Saturday, April 22, 2017

"Beauty and the Beast"


Any commentary that I -- or anyone -- could offer up about Disney Beauty and the Beast, as the poster calls it, is rendered entirely irrelevant by the film's $1 billion box-office take, $463 million of which (so far) has come from the United States.

In less than six weeks, Disney Beauty and the Beast has become the 10th highest-grossing film of all time at the U.S. box office, which is precisely the result Disney, the company and the brand, had in mind.  Disney Beauty and the Beast is a marvelous wonder of brand management.

Whether it's any good is completely beside the point, but, in fact, it's neither as awful as it might have been nor anywhere near as good as it could have been.  Back in the late 1970s, there was a musical act called "Beatlemania," which billed itself with the phrase: "Not the Beatles, but an incredible simulation."  That about sums up Disney Beauty and the Beast, particularly for anyone with fond memories of Disney's animated 1991 original, which is just about anyone who will see this version.

Watching it is akin to watching a very expensive cover band: It's amusing and reminds you of what you loved about the real thing, but it's impossible to say if it's good or bad.  That's not the reason it exists.

The biggest difference between Disney Beauty and the Beast and Disney's first Beauty and the Beast is that the animated version version runs about 45 minutes shorter, and is frankly all the better for it.  The original's screenplay by Linda Woolverton is a miracle of economical storytelling, wasting not a single minute even when it pauses for songs.

The live-action version pads the core story with an elaborate history for the Beast, an even more elaborate and detailed backstory for Belle, and a lot of digressions, plus several new songs that bring the movie to a screeching halt.  They miss the wittiness, melancholy and insight of the original songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, and one of them a song Belle sings about her mother's death from the Black Plague is barely more than a few lines of sung dialogue.  It's not entirely clear why the filmmakers felt that a side story about the Black Plague would be a good addition to Beauty and the Beast, but there it is.

Nor does it make a lot of sense, except from the standpoint of campaigning for an Oscar at the end of the year, that the additional songs aren't the weak-but-better additions from the Broadway show, though underscore music from those numbers plays frequently.

The production design is overstuffed with rococo frills and gilding, a little of which goes a very long way, especially when it comes to the look of the enchanted creatures like Cogsworth the Clock and Lumiere the Candlestick, whose facial features are hard to recognize and even harder to love.  Veteran actors like Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth) and even, fleetingly, Stanley Tucci as a piano-player-turned-piano make precious little impression.

So, that's the bad stuff, along with the Disney versions' ever-problematic timeline (at one point in this version, it appears the Beast's castle is about a two-minute horse ride from Belle's village.)  The middling stuff mostly revolves around Emma Watson as Belle, who seems too modern and self-aware as a character and too stiff and self-conscious as an actress.  Despite her years growing up on the set of Harry Potter movies, she doesn't seem to have quite mastered the fine art of looking at things that aren't there, so her gaze is mostly fixed in the middle distance, never focused on any one thing in particular.

The movie overuses digital effects to the point of distraction, making the same mistake that so many science-fiction and action films make: It does things because it can, not because it should.  Far too many characters, moments and scenes look entirely artificial.  On top of that, much of the movie is set at night, with a climactic battle bereft of color and more dimly lit than comfortable.

But then there's the good stuff, and there's more of it than I expected, beginning with two strong male performances -- no small irony in a movie primarily produced for young girls.  Luke Evans makes a great Gaston, and if he's mostly, like the rest of the cast, emulating the original animation, he does it with great flair and humor, playing down the physical and playing up the vain.  Likewise, Stevens is convincing and touching as the Beast.  Even though much of the Beast's physical presence seems digitally enhanced or even created, Stevens imbues the Beast a genuine warmth and depth.

But finally, and just when everything seemed hopeless, the film blooms to life for its final moments, and can't be dulled even by the dark-to-the-point-of-squinting battle-scene climax and the weirdly unfunny physical humor with the enchanted objects.  Disney Beauty and the Beast nails its final moments with pitch-perfect charm in a ballroom sequence that is one of the rare moments when the live-action version outdoes the animated one.  It's a great scene, one that sends the audience out on a sugar-and-magic-induced high.

Despite its admittedly wonderful final moments, Disney Beauty and the Beast isn't Disney's Beauty and the Beast, but it is quite a simulation.  "Incredible" is an entirely subjective word.

Viewed April 22, 2017 -- AMC Burbank


Saturday, April 1, 2017

Catching Up: "The Invitation"


You won't see the end of The Invitation coming, but the beauty of the film is that within its tight narrative confines, the final few shots make perfect sense.  And when you think back on how the film begins, and all of the odd and puzzling moments it contains, the movie delivers a rare sort of satisfaction.

It opens with a slightly clunky and hipster-low-budget kind of feel, and its opening scene tries a little too hard to build both foreboding and foreshadowing as grungy-handsome Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) drive to a dinner party that's being held in the expensive, mid-century-chic home of his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her husband David (Michiel Huisman).

Will hasn't been in the house since he and Eden divorced following the accidental death of their son, a loss he is still grieving.  The dinner party seems intended to wash away that sadness.  Eden has invited a handful of their oldest friends to the party -- and if that setup sounds a little like an Agatha Christie mystery, it is.

Nothing at all seems right about this party, especially not the hosts.  Her guests are all dressed casually, as befits a group of longtime friends, but Eden appears wearing a flowing white gown, and her plump-lipped smile seems to be hiding some unsettled emotions.  David, meanwhile, keeps trying to lock the doors, and thinks the best way to break the ice with everyone is to show them some deeply disturbing videos.

Plus, there are those decorative security bars all over the windows.

Yet Will seems to be the only person who thinks there's something amiss.  Is it just his mind working overtime?  He and Eden are the only ones for whom the house is haunted by its tragic past; perhaps he's just dealing with some difficult emotions.

But then there's the matter of the two strangers who show up at the party, an anxiety-inducing raw nerve named Sadie (Lindsay Burge) and the burly, quiet Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch -- watch him loom in his early scenes), who clearly don't belong.

The Invitation is marketed as a horror-thriller because there's really no easy category for it, but at its warped and twisty heart is a mystery -- what, exactly, is going on?  It's the most effective sort of mystery, too, because it has an answer, though you'll be excused if you find that the answer just begs more questions, some of which I expect would be answered upon viewing it a second or third time.  If it were a novel, you'd finish the last page and immediately start thumbing through the early chapters and smack your head for not noticing the clues.

For some, I imagine The Invitation will feel a little too slow and measured, a bit overly relaxed about its pacing.  But as its characters -- some of which, like the gay couple, are simple tropes, while others hint at more complexity -- are effective at building a sense of off-kilter dread.  Blanchard is a standout as the emotionally wounded Eden, who seems to have a newfound calm, though one of a chilling sort.

Tightly wound, carefully constructed upon a foundation that turns out to go deeper and be more solid than it might appear, The Invitation shares a fiendish kind of forethought with Jordan Peele's Get Out, and director Karyn Kusama is willing to take her time getting where she's going.  It all leads up to those final few shots, which are about as fulfilling and as intriguing as they come.

A shaky start leads to a brilliant finish, and this turns out to be an Invitation you don't want to decline.

Viewed April 1, 2017 -- Netflix

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"Ghost in the Shell"


Has no one in the future seen Young Frankenstein?  Do they not realize how risky it is to put a human brain into another body, whether one fresh from a grave or manufactured by machine?  Have they not heard of Abby Normal?

Sure, at one point in Ghost in the Shell, the calm, quiet, not-at-all-mad scientist played by Juliette Binoche tells her creation, played by Scarlett Johansson, that there were 98 attempts to create a hybrid human-robot before her.

