Monday, December 28, 2015

Catching Up: "Goodnight Mommy"

 4 / 5 

Goodnight Mommy is a nasty, brutal, sadistic, sick little puzzle of a movie that seems, for most of its running time, to be an odd psychological horror movie, then in the last 15 minutes turns so repulsively evil that some critics have labeled it "torture porn."

As someone who's never seen a Saw, Hostel or Human Centipede movie, I don't know if the description is at all accurate, though what happens at the climax of Goodnight Mommy is shocking and sickening -- and presented as such a natural extension of character behavior that even in the fleeting moments that caused me to look away from the screen and shout a rarely used expletive, it all felt like the movie was going exactly where it needed to go.  Do not see this movie if you are not prepared to descend into a pit of bleak despair.

Goodnight Mommy has the enormous redemption, though, of being a very good movie.  It's made by two directors, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, who have never made a feature film before, but displays such calm, assured mastery that you'd never know it.  There are echoes of The Shining both in style and in the theme of a parent who seems mysteriously changed.

Lukas and Elias are twin boys -- played by twin brothers Lukas and Elias Schwarz -- who live in the idyllic Austrian countryside.  As the film begins, they are alone, though even their solitude is laced with foreboding: Where are their parents? Why does one of the boys keep disappearing from the other?

A car pulls up to the lakeside villa.  Mother is home.  They greet her in her room, but her face is covered in bandages.  She is recovering from what we can assume to be plastic surgery.  There are a lot of things we can assume in Goodnight Mommy, though the big question is how many of those assumptions are correct.

The boys idolize her with the reverence of, well, their mother, but they can't see her under the bandages, and there seems to be something different about her.  With the bandages on, there's no way to tell if the woman underneath them is really their mother, as she claims, or a sinister imposter.

The boys' paranoia grows.  It's not helped by the weird, pristine shrine to vanity in which they live.  The house is maintained as if it's a showplace, not a home.   All over the walls are enormous pictures of a woman who we assume to be Mother, but her face is blurred.

Mother (Susanne Wuest) is irritable and needs rest.  From the standpoint of an adult, everything she says and does makes complete sense.  From the standpoint of a child, everything she says and does is terrifying and confusing.  Where is their Mama?  What has this broken, sensitive, barely awake woman done to their beloved?

But on the other hand -- why won't they just let her rest?  Why are the boys becoming increasingly unhinged at the ludicrous notion that this is not their mother?

The paranoia grows on both sides.  Then, just about the time that Goodnight Mommy makes it plan that Mommy is the villain, that there's something decidedly wrong with her, it switches gears, and the kids themselves -- these sweet, innocent, rough-and-tumble 9-year-old boys -- become suspect.

Here, then, is an interesting prospect: What happens when no one in a movie is reliable or trustworthy, when every single person on screen is morally questionable?  Goodnight Mommy delights in the result.  It's a movie that would have thrilled Alfred Hitchcock with the way it plays on audience sympathies.  Throughout Goodnight Mommy, it's impossible to know who to trust -- with the exception of some simpleton rubes from the Red Cross who pick a particularly inconvenient moment to come around looking for donations.

Goodnight Mommy had me so intrigued to know where things would go, and so engrossed in its warped story, that I suspect it's a movie that will reward second and third views.  A quick Google search turned up discussions about scenes and images I hadn't considered, particularly a shot toward the very, very end that could be either a mistake on behalf of the filmmakers (which seems unlikely) or a scene that is very different than it appears to be.  But Goodnight Mommy is filled with these visual and narrative puzzlers -- a movie in which there are no simple questions.

While there's a "twist" at the end of Goodnight Mommy, it's exactly the one you suspected was coming all along, and Franz and Fiala seem aware that the audience will be in on the gag -- offering surprising plot points isn't their primary mission, it seems.  Offering a surprising movie is what they're aiming to do, and Goodnight Mommy is definitely that.  True, it's so off-putting and twisted that I would not want to sit through it again, and yet -- I'm almost tempted to re-watch right now, just to see if I can get to the bottom of some of the many mysteries it presents.

Viewed Dec. 27, 2015 -- VOD

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Catching Up: "Mad Max: Fury Road"

 3.5 / 5 

Even taking into account the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings movies and Avatar, there can't be many worlds as distinctly and carefully imagined as the post-apocalyptic wasteland of director George Miller's Mad Max movies.

Even if the specifics of the previous movies are forgotten, surely you remember Tina Turner as Aunty Entity inside the Thunderdome, or Mad Max himself wandering down an endless highway, gun in hand.  The stories took a backseat to the visuals and the pure visceral thrill of filmmaking.

And so it is, 30 years since Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, which was rated PG-13 and virtually a family film compared with Miller's fast and furious Mad Max: Fury Road.

The movie contains a story, abut it seems substantially less important to Mad Max: Fury Road than its relentless action.  Miller has crafted a movie that seems to get at the essence of cinema: It's a heady rush of images and sounds, of meticulously crafted action sequences punctuated by a few scenes of expository dialogue.

Tom Hardy takes over for Mel Gibson as Max Rockatansky, who began this film series in a time only slightly removed from our own, when roads and buildings and towns still existed.  Thirty-six years after the first movie, the setting is utterly different.  Mad Max: Fury Road takes place in a completely alien environment, a world re-imagined by some far-off war over oil, and it's every bit as deeply imagined as any of the current "franchise" movies, only fueled by an actual artistic vision rather than a need to protect a corporate investment.  You get the sense in Max Max: Fury Road that Miller values his vision over any other consideration, including financial.

