Lady Bird (*****) perfectly flawed

ladybird

Lady Bird – 2017

Written and Directed by Greta Gerwig
Starring  Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lois Smith

It’s amazing how great of a year it’s been in movies. I have had one film after the other take the spot of best movie and favorite movie. Up to now, none of them have been both. I think we found it in this story that’s simply about a young, not so rich girl, growing up.

The content is rough, but it’s not brutal. In my limited amount of time I have spent on this planet being a girl (so far, 0 minutes), this seems to be the most realistically feminine film I have experienced. Ronan is Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. She is in her last year of High School in Sacramento, but it’s the last city she wants to go to college. She wants to go to the east coast, which really means New York. She is an average student at a Catholic high school, but her test scores are decent. She has a shot.

Her mother, Marion (Metcalf) doesn’t think its at all practical, either logistically or financially. She’s working double shifts at the hospital in the wake of her husband being laid off at his job, and she knows every penny counts.

Lady Bird is going through many changes, but not any more than her friends. The experiences of a high school teenager in 2002 are about the same as those in any era, except for the difference in phone communication. She’s not the first kid that’s ever been frustrated by her station in life. I am not sure if that frustration has ever been more honestly portrayed. This even outpaces Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Life isn’t kicking Lady Bird in the face. Most of the damage is brought on by her own actions, like when she jumps out of a moving car while she’s arguing with her mother. She gets to live with the consequences, and learn from them.

I don’t know if I have ever seen a smarter coming of age script. There are many resonant and funny lines scattered throughout. The lines work because they are coming from fully realized characters. From the Sister Sarah Joan (Smith), Father Leviatch (Henderson), her best friend “Julie” (Feldstein) to her first real boyfriend Danny (Hedges), the characters are familiar, but never predictable. They are warm and real and flawed and beautiful. Even the jerks aren’t really so bad. They keep track of the lies and they don’t do it themselves.

That there is not a consistent flow in this story is not a total surprise. I found myself wondering how long the film was going to go on. Not because I was tired of it, but because it vaults past many typical jumping off points in favor of just plain finishing the story, even if the last step is an awkward one. There is no grand finale. There is a girl who discovers yet again that reality trumps her imagination. And that ain’t such a bad fate.

Of the acting, I can say this is the best film I have seen from top to bottom of the cast. Each of the characters are real and they are vital to the story. They have their own trajectory, and aren’t just there to service the plot. There are several story lines that could have made a remarkable film on their own. It feels like a beautiful collision of universes that we are lucky enough to discover converging at once.

Gerwig is an incredible talent as a writer and director. She has a knack for funny, honest and beautiful dialogue that is as awkward as it is perfect. The conversations between Lady Bird and Marion are some of the most resonant I have seen between a child and their parent. The discussions feel “as though eternity beckons” when really one’s just curious as to how the bills are being paid.

The relationship between father and daughter is not any less sweet. Letts’ Larry is a man of great dignity, miraculously devoid of pride without being a sad sack. He pushes on as he can and he’s has a bond with his daughter and son separately, but no less vibrantly. The sequence of seeing him job hunting and interviewing with someone who has no idea the relevance of him as an employee or as a person is heartbreaking. It’s something to which most men with kids in high school and beyond will have no difficulty relating.

This film is Ronan’s coming out, though. Don’t let anyone fool you with talk about McDormand. The Oscar for Best Actress in a leading role should go through her, and there really isn’t anyone close. She showed immense talent in last year’s Brooklyn, and she shows depth here. Her ability to champ at the bit while running through parts of life she’d best walk through is a wonder to watch. She’s got an intense, beautiful intelligence that gives the viewer the experience of being her, instead of just watching.

Metcalf also deserves strong consideration for her supporting role. Her raw, weathered beauty has time for many things in life, except, perhaps, sorting out her intense feelings for a daughter who is just like her. I have always appreciated Metcalf, but never more than here.

Gerwig needs to be on everyone’s shortlist for Director and Screenplay. This film is a masterpiece, and it should never leave our consciousness. It treats life in a sad, beautiful and fair manner. There is nothing here to put on post card. There is plenty here to put a stamp on your heart.

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

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (**1/2) is a take worth leaving

Ebbing

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – 2017

Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Samara Weaving, Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, Željko Ivanek, Nick Searcy

There is a smell that pervades most of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, even as they spend much of the time trying to work against convention. It smells of judgement in the way that someone who lives in a coastal urban area might judge those who live in the flyby states. In this thought process, people who live in Missouri are more than a little racist, homophobic and shallow. Not all of them, of course. There has to be people in the town to judge them as such.

