Wednesday, November 15, 2017

"Roman J. Israel, Esq."


Roman J. Israel, Esq. is the second movie this month with a comma in its title, a fact that is only slightly less interesting than the film itself, which is a disappointment coming from Dan Gilroy, the writer-director of Nightcrawler, and Denzel Washington, a modern screen icon and a movie star if ever there was one.

But it turns out Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a character in search of a movie, a bunch of idiosyncratic tics placed on screen in what appears to be primarily an attempt to nab some Oscar nominations.  What Roman J. Israel, Esq. has going for it: an undeniably appealing central performance, some magnificent cinematography, and some nice supporting work by Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo.  What it's missing is a crucial reason for being, a cinematic personality to match its title character, and a cohesive story.

A mild-mannered attorney in a small Los Angeles two-man firm led by a beloved civil-rights lawyer (who never appears on screen), Roman J. Israel, Esq., spends his days researching cases and writing legal briefs.  He can recite the entire California civil code by memory, and he wears cheap suits and clip-on ties from the second-hand store.  He carries around thousands of pages of notes for an epic class-action lawsuit against the federal government that he dreams of filing. He makes $500 a week and lives in a tiny apartment in a bad part of town.  (For as much as it revels in its setting Roman J. Israel, Esq. doesn't go out of its way to make L.A. look particularly nice; it's the anti-La La Land.)

When his mentor collapses into unconsciousness after an all-but-fatal heart attack, Roman J. Israel winds up working for a slick, high-priced attorney (Farrell), whose philosophy is geared more toward billable hours than upholding civil rights.  But Roman J. Israel, Esq., is passionate about civil rights, and believes in the power of the law to do good, which wins the attention of a beautiful, intelligent volunteer lawyer for a liberal activist group.

Somewhere in here a story happens, eventually.  There's a ripped-from-the-headlines shooting case involving two black men, and because of that case Roman J. Israel, Esq., finds himself in a morally compromising position, and for once in his life he decides to follow the lead of Farrell and go for the money after a series of highly unlikely scenarios that finds Roman J. Israel, Esq., suddenly rich.

It all plays out like an uncomfortable blend of Being There, Rain Man and a generic John Grisham legal thriller, the kind that throws out a lot of legal jibber-jabber that laymen can't keep up with and that I suspect probably has lawyers in the audience giggling.

Roman J. Israel, Esq., isn't about the character's autistic traits and how he needs to adapt to the world, though there are traces of that.  And it isn't about how this simple character gets into complex situations and struggles to make sense of them, though there are traces of that.  And it isn't a paranoid thriller, though there are quite uncomfortable traces of that.  And it isn't a romance, though there are some even more uncomfortable traces of that.  And it's not about civil rights or the role the law plays in upholding inherent rights, though there are tiny traces of that.  What it is, in the end, is a something of a mess.

The movie has a hard time laying out its story and making sense of it, and a really awful framing device is more awkward than endearing, though it's meant to be the latter, and we're meant to cheer the way Roman J. Israel, Esq., gets a chance to grab the easy money and then realizes how it's never as easy as all that.  But none of it rings true.  Fortunately, it's at least always a joy to look at thanks to the cinematography by Robert Elswit, who also shot Paul Thomas Anderson's magnificent ode to Los Angeles, Magnolia, which is a far superior movie about people who live in L.A. and come to realize that life is way more complex than it appears, and that life is really hard for people with strong moral principles.

It's interesting how movies set in Los Angeles often explore issues of justice and social inequality, how they play with the disparity between the way the city looks and the kinds of people who live here.  A lot of great movies have been made about Los Angeles and the way it hides the good in bad people and the bad in good people and is a place that is both deeper and more interesting than it appears.  A lot of really terrific films have been made about ideas like that.  Unfortunately, Roman J. Israel, Esq. isn't one of them.

Viewed Nov. 15, 2017 -- TCL Chinese Theater


Sunday, November 12, 2017

"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"


Anger begets greater anger, one of the characters says in Martin McDonaugh's shockingly funny and starkly sad film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  Well, she doesn't say it so much as it's related that she said it, and she can't take credit for the wisdom because she read it in a book -- well, on a bookmark in a book.

Still, she's proud of the words, and still what they say about anger is true.  Just ask Mildred Hayes, whose daughter Angela went out to meet some friends nine months ago when she was raped and set on fire just under a trio of billboards within eyesight of the Hayes residence.

What does that kind of unthinkable violence do to a mother? That's part of what Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, wants to explore, but the bigger question is: What does it do to everyone?  What does that sort of scream in the night, that slap in the face of decency and humanity do to the world?  Whether or not McDonaugh and everyone involved with Three Billboards knew it when they were making the movie, Three Billboards proves to have powerful resonance in today's violent, profane, angry, divided, ridiculous world.

The pain inflicted by whomever killed Angela Hayes has left almost everyone in Ebbing, Missouri, feeling violent, profane, angry and divided themselves -- the ridiculous is just along for the ride, as it always is in life.  No one is hurt more than Mildred, who is played by Frances McDormand in one of the great performances of the year, certainly, and maybe the decade.  She can't get past the idea that Angela's killer walked off into the night and was never caught or heard from again.  Unsure what to do with her rage, she rents the billboard above the place of Angela's murder, and two more nearby, and erects a harsh message to the local police chief.

Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, who's also spectacularly good) is enraged, of course. But he gets it. How could he be angry at Mildred when the stunt gets exactly the results it wants: It turns the attention of the chief and the town back to the murder that they hoped they had moved beyond.  Mildred's son (Lucas Hedges) is a little less forgiving, and police officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is demonstrably more so.

Though her intent was to rip open her own raw wound, in fact what Mildred does is tear the sutures from the whole damned town, and it pretty soon it looks like the whole place is infected with anger, resentment and recrimination.

Against this dramatic setup, Three Billboards does something extraordinary: It finds reasons to laugh. It's one of the most consistently and frequently inappropriately funny movies of the year, filled with a cast of characters who are less quirky stereotypes than almost uncomfortably rich and full-blooded humans.  There are racists and homophobes (this being small-town America), people who have unrequited crushes on each other, people who have their own theories about what happened, people who keep secrets about the way they are, the way they think, the things they feel.

As the town lines up both for and against Mildred, her challenge to the police is a defining moment for everyone involved, when they have to accept what they've done, defend their actions, or make some serious changes in their lives.  The police chief is the most obvious target, but it turns out there are a lot of lesser targets, too, ones Mildred didn't even know she was aiming for.

Yet it's Chief Willoughby who looms largest in all of it.  The crime happened on his watch, and so did the failure to find the murderer.  Harrelson strikes a wryly nonplussed sort of tone early on, but then McDonaugh's screenplay throws a curveball, which it follows up with an even more unexpected twist, and pretty soon we're as confused as anyone in the movie.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, begins with a setup that seems straightforward and pulls back the layers of normalcy (even weird, ridiculous normalcy) one by one, until we realize there's nothing at all straightforward about any of it, and whatever answer we thought might be forthcoming is not going to be easy at all.

