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Review: Thoroughbreds


I don’t know if I’ll see a more unsettling film this year than Thoroughbreds. A lot of people are comparing it to Heathers, but they’re off the mark in that Heathers was intentionally funny. Thoroughbreds is as about as serious as an autopsy, which one character will require.

I was amazed I was watching it in a multiplex, as it is certainly not a crowd pleaser. It doesn’t seem to have a CinemaScore grade, but it did manage to make over a million dollars last weekend. I have a feeling it will drop precipitously, and that’s not because the film doesn’t have merit.

Two affluent Connecticut high school age girls (Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke) used to be friends. Taylor-Joy went on to be popular and go to Andover, while Cooke is a sociopath (she admits she has no emotions) has been removed from school while being charged with killing a horse, but if I heard the film right, she performed a mercy killing (which doesn’t make sense if she has no feelings). Cooke’s mom hires Taylor-Joy to tutor her daughter for the SATs, and the girls forge a new friendship based on Taylor-Joy’s hatred of her step-father (a very good Paul Sparks).

What’s unnerving about the film, which was written and directed by Cory Finley, is the vacuum in which the film takes place. We see the girls’ mothers, and Sparks, but that’s about it. Taylor-Joy’s spacious mansion serves as a kind of heated bubble in which no air escapes. There seems to be no outside world. The use of music is just one example of this–there are long stretches of no ambient music, but when the score does kick in, it’s very eerie (it’s by Eric Friedlander).

Also, Cooke’s performance is scary good, so good that I don’t know if I’ll be able to shake it when I see her next (probably in Ready Player One). At one rare instance away from Taylor-Joy’s house, Taylor-Joy visits Cooke’s house. Her new friend is standing in the backyard, staring into space. There’s also a wonderful scene in which Taylor-Joy and Cooke are talking while Cooke plays herself in a game of chess with very large pieces. I’ll admit I found myself paying attention to her moves, which were all correct.

Thoroughbreds does have some humor. Taylor-Joy impulsively loosens the wheel on her step-father’s bike. The film cuts to him in bandages, which is drolly funny until he abusively dresses down his wife for asking about his welfare.

The movie’s ending is not completely satisfactory, as it doesn’t add up, but it will stick with you. Whether you want that or not is another question.


Review: Red Sparrow


Red Sparrow is a hot mess, a lurid adolescent boy’s fantasy, dressed up as a feminist empowerment statement. Manohla Dargis called it “preposterously entertaining,” I just call it preposterous.

Jennifer Lawrence plays a Russian ballerina who, after an injury, is desperate to keep her frail mother in good health. Her uncle, a deputy minister of some sort of secret service, offers her a chance to become a Sparrow, a spy who is trained in the art of seduction and assassination. She accepts, and is assigned to get to know an American CIA agent in Budapest (Joel Edgerton), who is being given information by a Russian mole. Her mission: find out who the mole is.

We haven’t had a good old fashioned cat and mouse spy thriller in a while, and we still don’t have one. I put the fault mostly on the director, Francis Lawrence, who doesn’t seem to have a point of view. If the film had stuck to being completely over the top, it might have been fun, but instead takes itself too seriously and becomes deadly boring at times. He might have followed the lead of his star, who gives a performance of strength and cunning, but I fear Francis Lawrence doesn’t have the chops that Jennifer does.

It’s interesting that the Russians are bad again (we can probably have Trump to thank for that), and I never noticed before how much Matthias Schoenaerts looks like Vladimir Putin. Other Russians are played by distinctly non-Russians such as Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons, and thankfully they don’t sound like Boris Badanov (the use of language in Hollywood films is always oddly done–these characters are presumably speaking in Russian when they speak amongst themselves, but also speak English, but they do in a Russian accent).

Charlotte Rampling plays the “Matron,” who is the head of the Sparrow training, what Jennifer Lawrence calls “whore school.” It is very similar to the school shown in The Handmaid’s Tale, where women are trained to leave all their individuality behind.

Most of the second half of the film is wondering whether Jennifer Lawrence has become a double agent or not. I’ll admit this makes for good suspense, especially in a scene in which Edgerton is being tortured by a guy who likes to peel the skin off of people.

