Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Lambcast: Roll Your Own Top Five, with a Surprise Host




I thought the recording app had only recorded one end of the conversation. Fortunately, when the data got in the right hands, it turned out to be fine. Hope you enjoy the show.


Friday, April 20, 2018

Blockers



This will be a relatively short post because there is on;y a little bit to say about this film. I had seen the trailer and thought that it was a raunchy comedy that I could safely skip. My wife had expressed a little interest but the butt chugging gag in the trailer was not promising. I'm going to blame the guys on one of the podcasts that I listen to for talking me into seeing this. They discussed it on one of their recent shows, and both of them thought it had some funny lines of dialogue. They were not impressed with the physical gags but thought there was a theme here worth looking at. Since I have been blocked myself [from seeing several other films until a certain member of the household was available] , it seemed right to give it a chance.

Indeed the film is raunchy. The parents act in some pretty stupid ways in their attempt to track down and stop their girls from making what they see as a mistake. There are three or four completely superfluous scenes that exist only for the humor and add nothing to the story. The aforementioned beer chugging sequence makes zero sense as soon as the parents identify themselves, but the contest goes on anyway. There is a car crash scene that gets laughed off, but of course in real life would entail huge consequences for those involved. The most extreme sections involve peeping into another home and catching the occupants engaged in some sexual activity. and then later returning to the same location, to break in, and ending up in a preposterous sex game which has nothing to do with the story. At least the sequence was honest enough to feature male frontal nudity rather than the traditional reveal of a nude woman. Gary Cole did his own reveal here and while it may not be my cup of tea, it was refreshing that the film treated men the way women are usually exploited.

One of the themes of the movie revolves around the sexist assumption that girls need to be treated differently in regard to their initiation into being sexually active. Indeed, that is a worthy goal but it is barely part of the story. First we have to have some version of naked "Sardines" with strangers, and then there has to be serial vomiting. The warm turn that the film takes in the last act is very typical of a teen film from the 80s or 90s. "Porkys", "American Pie", and "Clueless" all end up with more sincerity than you might expect. "Blockers " turns into a family story with the adults and children learning to accept one another despite the flaws that all of them have. This is not exactly original, but it turns out kinda sweet anyway.

The older stars are adequately over the top. Jon Cena and Leslie Mann are the central figures and both play the parts as you expect. Mann is a neurotic mother with attachment issues and a whinny voice, who pushes things forward. Cena is an overprotective dad who sees his girl as a child, despite the fact he has nurtured her into being a successful athlete. Ike Barinholtz ends up stealing the film from the others by having the most comic payoffs to his dialogue and the story that has the most to say about trying to parent a child and ultimately succeeding.

So it is not a great film, it has a few good laughs but it is not original and if you are a sympathetic vomit-er, you might want to skip out on it. The sex issues seemed to bother the parents more than all the drinking and drug use that is part of the story. The girls are fine and their arcs play out pretty much the way they are telegraphed. This movie is not really made for me, I could tell by the soundtrack playlist which featured no music ever heard by a baby boomer. The next generation of teen comedies seems to be moving forward without a need to appease the older crowd. That seems an apt result given the storyline.




Saturday, April 14, 2018

You Were Never Really Here



This is a thriller in the broadest sense of the word. It has many of the tropes of an urban thriller; a lone hero, a deep conspiracy of the powerful, an innocent who needs to be saved, and a variety of criminal elements. If you were to group this in with an action film or another Liam Neeson film, you would be so off the mark as to be at risk of hitting your own innocent bystander. One of the reviews quoted in the trailer refers to "Taxi Driver" as its' counter-part. That is about as close as it gets to any other movie you may have see. The Scorsese film from the seventies has some of the same points, and another isolated hero. Unlike Travis Bickel, "Joe"  lives in a more average surrounding, but his psychosis is probably deeper, darker and more paranoid than anything you have encountered before.

 Director/Screenwriter Lynne Ramsay, has visualized the story as a series of images and nightmares. The narrative is mixed with the nightmares and the result is something disturbingly hypnotic. In some moments, Joe is a fierce enforcer of the task he has been set. His grim facade and deliberate pace make him feel very much like a robot set on a program that cannot be moved from it's goal. Just when he seems to be a mechanical drone of a killing machine, he shows flashes of humanity, vulnerability and confusion. He seems to care for his mother but she frustrates him. There are frequent flashbacks to their early life, and the violent nature he possesses seem to have been both bred into him and taught to him. His dark visions of childhood conjure up a dream of death that he sometimes acts out. This is not auto erotic asphyxiation,  Joe is both suicidal and indestructible. He is testing the limits of both feelings on a regular basis.

