Friday, August 18, 2017

Logan Lucky



So Steven Soderbergh has returned from his self imposed retirement to add another heist film to his resume. Having already directed the three "Ocean's" film, why he felt compelled to make another in this genre is not really clear, but we can be thankful that he made that choice, "Logan Lucky" is a cleverly structured film with a lot of humor but it is indeed a straight heist movie and not a parody. It is loaded with surprise complication, twist in the plot and enough offbeat characters for two other movies as well.

Channing Tatum and Adam driver are brothers Jimmy and Clyde Logan. They are a couple of sad sacks that have a reputation in their family for failure. Jimmy was on his way to the NFL when he blew out his knee and Clyde lost a hand in Iraq serving his country. They have some small time juvenile crime behind them, but when Jimmy unjustly gets fired from his job, he begins planning a robbery. Heist films usually develop in one of two ways, either we see all the planning and then watch the execution (usually go wrong) or we get a minimal amount of information on the plan and we see it play out in front of us, (usually with lots of surprises). This film falls into the later category. Most of what we see of Jimmy's plan is a list of stupid things not to do during the crime. Everything else is fresh to the audience.

Because the brothers are forced to use some help that is not exactly hitting on all cylinders,  you might get the idea that they are not to bright and this is going to go in the direction of a Cohen Brothers movie, where we follow the idiots trying to make their plan work. While there is humor and some of it is based on a shortage of IO, the main thrust of the movie is about how well planned the robbery actually is. Of course there are detours and complications, but those are the things that add to the value and entertainment of the film.

Daniel Craig steals most of the scenes he appears in. His bleached hair and motley collection of tattoos place him in a stereotype of hillbilly criminals, but it turns out he understands chemistry pretty well. One of the big laughs in the film comes when he basically conducts a lecture on explosives in the middle of the heist. If you like prison break films, this movie has a plot line that includes some clever misdirection and it gives Dwight Yoakam a chance to shine as an officious Prison warden. There are a half dozen other characters that probably deserve to be mentioned, including the cute as a button Farrah MacKenzie who plays Jimmy's daughter Sadie. Riley Keogh is the bother's little sister and she plays a pretty big role in the heist as well.

We are getting to the end of summer and that usually means that the films coming out are just trying to make some bucks off of the lack of competition. "Logan Lucky" does not have anything to apologize for, it is well put together and entertaining. You will care about the characters and you hope it all goes well, but what fun would there be if everything goes off like clockwork?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Rocketeer

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Review By Richard Kirkham

  [ This essay was originally Published on the deleted site "Fogs Movie Reviews" in the Fall of 2013]

The+RocketeerHollywood in the Golden Age, Nazi Commandos, Gangsters, Young Love, Air Speed Races, Howard Hughes, is there anything that is not found in this Walt Disney Picture from more than twenty years ago? I can't think of anything they could have added to make this movie better. The story is a clever adventure which mixes real world events with science fiction elements and puts it in the backdrop of one of the most romantic times and places in film history. "The Rocketeer" was a modest success and not a break out hit that would justify a sequel. The movie harkens back to the serial adventures of the 1940s but is based on a racy 1982 graphic novel/comic, which has enjoyed greater literary success than it's cinematic cousin. There are some obvious changes made in adapting this to the big screen. The biggest change was altering the character of Jenny Blake. Instead of the somewhat seedy "party girl/stripper" she is in the comic, she becomes a more wholesome ingenue. She is an innocent young actress, trying to break into the movies by playing in the crowd scenes in the movies being manufactured at the Hollywood Dream Factories of the Golden Age.


air racesRace PlaneJenny's boyfriend is Cliff Secord, a barnstorming pilot trying to get his new plane ready for the national air races. Southern California was in a growth spurt when it comes to aviation. By 1939 more than half the planes in the country were made in the state. Aviation was a glamorous venture, which made heroes of Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum has an extensive collection of the "buzz bomb" type planes used by the racers of the time. This was the golden age of aviation and it crosses paths in our story with the golden age of Hollywood. Cliff and his mechanic mentor Peevy discover a rocket pack, hidden in their old bi-plane by gangsters trying to escape from the FBI. The crooks substitute an old vacuum cleaner for the rocket and when their car explodes, destroying Cliff's racing plane, the feds believe the rocket was destroyed as well. So Cliff and Peevy look to the Rocket as a way of making back some money to restore their dreams of racing in the Nationals. It turns out that the gangsters are seeking the rocket pack for a Hollywood star. In 1980, celebrity biographer Charles Higham published a book that claimed that Errol Flynn, the swashbuckling star of "the Adventures of Robin Hood" was a Nazi spy. The book was widely criticized by scholars and reviewers for the slipshod reasoning that Higham used to reach his conclusions. In fact, Flynn's family sued, but since Flynn had died in 1959, the courts tossed the case on the legal premise that the dead can't be libeled. Flash forward ten years and the slander is now being used in a slightly disguised manner. The film Jenny is working on stars Neville Sinclair, a character clearly based on Errol Flynn. The confluence of events and setting creates a truly entertaining story, that anyone who loves movies should appreciate.


RestaurantShapedLikeBulldogThe look of the film is outstanding. The airfield out in the valley is stocked with old bi-wings and hopped up racing planes. The wooden bleachers used at the airshow and the hanger where many early events take place give a genuine feel for the aviation industry of the period. Not too far from the airfield is a diner that caters to the pilots and mechanics. It is modeled after a real food joint here in Los Angeles at the time. The interior is a lot more spacious than the exterior would allow, so a little movie magic has to be forgiven. One of the nice touches in the set is the wall near the telephone where at one point the bad guys discover the phone number for Jenny, the girl they are at that point trying to track down. rocketeer2


south seas capture There are dozens of little touches like this that make the film feel incredibly authentic. In the Hollywood sequences, there is a large set for "The South Seas Club", an upscale nightclub and restaurant, run by Eddie Valentine, the mobster being employed by Sinclair to obtain the rocket. The Front of the club is clearly on a backlot street but the interior looks luxurious and ethereal. The big band singer makes her appearance rising out of a giant clam shell. The tables, booths and dance floors remind us of a hundred art deco sets from 1930s era films. Only here the lighting is colored in dramatic flourishes of green and blue. When Neville leaves Jenny at their table to go and speak to Eddie in his office, you can see a mermaid swimming in a large fish tank behind him. As Cliff sneaks into the club, he hides in the laundry room, labeled with a nice deco font on the sign. Everywhere, there is attention to the kinds of details that might be ignored in a lesser production.
Howard Hughes and the FBI ultimately track down Cliff, and reveal to him the importance of the rocket pack. There is a brilliant one minute propaganda piece done in simple animation that conveys the breadth of the danger that "The Rocketeer" must prevent.



