Knives Out

In spite of the hype and overdone praise that this film has received, it is still a pretty basic “Who Done It?” Maybe there is a slight hint of a criticism of the 1% to make it seem socially relevant and topical. There is one scene where there is a direct discussion of current political events, but that feels like it will date the film rather than make it relevant. Writer/Director Rain Johnson would probably have been better off sticking to the traditional focus of a murder mystery, rather than trying to make it woke by including jabs at immigration policies and tax brackets.

The creative part of the film is the overlapping story of who is behind the investigation rather than who killed the victim. As told in a series of flashbacks, we see how the victim died, and it appears that there was a cover-up of an accident rather than a murder. It is only after motives get investigated that it becomes clear a crime really did occur. The intricacies of the plot are manifest in a series of vignettes that reveal what happened, what the suspects say about what happened, and what took place after those events. All of this gives a variety of actors a chance to strut their stuff on screen and create a collection of self centered privileged characters that we can smirk at for their foibles.

Christopher Plummer gets a second chance to play a rich octogenarian with issues surrounding his heirs. He turns in a slight but joyful performance. While he is not in the film long, there are some great moments that he shares with each of the main characters. Harlan Thrombey does not seem to be malicious in the decisions he is making regarding his family, but he is less concerned with his family than he is with his personal desires. Jamie Leigh Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, and Toni Collette all are given reasons to want to see him dead, but is he really murdered? What Johnson has done with his story is to find an alternative approach to the primary motivation. Daniel Craig as celebrated private detective Benoit Blanc is brought in to determine what really happened, but why he is there and who is paying is the mystery.

Ana de Arnas plays the old man’s nurse/companion who becomes a prime suspect but also the victim of persecution. The fact that she comes from an immigrant family and is not part of the rich inner circle is the thing that tries to establish some social credentials. It’s a shorthand plot device that works but in the long run, her families legal status is a distraction to the story rather than a justification for giving this movie any weight.  Michael Shannon and Toni Collette are the quirky spice in the blend. Don Johnson could have been playing the Chris Evans role thirty years ago, so it does feel like the casting decisions were right. Craig’s accent is laid on a little thick but since so much of the film attempts a comic edge I guess it works well enough.

About halfway through, I figured out who the antagonist really is, it’s not hard given the story structure. The real question is what are their motivations for choosing the course of action that was taken. The complex legal conundrum is brought up in the funniest scene where a welcome performance by Frank Oz, addresses the consequences of the dead man’s will. The extended scene is where half of the laughs in the movie can be located, not because there are jokes but because characters act out of their natures. This is a place where Johnson’s ideas stretch us a bit but do entertain us.

The film is a solid mystery puzzle and there are some good laughs to be had, but people suggesting that this is one of the great films of the year are over selling it to you. Go in with reasonable expectations of being entertained and you will be fine.

Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary

The producers of this film included a quote from Pulitzer Prize winning Playwright and Screenwriter David Mamet. The comment basically says there are only 4 perfect movies: The Godfather, A Place in the Sun, Dodsworth and Galaxy Quest. On that last one, I am certainly inclined to agree. This throw away movie that was sold as a kids film for the Christmas holidays is so much better than it has any right to be. For the twenty years since it was initially released, “Galaxy Quest” has grown in stature and seems to be beloved by millions who may have missed it on it’s first release.

This documentary traces the development of the movie and the twists and turns it took to become a cultural touchstone. This comes from a fan driven group and that makes perfect sense because “Galaxy Quest” is a love letter to fandom and it may well have cleared the path to widespread acceptance of geek culture in the broader population. “The Big Bang Theory” and the “MCU” would not have nearly the resonance they do if Galaxy Quest had not blazed the trail for them.

Like many documentaries, the movie is loaded with talking heads who recall the events and personalities that are part of the story. Every major surviving cast member is included in the conversations. Sigourney Weaver is effusive in he love for the project and how it allowed her to play a comedic role that she sees as a lot closer to her true persona than the iconic character of Ripley really is. Sam Rockwell was almost unknown when he took the part, after having turned it down several times. He reasoned that it might be a good piece of counter-programming to show his range as “The Green Mile” was coming out around the same time. Tim Allen  probably had his finest role as an actor playing the William Shatner inspired lead character.

