Monday, December 26, 2016

LA LA LAND: A Cinematic Song & Dance Delight From Start To Finish


Now playing at a multiplex or art house near you:

LA LA LAND (Dir. Damien Chazelle, 2016)



Within moments of this film’s big opening scene – an impressively choreographed production number involving dozens, maybe hundreds, of commuters singing and dancing to the joyous original song “Another Day of Sun” atop a gridlocked Los Angeles overpass – you know you are experiencing something really special.

For Damien Chazelle’s third feature is the definition of a modern movie musical – one that respects the “follow your dreams” tropes of the golden age of Hollywood, but puts a fresh-faced spin on it with by acknowledging that living “happily ever after” may not happen the way you imagined.

After that lavish, invigorating opening number, in the same traffic we meet Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who pisses off jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in the convertible behind her because she was too busy running lines for an audition to notice that the cars ahead of her have moved forward. Sebastian repeatedly honks as he passes her, and she responds by flipping him the bird. Not exactly a meet cute.

Mia works as a barista at a coffee shop on a big studio lot where she’s constantly starstruck by her famous customers and dreams to be one of them someday.

But that’s something that’s going to have to wait we see as Mia flubs her audition, then finds that her car has been towed while she and her roommates (Callie Hernandez, Sonoyo Mizuno, and Jessica Rothe) were at a party in the Hollywood hills that was supposed to cheer her up but only ended up making her feel lonely anyway.

On Mia’s walk home, she is enticed to enter a restaurant/night club named Lipton’s because she overhears an intriguing tune being played by the club’s new house pianist, who, of course, is Sebastian.

The film then flashes back to Mia and Sebastian’s first meeting in the opening traffic jam, and we see the last day from his perspective. We learn that hardcore jazzhead Sebastian is a classic struggling musician archetype who lives with his snarky sister Laura (Rosemarie DeWitt) as he floats from one humiliating low paying gig to another.

Sebastian’s latest gig at Lipton’s has his boss Bill (J.K. Simmons) forcing him to play Christmas standards, forbidding him from playing freeform jazz. Before long, Sebastian can’t help but improvise which gets him fired but gains him a fan in Mia. The angered artist though ignores her as he storms out, and we have our second failed meet cute.

They run into each other again at a pool party where Mia is supremely amused to see Sebastian playing synth-keyboards in an incredibly cheesy ‘80s cover band. So much so that she requests “I Ran” by A Flock of Seagulls to torture him.

Sebastian confronts her afterwards and before long they are engaged in endless flirtation as they walk down a dreamy moonlit street in the Hollywood hills with a gorgeous view of the LA skyline. This is the backdrop for another delightful song and dance number, “A Lovely Night,” highlighted by such witty lines as “we stumble on a view that’s tailor made for two, what a shame those two are you and me.”

When he shows up at her workplace the next day, Mia gives Sebastian a tour around the Warner Brothers lot. Upon her declaring that she hates jazz, he whisks her off to a club to try and convert her, and also reveal that his big dream is to own a jazz club himself someday.

Our protagonist couple falls for each through multiple montage song and dance numbers, including a particularly stirring one in which they visit the planetarium at the Griffith Observatory after seeing the location at a revival screening of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.

While Mia works on a one-woman play in hopes of kick starting her career, Sebastian joins his friend Keith’s (John Legend) band the Messengers, both pursuing their dreams but with mixed results as Sebastian hates the commercial pop direction of his new outfit.

Gosling, who got his start as a child actor singing as a mouseketeer in a revival of Disney Channel’s Mickey Mouse Club, shows off his talents as a vocalist, pianist (that’s really him on the keys not a piano double), and dancer here with buckets of charm. Sebastian may be Gosling’s sharpest and most irresistible role yet.

Stone, likewise, pulls out the stops as a triple threat, matching Gosling’s moves beat by beat. I saw Stone make her Broadway debut in “Cabaret” a few years back so I knew she had the chops, but she doubly impressed me throughout this endlessly adorable film.

Our good looking stars are surrounded by gorgeous scenery, lushly shot by Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren (AMERICAN HUSTLE, JOY), and a dazzlingly colorful production design by longtime Quentin Tarantino collaborator David Wasco.

The score made up of over a dozen instantly memorable original songs composed by Justin Hurwitz, who worked with Chazelle on his previous two films (GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH, WHIPLASH), with perfectly on-point lyrics written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is the icing on the cake.


It all paves the way to an absolutely stunning, showstopping ending - see it before somebody spoils it for you.

Sure to make the upper region of my best films of 2016 list, LA LA LAND is a fun, toe-tapping, romantic, life-affirming, cinematic delight from start to finish. It was hard to stop smiling the whole time. In their third film together (CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE and GANGSTER SQUAD were the first two), Gosling and Stone have proved themselves to be worthy of being America’s top screen duo sweethearts.