Ninety-eight?  I've heard of PowerPoint presentations with fewer drafts.  Yet, on the 99th try, the sinister ultra-mega-industrial conglomerate Hanka has successfully taken a human brain and put it into a cyborg body.  But why would this be a good idea?  What if, instead of the skillful brain of The Major, as Johansson's character is know, they had gotten the brain of, say, Woody Allen or Meryl Streep, and rather than shoot weapons and fight The Major had just wanted to make a doctor's appointment to see about the rash on her arm, or to become a high-quality actress?

Somehow, though, the doctor and Hanka -- a shadowy criminal enterprise, because no other kind of big company exists in action movies -- luck out, and they get a brain that can be trained to think and act like a precision machine, one that is manufactured through a process that is almost exactly like the one in the TV version of Westworld.  There are other similarities to Westworld, as well as to Paul Verhoeven's Robocop, like the "glitches" that The Major experiences -- flashes of her life before her brain was taken from her body and put in a Scarlett Johansson robot.

After a year of training to be an assassin-slash-vigilante, The Major gets her first assignment, which is to track down a mysterious man named Kuze, who has been engaging in cyber-attacks against Hanka.  Aided by a vicious guy with a tender heart (Pilou Asbaek), who ends up with the movie's best cyborg parts, she tracks down Kuze and begins to realize that she might not be as clear on her own history as she thought she was.

The Major's search for her sense of self is the best thing about Ghost in the Shell, even though it recalls so many other robots-with-human-feelings stories, including the compelling British TV series Humans, not to mention A.I. and Blade Runner, which is this film's biggest and most obvious visual influence -- to the point of distraction, actually.  It's to Johansson's credit that the middle portion of Ghost in the Shell is more compelling than it should be.  This isn't at all new territory, and Ghost in the Shell really has nothing new to say about the fine line between humanity and technology, a line that seems to be getting finer and finer every day.

As someone with absolutely no familiarity with the original manga comic or the 1995 animated film that came before this one, Ghost in the Shell intrigued me with its observations on the meaning of personal memory and kept me interested with its visuals -- at times, they look too much like Blade Runner for comfort, down to the always-rainy, overly grungy underworld of its near-future, hyper-techno urban cityscapes.  But its over-reliance on guns, gangsters and generic action scenes, especially a ridiculously bombastic and frenetic climax, had my eyes glazing over at times.

There are too many ghosts in the shell of this film, the cinematic ghosts of robots and dystopian futures we've seen so many times before.  Johansson and Binoche do particularly fine jobs at keeping the ghosts at bay, but they're always there, lurking on the sides. They haunt the film a bit too deeply, leaving Ghost in the Shell not without its merits but incapable of overcoming the same sensation that The Major has throughout much of the movie: We've seen this before.

Viewed March 28, 2017 -- Paramount Theater


Friday, March 24, 2017



Put a handful of people in an enclosed space and throw in an indestructible monster and you've got a can't-miss movie, right?  It must have seemed that easy to the filmmakers behind Life.  After all, it's been nearly 40 years since Ridley Scott made Alien, and Life follows the same basic premise.

There are a half-dozen astronauts (all right, so that's one less than Alien had) who discover a strange organism that comes aboard their spaceship, which in this case is the International Space Station.  It grows, as did the Alien, into a ravaging, bloodthirsty creature that won't stop until it kills them all.

Life hews so closely to the Alien structure that it's never surprising or particularly exciting, neither hardcore enough to work as science-fiction or suspenseful enough to work as a horror film.  Most disappointing is the creature at the heart of the story, a gelatinous, squid-like blob that jiggles and bounces across the screen without a sense of menace.

The creature begins as a hibernating single-cell organism found in soil samples from Mars, which, as the movie begins, are blown terribly off course and might be lost forever except that the space station crew is on hand to retrieve them.  The resident biologist (Ariyon Bakare) pokes and prods at the tiny, sleeping microbe, lo and behold, it stirs.  Word gets around fast that the ISS has found proof of life beyond Earth, and a little girl in Times Square announces that the thing shall henceforth be known as Calvin.

What the giddy folks down on terra firma don't realize is that Calvin quickly morphs into an angry little thing, one that the astronauts theorize might have once lived in abundance on the red planet, though the movie never really builds on that theory at all.  Instead, it focuses on Calvin's only obsession: killing everyone it meets.

As Calvin grows, it becomes intent on survival, and the movie becomes merely a cat-and-mouse chase in a claustrophobic environment.  That's all well and good, except that Life doesn't clearly establish the rules of engagement, so Calvin takes on any survival ability that will push the plot forward.  He can survive in the vacuum of space, he can shove his tentacles down the throats of unsuspecting astronauts, he can wriggle his way into tiny spaces, he can even think and reason -- he can do pretty much anything, which means that Life bluffs its way along.

That would be fine if Life were really suspenseful, but too often it's just a visual and narrative jumble, even as it narrows down the crew to just two -- a scientist from the Centers for Disease Control (Rebecca Ferguson), who has shockingly little awareness of how to contain a deadly organism, and a  pilot (Jake Gyllenhaal) who has been on the ISS for more than a year.

Neither they nor the movie has a clear idea of how to proceed.  Their final inspiration comes from, of all places, the children's book "Goodnight Moon," and leads to a climactic plot twist that is not only easy to predict, but that feels as contrived as the rest of the movie.  It's a last-ditch effort to inject some life into Life, which is by no means a terrible film just a lackluster one, especially because it mostly -- and unintentionally -- serves as a reminder of a better, more exciting, more fulfilling and stylish movie about a spaceship and a really mean alien.

Viewed March 24, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Catching Up: "Moana"


It's quite a strange fault for a movie to have, but Moana just has too much going on.  You can't fault the filmmakers for having too many ideas -- except that, well, yes, you can.

It begins with a trickster demi-god who steals the heart of an island, then shifts its focus to a young woman whose heart yearns to see more than her small, provincial home.  Somehow, the ocean, or rather The Ocean, since its water has a personality of its own in Moana, chooses the girl to find the heart of that island, which is a small stone that must be restored to its rightful home, because -- and this is where I started getting a little lost -- the life force of the island from which it has been removed is depleting surrounding islands.

This isn't a simple story, even though for long, long stretches of this nearly two-hour film there are just two people on a small boat in the middle of a large ocean, which is generally not a compelling dramatic setup, Life of Pi notwithstanding.  And it requires a lot of manipulating in order to put Moana in just the right place in the vast, vast ocean.  Machinas ex from the deus quite frequently in Moana, complicating and frustrating efforts to really love it.

The biggest shame of all of that is that Moana has so very much to recommend it.  When you strip away the long, unnecessary sequence of weird (and adorable) coconut-shelled pirates that doesn't take the story anywhere, or the even longer and more unnecessary sequence involving a fluorescent, glam-rocker crab who sings a long and forgettable song, Moana is sometimes beautiful and sometimes wonderful.

It's the third time Disney has used the Pacific islands for inspiration, and as a whole, Moana doesn't compare entirely favorably with Lilo and Stitch or the all-too-brief but entirely splendid short film Lava.  Yet its rich and beautiful visuals, its strong characters and its warm spirit make it a nice effort, in spite of heaping plot point upon plot point.

The notion of a Polynesian girl who sets sail to search for a way to save her own island and its people is one with great inherent appeal -- by its very nature, it sets up a story of someone who needs to prove physical strength, personal courage and emotional upheaval, and there's something so innately beautiful about Polynesian culture that Moana has everything going for it.

So how does the film end up bogged down with so many extraneous characters and elaborate plot complexities?  It searches mightily, and rather unsuccessfully, to find a villain to counter the strength of Moana (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho), and while the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) is a fun and funny guy, he ends up largely being along for the ride -- there because the story demands she find him, and once she does, they search for interesting things to do together.

