Saturday, December 30, 2017

Molly's Game (2017) * * *

Molly's Game Movie Review

Directed by:  Aaron Sorkin

Starring:  Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Michael Cera, Chris O'Dowd, Kevin Costner, Brian d'Arcy James, Graham Greene

Molly's Game was humming along with crisp, fun dialogue and a compelling look into Molly Bloom's (Chastain) world of running poker games for rich and powerful men.    Her psychiatrist father (Costner) says she enjoys having power over powerful men.    I don't believe this is the case as much as she found something she can do after crashing and burning in skiing trials for the Olympics.  She does it well, wisely avoiding getting into bed with mobster types, and maintaining a certain businesslike detachment with her clients.    Things are going well, for both Molly and the movie, until writer-director Sorkin unnecessarily tries to pigeonhole a quasi-happy ending where one will not do.  Some stories, no matter how fascinating, don't really require a tidy wrap-up. 

Molly's Game begins as the FBI raids her home and arrests her on various federal charges, including running illegal poker games, racketeering, and tons of other RICO statute violations.    The tabloids call her "the poker princess" and she already has an autobiography on book shelves which surely will sell faster now that she is facing a federal indictment.    We learn in detail how she wound up in this predicament, through flashbacks and conversations with her lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Elba) which are more exercises in intellectual one-upmanship than actual, believable chats.   Which isn't to say they aren't fun anyway.    I don't know if Aaron Sorkin's patron saint is Neil Simon, but it wouldn't surprise me if he was.

She was once among the best skiers in the US and was this close to winning a spot on the 2002 Olympic team until a freak accident ended her skiing career.   She moves to Los Angeles instead of going to law school and falls into working for a prick agent wannabe's office.    Soon, he has her organizing his weekly poker games in the back of a nightclub and her career as a poker princess is off and running.    Molly learns the angles, how to recruit players, make big tips, and keep spreadsheets of money owed.    Soon, with help of a famous actor only known as Player X (Cera), she is running her own game from a swanky hotel room.    Cera usually plays awkward, milquetoast characters, but in Molly's Game he acts with an edge and a convincing killer poker instinct.    It is a refreshing change for him.

Molly's clients soon encompass the spectrum of rich powerful men; from hedge fund CEO's to rock stars to pro poker players, including one who loses $1.2 million after going on a two-day tilt.    But, after an argument with Player X, Molly loses the game and moves to New York to start up another round of poker games.    This time, her clients are Wall Street types and soon, without her knowledge, players with Russian mafia connections.    This draws the attention of the feds, which along with a variety of drugs Molly uses to stay awake and soon becomes addicted to, brings Molly's world crashing down.

Molly is faced with mounting legal bills and significant jail time unless she names her mob-connected clients and turns state's evidence, which she refuses to do for reasons which are not entirely convincing.    The movie is intelligent and absorbing, with a Chastain performance equally adept in keeping up with Sorkin's verbal volleying, up to that point, but then the movie begins to hang around too long.    She is estranged from her demanding father until suddenly he pops up out of nowhere and isn't estranged anymore.    The dad expresses his mea culpa about how and why he treated her so sternly over the years long after such information is even relevant.    Then, we have a swerve by the trial judge who imposes his own lenient sentence on Molly just so we can sort of feel good about how things turn out. 

The final twenty minutes don't click with the rest of the movie.    Molly's Game works best when we see Molly expertly handling her business.    I always find watching people do things and doing them well as the most intriguing aspects of movie like this one.    Expertise is dramatic and fun to watch.   I can say I admired Molly's Game until the final act, in which case I grew weary of Molly's game.

War (2007) * * *

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Directed by: Philip G. Atwell

Starring: Jason Statham, Jet Li, John Lone, Devon Aoki, Luis Guzman, Saul Rubinek, Ryo Ishibashi,
Nadine Velazquez

Apparently Jason Statham's FBI agent John Crawford never heard the expression, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend,"  Because as he is chasing the elusive assassin known only as Rogue (Li), he fails to notice Rogue's role in an ever-escalating Japanese mob war between two rival factions who are killing each other en masse.    Rogue poses as a mole infiltrating one side, while in turn setting up the other side for death also.    If Crawford were smart, or not obsessed with killing Rogue himself, he would see Rogue is making his job very easy for him.

But, there is a history between Rogue and Crawford.    Rogue seemingly killed Crawford's partner and his partner's family three years ago and Crawford has been chasing him ever since.    Rogue turns up in San Francisco offering his services to crime lord Chang (Lone) as a bodyguard, much to the suspicion and consternation of Chang's current bodyguard and staff.   Meanwhile, Crawford tracks Rogue, both sides of the brewing mob war, and a plastic surgeon hiding out in Mexico who may have done some facial alteration on Rogue.    Those are the players and you can figure where it all goes from there.

War is slickly made, with quick cuts and lots of violence and blood.    That is to be expected.    What was unexpected was how much I cared.    Just what is Rogue up to?    Is he a villain or a hero in disguise?   Li, a talented martial artist and action star, doesn't say much, instead using sly smirks and looks to let us know he is up to something.    What makes War work is that I was interested in finding out what it was.    Statham isn't exactly an actor with an expansive range and he somehow manages to always have a five o'clock shadow, but he does what is required here and does it well, which is to snarl threats at people and stare viciously at them.    Plus, kick ass when needed.

Because the title of the movie is War and the movie posters showed Li and Statham glaring at each other, we know they will eventually have a showdown.    What happens in the showdown and who wins isn't nearly as important as why the fight is fought in the first place.    Many actioners are content with presenting us with just basic action without any emotional context.    I am amazed I am discussing emotional context in a film like War, but there you have it.

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Greatest Showman (2017) * * *

The Greatest Showman Movie Review

Directed by:  Michael Gracey

Starring:  Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Paul Sparks

Hugh Jackman may be best known for Wolverine, but he is at his best when he is singing and dancing up a storm in movies like The Greatest Showman, a spirited musical about the early days of PT Barnum, whose vision kickstarted a 146-year reign as "The Greatest Show on Earth".   Just this year, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus gave its final performance, but thanks to The Greatest Showman, we won't forget him anytime soon.

With an enthusiastic glint in his eye, Jackman jumps headlong into his Barnum performance with glee.    His energy permeates the whole movie, even some of the songs which I struggle to remember as I write this.    Songs from musicals can be a hit or miss proposition.    The better ones in The Greatest Showman serve as narration for the action rather than having everything stop for them to be performed.     But, the movie survives the lesser songs with its style and a decent rags-to-riches story with Michelle Williams as its soul to Jackman's showmanship.

We see the genesis of Barnum from poor child wandering the streets to winning his rich childhood sweetheart despite the objections of her father, "She will be back,"  he warns Barnum, who is heedless of such negativity.   His wife, Charity (Williams) is in love with Barnum and believes in him, even as they struggle financially while his dreams are just outside his grasp.    He soon creates an oddities museum which starts to take off once he adds live oddities like The Bearded Lady, The Dog Face Man, Tom Thumb, and acrobats.    Despite his financial success, Barnum yearns for acceptance in high society, which is something he secretly craved when he was a destitute waif.    He takes on well-off playwright Phil Carlyle (Efron) as a partner, mostly because Phil can get him an audience with people like Queen Victoria and Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Ferguson), whom Barnum agrees to put on tour.    She has the voice of an angel and is beautiful, which causes troubles in his marriage because he can't take his eyes off her from back stage.  

