Tuesday, October 31, 2017
Directed by: Paul Bogart
Starring: George Burns, Ted Wass, Roxanne Hart, Ron Silver, Eugene Roche, Robert Desiderio
Who would think the third film in the Oh God! series, which began with the bright and charming 1977 original, would be so slyly entertaining and poignant? George Burns does double duty here as both God and the Devil and the results are effective. We see more of the devil than God, but we know God is lurking off screen just waiting for his chance for a showdown with his evil counterpart.
Oh God! (1977) was a practical, clever story of God materializing in the form of an elderly man to a non-believing grocery store manager. It had wit, it poked fun at religion, dared to make God one who could kid himself, and wasn't blasphemous. Oh God, Book II (1980) was a retread of the same idea, only with God befriending a seven year old girl and lamenting a world he feels has forgotten him. It was cute and slight. Not terrible, but nothing special either.
Oh God! You Devil dares to stretch the conventions of the franchise instead of telling the same story a third time. The plot centers around struggling musician Bobby Shelton (Wass), who is so frustrated with his lack of success he offhandedly says he would sell his soul to the devil to make it in music. The devil shows up in the form of a showbiz agent named Harry O. Tophet (yes, that spells HOT), who promises riches and success to Bobby beyond his wildest dreams if he just signs a seven-year contract. The catch is: Bobby must leave his loving wife (Hart) behind and live his life as rock superstar Billy Wayne. Bobby does, but unbeknownst to him, another man takes his place as Bobby and he, as Billy, is forced to remember his old life as the hapless, but happily married musician.
Why does Bobby still remember his old life and yearn for it, even as he makes money hand over fist as Billy and lives the life of a glamorous rock star? This is explained in the film's prologue in which Bobby's loving father asks God to watch over him during a childhood bout with illness. This is enough of a loophole to allow God to come back to Earth to lay claim to Bobby's soul. This sounds insane, but then again, so does the idea of God and the devil in the first place.
Burns is mostly seen as the devil and has sly, edgy fun. He isn't overtly evil, but relies on promises and a sneaky charm to lure in potential clients. He is in the soul-taking business and business is booming. When God appears, he is not entirely the charming old man we came to love in the first two films. He has a bit of an edge to him, mostly because dealing with the devil brings out the worst in him. And he can't believe Bobby put himself in this predicament.
Because Bobby is basically a good guy, we like him and we care about him. We feel his remorse for throwing over his old life for an empty new one, one which doesn't include his wife. There is a touching scene in which Bobby (as Billy) goes to his favorite restaurant to find the fake Bobby and his wife celebrating their wedding anniversary. The story is not afraid to carry a little emotional weight instead of simply playing it safe with the Burns dual role gimmick.
Oh God! You Devil carries more gravitas than you would expect from a third film in the series, with some of the satire which still resonates from the first two films.
Directed by: George Clooney
Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe, Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke, Gary Basaraba
George Clooney's Suburbicon is part Coen Brothers lite (the movie was co-written by them) with Clooney's own social commentary inserted, or more like shoehorned in. These two plots do not co-exist well, in fact they distract from each other, but once the movie starts working a rhythm it gains steam and the ending neatly dovetails things after all.
In order not to give away many spoilers, I will proceed with the plot lightly. Suburbicon opens with an advertisement for the fictional town of Suburbicon, State unknown, but surely west of Connecticut. The 1950s suburban town is idyllic, clean, quiet, and lily white. This all changes with the arrival of the town's first black family, the Meyers. Fear manifests itself first in the from of stares, then grumblings, then the neighbors' building of a tall fence (no doubt an allusion to Trump's fabled wall), the overt racism, then demonstrations, followed by violence and riots. Just when we think we will have an allegorical story reflecting today's troubled political climate, we see Gardner Lodge (Damon). his wife Rose (Moore), her sister Margaret (also Moore), and their son Nick (Jupe), tied up and chloroformed in their kitchen. Rose dies, with Margaret quickly (maybe too quickly) replacing her late sister in the family unit. We sense this is not a random burglary, as does Nick, who thinks things are awfully strange around the Lodge residence. Soon, a suspicious insurance investigator (Isaac) comes snooping around with alarming accusations and even more interesting plot developments.
