Category Archives: Movies

Kong: Skull Island Movie Review

I would have given anything to be in the meetings where they greenlighted Kong: Skull Island. I mean, I haven’t ever worked at a studio or been in those meetings, but I have a fertile imagination and have seen lots of movies about Hollywood. All these guys–not in suits, they don’t wear suits–in skinny jeans and mismatched shirt/tie combinations listening to some writer going “cross King Kong with Apocalypse Now, with an environmentalist twist. Plus, Tom Hiddleston’s interested!” And the head of the studio’s going ‘I love it!’

In other words, this movie is nuts. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it; I liked it a lot. But it’s a big budget, major CGI, cast-of-thousands movie. And it literally is a cross between King Kong and Apocalypse Now. A King Kong movie that stays on the island and never takes its act to New York. It’s also the kind of movie where the main characters do completely insane things for utterly nonsensical reasons. Nothing in the movie makes the least sense, and our powers of disbelief-suspension are pushed to the breaking point, but it’s generally well acted, and the monsters are freaking awesome and the whole movie looks great. I was willing to go along with the ride.

Plot: wow, where to start. It’s 1973. The US is pulling out of Vietnam. So, okay, a “scientist” named Bill Randa (John Goodman) is obsessed with monsters. He thinks there may well be gargantuan super predators out there in nature somewhere, and he thinks the US government should find them before the Russkis do. And persuades a US Senator (Richard Jenkins) to fund an expedition, and also to provide him and his team with a military escort. His team includes a scientist named Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), who has what he calls his ‘hollow earth’ theory, namely that the earth has massive subterranean caverns where ginormous critters could live. And Randa and Brooks have seen satellite footage of Skull Island, which they think might prove both their theories. They also bring a Chinese scientist, San (Tian Jing), because movies like this need more than one female character. But Randa’s worried about security, so he hires a British Special Forces mercenary, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). And a photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).

And they get a military escort. Like, ten helicopters (I lost count), under the command of Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who is spoilin’ for a fight, Vietnam having gone so swimmingly. And lots and lots of soldiers, most of them pretty anonymous, but a few played by minor stars like Toby Kebbel and Shea Whigham and John Ortiz and Jason Mitchell. (We already know that they’re the ones who are going to survive). (Kudos to Kebbel, BTW; he also wore the motion-capture suit and played Kong).

Skull Island, it turns out, is in the Pacific (and not the Indian Ocean as in previous movies), and is surrounded by a permanent storm system. (The science in this movie is wonderful, what with the hollow earth and perma-storms and apex predators thirty stories tall). But the Pacific makes it closer to Vietnam, see. Anyway, they show up, and Sam Jackson pilots all those helicopters in past the storm system, and they see this tropic paradise (which really was cool looking). And Randa and his merry band of idiot scientists start dropping explosive probes onto Skull Island. And this pisses King Kong off. And he destroys all their helicopters, and kills a bunch of men. So the survivors are scattered to hither and yon. Eventually, they form two parties, one under the command of Colonel Packard (who’s getting increasingly nutty), looking for a way to kill Kong, and the other under the command of Conrad, because Tom Hiddleston. All the women are on that team, as is Randa and his scientist team. They just want off the island, and so are trying to reach a rendezvous spot.

Let’s pause for a sec and think about this. Randa and his team are looking for really big predatory animals. Which they think are on this island, or underground, in a hollow-earth-underworld. They find a new tropical island. A brand-new, extremely delicate ecosystem. Which they want to study. So they start by blowing a lot of it up.

Who does that? Who on earth thought this was a good idea? But, see, I think that’s the point of the movie. The movie has its scientist characters do wildly insane, incredibly destructive, pointlessly dangerous things, because it was the cold war and we did stupid stuff like that. I mean, is it stupider to drop explosive probes on King Kong, or drop atomic bombs on the Bikini Atoll? Or the Nevada desert? Or oceans of napalm in the jungles of Southeast Asia? Or all foolish things human beings do in the oceans and atmosphere and mountains and rivers and lakes of our poor mother Earth, searching for oil or coal or gold or whatever. Really, I think this movie, dumb as it is, has an environmentalist agenda front and center. John Goodman plays a scientist who is also kind of a moron (and whose lines are really quite absurd). And who sets off a chain reaction of events that kill dozens of US soldiers.

The ecology of Skull Island is fascinating. Insects are huge. A spider is twenty feet across. King Kong himself is maybe 200 feet tall. And he’s not the island’s scariest critter. Those would be these skull-headed dinosaur things, bigger than Kong, and with horrifying prehensile tongues. Which, of course, leads to this question: what do all these apex predators eat? Kong, we see, has a taste for octopus (if you can imagine an octopus 60 feet long). So, that’s one meal. But if skull-o-saurs do live in subterranean caverns, what else is down there?  Really big predators require really big prey. (They do seem to be able to eat American soldiers pretty well, but they end up urping them up afterwards).

John C. Reilly is in the movie, playing an American airman who crashed down on the island during WWII, nigh on thirty years earlier. He has been protected and saved by the island’s homo sapiens natives. Yes, there are native tribesman, mud-daubed and silent (though why they’re not 30 feet tall escapes me, given the relative sizes of other Skull Island fauna). Anyway, the natives all like Kong. He’s their protector.

In other words, King Kong is an apex predator essential to preserving the delicate ecosystem of this island. Tom Hiddleston’s character recognizes it; Samuel L. Jackson’s does not, and want Kong dead. (Though how he intends to bring that about is one of the many issues this screenplay doesn’t really address. I think napalm has a lot to do with it.)

Anyway, Kong, after some initial helicopter-bashing, turns out to be sensitive and courageous, with a soft spot for the ladies, like all Kongs before him. He and Brie Larson have a nice scene together, though on a high cliff and not the Empire State Building. And ultimately, insane Samuel Jackson and addle-pated John Goodman are appropriately eaten by monsters. And this preposterous (though wildly entertaining) movie marches off to its inevitable happy-ish ending.

I will say this; seeing a gas-masked Tom Hiddleston take on hundreds of flying menaces with a kitana in a field of poison gas was absolutely worth the price of admission. Do I recommend Kong: Skull Island?  It was very entertaining, the story and situation made no sense whatsoever, it got real preachy (though on subjects where I agree with it), and the action sequences were pretty well executed. What does that add up to for you? For me, it was two hours well-spent in a movie theater.

The Great Wall: Movie Review

The Great Wall was billed as something of a prestige film. It’s the first English-language film by an important international director, Yimou Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) with a major American actor, Matt Damon, and the biggest budget yet for a film shot entirely in China. It’s about the Great Wall of China, for heaven’s sake. But it had also gotten fairly bad reviews–35% on Rottentomatoes.com. I expected something fairly sober, like Hero, but perhaps a little self-important, hence the reviews.