Red Sparrow is ludicrous. For one thing, great ballerinas don’t have the build that Jennifer Lawrence does. And much of the Twitter-verse is complaining about a scene in which she dyes her hair platinum blonde without using gloves and then goes swimming in a chlorinated pool.

The film is also extremely violent. I usually don’t care, but the violence was too much for even me.

I found Red Sparrow to be mostly unpleasant and unfortunate.

Godard: Band of Outsiders


Many years ago I was attempting to chronicle the films of Jean-Luc Godard, and left off after Contempt, because the films just weren’t available. But now, due to Filmstruck (I can’t recommend this streaming service enough for fans of older films) I am able to catch up. Later I will cover some of his films from the mid-’60s.

After the Cinemascope and Technicolor of Contempt, Jean-Luc Godard made the much more gritty and black and white Band of Outsiders in 1964. Like his debut film, Breathless, it’s something of an homage to American B-pictures, with numerous references to pop culture, both high and lowbrow, from T.S. Eliot to Loopy de Loop.Based on an American crime novel, the story, what little of it there is, concerns two criminals, Arthur and Franz (Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey). They are in an English class with Odile (Anna Karina), and she tells them that a man staying in the house with her and her aunt has a large stack of money. The two men get the idea to steal it, but before they do they each try to romance Karina.

Band of Outsiders is considered by many to be Godard’s best film; or at least his most accessible. It’s the only one of his films to be on Time’s list of best 100 films. It has a certain cache among filmmakers–Quentin Tarantino named his production company after the French title, A Band Apart. One can certainly see the influence the film had on subsequent movies like Pulp Fiction.

The first time I saw Band of Outsiders I was charmed, but this second viewing left me a little bored. Maybe it was the cold medication I’m on, but I got frustrated with the way Godard dithered. The plot moves in herks and jerks, filling in the space with little moments that are fine unto themselves but don’t really add up to much. There’s a long scene in which the teacher of the English class reads from Romeo and Juliet, and there’s a funny moment when Franz suggests they have a moment of silence, and the entire soundtrack goes silent for a while.

The two most famous scenes are probably the dance number, pictured above, when the three do an improvisational “Madison,” which certainly influenced Tarantino, and a scene in which the three of them attempt to set the record for running through the Louvre.

When Godard finally gets around to the robbery, it’s comic, as these are two inept bandits. Watching them move around in their fedoras, black stockings over their faces, kind of upends the notion of “cool,” and one suspects that Godard is having himself a laugh at this characters’ expense.

Still, Band of Outsiders is an iconic film, one that has a breezy kind of charm and insouciance.


Opening in Las Vegas, March 9, 2018


The big opening this weekend is A Wrinkle in Time (52), based on the popular children’s novel (I read it some fifty years ago, but can only remember that the dog’s name was Fortinbras).  It is so important, but not well received by critics. Maybe if they it weren’t so important. I’ll probably catch up with this on home video.

The Strangers: Prey at Night (48), is a masked-murderer film set in a trailer park–those can be scary. Will probably do great business and then sink like a stone. I’ll never see it. Stars Christina Hendricks. Question: what Mad Men star will end up being the break out film star (if any). Jon Hamm doesn’t seem interested.

Gringo (44) has a good cast, including David Oyelowo, Charlize Theron, Thandie Newton, and Paris Jackson, but has the old “regular guy gets caught up in crime caper” plot. Maybe I’ll see this on VOD, but certainly not in a theater.

What a pitch: it’s bank robbery, during a hurricane! (not availabe for screening, but of three reviews on MetaCritic none are above a 50). It’s The Hurricane Heist! One of the reviews says it’s utter excrement from start to finish. Directed by Rob Cohen. Question for those who know: why did Cohen only get to direct the first Fast and Furious film? I’ll never see this.

The best reviewed film this week is Thoroughbreds (76), which a blurb on the poster reads, “Heathers meets American Psycho,” but reading the summary, sounds more like Heavenly Creatures. Stars Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch), and Olivia Cooke (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl). I may see this today.


Review: Black Panther


It seems that superhero movies are now doing the work of social justice (why not–baseball did it seventy years ago). Last year Wonder Woman struck a note for female empowerment, and now Black Panther has given the sub-Saharan African diaspora a movie that is about them, with people who look like them. There have been plenty of movies made by and starring black casts, but none of them made 200 million dollars in a weekend.

