Wednesday, November 30, 2016

RULES DON’T APPLY: A Warren Beatty Bomb Decades In The Making

Now playing at mostly empty theaters across the country:

RULES DON’T APPLY (Dir. Warren Beatty, 2016)

By this point it’s pretty apparent that Warren Beatty’s return to the big screen has failed to make a big splash. Beatty’s long gestating Howard Hughes project was released last Friday to mixed reviews and terrible box office returns, which is sad because it’s his first acting role in 15 years (his last was in Peter Chelsom’s dreadful TOWN & COUNTRY), and his first directing job in 18 years (his last was 1998’s far from brilliant BULWORTH).

Beatty first had the idea for the film in the early ‘70s when he found himself staying in the same hotel as the famously reclusive billionaire, but it didn’t have a screenplay until the ‘90s when he drafted Academy Award-winning screenwriter Bo Goldman to co-write what was then titled “Hughes.” It was intended to be Beatty’s follow-up to his last big hit, DICK TRACY, but things didn’t work out and the project was shelved.

Since then, it’s been in development hell, and many have thought it would never be made. Yet, here it is – just in time for awards season, now called RULES DON’T APPLY, starring Beatty as Hughes, and featuring a fabulous supporting cast including Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and Beatty’s wife of 24 years, Annette Bening.

Actually, Ehrenreich and Collins are the real stars, as Beatty’s Hughes is largely in the background here, sometimes even in the darkness of sparsely lit hotel rooms or holed up in a curtained bed.

It’s 20 minutes before Hughes even enters the picture as we learn about Collins’ fictitious character, Marla Mabrey, who has come to Hollywood in 1958 to make it in show business. Marla signs a contract with RKO, in which she is provided with a posh house, and a chauffeur named Frank Forbes (Ehrenreich). Both Marla and Frank are waiting for a chance to meet their employer – she about when she will get to do a screentest, while he wants to get Hughes to invest in a real estate deal involving housing in Mulholland Canyon.

When Hughes finally makes his entrance, it’s in the aforementioned darkness of a Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow, in which the nervous Marla has a prepared spiel, but Hughes ignores her questions.

Frank also gets his meeting with Hughes over burgers at the end of the Long Beach dock where Hughes’ ginormous flying boat, the Spruce Goose, is stationed, in the middle of the night.

Despite having a fiancée (Taissa Farmiga) back home in Fresno, Frank has the hots for Marla and things get heated between them when she sings him a song she wrote called “Rules Don’t Apply.” The couple engages in a make-out session, smashing a glass table in the process. However, Frank’s coworker Levar Mathis (Broderick) interrupts and ends their lustful moment by showing up at Marla’s house to drive her to an engagement.

Meanwhile, the paranoid Hughes fears that he’ll be committed to a mental hospital so he figures that if he gets married the powers that be can’t put him away without his wife’s approval. When Marla sings her “Rules Don’t Apply” song to Hughes, it triggers the same smitten reaction, but this time her tryst gets consummated.

I bet Beatty thinks that the song, an original composition by Lorraine Feather and Eddie Arkin, is sure to get an Oscar Nomination, but, despite it not being bad, I'll be really surprised if it does.

It’s weird to say that a movie that has been in the works in one form or another for decades is underwritten, but it certainly is the case. Beatty nails the collection of ticks that Hughes was famous for including the habit of repeating the same phrase over, (though Leonardo DiCaprio did that better in Martin Scorsese’s far superior Hughes biopic THE AVIATOR), and his performance is one of the best things about the movie, but it’s in service of a extremely lightweight storyline.

It’s easy to see why Beatty was attracted to Hughes’ persona, as Beatty himself is an eccentric, reclusive, control freak. In Peter Biskind’s 2012 biography “Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America,” journalist/politico Bill Bradley speaks of Beatty’s original concept being one that “could be a movie that really explains power and money in America.” That’s not what we have here at all. What this is a drawn out, largely dull tale of a love triangle that oddly resembles what Woody Allen did better in his period piece CAFÉ SOCIETY last summer.

Beatty’s co-writer Bo Goldman who once called himself “the world’s greatest living expert on Howard Hughes,” and who penned the also Hughes-related 1980 comedy drama MELVIN AND HOWARD, wrote a version of the screenplay 20 years ago that Beatty appears to have rewritten and rewritten until whatever spark that may have been there is gone.

RULES DON’T APPLY strains and fails to be an amusing and charming romp as there’s a severe lack of chemistry between its leads, and an indefinable purpose to the proceedings. It's a passion project without any passion.

There are a number of stylish touches that I enjoyed, such as the use of archival footage in establishing shots and in rear projection driving scenes, and the film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, but that is just the pretty packaging for a shallow, insightless premise.

At the very least, if this is indeed the swan song that Beatty has claimed, even though it bombed, it’s still a better movie to go out on than TOWN & COUNTRY. In many ways, that’s all it really needed to be.

