Thursday, December 7, 2017

I Waited Sixteen Years For This?

Movie Reviewed: The Score

Director: Frank Oz

 Date: 7 December 2017

jamesintexas rating: **

The Score film.jpg

I waited sixteen years to see this 2001 film.  Here's the score:

Robert De Niro wins, I guess, but this tepid film signals a decline from his heist masterpiece Heat, and it sure isn't Ronin or Meet The Parents, both quite fun.

Edward Norton finishes second, but he's redoing his Primal Fear ticks and head bobs, and is more distracting than anything else.

The always excellent Angela Bassett finishes third in an underwritten character that is far beneath her talent.

Legend Marlon Brandon finishes fourth in a strange, sad final performance that just seems an ignominious end to such a stellar career.

I think that the film earns points for me because of the following:

1. It is filmed mostly in Quebec, and the Canadian streets, buildings, and jazz clubs are charming.
2. The jazz is quite wonderful, and Howard Shore, the great Howard Shore, does some very memorable, soulful work with the soundtrack.
3. There is a kind of workman-like dullness to the film that is nice.  Its stakes are not that high; its characters, not that hyperbolic; its MacGuffin, a French royal scepter which no meaning outside of its cash value.
4. Robert De Niro, for the most part, does not seem to be in much of a hurry as the world's most relaxed and pretty successful Canadian Jazz Club owner.  Neither is the film.  I think the opening scene encapsulates the whole film: there is a break-in without much panache or artistry; there are elements that we think are going to pay off big, and then they kind of don't; there is a lot of fading out of shots of De Niro traveling and traveling.  And then it is over.
5. There is a pretty cool extended shot of a torch cutting into a safe if you're into that kind of thing (maybe appealing for safecrackers?).
6. I'm never not interested in Marlon Brando, even just walking across a room or sitting in a bizarre basement pool room pontificating.

I do not mean to be chippy with this film, but I just think its ending feels unearned.  But more important than that, The Score is joyless and not much fun or funny.  That's okay, and it passed two hours of my team, but it isn't enjoyable.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Recording History: No Maps on My Taps

Movie Reviewed: No Maps on My Taps

Director: George Nierenberg

 Date: 19 November 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***

No Maps on My Taps is an exhilarating social document, a chronicling of a disappearing art form by its denizens in the late 1970's, while also an exciting look at the lurching forward of culture from vaudeville until now, with its eye keenly focused on the controlled mayhem of the feet and bodies of legends Howard "Sandman" Sims, Bunny Briggs, and Chuck Green.  And, as a chronicle of these men and their art, Nierenberg has preserved them, has shared them, has allowed them to live on as I sat with 130 eleventh graders from my high school in Houston, watching this documentary at the 2017 Houston Cinema Arts Festival.  We know their names because of his film, which he watched with us and poignantly reminded us that he is the only person left from this film.  He tells their story.

Watching the film unfold, I was struck by its elegiac quality; these powerful performers lament their art's diminishment, especially in the face of rock and roll and other mediums.  They look backwards to the world of the 1930's with its films and shows focused on tap.  They enjoy being onstage with each other so much, each pushing the other to do better and better.  The footage from the 1930's is spellbinding, and the dancing, stupendous.  I wondered lots about Harlem in the 1970's which peeks in and around the edges, especially as Sandman walks the streets with his son.  His son must be nearly fifty years old now, and he has this document of his time with his dad.  I wondered about what art forms loved and embraced now will diminish in the next forty years.  Some of my students learned tap dancing when they were young; my conversations with the dancers among them made me think that hip hop has replaced tap in a way.  The Cross Country coach in me just marveled at their muscular control, their calves and ankles, their indefatigable rhythm and power. 

Chuck Green holds the heart and soul of the film, with his distant quality (the director revealed that he was struggling with much during the filming), yet his soulful uttering of the titular phrase is both sweet and hopeful.  No Maps on My Taps means, essentially, "No limits, Jonathan?" the philosophical underpinning of the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, another artifact from the 1970's, this one shared with me by my Cross Country coach Mr. Joe Newton.  To dance, to run, to create art is freedom: freedom from your constraints, your illness, your struggles.  Chuck, Bunny, and Sandman are all gone now, but this film holds them firmly in its heart, showing the beauty in these men and their love of tap and how it enriched their lives.  Thank you, George Nierenberg. 

Call it the Best Film of the Year.

Movie Reviewed: Call Me by Your Name

Director: Luca Guadagnino

 Date: 13 November 2017

jamesintexas rating: ****

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Mr. Perlman, Michael Stuhlbarg's character, has a monologue at the end of this marvelous new film that detonated with an unexpected emotionality in me and resulted in a richer appreciation for all that came before.  Without revealing the contents of his epiphany, Perlman's naked honesty and perceptiveness expose the raw nerves of the film. I cannot remember being caught off-guard by such a transcendent and riveting moment in cinema in recent years.

Call Me by Your Name is a burgeoning love story, a collision of cultures between a seventeen year old Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet) who is staying with his academic parents in a remote Italian paradise for the summer, the land of apricots and peaches and swimming, and "the usurper," Oliver (Armie Hammer), a graduate assistant of sorts who lives with them for six weeks and helps his father catalogue his work.  It is 1983, Elio has lots of time on his hands, to play piano and read, to meander the Italian countryside, to spend with possible love Marzia (Esther Garrel), but he is magnetically drawn to Oliver, with his towering frame, his clipped way of speaking, and his marvelous intellect (watching him correct Mr. Perlman is one of the film's many delights; them mocking his speech habits, another). Hammer's work here is sublime, making Oliver both overtly powerful and hypnotic while also private and secretive. And his cutting loose on the dance floor to the Psychedelic Furs' "Love My Way" at two crucial moments in the film is both mesmerizing and cathartic.  As the summer drips away, the two circle around each other, tentatively negotiating their growing feelings all set amidst a backdrop of beautiful lagoons and cisterns, gorgeous bicycle rides through the countryside, and meals around parents and neighbors.  Where the film goes is both beautiful and heartbreaking, and the telling of the story was compelling in the way love works its way to and through Elio.  It reminded me of falling in love and all that entails.  The film imposes no artificial plotting or conflict other than time and its devastating ephemerality.

Director Luca Guadagnino is a new name to me, and I have never seen a film by him before, but now I want to more than anything. Guadagnino surprised me multiple times in multiple ways in this film: with his abrupt editing choices, mid-scene and mid-song sometimes that shift the chapters of the film forward; with his showing of the film frames at key moments, making the film more about memory and the past in its very tactile nature; in its final shot which lingers, painfully and truthfully after an epiphany of sorts is made.  I am grateful to have seen this film as part of the 2017 Houston Cinema Arts Festival, and the introduction to the film gave us a tantalizing morsel to chew on about a future film by this director.  I do not think the indicators of genre (drama, romance) or plot key words (gay relationship, teenage boy, lgbt, first love) do this powerful film justice.  I think about the role the parents play in the film, hungering for more from Mrs. Perlman (Amira Cassar), especially in a car ride scene fraught with raw emotion.  Her character, for whatever reason, seems confined to glances and looks and movements behind the scene, while Mr. Perlman gets the weighty, prescient, and elegiac monologue at the end of the film that still haunts me. 

I want to immediately return to the world of Call Me by Your Name now, read the book the film is based upon by author Andre Aciman, and in a second viewing, I want to appreciate even more the quiet, understated work of Chalamet and even the actors playing his parents, as there is simply more to consider (as there always is) when love shakes you to your core.  As the Psychedelic Furs sing, "Love my way, it's a new road / I follow where my mind goes," and dance like Armie Hammer in 1983. 

It is the best film of the year.

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

mother! flipping strange.

Movie Reviewed: mother!

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Date: 17 September 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***

A frantic, frenetic, claustrophobic journey through the unraveling of a life, mother! succeeds on the level of cinematic craftsmanship while faltering under the weight of its own self-importance.  The exclamation point intentionally reveals Aronofsky's motif of writing and creating Art (emphasis here on the capital A) which courses through the film, as well as signals the hyperbolic frenzy that is to be expected from the director of Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan, and Noah. Aronofsky has tackled gigantic, weighty issues in his films before while displaying visceral commitment to body horror and obsession. He is never uninteresting, and much of what is completely captivating by mother! is the commitment to tight medium and close-up shots of the eponymous matriarch (Jennifer Lawrence) and the poet, referred to in the credits as Him (Javier Bardem) as we begin the film locked inside of a creaking, ominous country house with work spaces and spacious kitchens and lots of rooms to wander into and out of in search of someone. He is creatively blocked and cannot write a word; she works steadily on rehabbing the house by painting it, when not cooking meals for them. However, something is rotten in the state of Denmark. 

