Saturday, March 30, 2019

Arthur Miller: Writer (2017) * * * 1/2

Primary arthur miller writerDirected by:  Rebecca Miller

Featuring:  Arthur Miller, Rebecca Miller, Bob Miller, Marilyn Monroe

Actor and director Rebecca Miller gives us an intimate portrait of her father, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller, who over sixty years ago wrote three American stage classics:  Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View from the Bridge.    He was a natural from the start; winning writing contests while prolifically pouring out his soul onto the page.    But Miller did not seem tormented or unhappy.   When Rebecca interviews her father about his career and his past marriages, including his most famous one to Marilyn Monroe, we see a man at peace with himself. 
It is as if he was able to expunge whatever feelings he had at the time through his works, and then go on with his life.    We see him late in life always doing some kind of work around the house, whether it was woodworking, writing, or cooking.    He was content, and was able to discuss himself with refreshing candor and with little regret.  

Born in 1915 to Jewish immigrants, Arthur's father was able to form his own successful company despite being illiterate.   The family's financial security ended with the 1929 stock market crash, and thus the family's vacation home and savings were gone, and the Millers had to move to Brooklyn.   Miller went to college and despite being drafted, he did not serve in World War II due to a bum knee courtesy of a high school football injury.   But he did write, and by 1947, his first major hit All My Sons was followed up by Death of a Salesman, which immortalized Miller.    He became one of the few writers who rose to the level of celebrity, appearing on numerous talk shows and emerging from the anonymity most writers faced.  

1950's McCarthyism led to The Crucible, in which he likened the Salem Witch Trials to McCarthy's House Unamerican Activities Committee.    He wasn't far off.   His longtime friend and theater partner, director Elia Kazan, named friends who attended Communist Party meetings or were full-fledged members, which led to an estrangement.    More works would come with varying degrees of success, and inexplicably Miller found himself married to the iconic Monroe.    This is an odd couple if there ever was one.    Miller's first marriage produced two children, and his first wife was an uncommunicative and withheld affection.    Monroe was beautiful, and so famous she and Miller couldn't walk down the street without being swarmed by paparazzi.    But her troubles with drugs and alcohol soon took a toll on the marriage.    Miller saw himself as someone who could save her from herself, and found he was unable.   

Soon after Monroe divorced him, Miller married for the third and final time to German photographer Inge Morath, who gave birth to Rebecca in 1962.   She was Miller's match, and the two remained happily married until her death from cancer in 2002.    Miller died in 2005 at age 89 after a well-lived life.    Arthur Miller: Writer isn't simply hagiography.    Miller, through extensive interviews, is not afraid to confront his past missteps.   He had successes and failures as a playwright, with most of the failures coming during the 1970's and beyond, in which he wondered whether he was still relevant enough to reach the next generation of theatergoers.

Miller's intelligence and passion for life are present throughout.   He spoke plainly and decisively, rarely stumbling over his words.    He was candid and thoughtful about himself, while also providing some self-deprecating humor.    This is why Arthur Miller: Writer isn't a standard documentary with talking heads telling us all about Miller while the subject remains silent.    The best moments occur when Arthur Miller himself is speaking, taking center stage.    He seemed to be a loving husband and father, although his first two children lament their father working so much while they were growing up, and Rebecca simply adores him.    He had a fourth son named Daniel who was born with Down Syndrome and institutionalized, which is heartbreaking as it unfolds.   

I sometimes tire of interviews with musicians or artists who are cagey about telling the origin stories of their most famous works.    Arthur Miller expounds on the spark which ignited the work, but also what feelings he tried to convey as he wrote it.  Miller used writing as catharsis, and he was actually able to enjoy life as well.    How many can say that?    

Us (2019) *

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Directed by:  Jordan Peele

Starring:  Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Evan Alex, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Tim Heidecker

Us plays like a Twilight Zone episode stretched out to an interminable length.   After the runaway success of his Get Out, Jordan Peele's previous film which netted him a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, we now have Us.   If this movie is any indication, Peele is a one-hit wonder.    Critics have hailed Us as another Peele masterpiece.    Get Out was an amusing horror comedy with social commentary thrown in.    Very entertaining, yes.   Masterpiece, no.    Peele doesn't even approach entertaining here.

You can read my review of Get Out elsewhere on this blog.    I will tread carefully with my plot recap so as not to reveal spoilers, but maybe I would be doing you a service by revealing such plot points.   But, I won't.   It isn't my duty to tell you how to spend your hard-earned money at the movies.    Us begins in 1986 Santa Cruz.    A television ad for Hands Across America plays.    For those unfamiliar with Hands Across America, it was a semi-successful attempt to create a human chain holding hands from coast to coast to raise awareness and money to fight hunger.    We Are the World it wasn't, and it came at a time when America was ready to move on from the trend of creating social awareness of problems as a way to regain its soul during the height of selfish excess of the 1980's.

A young girl named Adelaide wanders away from the Santa Cruz boardwalk while her father was playing Whack-A-Mole and finds herself in a house of mirrors where she comes face to face with a doppelganger.   The encounter has a negative effect on Adelaide for a while, as it renders her unable to speak or communicate her fear.    We move to the present day, with Adelaide (Nyong'o) married to a stable guy named Gabe Wilson (Duke) and mother to two young children, Jason (Alex) and Zora (Joseph).    They are one night into their vacation getaway at their wilderness home when Adelaide sees a family standing menacingly in the driveway.   There is a wife, a husband, and two children, all wearing red.   When they break into the house and hold the Wilsons hostage, we see they are a family of violent doppelgangers who wish to murder their counterparts.  

