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.
For a number of years, films about the War on Terror seemed to be cursed under a shroud of bad box office. “The Hurt Locker” award for Best Picture not withstanding, these films were relegated to a pile of failure and artistic disappointment. Matt Damon could not bring people into “Green Zone” The combined talents of Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford actually kept audiences at bay in “Lions for Lambs”. The less said about “Stop Loss”, Rendition” and “In the Valley of Elah” the better. It seemed for some reason, Americans in particular were not interested in the subject. It turns out that what they were not interested in was being told what a failure military action is, and that the War on Terror is not worth fighting.
Two films, “American Sniper” and “Lone Survivor” dispelled the notion that Americans were indifferent to the subject or worn out by the themes. It was the viewpoint that seemed to alter the trajectory of films set in the War on Terror. We were not disinterested in seeing films about this war, we were turned off by the negative tenor these movies took toward the political decisions being made. When the movies focus on the hard work and sacrifice made by Americans in fighting the war, rather that fighting the politics, the movies seemed to succeed. “13 Hours” set up a military disaster but showed it from a perspective of respect for the men involved. Today’s film also features a number, it is also based on declassified information and it shows the heroism of our soldiers rather than their faults. Look, no one wants to live in a world where we can’t see flawed people and decisions. But we certainly should not be limited to them and a movie like “12 Strong” tells us why.
The threats from Al Qaeda and the Taliban were real. 3000 people died on September 11, 2001 but the people of Afghanistan had been suffering for years under torturous conditions imposed by fervent believers in the interpretation of Islam that had taken control of their country. The Taliban shelter Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda forces, and they carried out their own form of totalitarian domestic terrorism under the guise of a Nation. This film focuses on the initial military incursion by the U.S. into that territory after the 9/11 attacks. It is a complex world where alliances come together and fall apart on a weekly basis. There is tribalism that makes diplomatic matters difficult to manage. Into that situation, America sent a dozen soldiers to begin the fight and attempt to create a unified opposition to the ruling Taliban.
This movie has a few of the touchstones of a sentimental war story. There is a family at home, there is a band of brothers, and there are heroic acts by most of the men involved. There is a difference however. This story is really focused on the details of the confrontation and the difficulties of finding and keeping allies. There are only a couple of scenes where home comes up as a subject. The characters are not defined by quirks or ethnic identity or by particular personality types. This is a procedural film where the process is the real star and the men involved, while critical, are not the hook that the story hangs by. Chris Hemsworth is fine in the role as Captain Nelson, but the character is muted for much of the film. With the exception of the opening, and a moment of frustration with inconsistent allies, he is never a commanding central figure. He is the leader of the team, but it is not his personality, history or family that causes us to follow him, it is his professionalism in trying to carry out a complex assignment. His character had not been combat tested before this mission, and even though there is a small reference to his baptism under fire, the story is not about him personally. Michael Shannon plays his second in command and he always comes across as a serious and thoughtful soldier, a man who knows what his job is. There are a dozen Special Forces troops on this team, and we do meet them but rarely get to know them. We know what they job is, we know what their capabilities are but as I said, this is not really a character piece.
The director of this movie is Nicolai Fuglsig. I have not heard of him before and there is not much on his IMDB page. He does a very credible job keeping the battle sequences riveting and coherent. This is a war where they really are not uniforms and the battle lines are not drawn as clearly as we might like. He made a helicopter ride into the territories pretty exciting, even though there is no gunfire or enemy action involved. The horseback combat is also done well and is shot form plenty of angles, including from above, which helps keep the events straight in our heads.
As with most of these stories where ther is an actual historical record, the truth turns out to be as involving as the movie. The twelve men on the mission are accounted for with the real life counter parts. Several text cars at the end tell us the information we need about the after the story story. There continue to be political elements with some of the characters. Navid Negahban has had a prolific career in the last two decades playing variations of Middle Eastern characters. He is General Dostrum in this film, a man who remained part of the Afghanistan rebuilding as the war continues to this day. Negahban is impressive in the scenes he has with Hemsworth, where he conveys a cagey warrior who is suspicious and potentially duplicitous for his own purposes.
Clearly, a movie that celebrates an important victory is going to resonate more with American audiences than one that dwells on a failure. This is an efficient summary of the early part of the War in Afghanistan and maybe it can show a bit more clearly what problems the U.S. faced. Inclement weather, mountainous terrain, uncertainty about the forces you are working with and a vicious enemy. We sent good, well trained men into this situation and they came out with what might have been the greatest defeat for Al Qaeda short of killing Bin Laden. I’m willing to let the tense music, visual fireworks and the story details pull me in. If it is less than emotionally manipulative, I don’t see that as a fault, here it is it’s virtue.
