Friday, March 31, 2017

New Releases!! (Oscar Catchup Edition): Hidden Figures (2016); Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Hidden Figures (2016)

Director: Theodore Melfi

A competent film about a fascinating and worthy topic, though a film that is not without its weaknesses.

One of a few "based on true events" Best Picture nominees, along with Lion and Hacksaw Ridge, Hidden Figures tells the story of a trio of African-American women who were among a group of such women working as computers (the word referred to human mathematicians back then) for NASA during the early years of the space race in the early 1960s. All three were highly intelligent, extremely capable people who excelled at their jobs. Despite this, they were the victims of the systemic segregation still in effect in many southern states, including where they worked in Virginia. Over the course of a couple of years, the three women - Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson- each make their marks, rise through the ranks, and even hurdle several considerable social obstacles, ultimately making significant contributions to NASA's successfully putting men into space.

Like many movies based on real events and people, the movie's greatest asset is probably the fact that it is based on reality. The three women who are the focus of the movie were clearly amazing people, not only because of their sheer talents but also because they had to fight harder than their male and/or white colleagues to achieve their recognition. Beyond the primary tales of Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson, there is also the ever-fascinating tale of the space race in the 1960s. Anyone curious about this rich subject is likely to enjoy the insight which this movie offers into some of the inner-workings of the scale and complexity of one of the most outstanding human accomplishments of the 20th century. Hidden Figures does a solid job covering the tales of this accomplishment and how the three main characters were a part of it.

The real Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson. Their story is great,
and one that could have done without some of the schmaltz
and overdramatization done in this adaptation.
Unfortunately, the movie stumbles when it comes to some of the more dramatic elements of the movie. Rather than letting the impressive facts speak for themselves, the writers and director opted to "Hollywood" up several aspects of the characters' lives and professional victories. There are ample examples of it, but two quick ones: first is the oh-so-cute daughters of Katharine Johnson. The film's portrayal of these kids is nearly as saccharine as what you'd find on a mainstream family sitcom, with the children reduced to mere props akin to cute stuffed animals. The second is a painfully forced scene of Johnson's boss, played by Kevin Costner, physically breaking down the "Colored Bathroom" with a crowbar. This sequence is so ham-fisted and staged that I was cringing for the entire duration of the sequence. The shame of these and other similar elements of the movie is that I felt that it did a serious disservice to the actual women portrayed in the movie. By adding the gloss of more palatable, artificial, or overly dramatic elements, some of which were total fabrications, it sends the story into the realm of movie fable. And that's not where these women belong. They belong in similar places as the engineers and NASA employees more deftly and subtly, if still dramatically, portrayed in popular films like The Right Stuff or Apollo 13. Those films didn't need to overdose us on sappiness or melodramatic nonsense. Neither did Hidden Figures, and it's a shame that director Theodore Melfi didn't see it that way.

As my wife pointed out, this is a movie that probably everyone should see, as long as they don't plan on reading the book (something I am likely to do). The story of these three women and their struggle to have their talents recognized is one well worth knowing, even if it is done through this occasionally clumsy film adaptation.

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Director: Mel Gibson

Another dramatization of real events, Hacksaw Ridge is one of the better and most unique war movies I've ever seen.

The movie tells the story of real-life army medic Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist who joins the Army in the midst of World War II, based on a sense of duty. The rub is that Doss also has a very strict, pacifist code that precludes his so much as touching a weapon. Although Doss declares that he seeks to join only as a medic, his refusal to touch a weapon causes incredible hardship for him during boot camp, where he stands starkly apart from his fellow recruits. After a tense legal battle, Doss is allowed to maintain his pacifism and become trained as an Army medic. When he and his platoon are deployed to Okinawa, Doss performs one of the most singular and arduous acts of bravery one could imagine. After much of his squad is gunned down by Japanese fighters on the nearly-impenetrable "Hacksaw" Ridge, Doss spends hour after hour rescuing wounded comrades by dragging them to safety under whatever cover he can find. Doss's actions and bravery won him the Congressional Medal of Honor, making him the very first non-combatant to receive the U.S. military's most prestigious award.

