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


 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:

 "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]


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.
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.
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 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.

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.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Willard (1971)

Well, it took almost 40 years. But I got to see Willard again in its original form. Shout factory and Scream have released the film in a special package which includes a DVD and Blu Ray and it has a second audio track with actor Bruce Davison. So that it is actually is a very special of presentation of the film. The only previous video releases that have been available were a VHS edition that ais long, long been out of print. There was as well  a laser disc version that was all pan and scan and it is also been out of print for a long time. It has never been released on DVD before and the only dvd versions were copies of the VHS presentation. You could watch the movie on YouTube but it would be a second or third generation copy from the VHS and that's hardly worth the effort. It's not exactly clear why the film has been in limbo for the past 35 years,  but it was definitely worth waiting for, the film is as good as I remembered and there are some things about it that are actually much better than my memory on allowed me to recall.

Those of you who are unfamiliar, this is the story of a boy and his rat. Bruce Davison plays the young Willard Stiles, a put upon accountant in a firm that his father created. After his father's death  death, the company was taken over by his business partner an unfriendly guy named Martin played by Academy Award winning actor Ernest Borgnine. Willard has a lot in common with Norman Bates. He's relatively quiet, very smart, and socially awkward. He desperately needs a girlfriend. He also has substantial mother issues like Mr. Bates. In this case though,Willard's mother is actually alive at the start of the story. She is played by veteran actress Elsa Lanchester, who most of you would be familiar with as the bride of Frankenstein. This was one of her last film roles. Willard has no friends of his own, he basically gets by with the friends of his mother. They are overbearing, elderly and full of advice that he doesn't want. They all think that, he needs to be more in. assertive. Basically, their birthday wish for him is that he be less of a wimp. Davidson is a thin, pale man with doe eyes. In that regard is is different than Norman Bates, who was dark and had those deep set, dark circled eyes. Each of them of course have difficulty with their mothers, and in relating to the opposite sex. Willard is much less dysfunctional than Norman was. he ia a  withdrawn 27 year old man, and he spends a substantial amount of time in the garden. It is there that he begins to interact with some rats that are overtaking the ancient house that he had his mother occupy. Somehow, he manages to begin training, the rats, so that they can recognize his commands.

All of this of course requires a good deal of suspension of disbelief., but in a film like this, it works pretty effectively. There are some cute montage type sequences where the rats perform some tricks. They begin to move at his command. Since I haven't seen the movie for probably 30 years or more. I was surprised about how much of it I remembered. The main story is definitely something that was easy for me to recall. There was only one sequence that I had forgotten but once it started playing out. I had a much more vivid memory of it. This ends up being a revenge story. Willard views Martin as an oppressor who is responsible for his father's death. A man who stole the company that he rightfully should own. A man who put so much pressure on his family that his mother dies in an unhappy state, leaving a guileless  Willard alone. Of course, he is not quite alone. He has his 2 best friends. Socrates is a white rat that Willard is especially fond of. Socrates is allowed to have special privileges in the house. Ben is a much smarter rat than any of the others.  He constantly finds his way into the house even after Willard has made attempts to keep him out. Willard however cannot stay mad at Ben and he includes him in most of his escapades along with Socrates.

In a sequence that is for the most part, an innocuous revenge moment, something that might qualify as an innocent prank, Willard packs up several of his rats and releases them at his bosses Anniversary Party, a party that he himself was not invited to. Of course there is a major disruption. The rats climb up on to the tables and start eating the food. and the guests all panic, adults squealing like children and climbing onto chairs. Willard's boss has a plan to take over the house that Willard and his mother occupied. After the death of his mother, Willard discovers that there is a mortgage and back taxes on the property. Martin plans on buying the house from Willard when he can no longer afford to keep the house and then plowing it down and building a large apartment building. It is a beautiful old house but it is also rundown. It looks like it would be difficult for Willard to be able to bring it up to standard. When he receives a notice from the tax assessor that the house is going to be sold for back taxes, he desperately turns to some of his mother's old friends. People that he is alienated. He seeks financial assistance from them. They scarf and once again give him the advice that he doesn't want, he should sell the house. That would play into Martins plans and Willard has no intention of doing that. Instead, in desperation, Willard hatched a plan to use the rats to perform a robbery at the house where he knows a substantial sum of cash is being kept. That was the sequence that I hadn't remembered. Watching the rats gnaw through the bedroom door, where sleeping couple is resting was actually a very creepy moment.