The Producer, screenwriter, director, casting director, production designer, editor and composer all have stories to share about the film and many of them are hysterical. The movie is generously supplied with clips from Galaxy Quest itself, along with Star Trek moments and a variety of other material. There is also an elaborate thread about the fans of Galaxy Quest, and the documentary trails a couple of fans who cosplay their way across the universe in salute to this pitch perfect film. We get a chance to see how fans become part of the story and how they were the original inspiration for the film in the first place.

The climax of the film brings the fans and the makers of the movie together at a celebratory screening of the film. It just so happens that I was at that screening along with my wife, daughter and my Southern California blogging colleague Michael, who brought his daughter the the screening as well. I covered the showing two years ago with some more details. Last night when we saw the documentary, we were delighted to note that we make a guest star appearance in the film. Amanda’s Jaws shirt and my Hawaiian style blue shirt are clearly visible in the crowd scenes as the Thermains arrived for the screening of the film. I have been a long time fan of Galaxy Quest, I took the whole family as our Christmas day movie in 1999. One of the things I remember speaking to them all about was that the aspect ration of the film changed three times in the movie. It was nice to hear that confirmed by the director, since the DVD presentation does not always allow you to notice that change.

I’m not one to disagree with David Mamet. I think he is certainly right when he includes this movie on a list of perfect films. In fact I did the same thing six years ago on a post I entitled “Three Perfect Movies“. If you check it out you will see I was with Mamet on this one early on. The documentary was accompanied by a long introduction from the Fandom group that put it together. If it is ever available to people on line or in physical form, I hope they will include the interactions of the writers for the site and the “Honest Trailer” they put together for the film. They were quite entertaining as well.

Doctor Sleep

Thirty-five years ago, someone created a sequel to a Stanley Kubrick film, using material from the original author of the piece. It seemed foolish to try to ride the tailcoats of Kubrick’s Masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey“, but “2010: The Year We Make Contact” was not a disaster and it did make a little money. Well, writer/director Mike Flanagan has attempted the same feat. Kubrick’s “The Shining” had a sequel written for it by original author Stephen King, and that story has been adapted to make this sequel almost forty years later.

“Doctor Sleep” is substantially different in tone from “The Shining”. The single location of the first film made it feel like a Gothic haunted house story, although there are many elements of the “shine” that are present. King was famously dissatisfied with the Kubrick approach. While I never read the novel, I suspect his unhappiness stemmed from the minimal relationship of the psychic ability of Danny Torrance to the film story. That may in fact be why King returned to the characters, so that he could elaborate on the mystery of “Shining” and not simply be trapped in the haunted hotel.

This story does start off at the time of the original events, and there are a couple of moments recreated for the prologue, but we quickly move forward thirty years to Danny Torrance as an adult. He is a troubled man who has been haunted by the spirit of the house that he feels has pursued him over the years. Ewan McGregor plays the adult Danny and he wanders aimlessly until another spirit visits him and he commits to a fresh start with new friends and no chemical solutions to his anxiety. As his story is playing out we are introduced to a new group of people who seem to thrive on those that shine. At first it is unclear whether they are spirits or something else. Ultimately, this group of wanderers lead by the magnetic Rebecca Ferguson, turns out to be the antagonists in a deadly hunt of those who can “shine” and those who use the shiners for their own purposes. It’s basically a vampire story with creatures that are human but who have supernatural abilities. It certainly is a horror story, but it is not the slow burn descent into madness that the original focused on.

The strengths of the story ,as told in the film, are first and foremost McGregor, who has to be desperate, sometime despicable and ultimately re-deemed. The character is strongest in the scenes where he is working as an orderly in a hospice, and conversing with those who are soon making the trip to the other side. He develops the sympathy and heroic nature that he will need when the story leads him to direct confrontation. Cliff Curtis, a familiar supporting actor and welcome presence helps steady Danny in the road to empowering his Shining Skills. Inevitably there is a figure that brings the two sides into conflict. I won’t spoil the horror for you but suffice it to say, it involves children, and that is introduced as a theme early on but taken to it’s most horrifying place mid-way through the film.

