Friday, December 9, 2016

La La Land: A Tonic for our Times. The Best Film of the Year.

Movie Review: La La Land

Directors: Damien Chazelle

Reviewed: 9 December 2016

jamesintexas rating--****

Stop whatever you are doing this weekend, and see La La Land.  It reminded me of the transcendent power of cinema, touching on Casablanca, Rebel Without A Cause, and Singing in the Rain effortlessly and effervescently.  To dismiss it as a musical or pure escapism is a mistake.  The film is deeply philosophical and full of wonderment, and Damien Chazelle and his cast and crew are deserving of all the accolades that are sure to fall their way.  It is the best film of the year.

Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress, current barista, on a Hollywood studio lot; Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a committed jazz pianist with dreams of opening a club one day. The film chronicles their paths crossing multiple times and eventual love affair and more, but from the get-go, Chazelle takes his cast out of LA traffic, notoriously hellish, and begins spinning them around and forging a musical out of the space of the freeway and blocked cars. It is a dazzling and audacious beginning to the film, and its infectiousness permeates everything that follows.  Stone and Gosling are both charming and fully capable of handling the physical demands of the film, gliding their way through and past famous landmarks and gorgeous light-diffused sunsets.  Their charm and chemistry, firmly established in Crazy, Stupid, Love never wavers, and it is comforting to know that we will be seeing these two stars perform for many years to come.  The film engages with questions about burgeoning relationships and commitment to  dreams, as well as what pivotal moments in our lives look like and feel like, both in the moment and in retrospect.  Chazelle makes a leap forward from his passionate and abrasive film Whiplash and plays with time and narrative in ways that are both bold and breathtaking, with the future coming back around to the past in ways that surprise.  And there's even a fun cameo from his previous film to reward viewers.

And the music and dancing!  I lack the full vocabulary and awareness of the multiple styles and references that Chazelle uses in the film, but I will just say this: it is phenomenal to watch.  La La Land is a tonic for our times because it is medicine for the soul, healing art that inspires and calls upon the deepest urges within us to create art, to view art, to appreciate art, to become one with art. "City of Stars" is hauntingly beautiful and sure to win Best Song and it echoes in my brain, three weeks after seeing the film: "I think I want it stay / City of Stars / Are you shining just for me? / City of Stars / You never shined so brightly."

La La Land seems all the more powerful when juxtaposed against the current scary political climate of late 2016, a year that has been ruthless in its claiming of artists who have meant a great deal to me, from Alan Rickman to David Bowie.  The film is unabashedly hopeful and romantic and sad and light and light on its feet, and I do not know if there will be a better film this year.  Bravo.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

They turned Harry Potter into a Newt.

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Directors: David Yates

Reviewed: 27 November 2016

jamesintexas rating--**

I do not think that reading a book should be a prerequisite to enjoying a film, though I will admit with every Harry Potter film I had read its antecedent work. That world had the routine of school, familiar growing faces of students and teachers, and the sheer amount of time spent in that world paid off in generosity when viewing the films, which obviously truncated massive amounts of text. I think about that now when I view the J.K. Rowling penned Fantastic Beasts and my lack of reading about it.  I wonder how dramatically different the experience would have been if I had spent ten to twenty hours in this world before seeing it.

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) visits New York in the 1920's with a suitcase full of marvelous creatures who run amuck and disrupt the American wizarding community. Tina (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced auror, tries to bring him to justice while an innocent factory worker named Kowalski (Dan Fogler) bumps into Newt and switches briefcases with him. The beginning scenes set in motion a vast plot of conspiratorial ministers like Graves (Colin Farrell) in the American Congress of Magic, the dance of keeping the magical hiding from the non-magical (No-Maj, they are called here, not Muggles), and a shadowy spectral force that is blowing up buildings and harming people all over the city.

I think the look of the film and its music and costumes are a highlight.  However, Yates suffers from George Lucas prequel-esque showmanship with the special effects while not giving the audience enough time to peer deeply into the world.  For example, there is a little guy, a sort of mini-tree Groot-type friend that Newt speaks to occasionally, yet Yates gives him only one close-up in the entire film to give us a sense of his personality. The beasts, though primarily fun, represent a tactile, physical counterpoint to the magical world, and I like that contrast, even if the action to me seemed a bit difficult to follow, the names swallowed by the under-emoting, especially of Redmayne.  I never felt charmed by his character or performance, which seemed uneven and mumbly to me. I had trouble following the plot and its turns, and I really needed subtitles for many of the names of the characters and beasts.  The ending seemed especially troubling to me because it was incomprehensible at times, I did not understand the stakes, and it seemed smugly satisfied with its revelations, though they meant little to me.  And, I like Collin Farrell too much to see him relegated to so little here.

