Dunkirk (*****): They know where you were

dunkirk

Dunkirk – 2017

Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring  Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

There’s not much can be said about this film that hasn’t already been mentioned. It’s a great film. An apolitical film. It is a patriotic film. It is a smart film. It is anonymous. It is deeply personal.

Taking place by land, by sea and by air over three different time periods, Dunkirk covers the escape attempt of over 400,000 soldiers from the shores of France early in World War II. The Nazis are faceless. We barely see even one. But they are a looming presence. The film starts off with the starling noise of gunfire. 5 out of 6 soldiers never make it over the fence to safety. And that’s just the start of it.

The film documents each of the stories in an overlapping but still cohesive manner. We don’t know exactly how things are lining up, but we do know that everyone ends up on the shores of Dunkirk eventually. It’s a masterwork of timeline manipulation by a filmmaker who’s already shown the propensity to cleanly slice up time in Inception. Everything pieces together in a tense bundle.

We feel the desperation of young soldiers (Whitehead, Barnard and Styles) looking for a way onto a boat that might survive the trip off shore. We get to experience the urgent need of a pleasure boat owner (Rylance) who quickly joins his fellow boat owners in a pursuit against time to make sure the boys get a ride home. We see two pilots (Lowden and Hardy) who take their chances against waves of German Luftwaffe planes as they try to protect the boats from the air.

Watching this film made me feel like I was living history. It is a gorgeous, horrible masterpiece that shows what the British Army of WWII had more pluck than luck. More guts than glory. This feels like the loss that turned everything around.

Is there a better director right now than Nolan?  No one seems to be able to handle grand scale on such a personal level. To tell a story that everyone can relate to without one bit of preaching. His voice is very human and there is nary a scene so obvious as a red coat in a black and white background.

Sure, he has his tells, but they are truly more mesmerizing than others. Like the man walking into the sea in the middle of the story. The soldiers just look on. Like us, they can do nothing but watch and keep looking for opportunities to survive.

The lack of gore while still capturing the horror is an achievement as well. There is no need to fill in the gaps. Our minds can do this and still resonate to the truth of the situation.

The best thing Nolan does with Dunkirk is to never lose focus. He is the mariner, Mr. Dawson, and we play the part of Peter. He knows the plane just by the sound, but he still lets us see it so we can remember too. Feeling like it might be hopeless, one might be tempted to speechify and let us know the significance of it all. He just moves towards the battle, but picks up one life at a time.

In the end, we know where they were. And now we know why it mattered.

If this film doesn’t win any awards, it’s still the best film of the year.

(***** out of *****)

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Adams and Jefferson on Blade Runner: The Final Cut

blade-runner_55553Blade Runner: The Final Cut The 2007 edition of the 1982 film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford, based upon the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? tells the story of 4 runaway android “Replicants” that are sought after by an agent of the government (Ford) called a Blade Runner. What this agent discovers about the Replicants push him to a deeper understanding of both android and human nature.

The Role of Jefferson and Adams shall be played by CoolPapaE (CPE) and WeMissE (WME). You can judge for yourself who is who, or if they are both just a couple of blowhards.

CPE: 

So I guess we have to start this thing off with the question: Is Ridley Scott a genius?

We really have this film and Alien upon which this idea is built, right? I mean, he’s got other great films…Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and more recently, The Martian. His skill in visual effects is unparalleled. And I definitely think we see it here in the brilliantly stark and spare Final Cut. He allows the atmosphere to be oppressive, but not to the extent that it feels overwhelming. The integration of advertising, American and Asian culture is a sublime vision that seems prescient even today.

This is where the genius ends for me, even in Blade Runner. The fact that he’s released so many versions of the film (including the worst one, called The Director’s Cut) tells me he has no clue how to present a narrative and move it through the story. This one has it closest to perfect, though it still finds some elements lacking.

Trust me, I wanted Ridley to be a better director than he is and for years I ignored the fact that he pumps out 2 average films to each good one. If anything he’s shown us that he is a prolific director, if not quite a genius.

If I am hard pressed to give a Ridley Scott the label of undisputed classic, this begins and ends with Alien, unfortunately.

So how about it, WME, is Ridley a genius?

WME:  I definitely can’t go so far as to drop the “G” word on Ridley.  I agree that he is an amazing visual stylist.    He has directed movies big and small, in a variety of genres.  And looking at his filmography, I would venture to guess that he has made the movies that he wanted to make.  Even most of his misfires are entertaining to a degree.  It took a lot of balls for him to take on Hannibal, knowing how iconic the previous Lecter film was, and knowing he was not going to have the Oscar-winning Jodie Foster reprising her role.  And while it pales in comparison to Silence of the Lambs,  it’s not bad considering the source material.

So if he is not a genius (other than maybe a visual genius), is he an auteur?  The French auteur theory says that the great directors are like authors, leaving an indelible, unmistakable imprint on every film.  Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Capra, Scorsese, Kurosawa, all are considered auteurs.  Does Ridley fit the bill?  Definitely in his sci-fi films, which have such an original vision.  One could almost argue that Alien and Blade Runner laid down a template that was imitated by 80% of the sci-fi movies that came after.

But let’s take a movie like White Squall.  It’s a pretty damn good movie.  But does it have the Ridley touch?  How about a middling thriller like Someone to Watch Over Me?  I’m not sure Ridley can wear the auteur cap either, unless we specify science fiction.

What do you think, CPE?  Auteur, or no?

CPE:

I don’t even know if we can go even that far, when it comes to Ridley Scott. The most accurate representation is that he has made all of the films he wanted to make. In essence, he’s accomplished, but not necessarily distinctive. He lacks the distinctive overall theme, visually, spiritually or even politically. His films lack that scene or imagery that tells us this is Ridley Scott. This is who he is as a director.

Tarantino has the hole in the hand, among other things. John Carpenter has the lens angles, Spielberg bores you to death with his morality. David Fincher has his precise connection with every image that is distinctly his own. What does Scott possess that tells us he’s been the director of a particular film, other than it’s always on time and visually appealing?