The story isn't exactly new, even if it supposed to be Barnum's.    But, it is told with verve and the actors buy into it, even as they are singing songs you have to muscle your way through.    They aren't bad necessarily, just mostly forgettable even if they are powerful in the moment.    I could say The Greatest Showman didn't have to be a musical at all, but this story of the man who invented show business is too big a temptation to resist turning into one.    We know the story arc because we've seen it in many other films before this one.    Barnum will rise, his marriage will be on the rocks because he just isn't the guy Charity fell in love with, there will be tribulations which will be overcome, and then the comeback.   I'm not really revealing any spoilers because such a story is predictable by its nature anyway, like if a guy and girl will get together in your standard romantic comedy.

The question is whether the movie works and it does.    It is a flashy spectacle and a good time, even if you aren't exactly humming the tunes when walking out of the theater.    Plus, the singers can actually sing.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

All the Money in the World (2017) * * * 1/2

All the Money in the World Movie Review

Directed by:  Ridley Scott

Starring:  Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Charlie Plummer, Romain Duris, Timothy Hutton, Andrew Buchan

The back story behind the making of All the Money in the World is more famous now than the story on which the movie is based.    For those unaware, the film was to star Kevin Spacey in the role of J. Paul Getty, the billionaire whose miserly ways cause him to balk at paying any ransom for his kidnapped grandson in 1973 Italy.   The film was completed and days away from its world premiere when Spacey was soon disgraced by numerous accusations of sexual misconduct.  In an unprecedented move, director Ridley Scott hired Christopher Plummer to play the Getty role, requiring nine days of reshoots and eliminating Spacey from the finished product.    All of this while not changing the Christmas 2017 release date.    For those who saw Spacey in the fall trailers, this will be the only time you would ever get to see him anywhere in the movie.

The film itself is as cold and ruthless as Getty himself.    It is not a conventional thriller in which the police and Getty security chief Fletcher Chase (Wahlberg) track down the kidnapped Getty in a race against time.    The reason Chase is dispatched to assist in the rescue is to allow Getty to get away with not paying any ransom money, not because of any grandfatherly love, which old man Getty surely lacks in any capacity.    Plummer's performance at first disarms you as he holds his young grandson's hand in flashbacks showing him his latest acquisitions.    We think there may be some humanity lurking beneath the icy oil tycoon who by 1973 was the richest man in the history of the world.    But, as the film progresses, and as Chase negotiates the ransom amount down, we see this is not the case.   Getty won't do anything unless it somehow enriches him even a few pennies more.    This may be the only man in history who allows tax law to dictate how much he pays for a kidnap ransom.

In the center of this world is Getty's former daughter-in-law and Getty III's mother Gail (Williams), who only wants her son back and must rely on the elder Getty's money to achieve that goal.    She can barely gain an audience with him, let alone ask for help.    We see flashbacks which reveal how her relationship with Getty became so estranged.    The story was rather simple.   Getty was filthy rich and would rather die than part with any of his fortune.    When Chase asks Getty how much it would take to make him feel secure, Getty replies, "More", as if it were the most spoken word in his vocabulary.

Plummer's performance sets the stage for the entire world of this film, in which compassion is an unheard of term.    Young Getty is trapped in a nightmare from which there is no escape.    Only a sympathetic captor (Duris) buys him any sort of time from being killed as the old man continually refuses payment.    The film provides the standard disclaimer about how it was based on a true story while certain scenes were altered for dramatic effect.    I almost don't want to know all of the details of the real story, because it may dispel the effective mood which envelops this film.   The kidnapping is only a subtext to the real story; which may be true of many super rich people, and that is the accumulation of assets overrides any mercy, decency, or family.    Getty is never seen enjoying his wealth.   In fact, during his stay in a fancy Italian hotel, he launders his own clothes to avoid paying the hotel to do so.    He will put himself through extraordinary inconvenience to avoid paying for convenience.

Besides Plummer's gutsy, fearless portrayal, Williams carves her own niche and maybe even the only remaining scruples in this bizarre story.    Wahlberg is fine, but has to take a backseat to the more powerful performances in the film.     I surely won't say how the film ends, but we learn Getty himself set up his life as almost a hostage to his own fortune.    And he wouldn't have had it any other way, which makes it all the sadder.    Scott deserves kudos for structuring a film without any true emotional catharsis, just bitterness, shallowness, and a thorough example of how Getty seemingly sold his soul for the almighty dollar.    The question is:  How much soul did he have to sell in the first place? 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Love Actually (2003) * * *

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Directed by:  Richard Curtis

Starring:  Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Keira Knightley, Alan Rickman, Bill Nighy, Martine McCutcheon, Billy Bob Thornton, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, Rodrigo Santoro, Thomas Sangster, Lucia Moniz, Chiwetel Ejiofor

Love Actually is seven (or maybe more) romantic comedies rolled into one sweet, feel-good Romantic Comedy.    That it takes place in the weeks before Christmas adds to his likability and warmth.     I grant you there may have been one or two subplots too many, but overall Love Actually wins you over with its consistent charm. 

How do I recap the romances or burgeoning romances or dying romances?    Hopefully rather quickly without giving too much away, although you can readily guess with 99% certainty how each will be resolved.     We have the Prime Minister (Grant) who on his first day on the job falls in love with one of his staff.    He knows he is in love right away and says, "This is so inconvenient,"    It is difficult enough to navigate dealing with a bullying US President (Thornton); imagine when the President hits on the girl he loves.     The Prime Minister's sister Karen (Thompson) is happily married with kids, but detects her husband Harry (Rickman) may be in the opening stages of an affair.   

There is Daniel (Neeson), a recent widower with a stepson who falls in love with a classmate.    We also have a writer (Firth), who retreats to France to write his newest work only to fall for a Portuguese woman.    Then, there is the twentyish British man who strikes out with women in England, but theorizes he could conquer the women of Wisconsin solely because of his British accent.    Then there is the touchy matter of a man who is in love with the new spouse of his best friend, but people incorrectly assume he is in love with the groom.     Oh, and then there is an office worker in Harry's office (Linney) who has a crush on another guy in the office and tries to navigate a long-awaited date with him AND deal with the constant demands of her special needs brother.

Got all that?   Good, there will be a quiz later.   Oh, and then there is the aging British rock star Billy Mack (Nighy), who hates that he is relegated to recording a silly Christmas version of "Love Is All Around,"    He denounces it on talk shows and as a goof dares the record-buying public to make it #1 by Christmas.     Billy may have riches and still be a name, but he is lonely and without a love on Christmas.    The closest thing he has to a relationship is a bromance with his long-suffering manager.

Love Actually maintains a sweet, cheerful tone throughout and acts almost as a London Christmas travelogue.    The buildings are all decorated, the scenery is cheery, and Christmas music hangs in the air as our couples and would-be couples try to figure things out.    The movie could have lopped off the Linney subplot, the Firth subplot, and the Wisconsin-bound Brit subplot and still retained its warmth minus about thirty minutes of running time.    The actors prove to be exceptional romantic comedians, especially Grant, a natural romantic comedian whose awkward attempts at romance cause him to make some irrational moves on the way to winning his beloved's hand.   