As it stretches and stretches its thin story even further, it's easy to long for the days when a Disney animated film was considered lengthy at 80 minutes, when extraneous plot was anathema to the Disney way of storytelling.  A Young Woman and the Sea kind of approach, with Moana guided by the spirit of her recently deceased grandmother, could have made a terrifically lean and focused movie, because Moana seems overwhelmed by its story excesses.

Strip it all away, and you're left with a few truly splendid songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i and Mark Mancina and a wonderful story about the journeys people take to figure out how they fit into the world.  Moana's journey of self-discovery and growth wisely does not require a love interest in Moana -- but it would have been even wiser for it not to have digressed quite so frequently.  Its meanderings lose the focus of what's really important: the way that a perilous journey can define the soul.

In that, Moana finally does deliver on its emotional promises, and does so with genuine satisfaction, but it takes the long way round the ocean to get there.  The very long way round.

Viewed March 23, 2017 -- Blu-ray

Sunday, March 19, 2017

"Kong: Skull Island"


Every generation gets the big-budget movies it deserves, and Kong: Skull Island is the final proof that this generation is in a lot of trouble.

The Sixties had its widescreen, increasingly bloated and out-of-touch movie musicals.  The Seventies combined auteur-influenced with the blockbuster mentality.  The Eighties added massive star power (and lots of synthesized music).  In the Nineties, the writers ruled with original stories.

And since the dawn of the Third Millennium, what?  Well, think of it this way: Since 2000, the charts of the top 20 films of each year have been ruled by sequels and remakes.  Hollywood has no interest in telling original stories that will inspire filmmakers and audiences for many years to come; they want to make money, and the best way to do that is to give people something they've already seen.

Kong: Skull Island is a sort of apotheosis of that mentality, a movie that gives us plenty we have already seen, almost nothing we haven't, and then goes even further by reducing it story to the most meager possible outline of a plot.  Though I've admittedly become more cynical and curmudgeonly as time wears on, Kong: Skull Island made me feel even more world-weary and exasperated with the state of modern filmmaking.  It made me sad.

It also, frankly, made me bored.  Now, as every 11th-grade English teacher in America has said at least once, only boring people are boring, and Kong: Skull Island left me thinking that perhaps that is true.  Maybe I have become boring in my hope and expectation that a movie will make at least the barest of effort to keep me entertained by showing me something other than computer-generated sets and art-directed creatures.  If Kong: Skull Island is less than exhaustingly boring, then I apologize for my infinite boredom as a human being -- but this movie is a crushing bore.  It could have been silly, I would have settled for silly.  It could have been excessive, I would have settled for excessive.  But it's boring, and that's just something I can't settle for.

Kong: Skull Island takes place in 1973, after a short World War II prologue, and the story is this: a satellite has discovered a previously unknown island, perpetually surrounded by a hurricane-force storm, to which a joint scientific-military exploration is sent.  Once there, the expedition meets the massive gorilla known as Kong, and finds out that the island is filled with all sorts of other gigantic creatures.  Then they rescue the guy from the World War II prologue, who has been living on the island for 26 years.  Then they go home.

Nothing else of consequence happens in the movie.  Not one of the characters is interesting enough to become the center of attention, not even Kong himself, who isn't even in half of the movie.  Let me say this again so you understand: The makers of Kong: Skull Island did not think enough of their title character to give him the starring role in the film.  He has a great introduction, in which he is angry that the U.S. military has invaded his island and that they've started dropping bombs all over it.  For about 15 or 20 minutes, he takes down all of their helicopters.  It is a good, well-crafted sequence, but it means nothing to the film.

There are some minor discussions of whether maybe Kong was right to be mad about people coming in and tearing up his home, but those scenes don't go anywhere.  Some of the people who go the island are scientists, but they don't seem at all interested in what they find.  The military people like Samuel L. Jackson's character just want to shoot everything.  There's also a guy played by Tom Hiddleston whose function I didn't quite understand, and and a photographer played by Brie Larson who rarely snaps the shutter while taking photos and hasn't brought along any other lenses, or even much film.  There are some other military people who get eaten and attacked and eviscerated.  And there's John C. Reilly as that World War II veteran who is slightly crazy.

For long periods of Kong: Skull Island I thought about things I shouldn't have been thinking about, like whether Brie Larson will regret following up her Oscar-winning performance in Room with this or if the paycheck more than justified it, and I thought about all of the people sitting in front of computers around the world who made these creatures come to life, and I thought about the meetings at Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment where they talked about franchises and global marketing stunts.

At no time does Kong: Skull Island impart the sense that a group of storytellers sat down and thought, "Wow, we could really sink our teeth into rethinking the whole King Kong thing -- we could make this an exciting, relevant thriller, because this story needs to be retold."  Mostly, it imparts the sense that Kong: Skull Island will soon be followed by Kong: New York and Kong: Escape.  At that point, the lean and mean original movie will have been carved into three two-hour features, at which point Kong will meet Godzilla, another Warner Bros. monster.  That's when the destruction will be so big and massive that only Batman or Superman or the Justice League will be able to save the world in what could be the ultimate franchise extension.

That would be, I fear, the movie we deserve.

Viewed March 19, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, March 11, 2017

"Get Out"


There's a big, rambling house in the countryside, away from the eyesight of prying neighbors.  The residents of the surrounding hamlet are, at best, eccentric.  Strange things seem to happen at night.  And there are far, far too many smiles.

These are the familiar elements of Jordan Peele's gleefully inventive Get Out, a movie that I've heard described as a "horror satire," but that's wrong in a couple of important ways: it's not a horror film, it's a tremendously crafted suspense-thriller; and it's less a satire than a sharp, observant view of the state of post-Obama race relations in the United States -- that country where some pretty prominent people still try to justify slavery and a movie that glorifies a time "of Master and of slave" is still considered one of the greats.

But, ho hum, who would want to see that kind of a movie?  We've moved beyond race.  We don't see color.  But writer-director-producer Jordan Peele knows better than that -- and he also knows his movies, and he's taken careful notes of the ways in which really classic thrillers work, and the ways in which "horror" films have become cheap and lazy.  Get Out is neither cheap nor lazy (except economically -- the movie cost less than $5 million to make, and you'd never know it), it's a fiendishly clever assimilation of cinematic devices and pointed, salient commentary.

The most extraordinary thing about Get Out is that it goes right up to the wall of propriety -- and smashes through it.  This is a film that works on multiple levels, and the kind of film that twists and turns in on itself so enthusiastically that the very best thing you can say for it is that it only hints at its depths in the first viewing.

To describe the plot beyond the most basic setup would be going too far: Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is a black man dating Rose (Allison Williams), a white woman who takes him home to her folks in upstate New York.  His best friend Rod (Lil Rey Howery) tells him not to go, and on the way in to the country one of those scary-movie things that always happens to couples on their way to the country happens to Chris and Rose.

And there are weirder things once they get there, not the least of which are the groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and his wife Georgina (Betty Gabriel, in one of the most eerie and aware performances you're going to see on screen this year).  And then things get really weird.

So, let's recap: House in the country, strange servants, creepy things afoot.  These are the elements we've seen in movies since the silent era, and Peele doesn't even try to make them feel new.  He wants them to feel familiar and disturbing, even funny -- and Get Out is frequently very funny, and finds its anchor in the fantastic work by Kaluuya, Williams and, mesmerizingly, Catherine Keener as Rose's mother.

There's also the disquieting sense that Chris is both way ahead of and way too far behind the plot to figure it all out, and in that respect, Get Out reminded me of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby.  (That one of its less visible but more pivotal characters shares a name with one of the key characters in that film can't be a mere coincidence.)