Hacksaw Ridge is a great example of a movie whose second and, especially, third acts make up for the painful sins of its first act. In the first part of the movie, we follow Doss mostly through his "gee-shucks," American-as-apple-pie courtship of his eventual wife, Dorothy. While there are some darker elements which add some depth to Doss's character in these early scenes, there is a rather corny feel to much of it. When he begins boot camp, it doesn't seem as if things will get much better, as we very quickly get perennial fast-talking funnyman Vince Vaughan as Doss's drill instructor, trying his best to impersonate Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket. Many of these opening moments in training smack far too much of unoriginality, and I was honestly starting to worry about my enjoyment of the movie.

The insanity, chaos, and brutality of war are conveyed as well
in this movie as in nearly any war flick you're likely to watch.
But then the movie takes a turn. The day that the recruits are to receive their first training with rifles, Doss refuses to touch his. At this point, the theme and the tone of the movie shift quite dramatically and so much for the better. What up to this point had felt mostly derivative becomes a far more interesting analysis of a man's core principles - principles, by the way, that any human should spend more than a little time giving serious consideration. Watching Doss and his fellow soldiers question his dedication to pacifism grows more fascinating as the story progresses, right up to the initial assault on Hacksaw Ridge.

The battle itself is one of the most powerful and graphic displays of "modern" warfare that one is likely to see. In a manner similar to the game-changing opening sequences of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, director Mel Gibson pulls absolutely no punches in showing the brutal carnage of front line warfare. In short, it is a horror show. Yes, there are riveting sequences depicting Doss's comrades performing exciting acts of bravery and fighting, such as you might find in less profound films. But far outstripping these few, slightly more rousing segments, it is the nighmarish and horrendous nature of large-scale violence that is on display. By creating such a palpable scene of a living hell, Desmond Doss's actions become that much more incredible. Seemingly through sheer faith and will, he drags a staggering amount of humans out of hell, granting them freedom from death. The movie does an outstanding job of driving home the miraculous nature of Doss's heroism, without diminishing the more disturbing aspects of the entire affair.

There are those among us who may, understandably, never want anything to do with Mel Gibson again. I understand this, as by several accounts he seems to be a disturbed and hateful person. That said, one cannot deny that he is an excellent film director, and Hacksaw Ridge is testament to that. I would recommend that anyone not totally put off by Gibson or averse to graphic but non-gratuitous violence give this movie a try. It is likely to be one of the more compelling and memorable war movies you'll see. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

New Release! The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)

Director: Chris McKay

Another fun LEGO movie, in keeping with 2014's original, if not as visionary or rich in social commentary.

Back in 2014, we were all treated to The LEGO Movie - which was a hyper-active but hilariously transgressive piece of family cinema. In that movie, one of the most memorable supporting characters was none other than Batman himself, voiced by Will Arnett. So popular was the character, the writers' take on him, and Arnett's voice acting skills, that they went to work on a "solo" movie. In its simplest form, it has Batman squaring off against his nemesis The Joker, as the evil clown enlists other-dimensional villains to destroy Gotham City.

In The LEGO Batman Movie, we get a much closer look, through the frantic lens of LEGO worlds, at the entire Batman mythos. It's a character and world which has been constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed countless times since the character's creation back in 1939. In all that time, Batman has been portrayed, alternately, as a grim and tortured vigilante, a goofy slapstick do-gooder, and virtually everything in between. The LEGO movie essentially starts with the brooding, self-involved version of Bruce Wayne/Batman and throws every silly, weird, and oddball element that the numerous and varied comic books, TV shows, and film adaptations have offered fans over the decades. The sheer amount of references and Easter eggs scattered through the movie will be worth the price of admission for people who have ever been a fan of "The Caped Crusader" in any of his many iterations.