This is stuff the Coen Brothers could write in their sleep, but it is still the most entertaining portion of the movie, likely because there is more to the story than what's on the surface. The same could be said about Suburbicon itself, and if you follow Clooney's leanings, about America itself. The idea of ugliness and racism bubbling just under the surface of a seemingly jolly suburban town is not new. With Trump's election, such ugliness has found its way to the surface quickly, although this is not exclusive to the present period. People will forever accept change very, very slowly, based on fear and ignorance.
What Clooney presents is two versions of the darker side of people, even if they seem to clash. Damon's Gardner is an upper management stiff who appears to be hiding something underneath that unwavering upper lip. The other performances more or less do the job, without any standouts except for Isaac, whose very presence steals scenes. It is a curious choice by Clooney to keep things muted with anger lurking just out of view. If anything, Suburbicon is an angry, cynical film for all but the final thirty seconds or so. Then, the film presents a scene of healing and hope, which belies all that went before it, but showing us Clooney isn't entirely cynical at long last. Suburbicon is not a perfect effort, but it is never boring.
Friday, October 27, 2017
Directed by: Lewis Gilbert
Starring: Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Richard Kiel, Michael Lonsdale, Bernard Lee, Desmond Llewelyn
Moonraker is James Bond back when Bond movies meant absurd fun. The Bonds following Roger Moore's departure transformed gradually into such stoic, serious fare one would think having a blast in a Bond film suddenly became a violation of international law. Moonraker, which capitalized on the uptick in science fiction fantasy propelled by Star Wars, takes place in a plethora of exotic locations and even aboard a large space station. Bond learns quickly how to defeat the bad guys even in outer space.
In Moonraker, Bond is on the trail of Hugo Drax, a megalomaniacal billionaire who could give Daniel Craig a run for his money in absolute stoicism. His plan: Destroy the Earth's population with a deadly gas launched from his custom built space station and then repopulate the planet with his genetically superior master race. Supposing repopulation is even possible, would the gas affect the soil and its ability to grow food? Or the water? Or the air? What will Drax do with himself once his people are reestablished on Earth? I am putting much more thought into Drax's plan than Drax himself.
The villain's plot in a Bond film is as relevant as Marvin Martian's latest scheme to blow up the Earth. The villains exist to be brought down by Bond in increasingly creative ways. It isn't cool anymore to just have Bond shoot the guy and end it. No, the villain must meet his demise in ways in ways you wouldn't wish on an enemy. Or maybe you would. And the women in Bond films of yore, like the one played by Lois Chiles here, had memorable, if not politically correct names such as Holly Goodhead. Or Pussy Galore. Or Tiffany Case.
I miss James Bond. The Bond who understood how silly all of this was and jumped headlong into it. The Bond who playfully uttered his lines with a grin. The Bond who, despite being a parody of himself, was nonetheless a target of future satires like the Austin Powers trilogy. If you consider how many times James Bond saved the world by the time Moonraker was released in 1979, it is baffling how the villains still don't recognize him when he enters their lives under a false identity. You would think they'd have his poster plastered all over their lairs.
Roger Moore was the playful Bond miffed that these villains are interrupting his opportunities to score. He was happy to get all of this over with so he could get back to the rumpy pumpy with his leading lady, who by the next film would be completely forgotten. Since Moore left the role, Bond films tried in vain to keep up with their imitators, which was a mistake. The character was reimagined as a more contemporary tough guy who all but snarled at the screen. No more sly in-jokes. The locations remain exotic, but they don't spring to life. James Bond became more turned on by chases and violence than sexy women who were allowed to have fun themselves.
