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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). 

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? 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Time Machines (reviewed by Dad)

Ben and I are breaking slightly from tradition to look at two films, both of them based on H. G. Wells’ 1895 genre-spawning sci-fi novel: The Time Machine.

In addition to inspiring everything from the Tardis to Time Juice, Wells’ original story was also brought to the screen in a 1960 film directed by stop-motion animation wizard George Pal, and again in a 2002 remake with Simon Wells (no relation) at the helm.

I’ve got an enormous soft-spot for the 1960 Pal version, given the number of times I watched it growing up in an era before cable when the movie seemed to play in monthly rotation with War of the Worlds, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Journey to the Center of the Earth during Creature Feature Saturday afternoons on UHF Channel 56 (confused younger readers can ask your parents to translate that last sentence for you).

This early version of the story starred Rod Tyler as the time-travelling hero who built his Victorian-era contraption (which served as inspiration to the steampunk aesthetic) at the turn of the 19th century.  After introducing a tiny working model of his device to friends at a New Year’s Eve dinner party, he proceeds to the basement to use a full-scale version to launch himself into tomorrow.

While our hero hoped to find an era when man had gotten past his animal desires and entered a stage of enlightenment, each stop on his journey reveals more carnage – including a nuclear attack that entombs him for hundreds of thousands of years.  Fortunately, this is just a few hours based on his clock, after which he emerges into the paradise he was always hoping to find – or does he?

I’ll admit that the clever stop motion effects in the film (mostly used to depict the rapid passage of time) weren’t enough to make up for the stiff acting, unconvincing romance and over-padded costumes worn by the Moorlock villains, all of which left this pre-digital era film looking its age.

Long-running fondness for this 1960 film might have inspired more recent studio honchos to place another animator (the aforementioned Simon Wells, mostly known for his artistic work on films like Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar) at the helm of a 2002 crack at the same story.

Ben and I watched this newer version a few months ago during an evening when Netflix seemed to be running dry, and while effect technology (and Moorlock costumery) had certainly advanced over the previous 42 years, the 2002 film made all the mistakes of the first (bland acting, unconvincing romance, etc.) before adding new catastrophic decisions all its own.

For starters, apparently scientific curiosity and utopian vision weren’t good enough motivations for the main character to build his machine, and so a subplot was added in which the hero created and used his time-travel device to accomplish the impossible task of saving the woman he loved from an untimely death.   

The pitstop futures the hero stopped to visit on his way to the 1,000,000 AD utopia/dystopia of Eloi and Moorlocks were clearly forgettable, since I’ve already forgotten every detail about them (except for a ludicrous talking computer that seems to have survived for 992,000 years without maintenance).  That said, I did like Jeremy Irons (in full check-cashing mode) playing the head baddie.  

Other than Irons, however, everyone else involved with this production should have checked themselves into witness protection right after the film was in the can to avoid harm from fans of the book, fans of the original movie, and fans of common-sense and entertaining storytelling.

Ben replies: Like I said when you suggested we do this one, I don’t think it’s fair to bash a film made almost 60 years ago, when film (and special effects) have matured so much since then. While many films even older than the original Time Machine remain enjoyable, this reminds us that not every old movie does. Especially me, who lived in a time of Avengers, explosions and giant robots would prefer the remake, which while mind-numbingly dull plotwise, is at least full of exciting special effects. I won’t tell you which is better, because to me they exist as two completely different things. It is not really appropriate to call out the flaws of a film made so long ago, only to point out how a great old movie remains timeless. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Unforgiven (reviewed by Ben)

The “Spaghetti Western” is something that most people associate with the old 60’s and 70’s, and that is mostly thanks to the currently controversial star of over 60 films: Clint Eastwood. In the year 1992; Eastwood released a different kind of masterpiece: Unforgiven. This film was quieter, and more cerebral than any Western people had seen before. It was the biggest hit of 1992; taking home four Oscars. What made the picture so great? Several elements of cinema at its finest (even if the movie missed the mark in a few places).

The movie starts off from three directions.  One involves the cruel “anti-violence” sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) who refuses to punish strongly enough a cowboy who gets caught cutting up a prostitute, which leads her friends to put a bounty on that cowboy’s head. The second thread involves the reformed extremely-violent cowboy Bill Munny (Eastwood) who gets drawn in by a newcomer cowboy “The Schofield Kid”  to try to earn that bounty. The third involves pompous British sharpshooter English Bob (Richard Harris) who wants to mess with some Americans and pick up the bounty himself.

On his journey, Munny re-connects with his old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), who joins Eastwood and “The Kid” to make a not-so-tightly-knit trio.

Meanwhile, things go wrong for English Bob and his bookish sidekick W.W Beauchamp (played by Paul Rubinek) when they clash with the increasingly evil Little Bill who, despite refusing to let anyone hunt down the “whore slasher,” grows violent and beats English Bob in front of a full town square. Later, the stakes increase between the lawman and the cowboys as the old murderous Munny reappears in a grand psychological transformation, even as the once-macho Schofield Kid shrinks back in another.

This is not your typical Western or even Spaghetti Western (which, if you’re wondering, is a more complex version of Old West stories released earlier in film’s history). Unforgiven might not have the gory violence of some older Westerns, but it has the gunslingers, killers, cowards and lawmen that made the genre great, while also taking the time to display psychological action. It was a wondrous new thing when the film was released, and it still is today.

And talk about big names! Eastwood, directing himself, a charismatic Gene Hackman in his Oscar winning role were the two standouts of course.  But Ned was also one of Morgan Freeman’s best roles who was phenomenal as the mellow center of gravity in an otherwise raging group of characters. We were also quite fond of the ladies’ portrayal of the revenge-taking prostitutes and the brief but memorable charm and rage of Richard Harris as English Bob, especially in his scenes with Hackman. Overall, this was a fantastically acted film from some of the greats.

I won’t lie; it’s dull at a few points because of Eastwood having too much fun with long shots and cinematic techniques. It also attempts to be--and falls short at being--funny at certain moments. Eastwood should have left the comedy after English Bob’s charming attempts to convince a group of Americans mourning President James Garfield that having a royal ruler is a better solution, surprisingly the funniest scene in the movie. This movie does a great job proving that great does not mean perfect in every way.

This is not a family movie by the way. It opens with a man having sex and slashing a woman with a knife which is just the start of the violence. So it’s a great movie, for anyone but a child.

Dad Responds: It was a little weird watching this picture with Ben and his brother, given how many Westerns old (John Ford) and new (Sergio Leone) they haven’t seen.  Still, as much as Unforgiven’s greatness derives from the commentary Eastwood is making on a film genre he helped re-invent, it’s still a wonderful straight-shooting story filled with the kind of psychological complexity Ben rightly complimented.    

As a member of an older generation, I’m a tad more forgiving of long shots of long wind-ups, especially when they set the stage for the frightening transformation of the main character from an elder gunman who thought he found redemption to unstoppable angel of vengeance. Unforgiven has lost none of its luster in the decades since it rightly gobbled up so man deserved Oscars. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Hitchcock (reviewed by Dad)

The kids have only had a smattering of Hitchcock films over the years (I can recall watching 39 Steps and North by Northwest with them, so they still have a long, long way to go).  Even so, it seemed like watching 2012’s Hitchcock, which tells the story of the making of the director’s famous horror hit Psycho, would be something Ben would appreciate.
Hitchcock was late in the Hollywood stage of his career when he decided to take a risk and make a film based on Robert Bloch’s best-seller inspired by the notorious Ed Gein murders of the 1950s.  Gein was the first serial killer since Jack the Ripper to gain pop-culture icon status, inspiring a number of horror blockbusters – including Silence of the Lambs and Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The studio, which just wanted more installments of Hitchcock’s “innocent man mistakenly caught up in intrigue” shtick, weren’t interested. But “Hitch” and his wife Alma Reville were ready to go back to their roots and do the unexpected, as they had done earlier in their careers.  And so, one house mortgage later, Psycho was financed and ready to cast.
Speaking of cast, Anthony Hopkins – even in a fat suit with distracting facial prosthetics that always seemed at risk of melting off – pulled off the old master’s intonation and mannerisms.  And Helen Mirren as his equally talented partner was riveting as her husband’s equal, even if the script upped her historic role in the making of Psycho (allegedly at Mirren’s request).
As much as I enjoyed the chemistry between the two stars, and the energy modern Hollywood always gins up when making movies about its own past, some key blunders made the film much less than the sum of its parts.
To begin with, by focusing on the strained relationship between Alfred and Alma, the bio-pic created the impression that Psycho was driven as much by Hitchcock’s psychological fragility as his craftsmanship.  A scene (I’m guessing fictitious) in which Hopkins grabs the knife in order to create Psycho’s famous shower murder on his own (all the while imagining he’s eviscerating his wife’s imagined lover and the various Hollywood studio types standing in his way) reinforces the notion that Psycho is the product of the director’s id.
But, as aficionados know, the key to Hitchcock’s directorial success was his absolute control over every aspect of the filmmaking process, a mastery which allowed him to manipulate his cast and crew to get what he wanted from them – not be manipulated by them, or by the pressures of production schedules.
I was also disappointed by how much of the making of Psycho wasn’t in the movie.  Sure, there was the aforementioned shower scene recreation, and a few other brief moments where you got the feel of being on the set of an old time Hollywood production.  But nothing gave viewers the sense that being on the set of a Hitchcock production was anything special.  Hitchcock’s ability to leverage his own brand to create buzz was also alluded to late in the picture, but only for the sixty or so seconds needed to explain why Psycho was a hit despite indifference from its studio-distributor.
The film also uses two narrative devices – one in which Hopkins interacts with the real Ed Gein (actually actor Michael Wincott playing Gein) and one which recreates the droll openings and closings Hitchcock began and ended episodes of his TV series with – both of which were incompatible with each other and with the rest of the picture.
As you can tell, it is only film snobbery that forces me to point my thumbs down on a homage that should have been more homagey (is that a word?).  Ben – might you have anything kinder to say?

Ben replies: Not much kinder, I’m afraid. I am not particularly familiar with Hitchcock but I still found this 2012 miss a bit disappointing. The biopics I’ve seen have all followed the delivery-room-to-the-funeral-ceremony formula. I though this film might be better because it chose to focus on a short period of time in Hitchcock’s life, especially one so iconic, but it was also disappointing in that respect.  Notably; the filmmakers made the Oscar-baity decision to cast Hollywood stars as every famous name involved with Psycho, including Hopkins, Mirren, and Scarlett Johansonn and James D’arcy as Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins respectively. Good acting on the part of the great Anthony Hopkins, but other a bit a waste of a biopic. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Birdman (Reviewed by Ben)

You may have noticed that most of the films we talk about on this blog are pictures we enjoyed, that is to say “we recommend this film to you.” This one will be a little different. Last week, we watched Birdman, nominee of eight oscars and a winner of four. We finished with a pretty similar consensus: Birdman was junk.

The film is the pretentious story of the pretentious, unlikable Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a superhero action star of the past now trying to make a name for himself in a (you guessed it) pretentious Broadway play. The drama he generates with his fellow actors, family and theatre technicians is the focus of the film. 

Riggan’s constant search for recognition as a true dramatic star is countered by the voice of Birdman (his original superhero persona) in his head, telling him to forget the stage and do “Birdman 4” instead. The supporting characters are slightly more interesting than Keaton, like esteemed star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) who Riggan miraculously gets to join his play, his rehabilitated daughter (Emma Stone), and his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough). As Riggan spirals into madness, the film gets more and more abstract, until you finally give up on trying to understand what each moment means. It might sound subtle and brilliant. It is not. 

For a movie I dislike, this 2014 film did have some great elements. One of those is the directorial style of Alejandro G. Innaritu which makes the whole films look like one continuous shot which, in a better written story, could have kept the viewer engaged. But the movie’s script failed to bring the audience on an engaging journey, instead dragging us through melodrama that amounted to not that much. The acting is actually great on the part of Norton, Stone, Naomi Watts and Keaton in a couple of less-overacted scenes, but Suicide Squad reminds us that good actors does not a great movie make. The beauty of the shots and acting did not save this movie from being a slog, but also did not prevent it from securing a place at the Oscars. 

Despite all this criticism, the movie did have one standout scene that remains with me in which Riggan’s sub-conscious goes berserk and he imagines himself as Birdman, flying through the city, the superhero he once was. It was the one “deep” moment that really made me think, but I’ll let you decide what it means.

All in all, not a movie for kids. Brief drugs, swearing, sex and enough references and bad examples to keep fans of Superbad, The Wolf of Wall Street and the first two season of South Park happy. Not fun for the kids and, to be frank, probably not fun for the adults.

Dad replies: I probably disliked the film a little less than Ben, although we agree on all of its shortcomings: a main character we failed to care about performing a play that looked like a bore to everyone in the film and real-world audiences.  The “theatre as redemption” theme has caused more than one film star to go off the rails (John Turturro in the 1998 Illuminata comes to mind).  And Birdman is one more data point that magic realism still hasn’t made a successful translation to the screen. Still, as a big Michael Keaton fan I was glad to see him get the recognition he deserved, even if he deserved it for different work.