Long Shot

One way that you can tell that Charlize Theron is a great actress is that you can believe she has fallen for Seth Rogan in this movie. Of course it plays to some of the worst traditional chauvinist fantasies that a beautiful woman can be in love with a shlub like this, but you know what, it works because the actress sells the idea and plays it in a low key manner with just the right amount of trepidation to start with and then a full blown commitment.

This is a romantic comedy filtered through the irreverent humor that typifies movies with Seth Rogan. The premise seems like it is something that should not work in the real world but we do have the American Political situation as it is, so it seems plausible. The President has decided not to seek a second term and is willing to endorse his Secretary of State to replace him. She would be the first female President and her background will be a point of contention in the election. Masters of Analytics have assessed her on her qualities and they need to punch up her humor numbers. Theron is the Secretary of State and Rogan is a long ago neighbor who happens to be an acerbic writer with some wit. After they connect by accident she chooses him to help craft her voice and make more of her points in an amusing way.

This is sort of the flip side of “The American President” with a little bit of “The Contender” thrown in. Layer on a big helping of “There’s Something About Mary” and you will understand what you are getting into. It is formulaic, but there are tweaks to the formula that are outrageous and make the movie funny in a way that we probably should not be laughing about. Rogan is presented as a clown at first, bumbling his way into the scene by making stupid mistakes. Theron is overworked, idealistic and ambitious, all things that typify a woman in the world of politics. Still, there are bits that are amusing before the two start to fall for each other. I loved the micro naps that Theron’s character indulges in, and Rogan’s mode of dress is infantile to begin with. Once they are thrown together and the sexual part of the relationship begins, the humor becomes more coarse. Frankly, the ultimate threat the couple faces from hacked footage on his computer is something that goes over the top, but “There’s Something About Mary” is over twenty years old now, so it will probably be old hat for audiences weaned on that sort of humor.

O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays Rogan’s best friend and he gets to have a moment that I never thought I would see in a Hollywood film. The two of them discuss politics at one point and Jackson’s character reveals something about himself and cogently explains his position and it is a moment of sanity about how the world ought to be. The willingness to look at other points of view is what allows us to function as a society, and this film acknowledges, even if it is for humorous purposes, that this is not the way politics currently functions. I don’t want to suggest that this is a serious political film but it does have some interesting themes and that is one of them.

In the end, your enjoyment of the movie will depend on your tolerance for the romantic comedy beats that make up the genre, and your willingness to care for the characters. I was won over despite feeling that both characters were a bit self centered to begin with. I liked the way their past is woven into the story to make them a bit more real, and the awkwardness of their attraction is not ignored by either of the characters. A real romantic partnership exists when the two people complement one another in the ways that their partners need them to. It may be a cliche when Jerry Maguire says in the romantic climax of that film, “You complete me,” but it is true of real love and that felt like it worked here.

AMC Tenth Anniversary Best Picture Showcase

It’s been an amazing ten years that AMC Theaters have put on the Best picture Showcase. In 2007, there were only five films nominated, continuing a long tradition since the 1940s of only including five films in the top category. In 2009 there was a change in the nomination process and up to 10 films would be honored as Best Picture Nominees. That’s when the Showcase evolved into a two day affair spread over two weekends. Since then we have had two years of ten nominations, two years of nine nominations and two years of eight nominations. While it is nice when extra films are included, the four a day weekends are a little easier to get through than the two five a day weekends they had when the rules first changed. Someday though, I hope to tackle the 24 hour marathon when they have eight to ten films play back to back in a single 24 hour period.

Shane, the AMC host for the event at Santa Anita

So this year, for some reason, I’ve not seen as many of the nominees as usual. That means I don’t have a lot of reviews to link back to. I will try yo make my comments extensive enough to give you a sense of the film, without necessarily giving you a full review.

Bridge of Spies

How it is that I missed a Steven Spielberg film, starring Tom Hanks and featuring Cold War spy intrigue is a mystery to me. I think that Mr. Spielberg has reached the point where everyone seems to take for granted that his films are going to be good. A bit like Meryl Streep, his movies get nominated a lot but don’t usually end up taking the prose. This is his third nominated film in the last five years, he has had eleven Best Picture Nominations in his career, but only one has taken home the top prize. It gets to the point where we just expect great work from him and then don’t need to confirm it with an award. As an artist with a high degree of consistency, Spielberg is hard to match and he has another excellent film with this movie.

The production design of this film is meticulous. The late fifties and early sixties are evoked in the subway rides and the vistas they reveal. Sometimes we are moving through an elevated train in Brooklyn, and other times crossing the border between East and West Berlin. The data that was being gathered by the Soviet agent is never described or explained, only the context of his arrest and the times. Tom Hanks Manhattan attorney works in the sort of firm you imagine would be found at the time, with big oak desks and solid doors with engraved nameplates to indicate the partner who’s office we are in. The bleak apartments and prisons of the Communist dominated sections of Germany are contrasted with lush Western hotels and meeting rooms. Only the Soviet courtroom where Francis Gary Powers is convicted, has the grandeur of the western locations.