Willard finally gets bold enough to ask the young woman who is been hired as a temp, to join him. for dinner. She played by a young Sandra Locke. She starred in several Clint Eastwood films and was his partner for a decade. She was also an Academy Award nominee the year before this film came out. She has the same large innocent eye and sweet face that Bruce Davison has. Both of them look young and innocent but we know that Willard is a bit disturbed. Behind his facade are some deep seeded anger. The film was shot in Los Angeles in the 1970s. The house that they used for Willard's home is an actual home that is still there The interiors were not shot on a set but it was the actual interior of the house. The only set built to be part of the house was the basement section. The office that Willard and his partner work at was definitely from the 70s.. There is wood paneling, gold carpet and industrial style furniture and file cabinets. The set design in the film is extravagant. When they are in Willard's home. One nice touche is a large grand father clock in the entryway that Willard maintains as best he can and it becomes an object that is envied by Martin.

The film is sold as a Horror Story, but for 3/4 of the run of the film it is a sweet drama.about a sad man who is lonely and begins to reach out. to some rats and to an equally quiet girl. However, as the plot develops, Willard becomes more and more desperate. There are in fact, many horror elements in the climax. The film is more creepy than frightening. Although if the thought of rats does disturb you than the film might very well be as frightening as it is promoted to be. The movie is packed with a lot of well known character actors from the 1970s. Including J Pat O'Malley, the aforementioned  Elsa Lanchester. A number of peripheral actors you might even recognize. If you pay attention to the details. The performance of Bruce Davison himself is what that sells this movie. Davidson has continued to have a successful career as a character actor. In fact, he is an Academy Award nominee himself. 4 or 5 years ago. I saw him as one of 16 character actors in a documentary titled. "That guy in that thing".  Several recognizable faces talk about their experiences as character actors in the Hollywood of the last 30 years. Davidson has work steadily. He even has had 2 or 3 TV series. where he was the star or a featured player. But he never reached the height of stardom that might have been expected of a young actor of his type. Probably because he spent the next 10 years of his career typecast as a weirdo. I saw this film when I was 13 years old of course, it was perfect for a young man of that age. That probably accounts for why I remembered it so well. I believe I also read the source book titled "The Ratman's notebook, but that part I can't really remember. I've waited a long time to revisit this film. And well modern audiences may find it to be a little slow. I like the way the character develops. I like the performances, and in the end, I kinda like the rats.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Everybody knows that Sony Pictures botched their re-boot of the Spider-man movies with the last two outings. "The Amazing Spider-man" in 2012 was a satisfactory start to a new series but seemed to be covering a lot of familiar territory. The sequel, "The Amazing Spider-man 2" was a complete mess which screwed up the storyline, wiped out an important character prematurely, and basically repeated every mistake made in the third film in the original Spider-Man trilogy. When Marvel and Sony worked out a deal to get Spider-Man into the MCU, they took a huge step in fixing the things that were wrong with the films. The arrival on the scene of Spider-Man in the terrific "Captain America: Civil War" showed the promise of a young new actor in the part. The story can be about a teenager.

I think that Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were well cast but played the role much more maturely than the character was originally supposed to be. Since Peter/Spidey show up in Civil War without having another version of the origin story, we get to skip that as well and get right to the fun stuff. Here, young Tom Holland (21) can pass for a fifteen year old. He has a baby face and a voice that certainly will not intimidate anyone, so it works. What also works is his desire to be an Avenger. Even though he has incredible powers and a history with the Avenger team, he still feels like a wannabee and that motivates him to act in a manner contrary to the advise of his "mentor" Tony Stark. Holland is completely believable as a nearly ADHD genius who wants to rush home from school and do some good. His desire to be one of the big guys reminds you of a puppy, anxious to please it's owner but so clumsy in doing so that it upturns the furniture and cocks up the works. The first trilogy and the reboot, all focus on romance, but this film focuses on Spider-Man himself and his struggle to find a place in an era of super-heroes. There is a romance with a surprising turn, but it is not the main point of Peter Parker's life in this film.