All's well that end's well in Love Actually.    Things fall the way you would expect and we still are interested in the outcomes, mainly because writer-director Richard Curtis insightfully infuses with people with human touches we can all recognize.   

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Call Me by Your Name (2017) * *

Call Me by Your Name Movie Review

Directed by:  Luca Guadagnigno

Starring:  Timothee Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois

Clocking in at two hours, twelve minutes, Call Me by Your Name takes entirely too long to tell its too simple story.    It is no hurry to go anywhere, which is some movies is a virtue, but in this film becomes a severe test of our patience.    The movie is lush visually, with picturesque views of the Italian countryside and the performances surely buy the movie a little goodwill, but in the end we are left with a glimpse of a boring homosexual romance which may or may not be pedophilia depending on where you live.    The age difference is frankly creepy and there is little for the story to push against, with no greater context or societal dilemmas involved.    The affair may as well take place on Mars.    More on that later.

The film opens in the summer of 1983, with the Perlman family, led by history professor Lyle(Stuhlbarg), his loving Italian wife Annella (Casar), and their 17-year-old highly educated, but gawky and awkward son Elio (Chalamet).    Each year, they bring a graduate student in for the summer to live with them and study under Professor Perlman.    The student is Oliver (Hammer), a tall, muscular man in his early 20's who likes to excuse himself by offhandedly saying "Later," and idolizes Lyle's work.    Elio, who has a couple of female friends with benefits, takes a liking to Oliver although they don't get off on the right foot.   But, soon there is a truce, then a friendship, then a flirtation, followed by an affair in which most of the hanky panky takes place in the bedroom on the second floor.    If the parents are aware of the affair, they surely don't let on.   If they don't, well, then Oliver and Elio mustn't make too much noise.

The relationship between Oliver and Elio is predictable and drawn out.   They don't even express their hidden desires until about an hour into the film.    Before that, the two go on lots of bike rides, discuss famous works of literature, and other dull stuff.    The Northern Italian scenery is rustic and timeless, only the intrusion of songs like "Love My Way" by The Psychedelic Furs at a local disco reminds us of the period.    Now when I hear that song, I will think of Hammer's geeky, awkward dancing to the beat.   Ugh.

I won't reveal any more about the future of the tryst, except to say it has no interesting dramatic reverberations and no subtexts explored in other gay-themed films like Brokeback Mountain, in which the two male leads cause suffering to the women in their lives by virtue of their homosexuality.    Brokeback Mountain, which is the movie I can't help but compare this film to, also takes place in a society which is hostile to open homosexuality and its men have to maintain a certain façade to deflect suspicion.    No such conflicts exist here and thus no underlying reason to watch.    I admired the performances although the characters kept me at arm's length.     There is a tricky scene which Stuhlbarg pulls off exceptionally well in which he reveals how much he knows or doesn't know about Elio and Oliver and also how it relates to himself.  

But I expected more than just a one-off affair and broken hearts.    A male-female relationship in exactly the same circumstances would be just as boring, because while it is cool of Elio's parents to embrace Elio's and Oliver's "special friendship", it doesn't justify our spending so much time to witness it amidst the abundant apricot trees.    Oh yes, there are lots of apricots, peaches, and juices made from the same, and I must say this is the first film I've seen in which the characters partake in such.

Darkest Hour (2017) * * * 1/2

Darkest Hour Movie Review

Directed by:  Joe Wright

Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane

Darkest Hour, aside from a hokey finale which reeks of movie fiction, tensely details the first month of Prime Minister Winston Churchill's term in May 1940.    Germany's victory over France is all but certain as Neville Chamberlain (Pickup) is booted from office by Parliament and the only candidate whom both parties can agree upon to replace him is the irascible, eccentric Churchill (Oldman).    With France's imminent fall and 300,000 mostly British soldiers stranded at Dunkirk, Churchill has no time to make nice.    The United Kingdom will soon be the only country left standing as Hitler conquered Western Europe and Scandinavia.    Churchill's more moderate war cabinet, consisting of Chamberlain and the heir apparent to the Prime Ministry Viscount Halifax (Dillane), pushes for peace talks, which to Churchill equates to a surrender and subservience to Hitler.    This will not do, but the forecast of imminent invasion makes things dicey.

Directed by Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Hanna, Atonement), Darkest Hour not only gives us a Winston Churchill with foibles as well as heroic qualities, but relishes them equally.    Was Churchill correct to not even entertain the thought of peace?    Historical hindsight tells us yes, but Darkest Hour plays in the moment, when things looked bleak and the chances of a British victory over the German war machine seemed remote at best.    The United States signed a pact to remain neutral and refused to offer any meaningful help to Churchill.    The UK was totally alone in their fight to stave off annihilation at the hands of the Nazis.    Wright does not make the mistake of showing Churchill as a heroic bore who is constantly right while others around him are constantly wrong.    He is allowed to be doubtful, angry, petulant, and stubborn, as well as addressing his staff while taking a bath.    Because the film embraces these traits, it gives us an intimate portrait of a man thrust into a dangerous situation in which any answer may be the wrong one.

This is the best work of Gary Oldman's career, which truth be told has been chock full of hammy villain roles and at times intense overacting (as well as other strong work), but here he nurtures Churchill's idiosyncrasies like little treasures.    He clearly loves the complexity of such a historical titan and has some great moments while chewing out his political opponents.     ("You cannot negotiate with a tiger while your head is in its mouth").    Oldman is at his most appealing when Churchill is at his most vulnerable.    A poignant late scene with King George VI (Mendelsohn), who at first reluctantly went along with Churchill's appointment only to side with him later, is the most powerful in the movie. 

We see Churchill through the eyes of pretty young secretary Elizabeth Layton (James), who is at first fired for not being able to keep up with typing his rambling speeches and then rehired, but her character is mostly superfluous.    I would have liked to see more interaction with Winston and his wife Clementine (Scott Thomas), who at times is the only voice other than his own he will listen to, mostly because she knows him so well.     Clementine may possibly be the only person in Europe who can keep Churchill at bay.    Their scenes are glorious fun because we gain a sense of what has made their long marriage work.    She isn't there to blindly support him, but to nudge him in the right direction when he strays off course or give him a kick in the arse if necessary.     Scott Thomas' work is wonderful here.    I would love to see her nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

The final fifteen minutes in which Churchill boards an Underground train and asks the passengers how he should handle Hitler and the looming invasion is meant as a feel-good moment, but to me rings false and cliched.    I don't know if such a thing ever happened, but it doesn't feel right in a movie which is at its strongest as it depicts the noose tightening around not just Churchill, but the entire nation.    This leads to the inspiration of Churchill's immortal speech to Parliament ("we will fight them in the parks..."), but I could've done without the false impetus. 