The language, the hierarchies, the relationships and the rules of this world are vividly depicted, so carefully and completely thought out but rarely explained that watching Mad Max: Fury Road is sometimes akin to sitting through an ethnographic film, the kind you watched in college that lacked narration and let you draw your own conclusions about what you were seeing.

The production design on this film is staggering.  Every frame is filled with new surprises, and none of it feels recycled, even if it's somehow vaguely familiar, like a nightmare you think you might have had before.  The story is simple but told with intricate complexity, involving Max being kidnapped to serve as a "Blood Bag," a walking IV transfusion for a soldier in the bizarre army of Immortan Joe, who keeps his community in line by withholding little things like water and food.

There's a lot more going on here, so much that it took three screenwriters to flesh it all out, but the story is secondary here.  It involves Max being strapped to the front of a truck by the soldiers who are sent out to find Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who is supposed to be going to get "guzzoline" for Immortan Joe but has actually hidden his five wives in a massive big rig and is trying to get them to the safety of a possibly imaginary idyll known as The Green Place.  (Throughout much of Mad Max: Fury Road, I was certain I didn't understand anything that was happening -- imagine my surprise to be able to recount all this now!)

Despite her name, Furiosa is the heroine -- and she's on the run from the bad guys, and of course Max ends up in her big rig and starts fighting alongside her.  And that's the setup for two hours worth of incredible chase scenes and stunts.   Which is what Mad Max: Fury Road is all about.  The story, as detailed as it is, is only an excuse for eye-popping action.  Most of what happens on screen in Mad Max: Fury Road seems like it should be impossible, and the knowledge that the bulk of it was created with minimal use of digital effects makes it all the more astounding.

It is amazing to watch.  And it takes place in a world so elaborate, so terrifically imagined, that it's utterly immersive as a story -- you believe these things are happening in this make-believe world.

Yet as thrilling as that is, Mad Max: Fury Road also left me a little cold.  There's so little room to create characters or set up relationships that watching it is like riding an especially aggressive roller-coaster: It's undeniably entertaining and exhilarating, but also exhausting.  Max Max: Fury Road is a cinematic feat that is impressive to behold but harder to truly enjoy.

 Viewed Dec. 27, 2015 -- VOD

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Worst of 2015

With just five days left to go in the calendar year, I've got a lot of catching up to do before coming up with my list of the 10 best movies I saw in 2015.  It's been a stellar year for movies, and narrowing down the list to just 10 will be more difficult this year than it's been in a long, long time.

But the worst?  That's a different story.  There have been some clunkers, for sure.  Tomorrowland was an intense disappointment, a movie that wandered around within its beautifully rendered world until it finally just shrugged its shoulders and gave up.  Kingsmen: The Secret Service was a weird film.  I hated it.  Except the parts I loved, which made up about 60 percent of the schizophrenic movie. The Peanuts Movie was distressingly, disturbingly depressing in the way it heaved so much ignominy on Charlie Brown, but it wasn't a bad movie.

There were four movies that stood out to me, though, as truly terrible -- three from calendar 2015 and a fourth that merits being on this list by virtue of its tricky release pattern.

They're movies so bad they deserve to be singled out, lest you, one gloomy winter's day, while browsing the on-demand selections, think, "Oh, I never saw that one, I should watch it."  No, please. Don't.  Rarely are films so bad that they need to come with warning labels, but these are.  Looking back, 2015 had more than its share of exemplary films ... and then there were these:

This one makes it on the list by a technicality.  Officially, it was released in the waning days of 2014, but the curious hacking of Sony Pictures, apparently by North Korea, led to the film's release being canceled.  Perhaps that was all just coincidentally timed, but Sony essentially was able to pull the plug on the wide release of one of the worst movies of 2014 and 2015.  The Interview is a moronic, aggressively unfunny comedy that seems to have been made exclusively for the amusement of its own creators, because no one else would get the jokes.  There is not a single laugh in the movie, not even a grin; it's clueless about comedy, and knows even less about politics.  The story of a certifiably moronic talk-show host being granted the world's first interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is spectacularly stupid.  After it was effectively "banned" from theaters, it received a wide release through digital on-demand systems, and millions of people couldn't wait to see what was so incendiary.  Turns out, nothing.  If North Korea was truly so offended by this movie that it wanted to seek revenge on the studio that made it, then North Korean leaders a) are stunningly thin-skinned and b) have remarkably good taste.  Take their word for it: No one should see The Interview.


In the laborious San Andreas, it's not enough to destroy San Francisco for the 1,457th time since the advent of digital visual effects technology.  Los Angeles has to get it, too.  The destruction of each looks entirely unconvincing.  But, there might be bright side to the world that San Andreas envisions: With both of these entertainment megalopolises gone, no more movies like San Andreas could ever get made. San Andreas stars Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as a guy.  I don't remember who he is or what he does that makes him special.  He might have been a firefighter or a paramedic or a 911 operator or something along those lines.  And there's a really big earthquake and then a really big tsunami, and I remember Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson being in a boat with his estranged wife as they sailed down the flooded streets of San Francisco looking for his daughter.  That much I remember.  I also remember that the visual effects proved that just because you can imagine something doesn't mean it will look realistic on film.  And I remember thinking that the whole thing would have been a lot better if Victoria Principal showed up in that big Afro wig from Earthquake and found Ava Gardner still wandering around.  That would have been entertaining.  San Andreas is big and loud, but it is not entertaining, it's just really, really bad.


