GREEN BOOK (At the Multiplex: March 2019)

Green Book (2019)
D. Peter Farrelly

Minus the cursing, Green Book is one of those movies that could have been made in the early 60s when its story takes place. As such, the reaction to it has been more interesting than any mere movie can be in a cultural landscape reduced to rubble, where everyone is bound to be judged by the color of their skin and anyone who suggests character might have content is probably a fascist.

By modern (meaning primitive) lights, Green Book gets everything wrong, suggesting bad people are redeemable, that almost anyone can grow and learn given the opportunity, and Utopian ideals might be harder lived than dreamed.

Simple stuff, but nearly everyone who commented for a mainstream media outlet felt the necessity of preaching to their chosen choir. And the movie winning best picture at the Oscars just made them double down on the makeup of the Academy (too white, too old, too male–all the wins in recent years for black actors–including Mahershala Ali here, taking home a second consecutive win–and Mexican directors having been wiped out in a single instance of nostalgia for Driving Miss Daisy ethics and Martin Luther King’s old-fashioned New Testament “dream,” now as outmoded as the Founding Fathers whose creed he dared to summon).

But you’re here so you know all that.

How was the movie?

Excellent and glad you asked. Green Book goes after its simple targets with gusto and hits every single one. I’m grateful to my nephew and his wife for suggesting it when they visited because I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it on my own and I would have hated to have missed it. It makes me wonder if the ability to make a fine entertainment about the old, aspirational America is more common than I assume. It’s not every day a movie makes me feel like I should get out more.

The acting of the two principles (Ali, as the cultured black man and Viggo Mortensen as the vulgar white dude) is as good as advertised and, since it’s essentially a two-man drama, all it needs is a good script to give the project wings.

It’s a good script and the result is a grand popular entertainment that gets its messages across without making you feel you’ve been doused in holy water.

It’s the last that grates on the intelligentsia of course. One can almost hear them wrestling with the dilemma in the dark night of the Crit-Illuminati’s collective soul: People might enjoy something like this and be led astray by the temptation to feel as though we’ve reached the mountaintop–how can we put a stop to it!

If you want to see a good movie about race relations in the south during the last days of Jim Crow, and how two men dealt with it in a tricky, realistic situation, this is one I highly recommend. It’s better made and less tract-like than In the Heat of the Night or Do the Right Thing, and, oddly enough, feels more contemporary.

Beware, though: You might emerge from the experience thinking our problems are not insurmountable. It’ll be a good feeling, but take care who you share it with, lest Spike Lee be tempted to give some cross-burner your address.

SOCIOPATHS AND SUICIDES (At the Multiplex: September through December 2018)

Almost keeping up my movie-a-month pace…Modest spoilers ahead for those who do not know about Adolf Eichmann, Kermit Gosnell or A Star is Born, going in.

Operation Finale (2018)
d. Chris Weitz

A new film about the pursuit (and, to a much lesser extent, trial) of the Nazi functionary Adolf Eichmann years after WWII. The mix (biopic, adventure tale, procedural) is a bit awkward and the Hollywood gloss (for instance, a romance between Eichmann’s lead pursuer and a female colleague that never took place) more than usually unnecessary. The main thing to recommend it is Ben Kingsley’s carefully judged performance as Eichmann. Eichmann’s trial inspired Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase “the banality of evil.” Kingsley catches both the banality and the evil, with special emphasis on the qualities of sociopathy that allow such men to continue thinking well of themselves even after they are caught, judged and sentenced to execution. Whether the actor’s judgment is too careful will be a matter of taste. There’s always a risk some will miss the point. In a movie that needed some authenticity, I found him all too convincing. Persuading others to miss the point of their existence is something the Eichmanns of the world tend to excel at. If they didn’t, we’d be able to spot them in a crowd.

Gosnell (2018)
d. Nick Searcy

And then there’s Kermit Gosnell, in a movie whose full title Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer is less honest–and less effective—than simply leaving it at his last name (as the marquees in my local theaters did). The film makes the point of the longer title well enough, so long as, like me, you didn’t hold contrary convictions going in. But I doubt it will convince anyone who actually paid to see it.

What it might convince somebody to do is to be wary of the smiling likes of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia doctor who pushed the line where fetuses could be terminated all the way into the sort of baby-killing even our modern “laws” had to give a bit of attention.

Even then, his conviction was a rare thing, abetted by a veteran male reporter who, for Hollywood’s usual bogus reasons (I mean, damn, the lead detective is already being played by Dean Cain, no less, and a lady lawyer only gets you so far), is here replaced by a young, independent female blogger who is really on the other side of the prosecution but believes fair is fair. She may not think there ought to be a law, but as long as there is one….well, you know the type. You’ve met her before, if only in movies.

For its intended pro-life audience, Gosnell gets the job done and hits its marks with some skill and sensitivity considering every strike has to be on the nose.

Again, though, the only compelling element is the performance at the center.

Earl Billings’ Oscar-worthy (and, yes, fat chance) Kermit Gosnell, who keeps fetuses who may or may not have been born alive by the hundreds in freezers and petri dishes, plays beautiful classical piano, knows the laws of his land by heart, and never loses his cool, would have made a great cell mate for Adolf Eichmann, if the Israelis had been as forgiving as we are (Gosnell was, after all, convicted of three  murders that should have turned stomachs the way Charles Manson’s did–but then we were a bit forgiving of Charlie too, weren’t we?).

