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THE POST: The War Against Fake News Has Been Fought Before And Won

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

THE POST (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 2017)

After putting his stamp on just about every other cinematic genre out there, Steven Spielberg now tries his hand at newspaper drama with this timely story that’s ripped straight from the headlines, but, obviously, they’re headlines that are over four decades old. Simply, THE POST relays how the Washington Post defied President Nixon and his men by publishing top secret files detailing the lies the government told and was still telling about the Vietnam war.

As the paranoid, dishonest tactics of the Nixon White House have many times been likened to the Trump Administration’s troubling methods, it may seem a bit too on the nose to get this big star-studded prestige picture from those liberals in Hollywood about how then is just like now, just in time for awards season.

And yes, this is a cautionary tale about how journalism is being threatened in our current era of “fake news,” but despite the predictable packaging, Spielberg has successfully structured an earnest, old fashioned, and highly entertaining showcase for his inspiring subject, and his superb cast.

And it really is a superb cast as Oscar-winners Tom Hanks, as Washington Post Editor Ben Bradley, and Meryl Streep as the Post’s publisher, Katherine Graham, head the strong ensemble that also includes Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk (with David Cross also on board we get a Mr. Show re-union!), Jesse Plemmons, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Bradley Whitford, and Carrie Coon.

The film begins in 1966 Vietnam, evoked by the familiar sounds of helicopter blades, and CCR blasting, as we see gritty shots of soldiers loading their guns, and applying war paint. Mulling about these men is Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a military advisor on a fact finding mission to monitor the war’s progress.

After we see Ellsberg witness a night ambush by the Viet Cong in the rainy jungle, he reports back to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Greenwood) that things haven’t gotten any better or worse over the last year, they’ve stayed the same.

To Ellsberg’s disgust, McNamara lies to reporters telling them that “Military progress over the last 12 months has exceeded our expectations,” so Ellsberg steals a top secret 7,000 page document soon to be dubbed “The Pentagon Papers,” that strongly says otherwise about US strategy in south-east Asia, and later leaks it to the New York Times.

That brings us to 1971, where Streep’s Graham is taking the Post’s stock public just as the Times’ is publishing a portion of the Pentagon Papers, which leads to the Nixon administration suing the Times to halt further publication.

Under intense pressure, Graham frets over the legal ramifications of the Post publishing the secret files obtained from Ellsberg while Hanks’ Bradlee scrambles with his staff to distill thousands of pages into articles fit to print under strict deadlines.

THE POST can serve as a companion piece and a prequel to Alan J. Pakula’s, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, as it ends where that essential Watergate expose begins, but it stands on its own as a solid, stately tribute to the power of the free press.

Since Hanks, Streep, and Spielberg, all at the top of their game here, have already won multiple Oscars, they may cancel themselves out of the race.


So may co-screenwriter Josh Singer, who won last year for SPOTLIGHT, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, who’s already won two Oscars for Spielberg films; and composer John Williams, whose won five (count ‘em – five, and three were for Spielberg movies), so I can see this movie not winning anything (it didn’t win any of the six Golden Globes it was up for), but it won’t matter because THE POST is an Oscar-caliber film regardless.

See it so you can see that what is going on now has gone on before, and since it was overcome then, it can be fought and won against again.

More later…

MOLLY’S GAME Is Well Played By Jessica Chastain and Aaron Sorkin

Now playing:

MOLLY’S GAME (Dir. Aaron Sorkin, 2017)

Jessica Chastain is a shoo-in to get an Oscar nomination for her role as Olympic-class skier-turned-Poker-Princess, Molly Bloom, in the crackling, flashy directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin, who is likely to score a nomination (or two) as well.

The real-life Bloom, whose book, “Molly’s Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World,” this film is based on, was a target of an FBI investigation for running an illegal underground poker ring, which Sorkin lays out here in a movie that at times feels like a busy cluster of montages all crammed together.

That is to say that Sorkin has learned (or cribbed) a lot from David Fincher and Danny Boyle, the filmmakers he collaborated with on THE SOCIAL NETWORK and STEVE JOBS, as well as Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, or pretty much any modern director known for their fast-paced, kinetic style in telling close-to-true stories that are packed to the brim with sizzling, often sordid information.

Through sharply spoken narration, Chastain’s Bloom gives us and her lawyer Charlie Jaffey (a wonderfully understated Idris Elba, who convincingly works his American accent as well as he did on The Wire) her side to how she built her secret poker empire that involved movie stars, sports stars, business titans, and, most dangerously, members of the Russian mafia.

We see how Bloom was goaded into being a hard driven perfectionist by her strict, demanding psychologist father (Kevin Costner, much more effective as a father figure here than in MAN OF STEEL), and how a skiing accident forced her to reevaluate her career goals. After a brief stint as a cocktail waitress in LA, she works an office assistant to a vulgar producer (played with just the right amount of jaded sleaziness by Jeremy Strong) who introduces her to the world of exclusive back room poker matches with extremely expensive buy-ins.

At her first game at the Cobra Lounge (read: Viper Room), Bloom meets Michael Cera as an A-list actor who’s only identified as Player X (a composite of celebrities such as Ben Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio, among others), and becomes one of her principal players when she leaves her boss, and takes his clients to hold her own games in luxurious hotel suites staffed with former Playboy playmates.

In a dizzying array of flashbacks and flash-forwards, we watch as Bloom gets deeper and deeper into a lifestyle of debts and drugs (to help her stay awake for days), bottoming out when she’s brutally beaten up by a mob goon because she refuses the offer of protection by a couple of Italian mafiosos.

One of Sorkin’s most familiar motifs, over confident people sparing with other over confident people, is on full display here in the exchanges between Chastain and Elba, with his trademark snappy dialogue dominating every scene. Sorkin’s screenplay and direction is just as confident as his characters, and it’s a buzz seeing him put all these slick puzzle pieces together into this often exhilarating portrait. It’s also great to see Sorkin refrain from using his patented “walks and talks,” which were a mainstay of one of his most well known works – the presidential television drama, The West Wing.


The sculpting of Sorkin’s material is excellently handled by a trio of editors – Alan Baumgarten, Elliot Graham, and Josh Schaeffer, who also deserve Academy action. It may feel like “cut, cut, cut” at times but, dammit, they make the majority of cuts flow into one another with exciting energy while enhancing Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s crisp cinematography from shot to shot. 

The film is sprinkled with amusing supporting turns by Brian d’Arcy James as a poker player so lousy that he’s dubbed “Bad Brad” by Bloom, Chris O’Dowd as a Irish drunkard who, like many of the players, falls in love with Bloom; a sweaty Bill Camp as a seasoned card shark, who gets in way over his head; and Graham Greene as the judge overseeing Bloom’s case.


But MOLLY’S GAME is first and foremost a showcase for the radiant Chastain and the rapidly clever Sorkin, who both well play their hands at every jazzy juncture.


Despite being two hours, and twenty minutes long the movie mostly maintains its intensity and momentum. It does get close to being bogged down with too many details, but it largely transcends its well worn rise and fall arc with its wit and stylish gusto. Some folks may walk out of it wondering what the point of all of it is, but I bet they will have been hugely entertained in the process.

More later…

Guillermo del Toro’s Take On Gill-Man In Love

Now playing at more multiplexes than art houses in my area:

THE SHAPE OF WATER

(Dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2017)

When Guillermo del Toro turned down the chance to remake (or reboot) the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON for Universal’s “Dark Universe” series he definitely made the right decision.

And that’s not just because the pending franchise has gotten off to a very shaky start with last summer’s THE MUMMY flop, and is in danger of being scrapped altogether, but because there’s no way he would’ve been able to build upon the concept to make such a beautifully bizarre love story thriller as THE SHAPE OF WATER under a big studio banner.

Del Toro, co-writing with Vanessa Taylor, infringes on no copyrights here, as the amphibian man here is never referred to as “Gill-man,” but it uses the basics as obvious jumping off points for the premise of “what if the creature got the girl?”

