The Hero

Obviously Writer/Director Brett Haley put this project together with a single thing on his mind. The goal here is obvious, give actor Sam Elliot the kind of part that is worthy of his talents but yet seems to have escaped him for his nearly fifty year career. Elliot is iconic to most of the film fans of today because of his role in the cherished “The Big Lebowski“. He has a small role as a laconic stranger who imparts wisdom and narrates the story of the slovenly hero in that film. Elliot though has been around a lot longer than “Lebowski”. His first movie was “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid“, blink and you will miss him, but he was the star of one of the films I featured in my original blogging project on the summer films of the seventies. “Lifeguard” has a similar theme to it as this film, a man has to assess the life he has been living.  In that film, he is at the start of middle age, in this film he is closer to the end of life than the supposedly rich middle. He is terrific in both parts, but clearly “The Hero” comes closer to reflecting the life of an aging working actor than the previous movie did in showing us a lifeguard’s mid-life crisis.

The script goes all in on making Elliot the only actor who could play this part. While Tom Selleck could give him a run for his money in the mustache department, two other elements would disqualify him. Selleck may have played some cowboys, but not as many and with such effectiveness as Elliot over the years. Second, Tom lacks the sonorous tones that are the voice of Sam Elliot. Both of them get lots of voice over work, but Elliot has a gift, much like Morgan Freeman, Elliot has a baritone to kill for. Both the mustache and the voice are focal points in the story, which happens to be about an actor as loved for his voice and mustache maybe even more than his acting talents. It is a double edged sword because it means he has had only one role that he feels really proud of, in spite of the fact that a lot of people do love him. This gives him doubts about his own worth and combined with the knowledge that he has been a failure as a father, puts him a bit into crisis mode.

There are two or three sets of tropes that can define the story. He is faced with career issues, mortality issues, daddy issues and while many will not want to say it, drug issues. The two films that keep creeping into my head while thinking about this movie are “The Wrestler” and “Crazy Heart”. These are other films that use similar points to tell their stories and the comparisons are apt for another reason, they rely on charismatic performances by the central character. Like both of those films, an unlikely younger woman becomes part of the picture as well. In this film, that is actress Laura Prepon, as Charlotte a woman half the age of Elliot’s Lee Hayden. In a refreshing change of pace, the difference in ages is an important part of the complexity of their relationship. Prepon gets two chances to read poetry in the film, and she has a very winning way of saying the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay. She and Elliot have great chemistry together in spite of their differences.

There is an important segment of the film where a Western Fan group wants to honor Hayden for his lifetime achievements. Of course this forces him to think a bit about what those achievements might have been. He has the one film he is proud of and a failed marriage and broken family to be haunted by. The sequence could have been a parody of fandom if it had gone the wrong way, instead, it comes as an opportunity to recognize that the source of his life force has been film fans like these. Although fueled a bit by some drug use, his heartfelt speech at the event creates some additional territory for the film to explore. What is an actor’s worth? Sometimes it is in their talent, sometimes it is a unique relationship that they have with an audience and sometimes it is just the heat of a moment. All of those force Lee to consider what his life is worth. There was a nice little part in this scene for actor Max Gail, who I don’t know if I’ve seen him since” D.C. Cab”. As great as this moment was, a few hours later there is an uncomfortable counter moment in a comedy club, which forces Lee to reassess again where his life has lead him to.

The style of the film is dramatic with comic overtones and is punctuated by frequent dream segments that visualize the metaphorical nature of Lee’s self reflection. It is not an action film or a slapstick and many people might be put off by the languorous approach to the story. I was not put off by it but my daughter found it a little slow at times. There is something great however in how the film takes it’s time in letting Lee’s story play out. Scenes feel complete and never too rushed. The relationship with Charlotte makes more sense with the pace of the film. The interaction of Lee and his neighbor/drug dealer played by Nick Offerman, is languid, in much the way you might expect consumers of particular substances to behave.  The relationship with his ex-wife (played by real life wife Katherine Ross) is prickly and the connection with his daughter is neglected and frigid.  Although there is a Hollywood element to the movie, it does not dominate the action but rather reflects some of the same doubts that Lee has about himself. If you have ever heard the audio clips of Orson Wells or William Shatner doing commercial voice overs, you might think they were being asses. Elliot clearly has a lot of experience in this area so he can convey the frustration of an actor with just a look and a pause or change in pace to reflect his own impatience.

