Justice League (***) Gathered too soon

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Justice League – 2017

Directed by Zack Snyder, Joss Whedon
Screenplay by Chris Terrio & Whedon
Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielson, J.K. Simmons

The second saddest thing about the Justice League film is that they didn’t finish it. So much went into improving the flailing stature of the D.C. Cinematic Universe, its a shame that all the efforts went to waste. The success or failure of this film is secondary to the fact that the lead visionary of this universe is going through the most horrible time of his life in the wake of his daughter’s death.

What I can tell you about the story you can literally guess. A big bad guy takes the opportunity of Superman’s death to work his way back to the dimension / planet / etc.  He needs to find the appropriate MacGuffins to pull off his big plan.

Batman (Affleck) gathers evidence that something big is brewing. As he works to figure out what is happening, he takes the evidence that Lex Luthor (Eisenberg) gathered in BvS: Dawn of Justice and tracks down the heroes therein to form a team to fight the oncoming doom.

There are several things about this film that are marked improvements over everything we’ve seen outside of this year’s triumphant Wonder Woman. To wit, the things that are better:

  • Diana Prince / Wonder Woman (Gadot)- She’s taken the load of leadership in this film, and it helps immensely knowing that the lynch pin is so articulately and powerfully drawn. Yes, she’s a woman, and that’s great. She’s also a fleshed out character, thanks to her last film and at least they didn’t waste that by pushing her back. She is the Captain America of this Universe, and they’re playing wise by ramping that up.
  • Barry Allen / The Flash – I had questions about the choice, even with his varied work in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. I sort of liked Grant Gustin, but there is no way they could mix the darkness of the features with the muted goofiness of the television world. Miller is great because he’s awkward and not too funny. Whether this is because of the script or his skill, he feels like he lucked into his spot on the team. This makes us feel like we are stealing our own way onto this team of giants.

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    Yep, that is a winning Flash
  • Arthur Curry / Aquaman – Jason Momoa was another stretch in my mind, until I saw him. I always pictured the completely Aryan Super Friends version who might as well have been the Professor from Gilligan’s Island. Every moment he takes the screen, Momoa redefines the role in a charismatic and inventive way. He completely wins every scene that he occupies.
  • Batman / Alfred – Seeing them work in tandem shows that Batman in his advanced age needs all of the help he can get. Affleck’s Bruce Wayne has no business being in this group in his present condition. He gathers all sorts of pain with all of the wisdom he’s gained. It’s nice to see him handling the less powerful bugs instead of concocting some way for him to take on the big guy.
  • Camaraderie – The conceit that brings this team together is actually not too bad. Giving us three MacGuffins, one held by the Atlantians, one by the Amazons and one by some random group of Anglos gives us a reason for representatives from all of the groups. I am glad they tied Cyborg in with this route. Overall, it is a tight and effective story line that doesn’t need tons of screen time to tie everything together. This is the primary reason the film clocks in at under 2 hours and still gives most of the cast some reason to be in the story.

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    This is feel good 101
  • Bringing back Superman. I won’t tell you how they do it. What I will say is that the process contained some of the most wonderfully comic visions in the whole series. It was intense, well choreographed and the cinematography is spot on.

Now let’s get to what doesn’t work and – ultimately – why they should have put this film off for at least half a year instead of releasing it to meet a deadline:

  • Steppenwolf – This character is the worst in a series of horrible animated nemeses. The reasons are many, but mainly because they have not learned the lesson from their previous films. Each big bad cartoon, from Doomsday to Enchantress, then Ares, seems like a challenge to make something more pedestrian and horribly drawn. This time, they’ve topped themselves. Taking the inimitably dark charisma of Hinds and hiding him behind something that, at best, looks like clay is just a horrible distraction. Marvel has its share of boring animated bad guys, but at least the animation looks half-way decent.

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    Does any part of this look remotely real?
  • Antagonists in general – so far, only the peripheral bad actors have been interesting. Lex Luthor, Amanda Waller and the pair of red herrings in Wonder Woman all work way better than the final boss. Even the fly zombies from this film are not nearly as bad as Steppenwolf. In short, the job of the antagonist is to create chaos, build a compound, roll of exposition, then wait to have it all undone, like so many villains from Scooby Doo. It’s a useless trope that takes any sense of urgency away from the protagonists and the plot. Maybe if they kept moving and were harder to find…no, they’d still be boring and proclaiming how it’s “Impossible!” in the end. We need more varied conclusions that don’t require such goofy effects. Think of the last two Captain America films, or even the latest Spiderman. Real people, up close. Feints that lead to subtle turns. Real stakes.

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    Antagonists in waiting…getting old.
  • Bringing back Superman – Look, it was stupid that they even thought to kill him off in the first place. At least half of the enjoyment of a film is thinking you don’t know what the plot is. Once he took the krypton spike, the second half of Justice League was written. At least when they killed off Spock, Nimoy was actually not wanting to continue the films for a moment. I won’t pretend that this was enjoyable at all. It’s lack of surprise left me more time to…
  • Contemplating Superman’s mustache – Yep, as bad as Steppenwolf was, one had no problem discerning the re-shoots because every scene that had a weird upper lip just seemed funny for the wrong reason. I have come to rue the treatment of Cavill’s very capable performance, because I think he’s got a ton of talent.

    Did they break his jaw, too?
  • Contemplating the genius talent of Joss Whedon – I think there’s a reason he left his name out of the director credits and placed it in the screenplay credits for this film. He even liked a tweet where someone described Steppenwolf as the worst possible bad guy for the DCEU. What this provides Whedon is culpable deniability for not correcting the bad stuff while credit for doing good stuff for this film. It also makes him a douche, as well as a hypocritical gasbag. But we know that already. I will not deny his talent, but I won’t put him on my emergency contact list, either.