A blast of a spectacular yet intimate feeling big-screen musical is exactly what we need right now as there’s a strong sense that there’s bleakness on the horizon.

Until then, let Ryan and Emma sing and dance your troubles away - they are definitely up to the task.


More later...

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Natalie Portman's Performance As JACKIE Is Second Oscar Worthy


Now playing at an indie art house theater near me:

JACKIE (Dir. Pablo Larraín, 2016)



The Kennedy assassination has been cinematically examined many, many times before, but Pablo Larraín’s JACKIE looks at what’s considered one of the most tragic and world-changing events in American history from the most intimate angle.

That would be through the eyes of JFK’s First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, who was sitting next to her husband in the Presidential Limousine on that fatal day in Dallas when he was slain by a sniper.

Written by Noah Oppenheim (THE MAZE RUNNER, ALLEGIANT), the film concerns Mrs. Kennedy, beautifully portrayed by Natalie Portman, being interviewed by noted journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) for Life Magazine at the Kennedy’s family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts shortly after the death of her husband in late ’63.

Through flashbacks we are taken through Jackie’s recollections of the aftermath of the assassination, and the making of her 1962 CBS television special A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy (Mad Men fans may remember the episode in which several characters were watching this special).

The tone between the former First Lady and writer White is tense as she reminds him that she’ll be editing their conversation in case she doesn’t say exactly what she means, and she says curtly, right after taking a puff on her cigarette, that she doesn’t smoke.

Peter Sarsgaard puts in a solid turn as JFK’s brother Robert Kennedy, who despite being in a state of shock, does what he can to assist his sister-in-law with the funeral arrangements while newly sworn-in President Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) prepares to move into the White House. Johnson’s staff includes future Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti, played with assholish arrogance by Max Casella.

Former indie it girl Greta Gerwig is on helpful hand as Mrs. Kennedy’s Social Secretary, Richard E. Grant (WITHNAIL & I) plays abstract painter/Kennedy confidante William Walton, and JFK dead ringer Caspar Phillipson puts in brief appearances as the iconic Commander in Chief in flashbacks. But perhaps the best supporting role here is that of John Hurt as Father Richard McSorley, who Jackie confers with about her despair. Hurt is somehow comforting when he tells Mrs. Kennedy that there are no answers, and that every soul alive wonders whether this is all that there is. Not your typical “everything happens for a reason” b.s. for sure.

Portman’s Jackie may not be picture perfect, but she’s got the voice and mannerisms down and almost immediately I was buying her in the role. She obviously studied the White House tour film, and probably just about every recording of the legendary woman that she could find, but her performance comes off as a lot more than a studied impression. It’s a lived-in piece of fine acting that captures the emotional rollercoaster of mourning. 


The feelings of grief, confusion, anger, and loss of faith that Jackie wrestles with all swirl together in such moments as when Lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant) suggests that Jackie should change out of her blood-covered pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat on the plane ride back from Dallas as there will be press and cameras ready for her when they land, and Mrs. Kennedy sternly remarks: “There were wanted posters everywhere for Jack - with Jack’s face on them. Let them see what they’ve done.”

When Kennedy’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswalt, is shot by Jack Ruby on live TV, RFK decides to shield Jackie from the news, but when she learns about it she still isn’t deterred from arranging the elaborate funeral procession in which she walked in black veil slowly behind her husband’s casket for eight-blocks through Washington D.C. to St. Matthews Cathedral.

While much of the film is speculation about Jackie’s state of mind, and, like with any dramatization of history there are bound to be inaccuracies, Larraín and Portman’s depiction of this elegant lady feels authentically faithful to its subject. I was unaware that the entire notion of JFK’s being likened to Camelot originated from Mrs. Kennedy’s interview with White.

Jackie recalls that her husband used to play side two of the Original Cast Recording of Camelot before turning in at night, and that he loved the lyric “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

So as the film movingly reveals, Jackie Kennedy herself polished the legend of JFK’s era that still shines today. Here, Portman channels that shine into a powerful and poignant performance that is absolutely second Oscar worthy (she had previously won for BLACK SWAN).

JACKIE, one of two historical dramas that director Larraín has made this year (the other being NERUDA about Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda), may be an overly respectful and romanticized portrait (but not too romanticized that we don’t get a graphic assassination scene, gory head wound and all), but it feels profoundly righteous as it completely earns its gravitas. It’s a gripping experience to see one of our countries most beloved political figures being embodied by one of the most beloved actresses of our day in this haunting tale about finding grace in the face of tragedy.


This film also stirs up emotions about dealing with the difficult transition involving power changing hands next month. The Obama administration was as close to Kennedy’s Camelot as I fear we’re going get again in my lifetime. Such a movie as this is a must see in these scary times as it reminds us that America has gotten through dark times before and will again. This movie makes me want to believe that, despite the scariness of what’s on the rapidly approaching horizon, Camelot lives!

