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Elle

Paul Verhoeven always adds a satiric element to his films which to me frequently feels tacked on or even forced.  The propaganda spots in Starship Troopers or the little league baseball coach bringing his team along to a jewelry heist during a police strike in Robocop are examples of this.  To me they jar too much in action films which is mostly what Verhoeven makes.  He tries to have it both ways: to make a commercially viable movie and one that is edgy at the same time.  But frankly, Verhoeven isn’t talented enough to pull it off.

Anyway, Elle opens up just as Michelle Leblanc’s, played by Isabelle Huppert, rapist is finishing up.  She’s lying flat on the floor amidst some broken bric-a-brac with torn clothes and a black eye.  After a few moments, she gets herself together, cleans up and tries to go about her business.  Michelle is the head of a video game publisher which she rules with an iron fist.  The company specializes in graphically violent games with disturbing images.  This doesn’t seem to bother her even after the rape.

At first she has the idea that the rapist works there since she has a lot of people who resent her.  She uses her determination and resources to hunt for the man.  The whole thing turns into something of a game that she surprisingly finds intriguing and gradually her motives for finding him become somewhat convoluted.

Huppert’s performance is fine but I don’t think it’s the triumph that others are saying it is.  It’s very understated and French.  This is a French language film by the way.  You have sympathy for her as you would any rape victim but she’s not a very likeable character.  Huppert straddles that line well enough.

I can’t even give Verhoeven the satisfaction of being offended by this movie.  It’s too incompetently put together for that.  The rape is only the most terrible thing of a plethora of terrible things happening here.  Michelle’s having an affair with her best friend’s husband; when she was nine years old, her father went on a killing spree which he may have involved her in; her son’s girlfriend has a baby which obviously isn’t his and the list goes on.  These things rain down on you one after the other with stupefying regularity.  There are about five plots crammed into two hours and eleven minutes and it still manages to drag because it doesn’t build to any kind of climax.  The most terrible thing opens the film.

I suppose the point of this is that circumstances get convoluted and motives get confused.  There’s a banality to that first scene of Michelle sweeping up after the rapist leaves that underlines this theme.  Life goes on no matter what happens and somebody has to clean up.  I guess this is true.  But without giving anything away, I don’t think her actions afterward are realistic.

Elle may be a meditation on the complicated nature of human motivation but it feels like the case of a lawyer defending a rapist.

And it is also a mess of a movie.

A Monster Calls

Coner, played by Lewis MacDougall, is a young boy who has a large and growing number of problems.  Chief among them is the fact that his Mum, played by Felicity Jones is battling cancer.  He’s also getting beat up regularly at school by a bully.  Then his unpleasant Grandma, played by Sigourney Weaver comes and takes over the house and the care of Mum, eventually moving him to her impeccable and sterile home when Mum goes into the hospital.

The boy reacts to all this by retreating into his head, relying on fantasies to get him through the day.  He needs help but doesn’t know how to ask for it and refuses it when it’s offered.  It comes anyway in the form of a tree monster, voiced by Liam Neeson that visits him in the middle of the night, just as the clock turns from 12:06 to 12:07.  The monster gives him a bit of psychotherapy and some insight into the complex nature of human emotions, aiding him in the maturing process, as monsters do.

It’s a pretty film, dark with muted colors and seamless special effects.  The monster tells three stories, the first two are done in animated sequences that are appropriately impressionistic.  The performances are fine with Felicity Jones’s standing out the most but the kid, Lewis MacDougall does a really good job as well.

But when it comes down to it A Monster Calls is a very manipulative film.  Just the subject matter of a young child losing his mother is going to evoke rivers of tears.  There is no subtlety or ambiguity about the theme; it’s all laid out in the monster’s speeches and in his transparent stories.  And this is ironic because the theme is that people are complicated and nuanced and are capable of being both good and bad.

As pretty as the film is there is no need to see it in a theater.  Wait for the DVD and then put it on when you need a good cry.

