Friday, July 29, 2016

Movie Review: Star Trek: Beyond

Star Trek: Beyond
Directed by: Justin Lin.
Written by: Simon Pegg & Doug Jung based on the television series by Gene Roddenberry.
Starring: Chris Pine (Captain James T. Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Commander Spock), Karl Urban (Doctor 'Bones' McCoy), Zoe Saldana (Lieutenant Uhura), Simon Pegg (Montgomery 'Scotty' Scott), John Cho (Sulu), Anton Yelchin (Chekov), Idris Elba (Krall), Sofia Boutella (Jaylah), Joe Taslim (Manas), Lydia Wilson (Kalara), Deep Roy (Keenser), Melissa Roxburgh (Ensign Syl), Anita Brown (Tyvanna), Doug Jung (Ben), Danny Pudi (Fi'Ja), Kim Kold (Zavanko), Fraser Aitcheson (Hider), Shohreh Aghdashloo (Commodore Paris), Greg Grunberg (Commander Finnegan).
 
The third installment of the re-booted Star Trek franchise is a necessary and welcome course correction after Into Darkness, which spent way too much time on fan service, which robbed the movie of its powerful moments because they were so reliant on what came before the movie itself, that if you didn’t already know a lot about the franchise the big reveals became meaningless. I liked Into Darkness more than a lot of people – it is generally an entertaining and pleasing action movie, but it wasn’t as good as it could have been. The same can be said of the third installment – I liked it a great deal, had a lot of fun watching it, but it isn’t quite as good as it could have been. Its failures are less pronounced than Into Darkness’ however – and the filmmakers seem to realize that whatever fan service the series does has to be secondary to the main thrust of the plot of the current movie. One could walk into Star Trek: Beyond not knowing a lot about Star Trek, and end up having a good time with it. It’s failures are more generic – action sequences that rely too much on shaky camera work and rapid fire editing (and one that is so dark that I found it almost incomprehensible – and wearing the 3-D glasses didn’t help), a villain whose motivations are kept vague far too long, and then instead of giving him depth, instead decides on a third act twist, an action finale that, while fun, is derivative. None of this sinks Star Trek: Beyond – for the most part it is a satisfying movie, with a hell of a cast that helps to paper over the thinness of the screenplay – and flaws that bug me are more of the type that do so upon reflection, not really in the moment. I’m sure there will be a fourth entry in this re-booted franchise, and it would be wise to follow this film’s lead, rather than Into Darkness’ – but I want it to delve deeper than it has so far. The characters are fascinating, and have hidden depth, that the filmmakers seem to abandon far too often to have another action sequence.
 
The story here is about a rescue mission the crew of the Enterprise is sent on – they’ll be heading into deep space, where they will not be able to communicate with the rest of the federation, to retrieve a lost crew who crash landed on a seemingly empty planet. They don’t even get to that planet however, when they are attacked by a swarm of small ships, that move that a horde of insects which are able to evade the weapons on the enterprise. The ship crashes, and the crew is scattered on the planet below. Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho) and most of the crew are being held by a madman, Krall (Idris Elba), who want a weapon the enterprise was carrying. Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Bones (Karl Urban), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Scottie (Simon Pegg) – are the only ones not captured, and hence have to find a way to rescue the crew, retrieve the weapon and save the day – which they attempt to do with the help of a survivor of a previous crew, Jayla (Sofia Boutella).
 