A fable is a story that uses animals or other creatures to teach a moral lesson, so clearly “the Shape of Water” fits that definition. There is an animal at the center of the story, an ethereal “princess” that moves the action forward, and there are morality tales everywhere in the events that take place. Keeping track of the main theme might be the most complicated issue related to this movie, because everything else is a little too spoon fed to us. The shifting of the story to another time period, but one that feels familiar, and in fact has been referred top by many as “Camelot”, makes it all seem even more like a fairy tale.
Guillermo del Toro has a mixed record of success as far as I can tell. “Pan Labyrinth” is a well respected and widely loved success. “Pacific Rim” was successful but not as widely admired, and the two “Hellboy” movies worked for fans but they don’t seem to have connected with many outside of the comic book world. This is a film that would probably bring him a wider audience with one significant issue that is going to hold it back, the explicit sexuality. This is a beauty and the beast match which adds more to the story than our imaginations might need. For adult audiences with mature tastes, it is well presented and beautiful. An adolescent audience might find it gross or something to titter over. Younger audiences will probably find it creepy and that is what I mean about it being a bit too direct.
Ultimately the morality lesson that should be the central focus of the story is about the danger of loneliness and isolation. Elisa, the mute woman at the center of the story, has a solidary life with an older man as a friend and a co-worker that she can talk to, but she has no romantic life. The sadness of that is demonstrated almost immediately in the film by letting us in on her morning bathroom routine. Sally Hawkins is an average beauty but one that clearly has a spark of life that needs to be fed. Her mostly mute performance is designed to deliberately emphasize her separation from almost everyone else in the world. Del Toro shows her intimately but it is her face that gives us the greatest cues as to her feelings. Like Elisa, her neighbor Giles, played with fussy perfection by scene stealer Richard Jenkins, is isolted as well. He is an artist living in the post atomic age, he is a homosexual without the ability to create a connection that he so desperately crave. Octavia Spencer is Elisa’s work friend Zelda, a black woman working in a white mans world with a husband who largely ignores her. Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Hoffstetler is also mostly on his own but for very different reasons. The character that ultimately connects them all is the amphibian man who is the most lonesome of all. He has been dragged away from his domain, locked in a vault, chained and for the most part mistreated.
Elisa’s efforts to reach out to this unusual creature starts to unlock the loneliness surrounding her and the creature. As in most fables, before we can learn the lesson there have to be failures. This is the role that Giles fulfills. Unable to make a romance with a man he is attracted to, and clearly empathetic to the black residents of Baltimore who are also isolated in spite of their population, he capitulates to the needs of his one true friend and makes a gallant and dangerous stand against the oppressive feeling of being an outsider.
So far I have not mentioned the other major character of the film. He clearly qualifies as the villain of the piece, but his connection to the theme is interesting. Head of security at the facility to which he has brought his prize, Strickland has difficulty relating to others as well. He is verbally respectful at first of the two women who work as custodians at the facility, but that is all undermined by his non-verbal indifference to them. In one of the dangling strings of the story, he also has a sexual attraction to verbal silence. Elisa becomes an object of fascination and revulsion to him. The writer/director I think gives too much time to his personal peculiarities without connecting them very well to the morality lessons. Michael Shannon is a fine actor and he easily gets us to dislike him, we really don’t need to see his sexual hangups or the awkward family life. Except for how it fetishizes the culture of the early sixties, his whole sub-plot about buying a Cadillac is a trip to no where.
Doug Jones has done these creature characters in a number of other movies and his body language is the main skill he is called upon to use. He manages to convey some emotions quite clearly with his posture. His arm movements are the tender element that allows us to accept Elisa’s attraction to him. The make up and special effects prosthetics help his performance but he shows he is an actor with range, even if he does not have the name recognition of Andy Serkis.
As I mentioned, except for the explicitness of the relationship, this movie follows the patterns of a hundred other variations of the Beauty and the Beast motif. It is incredibly lovely to look at but it has a lot of side trips that lead to dead ends. You can get the impression that there is a social critique here but it is truncated at best and certainly heavy handed as it is being delivered . The love story works against every expectation, but you have to be a fairly sober viewer to appreciate it.