What I did not expect was an exciting monster movie. What I didn’t expect was something fun, but insubstantial. The story’s kind of dumb, and a lot of the movie doesn’t work all that well. But it looks amazing, and it includes action sequences that are mind-blowingly intricate and superbly staged. My wife and I enjoyed ourselves.

Damon plays a soldier-for-hire named William, who, along with his best friend and fellow mercenary, Tover (Pedro Pascal), is in China trying to find the ultimate superweapon, an exploding black powder, thinking they can make a fortune selling it in the West. Gunpowder, in other words, which would set the movie, I don’t know, sometime in the 12th or 13th centuries. William and Tovar are attacked by a monster, and manage to cut off a foot while fighting it off. They’re subsequently captured by soldiers from the Nameless Order, posted at a section of the Great Wall, who are fascinated by this creature’s foot. The monster, it turns out, is a creature called a Taotie. And it turns out, they’re the reason for the Wall.

The Taotie (a legendary creature in Chinese mythology), are plenty scary. They’re sort of lizard-y, like a cross between an iguana and a velociraptor, with big teeth and claws, and eyes in their shoulders. They’re fast, highly intelligent, and, we’re told, pose a danger to all of humanity. They eat what they kill, and they regurgitate it into the mouth of their queen, who directs their actions, and replaces their losses. Eventually, they’ll eat enough Chinese people to spread further West. All of mankind is at risk, we’re told. And the Nameless Order, and the Wall, are all that’s stopping them.

And the Nameless soldiers are fantastic. They wear color-coded uniforms, depending on their tasks. Some are archers, some are foot soldiers. Some are spearwomen, who bungie-jump off high platforms with spears, and who seem particularly lethal (and vulnerable).  All the battle sequences, and there are many, are spectacular.

I don’t actually think the Great Wall could do everything this movie thinks it could do. I don’t think, for example, that there were/are slots in the walls where huge scythe-y blades would be inserted and swung about lethally. Or flute-arrows, good in a mist, because they warn you if a wounded Taotie is coming at you. Or ginormous flaming catapulted rocks. I question the historical accuracy of at least some of that. But it all sure looked cool.

Yimou Zhang is the kind of old-fashioned director who, if a scene calls for a thousand soldiers, will cast and drill and costume a thousand extras rather than rely on CGI. I found that those battle sequences were both exciting and heart-breaking. The stakes were high; you could see how risky combat was, and how much was at stake for these superb soldiers. They weren’t faceless casualties. They were people, brave and daring.

The Nameless are led by a woman, a Commander Lin (Tian Jing). Jing is wonderful in the role; I had never seen her before, but she was great, commanding and vulnerable. In fact, the Chinese actors all fared better than the Western actors, especially Andy Lau as Strategist Wang (their top military mind), and Lu Han, as Peng Yong, the company’s lowly dishwasher, who reveals an unanticipated valor by the end of the film.

As for the Western actors, Pedro Pascal is fine as the rather one-dimensional Tovar, and Willem Dafoe is forgettable as a character, Ballard, whose arc makes no sense whatsoever. (He’s there to steal gunpowder too, but after twenty five years has done nothing about it–mostly, he’s there to explain how Lin speaks English).

I love Matt Damon. I think he’s a fine actor, who has managed his career beautifully. He knows what sorts of roles he can play, and stays within his comfort zone. In this, he tries a sort of vaguely Celtic accent (Scots? Irish?), which comes and goes. He’s fine. But most of his better scenes are with Tian Jing, and she kind of blows him away.

The problem is, this is basically a monster film, and the moments that try to be something else don’t work very well. The monsters attack, there’s an astonishing action sequence, they’re driven off. Repeat, as needed. In the meantime, we see Tovar and Ballard plot to steal gunpowder, which we never are able to care about. And William’s supposed to be helping them, but he’s distracted, first by the monsters, but mostly with Lin.

The movie’s one stab at some larger relevance comes in William’s interactions with this Chinese female commander. She’s Chinese. She values cooperation, the individual sacrificing for the common good. He’s a Westerner; he values rugged individualism. That being the case, he really ought to be on his way with his two doofus friends and their black powder. But he’s drawn to these people, drawn to their heroism, drawn to the taut professionalism of their soldiers, and, of course, also drawn to this one particular fascinating strong young woman. It’s not a romantic movie; they never kiss, for example. But there’s clearly an attraction, and, of course, why wouldn’t there be? He’s a professional soldier. So is she. They’re both astonishing good at combat. And the Taotie are really, genuinely a threat.

In fact, the Taotie are such a threat, the gunpowder-stealing subplot is just annoying. And the philosophical discussions about which society is better, Chinese or Western, are about as compelling as abstract philosophical discussions usually are in action movies. When Lin and William talk, the movie stops dead in its tracks. But when they fight side by side? It’s magical.

It’s such a beautiful film, and the action sequences are so compelling, it kept our attention. Yimou Zhang makes gorgeous films. He’s also made profound ones in the past, and this is not one of those. I’m still glad I saw it. Matt Damon moves well, and his action sequences were fine. I don’t much care which foreign accent he mangles. And Tian Jing is marvelous. In fact, I intend to see the new King Kong movie (a singularly unnecessary film, I would have said, and not something I would ordinarily bother with), just because she’s in it.

It’s a shame, really. This film was promoted as an art film. A big budget feature by a major international director. In fact, it’s just a really scary monster movie, and it looks great. I wish it could have found its audience here, in the States. It should do fine in China.

Get Out: Movie Review

Sharp-witted and clever, Get Out splendidly satirizes privileged white liberal racism, while also managing to scare the socks off us. This is Jordan Peele’s first film as writer/director–you know him from the sketch comedy team Key and Peele–and he’s super-smart, and his film is cringe-worthily funny and the last half hour, I was on the edge of my seat. Even if you don’t much like horror as a genre, this film is so well done, so perfectly poised between terrifying and hilarious, it’s a film you need to see. FWIW, its Rottentomatoes.com score is a straight up 100%. Deservedly.

Meet the Armitage family. Dad (Bradley Whitford) is a neurosurgeon, Mom (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist/hypnotist, and they live in a gorgeous, huge home way off in the woods somewhere. Daughter Rose (Allison Williams) is coming home with her latest boyfriend, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a photographer who also happens to be black. She hasn’t told her parents, and Chris is nervous, but, she reassures him, needlessly. They’re cool. They’re liberal. Her Dad voted for Obama twice, and would have voted for him a third time if he’d been running. So it’s Guess Whose Coming to Dinner, updated. There’s another Armitage too, younger brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), also a doctor, but also something of an annoying brat sibling. Anyway, they’re all nice people, the Armitages, though perhaps just a teensy too anxious to mention, as though in passing, how much they admire Jesse Owens.