Let’s discuss the acting, shall we?  I want to start with the women. For someone who came up with some of the most distinctive heroines of all time (Ripley, Thelma, Louise), we have a very unique situation here. Two uniquely bland actresses put in crucial roles. Daryl Hannah has been pretty bad in several films (The Clan of the Cave Bear, Legal Eagles, Summer Lovers to name very few).  She’s also made some pretty damn good films like Splash, Roxanne, Kill Bill and this one. She is very effective in what could be a throwaway role.

All she really has to be is a psychotic robot to be passable, but she takes it much further. Her nuanced flirtation with Sebastian is a key sequence to the story. It takes some chops to play the damsel in distress and turn it into the role of kidnapper in such a quietly powerful way. Her chemistry with Batty is actually the most convincing romance in the film, and it goes a long way in making the case for Hauer’s beautiful soliloquy in the final act.

On the other hand of the spectrum we have…Sean Young. Poor Sean Young. If ever there was an actress meant to play the straight love interest in comedies, it was her. She is clearly lost as Rachel. She is all over the map emotionally. The irony is, it’s like she is a programmed being that has no programming at all. The interactions between Rachel and Deckard have no heat at all, despite Ford’s best efforts. I got more out of her playing the force-field game with Harold Ramis in Stripes.

Who, then, gets credit for these performances?  Do I congratulate Ridley for Hannah’s Pris? Do I deride him for the wooden Rachel? Ripley has always been Weaver’s creation, in my book. Sarandon and Davis were already established before Thelma & Louise. Scott’s last two heroines in the Alien series were questionable at best.

Am I wrong? Does Ridley have a gift with the women that I don’t see? Or does he just assume they can do their job while he concentrates on other things?

WME:  

When you phrase it that way, I would have to lean towards the latter option.   I don’t think Ridley Scott set out deliberately to be ahead of the curve with strong, iconic female leads.  Rather, we can give him credit for reading the screenplays and not having a problem with the concept of a strong woman, and not trying to change it.  I think maybe Ridley’s vision is story-driven.  If he buys into the story, then he will create a vision that matches it.  So the story of Blade Runner is very male driven.  It is written in the style of a 1940’s noir detective novel, which is all about the male lead on a quest to solve some mystery.  Any women he encounters along the way are meant to be used and discarded. So maybe the roles suit the material.  Although I have never liked Sean Young’s performance in this, or in much else for that matter.  She takes me right out of the story.

Interestingly, Ridley did return to the idea of a kick-ass female lead a few years later with G.I. Jane, with less success.  Was this a deliberate attempt to recapture some of that glory?  After that one, he followed with a lot of purely male-driven films:  Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster, Body of Lies.  (Another interesting thing which just occurred to me, all of these movies deal with war, or battle.  Just an observation.)  Of course the slight but charming A Good Year was made in the middle of all that testosterone.  So no, Ridley does not have a special touch with women. He just has a special touch with translating good written material into good visual spectacle.  And Daryl Hannah’s character fits the role she was meant to play.   She did what was asked of her and did it well.

To go back to a point I made earlier, I would like to stay on the story.  The screenplay is deliberately structured like an old noir detective movie.  We have a morally ambiguous anti-hero, searching for someone, encountering a lot of strange characters with questionable motives, and an uncertain ending.  Technically speaking, we have several camera shots that play with light and shadow  These two sentences would also describe perfectly  The Big Sleep.  Instead of Ford tracking down replicants, it’s Bogart tracking down a missing daughter.  I enjoy it when film noir gets transplanted into a different setting, and I think it works here (another common feature of film noir, voiceover narration, was employed in one of the many versions of this film.)

What do you think?  Is the film noir story and style an asset?

CPE:

Oh absolutely film noir works in this environment. If there is one thing that continually seems to be missed about this film it is that it is mainly a noir tale. Most people who steal from this movie get the grit and darkness as just a vision of the future. Was Ridley intending for this to be the audience’s main understanding of the film? If we go back to Alien, perhaps, but it’s not all. Like you say, he is an above average translator of material and he used his understanding that the future did not need to be pristine to advantage. In this Ford is allowed to excel in the primitive man who learns to understand his humanity, in understanding the humanity that exists in the androids as well.

Ridley does the story benefit by not cutting out the more complex themes and dialogue for any sort of brevity or quest for more action. One might be tempted to credit him immensely for this, but one tends to think it may be more a sign of the times in cinema. His record even in his last two Alien universe films makes me wonder if he understands that dialogue can be helpful in building tension.

On the other hand, his well publicized feud with Ford was centered over Scott’s request for Ford to do a voice-over for the film. This would fit with the noir vision of the film, but it’s not entirely clear that either Ford or Scott wanted this for the final product. Ford was clearly the more powerful presence in Hollywood by this point. Ridley was essentially on his third film and still a company man. The real push for the voice over, along with the happy ending, came from the studio’s insistence after seeing test audience feedback.  So really, I don’t blame either for this deviation from typical noir. Both of their instincts seemed to be in the right.

Let’s talk about Harrison Ford. He’s been one of my favorite actors since the first time he ever put on Han Solo’s vest. I could count the number of bad decisions he’s made acting wise on one hand. So, perhaps I am biased. One thing is sure, he’s never been given enough credit for his incredible talent in making action heroism relatable.

When we see Deckard’s reaction to Batty’s words, and the way he notices his own dreams merging with his reality, we are drawn along with him into his realization. Ford uses exaggerated body language at times, but it’s entirely believable because his eyes do not lie. The subtle contemplation happens in an instant and with Ford, it’s definitely not mistaken.

The great thing about Ford in this noir presentation is that he spends no time trying to convince us he is cool. He even shoots a woman in the back, because… well, she is an android and he is a Blade Runner. All of his scenes outside of those with Young give us the look of someone we could be if in that same situation. He never bothers to push for the star treatment, and it makes him a bigger star than the rest.

