Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Fences (2016) * * 1/2

Fences Movie Review

Directed by:  Denzel Washington

Starring:  Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Stephen Henderson

I approached the numerous speeches in Fences like I would listening to someone tell a long story.   At first, I may take genuine interest in what is being said.   Then, I would politely nod as I start to maybe listen to every couple of words.    Then, I would completely shut out what is being said and begin looking for ways to extricate myself from the conversation.    I'm too polite to say, "Get to the point, already," but that is the advice the actors in Fences need.  

It is a pity.   Fences, directed by Denzel Washington, who also stars in a role that won him a Tony Award, has moments of genuine power, but it can't get out of its own way.    It saddles itself with too much dialogue.    It doesn't flow, but stops and starts like a skipping transmission on an old car.    I began to commend the actors for knowing all of the words than I did for the power of their performances.    Based on the late August Wilson's play, Fences does indeed feel like a filming of a staged play.  

The setup is intriguing, as we see Pittsburgh sanitation worker Troy Maxson (Washington) walking home from work on a Friday afternoon with his old work buddy Bono (Henderson) by his side.   They speak with the familiarity of old friends and we learn they have a long history together.    Bono sometimes knows Troy better than Troy knows himself.    Troy wants to be a a garbage truck driver instead of slinging garbage from the back of the truck.    He doesn't have a driver's license and can't read, but that is of little concern to him.    He wants to better himself and his family plus pay for the building of a fence in his backyard.

Life seems simple.   Troy is married to Rose (Davis), who handles the house finances, the chores, and keeps Troy in line when she calls him on his b.s.    His oldest son Lyons (Hornsby) drops by every payday to borrow $10.00, which Troy eventually agrees to after making Lyons sweat it out through insults to his manhood.    Troy's younger son Cory (Adepo) wants to play for his high school football team, which Troy opposes not because he thinks football is dangerous, but because of his own failed past as a Negro League baseball player.    Troy scoffs at Jackie Robinson, while boasting of his supposed baseball achievements.    ("I once hit 7 home runs in a game off the best pitching in the world,")   Don't even talk to him about Sandy Koufax.

We sense Troy's bitterness towards the world after many swigs of gin and when he lets his charismatic facade down.    Rose sees Troy's flaws as a husband and father, but stays loyal to him,   Cory is not nearly as willing to be as forgiving of his domineering father.    All of this is good setup and we gradually see how Troy's selfishness and life choices haunt his family, but the power in the plot revelations is fleeting.    There are a couple of breakout scenes from Washington and Davis which will no doubt be used as clips on this year's Oscar telecast.    Their respective nominations are shoo-ins by now.    Washington's directorial nomination may have to wait for another film.

Fences is Washington's third directorial effort, following Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters, both of which I found underwhelming.    I think Fences is more or less connected to its material and Washington loved it too much to think of trimming, say, 20 minutes off.    The proper ending occurs 15 minutes before the actual one, when we have to endure another Viola Davis speech and two characters singing a song.    This is all done well, I suppose, but it isn't moving.    The ending gives way too much credit to Troy, who frankly doesn't deserve it.     We can't believe all of this talk about him being a good man, when the other two hours tells us otherwise.    He isn't a bad man, just a bitter one worn down by life, alcohol, perceived racism, and missed opportunities.     But that doesn't make him worthy of celebration either.

The performances are nonetheless solid, including the supporting players (many of whom starred in the 2010 Broadway production in which Washington and Davis won Tonys).     I enjoyed the give and take between Washington and Henderson, who plays Bono as a man who is wise to Troy even if he doesn't always communicate it.     But, make no mistake, the focus is on Washington and Davis, who are given ample screen time and dialogue.    We see Williamson as Troy's disabled war veteran brother Gabe, who drops in too much on cue speaking about helping Saint Peter open the gates of heaven.    A little of Gabe goes a long way.    Williamson also played Forrest Gump's war buddy Bubba, who forever espoused the virtues of shrimp.   I couldn't help but be reminded of Williamson's work there.

Fences has the makings of a powerful drama, but it never achieves liftoff.   It has scenes where he seems to head in the right direction, only to bog itself down with verbosity.    Actors may love to play roles with lots of dialogue and a lot of time at center stage,    I found myself not loving it all that much.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Manchester by the Sea (2016) * * * *

Manchester by the Sea Movie Review

Directed by:  Kenneth Lonergan

Starring:  Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Gretchen Mol, Matthew Broderick, C.J. Wilson, Tate Donovan

I have seen very few films that understand the complexities of grief, guilt, and loss in the way Manchester by the Sea does.    However, that does not mean it is a harrowing, heavy drama.    It sees these complexities as a way of uncovering the humor and truth in human nature.     Manchester by the Sea is wise and appropriately humorous.     It knows when to allow its characters to breathe and be themselves.    It also knows when and how to let us see inside and let their pain touch us.    The movie is a masterwork of tone.     It never steps wrong even though the fragile emotions of its people lurk forever beneath the surface and, if handled incorrectly, could disrupt everything that makes Manchester by the Sea so wondrous.

The movie begins as an observation of the daily life of Boston custodian Lee Chandler (Affleck), who fixes up plumbing issues for the tenants of four apartment buildings.    He is rather reticent and prefers not to engage in small talk or even any talk with the tenants.     He has a tendency to allow his bubbling rage to explode in the form of bar fights and cursing out tenants.     It seems these are not one-off occurrences for him.    He is surely troubled, but it is only after he receives a call about his older brother's death that we truly discover how troubled and why.  

In flashbacks to happier times, we learn Lee was happily married to Randi (Williams) and was a father of three young children.    They had a nice home in the woods near Manchester, Massachusetts.   Lee would also spend time with his nephew Patrick (Hedges) and his now-deceased brother Joe (Chandler) aboard the family fishing boat.     Life is good, until suddenly, thanks to a tragic house fire, life isn't good anymore.     With Joe now gone, Lee is stunned to learn his brother wills guardianship of Patrick over to him.    Lee, despite his love for his nephew, does not feel up to the task.    We gradually learn why he feels that way.   

Patrick seems to take the news of his father's passing in stride.    He still goes to school the day after the passing and practices with his band, while maintaining relationships with two girlfriends.     Maybe he is in shock or maybe he can't allow the pain to touch him.     Yet, the emotions will always find their way to the surface and they erupt in a powerful scene involving meat falling out of an overstuffed freezer.   

Lee tries to juggle his new responsibilities while processing old guilt that will forever haunt him.    He tries to function, but no one would blame him if he were to crumble to the ground in sheer emotional agony every now and then.     Lee's unwillingness to let others in, even the mother of one of Patrick's girlfriends who is clearly interested in him, stems from almost a self-imposed punishment.    Because he made a tragic mistake one night while drunk, he feels he must be punished, if not by the law, then in some other way.

