AMC Best Picture Showcase Day 2

So just a few random thoughts on the Best Picture Selections this year. Last week we watched two films with Lucas Hedges back to back. He was in “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards”. Timothée Chalamet was in “Lady Bird” and today’s “Call Me By Your Name”.  Nick Searcy was in “Three Billboards” and “The Shape of Water”. Today we had Bradley Whitford in back to back “The Post” and “Get Out”. Finally Michael Stuhlbarg was in “The Shape of Water, “Call Me By Your Name” and “The Post”. These actors have got to have great agents to get into the top pictures of the year not just once, but two and three times.

“Phantom Thread” and “The Post” were the two films I needed to catch up on, and while I admired them both, I don’t see either of them as a likely winner in the big category. “Phantom Thread” lacks anybody likable in the cast of characters, and “The Post” is so traditional that it won this award two years ago when it was called “Spotlight”.

Speaking of actors who appeared back to back in some of the films on the program, we had a historical event do exactly the same thing. “Dunkirk” was followed by “Darkest Hour” and it was almost as if Joe Wright’s film was just another segment of the Christopher Nolan film. It’s Title Card would read Parliament: Two Weeks.

I feel confident in my choice of “Dunkirk” as the best film of last year but I am not at all confident that the Academy will go along with me. 

Dunkirk   Christopher Nolan’s film was the most visually impressive, forward moving, and meaningful film of the lot. Listening to the score and watching how he masterfully integrated three separate time lines into a single narrative with clever overlaps and great timing, I know that this was the best directing job this year. Nothing against Guillermo Del Toro, but this complex story, logistical nightmare and historical memorial is simple better constructed than the odd fish love story. This is a film that tells a real historical story that will last long after the fashion of the fairy tale set in a mythological era in U.S. history, is a charming oddity. 

Some people complain that the characters here are not well developed, that is true. This however is not a character piece but a prism on the events that were taking place during a military disaster that became a turning point in a manner that was most unexpected. 

Darkest Hour  This film was even stronger the second time I saw it. The first viewing I was overpowered by Gary Oldman’s performance. He will surely be the winner in the acting category. I admired the film before but I have come to really respect it on this second encounter. Joe Wright manages to make a tale of political intrigue into a fascinating study of a character and the country who’s character he came to represent for the duration of the war. The one clumsy moment is a scene set in an underground train car. The only reason it is clumsy is that it feels so distinct from everything else, like a deliberate movie moment. That shows that the rest of the movie does exist as something more than the typical fare.  But even that scene works emotionally because it bespeaks of a real sense of what the British people felt at the time. 

Call Me By Your Name  I am being a little facetious when I say this film is a pain in the neck. That’s because in the first half I went to sleep and got a crick that is staining my muscles still. My least favorite of the nominees, this film is slow moving, meandering and confounding. I felt like I was listening to a play frequently, with dialogue written eloquently but sounding artificial. A couple of podcasters that I listen to love this film and especially the sequence with Michael Stuhlbarg as the father of Elio, consoling his son on the “special” friendship he had with Oliver. It ends on s deliberately false note when the Dad tells his son that he doesn’t think that Mom knows about the nature of their friendship. The mom had just picked up a near weeping Elio at the train station and she dropped hints for the previous hour that she knew how special Elio thought Oliver was. When Mr. Perlman says he never had a relationship with anyone like Elio had with Oliver, we can believe him because he so obtusely ignores how insightful his wife is. This will probably win the Screenplay Award, and it shouldn’t, if it takes the big prize I might yell loud enough to ruin my voice for a month.  

The Post  So this was the one new film we saw on day two. This has the phrase “Oscar Bait” pasted all over it. It features Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, a ton of high end supporting players and it was directed by Steven Spielberg. The subject matter concerns the fight of the press against preemptive shut down of news publication. It is a first amendment issue that was understandably important, yet at the same time it ignores some pretty egregious behavior. We can always applaud someone after the fact when their actions seem just and there was no blow-back,  but there were issues regarding the acquisition of the Pentagon Papers that probably still need to be discussed.  Spielberg and co-screenwriters Josh Singer and Liz Hannah, manage to make a bureaucratic legal process look and sound like a courtroom drama with some mystery tied in.  Singer in particular is working on familiar ground since he won an Academy Award two years ago for a very similarly structured newspaper story “Spotlight”.

This is supposed to be a resistance film, about the Media vs. the President in a time when everyone wants to be standing up to the current administration. The parallels are not really there to give this much resonance. This is a two hour commercial for the Washington Post and the heavy handed feminist slant in some of the visuals makes it feel too much like a lecture at times. That said, it is well made and the John Williams score is excellent as usual. Because “Bridge of Spies” and “Spotlight” are just a couple of years old however, this feels like it is old territory and not quite as distinctive as it needs to be. 