With that said, Darkest Hour is still touching, funny in the way it pinpoints human nature, and a tense and focused political drama.    It gives us a view of what exactly was happening in the homeland while hundreds of thousands of soldiers at Dunkirk were anxiously awaiting either rescue or their grim fate.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

United 93 (2006) * * * *

United 93 Movie Review

Directed by:  Paul Greengrass

Starring:  Gregg Henry, David Alan Basche, David Rasche, Ben Sliney

As one of the first major motion pictures to depict 9/11, United 93 was greeted with critical acclaim, a Best Director Oscar nomination for Paul Greengrass, and questions of whether it was "too soon" to make movie about such an unprecedented day of horror.    Movies reflect the times and depict world events in a visual fashion which allows people to understand their impact.    People alive on September 11, 2001 and of a reasonable age to understand what was happening will recall where they were when they heard the news of the first World Trade Center being struck by an airplane, and then the second tower, and then the Pentagon, and then the towers collapsing.    Flight United 93 crashed into a rural Pennsylvania field and left no survivors.    Its destination was said to be the Sears Tower in Chicago, but thanks to the doomed heroism of a group of passengers, the target was never achieved.

What makes United 93 so compelling is how it is told in real time.   It lives in the moment.    We may know what happens, but the passengers aboard the plane surely do not.    Their plane is hijacked in what must have been a surreal moment unlike no other.    After allowing the gravity of the situation to be processed, a group of passengers hatch a makeshift plan to storm the cockpit.    What else were they going to do?   They assessed their options and, figuring correctly the hijackers will not let them go, did what they could to ensure at least a slim chance of survival.

It is chilling to see the morning of September 11, 2001 unfold.    Soon-to-be-passengers leave their homes and loved ones, not knowing of course it would be for the last time.   The hijackers are seen preparing to board the plane for their suicide mission.   We know nothing about any of the people involved, except that they will soon be linked together on a fateful flight.    It is natural to assume that, other than testimony by those who the passengers called when the flight was hijacked, most of United 93's dialogue and action was dramatized.     The film doesn't take excessive license with this.   It maintains the anonymity of the people involved and doesn't turn the situation into an excuse to replicate Die Hard.   Their sacrifice was not trivialized.    Neither was the day.

As United 93 is hijacked (the control tower of the originating city did not know it was hijacked until after it crashed), the Twin Towers are crashed into and Newark air traffic controllers fear the worst once it was determined a commercial jet struck the buildings.    Were there more?    United 93 does not attempt to make sense of this.    We see it as the participants did.    Other planes do not respond to requests from air traffic control and are feared to be hijacked also.    In an unprecedented move, the FAA orders all air traffic throughout the United States to be grounded immediately.    It is not a decision which is arrived at confidently, but it turned out to be the correct one.

United 93 isn't about being dramatically powerful or factually correct.    It is almost documentary-like in its depiction of the confusion, fear, and uncertainty by all involved, from passengers to air traffic control.    One hijacking is enough to contend with.    What about several?   Such a possibility must have been entertained at some point before 9/11, but likely never planned for because the chances were so remote of it ever happening.    But happen it did.  

Greengrass fearlessly approaches United 93 while not overdramatizing it.   There is enough inherent suspense even though we know the outcome, mostly because the participants don't know the outcome yet.    We can only stand by and watch in horror as the story works its way to its inevitable outcome.  Greengrass' objective was clear:   To observe, to re-enact, and to somehow make sense of the senseless.    After sixteen years, we are still trying to do that.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Pianist (2002) * * * 1/2

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Directed by:  Roman Polanski

Starring:  Adrien Brody, Emilia Fox, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman

The Pianist tells the true story of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Spzilman (Brody-Oscar winner for Best Actor for the role) who survived World War II by the skin of his teeth.    When the German bombs first hit Poland on September 1, 1939, Spzilman, a gifted young classical pianist, was performing on Polish radio.    He continued playing even as the building was shaking around him.    He must perform.   The rest must have seemed surreal.    What happened next must have seemed like something out of dystopian novel.

Spzilman, a Jewish man, makes a comfortable living as a famed pianist, but in the eyes of the Nazis he is just another Jew to be exterminated.    They didn't care about his prowess.    They didn't care his family was prominent.    They were simply a few more people to be killed.     We witness the unfolding of what would have to millions of other Jews across Europe during the six years of World War II.    The Spzilmans are stripped of their home, possessions, and are soon gathered up in a small ghetto.    The next step will be on a train to a death camp.    Thanks to incredible good fortune, he is pulled from the line boarding the death camp trains by a family friend and spends the next five years surviving in what remains of the Warsaw ghetto.    Spzilman hides out in various homes of non-Jews and members of the Polish resistance.    He spends his days and nights hiding, starving, and frightened; moving from one hideout to another in the desperate hopes of outlasting the war.    We know what eventually happened to the Nazis, but Spzilman does not.  

Brody, whose role contains sparse dialogue once he begins hiding, is a masterstroke of powerful, non-verbal expression.     We feel his pain, his sorrow over losing his loved ones to genocide, and his innate instinct for survival without him having to say it.     He comes to a crossroads when one of the apartments in which he hides has a piano.    He knows he cannot play it, but he desires to not just because he loves music, but because it would return him to a happier time before the war.    It is yet another cruel twist of the knife for him.

This is Brody's movie, but more Polanski's, who has such an insightful, knowing connection to the material because he is a Holocaust survivor himself whose mother perished in the death camps.    He has an empathetic instinct for Spzilman and a realistic view of the horrors surrounding him.    The film does not have a flair for the dramatic, like Schindler's List, but instead has a melancholy documentary feel to it.    To Polanski (who won an unlikely Best Director Oscar for this film), The Pianist is a chance to show the Holocaust in stark terms where survival was much less likely than death.    Spzilman, with some help (including from a sympathetic Nazi officer), survived the war, but surely did not forget his struggle.  

The Pianist is a Holocaust movie, but not one in which good finds a way to triumph over evil.    With so many dead at the hands of the Axis Powers and the Final Solution, any sparse triumphs of good over evil were islands unto themselves.    We can say even though the Allies won the war and the Nazis were thwarted, so many lost.    Polanski understands that and shows us exactly how. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

American Assassin (2017) * 1/2

American Assassin Movie Review

Directed by:  Michael Cuesta

Starring:  Dylan O' Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Latham, Taylor Kitsch, David Suchet

It didn't take long to realize American Assassin is a live-action video game.    Your avatar in Call of Duty has more personality than the hero of this film, an angry, revenge-driven young man named Mitch Rapp (O' Brien) who joins the CIA in order to avenge the shooting death of his fiancée by terrorists.    His brief happiness over his engagement ends quickly when terrorists start shooting up the beach and mortally wounding his beautiful fiancée.    After that, Mitch becomes a vengeful killing machine who may as well be a Terminator.  

Fast forward to a mere eighteen months later, Mitch initially goes after the terrorist cell on his own by posing as a Jihadist sympathizer, but when he is captured and seconds away from being shot, the CIA swoops him and offs the cell.    Yet, the CIA Deputy Director, Irene Kennedy (Latham) is impressed with his resourcefulness in infiltrating the cell and sets him up for training with former Navy SEAL Stan Hurley (Keaton), who speaks in his best Dirty Harry voice while making life miserable for Mitch.    That's his job, to trip him up, but Mitch doesn't seem to trip up easily.    In a matter of days, Mitch, Stan, and others are off to Turkey to track a rogue CIA agent known as Ghost (Kitsch), who is planning to steal a nuclear warhead for his own malicious reasons.    Stan once trained Ghost, so the mission is personal for him, while Mitch can use the mission as an excuse to defy authority and keep chasing and killing bad guys.