What is common to Wonder Woman and Black Panther is that they are extremely well made and intelligent. It helps to make history with a film when it’s actually good. Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler takes a fifty-year-old comic book character and makes him fresh and interesting.

In a short prologue, we learn that the nation of Wakanda has benefited from two things–an meteorite full of vibranium, the world’s hardest metal (that’s what Captain America’s shield is made of) and a flower that, when consumed, gives one the power and speed of a panther. For a thousand years they have remained shut off from the rest of the world, and even have put up a force field that hides their technological advances.

The idea that an African country can be technologically advanced is so audacious considering the world we live in today. A country like this would be called a shithole by Donald Trump (or was it shithouse?) so I can only assume how proud it must be for those of African descent to see a country with brilliant people.

Anyway, the king of Wakanda (one thing I’m wondering about is whether a monarchy is the best form of government) takes on the role of the Black Panther. The previous king died in Captain America: Civil War, so in this film the new king, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is coronated. However, in a long-observed ritual, he has to take on any challenger by fighting in a pool water overlooking a waterfall.

Boseman goes around the world doing superhero things, like rescuing young girls from a group that looks like Boko Harum. There we meet his ex-girlfriend, Lupito Nyong’o, who is a spy for Wakanda. Here’s something else wonderful about Black Panther, it is very forward thinking about gender. Nyong’o and one of a squad of tall, bald women, Danai Gurira, kick butt every bit as much as a man, and Boseman’s sister, Letitia Wright, is some kind of scientific genius. Girls, white or black, can get behind this movie.

Black Panther also has the best villain of the MCU, Killmonger. Played wonderfully by Michael B. Jordan (an early Oscar contender, I hope), he hasn’t been zapped with radiation or fallen into a tank of electric eels. He is a self-made man on a mission. He is Boseman’s cousin, though he grew up in the U.S., and comes back to challenge for the throne. He wants Wakanda to reveal its success to the world, and use to it to take over. Part of his argument actually makes sense, which makes him so complicated.

There are only two white characters in the film. One them, Andy Serkis (nice to see him play a human being) is pure evil, and the other, Martin Freeman as a CIA agent, is kind of useless except when he shows off his video game skills. This is a film that dares to presume that a movie can be about black people, and that black people can solve their own problems. There is no white savior.

Black Panther is not perfect. The structure is a bit creaky, as we have to be shown something so we can see the same thing later. Also, a character makes an about-face at the end of the film that is unexplained, and makes for a cliched “here comes the cavalry” moment. Though this is a long film, I would have liked a few seconds for someone to ask, “What changed your mind?”

That’s just quibbling, though, as Black Panther transcends the superhero genre. Believe the hype.

Review: High Anxiety (1977)


high_anxietyMel Brooks’ 1977 Hitchcock comedy spoof ‘High Anxiety’ is one of the films I watched in my childhood that stands out as one of the most vivid, but not because of the expected comedic reasons.

It has to do with a scene where a person is driving in his car is trapped in it because the door/window handles have been tampered with and he can’t turn off the radio which is playing increasingly loud music; eventually the car crashes and he dies with blood coming from his burst eardrums. Of course now I see it as a comic spoof on a typical Hitchcock setup but back as a kid the scene seriously creeped me out.

I hadn’t watched ‘High Anxiety’ for several decades and it seems to have been largely forgotten except by Brooks fans and completists; certainly it never obtained the reputation that Brooks’ most acclaimed works like The Producers & Young Frankenstein did. My memories of it (car scene aside) was that it was a pretty decent comedy so I was interested to see how it held up after not seeing it for several decades.

The narrative centres around psychiatrist Richard Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) whose career is on the rise (despite a fear of heights) as he about to take over as the head of a prestigious psychiatric facility (called the ‘Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous’!). However it soon becomes clear that the facility is run by corrupt employees (played by Harvey Korman & Cloris Leachman) who are exploiting the patients there and will stop at nothing to prevent Thorndyke from exposing it.

Watching ‘High Anxiety’ after all this years, it generally holds up well. Brooks’ ability to stage gags in his patented brash style was still close to his peak and he makes good use of the many opportunities for Hitchcock homages. The best one is where Thorndyke constant pestering of a deranged bellboy (the film’s co-writer and future director Barry Levinson) leads to an inspired parody of the famous shower scene from ‘Psycho’.

