Monday, July 30, 2018
Directed by: Herbert Ross
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Lori Singer, John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Chris Penn, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jim Youngs
Footloose is a musical without its characters actually singing. You have the dialogue scenes, followed by songs by pop artists and dance numbers. Released in 1984, Footloose was made at a time when some movies were made to sell the soundtracks. Footloose is a slickly produced film for the '80s MTV Generation. It looks good and some of the extended scenes could be music videos all by themselves. If I recall, the video for Kenny Loggins' title track was dance footage taken right from the movie. As far as a story, it is rather wanting.
We meet Ren McCormick (Bacon), a rebel with a cause whose family moves from Chicago to a Podunk Midwestern town named Bomont. Bomont is not Ren's type of place, since rock music and dancing have been banned within the town limits thanks to a law pushed by Rev. Shaw Moore (Lithgow). Rev. Moore's son was killed five years ago after returning from a dance. To Rev. Moore, dancing and rock music lead to terrible things like drinking and driving. If teens want to dance or hear rock music, they go to a club beyond the town limits and let loose.
But Ren wants to challenge the law and allow the senior class to hold a prom in Bomont proper, all the while falling in love with the reverend's rebellious daughter Ariel (Singer) and avoiding Ariel's jealous boyfriend Chuck, who challenges Ren to a game of Tractor Chicken. Ren also befriends Willard (Penn), a likable big lug with two left feet whom Ren teaches to dance in a montage over Deniece Williams' Let's Hear It for the Boy. Is it mean to suggest cow tipping might be a step up for some of these folks?
We know what will happen. The scales will eventually fall from the reverend's eyes and the finale will be an elongated dance sequence led by Bacon and Singer. All of this is done with its own style and the performances are the best you can expect with such thinly written characters. Lithgow's character isn't a total lout, but a scared, grieving man who is misdirected. He has the most dimensions. But, if you take away the quasi music videos and dance numbers, you would barely have enough here for a short film. Maybe it might've worked better that way. But, if you like the songs, and there are some pretty good ones here, then this is your movie.
Directed by: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Sissy Spacek, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Mary Steenburgen
Based on the Kathryn Stockett novel, The Help gives us an involving portrait of early 1960's Mississippi, in which African Americans were practically treated like slaves still in everything but name only. The Help works in a soap opera way, with big revelations, emotional moments with swelling music, and plot turns. For most of the characters, things turn out okay, even though in the end the civil rights movement still had not fully taken hold and the black characters are still subjected to the whims of whites.
The Help of the title refers to the black maids who work for rich white families in Jackson, Mississippi. They do the housework and practically raise the children who heartbreakingly grow up to be like their parents. Yet, they are not permitted to use the bathrooms in the house should nature call. In one instance, Minny (Spencer) is fired by the nasty Hilly Holbrook (Howard) for using the "inside toilet", but is soon hired by the social outcast Celia Foote (Chastain) who hides Minny's existence from her husband and not for reasons you would anticipate.
The other maid whose story we follow is Aibileen Clark (Davis) who is dedicated, loyal, and hurting over the death of her son. She sees the ugliness in Hilly, ("You are a godless woman") and despairs that the children she loves so much will one day turn into their mother. Octavia Spencer won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her more comic role, while Davis was nominated for Best Actress in a compelling performance. Spencer provides the movie with expert comic relief strictly on the heels of her advice to Celia and her inability to keep quiet when injustice is being done.
Aibileen's and Minny's stories are tied together by Skeeter Phelan (Stone), a recent college graduate who decides to write a book about the life of a maid in Jackson. She uses Aibileen and Minny for background and stories and promises to keep their names out of the book, but soon it is impossible for the local townsfolk not to deduce who the book is about. Especially when the story of a pie eaten by Hilly becomes a town scandal.
About this pie. Minny makes it for Hilly as an ostensible peace offering shortly after her firing, but it is made from less than wholesome ingredients and let's keep it at that. Frankly, this subplot is too gross to provide the laughs which it intends. It is just too disgusting. It made me cringe instead of laugh, but the movie gets a lot of mileage out of it. Too much perhaps. It appeals to the lowest common denominator and in an otherwise intelligent, thoughtful movie.
The Help, with the exception of Celia's understanding husband, has either absent, oppressive or racist male characters that appear in one scene and are pretty much disposable. This is a movie from a refreshing female perspective. It is about the stark differences between how white women and black women were treated in the South, with the white women too hung up on racial divides to understand that they too are oppressed in their own way.
Sunday, July 29, 2018
Directed by: Peter Cattaneo
Starring: Rainn Wilson, Emma Stone, Teddy Geiger, Josh Gad, Jason Sudeikis, Christina Applegate, Jeff Garlin, Jane Lynch, Bradley Cooper, Will Arnett, Fred Armisen, Howard Hesseman, Jane Krakowski
For Robert "Fish" Fishman (Wilson), the last twenty years sucked. Two decades ago, he was unceremoniously booted as the drummer of the rock band Vesuvius shortly before they broke big, mostly due to backstage politics. The remaining members had no qualms about this, so poor Fish is stuck trying to piece his life together again in his native Cleveland. He recently lost his job and is forced to move in to his sister's attic. But then, Fish's nerdy nephew Matt (Gad) plays with a band called A.D.D. that was booked to play the prom, but need a drummer. Fish, who is twenty years or so older than the three other members of A.D.D., fills in on drums and he now has his chance to become a rock star at long last.
Despite the fact the movie relies a bit too heavily on Wilson, and a little of him goes a long way, The Rocker maintains a certain sweetness and a lack of cynicism which is appealing. It is a rags-to-riches (sort of) story which for Fish was twenty years in the making. Things don't start promisingly for A.D.D. Fish's ego takes over midway through the band's set at the prom and he goes off on an unplanned drum solo where one wasn't needed. He is nearly kicked out of A.D.D., but during a practice session he records himself drumming naked and posts on YouTube. A million hits later, a sleazy, two-faced record producer (Sudeikis) is banging at the door with promises of a record, a tour, and fame. A.D.D. is suddenly thrust into the spotlight, which is both good and bad.
