Category Archives: Movies

Don’t Breathe: Movie Review

A blind person, in danger, under attack from a ruthless assailant, but in his/her own home, where he/she has the advantage. It’s Wait Until Dark, basically, which only happens to be one of the great suspenseful plays, and which became a darned good suspense film. So what if you turned that story on its head? What if you made the blind person the bad guy?

Such is the challenge Don’t Breathe presents us. Three would-be thieves break into the home of an older blind man, a veteran. The Blind Man (Stephen Lang) has also lost his daughter in a terrible accident. He received a substantial cash settlement afterwards; the thieves think there’s a chance that cash from that settlement may be somewhere in his house. They break in in the middle of the night, assuming the Blind Man will be asleep. He wakes up, and fights back. That’s the premise for the movie. And we’re supposed to root for the thieves? Aren’t they pretty deplorable? There’s no way.

Yet Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez, making just his second feature film (the first being the 2013 remake of Evil Dead) has made a devilishly clever thriller, every part of which works beautifully. It shouldn’t work, but it does. We root for the thieves. We root against the Blind Man.

A lot of it, of course, has to do with the actors. Suburgatory‘s Jane Levy plays Rocky, our heroine. She’s a thief for selfless reasons; she’s desperate to make enough money to get her and her younger sister out of the crummy apartment where her alcoholic mother and her abusive boyfriend preside. And that helps sell the premise; we like Rocky, we want her succeed. Rocky’s boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto) is an obnoxious jerk, and sort of the ringleader of the three of them; the movie only works if he’s out of the picture early, and so he’s the first thief taken out by The Blind Man. And Alex (Dylan Minnette), is the nice guy, with a crush on Rocky, the locks and security systems expert. So a lot of the movie involves The Blind Man hunting these two likable kids up and down the stairs and corridors of these terrific old house.

I won’t give any more it away. There are twists and turns galore, including a shocking moment when the three thieves are joined by a fourth would-be victim of The Blind Man. And it’s not just the kids against the Blind Man; he has an ally, in a thoroughly terrifying dog.

The result is a genuinely scary and exciting movie. Lots of surprises, beautifully timed scenes building suspense, shocks and thrills and people (and dogs) jumping out at us. There’s not much else going on, I have to say. It’s just a really well made scary movie. But if you like those, this is a good one.

London Has Fallen: reviewing an interestingly terrible movie, with comment on the political implications thereof

For some reason, movies in which the President of the United States finds himself alone in a hostile environment, with one protector, surrounded by terrorists, turn out to be terrible. Like, for example, the movie we’re going to talk about today, kids: London Has Fallen. It is kaka poo-poo bad. It’s also not entirely uninteresting, and may be even, like, historic. Plus, it helps explain Donald Trump. Let me unpack.

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Big Game, a Finnish film with President Samuel L. Jackson, protected by a Finnish kid. It was one of those movies that was so bad it was kind of fun. London Has Fallen is just as bad–more technically proficient, much stupider story. Aaron Eckhart plays President Benjamin Asher, who barely survived the last terrorist attack, on the White House, in the inexplicably popular Olympus Has Fallen, to which this movie is the sequel. As in Olympus, POTUS is guarded by Secret Service Superman, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler). Banning is also married, and his wife (Radha Mitchell) is pregnant. So it has Family Values, see?

Anyway, the Prime Minister of England dies, and President Asher has to go to the funeral, along with many many other World Leaders, and Banning is in charge of, and worried about, security. So are the Brits, of course, and we get lots of tense conference room scenes where security people Express Concern. But, whaddya gonna do, not bury the guy? So AF1 lands, a motorcade is formed, dignitaries gather. And then all hell breaks loose.

We’re supposed to believe that one terrorist mastermind (angry over a drone strike that took out his daughter), has succeeded in suborning essentially all British security forces. Including the Queen’s Guard–the guys with the bearskin hats. Uh, those guys are really, really vetted. But whatever. They just suddenly start shooting people.

Thank heavens, Mike Banning (our hero) is there! To kill maybe fifty people. But they’re all bad guys, so who cares.

The rest of the movie is basically about killing terrorists and freeing POTUS, who at one point gets himself captured. It’s impossibly stupid, especially when Banning gets the stupendous idea of full-frontal attacking the terrorist stronghold, where the assault team he heads is outnumbered, like, 200 to 20. But the bad guys can’t shoot straight, so there’s that. Plus Banning never misses. It’s too stupid for words.

But this is also what’s interesting. Much of it’s essentially not a movie at all, but a FPS video game; visually, it’s like watching someone play Call of Duty or Counterstrike. Lots of critics panned it, as indeed they should have done (it got 26% on Rottentomatoes, a score 25 points too high), but no one pointed out how visually innovative it is. Indeed, it got dinged for ‘bad CGI’, which misses the point. It’s not a movie; its a video game, or more accurately, a weird combination of the two. Not based on a video game, narratively, like Warcraft. I mean, maybe fifteen minutes of this thing is given to watching a first person shooter mow down hundreds of terrorists. And then cut to, you know, the movie; plot and acting and so on. (At one point, the President questions the wisdom in directly attacking a terrorist center, and Banning says grimly ‘we have no choice.’ The goal is to preserve the President. They’re in London, one of the world’s most populated cities. They have literally hundreds of thousands of buildings they could hide in. No choice? I really did laugh out loud).

I wish I could show you a different clip. The one above doesn’t capture it very well. Really, Banning is breaking into this heavily guarded building, and he does it by just shooting tons of baddies. With a handgun, mostly. (He does occasionally pause to reload, like you have to in an FPS). But it’s exactly like watching someone else play a combat-type game (my son, say). Bad guys pop up, you hit ’em, then more bad guys pop up and you hit them. Then on to another room, and continue.

Now, although the numbers are preposterous, it’s maybe barely plausible, if you could somehow overcome the logistical difficulties in, like, magically transporting all of ISIS to central London and giving them police identities and uniforms. But that’s not the choice this silly movie makes. And you’re not going to convert hundreds of lifetime British security people into terrorists, so they can happily die for the glory of jihad. The central premise of this movie is preposterous. Which is fine for a video game. And not really the end of the world for a bad action movie. What it isn’t is true. The movie is built on the premise that terrorism is a real, actual, huge, current threat. And that’s not the case.