Hidden Figures

In the field of astronomy the use of human computers, people who would power through the mathematical calculations of a particular problem, was routine since the eighteenth century.  A century later, women began to fill these roles.  Back then this was as far as they could advance even though several of them made significant contributions.  Their male bosses almost always took the credit.

When NASA, in the wake of the Soviets launching Sputnik, was tasked with getting a man into space they continued the practice.  Many of the women they used were African American.  Hidden Figures, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, is the story of three such women.

Katherine Goble/Johnson (she gets married during the story,) played by Taraji P. Henson is the main focus.  From an early age she shows signs of being a prodigy in math, especially geometry.  This gets her the job at NASA.  When it starts taking too long to get the new IBM mainframe computers online, NASA director Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner (who is actually a composite of several figures at NASA at the time) desperately needs a human computer to check the math of the engineers on his team.  Because of her facility with geometry, Katherine is recruited for the position and quickly becomes indispensable, despite the reluctance of the team to accept her.  Henson does a great job of depicting a woman, perfectly aware of her precarious position among the white men on her team but who is nonetheless determined to succeed.  When Harrison demands to know why she is away from her desk for forty minutes a day, she angrily informs him that there is no colored women’s bathroom in the building and that she has to walk a half mile to use one.  She also lets out her resentment on a number of other things as well, including a small coffee pot labeled “colored” that showed up on the morning after she got herself a cup from the communal urn.  It’s a scene with a lot of dramatic fireworks and Henson handles it perfectly.

Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan as a slightly older and more responsible woman, acting as the supervisor of the pool of computers but not getting the title or the pay.  Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, is the youngest and has the hardest time keeping her mouth shut in the face of white prejudice.  But she’s smart and ambitious.  She wants to be an engineer and she doggedly pursues the dream despite the obstacles NASA and state of Virginia put in her way.  This is Monae’s second great movie performance this year; the first being in Moonlight.

All three of these women push the system and make it give them the opportunities that they deserve.  They take their cues from the civil rights struggle going on around them and speak up about the unfairness and indignity that makes up their lives.  The film is very good at showing these with plenty of shots of frowning faces staring at the three main characters.

Hidden Figures is a very traditional presentation of the classic underdog overcoming great odds story, a story we never tire of.  Director Theodore Melfi, who also co-wrote the script with Allison Schroeder, doesn’t give us any cinematic tricks or narrative devices.  This story doesn’t need any.  The filmmakers just get out of the way and let it unfold.

After watching this and doing a little research in the topic, I can’t help but think about all the people throughout history who could have contributed so much to society but couldn’t because of their gender or their ethnicity.  What a terrible waste.

Lion

Five year old Saroo, played by Sunny Pawar, is separated from his mother and siblings when he takes shelter in a decommissioned train that travels over 1200 miles to Calcutta.  This is devastating since they are desperately poor and there is no way to be reunited unless they are very lucky.  Saroo cannot remember the proper name of his town and therefore cannot tell people where he’s from.  He survives as best he can until he lands in an orphanage and is finally adopted by John and Sue Brierly, an Australian couple played by David Wenham and Nicole Kidman.  There he is raised in a loving middle class home.

But when he grows up, Saroo, now played by Dev Patel, becomes obsessed with what his birth mother must have gone through.  Looking at the luxury he enjoys every day, he feels guilty about the family he left behind in squalor.  He uses Google Earth and his spotty memories to try and find his home town.  But it takes a long time and his obsession costs him his job, his girlfriend Lucy, played by Rooney Mara and almost his relationship to his adoptive parents.

The first half of the film is really good.  Sunny Pawar is a natural at playing a smart kid who has good instincts when it comes to steering around the more awful aspects of surviving on the streets of Calcutta in the 1980’s.  The city’s homeless ghettoes are depicted brilliantly with fast cuts and moving cameras.  The colors are muted and dingy.  You are really concerned for this spunky kid as he moves from one Dickensian situation to another.