I doubt James Bond will ever return to the Bond of old. I'm not a "it was better in the old days" kind of guy, but with Bond it was better. We may have come to a point in which Bond has simply outlived his usefulness and has become indistinguishable from every other action hero. I noticed I'm starting to sound like my review of Spectre, even while writing a worthwhile recommendation of Moonraker.
Sunday, October 22, 2017
Directed by: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, J.K. Simmons, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Val Kilmer
The Snowman has been taking a pounding from critics as it opens this weekend. It isn't a terrible whodunit, it is just a thriller without thrills. It is a glum exercise pitted against beautiful, yet menacing snow-covered scenery. As the plot churns along, I can't help but be curious how the killer has time to build the foreboding snowmen around the crime scenes without being noticed. The detectives ask witnesses about details of the crime, but they should have been asking, "Did you notice anyone building a snowman right outside your home?"
The snowman is like the red balloon in IT, it is the calling card of the killer, but for reasons never really explained. The killer is never referred to as "the snowman" by the detectives working on the case. But, nonetheless, the killer has ample time to build them without being seen. Women have gone missing in and around Oslo, Norway and alcoholic detective Harry Hole (Fassbender) is on the case. The killer sends him taunting letters, a la the Zodiac killer, and the chase is on. Well, not really a chase, since the movie never develops enough urgency to make it a taut, tense thriller. It meanders along, never in a hurry to get anywhere. It spends an inordinate amount of time in flashbacks dated several years earlier involving another alcoholic detective (Kilmer), who is on the trail of the same killer. Poor Kilmer looks unwell, no doubt a result of his speculated health issues, and his voice is dubbed at a distracting several octaves too low.
Fassbender himself looks unwell, but that is likely the result of Harry's alcoholism, combined with insomnia, and passing out on park benches in the middle of the Norway winter. I understand the character's name of Harry Hole is also the name in the series of novels on which The Snowman is based, but couldn't it have been changed to anything else? The character's name isn't going to affect the box office or raise the ire of the series' readers. But with a name like Harry Hole, no wonder Fassbender seems morose most of the time.
Harry is joined by Katrine Bratt (Ferguson), a young detective whose interest in the case may be more personal than anything. She links the crimes to the rich and powerful Arve Stop (Simmons), a businessman looking to bring some sort of winter games to Oslo. Because The Snowman at least abides by the unwritten rules of whodunits, we know he isn't the killer. I confess I was able to deduce the killer's identity fairly early on by utilizing the same powers of deduction. The seemingly nice and friendly guy is...
The visual of snowy Norway is captivating and there is one moment of humor in which Harry's boss responds to Harry's request to be a given a new case, "I apologize for Oslo's low murder rate," The unfocused plot itself goes off on tangents including Harry's relationship with his ex-girlfriend and her son whom Harry tries to dote on except his blackouts get in the way. As is usually the case with movies such as these, the ex and the son exist only to be taken hostage by the killer.
The Snowman respects the traditions of whodunits, but it doesn't understand what makes them tick. The movies should be tight, focused, and wound up. Sure, there should be a red herring or two, but not filled with them. We also shouldn't be pitying the actors for having to spend so much time outdoors in the frigid Norwegian winter either. I hope there was plenty of blankets, heaters, and coffee nearby when the director yells "Cut".
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
Directed by: Reginald Hudlin
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Dan Stevens, Sterling K. Brown, Kate Hudson, James Cromwell
Marshall is a strange bird of a courtroom drama. The movie is titled "Marshall" and that is indeed Chadwick Boseman on the poster as the title character, Thurgood Marshall, all by himself. However, for plot reasons which may or may not be based on real events, the future Supreme Court justice is relegated to the sidelines during the trial proceedings. I will explain this later. The movie could have been written as fiction with Boseman playing a black attorney battling racism and prejudice in 1940's Connecticut. If you're going to make a movie about Thurgood Marshall, and there is plenty of material out there to showcase his life and work, then put Marshall front and center.
