Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) ***1/2 (2017)

Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller star as half brothers in Noah Baumbach's latest family drama that's available on Netflix. Dustin Hoffman plays the family patriarch Harold, an artist in his twilight years constantly worried about his legacy. Danny (Sandler) is a former house husband who must figure out his next step as his daughter Eliza prepares to leave for college. Matthew (Stiller) is a successful businessman still seeking the approval of Harold. 

A film made in segments, with each chapter focusing on a specific character, gives the film a literary quality. As usual Baumbach's writing is superb, right up there with his previous films The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg. Sandler displays his range and great potential when given a good script. His scenes with Stiller are especially good. Hoffman gives one of his best performances in years.

The Meyerowtiz Stories features a stellar supporting cast. Emma Thompson as Harold's boozy wife, Elizabeth Marvel as the younger sister, and especially Grace Van Patten as Eliza. Adam Driver, Judd Hirsch, and Candice Bergin also appear.

The film also has the feel of a J.D. Salinger story with all the terse dialogue and mundane situations that take a surreal turn. Saul Bellow and John Updike also come to mind.  

Eliza's the best hope for the family's future, a well adjusted millennial who somehow navigates the emotional minefields of the past.

Baumbach dares to create unlikable characters and allows you to appreciate their character flaws. He makes them relatable. Even though Danny and Matthew have taken different paths in life they still care about each other. Despite all of Harold's bitter sarcasm there's something moving about his love for the Mets. A wonderful character portrait. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

Allied (2016) ***

Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard star in an old fashioned World War II drama/espionage thriller Allied that's both suspenseful and emotional. Directed by Robert Zemeckis with a pristine sense of period detail, the film recalls the literature of Graham Green and Elizabeth Bowen. 

Max (Pitt) is a Canadian who works for British Intelligence in North Africa where he meets his contact Marianne (Cotillard) who is with the French Resistance. Their mission is a success and they get married. Then the movie shifts to wartime London, where Max begins to suspect whether Marianne's been totally honest with him.

There are excellent set pieces and an outstanding supporting cast. The terror of living in London during the blitz is realistic and frightening. The two leads have a strong chemistry and the story's full of surprises. 

Now that Zemeckis has come out of his animation phase, he's turned his attention to stirring historical thrillers of another era, much like his onetime mentor Spielberg. Allied is never boring and tells its story with precision and wit. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 *** (2017)

Blade Runner 2049 takes its stylistic cues from the original 1982 film, yet at the same time offers a different vision that's just as striking and imaginative. Ryan Gosling stars as a blade runner, one who hunts down replicants, artificial beings who are not allowed to live on earth. In the original film, Harrison Ford starred as a blade runner who finds himself caught up in corporate intrigue that will shape the future. In the sequel, even deeper questions are posed on the fate of humanity and the inevitability of digital intelligence.

In 2049, the world is still reeling from an environmental catastrophe. Los Angeles resembles modern Tokyo and the lines between human and replicant have narrowed. Gosling plays "K." The investigation he pursues is more convoluted than Humphrey Bogart's in The Big Sleep. Yet each scene offers visually stunning and thought provoking moments. 

One things is clear as I watched Blade Runner 2049, humans will be forced to deal with real world consequence of artificial intelligence. That's the key idea the film attempts to address. The original mused on what it means to be human. The sequel asks even more complicated questions with the assumption that humans are destined to disappear: What will the legacy be when our forebears take the reins?

That's heady stuff. I think that's why audiences are not responding with rave reviews (many walked out at the screening I attended). Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 is a cold film. It's a specific vision from Jacques Villeneuve, who directed another Sci-Fi classic last year with Arrival. Hampon Fancher's (writer on the 1982 film) screenplay is dense, yet brilliantly brought to the screen.

Harrison Ford reprises his role and appears in the second half, yet somehow seems irrelevant to the overall arc of the film. Still, he brings some humanity to the dour proceedings. 

There's much to process with Blade Runner 2049: the nature of human/machine relationships, the consequences of climate change, and a post-human future. It dares to be difficult and pessimistic. Many will consider it pretentious and overlong.  I predict it will age well. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Last House on the Left ***1/2 (1972)

Wes Craven's debut feature film, infamous for its time, is an extremely bizarre mixture of family drama, exploitative crime fiction, shocking horror, and slapstick comedy.  Despite the grainy look and weirdo soundtrack The Last House on the Left succeeds as a worthy response to the bleak early 1970s.

