At Eternity’s Gate(11/25/2018)

It’s pretty widely agreed that 2007 was an amazing year for film.  It was a year that gave us such modern classics as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, and on a more personal level it was the year I began writing full movie reviews habitually.  One movie that gets lost in discussions of about Zodiac and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a smaller movie called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.  That film, about the internal life of a man suck unable to move any part of his body aside form one eyelid following a massive stroke was nonetheless one of the year’s best.  Though that movie was in the French language it was actually directed by an American.  Specifically it was directed by a guy named Julian Schnabel, who had directed two films previously but never to this much acclaim and it felt like with this movie a master had finally emerged.   And then nothing.  Schnabel made another movie three years later called Miral which was critically derided and then nothing for the next eight years.  This delay may have had more than a little to do with Schnabel’s other and perhaps primary career as a fine art painter who has by all accounts produced several museum quality paintings and works of physical art.  But now Schnabel has returned and he’s now made a film about the life of a painter from a different time and place with At Eternity’s Gate.

The film looks at the adult life of Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) beginning when he had already assembled a fairly decent oeuvre of paintings but hasn’t gotten any real money or success for his trouble.  His mental problems are already apparent but he does have the undying devotion of his brother Theo Van Gogh (Rupert Friend) whose moral and financial support has allowed him to remain a professional artist.  Much of the movie concerns an extended trip he made to Arles, France in order to paint under a different kind of light than what he was seeing in Paris.  There he becomes something of a town pariah because of his occasionally anti-social behavior but does have a few friends like his landlord Madame Ginoux (Emmanuelle Seigner) and he’s also visited by a fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac).  From there we see him continue to struggle with his mental problems while also continually making iconic paintings right up until the end.

Confession: I do not know that much about art history, at all.  Truthfully I can barely tell a Monet from a Renoir, but Van Gogh is a little bit of an exception, when I see one of his paintings I can tell, in part because of his technique of making the paint sort of stand out from the canvas.  I also knew some of the broad strokes of his life story from here and there, in part because there have actually been a number of movies made about him including Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life with Kirk Douglas in the central role and there was Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo and just last year there was the animated film Loving Vincent which used his signature art style to look at his life story.  It’s probably not too hard to guess why so many filmmakers want to tell this story; presumably they see something of themselves in the struggling misunderstood artist even though all of these filmmakers are more mentally stable and successful in their time than Van Gogh ever was during his lifetime.  It’s also a meaty role for actors who get to both imitate a famous face and explore the depths of undiagnosed mental illness.

This time around Van Gogh is played by Willem Dafoe, which is a casting choice that makes sense given that he’s a red haired guy who looks a lot like Van Gogh’s self-portraits but also kind of doesn’t make sense given that Van Gogh died at 37 and Dafoe is almost twice that age at this point.  That age issue isn’t overly apparent while watching the movie and Dafoe is quite strong in the role.  Some of the best parts are the movie are the scenes where Van Gogh is relatively calm and starts talking about his various philosophies of art and life.  During these scenes Dafoe reminded me a bit of his scenes in The Last Temptation of Christ where he was struggling to explain his spiritual angst.  But maybe the fact that he sounds like Jesus is part of the problem.  Van Gogh was not a kind and cuddly man, in fact he was so off-putting to the people of Arles that they passed a petition to have him barred from the city.  His mental problems were severe and noticeable and the movie in many ways seems to be a little too in love with the guy to really look at the depths of them.

Really though whatever complaints I have about the movie have less to do with its take on Van Gogh and more to do with its pacing and general inconsistency.  In format the movie is basically a traditional biopic: it looks at the events of the artist’s last years more or less in chronological order and without any sort of gimmick or anything, on paper at least.  However the movie does play in some odd ways at times.  Occasionally it just sort of diverges from its plot to sort of watch Van Gogh sort of walk through nature and observe things.  It’s an arty touch, but I’m not sure it really works here and just sort of hurts the pacing. Other parts just kind of feel like boring and kind of stilted biopic fare.  But every time the movie was losing me it would do something to win me back.  It will include an interesting conversation or depict some key moment in Van Gogh’s life in an interesting way and I’ll be back on board.  Something like a third of the movie didn’t really work for me, a third of it worked quite well, and another third was neutral and that probably ultimately speaks to how episodic it is.  When I left the movie after seeing it I was pretty comfortable giving it a pass but it’s been a week since then and a lot of it has already kind of slipped from my mind.  It’s not a terrible or even particularly bad movie but it does seem to be a rather inessential one given how many other Van Gogh movies are out there and how little this really seems to be adding.  If you’re only going to see one recent Van Gogh I might even go so far as to say you’re better off going with that Loving Vincent thing, which at least had a cool visual style.