More later...

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

PASSENGERS Left A Bad, Creepy Taste In My Mouth


Now playing at multiplexes from here to Homestead II:

PASSENGERS (Dir. Morten Tyldum, 2016)


Despite that the screenplay has been floating around online for a while, and because I didn't click on anything that went into more detail about the plot, all I knew going in was this sci-fi movie’s basic premise - i.e. two spaceship passengers played by Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence on a 120 year voyage to a new earth-like planet wake up out of hibernation 90 years early, fall in love, and work together to solve the mystery of why they were woken up.

What I didn’t know was that Pratt’s character, Jim Preston, actually wakes up from a pod malfunction a year before Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora Lane, and because Jim is taken with Aurora (he’s never met her; he’s just watched her passenger profile video over and over) he sabotages her sleep pod so that she’ll wake up and they can be together.

Sounds pretty creepy, huh? No wonder the film's trailers, and TV spots gloss over that crucial plot point.

The film, written by Jon Spaihts (DOCTOR STRANGE, PROMETHEUS, THE DARKEST HOUR), bends over backwards trying to justify Jim’s actions. 


It shows us that Jim, a mechanic back home, goes through months of desperately trying to break into the ship’s control room, becoming suicidal from loneliness as he wanders drunk and pantless around the corridors of the ship, which is named the Starship Avalon, where his only friend is a robot bartender named Arthur played by Michael Sheen (a role that in dress and demeanor largely recalls Lloyd, the hotel bartender in THE SHINING).

Jim also doesn’t just wake up Aurora on a whim; he goes back and forth about it for weeks, and talks it out with Arthur, but from him he only gets responses like “Jim, these are not robot questions.”

When he finally decides to wake up who he thinks is his dream girl, he tells Arthur not to tell her, and he makes sure he hides the tools he used to tamper with her pod.

Lawrence’s Aurora is in a daze at first, going through some of the same motions that Jim did involving desperately trying to come up with a solution to being “stranded in space with a stranger” as she puts it.

Aurora is a writer and her plan was to travel to this new world, dubbed Homestead II, live there for a year then return home after another 120 year journey back – that’s right, she bought a round trip ticket – so that she could write the first book about the earth’s distant twin.

Finally, after giving her space, Jim asks Aurora out and before long they are in love – eating at the fancy restaurant facilities, engaging in holographic dance-offs, and going outside the ship in spacesuits where they knock helmets in place of their first kiss.

Then Arthur, that damn robot bartender has to go and ruin it by telling Aurora that Jim deliberately woke her (Arthur misunderstands it when the couple agrees that they “have no secrets”) and Aurora is livid.

Equating it to him murdering her, Aurora angrily withdraws all contact with Jim and ignores his pleas – one of which is broadcast around the ship – for understanding.

This all changes when somebody else wakes up - Laurence Fishburne as Chief Gus Mancuso, one of the Avalon’s high ranking staff members, and they all find out that the vessel is in extreme danger due to more major malfunctions, so the last act is a high octane fiery climax in which our leads fight to save the ship.

PASSENGERS goes from funny (Pratt’s early one man show scenes before he commits his questionable act) to creepy (the couple’s icky, yet stylish, courting scenes) to a routine sci-fi action thriller scenario, to creepy again (the ultra stupid ending, which I won’t spoil).

Lawrence and Pratt are two attractive, likable movie stars whose talents deserve a better, more thoughtful sci-fi platform than this, or at least one that doesn’t leave such a bad, creepy taste in my mouth.

It feels like Morten Tyldum (THE IMITATION GAME) and Co. took the standard rom com narrative, in which the male protagonist does something unforgivable and is rejected in the first half of the film, but redeems himself in the eyes of the female protagonist with a heroic feat in the third act, and they tried to go all GRAVITY and INTERSTELLAR on it.

The aforementioned screenplay for this film has been around for nearly a decade, and at one point was almost made with Keanu Reeves and Reese Witherspoon, and that alone should confirm the rom com-iness of this material.

The film, as shot by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, ARGO, BABEL), is as good looking as its leads, and there are a number of amusing moments, but overall PASSENGERS is a A-list actors lost in space letdown.

If you want to see a great movie starring two talented good looking A-listers, there’s a certain musical opening on Christmas day. I’ll fill you in about it soon.


More later...

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

It’ll Always Be STAR WARS, Not A NEW HOPE To Me



A
s the new STAR WARS movie, ROGUE ONE, which opens this week (read my review), is based on a bit of the crawl at the beginning of the classic original 1977 film that started it all, I feel like I should address something that I always mention in my blogging about the series. It’s also something that I’ve gotten in arguments about – that I can never call the first movie A NEW HOPE, and especially not EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE.