More later...

Film Babble Blog's Top 10 Favorite Cinematic Sight Gags

Back in the day, I used to post listicles (before they were called listicles) of movie tropes that I would attempt to amusingly connect to break up the flow of review after review. So with the upcoming glut of year-end releases plus the stress of the holiday season coming (not to mention the craziness of the post election season we're going through) I thought I’d rekindle that idea and do something silly – list my top 10 favorite movie sight gags.

The following are what I consider 
meme-worthy screen shots from the obvious suspects: Monty Python, Zucker brothers, Mel Brooks, super hero movies, etc, They’re the engrained images, mostly from my childhood, that always make me laugh when I think of them. So here goes:

1. The shit hits the fan in AIRPLANE!

(Dirs. David & Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, 1980)

Almost every other shot in the line of movie spoofs made by the Zucker brothers (David & Jerry) and Jim Abrahams is a sight gag – some brilliant; some idiotic. The one that most appeals to me is an absurdly literal visual joke from their classic disaster film satire AIRPLANE! that involves Ted Striker (Robert Hays), who’s been called in to land Boeing 707 (Trans American Flight 209) after the pilots have been taken ill. Striker: “The oil pressure, I forgot to check the oil pressure. When Kramer hears about this, the shit's gonna hit the fan.” The film then cuts to a shot of actual shit hitting a fan in the airport control room. Hey, I warned you above that there would be stupidity.

2. Clark Kent can't find an old school phone booth in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (Dir. Richard Donner, 1978)

As an eight-year old kid, I remember the laughter from the audience being really big when Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) was first called into action in the first big screen Superman movie and found that the walk-in phone booths of the past, that he regularly used to change into his suit in the comics, were largely non-existent. Reeves’ expression at this realization of modern times is priceless.

3. The town sign for Plotpointburg in MUPPETS MOST WANTED (Dir. James Bobin, 2014)

Sure, MUPPETS MOST WANTED isn’t the best of Muppets movies, but it’s far from the worst, and this meta gag about how their European-set adventure, the latest in the cinematic series that was rebooted by Bobbins and Jason Segel in 2011, was adhering to a tried and true formula, got the biggest laugh of any of the jokes in their 2014 follow-up.

4. Sherrif Justice's restroom faux pas in SMOKEY & THE BANDIT (Dir. Hal Needham, 1977) 

The second biggest grossing movie of 1977 (STAR WARS was the biggest – duh!) had its share of dumb visual jokes, but this one which had Sherrif Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) leaving the men’s room at a truckstop with a line of toilet-paper following him out the door really made me giggle as a kid. According to Wikipedia, Burt Reynolds said that it was Gleason’s “idea to have the toilet paper coming out of his pantleg” in the scene. I may just have to agree with writer Tyler Coates, who said in his Decider post about seeing the film for the first time, that the shot may be “the greatest toilet-paper sight gag in the history of motion pictures.”

5. A 23rd century McDonald's in SLEEPER (Dir. Woody Allen, 1973)

Many of Woody Allen’s movies have sight gags, especially his “early funny ones,” but this particular one has stayed with me as it’s a really outdated, but still funny joke. In the film, which concerns Allen’s Miles Monroe, a nebbish NY neorotic (duh!) waking up 200 years in the future, our protagonist walks by a 23rd Century McDonald’s that has a sign boasting “Over 795,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000" Served.”

In the IMDb trivia section for SLEEPER, it is noted that “if translated into American numeration this value would be Seven Hundred, Ninety-five sexdecillion," a value with 51 zeroes. By comparison, Avogadro's Number, 6023E23 (or 6.023^23), or "mole," is a value normally used to count atoms or molecules, and, incidentally, thought to be about the number of grains of sand on all the beaches on earth, give or take a couple orders of magnitude. The value of 795 sexdecillion is very nearly a mole of moles.”

As McDonald’s was a somewhat seemingly new fad of a fast food chain in the early ‘70s, you can see why Allen made this joke. Though these days, it seems like a hell of an under-estimate.

6. Combing the desert in SPACEBALLS (Dir. Mel Brooks, 1987)

Another Jewish comedian turned ‘70s comedy star, Mel Brooks, also had many sight gags in his films. In the late ‘80s, Brooks’ schtick was pretty played out, but that didn’t stop him from making a spoof of the STAR WARS films and modern movie sci-fi in general called SPACEBALLS. One of its most memorable involved Rick Moranis’ Darth Vader spoof Dark Helmet ordering his troops to “comb the desert” for the missing Princess Vespa, and, of course, they do just that.

Maybe a funnier sight gag in SPACEBALLS was in the film’s few minutes, in which there was a parody of the opening of the original STAR WARS’ long, continous shot of a ginormous starship. That one, isn’t as well captured in a gif though.

