Rules Don’t Apply

Rules Don’t Apply is not a Howard Hughes biopic.  It is a romantic comedy set in the sixties amid the chaos surrounding Hughes at that time when his eccentricities were beginning to overtake him.  Warren Beatty wrote and directed the film, and played Howard Hughes.

The main plot is about aspiring actress Marla Mabry, played by Lily Collins, who is small town Virginia beauty queen.  She writes songs and is pretty and smart but not very worldly, coming from a devout Baptist background.  She signs on to become a contract player for Howard Hughes’s studio.

The driver assigned to her is Frank Forbes, played by Alden Ehrenreich.  Frank also has a strict religious background and a fiancé back in Fresno he has been involved with since the seventh grade.  He is excited about working for Howard Hughes because he has a real estate scheme in mind that he wants Hughes to finance.

Hughes only hires people with strong religious backgrounds and has strict rules about drivers fraternizing with the actresses under contract.  If they do they are fired.  So Marla and Frank are concerned when they start falling for each other.

The performances are fine.  Collins and Ehrenreich play their roles in an old fashioned screwball comedy fashion and Beatty is always welcome on the screen.  But I didn’t find the characters all that engaging.  I think the problem is in the script.  Both of the love birds are ambitious and have other agendas that don’t fade into the background when they find themselves attracted to each other.  This is perhaps realistic but it is not in the convention of rom coms, which is what Beatty is making here.  When Frank dumps his fiancé, he loses a lot of sympathy and Marla is meant to be spunky but her dialog is too strident at times.  When she makes her mistake and falls from grace, you don’t really care.

The film is too long for a comedy.  There are too many loose ends in the plot.  And there’s no sense of it building to a climax.

I read that Beatty has been obsessed with Howard Hughes ever since seeing him in a hotel lobby in the early seventies and has wanted to make a biopic ever since.  Obviously Scorcese beat him to the punch in 2004 with The Aviator.  That’s a lot of years to research the topic and I have no idea how much of that made it into the final product.  But he needed to cut out most of the research and concentrate on his main characters or gone ahead and made his biopic.

Rules don’t apply is a lumpy amalgam of the two that doesn’t really work.

Loving

In 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving, played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga get married.  The problem is that they live in rural Virginia and being an interracial couple their marriage was illegal.  They had to go up to DC and get married by a judge but the marriage is not recognized by the Commonwealth.  When the Sheriff, played by Marton Csokas, gets word of the union, he raids the house and catches them sleeping in the same bed.  He hauls them off to jail.  Richard is bailed out but Mildred has to spend the weekend.

This is based on a true story, by the way.

With the reluctant help of a local lawyer, the couple cops to a plea bargain.  They don’t have to go back to jail but they must leave Virginia for a period of twenty-five years.  The couple moves to DC but they are country folk and never really take to city life.  As the years pass, they have three children (one was on the way when they got married) but they never stop missing their home.

Finally Mildred gets fed up and writes a letter to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy about their plight.  Kennedy passes the letter to the ACLU, which senses that this might be a good case to take to the Supreme Court in order to get anti-miscegenation laws struck down all over the country.  An ACLU lawyer, Bernie Cohen, played by Nick Kroll, takes the case and shepherds it through all the appeals to the highest court where they win a unanimous decision.  Along the way he encourages them to talk to the press and make their case to the public.  Richard is reluctant to do that but Mildred, naturally more outgoing, gets pretty good at it.

Loving is a really good, possibly even great movie and the main reason is the performances of the leads.  Ruth Negga plays Mildred as a smart assertive woman who completely understands her often non-communicative husband and sees what a good provider and a good man he really is.  At the beginning she is smart but unsure of herself.  As she grows accustomed to talking with reporters and documentary filmmakers, she become sophisticated.

Joel Edgerton probably delivers the best performance as Richard.  He plays him as an almost typical country boy.  A drag-racing enthusiast, he’s always working on cars.  He works hard at his day job as a bricklayer and seemingly never leaves the house without his level and bag of tools.  I say almost typical because his father worked for a black man and Richard grew up among black people and he truly doesn’t have a racist bone in his body.  He’s not stupid but he’s also not very articulate especially among strangers and tends to keep to himself.