Us then becomes a high-concept slasher film with people being offed in bloody, brutal slayings.   It turns out the Wilson isn't the only one with their own set of doppelgangers.    Their friends (Moss and Heidecker) have their own group of look-alikes to fend off, which they do with less success than Adelaide and company.   The entire Santa Cruz area is besieged by red-clad evil twins and after killing their targets, they hold hands to form the human chain a la Hands Across America.    Soon, we learn of the diabolical reason for the doppelgangers' existence, which involves the alleged thousands of miles of abandoned tunnels underneath the nation and scientists who wanted to make clones to, what, ensure Hands Across America is fully realized 33 years after its first attempt?

I simply shake my head.   What else can I do?    Us isn't scary, funny, or involving.   The Wilsons aren't fleshed enough for us to care about why they are being targeted, or why we should want them to succeed in killing their evil clones.   The plot is explained, but the explanation hardly enlightens. Critical reviews of Us have been mostly glowing and genuflecting, crediting Peele with providing racial and oppression subtext which frankly isn't present, no matter how much you want it to be.    Sometimes film critics can be as pretentious as art critics who look at a painting and attempt to bestow upon it some bogus significance.   They simply can't admit they don't know what the hell they're looking at either.    Peele is such a hot commodity now that nearly anything he pitches will be made.   I shudder to think of what that will mean in my moviegoing future.

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019) * * *

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley Movie Review

Directed by:  Alex Gibney

Featuring:  Elizabeth Holmes (archive footage)

If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.   This is a well-worn phrase which is still relevant because people continue to fall for the next great idea which will enrich humanity and make them stupid money at the same time.    Elizabeth Holmes had such an idea at age 19 and by the time she was in her early 20's, she founded a tech company in Silicon Valley with powerful men such as Henry Kissinger and George Shultz as investors.    How did a Stanford dropout in her 20's convince wealthy power brokers to fork over millions to fund her company and her ultimately fraudulent dream?    You would think such players would be leery of a young woman (or man) pitching them ideas of a small black box which would be able to perform hundreds of blood tests with just a tiny sample of blood.    This was Elizabeth's idea and she called it The Edison.    The Inventor illustrates why this is such a fitting name for her doomed product.

Thomas Edison was, of course, among the most famous inventors in all history.   He patented many inventions which would change the world, but he was just as notorious for stalling investors who were impatient to see what they invested in.    In the case of the incandescent light bulb, Edison was near the end of his financial rope with investors threatening to sue him for fraud when he finally got it right.   Elizabeth Holmes treated her vision the same way.    Her art was fake it until you make it. 
The Edison sounded like a noble, efficient product which could change the blood industry.    Until her company Theranos was founded, Lab Corp and Quest Diagnostics ruled the blood testing landscape.
They did it the old fashioned way, by sticking a needle in your arm and drawing vials of blood.
The Edison promised to perform the same tests with just a pinprick of blood.    Never mind that Elizabeth had no medical background and doctors she consulted early on told her such an invention couldn't possibly work, she steamrolled ahead gathering investors, nearly 800 employees, and a flashy new office in Silicon Valley.    By 2014, Theranos was valued at $9 billion even though the company did not produce a single working Edison. 

Pyramid schemes work because people want to get rich quick.   They fall for the package and trust the con artist far too quickly.   I have no doubt that Elizabeth had a dynamic vision for the future, but when it became apparent her machine would not work, she committed fraud by using standard lab testing equipment to test the blood samples The Edison was supposed to test.    A lucrative deal fell through with Walgreens when they ran out of patience as Theranos couldn't deliver on its promises while customers complained that it took weeks to get results which turned out to be dubious at best.
Through it all, Elizabeth remained stout, determined, and unflappable even in the face of damaging Wall Street Journal articles and government crackdowns on Theranos.    The more scrutiny she faced, the more she buried herself in lies.    Theranos is now defunct, and she and her business partner/lover
Sunny Bulwani are now facing up to 20 years in prison on numerous fraud and financial charges.    Her net worth is now zero, which is the least of her problems.

Alex Gibney's most famous documentaries involve masters of deception who sold people on their visions and then intimidated those who blew the whistle on them.    His subjects include Enron, Lance Armstrong, The Catholic Church, and now Elizabeth  Holmes.    Each succeeded temporarily in selling a dream and a story to those they ultimately victimized.     They had money, power, and enablers who helped them cover up their crimes, or those who naively bought into the deception in the first place.    Elizabeth herself is a beautiful enigma.    She has intense eyes, dresses in all black outfits eerily similar to those Steve Jobs wore, and speaks in a confident baritone.    Her voice lent her credibility she hadn't earned at the age of 20.    If Elizabeth had spoken in a higher pitched, more feminine voice, maybe her investors wouldn't have taken her as seriously.    She would've sounded like an airhead with a farfetched dream.    But she sounded and looked the part of a serious inventor, and people bought in.    This persona allowed her to keep her investors' and board's confidence much longer than she should have had it.    Elizabeth was overpowering, empowering, intelligent, focused, confident, and very easy on the eyes.   Who exactly was at home behind her sometimes seemingly unblinking eyes?   No one really cared to find out.   She sold a bill of goods, and many bought it.

Numerous former employees and colleagues are interviewed, as well a New Yorker reporter whose cover story helped launch Elizabeth's celebrity.    She rubbed elbows with Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Serena Williams, and many other famous people who were in awe of her, instead of the other way around.    Gibney doesn't let it go unnoticed that without the financial backing of such power players, Theranos would have not existed.    They fell for the package of Elizabeth Holmes while failing to notice her sleight of hand.    They saw what they wanted to see, and never peeked inside the box. 