7. The Black Knight's limb loss in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (Dirs. Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones, 1975)

More ‘70s sight gag funniness comes from the iconic British comedy group Monty Python, whose films are full of them. I’ll go with this one from their 1975 classic MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, in which a black knight gets both his arms chopped off yet afterwards still continues fighting. The blood gushing was a new thing for a comedy film in that era (Dan Aykroyd's Julia Childs SNL bit around that same time  hit the same vein - sorry), so this was as groundbreaking as it was hilarious.

As a runner-up, I’ll go with this shot from MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN which happens after Brian (Graham Chapman) has been up all night following a strict Roman Centurion’s (John Cleese) orders (again with the literal following of orders) to paint “Romani ite domum,” which means “Romans go home,” a hundred times all over the Roman Palace’s walls:

8. Steve Martin cleans his gun in DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID
(Dir. Carl Reiner, 1981)

Okay, so either the ‘70s-‘80s is the glorious age of cinematic sight gags or I’m just old and that’s the era that I most identify with, but I have to go with either this Steve Martin should be comedy classic’s shot of Martin’s detective character Rigby Reardon cleaning his handgun in a sink with a bottle brush, or the tie shot that has him shaving his tongue. How either of these really satire the world of Humphrey Bogart-era gumshoe film noir is debatable, but I still find both damn funny.

9. TIE: THE SIMPSONS MOVIE (Dir. David Silverman, 2007) & AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY (Dir. Jay Roach, 1997)

Both of these films feature sight gags involving the obscuring of the male member. I don’t feel I need to explain any more than that.

10. Brick Tamland's reaction to his dismembered TV image in ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGANDY (Dir. Adam McKay, 2004)

Although Will Ferrell's big deal newscaster Ron Burgandy could be seen as a walking sight gag (as could just about every character he's ever played), it’s Steve Carrell’s character in the 2004 '70s news spoof, Brick Tamland, freaking out because his green pants made his legs disappear on a weather green screen that makes the cut here.

Okay! So what are your favorite sight gags? Let me, and other readers, know in the comments below.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Brad Pitt & Marion Cotillard Revisit WWII In Robert Zemeckis’ ALLIED

Now playing at a multiplex near everybody:

ALLIED (Dir. Robert Zemeckis, 2016)

his is Brad Pitt’s third World War II movie (not counting the 2009 short BEYOND ALL BOUNDARIES), but while in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLORIOUS BASTERDS * and David Ayers’ FURY he was a gruff, hard ass Sgt. Rock-style Nazi-killing machine with nicknames such as “The Apache” and “Wardaddy,” here he’s a suave, dapper intelligence officer. But don’t worry, he still kills plenty of Nazis.

The premise in this WWII tale, which is Pitt’s first film with director Robert Zemeckis of BACK TO THE FUTURE and FORREST GUMP fame, is that our hero’s wife may be a German spy.

Marion Cotillard, whose second WWII film this is (Pierre Grimblat’s 2001 drama LISA was her first), plays French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour, who meets Pitt’s Max Vatan on a dangerous mission in Morocco to kill a German ambassador. Before long, they fall in love and consummate it in an intense love-making scene set in the back of a car in the middle of a sandstorm.

That’s one of the movie’s most memorable moments as it
s heated and convincing enough to make Angelina Jolie feel like her real-life split from Pitt is beyond justified, but unfortunately the film lacks enough of such stunning scenes to make it ultimately worthwhile.

After Max and Marianne get married and have a daughter while living in London and dream about having a house together across the pond in Medicine Hat in Alberta, Canada, Max is told by a SOE (Special Operations Executive) Officer portrayed by Simon McBurney (who really ought to play Roman Polanski someday) that there’s strong evidence that Marianne is a spy. If she
s found guilty, Max will be forced to kill her or be executed himself for not following orders.

So Max does what he can to prove her innocence including traveling to a veterans hospital to question an acquaintance named Guy Sangster (an almost unrecognizable Matthew Goode) about whether his wife is who she says she is, and a French prison to interrogate a one-armed drunk to corroborate the same. The latter is another effective sequence with genuine suspense and a thrilling shoot-out, but, again, there’s not enough of this action to really make this movie a must.

One of the film’s major problems is that it looks so phony. From Pitt and Cotillard’s heavy, unnatural looking make-up to obvious use of green screen to the soundstage sets (especially in the rooftop scenes), the whole thing never not comes across like a glossy Hollywood production.

I’m sure that some of these aesthetics are intentional in its attempt to make an old fashioned CASABLANCA-type romance involving espionage and intrigue, but I was distracted by how Pitt looked like BENJAMIN BUTTON when he reached his pretty boy stage, and how artificial the surroundings appeared.

The conclusion is far from satisfying in its predictability and there are some character threads that don’t add up to much like that of Max’s lesbian sister, played by Lizzy Caplan. Jared Harris is used more successfully as Max’s sympathetic commander, but it’s a part Harris could play in his sleep (Harris’ role in CERTAIN WOMEN is certainly a much more challenging one).