Fish finally has the chance at rock stardom and more importantly, behaving like a rock star, which involves heavy partying and throwing a TV out a hotel window. This leads to the band being arrested and the angry parents of the still teen band members coming down on the immature Fish. The lead singer and guitarist's (Geiger) mother (Applegate) accompanies the band for the rest of the tour, which leads to a hint of romance between she and Fish if he ever gets his act together and grows up.
The Rocker earns no points for originality. It unfolds more or less as expected, including a face-to-face meeting between Fish and the now aged Vesuvius, in which the older rockers inexplicably sport British accents even though they hail from Cleveland. If you think this is insane, you haven't seen Madonna or Johnny Depp interviews recently. The Rocker is the second film in Emma Stone's career, and even then, the camera loved her and she earns laughs at the ultra-serious bassist who never smiles. "Smiling is for the weak," she tells Fish, but when she finally does smile, it is a sweet and touching moment.
The Rocker contains inspired supporting performances and a kind of innocence about it. Yes, there is one gross-out scene early on, but the movie thankfully doesn't rely on that. The Rocker instead relies on a charming tone and our fond hope that Fish can finally pull it together and be the rock star he was always meant to be. Now I know how Pete Best must've felt and maybe even still feels. For those who don't know, Best was The Beatles' drummer who was kicked out of the band just before they hit it big and achieved musical immortality. Think of Fish's plight times one thousand or one million and you have Pete Best.
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Judith Roberts, Alex Manette
I placed the DVD of this movie into my ancient DVD player and the message "Disc Error" read. I tried three more times to start the DVD and the same error message returned. I was about to give up, but gave it one more try. The DVD finally worked, which in hindsight wasn't the best outcome.
You Were Never Really Here stars Joaquin Phoenix as a man hired to track down a kidnapped senator's daughter and dispenses a brutish, bloody brand of justice to the kidnappers. I may have made the film sound more exciting than it is. Even at ninety minutes, it moves at a snail's pace.
Phoenix is unkempt, with stringy long hair and an untamed beard. I wanted him to find the nearest barber more than I wanted him to find the girl. Joe (just Joe) is a man who isn't just tormented by his past, but Tormented. He relives past traumas and abuses over and over in his mind. At some points, he does so with a plastic bag over his head; keeping it there until near suffocation.
His weapons of choice in his missions are duct tape and a hammer and he wields the hammer expertly, but thankfully he only encounters one person at a time to beat down with it. When he is not hammering the skulls of bad guys, he is taking care of his frail, elderly mother (Judith Roberts) in his Brooklyn home. Joe is a man consumed with his demons, which weigh him (and the movie) down. Phoenix is all intensity, but not much else. He is trapped within the boundaries of his anguish, so much so that in certain scenes he is barely able to raise his voice to the level of audible speech.
After Joe rescues the nearly mute kidnapped daughter who was used as a sex slave (Samsonov), more complications arise which means we will have to spend more time with Joe and his sad, depressing world. Ugh. You Were Never Really Here never achieves liftoff. In fact, it doesn't budge from the ground, like me trying to do a clean and jerk of 400 pounds. It has a lot of angst, but not emotion. There is action and activity, but the film is lifeless anyway. The film returns often to Joe's past, giving us glimpses of the horrors he experienced, but this is mostly distracting. One or two of these flashbacks would have sufficed. We get the point. Not that it helps any.
Saturday, July 28, 2018
Directed by: Philippe Falardeau
Starring: Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Ron Perlman, Michael Rappaport, Naomi Watts, Jim Gaffigan, Pooch Hall, Morgan Spector
Chuck tells the true story of boxer Chuck Wepner and the two biggest fights of his life: One against Muhammad Ali and one against the aftermath of the fight. Wepner gained folk hero status after nearly going the distance against Ali in a 1975 heavyweight title fight. He was knocked out with nineteen seconds to go in the 15th round, but his tenacity and his ninth-round knockdown of Ali provided the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone to write Rocky (which Stallone later denied). Ali says the knockdown was the result of Wepner stepping on his foot, but this was likely the aging champion's attempt to save face. Wepner, who was derided as The Bayonne Bleeder, wasn't expected to give Ali much of a fight, but he gave him more of a battle than expected. Wepner never expected to win the fight (and he likely wouldn't have if it had gone to a decision); he just wanted to go the distance. If this doesn't sound like Rocky Balboa, then nothing does.
Chuck Wepner (Schreiber) is former Marine from Bayonne, New Jersey with a reputation for being able to take a punch and for bleeding heavily. He is a top 10 boxer, but isn't famous outside of Bayonne. He runs a liquor route for the local bars in between fights and trains out of a run-down gym. After Ali upset Foreman in 1974 to regain the heavyweight title, Wepner is unexpectedly chosen by Ali for his next title defense. Why? Because Chuck is white, and Don King was playing up the racial element. Ali (Hall) takes Wepner lightly in press conferences and in the ring until he is knocked down, then he starts taking the hard-hitting Wepner more seriously. Wepner loses, but shows enough chutzpah to turn him into an instant celebrity. He goes from local hero to national hero. It doesn't take long for all of the hero worship to go to his head. He becomes the indignant "Do you know who I am?" guy if you make him wait his turn at the bar. If you don't know, he will tell you. He calls himself the Real Rocky, as if that means anything. When Rocky wins Best Picture in 1977, Chuck celebrates as if he won it. As a follow-up, he battles Andre The Giant in the ring, but loses when he is tossed out of the ring by the 7'4" Andre.
For a guy like Chuck Wepner, the fame is the worst thing for him. He was already on thin ice with his wife Phylliss (Moss) over his infidelities even before the big fight. In one well-handled scene, Phylliss interrupts a meeting between Chuck and a potential one-night stand and proceeds to tell the other woman all about Chuck's moves and his empty promises to her. Phyliss is no pushover. She puts up with a lot from Chuck, but knows where to draw the line. After one night too many of drinking, women, and cocaine, Phylliss throws him out for good. I admired the street-smart toughness Moss brings to the role. She is a woman who is occasionally willing to stretch her boundaries, but eventually will say "enough" and mean it.