In fact, the actual factual terrorist danger is overstated by a factor of, oh, a billion. You’re more likely to drown in your bathtub than to be killed by terrorists. You’re more likely to die when your car hits a deer. You’re more likely to be killed by a brain-eating parasite. You’re more likely to be killed by a vending machine falling on you.

Cue the Donald. Because, let’s face it, one of the major party Presidential candidates in this race has built his campaign, quite explicitly, on fear. We’re supposed to be afraid, very afraid. Bad guys are trying to kill us; Big Daddy President Man will keep us safe, as long as it’s a man. (The job is too tough for women, he consistently implies). A movie like this one feeds that narrative. As, probably, do FPS video games, if anyone was lame enough to take them seriously in a political sense.

In fact, every gamer I know is perfectly aware that he or she is playing a game, that it’s not real, that it’s just for fun. And frankly, I don’t think many people are naive enough to think that a dumb movie like this one represents, you know reality. But movies are taken more seriously than games, and this movie is the first one to blend the two so clearly. I’m not saying this movie is likely to have any political impact in this election. But to the extent that we do fear terrorists–and we do, irrationally and disproportionately to their actual threat–this movie feeds that fear. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been made. And if any of you are gamers, I would appreciate it if you’d watch it and comment. But not all bad movies are created equal. And this one is worse than most, for zeitgeist-y reasons it had no real role in creating.

But I do have to ask this: when Donald Trump says he has ‘a secret plan’ to take out ISIS, is this what he’s referring to? When he says he knows more than his generals (most of which he seems to think he can fire, like so many celebrity apprentices), has he had a FPS-style Dream? Does he imagine himself in full battle gear, mowing down ISIS? ‘Cause I sure have. And then I wake up.

 

Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water is a beautifully paced, wonderfully acted heist thriller, which also manages to feel like the most profoundly American movie I’ve seen in awhile. This, despite the fact that its director is British. I’m tempted to suggest to you that this is the one movie, more than anything else out there, that explains the mindset of Donald Trump supporters. Then I thought about it some more, and realized that that’s exactly true, though not perhaps as the film’s writer, Taylor Sheridan, and director, David McKenzie, intended.

Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) Howard are west Texas brothers, blue collar guys with backgrounds in drilling, ranching, and, in Tanner’s case, criminality. Over the course of several bank robberies they pull, we learn something of their backgrounds. Over the previous ten years or so, Tanner’s been in prison for armed robbery. Toby’s taken care of their mother. She has now died, and she left the ranch to Toby, disowning black sheep Tanner. Before she died, she took out a reverse mortgage from a local bank. Toby also learned that there’s oil on the ranch, a lot of it. He owes the bank $45,000, which he believes he has no way of paying back. He’s turned to older brother Tanner, and the two decide to rob banks, though only the Midlands’ Bank who, they believe, tormented their mother during her final days. So it’s kind of a revenge thing, too. Toby has formed a family trust, and intends to leave the ranch (and oil money) to his two sons. (When he tells his ex-wife Debbie (Marin Ireland) about the trust, her response is to sigh deeply, and complain ‘one more thing I gotta take care of.’)

Both leading characters are superbly rendered, both by Sheridan’s screenplay and by the two terrific actors. Tanner’s more violent, more impulsive, more ranbunctious; nowhere near as good looking as his brother, but much more successful with women. Toby’s quieter, and smarter. The plans are his, and he’s allowed for essentially all contingencies, he thinks.

Meanwhile, a Texas lawman, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), is on their trail. He’s partnered up with Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who is half-Native American, half Mexican, and completely American. Theirs is a fraught relationship. Hamilton cannot refrain from dropping insulting, meant-to-be-funny, politically incorrect Injun lines at Parker’s expense, and we can tell that Parker doesn’t like it. That’s Hamilton–crude, rude, aggravating, and incredibly good at his job. He’s a couple of weeks from retirement, and loathes the very idea. He has no idea how he’ll fill his hours, which makes him all the more determined to solve this one last case.

So that’s the movie. Toby and Tanner robbing banks, Hamilton and Parker trying to catch them. (Is it accidental that Parker has the same last name as Bonnie Parker, of Bonnie and Clyde fame?). But describing it so baldly kind of misses the point of it. It’s about rural, small-town America, where there are almost no jobs and very little hope. Parker’s convinced that the robbers they’re chasing are ‘tweakers.’ But Hamilton doesn’t believe it. The robberies are too meticulously planned for that; meth addicts are too addled to pull off these plans.

But what I loved about this movie is the way it takes its time, not just rounding and complicating its characters, but capturing the way time moves along in these hopeless little places. The way it sours people. At one point, Toby describes poverty as a disease, and we take his point; nobody seems entirely well.

There’s a wonderful scene in a cafe that captures what I’m suggesting. Hamilton and Parker stop to eat, and are informed by their waitress (Margaret Bowman), who is very elderly, that the only thing she wants to know is what they don’t want. They serve T-bone steaks, with baked potatoes. Period. The only question is, do they want that with green beans or corn on the cob? Parker asks if he can have his steak well done, and is informed that their steaks are served medium rare, period. Bowman gives a wonderful, crotchety performance, and that scene captures the time and place as little else could.

I love the little details. A young woman, lying on the floor as instructed during one robbery, texts someone–‘the bank’s being robbed–and next thing we see in front of the bank are a half dozen pickups and guys with rifles. An old-timer is asked by Toby if he’s carrying a gun, and he looks astonished and aggravated and responds ‘of course I’ve got a gun!’ I’m not saying it’s a movie filled with woe-is-me monologues, but the hopelessness of poverty is stitched into the fabric of the film.

And the music. There’s a lot of music in this film, and it’s used perfectly. It’s what I would call ‘outlaw country,’ with modern singer/songwriters like Chris Singleton and Colter Wall and Scott Biram, and with several songs by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. (I especially loved Singleton’s “Outlaw State of Mind,” which I didn’t know). And, of course, one song by the granddaddy of outlaw country, the great Waylon Jennings (“You Ask Me To,” of course. Perfect choice.)

