The Nice Guys

To me the plot of The Nice Guys poses a couple of questions.  If you have an anti-hero as your main protagonist, does he or she have to change at the end?  And if the anti-hero still manages to do the right thing but doesn’t change or actually changes for the worse is he or she still the hero of the story?  I should mention that the fact I’m asking these questions makes me uneasy about this film.

Holland March, played by Ryan Gosling, is a successful licensed private detective of questionable ethics and dubious valor.  Mrs. Glenn, played by Lois Smith, is a half blind old lady who hires Holland to find her niece, Amelia Kuttner, played by Margaret Qualley.  The girl’s disappearance seems to tie into the apparent suicide of a porn star named Misty Mountains, played by Muriel Telio.  Unfortunately for Holland there are some powerful people who do not want Amelia found.

This is driven home for him by Jackson Healy, played by Russell Crowe, who is a thug for hire.  If you want someone to stop messing around with your thirteen year old daughter, Jackson will take care of it for you.  He specializes in those kinds of cases, but he has trouble looking at himself in the mirror.  When someone hires him to deter Holland from finding Amelia, Jackson’s methods are direct and effective, putting Holland’s left arm into a cast.  But Jackson looks at Holland’s nice house and begins to wonder about his future.

Things get complicated and soon they find themselves teamed up and mixed up in a complex plot involving the Department of Justice and the porn industry.

The first thing I should mention is that Crowe and Gosling both have pretty good comic timing.  Since they are probably not the first names that come up when considering who to cast for an action comedy, this counts as a revelation.  They also bring out the inner depths and motivations of their characters.  Both of them deserve praise.

The rest of the film is well acted too.  Angourie Rice plays Holly, Holland’s teenage daughter who is much more sensible than he is.  She does a great job as a kid who loves her dad but also sees his faults.

The film is a little too long.  I would have cut the dream sequence and a lot of the party scene.  But overall it is a pretty entertaining time. The plot has twists and turns that are genuinely surprising.  Most of the villains and minor characters are quirky and memorable.  It is an almost perfect movie.

Until we get to the last scene, the falling action, where it is apparent that these guys are not affected by what they’ve gone through or at least haven’t learned any lessons.  It’s a small scene and perhaps it’s just a miscalculation on the part of director and screenwriter Shane Black.  But Black is a pretty experienced hand at this point and I don’t think he’d make a mistake like that.  So he’s trying to make a point.

And for the life of me I can’t figure out what it is.

Money Monster

Lee Gates, played by George Clooney, hosts a financial advice show called Money Monster on a basic cable network.  It’s the type of show that has dancing girls, cheap costumes and special effects to dress up his stock picks.  The whole thing has a cheap talk radio feel to it, which makes it very popular.  Lee, however, is not the easiest person to get along with as his longsuffering director Patty Fenn, played by Julia Roberts, can attest.  For one thing, like many financial show hosts, he tends to idolize CEO’s, pumping them up in almost sexual terms.  His latest hero is Walt Camby, played by Dominic West, whose company has been on a winning streak for several years.  The day before the plot takes place, however, the company’s stock crashes, losing eight billion dollars for investors in just a few hours.  Many people lost their life savings.  One of them, Kyle Budwell, played by Jack O’Connell, comes to Gates’ studio to demand some answers.  He brings a gun and a couple of bombs with him.

Those answers turn out to be more complicated than anyone thought.

Money Monster is a minor entry into the growing corporate noir genre.  Director Jodie Foster and the four screenwriters have kept the running time to 98 minutes.  The pace never flags and there is plenty of suspense as you would expect in a story with a compressed timeline.  The problem is that there is almost no characterization.  Even this cast can’t bring these characters to life; there just isn’t enough in the script to work with.  The whole thing seems like Lee Gates’ soul, about an inch deep.  There are attempts at satire but they fall short.  Also the intricacies of the conspiracy are hard to follow and it’s not like The Big Short where the business concepts are complicated and you have to pay attention.  This movie simply doesn’t make any sense.

Jodie Foster is an experienced and talented director so Money Monster is watchable but not essential viewing.