I know I am making Manchester by the Sea sound like a real downer, but it isn't.    The movie is funny and gets a kick out of how its characters express themselves in their own direct way.     Watch how Randi kicks Lee's loud, drunken friends out of her house at 2am.    Observe how Patrick lists all of the reasons why he can't move with Lee to Boston.     Catch the little moments of truth and sarcasm after Lee cuts his hand after punching a window.     Patrick asks him after noticing his heavily bandaged, bloody hand, "What happened to your hand?"   Lee replies, "I cut it."   Patrick replies, deadpan, "Oh, for a minute there I didn't know what happened,"    The movie has countless moments like that to treasure.

There is also the matter of Patrick's mother (Mol), who once was married to Joe before going off on a journey of addiction and self-destruction.     She seemingly recovers and is engaged to a proper (maybe too proper) man named Jeff (Broderick).     The three have lunch at Jeff's house, and the lunch is one big ball of tension and uncertainty.    Are we at all surprised when Mom leaves the table and moments later we hear the refrigerator door opening with bottles clanging together?     It is said she doesn't drink anymore.    My first thought is that she doesn't drink any less either.

The best scene in the movie involves Lee's chance meeting with the now remarried Randi, who just had a baby and is seemingly starting over.    Yet, her tears, her sadness, her apologies to Lee, and her expressions of love tell us otherwise.     It is the type of scene that will earn Williams a fourth Oscar nomination and maybe even a win.    It is that good.    

Affleck is also masterful here.    He is all elbows with people because he can't let himself off the hook for his past.    He resists an actor's desire to emote and draw attention to his pain in every scene.    He is the character least likely to draw attention to himself even though he clearly needs to.     However, with every polite refusal of dinner or a beer, we can't help but feel that he won't let himself out of his shell.    But, we also know how much he loved his brother and how much he loves his nephew.    All of this in one complex package.    

The movie itself is like Lee.    There are moments of joy, long stretches of pain, and even bigger possibilities of hope that things may change for the better if only the people would allow it.     Grief has no timetable.     It is a process that never has an end.    We all experience it.    We all know its effects.    We can either let it destroy us or find the courage to take steps forward.    Writer-director Lonergan has written and directed a movie which understands this inside and out.    The amount of insight into Lee, Patrick, Randi, and to a lesser extent Joe, is a revelation.     The entire movie is. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) * *

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Movie Review

Directed by:  Gareth Edwards

Starring:  Felicity Jones, Mads Mikkelsen, Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, Donnie Yen, Forest Whitaker, Ben Mendelsohn

Rogue One is an unremarkable footnote in Star Wars lore.    It is within the Star Wars universe and features walk-ons by Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin, C3PO, and R2D2, but it does not have the heart or spirit of the better Star Wars films.     It was made with hardcore fans in mind.     If you ever wanted to know how the Rebellion came to possess the architectural designs for the Death Star, now you know.     You won't be much moved, but there it is.    The movie satiates fans' desire to see something, anything, with the words Star Wars in the title while waiting for Episode VIII to be released sometime in 2017. 

There are battles, gunplay, things blowing up, and bodies flying around, but it is done with little passion and almost by rote.    The actors do not give distinguished performances because there is very little for them to be distinguished about.     The characters of Jyn Erso, Captain Cassian Andor, and Bodhi Rook pale in comparison to the memorable Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and others whom have made indelible impressions on pop culture and moviegoers' minds.     Rogue One barely has any time to add any dimensions to its characters.    There are plans to be stolen and a battle to be fought.    The movie forgets that the better Star Wars films include character conflicts with each other and even themselves.    Screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy forgot to add the little something extra.

The battle scenes fall black on clich├ęs such as the bad guys firing hundreds of rounds and not being able to touch the heroes, while the heroes fire one shot to knock off a bad guy.    There is even Roger Ebert's Fallacy of the Talking Killer in the flesh.    A villain has the hero cornered and instead of just pulling the trigger and obliterating the hero, he pauses to ask questions and explain things, giving someone else just enough time to bail out the hero.    Computers helpfully tell the heroes what needs to be done in order to fix a problem, "Antenna needs alignment.   Antenna needs alignment."   

The plot involves Jyn Erso (Jones), whose father (Mikkelsen) is coerced by the Empire to build the Death Star (which is subsequently blown up in Star Wars and again in Return of the Jedi).    The odd part is:   Jyn's father sabotages the project secretly by ensuring a way in which the station can be destroyed.    This weakness is exploited by the Rebellion in the first Star Wars and the Death Star is obliterated.     Two movies later, the Empire builds the Death Star again with the same weakness still intact!   Didn't they learn from their mistakes?    Isn't it also odd the Death Star designs are kept in a computerized storage facility on a distant planet?    Wouldn't they be easier to guard if they were kept in the Death Star itself?   Or closer by? 

Rogue One takes place prior to the events of the first Star Wars, so there is little suspense as to whether the Rebels will succeed in their efforts to obtain the plans.    My overriding question is:   Do we really need to know every story connecting the events in previous Star Wars films?     What's next?   Greedo's origins?    Han Solo's?   Before you scoff, there is a Han Solo origins movie in the works.    For all I know, a Greedo movie or even Chewbacca: The Early Years is in development.    Some stories are better left untold.    Rogue One is well made from a visual standpoint.    The filmmakers are professional enough not to allow the production to fall below a certain standard.     But even those visuals, like the rest of Rogue One, will be likely forgotten.    There are better Star Wars stories.   

Friday, December 16, 2016

Tropic Thunder (2008) * * *

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Directed by:  Ben Stiller
Starring:   Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Nick Nolte, Matthew McConaughey, Danny McBride, Steve Coogan, Brandon T. Jackson
Tropic Thunder skewers Hollywood and everything in it.    It is satire with an edge and a sense of daring.    When Kirk Lazarus (Downey) tells Tug Speedman (Stiller) he didn't win an Oscar for his role in "Simple Jack" because he went "full-on retard" with his performance  (The same goes for Sean Penn in "I Am Sam"), you get the idea that these may be conversations that actors have amongst themselves.    Does Tropic Thunder hit all of the time?    No.    Some scenes fall flat.    But, most of the time it is funny and gives us almost an insider's view of the movie world.
The plot itself sounds simple enough:    A movie crew and actors led by Speedman, Lazarus, and heroin-addicted Jeff Portnoy (Black) set out to film a Vietnam War epic in the jungles of Southeast Asia and soon find themselves fighting drug lords who don't realize these guys are only actors shooting a movie.    The fact that Speedman played Simple Jack lends itself to an unexpected payoff and saves his life.    The surrounding cast of characters, and some are indeed characters, include a rapper-turned-actor named Alpa Chino (Jackson), a Vietnam vet screenwriter who never actually stepped foot in Vietnam before (Nolte), a director who walks off the set in frustration (Coogan), Tug's agent (McConaughey) who thinks the worst thing Tug is going through is not having TiVo set up in his trailer, and Les Grossman (Cruise), a studio head so powerful he intimidates drug cartels with his threats.
And then there is Lazarus, an actor so engrossed in The Method that he stains his skin brown and stays in character all the time.     He begins to think he is actually black, much to the consternation of Chino, who tries in vain to convince Lazarus he isn't actually black.     When Lazarus takes offense to Tug saying, "You people," Chino asks Lazarus, "What do you mean 'You People?"    Downey Jr. was nominated for an Oscar for his performance and it is a brilliant one.    It is his misfortune to have been nominated in the same year Heath Ledger won his posthumous Oscar for The Dark Knight.    You think of all the ways Downey could have gone wrong playing a white actor pretending to be black actor, but it is slyly fun and not over-the-top.    Another actor could have easily steered into bad satire.  
Tropic Thunder maintains its tone throughout and the actors are clearly enjoying themselves.    Tom Cruise is fat and bald as Grossman (you may not recognize him at first), but you clearly see he relished the idea to let loose and satirize the same types of studio heads I'm sure he has encountered over the years.     The movie is almost Stiller (who co-wrote with Justin Theroux and directed) leaping at the chance to take on Hollywood's big-budget studio system.    It is funny to understand that Stiller is making fun of the same people who are financing and distributing the very film that is making them the butt of the joke.    Who says Hollywood doesn't have a sense of humor?  

