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The Man from Earth (reviewed by Ben)

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Friday, December 29, 2017

Stand by Me (Reviewed by Ben)

Will Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Kiefer Sutherland star in an adventure movie about two rival gangs trying to find a dead body, ending in a violent confrontation.

You probably just imagined something very different than what Stand By Me really is. These actors starred in this movie when they were in between their child and teenage years, and though there are some high-stakes moments, it is really a film about the amazing bond between four 12-year-olds and where it took them.

This movie was made by Rob Reiner 1986 about kids in 1959, but it reminded me of friends I had in 2014, and ones my father had in the 1970’s, showing how timeless a movie really can be.

It is told in flashback by older Gordie (Will Wheaton as a child), as played by Richard Dreyfuss. He recalls a summer with his three best friends, all of whom from households that are unhealthy to some extent. The four boys--around age twelve-- overhear a gang of older teenage bad-boys talking about a young boy who has disappeared and been presumed dead. The four boys embark on a journey together after overhearing a lead to where the dead boy might be.

The majority of the film is just those four boys trudging through the forest and over train tracks to get to him. Though it might sound boring, it is anything but. Perhaps it’s how intensely vulgar and funny the boys are together or how heartbreaking their honesty, but you can’t help but be entertained and touched by how great these kids are. It’s no surprise that all four would go on to be well known as adult actors.

One thing I appreciated is that the film is not trying too hard to be anything that it’s not. It verges on melodrama, but then descends into the childish (especially in a funny and gross story-telling scene revolving around “Lard-Ass Hogan” that I will avoid describing). It is also able to balance humor and charm by not trying to hard.  

The defining moments are the scenes that remind us that they are really just kids, and the ones where they impress us in a StrangerThings-esque way. In one of two train based scenes, for example, they make a risky decision to walk across train tracks with no shoulder to sidestep onto. Predictably, a train comes and they try to make a break for it. Vern, an overweight kid, is too terrified to run. This intense moment where even the toughest of kids doesn’t know what to do reminds us that each of these kids is just that; a kid. But in a later moment, they prove themselves as a pack of very capable seventh-graders.

Watching a lot of movies can give you doubts or even harsh feelings about child actors. It’s a tough piece of work to star in a movie and some kids are not up to the task. As the older Gordie says “you never have as great friends as you do when you’re twelve years old.” In the same respect, you can’t play great friends better than a group of real twelve-year-olds.

Stand by Me really showed off child acting skills I haven’t seen since the family watched Haley Joel Osment’s performance in the 1999 movie The Sixth Sense. Coincidentally when you put those two films together, you get something along the lines of Stranger Things, a show that would coronate a new generation of young performers.

But I digress.  The way that the four kids at the center of this picture act so uniquely and honestly resonates far better than the acting of many reputable movie stars.

In conclusion, this film didn’t tackle any major issues or break any ground in the special effects department, but it was sure entertaining, physically beautiful and bittersweet. Not only that, but it showed the true abilities of so many young actors who later be well-known as adult stars.

Dad responds: I really appreciate your reflections on what kid actors can do, as well as how this film touches on immortal topics, such as the bond between kids at a certain age and how those strong feelings continue into adulthood, even when the kids you were tight with are no longer together (or even friends).  

While I definitely appreciated the acting chops of these young’ns, I will say that, having seen the movie when it first came out, the dialog didn’t stand the test of time for me.  While that didn’t diminish the bonds of friendship at the center of the picture, I think the script was not as tight as the actors performing it.  That said, it was good seeing (and having you see) that kids were able to put together exciting times in an era before cell phones (or even TVs in every house).  

Thursday, December 14, 2017

In the Line of Fire (Reviewed by Dad)