Gibney's best documentary remains Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012), because The Catholic Church's culpability was evident as they covered up abuse by priests for the sake of keeping money flowing to their coffers.   The most powerful moment in the film is a group of deaf adult males using every ounce of their limited communication skill and repressed anger they have to confront the priest who abused them decades before.   The Inventor never reaches that level of intensity and drama.    Those who were victims of Elizabeth's fraud and intimidation by her legal team (a la Lance Armstrong when others tried to speak out on his steroid use) do not get the chance to directly face their perpetrator.    She will have her day in court, and her comeuppance will come at the hands of the legal system, but she remains not much different than the leaders of Enron or Lance Armstrong.   They, like Elizabeth Holmes, sold a vision and a version of themselves to the public and found they were willing to break the law to protect that vision and the face they wanted everyone to see. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Running Man (1987) * * *

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Directed by:  Paul Michael Glaser

Starring:  Arnold Schwarzenegger, Richard Dawson, Maria Conchita Alonso, Jim Brown, Yaphet Kotto, Jesse Ventura, Mick Fleetwood, Erland von Lidth, Professor Toru Tanaka

The Running Man is set in a bleak, totalitarian futuristic society of 2019.   The favorite program on state-run television is The Running Man, in which convicts battle sadistic killers called "stalkers" on live TV.   If the convicts win, they are granted their freedom.   If they lose, well, they die.   The network manages to find ways to ensure the convicts don't win.    For the record, it is 2019 now and the country doesn't look anything like the dark, foreboding society depicted here thirty years prior.    We aren't a totalitarian state yet, although if the President has his way maybe that will change (kidding--sort of).   It would be refreshing to envision a future which is a lot like the present, with maybe a few more newer, cooler cell phones. 

The Running Man is one of the many 80's Arnold Schwarzenegger films which were turn-your-mind-off joys to behold.    They didn't make a lot of sense, even while you were watching them, but you'll have a pretty darn good time for the ninety or so minutes they last.   And they were anchored by Arnold Schwarzenegger, pre-California governor mode, who threw punches, kicks, and one liners with equal zeal.    He was an action star with a sense of humor about himself and the material he was starring in. 

In The Running Man, Arnold is Ben Richards, a state cop who is framed for murdering civilians after he refuses to fire on them from his helicopter.    He is thrown into a prison where the inmates break apart rocks in a chain gang, and manages to escape.    But, he is soon apprehended at the airport, and sentenced to be this week's contestant on The Running Man, which is produced by and hosted by the sleazy, sadistic, and selfish Damon Killian (Dawson).    Before you simply assume Dawson is riffing on his Family Feud hosting gig, let's not forget he was a character actor long before taking over that job.    He is convincing as an oily game show host who schmoozes up to the audience shamelessly while introducing which stalker will be sent out to off Richards.    We hope he gets his just desserts, and if he doesn't, we are simply watching the wrong movie.

Richards and his cohorts from prison, plus a network worker (Alonso) who turned in Richards at the airport, but suspects he may be innocent, are all thrown into the game to battle the baddies who all use deadly weapons with glee.   One is a hockey stick which decapitates people, one a flamethrower, one a chainsaw, and one who likes to sing opera before decimating his victims.    It is not a spoiler alert to suggest they meet their fates in gruesome ways.    It is also not a spoiler to state that the audience which vociferously cheered the stalkers soon find themselves cheering for Richards, even without knowing he is actually an innocent man.    Arnold and pal Sly Stallone were always trying to playfully one-up each other in their movies back then.    Maybe this was Arnold's way of trolling Sly for the audience's about-face in Rocky IV.    Or maybe I'm putting way too much thought into this. 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Baby Boom (1987) * * *

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Directed by:  Charles Shyer

Starring:  Diane Keaton, Sam Shepard, Sam Wanamaker, James Spader, Harold Ramis, Victoria Jackson, Pat Hingle

Baby Boom was released so long ago, the high-powered advertising executives didn't have, gasp, computers on their desks.    They got the work done, but it is disconcerting to see all of those papers flying around the office.    In many ways, Baby Boom is like a time capsule of the 80's yuppie culture, with J.C. Wiatt (Keaton) as the yuppie executive who works "from 5 to 9" and whose relationship with her live-in boyfriend (Ramis) has all the spark of a burned-out light bulb.    J.C. is on the fast track to a partnership at the advertising firm where she essentially lives, but then her British cousin dies and bequeaths her with a toddler named Elizabeth, who is irresistibly cute.

J.C. isn't the motherly type at first, and wants nothing more than to have this child out of her way, but just as Elizabeth is ready to be adopted by stern, no-nonsense farmers who want to name her Fern, J.C. decides to keep the kid and try and juggle her newfound motherhood with the high demands of her career.    Her boyfriend moves out shortly after she decides to keep the baby.   Her boss Fritz Curtis (Wanamaker) isn't exactly sympathetic.   ("I don't even know how many grandchildren I have, but I have this firm making $200 million a year,")   With a younger, childless, male upstart (Spader) slowly usurping J.C.'s power at the office, she soon finds herself without a job and moving to a rustic country house in Vermont.

It isn't a terrible thing to lose your job and have enough cash on hand to buy fifty acres in rural Vermont, but J.C. finds she can't handle the quietness.    Her house is falling apart and her well is drying up, and the only available man under sixty in the whole county is the affable veterinarian Dr. Jeff Cooper (Shepard), who likes J.C. in his own aw-shucks, charming way.    But, she wants out of Vermont and finds a way to do so by marketing the applesauce she made during the long boring days in the country.