Working without John Williams for the first time in forever, the music of Thomas Newman is dramatic without having a signature touch. Hanks is as usual excellent, but the stand out in a not quite wordless but certainly an economized set of lines is British Theater star Mark Rylance, playing a Soviet agent who remains unperturbed by his predicament. The impenetrable web of lies that the east Germans, Soviets and Americans  share with one another, has to be translated by the boy scout of an attorney played by Hanks, and there are national security issues in every step. It plays out effectively with the usual Spielberg professionalism and eye for details. The parallel images of boys jumping over neighbors back fences in New York and families being machine gunned as they try to cross the new wall in Berlin, is just one mark of that eye that Spielberg has for connecting the visual with the emotional.

Room

I’m not sure I have recovered from seeing this movie yet. A dark story that will horrify and inspire simultaneously, “Room” may be the best acted film nominated this year. Young Brie Larson is almost certainly going to be the winner of the Best Actress award. Her portrayal of a wounded lioness trying to raise her cub while at the same time learning to live with the damage done to her was remarkable. She works with a child actor equally gifted at this stage, Jacob Tremblay. The two of them are the focus of the film almost entirely, even in scenes with other actors, including accomplished veterans, they form the kind of symbiotic performance that makes your heart melt in one moment and freeze in the next.

The story is told effectively in the first half, with limited camera movement in a claustrophobic space that induces hopelessness. Even after the two emerge from the location of the first five years of young Jack’s life, they seem to still be trapped in that space. It is surprising that Jack, who has known nothing but “room” his whole life is the one who exits the cocoon with the least amount of difficulty. His mother Joy seems at first to be ready to be back in the world but the trauma of her experience is more likely to haunt her for a much longer time than her tough little kid. The scene where her parents and step father sit and confront the elephant in the room will show you how everyone was traumatized by the experience and also give you hope that Joy can recover. Her philosophy toward her son and his existence is humane and righteous, and the fact that her father can’t really deal with it crushes her despite her new won status.

The story is never exploitative, which says a lot for the screenplay and the director. It could have been a horror film or a melodrama, instead it is an opportunity to consider the reality that all sorts of crime perpetrate on our psyches. You may recoil at the suggestion of the media that Joy may have missed an opportunity at one point to spare her child, unfortunately you will also recognize the brutal nature of the news to find any point of controversy to exploit for interest sake. She is a young woman who survived a horrible tragedy, finds a way to rescue herself and her child and then gets second guessed by someone who can’t see that her life is still coming apart in spite of the fact that she is restored to her family. Anyone who doesn’t love animals may not get it, but the healing power of both real and imaginary dogs will cover you with a final warm message.

Mad Max: Fury Road

My third favorite film of the last year, Mad Max Fury Road is the kind of movie that I loved as a kid and would never expect to be nominated for Best Picture. Action films are often seen as mere entertainment and despite the fact that they have been put together in polished and inventive ways, they are mostly neglected at awards season. This is the fourth film in a series that has not been active for thirty years. As a reboot it expands the vision of the director and takes the real. in camera effects that make us movie fans, and puts them on the screen like they did in the days of Ben Hur.

 There is also much more of story here than you may at first believe. While the whole movie is a chase film, it is also a film that empowers it’s female characters and pushes back against the brutish domination of women that is often seen in action films. Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult are the real lead characters They play wounded souls who are aided reluctantly by the titular hero.

The Big Short

I am clearly not as smart as I’d wish to be. Even with Margot Robbie in a bathtub and Anthony Bourdain making metaphors in the kitchen. a lot of the financial hocus pocus this film was trying to show us was invisible to me. I have a vague understanding of the concepts but an unclear vision of how it was carried out. In an interesting way, none of the groups pictured in this story are the bad guys. They saw what was coming and did make a killing on it, but they simply screwed the real bad guys, whop were the incompetent and indifferent Wall Street types everyone worries about.

Written and directed as if it were a thriller. “The Big Short introduces us to a variety of characters that deserve admiration for their acumen and criticism for their scruples. It was put together from a non-fiction work that tried to explain how the economic meltdown of 2008 came about. According to the screenplay, avarice and stupidity combined with circumstances to bring about a situation where the housing market collapsed on itself. A combination of economic gurus, hedge fund analysts and up and comers anticipated the collapse and created a way to short the market that greedy banks and investment houses were all too willing to try to take advantage of.