I wonder about the fundamental differences between screenwriting and writing a novel.  J.K. Rowling, a modern master, tries her hand her at concise and visual storytelling, a paring down of prose that reminds me of how skillful the screenwriters of the Harry Potter films were in making judicious decisions.  I also just did not feel the emotional power or resonance of these characters or this moment; to hear that this film might spark four additional films with these characters did not fill me with excitement, merely exhaustion.  However, there is a chance that continuing to play with the past and different locations than Hogwarts can yield a far more rich evocation of magic than this one.  This muggle was uninspired.

Finding Movies with Gus: Minor Pixar

Movie Review: Finding Dory

Directors: Andrew Stanton and Angus McLane

Reviewed: Started 1 August 2016; Finished 12 November 2016

jamesintexas rating--***

"Gus, did you like Finding Dory?"

"It's okay."

"Why did you like it?"


We took our almost-three-year-old son August to see his first movie, and Finding Dory seemed like the best option. He's seen Finding Nemo, and despite lots of uncomfortable questions like "Where's Nemo's mama?" the colors and brightness captivated him. Now, this review acknowledges that I did not see the entire film; we took a ten-minute walk break in the middle of the movie. 

The film is light and fine, but it has nowhere near the humor and emotional resonance of the first film.  How could it?  "Just keep swimming" is a slogan that I repeat nearly everyday at the high school I teach at, and the colors of the ocean world in that film never cease to amaze me.

Here, Pixar uses flashbacks to cute little Dory's childhood and traumatic separation from her parents to create a kind of mystery.  Most of the main characters are back from the first film (except Bruce and the sharks, sadly), and although the world of the aquarium and its denizens is quite fun, it never soars in the same way as the original.  The voice work is incredible, and many of the sequences work well, but it lacks the gusto and the heart of the original.  The epiphanies of Marlon and Nemo in the first film work on such an elemental level, and in this film, Marlon is really sidelined and reduced to a minor character.  That being said, the seals are wonderful, the septopus has great moments, and there is lots of razzle-dazzle.  But, just like the Monsters Inc. sequel, it seems a diminished return to the world of a masterpiece, and on some level, a cash grab with just enough in it to satiate fans of the original but not to break any new emotional or artistic grounds. 

I don't know what we'll see next with Gus.  His mama took him to see Storks which he loved and still talks about a month later.  He does not talk about Finding Dory.  Maybe Moana will be next up?  He is currently obsessed with Super Why, Super Readers on Netflix, but I feel that if we have the choice, we will always return to the first film and not its sequel.  We will see. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Sully Soars

Movie Review: Sully

Director: Clint Eastwood

Date: 12 November 2016

Rating: ***

Sully works best as a portrait of systems of synergy, the unique linking of teams of people that combined to save the day in New York City's post-9-11 world when birds flew into the engine of a plane forcing an emergency landing in the Hudson River. Strange is the film that has a very public (and happy) ending to it that an audience knows before going in, but Eastwood uses an interesting structure, complete with Sully's fantasies of what could have happened (the plane ripping through buildings in downtown Manhattan), while also unfortunately turning the NTSB into a needlessly evil and antagonistic opponent to the vaunted, cool under pressure Sully (Tom Hanks).  Hanks is very good here, compressing emotion into his face and into Sully's quick thinking along with his co-pilot (played by Aaron Eckhart).  But Eastwood is focused on their partnership and the systems that interlock and unite us and work together here, in a love-note to the people involved in saving so many in a situation that could have gone disastrously wrong.  There are the harbor boats with their quick maneuvering to the scene; there are the frog divers of the NYPD who skillfully enter the frigid waters and contain the emergency. There is Sully, walking through the waters of his sinking airplane, making sure that everyone is off of the plane, that everyone is safe, in scenes that are unapologetically and undeniably powerful.  Fighting off tears, I thought about the sheer terror of those moments, which is not diluted by our knowing of the happy ending.  It resembles Titanic in those moments, the collision of water and manmade craft, the rising water and inevitability of loss. 