Diane Keaton is not the first person who springs to mind when the words "determined career woman" are uttered, but because she is an actress of limitless appeal, she of course makes it work.    Baby Boom isn't a hard-boiled look at careerism vs. parenting.   In J.C.'s case, she winds up having it all, even though Fritz tells her she can't.   Many women of lesser means likely can't say the same thing. 
Baby Boom is a charming, sweet comedy in which J.C. transforms from career-obsessed to parenting-obsessed over the course of 100 minutes.   It scratches the surface of the issues it brings up, but doesn't delve too deep.    Her climactic speech in a board room of executives interested in purchasing her fledgling applesauce company takes a stand for women who want to have it all, but I don't know.... that compensation package didn't sound half bad. 

Captive State (2019) * 1/2

Captive State Movie Review

Directed by:  Rupert Wyatt

Starring:  John Goodman, Ashton Sanders, Kevin Dunn, Vera Farmiga, Alan Ruck, Jonathan Majors

Captive State shoots out of the gate so fast it leaves our ability to care behind.   Characters are introduced and pressed into action before we've had a chance to gain our footing, and we witness people running around and doing important things without letting us in our what they're doing.    So for the first ninety minutes, we have to decipher what is happening and why.    We know the basic gist:   Ten years ago, aliens invaded Earth and brought the world's governments to their knees.   The governments agree to surrender all power to the aliens in exchange for the lives of their people.   The aliens live underground and legislate, while leaving the police above to handle the dirty work and suppress any attempted rebellions.    These aliens are pretty hands-off when it comes to occupying a conquered planet, and while the aliens aren't seen that much, their presence is felt in the ruins of what was once Chicago. 

The aliens set up "closed zones" in each major city, which is where the aliens hang out and people work beneath the surface to mine natural resources.    So, the aliens want us to do what we've already been doing at an alarming rate without their leadership for decades now anyway?   No matter.   There is a rebellion on the horizon, led by Gabriel (Sanders) and a group of others who aren't even named until a helpful recap near the end courtesy of Chicago cop William Mulligan (Goodman), whose job it is to squash the rebellion.   Gabriel's father (we see him obliterated by the aliens in the film's opening sequence), used to be Mulligan's partner, and Mulligan feels some sympathy towards the young man, but not enough to stop from performing his duties.

Knowing John Goodman as we do, we know Mulligan isn't totally evil because he's played by John Goodman, who can't help but be likable even when he's being a dick.    The other characters are pretty non descript.   They are cogs in an ever churning plot which fails to keep us compelled.    The aliens themselves look like giant, biped porcupines, which is great when you are designed to kill things, but not so great if you want to do anything else with your day.   How do these aliens cozy up to their loved ones with these metal quills sticking out all over?   Am I the only person who thought of this? 

There is business about tracking implants, undetectable bombs, and aliens' apparent aversion to modern technology.    We see electric typewriters, pay phones, actual newspapers, and dial-up modems in use.    Are these aliens like the people on Facebook who post complaints about how awesome it was to grow up in the 80's because you didn't have cell phones?   (My answer:  I would've loved to have cell phones back then, but I made do because I didn't know any better).    It is never quite explained why, in 2026 (which is when the movie takes place), offices and homes have reverted to old school technology.

Once the plot is helpfully explained and we understand the scope of it, the movie perks up a bit and gathers momentum in the final ten minutes.   But then, Captive State ends just as it's getting started, and we realize how the first ninety minutes were such a waste.    If the filmmakers think we would have enough goodwill to sit through Captive State II to find out what happens, well they have another thing coming.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Five Feet Apart (2019) * 1/2

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Directed by:  Justin Baldoni

Starring:  Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Moises Arias, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Claire Forlani

Five Feet Apart wants to be a tearjerker romance about two people unfortunately stricken with cystic fibrosis (or some form thereof), but how am I supposed to care when I'm baffled by how absurd it is?
Stella (Richardson) and Will (Sprouse) are appealing enough, but how are they able to have virtually unfettered access to every square inch of the hospital where they are forced to stay?    The movie loses all credibility because the director wanted to continually find new places for these two to hold conversations.    It can't be good for your condition to be ultimately wandering around outside in the cold for miles on end.

Stella has had cystic fibrosis since birth.   She is once again hospitalized awaiting a lung transplant with no guarantee of success.    She sticks to her medication regimen and documents her fight against the disease on her YouTube channel.    Her best friend Po (Arias) is a sweet, frail guy who is also gay.   Brooding, pessimistic Will soon enters the hospital to undergo clinical trials for his more advanced disease which is even more contagious than cystic fibrosis.    The ward's attending nurse (Gregory) insists the two remain six feet apart at all times in order to lessen the chance of airborne contagions.    She apparently isn't as concerned with the two would-be lovers running all over the hospital unattended.   

They are at first combative, but soon fall in love and Stella takes a stand.    She wants the two to risk it all by remaining five feet apart at all times instead of six.    They take back a foot, as Stella puts it, and therefore they are saying f*** you to their circumstances.    Fair enough.    They walk around practically undisturbed in all areas of the hospital, even the roof.    They keep a pool cue between them to maintain their distance, physically if not emotionally, and I kept wondering where the pool cue came from.    Did Stella raid the doctor's lounge and steal it from a pool table, if there is one?

This hospital is a lawsuit waiting to happen.    They seem to have only a handful of staff, and in only one scene did I notice enough people in the hallway to cause Stella to bump into someone and say "excuse me".    This hospital knows how to stay out these kids' way, and apparently it isn't the least bit concerned of potential litigation for allowing these two to run amok.    These two talk on the roof, in the atrium, in the neonatal ward, you name it.    They even celebrate Will's 18th birthday by having a dinner party in the hospital's cafeteria after closing.    A nice meal is cooked up, but where do they get the food and champagne and candles?     Does someone smuggle in goods from the outside for these two?