Set in 1962 Baltimore, the film is told from the point of view of Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute cleaning lady who works the night shift at a secret government laboratory. We get a look into Elisa’s lonely world up front as we see her eat pie with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a depressed, closeted artist who loves watching old musicals on TV. Elisa and Giles live in rundown apartments above a movie palace theater, so del Toro works in his love for cinema there too.

At Elisa’s work, where she converses in sign language with her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer, again playing the help), she learns that a aquatic creature is being held in a huge metal water tank at the facility, and that it’s being tortured by Colonel Richard Strickland (a deliciously creepy Michael Shannon) who captured it in South America.

Elisa makes friends with the amphibian man (played by actor / contortionist Doug Jones) by feeding it hard boiled eggs, and teaching him how to sign, and a romance forms. When she finds out that they’re going to dissect him, over protest by scientist Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), she plots to help him escape.

The escape sequence, among other elements, gave me flashbacks to Ron Howard’s 1984 rom com SPLASH, which had Tom Hanks falling for Daryl Hannah as a mermaid who he rescues from a secret lab, but that did nothing to hinder the spell this film so sweetly casts.

Back at Elisa’s apartment where the fish guy mostly stays in a bathtub filled with salt and some chemicals that Hoffstetler gave her, they consummate their relationship. While the movie contains much grotesque imagery concerning such things as Strickland’s bitten off fingers, and a cat being eaten, the love scenes are as tasteful and touching as scenes between amphibians and humans can possibly be.

You just may need to suspend disbelief considering such premises like that by putting towels under the door you can fill the bathroom of a crumbling apartment completely to the ceiling with water, but if you can do that you’re in for some visual treats courtesy of cinematographer Dan Laustsen.

Without speaking, Hawkins puts in a wonderfully communicative performance that shows fluid chemistry with Jones’ creature, and has a great moment standing up to Shannon’s evil Strickland.

She is a large part of what makes the small, dark off-kilter fantasy THE SHAPE OF WATER del Toro’s most emotionally affecting work yet.

Maybe this means that more established filmmakers should turn down franchise work to go off on their own to make movies inspired by concepts they wouldn’t be allowed to do in those big studio entries. I mean, it sure worked for del Toro.



More later…

Gary Oldman As Winston Churchill = Oscar

Now playing at a art house theater near me:

DARKEST HOUR (Dir. Joe Wright, 2017)

In the case of acclaimed performances in which a famous actor plays a famous historical figure – say, Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, or Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, or Ben Kinglsey as Gandhi, Meryl Streep as anybody, etc. – it’s become a cliché to say things like that they “disappeared into the role,” or “at times I forgot who it was and thought I was watching the real person.”

But with Gary Oldman’s tour de force portrayal of Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s second World War II-themed film, DARKEST HOUR (the first was ATTONEMENT), he really does completely disappear into the role, and I really did forget at times that it was him and thought I was watching Churchill.

Set in 1940 at the height of WWII, when Britain was on the verge of being invaded by Nazis, the film depicts Churchill’s intense first month as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Much of the film is seen through the eyes of Churchill’s personal secretary, Elizabeth Layton (played by Lily James best known for Downton Abbey and BABY DRIVER), as she begins to work for him shortly into the film.

Churchill assumes his role by meeting with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, not stammering as much as Colin Firth did in the same part in THE KING’S SPEECH), assembling his War Cabinet which includes his predecessor Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), and making a big speech to Parliament in which he famously declared that they should “wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime.”

Churchill’s refusal to talk peace with Hitler angers Halifax and Chamberlain, who want him replaced. Churchill remains adamant that they stand their ground against negotiations, and we get a different angle on the same story that Christopher Nolan’s brilliant DUNKIRK told earlier this year (Wright also memorably touched on the Dunkirk situation in a pretty stunning five-minute tracking shot in ATONEMENT).

The look of the film, shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS) is so grey and grim that one wonders if they considered making it in black and white. So many scenes are set in pitch darkness in cramped rooms with what spare lighting there is glowing in an Oliver Stone-ish fashion.

The tropes of period piece historical drama are unavoidable at times but Oldman’s Churchill is such a delicious characterization that I was very forgiving of some unnecessary stylish touches – like the two shots taken from above that zoom backwards into CGI-imagery depicting the dark of fire world below.

I’ll be shocked, shocked I tells ya, if Oldman doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, and then the award itself as he’s so delightfully dead on here. For this guy, who’s one of the best actors working today, to have pulled off such beyond convincing interpretations of such diverse personalities as Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Beethoven and now this is well worth awarding as it for sure is the most striking acting I’ve seen this year.

The supporting cast glows (literally) surrounding Oldman as Kristen Scott Thomas as Mrs. Winston Churchill, Clementine, makes the most of her worrying-wife-back-home archetype with some warm moments, Mendelsohn’s King George VI has a weary yet hopeful air about him, and James helps bring some light to the dark sets especially in an aside where she tells her boss that he’s doing the V for Victory sign the wrong way.

Anthony McCarten contributes a much sharper screenplay than his previous Oscar winner for that category, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, and the score, by Dario Marianelli whose worked with Wright on nearly every film he’s made, is nicely understated.


But again, it’s Oldman who makes this an essential film to see this season. His performance may be a lot to take for some moviegoers as he dominates nearly every talky as hell moment, ranting as times in his trembling accent always with a glass of brandy or scotch in his hand and a long cigar sticking out of his mouth, but for me the experience is as sublime as the way the words that the real person put together rang out.

Sure, with WWII and the tried and true Greatest Generation spirit that panders to the elder voters, it’s a prime piece of Oscar-bait, but, for a considerable amount of its running time, DARKEST HOUR mightily transcends that.

More later…

THE LAST JEDI Continues STAR WARS’s Winning Streak

Opening in your star system tonight:

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

(Dir. Rian Johnson, 2017)


Warning: There may be Spoilers!

At the end of the previous Episode of STAR WARS, Stormtrooper turned Resistance (the new version of the Rebel Alliance) fighter Finn (John Boyega) was left injured and unconscious after helping to destroy the First Order’s (the new Empire) Starkiller Base (another Death Star), General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and the rest of the good guys were mourning the death of Han Solo (Harrison Ford); while newly recruited Resistance fighter Rey (Daisy Ridley) had traveled to the planet Ahch-To to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) so that he can help bring down the bad guys.


The last shot of FORCE AWAKENS has an emotional Rey handing an old grizzled Luke his old iconic lightsaber.


So now, after two years we get Luke’s reaction to Rey’s gesture, and it doesn’t disappoint. Neither does the rest of THE LAST JEDI, the solid seventh entry in the series that satisfyingly follows through with the threads of the former film, while providing a steady stream of call backs to the original trilogy (Episodes IV-VI) that should please both the casual and hardcore fans.

The most obvious prediction about the content of THE LAST JEDI is that it’ll mirror Episode V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK as much as THE FORCE AWAKENS mirrored the first STAR WARS movie (still not calling it A NEW HOPE, dammit!).

Well, yeah, there are definite parallels – Luke channeling Yoda in training Rey to the ways of the force, Yoda himself appearing (welcome back, Frank Oz!), the reveal of a character’s lineage, and those much loved AT-AT walkers – but it has enough clever story beats and tongue-in-cheek humor needed to make those elements feel fresh.

The plot deals with the First Order achieving more power in their fight against the Resistance via being able to track their movement through hyperspace. General Leia gets harmed in an attack, and while she’s incapacitated, Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo takes control to the chagrin of Poe Dameron (a cocky, returning Oscar Isaac) who’s called a “flyboy” twice by Amilyn.


Finn finds a friend in fellow Resistance member Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), who catches him trying to run away like he was planning to in Episode VII. Together they travel to a planet that has a Monte Carlo-style gambling resort to find a code breaker, but end up with the somewhat shady Benicio del Toro as an unnamed character with an odd speech impediment.

As for the rest – you know the drill: space battles, lightsaber duels, and the powerful pull of the dark side of the force fill the screen as John Williams’ triumphant score bursts out of the sound system.

THE LAST JEDI has more depth, darkness, and drama than THE FORCE AWAKENS. It’s a blast, even in its talky downtime, and it makes great use of its game cast.

