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Darkest Hour

Taking on a recent figure, one for whom we have film footage and recordings is hazardous duty.  How can you live up to the reality?  In recent years we have seen spot on impersonations of Ray Charles and Truman Capote.  Those were risky performances that resulted in triumphs.

The risk is especially dire when the subject is a key figure in history.  I’ve talked about this before in my review of Lincoln.  Is it wise to humanize our heroes, to show that they were people with flaws who rose to the occasion, rather than beings of godlike perfection sent by some divine power to save us?

Gary Oldman is probably not the first choice of many people when it comes to casting the role of Winston Churchill.  Of course anybody can do an impression of Churchill that is good enough for people to recognize who it is supposed to be.  But physically Oldman looks nothing like Britain’s great wartime prime minister.  Oldman is thin and has a nice head of hair.  I don’t think it’s disrespectful to point out that Churchill was portly and bald.  I noticed at the end of the film that there was a credit for Oldman’s personal make-up and prosthetic supervisor, so clearly a lot of effort went into making him look like Churchill.  Oldman’s tremendous acting ability does the rest.

Darkest Hour is set during the early days of Churchill’s ascendance to the prime minister’s office, when not everybody was convinced that he was the man for the job.  He was sixty-six at the time, no longer young, and his over-fondness for scotch and cigars was well known.  Churchill’s previous record in public service was somewhat spotty.  I had forgotten, if I ever knew, that he was largely blamed for the debacle of Gallipoli in the First World War.  What’s more the deal that brought him to the office also required him to appoint Neville Chamberlin, the previous PM, played by Ronald Pickup, and his political ally Viscount Halifax, played by Stephen Dillane, to the War Cabinet.

Churchill’s first crisis is Dunkirk, a stern test by any standard.  Chamberlin and Halifax exert considerable pressure to negotiate with the Nazis who seem invincible at this point.  But Churchill was one of the first to see Hitler’s true nature and he knew the German Chancellor would not be satisfied with France.  Indeed, Churchill, who knew his history, was one of the first to discern Hitler’s true nature and had been clamoring for Britain to re-arm since the thirties.  In his mind fighting was the only option.

But he was unsure that he could convince the War Cabinet to fight.  Even the King, George VI seemed to be on Halifax’s side of the issue.  Thus this was not only Britain’s darkest hour; it was also Winston Churchill’s.

Oldman shows us vulnerability and self-doubt that we usually don’t associate with Churchill.  That makes it somewhat jarring.  We see him as befuddled at the first few strategy sessions.  He’s slow to understand the German’s new mode of warfare.  When he meets with the French leadership they come away from the summit convinced he is delusional.  There are accusations of alcoholism and incompetence.

And the movie does not imply that this is a ploy of some kind, intended to get his enemies to underestimate him.  He genuinely goes through a dark night of the soul.  Churchill doubts himself for a few weeks before he becomes re-convinced of the necessity to fight the Nazis.

There is no question that Darkest Hour is one of the best movies of the year, with one of the greatest performances at the heart of it.  How true is it to reality?  I don’t know.  Will it be disturbing to people to see one of the greatest heroes of the last century portrayed as a flawed and uncertain man?  Probably for some.  But I happen to think that it is a courageous thing to go forward knowing that you are vulnerable and that victory is not assured.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

It’s finally here!  The new Star Wars movie!  This is episode VIII in the ongoing saga as opposed to the one-offs like last year’s excellent Rogue One.  The Last Jedi is also the middle episode of the third trilogy.  Often in middle episodes there are narrative problems.  They have to continue the plot of the first installment and set up the final one so there is a feeling of being dropped into the middle of a story.

So does The Last Jedi avoid this?

The answer is that I don’t know and neither probably do you.  First of all every Star Wars movie already plops you down into the middle of some plot or another, so we’re used to it.  At this point Star Wars is like a long running TV show.  We know the characters so well that we don’t really need any further characterization.

But what about someone who has never seen any of the movies and who has somehow evaded any discussions about the plot and characters?  Would they be able to understand the plot?  Would they know why everyone was in awe of Luke Skywalker when he finally appears in the final battle?  Would they be as thrilled by that moment as the rest of us were?

Of course it doesn’t really matter.  Such a person doesn’t exist.  Like Bond and a handful of other franchises, Star Wars doesn’t have to follow the rules.

I’m not going to tell you anything about the plot.  If you haven’t seen the movie, you don’t want it spoiled and frankly it’s a little convoluted and drawn out anyway.  The action is pretty much non-stop and there are some great set pieces.  There’s also a little drama, philosophy and politics mixed in but never fear, that’s all done pretty seamlessly.  Writer/Director Rian Johnson does a great job of shepherding this thing through.