How about Ford?  Is he overrated or underrated?

WME:

Underrated, for sure.  In a way he reminds me of Henry Fonda.  Of course Fonda didn’t assume the mantle of iconic action heroes, but he had a quiet understated presence that made him believable in every role, regardless of the setting, and I think Harrison Ford shares that quality.  He stays grounded in reality, even when playing characters in extreme situations (e.g. Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Jack Ryan).   And you are spot on when you say he makes action heroism relatable.  He allows all of his characters, even his most heroic, to be vulnerable.  Han Solo gets turned into a TV dinner, Indiana Jones gets captured (multiple times), and many of Ford’s  characters get their ass kicked frequently. When he is in a fight, his reactions are genuine.  Punches land, and he feels them.  You can see his pain, his frustration, his desire to win, to live, to carry on.  Nobody can portray that as well as he can.

I was listening to an interview of Alfred Hitchcock this morning, and he was asked the definition of a good actor.  He said “a good actor is somebody who can do nothing well.” He went on to explain that a good actor maintains a quiet gravitas in the slower moments, and saves his emotion for the scenes that require it.  Actors that over-emote when not required seem emotionally spent by the time they need it most.  I think Harrison is a perfect example of an actor who does nothing well.   (As an aside, I think Tom Hanks fits this definition nicely, as well.  In most of his output anyway.)  Had Hitchcock’s and Ford’s careers had a little more overlap, I think they would have worked well together.

So you talked a bit about the futuristic vision of Ridley Scott, and how not making it pristine worked to his advantage.  We are now only two years away from the time the movie was set, and visually it still works.  I think it was that mix of futuristic technology with dirty streets and unkempt apartments that makes the vision hold up.  If there is one thing that grounds this movie in the 1980’s however, it’s the music.

What do you think?  Does Ridley’s vision of 2019 seem plausible?  And how does the score fit into that vision?

CPE:

The primary reason it works is that for the time, the effects laden shots don’t overwhelm the movie and we’re allowed to concentrate on story. We get one or two spanning shots here and there, and then the story centers on things that have changed more slightly as we go into the bowels of the beast that is modern-day Los Angeles. Thankfully, this is before every film had to take a couple of precious lines from a story in order to moralize about climate change. They more took for granted that people were clever enough to figure the “humans messed up” part for themselves.

The mixture of cultures is probably the most effective thing we see. Ford is nonplussed by any of it and nothing looks special, even from the overwhelming advertisements everywhere. One thing that works in most cultures today is advertising. Communication down to its simplest form. Like emojis. We should have the sequel to the Emoji movie out by the time we actually hit 2019. That is depressing as any amount incessant rain in this film. The idea that messaging gets so big and so easy to push out is as significant as any message in the film. Humanity is losing out when going big and blaring is our best idea.

I found an ironic similarity with this when looking into the streets of Coruscant in Star Wars Attack of the Clones. Lucas had so lost his focus by that point, he thought that giving us cleaned up images of better films (like Blade Runner) would count as character for one of the biggest, blandest films of all time. No amount of window dressing could hide the horrible script (and oh, the dialogue) written in two weeks to placate the imaging he already had ready.

That is Blade Runner‘s future to a “T”:

Glitz and glamour in the sky, same old crap underneath. All the while trying to protect that garbage existence from a superior idea (a.i.) that just want’s to co-exist on an equal plane.

Tyrellbuilding

That said, there are some funny element to the filmmaker’s vision of the future, particularly the triangular buildings (like Tyrell’s) with the outer wall. What the hell is that about, anyway?  One has to wonder what it must be like for the folks who have a room on the inner side of the outer layer. Or the outer side of the inner layer. What kind of view do they have?  What purpose does that shape have, other than aesthetics, and the aesthetics are horrible. Could you imaging paying any amount to have a room with a window and realize you were looking at slanted metal all day? Is the building all just for Tyrell, which would be a waste? Or does he rent the myriad rooms out to a bunch of suckers?

 

There are much better uses for buildings though. One of which I am sure you would find familiar. We’ve seen the Bradbury building a lot, haven’t we?

Bradbury_Building,_interior,_ironwork

WME:  I love your comments on the pyramid building, which looks so cool but does not seem very practical.   And the comparison to Coruscant, and its digital sheen that had absolutely no character.

As far as the Bradbury building goes, yes, it has been seen in dozens of movies and TV shows over the years.  If anyone has a free hour to burn while in LA, it is worth a visit.  The outside of the building is dull, boring brick.  Inside, it is an architectural masterpiece, full of intricate ornamental iron work, marble and terra cotta.  All bathed in light from the large natural skylight in the roof, much as you see in the picture above. Of course it looked nothing like this in the movie.  Ridley made it dark, full of shadows, dripping water, and echoing footfalls, which all suits the noir aesthetic perfectly.  And part of his overall vision for the film, to take something pristine and dirty it up.

Speaking of pristine, the keyboard sound of Vangelis has an electronic sheen to it.   Do you think the music helps or hinders the film?

CPE:

If there is one thing that firmly dates this film in the 80’s it would have to be any sort of soundtrack with synthesizer on it. Even though it is firmly entrenched in its time, there is an ethereal quality to it that is accessible at the very least. A bonus for those who have the soundtrack are actual soundbites out of the film, including Batty’s incredibly stirring final speech.

I never did comprehend the appeal to Vangelis’ work overall. He sure hit the mark for a lot of people, though.

I don’t recall his music ever lining the collection on your wall. If I am wrong, please correct me. If not, then I suppose this is as good a place as any to end our discussion.

WME:

You are correct, good sir, I have no Vangelis in my collection.  Although I was not aware that the soundtrack has dialogue from the film.  I believe our discourse on this film has reached its conclusion.  It has been rather illuminating. And with that, kind sir, I bid you good day.

CPE:

As I bid good day to you.

