Thursday, January 12, 2017

A return to form, and this blog...

I’ve been off my blog for a year, and damn it I’m determined to remedy that. I am back. I know I am no Ebert, but this is fun and keeps my non-work writing up. If only to amuse myself. Here are a few full 200-word takes on films, followed by quick hits on others I’ve seen further back. Other movies from my year away will just go unremarked upon.

Manchester on the Sea (2016)
There’s something about Kenneth Lonergan’s films -– “Margaret” in particular –- that feel as if the lives you’re watching on screen are actually happening in their own plain, funny, sad realities. “Manchester by the Sea” is Lonergan’s latest and maybe best, following Boston janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), crushed by past traumas and facing a new punch, the death of his older brother (Kyle Chandler) and a new inheritance, a 16-year-old nephew (Lucas Hodges). Lonergan has created a deeply authentic film that is no easy watch. Answers don’t come easy, if at all. But it’s a must-see that rewards. Affleck soars here by doing seemingly very little “ACTING!,” especially when Lee is confronted by his ex-wife (Michelle Williams) and Lee can’t even form words to respond. Lonergan knows what we know, sometimes you can’t move on, you cannot escape your past. Be it “Manchester” or “Margaret,” one watches a Longergan film and feels these people exist, his films stay in the gut and brain for days, weeks after. A tough, rewarding, great film. A

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Many longtime “Star Wars” fans thought 2015’s “Force Awakens” hit the same notes from 1977. I didn’t mind. Fantasy stories always fold back on themselves. “Rogue One” is the first non-“Episode” film in the “Star Wars” universe and suffers no such fate: This story leans more World War II mission flick. This is the prequel I’ve been looking for. Felicity Jones is Jyn, an orphaned criminal by standards of the Galactic Empire (Darth Vadar’s bosses), tasked with stealing blueprints to the “That’s No Moon” Death Star we all know. If the plot sounds familiar, that’s because every Jedi fan knows it as the opening plot-setter crawl of the 1977 classicDirector Gareth Edwards gives us heroes that don’t fit pure-good action figure molds, and that notion re-shades all the previous films in new, fascinating ways. The third act is ballsy. Darth Vader breaks bad. The pace is relentless. I wish one classic character was left alone, CGI resurrections are no-go for me. But this entry goes back to the past to show the future of a film series that defined my childhood. A-

Grand Prix (1966)
John Frankenheimer is my favorite director, flat out. His “Grand Prix” is a sprawling international cast drama about European Formula One race car drivers, driving hard and dangerous on the track and in life. At three hours, it is too long with one too many story lines, but Frankenheimer puts us in the driver’s seat like no other film before it, and few since. (You see how Ron Howard was influenced on “Rush.”) We get cameras attached to car fronts, seats, and just off the tire, and follow in first-person perspective as a car tears down a city street. Split screens and layered shots pop up again and again, putting the audience off kilter. James Garner is the lead, an American racer in Europe determined to shake off a rough-patch career. Eva Marie Saint is also in the cast as a journalist who falls for a French driver (Yves Montand) who claims a loveless marriage. That’s the plot that stumbles, maybe from the French guy stereotype. “Prix” zings and is daringly frank with its sexuality. Hell, we get Toshiro Mifune, but –- damn it -- he never takes the wheel. B+

Hell of High Water (2016) Maybe my favorite film of the year so far as two brothers (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) rob banks in rural West Texas. David Mackenzie’s film is thrilling, daringly funny, and has a pulse on 2016 America that no one else did. This is the forgotten America, on screen. Brilliant. A

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016): Harry Potter before Harry Potter. It’s missing the majestic cast of the main series, but J.K. Rowling’s offers her best character-- an unassuming Muggle (Non-Maj here in an American-set story) baker played by comedian Dan Fogler. B

Assassins Creed (2016) Michael Fassbender stars in a numbing video-game adaptation about ninjas and DNA memory time travel. This is a film that thinks fog machines are still cool. D+

Point Break (2015) The admittedly goofy but cool 1987 actioner gets a remake that cuts in heady extreme sport clips between a crime film that never registers. The cast is aching dull. D

Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973) Sam Peckinpah takes the Western for a piss in a gritty take on the famed outlaw’s demise. Bloody as hell, and too poetic stagey for its own good. B

Seventh Son (2015) A sword-and-sorcery flick that has fun with Kit Harrington’s “Game of Thrones” heroics. But it looks like it was shot on stages rejected by “Lord of the Rings.” C-

Moana (2016) Disney’s latest “princess” story starts familiar -– rebel girl, worried parents, supportive granny -– but finds a fun groove with great songs, some from Lin-Manuel Miranda. B+

Arrival (2016) The film we need right now: Military authorities bring in a linguist (Amy Adams) to help tell if alien visitors are friend. Not the film you think, this is about hope and the unrelenting love. A