The haunted house motifs, strange behavior of Him, as well as the mounting dread culminate in a marvelously uncomfortable extended scene that begins with a doctor, The Man (Ed Harris) knocking on their door looking for a room and sanctuary for the night. It could possibly be case of taking in a lost person, but there's more than meets the eye, quickly. In nods to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (a far superior film), Aronofsky compresses time and has The Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrive to comfort the man, and things begin to escalate and escalate and spiral out of control. And despite brief interludes where Mother seems to be listening to and feeling kinship with the building itself (which is alive?), the sequences have a lucid, fever-dream quality that keeps jumping up in tone and severity that is only enhanced by Aronofsky's tight camera shots and swirling through maze-like rooms, following Mother. Without revealing much more, the film traces the line of The Artist as God in our culture, and the costs of such worship, before it goes completely off the rails by the third act where a commitment to entropy envelops the film as it returns to its opening, fiery shot.

mother! is not as shocking as it attempts to be, though it is hard to be shocking when it keeps staring at you dead in the face and screaming out loud, "Look at how shocking I am!" Aronofsky is trying so hard.  Instead, I view this work as an atmospheric tone poem, a long extended meditation on Art (with a capital A) and its emotional costs within the self and others. Kind of. Without more complexity, Jennifer Lawrence's character serves as a vessel for Javier Bardem's fears, anxieties, and more without being much more than a cipher. And at times, I didn't feel that Lawrence was up to the work of the character's constant searching and unraveling which plays against her work as intelligent, fierce heroines (see Rhee Dolly in Winter's Bone). Is Aronofsky trying to unpack the male desire to create in response to the female ability to give birth?  Is this all a modernized, tricked-out retelling of The Book of Genesis in the Bible with its many allusions to The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, being cast out, Cain and Abel, and more?  Aronofsky has greatness within him in the film's construction and especially its insidious music and sound design by Johann Johannsson, who was the elegant Oscar-nominated composer behind Arrival and The Theory of Everything, and here he uses voices as sound, echoing and buzzing off of creaking floorboards, doors being shut and open, spoons clattering against the edges of cups, all to ominous, eerie effect.  It is a tour-de-force performance of sound.  And when Mother leaves the room, she still hears most of the conversations, muffled but clear, as she tries to enter another part of the house but has to contend with the lingering words from other parts. Lawrence struggles at times here to be compelling, and I think that has to do with the way her character is conceived and written; Bardem has the full-blown egomania of The Artist at work in a bigger performance, though really a supporting one. The rest of the cast are excellent, with Michelle Pfeiffer being a stand-out. In Pfeiffer's scenes with Jennifer Lawrence, she stands toe-to-toe with her, uses her physicality and eye-rolling and devours her, in both words and actions, reminding us of Pfeiffer's cinematic power and great skill as an actress. I want to see more of her, please.

I'm still buzzing the morning after watching such a busy, strange, frenzied work which has some genuinely upsetting moments and seems fixed in the chaotic oeuvre of Aronofsky's other work and pet themes. I'm not sure that I want to watch this film ever again, and I understand its seemingly divisive reception upon its release this week. mother! is stressful and upsetting to watch. Part of the morning, I spent helping other teachers and community members rip out parts of a student's recently flooded home here in Houston, and as I pried up boards and nails, cracked out wood with crow bars, the old adage of "destruction being much easier than construction" resonated anew within me. I think that Aronofsky's commitment to destroying as he simultaneously creates results much of the vertigo that I experienced, but there is the lingering sting of wanting more from this film and its cipher characters than just a demolition derby and Bible concordances.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Ballet of Death: John Wick 2

Movie Reviewed: John Wick: Chapter 2

Director: Chad Stahelski

Date: 19 August 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***

Image result for john wick chapter 2 images

I've made no bones about loving the first John Wick film, a kaleidoscopically kinetic film which someone in a stroke of pure genius called "the Citizen Kane of shooting-people-in-the-head films" which carried a dark menace of revenge through to its logical conclusion. As a terse, near-silent warrior, Keanu Reeves shined as the eponymous anti-hero, the man who got out of the business but lost his love and then his dog and then cut his way through hundreds of people in a bloody arc of revenge. Here, a high-speed chase scene opens the film with the clattering of a motorcycle rider falling of his bike down a cavernous Manhattan street; meanwhile, an outdoor black and white projection film of the great silent actor Buster Keaton streams on the side of a building overhead. It is an auspicious beginning for the sequel to the marvelous first film, and though it clearly loves its own mythology (and goes a bit overboard with it), John Wick: Chapter 2 has plenty to like and enjoy, along with some stunning camera work and action sequences that showcase Keanu Reeves as a performer capable of incredible movement and grace unleashing hell upon his enemies.

Wick is back and recovers his car before stockpiling his weapons in his basement, again, and pouring cement over them, again. And no sooner has he done that then he is challenged by Santino D'Antoni (Ricardo Scamarcio) to honor a blood-oath coin that he gave him, forcing him out of retirement to do one last job, this time in Italy, which may kill him. The film shuttles from the shimmery lights of NYC to the catacombs and old beauty of Italy as Wick figures out how to fulfill his oath and make his way back to his dog.

The highlights include the underground fighting which is just never-ending and endlessly inventive with Wick stashing weapons everywhere and finding new ways to dispatch his (mostly) faceless enemies. Cassius (Common) proves a formidable adversary and a hold-over from the first film, as does the mostly helpful kingpin Winston (Ian McShane) and Charon (Lance Reddick) who are there to remind us of the rules of this imaginary world with its mysterious coins and decorum of death. Reeves also shines in a hall-of-mirrors sequence with reflection piled upon reflection, a sort of call back to the end of the second Matrix film, with him opening and closing doors like James Bond in Scaramanga's playhouse, but this time it is with lasers and incredible colors and shimmery surfaces.

My only criticisms of the film are that the film overindulges its love with its own mythology and storytelling, has a diminished sense of propulsion through Wick's purpose for doing what he does being less primal and more diluted, and the world-building creaks a bit with the addition of The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, underused, though hooray for Matrix reunions!) and the allusions to The Council. Santino is fine as an enemy if not incredibly memorable or menacing. The ending seems ready-built for the inevitable third film, which regardless of diminishing returns, I will be there to see. Keanu Reeves, already a star and icon, proves endlessly watchable in fight scenes that place physical demands on the fifty-three year old that deserve a special Academy Award. 

Give Keanu the Oscar!

Image result for john wick chapter 2 images

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Dead on Arrival: Live By Night Flounders

Movie Reviewed: Live By Night

Director: Ben Affleck

Date: 29  June 2017

jamesintexas rating: **

I think reading the book prevented me from ever really liking this film. Of course, I think probably I would have seen all of its flaws and disappointments even if I had not been constantly comparing it. But having just read Dennis Lehane's rollicking, gripping novel by the same title, it was impossible not to wish that Ben Affleck tamped down his own instincts and instead just give a bit more of the novel, of Lehane's snappy prose and plotting.  Instead, Live By Night gets bogged down in the swampy plot concisions that make me care less about most characters, rob the story of its power, and provide little of the fun of the story and the time period.

A robbery of a card game leads to a romance between a Boston policeman's son Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) and Irish waitress Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). Of course, Emma's the girlfriend of mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister), and a robbery turned accident leads to desperate measures when Joe has to flee, and Emma ends up lost in the crash of a sunken car in the river.

Part 2 of the story takes place in Ybor City, Florida, where Coughlin becomes a big boss working for Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) and coordinates the rum-running business of the 1920's Prohibition era. He falls for Graciela (Zoe Saldana) who, sadly, is more of an idea than a fully-formed person in the film (unlike the book which delves deeply into her politics, her loves, and her psychology). Coughlin relies upon his wits and loyal friend Dion (Chris Messina) as he comes up against the KKK and the fervent anti-alcohol powers represented by born-again Christian Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), a compelling character whose return from Hollywood bears significant scars and horrors. Her storyline is a haunting one, but ultimately, the film just doesn't fully add up.

Affleck's got a good cast here with Messina and Saldana, Chris Cooper and Brendan Gleeson, but I think it might have been more interesting to cast himself as one of the feared bosses, Albert or Maso. Neither of the actors who play them has the gravitas to deliver a memorable performance, so the film has an imbalance. There's some action that is photographed well, and the film could stand to use more of its swampy, Florida locale. The ending does not have as much emotional power as it should.  For Affleck as a director, this film feels like a step backwards from Argo, The Town, and Gone Baby Gone. My recommendation? Read the book, and watch one of his other films.