But before getting to her parents’ house, Rose and Chris have an unsettling episode. Their car hits a deer, and the police officer who investigates the accident is just that much too interested in this white woman’s black guest. She backs the cop down, but Chris is already uncomfortable before he even meets the fam.

Also–this is so embarrassing–the Armitage household includes two black servants. I know; the optics aren’t great. But, you see, Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson) are basically family. Though every time Chris interacts with them, Georgina and Walter are . . . off. Giving off weird and creepy vibes. But Chris is probably just overreacting. The Armitage’s are surely nothing worse than privileged and accordingly clue-less.

I don’t want to give away spoilers here. But part of what makes this movie so scary is the way it literalizes prevailing retrograde white liberal attitudes towards race. Do we not, in a sense, rather wish we were black? While still insisting that having blacks serve us is okay as long as they’re treated as family, respected and admired and all that. The evil at the heart of this oh-so-pleasant family perhaps doesn’t quite stand up to a lot of scrutiny, but for the two hours of the movie, it’s beyond chilling.

One thing I love about this movie is how even basic plot points are conveyed, not through dialogue or some discovery, but through acting, through the choices made by the cast. I mean, sure, there’s revelatory dialogue and opportune discoveries, but sometimes, there’s just an actor’s face, telling us what we need to know. This is particularly true of Betty Gabriel, Georgina, who smilingly offers the most innocuous explanation for having misplaced Chris’ cell phone, with a single tear undercutting every word from her mouth. It’s a brilliant scene, and without even knowing what it means, you want to shout to Chris to run, escape, Get Out.

Comedic filmmaking of this kind, this kind of character-driven social satire, requires carefully composed shots with little camera movement, so we can focus on what they’re saying. This is especially true of the film’s comic tour-de-force, a garden party with the Armitage and 50 of their closest friends. And after a golfing enthusiast Armitage buddy tells Chris how much he loves Tiger Woods, and after a woman asks Rose, with a wink and a nod, if it’s true, what they say about Black men, Chris has basically had it with these people. It’s a funny scene, and Peele knows how to frame it and shoot it and cut it to highlight the comedy.

But horror is more about what we can’t quite see; it’s about slow camera movies, panning past harmless (but maybe not quite so harmless) objects, letting tension mount. Peele knows how to do that too. He’s great with the camera and he’s great with lighting, and he knows how to sustain a joke, and he’s amazing with actors, and he also knows how to scare us.

It’s a great piece of filmmaking, you know? And a terrific film for our age. If you’re not already woke, this film should do the job. Especially if you are willing to admit you’re both in on, and the butt of the joke.

Hidden Figures: Movie Review

Hidden Figures is a pretty good film on an absolutely tremendous subject. Viewing it, you’re overwhelmed by the story and the acting and the musical score, and some outstanding characterizations; that’s the initial impression. And then its impact fades, and the weaknesses of its comparatively pedestrian screenplay come to the forefront. It’s a story about the early years of NASA and the space program and the civil rights movement, and the contributions of some extraordinary women. That’s enough to carry the movie, at least initially.

In the early 1960s, the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia was tasked with computing the trajectories for the rockets and space capsules of the Mercury space program. A lot of those calculations were done by ‘computers.’ A ‘computer’ back then wasn’t understood to be a machine, but a person; someone with math skills, who could quickly and accurately do calculations. They had a machine too, what we would call a computer, only they called it an IBM. And nobody knew how to use it.

The Langley site was strictly segregated, with a West building for African-American ‘computers,’ almost all of them women, and an East building for the main NASA scientists, all of them white men. The film tells the story of Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), three ambitious and talented African-American women who wanted to be part of the space program, like most patriotic 1960s Americans did.

Jackson gets a job in the engineering program, designing the space capsule. She’s held back by the fact that she doesn’t have an engineering degree. There’s a program available through NASA, but she can’t quality for it until she passes a remedial class offered through night school at a local high school. A white high school. So she files a lawsuit to become the first African-American woman in a Virginia white high school class. That’s a terrific story right there, and it’s also the story that gets the least attention in this film, because the other two main stories are even better.

Dorothy Vaughan, meanwhile, is doing the work of a supervisor, but does not have the job title, seniority or salary of one. She’s been given a supervisor’s responsibilities, and has a leadership personality; she can do the job. But she’s Black; NASA doesn’t seem able to recognize her. That’s her battle; to become an supervisor. In the meantime, she teaches herself Fortran, studying IBM programming on her own time. And so she sneaks into the IBM control room, and quietly programs the machine in the evenings. And when NASA needs precise and fast calculations done, she knows how to get the computer machine working to provide them, and how to teach her ‘computers’ how to program.

Another great story, right? But the movie’s third story is the best of all. Katherine Goble (who marries mid-film and changes her name to Johnson), is a math whiz, who has skills that get her assigned to the main building, and to a team made up entirely of white men. The main mathematician there is a guy named Paul Stafford, played here by Jim Parsons. (It did rather crack me up; the idea of Sheldon Cooper as a (shudder) rocket scientist). Anyway, Stafford has no faith in her, blocks her efforts at every turn. Is he racist? Sexist? Sure, like most white dudes in 1961.

Meanwhile, the boss, the head of Langley, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), cares about one thing only; getting astronauts into space, and back again safely. If that requires that he become a civil rights pioneer, so be it.

In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Katherine needs to go to the bathroom at work, and the nearest colored women’s rest room is a half mile away. And so, a couple of times a day, she has to walk, in high heels, over half a mile just to take care of that most basic need. There’s a women’s restroom in the building where she works, but it’s for white women only. When an exasperated Harrison asks why she has to take such long breaks, it’s difficult for her to tell him–gender, race and workplace protocols all collide. Plus, it’s raining out, and she’s soaking. She finally does, though; she is able to speak out, and tell the truth. It’s one of the best scenes in the movie, and leads to a scene where Harrison personally rips a ‘colored’ sign off a bathroom door. Thereafter, all the women are free to use whatever restroom is closest.

There are a lot of bathroom scenes in the film, including a nice one between Spencer and Kirsten Dunst, who plays the supervisor of all NASA women at the facility. They’re both terrific in that scene, as Dunst is forced to confront her own racism in that most basic of settings.

So there’s a lot about this film to savor. Outstanding acting performances, and a powerful story; what’s not to like?