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Arrival (2016) * * 1/2

Arrival Movie Review

Directed by:  Denis Villenueve

Starring:  Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma

I am reviewing Arrival after a few days of thoughtful reflection, which is not necessarily favorable to the film.    If I had reviewed it shortly after seeing it, I would have given it three stars.     But, despite the film's effective atmosphere and a multi-dimensional Amy Adams performance which anchors it, Arrival does not hold up under scrutiny.    What exactly was it about?    There is a revelation that challenges the viewer's perception of time and point of view, but were the aliens really needed to draw that out?    This is the first movie I've seen involving aliens in which I felt bad they expended their time, energy, and resources with no real payoff.    At least not for them.     Their plight is something that no one living can help them with anyhow.

As Arrival opens, linguistics professor Doctor Louise Banks (Adams) is dealing with the loss of her only child to cancer and a seemingly broken marriage.    She comes to teach a class one day, but learning is not on anyone's mind.    Aliens have landed their crafts in twelve different parts of the world.     Landed may not be the appropriate word.    They hover a few feet above the ground and allow scientists and military personnel to enter approximately every 18 hours.    Military man Colonel Weber (Whitaker) enlists Louise's help to decipher the aliens' language and discover their true intentions.  

Assisting Louise is Ian Donnelly (Renner), a nuclear physicist fascinated by the scientific possibilities of the aliens' arrival, assuming humanity isn't wiped off the face of the Earth.    The aliens themselves look like a cross between octopi and the ghosts that chased Pac-Man around.     They appear friendly, but their language consisting mostly of symbols and shapes, is difficult to decipher.     But, Louise is able to learn parts of the language enough to have a decent conversation.    As the rest of the world approaches the aliens in fear and prepare for war, Louise is the only voice of reason.     Leading the call for arms is General Shang (Ma), a hardliner who softens his stance thanks to Louise in a way I am still trying to figure.  

Amy Adams is, as usual, terrific.    She is able to make the silliest material work through sheer conviction and personality.    In Arrival, she suggests dimensions in her grief over her child that make her a real person and not just a cold scientist looking for answers.     The opening scenes are truly powerful and set the tone for the film.    We wait to see if there is any connection between Louise's grief and the aliens.     We wait and we wait.    Soon, there comes the "shit or get off the pot" moment in which Louise finally just asks the octopi what their purpose is.     These scenes are handled with subtitles, thank goodness, but the payoff for our patience is underwhelming.    Any emotional impact is muted by our head-scratching.  

Yet, Arrival does contain moments of true power.    Director Villenueve, as he did in Prisoners, creates a cold, cloudy, damp atmosphere which is more effective here than in Prisoners.    Arrival isn't necessarily a fun film to watch.    But, it has enough scenes to keep us interested only to leave us with more questions than answers.     I admit I was underwhelmed.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Bad Santa 2 (2016) * *

Bad Santa 2 Movie Review

Directed by:  Mark Waters

Starring:  Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly, Christina Hendricks

Bad Santa 2 tries to follow in its predecessor's footsteps, but it knows the words and not the music.    Bad Santa (2003) walked a perilous tightrope between bad taste and worse taste.    It was slyly vulgar.    It got big laughs from the natural impropriety of its characters.     They were louses and couldn't help but be louses.     I gave the original Bad Santa three and a half stars, but its mostly unnecessary sequel not so much.

Pretty much everything that needed to be said about Willie Soke (Thornton), the alcoholic safecracker who dressed as Santa to case establishments at Christmas time and rob them, was said in the original film.    The sequel tries to force us to sympathize with him.    Yes, he is an alcoholic lout, but gosh darn it, somewhere inside him is a good heart.    This will not do.   The opening voiceover narration consists of Willie confessing to us about what a jerk he is and how much people don't like him.     The original film made no excuses for Willie.    It saw him for what he was.   There wasn't any back story or the appearance of his neglectful mother (Bates), who brings him aboard along with Willie's erstwhile partner, Marcus (Cox), for a potentially lucrative pay day robbing a Chicago charity on Christmas Eve.

Bad Santa 2 still managed to work in a few energetic laughs in the opening minutes.    I had hope that Bad Santa 2 would be at least a serviceable sequel, even if I knew going in it would not match the original film.    But my hope was fleeting and soon the laughs dried up.    Sure, there are plenty of vulgarities, swear words, and insults thrown around, but the spirit is gone.    The snot-nosed (literally) kid from the original film who takes a liking to Willie also shows up.    Thurman Merman (Kelly) doesn't have snot running down his nose anymore, but wears his hoagie shop work uniform everywhere he goes.     He still incessantly asks questions, but he is guileless and unworldly.    Willie kind of likes the young man, while Thurman hero worships Willie.     Bad Santa 2 actually goes and gets gooey on us as Willie and Thurman become a family of sorts, a choice the first movie wisely avoided.

In the original film, Lauren Graham played a woman turned on by Willie in his Santa suit.    The sequel has a similar character in Diane (Hendricks), who wants to help Willie get sober and bang him at the same time.    It is not made clear if she is turned on by the whole Santa suit thing.    Doesn't really matter anyway.    Her character is mostly unnecessary.     Marcus also returns from the first film, even through his relationship with Willie ended very badly.    It is fun to see Marcus and Willie team up and express their mutual antagonism.     Kathy Bates somehow convincingly plays Willie's mother even though Bates is only seven years older than Thornton in real life.    She is tattooed, surly, and unsentimental.    We see where Willie got his pleasant disposition.

