Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opens the Potter world (****1/2)

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – 2016

Director David Yates
Screenplay by J.K. Rowling based on the book of the same name
Starring  Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Ron Perlman, Colin Farrell

Before we go any further, I have to say this: I love this movie. It does much of what Harry Potter took 8 movies to do within the space of its two hours. More than anything, it breaks the feeling of claustrophobia we had in heading back to Hogwarts every single year and exploring the cracks and crevices within its bounds.

We begin in New York back in the prohibition era. Not only is alcohol restricted, there are severe limitations for American Wizards and Witches too. Newt Scamander (Redmayne) arrives, but he’s not planning on staying. He wants to head to Arizona, where he plans to give some of his magical beasts room to thrive. Soon after he arrives, he comes across an earnest and well-meaning muggle (Fogler) and they are soon tied together, for better or worse. Mostly better, really.

He also encounters Mary Lou (Morton) a muggle who thinks Magic is dangerous and is soldiering the fight to tear it out by the root. She has adopted children conscripted into her army of fear and one of these, Creedence (Miller),  is conspiring with a high-ranking Auror wizard (Farrell) to find a very powerful child. What is an Auror? Essentially a Fed.

Another low ranking Auror (Waterston) takes it upon herself to investigate the doings for Scamander. Just about the time she figures out the depth of his and his muggle friend Jacob’s doings, they all get steeped into some big trouble.

The best parts about Fantastic Beasts… is the casual nature of the story. We know there will be fireworks, but for most of the movie, there is a concentrated effort on enjoying the wonder. The vehicle for this enjoyment is Fogler, who is essentially a stand in for the viewer. We want to be amazed and don’t want to be shooed away. The muggles in the Hogwarts films are necessarily bumpkins. They have no real chance for commentary, except for the negative kind. Smartly, they make Jacob a good guy, but an average guy. People can love him because of his character, not because he knows spells. Every discovery he makes in the film is a discovery for us. We get to breathe it in, with no feeling that it should disappear.

In allowing us the chance to gaze, the filmmakers use their time wisely in developing the rest of the story. Rowling has learned how to condense over the years and it pays off with a riveting last act. By the time we get to the chase, it’s almost easy to forget that they are destroying much of the city like happens in most movies these days. It’s a fair bet you can guess if the city stays destroyed or if anyone remembers it.

Colin Farrell is absolutely stunning in his role as Auror. Playing someone with questionable motives really suits him. He’s better here than anything I have seen him in outside of his work with Brendan Gleeson.

Waterston is a major find. She is so humbly engaging, she is impossible not to love. She is able to exhibit intelligence, compassion and the emergence of strength. Let’s hope she’s given more reins than Hermoine. Even better, her younger sister Queenie (Sudol) fits the times and makes magic fun as heck. She is an exceptional supporting character.

Fogler is incredible. If they find a way to incorporate him into the future movies and somehow connect him to Hogwarts, it will make everything so much better. The possibility is there to be a very exciting union with a wonderful Witch.

Redmayne is a natural Wizard. His quirks feel at home and much less annoying than in stuff like Jupiter Ascending. He is groomed into a believable awkward hero and definitely someone upon whom is worth investing 5 films.

The very biggest drawback is in the cameo. It was enough to almost cripple my enjoyment of the series going forward. If things go heavy in the direction of the star and the character, it’s hard to get excited.

Let’s see what happens, though. They made a lot of good moves in this film. I was tired of Harry Potter’s world. Let’s be glad we’re in an entirely different part of it now.

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

The Girl with all the Gifts (*****) gives us hope

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The Girl with all the Gifts – 2016

Director Colm McCarthy
Screenplay M.R. Carey based on his novel of the same name
Starring Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Glenn Close, Fisayo Akinade, Anthony Welsh, Anamaria Marinca, Amy Newy, Elise Reed

In an age where so many stories abound regarding the end of the world into a land filled with zombies, it is truly tough to parse an original story out of the mix. Let’s not forget about dystopian films too, for The Girl with all the Gifts is literally the representation of a society at the next stage with its children as objects of study, because they are a source of a hopeful future.