Chuck meets Linda (Watts), a local bartender who doesn't easily fall for Chuck's pickup lines even though her birthday is the same as his and her favorite movie (like Chuck's) is Requiem for a Heavyweight. She humors him and would be interested in him if his reputation as a cocaine abuser and philanderer wasn't well-earned. Chuck is full of intriguing supporting performances, including Morgan Spector who does a dead-on Sly Stallone and Jim Gaffigan as John, Chuck's best friend. Also, Michael Rappaport, as Chuck's estranged brother, also provides touching dimensions when you least expect them.
Schreiber is not only physically convincing in the title role, but we like him despite his obvious flaws. Schreiber brings an everyman quality to the role. We might even know a guy like him and perhaps shake our head when we see him blow one opportunity after another. Stallone sets up an audition for Chuck to appear in Rocky II, but he is still hung over from partying the night before and loses out on the role. Chuck is the kind of guy who headbutts his steering wheel in anger over such a lost chance, and then does more lines of coke to get over it. Years later, Chuck hits rock bottom when he is imprisoned for selling drugs. In one more turn of the screw of life, wouldn't you know that Sly Stallone is filming his next movie right on the same prison grounds where Chuck is incarcerated?
Unlike Rocky Balboa, Chuck Wepner was unable for a long time to turn his opportunities into successes. But, in his own way, he triumphs over addiction and marries Linda, so things turn out all right for him. We find we are happy for him, and this is one way we know that this movie, biopic trappings and all, still worked.
Footnote: Wepner eventually sued Stallone over the Rocky series, and they settled out of court. When you see the events unfold in Chuck, how could Stallone deny that Wepner wasn't his inspiration for the iconic character?
Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Henry Cavill, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Michelle Monaghan, Wes Bentley, Vanessa Kirby, Alec Baldwin, Angela Bassett
Mission: Impossible- Fallout, like its predecessors with the exception of part three, doesn't quite do it for me. Yes, it is polished with wall-to-wall action and stunts which become more complex and potentially deadlier with each passing film, but you can swap the James Bond films with the Mission: Impossible films and not be able to tell the difference. Mission: Impossible checks the boxes with stunts, fistfights, chases, and gadgets, but it is missing the fun; like a force field surrounds it which silly amusement can't penetrate. Six movies into the series, it still hasn't learned to lighten up.
Tom Cruise is once again back as Ethan Hunt, who is given a mission with the pointless "should you choose to accept it" caveat. As one character asks Hunt, "Have you ever chosen to not to accept a mission?" That character is Solomon Lane (Harris), who is now a prisoner after Hunt captured him in the last film. Not that I would remember that. Very few things about Rogue Nation have stuck with me. But, unlike the last few Mission: Impossible films, at least I think I can pass a test on this plot.
A group known as The Apostles wants to get its hands on some plutonium and unleash holy hell on the world. Hunt is tasked with stopping them and recruits his old team of Luther (Rhames) and Benji (Pegg) to assist him. The CIA wants Hunt to add the brutal, ruthless Walker (Cavill) to join the team, because according to Walker's boss: "Hunt is a scalpel. Walker is a hammer." Walker doesn't believe in taking prisoners. He thinks Hunt's way is soft. And his punches can knock your head off. But, instead of staging a possibly amusing contest between the two agents, Hunt takes charge and Walker stays in the background. Cavill is physically imposing, but somehow I wish the movie did more with him. His reason for being involved is far too obvious, and I kept hoping the movie would add more dimensions to him. He may as well have been wearing a t-shirt signaling his intentions.
The movies does allow Cruise to imbue Hunt with more humanity. We see he is not a guy who will sacrifice one for the sake of many, and this is not necessarily a detriment. But his methods are questioned: Is his way better? Or is someone like Walker's? The movie only delves into this argument superficially. One question I have about the Lane character is: Why doesn't someone just put a bullet in his head? Keeping him alive brings more harm than good. And for that matter, why doesn't Lane simply have someone put a bullet in Cruise's head? After two movies, you would think he would realize Ethan Hunt manages to stay alive. Lane is the walking, talking definition of insanity. The whole trying the same thing, but expecting different results kind.
The Mission: Impossible movies are undoubtedly chock full of strong production values. Cruise does most of his stunts (including one which broke his leg and sidelined filming for two months) and this adds realism to them. Rebecca Ferguson, who made such a splash in the last film, is underused here. She is beautiful, magnetic, and mysterious; not someone who shouldn't be front and center.
Mission: Impossible III remains the best film of the series, with an unusually ruthless Philip Seymour Hoffman as the villain. This latest entry only slightly improves on the previous two, which means I may at least be able to recall some of its elements when the next chapter is inevitably made.
Friday, July 27, 2018
Directed by: John Landis
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Peter Riegert, Chazz Palmintieri, Marisa Tomei, Ornella Muti, Vincent Spano, Tim Curry, Don Ameche, Kurtwood Smith, Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Barondes, Ken Howard, William Atherton, Linda Gray, Mark Metcalf
The actors in Oscar give it their all. The film has the look and feel of a 1930's screwball romantic comedy, but not the laughs. It strains for yuks and there are very few to be found, but I can at least give points to the filmmakers for trying. Sylvester Stallone stars, but is surrounded by capable supporting actors who can say things like, "Here's Little Anthony...and his Imperial" with aplomb. The actors' duty is to keep up with the seemingly endless mistaken identities, identical suitcases which are switched around and given to the wrong person, and a plot twist or two which is par for the course.