So, it’s a lovely movie, my favorite movie of the year by far. Two thirds in, I honestly did not know how things would turn out. Would Toby and Tanner get away, would their plan work? Would Hamilton catch them? Would they go down, guns ablazin’, in a Bonnie and Clyde ambush and firestorm?  I did not predict what actually happened, and yet the ending was also completely plausible and satisfying. Surprising, and also inevitable.

And then I thought some more. A lot of critics have called this a movie that ‘helps explain Trump,’ and I agree. That’s true. But then I thought some more about their situation. Mom took out a reverse mortgage, which they have to pay back. It’s forty-five thousand dollars, which they don’t have. But there is oil on the ranch. What are their choices? Well, let’s see. They know that the oil on their land will pay around $50,000 a month.They could get an oil company to pay them for the oil rights, cash payment, maybe ask for, conservative estimate, six or eight million. Or, they could go to the bank, ask for a loan extension, or a refi, or another loan. Let’s suppose that this greedy, evil bank refuses; they want to foreclose on the ranch, so they can get their filthy hands on that oil. Well, there are other banks in the world. You think maybe you could use the oil strike as collateral, borrow fifty thousand from some other bank?

The point is to have a fortune to leave Toby’s kids. If they get caught robbing banks, the evil bankers will foreclose. They could get shot–they live, after all, in west Texas, where essentially everyone’s armed (a point the movie keeps making). Robbing banks to pay off the loan is the stupidest of their many many options. And as far as the movie is concerned, they never consider anything else.

I don’t know if this is deliberate. But again, look at this as a ‘movie-that-explains-Trump.’ Trump supporters tend to be blue collar, uneducated, rural, and white. Communities like the ones depicted in this movie are struggling. The problems the movie weaves into its story are genuine and real. And here’s my point; the solution they seem to arrived at–vote for Donald Trump–is the worst idea they could possibly come up with. That’s the one thing that’s absolutely guaranteed not to work.

Without getting into the specifics of Trump’s policies, he has proposed exactly nothing to help out rural blue-collar communities. He has proposed exactly zilch to help poor people, or to help those communities dig themselves out. His tax plan would be a boon for rich guys–it would do zippity-doo-dah for the Tobys and Tanners of the world. His business track record is of a guy who rips blue-collar folks off, not someone who helps them.

Robbing banks to pay off a mortgage is a really really bad idea. This is an exceptionally good movie that takes that bad idea to its logical extreme. I don’t know if that makes it, on reflection, better or worse than I originally thought. I do know that I’m really glad I saw it.

 

 

The Secret Life of Pets: Movie review

We finally got around to seeing The Secret Life of Pets, which has been out for a month. But it seems to be doing well enough; the theater last night was packed. It’s a funny, goofy movie, anarchic and chaotic. Really, it’s essentially a Keystone Kops movie; built on multiple chase scenes, making no sense whatsoever. It’s the kind of froth that had darn well better be funny, because it doesn’t have a lot more to offer than yucks. I mean, it does built on the genuine affection people have for their housepets, so there’s that. But the pets here do all sorts of things pets don’t/won’t/can’t do, so our enjoyment of it depends on how bothered we are by absurd implausibility.

Max (voiced by Louie CK), is a terrier, and his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper), a single young woman and dog lover. Their life together seems idyllic, and during the day, when she’s at work, he hangs out with the other dogs and cats and birds owned by her neighbors. It’s a nice little dog/cat/bird community. Then Katie brings in a shaggy brown mutt, Duke, declaring him Max’s brother. And initially, they don’t get along. Duke eats Max’s food, sleeps in his pet bed, and is generally good-heartedly rambunctious in ways Max can’t relate to. So, we think, that’s going to be the movie–Duke and Max learning to get along.

Then an overburdened dog walker misplaces Duke and Max, and they’re unsupervised in a threatening urban environment, first attacked by a street gang of feral cats, then a group of sewer-dwelling ‘flushed pets,’ led by Snowball (Kevin Hart), a fluffy, cute, white bunny, who is also a psychopath. So there’s a chase scene involving the cats, then several other chase scenes, involving Max and Duke and Snowball’s troops. Meanwhile, Max’s friend Gidget (Jenny Slate), a poodle, gets worried about Max and mobilizes the other pets in Katie’s apartment building, and they head off on a search for their friend. Leading to further chaos and more chase scenes.

In the best Keystone Kops tradition, the chases that constitute 80% of this movie’s playing time are imaginatively conceived, and pretty amusing, if you’re able to suspend your disbelief sufficiently to remain untroubled by the spectacle of a teeny white fluffy bunny driving a city bus. And crashing animal control vans. And various other stunts and dodges. Eventually, we discover that terriers can use keys to open cages, which thing I had not previously supposed possible.

The movie is cleverly done, which means that it’s appeal depends on how willing you are to entertain its essential absurdity. I went back and forth. I’d think ‘oh, please, that’s preposterous.’ And then I’d think, ‘why is that more ridiculous than the rest of the movie?’ And give myself to the next silly chase scene. Overall, I’d say that I enjoyed it. The cartoon short, in which Minions try to do yardwork, was more fun than the main movie.

But I want to go back to the film’s title: The Secret Lives of Pets. When we leave for the day, and our pets remain behind, well, what do they do? And I’m sure we’ve all experienced those moments when we come home from work and discover that our pets have been up to all kind of mayhem. If comedy is built on truth, then this is a promising premise.

So for me, the funnier gags in the movie were not those precipitated by chase scenes, but those that felt more truthful. The well-coiffed dog who contentedly listens to Vivaldi while the master is home, then flips the stereo to death metal the second the master leaves. That’s funny. The cat overcome by temptation for the turkey in the fridge–funny. The more overtly comical moments in the film, for me, worked less well.

Still, it’s an amusing movie, a slight but agreeable confection, and, as it happened, just what my wife and I were in the mood for. At least the children in the theater last night seemed to like it, if that recommendation helps you decide.