When I tell you the tone of the movie is pretty dark you may assume that The Last Jedi is reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back, just as The Force Awakens recalls A New Hope.  Actually, I think the tone is closer to Rogue One.  There is a greater appreciation of how serious the conflict is and how high the price is for fighting it.

The performances are fine, especially the old hands like Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher in her last performance.  They don these familiar roles like old comfortable shoes that were broken in years ago.  Daisy Ridley continues the process of rounding out Rey as a character.  There were a lot of things in there that I think foreshadow future installments.  Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren isn’t quite as whiny as in The Force Awakens but his maturation is still in process.  John Boyega as Finn is as steadfast as ever.  And newcomer Kelly Marie Tran is wonderful as Rose Tico, a mechanic, working for the Resistance who becomes smitten with Finn.

When executive producer Kathleen Kennedy and Disney took over Lucasfilm, many were nervous about the result.  I myself was hopeful and felt like they could hardly do worse than Episodes one through three.  Now after three excellent films under Kennedy’s guiding hand, I think the new management has built up considerable benefit of the doubt, much like Marvel has.  If at some point in the future they do make a clunker—and this is almost inevitable—they will survive it.

I cannot wait for the next one.

The Disaster Artist

I have never seen The Room, the film directed by Tommy Wiseau in 2003, the production of which is the subject of the film The Disaster Artist.  From the clips I’ve seen it looks as awful as its reputation.  Apparently, however, it resonated with enough people that it became a cult hit, one of those films that are recognized as so bad they’re good.

The Disaster Artist is based on a memoir by Greg Sestero, here played by Dave Franco, who co-starred in The Room and was Wiseau’s best friend.  Wiseau is played by James Franco who also directed.  When the story begins Sestero is an extremely self-conscious acting student.  The film opens as he’s doing a scene and it is painful to watch.  Afterwards Wiseau does a scene that is just the opposite; it’s way out there.  He’s writhing on the stage and climbing light poles.  The performance is also awful—the acting coach doesn’t even offer him notes—but in a different way.

Sestero is intrigued and approaches Wiseau about doing a scene together for the class.  This kicks off a strong friendship that eventually results in The Room.  They bond over watching James Dean movies and talking about their dreams of stardom and they agree to support and push each other.

The Disaster Artist is about following dreams, never giving up and being true to your artistic vision even if that vision is pretty much crap.  To me comparisons with Tim Burton’s Ed Wood are inevitable as are comparisons between Tommy Wiseau and Ed Wood.  Wood stumbled into posthumous fame and Wiseau was lucky enough to do his serendipitous stumbling when he could benefit from it.  But the plots and the messages of these two films are too identical to ignore.  You could almost regard The Disaster artist as a remake.

The acting is good.  The Franco brothers acquit themselves well, which is what you would expect since both of them are very talented actors.  The supporting cast is good too but the movie is really about Wiseau and Sestero.

The reason I couldn’t get into the story is because of the character of Tommy Wiseau.  And that’s because not much is really known about the filmmaker.  Nobody knows exactly how old he is, where he was born, and especially how he became wealthy enough to self-finance his movie.  So we have this eccentric character at the center of the story and no way to get to him or his motivations.  He’s a cypher and what’s more he’s so disagreeable and frankly cruel at times it’s hard to like him.

The irony is that the one thing that Sestero struggled with as an actor, self-confidence is the one thing that Wiseau could help him overcome.  At the end of the film Sestero is a decent, although not great, actor.  So while I can’t understand Sestero’s initial attraction to Wiseau, I do understand his loyalty later.

There’s a scene where Wiseau accosts the producer Judd Apatow, playing himself, in a restaurant and starts doing Shakespeare.  Apatow, finally fed up, tells Wiseau that it will never happen for him.  To tell you the truth, in the same situation I’d have said the same thing.  Today Tommy Wiseau is a working director and producer.  So I guess that shows you what I and Judd Apatow know.

 

Roman J. Israel, ESQ

We all have ethical lapses.  Some are large; some small.  Sometimes we get away with it and sometimes we pay, often dearly.  Life is constantly confronting us with tests and nobody can pass them all.  And if you fail a big one, God help you.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a character study of one such person.  The title character, played by Denzel Washington, is a lawyer.  He’s smart and dedicated to reform through the legal system.  He was active in the Civil Rights Movement.  For thirty years he’s worked at a firm run by one of his old law school professors, a person equally devoted to these causes.  But he’s been a back room lawyer, preparing the briefs and motions and other paperwork for his boss who did all the work with clients and in the courtroom.  The reason for this is that Roman is on the Autism scale.  He’s highly functional, even brilliant, but he’s a little off and does not function very well when interacting with other people.