In the second half, however, the pace slows down as the film becomes mopey.  I appreciate his dilemma here but I don’t understand why refuses all help with his search and I knew his parents would support him and not think he was ungrateful.  Why didn’t he?  This is a true story but that didn’t ring true.  There must have been something that the filmmakers left out.

In any case all that angst really caused the pace to drag in the second half of the film.  The ending, once he gets to India is real tearjerker so bring some tissues but boy is it a slog getting there.

Lion is worth seeing and I guess part of the profits go helping orphans in India, which is as good a cause as I can think of.

La La Land

It would be tempting to write that La La Land is an attempt to revive the musical as a thing in Hollywood.  But I think that would be a mistake.  It is only being released in art house theaters so I doubt that it will do the box office it needs to revive a moribund genre.  The other extreme would be to label it as a stunt, a trick to drum up sales and attention from the Academy.  Somewhere in there is the truth.

Mia, played by Emma Stone is an aspiring actress whose day job is as a barista in a coffee shop on a movie lot.  This allows her to go on auditions during breaks and lunches.  It is a long and often humiliating process but she’s determined to be a movie star like in her favorite old movies.  Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling is a pianist, working multiple gigs to get by and to save money to open a jazz club where he can play the pure improvisational jazz he loves but which is out of fashion.  They run into each other several times and after a rocky start they begin a relationship.

Can these two crazy kids make it in a cold indifferent world?

The film starts out as the kind of musical set in a world where people just break into fully orchestrated songs every once in a while.   The beginning of the film is a pretty inventive dance routine with people stuck in a traffic jam, getting out and dancing around and on top of their cars.  These were professional dancers and singers.  Alas, that is the last time we hear from them.

First of all the songs are not very memorable.  They are clumped together, with long stretches in the middle of no music.  You can almost forget it’s a musical.  And many of the songs that are there feel tacked on.  They aren’t integrated into the plot very well.  It’s like, “We’re making a musical; here’s a song!”

But the biggest flaw is that the two leads can’t sing and are only marginal dancers.  This really surprised me in the case of Gosling who I understand was a Mouseketeer when he was a kid.  I thought they were trained to sing and dance from an early age.  But his singing voice is thin and consistently off key and his dancing is slow and laborious as if he has to think about every move he’s making.  And it’s the same with Emma Stone.  As I’ve said before: there are people in this world who can sing, dance and act.  If you’re making a musical why not cast them?  I know the studios often want established stars in the leads, but you can dub in a real singer’s voice or at least use auto-tune.

There’s a problem with the tone of the film.  The musical part simply isn’t good enough to work, but the plot is so simple and straightforward—there are hardly any twists—that it wouldn’t work as a regular story.  I kind of like the theme that chasing your dreams is a wonderful thing but there are sacrifices and compromises that have to be made while doing it.  But the filmmakers can’t decide if they want to make A Star is Born or an Andy Hardy movie.

Part of the problem is a lack of expertise.  Back in the thirties, forties and fifties when it seemed every other movie was a musical, there were battalions of stars in Hollywood who could pull off all three phases.  There were also plenty of songwriters, choreographers, and directors who knew the genre intimately and making a musical was a matter of making a few phone calls.  Nowadays the process has to be reverse engineered and the results are hit and miss.

La La Land is a miss and definitely a stunt.

Fences

Adapted from August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning play, Fences is about a struggling African American family in 1950’s Pittsburgh.  Denzel Washington plays the father, Troy Maxson, who was a talented baseball player in his youth but who never got the chance to play in the majors because of racism.  Now he is a garbage man, who wouldn’t make enough money to support his family without his brother Gabe’s, played by Mykelti Williamson, disability check.  Gabe was in the war and has a plate in head that renders him simple.  Troy’s teenage son, Cory, played by Jovan Adepo, has scholarship offers to play football.  But Troy discourages him because he does not trust the white man.