Outside of Billings’ presence, the most effective scene in the movie does take place in the courtroom (which doesn’t take up as much of the movie as that long title suggests), when a “good” abortion doctor wriggles a bit–but only a bit–while trying to explain that the only real difference between what she does and what Gosnell has done is a matter of hygiene.

As to titles, I’d have gone with Baby Snuffer and let the chips fall where they may. But then I never did fit in.

A Star is Born (2018)
d. Bradley Cooper

What a relief. Not a sociopath in sight! Just the sturdy narrative Hollywood has forced itself to remake every now and then for the last eight decades, this being the fourth time it’s appeared under this very name.

The only previous A Star is Born I’ve seen is the Judy Garland/James Mason version and there’s no competing with that. But based on the clips I’ve seen, this one’s miles better than the Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson version and it has a real subversive kick which I won’t even pretend to know was anywise intentional.

In every other version, the ingenue on her way up keeps getting bigger because she keeps getting better, while the older man who discovered and mentored her keeps getting worse because he’s falling apart due to drink or drugs or both.

Here, Lady Gaga’s Ally Maine (née Campana), keeps getting bigger because her music keeps  getting crappier, something younger critics on-line have been more prone to noticing–perhaps because it’s that Gaga (and by that point there’s no more distinction between Gaga and her character than between Judy Garland and the woman singing “The Man Who Got Away”), the one who evolved from a street kid with big dreams and big talent into a Pop Tart with vast riches who is only distinguishable from the next in line by the “Performance” part of her Performance Art, that their generation loved enough to make a superstar.

And, since Bradley Cooper’s performance doesn’t exactly get all the way to why his Jackson Maine would commit the ritual suicide the story requires, we’re left with the possibility that it isn’t about internal collapse, but about the inabiliy to deal with external collapse. That, this time, it’s the culture that’s died, and to the point that even even Bro-country singers with wives they clearly don’t deserve can’t believe there’s anything worth living for.

Aided and abetted by fine performances from an almost unrecognizable Dave Chappelle, a completely unrecognizable Andrew Dice Clay (as Ally/Gaga’s pater) and an aging Sam Elliot (who, as Cooper/Jackson’s role model brother does quite well considering he’s the one with that thankless part, now de rigeur in every “serious” film, where saying “fuck” a lot means he’s really, really passionate!) it adds up to a powerful, chilling statement, whether anyone involved meant it that way or not.

Can’t wait for next year!

 

OCEAN’S EIGHT (At the Multiplex: August, 2018)

Ocean’s 8 (Eight) (2018)
D: Gary Ross

Ocean’s 8 (Eight in some of the advertising) is a feminine twist on the Ocean‘s series Steven Soderberg put out a decade or so back, which itself was an updating of a Rat Pack movie from the early sixties. I’ve enjoyed each entry in the series–and felt no compulsion to revisit any of them (though I could see myself watching Sinatra and company again).

This one is just out of the multiplex, but I caught it second run at the college and it fit in with what I  remember about the rest. The plot is improbable, the characterizations shallow, the mood fast and light, the execution not everything it could be, but good enough to get by if you aren’t hung up on the rest of what’s not quite everything it could be. If you don’t have a stick up your rear going in, Ocean’s 8 won’t give you one.

One improvement is that, except for Sandra Bullock, none of the eight we’re expected to identify with have much star power (I include Cate Blanchett and Anne Hathaway, who, as here, often shine best when the spotlight isn’t on them). The others don’t have much baggage and it lends them a kind of authentic anonymity that suits their parts well.  Our Sandy is still reliable box office and everybody else’s bottomless capacity for blending in with the scenery is an asset in a story that has them disguised as waitresses and cooks and security personnel (or, in Hathaway’s case, a movie star who knows her stardom is on a short leash–hence the need for some serious cash!), on the day of the big heist.

It all comes off pretty well–the heist and the film. The student crowd I saw it with was entertained and so was I.

There is talk of a sequel and perhaps a new series–though where it would go is anybody’s guess. There was a chance to set a new, firmer footing here (the Soderberg series definitely played out to diminishing returns–that much I do remember). Early on, Bullock’s Debbie Ocean, just out of jail, meets with Blanchett’s “Lou” to sell her on the idea she cooked up on the long, lonely days inside. When Lou asks her why she needs to do this, Debbie’s answer–Because it’s what I’m good at–seems to put her in line with Warren Beatty’s character in 1966’s Kaleidoscope (which I watch endlessly). His answer to the same question was Once I had the idea, it was irresistible. Which in turn was not too far out of line with the famous response from the old real life bank robber on why he robbed banks. Because that’s where the money is.

Too bad Ocean’s 8 tries to develop a conscience and give Debbie Ocean a motive that could be mistaken for an excuse–and that, when it comes, it’s something as lame as revenge on an old boy friend. I’ll let you see the movie to find out just how that plays out and whether it works for you. Me, I would rather have any version of Because I can and because that’s where the money is handed to me straight, no moralizing chaser.

If he did you that dirty, shoot him in the head and disappear into the night (like you’ll have to do anyway–I mean the head shot and the disappearing act–if the slightest little thing in your hellishly complicated plot to steal a diamond necklace goes wrong).