Hamill gets his beefiest role since RETURN OF THE JEDI, and it’s his best performance (yes, I’ve seen CORVETTE SUMMER). Ridley and Boyega make more of an impression that their first efforts, while Driver steals the show every time he appears.

However, there are a few issues. There is no backstory to the Emperor figure that is Snoke, and the reveal of who Rey’s parents are feels like an afterthought. Also, C3PO’s red arm in the previous movie is never explained (I hear there’s a comic that tells what happened there but I doubt I’ll ever read that).

Director and writer Johnson (BRICK, THE BROTHERS BLOOM, LOOPER) molds his style successfully into the series, and doesn’t need as many wipe transitions to move the pace along, something that J.J. Abrams overdid.

As for it being Fisher’s swan song (I think, but maybe they’ve got some footage of her that will be used in the next one), it’s touching to see her Leia in a more substantial role than in Episode VII. They take a big chance with her image in a surreal scene that I won’t spoil – I’ll just say that it works.

Glad to see that STAR WARS continues to be back on track again as the stench of George Lucas’s awful prequels has long since faded, and the good will of the galaxy far, far away has been regained.

I’ve seen that many critics are calling it the best since EMPIRE, and I don’t disagree. Maybe the nostalgia that the member berries have triggered has blinded my judgement, but I’m happy that the franchise that dominated my childhood is yet again going good guns (or blasters).

More later…

LADY BIRD: Greta Gerwig’s Directorial Debut With A Difference

Now playing:

LADY BIRD (Dir. Greta Gerwig, 2017)

Not so long ago, Greta Gerwig was the indie film “it” girl. She acted in films made by the Duplass brothers (BAGHEAD), Woody Allen (TO ROME WITH LOVE), and her long-time boyfriend Noah Baumbach (GREENBERG, FRANCES HA, MISTRESS AMERICA). She even brushed up against the mainstream with her appearance in the awful ARTHUR remake with Russell Brand.

But now Gerwig tries her luck behind the camera for her directorial debut, LADY BIRD, which she also scripted.

No, it’s not about the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson who had that nickname, it’s about a 17-year old Sacramento high school senior with dyed red hair played by Saoirse Ronan (ATONEMENT, HANNA, BROOKLYN), whose parents gave her the name Christine, but she goes by “Lady Bird” and insists that everyone calls her that.

Lady Bird’s tense relationship with her mother, superbly played by Laurie Metcalf ( I don’t need to list her credits, do I?) is the crux of this movie which is set in 2002, when Gerwig was around the same age as its protagonist. That makes one assume that it’s autobiographical, but Gerwig claims that while she was born and raised in Sacramento, and went to an all-girls Catholic school there, the film is only loosely based on her life as many of the situations depicted didn’t happen to her.

We are introduced to Lady Bird and her mom, Marion, as they are returning home from touring a prospective in-state college, and we get a taste of what their emotionally strained life together is like.

While driving home, Marion lectures about where she and her husband Larry (a laid-back Tracy Letts) can afford to send Lady Bird, while our titular character says she wants to go where culture is like New York which makes Marion label her a snob. When her mother goes on a tirade about how her daughter “should just go to city college, then to jail, and then back to city college,” Lady Bird reacts by opening the door of the car and jumping out.

With a cast on her right arm on which she wrote “F*** You Mom,” Lady Bird signs up for drama club auditions at her High School, Immaculate Heart, with her friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and gets cast in a musical production. During rehearsals, Lady Birdstarts crushing on one of her fellow cast members, Danny played by Lucas Hedges (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, and the currently playing THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE OF EBBING, MISSOURI).

The couple date, but the courtship is cut short when Lady Bird catches Danny kissing another guy in a restroom stall. So then our heroine has eyes for Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a snooty, oh-so-deep musician who likes to say “that’s hella tight.”

Lady Bird loses her virginity to Kyle, but is saddened to find out that it wasn’t his first time. Moving on, after getting some rejections to schools she’s applied to, Lady Bird gets on a wait list for a university in New York, but keeps it secret from her mother.

On the sidelines of Lady Bird’s love life, is Jordan Rodrigues as her adopted brother, Miguel; Marielle Scott as his live-in girlfriend, Shelly Yuhan; Odeya Rush as the popular, pretty Jenna, who Lady Bird befriends to her BFF Julie’s chagrin; and Lois Smith, who has a few nice, warm moments as Sister Sarah Joan, the principal of our leading lady’s high school.

Because of its down to earth depiction of a hip artistically inclined young woman, who describes herself as being from the “wrong side of the tracks” going through the motions like going to a drunken party at someone’s rich parents’ house, and the politics of who goes with who to the prom, the film recalls the 1986 John Hughes teen classic PRETTY IN PINK and from what I’ve heard that’s on purpose (According to a Vanity Fair interview with Ronan, Gerwig pointed her towards that film, and Hughes’ SIXTEEN CANDLES before shooting).

LADY BIRD is a coming of age drama that doesn’t break any new ground but its low key tale of a young woman entering a new phase in her life is unpretentiously told by Gerwig, who appealingly doesn’t have her characters making snarky one-liners – consider her the anti-Diablo Cody, and this the antithesis of JUNO. Our  writer/director also brings out great naturalistic performances by Ronan and Metcalf that are both deserving of Oscar nominations.


Its a directorial debut with a difference, the difference being that it has a lot more artistic depth that I expected from Gerwig, whose onscreen presence as an actress can be a bit goofy, quirky, and often way flakey. 

Gerwig makes good choices when it comes to the film’s soundtrack as well, from Jon Brion’s subtle score to the Sondheim show-tunes that Ronan and Ledges sing, to the perfect-for-period snippets of Alanis Morrisette and Justin Timberlake. She even somehow makes the Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash into Me” actually resonate and effectively evoke heartbreak in two different scenes. No small feat that.


More later…

LAST FLAG FLYING Gets Just About Every Last Detail Right.

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LAST FLAG FLYING (Dir. Richard Linklater, 2017)
Richard Linklater’s latest is and isn’t a sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 cult classic THE LAST DETAIL. The three lead characters names have changed but they’re basically the same archetypes as the three military cohorts in the original, with Bryan Cranston’s Sal Nealon mirroring Jack Nicholson’s Billy L. “Badass” Buddusky, Steve Carrell’s Larry “Doc” Shepherd stepping in for Randy Quaid’s Laurence M. “Larry” Meadows, and Laurence Fishburne’s Richard Mueller taking on Otis Young’s Richard “Mule” Mulhall.


In THE LAST DETAIL, Navy lifers Buddusky and Mulhall escort court-marshaled Meadows to prison in Maine for petty theft, and take drunken detours along the way. In LAST FLAG FLYING, our trio are vets who re-unite to accompany Carrell’s Doc to the funeral of his son who was killed in Vietnam.

The film begins with Doc showing up at Sal’s dive bar in Norfolk, Virginia, after decades of non-communication, and after a night of drinking, Doc takes Sal to see their old pal, Richard, who became a Christian priest.

The film takes place in 2003, so there are running gags involving the internet and cellphones being new things, and footage of Saddam Hussein on TVs in the background.

Like its predecessor, it’s largely a road trip movie with a lot of buddy comradery, but in this story that happens after they reach their first destination – Dover Air Force Base in Delaware where they learn that Doc’s son didn’t die the heroic death that the army’s official statement reported. They then take his son’s body to bury in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, first by rented truck, then by train after a brush with homeland security with a lot of lively conversation fueling every scene.


THE LAST DETAIL was famous for having large amounts of profanity – it contained more uses of the f-bomb than any previous film when it was released in the early 70s – but it’s no big thing these days for a film to be filled with such dirty dialogue so it’s barely noticeable when it’s used here. Maybe that’s from my being desensitized by many viewings of Scorsese movies or frequent listens of Richard Pryor albums, I dunno.