Perhaps most satisfying and surprising about Get Out is that the first drop of non-animal blood doesn't appear on screen for nearly 90 minutes.  Peele knows what so few filmmakers seem to understand today -- that it takes more than torture-porn scenes and loud noises to drive an audience into a state of suspense, and that what keeps a great thriller going is a sense of unraveling mystery.

If he couldn't deliver on making a terrific thriller, he couldn't add in the underlying commentary, which at times is wonderfully subtle  One disturbingly weird scene in particular might be a head-scratcher ... until you realize what exactly is happening.  If it doesn't hit you for a while, don't be ashamed, it does seem like a head-scratcher -- but, go ahead, Google exactly you saw and at that point, if you hadn't figured it out already, the whole movie will lock into place and have you spinning, like its main character does himself at one point, into an entirely different dimension.

Viewed March 11, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

"Hacksaw Ridge"


A cross accompanies the title of Hacksaw Ridge, both on its poster and on screen, signaling fair warning: This is not a subtle film, nor is its director, Mel Gibson, interested at all in leaving its symbolism open for interpretation.  Hacksaw Ridge seems appropriately named, offering all the gentleness of having your legs cut off with one.

For that matter, the image of men with dangling sinew and tendons where their legs once were is an one Gibson returns to over and over in the movie.  So is a majestic reverence and awe with which his fellow soldiers gaze, in the end, upon Pvt. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield).   But it's not the reverence that pervades Hacksaw Ridge, it's the violence, and it's easy to mistake much of the brutal, cruel, torturous imagery in Hacksaw Ridge for Gibson's earlier film, The Passion of the Christ, which does not at all seem unintended.

Hacksaw Ridge is as much a story of the resolution of faith through violent torture as Passion was, and if Doss is not represented here as the son of God, he is not terribly far off.  He is mocked and ridiculed by all because of his fervent religious beliefs until finally, through agonizing tribulations that no human being could possibly suffer, he is redeemed in the eyes of those who doubted him.

Did I mention this is not a subtle film?

The big question is whether Hacksaw Ridge is a good film, a film worthy of seeing, and in the end it's hard to give it anything but a strongly qualified recommendation; though it has a meaningful, even stirring, message and a compelling story, it is not a movie that most people would be able to sit through without flinching -- and Gibson, as he did with the blood-soaked Passion and Apocalypto seems to think that the best way to depict violence is to show every stomach-churning moment of it.

But to what end?  Hacksaw Ridge is not just a difficult film, it surpasses being a harrowing experience; in the end it is merely exhausting, a grueling and often laborious mixture of heartfelt story and near-pornographic violence.  Gibson revels in the visceral experience of bringing his audience to its knees, which would serve him well as a director of thrillers or horror films but does not mesh with what he must believe is an unassailable right to express himself as he sees fit.

He has that right, and it is a right worth defending, but it does not serve the film well.  Nor is Hacksaw Ridge entirely convincing in everything that comes before its hourlong descent into unrelenting violence.  Garfield plays a Virginia simpleton whose upbringing cannot be described without resorting to the use of the word "hillbilly."  He's a thickly accented local yokel who enlists in the Army despite his deep, heartfelt adherence to the strictures of the Seventh Day Adventists.  He interprets the Sixth Commandment not just as a prohibition against killing a human being but against even touching a weapon.  (Or, at least, that's the official version; the film itself gets a little confused when it shows, in flashback, the one time Doss fired a gun -- his belief seems to be more a personal guideline than a religious one.)

But before he goes, he needs to marry the local beauty (Teresa Palmer), who pledges to stand by her man, no matter what.  And he needs to defy his hard-nosed father (Hugo Weaving) before being carted off to training camp where his barracks are filled with the kinds of characters that used to be referred to as "straight from Central Casting."  There's the muscle-head, the bully, the goon, the Italian, the All-American boy ... and the tough-as-nails sergeant (Vince Vaughn) who insists his men call him "Sarge" and who has it out for Doss.

The lengths to which Doss goes to uphold his faith are impressive, and are the most interesting and rewarding sections of Hacksaw Ridge, and when it gets to the titular cliffside in Japan, the movie takes on a palpable tension.  The first moments of the battle are suitably nightmarish and intense.

After that, the movie doesn't know when to stop.  It keeps pummeling us over the head with insane levels of violence that certainly demonstrate the horrors of war -- but why?  This isn't an anti-war film, nor is it a story that focuses much on religious faith outside of a brief (and compelling) court-martial hearing.

The main action is about how Doss, through what appears to be pure luck and good fortune, survives the largely lethal battle for control of the summit, then stays behind to rescue wounded men.  What he does is incredible, but the thematic question of whether it was motivated -- maybe even, if the movie were braver, aided -- by religious faith is never really addressed.  Gibson and screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan are more intent on the machinations of the fighting and on getting as gory as possible.

Amid all of it, the lanky, awkward, boyish Garfield finds and holds onto a strong character, even when the motivation is lost.  All of the cast is uniformly excellent, with the soldiers managing to differentiate themselves just enough.  Even more effective is a post-action coda with the real people who inspired the characters; their few moments on camera provide the most human element to the film.

All the while, Gibson seems never to have met a CGI effect he didn't want to try.  He's like a sadistic, violence-loving, blood-and-guts version of George Lucas or Peter Jackson. Warfare aside, the film's over-reliance on digital effects can be overwhelming.

While there's a lot to admire in Hacksaw Ridge, there's even more to turn away from.  War is hell.  We know that.  Movies about it don't need to be hellish or quite this stressful.

Viewed on DVD -- Feb. 28, 2017

Sunday, February 26, 2017



How easy it is to recall the past.  It's less a sign of growing old than of being human that we can recall the way around, say, our third-grade classroom, or the route we took to get to a high-school job, even more readily than we can remember what we had for dinner yesterday.

And then there are those even more fleeting images we never imagined would get stuck in our heads but are permanently lodged there -- the view from a restaurant, a scene we saw on vacation.  We could find our way down a street we traveled once many decades ago.  The mind lives in the past as mysteriously as the heart.

The intersection of the two is where Lion takes place, in the conflicted thoughts and emotions of Saroo Brierly, who has spent most of his life safe, happy -- and lost.  In an extraordinary true story, Saroo left his tiny, poverty-ridden Indian village with his brother, Guddu, one evening in 1986, and fell asleep on a bench in a train station.  When he awoke, tiny Saroo, who was at most five years old, couldn't find his brother, and started searching a nearby train.  Unable to find Guddu, Saroo wound up 1,600 miles away from home in the overcrowded, overwhelming central station of Calcutta.

It was the beginning of an odyssey that would lead to a Dickensian orphanage and, circuitously, an affluent suburban home in Hobart, Tasmania, where an Australian couple who knew nothing of Saroo's history adopted him and raised him and another Indian boy with love and compassion.

Saroo is played as an adult by Dev Patel and as a child by the magical, captivating Sunny Pawar, who carries the weight of the film's entire first half on his tiny shoulders.  Lion gives Pawar a remarkable screen debut; how he could have been overlooked at the Oscars is a head-scratcher, especially since the film, quite rightly, is among the nominees for Best Picture and Patel has been nominated for the role he builds off of the foundation established by the little boy.

Though he is initially perplexed about how he got where he ended up, the grown Saroo spends little time contemplating his past until a conversation with friends triggers the involuntary recollection of the images he has never really forgotten.  Almost as a dare, his friends suggest he try Google Earth and some basic math to see if he can figure out where he came from.