Modern film techniques allow directors to do things that seem physically impossible. The CGI moments remind us of that impossibility. That is one of the reasons that practical effects are so important, because they tie a sense of reality to the impossible. Two sequences in the film took be out of the story a bit because of the computer work. One involves a young girl rotating a house and levitating, this was preceded by an episode with spoons years earlier. Both of these moments would have worked more in a frightening way if they had more practical elements to them. “Shining” moments are less problematic because we are in a fantasy world at that point so the lack of reality is less egregious.

Just like how 2010 took the metaphysical world of it’s predecessor and moved it into a traditional political conflict, Flanagan  and King take the supernatural horror from the first story and turn it into an action story, and it works. There are moments of horror in this film that are shocking for sure but it will be most noted for the game playing being done by two sides that we get to understand pretty well. It feels like an adaption of a complex universe that has been created in a book, and I think it is largely successful at turning that material into something cinematic.

Midway (2019)

This was a movie that I really wish I’d gotten to for the Veteran’s Day Holiday. It is a no frills salute to the Navy forces that sustained the fight in the Pacific in the months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It hews closely to the timeline of events and the key players in the Battle of Midway which happened just six months after the surprise attack and largely changed the fortunes of war for the American side. A combination of hard work, rage and intuitive luck resulted in a complete reversal of the naval status of the two nations in a very short time.

Director Roland Emmerich is known for the disaster films he has made. Whatever his dramatic limitations are, he knows how to blow things up and show destruction on a massive scale. With this subject he has found an effective outlet for his skillset. There is a reenactment of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle raid on Tokyo and subsequent Japanese attacks on China and in the Corral Sea. All of this is a lead up to the title battle which takes up the last part of the film.

There is a narrative that focuses on the life of Navy flyer Dick Best, a real hero from the period. The fact that ther is a personal story however does not make this like the other war films you have seen over the years. We get just enough of his homelife and personal doubts to see that he is a human being in this large scale picture of the war. Similarly, there is a slight story about the intelligence officer who had warned about potential dangers at Pearl Harbor before the attack, and his subsequent work with code breakers to try and determine where the next big event would be. Actor Ed Skrein plays Best as a no nonsense family man who also is fearless enough to intimidate those he is in command of. Patrick Wilson plays the quiet intelligence guy who’s guilt over the Pearl Harbor mess forces him to challenge establishment thinking about the war.

There are not quite as many personal touches for the Japanese commanders but they are presented in honest ways, suggesting their commitment and honor in what is a truly tragic us of resources. This is not a propaganda film, it is an historical document of the events and it tries to steer clear of making one side or the other more virtuous, it simply tries to tell us what happened. As a history lesson it is pretty effective. It is not hard for us to follow events and see how the strategy for Midway was evolved by both sides. Of course the thing that makes it cinematic is the CGI spectacle that we see as the conflict plays out. It is clear that this is a CGI heavy film, the work is competent but it is at times noticeable. The scale of destruction that happens probably could not be presented any other way these days in a budget that is manageable. Unlike “Saving Private Ryan”, “Midway presents the destruction without all the visceral horror that modern effects and make up are capable of. There are a few scenes where fire injuries are shown but there are no closeups on the wounded and the dead which are meant to turn our stomachs. This is a film that largely could have been made in the 1950s for it’s sensibilities.

Woody Harrelson, Aaron Eckhart, and Dennis Quaid play major historical figures, but most of their work is really background, with only a little bit of drama involved. Once again, we are presented with a reason to be eternally grateful to the “Greatest Generation”.  As far as I’m concerned that is justification enough to see the movie. The history lesson is also solid and it makes this a film that could be appropriately shown as part of a school curriculum. The drama is soft pedaled but the hard fought war and the losses that it entailed are worth a visit.