The Legend of Tarzan (2016) The legend is reborn with its own inner-prequel. Forget the guy playing Tarzan, I became fixated on Christoph Waltz playing another snoozer Snidley Whiplash villain. C-

Ghostbusters (2016) The original played like a studio dare. This all-female reboot plays like a studio mandate. Kate McKinnon is an undeniable blast, but give me 1984. B

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Revenant (2015)

Alejandro G. Inarritu’s “The Revenant” is grueling, beautiful, and blood-soaked ugly. It is the tale of survival and revenge with Leonardo DiCaprio as famed tracker Hugh Glass, returning from near-death to find those who abandoned him for dead after a bear attack in 1820s America. My gut instinct: “Revenant” is far too long and far too a “Look at Me!” performance by DiCaprio with his artist/director as cheerleader. But laying in bed hours later I clicked on “Revenant” as far more than the straight flick of one angry man killing another that I expected. Wanted. It’s a spiritual war of man, nature, and an America I’ll never know. Inarritu uses dreams and hallucinations within dreams, tied to shaky reality. None more stunning than a ruined stone church, images of Christ barely intact, that may or may not exist. Glass is a haunted man, and Tom Hardy as Fitzgerald -- the man who leaves Glass for dead, and kills the latter’s Pawnee son -– is also that. Glass says he “ain’t afraid to die,” he’s done it already, but so has Fitzgerald. It’s damn long and peculiar, but “Revenant” is a brutal, exhilarating tale of base nature, man and animal. B+

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

George Lucas couldn’t do it, stuck in the past obsessed on fixing the unbroken, telling already spoken tales. Now 23 years after “Return of the Jedi” melted my 9-year-old brain and had me wondering What Happens Next, J.J. Abrams (“Super 8”) finally takes us to the future of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. “Star Wars: Force Awakens” (Episode VII) of course cannot live up to 32 years of geek inner-hype, nor that of the Disney Machine, how could it? But this epic smash captures the joy and kinks of the original trilogy, warts and all. Dialogue is corny. Villainous motive is vague. But we get fantastic fights – light sabers! -- and flights -- Falcon! – morality and immorality as inheritance, new heroes (Daisy Ridley and John Boyega) and old ones (Ford, Fisher, and Hamill) not seen in decades. John Williams. I spill no secrets. Abrams getsStar Wars” is popcorn escapist entertainment built on fantastic characters from our dreams. Lucas’ prequels forgot that, lost in CGI and info dumps. “Awakens” thrills at every turn, with humor and Harrison Ford at the top of his game, back as Han Solo. I cheered. I gasped. Bring on VIII. A-

P.S. I will revisit this film later, in detail. For now, this will do. #Spoilers #LimitedTime #IKniowI'mBiased

Room (2015)

I dug Emma Donoghue’s smash-hit book “Room,” The film, with a screenplay by Donoghue herself, is actually -– get this -– even better. Jack (Jacob Tremblay) is newly 5 and desperately curious about life, but his world is the interior of a backyard shed. He is a prisoner, as is his mother (Brie Larson), held by a man known as “Old Nick.” Ma was taken 7 years before off the street, and has since lived in solitude, her only companion a child by rape. Ma adores Jack, her salvation. But Ma’s soothing lies are unraveling, as is her sanity as Jack grows and Room seems to shrink. “Room” is horrifying in its depiction of the hovel, the effect of rape, malnutrition, isolation, and claustrophobia, before it really turns the screws after. Larson and Tremblay do a masterful job of telegraphing every pain and small joy, and its Donoghue’s dialogue that sells it. Sparse. Sharp. Smart. Even more so than the book, Donoghue and director Lenny Abrahamson know trauma stays with us, it cannot be fully shaken, it destroys families, splits parents. Easy answers? None. Larson and Tremblay deserve every accolade coming. Donoghue, too. A

Spotlight (2015)

“Spotlight” is a newsroom drama unlike anything since 1976’s “All the President’s Men,” and print journalists need an adrenaline shot of moral support, a reminder why the Fourth Estate is essential. We follow the investigative team of “The Boston Globe” -– led by Michael Keaton, with support from Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo -– in 2001 as they uncover one, then a dozen, then 90 cases of child sexual abuse by the Catholic Church, an organization that uses the name of God to cover its depraved corruption. “Spotlight” shows the miserable decline of newsrooms, the low pay, and yet the dedication of reporters to corral the powerful. Also on display: The crushing, irreparable hurt of the abused, their faith stolen, and lapsed Christians who long to believe again, but find little cause to do so. The clincher: Director TomMcCarthy damns the same journalists for not acting sooner while playing “Spotlight” as even and dead-eyed serious as the best of investigative journalism. The lack of sensationalistic punches is a strength. A-

The Detective (1968)