The idea seems outlandish and even distracting at first, but soon enough Saroo can think of little else, including his parents, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham, or his brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), who has never been able to completely recover from the horrors of his own stolen childhood.

Driven by his memories, he becomes obsessed with finding his home -- and it's in these sections of the story that Lion loses just a tiny bit of its momentum as it struggles to find some conflict in his quest.  He hides his search from his adoptive parents, who otherwise seem rather astonishingly capable of providing Saroo and Mantosh exactly the sort of support and encouragement they need.  At times, Lion presents Saroo as just a bit too noble, though Patel is noteworthy for his portrayal of the haunted, lonely little boy inside the seemingly well-adjusted man.

There's also a very worthy performance by Kidman as his adopted mother, who carefully but completely destroys every theory Saroo has ever devised about why they chose to adopt the two boys.  Kidman's role may initially come across as too saintly, but she has quiet and powerful scene with Patel that helps ground the movie in an honest and non-manipulative emotion, which propels it into its final act.

As good as its latter half is, Lion is really distinguished by its bleak, painful opening hour, in which Saroo manages to survive despite breathtaking obstacles.  Director Garth Davis offers a portrayal of India is both shocking and emotionally charged; when Saroo finally gets to Tasmania, it's a relief -- and yet his Indian life is so vividly presented that Lion makes it clear what it is he misses so desperately, despite the comforts and love he finds in his adopted home.

The tug-of-war the past constantly plays with the present is what makes Lion so deeply moving, and if its ultimate destination isn't exactly surprising, it's no less affecting, particularly in the ways it finds to answer the questions that have persisted in Saroo's mind for such a long time.

Adapted by Luke Davies from Saroo's own book, A Long Way Home, Lion sustains its emotional power all the way through to its final frames and even afterward, saving a heart-wrenching revelation for the very, very end.  Lion is a beautiful movie, and though we're already almost three months into 2017 its potent enough to me want to rethink my 2016 top 10 list.  But, then, I've no idea how to choose a movie to bump -- it was a strong year for movies, and Lion is among the strongest.

Viewed February 27, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, February 25, 2017

It's 'La La Land' for Sure ... Probably

La La Land is going to sweep the Oscars this year.

Unless it doesn't.

Which could happen.  Since the last time the Academy Awards were handed out, there have been weirder balloting results.  So, could La La Land get trumped?

Doubtful.  But the Academy's got to be happy this year, because at long last the Best Picture nominee list has movies on it people have actually seen.  The average box-office take of the nine Best Picture nominees is $71.5 million, which is a hit by any standards.  Movies like Hidden Figures and La La Land have passionate fans -- and, especially in the case of the latter, more than a few detractors.

But much like last year's presidential race, while emotions run high for some people, there's more than a little apathy out there, which seems to have seeped into Oscar campaigns, too -- so while La La Land's sweep is almost a certainty, there's still a little suspense; if voters do more than just tick the boxes along straight "party lines," things could get interesting, though truth be told I'd be in the La La Land camp almost all the way ... and I'm guessing Academy voters will feel the same way, with just a few exceptions:

 WILL WIN : La La Land Moonlight (great movie, I'm not complaining, but what the hell happened?)
 WHY?  Go ahead, carp all you want.  You can cite all the times Oscar got it wrong (yes, we all remember Crash and Around the World in 80 Days), and you would be totally justified doing so -- but La La Land is no Crash, and even if you aren't a fan of the film it would be almost impossible to deny the pure cinematic artistry of the film, and let's not forget that this is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, not the Academy of Movies You'll Like.  To me, La La Land is the cinematic equivalent of London -- if you tire of it, you tire of life.  If there's real competition this year, it comes from Moonlight, a movie of exquisite beauty and craft, which would be the winner in a year without La La Land.  And while Hidden Figures has seen deserved popular success, look for La La Land to walk away with the big prize ... and not because Hollywood loves to honor itself, but because it's a terrific, deeply felt, beautifully made movie.

 WILL WIN : Damien Chazelle for La La Land
 SHOULD WIN : Chazelle
 WHY?  He's made an extraordinary movie.  You think the lead characters are narcissistic?  You think the movie just steals from other musicals?  Boy, you're a tough critic.  Chazelle's commitment, passion, vision and sheer technical ability may still be relatively young (he'll be the youngest Best Director winner, beating a record held for 85 years by Norman Taurog), but why does age matter?  Talent does, and the one-two punch of Whiplash and La La Land is a knockout the Academy can't ignore.

 WILL WIN Mahershala Ali for Moonlight
 SHOULD WIN : Lucas Hedges for Manchester by the Sea
 WHY?  The way Ali's presence in Moonlight transcends his actual screen time is a testament to what an extraordinary performance he delivers, and he'll be a deserving winner.  But in Manchester by the Sea, Hedges provides both humanity and humor to a difficult, depressing story.  Casey Affleck is getting the attention, but Hedges is largely why the movie works -- he's both fragile and strong, confused yet assured, and his work is what ensures that while Manchester by the Sea is tough stuff it's always revelatory.

 WILL WIN Viola Davis for Fences
 SHOULD WIN : Octavia Spencer for Hidden Figures
 WHY?  Davis remains largely quiet and stoic throughout Fences, a film I found too noble and steady to be really affecting, but when Davis finally lets loose and vents years of pent-up frustration, she gets the kind of show-stopping moment that Oscar voters love.  Her work on stage won the Tony for Best Actress, and since Spencer is a previous Oscar winner, the Academy's strange unwritten rules make Davis the likely winner.  But Spencer delivers even more engaging, more satisfying work in Hidden Figures.  Of the five nominees, Spencer's work is the most crowd-pleasing -- and the most memorable.

 WILL WIN : Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea
 SHOULD WIN : Ryan Gosling for La La Land
 WHY?  Affleck delivers an undeniably great performance in a standout film.  His depiction of grief and loss is -- and this is no criticism -- almost scientifically calculated to nab the Oscar.  But Gosling does everything Affleck does ... and makes it look effortless and charming.  Those are qualities the Academy rarely finds attractive in male leads: Other than Jean Dujardin in The Artist, you'd need to go back to Lee Marvin in 1965 to find a Best Actor who received the award for a comedy.  Both of these are challenging, sometimes unlikeable characters made fascinating by the work of the actors who inhabit them.

 WILL WIN : Emma Stone for La La Land
 SHOULD WIN : Natalie Portman for Jackie
 WHY?  It may sound sexist -- and there's probably a lot of truth to that -- but singing, dancing and laughing are apparently just a lot more deserving of awards by a woman than by a man.  Which isn't to say Stone shouldn't get the Oscar for exactly the same reasons Gosling should.  She is beyond wonderful in La La Land.  But this is a tough category, and my vote would go to Portman, whose performance is not nearly as appealing but succeeds in the near-impossible task of getting us to consider a historical figure in a way we never have before.  Portman's Jacqueline Kennedy is a tragic heroine, a woman who had to put aside her own grief, pain and disbelief for the sake of the greater good, and Portman creates a complex, haunting figure.

 WILL WIN : Moonlight
 SHOULD WIN Moonlight
 WHY?  The Academy isn't known for rewarding risk takers, so this is a satisfying choice.  Moonlight bends the rules of standard story structure and character development to deliver an unexpected result, a visually beautiful and thematically lyrical exploration of growing up and letting go that examines a character not normally even acknowledged by Hollywod -- a poor, black, gay man -- and finds something in his life that almost anyone can identify with.  Moonlight is a stunner, a movie that the Academy rightfully wants to recognize, and will with this award.  All five nominees are deserving, but Moonlight stands out for its innovation ... and for its soul.