Now younger folks who grew up later know it by these titles because that’s what it was branded with four years after its release and was inserted into every released edition of the film from VHS to DVD to Blu ray.

But when I was a kid, aged 7 in 1977, it was just STAR WARS. It started like this:



You see? Just STAR WARS then the crawl.

I remember hearing talk of it being one in a series of nine or something (I think I may have gotten that from the sci-fi magazine Starlog, I dunno), but the whole idea that it was the fourth film in the series was unknown until THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was released in the summer of 1980, and it was denoted EPISODE V.

Then when STAR WARS was re-released on April 10, 1981, after that exciting flourish of John William’s “Main Theme/Overture” bursts onscreen to accompany the yellow-outlined title STAR WARS in all its iconic logo glory as it disappears into space, the subtitle, EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE appeared for the first time.

So for four years of seeing the movie over and over, my friends and I, as well as the public at large, only knew the movie as STAR WARS. People are right to gripe about all the changes that George Lucas made to the original trilogy – I mean I agree with whoever it was in the doc THE PEOPLE VS. GEORGE LUCAS that thought it was absurd that that the original version of the film that won the Best Editing Oscar in 1978 isn’t readily available - but the title change is the one that irks me the most.

And it's super annoying that you have to search online, or pony up for a bootleg DVD, to find a copy of the unaltered original as Lucas had it replaced by “The Special Edition” as he considers that the final cut and all previous versions of the film were unfinished.

This is stupid because so many people have a strong connection to that first cut that played in theaters for years - no joke, it was released in 1977, then re-released in 1978, and 1979. The 1981 re-release that was christened with the new title, was its third theatrical re-release. They seriously milked that cash cow.

I don’t currently own a copy of the movie, but if they put out that original cut from when it was just called STAR WARS I would definitely consider that purchase.

I don’t care if this is a silly issue that mainly calls attention to my ever advancing age, I will always think of the movie as I first saw it –with Han Solo shooting first, Jabba the Hutt being mentioned but not seen, Obi Wan Kenobi’s weird Kryat Dragon call, without all the unnecessary additions to Mos Eisley, etc.

But most importantly, without a number or subtitle.

The 40th Anniversary of the original film is next summer, so that’d be a great time to put out a Un-Special Edition of the original cut, doncha think?

I’m not counting on it, but at least this week we got a stand-alone STAR WARS with no Episode number (and no crawl). That’s something, because these new stand alone STAR WARS STORIES should really do more to embrace different packaging.

So you NEW HOPE kids, get outta my yard!

More later...

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY Is EPISODE 3½: AN OLD HOPE


Opening this week at every multiplex from here to a galaxy far, far away:

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY

(Dir. Gareth Edwards, 2016)


WARNING: This review contains Spoilers.


This is the first live action STAR WARS movie to not have a crawl, you know, the expository yellow text that ascends to a vanishing point in space, at the beginning.

That is pretty fitting because this film is based on part of the crawl from the original 1977 STAR WARS (still not calling it A NEW HOPE, dammit!), which stated: “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR…”

So it would seem weird to have text giving us any more background to this STAR WARS STORY, a denotation that means this is a stand-alone tale set in the same galaxy far, far away, but not part of the “Skywalker Saga” – i.e. the biggest sci-fi franchise in the history of cinema that I'm betting you've heard of.

Still, ROGUE ONE may be touted as a stand-alone story, but it’s entirely tied to the events in the first film with tons of call backs (call forwards?), reprised characters, and familiar elements that show that director Edwards and his crew know the “Star Wars: The Complete Visual Dictionary” from front to back and beyond.

This entry is set between the end of the prequels and the beginning of the original, and I mean the very beginning of the original as it ends mere moments before Episode IV begins. I won’t spoil it, but the very last shot of this film is going to be put through the ringer by fans – forget the iconic shot of Luke Skywalker at the end of THE FORCE AWAKENS, this moment will be the stuff of a million memes.

But let’s go back to the start of this film, which opens with a stellar scene involving a family of farmers living on yet another desert planet (there are captions stating the names of a bunch of planets throughout the movie, but I have forgotten all of them). We learn that farmer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) used to work for the Empire as a scientist who helped design the Death Star, but was conflicted about it so he deserted the project.

An Imperior Officer named Orson Krennic played with terrific Australian smarm by Ben Mendelsohn shows up with a squad of Death Troopers to try to coax Galen back to work, but he refuses so they kill his wife Lyra (Valene Kane), while his daughter Jyn (Beau Gadsdon) goes into hiding.

Jyn, who grows up to be Felicity Jones, is the heroine here who gets arrested by the Rebel Alliance because of her father’s crimes, and is forced to track down her former mentor/father figure Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). She learns from Gerrera, via a hologram of her father that he deliberately placed a flaw in the Death Star * so that it could be easily blown up (that explains that!), but she can’t convince the Rebellion to go after the plans.