You can guess what happens and how it all turns out, which is to be expected in a film like this, but I couldn't help but notice how lifeless the movie is at its core.    Mitch's reasons for wanting to kill bad guys are understandable, but doesn't make us care about him anymore.    There are many actors I envision playing a gruff, seen-it-all, cynical CIA trainer, but Michael Keaton isn't among them.   I know he played Batman once, but Keaton doesn't fit as an action hero.   His skills are more verbal and displaying unique, quick intelligence, not going mano y mano with nameless henchmen.
O' Brien is a strong, silent type who doesn't possess the charisma of action stars like Schwarzenegger, Eastwood, or heck even Michael Keaton.

American Assassin has straight-to-on demand all over it, but it found a distributor and made its way into theaters this past summer.     The movie is a big shoot 'em up, with bullets and bodies flying around at a dizzying pace, but we don't see anything original.    It is by-the-numbers, lacking wit and inspiration.    We've seen enough action films like American Assassin to know we don't need to see another one, but more will be made, so when they are they should be made with a reason to root for the good guys other than the fact that they aren't terrorists.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) * *

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Movie Review

Directed by: Rian Johnson

Starring:  Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Laura Dern, Adam Driver, Benicio Del Toro, John Boyega, Andy Serkis, Kelly Marie Tran, Domhnall Gleeson, Peter Mayhew

What happened?   We went from the spirited fun of Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) to this dispirited, sputtering chapter in the third Star Wars trilogy.    Whenever The Last Jedi threatens to come alive, it stalls like an old car engine.    The result is an overly long, sometimes ponderous exercise.    How many battles between the First Order and the Resistance can we stand?    How many teases of characters switching alliances, for that matter?   The Last Jedi puts those questions to the extreme test.  

The Last Jedi picks up where The Force Awakens left off, with Rey (Ridley) tracking down the reclusive Luke Skywalker (Hamill) on an island on an uncharted planet and begging for his help in the Resistance.    He declines gruffly, as he does several other times throughout the seemingly interminable first half.    His dialogue at first doesn't rise above, "leave me alone," "go away," or other half-hearted declinations.    We know he will eventually join the fight in some way, so no need to put us through an hour's worth of paces.    One or two of these scenes, including the ones tapping into Rey's introduction to The Force, would have sufficed.

Then, there is Kylo Ren (Driver), son of the now slain Han Solo and Princess Leia (Fisher), who isn't just conflicted, but Conflicted.    He pretty much disposes of the mask which garbles his voice, so we see his pained, scarred face courtesy of his light saber battle with Rey in The Force Awakens.    Kylo is the apprentice of the evil Emperor Snoke (Serkis), who if he were at all as intuitive as he professes would notice Kylo Ren is a tormented soul who can't be trusted to go all in to the Dark Side.   Let's face it.  Kylo and the baddies here are lightweights.   Rey and Kylo Ren connect telepathically and each tries his or her darndest to turn the other one.    They have an exchange in an elevator which could qualify as Star Wars trash talking.

Meanwhile, the Resistance has its own business to conduct, which involves the insubordinate, but passionate Poe Dameron (Isaac) running a covert mission to help the rebels blow something up and otherwise make the First Order very upset.     He enlists Finn (Boyega), the former stormtrooper from The Force Awakens and newcomer Rose (Tran), who is a spunky and game heroine and involves tracking down a codebreaker (Del Toro) in an interplanetary casino which is among the visual highlights of the film.    One thing you can never take to task in a Star Wars film is its endless imagination of lovable creatures.    The Porgs take center stage, acting as a foil for the irascible Chewbacca.

There are numerous stories going on, but all are glacially paced, as if they are in no hurry to lead us anywhere.    Our goodwill and patience, even with Star Wars, is finite.    As the battles dragged on and the rebels (all twelve of them) escape what appears to be certain doom time and again, I was reminded of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which also severely overestimated its audience's desire for an interminable running time.    Writer-director Johnson (who made a superior sci-fi thriller in 2012's Looper), knows the words, but not the music of Star Wars.   The visuals are, of course, well done, which is to be expected.   The spark which was abundant in the joyous The Force Awakens is missing here, as well an emotional tug to pull things along.  

It isn't a good sign when the nameless creatures which occupy the background are more intriguing that the characters which occupy the foreground, but there you have it.   Instead of looking forward to the next (and hopefully final, but I doubt it) chapter, The Last Jedi left me sorely disinterested.   I can only hope this film, which ranks alongside Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones as the weakest of the series, is a misstep which can be corrected with a thrilling climax.    I'm far from convinced this can happen.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Gran Torino (2008) * * 1/2

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Directed by: Clint Eastwood

Starring:  Clint Eastwood, Chris Carley, John Carroll Lynch, Bee Vang, Ahney Her

The icon Clint Eastwood has evolved from The Man with No Name to Curmudgeon with a Heart of Gold in one stellar film career.   Few actors have transitioned so successfully into directing as Eastwood has.    He can convey more in a squint or a growl than many actors can with all of their Actors' Studio training at their disposal.    Gran Torino was Eastwood's first onscreen appearance since his Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby (2004) and, of course, he is a treasure.    The film itself is uneven and over-the-top in its depiction of a bigoted curmudgeon gone good.    The moments, including the ending, which are supposed to be powerful are instead curiously muted.   

Eastwood is Walt Kowalski, a widower whose wife recently passed and spends his days in retirement working on his beloved 1972 Gran Torino or fixing things around the house.    A Korean War vet, he is perturbed when a Hmong family from Laos moves in next door and even more perturbed when one of its members attempts to steal his Gran Torino.     The teen, named Thao (Vang), was coerced by his gang member cousin into trying to steal the car.    Walt, calling the young man "gook" and "zipperhead", doesn't turn Thao into the cops, but instead forces him to help him around the house with odd jobs.    Thao, who is generally a nice kid, reluctantly complies, but soon the two forge an unlikely friendship, which extends to Thao's family.   And wouldn't you know it?   The family's grandmother is as bigoted against Walt as a white man as Walt is against the Laotians, which is played for laughs as the tables are turned on Walt.

Walt surely spouts racial slurs and growls at Thao like a dog suffering from a cavity, but we know he will gradually soften and grow to love his new adoptive Hmong family.   Why?   Because we've seen something like this in Million Dollar Baby.    And we will see again in Trouble with the Curve (2012), which I enjoyed better than Gran Torino, probably because Eastwood was surely cantankerous, but lovable as an aging baseball scout trying to hang on to his job in a changing job environment.    

Gran Torino's story arc is predictable, which isn't in and of itself fatal, but the changes Walt goes through don't carry the emotional weight we expect.    And the choices he makes at the film's climax would be more formidable if he weren't coughing up blood occasionally, a sure sign he doesn't have long to live.    I think Walt's changes may have been more meaningful, if, like in Million Dollar Baby, they didn't feel hedged by the health concerns.    Instead, we are left to wonder if he truly would have done what he did if he weren't ill.   

And like Million Dollar Baby, Walt is in verbal combat with (and then reconciles with) a local priest who promised his deceased wife that he would check in on Walt every now and again.    When the priest learns of what happens to Thao's sister and Walt's plot for revenge, he tries to talk Walt out of it to no avail, and mostly for spiritual reasons.    I am certain the thematic similarities between the two films wasn't lost on Eastwood, who is among the most intelligent of directors.