With that being said, the movie which was made nearly works anyway. The trial of a black chauffeur (Brown, of "The People vs. O.J. Simpson") accused of the rape and attempted murder of a white socialite (Hudson) is surely a powder keg of racism, prejudice, and anger and relies on the tried and true conventions of courtroom dramas. The movie is satisfying and held my interest, but falls short of being a great, or even an above average courtroom drama.
Boseman, who is playing his third African-American pioneer (he also played James Brown and Jackie Robinson), and plays the young, talented, cocky Marshall very well. But is this the Thurgood Marshall we really want to see? Marshall feels more like a prequel. As the movie opens, Marshall travels around the country for the NAACP representing innocent clients who were railroaded because of their race. A new case takes him to Bridgeport, Connecticut, which despite being in the North still teems with racial prejudice. "You're Southerners with a Northern accent," Marshall tells a group of vocal detractors. The case of the chauffeur, a middle-aged black man named Joseph Spell (Brown), is a tough one, but Spell maintains his innocence. However, because Marshall is not licensed in Connecticut, the hard-nosed judge (Cromwell) allows him to represent Spell on the condition he doesn't speak in court. The arguing falls to inexperienced Jewish attorney Sam Friedman (Gad), who has never tried a criminal case, but for reasons to laborious to mention is forced to be Marshall's mouthpiece.
Thurgood's and Sam's relationship follows the conventions of a buddy film. Hostility, guarded truce, then unity based on each other's personal experiences with prejudice and fear. Sam is a pariah for defending a black client (regardless of his innocence), while Thurgood is a pariah because he is a black man in a white person's world. This common thread unites them, as well as their belief in Spell's innocence despite plot twists which change the nature of the case. These are the more powerful moments in the film.
Despite the strong performances, Marshall stumbles during the trial scenes because out-of-his-depth Sam needs to continually interrupt his bumbling questioning of witnesses so Thurgood can dispense advice. Maybe this is based on real life, maybe not, but it causes the scenes to sputter. There are elements of Marshall which suggest the movie which could have been made, but wasn't. I was left with the feeling the great Thurgood Marshall biopic is still yet to be produced.
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Directed by: Doug Liman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, Domhnall Gleeson, Caleb Landry Jones, Jesse Plemons
Barry Seal (Cruise) is a TWA pilot bored with his job who starts working for the CIA after a job offer from agent Schafer (Gleeson). Schafer promises riches and assures Barry "it isn't illegal if you're doing it for the good guys," The job? At first, it is to fly a charter plane over Central and South America and take surveillance photos of reputed Communist guerilla camps. Then, during a stop in Colombia, Barry is offered a chance by the then-upstart Medellin cartel to expand his job description by flying cocaine into the U.S. in his charter plane. The money starts flowing in (more like gushing) and the early 80's is good for Barry Seal, the South American cartels, and the CIA. The money comes in so fast and furious Barry (even after laundering plenty of it in seven different Arkansas banks) has to find places to stash his bagsful of cash. We should all have his problems.
But, as is typical with stories like this, a scenario too good to be true usually is, and complications arise which threaten Barry's life as well as his family's. He makes an enemy out of the Medellin cartel, which is one enemy you surely don't want, and the U.S. government abandons him also in the wake of every agency breathing down Barry's neck. He no longer is able to fly his routes (which expanded to running guns to various parties and flying in Contras to the U.S. for "training") and once the bucks stop coming, Barry is on his own.
American Made tells Barry's story as black comedy, relying heavily on Tom Cruise's charm to pull it through, which it does. It is a relief to see Cruise finally not jumping off things, chasing bad guys, or shooting arch villains. In American Made, he plays an ordinary guy who jumps headlong into a situation with more downside than he could foresee. As Barry tells the camera during a videotaped confessional, "I probably should have asked more questions before I jumped," Barry's motivations are clear enough. He wants adventure, excitement, and to make stupid amounts of money, not necessarily in that order. Or maybe it is. We never see Barry truly enjoying his newfound riches. Those moments are set aside for his wife Lucy (Wright) and children, while Barry tirelessly puts his life and freedom on the line flying guns, drugs, and money to various destinations with ever-increasing danger lurking. If the government doesn't get him, an angry customer (i.e. Pablo Escobar or Manuel Noriega) will. Life is good for Barry, until suddenly it isn't.