It also appears that this PTSD is not limited to experiences from his childhood. Joe seems to have served in one of the Middle Eastern Theaters and seen some things that have left scars. Ramsay does not dwell on these events, they come up as brief flashes and we never see a full picture of what has befallen the man he was. Whatever it was it seems it was pretty ugly. An easy chair psychologist might look at the victims he encountered overseas and put that together with his current crusade, but such psychoanalysis seems simplistic for the complicated figure that Joe is. Joaquin Phoenix seems the perfect choice for this role. His reserved style of speech and his quiet face represent the coiled danger that Joe carries around with him. He seems to still have a tender heart at times as he responds to his Mother's voice singing an old song from their past and he needs to join in. His willingness to sit with her for a few moments as she goes to sleep also seems like a dutiful son, but his dark side does crop up with visions where their life together disappears in a moment of violence.

A Prop from the Film down at the Arclight Hollywood
Joe has contacts but not really friends. He is so paranoid that when there is a chance encounter with some one who knows him from his violent life, sees him in his home life, a partnership will come to an end. As it turns out, his paranoia is somewhat justified. His job leads him across the path of dangerous people. The plot is never clearly explained. This is one of the nice things that makes this movie unique. Not everything is spelled out for you but if you have imagination, you can figure out as much as Joe. Again, his dark visions tell us as much as the narrative does, and they usually substitute for too much detail. Another visual touch that director Ramsay adds is to let us see most of his rampage in one location, only through security camera footage without sound effects. There is still score but the silent acts of violence seem unreal, as brutal as they are, and morally as justified as they are.



When it is clear that a twist in the story has taken place, we go in several directions at once. In a seventies thriller, the plot would all be about how the twist must be dealt with and the enemy punished. That is the way this film seems to be heading, but there are more curves ahead and each one brings this film to a new point of view that continuously challenges you. Joe may be driven nearly insane with revenge, but sometimes his empathy manages to get the best of him. If you have disdain for the seventies song "I've Never Been to Me", by Charlene, prepare to reassess. In one of the boldest moments of the film, this song plays out through a moment of horror and tenderness. It is an honest gesture that feels so odd but also so right.

Speaking of music, this has a muscular synth score by Jonny Greewood who was recently an Oscar nominee for "Phantom Thread". Mixed with contemporary songs and also old classics, the music creates moods and images that match the energy or actions of the scenes in an eerie manner. It is almost good enough to make me go and listen to Radiohead, a band that he is a member of. Along with the sound design of the film, the music adds to the hypnotic atmosphere. This film is a slow burn but it is anything but tedious.

As Joe envisions what he might do, there are some amazing visual moments. The asphyxiation issue is combined with a counting mantra that both Joe and the young girl he is trying to help use. That they go in opposite directions and mix and then change is another great choice by the director. Late in the film there are some incongruous visual moments with Joe and Nina. The harrowing effects of PTSD are not going to end for either of them and we know it by getting a chance to see the darkness repeatedly. The resolution of the film is inevitable and sad and satisfying. It is somewhat ambiguous but that seems all the more appropriate since It would be hard to say how much of what we witnessed was real and how much was nightmare.











Friday, April 13, 2018

Monday, April 9, 2018

Chappaquiddick



Over the weekend, I saw two films. One made me clench my arms and legs, bite my lip and hold onto my seat. The second made me sick to my stomach. This is a paraphrase of what my daughter said after seeing Chappaquiddick. This straightforward retelling of the tragedy from 1969, should enrage, depress and gut punch you in a way that is a lot less enjoyable than a horror film. This episode from the life of a lionized political figure should cause some serious reassessment of his place in the pantheon of Kennedy family heroes. Ted Kennedy may have grown from this time to represent something more in political fields, but the social reputation he had towards the end of his life  suggests that he had the same aura of entitlement that lead to the disgraceful events depicted in this movie.

The film does not really depict anything that was not known about the events leading up to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. There was a party, he drove her to meet the ferry, he was flustered on the road and seen driving erratically by a local police officer, then drove down an unpaved road and off the side of a bridge that had no guardrail. Ted Kennedy got out of the car, she did not. Some officials believe she had suffocated rather than drowned. It is possible had they been called earlier, she could have been rescued or maybe she was already dead. There was no autopsy. Ted Kennedy did not report the accident for nine hours, by that time it had already been discovered by others. Kennedy denied drinking or driving under the influence, but ten hours after the accident, BAC tests were not likely to discover much. Before he contacted authorities, Kennedy contacted his group of political advisers, his friends and his family. There was some talk of saying that she was driving, but the Senator did not make that claim to the police.