Alongside the strong performances of the main protagonists, is an excellent supporting cast made up of Yul Vazquez as Lt Col. Willits, who tries to stop Doc, Sal, and Mueller from transporting the body themselves; J. Quinton Johnson stars as Marine Charlie Washington who breaks the news to the guys about how Doc’s son died, and especially Cicely Tyson as the grieving mother of one of their fellow Marines, who died in Vietnam.

Despite its sometimes weary depiction of distrust of the Government during the George W. Bush era, there’s a lot of warmth in LAST FLAG FLYING. Linklater handles the pathos superbly, and gets us to care about these very verbal vets. Its dialogue, co-written by Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan (who wrote the 1970 book, “The Last Detail and its 2005 sequel that’s the basis for this film) is rich and real feeling.

Cranston stands out as the grizzled, cynical Sal – it’s one of his most fleshed out characters since Breaking Bad – Carrell’s sad sack succeeds in getting our sympathy, and Fishburne conveys dignified grace, that is except for the funny bits where his Reverend Mueller loses patience with Sal and regresses into his old profane self.

Linklater’s loving update deserves Oscar action, but more so it deserves big audiences who no doubt will appreciate its affable yet profound sensibility. LAST FLAG FLYING gets just about every last detail right.

More later…

THE DISASTER ARTIST: A Good Movie About The Making Of A Bad One

Now playing:

THE DISASTER ARTIST (Dir. James Franco, 2017)


A few weeks ago I attended a screening of Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 opus THE ROOM. I’d seen it before on DVD, but felt like I should get the big screen with an audience experience I’d heard about and it did not disappoint. If you’re unfamiliar, THE ROOM is infamous for being a really bad movie. It’s a San Francisco-set romantic drama that is horribly acted (mostly by Wiseau as the tortured lead), atrociously written (again, by Wiseau), and awfully directed (yep, by Wiseau).

But it has built up a cult following – largely egged on by Wiseau who claims that he meant it to be a so-bad-that’s-it’s-good movie all along – with film-goers interacting with the film ROCKY HORROR-style. Folks attending are encouraged to do things like yell “focus!” when the film gets blurry, toss footballs around during the many scenes where the characters do the same, and throw plastic spoons at the screen whenever a framed picture of a spoon appears (which is often).

The screening was one of many across the country to get people primed for James Franco’s adaptation of Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book “The Disaster Artist” which tells the story of how THE ROOM was made. Franco plays Wiseau, his brother, Dave, portrays Sestero, and Franco’s long time collaborator Seth Rogen takes on the role of the exasperated script supervisor Sandy Schklair.

Franco’s Wiseau, who has a hard to pin down European accent but claims he’s from New Orleans, dreams of being an actor, but can’t land a part so he bangs out a screenplay and finances his own project, drawing upon millions of dollars that nobody knows how he got – Rogen is surprised when his check clears and is told that it’s a bottomless account.

Franco and his crew dutifully recreate the sets of THE ROOM, and we get an ED WOOD-ish look at Wiseau’s acting and directing style – or lack of – and it’s a hilarious series of haphazard scenes though maybe not as hilarious as its incompetently shot subject.

Johnny Depp was originally slated to star, but I’m glad Franco got the role as he seems to have been born to capture the ridiculous passion of Wiseau. It’s possibly Francos greatest role, and maybe best work as a director though I haven’t seen many of the over a dozen films he’s made.


THE DISASTER ARTIST is among the funniest films this year, but it’s not been a great year for comedies or much else I hate to say. I’m not sure if folks who haven’t seen THE ROOM will totally get it, but they might as it accurately depicts what went down – Wiseau himself says that it gets 99.9% of it right of the and features a bunch of dead on recreated scenes at the end (plus stick around for an after credits stinger). It is oddly amusing, and kind of crazy, that Franco made a good movie about
 a bad one, but he really pulled it off.


More later…

One Of Woody’s Worst Films May Be His Best Looking

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WONDER WHEEL (Dir. Woody Allen, 2017)

The most striking thing about Woody Allen’s latest film, his third project for Amazon, is how lushly lit it is. Leading actresses Kate Winslet and Juno Temple’s red and blonde hair appears to always be glowing in golden light, whether in day or night scenes; and the gorgeousness of the color schemes employed by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro is palpable in every scene.

It’s too bad that it’s all in the service of the tired themes and clichéd characters that make up WONDER WHEEL, yet another nostalgic period piece from the Woodman – one that recalls the aura of his previous works CAFÉ SOCIETY (which Storaro also shot) PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, RADIO DAYS, and that fantasy flashback in ANNIE HALL where Allen’s Alvy Singer reminiscences about being brought up underneath the roller coaster in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn.

In very Allen-esque opening narration, Justin Timberlake sets the scene: “Coney Island, 1950s. The boardwalk.” The camera pans over a crowded beach until it hits Timberlake, as Mickey Rubin, a lifeguard who identifies himself as an aspiring playwright, breaking the fourth wall to tell us he’s got a story to tell, “in which I am a character so be warned as a poet I use symbols and as a budding dramatist, I relish melodrama and larger than life characters.”

Mickey introduces Carolina (Juno Temple), who has unexpectedly come back into the lives of her carousel operator father Humpty (Jim Belushi), and her stepmother Ginny (Winslet), because she is seeking refuge from the mob due to being marked by her never seen gangster husband.

Humpty and Ginny live in a shabby apartment, which used to house a freak show, with big open windows that has a great wide ranging view of the park including of the towering ferris wheel of the title. This is all back-drop to a well worn narrative involving a love triangle between Mickey, Ginny and Carolina.

Ginny dreams of running off with Mickey, but then Mickey falls for Carolina, despite the threat of a mafia hit job, which is made clear in a bit that has Sopranos regulars Tony Sirico (in his sixth film for Allen) and Steve Schirripa come to question Humpty about his daughter’s whereabouts.

There’s also a subplot about Ginny’s pyromaniac son that doesn’t really go anyhere, but it does provide shots of fire that go along with the rest of the movie’s orange bathed in blue glow.

Perhaps in the same vein that Andrew Dice Clay gained cred for his role in Allen’s BLUE JASMINE, Belushi puts in a great supporting performance as an angry, broken down working class slob who trying to stay on the wagon. I wouldn’t say it’s quite worth a Oscar nomination, but it nicely continues the ‘hey, Jim Belushi isn’t bad!’ vibe from his appearance on the Twin Peaks revival early this year.

Winslet’s acerbic Ginny is the dominant character here as the film seems to focus on her neurosis over her stepdaughter’s impending involvement with Mickey, and her frazzled attempts to thwart their romance. Winslet puts her all into her acting and anchors the film until it and she goes off the rails.

Timberlake’s Mickey wasn’t lying when he said he uses symbols as he even says “The heart has its own hieroglyphics” when trying to chose between Ginny and Carolina. He also speaks of “the tragic human condition” while giving Ginny a book of Eugene O’Neil’s plays for her birthday – an example of Allen’s screenplay laying it on a bit thick.

All this is transparent decoration around another one of his ‘women be crazy’ plotlines. The repetitive and overly drawn out dialogue doesn’t help either.

WONDER WHEEL’s melodramatic (Mickey wasn’t fooling there either) mix of hefty philosophizing with an all too typical tale of ill-fated infatuation makes for one of Allen’s least satisfying films of his later career.


But while it’s far from his best work, it may be his best looking movie. With hope, the Woodman, in his next film, A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK in which he’s again working with cinematographer Storaro, will come up with a story that’s as good as the visuals.


More later…

THREE BILLBOARDS Starts Strong But Loses Its Way

Now
playing at an indie art house near me:

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
(Dir. Martin McDonagh, 2017)

Such
a juicy premise: a hard as nails Missouri woman rents three billboards alongside
a country road to shame her town’s sheriff who has made no arrests in the wake
of her daughter’s rape and murder.

And such a great cast: Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, the mother whose grief has solidified into anger over this injustice, Woody Harrelson as Chief Willoughby, who doesn’t take kindly to billboards that read “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?,” Samuel Rockwell as Officer Jason Dixon, who has a reputation of torturing black suspects; John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband, and Peter Dinklage as a local car salesman who has a crush on Mildred.