 Suddenly, the story takes on broader implications and you can see why Cliff has to try to save Jenny, because otherwise she could be sacrificed in the interests of a bigger world. The Hughes scenes are some of the best in the film because they feature the actor Terry O'Quinn who has been making everything he appears in better for the last thirty three years. The famous "Spruce Goose" plane that had been part of a wartime project mired in controversy, makes an advance appearance here in model form. There is a fun little escape bit that features the plane and O'Quinn has a line that foretells some of the later controversy. Since I have mentioned one of the supporting players, it would be a little unfair to ignore the other actors that help bring this piece of romantic pulp to life. Alan Arkin was playing old way back in 1991, his character Peevy is the wizened mentor to our hero. His line delivery and general demeanor are solid as always but he adds a twinkle in the eye whenever the aviation mechanics get discussed, making his character a lot more interesting than he would otherwise have been. John Polito, a ubiquitous presence on TV and in movies plays Bigelow, the smarmy manager of the airfield and show that Cliff moonlights for. The sight gag concerning his character's resolution is funny but a bit disturbing. An actor I have always appreciated, despite the fact that he never had a role that allowed him to be front and center is Ed Lauter. He plays FBI agent Fitch with a sneer that he could trademark. When the tommy guns come out on a couple of occasions, you can see the glee in his eye as the tough guy gets to do what he does best.


rocketeer4The three leads of the picture are cast perfectly. The luminous Jennifer Connelly is Jenny Blake, and she sparkles as the damsel in distress. She is a love interest that would clearly make both men stop and take notice. Her character is also a lot more engaged in the plot than simply being the object of rescue. She links the characters together and her soft line delivery keeps the character from becoming shrill like others in similar roles have become. The scenes where she engages in a uncertain seduction sequence with Neville Sinclar after being drugged by him are incredibly sexy without being vulgar. The switch in character might be off putting to fans of the comics, but it made the love angle much more effective in the movie. While we might have enjoyed seeing her as a Bettie Page stand in, her character is more interesting with the change and it helps broaden the appeal of the movie. Billy Campbell was a stalwart hero type, with an eager manner and a handsome face. He brought a certain naivete to the part of Cliff Secord. The pilot is so caught up in the aviation issues that he doesn't always see how important his girl is to him. When he sees the propaganda film, it is like he awakens from a being a frivolous adventurer to becoming a hero. He had of course done heroic things earlier in the movie, but usually without much thought. His decision to escape the FBI and go after the Nazi spy ring himself is based in part on Jenny but also on the seriousness of the threat. When he evaded the gangsters at the South Seas Club, it is almost comic..



the-rocketeer hero When he escapes the clutches of the Nazi's, he grabs a gun, something he had not done before. The shot of him on top of the Griffith Observatory, with the flag waving behind him as he launched toward the airship, is the moment he is branded "HEROIC".
The final piece of the puzzle is the great Timothy Dalton. Denied an opportunity to continue as James Bond, this was his next major project and it is a solid indicator of the quality actor that the Bond franchise lost. Dalton plays Sinclair as hero, villain, clown and threat. He is oily smoothness when he tries to seduce Jenny in an attempt to locate the rocket. He plays the "star" on the movie set, both as a real actor and as a Prima donna. When he banters with Paul Sorvino playing gangster Eddie Valentine, you can detect the disdain this big movie star, secret agent feels for having to consort with hoods. When he responds to Jenny's accusation near the end of the film that "everything about you is a lie", you can hear the ego come out in his retort "It wasn't lies Jenny, it was acting."Neville Sinclair
"The Rocketeer" is rousing piece of nostalgia. It combines Hollywood and aviation at the height of their romantic periods and presents us with a credible love story to boot. The mixture of real characters with fictional representations of real characters and finally fictional characters, works to build a fun and exciting adventure story. Even if you can't get behind the story however, there is amazing production design that will evoke the era in a thousand ways. The director Joe Johnson revisits this territory in the recent Marvel Super Hero flick, Captain America: The First Avenger. Johnson has the right touch for this time period. The nightclub sequences and the stunt show all reflect careful planning. Just as an illustration of the love Johnson seems to have for the period, listen to the big band singer. She performs for a longer period than needed to set the tone and her arrival is special despite the fact that she is merely scenery. Listen to the James Horner score and see how it is used to set the tone so frequently. The dialogue is filled with 30's slang and aviation jargon and the gangsters look like the crooks in the movies, even if real crooks don't look like that. This is a great family film and I can't imagine that anyone out there with kids over the age of eight, wouldn't be thrilled to share this inventive big screen adventure with them. Don't be surprised if they start running around with pots on their heads instead of cape. This movie can inspire that kind of childhood imagination.
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Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Annabelle Creation

A video review of the latest Horror film in "The Conjuring Cinematic Universe".


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Wind River



There are dozens of crime thrillers that reach the marketplace every year. Most of them are forgettable, sometimes there is a prestigious director or novel behind the film, but it takes something unique to pull me into a theater to see those films. The small ones usually slip by and that is sometimes unfortunate because there might be something worthy in them that I just don't know about. I still need to catch up with "Sicario" from two years ago, a film that was written by the writer/director of this movie. I did see "Hell or High Water" the most recent of Taylor Sheridan's screenplays to get made intro a film. It was my favorite film of last year, a position it took over the more I watched it. That film is the first reason I drove the 35 miles down to Hollywood to see "Wind River".
Mosaic Electronic Poster at the Hollywood Arclight


A second reason I was intrigued by the film is that it is set in a location that I have visited frequently over the last few years. Lander, Wyoming is a small town in the middle of the state, it is surrounded by the Wind River Indian Reservation. While I have been to the two tribal casinos in the area, I have no first hand experience with life on a reservation, and the problems that the native American populations have to face. One of my friends who lives in Lander does know something of this because the school program she is a director for has numerous children from the reservations attending. They often come from homes where there are drug problems. My contact is superficial but I do know the terrain a bit, and even though my visits have all been in comfortable weather, I can see how the desolate areas can be foreboding in the chill of a snowstorm or long winter. I have often said to my friends when we visit, that their home in in the middle of nowhere, and you'd have to drive two hours to find a location that you can see somewhere from.

With that background, let's talk about the story briefly and consider some of the themes that it presents. A young woman is running a best she can through the night, in the cold of Wyoming near the end of Winter. Her body is discovered by a Department of Fish and Wildlife  hunter, who works eliminating predators which threaten the agricultural industry from the area. Jeremy Renner is a face people know, he is an accomplished actor and has some star power that he brings to the film. It may be that because he has been in the "Avengers" films, people forget what a fine actor he really is. He was solid in last year's "Arrival", but Amy Adams was the star of that film. In this movie he is extraordinary playing a man who is fairly ordinary, except for the job he does so well. The part also starts us at one of the points this film is making. It is hard to get some things done when you have multiple governmental agencies involved and the jurisdictional questions sometimes seem to outnumber the real problems that people face.  The County Law Enforcement Agency is limited because the woman who died was found on the Indian territory. This makes it a Tribal Police matter, but there are Federal Crimes that might be involved as well and those help bring in FBI Agent Jane Banner, played by Elizabeth Olsen. Olsen is also a veteran of the MCU, and she is relatively young which cuts two ways. Her youth suggests limited experience, a complaint about the Federal help the Tribal police get. Her young age also strains credulity somewhat, since it seems she might not come across as the kind of person to be a special agent in charge. If I have a criticism of the film, it is the way in which her character has been written. She is out of her depth and makes significant mistakes, which basically repeat twice in the course of the investigation. It is also her attitude about the circumstances that provides heart to the story. She reacts to events they way many of us outsiders might; with confusion, pity and a sense of frustration.