Angelo "Snaps" Provolone (Stallone) is a career gangster who promises his dying father (Douglas) that he will go straight and forego his lucrative life of crime. Judging by his mansion and staff on his payroll, crime has been good to Snaps, but he is determined to go legit by investing money in a local bank and joining its board. On the morning Snaps plans to go straight, things go south for him. While treading as lightly as I can with the plot, Snaps' accountant Anthony (Spano) asks Snaps for his daughter's hand in marriage and a raise to support her in the lifestyle to which she is accustomed. Anthony also confesses to stealing money from Snaps to finance their life together. That begins the shenanigans, which includes his daughter Lisa (Tomei) wanting to marry anyone just to get out of the house. An unseen chauffeur, a linguistics professor (Curry) who tries to teach proper pronunciation to Snaps and his cohorts, bankers, tailors, cops, rival mobsters, and a woman who pretends to be Snaps' daughter all figure into the next ninety minutes or so of screen time.
Oscar frantically moves along, but doesn't necessarily go anywhere. Most of the action takes place in Snaps' mansion, and thankfully there are enough rooms to keep characters waiting offscreen until it is their time to enter the fray again. Oscar is based on a play, and the movie has the same feel to it. Maybe the events work better in theater and less on the screen. I enjoyed some of the supporting roles, including Peter Riegert as Snaps' right-hand man Aldo, who acts and sounds like a 30's film hood with his clipped speech and exaggerated Noo Yawk accent. Chazz Palmintieri is another of Snaps' goons who exasperates his boss by constantly carrying weapons and being slow on the uptake.
Stallone more or less plays the straight man whom everything happens to and the film uses his untapped comic ability well. We just wish the performances were at the service of a funnier script.
Directed by: Marina Zenovich
Featuring: Robin Williams, Pam Dawber, Lewis Black, Scott Marshall, Bobcat Goldthwait, Zak Williams, Mark Romanek, Valerie Velardi, Billy Crystal, David Letterman
The most pertinent question which I derived from watching Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind is: Where did he find the energy? Williams was always "on". If he wasn't expending energy in his lightning-fast stage act, he was forever being the cutup on a movie or TV set. His Mork and Mindy co-star Pam Dawber likened episode tapings to "three hours of improvisation-filled comedy". The affection the interview subjects have for Williams is apparent and they provide the insight and emotion into this documentary which examines the life and career of the late, groundbreaking stand-up comedian and Oscar-winning actor.
We see Williams as a man with insatiable appetites, whether it be for laughs, drugs, women, or alcohol. He wasn't one to believe in moderation. But, he was a unique talent. His style of humor wasn't for everyone, but you can't deny there will never be another performer like him. When watching the numerous clips of his stand-up act in the film, you catch pieces of truth and pain beneath the manic stage presence. Much like Richard Pryor, Williams used his stand-up as therapy and confession. If you blink, you might miss it, but the moments were there.
Williams was born into a conservative Midwestern family which moved to San Francisco when he was a teenager. Seeing hippies, flower children, and counterculture was like culture shock to him, but very invigorating. He played sports in high school, but chose to pursue acting because the girls hung out in the acting and theater classes and productions. Soon, he found his way to Julliard (along with Christopher Reeve, who roomed with Williams and became his lifelong friend and godfather to his oldest child, Zak). Julliard was too rigid for a freestyle talent like Williams, so he dropped out to pursue a career in stand-up comedy.
Williams' rise to TV fame on Happy Days and then Mork and Mindy is attributed to Happy Days' creator Garry Marshall's son, Scott. Scott adored Star Wars and talked his father into creating an alien character for the show, which led to Mork from Ork. Williams proved to be so popular, the spinoff show was created and Williams' career launched. It was at this point in which Williams became a part of the L.A. comedy scene and started experimenting with drugs. "Cocaine is God's way of telling you that you have too much money," Williams said during a Tonight Show appearance. The March 1982 drug-related death of Williams' friend John Belushi caused Williams to go clean (at least for a little while).
Mork and Mindy soon launched Williams into a movie career, starting with the not-so-well received Popeye. It took Williams a few years to gain his footing in movies, with Good Morning Vietnam (1987) giving him his first major hit and Oscar nomination. The film oddly does not mention that Williams indeed won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1997's Good Will Hunting. Other notable films Williams starred in are also not mentioned, possibly winding up as casualties on the cutting room floor.
"Robin was like the light bulb that couldn't turn itself off," said comedian Lewis Black, who marveled at his tirelessness even in his mid-50s. Williams was married three times. His first wife Valerie is the only one who is interviewed. She fondly recalls Williams, including his flaws such as infidelity and drug use. ("I knew Robin loved women and needed them, which I allowed him as long as he came home to me") She knew what drove him and in many ways made sacrifices to please him, until she drew her line in the sand and the marriage ended. It was said in the tabloids that the marriage ended because Williams had an affair with the family nanny (who later became Williams' second wife). Valerie sets the record straight and says this was not the case. His relationship with the nanny, Marsha Garces, began after the marriage ended, but Valerie expresses regret over not clarifying the rumors previously. ("It was a tough way for Marsha to begin a relationship with Robin,")
Williams' son Zak, comedians and close friends Billy Crystal and Bobcat Goldthwait, and Dawber tell their stories of the Robin they loved, with Williams himself (through archive interviews) fills in the gaps with his own confessions. Williams' stand-up style was complex, but his needs were not. He craved laughs which were more addicting to him than any drug or alcohol. Perhaps the substance abuse was a way to supplement the unquenchable need for acceptance. I have written on this blog that Robin Williams as an actor was best suited for roles in which he didn't play "Robin Williams". As an actor, he was diverse and powerful in a variety of roles. But, some films fell into the trap of being extensions of his stand-up act and they suffered. Williams committed suicide in 2014 because his body was betraying him after a Parkinson's disease diagnosis. The film wisely doesn't speculate what his mindset was at the time, but his loss is keenly felt. Come Inside My Mind gives us enough understanding of Williams for us to actually understand him, as much as possible anyway.
Wednesday, July 25, 2018
Directed by: David Fincher
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Casey Wilson
Gone Girl has its secrets and twists, but doesn't necessarily depend on them to create a moody, chilling tale. Director David Fincher manipulates us and sends us off in directions we didn't quite anticipate; mostly because he can and does so with glee. Fincher is at home making films about characters who aren't nice; who are selfish, mean, and standoffish. The Social Network (2010) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) are two such examples, and then we have Seven (1995) and Zodiac (2007) which involve the chasing of serial killers amidst unrelenting gloom. The protagonists in those films are flawed and troubled, and inherently watchable.