There is also one scene in which Stella leads Will on a scavenger hunt of sorts by having him track down purple balloons she leaves everywhere for Will to find.   Each contains a handwritten note inside which serves as a clue to the location of the next balloon.    Did Stella, with her very limited ability to breathe, blow up the balloons by herself?    Did the staff help her inflate the balloons and place them strategically throughout the hospital?    Don't they have, you know, other patients to attend to?    By the evidence suggested, only Will, Stella, the newborns, and Po occupy the hospital.   Stella's and Will's families helpfully stay away enough so Stella and Will can carry on their courtship.

But this fairy tale can't last forever, and we know as certainly as night follows day that there will be a death or two to be contended with (I won't say who, but considering the limited number of characters it won't be hard to deduce), and then the two will actually have to deal with the limitations imposed by their diseases.    Until that point, their disease isn't really dealt with in any realistic way.   Aside from occasionally having to wear a surgical mask or oxygen hoses, the gravity of their diseases barely seems to stop them from doing anything, including swimming in the hospital pool.   Which can't be good for them, I would think, but caution be damned.

It is hard for me to take Five Feet Apart seriously.    It only deals with cystic fibrosis when it's convenient, or if the movie realizes they should pay some attention to it right about now.    More is said about the hell of cystic fibrosis than is actually shown.    There is no doubt how nightmarish such a disease is.    It makes every breath painful, and there is the possibility of any breath being your last as the bacteria destroys lung tissue.    In Five Feet Apart, that threat is discussed, but I was never convinced that Will or Stella were in any danger at all.    In a movie in which the characters have such awful prognoses, this is fatal to the story.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Captain Marvel (2019) * *

Captain Marvel Movie Review

Directed by:  Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Starring:  Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, Gemma Chan, Lee Pace, Clark Gregg, Djimon Hounsou, Lashana Lynch

Brie Larson was so unforgettably powerful in Room (2015), for which she won a Best Actress Oscar, and yet so lacks a spark in Captain Marvel.    Maybe it is because the movie's blandness just weighs her and everyone else down.   The latest Marvel adventure isn't awful, just pedestrian.   It elicits little more than a meh. 

I can't help but think of Bill Maher's recent editorial about comic book movies, in which he points out how everyone in these movies is after a "glowy thing".   And wouldn't you know it?   In Captain Marvel, the glowing, sky blue cube called the tesseract, which we've seen in other Marvel movies, is the coveted object of the heroes and villains alike.   I recall seeing the tesseract before and I can't say with any certainty what it does, but it looks cool and supposedly contains a great deal of energy.    Captain Marvel takes place in 1995 and the folks in this movie will be happy to learn their 2019 counterparts will still be after more glowing objects.

We first meet the soon-to-be Captain Marvel as Vers (Larson), who resides on a distant planet ruled by the Kree, a race at war with a hostile civilization of shape-shifters who can mimic anything living "right down to the DNA".   Vers trains to be a Kree soldier under the auspices of Yon-Rogg (Law), and even though Law plays a seemingly good guy, his beady eyes can't help but give away his true intentions down the road.    Having Jude Law in your movie is practically a built-in spoiler alert.
Vers is haunted by dreams and visions of her past, in which she may or may not have been an Air Force fighter pilot on Earth and the Kree known as Supreme Intelligence (Bening), may be someone from her past as well.

Vers follows some shape-shifters to Earth and crash lands through the roof of a Blockbuster Video. 
Since it's 1995, you can be sure there will numerous pop culture references, including No Doubt's Just A Girl playing on the soundtrack as Captain Marvel engages in battle with some baddies.    On the scene is the ubiquitous Nick Fury (Jackson), who has both eyes working here, but we later find out at long last how he got that ominous patch over his left eye.    I won't dare spoil that, but it's rather innocuous.   

The plot is barely one we care about, and the emotional effect of Vers regaining memories of her past are muted.    The movie itself could use the powers of the tesseract to jump start the excitement level.
Captain Marvel suffers from a sagging backstory.    Captain America and Iron Man have compelling histories before they ever became superheroes, while Captain Marvel simply doesn't.    Larson is as skilled and appealing an actress as there is, but Captain Marvel almost keeps her shackled, which is the last thing you would expect in a Marvel movie.   

Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017-present) * * * (on Amazon Prime)

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Created by:  Amy Sherman-Palladino

Starring:  Rachel Brosnahan, Tony Shalhoub, Marin Hinkle, Michael Zegen, Alex Borstein, Kevin Pollak, Caroline Aaron

Even if Miriam "Midge" Maisel's creep of a husband didn't have an affair and rashly move out of their plush Manhattan apartment, Midge would've found a way to outgrow him and forge her own way in the world.    We see early on how intelligent, humorous, and honest she is.   Her husband Joel is doomed to mediocrity because he's a schmuck.    Joel fancies himself as a stand-up comedian, and after he works long hours at an office job his garment-district factory owner father got for him, he heads to Greenwich Village to work a nightclub where few laughs come his way.    Midge acts as his de facto manager.   She makes meals which she uses to gain favor with the nightclub's manager Susie (Borstein) and thus get Joel a decent slot on the card, and supports him unconditionally as he goes on stage and mostly bombs.