I’d considered a video post for this film comment so that you could hear the tone in my voice as I spoke about it. I have been told by family members and some of my students that I have a way of sounding that can be harsh and sharp and bitingly dismissive, often without any intention. Well let me say, I have every intention with this review but I thought better than to subject you to the bile of my notes in an auditory fashion and will leave them to your imagination instead. I hated this movie. I hated the characters, I hated the attitude, and I hated that I was so irritated by it. The trailer suggests that this is a thriller with a revenge theme built in. There is a revenge theme in the movie, but the thriller part is all a distraction to show off creative story telling tools which only makes the movie more irritating.
Director Tom Ford made one movie before this, the well respected “A Single Man”. He is apparently best known as a fashion designer. In this movie it shows. The film is full of images that are designed to evoke a reaction. Amy Adam’s character Susan, has a house that is all clean lines, grey and black contrasts, and there is almost nothing to suggest that human beings actually live there. It is as if it were put together by a sales stager for Hollywood mansions. The offices she works in look like outtakes from the set of “2001”, round rooms with tiered levels all in white. Since she is an art dealer/curator and Ford moves in those circles, maybe he has it right, but the impact is to make the pretentiousness that he seemingly is mocking, feel even more pretentious. If you can get past the opening titles without thinking about how hypocritically artsy they are, maybe you will be able to enjoy this film. I prefer the way Susan sees it, she speaks of her opening that night as being “Shit”. You might think that Ford is saying the same thing, but that is not the attitude the camera takes nor is it the viewpoint of the editing. There is nothing subtle about the way this movie is made. Ford even goes so far as to have the word REVENGE, mocked up as a piece of art on display at the offices of Susan’s company.
The one aspect of the film that I do admire is the narrative structure of the film. There are three stories being told simultaneously, and that works to make the connections between them understandable. Jake Gyllenhaal plays two parts, Susan’s ex husband Edward and the lead character in the novel that Edward has written, Tony a husband and father. We get plenty of Tony’s stopry and if it had been the plot of the film without all of the literary and personal baggage surrounding it, this might have been an effectively dark thriller. Instead, it turns out to be a piece of work designed to be a big “FU” to his ex wife. We barely get any of that story and Ford the scrip[t writer relies on a five minute piece of exposition with Laura Linney, as a way of short cutting that part of the story. It just does not work. Armie Hammer plays Susan’s current husband and his moments in the film feel so thin that they might just be some applique that Ford is putting on his dress to try and make it more interesting. Again, it doesn’t work.
There were two references that occurred to me as I was watching this movie.The first is “The World According to Besenhaver” a novel within a novel, from the book The World According to Garp”. In that book, the violent and revolting story is told as a way of expunging a character’s guilt. The author becomes famous for the book but ultimately has very negative feeling about it’s success. “Nocturnal Animals” is the title of the book Edward has written and dedicated to his ex-wife. Rather than exorcising his demons, the story allows them to run wild and attempt to punish Susan for her abandonment of their life. In the visualization of the story, Tony’s wife and daughter are doppelgangers for Susan and her own daughter. The anguish and destruction of Tony as a character is Edward vomiting his bile on Susan’s consciousness. The second reference that this film evoked in me was to a film called “The Rapture”. In that film, a woman who finds redemption in her life in Christianity, has it ripped away from her in the most cosmic manner imaginable. This film has two equally unfulfilling endings, one for the novel and one for the lead character. Having devoted two hours to the film, I felt ripped off by an incomplete resolution to one story and an unsatisfying but at least understandable ending to the other.
The performers are all fine in portraying characters that are flawed, but ultimately those characters are reprehensible. Susan is the shallow and unsatisfied woman her mother predicts she will be. Hammer never establishes any character that would matter. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays a character that we all might enjoy seeing tortured to death. Gyllenhaal is sympathetic as Edward when he and Susan are together, but as the unseen author of the manuscript, he is a monster. Only Michael Shannon as the fictional Bobby Andes, a West Texas detective with a strong sense of justice elicits any of our sympathy. The film is clever and well shot and acted but it will make you want to take a long hot shower before you go out into civilized society again. The dark characters of Gyllenhaal’s movie “Nightcrawler” were also awful, but that movie had something to say about the world and especially the media. This movie is a cruel joke played on an audience who might be expecting a thriller and who are subsequently tortured themselves by having to endure the unpleasantness that passes for art in Mr. Ford’s film.
This is what happens when I am kept out of a movie theater for a month. It’s the kind of thing that happens to addicts of all kinds, when their supply is back, they OD. Fortunately, I have not yet heard of anyone dying from seeing too many films in a short amount of time. That means that instead of turning up naked on the floor of the bathroom as a corpse, you get to encounter me in a good mood with nice things to say and great films to share. Comments might be a little briefer than usual because you don’t want to come down from your high to fast or hard.
