Call Me By Your Name

This film is getting a lot of praise for the performances of the two leads, Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet. It is a love story between an older man and a 17 year old boy, but Kevin Spacey is nowhere to be found. The pace of this film is leisurely to say the least. The story is set in Northern Italy during the summertime so there is plenty of lovely scenery to surround the two attractive leads as they engage in a protracted dance of “love that dare not speak it’s name”.  The nature of the romance is about the only reason I can think that the movie is set in 1983, except for the ubiquitous presence of the Psychedelic Furs.

The story meanders through a whole lot of plot points that end up going no where. Elio, the boy, gets nosebleeds. Don’t worry, there is no terminal illness coming, it is simply an incident that has no bearing on the characters and their relationships, but it does allow the movie to add two minutes to it’s running time. There is also a seemingly competing romantic interest for each of the young men. One is more developed than the other, but again, neither has much to do with the central relationship.

Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar are Elio’s parents. They are erudite, sensitive and well educated. They are the kind of family that sits together in the afternoon, and has Mom read out loud 16th Century literature, which she is translating from German for them, and which also happens to pose the exact philosophical question facing Elio at this moment. Should the Knight reveal his affection for a forbidden love?  This screenplay is too precious for it’s own good. Near the end of the film, Professor Perlman has a long talk with his son, which reflects his deep understanding of romance, human experience and poetry. The words sound like they were composed with great care but they are delivered as if they are random thoughts that a warm hearted parent can trickle off the tongue at a moments notice.

In addition to the slow pace of the movie, and the erotic theme, there are two or three other clues to show you that this is the indie darling of the moment. There are at least seven company credits at the start of the movie, which are of course referenced then in the title. Three sections have the obligatory cruise through the countryside accompanied by an indie alternative pop tune that is slow and meditative. If you thought that Rooney Mara eating pie in “A Ghost Story” was the weirdest food moment you would get in films this year, well be prepared to be surprised by Chalamet and his peach.

The actors are fine. Armie Hammer is appropriately casually arrogant in the way a young American must be. He flexes and poses in all the right ways to get the girls in the story hot, and of course it has the same effect on the lead. Elio is an artist, musician and intellectual with a brooding demeanor that suddenly warms up in a much too unclear manner. Staring out the window and  saying nothing is visual but it does not reveal the inner needs of the young man. Some of the events that take place are more useful at doing so, but they are often randomly distributed and the movie never seems to develop and dramatic urgency until the last ten minutes. It was a interesting story, that was told in a loose manner. A few good performances can’t overcome the issues with the screenplay however.

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Darkest Hour

Viscount Halifax: “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”

 

With all due deference to screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who has crafted a solid narrative around the early days of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister, much of the success of this film must go to another writer. That author is the central character of this film and perhaps the most important historical figure of the last century. The high points of this film all center around addresses that he made to Parliament,  the Nation, or to an inner circle of confidants and political rivals. As a Speech instructor, it is understandable then how I can be moved and consequently passionate about this movie.

There is something in the air this last year because this period of time has been the subject of several films over the last twelve months. “Dunkirk“, “Their Finest“, and “Churchill” have all been released in 2017. While I have not seen the later, the other two are strongly related to the events depicted in this film. One of my colleague on-line, a British citizen, schooled me in the attitudes toward patriotism in Great Britain. He suggests that it is acceptable to be proud of the history and heritage but not to draw attention to it as we Americans are wont to do. I can appreciate the cultural norm of humility, but being an American I do not feel bound by it. Great Britain stood up to one of the greatest evils in the history of the world, and for a time stood alone. The wherewithal to do so was inspired substantially by their wartime leader, a man that every free person should be willing to acknowledge. Churchill was far from perfect, he had a history of failures and his views on some subjects would be viewed very dimly by most people today. He was however, the right man at the right time and place.