There's an absurdist streak running through Three Billboards that is similar in tone to McDonaugh's supremely underrated In Bruges, which is also startlingly violent and profane.  That film played off of the sweet, peaceful image of a European storybook to great effect, but there's something even more disarming about Three Billboards and its depiction of American small-town views.  It's no surprise that underneath the tranquility of an American town lingers unpleasant truths, and Three Billboards hits on the expected elements of racism and violence.  Then it goes deeper, into individual hearts and minds, exploring the anger that seethes under a calm exterior.

Yet it never once loses its sense of humor, both about the story at hand and about humanity in general.  It is, as one character muses, as if there is no God and it doesn't matter what we do to each other, in which case we're all really screwed.

Or maybe not.

And that is the glimmer in this wonderful movie's eye.

Viewed November 12, 2017 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Saturday, November 11, 2017

"God's Own Country"


Out there on the wind-whipped, lonely moors of Yorkshire, life is rugged and tough.  It's no place for humor, judging by God's Own Country, which is a dour and serious romance that would not be a particularly noteworthy film if it were about an opposite-sex couple. But since it's about two gay men in a rough-and-tumble world of masculinity, the movie assumes its every move takes on extra weight and meaning.

Johnny (Josh O'Connor) is a farmer who lives way out there in Brontë country.  He's a little slow, a little aimless.  At night he goes into town and gets drunk, because based on this movie that is all there is to do when you're a farmer in Yorkshire.  Sometimes he has sex with a local boy, but since Johnny doesn't kiss he's not gay.  It's just that a Yorkshire farmer has needs, you see.

Johnny's glum, widowed father has been disabled by a stroke, and Johnny's sour-faced grandmother tends to the house all day, which means Johnny needs some help on the farm.  That's where the migrant Romanian farmer Gheorghe (sultry Alec Secareanu) comes in.  He's initially brought to the farm for a week of labor.

They head out onto the farm to tend to the livestock.  The film shows their animal husbandry work in rather alarming detail. They work hard. They heat up instant noodles over a campfire.  They go long, long hours without saying a word.

Then they have sex. There's no indication that they have particular feelings for each other, that Gheorghe might be gay, or that they have any real interest in sex, except that the film's leisurely screenplay, written by its director, Francis Lee, says that's what needs to happen.

The movie seems vastly more fascinated by the work the men do than their personal lives, and there's one difficult but fascinating scene in which Gheorghe peels the skin away from a dead lamb to help a little runt lamb be accepted by a sheep.  God's Own Country seems to understand much more about farm life than it does about romance, and that's not an insurmountable problem except for the fact that the movie wants to be a romance.

During that first night of dirty, hasty sex, Johnny refuses to kiss Gheorghe, but it isn't long before they're making goo-goo eyes at each other, while Johnny's father and grandmother slowly catch on to what's happening.  But the movie doesn't play up that drama, or really much of any drama.  God's Own Country is filled with long, pauses and wordless moments, but they aren't as much quietly dramatic as they are listless.  For a movie about passion, God's Own Country is missing exactly that.

Perhaps the film wants to be Britain's answer to Brokeback Mountain, and there are indications it does, but Johnny and Gheorghe lack the intensity of Jack and Ennis.  It's not the fault of the actors, both are good and try very hard to dig into these men.  But God's Own Country is so dramatically slack that it needs to invent a far-fetched conflict to move the story into its climax rather than let the chasm between its two main characters open up.  Is Gheorghe gay, and did his sexuality factor in to his decision to leave his home country?  Has Johnny struggled with his sexual identity for a long while?  It's hard to know and a little bit hard to care, especially when the film tries to use a vulgur epithet in an ironic way to show how difficult it is for them to express love.

And yet ... there's something sweet about a movie that believes the biggest romantic problem between two people of the same sex is still, in the 21st century, merely gender.  It's such a simple and straightforward gay drama that its backwardness is mildly endearing.  Plus, there's the scenery, which is hard to ignore; the moors look brutal and harsh, but terrifically romantic and isolated.

For a movie filled with dead animals and gay sex, God's Own Country is strangely about as straightforward and old-fashioned as you can get.

Viewed November 11, 2017 -- AMC Sunset 5


Friday, November 10, 2017

"Murder on the Orient Express"


Like an old bathrobe or a favorite chair, Murder on the Orient Express has an easy familiarity to it, a they-don't-make-them-like-this-anymore vibe that makes movie fans of a certain age smile.

Of course, they used to make them like this, nearly a half-century ago. That was when Bette Davis and Ingrid Bergman and David Niven didn't really have careers anymore and could be wooed by high-paying producers to travel to exotic locations and get the full-on movie-star treatment in extravagant productions based on Agatha Christie novels.

There were a spate of these films, which succeeded the mega-budgeted, star-studded disaster films that had lost their appeal, and which prevented the stars themselves from fading completely.  Ultimately, of course, those epic Christie mysteries lost their appeal, as well, and Hollywood movied past that and into the age of superstars like Julia Roberts, Mel Gibson, Eddie Murphy and, ironically enough, Johnny Depp, who could commend $20 million a picture.  In those days, it seemed that maybe the star-in-every-role movies would never be seen again; there was no way a producer could spend $200 million on salaries alone.

But, of course, stars fade and popularity wanes and now here's Depp himself playing a supporting role amid a passel of stars both young and, ahem, old.  Murder on the Orient Express almost delights in bringing back this old-timey conceit of shoving together a bunch of arguably fading actors and seeing what happens.  Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Kenneth Branagh, Willem Dafoe -- for a moment, sometimes longer, they were all huge, and Murder on the Orient Express, which Branagh himself directed, luxuriates in the idea that they still are. (Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench are also on board for an extra-classy touch.)

They are but mere co-stars, however, alongside younger actors like Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad and Leslie Odom Jr., who are to this film what, say, Jacqueline Bisset, Mia Farrow and Simon MacCorkindale (remember him, "Manimal" fans?) were to the earlier generation of these murder-mystery sagas.  Whether Pfeiffer, Cruz, Dafoe and their contemporaries have quite the marquee appeal that the previous generation had is questionable at best, but Murder on the Orient Express suspects that it will be a delight to see them, and it guesses correctly.

It is almost irrelevant whether the film itself is any good, and it is a bit of a relief to report that it's almost every bit as entertaining as those earlier movies.  It is richly appointed, beautifully shot, lovingly crafted.  It looks phenomenal, with costumes and sets that recall more lavish days.

As a director, Branagh loves his actors, none more than himself, though not in a particularly egotistical sort of way.  It's just that Branagh knows that if there is a star in these star-studded mysteries, it has to be the detective himself, and he wants Hercules Poirot played in a specific way -- so specific, it makes sense that only the director could play the part.

The story has the same basic setup as Christie's novel and the 1974 film by Sidney Lumet: Poirot, the world's greatest detective, boards the Orient Express after a particularly exhausting case, but instead of the expected R&R he gets, naturally, another murder to solve.  This one is a particularly befuddling one since it takes place in an enclosed location with a limited number of witnesses ... or suspects.  How did the slimeball "businessman" Samuel Ratchett wind up dead in his locked-from-the-inside cabin?

Poirot investigates, giving each of the movie's actors, whether big name or small, about four minutes of quality screen time to tell her or his story before moving on.  Poirot listens.  He observes.  He deduces.  And, ultimately, solves the case.