I am disheartened by Eastwood's desire to demonize the government entity involved in investigating the landing.  I am also critical of his failure to end his movie well, choosing a light punchline from Eckhart instead of reaching for any deeper meaning or point.  He has this trend, which I do not love, of pulling back the curtain in his credits and showing the real funeral of Chris Kyle in American Sniper and here, the real Sully with his reunion with the passengers.  I'm reminded of Roger Ebert stating at the end of What's Love Got To Do With It?, when the director showed the real Tina Turner performing after seeing Angela Bassett belt her heart and soul out as the character for two hours, "Is this necessary?"  I am glad that Eastwood wants to examine shock and post-traumatic stress in our national identity, and I applaud the desire to set the context of 9-11 always in our minds with this event, with it being a September release.  My favorite moment was a quiet reaction from Sully to his co-pilot when they both had to step outside of the hearing to process some new information.  It is a soft conversation of low-key proportions, and the gratitude and acknowledgement of one character to the other is emotionally powerful.Eastwood remains a compelling and thought-provoking filmmaker, and Hanks proves himself completely capable in registering the complexity of the man and the moment when quick decisions saved countless lives.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Spectre: Unexpected, Unspectacular Bond.

Movie Review: Spectre

Director: Sam Mendes

Reviewed: Started 31 December 2015; Finished 21 July 2016.

jamesintexas rating--**

Regrettably, Spectre is minor Bond, a true let-down after the magnificence and electricity of Skyfall. Sam Mendes opens the film with a memorable long take in Mexico City, complete with skeleton masks, a Day of the Dead parade, and high-octane action with buildings crumbling and helicopters diving, but the film never sustains that initial burst of power. Daniel Craig is back as Bond in his fourth and probably last appearance (the ending seems like a good-bye, particularly), and despite his intense physicality and some gorgeous scenery, the film fails because of its structure and its decision to take the character to a place that feels inauthentic. The film's denouement violates the tenets of the character of James Bond, but that is Mendes's (and Craig's) right as artists to do so. I just think there is no way that Ian Fleming's James Bond does what he does in the last frames of this film.

Bond receives a message from beyond the grave in which M orders him to investigate a criminal which leads him to unexpected places. Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) produce a  burned photograph from Bond's childhood, and an octopus ring leads to a shadowy underworld organization in Italy. A late-night street race through the old city is a highlight, as does a spooky meeting of the criminals that calls back the Connery films. A clinic in the Alps introduces the mysterious Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), and various fighting and sleuthing leads them to Tangiers and a train ride into the desert and into the desert lair of the enemy.

There, the ghost-like villain Hans Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) appears more than an hour into the film, and after announcing his plans for world domination that involve filming and listening in on all the major security systems of the world, the film marches predictably to its conclusion. Lea Seydoux's character as written does not suggest to me the seismic shift that she causes in Bond, and she shrinks, in my opinion, to the deep crater left in James Bond by Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) of Casino Royale. Mendes attempts to have the four Craig films tie together into one overarching conspiracy culminating with Oberhauser, the self-proclaimed "architect of all [Bond's] pain."

Yet, declaring something is different than effectively building a world where the pieces fit and an overarching narrative does not just feel retrofitted. There are four writers, three people credited with story, and, of course, Ian Fleming, behind this project. I just sigh and wonder what it would be like for the James Bond character to get more of a vision instead of a decision by corporate committee. I think in my heart I was hoping for a darker film.

I am disappointed that Oberhauser's announcement of who he is and why he is fails to intrigue or satisfy. Mendes did such deft work in referencing the deaths of Bonds parents and the fall of M in the previous film that it was unexpected to see him stumble here with Oberhauser. Especially with an actor of Christoph Waltz's stature. Waltz brought such unforgettable malevolence to the role of Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds; I wish that he were that level of character here instead of a strange bird, wearing shoes without socks. And Ralph Fiennes, a revelation in The Grand Budapest Hotel, seems to shrink here in the diminished role of M. Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw are fine here as Moneypenny and Q, and it is nice to see some of the work around the edges (a view into James Bond's sparse apartment).

The filmmakers made choices at the end that simply did not work for me. If I am ranking the four Daniel Craig films, I would put Casino Royale and Skyfall as tied for best, and this one above Quantum of Solace. I just do not know what this film was trying to do.

Star Wars 4: The Characters Awaken Thirty-Three Years Later.

Movie Review: Star Wars Episode Seven: The Force Awakens.