It’s just so conventional, though, and in ways that really do harm the telling of these stories. It’s a Hollywood biopic; of course, the heroines have to be superhuman, and the villains made of cardboard. This is clearest in the scenes with Katherine and the other mathematicians with whom she works. Every major breakthrough comes from her. We get the distinct impression that the mathematicians at NASA are not top talent, but in fact the remedial class in math school. There’s one scene, for example, where Katherine points out that their task is to turn the Mercury capsule’s orbit from an elliptical orbit to a parabolic orbit. I’m not kidding; the other mathematicians in the room stare at her like they’ve never heard of a parabola before. Jim Parson’s Paul Stafford literally moves his lips as he tries to figure out some calculation Katherine Johnson has put up on their communal chalkboard. Honestly, it looks like the Mercury program would be in much better shape if they fired all their white guy mathematicians, and just let the one Black lady do the whole job.

The same thing’s true of the scenes where Dorothy Vaughan figures out how to use the IBM. She’s got a library book on Fortran, and this brand new mainframe, and she figures out how to make the thing work, while the guys from IBM who are setting it up stand by, flummoxed.

Believe me, I’m not making some kind of alt-right argument about how egregiously this movie disrespects white people. Not even remotely. What I am saying is that the movie’s approach, in which Katherine Johnson is the Michael Jordan of mathematicians, and the guys she’s working with are the New York Generals ends up diminishing her actual accomplishments. Which is the better story: Black Supergenius astounds a village of idiots, or a brilliant African-American woman holds her own, and gains the respect of some of the top mathematicians in the world, and becomes their esteemed teammate and colleague? In 1961?

The truth makes a better story than a fictionalized, distorted version of the truth that this film, sadly, relies on. And I know you’ve only got two hours to tell your story, and that narratively, you need to conflate some characters or it just becomes unwieldy. I know that. But in fact, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson were not particularly close friends, and the scientists they worked with were not dopes, and their contributions to the Mercury program, though significant and ground-breaking, were not as all-encompassing as this film makes them appear. Tell that story, the real story. They were remarkable women, and their achievements were extraordinary, especially in that time and place. They were patriotic Americans, and civil rights pioneers, and I’m thrilled that this movie got made. I just wish it were a better screenplay.

Still a fascinating, entertaining and educational piece, and well worth your time. Just not as good as it could have been, and should have been.

Lion: Movie Review

For the fourth time, my wife and I tried to see Hidden Figures, and couldn’t, because it was sold out. But we were in the mood for some filmed entertainment, and decided to see Lion instead, as an adventure, knowing essentially nothing about it.

This is rare for us. We make every effort to be informed film consumers; reading reviews, checking metacritics and rottentomatoes.com, watching trailers, referencing IMDB. This isn’t difficult or time consuming, and we feel like it’s well worth our time to make sure our movie-going dollars are well-spent. We made an exception for Lion. We knew exactly three things going in. We knew it was nominated for Best Picture. We knew it had a high rottentomatoes score (via hearsay; we didn’t look it up). And a friend on Facebook had said she was glad it was Oscar-nominated, as it was the kind of family-friendly entertainment that never gets nominated for big awards. That was it. We didn’t know who was in it, what it was about, who directed, or anything else.

The experiment was a rousing success. Lion tells a powerful, moving, human story. It’s exceptionally well filmed, written, and acted. It is one of those ‘celebration of the human spirit’ movies that ends up, on reflection, raising more troubling questions than the immediate issues it addresses. Still, I recommend it highly. And it’s possible I may have caught my eyes watering a time or two. Air quality in the theater, probably.

As the movie begins, we see two young brothers, Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), climbing on and around a train somewhere in India. Saroo looks to be around 5, and Guddu is maybe 8. The train is transporting coal, which they steal, and eventually sell for two modest bags of milk. They’re poor kids, in other words, and their home is a single room about the size of a single cow stall. Their Mom (Priyanka Bose), works lugging rocks. That appears to be the only work she can find. She asks Saroo to watch his younger sister Shekila (Khushi Solanke), which Saroo complains about. There is no evidence that this anything but a loving family, but these boys aren’t in school, run around in dangerous places, and steal for food. Poverty doesn’t get much more abject.

Guddu also works, at a laborers job, and as he heads out, Saroo wants to go with him. This would leave 3-year-old Shekila alone and unsupervised, but Saroo doesn’t care; he wants to prove he’s a big boy and can work too. Finally, Guddu relents, and he and Saroo head off. They reach a train station, and Guddu tells Saroo to wait on a bench, while he goes to see about work.

And so Saroo waits. Eventually he falls asleep. Guddu does not return. A train pulls in. Saroo wakes, sees the train and is curious. It has one door open, no passengers. He climbs aboard. The one door closes, and the train begins moving.

We can see a sign informing us that the train is heading off for maintenance, and not accepting passengers. Saroo doesn’t know that, though, and for two days, he’s the only passenger as the train rockets through the Indian landscape. He finds an apple core, so he’s got that much food. Finally, the long train ride ends. He’s in Calcutta. He has no idea, though; he only speaks Hindi, and almost nobody he meets speaks anything but Bengali.  Saroo doesn’t know this, of course; he’s only five. He only knows that people talk nonsense to him, and don’t understand his responses. He’s lost in a huge, impoverished city, without money, family, any way to communicate, or any way to survive.

Somehow, he stays alive. He finds a Hindu temple, and is able to eat temple offerings. He finds the Hooghly River, and can drink from it. A nice-seeming woman, who speaks some Hindi, brings him home to her apartment and feeds him his first decent meal. But when she introduces him to her ‘friend,’ (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) a good looking guy in his forties, the boy’s creeped out, as well he might be–the guy appears to be a Fagin-type, a boy-prostitute recruiter. Saroo takes off, at a full sprint.

The first third of the movie is about this kid, this five-year old, surviving in a dangerous city, despite not speaking the language and having no resources at all except his courage, his intelligence, his instincts, and his ability to run away really fast. It’s terrifying and the sense of danger is palpable. The kid, Sunny Pawar, is absolutely terrific, but so is the filmmaking, which never lets us lose track of this one child, while also reminding us of the hundreds of thousands of impoverished and desperate children lost in the cruelty and danger of Calcutta.

Eventually, he ends up captured and placed in an orphanage. A notice is posted, with his picture, but we realize there’s no chance of his mother seeing it; and anyway, the notice is in Bengali. We see him in an orphanage school, sitting there, completely uncomprehending. But salvation awaits. An Australian family wants to adopt an Indian orphan. He’s got a new family, an ocean away.