If you are going to play at amorality in a first act (which is the working hypothesis for every movie that threatens to make money these days), you might as well go all the way.and leave redemption for the third act, if not out of it altogether.

And whoever is in charge of making the sequels should also get on with it.

Even Our Sandy can’t retain her girlish charm forever. And, when it comes to star power or cultural weight–and, sans special effects, conveying the panache required for an audience to suspend disbelief long enough to keep us from asking why anybody would follow her anywhere–no woman working in movies these days can carry her coat.

She’ll be fine. Her Harper Lee in Infamous (which wasted Catherine Keener’s strong take in Capote) has already proved she can slide into character parts any time she wants.

But where, in a world defined by diminishing results, will that leave us?

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE–FALLOUT (At the Multiplex: July, 2018)

Mission: Impossible–Fallout (2018)
D: Christopher McQuarrie

The first thing you can’t help noticing about the sixth installment of Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible franchise, is something that was still possible to ignore when the fifth installment was released in 2015. Cruise is no longer boyish.

I spent almost the entirety of Mission: Impossible–Fallout, trying to decide whether he needed this quality to still pull off Ethan Hunt…or anything else that makes him TOM CRUISE.

I enjoyed the movie, as I’ve enjoyed most of them (Tom Cruise movies, generally, and MI movies in particular). But I never did make up my mind.

Let’s just say that, in the future, I hope he’ll settle for having one woman swoon over him instead of three, and I hope against hope that the one woman will be Vanessa Kirby, who injects this installment with a dose of good old fashioned sex-for-its-own-sake like I haven’t seen in an action franchise since Caroline Munro undressed Roger Moore with a lewd wink in The Spy Who Love Me, 1977’s James Bond installment while she was trying to blow him out of the water from her little helicopter.

Bond being Bond and Moore being Moore, that couldn’t have lasted, even if the plot hadn’t demanded that he blow her out of the sky the next minute.

But Kirby’s character survived this round and I can only hope Cruise will have the good sense to bring her back.

Because, otherwise, this is just more of the same. If you liked the other installments, especially four and/or five–I did–you’ll like this one–I did.

Hollywood has been in the business of helping the remnants of the larger culture (and the political economy)  stop time since Cruise himself became a bona fide star. He’s been a big part of the process, too (I almost called it a ride, but that implies motion and motion would defeat the point of a Frozen Silence). The fun part, too, I’d say. And, not counting John Wayne in the after life, Cruise has has been a mega-star for as long as anyone ever has. Risky Business was released in 1983, when he was 21. By the early box office on MI6, he’s still going strong.

But it is coming to an end. Even Tom Cruise can’t stay a boy forever.

The acting part has never held him back. He’s been better than good in any number of serious projects going back to Rain Man. But his mega-stardom depends on movies like this so his success going forward will, I think, depend on his choice of co-stars, especially female leads.

My advice: Ditch the sensitive babes and build the next one around Kirby’s character. I think she was on the side of the angels in this one when it all came out in the wash (it’s Mission: Impossible so I don’t like to commit myself to these things). But either way, she could keep the fire burning for at least two more Missions Impossible.

And all kinds of extra credit if she brings back the trench coat.

The only other new or interesting thing here (and I wasn’t expecting or wanting anything new from a franchise that’s been this satisfying so I’m just making a point of order) is Angela Bassett as the big cheese at CIA (and thus the overseer of Cruise’s team, which is the kind of pure and righteous unit operating inside the decidedly impure and untrustworthy “real” CIA these sorts of movies are designed to make us believe can’t be all bad).

Bassett’s a fine, underused actress. In perhaps not unrelated news, she’s also black.

Since she’s the face of the CIA here, in a franchise where the head of Ethan Hunt’s own special unit is never above suspicion, she’s really not above suspicion. Unless maybe you start asking yourself–I did–whether the handlers of a billion-dollar Hollywood franchise, including Tom Cruise, would ever elevate a black actress to the rough equivalent of M in the James Bond universe….and then have her turn out to be a villain?

My guess was not. I’ll let you watch the movie to find out if I was right or wrong, and add that it’s just possible Black America, having endured being always the villain, always the sidekick, always the comic relief, have now entered a period where they must carry the added burden of presumed heroism–without having necessarily shed those other stereotypes.

I don’t actually count this progress. But your tastes may vary.

Meanwhile, have fun. Just try to catch the matinee or wait for it to arrive in your neighborhood’s cheap, second run theater. I made the mistake of going on the opening weekend during prime time. If I told you how much I paid I’d have to shoot myself in the head. Else put on one of those MI masks so no one could ever recognize me.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK (At the Multiplex: April, 2018)

Chappaquiddick (2017)
D. John Curran

It’s almost fair to ask whether Hollywood is growing a pair or merely pulling a face.

A few months back, they took on the CIA. Now–a mere eight years after he died and barely less than half-a-century after the event that made him famous for something besides being Jack and Bobby’s brother–the burning issue of Ted Kennedy’s behavior in the incident that got a small island in a toney part of Massachusetts its own Wikipedia page and a pass on spell check has been turned into a more-than-reasonably honest look at what, these days, we call the Swamp, or the Deep State.

Aka: The American Political System.

About time.

Of course, it’s  a lot safer to take these things on at a distance. We’re now decades into the Frozen Silence for which the lives of wretched men like Barry Seal and Ted Kennedy did so much to grease the skids.

But I hold this truth to be self-evident: It’s better than nothing.