The release is not wide but I’d encourage you to seek it out.   I may put together a mid-year list of films that have distinguished themselves. This movie will have no trouble making my top five. I really liked it and a appreciate the talent of Sam Elliot even more. Sure his mustache and voice are the key to getting us to watch or listen to him, but acting ability carries this film and it is clear that the director meant that to be the case.

It Comes At Night

If you have not seen the trailer above, wait to watch it until after you see the movie. It is filled with visual moments that will take away a little of the mystery of the film. I would not say they were spoilers so much as they are more detail than you want. I can say that when I first saw the trailer I was intrigued by the movie, but I only saw it the one time and I did not recall all of the information that it doled out. That was fortunate for me because the pieces of information that show up bit by bit help add to the suspense of the story. As usual I will try to keep this commentary spoiler free.

To begin with, the title of the film is accurate, but not in the way you expect it to be. There are substantial elements of horror in the story and they are often envisioned as a part of the night time experience of the people involved in these events. There is no prologue or background information, we are introduced to our characters as they are carrying out the inevitable but brutal task of surviving in the world they live in. Something has happened in the world, we never get a clear picture of what it is, but it has brought isolation, infection and paranoia with it. There is a family at the heart of the story and they are struggling to maintain a sense of family identity, surrounded by fear and unpleasantness. Writer/Director Trey Edward Shults has fashioned a claustrophobic Rorschach test for his audience, and there are two excellent performances that get us there.

Joel Edgerton is an actor that I apparently first encountered in the Star Wars prequels. I did not realize it until I looked him up today, but he plays the young version of Luke’s Uncle Owen. He really came to my attention however in 2011 when he was in two high profile pictures within a month of one another. He was one of the two brothers in my favorite film of that year “Warrior“. The second was a film that I really ended up disliking and it came out just a month later, “The Thing [Remake/Reboot/Prequel]”. In the years since he has had an interesting diversity of roles to play. The role he fills in this film is certainly different from what he has done before. He is a man named Paul, who has created a set of rules that he and his family are living under, in order to protect themselves from the horror that is happening around them. His terse delivery of lines and flinty looks suggest that he is a hard man. In truth he is a dedicated family man who has been forced to become hard by circumstances. One of the reasons a film like this works is that the audience members try to identify with characters and they are forced to ask themselves, what would I do? Paul is faced with tough choices on a daily basis and it may be alienating him from his son.

The son, Travis, played by actor Kelvin Harrison Jr., is really to main protagonist of the film. We see the effect the way the family has to live on his psyche. He is an inquisitive and sensitive seventeen year old, who needs to grow but is being asked to do so under difficult circumstances. He loves his father but seems less and less close to him as more tough decisions have to be made and sometimes Dad just chooses rather than discussing it. This is a dystopian film without a macro view of society, but rather a micro perspective. The horror elements involve tension and uncertainty with the consequences being equally unknown. The imagination creates as much of the unpleasantness surrounding the characters as their actual situation does. The question will arise on several points, Is Travis having memories, nightmares or vision of the future? The tag line in the trailer sets it up very well, the real monsters are created by fear.

This is not a traditional horror film and if that is what you want and expect you are likely to be disappointed. It is however a truly frightening film which build up tension, creates horrific anticipation on the part of the audience and then asks us to judge our selves. What would we do?  There are a couple of jump scares but it is the paranoia and rationale follow through of the philosophy of survival that Paul has adopted that creates the real terror here. There are moments of tenderness by all of the characters in the story, but they underline the dangers that this necessary route to survival would result in. It will certainly leave you doing more thinking than quaking in your boots, but they will not be the comforting thoughts that arrive at the climax of most horror films.

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) 70mm

This is the kind of treat that might keep me from moving out of Southern California in spite of the traffic, social culture and politics. You just don’t get to see “John Carpenter’s The Thing” in 70mm most other places.I’m a fan of the American Cinematique at the Egyptian Theater. While some of my blogging colleagues are dismissive of the programming [one said it’s great if you want to see Lawrence of Arabia four times a year (which I do)], there is a lot of programming that would not be the same in the smaller Aero Theater on the Westside. Tonight’s experience means more because it was shared with a sold out audience, a group of standby folks queuing up in the hopes that there are some cancellations and a sound system that does justice to the film in an audio space made for it.

 

 

The one drawback of the screening was that the film stock is a bit faded. Seeing how this 70mm print is one of the few in existence and that the film is thirty-five years old, that was a small price to pay to see this horror classic. The six track stereo sound more than compensates for the slightly red hue of the print. Listening to Morricone’s haunting electronic score while watching the images of Antarctica swirl by is a definite treat. The sound effects also benefit immensely from the complex sound design combined with the multi-track recording.