 WILL WIN  Manchester by the Sea
 WHY?  In addition to Casey Affleck's fine central performance, the Academy will honor Manchester by the Sea's considerable impact by acknowledging its screenplay, which is not a bad way to do things.  La La Land is a more complex blend of story, dialogue, lyrics and visuals, but it's going to get enough awards this year -- Manchester by the Sea is a more conventional choice.

 WILL WIN : Zootopia
 SHOULD WIN Kubo and the Two Strings
 WHY?  Zootopia has been sweeping most of the animation awards for a reason: It's adorable and it's got a surprisingly sophisticated storyline with some pointed observations about racism and sexism.  Plus it's adorable.  In an average year, it would be a slam-dunk, but this hasn't been an average year.  Kubo and the Two Strings is a grand and glorious adventure, one that sets a new standard for visual inventiveness, engaging both the heart and the mind with an exploration of memory and grief that is as complex and rewarding as just about any film this year.


Best Foreign Language FilmThe Salesman

Best Documentary Feature13th O.J. Made in America

Best Documentary Short Subject Extremis The White Helmets

Best Costume DesignLa La Land Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Best Film EditingLa La Land Hacksaw Ridge

Best Cinematography La La Land

Best Makeup/Hair Styling A Man Called Ove Suicide Squad

Best Original Score: Justin Hurwitz, La La Land

Best Original Song"City of Stars," La La Land

Best Sound Editing Hacksaw Ridge Arrival

Best Sound Mixing: La La Land Hacksaw Ridge

Best Visual EffectsThe Jungle Book

Best Production Design La La Land

Best Animated Short Film Pearl Piper

Best Live Action Short FilmEnnemis Intérieurs Sing

Sunday, February 19, 2017

"Toni Erdmann"


It's easy to understand why Hollywood has already announced that it will remake Toni Erdmann with Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig.  Here's the much-sought-after one-sentence "logline" for the movie:

An aging hippy father shocks his uptight, successful executive daughter by paying her an unannounced visit, fooling her friends and co-workers into thinking he's a high-end "life coach" while teaching her that the greatest lesson life has to offer is how to be yourself.

That's the movie Hollywood wants to make, and somewhere within its long, strange, meandering running time of nearly three hours, that movie could be buried deep within Toni Erdmann.  Then again, it might not, it's really impossible to say.

The original, German version of Toni Erdmann, written and directed by Maren Ade, is not like Hollywood movies.  It's not really like most movies at all, though the one it comes closest to resembling is Sofia Coppola's luminous Lost in Translation, which has the thinnest of plots grafted on to moments of observation and insight.

If Toni Erdmann feels so often (and it does) like it is going nowhere and isn't quite sure how to get there, the measure of its success comes as it begins winding down, when the movie shocks you by making you realize just how much you have come to know its carefully created, but oddly aloof, set of characters.  Several of them come together buck-naked in a sleek Romanian apartment, where they're confronted by a massive, hairy cross between Bigfoot and a yak.  If that description sounds out-of-the-norm, wait until you see how the scene plays out -- and how sensical it all seems under the circumstances.

The reason all the characters are naked is that their host, the professionally severe Ines Condradi (Sandra Hüller), has decided that instead of trying so damned hard to make everything right, she's just going to let it all hang out.  It's very unlike Ines to try something so radical, but that's the influence of her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a man who's always been prone to practical jokes and goofy dollar-store costumes, but whose own sense of purpose and self is at a crisis point.

Ines is living in Bucharest, Romania, where she works as a consultant to help oil companies fire redundant employees.  She likes her work, and is good at it, but it's the kind of job that requires her to be Ines the Consultant at all times, and never Ines the Person -- and it's gotten to the point that Ines doesn't know who the latter is anymore.  In a corporate environment dominated by men, she's managed to become dominant, or pretty close to it.  She can see her father's unexpected visit only through her own irritated eyes -- and barely notices when her most important client takes a liking to the man.

Maybe he senses that he can help her professionally, or maybe he's just a crazy old man, but whatever the reason, Winfried stays in town without telling her.  Instead, he adopts a new persona: Toni Erdmann, frazzle-haired, buck-toothed life-coach to the executive jet set.  None of them buy it, but none of them quite know who he is, either.  He's just always kind of ... around.  And Ines doesn't unmask him: What could she say?  "Hey, boss and big new client, this is actually my dad, he's really crazy and I apologize for him?"  She lets him stick around.  And he keeps insinuating himself in her life and work in brazen ways.

The interesting thing I find writing about Toni Erdmann is that trying to piece it all together makes it sound like there's a plot, and I guess there is, you just don't really notice it while it's happening.  There are scenes about Ines's need for sexual control, and about the way she is trying to be a better and less stern kind of boss.  There are scenes in which she and Winfried try to reconcile their estrangement, and others in which she uses him as a strange sort of stage prop during a key meeting.  And then there's one very uncomfortable, but also very funny, scene in which father and daughter essentially crash a Romanian Easter party and Ines sings a karaoke version of "The Greatest Love of All" by Whitney Houston.

When it's over, she runs out of the room.  She has performed valiantly and done what her father asked, but now she doesn't want to share the same space with him.  And as so often happens in Toni Erdmann the conflict isn't resolved, the scene doesn't as much finish as simply end.  We're left to sort out our own feelings about what we've just seen.

Even its big climactic scene, in which Winfried dresses up in that huge sasquatch costume and Ines chases him through a park doesn't go for any specific emotion.  Like the rest of the film, it sets up the action and observes the results ... but doesn't try to play them for particular sorts of sentiment.  What you think of the decisions the characters make is largely up to you.  That holds true to the very final shot of Toni Erdmann, which comes after a scene of surprising warmth, compassion and happiness, and then leaves the audience not knowing quite what happened or what it meant.

Toni Erdmann doesn't want to force its own emotions on you.  It is an exercise in watching a sort of modernized cinema verité, in which what happens on the screen is more important than how the filmmakers explain or define it.

Toni Erdmann ends with a scene that makes utterly no attempt to tell you what it's supposed to mean. But everyone who sees it will have the same visceral reaction, and everyone who has that reaction will have the same emotional response.  And that is the real accomplishment of the film -- that after nearly three bewildering hours in which no character behaves (or even misbehaves) quite as we expect, in which the plot never takes us quite where we thought it would go, that after all that, it proves to have been so confident in its handling, so fully aware of its meaning that its final two or three shots combine to make an ending that rivals the muffled-whispers scene in Lost in Translation.

What exactly Ines and Winfried are trying to say to each other, just how much they are willing to be what the other one is hoping they they have become, is left up in the air.  Instead, we see Ines in her half-smile, and no one -- not the audience and not Ines herself -- is entirely certain that that expression means.

Toni Erdmann isn't sure what any of it means, I think.  And that, after two and a half hours or wandering around with its two leading characters, is what makes it work as well as it does.  No, we can't be sure what the meaning is, but we are reasonably confident we know whatever it is that will happen next, because we've gotten to know these characters.  We've even seen them naked.  And you know the old business joke: When you imagine everyone naked, you see all their shortcomings.  They've all got them.  Toni Erdmann takes it one step further: We see everything these characters have to offer, we see their shortcomings ... and we like them anyway.

If that doesn't tell you how deeply a film has met its goal of having you relate to its characters and come to regard them as real, dimensional people, then maybe nothing does.

Viewed Feb. 18, 2017 -- Laemmle NoHo 7


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Favorite Films: "Chariots of Fire"


If you know Chariots of Fire at all, you know its musical score by Vangelis, which transcended the movie and became one of the cultural touchstones of the early 1980s.  And you've probably seen the slow-motion images of the men running on the beach accompanied by that lushly synthesized music, which means you know, at the very least, that it's a movie about running.