Soon after Joel leaves Midge high and dry with two children and no income, she gets drunk one night and takes a taxi down to the nightclub where her husband plied his trade.    She takes the stage and engages the crowd in an angry, stream of consciousness monologue which supplies more laughs than any of Joel's pathetic sets.    Susie is astounded, and thinks Midge can go places with her "act". 
Midge is soon arrested for indecency after swearing and showing her breasts on stage, but after being bailed out by Lenny Bruce and shaking off the hangover, Midge finds her calling as a stand-up comedian.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is about Midge's journey to independence after years of deferring her dreams to take care of her husband and children.    If there is one glaring plot hole The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel doesn't address, it is how little Midge's children are shown.    They stay conveniently out of the way as Midge runs around town from club to club, and to Paris in Season 2.    Midge must have a live-in nanny and an endless supply of cash around to pay her.    It would've been just as easy  for Midge and Joel to be childless. 

Midge's stand-up act isn't particularly funny, but that isn't the point.   The stand-up is Midge's avenue for self-respect and living up to her potential.    Susie, who is as cheerless and downtrodden as Midge is perky and uptown, lives in a one-room apartment where the door hits the bed when she opens it. 
But after years living in the comedy doldrums and being mistaken for a man, Susie sees Midge as a chance to escape her humdrum existence and manage a rising star.    She and Midge have genuine affection for each other and forge an unlikely partnership which blossoms into an unlikelier friendship.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel contains rich comic supporting performances with complement Rachel Brosnahan's lovable Midge.   We root for her.    Tony Shalhoub is Midge's Columbia professor father whose office at home is being further and further infringed upon by Midge and the kids moving in.    Rose (Hinkle), Midge's mom, questions her own marriage after watching Midge's disintegrate.    Moishe (Pollak), Joel's father, presides over a business which borrows money from loan sharks to keep the business afloat.    The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel isn't just the Midge Maisel show, but takes within an insular Jewish world of the 1950's.   The show has a distinct sense of time and place.   It lovingly recreates the era in virtually every way, down to the smoke-filled nightclubs and the staccato speech style.    The only thing missing is characters bursting into song, which I hope doesn't happen.

The Kominsky Method (2018) * * * 1/2 (on Netflix)

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Created by:  Chuck Lorre

Starring:  Michael Douglas, Alan Arkin, Nancy Travis, Sarah Baker, Susan Sullivan, Lisa Edelstein, Danny DeVito, Ann-Margaret

Sandy Kominsky was once famous as an actor for a minute or two before settling into his life as an acting coach.   Unlike his counterpart played by Henry Winkler in Barry, Sandy is not one to vainly spout off his acting credits, mostly because he doesn't have any which anyone would readily recognize.   He has been divorced three times, which isn't a shocker, and his daughter Mindy (Baker) runs the business side of the acting school and is shocked to learn one day that Sandy owes $300,000 in back taxes.    Sandy is nonplussed, but more so when women forty years younger than he don't exactly swoon when he uses the cheap lines he did forty years ago.

Sandy's best friend is his agent Norman (Arkin), whose agency is still successful even though he has taken two years off to care for his dying wife (Sullivan).    With his wife's death imminent, Norman must learn to adjust to life after 42 years of marriage.    Arkin and Douglas (and their characters) are studies in opposites, and their chemistry is wonderful.    They play off each other with breezy familiarity like pros with exquisite timing.    It's a wonder they don't finish each other's sentences. 
Who knows?   Maybe they will one day.

The first season is eight episodes of quiet, gentle humor in a fast-paced show business world in which Sandy and Norman exist just outside of.    There are celebrity cameos by Elliott Gould and Eddie Money among others (Eddie actually performs on stage in Vegas in an Eddie Money tribute band in order to avoid the IRS).   The Kominsky Method creates numerous laughs with warm observation and intelligence throughout the season.   Sandy has prostate issues in one episode and his doctor (DeVito-in a nice reunion with Douglas from numerous previous films) tells him the good news, ("You have cancer, but the very slow moving kind,")   How is Sandy to take that?   He is as bewildered as we are, but in The Kominsky Method such logic is par for the course.

I was happy to hear a second season has been ordered.    There are plenty of comic gems to be mined from this material and from Sandy and Norman's friendship.   Sandy's career exists in between being a has-been and a never-was.   What's funnier is he thinks he has accumulated enough clout to argue with the director of a commercial he is starring in because the product he is endorsing isn't what it seems to be.   Elliott Gould, who is trying in vain to pitch an action film adventure starring himself, doesn't have such qualms.   At his age and Sandy's, you take what you can get.   

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018) * *

The House with a Clock in Its Walls Movie Review

Directed by:  Eli Roth

Starring:  Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Colleen Camp, Sunny Suljic, Renee Elise Goldsberry

The House with a Clock in Its Walls is pleasant enough, likely to provide some brief thrills to younger viewers who because of Harry Potter like anything with magic in it.   But, it loses steam after an opening ten minutes which managed to fill me with wonder at least briefly.   Since I was not familiar with the novel on which the movie is based, I was curious about Jack Black's Uncle Jonathan, who lives in a Gothic mansion much too large for just him.    What exactly is his relationship with his neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Blanchett), with whom he bickers back and forth like an old married couple?    Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are among the most reliable and intriguing of actors, but what about this movie caused them to sign on the dotted line to appear?   The movie's visual effects overshadow everything anyway.

The story, which takes place in 1955, revolves around the nice, shy Lewis (Vaccaro), who is orphaned at age ten and is invited to live with his Uncle Jonathan, who he learns is a warlock, albeit a nice one, and Mrs. Zimmerman is a witch who has lost her mojo after the death of her family.    It seems the house has a story also, in which Jonathan's friend Isaac Izard (MacLachlan), a master warlock who lives in the house (I think) but then turns evil after returning from World War II.    He buries a clock in the walls of the house which will be used to set off Isaac's plan to rid the world of humans, because if they are capable of the horrors he saw in World War II, they aren't worth having around.