Jyn rebels against the Rebellion with a team made up of Diego Luna as the rebel captain Cassian Andor, a wise-cracking robot named K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk, who seems to be the film's sole source of comic relief), a Force believing warrior named Chirrut Îmwe played by Donnie Yen, and Jiang Wen as Chirrut’s partner, the heavily armed assassin Baze Malbus to travel to the tropical planet Scarif (okay, I had to look that one up), where the Death Star was constructed, and steal the movie’s MacGuffin.

Of course, the adventure is augmented with the expected blaster battles that result in piles of dead Stormtroopers, dogfights between old school X-Wings and Tie Fighters, and the sure to be fanboy-gasm inducing return of the AT-AT Walkers, you know – the giant four-legged combat vehicles from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

Jones carries the caper with a strong determined performance, and she has chemistry with her co-star Luna, but I really didn't connect with them or any of the other characters enough to be genuinely invested in their fates. They were mainly just pretty, young cogs caught up in story mechanics that I watched like I'd watch avatars in a video game that someone else was playing.

One of the most surprising choices made here is that they brought Peter Cushing back from the dead through CGI to once again embody the villainous Grand Moff Tarkin with his voice provided by a superb sound alike. This digital effects works in brief instances, but they rely on it a bit too much in this film so there are glaring moments in which it looks like grotesque animation instead of a convincing Cushing.

They should of stayed more with Mendelsohn, who really sinks his teeth into his role, being the central villain of the piece with Tarkin sparingly hovering in the background.

But despite that and a few other distractions, overall the visuals in this film are largely eye-poppingly spectacular particularly in the climax which juggles a few scenerios deftly without clutter. There are some brilliant moments in which the vast ILM computer graphics department succeed in making mass destruction cinematically poetic. Star destroyers crash together in a more realistic looking way these days too.

On another spoilery front, folks wanting to spend a little time with Darth Vader (thankfully again voiced by James Earl Jones) will likely be satisfied with his appearance as well.

I enjoyed large chunks of ROGUE ONE, but I didn’t have as much fun with it as I did THE FORCE AWAKENS. Sure, many validly dissed Episode VII for being little more than a loving retread of the original ’77 formula, but it had such a great gusto going in bringing back the tone, and ole timey space opera magic that was severely lacking in the prequels (plus I loved running around with Han Solo through Imperior corridors one last time).


This prequel though is a lot better than any of the trilogy of prequels that George Lucas made (and it's a lot better than Edwards' GODZILLA), owing to it having much sharper writing (courtesy of Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy who wrote ABOUT A BOY, and MICHAEL CLAYTON), and it’s a fine sci-fi action film in most regards, but I can’t really say that it contains a story that was necessary to tell.

A lot of critics don’t feel that most sequels or prequels are necessary at all, but there can be worthy ones (the aforementioned THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK immediately comes to mind as it’s considered by many people, myself included, to be the best in the series), so I still go into just about every new entry, episode, or chapter of just about every movie series with hope.

But with how overwhelmingly devoted to every pre-existing detail this film is, I bet in the future I'll think of this STAR WARS STORY as nothing more than 
EPISODE 3½: AN OLD HOPE.

* So if this explains the original Death Star’s weakness – i.e. why it had a flaw in which one torpedo in the small thermal exhaust port hole would cause the whole station to explode – what explains why the super-sized Death Star, Starkiller Base, in THE FORCE AWAKENS was built with the same flaw? (Han Solo: “Okay, how do we blow it up? There’s always a way to do that”).

More later...

Monday, December 12, 2016

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS: The Film Babble Blog Review


Now playing at an art house or multiplex (or an art house multiplex if there are such things) near you:

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS
(Dir. Tom Ford, 2016)


The opening credits sequence for this film may be considered one of the most challenging bits of cinema this year. It contains a montage of a burlesque line of full frontal nude plus-size models, dancing amid firecrackers and American flags.

I don’t want to body shame anybody, but it was difficult to watch despite how uninhibited and happy these women appeared. I found myself focusing on the names in the credits as these unabashedly naked ladies were grinding behind them onscreen.

Turns out that this bold display of flesh is part of a modern art installation at a Los Angeles gallery owned and run by unhappy socialite Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who later calls the exhibit “junk.”

Susan is living a posh existence with a handsome husband (Armie Hammer) in a lavish steel and glass house, but she’s unhappy because her life feels empty. Also her husband cheats on her so there’s that.

Susan receives in the mail a manuscript of a novel written by her first husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) that’s dedicated to her and named “Nocturnal Animals” – something he used to call her because she rarely sleeps.