The visualization of all the events in the film seems to be as objective as possible. This movie is not a hit piece, no suggestion of a sexual encounter is made, and most of the aftermath is public record. Some phone calls and conversations between Kennedy and his Father are dramatized. If there is a sense of the melodramatic it is in those moments, which are of course the most speculative. Everything else demonstrates how political necessity trumped justice in this case. Within a week Kennedy plead guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, and got a two month suspended sentence. One thing the film definitely gets right is that much of the news impact of this event was washed away in the other news story of the day, man first stepping on the moon. The media did address the accident, but it was mostly willing to let the explanations of public officials who had connections to the Kennedy family, go by without much follow up.

Actor Jason Clarke, who coincidentally was born the day before the events depicted in this film, portrays Ted Kennedy and does a solid job. While not a perfect physical match, he seems to have the same sort of expressive face as Kennedy and his accent and vocals match the Senators without being mimicking. The screenplay highlights the self centered attitude and actions taken by the Senator. The suggestion is that he did not like being managed, but that he was not capable of managing himself. The ridiculous neck brace that he wore in public to the funeral of Miss Kopechne is emblematic of how important it was to listen to advisers with better political instincts. Clarke almost makes Kennedy a figure of more than self-pity, even though as is pointed out by his friend, cousin and political retainer, "you are NOT the victim." Kennedy was surrounded by friends who gave him good advice, and they were lawyers including a U.S. Attorney. He ignored their pleas and made things worse. Clarke uses his narrow eyes and gaping mouth to convey Kennedy's befuddlement over his own stupidity.

If there is a moral conscience to the film it is Ed Helms as cousin Joe Gargan. Helms conveys the loyalty of a friend with the pragmatics of the circumstances. Every time he thinks the Senator is getting it right, he will end up being disappointed.  You can see his growing disdain for the choices that are being made and when he ultimately ends up holding the cue cards for the supposedly "from the heart" moment of Kennedy's television address, the visual loss of respect on his face shows that Helms is in fact a good actor, capable of much more than the comedies he is known for. Clancy Brown makes an imposing Robert McNamara, the second portrayal of this figure on screen in the last two months. Bruce Dern is suitably old, and quiet as Joseph Kennedy Sr., who is presented as having little respect for his youngest son.  The politics of personal destruction, which is the current game plan of most politicians these days, may not have started here, but this is where it grew up. Spin management requires an active and immediate response. Too bad for Mary Jo Kopechne that Senator Kennedy did not learn those lessons before he drove off the bridge.  

Saturday, April 7, 2018

A Quiet Place



Here is a film that has no more than a half dozen characters. There are maybe twelve lines of dialogue in the film. For the first third of the movie there really is no score. And the film manages to build suspense, create character and provide enough exposition for us to understand what is going on. That my friends is a well written story. There may be a couple of plot holes or inconsistencies but once the idea has grabbed a hold of you, it does not let go until the end. Maybe you can worry about minor quibbles after you catch your breath and relax your body and grip on the armrest. Director and co-screenwriter John Krasinski has made a modern horror classic. It is limited on gore but rich in suspense and ideas.

The premise of the film is set up very nicely in the introduction of the film. There is a screen shot that mentions a day count, but that is all. Everything else is laid out for us in silence. The children are kids, but one of them is sick. The older sister is enjoying shopping in the venue but is also watching out for her youngest brother. The parents are attentive to not making a sound and when a potential noise disaster is averted, everyone seems to heave a sigh of relief. It is just kids being kids that leads to a disaster and starts us into the darker paths of the story.

Millicent Simmonds is a tween actress who has to carry much of the story. She is a deaf girl playing a deaf girl but that is just appropriate casting, it does not diminish the performance. She has to convey the attitude of a burgeoning teen with facial expressions and shoulder shrugs. She nails it. There is a shadow of guilt that haunts her and during the course of the film, she pulls away from her father a bit because of how she thinks he sees her. Krasinski as the father in the story is as loving as a parent can be, but the self talk that only a teen can create is the focus of this relationship. There are two resolutions in the film, one for the personal relationship and one for the horrifying threat that the family faces. They are tied together by the same device, but Krasinski has written himself a heroic moment that will pull at you like crazy. When Simmonds realizes how she has mistaken her father, despite all the evidence of his love her, it is a great acting moment from the young star of the movie.