Still, ALLIED is passable entertainment, and many folks will be swept up in its charms, as limited as they may be. It stars two appealing movie stars, who do display considerable chemistry, and it moves along at a brisk pace. If only its screenplay, by Steven Knight, was more fleshed out and there was more authentic grit in its visuals.

As is, it’s a fairly forgettable affair that I doubt will have much traction this season.

* Will Fonvielle of the fine blog Filmvielle pointed out that August Diehl, who appeared in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, also makes an appearance in this film. I consider that a callback.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

LOVING: A Heart-Rending, Sadly Timely History Lesson

Starts today at an indie art house near me:

LOVING (Dir. Jeff Nichols, 2016)

One of the best films featured at the 2011 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was Nancy Buirski’s THE LOVING STORY, which laid out in fascinating detail how a Virginia couple’s biracial marriage led to a landmark Supreme Court case that was successful in overturning the law banning interracial marriage in 1967.

I’m not usually a fan of films that adapt documentaries into dramas – I mean, who needs to see LORDS OF DOGTOWN, or the 2009 HBO telefilm GREY GARDENS when the docs DOGTOWN AND Z-BOYZ and the original 1975 Maysles brothers’ film of the same name cover their subjects’ stories so definitively?

But, Nichols’ adaptation, which also draws upon Phyl Newbeck’s 2005 book “Virginia Hasn't Always Been for Lovers,” is an excellent companion piece to Buirski’s * essential doc as it delivers top notch performances, an immersive tone, and a well paced narrative that’s compelling even when you know exactly what’s going to happen.

Joel Edgerton (THE GREAT GATSBY, THE GIFT) and Ruth Negga (WORLD WAR Z, the AMC TV series Preacher) portray Richard and Mildred Loving, who we meet as a young couple living in a working-class community in rural Virginia that we see doting on each other as they attend drag races, and parties, while planning to build their dream house in the first idyllic fifteen minutes of this film that’s only mildly marred by some forced laughing.

The couple, who have a baby on the way, drive to Washington D.C. to get married with Mildred’s father (Christopher Mann) coming along as a witness to the event, but shortly afterward back at home they are woken up in the middle of the night by a police raid that lands both of them in jail.

After Richard is bailed out he tries to bail out his wife, but is told by the ultra evil, and obviously ultra racist sheriff who arrested them that told they have to divorce or they will be forced to leave the state. Richard and Mildred sadly move to D.C., leaving behind their loved ones, but they illegally return months later in order to have the baby delivered by Richard’s midwife mother (Sharon Blackwood) and are promptly arrested again.

Their lawyer Frank Beazley (Bill Camp) comes to the couple’s aid, telling the judge (another evil racist played by David Jensen) that he mistakenly told them they could return for their baby’s birth, which the judge accepts. Afterwards, Beazley tells them that this is the last time he can help; the next time they violate the terms of their sentence could result in prison time.

In the years that follow, the Lovings raise three children in their row house apartment in DC, until Mildred is inspired to write then Attorney General Robert Kennedy about their predicament (“Get yourself some civil rights!” exclaims their landlord Laura played by Andrene Ward-Hammond).

Before long, Mildred gets a call from American Civil Liberties lawyer Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll), who shocks her when he says that the ACLU will handle their case free of charge. Kroll, in a rare dramatic role for the comedian, is paired with Jon Bass as Phil Hirschkop, a more experienced civil rights layer, and they both get a bit giddy with the idea that the case could alter the Constitution of the United States.

LOVING is a conventional, straight forward drama that has a few misguided melodramatic moments, but nothing that dims its sincere, and heart wrenching power.

Both Edgerton and Negga have been quietly putting in strong work over the years, but their sharp, lived-in portrayals here deserve a lot of attention, and awards season action. Especially Negga, who can convey so much with the smallest of expressions. Her Mildred is convincingly and touchingly the brain, and the heart of the couple, contrasted with Edgerton’s Richard, who’s a bit thickheaded but displays the gruff strength and conviction to keep his family together.

They are surrounded by a fine ensemble, which includes a cameo by Nichols regular Michael Shannon as Life Magazine photographer Grey Villet. Another Nichols veteran, David Wingo, contributes the film’s sometimes a bit too eerie, but never too cloying score.

Nichols’ film, which he scripted, does contain many of the formula tropes of Oscar-baiting biopics including the standard text at the end to bring the audience up to date, and the obligatory photo of the real couple that appears before the credits, but these elements don’t feel as clichéd here as they do elsewhere. Perhaps because they are serving a much more deserving dramatization of history than what we’ve come to expect this time of year.

In the age of Trump (man, I hated typing that), a story about fighting racism is as timely as can be, but this film teaches a lesson that would be just as important for people to learn and appreciate even if our country had elected the more qualified candidate.