Something weird happened while I watched Aloha: I didn't understand what I was experiencing.  The very attractive actors were up there on screen, and they were saying words that sounded like they were being spoken in the English language, but nothing made sense.  Watching Aloha felt as surreal as watching a David Lynch film dubbed into Polish and played backward, except I'm guessing that the backward Polish Lynch film would make some emotional sense and have some pretty amazing images.  Aloha doesn't have any of that.  It doesn't go together.  It's like someone took out every other scene and then put together what remained and hoped audiences might think Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams and Emma Stone were so pretty that no one would notice the film stunk.  They were wrong.  In Hawaiian, "aloha" famously has a number of meanings.  It just got a new one: "lousy movie."

Now, all these films were stinkers, but in 2015, one film stood out among the rest as genuinely risible, a movie so awful, so cynical, so rotten in every possible way that it needs to be separated from the rest.  The three movies listed above are bad movies.  They contain nothing to recommend them.  So, imagine a film worse, even, than that.  Imagine a film so bad that it makes you, at least momentarily, feel a sense of despair.  That film is ...


The 1982 Poltergeist is a happy ghost story on steroids.  It takes the quintessentially Spielbergian concept of suburban idyll and gleefully tears it apart, until there is nothing left except the most basic unit of happiness: the family.  The 2015 Poltergeist hates the idea of family.  It hates the idea of happiness.  It eschews fun and merriment.  It is a dark, gloomy, lumbering, plodding glop of a film, a movie that does not have a single fresh idea.  It is a filmed deal, a movie designed to ensure the studio keeps the rights to the underlying intellectual property by churning out an execrable movie that is deeply unhappy and cynical.  In this Poltergeist, the family members despise one another, they blame each other for their unhappy lives, and when the mother finally goes after Carole Anne (renamed Maddy here, to no purpose), you almost sense she is heaving a sigh, hoping that maybe the other kids will get eaten up by ghosts, too.  All of the plot points are given away up front, and sweet and daffy Tangina is turned into a money-grubbing reality star.  This Poltergeist hits many of the same plot points as the 1982 movie, replicating them with the faithfulness of a paint-by-numbers version of the Sistine Chapel.  In theory, it looks more or less the same, but in reality it is a disastrous attempt at replicating something that can't be replicated.  It's a dirty, squalid movie.  Fair warning: Once seen, it can't be unseen.  Should you stumble across it sometime while channel flipping, remember the sage advice of Diane Freeling in the original: "Don't go near it!  Don't even look at it!"

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


 4.5 / 5 

The first time they sit down together and talk properly, or at least as properly as they possibly could under the circumstances, Carol looks crookedly at Therese and smiles a deep, enigmatic smile.  "Strange girl," she marvels. "Flung from space."

Carol, we sense, has done this before, seduced younger women as a way out of her dull but profitable marriage to a businessman of prodigious wealth.  She seems to be toying with Therese, who seems so young and innocent.  But this is just the beginning of the relationship that is everything to Todd Haynes' film Carol.

It is not, at first, a comfortable relationship, because when the story begins it is 1951, and everything to do with emotion is hidden beneath the surface; it's an asexual, antiseptic time, a time when even the colors are muted and dulled, afraid to show themselves for what they are.  Smiles abound, though laughter is harder to come by.  Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) works as a shopgirl at a Manhattan department store.  She is trim, well-manicured, proper in cloth coats and sensible fabrics.  In the store one day, she meets a customer named Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett): thin, not trim; coiffed, not simply manicured; draped in silk and furs and leather gloves.

She leaves those behind after ordering a toy as a Christmas present for her daughter.  Perhaps she knows Therese will return them?  She seems to.  Carol seems to know everything, and what she's doing.  But as Carol herself says later, when a friend makes a similar observation, Carol can only admit, "I never did."

So, the story of Carol becomes not a story of two women who have a romance, but about two people who fall in love, which is a different and difficult thing to capture on screen.  Oh, romance is easy, it's the giddy happiness of out-loud emotions, but love is so much more difficult, and Carol's screenplay, by Phyllis Nagy -- a friend of Patricia Highsmith, on whose novel the film is based -- gets it exactly right.  Carol and Therese begin as a flirtation and find themselves in love unexpectedly.  It happens slowly, and because the movie is set in 1951, there is an assumption it will not end well.

Whether it does would be unfair to reveal, though it's interesting how the film begins with a scene of Therese and Carol together and leads us to make certain assumptions about what is going on, and then manages to work its way back to that very same scene, with those assumptions upended, and then work toward allowing one of the characters to smile in a way she has not smiled before.

Carol builds to such an unexpected emotional climax that, like Carol's favorite perfume, leaves behind a heady sense of itself.  It is an assured film that begins with a calculated aloofness and winds up with an urgent, well-earned intimacy.

Carol is also a sumptuously made film.  Every moment of it feels as if it was somehow made in 1951 -- every moment of it feels perfectly right and stunningly observed.  It's almost as if the film, like Therese, were flung from space itself, picking up the social vibrations and echoes from throughout the past 60 years, which help its story of two women who fall in love to transcend both time and, importantly, gender.

Carol is specifically and intentionally about two women from the 1950s, but it's so intensely crafted and carefully told that it feels equally about any two people whose only desire is to try to love each other, worried less about what others think than of their own fears and doubts, not sure of whether the effort will be worth it, but suspecting that it may be so.