The movie itself never delves too deep and maintains a consistently light tone while not underselling the danger Barry undertakes which soon threatens to engulf him. He doesn't appear to be caught up in the trappings of distributing cocaine, such as getting hooked on the drug itself, nor does he actually do anything really dumb to draw attention to himself. The issue becomes there is so much money that the amounts can't help but trigger red flags from the FBI, DEA, and other alphabet soup agencies. Why is an Arkansas town with a population of 2,407 suddenly dealing in large deposits? And what does Schafer, seemingly a pencil pusher assigned to a small cubicle in Washington, stand to gain from all of this? Schafer is played with shadowy charm by Gleeson, who seems to appear out of nowhere at various points to provide Barry with either encouraging or grim news about their operation.
Several historical figures are introduced, including Col. Oliver North, Escobar, Noriega, a brief appearance by George W. Bush, and indirectly Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush through news footage. As Ronald and Nancy push the war on drugs agenda on TV, there is reason to suspect the President knew plenty about the CIA dealings before political alliances shifted and our allies soon became our enemies, leaving Barry out in the cold. As one DEA agent coldly informs Barry, "You knew the risks," One wonders if Barry would have stayed at TWA if he knew what fate would eventually await him. After watching American Made, flying all over the U.S. as an anonymous pilot doesn't seem like such a bad career choice.
Monday, October 9, 2017
Directed by: Hany Abu-Assad
Starring: Kate Winslet, Idris Elba, Beau Bridges, Dermot Mulroney
The universal instinct for survival amongst the harshest of conditions carries The Mountain Between Us for a while, but the movie uses this as the setup for a less convincing love story. The leads, photojournalist Alex (Winslet) and neurosurgeon Ben (Elba), are stranded in the snowy mountains after their charter plane crashes. With little chance of rescue, the wounded, but resourceful duo makes their way down the mountain and obligatorily fall in love. As The Mountain Between Us opens, Alex and Ben are strangers stranded at an Idaho airport because all flights were cancelled due to a storm. Alex approaches Ben about splitting the cost of a charter. Both have to be someplace desperately the next day, with Ben needing to perform life-saving surgery on a child and Alex getting married (yes, married) the very next day. So away we go.
The charter is flown by Walter (Bridges), a kind, chatty soul who mistakenly assumes Ben and Alex are a couple and flies his planes with his dog in tow. Walter suffers a stroke mid-flight and the plane crashes in the mountains. At first, Alex and Ben stay put with the wreckage to tend to their wounds, but once a cougar shows up to try and make Alex and the dog into his next meal, the two decide the brave the elements and hope for the best. They fight along the way. And the dog treks along.
Winslet's Titanic co-star Leonardo DiCaprio had his own battle against torturous winter elements in The Revenant (2015), so now we have Winslet's Revenant. Ben and Alex are nice enough people, but kind of bland, and there is a mystery as to why Ben wears a wedding ring but doesn't mention his spouse. A digital recorder is helpfully on hand for Alex to listen to while Ben forages for stuff so she (and we) can figure it out. Each person's marital status is irrelevant anyway since they are going to fall in love whether they (or we) like it or not. Alex's fiancé (Mulroney) should have seen Alex not being home the day before their wedding as a huge red flag.
Winslet has a unique capability of making the most ridiculous material palatable. I'm not sure if Elba as a romantic lead is his strong suit. He broods too much as if channeling his Gunslinger from The Dark Tower. He and Winslet do not have much chemistry, as if neither is convinced they belong together even though the story requires it. They stumble on to an abandoned cabin, which thankfully is furnished with a bed and couch so they can avoid having sex on the floor. I found it odd some of the furniture was fitted with covers. My mind wandered as I began to wonder what became of the owners.