Movie Reviewed: Silence

Director: Martin Scorsese

Date: 20 July 2017

jamesintexas rating: ****

Silence is a four star film, a masterpiece of storytelling and thought, marrying some breathtakingly beautiful imagery with complex themes and characters. In 17th Century Japan, a horrific opening scene depicts brutal torturing of Catholic Portuguese missionaries as witnessed by Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Ferreira disappears and is thought to have turned against the faith, but in this era, communication is scant. Rumors of rumors, whisps of letters exist of Ferreira's possible apostasy. In a nod to Joseph Conrad, two young fathers Garupe (Adam Driver) and Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) embark on a mission to enter the country and locate their mentor, to find of what happened to him, and to try to save his soul in the heart of darkness, as it were.

Catholicism was banned in Japan at this time. Garupe and Rodrigues's infiltration of the country involves a drunken, troubled Japanese fisherman Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) with a dark past, sects of hidden underground Christians in desperate need of ministering, and hiding during the daylight to avoid detection. The subterfuge takes a mental toll on them as they find themselves prisoners within their hiding spots, unable to enjoy the simplest pleasures. As they travel further and further inland, they put more and more Christians at risk who shelter them, feed them, and bring their babies to be baptized by them in the hopes of reaching Paradise. The two men face a crossroads and decide to separate, and the crux of the film is how each man faces his crucible in the face of astonishing adversity.

I was really stunned by this film. What happens to both characters is astonishing and heart-breaking, as well as the performances by Driver and especially Garfield are intensely memorable. Long-haired, gaunt, and hollowed-out, both are miles away from their pop culture roles as Kylo Ren and Spider-Man. They represent different aspects of faith and are punished by their chosen ways to adhere to that faith. Garfield, in particular, does some incredible wordless communicating of his character's pain and guilt in many scenes. A Japanese interlocutor Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata, truly remarkable) offers a departure from Scorsese's usual hyper-kinetic bad guys like Tommy (Joe Pesci) in Goodfellas or Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) in Gangs of New York, also penned by Kenyon College alum Jay Cocks. Deceptively introduced and slow-moving, Inquisitor Inoue carefully and deliberately stamps out the flames of Christianity as they pop up across Japan, swiftly setting moral dilemmas with vast consequences. Physically, he is no opponent, but he wields power through others. Inquisitor Inoue is more like the Warden in Shutter Island (Ted Levine) who offers this nihilistic wisdom to Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio): "There's no moral order as pure as this storm. There's no moral order at all. There's just this: can my violence conquer yours?"

Here, the statement that lingers far after the movie finishes has to do with the role of the missionary work itself: Inquisitor Inoue announces, upon heinous torturing of innocents, "The price of your glory is their suffering!" recasting missionary work as hubristic selfishness and forcing powerful questions upon the work itself and the individual. To relieve suffering is Christ-like; to sacrifice yourself, the same. How can a person stand resolute in the face of such suffering? When is refusing to break itself an act of pride? A character asks another "Do you have the right to make them suffer?"

The film takes on strange, unexpected turns, bringing in a very novelistic narrator of a Dutch sailor Dieter Albrecht observing the later events, reminding me a bit of Cloud Atlas. I found its ending to be profoundly spiritual and complex, offering readings of what faith, self-denial, and atonement can truly be. The notion of praying to silence, of hearing silence, of hearing the voice of Christ within or despite that silence is something that Scorsese has wrestled with in many of his films. His attention to the cloudiness and mistiness, the blurry divisions between land and water, the cavernous tunnels and rocky shores, and the persistent fog all seem Malickian at times in its stillness and thematically linked to deception and the unseen. There are images in Silence that I will never forget because of their horror and elemental brutality involving the sea and fire, shocking because of their rawness. With Silence (on the heels of The Wolf of Wall Street) Martin Scorsese continues to prove that he is as vital a filmmaker at age 75 as he was at any age. Silence should stand as a great cinematic spiritual exploration alongside Last Temptation of Christ and The Tree of Life. A film about 17th Century Japan has quite a bit to tell us about 21st Century America as well in its own oblique way with our nation's involvement in the complex, and some would say necessary, suffering of so many throughout the world. Scorsese leaves haunting questions behind. Is the price of our glory their suffering? And, do we have the right to make others suffer?

Healthy Comedy: The Big Sick

Movie Reviewed: The Big Sick

Director: Michael Showalter

Date: 20 July 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***1/2

Kumail Nanjiani is the shining star of The Big Sick, a fictionalized account of his life and meet cute and relationship with U of C grad student Emily (Zoe Kazan) where they both find themselves as a couple still learning about each other and hurting each other when a crisis occurs.

Emily's subsequent falling into a medically induced coma, resulting in a strange series of events with her out-of-town relatives. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano play Beth and Terry, Emily's parents, who fly in from North Carolina, and the awkward détente occurs in the uncomfortable chairs of hospital waiting rooms as both sides negotiate each other and this emotional territory. 

The script (by Nanjiani and the real-life Emily V. Gordon) balances Emily's family with Nanjiani's family, notably Azmat and Shereen (Anupam Kher, the wonderful analyst in Silver Linings Playbook, and the formidable Zenobia Shroff), with some dinner table scenes rich in quick humor and insight. Nanjiani himself, with his droll and straightforward delivery, hits some uproarious punchlines with memorable impact (one moment in particular is completely unexpected and uproarious), and his own comedic community of Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham, and Kurt Braunohler offers a warm, supportive environment. His friends support his dream of being a stand-up comic, stumble and shine in their own pursuits of the opportunity to earn a showcase at the fabled Montreal Comedy Festival. Showalter weaves the story in and out of these different groups, maybe not handling all of them as deftly (or equally) as he could but certainly in a satisfying way. I think the third act is a bit clunky, the film always has a sweetness to its storytelling. Part of that is the charisma of Nanjiana and Kazan.

The story really is about a clash of cultures between Nanjiani and his Pakistani family, forcing him to hide his skepticism of Islam and the arranged marriages promoted by his parents in a hilarious sequence of "drop-in" dates by young, available Pakistani women arranged by his mother. And the resolution of the conflict is messy and not easy. I'm catching up on comic/actor Aziz Ansari's new show Master of None, and it deals similarly with familial expectation and deception in the wake of the American Dream. The films asks the question of how a person builds his or her identity when the pull of family is so strong.

I liked this film, really liked it. Hospital waiting rooms are unlikely places to stage comedic scenes, but Showalter and his crew pull it off. They get the uncomfortable chairs and bland cafeteria food and the hyper-competent doctors and nurses which all still add up to terror when someone you love is in a room. The film's humor is powerful, and the humanity of all the characters is potent. The Big Sick is produced by Judd Apataow, whom I blame a bit for its third act faltering; he seems to offer similar tricks and tropes to his comedic films of self-discovery, and it was hard for me not to want the film to slow down and show Nanjiani's one-act show uninterrupted or in a larger form, instead of using it as a standard Apatow-montage ala Seth Rogen cleaning up his apartment in Knocked Up or Amy Schumer throwing out her bottles in Trainwreck.  Romano and Hunter are given some pretty nice scenes together with some pathos and humor, and I think their work here is brilliant. Both are such professionals that it is great fun to see each of their characters build a different relationship with Nanjiani with unique epiphanies and quirks. Kazan suffers, ostensibly, because of lack of screen-time, but when she is onscreen, she is memorable and tough and fun to watch. Concluding scenes are robbed a bit of their power because Emily is simply off screen so much that the lags behind everyone else in terms of development and arc. Ultimately, the film is touching and warm and works as a comedy with genuine emotional moments. Well-done.

A final note: the film is ostensibly set in Chicago with references to Northwestern Medical Center, but I think it lacks any real touch of the Windy City, even in the final scenes, which I think do not do a great job hiding that the street is filled with cars bearing New York plates. The poster, alas, is misleading but still striking. 

Image result for images of The Big Sick

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Driven to Succeed: Edgar Wright Wins

Movie Reviewed: Baby Driver

Director: Edgar Wright

Date: 6 July 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***1/2

Propellerheads-"Take California." 
So, with his marvelously fun new film Baby Driver, Edgar Wright has taken us on a kinetic and sonic ride forward into the future, integrating music and sound into his film in a way that mirrors our modern world, where so often people walk through the aisles of HEB with earbuds in, soundtracks to our lives blasting in our ears, the stars of our own imaginary films. Or, maybe that's just me? On my Walkman, I jammed out to specific work-out mix tapes in high school: hodgepodge assemblages of TV themes, movie soundtrack songs, James Bond title sequences, and wonderful randomness taken from my parents' record collection: the theme from Miami Vice would bleed into U2's Batman Forever song into Duran Duran's "A View To a Kill." Here, the music comes from mix tapes and old iPods ("one for each mood" the characters says). The eponymous Baby (Ansel Elgort), a preternaturally gifted wheel man, rocks out to a raucous opening bank robbery scene, set to "Bellbottoms" by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, using his wheel, windshield wipers, and whole car as an instrument before the bad guys jump in and the real synergy begins, and all hell breaks loose with a kaleidoscope of sweet driving moves, highway-defying mayhem, and general high-octane anarchy, although always able to be followed. We aren't in the world of chaos cinema, here; Wright always knows how to show us what we are seeing and have it mean something. And the music does not just rock in the background. The music continues to be punctuated by the intricate editing and world of Baby's soundtrack: music and movement in concert. I feel it is groundbreaking, a new kind of cinema experience.