Look this film is a likable mess. It’s really got more going for it than it should. The real culprit is film release date mentality, which doesn’t forgive life events nor does it allow for course correction. It takes a strong studio to back their talent and push for good product. We’ve seen Star Wars push back release dates, and Marvel made room for Spiderman while pushing back some more developed material. They haven’t pushed out perfect films, but theirs aren’t struggling like DC continues to strain.

If they’d given the development of this film another year, what would have changed?  We get Aquaman sooner. Maybe Flash. Maybe another way to resurrect Superman in his own film with special guest stars. It’s not like we didn’t know. Point is, this film only changes for the better if they give the team more time to create. It’s when you have to make a deadline that you get the stupid King of the Mountain endings.

More of this please

Odds are we’re going to see a much lighter universe going forward. This isn’t even entirely due to the possible move to the background for Snyder. Gal Gadot’s push to get Brett Ratner out of the picture will make a difference, too. They’ve hung around long enough to find stuff that can work. The key is finding different creatives to move in and perhaps give more power to Patty Jenkins. She’s already shown her different lens has an appeal. Performance-based incentives should always be welcome.

I want to see more films with this cast. They are likable and they have something to offer. A deliberate altering of the path needs to happen behind to make that talent come alive.

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

 

 

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Wonder (****1/2) is something that everyone should experience

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Wonder – 2017

Director Stephen Chbosky
Screenplay Jack Thorne, Steve Conrad & Chbosky based upon the book by R.J. Palacio
Starring Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Jacob Tremblay, Mandy Patinkin, Daveed Diggs, Sonia Braga, Millie Davis, Izabela Vidovic, Noah Jupe, Bryce Gheisar, Danielle Rose Russell

When I was about 5 years old, in kindergarten, I made a friend named Eric. He and I literally just spent time in recess together and thought it might be fun to play after school. Eric was to walk at home with a teenage girl – a friend of the family – who was coming from the local High School to meet us.

She arrived at the school with another girl, her friend, who laughed and joked a lot. Before we started for his home, Eric decided to run from them in some manic form of tag in the wide open school yard. Instinctively I started running too. The friend of the family started chasing Eric, so her friend volunteered:

“You go get Eric. I’ll get the ugly one.”

I fell on the ground within three or four steps of this when I realized that I was not Eric.  And I was never going to be. The girl tagged me with her hands then. I didn’t feel that one.

I carried this event with me. I hauled it around like luggage. In some ways, it’s extra weight made me sensitive to other comments about my looks, which I went ahead and added that to my load. I let this shape me into a person who desperately wanted to be known as something other than “the ugly one.” It pushed some personality traits to the fore, and dragged others into the background.

One of the things I became really good at was reading people. I could tell a lot about someone based on where their eyes went after we were introduced.

I did find that I had a lot less social courage when it came to others who were less fortunate. I didn’t want to stand up for them, because I felt I had no leg to stand on. I was certain that I was on the edge of being thrown into the group of kids who were always teased for being “special.” Even the kids with seemingly no visual faults had a hard time facing up to bullies. There was no magic words back then. There never seemed to be an adult around to referee when someone said something cruel. I don’t know where I would have found that courage. It just took years to develop on its own.

If only this movie and book had been around then.

 “ ‘Shall we make a new rule of life … always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?’ ” Here Mr. Tushman looked up at the audience. “Kinder than is necessary,” he repeated. “What a marvelous line, isn’t it? Kinder than is necessary. Because it’s not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed.” 

It would be one thing if Wonder taught us the value of forging ahead through rough waters. If it only taught kids and adults to be considerate would be amazing. This film does it one better. We get everyone’s perspective and if we pay attention, we have a chance to realize that everyone has a burden to bear.

Wonder is a wise film. It’s simple, heartfelt and not subtle at all. Unless you consider listening a form of subtlety. Even if you’re not paying close attention the message of the story is hard to miss. Indeed, it’s hard to not agree with.

August Pullman (Tremblay) is a 5th Grade boy with a facial deformity, which he has mandibulofacial dysotosis and a cleft palate. I was born with the latter. His parents worked with him to make the decision to join a private school. The story starts with his visit to the school for a tour, before the first day.

On that day he makes an enemy and a friend. He doesn’t realize this, of course, until much has happened.

Where this film succeeds is in its simple multi-sided approach to the story. By dividing the story into perspectives, we are allowed the privilege of adjusting our judgement to fit the procurement of new facts. The film gives the wisdom of acknowledging that with an understanding other people’s side of the story, we can go a long way into understanding why Mr. Browne’s (Diggs) first precept is a quote from Dr. Wayne Dyer:

When given the choice between being right, or being kind, choose kind.

There is an inherent amount of grace to showing simple kindness. This is something that Auggie’s Principal Mr. Tushman (the marvelously understated Mandy Patinkin) expresses effortlessly.

Auggie has a tough road in front of him. Not only does he need to learn to navigate the complex form of relationships of an “ordinary kid,” he also must look beyond the bullying he gets from the simple fact that his mere existence is a medical wonder augmented by over two dozen surgeries.

The reason is, his sister Olivia (Vidovic) is undergoing some pretty big issues, too. Her friend Miranda (Russell) has recently drifted away, and she recently lost the biggest fan that she had, in her grandmother (Braga).

This is just the tip of the Rashomon iceberg.

The simple story is augmented by some spectacular performances. Tremblay continues to show (this time through incredibly real prosthetics) a range that most actors years older could not touch.

As Olivia and Auggie’s mother, Isabel, this may be Julia Roberts’ finest acting performance. She is in command of the logic and completely beholden to the heart of her character. I didn’t know she had this kind of ability, Erin Brockovich notwithstanding.

Owen Wilson is just the right touch as Nate Pullman. He’s a simple, loving man who wants everyone in his family to succeed and to feel loved. Let’s just say Marley and Me was a warm up for this role.

Mandy Patinkin. What is possible to say about him by now? His skill is only exceeded by his ability to pick material and roles that are absolutely genuine to him. It’s hard to imagine this film succeeding without him, even if he had a limited role.