 

Big Game: Movie Review

It showed up in our mailbox, via Netflix/DVD. (Yes, we still do that). An action movie starring Samuel L. Jackson, set in Finland. Some good actors in the cast: Felicity Huffman, Jim Broadbent, Victor Garber. We wondered why we’d never heard of it; an action movie, with Sam Jackson, surely it deserved some marketing muscle behind it. Worth giving a try, anyway. So we watched it.

And we discovered the Finnish Luc Besson.

This is very exciting for me. If you’ve followed my reviews, you know how much I love all things Luc Besson, the auteur responsible for the Taken movies, plus Lucy, plus The Fifth Element, plus the Transporter movies, plus a whole passel of crappy action flicks. Besson films always have three elements: terrific chase and fight scenes, moments of family values sentimentality, plus plots that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. As Pauline Kael used to say, if movies can’t be great art, they can at least be great trash, and Besson has made it his life’s mission to keep the B-movie tradition alive.

And now, there’s another one. Meet Jalmari Helander. Meet Big Game.

Samuel L. Jackson plays the President of the United States. He’s in Air Force One, en route to a summit in Helsinki. Meanwhile, a kid named Onni Tommila, plays Oskari, a twelve-year old going through what seems to be a rural Finnish rite of passage. He’s supposed to go out alone in the woods, with a tractor and some supplies, but armed only with a bow and arrow, which he’s not physically strong enough to use very well, and bring back some ‘big game.’ A deer, a bear, a moose, something.

Meanwhile, though, the head of the President’s Secret Service detail, Morris (Ray Stevenson), has turned traitor, apparently because he has no respect for the President’s level of physical fitness. (“He can’t even manage a push-up,” Morris sneers to a fellow terrorist). So he’s giving POTUS up, to a terrorist named Hazar (Mehmet Kurtulus). Hazar has several fellow terrorist mooks working for him, who Morris just randomly shoots occasionally, without warning or, as far as I can tell, a reason. Anyway, Hazar doesn’t have any particular ideological point to make by kidnapping/killing the President. (He goes back and forth on which he intends). He wants to stuff him and mount him, and put him on display. Yes, a terrorist plot involving Presidential taxidermy.

So, Air Force One gets shot down, the President escapes in his escape pod, ends up in the deep Finnish forest, where young Oskari finds and rescues him. The rest of the movie is about the relationship between POTUS and this young Finnish kid (who speaks darn good English, turns out), as the kid rescues Sam Jackson repeatedly and increasingly implausibly, from terrorists.

If I’m making it sound good, I’m not describing it well. Everything about the premise of the movie screams implausibility, which then gets ratcheted upwards. Meanwhile, back in a Washington situation room (the design based on Dr. Strangelove, I think), Victor Garber, playing the Vice-President, emotes unconvincingly over this terrible thing that’s happened to our poor country, and Felicity Huffman (an advisor of some kind), brings in Jim Broadbent, a CIA analyst, who instantly figures out exactly what’s going on and what should be done about it. Which involves scrambling a SEAL team to Finland. Which would seem to render the Finnish kid a trifle unnecessary. But the movie isn’t worried about illogic. In fact, that’s mostly what it’s selling.

Okay, this is a SPOILER, so don’t read this paragraph if you don’t want to know, but it’s just so wonderful, I have to tell you about it. At a climactic moment near the end of the movie, Morris is in a helicopter. Morris saved the President years ago, took a bullet for him, but the doctors couldn’t remove a shard next to his heart. The President and the kid are dangling from a parachute, also up in the sky. (Don’t ask). The kid pulls out his bow and arrow, and shoots at Morris. The arrow flies true. It hits Morris in the chest. It doinks off and falls harmlessly away–the kid just isn’t strong enough to do much damage with his bow. Morris smiles evilly and pulls out his automatic weapon. And grabs his chest. The arrow gave him a heart attack! It doinked off, and dislodged, the bullet shard! I’m watching with my wife and daughter, and all three of us were in stitches.

And that’s the thing about movies like Big Game.  Bad movies can be fun. A certain kind of clunker can actually entertain. And this is exactly that kind of crap. It’s ridiculous, of course, and completely implausible, but it’s also sort of fun. It’s not Taken-level trash, of course, but this is also Jalmari Helander’s first feature film. I expect great things from his future.

The acting . . . I don’t know Ray Stevenson at all–just not familiar with the man’s work–but based on this, I’d say he’s a scenery-chewer of the first order. He also postures nicely. But then, it’s not like the character he’s playing makes a lick of sense. Sam Jackson does Sam Jackson things, including almost, but not quite, getting to say the ‘Sam Jackson word.’ The kid, Onni Tommila, was actually quite good. Victor Garber, I think, was directed to over-act–he’s a solid pro, and is usually better than this. Jim Broadbent clearly figured out early on what kind of movie this is, and fitted his performance to that reality. I hope the check cleared. For all of them, really.

Oh, my goodness. It’s truly terrible. And also, truly entertaining. Funny how that can happen with certain kinds of movies. And if you do check it out, Finland looks lovely. So there’s always something to look at. Movies don’t always give us even that amount of pleasure.

 

Ben-Hur: Movie Review

There are essentially two ways a movie could be called a success. First, it could be a popular success, as measured by box office receipts.  Or it can be a critical success, the kind of movie people like me love, but that have a hard time finding their market. Well, the new Ben-Hur, directed by Timur Bekmambetov and starring Jack Huston, is neither a financial nor a critical success. It cost a hundred million dollars to make, and so far, has made around twelve million in box office, a dismal enough figure that it’s closing all across the country. Critics haven’t liked it. It’s around 29% on Rottentomatoes.com. By those criteria, it’s not a successful film.

And you can’t help but wonder why it was even made. The 1959 William Wyler film, with Charlton Heston, won eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (to Heston), and Best Director. I’m not sure how well it holds up anymore, but it’s certainly a classic, an important and memorable film. Why remake it? Why make a new version, directed by the guy who directed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and starring John Huston’s grandson? Why greenlight it, why fund this production, why market and distribute it? It’s seems like a peculiarly unnecessary venture.

I’m also aware that I have this fault as a critic; I like pretty much everything. I like movies; I like the experience of seeing movies, and my son teases me by saying that my one superpower is finding something positive in even quite wretched movies. So my positive comments here are easy to discount. I get that. I do.