I envy the kids for being able to enjoy something we aging movie fans can never do again: experience great filmmakers for the first time. And one of the greats we’ve been tapping (albeit in a very limited fashion) is Clint Eastwood. For example, earlier this year we enjoyed (and reviewed) Eastwood’s Oscar-winning star vehicle Unforgiven, but have yet to watch any of the Sergio Leone “Man With No Name” classics that picture riffed on so successfully. Similarly, while Eastwood’s best performances happened when he was a young and then an old man, we recently watched a transitional picture of his I remember seeing at the drive-ins during the 1990s called In the Line of Fire. In this 1993 thriller, Eastwood plays Frank Horrigan, a secret service agent haunted by his failure to stop the killing of John F. Kennedy, whom he was bodyguarding on the day of the assassination. Having failed in his duty back in ‘63, Horrigan remains on the force doing undercover work, refusing retirement until he can get one last chance at redemption. That opportunity materializes when Mitch Leary, a deadly assassin played masterfully by John Malkovich, decides to take out his troubled past on a sitting President currently involved in a tight re-election contest. That race means lots of campaign stops, requiring lots of coverage by trained agents. And given that Horrigan himself is caught up in the fixation driving Leary, he is able to leverage this unique position to get himself a spot on the Chief Executive’s bodyguard. At the same time, Horrigan is following clues to try to identify and track down the killer – including numerous direct phone calls (which, this being a crime thriller, can never be traced) – where Leary lovingly taunts his hunter, all the time getting ever closer to his own prey. The would-be murderer’s pathway reminded me of a similar journey James Fox took in Day of the Jackal with many near misses not stopping him from executing his ultimate plan, one which involves charming his way into a big campaign event, building a handgun from plastic (and thus invisible to metal detectors) and swapping out a variety of dorky wigs. Horrigan is not alone in his quest to prevent history from repeating itself. In addition to a cranky supervisor who continues to OK Frank’s proposals, and a bevy of new agents ever ready to tease him about his age, the team also includes Lilly Raines, one of those young agents, played by Renee Russo. Raines remains unconvinced that Frank should even be on the case, despite her sympathy for the man himself. This sympathy eventually flourishes into romance (leading to a hilarious bedroom scene shot low enough to watch both agents leave a trail of guns, bullets, knives, badges, cuffs and other secret service paraphernalia on the pathway to a hotel bed). And while Russo is always game to match up with an unlikely partner (such as in Get Shorty where she towered over her ex-husband played by Danny DeVito), her hookup with Eastwood remains the least interesting (and convincing) part of the picture, probably one of the star’s last flings with romancing much younger actresses on screen. This lack of romantic pizzazz did not diminish the tension of seeing agent and assassin locked in a crucible whose end result you’ll have to discover yourself (unless Ben spills the beans)... Ben Replies: I side with you on this one. I have not seen any of Eastwood’s older films that provided the basis for this one, so can’t compare much, but I definitely found In the Line of Fire riveting and engaging, if a little contrived at points. I was equally unaffected by the romantic piece, and would actually argue that Malkovich was the best thing about the film. He took excitement that Eastwood brought and mixed it with his weird charm. I have to confess--Eastwood really does old well, and would be surprised if I find him as a young actor to be better.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Reviewed by Ben)

In our household, we are laugh-out-loud fans of 30 Rock and other comedy projects led by Tina Fey.  So we did not start this feature dramedy starting Fey without bias. Despite hopes, however, I saw Whiskey Tango Foxtrot starring Fey bouncing between mediocre, weird and straight-up off-putting. Checking my father to see if he was as uncomfortable as I was, I looked over to see him asleep.

The movie has a risky premise, but we gave it the benefit of the doubt. It focuses on a news reporter named Kim Baker (Fey) -- the same overworked Third-Wave feminist she so often plays-- who get the opportunity to report in Afghanistan and meet soldiers and citizens alike. She seizes the opportunity and leaves her depressing boyfriend to go into a war zone for a “short time” that ends up continuing for years.

Things are crazy from the start, with Fey staying in low-budget quarters and facing death in a combat zone from her first day on the job.  But she quickly develops a taste (actually an addiction) to the adrenaline of combat reporting and begins to push the limits of being in a place like Afghanistan.

Problems with this premise show up early (and continue).  Are explosions where people got killed that parallel reality, and heartbreaking stories from soldiers appropriate for something trying to be a comedy?  A concept they introduced of Fey as a “4-10-4” (a woman considered a “4” in New York who comes to Afghanistan and is a “10” there, then returns to New York as a “4”). is a funny concept that might have worked in 30 Rock, but just felt weird in this film.