The Last House on the Left begins as fractured Hallmark commercial as young Mari prepares to attend a rock concert for her 17th birthday against the wishes of her humdrum middle class parents. She's accompanied by her free spirit friend Phyllis. They want to score some pot and they approach a sketchy looking dude on a dark street who invites them up to his apartment. Up there waiting are viscous, but all too human, group of violent criminals. What follows is horrific.

Through a series of coincidences, the gang of criminals end up as house guests of Mari's grieving parents. In the last act the parents take revenge, revealing themselves to be just as depraved as the thugs. Spliced throughout the film are scenes following two idiotic cops who are on the case, scenes that are played as straight up comedy and feel like they belong in a separate movie. A touch that adds another level to the terror.

The Last House on the Left brings to mind many other films of the period.  A Clockwork Orange is an obvious parallel, especially in the flip side nature of both films. Craven is clearly condemning violence, regardless of who commits it, while Kubrick's stance is more ambiguous. In terms of style and look, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre comes to mind, both have a creepy cinema verite influence, forcing the audience to feel like a spectacle to the horror. George Romero's Night of the Living Dead inspired all these movies, especially with its absurd sense of reality.

Craven admitted to being ignorant of the horror genre at the time The Last House on the Left was written. It's a far cry from the self reflexive tone of modern horror gems like It Follows (ironically Craven invented the approach with Scream.) The final result struck many as a sick and convoluted mess. I would compare Last House to a crazy cocktail mixture; there's a method to the madness.  You don't walk away feeling good (queasy more likely), but it's definitely an experience. Remember, It's only a movie.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Salem's Lot ***1/2 (1979)

The 1979 TV adaptation of Stephen King's second novel Salem's Lot made a memorable impression on audiences, especially young people who were scared out of their wits. King's tale of a New England town being taken over by vampires drew upon a variety of influences: Bram Stoker's Dracula, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Peyton Place. Tobe Hooper's direction is sure and steady, effectively building up suspense with an array of characters, in direct contrast to his legendary exploitation flick The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

David Soul stars as a writer who returns to his hometown to research a novel and discovers something is rotten in the state of Denmark. The new owner of the antiques store, devilishly played James Mason, wants to remake the town in his own image. 

There's a charming quality to Salem's Lot: the production is rickety and well acted. The cast is full of great television actors including Ed Flanders. Bonnie Bedelia, and many more. The deliberate pace will annoy younger audiences (I've not seen the two hour version), but the payoffs are worth it. The jump scares are unforgettable.

I doubt there will ever be a motion picture made of Salem's Lot since the Tobe Hooper version is so unique, imagine a horror movie directed by Norman Rockwell. The town looks great and there's a perverse pleasure in watching the rot gradually being revealed: that's the world of Stephen King. Maybe not the best adaptation, but one of the most loyal to the source material.

Monday, October 9, 2017

American Made *** (2017)

Now in the fourth decade of his career, Tom Cruise soldiers on as one of the last true movie stars. America Made proves to be a film that works for Cruise as a star vehicle - up to a certain point. 

Based on a true story, Cruise plays a bored commercial airline pilot Barry Seal in the late 1970s. One day's he's approached by a "government official" played by Domnall Gleason who offers Barry a job of taking photographs from his plane of locations in Central America. Barry jumps at the opportunity and eventually finds himself working for drug cartels and eventually at the center of the Iran-Contra Scandal.

Other films have covered similar ground such Lord of War with Nicholas Cage and War Dogs from 2014, movies that force opportunist characters to face the reality of the situation. American Made refuses to put the audience through that, it's more of an amusement park ride with Cruise at the helm. A good old boy with a pseudo southern accent who can do wrong; like the rest of us, he's just trying to get by. 

A subplot involving a nefarious nephew almost grinds the film to a halt.

Despite being predictable at times with Argo style use of stock footage, the last 20 minutes do surprise. A crowd pleaser from start to finish.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Spielberg **** (2017)

The HBO documentary Spielberg is an intimate and moving overview of the director's nearly fifty year career in film.  Susan Lacy, the film's director, was given access to Spielberg's archive and was granted several interviews by her Spielberg himself. Many of Spielberg's frequent collaborators also appear. Clips from his films are also prominent, sure to please cinephiles everywhere.