Last Christmas

Probably everyone goes through a part of their life when every decision we make is a bad one, no good turn goes unpunished, or simply we string together a series of hardships that make our lives seem worthless. I’ve heard that the holiday season is also the season where there is the most depression, because in part, we are surrounded by good feelings that we don’t share in as much. Sadness about lost opportunities and relationships get magnified by the cheerful goings on around us and as a consequence, the down feelings get exaggerated. Now, imagine that you have some of that sadness and you are immersed in Christmas all year long. That is the premise of this romantic comedy/drama starring Emilia Clarke.

Kate (Katarina as her Mother prefers) works in a shop that sells Christmas items all year long. Everyday she is dressed as an elf and encounters people who are in a good enough mood that they will shop for unusual Christmas ornaments, even in the summer. The problem is, a year before, Kate had a medical emergency. We are not told exactly what it was in the early part of the film because that would tip off some of the turn that is coming at the end. Frankly, when it did get revealed, I started to immediately wonder how it was going to connect everything. I will admit I went in a different direction in my thinking than the script does, but not too far away, so the story does have a bit of logic to it. I do think it is a bit of a cheat but I am very forgiving of those things with a movie that wants nothing more than to make you feel good. Anyway, Kate’s medical procedure has left her an em optional wreck, capable of doing dumb things and completely ignoring the destruction that is left in her wake.

In a way, this is another retelling of a “Christmas Carol”, where the spirit of the holiday is called on to redeem a person who has lost their way. Henry Golding plays Tom, a man who appears in Kate’s life and seems to be pointing her in some different directions. His character is not exactly the opposite of hers but in a ying/yang way he compliments her needs. Tom is meticulous, graceful and always looking for the bright side in things. The mess that Kate is making with her life needs some of that direction. Kate has friends but she is burning through them as a way of avoiding her Mother, an overprotective and equally thoughtless woman. Emma Thompson plays the mother, she also co-wrote the script for the movie. Her character could be a villain but it turns out she is just as lost and depressed as Kate is, just in different ways.

The movie is filled with characters that we can enjoy in small amounts without taking away from Kate’s story. The crew and clients at the homeless shelter where Kate ends up spending time are probably a little “too Hollywood” homeless, but it is a Christmas movie and we don’t want to be confronted too much with drugs and mental illness. Kate’s boss is one of the great pleasures of the film. Michelle Yeoh is “Santa” the owner of the shop where Kate works. She appears to be flinty and judgmental of Kate’s life, but it turns out she has deeper thoughts about Kate than anyone else has managed to express. She also just needs to be prompted to let her soft side out, and when it does come out, it is a joy.

Every year we get holiday films that try to move us and inspire us to be better people. This movie wants to be “Love Actually”, but it does not quite reach those heights. It does however try in a sincere way to be that kind of movie, and it’s shortcomings are small enough to be forgiven. “Last Christmas” may not be a perennial film for everyone, but it is pleasant enough to start the holiday season with. It also manages to make the Wham/George Michael song tolerable for an hour and forty minutes, and that is some kind of accomplishment.

 

The Right Stuff with Phillip Kaufman

For Veteran’s Day we celebrated by attending a special screening of “The Right Stuff” , sponsored by American Legion Post 43 and the American Cinemateque. Before the show however, we took advamtage of an opportunity to visit the Hollywood Heritage Museum, across the street. The event planners arranged for a two hour window for guests to stop by this intimate little piece of history after regular hours.

The Barn, as it is referred to , contains materials from the earliest Hollywood studio, founded by some of the giants of the industry including Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille.

If you are a film fan, it is a great place to stop for an hour or so, which is about as much time as we stayed before moving on over to the American Legion post.

Amanda and I had been in the theater at the Legion Hall back during the TCMFF in April. The building is a fascinating structure that dates back decades and has intimate spaces in the basement as well as the beautiful theater on the main floor. I’d noticed on my check in on Facebook that one of my Facebook friends was also in attendance. Lawrence Kaplowitz is a gentleman I follow on Facebook, I joined a TCM fan page and he posts there regularly. I located him and his new bride a few rows in front of us and I went up and introduced myself in real life. We chatted for a few minutes and it was nice to speak with another film fan in Southern California who has some of the same interests as I.

