Thursday, December 7, 2023

Napoleon ***1/2 (2023)

Ridley Scott's Napoleon brings to the big screen one of history's most controversial figures, the Corsican Napoleon Bonaparte. Played with a pouty gusto by Joaquin Phoenix, Napoleon is more of a suggestive historical epic than a precise one. Impressive battle sequences and political intrigue are matched by scenes with the one figure who could level the emperor - the Empress Josephine played by Vanessa Kirby. 

Filmmakers have struggled to bring Napoleon's life to the big screen. Abel Gance's 1927 silent epic is considered the best by film scholars. Stanley Kubrick struggled for years to get his Napoleon project off the ground, but it was never meant to be. Earlier this year Steven Spielberg alluded to adapting Kubrick's Napoleon for as a limited series with himself as producer. Whether Ridley Scott's film will help or hinder the TV project remains to be seen (Scott's film will stream as an expanded 4-hour version on Apple TV). 

The two and a half hour running time of the current theatrical version certainly feels like pieces are missing. Much of the first hour is devoted to Napoleon's rise in revolutionary France, the middle on his military campaigns, and the final section on his downfall. The script weaves between epic battle scenes and melodrama, providing an odd duality with Napoleon as the master of politics and warfare, while being dominated emotionally by Josephine at home. 

As a tapestry, small moments of Napoleon's quirks punctuate the narrative. He screams at the English ambassador, "You think you're so great because you have BOATS!" Or when he toys with the Russian Tsar Alexander or sadly wanders around an empty Moscow, the film is savvy to his unique charisma. Recreations of Napoleonic warfare are especially effective, the Battle of Austerlitz is visually stunning. Achievements outside of military glory are glossed over, like his creating the modern legal code in France or the inspiration he brought to the intelligentsia of Europe who viewed him as the embodiment of Enlightenment ideals.

As one of cinema' most skillful commercial filmmakers, Scott realizes he's making a mass entertainment. One can pick apart the structure or the historical accuracy, yet the world building is high- level. Scott communicates with confidence the vastness of the historical scope his story is built upon, without getting bogged down in minutia. The final result is imperfect, but highly entertaining. 

Monday, November 27, 2023

The Holdovers ***1/2

Set over the holiday season of 1970, Alexander Payne's The Holdovers stays in keeping with his fondness for 70s-character studies rooted in the Hal Ashby tradition. The wintry Boston setting recalls The Last Detail, while its irreverent and sensitive portraits resembles Harold and Maude. 

Dominic Sessa stars as Angus, a rebellious student left with no choice but to remain under the supervision of his cranky history teacher Mr. Hunham played by Paul Giamatti, in one of his finest roles in years. Da'Vine Joy Randolph completes the trio as Mary Lamb, head cook at the school grieving the loss of her son in Vietnam. 

Payne develops his characters well as we get to know them, shaping the story as a dramedy punctuated with moments of character growth. Angus is a classic underachiever whose caustic wit often gets him in trouble. As the story unfolds, we gradually learn his humor is covering up a loneliness. Hunham relishes his reputation as the teacher students fear, hiding away from his own insecurities. Mary must serve as a mother figure for both, while seeking her own way forward.

Those familiar with the rebellious student and stuffy teacher making connection will recognize the story beats. The humor ranges from broad to cerebral to heartfelt. For instance, in a sojourn to a bowling alley, Hunham can't help himself in being the cliché blowhard know it all in explaining the origins of Santa Claus to two working class Joes, who stare at him blank face as he pontificates. It's a tried and true setup for a gag we've seen many times, but it works because it's keeping in character and Giamatti's seamless timing.

It's been said the mark of a good story is if you can imagine the characters living a life beyond the ending. In that case, The Holdovers is a success. There's a richness in the details, from the scruffiness of '70s Boston to the austere Prep School.  Payne often sidesteps melodrama in favor of letting the vibrant setting and small moments all serve the film well.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Oppenheimer (2023)

Christopher Nolan loves his puzzles. With Oppenheimer he turns his cinematic focus to one the most enigmatic figures of the 20th Century. Nolan ups the stakes with each of his films, pushing his circular narratives further outward. Perhaps Tenet, which I liked a lot, took the Memento approach to as far as it could go. Nolan broadens his canvas with Oppenheimer, posing relevant questions about technology and the nature of humanity, a tale rooted in myth just as much as the past.

