Point Break (2015)

Watch the trailer, you will have a better time than if you watch the whole movie. This unnecessary remake makes two important changes from the original. First, the extreme sports pictured are not limited to following the perfect wave around the world. Second, they jettison any charisma that the stars had in the original production. Both are bad choices.

Let’s start with the two stars of the film. Oh, I said stars didn’t I, sorry, the two lead actors in this picture because at this point, they sure as hell ain’t stars. Neither the good guy, nor the bad, can hold the screen. Fortunately for the director, who was also the cinematographer, there are a lot of scenic vistas and rivers and oceans to take the focus of the film goer. The guys have no ability to sell a line, and if you thought Keanu Reeves line readings were unintentionally hilarious in the original, be prepared to discover that he was at least trying to act.

The extreme sports are shot nicely, but you can see a lot of the same kind of footage on YouTube, done with a GoPro camera, and then you can skip the pseudo-intellectual philosophy of Bohdi and Utah. It’s as if “Occupy Wall Street” was taken over by Morpheus from “the Matrix”, and it is really not about economic inequality but saving the planet. I can’t begin to describe some of the stupidity that is trying to pass itself off as profundity here. When the girl in the story, wearing the kind of garb you might expect to see at a commune, explains that the eco-warrior who created the extreme sports metaphysics that are being pursued by the gang, was killed trying to put himself between a whaling boat and it’s prey, I almost burst my gut in laughter. It was funnier than anything said in the Tarantino film from yesterday. This dialogue is jaw-dropping bad.

The original film is notorious for being a “good” bad film. It is enjoyable hooey that is sparked up by Patrick Swayze and Keeanu Reeves and is propelled by action director Kathryn Bigelow. It was stupid, but fun stupid and it knew that it was just a piece of entertainment. This version seems to have higher aspirations and lower ability to reach them. I saw fewer movies this year than usual, but I was more selective and saw fewer turkeys. This one fills my quota of crap for the year. I did not expect much, and I got even less. The one pleasure that the film affords me is that it provides a target for me to mock for a few days.

 

Let me finish by giving you one quick example so you can mock the movie without seeing it. In the original, Johnny Utah catches Bohdi on the beach at the end and lets him paddle out to meet his fate. It was corny but almost plausible in a physical sense. Here, Utah descends from a helicopter, onto a small boat in the middle of the ocean, while a storm the likes of which would have done justice to George Clooney and Mark Walberg. There he has a seventy-five second conversation before zipping back up to the sky. That’s right, the F.B.I agent basically uses a huge amount of resources, and risks the life of his pilot and others on the chopper, to deliver a cliche. DUMB!!!

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The Hateful Eight

There are fans of Quentin Tarantino who will love everything he does and have an issue with any criticism. There are critics as well, who find his approach to film making to be infantile and sensationalist without much discipline. Lovers and haters, welcome to the latest film from the man who re-invented independent cinema and has copied himself repeatedly ever since. “The Hateful Eight” is exactly titled. There are no characters that are redeeming in the main cast, and the secondary characters may have sufficient drawbacks for you to dislike them as well. This three hour plus version of the movie is as indulgent as anything in the “Kill Bill” films but without the same level of bravado as those movies. The camera does not make itself an extra character, the violence is standard for a film from Tarantino, and there are long passages of dialogue that lack the wink and smile that made earlier films such a treasure. There are still plenty of things that make it worth seeing, but it may be the first film of his since “Death Proof” that cinema fans may not see as essential.

