Monday, May 29, 2017

Alien: Covenant

"The house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant that I made with their forefathers. Therefore, this is what Jehovah says, 'Here I am bringing on them a calamity that they will not be able to escape. When they call for help, I will not listen to them."

Alien: Covenant, the sixth (or eighth if you include the Alien vs. Predator movies) in this multi-decade science fiction/horror franchise, is a step in the right direction but one that sparks a debate as to whether or not director Ridley Scott and his team should continue making these movies. Scott, whose second film was Alien, a legendary science fiction film, returns here again as director. He left the series after directing the first one in 1979, allowing James Cameron to take over with Aliens in 1986. Others followed, far less successfully than Scott and Cameron. The series was rebooted, sort of, in 2012 with Prometheus with Scott returning as director. Scott and his writers put a cast of characters in the same universe as the malicious xenomorph aliens, but those creatures basically did not appear. Instead, we got a series of enigmas and interesting theories on the genesis of humans. Alien: Covenant is part Alien, part Prometheus, and while we get the familiar structure of scientists being picked off one by one, we also get, for better or worse, a further exploration of those large themes.

If you didn't watch the short prologue, you should. It will be a basic reminder of what happened in the previous film. In case you missed it, a quick reminder: The survivors of the Prometheus in 2093 (Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, played by Noomi Rapace, and the android David, played by Michael Fassbender) decide to go find the "engineers", the mysterious alien species that may have created humans (and incidentally tried to kill them).

More than ten years later, a crew of colonists aboard a ship called the Covenant is on a journey towards a new home planet years far away from Earth. The ship is anchored by a newer android type named Walter (also played by Fassbender). Walter has a number of improvements from David, the most obvious being that he thinks less for himself. This is beneficial for a variety of reasons explained in the film. But the crew are awakened by a deadly neutrino burst. Picking up the pieces, they discover a sort of distress signal not far off their path. Their captain (Billy Crudup) decides to lead the crew there (for some reason). The planet they find is so Earth-like that they apparently don't need helmets (more astronaut stupidity), and they explore an eerily quiet land. Ghoulish Pompeii-like casts of some kind of being are everywhere, as is danger, and it's all downhill from there.

Many seem annoyed that Scott has chosen the Alien franchise to explore these large concepts. I don't mind. Half-way through, not long after they land and things start going badly, the film switches fairly suddenly from an Alien movie to a Prometheus sequel, and while this probably will irritate most viewers (particularly those who didn't like Prometheus), from there the two are neatly tied together. The themes are there, for sure, and some of them quite obvious: "Covenant" is a religious term regarding the Biblical ark; here, just as the animals before them, the ship carries couples two by two to a new world. Some themes are a little less obvious. For instance, Walter points out that David has made a mistake in his quoting Ozymandias, and that the real author was Percy Shelly, who many believe co-authored Frankenstein with Mary Shelly. And the subtitle of Frankenstein is (wait for it)...The Modern Prometheus. Watch the film, see what kind of power David has and uses and wants to use, consider both Frankenstein and Ozymandias and the themes involved, and have more fun with the allegories.

But if you do want chest (and back) bursting, scenes of gore galore, and fright, Alien: Covenant delivers. It does not possess that prudence and tension employed in the first one, which was a much more contained and limited movie that ended up paying off beautifully. But still, this is a better looking movie than Prometheus, and one that is far less frustrating. The characters, though, are some of the least interesting in the series. The lead, Katherine Waterston, is not given much to do, and the other female actors (namely Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, and Callie Hernandez) scream a lot and heighten the film's tension, but that's about it. Billy Crudup does provide a somewhat intriguing character as the ship's new captain, who is not truly suited for his unexpected assignment. His leadership skills are questionable, and he's learning on the job. Damian Bichir does a mostly good job as another crew member, but the one who is really remarkable is Danny McBride, who has made a successful career as a funnyman. Here he's all serious and is perhaps the most impressive addition.

And yet the most enjoyable to watch, yet again, is Michael Fassbender, a true treasure of cinema. Whereas Sigourney Weaver was the star of the first four films, here Fassbender is the driver of this part of the franchise. He gets the dual task of playing Walter and David, and of course they come face to face, brother to brother. The flute scene, which starts with David teaching Walter how to play a wooden flute, is remarkably tense and entertaining, dripping with homoerotic hints at incest. (David has one line in particular that is truly eyebrow-raising.) David sees himself as the king of kings, and while I think this franchise (along with many that are overstaying their welcome) is growing a bit dull, I also look forward to seeing if humans deteriorate because of his nefariousness.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Nobody Did It Better

Roger Moore, who passed away five days ago, did it better than just about everyone else. In terms of James Bond, his most famous role, he was the only one of the six who understood the farcical, fictitious, facetious nature of the character. Spies, frankly, don't look like James Bond, they don't dress like James Bond, and they don't drive extravagant cars like Bond does. I certainly doubt they introduce themselves like he does, regardless of which order they put their name in.

