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 pouch, 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.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Son of Saul

Members of the Sonderkommando.
Picture from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The very first frame of Son of Saul, the Hungarian film that won Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars and the Grand Prix at last year's Cannes Film Festival, is remarkably hazy until Saul, a Hungarian Jew at Auschwitz, approaches. Saul is played by Geza Rohrig, and throughout most of the film, the camera intently focuses on him, either on his intense face or the X on his back, which signifies that he is a member of the Sonderkommando, the Jewish forced work units who aided with the disposal of gas chamber victims of the camps. Within ten minutes, we are witness to this, but we only hear it; the camera remains on Saul.

In the horrors of the Auschwitz, the bodies of the dead are "pieces". Saul, when collecting bodies to be cremated, discovers one teenage boy gasping; he barely survived, until a Nazi suffocates him. Saul is fiercely determined to properly bury this child, even though it is strictly forbidden. He risks, as one fellow prisoner warns, of failing the living for the benefit of the dead.

Terry Gross interviewed both Rohrig and Laszlo Nemes, the director and co-writer of Son of Saul last year. Gross read them a quote from Nemes discussing the casting of Rohrig. Nemes had claimed that Rohrig is "at once old and young, handsome and ugly, ordinary and remarkable, deep and impassive, quick-witted and slow." Rohrig wittingly responded that he agreed with half of that. The quote couldn't be any truer. All of these are accurate descriptions of how Rohrig appears and the performance he creates. The character of Saul has seen too many atrocious episodes in one of human history's most disturbing events. There is a cut on his lip; his eyes are pink, presumably from shoveling human ash into the river; and everything is of terrible fury around him, even if we cannot fully see it. The cinematography switches between chaos and calm. A hundred things happen simultaneously, but Saul is the epicenter.

Some have argued that 2015 was a year of gimmick film making. Three other foreign films used what could be described as gimmicks: Room from Canada partially took place only in one room, Victoria from Germany impressively is one single take throughout multiple parts of Berlin, and The Tribe was filmed entirely in Ukrainian Sign Language with no subtitles. Sometimes Son of Saul too feels gimmicky, with how focused the camera is on Saul and not his surroundings, and it isn't as unforgettable as say Room.

That being said, it's a film that should be watched, and its warnings from history should be heeded. Every time a Holocaust movie is made, it's inevitable that it is said that "never again" will the world allow such a thing to happen. And yet it may be happening all over again.

Friday, August 12, 2016


I imagine most young teenagers of the late 1960s, the ones too young to appreciate Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as much as their older siblings, the ones who really dug the zany, Marx Brothers-style comedy of the two seasons of The Monkees, probably were confused out of their mind after watching Head, the 1968 counterculture cult film co-written by Jack Nicholson.

Head is probably the strangest movie I have ever seen. And it's not just strange--it's bad. It would have been bad for the young fans of the Monkees, it would have been bad (or good, I suppose) for music lovers who readily dismissed the group as frauds who couldn't play instruments. It would have been bad for older folks who were utterly confused at young Baby Boomers and their values. And it would have been bad for Baby Boomers who had no idea how to articulate what they stood for.

It's not uncommon for a reviewer to transition at about this point in the review to the plot of the movie. Three paragraphs in--surely that would make sense to do so at least now. That would be pointless here, for I have no idea what the plot is. I know that the movie starts on a bridge and the Prefab Four--Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork, Davy Jones, and Michael Nesmith--madly race by. Then we go to a war scene, because remember, this was the 60s. Then they're in the desert. It actually hurts a little trying to remember all the arbitrary scenes. They don't amount to anything. Supposedly, the four and the writers were high at the genesis of creating the story, but no amount of LSD would give any meaning to Head. Why is it called Head? Is it naughty? Philosophical? I have no idea. Maybe "that's the point." How hackneyed.

There are a variety of cameos--Terri Garr, Nicholson, Frank Zappa, Sonny Liston, to name a few--but none of them do anything to make the film any more enjoyable. Instead, the movie almost immediately becomes an exercise in trying to sustain oneself until the next song, most of which are pretty good. Chief among them is "Circle Sky," written by Nesmith, and his second best after "Listen to the Band." The four of them, in maybe one of the few scenes that tries to make an iota of sense, rush to the stage dressed uniformly in white, and Nesmith begins belting out the lyrics. One gets a good sense of Monkeemania through this scene, as it was filmed as a live concert. The second best song is probably "Porpoise Song," one of the several Gerry Goffin and Carole King compositions for the group during their run. (King and Toni Stern also contribute the lovely "As We Go Along" to the album.) But the next best musical scene is Jones' "Daddy Song," written by Harry Nilsson (another writer of Monkees music). Jones channels his theater experience in a high-energy dance with crisp choreography as the camera consistently switches between him in his black suit and him in his white suit.