 

War for the Planet of the Apes (****1/2) is cleverly reverential

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War for the Planet of the Apes – 2017

Director Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback and Reeves
Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer, Sara Cannning, Max Lloyd-Jones, Devy Dalton, Aleks Paunovic, Amiah Miller, Gabriel Chavarria

In the opening scenes of War for the Planet of the Apes, we get a true vision of horrible war. Bullets and spears hurtling through the air, humans and apes dying as if life is not as precious as one would expect at the end of an apocalypse. This is not what I wanted to see in a movie, even if it was an incredible sequence, with harrowing sounds and visuals.

Fortunately, the film takes a turn shortly after this. Instead, what we get is a study of character for Caesar (Serkis) and a small band of his clan members as they work their way towards protection of their way of life, mixed with a little revenge. The result is a crowning achievement in many aspects, and the third consecutive original story that manages to pay reverence to the original series without repeating itself or taking the easy path to redemption.

Why are the apes a target? Well, the flu that knocked out humanity 15 years ago is called the simian flu, if that is any indication. I suppose those who survived the first wave  and didn’t talk to Jason Clarke’s Malcom at the end of the last film might have the idea that the apes are not friends, or even just ambivalent to human kind. Unfortunately, those who remain have too much access to guns and ammo and not enough room for compassion or, it seems, critical thought.

The leader of one group of humans, The Colonel (Harrison) is a few cans short of a six-pack of compassion. He performs an atrocity that sends Caesar in an apoplectic quest for vengeance. We get elements of Outlaw Josey Wales, Bridge on the River Kwai and, most ineptly, Apocalypse Now in the story. Caesar finds himself a captive to his grief and anger and then more directly a captive to the Colonel and his band of fanatics.

The Colonel, like everyone in the story to this point, has suffered some significant losses. He allowed this to affect him and through his charisma, create a militaristic sub-group of humanity that is subjugating apes as slaves, branding them with names like Donkey. He is making them work to build up a war in apprehension of a coming conflict with another band of humans.

When Caesar comes across the reality of the situation, he is vexed as to whether he should seek revenge or help his kind escape the camp altogether when the plans become clear.

It is to the filmmakers credit that we get to see the effect that the decisions of Caesar and his group make have ramifications. If it were another time for Hollywood, we might see more happiness in the poetic symmetry. It is tempting to think that this is following a trend we’ve seen in movies lately, with Rogue One, Logan, etc. In this case one needs to take into account the trend that this series has taken has already been darker than most. The evolution seems to fit.

Along the way, Caesar and his crew pick up a few strays. One of them is a mute human girl, named Nova (Miller). Fans of the original series will make the connection. Her presence is a necessary one in the development of Ceasar. His mindset always seems to veer away from the wisdom of his closest friend, and Orangutan named Maurice (once more brilliantly portrayed by Konoval). He’s never so far away that he doesn’t let his wise friend bring the little one along.

More complex is the character of Bad Ape (Zahn), who steals his way into the group telling stories that have a tinge of idiocy and maybe a little insanity mixed in. His performance is engaging and layered due to some astounding effects and Zahn’s great voice work.

Another great holdover from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is Red. He’s one of the Ape lackeys here, used as muscle and to be demoralized by the humans. His general antagonism seems to come from a place of being out-of-place wherever he is by this point. His existence is a sad, hopeless and angry barometer for Caesar. In the contrast, we see how significant a character Ceasar is for the development of simian kind.

Special mention must be made for Serkis, who pushes his artistry to another level. We’ve seen the cycle of a great character from birth to where he is now and it has been a remarkable journey. Serkis’ eyes wears every step of this journey like a weary badge. It really is a remarkable achievement when one watches all three films in succession. I hope we’ve gotten to the point in recognizing real acting when we can take what we’ve gotten from this remarkable actor, not only vocally, but through his recorded movements and those incredible eyes.

My personal favorite is still Maurice, though. Through it all, Konoval’s gentle approach has fit completely in sync with what the character needed to be to complete the development of Caesar’s (as well, her own) character. Such is the look of a male Bornean Orangutan that she could not play a female. Her subtle etching of the character is so affecting though, I don’t know if someone with testosterone could have pulled it off. Their combined performance in the last act is hauntingly beautiful.

Special mention needs to be made of Michael Giacchino’s astounding score. I have not been so moved by the music of a film since perhaps Christopher Gordon’s Master and Commander. The titles of each tune are pretty silly, but how the music works within the film is beautiful.

If there is one drawback in the film, it would have to be Harrelson’s Colonel. He’s definitely the least effectively drawn nemesis in the series. They paint on the cruelty in big heavy strokes. His humanity is limited to one picture of a little boy. It’s not enough compared to the nuance they worked so hard to achieve in the first 2 films. Before now, we didn’t root for humans to die. We wanted both groups to survive and thrive.

What Matt Reeves has created is remarkable. In directing the last two parts of a trilogy, he’s made three completely different stories and one overarching development of a character that should stand out in cinematic history. If there is one thing that the series should be embraced for, it is that we have finally pushed special effects to the point where they become an afterthought to the story that is being developed because they are so incredibly good. Bad Ape, Maurice, Blue Eyes and Caesar are merely the tip of the iceberg. I found myself thinking less and less about how they did it and more about the story than ever.

This will not be everyone’s cup of tea. It is a tragedy, to be sure, with moments of light. Not everyone will find the survival of simian kind a rooting point as humans suffer through not one, but two waves of contagion that first wipes them out and will eventually take away their voices.

Yes, they worked that in from the original series too. Remarkable. Considering the stench that the original gave off in every way, it is incredible to consider that it was good enough and groundbreaking in its own way. It’s nearly unwatchable now. But for this, we have to be thankful.

(****1/2 out of *****)

The Lost City of Z (***1/2) is a document of disappointment

lost-city-z.jpgThe Lost City of Z – 2016

Written and Directed by James Gray
Based on the book by David Grann
Starring  Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Angus Macfadyen, Ian McDiarmid, Franco Nero

“Praised by the critics” is often a nice way of putting that although it is a good film technically, it’s not likely to stir anyone out of their inertial existence and make them head to the theaters. Never has it been more the case than in The Lost City of Z.