This is much more a stand-alone story than Into Darkness was – perhaps like a special two part episode of the TV series, although one far heavier on action than the series ever was (not that I much of a Trekkie, so I’m hardly an expert on this stuff). The stakes of the movie – at least until the finale – are refreshingly low – there’s no talk about the world ending, or cities being destroyed, etc. for the majority of its runtimes, which is at least one cliché the movie avoids (the climax, unfortunately, does devolve into some of this – but there’s at least very little talk of it, and the final action climax is just two people engaged in hand-to-hand combat, so at least it’s not just a bunch of crap crashing into each other, which I’ve seen far too much of this summer already). The film is directed by Justin Lin – JJ Abrams, who directed the first two in this franchise decamped for Star Wars – and Lin is as good a choice as any. He directed 4 of the Fast and Furious movies, so he knows how to do action sequences, and do them well – although disappointingly, none of them in this film rival the best moments in the Fast & Furious franchise he is responsible for. The highlight is undeniably the initial attack on the enterprise, which comes unexpectedly (you could say, it comes on Fast and Furious) – and doesn’t overstay its welcome. A secondary highlight is the finale, gravity defying, hand-to-hand combat finale – although that’s somewhat marred by Scottie’s constant yelling about a ticking clock timeline. The other action sequences – including a reprise of those small fighters late in the film, are mostly forgettable – too reliant as they are on shaky camera work and rapid fire editing (and in one case, far too much darkness) rendering much of it incomprehensible. I’m still old-school in my action sequence likes – preferring the smooth camera work of a John Woo or Michael Mann – both of whom understand how to use space, to make it clear to the audience what the hell is happening.
 
The reason to see the movie remains the cast – who even when they are not given characters deep enough to fully explore, do a good job making you care about them anyway. This is a movie that reveals, early, that both Kirk and Spock are planning on leaving the Enterprise – for different reasons, although neither reveal their plans to the other. Both are valid reasons – and are set up in interesting ways. Kirk is growing tired of constantly being on the move, of exploring new worlds to try and bring them into federation – and if the Universe is infinite, there will never be an endpoint. He’s also still trying to live up to his father’s legacy. He wants out. Spock feels guilt about surviving the destruction of his home planet of Vulcan, and thinks he needs to help out his own people – something brought on stronger by the death of his alternate universe self, who was an ambassador. The movie sets both of these things up – and then abandons them for the bulk of the movie, before disposing of them too quickly at the end. Still, Pine and Quinto, do good work as Kirk and Spock – their dynamic together works. Karl Urban is given slightly more to do as Bones, and he makes the most of it. Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the screenplay, certainly gives his Scottie more to do, and more laugh lines, than normal – but he’s so much fun every time he’s on screen you really don’t care. The two new comers to the cast – Idris Elba as Krell and Sofia Boutella as Jayla, are also in fine form. Krell is an underwritten villain – in part because the film wants to keep his motivations under wraps for too long, yet even under all that makeup (and, likely, CGI) Elba is a commanding screen presence, making him a terrifying and insane leader. Boutella is amusing as Jayla – and also a kickass heroine, which I suppose at least partly makes up for the film shunting Uhura aside for much of the action. (By the way, they don’t give the late, great Anton Yelchin all that much to do as Chekov – but he was always one of my favorites in this cast anyway – and remains so here).
 
Star Trek: Beyond is certainly a flawed (there’s that dreaded “critics” word, as overused as “problematic” – but sometimes fitting). This is a franchise that seems to be stuck trying to do two things at once – trying to be more of the hard(ish) sci-fi and character based narrative of the original series, while at the same time delivering the huge, special effects driven action set pieces all studios assume every audience wants in every summer movie. They still haven’t quite gotten that balance right – but they’re getting closer at least.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Classic Movie Review: Purple Rain (1984)

Purple Rain (1984)
Directed by: Albert Magnoli.
Written by: Albert Magnoli  & William Blinn.
Starring: Prince (The Kid), Apollonia Kotero (Apollonia), Morris Day (Morris), Olga Karlatos (Mother), Clarence Williams III (Father), Jerome Benton (Jerome), Billy Sparks (Billy), Jill Jones (Jill), Charles Huntsberry  (Chick), Dez Dickerson (Dez), Brenda Bennett (Brenda), Susan Moonsie (Susan), Kim Upsher (Kim), Wendy Melvoin (Wendy-The Revolution), Lisa Coleman (Lisa-The Revolution).
 