Gran Torino is a near miss for me, a bit of a comedown from his previous films which established him as not just a Hollywood icon, but a master filmmaker.    As usual, Eastwood directs with linear precision and without wasted motion, but somehow the heart is missing, which is highly unusual for an Eastwood film.   

Friday, December 15, 2017

Doctor Detroit (1983) * * 1/2

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Directed by:  Michael Pressman
Starring:  Dan Aykroyd, Howard Hesseman, Donna Dixon, TK Carter, George Furth, Fran Drescher, Lynn Whitfield, Kate Murtagh

The 13-year old me which first saw Doctor Detroit in a local theater in 1983 might have found the movie more amusing than the 47-year old me.    The movie is sporadically funny, with Dan Aykroyd carrying the project with his own manic energy.    Aykroyd is asked to carry a heavy load, and being the adept comic actor he is, he elevates the film to a near success.    Doctor Detroit is a slight type of entertainment which isn't the worst waste of ninety minutes of your life.   You watch it and then move on.

Aykroyd plays Clifford Skridlow, a meek college professor who, due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, crosses paths with a Chicago pimp (Hesseman) looking to escape his debt to a powerful local crime lord.    The crime lord, in a nice touch, is Mom (Murtagh), who could win a Kate Smith lookalike contest, looks grandmotherly, but is ruthless while using her two bald sons as muscle.    The pimp, Smooth, fakes a beating and invents a "partner" named Doctor Detroit, flees town, while leaving Clifford holding the bag with a stable of prostitutes and issues with Mom.   
Clifford has enough problems of his own without the Doctor Detroit stuff, including the college where he works (and his father chancellors) teetering on the verge of bankruptcy and in need of a massive grant from a wealthy donor.    Clifford invents the Doctor Detroit character complete with a metal fist which he uses to high-five people, in order to keep Mom at bay.    I kept wondering if that hurt ever somebody's hand.  

Through plot machinations, Clifford is forced to run between two different rooms at a swanky hotel portraying both himself and Doctor Detroit at something called "The Player's Ball", featuring none other than James Brown singing a song in tribute to Chicago's newest underworld sensation.     Who finances this ball featuring pimps and hookers as guests?    How much did James Brown charge to perform?    Wasn't he the least bit concerned about his reputation?    Considering his later run-ins with the law, probably not.     This isn't the sort of movie in which you ask these questions, but I will so you won't have to. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Wonder Wheel (2017) * * 1/2

Wonder Wheel Movie Review

Directed by:  Woody Allen

Starring:  Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Jim Belushi, Jack Gore, Juno Temple, Tony Sirico

Wonder Wheel is among Woody Allen's lesser films.    It isn't poorly made or poorly acted, but just thin with more obvious payoffs and a lack of inspiration.    Allen doesn't seem to take delight in showing us these wounded people.    The movie has a pall hanging over it with telegraphed tragic moments.     But, with that said, the movie nearly succeeds with its soap opera intrigue.   

The movie opens in 1950s Coney Island, where the unhappily married couple of carousel operator Humpty (Belushi) and his second wife Ginny (Winslet), a former actress who now waits table at a boardwalk crab shop.    She laments her past misdeeds, which led to the dissolution of her first marriage and potentially the suicide of her ex, and her current stifling situation.    Her son from that marriage, Richie (Gore) is a compulsive pyromaniac who sets fires to anything, anyplace, and at any time.    The family lives at a former speakeasy converted into an apartment within the endless lights and sounds of Coney Island.    It is almost fitting Humpty and Ginny both are battling to stay sober in a kitchen with a built-in bar.

The opening scenes are narrated by Mickey (Timberlake), a lifeguard and aspiring writer with a love of the dramatic.    At first, he seems like a bystander, but we soon learn he is having an affair with Ginny, who feels alive for the first time in years when she is with him.    Things go on without disruption, until disruption arrives in the form of Carolina (Temple), Humpty's estranged daughter from his first marriage, on the run from her gangster ex.    She talked to the feds about her husband's business and for her troubles now has two hitmen looking for her.    She pleads with the reluctant Humpty to stay with him.    After a good deal of fist-pounding and empty tirades, Humpty relents and Carolina soon gets a job at the same crab shop as Ginny.

So far, so good, until Mickey meets Carolina and falls for her while seeing Ginny.    Ginny wants to leave Humpty and follow her irrational romantic fantasies by running away with Mickey.    Mickey likes Ginny to be sure, but isn't in the mood to be tied down when Carolina is still available.    You can see where all of this is heading and Allen doesn't disappoint.    Ginny is soon "consumed with jealousy", as she tells Mickey in case we didn't catch on,  and makes tragic choices which affect everyone involved, except Richie who just wants to find the next thing to burn.

This material would be close to a guilty pleasure if it didn't take itself so seriously.    Wonder Wheel isn't boring, but it feels like Allen on holiday.    This sort of drama never rises above Days of Our Lives depth and the actors lend it much more weight than it deserves.    Winslet is very good here.    Not only is she appropriately vulnerable and succumbing to severe internal emotional pressure, but we actually care for her much more than we should.     Timberlake is sufficiently caddish, deceiving himself by almost romanticizing all of this as somehow real life Eugene O'Neill.    He is more in love with the drama than he is either of the women.     But, let's not forget Belushi, whose Humpty is loud, insecure, alcoholic and has the most depth of any of the characters.    Like his name suggests, he is waiting for a big fall even if he isn't aware of it, and arises as the most sympathetic person in the film. 

Many reviews have focused on the real life parallels between Allen's private life with Mia Farrow and now-wife Soon Yi Previn and the relationships in this film.    If so, he did so more effectively and with more relevance in Husbands and Wives (1992), which starred Allen and Farrow with a subplot in which Allen falls for a much younger coed.    Some of his films revisit previous themes such as the perfect murder, jealousy, and betrayal, this is not uncommon for Allen.    This is the first time, though, where I felt like we have been there and done that.  

All the President's Men (1976) * * * *

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Directed by:  Alan J. Pakula

Starring:  Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards, Martin Balsam, Stephen Collins, Jack Warden, Jane Alexander, Ned Beatty, Hal Holbrook

Watergate, both the story and the scandal which led to President Richard Nixon's resignation on August 9, 1974, began as a local Washington news story in June 1972.   Five burglars were apprehended breaking into Democratic National Headquarters in Washington and it was expected to be left at that.   Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Redford) notices the burglars have high-profile representation and discovers connections to E. Howard Hunt and Charles Colson, both members of the Nixon White House.    Woodward is teamed up with fellow reporter Carl Bernstein (Hoffman) and the story leads down a rabbit hole no one anticipated. 

All the President's Men tells the story of how hard-nosed journalism eventually brought down a presidency.    Director Alan J. Pakula's taut direction keeps everything tight and in front of us.    Names, dates, organizations, and leads are hurled at us, but the film manages to keep it all going in the right direction.    All the President's Men doesn't make the mistake of turning its leads into heroes, even though there must have been temptation to do so.    Woodward and Bernstein (or Woodstein as they are eventually dubbed) make mistakes, fail to make connections, and miss things, but with the support of their experienced, savvy executive editor Ben Bradlee (Robards), they keep on the story. 

