WIDOWS (2018)

November 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Woman power. Black power. Racist old white men. Corrupt politicians. Abusive husbands. Cheating white husbands. Racist cops. Men are bad. Women are strong and good. If a filmmaker were to blend all of these stereotypes into a single movie, then as movie goers we should expect an ultra-talented filmmaker like Steve McQueen to go beyond conventional genre. Unfortunately, a nice twist on the heist movie formula from Lynda La Plante’s novel turns into predictability that whips us with societal clichés posing as societal insight.

I seem to be one of the few not raving about this movie. Hey it has the director behind  Best Picture Oscar winner 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Mr. McQueen),  a screenplay he co-wrote with Gillian Flynn (GONE GIRL) from the aforementioned novel by Lynda La Plante, and a deep and talented cast of popular actors. It ticks every box and it’s likely to be a crowd-pleaser, despite my disappointment. Every spot where I expected intrigue, the film instead delivered yet another eye-roll and easy-to-spot twist with a cultural lesson. Each of the actors does tremendous work, it just happens to be with material they could perform in their sleep.

It’s the kind of film where audience members talk to the screen – and it plays like that’s the desired reaction. This is the 4th generation of the source material, including 3 previous TV mini-series (1983, 1985, 2002). It makes sense that this material would be better suited to multiple episodes, rather than hurried through 2 hours. There are too many characters who get short-changed, and so little time to let the personalities breathe and grow. But this is about delivering as many messages as possible.

A strong premise is based in Chicago, and finds a team of four burglars on a job gone wrong. This leaves a mobster/politician looking to the four widows (hence the title) for reparations. Since the women have no money, their only hope is to tackle the next job their men had planned. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Carrie Coon play the widows, though only the first three are given much to do, as the talented Ms. Coon is short-changed. In fact, Ms. Davis is such a strong screen presence that she dominates every scene she is in – she’s a true powerhouse. Even Liam Neeson can’t hang with her. Colin Farrell appears as a smarmy politician and Robert Duvall is his f-word spouting former Alderman dad. Cynthia Erivo has a nice supporting turn in support of the women, and Bryan Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Garret Dillahunt, Kevin J O’Connor, Lukas Haas, and Jon Bernthal fill out the deep cast … see what I mean about too many characters and too little time?

There is no single thing to point at as the cause for letdown. The story just needed to be smarter and stop trying so hard to comment on current societal ills. As an example, a quick-trigger cop shooting an innocent young African-American male seems thrown in for the sole purpose of ensuring white guilt and an emotional outburst from the audience. It’s difficult to even term this film as manipulating since we see the turns coming far in advance. Two far superior message films released earlier this year are Spike Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN and Boots Riley’s SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. For those who need only emotion and little intellect in their movies, this not-so-thrilling heist might work. For the rest of you, it’s good eye-roll practice.

watch the trailer:

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FIRST MAN (2018)

October 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Every junior high student learns that Neil Armstrong spoke those words when he became the first person to walk on the moon’s surface in 1969. So while his words are etched into our minds and the televised visuals of the historic event are seared into our corneas, most of us know little of the man who is renowned as an American hero. Director Damien Chazelle (LA LA LAND, WHIPLASH) finds a way to personalize a man’s story without sacrificing the corresponding grandiose theatre and immense danger.

Kicking off with one of the most intense cinematic sequences ever, the film puts us inside the cockpit of a test flight with Armstrong in 1961 as he bounces off the atmosphere and rockets towards near certain death. This opening makes the statement that this is no ordinary man, and this is no ordinary movie … and we are now prepared to hold on tight! Based on James R Hansen’s book, the only biography Armstrong authorized, the script from Oscar winner Josh Singer (SPOTLIGHT) expertly balances the test pilot/astronaut portion with the character study/personality of the man. Intensity is on display throughout – whether in a capsule or during family time.

Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong, and the story tracks him from 1961 through that famous moment in 1969. What we see is a man who was first an engineer, and then a pilot. A man whose intellect and nerve allowed him to be part of the second group of pilots selected for NASA’s astronaut program in 1962. The first group was the Mercury Seven. He was also a man emotionally devastated by the death of his young daughter Karen (from a brain tumor) and the numerous deaths of friends and associates in the space program. The film clearly shows how he was impacted.

Proving true JFK’s proclamation that the driving force wasn’t that it was easy, but rather that it was quite hard (and dangerous), we glimpse some of the inner workings of NASA, and what becomes clear that the space program was high stakes gambling filled with huge risks – all for a space race against the Russians that was motivated by ego and national pride. Daily danger was part of the job, as was the claustrophobia that comes with sitting in tin can space capsules being monitored by computers far less powerful than the cell phone you are likely using to read this.  Armstrong’s claustrophobia somehow seemed less apparent during his flights than during press conferences or sitting at the kitchen table with his family – providing even more insight into the man.