Oppenheimer is not the first film about the Manhattan Project, but it's the first to give the story an epic treatment with a big budget. Cillian Murphy starts as J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), the physicist who led the project and became the public face as the man who built the bomb. We see him as the 20th Century man, the scientific prodigy studying Picasso paintings, enthralled with quantum physics, exuding both eccentric and heroic qualities. 

While he was a Professor at Berkeley during the 1930s, Oppenheimer was involved in leftist politics as many were during the Great Depression. He had an impassioned affair with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), a young woman active in the communist party. The affair continued after his marriage to Kitty (Emily Blunt), the film only hints at the dynamics of their relationship. While Oppenheimer never became a "card carrying" member of the party, his loyalty would come under question years later. It's suggested part of the reason he was chosen to lead the project was to set him up to fail, the hinge on which the script turns.

The other main plot thread deals with the consequences of building the bomb and what it meant for the future of the world. Nolan, with the finesse of Brian De Palma, creates a sense of excitement and dread as time draws near to testing the weapon and the uncertainty of what would happen. By that point, Oppenheimer was more of a politician than a scientist, managing all the clashing egos. Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), the brilliant (but cold) Hungarian who pioneered the hydrogen bomb, is presented as an antagonist. Matt Damon especially stands out as General Leslie Groves who led the military side of the project and formed a complex partnership with Oppenheimer.

Oliver Stone's fever dream histories also appear to have influenced Nolan, specifically the dizzying editing style of JFK (and lots of shifting from color to black and white). Stone has fallen out of fashion in recent years, but his hypnotic approach to representing the past feels especially suited to this current time moment. Nolan's movies are all about the struggle between order and chaos, always in search of an answer to the puzzle that differentiates him from Stone (who revels in the uncertainty). 

The search for order may attest to the strained last section of the film. Nolan shifts gears into procedural mode, trapping us the audience in a room with Oppenheimer and his inquisitors. In a battle of wills with head of the Atomic Energy Commission Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) over the future of atomic power, Oppenheimer favored an international commission to regulate its use, which opened him up to questions about his loyalty. His credibility came under further strain when it was discovered there was a Soviet mole inside the Manhattan Project. He lost his security clearance and never regained his reputation.

At the heart of the film is not just the tragic nature of Oppenheimer - but of humanity itself. Unlocking the power of the atom presented unlimited possibilities for the future, but also the weaponization of the technology threatens that very future. We've all heard the arguments: if America hadn't built the bomb the Germans would've first. The use of atomic weapons against the Japanese people also remains divisive - as it should. Perhaps the most chilling scene is when Oppenheimer meets President Truman in the White House, the plain-spoken Missourian's casual attitude about bombing Japan borders on banal comic book villainy (matched by an earlier scene when an official vetoes bombing Kyoto because he visited the city during his honeymoon). 

We later see Oppenheimer wincing when he views photos of the devastation from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The implication is that he unconsciously decided to carry the burden of the suffering his creation wrought. A scene with Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) further reinforces the theme of responsibility, a fictional conversation in which Einstein blames Oppenheimer for dooming humanity. It's tempting to place martyrdom as a recurring motif in Nolan's filmography, but here we have the ultimate example.

A three-hour historical epic that's not a franchise movie becoming a smash hit in 2023 is surprised me. I doubt modern filmgoers go to movies for the director, yet well told stories still carry weight. Even though Oppenheimer is set in the past, it often looks and feels like a Sci-Fi film. There are many stories to be told about 20th Century science, politics, and technology and Oppenheimer sets up a template of a new type of blockbuster. 


Friday, July 7, 2023

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023)

First of all, a big improvement over The Crystal Skull. James Mangold and the screenwriters took the best elements of the first three and remixed them into a rousing final adventure. 