The procedural elements of the story are not complex and the effort to track down the perpetrators does benefit from Renner's character's expertise at tracking in the desolate countryside. The mismatched and slightly awkward partnership is found in a thousand of these crime based films. This however is not really a "buddy cop" movie. The point of the story concerns the lack of control that any of the characters face in an official capacity contrasted to the degree of control they have in their professional expertise. Jane banner is limited by Federal guidelines, Graham Green who plays the Tribal Police Chief is constrained by the jurisdiction of the Reservation, even the medical examiner is limited in how a death report can be summarized. The environment has clearly created the situation where a death such as the victim faced, might not ever get an answer. The frigid open spaces and narrow bureaucratic red tape ultimately is going to be conquered by Renner, the one person who is not a law enforcement agent. Cory Lambert, Renner's character, does have his own motivations for helping out, and those parts of his back story are a couple of the spots where his acting skills get a chance to shine.

If you want tension and action, let me tell you there are two excellent sequences that have plenty of the violence and brutality that you seek. There is also a scene that explains what happened which is cleverly inserted as a non-sequential insert at just the right spot, be forewarned though, it is unpleasant to witness. Olsen's character may have some flaws as written, but the emotions she reflects are just right. Her ability to empathize with the victims and her recognition that sometimes she is culturally in over her head, are both believable because of her performance. Two Native American actors that have become very familiar over the years also bring some heart and reality to the film. Graham Greene has played police officers before, but his Tribal Officer in this film is low key and world weary, but still has a sense of duty and humor. Gil Birmingham, who starred with Greene in some of the "Twilight" movies plays the distraught father of the woman who died. His role is not as significant as his co-starring turn in "Hell or High Water", but he has some very solid moments that also tell us about the frustrations of the culture these characters inhabit.

The other star of the film is the great outdoors. The spectacular vistas are wonderful to see but we also know how deadly the places can be. There is loneliness everywhere and the ennui that surrounds the inhabitants of the sparsely populated areas here can be overwhelming. Town is one thing, but most of these people are not in a town, they are trapped in spaces that are too small for the vastness of the wilderness around them. Whether this conditions drive you to violence, drug addiction or hopelessness, there is a very clear double edged sword that the environment presents. This film is getting a fairly small release, but if word of mouth is good, it is likely to be expanded and maybe the film will get an opportunity to grow. I hope you make an effort to see this picture and that you encourage others to do so as well. This is the sort of film making which needs a little TLC. 




Monday, August 7, 2017

The 1987 Draft Slate

video
The Lambcast Draft of 1987 is underway and you may have already voted for the fine slate of films I managed to nab during the podcast. If you were uncertain in any way as to the quality of my selections, I thought I'd provide a brief rundown and justification for each of the five films. You can then go the The Lamb and vote your conscience. The video above will also give you a 42 second justification for my choices.

Robocop

In truth this needs no justification, everyone knows how amazing this Paul Verhofen film is. It is simultaneously  an action film, science fiction story and political satire. There are moments of extreme violence and there are sections where you may find yourself laughing at things you would never have imagined being funny. The special effects are a combination of stop motion, make-up and animation that are solid for 1987 and were not improved on by the remake a couple of years ago. The film is held together by two outstanding performances. Peter Weller is Alex Murphy, the police officer who becomes Robocop. His story line is surprisingly poignant and it is accomplished while wearing a heavy costume and uncomfortable make-up. Kurtwood Smith is the over the top villain of the piece, Clarence Boddicker, a drug dealing murderous thug with a flare for self importance that we wait a long time to see taken down.  Other performers are great as well, and I recently attended a Tribute Screening in honor of Miguel Ferrer who has a key role in the film.  


The Untouchables

For a ten to fifteen year stretch,  Brian DePalma was my favorite director. His films were hypnotic to watch but they often dealt with psych sexual concepts that kept them from being mainstream hits. The Untouchables  broke that barrier for him with a straight forward gangster story that had a group of law enforcement officers as the heroes rather than a Cuban gangster (i.e. Scarface). The good guys were played by newly anointed star of the moment Kevin Costner, longtime character actor Charles Martin Smith, newcomer Andy Garcia and the winner of this years best supporting actor award, Sean Connery. The part of Al Capone was originally going to be played by Bob Hoskins, but when Robert DeNiro became available, Hoskins was paid off and another bigger than life star was added to the film. Hard as it is to believe, DeNiro was upstaged as the bad guy by the skeletal Billy Drago, who is memorably escorted to the car by Elliot Ness. The facts may not have been straight but the story was pretty terrific with several amazing set pieces that stand up to scrutiny today. 


The Living Daylights

While my competitors on the podcast seem to mock my choice of a Timothy Dalton Bond film, all the real 007 fans out there know that Dalton was the real deal. He did not get much of a shot at playing the world's greatest gentleman spy. This was his first shot and the film was never tailored to his strengths. You can detect a little of the flavor left over from the Moore era Bonds, but the story did make the circumstances more real. Dalton looked the literary part more than any other  cinema persona, even the true Bond Connery. This entry in the franchise features an excellent fight sequence and Bond is not even in it. The double crosses in this movie are more believable than those in a dozen other spy films, and the stunts continued to be the high spot in the 007 outings of the 1980s. Two years ago, as we were anticipating the most recent Bond picture, I did a series on my 007 favorite things about each film, "The Living Daylights" entry is here for your perusal. This was also the final Bond film for the long tenured composer John Barry. 



The Hidden

This may be an obscure one for some of you. It was a low budget action film with stars who were not big names but were reasonably well known. The concept is the thing that sells this movie. In reality it is a science fiction chase film. Aliens have arrived on Earth, one is chasing the other. Now before you start having visions of Dolph Lungren in your head, the Aliens can take over a human body and use it to move around. The evil alien does this several times in the film, killing a series of otherwise law abiding people but turning their remains into blood-thirsty killers and thieves. There are some nice practical effects that show the parasite moving from one body to another. The L.A. Cop and the FBI Agent who are trying to track the perpetrator down are played by Michael Nouri from "Flashdance" and future otherworldly FBI Agent Kyle MacLachlan. This film features Agent Cooper before Twin Peaks, and we get an explanation as to why he is so odd. It is full of chases set in the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s. By the way, all the construction you see on the streets then, is still going on. There is one scene set outside a strip club that is located next to Miceli"s Restaurant in Hollywood. It is across from a newsstand that I frequented before the internet, it is long gone now. The parking lot where the alien screws a guy to death is still there however, and the car they occupy is in a spot that I still park in when I go to the Egyptian Theater. This is 96 minutes of shooting, car chases, improbable plot developments and well known character actors getting a chance to strut a little bit. This film has the most bang for your buck in 1987. 