Together the two leads have an amazing chemistry.  You can see how their marriage works and why they love each other.  This relationship needed to be and is the heart of the film.

Loving is a conventional drama, without an ounce of experimentalism in it.  The production and costume design perfectly captures the era and the cinematography has a dusty golden look to it that’s timeless and very appealing. There are no action set pieces or even scenery chewing emotional scenes, just restrained realistic drama.  The director/screenwriter Jeff Nichols did a great job putting it all together.

Loving is a moving tribute to two civil rights pioneers.

Moonlight

The prominence of Moonlight in most Oscar predictions indicates that maybe the Academy is making a little progress in its attempt to become more inclusive of African-American filmmaking and culture.  It is a small budget independent film that seeks more to delve into the character of one person than to tell a sprawling story.  I’m not even sure that it is making a statement about poverty and racism in the country.  The poverty is a backdrop, something that’s taken for granted and there are no white characters in the film.

Chiron, played by three different actors in the film’s three sections, grows up on the tough streets of Miami.  His mother, played by Naomi Harris, is an addict who is sexually promiscuous and neglectful.  He’s on his own most of the time.  Juan, a drug dealer, played by Mahershala Ali, the guy who played Cottonmouth in the Luke Cage series, finds Chiron, then called Little and played by Alex R. Hibbert, hiding from a bunch of local kids intent on beating him up.  Little is shy and won’t talk at first.  He’s slow to trust Juan and his girlfriend Teresa, played by Janelle Monae, but soon he realizes that they care about him more than his own mother.  Juan tells Little to never let anyone else define or categorize him.  Little spends pretty much the rest of the film ignoring that advice.

The film follows Chiron, played by Ashton Sanders in the High School section and Trevante Rhodes in the final section, as he deals with the hardships of his upbringing and his sexuality.  Chiron is a compelling character and you sympathize with him.  The three actors and the director, Barry Jenkins, do a good job of convincing you that this is the same person growing and changing over the years.

There are many good performances but the one that stands out is Mahershala Ali’s portrayal of Juan.  He shows a human side to this street operator, someone who’s always scanning the horizon looking for threats or opportunities.  But deep down, he is compassionate and even caring.  He has wisdom to pass on to Chiron and does so without the edge and the attitude that others in that profession have.  And finally when Little asks him if he is a drug dealer, Juan’s reaction is devastating as he bows his head and admits it, admits he is part of the problem.  It’s a great performance.

Moonlight is a thoughtful film with good performances and direction.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

When it comes to creating fantastical worlds, nobody is ever going to come close to Tolkien.  But J.K. Rowling might be second.  I imagine if you ask her for the magical history of say tiny alpine nation Andorra or any other obscure place, she’d be able to tell you or at least make up something on the spot that would work.  Her imagination is that thorough and fertile.

So if she wants to set a story in 1920’s New York, I say let her.  And if she wants to write the screenplay, give her a shot.  She’s earned it.

In the Harry Potter books she mentions several standard text books.  One of them is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newt Scamander.  In 2001 she wrote a slim volume by this title, donating the proceeds to charity.  Like everything she creates the figure of Newt Scamander didn’t just remain a name that she only gave a few seconds of thought to.  In her mind a character grew around it and then happily a story in which to place that character.  And eventually a world in which to set the story.

Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne, arrives in New York with a beat up briefcase that holds several species of fantastic beasts.  The suitcase is magic and is much larger on the inside.  One escapes and in the ensuing chaos, Newt’s case gets exchanged with an almost identical one owned by a muggle, or as they are known in the States, a no-maj, named Jacob Kowalsky, played by Dan Fogler.  Jacob accidentally lets two more beasts escape and while the first one was more annoying than actually dangerous, the other two have the potential to do real damage.

But unknown to Newt there is already something in New York that is far more dangerous than anything in his suitcase.