The first thing to note about Chappaquiddick is that, even now, nobody was so bold as to cast a movie star in the lead or any other part. Hey, for Jackie, we can get Natalie Portman.

For Barry Seal–Barry Freakin’ Seal!–we can get Tom Freakin’ Cruise.

For Ted’s little adventure?

Will Ed Helms do?

Yes, he’ll do. Nicely in fact. At least in the period depicted–the car crash that killed campaign volunteer Mary Jo Kopechne and the pertinent events just before and after–Ted Kennedy was a kind of anonymous blob. Whatever one thought about his doomed older brothers, there was no denying they had the charisma to create a disturbance in the force of history. Following, as he did, their combustible mix of war heroism (Joe and Jack), presidential ambition (Joe, Jack and Bobby) all around ball busting (Bobby), and representation of lost dreams (Jack and Bobby), it would have taken a far stronger person than Ted Kennedy (or likely you or me) to stand on his own two feet, let alone rise above the circumstances.

For capturing that forlorn quality, Ed Helms’ performance could hardly be beat. Whatever star quality the youngest Kennedy brother had was reflected glory. Nothing manifests that so completely as a good actor who doesn’t quite have “it” himself.

The question worth asking about such a figure, in fiction or fact, is whether things might have been different.

Of course, the easy way out is an alternative universe where Jack and/or Bobby, or even the Hitler-loving Joe Jr., lived long enough to take the heat off him. In that case, his being a drunken lech who made enough friends in the Senate to get his name on some important legislation (most of it “bipartisan” and therefore pro forma back-slapped and approved by the Swamp he came so swiftly and fully to exemplify–the same Swamp Jack had threatened to destroy and Bobby had at least threatened to expose).

That not being available the movie digs into what’s left. You know: History. Facts. That sort of thing.

As Helms plays him, the bonhomme the youngest Kennedy brother developed over time–so obviously fake his closest friends probably never knew whether to laugh or vomit–is, at best, a nascent, still-developing quality, one of many the man who ran his car off a bridge and left its other occupant to suffocate and drown would develop in order to live with himself, keep besotted voters sending him back to the Senate, term after term, and, most crucially in the context of the movie, maintain himself as a viable “last chance” for the Kennedys to have a true political dynasty of their own instead of serving as a role model for various Bushes and Clintons.

These days, we know how it all worked out. But, as Helms plays him, the Ted Kennedy of this movie, the one reeling out of the water and leaving the crucial minutes when Kopechne gasped out the last twenty minutes of her life a black hole, doesn’t quite know.

Mind you, he has his suspicions.

He can feel it–his being doomed to life as the second-rater he suspected he was anyway.

He can feel all of it, every variation: The relief of having both blown his chance and removed his burden. The shame of having shown himself–the brother of war heroes–a craven coward in every respect imaginable. The wonder at realizing he might–just might–get out of this unscathed. The high that comes from being able to throw his weight around (isn’t this sort of thing what a family name and a seven-figure bank account are for after all?) and the confidence that begins to reassert itself when that weight falls just so–and on everyone from the local cops to the national press–as to drag the hopes and dreams he’s neither man enough to fulfill or strong enough to forget back onto the table. And, finally, the realization that his father (as played by Bruce Dern, easily the biggest name in the cast, a Joe Kennedy Sr. paralyzed by a stroke, barely able to croak a word and corrosive evil personified) considers him a mental midget who must be led by the hand and never let out of anyone’s sight.

Helms gets all of that and the script is sharp enough–both as entertainment and insight into the culture of sycophancy as it exists when the real demi-gods are no longer around to suck up to–that it would probably carry a lesser performance anyway.

Helms and Dern stand out, then. But everything else is plenty good enough to make you wish someone had possessed the guts to make this movie in 1977, right after All the President’s Men. With movie stars. Post mortems this honest are useful and good from any distance. But, at such a late date, even this fine movie is small justice for Mary Jo Kopechne–and even smaller for the nation that the kind of men who hover over Ted Kennedy’s shoulder have spent the intervening decades running off the rails, hiding in such plain view that only now can Hollywood, brave Hollywood, acknowledge their existence.

I, TONYA (At the Multiplex: February, 2018)

I, Tonya
D. Craig Gillespie

I, Tonya is the best trailer park movie since Freeway (1996), which came out two decades ago, starred a young Reese Witherspoon, and scared the bejesus out of the seven people who saw it.

Like Freeway, I Tonya features a fierce, petite blonde with a crappy, violent home life trying to transcend her surroundings.

Unlike Freeway, which made a mockery of concepts like Academy Awards or Golden Globes, I Tonya carries no trace of art, even in the acting. But the craft is superb, especially in the acting. The nominations have poured in.

Both films were made in a spirit of condescension toward their central characters and their respective milieus. Both films pretend otherwise, in that smug, painfully sincere way only the best Liberals can manage to sustain for the length of a pitch meeting, let alone a full shoot.

I didn’t grow up in a trailer park. But I was born in one and I lived close enough to some others to know how hard it is for anyone to either escape or avoid noticing when someone is looking down their nose. In this sense I, Tonya‘s craft has Freeway‘s crazy art beat: It’s poignant in spite of itself–poignant because the memory of the real life Tonya Harding washes over the entire enterprise. Anyone who wasn’t a skate fanatic at the time (early nineties) will learn a lot from this movie and I don’t just mean facts. Nothing about her inner workings, mind you–Margot Robbie’s superb impersonation is all on the surface. Not for nothing has it been compared to movies like Goodfellas and To Die For, which also lived on surfaces no sane person would want to touch anywhere outside of a movie.