Get Out  This one is the outlier. You rarely get a horror film nominated for Best Picture, but if you do, it is usually more of a big budget film. This Jordan Peele written and directed film seemed to come in under the radar, it made a huge splash, and it is getting some end of the year accolades. The intersectionality of this film is in keeping with all the film buffs who are much more woke than I am. I just enjoyed the twist and the characters in the film. Rod from TSA is a saving grace that adds more straightforward humor to the mix. Instead of a haunted house we get a upscale suburban plantation. The need for subtlety on the race subject is probably eliminated by the DNA of the movie. Being an outsider in an nearly all white environment makes Chris, our lead character played by nominated actor Daniel Kaluuya, mildly uncomfortable but also keenly aware of how different the culture he is visiting is. 

While most people will consider the “Sunken Place” to be the most horrifying image in the film, to me it is the silent auction with bingo cards. We still don’t know what is going on, but the suggestion is truly awful. Seeing it for a second time, I could pay more attention to some of the interesting choices that were made. Grandma and  Grandpa are certainly clever twists, although it seems strange that for the duration of Chris being a guest, the force required to hold those characters would be counter-intuitive to the actual plan. The creepy factor also takes Chris a little too long to respond to. His buddy is right, and he should be listening to him sooner. There is an outside chance this could take the award, the voting system gives weight to the number of ballots a film appears on, and this would be a popular ad to the list but not necessarily high on the list. Should it when I expect to see some “Get Out” Memes that mine the fertile teen speak use of the terminology. 

As an aside, let me rant about the misquotes being used to decorate the entry way to the theater. Both “Cool Hand Luke” and “Jaws” are misquoted in the floor below. 

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.

Free Fire

There is something just great about a movie set in a single claustrophobic location, filled with criminals. “Reservoir Dogs” by Quentin Tarantino served as his introduction to the world. The colorful characters and bantering dialogue were a swift kick in the pants to movie fans who had become jaded by traditional action thrillers. Just a couple of years ago, he plagiarized himself with another location bound crime film, this one set in the old west, “The Hateful Eight”. While he has played with the idea of a single location, both of those films involve substantial flashback stories that take us from the set spot to other locations during the run time of the movie. “Free Fire” does not do any such thing. Everyone arrives at the location, and then the rest of the film takes place exclusively in those confines.

This is basically a criminal deal gone bad, that ends up in a shootout. It sounds very basic and from the perspective of story, it is. There are however a few tweaks that director Ben Wheatley and his co-screenwriter Amy Jump throw into the concoction.  For instance, the spark that lights the already intense situation has nothing to do with the deal. By coincidence, a couple of hotheads with a beef are in the two factions and tempers flare around a bunch of volatile people. Almost all of the characters are given some distinctive personality quirks in a short set up, and as a result we know that even when they are allied with another person, their inclination is likely to be to shoot.

Like most films featuring criminal activity, the parties are not entirely reliable. There are a number of double crosses and switches of loyalty. When bullets start to fly, often the direction you point your gun in is largely determined by where a previous shot came from. Early on, one character quizzes another, trying to reassure themselves, “You’re not FBI are you?” “No. I’m IFM, In it For Myself.” By the midway point of the film, pretty much everyone has joined the same group. free_fire

The stars of the film are Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley and Academy Award Winner Brie Larson. Larson plays Justine, a go between for the IRA group that wants some weapons, and the black-marketeers that are willing to supply them.  Her part here makes a little more sense than her recent turn as a photo journalist in “Kong: Skull Island”,  but she basically serves the same purpose, to be the sole representative of her gender with a part in the story. The humor that is the main selling point of this film is enhanced by her presence as a distraction to the others and an opportunity to use some lines of dialogue to promote gender equity in a more unusual way. Hammer is the cooler than thou broker who always has a bon mot to drop. Sometimes he insults the players, often he is incredulously commenting on the circumstances. Copley is the ace in the hole for the movie. His first appearance provokes laughter as his suit is so clearly a 70s cut and his hair and other styling reek  of the decade. His odd South African accent, combined with a belligerent manner and a chip on his shoulder make for a great character that you can just tell will be the source of all kinds of amusement.

I should mention two other scene stealers as they are the ones who lite the fuse and just won”t let it burn out during the story. Sam Riley is a weaselly junkie, brought in on the job simply to load weapons and act as back up muscle. Everybody in this movie kicks his ass to some degree or another. Jack Reynor, who was the standout supporting character of the older brother in “Sing Street” last year, adds another great character role as a counter part local thug who has a surprise connection to the other character. Testosterone induced violence, flavored with a heavy dose of grim humor, and a seemingly endless supply of ammo, makes this film sing as well.

free fire

Our attendance last night was at the Arclight Theater in Hollywood, where there are frequent guest appearances to promote a film. Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer were there last night and will return this evening to talk about some of the behind the scenes stories of the film. Both men were avuncular raconteurs who regaled us with amusing anecdotes about hair, wardrobe and the use of fire on set. The half hour was fun but not particularly deep. Let’s face it the movie isn’t deep, it is just entertaining as were the two stars.