As the saying goes, “those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” Right now, when it sure looks like we are doomed, it’s more crucial than ever that we look back at the times that we as the people of this great, but greatly flawed country actually got something right.

* Buirski is also one of the producers of LOVING.

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Friday, November 18, 2016

The Touching Artful Aura Of Barry Jenkins' MOONLIGHT

Now playing at both multiplexes and indie art houses near me:

MOONLIGHT (Dir. Barry Jenkins, 2016)

If you’ve been following film this year, you may have heard some of the buzz surrounding Barry Jenkins’ second film MOONLIGHT, his follow-up to his 2008 debut MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY (currently streaming on Netflix and well worth a watch).

The acclaim is deserved for Jenkins’ coming-of-age tale told in three parts is a wonderful, touching, and very real feeling work of indie art.

Taking its inspiration from the short conceptual play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, MOONLIGHT is the Miami -set story of a young African American male named Chiron who is played by three different actors representing different ages of the character.

In the first chapter, entitled “Little,” Alex Hibbert embodies the 9-year old Chiron, nicknamed Little, who find a father figure in Juan, a crack dealer sharply played by Mahershala Ali (House of Cards, Luke Cage), that is, until he realizes that his abusive mother (Naomi Harris, best known as the latest incarnation of Moneypenny in the James Bond series) buys her drugs from Juan. We also introduced to young Chiron’s best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner), whose presence we’ll understand better later.

The second segment, simply named “Chiron,” features our protagonist as a teenager played by Ashton Sanders, as he maneuvers through high school bullying and an even rougher home-life as his mother has worsened into crack cocaine addiction. Things get strained between Chiron and Kevin (now played by Jharrel Jerome) when Kevin gets caught up in a hazing ritual with a bully who’s been tormenting Chiron, and Kevin is pressured into fighting his friend.

The concluding chapter, “Black” (another nickname), catches up with Chiron in his 20s portrayed by Trevante Rhodes. Chiron has grown up to be a drug dealer living outside of Atlanta, but he journeys back to Miami when he gets a call from Kevin, now played by André Holland. Chiron shows up at the restaurant that Kevin works at and his old friend is surprised by his new buff appearance.

That’s as far as I’ll go as the broad strokes of my plot description won’t do justice to the sheer beauty of how Chiron’s story unfolds. MOONLIGHT may be the most convincing love story on the big screen this year. It’s also a supreme character study which focuses on gender identity, and the difficulties in achieving intimacy in a cold, brutal world.

“I’m me, man - ain’t trying to be nothing else,” Rhodes’ Chiron tells Holland’s Kevin, who responds “Oh, okay - so you hard now?” Chiron answers “No, I ain’t say that.” To that Kevin says “Well, then what?”

In that exchange lies the aching crux of the film’s exploration of black gay masculinity. Chiron grows up poor, fatherless, and conflicted about his sexuality, but there may be some light before he reaches the end of the tunnel. Chiron can see and feel it when he and Kevin re-visit the same beach where they kissed as teens and the sand and water are illuminated by, you know, the shining stuff that the film is named after.

Jenkins’ lovely, honest work here results in one of the year’s finest and most emotionally impactful films. It deserves a ton of awards season action for sure, but what it most deserves is bigger audiences. It’s been gaining traction on the indie circuit (it just opened at a handful of theaters in my area), but it’s still being overshadowed by the scores of better promoted, studio-produced heavy hitters at the multiplexes.

So I urge lovers of small, yet largely affecting films to seek out MOONLIGHT. Its touching artful aura is well worth basking in.

More later...

Thursday, November 17, 2016


Opening tonight in No-Maj land at a muliplex near you:

(Dir. David Yates, 2016)

here to find them is in a suitcase owned by a one Mr. Newt Scamander, who we meet just off the boat in New York in 1926 at the beginning of this spin-off of the HARRY POTTER series, which takes place 70 years before our young hero Harry first picks up a wand.

Scamander, portrayed by Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne as a nervous, awkward bloke who even acknowledges that people find him annoying, gets caught up in mayhem at a bank in an amusing opening sequence in which his suitcase of crazy creatures gets mistakenly switched with one owned by Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) that contains pastries (Kowalski was at the bank trying to get a loan to open a bakery).

We learn that while in Britain folks without magical abilities are called “Muggles,” in America they are dubbed “No-Majs.”

Witnessing this event and recognizing Scamander as a wizard is a witch by the name of Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who takes in Scamander to the offices of theMagical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), but the President of the division, Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) isn’t interested in the arrest because Tina was just demoted to the Wand Permit Office.