But, unlike the “real life” characters at the heart of those films, Harding is someone a sane person can sympathize with. The movie doesn’t really answer–or, to its credit, try to answer–what she knew about her not-very-bright boyfriend arranging an attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan and when she knew it. It does give a sense of why she might not have considered such an event the worst thing in the world. And it makes it possible for you to feel the same–not, I confess, a feeling I ever wanted to have, even though I rooted for Harding in the skating rivalry and always hoped she didn’t have anything to do with the attack.

I guess the best thing the movie does for someone like me–a casual fan with a class-oriented rooting interest but no major investment–is fudge the line between that interest and an acceptance that, for Harding, there was no easy way out. She was trying to revolutionize her sport because it was the only chance she had of winning big. No trailer park kid who made her own costumes because no one around her could afford to buy anything off the rack, let alone have it designed and custom made, was ever going to crack the snobbish code that rules ladies’ figure skating by merely skating better. Once you realize that–and one of the movie’s few weaknesses is that it cracks you over the head with the point again and again, perhaps thinking the intended audience would be too dense to pick up on any subtleties (and given the nervous is-this-a-joke-too? laughter in the theater when the closing credits informed us that Harding wants to be known as a good mother, the filmmakers may not have been wrong)–it becomes possible to see Tonya Harding as something I half-suspected all along. A bigger victim than Nancy Kerrigan.

Besides all that (and ten times as many “fucks” as you ever heard in a real trailer park before Hollywood moved in and showed everyone how to do it), there are some real laughs.

And, at the very end, at least a small sense of what it’s like to master your sport–to be the best at something even for a single, fleeting moment.

That’s a lot more than nothing, maybe even enough to be worth the price of the ticket.

It’s just that I wish the movie had caught the heart that was forever showing on Tonya Harding’s tough little face back when she was within an inch of breaking free from the trap the Cosmos had planned for her. Instead, it settles for cleverness, for always pulling the punch at the last second, striving only to entertain us at the expense of demanding that we feel something that will last past the parking lot.

Perhaps some day, someone will make an epic trailer park movie that neither panders nor romanticizes. I, Tonya isn’t quite it. But it’s good enough, and conventional enough (that Oscar ought to just about fit Allison Janney’s lived-in performance as Harding’s hard-case mother), that I can imagine someone coming along in the next ten or twenty years and learning from its mistakes.

Who knows, maybe they won’t even have to resort to parodying someone who lived in the real world and took every hard knock it had to give without backing up an inch or crying over spilt milk. Maybe they’ll just imagine it.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (At the Multiplex: January, 2018)

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
D: Denis Villenueve

 

[NOTE: For more advanced and detailed thoughts than I’d be willing/able to provide without re-watching Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and/or re-reading Philip K. DIck’s source novel (both terrific…I just lack the time), you can go here, for Noel Vera’s review. I should probably have this site in my blogroll anyway. Soon, I promise. Spoilers in Noel’s review, but, since he’s doing the heavy lifting, none here.]

At least on a first viewing, I had the impression (it can’t be more than that on such brief acquaintance) that Denis Villenueve’s Blade Runner 2049 has surpassed Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (to which it is a sequel), as the best adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s world-view. It might even stretch that view a inch or two, which would be about as far as such a view can ever be stretched. All Dick’s big themes are there. Madness vs. sanity. Reality vs “reality.” Man’ s relationship to technology. The precise point at which one thing turns into another (man into machine, sanity into madness, “reality” into reality….or vice versa).

Creating a visual equivalent of Dick’s flat but evocative prose (except in his ability to place dreams next to nightmares with disarmingly casual ease, he was no stylist…when you can do that, who needs style?), has never been easy. Steven Spielberg tried it in Minority Report and didn’t come close. But Scott got pretty close in the original Blade Runner (is there such a thing as pedestrian grandeur?) and I think Villeneuve (with Scott producing) got even closer here, in a film that toys with the original humans vs replicants (or humans using replicants, unless, of course, it’s really the other way round) concept with just enough verve and nerve to touch something new. Seeing 2049 on a big screen (to be fair, I’ve only caught the original on tape and disc) I felt myself getting a touch emotional on a couple of occasions.

But was it me…or some spiritual simulacrum I conjured for the purpose of reclaiming a younger self who might have responded even more strongly, which was certainly more appropriate than my current self, who kept threatening not to respond at all?

Those are the kind of questions Dick’s novels always asked of me (I wouldn’t presume to speak for others, as I can imagine interpretations sufficiently different to make mine seem as incomprehensible to others as theirs would be to me), and Blade Runner (at least in its “director’s cut” version) almost asked as well. It was both refreshing and disturbing to feel those emotions watching 2049. Which I guess means it made me feel a bit more alive–not something I often experience watching movies made this millennia.

This is made a bit more interesting–to me and my simulacra anyhow–by how little I was taken with the first twenty minutes or so, when Ryan Gosling seemed even flatter than usual and the beauty Villenueve and his team would bring to some of the later scenes had yet to manifest itself fully. Whether the movie got better as it went along or simply took over my senses I can’t say. (I’d hate to say it overwhelmed my mind,. That would be creepy and I’d hardly feel comfortable recommending it to others–which I very much want to do–if I admitted all that. But I did catch myself observing myself once or twice. Only from the next seat over. I don’t want you to think I was having some kind of episode.)