Brooks always enjoyed mocking and undercutting the clichés and conventions of filmmaking whether it be a scene in a car where suspenseful music suddenly is heard and it turns out to be from a nearby bus containing a practising orchestra or a camera zooming into a dinner scene crashing through the window. My favourite one in this film is where the camera is shooting two people having a conversation from below a glass coffee table and it has to constantly move whenever they place cups and containers on different sections of the table so we can still see the people.

The performances are generally fine, with the standout being Cloris Leachman as the devious Nurse Diesel. In a deliciously over-the-top hilarious performance, Leachman is clearly having the time of the life playing the role, especially in how every word she says is enunciated in such a way as if it is chewed and then spat out.

Alas, ‘High Anxiety’ doesn’t quite measure up to the best of Brooks’ films and there are a few reasons for this. The second half falls a bit with several Hitchcock homages (such as a parody of ‘The Birds’ with a bunch of pigeons pooping on Thorndyke) falling flat. The funniest characters in the movie (played by Leachman and Korman) largely disappear from the halfway mark, Madeline Khan’s character is brought in too late so while she does have some bright moments she is somewhat wasted. And there are some later on such as  an extended scene with Khan & Brooks pretending to be elderly couple to get through airport security and Brooks singing the title tune that feel a bit self-indulgent.

And while Brooks does a decent job in the lead, it was a role crying out for Gene Wilder. Indeed, Brooks said in an interview many years later that he started taking major acting roles in his films only because his main muse in Gene Wilder stopped appearing in his films to write and direct his own films.

Despite these issues, ‘High Anxiety’ holds up well and was an enjoyable rewatch… even the car scene!

Movies opening and streaming in Connecticut – Weekend of 2/22/18


Theatrical releases

Annihilation: Alex Garland’s sophomore directorial effort (following 2014’s excellent Ex Machina) is getting great reviews, but the US is the only territory in which it will receive a theatrical release. Paramount’s new risk-averse management team sold it off to Netflix globally and it will premiere on the service in just 12 days. Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy, which I am not familiar with. Rotten Tomatoes: 87%, Metacritic: 81%

Game Night: Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams star in this comedic thriller from directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein. Daley and Goldstein’s track record is all over the place (they wrote the really fun Spiderman: Homecoming…but directed the dreadful Vacation reboot) but critics are mostly on-board for this effort. Expect some jarring tonal shifts. Rotten Tomatoes: 82%, Metacritic: 66%

New and notable streaming

Mute: In the pre-streaming age, Duncan Jones would have been sent to Director’s Jail for some valuable contemplation time following the critical and box office failure of 2016’s Warcraft.  However, it’s a new era and he immediately landed a greenlight for this sci-fi noir from Netflix after every other studio turned him down. That does not appear to have been a good decision for anyone.  Rotten Tomatoes: 9%, Metacritic: 35% (Netflix)

Question for the masses: Mute (which Jones tried to get made for a decade) is the latest in a long line of disastrous cinematic passion projects. Why is this so often the case?

Opening in Connecticut – Weekend of 2/16/18


Black Panther – It’s a phenomenon and (for the most part) deservedly so. It’s already the fourth biggest opening of all time and it’s just getting started. Top ten domestic is in play.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97% Metacritic: 88%
Personal interest factor: 9

Early ManCaveman comedy from Director Nick Park. I respect Aardman productions (even if their films are typically not for me) but at a certain point distributors are going to have to accept that they’re better suited as streaming releases domestically. With a three-day cume of just 3.1M, Early Man has earned a place on the 100 worst opening weekend per theater averages of all time.
Rotten Tomatoes: 81% Metacritic: 68%
Personal interest factor: 3

Samson – Bible story told in the style 300 popularized a dozen years ago, but made by people with no talent for creating striking visuals. Looks like it cost less than your average car commercial. Also: Billy Zane.
Rotten Tomatoes: 27%, Metacritic: 17%
Personal interest level: -10

Review: Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool


Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool has one major thing going for it: Annette Bening. Not only does she look like Gloria Grahame, the actress whom she is playing, but she has every bit of her down pat. Grahame, who was a star that almost no one but fans of old movies like me remembers, usually played the “bad girl,” (or, as referenced in this film, the “tart”) and won an Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful (but if you want to check out her best work, I suggest The Big Heat, when she played Lee Marvin’s moll). She was also in It’s a Wonderful Life, as a girl named Violet, who makes men stop and stare at her as she walks down the street.