The film covers its subject faithfully. From what I have been able to ascertain, it’s reasonably accurate. The subject is an interesting one, in theory. Who doesn’t want to know if there is a lost ancient civilization somewhere down the Amazon river?

Perhaps if the journey was taken once in a film, it would be a fascinating portrayal. When a man makes 3 trips through the same terrain, each with doomed results, one has to wonder why both he and the viewer couldn’t just guess what’s coming around the bend and bring a boat with some better protection.

Percy Fawcett (Hunnam) is a young British officer in 1905 when he agrees to embark on a survey of the border of Bolivia and Brazil. In the process, he begins a journey that will become an obsession for him over the next 20 years. His companion for his earlier journeys is Corporal Henry Costin (Pattinson), who provides stalwart support and a level mind to compliment his own. By the time he gets to his third journey, his oldest son Jack (Holland) is able to join him. All the while, his wife provides Fawcett with love, support and a belief that Fawcett will succeed.

The missions and their telling by Fawcett provided a fascinating subject for many, including America, where they became an obsession in the early part of the 20th century. His drive is documented faithfully, and it is clear that there is definitely a story here.

The problem for the viewer is that in telling it so faithfully, we see essentially the same disappointment in three parts. Kind of like a Groundhog Day for lost explorers.

Hunnam, and particularly Pattison are excellent here. One gets the feeling of a prim and proper British soldier and his more awkward Garth Hudson-like back up, who is as good at survival as the old wise keyboardist is at being the “music teacher” for The Band. Macfadyen is also quite memorable for his multifaceted performance.

If you watch this film, I believe that you will not be disappointed in its premise, execution or in any of the performances. They are all handled expertly. It’s the same true story repeated thrice that gives one pause before deciding to jump in for another go round.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Table 19 (***1/2) is sweet and funny

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Table 19 – 2017

Written and Directed by Jeffrey Blitz
Starring Anna Kendrick, Craig Robinson, Jeffrey Blitz, June Squibb, Lisa Kudrow, Stephen Merchant, Tony Revelori, Wyatt Russell, Amanda Crew

Having rented this because I knew Anna Kendrick and Craig Robinson were in it, I felt like turning it off once I saw the Duplass brothers in the opening credits. I have seen enough of their crap to know that they are in the business to just about break even making movies people in cities will like to discuss while drinking coffee at corporate coffee houses. Nothing they do is ever all that original, and almost always depressing as hell. Well, not the Mindy Kaling Project. That’s just brilliant because of her. Their names stop after Story credit, though. And it is writer and director Blitz won an Emmy for his work in The Office. I kept watching, and I am glad I did.

The story covers the persons who are located in the table of odds and ends to the Wedding of the best friend of Eloise (Kendrick). These seats, according to the former maid of honor and ex-girlfriend of the bride’s brother, Teddy (Russell) are ‘for the guests who were only reluctantly invited and whom the hosts hoped would not attend.’ It does not take long for all of the guests to realize the nature of their arrangement, which is a little longer than it takes for the viewer to know the entire story of why they are seated with Eloise.

Eloise had a real hard time deciding to go. The fact that she even sends in the RSVP in its condition is amusing. She has some hard feelings and tries to avoid showing them. This cannot last long, of course, because the story needs to move on.

The execution of the story is solid, and there are actually some really good lines thrown in throughout. The performances, especially Kendrick, Revolori, Robinson and Russell, are all good. The standout, though, is Squibb, who gently steals the movie, straightens its collar, gives it a hug and pushes it out in the world feeling much better about itself without any b.s. at all.

There are some glaring slow moments when everyone stares at each other which makes me think of…The Office. These moments are nicely countered by the acting and the neatly put together if entirely predictable script.

In all honesty, little was expected of this film and it delivers more than most comedies I have seen in the last few years. See it if you like any of the principals, or if you just want a sweet story that hits all of the satisfying notes without a thud.

If you see this film expecting a nice romantic comedy, you will not leave disappointed.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Spider-Man Homecoming (*****) is alive and waiting

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Spider-Man Homecoming – 2017

Director Jon Watts
Screenplay Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna
Starring Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jacob Batalon

Before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way. Marvel is set for at least another 10 films all because of the decision to inject Spider-Man into their Cinematic Universe (MCU) in this way and at this time.  This decision has been a trend, to be sure, since the 2nd Avengers film, we’ve seen many new supers mid-career, ditching the origin story as a crutch and just having them jump in feet first. Even Ant-Man is not the original, and the first one had been a member of S.H.I.E.L.D. if not an outright Avenger. Not only is this a more interesting plot device for whatever movie they join, it ditches so much useless exposition, there is considerably more meat to the overall arc of the universe.

The story takes form at the immediate aftermath of the battle of New York. Adrian Toomes is the owner of a salvaging company dealt a raw deal after he over commits to the job of cleaning up the damage. Taking advantage of the situation, he begins an operation of profiteering from parts that he lifts from that and other events, like Sokovia.

Fast forward 8 years to the point of Civil War and just after. Peter is enamored with the opportunity that Stark gives him, and he wants more. He turns this into a crusade to become worthy of a return phone call from Stark or Happy Hogan, and the hope becoming an Avenger in full.

Spending more and more of his time in his “Internship” with Tony, he stumbles across Toomes operation, well after they’ve become a powerful entity that could cost Parker everything.

This is the best Spider-Man movie for so many reasons.