Once the film did take hold, though, it was riveting, and remained so, no matter how often I replicated and re-converged. There were times when I wanted to be in this film’s world. And, when you’ve seen it, as you really should, you’ll know just how crazy that is.

Curse you Denis Villenueve. You’ve made me irrational. You’ve made me think I could accept being Ryan Gosling! Harrison Ford was one thing but this smacks of evil.

And curse you Philip K. Dick. You’ve blurred the distinction between Dystopia and Utopia yet again–and without contributing a word. Years after I swore I was past all this, I now spend part of every day looking over my shoulder and around corners. Maybe only metaphorically, but still….I came out of the theater wishing I lived in a land where Donald Trump was president despite everything the FBI could do.

That will never happen, of course. Walking out next to me, my simulacra-self at least reassured me of that!

And I believed.

In other words, it’s a trip.

‘TIS THE SEASON….OF TRUMP (At the Multiplex: December, 2017)

I ventured out more than usual in December…mostly I just didn’t feel like staying home. But–and this is my idea of cheerful–you can learn things from watching the world die.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
D. Rian Johnson

I don’t remember this shot from the movie, so it might be a publicity still. Either way, I’d say it’s a problem when the Wookie has more charisma than the human. Doubly so if the human is supposed to be the center of the new galaxy far-far-away’s multi-culti dynamic.

Given the size of that central problem–assuming any under-forties can still radiate star power (I don’t get out nearly enough to make a final judgment but, based on what I have seen, the signs aren’t good), it isn’t the under-forties who are now expected to carry the central franchise of the modern world, the one which, imagination having gone the way of all flesh, all others must extend or debunk the way mold either feeds on or destroys what it attaches to–it’s amazing that the Star Wars franchise still entertains, even if I can’t imagine wanting to see anything but the original trilogy again before I die.

And it does entertain. At least if you’ve become as good at turning your brain off as I have.

Since this is the only movie here that isn’t specifically about Donald Trump–or at very least Trumpism–I blame him for lowering our expectations. Seems to be the going thing.

Catch it in the theaters. On the small screen the effects won’t be nearly as overwhelming and you’ll be stuck with the actors, none of whom are named Harrison Ford (for that, you’ll need to catch the Blade Runner update, which is incomprehensible and fantastic). Carrie Fisher, in her last role, is reduced to Earth Mother status, the very ethos she shook off like dead skin in her life and the original Star Wars movies. Mark Hamill is fine and, except for a brief appearance by Benecio Del Toro, the only point of strictly human contact to be found. Laura Dern, playing Earth Mother to the thousandth power, and against whom I held no previous grudge, actually performs a miracle of physics by creating film history’s first Black Hole right there on the screen where her character should be.

Make that to the minus thousandth power.

If only I could make myself believe anyone involved took the whole “long time ago” part seriously and was issuing this as a warning….

Like I say, catch it in the theater if you can. Unless you have more money than Donald Trump, your television’s not big enough to overpower the senses and achieve the benumbed state where this works just fine.

The Greatest Showman (2017)
D. Michael Gracey

Featuring P.T. Barnum as…..Donald Trump.

Whenever I see Michelle Williams’ name in the credits of a mainstream movie, I hold out hope that she’ll find a way to blitz the thing, the way she does with nearly all her indie performances.

There was never a chance of that happening here. Though Wiliams gets to display her warm and lovely side this is strictly a showcase for Hugh Jackman’s Barnum. He’s in fine form and the movie’s theme is hardly without contemporary relevance. This is a shallow but effective portrait of a man’s dream and a land where bunkum is all. Master it, and it will get you all: women, money, fame, the love of the common people. Really, you could walk out of this and contemplate the century-and-a-half between our consummate national huckster’s prime and the new occupant of the White House’s ascendance and be truly bedazzled that it took so long for someone to take the final, logical step.

Big drawback: They went with period music.

Our period.

(NOTE: For an odd but possibly compelling double-bill, I recommend pairing this with Jackman and Williams’ other outing, an interesting little thriller called Deception, where he plays a manipulative terrorizer of women (and others) whose hand is bigger than her head. You don’t notice until he has to drop the mask of mere avarice and actually take hold of her. Ewan McGregor’s around, but, even at the center of the thing as the yob we’re supposed to identify with, he’s not too terrible a distraction.)

All the Money in the World (2017)
D. Ridley Scott

Christopher Plummer’s gotten most of the attention for stepping in to play J. Paul Getty, the oiliest oily capitalist in the history of oily capitalism, a part Ridley Scott supposedly wanted him for the begin with, when Kevin Spacey–for whom the part was clearly made and which it’s hardly a stretch to imagine he was born to play–was instantly Stalinized for being an accused pederast in this moment when any gambit that might bring down Donald Trump (no pederast, but he has bragged–on tape no less–about “pussy grabbing”….or hadn’t you heard?) is deemed worth deploying and talent be damned.

It’s not  a disaster. Plummer’s fine even though you can literally hear the lines he sort of mumbles snapping out of Spacey’s absent mouth and smile your way through the whole thing.

