he’s got the right stuff.

Review: Logan Lucky

Standard

logan_lucky(Warning: Contains mild spoilers)

Elaborate heists done by a group of people has always been one of my favourite film sub-genres. If done well, the plan’s intricacies, how it works out in reality, the expected and unexpected obstacles and inevitable tensions within the group can make for fascinating and entertaining films.

Clearly veteran director Steven Soderbergh (making his first film after a very brief retirement) enjoys these films as he made a trio of ‘Oceans’ films based around the same concept and now returns to it with ‘Logan Lucky’, albeit in a very different setting and social milieu.

The film’s plot centres around divorced and just-unemployed construction worker Jimmy (Channing Tatum), who decides robbing a stadium during a NASCAR event is the solution to his problems. He needs the help of multiple people including his one-armed brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and criminal Joe (Daniel Craig). Unfortunately Joe is in prison but where there’s a will…

I’ve only seen a handful of Steven Soderbergh’s films and while he’s clearly one of the smartest and skilled directors in Hollywood, his movies tend to feel a bit distant and cold. One admires his films without finding them particularly enjoyable or wanting to rewatch them.

And this is how I felt about ‘Logan Lucky’. It’s a smartly done heist film with some fine performances but I was never terribly engaged in it and it was never as entertaining or clever as it thought it was.

The film’s biggest problem is that the people involved in the heist seem to be operating at two intelligence levels depending on the requirements on the plot. In their regular day-to-day lives, they’re often simplistic, even moronic. Indeed, another set of brothers involved in the scheme (played by Jack Quaid & Brian Gleeson) are so idiotic they reminded me of the trio of yokel brothers from the 1980s Newhart TV show.

And yet we’re supposed to believe that this same group of people are able to carry off a highly elaborate and sophisticated heist, not only outwitting a substantial police and security force but also able to get multiple people in and out of prison without the authorities noticing. Perhaps it could be understood if Soderbergh was making a comment on how people like this apply considerable intelligence to an event like a heist while acting foolishly in the rest of their lives, but that would be giving him too much credit.

The other problem with the heist itself is that it relies a lot on lucky timing and people with no connection to it acting in ways that can’t be predicted. For example, how do they convince the prisoners to stage a riot for the required time the heist is run and how do they know the prison warden will react in the exact way they need to enable them to get back into the prison undetected? It’s a scheme that makes the finale to The Sting seem like child’s play.

As well, the film feels erratic and contradictory in its tone. Initially in the early scenes where we see Jimmy with his children, his job situation and his general struggles, it’s striving for a realistic, natural tone. But at other times when characters like such as the buffoonish NASCAR powerbroker (Seth MacFarlane) or a very monotone and robotic FBI agent (Hilary Swank) appear it has a comic, exaggerated and even goofy tone. There are pleasures to be had from both styles (Swank’s performance is quite amusing) but they don’t mesh which hurts the film overall.

This is not to say that ‘Logan Lucky’ isn’t a well-made film. It is stylishly and thoughtfully directed by Soderbergh as usual and the execution of heist is entertainingly (if unbelievably) done. Also, there are a lot of good performances in a fine cast. Daniel Craig practically steals the film with his delightful portrayal of the charismatic but unpredictable Joe. And I admired Channing Tatum for underplaying the central role when it would’ve been easy to try and share the limelight of the array of colourful supporting performances.

But overall, while ‘Logan Lucky’ has undoubted strengths (and is popular amongst critics), it was never as entertaining or substantial as it could’ve been.

Trivia Note: This is the second film I’ve seen at the cinema this year (after Alien: Covenant) that features both Katherine Waterston and has John Denver’s music as a pivotal part of the plot

 

Review: A Ghost Story

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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)

Standard

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)

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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.