However, Colin Farrell as Percival Graves, the Director of Magical Security, is intrigued about the contents of Scamander’s suitcase, which at the moment is causing more mayhem back at Kowalski’s apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

After restoring the damage to the building, Newt and Tina gather Kowalski and the suitcase and make their way to Tina’s apartment where we meet Tina’s younger sister, Queenie Goldstein (actress/singer Alison Sudol), another witch who can read minds. Later that night, Scamander uses the suitcase as a portal to another dimension which contains a zoo of all of Scamander’s surreal, colorful creatures. Kowalski is stunned by what he sees, but saddened to learn that at the end of the adventure he’ll have to be obliviated, which means that his memory of his experience with his new friends will be wiped clean.

Meanwhile, another No-Maj, Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), leader of the New Salem Philanthropic Society (a.k.a. the Second Salemers) rails against the existence of witches and Wizards, while her kids, Creedence and Modesty (Ezra Miller and Faith Wood-Blagrove) suspiciously sulk behind her.

There is also another subplot involving Jon Voight as Henry Shaw Sr., a newspaper mogul whose slick senator son, Henry Jr. (Josh Cowdery) is running for re-election, but despite a lively rally scene they don’t factor in much (probably just here to set some of the scene for the sequels).

The movie’s second half concerns Newt, Tina, Jacob, and Queenie working together to find one of the missing beasts and to stop a dark force called an Obscurial, which appears as an eerie, black cloud, from destroying the city. This, of course, involves an AVENGERS amount of city destruction via CGI that is seamlessly impressive but no match for what’s onscreen in DOCTOR STRANGE.

FANTASTIC BEASTS began life as a plot-less Hogwarts textbook that J.K. Rowlings wrote under the pseudonym of Scamander as a sideline enhancement to the Harry Potter book series. Here Rowlings fleshes the concept out into her first screenplay adaptation, which is proposed to be the first in a five part series.

Not sure how I feel about a second franchise sprouting out of what was a 128-page book – echoes of the bloated film trilogy made out of “The Hobbit” – but if Yates can keep the quality control in check like he does here, it could make for a very fun ride.

For Yates, who has directed four of the HARRY POTTER films, has fashioned a worthy, witty spinoff that has a lot of charm, visual splendor, and likable characters (especially Fogler, who steals the film from his fellow cast members throughout) to carry us through its two hour and thirteen minute running time, in which only a few scenes drag.

Now, I’ve only read the first Harry Potter book, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but I’ve seen all of the movies and for the most part enjoyed them. I may even agree with the AV Club’s Noel Murray, who in this fine essay, argues that the series might be “the best sustained exercise in fantasy literature adaptation in Hollywood history.”

Not sure if this prequel series will reach that height, but its first installment, FANTASTIC BEASTS, works both as an extension of the HP series’ ethos, and as a piece of standalone entertainment. Many may be cynical about Warner Brothers milking this particular magical cash cow, but I believe Rowlings and Yates will prove that their vision is big enough to sustain another round of magical storytelling.

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL Shoots For The Stars And Almost Hits Them

Arriving tonight at a multiplex near everybody:

ARRIVAL (Dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to last year’s excellent cartel counterinsurgency thriller SICARIO, my #3 film of 2015, posits itself as a cerebral sci-fi epic in the vein of 2001: A SPACE ODDYSEY, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, and CONTACT.

Sadly it comes off more like an artsier take on INTERSTELLAR, Christopher Nolan’s failed foray into the genre from 2014.

It starts off compellingly with the news that a dozen ginormous oval spaceships have landed and are hovering over 12 different locations on Earth. Amy Adams as linguist Louise Banks is called in by US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to work in a team with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to make contact with the aliens at their Montana visitation site. Michael Stuhlbarg, also currently seen in DOCTOR STRANGE, is also on hand as CIA Agent Halpern, the chief government liaison who’s monitoring the proceedings.

Every eighteen hours a portal opens in the aliens’ craft so a group can be lifted up into the ship and see and hear what they refer to as “heptapods” through a glass-like barrier in hope that they can get an answer to the key question which is the film’s tagline: “Why are they here?”

On one visit, Adams’ Banks removes her orange hazmat suit, risking contamination with the air, to try and make physical contact with the species. By this point, Banks has deduced that the language used by the two dominant creatures, who Renner’s Donnelly nicknames Abbott and Costello, formed by gaseous clouds of ink that illustrate Rorschach-esque circular sentences, is a non linear type of communication and that when they say “weapon,” they may mean “tool.”

Sure, this sounds and feels very much like CONTACT, but there’s a different vibe at work particularly in the beautifully fleeting flashbacks that Banks keeps having revolving around her daughter (played at different ages by Abigail Pniowsky and Julia Scarlett Dan) who we learn in the film’s heart-tugging prologue died from cancer at 12-years old.

While Banks and crew are making headway with our extraterrestrial visitors, their Chinese and Russian counterparts aren’t fairing as well so there’s the looming possibility that mankind is on the verge of global war.