Everybody Wants Some
We start with this Richard Linklater comedy which is billed as the emotional descendant of his classic “Dazed and Confused”. A movie like this should be playing on 3000 screens in the summertime, not 400 in the spring. The world however has changed and a raunchy comedy with sex, drugs and Rock and Roll, is not as welcome at the cineplex as it once was. Maybe the art-house reputation of Linklater from his last film, “Boyhood” scared the marketing and distribution divisions of the studio and they decided to play it safe. With a $10 Million budget and no stars, it begs for a wide and quick release with a front loaded marketing campaign featuring the hi jinks and nudity that the younger audience would want. Treating it as an art house release (we saw it at a Laemalle Theater) with a platform release, I’d be surprised if they get their money back. It’s entertaining enough and provides the requisite laughs, but it is not going to have the word of mouth that builds it into a cult favorite like the earlier films of Linklater in this genre.
A cross between “Animal House” and “Dazed and Confused”, “Everybody Wants Some” doesn’t knock it out of the park, but it does score from second base on a long flyball to the outfield. In case you were unaware, the film focuses on the antics of a championship caliber baseball team at a Texas University in 1980. The movie is filled with wall to wall references to the times, including the changing music scenes and the college culture of the day. The jocks occupy two adjoining houses near campus and enjoy many perks afforded star athletes on a campus like the one depicted here. The rampant sexism is played off as a symptom of the times and since there is ultimately a sweet story to go along with at least one character, it seems to be forgivable to me. Having lived through these times and been a coach on a college team debate, not anything sports related) i can say that the “in-group” mentality of the team is pretty accurately portrayed. Everyone wants to be the top dog, everyone wants to fit in, and the older members of the team, take it as the gospel truth, that the new guys don’t know anything.
I already have all the songs that appear on the sountrack, so I don’t need to rush out and get the song score for the movie,in fact, most of the music here I owned originally on vinyl. If you come from a more recent generation, just be assured that it is an accurate reflection of the musical tastes of the day. This includes early rap, pop country, the last vestiges of disco and of course the straight forward rock catalogue of the day. The characters are familiar but they all have a shiny veneer that makes them seem fresh. The main protagonist is a decent guy for the most part, but capable of being a pig on occasion. There are locker room philosophers and pig headed bullies and sluts and “nice girls” all over the place. As an example of a culture it is a microcosm of every stereotype about jocks and drama kids you can imagine. It’s a lot of fun but not as deep ans some people who smoked from a two chambered bong want you to believe it is.
So I mentioned that I saw this at the Laemalle in Pasadena, I just want you to know how art house this theater is. The bathrooms are decorated. That’s right, there is art in the john. I liked it but I also thought it was indicative of how isolating the experience is going to be for our first movie.
You just don’t see a lot of classic film poster reproduction above the urinals these days.
Much more in keeping with the surroundings was the second feature of the day, another music centric film from writer-director John Carney who brought us “Once” and from a couple of years ago “Begin Again“. If the baseball college comedy we started the day out with was a combination of “Animal House” and “Dazed and Confused”, than this film is an amalgam of “The Commitments” and “Billy Elliot”. Just as the American film is set in the early eighties and features a song list that could be found on any jukebox in the States in 1980, this movie set in Dublin in 1985, features a mix of pop, new wave and rock that could have easily been played on a continuous loop on MTV. It also features some smashing songs that mimic the styles of the times and show exactly how music can be infectious and viral, especially at a creative level.
One of the things that perhaps differs my blog from other movie sites is that I have a very personal take on the experience. While I do sometimes comment on film making techniques or performances, more than anything, I try to share my feeling for the movies that I see. My experience is informed by my personality and history. I am a sentimentalist and I did live through these times. I can see some flaws in this film. There is a too pat plot line that follows a dozen other movies. It is a coming of age story with rebellion, a seemingly hopeless romance and a “let’s put on a show” mentality. All of it will strike you as derivative. What won’t however feel that way is the cast and the songs. The young actors here don’t feel like cardboard characters. The two brothers in the film are oddly different enough from each other that they are more believable as brothers as a result. The girl is lovely but I’m not sure that the “model” tag she puts on herself works, but video vixen does. The jump to songwriting perfection comes too smoothly for the lead and his musical partner, but since the songs are so winning and perfectly cast in contrast to the latest musical style the band adopts, you can forgive that story telling misstep. I loved this movie for it’s sincerity and for it’s heart. There is a perfectly realized music video that appears in the lead’s head as he plays at a video rehearsal which matches the opening sequence in “Begin Again” for imagination and looking inside of a person’s head.