Like the original LEGO film, this one goes full gonzo with its approach to world building and maintenance. Fans of comic books, especially the superhero variety, are fanatics for continuity (I'm speaking from experience here). It can be a dicey proposition to take one of the single most popular comic book characters and throw him into the middle of a zany, silly take on everything that has made the character what he is. But this movie does pull it off. Being an animated LEGO film certainly helps, as it drives home the point that this is the stuff of purely goofy fantasy. Sure, there's an attempt at a "life lesson" about letting other people into your life in order to make it more fulfilling, but it's a flimsy dramatic point, at best. It's even weakened a bit by dwelling on the co-dependent relationship between Batman and The Joker, making any meaningful lesson sillier through this lampooning.

Insisting on wearing his cowl, even when lounging at his
mansion, Batman is presented in a hilariously self-absorbed
and out-of-touch way.
Like the visuals, the gags come extremely quickly and with maximum fury. It really is a "joke every ten seconds" approach for nearly the entire film, with a handful of slower-burn visual gags thrown into the mix here and there. And like every rapid-fire gag movie, not all of them hit with the same force. In truth, it can be a tad wearying by the final 10 or 15 minutes, but it's still funny enough, consistently enough.

So it is now clear that the ultra-successful LEGO company has blown open another door for their products. They had long been a dominant force in the toy market, and in recent years had become major players in the video game and cartoon fields. These two recent movies have been hits, and a third one is on the way - LEGO Ninjago. Truthfully, as much as I enjoyed the first movie and was even entertained by this Batman chapter, I think my interest in this series has run its course. They are certainly fun, quick, and more clever than you might expect, but I can already see a watering down happening. The "anything goes" zaniness is fun for a movie or two, but it is already starting to overwhelm any chance the films have of creating an "all-audience" story of the depth of the very best animated movies such as the recent Kubo and the Two Strings or Inside Out

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

New Release! Logan (2017) [No Spoilers]

No Spoilers in this Review. Rest easy.

Director: Nick Mangold

Gritty, grimy, and blood-drenched, this is the Wolverine movie that any grown-up fan of the character has craved. It's arguably the best of the entire X-Men movie series, and definitely the gutsiest and most unique.

Being a spoiler-free review, I'll keep the description to broad, non-revealing strokes. Set in a not-too-distant future, Logan is almost completely alone and trying to live a very quiet existence within a nearly mutant-free world. He is caring for Charles Xavier, the former headmaster of the school which took Logan in and made him a part of the X-Men. Charles is now in his 90s, with his health greatly deteriorated. Logan himself is not exactly in tip-top shape either, for reasons which are not very clear through much of the movie. The two aged and ailing friends' lone dream is to simply buy a boat on which to live out their remaining days on the ocean, away from the rest of humanity. This modest pursuit of peace is brutally interrupted when a mysterious little girl comes into their lives, with an army on her trail. A reluctant Logan must wrestle with exactly what to do, while evading and fending off their aggressive and violent attackers.

The movie is the most assured X-Men movie yet, and it's quite possibly the most assured "marquee" superhero movie ever made. There are no flashy outfits. No ensemble cast of scene-stealing, wise-cracking comrades. No fantastic set pieces. The settings are often composed of the swirling dust of the desert, the loneliness of the open roads between west Texas and the Dakotas, and the eerie quiet of a few forests. Also missing is the typically snappy, "joke-a-minute" banter that you find in the other X-movies and the MCU (most of which I love, by the way). The conversations in this film carry more weight, as they delve into Logan dealing with his rage and apathy and how they are drowning out a chance to win back some part of his soul. And this is done without pretension or forced, awkward dialogue for the most part. It's a rare look at a mythical figure in his final days, being forced to take a final reckoning of exactly who he is.

