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The Man from Earth (reviewed by Ben)

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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). 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

All That Jazz (reviewed by Dad)

After seeing a pretty-decent high-school production of Pippin with the family, the time seemed right to give Ben a glimpse into the complex figure behind the dance moves that define that and so many other unforgettable stage shows and films: Bob Fosse.

Fosse’s work goes back to the fifties in musicals like Damn Yankees and Pajama Game where his energetic dance numbers overwhelmed nearly everything else in those shows.  As his choreography chops continued to sharpen, and cultural norms changed, his productions became more energized and erotically charged in shows like Cabaret, and the aforementioned Pippin.

In 1973, Fosse suffered a heart attack while simultaneously choreographing another stage musical and directing Lenny, a quirky biopic about the edgy comedian Lenny Bruce.   Far from stifling his creativity, that setback inspired Fosse to create a new film based on his emotional reaction to that near-death experience.

In All That Jazz, Roy Scheider plays Joe Gideon, a barely disguised version of Fosse, who is not only juggling a stage show and film, but also an ex-wife (and kid), a lover, and a host of one-night stands.  This while also chain smoking while washing down uppers with Alka Seltzer.

The film captures each aspect of his frenetic life through emotionally charged snippits.  For instance, while we never quite know what the Broadway show he’s working on is about, a preview for producers lets us see one complete number where he turns a limp airplane-themed song into a sexual roller-coaster that only his wife recognizes as his best work ever.

There he is bickering with his wife and bonding with his daughter, all the while learning, practicing or performing his latest dance moves.  Meanwhile, his roll through projects, lovers and life is a swirl of creating, perfecting, drinking, smoking and downing pills – with death staring him in the face at every turn.

Oh, did I mention Death is a character in the picture?  Clad in all white, and tempting Gideon with her own seductive offers, this personification of mortality interacts with the lead in a strange Nether-Netherland, where Fosse/Gideon is able to confess to her all his life’s sins while the people he’s loved, harmed or inspired (many played by actual friends and creative colleagues of the director) perform for and with him in a final cabaret seeing him into the afterlife.

I’ve heard that the 1970s is considered by some to have been one of the greatest decades in American film, years in which the studios trusted auteur directors (vs. CGI and formula scripts) to deliver audiences. And trusting Bob Fosse, the ultimate auteur, turned a picture that could have ended up a self-indulgent half-filled balloon into an award winning, unforgettable, profile of a flawed human and creative dynamo who left a gigantic footprint on our culture.

Not a picture for young ones (especially that airplane number scene mentioned above).  But how about for teenage Fosse fans?

Ben replies: I agree that theatre loving kids ought to be interested in the life of the man who basically recreated musical theatre. I also agree with the praise you give, though I must admit the picture took a while to sink in. I had given up trying to understand what was going on after the 6th minute of the 9 minute musical number Scheider shares with Ben Vereen about accepting death. This flick is well crafted and interesting from start to finish, and though lacking in structure, it was able to truly depict the life of a complicated person, bravely exposing his troubled, diseased and narcissistic life.  Undeniably a great flick, for any entertainment lover.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Prestige (reviewed by Ben)

Twists, turns, and two devastatingly handsome superhero stars make this accused copycat of a movie an entertaining epic that keeps your eyes glued to the screen. Though it is enjoyably suspenseful for an action/horror picture, that doesn’t slow down the acting of titans Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine and David Bowie who have to issue cheesy one-liners that have done in other great actors in similar pictures.

I am afraid of giving away one of the film’s many, many twists if I tell the full tale, but the basic story begins as a flashback at the murder trial of Alfred Borden (Bale) for killing a rival magician, Angier (Jackman), by drowning.

When both men were alive, their endless game of stage magic upmanship starts off bloody and only gets bloodier. It goes from messing with a rival’s trick, to maiming an audience member, to blowing fingers off another, to murder of one magician’s wife. This ridiculous smack back-and-forth with magic tricks is witnessed by aging engineer and friend of Angier (Caine) as well as that magician’s assistant and lover (Scarlett Johansson) who is caught between the two rivals. Also involved is real-life inventor Nikola Tesla (if you are confused by this part, so was everyone else). I won’t spoil the other twists involving doubles, lovers, crippling and faked deaths, to say anymore would be to ruin a fantastic (if confusing) movie.

I will tell you that you will find both leading men obnoxious, not the actors (who together hold 4 Oscar nominations and are strong here) but their characters, whose only character development involves them turning from cocky to frightened over what the other might do to them next.

The movie isn’t often spoken of, as it wasn’t beloved upon its 2006 release and only scored Oscar noms in technical categories. I can understand why some people might prefer a movie like The Fast and Furious that is 95% action since it starts with an adrenaline high and stays there. In the case of Prestige, the action starts with the first “prank” (the murder of someone dear to the other) ending with the murder of the other.  One could grow tired of the endless back-and-forth, because it is fairly repetitive.

For me, I enjoyed the film as an interesting backdrop in the life stories of two magicians, and the far more interesting engineer (Caine) who watches them as they do reckless thing after reckless thing. It sits with you like an epic such as Les Miserables (which Jackman starred in six years later) in that it’s an extremely dramatic story told over a long timeline. It is devastatingly satisfying to see the grand scale and the two characters full stories, beyond their deeply rooted rivalry. It also accurate in it’s representation of the photogenic time period.

There are some things I dislike about Christopher Nolan (who directed the film) movies, like his more recent duo of mind blowers, Inception and Interstellar which are horribly overrated in my opinion (though they did provide a few thrills). For instance, he makes so many crazy things go on at once that you can barely bring yourself to question if it makes sense. You can’t be gripped by a twist if you don’t get it. I did not find those problems in this period piece and found it to be more about human connection than the (admittedly awesome) magic tricks, and though there were many twists; you could mostly follow them.

It is not perfect as a movie but, as I have already pointed out, it is very intriguing.  Its plusses include a phenomenal cast, deeply rooted in a story that uses action as a backdrop for storytelling. All in all, a fantastic, if imperfect, movie.

Dad responds: I was kind of looking forward to seeing Batman take on Wolverine, until I realized that the two of them would be going at it by doing magic tricks while wearing fake beards.  That said, I’m a sucker for any film that tries to depict the power stage acts had over an audience during the pre-Internet/television/film age (which reminds me it’s time to introduce the boys to Mr. Memory - a stage act featured in Hitchcock’s 39 Steps).

But I digress.  I’m with Ben on both enjoying, but also tiring of the endless twists and turns of the plot, with the sci-fi element introduced via Tesla seeming like an especially ludicrous application of technology to what amounted to a so-so disappearing act. It was good to see Ben appreciate Michael Caine holding his own against the two intense whippersnapper stars, although I’ve seen enough of Caine to know when he’s doing a film in order to pay for another Picasso.  And how did Bowie decide what film roles he would play?  I-ching?