It will be fun to revisit this movie at home because then I can rewind all the bits that were incomprehensible to me due to the local vernacular and accents. The film does not shy away from showing some of the grimmer elements of life for these kids trapped in a place that they see as hopeless. The bleakness of life and the break up of the families that form the background of the story are passing references, not the main focus of what is going on. This is the first film I can remeber seeing a disclaimer for in the credits that apologizes for the way things might have been in the past. The real Synge Street School seems to be acknowledging that it was not a very forward thinking institution in 1985. It was an odd finish to a terrific film that lifted my heart with music and the kind of passion that everyone ought to feel about something in their life. That this fish out of water romance is also about the love of two brothers is just extra cream in the coffee.I’ll be looking for these songs on-line, to add to my library,
Here is just a little taste of the joy you have in store.
Elvis & Nixon
If the first two movies from this orgy of film were music centered, the third manages to be so without featuring the actual songs of the music icon named in the title. Elvis Presley, the greatest entertainer to ever touch the stage, does not have a song of his featured in the movie bearing his name. The soundtrack of the movie is brimming with music acts from the 1970 year that the film was set, but the King is not one of them. A Elvis movie without Elvis songs is one thing, but how about an Elvis movie without a guy who looks much like Elvis? Michael Shannon is an actor with a character face. He is not pretty in any way, certainly not in the way that the real King was. He makes up for it with personality and performance. After ten minutes you’ll stop thinking about how little he looks like Elvis, but rather how much he seems to embody the weird things that we have heard about Presley. By the way, Kevin Spacey doesn’t look much like Nixon, but he might want to brush up on his awards speech because he may very well be next years winner for Best Supporting Actor. His is more than an impression, he manages to get under the skin and show us the contradictory Nixon that has baffled his friends and opponents alike.
This film is based on the unbelievable but still true meeting between two of the most recognizable people on the planet in 1970. Such an unlikely duo just tickles the funny bone thinking about it. These may also have been two of the quirkiest people on the planet in 1970. Elvis may very well have been spaced out on some prescription meds when he decided to try to help America fight the scourge of drugs. Nixon was never a lovable teddy bear of a figure, but he comes off here as one of the more likable characters on screen this year. Nixon is a power figure, flummoxed by his inability to wield power in the presence of the King’s monomaniacal vision. Almost all of this had to be imagined because no recording exists of what the two spoke about, but there is enough detail in the personal recollections of the parties involved who are still alive to construct a reasonable semblance of the events as they played out, at least chronologically, if not completely historical.
In case you have not guessed, this movie is a comedy. It is not a slapstick take on the delusional quest of a mythic figure to conquer the dark side of one of the most complex figures of the twentieth century. It is a comedy of manners. Two completely different worlds collide, the self important musical entertainer, used to getting what he wants because of who he was, and the shrewd political Machiavelli, who is thawed and ultimately charmed out of his natural persona to reveal a human with the same needs as the rest of us. I don’t want to dismiss the work of Joey and Hanala Sagal, who are listed as the primary screenwriters, but having read his recent memoir about making “The Princess Bride” and listened to him at a screening/book signing, I can say that actor and co-producer of this film Cary Elwes, brought some comic perspective to the story as well. Joey also has a cameo as an Elvis impersonator in the film, so he gets to show a little of his comic flair on screen as well as on the page.
Many people can take credit for turning this odd piece of history into an amusing film of less consequence than many but with a couple of huge belly laughs. Colin Hanks, plays Egil “Bud” Krough, the aid to the President that talks him into meeting with Presley and later was a key figure in the Watergate scandal. His comic double takes and perfectly placed exclamations of the “F” word, will bring a smile to your face. Johnny Knoxville shows up as Sonny West, one of the Memphis Mafia that were pals and employees of the King. He does not have a lot of dialogue but his slack jawed expression says volumes at times. The deadpan faces of the Secret Service guys trying to screen Elvis and the fan dazzled eyes of the women working in the Narcotics Bureau and the White House, also make this movie a lot of fun.
It’s been a month since i saw a film in the theater, and that was “Batman v. Superman”, a bloated but spectacular super hero film that does everything to show how epic it is except entertain us. These three movies don’t have a tenth of the budget of that film, but each one supplied so much more pleasure that it should be embarrassing to Hollywood.