But Chariots of Fire is about running only in the way that La La Land is about Hollywood or 2001: A Space Odyssey is about astronauts -- that is, don't mistake the its surface-level subject for its deeper meaning and its emotional core.

Chariots of Fire is a film I hadn't seen in many, many years.  As a teenager it had an outsized influence on me because of the way it regards passion, motivation and drive.  I saw it four or five times in the movie theater, and I don't imagine that its overt themes of religious faith and national identity mattered much to me.  Of its two main characters, I was more drawn to Harold Abrahams, the Jewish aristocrat who runs for reasons he doesn't fully understand.

Of course Abrahams, played by Ben Cross, comprehends that he runs simply because he can, because it is his talent.  But he harbors a lot of bitter resentment about the way Jews are treated in British society, and running becomes a sort of rebellion for him.  As a student at Cambridge University, he's accepted by the ruling class only to a certain extent, and throughout Chariots of Fire, Abrahams has something to prove.  His fire and drive are what drew me in way back then, and what I remembered most about the movie.

The other side to Chariots of Fire seemed, back then, to be the softer, less interesting side: the story of Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), the Christian missionary who treated his speed and athleticism as gifs from God, and who committed himself to running even above religion -- but only to a point.  During the 1924 Olympics in Paris, where Chariots of Fire reaches its climax, Liddell refused to run a key race because it took place on a Sunday, the holy day.  It becomes a test of and testament to his faith that he steadfastly refuses, even when the Prince of Wales basically commands him to change his mind.

Liddell's stunning adherence to his beliefs is, all these years later, what most captivates me about Chariots of Fire, especially living in a time when religion is used for many reasons, but rarely, it seems, for its primary purpose of enlightenment and praise.  It seems hard to argue that religion has become, to use a popular phrase, weaponized, but Chariots of Fire is a potent reminder of how the faithful can affect the world in less confrontational ways.

Chariots of Fire is a singular sort of cinematic achievement, a movie that can't be replicated, either for its beauty or for its bold and impressive commitment to its central theme of individual achievement to fulfill a greater good.  Every one of the runners in the film -- there are sharply drawn, though lesser, characters than Liddell and Abrahams -- recognizes that the singular glory of winning is less important for the individual than for the identity of England or, really, of the world.  Chariots of Fire was made near the beginning of the now global obsession with sports celebrities, and it finds a great deal to admire about the time when there were ambitions that exceeded individual success. The film frames itself as a mournful elegy to a lost time; it's aware of how much has changed.

That Chariots of Fire won the Oscar for Best Picture still takes many people by surprise.  It's the opposite of a "Hollywood" film in almost every regard, especially in the stylistic ways director Hugh Hudson tells the story.  Chariots of Fire requires patience and attention throughout, sometimes only alluding to key plot points, or relaying them through lines of dialogue that seem almost off-handed. One of its most important lines is easily overlooked: Liddell, addressing a group of his admirers, asks "Where does the power come from to see the race to its end?" then pauses and answers the question: "From within."

Chariots of Fire doesn't dwell on that moment or even push it particularly hard -- the film anticipates a certain level of intelligence from its audience, and it rewards that intelligence by being tightly structured, and beautifully written and acted.  Charleson and Cross convey such determination, such commitment to their chosen causes -- and to their shared cause of glory for their country -- that they convey the movie's strong sense of grace and dignity effortlessly.

Chariots of Fire continues to impress.  It's a film that deserves rediscovery, one that is more than 35 years old but hasn't aged at all -- even its much-parodied theme song still works beautifully.  Chariots of Fire grows richer with age.  It seems entirely fitting that its own fond and melancholy look back at two men who were filled with the courage of their convictions has turned it, over time, into a film that is defined by its own.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Catching Up: "Captain Fantastic"


Instead of celebrating Christmas, the Cash family celebrates the birthday of liberal linguist Noam Chomsky.  The smallest among them, who is about seven years old, reads The Joy of Sex, while the oldest celebrates his 18th birthday by stalking and killing a deer, which becomes their dinner feast.

They live together in the vast and mountainous forests of Washington state, where many years the father and the mother decided to spurn the ways of modern society and raise their family away from the rest of the world.

When Captain Fantastic opens, the family seems more or less happy and well-adjusted under the leadership of their father, Ben, who's played by Viggo Mortensen in a role that is perfect for him.  Mortensen has always seemed like a free spirit, a borderline hippy, the kind of actor and artist who wants to be able to express himself freely in every part of his life.  That's the kind of character Ben is -- but there are some strange things going on, like the military precision he uses on his kids.  They seem less like children than experiments.  And there's the question of what happened to his wife, who is missing.

Her absence, it turns out, is what gets the story going.  After a long and detailed look at the way the Cashes live in the forest, Ben and his son Bo (George MacKay) set out on one of their infrequent excursions to the nearest general store, where Ben makes some money by selling crafts the kids make.  Before they leave, Ben promises to check on the status of the mother, who has been hospitalized after suffering a mental breakdown.  It's worse than that, though -- Ben gets word that his wife has died.

So, the family, after this extended preamble, venture out in their old school bus, which they've named "Steve," and makes a journey to her funeral, which will be held in New Mexico.  Their fish-out-of-water trip makes up the bulk of Captain Fantastic, which is as weird, quirky as the family itself.

The best parts of Captain Fantastic -- and there are a lot of them -- play off of our own discomfort with Ben and the choices he has made for his kids.  These are odd and unusual people, and the the movie doesn't hide from its gently leftist ideology that maybe it's them and not us who has got it figured out.

But it's smart enough to offer more than a few hints that the guy may be a genuine crackpot, a less angry but no less dangerous version of Allie Fox from Paul Theroux's great novel The Mosquito Coast.  And really, his liberal hippie ways aren't that far off from a right-wing survivalist nutjob.   Mortensen plays Ben with a much softer, more open-hearted vibe, but Captain Fantastic can never shake the fact that it's not quite as concerned as it should be with the real possibility that he's mentally unhinged, that his kids are incredibly smart but dangerously unaware of the world.  They've had a lifestyle and world-view foisted upon them by a father who claims to encourage free thinking.  Son Bo is so fearful of his father that he hides acceptance letters from leading schools, afraid of what the man will think.

While it has the outlines of a serious and thought-provoking drama, Captain Fantastic largely plays its plot for smiles (like the Chomsky-themed non-Christmas), sometimes even real laughs (like the sex-curious youngsters).  It's a little too light to be really thoughtful, but it's filled with themes that demand an intensity it can't quite achieve.  A scene between Mortensen and Ann Dowd as his mother in law, in particular, just gets going when it ends abruptly, missing an opportunity to push both the wilderness-living radical and his consumerist mother-in-law to places they hadn't thought to wander.

Still, Mortensen and the kids (MacKay gets the most screen time, but they're all terrific) deserve credit for making Captain Fantastic feel real and vibrant, even when it's easy to wish writer-director Matt Ross knew exactly what he thought of his characters and the choices they made.  It lacks the awareness of movies like Wild or Into the Wild, which provided more of an understanding of what drove its characters away from society in the first place.  Captain Fantastic doesn't have the weightiness of those movies, but it does have a weird spirit and a certain joy all its own.

Viewed Feb. 5, 2017 -- VOD

Another Visit to "La La Land"


A few weeks back, when Barack Obama was still the president and a relative sense of sanity still prevailed, there was a general consensus that La La Land was some sort of movie miracle.

Times have changed.  There's been an all-too-predictable pre-Oscar backlash against La La Land, driven by the same kind of backstabbing politics -- the reason we can't have nice things.  There's a constant whisper in the air that La La Land can't really be that good.  So, clever SNL skits aside, it's my cinematic civic duty to tell you something: Yes, La La Land is really that good.