Director: JJ Abrams

Reviewed: Started 31 December 2015; Finished 21 July 2016

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Although it has taken me more than six months to write this review, the new Stars Wars film Episode Seven: The Force Awakens has never been very far from my mind. I was born in 1978 and revere the original trilogy with only vague recollections of seeing Return of the Jedi in the theaters (the lens was blurry during the title credits scrawl, and I remember people howling at unbelievable volume).  It says it came out May 25th, 1983, so that summer I would have been four. The photos below this review confirm it as I am wearing a Star Wars t-shirt at my 5th birthday party in September of 1983; its characters, locations, and conflicts became the fabric of my life. Its toys were some of my greatest treasures, and they intersected in a bizarre but entirely plausible fictional universe of toys on the basement floor of 308 North Myrtle, forging bonds with G.I. Joes, He-Man and his ilk, the occasional GoBot or Mask figurine. I remember having Ewoks and droids, Jabba's Throne Room and popping speeder bikes. The film and its predecessors were titanic in my mind and imagination.

I collected and watched through middle school and high school. You could find toys in the occasional baseball card shop or comic book store. In college, I remember the excitement of viewing the movie trailer for Episode One: The Phantom Menace on dorm room computers with John Egan and Jason Miles, the exhilaration of a double-sided Darth Maul light saber, and I went to the theater to see all the re-releases of the originals in the build-up to the new film. Episode One underwhelmed me, and I remember the first 45 minutes as being one of the worst cinematic experiences of my lifetime. They were ruining my childhood; they were making it boring and dry and uninteresting. It picked up with the podracing and wrapped me up in its four battle montage intercutting in the last quarter of the film, particularly captivating me with "Duel of The Fates."

And now we are here. I am thirty-seven years old, watching the continuation of a story that ended when I was five.

Unrest exists in the universe and the Empire. There is an angsty, raging villain in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, who removes his mask more quickly than I thought he would). Ren's creepy voice and crucifix of fire-like light saber represents an almost teenage unpredictability in his response to a failed search for droid BB-8 who holds the key to finding the hidden Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). On the lonely planet of Jakku, BB-8 finds Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scrappy scavenger who searches among the wreckage of the gigantic Imperial starships of, I presume, Return of the Jedi, which had to fall somewhere and landed on her planet. That moment, to me, is one of the very best. Rey rappels into the bowels of these fallen starships which rest on the desert floor of her own planet, and in its own beautiful way, Abrams reminds us of the previous films and their conflicts, showing the aftermath in this wreckage that is now being used by others to maintain survival. It reminds me that Jawas recovered C-3PO and R2DR in the original film, scavengers doing a junk sale to survive themselves. It is a moment in the new film that lingers because of its connectedness and its showing of some consequences in this fantasy science fiction saga. Yeah, I realized, everything that did get blown up in that previous film probably had to land somewhere. Metaphorically, Abrams scavenges and plays with the wreckage of the trilogy itself, marred by its remarkably uneven and illogical Episodes 1, 2, and 3, three films that perhaps have enough good in them to make one film.

Finn (John Boyega), a storm trooper with a conscience, rejects his role as paid killer and revolts, eventually crossing paths with both Daisy and with pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac, far too brief). Old characters resurface in a quest to solve the mystery of Luke Skywalker's disappearance, and along the way, there are some light saber battles, particularly one in the woods that is great, some wonderful chases, and some heartfelt moments. There is some communing with a familiar melted helmet as well as some weird communication with Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) that seems forbidding (but mostly did not work for me).

It is not a perfect film. I like the new characters, especially Rey and Finn, who can hold their own and display wonder, exasperation, and even humor in the film when it calls for it.  I was less enthusiastic about the reappearance of some familiar faces; I know these moments were meant to be uplifting and exciting for the audience, but I was caught up in staring at these faces, thirty-three years later, and thinking of all the time that has past (and how great this would have been if it was made ten or fifteen years ago). At times, I feel like its adherence to past characters and storylines holds it back from being fully formed and from spending enough quality time with Rey, Finn, Poe, Hux, and others. It is that old adage about constantly looking backwards, slowing a runner down, causing him or her to go off course, possibly to stumble or fall. The film never falls, though it seems comfortable to play it safe with a very much retread of scenes and arcs in the original Episode 4: A New Hope. Empire was my favorite, and maybe the next film will leap to its own music and voice and style. I do not really remember John Williams's score, which is not a good sign to me.