We begin with Melanie (Nanua), who is a prisoner, along with many other kids at a research facility. She is very polite to her captors. Indeed, it is apparent that she’s known no other life beyond captivity, so every behavior she’s experienced is normal to her. This includes being strapped to a chair, having guns pointed at her, being called horrible names. And her daily teaching sessions with her co-captors. Melanie loves learning, loves her fellow students and her teacher, Helen, most of all.

Indeed Helen shows her students genuine humanity, to the point of even touching Melanie on her head after being particularly moved by a story that the child wrote. This action brings an immediate lesson the commander of the base (Considine), who demonstrates what it is that requires these children to be placed in constraints.

That there is a plague of zombies is revealed even in the poster. The children have the duality of being afflicted and seemingly normal. They are not, of course. This doesn’t mean they are not bad. They’re just not polite eaters.

Looking for a cure to the fungus that is causing the zombification is Dr. Caroline (Close). She sees the key in Melanie and is about to close in when the base is overrun, leaving the central characters on the run. In the process, walls are broken down between the captors and Melanie.

The fascinating thing about The Girl with all the Gifts is it’s take on the premise that being human is the perfect destination. We have seen the crusted, horrible faces of the undead for so long, we don’t ever consider that they may not be dead at all. They are, perhaps, the next stage of the evolutionary process. The best thing about this movie is where other movies try to give answers, The Girl with all the Gifts asks questions.

Every conversation with Melanie and those who see her as afflicted is handled with such intelligence and curiosity, it is remarkable to watch. Melanie is anything but afflicted. Sure, she has an appetite, but her conscience is in fine working order. Her character is fascinating for her openness, genius and compassion. Nanua plays her perfectly and brings to life one of the best pre-pubescent characters that has ever graced the big screen.

The story wanders a bit through the middle, but it never loses focus on its purpose. That purpose is to show us that Melanie understands everything eventually, even if she can’t put a name to it right off. The discussion between her and Dr. Caroline regarding Schrodinger’s Cat is the key to understanding both characters.

All of the principals are exceptional, playing their part to perfection. Each has a part to play in the development of Melanie, even if they are only concerned with the survival of their kind.

The Girl with all the Gifts should be an essential story for us in order to attenuate our perspective on humanity. Is being human a static state, or is there something more to it? The questions it asks are eternal, even if we may not like the answers.

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

The Girl on the Train (***) has a familiar track

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The Girl on the Train – 2016

Director Tate Taylor
Screenplay Erin Cressida Wilson based on the novel by Paula Hawkins
Starring  Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Allison Janney, Édgar Ramírez, Lisa Kudrow

The Girl on the Train is a movie that feels like it probably was quite well enjoyed by all of the stellar cast that volunteered to be in the film. It’s filled with more than a few choice roles for women – even Phoebe from Friends has a pivotal role. That their enjoyment does not translate to a greater success is a shame.

Emily Blunt has the choicest role, though, as Rachel Watson. Rachel is a sleepy dreamer, who has created a fantasy about a married couple that she sees on her daily train rides to and from New York City. By the first time we see her, she’s already created several scenarios for who this beautiful woman (Bennett) is, what she does and who she loves. Upon closer examination, we are fed bits and pieces of who Rachel is, who the object of her fantastic vision is, and who that seemingly happy couple is living two doors down are that hired the woman as a nanny. The couple consists of her ex-husband, Tom (Theroux) and his lovely new wife Anna (Ferguson). They got together before Rachel and Tom divorced.

The movie goes through great pains to show us how messed up Rachel appears to be. She is an alcoholic, and that is among her better traits. She is a creeper, with seemingly no connection to reality. She stalks her ex-husband’s family, even going so far as to take their child outside once, if only just to hold for a while.