And so, he gets on a plane, and at the airport, he meets John (David Wenham) and Sue (Nicole Kidman) Brierley. He’s going to be raised as an Aussie. He will move from abject destitution to middle-class luxury. He’s got a TV, and a sailboat. They teach him how to play cricket. He’s fine.

Not long afterward, he also gets a brother, Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav), a deeply damaged young boy, also Indian, but as troubled as Saroo is well-adjusted.

Cut ahead twenty five years, and Saroo is played by Dev Patel, and Mantosh by Divian Ladwa. And Saroo is fine. He’s in grad school, in Hotel Management. He’s met a fellow grad student, Lucy (Rooney Mara). (Manosh is still pretty screwed up). But Saroo is also discontented. He remembers his childhood, his home in India, Guddu and his Mom, the long train ride and those horrible months in Calcutta. He becomes obsessed with finding his Mom. Not that he doesn’t love his Aussie Mom; he and Sue are very close. But he can’t shake it, this need to reconnect.

He tells the other students in his program about his past, and they’re entirely supportive. And one of them suggests that he look on Google Earth. Maybe that could be a tool he could use to find his home. That’s the rest of the movie; about Saroo’s search on Google Earth for his home, and his growing obsession with finding his family.

Nicole Kidman is terrific as Sue Brierley. I think that’s one of the great acting challenges, to play a genuinely good human being. (Villains are comparatively easy). Anyway, she nails it. Rooney Mara is somewhat wasted, in this ‘world’s most supportive girlfriend’ role. Dev Patel is likewise great, though he might want to move on a bit from these ‘Indian urchin who becomes upwardly mobile’ roles. Anyway, it’s a fine movie, a glorious film debut for Garth Davis, who comes from the world of advertising, and who has another film in post-production, an as-yet untitled film about Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara (with Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus).

Anyway, we took a chance on a film we knew nothing about, and feel well-rewarded for it. It’s a powerful and family-affirming film. It also reminds us that there are hundreds of thousands of desperately impoverished children all around the world, who don’t end up with a lucky second chance in the privileged West. So that’s also a thought that lingers.

La La Land: Movie Review

La La Land purports to be a good-natured, charming and delightful throwback musical. It begins with one of the most dazzling production numbers ever filmed, and tells what appears to be a sweet love story. Remember the big “Gotta Dance” from Singin’ in the Rain? Young hoofer tries to break in to the Broadway scene, has some success, faces temptation, nearly falls, finally breaks through and becomes a big star? Replace Broadway with Hollywood, replace the dancer with either an actress or a jazz pianist, and you’ve got the story of La La Land. Or A Star is Born, or any of the fifty other movies telling the same story. Set in LA, of course, where dreams come true. It’s a feel-good movie, a success story. Who doesn’t like to see nice kids realize their dreams?

I really don’t want to join the anti-La La Land backlash. There is one, of course, ever since La La Land won Best Picture at the Golden Globes, leading to all kinds of Oscar buzz. The opening deserves an Oscar all by itself, a spectacularly choreographed bit with people singing and dancing around and on top of cars stalled on a freeway. I take my hat off to the director who can find joy in the most joyless experience on earth–a California traffic jam. Well done, sir! And Damien Chazelle, the film’s writer/director, deserves all the accolades Hollywood can bestow. Fine.

I have a few quibbles with the rest of the movie. Mia (Emma Stone) is an actress, doing the LA audition scene, working at a coffee shop and hoping for a break. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist, something of a music purist, hoping and scrimping and saving towards the day that he’s able to open his own jazz club. They meet cute, sing and dance together, hope and work together, support each other. It’s a romance, kind of. Except it also isn’t. What keeps them together is the power of their dreams. They’re together, they seem to be in love, and are, but not with each other, it turns out. Instead, they’re in love with their dreams, and with each other’s dreams. They’re in love with the goal of making it come true. It’s a more complicated relationship than most A Star is Born musicals can sustain.

Stone and Gosling are terrific in the movie, giving smart, painful, intelligent performances that capture the nuances of their sort-of-in-love-but-not-really relationship. They’re so good, in fact, that they almost got me to ignore the fact that they can’t actually sing and dance all that brilliantly. I hate saying that, but it’s kind of true; they worked hard, they do fine, but they wouldn’t make call-backs for an off-Broadway show, based on their singing and dancing chops. I didn’t care, actually, because I liked the characters, but it leads to the other big problem in the movie–one my wife picked up on way before I did–the sound mixing. Emma Stone has a sweet voice, but it’s tiny, and much of the music is jazz. Brass. And you can’t always hear her, and you miss a lot of lyrics. Gosling’s voice is a bit more robust, but still; I couldn’t understand the words pretty consistently.

So it’s a musical where we . . . make allowances. And I’m willing to, in part because they’re not singer/dancers in the movie; that’s not what their characters do. And Gosling’s piano chops look sensational. (In fact, he essentially learned how to play the piano for the movie). They have a nice little moonlight number, just the two of them, which is delightful.

But the movie isn’t just a love story. It’s about success, and the sacrifices success requires, and what it means to ‘sell out.’ There’s one number in particular that captures both the movie’s strengths and (I don’t want to say weaknesses), and the complexities of its argument. Sebastian has an old friend, Keith (brilliantly played by John Legend), who he knows from school and who has a successful band. And needs a keyboard player. And Sebastian joins this band, the Echoes. And Mia goes to see them in concert, loyal girlfriend that she is. And it’s a very funny scene. The song begins with a big showy piano solo by Sebastian, and then the rest of the band joins him, and it’s great. And then, oh my gosh, the synth and the electronic dance vibe and the sexy backup dancers, and the song jumps the shark, goes off the rails, choose your own metaphor. And the crowd goes wild. All except for an appalled Mia.

Here’s what I think: John Legend’s character is the devil, representing the artistic compromises needed to achieve commercial success. And Sebastian is the purist-turned-self-loathing-cynic. The definition of tortured artist.

That’s a clichéd trope and I don’t think it’s true. The greatest musical successes in history were, as far as I can tell, universally interested in   popular and commercial success, and yes, that absolutely includes Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk. You want to be good and you want to be successful. Both/and. And if Sebastian’s a jazz fanatic, he has to know that jazz music is a dialogue, not a monologue. And yes, creative tension can lead to personal tension; that’s why bands eventually break up. In the meantime, find your sound together.

As for Mia, here’s what I don’t buy; she’s doing the LA audition circuit, and getting nowhere. For six years. But we see her audition; she’s a good actress. I mean, of course Emma Stone is a good actress, but so is Mia, the character; we see no suggestion that she stinks. And she gets nothing? Not a call-back, nothing?