Based on a book by Peter Turner, who was her lover near the end of her life, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is about faded glamour and the pursuit of youth. Grahame was about sixty when she met Turner (Jamie Bell) and started an affair. He was an aspiring actor in London, while she was doing a play. There was about a thirty-year age difference. This is only mentioned once in the film, when back in California she introduces him to her sister, who brings up the fact that she once married her ex-stepson.

Grahame is suffering from breast cancer when she calls Turner from Manchester. He is back in Liverpool, the two having broken up (the why of this is not revealed until the end, although the savvy moviegoer may guess). She tells him it’s bad indigestion and wants to recover at his house, where his mother (Julie Walters) can take care of him. He doesn’t find out its cancer until after he phones her doctor (in an egregious example of violating patient privacy).

There are two parallel stories here: the relationship and the dying. Bening is about the same age as Grahame was then, so it’s not hard to see how Bell was attracted to her. There haven’t been a lot of films about May-December romances with the woman being older, so this is welcome to show one as being relatively healthy. Walters and her husband, Kenneth Cranham, are extremely non-judgmental. Bell’s brother, Stephen Graham, is only upset because Grahame has upset the order of his mother’s house, but when the chips are down, he’s there for his younger brother.

What does’t work about this film is that it’s structured as a standard disease-of-the-week weepie. I think if I were a screenwriter or a director I would never want to make a movie about someone dying, because it’s been done to death (pun intended). Why are we so fascinated with watching people, usually vital, die? Is it to comfort ourselves that we’re not going through it? Is it simply morbid curiosity? I’ll admit I got a little choked up and the end of this film, but it didn’t hit me on a gut level. Grahame’s life was a history of sad moments, but they deserve a better story than this.

I’ll say again that Bening sure looks like her, which enables director Peter McGuigan to use actual footage of Grahame without it being a shock to the system. The film closes with her winning the Oscar, and her almost dazed walk up to the podium, where she grabs the statuette, says only, “Thanks very much,” and goes off stage, almost in one movement.

Opening in Las Vegas, February 9, 2018


I’m going to add a little something to my Openings. I will indicate whether I will see it in a: theater, home video (streaming or DVD rental) or will never see it.

This week’s box office winner was Fifty Shades Freed (32), the third in the trilogy based on the mommy-porn novels by E.L. James. I saw the first one and liked it more than I thought I would, basically because it seemed to get the S/M stuff right. As a movie, though, it was terrible. I plan on seeing the second one soon and will eventually see this at home, if only for puerile interests.

Peter Rabbit (52) opened above expectations. When I saw the trailer I thought it looked funny, but reviews have been unkind. It goes to show that parents will take their kids to see anything. I will never see this.

Coming in third was The 15:17 to Paris  (45), Clint Eastwood’s picture about the young American men who stopped a terrorist attack on a train in France. The men are played by themselves, which sounds good but not anyone can act. I will probably see this at home.

Opening in one theater this weekend is the 2017 holdover, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (65). This film fascinates me because it seemed to have absolutely no marketing. Annette Bening stars as Gloria Grahame, an actress who won an Oscar and had all sorts of drama in her life. Since Bening is in the category of “due for an Oscar,” if this film had been more visible she might have gotten a nomination. I guess Sony Pictures Classics wasn’t interested. I will see this in a theater.

Review: A Futile and Stupid Gesture


A Futile and Stupid Gesture, now streaming on Netflix, is perfectly grooved for someone of my generation, who laughed like Beavis and Butt-Head at National Lampoon, who can quote whole passages of Animal House or Caddyshack, and steadfastly maintain that the original cast of Saturday Night Live is the best (it is). It is the story of Doug Kenney, who is toasted as being the founder of modern comedy. I don’t know if that’s true, because the film tells me that but doesn’t show it.

Directed by David Wain, the film is meta, with constant breaking of fourth walls and much self-reference. The narrator is Kenney today, played by Martin Mull. If you’re knowledgeable about this, it may bother you, because Kenney died in 1980, falling off a mountain in Hawaii when he was 33. Mull, later in the film, describes himself as a “narrative device.”