But the movie starts to feel like it wants to be crass and lovable at the same time, which is an ungainly fit.   It tries to paint a happy ending on material that doesn't cry out for it.    Worst of all, it commits the most egregious sin a comedy could commit:  It stops being funny.   

Friday, December 2, 2016

Ghost (1990) * * * 1/2

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Directed by:  Jerry Zucker

Starring:  Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Goldwyn, Rick Aviles

Ghost taps into the universal hope and belief that somehow death is not the end, but a new beginning.   We take comfort in the thought that our loved ones may have passed on, but are still watching over us.    This is the case with Molly Jensen (Moore), who is grieving the loss of her murdered boyfriend Sam (Swayze) after a mugging.     She is despondent and in mourning, not knowing that Sam still walks as a spirit with unfinished business here on Earth.

Sam's death was no accident, but a contract killing.    He was about to discover a massive money laundering scheme at his bank and was killed for it.     He cannot reach Molly directly to tell her that her life is in danger, but has the good fortune to stumble upon phony psychic Oda Mae Brown (Goldberg), who much to her surprise and chagrin can hear Sam.    Molly is slow to believe Oda Mae's claims that she is reciting Sam's words to her verbatim.     Oda Mae seems to know about Sam's most intimate moments with Molly, yet Molly doesn't believe her.    Meanwhile, the villain, fellow investment banker and Sam's friend Carl (Goldwyn) is hovering waiting to either kill Molly or bed her.   

What keeps Ghost grounded is the feelings of loss, despair, and frustration both Molly and Sam feel.    Molly is course missing her lover, while Sam not only misses her, but has to go through the hell of being so close to her without being able to touch her or communicate.     Being a ghost has its advantages, such as being able to move objects and going anywhere undetected, but there are downsides too.    Bruce Joel Rubin's Oscar-winning screenplay deftly handles these conflicting pros and cons.   

Swayze is a sympathetic ghost, while Goldberg appears as needed comic relief.    Swayze and Goldberg play well off each other.    Their initial antagonism gives way to friendship and mutual respect, with Goldberg adeptly coming to terms with the fact that she is not a fake after all.     Poor Demi Moore has to play most of her scenes with tears in her eyes, but she is less inaccessible here than she was in other movies.     Moore was never an actress I warmed up to.    She is attractive, yes, but something always kept me at arm's length.    In Ghost, she at least allows us a glimpse inside.

Ghost moves along to a very moving conclusion and earns its emotional impact.    How many people would love to see their deceased loved ones one last time?   Even for just a few moments.    Ghost also takes up the argument that the deceased wouldn't mind a few more moments with the ones they left behind.     All of this neatly wrapped up in a plausible thriller.    What more can you ask for? 

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) * * *

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Directed by:  Amy Heckerling

Starring:  Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Robert Romanus, Eric Stoltz, Ray Walston, Brian Backer, Vincent Schiavelli, Forest Whitaker

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a welcome relief from crude teen movies where bodily fluids are ingested accidentally.    Yes, the teens in the movie engage in lots of sex and frank sexual talk, but it is relatively tame when seen today.    It is not a bad thing.    Fast Times also follows the trend of actors in their 20s playing teens.    But there are good actors here.   Some, like Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage (in a small role), and Forest Whitaker later became Best Actor Oscar winners.    Others, like Jennifer Jason Leigh and Judge Reinhold, became well known character actors.    And then there is Ray Walston, the former My Favorite Martian who appears as Mr. Hand, who makes it his mission to take his revenge on stoner Jeff Spicoli (Penn) for wasting so much time in his history class.

Fast Times touches on teen issues such as sex, love, passing finals, drugs, entering the workforce, masturbation, and even abortion.     These are done more or less frankly and realistically.     These issues still exist today, along with the advent of social media, cyber bullying, and deadlier sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, which was only in its early stages of discovery in 1982.    But dealing with teen pregnancy presents enough quandaries for an otherwise nice teen girl like Stacy Hamilton (Leigh), who has a fresh face and a winning smile.    Her older brother Brad (Reinhold) works and goes to school.   His longtime girlfriend breaks up with him and he is forced to wear humiliating outfits and resents them.    He changes jobs as often as he changes underwear, but he seems to be jumping out to a head start in the working world.    ("You tell me the fun is over.    I'm waiting for the fun to start.").   Oh and he is the guy jerking off by Linda (Cates), of whom he fantasizes emerging from a swimming pool in a teeny red bikini.   

There is no plot, per se, just a series of interlocking situations and stories surrounding these teens.    Spicoli smokes lots of dope, barely passes class, and yearns to be a famous surfer.    Is there even such a thing outside of Point Break?    When asked about getting a job, Spicoli replies, "All I need are some cool buds and some tasty waves and I'm fine,"    That and pizza he orders to eat while in Mr. Hand's class.    

Other characters rounding at the cast include Mike Damone (Romanus), a ticket scalper who hooks up with Stacy even though his best friend Mark Ratner (Backus) likes her.    He gets her pregnant, but bails on her in her hour of need, forcing Linda to take action on Stacy's behalf.     Also showing up is linebacker Charles Jefferson (Whitaker), whose prized new car is crashed by his kid brother and Spicoli and, through some ingenuity on Spicoli's part, winds up taking out his frustration on a rival football team during a game.

The movie, 34 years later, maintains a certain innocence oddly enough.    Before teen comedies became raunchy, cynical spectacles, Fast Times actually tries to relate to its characters and make them identifiable.    Advice such as, "If you want to score with a chick, play the second side of Zeppelin IV," is dispensed by Damone, who barely knows what he is talking about himself.    One minor issue:   In the next scene, Ratner is playing Kashmir on his car stereo to impress Stacy, but Kashmir is on Physical Graffiti, not Zeppelin IV.    Some teens have a knack for not knowing what they are talking about, but somehow sounding convincing anyway.  

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Allied (2016) * * * 1/2

Allied Movie Review

Directed by:  Robert Zemeckis

Starring:  Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Matthew Goode

Max Vatan (Pitt) arrives in World War II Morocco to meet the woman who will pose as his spouse for an assassination operation.    He is a Canadian spy while she, Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard) is French.    His French is pretty good she says, but his Parisian accent needs work.    They live together under the guise of being married, all the while setting up the assassination of the local Nazi ambassador.     We see the two actually like each other and will inevitably fall in love.    In another movie, the plot would end there.    In Allied, it is merely the setup to a second half in which the same people struggle with internal conflicts that threaten the crush them and their love.     They marry and have a child, but soon Marianne is under investigation as a Nazi double agent and Max must execute her if it turns out she is one.

I'm not really giving away spoilers, since the movie's trailers made these plot points crystal clear.    Allied works better in manufacturing its suspense by internalizing Max's conflict of loyalty to his family vs. loyalty to the Allied war effort.    Once the accusation is made, Max is forced to try and behave normally while conducting an unauthorized covert investigation.    He wants desperately to exonerate her.    He is like the patient who looks for second, third, and fourth opinions in an attempt to hear news he wants to hear; even if it isn't the truth.