One such person in this story is Mildred Hayes (McDormand), whose daughter was tortured, burned and raped almost a year ago. And she hasn’t heard anything from the police force of her town in almost 7 months. This spurs her into the action of hiring the three billboards of the title. On these billboards are the sequential messages “Raped while dying,” And still no arrests,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby.”

There are a lot of good actors in this film. One of them, Nick Searcy, is known for his knack of using clever dialogue in a clever way. This is especially due to his several years playing U.S. Marshall Mullen on Elmore Leonard’s Justified. I knew there was something amiss when I saw him donning the black as Father Montgomery here. His five minutes of screen time are a perfect example of how poorly written the dialogue is when you don’t understand who you’re writing about. He says things that no man of the cloth would ever say, then the script requires him to look dumbfounded when Mildred rakes him over the coals regarding the ‘group’ he is part of and what they, if not he, have done to young boys. Then she walks off, all dramatic-like. And he is required to look defeated. This is a righteous indignant social justice warrior’s dream. They write the script, and have their enemies layed out perfectly per their own impressions of them.

Not that there isn’t some good parts to the film, though. Woody Harrelson is as fine as I have ever seen him. His Sheriff Willoughby is troubled, but hardly conflicted. If the film saw more of his character, it would have surely been a benefit. There is something more to his character than the one note characters surrounding and following him.

One of the most troubling characterizations for me is Sam Rockwell’s bumpkin without a cause, Officer Jason Dixon (get it, Mason/Jason?). He and his mother, played by Sandy Martin are ambling through life just smoking, watching television and hating anything different. Why the Sheriff keeps him on the payroll will be for you to find out. First though, we need to see him get worse as the situation demands. My problem is as much with Rockwell’s Californian estimate of the south as it is with McDonagh’s substantial misreading of middle America as part of the deep south. Perhaps if I didn’t have friends and relatives from Missouri, I might buy into this interpretation more.

The things that people do to each other and their property in this film are hard to take. What’s even more difficult to believe is that no one seems intent on investigating any of these things, even when it’s done in the open. People walk around freely after committing felonies and then walk away. No one ever says, “Hey did you kick two kids in the junk at a school?” Things get compounded and misunderstood enough to qualify for a Curb Your Enthusiasm skit, only with significantly fewer laughs.

Much hay has been made that this is a sure thing for McDormand. This movie is nowhere close to Fargo, though. There is character development, to a point, but when someone starts off as the aggrieved divorced mother, there’s only so far one can go. McDormand gets there, though, and has several touching moments in the plot. Truth is, she’s been better and she’s significantly better than the script deserves. Maybe if she’d referred to Dinklage as a midget just a few less times, I might buy that she’s advanced culturally.

Deep beneath the curdling cries of injustice being perpetuated by lazy Missouri “southerners” there is a half-way decent plot. Living in a liberal bastion of the Northwestern United States, I heard more than a few self-satisfied snickers during all of the key political points. None of this resonated, though. There’s only so many times you can call someone a Neanderthal before it loses its impact. Of course by the time we have a need for a real bad guy, one just comes out of the blue, or does he?  Or do we even care by then?

McDonagh has been effective in the past, with many of the same actors, even. He completely wastes Searcy, Dinklage and Hawkes here. If his writing seemed better in the past, it may have been due to more familiarity with the subjects. I wish the focus had been more on realistic characters, maybe punching up the plot a bit. Telling urban American city folk that the people living out there where there’s green trees and grass are creepy and weird is a surefire way to win festivals and maybe awards. It will not win as history or any sort of lesson, though.

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

Traveller (****) is a deceptive lead for Paxton

Traveller-1997

Traveller – 1997

Director Jack N. Green
Screenplay Jim McGlynn
Starring Bill Paxton, Mark Wahlberg, Julianna Margulies, James Gammon, Luke Eskew, Nikki DeLoach

There is a strong desire to turn away from Traveller for fear of having seen it all before. For the type of film that is very much low budget, one is tempted to think there would be something less formulaic. It’s a presentation of the Irish descendant Travellers of the deep south who keep to themselves except when they go to towns and take advantage of the local populace. One of these con men is Paxton’s Bokky, who has things working just fine until he is obliged to take on the son of a prodigal cousin, Pat (Wahlberg) as a partner.

The film has moments of gravity and some wackiness thrown in to the point where it’s hard to take it seriously at certain points. James Gammon’s Double D is a particularly tough character to take seriously. His character is played to such a comic degree, it brings the film to hi jink territory.