In addition to all that I have described, and the movie were were about to see, the event was special because it was being introduced by the writer/director of the movie Phillip Kaufman himself. Author and Legionaire Alan Rode, interviewed Mr. Kaufman about the film for nearly forty minutes. We heard about the casting process and the relationship he developed with Chuck Yeager. The clever use of traditional old school special effects techniques to simulate the aircraft and launches was interesting. He also briefly touched on the prior script by William Goldman and discussed why he felt it was necessary to change it. Ultimately he wanted that first hour to be about the test pilots that made having “the right stuff” so important, especially Yeager.

Kaufman did say actress Veronica Cartwright was in attendance last night but I did not get an opportunity to see her. All of the actors got a round of applause as their names came up in the credits. This was a 35mm presentation and it looked and sounded great.

If you want to read an LA Times article on this event, I have linked it for you here.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2019-11-09/the-right-stuff-blasts-off-for-a-veterans-day-screening-in-hollywood

The Film

“The Right Stuff” is one of two films from the 1980s [the second being Amadeus] that I would include on my top ten list of all time. It was in fact my wife’s favorite movie and I did have a few moments of wistful nostalgia as it played out. She spent her first few years as a child in the high desert area. Her brother worked at Edwards Air Force base and the China Lake Weapons Station. We visited the museum there, where you can see the original X-1.
The story of the launch of the space program is of interest to all but especially to we baby boomers who lived through that time. We knew the astronauts and watched the launches and followed the progress of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs closely. The film manages to make each of the original seven astronauts interesting, although in the big picture of the film Deke Slayton, Wally Schirra and Scott Carpenter  end up in the background. Shepard, Glenn, Grissom and Cooper are the main pillars of the story. I think the standout performance is Fred Ward as the gruff and unfairly judged Gus Grissom. My colleague on the Lambcast does not like Dennis Quaid but I find him perfectly cast here and he provides much of the humor that makes this film so memorable and real.
Bill Conti’s score is triumphant and patriotic and exactly right for the tone the film is pursuing. There is effective use of source music as well and this was my introduction to Holst’s “The Planets”.

I wrote about this film for my series “Movies I Want Everyone to See” and I urge you to visit that post to get a more complete discussion of the film.

 

The Irishman

Let me start off with a couple of justifications. This is a Netflix created project, designed to be shown on their streaming service. As such, there are doubts about whether it should be included in my usual project since I try to focus on theatrical material. Last year I participated in some spirited discussions of “Roma” based on the premise that it is not “cinema”. This seems oddly ironic given the take Martin Scorsese has on the comic book movies that dominate theaters these days. Unlike “Roma” however, I did see this in a theater and it was an exclusive run before any streaming of it on the home network is available. The major theater chains were unwilling to book this without a traditional window of exclusive exhibition, so I still think my doubts are relevant. There are some mitigating issues however. First, this is a Martin Scorsese project and he clearly sees it as a film. Second, I have made exceptions in the past about what I cover on this site and I have written about documentaries or “films” made for premium channels in the past. I have also covered related material, concerts for instance that are inspired by movies. So my rules are a little flexible. Finally, I think the battle will be lost in the next few years and I will be doomed to be a collaborator in the destruction of the cinema going experience by day and date VOD, so I may as well start kowtowing now to get into practice. I will still scream about it but lets face it, my finger in the dike is will not stop it.

Last night’s screening at the Egyptian was sold out, there was not a seat to be had and there were people standing in the wings, the whole time the movie was playing. Anticipation was high and I was quite excited about seeing the film. It is a solid piece of gangster story telling told by the master of that genre, but it is not the masterpiece of his career. The three and a half hour running time is very noticeable, especially in the last forty minutes of the movie. This could easily be broken into two parts for the television mini series presentation it probably deserves. The sprawling story covers five decades and it is told through a series of flashbacks and forwards that also make the pacing seem slower than it actually is. The fact that the finale plays out in one long sequence with the main character in a wheelchair dying of cancer, feels anti climatic although it does contain some of the only moments of emotion that the main character exhibits.