Captain America: Civil War

There has always been a certain amount of tension between Captain America and Iron Man. Tony Stark’s ironic worldliness doesn’t mesh well with Steve Rogers’ earnest and unapologetic squareness. They’ve been rubbing each other the wrong way ever since they met.
It explodes in Captain America: Civil War. After the events in Age of Ulton, Winter Soldier, and even going back to the first Avengers movie, the leaders of the world’s nations are concerned about all the city destroying violence. The body count from collateral damage is rising and there is a sentiment that maybe these powerful beings should be registered and held accountable for their actions. They draft the Sokovia accords. Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr., is wracked by guilt over his role in those events and signs on immediately. Steve Rogers, played by Chris Evans, due to his experiences in the Second World War is distrustful of authority and refuses to sign the accords.
Then the signing ceremony for the accords is bombed, killing the King of Wakanda, a reclusive African nation. There is footage of someone who looks like Bucky Barnes, played by Sebastian Stan, committing the crime. T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, was the heir to the Wakandan throne. He is also the Black Panther, a superhero in a vibranium lined suit with strength and agility almost equal to Cap’s. He swears vengeance on the Winter Soldier.
This fractures the team, breaking it into factions. Captain America’s side is on the run. Tony convinces his new boss, Secretary of State “Thunderbolt” Ross, played by William Hurt to let his side try to take the others in alive.
This is actually more of an Avengers movie than a Captain America movie, but Steve Rogers is still the focal point. Chris Evans is so good at this role. He’s put in an untenable situation where he has to betray one ideal, one friend to stand by another and Evans does a great job of showing the conflict on his face as well as the resolution to do the right thing as he sees it.
At this point, it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Robert Downey Jr. playing Tony Star/Iron Man. If they ever reboot this thing they may have to leave Iron Man out of the next iteration. Downey is just too definitive.
All the performances are terrific, but this movie’s real strong point is the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. There are a lot of characters in this and they are all given their moments. It doesn’t feel like anybody is given a simple cameo; they all have big emotional scenes that fit well into the whole. There is a villain, Zemo, played by Daniel Bruhl but he’s not played as an outsized megalomaniac in the grand Marvel tradition, he’s rather low key with a modest goal and a pretty good reason for being angry. Only Marvel would have a courage to do it this way. The main conflict in the film is between Tony and Steve and it runs too deep to be resolved by the realization that they are being manipulated into fighting each other. And it is not resolved by the end of the film either.
Marvel is making a series of distinct separate films but they are also making a huge narrative that spans all those films and all the TV and Netflix shows as well. And boy are they smart. Smarter than me. I would have been satisfied with every film feeling like the first Avengers or the first Captain America movies but Marvel keeps evolving their properties, giving them more serious tones; mining current events and making this wonderful fantasy world echo our horrible real one.
The geeks are running the asylum and everything just keeps getting cooler.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Marvel makes it look so easy.  They churn out one blockbuster after another, not all of them gems, but the overall quality is pretty impressive.  And they are making so much money that their corporate overlord Disney doesn’t feel the need to step in and interfere.  They’ve successfully branched out into television and streaming.  Marvel’s media arm has yet to make a serious misstep and they are establishing a model that others, like Star Wars are beginning to follow.

So why does DC struggle so to make just one decent movie from their most famous character?  Part of the reason is that the character of Superman is so hard to depict in an adult setting.  Most superheroes are born from adolescent power fantasies, the wish to have the power to fight back against our bullies and to impress the girls we crush on.  But to my mind Superman has always been from another place.  He represents the wish for an incorruptible, benevolent force that will always protect us.  He is a father figure; a patriarchal god who always provides and never disappoints.  The resemblance of his origin story to Jesus is well-documented and rather obvious.  So it is hard not to depict him as “the big blue Boy Scout,” giving rides to children and applying a simple moralistic code to crime and punishment.  This infantilizes the other characters in the story.

Adult narratives, however, require complication and nuance.  Part of the struggle is figuring out the best thing to do and then finding a way to do it.  Realistic stories include compromises and lesser evils.  And it is difficult to portray that in a Superman story and still have him be optimistic and determined to find and do the right thing.  The easy choice is change him; make him more like Batman.  But that’s not the most interesting choice.  It’s far cooler to keep Superman like he is and see him struggle with a complicated world.  Of course they’ve been doing exactly that in the comics and in the DC animated universe for years.   But then comics people run those two things.

All of DC’s movie rights are owned by Warner Brothers, a major studio.  It’s been this way for years.  There isn’t enough money on the table on the animated side of things for the studio to be tempted to get involved.  But the live action properties are another story.  A superhero movie is by definition a blockbuster.  A lot of money is invested and a lot more is expected to be made.  An established studio like Warner Brothers is simply not going to let a bunch of comic book writers and editors have ultimate creative control.  Something like that wouldn’t even occur to them.