The movie juggles a lot, including Lewis' training to become a warlock, Isaac's story, Jonathan's futile attempts to locate the clock in the walls which makes noise but is hidden so well it can't be located, a school bully who Lewis briefly befriends, and another young girl in Lewis' class who clearly likes him.    But despite all of the juggling, The House with a Clock... can't help but meander along with curiously low energy.    The cast tries its hardest, but this stuff is old hat by now.   There is little which can be done to amaze us.    I was reminded of A Wrinkle in Time, another story written a long time ago which seems like it is recycling all of the visuals and ideas of other films because it took so long to make it to the big screen.

What we are left with is a nice, forgettable fantasy film with actors who are slumming in a story which doesn't do much to stir the imagination or your ability to even care much. 


Victoria and Abdul (2017) * * *

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Directed by:  Stephen Frears

Starring:  Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams, Simon Callow

You think you may have seen this movie before.   Queen Victoria, played by Judi Dench, befriends a commoner despite the rabid objections of her scheming family and closest advisers.    She did so in Mrs. Brown (1997) and does so again in Victoria and Abdul.    In Mrs. Brown, Queen Victoria befriends a stable hand who dares to speak frankly to her.    In Victoria and Abdul, she befriends a humble Muslim man from India who teaches her about a land she rules but doesn't understand.    

We meet Queen Victoria late in life and in the twilight of her then-longest rule ever by a British monarch.    She is bored and tired, falling asleep at dinner and perfunctorily performing social duties such as meeting with her prime minister and other heads of state.    Abdul (Fazal) is taken by boat to England to present her majesty with a tapestry from the subcontinent.    Abdul is supposed to simply present the gift and move along, but he smiles at her and for the first time in a long time, the queen is intrigued.    She takes a liking to him, and is avid to learn about his culture and his home country.   
He introduces her to a mango, which is as foreign to her as his language.    Soon, Abdul is made her most trusted adviser, which doesn't sit well with her twit son Bertie (Izzard) and her pathetic inner circle which does nothing more than try to position themselves politically. 

Bertie is cruel to Abdul, even going so far as to drop any pretense of civility.    But Abdul remains loyal to the queen, even at his own peril.    The queen knows she can only do so much to protect him and keep the wolves away from the door, and he serves her until her death.    Victoria and Abdul is about how a common man's friendship awakens Queen Victoria for a brief time.    When she thought she had seen it all, Abdul shows her she hasn't seen enough.    There isn't a possibility of romance, since Abdul reveals he is married and Queen Victoria is simply too old to indulge in such a thing.   
But, when Abdul does declare after many months that he is indeed married, Queen Victoria is disappointed, maybe even jealous.    "This changes everything," she says.    What does she mean?
There are vibes.

If not for the discovery of Abdul's journals chronicling his little-known friendship with Queen Victoria, this story may not have told at all onscreen.    It is a delight to see Judi Dench tackle the role which earned her the first of many Oscar nominations to come, and Fazal plays Abdul with intelligence and grace.    He could be royalty himself if he weren't born a commoner, and if there is a moral to this story, it is that the difference between being common and royalty is luck.   Besides that,
aren't we all pretty similar?    Victoria and Abdul may seem redundant, with much of the same ground already covered in Mrs. Brown, but seeing Dame Dench play Queen Victoria once more is a treat enough to make the movie worthwhile.  

Sunday, March 3, 2019

True Detective, Season 3 (2019) * * 1/2 (on HBO)

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Starring:  Mahershala Ali, Stephen Dorff, Carmen Ejogo, Scoot McNairy, Mamie Gummer, Michael Rooker, Sarah Gadon

The first two seasons of True Detective wasted so much energy on the gloomy lives of the leads that it all but forgot about the murder they were attempting to solve.    They drank, did drugs, cavorted, and by the time they got around to figuring out who did it, we forgot what was even done.   Names were thrown about at a dizzying pace, and after eight episodes of red herrings and false leads, we simply didn't care anymore.  

Season 3 of True Detective managed to keep its eye on the ball and never let the case of two kidnapped children in 1980 Arkansas stray too far from the action.    When episode six (out of eight) ended, I felt the series had turned in emotional corner and we were in for something extraordinary.   But, extraordinary had to wait.   The final two episodes brought the case to a satisfying, if not overwhelming conclusion, but the greatness which was in its grasp slipped away.    My argument is the same for True Detective as it was for Sharp Objects, the HBO limited series from last summer which was a stylistic cousin of True Detective.    Eight episodes is far too gratuitous.   The stories can be wrapped up in half that time.    How many fights and reconciliations are we going to have to endure between Wayne Hays (Ali) and his wife Amelia (Ejogo)?    How much leaping back and forth between three different years (1980, 1990, and 2015) can we stand?    And does this season want to challenge The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King for the record for sheer number of false conclusions?

In this season, two Arkansas youngsters named Julie and Will Purcell go bike riding and never return. Detectives Wayne Hays and Roland West (Dorff) are on the case, and the theories of what happened are endless.   The children's troubled parents (McNairy and Gummer) are suspects for a brief time, as expected, but then the case leads to something more troubling and darker (of course).    Wayne and Roland are tight, drawing on their experiences as Vietnam vets and their mutual respect to do their jobs as a cohesive unit.    Because we soon meet Wayne again as an old man losing his mind to dementia in 2015, we know the case remains unsolved.    A reporter (Gadon) interviews Wayne about the holes in the investigation, which produced numerous suspects and even one killer convicted in absentia.    Wayne is haunted by his inability to solve the kidnapping, and wants nothing more than to solve it before his memory is gone forever.