Ishtar

Most people who ridicule this movie have not seen it. "Ishtar" was an attempt to recreate the film style of the Hope/Crosby "Road" pictures of the forties. Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty are cast against type, with Beatty as the flummoxed, tongue tied romantic and Hoffman as a self assured ladies man. Neither of the characters has it right but the two stars do all they can to sell it. Jack Weston is a New York talent agent who manages to get them a booking, and he is tired from the first to the last of his scenes. It is however Charles Grodin who steals the picture as a CIA man, trying to use the two musicians in a plot to control the government of a non-existent Middle Eastern Country.   The two lead encounter spies, terrorists, a mysterious woman and a blind camel. Writer/Director Elaine May had her directing career stymied by the results of this film, but she continued to be an important comedy presence of the big screen and is responsible for some great film scripts in the 90s. Legendary songwriter Paul Williams worked out a number of "bad" songs for the duo to performs, most of which have just a couple of lines used. However, if you can appreciate the theme "Dangerous Business" you will know what kinds of laughs we missed when the planned album of Rogers and Clarke was cancelled.



I own this two poster set, it is a great image that highlights a funny part of the movie.
I know it is a bit of a risk, but if any of you watches "Ishtar" as a result of my choosing it for the draft, even if I don't win, I will feel some vindication.

Friday, August 4, 2017

1987 Movie Draft; Lambcast



This is the one you have all been waiting for, the 1987 Movie Draft on the Lambcast Podcast.

Four other Lambs and I compete to create the best slate of five movies from 1987. The show is a blast, as there is trash talk, reminiscences and general enthusiasm for this 30 year old time frame. You can listen to the show on the link below but more importantly, you can vote for a slate of films on the second link below that. Of course as a follower/reader of my site, I expect you to support my team. The only caveat is that I did include an outlier choice in "Ishtar". Next week I will put up a mini-review page with comments for each of my selections. If you need to wait for that before you vote, I understand. Those of you who trust and love me however, should go vote now. My films are highlighted in the picture above. You cant go wrong with Robocop, Sean Connery and James Bond. "The Hidden" is a not so widely seen Science Fiction/Action film featuring Kyle MacLachlan. "Ishtar" is popularly thought of as a bomb, but it contains a lot of big laughs and an amusing attitude throughout.




Voting can be done here:


LAMBCAST #385 1987 DRAFT: It’s time for another year draft! To celebrated Jay’s upcoming 30th birthday we’re taking the opportunity to look at films from his birth year, 1987! Jay competed against Dylan, T…
 http://www.largeassmovieblogs.com/2017/08/lambcast-385-1987-draft.html



Thursday, August 3, 2017

Lambcast Acting School 101: Sean Connery

MovieRob, the host of Acting School 101 on the Lambcast, invited me to join him for a discussion of the films of Sean Connery. Anyone who has been here before certainly knows that I think Connery IS James Bond so I was thrilled to participate. We countdown our own top five performances by Mr. Connery and have a good time talking about toupees and other acting tools.







In preparation for the podcast, I went through my laserdisc collection and put up a wall of Connery features. Four of my five picks can be found here. Try to guess what they are before you listen to the podcast. Have fun everyone.


Saturday, July 29, 2017

Atomic Blonde



Set in 1989 as the Berlin Wall is about to come down, "Atomic Blonde" is a Cold War Spy thriller with a kick. The twist is that instead of James Bond we have Jane Bond, so all those people who have made that casting suggestion to EON Productions can now all cool their jets. Director David Leitch comes off of a long career as a stunt coordinator and he previously was an uncredited director of "John Wick". He clearly has an eye for action scenes and stages some brutal fights for star Charlize Theron to kick ass through. From a shoot em up perspective, this is a fairly successful film. However, as a spy thriller with delusions of franchisehood,  it leaves a bit to be desired.

Let me give you a little background on the literary character of James Bond as a prelude to discussing Lorraine Broughton, the English spy played by Theron. After Ian Fleming died, the literary 007 lay fallow for a few years. there were attempts to revive the series in the late sixties and seventies, but they never paid off. Sometime during the 80s, the publishers got their crap together and found a new author to pen Bond novels for several years. John Gardner had success in this field on his own, but the Bond Franchise would certainly be a jewel in his crown if it succeeded. Gardner wrote a more than a dozen Bond adventures, but he had too obvious a formula after a while. Inevitably there would be a double cross by one of the characters and occasionally there would be a triple cross. That is what is happening in this film. Double and triple crosses, however without the clarity of a narrative context. In other words, these things just happen out of the blue without much set up and certainly no trail that would allow an audience to participate in the process. Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman made it work in "No Way Out" because there was a ticking clock, and mixed motives that distracted us. "Atomic Blonde" doesn't bother to clarify anything. The end of the movie is a head scratcher and I was able to make sense of the first "Mission Impossible" film.

James McAvoy is the suspected double and at the end of the story, you need to be able to clarify why he has acted in the manner that he did. It's almost impossible to explain because it makes no sense. We know he fits a particular type but we are not clear on his motives or why any of this had to go down the way it did. The film is structured like a police procedural, where the suspect is telling a story that we get to see, but it it interrupted by side tracks and events that the subject would not have been aware of. "The Usual Suspects" made an effort to tie things together with bits of information in the background of the interrogation, this film does no such thing. So watch this for the action and style and forget about trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

Theron is ice cold as a blonde killing machine, and she plays the part of a spy being debriefed with the right amount of frustration with her superiors. Toby Jones is the MI-6 section supervisor who cross examines her and they have a couple of nice testy moments. John Goodman is a CIA advisor that she is reluctant to speak in front of, but we don't know why until the end of the film. It also makes no sense but at least it counteracts the bad taste that another twist was going to leave in our mouths. Sophia Botella was in "The Mummy" earlier this summer and in "Star Trek Beyond" last summer. She gives a solid performance as a French operative in over her head, and interestingly as a romantic interest for Theron, even though her part is mostly meaningless. Between Theron and Botella, fishnet clothing may end up in short supply in the European markets.

The look of the film is good and the style choices for the lead are interesting. I appreciated that when a character had been in a fight, that there were signs that a fight had taken place. The degree of punishment for the fight participants, whether winner or loser, is never quite believable because it is so over the top, but I suppose that is what makes it a fantasy spy film rather than a leCarre' story. It is a cool film, but not as cool as you want it to be given the trailers. Once again, all the best stuff is in the ads and there is not enough saved for the film.

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Ghost Story (2017)




If you watch the trailer for this film, you will not be expecting a horror movie. The tone of the preview clearly outlines that this is a meditative film about the afterlife and not a Halloween fright flick. The impression the ad leaves you with is that this movie is going to contemplate the emotions of grief and loneliness. It turns out however, to have bigger things on it's mind, although what those things are is not entirely clear to me. The tagline on the poster says "It's all about time." So if you are in the mood for a slow moving, abstract story about the metaphysics of death, her it is.

The above introduction might give the impression that I did not like the film. On the contrary, there are a number of things that the film does that are intriguing and thoughtful. Writer/Director David Lowery clearly has things on his mind, but he is taking his time getting them into ours. I thought the film he made last year, the re-imagining of "Pete's Dragon", was wonderful. There are quiet moments of beauty that get lingered over and many shots are clearly carefully composed. The reservation I have is that the point of it all is more opaque as the film goes along. The mediation of grief is one of the shortest elements of the film. The widow is shown in despair and coping in very mundane ways. Her story though disappears halfway through the film. At one point the "Ghost" in the story essentially commits suicide. Yeah, I know that does not make much sense but none of this is supposed to be taken literally, my hesitation is that It's not very focused on how we should try to digest it. The turn involves a switch in time, from the future to a past maybe a century earlier. When the past starts to replay itself, I guess we are to see existence as an infinity mirror. The closest we get to any explanation of why is the pontification of a beer guzzling philosopher at a house party that the "Ghost" lingers through.