The fact is, though, the new Ben-Hur isn’t terrible, and at times, it’s quite gripping. My wife and I were pleasantly surprised by it. Jack Huston’s not Charlton Heston, but he’s a fine actor, and makes a creditable Ben-Hur. The acting is generally just fine, and the story unfolds at a brisk pace (which can’t really be said about the four-hour-long ’59 classic).  And I don’t have much hesitation recommending it.

I’m sure you remember the essential story. Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish prince living in Jerusalem, has an adopted brother, Masala (Toby Kebbell), a Roman orphan his family took in.  The men grow up as brothers, and are inseparable. But Masala wants to advance in the Empire, and becomes a centurion. Eventually, he’s posted to Judea, working for the prefect, Pontius Pilate. When a Zealot assassin Ben-Hur has been protecting tries to kill Pilate, Masala has his brother arrested, and condemned to the slow, horrific death of a galley slave. But in a sea battle, Ben-Hur’s ship sinks, and he makes it safely to shore. He is rescued by Ildurim (Morgan Freeman), who trains horses and riders for chariot racing, a popular Roman sport. He trains Ben-Hur, setting up a big climactic chariot race between Masala and Ben-Hur.

In some respects, this new movie is kind of a Cliff Notes version of the ’59 classic. The movie is built around two big action set pieces–the sea battle between galley ships, and the chariot race. Both take up a lot of screen time, and both were well staged and filmed. I already knew perfectly well who was going to win the chariot race, but I still found it exciting and suspenseful.

The interstitial stuff between the big action scenes were less well handled. When Ben-Hur is arrested, his mother and sister are arrested too. He agonizes over that fact, assumes they’re dead, and wants, at least, to see them properly buried. Turns out they didn’t die, but the resolution of that plot point was perfunctory and unconvincing. Likewise, Ben-Hur’s marriage to Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) was rushed through, as were subsequent scenes showing their reunion, quarrel, and reconciliation.

But the film’s biggest failure, in my opinion, has to do with its handling of Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro). The Civil War General Lew Wallace, who wrote the novel all this is based on, titled it Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Ben-Hur meets Jesus periodically throughout the movie, but is unpersuaded by His message. But (SPOILER ALERT), not entirely. Esther becomes a Christian, and Ben-Hur himself eventually comes around. The point of the movie, I think, is this; both Ben-Hur and Masala are men who are consumed with hatred and pain and anger and an insensate desire for revenge. Christ’s message is that those emotions are false, are temptations of the Adversary, and that instead, we need to embrace love and forgiveness. After seeing his brother badly injured in the chariot race, Ben-Hur, touched by Jesus’ teachings, reconciles with his brother, and the men embrace and forgive. Yay for them; closing credits.

It doesn’t really work, though. The resolution is much too perfunctory, and the scenes with Jesus were hampered, in my opinion, by Santoro’s limitations as an actor. And by Huston’s limitations as well; his ‘consumed with anger’ looks very much like his ‘desperate to forgive.’

(And I’m hardly an expert on this historical period, and would love to be corrected if it turns out I’m wrong, but I do not believe that Pilate’s Jerusalem ever featured a big Cirkus for chariot races. Also, I don’t think a Roman Centurion would have been a big name chariot racer. Wrong social class. Also, I’m not sure what caste Ben-Hur belonged to. A ‘Jewish Prince’ who is really wealthy and nonetheless charitable and kind and beloved in Jerusalem? A Herodian? Not sure that guy could have existed. But if I’m wrong, let me know).

If you want to see an exceptionally well-made and well acted movie, set in Palestine during Jesus’ ministry, see Risen, with Joseph Fiennes, a much better movie on the same subject, only without chariot races. Meanwhile, Ben-Hur really can’t be said to have succeeded, exactly. But it’s not half bad, and parts of it are very well done indeed. So I recommend it. And you’ll have to hurry; it’s leaving town soon.

Two lovely movies for families and children: Movie Reviews

I saw The BFG a few weeks ago, but did not review it–it happened at a time when I was without computer access. I saw Pete’s Dragon this morning. Narratively, the two movies are very similar. They’re both about orphans who become friends with very very large magical creatures. Both the Giant in The BFG and the Dragon in Pete’s Dragon are generous and kind, but both are badly mistreated by gangs of dolts, and both need help from grown-ups–either the Queen of England, or Robert Redford. And both films are beautiful. They’re both paced a little slowly for children’s movies, but only by the frenetic standard of so many noisy, busy ‘family’ films. They both take the time to appreciate loveliness. But they’re both playful when needs be, too. They’re both beautifully designed and lighted and shot. And both films feature terrific child actors.

BFG stands for Big Friendly Giant, played by Mark Rylance, who seems to have become Steven Spielberg’s new favorite actor. Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), lives in an orphanage, a lively place, but a desperately lonely one. The Giant sees her see him, and can’t bear it; Giants have to remain invisible. (Invisibility is a trait of Pete’s Dragon as well). He collects dreams, and that requires trips to the city, but only if he can stay unspotted. His home is absolutely splendid, with a Rube Goldberg ingenuity to it, and all sorts of odd pieces of equipment that enable his life’s work. He also has a wondrous way of talking, employing, not the right word, but its second cousin.

The Giant would never hurt little Sophie, and protects her as best he can. Because, you see, he’s a very big Giant by her standards, but an absolute runt by Giant standards. And his fellow Giants are loutish, stupid brutes. Ruby decides she needs to protect her big friend, and needs help to accomplish it. Well, where would an orphaned English girl turn for help? To the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton), of course. (When the Giant meets the Queen, he says “your madjester, I am your most humbug servant.” She’s charmed).

I think for some smaller children, The BFG might be a little hard to follow, not because the story’s all that complicated, but just because it’s an unfamiliar sort of tale. We’re used to wisecracking anthropomorphic animals–we expect to see chase scenes. This has neither. You have to pay attention. But it’s so eccentrically lovely, so lyrical and sweet-tempered, it’s worth the effort.

