Monday, September 26, 2016

Biopics!

The "biopic" is an interesting product in the supermarket of film genres. For a biopic (that sounds snazzier than "biographical picture") to be successful, you need a subject who is ultimately likeable, has obstacles to overcome, and is some kind of positive role model. Society doesn't want us to glorify real life bad guys, so we usually either get fictional gangsters or, if they are "real life" bad guys, crime must not pay in the end.

The problem is one of balance. You don't want a purely goody-two-shoes subject, because we want to see our heroes have some kind of flaw that they must struggle to overcome. That makes them somehow easier to relate to. So you get any number of musical geniuses (examples include Johnny Cash, James Brown, and Ray Charles) who put the people who love them through hell before having some sort of epiphany. You also want there to be a struggle of some kind - maybe the subject has to overcome racism (Jackie Robinson, MLK), homophobia (Harvey Milk), mental illness (Howard Hughes) or systemic injustice (N.W.A.).

In the case of Sully, you get Tom Hanks as Capt. Chesley Sullenberger who managed to successfully bring a stricken Airbus down on the frigid Hudson River following multiple bird strikes which took out both of the jet's engines. There was no - repeat, NO - loss of life. Now, my father spent his career as a pilot, first with the Navy, then with Piedmont Airlines, and I remember clearly his admiration for Sully. (The airline Sully flew for was USAirways, which gobbled up Piedmont.) This was not just a difficult thing to do, it was impossible. And yet Sully managed it. The problem with Sully isn't that the story is far-fetched, it's that it isn't "fetched" enough. The moviemakers tried to gin up the drama by making the National Transportation Safety Board ("NTSB") members investigating the crash into the bad guys and it is entirely unnecessary. Events are also compressed to the point of being crushed - NTSB investigations take months and are very painstaking. In Sully, you can be excused for thinking that everything was done in about three weeks. Still, an interesting film, even if it has been "Hollywooded." Clint Eastwood directs, and does an admirable job, if you discount the final song over the credits, which just seems jarring.

Then you have Nina, a biopic starring Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone, a reluctant jazz star who only took to singing to pay for her classical piano studies. From the little western NC town of Tryon, Nina Simone was, for a time in the 60s, more famous for her civil rights stances than her music, and she was plenty famous for her music! Simone's voice was beyond distinctive and I was very much looking forward to this film.

It's a travesty. Awful. Wrong. Misses every single, solitary point. And I will admit that I did something I very rarely do, which is not finish it. The main relationship in the film never existed and Zoe Saldana plays the role in blackface. In 2016. If you must know more details of the problems in this fish wrapper of a movie, click here.

So instead, I watched What Happened, Miss Simone? which is a gorgeous documentary about Nina Simone. The title comes from an essay written by Maya Angelou and that only brushes the tip of the iceberg of what is extraordinary about this performer you've probably never heard of. Do yourself a favor and see this as soon as you can. Nina Simone was complicated, brilliant, self-destructive, used and a user. You won't necessarily like her all the time, but her music came from a place of truth, anger, joy, and tremendous beauty.



Someone else who you won't like all the time is Lyndon Baines Johnson, the "accidental president" who stepped into the Oval Office following the assassination of JFK. Kennedy was the golden boy, all youth and good looks and carefully-constructed image. LBJ, on the other hand, was the old Texas warhorse who had been carefully accumulating markers on Capitol Hill. Suddenly, this rough-edged politician was thrust into the glare of the spotlight and needed to make good on Kennedy's high-flying promises, which included the Civil Rights Act. Maybe only LBJ, with his decades of maneuvering, glad-handing, and not-so-subtle pressure, could have delivered on that, but he went far beyond it. The Voting Rights Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, Head Start - these are but a few of the "Great Society" programs that LBJ championed and, in so doing, transformed America. The escalation of Vietnam marred his legacy, however. Those events occur after the time period covered in All the Way, the film based on the Tony Award-winning play starring Bryan Cranston, tells the story of the first year of the LBJ presidency, going from that dread day in Dallas to LBJ's election a year later. It's powerful moviemaking and well worth seeing. LBJ could be a cast-iron sonofabitch, but politics at that level isn't for the meek. A magnificent supporting cast makes this a must-see, especially during this election cycle.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Outline Contains the Heart

Sorry - due to a number of converging deadlines, the poor blog has been left unattended for longer than it should have been. Rest assured that I've been writing posts in my head; they just haven't made it to the page!