As you can see, while the movie itself might be a bit of a mess, what gives it any bit of goodness is its soundtrack, one of the group's best, an album that is so appreciated that it was ranked 25 in Rolling Stone's greatest soundtracks of all time list. But the album is roughly half-an-hour long, leaving about another hour of the film to suffer through.

Nicholson and co-writer and director Bob Rafelson (one of the creators of the show) had better success with movies like Five Easy Pieces two years later. But for many, Head was the end of the Monkees, "career suicide" as some have called it. But as Nesmith explained, by that point the Monkees were a pariah, and the film, according to him, was a "swan song." The group soon broke up, going on to varying degrees of success. Jones, for example, was the big heart throb of the group, but other than appearing on a famous episode of The Brady Bunch, his solo career never really took off. Nesmith arguably had the greatest success: executive producing Repo Man, winning a Grammy for "Elephant Parts," being instrumental in the creation of MTV, inheriting his mother's huge fortune from inventing Liquid Paper.


For the band as a whole, though, reruns in the 1980s brought the group to new fame with new fans. They occasionally reunited and they released an album in the 80s and another in the 90s, neither of which were much good. Fortunately, though, this year the band turned 50 years old, and they recently released an album called "Good Times!" that is their best in decades. Featuring songs by their old collaborators Neil Diamond, Nilsson, Goffin/King, and Tommy Boyce/Bobby Hart, it also includes songs by younger musicians who grew up on the Monkees, like Rivers Cuomo and Ben Gibbard. It's really a treat to listen to. The album is appropriately named; many likely think of the good times they have had listening to the Monkees over the years. Watching Head, though, probably isn't one of them.

The Best Monkees Songs, According to Me

50. I Wanna Be Free
49. This Just Doesn't Seem to Be Day
48. Tomorrow's Gonna Be Another Day
47. Your Auntie Grizelda
46. It's Nice to Be With You
45. Love to Love
44. Salesman
43. Good Times
42. A Man Without a Dream
41. All of Your Toys
40. Me and Magdalena
39. Mommy and Daddy
38. Someday Man
37. Tear Drop City
36. The Kind of Girl I Could Love
35. Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again
34. Daddy's Song
33. As We Go Along
32. I'll Be Back Up On My Feet
31. Star Collector
30. P.O. Box 9847
29. D.W. Washburne
28. The Monkees (Theme Song)
27. Daily Nightly
26. Take a Giant Step
25. Goin' Downy
24. No Time
23. Mary, Mary
22. You Told Me
21. Porpoise Song
20. Tapioca Tundra
19. What Am I Doing Hangin' Round?
18. You May Just Be the One
17. Cuddly Toy
16. She Makes Me Laugh
15. Circle Sky
14. Words
13. Papa Gene's Blues
12. Pleasant Valley Sunday
11. Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)
10. Listen to the Band
9. Randy Scouse Git
8. Saturday's Child
7. She
6. Valleri
5. A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You
4. (I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone
3. Daydream Believer
2. Last Train to Clarksville
1. I'm a Believer

Honorable Mention: Sweet Young Thing


Sunday, August 7, 2016

Suicide Squad

File:Jolly Rosso.jpgLet's cut to the chase: The good news is that Suicide Squad, the third entry in the D.C. Expanded Universe, is not nearly as bad as this spring's Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. That bad news is that it is still bad. What could have been a fun movie about antiheroes being truly heroic, an antithesis to the overly moody previous D.C. films, is instead a fairly formulaic, rather dull flick that tries to play it safe and yet results in another miss.

Viola Davis plays Amanda Weller, a government official who concocts a bizarre plan to form a task force containing the worst of the worst super villains ever known. These malefactors, she believes, might just be able to do some good for once. In return, the villains get some time deducted from their sentences. If they disobey or try to escape, they die. Fortunately for Weller, if something goes wrong, they are, as Deadshot says, the patsies.

Deadshot could be described as the Suicide Squad's leader, if they needed one. He's a hired assassin who's never missed, and who first appeared in D.C.'s comics in 1950. Here, he's played by Will Smith, who is just as charismatic as ever but who has not been the lead in a hit since Men in Black 3 from 2012. The other two big stars in the film are Margot Robbie, Smith's co-star from Focus, and Oscar-winning "method actor" Jared Leto as cinema's most notorious clown, the Joker. Leto has some big shoes to fill, as fans have argued for years whether the best on-screen portrayal of the Joker has been from Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, or Heath Ledger (or, I suppose, Cesar Romero). Leto does not come close to them. It's not a bad performance, per se, but during the best moments it feels like it's simply a repeat of all the stuff we've previously seen. Leto's method acting doesn't save the performance; I'm not sure what sending rats and used condoms to his co-stars during filming did to enhance the output. It's not nearly as disappointing as how Robbie as Harley Quinn, the Joker's lover, is squandered; despite a pretty good performance by the always good Robbie, this is a role that, as Alison Wilmore of BuzzFeed describes, is "made into damaged dolly jerk-off material."

Yeah, it would be hard to argue that this movie isn't anti-women. At one point, one of the villains (good guy villains, I mean) punches a woman and then says, "She had a mouth." And it's a comic relief moment. It is 2016, right?

On a better note, considering how devoid of diversity Hollywood is these days (#OscarsSoWhite), this might be one of the most diverse movies around: Smith, Davis, and Adewale Skinnuoye-Agbaje, covered in makeup as Killer Croc, are black; Jay Hernandez as El Diablo, who throws fire from his fists, is Latino; Karen Fukuhara plays a swordswoman bodyguard and is Asian-American; and Adam Beach as Slipknot is Canadian First Nations.    

But most of this movie is a mess, and most of the blame for this could fall on David Ayer, its writer and director. I'm not too surprised. Training Day, which he wrote, is very overrated, and Fury, which he wrote and directed, borders on trash. End of Watch is barely tolerable. If he is the one responsible for those four awesome trailers for Suicide Squad, then he should stick to doing that. And with an eclectic soundtrack that includes "Without Me," "You Don't Know Me," "Bohemian Rhapsody," and "Fortunate Son," he at least shows us that he has good taste in music. And the visual effects and color palate are mostly spectacular.

Suicide Squad is not as bad as I was expecting, but it's still bad, and considering that Suicide Squad is essentially strike three for Warner Bros. in their efforts to try and match the powerhouse that has been Marvel Studios, I'd say it's time to call it quits. No Justice League, no Wonder Woman, perhaps not even a stand-alone Batman film directed by and staring Ben Affleck. It's time to retire the costumes.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The 2016 Election

When Donald Trump admitted way back in July 2015 that he thought John McCain was only "a war hero because he was captured," I thought that was it for him. Mind you, this was after his serious (and false) comments about Mexicans being "rapists," but I figured conservatives didn't really care about that. They did, after all, ignore the 2013 report that bluntly declared that Latinos feel that the GOP "couldn't care less about them."

But then he said Megyn Kelley, a conservative reporter who asked him a fair question about his sexist comments toward women, had "blood coming out of her wherever" when she questioned him. And I thought, "Okay, now they'll ditch him." But the absurdity just kept coming. I mean, I've never seen a presidential candidate brag about his genitals on stage at a debate, have you? I'll admit: I've loved much of it. I mean, this guy is a world-class clown, and clowns are supposed to be funny. But then I remind myself of his calls to ban an entire religious group from entering the country, and his sexism, racism, and apparently even anti-Semitism. (Seriously, Trump voters, you cannot deny that Trump is vehemently racist. What other presidential nominee--or person since the mid-19th century--has ever said out loud "Look at my African-America"?) Then there's his narcissism, his arrogance. And the violence. Oh, the violence. It's terrifying, and he actually encourages it. Trump is the closest thing to Mussolini I think this country has ever seen. (And apparently, Trump likes to tweet Mussolini quotes, but no big deal.) There are numerous stories history has given us of what charismatic autocrats can do once they instill and/or fuel a significant amount of fear in the public. We should heed history's warnings.

Let me say that policy wise, Trump is the least bad of the 17 Republican candidates who ran for the nomination. He is a rare somewhat moderate Republican whose coalition includes independents, less religious voters, and what we used to call Reagan Democrats. He is nowhere near as ideologically far-right as Ted Cruz, who would have been an absolute nightmare as president. Trump's hesitance to embrace interventionism is in stark contrast to Marco Rubio's hawkish neoconservatism. He was right to criticize George W. Bush over 9/11 and the Iraq War (and brave to do it in South Carolina, Bush Country). His views on the welfare state are shockingly reasonable compared to the conservative establishment. I actually agree with him that we need to re-think NATO and pull back a bit from the world stage.  

But he would still be a terrible pick for president, and all Americans should renounce him and his ugly rhetoric. That includes conservatives in this country. To my conservative friends: If you're a conservative, do you really want to vote for Trump? Do you really think a billionaire like him, a man who is rich because his rich father gave him a "small loan of a million dollars," truly cares about the plight of working-class citizens? Do you really think that a man who is illiterate in the Bible really believes in evangelical principles? Do you want to support a serial liar unlike any we've ever seen before? A man who flip-flops on everything? (He supported action against Libya, then opposed it. He favored the Iraq War, then was against it. Was pro-choice, now is pro-life. Just look at what he used to say about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton!) His authoritarianism is at odds with Tea Party ideals about a limited government for the people. Do you think it's a bit odd that he offered the VP to John Kasich, and that Kasich would be in charge of foreign and domestic policy entirely? Does his remarkable inexperience concern you? Do his connections to the mob bother you? Does his previous use of undocumented Polish workers to build his giant tower diminish the fervor you have for him regarding immigration? A guy who seems to have incestuous feelings for his daughter? His bullying attitude towards people with disabilities? His lies about Muslims on 9/11? The endorsement from North Korea? The KKK? Seriously, what is it going to have to take for you to vote against this monster? Many conservative leaders are opposed to him, and you should be, too. The two living former Republican presidents do not support him, and the Republican party's 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney fiercely opposes him. Even Ted Cruz doesn't support him. Supporting him because he "speaks his mind" is not a sufficient reason to support him. His mind is filthy.

How could any of us possibly be at ease with this guy at the helm? When asked on Morning Joe whom he was consulting with regarding foreign policy issues, Trump's response was "himself" because "I've said a lot of things." Seriously. Trump, who assures us he will be tough on ISIS, primarily consults himself. A real estate tycoon with literally zero experience in foreign policy will have his hands on the nuclear codes, and his primary consultant on these matters is himself. If you think I'm being hyperbolic, let me tell you that a Trump presidency now ranks as the third-biggest global threat due to his militaristic tendencies and indifference to nuclear proliferation, among other things. That's how disastrous a President Trump could be. I'm totally at a loss as to why all of this needs to be emphasized and repeated, but apparently it's going to be a very close election.

Many Americans will vote in this election simply because they do not want Trump in the White House. They will hold their noses and vote for Hillary Clinton, the only nominee in U.S. presidential election history who has negative ratings near his. I am not one of these voters. I think Clinton is a tremendous candidate, by far the best the Democrats offered in the primaries. As a child, Clinton dealt with bullies by punching them and proudly telling her mother, "Mommy, I can play with the boys now." Hillary has been playing with the boys for decades now, and she plays the game better than most of them. And that kind of toughness is exactly what we need against the tyrannical bully that is Trump.

A woman who holds the record for the Gallup's most admired woman in America, we know much of her time as First Lady, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State. Let's not forget about her early roles, whether it was her work on the Watergate Senate committee, her helping to launch Arkansas' first rape crisis center, or her awesome declaration in China in 1995 that women's rights are human rights. But we've also forgotten her more recent accomplishments. While people like Rudy Giuliani reassured the world that the air quality in Ground Zero was safe (which was wrong, resulting in the illness of many recovery workers), there were actual leaders like New York's junior senator, Hillary Clinton, who was instrumental in helping secure over $21 billion in relief for the World Trade Center. As Secretary of State, she prioritized climate change, by far the most pressing issue facing the world. So far, she has shown pretty good judgment in choosing people who will surround her in the White House should she win, first and foremost with her pick of Senator Tim Kaine, a "Pope Francis Catholic" who has been fighting for social justice his entire career. Kaine is respected by his Republican colleagues in the Senate, where he became the first senator to give a speech on the Senate floor entirely in Spanish, and is a fierce opponent of the NRA.

Clinton talks about building bridges, not walls. Instead of allowing a thin skin to inspire her to shout at everyone, she is a listener. I would be lying if I said that the excitement of finally having a female president is one of the reasons why I will be voting for her in November. The U.S. has a rather pathetic record when it comes to electing female politicians, and it's time to end that.

Clinton is not perfect, and I don't agree with her on everything. I worry that unlike President Obama, she has learned the wrong lessons from the mess in Libya. As the New York Times put it, she has "displayed instincts on foreign policy that are more aggressive" than most other Democrats. She probably won't be tough enough with Israel. I disagree with her stance on the death penalty. I tend to lean in the opposite direction of the pro-choice crowd, which obviously puts me in contrast to her and most other liberals. Unlike Sanders, she seems to be hesitant to embrace a more Scandinavia model. But she has earned my vote. Her opposition to guns, embrace of the queer community, and her record of service all have made my decision easy.

And to those thinking of voting for Jill Stein, the Green Party nominee, or Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party nominee, because you didn't get Bernie Sanders as your Democratic Party nominee, I implore you to reconsider. Yes, it would be nice to have four parties really go at it and let the American people have a real debate. But love it or hate it, we currently have a two-party system and will for some time. Clinton and Sanders actually have a minuscule amount of differences; they certainly rarely disagreed when they in the Senate. Sanders strongly endorses Clinton, and you ought to vote for her. We cannot afford a Trump presidency.

Is this the most important election of our lifetime? Well, that's what they said last time. They said it in 2004, in 1924, and in 1860, and practically all the others. Saying this is the most important election ever is getting a bit dull. But electing Trump over Clinton would have enormous consequences. Just think of what kind of a pariah the U.S. will become with Trump as our leader. We must defeat him, and we must elect Hillary Clinton.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane

At first I thought it was peculiar to come back to the Godzilla-like events of the 2008 monster flick Cloverfield, but then I realized that 10 Cloverfield Lane, the thriller from earlier this year, is not your average monster story. I will do my best to avoid spoilers in this review, because the less you know about the film's story going in, the better. Could I elaborate? It's best not to. Just keep in mind that the two films are sort of spiritual cousins in name only. Both are produced by J.J. Abrams, who, along with his director, Dan Trachtenberg doesn't channel Speilberg so much as he channels Hitchcock.

To me, what connects these two films is not leviathans both real and imaginary, but panic. The very first moments of 10 Cloverfield Lane establish that. None of the opening moments are too clear, other than a young woman named Michelle (played exceptionally by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaving her lover quickly and dashing off on the road. She's in a car accident, and then we see her awake, chained up with an IV hooked to her, and barely clothed. It appears that her captor is a man named Howard, played by the consummate John Goodman. Fivethirtyeight, the data-driven news site, recently identified Goodman as America's greatest supporting actor. The author of that article, Walt Hickey, compares him to Phil Hartman, the "Glue" of Saturday Night Live, the man who kept sketches together despite rarely leading them. That's true for 10 Cloverfield Lane. He's clearly the supporting role to Winstead's lead, but he is essential to understanding the film's beginning, middle, and end. It is one of Goodman's most interesting roles and performances. He's terrifying, but he sprinkles in a few moments of light humor to remind us how funny he easily can be. At times he makes us feel sorry for Howard. Does he have a split personality? If this movie were released later in the year, there definitely would be talk of an Oscar nomination for him.

Howard and Michelle are not alone. They are joined by a third banana, a kind but slightly dimwitted man named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), and all three of them, according to Howard and Emmett, are in a Cold War-era style bunker. Why? There was some kind of attack. A chemical kind. Maybe it was the Russians. Maybe it was terrorists. They're not sure. One thing they apparently are sure of is how unsafe it is to venture outdoors, or the chemicals will undoubtedly kill them. But Michelle shares the presumed skepticism most, if not all, of the viewers have: was there really an attack? Howard's menacing and malicious demeanor, in stark contrast to Howard's chatty (and overly nice) persona, only complicates her position. Is Howard telling the truth? There is a lot of subtle satire of the paranoid atmosphere of the Cold War, "duck and cover" days. "Crazy is building your ark after the flood has come!" Michelle argues (to Emmett, not Howard). According to Emmett, Howard, a military veteran who saw the attack with his own eyes, has a "black belt in conspiracy theory."  

While no one could call 10 Cloverfield Lane predictable, like most movies associated with Abrams it really falls apart in the final moments, becoming dumber and dumber with each passing moment. With or without the bizarre final ten minutes, 10 Cloverfield Lane still wouldn't be a great film, but it's finale surely doesn't help. See it, and try and forget the ending.      

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

All the Way

Lyndon Baines Johnson was one of the most consequential presidents in U.S. history--by far--and yet this HBO adaptation of a Broadway play is the first that really tries to paint a picture of this legendary figure. Rob Reiner's film LBJ, due out later this year, will star Woody Harrelson as a younger Johnson, but here with All the Way, the focus is on the first four tumultuous years of a very tumultuous presidency, and so it starts with the sounds of a parade, followed by gunshots. It does require an MA in History to infer that we are starting in November of 1963, when John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. Someone comes to whisper in Johnson's ear: "He's gone." The "he" is Kennedy, and Johnson is now an "accidental president."

Bryan Cranston, the actor as talented as Kevin Spacey but with less overacting, looks remarkably similar to LBJ. He squints and he glares, he smiles a thousand smiles. His face is wrinkled and his ears are enormous. I haven't read any of the four (soon to be five) biographies of Johnson by renowned historian Robert Caro, but one anecdote from Caro I remember hearing on TV was how Caro went to a rural area of Texas similar to where Johnson grew up in during a pitch-black evening to get a better sense of what life was like in the pre-electrification of rural Texas. Johnson certainly had a tougher upbringing than his predecessor (who is more and more becoming known as an overrated president) and just about all of his successors. It did things to him, and that is visualized through Cranston's performance. Cranston originated the role on Broadway in the play written by Robert Schenkkan that won Best Play at the 2014 Tony Awards. Cranston and Schenkkan are working with probably the most qualified man to direct the televised adaptation: Jay Roach. Roach's most famous films are hilarious comedies: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Meet the Parents, and The Campaign are just a few of them. But he's also worked for HBO in Recount, the story of the stolen 2000 presidential election, and Game Change, which adapted the tell-all tale of the 2008 election and focused on the Sarah Palin episode.

The first major scene in All the Way is Johnson's first address to Congress, and here we see the major players of this story and the impressive actors behind them: Martin Luther King (Anthony Mackie), Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford), Richard Russell (Frank Langella), and J. Edgar Hoover (Stephen Root). LBJ pressures Congress to pass the civil rights legislation that Kennedy had proposed (but dragged his feat on because he really wasn't all that interested). This is the McGuffin of the film: civil rights, and the delicate balance in ensuring its success. Not the remaining parts of the Great Society or Vietnam, but civil rights. And MLK is LBJ's great agitator, supporter, and partner. If this all sounds quite similar to Selma from two years ago, it's because it is. But All the Way is told more from the prospective of Johnson and less of King. So in essence, these two films can be paired together nicely.  

Johnson walks a thin rope. He has to keep the conservative element of the Democratic Party--the Southern wing that has stuck with the Democrats since before the Civil War--from revolting and switching sides. This, as we all know, was a failure. The conservative shift towards the Republican Party accelerated after Johnson's 1964 election victory. He has to satisfy Humphrey and the Senate liberals and the civil rights movement who distrust him and believe he will water down any bill. And he has to do all of this while Vietnam is deteriorating.

This may not be a birth-to-death narrative of Johnson, and rightly so, but all those anecdotes you might recall for history class are sprinkled throughout: him pulling his ears dogs, defecating with the door open as he strategies with his aides, and giving members of Congress the "Johnson treatment," charming and even threatening his opponents. And yes, he did refer to that part of his body as his "bunghole". As was the case with last year's Trumbo (also directed by Roach), Cranston has a tendency to overdo things from time to time. But the one who overacts the most is Root. Most of the time, Root, in his best roles (Office Space, Finding Dory, The West Wing) gets the notes just right. Here, as FBI Director Hoover, however, he's just as snaky as American mythology apparently dictates he has to be, but this is television, not Broadway. Other than Cranston, it is Whitford who provides the most interesting performance to watch, and it's his best since his days on The West Wing. But it's disappointing that we don't get to see more of Melissa Leo as Lady Bird Johnson. Lady Bird is right behind her husband, where she's "always been," and it reinforces the view most Americans have that the First Ladies are simply there to support their husbands and nothing else. Amanda Taub, the best writer at Vox, wrote an interesting article last September after that awkward GOP debate in which the candidates were asked which women they thought should be placed on American currency. Mike Huckabee showed how serious he was as a presidential candidate by claiming it should be his wife, while Jeb Bush offered Margaret Thatcher (seriously). Chris Christie made a somewhat serious effort by telling the audience that it should be Abigail Adams, but his reasoning was simply that without her we wouldn't be here today because John Adams wouldn't have had the support he needed. First Ladies support and care, nothing else. That's the view this supposedly progressive film takes as well.