Ford left it all on the field with this one, nothing phoned it at all in a performance that's all heart and soul as aging Indy. Phoebe Waller-Bridge also held her own as Indy's "Godchild" Helena Shaw who leads him on this adventure. She reminded me of Marion and a younger version of Indy, a daughter of sorts. Mads Mikkelsen was a tad perfunctory as the Nazi scientist villain. Other supporting characters were hit and miss, unfortunately Short Round was not included in the story.

The film opens with a de-aged Ford in the waning days of WWII, eluding capture from the Nazis. His mission was to retrieve stolen art and along the way stumbled upon a relic constructed by Archimedes that contains unique properties. In 1969, Indy is divorced and living alone, still teaching but trudging along with little purpose. Helena Shaw arrives and informs him escaped Nazis are after the clock.

The action set pieces are well constructed and in the tradition of the old serials. Action moves from New York, Tangiers, Athens, and eventually Sicily. Yes, the final section involves time travel, but I thought it was handled in a surprisingly subdued and even wondrous way. 

Not everything works in the film. The story gets unwieldy at times and maybe there were too many action sequences. 

Still, with the John Williams music and its themes of finding meaning in changing times. fighting the Nazis, and a refreshing sense of adventure and discovery won me over. Mangold really channeled Spielberg's style, but also made a film in line with his previous efforts Logan and Ford v Ferrari

All in all, a meaningful and well made final chapter in this saga.


Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Directed by William Wyler

Written by Robert Sherwood (adapted the Mackinay Kantor novella Glory For Me)

Starring: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O"Donnell, Harold Russell

A highly revered classic, The Best Years of Our Lives evoked a specific moment in time in a way few Hollywood movies have ever achieved. The story follows three soldiers returning from the Second World War and follows their readjustment into civilian life. Directed by William Wyler, the film won nine Oscars, including Best Picture. 

The story begins with three returning veterans catching a flight back home to Boontown, USA (modeled on Cincinnati, Ohio.) They get to know each other and form close bonds. Frederik March stars as Al Stevenson, a banker with a wife and family. Dana Andrews plays bombardier pilot Fred Derry who comes home to find his wife Marie cool and distant (Virginia Mayo), Harold Russell earned an Oscar as Homer Parrish, a sailor who lost both his hands in an explosion. Worried about his family and whether his fiancĂ© Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell) will accept him, so he seeks solace with his fellow veterans. 

Myrna Loy (famously Nora Charles from the Thin Man series) got top billing as Al's wife Milly, a model of steadiness and good sense during the time he was away. Their daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) works at the local hospital and is ready to begin her life. It's not just a story about the men per se, female characters in the film are there to provide reassurance but are often the stronger ones in the relationships.

Robert Sherwood's script handles all the relationships and conflicts that arise with great sensitivity. The homecoming scenes are especially moving, as Homer's parents fight back tears at seeing him with no hands. Small moments are used to great effect to illustrate the transition to civilian life. It captures both the relief and sense of familiarity with returning home, but also the alienation of returning to a mundane life with people who don't understand what they experienced. 

With so many young people absent during the war, there were concerns about unemployment and the economy, even a return to the Depression. In one of my favorite scenes, a man confronts Homer and Fred about their service and that they fought for a bad cause, arguing the U.S. should've sided with Germany, reminds me of certain twitter trolls.

The Best Years of Our Lives communicates both the hope and uncertainty of the immediate post-war years. Atomic power is obliquely mentioned, the Cold War was barely on the horizon. Everyone realized the world was changing at a rapid pace, in the midst of trying to find stability, in their case, through community and family. Changing gender dynamics and the higher expectations that all Americans shared in the post-war years are all present. 

Unfortunately, Hollywood movies in the coming decades did not provide an inclusive view of the post-war experience. There were so many more stories to tell. I think that's why The Best Years of Our Lives endures as a classic, for its realist approach combined with the honesty and compassion running through the entire picture.

Friday, May 26, 2023

Red Heat (1988)

Red Heat
is a Glasnost era buddy cop movie teaming up Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Belushi. The plot involves a drug trade connection between the USSR and the United States. Directed by action impresario Walter Hill, the film barely manages to meet genre standards, but is helped along by moments of wry humor and topical political commentary. 