When Susan starts reading the manuscript she imagines Gyllenhaal’s Edward as the protagonist, Tony Hastings, but Isla Fisher stands in for Adams, and Ellie Bamber plays their teenage daughter. This is the film inside the film of sorts as we are taken to a West Texas desert in the middle of the night where Tony and his family get run off the road by three rowdy, scary rednecks (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman, and Robert Aramayo).

Led by Taylor-Johnson, the trio of troublemakers terrorize Tony and kidnap his screaming wife and daughter leaving Tony stranded in the desert. By morning, Tony makes his way to the nearest town and goes to the police, but they are too late to save his loved ones as they find them raped, and murdered lying together, arranged like an art exhibit, on a red velvet sofa in the broken down remains of a building out in the middle of nowhere.

This is shown in sections as the film cuts back to Susan in the real world when she stops reading after a particularly harrowing passage. The dark content of her ex-husband’s book makes her have flashbacks to when they first met and fell in live, with Susan re-living how they fell apart because she found him too sensitive and weak. Susan breaks Edward’s heart for good when she aborts their baby, and runs off with successful heart surgeon Arnold (Hammer) resulting in her current unsatisfied existence.

Obviously, the guy’s book is making a symbolic statement about their relationship, but it may be hard to decipher beyond its themes about murder and revenge. 

Susan reads on and we see Tony, with the help of deputy/detective Bobby Andes (the always excellent Michael Shannon in his tenth movie this year – no joke), try to avenge his wife and daughter’s deaths by tracking down the psychopath perpetrators (two of them at least, as one was killed) and taking them to the shack where they committed the crime. Taylor-Johnson is so effectively sleazy in this part that I was hoping that they'd just hurry up and off him.


Despite some of its perplexing motivations, Ford’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut, A SINGLE MAN, is stylish and thoroughly compelling exercise, or triplet of exercises. It’s based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel “Tony and Susan,” and from descriptions I’ve read it seems to be very faithful adaptation. Not sure if the overweight nude dancing ladies were in the book though.

I may be to prudish to appreciate that aforementioned opening, but the film's well crafted and exquisitely shot (by ace cinematographer Seamus McGarvey) textures took me into the worlds of Adams’ lush life, her imagined scenes from the novel, and her remembrances of her younger self’s choices. Adams does a great job subtly fleshing out the role of Susan, but it’s Gyllenhaal’s performance that really got under my skin.


Gyllenhaal’s exasperated everyman Tony whose weakness goes on trial is one of his finest portrayals to date. His character is a surrogate for anyone who’s ever wished that they could go back to a crucial time where they faltered and man up.

What Edward is trying to get across to his ex-wife Susan in the book “Nocturnal Animals” is something to be debated, but damn if it isn’t provocative enough to keep moviegoers processing it for weeks. I speak from experience as I saw it a month ago and I’m still working on what it means.

The ambiguous ending left me hanging a bit too. So I’m betting that the beginning and the end of NOCTURNAL ANIMALS will turn off a lot of folks. But with hope, maybe they’ll get something seemingly profound from the middle. I know I did. I think.

More later...

Friday, December 09, 2016

OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY: A Wasted Opportunity To Have Fun With Wasted People


Now playing at a multiplex near us all:
OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY

(Dirs. Josh Gordon & Will Speck, 2016)


A
s a kid, I believe that I learned from Mad Magazine, and various other satirical sources, the clichés associated with office Christmas parties – i.e. employees getting blind drunk, shedding their work attire, Xeroxing their asses, throwing office equipment out the window, and having sex with people they normally wouldn’t. 

They’re all here in this new raunchy comedy from Josh Gordon and Will Speck, the filmmakers behind BLADES OF GLORY, THE SWITCH, and that failed Cavemen sitcom that was spun off from a series of GEICO ads (not exactly a shining pedigree, huh?).

So if anybody can take those familiar tropes and make them funny all over again, the over qualified comic cast assembled here surely can. You’d think, right?

Nope - despite the best efforts of Jason Bateman, T.J. Miller, Jennifer Aniston, Olivia Munn, Rob Corddry, and a couple of SNL ladies, Kate McKinnon and Vanessa Bayer, this is a forgettable romp with as many uninspired gags as there are predictable plot mechanics.

Bateman, who’s fifth film this is with Aniston, plays the newly divorced Josh Parker, a Data Storage Solutions CTO at Zenotek, a Chicago based tech company run by Miller as branch president Clay Vanstone. Clay’s sister, Carol (Aniston), is the corporation’s CEO, and she’s threatening to close her brother’s branch down or firing 40% of the staff unless they can land a major client, Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance), and score a $14 million contract.

Carol also forbids Clay and his staff from having a Christmas party this year. Of course, they ignore her and plan on throwing the biggest bash ever complete with a live nativity scene with actors, a DJ (Veep’s Sam Richardson), and water coolers filled with liquor, in hopes of impressing their potential client.