Viewed Dec. 23, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Monday, December 21, 2015


 3.5 / 5 

A comedy should make you laugh.  A good comedy should make you laugh a lot.  By that standard, Sisters is a very good comedy indeed.  Issues of characterization, story and plausibility are irrelevant. Sisters gets you laughing early and sustains the laughs a lot longer than most movies.

It's not an elegant movie or even a particularly classy one, but come on, if you've paid to see a movie with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler playing sisters, you're probably not expecting a sly, erudite Woody Allen comedy of cultural observations.

Maura (Poehler) is the successful, well-mannered older sister, who lives in a house that may have recently been remodeled by HGTV and has a dog named Polenta.  She believes herself superior to just about everyone, and likes to give business cards printed with motivational messages to homeless people.

Kate (Fey) is the classless, shiftless younger sister who can barely see after her own needs, much less the needs of her teenage daughter, who understandably tries to distance herself from a mother who keeps them moving from one friend's sofa to the next.

The sisters are brought together when their parents, played by Dianne Wiest and James u, decide to sell the girls' childhood home.  Mom and Dad really want them to come clean out their rooms before the new buyers move in.

Kate and Maura make their way to Orlando to comply, but they aren't happy about it.  They can't understand that their parents might have lives of their own, and they deeply object to the supercilious new home-buyers.  As they reminisce and regress in their tiny twin beds, surrounded by posters of Bono and Michael J. Fox back when they were pinup boys, Kate talks Maura into having one last party at their parents' house as a way to relive their favorite high-school days.

They round up all their old high-school friends, now well into middle age, buy up all the booze they can get their hands on, and pull out those old mix tapes, while the old pals -- all played by well-known improv comics -- come flowing in to the house.  There's lots of drinking, sex talk (especially with the nerdy-handsome new guy from just down the street, played by Ike Barinholtz, an actor who looks like no other leading man in Hollywood), and as more and more people show up, things get more and more out of hand.

That's pretty much the whole plot.  The bulk of the movie takes place at the epic party, giving different cast members each a moment to shine.  They include Maya Rudolph as Kate's angry arch-rival; Rachel Dratch as a friend who has just started realizing that middle-age is when people start getting called "old"; Bobby Moynihan as the class clown who still thinks he's the class clown; John Leguizamo as the guy who used to be the town stud and is now pretty much the town drunk; and John Cena as a brick wall of a drug dealer.

Sisters is filled wall to wall with comedy talent -- and the movie doesn't blow the chance of working with them. This isn't a cinematic version of one of those SNL sketches that's funny for the first few lines and then drags out for another 10 minutes.  It's also not the surreal farce of Fey's 30 Rock or Poehler's Parks & Recreation, where everyone exists in a skewed, sarcastic version of reality.  It's closer in tone and execution to a John Hughes movie, if Hughes had made a movie about the middle-aged, disappointed teachers at the Sixteen Candles high school.

"These people are really working a lot of their stuff out," one character observes as the party gets increasingly out of hand.  The party becomes a microcosm of all the simmering resentments, unrequieted loves and unresolved fears that began in high school and have never gone away.

But don't think that Sisters actually wants to dive in to all of that.  There is discussion about Kate's need to get her messy life on track, and about Maura's need to stop being so rigid and predictable.  But it's done in serve of setting up a joke.

If you wanted to see Sisters to watch an examination of the different ways different siblings react to life, you needed to choose a different movie.  In this movie, one sister spills hair gel all over the floor and doesn't clean it up, causing the handsome, well-built bachelor from down the street  to slip on it and land on a music-box ballerina, which gets lodged in his ... let's just say Für Elise sounds different coming from ... anyway.

Oddly, though, in spite of all the lunacy, the sisters and their friends grow on you.  They manage, momentarily, at least, to feel like real people.  The same, though, can't be said for their parents; Wiest and Brolin, two fine actors, play the mom and dad with an unexpected anger and hostility -- they don't actually like their daughters very much, but don't want to take the responsibility for the way the girls have turned out. The scenes with the parents struck me as the only truly mean-spirited ones in the movie.

Poehler and Fey keep it all working together, beautifully, giving a wide birth to their co-stars to step up and break out, even while making it clear that, at all times, that they are the stars.  The script by Paula Pell lets them be outrageous and inappropriate, but still manages to find some sitcom-style life lessons during the craziness.

Especially toward the final third, the movie starts to feel a little frenetic, as if realizing it had a perfect set up but doesn't really know what to do with it, but maintains its genial nature.  Sisters has inappropriate and embarrassing moments, but it is never itself inappropriate or embarrassing.  It's too happy for that.

Viewed 12/20/15 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Saturday, December 19, 2015

"The Good Dinosaur"

 2 / 5 

To give credit where it is absolutely due, The Good Dinosaur is one of the most visually stunning animated films ever made.  Every frame of it is magnificent to behold.  Even the cartoonish main characters, who initially seem so out of place in such a photo-realistic background, are gorgeous.  There are some secondary characters who seem to have popped in from a TV show, but they don't diminish the beauty.

Artists at Pixar have outdone themselves.  In one scene, the eponymous good dinosaur and the little caveboy who hangs out with him go swimming in a shimmering pond.  The camera dives in and out of the water with them.  We see them half-in and half-out of the water.  It is a magnificent moment.