Two days after I saw Episode Seven: The Force Awakens, our second child was born, a girl this time, and as a result, my movie-watching has slowed down significantly. Does seeing a Star Wars film where a female character picks up a light saber mean something to me now as a father of two young ones?  I think it does. I want both my son and my daughter to see depictions of all different kinds of heroes (and villains, frankly), and seeing my son dressed up like Kylo Ren (even though he has never seen the film) interact with the costumed adults at the Children's Museum last weekend who came dressed up as Rey, Chewbacca, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader, it crystallized how important Rey and Finn are. I saw little kids dressed up as Rey and Finn and others, and before that would not have been possible (or it just would have been more limited). Today, a little girl or boy can want to be Rey or Finn, just like Luke or Han or Leia or Lando, and that makes our universe a little bit better, a little bit more inclusive, a little bit brighter, I think. Yes.

The bottom line is that I loved the Ewok song "Yub Nub" at the end of Return of the Jedi.  I loved the wordless reunions of old friends and family, the hugging and the dancing.  The feeling after the lighting of Darth Vader's body on fire of completion. The nodding of Luke Skywalker to the ghosts of Jedis past who will remain watching him. The sucker punch of Episode Seven: The Force Awakens, for me, is realizing that story continues, and, in this artist's view and in these films, all did not end as well as it seemed in Return of the Jedi. Was it a pyrrhic victory? The Empire survived and thrived, the Jedi were not strong enough to overcome them or themselves, and the characters who seemed destined to be happy together ultimately were not. Those revelations are going to take some getting used to because I have been living with a happy ending for thirty-three years. I am willing to work to get there, and I think the wordless finale of Episode Seven: The Force Awakens offers some pretty great tantalizing hope for more balance to the Force in the future.

By my count, this makes four great Star Wars movies to three minor ones. And there is another.


Monday, May 2, 2016

Will These Hands Ne'er Be Clean?: Eye in the Sky's Deadly Choices.

Movie Review: Eye in the Sky

Director: Gavin Hood

Reviewed: 2 May 2016

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

The Sunday Houston Chronicle front page detailed punishments meted out to the entire military chain-of-command that led to the deadly bombing of a Doctors Without Borders camp in the Middle East. The nature of modern warfare is sometimes remote, mechanized, and brutally efficient, yet mistakes are still frequently made that cost innocent people their lives and undermine missions.

That's the thorny political and moral landscape of Gavin Hood's tense, taut Eye in the Sky, a cerebral telling of a possible drone attack in Kenya and its riveting political and personal consequences. Hood edits together the Mission Commander, Col. Powell (Helen Mirren) leading her team in a bunker in England, the British government officials huddled in an office in Parliament, and the American forces outside of Las Vegas who are coordinating the drones, including remote pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul). There are forces on the ground in Kenya and intelligence indicating that a high-level meeting of terrorists is occurring at a certain location. When the spying catches sight of the faces involved and the loading of explosives into vests, the mission becomes an urgent rush to satisfy the necessary protocols for dropping a bomb on these people before they leave the home. A ticking clock provides the necessary suspense as a team on the ground does its best to gather more information led by Jama Fara (Barkhad Abdi). It then becomes a game of hurry up and wait.

Questions of legality abound, especially involving the killing of American and British citizens who have joined the movement and are in a sovereign country. To military man, Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), the criteria is met, but to the Minister, Brian Woodale (Jeremy Northam), the need to quibble, defer, and refer up to higher chains of command initially reaches a maddening level. But Hood is playing a much longer game here, and he carefully and methodically sets up these questions as vital to the heart of the work these countries do, with more and more unraveling leading to culpability and then moral responsibility when the blast radius takes into account civilians that the drone has been silently watching. Moral equivalency is heightened, and the film takes on a stressful amount of tension.

There are no easy answers in Eye in the Sky. To do good, must one engage in evil? When is the cost of doing something justified even with loss of innocent life? By killing innocents, do we become evil like the evil we are trying to stop? And, how do actions haunt the individuals most responsible for them? Executing policy on a national level involves decisions that end lives. Executing policy on the micro-level means someone has to aim the target, someone has to press the button, someone has to search the rubble for confirmation. Hood's movie is by no means enjoyable, but it is a necessary and vital examination of the war on terror's tactics and the human cost of war waged in this way.  Powerful and sobering.