The transitions between time periods are done well, but we wonder why they are done at all.   A chronologically ordered series would serve the purpose better.    Ali's performance is all the more impressive given the burden he has to carry, but for my money, Dorff's performance is the most complex, sensitive, and multi-dimensional.    He has the most powerful moments, especially in episode six, in which he reconciles with Wayne after many years.    Less impactful are Ali's scenes with Ejogo, which oscillate from quiet tenderness to full-fledged arguments at the drop of a hat.   We just wish they would stop seeing each other so we have one less tangent to go off on.

At least this season of True Detective keeps all of the clues, suspects, and plot twists straight enough to be followed.    The sheer gloom of the first two seasons is replaced by a genuine sense of guilt and regret for Wayne and Roland.   This case got away, and it eats at them because they are professionals.  This season at least indicates a step in the right direction.    Like the Oscars, True Detective should understand that less is more.

Greta (2019) * * *

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Directed by:  Neil Jordan

Starring:  Isabelle Huppert, Chloe Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe, Colm Feore, Stephen Rea

A na├»ve, grieving young woman finds a purse on a New York City subway and decides to return it to the owner.    Her roommate and best friend advises simply taking the cash out of her change purse and calling it a day.   But Frances (Moretz) wants to do the right thing, and Greta is about how Frances should have followed her friend's advice and walked away a few dollars richer.  

We've seen movies about roommates from hell, boyfriends/girlfriends from hell, and in the case of Greta a newfound friend who wants to be your momma from hell.    When Frances returns the purse to the quiet home of Greta (Huppert), the purse's owner, she and Greta become fast friends.    Frances recently lost her mother and Greta fills that void.   Greta's daughter is said to have moved to Paris and her husband recently died, so Frances helps slake her loneliness.   Their blissful friendship doesn't last long, as Frances discovers a secret which turns Greta from kindly, lonely woman to full-on stalker.

Frances invites Greta to stay out of her life, but Greta is a clinger to the nth degree.   She stands across the street from the restaurant where Frances waits tables and stares for hours.    The inevitable truths about Greta come out, and her unwillingness to go away makes her even scarier.    Huppert doesn't turn Greta into a stark-raving mad woman.   She is menacing, yes, but also sad and pathetic.   Is she so lonely she is driven to such obsession with Frances, or is there something darker and more disturbing at play?  

Chloe Grace Moretz is the picture of innocence and naivete.   So innocent in fact, she seems to believe Greta will simply go away, or fall for a ruse dreamed up by her roommate Erica (Monroe), who thinks something is off about Greta even without meeting her.    It is just an odd friendship which gives Erica creepy vibes, and we learn soon enough those vibes are warranted.    Frances is just the type of sweet woman who doesn't want to cause a scene which attracts predators like Greta.  

Directed and co-written by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), Greta is not without its plot holes.    For instance, where does Greta get all of the drugs she uses to knock out unsuspecting threats like a private eye who comes snooping around?    And what happens if a male decided to return the purse instead of a female?    But, no matter, because Greta is campy to be sure, but on that level it is involving and disturbing enough to recommend.

The Sisters Brothers (2018) * * *

The Sisters Brothers Movie Review

Directed by:  Jacques Audiard

Starring:  John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed

Aside from its cutesy title, The Sisters Brothers is an unflinching look at the Old West.   Paid assassins Eli Sisters (Reilly) and his younger brother Charlie (Phoenix) have made a lucrative living as hired killers but have no place to hang their hats.   They sleep out in the elements, fight off filth and disease, and long for a better life which they never realize.    Eli accidentally ingests a spider in his sleep and is sick for days afterwards.    Life has to get better somehow.

Set in the early days of the Gold Rush, the Sisters Brothers work for the unseen Commodore, who assigns them to track down a debt-owing prospector who may have invented a chemical which quickly illuminates gold when poured into a stream.   This would cut down on the labor, and allow the fortune seeker to light out with his stash that much faster.    The plan is, the prospector Hermann Warm (Ahmed) will be captured locally and held by fellow tracker John Morris (Gyllenhaal), who will turn over Hermann to be tortured and killed by Eli and Charlie.    But, John begins to believe in the potential of Hermann's ideas and sets out to California in search of gold along with his quarry. 
Eli and Charlie wish to add John to their list of targets when this change of plans is discovered.

What connects Eli, Charlie, John, and Hermann is their desire for a better life.   When Eli and Charlie rent a hotel room in San Francisco for the night, Eli is tickled pink to be able to use a flushing toilet and eat at a fine restaurant.   It beats spiders crawling into your mouth out in the wilderness.    Eli wants to quit working for the Commodore.   Charlie wants to dispose of the Commodore and become one himself.   John and Hermann want to use their newfound riches to establish a Utopian commune somewhere in Texas.    But, life has other plans, especially when Hermann's get-rich quick scheme has toxic side effects and the impatient Commodore dispatches goons to get rid of all four men.

The Sisters Brothers contains some of the best work in years from Reilly, Phoenix, and Gyllenhaal, all delivering complex, nuanced performances.    The characters have depth and yearnings, all of which may not be possible in such a harsh, unclean world.   But, they will push on and try their mightiest.    The Sisters Brothers isn't a series of gunfights, in fact there are maybe three in the entire film, but instead a story about how these men would love nothing more than not to participate in gunfights at all.    The film doesn't end in bloodshed, but in quiet solitude and finally peace at long last for two of the characters.    Sometimes a warm bed and a hot meal is worth more than all of the gold in the California rivers.