Thus, Moore's Bond was more humorous than Sean Connery's, certainly more than Timothy Dalton's or Daniel Craig's. It would be hard to image practically any of the others floating around in space like he did in Moonraker in the era of late 1970s sci-fi, or dressed like a clown in Octopussy. But this is what helped set him apart, and this is why to many he was the best. After six seasons of the successful series The Saint, Moore would go on to eventually tie Connery with the most appearances as Bond (a total of seven). They ranged from pretty darn good (The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only) to mediocre or slightly substandard (Moonraker, Octopussy, A View to a Kill), to the bad (Live and Let Die) and awful (The Man With the Golden Gun). They all, for the most part, have a humorous bent, particularly when Moore finally appeared to stop doing a version of Connery's Bond and just come up with a new persona. His was far gentler; his Bond may have been as horny as the others were, but at least he didn't rape a woman (like Connery's Bond did in Goldfinger). (Yet for whatever reason, 53 percent of women rated Connery the best.)

Was he my favorite? I try to avoid "ranking" the Bonds. They all brought their own unique talents to the role, a role and franchise that unfortunately are growing tiresome. Roger Moore's, though, was probably the first or second that I remember seeing and recognizing as James Bond, and that is one reason why I liked him so much. Despite my inclination to avoid ranking them, as the iconic song from The Spy Who Loved Me goes, perhaps nobody did it better.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Death on the Nile

"The Nile, forever new and old,
Among the living and the dead,
Its mighty, mystic stream has rolled."
-Henry Wadsworth Longfe

Death on the Nile features an opening in the English countryside as if this were Downton Abbey (the film even features Maggie Smith), but soon we are introduced to a treasure trove of spoiled opulent British people all aboard a cruise in Egypt, where the rest of this murder-mystery tale will take place.

Film reviews are supposed to limit the use of personal anecdotes, yet I must write that this is one of the earliest films I have a memory of watching, and this reminiscence is what drew me to seek out the movie and watch it as an adult. I first viewed it when I was a young child with my grandmother. (She probably liked it more than I did then or do now.) I can only remember two scenes, and they both feature Angela Lansburgy, who appears here as a novelist with a ripe fondness for full-bodied vocabulary. She gets most of the notes right initially but soon goes over the top, hyperbolically flailing about and complaining that her drink has "lost its croc." It might be oddly ironic that the worst performance of the woman who would go on to be Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote is in this murder-mystery film.

Aside from her, though, Bette Davis and Smith are especially enjoyable to watch. Davis joyfully orders around Smith, who despises what she has to put up with. Mia Farrow's portrayal of a sinister and nefarious woman out for revenge is almost as good as her performance in Rosemary's Baby. Jack Warden sort of has a German accent as a quack who brags about using Armadillo urine as a remedy. Many actors have played Agatha Christie's famous detective, and this time it's Peter Ustinov. "Luck," he says, "I leave to the others." His portrayal is a good one, more subtle than the performance of the same character by Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express.

Everybody, as expected, has a motive for the murder that takes place on the cruise down the Nile, and yet they all, expectedly, deny it. "Everyone around here was her enemy," we are told. Poirot deals out a plethora of hypotheticals in the whodunit scenes, which only happen an hour into the film. From there, there's a variety of scenes featuring Poirot and his new partner, Colonel Race (David Niven), as they put together the pieces of the puzzle, and it's mostly good fun. But when he finally reveals what had happened ("We have pwoved it! Pwoved it" he shouts), it feels like a disappointment.

As a matter of fact, unfortunately the whole movie feels dull compared to Murder on the Orient Express, another Agotha Critie novel adaptation released only several years before, and especially so compared to Clue, an Christie-esque whodunit that is more elementary but certainly more fun. Other than a rather tense scene involving a cobra, this movie has no croc.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Smoke Signals

"Big truck just went by...and now it's gone." That is our introduction to the Coeur d'Alene Reservation in rural Idaho. The man announcing the unique traffic patterns is a traffic correspondence for K-REZ radio, where the announcer claims "it's a good day to be indigenous." 8:00 AM, Indian Time. A couple of cars also go by, we're told. One with an old lady speeding, another with a young couple arguing. It all sounds like a bad joke in a poorly written film, but it's played quite well.

Smoke Signals seems to have been marketed as a coming-of-age drama that would visualize what life really was like for Native Americans. Its trailer proudly announces that it's the first film made entirely by Native Americans, and Don LaFontaine, the trailer guy and "voice of God", certainly sets the tone: "When Victor's father walked out ten years ago," he says, "he left behind a burning secret that consumed his family. Now, Victor is about to leave the reservation for the first time on a search for the ways of his tribe, the importance of family, and the truth about his father." Okay, sure, but that's fairly bad marketing, and if the film had played out that way, it would have been a bad film.

True, Smoke Signals has its dramatic moments, but it successfully marries comedy and drama. We find an example almost immediately: During "White People's Independence," a terrible fire breaks out after 3:00 AM. Rare films could pull off a house burning down and killing the people inside while taking place during what the narrator tells us is White People's Independence Day.

The only survivor of the fire is a baby named Thomas, who was thrown from the window and caught by Arnold (Gary Farmer), a family friend. There are some children who aren't children at all, we're told by the narrator, Thomas: some are pillars of ash, some are of flame. Some are both. That's how Thomas views both himself and Victor, Arnold's son. Victor is athletic and handsome. Thomas wears goofy suits. Thomas, though, is not portrayed as the bullied typically are.