Speaking of the right man, actor Gary Oldman, who has been a favorite of mine since the days of “Sid and Nancy”, rightly deserves the talk he is getting about winning an Academy Award. This is a intricate portrayal of a complex character, who was fiercely convinced of his correctness but was also cognizant of the circumstances he found himself in. Certainly the make-up artists that transformed his visage into Churchill will deserve a share of the credit, but the lion’s share goes to Oldman. He is able to summon doubt and conviction almost simultaneously in some scenes.If you have ever listened to Churchill’s wartime speeches, you will hear the grumbling and muttering and dry delivery. Oldman manages to duplicate the manner of those speeches but imbue them with enough theatricality to make them compelling to watch in a feature film. He stays true to Churchill’s demeanor but adds a spark of charisma to the settings.

 

Director Joe Wright has made very good films in the past (Atonement/Pride and Prejudice), but he has also stumbled at times (The Soloist/Pan). He makes several choices here that I think work well for the focus of the film. Although the subject is war, the depiction of the war is cinematically visualized without dwelling on the combat. A series of overhead shots, usually accompanied by an airplane swipe across the screen, gives us a bird’s eye view of the events that are taking place on the ground without turning the movie into a combat film.   In a similar fashion, Churchill is shown at times as an isolated figure in a sea of hostility by lighting and again the use of an overhead shot.

 

The contributions of the screen writer probably include the frequently uncomfortable conversations that Churchill had with the King. Certainly, the inspiring ride on the underground is an imagined event that helps the Character know the mind of the British people more forcefully. My memories of my British Public Address graduate seminar, helped give me a little context to the Parliamentary process, but I think anyone would be able to fathom what is going on and what it all means by simply following the cues that McCarten has laid out for us. It may be an old school concept to give us a running slide of calendar days but it works well in building some urgency, even though there is little action in the story. The film makers have managed to put together a very watchable narrative that is not driven by great events but rather by great oratorical moments. I may sometimes be blinded by my own sense of righteousness concerning the events of World War II. I like history and I admire the figures who made a difference in the world, regardless of revisionist social norms. Let’s hope that enough young people get exposed to this story before they start reading about this in school. I don’t think movies should be our main source of knowledge about history, but like Spielberg’s “Lincoln“, “Darkest Hour” manages to make an historical figure the giant that he truly deserves to be.

The Greatest Showman

 

I’m of the opinion that Hugh Jackman should do a musical on an annual basis and that it ought to be released at Christmas time. Those pieces just fit together. Everyone has their own Christmas traditions, one of ours has been a visit to a movie theater on Christmas Day.  If you are interested, here is a link to my Letterboxd List of Christmas Movies.As it turns out, there is a Hugh Jackman musical and a Zac Efron musical on the list as well. Even for a subject as grim as Les Misérables, the fact that it is a musical makes it feel more holiday appropriate.

This film is an original musical, supposedly based on the life of P.T. Barnum. Barnum did have a Museum of Oddities, and was married to a woman named Charity, and did tour the singer Jenny Lind as an attraction after discovering her in Europe. Everything else is made up out of whole cloth. For dramatic purposes, the screen writers and director have gone the old school Hollywood fashion and tacked pieces of Barnum’s history onto a story that they want to tell which has little to do with the biographical subject. That’s OK, but Barnum had a very interesting life and was a significant public figure of the American scene in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, a hip hop musical probably needs some romantic stories to hang onto and a little social justice subtext seems to fit with the personality of the film.

First time director Michael Gracey, shows his roots as a visual effects guy, as he shoots segments of the background in slow motion and has the main figures operating at live speed. There are so many beautiful moments that it sometimes feels like a visit to the eye candy store and maybe we over indulge a little. Still, the modern dance numbers and elaborate aerial ballet look fantastic and when combined with the show stopping mood of each segment, it does feel like a series of crescendos. The dances are staged in clever ways when the ensemble is performing, you can see the contemporary influences easily. When the story focuses on a single performer at a time, the mood is a little more traditional although the songs never are.