The story jumps around. Going from time forward to the past with assorted flashbacks in between. We get to know more about the other characters. Megan is the girl who Rachel has been watching from the train. Saying she has issues is an understatement. She’s even seeing a psychologist. Anna, she seems very sleepy a lot of the time. What is going on with her?

The problems of each of these women seem to intersect nicely with Rachel’s erratic behavior. Then Megan disappears.

Watching this story, it is easy to connect the dots when one considers there is not one image that the director does not intend for us to see. It becomes a contest of wills to see how much one can force oneself to enjoy the film for the performances, which are all more than adequate to push us through one labored scene to the next.

Blunt is the clear standout, as she commits herself so completely to the role, she is almost hard to watch. She is clearly physically and emotionally ill. She has horrible blotchy skin and her breath is almost visible.

Bennett is equally good. Her intensity and motivation perfectly matches her character’s history. She is recognizable in the most painful way. She’s one that could make all men nervous and attracted at once, without ever really being seen by them. Bennett could parlay this and Magnificent 7 into quite a career, if she picks the right parts.

Ramírez has a choice role as Megan’s psychologist. His character and performance cuts beyond what one would picture of a therapist that looks like he does.

Ferguson’s character seems like it was a bit underserved by the story. Anna is played with a seeming reservoir of emotions being unearthed by the unfolding events. Where she ends up just seems like it’s short of the character and actresses potential.

The rest of the cast is pretty much what one could expect from a movie like this. None of it is all that bad, but every bit of it is foreshadowed enough to take the steam out of the mystery.

Taylor was an overachiever in his early directing efforts. This time around, he does very little to distinguish himself as anything more than an average director. There is nothing here that exceeds the grasp of someone directing a Lifetime drama. He is capable of way more.

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

La La Land (***1/2) The portrait of the artist(s) looks familiar

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La La Land – 2016

Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Rosemarie DeWitt, John Legend, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Tom Everett Scott

There are moments in La La Land that feel absolutely lighter than air. It’s a story of hope and promise of a meaningful artistic existence weighed down by expectations of real life. Then hope and promise again. These moments are accompanied by some self-conscious takes on taking shots at fame alternating with what one compromises at time to get there. That its search for integrity that it feels familiar as freshly buttered theater popcorn doesn’t help it escape the fact that it’s presented many times before. Sometimes it’s taken in one piece at a time, and other times handfuls shoved obnoxiously down the gullet.

Mia Dolan (Stone) is a hardworking (Small Town Girl…) young actress, slaving away at the Studio Lot version of Starbucks. She’s down on her luck and just looking for a break. She may not get it for a while.

Sebastian Wilder (Gosling) is a passionate piano player (Just a City Boy…) who has a hard time compromising his value of artistic integrity to cash in on the fact that he is just a damn good musician who could be in demand if he allowed himself to be.

The Small Town Girl and City Boy’s orbits revolve around one another for a while, until they gradually realize that they are the exact element needed for each other’s version of Don’t Stop Believin’. The romance goes blossoms and they battle the odds and their own demons on their paths to accomplishing their dreams.

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The story is dotted with several average musical numbers and a three spectacular ones (A Lovely Night, Planetarium, Audition) and an ending as subdued as it is bittersweet. The story that threads all of the numbers together is a good, if familiar take on what it’s like to try to put on a show of what’s really matters to one’s soul. Strangely, the thing I thought of most while watching the film is the eternal struggle of…The Muppets.

This is not to say that the film is not successful. I am sure it will do well in awards season and that would be no more insulting than some of the drivel that has raked in the awards in recent years. The story is an honest, if derivative take on the struggling artist. I have no doubt that it will be an inspiration for many future artists.

The leads, Stone and Gosling, have a very easy chemistry at this point. They gel as effectively as any two I have seen in recent years. One hopes this will give both a boost in their careers to the point where even my Mom knows who they are.