  1. They give us the youngest Peter yet, with the most backstory. Thankfully, we aren’t punished by seeing it all again. Thank God Uncle Ben is already dead. The Amazing…series died the moment they chose to relive that tired plot. They didn’t even give us a break from the Green Goblin.
  2. The bad guy is not trying to conquer the world. He just wants to make some money on the scraps. What an inventive plot to step back from megalomania.
  3. The Vulture is perfectly played by Keaton. The man is a master at understatement, and he’s not giving it away here. His focus is narrow and his logic is sound. This performance is more menacing than either of his Batman turns and, frankly better than any of his adversaries in those films.
  4. A love story that isn’t besotted with smarmy adult stuff, like we had in the original series and to a lesser extent later. Peter’s a kid with a crush. This girl is not his final destination. The casting of Zendaya makes the next movie interesting. If they are smart, they will wait until the third.
  5. Peter is good at heroism, but doesn’t know how good he is. We spend much of the film finding out not only the power Stark has given him, but we find out more of what he is made.
  6. The guy in the chair. What a relief to have a normal looking kid as Peter’s best friend and essential normalizer, Ned. And Ned (Batalon) is interesting, smart and a general asset in that seat. We get a vision of Peter’s life as a less extreme version of the nerd we’ve seen in the past. He’s a nerd in transition.
  7. Speaking of transition, Peter’s on his way out of school for most of the film. Giving up on the genius he has for his sure shot at fame as an Avenger. This journey away from the righteous path is handled not as a morality play, but rather a real trap for Peter.
  8. Stark / Happy Hogan as a father figure. This is a remarkable win for the characters and the series. Stark does not change who he is with Peter. He is distinctly not Peter’s father, and he doesn’t try to be. He’s interested in the bottom line, not teaching lessons. He does feel responsibility for Peter, but not to the point where he gives step by step instructions. Happy is an excellent shadow figure in the relationship, for reasons I will let the viewer discover for themselves.
  9. Peter has a true superhero journey. The moment he discovers himself is the time of his greatest need. It’s an excellent, moving scene that ranks up there with anything I have seen since Superman II. Holland nails every aspect of his character with the virtues and flaws for which we love Spider-Man. He is the most believable Spidey yet.
  10. This is Spider-Man’s world. There are no cities, countries or planets destroyed. Maybe a couple of buildings on his block are rearranged. The explosions are kept to a minimum and the damage is has consequences, if seen. So many movies have fallen into the trap of bigger being necessary, even if it’s well known that it could never be better at this point.

This film has so many red flags, I really had my doubts when I initially heard about the enterprise. I thought it had the potential to bring down the MCU a peg or two. The fact that they have a half-dozen writer credits didn’t make it feel any better. There was some hope after seeing Holland steal his scenes in Civil War. This film should bring us all of the way over to Kevin Feige’s conversion of the power of Producer as the overall visionary. The MCU is a gift that is ever-changing and it just keeps producing.

Jon Watts is yet another young director handed the reigns and given some, but not all of the control. Like most of the others, he excelled in this position so far. I look forward to seeing what he does in the future, because he wove together a deceptively simple story and made everything seem light and crucially important at once. I give him most of the credit for the greatness of this film. I give Feige credit for the Universe.

(***** out of *****)

 

Baby Driver (****1/2) – Now This is Movie Making

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Baby Driver – 2017

Written and Directed by Edgar Wright
Starring  Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Bernthal, Eiza González, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx

Every once in a while you see a film and it opens up a spot in your psyche. This spot is forever inhabited with images from the film and becomes part of what makes you whole. Baby Driver, while not a perfect film, is now part of the tapestry of my movie soul.

The premise and many aspects of the film are deceptively simple. Imagine a young guy who needs the right song to drive a car fast and without regard to the danger he and others are in. And he does it better than everyone else. And its his job. It’s every teenager’s dream.

The getaway driver, nicknamed Baby (Elgort) has a tragic past. His mother and father died in the front seat while arguing. He was in the back seat, listening to his iPod. Now he has tinnitus and in order to drown out the ringing, he plays music in his ears at all times. He can read lips, and he can sign. He takes care of his elderly foster-father, Joseph (Jones), who is deaf and in a wheel chair. He puts his tiny stacks of 100’s that he earns from each heist away for another day. He’s doing alright.

His boss, Doc, teams his driver with different robbers at all times. He mixes and matches to keep them from getting too close, or even used to one another. He always uses the same driver, though. Baby is his good luck charm.

Then Baby meets Debora (James), a young waitress at the local diner that he’s eaten at for many, many years. When Debora responds to Baby’s affections, things just couldn’t be better. That’s the way the first act has to end, for a tragedy to be complete.

The mix of crooks Baby needs to associate with gives him an interesting mix of issues. Some manageable, some not. Some obvious, others not so much.

The details within every frame of the story are to an extent where it should be impossible not to know what is coming, but the skill Wright has as a writer keeps us in suspense almost to the end. The scene building is unlike anything I have experienced since seeing Goodfellas for the first time.

The casting is top of the line. Finally someone figured out how to use Jon Hamm in a cinematic setting. His work in this film is extraordinary in its subtle hints and range. I don’t think he should ever work with anyone else, if he wants to have a movie career.

Similarly, this is the best work Jamie Foxx has ever done. Including the Oscar nominated stuff. The skill he exhibits in dominating each scene he is in is exquisitely horrific. One spends each moment dreading what decision he might make next and how it will affect the lives of people on and off-screen. Not sure if this will interrupt his scheduled work for any more sequels to average films, but one can hope.

No one plays heartless boss like Spacey, and this role may be a walk in the park for him, but it doesn’t mean that his performance doesn’t work perfectly. After all, Goodfellas wasn’t exactly a stretch for DeNiro, but where would that film have been without him.

A key role in the film is that of Jones’ father figure, Joseph. There is a kindness in his eyes that says more than 1000 words could. And when you see the chemistry between he and Elgort, one can’t help but feel a love for both of them. I have not seen Jones enough in film, but lets hope this ushers in a wave of appearances.

Lily James has all of the makings of a star and this performance hits every note that is needed for the young, life affirming love interest. She has the face, form, heart and accent of which dreams are made. One look at her smile and we perfectly understand Baby’s motivations.