I'm so far behind that I'm going to break this into two posts. Today, I'll touch on two films that I've seen recently that are well worth seeking out and in a day or two, I'll catch you up on some biopics/documentaries.

 Now that we understand the outline (see what I did there?), let's talk about Kubo and the Two Strings, which you are going to seek out immediately. Kubo comes from the fine folk at Laika, a studio dedicated to producing fine stop-motion animation. Since this particular form of animation is so incredibly time-consuming, Laika has produced only a handful of films in its ten-year existence - Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and now Kubo. While all the films have had their high points, in Kubo, everything comes together. The animation is first-rate and the story - well. Kubo's tale begins, "If you must blink - do it now." It's a story about stories - those we tell others, those we tell ourselves, and those we create to explain things. Featuring Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, and Matthew McConaughey, Kubo is an astonishing film and certainly the highlight of my summer.

Skip Suicide Squad, which can't figure out which of half a dozen stories it wants to tell, and seek out this absolute gem about family, loss, and the power of tales.

Tom Hanks is a movie star. There's no doubt about that - attaching his name to a project carries a certain cachet and his projects tend to be box office gold. A Hologram for the King is an anomaly, for it's a teensy independent film that you're going to have to dig a little to find (let me help with that - check your local library!Hologram is worth seeking out just to see the outline of what could have been a fantastic film. Based on a Dave Eggers novel, Hologram tells the story of Alan Clay, a down-on-his-luck salesman who is barely a step above Arthur Miller's Willy Loman. Things aren't going well for Alan - his marriage is dissolving, his career is floundering, leading his daughter to take a semester off from college until her tuition can be worked out, and everything is riding on this sale of high-tech to the Saudi king, who is in no hurry at all to meet with him and his team, who are stuck in a drafty tent in the desert just waiting. And waiting. And waiting. This fish-out-of-water tale is not without its flaws, but it has a certain charm, as well. This is due in part to Hanks' own abilities as an actor, but also to those in smaller roles, such as Alexander Black as Yousef, a free-lance cab driver who shows Alan the topsy-turviness of Saudi society, which boasts lavish wealth along with a regime so repressive women are not allowed to drive and are subject to intense social backlash just for being in a room alone with a man. Outstanding in portraying the down-the-rabbit-hole situations that leads to is Sarita Choudhury as Zahra, a Saudi doctor who shares some of the sorrowful circumstances enveloping Alan. Neither of these are Saudi actors, which seems to be a shame. Then again - it is a repressive regime. This is a quiet film, which might explain its lack of box office appeal. American audiences often don't like "quiet" much. Give it a try, won't you?

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Darkness Among Us

Taking a break from late-summer movies to re-visit a classic in this post - Fritz Lang's M. That's right, just one letter - M. Originally released in 1931 (and quickly banned by the Nazis once they took power in 1933), M is often hailed as both the first police procedural film and the first "serial killer" film. (So, for everyone who thinks old films have to be dusty and boring - you have just revealed yourself as someone who hasn't seen M. Go take care of that, won't you?) It's the film that made Peter Lorre, who until M was known as a comic actor, an overnight global star, albeit one associated with snivelling weasels of characters. Yes, it's in black-and-white and the dialogue is in German, so you have to read subtitles. Rise to the challenge - you won't regret it.

Fritz Lang's story of the hunt for a sadistic child killer is both less graphic and more creepy than many horror films made today. In 1931, filmmakers were still figuring out what film could do and in this, Lang's first "talkie," Lang uses sound to great effect. While only about two-thirds of the film has sound, that absence makes the other one-third otherworldly as we move abruptly from sound to silence. The identity of the murderer is never really in doubt - M is all about the fear engendered by a seemingly-ordinary fellow who has some sort of evil inside him that compels him to kill the most innocent among us. Stand-up citizens become hyper-alert, forming an impromptu mob when an elderly man is seen talking with a young girl on the street. The exhausted police force is willing to strong-arm citizens (both stand-up and otherwise) to uncover the monster preying on Berlin's children. The criminal underworld is outraged that they are being lumped in with an inhuman killing machine. Only the killer goes about his day, cheerfully whistling "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Grieg's Peer Gynt. (By the way, the "stunt whistling" is done by Lang himself and this marked the first time a musical theme was used to identify a particular character - a trick used by opera for years.) M also asks two questions that have been around at least since Euripides' Medea - are those who kill children evil, or merely sick? And, in any event, what's to be done with them?


M is genuinely astonishing. Small details carry so much visual weight - the empty place set at the kitchen table, the detritus of the criminals' hasty scurrying-away from the office building in which the murderer has sought shelter, the dark shadows that hide the criminals' kangaroo court, The similarities between the police and the criminal underground as made obvious, both in common camera set-ups used by both and by shared character traits. (And smoking. Lots and lots of smoking.) Oh, and there actually was a sort of Beggars' Guild in Berlin at the time.

Part of what makes M such a standout film is the fact that it doesn't let us off the hook. Parents know there's a murderer on the loose, yet many children still wander around alone. Then parents are willing to rip an innocent man limb from limb without any sort of police presence. At its heart, M's lesson is that we're all responsible for each other - a lesson the Nazis rising to power in the waning days of the Weimar Republic, roundly ignored.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Summer Barrels Onward!

 Continuing the summer movies-as-escape season, DC's latest, Suicide Squad, has been released. I admit, I had high hopes for this one and it certainly is a fine way to get out of the oppressive Carolina heat-&-humidity for two hours, but aside from that, I fear it has little to recommend it. The movie was plagued by rumors of a bad case of "too many cooks in the kitchen" - after the phenomenal success of Deadpool, cast members were rushed back to film some additional scenes to "make it funnier" since, after the less-than-stellar audience reaction to Batman v Superman, DC was desperate to avoid a third straight critical flop.

The film had a big opening weekend, but I predict it fades faster than a firework. The movie's a mess and I'm not sure who to blame. The tone is all over the place, character development is limited to each character getting one pick from the toybox of "tragic character backstories," and could Harley Quinn please wear shoes that are a little more practical for what she's doing? (The booty shorts are altogether another issue - Margot Robbie deserves better and she's going to have a tough, tough time being treated as a "serious" actress while she's taking roles like this. Harley, as I recall her, has considerably more agency and moxie than this lovesick psychopath.) The soundtrack is fantastic, but the way the songs are used makes the movie feel more like a video - there's flash and dash, but there's no there there. And yes, Jared Leto does a nice Joker, but (spoiler!) he's in the film for about ten minutes. It was just disappointing and it could have been so much more.

So why wasn't it? I think it boils down to DC trying to do in six months what Marvel took six years to do. They're too impatient to do a slow, careful build, so you wind up with a hot mess like this. And not all the Marvel movies have been over-the-back-fence home runs, either, but when you're trying to work with an ensemble, it helps to introduce them and give them traits (plural) instead of cardboard dialogue and one note to play. DC wanted this to be their Guardians of the Galaxy. It isn't.

Meanwhile, I enjoyed Bad Moms more than I expected to. This one's a rental, but a fun one. There's an unexpected streak of sweet running through this admittedly-raunchy comedy about a mom driven too far by the expectations put on her by her kids, other moms, her work, and her (slacker) husband to be all things to all people, all the time. When Amy (Mila Kunis) erupts, it's cathartic. Everyone who's ever felt overworked and underappreciated will see themselves in this film and if you're a mom, it'll take on a poignant level of "oh God, it's funny 'cause it's true!" Certainly not a documentary, Bad Moms has sympathy for those women who keep the world turning, one car-pool at a time. The filmed is helped by a strong cast (Kathryn Hahn is amazing!) and Christina Applegate as the mom who has it all together and heads up the middle school bake sale like a SEAL Black Ops mission, is worth the price of admission. Jada Pinkett-Smith, however, is criminally underused as a mere "yes, boss" character. Be sure to stay through the credits - there are some wonderful, unscripted bits there with the moms of the main cast.

Lastly, if you're not watching Netflix's Stranger Things, start tonight! This eight-episode thriller-mystery is one of the best things I've seen in months and - if you grew up in the 80s, you're going to especially love the nods to your childhood. The events in this movie simply couldn't happen today because no one is going to allow their kids to roam that free anymore. Monsters in the woods aside, that's kind of a shame. (Plus, science teachers just aren't as cool anymore. I blame Walter White. Click here for more information!Stranger Things will make you consider hanging your Christmas lights early this year, then maybe sitting down with a plateful of Eggos. Winona Ryder, please come back - all is forgiven!


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Space, Pets, Giants, and Ghosts

I've been doing a fair amount of plate-spinning lately, so this post will be a bit of a mixed bag. Those who dare, venture onward!

First off, the Babylon 5 project has entered the Crusade phase. We've finished with the movies, some of which are pretty good and a couple of which, well - a couple of which aren't so great, and we've moved into the short-lived spinoff, which certainly has some behind-the-scenes drama. At any rate, we leave for vacation Friday and are under strict orders from our lovely editor to not work on vacation, so my goal is to have all of Crusade annotated before we skedaddle. We got a little behind here since we also needed to prepare our panels for the local Comic Con. Our first panel was on Babylon 5 and we were pleased at the enthusiasm of the audience. Hopefully, that event will happen again and we'll have even more to discuss!

Second, if you enjoyed Breaking Bad (you know I did; Ensley and I wrote a book about it!), check for deep discounts on Amazon and buy yourself Showtime's Ray DonovanCurrently in Season 4, this show about a Irish Southie transplanted to sunny L.A. where he works as a "fixer" to clean up the messes of the rich and famous while his own family's complications pile up is one of the best things I've seen in a while. I'm late to the party on this one, but I expect to enjoy Liev Schreiber and the amazing cast of Ray Donovan for quite a while. (About the cast - it's beyond amazing! When you can get Elliott Gould and James Woods in supporting roles - well, you run with that!) Mind you, it's dark and violent and profane and certainly not for the kiddies, so please keep that in mind.

OK - movie news and thoughts. Sorry these are so short this go-round, but needs must.

The Secret Life of Pets - get there early; there's a short. Much like what Pixar does, Illumination Entertainment put a cartoon (this one features the Minions) in before the movie itself. I saw this in a theater teeming with children who seemed to eat up this adventurous tale of dogs roaming the city while their owners are away. Good vocal talent, and one lovely scene that's a nod to Busby Berkeley 1930s musicals. Plus Kevin Hart as a homicidal bunny and Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet as an extremely unkempt Newfoundland. Fast-paced and funny, but not an automatic classic.

The BFG is getting creamed at the box office and that's a shame. It's a solid picture, with a breakout performance by Ruby Barnhill as Sophie (named for author Roald Dahl's granddaughter). Penelope Wilton (you saw her in Shaun of the Dead and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, plus she's Harriet Jones in the rebooted Dr. Who) is the Queen of England, complete with corgis and is having a wonderful time. Mark Rylance, fresh off his Oscar win for Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, voices the BFG.

The detail that went into creating this one is astonishing - three differently-sized sets? - and the end result is visually stunning. I think the pace might just be too languid for most audiences, especially if they're expecting the frenetic pace of Dory and Pets. Also, this is not a kids' film that has much in it for adults. (That's the trick Pixar has perfected, you know.) Further, Dahl never had a problem addressing the darker side of things and Disney didn't quite know how to market that. It's a beautiful, sweet movie and everything turns out all right in the end - it deserves a bigger audience than it's getting.

Lastly, let's talk Ghostbusters. It's beyond a pity; it's a crying shame that in 2016, there's a small segment of men who are so scared of women that they deliberately run down a film, hoping to make it tank at the box office. But ever since this reboot was announced, that's been happening. Leslie Jones, who is PHENOMENAL in this film, has been driven off Twitter by racist, hateful squawking from men who have enough trouble with women, but add race into it and I'm surprised their pinheads didn't just 'splode. So let me attempt to be fair here.

It's a good movie. I wasn't sure about a reboot, as I like the original one tremendously. But there are enough original jokes in here, with enough nods to the original, to make it worth your while. You get cameos from all the original Ghostbusters (yes, even Egon), as well as Annie Potts and (yes!) Sigourney Weaver - even the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man shows up. There's a bonus if you stay all the way to the end, so make plans to do that. While Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig are funny, Jones and Kate McKinnon nearly steal the show. The only reason they don't is due to Chris Hemsworth, who plays Kevin, a lovable, brainless lunk whose multiple eccentricities manage to be charming. Did I love all of it? Nope - especially not the re-worked theme song, but there's plenty here to keep you entertained through your popcorn.

OK. That's it until August. Enjoy these dog days of summer and try hard to pass them in a nice, air-conditioned theater!