Pete’s Dragon did not interest me at all, until too many friends told me how good it was. I saw it today, and was entranced. Pete, as a precociously reading three-year-old, sits in back as his father navigates a narrow forest road. Pete reads his favorite book, Elliott Gets Lost, about a wayward puppy. He sees the word ‘brave,’ and asks his mother about it, and she tells him she thinks he’s the bravest boy in the world. And then, swerving to avoid a deer, their car overturns, and Pete’s Mom and Dad are killed. (That scene, so awful, was beautifully but heartbreakingly filmed–not violent, but lyrical, and all the more affecting for it). Pete wanders into the woods. Wolves gather. And then are frightened away. By a massive green dragon. Who befriends, and saves, and raises young Pete.

Six years later, Pete (Oakes Fegley), is a wild child, blissfully happy and well cared for by Elliot, the Dragon. (Of course, he named it Elliot). And we get the most beautiful montage, showing Pete running through the forest, leaping from trees, completely confident that Elliot will catch him. It was my favorite scene in the movie, and one that did not advance the plot in any way, but was just purely joyful. Then we cut to Robert Redford, playing a woodworking codger named Meacham, who entertains children with his stories about an encounter he had in the woods with a big green dragon. His daughter, Grace, it turns out, is a forest ranger. She’s played by Bryce Dallas Howard, and she’s in constant conflict with a company of loggers, who ignore her proscriptions over which parts of the forest can be clear-cut. And that gets tricky, because her fiancee, Jack (Wes Bentley), runs the logging firm, and his main foreman is his brother, Gavin (Karl Urban). Jack’s daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), is an adventurous nine-year old. And she’s the one who spots Pete.

So Pete is brought back to civilization, his history explored, and plans are made to turn him over to Social Services. And Pete’s miserable. He misses Elliot. He can’t figure out why he can’t just keep living in the forest with his dragon.

Gavin is the villain of the piece, I suppose, and his loggers serve as his gang. But there’s never a moment in the film when we don’t completely understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s not malevolent, just a normal human–a little selfish, a little uncaring. Not a bad person, though, of course, Pete hates him.

The movie does turn, in its last twenty minutes or so, rather Disney. There’s a comic car chase. There are moments of sentimentality, not unearned, but a trifle saccharine. But most of the movie is exquisite. Elliot’s forest is just a normal Northwestern US forest (though in fact, it was filmed in New Zealand). But director David Lowery has an eye; he lets us see the forest the way Pete sees it. He takes the time, to linger on a forest stream, to let Elliot play with a butterfly.

I’m an old guy; my children are in their twenties and thirties, and we have no grandchildren. But I’m so grateful for movies like these two, for family-oriented movies with some lyricism and sense of magic. I know that The BFG is considered kind of a flop, but it’s a Spielberg film; it will be remembered, and reevaluated in time. Pete’s Dragon is in theaters now, and is doing well. I well remember how difficult it could be to find good, appropriate films for children. Here are two excellent ones.

 

Suicide Squad: Movie Review

Suicide Squad is one of those movies that audiences like a lot more than critics do. It’s gotten terrible reviews–its Rottentomatoes.com score is 26, and even the positive reviews have tended to be of the ‘ah, it’s not so terrible’ variety. I guess I’m in a critical minority; I rather liked it, and certainly thought it was an interestingly political movie, and not in some metaphorical sense.  It’s quite specifically and directly about the War on Terror, and about the American prison system, and the moral ambiguities of our age. It’s a zeitgeist movie, a movie that captures something about our age. Superhero movies often are.

It’s basically The Dirty Dozen. Remember that one? Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes? The government recruits an army of bad guys to fight a particularly dangerous enemy? Well, that’s Suicide Squad, except the bad guys are superheroes.  Or, you know, people with enhanced powers.

We’re introduced to each of the characters’ backstories in a series of opening vignettes. Deadshot (Will Smith) is a professional assassin, deadly with any firearm. When we meet him, he’s got a bead on a target, but refuses to pull the trigger until his client ups the pay. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is a former psychiatrist who grows infatuated with The Joker (Jared Leto), who then tortures her out of love, leading to her Stockholm Syndrome-type reciprocal love for him. Diablo (Jay Hernandez) has the ability to set things on fire, which he doesn’t control very well–he accidentally killed his family, and now refuses to use his powers. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Adbaje), appears to be half-human, half crocodile. Boomerang (Jai Courtney) is an expert with blades. Katana (Karen Fukuhara) has a sword that stores the souls of the people she kills. There were a few others, less well defined. They’re all deeply damaged, deeply troubled people, hostile to authority and with agendas of their own.

The US government is represented by a bureaucrat and a soldier. Viola Davis plays Amanda Waller, who brings the Suicide Squad together as an elite anti-terrorist unit because she’s afraid of what might happen if America’s enemies should find gifted/troubled superhero types of their own. She has recruited Colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinneman) to lead her motley force. He’s got his own demons. He is in love with an archeologist, June Moone (Cara Delevigne), who is possessed by an evil witch spirit. But no worries–Waller has her heart–literally, she found it in the cave–and therefore controls her.

A number of critics disliked the movie because, as several of them put it, its plot is incoherent. But it’s not. The plot is perfectly coherent, just a trifle busy. Ordinarily, in a superhero movie, you’ve got your good guys and your bad guys; it’s all pretty clear. It isn’t here. Col. Flagg is one of the good guys, but he’s also in love with the main bad guy–the witch who has possessed his girlfriend. And that character, that evil spirit witch thing, wants to conquer the world, and may have the power to accomplish it. Among her skills is the ability to capture people and turn them into mindless killing monsters. That ability forms the basis for the first army the Suicide Squad has to contend with. Meanwhile, The Joker has allied himself with the Witch, and keeps texting Harley Quinn to join him/them. And Waller is hardly on the side of the angels. Davis plays her as an amoral pragmatist, perfectly willing to murder innocent people if it will advance her interests. Granted, she’s trying to protect the United States, but she also has a career to look out for. And the only reason the Suicide Squadders agree to help her is because she has bombs implanted in their heads. And she controls the phone app that will set them off.

Well, doesn’t all that seem familiar? In order to defeat the forces of terrorism, the US uses unmanned drones, and can kill bad guys remotely–though we do try to keep collateral damage down. And one of the two major party Presidential candidates currently running thinks this isn’t close to enough. He wants to bring back torture. Viola Davis’s brutal amorality in this doesn’t seem remotely overstated.