The side characters in this story all add to the freshness of the film. They are not merely cutouts to be plugged in for narrative purpose but real flesh and blood  people who matter to the story. Jacob Batalon plays Peter's friend Ned, another nerdy kid who accidentally discovers that his friend is the neighborhood hero that he has seen on YouTube. Ned is nearly irrepressible in his enthusiasm for sharing in Peter's secret. He wants to share it but even more than that, he wants to be a part of it. He offers advice, asks annoying questions and genereally plays Jiminy Cricket to Holland's Pinocchio. Since they both attend a school for gifted students, Ned is certainly as bright as Peter, but he and Peter are still young and they make social mistakes and act on impulse sometimes. Marisa Tomei, plays the youngest version of Aunt May yet. She is just in her late forties or early fifties and even the committed Tony Stark has sexist things to say about her. Tomei has been an excellent actress in films for almost three decades. Anyone who thinks her Academy award for "My Cousin Vinnie" was a fluke, did not see that movie. Her May is not to far a stretch from Mona Lisa Vito. She is more streetwise, flirty and sharp than any of the actresses who have played this character before. I won't spoil the quote but I will say she has the final line of the story and it will bring a big laugh. Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan has appeared in three of the "Iron Man" films but has barely registered because there was not much to his part [even though he directed the first two]. Happy is a happy addition to the Spider-Man story. As the contact for Peter Parker to the Avengers, he is the perfect balance between exasperated and impatient. He gets a laugh on screen every time from simple facial expressions.

As with most action stories, whether they are set in a comic book universe, the spy world, or everyday dramas, the villain is a tipping point for the direction of the story.  Since Iron Man is the template they are following somewhat with this approach, let's use those films as examples. The Iron Monger in the original film had a great actor and a well developed part, the film is stronger as a result. Whiplash is a cipher in Iron Man 2 and The Mandarin is a red herring in 3, both films are less successful from a narrative position. "Spider-Man Homecoming" does not have those weaknesses, instead it has the strength of the first Iron Man, a great actor in a well developed part.  Michael Keaton plays a third winged character, after two turns as Batman and a self referential role as Birdman in the recent Academy Award winner. Adrian Toomes is a character that we can feel empathy for early on. He is pushed in the direction of crime by circumstances that are outlined at the start of the film, but his actions are not driven by revenge but rather the need for financial security for himself and his crew. While it is not clear how he expects to keep a low key presence, given the nature of his new enterprise,  the so called "Vulture" is not really malevolent. His threats to Spider-Man are dire, but in the context in which they are issued they are really negotiation points. There is no spite or lust for revenge, this is a character who is taking advantage of the skills he has and the opportunities that are presented to him. The main caper at the climax of the film is something he enters into very reluctantly. He is not a monster, and Keaton is a great choice to play this working class villain who aspires for so much but also chooses to fly under the radar. Frankly there is a twist in the film that I did not see coming, but looking back it might make sense to those who have closely followed the Spider-Man Franchise. That twist gives Keaton a chance to strut some of his best stuff. He has those great facial ticks and a range in his voice that can go from jocular to threatening in an instant. I thought he added immeasurably to the success of this film.

The screenplay balances the intimate story of Peter Parker and his family and friends, with the two parallel plotlines of the Vulture and The Avengers. Peter is an effective hero occasionally but he also makes the kinds of brash mistakes that any headstrong kid might make. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, knows all to well the trouble he can be getting himself into by aiding in Peter's development as a hero, but he lacks the requisite supervisory capacity to guide Parker correctly. Happy and Tony together are the indifferent parents that need to put their foot down but also need to listen empathetically. Stark is too narcissistic to realize this and happy is too busy. There is great humor throughout the story and it comes naturally in the incidents that crop up and the characters that have been developed. There are the usual story patches that allow Spider-Man to be around when it is necessary, but they do not show too much and with all stories in a comic book universe, they need to be forgiven a little.

I have heard talk of a potential backlash on comic based films. There is a danger of burnout in the audience. That will certainly be true if every film in the genre has to invent or resurrect an alien threat, a maniacal genius bent on revenge, or a scientific accident that creates some kind of chaos. When you have a film like this or the recent "Wonder Woman" where the settings are fresh and the characters compelling, you don't have to have burnout. The creators of the MCU have found compelling stories about half the time. The hope for the immediate future is that "Thor Raganok" will be closer to "Ant-Man", "Guardians of the Galaxy" and this film rather than Iron Man 2 and 3 or "The Age of Ultron". WW holds out the hope that DC is on the brink of making the same discovery. What entertains us is not empty spectacle but stories that are involving with characters we can like or identify with. If you get some well deserved humor in there without shoehorning it in, all the better. "Spider-Man Homecoming" was not a film that I was particularly desperate to see or hopeful for. It turns out to be a wonderful re-invigoration of not just that character, but of our whole desire for comic book films. There are little details in the movie that add to the experience and I don't want to spoil them for you, but from the moment the Marvel Logo streams on to the screen, if you listen, you will know that the film makers want you to be entertained, and they find some good ways to do that.