For Ansel Elgort, this is the kind of performance of which careers are made. His command of every scene, even when he’s not the dominant force, is astounding. We always know where he is and how he feels. We don’t necessarily know what his plans. His presence has not been felt this profoundly on celluloid to this point. He is so subtle and earnest, one can’t help but want to know Baby more.

Edgar Wright is as frustrating as he is talented. Shaun of the Dead is one of the best films I have ever seen, and despite all the good will in the world, the other 2/3 of the Cornetto trilogy just didn’t live up to the standard he set. Scott Pilgrim is remarkable, if a little flawed.  Ant-Man is fantastic, but where he ends and his replacement Peyton Reed begins is a question.

The work he does here shows his skill is increasing and it feels like its time for him to take on more substantial work. So far, it looks like he is his best provider.

What is amazing is in a film with 2 good and 1 great car chase scene, the best choreographed scene occurs on foot. It is here that the direction and remarkable soundtrack are at their peak. It’s all magic.

The film only lets down in the last few scenes with the antagonists. One shot of Halloween masks early in the film provides for a laugh, but later on the irony is thick when the bad guy just won’t die. It’s silly enough to take you out of the moment. But it certainly isn’t enough to take away from the thrill of the other 90% of the movie.

See this if you want to add to your list of great cinematic memories.

(****1/2 out of *****)

Sorry, I just can’t hate Transformers: The Last Knight (***)

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Transformers: The Last Knight – 2017

Director Michael Bay
Screenplay  Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, Ken Nolan
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Josh Duhamel, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Hopkins, Laura Haddock, John Turturro (with the voices of Peter Cullen, John Goodman, Erik Aadahl, Ken Watanabe, Jim Carter, Frank Welker, Steve Buscemi, Gemma Chan)

There was a point a decade or so ago when Anthony Hopkins still had a sterling reputation. He decided to retire, presumably to avoid having to reduce himself to less impactful roles. Stanley Tucci has never had the height of critical stature from which to be reduced. It is almost certain Michael Bay is sitting there, behind the camera, saying something like “just put more Tucci into it!” John Turturro, my Lord, he can be in anything good or bad. There will always be something along the lines of The Night Of for him to look forward.

There is a feeling of hanging around the savanna’s watering hole as it begins the process of drying when seeing the likes of these three in a Michael Bay film. With nothing to do but keep feeding on the animals approaching the ever decreasing water, they don’t need to lie in wait or put any skill into the hiunt. Instead, they just pick off the distracted animals, one by one, like moviegoers heading into a googleplex. Meanwhile the smell about the swamp attracts all sorts of pestilence.  It is hard to smell, much less respect.

Is this trash?  Yes. Is it congruent in any way with how humans (much less award winning thespians) act? Well, no.  But look!  They’re destroying the Pyramids again! And Sir Anthony is looking cool shooting Megatron with a cane!

That said, despite every column inch of negative press regarding this film and how uselessly complicated (and just plain useless) it is, I still can’t bring myself to dislike it. The film is the same as each of the others in terms of plot devices, MacGuffins and General Sharp / Morshower. This time though, they actually took the time to build on the half-ass ending they had in Age of Extinction with a somewhat decent first half of the film.

The biggest advantage the film has early on is the general absence of Optimus Prime, who is back on the Cybertron being bitch slapped by a floating sorceress (Chan) and then charmed with stories of their home planet’s once and future greatness. Not slowly and without subtlety, Prime is won over to the side of whatever causes humans the most damage.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, we have a chance to actually get to know some of the other Transformers. This is a great opportunity that has largely been wasted in previous films. We are usually stuck listening to the boring leader of the Autobots opine about virtue and never again losing trust in humans while Megatron plans and schemes to be that one extra bad guy in the end who gets destroyed as a prelude to the big finish.

The point this time is to see, hear and feel the interaction with the other characters who have not had opportunities for forming anything more than thumbnail generalities previously. Bumblebee is the big winner here. Likewise, Carter’s Cogman, who exhibits a feeling of dedicated servant coupled with unhinged sociopath that is warily fun.

Less fun is the precocious little girl who acts as though she is a protector of Autobots. The little kid was focused in an ill advised early round of commercials which I think significantly diminished this film’s already waning appeal. No one liked Scooby Doo once they added Scrappy.

If one can get past the historical hogwash of King Arthur’s court, the Nazis and other points that directly contradict at least the first two films.  And if you can look past the fact that yet another large mass is coming to our orbit and trying to destroy us without affecting things like, say, our gravitational field. And if you can just accept that character A has to get to point B in the first act, then character C is the only person that can help with situation D. And if you get around the idea that for all but the first one of these films, Bay has not bothered with concepts like gravity, space or coherent editing…you should be just fine.

Do I understand if someone hates this film? Sure. It’s not that good at all. But is it too complicated and silly at the same time as it has been accused? If anything, this plot has been the most straightforward of them all.

The bots benefit from more screentime, and become more like-able, just like the film itself. I never disliked Optimus Prime, but in no way did I realize that boring Peter Cullen would have 90% of the dialogue for all of the Transformers up to now. I don’t mind looking at Prime. I just want to hear someone, anyone, else.

Here’s a general rule when evaluating this film: if you didn’t enjoy any of the previous movies, then move along. This one won’t change your mind. If you think that somehow Bay took a dip in skill, energy or just plain continuity this time around, you picked the wrong reviewer to follow. I have a hard time writing reviews on films as if they should suck and just saying they are just too complicated to explain. When it gets down to it, there are plenty of nonsense reviewers out there that just took this film off. Bay has not gotten any better in these 5 films, but he certainly hasn’t gotten any worse.

(*** out of *****)

The Belko Experiment(***1/2): Your life is not your own

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The Belko Experiment – 2017

Director Greg McLean
Written by James Gunn
Starring  John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Josh Brener, Michael Rooker, Sean Gunn, James Earl

This has to be something people think about once in their working lives. At least once. The concept a simple look into the human void. What if everyone that you work with and are friendly with on a daily basis all of the sudden are induced into a forced version of survival of the fittest? Who steps up, who resists and who is obliterated?

