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.