Whether the solution is the same as it's always been or different this time around is not something anyone should give away, but does it matter?  Those who might not know the outcome of the previous film or original novel will look for all the clues; those who remember the original well will delight in all of the visual aspects of the movie -- and the non-visual ones, too, for it boasts a wonderfully full-blooded score by Patrick Doyle and dazzling cinematography by Hans Zambarloukos, along with luxurious costumes by Alexandra Byrne.

And like that bathrobe or chair, it's easy to enjoy and not care about its middling qualities, of which there are plenty.  The script is both infinitely talky and sometimes maddeningly confusing: some characters still don't make a ton of sense even after you know the outcome.  The acting, particularly by Cruz and Odom, is at times flat and uncompelling, while Branagh is frequently overzealous with the visuals -- there's too much obvious computer-generated imagery.

Then there's the structure, which relies almost entirely on Poirot moving from character to character and giving each suspect a few minutes to tell their story before moving on to the next.  (The black-and-white flashbacks are, for my way of thinking, a touch that's slightly too old-fashioned and cheesy.) It becomes wearying, even though most of the actors are terrific and seem to love (as I did) the way Branagh films in long, uninterrupted takes.  The scenery has got to taste a little better when they chew it that way.  And chew they do, seeming to love every minute of it, and few of the minutes are quite as good as the initial meeting between Mrs. Hubbard (Pfeiffer) and Monsieur Poirot, which also shows off the train to full effect.

As the film ends, there's a heavy hint that if this one succeeds Poirot will be back in a remake of Death on the Nile, which would hardly be the worst thing in the world to see.  Which former superstars will star in it?  A resurgence of films like this could be a lot of fun -- and whodunit will be far less intriguing than who'lldoit.

Viewed November 10, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, November 5, 2017

"Thor: Ragnarok"


The audience I saw Thor: Ragnarok with laughed at all the appropriate places, cheered for their favorite characters, and applauded at the end of the movie while I sat mostly bewildered, though slightly less so than I've been at most recent Marvel movies.

Impressively, Thor: Ragnarok tries to step out of its own way for Marvel neophytes (and it's odd to consider myself that, since I've seen the bulk of the Marvel-branded films), and it comes closer than any Marvel film since the original Iron Man to being an enjoyable experience for those who don't obsessively keep up with the previous films.

That's not to say Thor: Ragnarok is a film I'd recommend to people who have never seen a super-hero movie, but those people are clearly in the minority of the moviegoing audience, so they probably don't matter.  Still, Thor: Ragnarok is substantially better and more entertaining than Thor: The Dark World, which apparently I saw back in 2013 even though I have almost no memory of the experience.  And it's also a lot better than the original Thor, which I could have sworn was the one with Natalie Portman, though that turns out to have been the last one.

And yet ... there were times, more than a few of them, when I was utterly confounded by what was happening on screen.  Thor: Ragnarok assumes more than a passing familiarity with the previous films, but not just with the Thor movies but all of the Marvel films.  Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) makes a significant appearance, and because I hadn't seen his movie I didn't really understand the references he was making.  Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) shows up, and the Hulk/David Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has a major role.  The audience cracked up when he saw Black Widow and made some comments about Tony Stark, and they totally got it when he talked about what happened in the other non-Thor Marvel movies, and the point that the film seems to be making is that if you don't get what they're talking about then you're just not worth worrying about.

That's mostly fine in Thor: Ragnarok since the movie is enjoyable on its own and has just enough of its own self-contained story that it's like sitting down and watching an episode of a long-running TV mystery series -- you can enjoy the murder of the week even if you don't get the sideways glances its characters give each other.  Same thing here.

The story of Thor: Ragnarok is more comprehensible than the story of, say Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and involves Thor (Chris Hemsworth, his eyes twinkling even more than usual) and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) saving their home city-planet of Asgard from their resurgent, long-forgotten sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), who happens to be no less than the goddess of death.

You'd think that maybe sometime their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) might have told them that they were related to the most powerful, angry villain in the galaxy, but, hey, that's family for you.  Blanchett seems to be having a great time as Hela, though she's pretty one-note as a villain and mostly makes a lot of large flourishes with her arms while she swears the good guys will never win.

There's a very, very, very long detour to a trash planet that feels a lot like something out of Star Wars. I've always found it interesting that in much populist science-fiction entire planets are only one thing -- desert or ice or water or trash.  This trash world is lorded over by a wacky, crazy guy named Grandmaster, who is played by Jeff Goldblum.  It would be hard to imagine an actor who is clearly having a better time in a movie than Goldblum is in Thor: Ragnarok.  One of his chief deputies is a Valkyrie played by Tessa Thompson, who I thought was one of the oddest characters in the movie if only because she turns out to be almost entirely unnecessary to the plot but has a ton of screen time, probably because she's going to factor in to the next Thor movie.

And there will be another Thor movie, because this one is making boatloads of money and audiences are eating it up.  Which is fine, I guess.  Complaining about the Marvel movies being narratively slack and the cinematic equivalent of junk food is not going to change the fact that moviegoers really have an appetite for it, whether they're hungry or not.

Viewed Nov. 5, 2017 -- AMC Burbank 16


"Lady Bird"


That we were all 17 once is a truth no 17-year-old understands, but the bitter irony is that no middle-aged person does, either.

Back then, we all told ourselves, "When I'm old, I won't be that way." Then, somehow, the experimentation and the exasperation, the hope and the excitement, the loneliness and the friendships all give way to adulthood, and then, for those who have children, the cycle repeats itself.  It has been that way for all time, I guess, and probably before the famous murder Cain and Abel rolled their eyes and clucked their tongues because Adam and Eve just didn't get it.

So, the conflicts of parents and children are nothing new for movies to explore, and in that regard Lady Bird doesn't feel particularly new or profoundly insightful, but this directorial debut from actress Greta Gerwig, who also wrote it, is engaging, witty and wise nonetheless.

Played by Saoirse Ronan, Christine McPherson is cursed with the fate of being above-average -- that is, too smart to be ordinary yet not brilliant enough to be something special.  She's so convinced she's bored with her life that she even gives herself her own nickname, "Lady Bird," which she writes in quotation marks between her first and last name. She's "Lady Bird" because it's a name she gave herself, not one forced upon her by her mother, the way every meaningful decision has been.

Lady Bird lives in Sacramento, and Lady Bird begins with an epigraph by Joan Didion that both mocks and respects Sacramento for being, well, Sacramento, which Lady Bird calls "the midwest of California." It doesn't seem like it's enough for Lady Bird, who envisions herself doing something big and bold but seems fated to live the kind of life where the best she can do is be cast as "swing" in the school play.

Lady Bird's mother is played by Laurie Metcalf, and she doesn't understand her daughter, not at all. She might have more time to consider her daughter if only she weren't working overtime at the hospital, worrying about her soft-in-the-heart husband (Tracy Letts) losing his job, and fretting about how she's going to keep the family afloat.  The last thing she needs is teenage angst and rebellion, but that's what she's got with Lady Bird.

Lady Bird is primarily a series of vignettes that illuminate the sort of life that normally happens in the shadows of bigger things.  Nothing of great import happens in Lady Bird, but one of the great achievements of the movie is the way it doesn't seem to mind.  The movie follows Lady Bird for about a year as she deals with school, college applications, budding romance, friendship and a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction.  She wants to be anywhere but here -- but she also has a sense that when she gets there, she might not like it very much, either.