Soul Coughing-"Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago" and "super bon bon."
Set in Atlanta where cavernous underground floors hide gangster Doc (Kevin Spacey), Baby sets to complete a number of heists with a multitude of different partners Griff, Darling, Buddy, and Bats (Jon Bernthal, Eliza Gonzalez, Jon Hamm, Jaime Foxx). Their crime wave is dictated by Doc, with Baby awaiting a call on a burner phone, powerless to say no (because of certain debts that he owes) but aching to leave this life behind him. Wright wisely shows us Baby's home life, a warm relationship with foster parent Joseph (CJ Jones) who knows the score and asks Baby the key questions about his actions of which he can surmise enough. Their signed conversations add an emotional resonance to Baby's actions. Flashbacks hint at a violent interlude early in his life, and Wright sets up Baby as a compassionate, good guy who falls for Debora (Lily James), a plucky waitress at a local diner he frequently visits. Debora describes a longing for the open road and music, and Baby connects this "one last job" to the beginning of a new life, possibly with her.

And that's where Darling, Buddy, and Bats come in: deeply violent and dangerous and mistrustful of Doc's confidence in Baby. Gonzalez, Hamm, and Foxx ooze menace, though Hamm gets the most screen time with his violent yet seemingly reasonable Buddy, who plucks an earbud from Baby occasionally to share in what he is listening to. Foxx is a Charlie Day-esque Wild Card, and his low growl works off of Spacey's non-nonsense businessman. It is fun to see so many strong actors and actresses playing off of each other. And, everything that can go wrong will during a surprising heist, appearing to endanger Baby's plan.

Duran Duran-"A View To a Kill."
Wright's plotting and characters careening off of each other is no match for his real achievement here: the integration of music completely into the film's rhythms. I have been in awe of Scorsese's use of the Stones, say, or everything Quentin Tarantino has done with his music, which has shaped my life and my own musical tastes. But what Wright does here is simply incredible.

U2-"Stay, (Faraway, So Close!)
From his opening scene to his last, the film's soundtrack blares, but it does more than that. It syncs, it integrates, it becomes a vital part of understanding Baby and the film. Baby walking to pick up coffee becomes an almost ballet-like sequence of balance and artistry, a modern day Singing in the Rain-esque homage with words from the song that he is listening to appearing in the graffiti and in the mouths of characters walking by him. It is a daring, striking scene, which my memory says consists of long takes (maybe one take), that just marvelously displays the possibilities of cinema. But Wright does not stop there. He's taking it to another level by having gunshots coordinate with drum beats in songs, from Queen to Blur, making the music a part of the movie's storytelling in a uniquely intimate and completely memorable way.

Tomoyasu Hotel-"Battle Without Honor or Humanity."
A car trunk slam. A car crash crunch. A smashed window. All become part of the music, part of the film. Baby listens to music the entire film, and so do we. A use of R.E.M.'s "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1" underlines a nice scene with CJ and Baby; Queen's "Brighton Rock" is discussed by Buddy and Baby and then used later in a parking garage chase scene for the ages. The music infuses the film and is impossible to discuss separate from the film. Baby nearly always has one earbud in, listening to his tunes, and at one point, he asks the criminals whom he is driving to wait for him to start his mix over and then GO! Wright shows Baby's love of iPods (big and small, bedazzled) in a way that is really charming; (I cannot believe that the iPod has been out long enough to now be a throwback, worthy of a smile).

Franz Ferdinand-"Take Me Out."
Wright opened the film in a promising way, and there has to be a version of Baby Driver which featured more of this supporting cast circling in and out, various jobs and hilarity (confusion over movie character masks is a winner for me) and wheels spinning. Yet, Wright is content to tell Baby's story with its own arc, the wheels grip the ground, and the chase sequences always kept my interest and, at times, took my breath away. There is a substantial amount of heart alongside all of this style, and never did I feel like I was in the hands of a soulless technician, someone only concerned with how things looked and worked. The film has such humor and fun as befitting an Edgar Wright film. I think this film's propulsion reminded me of Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that I similarly praised initially and gave 3 and a 1/2 stars, and it wound up being my second favorite film of that year, 4 stars, and deeply worthy of my admiration and love. I suspect more viewings of Baby Driver will only lead me to love its charms more.

Kenny Loggins-"Danger Zone."
Wright has done an amazing thing here. A summer movie that is fun. A driving heist musical. A novel cinematic experience that fully integrates an eclectic soundtrack. Kenny Loggins says, "You never know what you can do until you get it as high as you can go," and I think Edgar Wright can really do anything, even at high speeds, veins coursing with adrenaline, music working in tandem with image and story. Baby Driver is a leap forward and truly remarkable in so many ways.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Squadless: Suicide Squad Needs to Go Away

Movie Reviewed: Suicide Squad

Director: David Ayer

Date: 16 June 2017

jamesintexas rating: Zero Stars, maybe 1/2 * for make-up

So, I don't usually do this. I see fewer movies than I always want to, and I do not read reviews of recently released films before seeing them. I avoid trailers, generally, and I skip reading the puffy articles in Entertainment Weekly about upcoming films. So, I avoided much of the hype of David Ayer's Suicide Squad even though I do admit to having a color photo of Jared Leto's tattooed, grill-wearing Joker outside my classroom door. It is about government bureaucrat Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and her recruitment of a super-secret-task-force of evil villains. But when high school students stopped by my door to tell me it was disappointing and they did not like it, I paid attention. How did such a big-budget spectacle go down in flames (especially if teens disliked it)?  And now that I have found time to watch Suicide Squad, I can confirm it is one of the worst movies that I have ever seen.

1. It feels edited in a way that hurts my head. My basic understanding is that the film was taken away from the director and recut by a film company that composes movie trailers. That makes a ton of sense because the film is a series of two-minute montages and quick cuts which replace storytelling and character development.

2. The film relies on clichéd musical cues that seem weird and strange. The soundtrack itself is fun, but I don't know why we are hearing Creedence, Eminem, and others in these little snippets that feel way too forced and too frequent.

3. There's bait and switch. This film is not a Joker film, and Jared Leto offers little more than a cameo. Sadly, the shadows of Harley Quinn's (Margot Robbie) origin story and his Arkham Asylum time are more interesting than anything else in the movie. And that's less than 90 seconds.

4. Characters spout off nonsense at a high ratio, including vagaries about being family (a family of misfit toys, I guess) in some attempt to offer camaraderie. Or, you get version of this tripe: "And we're the BAD GUYS!"  Or, this, "And, WE'RE the bad guys!"

5. Characters say "shocking" things to show how shocking they are.  It reeks of someone trying too hard to prove they are outrageous, like a kid cursing and looking around to see who hears.  I remember students carrying around 50 Shades of Grey and just waiting for an adult to ask them or challenge them about reading it. You are trying SO HARD.

6. The CGI is not good.  The villains (of the villains) are boring.  The twist is ho-hum.

7. There are too many characters in the film to care about or follow. I think there is a guy named Boomerang who has a Boomerang, an Australian accent, and slams beers. That's about it for character development.

8. Will Smith. His acting choices are just strange, devoid of his charisma and his intense power. A scene of his character Deadshot punching a bag in his cell reminded me of Ali and how much I wished that I was watching that film.

I was going to come up with 9 and 10, and then I gave up. This film is not worth spending more time than I have already spent thinking about it. I am just really glad that I didn't waste movie ticket and babysitter money on this dreck, though I did waste my time and space on my DVR. And, sadly, I think this was a compelling premise, undermined from within, and ultimately a missed opportunity.

Here's a parting shot: Vertigo never won an Oscar; Suicide Squad has one.

Wondrous Woman

Movie Reviewed: Wonder Woman

Director: Patty Jenkins

Date: 16 June 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***1/2

As Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, "Hereafter, in a better world than this, I shall desire more love and knowledge of you." We are in a better world in many ways than the one that I grew up in, and I welcome Patty Jenkins' new film Wonder Woman which delivers as both an origin story of the Amazon warrior and a very fun adventure film. Gal Gadot's performance as the eponymous warrior is so winning, so full of charisma and strength, that this film is impossible not to like. For whatever its flaws are, Wonder Woman offers a contrast to the conventional tropes of these films. Strong women are welcome as are more movies that pass the Bechdel Test.