Aside from a scene of Kenney attending his brother’s funeral (the dead brother was the good one) starts with him at Harvard, where he and his best friend Henry Beard (Domnhall Gleason) working at the Harvard Lampoon. After graduation, reluctant to actually have to work, he suggests that he and Henry continue the Lampoon. They go around pitching to publishers, and finally connect with Matty Simmons, who is the publisher of Weight Watcher’s.

Eventually they are a huge success, spawning a radio show, and a live show, giving jobs to comedy legends like Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Bill Murray (these actors are played by people who don’t look like them, which the film gleefully admits). The writing staff includes Michael O’Donoghue, Tony Hendra, and Ann Beatts, who also went on to success in television (Hendra played the manager of Spinal Tap in that film). A black couple intrudes to wonder why they have no blacks on the staff, and Mull tells them, “If it’s any consolation, there were very few Jews.”

Kenney is played by Will Forte, who is depicted as a mellow guy who constantly speaks in one liners. Would a comic historian gather anything about him that indicates he was a comic genius? Hard to say. Mostly he sits at a typewriter and is shown as the creator of the food fight. We also see that he can’t sustain a relationship, with either women or his friends, and is one to bolt when the going gets tough.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture (the title is a line from Animal House, but you knew that) is more interesting than entertaining. I did learn a few things, such as that Chevy Chase actually cared about Kenney, which belies his current image as a first-class jerk (he’s played, in a bit of irony, by Joel McHale, his one-time Community co-star). A lot of recognizable characters fly by, like P.J. O’Rourke, Lorne Michaels, Ed Helms as Tom Snyder, Chris Miller, Harold Ramis (who, addressing whether Kenney committed suicide or not, says, “He fell when he was looking for a place to jump”) and Ivan Reitman.

This only goes so far, as the script crams so many characters in but doesn’t really give us any insight, and the result is too airy. But I recommend it for nostalgic Baby Boomers.

Review: Hostiles


I’m up for any Western these days, and Hostiles, per the genre, is a solid effort. Written and directed by Scott Cooper, it is firmly in the post-modern Western category, where Indians are seen sympathetically. But, it is too long and lugubrious, and may remind you of better Westerns.

The first images are of a family of settlers in New Mexico in 1892. By that date, according to my own knowledge, the Indian Wars were over, but the family is wiped out by a band of Comanches. There is only one survivor, the mother, Rosamund Pike, clutching her bloodied dead baby in her arms.

Meanwhile, a dying Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) has petitioned for release from prison. It has been granted, and he and his family are to be escorted back to their homeland. Escorting him will be Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), who does so reluctantly. Blocker hates Indians, referring to them as savages, and especially Studi, who butchered three of his friends.

But Bale is ordered to do, or lose his pension. He assembles a small detail, including his old friend Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane), who is suffering from what they called melancholia, but now is known as PTSD; a West Point lieutenant (Jesse Plemons); a black corporal (Jonathan Majors); and a French private (the suddenly ubiquitous Timothee Chalamet). Of course, one by one these men will die or otherwise leave the film. They will also add others, as Bale picks up a murderous soldier (Ben Foster) in Colorado.

The premise of the movie is that we’re all people under the skin, a kind of Kumbaya message. Of course, Bale will come to rethink his opinion of Yellow Hawk. But after all his years in the Army, this never occurred to him? It’s sort of like A Christmas Carol in the mountains, but without three ghosts.

Cooper has clearly seen a lot of Westerns, because he lifts from some. There’s the scene of lightning during a march, as from John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (which was an accidental bit of good fortune), a shot with a man outside a cabin, shot from inside (like the end of The Searchers) and two speeches that may not be word for word but are certainly familiar in tone to one from Unforgiven and another from Lonesome Dove. That, as well as being similar in message to films like Little Big Man and Dances With Wolves.

The pacing of the film is uneven, and only Bale’s performance holds it together. Though it seems simplistic to think he just needs to be around an Indian in order to respect one, Bale sells it.

As any movie set in the Old West should be, Hostiles is gorgeous, with some spectacular footage of the outdoors, from New Mexico to Colorado to Montana. We can only be glad that land is still not been commercialized.