The aged, cranky friends Charles and Logan spend a bit of
time dealing with what will likely be their last bit of time
together. The relationship has far more weight than nearly
any other portrayed in a superhero movie to dare.
Of course, don't think that it's just a depressing slog with a couple of broken down old mutants having a heart-to-heart road trip. Or a withered old Wolverine staring at his shoes for two hours. This movie is easily the most brutal and graphically violent mainstream superhero flick made to date. While Deadpool was bloody, it was mostly cartoonish violence in which the gore was for comedic effect. In Logan, the fights are gut-wrenchingly graphic and almost painful to watch at times. But this is to great effect, as brutal violence was almost always at the heart of the Wolverine character. What came later, and is central to this film, is the man Logan's struggle to live with that violence and its consequences. And the fatal consequences have actual impact in this movie, thanks to the measured pace. The balance between the deadly battles and their horrific nature is done exceptionally well.

While there are a few things one can quibble over, especially comic book and science-fiction nerds like myself, I found that the questionable details were minor ones that do not cripple the story. Any superhero movie asks you to suspend your disbelief in a few major ways, and Logan is no different. What Mangold and the writers created here easily transcends any little goofs. It's a superhero movie that really stands alone in the genre, and it feels far more like an update of a classic Western in the style of The Shootist. The bar for these movies has now been set a bit higher, and now we'll see if the MCU or DCEU film franchises try to match or exceed it. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

New Release! Get Out (2017) [Spoiler-Free Review]

No Spoilers. Have No Fear.

Director: Jordan Peele

While not the genre-changing, life-altering experience that some might have you expect, this was a very solid suspense/horror movie that offers some thoughtful, rich themes and suggestions about society that go beyond most films in the genre.

As much as any movie in recent history, I wish had not seen any of the previews. I suspect that it might have had far more impact had the trailers, which were being shown at high volume for weeks before the film's release, not given too many hints at the tale. As such, I was able to guess at the general plot fairly well, along with some of the details. To keep this review spoiler-free, I'll stick to a paraphrase of the common preview. Chris Washington is a young, black Brooklyn photographer who is taking a weekend trip to meet his white girlfriend Rose's family for the first time. Shortly after arriving at the impressive New England home of the Armitages, Chris senses something amiss with the environment, especially with the odd behavior of their groundskeeper and maid, both of whom are black. While the Armitages seem pleasant enough, they take odd interests in Chris which give him pause. The sensation becomes more profound when the Armitages host a rather large party, where more of their friends behave towards Chris in similarly strange ways. The details of the unusual behavior become clear, revealing horrors from which Chris must eventually escape. All of this is depicted fairly clearly in the advertisements. Fortunately, there is more to the movie than the plot, which is good since some of of the minor details don't hold up particularly well under close scrutiny. Minor details, though.

While the terrible details in the story make up the horror elements, it is their implications about race and identity that elevate Get Out above nearly all other films of the genre. There are several extremely meaty topics worthy of exploration and discussion, mostly relating to white appropriation of black identity in various forms. There are also themes of psychological bondage and other sophisticated notions that are likely to stay with viewers long after the film ends. They have in my case.

Nothing creepy about these Caucasians. Nothing at all.
In addition to these impressive strengths, the movie is simply a solidly-constructed film. Anyone who has watched much of the Key and Peele comedy sketch show that writer/director Jordan Peele did for five years knows that he is a massive movie buff who knows how to analyze and lampoon nearly every cinematic genre and technique. In Get Out, though, he sets aside the comedy (for the most part) and really shows his film-making chops. Solid scripting and pacing, along with excellent cinematography and editing, enhance the eerie tale considerably. Oh, and the one element of comic relief is consistently hilarious (as expected from a comedy maestro like Peele).

I can't claim to be an expert on horror movies, but I have seen nearly all of the "classics" and I do appreciate a well-done horror flick. Get Out joins the ranks of the great ones, and will likely remain relevant for decades. I highly recommend to those who are not put off by challenging themes and a handful of brutally violent scenes. If you don't mind that, then you're in for one novel film. 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Before I Die #598: The Aviator (2004)

This is the 598th movie I've watched out of the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working through. 

Director: Martin Scorsese

Despite being a major fan of Scorsese, I had somehow never watched this movie from start to finish. Now that I've put in the required two hours and forty-five minutes, I can say that it's a really solid film that I enjoyed, even if I don't count it among his very best. Bear in mind that this is no slight, given that Scorsese has several all-time great movies to his credit.