This is the main reason I am nervous about DC, or rather Warner Brothers, trying to set up a mega-continuity ala Marvel.  Of course Marvel’s success makes it inevitable that they try.  But I am not optimistic about their chances of success.  I would much rather that they look to their own past success for a way to proceed in the future.  The Christopher Nolan trilogy of Batman films is the perfect model for Warner Brothers.  Hire an interesting director with a vision for a character.  Have him pick a production team, writers and a cast, lock everybody up for a three picture deal and let them do what they want in a separate continuity.  Then start over again.

But that’s not the way they are going.  With Avengers films routinely landing in the top ten grossing films of all time, Warner Brothers simply has to make a Justice League movie.  And they have to make movies based on the separate members leading up to it.  DC and Marvel have been stealing from each other for nearly a century.  It makes sense that Warner Brothers should get in on the act.

The plot of Batman v Superman is pretty simple.  Bruce Wayne, played by Ben Affleck doesn’t trust Superman, played by Henry Cavill, after the near destruction of Metropolis during the events of Man of Steel.  Superman thinks Batman plays too rough, terrorizing Gotham’s criminals needlessly.  The two heroes are manipulated into fighting by Lex Luthor, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who is working on a super weapon with tech salvaged from the earlier struggle with General Zod.

It’s not as bad as you’ve probably heard but it’s still pretty bad.  Part of it is the tone, which is unrelentingly grim.  Director and master of the DC universe Zack Snyder has created an unappealing world with no sunshine and very little hope.  This makes it hard to identify or root for the main characters.  I’m one who likes a little edge to his Batman but they’ve simply gone too far.  And I thought Ben Affleck did a decent job acting it.  Both the leads were decent.  Gal Godot as Wonder Woman was pretty good too.

Even technically the film falls short.  There were times when the computer generated effects looked fake.  In this day and age there’s no reason for that to happen.  The fights were confusing and not very visceral.  You don’t feel the punches for whatever reason.  The lighting is dark and dramatic but offputting.

I have no idea what kind of box office this film will do.  No doubt it will win the weekend but there isn’t much competition.  But it probably won’t put up Avengers type money either.  The audience I saw it with seemed unmoved.  There were a few of us who waited to see if there were any kind of post title sequence (there isn’t) but most people filed quietly out of the theatre.

Maybe it’s just Snyder’s vision for the project.  I’ve liked a lot of his films in the past: 300, The Watchmen, but he’s made some dogs too.  Perhaps if he were moved aside it would get better.

Frankly I don’t know what the answer is.  If I were Warner Brothers I would put some DC comics people in charge of the project.  They know the characters; they know how to make the stories work.  If you’re going to copy Marvel, do it right.

 

Oscar Picks 2015

Once again, thanks to Goldderby.com I was in great shape when the nominations were announced. In fact I’d seen everything that had been in wide release up to that point and there were only three left to see. Anomalisa was released a week later and 45 Years shortly after that.
The problem, as always, is in the animated feature category. Boy and the World is a Brazilian film that was produced in 2013. As I understand it to be eligible for a nomination a film must be shown in the New York or Los Angeles area in the calendar year for which they want to be nominated. My guess is that Boy and the World was shown in the basement of a distributor in Encino where it was projected onto a bedsheet for his children and a few close friends. I have no idea when it will go into wide release. Why do they nominate these obscure films, especially when they know Inside Out’s going to win? Pixar always wins! Frankly, I’m about ready to give up on this category. If Boy and the World doesn’t show up in the next two weeks, I will have suffered through Anomalisa for nothing!
Anyway that ends my annual rant about the animated feature award. On to the picks. Keep in mind that as always these are not predictions. If you need to know who to bet on, go to Goldderby.com. These are the people who I would give the award to.

Best Supporting Actress

All the acting categories this year are strong. There’s nobody I would eliminate on the grounds of giving a bad performance in any of these four categories. One caveat is in the supporting actress category. Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander are actually in leading roles. In both cases they have as much if not more screen time as co-stars who are up for leading awards. Their studios ran them as supporting actresses because they thought they’d have a better chance of getting a nomination. I considered dismissing them on those grounds but it really isn’t their fault and they shouldn’t be punished for it. Assuming that being dismissed in a blog that they will probably never read can be counted as punishment.

Jennifer Jason Leigh has been such a brave and exciting actress over the years that it’s hard for me to not give her the nod for her first nomination for an Oscar. It was a good performance in a mediocre movie.

Rachel McAdams turned in an exemplary performance in Spotlight. It’s hard to stand out in that cast, however.

I take second place to no man in my admiration for Kate Winslet. But I didn’t even recognize her in Steve Jobs, not her voice, mannerisms or looks. It was a totally transformative performance.

Alicia Vikander gave a moving performance in The Danish Girl.

I would give the award to Rooney Mara. In Carol she expertly takes her character from young naïf to confident woman and it is inspiring to watch. Perhaps she has unfair advantage because this is actually a lead role but in my mind it is the best performance of the five.

Best Supporting Actor

Sylvester Stallone plays a role he’s played many times before in Creed but the character is at a different point in his life. It was an enjoyable performance, like putting on an old comfortable shoe.

Mark Ruffalo gave a convincing performance as an eager investigative reporter in Spotlight. The performance I would have nominated from that film, however, is Michael Keaton’s.

Christian Bale likewise gave a convincing and immersive performance as fund manager in The Big Short. But the performance in that film that really stands out was Steve Carrell’s.

This is Tom Hardy’s first Oscar nomination and before he’s done he’s going to have a boatload of them. He is an exciting and talented actor. He’s definitely one of the highlights of The Revenant.

I’ve got to give it to Mark Rylance though. That outwardly stoic face which was somehow leaking emotion is basically a workshop in underplaying a role. He was the best thing in Bridge of Spies which is a very good movie.

Best Actress

I think Jennifer Lawrence’s collaboration with David O. Russell is starting to get a little stale. This performance in Joy, while excellent, feels somewhat rote and too familiar.

Saoirse Ronan gives us another portrait of a naïve young girl emerging into confident womanhood in Brooklyn. She is beginning to deliver on the promise she showed in Atonement.

Brie Larson is the prohibitive favorite for the award and with some reason. Room can be divided into two parts: before and after the escape. She believably shows us a traumatized woman who falls apart once her son no longer needs her to be strong.

Cate Blanchett turns in her usual brilliant performance, showing us an elegant and self-assured woman on the outside but sad beyond all consolation on the inside.

My choice is Charlotte Rampling for her performance in 45 Years. Like Mark Rylance her performance in brilliantly underplayed. Her character is keeping a stiff upper lip, pretending to be normal but you can see in her eyes that she is sad, threatened, furious and frustrated that there is no one she can talk to about it.

Best Actor

Matt Damon basically plays himself in The Martian. It’s a fun performance but hardly a stretch.

Bryan Cranston plays blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. He shows the personal costs to himself and his family that result from his struggle with the HUAC and conservative forces in Hollywood.
Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a strong performance as early explorer Hugh Glass in The Revenant. He takes us on a tortuous journey through the wilderness.

Michael Fassbender captures the essence of Apple founder Steve Jobs, capturing all his contradictions and passions.

I would give the Oscar to Eddie Redmayne who plays a transgender person without resorting to cliché and caricature. It is a physically transformative and demanding role, his second in as many years, and utterly moving and brilliant.

Best Director

I don’t really have a strong favorite here. These are all capable directors who’ve delivered quality films. A director’s job contains many elements that he/she must balance and these guys have all excelled in one or more of them.

I believe that I gave Mad Max: Fury Road the harshest review, although I like the film. George Miller has an eye for bizarre images that make his films stand out. And of course there are few directors that are better with action.

Lenny Abrahamson got great performances from his two leads, one of them being a kid. He also directed one of the most gripping set pieces in a movie this year with his depiction of Ma and Jack’s escape.

The Big Short, directed by Adam McKay, is a good film that deals with complex issues in an entertaining way. It kind of lost me at the end but the performances were good and the pace never flagged.

Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is about a team of reporters, working on a big investigative story. It has a huge talented cast that the director juggled expertly.

I’m leaning toward Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for The Revenant. Even though that movie missed with me, I do admire Inarritu’s command of the language of cinema. He controls image, symbolism, performances and even sound to get his message across. He really is at the height of his powers here.

Best Picture

I love science fiction so it really pains me to eliminate the two genre films among the best picture nominees right off the bat. While The Martian is better than I gave it credit for in my initial review, it still has problems.

Mad Max: Fury Road was just too long.

Brooklyn is a good film but I thought Carol, which was also set in New York at about the same period was better and it wasn’t nominated.

Room’s two halves were a little schizophrenic.

The Big Short fell apart at the end.

The Revenant cannot be criticized on any artistic or technical grounds. I simply didn’t care for it.

Spotlight is an important, well-paced exciting film with terrific performances. I would not be upset if it won.

The film I liked best this year, however, is Bridge of Spies. It is well-paced, has some terrific performances and an important theme. It is right up there with the best of Spielberg’s “serious” films.

So that’s it. The awards are handed out on February 28. As always, pop some popcorn and have fun.

Deadpool

Wade Wilson, played by Ryan Reynolds, is a former special operative for the military. He now makes his living as mercenary, taking only jobs he likes. At his regular hangout, a bar where other mercs gather, he meets Vanessa, played by Morena Baccarin, a hooker with an appreciation for Wade’s sense of humor. They move in together and after a year or so, he proposes.
Then he discovers that he has terminal cancer. He gets an offer from a secretive organization to not only cure him but make him into a hyper-talented mutant superhero. Wanting a life with his fiancé, he accepts. What he doesn’t realize, however, is that the process of turning him into a superhero is injecting him with some chemicals and then torturing him until his new abilities manifest themselves. Those tortures leave him disfigured and he can’t bring himself to reunite with Vanessa. He makes himself a spandex suit and calls himself Deadpool.
This is a well-made film. The acting is fine. Ryan Reynolds is still in the better-looking than talented category but he is a decent comic actor who delivers his one-liners in good fashion. Morena Baccarin really stretches here from other roles I’ve seen her in, proving that she is a talented actress as well as one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the face of the planet.
The script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick is clever and well-written, jumping back and forth through time, breaking the fourth wall, dropping pop culture references, including to the X-men, which this is technically in the same universe as this and referring to the fact that this is a movie and is therefore not to be taken seriously. The direction is by Tim Miller and he gets good performances and keeps the pace lively. Technical elements are all top notch. Stunts, special effects and computer generated effects are as good as I’ve ever seen.
This is very much an R rated movie with raunchy humor and graphic violence. So it’s not for everyone. And I don’t think it’s for me.
I didn’t like the guy. I would tell you that his humor was reminiscent of my days in the frat house but I can’t because I never pledged a fraternity because I knew I’d run into guys like this. His chemistry with the girl was lost on me because it seemed to be solely based on dick jokes. It wasn’t quite as bad as The Green Hornet where by the end I had more sympathy for the bad guy, but Deadpool is really annoying.
And I realize that at best I’m not entering into the spirit of the thing and at worst I’m being a prude. The audience I saw it with applauded at the end of the film, so mine is a minority opinion. The only thing I can say is that I hope I’ve given you some idea of what the film is like and if you think you’d like it, go see it. I hope you enjoy it. Make sure you stay through the end credits. I also hope I never see so much as a frame of this ever again.
I didn’t like the guy.

45 Years

Kate and Geoff Mercer, played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are approaching their 45 year anniversary. They live an idyllic life in the flat countryside around Norwich, England and are outwardly very happy. All that changes when Geoff gets word that the body of his first love, Katia, is found in a Swiss glacier, where she died in a climbing accident before he and Kate ever met. This puts Geoff into a ruminative mood that alarms Kate, shaking her faith in Geoff’s feelings toward her.
I would imagine that the main challenge of this film is explaining why Kate should be threatened by a woman who died over fifty years ago, keeping in mind this is not a ghost story. After all forty five years is a lifetime together and a successful marriage by any standard. The script by Andrew Haigh who also directed, and Charlotte Rampling’s masterful performance sufficiently explain why Kate is upset.
This is a story about the secrets we keep both from friends and from loved ones. Geoff has never talked about the incident where Katia died. The story turns out to have many layers. At one point he admits that the Swiss authorities have him down as Katia’s next of kin because they had pretended to married during their trip so that they could sleep in the same rooms. And it gets worse. Kate asks him point blank if he would have married Katia if she’d lived. He’s honest and admits that he would have.
This causes Kate to become emotionally unmoored. She realizes that because the couple never had children they never really took any pictures to document their lives. The past becomes a blur to her, as if it were a dream and not real.
Charlotte Rampling’s performance is the centerpiece of the film. It is a workshop in understated performance. In almost every scene in the last half of the movie she is behaving properly, keeping up a cool English reserve but you can see her reeling underneath. There’s really no reason for her to be upset and yet you understand why she is.
The film has a stately pace and there are long shots of the English countryside, almost exclusively shot on overcast or rainy days so the whole film has a muted look. People stare into the distance and engage in meaningful silences a lot. There are no emotional fireworks and the climax impacts only Kate. No one else aware of her character arc.
Another secret, I suppose.


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