As “Via” Vidovic is a key player here, too. She does an admirable job presenting someone who understands her problems don’t have to be the biggest thing to take a toll. Her loving, but challenging relationship with her brother brings a depth that enriches both characters.

Chbosky once more (as he did in The Perks of Being a Wallflower) shows that he can navigate complex thought and actions in relatively simple, short strokes. His propensity is to show that no human is beyond redemption bodes well for this ultimately optimistic take on growing beyond what you are right now.

His choice to make Summer, Jack Will and Miles (Davis, Jupe and Breitkopf) more than one note characters gives the actors more to do than most directors would give peripheral child performers. They show they are ultimately up to the task.

The only time the film stumbles is when looking to find someone to blame for all of that teasing. There is a ham-handed exchange between Tushman, two parents and a child that might have gone better had they put actors more worthy of being counter to Patinkin as the adults. The result feels like we’re witnessing an awkard form of shadowboxing.

There is also a fight scene that comes out of nowhere that feels forced and unnecessary. If they’d given the kids something more clever to overcome, it would have been more respectful to their abilities.

My complaints are trivial compared to what this movie gets right. I have to be honest, I was crying from about the 10 minute mark through to the end. My oldest daughter and her friend were in a constant state of tears, too. My youngest even found a lot of this felt true to the challenges she goes through. This film is honest, painful, but mostly it’s optimistic. This is my favorite film of the year and it is the kind of story that goes a long way to improving the human experience. And if my view of the film is colored by my personal experiences, I wish I could have used these colors years ago.

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

 

Murder on the Orient Express (***1/2) – It’s never about whodonit

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Murder on the Orient Express – 2017

Director Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay Michael Green based on the novel by Agatha Christie
Starring Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman

“Lies – and again lies. It amazes me, the amount of lies we had told to us this morning.” (said Bouc)

“There are more still to discover,” said Poirot cheerfully.

“You think so?”

“I shall be very disappointed if it is not so.”

The Poirot of Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on The Orient Express is much more tired than the Albert Finney version of my extreme youth. Finney seemed ready to jump into the fray, whereas Branagh’s version always seems to remind people he’s on his way to retirement. On his way, but not quite yet.

This time, after solving the case of the missing religious artifact with the prime suspects being a priest, a rabbi and a cleric, he is asked to head to London for an impending case. The quickest route has to be the train line of the title, taking off from Istanbul the next morning. He gets on.

The mystery of the title happens the second night on the train. Someone is murdered. Then the train is stopped by landslide. The director of the train line, Bouc (Bateman) presses his friend, Poirot to solve the case quickly before the train gets moving again and gets to the next stop.

From this point, the interviews are fast and furious. If you think you’ve solved it or if you have seen or read previous incarnations, this train is still worth the ride. The point of Branagh’s take is not really to show a neat collection of clues and piecing the puzzle together. That said, it should be easy enough to surmise that there is more than one motive and suspect.

Where Branagh succeeds in this take of the story is in his realization that there must be a reason to watch a film more than once. The things going against that in any mystery is once you’ve seen it, the mystery is solved. It also doesn’t help to have such exaggerated vamp performances.

For these reasons, Branagh has included some carefully laden clues, gorgeous scenery, a humble soundtrack and some more subtle acting to reward repeat viewing. In short, he’s made a movie that draws you in while it pulls you down the track.

First of all there are very few scenes that come across as cheesy. Everyone is playing straight with no chaser. Even Derek Jacobi, who seems the very essence of a flaunt, has a muffle on it for once. In fact, only Poirot comes across as any sort of flamboyant, and like I said, he’s pretty subdued. And he’s rather polite, too. We just know that he has a big mustache and can’t turn down a good mystery.

The shots of the train and the environment it ambles through are excellent, for the most part. There are a couple of CGI moments, but those are forgivable in an age where a warm den with a computer outweighs any shot in inclement weather. We can definitely tell, in scenes like Poirot’s interrogation of Debenham (Ridley) and the final reveal, these people are not comfortable and for more reasons than their guilt or innocence.

Of the passengers, all of the performances are good, and a few of them great. Pfeiffer hasn’t chewed this much scenery since Dangerous Liaisons. Ridley’s counter to Poirot’s inquiries is fun, as she gives no quarter, nor does she expect any. My favorite is Bateman’s Bouc, in what should have been a throwaway role. His frank honesty adds an innocence that is required to give Poirot a sounding board off which to bounce his findings.

Most interesting is the scenery that Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos use for many of the shots. There are many shots from differing vantages and through angled windows and mirrors that add another dimension to what could have been a boring and repetitive venture of questions and answers.

This is not necessary viewing, to be sure. It’s a matter of preference and whether or not you have a Sunday afternoon with nothing planned. It’s not necessarily the kind of film that will leave one puzzled. In truth, one would hold little chance to fully resolve the film based on the fact that evidence mostly comes to light for us in an orderly fashion throughout the last two acts.

It’s a good film though,. And it deserves a space for those who like to see a good story told well. Not well enough for awards, but definitely well enough for someone with nothing much to do.

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

 

Kevin Spacey: Separating the artist from the art

The summer of 1994 brought the death of two people in Los Angeles, California. I had never heard of either of these people before, but the aftermath brought the names of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman to the ears of most of America. Whether you have an opinion as to whether Nicole’s ex-husband, O.J., committed both murders, what can be agreed on is the very limited entertainment career of Simpson was over from that time on.

Worse for some, including me, is that the three movies he made that had any sort of repeat viewing value, The Naked Gun Trilogy, now sits in a sort of limbo on the shelf. I have not watched the series more than once since 1994, even through I transferred the collection from video cassette to DVD sometime in the early 2000’s.

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As I watched them all, the very enjoyable supporting performance of O.J. as the ironically named Detective Nordberg stood out like a sore thumb. He did some yeoman’s work there, seemingly taking an endless amount of bumps and bruises with a smile on his face. He’s always the loser, until the last film when he catches the baby and in his exuberance nearly spikes it on the ground in celebration.