Based on a spotty biography, The Aviator tracks the key twenty-year period in the life of Howard Hughes, the infamously eccentric and undeniably talented businessman and American aviator. The movie starts with Hughes at age 21, just as he inherits the sizable tool business his parents created and ran in Texas. Hughes brings the company to near collapse as he funds a massive war picture independent of any major movie studio. Although he burns through nearly all of his considerable fortune, Hughes manages to release the movie to great success, launching him into the spotlight and on a run of tremendous business successes over the next few decades. He designs and test flies planes, buys and runs an airline company, and takes on the aviation giant of the day, Pan Am, and the powerful senator who supports it. In these two decades, Hughes essentially grows his wealth enough to poise himself to become the richest man in the country. The problem is that his own mental problems grow worse and worse, hinting at the infamously reclusive and bizarre behavior that would mark the succeeding decades of his life.

The Aviator is, like virtually all of Scorsese's films, highly watchable. The legendary director has such a keen sense of pacing, dialogue, and scene construction, that his take on such a dynamic figure as Howard Hughes was bound to be engaging, and it is. As he has shown in his most well-known films like Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Casino, Scorsese can take highly energetic and volatile characters and make them sing on screen. With The Aviator, Scorsese was dealing with the largest group of notable celebrities that he's ever dealt with, starting with Hughes but also including the likes of Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and plenty of other screen legends who were noted for their strong personalities. The story sets them up to have plenty of engaging interactions, mostly revolving around Hughes's increasingly erratic and paranoid behavior. Many of the scenes are played for drama, but almost as many are played for humor, nearly all to excellent effect.

As a personal aside, I have to confess that the only element of the movie that annoyed me was Katharine Hepburn. This has nothing to do with Cate Blanchett's portrayal of the film legend, which is nearly spot-on, but rather my general annoyance at the real Hepburn's affect. I've watched a good number of Hepburn's classic movies, and I've always found her "Mid-Atlantic" accent highly grating (that bizarre, made up accent has its own odd little story, too). In The Aviator, Blanchett fully embraces the character, as she stomps around, going toe-to-toe with the equally head-strong Hughes. I actually admire Hepburn's progressive attitudes and general take on life. But that accent? I can't get over it.

One of the many scenes to display the lavish places, costumes,
and powerful entertainers seen throughout the movie. Nearly
every scene is fun to watch, even if there isn't exactly a
compelling narrative thread to tie them all together.
Back to the movie as a whole. While nearly all of the individual scenes and sequences are outstanding, there is a lack of a completely cohesive story. The nearly 3-hour film strongly hints at a few themes and clear points about Hughes, but it never completely resolves any of them or creates a single compelling arc. The only theme or trait that seems to be present throughout the movie is Hughes's increasingly severe mental disorder. However, there are still many questions left unanswered by the movie's end, as he is still functional enough to oversee much of his aviation business. When one reads a bit more about Hughes, one realizes that his truly severe mental fragmentation continued for another two decades after the timeline covered in this film. The movie thus feels incomplete, which is certainly odd for such a lengthy story. It almost seems as if a TV miniseries of 8 or 10 episodes would have done such a biopic more justice.

Like many of Scorsese's best movies, this is one in which the individual scenes are so masterfully crafted and entertaining, that you could channel surf your way into any part of it, settle in, and just ride it all out by enjoying each sequence. I've read some original reviews that weren't terribly impressed with DiCaprio's performance, but I found him to be excellent, right along with the rest of the supporting cast. Such acting, along with a tight script and under the guidance of an all-time great director, make for a highly enjoyable film, if not exactly a historically brilliant one.

That's 598 movies down. Only 589 to go before I can die. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

New Releases! (Oscar Catchup Edition): Moonlight (2016); Lion (2016)

Moonlight (2016)

Director: Barry Jenkins

A supremely deft and understated look at a young man's struggle with identity as he grows up in the unforgiving world of a poor community in the Miami, Florida area.