Pitt and Cotillard create a believable, grounded relationship.    She more or less retires from the spy game once their child is born in war torn London, where Luftwaffe attacks commence often and take shelter alarms are sounded and heard for miles around.     In one very convincing sequence, we see a plane shot down that just misses the Vatan home.    The reality of war threatens to emotionally, if not physically, take its toll on them.    It may even tear them apart.     They are convincing as lovers and they are exceptional actors.    Everything else falls into place after that. 

Robert Zemeckis is a master at marrying seamless visuals with engrossing stories.    Allied has a feel of world events pressing down on the Vatans, especially in London, which was ground zero for the Allied war effort in Europe.   We know the outcome can either be Marianne is innocent and this was all a mistake, or that she is indeed guilty.    The odds of being the former are unlikely and watching movies, we all kind of know this even if we hope for the best.    Allied isn't as much about the plot as about love attempting to flourish in a world that has no place for it.    In the spy world, love may not be possible because the lovers are forever playing parts.    They don't know what is real and what is for show in each other.    After a while, they might not even be able to tell the difference in themselves.    And that could be deadly for one or both. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Doctor Strange (2016) *

Doctor Strange Movie Review

Directed by:  Scott Derrickson

Starring:  Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams, Benjamin Bratt, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg

Doctor Strange makes Thor seem charismatic by comparison.    Thor does show up in Doctor Strange as a probable tie-in to the next Thor sequel, but you may want to count me out for that one.    But before I discuss not seeing the next Thor movie, I will discuss the one I saw:   Doctor Strange.    It is, in a word, a mess.    It steps wrong from the opening minutes and never steps right. 

There is a plot in here somewhere and something Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) and his allies must do to prevent the Earth from being swallowed up.     But, trying to recall it takes monumental effort I'm not willing to give.    Who cares anyway?    Doctor Strange offers nothing to root for or against.    The only thing we care less about than Doctor Strange's evolution to a defender of the psychic world (I think) is the villains plot to usurp it for their leader.   

As the movie opens, Doctor Stephen Strange is a brilliant, arrogant, aloof neurosurgeon who is involved in a horrific car crash which injures his hands and renders him useless as a surgeon.    Desperate to regain the use of his hands for surgery, Strange's journey takes him to Nepal, where he learns not only how to use his hands, but to fight the forces of evil.     Most people would go through a great deal to be able to use their hands again, but this?    The good Doctor is trained by The Ancient One (Swinton), who is bald and dressed in a yellow cloak and Baron Karl Mordo (Ejiofor), who says banal things like, "You were destined for this."

There is a villain named Kaecilius (Mikkelsen), played the same actor who played Le Chiffre in Casino Royale.    I would have liked him better here if he bled from one eye and played Texas Hold 'Em.     Kaecilius is a villain, I suppose, but I don't know what his function is.    He shows up from time to time only to have his flunkies killed by Strange and to meet his eventual demise.    Could it be that I nodded off twice have something to do with my hazy recollection of the plot points?

Cumberbatch provides the right amount of snark and arrogance as the title character, but there isn't much else but snark and arrogance.    Why should we be invested in Strange's plight?    There are very good actors abound in this movie left to hang around waiting for something to do.     Much has been made of casting British actress Swinton as a character which was Asian in the comic book, but there is so little to The Ancient One that it wouldn't much matter who was cast.     She tries to be interesting, like everyone else does, to no avail.   

Marvel Universe movies are known for big budget sets, CGI, and mayhem.    It is near impossible to follow what goes on in Doctor Strange.    Characters can jump from the natural world to the supernatural one with little rhyme or reason.     If there are no rules governing anything, the movie becomes a jumbled free-for-all.    The visuals are a bit on the cheesy side.    Maybe that is the intent, but it is distracting and there isn't much to distract from.

Doctor Strange is one Marvel comic book character that would have better left on the page and not the big screen. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) * * * 1/2

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Directed by:  James Foley

Starring:  Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Jonathan Pryce

Strong arming people to purchase dubious property must be a soul-crushing way to earn a living.    The salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross have to deal with it every day.     Now there is a hotshot from downtown giving them all a warning under the guise of a sales contest:   "First prize is a new Cadillac El Dorado.    Second prize is a set of steak knives.    Third prize is you're fired,"    As if these guys didn't have enough pressure on them.

The man feeling the heat the most is Shelly Levene (Lemmon), who hasn't made a sale in ages.    He used to be the office sales king, but now he is reduced to making house calls on rainy nights to potential clients with no real interest in buying anything.     The current sales champ is slickster Ricky Roma (Pacino), who is across the street in a bar schmoozing a guy who is very, very unsure about buying land and even more unsure about Roma.     Roma is a smooth talker: calm, frank, and confident.     He may one day be Shelly, but as of now he is king.

One of the other two salesmen in the office of Rio Rancho Properties are Dave Moss (Harris), who forever feels he is treated unfairly.     If he concentrated on sales as much as he did griping, he wouldn't have to worry about his job.     Moss pitches his plan to his fellow hard luck case George Aaronow (Arkin) to rob the office of the "Glengarry" leads, which contain the names of people who may want to buy property.    These leads are held over the heads of the men by Blake (Baldwin), a cocky representative of "Mitch and Murray", who are the bosses much discussed, but never seen.   "I could give you the Glengarry leads, but that would be like throwing them away," he tells the guys.   He also challenges their collective manhood and provides advice, "Always Be Closing."   

Rounding out the cast of stellar actors is Kevin Spacey as John Williamson, the office manager whom the men don't trust or respect.    He is seen as too much of a pawn of Mitch and Murray and follows the rules too closely, almost coldly, but he gets the last laugh when Shelly divulges information he shouldn't to John while insulting him during a fleeting moment in which he feels relevant again.    John is amazingly able to keep a cool, detached demeanor when dealing with these egotistical hotheads, which is either a gift or a curse.   

Other than an office robbery which remains off-screen, Glengarry Glen Ross is mostly a dialogue-driven film about desperate men; some more desperate than others.    The actors fit the roles so comfortably you would think they once were walking the sales beat.     The rain pours down at night like reality crashing down around everyone's head, unless you are on top like Roma, who seems to enjoy the tap dance he has with his new client (Pryce).     Despite the rejections and threats to their job security, you get the feeling, other than Moss, that these men enjoy the art of selling.    It is indeed an art.   Glengarry Glen Ross understands that.  

Monday, November 21, 2016

I Never Sang for My Father (1970) * * * 1/2

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Directed by:  Gilbert Cates

Starring:  Melvyn Douglas, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Dorothy Stickney, Elizabeth Hubbard, Conrad Bain

Family relationships are anything but tidy.    Most movies want to tie up all of the loose ends with family conflicts in under two hours.    I Never Sang for My Father has no clear cut right or wrong party.    Gene Garrison (Hackman) is a recently widowed New York professor who wants to move to California and remarry.     This would mean leaving behind his elderly parents and in particular his domineering father Tom (Douglas), who frets to Gene in one of many guilt trips how such a move would crush his mother.    In reality, Tom would be the more heartbroken one. 