One of the big myths about the acting profession is that wanting to be an actor leaves you with two possible outcomes. Movie star or bum on the streets. That myth is the reason parents tend to discourage their kids from majoring in theatre. But I taught theatre at the college level for twenty kids, and I’ve known a lot of talented young people. And lots of them have gone to LA, and tried to break into the profession, and guess what? A lot of them have done just fine. If you’re willing to work hard, you can absolutely carve out a career. You may not become, well, Emma Stone. But you can get consistent work, and earn a living. I’ve known dozens of people who have done just that. I don’t believe that someone as talented as Mia, in the movie, would work that hard auditioning for six years and get absolutely nothing. It isn’t plausible to me; it doesn’t ring true.

La La Land has two endings, a fantasy ending and a reality ending. I much preferred the real one. And my quibbles with the movie are just that; quibbles. It’s a romantic, sweet-tempered movie. You absolutely must see it, but I also sort of hope it doesn’t win Best Picture. Though it certainly could. The opening really is that spectacular.

Movie Review: Rogue One, A Star Wars Story

We saw Rogue One last night, and enjoyed it very much. It’s fast paced, exciting, and exceptionally well acted. I found parts of it very moving. I found it a morally serious, thoughtful movie about war and revolution and the cost of standing up against fascism. I really, basically, liked everything about it. I just didn’t think it was a Star Wars movie. It’s not the right kind of good movie for that.

Let me clarify. I love Star Wars (which I will not now, or ever, call A New Hope). 1977, I came home from my mission, and on the plane read a magazine article about the Star Wars phenomenon. I decided that it would be the first movie I saw post-mission, and it was. I saw it nine times before I saw anything else. I kept thinking ‘where has this movie been all my life?’ It filled a void for me, reminded me how absolutely blasted much fun it could be, going into a movie theater and seeing something that audacious. I still think it’s one of the greatest movies ever made.

What it wasn’t was good. Great, yes. Groundbreaking, addicting, yes. It is, in fact, a well nigh perfect movie. It accomplishes what it’s trying to accomplish. It’s flawlessly entertaining. But it’s not a good movie, and it’s not trying to be one. No new insights into the human condition, no rounded, human characters, no depth, no philosophy. It’s just a hoot, a riot. It’s a pastiche, an intentionally artificial joyride through bad movie history. It’s the greatest B-movie ever made, until Lucas and Spielberg managed to make an even better one with Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s high camp, massively, insanely entertaining. That’s all it’s trying to be, and it succeeds marvelously on those terms.

But movies are also imaginative explorations of the human condition. And on that level, Star Wars pretty much fails. There’s one scene in Star Wars that I illustrates this, I think. It’s just after Luke and Han and Chewie rescue Princess Leia. The four of them are trotting along in the interior of the Death Star, and as they come around a corner, a bunch of Imperial Stormtroopers show up. And Han goes berserk, shouting like a madman and running right at the Stormtroopers, and they’re spooked, and run off, and Chewie follows Han, and there they are, Han yelling and the Troopers retreating (for no earthly reason), and Luke and Leia are left alone. I suppose that Lucas wanted them alone, and had to figure out how to separate the four of them, and that’s what he came up with. But it’s still a genuine head scratcher. We don’t ordinarily notice it, though, and just how silly it is, because dumb stuff like that happens all the time. It’s Star Wars; it’s supposed to be campy and fun.

But Rogue One isn’t really like that, not at all. From time to time, the movie threw in Star Wars-y stuff to remind us where we were; a brief glimpse of R2D2 and C3PO, or a quick shot of the obstreperous customer from the bar scene. Those scenes were more jarring than reassuring, though. They brought back Peter Cushing for this movie, twenty years after the man was laid in his grave, and his face was the one special effect that really looked CGI-ed, and kind of creepy.

No, Rogue One is a serious movie. Its protagonist, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), is a semi-orphaned child; her mother shot in front of her, her father a traitor, her protector, a terrorist. She becomes a revolutionary more or less by accident, scratching and clawing for a place of autonomy and purpose in a universe where several factions want to claim her because of the legacy of her last name. You could argue that she’s not a very volitional protagonist (her choices don’t really drive the action of the film), but I found her tremendously compelling. She’s fighting to define her own purpose, her own destiny. And in the process, is both ground down by history, while also remaking it.

That’s kind of the theme of the entire movie. It’s a movie about pawns who queen themselves. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), is a pilot and a spy, tasked with finding and killing Jyn’s father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). But the discoveries he makes along the way force him to expand his purpose, to look for a way to destroy the Empire’s fearsome new superweapon, the Death Star. Along the way, Jyn and Cassian meet more stateless vagabonds, Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind Jedi ninja monk, who became, for me, the most magnetic and fascinating character in the movie, and his friend, Baze Malbus.  And they just kind of tag along, before finding their own sense of mission and purpose.

And then we meet the Rebel Alliance, and discover them to be a much less formidable opposing force than we might have supposed from Star Wars. The Alliance isn’t all that unified. It seems to be mostly a loose collection of movements, from different places and planets and ideologies, who have come together in opposition to the increasingly brutal and fascistic Empire. They don’t seem to be able to agree on any strategy or tactics, and they are pretty much paralyzed until they do agree. Cassian and Jyn finally force their hand, and seem astonished at how easy it was.

In short, it feels like the way real politics actually works. It feels like what an actual Alliance opposing a fascistic state might look like, and how it might function. It’s grubby and dark. A lot of Storm Troopers’ white plastic uniforms are badly stained and filthy. And characters we’ve come to care about a lot end up dying, sometimes pretty pointlessly. It’s about war, and death is central to war-waging. There’s a bleakness to this movie that I loved, and wish there were more of. Because the ending struck me as sort of grotesquely chirpy. Not to give it away, but this movie doesn’t so much arrive at Star Wars as collide with it. It left a bad taste, sadly, because so much else in Rogue One works.

I think it’s the second best movie in the Star Wars canon, after Star Wars. I grade them as follows: Movie 4 (Star Wars) A plus. Movie 3.5 (Rogue One) A. Movie 5 (Empire Strikes Back) A minus. Movie 6 (Return of the Jedi) B minus. Movie 7 (The Force Awakens) C minus. Movie 3 (Revenge of the Sith) D minus. Movies 1 and 2 (Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones) F.

Rogue One‘s not really a Star Wars movie. (No opening scroll! Different musical themes!). But whatever it is, it’s very good. I’m encouraged by this direction for the franchise, and will look forward to Episode 8 with great anticipation.

 

 

Moana: Movie Review

Moana is astonishing. It’s been out three weeks, and here I am, finally getting around to seeing it and reviewing it. But I was wrong to resist it so strongly. Numerous friends told me how good the movie was; they were right.