Add
to that the lush mountain scenery surrounding these characters which has
locations shot in my home state of North Carolina standing in for the fictional town
of Ebbing, Missouri, and you’ve got the elements to make up a tensely funny
thriller, but roughly half way through its nearly two hour running time, the
movie runs out of steam and doesn’t know where to go.

This
happens right after the exit of one major player and the entrance of a suspect
that initially appears to serve as misdirection, but ends up being the
direction the film mistakenly decides to go with.

McDormand’s dour divorcée
Mildred owns the movie’s best moments, but, like with everyone she interacts
with, she never lets us get close to what she’s dealing with enough to really
be on her side. Harrelson’s Willoughby draws more empathy as he’s dying of
cancer and seems to have a good sincere head on his shoulders, but his
character’s fate does the film no favors.


When the film shifts to the underwritten perspective of Rockwell’s Officer Dixon, who we never learn whether he is guilty of racist activity or not, the narrative gets muddled, and a restlessness sets in.
Also, the presence
of McDormand and composer Carter Burwell (who provides a solid yet instinctive score here) made me wish for the more purposeful
(and wittier) approach of the actress and musical director
s long-time collaborators, the Coen brothers.

Writer/Director
McDonagh has had better luck with this sort of black comedy in his previous
films, IN BRUGE and SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, which also features Rockwell and Abbie
Cornish who appears here as Harrelson’s wife. Here his screenplay strands its
protagonists and possible antagonists in a pointless parable.

It’s not that every
movie has to have a pat pay-off – many great films end ambiguously – but this particular story
of these broken people who fight for justice that they likely will never get deserves
a better thematic resolution than we get here.


More later…

JUSTICE LEAGUE Continues DC’s Struggle To Catch Up With Marvel

Now bombing at a multiplex near everyone:

JUSTICE LEAGUE (Dir. Zach Snyder, 2017)

The good news is that DC’s latest entry in their ongoing attempt to catch up with Marvel is a lot better than the fiasco that was BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (it has a snappier title too), but the bad news is that it’s still far from a great, or even good movie.

Zach Snyder, with help from Joss Whedon, who handled lengthy re-shoots, teams up Ben Affleck’s Batman, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, Ezra Miller’s Flash, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, and Henry Cavill’s Superman (it can’t be a spoiler since everyone knew that the character was going to resurrected after his death in BVS, right?) to save the world from the clutches of the supervillain Steppenwolf (an all CGI-ed up Ciarán Hinds), but the result is a colossally anti-climatic mess.

However, perhaps due to Whedon’s involvement, there are flashes of wit – largely from The Flash, who comes off as the Spider-Man of this gang as he’s a wise-cracking kid who has the film’s best lines (I loved his quip, “Pet Semetary!” when Superman returns from the dead and is initially evil).

JUSTICE LEAGUE falls short in many departments, but one that stood out was that it has no third act. The first act is all set-up as it follows Affleck’s Bruce Wayne as he assembles the group, having walk and talks with Gadot’s Diana Prince and Momoa’s Arthur Curry (Wonder Woman and Aquaman’s alter egos), and roping in Miller’s Barry Allen, and Fisher’s Victor Stone (The Flash and Cyborg’s alter egos) into the fold.

The second act is the big battle between the Superfriends and Steppenwolf and his army of flying creatures called Parademons. This bloated sequence goes on and on with precious little excitement before it concludes with a wrap-up that reaks of lazy afterthought.

Trailers and TV spots were smart to play up the Wonder Woman angle as that’s the only character these DC movies has had any critical success with, and Gadot does have her moments here, but she’s overshadowed by Affleck and Cavill’s charmless and unconvincing takes on their iconic roles. Affleck gets a lot of flack for his acting, but I maintain that he’s not really a horrible actor; just an uninteresting one.

And after the lame likes of MAN OF STEEL, BVS, and now this, I’m still not buying Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman. The British actor still feels miscast to me as the most famous superhero, as he never comes close to matching the power of Christopher Reeve, or even George Reeves’ corny version of the caped crusader from the old ‘50s Superman TV series (incidentally Affleck played Reeves in Allen Coulter’s 2006 drama HOLLYWOODLAND).


Of the other League members, Momoa and Fisher, as Aquaman and Cyborg (the character I know the least) didnt make much of an impression on me, but, as I mentioned before, Miller’s Flash steals the show. Then there are the supporting turns by Amy Adams, J.K. Simmons, Diane Lane, and Jeremy Irons as Batman’s tech saavy butler Alfred, which are serviceable but don’t really add anything to the whole shebang.

With its 300 million dollar budget, one would expect better special effects, but the movie is marred by a lot of crummy CGI, which really dims the impact of much of the action. There have reports that the movie is underperforming, and may not recoup its production costs, which I hope will make DC reconsider letting Snyder direct its follow-up (or any other project for the brand for that matter).

Despite some signs of improvement, Snyder appears to be unable to make a decent superhero movie (or any other movie for that matter), even with the copious assistance from Whedon here. Marvel’s business model of inter-connecting story-lines, Easter eggs, and strategically placed cameos is obviously a lot harder to copy than they thought.


WONDER WOMAN showed that it is possible to make an effective stand-alone movie, so there may be salvation for the franchise yet, but it’s a safe bet that Marvel will have racked up a bunch more crowd-pleasers by the time DC really gets their shit together, that is, if they ever do.

More later…

Branagh’s Misguided MURDER & More THOR

And now, catching up with a couple of movies currently playing at every multiplex:

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

(Dir. Kenneth Branagh, 2017)


Kenneth Branagh takes on the directing duties, and the starring role of Detective Hercule Poirot in this fourth adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 bestselling novel, which never leaves the shadow of Sydney Lumet’s 1974 version.

In that first adaptation, Albert Finney is initially unrecognizable as Poirot with his slicked-back black hair, outrageous mustache, and stodgy demeanor, but the blond Branagh just looks like himself, only with similarly exaggerated facial hair. His accent, an attempt at a thick Belgian brogue, even disappears a number of times.

Branagh’s Poirot fronts a cast comprised of A-listers Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, and Judi Dench, alongside lesser known names such as Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Tom Bateman.

Yeah, it’s a big ensemble, so, as can be guessed, most of these players gets a limited amount of screen-time so if you’re a Depp fan, be warned that his role is a glorified cameo at best.

Especially since Depp, as rich businessman Samuel Ratchett, is the murder victim so he’s a corpse throughout the bulk of the picture. As the well worn mystery trope goes, the rest of the cast all have dark connections to Rachett, which means tons of motives, and Poirot interrogates the suspects one by one for his investigation.

This all takes place while the train has been stranded on its route by an avalanche and they have to wait for help to arrive. Unlike MURDER ’74, Branagh takes the passengers off of the train for a lot of the second half, and even stages the big reveal in the exterior of the tunnel the train has been stalled in front of.

This movie is full of such visual choices – the camera swoops over snowy mountaintops, cranes from the bottom to the top of the frame while its subjects stay in the middle of the show, and, most annoyingly, films two entire scenes from directly overhead. As gorgeous as much of the scenery shot by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos is, these show-off moves distract from the story and make what could’ve been a tense gritty remake into something that looks like a glossy magazine spread.

But the most frustrating thing about Branagh’s take on the 83-year old story is how he botches the conclusion so that it has precious little impact. The construction of the big reveal is as rickety as the CGI bridge the train is trapped on. Branagh, working from a screenplay by Michael Green (BLADE RUNNER 2049, LOGAN), has fashioned a self indulgent, yet pretty looking muddle out of Christie’s most famous whodunit.

It just doesn’t hold a candle to what Lumet did with this material in ’74. Consider the superiority of that film’s all-star cast – Finney’s Poirot is joined by Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, John Gielgud, and Jacqueline Bisset (if you younger readers don’t know these names – spend some time with movies made before STAR WARS) – the infinitely sharper script by Oscar winning screenwriter Paul Dehn, and its suitably claustrophobic interiors which are free of any visual trickery.