Let’s start with those things that are confusing, wasteful, annoying or just plain dumb about the film. We saw the road show version of the movie and I have great fondness for some of the trappings that go along with such a presentation. An overture and an intermission provide a special feeling to the experience you are undergoing. The Ennio Morricone music during the overture was great, but it took two hours to get to the intermission, and it the first real action beat of the movie. Everything else has been set up of character, story points and setting. It was the right moment to break for the intermission, but it was an odd tone that lead up to it. There is some pretty awful plot development that leads to the moment of action. It is implausible, distasteful and designed to inflame racial animus not only between characters in the movie but for those watching as well. The story is supposed to be provocative, but the language and tone are anachronistic, and the visualization that goes along with it was gratuitous. We are lead to believe that no one in this group will be deserving of any respect, and Samuel L. Jackson makes sure that whatever empathy we might have had for his plight as a black man in a white man’s world is dissipated by his lack of any decency or humanity. I saw a couple of younger kids in the theater, and while the violence that comes later is disturbing, the cruelty exhibited in this flashback moment of incendiary personal history was hard to bear. Not so much for an indignity being imposed on a white man by a black man, but for the galling brutality that one human being might be willing to impose on another. It’s bad enough to imagine Eli Wallach as Tuco, forcing Clint Eastwood’s “Blondie” to cross a desert without water in a Spaghetti Western from fifty years ago, it’s another thing to layer on excessive humiliation on top of the torture. Layer that with spiteful and vivid imagery and yes, as Jackson’s character says, we start to get a picture in our head. Tarantino makes sure we see that picture, not that we simply imagine it.

The story spools out as if it is going to be a version of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians”  (and when you know the original title, you will see why Tarantino must have wanted to use t as the basis of a story). It plays out as the long form version of his favorite trope “the Mexican Standoff”. From Reservoir Dogs to Django Unchained, Tarantino has filled his stories with faceoffs of antagonists and built tension and suspense with them. The basement sequence in “Inglorious Basterds” is probably the pinnacle of his story telling skills using this tool. That scene played out over a twenty minute time span, not a hundred and eighty seven. He is going to this well too often and too long in this film. While there are some great moments in the process, it feels exaggerated and overdone. The eloquence with which Oswaldo Mobray explains civilized justice is worth listening too but it lacks the same flair that it might have had if the character were played by a Teutonic Christoph Waltz rather than an effete Tim Roth.  Kurt Russel inexplicably disappears through the whole set up of the first gunplay in the film and Michael Madsen  makes laconic look like an active status. The characters don’t get to do anything for the first two hours, they just listen, and many of them, we never see any reaction from. When there finally is some confrontation between characters, it is resolved with some pretty disgusting screen moments. It will provoke a laugh and a gag reflex at the same time.

If there is one perfect vehicle for the dialogue that Tarantino writes, it is Samuel L. Jackson. He conveys the irony and viciousness of the words with great effect. He is given a good run for his money by Walton Goggins. His inflection is almost enough to raise the language to the heights we have come to expect from a QT film. The script though robs him of the poetry that his character in “Justified” might have used. Had the colloquial terminology of Charles Portis been more of a presence, this would have been eloquent and memorable. None of the lines are really quotable, and the impact they have is mostly dependent on the reading provided by the actors. The conversations just do not snap they way they did in any of the  previous seven films from Tarantino. They are still better words than you will get in ninety percent of the scripts you will see on the screen, but it feels like a step down.

The last confusing or disappointing element I want to mention is the decision to shoot in 70 mm. I heard Goggins speak about the lenses and cameras used to make the film being the same ones used in widescreen epics like “Khartoum”. This would lead you to believe the story will be a spectacular visual treat with David Lean like shots. Instead, it is a stage bound single set piece, which makes the Panavision 70 mm seem like a strange affectation rather than a bold attempt to capture the grandeur of a big scale story.

OK, now for the stuff that works. Goggins, Russell, Jackson are the jewels in the crown. Jennifer Jason Leigh has to wait until the last hour to sparkle, but when her character gets the chance to become part of the story, it is finally clear why they need to have an actress of her type, tough and intelligent. The shoot outs and special effects eviscera are enough to satisfy even the most demanding gore hounds. There are also some nice twists that are revealed in the non-sequential formatting of the story, another Tarantino trademark, and they work great. The music is also worth wading through the movie to get to hear. There are very few snippets of the music cues that Tarantino is used to relying on, this is a much more traditional score and it is beautiful. There is a sense of closure that seems appropriate to the characters, but you will still want to take a long shower after spending so much time with these types. In the end, I liked it, but it may be one of the least successful of  stories in his filmography. Like “Death Proof”, you have to meander through a lot of narrative that goes nowhere to get to the stuff you have been waiting for. Take it or leave it, I doubt it will have the repeatability of any of the other seven films from Quentin Tarantino.