 

Jackman and Efron are joined by several performers who stand out. Zendaya is an actress/dancer who was recently seen in “Spider Man Homecoming”. She actually performs the acrobatics in the film and as the love interest and face of victimization from racism in the last century, she makes a solid impression. Keala Settle is a singer with some stage experience, but her voice and demeanor as the bearded lady in Barnum’s show, belie any masculinity and show the toughness that a woman and a so-called freak would need to have. Michelle Williams is always solid and her part here was enhanced with some singing and dancing that seems to extend her range even more. Rebecca Ferguson plays the song bird Jenny Linn, and although her singing voice is dubbed, her performance on stage will make you a believer as it did the audiences in the film.

So the movie looks amazing, the music is inspiring, the story is mostly nonsense but the heart of the film is what matters. Hugh Jackman for years has wanted to do a film featuring P.T. Barnum as a character. He seems to have put his heart into this movie and it shows. Modern Audiences would certainly flock to this if it were a stage show and was performed on Broadway. Movie audiences on the other hand are more fickle and less likely to embrace this until it has an established reputation. Expect this to be a widely loved cult film among cinema fans in about five years. As for me, although it is apocryphal that P.T. Barnum said “there is a sucker born every minute”, I’m with the newspaper man from “The Man who Shot Liberty Vallance”, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I’m a sucker for musicals and show business stories, so I can say I loved this piece of catnip and I hope you will go out and see it.

Jumanji Welcome to the Jungle

I hear people in the blogging community complaining about this film as if it is besmirching a classic film to do another version. Get off it people. The 1995 version was a perfectly acceptable piece of family entertainment for it’s time. It featured elaborate early CGI and Robin Williams. There is a warm family story buried in the action adventure plot and all the good guys win and the villains are vanquished. Guess what, that is exactly the same scenario of this film, just take out Robin Williams and insert Dwayne Johnson, and you have the same outcome.

 

This concept is updated to reflect more modern sensibilities, so the board game is a computer game, and a transgendered Jack Black makes penis jokes, but none that can’t keep the movie it’s PG-13 rating. Basically the “Breakfast Club” travels to a different dimension and in addition to playing the game, they try to resolve social problems that they have in their “real” life as well. There are no big surprises here. Nothing shows up that you could not anticipate, but it is all carried off in an entertaining manner with a lot of humor and good old fashioned adventure story.

Two things that did standout a bit, and add a little something to the mix. The film is very self-aware when it comes to the sexual stereotyping that exists in a video game. It plays with that a little but not enough to be a polemic on the subject. I also appreciated that the teachers and Principal of the High School that the kids all attend, are not comic book figures for ridicule. They all have reasonable demands that they are making of their students and they are really trying to help the kids, even if the kids can’t see it.

The cast here is all game for the film. “The Rock” continues to be a reliable presence in almost all films he appears in, even the bad ones. In this movie he gently mocks himself as a character but also plays the hero role well. Jack Black is hit or miss these days and a little goes a long way. I think he was well used as the avatar of the most self centered girl in the school, he is the complete visual opposite but manages to convey her personality in his performance. Maybe Karen Gillian works in the movie because she has done the video-game thing herself in earlier work. I have only known her from the “Guardians of the Galaxy” but she is apparently a Dr. Who video game fixture. This is a second pairing of Kevin Hart with Johnson, I think they should go ahead and repeat the tag line for “Central Intelligence” for this film. It would work.

So the movie will not win over any converts, but those with an open mind will find some entertainment. If you and your family end up in a theater seeing this, you won’t hate yourselves but you won’t get much more than some entertainment out of it. That seems like a perfectly acceptable objective, and it is a perfectly acceptable film.

White Christmas Sing A Long at The Disney Concert Hall

We are always looking to do something that feels special around the holiday season. This year we have had a plethora of films with Christmas themes available to us on the big screen. After having watched more contemporary fare like  “Die Hard” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”, it seems appropriate that we finish our pre-Christmas Cinema experiences with a classic. This screening was scheduled at the beautiful Disney Concert Hall, where just a few of weeks ago we saw “West Side Story” with a full orchestra. I was a little disappointed that there was no scheduled musical accompaniment. There was however a foreground banner with the lyrics to each song printed as the film rolled. So 2200 people were encouraged to sing along with the Irving Berlin songs.

 

Whenever I read reviews of “White Christmas” they seem to dismiss it as being a clunky piece of Hollywood schmaltz that is overlong and getting by on the reputation of the titular tune. I can’t really say that those assessments are inaccurate. The story does feel pieced together primarily to allow for some production numbers. The movie does go on for two hours, which seems a little long for a light piece of fluff. There are however more songs than the Christmas classic here. All of them are delivered with vim and vigor and they remind you of some of the reasons that old Hollywood was referred to as the Dream Factory.

The opening sequence set on the front in World War II, is a combination of cabaret entertainment from the era, with a war story setting. Two performers who have been put together by circumstances are trying to entertain the troops on Christmas eve before a major action. The troops need this morale booster, and the outgoing CO is willing to let them have a few moments, while the new guy thinks the whole shebang should be stopped immediately. It’s easy for us to see that the crusty but sentimental General, is the justifiable figure of respect in this unit. Now whether anything that follows makes any sense, it will depend on our willingness to grant him that status.

Bing Crosby was probably the biggest entertainer in the world for the preceding decade.  An actor with an Academy Award, he was also the artist that most influenced the way people consumed their music starting in the 30s. Danny Kaye was a Borscht Belt performer who transitioned from two reelers and Broadway review shows to movie star. Originally this film was to be a rematch of Crosby and Fred Astaire from “Holiday Inn”. Astaire bowed out, Donald O’Conner was unavailable so the second role fell to Kaye who added a lot of his personality and rapid style delivery to the film. Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen are a sister act that the two Broadway Show producers get involved with and then it all comes back to the General at an Inn in Vermont.

The songs are glorious but definitely old fashioned. The acts that break up what story line there is are the kinds of review performances that were once popular but are largely missing from more modern entertainment. Danny Kaye gets to dance an athletic sequence with Vera Ellen that was clearly choreographed for Fred Astaire. Later in the film he does another dance sequence which actually mocks the choreography of dancing. Bing does a little dancing, a lot of crooning and between the four characters there are plenty of laughs that get bogged down a bit by a subplot that could clearly have inspired a decade of “Threes Company”.

The sets and costumes make a great impression, especially with the way the brilliant Technicolor photography pops off the screen. By the close, as the cast is singing the title tune in a winter wonderland, you will appreciate why Clark Griswold compares his holiday plans to this film. I hope you all have the ” hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny f##king Kaye.”

 

 

Coco

I’m ashamed to say I waited to see this film until now. “Coco” opened a month ago and I wanted to see it but I was not in a rush. Usually a Pixar film would be a top priority, an opening weekend must. Something about the film put me off. I just didn’t feel the same urgency I usually feel about these movies. I ultimately skipped “The Good Dinosaur” a couple of years ago for the same reason. Boy am I glad I didn’t repeat that decision this time. “Coco” is a spectacular film and will certainly be among my favorites of the year.

It might have been the Dia de Muertos subject matter. Although the animation looked spectacular for The Book of Life” a couple of years ago, I have still never seen it. The controversy over the inclusion of the “Frozen” short may also have played a part in keeping me away. Well, there was no 25 minute Olaf short in front of the show we went to, and that is good because it keeps all the focus on this really terrific film.

The idea of the Land of the Dead being a place that could be visited by a living person is a little disturbing. And as Miguel, our hero stays longer, he begins to resemble “Jack” from “An American Werewolf in London”, Maybe not that gruesome but in spirit at least. Creepy stuff for a kids film but the cultural roots of the story rescue it from being morbid and actually turn the setting and theme into a sentimental piece that people of a variety of cultures can appreciate. The skeleton images that are associated with Dia de Muertos, are not really designed to be frightening but rather a depiction of what an afterlife might resemble. The main characters in the story turn out to be relatives of Miguel who now reside in the land of the dead and are key to his accomplishing his goal of playing music.