I also wonder why the dog is absent for long stretches while Alex and Ben hang out in the cabin or make their way down the mountainside. Especially the cabin. Is the poor dog kept outside so Alex and Ben can get down to business? And why do Alex, Ben, nor the dog seem to lose any weight? Winslet and Elba still look far too pretty to convince us they survived such a harsh ordeal.
I won't spoil the ending, but it provides a lot of contrivances which keep Alex and Ben apart. The whole mountain stuff just seemed like foreplay since the movie is far more interested in the romantic story. Which is fine, but these two characters aren't ones who will exist in our memory as a classic mismatched romantic drama couple. If you made John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga from 1985's The Sure Thing the bickering couple here, maybe we would have had something.
Tuesday, October 3, 2017
Directed by: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Austin Stowell, Bill Pullman, Sarah Silverman, Alan Cumming, Jessica McNamee, Elisabeth Shue
Battle of the Sexes is an enjoyable sports comedy which doesn't transcend into greatness. It captures its time, place, and early 1970s national mood on gender equality splendidly, but you aren't likely to discover much more about Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs than you knew already. King (Stone) was the closeted tennis pioneer who formed her own tennis association when it became clear the male-dominated tennis industry wasn't prepared to offer females equal prize money. She is married to the near-saintly Larry (Stowell), who knows tennis is Billie's great love and also knows of her lesbian relationship with hairdresser Marilyn (Riseborough), while dismissing it as a phase.
Riggs (Carell) is a 55-year-old former tennis great working at a token office job for his rich father-in-law. He is a gambling addict who reluctantly attends Gamblers Anonymous meetings and plays poker with his enabling shrink. His wife Priscilla (Shue) is exasperated with his inability to quit gambling. Bobby is a bombastic showman always looking for one more way to stay relevant and score a big payday. In the middle of the night, he calls Billie and challenges her to a tennis match. Billie rejects the offer, which is soon accepted by Billie's rival and world number one Margaret Court (McNamee), who is thrashed by Riggs in embarrassing fashion on the court.
The stage is soon set for King vs. Riggs in a winner-take-all spectacle to take place at the Houston Astrodome, where Billie hopes to shut Riggs up once and for all. Their training styles could not be more opposite. Billie trains like she is trying to win the Wimbledon final. Bobby clowns around, takes performance-enhancing drugs, and yucks it up for the media. He is having the time of his life, while Billie feels the weight of the world on her shoulders. Bobby, even at middle age and years past his playing prime, does not take Billie seriously because she is, after all, "just a woman."
If one of the two main players is examined with any sort of depth, it's King, played winningly by Emma Stone as a woman who is it all together on the tennis court while her private life is one of confusion and potential controversy. She loves Marilyn, but also knows if word surfaced of their affair it could potentially ruin her and the fledgling association she helped create. It would be many years before King admits to being gay. She is already behind the eight ball professionally being a woman in a supposedly male-dominated sports world.
The Riggs we see, brilliantly played by Steve Carell, is not unlike the clown prince of tennis we had already seen before in archive footage. He is always "on" and we never get to see who is inside. Did he actually believe in the chauvinistic, openly sexist rhetoric he spewed while promoting the match? Was he simply playing a cartoonish villain? If he didn't believe it, how did he reconcile his private emotions with his public persona? We won't know by watching this film, but Carell is fun to watch. The movie probably takes dramatic license by having Priscilla kick him out and without a word of explanation have her show up at the match looking for reconciliation. Did Riggs' behavior convince her in some way that he was an ok husband after all?
Battle of the Sexes paints in broad strokes. We witness a time not long ago in which a sports league President openly espouses sexist views which are seconded and enabled by other males in the sports world, including Howard Cosell, who called the match on television. King courageously opened the door for female athletes to further their equality and then went on to beat Riggs for good measure. As for Riggs, he became more famous for this one match than he ever did during his playing days. It came as a surprise to my movie going companion that Riggs used to be tennis player at all.