All these characters are damaged goods. All are traumatized and violent. The most extraordinary among them is Harley Quinn. Margot Robbie’s performance dominates the movie. She’s constantly smiling, but we never trust it; this is a violent woman, not the sexpot cutie-pie she affects. And under that is abuse, horrific abuse. And under that, some kind of deep seated insecurity. Check out Robbie’s IMDB page, and you’ll see a series of extraordinary characterizations. She was the best thing in Tarzan, the best thing in Focus, the best thing about Whisky Tango Foxtrot, the best thing in The Wolf of Wall Street. She even pulls off a feat that seems quite impossible. She convinces us that her character is genuinely in love with Jared Leto’s Joker. Leto’s a fine actor, but he’s just unwatchably bad in this movie. (There’s a moment where we think The Joker has died, and I realized how much I hoped it was true).

But everyone else was excellent. Will Smith brought the film some gravity, and Jay Hernandez, a conscience and some heart. Even Delevigne is good, in an impossible part–the archeologist/Witch character never really does make a lick of sense. And Viola Davis scared the wee out of me. Superheroes don’t actually exist. Bureaucrats willing to murder in order to combat terrorism? I wish I didn’t think they do.

Florence Foster Jenkins: Movie Review

The difficulty in writing a screenplay about any famous eccentric, is battling the temptation to make fun of them. You know, in a funny, but also kind of mean way. Florence Foster Jenkins’ life was eminently mockworthy–she’s mostly famous for being the most atrocious opera singer to ever perform in public. Which is why I was so delighted to see that Stephen Frears’ new film about her is so splendidly generous and open-hearted and kind.

It helps that Jenkins is played by Meryl Streep, who brings a remarkable combination of confidence and vulnerability to the role. And yes, when she sings, it’s incredibly funny–my wife, my daughter and I were doubled over. But there’s more to her than bad singing. Her husband, St Clair Bayfield, could well have been played as the smarmiest sort of git, especially since that’s a characterization easily in Hugh Grant’s wheelhouse. Instead, he gives the most sensitive and complex performance of his career. And Simon Helberg, from Big Bang Theory, could have made Jenkins’ accompanist, Cosme McMoon into a comic caricature. Instead, Helberg imbues McMoon with an undercurrent of loneliness that became deeply touching. (That name, Cosme McMoon, is, astonishingly, historical–that was the actual name of her actual accompanist).

The film is set in 1944, when Jenkins presided over The Verdi Club, a society of wealthy patrons of the musical arts, mostly all women. They enjoyed evenings of dramatic recitations (by Bayfield, who had been an actor), and tableaux vivants, in which Madame Florence would dress up as a muse or something and be lowered into a scene by ropes. This was what passed for entertainment back in the day before we invented fun.

St Clair and Florence had, um, an unusual relationship. Her house was where she socialized, featuring her collection of chairs-in-which-famous-people-had-died, which no guests were allowed to sit in. There was also a bathtub kept full of potato salad for parties. At night, they have a routine; he recites, to help her sleep, then replaces her wig with a turban, kisses her gently, then heads off to his apartment. Which she pays for. Which he shares with his girlfriend, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson).

But Miss Florence had a yen to sing again. So St Clair hires a voice teacher, the associate conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, Carlo Edwards (David Haig), whose job it is to keep reassuring Florence how splendidly she’s singing. And St Clair begins auditioning accompanists. Cosme gets the gig because he plays softly–Miss Florence abhors bombast.

And that’s one of the directions this film’s narrative could have chosen. It’s Florence as victim, and St Clair as a hustler. As long as he indulges her every whim, he has everything he could ask for–a pretty girlfriend, a nice apartment, plenty of money. But he has to keep scrambling. When Florence gives small subscription recitals for her club, St Clair has to keep unsympathetic newspaper critics at bay. He has to hand-pick every invitee. Nothing can be allowed to intrude on her serene self-confidence. Toscanini stops by–he wants to feature a young coloratura in a recital, but needs another thousand bucks, which Florence happily forks over. After all, she’s supporting the musical arts–nothing makes her happier. Cosme’s in on the hustle–he is being overpaid for his services and knows it, and if that means offering no criticism of Florence’s ambitions, so be it.

So that is a story the movie tells. But there’s more than that going on. St Clair is well-compensated, sure. But he also does genuinely love Florence. He protects her from bad reviews, because he has to–the con depends on her being happy. But he also wants to protect her out of affection, out of love and loyalty. Cosme doesn’t want to perform in public as her accompanist; he has a musical reputation to preserve. But when she comes over to his tiny, crummy apartment, scolds him for its untidiness, and sets about doing his dishes, and he’s touched by it. He likes her. He even admires her, for her persistence. And they play a Chopin prelude together. And it’s lovely.

So that’s another story; a story of love and friendship and mutual respect. And yes, Florence thinks she’s a marvelous singer, and she’s atrocious, and it’s really funny when she sings. The film is a comedy, and a richly humorous one. But she’s also worthy of our respect.

There’s one character, I think, who personally embodies the journey we go on with Florence. One of her Verdi Society acolytes is a wealthy older man named Phineas Stark. As has been known to happen with old rich bald guys, he has remarried, to Agnes (Nina Arianda), a cutie-patootie forty years his junior. Bad blonde dye job, gum-chewing, Brooklyn accent. (Arianda is spectacularly funny in the role). Anyway, her husband drags her to one of her subscription recitals. She’s reluctant, but goes, expecting to be bored. And when Florence begins singing, Agnes perks right up. She loves it. It’s the funniest thing ever! Overcome with laughter, she has to be physically hauled out of the recital hall.

Spoiler paragraph:  Florence’s life ambition is to sing at Carnegie Hall. She has enough money to make that happen, and does. And when a recording she’s made begins playing on local radio stations, her Carnegie appearance gets some buzz. She’s becoming famous, as the worst singer anyone’s ever heard. She decides, patriotically, to give a thousand tickets to the concert to Our Boys in Uniform; a thousand tough marines descend on Carnegie Hall, primed to laugh. And when they do laugh, it’s Agnes, converted by Florence’s courage and grit, who shouts them down, gets them applauding, and gives Florence, already faltering because of the laughter, to continue.