A Merry “Die Hard” Christmas

 A few years ago, a post on a movie site I frequented asked the debate question, “Is ‘Die Hard’ A Christmas Movie”?  Why such a question was necessary is hard for me to fathom, of course it is! The author had made a concerted effort to analyze the  film using quantitative measures. I thought his results proved the opposite of his conclusion that the movie was not a Christmas film. Regardless of any of that data, the reasons that “Die Hard ” qualifies as a Christmas film are the same ones that qualify “It’s a Wonderful Life” and every version of “A Christmas Carol” as Christmas films. What follows is a edited view of my response to that post.

The true reason that Die Hard is a Christmas film is the theme of the characters. The main characters have the same thread of redemption in them that “A Christmas Carol” has. The setting of the story at Christmas encourages the deep questioning of our selves much like the Christmas spirit encourages us all to ask why we are not as charitable and kind all the year long. The Christmas season provokes a contemplative thought process that might otherwise be dismissed during the rest of the year.

We have three characters that represent redemption, the kind that is life affirming and important especially during the holiday season. While redemption is certainly a theme in other films, it is the Christmas season that provokes the redemption of our characters here. Primary among these characters is our lead, John McClane himself. He is using the holiday as a justification to reach out to his wife by traveling all the way across the country to see his family in L.A.. The coke sniffing by Ellis and the casual workplace sex going on in the offices are a reminder that people in the work place take advantage of others during the holiday season. For many at that party it will be the only holiday spirit that they get. You know Ellis is not going home to cookies and carols with his family after the party. It is clear he’d like to be going home with some Holly wrapped around his tree. John sees this and gets angry, which drives a wedge between he and his wife just when his very actions of coming out to the coast started to bridge their gaps. Later, he does the best he can to save Ellis from himself, despite having plenty of motivation to be happy that he will be out of the picture. That is one of many redemptive acts. He gives Hans a chance on the roof, even though he doesn’t give him a loaded gun. Patience with a stranger is another act of redemption. His devotion to his wife is incredibly strong despite their estrangement, this is another. He consoles a fellow police officer that he has never seen, and takes him to his heart because Powell needs the support just as much as he needs Powell’s. That is an act of mutual redemption. All of this takes place during the Christmas season but more than that is influenced by the spirit of the season. No such redemption is being offered in the first sequel which is also set at Christmas, but for which you will not find many if any adherents of the premise that it is a Christmas movie.

Powell and Holly are the other characters who seek redemption and gain it because of the Holiday. Powell, gets involved in the whole set up because he was willing to work Christmas Eve. A sacrifice in part that is certainly brought on by his guilt over being a “desk jockey”. His reason for being behind a desk most of the time is tragic, the kind of tragedy that Christmas story themes are designed to help us confront. (It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, One Magic Christmas as illustrations). His holiday redemption is completed with his restoration to real cop by helping McClane in the tower, and rescuing them with the same act that had condemned him in the first place. Holly has let her home life suffer for her vanity at work and her pride in disagreeing with her husband. She stands up to Hans, that is an act of courage, she is given hope by the frustration of the terrorist/criminals, that is a restoration of her faith. Finally, she reclaims her married name at the end when she is being introduced to Powell, that is the sign of redemption in her marriage, much like Jimmy Stewart crying “Merry Christmas” after seeing what life would be like if he had never been born.

Hans and Thornburg are the Marley and Potter equivalents in this story. Each is selfish and indifferent to the suffering of others. Each is given opportunities to act in a manner that is consistent with the spirit of the holiday, and each rejects those chances. As a result, they each get a comeuppance that is commensurate with their acts. Hans gets shot and dropped off a building, and Thornburg is publicly humiliated. The spirit of Christmas in the form of a naughty or nice list is kept by the outcome of the story.

We are all on the nice list because this movie was left in our Christmas stocking for us. I know that we would not be discussing it here and now, if the Christmas theme were not an essential part of the plot. The very fact that we are having this discussion at Christmas time, 24 years after the movie came out is also proof of it’s lineage as a Christmas film.

You may still disagree if you like, but to do so may put you on Santa’s naughty list. Merry Christmas.