Everything in the film depends on the family remaining silent. The plot element that challenges this need the most sets up the climax of the film. This is where Emily Blunt gives one of the greatest horror film performances ever. She is not simply reacting to what happens, she is at the center of these events. The courage of a mother was shown to be a spectacular character arc in "Aliens", well this one could easily sit beside that film. The story adds tension upon misstep, followed by relief and then even greater tension. Half of this is played out on the face of the lead actress. The rest she manages in a physical performance that had to be very challenging. The final image of her in the movie will make you glad you sat thru the previous ninety minutes.

OK, there are a few plot problems concerning electricity and the parents key decisions regarding the family. The focus on their farm makes sens but there seems to be an attempt to contact others in multiple ways, and we don't exactly know what that is supposed to accomplish. Human beings inevitably make noise other than speaking, and while the film meticulously shows us the efforts made by the family to keep quiet, a draft in the Spring could sent this out the window in an instant, and no real answer is ever provided for such inconsistencies. None of that really matters however because the slowly building tension and the moments of suspense keep us enthralled and that's what a horror film should do. That the film also addresses issues of love and redemption make it all the more powerful. You can expect to see this film on my end of the year list. If I were not so afraid of shouting after seeing this, I'd shout at all of you who haven't gone to a theater yet.


Saturday, March 31, 2018

Ready Player One



We got a Spielberg film just last December (although for most it was just a couple of months ago in January), but "The Post" despite clearly being made by Spielberg, doesn't need to be a Spielberg film. "ready Player One" on the other hand, seems to demand the hand of the master on the controller. This is a meta exercise in nostalgia, both for the period of time and for the kinds of films that Spielberg used to make. Lucky for us, it mostly works and the reason is Spielberg himself.

The book that the film is based on is a pastiche of ideas and images and memories from a million minds of gamers. It was primarily a tool for reliving the joy that comes from mastering a new game and solving a puzzle. Since the gaming industry was born and thrived in the 1980s, it also is rich in the music and films of the times. The conceit is simple, this movie is a race between lonely souls who have moved out of the real world and a mega corporation that wants to control the environment that they have all moved to. The competitions are laden with the kinds of pop references this generation of geeks will appreciate.

Ernest Cline's novel is much darker than this popcorn fueled entertainment. A pop culture geek himself (he wrote the movie"Fanboys"), Cline saw the limitations on social interactions that living in virtual reality held. The specter of a new form of debtors prison, hovers over an environment where fantasy role playing has replaced real intimacy. The villain in the book is much less cartoonish than the ultimately feckless Ben Mendelsohn of the film.   The problems faced by the competitors were often mundane and repetitive, as many of the games being saluted were. It takes someone with a lot of patience and time to master some of the ideas that hardly seem worth mastering in the first place. Spielberg with the help of co-screenwriter Zak Penn, has refocused the story to celebrate the pop culture more than the dark under current in the story.

In the first chase in the story, we are introduced to the three main characters as they dash madly through a race that looks like a combination of Mario Kart and Grand Theft Auto. The motorcycle from "Akira" and the DeLoren from "Back to the Future" are driven by the future romantic couple and each has their own way of challenging the game. The chase though is typical Spielberg, it is frenetic but still comprehensible.  As usual, there is always one more piece of dramatic business to stretch out the tension of a scene. The events are so meta that he even lampoons himself with a reference to Jurassic Park as well as a few films he had a hand in as producer.

How could it not be a Spielberg film when the cinematography was done by the artist that Spielberg has worked with 18! times over the last thirty years. Janusz Kaminski is responsible for the look of so many Spielberg films that he might just be his shadow. The one thing that is missing that would put the nail in the coffin is a John Williams score. We get a vigorous but clearly 80s style theme from Alan Silvestri, veteran of "Back to the Future", "Amazing Stories" and a couple of upcoming films in the MCU. Oh, he also scored the "Super Mario Bros. Movie".

The changes lead to a more audience friendly experience. There are more movie references than video game Easter Eggs (although there are plenty of those). A 70s guy like me appreciated the music selection for the nightclub scene and if you like "The Shining" it replaces "War Games" as the main film sequence with a completely different take on the process. Also, there are fewer deaths of heroes in the movie. It is a cinematic stew of epic proportions.

Characterization and subtext are mostly lost with this film interpretation but it makes up for those points by always being visually stimulating. It does not have the resonance of an Indiana Jones or E.T., but it will entertain you for two plus hours and that time goes by quickly. The presence of Simon Pegg and Mark Rylance as secondary figures also adds to the depth of the film, but if deep is what you are looking for, go back and watch "Lincoln". Until the next Indiana Jones film, this is as close to classic Spielberg as you are likely to get, and that is pretty darn close.