So obviously, my recommendation is to skip Branagh’s misguided MURDER ‘17, and seek out Lumet’s much classier ’74 version. I bet it’ll make for a more satisfying experience, and you will be spared about how this new one so cynically sets up a sequel – Poirot gets a message at the end from Egypt about being needed to investigate a death on the Nile (get it?).


THOR: RAGNARAK
(Dir. Taika Waititi, 2017)

We’re now halfway through Phrase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie franchise, so here’s the third installment of the THOR adventures, currently # 1 at the box office, which I enjoyed a lot more than the first two (the first one was directed by Branagh incidentally).

As I’ve written before, Thor is my least favorite of the Marvel movie characters, but this time around the guy, again played with gusto by Chris Hemsworth, has grown on me, and with Taika Waititi (who directed the hilarious 2014 vampire mockumentary WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and year’s winning comedy adventure HUNT OF THE WILDERBEAST) at the helm, the Norse God heads a smashingly funny film. One that stands beside ANT-MAN, both GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY entries, and DEADPOOL in the realm of Marvel movies that are really comedies at their core.

The plot, which has something to do with Thor trying to save his home city of Asgard from being destroyed by his sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) with help of his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), really doesn’t matter as the narrative zips through one action set piece to another racking up a lot of big laughs in the process.

Tony Stark is brought up enough times (Ruffalo even wears his clothes) that I was expecting Robert Downey Jr. to pop up, but instead we’ve got Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange to do that duty. But the cast member that appears to be having the most fun here is Jeff Goldblum as the unctuous Grandmaster of a planet on which Thor winds up getting pitted against the Hulk in an arena gladiator fight.

It’s a fun yet disposable entertainment as I laughed quite a bit, but now can’t think of any notable quotes – oh, wait, there was Thor saying “A creepy old man cut my hair off!” which totally sums up the obligatory Stan Lee cameo.

THOR: RAGNAROK may be an overly formulaic (Thormulaic?), and maybe not a really essential entry in the Marvel canon, but it’s sprinkled with so many gags that land that it really doesn’t matter.


More later…

Deep Throat Is Back! (No, Not The Porno)

Now playing in the Triangle area:


MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE (Dir. Peter Landesman, 2017)


For over thirty years, the identity of Deep Throat – the nickname (yes, inspired by the porno) of the informant that gave vital information about the Watergate burglary to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in 1972 – was one of the biggest political mysteries in history.

In 2005, former FBI agent Mark Felt revealed that he was the confidential source, Woodward confirmed it, and decades of speculation in which folks suspected White House counsel John Dean, chief of staff Alexander Haig, speechwriter Pat Buchanan, and even White House press aide/later broadcast journalist Diane Sawyer to be possible candidates were over.

Now Felt’s story is told in this film based on the books, A G-Man’s Life: The FBI, Being Deep Throat, and the Struggle for Honor in Washington by Felt and John OConnor, that’s can be seen as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN told from the point of view of, well, one of the President’s men although one that doesnt work for the President directly. A grim, stoic Liam Neeson plays Felt, who more than once is referred to as a G-Man’s G-Man.

The film opens on April 11, 1972, 203 days before the election for Richard M. Nixon’s second term, with Felt meeting with Dean (Michael C. Hall) and letting him know that his boss, J. Edgar Hoover, has files full of damaging secrets on everyone in power. “We’re the FBI,
 Felt says chillingly. “All your secrets are safe with us.”

However, after Hoover dies, Felt is passed over by Nixon for the job of FBI director, with one of the President’s shady yes-men, L. Patrick Gray portrayed by Martin Csokas, getting the prime position.

Gray attempts to squash Felt’s investigation of the Watergate break-in in June of ‘72, which if you don’t know your history, involved five men getting arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate, an office/apartment/hotel complex in Washington, D.C. The burglars were found to have ties to the CIA and later the White House, which led to the toppling of Nixon’s Presidency.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s hard not to do as MARK FELT takes its time getting to the juicy stuff such as the famous parking garage meetings with Woodward (Julian Morris), because Landesman’s screenplay wants us to see what a solid, uncompromised government official Felt is. We learn that he and his wife, Audrey (an underused Diane Lane), are worried sick about their missing daughter who’s run off to join the counterculture or something (it was the ‘70s), but Felt is so by the book that he won’t use the power of the FBI to find her.

Neeson’s nuanced, grim performance as Felt is among his finest work, but the movie keeps trying to build up dramatic heft but never quite gets there. Daniel Pemberton’s overly pulsating score doesn’t help as it dominates too many scenes, and tries too hard to make everything more ominous. They should’ve learned from the minimalist soundtrack for ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN to use those edgy strains sparingly.

There’s also too many House of Cards-ish aerial shots of D.C. framed to make the town look evil, and the whole interior look of the film is dark blues and greys with Oliver Stone-style mood lighting. We get it – the Nixon era was dark and gloomy. Much like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (sorry, I can’t help bringing that movie up over and over), Nixon is only seen in archival footage on background TVs, but dammit if his sinister presence isn’t all over this tense, but sadly not too thrilling thriller.


As there are striking similarities with the situations surrounding our current President whose name I hate typing with the leaks, the cover-ups, the dishonesty etc. this tale couldn’t be more relevant, but this dry run through the facts doesn’t have enough narrative drive to make it essential viewing.

Felt is described in the film’s postscript as “one of the most impactful whistleblowers in American History,” but his portrait here lacks impact. The story of the Watergate scandal was, of course, so much better told in that 1976 movie I keep referring to because this film could never shake it out of my mind.

In other words, Neeson is fine as Felt, and, sure I’d rather see him in something like this instead of another TAKEN movie, but Deep Throat will always be Hal Holbrook to me.


More later…

BLADE RUNNER 2049: Even More Of A Slow Burner Than The First One

Now playing at multiplexes from here to the off-world colonies:

BLADE RUNNER 2049

(Dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017)
Now, for a long time I didn’t think that there would actually be a sequel to BLADE RUNNER. But then, I didn’t think there’d be more episodes of Twin Peaks, more PLANET OF THE APES movies, or another GHOSTBUSTERS, or…well, you get the idea.

So, yeah, I should know better than to discount what the studios might still consider viable commercial properties. So here’s the long-awaited BLADE RUNNER 2049, coming 35 years after Ridley Scott’s original, but, wait, it’s actually more the follow-up to the DIRECTOR’s CUT that was released in 1992, or maybe it’s the sequel to the 2008 FINAL CUT.

There has been much debate as to which version of the first BLADE RUNNER is the definitive one (we can disregard the International Theatrical release, the US Broadcast version, and the Workprint), mainly because there’s an argument as to whether or not the protagonist, Rick Deckard (Harrison ford), is a replicant (a human-like robot, for those not in the know), and which version confirms this (or not).

Denis Villeneuve (PRISONERS, SICARIO, ARRIVAL), working from a screenplay by Hampton Fancer, who co-wrote the original with David Peoples, and co-wrote this one with Michael Green; posits a new LAPD Blade Runner named K played by Ryan Gosling, who’s trying to solve a mystery involving a box he found on a mission full of the bones of a replicate.

The film tells us right off that Gosling’s K is a replicant, who may be a little conflicted about having to retire his own people as we learn in an opening fight scene with Dave Bautista (Drax in the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies) as a runaway replicant.

Through some detective work, with his boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) breathing down his neck, K discovers that the remains belong to a replicant named Rachel, who died in childbirth. That’s the same Rachel – the replicant played by Sean Young that Deckard fell for and left Los Angeles with for greener pastures at the end of the first one.

Meanwhile, we see K’s homelife where he interacts with his love interest, an electronically produced hologram named Joi played by the fetching Cuban actress Ana de Armas, who really breathes a lot of life into this project. At one point, Armas secures a prostitute (Mackenzie Davis) for K so that she can engage with a surreal threesome with him.

By this point, one is probably wondering ‘what about Deckard? Where’s he?’ Well, get comfy as BR 2049 is two hours and 43 minutes and it’s well over half the movie before it gets to Ford.