In another scene, the dinosaur, who is named Arlo, is trying to help the little boy, who gets named Spot, and a landslide occurs in the background.  The cascading earth is depicted with a raw power that makes the balloon flight of Up, for instance, look like, well, a cartoon.

To consider The Good Dinosaur only from the standpoint of its artistic vision, it might be one of the best animated movies ever made.  The natural, prehistoric scenery is just awesome, quite literally.

But then there is the story -- or, more problematically, the lack of one.  The Good Dinosaur starts with a really intriguing premise, which is that the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs missed the Earth and that they became the planet's dominant and most intelligent life form because they had a multi-million-year headstart on humans.  But there's only an idea.  Pixar, which always seems to give such careful consideration to making its stories strong and compelling, apparently forgot to go further than the pitch.

Instead, they added in the most basic building blocks of a stereotypically Pixar-Disney movie: Arlo is an adorable runt.  He's scared of the world.  His parents want him to be stronger.  His father dies.  He gets separated from his mother and siblings.  He has to make his way in the world.  He meets a sidekick.  They go on an adventure to get back home.  They bond over their loneliness, since the sidekick is an orphan, too.  There is wistfulness.  There is joy.  There is a reunion.  The end.

As if to try to cover for the lack of plot, the creators of The Good Dinosaur get downright sadistic when it comes to the "adventure" they put Arlo through.  The poor guy is physically tortured throughout the movie.  Arlo watches his father die right in front of his eyes, rocks fall on him, trees fall on him, creatures attack him.  I can't recall a children's film in which a character was treated so brutally, right there on screen.

The most clever conceit in the film is that after millions of years of ruling the Earth, dinosaurs can talk and build things (even without opposable thumbs -- they're really smart), and they take on the agrarian traits that, according to real history, humans did.  In turn, humans have evolved slowly.  They walk around on all fours like dumb brutes, snarling and growling.  So, when Arlo meets the little boy, he regards him like a wild animal and ultimately names him "Spot" as if the boy were a dog.  It sounds weird, and it is, but after a while the relationship does grow on you.

But nothing happens.  They wander around facing peril after peril, but nothing really happens.  The movie is quite literally as lost as Arlo.  It just bides time, moving from one moment to the next as if Pixar figured if there was no real linear story to develop, at least The Good Dinosaur could let some talented artists hone their skills.

In the movie's absolute weirdest moment, Arlo and Spot get high.  Yes, The Good Dinosaur might be the first (and last?) kids' movie with a drug-trip scene.  Well, I guess if Dumbo could get drunk 70 years ago, it's about time that a 21st century cartoon character got really baked.

I mean, there's nothing else to do.  Getting high seems as good an idea as any.

Viewed Dec. 19, 2015 -- DVD

Thursday, December 17, 2015

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

 3.5 / 5 

Popular sentiment is against the Star Wars prequels.  Though created by the same mind that imagined the (until today) entirety of Star Wars in the first place, at least two and a half of the three films have been almost entirely rejected by longtime fans.  They have instead chosen to hold out seemingly eternal hope that there would one day be a Star Wars movie that recalled the ones made from 1977 to 1983, the ones from childhood.

That almost boundless faith has been rewarded.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been expressly designed for fans who want a whole lot less mythologizing and a whole lot more space-adventuring.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens does not try to expand on the concepts that seemed to fascinate George Lucas in Episodes I, II and III.  There is some discussion of good and evil, to be sure, but it's limited to the simplest sort of dichotomy, the one from fairy tales, not the more grandiose, complex (and sort of stilted) one favored in mythology or studies of comparative religion.

For all of their perceived -- or, some might argue, real -- failings, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith made concerted and noble efforts to take audiences to new places, new worlds and a different time.  The movies were filled with vistas and visions that had never even been hinted at previously in the Star Wars movies.  The stories were head-thumpingly convoluted yet always simple, exploring some Pretty Big Ideas, like the origins and inevitability of war, the nature of evil, the redemptive power of love, and the destructive power of anger.  In very real ways, Lucas's movies even served as statements on modern politics.  So interested were the films in the thematic and visual complexity that they short-changed personal drama.

Of course, Lucas owned his creations outright.  He stirred anger and resentment by doing with them as he saw fit.  Thanks to his scripts, we know where anger leads.  Well, he doesn't own Star Wars anymore.  So enough of that.

This long preamble is necessary not just because etiquette and protocol dictate that none of the actual plot of The Force Awakens be described, but also to clarify: I'm neither the biggest fan of the prequel films nor an apologist.  They are visually remarkable and distinct, impeccably (and lovingly) crafted movies that drove Star Wars headlong into unexpected territory.  The vision was greater than the result, perhaps.

If there could be an entirely opposite approach to making a Star Wars movie than Lucas himself took for six (or even 28) years, The Force Awakens finds it and takes it.  It is a movie designed for maximum fan-pleasing efficiency, and makes careful effort to disappoint no one.  In that, it is successful.  It at least meets almost every expectation, and even exceeds some, which is, in itself, saying something.

Now, if you want to know absolutely nothing about the film, please avert your eyes.  What follows contains (I assure you) no spoilers -- but I imagine some will regard them that way.  You've read as much as you need to read for now; opinion rendered.

(Last chance.  While you're waiting to decide, I'll add that, if pressed, I'd place the film fourth in ranking among the seven extant Star Wars films, just behind 2005's Revenge of the Sith and substantially ahead of 1983's loud and aggressive Return of the Jedi.)

(OK, one more chance.  Truly, fair warning is being given here, even though nothing from this point onward will likely be surprising.)