The first act of All the Way is certainly superior to the second, which drags. It becomes practically Shakespearean as Johnson feels he's being backed into a corner by everyone, and that people aren't being grateful for all he's doing. He succumbs to the worst angels of his nature, growing arrogant, paranoid, and mean, barking orders at Vice President Humphrey. It becomes almost predictable, checking boxes required for most biographical movies. Ultimately, though, this is a very apt film for our times. After all, we currently have a Republican nominee for president who really seems to despise people of color. We are in an era where voting rights are under siege, and apparently it is deeply offensive to many people to say that black lives do in fact matter. A film like All the Way is necessary to remind us of where our country has come from and how we still have not reached the promised land.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War, the thirteenth Marvel Cinematic Universe film, is borderline cinematic refuse, an epic movie that may have a consistent mood but nevertheless distrusts its audience to debate the bigger picture. There are working parts that surprisingly do not add up to anything worthwhile. This is not to say that it doesn't have good company, as its predecessor (The Winter Soldier) was only slightly worse. But given that these two film's banality is only dwarfed by other "Cap" movies like The Avengers and The Avengers: Age of Ultron, I'm close to pledging to never watching future Avengers movies. True, Marvel Studios can make good movies. This year's Deadpool and last year's Ant-Man are two examples of that, as well as the near-exceptional Guardians of the Galaxy. But the nicest thing I can say about this part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that they just aren't my cup of tea. But there are so many harsher things I can say, and so I shall.

Before my tirade begins, I should at least start by writing that there are some (but very few) enjoyable aspects of this film. Civil War is not as painfully boring as say X-Men: Apocalypse, another dreadfully dull comic book film this summer that lacks as much heart as it does brain. Whereas Apocalypse vomits out some gobbledygook about ancient Egyptian deities (or something), there is an actual allegory in Civil War, a real debate about the role of regulation and oversight, of liberties versus strong offense against the enemy, freedom versus security (which, as we all know, are binary). A successful mission early in the film results (yet again) in high amounts of collateral damage. The Avengers are warned by the Secretary of State (William Holden) that their destruction in the name of peace has cost too many lives. The UN has mandated accords for regulation of the group and their weapons. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), an industrialist who surprisingly sides with more government regulation, opposes Cap's attitude and approach. There will be blood.  

I hate to give it to them, but the thought behind the movie deserves some recognition. Critics have rightfully criticized the injudicious destruction and carnage of The Avengers and Man of Steel in a post-9/11 world. Civil War tries to convince its audiences that it's better than that, that it recognizes that when those buildings go down, there are people inside them. But this interesting story is quickly gutted for boom! action!, because why should we expect an audience to pay attention for longer than five minutes? The allegories are disemboweled so quickly, and so they are not the best part of this movie. That honor goes to the return of Spider-Man, who's back after three bad movies. Here, Tom Holland is the young hero from Queens, and he is convinced by Stark to join his side against Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans). I haven't figured out how to articulate why Spider-Man is such an appealing character, but he very much is, and it is a treat to see him again. In the original Civil War comics, other characters were included, like those from Fantastic Four and X-Men. We should, though, be reminded that Marvel Studios doesn't own all the film rights to every Marvel character. 20th Century Fox owns X-Men, and Sony has owned Spider-Man since the late 1990s. But the deal Sony and Marvel struck very much should benefit both parties involved. While it would have been far more interesting this time, I think, to have Miles Morales, a Black Hispanic, appear instead of Peter Parker again, Holland still does a pretty good job, though his awkward teenager shtick is a bit over the top. He's charming nonetheless.

Spider-Man isn't the only one recruited to join Stark in preventing Rogers from protecting Rogers' friend Bucky Barns/Winter Soldier, who Rogers believes has been framed for the murder of a Wakandan king at a UN meeting. Because of this murder, Stark is able to persuade the heir to that throne, Black Panther (terrifically played by Chadwick Boseman, and whose standalone film will be directed by Ryan Coogler) to join as well. Also joining Stark is Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Vision (Paul Bettany). Opposed to them are Captain America, Winter Soldier, Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). Just as he did last year, Rudd provides comic relief effortlessly, especially as he causes malfunctions in Iron Man's armor. Most of this fighting, like most of the fighting in the real world, is not necessary. Most, if not all, of it is because of the actions of Helmut Zero, enticingly played by Daniel Bruhl. Love or hate MCU movies, I think the consensus is that most of the villains are dull. Not so with Zero. He may not be as powerful as the Avengers are, but he is just as clever, if not more so. It's easy to accept his decisions when compared to a cinematic world of malicious maniacs.