Trumbo

Well here is a movie that I don’t have to worry about spoilers for at all. “Trumbo” is a biopic that follows a well known chronology concerning events that occurred about sixty years ago. Film fans will be familiar with the lead character, they know the end of the story and the villains for the most part are identified early on. Hedda Hopper would be the main figure of evil in this piece but there is plenty of vitriol to be spread around, and most of Hollywood gets some on them. The script plays it as if Trumbo were a saint with magical powers and a short sighted ego that crushes his family as much as the events that take place do. As with all stories, the history is more convoluted than the film is and we will not in that direction here. Instead we will focus on the film and it’s many fine qualities and few weaknesses.

The greatest asset the film has is it’s star, Bryan Cranston. In the last few years he has moved from being the excellent but often overlooked comic performer in “Malcolm in the Middle” to a celebrated TV performer, who impressed for multiple seasons of “Breaking Bad” and enjoyed the endorsement of many in the industry for his fine work there. He has worked effectively in an ensemble including the award winning “Argo”, but he has not yet shined as a movie star, that is no longer the truth, he fills the screen with talent in this movie. His line delivery is distinctive and works well with many of the grandiose passages of dialogue that have been written for him. Even when he is in simple conversation he sounds as if it could be a speech he is delivering to an audience. That fits the character quite well. His sly smile, furrowed brow and mannerisms with a cigarette holder all feel genuine for the outlandish egocentric that Dalton apparently was.

The supporting cast is also excellent, ranging from Elle Fanning as the apple that does not fall far from the tree to John Goodman as the crass studio head that exploits the blacklisted writers but also respects their work. The film is a who’s who of Hollywood talent. Diane Lane is effective as Trumbo’s wife Cleo and she gets a juicy scene with Cranston when they fight over his behavior. Helen Mirren is Great Britain’s answer to Meryl Streep, always cast well and always excellent in her scenes. With the exception of Dean O’ Gorman as Kirk Douglas, most of the actors portraying famous performers from the period have little resemblance to their real life counterparts. Some nice digital work inserts O’Gorman’s face into a scene from “Spartacus” and that did enhance the believably of that sequence. While John Wayne would probably be considered on the wrong side of the issue, the screenplay makes him a fairly sympathetic adversary, at least one who has a true sense of morality concern the human beings involved. Trumbo is shown to have flaws (although they are largely skimmed over) when he uses Wayne’s military status during the war as an attack point and then self righteously suggests that he be allowed to remove his glasses before being punched by a man whom he has just invited to do so. It was one of a few ugly moments that Trumbo as a character is allowed to have.

 

Not faring quite as well is Edward G. Robinson, a supporter of the Hollywood Ten until his career is mangled by the blacklist.  Another opportunity to show Trumbo’s vindictive side occurs when he confronts Robinson, who ultimately testified as a friendly witness, and Trumbo dismisses Robinson’s justification for his actions, despite the fact that he gave many of the same justifications earlier to fellow refusenik Arlin Hird ( a very solid Louie C.K.), an apparently fictional character that espouses some of the true philosophies of the Communist Party of the United States. Whether the confrontation took place or not, it must surely have been endemic of Hollywood at the time since there were so many people effected in some way by the blacklist.

I am usually suspicious of a movie that works in a speech to an audience as a story telling device, it seems a lazy way to sneak in narrative with an emotional content, but the speech given at the end to the Writer’s Guild appears to have been genuine and it is suggested that it went a long way to healing the wounds of the blacklist. That makes it all the more odd that after finishing with an effective dramatic moment, the film turns polemic with a series of screen scrolls that start the argument all over again. The sour tone is probably designed to make the political message more important, but it feels like the screenwriter simply felt like the drama had failed to do so and therefore a post script was required. I thought it undercut what was to that point a human drama that showed the turmoil of the times and the confusion of the figures involved. That’s too bad because for the most part, what came before really was compelling.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

A long time ago, in a theater not too far from here…

I’ve been a fan of Star Wars since May 25th 1977, when on opening day, for the second showing, my group of friends walked right up to the box office and bought tickets and we went inside.  There was no hype, there were no lines yet and the phenomena was just about to hit. By the time the weekend arrived, the lines were around the block and the film was making headlines. If you watch the first primitive trailer for the film, you might think it looked corny and old fashioned. In a way, that’s what sold it to me and millions of others trapped in the 1970s. Cynicism had run amok, in politics and popular culture and Star Wars was an antidote that went down smoothly. Almost 40 years later, with the world in sad shape and our culture dominated by pornography masquerading as television and political fecklessness as a national mantra, we need another dose. “The Force Awakens” attempts to be that cure and for the most part it works. This movie is fun and real in a way that has not been the case since the 1980s.