Lady Bird is thin on plot but loaded with warm, amiable characters who are confused about the lives they're growing into.  And it's not just the teenagers in the movie that are discovering this -- Metcalfe anchors the movie with her portrayal of a mother who wishes she had more time to love her daughter the way her daughter deserves to be loved.

Lady Bird is as messy and endearing as Lady Bird's so-called life, and it's at its best when it deals with her first serious attempt at a relationship, a flirty, crushy sort of high-school love with awkward, handsome Danny (Lucas Hedges). Something big, something important happens between Lady Bird and Danny, and the movie handles it with anxious humor and true grace -- a scene between Ronan and Hedges is one of the sweetest and most touching moments you'll see in a movie this year.

Lady Bird also has a terrific relationship with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) that feels exactly the way high-school friendships felt: intense, genuine and painfully ephemeral.

The best parts of Lady Bird are about Lady Bird's complex relationships with her mother, Danny and Julie.  The movie is less appealing when Lady Bird veers off track and strikes up some friendships with the school's rich kids, and if the movie has one big flaw it's that it spends too much time observing Lady Bird with some self-absorbed brats.  Part of what Lady Bird is getting at, of course, is that Lady Bird herself will come to regret the time she wasted with the wrong kind of people.  But in many ways, Lady Bird plays like Pretty In Pink with an indie vibe, and let's face it, no one has ever really wished Andie spent more time with Blane and less with Duckie, did they?

Yet, the Pretty in Pink-John Hughes comparison, though apt, really only goes so far, because Lady Bird flirts with, if never quite addresses, some interesting observations about faith (Lady Bird attends a Catholic high school), class and integrity.  There are a lot of moments it's tempting to wish this small (93 minute), sweet movie would have spent more time exploring, and Gerwig's script meanders for a few critical moments.  Yet, it finds its way back, and the final scene pulls it all together in a sweet and melancholy way.

Lady Bird will make anyone who used to be a teenager wish that they could go back to do things just a little bit differently.  We're only 17 once, and Lady Bird knows what a blessing and a curse that is.

Viewed November 4, 2017 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Sunday, October 8, 2017

"Blade Runner 2049"


As lugubriously paced as your great-grandmother's funeral and about as fun to watch, Blade Runner 2049 at least has the advantage of its rapturous physical design, though even that grows wearying.  This is a ponderous movie, whose appeal is largely based in nostalgia.

Consider for a moment whether Blade Runner 2049 would have any reason to exist other than paying tribute to Ridley Scott's 1982 original, which was only slightly more entertaining, primarily because everything about it was so damned new.

Thirty-five years later, Blade Runner 2049 (set, curiously 30 rather than 35 years after the original) is obsessed with the first movie. To some, this will come across as a fond tribute, but to me it felt like a laborious attempt at re-creation. Its story is another dull "examination" of what it is to be human in an age of robots, a topic that has been so thoroughly examined by movies and TV shows in aftermath of the original that it's starting to feel like so much nonsense.

From Cylons Battlestar Galactica to little David in A.I. to rampaging cowboys in Westworld to the self-aware sexy robot in Ex Machina ... come on, even Number Five was alive in Short Circuit.  It's natural to hope that Blade Runner 2049 will have something new to say; more's the pity to find out it has nothing to say at all, new or otherwise.

There's some hoo-hah about miracles and mechanized disposable workforces and walls and breaking the world, all of which evoke Rutger Hauer's famous, poetic but still vaguely non-sensical speech in the original, but that's the problem with Blade Runner 2049: it's all meant to evoke something else.

The running time of more than two and a half hours wouldn't be the slightest problem at all if it didn't lead to more than a few fidgety moments.  The script by Hampton Fancher, writer of the first film, and Michael Green (of "Heroes" and, ominously, Alien: Covenant) is directed with the same slow, dreamy stylishness that Ridley Scott brought to the first, though this time the filmmaker in charge is Denis Villeneuve, so far removed from the hair-trigger anxiousness he brought to Sicario that even he seems more to be aping rather than building on first Blade Runner.

The first Blade Runner didn't have much of a story to begin with: In a dystopian, overcrowded, over-commercialized future world, a detective called a "blade runner" has to find androids ("replicants") who took part in a violent mutiny and returned to earth.  The trouble is, there's no way to tell them apart from humans.

The story is mostly the same this time around, as Ryan Gosling plays a replicant detective who needs to find the last few remaining rogue robots that ran amok the first time around.  He finds one of them, then finds a mysterious tree that yields a buried treasure of sorts.  He's got to tell his LAPD boss (Robin Wright) about it, and when they discover the contents of the box the story -- in theory, at least -- gets intriguing, because it looks like one of those old-timey replicants might have been pregnant.

Who was the child?  What does this mean for the future?  Gosling's character, named "K" (short for his serial number) goes wandering around looking for some sort of clues.  But whether it goes anywhere is hard to say.  Blade Runner 2049 is not a film eager to get to its plot; the script never met a two-minute scene that couldn't be played in 20 minutes, and is more interested in its visual style.

If Blade Runner 2049 had been the first, its visual sensibilities would have been overwhelming and enough on their own to see it at least once (which, I think, is largely why the original endures), but it isn't the first, and  how many times in the last 35 years have we seen this sort of overstuffed future world?  Everything from the aforementioned A.I. and Battlestar Galatica to the Star Wars prequels to Brazil have shown us this. For crying out loud, head to Tokyo and it's all made real!

So, then, Blade Runner 2049 better wow us with a stunner of a story, but the plot seems to be an afterthought here. Yes, Roger A. Deakins' cinematography and Dennis Gassner's production design are genuinely splendid, and the score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Walfisch suitably recalls the synthesized spa music that Vangelis created for the first, but the whole thing leads absolutely nowhere.

A little over an hour in, Harrison Ford finally shows up as Rick Deckard, the character he played in the first, and he lends a whole lot of Harrison Ford-style gruff apathy to the role.  Perhaps that's because Deckard was never a character in the first so much as a recollection himself of hard-boiled film noir detectives from the '40s. Does his character hold a secret to some mystery that will, as Wright's character says, "break the world"? Far be it from me to spoil anything, so let me just say: No, he does not. Nor does he bring any more clarity to the occasional plot. He is in the film for the same questionable reason the film is on the screen: for some people, more Blade Runner seemed like a good idea.

The thing is, the reason we remember 1982's Blade Runner is largely because it fused together a panoply many familiar elements to create a vision no one had seen before.  Blade Runner 2049 takes parts of things we've seen too many times and creates nothing new at all.

Viewed October 18, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, October 7, 2017

"The Florida Project"


After the success of Disneyland in 1955, Walt Disney was discouraged; his company hadn't been able to secure enough financing to buy up as much land in Anaheim as he wanted, and seemingly overnight tacky tourist motels cropped up to cater to eager park visitors.

Ten years later, he swore he wouldn't make the same mistake, and when he announced "The Florida Project," it was massive in scope, swallowing up 43 square miles of Florida swampland.  Life there is perfect.  It's better than perfect.  Tens of millions of people visit to experience the squeaky clean, highly polished world of Disney.