I have never been a Prince fan – mostly, I think, because by the time I started listening to music in the 1990s, Prince’s glory days were behind him. I knew some of his songs to be sure, but he seemed rather cheesy to my cynical teenage eyes, all clad in purple, and the fact that he changed his named to a symbol. I had no real understanding of Prince’s musical prowess, or why he changed his name, or how he was fighting with his record company for his artistic freedom, etc. – and to be honest I didn’t really care. This is probably why I never did get around to seeing Purple Rain – one of the only films that was widely available that made Roger Ebert’s top 10 list in the year it was released I didn’t see back in the 1990s.
 
I was wrong not to care about Prince’s music – while I will never be a Prince superfan I am able to appreciate him as the groundbreaking artist he was, how he invented his own distinct sound and personality, in what was often a terrible decade for music of the 1980s. I was right, however, not to see Purple Rain back then – I don’t think I would have appreciated what the film does right back then, and instead I’d focus on everything the film does wrong. And, there is a hell of a lot the film does wrong even if the highs ultimately make it more than worthwhile.
 
Purple Rain is an example of a genre musicians have been using as their foray into film since almost the beginning of movies, and continue to this day – the thinly veiled, fictional autobiography of themselves, set just before they make it big. In Purple Rain, Prince plays The Kid – an extremely gifted singer/songwriter/performer in the Minneapolis music scene, struggling with his personal demons, feuding with his flashy rival, clashing with his band members, and falling in love with a beautiful, talented singer. It’s all pretty standard stuff really – you know precisely what story beats the movie is going to hit from the outset, and the movie gleefully checks them off, never pretending that the story is reason why you’re watching the movie. You’re watching for the music – and every single one of the concert scenes in the movie is wonderful. Directed by Albert Magnoli, the concert scenes capture the energy and the passion, and the sheer joy of performance, of Prince’s music and persona. Whether, he writhing away on stage (and on higher things), while singing Darling Nikki, or the emotional rendition of Purple Rain that acts as the films climax (anyone else find it odd though that in the film, The Kid isn’t the one who writes Purple Rain, and it shows personal growth for him to perform it, and allow his collaborators more say in their music, when in reality, Prince was headed in the opposite direction? No, just me – okay, moving along) the musical scenes are brilliant – and if for no other reason, more than make watching the film worthwhile. And it’s not just Prince – I defy anyone not have fun watching Morris Day and the Time perform, dancing in unison as they do. While the film’s most forgettable number is by Apollonia, it’s still very good – good enough that it would a highlight in many other movies.
 
The moments surrounding those musical scenes is an extremely mixed bag however. The film does deal with domestic violence – as The Kid watches as his father takes out his musical frustrations on his mother in various, abusive ways – and the legacy of violence, as The Kid repeats that violence on Apollonia – although it doesn’t really deal with that in any real way. But there are other scenes that are played for laughs that are really ugly in their misogyny – The Kid playing a cruel trick on Apollonia to get her to strip in jump into a lake for instance, before he takes off on his motorcycle (he comes back, but still). The Kid basically treats Apollonia like garbage throughout the movie – but she’s still there cheering for him in the end. Even worse, when Morris has an underling literally throw an annoying woman he slept with into a dumpster. It’s hard not to watch those scenes and be offended.
 
Then there is Prince himself – and, to be honest, he wasn’t much of an actor in the film. Some musicians can translate to acting careers easily – but most cannot. And here, Prince couldn’t (perhaps he got better (but I’m not going to watch Under the Cherry Moon or Graffiti Bridge anytime soon to find out). His basic acting is to look at the camera with a solemn look on his face to gain sympathy. Morris Day is a hell of a lot more fun than Prince is in the movie – although to be fair, that’s all that is asked of him, whereas The Kid is a seemingly complex character, even if Prince wasn’t capable of portraying that.
 