If only hilarity ensued instead of a bunch of predictable, unfunny story strands like the one about the IT head (Karan Soni) who hires a hooker (Abby Lee Kershaw) because he lied to his co-workers about having a girlfriend, or the one about Bayer looking for love with office mate Randall Park only to find he has a weird fetish, or the one about McKinnon’s HR manager Mary shedding her PC-obsessed, by-the-book nature and getting her party on.

There’s even the old standby of having two characters, Bateman’s and Munn’s, getting locked out together on the roof so that realize they’re supposed to be together.

Although there’s lots of shots of nudity and abundant profanity, the movie really isn’t that raunch-minded. It’s oddly more concerned with the stakes of trying to save the company via some internet server deal that Munn’s Tracey has been developing while the over-the-top destruction of their office space goes on in the background (in another worn out convention, everyone in Chicago has been invited to the party thanks to social media).

There are intermittent laughs with random one-liners landing and some successful sight gags, but overall this is a wasted opportunity to really have fun with wasted people.

This year seems to have seen every kind of bad comedy there is, so the naughty, R-rated Christmas comedy genre is represented here. I bet the after effect for the cast, who will all undoubtedly go on to better things, will be much the same as for a real office Christmas party, let’s all forget that any of that embarrassing stuff ever happened and get back to work.

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Thursday, December 08, 2016

Casey Affleck Carefully Carries The Moving MANCHESTER BY THE SEA


Now playing at an art house or multiplex that's probably in your vicinity: 

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

(Dir. Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)


Honestly, Casey Affleck never really made much of an impression on me before. He’s done some solid work in a bunch of films, especially as the lead in his brother Ben’s GONE BABY GONE, but I never really thought of him as one of the better actors of his generation or anything.

His impressive performance in writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s third film, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, definitely changes that, and helps me to understand fully why there’s major Oscar buzz brewing.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a sullen janitor for an apartment complex in Quincy, Massachusetts, who we meet as he does his rounds. We get his daily routine – he takes shit from tenants, he gets shit about his attitude from his boss, and he ends the day getting shit-faced and starting fights at his neighborhood dive bar.

Then one day, Lee gets a call that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, playing a guy with his same last name - deal with it) had a heart attack and is in the hospital, and he immediately jumps in his truck and travels to Manchester by the Sea, the small seaside town where Lee previously lived we learn from flashbacks.

Lee gets to the hospital to find that his brother has died, and that he needs to see about taking care of arrangements which includes looking after his 16-year old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

At a meeting with his brother’s lawyer (Josh Hamilton) about the will, Lee is stunned to find out that he’s been made Patrick’s legal guardian, and we are even more stunned to see Lee’s flashbacks to the tragic incident that killed his two daughters, and destroyed his marriage to his devastated wife, Randi (Michelle Williams).

This, the film’s central sequence, is heart wrenching to endure, but extremely necessary as afterwards the strong sense of what tortures Lee can be felt in every Affleck affectation. Lee’s reluctance, or fear, to be a father figure to Patrick makes for some awkward moments between them, but they are real feeling portrayals of tension between family members dealing with a difficult transition.

As Affleck’s Lee is the dominating protagonist, Williams’ Randi gets a lot less screen-time, but the actress does a lot with it. Randi, now remarried and pregnant, calls Lee to ask if it’s okay if she goes to Joe’s funeral. Lee says it’s fine, and they hug when they encounter each other at the ceremony. They also run into each other later, but it would be a Spoiler to touch on that any further.

Anyway, Lee and Patrick argue over where they’re going to live as Lee doesn’t like the idea of relocating from Quincy so the film last act deals with how these people come up with a plan to go forward.

At one point, Patrick wants to go live with his mother (Gretchen Mol), a recovering alcoholic gone devout Christian who’s now living in the suburbs with new hubby Rodney (Matthew Broderick), but after an uncomfortable dinner scene, that doesn’t seem to be an option.

The unpretentious, and moving MANCHESTER BY THE SEA takes its time getting to its moments of insight, but it’s never boring along the way. It’s a well paced, lovingly detailed portrait of people trying to move forward even when they have no clue as to how.

Affleck’s 
carefully measured performance is indeed Oscar worthy. I may be realizing now that what he does may be so subtle that I’ve just never seen it before.

Williams also inhabits her part with conviction and the appropriate pathos. It may be a glorified sideline role, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she scored a Supporting Actress nomination as other brief but potent performances have garnered the same (see Beatrice Straight in NETWORK, and Viola Davis in DOUBT).

In addition, Hedges succeeds in being a not too self conscious representation of a modern teenager - which is no mean feat. 

In general, the excellent work that Lonergan, the cast, cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, and composer Lesley Barber have all done here deserves all the accolades and Academy Awards it will likely get.

Now, I must note that there’s controversy surrounding a sexual harassment case against Affleck over alleged behavior on the set of I’M NOT HERE, his odd 2010 mockumentary with Joaquin Phoenix, that threatens to derail his Oscar chances.


Since it’s been settled, I doubt this film will have the same sad fate as BIRTH OF A NATION, because Affleck’s offences are less extreme than Nate Parker’s, and because the idea that Affleck’s character here is a damaged soul plodding forward after a horrible mistake is what makes this the intensely relatable, realistic experience that it is.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Blu ray/DVD Review: HELL OR HIGH WATER


Now available on Blu ray and DVD:

HELL OR HIGH WATER

(Dir. David Mackenzie, 2016)

I saw this movie during its theatrical run earlier this year, but never got around to blogging about it. I figured that it’s is a good time to catch up with it now because (1) it was recently released on Blu ray and DVD (2) it’s the #1 top grossing independent film of 2016 (3) it’s an excellent film that’s one of the year’s best.

With the theme of robbing-the-banks-because-they’re-robbing-us, Director David Mackenzie’s film posits Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Texas brothers who carry off a crime spree that involves them hitting a bunch of branches of the fictitious Texas Midlands Bank that’s set to foreclose on their recently deceased mother’s property by the end of the week.

The plan is the brainchild of Pine’s Toby Howard, a divorced father who can’t stand the idea that will soon own his family’s long-held land due to a reverse mortgage. Toby’s brother Tanner (Foster) was just released from prison, and is more than happy to go along with Toby’ Robin Hood-esque scheme simply because he’s a born outlaw.

On the boys’ trail is a Jeff Bridges as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, who is, of course, on the verge of retirement with this being most likely his last case. Bridges’ gruff yet extremely laid back Hamilton is what you may call jokingly racist, as he constantly makes cracks about his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), being of Mexican Indian descent, but you can tell he’s just playfully riffing on stereotypes when he says “I’m lucky, I got a half-breed by my side to avenge me – if you can stay sober long enough, knowing how you injuns like the bottle.”

Hamilton deduces that the armed, masked men who are robbing Texas Midlands are trying to raise money for something, and he and his partner stake out a branch in a small town that seems likely to be hit next.

Except for a sequence involving Tanner and Toby taking their stolen loot to be laundered at an Indian casino in Oklahoma, we spend nearly equal time with the cops and the robbers.

We learn that Tanner had gone to jail for killing their abusive father, and that Toby has an angry ex-wife (Marin Ireland) and two sons that he’s determine to provide for. On the law enforcement side, Hamilton is a widower who’s not looking forward to his retirement, while Parker is a family man who dreams about moving to Galveston for a life spent fishing.

There are traces of the Coen brothers’ seminal modern western masterpiece NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN in this movie’s blood, but it’s a quieter, more restrained narrative without the Coens’ trademark dark humor edge.

Although there is a element of the Coens’ cynicism in such scenes as when the brothers’ helpful lawyer (Kevin Rankin) says “To see you boys pay those bastards back with their own money? If that’s not Texan I don’t know what is.”

Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who’s collaborated with Mackenzie on several projects, paints a wide West Texas landscape sparsely decorated with billboards advertising debt relief, diners populated with complaining patrons, and sassy waitresses; and yellow fields stretching to the horizon.

As clichéd as these characters and their environs might sound, SICARIO screenwriter Taylor Sheridan unpretentiously fleshes out these people’s scenerios, giving every speaking part believability. Despite the tension in the robbery scenes, and the shoot-out in the hills climax, there’s a low-key tone that’s reflected in the convincingly lived-in performances.

The effectively eerie piano and violin score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, along with a well chosen collection of country songs by such artists as Townes van Zandt, Gillian Welch, Waylon Jennings, and Billy Joe Shaver scattered throughout the soundtrack, fit the film perfectly. Ray Wylie Hubbard’s over 20-year old dirge “Dust of the Chase” in particular sounds like it was written for the film with its line: “lost in the dust of the chase that my life brings.”

All of these delightful details come together to make a truly poetic film about poetic justice.

The on-point, socially conscious piece of modern western work that is HELL OR HIGH WATER definitely deserves some award season action – I’d love to see Bridges score another Oscar or at least a nomination – and its place on many critics’ year end “best of” lists (it’ll be on mine).

In a fairly lackluster year for film, Mackenzie’s exceptionally well made movie really stands out. Here’s hoping it gains traction as more folks see it and find it as satisfying as I did.

Special Features: The featurettes “Enemies Forever: The Characters of HELL OR HIGH WATER,” “Visualizing the Heart of America,” and “Damaged Heroes: The Performance of HELL OR HIGH WATER,”; a brief segment of the Red Carpet Premiere in Austin, Texas, and a 30-minute Filmmaker Q & A filmed at a Los Angeles screening hosted by Time Magazine’s Sam Lansky featuring Mackenzie, Bridges, Pine and Birmingham.

More later...