Frank Sinatra is a seen-it-all NYC detective on the verge of seeing far more than he ever bargained for when he starts investigating the case of a –- to use James Ellroy’s cruel terms –- homo-cide. The crime starts in a high-end flat with a corpse minus a pecker, but Sinatra’s Joe Leland don’t blink. Yet. The man also has off-job problems, dealing with the collapse of his marriage to a new ager Karen (Lee Remick). These latter scenes are a dud, especially the flashbacks as Joe meets Karen, each sequence intro’d by a twirly camera and goofy “You are getting sleepy!” music that would play better in a Marx Brothers spoof. Scenes involving the gay “lifestyle” are unintentionally hilarious-slash-insulting. Sinatra gives the roll his all, and the mystery is aces, but director (Gordon Douglas) drops balls. Speaking of, dig that perfectly placed fern. Too funny. Film geek alert: Based on a book, Leland got a new name and title in his next novel-to-screen adaptation, “Die Hard.” Yes, John McClane. B

Tomorrowland, Terminator: Genisys, Vacation, American Ultra (all 2015) and more…

Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland (2015) is a fascinating throwback Disney fantasy, one that uses wide-eyed optimism and wonder as its badge, versus the parade of gritty fantasy movies clogging cinemas. The plot: A teen (Britt Robertson) is given a pin that can transport her when touched and the object sets her off to find a recluse inventor (George Clooney). No more details. Yes, the Tomorrowland theme-park ride figures, as do robots, Tesla, and the Eiffel Tower. The movie has a fun kick. But problems galore: Cooney is miscast as a guy who hasn’t left his farm in years, but looks like a Hollywood spa’s MVP. The opening shots have him gabbing endlessly into the camera. That grinds. More so, the plot could have used streamlining to bounce rather than crawl. Story resets vibe like time killers, rather than misadventure lessons. Props to Bird for doing something different, though, and putting young females in the drivers’ seat. B

Left Behind (2014) is the second telling of the Jesus Returns book series that was everywhere during the 1990s. It’s as awful as the 1994 Kirk Cameron vehicle. No. This is worse. Nicolas Cage (!!) plays Rayford Steele (!!), America’s Greatest Pilot, on his way to London and a U2 concert with a Slut Stewardess. Jesus snaps His magic fingers, and all believers and children vanish. The Left Behind go whack. So much is wrong with this shit, it’s bewildering. What kills me: “Left Behind” seems made by wealthy bigoted white American Christians for wealthy bigoted white American Christians. The GOP elite. The people Jesus visited: The poor, criminal, outcasts… none are here. They are background extras, running in panic. Not worth our attention. Or God's. The one black female? Goes gun crazy on an airplane. Bigotry and conservatism together? Shocker. The fate of that U2 concert is more important than those Christ so loved. Goddamn this movie. F

Midway through Terminator: Genisys (2015), a school bus flips a somersault on the Golden Gate Bridge. Why? Because the CGI special effects studio guys said they could animate it. Divorced of any suspense or remote logic, the spectacle of James Cameron’s 1984 classic is fast becoming a faint, lost memory. Our leads in this time-warp sequel/reboot/snore are Jai Courtney (“A Good Day to Die Hard”) and Emelia Clarke (“Game of Thrones”) as the same heroes from the original. They have no chemistry or intensity. They are voids. Hamilton and Biehn killed in the original. Arnold Schwarzenegger appears, and every time Clarke calls him “Pops,” my geek soul died. C-

Vacation (2015) is another reboot/sequel that casts Rusty Griswald (Ed Helms) as the bumbling dad in place of Clark (Chevy Chase), trying to get cross country with wife and kids. Mayhem ensues. Chase and Beverly D’Angelo appear. It’s not terrible, it’s not memorable, if you love penis jokes, enjoy. The prior films are name dropped in a fourth-wall busting opener. Seen the trailer? That’s all. B-

Seven Days in May (1964) comes from John Frankenheimer, my favorite director. This is another of his paranoid thrillers, but does not pack the same punch –- the whole ending is a long lecture -– yet the story resonates. A Pentagon lawyer (Kirk Douglas) suspects his boss (Burt Lancaster) of plotting to overthrow the White House in a War Hawk move meant to push war with Russia to the Kill ’Em All point. Look, I love Frankenheimer, but Douglas’ flat hero pales next to Lancaster’s evil demigod. A slight dip for John F. B+

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart re-team from “Adventureland” in American Ultra (2015), a stoner Jason Bourne comedy with Eisenberg as a slug with a mind-wiped CIA past, and Stewart as his devoted girlfriend. This is a ridiculous flick made for potheads, but a bust –- a plot twist comes as the lamest reveal outside of the crap in “Terminator: Genisys.” Props, though, to Eisenberg and Stewart’s unbeatable chemistry. C+

Desk Set (1957) teams perfect co-stars/couple Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in a workplace comedy that plays goofy tricks with a “super calculator” as a 50-years early precursor to the Internet, daring to replace research staffers. It’s dated, but that very fact is perfect. I laughed so damn hard. A-