The film basically screams 1980s in many ways – the music, of course, but also the visual style – which is garish and brightly colored. I can see why 1980s’ nostalgists love the film so much – is basically is the 1980s in one movie. The music – which won Prince a richly deserved Oscar in the now defunct category of Original Song Score – is the reason to see Purple Rain, which is far from a masterpiece, but as a 1980s time capsule – and a document of what made Prince so special, it’s tough to beat.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Movie Review: Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters
Directed by: Paul Feig.
Written by: Katie Dippold & Paul Feig based on the 1984 film directed by Ivan Reitman and written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis.
Starring: Kristen Wiig (Erin Gilbert), Melissa McCarthy (Abby Yates), Kate McKinnon (Jillian Holtzmann), Leslie Jones (Patty Tolan), Chris Hemsworth (Kevin), Cecily Strong (Jennifer Lynch), Andy Garcia (Mayor Bradley), Charles Dance (Harold Filmore), Michael Kenneth Williams (Agent Hawkins), Matt Walsh (Agent Rorke), Neil Casey (Rowan North).
 
Let’s get this out of the way off the top – yes, as a child, Ghostbusters was one of my favorite things in the world – right alongside the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I loved the movies, and I especially loved the Ghostbusters animated series – for which I had all the toys, and spent many happy hours engaged in make believe ghost battles with those action figures. Ghostbusters definitely had, and still does hold, a special place in my heart and in my childhood memories, long after I’ve let most of those nostalgic feelings for the entertainment I loved as a child go (there was a time I tried to re-capture some of that magic by watching old Transformers cartoon episodes that I loved as a child, only to realize that they were, in fact, shit). Ghostbusters, then, certainly does mean something to me – and when I heard they were doing a reboot, I wasn’t overly surprised or thrilled about it – not because I view Ghostbusters as some sort of sacred cow that must never be tampered with (this is hardly an artistically pure franchise after all), but because it was yet another reboot of a 1980s franchise, instead of Hollywood coming up with a new idea (as I am fond of saying, you’re never going to get the next Star Wars by making the next Star Wars). But then I heard that the cast would be four women – and I was honestly more intrigued and excited about the idea. Why the hell can’t the Ghostbusters be women after all? And isn’t it preferable to try to do something new with the franchise, rather than have to suffer through a movie in which, inevitably, some young actor failed miserably to try and play Peter Venkman the same way Bill Murray did? Does every movie have to follow the Star Wars model, of having old and new characters beside each other? Does every reboot essentially have to be fan fiction – even if, in the case of something like The Force Awakens, it’s really good fan fiction? The reaction to Ghostbusters casting women in the lead roles has mystified me. I mean, even if the new Ghostbusters was horrible, how can that possibly effect the 1984 original or anyone’s feeling towards it. The outcry over the new movie exposed a very ugly side of fandom that is always present, but perhaps not always this visible.
 
The 2016 Ghostbusters is not, it must be said, as good as the original film is. The original had the advantage of being, well, original – something this film could have used a little bit more of. Despite the fact that new film does cast four women, playing four distinct characters (not female versions of the male characters), and in a new situation, the film is still overstuffed with callbacks and references to the old film – including cameos from all the major cast members of the first film (except Rick Moranis, who didn’t want to, and the deceased Harold Ramis – who still does show up as a bust) – most which don’t add very much of anything interesting to the new film (inarguably, the two best ones are by Annie Potts and Sigourney Weaver). The film certainly does acknowledge the trolling by the film received before a frame of footage was shot, but it also bends over backwards to appease fans of the original film – which can be amusing when used sparingly, but here felt a little bit like overkill.
 