After the Q and A.
Costume Display in the Arclight Lobby

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

I love 1960s spy stuff. James Bond was born in the sixties, Patrick Magoohan was Danger Man, Johnny Rivers killed it with his spy themed “Secret Agent Man” and Mel Brooks spoofed it with “Get Smart”. Even before I’d seen my first Bond film, I saw “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” on television. When I heard that a movie version was planned, I was relatively pleased. I know there are people who hate the idea of a classic show being adapted for movie screens. The list of failures is long: “Lost in Space”, McHale’s Navy”, “The Flintstones”. Video bins are littered with 60s shows re-imagined as big screen entertainment. The hope is that you will get an occasional “Addams Family” or “The Fugitive”, the reality is you end up with “Sgt. Bilko”. So, which way did it go with the latest effort to rob our childhoods to feed our adult addictions?

The movie version of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” gets a lot of things right. It also leaves out some of the things that you treasured. In the end, it works as a stand alone concept because the only things that really remain from the show, are the concept and time period. By sticking to the time period of the original series, the Cold War years of the 1960s, the film manages to keep the tension between East and West as a background. More importantly, they get to costume the leads in stylish 60s garb. One of my favorite things about Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” was the way he captured the vibe of the early 60s. I have not watched a minute of “Mad Men”, but I suspect this movie would do the set decoration and costuming on that series proud. Henry Cavill, who plays the Napoleon Solo character, is dressed in stylish suits in every scene. The fabrics are vivid and the cut flattering. Although they would look a bit old fashioned now, they would carry a lot of retro cache with them.  Armie Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin is not wearing the high turtleneck sweater that was practically a trademark of the character, but the Henley styled shirts and plain suits he does wear are perfectly appropriate. The women are the ones who get shown off to the greatest advantage with some mod evening wear from the villainess. The girl that helps the two spies out (a standard storyline from the 60s show) has some cute 60s outfits that would be snapped up in an instant by hipster thrift store shoppers.

The plot really feels like it could be taken from a lost episode of the show. An East German girl is being used by the spy network, to locate her missing father, a nuclear genius who has technology that gives it’s owners great powers. A loose band of Nazi sympathizers have the Doctor captive and are using his knowledge to gain power and build bombs. Most superhero franchises start with origin stories, and this film does the same thing. It attempts to explain how Russian and American spies, begin working together. The TV show never bothered with such background, it simply presented the covert network as a functioning entity from the beginning and then focused on the case for that week. Creating a background story for the agency is the biggest add by Guy Richie and his collaborators. The problem is that it leaves out stuff that made the original series cool, at least to us old enough to remember it. The badges, secret entrance to headquarters, briefings by Mr. Waverly, and the communication gadgets are all missing from the movie. Solo is given a backstory that makes him more Alexander Monday than James Bond. Someone decided that Ilya needed psychological problems to balance out his perfect physical capabilities. The changes work for a big screen adaption but they do distance the audience that might have been drawn in to the film by their love of the series.

Some of the things that work well in this film include the opening section where the Russian spy Illya Kuryakin is chasing after the American spy Napoleon Solo. The car chase and running gun fight are worthy stunts for an opening to a spy thriller. The banter between the two spies is also one of the things that Guy Richie brings to the movie. Anyone seeing his London based crime thrillers knows that snappy dialogue and quick exchanges are trademarks of his work. Hammer does not get quite as many of these lines as Cavill does, but he does get a lot of the physical reaction shots that make a joke pay off. Alicia Vikander is in her third film of the year with this movie. I thought she was great in both “Seventh Son” and “Ex Machina” , the later of which she should always flaunt on her resume. She does not get to do a lot of action material in this movie, but she is definitely more than just the damsel in distress. Hugh Grant is in the film but very little. if there is another in the franchise I know his role will be expanded. The split screen effect used during the storming of the island fortress was an efficient way to get through what might have been a long sequence very effectively, I could do with less shaky cam in the pursuit that follows.

One mistake that I think the film makers make is that they don’t use the original Jerry Goldsmith music effectively. Take a look at how the “Mission Impossible” series has managed to weave the iconic song into those films. They may owe half their box office take to Lalo Schiffrin. The U.N.C.L.E. theme is in the film but only as an exit instrumental rather than as a transition piece. It has been altered from a big horned, bass heavy theme into a nearly unrecognizable conga tune. The result was one of the least satisfying parts of the film. Overall, I enjoyed the film a lot, but there are things to fix to make it as much fun as it should have been. If Guy Richie and his writing partners want some advise for the sequel, they can reach me on channel D.