I know a lot about Disney animated musical feature films, not because it’s a subject that particularly interests me, but by virtue of being a 21st century American with kids. I know all the princesses, I’ve seen all the movies, and can probably sing the biggest songs from each. I know correspondingly much much less about the culture and worldview and achievements and mythology of Pacific Islanders. I know that Samoans and Fijiians and Hawaiians have rich and astonishing histories and traditions, but I am almost completely ignorant of those cultures. So here we have a Disney animated musical about a Pacific Island girl. And I would say that I am approximately 1000 times more interested in the mythological underpinnings of this story than I am in the Disney musical parts. That said, I didn’t particularly want to see it. And there’s a reason why: it’s called Pocahontas.

In 1995, Disney released their latest Big Animated Movie, based on the story of Pocahontas. I took my kids to see it, as mandated by federal law. And it was awful. I found it a misguided, ahistorical, grotesquely insensitive exercise in cultural appropriation. And the songs weren’t even very good. ‘Ah,’ I thought, Color of the Wind is a beautiful song. I’m being too harsh.’ But no, I just listened to that song again. Could those lyrics have been more condescending? Pocahontas was a disaster. Well-intentioned, sure. But bad.

So I figured Moana would be bad too, and in the same way. And again, I’m coming at this from a position of utter ignorance. But I thought it was terrific. I thought it genuinely honored its cultural sources. The animation was astonishing, and the story couldn’t have been more compelling.

Most of the movie is set on a small boat in the middle of the Pacific ocean, with just two characters. Moana (voiced by the sensational Auli’i Cavalho) is young; she’s not really a princess, and she’s not a target for romance. She’s smart and brave and incredibly self-confident. She knows who she is and what she needs to do, and she’s about the most volitional protagonist I know. Her pure driving energy keeps the movie afloat, which is a good thing, because there do need to be longish scenes of exposition, while dumb American audiences (like me), get caught up on the cultural tropes the film’s exploring.

But the other main character is Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson, and who knew The Rock could sing?). And if Moana is the irresistible force, Maui is the immovable object. Maui is a demigod, plus he can sail a boat (which is, for Moana, his most immediate value to her). He has a magic fishhook, and anthropomorphic tattoos that admonish and encourage him and also tell his backstory. He’s a tremendous character–blustery, comedic, whiny, tough, charismatic, immature.

Their task: to replace a magic jewel stolen by Maui from another divine creature, thus removing a curse on her people. My guess is that this Maui is a pastiche; that there are different Maui legends among Hawaiians than you’ll find on Fiji, or Samoa, or on Tahiti or on Tonga. Again, I don’t know a darn thing about Polynesian history and culture, except that they were the world’s great sea-faring people, more adventurous even than my Viking forebears. The film honors that too; shows us the history of those great seagoing catamarans.

If there were moments in this film that didn’t 100% make sense to me, I figure it’s just because of my own cultural ignorance. In the meantime, I loved it, and wish there were more films like it. I couldn’t help notice, in the closing credits, how many cultural advisors the film employed. Good for them! Get the details right; hire experts, and listen to them. Disney has learned a lot since Pocahontas.

One last note; I couldn’t help notice that several of the songs in this movie were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, including the two best songs in the show: “How Far I’ll go,” sung by Moana, and “You’re Welcome,” sung by Maui. So, here we have a musical about Pacific Island culture, and two of its best songs are written by a Puerto Rican kid from Washington Heights. Isn’t that great? By golly, that’s America!

Arrival: Movie Review

Arrival is one of the best movies of the year, one of the best sci-fi movies ever made, and just generally one of those movies that is as much fun to think about days later as it was to watch. It’s beautiful, with a lovely musical score; my wife compared it to Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, which is also very strange, and is only one of our favorite movies ever. It’s also deeply, darkly cynical about human nature. Although this isn’t in any way a plot point, it does, kind of, ask the question ‘does mankind deserve, morally, to exist?’ The answer is, at best, an equivocal maybe. And also, of course we do. Of course.

Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguistics professor. As the movie begins, she goes to her class, starts her lecture, and it takes her a second to notice that there are almost no students there, and the ones who are there are intently focused on social media. Because alien space ships have landed, twelve of them, scattered randomly across the world, and everyone’s freaking out.

Among those freaking out is a Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who wants her to join an effort to try to communicate with the aliens. Louise agrees, and is partnered with a physicist (Jeremy Renner), Ian Donnelly. They head out to Montana, where a camp full of various soldiers and technicians monitor this huge, majestic, absurdly vertical alien space ship. Louise and Ian immediately form a congenial, collegial partnership, despite their different disciplines–he figures out immediately that this is her thing, and she’s really good at it, and he’s better off in a subordinate role. The army guys, though, especially a mysterious Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), don’t get this at all. Louise has to carefully, patiently, explain the most basic concepts in linguistics to them, and they always seem suspicious. And of course, every visit to the alien craft, Ian and Louise are accompanied by a team of utterly superfluous security personnel, who range from useless to really really dangerous.

Meanwhile, three things keep happening. First, Louise is troubled by what appear to be flashback dreams of her young daughter, who she adored, and who died in her early teens of some unspecified terrible disease. (Or are they memories? Or something else?). Second, we keep seeing how the rest of the world is dealing with what newscasters call ‘the alien crisis.’ There are, after all, twelve of them, and the other nations in which they appear each have similar teams trying to communicate with the creatures, which have seven legs and which everyone has taken to calling ‘heptopods.’ And third, as Louise breaks through conceptually, and actually learns some of the heptopods’ language, she is increasingly convinced that their intentions are benign. This, despite the fact that one of their ‘words’ is, apparently, ‘weapon.’ (Which, she quickly tells the skeptical members of the team, could as easily be translated ‘tool’).

And, as she gets closer and closer to understanding the heptopods, the rest of the world grows increasingly hostile. A Chinese General, Shang (Tzi Ma), leads an international effort to attack and, if possible, destroy the heptopod ships, and the news gets increasingly frenzied. The soldiers in the Montana camp are not immune to it; they grow ever more frightened, and therefore, ever more dangerous. And this is one of the movie’s most essential insights–that we human beings become irrational when we get scared, and that we tend to respond to fear with paranoia, tribalism and violence. And, of course, that’s absolutely true. It’s a genuine insight into human nature.