Without giving away too much of the plot, writing teacher/bar owner Nick Dunne (Affleck) comes home on the day of his fifth anniversary to find his wife Amy (Pike) missing. Evidence points to a violent struggle, and possible murder. Nick is the prime suspect, and sensationalized, round-the-clock media coverage paints him as someone who could've very easily murdered his wife. The fact that Nick is having an affair with one of his students doesn't help, but with help of high-powered attorney Tanner Bolt (Perry), Nick finds a way to navigate through the legal maze while swimming with the sharks.
We learn in flashbacks that, despite no outwardly noticeable marital problems, that Nick and Amy have had their share of issues bubbling below the surface. Nick had grown callous and cold towards Amy as his writing career goes nowhere, and even forcing her to move from New York to Nick's hometown in Missouri. Amy herself grows into a walking, talking pile of resentments and frustrations. This was a powder keg ready to explode, and in fact it already had in many ways.
For those who haven't seen the film, I won't reveal the surprises, of which there are many. We learn more about the natures of Nick and Amy than we initially assumed about them, and the truth isn't pleasant. Does the resolution necessarily hold up under scrutiny? Some pieces of it does, while others frustrate you and leave you scratching your head, but Fincher isn't as much interested in the payoffs as he is the journey. He loves exploring characters who hide betrayals from others and themselves. Nick and Amy see themselves one way, but behave in quite another. Fincher isn't afraid to give us people who aren't likable.
The actors portray tricky people and it is a tribute to Affleck and Pike how fearlessly they approach their roles. They aren't afraid to be disliked by the audience. We have as much trouble figuring Amy and Nick out as they do figuring themselves out. Fincher combines slick filmmaking with tortured characters who exist in a cold world. He dares us to turn away, and we find that we can't.
Monday, July 23, 2018
Directed by: Lewis Gilbert
Starring: Roger Moore, Barbara Bach, Caroline Munro, Curt Jurgens, Bernard Lee, Desmond Llewelyn, Richard Kiel
Roger Moore played James Bond as an agent who loves women far more than saving the world yet again by another megalomaniac. He enjoys the playful byplay, the doubles entendre, the puns, and of course sealing the deal with any number of beautiful women; including those trying to kill him. This James Bond doesn't suffer from PTSD, although he should. How many close calls on his life can one man withstand? Bond can endure whatever you can throw at him and keep on keeping on. We know Bond won't die, but before the Bond series grew stale, we were at least in suspense trying to figure out how Bond will infiltrate the villain's secret lair and dispose of him.
In The Spy Who Loved Me, among the better Bond films, James Bond is up against a malicious, evil zillionaire with an underwater hideout who hijacks nuclear submarines. The sadistic Stromberg (Jurgens) doesn't smile much and feeds anyone who betrays him to the sharks. Actually, Stromberg also disposes of those who help him in his plans in much the same manner. I doubt this man has ever smiled.
Assisting Bond in this endeavor is Soviet agent Anya Amasova (Bach), who when the mission is over wants to waste Bond for killing her lover. It's of little consequence to Anya that her lover was trying to kill Bond in the opening segment. Anyone want to wager that Anya will instead forego her revenge for a roll in the hay with 007? Bach (now Mrs. Ringo Starr) is an alluring, sexy, intelligent counterpart. And she can hold her own against Stromberg's henchmen, including the mute, very tall, massive, and seemingly unshakable Jaws (Kiel), who has metal where his teeth should be.
Jaws isn't your typical goon who will ultimately fail in his quest to kill Bond. One of the movie's (and the follow-up Moonraker's) running gags is how Jaws can't die, no matter how Bond tries to get rid of him. Throw him out of a moving train, or a plane, or drop a large pile of bricks on top of him; he will simply shake it off and keep going. He's The Terminator before there was one, and Kiel plays him with good humor. Jaws proved to be so popular, producers found a place for him in the next Bond film.
The Spy Who Loved Me is replete with fabulous underwater scenery, creative gadgets, and adherence to what made Bond films escapist fun. Moore was nearing fifty when this installment was made, and he had four more Bonds left in him before finally retiring the role after A View to a Kill (1985). Sean Connery is usually listed as the favorite Bond, however, I also admired Moore's suavity and the infectious good time he was having with the role. Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig all have their own strengths, but Connery and Moore run neck and neck for me as to which Bond is the best.
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Grace Moretz, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, David Harbour
Robert McCall (Washington) is a former CIA agent who wants to live a quiet life in Boston working at Home Depot, but his sense of fair play and justice is violated when a young call girl named Teri (Moretz) comes into the coffee shop McCall frequents looking beat up. Teri is under the thumb of the local Russian mob, and McCall wants Teri to have a future, so he pays a visit to the mobsters offering them a choice: Let Teri go or face deadly consequences. The mobsters laugh at the near sixtyish McCall, but within thirty seconds, McCall thrashes the joint and the war is underway.
The Russians sent in their fixer Nikolai (Csokas), who foolishly does not fear McCall, but he will quickly learn to. McCall is not only deadly, but smart, efficient, and collected. He doesn't shout, he doesn't play around, and he isn't afraid to get dirty. The mobsters think they their fates will be different, but we know better. But, yet they trudge along trying to outwit and outmuscle McCall to their detriment.
Even at 59 at the time this movie was released, Washington was still a convincing Robert McCall. He isn't Superman and the stunts and fights aren't over the top except in sheer brutality. McCall gains justice in bloody, nasty fashion and because we care about McCall, we care about seeing the villains get theirs. In another actor's hands, The Equalizer might not have been as effective or absorbing, but Denzel Washington is a lean, efficient, quiet everyman. We learn a little of his background, with help of old CIA friends Susan and Brian Plummer (Leo and Pullman), who are the only people in the world who know his history and what led him to this point.