But you can't erase the real world.  Disney's Florida Project tried to shut out problems like slums, squalor, poverty and homelessness. The Florida Project, Sean Baker's languid, meandering but affecting and sometimes beautiful movie, is a powerful reminder that no matter how far Disney pushes the problem out of sight to create a world of make believe, reality has sharp edges that can hurt and cut anyone, especially a child.

The word "Disney" is never spoken in The Florida Project, but from its first moment the forced happiness of the Disney ethic pervades the movie, which mostly takes place in a couple of tacky motels somewhere near the border of Disney's vast Floridian property, primarily the Pepto-Bismol-colored Magic Castle.  From the outside, the Castle and its neighbor Future Land ("Stay in the Future!" its rundown marquee beckons) look like places made for really unlucky tourists or really cheap prostitutes, and both are indeed occasional visitors.

Its tenants, though, are sad, desperate people a quarter-step ahead of homelessness.  They include a far too young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her 6-year-old daughter Moonee, who is less "played" by than inhabited by an extraordinary, precocious, entirely natural and wonderfully winning actress named Brooklynn Prince, who in some ways is reminiscent of Beasts of the Southern Wild darling Quvenzhané Wallis.  Everything about Moonee is charming, fiercely intelligent and ultimately heartbreaking.

As The Florida Project begins, Moonee is goofing around with some of the other kids from The Magic Castle, getting into the kind of minor trouble that kids have been in since the beginning of the movies, and for a while as the screenplay by Baker and Chris Bergoch, who together also created the shot-on-an-iPhone awards-circuit favorite Tangerine, seems content to just ramble along.  Mooney is the leader of her little group, which sometimes resembles a raunchier Little Rascals.  They vaguely terrorize the manager of the hotel, Bobby, who is played by Willem Dafoe, whose star status never overwhelms the movie; Bobby seems more like a guy who everyone says, "Anyone ever tell you you look like that Willem Dafoe actor?" And as the film slowly gets going, it is clear that neither Bobby nor Moonee nor Halley nor any of the other characters (except maybe Gloria, the drunk old lady who likes to sunbathe in the nude) is going to be a stereotype.

Bobby loves his strange little motel, and with just a nudge, The Florida Project could be a CBS sitcom from the mid-70s, one of those with a little grunge around the edges.  Except The Florida Project avoids that kind of cliché, even when it presents the shows us just how far foul-mouthed, crude but heartfelt Hallee will go to keep a roof over their heads, even if it's a sad and pointless roof.

The Florida Project makes no judgments about its characters, except some surprisingly uplifting ones.  Bobby loves his hotel and the people who live there, and they create a family unit because, in the end, everyone needs a family.

Above all, though, The Florida Project pays tribute to the awesome, overwhelming, sometimes head-scratching resilience of childhood.  Moonee doesn't know what she's missing, even as she dresses in thrift-shop shirts with castles on them and plays with cheap dolls of obscure Disney characters.  It has never crossed her mind that life could be better than it is in The Magic Castle, that everyone doesn't live in a single room with a queen-sized bed co-occupied by a chain-smoking mother.

At one point, Moonee and her best friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) take a walk out to a breathtakingly beautiful break in the forest, just off the main highway, and sit on the branch of a giant tree.  "You know why this is my favorite tree?" Moonee asks. "Because it got knocked down and it's still growing."  Baker pulls his camera back to show the sideways, still-growing behemoth, and the moment is as stunning as anything you'll see in a big-budget blockbuster -- and more affecting.

The Florida Project takes a lot of patience for audiences more used to linear storytelling.  Its last few moments, though, elicit an equal mix of smiles and tears and reveal the brilliance of its leisurely ways: We've seen these people through something real, something life-changing, something that is disturbing and painful to watch but that views the uncomfortable reality of life through the lens of something that Walt Disney understood, then packaged and resold: the innocence of childhood.

In a moment of exquisite beauty, Moonee promises to show Jancey something wonderful -- and she does indeed, a rainbow that appears after a Florida thunderstorm.  The little girls see the wonder, and even as we smile at their joy, The Florida Project dares us to look at the scene and not mourn a little for the pain and the suffering of the future world that awaits the children living on the edges of a dream.

Viewed October 7, 2017 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Saturday, September 30, 2017

"Battle of the Sexes"


In Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean King knows the stakes of what she's doing, but the wonder of the film is that even if we know the broad strokes of the story, that tennis match between King and Bobby Riggs, we're so focused on the specifics of the people involved that we forget about what it all means.

And that's what makes Battle of the Sexes into a fantastic movie -- bold, funny, tense and emotionally resonant.  In its final minutes, the film, which was directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (of Little Miss Sunshine) and written by Simon Beaufoy (of Slumdog Millionaire), Battle of the Sexes pulls back to show the really big picture -- the match was both a gaudy, ridiculous spectacle and a genuine commentary on gender equality.  It's a dazzling display, in large part because the rest of the movie knows to pull back.

Most of the movie is about the complicated, difficult people who took to the tennis court that day, and of the two the movie primarily focuses on King, and rightly so.  Hers is a story of awareness and awakening; if a really great story finds its main characters in very different places at the end than at the beginning, Battle of the Sexes is really great.

A winning, perfectly pitched performance by Emma Stone finds a deeply conflicted woman inside the public persona of King.  She's as surprised as anyone when she finds herself physically and emotionally attracted to another woman (Andrea Riseborough, whose aloofness is the film's sole weakness) -- and also as surprised as anyone to find that a challenge by the crass self-named male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) stirs her in ways she never expected.

It's about equality, yes.  King is prodded and goaded by women's tennis promoter Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman, simultaneously edgy and restrained) to be the public face of equal pay.  But Beaufoy's screenplay finds an undercurrent of early gay rights activism in the story, too -- and, most importantly of all, a message of self-confidence.

Already the No. 1 women's tennis player in the world by the time the movie opens in 1972, King is hardly a shrinking violet.  But she's driven more by her passion and her sense of justice than by self-aggrandizement.  The same could not be said for Riggs, whose macho swagger seems so over-the-top by today's standards that he's almost laughable.

Like King, though, there are sides to Riggs that no one sees, not even himself, and even if he's the antagonist here, Battle of the Sexes won't work if he's the villain.  The film finds a surprising humanity in his intolerable attitude, and one remarkable scene with his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue, who shines in a small but pivotal role) is heartbreaking for its emotional honesty.

Similarly, there's beautiful interplay between Stone and Austin Stowell as her handsome, painfully aware husband, who comes across as so in love with and committed to his wife that he wants to see her become a full person -- even though the cost will be his relationship with her.  Stowell begins the movie as a caricature of a blank blond stud and ends as the second most-intriguing person in the story.

But it's Stone's film as much as it's King's story, and she is utterly convincing playing a historical celebrity whose image and destiny we know before the lights go down.  That Battle of the Sexes had the audience I saw it with cheering despite full advance knowledge of the outcome is in large part because Stone's so damned good, confident yet tenuous, brave yet scared.

It doesn't hurt, either, that everything about the movie's look and feel gets the era exactly right.  Technologically, there are moments that rival anything in, say, Forest Gump for the seamless interplay between vintage footage and new material, but Battle for the Sexes casts such a spell that none of that visual trickery dawns on us while watching. That's a feat in and of itself.