I'm all for the sudden Oscar push for Hidden Figures, because that's a terrific movie with some great performances and a real sense of verve.  It's just, well, La La Land isn't simply better; La La Land is a damn near perfect movie, one whose seeming flaws are in fact its real virtues (that long John Legend song notwithstanding).

Spoiler alert: I'm about to give away some key plot points to La La Land, so if you haven't seen it, just know you're missing one of the finest films that's likely to be made in your lifetime.  Oh, what's that?  You're one of those, "I don't like musicals" people?  OK, fine.  I understand, you don't like the idea of people bursting into song and dance even though you're probably likely to do exactly that when you're alone in the house -- you're just embarrassed by the expression of emotion through something as charming as musicals.  In that case, don't see La La Land -- and skip Christmas, sunsets and giggling babies, too, while you're at it; you, my friend, are not simply a curmudgeon, you're just a mean person.  You have my permission to skip La La Land

But as I watched La La Land for a third time tonight (bypassing the week's January-dregs new releases), some things came floating to mind as effortlessly as Sebastian and Mia in the planetarium.  These are the criticisms I've been hearing recently of La La Land, and my thoughts on them:

The singing is so ... weak.  They needed real singers.
Perhaps you are missing the point of La La Land, which is not, as SNL wants to have us believe, that these are "real people" singing in their real voices.  The movie is about jazz, just as writer-director Damien Chazelle's last film, the astonishing Whiplash, was -- and that jazzy, swingy, aimless feeling needs to suffuse the songs.  Does the opening number lack the impressive voices of, say, a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical?  Yeah.  Making La La Land into a "real" musical, one with "real" actors would have made it impossible to tell the story of struggling people.  They've got "real" singers, by the way -- Emma Stone more than held her own on Broadway in Cabaret, and Gosling started his career as an actor who could sing.  They're all terrific ... and all of them, including the "chorus," are given very specific kinds of ranges.  From its first moments, La La Land makes it clear that it will be a musical that plays the songs on its terms, and does so brilliantly.

There aren't really enough songs to make it a 'real' musical.
The singers aren't as good as they should be, but there aren't enough songs?  That's like Alvy Singer's joke in Annie Hall about the two ladies complaining about the food at a restaurant: It's terrible, says one.  The other agrees: "And such small portions."  The reason we'd like to see more songs in La La Land is because the ones that are there are so good.  And trust me, the more they get into your head the more they stay there.  An original musical (a rare commodity in Hollywood, and increasingly anywhere) starts with songs you've never heard.  To get to know them requires listening to them over and over, and the La La Land soundtrack proves that they are songs that get better with every successive play.  It's a fantastic song score.

Ryan Gosling's character is a total jerk; Emma Stone lacks a strong character.
Yes, Ryan Gosling's character, Sebastian, is self-absorbed, arrogant and difficult to work with.  Perhaps you miss the scene where Keith (John Legend) tells him exactly that.  Sebastian shrugs: "Tell me something I don't know."  The movie's entire story is built on the notion that he and Emma Stone's Mia don't really hit it off, partly because the first time they met (technically the second) he was a complete jerk to her.  The movie isn't about true love, you may have noticed.  It's not about a love-at-first-sight spark.  Sebastian is self-absorbed.  Mia is flailing (though the movie makes it clear she's actually a very good actress).  A guy who can't think of anything but his craft and a girl who thinks, "Maybe I'm not cut out for this" -- those aren't two people who are going to last long together.  La La Land is not about the romantic destiny of two people to be together.  That is not this movie, I feel obligated to say it again, because ...

They could have wound up together if they had just tried harder.
No.  You've misunderstood this easy-to-understand movie, you've applied your own notions of how movies are supposed to portray romance.  The key to understanding La La Land is to look at it a second time knowing what you learn at the end: Mia and Sebastian cannot be together.  If they fall in love and acquiesce to the notions of true romantic love, one of them has to lose.  This seems easy as the film begins -- Mia just needs to become Sebastian's little wife and let him make the money.  But that will only solve one problem.  Sebastian goes out of his way to make Mia attend her audition, the one that changes her life, because he knows that even though it will pull them apart, it will give them each the chance to fulfill their ambitions.  They simply can't do it together, no matter how tempting it might seem.  And that's the emotionally rough part of La La Land, the bit that ties it together with Whiplash: One way or another someone's going to lose.  And it's going to hurt.

What hurts is that 15 minutes in the middle, when the movie slows to a crawl.  They should have cut that part out.
But then they would have cut out the movie's soul.  Mia is a little ahead of Sebastian in worrying that the relationship is doomed, but she thinks there's still hope as long as he gives up the touring.  But he reminds her the touring is what she told him he should do -- his big dream of his own club will just have to wait.  This is the "practical dream."  And this scene, the one at the dinner table in Sebastian's apartment, drives some people loony.  The movie slows down to a crawl.  The fun saps out of the movie.  It's no longer light on its feet, it's gloomy, it's sad, it's serious, it's not romantic.  And that is precisely why it's there.  Lose this scene and nothing makes sense.  Mia gets up to leave not because she's angry at what Sebastian has said, but because that is all there is left to do.  Each has taken the other as far as they can ... well, almost.  If it weren't for that uncomfortable dinner scene, we wouldn't have the tears-down-your-face delightful one of Sebastian driving to the house in front of the library.  That slow, careful scene of troubling emotions is what the movie spins on.  Its pacing is completely different than the rest of the film, and that's exactly as it should be.

OK, fine, I'll accept all of that -- but it's just really OK, it's not great, it's not like those MGM musicals in the 1950s, right? 
No, you're right.  It's better.  Because it has found a way to recreate homages to those films (and most every other significant musical ever made) and still do something important, do something the film stresses needs to be done with every art form -- it pushes cinema forward.  By looking at the beautiful past of moviemaking, it borrows the right language and the right techniques, but still manages to create a film that has much to say about our own lives, about where we are today in the modern world, our desire to see things stay the same and our relentless pushing ahead into an unknown future.  And it does all of that with singing, dancing and beauty.  It's not Singin' in the Rain or American in Paris, sure -- but it belongs with them.

Well, you just like it because you're from L.A.  You know, that liberal bubble, that place that reveres itself to the exclusion of the rest of the world.
I love it -- and I do love it -- because I came here with a dream.  I've fulfilled parts of it, much is still left undone, but I came to L.A. for the same reason anyone comes here ... or goes to New York ... or London ... or Paris ... or gets out of their little town in rural Ohio and moves to Cleveland.  Or even just wishes that one day he or she could do that.  La La Land is about all those people.  It's about the people who came to L.A., specifically, because they had an ambition: they read comic books as kids and now write or direct or star in super-hero movies.  It's about the people who came here because they loved Schwarzenegger movies and wanted to write the best action movie ever.  Or saw Star Wars and wanted to be the next George Lucas.  La La Land is not just about actors and singers -- it's about, as Mia's final song says, "the ones who dream."

That's all of us.

Whether you're just starting out and hope this is the way it goes, or you're wildly successful and remembering how it felt.  Whether you're an enormous failure but like recalling your early moments of optimism, or you're just a middle-aged kind-of-made-it-but-not-quite ... or you're someone who never mustered the courage to do that crazy thing you wanted to do, La La Land makes you feel better about even having tried, about simply having thought of it.

And it's a stark, unexpectedly tough reminder that if you do get it, you're going to have to be giving up something else.

On top of all that, it's the most visually ravishing, most carefully constructed, most satisfying movie released last year -- and 2016 was a year with some honestly remarkable films.  They are all worthy, they are all good.  It's just that La La Land soars above them.