The Belko Experiment dares to ask the question but doesn’t have the patience to stick it out through all of its twists and turns. What seems a normal day at an office in Bogota Columbia starts to turn weird when a couple employees recognize that all of the nationals were barred from entering the building. There are also several new security guards in the area that are unrecognizable to the usually solitary security guard (Earl).

Before COO Norris (Goldwyn) and employee Mike Milch (Gallagher, Jr.) can piece anything together, the voice comes over the loudspeaker and the metal shudders collapse over all possible entrances. The group of 80 employees are told that they need to kill 2 people within a period of time. If they don’t, then more people die. They don’t say how, but of course we discover how soon enough.

As the voice over the loudspeaker is revealed to not be bluffing and totally in control, the rest of the workers start to splinter. The fissures happen slowly at first, then in a rush.

This could be a recipe for hilarity, or absolute terror. It could also be a study in human psychology if given the time. Ain’t nobody got time for that, though.

The film works to steadily build tension in the first two acts. Such is the dedication to the craft that they cast Rooker against type. It works, too, up to the moment that the type A’s begin to coordinate their effort. Then it all steadily goes to hell in a bucket.

The standout moment occurs to the sound of California Dreamin’ sung in a mournful Spanish. So unsettling is it, that it is possible those who see it in this way may never experience the song in the same way.

This is all enjoyable, to be sure. Undoubtedly because the premise if filled with intrigue and asks questions of human nature. If they’ve done a film like this before, they certainly didn’t attempt it to this scale. The number of characters interacting would normally require a certain percentage of bland characterizations, but the acting and writing is better than that.

The principal antagonists Goldwyn and Gallagher, Jr., along with Ajorna provide a solid counter balance for the most part. John McGuinley is a Sergeant Shultz for the bad guys like usual. Sean Gunn’s pothead Marty leads an amusing mini-rebellion against all of the water jugs in the building.

If they could draw out the suspense with a couple more twists and turns through the last act, this film has a chance to be a classic. As it stands, it is a solid film that deserves to be seen by anyone looking for a plot that hasn’t been played out.

Now to see what they do with it.

(***1/2 out of *****)

 

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (***1/2), but the movies never stop

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – 2017

Directors Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg
Screenplay by Jeff Nathanson
Starring  Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, Geoffrey Rush, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Orlando Bloom, Kiera Knightly

It’s been forever since they pumped one of these films out. Okay, well not that long ago. But since 2011 Depp’s star has fallen. Good thing I don’t care about that crap. For the most part, I have enjoyed his Pirates‘ movies. I saw none of the earlier films in the theater, but I bought them all. And watched them once. For some reason, I never felt have been able to want to watch them again over repeated viewings of Master and Commander. Okay, it’s because the Russell Crowe / Paul Bettany epic is one of my favorite films. I always was a little jealous that the first film took the wind from the sails of the clearly superior Peter Weir film. By now, when its clear that there will be no 2nd film for the Patrick O’Brien series, it’s all water under the bow.

I have learned to appreciate the films, first for their inclusion of Geoffrey Rush as the initial antagonist and eventual anti-hero. He was made to play Barbosa in every way possible. The only other character that I like better is his Walsingham from the classic Elizabeth films.  That the story is somewhat centered around Barbosa only helps, in my view.

The story is a tad convoluted, nonetheless. Will Turner is a bit too old to play the naive hunk by about a decade, so instead we have his son, played by Thwaites. The dutiful son is dedicated to bringing his father out of eternal curse of sailing the Flying Dutchman. In order to do this, he needs a MacGuffin held onto by Depp’s Jack Sparrow. That MacGuffin will lead to another MacGuffin which leads to…well, you get the point.

In his search for Sparrow, he comes across a new young babe (Scoldelario) who bases her life on the belief of science and stuff. I say stuff because some of this is based on the true tale of Poseidon’s Trident.

Meanwhile, Sparrow is being chased by Salazar, a former Pirate hunter who was obliterated by a curse at the hands of a young, digitally enhanced Sparrow. So now he’s some kind of ghost.  He is unleashed the moment that Jack Sparrow does something with one of the MacGuffins, but this is not the last time he’ll be set free. If you think that is good for him, you haven’t seen many of these movies.

The thing about this plot, it works real well with the effects and the effort feels halfway cohesive. Sparrow flits and farts through the film, using his super power of being too drunk to take any hit straight on, yet sure-footed enough to get the benefit of every bounce.

Will the plucky youths come out on top in the end? Will those who have died in a curse live to die again? Does Barbosa find a purpose after so much looting and plundering? Will that little ghost of a monkey be as adorable now as ever? Will we get to listen to Knightly speak or does she charge by the word?

One thing is for sure, Sparrow will remain unchanged, astern The Black Pearl by the end of the film. And the next one too.

There will be no preaching about this film one way or the other. I can tell you that as the series goes, this is one of the better efforts, if for no other reason the youngsters are different from in films 2 and 3. Why that matters is of personal taste. I just liked seeing the wheel turn to a new generation there as we view the constants of Sparrow and Barbosa in the center.

Bardem does a fine job of being disappointed in his efforts to ruin Jack’s day. His perverse speaking style has a fear of failure built-in along with his joy in killing whatever he deems to be bad.

All the peripheral Pirate characters you’ve grown used to but still don’t know the names of are all here, except for maybe a few that died in earlier films. I mean that died and weren’t re-signed for this film.

The best thing about the film, not one mention of a voodoo curse by someone speaking with a reggae infused accent. It’s almost makes up for the biggest disappointment of trading Keith Richards for Paul McCartney. No problem with Sir Paul, but he’s no Keef.

So I think I will finally go back and partake of the rest of this series. There is probably some fun to be had…again. If not, I am sure I will have another chance to see another sequel in a few years.

(***1/2 out of *****)