But there's no feat as big as this one: This dissection of what has always seemed a frivolous media stunt winds up being stirring, emotionally resonant and even politically relevant, a feel-good winner that leaves you both smiling and thinking -- and hoping that, like the familiar cigarette slogan featured prominently in the film, we really have come a long way, baby.  Let's just hope it hasn't all been for naught.

Viewed September 30, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Friday, September 15, 2017



Ah, mother!

On one level, that's about all there is to say about Darren Aronofsky's new film, a movie that makes the director's Pi, Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream look like staid models of cinematic form and structure by comparison.

What is it, exactly, this film?  Because although it's being released by a major studio and features one of the biggest movie stars in the world in the leading role, mother! is not, by any definition, a traditional film.  But it's not quite experimental, either; even in its wildest moments, and there are some insanely wild moments, mother! doesn't remake or even toy with cinema-as-art the way directors did in the 1960s and '70s, when so much of moviemaking still seemed new.

mother! is, I guess, more of an art installation in your local cineplex, the work of a singular (but not single, I'll get to that in a moment) director who undoubtedly has a vision.  But what is the vision, exactly?  It's tempting to want to write, "Spoilers Ahead!" in a sort of traditional caution, but: When you look upon, for instance, a giant Hieronymus Bosch triptych, the more you know about it in advance, the more you appreciate it, or at least understand it.  Or at least can acknowledge what you are seeing.  Or something.

It's the same way with mother!  Or something.  So, if you're going to go see this crazed, frenetic, chaotic, apocalyptic, religious, surreal horror-comedy-disaster-melodrama, it helps to know a few things.  Like, it's a religious allegory.  I think.  One that has something to do with the way artists create.  Maybe.  And that carries a lot of Aronofsky's own guilt about his personal life.  Probably.  And observes how we live in insane times that are filled with religious zealots and overbearing, self-absorbed people who invade our lives even when we try to keep them away.  That last bit I'm pretty sure about.

So, you should know that about mother!, and you should know that if you go into it looking for a plot or thinking that it might be like Rosemary's Baby (check out that misleading homage in the poster above), you should know that you're going to be terribly disappointed.  You may end up like one of the half-dozen or so people who walked out of the opening-night screening I attended.  Or like the people I heard walking out of the theater who said, "I don't get it."

You probably won't get it.

I certainly didn't get it.

Or maybe I did, on some level.  I don't know yet.  I do know that it starts with a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who is married to a much older man (Javier Bardem), and they live in the country.  Aronofsky seems to want us to believe they have some sort of idyllic life -- she has been fixing up the house for who knows how long (maybe forever, wink-wink) and he is a famous poet.  All they need is each other, there in that big house in the middle of nowhere.  You'd almost think they were Adam and Eve, until a chain-smoking, vaguely creepy guy (Ed Harris) shows up one day, followed not too long later by his sexually open, inappropriate wife (Michelle Pfeiffer).

More people show up.  The tranquil house is overrun by life ... and death.  And Mother (that is, the woman, that is, Jennifer Lawrence) is overcome.

By the way, no one has traditional names in mother!  It's that kind of movie.  Because, you see, it's all a big allegory.

mother! is going to attract a lot of attention among film enthusiasts because it breaks so many conventions, and because it heads into some of the craziest, most unexpected, most off-putting and deeply disturbing territory of almost any recent studio film I can think of.  There's a scene of cannibalism, and a long, loud sequence in which war and anarchy invade the house that Mother has built, in which Mother and the Man who will be Father to their Child have a cataclysmic disagreement over whether to stay safely inside the house or let the world in.

That's the kind of movie it is.

And visually, it's undeniably magnificent.  I mentioned earlier that it's the work of a singular visionary, but what's really extraordinary is that it clearly took many, many people to make this movie -- and they all were able to convey Aronofsky's grand ideas.  Actors, set designers, camera crew, editors; lots and lots of people worked on the movie, and yet, it is Aronofsky's accomplishment.  That may seem a silly thing to point out; after all, it's the same on every film, isn't it?  But the realization that all those people are in service to one man's ideas seems more relevant on this film than maybe any other.

Still, though, there's a big problem: It's not clear, not by a longshot, whether mother! is any good.  It's certainly something, and it's certainly an artistic achievement.  Aronofsky probably couldn't give a hoot about whether audiences will like it, he has made his artistic statement that will live on long after him, will see many lifetimes.  But did I enjoy mother!?  It's hard to say yes.  There were many stretches were I was fascinated by it, even drawn into the fleeting moments of linear storytelling; and there was no time during its entire two-hour length when I wanted to look away.  But I wouldn't want to do it again.

Filled with surrealist, disconnected, hyper-violent, warped and strange images, seeing mother! is like walking through an elaborate Halloween haunted house created by visual arts majors who are minoring in religious studies.  There are a lot of freaky moments that completely unnerve you, and there are other times when you're almost giddy with the rush of adrenaline it pumps into you.  It's an experience unlike any you'll ever have.

And one time through is most certainly enough.

Ah, mother!

Viewed Sept. 15, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, September 10, 2017



There's a cinematic recipe to It, which goes something like:

1 part The Goonies
1 part Poltergeist
2 parts Stand By Me
3 parts Stranger Things
Dash of Carrie
Pinch of The Shining

Mix thoroughly, and bake until almost but not quite done.  Best when served warm with a little slice of ham and a bit of cheese.

It's tasty enough and a lot of people will love it -- but for some, the experience will be both underwhelming and oddly unsatisfying, like being served a Big Mac in a fancy restaurant.  There's a particular irony to its almost unsettling similarity to the TV series Stranger Things, which, oddly enough, was deeply influenced by It in the first place.

I've never been enough of a fan of Stephen King's particular brand of writing to have tackled the 1,138-page behemoth of It the novel, nor did I watch the previous filmed version, which was presented as a two-part TV movie.  So, I was essentially unfamiliar with the basic plot of It other than knowing it was about a malevolent clown.  I walked into the theater prepared for and expecting a dark, forbidding horror film.  I didn't expect a gentle and tender coming-of-age story dripping in the nostalgia of an earlier, simpler time.

Funnily enough, that simpler time in It is 1989 -- a turbulent and pivotal time, to be sure, but hardly simple; the time of Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall, of the Exxon Valdez and the Afghanistan war, of Cold War and nuclear tensions, of AIDS and the savings-and-loan crisis.  It's far from the sun-dappled world of the 1950s, but then, I suppose part of the point is that the sun-dappled world of the 1950s was not as lovely as it seemed in retrospect, either.  (The novel is set in the late 1950s.)

But, few films have been as insistent about the almost magical power of youthful innocence as It does -- really, the only one that comes to mind is Stephen King's own Stand By Me, and there are times in It when you might as well be watching that earlier, superior film.

There's a group of misfit kids who hang out together and like each other.  There's a horrifying truth about the violent insanity of life waiting for them to discover.  There's a small town that they know they will have to leave.  But for now, there is this group of swell friends, best buddies who will do anything for each other.

One of them is Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), whose little brother Georgie begins the movie excited about trying out a paper sailboat.  (It's sweet and mildly silly that the filmmakers think that kids were playing with paper boats in 1989.)  Bill is sick in bed so can't go out with Georgie, and when the boat gets stuck in a storm drain, it's returned by a sinister, killer clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, under a ton of makeup and augmented with lots of CGI), who then kills little Georgie.  That should be the setup for something out of Nightmare on Elm Street, another one of the 1980s movies that this film name-checks, but it never really gets going on that front.