The deliberate pacing worked for some scenes but in others I found it very off putting. Two examples can help illustrate. First, when the couple featured in the story first hear a sound in the middle of the night, after they check for it's source and return to bed, they cling to each other very intimately. It's not a sex scene or any kind of exposition, it is just a few moments of silent hugging, kissing and nuzzling, much as any couple might engage in when both are awake and want the other to know that they care.  It goes on for a few minutes but it leads to nowhere. As a character moment I think it tells us something about their relationship that we might not have know. The second extended scene involves the widow, sitting on the kitchen floor, alone, eating a pie. We see every bite and the mucus dripping from her nose as she is grieving, but it is all too much and too long. Lowey is making a film where the camera rarely moves. The shots are static because that's the way he wants us to perceive time. Unfortunately it also tries our patience when it happens repeatedly.

This year's Academy Award winning actor, is the star of the film, but he appears in maybe five to ten minutes of the film. Casey Affleck is fine in those scenes, but there is nothing to suggest that the spirit, embodied by a hospital bed sheet, is in any way the actor we know. The performance that dominates the movie is a pantomime by an image of a child's version of a ghost. This is the accomplishment of the director and not the actor. I doubt that Affleck stayed on set to sit under a sheet and not move for long stretches of time. Jack Nicholson famously told Michael Keaton when they made "Batman" to let the costume do the acting. That is exactly what happens here. Rooney Mara fares a little better but her part is also almost without dialogue. The way in which she is displayed sitting on the bed or the floor, or looking out a window, is all a directors choice and it largely works. The two leads have faces that are not used very vividly in the movie, and the rest of them is minimal as well.

I suspect that this experimental type film will be attractive to fans of existentialism. I prefer narrative and character, but I was intrigued by the ideas in the film, at least up to the point where the issue of the infinite became the focus. This is going to be one of those films that when written about, says more about the reviewer than anything else. I hope this commentary does not make me appear to be too shallow, but I do want to appear to be honest. I sort of liked it, but I was also irritated at times. Frankly, you will have to make up your own mind.

Lambcast Dunkirk




Four Lambcasters discuss their love of Dunkirk.


Monday, July 24, 2017

The Beguiled (2017)



What looks like is going to be a Gothic horror set in the Civil War period, turns out to be a psycho-sexual drama with a slightly demented finish. I was not fooled by the trailer or other marketing, because I'd seen the original version of the story from 1971. There are a few changes in the film which were supposed to alter the perspective from the soldiers point of view to that of the women in the story. I guess that would be the justification for remaking a film that was not particularly compelling the first time out. Let's just say for the moment that they may have altered the perspective some but they have not overcome the issue of the film lacking a need to exist in the first place.

Sophia Coppola is a director that many admire but I have found most of the films by her, that I have seen, to be cold and disengaging. They are beautifully shot and "The Beguiled" is certainly beautiful. Set in Virginia during the last year of the War between the States, the story concerns a wounded Union soldier taken in by a girls academy. The school is run by matron southerner Nicole Kidman. She is assisted by a younger woman played by Kirsten Dunst and they are in charge of five young women and girls who are being educated in a traditional form for young ladies. As they learn French and penmanship and sewing skills, their life is disrupted by the war around them. The introduction of Corporal McBurney (a solid Colin Farrell) into their island  of antebellum etiquette throws things into a tizzy. Since it is a Sophia Coppola film however, it is done at a languishing pace with each frame posed as if it were a still life being painted for the wall of another plantation.

The pacing of the story is so agonizingly slow, but still interesting, because of the mores and cultural rules the people of that time operate in. Even when he is being chastised by Kidman,  the dialogue between the two consists of polite and well thought out vocabulary. The inflections and tones contain the reprimands more than any word does. McBurney slowly courts the Dunst character and again it is done in a manner reflecting the times. In the original film, Clint Eastwood is much more clearly manipulative and he is wooing multiple women simultaneously. Farrell's version of the character seems sincere in his approach to Edwina, but Kidman's Miss Martha is also drawn to him and Elle fanning as the recalcitrant Alicia is the most brazen of the girls who have sexualized the Corporal in their heads. The little girls are fascinated by him as well but it is his Irish Charm and status as a Union soldier that holds their interest. As the story gets closer to the dramatic elements, it feels like it wakes up in a burst of energy and tries to accomplish everything the movie set up in the first ninety minutes in a two minute segment. There is a betrayal on a couple of levels, but those come rapidly and are followed by a resolution that seems to have been arrived at capriciously. The film feels like it is missing the second act.

Farrell and Dunst are the two standout performances. They are tentative and then passionate and frustrated and anguished in very effective moments. Kidman seems a little miscast. She is older but certainly desirable rather than repressed and desperate. Her delicate bathing of Farrell when he first arrives was the strongest part of her performance but in the manner she shows herself during the rest of the film, she feels a little stiff. The biggest unpleasant surprise from the actors comes from Elle fanning, an actress that i thought was special in  Super 8, but here she looks like she is play acting and although she is an aggressive flirt, she does not give off the impression of lustfulness that would justify the Corporal's behavior.

The only way I see this film as being a more feminist version of the original is that only one of the women completely falls under the sexual power of the man, and he is the one who is manipulated by two of the other women. That's about it. This is a good film but not a great one. It retells the original story but without much justification for doing so. It also makes the languid pace of the original seem frenetic by comparison.  The only music in the film occurs on screen when the girls are singing or performing, with the exception of an occasional synthesizer note held for a long period as a prelude to a couple of moments near the end. That may be another reason the fil feels longer than it should, without a melody it feels plodding. This is a film for Coppola Completists  or someone who has missed the original and has already seen everything else playing. I am largely indifferent on it.  


Sunday, July 23, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets



Sometimes, in the heat of the summer, on a sweltering day when relief from the sun would be welcome in any form, you get a chance to have a Popsicle. It is cool and sweet and has no nutritional value except that it is full of sugar and it will energize you. That's exactly what I wanted "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" to be. Disposable summer fun that I could savor for a couple of hours before getting back to chores, work or other family obligations. Well, it did not quite work out that way. Sometimes that "Big Stick" Popsicle is more slimy than you anticipated, or the "Bomb Pop" has watermelon flavor instead of cherry in the red, white and blue version you eyed in the back of the freezer compartment. It's still cool and sweet but instead of satisfying, it disappoints.