There is a lot of humor in the film, much of it based on the displacement of skulls, bones and assorted body parts. There is also some appropriately themed Mexican style music composed by Michael Giacchino (who is not a Mexican but was assisted by musicians who do know the music) that sets a tone that is mysterious but also culturally familiar. People seeing this movie will have a much greater understanding of some of the Mexican traditions that they may only have a passing knowledge of to begin with.

Although there are twists in the story that you can see coming, and the structure is familiar to anyone who has seen a Pixar movie in the last twenty years, the film still manages to be surprising. It is also sentimental and very moving. Parents might want to be warned that there is a subplot that deals with murder, and that may be hard for the young ones to work around. The vividy realized world and the rules under which it operates however are creative as heck and you may be stunned by how beautiful the film can be at times.

Especially memorable is the role that an elderly woman plays in the story. While this might be reminiscent of last year’s “Moana”, the way it plays out is very different and it does offer children something to value. All of us live on because we are remembered. Heck, that’s one of the reasons I started writing this blog, so my kids and grand-kids (if I ever have any) will be able to know me better. This movie is hanging around the box office long enough for all of us to be able to remember it. The theme song is special and ties into the principle behind the movie especially well. I suspect that the tune written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, will be recalled by the Academy Members as well. I really loved this movie and I hope to see it again and maybe write some more about it’s ideas, but for now I just want people to know how I feel.

Die Hard: The Nakatomi Christmas Party Edition

So it’s Christmas time in Southern California, which means Santa Ana Winds, Wildfires and “Die Hard”. We were accidentally invited to the Corporate Christmas party for the Nakatomi Corporation last night. The event took place at the beautiful Theater at the Ace Hotel. We had been to this venue back in the Spring for a Radiotopia event featuring “The West Wing Weekly”. Last night however was a different thing entirely, a screening of that perennial holiday classic “Die Hard“.

The event was part of KPCC’s Screen Week Film series. Most of the attendees were listeners to that public radio show found here in the Southland. The radio host Larry Mantle, presented a discussion after the film with two critics who appear regularly on the KPCC show.  It was a light hearted salute to the film where the two women who clearly had not seen the film in it’s original run , praised it as a perfect action/popcorn feature. One woman is a critic at Variety, and she had some insights on how the movie had originally been received by critics in 1988. The second woman was a writer at Rogerebert.com, and she told some background stories about the films development. I wish I’d written their names down one was Amy and the other I think was Christine. I looked for data on-line but I could not find it listed in the program notes.

The Theater at the Ace Hotel was formerly the United Artists Theater in Downtown Los Angeles. It was built in 1927 and it features a huge orchestra level floorplan and two balcony ares. It seats 1600 people and last night it was close to capacity. If you have never seen Die Hard with an audience, you are missing something. Maybe this crowd was hyped up because it’s Christmas time and they are mostly subscribers to the station, but they were definitely a receptive audience.

We whooped it up when Hans arrived, when Karl is killed, when John jumps off the building, and we laughed loudly at every L.A. cliche you can spot in the film. Argyle got a huge share of laughs and every bad guy death seemed to get a cheer from the audience. Al Powell practically got an ovation in the last scene.

I was on a podcast just two weeks ago where we rhapsodized about the film for nearly an hour and a half. If you like, the link is HERE.

Two of the guests on the podcast,

were Brits who were not familiar with the Run DMC Christmas hit, “Christmas in Hollis” so for them I have included the following music video, which by the way was featured in the pre-show entertainment for the Shane Black event last Sunday. 

I’ve seen Die Hard so many times it is hard to count, but last nights experience was one of the best. The theater was beautiful, it was packed and the sound combined with the big screen accomplishes exacly what you want, an immersive experience.

Just as promised, it will blow you thru the back wall of the theater.

Merry Christmas to all and to all “Die Hard”.