The film follows the family over years as Troy, a larger than life raconteur, who loves to make up stories about his encounters with an anthropomorphized death, holds court in his back yard on Friday nights after he gets his paycheck and a bottle of gin.  Usually joining him is longtime friend and co-worker Jim Bono, played by Stephen Henderson, and Troy’s first son from an encounter when Troy was younger, Lyons, played by Russell Hornsby, usually comes by to ask for money.  And then of course there is his long suffering wife, Rose, played by Viola Davis.

Family secrets are dredged up and old and new wounds opened.  Troy is a compelling figure, loud and boisterous and fun but his faults are equally outsized and they eventually drive away all the things that make his life worth living.

The age old problem with adapting a film from a play is that plays tend to be static, taking place in a limited number of locations and relying on dialog to advance the plot.  Characters in plays are often more articulate than is realistic.  Fences is no exception to this.  But somehow in this case you don’t mind.  For one thing August Wilson wrote the screenplay and used most of his dialog which is great and very descriptive.  Plus this is a really great cast.  Washington directs himself to a pitch perfect performance.  There are scenes where you can see in his eyes that he realizes that he’s made a mistake but he just can’t admit it so he doubles down.  Every week he takes his pay envelope home and delivers it to his wife, who leaves him only a small portion of it.  This is a situation he accepts meekly even though he seems like the kind of man who’d be too proud to adhere to it.

Viola Davis delivers one of her best performances here and believe me that bar is high.  Rose is a woman who sees her husband for what he is but who has dedicated her life to supporting him anyway.  Basically she’s satisfied, but every once in a while her bitterness comes to the surface, especially when he treats her particularly unfairly.

Fences is an actors’ showcase.  The cinematography is good as are the costumes and settings.  But those things are secondary to Wilson’s crackling dialog and a set of terrific performances

Jackie

Jackie is the story of the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination.  Centering on the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, played by Natalie Portman, it is a character study of one of the most intriguing figures in the history of this country.  Even today when we think of First Ladies, we think of Jackie Kennedy.  Obviously, she was intelligent and educated but that didn’t prepare her completely for marrying into the Kennedy family where her life was in a sense not private.  She had to provide an example of grace and strength to the public.

Never was that tested more than on November 22, 1963, when she sat beside her husband in a convertible parading down a street in Dallas and his brains were blown out by an assassin’s bullet.  Nobody’s going to be the same after that and most of us would fall apart completely.  We might hold it together enough for our kids but not for anyone else.  Jackie Kennedy had to be strong for the entire country.  And she did it beautifully.

Needless to say a film like this hinges on a single performance in this the filmmakers chose well.  Oscar winner Natalie Portman looks like Kennedy and she certainly has the talent to portray her.  She handles the histrionics well and exceeds at showing the inner strength we think of when we think of Jackie Kennedy.  Portman deserves all the praise and Oscar buzz she’s receiving for this performance.

The film itself has an elegiac pace and jumps between the hours after the assassination and two long conversations with a reporter, played by Billy Crudup, and a priest, played by John Hurt.  It becomes a meditation on presidential legacies and the distance between legend and truth.  Jackie is questioning her faith as anyone would in her situation so she talks to the priest.  But she is also eager to cement her husband’s legacy, which is why she brings in the reporter on the condition that she has final approval over what gets printed.  It is also why she insists on a horse drawn procession to take the coffin the eight blocks to St. Matthews Cathedral for the state funeral.  She wanted JFK’s funeral to be as close to Lincoln’s as possible.

What I don’t like is what the filmmakers are contending here.  Screenwriter Noah Oppenheim and director Pablo Larrain seem to contend that JFK didn’t really accomplish much in his short term as president and that Jackie created the whole Camelot mythology and her husband’s revered reputation in the weeks after his death.  I’m not an expert but this strikes me as unlikely.  And as a lifelong Democrat, it makes me a little angry.  That’s the kind of argument I’d expect to hear on Fox News, not in a movie.

Still it’s well done and the costumes and sets are beautiful.  The pace is slower than what most of us are used to but it only last a little over an hour and a half.  But frankly, this one can probably wait for DVD.


May 2017
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