"Valerian" is a technical marvel to look at. There are creative and inventive ideas in every frame and the movie is a wonder to behold.  The best things about this movie can all be seen in the visuals shared in the trailers. The graphic novel that the film is based on may have originated some of these concepts, I don't know because I am completely unfamiliar with it. The director Luc Besson, is the guy who brings it to life here and you can tell his vision is a big part of the film because so much of it feels familiar from the Besson film "The Fifth Element". The backgrounds are overstuffed with details, the aliens are grotesque and oddly beautiful at the same time. Images are mixed and layered on one another in deep and interesting ways. When people write about "world building" in films, this is a place they can go to for an architectural  lesson. The problem is that it is all form over substance. We have no idea why things work they way they do or how any of it might matter. If you thought Chris Tucker was the best thing in the "Fifth Element", than maybe this film will make sense to you. I still am unsure why a three headed character with distinct bodies, knows anything about what is going on, but if a clue or exposition moment is needed, these duck-like refugees from Jar Jar Binks gene pool will show up and provide it, arbitrarily.

That's the thing I find so frustrating about this movie. It is arbitrary in the story telling and character development. Valerian and Laureline are partners, but are they romantically involved? They may be, but it could just be that this is coming up for the very first time. We get no context and Laureline seems irritated at the mere suggestion that it could be the case, and then proceeds to act as if they have a deep romantic relationship anyway. The characters bond with tactical partners momentarily, but when those creatures or people die, there is often not even a shrug of the shoulders to indicate that there was any connection at all. The only one that does get a half moments consideration is the character of Bubble, played by Rihanna. After a completely unnecessary showcase for the talents of Rihanna and the visual effects team, that character is disposed of as soon as the plot deems it unnecessary. Imagine if after dropping off Luke and Obi-Wan, Han Solo exited the story never to be heard of again. That's the kind of thing that keeps happening here.

The young leads are not up to carrying the film, in spite of their looks and credits. Maybe the director is to blame, but if Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich and Gary Oldman had not held together the weirdness of the now cult classic Fifth Element, the movie would just lie there. That is what happens here, the movie is in front of us, and there is action going on, but no one cares because the characters are not really interesting or fun. Valerian seems to be a James Bond type without the self awareness to be depreciating. Dane DeHaan never seems to know that he should be self mocking and play it lighter than air. If he had the charm of Han Solo he could carry off the swagger, the problem is he does not. Cara Delevigne as Sargent Laureline is pretty and physically tough, but her only facial expression seems to be a scowl. Clive Owen appears but does not bother to act in the picture. For a European film directed by a Frenchman, the movie lacks any Joie de vivre. It runs through its paces and introduces characters but rarely seems to have any fun with them.

If the film had matched the first ten or fifteen minutes during it's entire running time, it would have been great. The problem is that the film goes on for another two hours without the same kind of character development or empathy. Once the David Bowie song is finished and the planet Mul is gone, the rest of the film feels like a clockwork orange, designed to be clever but accomplishing nothing but dreariness. If you turn off the sound and play some Pink Floyd or Vivaldi for the rest of the movie, i think you will find it a lot more tasty. As it is, after a couple of bites you will realize that this is not the ice cream treat you wanted and buyers remorse will settle in. When is Guardians Vol. 2 available for home video?

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Dunkirk




 A few months ago, I saw a film that was set in the aftermath of the events of Dunkirk. "Their Finest" was a personal drama set during the London Blitz. Up to this point it has been my favorite film of the year. It has now been supplanted by a film that features the events that are referred to in the first movie. I have been anticipating Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk' for several months, ever since the first teaser trailer showed up on the local cinema screens. I have seen eight of his films and much like the first ten years of Pixar, I was never disappointed. There is however that first time when your expectations will exceed the results. We will have to hold on for another film for that to happen. "Dunkirk" is a dramatic success without strong characters, a tension filled story for an historical event that people know the outcome for already, and a technical achievement that relies on the directors eye more than every special effect in the book.

Let's look at those accomplishments in that order. Fionn Whitehead is starring in his first film, and he manages to give a credible performance without a large amount of dialogue and with no back story. His character is one of nearly 400,000 men trapped against the sea by the enemy forces after a military failure in the early part of World War II. Beyond running and searching for a place to relieve himself, the only way we know anything about his character are his actions. He is empathetic, but also fearful. He manages to get to the front of a line of soldiers waiting to embark on a hospital ship by using his cleverness and his empathy. He wordlessly connects with another soldier as they collaborate ways to escape from the beach. A third soldier enters the picture as they escape from a sinking ship, he is played by Harry Styles, another character that we can only judge from his behavior in interacting with the other two. This is so not a traditional war story designed around characters that we will care about and feel an emotional bond to. These three main characters from the troops trapped on the beach are ciphers standing in for all the other men trapped there as well. No one talks about their girlfriend at home, or reminisces about their dog, or tells a story of their battlefield experience. They unambiguously try to survive and escape. That pretty much sums up everything which focuses on them. The same is true of Tom Hardy's character, Farrier, a Spitfire pilot who joins the battle and has maybe a dozen lines in the story but is on screen maybe more than anyone else. It is another opportunity for him to act while hiding behind a mask. In this film he gets to do more than hook his thumbs in his suspenders but we only see his face at the very end. We know his emotions only through the choices he makes as a pilot in combat. He is heroic, thoughtful and practical. All of that has to be conveyed with few props and no other actor on screen to play off of. The closest we come to characters that we might identify with and care about are the three men heading to "Dunkirk" as part of a flotilla of rescue boats. Mark Rylance is the captain, accompanied by his son and a seventeen year old boy who sometimes serves as a mate on their pleasure boat. Mr. Dawson knows what it is they will be facing. When the three pick up a stranded soldier on a ship that has sunk, there is more dialogue than anywhere else in the film. Because of the interaction and the small amount of background we get, it ends up that the most emotional investment we have in any characters are those in the civilians rather than the troops.  That's about as close to a negative thing I have to say about the film characters.

Nolan made a decision to tell three basic lines of story in the film. Each is highlighted early in the film with a title card indicating where and when the events we are watching took place in the context of the experience. What he has managed to do is build stories that have completely different timelines into a single whole where everything synchronizes in the third act. The vessel at sea is a story that takes a full day. The aircraft battles occur in a two hour window. The story of the land bound soldiers occurs over several days. Each story line has small little conflicts and extended moments of tension, but as the climax gets closer, we see those stories intersecting and the brilliant score by Hans Zimmer begins to speed up its pace, For most of the movie it si background music that feels like minutes ticking against a clock. The more time passes, the more tense it becomes. At the climax, the score is more traditional with some of the same themes but accelerated into ticking seconds rather than minutes. The story of the soldiers involves several near misses, both in the sense of death and in being rescued. Those moments play out very much in bursts of energy followed by moments of calm. Most of the time on the small boat is more lethargic and there are brief moments of energy that pass rather quickly. Almost every moment in the plane's cockpit involves aerial combat. Each segment there is brief but filled with action. Nolan mixes these moments expertly to keep the flow of the story going. The characters in each of these scenarios get different resolutions as well. Each outcome feels authentic given the circumstances.