Review: Coco


In checking the list of Pixar films, it seems like there has a been a diminishment in quality. I didn’t bother seeing the Cars sequels or The Good Dinosaur, and Monsters University and Finding Dory were a step down. Coco, by dint of its reviews, seemed to right the ship, and after seeing it I would agree.

However, the film starts slowly and only really finds its groove about halfway through. The story centers around Miguel, a boy who lives in a family that has banned music, because his errant great-grandfather abandoned the family to find success as  a musician. But Miguel has music in his blood, and likes to go into the square where all the Mariachis play, getting him into constant trouble.

The big hero of the town is Ernesto de la Cruz, a popular singer. Miguel worships him, and when he plucks his guitar from his memorial on Dia de Muertas, the Day of the Dead, he ends up in the land of the dead, where he runs across his deceased ancestors. He also meets Hector, a trickster who is running out of time–you see, when the last person alive forgets you, you know longer exist, even as a dead person.

This is not the first film to delve into the colorful world of the Mexican Day of the Dead (The Book of Life) and much of that first film contains the same ideas. In reading over my review of that first film, it wasn’t as good as Coco, because Pixar just seems to do everything better.

Anyway, both films are an example of the embrace of Hispanic culture. Unlike The Book of Life, all of the actors in this film are Hispanic. Gael Garcia Banal voices Hector, and Benjamin Bratt is the voice of Ernesto (who, of course, is not quite what he seems).

There are many songs, by a variety of writers, but the one that threads through the film is “Remember Me,” which was nominated for an Oscar. It could have been the title of the film, as that is the main issue of the film. There is also a heavy emphasis on family. I will admit that during the last ten minutes of the movie I watched through misted eyes. Pixar does family especially well; I think of The Incredibles (before the film was a trailer for the sequel to that film).

Coco (the name of the film comes from Miguel’s ancient great-grandmother, the daughter of the musician who left) isn’t perfect–as I mentioned, the first half is nothing special, and once Miguel gets into the land of the dead there are one too many jokes about skeletons falling apart and coming back together. But it is a beautiful film to look and the touching end more than makes up for any flaws.

Review: All the Money in the World


For whatever its merits, All the Money in the World may be remembered as the movie that Kevin Spacey was erased from. Following numerous accusations of sexual impropriety, Spacey, who played the pivotal role of J. Paul Getty, was replaced by Christopher Plummer just a few weeks before the film was released. I don’t know if the Spacey version will ever see the light of day, so I can’t compare the performances, but I can say this: Plummer deserves his Oscar nomination. He’s terrific, and the best thing about the movie.

Ridley Scott directs a script by David Scarpa that covers the kidnapping of Paul Getty, a teenager living in Rome, by a radical organization. He is the grandson of J. Paul Getty, who, we are told, is not only the richest person in the world, but the richest person in the history of the world (I’m not sure about that), having a fortune of over one billion dollars (which is the equivalent of nine billion today). The old man is kind of a real-life version of Montgomery Burns (or, before that, Ebenezer Scrooge), who has a pay phone in his house and will not pay the ransom, reasoning that all his other grandchildren would be kidnapped if he did.

Of course this frustrates the boy’s mother (Michelle Williams), who works with a kind of fix-it man of Getty’s, played by Mark Wahlberg. They work with the Italian police, who try to find the boy. They do end up raiding the kidnapper’s lair, but the boy has been sold to another group.

Scott is an old hand and knows how to tell a story, but the one major drawback of the film is what it thinks about all this. The score, by Daniel Pemberton, has a touch of whimsy to it, but otherwise there’s nothing funny going on. While Plummer is terrific in the role, there seems to be nothing the script is saying about him except he is a “rapacious old fuck.” We know that he basically abandoned his son, who comes crawling back for a job but yields to drugs. He seems to love his grandson, but won’t pay a ransom until it becomes tax deductible. Is the spine of this film really just that J. Paul Getty was a terrible person?

All the Money in the World is still entertaining. It is not historically accurate–Wahlberg is playing a fictional character, and so are several of the actors playing kidnappers, including one who becomes sympathetic to the boy’s situation. Williams, as usual, is great, particularly when she learns something at the end of the film and a bit of a smile crosses her face. Scott includes a few scenes that have a haunting beauty, such as parallel scenes of groups of people counting the ransom money.

But the best reason to see All the Money in the World is for Plummer. I can only imagine what this is doing to Kevin Spacey.