Hill recycled the buddy cop formula that worked so well in his 1982 film 48 Hours with Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte. In Red Heat Arnold is Captain Ivan Danko working for the Soviet military police on the trail of a Georgian drug lord who eludes capture and makes his way to America (after an opening sequence at a bathhouse featuring a nude fight scene). Danko is sent to Chicago to follow a lead and partnered with Detective Art Ridzik (Belushi), the prototypical cynical American cop. One thing the film does well is plays on the contrasts between them: Arnold the ultimate physical specimen and chain smoking/chili dog scarfing Belushi whose only skill is making wisecracks. 

Red Heat relies on the tired formulas of the genre. We meet a parade of repugnant drug dealers. There's a climatic bus chase. Supporting players Larry Fishburne, Peter Boyle, and Gina Gershon aren't given much to do. Neither is there much depth to the two leads, Schwarzenegger is in stentorian mode the entire time, while Belushi seems uncertain if he's in a comedy or drama. The two share a nice moment at the end discussing baseball, but the script eschews complexity in favor of action tropes (the script was constantly being revised during filming). James Horner's score bordered on grating. 

If there's an underlying message at all, it's that America and the Soviet Union shared a common enemy in drug dealers. Red Heat was in line with many films of the era capitalizing on the Cold War thaw, usually through both sides opening the lines of communication. It would be curious to imagine a sequel with Ridzik going to Moscow. An artifact of a specific moment in the 1980s, the film will inevitably disappoint but does provide an unusual blending of genres. 

Thursday, May 25, 2023

A Trial in Prague (2001)

Directed by Zuzana Justman

As an addendum to my recent post on The Confession, I watched the 2001 documentary A Trial in Prague. The film's director Zuzana Justman interviewed family members and victims who experienced the purge and the show trial firsthand. The narrative closely parallels the narrative of the Costa-Gavras film and provides some details the film left out.

Participants talked about their reasons for joining the Communist Party during the 1930s. Many viewed the movement as the only viable defense against fascism and many fought for the Popular Front in Spain. Others saw Communism as the prescription to end the global depression and the excesses of capitalism. One participant spoke of what seemed like a rational solution to inequality quickly became irrational. 

By 1948, with Soviet support, the Communist Party took total control in Czechoslovakia and brutal crackdowns followed. Stalin was obsessed with dissension from within the Party and ordered anyone that was suspect must be removed. This led to the arrests of 14 high level Czech officials including the second in command of the government Rudolf Slansky. 

Family members speak of the uncertainty and terror they experienced. Antisemitism also figured in the arrests. The film never goes too far into Stalin's persecution of Jews, suggesting he held them suspect because of their time with the French Resistance. Most of the suspects were executed in secret, and it's especially tragic to hear family members talk about their lack of closure. 

A Trial in Prague provides a powerful and factual account of the political climate in Central Europe during the 1950s. The testimony from those who lived through it are especially moving. 

The Confession (1970)

Directed by Costa-Gavras

Written by Jorge Semprun (based on the the Artur London memoir)

Starring: Yves Montand, Simone Signoret

In 1970, Yves Montand starred in Costa-Gavras's follow up to Z, The Confession. Told mostly though flashback, the film takes place in 1952 during the Slansky trials in Czechoslovakia. Montand portrays a foreign affairs minister who is accused of treason and put through several months of physical and psychological torture at the hands of the secret police. Based on Artur London's memoir, the film is a harrowing examination of the machinations of totalitarianism. 

The methodical pacing of the film allows the viewer to experience the Kafkaesque nature of the captivity Ludvik must endure. At the start he begins to realize he's being followed, and is eventually taken into custody. Meanwhile Ludvik's wife Lise (Signoret) is forced to leave her job as a radio broadcaster and to work in a factory. 