Gosling, in particular, is finding his space in the cinematic lexicon. After a career that alternated chick bait (The Notebook, Crazy, Stupid, Love, A Place Beyond The Plains) with guy bait (DriveGangster Squad) and some nice critic bait (Blue Valentine, The Big Short, Half Nelson). This year’s The Nice Guys placed him firmly in my sights, and his easy performance here has kept him there. He has the charisma and easy charm to succeed without appearing to be trying. He could be the biggest name we remember from this era if he keeps this upward trend.

Stone is tougher to figure. She’s so obviously multi-talented. It would be lovely to see her avoid any sort of search for the self-serious relevance in a career that is wrought with the likes Natalie Portman’s, Halley Berry’s, Julia Roberts’s and Scarlett Johansson’s. She’s genuinely entertaining and refreshing in the least pretentious way.

Chazelle is on quite a trajectory. Last year’s Whiplash was a revelation and this film is an exceptional, if unoriginal follow up. There are few missteps and the conclusion has such an integrity with the rest of his story, it rises above the rest of its common story components. I place him somewhere behind Fincher, Mira Nair and Jeff Nichols on my list of favorite directors, but he’s within shooting distance.

If you like the elements of a musical, the artist staying true to their dream and romance, you will like and possibly love this film. I am firmly in the former category.

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

Passengers (***) starts off as a nice trip

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Passengers – 2016

Director Morten Tyldum
Screenplay Jon Spaihts
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia, Michael Sheen

Passengers is the kind of ride that would have been more interesting if it had been made in a time that didn’t require clean resolutions to its stories. The story starts with the moral philosophy question of what would one do if facing the prospect of a Desert Island existence when given the prospect of expanding their misery to someone else in order to split the difference together. From there it makes a choice and the viewer gets to see the evolution of its consequences. Just when it begins to get interesting, we are reminded that test audiences want to see point A go to point B rather than drifting off into infinity.

Jim Preston (Pratt) is an engineer whose hibernation ends prematurely on a near 130 year journey across the galaxy to a new planet. Why does this happen to him and no one else? We get a character who is at least as curious as we are, until we get to see him turn into Tandy from The Last Man on Earth, space version. He grows a horrible prop beard – so distracting it made one wonder what kind of beast it originally grew on. He has only limited means to live on until he starts getting creative. Jim has a relationship with an android bartender, off which to bounce ideas and with which he attempts to reason.

It’s not enough though.

The performance is a gentle expansion of range for Pratt, and for the most part he hits it. Jennifer Lawrence acts at about 3/4 speed, making sure she hits all of her marks in the most obvious way possible. Not saying she does anything wrong, rather it’s clear this script was written by someone who has less experience being a woman than she does. The name she is assigned – Aurora Lane – should have been the first indication of a struggle to understand.

Martin Sheen’s android Arthur is interesting as much for what he doesn’t offer as for what he does. The film ultimately misses a major opportunity making him closer to a toaster than to K2SO.

The last 1/3 of the film is a mess. Going from the social conundrum to a full fledged connect the dots action film. Who’s going where and why literally amounts to a search through a large warehouse for stuff that may or may not be working. This warehouse is made less interesting for the fact that they take all of about 30 seconds searching.

Sure, one could watch this on a Sunday afternoon and hope against hope that our protagonists unite and maybe start a colony of their own. What they do is unexplainable, half because by the end it’s jumpy, screamy and fiery to an obnoxious degree. How much you like this film should translate to exactly how much you desire formula.

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

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (****1/2): There is hope. Lot’s of it.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – 2016

Director Gareth Edwards
Screenplay Chris Weitz & Tony Gilroy
Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker

There is a stirring in the Star Wars universe not felt since the release of The Empire Strikes Back. The feeling is one of genuine hope in the future of a universe that has been suffering recycled storylines since The Return of the Jedi. Creatures and droids we’ve seen before living in entirely different worlds. New creatures, new droids and even more new worlds. The intensity to the story is unrelenting. There is precious little time for learning and even less for hugging. Even so, we get a new collection of heroes that become a very bright light in a series that was dimming, even with the financial revival that was last year’s The Force Awakens.