So when his boss has a stroke that puts him into a coma with very little chance of waking up, the walls that protect Roman from the real world begin to crumble.  The firm has been losing money for many years—too much pro bono work—so it will have to close, cutting Roman adrift.  George Pierce, played by Colin Farrell, is brought in to wind the practice down.  Pierce acts and looks just like a stereotypical slick lawyer.  He is not averse to making a lot of money.  But he is also a former student of Roman’s boss so there is a long moribund kernel of idealism there.  He offers Roman a job in his high-powered firm.

And then the ethical tests begin.

Let’s state the obvious.  This is Denzel Washington’s movie and he runs with.  Washington is not only a great actor, he is also a bankable and beloved movie star who’s fun to watch and you want to have a drink with him.  Colin Farrell turns in a terrific performance but this is Denzel’s baby all the way.  He abandons his usual easygoing persona and inhabits this awkward and flawed individual believably and brilliantly.  To play a person who is emotionally walled off and still convey his internal struggles cannot be an easy task and Denzel makes it look easy.

And that is the only reason you need to see this film.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Mildred Hayes, played by Frances McDormand, is angry.  Her daughter was raped and murdered seven months earlier and the town’s police chief, William Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, has yet to find the culprit.  Mildred is so angry in fact that she uses her life savings to rent three billboards on the outskirts of town, near where she lives, accusing the chief of incompetence.

This obviously disturbs Willoughby, but it also displeases the residents of Ebbing, where he is highly regarded.  Although people obviously sympathize with Mildred because of her loss, they don’t like her tart tongue and brusque manner.   It especially upsets members of Willoughby’s small police force, most notably Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell.

This is the kind of film that plays with your expectations.  From that set-up it would seem to be obvious where your sympathies should lie.  A grieving mother with spunk, trying to get the system to find the guilty party.  But it turns out that the crime was a random event, probably perpetrated by someone passing through.  This person had never been arrested before so the DNA and fingerprints they collected from the crime scene aren’t in any national databases.  It’s a dead end and there really is nothing Willoughby can do unless he gets a break.  He also turns out to be a pretty good father, husband and boss, a little rough around the edges, but smart and compassionate.  And then there’s also the fact that he’s dying of pancreatic cancer which is an open secret in the town.  The worst thing that can be said against him is that he didn’t fire Dixon when the officer was involved in an incident where he apparently tortured some African Americans.

And of course Mildred isn’t perfect either.  Once she decides on this course of action, she sticks with it, even when her moral high ground begins to erode.   Her stubbornness is a definite flaw.  She also has an acid tongue, which isn’t always used to defend herself.  I guess you could say she’s a little mean.

So there are all kinds of moral inversions here, twists not in the plot but in your sympathies.  In that way Three Billboards is like a Coen brother’s film.  The writer/director Martin McDonagh specializes in twisty crime films having made In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.  His main influences are obviously the Coen brothers and Guy Ritchie.  But he’s managed to synthesize those borrowed elements with something of his own.  And that vision really comes to fruition here.  There is an optimism and a belief in redemption that the Coen brothers simply don’t possess.  I wouldn’t call Three Billboards an uplifting experience but it is certainly lighter than No Country for Old Men or Barton Fink.

McDonagh directs his powerhouse cast expertly and the acting is note perfect across the board.  Harrelson isn’t really stretching here but it’s a classic example of portraying a man with faults but who is basically good at heart.  Sam Rockwell’s seemingly dim, bigoted officer at first seems unredeemable but belies that expectation as the movie progresses.  The actor, who is one of the best character actors working today, sells the change.

The centerpiece performance is McDormand’s, who turns in great performances year after year.  This is one of her best.  Mildred is an old bitter crank, who somehow wins and keeps your sympathy throughout the twists and turns of the plot.  McDormand sells it every step of the way.  She’s one of the best actresses working today.

So if you go see Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, don’t go in expecting a melodrama about an underdog woman taking on the system or a violent revenge saga.  This film is an examination of the human moral landscape and a strong statement that anybody can be redeemed.  You, as an audience member have to work at it, but Three Billboards is one of the best films of the year.

Lady Bird

Christine McPherson, played by Saoirse Ronan, is a high school senior who lives in Sacramento.  And she’s not happy about it.  In fact she’s not happy about much, including her given name which she changes to Lady Bird.  Like every teenager she has these inarticulate longings that often contradict each other.  She wants to go far away to the east coast for college but she’s also trying to get romantically involved with a couple of boys.  But unlike a lot of teens she’s smart and determined enough to actually get what she wants and hold it until she realizes that it doesn’t help.