In the meantime, we meet Jared Leto as the sinister yet zen-like Niander Wallace, who’s the films equivalent to the original’s Dr. Tyrell as he took over the corporation from him; Sylvia Hoeks as Wallace’s killer servant Luv, Carla Juri as Dr. Ana Stelline, a designer of the implanted dreams in replicants’ minds, and Lennie Jame as Mister Cotton, who runs a child labor camp, and helps K find Deckard.

K is led to believe that he may be the son of Rachel and Deckard, as there’s a memory of a wooden horse that he previously thought was implanted, but the date carved in it is his birth-date which is the same date carved in the tree where Rachel was buried.

Ford’s Deckard finally gets his screen-time in the last third, and it’s the lovably gruff, grumbling, rough and tumble performance we’ve come to expect from the 75-year old icon. It’s a shame he couldn’t have entered the movie sooner.

When I was 12 and saw the original BLADE RUNNER – the 1982 theatrical release – I wasn’t a fan at first. I found it to be very slow, dreary, and I disliked Deckard’s drab demeanor (I was expecting something more along the lines of Han Solo and Indiana Jones, I guess), but with repeat viewings it really grew on me. The 1992 DIRECTOR’S CUT really won me over, and I also loved THE FINAL CUT, though I’d be hard pressed to list what were really the crucial differences.

Upon seeing the trailers for this sequel, I knew one thing – even if the film is a disappointment story-wise, it’s was going to look amazing. And, sure enough, it looks fantastic. Cinematographer Roger Deakins’ Oscar worthy visuals beautifully capture Dennis Gassner’s production design which expands on the definitively dystopian world of the original, adding the vast orange vistas of the deserts outside of LA, and the gorgeously lit lairs of Wallace’s opulent palace.

You’ll have plenty of time to luxuriate in those sets, as the film stretches out for long sequences, between what few action scenes there are, where K is flying or walking through them to get to his various destinations.

While the visuals expand on the look of Deckard and company’s world, the narrative doesn’t expand much on the idealogy of the world Phillip K. Dick created in his 1967 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” because Fancer and Green’s screenplay predominantly focuses on circling back on the events of the previous installment.

Also circling back is the score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch that jars throughout with otherworldly pulsing electronica that re-purposes the main themes of Vangelis’ soundtrack for the first one.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 has moments that are eye-poppingly immersive yet it also has moments that are dull as hell. 


To fully embrace the experience, it will definitely help to be a fan, or have at least seen the original. But it’s even more of a slow burner than the first one was. If you saw the original (or any version) and thought it was boring, then this one will bore you even more.

But Overall, Villeneuve’s take on the BLADE RUNNER is a fascinatingly flawed anti-epic that should delight the casual and the hardcore largely because it’ll give them something new to talk about.

However its received, I bet that decades from now, there’ll be a different version (BLADE RUNNER 2049: THE FINAL CUT perhaps?) that we’ll all probably prefer.


More later…

The Derivative AMERICAN MADE Gets By On Tom Cruise’s Confused Charm

Now playing at a multiplex near everyone:

AMERICAN MADE (Dir. Doug Liman, 2017)

Let’s be honest – this movie has been made many times before. It’s the GOODFELLAS model of a cocky guy who does corrupt things to get the good life, while his wife on the side initially disapproves, but then is wooed by all the money coming in. This all, of course, ends badly, but not before some flashy montages stuffed with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and some comical scrapes with the law.

AMERICAN MADE’s subject Barry Seal, buoyantly played by Tom Cruise, has even been portrayed five times before – mostly on the small screen by Dennis Hopper in the TV movie DOUBLECROSSED, by Theddeas Phillips in an episode of the Spanish language series Alias el Mexicano, by Dylan Bruno in an episode of Narcos, and by David Semark in the mini-series America’s War on Drugs.


Just last year, Michael Paré had a supporting part as Seal in the true crime thriller THE INFILTRATOR starring Bryan Cranston.

So yeah, Seal’s story has been touched on just a little bit.

We meet Seal here as a bored TWA pilot in the late ‘70s who is recruited by a smooth, scene-stealing Domhnall Gleeson (EX MACHINA, THE REVENANT, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS), as CIA operative Monty Schafer, to fly reconnaissance missions in Central America to collect counter-intelligence. Since when he tells his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) the name of the company he’s been offered to work for is called IAC, which stands for “Independent Aviation Consultants,” she says “that sounds fuckin’ made up,” he keeps his new job secret from her.

On one of his missions he is approached in Panama by the Medellín Cartel, made up of Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Carlos Lehder (Fredy Yate Escobar) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía), to smuggle cocaine for them from Columbia to Louisiana. This results in one of the film’s most thrilling sequences in which Cruise, who did much of his own flying stuntwork (of course he did), has trouble clearing a short jungle runway and almost crashes into the trees.

Seal gets into running guns for the Contras and is given his own remote airport in Mena Arkansas, where he hires several pilots to help him on his many missions. There’s always got to be a slimy character that may screw up things for the wheeling and dealing lead and it comes in the form of Lucy’s brother JB (Caleb Landry Jones).

SP Seal has to contend with that along with the DEA, CIA, the Contras, the Sandinistas, and the Reagan White House, where we get cameos by Oliver North (Robert Farrior), and George W. Bush (Connor Trinneer).


While AMERICAN MADE, written by second-time screenwriter Gary Spinelli (the little-seen STASH HOUSE was his first), recalls the formula of the aforementioned GOODFELLAS, and covers the same ground that the also aforementioned THE INFILTRATOR, SICARIO, WAR DOGS, SAVAGES, and especially BLOW did, it’s an enjoyable romp that features Cruise’s most invested acting in ages (take that, THE MUMMY!).

Cruise delightfully puts a cynical spin on his TOP GUN persona of old, and carries the movie with his charm even when he’s mostly confused about how in over his head he is.

It may be an overly familiar ride that plays fast and loose with the facts, but it entertains for most of its running time, and it’s commendable that it doesn’t ape the Scorsesean style as extreme as AMERICAN HUSTLE did.

Though not as good as their previous film, EDGE OF TOMORROW, this film has director Liman and Cruise appearing to work well together, which bodes well for their proposed sequel to EDGE. Maybe that one will have a better, less generic title than their first two efforts.

More later…

BATTLE OF THE SEXES Should’ve Been A Drunk History Sketch With The Same Cast

Now playing at theaters, surprisingly mostly multiplexes, near me:

BATTLE OF THE SEXES

(Dirs. Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris)
This is the time of year that we get movies like this. Star-studded dramatic re-tellings of historical or quasi historical events packaged as prestige pictures or, to use a more accurate term, Oscar-bait.

In this overly earnest one, Husband and wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, RUBY SPARKS) put Emma Stone and Steve Carrell through the true story motions of portraying reigning women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King and former champ Bobby Riggs, who faced off in a famous match in the early ‘70s.

King, who was 29 at the time, was challenged by the 55-year old Riggs, shortly after striking out on her own tennis tournament and union just for women after disagreements with the US Lawn Tennis Association about equal pay. Timely, huh?


The film juggles three strands – it’s the story of Carrell as the washed-up, compulsive gambler Riggs trying to get back on top, it’s the story of Stone’s King having an affair with a hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) to the chagrin of her husband (Austin Stowell), and it’s the story of sexism in the burgeoning era of feminism.

But as promisingly rich as those elements initially appear, they only brush up against each other and fail to help form a compelling narrative. King is depicted as a driven, focused player; Riggs a goofy self-promoter, but they never clash in any impactful manner. There’s a lot of lip service given to the theme of women overcoming the idea that they’re the weaker sex, but the film lacks the passion to fully engage with its premise.

That’s perhaps, as with other recent true story prestige pictures such as SULLY, and LION there’s only really 20-30 minutes of story here. This results in long draggy stretches with little juice. Stone’s former Broadway co-star Alan Cummings comes in to add some sass to the project, but as much as I liked the mini-“Caberet” re-union, his role as a smirking fashion designer feels contrived (especially in his final lines) even though it’s based on a real person.

But I’m hesitant to blame writer Simon Beaufoy because he has had better experience with adapting true stories (127 HOURS, EVEREST, his Oscar-winning screenplay for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) before. The responsibility falls on Dayton and Faris for their lightweight and overly conventional approach to this material.