As two separate movies (or separate comedy sketch and docu-drama), this could have worked. The funny parts are funny, and Martin Freeman (who plays against type casting as a gruff Scotsman and Fey’s romantic interest) is charming, as are Alfred Molina and Christopher Abbott as surprisingly complicated Afghani characters. The representation of the horror of war is interesting and heartbreaking. But as a whole package the film is a confusing mess in the first half and boring in the near-jokeless second.

Tina Fey does a good job, but demonstrates her challenges working without her own material and outside her comfort zone (Fey as the Ripley of Afghanistan?).  As mentioned before, supporting players like Freeman, Molina and Abbott are good, as is Tanya Vanderpool (the beautiful Margot Robbie) who plays Fay’s professional frenemy.  But on the whole, I would not recommend the film - especially to younger viewers (it’s R rating is for gore, language and - I presume - an intentionally awkward sex scene, although frightening parallels to real life events is what makes Foxtrot least suitable for kids).

Dad replies - Just to clarify, I didn’t conk out until the end of this picture, which is pretty good since I’ve tended to struggle to stay awake in movies, despite joy from watching them (especially with my kids).  

Ben hits the key points pretty well.  Fey wasn’t entirely miscast, but it would take someone with a much broader acting range to make a story this morally complicated work.  War zones featuring cynical war correspondents have been the setting of many great books and movies (Scoop, Foreign Correspondant, Year of Living Dangerously, to name just a few highlights), but Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot (at least the 7/8ths of it I was awake to see) never captured the drama of a society collapsing while reporters allegedly covering the story get drunk, sleep with each other, and stab one another in the back for the latest scoop while the locals try to live their lives, only to be used and killed.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

La La Land (reviewed by Dad)

La La Land was this year’s Oscar winner, at least for the five minutes it took for the accounting firm that is supposed to correctly put the right envelopes into the right hands to realize it had screwed up.

I’ll admit to having felt bad for those behind this picture who had to return, Zoolander like, to their seats while the folks behind Moonlight (the actual Oscar winner) got to give their thank-you speeches.  But having just watched La La Land on video with Ben and the family, the picture didn’t actually seem that Oscar worthy, or even that good.

The movie features Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as Sebastian and Mia, a pair of struggling artists doomed to come together in a meet-cute then split apart in a series of inexplicable plot turns, all set against the backdrop of Los Angeles in general, and Hollywood in particular.

Mia is a coffee shop barista on the lot of a movie studio who longs to become one of the famous film stars she serves lattes to.  Meanwhile Sebastian is the entertainment at a piano bar, at least until his uncompromising jazz soul gets him fired for not playing the musical dreck the public wants to hear (or at least his boss – J. K. Simmons – insists he play).

The two were destined to come together and, after a couple of contrived false starts, dance their way into one another’s hearts.

Did I forget to mention La La Land is a musical?

Not just a musical, but at attempted throwback to the kind of musical romances of the 30s and 40s where anything can happen – including unaided human flight – once songs begin to swell.

Two big numbers anchor the picture.  The first (which opens the film) is an inspired showstopper featuring gridlocked commuters singing and dancing atop their stuck cars (which was almost as much fun to watch as it probably was to shoot).  And the film ends with a kind of “what-might-have-been” fantasy number that, for some reason, got me thinking of Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dancing through Toulouse Lautrec paintings at the end of An American in Paris.

It’s in between those two numbers, however, that the film falters.  Largely this is due to the decision to give the leads over to two enormously attractive actors who are just serviceable in the song and dance department.  In the films La La Land was inspired by, actors like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were not classic stunners when standing still, but became immortal beauties once their feet and bodies began to do their thing.  In contrast, Gosling and Stone seem to become smaller and less interesting whenever the script has them cut a rug.

La La Land also features a plot device that has derailed more than one film for me: the assumption that the lead characters are so talented that one can forgive their indiscretions and misbehavior (or, in this case, their limited range of emotion and inexplicable motivation).  

Trouble is, I was never convinced either character was that special an artist.  Gosling’s supposed musical talent (on display whenever he performed) was closer to the surface than Stone’s (who showed what she was truly made of in a one-woman stage play her lover inspired her to produce).   But that piano music really didn’t seem to be coming from him, and her play was kind of meh, which meant we were being asked to love, forgive and feel bad for two “great talents” who I was never convinced were particularly good.