Before we can easily pigeonhole Tom as an irascible guilt tripper and Gene as a henpecked son who falls so easily for his father's manipulation, I Never Sang for My Father gives the two men depth, internal conflict, and of course love.    A lesser movie would have Gene finally wiggle free from Tom's grasp and live a happy life on his own.    A lesser movie would only see its people in such specific terms without allowing them to be conflicted, wounded, prideful, stubborn, and unable to communicate the words that mean the most. 

Because I Never Sang for My Father is so perceptive and knows that father-child relationships are sometimes so fragile, the movie doesn't necessarily take sides.    Sometimes we sympathize with Gene, even when he says he hates his father, which we know he doesn't mean.     Other times, we see the hurt Tom feels from having a mostly parentless childhood.     At one point, after Tom's wife dies and he is seemingly unaffected, we see him finally grieve not just his recent loss, but the loss of all of his loved ones who left him.    It is a moving moment which allows Gene to see inside, even if just for a second.

Gene is forever conflicted between his own needs and his perceived duty to his father.    At his sister's (Parsons) urging, Gene looks for nursing homes for his father and is turned off by their coldness.    Yet, the old man can't reasonably be expected to take care of his large home.    A housekeeper is out of the question too.    "I've taken care of myself since I was eight years old,"  he bellows defiantly.    We can understand Tom's stubbornness in holding on to his independence.    As some grow older, they lose the abilities that make them independent.     Some soon can't drive anymore, then some can't live alone anymore.    Each bit of life is taken away.    How does that even feel?    Could we blame Tom for being hesitant to leave his home behind?     

I realized with surprise that I Never Sang for My Father is not about one giant conflict between father and son, but little ones that have blossomed into big ones.     Tom and Gene's cold war is based more on perceptions than reality.    Gene feels his father never truly loved him.    Tom feels unappreciated by Gene.     What both men may never see is how much they truly do love each other, if they can get out of their own way to understand it.

Melvyn Douglas and Gene Hackman are both two-time Oscar winners with long, distinguished careers.     Both are so good at suggesting the subtle pain underneath.    We think we know who they are, until they peel back another layer for us to see more and sometimes unexpectedly.    This is their movie, although Estelle Parsons (Bonnie and Clyde) also excels as an almost outsider voice of reason.    She was banished by Tom from their home for marrying a Jew, but she sees this almost as a blessing which forced her to become truly independent, which is yet to happen for Gene.

I found the lack of a tidy resolution to I Never Sang for My Father to be appropriate.    There are so many dimensions to these people to work through that we will never get to the bottom of their relationship.    Sadly, most relationships are complex like that and a resolution may never fully come.    "Death ends a life, but it doesn't end a relationship," says Gene, who is still wrestling with his conscience and his soul long after his father is gone.    Sometimes the worst things that can happen to a relationship are the things you didn't do or say. 

Hacksaw Ridge (2016) * * * 1/2

Hacksaw Ridge Movie Review

Directed by:  Mel Gibson

Starring:  Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Hugo Weaving, Teresa Palmer, Luke Bracey, Sam Worthington, Rachel Griffiths

With Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson once again proves his directorial prowess.     He made a promising debut with the touching The Man Without a Face (1993) and then won the Academy Award for Best Director for Braveheart (1995).    The Passion of the Christ (2004) was a huge hit, although I am not among its admirers.    His follow-up, Apocalypto (2006), was a bloody, ugly mess.     Now, Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson's first directorial effort in a decade, tells a stirring story about pacifist medic Desmond Doss (Garfield), who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic efforts in saving the lives of 75 men during the raid on Okinawa in May 1945.    And he refused to even carry a weapon.

Hacksaw Ridge isn't preachy nor does it bestow saintly status on Doss.    He is a likable young man who will not bow in his pacifist beliefs despite enormous pressure by the Army to do so.    His refusal to even touch a rifle makes him the subject of ridicule, scorn, and violence by his fellow platoon members.     Drill sergeant Howell (Vaughn) can scarcely believe what he is seeing.    Howell's commanding officer Captain Jack Glover (Worthington) has Doss sent for a psych evaluation.    Why would someone volunteer to join the Army if he refuses to kill, or even carry a weapon? 

Doss wishes to serve as a medic, in the hopes of saving lives while everyone else is taking them.    He is court-martialed but wins his case with help from his alcoholic World War I veteran father (Weaving), who calls in a favor to his former superior.    Doss is labeled a coward, but we see he is anything but one.    His refusal to acquiesce wins the support of his platoon, especially Smitty (Bracey), who was at first his harshest critic but soon becomes his best friend.     Doss also has the support of a loving bride (Palmer), who only wants him to return safely home to her.

Doss' beliefs spurn partly from religious doctrine but also from an ugly childhood memory involving his father abusing his mother.    He was so shaken by the experience that he vows never to touch a gun again.   He doesn't, but when the Americans suffer heavy casualties and wounded men in the brutal battle to take Hacksaw Ridge, Doss evades enemy fire and discovery to save the lives of 75 wounded men.     No one would dare question his courage after that.

The battle scenes are particularly bloody and brutal.    Anyone who has seen previous Gibson-directed films should not be surprised by this.     Gibson seems to like his action films on the violent side.    Decapitated heads, disemboweled intestines, and spurting blood are not uncommon with Gibson.     But it sets the stage for Doss' heroism and we are all the more stirred by it.     Hacksaw Ridge manages to avoid most of the traps a war biopic sets, unlike Unbroken (2014) about a World War II hero who was celebrated for experiencing what thousands of other fighting men experienced.     I don't think too many men can say they dragged 75 men to safety following one of the most vicious battles on the Pacific front.

Garfield is the right choice for Doss.    Slight of build, he has a way with an infectious grin and his persistence during his sweet courtship of Dorothy.    But underneath the cheerful exterior lies a person undaunted by scorn and fear.     He doesn't behave like he should have a statue built in his honor or have a movie made about him.    He simply stands up for what he believes in and sticks to his principles no matter how inconvenient sticking to them becomes.

Many of the supporting players are effective even though many serve only the function of being dead wrong about Doss and apologizing for it in their own way.    It was surprising to learn many of the actors, except for Vaughn who is American and Garfield who is British, are Australian, but they have spot-on American accents.     It is also surprising to learn that Doss' deeds weren't trumped up or made to be mythical, but more or less happened the way Gibson shows them.     Doss died in 2006 at age 87 and I will bet not one of the men he saved would dare begrudge him for not carrying a rifle.  