Gavras directs the film mostly from Artur's point of view. When first brought in his clothes are taken away and he's stripped of his identity. He's put through sleep deprivation as he goes through hours of interrogation with various bureaucrats. They employ a "good cop, bad cop" routine with some officials constantly screaming threats (there's a mock execution at one point) to a fatherly interrogator offering food and reassurance. 

Historians agree (it was obvious at the time) the sudden crackdown on Czech officials was driven by antisemitism. Ludvik's put through endless questioning about his time with the French Resistance and supposed contacts with American intelligence. Clearly innocent, he's coerced into signing several confessions, while being told he'll never see his family again. Eventually Ludvik faces trial with the other defendants in a darkly comic staged event made for the cameras. Ludvik received a life sentence, most of the defendants were executed, and eventually due to changing political tides after Stalin's death in 1953, he was freed.

Few films have placed the audience into the totalitarian mindset so effectively. It's like a bizarre equation. Loyalty to the state and ideology appears to reign above all else, but it's slippery. Such systems allow sociopaths to flourish and lead otherwise decent people into debased acts. It's something like a cult, but Stalinist regimes were more complicated, to survive one almost needs to hold two opposing thoughts at the same time, basically Orwell's doublethink. To go against ideology is unthinkable and may spell total loss of freedom or worse, yet survival and promotion may entail going against the rules. 

The Confession posits basic questions on the individual's relationship to the state, the use of torture, and ultimately human rights. Article 5 of United Nations Declaration of Human Rights prohibits torture yet states continue to use it, always in the name of national security. Totalitarianism, today the term illiberal is often used as a stand in, is based on dehumanization and The Confession illustrates the abnormal psychology of such a system. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

With James Gunn returning as writer and director for the third entry of the Guardians of the Galaxy series the trilogy is brought to a bookend conclusion. The MCU has floundered a bit since hitting its apogee in 2019 with the conclusion of the Infinity Wars saga and Guardians III marks a return to form. The pandemic disrupted the release cycle and a stream of hit and miss movies followed. The MCU leaned into TV content on Disney+ and has continued to steadily build its billion dollar brand.

Guardians III plays like a greatest hit record with the return of the entire gang and Gunn's retro needle drops. The story this time centers upon Rocket Raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper, who the Guardians must rally together to save. The strongest parts of the film deal with Rocket's backstory, recalling heavy going 70s/80s children's films like Watership Down, The Plague Dogs, and The Secret of NIMH. The '80s nostalgia, an area where Gunn is quite adept, goes into overdrive with references to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Return of the Jedi.

All the returning characters are familiar and welcome by this point: Chris Pratt leans into Quill hitting middle age, Zoe Saldana reprises Gamora (alternate version of the character), as usual Dave Bautista gets the best laughs as Drax, Karen Gillian and Pom Klemenntieff are back as Nebula and Mantis. Gunn's gift for witty banter and the chemistry of the cast keeps the film engaging.

At times one can sense Guardians III straining too please a bit too much. At 150 minutes the film goes for the big epic conclusion vibe, when a tighter, more contained story seemed like the better direction to go. Satisfying all the arcs starts to feel more like a burden in the final section. 

Overall, a buoyant kick off to the 2023 summer movie season, Guardians III taps into all the best aspects of the MCU. 

Monday, April 24, 2023

Where Are You, Jay Bennett? (2021)

A retort to I am Trying to Break Your Heart, the Sam Jones documentary on the making of the 2002 Wilco record Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Jay Bennett was a member of Wilco from 1994-2001 and played a pivotal role in the development of the band. Creative differences with Jeff Tweedy led to Bennett's exit, one acrimonious argument was captured in the Jones doc. Commentators here accuse Jones of editing his film in a way to belittle Bennett. It's a sad story. Bennett's post-Wilco career stalled as his health deteriorated, he died in 2009 (the film clears up the details about his death).  Tweedy has always acknowledged Jay's contributions to Wilco and the band continues on to this day, now in the pantheon of great American bands. It was a case of a collaboration that had outlived its usefulness, again, a sad thing and it's clear Jay never got over it. Not any villains here, maybe a sour grapes vibe at times, at best, this film gives voice to Bennett and allows his story to be told.