The most powerful scenes in the film are in its roughly thirty minute opening scene in Themyscera, where the Greek mythology is outlined and where we meet a young Diana (Lilly Aspell) and her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and various mentors including Antiope (Robin Wright) doing all kinds of intense combat-training. There's swordplay and bows and arrows and daring stunts completed while riding horses. It is akin to Rosa Klebb walking through the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. training area in James Bond's second film From Russia With Love: each physical task is more intense and amazing than the previous.  Diana yearns to be trained by Antiope despite her mother's warnings. When World War 1 fighter pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) washes up on their beach, being chased by Germans who want to recapture plans that he has stolen, a brutal battle ensues that changes the insular world of Diana and her previously hidden life. Now, she must decide to engage with the world or to continue to hide behind a protective shield.

The scene shifts to war-era London after a wonderful conversation on a boat between Diana and Steve which is about as intense about gender and sexual politics as one would ever believe possible in a comic book film. We begin the conventional march towards completing a mission, with several memorable supporting players joining the cast: secretary, as Diana calls it, "a form of slavery" (Lucy Davis); sniper (Ewen Bremner); actor (Said Taghmaoui); guide (Eugene Brave Rock). Jenkins balances the film's intense themes and action with humor and various fish-out-of-water scenarios as Diana encounters the modern world. However, the central conflict is a powerful one: in a scene located in the trenches surrounding a No Man's Land, Diana encounters a woman cast out of her village by occupying forces, listens to her story, and is so moved by it that she is called to action. A ferocious battle ensues, heavy on the CGI and the Zack Snyder slow-motion fighting, but the impetus is a conversation and an emotion felt by the character. It is a human decision, an impulse based on grief, pain, revenge that leads to a decision which shapes the rest of the story. I cannot express enough that the strength of this movie lies in its quieter scenes and its construction, not necessarily in its big action scenes.

A word about those action scenes.  I loved the opening hand-to-hand combat training sequences and even the Germans on the beach, with the camerawork always being clean enough to follow the story and the action. It was riveting, reminding me of the opening of Gladiator. Then, the film descends into murky CGI and over-the-top jumps and flips, and I find myself a bit taken out by it. When Diana has super-powers and fights another similarly strong foe, I do not really understand the stakes and the rules. What does it take one person to defeat or kill another? I had the same problem in Superman when I just couldn't wrap my ahead around all of this throwing of people into buildings. How does Zod defeat Superman? How do we know when someone is winning a fight like this? Those concerns are no different here than in previous films of this type. I worry that these films have a director and then another director for the CGI fighting, and how do you mesh the two?

The film has a strong conclusion with a wonderful sequence that we get to experience twice due to the concussive ringing in the ears which Jenkins replicates for the audience. I forgive the film's telegraphing of its villain from a mile away and its sometimes clumsy handling of scenes. (The morning following an important shift in the characters is treated inconsequentially, as if the film is too shy to think about the implications of what it has done.) The examination of photographs on a bulletin board at the film's end has a quiet, powerful resonance, and it adds a haunted, elegiac quality to its frame. It is a very good movie which offers me hope for the future. I am excited to watch this film with my son and daughter someday.

Wonder Woman soars over the Bechdel Test. It has two or more women in it, all with names, who talk to each other about something besides a man. It has many strong, intelligent, compassionate, and wise women in it, all with names and importance (Antiope's legacy casts a shadow over Diana), who talk about their world, their lives, their feelings, their losses, and their legacy. So much more than what women characters have been regulated to in traditional superhero films.

Leia Organa, Clarice Starling, Leeloo, Trinity, Lola, Yu Shu Lien, and Beatrix Kiddo welcome you to the club, Diana. It needs to be larger.

Smash the door open for as many others as you can.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Guarding the Franchise: Fun Thrills and Tears in Capable Sequel

Movie Reviewed: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Director: James Gunn

Date: 27 May 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***

I think it is a testament to James Gunn's quirky weirdness as a director of perhaps the biggest film of the year that what I mostly remember, several weeks after watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, is the murderous interstellar rampage set to "Come a Little Bit Closer" by Jay and the Americans. There's slow-motion walking, Tarantino-esque nods, fun special effects as Yondu's whistle directs an orchestra of death, and it recaptures a bit of that jarring tone from the first film, the tone established by the unconventional placement of early 1980's pop music alongside space battles. Overall, I think that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 remains fun throughout, despite being overlong and overstuffed with battles, though I do not feel as enraptured with it as its original. That film was one of the best of the year and earned four stars from me.

After a mysterious opening scene with a flowy-haired, digitally retouched Kurt Russell driving a convertible on earth, Gunn opens the film with the familiar characters.  In a wonderful title card scene which undercuts our expectations, Gunn establishes that the Guardians are now tasked with protecting the universe for hire while squabbling within themselves. He carefully stages the scene with a ferocious monster but seems uninterested in showing us what we want to see.  Instead, we follow Baby Groot (voice of Vin Diesel) as he runs playfully around the periphery of the scene. It is a charming beginning and establishes the relationship with Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) and her race of golden warriors who trade protection for Gamora's seething sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). The guardians must flee and separate as a result of Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) stealing some batteries and coming into snarky opposition with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), but another ship seems to rescue them at the last minute. A crash landing on a strange planet leads to both reunion and separation as Quill confronts aspects of his past, Rocket rejects the dynamics of the group, Gamora and Nebula discuss their tenuous relationship with their father and each other, and then there's Drax (Dave Bautista), who just seems to awesomely exists to be gigantically huge and titanically funny in his one-liners. When the strange ship lands, the Guardians separate, but unknowingly, they are being hunted by Yondu (Michael Rooker) with a price on their heads for their betrayal.

I won't say more because I don't want to reveal the plot's twists and turns, but Gunn crafts a satisfying tale set to an awesome soundtrack. At multiple moments, the screen is filled with such beautiful imagery and colors and planetary skyscapes that I marveled at Gunn's artistry and patience in holding the camera to let us enjoy the world. However, my main criticism is that the film is too long and too big-battle heavy, taking us away from the weird conversations and the relationships that ultimately distinguish this film among others of the genre. I think Guardians is at its best when the main characters are talking to each other, and there are just too few conversations like that is in this film. Gunn sacrifices those quieter moments for an expansive story, one in which sequel cultivation is a priority. That's why you get Sylvester Stallone showing up briefly and some other cameos at the very end. I think the best decision made by James Gunn was to promote Michael Rooker's character to featured player with more screen time and dialogue and more of a character arc. Rooker's Yondu is endlessly fascinating in look and action, and Yondu and Quill provide the emotional heft of the film in a surprising way. Gunn's use of Cat Stevens and Fleetwood Mac charms, and despite feeling like everyone needed to talk to each other more, I think Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a fun, often beautiful, meticulously crafted film that keeps laughter balancing tears, yes tears, in a summer blockbuster that showcases a ferociously violent Baby Groot in an off-kilter, strange twist on the traditional action-adventure. A welcome twist.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Not So Hidden Anymore: Hidden Figures Soars

Movie Reviewed: Hidden Figures

Director: Theodore Melfi

Date: 23 April 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***

Hidden Figures is so well-executed, well-constructed, and well-acted, that its success in the box office and in the Academy Award nominations is both heartening and completely expected. A story hidden from most Americans until now, Theodore Melfi's film crosses into the public consciousness as a reclamation of American aeronautical history in the Civil Rights Era, and an excoriation of the good old days. In Hampton, Virginia 1961, three NASA engineers Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) fundamentally challenge the corridors of power within NASA as the burgeoning space program struggles to get off of the ground. Katherine, a brilliant mathematician, finds herself working closely with Al Johnson (Kevin Costner), the gruff, no-nonsense team leader of the group tasked with keeping John Glenn safe while in orbit, a response to the Russians recent exploits, while also having to run across the compound to use the Colored bathroom. Dorothy, a visionary computer expert, sees the future of her work more quickly than those around her, forcing herself to learn IBM programming to make herself (and her team) indispensable in the coming age. And Mary struggles to earn the education necessary to be an engineer at NASA because of racism and sexism but figures out a way to learn what she does not know. In all three stories, which are woven together quite well, we see three women determined to challenge the power structure and keep challenging it.

Henson is the star here, given more screen-time for Johnson's struggles against administrators and policies and even the quiet racism of her white co-workers not wanting to drink from the same coffeepot as her. Henson conveys the dignity and the exasperated genius of Katherine G. Johnson, a woman whose insights made the impossible possible. Spencer and Monae are also decidedly great in their roles, and the film has an attentiveness to the costumes, hairstyles, set design, and cars of the era that is both beautiful and disarming. This time was not that long ago. Yet, why do we not know this story until now?

Hidden Figures has grossed over $168 million dollars, and I know of multiple grants for school children of all races and ages to go see the film in the theater. These women's achievements have not been forgotten, and the film tells their compelling story in a way that tugs at the heartstrings. These were real people, real women, doing work at the highest level that was needed by our government, and their voices were silenced, marginalized, and hidden until now. There was palpable relief during a key moment with Al Johnson and a sledgehammer, a decision with great implications for treating others with equality. I am excited to watch this film with my own children someday.