Yet, for the most part, I found this film to be immensely enjoyable - and almost the entire reason for that are the lead performances by the four women who are now Ghostbusters. I liked Kristen Wiig’s quieter performance here as Erin – a rather shy member of the group, who has tried to go respectable, and that ends badly. Wiig can, of course, go BIG – and she does at a few moments, but for the most part here she creates a portrait of a woman trying to do what’s expected of her, until she breaks free of that. Melissa McCarthy is always funny – even if the movies she is in are often not – and here, she smartly doesn’t go as big as she’s capable of being either. Her Abby is a true believer- she cedes some of the wackiness to those around her, while still being quite funny. Leslie Jones is, essentially, playing the Leslie Jones comic persona she does so well on SNL – and since it’s funny there, it’s funny here as well. The star of the quartet is easily Kate McKinnon as Holtzmann, a strange comic character who is a genius (in some ways, I wondered why she needed the rest of them, since she seemingly does all the hard work), who is wholly, uniquely strange in a way that feels inspired. And as a unit, the four of them are even better together – they have an effortless chemistry that just fits together perfectly. The other highlight performance is, surprisingly, Chris Hemsworth as their receptionist Kevin – who is so gloriously stupid, you’d think he was a Coen brothers character.
 
The movie has some plot and structural issues to be sure. It really does take a long time for the plot to get going – for the villain to be introduced, and for things to really get going. The big special effects sequences are also not particularly great – especially an overly cluttered climax, that tries to do too much, and unfortunately continues the trend of having the entire city on the verge of an apocalypse (seriously, not every movie has to have a threat to the entire world). The film works best when it simply lets the four leads – and Kevin – interact with each other, which provides the most memorable moments, and the most enjoyment for the film.
 
So while this Ghostbusters reboot is far from perfect (the original, it should be noted, is also far from perfect – even if it seemed like it was to me as a child), it is still an extremely enjoyable film – and one that, yes, did tap into some of those nostalgic feelings I have for the original. My hope is that they get to now make a sequel to this film, in which they can leave that nostalgia behind, and create a fully new path for these Ghostbusters. They certainly deserve it – and by doing so, they may actually make an even better film.

Classic Movie Review: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Assault on Precinct 13
Directed by: John Carpenter.
Written by: John Carpenter.
Starring: Austin Stoker (Ethan Bishop), Darwin Joston (Napoleon Wilson), Laurie Zimmer (Leigh), Martin West (Lawson), Tony Burton (Wells), Charles Cyphers (Starker), Nancy Kyes (Julie), Henry Brandon (Chaney), Kim Richards (Kathy).
 
In 1976, John Carpenter was still two years away from making one of the biggest indie films of all time with Halloween, a film that would really kick off the slasher film era in earnest, and come to define his career – for good and bad. He had directed the low budget sci fi film, Dark Star (1974) before – and what he really wanted to do is make a Western – a remake of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) in fact – about a group of men (and women) holed up in a Sheriff’s office fending off a group trying to get in and kill them (Hawks had, in some ways, remade this film already – twice with El Dorado and Rio Lobo). But Carpenter knew he could never get the money to make a period piece – so instead he opted for a modern update of the Rio Bravo formula – setting his film in contemporary L.A. – at an all but abandoned Police Station in an era of town that is all but deserted – and even those who are around, are likely not to be too fond of the police, or too shocked by the sound of gunshots. If the Western genre is about how the West was won – how people took over a lawless land and imposed order on it, than Assault on Precinct 13 is almost the opposite – how they are giving the area back to lawlessness.
 
The film opens with a sequence that shows cops gunning down any number of L.A. gang members – perhaps justifiably, perhaps not, but the cops don’t seem to have much on their mind other than killing the gang members who, to be fair, are just as violent in return. From there, the main story is setup. There is a desolate L.A. police station on its last night – almost everyone else has moved to a newer one a few miles away. Ethan Wilson (Austin Stoker) is the officer tasked with being on duty at that station that night, and it’s supposed to be a quiet one. Other than a spunky secretary named Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), there isn’t many other people around. Meanwhile, a group of prisoners is set to be transported to prison hours away on a bus – including the infamous Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) – on his way to death row. Another prisoner gets sick, and the bus pulls into the all but abandoned police station – as it’s the closest one around.  Meanwhile, an asshole father is riding around with his little girl, who will not stop pestering him. The see an ice cream man – and stop to get her  some. We already know that the violent street gang is around – watching that same ice cream man – and the little girl makes a tragic decision to come back and complain about her cone – and ends up shot. The father decides to take revenge – which he does – and ends up running away from the gang, and ending up at that police station – the gang descends on the people holed up in the station, who have no way of contacting the outside world.
 