We know little of the reporters' personal lives, which is just fine.    Nothing sinks a movie pace quite like obligatory scenes in which a spouse lectures her husband (or vice versa) about how he isn't home anymore, the kids miss him, you're losing your family, etc. etc. blah, blah, blah.    There are enough balls to juggle without any detours.    The story itself becomes a morass of leads, quotes, confirmations, sources which give crucial information, but then dance away, scared witnesses, obstruction, deadlines, and of course the possibility of surveillance and death threats against cooperative parties.    All the President's Men was released in 1976, a mere two years after Nixon's resignation, and the story and its effects still feel fresh.     There aren't any computers to assist with searches or information at the reporters' fingertips.     When a potential lead has to found, Woodward wades through every phone book in the country to find him.     No Google for these guys.     Stories are typed on manual typewriters and correcting means you have to tear out the paper and start over.

The performances are all the more absorbing because there are no star turns.    The movie isn't a Redford/Hoffman star vehicle.   Robards, who won the first of two consecutive Best Supporting Actor Oscars with this role, is completely authentic as a lifer newspaperman with correct instincts on what the story needs to lead anywhere.     We witness almost an insider's view of the 1970s newspaper business, in which editor meetings are just as much about marketing as they are about content.    Bradlee's editors bemoan the lack of reprints of their stories in other papers, and there is competition with the New York Times to gather facts and scoops.  

The journalism profession is different now.    The news cycle can be measured in seconds.    People don't want to wait until the next morning's paper to read the news.    They want constant updates, even if those updates aren't accurate.     The Washington Post is now under fire by conservative groups for their coverage of Donald Trump, both as candidate and President, because the news media is somehow expected to temper negative stories.     Anything negative is dismissed as a "witch hunt" or the overused "fake news".     If the landscape were different in 1972, Nixon would have tried the same distraction tactics.    But, back then, and I am not one of those people who laments that things aren't what they used to be, there was an infallible concept of freedom of the press.    Nowadays, some people wish the press would go away, not understanding the connections between it and how a democracy can turn into a dictatorship.     All the President's Men understands that and, in its own fascinating way, the idea of rule of law. 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Disaster Artist (2017) * * *

The Disaster Artist Movie Review

Directed by: James Franco

Starring:  James Franco, Dave Franco, Alison Brie, Seth Rogen, Jacki Weaver, Ari Graynor

Tommy Wiseau and Ed Wood would have been a match made in heaven.   Or maybe not.   Both likely would have battled for artistic control of a Plan Nine from Outer Space as if it were a masterpiece waiting to be filmed and there was only room enough for one of them to make it.    Wiseau thought he was making another Rebel Without a Cause when he wrote, produced, and directed The Room (2003), but in reality he may have made something worse than Plan Nine.  

I admit I never heard of The Room before The Disaster Artist, but now I think I would like to see it.   There are scenes shown in the epilogue with a side by side comparison of James Franco's version of those very scenes, and it is hard to tell the difference.    The Room was Wiseau's massive ego run amok.    He threw his weight around as if he had weight to actually throw around.    He was a complete no-talent, but he had drive, ambition, and vision.    Thus, he actually made a Hollywood movie and has to be given credit for seeing his dream fulfilled, even if people laugh at it.     This is the type of film Bob Bowfinger would've been proud of.   

We meet Wiseau (Franco) in a San Francisco acting class in 1998.   He screams "Stella" in some strange Eastern European accent while hurling himself to the floor in convulsions after trying to climb the walls.    He thinks he is channeling Brando, but he is more like channeling the worst Brando impersonator ever.    Wiseau's classmate Greg Cestero (Dave Franco), another no-talent, albeit younger and better looking than Wiseau, thinks Tommy is simply awesome and the two strike up a friendship.    The one thing they seem to have in common is not only are they devoid of any acting ability, they can't recognize when someone else doesn't either.    Tommy is completely delusional, egotistical, and unafraid.    He and Greg go to Hollywood and are in for a rude awakening.  They get auditions, but naturally no one casts them, so undaunted Tommy decides to write his own script and produce his own masterpiece.   Greg goes along; wide-eyed and totally confident in Tommy's genius.

Tommy and Greg know next to nothing about filmmaking.    They buy their equipment instead of renting it, shoot the movie in two separate formats, and continually ignore the advice of the more seasoned pros who work on the project, including script supervisor Sandy (Rogen), who is astonished when his paycheck actually clears.     The Disaster Artist's opening scenes are not as strong as when The Room starts shooting.    The other actors have no clue what the movie is about.    They try to decipher how old Tommy is and where he came from, even though he claims New Orleans, and Tommy's first scenes take 75 tries before getting it right.   (Right?)    And somehow, in a mystery which still exists to this day, Tommy was able to come up with the money for the budget which wound up topping out at $6 million.

James Franco throws himself headlong into the nutty world of Tommy Wiseau.   He thinks he is the next James Dean, but we all know better.   Like Ed Wood, he is devoid of introspection and unflinchingly believes in his own genius.   He promises "real human emotion" in The Room, but when we see him laugh inappropriately at a monologue in his script about a woman who was beaten and hospitalized, we wonder if he isn't actually an alien or a vampire.    Nothing would surprise us.

The first thirty minutes establish what pinheads Tommy and Greg are and soon we realize a little less of them goes a longer way.    The juiciest scenes involve the production itself, which was supposed to last forty days and instead goes closer to sixty.    Tommy and Greg fight and reconcile before the premiere, in which the response to Tommy's movie does not elicit the response he expects.    The epilogue says Tommy and Greg still act, produce, and direct today.    I'm not sure I even want to know what those projects were, but I will bet Tommy and Greg believe they will succeed, just like The Room their minds.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Matrix (1999) * *

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Directed by:  Andy Wachowksi and Larry Wachowski (now Lana and Lilly Wachowski)

Starring:  Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Hugo Weaving

The Matrix is technically sound, but entirely overburdens us with plot complications, swerves, and gun and/or fistfights.    Consider this:   Machines and computers take over the planet (a la The Terminator) and create "The Matrix", in which seemingly ordinary daily life is really a disguise for their evil intentions.   Humans aren't humans at all, but just batteries in waiting for the machines to use to keep themselves charged and keep "The Matrix" going.    As described by the portentous Morpheus (Fishburne), who leads the rebellion against the machines, the average human body emits enough electricity to run entire computer networks.    So, the planet is now a farm to grow humans and thus more batteries.  

Fair enough.    But because the machines have the technological savvy to create such a dynamic, how can their allow their fate to be decided on the outcome of a fistfight or an ordinary handgun?    They can rule the world, but can't create better security than sinister agents in suits and sunglasses getting into shootouts?    Or going mano y mano with the good guys?    And since the movie possibly takes place two hundred years in the future, hasn't communication advanced past dial-up modems, rotary telephones, and pay phones by then?    At least the Back to the Future guys were able to have some fun with their vision of the future.