**1/2 out of Five

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Green Book(11/18/2018)

If there’s one movie that was done no favor by winning an Academy Award it was Crash, and if there was another movie that was done no favor by winning that award it was probably Driving Miss Daisy.  Where Crash was criticized for what it was Driving Miss Daisy was criticized for what it wasn’t, and what it wasn’t was Do the Right Thing.  In a vacuum Driving Miss Daisy is fairly inoffensive; it’s the story of a decades long friendship between two older people from very different backgrounds who overcome their prejudices and come to respect each other over time.  A generous reading is that it’s telling white people that we’re not so different, a less generous reading is that it’s telling black people to stop making so much trouble and maybe white people will treat them better.  Any other year the Academy might not have gotten any shit for rewarding a movie like that but they decided to give it Best Picture in 1989, the same year that Spike Lee released his widely beloved masterpiece Do the Right Thing, a film with a much more challenging and provocative take on race.  That movie failed to even garner a Best Picture nomination and the symbolism of ignoring Lee’s film in favor of a movie about a “nice” black guy was not lost on observers and a controversy was born that culminated in Kim Basinger calling the Academy out on their own show.  We’ve spent the last thirty years scoffing at that choice and yet these “friendly” movies about race relations remain an easy sell around the world whether it’s in the form of something like The Intouchables or Victoria & Abdul and now there seems to be massive Oscar buzz around another movie about a black person and a white person coming to learn that they’re not that bad while on the road, could history be repeating itself?

Set in 1962, Green Book follows a guy named Tony Lip (Viggo Mortenson), a streetwise New York Italian who works as a bouncer the legendarily mobbed up nightclub The Copacabana.  After an incident Lip finds himself out of work for two months while the Copacabana is closed for renovations.  Fortunately for him he receives a tip that there may be a job opening as a driver for a pianist named Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali).  Shirley is a classically trained pianist, but also an African American living a profoundly racist society and out of a sort of need to face the wider world he’s booked a tour of the Deep South, where he plans to play a variety of concert halls and private shows at the estates of wealthy socialites.  Of course a black man touring the south at this time faced a great deal of danger, so he was in part looking for a driver and in part looking for someone who could defuse situations and if need be act as a straight-up bodyguard.  Tony Lip seems to be what he’s looking for and hires him, but as the road trip begins it was clear that the two would have personality clashes.  Shirley is a wealthy and sophisticated man of refinement while Lip is a crude and uneducated guy from the block, and the two frequently bicker over these differences, but as the film moves on the two start to realize they can trust each other.

Green Book was directed by, of all people, Peter Farrelly.  Farrelly has until now been part of a duo with his brother Bobby Farrelly and the two have become synonymous with broad lowbrow mainstream comedy.  This was the duo behind Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, and Me Myself & Irene and they generally didn’t stray too far from the tone that made them famous even though they had not seen much real success at all since the turn of the millennium.  Now he seems to have separated from his sibling and is trying to “go legit” so to speak and show he can make something a bit more serious.  And to his credit I don’t think his direction here is much of a problem at all.  He’s clearly a seasoned professional and shoots the film with traditional Hollywood efficiency.  His sense of humor also isn’t completely put to waste here either.  I would never call the movie a comedy exactly but given that it is essentially a buddy road movie there is some of that usual dynamic where the two sort of drive each other crazy before coming to like each other and this definitely leads to some comic relief that serves the movie they’re making well enough.  He also gets some pretty good performances out of his leads: Tony Lip is a bit of a walking goomba stereotype but Mortenson makes it work and keeps him believable while Mahershala Ali manages to make his character seem endearingly snobby rather than the one dimensional guy he could have been.

So before I get mean about this, let it be known that I think this is a perfectly competent movie, one that people will enjoy watching if they catch it on HBO on some random evening and which has a message that in and of itself is largely inoffensive.  Here’s the thing though, this is late 2018 and pretty much every movie that comes out around this time inevitably gets looked at in terms of Award season and by extension in terms of legacy and in terms of the constant tug of war over the soul of cinema, and in those terms I have some major problems with this movie being celebrated.  For one thing, the movie is kind of predictable.  If you’ve seen enough movies you have a pretty good idea of what these characters’ arcs are going to be and it also hits certain moments in a rather false way.  When the film introduces subplots like Shirley helping Lip write letters home you can pretty easily guess how it’s going to pay off and the film’s sense of irony about Lip being the less refined of the pair are handled in increasingly obvious ways.  Kris Bowers’ score is also part of the problem as it’s a very standard issue work that constantly intrudes and tries to really turn the emotion up to eleven in some really phony ways.

So the movie is kind of corny in and of itself, but then we have to deal with the way the movie addresses race, which in many ways seems rather basic.  It’s the kind of movie that seems to have been made for people who went to really conservative schools that never bothered to give even the most cursory of black history lessons.  Hell, even the characters at the center of the film seem oddly naïve about the world they live in.  The Shirley character was intentionally going on this tour in an attempt to face down Southern racism and Lip is a guy who may well have known the Joe Pesci character from Goodfellas and yet the movie constantly has both of them suddenly turning into Pollyannas whenever they encounter a tailor that won’t let Shirley try on a suit or a sheriff that tries to enforce a sundown law.  These scenes don’t strike me as an honest portrayal of how these guys probably acted so much as they’re trying to shock modern audiences who somehow never watched many of the hundreds of other movies about the Jim Crow South that have been made in the past.  And that’s the problem with movies like these, they primarily only seek to show the wrongs of the silliest forms of discrimination of the past and frankly those are the easiest possible targets.

So what is the ultimate message of this supposed to be?  That people overcome their differences by getting to know each other better?  That is indeed the same damn message that Driving Miss Daisy was peddling back in 1989 and if it seemed kind of weak back then it’s certainly weak now.  These movies always operate under this simplistic assumption that racism was a problem in the South caused by dumb deplorables and that Lyndon Johnson fixed the problem and we know better now because individuals learned better and stopped being mean to each other.  Here and there this movie does at least suggest it knows better than that in little asides like when Shirley suggests to Lip after escaping a redneck bar that he probably wouldn’t have been treated much better at a bar back in Lip’s own neighborhood, but by the end when they’re actually being helped by a sheriff rather than hurt by one simply because they’ve gone far enough North really plays back into that old framework.  What’s more the movie ignores the larger systemic causes of oppression, the kinds of thing that no amount of Tony Lip learning to be nice to highly talented black men he finds himself befriending is going to fix.

Compare it to something like If Beale Street Could Talk, which is set a decade later and in the same city that is supposedly such a safe space for Shirley and you immediately realize how bullshit this framing is.  That is a movie about black families more or less being fed to the grinder by an uncaring criminal justice system, and while it’s certainly set in the past it’s still significantly more relevant to civil rights struggles that we’re still fighting today.  And there’s been no shortage of other movies about race relations made this year by black filmmakers like Blindspotting, The Hate U Give, Sorry to Bother You, Monsters and Men, Black Panther, and of course a brand new movie by Spike Lee called Blackkklansman.  Those movies all have their pros and cons and none of them are on the level of Do The Right Thing but they all feel far more in touch with the politics of 2018 and most of them tell their stories in more creative and exciting ways as well.  And that’s why this movie kind of pisses me off.  I don’t begrudge anyone for enjoying it and I could see it having some value for elementary school kids or, like, grannies who are never going to understand something a little more confrontational than The Blind Side.  However, if you’re an adult (or an Academy member) the time has come to reach for something more than this kind comfort food.  Like Shirley says to Lip at one point: you can do better.

**1/2 out of Five

Halloween(10/31/2018)

I’ve long been called something of a film snob, a title I somewhat resent given that I consider myself to be about as well versed in low brow genre cinema as highbrow art films.  Take the slasher movie for example, the disreputable horror sub-genre that Roger Ebert once dismissively called the “dead teenager movie.”  It’s not exactly my favorite type of cinema either but I’ve seen a whole lot of it, and of my own free will to boot.  Most notably I’ve seen every damn movie in the big three slasher franchises.  That’s all nine Nightmare on Elm Street movies, all twelve Friday the 13th movies, and most pertinently all ten Halloween movies.  Did I love all thirty of those movies?  Not at all, in fact I’d say well over half of them are outright bad movies but it was interesting watching the trajectory the three long standing series went in.  For example, the The Nightmare on Elm Street movies were pretty consistently decent but pretty much never great and the Friday the 13th movies were pretty consistently crappy though occasionally fun.  The Halloween franchise, by contrast, is all over the place in terms of quality.  The original Halloween is a stone cold classic, a way better movie than any of those other movies and almost entirely because of John Carpenter’s sheer skill behind the camera.  But the franchise also has some real oddities like Halloween III: The Season of the Witch, which ignores the series continuity entirely to tell a weird story about evil masks, as well as some real stinkers like Halloween: Resurrection in which Busta Rhymes repeatedly calls Michael Myers “Mikey.”  The franchise was last seen being rebooted in the late 2000s by Rob Zombie with generally poor results, but they are now taking another stab (no pun intended) at bringing “The Shape” back to the screen with another sequel/reboot simply titled Halloween.

This new Halloween film is not a remake is instead a new sequel, one that ignores every other film in the franchise except for that 1978 original.  It is set in the present day and alleges that shortly after the events of that first movie Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney/Nick Castle) was captured and placed into a mental asylum where he has been for the last forty years.  Myers’ surviving victim Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is now pushing sixty and her experiences escaping from Myers have driven her to become something of a reclusive survivalist, a fact that has estranged her from her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) but she does have more of a working relationship with her teenage granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak).  As the film begins the story of Michael Myer’s rampage is getting brought back up again by a pair of true crime reporters (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) who try rather unsuccessfully to interview Myers, who has remained mute and unresponsive after all these years.  Their visit does reveal one thing though; the state is planning to transport Myers to a different prison by bus on October 30th… that couldn’t possibly go wrong could it?

To longtime fans of the Halloween series this “ignore all the sequels besides the original and bring back Jamie Lee Curtis” approach will be a familiar one.  The same basic thing was done in 1998 for the series’ 20th anniversary sequel Halloween H20, which had Laurie as a college professor in hiding after faking her death forced to contend once again with Myers.  That movie was better than most of the Halloween sequels but it was made in the wake of Scream and while it wasn’t overly meta or snarky like that movie was it did follow the conventions of that late 90s slasher movie wave otherwise, and those conventions have not aged well.  Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake came around about ten years later and it two is something of a product of its era.  It was clearly greenlit after the success of 70s horror remakes like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, and The Hills Have Eyes and it had a certain “torture porn” edge to it.  I remember having a viscerally unpleasant reaction to that movie and wrote a really nasty review of it but I must say looking back on it I think I might have over-reacted a little.  That movie had problems but there were certainly elements of it that I liked and they stand out a bit more in my memory, but I digress.

The 2018 Halloween is interesting in that unlike the last two iterations of the series (and their respective lame-ass sequels) this is not really coming out amidst a wave of other slasher movies.  The horror movies that are most in vogue right now are bad haunted house movies where ghosts jump out at the screen and go “boo!” after a few minutes of buildup, and that’s pretty far removed from the slasher genre that Michael Myers would become associated with.  As such this movie seems to have doubled down on ties to the original movie.  John Carpenter actually has some credits on it (though I’m not exactly sure how hands on he was) and they even brought back original Michael Myers actor Nick Castle back to reprise his role in a couple of scenes despite him being a 70 year old who was never a real actor to begin with.  And yet, the film oddly doesn’t really play out like the original film when it comes to the actual horror scenes.  In that first movie Michael Myers was a rather spectral presence; he would slowly stalk his victims and Carpenter would try to build maximum suspense before each kill.  Here Michael Myers is more of a blunt instrument.  He basically just walks up to random people and kills them in brutal fashion.  The film is significantly more gory the first movie and actually reminded me a lot of Rob Zombie’s take on the series.

The movie certainly has elements that work.  Seeing Jamie Lee Curtis go full Sarah Connor is interesting and Curtis certainly seems to have taken the part on with gusto.  As a whole though I wasn’t very impressed by this reboot/sequel.  Maybe I was expecting too much from it.  Between its clear interest in righting the wrongs of past sequels and it’s immense popularity I guess I was expecting something really creative and special out of the movie and instead what I got just kind of felt like another slasher movie sequel in the series which made a lot of the same mistakes as the other ones.  There may in fact prove to be no way to successfully follow up the 1978 film, which achieved a certain perfection through its simplicity and that any attempt to revisit the Michael Myers character is just going to diminish his mystique.  Still if you’re going to try to do that I feel like you’re going to need to do a little more than this movie does to recreate that magic.

**1/2 out of Five        

Monsters and Men(10/8/2018)/The Hate U Give(10/14/2018)

When Donald Trump somehow won the presidency after waging a horrific race baiting campaign a lot of people came out and said “well this sucks, but at least we’ll get some good music and movies out of it.”  That is of course a stupid thing to say given that real people are going to have to suffer in order for you to get your protest art, but, it isn’t exactly untrue that great art can emerge in response to awful situations.  However, movies don’t get made overnight and it can often take a while for filmmakers to respond to what’s in the news, especially if they’re going to respond intelligently.  It took Hollywood damn near five years to put out an Iraq War movie that was worth a damn and it could take just as long to get good overtly anti-Trump cinema.  In fact right now we’re only just starting to see the wave of movies that were made in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that emerged in the wake of a series of police shootings in 2014.  We saw one of these movies a few months ago in Blindspotting, an indie film that is partly about gentrification and friendship but which was also followed a man trying to process having witnessed a police shooting of an unarmed man.  Now we have another pair of movies tackling this subject matter, one a rather restrained independent movie called Monsters and Men and the other a rather forceful studio movie based on a YA novel called The Hate U Give, and given the rather divergent approaches the two movies take to the subject matter I thought they would be worth looking at side by side.

The Hate You Give follows a high school girl named Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) who lives in fictional “urban” neighborhood of Garden Heights but who attends a private school called Williamson Prep and code switches heavily when moving between the two worlds.  One weekend she finds herself at a party in Garden Heights where she reunites with a childhood friend named Khalil (Algee Smith) and he offers to give her a ride home after a fight breaks out at the party.  On their way they’re pulled over by a cop for suspect reasons, then things go bad and Khalil is shot by the officer after reaching for a hairbrush.  Starr then needs to decide whether to testify at the Grand Jury despite pressure from various parties not to while also navigating how she will continue to move between the two worlds she inhabits.

Monsters and Men also begins with a young man who witnesses the police shoot an unarmed man but it doesn’t end with him.  That young man is Puerto Rican guy in his late teens or early twenties named Manny Ortega (Anthony Ramos), who approaches the site of an arrest that seems to be going wrong outside of a convenience store and pulls out a cell phone to film the encounter.  When that arrest ends in an unarmed black man being killed by the police he needs to decide whether he should stick his neck out to release the video.  Soon after that the movie shifts to another character, an African American cop named Dennis Williams (John David Washington) who wasn’t involved in that shooting but does know that the cop who did the shooting has questionable attitudes and is conflicted about whether to tell that to Internal Affairs.  After he comes to his decision the film shifts again, this time to a black teenager with a promising future in baseball named Zyric (Kelvin Harrison) who knew the victim of that shooting and now wants to get involved in activism despite everyone telling him this could get in the way of his sports career.

Monsters and Men’s “triptych” structure is somewhat reminiscent of some of Robert Bresson’s movies that would go from one story to the next, sometimes with a conceptual device, to explore a shared theme.  This perhaps makes sense given that there are often a lot of different perspectives and responses that can come from events like this.  The two characters who are clearly the most comparable to The Hate You Give’s Starr Carter are clearly the first and the third, the witness to the shooting and especially the one driven to activism by the shooting.  Starr is of course more developed than both of the Monsters and Men characters owing to the fact that she has four times as much screen time as either of them and I suppose you could also compare her to the police character from that movie as well given that both are caught between two worlds.

Starr and Ortega face similar if somewhat different pressures to keep quiet about what they witnessed: Ortega deals with a pair of police who approach him on the street and give him a “what you thought you saw isn’t what you saw” kind of speech, which comes with something of a veild threat implied, Starr on the other hand has some fairly legitimate concerns that she would be looked at differently by her prep school peers, on top of that there’s a somewhat contrived threat to her from the local gang leader who is for some reason worried that she’ll testify that the deceased worked as a drug dealer in his gang despite having personally witnessed almost nothing about the operation and having seemingly little of value to offer them on that topic.  It’s also not exactly clear why Starr’s testimony is so important, the main details of the shooting are all there on the dashboard camera, all she can really offer otherwise are details about how cavalierly Khalil was behaving during the shooting, which isn’t necessarily going to help the case.

The police story in Monsters and Men is almost certainly its best, in part because it gives a perspective on these things we don’t normally get, that of the black cop.  John David Washington, who we just saw playing a much different kind of policeman in Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman, plays a guy who definitely isn’t in denial about the fact that African Americans are treated differently by his fellow cops.  The film opens with a tense scene (the only one in the film that fits outside of its one story at a time structure) of him getting pulled over, most likely without cause, while off duty and he later tells his partner that this was the sixth time it had happened to him that year.  You can also tell that the video of the shooting affects him and that he knew that the cop who did the shooting was a “bad apple” to say the least, but he is still a cop, the “blue wall” matters to him and he does have some sympathy for how officers are likely to act under pressure.  There’s a particularly strong scene in this section where he’s seated at a dinner party with his wife and a pair of black friends and when the friends start talking about the cop who did the shooting in a somewhat careless and insensitive manner the “you don’t know shit about what cops deal with” rhetoric suddenly seems to come out in an almost reflexive manner.

There is also a comparable character in The Hate U Give, a police officer played by Common who is actually Starr’s uncle.  He doesn’t play an overly big part in the story but he does have one scene where he sort of plays devil’s advocate and outlines the ways that the ill-fated stop earlier in the film might have given the officer some reason to be scared and that “the world’s complicated.”  It’s not entirely clear whether we’re supposed to think that Starr’s response of “it doesn’t seem very complicated to me” is meant to be a legitimate takedown of what he’s saying or if it’s meant to simply be teenage rage but the subject never comes up again and the movie basically eschews such complications from there on.

The third story in Monsters and Men is probably its weakest. The kid at the center of it is very quiet and a lot of his internal struggles are only communicated through blank stares and I’m not sure the actor is quite able to pull it off.  Starr, by contrast, kind of never stops talking.  The film employs a first person voice-over of the worst kind which narrates pretty much every single thing about her including various things that the audience probably should have been trusted to catch onto.  For example, early on Starr’s voice over feels the need to tell say something along the lines of “when I’m in Williamson I’m a different person than when I’m at home… and I hate myself because of it,” which is something that would otherwise be well communicated to the audience simply by letting them observe her behavior in the two places and connect the dots.  Still, Monsters and Men probably could have given us a little more.  For instance there’s a scene where Zyric is in a locker room and overhears a pair of white kids talking about the news surrounding the shooting and more or less saying that they’d do the same if they were in the cop’s position.  Zyric doesn’t respond to this so much as just kind of give a blank stare for the camera to observe.  In The Hate U Give Starr also has to deal with white kids who quote “blue lives matter” rhetoric in ways that probably more closely resemble the way people talk about these things on Twitter than how they talk about them in high school and Starr responds in rather dramatic fashion and talks in detail about how this makes her feel in voiceover.

The Hate U Give goes too far and Monsters and Men doesn’t go far enough” is sort of a running theme when comparing these two movies if you haven’t already picked up on that.  This even extends to the shooting scenes in the respective films.  The shooting in The Hate U Give will be pretty familiar to anyone who’s been watching the news lately.  It begins with an extended meeting between Starr and Khalil which is pretty much tailor made to make you like him and his friendship with Starr before the two are pulled over by the whitest looking cop you can imagine and Khalil is then pretty much instantly shot after reaching for a hairbrush.  It mostly gets the job done but it’s not exactly the most inventive scene and it is about as prone to be questioned and second guessed as all the real shooting videos with those inclined to do so able to ask if the hairbrush really looked like a gun and if Khalil should have acted the way he did, etc.  Monsters and Men by contrast sidesteps that entirely because it never gives you a clear view of the shooting at all.  Ortega doesn’t see how the encounter begins, if the shooting is onscreen at all it happens super-fast and in the background of the scene and the film also very deliberately never replays the tape even after it’s been released to the public.  I’m not exactly sure why writer/director Reinaldo Marcus Green chose this approach but I’m guessing that he was trying to emphasize that he was making a movie that was more about the ways people of color react to these all of these shootings than about the details of this particular death.

The main difference between the two movies is that Starr is essentially in the world’s most political Disney movie (it’s being released by 20th Century Fox, which isn’t part of the Disney corporation just yet, but you catch my drift) while the stars of Monsters and Men are in a movie for adults that isn’t about to dismiss harsh realities as something that “doesn’t seem very complicated to me.”  Like Starr, Ortega decides to come forward with what he knows but the decision does not work out as well for him and unlike Starr Officer Williams isn’t able to bridge the two worlds he lives in and eventually has to pick a side, and like Starr Zyric finds himself driven to activism but it seems like a much lonelier road for him and it’s heavily implied that he’s putting his dreams of Major League stardom in danger by doing so.  Things for Starr on the other hand do eventually more or less work out for her and she’s rewarded for doing the right thing both by the people around her and by her boost in self-realization and growth.  That ending may or may not be true to life, but even a contrived Hollywood ending like that is an ending and in some ways that preferable to Monsters and Men’s perhaps deliberately frustrating habit of leaving stories just as they start to get interesting and then finally ending abruptly without even the slightest fanfare or unifying strand between the three.  In many ways that movie felt like it needed a fourth story or at least some sort of montage or something that would tie the stories together a little more, instead it just kind of concludes the Zyric story and this time doesn’t move on to another and I don’t think that really worked.

Then again maybe there’s something kind of wise about how Monsters and Men just sort of leaving its characters in a morass of uncertainty about their actions, there’s something truthful about that even if it isn’t necessarily engaging cinema.  The Hate U Give isn’t really interested in such uncertainty, but in some ways that’s what’s going to make it a lot more accessible and will definitely impress a certain audience that will get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing a major motion picture parrot various woke tumbler talking points out loud in direct ways that in my view are frankly kind of corny.  This is a movie that climaxes with its protagonist jumping up on a car in the middle of a soon-to-turn-violent protest and shout something like “this is about Khalil’s life… and it mattered!” to a crowd that suddenly goes silent for her “inspiring” insight.  It’s also a movie that ends with its protagonist stepping in front of a gun in a standoff in order to display her new understanding of Tupac’s “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody (THUG LIFE)” phrase and win over people with love or something.  It’s corny.  But in some ways it’s better at being a corny movie than Monsters and Men is at being an artful movie.  That’s probably why it’s going to make a whole lot of money while Monsters and Men is currently on track to leave theaters without even making a million dollars.  I might not have the same respect for The Hate U Give what Monsters and Men is doing but it comes to life in a way that the other film doesn’t and is probably more successful at hitting its very specific goals.    Blindspotting earlier this year also had its questionable moments but I’d probably take it over both of these, but I certainly hope that there are more #BlackLivesMatter movies to come because I don’t think any of them should be the last word on it.

Monsters and Men: **1/2 out of Five

The Hate U Give: *** out of Five

First Man(10/11/2018)

Warning: Review describes some of the real life events that could be considered spoilers for the movie.