As usual, you will find no spoilers here, and J.J. Abrams may have achieved the near impossible in this era of social media by keeping the pleasures of his new film under wraps for us to discover on our own. There are plot twists and secrets everywhere in the film and fan service sufficient to satisfy even the neediest of old school geeks, but there is also a freshness to the film that makes the plot devices less important than the spirit of action and adventure we are witnessing on the screen. This movie is highly accessible to fans and non fans alike. The Force Awakens looks more like a sequel to the original trio of films than the prequels do, and that in large part accounts for it’s ultimate success.

 

There are deep roots to the story we are given, and not all of those rhizome sprout plants in this episode. In fact, the very first section of the opening crawl, gives us a macguffin that drives the plot and very little else. In the course of the story we learn a few things about our past heroes and the lives they have lead since the restoration of the Republic, but it sometimes feels like the facts and stories are being parceled out by a selfish Santa.  There is just enough information to explain a plot point, but not enough to satisfy our interest in just what happened. Some of those seeds are certainly going to come to bear fruit in future episodes, but it is a bit frustrating. There is an exceptionally obtuse sequence in the basement of character Maz Kanata. It raises our expectations, makes some soon to occur events more plausible but ultimately raises questions that are designed to be answered in episode IX.

 

The structure of the story will be familiar to everyone who saw the original Star Wars in 1977. There is an as yet unaware hero, ready to step forward, there is a set of secrets hidden in a droid, there is a wild card rogue second lead, and there is a wizened master to teach the ways of the force (or at least the rules of the game). The action beats will also be familiar. Agents of the First Order, the remnants of the empire and a new developing Sith relationship, are pursuing our heroes and adventure ensues. J.J. Abrams and the writers manage to substitute a few scenes and use different characters, but you will recognize the Cantina scene and the escape from the empire dogfight. The call backs to earlier films are found throughout the movie, including the story line. I did not see it as a lack of creativity but a desire to make sure that the audience understands the universe that these characters inhabit.

Maybe it is bad form to pile on, but I think it is necessary to explain how this film manages to do so much that the prequels did not. To begin with, the casting is correct. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are not cardboard pretty faces being moved around on the gameboard. The character of Rey is dynamic rather than passive like Padme from the prequels. Finn acts as if what he does matters and unlike Hayden Christenson, Boyega has more expressions than a scowling face. Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt and Abrams himself, have an ear for how dialogue should sound when being spoken in a scene. The veteran actors also add some zing to the film, especially Harrison Ford, who in returning to the character of Han Solo, has managed to age gracefully and still be charmingly funny. The biggest asset to the films success in entwining us in the Star Wars universe was the decision to limit CGI to those elements of the story where they are needed rather than where they might save money of merely produce awe. The actors interact with their environment more effectively when there are real sets and locations being used. The desert looks like it is made of sand dunes rather than pixels. That sequence near the end was a real ocean scene and not a painting created in a computer. The forest may have some CGI trees, but in the running sections, those are real trees. The way the film looks helps us project ourselves into the story rather than holding it at arms length admiring the cleverness of the computer guys. There are still some stunning effects scenes that use computer generated images effectively, but they work better in the battle scenes and action moments than they would in the quite transition or narrative spots in the film. In preparation for this experience, I watched all of the previous six films and it was so clear how much better those choices were in the original trilogy. The technology is important but it can’t substitute for what makes the scene believable.

A few plot points are rushed, and that feels like a cheat but it may be that we will be getting more detail in the next stories. There is plenty to enjoy here and there are light saber battles, comedic characters that don’t irritate, and a strong sense of fun rather than a permanent sense of dread hanging over the characters. The transition of the story from our older characters to the newer ones is done much more smoothly than say the same technique which is used in a film like “The Expendables 3”. We care about the new characters because we get a chance to know them. Early on, a great new relationship develops in a good action scene and then that relationship is ignored for two thirds of the movie. That was one of the few mistakes in character development in the story. There are two new digital characters that are introduced and both are intriguing but they seem peripheral to the main thrust of the character arcs we are looking at, so either use them more effectively or lets move on.