Hawks’ influence on Carpenter is clear pretty much from the beginning of the film. His characters are ones that are defined by their actions, not their words, and the people inside that building come to depend and trust each other – even if they are on opposite sides of the law. Laurie Zimmer’s Leigh is a classic Hawks-ian woman – tough and sexy in equal doses. There are recurring jokes to lighten the mood at times. The last hour of the film is basically the siege – where the nameless, faceless gang descend on the survivors, and try to wipe them out.  Its non-stop violence and bloodshed, handled with great skill by Carpenter, who shows he was already adept at staging action and violence.
 
There could have been some sort of political relevance to the film – but Carpenter seems to almost go out of his way to avoid it – particularly in terms of race. He makes the hero, Ethan Bishop a black cop, the violence killer, Napoleon, a white man and the gang that descends on them is multi-ethnic. Like Scorsese’ s Taxi Driver, released the same year, where the ending was originally written to be Travis Bickle killing all black men (it was changed to avoid more controversy), Carpenter seemingly doesn’t want to engage in the issue of race  - but in doing so, he deals with it anyway.
 
The killing of the little girl will always be the most iconic image of the film (it has certainly stayed with me) – and lets the audience know, fairly early in the proceedings that in this movie, there are no rules, and that Carpenter will do pretty much anything. It’s only after the movie that you realize that he never really does anything that shocking again.
 
Assault on Precinct 13 is ultimately a rather simple movie – bad guys want in, good guys don’t want to let them in, chaos ensues. Carpenter would, later in his career, strive for films with more subtext than this film contains – sometimes their detriment (I know They Live has a lot of fans – I’m not one of them). Here, I think there is a little bit of subtext – but I almost read it as more accidental than anything else – and ultimately unnecessary. The film is brutally effective from beginning to end, violent, entertaining and downright fun. Carpenter has made more ambitious films in his career – but not many that are better than this. No, it doesn’t quite reach the levels of Halloween or The Thing – but it comes damn close.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Movie Review: Wiener-Dog

Wiener-Dog
Directed by: Todd Solondz.
Written by: Todd Solondz.
Starring: Keaton Nigel Cooke (Remi), Tracy Letts (Danny), Julie Delpy (Dina), Greta Gerwig (Dawn Wiener), Kieran Culkin (Brandon), Connor Long (Tommy), Bridget Brown (April), Charlie Tahan (Warren), Danny DeVito (Dave Schmerz), Patrick Caroll Jr. (Garrett), Molly Gray (Ariadne), Ari Graynor (Carol Steinhart), Kett Turton (Director), Ellen Burstyn (Nana), Marcella Lowery (Yvette), Zosia Mamet (Zoe), Michael James Shaw (Fantasy), Melo Ludwig (Young Nana). 
 
Todd Solondz is one of the most uncompromising directors currently at work. His breakout film, Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996) and its follow-up, Happiness (1998), were both huge critical hits, and established his brand of mixing humor and empathy with characters you normally would not want to emphasize with. His films make you uncomfortable because of their subject matter – which most often touches upon life in suburbia, and deeply troubled families. A trademark of his films is often very uncomfortable conversations between children and their parents – where the children ask earnest, honest questions, and are given horrifying answers. For reasons I still don’t entirely understand, starting with Storytelling (2001) – his follow-up to Happiness – Solon’s films haven’t gotten quite the same degree of attention and critical love as his previous films. Perhaps some see him as a one-trick pony, repeating himself time and again, but I still find his films provocative, uncomfortably funny, and deeply empathetic to his characters, even if many of them are bad people. Palindromes (2004) in particular is an under seen and underrated film. There seems to be longer and longer between his films in recent years – perhaps an indication of funding issues, but aside from his last film, 2011’s Dark Horse, he has yet to make a film I didn’t really like. With Wiener-Dog, he is back on track.
 