The real problem–and it’s not insurmountable either–is that the other actors, especially Michelle Williams, had to re-shoot scenes which had clearly been written with Spacey’s particular charm (the oiliest actorly smarm in the history of smarm…or acting) in mind. Worse, they likely didn’t re-shoot scenes where the Getty character isn’t present. So you have to assume that Williams (and others) spent half the movie we actually see acting against the absence of Kevin Spacey’s J. Paul Getty and half acting with Plummer’s bound to be antithetical take on the same man (or, if you prefer, character).

It shows.

But you know….it still works–as both thriller and character study.

The real tension isn’t in whether Getty’s kidnapped grandson is finally freed (and I was one of the millions who didn’t have a memory of how that all worked out, so the ending was news to me), but in whether Williams’ character (Getty’s estranged ex-daughter-in-law and the kidnap victim’s mother) will ever act out.

This is Michelle Williams, after all, the only working actor who knows what to do with that very kind of scene, or at least the only one who is willing to risk going there, time and again. And I was a coiled spring, waiting to see if she would, just once, get to turn the anger she usually directs at herself (and whether it’s the characters self-immolating, time and again, or the actress herself, time and again, is a mystery that wants solving), against an object worthy of her disgust.

And….

Well, it’s worth seeing the movie to find out, so I won’t spoil it for you. Let’s just say watching Michelle Williams work these kind of things out for two hours is never going to be a waste of time, even if it leaves you wondering if she will ever achieve the kind of stardom that would prove the world is better than me, Donald Trump or J. Paul Getty think it can be.

Darkest Hour (2017)
D. Joe Wright

In which Gary Oldman plays an aging, crotchety leader of a fractured party, out of step with his colleagues and every aspect of their shrewd statesman-like sense of decorum, but with an uncommon feel for the common man they can but envy and behold.

Winston Churchill keeps getting mentioned, along with contemporary phenomena like abdicating kings and Dunkirk and what not. But this is clearly the first high class movie (maybe the first period, I don’t do a good job of keeping up) about Donald Trump. I mean it could be a little bit about Harvey Weinstein–old Winnie did like to go about in his bathrobe and little else whilst dictating to comely young secretaries. But Harvey’s old news now, just another of Trump’s useful footwipes and hardly better off than Kevin Spacey or J. Paul Getty (who probably finds being dead and consumed by hell fire only a slight disadvantage over having to endure the presence of humans).

It’s a fine performance. If you accept that it’s this historical fellow Churchill Oldman is after, he’s got him dead to rights. He’s the spitting image. Sounds like him too. Nothing like Richard Burton on television way back, neither looking nor sounding much like the historical fellow at all.

Odd thing, though. You could watch and listen to Burton and imagine a despondent country hearing him say “Our policy will be to WAGE WAR!” and committing on the spot to doing just that, even, as actually happened, to the point of self-extinction. And you could imagine him–and them–understanding that the only choice left was already not between survival in any meaningful sense and extinction, but between extinction with honor or subservience in disgrace.

None of that here. The England this barely worthy Trump stand-in speaks to and for is hardly worth saving and it’s an even bet whether the filmmakers meant this England to stand for 1940 or 2017.

Fine job by the makeup department, though. And good work on the accent. Who needs thunder and lighting when you’ve got all that going for you?

Bravo!

LOGAN LUCKY (At the Multiplex: November, 2017)

Logan Lucky (2017)
D. Steven Soderbergh

This one is probably worth seeing twice. I don’t say that about a lot of modern movies, including some that are at least as good as Logan Lucky. But the heist plot is compelling–updating the old horse-track thefts lovingly detailed in movies like The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956) to the world of NASCAR. The acting is excellent all around and, unlike Soderbergh’s similarly byzantine (and massively overpraised) Traffic (2000), it builds suspense rather than disperses it, partly by giving reasonable people a few characters they can root for.

Those characters include the half-smart brothers played by Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as though they are exactly half-smart, which means their scheme has just about a fifty-fifty chance of succeeding. Enough of these movies, from The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 950) to now, have ended badly enough for the protagonists for this one to make you feel it might do the same. And enough of these movies, from Gambit to now, have ended happily enough, for hope to remain a reasonable outcome.

Soderbergh seems to know something about splitting that difference. He should make more heist flicks in this vein (which is quite different that the everybody-is-a-star vibe of his Ocean’s Eleven-Twelve-Thirteen franchise, which I modestly enjoyed but have never felt compelled to revisit).

Meanwhile, if I do revisit this one, it will be partly to judge Tatum and Driver’s performances against the known outcome. I have a feeling they made all the exact right decisions, but I’ll withhold judgment on that for a second viewing. Meanwhile, on the basis of that and the plotting alone, I can heartily recommend a first viewing for any fan of the genre.

A few things reach beyond those parameters, though: Starting with Leann Rimes’ performance of “America the Beautiful,” which is on YouTube. I’m not going to link it because it has to be seen/heard in the context of the film to be fully appreciated as the act of genius it is, the first complete obliteration of the distance between parody and the modern style of Passion. I literally couldn’t tell whether she was utterly sincere or wickedly spoofing herself (and every other melisma-addicted performer from Whitney Houston on down), just that it’s the first performance in history that works as well either way (thus making it an apt metaphor for the finely balanced plot). There’s also a funny performance from a nearly unrecognizable Hilary Swank (playing an uptight Fed) that is slightly sabotaged by the one-too-many-twists ending, and a matching one from a wholly unrecognizable Daniel Craig (playing a con who is whatever the opposite of uptight is). All these things, plus an unusually well-chosen-and-applied soundtrack, give me the feeling this is one rare new film that might hold together even past a second viewing. Anyway I’m looking forward to finding out.