Is it admirable to pursue one’s dreams no matter how unrealistic they are? Is there power in perseverance, even when it’s preposterous? Is it better to have sung really badly, than to never sing at all? Florence Foster Jenkins, the movie, insists that the answer must be yes.

It’s a wonderful movie. Prediction time: Meryl Streep will receive her twentieth (20th!) Oscar nomination for this movie, and will win again for it. Hugh Grant will win his first, for Best Supporting Actor. (Although actually, St Clair is the movie’s protagonist, now that I think about it). And when you go see it–and you must–you will laugh a lot too, and be moved by the end. It’s a lovely movie.

Jason Bourne: movie review

It’s been nine years since The Bourne Ultimatum, nine years for Matt Damon to grow older and for the issues the original Bourne trilogy dealt with to die down a bit. In the meantime, Jeremy Renner played a Bourne-like Treadstone-project character in The Bourne Legacy, and is expected to return for another. So one might argue that the Jason Bourne character is played out. And Jason Bourne didn’t get great reviews–57% on Rottentomatoes.com, not great, not awful. It’s a simpler, more straightforward movie than the previous ones. I liked it. I liked its simplicity; I liked the stripped-down simplicity. It felt iconic, like an exercise in Ur-Bourne essentialism. It takes the Bourne template and just follows that, with nothing extraneous or unneeded. And the focus now is on a few simple moral choices. Here’s Jason Bourne. He knows who he is and what he can do, and he also can now remember what he’s done in the past. What does he do about it?

As the movie begins, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is a deeply troubled, haunted man, making a living as a bare-knuckle prize-fighter in the outer reaches of civilization. His old friend, Nicky Parsons (once his CIA handler), is on the run, in Iceland, hacking into government files and releasing them into the web, working with a Julian Assange-type character named Dassault (Vinzenz Kiefer). Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), CEO of a social media company (based on Mark Zuckerberg, maybe?) meets with Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), head of the CIA, who wants him to allow government access to everyone’s social media accounts, as part of the war on terror. Which Kalloor refuses. Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), meanwhile, is a high official at the CIA, and is trying to stop a hack by Nicky. And Asset (Vincent Kassel), a Treadstone assassin, is waiting for the call to kill Jason Bourne.

Spoiler alert: Nicky’s hack leads her to a file from the early days of Treadstone, in which she learns that Bourne’s father was the guy who came up with Treadstone in the first place. Treadstone, you’ll recall, is an US government program in which a few elite assassins are genetically modified, become stronger/faster/quicker/tougher. Only Bourne’s Dad had second thoughts, and met with Jason to express those qualms. But before he could talk, he was killed, by Asset, on Dewey’s orders. Nicky meets with Jason in Athens, where they meet in the middle of an anti-government riot. As Asset tries to kill them, Jason and Nicky try to escape in the first of the movie’s two spectacular chase scenes. Asset manages to kill Nicky, but she gets the file to Bourne first.

Bourne, you’ll recall, suffered from amnesia in the previous movies. He has recovered–he now remembers everything, including multiple assassinations he carried out under government orders. He’s haunted by those memories. He’s a deeply troubled man. Nicky’s files send him in a direction; he wants to know what really happened, why his father died and who killed him, who knew what and when. He doesn’t have the faintest idea what to do about any of it.

And that’s why I found this film so compelling. The other characters all have quite specific ideas for what they thing Jason Bourne should do. Nicky wants him to join her crusade; to expose Treadstone, to go all Julian Assange/Dassault. He doesn’t want to; he doesn’t trust Dassault. Director Dewey has an agenda too; Jason Bourne is a loose end, and so he wants him killed. That’s also Asset’s agenda. Heather, though, doesn’t want that; she thinks Jason Bourne is still ‘a patriot’ and can be rehabilitated as a government assassin. And Kallour has an agenda too; to save his company, even it means destroying it. Oh, and Dewey wants Kallour dead too. He wants all social media to be accessible to the government, to aid in the war on terror. And he’s made a deal with Kallour’s second-in-command. And he figures he’ll kill Heather too. She’s just too much of a loose cannon.

So there are all these characters with very strong objectives, working at cross-purposes. Jason Bourne, meanwhile, acting on instinct, is trying to save human life, basically. He wants to stop Asset, because Asset is a killer. He wants to save Heather, who he doesn’t trust at all, because her life is in danger. And he wants to meet with Dewey, talk to him, get the answers to his questions. But he might have to kill Dewey, to survive.

What’s fascinating about this is the contrast between Asset and Jason Bourne. Asset just kills anyone who gets in his way. Cops, security guards, innocent bystanders? If they’re in his way, he’s going to shoot them. And I realized; he’s the ultimate product of Treadstone. He’s a Jason Bourne. Asset’s who Heather wants him, Bourne, to become. Absolutely cold-blooded. Meanwhile, Jason Bourne has inconvenient people in his way too, but he can’t bring himself to kill them. (He does knock them out, but this is movie-land, where concussions don’t come with serious health consequences).

I loved the straightforward simplicity of it. All these agendas, and Bourne in the middle of them all, trying to clear his head.

Your enjoyment of the movie will probably depend on how well you do with hand-held camera work. My wife can’t stand shaky-cam, and didn’t like this movie as much as I did. I don’t mind shaky-cam, and thought the film’s two chase scenes quite spectacular. Shaky-cam is a distinguishing characteristic of Paul Greengrass’ directing style. It’s a style I enjoy. You may not.

Still, this is an excellent movie, a much better movie than what we might expect from action movies. A lot of it is the acting. Matt Damon has never been better. Veteran French tough guy Cassel is a wonderful foil as Asset. Tommy Lee Jones’ wonderful face has never been cragier, Riz Ahmed (so terrific in HBO’s The Night Of), is self-assured but vulnerable as the CEO, and Julia Stiles is outstanding, in much too short a role. And Alicia Vikander is a completely untrustworthy snake. We always know she has some kind of agenda going on, but we’re never quite sure how to read her, until the movie’s very last moments. Good movie, exciting and smart. So glad Bourne’s back.