Spielberg begins with Jaws, the make it or break it moment of his career. His sheer skill as a filmmaker, the ability to create unrelenting suspense and foster memorable characters made the film an era defining blockbuster. For after Jaws, Spielberg earned something few directors achieve: creative control. 

The most revealing aspect of Spielberg is how personal his movies are, influenced by his lonely, exciting, and sometimes traumatic childhood.  His father, an IBM computer engineer, was rarely home and often relocated his family. Spielberg describes his mother as being more of a sister, a free spirit who encouraged all her children, Steven and his three sisters, to channel their creativity. He found an outlet in movies and television and expressed himself by telling stories through the camera, many clips of which are included in the documentary. Film gave Spielberg an identity and helped him deal with the pain of bullying, the divorce of his parents, and uneasiness about his Jewish heritage.

His movies were a way of working through these conflicts. Spielberg's early films, most notably E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, behind all the special effects and surreal sequences, deal with issues of family and abandonment. A sizable segment deals with Spielberg's reflections on the making of Schindler's List and coming to terms with his Jewish identity. Schindler's List still looks unlike anything he ever did; it was especially enlightening to hear Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley reflect on working with Spielberg.

Not without critics, Spielberg's been accused of being too much of a populist in his movies. Some critics contend Spielberg's sentimentality and childish worldview offer little way in the way of substance. Interestingly, Spielberg himself agreed with early critics such as Pauline Kael who praised his technical wizardry, but wondered if he had anything of substance to say. He took the criticism to heart.

As Spielberg matured as a person his films became more complex, especially his run of Sci-Fi films in the 21st Century, most notably A.I. and Minority Report. Even a later film like Catch Me If You Can from 2002 can be read as an autobiography of sorts, like the con artist played by Leonardo DiCaprio who convinced people he was an airline pilot and doctor, Spielberg used persistence and outrageous risk to break into the film business.

Well made and comprehensive, Spielberg does increase our understanding of one of the great artists of of the past 50 years.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

It (2017) ***1/2

The long awaited adaptation of the 1986 Stephen King novel It proved a Box Office juggernaut for a September release. As a movie, the rebooted It stands heads and shoulders above the workmanlike TV movie from 1990. The script and look of the film resemble the Netflix TV series Stranger Things, with its stellar cast of child actors. It suggests the beginnings of an epic story despite the occasional hiccup and tendency to bludgeon the viewer with jump scares (after awhile the shock value wears off). The acting and direction are exceptional, staying true to the spirit of Stephen King's original vision.

Set in the fictional town of Derry, a typical medium sized American city in Maine (based on King's long time hometown of Bangor). The novel and film begin with a terrifying scene of a little boy meeting a clown who lives inside the city's sewer system. More children disappear, yet no one in the town seems concerned. 

A group of kids who call themselves the "Losers Club" begin to investigate the strange disappearances, leading to even larger questions about the town's troubled history no one ever talks about.

All the child actors did a fantastic job as the underdogs who must fight off bullies to survive. Meanwhile, their parents are distant and possibly corrupted by the evil that resides in Derry.  Beverly, the lone girl in the club, must deal with slut shaming and a super creepy Dad, Sophia Lillis gives the standout performance that's worthy of Oscar consideration.  

Bill Skarsgard was scary enough as the clown Pennywise, frightening in his voice and bizarre facial mannerisms. My only criticism would be we get too much of Pennywise, especially in the strained climax.

At his best Stephen King is definitey not all about scares and gross outs, but story and character. In fact I would argue that's the secret of his success, he creates memorable characters.  Who can forget Carrie, Johnny Smith from The Dead Zone, or Andy and Red in The Shawshank Redemption? That's the great strength of It, one of the gems in his prolific career.

My hopes were high for It when Cary Fukunaga was scheduled to direct, but in 2015 he dropped out over creative differences and was replaced Andy Muschietti. Apparently Fukunaga wanted to make a more unconventional horror film and King was reportedly enthusiastic about the script.  While Muschietti made a more conventional horror film, he obviously worked well with the cast. I'm not sure if this version of It will become a classic, but at the very least a respectable adaptation.