Fantastic Beasts, while not as good as the best of the Harry Potter films, is still an entertaining movie.  Eddie Redmayne is very sympathetic as the first magizoologist and a person much more at ease with animals than people.  It’s amazing to watch his confidence grow, when the subject of fantastic beasts arises and the necessity of dealing with his fellow humans is forgotten.  Katherine Waterston plays Tina, a passionate and ambitious bureaucrat who was demoted from being a auror (a police officer in the magic world) because she openly attacked a no-maj who was abusing a child.  She’s smart and wants to do the right thing but has been humbled.  Waterston does a good job.

Dan Fogler’s Jacob serves as our viewpoint to the magic world, much as Harry did in the books.  He plays a working class veteran of the First World War who’s in a dead end job but dreams of opening a bakery.  It is an engaging performance with humor and sympathy.

Rowling’s screenplay is pretty good.  The film has a leisurely pace that allows room for characterization.  It never really drags although it maybe could have been tightened up a little.  Obviously she has an ear for dialog and her character names are as inventive as ever.

The film captures the wonder of the magical world with clothes and dishes washing themselves and other miracles that go unremarked upon but which to Jacob are amazing.  So it’s no surprise that Fantastic Beasts is a visual treat, adding the classic look of 1920’s décor and architecture to Rowling’s magical world.  The film is well worth seeing in the theater and in 3D.

Fantastic Beasts is not the major event film like the last few installments of the Harry Potter series but it is a fine addition to J.K. Rowling’s creation.

 

Arrival

When two groups, completely unfamiliar with each other, meet for the first time communication is the first priority.  To react to a situation intelligently, authorities must know as much about it as possible.  That’s difficult enough when the other party speaks a language that is known, but when they are aliens who communicate in ways completely disconnected from our own linguistic traditions, it may seem like an impossible task.

In Arrival, we have such a situation.  The aliens arrive one day in twelve ships that hover over various locations in twelve different countries on the planet.  All attempts at communication with the enigmatic aliens fail.  The varying countries involved, which include China, Russia and Pakistan, can barely communicate clearly with each other.  The US, in the person of Colonel Weber, played by Forest Whitaker, recruits linguist Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, to try and understand what the aliens want.  Also on the team is physicist Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner.  Their relationship is rocky at first, but soon they begin working well together.

There’s not much more I can tell you about the plot without spoiling it.  The whole theme and really the plot of the film depends on a twist at the end, and you have to pay attention to get it.  This is not a Michael Bay film where everything is spoon fed to you.

I will also warn you that the pace of this film is very stately, very European.  In the showing I went to someone actually started snoring.  And if you consider that it is being advertised as an SF thriller there are going to be a lot of disappointed moviegoers walking out of the theater at the end, assuming they make it that far.

Arrival is a dark film.  All the exterior scenes take place under overcast skies and the interiors are in dark rooms lit solely by desk lamps or dim fluorescent lighting.  This matches the performances which are muted and subtle.  Amy Adams is terrific as always as an academic unsure of herself in every aspect of her life except for her when she’s doing her job.  Jeremy Renner portrays an intelligent man, a hotshot academic, who’s been humbled in the past.  He’s still way too sure of himself but is a little more open-minded.  Forest Whitaker isn’t given much to do here, but he’s always great.

Oftentimes, the best I can say about these “serious” science fiction films is that they approach intelligence.  I think Arrival actually achieves it.  But does it appeal too much to the head and not the heart?  There is an emotional core to the film but it is muted like everything else and it feels like it’s behind a barrier.  You can see it but you can’t feel it.

Arrival is a pretty enough film that you might want to consider seeing it in a theater.  But know that it is not like the previews.  Ironically, they don’t do a very good job of communicating what the film is like.

Doctor Strange

In 2014 Marvel expanded its cinematic universe to include cosmic interstellar science fiction with Guardians of the Galaxy.  With this year’s Doctor Strange, they now venture into the mystical corners of the Marvel pantheon.  I had my doubts a few years ago that people would follow them into the cosmic.  There are none now about this trip into the mystic.  This is a movie making enterprise that deserves much benefit of the doubt and probably a pass or two if they stumble again.