The story begins with Galen Erso (Mikkelson), a brilliant scientist who is on the run with his family from the throes of his former friend Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn). At stake is the development of the primary weapon in the Empire’s new station. Having stalled in it creation, Krennic needs Erso to complete his vision of the weapon. Suffice to say Erso is captured after tragedy strikes in the form of Krennic’s personal crew of Storm Troopers.

Move forward a couple decades and we have a battle station on the verge of completion. A message escapes from Erso’s research facility, setting off a chain of events that leads to the drafting of his daughter, Jyn (Jones) by the Alliance. She teams reluctantly with Rebel Intelligence Officer Cassion Andor (Luna) and his droid, K-2SO (Tudyk) on a quest to find an old friend of the Erso’s, Saw Gerrera (Whitaker). Each destination leads to clues driving the team forward, even if not everyone is even close to being on the same page.

The division and eventual formation of the team is handled clearly and logically. There are no super powerful individuals, and a variety of beliefs. Some have faith in the force, others have more faith in themselves. It’s a highlight of the film that Edwards, Weitz and Gilroy are able to walk the line of cliche and have it feel like they are breaking new ground.

The Empire, meanwhile, looms as heavily as it ever has on film. There is so much power on display here, it feels overwhelming at times. Better still, the Stormtroopers hit what they are aiming at almost as often as they miss. The diplomatic gymnastics within the ranks is absolutely delicious. Seeing Krennic bark in one scene, while knowing its only because he’ll soon be groveling is worth the price of admission. This is the best I have ever seen the Empire on film. The weaknesses are still there, but there is a logic to explain how they are breached.

The cameos are frequent and remarkable. It is well known Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) looms enough to give everyone a view of his chillingly precise power to wreak havoc with our psyche. This is not the repentant and weak version, just waiting to be shown the light. This is the foot soldier on which an Empire (and a cult, apparently) is based.

There are only a few moments in the film that take one out of the revary. The inevitable fate of some who clearly had the opportunity to escape happens enough to make the plot device less effective. Then there is the “surprise” of the very last scene. Not a surprise and not all that well shot. And what’s worse is everything leading up to it is as intense and assured as anything shot on film since the Millennium Falcon escaped Hoth.

Rogue One is easily the third best film in the series, and it may even be a tie for 2nd with A New Hope. The acting, writing and camera work are all stellar, even if there are more speaking parts than I remember in a Star Wars film. Every one in my group, from 45 to 10, had no problems understanding the premise and following along. That is saying something, because they move ever forward throughout the story at near light speed.
This film makes the film that immediately follows it better. I did not think it was possible. Go see it. Again and again.

(****1/2)

Bridget Jones’s Baby (**1/2) Just a little further…

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Bridget Jones’s Baby – 2016

Director Sharon Maguire
Screenplay Helen Fielding, Dan Mazer, Emma Thompson
Starring  Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Patrick Dempsey, Jim Broadbent, Gemma Jones, Emma Thompson

What the third film in the Bridget Jones saga has to accomplish is too much, and nothing at all. To shake the foundations of a cast of characters that was perfect in the first film, then just kind of there for the second film would be a betrayal to all that is holy in the world of romantic comedies.

What does one do when Hugh Grant doesn’t like the script for the third film? Replace him with a generic nice guy like poor Patrick Dempsey. Give him a moment or two to color outside of the lines, make him upstanding the rest of the time. Voila. The script writes itself…poorly.

The third film opens with a twist on the typical “alone and single” for her birthday theme. We get a rewind, find she’s not really miserable. She’s kind of thin and she’s got some new friends to go along with the old. The new friends are single and her age. The old are coupled up and are moving toward parenthood.

Bridget’s (Zellweger) successful, having a relatively good time drinking, carousing and hooking up with a random rich guy (Dempsey) at a weekend concert festival. She heads out before he can bring her breakfast and moves on with life…for a week. Then a tipsy hook up with Darcy (Firth) leads to…her leaving him a note in the morning.