The movie’s message and meaning gets really muddled in its last third. Imagery collides with itself as Adams’ Banks gets further and further into artsy, dream-like fuzziness. To sort out what happens would mean major Spoilers but I’m not so sure that I processed the films’ themes and plot points properly. The layered reveal of the film’s big twist isn’t handled effectively enough to make it really land. It feels like an afterthought that screenwriter Eric Heisserer adapted without any added imagination from the Ted Chiang 1998 short story that the film is based on (not that I’ve read that).

Yet while there are narrative strands that are left hanging, and no other character other than Adams’ is very fleshed out, the film is admirable on an aesthetic level largely due to cinematographer Bradford Young’s vivid, fluid imagery, and within the muddled execution there is still a semblance of emotional heft. Adams, whose touching performance is among her finest, has a lot to do with that.

It’s just that the whole thing just comes off as a spiritually strained and self important exercise in the end. I don’t think Villeneuve set out to make a mash-up of CONTACT, INTERSTELLAR and THE TREE OF LIFE but I’m afraid that’s what we’ve got here. Were I a star rating critic, I’d give it three out of five stars because it did its job competently in a number of departments, and because it’s a decent piece of well made entertainment. But if it had hit the stars over the moon that it was shooting for, it really could’ve been a masterpiece.

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Monday, November 07, 2016

CERTAIN WOMAN Is Certainly A Slow Moving, Artsy Indie

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

(Dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2016)

Kelly Reichardt’s sixth full length feature begins with a long shot of a train barreling through a mountain-filled Montana landscape. It’s a shot that’s lingered on with no movement except for the train as it approaches the camera.

As many shots are lingered on throughout, this image symbolically sets the slow, thoughtful tone for this drama based on three short stories by Maile Meloy from her 2009 collection, “Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.”

The first story concerns Laura Dern as a lawyer in Livingston, Montana, who is dealing with a desperate client named Fuller (Jared Harris), who has suffered a workplace injury and was screwed over his worker’s compensation. Despite that Dern’s character, also named Laura, has repeatedly told him that his former employer was legally absolved of paying him anything on top of the settlement he previously accepted, Fuller demands a second opinion. So Laura takes him to see another lawyer and because it’s a man, he accepts it when he tells Fuller the same thing she’s been telling him for eight months.

Later on the phone to her lover Ryan (James LeGros), who we briefly met in the film’s first few minutes, she laments: “It would be so lovely to think if I were a man, people would listen and say ‘okay.’”

However, Fuller isn’t through and later that night Laura is awoken by a call from the police alerting her that Fuller has taken a security guard hostage at her former place of employment. Outfitted with a bullet proof vest, she goes in to try and talk him down. Don’t expect any real suspense or action here, the situation gets pretty mundanely diffused.

The second story involves Michelle Williams, in her third film for Reichardt, as Gina, part of a married couple with a daughter (Sarah Rodier) who are camping near a plot of land on which they intent to build a house. Williams is married to LeGros’s Ryan, Laura’s aforementioned lover, but that never comes up again.

Instead the premise of this vignette revolves around the couple negotiating with Albert, an elderly gentleman (René Auberjonois, best known for the ‘80s sitcom Benson, and several Robert Altman movies) for a pile of sandstone on his property.

Gina is frustrated that Albert only regards Ryan in their request for the sandstone, but he agrees to give it to them. When they come to load it on to their truck, Gina waves to Albert who’s watching from his window but he doesn’t wave back.

Onto the third and final story, which posits a downbeat Kristen Stewart as Beth, a lawyer who is teaching a class on educational law in Belfry, Montana, that a local ranch hand named Jamie (Lily Gladstone) sits in on. Jamie happened upon the class while walking through town one night and obviously develops a crush on Beth, who obliviously fans the flames by going out to dinner with her at a nearby diner after class several times.

Jamie even brings one of her horses from her stable one night so that they can ride to the diner on it together. When Jamie learns that Beth has quit the job because of the long commute, Jamie drives to find her in Livingston. Jamie sleeps in her car overnight, then, via help from the same firm that Laura works at, tracks Beth down to her law office and approaches her in the parking lot in the film’s most awkward, cringe-inducing moment.

Although there are connections between these stories, they don’t satisfyingly intersect. We get a follow-up with what happened to Fuller in an epilogue in which Laura visits him in prison, and shots that loosely conclude the other narratives, but folks may be left wondering how or why these tales are interwoven. They indeed share the perspectives of marginalized women in the vast open spaces of Montana, but their personal connection is too abstract for proper impact.

If one embraces the slow pacing, and studies the intricacies of the acting (all the ladies work is sharp here, but newcomer Gladstone is particularly strong), they can get immersed in the subtle nuances on display – in other words, acknowledge it as a true art film – but that may take more patience and concentration than most people are willing to give.