Doctor Strange is the story of Stephen Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, a brilliant and successful neurosurgeon with an ego to match.  When he’s in a car crash that smashes his finely developed hands, rendering him unable to perform surgery, he searches the world for effective cures.  Eventually he winds up in Nepal, spending the last of his accumulated savings.  He hears about a mystical order of sorcerers led by the Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton who showed a paralyzed man how to walk again.  Once convinced of the reality of the mystic arts, Strange advances quickly, mostly due to his photographic memory and high intelligence.  But he also needs to learn a little humility as well.  Eventually it becomes clear to the Ancient One and her closest advisor, Mordo, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, that Strange is the next “Sorcerer Supreme.”  His innate ability and mental inclination destines him to become the leader of the order.

But he needs to become proficient quickly, because there is a sorcerer brought up in the order that has been seduced by the evil side of it.  His name is Kaecilius, played by Mads Mikkelsen, and he wants to deliver the world to the entity known as Dormammu, Lord of the Dark Dimension.  Dormammu wants invade our dimension and stop the second law of thermodynamics, giving everyone immortality or an eternity of slavery and suffering.  It depends on who you ask.

If you read my description of the title character and you are at all familiar with Cumberbatch’s work, you will know that this role isn’t exactly a stretch for him.  He has made a career of playing the smartest person in the room and he excels at it.  Fortunately, he is skilled at finding subtle differences in the characters he plays.  He unearths the vulnerabilities in Strange’s armor coated ego and uses them to differentiate him from Sherlock Holmes and Alan Turing.  He also looks like the comic book character.  I don’t think there’s any studio better at casting than Marvel.

Mads Mikkelsen makes the villain somewhat sympathetic, giving him good reasons for his rebellion against the order.  Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo is steadfast as the Ancient One’s right hand man.  And of course Tilda Swinton can always be relied upon to deliver an excellent performance.  I think I still would have preferred an Asian actor for this role, but you cannot fault Swinton’s performance.

The plot is pretty straight forward.  This is not one of Stan Lee’s more imaginative origin stories.  But the dialog is good and the film has just the right amounts of humor, characterization and action.

But the visuals are where it really excels.  Doctor Strange has the most inventive special effects since Inception.  The landscapes bend and twist in Escher-like contortions and do it with a speed and energy that is astonishing.  The glowing mystical shields and weapons that the sorcerer’s conjure up are well integrated into the picture.  They have translated Steve Ditko’s vision of the mystical dimensions spectacularly.  This really is a prime example of special effects as an art form.

This is one of the better Marvel movies, which is saying a lot.  That bar is very high.  It needs to be seen in a theater and probably in 3D as well.

And make sure you stay until the very end of the credits.

Deepwater Horizon

These are the hardest reviews to write.  If I love a film, I can’t wait to put down rapturous if not purple prose about the glories of its excellence.  Likewise, if I hate a film, I can bring out my inner Dorothy Parker and delightfully rip it to shreds.  Most films fall close to one or the other pole, at least for me.  But there are some that wind up in the middle.  They are perfectly well made films with good performances that amuse me for an hour and a half but they are forgotten as soon as I walk out of the theater.  These films simply don’t plug into any emotions.

I suppose that, in and of itself, is a pretty serious criticism.

Mike Williams, played by Mark Wahlberg, works on the Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig that floats instead of being anchored to the sea floor.  That allows it to explore in water that is miles deep.  Its job is to find the oil, start a well and then move on to the next site.  Mike is a devoted family man and competent repair technician on the rig.  He’s also very much a working class figure who gets along with the roughnecks and everybody else on the crew.

This is based on a true story, so we know what happens next.  The oil from the well overwhelms the rig which catches fire, resulting in eleven deaths and the worst oil spill in American history.  There are some very exciting moments when things are exploding and stuff, but none of it really sticks with you.  The main reason is sensory overload.  In the second half of the movie, it’s dark, everybody’s covered in oil, and the soundtrack is so cluttered you can’t hear what they’re saying or even tell who they are.  And it doesn’t help that the filmmakers keep cutting from one scene to another.

The structure of this films is flawed.  The first half is build-up and foreshadowing and it drags.  The second half is the crew trying to get off the rig and it feels rushed.  Now I’m all for keeping action films in that hour and a half to two hour window, but they really should have taken more time during the actual crisis.

This is one you can definitely wait for.


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