Loving (2016) * *

Loving Movie Review

Directed by:  Jeff Nichols

Starring:  Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Michael Shannon, Marton Csokas, Nick Kroll, Bill Camp

Loving is based on the true story of an interracial marriage between Richard Loving (Edgerton) and his black wife Mildred (Negga) whose arrest in Virginia for violating the state's miscegenation statutes led to the landmark Supreme Court decision deeming such laws unconstitutional.     The story has almost inherent power that the film manages to miss.    It concentrates so much on the saintly Lovings that it glosses over the legal maneuverings which led to the case being presented to the Supreme Court.    Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special) makes a conscious decision to avoid the courtroom drama and focus on the Lovings. I'm sorry, but the Lovings are presented as so saintly and even-tempered that they are boring.    If you see one lovey-dovey stare across the room or field between Richard and Mildred, you see ten.   If there is ever a movie that needs more courtroom, or drama, it is this one.

As the film opens, Mildred tells her boyfriend Richard, a mechanic and construction worker, that she is pregnant.   Richard is happy and the two travel to Washington, DC to marry.    Richard buys some land in which he plans to build a house for his family.    Her family accepts Richard as one of their own and life is pretty good, until one night the sheriff barges into their home and arrests the couple for violating the state's laws against interracial marriage.    It is amazing to think that not even 50 years ago, there were still anti-miscegenation laws on the books in many Southern states.    The county sheriff (Csokas) is blatantly racist and has the law on his side, even if the law is unjust.

The Lovings plead guilty to violating the law and as part of their parole they must leave the state for 25 years.    Lacking money to afford better legal representation and wanting to avoid prison, the Lovings move to Washington, DC and try their best to make a home there.    The civil rights movement takes shape in the early 1960s and the Lovings see this as an opportunity to fight their conviction and move back to Virginia legally.    An ACLU attorney (Kroll) helps them with their case, which faces several uphill legal battles.

The Lovings remain steadfast in their love and devotion to each other.    But they don't seem to communicate much.    Because Loving makes the conscious choice to focus on the couple rather than the controversy, shouldn't we see a few more scenes in which Richard and Mildred actually have more than a two-sentence conversation?     We wonder why they are going through all of the trouble.    I think if either Edgerton or Negga (or both) are nominated for Oscars, it will be difficult to select a clip to showcase the performances because neither seems to say more than one sentence at a time.

Edgerton and Negga still have a heavy load to bear, especially Edgerton, who plays a man who doesn't speak much but carries the burden of his situation physically.    We see how much this weighs on him.     Negga plays Midred as more of a catalyst in the legal proceedings.    Both maintain quiet dignity in their performances.     I just think it would not have been such a bad thing to let them communicate their feelings more.     Most movies based on true stories are criticized for taking dramatic license.     Loving should have taken such license.

So when the Lovings finally win their case with the Supreme Court in a unanimous 9-0 vote, we find we aren't moved really.    The Lovings, and the movie, almost takes it in stride, as if we can thank the Supreme Court for allowing these two to forever stare at each other from across a room.    There are talented people here who should have been given an opportunity to do more and say more.    Instead, Loving feels like a missed opportunity to expound on a truly remarkable case in the history of civil rights.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Field of Dreams (1989) * * * *

Directed by:  Phil Alden Robinson
Starring:  Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones, Gaby Hoffman, Burt Lancaster, Ray Liotta, Frank Whaley, Timothy Busfield
"If you build it, he will come," is the whisper Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella (Costner) hears in his large cornfield one day.    He hears it repeated.    What does it mean?    He doesn't know, but it means something.     Soon he sees a vision of a baseball diamond constructed in the middle of his field and Ray follows it without question.    He cuts away acres of lucrative farmland to build the diamond and waits to see what happens next.     Not much does, until one spring morning when Shoeless Joe Jackson (Liotta) appears wearing his Chicago White Sox uniform and asks to play ball.    
That is not the end of the story, but only the beginning.    Field of Dreams is an unapologetic fantasy which dares to dream, challenge the audience, and tug at its heartstrings.    It is romantic about baseball and, as put so succinctly in Moneyball, (2011): "How could you not be romantic about baseball?"    For those unfamiliar with Shoeless Joe Jackson, he was one of eight White Sox players banned from the sport for life for throwing the 1919 World Series.    He contends he played as hard as he could, despite taking money from gamblers to fix the series.    Many believe he should have his lifetime ban rescinded and he should be allowed entrance into the Baseball Hall of Fame.    Jackson died in 1951 maintaining his innocence.   
The Jackson here laments his ban from the game he loves, but is thrilled Ray gave him the opportunity to play again.    Other long dead legends follow and soon they are playing ball on the field with only Ray, his wife Annie (Madigan) and daughter Karen (Hoffman) able to see them.     Annie's brother Mark (Busfield) is a banker whose job is to think Ray is crazy while repeatedly warning him how keeping a seemingly vacant baseball diamond in the middle of valuable land will lead to financial ruin.     He makes sense, but then again, he doesn't see what we and Ray see.    He doesn't know what Ray and we know.    
But as I said, there is more.    Much more.    Without revealing too many plot developments, Ray is soon met with more cryptic whispers which lead him to track down a former writer (Jones) in Boston and then a former ballplayer turned doctor (Lancaster)  who never had a chance to bat in the big leagues.    Their involvement with the plot becomes clearer.   The movie never rushes to reveal its secrets.    It holds us spellbound with its magic.   It earns its emotional ending which we don't see coming.   Yet, it never cheats.   The answer is obvious, only if we looked.  
Field of Dreams loves the game of baseball.    It still believes it is the national pastime, even if football has replaced it in popularity.    Baseball is a business, to be sure, but there is something pure about a game with no clock, rules that have stood the test of time, and its certainty.    You are either safe or out, no in-between.    Games have no time limit and the atmosphere of a ballgame remains unique in sports.     The movie understands that and understands also about regret, wishes, and dreams.    Ray's Iowa cornfield provides a focal point for the dashed hopes of Shoeless Joe, the writer, and the baseball player turned doctor.    It provides closure for all and especially for Ray, who never did ask what was in it for him.     We soon learn what's in it for him and the results are extraordinary.    What an amazing movie. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Funny Farm (1988) * * * 1/2

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Directed by:  George Roy Hill

Starring:  Chevy Chase, Madolyn Smith Osborne, Kevin Conway, Kevin O'Morrison, Joseph Maher

I recall the trailers for this film when it was released.     Holiday Road, the theme for Chase's Vacation movies, played throughout and audiences likely expected another Vacation-style comedy.    Funny Farm is an altogether different comedy.    It is quieter, more insightful into human nature, and creates its own clearly realized people.     It is also very funny, with minimal slapstick and plenty of smart verbal humor.     I don't even think Chevy Chase trips over anything.  