The hit and run nature of the story does not give us much chance to care about the characters. We learn that Steve Carrell’s character has a tragedy, that Christian Bale’s character is a genius with no ability to connect to people, and that the character of Ryan Gosling is a weasel who simply cares about getting richer. Most of the action consists of people talking and screaming. Sometimes they are doing so in a humorous way, and every time they prove how stupid someone from an investment company. a government agency or a newspaper is, we get more depressed. After seeing “The Wolf of Wall Street” a couple of years ago, the director and screenwriter Adam McKay seems to have followed the director’s crib sheet and he tells the story through narration, comic freezes, and outrageous moments of human foibles. It’s a good film but I was not as impressed with it as I thought I might be. At least we skipped most of the drug use and sex parties of the Scorsese film.

Next week, the other four films, two of which I have seen and look forward to seeing again.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Post Apocalyptic stories have been a go to film genre for me since the glory days of the 1970s. I guess since “Planet of the Apes” ultimately counts in this category, technically I have been hooked since 1968. I really loved stories about a group of survivors, struggling against the environment and other treacherous obstacles in a world that has changed dramatically. “Damnation Alley” , a not very good film, featured a cool vehicle with a rotating set of triangular wheel axles. “A Boy and His Dog”, mined sex and loneliness and survivors in ragged clothes and armed to the teeth for it’s entertainment value. None of those movies prepared me for the experience of first seeing “The Road Warrior” in the summer of 1982. In the rest of the world it was “Mad Max 2”, but here in the States, it was a stand alone film that introduced a new film maker to a much bigger audience. Action movies have not been the same since.

Just as in 1985, when my most anticipated Summer Film was a sequel to the “The Road Warrior”, 2015 brings on a sense of deja’ vu. “Fury Road” has taken a long route to get here, but it has arrived with the kind of force that you would expect. This is a take no prisoners action flick that grabs you with a strong stunt sequence in the first two minutes, followed by a foot chase and combat fighting within five minutes, and in about ten minutes the rest of the chase begins. This is a chase film that goes on for two hours and has maybe three segments when the chase pauses, not for long, just enough to get some exposition in and then back on the road. There are some new gruesome twists on the survivor story. Factory farming will be seen in a whole new light next time you open a bottle of milk. The future is a depressing place if you are not in control of the power, and Max our titular hero is close to powerless at the start of this story.

The vultures that preyed on the weak in “The Road Warrior” and created a twisted economic system in “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”, have evolved into a extended family cult of malignant children of the deformed patriarch of Immortan Joe. For reasons that become obvious early on, a set of women flee his power and Max becomes part of the exodus by accident. The father figure god is unwilling to give up his possessions and so begins an elaborate pursuit by super charged dune buggies, modified big rigs, and and hundreds of Warrior Boys, convinced that their death will result into admission to Valhalla at the feet of their demi-god father. The two previous films in this series, thirty and thirty-three years old, spent most of their time building up to the climactic chase. This movie is all chase and it sustains the chase through a series of set pieces, plot twists and brilliant design that will keep you hanging on from the moment it begins. Plot is thin but the action is thick and the visualization is visionary. Renegade clans in the outer desert are encased in vehicles that resemble porcupines. The washed out white skin of the Warrior boys make them appear to be an army of spooks, descending on the pursued from all angles.  The grimacing regulator that Immortan Joe wears becomes a death mask that follows the heroes from their nightmares to the waking world. There are spectacular crashes and innovative weapons and a disturbing cult of death that brings them all together. Imperator Furiosa, Charlize Theron, seems appropriately named. She is without humor, and determined to save her group of women. Her strategy is to run and keep running and anything that tries to slow her down needs to be mowed down. The war carriage she drives is a moving fortress that is vulnerable to attack only by having overwhelming forces swarm the wagon. Even then, it turns out that she has a secret weapon she herself did not know about, Max.

I have nothing negative to say about Tom Hardy. I think he was well cast and fits the character like a glove. The two criticisms I have of the film do center around Max however, so Hardy may end up a little worse for wear based on my assessment. As great as I think Hardy might be, he does not have the visual charisma that Mel Gibson radiated off the screen in 1982. If you have not seen those earlier Mad Max films with Gibson, I suggest you wait to do so until after you see this and then the comparison that inevitably ensues will not be nagging you through out the film. The character Max is supposed to be cryptic, but as written here, he feels impenetrable and we can’t quite commit to him as we might want to. Maybe having to play a second leading role with his face covered by a mask for larger parts of the film is the thing that holds back my full endorsement. Nicholas Hoult on the other hand is surprisingly compelling as a Warrior Boy in  the right spot at the right time. His character had more dimension in the nearly characterless plot than anyone else. Hardy is stoic, Theron is fierce but young Mr. Hoult gets to play despair, joy, confusion and be disgustingly winsome at times. 


The action and explosions and fights are choreographed wit a frenetic pace that stays involving for long periods at a time. Director George Miller invented this kind of Apocalyptic mayhem with the original Mad Max, now he has a budget and enough time to see this vision play out in the grandest scale possible. I am now willing to cancel his debit to me for the irritation that “Happy Feet” brought to me. There is enough credit on his ledger from this film to balance out any more dancing penguins that happen along.