The Force Awakens makes its intentions known from its first frames -- a visual-effects shot with an image that visually echoes the opening of the 1977 original, even while it doesn't achieve the jaw-dropping sense of newfangled wonder that explains that film's seemingly never-ending appeal.  Just as other movies have been made in Technicolor and contained music but none will ever be The Wizard of Oz, so it may be with Star Wars.  There can ever only be one first time.

Throughout, The Force Awakens recalls the 1977 to 1983 films, aggressively driving home the point that the prequels are no longer relevant to the story.  In visual style, dialogue, characters, scenes, music, settings, costumes and plot points, The Force Awakens is insistently faithful to those first-made films.  It's also created with such a genuine desire to please that it's probably impossible not to find much to enjoy.  It is fun, it is chipper, and even when it depicts mass slaughter and parricide, it is never pessimistic or gloomy.

There are some observations worth making, though.  For instance, The Force Awakens begins with a lonesome hero on a desert planet, who spends time at a local trading post and finds a droid that she keeps as a companion.  That droid is carrying secret information that the bad guys (no longer the Empire, but a sort of Empire 2.0 called The First Order) want very badly, for reasons made mostly clear in the opening crawl.  With soldiers dressed in white armor and a tall, cloaked bad guy dressed in a black helmet and cape, they lay waste to everything they find as they search for the droid.  If that sounds familiar, well, it is.  More than a bit.

The hero, a daring and yearning young woman named Rey (played by Daisy Ridley, the best thing to happen to a Star Wars movie in ... ever?), goes on adventures that involve, in no particular order: a potential love interest, a stormtrooper who removes his helmet, a wise older man, a small and sage alien creature, a bar filled with a wild assortment of intergalactic creatures, more stormtroopers, a super-bad guy who appears by hologram, a Wookiee, Princess Leia (called General Organa throughout but oddly listed as "Princess Leia" in the credits), Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, a brash pilot (well, two or three of them, actually), the Millennium Falcon, a rebel base in a jungly fortress, an ice planet, a forest planet, a giant space station that destroys planets, a surprising death, familial revelations, R2-D2, C-3PO and lightsabers.  And, I will assure you again, this knowledge will not ruin your enjoyment of the film, especially since almost all of that is conveyed in the movie's poster.

I offer these observations to point out that if this weren't Star Wars film, there would be a lot of complaining about how The Force Awakens has "ripped off" the first three movies.  Except it's directed by J.J. Abrams, who has the right to use those films, and written by veteran Star Wars writer Lawrence Kasdan.  Nonetheless, The Force Awakens is essentially a mash-up of memorable moments from the three films made during the Carter-Reagan years.  More than few times, it feels like it's less of a recollection and more of a near-replication of these movies, albeit with the advantage of time and distance.

The Force Awakens is -- with every ounce and fiber of its being -- determined to prove that it is a "real" Star Wars movie  Like a cute and clever child who dresses and emulates a parent down to the smallest mannerism and affectation, The Force Awakens left me amused and slightly bemused at its reverence, warmed by its familiarity, and perplexed by its anxious determination to please.  It's making all the right moves, it doesn't need to keep trying so hard.  But mostly, just as you want to know which parent that child ultimately becomes as it grows and learns, I am intrigued to discover what will happen when Star Wars somehow breaks away from its new owners and comes fully into its own.  For now, it's still being trained -- and it seems to be learning the lessons with great intensity.

Time will tell.

Viewed Dec. 16, 2015 -- AMC Metreon


Saturday, December 12, 2015


 4 / 5 

Why, you wonder for a while, does Anomalisa need to be animated?  In its opening scenes, the movie aims for such verisimilitude that the painstaking, finely detailed work of stop-motion animation seems like it's more of a technical trick than a necessary artistic choice.

Anomalisa is a small, sad and lovely story about the ways we are disconnected from others, and it does not seem, at first, to stretch the boundaries of reality in overt ways that would require animation: There are no talking candles, flying carpets or singing animals.

There is just lonely, middle-aged Michael Stone and, before Lisa comes along, there is Everyone Else.  Michael's voice is provided by the actor David Thewlis, while an actor named Tom Noonan plays Everyone Else.  And by that, I mean, Tom Noonan is literally everyone else, from Michael's wife, Donna; to his son, Henry; to the front-desk clerk at the hotel, to the waitress in the restaurant, to the wounded ex-girlfriend Michael thinks it might be a good idea to call when a business trip takes him to Cincinnati.

Michael is middle-aged, weary, sad about the choices he's made.  Now he feels dislocated in a city he doesn't know, isolated in a bland upscale hotel where everything looks the same.  And just about the time we begin realizing just how disillusioned and disappointed Michael is, we also start to realize why filmmaker Charlie Kaufman wanted to make Anomalisa as an animated film.

The movie presents the world exactly as Michael sees it: He is, in ways both small and large, selfish and self-centered, as perhaps most of us are, and everyone else seems blandly the same.  They look alike, they sound alike, and thanks to the minor artistic miracles of the film, they are the same.

Charlie Kaufman wrote and co-directed the film (with Duke Johnson), and he has surprised us with this sort of reality bending before.  Think about movies like Being John Malkovich, in which everybody took on the countenance of the esteemed actor, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which memories were literally erased.