Wahlberg doesn’t have much to offer at this point in his career, but he’s not a detriment. This is the same year he was in Boogie Nights, and he’s essentially the same character here. He’s got a certain amount of verve which plays well, if muted.

Juliana Margulies is played against type as, Jean, a desperate single mother who loses her job due to one of Bokky and Pat’s scams. Bokky takes more than just pity on her. Very quickly, Bokky and Jean become a thing. Their chemistry works well enough. Paxton’s skill is such that he is definitely as capable of lifting your wallet as he is to add money to it without you knowing.

Paxton’s portrayal is the very biggest selling point of the film. He has a way of grabbing a lead character and making him real, instead of large. His Bokky has a certain amount of charm and ability, but he never lets it get in the way of his dedication and obligation to others. One can’t help but wonder how good this film could have been if they had dedicated to creating supporting characters that actually challenged him in the way that fed into his abilities of self-deprecation and courage.

As for antagonists, he is worthy of intelligent counterparts and he gets these in this film. Unfortunately, Green’s directing style takes away from the power of the more dangerous elements. Only in the last few minutes of the film does it all come together. Once it does, everything moves up a tick, when you realize there’s been a secret, malevolent force only hinted at before.

That it shows up when it did gives the story a significant jolt and makes us the whole journey much more worthwhile. It also gives us another example of how effective Paxton was as a lead actor. A lesser force would have insisted on being the focus of the answer, rather than someone who is at the complete mercy of others. Very few would allow themselves to be put in this position, and it makes the film much better because of it.

Another strong selling point for the movie is the soundtrack. Several traditional movies that were hits in another form are covered quite effectively by the likes of Randy Travis, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Mandy Barnett and The Cox Family. Several of the artists make memorable takes on these classic songs, adding character to the film that gives it a definite time and place.

If you have no patience, this film is not for you. Honestly, the first 3/4 of the film is almost a complete throwaway. The thing about that ending, though, is it brings you to the point where its all worth watching over again to see what it is you missed watching the first time.

One thing’s for sure, though, if you like Paxton, this one is a must. And you’ll miss him every time.

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

Forgotten Gems: Tequila Sunrise (***1/2) is a Recurring Dream

Tequila Sunrise (1988)

Tequila Sunrise – 1988

Written and Directed by Robert Towne
Starring  Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kurt Russell, Raúl Juliá, J.T. Walsh

What most people remember about Tequila Sunrise is that the film is slick beyond imagining. Kurt Russell is literally playing the big screen version of Pat Riley, then coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. As Russell put it: “Riley’s look was right for this film because he was arrogantly confident but not offensive.”

In the midst of the exquisitely ornate look through the lens of Conrad Hall, Robert Towne makes an attempt  at telling a story in a fashion rarely used since. That style is a noir based on the two friends on the opposite side of the law while simultaneously competing for the affections of a dame. Two of the three leads (Gibson, Pfeiffer) were the biggest stars of the era. One can only guess, then, that the odd man out has to be the one that looks the coolest.

While in the midst of all of the glamour, the performance that steals the show is that of Raúl Juliá as Carlos, the primary target of the investigation of drug trafficking. That he is the lead investigator for the Mexican government would normally be a tough sell for anyone who wasn’t an entertainer of his caliber.

He charges through the film with a presence of one who truly lives in the moment. He knows the dangers that surrounds and he laughs (and sings) in its face. He captures every scene that he is in with a gravitas that none of the bigger names of the time had harnessed by that time.

This is not to say that the other actors don’t have much going on. Gibson Mac is all conflicted charm. The master of staccato gibberish gets to tell us that he is all but cornered into his role as drug dealer. He has many responsibilities, and even took the rap for his friend, leading him to spend years in the Mexican prison. Now he has a child that depends on him as well as his debt to Carlos. When he falls for Jo Ann (Pfeiffer) his die is cast and his guard is let down.

Nick (Russell) has been a guardian angel of sorts, picking his spots and making sure Mac is not there when the whip comes down. His efforts to use Jo Ann as an information source backfire as he starts to fall for her. Russell lays the ground work for the type of character he’s played many time since. He’s good to the right bad guys and bad to the right good guys. He talks tough and can take a shot of truth over the bow.

Jo Ann has enough of a backbone, she too can dish it when it’s necessary. Pfeiffer gives it her best, but her job is to be the dame. She has to be conflicted for (too short) a time, then get her life threatened a time or two and then wait for the explosions to end. The Bechdel test came into popular culture just three years earlier, so it’s no surprise this film fails it in spades. For what it’s worth, she makes a great silhouette of a character.