If you compare the world of "The Matrix" with the world of the rebels, the rebels got shafted.    The world of the rebels is confined to a dingy, dank spaceship which looks like something which would wind up on the Star Wars scrap heap.    They eat disgusting gruel, yet seem to have flashy black threads, overcoats, and shades handily nearby so they can look mighty conspicuous while trying to defeat the machines.     Characters are given a choice to take a red or green pill, one which will allow them to slip back into "The Matrix" and the other to continue to learn about "reality".    One character decides to take the pill which would allow him to go back to "The Matrix".    Who could blame him?  The characters are thrust back and forth between alternate realities, dimensions, and planes so often we lose our footing, which may be intentional. 

Morpheus recruits computer programmer Neo (Reeves) to lead the revolution against the machines.   Neo is shown humans' true fate and learns how hand-to-hand combat in much the same way Obi-Wan taught Luke Skywalker how to use a light saber.    We soon realize the high concept storyline will give way to typical action movie clichés and a final battle between Neo and Agent Smith (Weaving), the menacing leader of the agents assigned to protect "The Matrix".    Helping Neo and Morpheus are a ragtag group of rebels which include Trinity (Moss), who seems to have a generous supply of leather pants and tops at her disposal so she can look sexy while battling the bad guys.  

Neo is consistently referred to as "The One" by Morpheus and Trinity, and Neo is indeed an anagram of "one" (whoa), so the movie pounds it into our heads that he was born to be the leader of the revolution.    As the movie creaks to its conclusion, Morpheus must repeat "He is The One" five times if he says it once.    The Matrix has nifty choreography and some interesting visuals, while Reeves is a sturdy action hero, but the story is borrowed from elements of The Terminator, while the action scenes harken back to westerns and martial arts films.     The problem is it never achieves liftoff or much of a reason to care if the rebels succeed.     The way I see it, besides the whole "eventually you will be used as a battery" thing, the folks in "The Matrix" have jobs, lives, and are blissfully unaware of what will happen.    All things considered, they could be on a rundown spaceship eating crap and using cheap, outmoded teleporting equipment, but they know their fate.   As one of the characters puts it, "Ignorance is bliss". 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

What About Bob? (1991) * *

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Directed by:  Frank Oz

Starring:  Bill Murray, Richard Dreyfuss, Kathryn Erbe, Julie Hagerty, Charlie Korsmo

Watching What About Bob? again for the first time in a long while, I enjoyed it more than I did when it was released in 1991.    Bill Murray didn't grate on my nerves this time, but the movie remains a one-joke enterprise in which the guileless, clueless neurotic Bob Wiley (Murray) slowly drives his shrink, the uptight Leo Marvin (Dreyfuss), insane.   

As What About Bob? opens, Bob, whose neuroses are so bad he can't touch anything without holding a Kleenex and is terrified to leave his house, is referred to Leo after driving his former shrink to quit his practice.    Leo tells Bob to contact him after he returns from his month-long vacation, which will not do for Bob, who feels he will lose it if he is not able to see Leo.    Through some underhanded means, Bob finds out where Leo is spending the month with his family and travels there to see him.    This does not sit well with Leo, who not unreasonably feels Bob is intruding on him.    The rub is:  Leo's family takes to Bob and likes him, which makes Leo all the more enraged.  

Leo attempts to get rid of Bob, first subtly, then dropping him off at the nearest mental institution, which doesn't work.    Bob keeps finding a way back into Leo's life, without being able to take the hint that Leo can't stand him.     Good Morning America plays a role in the film, as Leo's new book is featured, but we see he clearly doesn't follow his own advice when it comes to Bob.    We see changes in Bob, who learns to be less neurotic and in control of himself, while Leo devolves into frustrated lunacy.  

So why doesn't What About Bob? not quite work?    There are inspired moments in which Dreyfuss masterfully gives us the slow burn.     He is a funny straight man, a man who just wants to be left alone, while Bob ingratiates himself into Leo's life whether he likes it or not.     The movie is sporadically funny, but not overly satisfying as a whole.    Maybe it is because Leo's trajectory doesn't shift at all.    He doesn't learn to accept Bob or to become a better shrink.    He is just driven mad in an escalating fashion, and this can only go so far before it grows tiresome.    There are times when the film borders on slapstick, such as when Bob performs a Heimlich maneuver on Leo so painful Leo probably would've been happier choking to death.   

Director Frank Oz has made some great comedies, including the masterful Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), Bowfinger (1999), and charmers like Housesitter (1992), In & Out (1997), The Stepford Wives (2004), and even a strong caper film, The Score (2001).    He is adept at making subtle comedies with more emphasis on satire and characters than over-the-top situations.    What About Bob? is a bit out of his element.    I think of the Oscar-winning short film The Appointments of Dennis Jennings (1988) in which comedian Steven Wright plays a neurotic regular patient of a competent shrink (Joe Mantegna) whom he slowly drives mad.    The movie mostly takes place in the shrink's office, but we see how their dynamic slowly and subtly unnerves the normally in-control Mantegna.    I would have liked to have seen the same idea applied here, with Murray and Dreyfuss doing their stuff while leaving everyone else home. 

Richie Rich (1994) * * *

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Directed by:  Donald Petrie

Starring:  Macaulay Culkin, John Larroquette, Edward Hermann, Christine Ebersole, Jonathan Hyde, Michael McShane, Chelcie Ross

I vaguely recall the Richie Rich cartoon series I saw growing up.    It was not one which screamed for a live-action remake, but Hollywood chose to make it anyway.    Richie Rich was released in 1994, when star Macaulay Culkin was four years removed from Home Alone and following a string of flops.    Does anyone recall The Good Son, where Culkin plays a ten year old psychopathic killer?   Yes, such a movie was made.    Richie Rich isn't simply a Culkin vehicle, but has enjoyable performances by the film's adult co-stars and a certain sweetness and charm.   

The title character is the world's richest twelve year old, who because of his wealth, has no friends his own age and is followed around by the loyal butler Cadbury (Hyde).    His parents are not cold and aloof, but warm and loving, which goes against expectations.    Soon, Richie wins over some classmates, but then things go awry when a scheming executive at his father's company hatches a plot to take over the company and gain control of the Rich family wealth.    The executive, aptly named Laurence Van Dough (Larroquette) is properly smug and oily, two traits Larroquette has mastered in movies like Stripes and his multiple Emmy-winning role on Night Court.

Richie Rich isn't simply a "kid's movie", but contains sly satire and people we care about because, other than Van Dough and his henchmen, they are nice.    In one amusing scene, the ever optimistic Mr. and Mrs. Rich are stranded at sea in a lifeboat, but everything will be ok because the emergency kit contains plenty of caviar and champagne.     Van Dough is after the Rich family vault, which is discovered to be its own Mount Rushmore-like mountain called Mount Richmore.    Van Dough tells Mr. Rich, "You are just filthy rich, aren't you?"    What the mountain actually contains produces a big laugh and a touching aspect of what the Rich family is all about.

Culkin is appropriately likable as Richie, so we care about him.   This would be Culkin's last movie for nine years.    He returned to the screen in 2003's Party Monster, which coldly told the story of a murderous professional party animal hired to show up at openings of New York's trendiest night clubs.    I enjoyed the movie and admired Culkin's range.    I even thought Culkin could successfully transition to an adult movie star, but that was not to be.    He faded into obscurity again after a couple more little seen films and a guest spot on Will & Grace.    Hollywood churns people up and spits them out, to be sure, even charming young actors like Culkin whose star shone so bright at one point we thought it would last forever.    Or at least longer than four years.