I'm not a film maker or much of a photographer, but I can notice when something is being done effectively in showing us a story. The aviation combat scenes are primarily shot fro a perspective immediately next to the fuselage over the wings of the plane. The only time we see a pilots eye view is when there is targeting and the enemy is being shot at. All of the scenes of the pilots are in close up inside of the cockpit. The vastness of the beaches and the number of British and allied forces hoping for rescue are emphasized with wide shots that put the figures in perspective. The beaches are not crowed but rather they are dotted with need lines of men queuing up for rides that never seem to arrive. The scenes set on the ocean show the ships traveling across the channel, but they are not bunched together until the end. The "Moonstone", the yacht that Rypance captains, is small in contrast to the military vessels that are sometimes sinking in her wake. All of the ships are made more insignificant by the smoke  climbing into the sky on the horizon. The deadly action that starts off the film is directed at a frantic pace, with the same high levels of dread that marked "Saving Private Ryan", but without the conspicuous violence.  The deadliest moments involve the participants struggles inside of the various craft they board, Fire and drowning are the most pronounced threats in this view to the events. Nolan reminds us that the danger is not simply a bullet or a bomb, although there are plenty of those, but panic and hubris can take a soldier as well.

It is not spin to turn this military failure into a false victory.  The expedition onto the continent had failed, miserably. There was however a victory in the retreat that took place. Tacitus said it best, "He that fights and runs away, may turn and fight another day: but he who is in battle slain, Will never rise to fight again." These words are not the excuse of a coward but the logic of a realist. The British people were able to see that this successful retreat would enable them to continue to fight. Nolan's story shows the shame on the faces of the soldiers returning home as well as their relief. It is the enthusiastic embrace by the public that makes the event a victory in the long run. "Their Finest" showed how that might be turned into a morale booster in the darkest hour of the war. "Dunkirk" shows us the sacrifice and courage it took to stand this bitter turn of events and grow from it. Later this year we will get a film featuring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. The film ends with a piece of Churchill Rhetoric, designed to rally the citizens of Great Britain, but also to plead with America. The events depicted in the film give credence to his words.

He that fights and runs away, May turn and fight another day; But he that is in battle slain, Will never rise to fight again. Tacitus
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/t/tacitus118925.html

 "Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old."

This is a story that needs to be understood by new generations. Nolan gives the events a context that most of us need and does so with a degree of technical excellence that is superlative.  If it is not emotionally wrenching in every segment, it still has a heart that we can all admire.

Jaws Video Review

My daughter is a "Jaws" fanatic, and she did a series of shark movie reviews leading up the "Shark Week".

Here is here video review of her favorite movie, because after all, I don't have enough "Jaws" content on my site.


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Man Who Would Be King [ Movies I Want Everyone to See]

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Review by Richard Kirkham

 [ This essay was originally Published on the deleted site "Fogs Movie Reviews" in the Fall of 2013]

All you film fans out there who were born after 1970 are about to eat your hearts out. You may know that the 70s were the second golden age of Hollywood, after all that's when "Star Wars", "The Godfather", and "Alien" all started. You may even be aware that the greatest adventure film ever made, "Jaws", was released in the Summer of 1975. It would be a solid argument to make that 1975 was the apex of Hollywood film making in that decade. Here is a partial list of the movies released that year: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, Barry Lyndon, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Rollerball, Three Days of the Condor, Shampoo, Nashville, Seven Beauties, Cousin cousine,The Passenger as well as the aforementioned fish story. " That is a list of essential films for anyone who loves movies to partake of. Buried in the avalanche of great films from that year, is the one film that stars Michael Caine and Sean Connery together as the leading men (each had a small part in "A Bridge Too Far") and as a bonus it was directed by John Huston.


"The Man Who Would be King" was a dream project for John Huston. He had tried to put together a version of the movie as far back as the 1950. His original choices for leads were Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. That was the royalty of the earlier film generation. When he finally did get to put the story in front of the cameras it was to feature the royalty of the next generation of movie stars. While other names had been mentioned, someone (likely Paul Newman who turned down the film) suggested that Huston stick to using British actors. That was the best advise Huston could get because this movie is a quintessentially British story focused on a time period when the English Empire was at it's height and the ambitions of men who were it's subjects knew no bounds. It is this condition that allows our lead characters to work so well in the tale.man_who_would_be_king_blu-ray_3_
Peachy Carnahan and Daniel Dravot are recently retired British non commissioned soldiers who decide the world at home is not big enough for the likes of them. They have developed a strategy to make themselves Kings. In particular, rulers of Kafiristan, a remote region of Afghanistan

Daniel Dravot:" In any place where they fight, a man who knows how to drill men can always be a King. We shall go to those parts and say to any King we find - "D'you want to vanquish your foes?' and we will show him how to drill men; for that we know better than anything else. Then we will subvert that King and seize his Throne and establish a Dynasty."

Before they begin this quest, they make the acquaintance of an English journalist working in India as well. This journalist turns out to be Rudyard Kipling, who wrote the story on which the film is based. These encounters with Kipling becomes the bookends for the film and give the story an even greater sense of adventure and  mystery. While the story itself is fantastic, the characters are ground in reality and the presence of Kipling as future narrator of the tale is all the more needed to set the mood. If you have not seen this film, be assured that when you get to the end you will empathize with the Kipling character and stare in wonder at the proof of it all. The tie in to the story concerns the masonic brotherhood that the English characters share in common. There are some great curves that follow from this early revelation. Christopher Plummer is unrecognizable in the role and he strikes just the right tone of concerned bemusement in the first act and utter astonishment in the conclusion.man_who_would_be_king_blu-ray_2_
After assisting the two adventurers, Kipling fades from the story and the focus is on the travel to Kafiristan. There are several exciting incidents on the road but eventually the spine of the story begins when they arrive and connect with the remnants of an earlier English expedition. The lone survivor is a gurkha soldier named Billy Fish. He becomes their interpreter and confidant. His part in the story reminds us that the relationship of the British to their Empire was not always hostile. These fierce hill people fought valiantly alongside their English counterparts in many battles over the last two hundred years. While the relationship is not one of equality, the two adventurers are not condescending to their third partner, in fact they trust him implicitly.

The second act of the film focuses on the battles and strategy that the two employ to gain the power that brought them to the remote land to begin with. There are several small incidents that test their friendship and commitment. There is a great deal of humor involved in the training sequences and in some of the moments of conquest. That humor may be viewed as politically incorrect at times, but it is not so much based on racism as ethnocentricity. The world is still a brutal place, and while those of us living in Western cultures might view some of the behaviors as relics of the past, it may not be as true as we wish. Of course the intercultural conflicts go both directions since the English soldiers are viewed just as differently by the tribesmen they encounter as we might treat a alien from another world.
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All of this is offered up though through the performances of two of the greatest screen personae of the last fifty years of film. Connery and Caine are both Award winning performers from the generation of actors that came out of England in the sixties. Along with Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole and Richard Harris, they represent that moment in time when the culture of Great Britain was the Beatles and James Bond. Here they are in an adventure story that harkens to the glory days of the Empire and much as the Western is a romanticism of American history, a film like this served the same purpose for the English. Connery plays Daniel Dravot as the more blustery of the two itinerant soldiers. He uses his commanding voice and fierce expression to cow his enemies and establish a position of power with others. He can however take on a warm quality as he does with Kipling at one point and his subjects later on in the film. The dividing point for the two characters comes when Danny becomes infatuated with a local beauty that he sees as cementing the legacy of Alexander he has come to see himself playing.  The beautiful Mrs. Caine was cast in the part at the last minute as soon as John Huston met her.
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Peachy Carnehan has the more subdued character. Caine is more sly and cautious, except for the scene on the train in the opening of the film. Peachy does get his dander up but almost always it is in response to his partner and not the other characters. It is Michael Caine's  delivery of the opening framing story that gives the tale it's magical quality.