Towne is on form here as director, even if he succumbs to formula from the writing perspective. The film doesn’t really suffer, though, for the performances of the actors. The highly underrated Walsh does his usual yeoman’s work here as the butt of everybody’s scorn until it comes time to have the weight of all wrath fall on him.

As a fan of Russell, Walsh and Juliá, this film has plenty going for it beyond Hall. It’s debatable that people these days understand the gravitas of Gibson and Pfeiffer from this film alone. That’s okay though. The Oscar nominated cinematography by Hall is worth the price of admission, too. Most people don’t live on the beautiful California coast of the late 1980’s. It doesn’t get old from my seat here in the rains of November.

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

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (***1/2) – We can’t have nice things

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Roman J. Israel, Esq. – 2017

Written and Directed by Dan Gilroy
Starring Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Nanzeen Contractor, Joseph David-Jones, Andrew T. Lee, Shelley Hennig, Amanda Warren, Sam Gilroy, Tony Plana, DeRon Horton, Hugo Armstrong, Lynda Gravátt

This, is our fork in the road…

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a man for whom the hard, narrow and treacherous path of righteousness has been his only source of solace for his whole working life. He’s been the silent partner in a law firm with his inspiration and former Law School professor for almost 30 years. Now that his professor has had a heart attack, he has a crisis on his hands.

He gets an offer of employment from another one of his ailing partner’s former students George Pierce (Farrell), but he really wants to do is work with the poor and dispossessed. Unfortunately, he finds during his interview with Maya (Ejogo) that they are all volunteers, so he must accept Pierce’s offer of working in a high pressure and way more successful firm while offering help to Maya when he has time.

One of his first clients provides for Roman an opportunity, and in a moment of weakness, he pounces on that chance to improve his lowly existence. In true Thomas Hardy (the 19th century novelist) form, as soon as he takes the risk, he begins to succeed, while attempting to push his past behind him. His past will not be ignored, however.

Ultimately, Gilroy and Washington do an above average job of hitting every doomed note of the unsung hero, whose miserable life starts to get better while immediately falling down around him. All because…well, he’ll tell you that himself.

To say this is a great film would be stretching it a bit. It certainly is better than the advanced word out of the Toronto International Film Festival. The fact that they cut almost a quarter of an hour out of it didn’t entirely help, if we’re trying to give the motivations of both the protagonist and the two people who end up being disciples of the man he was before he changed.

It’s at this point that the story requires the most willing suspension of disbelief. The script requires us to accept that each of very few interactions with Israel has made enough of an impression with George and Maya as to push them into new heights of dedication to social causes. They dive right in, asking Roman for further words as he clearly struggles for his own inspiration, which is now seemingly out of reach.

The ending, like the rest of the film, relies on a series of exact happenings that give Washington’s protagonist increasingly fewer options. Even so, he’s such an excellent actor, he gives enough grist and flawed good intentions, the story works.

Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit continue the marvelous work they did on the best movie of 2014, Nightcrawler to set a mood of Los Angeles which allows its vast expanse to feel claustrophobic as well as sadly beautiful.

If there is any disappointment to the film it’s that there doesn’t seem to be enough room for the script to acquire peripheral characters that have more dimension than required to push the plot forward. Farrell is as engaging here as I have seen him, but in the end, he feels more a mechanism of the plot than a fully fleshed character.

The same goes for the incredibly appealing Ejogo, whose idealism still has a shred of innocence after years of neglect. She gives the effect of a withered flower, once more opening to a beautiful bloom under Israel’s now eclipsing sun.

There’s virtually no shot at this film winning any awards, and perhaps it doesn’t truly deserve any. Washington’s about the only actor alive that can so eloquently display his faults as a virtue. He’s able to color a little outside the lines of his somewhat limited character. Even though he shows signs of a high functioning autism, he knows the point of his character is self-analysis that the others will learn from. This limits him to acknowledge he’s doomed from the start.

This is why it would appeal to me as a Catholic. It’s a brand that he needs to accept, and there’s no outrunning the shadow, especially if you avoid the truth about yourself.

Gilroy is now in that special zone as an incredibly talented writer and director who is outside of the glow of Hollywood, particularly because he doesn’t rely on the powers that be to fulfill his vision. If anything, this story was a little too well written, as it doesn’t leave much room for the viewer to contemplate how they’d react to the hero, even if the hero knows he’s become a fraud. If the judgement of this film is a little too harsh, it is certainly no crime to write something so well you leave little room for nuance that most scripts don’t have anyway.

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

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.

    Image result for joss whedon justice league gif
    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.

    steppenwolf
    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.

    Image result for enchantress suicidé squad dance gif
    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 *****)

 

 

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 *****)