The final shot in the movie manages to raise the hair on the back of your hand a little bit and whet your appetite for the next film in the series. As I understand it, there will be a stand alone film next year and it will be two years until we get the next chapter in this story. That should give everyone enough opportunity to reset the hype machine back to a level that is tolerable. I doubt that any film could live up to the expectations that this movie carries with it. Still it manages to be successful and entertaining, if slightly less than perfect. If you want a ranking, I’d put it exactly in the middle. Not quite original trilogy perfection, but so far above the prequels that it might be embarrassing to the creator himself.

Krampus

A nasty little piece of Christmas fun that should sustain you through the overly cheerful holidays. It’s not a coal in the stocking per se but it is a bit of a bird being flipped at all the traditional Christmas schmaltz  that usually crops up at this time. If you are evil hearted enough to want to see this, then I can say for the most part that you will enjoy it. Although not perfect and much less gruesome than it might have been, it has some wicked humorous bits and a fairly well presented scenario. There are also a couple of special delights that I don’t want to say too much about because it might spoil some of the show.

The traditional family Christmas of Clark Griswold’s imagination is set up exceptionally well in the opening parts of the story. From the first scenes of “Wal-Mart” style chaos, we know this movie has been designed to let the air out of the celebrants. Adam Scott and Toni Collette are a contemporary  couple trying to cope with the holidays. Their oldest daughter is too hip for the room, their youngest son is a little too passionate in his defense of Christmas. Grandma speaks German in most of the film and she seems to understand little Max the best. We suspect a secret will be coming and it turns out that is exactly right. The addition of Collette’s sister and her obnoxious family, completes the set up for a variation of the group trapped in a cabin, again.

 

Everyone is well cast and does a good job with their parts.  Sarah, the Mom in the story is not a hard part to play and Collette fits just fine. She does get a couple of scenes where her shrieking and surprise need to be genuine and she sells it. Adam Scott as her husband Tom is just world weary enough to be honest with his son about his own frustrations with the holiday and the family, and instead of being the douche that he frequently plays, Scott comes across as sincere and empathetic. David Koechner on the other hand is exactly the blowhard you expect him to be. The movie has several critical barbs pointed at modern society and Howard is the stand in for all the conservative Uncles that the DNC wants to give you talking points for over the dinner table. The jewel in the crown though is once again the wonderful Alison Tolman. After her turn as  Officer Molly in last years superb Fargo television series, I’d watch her in most anything.  She is the somewhat browbeaten but loyal wife to Howard and the mother of three monstrous kids. She also gets a nice sequence where she gets to let loose with a great deal of ferocity.

The title character is shown mostly in shadow in the first sections of the movie and that is fine because as usual, the reveal is less than it should be for a horror film. One of the pleasures of the film though is that Krampus has a whole troop of helpers, sort of like Santa’s elves and reindeer, but far creepier. Suffice it to say your Christmas cookies will be getting some extra sidelong glances and if clowns freak you out, be prepared to cover your eyes. These sequences play like the sour moments from “Gremlins”, there is something just wrong about what you are seeing, but you can’t help but laugh at it. My favorite scene involves all hell breaking loose in the attic, if for nothing else you should see the movie for the demented joy that scene will bring.

An impressive bit of animation is also stuck in the middle of the film. Reminiscent of “Coraline” or “The Corpse Bride”, Krampus has it’s back story told through a vivid imaging of Grandma’s youth. It was really interesting that it was included in the film, it could actually be a stand alone short. Along with the house set and the creepy storm background, this sequence gives the movie a production desighn thatis very much better than a film of this nature would expect. I had a little bit of an issue with the resolution of the film, but it also looks great so while the story was a bit frustrating, the visual imagination for putting it together was outstanding. “Krampus” is not as morally reprehensible as “Bad Santa” and it may not be as scary as “Black Christmas” or as funny as “Gremlins” but I am ready to add it to my annual line up of Christmas films. You should as well, but maybe keep it away from the little kids, visions of sugar plums will not be what fills their heads after seeing this.