In her court case to be able to learn what she wants to learn, Mary Jackson states, "I plan on being an engineer at NASA, but I can't do that without taking them classes at that all-white high school, and I can't change the color of my skin. So I have no choice, but to be the first, which I can't do without you, sir. Your honor, out of all the cases you gon hear today, which one is gon matter hundred years from now? Which one is gon make you the first?" Here's to this film being the first of many reclamations of American history to show the myriad of people previously unseen, unheard, and hidden from our public consciousness. The American experience must uncover these hidden stories and show them in classrooms and movie theaters, in books and shows. We have no choice but to move forward and honor the truth in our past. Hidden Figures lights the way.

We've Arrived: Villeneuve's Innerspace Adventure

Movie Reviewed: Arrival

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Date: 23 April 2017

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

An alien arrival movie that morphs into one character's existential journey, Arrival announces Denis Villeneuve's palpable talent as a filmmaker as well as the joys of the rug being pulled out from under the audience. In its more cerebral and emotional ways, the film recalls, in moments, both Terence Malick and Stanley Kubrick. After some slowing zooming in opening shots of an empty house with hauting score by Johann Johannsson, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a Linguistics professor must join an Army force led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) who are tasked with responding to one of twelve alien spacecraft that are hovering over different parts of the globe. Gigantic egg-like structures, these spacecraft offer chances for communication with life beyond our own, and Banks joins physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in approaching and trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. And then, the movie becomes almost a silent film for many minutes with the entrance into the floating egg being a tangible concern, the strange circulations of its gravity, and the logistics of movement within its spaces. Villaneuve lets us reorient ourselves gradually before showing the next reveal, a mixture of both the beautiful and the terrifying, as the communication goes from abstract to shockingly face-to-face. 

And the movie meanders in time with Louise considering her relationship with her daughter in the midst of the world-altering developments. And in a way, the arrival of these extraterrestrials might not be the biggest thing that Louise has on her mind, though her scholarly acumen and moves pay off in brilliant and marvelous ways. The film constantly surprised me in where it was going, and I found multiple reveals to be well-executed and upsetting in the best of ways. Villaneuve moves his camera beautifully with cinematographer Bradford Young (who also shot Selma and was appropriately Academy Award nominated for his stunning work here), with lots of slow zooming in to increase tension and plenty of extreme wide shots that show the breadth of the landscapes in relief against the giant eggs. I cannot put into words the effectiveness of Johannsson's score; the Icelandic composer behind The Theory of Everything and Sicario has crafted a sublimely beautiful soundscape to accompany such a strange film. I found Amy Adams to be stellar in a performance that for much of the film is wordless or without the big moments that one would expect. And Renner and Whitaker are both wonderful in the supporting cast as well.

With Arrival coming on the heels of the more messy but compelling Sicario and even the flawed Prisoners, Villaneuve has announced himself as a major talent here, especially with the boldness of the last thirty minutes of the film. In a film that could have easily been two and a half to three hours (I'm looking at you, Interstellar, which I still enjoyed), Villaneuve takes less than two hours to concisely tell a moving story with gravity. The unconventional final sequences reveal a filmmaker filled to the brim with confidence, elan, and daring. I am haunted by Arrival and its hypnotic power; I feel that I will always want to return to its world and fall under its spell and its idea that we are ultimately not waiting for an external conquering or revelation. Instead, the epiphany will and must come from within. We announce and create our own arrivals.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Tale as Old As Time: Beast Redux

Movie Reviewed: Beauty and the Beast

Director: Bill Condon

Date: 15 April 2017

jamesintexas rating-- **1/2

Many times as I watched the live-action version of Disney's animated 1991 classic Beauty and the Beast (itself a reimagining of previous versions, to me yet unseen), I cast my memory back fondly to the images, songs, and performances of that film. The 2017 version, while well-made and mostly well-cast, seems superfluous to me. I hate to call any movie a cash-grab, but the impulse to revisit this world seems guaranteed to be more about making a hit and less about making a film worth remembering. For my money, I will always prefer the 1991 film.

A back story is provided this time which is fine involving a lack of hospitality extended by a prince to a begging woman who visits a ball; the magical punishment ensues. Flash forward to the present. Belle (Emma Watson) hungers for more "than this provincial life" in a small village in France, and when her father (Kevin Kline) goes missing on a search for elusive flowers, she evades would-be-suitor Gaston (Luke Evans) and travels to the hidden castle of the Beast (Dan Stevens).   Belle sacrifices herself for her father, becoming a captive of the Beast and the castle's enchanted inhabitants.  Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), and Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) are all here and mostly fine.  The songs zoom by as petals from the enchanted rose fall; Belle grows to love the Beast's library, and he grows to convert his anger into kindness. There is a nice scene that flashes back to Belle's mother in Paris, a memory unseen by her until now. Thawing and dancing ensues. Meanwhile, Gaston plots against Belle's father and tries to figure out a way to win the one uninterested independent feminist in the village who despises him.

All the pieces are here. The new songs add little to the film's enjoyment; the old ones remain classics and spirited fun. The castle is a remarkable achievement, but there seems no one scene or moment as powerful as first seeing that dance between Belle and the Beast, given a rich cinematic spin in 1991 that seemed very different from previous Disney films. The film does no harm, I guess, and LeFou (Josh Gad) being in love with Gaston and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment at the end of the film is fun. Emma Watson really can do anything, here reunited with her Perks of Being a Wallflower screenwriter Stephen Chbosky. Luke Evans seems less capable as Gaston, maybe because Gaston's monstrosity seems small here. I imagine an Arnold Schwarzenegger or a Jason Momoa, so anything he does seems less than. I suppose it isn't fair to just compare it to its predecessor. Standing on its own, the film is fine and enjoyable but a bit clumsy and inelegant. If anything, I am more likely to watch the 1991 film now and show that to my son and daughter. You can decide if they are worth comparing.

10 Cloverfield Lane

Movie Reviewed: 10 Cloverfield Lane

Director: Dan Trachtenberg

Date Reviewed: 5 March 2017

Rating: ***1/2

What a trip! I am so glad that I knew very little about this film going in, so my review is going to be vague and preservative of the thrills and chills inherent in 10 Cloverfield Lane. A young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) flees New Orleans and wakes up from a violent car crash to find herself underground, recovering from her injuries under the care of a survivalist (John Goodman). There's another man there too, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), recovering with a broken arm. Something has happened, apparently, above ground, and the retreating to this bunker necessary. Is it the apocalypse? War? Space invaders? Paranoia? All of them at once?

Development leads to development, and one of the wonders of Trachtenberg's film is the off-kilter feeling of getting your bearings, thinking you know where the film is heading, and then getting knocked down. Completely. The performances are wonderful, especially Winstead who must cover so many emotions within the confined space as she tries to out-think the growing chaos around her. Trachtenberg is a major talent here, allowing the tension to build and build. I think that the ending is simply marvelous in its boldness.

I do not want to write more. I admire this film, its construction, its surprises, its payoffs. I think it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, and I want to see more films like it. What holds it back from being perfect? I can't put my finger on it. I think revisiting this film in a few months will probably force me to revise this rating to four stars. Highly recommended. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

Seven not so Magnificent Reasons

Movie Reviewed: The Magnificent Seven

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Date: 27 March 2017

jamesintexas rating-- **

1. Denzel Washington can do anything.  He's eminently watchable, and even when given very little to do here other than posture in amazing clothing, he can do it.  He has never done a western, and now he has.

2. Chris Pratt is charming and trying to have more gravitas.  Even if he fails at it, he's fun to watch.

3. Montages of training villagers to fight in creative ways to set up the climactic final battle are always appealing, even though the thrust of this film is to just wait, and wait, and wait until the end battle.  The look of the film is grand with swooping cameras and colors that pop.

4. The Magnificent Seven reminds us obviously of the original and of The Seven Samurai.  And, a late-film development is an homage or borrowing from The Outlaw Josey Wales.  All of those movies I want to watch again.  This one, not as much.

5. The rest of the Magnificent Seven (Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Ruffalo, and Martin Sensmeier) are given so little to say or do that they hardly register in the film. Characters just show up and join the group.  Each one has a particular trait, way of talking, and/or costume that substitutes for character development.  I do not think that the movie has to be significantly longer, but I think that more moments and conversations among these warriors would have made the final scenes more powerful

6. Every Western needs a bad guy that can ratchet up the tension.  I like Peter Sarsgaard, but here, he essentially needs a mustache to twirl and a cape to embody one-dimensional evil.  How can one man equal all seven of the opposing performances?  Also, he is not in the film enough to offer much of a counterweight.