I was surprised how much care went into Funny Farm.     It is unique.    The fish-out-of-water plot is not new, but how screenwriter Jeffrey Boam and director George Roy Hill (The Sting) make it fresh.    As the movie opens, sportswriter Andy Farmer (Chase) and his wife Elizabeth (Smith-Osborne) are leaving their lives in the big city and moving to rural Vermont.    Andy wants to complete his novel, "The Big Heist", which is apparently so bad it inspires his wife to advise, "Burn it."   Life in the country is not as simple as expected:   The movers are lost and are late with the furniture.    There is no telephone service in the house, only a pay phone.    A corpse is buried in the yard and will cost thousands of dollars to bury properly.    Andy alienates fellow townsfolk in many ways, including accidentally catching a fishing rod hook into another man's mouth.     And Elizabeth writes a children's novel which is immediately sold, while Andy languishes in mediocrity, writer's block, and drinking himself silly with envy.   Oh, and don't forget the new family dog, which is so lazy it can't even be bothered to remove its own tail from the fireplace.

A lesser comedy would milk the slapstick for all it is worth or move from one situation to the next with unseemly haste.     Funny Farm takes its time and enjoys its moments.    The humor is based on people and not just situations, so we find it funnier.     Chase does not have to carry the load by  himself.   It is refreshing to see him play someone unlike Chevy Chase.    His Andy is as bewildered by small-town life as anyone else.   Imagine his surprise when he sets the record for eating the most lamb fries in one sitting; only to discover what "lamb fries" actually are.     Smith-Osborne is every bit Chase's comic equal in her own intelligent, understated way.     She made a strong impression in Urban Cowboy (1980) and here we see her considerable comic ability.    

Funny Farm peppers in other memorable characters with small comic touches.     The sheriff who can't drive and keeps failing his driving test.     A drunken mailman who flies by in his truck, throwing Andy's mail out the window while Andy tries daily to stop him.    An antique shop with stuffed squirrels.    And ducks which never seem to fly south for the winter because they fear being shot.     It is difficult not to be charmed by Funny Farm, which takes a seemingly routine plot and makes magic with it.   



Monday, November 14, 2016

The Devil Wears Prada (2006) * * *

The Devil Wears Prada Movie Review

Directed by:  David Frankel

Starring:  Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci, Adrian Grenier, Simon Baker

I approached The Devil Wears Prada as a stranger to the world of fashion.   I'm a guy who wears t-shirts and sweatpants mostly everywhere, so it is no surprise I never heard of Anna Wintour until this movie's release, and only because Meryl Streep said her Oscar-nominated performance (which one isn't?) was inspired by her.     Ms. Wintour took that as the highest compliment.    I hope I never have the pleasure to meet Ms. Wintour if this movie's Miranda Priestly is anything remotely like her.

Streep has a ball making everyone else's life miserable as she throws her coat and purse at her assistants and calmly, but degradingly, orders them around.     She is not interested in your problems or your life.    As the veteran assistant Emily (Blunt) tells newcomer Andrea "Andy" Sachs (Hathaway), she must devote herself 24/7 to the job and change her wardrobe immediately.     Not exactly in that order.   Andy is a recent Northwestern grad using Miranda's Runway magazine as a stepping stone to greater things.    She wants to be a journalist and her long term plans do not escape Runway lifer Nigel (Tucci), who is kind to her, but gives her sage advice about her employment and her wardrobe.   ("Others want to work here.   You only deign to work here")

Andy, after numerous introductory "foul ups" such as failing to land Miranda a flight home from Miami during a hurricane, straightens up her act and her wardrobe with help of Nigel.     She befriends the initially hostile Emily and becomes Miranda's right hand.    This is met with some consternation by Andy's boyfriend Nate (Grenier), who misses the old Andy who wasn't consumed by her job.    I don't know what kind of journalist Andy would turn out to be, but she is a loyal assistant who learns to sweetly look after Miranda, who is the last person in the world who needs looking after.

The Devil Wears Prada has moments of insight into Miranda.    She is seen without makeup and vulnerable in one scene in which she laments another pending divorce and the impact it will have on her twin daughters.     Miranda dotes on the girls; tasking Andy to obtain the latest Harry Potter novel for them to read.   No, not the one in the stores, but the unpublished manuscript of the next novel.    But her moment of self-pity and reflection is fleeting, and soon she is ordering Andy on to the next task.

Streep could have played Miranda as a screaming witch, but by underplaying her as a cold, condescending taskmistress who can't be bothered to raise her voice, she is all the more compelling.    She doesn't need to remind others of her power.    Employees straighten up their work areas and vacate the elevators at the mere mention of her arrival in the building.     An employee who accidentally walks into the same elevator as Miranda jumps out and profusely apologizes.    Why would anyone with that kind of power need to expend any more effort to exert it?

Hathaway, though, holds her own by staying as true to herself as possible, while growing into an assistant who takes her job seriously.     Blunt is at first a woman who disdains Andy and suffering from burnout, but softens up enough to become Andy's friend.    Emily dresses the part and gives her all, only to be disappointed that it is never enough.     Trying to get Miranda to acknowledge anyone's hard work is a fool's errand.

The Devil Wears Prada will appeal to fashion enthusiasts and those with bosses not unlike Miranda.    Is Miranda so demanding because she has to be, or because she can be?     Andy will soon realize the answer.    As will Miranda. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) * * * *

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Directed by:  Mel Stuart
Starring:  Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Roy Kinnear, Julie Dawn Cole, Denise Nickerson, Paris Themmen, Michael Bollner
Gene Wilder's recent passing shone a spotlight on how much his deft comic acting touched the hearts of many.     From the skittish accountant in The Producers to Dr. Frankenstein (that's Fronk-en-steen) to Willy Wonka, Wilder made us laugh.    Who else could play a guy in a love affair with a sheep (Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex) and actually earn a modicum of sympathy?     He even took on villains in Silver Streak as an unlikely action hero. 

Willy Wonka is a mysterious character whom we can't make quick assumptions about.    Quirky, yes.   Odd, yes.    Colorful, yes.    With a bit of malice underneath his pleasant demeanor, yes.    Willy Wonka is all of those things and none of those things.    His candy factory is a visual feast with hidden delights and horrors.    The orange-tinted Oompa Loompas not only are his employees, but a chorus which sings songs after each bratty child which won a golden ticket to tour the factory meets his or her demise.    The songs are catchy little tunes outlining each child's major flaw, such as one who chews gum incessantly, one obsessed with TV, one obsessed with eating, and one spoiled brat with a milquetoast father.     The only seemingly normal child is Charlie (Ostrum), who supports his very poor family with his paper route and tours the factory alongside his beloved Grandpa Joe (Albertson).

It is tough to nail down exactly what Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is at heart, which makes all the more delightful.    It is part musical, part children's book (written by Roald Dahl) brought to life, part freak show, and of course a tour de force by Wilder who keeps us spellbound because we are not sure even he knows what he will do or say next.    Through it all, there is a plan and a reason for everything, which isn't revealed until the end, but it is very moving and sums up Charlie's character in one action in a way 1,000 words can't.