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The Man from Earth (reviewed by Ben)

You’ve probably noticed that most of the movies we review on this page are successful, or at least well-known. So you might be surprised th...

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Let it Ride

In the last film we reviewed, Ben was introduced to “Nice Richard Dreyfuss” playing the wistful, cameo-narrator in the Rob Reiner-directed/Steven King-written coming-of-age story Stand by Me.  Which is why I thought it important to introduce him to one of the lovable rat-bag characters that have always brought out the best in Dreyfuss.
In the 1989 hidden gem Let it Ride, Dreyfuss plays Jay Trotter, a lovable shmuck of a cab driver who has just promised Pam, his much put-upon wife (played by Teri Garr), that he will grow up, get serious, and really work at their marriage, a promise that includes not wasting time and money at the horse track.
But then Trotter runs into his pal Looney, an even dirt-baggier cabbie with a fondness for tape-recording conversations that take place in the back of his hack, who spills the beans that he caught some recent passengers talking about a fix that was in at the next day’s races.
It’s not gambling if it’s a sure thing, right?  So, once their shifts end, Trotter and Looney are at the race track, ready to place their bet.  But not before stopping at their favorite dive bar where fellow gamblers/losers pound beer in the AM while sharing their schemes of how to beat the odds.
As it turns out, Trotter’s first win is part of a streak that continues in race after race as he continues to “let it ride,” placing one bet after another based on increasingly outlandish and superstitious techniques for picking the next winner.
As his streak continues, Trotter migrates from that grotty bar to “The Club” where well-to-do locals hang out, watch the races, and try to figure out what to make of the increasingly lucky cabbie (who finally wears out his welcome by breaking into unholy shrieks, declaring “God likes me!!! He really, REALLY LIKES ME!!! upon his latest win).
“I’m having a great day!” he continues to tell anyone who will listen, including a frantic Pam who keeps wondering if she’ll ever see him again (and if she does, if she’ll be relieved or kill him).
While Dreyfuss is terrific, and the horse-race backdrop of the film novel, what really made this film transcend was the collection of quirky characters – both high-life and low-life – Trotter encounters during his “great day.”
David Johensen as Looney steals nearly every scene he’s in (my favorite being one in which he’s selling his blood to pay for his next bet, smoking a cigarette and scanning the racing form, with a needle and bag attached to his arm).  And Garr has never been more lovingly distraught.  But even small roles are played with comic and dramatic texture, from the security guard who first arrests Dreyfuss then becomes his bodyguard, to the lovable giant who collects fees for clearing people away from the track fence so that his clients can get closer views of the races.
Speaking of lovable giants, Robbie Coltrane (yup - Hagrid from the Harry Potter films) does a fabulous turn as the “ticket-man” who takes Dreyfuss’ bets, turning his cash into “tickets” that then get turned back into cash as “the streak” continues.  At first, Coltrane treats Trotter like the two-dollar betting loser he usually is, but as the hero continues to “let it ride,” Contrane’s attitude moves from respect to awe to love for a man willing to risk it all.
That’s an emotional trajectory I shared as I watched this lovable doofus have the day he may not have deserved, but certainly earned.

Ben responds: I’m with you on this one. Richard Dreyfuss is an amazing onscreen force in almost every moment he appears. The non-believers he’s surrounded with are similarly funny  and contribute to the film’s tightness, wit and humor. I was a particular fan of the way the movie moved along in real time. It’s a genuine unfolding of everything this slimy man does in a few hours at the horse races. Without such a capable performer at the center spitting, yelling, pleading and celebrating, this movie would be almost as boring as a day at the real horse races.

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.