Pennywise the Clown, who in actuality is some sort of shape-shifting monster, is creepy and sometimes icky, to be sure, but he's not all that scary.  He's a sinister threat, but the film's presentation of him is mostly a setup for the loving depiction of childhood group dynamics. The movie is at its best when it shows the group of kids interacting with each other. That leaves It feeling uncertain if it wants to be a horror film or a sweet-natured reflection on youth.  And even within its horror ambitions, does it want to be a character-driven or an effects-driven sort of movie?  It can never decide on any one of these approaches long enough, so it all feels disjointed, curiously unmoving and disappointingly un-frightening.

It is a film that wants to give you nightmares but makes so much effort to mix the horror in with sweet-natured, humor-laden observations about youth that the scary stuff is watered down, and ends up mostly being successful when it's accompanied by very loud bursts of music and sound effects.  It has to settle for jump scares rather than real dread.

The acting by the kids is uniformly terrific, particularly Sophia Lillis as Beverly, the sole girl in the group, Jeremy Ren Taylor as Ben, the "fat kid" who has a crush on Bev; and Jake Dylan Grazer as hyopchondriac Eddie.  The rest of the child actors are fine, and Skarsgård is best in his first scene attacking Georgie in a sewer.  Most of the rest of the time, his performance is overpowered by the incessant use of CG effects to depict the malevolent character.

The story is fine, the kids are really wonderful, and while It delivers on some of the visceral thrills, the movie never meshes its two parts effectively, and the final showdown between the kids and the clown is the kind of overblown, overproduced and murky sequence that mostly leaves the audience wondering why characters are doing what they're doing, and who is supposed to be doing what to whom.  The big confrontation is the worst thing about It.  That climax plays a lot like a creepier version of a Harry Potter film.

The best parts of It are the elements that seem feel like a remake of Stand By Me -- the easy rapport between the kids, the way they are determined to find things adults can't or won't find, and the way their own little skirmishes can become minor wars -- not to mention nostalgic talk about the entertainment of the time.

I confess I had no idea, until the final title card appeared, that It is actually the first of two parts.  That left me feeling mildly better about the movie, because a lot of motivations, ideas and actions are not explained in any satisfying ways in It.  The assumption is the important characteristics will pan out when Part II shows us the kids 27 years later.

Stephen King fans should be pleased about that response.  Everyone else, I'm not so sure.  Fitting the filmmaking trend of the day, it's not a standalone film, and if motivations, character development and even some plot points (like the origin and purpose of the clown) are unclear, it's because the studio and the filmmakers assume no one will complain that it's unfinished because, hey, it's a franchise!

But that makes it a less than entirely satisfying movie on its own.  Neither the best nor the worst Stephen King adaptation, it's the first part of a longer-term project, and can only be judged on its own as well and as fairly as you'd judge a movie if you walked out halfway through.

It as it is is more or less fine. It's not particularly effective as horror, at least not the kind that gets under your skin, and it's only mildly thrilling at times. It works best solely as a nostalgic reminiscence of an easier time that, in fact, wasn't easier at all.

Viewed 9/9/17 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Monday, August 21, 2017

"Wind River"


It begins in loneliness, isolation and, yes, fear.  A solitary figure, it seems to be a woman runs through a hostile and unrelenting landscape, clearly afraid of whatever might be following her.  What has she done?  What has been done to her?

She collapses, and that's the moment that sets up the story of the bleak but utterly mesmerizing Wind River, which is set on a sprawling Native American reservation in Wyoming.  It's an area the size of Rhode Island -- 3,400 square miles with a population of 40,000 people.  But this isn't a society filled with cops and CSI investigators and the kinds of crime-fighting characters you see on TV.  Writer-director Taylor Sheridan, whose script for Sicario turned that into one of the most aggressive and disturbing crime dramas in a very long time, knows how to turn an stark, uncompromising environment into a backdrop for compelling drama, and very little about the Wind River reservation is anything less than stark and uncompromising.

This is not a film like The Revenant, in which the wilderness was seen as vast, untamable but beautiful, or a standard Western that's set against a backdrop of striking desert vistas, ready to be settled by strong-willed men and women.

Wind River is brutal.  "Did you guys get the memo that it's spring?" asks the freezing, shivering FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to a group of local law-enforcement officials who laugh at her joke from somewhere deep within multiple layers of fleece and down.  Jane has come from Las Vegas to investigate the murder on the reservation, and she has come alone.

It remains unspoken throughout Wind River, but there within the uncomfortable pauses and knowing looks, there's a clear message: Americans don't care what happens on Indian reservations.  Sure, maybe the casinos, but those are way out on the fringes of the territory; what happens deep inside, where people have their lives, is something we don't want to know about.

The most unnerving thing about Wind River isn't the mystery at its core, though that turns out to be pretty unnerving, but the way it lifts a heavy, opaque curtain on a part of American life that most people are quite content to keep hidden.  This is a world of desperation, with little access to standard resources, nothing in the way of the kind of daily support we are so used to receiving, and a basic assumption that, you know, they're Native Americans, they like it like this.

Within moments of arriving, Jane is aware that she -- and the couple of law-enforcement agents on the reservation -- is in way over her head.  She has no idea where to start.  She gets help from a local U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service hunter named Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who works the land to keep predators away from the livestock.  He has spent his life looking for tiny clues in the snow and in the woods that other people would overlook.

Cory used to be married to a local woman.  They're divorced now, and she's bound and determined to get off the reservation and make something of her life.  She's not going to get caught here the way he has been -- trapped not just by the land and its circumstances but by memory: She and Cory used to have a daughter, who was also murdered.

Through sparse dialogue that spends almost no time on words it doesn't need, Wind River becomes increasingly complex.  The tribal police chief Ben (Graham Greene) knows a lot of things he wishes he didn't about the desperate lives of the people he protects.  The father (Gil Birmingham) of the dead girl does not know how to begin to grieve.  He is lost; another bit of his own history has been stripped away from him.

And then there is Natalie (Kelsey Chow) herself, whose story turns out to be nothing at all what we imagine it will be.  Wind River is like that, it begins with a lot of correct assumptions about what we think of Indian reservations and the people who live on them, and then it slaps them away -- violently, sometimes, even angrily.  But never with righteousness.  It turns out Wind River has a lot it wants to say, but writer-director Sheridan makes sure never to lose sight of the striking procedural drama at its core.  It's an aching, sad, maybe even bitter film, but it's also one of the best murder-mysteries in a long time.

Its large and convincing cast reflects the vast canvas on which the very personal story plays out, and though the movie has a lot of characters and a lot of story to tell, it's all held together by the two arresting central performances by Renner and Olsen.  Wind River uses Renner's sleepy, sad and slightly battered face to its best advantage; Cory is a man who is just on the verge of giving it all up himself.

And Olsen has the kind of strength and clear-eyed intelligence that people say movies don't give women a chance to display.  This one does.  Olsen is a revelation here, an FBI agent who maybe grew up herself watching Jodie Foster play Clarice Starling and has used that merely as the foundation for her own inspiration.  As played by Olsen, Jane is deeply aware of her limitations (early on, she's got one of the best off-handed bits of character exposition in movie history) and of her deep sense of justice and integrity.  She does not believe the people she is trying to help are being treated fairly, but she also knows there is little she can do about it except solve the crime and try to help them find some closure.  She'll follow the clues where they lead.