Some critics have compared Arrival to Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which makes sense; both movies are, after all, about an essentially benign alien encounter, and an attempt at alien communication. In fact, the film’s score, by Icelandic composer Johann Johannson, was a strong enough presence in the first scene in which Louise sees the alien ships that I was reminded of John Williams’ musical conversation with the aliens in Close Encounters. I love the Spielberg film, but Arrival provides a deeper, richer, truer pleasure. In Close Encounters, the humans greet the aliens rapturously, as Richard Dreyfuss heads fearlessly off to his own, personal, Close Encounter. In Arrival, mankind doesn’t play tuba music to the heptopods. Instead, some of our soldiers try to blow them up. And internationally, General Shang puts together a massively armed coalition. When Vikings first encountered the North American people they called the skræling, their first thought was to kill them and cut them open, to see if they were human.

(Worth pointing out that I saw Arrival a few days after the United States of American elected Donald Trump as President. Fear causes us to do irrational things sometimes).

But here’s what else the film does. It posits the truthfulness of linguistic relativity, of a radical and controversial notion in linguistics called the Sapir/Whorf theory. That theory posits that the structure of a language affects human cognition. That how we communicate can literally rewire our brains. It’s a theory linguists go back and forth on, and as Louise first explains it to the army guys, it’s clear that she’s something of a skeptic. But the film takes it very seriously indeed. In fact, it’s the solution; it’s the way the problem gets solved, not just the problem of learning how to write heptopod, but the problem of human fear and resultant violence.

I’m not going to give away the film’s ending. But it’s such a pleasure seeing a big budget Hollywood sci-fi film that takes ideas seriously, a film that respects our intelligence, a film in which linguistic erudition is the key to understanding the plot. And in which the plot can, in fact, be understood, because the film explains clearly the important ideas at its core.

And it’s a movie about pain, and loss, and the kind of human connection that becomes possible when we suffer together, when we acknowledge the core of aching loss we hold in common with other humans. It’s a movie with an ending that digs deeper, both intellectually and emotionally, when it comes time to resolve the questions it raises. It’s shattering.

Denis Villenueve directed, from a screen adaptation by Eric Heisserer, based on Ted Chiang’s superb short story “Story of your Life.” Heisserer spent ten years getting producers interested in his spec screenplay, which he wrote because he loved the story and couldn’t not write it. I get that. And they cast Amy Adams for the best of reasons; her wonderfully communicative eyes, eyes that tell the story from the inside of this one, hurting woman. I fell in love with the film that resulted. So will you.

Masterminds: Movie Review

Since Napolean Dynamite in 2004, Jared Hess has continued to follow his own quirky, weirdly comic muse. And power to him. I didn’t initially much like Nacho Libre (2006), but have since had a chance to reevaluate, and have found unexpected pleasures in the world of luchadores. Gentleman Broncos (2009) is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, and I absolutely do mean that as a compliment. I haven’t seen Don Verdean yet–it’s on my Netflix DVD queue, and I’ll catch it this week. I looked forward to seeing Masterminds. And was disappointed by how, I don’t know, conventional it was.

Masterminds is basically a caper film. It’s about a mismatched gang pulling off a big robbery. It’s loosely (very loosely) based on an actual event, an armored car driver who robbed his own company. Most caper films, however, emphasize the cleverness of the robbers, their careful plotting and skills, the mechanics of how they pull off the heist. In this one, they’re all dumb, essentially, incredibly stupid. They’re utter dolts. As such, it can feel awfully misanthropic–not that that’s all that unusual for Hess. Napolean Dynamite is punctuated by flashes of misanthropy–the cruelty of the other high school kids, for example. What saves it is the friendship between Napolean and Pedro, and Napolean’s fabulous dance of support and kindness at the end of the film. And, to a lesser extent, the budding, awkward romance between Napolean and Deb. That’s pretty much what saves Masterminds too.

Zach Galiafinakis plays David Ghantt, a driver/security guard for an armored car company. He’s partnered with Kelly (Kristen Wiig), who wears her uniform shirt unbuttoned just that one button more than is strictly needed for comfort’s sake, and he’s completely, permanently, hopelessly smitten. And when she idly mentions, conversationally, her fantasy of robbing the car, he laughs it off, but we can tell, is tempted.

Meanwhile, he’s engaged. To the frozen-smiling Jandice, a marvelous comic creation from Kate McKinnon. And we get one of the real Jared Hess moments in the film; a montage of preposterous engagement photos, with Dave and Jandice striking a series of ridiculous poses. Hess gets tackiness, and relishes it.

Kelly, meanwhile, has fallen in with a criminal gang–they seem to share living space. The leader of this gang is Steve (Owen Wilson), not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but the most forceful of personality. (I think it’s revealing that when Steve and his girlfriend, Michelle (a marvelous Mary Elizabeth Ellis) do come into money, they immediately get braces for their teeth. Straight teeth are their calling card as middle-class. Plus, of course, they overspend for a mansion). Anyway, Kelly is persuaded to persuade David to pull off the robbery, assisted by Steve et al. And amidst some low-rent farcical hijinks, David does exactly that. He’s given a fake ID, with the name of another Steve acquaintance, Mike McKinney (Jason Sudeikis), a professional contract killer. And he’s sent to cool his heels in Mexico, while Steve and Michelle go on a spending spree. And Kelly gets to string David along telephonically, promising to join him down south ‘some time soon.’

Eventually the cops (led by Leslie Jones, who is a comic delight in the role), put together the case against David, and Steve decides he needs David to be gone. So Mike is dispatched to Mexico to bump David off. Sudeikis is suitably menacing as this cartoon sociopath, but when he actually meets David, and sees his (fake) ID, he’s entranced by the fact that there’s this other person in the world with his exact same name and birthday. And David and Mike click, become immediate BFFs.

Meanwhile, Kelly, who was never actually that into David, feels bad over the way Steve’s treating him, and her heart starts to soften. She realizes that this good-hearted criminal schlubb really is completely devoted to her. She’s maybe, possibly, a little won-over.

And that nascent romance, between David and Kelly, becomes the movie’s saving grace. These characters are all very very stupid, and at times the movie feels a bit condescending. And they are caricatures, all of them; cartoons. So does this movie have any humanity to it, the way Napolean Dynamite ultimately did, beyond all the stylization and the terrible food and Uncle Rico’s ridiculousness? Yes. There is a genuine, human connection between David and Kelly. Kristen Wiig pulls it off. Her character is a sexpot manipulator, but she’s not evil, just indolent and, we suspect, a bit contemptuous of men. Under all that, she does have a heart. And without a lot of comedy to play, she walks off with the movie.

It’s a pretty conventional Hollywood comedy, and Galiafinakis’ performance doesn’t wear well. And it’s not quite funny enough to survive the incomparable stupidity of its characters. Having said all that, it does have its moments. I laughed quite a bit, more than I thought I would. And I hope Hess gets better material to work with for his next film.