I would watch it again, though, even if none of these other fine elements were present, for the performance by child-of-Hollywood Farrah MacKenzie, who gets the mountain accent that every one of the adults shades a little too close to parody or actorly precision just right, and provides the film’s anchor not so much with a beautifully played but rather obvious heart-tug moment involving a John Denver song as by simply being genuine in a movie that has fronting in its bones.

If there’s justice in the world, she’ll get an Oscar nod.

And “It’s my talent!” will become a catchphrase.

FINALLY, THE CIA GETS THE MOVIE IT SO RICHLY DESERVES (At the Multiplex: October, 2017)

American Made (2017)
D. Doug Liman

Based on a true lie

Well damn. It’s about time.

I don’t see them all, but, as far as I know, the last great movie about the CIA was The In-Laws, all the way back in 1979.And it was all made up.

This one’s about half made up, which is about as close to the facts as any dose of the CIA’s version of reality should ever be. Any closer, and it’s just a documentary, ready to be turned over to Ken Burns and produced on the public dime, like all the rest of the CIA’s activities, Viet Nam war included.

American Made was bound to be advertised as a Tom Cruise vehicle once Cruise was cast as Barry Seal, the Agency’s smuggler of choice for drugs, guns and Freedom Fighters back in the post-Vietnam, pre-Iran-Contra Go-Go phase of the Cold War. I grinned when I first heard about Cruise being cast. No matter the advertising, it’s very rare that I see a new movie coming and say “Well, I’m not missing that one.” And, despite our boy making no particular attempt to physically resemble Seal (who often checked in around 300 pounds), it’s every bit the inspired casting I hoped for.

The same people who complain about this or that historical detail being completely misrepresented in your favorite movie about Wyatt Earp or Jesse James are complaining about the same kind of things here.

My best advice is to ignore them.

Most of what we know about Barry Seal is what the CIA tells us anyway. Anybody who ever saw the In-Laws knows what that’s worth.

Suffice it to say he was a shady character and Cruise gets at the important thing, which is his motivation.

Yeah, American Made‘s Barry Seal has got some patriotic leanings and God knows he’s greedy.

But that’s not what makes him tick.

What makes him tick is a quality almost no movie ever gets right, even when it’s the very subject (as it is here, if only subterraneously). Before and after he was everything else–in life or film–Barry Seal was a primo example of a good, old American Type: the Danger Jockey.

No man who did what he did–in life or film–has ever been really high on anything but Risk.

And no man who did what he did has ever been cured of his peculiar addiction by anything but his Fate.

In Barry Seal’s case, that meant being cut down by Medillin Cartel assassins while reporting to a court-ordered work furlough at a handy Salvation Army depot in his home town of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at a moment when, by rights, he should have been in either a Federal Prison or the Witness Protection Program.

American Made stays in touch with the facts just enough to lay out a prima facie case–fictional but convincing–of just why and how all that was made inevitable. The biggest laugh in the theater came on the line “Governor Clinton is on the phone,” which comes just after Cruise’s Seal has assured the representatives of the umpteen law enforcement agencies who are gathered round a D.A.’s desk to determine which one of them is going to bury him under an Arkansas jail that he’s going to walk out of there.

Second biggest laugh?

When he walks out of there.

The film is skillful enough to have let us know by then what he already knows, which is that he is jumping from a frying pan to a fire–and the all-consuming flames will forever await him, no matter how fast he dances.

It’s also playful enough to get those laughs, all along the way.

Liman’s a plenty good director (Go, the first Bourne film, Edge of Tomorrow, Fair Game), but that last is a trick only Tom Cruise could do so well. He has made it look so easy so many times that he’s also made it easy to fool yourself into thinking he’s not acting, the same way Cary Grant and John Wayne weren’t supposed to be acting. But he’s made up his own iconography, without  the help they had from either Hollywood or the Culture (neither of which was any longer offering assistance in this regard by the time Cruise played his first iconic role in Risky Business). That’s not a small thing and he’s never put it to better use than here, where he’s all there is and all there needs to be. (The film’s one big mistake is sticking him with a devoted wife for whom he would do just about anything except give up being a Danger Jockey–it would be a mistake even if it were factual, which it ain’t. If there ever was such a Danger Jockey, it sure as hell wasn’t Barry Seal, and having the devoted wife be a confused, foul-mouthed, hypocritical Hollywood Southern sugarcake, who we’re supposed to love and admire anyway, doesn’t lessen the mistake).

In a world where the detritus of America’s classic transformation from Nation to Empire rolls daily by (just today, we decided that desertion would no longer be treated as a crime worthy of punishment by the American Military, a level of disdain for reason and tradition even Barry Seal might have blanched at if he could have stopped laughing long enough) American Made is just another two hours of entertainment. But when the court chroniclers of our long-promised future Golden Age come to write the last great score against our name, and ask themselves how and why it all went south so far, so fast, they could do worse than take a close, hard look at this great Tom Cruise vehicle, which already says to anyone paying attention:

Ah hah!