Kaufman's movies proceed from the notion that we all experience a certain baseline reality, which is what we share with others in what we tacitly agree is our mutual world.  But that physical world is, of course, limited.  The metaphysical mind is not.  The strange power of the mind makes us do things, see things, say things, experience things, react to things that, quite possibly, only we can see.  The body can move through life, but the mind can soar through it -- forward, backward, side to side, swirling in and around itself, searching for what it needs.

The droning, monotonous voices, the sameness of all the faces are just about to overwhelm Michael, who could well be a relative of Bill Murray's sad-sack actor in Lost in Translation, with which Anomalisa also shares its hollow, lonely mood and its hotel setting.  The two films are cousins: similar, but not alike.

Just as Michael imagines that he couldn't feel more disconnected from the sameness of everyone else, he meets Lisa.  It is her tremulous, fragile voice he notices first (it's provided by Jennifer Jason Leigh), before he ever sees he tender, wounded face.  Michael, who might not be the most faithful husband in movie history, is attracted to her.  He wants Lisa to come to his room.  He wants to have sex with her.  She, in turn, has trouble believing that he is interested in her.

They do have sex, and for some the defining feature of Anomalisa may be that it's the movie in which puppets engage in full-frontal sex. But it's also the movie in which puppets provide more insight into humanity than most live-action movies, in which puppets present some painful and unhappy truths about the way we treat each other, and the way emotional pain drives us to do things that make no rational sense.

Anomalisa is a beautiful movie, both in its physical design and its emotional honesty.  The story is strong enough that only occasionally do we pause to remember that we are watching puppets, and marvel at the immense effort and care that went into its creation.

After Michael and Lisa have sex, it moves into uncomfortable and challenging areas, beginning with a long wild, surreal scene that drives it firmly into Kaufman territory.  But Anomalisa is always unpredictable, especially in the way it highlights how animation divorces its actors' physical presence from their performances, distilling the emotion.  We're used to seeing animation highlight big, happy emotions, but Anomalisa uses it to emphasize small, difficult ones.

Some will find Anomalisa's combination of artistic daring and intense personal drama to be off-putting, others may find it utterly absorbing. For me, the experience was somewhere in between: fascinating to watch but emotionally a little distant.  And yet, it stays with me.  Anomalisa is a hard movie to shake -- which, I imagine, was exactly what the filmmakers were going for.

Viewed Dec. 11, 2015 -- On DVD

Sunday, December 6, 2015


 2 / 5 

In Spectre, the Bond movies cross the fine line from film series to franchise in ways that underscore what is wrong with Hollywood's obsession with movies as brands: they don't require stories to make sense anymore, as long as they contain elements perceived by fans to be requisite, while spending an endless amount of time referring to previous (perhaps even future) films.

Spectre takes time to name check just about every major character who has appeared in a Bond film since Daniel Craig took over the role in Casino Royale in 2006.  About the sixth time the name "Vesper Lynd," for instance, was mentioned, I began to wonder what any of that had to do with the story at hand.  But I imagine that somewhere a studio executive felt that, on paper at least, this constant reflexivity made Spectre less a single movie experience than the 2015 entry in the studio's tentpole franchise, so no one bothered to question if those moments could be left out of a bloated script that led to a running time of more than 2½ hours.

Spectre doesn't leave you thrilled, it leaves you tired and glad when the end finally comes, and that is not the way a James Bond movie, or any other movie, should wrap up.

Much like the mega-successful line of Marvel® franchise branded film products from Disney -- and, to a lesser extent, the Harry Potter® franchise branded film products from Warner Bros., the Jurassic Park® franchise branded film products from Universal -- it has become less important for a James Bond® franchise branded film product have a compelling plot than some good moments that can be effectively edited into 30-second spots so the movie can be placed into as many screens as possible to maximize opening-weekend revenue potential.  Storytelling and narrative urgency are, as Bond himself might say, entirely expendable.

The most disappointing part of Spectre, the reason this franchising of Bond matters so much despite the fact that 24 films have preceded it, is that it follows a movie as good as Skyfall.

Skyfall seemed to want to tell a story so well that it would captivate even those who aren't typically Bond lovers.  Skyfall was an exceptional film, a movie that offered a full and fresh story, with characters who were surprisingly dimensional and memorable; it had great action sequences and scenes filled with genuine dramatic tension, as well; and, of course, it had that theme song.

Spectre fails on most of those accounts, but I did kind of like the song.  Sam Smith is no Adele, but then again, he's no Madonna or A-Ha, either, so be thankful.  The moment in which Spectre really springs to life when Judi Dench appears on screen as M, but that's for 20 seconds, and the movie has another 149 minutes and 40 seconds to fill.

It fills some of that time admirably, like in a very good sequence with a runaway helicopter flying dangerously over hoardes of partiers during Mexico's Day of the Dead.  It's a good opening segment, even if we're not entirely sure what's going on -- because if you're like me, part of the fun of a James Bond movie is that you're never entirely sure what's going on.  At the end of that scene, we figure out that Bond has stumbled on to a secret held by a new secret-service group that is going to subsume MI6 and create a new world order -- without the pesky demands of things like public hearings, Congress or voting.  It's the kind of group that would no doubt welcome Donald Trump as a member.

Bond's colleagues M and Q both realize they could well be out on their ears with this new merger of MI5 and MI6 and connive to send Bond away for a bit.  But Bond being Bond, he's not about to go so easily, even though his blood has been augmented with a new "super blood" that makes it possible to track him anywhere in the world, a plot device introduced in the requisite visit to Q's labs and that never again factors in to the film's story.