I was never a huge fan of O.J. and I didn’t really consider him much of an actor, but those films I enjoyed. Not any more.

For Kevin Spacey, the library of films and his acting in them is much more extensive and talented. Again, regardless of your opinion of who he is and whether he did any of the things for which he is accused, the allegations and his own actions since they have surfaced have to have some sort of effect. Ridley Scott just made the decision to completely eradicate him from the upcoming film All the Money in the World in favor of Christopher Plummer.

The move is unprecedented in its complexity and ambition. He’s doing all of the reshoots and still plans to have the film released at its original December 22 date. Some see this as virtue signalling. Knowing that the film is being released in Awards season, however, points to another reason. This film would have no chance to get any sort of recognition in current form.

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Destined to become a trivia question

For another 2017 contender starring Spacey, there will be no such opportunity at revising history. Baby Driver is one of the best films of the year. And up until the moment these allegations began to surface, it was my favorite film this year. It was great for many reasons besides Spacey, but it was also great because of him. It will likely and somewhat unfairly sink into obscurity now.

The film as it stands works with the our present image of the artist that is Kevin Spacey. His character, Doc, is the leader of an ever changing group of thieves. The one constant is a young man, Baby, who is completely under his control. The story is about Baby’s discovery of life outside of Doc’s never-ending series of heists and onto his own life with someone he loves by his side.

That these robberies benefit Doc more than anyone and that Doc is a puppet master only benefits the experience of film for the viewer. We know Baby is a victim, just as we know Doc is really his abuser, as much, if not more than the other antagonists in the film. Kevin Spacey as a puppet master and a manipulator?  Who’d imagine…now more than ever.

The point is, few people will want to.

If one looks back on the career of Kevin Spacey, most of his films are good. Nearly all of his performances are great. I personally own copies of at least 8 of the films of which he’s been a major part.

Now begins life after Spacey’s been revealed for who he is at his worst.

For the films in which he plays a bad or somewhat unprincipled guy, one might be able to get through them. The films made where he’s a shining star, like Pay It Forward, The Negotiator, The Shipping News…well its not like anyone had talked about those films lately anyway.

The real test for Hollywood is what does one do with American Beauty? This is literally a film in which its Oscar Winning star is lustful of an underage teenager (Suvari) while literally being hunted down by a homosexual (spoiler alert). This film’s aggressive handling of social mores is not an easy watch to begin with. Even I got rid of it by 2005, after getting married and having two daughters. Does the Academy continue to recognize this film or does it fade into obscurity.

Likewise The Usual Suspects. Spacey’s performance was good enough to get a supporting Oscar, but how is it viewable now? I hadn’t watched it since the 90’s, but I always kind of knew it was there, for when I wanted to watch it in the future.

L.A. Confidential is a crucial film in many ways. Although Spacey isn’t technically one of the leads, his Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes is a crucial supporting character and is possibly my favorite Spacey performance. His character is perfectly played. The smooth operator who has a chance to be real life hero. He is undone in site of the finish line, never to see true reward. This story is not his to be told, though, and the way it unfolds is a remarkable example of film making. Indeed, we’d never see Curtis Hanson come close to this height again.

For each of these films there are excellent performers beyond Spacey. Watching Crowe beat down a spouse abuser and threatening to “slap a kiddie raper” charge on him is an ironic start for the rising of his star, when the next scene features Spacey. Fortunately for the likes of Crowe, Guy Pearce, Annette Bening, and Robin Wright, they already have established careers before Spacey’s misdeeds came to light.

The people who took part in those films and the show House of Cards extend beyond established stars. Hundreds of people made their living off of these shows and films. What will happen to their future royalties?

What will happen to those who helped to create Spacey’s more recent work, including the unreleased Gore? This will have an affect, and that is unfair.

Just like everyone who worked on the classic trio of Leslie Nielsen films, who surely lost out numerous sales on home video when O.J. went through trial after trial asserting his innocence.

All of these works of art had people who depended on the works profits as some sort of living. They were deprived of this by actions they took no part in and most certainly did not condone.

Human nature takes its toll, however. We can’t control how we react to the image of two people viciously slaughtered while watching great comedies. Nor can we push the image of an older man taking advantage of younger actors while we try our best to work through any of myriad films or television shows of a prolific career.

For my part, L.A. Confidential loses none of its power. It’s such a rich and coldly cynical story, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the vastness of its presentation of the deep undercurrent of sickness of Hollywood, California post WWII. That Spacey leads a dual life as police detective and star only serves to underscore how little anything has changed in the years since the story that is portrayed.

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The undercurrent of the undercurrent

If the Naked Gun films weighed on my morality in my 20’s, being almost 50 gives me pause in wondering how I will ultimately react to the work of Kevin Spacey.

I will not ever stop watching the films of David Fincher, even if I skip his work on House of Cards. The Usual Suspects, with its Director Singer also under a cloud of suspicion – might sit on the shelf a while longer. GlenGarry Glen Ross doesn’t  get as much viewing as it does referencing for most.

American Beauty, for all of it’s analysis if the deviance of modern America, is likely pretty much done. There was already too much going on in that film for comfortable evening viewing, much less a Sunday afternoon.

Horrible Bosses and its second film were never considered to be long lasting fare. It was for money, not for posterity. Superman Returns is all but forgotten at this point. If you liked A Bug’s Life, you are amazing, because most people can’t even remember that is the movie they released after the first Toy Story.

This brings us back to Baby Driver. It’s not a movie that deserves to be overlooked, though I am pretty sure it will be kicked to the awards curb. As it stands, I still think this film is one of the most incredibly well directed films of my lifetime. Kevin Spacey being abusive only makes it’s creation more apt and just as amazing.

Don’t let this man’s life outside of his art diminish the work others created in his presence.

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47 Meters Down (***) Almost didn’t make it

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47 Meters Down – 2017

Director Johannes Roberts
Screenplay by Roberts and Ernest Riara
Starring  Claire Holt, Mandy Moore, Chris J. Johnson, Yani Gellman, Santiago A. Segura, Matthew Modine

47 Meters Down is not a great movie. It’s really not all that good of a movie. What keeps it from being a bad film, however is a good script.

Two sisters Lisa and Kate (Moore and Holt) are in Mexico for a trip. Kate is there because she wants her sister to experience a little of the life that she lives most of the time. Lisa, just broken up from a long relationship, wants to prove to her boyfriend, or maybe just herself, that she is not a stick in the mud.

After sending a text to her ex and getting a dismissive response, she decides to take her sister’s invitation to go out all night with a couple of guys for some PG fun. If you take the hint, you know exactly the type of film to expect.

The guys talk the girls into taking a less than legal diving trip watching the sharks from the safe confines of a cage. They ask the guys if chumming for the sharks is illegal. The guys tell them they can’t just call the sharks in. Nervous laughter follows.

Anyone who’s seen the commercial knows what the next 40 minutes should be like. The camera angles are not all that great, excepting one or two scenes (one above) The sound of the divers, improved by the masks they wear, only clarifies the panicked dialogue. So frequent is the screaming and heavy breathing, it’s amazing the air oxygen tanks last so long.

I do like Mandy Moore the person. I am glad she found success with This is Us. That this film made 10 times its meager budget is an indication that they found her audience as much as anything. She’s good enough to get the point across. None of the  rest of the cast stands out. Even Modine seems to be in Samuel L. Jackson mode.  The mode that takes a movie based on the type of vacation spots nearby.

One can go down the list of clichés, counting them all the way to the surface and back onto the boat. If you stop counting there, you will be missing out. The best parts of the film don’t happen until the first ending. What happens following almost salvages the rest.

Almost.

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

Thor Ragnarok (****) a well-placed step towards the inevitable

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Thor: Ragnarok – 2017

Director Taika Waititi
Screenplay Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost
Starring  Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins

I feel bad for Chris Hemsworth. By the time most of us knew he was funny, we already had seen Guardians of the Galaxy. Now, several years and another Guardians sequel later, we get a humorous movie that’s energy feels borrowed as much as anything.

Thor: Ragnarok is a very good film. It’s got more spectacle than the other two films in the sub series. It’s got more character and it’s much more enjoyable. Sad truth is both Thor films are the least likely to be viewed by most fans because outside of Hiddleston, there isn’t much more to enjoy for those films. Whatever charisma Thor is granted is more than undone by Natalie Portman’s wooden acting. This time, there is nothing holding back the God of Thunder. Except for maybe that thing they have attached to his neck.

After discovering the true location of his father, Thor finds that he is near the end of his life. What’s worse, he drops some info about Thor’s unknown older sister, Hela. Hela (Blanchett) is bad, of course, and powerful as hell. She once had her father’s favor, until her ambition outweighed that of Odin (Hopkins). Then he gave her the Zod treatment.

Hela breaks out and quickly dispatches Thor and Loki into an oblivion called Sakaar which is the home to one of the Elders of the Universe,, The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Anyone who doesn’t know who he is pitted against here, hasn’t looked at any promotional materials for this film.

The best part of this film is the humor, but if it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, they’ve certainly tried here. So frequent are the jokes, there feel to be no stakes. Perhaps if they’d laid the groundwork at all in either of the previous two entries, it wouldn’t feel so out-of-place. All of the sudden, we have the guy who never gets it, leading with the jokes.

The stakes of this film are pretty high, though. We’re on the cusp of Infinity War, and actions in and around this film look to be contributing directly to its inception. There are several significant losses in this chapter. While no one seems to have time to even ponder the significance of their departures, there are plenty of opportunities for yuks.

These laughs are pretty damn good, though. I can’t thank Marvel enough for letting Jeff Goldblum in the door. His contributions alone are worth more than any of the myriad effects. There is nothing better than seeing him barely scrape the surface of an incredibly powerful character and just make it seem like he’s out for a never-ending good time.

Hemsworth is very good, and his ever developing chemistry with Hiddleston is fun to experience. Knowing that he could have been this same funny guy 2 Thor films ago makes it just q little weird now, but oh well.

Blanchett takes the same doomed baddie and puts her incredible beauty behind it. She seems right at home in this universe and they leave enough ambiguity to make one realize she could be called on later by someone who is in love with The Goddess of Death.

Loki (Hiddleston) is delightful and they give him a variety of things to fail at, until he fights on the right side. Elba is finally given something to do, and he looks gorgeous while doing it.

Mark Ruffalo is here and he spends much of his time outside of Hulk looking perplexed. It fits the theme of someone who was stuck inside the green giant for over two years. Tessa Thompson, as Valkyrie is fine as the lynch pin required to move all of the cosmic tumblers into place. She handles her role with a surprising amount of casual grace.

Waititi is a pleasant enough choice for this film. He adds a gloriously distracting color palette along with a memorable character Korg, who has several of the film’s best lines with a beautiful delivery. His addition of Rachel House as The Grandmaster’s bodyguard doesn’t work for me, if for no other reason than it’s the same annoying character House played in The Hunt for the Wilder People. I am pretty sure I am in the minority of people who found that film a tad overrated. I really can’t tell you anything technical he might have added to the film, because by now that stuff is pretty much handled by the Marvel house. They brought him in for the humor and that’s what they got.

In all, this is a fun film that is as good as one could expect coming from one of the heretofore most boring parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If it feels a bit underdone, it’s because it still follows the formula of megalomaniac who almost has it all until she doesn’t. Marvel has done a great job making their formula interesting, even if the characters (outside of Steve Rogers) evolve at a snail’s pace. If the Marvel movie formula is still stuck in the mode of dragging these characters in and never quite letting them go, well, one can understand why. It’s comic books, man.

The thing that holds Thor back, like with many of their characters, is that nothing really drags him down and out once The Immigrant Song begins to play.

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

 

Jigsaw (**) – Disposable Morality

JigsawJigsaw – 2017

Directors The Spierig Brothers
Screenplay by Josh Stolberg, Peter Goldfinger
Starring Tobin Bell, Matt Passmore, Callum Keith Rennie, Clé Bennett, Hannah Emily Anderson

It takes a good riff to hook one on a franchise, bad or good. The first Halloween is one of the greatest films of all time, making me a willing sucker for each subsequently horrible entry. I keep thinking it will get better. SAW was a film I didn’t think all that great the first time. The ending was clever, and the depictions of gruesome death tied to hollow morality goes back to Scrooge. That term “torture porn” was berthed with this franchise should tell you everything you need to know about this series. But there’s so much less.

The thing that hamstrings the franchise past episode one is the characters are as entirely disposable as the plot makes them to be. We find vignettes of mostly bland people in distress, in a prime position to die horribly. There is some sort of device that elicits a message from the master of their current position telling them what it is they need to do in order to stay living. It doesn’t promise them that they’ll be comfortable in their possible future existence.

Outside of their prison is even worse in terms of acting. We bounce between flashbacks of those prisoners affecting the life of John “Jigsaw” Kramer in a negative fashion and some extremely bland investigators.  Following both plot lines and their obvious tells is almost always more painful than watching the torturous deaths to which we are chained.

Almost every one of these actors are people you’ll never remember, but for how much they annoy. There are exceptions to these rules. Danny Glover, Shawnee Smith, Ken Leung and especially Donnie Wahlberg added something to the series. Cary Elwes was at least an even trade.

One of the weak points for the series is Bell’s divergent character who is suffering on one side and applying the pain on the other. He’s always played as a reluctant benefactor. It worked to begin with, but by the time they had him on the operating table it was more funny than anything.

This time, ten years gone, we’re supposed to buy the idea that he’s somehow escaped the grave and put one of his fresh victims in the box. Seeing him mope around, viewing and judging from a distance is a threadbare concept now. It’s to the point where its a wonder if he ever saw any simple kindness in his life.

If I never mention any of the acting talent in this film, I would say it ranks right up there along side, say anything produced for Lifetime or SyFy. The toughest part working through these films is fighting the thought that you literally hope most of these characters will die at least as horribly as their acting ability.

For those who like this series, this one will rank somewhere near the middle when it comes to what they want. There are some Fangoria-worthy moments. Most others that are somewhat less inspired. The logic and moral authority is thinner than ever. You really have to reach to find the reasoning even partly valid. The twist at the end has been done a few times by now and it will not resonate at all when compared to even SAW 3D.

It’s understandable that this franchise could go on forever and for no real reason other than people like to see mishaps with painful contraptions. If they really wanted to work as hard at scaring you, they’d work on your mind as much as the eyes.

Which brings us back to the first film. Do more stuff like that. Which is to say, tell unique stories.

(** out of *****)

Wind River (****): In the battle between you and the world…

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Written and Directed by Taylor Sheridan
Starring Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Chow, Graham Greene, Martin Sensmeier

It seems in an ever political world that one can find statistics for everything. Everything except missing Native American women, according to Taylor Sheridan. If it were not for this film about two such women found murdered, and the lives their loss affected, the reality of these losses might have been lost to me, too.

Whatever one can glean from the well written trio of films on his resume, Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River, we get to see damaged and resilient people who forge ahead in a world without mercy. That doesn’t mean that mercy is absent from the experience for the viewer.

In the winter on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, we see a young woman, Natalie Hanson (Chow) struggling barefoot though the snow in the midst of night. She doesn’t make it far, from what we see. We find out that her last trek is much more astounding, however tragic.

The next day Wildlife Agent Cody Lambert (Renner)is in the midst of a normal winter morning, tracking down predators of the local herds. We see him take down a significant portion of a wolf pack in the midst of sheep. This is not the last time we will see this. After picking up his boy from their mother Wilma (Jones) we discover the reason for their divorce, ostensibly in the altar displaying the short beautiful life of a young woman on the mantle.

Soon Cody is asked to help his in laws track a mother mountain lion. On his way to visit them on the reservation we see a tattered American flag blowing upside down in the wind over a group of Natives building a bonfire in the snow. He takes a sled to follow the tracks and comes across the last tracks Natalie Hanson ever made. He crumbles into the snow beside her.

Natalie was the daughter of his own deceased daughter, found much the same way a few years earlier. After calling it in, the FBI sends Jane Banner (Olsen) from a seminar in Las Vegas. She is nowhere near ready to handle this case. Like many of Taylor Sheridan’s female protagonists, she has more than enough fortitude for the task.

There are two separate journeys in Wind River, neither of which revolve around the mystery of who committed the murders. Instead we are seeing how one grieving father sees the legacy he thought was cut short survive through his helping another person in her quest to do the same.

Renner is excellent here, choosing to play his character as one who expects little from life, even if he’s still willing to give what he has to those that he feels are deserving. His interactions with the Natalie’s father Martin (Birmingham) are among the film’s highlights. A companion in grief, he offers what solace he can while promising to help Banner hunt for the “predator” who brought his friend’s daughter to her end.

When giving Natalie’s brother the news, we get an insight to his mind:

Chip: Man, I get so mad i want to fight the whole world. You got any idea what that feels like?
Cory Lambert: I do. I decided to fight the feeling instead. Cause i figured the world would win.

As Banner, Olsen has the least amount of room to move. If there can be one criticism of Sheridan’s characters, it’s that he tends to put them on an idealistic pedestal. She’s young and willing to help and learn, and she has to yet go through every road that the seasoned men have already gone through. And unlike men, women here are either victims or on their way to deliverance. The men get to cause the victimhood, learn from it, and understand their nature as the harsher sex.

If this is the limit to Sheridan’s ability, he’s still got more wisdom than most artists in the film industry. His prose and dialogue are incredible in their power, understanding and wisdom. And he’s quotable as hell.

The character actors are a huge asset as usual. Graham Greene is exactly the perfect combination of wisdom and humor. It’s a crime that they don’t have a spot for him in every movie. His delivery is impeccable, like when he answers Jane’s request for backup:

This isn’t the land of waiting for back up. This is the land of you’re on your own.

Gil Birmingham may be my favorite actor right now. He’s been around for years, but it wasn’t until Hell or High Water when I realized how much nuance a man can show with such a stoic demeanor. Seeing him (lower right) in this Diana Ross video for Muscles gives no indication of an actor, but it sure is funny. The best work he’s done give no indication of that body, just a depth of soul.

muscles

The fact that there is little mystery to the film shouldn’t matter if character and feeling are what you are seeking. The reveal at the end is less of a surprise than the action of the climax. And in typical Sheridan fashion the climax is never the conclusion of the story. Time must be taken to recover. That is time where most people live in a world without mercy.

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

Adams and Jefferson on Movies: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

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WeMissE:    So, keeping in tune with the Halloween season, we had time to watch another scary movie.  This time we decided to skip the original and go right to the remake.  There are four different Body Snatcher movies, and the second version, directed by Philip Kaufman in 1978, is considered by many fans and critics to be the best of the bunch.

This isn’t really a horror movie by today’s standards.  It has no gore to speak of, and no real “gotcha!” moments either.  What this movie has in spades is a deeply unsettling feeling.  Kaufman never lets the viewer get comfortable.   In many of the movies images, something is just a little off.  I noticed from very early on that he often used unconventional camera angles.  Sometimes the camera is very low, shooting up at people faces from the waist.  Sometimes he uses close-ups in unexpected places.  Characters are often in darkness.   The movies deepening paranoia keep the viewer on edge, expectant.  And then Kaufman obscures the images in ways that keep you from seeing what you want to see.

In an early scene, Donald Sutherland’s windshield is broken by some angry cooks at a restaurant he inspects.  This incident really happens for one reason;  so that in a later scene, when Sutherland and Brooke Adams are driving in this car, the windshield is splintered into a spiderweb of cracks.  As Adams is talking about how the city looks the same, but somehow people are different, the camera is face forward, looking through the window.  Except we can’t see clearly.   There is another scene in a bookstore where Donald Sutherland and Jeff Goldblum can only be seen in a mirror’s reflection, but it’s one of those funhouse mirrors that distorts the image.   Kaufman does good a job as any director I can think of at keeping his audience off-balance.

CoolPapaE:
The foreground is not the only thing Kaufman is peppering us with imagery. We see plenty of references to pod plants being stuffed into garbage trucks throughout the film. While the characters are pushing their narrative in the foreground, things just keep right on happening in the background.

Not only are the angles and scenery off-putting, the soundtrack does an excellent job emitting a disquieting feeling to the viewers. The whole film is filled with intermittent nauseous sounds. Seeing Goldblum in that fun house scene you mention also reminded me of another filmmaker he worked with, Robert Altman. In that very scene, we see Sutherland’s Bennell and Goldblum’s Bellicec having two different level conversations at the same time. Bennell is talking on the phone, and Bellicec is disturbingly talking over him at the same time. This method ratchets tension, even though there are no boogeymen to be found.

Sometimes the sound come from the scene, like when Bellicec’s radio tuning turns into a rhythmic pounding as they gather in Bennell’s apartment.  That pounding then turns into a swelling echo as the pods begin to grow.

When Bennell starts making calls to Kibner and other city officials and Elizabeth starts testing the flowers, there is a surging keyboard sound that pushes through into a siren and then a ringing phone. This repeats into a surging sound as a series of calls emanate while Bennell walks through town, feeling the oppression settle in.

One sound that is completely unsettling is the screeching wail of Cartwright’s Nancy Bellicec. She has two of the most memorable screams in cinematic history. One, of course is the “Oh God!” she emits in the midst of the birth of the xenomorph in Alien. The other is at the very end of this film.

If the ethereal soundtrack and ambient noises lull you into a sense of dread, her scream is the sound that wakes you to a nightmare. Am I the only one who finds it ironic that she is the one that discovers the secret to walking among the turned is by showing no emotion?

WeMissE:  

That’s a great observation, I’m glad you pointed that out. Setting the movie in San Francisco was a great choice.  It is such a cinematic city, and this film ranks right up there with VertigoZodiac and the Dirty Harry franchise for making the city a character in the movie.  While Hitchcock and Fincher gave the city by the Bay a more stylized look, Philip Kaufman makes it dirty, gritty, with lots of shadows in the corners.  Some credit has to be given to cinematographer Michael Chapman, who shot a few movies for Martin Scorsese in this same time period.   The lighting works in conjunction with the music to create that sense of foreboding we talked about earlier.

Besides Veronica Cartwright’s trademark screams, the acting is solid.  Sutherland and Goldblum fall squarely in the character actor camp, even though they have both been cast as leads from time to time.  They are two stalwart actors who have been contributing solid performances for 4 decades apiece.  It’s interesting to see Leonard Nimoy in any role that is not Spock.  I wouldn’t say that he got the opportunity to show a great range  here, but that was due to the limitations of the character.  How would you classify the performances?

CoolPapaE:

San Francisco is one of the major cities of the cinema, to be sure. I could add Foul Play, Escape from Alcatraz, Freebie and The Bean and So I Married an Axe Murderer among the films that use the scenery to their advantage.

The performances are solid, circa 1978. In an era when colleagues could be work friends and deny the chemistry between them until they are brought to a crisis point, Adams and Sutherland play the mature relationship angle for all it’s worth. One gets the definite feeling of the chemistry between the two. This is especially effective in the kiss they share when they are on the run in the last third of the film.

This is Adams on her way up in what may be somewhat an underwhelming career. Interestingly, she is related to the namesake of one of the two names for our series, John Adams.

It’s a good role and performance, though. A strength in the development of the cast here is that the bigger characters aren’t necessarily the ones we see rising to the challenge, even if they do a majority of the sleuthing. I really enjoy this aspect of the film. It makes one feel like the stakes are higher. Sutherland excels in his ability to vary between scared and scary. It’s hard to think that his box office draw was any stronger than it is here. As you say, he’s had a solid career.