“Mean Streets” was low level street gangsters, “Goodfellas” was gangsters on drugs, “Casino” was gangsters and gambling, “The Departed” was gangsters with police corruption, “Gangs of New York” was historical gangsters and “The Irishman” is gangsters and unions. The same template that was used for “GoodFellas” and “Casino” is found here. We are given a narrator who is telling us the story as we see it play out. There are beats of violence every few minutes and grim humor pops up occasionally to keep it entertaining. The actors are all fine, but this movie lacks some of the grace points of those previous classics. The bravura one take Steadicam nightclub scene in “Goodfellas” was a moment that made that film special. There is no equivalent film making technique here. Joe Pesci was lightning on screen in both “Goodfellas” and “Casino”, no such character exists in this trudge through Teamster/Mafia politics of the 60s and 70s. Sharon Stone was a dynamic female character in “Casino” there are virtually no important women characters featured in this story. The pacing of those two movies, especially in the last segments built into a crescendo that made us quickly in hale to try to catch our breath. “The Irishman” does little to keep us from nodding off at the end except hope that we care how Frank manages to reconcile himself with the world.

Joe Pesci came out of semi-retirement to make the movie, but his character could have been done by any number of actors. His unique volatility and vocal delivery is never called upon by Scorsese to make the film sing.  Harvey Kietel is in the movie, but I will be amazed if you remember that at the conclusion of the running time. His character is so far in the background that we only know what he thinks through his orders being repeated by those he supposedly conveyed them to.   Robert DeNiro is the star of the film, and he turns in a credible performance but nothing close to earlier work in this milieu. The character of Frank Sheeran is a cipher in most of his scenes. DeNiro is trying to make a nearly personality free low level thug into an interesting character, but it is only the alleged acts of violence he claims to have carried out that make him noticeable.  The hollow award that the character gets during his time as a union president would be hard to justify given the lack of any outgoing charisma.

The actor who scores best in the film is Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa. Having been parodied for years for his throaty overacting in recent films, Pacino is more realistic here. There are a few scenes where the bellicose Hoffa goes off but Pacino plays them in character rather than making him a character. The rest of the time he seems to be a committed and forceful man who was too pig headed to notice that those closest to him were the ones who were the most dangerous. The simple scenes that Pacino plays opposite DeNiro’s on screen daughter are the ones that sell us on him as a real person. The contrast in the relationship between Hoffa and Sheeran’s family versus Pesci and DeNiro who mimic family love but can’t really sell it, that is the best directed part of the film, but it’s only enough to make Pacino’s character come to life, not enough to make the film do so.

Two other things that I saw as drawbacks to the film include the early de-aging CGI and the musical score. I got used to the CGI miracle after a few minutes, but that does not mean that it worked perfectly. As this technology gets better, I think actors will have to be careful because they could be replaced by AI created performers that might get us to respond to them by reading analytics of audience reactions. The other mild complaint is the score by Robbie Robertson. Maybe it is a good thing that there is no memorable theme or consistent melody running through th film story, but I think that makes it harder to feel the film is memorable. The only bits that were significant to me were the doo wop clips and the background music in particular scenes. Jerry Vale was the musical high note of the film, and while he was a fine vocalist, I don’t think that is enough to hang your musical hat on for a film.

In summary, you have seen this before and it has been better done in other Scorsese films, but that does not make this a bad movie. The film is quite good and it almost convinces us that this is the real story. All of the performances are solid but nothing historic that people will look back on and say, “that was a milestone” in that guys career. The history lesson we get of mob infiltration of the unions works pretty well at getting to the heart of the idea, even if the details are invented. There is enough blood and betrayal to clearly mark this as a Scorsese film, but in the end, most of out characters get wacked by cancer and heart disease rather than other mob guys or the cops. It is a little indulgent but a story that is pretty well told using tried and true techniques we have experienced many times before.