Three months later. She’s pregnant. She finds a reason to tell each guy and not tell them about the other. Why is this? Wacky hijinks is why. And when they find out, more hijinks.

In many ways, the series has harkened back to romantic comedies of the ’50’s. If you add a bunch of foul language and change the morals to be in line with the liberal media of today, you’d have a perfect match. Sadly, this means it’s not that good either. The damn thing about it is the first film was perfect with most of the same players. Two important omissions, Richard Curtis and Andrew Davies, lead one to wonder how little import they had on story this time around.

It’s sad, because Bridget and Darcy deserve much better than to be flitting around in their 40’s trying to find themselves in each other’s arms. It could have been done better than the two films that followed that first classic. Audiences weren’t complaining much though. The film still made a metric ton of money. That each film has made less than the last should say something, but it didn’t say enough.

That there are some significantly funny moments in the film make it worth the watch, especially one has maintained an arms length fondness for the characters without being desirous of something more substantial. It is similarly refreshing to see a film where a child is talked to and about while still in the womb. You know, like a person should be considered.

Those moments aside, there are plenty more awkward moments that are supposed to play better than they do. Dempsey, poor Dempsey. He deserves better than to be a fill in. Thank goodness they are making Enchanted 2.

Ultimately this is the story about Bridget Jones and Mark Darcy. In that respect, it feels more stilted than ever. Someone took happily ever after and broke it up only so they could make a couple of sequels. If it were only possible to make a happily ever after sequel that didn’t involve the split ups.

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

Arrival (****1/2) is learning to accept a different language.

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Arrival – 2016

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by Eric Heisserer based on “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O’Brien

For those of us who are interested in good sci-fi, Arrival hits the mark pretty solidly on the head. Approaching the concept of first contact from a practicality rarely seen in films, it asks questions few movies dare to ask. One that kept coming to mind for me, Prometheus, loses its lustre just a smidgen.

One always knew that the Ridley Scott attempt at an opus took short cuts that undercut the grander vision for which it’s aimed. When seeing the courage Arrival has in breaking down tasks to the most basic level, it’s easy to understand they will lose some people. For those who want to give up and say it’s too hard, know this, my 10 year old daughter figured it out before they even entered the ship.

This is not to say the film is predictable. It is not entirely. There are so many wider questions that the story asks us to ponder, it is easy to understand why this film has not become the blockbuster it deserves to be. There are very few explosions, the firefights take place mainly offscreen. The bluster is as much philosophical in nature as anything.

The thing that catches the willing viewer in this story is the obsession with language and communication. Arrival takes our preconceptions on the tenets of communication and adds another dimension that may or may not be intuitive, depending on your learning style. The process of seeing smart people work out hard challenges is fascinating. Making it something we all can decipher with a little work is even more amazing.

Much of this is due to the writer and director. Villeneuve has cut a swath through the world of cinema that hasn’t been seen by this reviewer since David Fincher. His style is only matched by his ability to find and nurture great material. Heisserer is at his best here, showing much growth from horror remakes to something truly visionary.

The best thing about Arrival is Amy Adams. In a performance sympathetic and not at all maudlin, she gives a multi-layered performance that gives the viewer depth and keeps us wondering what she knows and, importantly, when she knows it. This role should net her a nomination, if not a win. She is a true acting force, on par with the best work that Jodie Foster ever did.

The story is very tight through the first 3 acts and starts to unravel a bit too quickly towards the end. We get to spend the last 15 minutes knowing what happened and just waiting for it to finish. This is not as much a betrayal to the viewer as a concession that some people may need a breather.

See this film. It will give you something to talk about and definitely fill your life with wonder.