7.  The film's premise involves gigantic acts of mass violence committed in public, basically all-out warfare with heavy casualties on both sides.  The film need not consider the psychological or moral weight of what it does in defense of its own righteousness.  A wrong must be righted. It's best the less thought about its ramifications.  It offers revenge as soul-cleansing in as brutally violent a PG-13 film can be.  I do not think that it will be remembered fondly.

Image result for the magnificent seven denzel 2016

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Bored of Bourne

Movie Reviewed: Jason Bourne

Director: Paul Greengrass

Date: 26 March 2017

jamesintexas rating-- **

Jason Bourne feels soulless, like the worst kind of simplistic video game, and that's a colossal disappointment coming from stellar director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon.  The film wastes its impressive cast and locations by boiling down its story to bare essentials, giving Jason Bourne very few lines and zero character development and arc.  Clumsy flashbacks to an inciting incident are supposed to show his motivation and uncertainty about his origins which haunt him.  But without Bourne talking to anyone, the film mostly becomes about crisp movement and fluid action set pieces, which although impressively staged and compelling, they just serve as spectacle, never substance, resulting in a glossy, unsatisfying experience.

Bourne (Matt Damon) begins the film in hiding, engaging in brutal street fights for money on an island in Greece; he's brought back into the fold by ex-operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) who has found files that she wants him to read because the plot told her to do so (ostensibly, the CIA is up to its old malfeasance, but you know what I mean).  Way leads onto way, and fiery, protest-filled Greece bleeds into Iceland into Berlin into London and into Las Vegas. On the hunt for a resurgent Bourne are CIA Deputy Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and Cyber Ops Head Heather Miller (Alicia Vikander) who thinks he can be turned.  Also, Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) plays a hubristic Mark Zuckerberg-type, the creator of Deep Dream social media platforms who figures into the C.I.A.'s work somehow in a vague attempt at social relevance.  Bourne investigates his own past while an intense assassin known only as Asset (Vincent Cassell) hunts him.  And, all roads lead to Vegas.

Because the film is committed to a near silent performance from Matt Damon, we get the enthralling filming of Bourne reading google searches to figure out who characters are.  Bourne always just shows up exactly where he is supposed to be with weapons and passports and escape routes fully figured out inside of his head but never shared with us.  C.I.A. Directors waive security and wait in darkened penthouses unguarded.  And handy surveillance technology just sits in bowls at Las Vegas conferences and is easily taken, installed, and monitored.  As a modern thriller, Jason Bourne is the kind of film where you can never even conceive of any of the main characters eating human food, taking a drink of water, or going to the bathroom. 

I hate to be so negative.  I like the character of Jason Bourne and the films (except the appalling entry with Jeremy Renner).  I have read the first book by Robert Ludlum.  I download every version of the Moby end song "Extreme Ways."  The travelogue aspect of the films always earns my respect (part of me feels that I only know how modern Europe looks because of these films), and, to be honest, Matt Damon walking, in a hurry, occasionally looking over his shoulder, works for me.  I like that, and even though it mostly reminds me of better movies (the original trilogy).  I give degree of difficulty points here for the filming of a chase scene in a fiery Athens riot and the Las Vegas strip filled with cars, even though one particularly incredible sequence of cars being thrown into the air by a speeding SWAT vehicle only made me think of the untold casualties that extended crash would result in.  Tommy Lee Jones is a formidable actor capable of greatness; here, whenever it seems like he is about to launch into a monologue or some speech that would shade his character a bit, Greengrass is content to show his craggy face instead.  As a result, Jones is no Joan Allen or David Strathairn or Brian Cox or Chris Cooper or Clive Owen or Scott Glenn or Albert Finney when it comes to Bourne's past formidable opponents.  And he could have been.  Academy Award winner Vikander also seems similarly wasted in a confusing role that could have been conceived of better.

The film is curious inert despite its intense action, but I think too it suffers there in comparison to its predecessors.  Greengrass himself has set the bar so high for car chases, one-on-one fights in close quarters, and hand-held camera work, that here, it just does not seem that compelling or interesting.  I hate to call a film a cash grab and insult it in that way, but what we have here seems clumsily done without the care and, dare I say, the grace of its previous thrillers.  The Bourne Identity ushered in a new era of spy techno-thrillers, leaving its fingerprints on the James Bond franchise as well as Batman in our post 9-11 world.  Jason Bourne deserves to be relegated to The Bourne Legacy as two offshoots that never fully pay off. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Get Out's Flat Out Brilliance

Movie Review: Get Out

Director: Jordan Peele

Reviewed: 18 March 2017

jamesintexas rating--****

Jordan Peele's masterpiece Get Out pushes all the right buttons in its suspense and build-up, ending up with one of the darkest endings in modern film while fully earning every scare along the way.  The film announces Peele as a writer and director of the first order, and Get Out resonates on many levels in our political and social climate in early 2017.  And, it is ridiculously hilarious at times along the way. 

After an unsettling opening scene of violence on an unknown character, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) travels to the rural estate of girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), meeting her family for the first time.  Chris, a budding photographer, leaves his dog with his friend Rod (LilRel Howery), who needles him about the potential pain of the weekend.  On the way, they hit a deer and also encounter hostility from a local policeman.  Upon arrival, Dean and Missy Armitage (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) welcome the couple warmly. Dean is a neurosurgeon; Missy, a therapist.  Although Chris has been warned by Rose, Dean slips into calling him "my man" and opining about how he wishes that he could have voted for "Obama's third term."  So far, Chris experiences the awkwardness and the weight of being the only African-American character in sight. But he is not.  There are two African-Americans working for the Armitage family: groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel). Both seem dazed and to regard Chris with some sort of hostility.  When a late-night smoke break turns into a spooky encounter with both, Chris, a bit shaken, wanders into a hypnosis session with Missy who uncovers buried-deep trauma in Chris's childhood while ostensibly trying to help him stop smoking.

Chris and Rose's weekend visit coincides with a party of sorts as old friends of the family pour into the lakefront estate to celebrate. Things begin getting increasingly more uncomfortable for Chris as he becomes the designated racial spokesman, finds his cell phone unplugged and out of juice, and wonders about blind gallery manager Jim Hudson (Stephen Root) who seems to know his work without having ever seen it.  A chance encounter with the only other African-American, a laconic Andrew Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield) leads to the first recitation of the titular phrase.

To say more would be to rob Get Out of its earned scares, laughs, and power.  I just found this film to be captivating in every way, from the performances to the score to the slow zoom-ins used by Peele to heighten the anxiety level in nearly ever scene.  Kaluuya's performance ably captures the reactions of Chris to his shifting environment, and I was impressed with his anchoring performance.  I could not tell where it was going, and it inspired great dread in me as an audience member. I needed the relief of looking over at my wife next to me in the theater, as well as the relief valves provided by other audience members shouting at the screen and reacting viscerally to what was unfolding.  I imagine that seeing the film in a crowded theater would have intensified its power.  And LilRel Howery's performance is a true standout of comic timing and delivery.

The third act and stunning ending of the film pose myriad questions about cultural appropriation and destruction, the racial hegemony of our country, and the subversion of the police as trusted agent of the power structure.  In a move worthy of comparison to Alfred Hitchcock, Peele uses a final scene to critique the distrust and menace offered by a cultural signifier, now read differently.  Get Out never missteps, and it offers a cathartic way forward into 2017 and cinema that acknowledges the deep rooted societal micro-aggressions and racism, pressures, and powers that cannot and should not be ignored.  First and foremost, it is a film that entertains and upsets, horrifies and makes one think.  Jordan Peele cannot be ignored as a substantial voice in American cinema.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Detecting Fun: Shane Black Triumphs

Movie Review: The Nice Guys

Director: Shane Black

Reviewed: 26 February 2017

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

I just think that Shane Black had so much fun writing and making this movie.  It really shows.  A 70's gumshoe mystery with a quirky chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, The Nice Guys finds itself awash in disco hits, fantastic fashion, goofiness, and serious fun.  I loved its sense of humor, its quick wit, and its easy interplay between two very strong performances.

Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a punchy unofficial private detective.  Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a more legitimate version of the same and a single dad who cannot smell.  They team up to find a missing girl who may be on the run from killers.  The plot connects to a dead woman found in a mysterious car crash (an audacious opening scene), some tough guys from Detroit, an extended sequence at a local pornographer's party pad, and a number of silly twists and turns along the way.

Gosling is an adept physical comedian, and his scene in the bathroom stall is one of the best of the year.  Crowe, older and bigger and a bit world-weary as his character keeps staving off attempts to give him drinks, has fun here as well, riffing a bit on his image and his past role in LA Confidential.  The supporting cast of Matt Bomer, Keith David, Kim Basinger, and the voice of Hamilton Burress.  I think with its winks to Raymond Chandler, its cleverly staged action pieces, its sharp dialogue, and its commitment to telling a genre story in an interesting way, it easily is one of the most underrated films of the year. 