The 1983 film The Right Stuff is considered to be a classic, one of the best films ever made about the space program and a successful adaptation of Tom Woolfe’s novel of the same name.  It didn’t do great at the box office but critics loved it and it was nominated for eight Oscars and won four of them and its reputation hasn’t really diminished at all since then.  There was, however, one person who was very decidedly not impressed by it and that was a guy named Walter “Wally” Schirra.  Schirra was an astronaut, the ninth person in space and the only person to take part in a Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo mission.  He isn’t a big part of The Right Stuff but he’s in a few scenes and is played by Lance Hendrickson.  As I understand it Schirra’s issue with the movie had less to do with how he personally was portrayed and more to do with a handful of inaccuracies as well as the overall tone of the film which he described as “Animal House in space” and that everyone in the movie came off like cocky bozos.  That seems like quite the exaggeration.  There are certainly moments of levity in Phillip Kaufman’s movie but it’s far from a comedy and while it certainly takes its share of artistic license here and there it’s far from the most inaccurate movie that Hollywood has ever put out.  Of course the space program is not just any subject; it’s a moment in history that that a lot of people was a moment of great inspiration and for some of those people even the smallest bit of irreverence would seem like anathema.  I bring this up because Damien Chazelle’s new movie First Man seems to have been made to impress the Wally Schirra’s of the world, for better or worse.

The film follows the life of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from his time as an X-15 test pilot up through the moon landing and his immediate return.  It spends no time on his early life or the aftermath of the historic Apollo 11 mission.  Along the way we also meet his wife Janet (Claire Foy), who claims to have married him because of how “stable” he seemed in college but who becomes increasingly troubled by the risks involved in his career as an astronaut.  The film also chronicles how Armstrong would come to impress his boss Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) over the course of various tests and training excercises as well as his ill-fated friendship with Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Ed White (Jason Clarke), Roger B. Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith), who would die in the Apollo 1 test disaster.

First Man is divided into thirds by three centerpiece sequences: an X-15 test flight, the Gemini 8 mission, and of course the moon landing.  In filming these scenes Damien Chazelle takes a somewhat unconventional approach of keeping as much of the action as possible inside of the cockpits rather than giving the audience any kind of external “money shot” of these aircrafts in action.  This does have the effect of giving you an idea of just how nerve-wracking some of these missions must have been, especially in the case of the first two missions where Armstrong is almost entirely dependent on analog instruments and staticy radio communication.  The film is in many ways a reminder that these space missions were being done before we’d even managed to invent the Atari 2600 and seeing what all this looked like from the perspective of these cramped tank-like cockpits gives you an idea of the courage it took to be an astronaut during this period.  That said, it’s not always easy to understand what’s going on in some of these scenes and people hoping that the film will be an effects spectacle along the lines of something like Gravity will likely be disappointed at what they get.

Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong could probably be described as “understated.”  The film certainly makes Armstrong into something of a “strong silent type” who never sought glory but accepted it with serious when it was bestowed upon him.  In many ways the film goes with a very traditional narrative of how Armstrong accomplished what he did: he was smart, calm, collected, and extremely hard working.  The film also shows how those same qualities might not have made him the world’s best husband or father.  From the film he certainly feels like the prototypical stoic and distant 1950s father, perhaps even more so than most.  We know that on some level he loves his kids, he certainly mourns the loss of his daughter who died in childhood of cancer, but he reacts to this by pouring himself into his work and we don’t see him so much as play catch with his sons.  He also doesn’t exactly seem to be doing this because he’s passionate about space travel and yearns to land on the moon, or at least he never says so out loud, instead he seems like someone who found something he was good at and diligently went to work every day to the best of his abilities just like Horatio Alger told him to and was rewarded in kind even if he didn’t want that glory.  Maybe all that is true, in fact I don’t doubt it, but it also kind of seems like the kind of company line  you’d expect from a loving family member’s account as they tell stories of their amazing husband/father while adding in just enough human flaws to make it believable.  If you’re looking for some juicy new take on the guy you probably aren’t going to find it here.

I’m also not quite sure what I was supposed to make of Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife.  In essence she’s basically the same long-suffering housewife we’ve seen in many a biopic of great men.  She seems to be somewhat ambivalent about her husband’s role in the space program and the dangers that it involves but she doesn’t really nag him to stop very much and generally spends most of her time watching the kids while Armstrong is out doing his thing.  In many ways she feels like a character that should either have a lot more screen time or a lot less.  If they had decided that this was going to be a movie that was all about these two people’s marriage and that they were going to really find some special new insight into her that would have been one thing but instead the movie just keeps coming back to her seemingly out of some obligation to keep giving the lead actress screen time even if she really isn’t doing anything too out of the ordinary.  That is perhaps the problem with almost all the earthbound scenes in the movie, ultimately Neil Armstrong seems to have been a person who was interesting more for what he did than who he was and as a result long stretches of the movie are frankly kind of dull.

There are certainly highlights that bring things back to life, and they aren’t all the space scenes necessarily, but those are the big ones and even they only go so far.  Even at the end when we finally get to the moon landing that we’ve been waiting for this whole time it proves to be a bit of an anti-climax.  Chazelle certainly renders the sequence well but it’s ultimately rather brief and aside from visual clarity we get a whole lot that we don’t get from the grainy old black and white images.  He doesn’t even dare to get a close-up of Armstrong’s face as he says his famous “one small step for man” line.  The movie just feels so reverent, technical, and humorless, the kind of thing an absolute NASA geek would make without stopping to consider if everyone else was as interested as they were.  That’s why I suspect that Wally Schirras of the world would be into it, but where I stand something looser and more accessible like The Right Stuff will work better for most audiences.

**1/2 out of Five

The Little Stranger(9/3/2018)

One of the most oddly sad things that movie studios find themselves doing is the “dumping” of certain movies.  This happens when studios fund certain movies and let them get made, but then start to have cold feet about them after they’re done.  Sometimes the completed film is simply bad but sometimes they just prove to be less commercial than the studio expected and it’s determined that it will be a harder sell with the public than they thought it would be.  Sometimes they’ll respond to this by putting out some sort of misleading advertising campaign, sometimes they’ll scale back the release and hope the movie catches on, but all too often what they do is the minimum possible to fulfil their contracts and cut their losses.  They’ll put the movies out in months like January or August or September when there’s the least competition and they’ll do the absolute minimum required in marketing.  They won’t bother putting the films in festivals to generate early buzz they might screen the movie for critics but even if they get good reviews they probably won’t capitalize on it.  Basically they’ll do everything in their power to make sure the film just kind of comes and goes in cinema and hope that interest picks up on DVD or something.  One of the more interesting and perhaps disappointing victims of “dumping” as of late is probably the latest film from Room director Lenny Abrahamson entitled The Little Stranger.

Set sometime after the Second World War, The Little Stranger focuses in on a country doctor named Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) whose mother once worked for a rural estate of the “Downton Abbey” variety called Hundreds Hall as a maid.  One day he’s called to Hundreds Hall because the current maid there named Betty (Liv Hill) has taken sick.  While there he sees that the place is a shell of its former self and is in a state of complete disrepair.  The family’s matriarch Angela Ayres (Charlotte Rampling) is still around but has seemingly little influence and her son Roderick (Will Poulter) hasn’t been much of a “man of the house” since receiving extensive burn injuries during the war.  The brightest spot of the house appears to be his sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who seems a bit more sensible and capable of moving on than her family members.  It soon becomes apparent that the downfall of this house seems to have been precipitated by the death of the family’s eldest daughter Susan (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) as a child.  Despite the state of the house Faraday still has an affection for the place and makes a point to keep visiting it to try an experimental treatment for Roderick’s burns and becomes more and more a friend of the family despite some very strange things happening in Hundreds Hall.

I think a big part of why this movie was “dumped” but the studio has less to do with its actual quality than with the simple fact that it kind of impossible to market.  The movie is about 75% “Masterpiece Theater” style British period piece and 25% a horror movie and will probably not give the audiences for either of those things exactly what they’re looking for.  The people looking for a Merchant Ivory movie out of something like this will probably not be thrilled with the ghost story elements and the typical horror audience will certainly not be happy with the dearth of scares to be found in the film (it makes The Witch look like The Conjuring by comparison).  Now, being an unconventional genre blend isn’t inherently a bad thing or commercial suicide.  That Nicole Kidman film The Others had a similar period piece to scares ratio as this does and it managed to be a hit, albeit almost twenty years ago.  But it you’re going to do something unexpected and unconventional you do sort of need to work extra hard in order to make people interested and I’m not so sure that The Little Stranger does.

The film was based on a novel by a woman named Sarah Waters, who is a contemporary British author who’s known to write novels in the same milieus that the likes of Charles Dickens and Emily Bronte used to specialize in but to look at them with a modern eye and to tackle issues that would have been taboo when the acknowledged masters were writing.  Film buffs would probably know her best as the author of the book “Fingersmith,” which was the basis for Park Chan-Wook’s excellent 2016 film The Handmaiden.  I was expecting that The Little Stranger would do a bit more to subvert its own genre in a similar way but it instead feels more like a fairly faithful replication of the traditional haunted house story like “The House of the Seven Gables” or “The Turn of the Screw” but I’m not really sure it’s doing anything that Henry James couldn’t have done if he wanted to.  But even as a bare bones gothic horror story this seems to be missing some elements.  For one thing, Charlotte Rampling proves to be rather dull as a matriarch driven mad by guilt.  Granted they were probably trying to avoid the cliché of the batty old rich lady but the alternative they came up with was a little boring and Rampling feels a bit wasted as a result.  They also don’t do a great job of establishing the backstory for Caroline’s deceased sister and why her ghost is so hellbent on revenge.  You keep expecting there to be some revelation about that but it never really comes.  Beyond that the film just never really breaks out cinematically.  It’s consistently competent, the performances are pretty good, it’s shot well but given that this is Abrahamson’s the follow-up to something as winning as Room you certainly expect something a lot more impressive than what we’re given.  It’s ultimately kind of a hard movie to really judge because at the end of the day it certainly isn’t “bad” so much as it’s underwhelming.

**1/2 out of Five