As I write, I realize that perhaps this movie isn't as bad as I had initially thought. Maybe a second viewing is necessary. But probably not. There's a lot to complain about this movie: Elizabeth Olsen's "accent", a sleep-inducing tunnel chase scene, the superfluous presence of many of these characters. Martin Freeman shows up and does nothing. Seriously--they misused Martin Freeman. I don't know what exactly I'm missing with these movies, and nobody has ever been able to explain why they like them other than they like mindless entertainment, but I suppose I feel happy that so many others seem entertained by them. In the meantime, there are approximately 5,479 MCU movies in the works, so I'm sure I'll like at least a few of them.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Jungle Book

This version of The Jungle Book feels less like Disney and more like Life of Pi for kids. Or at the very least, it's an adaptation of the very famous story that strives to embrace both Disney and Kipling, without alienating either camp. Shere Khan, the malicious tiger, is here of course, but he's not quite George Sanders. In the 1967 animated film, Shere Khan was debonair. In Disney's first live-action adaptation in 1994, he was more sympathetic, more of a protector of the wild. In this one, directed by Jon Faveau, the former has more weight than the latter, but it is understandable to see why he hates Mowgli so much. The result is something far scarier than anything you saw in the cartoon.

For the very few who have no idea what the story is about, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a young boy who has been raised by wolves. But the jungle has become too dangerous for him, for Shere Khan (Idris Elba) possesses a fierce hatred toward man for the scars they gave him, and wishes to annihilate the young boy. "Man is forbidden!" he yells to other animals of the jungle. Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), the black panther who rescued Mowgli, sets out to return Mowgli to the man village, where he will need to be raised as a man. But while it does take a village of animals to raise a man-cub, it takes another to destroy him. It's not simply Shere Khan who tries to kill Mowgli on his odyssey, but also Kaa the snake (Scarlett Johansson) and King Louie the ape (Christopher Walken).

There is a ton of talent in this cast, an eclectic array of some of the best performers around. And yet, the one with unquestionably the toughest task is young Sethi. His Mowgli is just as inquisitive and brave as he needs to, but unlike the title character in the 2005 movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Mowgli doesn't have a solution to every conundrum. He is helpful and courteous, even selfless, but he also gets angry and makes mistakes. That is about Mowgli, so what makes Sethi's portrayal of the character so interesting? The most obvious is how imaginative he must have been during the filming. This is a film shot basically all on a sound stage surrounded by green screens. Other than Jim Henson puppets that were supplied to him, Sethi was acting in make-believe land.

I had mixed feelings about the use of some of the classic songs from the animated version. Bill Murray as Baloo, the bear who befriends Mowgli, does a surprisingly decent job belting out "Bare Necessities," but Walken's solo as "I Wanna Be Like You" is very...Walken. It doesn't feel like a big jazzy showstopper but instead an arbitrary act of look-at-me showmanship. Mowgli's mouth seems to hang open more due to shock at how random the scene is in relation to the rest of the movie than to how scared it must make him. Everyone knows Walken is an entertaining dancer, but in regards to singing, he's no Louis Prima. For the rest of the scene, though, Walken is terrific. He plays King Louie, an invented character from the animated film, not Kipling's stories. In the animated film, Louie is an orangutan, a creature not native to India. Here, Favreau and his crew changed the character to a Gigantopithecus, an extinct ape, and he rules his ape kingdom akin to Malon Brando in Apocalypse Now. It's the film's best scene.  

Overall, this is quite a fun movie to watch. The technology would have been unthinkable ten years ago. The animals, in my mind, still look too obviously unreal, but maybe that's how it should be. Just think of what this technology will make the movies of next decade look like. But technology only goes so far. Story is important, and not just a story we've known for over a century. The story coupled with the visual effects make The Jungle Book feel fresh. The movies Favreau directs are not perfect, but this one is quite good. It's the kind of movie you will be thinking about for a while.