And where they lead is nowhere you'd expect.  Wind River reaches a thoroughly satisfying, genuinely unexpected climax: bloody, shocking, intense.  So much of the rest of the film has been slow and tense, like the buildup to a winter storm.  When it hits, it's a whopper.  So's this movie.

Viewed Aug. 18, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, August 6, 2017

"An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power"


An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power is going to convince exactly zero climate-change deniers that their position is wrong, and it may convince a few people that they should become evangelists for former Vice President Al Gore's impassioned endeavors, but first and foremost, An Inconvenient Sequel should be a good movie, and the problem is it's not.

Because it's not particularly good, An Inconvenient Sequel will be even more vulnerable to attacks from the right than it would have if it had been as incendiary, bold and committed as An Inconvenient Truth, the Oscar-winning film from 2006 that became a flashpoint for awareness of global warming.

The response to An Inconvenient Truth was both alarming and sadly telling -- rather than acknowledge the detailed and convincing scientific evidence Gore presented in his elaborate PowerPoint presentation, opponents began denying the facts, leading us, well, to where we are now in the world: If you don't like the information you're getting, just flat-out deny it.  The success of An Inconvenient Truth, as well as more liberal-leaning documentaries from filmmakers like Michael Moore, resulted in a slew of cinematic responses, especially from arch-conservative Dinesh D'Souza, which took opinions and half-truths and distorted them into the form and shape of a "documentary."

So, the real challenge for An Inconvenient Sequel is to find a way to offset those quasi-documentaries and present compelling information in a way that is so incontrovertible that it can't be denied, while acknowledging the rise of conservative opinion-oriented commentaries that are presented as facts.  If An Inconvenient Truth was a small stepping stone on the way to our facts-versus-"facts" society, how would its sequel remark upon the role it played?

The answer is: It doesn't -- and it fails, sometimes stupendously, in the challenge to create a new, less partisan view of climate change, to win over the skeptics and showcase the way the earth has been changing in the last decade alone.

An Inconvenient Sequel certainly does present chilling, often downright depressing, evidence.  The scientific data along with the eyewitness video of weather-based calamities combine to sobering effect.  If the film focused on those elements, it would be a winner, a worthy follow-up to the eye-opening original.

Instead, An Inconvenient Sequel ends up being near-hagiography of Al Gore.  This is a movie made for people who see Gore as an innocent victim whose still-stunning loss of the presidency is something they'll never quite get over, who still believe we should have had eight years of President Gore and are still bitter about it.  An Inconvenient Sequel commits the tactical error of not making climate change the subject but of making Al Gore the subject.

In one galvanizing sequence, Gore visits Miami and sees the city overwhelmed by water that local politicians admit has only one source: sea-level rise.  He wades around in rubber rain boots while city officials express understandable shock at how quickly the predictions from the first film have come true.  But instead of adding to our understanding of the problem, the cause and the solution, An Inconvenient Sequel spends the next 10 minutes getting ready for a presentation, being interviewed by media, and proving how indefatigable he is.

I've no doubt that Al Gore is committed.  I've little doubt he is sincere that he does not want to be a politician anymore --though the movie more than hints that maybe he's still got it in him.  And in its most effective moments, An Inconvenient Sequel left me with little doubt about the benefits of solar energy.  (Though highly ineffective as a movie, An Inconvenient Sequel is a tremendous, and shameless, infomercial for Solar City.)

But it also left me thinking that it was all a huge wasted opportunity.  While it's interesting, and illuminating, to learn the details of the machinations behind the Paris accord, it's disconcerting that a movie theoretically 10 years in the making misses its chance to comment on climate-change deniers.  The original film was filled with scientific evidence, but this film makes no effort at all to attack the pseudo-science of skeptics.

More than a few times in An Inconvenient Sequel, Gore expresses regret that despite his efforts there is still a great deal of opposition, that despite the facts there are too many people who want to believe opinion.  Yet, An Inconvenient Sequel does far too little to undermine the deniers, much less to convert them to his way of thinking.  An Inconvenient Sequel is made for those who already believe.  That's a shame.

Viewed Aug. 5, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, July 29, 2017



You don't watch Dunkirk as much as you witness it.  There is no way Christopher Nolan's film can be called anything less than impressive.  It is a tremendous technical achievement, a film that is staggeringly well put-together.

But as a film, Dunkirk is a little like Titanic if the movie began and ended in the last reel and cut out all the stuff about Jack and Rose.  It's like Star Wars if the Death Star battle went on for two hours and did away with the plot.

In that way, Dunkirk is an apotheosis of big-budget cinema: an important, commercially successful filmmaker has convinced a studio to release a filmmaking experiment, one that does away with conventional notions of storytelling and character development in favor of editing, sound mixing and mise-en-scène.

There are recognizable actors in the film (Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance) but they aren't given the opportunity to blossom into characters.  Tom Hardy spends almost all of his screen time mumbling behind a face mask (a Batman in-joke?), while the younger cast members are interchangeable, as if Nolan intended for the audience to be confused about who's who.

Even dialogue is treated as disposable -- there are long, long scenes in Dunkirk where the characters are speaking but their words are vaguely incomprehensible.  Nolan, perhaps, wanted to extend the you-are-there gut-punch of Dunkirk to these scenes, to place the viewer into the midst of battle so fully that there's constant confusion that is not helped by only occasionally being able to hear what others are saying.

The end result is that Dunkirk is only intermittently engaging as a drama, even while it is almost always fascinating to watch as a piece of filmmaking.  As almost every article about the film makes a point of relating right up front, Dunkirk was shot on 65-millimeter film and in 65-millimeter IMAX by a director who refuses to allow cell phones on his sets, and the very fact that we know those things and they get reported explains quite a bit about the film as a whole: this is, first and foremost, a technical achievement.

Directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese built their careers upon crafting jaw-dropping sequences that defined their films -- think of the boxing scenes in Raging Bull, the shark attack in Jaws or the shower scene in Psycho.  The indelible marks of those tightly constructed moments resonated through the entire film -- and through entire careers.  Nolan takes that one step further and creates in Dunkirk a full-length sequence.  Every shot matters, every moment is impeccably constructed.

But when the whole film is "the moment," how do you know what the moment means?  Dunkirk begins and ends mid-scene, with little connective tissue.  It has a terrific construct of telling the movie from three different chronological perspectives, but that proves to be as much a technical feat as anything else.  There's really no reason to tell the story this way, except that it is a wonderful trick.

Every moment of Dunkirk is like a tightly wound gear that's ready to spring.  Even Hans Zimmer's score keeps pulsing and pulsing and pulsing but never quite reaching a crescendo: Like the movie itself, it's all just very loud.

The pity of all of that is that buried within the technological marvel of the movie is a stirring and heartbreaking story.  For all it gains in visceral impact (which is a lot), Dunkirk loses in humanity.  Leaving the audience simultaneously exhausted by its relentless intensity and perplexed by its insistence on telling its tale in ways that are neither linear nor conventional, Dunkirk fully engages -- even overwhelms -- the senses, just not the emotions.

Viewed July 29, 2017 -- Chinese Theater