Rudyard Kipling:"Carnehan!."
Peachy Carnehan: "The same - and not the same, who sat besides you in the first class carriage, on the train to Marwar Junction, three summers and a thousand years ago."

It is that prologue that sucks us in and makes us want to know what has transpired in the intervening three years. Caine has a breathless line reading that is haunting and fits really well with the coda of the story. It is his willingness to hold back his voice at times that allows the ruse these two perpetuate on the populace to work. He is the brains of the outfit but he has to stand back to let his partner gain the power that both of them seek. You can also see it in his face and posture when Danny gets full of himself and Peachy has to let some of the air out of him.man who would be king 10
Connery has said that this is his favorite film that he appeared in. I heard him say it in person at the Archlight Cinerama Dome Theater in Hollywood three years ago. He did a short five to ten minute introduction of the film at one of the AFI Night at the Movies events. It is easy to see why he would feel this way. He and Michael Caine get to play larger than life characters who are a little bit crazed. There is action, drama, comedy and suspense throughout the story.  While there are a number of other elements of the film that make it memorable and worthy, all of them would be for naught if the two actors at the heart of the story were not perfect.

The film was nominated for four Academy Awards: art direction, costume design,editing and screenplay. Amazingly it did not win any of those categories. Even more amazing is that the two leads and the fine supporting performance from Plummer were not recognized at all. It is ideal to imagine that this was a result of the lushness of the films of the period. It was clearly not the inadequacy of the work done by the film makers. The score is by Maurice Jarre, the man responsible for the music of "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Dr. Zhivago". So you can expect the music to reflect the grandeur of the setting and the heroics and faults of the two main characters. If you listen to the opening track that accompanies the titles, you will hear echos of "Gunga Din" and those 1960s classics as well.

As the story unfolds and you witness the relationship between Danny and Peachy, you will see why Huston thought of Bogart and Gable and later Redford and Newman. There is great byplay with the two actors. At one point they had hoped to share the screen again, this time with their pal Roger Moore, in a version of James Clavell's Tai Pan.  It is something to lament that this coupling of actors could not be accommodated later on. That makes it all the more important to treasure this match up of two great actors the likes of which we may never see again.
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Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Big Sick



Two days ago, on Friday morning, I went to see this film. I usually post my thoughts immediately following a movie experience because I want the story and impact to be fresh in my head while I am writing about it. Once in a while, when the movie is late, I will wait until the next day. I have put this off for 72 hours because the subject matter involves a young woman with a severe infection and a life threatening hospitalization. On Saturday, I attended a memorial service for a young woman who had a severe infection and did not make it. I had not realized how the movie was going to play out before I went in or I might ave waited a little longer to see it. The timing as a result was awkward and my emotions were clouded with the personal turmoil I was going through. I know that the story is not the same but some of the similarities made it feel awkward to watch this as the comedic experience it is intended to be. With this declaration now out there, I think I can share my impression in a more honest way and you the reader will be able to judge if I am being fair in either direction.

This is a romantic comedy, a genre that usually has little respect among film bloggers because of the dependence on certain tropes in story telling. "The Big Sick" will not be guilty of any of those, except in the most general sense that it is a love story with several twists. The turns this movie makes though feel fresh and while the end plays out as if it was any other rom-com, the middle is decidedly different. There are three reasons that this movie fits into a class of films higher than most movies of this type. To begin with, there is a different type of culture clash. Plenty of romances feature people from different backgrounds and the misunderstandings and complications that can arise from that. Two solid examples of those types of films would be "Mystic Pizza" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding".  "The Big Sick" has a cultural story behind it, but it is not about the romantic partners fitting in with one anothers in-group, it is the inability of one person in the relationship to be able to resolve the distancing that he must go through for both his family culture and his romantic /professional culture. Kumail Nanjinai plays himself. He is a comedian, struggling to make it in Chicago. He is also a Pakistani-American, which puts him in "the other" classification to some audiences and probably some of his friends as well. He engages in the family traditions of sharing a weekly meal, Muslim prayers and potential arranged marriage, all to please his family and maintain those cultural norms. Kumail is not serious about his faith and is largely just indulging his parents when they bring attractive Pakistani women to the weekly meals. He knows he is rapidly becoming an out member of his own group when he starts dating a white woman from a much more traditional background. There is quite a bit of funny stuff in the balancing act he is playing with his family. His stand up to me seemed to me marginally better than his pathetic room mate, but it is not clear how he will be able to make his very humorous personality come out in a stand up performance. All of his best lines are delivered to the girl that he is falling for.

A second reason that the film is different enough from most others in the genre is that the complication that separates the two lovers is not merely the culture clash but the medical crisis that I was a little sensitive about. There are some dramatic turns that occur during the middle of the film that I was unprepared for. The girl is played by Zoe Kazan, who I loved so much in the film "What If ?' back in 2014. Emily is a bright girl with a great sense of humor, but she is wounded by Kamail and that is the consequence of the cultural issue I already mentioned. Kamail however steps back into the relationship in a one sided manner. I don't like giving the story away, let's just say that a coma is not automatically a plot device that you would think up for this kind of film ("While You Were Sleeping" excepted).  When Emily's parents enter the story there are several more directions the film takes. There is something compelling about watching awkward comedy situations. I know several people who hate films based on awkwardness but it feels very honest at times and when a performer is at the center of an awkward moment it seems even more tangible. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are very good as the parents of the girl Kamail has broken up. Handling the circumstances forces Kamail to be less than forthright at times and the parents are very direct. [If you are looking for sleeper picks for your supporting actor nomination pools at the end of the year, keep these two in mind, they are great.] I probably did not respond as strongly to some of what happens here because of the context I mentioned in the opening. Hospitals to me are inherently unfunny, and with personal experiences floating in your head, it's possible to miss the comedy that comes from some tragedies. [You know the formula "Tragedy + Time =Comedy", I think I needed a little more time.]

Last on my list of reasons this film is able to overcome the burdens shared by most romantic comedies is that the line to the resolution is not a straight one. A conventional film would have used a moment from near the end of the medical situation to wrap things up. This film is different. The main character is defiant of the consequences his family wants to impose on him. He fails at the chance he has to make it to the comedy festival that could change the trajectory of his career, and his romance seems to have fizzled out. It's the little bit of extra effort in the third act that makes the movie work. It still comes out the way we want it to, but the road is not as smooth and easy as it could have been if done in a more conventional manner.

You are probably aware that this movie has received glowing reviews and high ratings on meta-critic sites. It deserves that recognition but don't be mislead into believing that this film is transformative or experimental. "The Big Sick" is certainly inventive, and there are distinct twists in the story that make it memorable but at the end of the day, it is an entertainment. I know that it is based on a real experience, but my guess is that the real life incidents were closer to the things we want to avoid than the things this film wants us to embrace. Think of films like "The Full Monty", "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Juno", and you will have a pretty good idea of where this is going. It is genre bending and innovative, but beware the hyperbole.