Thomas is awkward and loquacious, to say the least, but he's not afraid to retort with an equally mean comment. Victor cruelly brings up the fiery deaths of Thomas' parents, and yet Thomas, after pausing and quickly collecting his thoughts, calmly brings up the fact that Victor's father Arnold, an abusive drunk, likely is never coming back after abandoning them. In addition to his wit and humor, Thomas is a fantastic raconteur, even if he embellishes his stories. He is played as a teenager by Evan Adams and as a young boy by Simon Baker, and both are quite good portrayals. So too are the two playing Victor: young Cody Lightning and as an adolescent by Adam Beach, probably the most successful indigenous North American actor these days (even though he was criminally misused in last year's Suicide Squad). The film frequently switches back and forth between when Thomas and Victor were children and to the present day, where Victor reluctantly agrees to let Thomas accompany him to Arizona (because he needs his money) to retrieve the ashes of the recently deceased Arnold. But where there's smoke, there's fire, as they say.

The simplest definition of a smoke signal might come from Wikipedia, which notes that they are used to "transmit news, signal danger, or gather people to a common area." Not to hunt too obviously for themes, but while Smoke Signals isn't so much a coming-of-age tale, I think, it certainly is one of growing friendships and bringing opponents together, as well as dealing with sins of the father, as Victor is forced to do. Aside from that, the film seems to have embraced its role in delicately acknowledging the troubles Native Americans continue to face without being too stereotypical. Sherman Alexie, himself Spokane-Coeur d'Alene, adapted the screenplay from his series of short stories called The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and his father, like Arnold, was an alcoholic who abandoned his family. Alexie deserves praise for a fine screenplay, which is, again, better as a comedy than as a drama. It pokes fun at a variety of topics, like how Indians are supposed to look stoic as if they've just killed a Buffalo. "But our tribe never hunted buffalo," Thomas points out. "We were fishermen." Victor is not impressed. "This ain't 'Dances With Salmon', you know."

That's sort of an elephant in the room: the Oscar-winning romanticized epic, Dances With Wolves, the film that marked a turning point away from more controversial depictions of Native Americans. But that film is still a bit problematic, bathing itself in public curiosity of Native American culture that Smoke Signals rolls its eyes at. As professor Joanne Hearne pointed out in her book "Smoke Signals: Native Cinema Rising", a year after Dances With Wolves won Best Picture there was a subsequent public discussion regarding representation of Native people and Europeans during the Columbus Quincentennary. "The questions that emerged during that public conversation," she wrote, (like, Why is there a public celebration at all?) are issues that Smoke Signals raises with equal intensity in its focus on another calendrical marker, U.S. Independence Day celebrations." (The fire takes place on July 4, 1976.)

Some allegories, like two white passengers taking Thomas and Victors' seats on the bus and refusing to give them back, are a little too ostentatious. But overall it's fine. Among the best performances are Beach and Adams, but especially Farmer in what is probably his best work, though the story is arguably too sympathetic to his character. Supporting this screenplay and the actors delivering its lines is a creative sound design. Smoke Signals was not mesmerized by the public in the era of Titanic, but in terms of film made of and by indigenous people, it will have a long legacy. Beyond its place in history, it's a splendid depiction of universal ideas like friendship, hardship, and coming to terms with familial reality.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Oscars and the Best Films of 2016: Better Late Than Never

It goes without saying that the 89th Academy Awards was a mostly enjoyable show featuring the adorableness of Lion star Sunny Pawar, Viola Davis finally winning a much-deserved Oscar, Mahershala Ali becoming the first Muslim actor to win an Academy Award, Auli'l Cravalho and Lin-Manuel Miranda's terrific performance, and a mostly humorous (yet arguably slightly racist) hosting job from Jimmy Kimmel. It also concluded with the most unusual ending ever.

Oscars 2017 had been up until the finale a remarkably predictable event; the only win that slightly surprised me was O.J.: Made in America winning Best Documentary over 13th. However, I needed to make a run and skip the final award. Friends and colleagues were waiting for me to join them for an afternoon out (I currently live in China, 13 hours ahead of West-coast time), and so after Emma Stone's expected win for Best Actress (the second-final award) came to pass, I decided it was time to go, and given La La Land's other wins for Best Director, Best Song, Best Cinematography, etc., I decided it was best to just leave.

Boy, do I regret that.

By now, all the world has seen Faye Dunaway and a particularly confused Warren Beatty incorrectly announcing La La Land as the Best Picture after apparently having been given the wrong envelope. Several Oscar speeches later, it was announced (admirably by La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz) that there had been a mistake: "Guys, guys, I'm sorry," he said, moments after fellow producer Fred Berger declared, "We lost, by the way. But you know..."

"Moonlight," Horowitz said, "you guys won Best Picture."

Am I happy about the result? Aside from feeling bad for the La La Land people and happy for the Moonlight people, I still believe both films to be only moderately satisfying with limited legacies. Neither of them are among the best films of the previous year in my mind. Those films are below:

Arrival is a rare Denis Villeneuve-directed film that seems to be steeped in optimism despite its dark tone and cinematography. This is a smart, fine, thought-provoking look at how humans (particularly in this day and age) might actually respond if alien visitors were to descend to various areas across the globe. (As an English teacher, I was fascinated with the communication scenes.) I wish it had won more than a sole Oscar (it was the best of the Best Picture nominees), and I do hope more and more viewers will see it throughout the years.