Despite the violence, The Equalizer is somewhat thoughtful about McCall and about the idea of justice and second chances. Maybe this is what drives McCall, and maybe this is why he offers his targets the chance to come correct or be disposed of. Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men also had a sense of fair play (albeit more demented) in which a coin flip would determine the fate of some of his victims. But, no one would mistake Chigurh for Robert McCall, but in many ways they are in the same business.
The Equalizer wasn't made to win Oscars; it will entertain the audience and give it what it wants. It doesn't disappoint. I recall Denzel Washington's film debut in 1981's Carbon Copy, in which he played the illegitimate black son of a white rich, corporate guy (George Segal). The movie worked as racial satire, and Washington exhibited the charm and charisma he would bring to so many of his future roles. At the time, and this has nothing to do with Washington's obvious talent, I didn't expect to see much more of Washington after Carbon Copy. I anticipated (at the ripe old age of 11) that he would disappear like many talented actors do in Hollywood. But, fortunately, I was wrong.
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Denzel Washington, Melissa Leo, Bill Pullman, Pedro Pascal, Ashton Sanders, Orson Bean
Like its predecessor, The Equalizer 2 is a slick, polished action thriller elevated by Denzel Washington's performance in the title role. Washington's Robert McCall is a man who observes, listens, and maintains calm even in the face of outfoxing four assassins in a hurricane. He was once in the CIA, but that was many years ago, and for reasons never made clear his death was faked and he now tries to live a quiet, anonymous existence in Boston. The quiet doesn't last long, because even as a Lyft driver, McCall takes it upon himself to right wrongs and provide justice to those who need it.
The movie hints that such acts are ones of penance for McCall, or maybe they are just an excuse to keep the skills he learned in the CIA sharp. He gets plenty of chances to do that, and his skills acquired over a long career put Liam Neeson's in the Taken series to shame. Between two Equalizer films, McCall comes out of them with a small wound on his thigh as the worst of his injuries. Forget Liam Neeson, maybe The Terminator could learn a thing or two from McCall.
The Equalizer 2 never overextends its reach. It doesn't pretend to be anything more than it is. Washington isn't looking for any awards season exposure for his work, he gives us a character who kicks ass and doesn't bother to take names. Washington hints at a deeper history for McCall, and thankfully the movie doesn't expound on it much, but it gives McCall a human dimension. The Equalizer has not one, but three different plots to juggle. McCall not only has to deal with the violent death of one of the two people who knows he's still alive, but also an ordeal from an elderly frequent Lyft passenger who is trying to reclaim a painting stolen by the Nazis, and a wayward teen who lives in his apartment complex clearly headed toward a life of crime.
McCall becomes a father figure to the teen (Sanders) and it would come as a surprise to no one that the kid would be taken hostage by the villains as leverage against McCall. You can ask the Russian gangsters from the first film if such a thing would work, if there were any alive to tell you. McCall is an instrument of violence, with a touch of the Denzel Washington charm which makes him among the most likable and accomplished actors ever. We wind up caring enough to see McCall dispense his brand of justice, and also interested in what creative method he will use to kill his targets. If McCall were dispatched to kill Bin Laden after 9/11, Bin Laden would've been dead by 9/14 in my estimation.
Friday, July 20, 2018
Directed by: Burt Reynolds
Starring: Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Sally Field, Kristy McNichol, Joanne Woodward, David Steinberg, Strother Martin, Myrna Loy, Norman Fell, Robby Benson, Carl Reiner
It took some nerve for Burt Reynolds, then the world's biggest box-office star, to direct a dark comedy about a terminally ill man who wants to commit suicide. But, The End hedges its bets and turns into silly, unfunny slapstick fare. Maybe this was a doomed project from the start, but the opening scenes at least present us with darkly comic possibilities before Dom DeLuise shows up.
Sonny Lawson (Reynolds) is a man with six months to live who despairs at the idea of dying a painful death. He decides to commit suicide, and after a failed attempt at ingesting sleeping pills, is institutionalized and introduced to Marlon (DeLuise), a schizophrenic who befriends Sonny and wants to help him end his life. It is at this point in which The End sinks. We meet Marlon sitting next to Sonny's bed and talking his ear off. The scene drags on incessantly and we realize a very little of Marlon goes a long way. Too long. It's as if Reynolds did not want to cut the scene short, so he lets it drag on.
Reynolds is of course a charismatic, charming comic actor. DeLuise can be funny with the right role and someone to rein him in, but that didn't happen here. He is allowed to run amok, with increasingly unfunny results which overshadow the entire movie. In addition, we have various scenes in which the characters scream at each other and only increase their loudness as they progress. The scenes in which Sonny attempts suicide with Marlon's help also build and build to no payoff.
The ending turns sentimental, but doesn't save The End from what has come before and it doesn't last long. Maybe there was no way to make this movie work. I suppose theoretically there could be humorous material to be made from this, but The End isn't it.
Directed by: Ol Parker
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, Lily James, Stellan Skarsgard, Dominic Cooper, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Andy Garcia, Cher, Meryl Streep, Alexa Davies, Jessica Keenan-Wynn, Hugh Skinner, Josh Dylan, Jeremy Irvine
I wasn't waiting for a sequel to Mamma Mia! (2008), which was a slight musical based on the Broadway smash in which big named actors sung ABBA hits in an effort to hold a threadbare plot together. The sequel contains more ABBA songs, including some reimagining of those performed in the first film and I would imagine a raid of some of the deep tracks from ABBA's albums. It has energy, charm, and a Lily James performance you can't keep your eyes off of. I didn't anticipate enjoying it as much as I did, but there it was in all its silly glory daring me to hate it. I couldn't.