Claire Foy (“The Crown”) plays Janet Armstrong, the strong-for-the-kids while suffering-in- (mostly) silence homemaker wife. Ms. Foy does a nice job of conveying the emotional turmoil that goes with being an astronaut’s wife, and having no one to share the uncertainty and worry with. Jason Clarke plays Ed White, the first American to walk in space (Gemini 4) and Armstrong’s neighbor and close friend. Olivia Hamilton plays his wife Pat, while Kyle Chandler plays Deke Slayton, and Corey Stoll offers up a not so complimentary portrayal of Buzz Aldrin. Other familiar faces in the cast include Shea Whigham as Gus Grissom, Christopher Abbott as Dave Scott, Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks in APOLLO 13), Ethan Embry, Ciaran Hinds, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Cory Michael Smith, Brian D’Arcy James, and Leon Bridges.

Meticulous attention to details of the era include kids that actually ask to go play outdoors (and aren’t overly impressed with astronaut dads). The sound design and set designs are phenomenal and complement the outstanding cinematography of Linus Sandgren (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND). The abundance of close-ups allow for an intimacy that makes the awe-inspiring space sequences even more breath-taking. Actual historic space audio is used whenever possible, and director Chazelle doesn’t shy away from showing us the “other side” of the space program: Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey’s on the Moon”, writer Kurt Vonnegut publically questioning the program, and many citizens wondering why so much money is being spent on rockets while there were so many other areas (including Vietnam) in need of attention.

The humor is often quite sly, including a scene where his competitive applicants shrug off Armstrong as only a “Civilian”, unaware of his remarkable service and record in the Korean War as a Navy Fighter Pilot. Gosling’s quietly intense portrayal of Armstrong could be termed constrained, but it’s quite fitting given his subject. Composer Justin Hurwitz (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND) delivers and unusual but fitting score, and we can’t help but realize this would make a terrific trilogy bookended by THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) and APOLLO 13 (1995). Chazelle presents a fitting bio of a true American hero (and yes, we can see the flag on the moon), while also giving us a look at the harrowing process of putting folks into space. It’s on us to decide if it’s worth it, but leaves no doubt that President Kennedy was right … it is hard.

***On a personal note, I attended the first year of Edward H White Middle School in San Antonio, and his widow Pat White came to the Grand Opening. I vividly remember what a classy lady she was and how proud she was of her husband.

watch the trailer:


JOBS (2013)

August 21, 2013

jobs1 Greetings again from the darkness. One of the key characteristics of Steve Jobs was that he was constantly striving for perfection. Not just good. Not just acceptable. He wanted the perfect product in the perfect package sold in the perfect store. Whether or not you are a fan of Jobs and Apple, it’s painful to watch a middling movie about the man and the company … a movie that seems to strive for very little, and certainly not perfection.

Ashton Kutcher delivers an impersonation of Jobs complete with beady eyes, slumped shoulders and awkward gait. This is not one of those biopics where the performer disappears into the famous character. We never forget that we are watching Kutcher’s attempt to act and sound like Jobs. But Kutcher is far from the worst part of the movie … in fact, he is fine, given what he has to work with.

jobs2 The real issue with the movie is that it just offers no real insight into the man or the company. Instead we see only the headlines: Jobs drops out, Jobs goes barefooted, Jobs is a jerk, Jobs takes advantage of Woz, Jobs does drugs, Jobs eats fruit, Jobs is a jerk, Jobs is booted out, Jobs comes back, Jobs is a jerk.  The challenge to telling the story of Steve Jobs and Apple stems from finding the genius within the jerk.  Walter Isaacson’s book “Steve Jobs” does exceptional work on that front, and I believe there is a movie project in the works based on his source material.

The supporting cast is impressive: Dermot Mulroney (Mike Makkula), Lukas Haas (Daniel Kottke, Matthew Modine ( John Sculley), JK Simmons, Lesley Ann Warren, John Getz, Ron Eldard (Rod Holt), Kevin Dunn and James Woods. Especially effective, and maybe the only reason to see the movie, is Josh Gad as Steve Wozniak.  Woz is known to be the technical jobs3genius behind the founding of Apple and Gad perfectly captures the spirit of Wozniak as we in the public have come to know him over the years.

Directed by Joshua Michael Stern (Swing Vote), the film is written by first time screenwriter Matt Whiteley. This seems inexplicable to me. A writer with no credits is charged with coming up with a script on one of the most enigmatic and complex and successful people of our times. In fact, the result is what one would expect … a made-for-TV type glossy presentation that doesn’t dig too deep or offer any insight. In short, the kind of movie that Steve Jobs would have despised.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want the “Cliff’s Notes” version of Steve Jobs and Apple OR you want to see Josh Gad’s best performance to date

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you want insight and substance behind the story of Jobs and Apple … instead, read Walter Isaacson’s book

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LR6yMl2FZSQ