O.J.: Made in America
I had no expectation that I would enjoy any part of an eight-hour documentary about a man who played a sport I have no interest in and whose trial I have few memories of. But O.J.: Made in America, part of ESPN's "30 for 30" series, is the best cinematic look at race in a year that thoroughly examined the topic, both in and outside of movies. O.J. Simpson and his story encompasses racial tensions and divisions in a way that I had never realized. This documentary looks at it all: O.J. Simpson as a "colorless" superstar. O.J. Simpson as a "civil rights victim". O.J. Simpson as an inmate. There were many movies last year that explored race in the U.S. -- Fences, Hidden Figures, I Am Not Your Negro, 13th, The Birth of a Nation -- and yet O.J.: Made in America was the best.

Kubo and the Two Strings
First, the only major knock on Kubo and the Two Strings is its use of whitewashing, which director Travis Knight gave an awfully weak response to. George Takei is given a role here, but only as a villager with a few lines. Why couldn't he have been given the villainous role? His powerful baritone voice surely would have been intriguing to listen to as he chases the hero in the climactic scene. Instead, he gets to say "Oh, my," a line he's been using literally all his life.

All that aside, there has never, I think, been an animated movie that has looked so beautiful. I'm puzzled why this film (perhaps because of the controversy, perhaps because it's an animated feature, perhaps because it was a summer movie) was not nominated for Best Picture. Like Arrival, it could and should be seen by many, many more people.

The Salesman
The second Best Foreign Language Film by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (who did not attend the ceremony to protest Donald Trump's travel ban of Iranians entering the U.S.), The Salesman is yet another fantastic marriage of subtle tenseness and acute observations of the unique difficulties some ordinary people face. Like he did with A Separation, About Elly, and Le Passe, Farhadi has made a tense movie without including any typical Hollywood cliches.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The best Star Wars film since the 80s, this is the franchise's movie that wasn't supposed to do much, sandwiched between Episode VII and VIII. But this was an exceptional movie -- flawed, sure (mainly because of its lack of character development), but it divorces itself from the problems its predecessor had (mainly too much nostalgia). Instead, this movie made Star Wars seem fresh and yet gritty, like a genuine war movie set in a space opera. I so very much cannot wait for the next one.

There are a handful of honorable mentions: the heavy-handed yet powerful Lion; the thrilling Don't Breathe; the jaw-dropping Weiner; Moana, the musical that was better than La La Land; Under the Shadow, the Babadook-ripoff from Iran that was still pretty darn scary; Eye in the Sky, the powerful examination of lethal drone programs; and the hysterical Florence Foster Jenkins.

Best Trailers:

The Handmaiden


Rest in peace, Bill Paxton.

Monday, January 30, 2017


Those very first notes of Mica Levi's score, with its juxtaposition of strings, flute, and occasionally a clarinet, for the film Jackie, about Jacklyn Kennedy in her final tumultuous days at the White House in 1963, are immediate notifications that this film is going to be spellbinding. Only one week after the assassination, Jackie Kennedy is distraught, yet she has an undeniable fervor to make sure history remembers her husband, preferably more like Lincoln than McKinley. That is the simplest, most succinct way to explain this remarkably complicated story.

But the ironic thing is that history was kind to her husband's legacy for about fifty years. He's still well liked, often ranking around 15 or so among presidential scholars. But many historians, according to biographer Robert Dallek, author of the highly regarded and fair An Unfinished Life, think he was average or even slightly below average. The public, which usually forgets that it was his successor who accomplished the Great Society and not him (or that JFK may not have been one of the presidents during most of the Vietnam War, but his policies helped get us there), still hold him think highly of him. Perhaps he can owe that legacy to his wife.

But what of his wife's image these days? An initial search for articles about how the public views her only brings up stories about how her pink suit is being locked away from public view (and won't be available for the public to view until 2103). But dig a bit deeper and it's easy to find what an optimist would call "adoration" but a neutral observer (or pessimist) might call "spell". Her approval ranking in the late 1990s was higher than Mother Theresa, Helen Keller, and any living president at that time. Unlike with regards to her husband, the historians' opinions largely match the public's: she was behind only Eleanor Roosevelt and Abigail Adams, according to a recent survey.  

Jackie, written by Noah Oppenheim and directed by Pablo Larrain, is a movie with a pretty darn good cast, to say the least. Billy Crudup is the first actor to appear besides Natalia Portman, who is nominated for Best Actress and is one of the front runners. Crudup is Theodore H. White, the journalist who Jackie summoned immediately to help rescue JFK's legacy. It is his article in Life magazine that drew a connection to the famous Broadway play, that "for one brief shining moment, there was known as Camelot." Here too is Peter Saarsgaard (who acted with Portman in Garden State) as Robert Kennedy, Greta Gerwig as the White House Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman, John Carroll Lynch as Lyndon Johnson, Richard E. Grant as William Walton (the painter and Kennedy confidante), and in his final performance, John Hurt as an Irish priest comforting Jackie.

Other than Portman's, Hurt's is the most interesting to watch. At first, his performance as the priest comes across as indifferent, like he's consoled too many widows and doesn't have time for one more. Then it seems like he's at least willing to listen, so long as he can spout memorized platitudes about the ubiquity of God. He even does not seem unsure or unwilling to say that "God was in the bullet" that killed JFK when Jackie throws that conundrum at him. By the end, though, it seems that he not only is a decent listener, but his advice is probably as good as one's can be for a person in mourning. "There comes a time in man's search for meaning," he tells her, "when one realizes that there are no answers. And when you come to that horrible, unavoidable realization, you accept it or you kill yourself, or you simply stop searching." He goes on, but I will leave it to the viewer to listen to his voice, and let it serve as a reminder that he will be so very much missed.

The first dialogue in the film, a tense humorless banter session between a grieving widow angry at how the press is handling the aftermath of the assassination, and a journalist (Crudup) confused about what to say and skeptical of how much control Mrs. Kennedy has with the article he's writing sets a sufficient tone. Within moments of the scene, it's clear just how much preparation Portman put into this role, her best work since her Oscar-winning performance in Black Swan. She likely practiced and practiced until she perfected that very wealthy, breathy Mid-Atlantic voice of Jackie's. It's not simply an imitation, but one that requires her to be scared, sad, bitter, confused, angry, comforting, and concerned.

She uses it to best use when we see Jackie fight back against the new administration to make sure JFK gets what she believes to be the most appropriate funeral. She confronts Jack Valenti (the LBJ aide and future president of the Motion Picture Association of America, played here by Max Casella). As she heads out the door, it seems Valenti has won and there will be a more modest procession for safety purposes. But won he has not. Jackie turns back to him. "Mr. Valenti, would you mind getting a message to all of our funeral guests when they arrive?" He will. "Inform them that I will walk with Jack tomorrow--alone if necessary. And tell General De Gaulle that if he wishes to ride in an armored car or in a tank for that matter, I won't blame him. And I'm sure the tens of millions of people watching won't either." Why is she doing this? She's just doing her job, she asserts.

There are expected historical inaccuracies throughout, but overall this is a powerful look at the emotional state of not simply a widow who will raise her children husbandless but of a woman who must face what just about no one else has had to. She must also explain to her two children that their father is gone; she must avoid the nightmares brought by the memory of her husband being shot right in front of her, his brain matter all over the car and his blood on her dress; and she must mourn while the whole world watches. "How do I do this?" she whispers as she walks to the children, ready to tell them the heinous news. She tries the route where she explains that their daddy is in Heaven keeping their baby brother Patrick company. "But what about us?" Caroline asks. Enough of that; change course. It's time for Caroline to be a brave girl. Then Jackie and her brother-in-law watch the alleged murderer answer questions on television.    

Perhaps this is an unexpected story, but Jack's part of the Kennedy story has been told ad nauseum. JFK has been portrayed by Cliff Robertson, Martin Sheen (who has played both JFK and RFK), Bruce Greenwood, Greg Kinnear, James Marsden, Rob Lowe and others. Aside from the 1991 miniseries called A Woman Named Jackie, her story still has been largely untold. Most Americans might simply be able to remember her grace and style, but not much else. Now that most Americans probably have no idea about the context of Camelot, it's apt for a movie like this. And it's done just the right way.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. They were Hollywood royalty, the most famous mother and daughter in cinematic history. Here, in the new documentary, we see that they were more than just a mother-daughter relationship. They were best friends, neighbors (literally), co-performers, legends. Bright Lights, directed by Alexis Bloom and director and actor Fisher Stevens (who won an Oscar for The Cove), gives us a glimpse of their bond, just several weeks after both of their tragic deaths.

"A woman who alleges to be my mother," Fisher tells us, lives right next door to her. Their banter as they eat a small meal together is just about perfect, as it is throughout most of the documentary. There's so many important figures in their sage who are alluded to--Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Simon, all the Hollywood memorabilia Reynolds collected over the years. There's mentions of rehab, predictably. Most notable is that dog of Fisher's--Gary, the French bulldog with the gigantic tongue, the dog who was by her side when she suffered a heart attack on a plan from London to Los Angeles. And any documentary that features footage of Singin in the Rain and Star Wars is worth a watch. But this movie is about them and their love for one another.

Reynolds is called a "tsu-mommy," a woman incapable of slowing down and retiring, although she still uses flip phones. Reynolds says she swill perform until she dies, then she will be stuffed and put in a museum. "Age is horrible for all of us," insists Fisher, "but she falls from a greater height." The term "aged well" is a bit offensive, in my mind, and it's shameful, I think, that Lucasfilm still insisted on Fisher losing weight before the current Star Wars films. That being said, Fisher is almost always seen smoking a cigarette and drinking a Coke, both of which likely account for her lower voice in recent years. Reynolds, however, shows up to parties and pretends that nothing is wrong.

Not particularly good jokes--Debbie's are pretty scripted ("I should have married Burt Reynolds. I wouldn't have to change my name."). Postcards from the Edge, the 1990 film with a screenplay Fisher wrote based on her novel of the same name, is a humorous semi-autobiographical account of Fisher (whose screen persona is played by Meryl Streep) and her mother (played by Shirley MacLaine), but it's nowhere near as funny as Fisher was in real life. She was down-right hysterical and beyond witty. That humor is seen here. Fisher mentions that she is heading to London to film "Star Wars 7...ditwo." And she was also quite the singer, as well. Archival footage of Carrie belting out a decent version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (by her future ex-husband, of course) as a teenager is a particular delight.

She goes to fan conventions, and like many stars of many different franchises, she seemed to have a complicated relationship with all the fan frenzy, but she seems happy with her many fans. "She's me, and I'm her." The "she" of course is General Leia Organa, one of the most famous characters in film history. Fisher made it known several times her objections to that famous or infamous metal bikini she wore in Return of the Jedi, but she also had a sense of humor about it all. She told Terry Gross in an interview only about a month before her death that one of her favorite things about Comic-Con conventions is all the men in metal bikinis, and not thin or fit men either. "Kind of a before-and-after thing," she told Gross. "This is way after. Not only is Princess Leia fatter, she's a guy."

Todd Fisher, daughter of Carrie and son of Debbie, insists during the film on highlighting the music career of their father, Eddie Fisher, a man who had more consecutive hits than Elvis and the Beatles combined. There's footage of Carrie chatting with her father shortly before his death. It's a noble effort, but the movie is all about these two wonderful women. There's a trippy scene of Fisher in the late 80s (possibly on drugs) singing Christmas songs at the Great Wall of China. Debbie chokes up as she talks about her daughter's voice. Carrie breaks down as it appears her mother might be too frail to attend her receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award and the Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2014. (Reynolds was also honored by the Academy Awards in 2015 with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.) They are all notable moments.

As if 2016 wasn't a cruel enough year, just days before it ended Carrie Fisher passed away after earlier suffering from a heart attack. Her mother, Debbie Reynolds, died the very next day. It was a horrible way to end a horrible year. Perhaps 2017 will be a bit better. Starting off the year by watching this documentary might help make it so.

Photo by Gage Skidmore.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

They did it again. Disney and Lucasfilm gave us sprinklings of our favorite characters and boldly introduced new ones that were just as fun to watch--again. In this year's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the newest in the Star Wars franchise, there is no Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, no Rey or Obi-Wan Kenobi. No Yoda and no BB-8. Rogue One, the first theatrical release of a Star Wars film outside of the nine canonical chapters of George Lucas' famous story, is a story that really didn't need to be told, and yet it's the very best one since 1983.

But what's even more impressive is that the team behind the movie may have given us a boatload of new characters, but they also have taken us back to a story we basically thought was covered by now. Virtually every human alive has seen the first Star Wars film from 1977, and many fans watch the animated series Rebels about the birth of the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire. The gist of this film's plot is that it details the Rebels' heist of the plans for the Death Star, the massive planet-destroying space station that intentionally (we learn) has one fatal flaw. Rogue One is essentially the story behind the steal, and it makes Star Wars feel fresh.

Rogue One, directed by Garreth Edwards, is the first Star Wars movie to have really understood that there is weight behind that second word. This is a war movie, and at times it almost feels like it's channeling Saving Private Ryan. Like in war, it is challenging to easily define so-called "good guys" and "bad guys." The Empire and its leaders are still the villain here, but there are examples of good. Madds Mikkelsen plays an engineer forced to build the Death Star; it is he who creates the weakness of the weapon and informs his daughter, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) who must lead a group of guerrillas to steal the plans. The person who delivers that message to Jyn is an Imperial pilot named Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) who defected. On the Rebel Alliance side, there are pragmatists and cautionary figures, but there are also radicals and freedom fighters who could easily be called terrorists. Revolutions are not always black and white.

It came as a surprise to many, including me, that Mikkelsen, the villain in a host of films and shows, would not be the bad guy here. Instead, that role, Orson Krennic, the Director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Empire, is played by Ben Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn has never given a bad performance, but this one might be my favorite of his. Dressed in a white cape and uniform, he's childish, arrogant, cruel, blood-thirsty, and a risk taker. His opening dialogue, where he taunts Galen Erso (Mikkelsen) into coming back to finish the Death Star, is just about perfect.

Edwards et al have gathered a wonderful cast from all over the world: Mendelsohn is Australian and Mikkelsen is Danish. Jones, as well as co-stars Alan Tudyk (whose comedic performance as the droid K-2SO is my favorite) and Riz Ahmed, are Brits. Genevieve O'Reilly is Irish. Diego Luna, who plays a CIA-like agent willing to assassinate if ordered, is Mexican. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen, who play best friends fighting the Empire, are Chinese. Many of the Americans in the cast--Forest Whitaker, Jimmy Smits, and James Earl Jones--are people of color, proving yet again that Disney, unlike most of Hollywood, is committed to diversity.

Jyn is a small-r rebel, one who despite being raised by the radical fighter Saw Gerrera (a character who first appeared in the animated series The Clone Wars and who is played here by Whitaker), has no allegiance to the Rebellion because it has only brought her pain. But whether she likes it or not, she is caught up in the fight and resistance. Jyn leads Bodhi, Cassian (Luna), Chirrut (Yen), and Baze (Wen) and makes "ten men look like a hundred" as they race across the galaxy in an attempt to stop the Empire.

In many respects, this feels like as much of a Star Wars family reunion as The Force Awakens was last year. Smits reprises his role from the prequel trilogy as Bail Organa, the senator fighting the Empire behind the scenes and the step-father of Leia. O'Reilly plays Mon Mothma, a character who first appeared in 1983's Return of the Jedi played by Caroline Blakiston and whose performance by O'Reilly in 2005's Revenge of the Sith was cut for time. Other familiar characters appear and they won't be mentioned in this review, but there is one I will definitely discuss since we all knew going into the movie that he would be back: Darth Vader. I won't elaborate, but remember how disappointed you were in 2005 when Jones basically only appeared to yell "Noooooo!" for five seconds and that was basically it? You surely will not be disappointed this time.

Edwards and his crew channel what worked with last year's Star Wars film and avoid what didn't. In terms of visuals, the team has spared no expensive with their $200 million budget, giving us effects that are more of The Force Awakens and less Attack of the Clones. This may in fact be the most visually incredible Star Wars film yet. And in terms of mood and story, while there are obnoxious little references to the films of the past, nostalgia is not oozing out like it was in The Force Awakens. Rogue One, despite it being one of the darker elements of the franchise, is one of the more hopeful, and it's reassuring to know that in this era of a complete lack of hope with the state of the world, when democracy is trampled on and thrown out the window by those with hatred in their hearts, it's nice to know that Star Wars understands the need for good people to resist and push back. All the while providing so much fun, as Star Wars often does.

But I must end with a heavy heart as I write this review, two days after watching the film and only hours after discovering the death of the beloved Carrie Fisher, our princess, our general, our icon. In a year that has also taken away from us Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, Prince, and many, many others, what a cruel way to end a disastrous, dismal, no-good, very bad year. How could I end simply by saying she will be missed? That goes without saying. Like many, I'm shocked, I'm angry, I'm sad. Perhaps her space brother and co-star put it best: no words.


Correction: Alan Tudyk is American, not British. (December 29)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Southside With You

Things are awkward on their first date, to say the least. Him liking pie and her preference for ice cream doesn't help, and she won't let him pay for her turkey-on-rye sandwich. She is his supervisor, is more than cognizant of how this might look to her colleagues. The young woman on the date, Michelle, insists early on to her mother that this is not a date. "Thought you said he was just another smooth-talkin' brother," her mother teases.

That smooth-talkin' brother is a young man named Barack Obama, just over twenty years before he would become the most powerful man on the planet. We first see him smoking a cigarette, the cool white fedora from his early year photographs just behind him. Barack may drive a car with a partly rusted floor, but he's confident, or probably cocky, as even his modern-day defenders would begrudgingly admit. Barack is going to pick up Michelle Robinson for what will become their first date, probably the most well-known first date of any First Couple.

One could easily make the argument that if this movie weren't about the Obamas, it would be far less interesting (or marketable). Just as Boyhood was special only because it was filmed over twelve years, Southside With You only works when we're reminded that this is the current First Couple we're watching. Part of the flaw of this movie is the second-rate screenplay that seems more like a mediocre theater playwriting dissertation. The conversations are almost predictable, covering topics ranging from God, Black American art, and Stevie Wonder. But I will at least concede that there was a line in the film I found humorous: a woman lecturing someone by telling them, "Watch your mouth--your ass in church."

The church is where we see Obama the community organizer, an exceptional line of work that has often been mocked by people with only half a brain. "No is just a word," he tells the hopeless, members of a community struggling to find funding. And the opposite of no, he says, is on, as in carry on. Barack Obama is the closest thing this nation has ever had to having a Preacher in Chief. It's probably the film's best scene, though it tiptoes towards cliches. It's at least the only moment where Patrick Sawyers actually sounds like Barack Obama, a little too professorial, as Michelle (Tika Sumpter) tells him, but it's a reminder that Obama has been one of the best orators to have occupied the White House. A motivator, a coach, a pragmatist, a patriot.

It's in this scene where Sawyers shines the most. Sawyers has had bit parts in major movies like Zero Dark Thirty, but here in his first starring role, the guy looks like Obama, talks like Obama, even shakes hands like Obama. The movie may have sub par dialogue, but it at least recognizes that Barack, in the story at least, probably knew that he likely was going to speak at this community meeting, and that it might just be pretty impressive to show off to his supervisor (a supervisor he is courting). But it's a success nonetheless. Things from there become more intimate as Michelle agrees to drinks and teasingly asks him if he prefers white or black women. 

From there they go to see the exceptional Do the Right Thing, directed by Spike Lee, the movie that was shunned by the Oscars in 1990. (They instead rewarded what they thought was a superior film about race relations called Driving Miss Daisy.) Watching Southside With You, I hadn't really thought of just how pertinent the climactic scene of Lee's most famous film--of white police officers choking a black man to death--is to today's harrowing times. Afterwards the two are a bit shaken. Part of this is because they've bumped into their (white) boss. The boss doesn't seem to care that they're on a date, but he also doesn't seem to think that it might be awkward telling two black people that he couldn't understand why the characters in Do the Right Thing were reacting the way they were during the riot.

Aside from that, there are hardly any politics in this film, and that's probably how it should be. This film may be firmly planted in the romance genre, but how can one not think of politics when its two main characters are the current President and First Lady? Because this is a romance film that follows the romance film rules, the movie might be more appreciated in a few decades. But for now, despite both Barack and Michelle Obama's relative popularity, close to half of the American public would probably roll their eyes at this at best and shun and shout about it at worst. The latter half would react that way due to reasons that have nothing to do with the film itself.

Full disclosure: I'm in the former group. My affection for the Obamas--him for his undeniable success (4% unemployment rate, millions more insured, carbon emission reductions of 12%, the death of Bin Laden to name just a few) and her for hers (her advocacy for children's nutrition and healthy habits and raising awareness of girls' education around the world, in particular), and both of their charm, grace, and kindness makes me like (or at least tolerate) this movie.

But yeah, I get it. Lots of people hate the Obamas. A certain West Virginia government official recently claimed that Michelle is an "ape in heels." A series of questions kept popping into my head as I watched Southside With You: How would the right, many of whom use racist terms for the Obamas, react if Barack Obama had five children with three different wives and admitted to sexually assaulting women? How would the media react if Obama said out loud that John McCain was a war hero only because he was captured, and that he liked people "who weren't captured?" If Obama lost to McCain or Mitt Romney by over three million votes but became president anyway because of the Electoral College, would the alt-right, the KKK, white nationalists, the Tea Party, Vladimir Putin, talk radio, FOX News, and Republicans go quietly into the night? Obama is not the monster his successor is, so I can't imagine there being a Manhattan With You about the Donald and any one of his wives, although if there would be one, Steve Bannon would undoubtedly produce it.

Alright, I admit that one of my flaws as a film critic is digression. But I just couldn't help myself with that one. I'd say that we're about to replace the best of democracy with the worst of it, but Second-Placed Donald came in second, so I guess I can't say that. Okay, digression. I'll stop. The movie. Back to the movie.

Yeah, it's okay. Nothing grand, nothing great. Not one of the year's best. It's pleasant, undoubtedly, and if you're not angered by who its characters are, you'll likely be okay with it. It's my understanding that the actual Obamas have not yet seen Southside With You, but if they are in for a movie, it might make for a nice date night.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Thing

"Hounds follow those who feed them."
-Otto von Bismarck

Antarctica's vast, snowy landscape is a peculiar yet perfectly dreary setting for a horror film. Here, American researchers (though we hardly see any of them do any actual, you know, research) come across an infectious monster unlike any on the planet in the 1982 close-to-apocalyptic horror-science fiction flick The Thing, by John Carpenter. One of the early moments of the film shows a husky being chased by a helicopter, whose wing man is desperately trying to shoot it. Despite the presence of an adorable pooch, there are ominous signs everywhere from the start.

This movie, based on the 1938 novella Who Goes There? by John W. Cambell, is regarded as a more faithful adaptation of the story than the famous 1951 version called The Thing from Another World. In this version, a group of twelve researches are isolated in the cold Antarctica just as winter is beginning. Something, though, is very off. A Norwegian scientist looks as if he has gone crazy as he appears to try to shoot up the American camp until he is killed. Despite the imminent threat to the Americans' lives being removed, danger has only just begun. The Thing is there with them, and it's incredibly difficult to kill and it's really pissed off. One by one, the men are picked off by the Thing as it "absorbs" and "imitates" them. If the Thing doesn't get them, then they still have to deal with each other as paranoia and cabin fever set in. They are totally oblivious as to who, if any, of them are infected and serving as a host for the Thing. The movie becomes a unique sort of "who is it" rather than a "who dunnit."

There is a great cast here, and those who give the best performances are Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, and Donald Moffat. Russell, who was also directed by Carpenter in Elvis, Escape from New York, Escape from L.A., and Big Trouble in Little China, is MacReady, the crew's pilot. As Garry (Moffat), more or less creates a leadership vacuum in the panic and confusion, MacReady fills it. "Somebody in this camp ain't who he appears to be," he warns, as if he's in the American wild west. It's a little difficult keeping track of so many characters in a limited area, but it's no matter, because Russell, particularly in the scenes where the Thing is not dominant, drives the film. Russell has never been given enough credit for his ability to do that as an actor.

There's a combination of Ennio Morricone's subtle yet operatic score and the grotesque makeup effects by the legendary Rob Bottin that give this movie a really disturbing vibe. Everything moves at the right pace, and so much credit should be given to director Carpenter. Most will likely disagree with me, but this is superior to his other well regarded horror film Halloween. By the way, the "dog cage" scene might just be the most disturbing moment in 80s cinema, as we first see this monster become other species. (Let's just say it might not be a great scene for dog lovers.) Though I must say that one problem I had with this movie is it's very first scene; that moment partly harms the film as the enigmatic nature of the dog is tarnished. Additionally, sometimes the makeup makes the film appear dated, and some of the usual horror tropes are too prevalent--at least through the prism of watching films these days. Initial reviews weren't too kind. Roger Ebert called it a great "barf bag movie" that was ultimately disappointing. Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it "foolish." But like several other Carpenter-directed films, the movie has since been re-appraised, and I join others in my admiration. The editing by Todd Ramsay and Carpenter's guidance make this a truly memorable horror film.