It’s amazing to witness Goldblum before he is at the height of his powers of Goldbluminess. It’s more than a little strange to see him play someone as incredibly straight as a struggling writer. Then again, seeing as he and his wife run a bathhouse in San Francisco in the 70’s, straight might be relative.

It was beginning to look like an awful Nimoy performance, but for the saving grace of revealing that he is indeed turned by the time we’ve seen him first. Even so, the hugging and togetherness would seem a strange move for one who has been configured to have no use for emotions. In the end, his performance is salvaged and brought back to his strength as an actor.

That is one strength of Kaufman using Richter’s script. There is no over explaining of plot elements. We don’t know a ton about the invaders. We don’t know why their planet died out. We do know they’re used to taking over. That’s enough, and thank God they never came up with a sequel to explain even more.

bodysnatchers

WeMissE:

That’s a good point.  There is that one scene of exposition where the already-changed Nimoy gives a little back story, but that’s all there is to it.  We are left with a lot of unanswered questions, which makes the movie even more unsettling.

Kaufman did a lot with a little in this movie.  Other than warehouse finale which is full of explosions and mayhem, there is very little spectacle in this movie.  It was made very economically, with practical effects, and they work very well.  I’m not one of those purists who laments the age of digital effects, but when I look at how convincing the effects in this movie are, I do have a lot of respect for the artistry in the craftsmanship  of those early effects.   Digital effects can be great, but they often lack subtlety.  When we finally get to see a pod “birthing” its host body, the shock does not come from it being bloody or gruesome.  Rather, it is slow, laborious, matter-of-fact, and all the more horrifying because of it.

Philip Kaufman is an interesting case, right?  He had a sweet spot of about a decade where his fingerprints were on a bunch of really good movies, either as writer or director.  Then his output slowed down considerably.  His career arc reminds me of Curtis Hanson, who started as a B-movie director, then achieved greatness for a few years.  As I close out my comments on this movie and bid you good day, I ask:  what is the legacy of Kaufman as a director, and does this stand as his best film?

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CoolPapaE:

This is probably approaching the crest of Kaufman’s greatness, but with the Indiana Jones story credit for Raiders of the Lost Ark, then The Right Stuff in the early 80’s, one would have to think that era is likely his sweet spot. I have never seen The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry & June, but they have garnered some esteem over the years. Let’s just say by the time he was pissing off Crichton with his lukewarm take on Rising Son, his star had faded a bit. I did enjoy Quills with its perversely gleeful performance by Rush and the wonderful acting and beauty of Kate Winslet. I tried to like Twisted, but Ashley Judd’s wooden acting has the power to override my love for Samuel L. Jackson and my respect for Kaufman.

What he showed was remarkable range and the ability to get the most out of available resources. If he isn’t a great director, he’s certainly in the upper reaches of good.

 

This film does have good pacing, acting and like you say, unnerving cinematography. I also agree with you the conventional special effects are better than most movies at the time without the word “Star” in the title. Even the dog man shown above looks creepily real when you stop to look at it. It’s ending is spectacular. Overall, it deserves a spot as one of the scariest films of the decade. I would even call it one of the 50 scariest films in cinematic history.

With that surmise, I too Sir, bid you good day.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (***1/2) – Grinds it out.

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Brawl in Cell Block 99 – 2017

Written and Directed by S. Craig Zahler
Starring Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Marc Blucas, Tom Guiry

I am such a fan of Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk that I bought this film off of VUDU as it was released. While it’s not quite the epic that his first directing effort was, it will no doubt satisfy those who thoroughly enjoyed its carnage. While the first film brought several characters along for a doomed ride, this one travels light and carries a heavy punch.

Vaughn is Bradley Thomas, whose life took a turn that is just “north of cancer.” He brings bad news home, just to find that his wife has been seeing someone. After he tells her to go inside, he performs a thoroughly shocking devastation on an inanimate object. He then goes in and has a calm, yet life changing conversation.

A year later, he’s driving nicer cars and living in a much better house. His wife is late in her term on their second attempt at a child. This one’s going to take. The reason for his turn of fortune is about to take its pound of flesh, however.

He ends up in prison and where it goes from there I will leave for you to discover. Needless to say, his luck never turns warm, much less hot. On the other hand, where he’s going, he doesn’t rely on luck.

The brutality of this film almost demands that it be seen with friends who enjoy being shocked. There has not been this kind of mutilation in a film with this kind of acting in my life of watching film. The real prize is Vaughn, who shows complete trust in the words and storytelling of the writer and director.

The gifts of Zahler is in his ability to write words that real people speak while making a story move along to places that we want to follow. While his path here is not quite as eloquent as Bone Tomahawk’s journey, it is no less deliberate and unforgiving.

The acting of the husband and wife (Carpenter) are at once primal and incredibly tender. His feelings for her and their unborn child are unquestionable. And she understands her man at least as well as he knows himself.

In an age where abuses are becoming more public, there is a temptation to over dramatize the fear that a brutal man could instill. Carpenter and Vaughn show us a couple that, while nowhere near perfect, have perceptive abilities that remind us of their humanity.

The acting in the prison(s) vary from person to person. There are some good performances mixed in with the bad. Anyone who thinks Don Johnson adds to the mix will find it hard not to laugh when comparing his abilities to Vaughn. It’s almost like Johnson didn’t know how to translate A level writing talent. To be fair, it’s not the usual writing one might expect for Grindhouse.

That this is not a great film is mainly due to the fact that I don’t think Zahler intends it to be. He needs to get from Point A to Point E and he doesn’t bother shading in the lines beyond those that our leads provide. All he wants is to show Bradley Thomas is a good man who owns up to his bad decisions. While doing so, he mercilessly moves from station to station, adding nuance that the story almost doesn’t deserve.

If you are expecting blood, gore and crunch, you will get this with Brawl in Cell Block 99. The powerfully great performance by Vaughn is a bonus.

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