Reichardt’s films, which include OLD JOY, WENDY AND LUCY, MEEK’S CUTOFF, and NIGHT MOVES, are all cut from the same artsy, contemplative cloth. They are character studies that offer slices of bleak life that often play to meager audiences at indie art houses. Her brand of minimalism isn’t meant for the multiplexes.

CERTAIN WOMEN is certain to baffle or bore (or both) many folks, and I myself had some issues with its length and some moments that felt off, but it’s the kind of movie that I’m glad somebody is still making. Its 16 mm look, shot by Reichardt veteran, cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, along with its parsed dialogue makes it feel more like real life than most movies.

That is both its curse and its charm.

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Thursday, November 03, 2016

DOCTOR STRANGE’s Origin Story Is An Incredible Looking Mystical Mess

Opening tonight at multiplexes everywhere across multiple dimensions and alternate realities:

(Dir. Scott Derrickson, 2016)

The beginning of DOCTOR STRANGE, involving a foot chase and fight over the sides of shifting, folding buildings (like INCEPTION times ten) inside the London skyline, is one of the most spectacular opening sequences of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) series.

However, what follows all too soon settles into an overly familiar origin story formula.

In a New York operating room, we meet Benedict Cumberbatch as snarky neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange, whose arrogance around his fellow colleagues, played by Rachel McAdams and Michael Stuhlbarg, makes him come off more than a little like Dr. Gregory House, especially since Brits Cumberbatch and Hugh Laurie’s American accents are extremely similar.

Strange gets in a near fatal automobile accident while texting in his Lamborghini *, and when he comes to he finds that his hands have been mangled and his career as a surgeon is over.

Strange’s physical therapist (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) tries to encourage him by telling him that one of his former patients made a full recovery from the same type of injuries, so our not yet hero seeks the man out. Benjamin Bratt as the former paraplegic points him to Kamar-Taj, a monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, to which Strange immediately travels.

There he meets sorcerer Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who takes him to the Ancient one, an ageless, bald, androgynous Tilda Swinton who silences Strange’s cynicism about their religion by thrusting him into outer space and a series of alternate dimensions which convinces him that he should shut up and train to be a sorcerer himself.

Meanwhile, one of the Ancient One’s former pupils, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) plots to destroy the sanctums that protect earth from other dimensions and conquer the world in the name of the powerfully evil Dormammu of the Dark Dimension.

So after the set-up, the second half of the film is all action with Doctor Strange, still developing his powers to bend time, make portals to different locations, and create fiery weapons by making shapes with his hands, fighting Kaecilius amid an ever shifting New York cityscape.

As incredible as so much of the imagery is – and with the backdrop of skyscrapers morphing into kaleidoscope clusters, it’s pretty incredible – the narrative follows a tediously predictable path, and too much of the dialogue is over expositionary mystical mumbo jumbo that left me scratching my head.

Cumberbatch is well cast in the role as he greatly resembles the character created by legendary comic book artist Steve Ditko, and it’s amusing to see him capture Strange’s snobbiness turning into enlightenment as he learns what appears to the film’s message: “It’s not all about you.”

Yet despite Dan Harmon (Community, Rick and Morty) doing some script doctoring, many of the good doctor’s one-liners fail to land. Of course, some of this is purposeful as in the moment when during his training, says to the Kamar-Taj librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) “people used to laugh at my jokes.” Wong replies, “did they work for you?”

It would’ve been nice if they gave McAdams more to do as she only seems to exist to aid Cumberbatch’s Strange as the clichéd love interest on the sidelines role. Swinton unsurprisingly steals her scenes, but this movie for sure doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test (what Marvel movie does?).

As for the other supporting players, Ejiofor and Mikkelsen bring the necessary intensity, while Wong, Stuhlbarg, and Bratt have their brief but sweet moments.

DOCTOR STRANGE is far from a dud as I felt reasonably entertained, but I believe it’s going to fall in line with the lackluster THOR films in future appraising of the Marvel movie canon. It’s the 14th film in the MCU, the second after CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR in the series’ Phase Three, so, of course, there’s formula fatique (not that it’s the first time), but there are times when the ultra trippy effects help to transcend that.

Those effects, the immaculate CGI courtesy of Luma Pictures and Industrial Light & Magic, are what audiences will most take away. When Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, and C. Robert Cargill’s screenplay falters, the inventive, mind-blowing visuals sweep in to save it. The IMAX 3D screening I attended was stunning, so I’d recommend considering that format.

I bet hardcore Marvel fans will be pleased with this addition to the MCU – it’s another round of member berries with all the requisite elements - Stan Lee cameo, surprise Avengers member appearance, post credits stinger, etc. – in place. Casual fans of the films, who also aren’t that familiar with the comics, may get a bit bored during this incredible looking but mystically messy movie. And I speak from experience.

* I love that theres this disclaimer in the end credits: “Driving when distracted can be hazardous, drive responsibly.”

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