There are so many things to appreciate about this film that it is hard to stay focused. I will try to concentrate on three or four elements that always impress me whenever I watch this film. The first “thing” that jumped out at me tonight was how creepy the film is before we even know what is happening. The supposedly mad Norwegians tracking the sled dog across the snow and shooting at it without much effect is just the start of a disturbingly effective canine performance. When the husky reaches the American compound and Clarke scratches him around the neck to reassure him, the dog is sort of cute. Subsequently though we see that the dog is watching everything. It stares out the window at the search party that goes back to the Norwegian installation. It quietly observes the goings on at the American base with a steady eye. As it moves from room to room and encounters a figure that we only see in shadow, it seems to be acting so deliberately and thoughtfully that it can’t be a normal dog. Finally, as the dog is lead into the kennel with the other dogs, it’s approach is awkward and not dog like at all. This is all part of the methodical set up that builds to action rather than having action fill the screen constantly.

Once the dog is introduced to the kennel, the second great “thing” about the film that everyone who loves it talks about gets introduced. This movie is filled with special effects shots and monster creations that are not just on screen. This film was made with practical effects that the actors interact with and . Their presence in each scene feels so much more normal than the CGI creations that are found in the inferior prequel from 2011. The slime covered “thing” that is morphing into the dogs is disgusting to look at but we can’t look away either. The tendrils that penetrate the other animals wave in a manner that was not created in a computer but looks like it is organic as they flip around like so many air hoses without nozzles. When Copper applies the defibrillator to Norris, we get a real shock with blood and sinew and bones being snapped. Rob Bottin and his crew make these effects dramatic, disgusting and at the same time believable. When the legs sprout from the dismembered head of one of the scientists, after that head has used an elongated tongue to pull itself to safety, you might be tempted to say the same words that come out of Palmer’s mouth, except we know Carpenter is not kidding, he wants us to laugh sure but mostly to be horrified, task accomplished.

 

 

Since it is my daughter’s birthday at the end of the month, I gave her the gift I picked out a little early, it is a design from this scene on a great t-shirt provided by a company called Fright Rags. One of my online correspondents works for this company and they have licensed images from this movie that show how the practical effects look so much better, even when they are being rendered artistically.

 

 

One final topic to include in this brief post on what many would consider the greatest horror film of the last half century, the star Kurt Russell. R.J. MacReady is an intemperate iconoclast that somehow manages to be a figure that all the other men at the station look to. Part of  the reason may be that they trust his competence as a pilot, after all he makes two hazardous trips to the Norwegian camp and returns with more information each time. Also, he has a cool demeanor as the crisis gets hotter and he manages to best them all when their paranoia turns on him. Any of those things might inspire confidence in him as a leader, but the biggest asset he has is that he is played by Kurt Russell. Russell is in full badass mode coming off a previous Carpenter film, “Escape From New York” just the previous year. He has a thick mane of hair, much like the king of the jungle, and his machismo is indicated by the awesomeness of his beard. Only a guy with this much charisma can carry off the weathered and bent out of shape sombrero that he wears in the film.

 

There are dozens of other little moments of perfection spread through the film, but I will leave most of them for a more elaborate post, maybe in my series “Movies I Want Everyone to See”. It is a good film that shows how quickly character can be created on screen. There are a half dozen good laughs in the movie that would put some of today’s comedy films to shame. The cast of actors also deserves praise and credit that I simply don’t have time for today.  There is at least one more screening this week at the Egyptian. If you are within a fifty mile radius and don’t go to see this, you will hate yourself later.

Big films on the Big Screen, that’s why I love going to the Egyptian Theater!!!

47 Meters Down

Anyone who has cruised by this site, but especially at this time of year, knows that JAWS is a driving force in my movie life. Shark movies can be fun, stupid, exciting or irritating. Sometimes they can be all these things at once.  “47 Meters Down” is no Jaws, but it is certainly better than two of the three Jaws sequels, and as a summer diversion it is pretty much what you want for a warm afternoon or a cool evening with a romantic partner. You will get a lot of comparisons in this post, let’s face it, there aren’t that many shark movies, and those comparisons should help you decide if you want the take the plunge and spend your hard earned cash.