I’m ranting, but if you’re going to try to revive the classic musical, or at least make a film about what Hollywood knows best – itself – it’s going to need more magic, more heart and more brains than La La Land which, like it’s star’s footwork, was serviceable but nothing special.

Ben replies: I hate to disagree with you, but I found La La Land to be a masterfully written, awesome looking film with a simple but sweet concept about fame.

The talent of Stone and Gosling in the acting category was palpable, and I did not find the plot to be very contrived, and rarely even found myself frustrated with the characters. Though it was not as dramatically brilliant as Moonlight, it would definitely have been Oscar material in another year (even the snobby Academy voters have to recognize a film that genuinely lets you root for it’s characters).

The one thing I didn’t like however, was something else you mentioned. They were really not that great artists. I am someone who believes in the power of the musical theatre, and a skeptic of how well it works in the cinema. Neither Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone is a good singer or dancer, at all. Their charisma might confuse you, but the scene in which she sings her ballad - it’s just not that good. There are so many great stars out there who can "triple threat" (dance, sing and act) - they litter the dressing rooms in the theatres surrounding Times Square. If you’re going to make it a musical, make sure you don’t make the musical ability of your stars an afterthought.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Arrival (reviewed by Ben)

Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film Arrival is nothing less than superb, a brilliant look at humanity, science and language that redefines the sci-fi genre. This great idea for a story is brought to life by the talent of it’s leading lady and breathtaking special effects.

The movie’s plot is about human communication. I’ve  seen a lot of alien movies, and it usually happens that the creatures arrive and are miraculously able to communicate fully with the humans they are visiting (usually to conquer). In this case, renowned linguistics professor Margaret Banks (Amy Adams) is brought in because the government can’t talk to the aliens who have arrived. She is brought to the nearest vessel in Montana to try to communicate with them, while physicist Ian Donelly (Jeremy Renner) joins her as the scientist half of the team.

To describe the rest of the film’s story would be to spoil some of it’s many mind-blowing twists, so I’ll be vague. She learns that their language is based around time, and their own sense of it. As she and other scientists try to decode their language, human fear of the unknown kicks in through a military part of the story which is less interesting than it’s main theme which is more about communication. In an unexpected twist, the alien’s language has a lot to do with Banks’ perished daughter.

The film is also visually incredible, with long shots, close ups and everything in between. The camera might linger on something for a very long period of time to increase suspense, while other small details are only seen in brief passing. Shots follow one character instead of the exciting action around them, which gives the audience a personal perspective on the action.

Watching character development in a movie that’s all about a sense of time is extremely interesting. Adams’ Banks is a very intriguing protagonist, and it’s difficult to figure out her motivation as it turns out that she sees time in a way that’s different from the rest of us. What appears from the start to be a simple tale about a people trying to communicate with intimidating aliens ends up being about how characters re-learn the way they think. This kind of storytelling, that’s not quite time travel but plays with time in an original way, is what makes the already great film so unique.

It wasn’t considered an Oscar frontrunner this year, though the 8 nominations and 1 win it scored were a big step for science fiction movies, especially when put up against uber dramatic Oscar-baiters like La La Land, Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea. Other science fiction pictures in the past few years have been critically successful, such as Gravity and Avatar but none were as dramatically impressive as this one which truly deserved it spot as one of the best few pictures of the year.

The film features quite a few talented group of actors, including the 6 time Oscar Nominee leading lady, Adams, as well as everyone’s least favorite superhero (but a charmer regardless), Renner and the charismatic Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker as the military commander.

The movie is PG-13 rated, meaning that nothing is in here that wouldn’t be in a Marvel Superhero picture, and it is actually far less violent and action-packed. It has more adult themes about human nature, world chaos, international wars and losing a child. A little heavy and perhaps even boring for a less mature audience, but a must see for fans of thought-provoking sci-fi.

Dad responds: I liked it a lot, less for the effects (which you were more impressed by than I was) or the military bits they tacked onto the story, than for the patience and thoughtfulness of the storytelling.  Arrival reminded me of science fiction movies from the pre-Star Wars age, films like 2001, Soylent Green or Silent Running which used the open-endedness of the sci-fi genre to ask difficult questions about who we are (vs. how to stop them from invading the planet and taking all our stuff). The movie was based on this short story which is definitely worth going back to before or after you’ve seen the film (assuming there’s a difference between the two).