Highway to Hell

Movie Review: Hell or High Water

Director: David Mackenzie

Reviewed: 26 February 2017

jamesintexas rating--****

A flat-out stark masterpiece.  I just cannot talk about how much I love this film.  Chris Pine and Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner Howard, two brothers hell-bent on outfoxing the law and the bank that foreclosed on their dying mother's family farm. They craft an audacious plan to repay Texas Midland Bank with their own stolen money to get the family farm back, and the propulsion of the plot comes from the ticking clock of the payments due. Texas Ranger Marcus played by Jeff Bridges and his partner Alberto played Gil Birmingham are in pursuit. One brother is laconic and quiet; the other, a firecracker. As for the law, one man contemplates the end of his career and what it all meant; the other, the remainder of his time in this service. The collision is inevitable, but Mackenzie steers us towards all kinds of fun and suspense before reaching the point of impact.  A diner conversation with a waitress; a casino to launder large amounts of money; a surprising reversal with some Texans who witness a crime and decide to do something about it; a painful conversation between a father and a son, tinged with regret; a violent last stand. 

Mackenzie's confidence here extends into all aspects of the filmmaking: the soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is pitch perfect; the achingly beautiful long shots of the Texas horizon; the robberies themselves with their energy and danger; the quiet, perfect ending to the film which suggests a conversation can sometimes be more powerful than a violent shoot-out.  Pine and Foster are fantastic in these roles, with Foster probably narrowly missing the Oscar nomination that went to Bridges.  Hell or High Water's economic and political undercurrents speak for our times as well; we root for these criminals in part because we believe the bankers and corporations to be the bigger criminals. And maybe the Texas Rangers see that as well and have to do their jobs just the same.  The abandoned storefronts and businesses that litter the landscape here provide their own counterpoint to this dark reclamation of the American Dream.  As the Coen Brothers in another West Texas masterpiece remind us, "There are no clean getaways," but the Howard Brothers decide it is worth risking it all to have a chance to end up on top. It will not be clean.

World of Stars and Beauty: Moonlight's Pull.

Movie Review: Moonlight

Director: Barry Jenkins

Reviewed: 19 February 2017

jamesintexas rating--****

Image result for images of moonlight film

I cannot shake Barry Jenkins's masterpiece Moonlight out of my head.  In its quiet, steady power, he unpacks identity in an unnerving way that evokes a line from William Faulkner's A Requiem for a Nun: "The past is never dead; It's not even past."  By using three different actors to portray the lead character at three different moments in his life, Jenkins forces the audience to search for the unity and the linkages in what makes us who we are.  An earring here.  A look there.  A choice of car.  A choice of music.  A decision made in haste.  One made over time.  One of regret.  One that lingers for many lost years.  I really do think that this film has a poetic, transformative, Malickian power and is undeniable in its artistry and boldness.  Jenkins contends that our past is not even past; we carry it with us and within us in the different people that we have been in our lives.

In Miami, Little (Alex R. Hibbert) flees his mother's addiction and some vicious bullying by wandering the neighborhood, breaking into abandoned buildings, and thus befriends a local drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). The friendship eschews easy description: it is not a clear mentorship, but Little craves someone to ask questions to, someone to be with, someone to bond with as he grows more distant from his addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris).  Little wonders about his sexuality and place in the world.  Juan states, "At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you're going to be. Can't let nobody make that decision for you" to an impressionable young man at a pivotal moment.  A chance encounter between Juan and Paula forces a crisis of conscience for both, but there are no easy answers. 

Fast forward in time, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) moves through his high school alone and ostracized, brutalized by bullies.  In this chapter, a friendship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) has the possibility to blossom into something more.  His mom and Teresa are constants in his life, offering different polarities of love and possibilities of life. Chiron makes a decision that echoes for the rest of his life in its power.

Fast forward even more in time, now going by the name Black (Trevante Rhodes), he moves through the world echoing some of the choices made by Juan and denying the feelings driven by Kevin.  Who he is seems shaped by the ghost of Juan.  A phone call from Kevin brings him back to Miami.  There is so much to think about in this quiet third act where a song on a jukebox has the power of an emotional grenade, and the decision to stay or go becomes elemental and consequential.  Black's negotiating of himself, his sexuality, his identity, and his future become the crux of the film's final moments. 

Jenkins frequently places his hand-held camera behind the character's head, so we do not see the actor's face as he traverses parking lots and overgrown fields.  The film's construction challenges us to link the chapters, to unify the person, to trace the construction of identity.  And there is Jenkins's most profound element: he forces us to consider how we become who we become.  The film feels linked to a place, this neighborhood in Miami and its beach.  The colors of the film are beautiful; the score, soaring.  I am just in awe of Jenkins's power as a storyteller, the craftsmanship of the performances.  It makes me think about the different versions of myself at different times and places: Elmhurst, Gambier, Houston, Philadelphia, Houston Part Deux. I see my son transform before my eyes, now a little boy.  I hold my fourteen month-old daughter who is starting to walk and make sounds into words, wondering what the world will be like for her and what she will be like for the world.  I think about how Juan comforts Little as he floats in the ocean for the first time: "Ok. Let your head rest in my hand. Relax. I got you. I promise. I won't let you go. Hey man. I got you. There you go. Ten Seconds. Right there. You in the middle of the world." 

We are in the middle of the world with hands both seen and unseen holding us.  We are in the middle of the world with Moonlight, its beauty and its grace. I will never forget this film.

Image result for images of moonlight film

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Rogue Wonderful

Movie Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Directors: Gareth Edwards

Reviewed: 12 January 2017

jamesintexas rating--***

It took me two viewings to settle my mind, but the new Star Wars universe film Rogue One, much like the fiction that I read as a kid that dealt with alternate worlds, characters, and storylines tangentially related to the canonized trilogy, it is pretty good.  Anytime you can have AT-AT's onscreen is a win, in my opinion, and although Edwards fails in some areas to develop his characters and has some clunky moments towards the end, the powerful cross cutting between battles ends in a spectacular fashion, making this a worthy film, albeit a humorless one at time. 

There is not much to joke about here. A riveting opening scene introduces Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), Leire his wife, and Jyn (Felicity Jones), his daughter. Galen is being hunted by the Empire to return to his work as an evil mad scientist aboard the Death Star.  Flash to twenty years later, Jyn finds herself in the hands of the Rebellion, eager to use her to communicate with resistance fighter Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who has an Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), possibly sent by Gaylen with secrets about the Death Star's destruction.  Rebel fighter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and robot K-2SO join Jinn on her mission to locate Saw Gerrera and the pilot and learn of the Rebellion's chances against such a weapon. A suicide mission ensues, a desperate attempt to locate Galen, an all or nothing plan to steal the plans to the weapon to transmit them to the Rebels. 

Along the way, there is time to walk through a crowded marketplace, complete with distracting (to me) cameos from characters in previous films. Chirrut (Donnie Yen), a blind guardian of a sacked Jedi temple on Jedha and his crack shot companion Baze (Wen Jiang) have a rapport and gentle humor that I wanted more of in this film. There are a much better pairing than Jyn and Cassian, who work better as symbols than as characters; I just cannot get the sneaking suspicion that crucial character development between them and conversations ended up on the cutting room floor.  There are breathtaking visuals here, particular the war above the planet with the see-through air lock. Imperial Star Destroyers always have a regal menace to them, but here, they do something quite wonderful and unexpected with them.  There is a competent bad guy in Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), but even he feels slight because of the insistence about getting in the references to other films and storylines.  And my biggest distraction in the first viewing was the use of CGI to recreate deceased actors and insert them into the story; I would have far rather had a reimagining of a character that we know than a digital performance.  Every time I saw this it took me out of the story, as did the insistence upon putting reference after reference in for the fans. I want them to tell a good story well, and the constant looking backwards prevents the film from truly soaring. There is a very good score, impeccable costumes and set designs, and the crisp battle sequences are very compelling.  Everyone is working at a high level here. 

Ultimately, the films strives for the camaraderie and brutal nihilism of The Wild Bunch or Aliens or even Predator, but it simply cannot live up to its own ambitions. I admire the direction it takes which is sure to upset little kids in the audience.  The shame is that much of this world would have been a welcome addition to Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  This film's very creation is a bold foray into more adult stories, more darkness, and more potential innovation.  And hooray for the first Star Wars story of the Post-Trump Era to feature so many strong men and women from all over the world, not just white men. I remember how exciting it was to see Anakin playing with friends of different races for a few brief seconds in Episode One: The Phantom Menace.  I love seeing the world expand and include so many wonderful performances from actors and actresses across the globe.  That's a true Star Wars story.