Meryl Streep, the lead from the first film, is featured on the poster and in the trailers of the sequel, but she is only in it for about ten minutes near the end and in a version of Super Trouper over the closing credits. The main focus this time is on her daughter Sophie (Seyfried), who was supposed to get married in the first film, but didn't. She is still with the same guy when this story picks up a few years after its predecessor, but it is unclear whether they married after all. Sky (Cooper) is in New York working a new job, while Sophie is renovating her now late mother's hotel for a grand re-opening bash on the same Greek island from Mamma Mia!. Sophie invites her three fathers (Brosnan, Firth, and Skarsgard) to join the shindig, but two of the three can't make because they are halfway around the world on business affairs. No points for guessing they will chuck their plans to travel to the party and surprise their "daughter". I won't explain how exactly Sophie has three fathers. See the first film to find out.
Sophie's reopening is not without its obstacles, and the film cuts often to flashbacks to her mother graduating college in 1979 and then setting out for adventure. Donna (James) is a free spirit looking for love, or at least Mr. Right Now, and her smile lights up the screen. Within a roughly 48-hour period, she hooks up with awkward Harry (Skinner), smooth Swedish sailor Bill (Dylan), and then masculine architect Sam (Irvine) on the Greek island, and has her heart broken by Sam. But, she loves the island and stays there, learning she is pregnant by one of the three men she had relations with along the way and giving birth to Sophie.
James is radiant and the younger versions of Brosnan, Firth, and Skarsgard are also appealing. Harry's version of Waterloo is the musical highlight of the movie, but I doubt there can be a bad version of that song. Meanwhile, back at the hotel in present day, Fernando (Garcia) is the hotel manager who lost track of his love many years ago. No points again for guessing he will reunite with her before the movie's end, as well as having ABBA's Fernando performed to commemorate the event. Sophie's grandmother (Cher) also makes an appearance. In real life, Cher is only three years older than Streep, but she is still billed as Donna's mother and Sophie's grandmother, so we go along with it. No points for guessing Cher will belt out a number or two as well.
The story is thin oatmeal, but the flashback scenes with James carry some gravitas and poignancy which provide the heart of Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again. Once you get past the silly story and the pretense of characters simply breaking into song at inopportune moments, then you will sit back and find yourself tapping your feet to the songs. I know I did.
Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Directed by: Rob Reiner
Starring: Woody Harrelson, James Marsden, Rob Reiner, Tommy Lee Jones, Jessica Biel, Milla Jovovich, Richard Schiff
With Shock and Awe, Rob Reiner calls out the American media for not doing its job in the weeks and months before the start of the 2003 Iraq War. The Bush administration fabricated stories of Iraq stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, reputable newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post published the stories with little if any confirmation of the truth, and thus the costly, deadly war was launched with considerable public and legislative support behind it. The media basically acted as stenographers for the Bush administration press releases without doing its job as a check and balance for the executive branch.
The one news service which dared to publish stories which contradicted the administration's tall tale was Knight Ridder, which at its height published 32 newspapers in the United States. Oddly, these papers opted to publish New York Times or Washington Post articles which backed up the Bush administration's story instead of questioning it. Editor John Walcott (Reiner) is aghast that the Knight Ridder family of newspapers would avoid publishing his journalists' stories. "When the New York Times issues an apology, you can publish that in your papers as well," Walcott tells the publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer. A short time after the start of the Iraq War, when it became abundantly clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction, the New York Times indeed issued an apology for its shoddy journalism. Not that it was much help to the troops who were already killed or wounded.
Shock and Awe is an angry film. Sure, it is preachy at times, but it has something to preach about. Those who chide the media these days for "fake news" (or news which paints Donald Trump in a bad light) would love the media of Shock and Awe. The media took a nap on its responsibilities following 9/11 until well after the Iraq War was underway. No one but Knight Ridder wanted to rock the boat, preferring to simply publish the spoon-fed official story instead of doing its due diligence to ensure the story is true. Fifteen years after Bush prematurely stated, "Mission Accomplished", American soldiers are still losing their lives in Iraq, which has since plunged into the civil war the insiders who spoke to the Knight Ridder journalists expected as early as 2001.
Shock and Awe begins on 9/11, and shortly after, there were rumblings around Washington that Iraq was being targeted as the nation responsible for the attacks. The story was being formulated that Saddam Hussein was providing aid and shelter to Al-Qaeda, but those who knew the Middle East know of Hussein's long-standing hatred for the terrorist organization and that such a connection was bunk. No matter. The Bush administration slowly whipped up support for an invasion, with help of a sleeping media and an uninformed American public who only wanted someone, anyone to pay for 9/11. Attacking Iraq over 9/11 was akin to Moe slapping Larry, who in retaliation slaps Curly.
The movie does not make the case that Hussein was an innocent. He was a cruel dictator who vanquished the lives of thousands of his people. But, he had no connection to 9/11, which is something the Knight Ridder journalists led by Jonathan Landay (Harrleson) and Warren Strobel (Marsden) are uncovering. This is not a popular story, and they must stand by in frustration as the popular version of events makes headlines, while the truth languishes. There was no room for anything which would be viewed as "unpatriotic" in the days following 9/11. Nor any room that might suggest Hussein had no part in those events.
Shock and Awe does not operate as if it is occurring in the moment without the benefit of hindsight. Reiner clearly wants to state his case and does so effectively. A few subplots, such as Warren's budding romance with his neighbor (Biel) are extraneous, but the message hits home. Because the Trump administration is a dumpster fire so far, it has become popular to somehow romanticize the George W. Bush administration as the good old days. Reiner reminds us that this is not so, especially when, like Vietnam, thousands lost their lives over an unsubstantiated lie. The families of lost loved ones would not be so quick to give Bush a pass. Neither does Rob Reiner; and he asserts the media is every bit as culpable as Bush. We can't say he's wrong.
Tuesday, July 17, 2018
Directed by: Jose Padilha
Starring: Daniel Bruhl, Rosamund Pike, Eddie Marsan, Lior Ashkenazi, Denis Menochet, Angel Bonnani, Juan Pablo Roba, Nonso Anozie
The ingredients are all here for a tense, suspenseful thriller based on the true story of the 1976 Air France plane hijacking by terrorists. However, a great deal of the movie involves the people on both sides standing around waiting and thinking about what to do next. It stands still when it should be in motion, pushing ever forward to its payoff. Instead, we witness people pondering their next move and wrestling with their consciences. It is not exactly a worthwhile cinematic experience.