I think this movie would be an excellent segment of the Comedy Central show, Drunk History, with the same cast. If you haven’t seen the show, it involves celebrities (usually comedians) being filming while getting intoxicated and recounting historical events. For example, one episode features sloshed comic actor Steve Berg explaining the behind-the-scenes making of CITIZEN KANE, while in black and white recreations, Jack Black plays Orson Welles, and John Lithgow as William Randolph Hearst, act the scenes out, even lip-synching Berg’s quotes.

The fact that several comic actors – Sarah Silverman, Fred Armisen, and Chris Parnell (all SNL alumni) – appear in supporting parts, and the film is most lively when it goes for a laugh, makes me wish for a Drunk History version even more.

As it is, despite some invested acting by Carrell and Stone, BATTLE OF THE SEXES is a bland, formulaic trip through dated clichés and the expected tropes of a period piece soundtrack (bad timing including Elton John’s “Rocket Man” for obvious reasons), and the obligatory photos of the real people at the end. It’s a well-intentioned, and relatively well-made drama, but it’ll most likely be forgotten by the time the awards season comes around.

Also, while the concept of a hyped-up tennis exhibition helping to change things is an intriguing premise, when it comes to the climax of the match itself, the realization that tennis is among the least cinematic of sports is hard to escape.

And that’s even when the stakes were as high as they supposedly were in September of 1973 at the Houston Astrodome in an event that was watched on T.V. by millions of people.

More later…

Things I’m Glad Didn’t Catch On: Sequels With “Another” In Their Titles


N
ow, I acknowledge that this is a silly thing to harp on, but I’m happy that the idea of putting the word “another” in the title of sequels didn’t catch on.

This thought only came about because I stumbled onto the long forgotten follow-up to the 1982 Eddie Murphy hit, 48 HRS, on TV last night, which was lamely titled, ANOTHER 48 HRS.

This kind of titling is lazy as hell, but it’s actually truth-in-advertising because the film was a lame rehash that deserved such unimaginative labeling. The 1990 action comedy was a modest hit, but lambasted by critics (it stands at 15% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). There was actually talk of a third film for the franchise entitled YET ANOTHER 48 HRS, but thankfully that never materialized.

Three years later, Touchstone Pictures hedged their bets on a sequel to their 1987 hit STAKEOUT, and brought back stars Richard Dreyfuss, and Emilio Estevez, and added Rosie O’Donnell for some reason in what was dubbed ANOTHER STAKEOUT. Notice how similar to ANOTHER 48 HRS the type style for “Another” is:

This definitively inessential sequel flopped big-time and was largely panned (it’s at 14% on Rotten Tomatoes) during the summer of 1993, and it’s probably a movie you’ve never heard of. Hell, few folks today even remember the original STAKEOUT as I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a reference to it.

Anyway, the use of ANOTHER in a title died with ANOTHER STAKEOUT and that’s a good thing. Just saying the title out loud shows how awful an idea it is – you can’t help saying it after a sigh in a tired voice in italics: “Here’s ANOTHER…”
So they tried to make that happen twice, but there’s a device that’s even lamer that was only used once: putting MORE in front of the recycled titles, as in MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI.

So glad that didn’t catch on either. I mean, can you imagine how unbearable it’d be to see ads for movies like MORE HORRIBLE BOSSES or MORE ZOOLANDER?

It’s great that so many sequel titles these days don’t just slap a Roman numeral on the end, they have ampersands and subtitles ‘n all, because they really should at least try to disguise that it’s the same ole thing again, right?

The use of “another” appeared to imply that the studios were being cynically upfront about the shoddy quality of their recycled products. Here’s another one, kids! Collect ‘em all.

So this has been my look back at the brief era in which a badly chosen yet accurate word graced a couple of lame sequel titles.

R.I.P. ANOTHER 1990-1993

More later…

Ben Stiller’s Squirm-Inducing Midlife Crisis Continues

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

BRAD’S STATUS (Dir. Mike White, 2017)

“Dad, are you having some kind of nervous breakdown or something?” asks Austin Abrams as Troy, the son of the neurotic worrywart Brad, played by Ben Stiller.

Brad denies it, but looking over the recent filmography of the 51-year old comic actor/writer/director who portrays him, it sure does seem like Stiller is fond of having his midlife crisis play out over and over again on the big screen.

It can be traced back to Stiller’s 2008 satire TROPIC THUNDER, in which he starred as airheaded action star Tugg Speedman. In a clip of an interview with Access Hollywood, Tyra Banks puts it to Speedman: “You’re on the wrong side of 40. You’re childless and alone. Somebody close to you said, ‘One more flop and it’s over.’” Stiller’s Speedman responds, “Somebody said they were close to me?”

But the crisis really began in earnest with Noah Baumbach’s GREENBERG (2010). Stiller played the title role, a miserable misanthrope who sabotages every potential relationship with his miserable misanthropy after suffering, yep, a nervous breakdown.

After some forgettable commercial comedies – THE WATCH, TOWER HEIST, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY – Stiller teamed up with Baumbach again for a much more successful look at the neuroses around aging: 2015’s WHILE WE’RE YOUNG. In it Stiller plays yet another New Yorker, a documentary filmmaker who, with his wife played by Naomi Watts, befriends a young hipster couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) because he longs to be young and hip again.

Even Stiller’s ZOOLANDER 2 from earlier this year touched on this theme with Stiller’s Derek Zoolander and Owen Wilson’s Hansel being tricked into wearing garish red jumpsuits that say “Old” and “Lame.”

So that brings us to Mike White’s BRAD’S STATUS, which features Stiller as a guy who is tormented by thoughts of being a failure while on a trip to visit prospective colleges in the Boston area with his son, the aforementioned Abrams. Brad runs a non-profit in Sacramento, has a lovely wife played by Jenna Fischer, and a 19-year old son who could possibly get into Harvard, but he can’t help thinking about his college buddies who are all much bigger successes than him.

Brad feels not just “fleeting jealousy, but real pain” when he sees his old pal Craig Fisher, played with supreme smarm by Michael Sheen, on TV as a political pundit/ bestselling author. He feels the same about seeing that his former friend, a bigtime movie director played by the film’s writer/director White, has his house in Architectual Digest, and hearing that another buddy portrayed by Owen Wilson, is a extremely wealthy business man with his own jet. Oh, yeah, there’s also Jermaine Clement as a retired internet mogul who lives in Hawaii with two young girlfriends.

So comparatively, Brad feels he’s got nothing to show for his life of hard work, and that there’s no potential there for anything better, but learning that his son has a shot at Harvard may yet be the light at the end of the tunnel.

Abrams’ Troy is weirded out by his Dad’s behavior, but deals with it admirably. They go out to dinner with musician friends of Troy’s played by Shazi Raja and Luisa Lee, and Brad is smitten with these young ladies while cynical about their idealism, which he believes will fade like his has.

While Brad only speaks on the phone with his friends played by Clement, and Wilson, he meets Sheen’s Craig Fisher for a meal, but it doesn’t go well. In fact, after the Roger Moore-athon impression dueling in THE TRIP TO SPAIN, it’s the most cringe-worthy scene in an independent film this year.

BRAD’S STATUS is funny, but not laugh out loud funny, it’s more inner squirm funny. Stiller’s Brad has fantasies throughout the film about his friend’s charmed lives, and they are among the film’s most amusing moments, but the movie is best when it makes us nod and relate with Brad’s reckoning with his relevance. This comes in the form of Stiller’s voice-over narration, a device that is often overused, but White’s writing which within them takes on various relatable rationales and dark avenues of thinking, is pleasurably on point.

A thoughtful and witty indie that while it dances on the edge of being a downer, BRAD’S STATUS has as much of a hopeful gleam in its eye as its protagonist does when he cries at a climatic classical concert involving Raja playing flute to the accompaniment of Lee on violin. It’s a scene that’s as squirm-inducing as it is moving, but by that point in the film, you’ll be used to that.


More later…