Her family is a little dysfunctional with a sullen brother, Miguel, played by Jordan Rodrigues, and his equally sullen live in girlfriend.  Her father, Larry, played by Tracy Letts, just lost his job and he’s having a hard time finding another one at his age so finances are strapped.  Needless to say this adds to Lady Bird’s dissatisfaction.

And then there’s Lady Bird’s mother, Marion, played by Laurie Metcalf.  Marion is trying to force Lady Bird into maturity by constantly pointing out when she is being selfish or foolish.  Of course all that really accomplishes is Lady Bird stubbornly clinging to her immaturity.  It’s a classic case of parent and child being too much alike to get along.  Metcalf easily delivers the best performance in the film.  Even when she says the meanest things, she somehow gets across that it is done with love.  And when Lady Bird really needs her mother to be understanding, she delivers.

When it comes to the lead, writer/director Greta Gerwig directed Ronan to act in much same manner as Gerwig does, smart and quirky.  It’s like when Woody Allen’s male leads remind you of a younger Woody Allen.  When you read Gerwig’s bio on IMDB, you can tell that this story is probably autobiographical.

So I hate to report that I had trouble getting into it and it had a lot to do with the main character.  This is a story about a young girl maturing which means that for most of the film, she’s immature and frankly not very likeable.  This may be realistic and is almost certainly a choice on Gerwig’s part.  However, it doesn’t make for an enjoyable movie.  Lady Bird’s quirkiness isn’t charming enough to overcome the distaste resulting from her actions, some of which cross into dishonesty.  When things go wrong, she stoically accepts the consequences but she never really atones.

There are some very funny moments in the film, and when you consider that it’s Gerwig’s first feature it is impressive, but it really didn’t hang together for me.

Novitiate

The early 60’s were a time of change everywhere in our society. Almost no aspect of our culture was left untouched and to a certain extent untraumatized, at least for the ones resisting the changes. Nowhere was this more true than in the Catholic Church. Vatican II had just issued several important reforms to try and make the church more open to prospective worshippers and there were a lot of unhappy people who felt that the essence of their faith had been betrayed. Others of course, welcomed the changes.

Novitiate follows a group of prospective nuns through their training, which is made an ordeal by Reverend Mother Marie St. Clair, played by Melissa Leo. She is a battle ax of the old school who is determined to train her charges the old way. Her program is more like basic training than a theological course of study. She makes no secret of the fact that she wants to wash many of them out before they take the habit. To her becoming a nun is literally marrying Christ and the relationship with Him requires the sacrifice of everything one has. The Reverend Mother has not left the confines of the convent in forty years. In return these women get special status, recognition of their special relationship with God.

The girls, for their part, are struggling, not only with their leader, but with own desires and urges. They say they are ready to forsake physical relationships but are they? The main focus of the movie is Sister Cathleen, played by Margaret Qualley. Her single mother raised her alone and doesn’t believe in God anymore so her daughter’s decision is particularly galling. But Cathleen’s decision is a sincere one and she survives all of the Reverend Mother’s schemes until a new novitiate, Sister Emanuel, played by Rebecca Dayan, joins the shrinking group and Cathleen finds herself having unholy thoughts about her.

I must say that I enjoyed Novitiate much more than I thought I would. It is not a subject that interests me much. But I found myself drawn in and interested in the day to day life of a nun and especially in the theology that guides them. Some of that exposition could have been smoother but that is something I can forgive especially in the face of a fine production by writer and first time director Margaret Betts. She leads a leisurely pace through this world that is unknown to most of us but I never found myself bored. I didn’t look at my watch once.

The acting was exemplary. All the novitiates were convincing, especially Margaret Qualley, who portrays her struggles on a usually impassive face. But special mention goes to Melissa Leo who by turns breathes fire and evokes sympathy as an authority figure who is out of her time and beginning to sense her own obsolescence. Leo’s name is generally mentioned around Oscar time and she’s getting a lot of buzz for this performance.

I’ve always heard good things about Vatican II. It preached tolerance for other faiths and recommended more open and accessible masses. Nuns were told—and they were told, having had no seat on the reform committees—that they could wear regular clothes if they wished. But they also lost that special relationship with God. The Church decreed that they were no more special than any other female member of the faith. For women who had given up everything for this idea, it was a blow. A note at the end of the film reported that nuns left the Church by the thousands at this time.


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