7 Days in Entebbe begins with a brief history of violent relations between Israel and neighboring Palestine explained in the opening titles over an Israeli dance company's performance of Naharin's "Echad Mi Yodea". When Israel was formed following World War II, Palestinian land was taken to create the new Hebrew state in the Middle East, inflaming hatred, violence, and tension in the region ever since. The hijacking takes place four years after the slaughter of eleven Israeli athletes by a Palestinian terrorist organization, and the Israeli government led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Ashkenazi) stands by Israel's policy not to negotiate with terrorists. The terrorists are a mix of German and Palestinian "freedom fighters" led by Germans Wilfried Bose (Bruhl) and Brigitte Kuhlmann (Pike). Their goal is to hold the 250 passengers (83 of them Israeli nationals) ransom in exchange for the release of political prisoners in Israel. This, they believe, will strike a blow against Israel.
It is not lost on Kuhlmann and Bose that they are Germans committing horrific acts against Jews, but they manage to separate their cause from that of Nazism...at least in their minds. When Israel learns of the hijacking, Rabin battles with his conscience, his cabinet led by defense minister Shimon Peres (Marsan), and the families of the hostages who only want their loved ones home safe...Israeli policy be damned. The waters are further muddied by the terrorists keeping the hostages in an abandoned airport terminal in Entebbe, Uganda, with Idi Amin (Anozie) promising to take care of the hostages while in fact harboring terrorists; a move which would turn international opinion against him.
Peres and Mossad propose a midnight raid to save the hostages. Rabin is not so sure. He leans towards negotiations and then away from them. "If I were still a general, I would not approve this raid. It is too risky," says Rabin, but with cabinet pressure mounting to take action, Rabin relents and Operation Thunderbolt is under way. By the time the military action is in full swing, 7 Days in Entebbe has not gathered any momentum or tension. Except for the plane's engineer (Menochet-- in the film's best performance), we learn little or nothing about the hostages and only slightly more about the terrorists themselves. There are dialogue scenes about their doubts about their mission and about the Israeli intentions, but nothing which would cause us to care all that much. Even Amin's scenes are muted. He is the wild card, balancing international perception while trying to stay in favor with his allies, but he is mostly left on the sidelines.
7 Days in Entebbe manages to document this event without engaging us in it. It feels more like a footnote in the ongoing battle between Israel, Palestine, and the rest of the Middle East. We get the feeling this was just one of many fights to come between these factions. The hijacking didn't seem to represent a turning point of any kind. The PLO led by Yassir Arafat had yet to become a major player and 7 Days in Entebbe feels like just what it is....the end of the beginning.
Monday, July 16, 2018
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Messina, Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning, Sienna Miller, Brendan Gleeson, Robert Glenister, Remo Girone
Live by Night never achieves liftoff. Director Ben Affleck wants us to really like his protagonist, which is fatal to a film about a violent mobster working his way up in the Boston mob. At times, Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is a gun-toting killer, at other times a softie romantic, and at other times moral and upstanding. Instead of a multi-dimensional character, Joe Coughlin feels more like a prisoner of the screenplay. If the movie doesn't know what to think of him, then how can we?
Live by Night has moments in which it starts to connect and the story appears to be moving forward, but these are islands unto themselves. The film has a cogent feel for its time and place and looks right, but at times feels like a saggy season four episode of Boardwalk Empire. The production values nor the actors can be blamed, just its directionless plot and main characters which stops and starts when it should soar.
Until this film, Affleck was batting three-for-three in the director's chair. Argo, 2012's Best Picture, was a gripping, taut, and suspenseful film based around the Iran Hostage Crisis. Live by Night is only occasionally gripping and suspenseful, and takes a lot longer to tell its story than is necessary. As Live by Night opens, we learn Joe is a World War I veteran who has seen plenty of war horrors and is determined not to take orders from anyone again. This delusion doesn't last long as he turns to a life of crime. He robs banks with help of trusted cohorts like Dion (Messina), but soon the Irish mob boss in town, Albert White (Glenister) wants his cut. Coughlin begins working for White despite having a police superintendent father (Gleeson), who naturally disapproves of his son's career choice and his affair with Emma (Miller), who is White's mistress as well. We know that won't end well, although it doesn't end as badly as you would think.
Joe is soon pinched for a botched robbery which left cops dead. He does a generous three-year prison stretch and upon release goes to work for White's Italian rival Masso Pescatore (Girone), who sends Joe to Florida to turn around the sinking illegal booze and narcotics trade there. With Emma now out of the picture, Joe falls for Graciela (Saldana) and marries her, although there isn't a lot of screen time dedicated to their romance to make it truly compelling. In Florida, Joe runs afoul of the local KKK, the town's police chief Figgis (Cooper), and the chief's daughter Loretta (Fanning), who travels to Hollywood with dreams of stardom and comes home a recovering heroin addict who finds Jesus and whips up public support against Joe's proposed casino.
Joe impractically orders Loretta not to be touched, which doesn't sit well with Masso (who wants to see gambling legalized in Florida and the casino built). The movie doesn't say why he draws the line with her. Are there spiritual elements to Joe which were fleshed out more in the Dennis Lehane novel on which this film is based? We don't know, but at first Loretta is an enemy then in a 180 degree plot twist, becomes a depressed doubter of her own faith who confides in Joe about her issues. Loretta conveniently exits the film, but not before we scratch our heads at the twists and turns of her character which didn't quite fit.
Affleck is at home in the role and maybe he has ideas about Joe that don't translate to the screen. At times, Affleck plays the role of a 1920's gangster with too much of a contemporary vibe, but we focus more on our ambivalence toward him. There is plenty of gun violence, explosions, fights, and double crosses which are part of any gangster epic, but Live by Night never builds on the scenes which work. It wants to be a memorable crime film, but it knows the words and not the music.