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

Loving (*****) brick by brick

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Loving – 2016

Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon, Nick Kroll, Martin Csokas, Bill Camp

The thing about Jeff Nichols movies is that one can feel them as well as viewing them. Richard and Mildred Loving are not brilliant people. They are just ironically named lovers who become married on the verge of a good and necessary change. Yes, they are interracial and that makes them part of that change. Thing is, they still have to work, pay bills and carry on. There are not a series of grandstand moments and brilliantly phrased quotes. The line that sticks with me is the last one quoted before the end credits.

He took care of me.

This hit me because the actions that the Loving’s take with each other are always the small things, right down to handing a glass of water and a gentle massage when the other comes out of the heat. This is stuff people do for one another when they are in love. At least this its my experience. It’s defiance of gravity. It’s working around it.

Richard (Edgerton) is a laborer who becomes a brick layer by trade. Throughout the years with everything that happens, we always see him out there, laying bricks down. Just as importantly, we get to see the bonding agent applied to every layer. They don’t forget the little things. This movie is all about the stuff that fills in the cracks.

Mildred (Negga) is smiling, uncomplaining and always at work herself. Making sure that the house is kept in order and the children are grateful and ever learning. The children are described as bastards in the eyes of the law.  We get to see the obvious pain this causes the parents. Not by words, but by enduring.

Edgerton and Negga present nomination worthy performances in an divisive age. No matter what side of the political coin, we’ve seen race used as a political gimmick that puts steps forward like those endured by the Lovings in jeopardy. No one today suffers like they did back then. On the other hand, those times were not augmented by “protesters” paid to wreak havoc and spread fear of “others.”

Daniels, Edgerton and Negga show love happens regardless of politics and differences. We see their experiences and are allowed to judge for ourselves. The people presented are not all bad and good. Rather, they are working within an oppressive system and leading people in the way they best know how, while still maintaining their homes and jobs.

If you haven’t figured it out, Jeff Nichols is one of the best filmmakers today. After so many years of enjoying his style and his incredible depth, I had an intake of breath when I found he would be covering the story of the Lovings vs. The State of Virginia. If he had make any false step, I would have been in a well of misery. Thankfully, he stays true to the subject, not making any false political comparisons to events and politics of today. There are no false equivalents. There is just Richard and Mildred. And I am loving the way they took care of one another.

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

War Dogs (***1/2) Laughing is Crying

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War Dogs – 2016

Director Todd Phillips
Screenplay by Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips, Jason Smilovic
Starring Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Pollack

It’s hard to make a comedy about sensitive subjects. At some point, you’ve got to just go for it, with no apologies. When it comes for barging through sensitive subjects, Phillips is a good choice. The story of people swindling the powers that be in a time of war is old as war itself. Fortunately Phillips decided to forge ahead and treat the subject as a swindle of governments instead of some form of protest. Done right, people will be able to form their own opinions. This story will never be a flower in the barrel.

Teller and Hill are David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, two high school friends who have nothing better going in their lives…so they start selling arms to the U.S. government for their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Early in the war it was discovered that Cheney/Bush cornered the market on arms, and there was a fiat issued to start opening up the bidding process. Here is where Packouz and Diveroli come into the story.

If one is to assume it’s as easy as it shows Packouz and Diveroli are able to manipulate the system, it is surprising we didn’t have a gold rush of hucksters heading towards the Middle-East with contracts in hand. Honestly I would be surprised if there weren’t a bunch more that we never discovered.

The first half of the film is fun and somewhat thrilling, all the way to the point of the first trip to Albania. By the time things start breaking down, things move so fast that it’s hard to come to grips on exactly when the double crossings happened and why in the world anyone would go cheap on $100,000.

In all War Dogs is a funny and sad film. To imagine a Guildenstern and Rosencrantz existence in the midst of George Bush’s Hamlet with Dick Cheney playing Uncle Claudius is an image to behold. Phillips sympathies lie only with Packouz, and rely quite heavily on making Diveroli a monster. There is probably some truth in this. Fortunately the film doesn’t end on a cliched note. The last scene fading into Everybody Knows by Leonard Cohen may be the only thing remembered about it in 20 years.

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

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