 

The two young leads in the film play sisters who end up on an off the books excursion while staying at a Mexican resort. The premise combines some of our worst fears. We are in a foreign land, trapped in waters that we cannot see through, running low on oxygen with sharks surrounding us. If you look up the word nightmare, most of this should appear there. The movie simply has to find a credible way for these events to play out so that we will be willing to endure it all. For the most part, things move as they might if this was a real story. After the set up, the girls are the only characters we actually see for the most part.

 

Director Johannes Roberts uses some dynamic photographic effects during the titles to create some foreshadowing. He and his co-screenwriter Earnest Riera build in enough complications to keep the time on the ocean floor dramatic and tense. Sometimes, as in most films of this ilk, the events seem to pile up just a little too much. It is true that we need some dramatic tension based on the environment, but every action turns into a complication designed to keep us squirming in our seats a few minutes longer. The dialog is also a little spotty. There are way too many premature celebratory moments between the sisters, and they sound odd coming from frightened people still trapped on the bottom of the sea.

 

I don’t know anything about diving, but the ability of the girls to speak to each other seems a little suspect to me, but it might be possible with the kind of equipment they are using. While I appreciate the choice to eschew events on the surface during the crisis, it means that we get a lot of long periods where the girls interaction feels a bit awkward. The scenario in  last years “The Shallows” made verbalized conversation unlikely, but the words spoken in that film felt a lot more real than what is happening here. “Shark Night“, “Bait“,  and “Open Water” all have different elements to them to keep the story going in each of those films, so I guess it’s not a surprise that the combination of events here plays such a big part in this story.

So for comparison purposes I’d put this on a par with “Jaws 2”, it is a shark movie with other things to distract us from the fact that the sharks are not constantly attacking. “The Shallows” is a much better movie, but then the lead in that film did not have to try to emote through a three paneled diving mask and radio mike the whole time. If you pay close attention to what is said in the film, you will see a bit of a twist coming from a mile away. The only surprise was how long they played it out. Some of the teens behind us were unhappy with the climax of the movie but unlike some other films this year, this ending felt more deserved to me. We have our annual big screen trip to see “Jaws” scheduled for next weekend, until then, this toe dip in shark infested story telling will do. It can’t sit on the same shelf as the Spielberg classic, but it fits in nicely next to “Bait” and “Deep Blue Sea”.

 

Most of the movie blog world is full of contradictory positions. You can find people passionately defending “The Tree of Life” as a poetic masterpiece, whereas others see it as a self indulgent, experimental film with little plot, weak characters and the most boring use of fantastic photography you can imagine. There are people who love “Rogue One” and haters who see it as destroying the underlying concepts of the Star Wars films. With that diversity of opinion so widespread, it probably says something that “Cars 2” is universally despised as the weakest Pixar film ever. “Cars 3” is an attempt to restore the franchise to a more satisfying status in the film world. People who never liked “Cars” in the first place will probably not be moved, but, if like me, you loved the original film and hated the sequel, you will probably be happy to know that this movie largely works.

As with the original film, there is a moral lesson to be learned here while you are enjoying the action and humor in the story. Very distinctly from the second film, the theme is not heavy handed, political and surrounded by silly story telling that makes no sense. “Cars 3” is an elegy of youth and old school practices. Maybe we can do things better and faster than we once were able to, but the joy of getting there is being lost and something important goes along with that. Lightning McQueen has had his time in the sun, but there is a turning point in our lives that everyone has to face. The question is simply, how do you hold on to your beliefs and dignity when the time has come?  Anthropomorphic automobiles are a strange way to confront this concept, but they fit it so well. Everyone who likes listening to music on an LP played with a stylus, or watching a film presented on a Laser Disc, knows that they are out of time and place, but the appreciate anyway.

There are two very positive things about how the story is handled here. First, while due acknowledgement is made to the secondary characters in the original story, they are mostly backdrop for this film. That means you will get far less Mater and Radiator Springs. The smaller dose of Lightning’s best friend is the biggest relief. Larry the Cable Guy should not be the lead character in the movie as he was in “Cars 2”.  We get just enough to know that he is still a part of Lightning’s life, but that puts him on a similar level with the other Radiator Springs characters. Paul Dooley and Bonnie Hunt and Cheech Marin all reprise their roles. I did notice that Michael Keaton was not doing the voice of Chick, and that hurt a little, but for the most part the characters who make an appearance are satisfying. New characters played by Nathan Fillion, Chris Cooper, Armie Hammer and especially Cristela Alanzo are all effective at making the story feel a bit more fresh. The second positive in the characters is that we get a fitting exit for the late Paul Newman and his character of the Hudson Hornet. With just a few pieces of dialogue and some nice moments of recall, there is a more satisfying meaning in his characters absence.

One more thing that the film does right is keep the story as closely tied to racing as possible. There are at least three big race segments and they work really well at building story and tension. As Lightning and his new trainer Cruz Ramirez put together a plan for his battling a new rival, we get a good transition story that shows us some of the themes that I mentioned earlier. We need to recognize that the world changes, and sometimes we have to adapt to those changes. Lightning is still the hero but everyone needs to be cognizant that he ain’t what he used to be. Owen Wilson’s laconic delivery and frustrated tone of voice manages to make these growing (old) pains feel more real than we should expect from a movie with talking cars.

 

As is usual, even in those movies where the story has failed, the artistry remains. There are some amazing parts of this film that feel so photo real that you might wonder why they bothered to create those images instead of just directly filming them, Of course there are also several moments that could only existed in an animated world as well and they look pretty spectacular as well. The humor is not quite as strong as the original film, and there may be times when the little ones will feel a bit bored, but there is another race or visual gag coming so be patient. It may not move as fast as “Cars 2” but it is a lot more valuable Car Trip to take.

The Mummy (2017)

How is it we know that a movie is exceptional? One of the ways that we can reach such conclusions is by making comparisons to other films. A movie that is mundane will pale in comparison to something really strong. Excellence can therefore sometimes be measured by mediocrity. That’s why we need films like “The Mummy”, they show us how good films like “Wonder Woman” really are. I am not implying that this movie is bad, simply that it meets no standard for greatness except one, and that is the most obvious selling point for the film, it stars Tom Cruise.

I am probably a Cruise apologist. Of the forty plus movies he has made, only a handful have been clunkers. I would include his last film, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back”  in that handful of dismal efforts. This film is miles better than that weak sauce film from last year, but that does not make it great, it makes it average. Cruise as usual is winning in his role, in spite of the fact that his character is designed to be a thoughtless douche-bag who fails to follow orders as a soldier, steals from women and generally engages in the kind of archeological theft that Indiana Jones was accused of, without having any scholarly justifications for his actions. Tom just has charisma and it turns even vile characters into people we are willing to watch. As I said, this is the one big selling point of the movie. Cruise puts in as much effort as anyone can to try and bring this story to life.

 

The film is basically an action movie with a horror theme that needs to be a little more horrifying. There are a few creepy moments, like the camel spiders and rats that seem to be under the command of the villainess of the story. An ancient creature inadvertently raised from the dead and determined to bring the evil lord she made a pact with into the flesh, she has chosen Tom’s character Nick, to be that vessel. So there is a monster and a curse but there are also stunning aerial stunts and chase sequences. With a half dozen jump scares that become progressively less effective, the film barely feels like a horror movie at all. Still it is mildly entertaining in creating a universe for these characters to exist in and providing a series of hoops for them to jump through.

 

A few of the things that make this movie passable include the two female leads. Sophia Boutella as the ancient princess returned to the world looks exotic enough and she grimaces well in conveying a sense of evil. Annabelle Wallis is sweet enough for us to sympathize with and hope the best for. Neither could carry the movie but they don’t have to with Cruise in control and a scenery chewing middle aged matinee idol ready to turn into Mr. Hyde at any moment. Just like the pygmy zombies that were so fun in one of those Brendan Frasier Mummy movies, this update has something cool to sell it in the effects department. zombie crusaders. They are solid and they look especially creepy in the water.

 

A lot of people have been bad-mouthing the start of a new “Dark Universe” from Universal Studios, but everyone else in the film business has a steady supply of material to exploit and Universal is simply trying to keep up.  Their iconic monsters are laying around doing no one any good unless new stories are written for them, so the studio is following up. The paranormal team led by Dr. Jekyll, played by Russell Crowe may not be the Avengers, The Justice League or even Transformers, but hey can be entertaining if given a chance. I can’t say this film is a bright start to that future of serialized stories, but it is not the failure that others would have you believe. This a a popcorn picture, disposable as any other fast food product of our consumer society. There is a place for romance novels in literature, hamburgers in dining circles and Fords in the car business. “The Mummy” reminds me of one of those mid-range sedans from Ford, it will get you where you are going but nobody will be bragging about the cool ride you showed up in.  You may look over at that Lincoln in the next theater, but if you have already driven it and know what a nice ride it is, watch this film. It will fill your two hours and remind you that it is just a car, and there is luxury out there that you can still aspire to.