Divided into three distinct parts, Moonlight is the story of Chiron, a young, gay, African-American man who struggles to get by and figure out just who he is and wants to be. The first segment of the film depicts Chiron at roughly age 9 or 10. At this point in life, his homosexual orientation has emerged just enough that others tease and bully him at school. While being chased one day, a local drug dealer named Juan comes to his aid and eventually takes him under his wing a bit. As he deals with difficulties at home with his single mother and harassment at school, Juan and his girlfriend Teresa provide Chiron some sort of safe haven among the chaos. The second part of the film sees Chiron at age 15, where he continues to struggle with his sexuality. The bullying at his high school, coupled with further problems with his mother, become fierce enough that he eventually snaps and commits a serious crime. The movie then jumps ahead about a decade, where we see a completely transformed Chiron, who now calls himself "Black" and has taken on the life of a fully immersed drug dealer. He doesn't show it to anyone, but he still struggles with his sexuality and identity. When one of his old high school friends calls unexpectedly, Chiron is forced to reckon with aspects of himself that he has tried to bury for ten years.

Moonlight is far from your typical movie, in many ways. Firstly, the subject matter and the setting are rarely seen on the big screen. The poverty of places like where Chiron grows up is something that the more fortunate among us would like to ignore. The crime, general deprivation, and dog-eat-dog environment do not make for very glamorous tales. What a movie like Moonlight does, however, is offer us an incredibly genuine, humanist story that has every bit the dramatic power as similar tales set in more attractive and exotic places.

Lion (2016)

Director: Garth Davis

Certainly the most affecting movie in this year's crop of Best Picture nominees. It's a strong film, to be sure, although I don't have it quite as high as a few other nominees.

Based on a true story, Lion tells the tale of Saroo, a young boy from a small village in India who gets separated from his brother during a train ride and ends up over 1,600 miles away in Bangladesh. The five-year old boy, not knowing the local language or enough detail about his home town or his mother, manages to survive long enough to end up in an orphanage for a short time. Eventually, he is adopted by an Australian family and is sent to live with them. After nearly twenty years under their loving care, Saroo is stricken by a powerful need to find his original family. This seems an impossible task, given that Saroo still does not know the name of the town he is from or his original family name. He persists, though, and over the course of many months meticulously (even obsessively) using satellite images available on the Internet, he tracks down his village of birth.

Lion is certainly an extremely moving and very well-done film. It offers a view of rural and urban India and Pakistan that we in the West rarely get to see, which can certainly put certain values in perspective. The areas in which Saroo becomes lost and found are ones in which poverty has made an unnerving number of people desperate, which only makes them highly dangerous for the young Saroo. It also creates an effective contrast for the almost nirvana-like tranquility of his foster home in Tasmania. Of course, this tranquility is severely disturbed by the unexpected re-emergence of Saroo's long-buried desire to reunite with his family. All of these shifts in place and Saroo's disposition are handled extremely well, with the actors all doing exceptional work.

Like any movie which portrays real events, I am left to wonder if a few of the dramatic elements were "Hollywooded" up a little bit. While much of the story does ring quite true, there are a few aspects which I felt were a bit forced, or at the very least not completely relevant to Saroo's inner struggle and desire to find his Indian family. Anyone who hasn't seen the movie should also be warned not to expect much levity in this one. Yes, there are a handful of cute or amusing moments here and there, but Lion maintains a pretty somber and sometimes even depressing tone through much of its running length. This is as it should be, though, given the nature of Saroo's story. It is also given a touch of welcome buoyancy at the end, which prevents it from being a pure sob-fest.

Lion is a very well done film that, while focusing on a rather singular life and tale, opens up doors to much larger and far more uncomfortable realities about places and people not fortunate enough to live in more affluent conditions. This is actually what gives the story its heart, though. One might initially be tempted to wonder why Saroo, who has found much comfort in the arms of his foster parents, would want to return to his poverty-stricken birthplace. The answer touches on what makes certain bonds between people transcend other forms of comfort. While it's not a movie that I would feel the need to see again, it is one that I am glad to have seen the once.