A lot of Spectre is messy that way.  Take, for instance, the scene that introduces the ultra-villainous leader of the ultra-villainous organization called Spectre (which is, you may have guessed, behind that new secret-service group, which doesn't exactly consider the people of the world to be its constituents).  There's no energy to it, no tension.  The villain, who's played by Christoph Waltz, has such low energy that you wonder if his heart is really in this world-takeover thing.

Later, Spectre reveals a relationship between this super-villain and Bond himself that is either a startling bit of new Bond mythology or is merely ludicrous and a blatant attempt to refashion the Bond movies into Bond® franchised film products.

Spectre does some things well enough, and Daniel Craig remains an ideal James Bond.  It does other things, like a frankly dull car chase through Rome or the dimly lit final set piece in the old MI6 building, which was memorably attacked during Skyfall.  In Spectre, Bond's new "girl," Madeleine Swann (played by Lea Seydoux) is trapped inside and the building is rigged with demolition explosives.  Waltz's villain is going to bring it down.  Will Bond escape?

Bond movies have never seriously questioned whether Bond will escape; of course he will -- he just has to do it in spectacular fashion.  That's the problem.  Spectre presents it as dark and murky.  You almost need to squint your eyes to make out what's going on.  And when the building finally blows up, the only thing I could wonder is why no one seemed to care much.  A building just blew up on the banks of the River Thames, a helicopter carrying the perpetrator is flying away past Big Ben, and a few cop cars show up.

We know too much about how this scene would play out in the real world to view it solely as a piece of escapism any longer.  And that, in the end, may be the other problem with the Bond movies and the attempt to make them into the Bond® franchised film product: The world has changed.  I've always thought James Bond would have a place in it.  Spectre is the first Bond film that left me doubting that.

Viewed Dec. 5, 2015 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Thursday, December 3, 2015


 4 / 5 

Maybe some people are born to fight. It is their talent, their drive, their expression and motivation. It's easy to accept that someone is born with the need to paint, draw, write, explore, act, teach, build -- but fighting?  That's harder.

When we first meet Adonis Creed in Creed, the seventh in a line of films about and now featuring Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa, he is still a boy, but he is already fighting.  There must be a reason -- his broken home, his socio-economic circumstances.  The "system" has him pegged as a problem, but maybe the need is simply in him, passed down by the father who died before he was born, Apollo Creed, who began as Rocky's nemesis and then became great friend.

Unless you are a true Rocky fan who paid attention during the comically awful Rocky IV, you may have forgotten that Apollo Creed died 30 years ago at the hands of the evil Soviet boxer Ivan Drago.  (This information comes courtesy of Wikipedia, as I've actively tried to forget the film.)

In most movies, growing up parentless would be the only motivation needed to turn Adonis into a fighter, but Creed is smarter than that.  Fighting defines Adonis, literally by nature, and Creed turns out not to be about the craft and technicalities of boxing, but about how Adonis learns who he is, what his father's legacy means, and how to be true to himself by expressing his emotion through boxing.

Adonis is played by Michael B. Jordan, who in 2013 played Oscar Grant in the staggeringly great Fruitvale Station, which was also directed by Creed's director Ryan Coogler.  Fruitvale Station and Creed are the only two feature films Coogler has directed, which means his track record is extraordinary.  The crowd-pleasing, mainstream Creed is in many ways the antithesis of Fruitvale, but it is crafted with equal care.  Coogler is clearly a special and important filmmaker.

The Rocky movies should have run out of steam about 30 years ago, but Coogler's Creed makes the underdog story fresh and relevant, exciting and new.

Creed is about Adonis, but it's also about Rocky himself, who agrees to train Adonis.  It's bout Bianca (Tessa Thompson), with whom Adonis is smitten the moment he sees her.  Both Rocky and Bianca, it turns out, have their own battles -- and in a beautifully conceived and executed thematic through-line, they both need to be fighters.

Adonis meets Rocky, and after some initial hesitation by the older icon, they start training together. In Rocky, Adonis finally finds someone who will take him at least almost as seriously as he takes himself.  Adonis does so well that it attracts the attention of one of the best fighters in the world, an intense and driven Liverpudlian named "Pretty" Ricky Conlan.  Conlan's manager proposes Creed and Conlan fight each other.

Those are the barest bones of the outline, but Creed surprises by finding rich emotional warmth and unexpected nuance in the story.  The outcome is less about whether Creed will win the final match against Conlan, but whether he can square away the life he has known with the life he wants to have, and whether he is good enough and strong enough, outside of the physical, to fight on his own.

Creed resembles Rocky in some ways, but stands on its own.  It's not necessary to have seen any of the earlier films to appreciate this one (though it helps).  Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington weren't even conscious when Rocky IV thundered into theaters, much less the original film, and they use that to their advantage: Creed captures the essence of Rocky and fashions it into something new, a movie that is striking not just because it has a strong story and powerful acting, but because it is visually and sonically beautiful, too.

Creed also takes a bold and unexpected gamble by failing to resolve every possible dramatic conflict, especially the one that a lesser film would have made into its central story.  It is more interested in presenting the problems and letting the characters sort through the emotional consequences than tying up everything in a neat Hollywood ending.

Which isn't to say Creed doesn't have a neat Hollywood ending.  Of course it does.  It's a Rocky movie, so it couldn't play things any other way.  Except that it manages to do exactly that, which makes Creed a special movie, indeed.

Viewed Dec. 2, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks