Category Archives: Movies

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.

The Spirit of the Game: Movie review

The Spirit of the Game is an LDS film, a Mormon movie. I’m a Mormon, and a movie nut. So my initial inclination is to go easy on a film that is certainly well-intentioned. And it tells an interesting story. And Aaron Jakubenko, who stars in it, is very good, even though he can’t play basketball. There’s a lot to like here. The theater was half-full when I saw it (an early weekday matinee), so that’s encouraging. And it’s certainly not as bad as, say, The Home Teachers, which remains the flaming dragon’s breath of hell worst movie ever made, ever, by anyone.

On the other hand, The Spirit of the Game starts off not very good, and ends goshawful, and that also needs to be said. And if we want cinematic depictions of our faith and culture to improve, we do need to foster a candid critical culture. And sorry, gentle readers, but spoilers will abound. Advance apologies to everyone.

The Spirit of the Game is about the Mormon Yankees, an LDS missionary basketball team that was asked to teach the Australian national team hoops fundamentals in time for the 1956 Olympics. It focuses on one guy, DeLyle Condie (Jakubenko), an Idaho kid who, we’re told, is one of the stars of the University of Utah basketball team. He falls in love, gets engaged to a nice girl named Emily (Emilie Cocquerel)–the movie spends lots of time on that romance. And then she breaks his heart, dumps him for another dude. So Condie, rebounding, decides to go on a mission, and is sent to Australia.

Written and directed by J. D. Scott, it’s not really about basketball much, or the Olympics at all. Really, it’s about the power of male Mormon patriarchy. Every single major decision in the movie made by any character is preceded by an Inspiring Speech by a male authority figure. Or not, actually; Condie gets engaged precipitously, without permission from her father, or an Inspiring Speech from his father. That’s why the engagement fails.

When writing a screenplay, you have to decide that sorts of scenes to privilege. Obviously, a certain amount of screen time has to be given to basic exposition–who are these people, what do they want, why should we care? This movie gives immense amounts of screen time to Inspiring Speeches. It just stops dead in its tracks, and lets a male authority figure deliver an IS. At which point, Our Hero, Elder Condie (the least volitional protagonist in the history of film), is redirected. Except when its him giving the speeches.

So, he arrives in Australia, meets the mission President–Inspiring Speech. He meets considerable opposition–nobody’s interested, kids throw tomatoes at him. He gets discouraged, writes his Dad (Kevin Sorbo!). Inspiring Letter keeps him going. He’s offered the opportunity to help coach up the Aussie national team. But the mission President (Mark Mitchell), says no, in an Inspiring Speech full of appropriate bromides. Condie writes his father. And then, see, we get what passes for a plot twist. Condie wants to play basketball, but he’s stymied. But his father is also a male authority figure, and knows a higher one. So Dad writes President David O. McKay, who gives an Inspiring Speech to the rest of the First Presidency about the proselyting power of basketball, then orders the Mission President to let the boys play. And Condie becomes the coach of the Mormon Yankees. Which means he’s now a male authority figure, and authorized to give Inspiring Speeches too. Which he does, repeatedly. And so, finally, the movie half over, we get to seeing people play basketball.

And, oh my gosh, are they bad at it.

There are two basic approaches you can take when making a basketball movie. You can cast actors, and teach them how to play. Or you can take basketball players, and teach them how to act. Both can work. The greatest basketball movie of all time, Hoosiers, cast guys who could actually play basketball. White Men Can’t Jump took the other approach. They’re both good movies. Jakubenko is a good looking kid, and fairly athletic looking. I don’t doubt that he worked hard. But he has a high dribble, where he runs really fast kind of slapping at the ball, which bounces up around his chin. He dribbles like every kid on my son’s Junior Jazz team when he was six. And Condie’s supposed to be the point guard! Jakubenko can’t shoot, and never has to–they cut around him, use lots of hand-held camera, and basically fake the basketball sequences. (Condie does hit a couple of layups). He’ll shoot a jumper–and oh, that form!–and then they cut to a ball going in. And it’s called ‘the hoop’, people–at one point, they actually call it a ‘ring.’ I wanted to strangle someone.

I don’t mean to be unkind, but if you’re going to make a movie about basketball, let me gently suggest that you have someone on-set who actually knows something about basketball. One kid in the movie had a decent jump shot, and another kid could jump a little–they let him get all the rebounds. But mostly, during the basketball bits, I averted my eyes.

Sports movies always have to build to a Big Game climax, and this one is no exception. The movie kind of forgets about how the Mormon Yankees are supposed to be coaching the Aussie team, and lets them play in a pre-Olympics warm up tournament, a decision that requires another IS. And they’re really good, we’re told–able to hold their own against all the Olympic teams. The Big Game is against the nasty wasty French team. (The coach of the French team has a moustache, and twirls it, I’m totally not kidding). So that’s the big game–a nationally televised (in Australia) game between the Mormon Yankees and the thuggish French nationals. And, see, the French play dirty. And our virtuous boys can’t respond in kind, of course, as Condie reminds them in one of his Inspiring Speeches. They’re playing for God or something.

This is a major Spoiler, but I have to do this; at the end of the Big Game, this movie goes completely off the rails. Let me set it up for you. There are 9 guys on the Mormon Yankees team. That’s important–remember that number: 9. The game is very close, though how close we don’t know because the movie never shows us the score. Anyway, our guys are all wearing brave little dabs of makeup blood on their faces, to show how dirty the French are. There’s a collision between Condie and a French kid. Condie looks dazed. Time for a concussion protocol intervention, except, wait, this is 1956 and they didn’t worry about concussions. So Condie (who is also the team coach) may have to come out of the game. And the referee says “you’re down to three players, you’re going to have to forfeit.”

What? Are you kidding me? I sat there in the theater, absolutely dumb-founded. They have 9 guys on the team. They’re down to 3?!?!? How did that happen? How did (carry the 7, multiply by pi) 6 guys either foul out or get injured? We didn’t see anyone foul out. We didn’t see anyone get injured. What we see is Condie getting fouled, resulting in . . . someone else on his team getting disqualified? And the French team getting the ball out of bounds? Also, the ref (an Olympic referee) is talking forfeit? He doesn’t know the rules well enough to know that you are, actually allowed to play 3 on 5?

What happens is this: Condie shakes off his brain fog, gives an Inspiring Speech, and he and his pals do battle, 3 on 5. And for once, the movie gets the basketball a little right–the French, with a two man advantage, spread the floor and go backdoor for the game winning layup (though the final score remains a classified military secret). Condie hangs his head for a bit. But the Aussie crowd goes wild, standing O, cheering with enthusiasm, and then rushing the court to make appointments with the missionaries for discussions leading to mass baptisms. (I may have made that last bit up).

If that ending doesn’t make sense to you, it’s because it doesn’t make sense. (6 guys fouled out, that’s like 60 free throws–no wonder that the Frenchies won). I was reduced to sitting there in the movie theater going “What? What?” This is not how you should feel at the end of a feel-good sports movie.

I will say this about it: the cars all looked great. It used all these vintage ’50s cars, and they all looked terrific. And there’s a throwaway character, a little kid named Lindsay Gaze, who I assume was Andrew Gaze’s grandfather. And teenaged Bill Russell makes a brief appearance. (And why oh why do the opening credits run over footage from Texas Western beating Kentucky? In 1966?) So it had some nostalgia value for fans. (Also, I’m a Utah Jazz fan, and there are two Aussies on our squad this year).

Still. This. A story of a group of missionaries teaching the inept Australian basketball team how to play basketball is an inherently comedic one, isn’t it? Isn’t it hoops Cool Runnings? But instead, we get this exercise in patriarchal sanctimony. It’s not terrible. But it was unfortunate. That’s a good story. Hope someone tells it better some day.

The Accountant: Movie Review

The Accountant is sort of an odd duck of a movie. On the one hand–and most successfully–it’s an action thriller. On the other hand, its hero is autistic. Much of the movie seems to be suggesting a spectacularly ill-conceived approach to raising an autistic child. But the autistic adult that emerges from that approach seems reasonably high-functioning. And good at violence. So: mixed bag.

In a way, the movie could be titled Rain Man: Action Hero. It perpetuates the stereotype that autistic equals math savant. In fact, as I understand it, autistic people are as diverse as the neurotypical population are. I suspect that people who know more about autism than I do might not like this movie very much; might even dislike it intensely.

Ben Affleck plays, well, let’s call him “Christian Wolff,” though the movie takes some pains to point out that that’s not his real name. He’s autistic. He’s a superstar forensic accountant, a guy with uncommon abilities to concentrate on, memorize and synthesize complex financial records, who seems mostly to work for the most dangerous criminal enterprises, but sometimes just for common-or-garden corporate bad guys. He can take fifteen years worth of corporate financial records and over the course of a single night, uncover how much money is being embezzled, and by whom. This skill set tends to make certain highly vicious clients angry, so it’s helpful that he’s also good at violence. He’s an exceptionally well trained martial artist, a sniper of uncommon accuracy, in addition to elite level Navy-SEAL/Army Ranger/Green Beret type combat skills.

Like many autistics, Christian has certain sensory sensitivities, to light and sound, which he overcomes through “stimming,” a strategy of sensory overload. Every night at 9:41, he subjects himself to 20 minutes of screamingly loud death metal music, combined with strobe lights, while stroking his legs with a rolling pin. He maintains a small accounting office, and in an early scene, helps an elderly couple resolve their tax bill creatively. He copes. He may miss non-verbal cues from time to time, but he can function. And then all the shooting starts.

He gets a new client, a brother-and-sister owned robotics firm (John Lithgow and Jean Smart). An irregularity has been discovered by a junior accountant there, Dana (Anna Kendrick). He plows through the company’s records, writing on the wall with magic markers the way movies always show math geeks doing, code for ‘genius at work.’ When Dana sees it all, she immediately gets it. We sense that Christian is charmed. He’s met a kindred spirit.

Honestly, Anna Kendrick saves this movie. It’s a dark action thriller, full of intense conversations between menacing bureaucrats (including J. K. Simmons, as a Treasury Agent, and Cynthia Addai-Robinson as his colleague). Kendrick is so much more alive than any of the other characters, charming and funny. The movie just barely hints at a possible romance between Christian and Dana, and I wish they’d actually gone there, not because it needs a romance, but because it would have given Anna Kendrick more screen time.

Okay, so the robotics company sends hit men after Dana, and Christian fights them all off, and more violence ensues, pitting Affleck’s merciless efficiency against Jon Bernthal’s Brax, a ruthless hit man for hire. And the action sequences were competently rendered, if a bit John Wick-ish. (The new trend seems to be the headshot–you knock the bad guy down, shoot him in the chest, then put him away with one shot to the forehead).

But what I found fascinating were the movie’s many flashback sequences, in which we see Christian’s upbringing. His father, played by Robert C. Treveiler, is a military officer, who believes in a code of toughness. Recognizing that his autistic son is different, and recognizing that people who are different are more often bullied, he trains both his boys to fight. They get lessons from martial arts experts. They get advanced combat training. Young Christian becomes a fighting machine, and so does his younger brother.

Well, is that the way to raise an autistic kid? To fight, and then to fight some more? I doubt it. But the movie could be seen as making an argument. This world’s a tough and violent place, and autistic people can easily be victimized, as can anyone unusual. Do you train a ten-year old the way you’d train a Navy SEAL? No, obviously. But maybe this movie is trying to make a strong anti-coddling statement. If so, look how Affleck’s character turns out? In constant danger, yes. But also wealthy, successful, a refined owner of paintings by Pollock and Degas. Able to communicate, to meet someone, to chat, to connect, at least somewhat. And also able to blow off a guy’s head at 500 yards, then sneak closer, and kill with his bare hands.

I think it kind of depends on how seriously to take this. It’s basically Taken (“I have a certain set of skills”), and Taken isn’t a movie anyone would bother, you know, studying. Bill Dubuque’s screenplay concludes with two plot twist reveals, one of which I completely missed and had to have my wife explain to me (“Oh, that’s what was going on there!”). Those are always fun, and that’s the thing; if you don’t overthink it, this is an entertaining and exciting action movie.

A profound commentary on autism? Certainly not. Though baby steps towards some kind of comment seems to be buried amidst the shooting and stabbing and punching. Take the movie seriously, and it all falls apart. But relax with it, on a cold fall day, and you’ll probably have a guilty-pleasure good time.

The Magnificent Seven: Movie Review

I was so looking forward to seeing this movie. Chris Pratt, Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio. A western. Plus a remake/new version of two of the greatest movies ever: Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954) and John Sturges The Magnificent Seven (1960). A terrific trailer, using a hard rockin’ version of The House of the Rising Sun to drive it. Anthony Fuqua directing. It had everything going for it.

Except a good movie. It wasn’t the worst movie I’ve seen this year. It was a pretty conventional action thriller, with a higher body count than most. Denzel did Denzel things and Chris Pratt did Chris Pratt things and some of the battle sequences were well-staged. Byung-hun Lee has the chops to hold down an action movie on his own some day, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo does the gunfighter pistol-twirling thing as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. Also, who’s Martin Sensmeier? As the film’s token Native American good guy, he had some real charisma.

So the movie was ah-aight. But the earlier two movies it’s based on are among the finest films ever made. They’re films with astonishing action sequences, but in a context of moral ambiguity, pain, tragedy, human complexity. I don’t know what went wrong this time, but it’s the biggest disappointment of the year, even more so than the recent mediocre Ben-Hur. Hollywood seems intent these days in taking absolutely great movies of the past and wrecking our recollection of them with these crappy remakes. Thanks for the meh-mories, guys.

Could it have been better? Absolutely. The performance of the movie came from Haley Bennett, playing a young widow named Emma. She’s the woman who finds Chisholm (Denzel), and hires him to hire a few more guns, to fight off the marauding hordes of nasty businessman Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). That’s the plot, basically. But Bennett grounds her too infrequent scenes in an overpowering foundation of pure grief. Missed opportunity; we see Faraday (Pratt), the gambler, checking her out, and we get a sense of a womanizer sizing up his next prey. But he never does make his move; he’s a perfect gentleman. He’s a professional gambler and card cheat, and he murders his card victims. Faraday is a thoroughly unpleasant character as written–which is great dramaturgically. After all, the Seven aren’t supposed to be good guys. It’s a movie where both sides are morally compromised, and if the Seven finally do redeem themselves, it’s due to their brave fight against impossible odds.

So, really, Faraday should make a move on Emma. And who knows, maybe she even consents, to a meaningless tryst that might solidify this particular gunman’s commitment to her fight? Why not? It doesn’t mean anything to her; in Bennett’s performance, this woman has ceased caring about anything, except the deaths of the men who murdered her husband.

Instead, Chris Pratt is allowed to be winsome and cute and heroic, and Haley Bennett’s brilliant performance is wasted in a generic shoot-em up. What a shame.

(Haley Bennett, BTW, was only in one other movie I’ve seen, a paint-by-numbers rom com, Music and Lyrics (2007). She played a spoiled pop singer, a Miley Cyrus-like diva, who wants Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore to write a song for her. She was hilarious; she kind of walked off with the movie. Totally different character than the widow in this movie. My gosh, this woman can act!)

Ethan Hawke is great too, playing Goodnight Robicheaux, a washed up, deeply haunted sharp shooter, now surviving as a hustler, managing Billy Rocks, a fighter (Kim). Again, he’s an essentially tragic character, adding a moral seriousness to this shoot-em-up. Again, I can’t help but think of the possibilities, if the script had ever been interested in creating morally ambiguous characters. The movie wasn’t, though. For shame.

And Vincent D’Onofrio. Remember how good he’s been; Edgar in Men in Black, the bad guy in the new Jurassic World. He’s just one of the great American character actors. In this, he affects a high pitched whine of a character voice, and plays up his character’s religious mania, and it’s a tremendous performance. Wasted, of course.

Finally, Sarsgaard as Bogue, with a comic book name and a badly underwritten character, gives the film’s villain a twitchy face and a dead-eyed sociopathic stare. And the character offers three motivations for his evil behavior. One: a liberal’s caricature of conservatism–God wants us capitalists to pursue wealth. Two: a nihilist’s ‘what does anything matter’ cynicism. And Three: a religious mania; culminating in a Hamlet-can’t-kill-repenting-Claudius moment. Sarsgaard’s another good actor, but even he can’t make this character work as written. Still, bad action films need bad guys.

That’s all this is. A bad action movie, an opportunity to pile up dead bodies (but they’re all evil, so it’s okay). All the good guys can shoot brilliantly, and their guns only need to be reloaded when the plot requires it. And their plans work splendidly. And the townspeople are revealed as honest and courageous. And all the children live, though almost none of the grown-ups. In the real old West, at the OK corral, only three men died in a 30 second gun battle. In this thing, it’s closer to three hundred. But that’s okay. Chris Pratt got to be in a Western, and Denzel Washington got to be in quite another Western, and Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio got to share one, while Haley Bennett gave the performance of the movie in a different movie entirely. I hope it lost money.

 

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.