The film is really a quartet of short stories that are not centered on the title character – an adorable wiener dog, but rather are about its various owners. The film contains perhaps the most hopeful conclusion to a story Solondz has ever filmed – but that’s at the half way point of the film – from there, he plunges us into abject sorrow and heartbreak, in a way that only he can (the fact that the hope is broken from the despair by an intermission – including a jaunty song, is kind of brilliant).
 
The first story is about Remi (Keaton Nigel Cook) – a boy of about 10, a cancer survivor, whose father (Tracy Letts) gives him the wiener dog as a pet, much to his mother’s (Julie Delphy’s) chagrin. She pretty much hates the dog, and it isn’t long before her husband has come to despise it as well. But for little Remi, Wiener-Dog is the best pet he could ask for – and he adores her. There is a classic Solondz scene in the car between the Remi and his mother as they are taking the dog to the vet to get fixed over just why that needs to be done – with Delphy delivering a brilliant performance as she sympathetically explains that if the dog doesn’t get fixed, it will likely be raped and murdered (by a foreign dog, who shouldn’t even be there in the first place, of course). There is another scene that mirrors this one later, about death – after Remi makes the mistake of giving the dog something that causes diarrhea, which is the last straw for his father.
 
The second story is the one that is actually full of hope. It stars Greta Gerwig as a grown up version of Dawn Wiener, from Welcome to the Dollhouse (and back from the dead, as we saw her funeral in 2004’s Palindromes). Life hasn’t turned out that well for Dawn – she’s an assistant at the vet, who takes the dog before it can be killed, but doesn’t appear to have much else going on, and is as awkward and lonely as ever. Then she meets Brandon – the bully from Welcome to the Dollhouse, who had threatened to rape her, before the two ended up in some sort of weird, quasi-relationship. In Welcome to the Dollhouse, their story ends when Brandon runs away – and Dawn realizes that his home life is even worse than hers was. In Wiener-Dog though, Solondz grants these characters at least hope for a better future. Dawn has seemingly gotten away from her messed up family, and Brandon is, at the very least, trying to set his life straight by the end. Their segment ends with hope – something Solondz rarely does.
 
It’s from this point on however, that Solondz truly plunges the audience into despair – with two stories that offer no real hope. The first is about Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito – giving his best performance in years) – a sad sack screenwriter who hasn’t had much success, who now teaches at a film school, where he has to suffer through the smirking and mockery or a younger generation, who do not want to listen to him. Schmerz is a sympathetic character to be sure – but Solondz also makes it clear that he is a hack – a writer who wants to do something true and honest, but ends up selling out, to include a bunch of shtick in his work – which still doesn’t get him anywhere closer to success either. He is a classic Solondz character in many respects, and the segment ends right where it should.
 
The final segment is about a grandmother (Ellen Burstyn), who receives a visit for her granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) – who she hasn’t seen in years, and her artist boyfriend, Fantasy (Michael James Shaw). The grandmother knows why her granddaughter is visiting – for money – and she makes no real effort to hide her feelings from her. If the granddaughter is a spoiled, entitled millennial, than the grandmother is a miserable person – who has named the dog Cancer. The film takes a surreal turn near the end – which works brilliantly – before coming to an ending that is absolutely pitiless.
 
Wiener-Dog is a film, ultimately, about the inescapability of death. The characters in the film try, but know that ultimately, they cannot escape the same fate as the rest of us. They are selfish in many ways – assholes and sad sacks, incapable of change even if they want to. The film isn’t quite the masterpiece that Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness or Palindromes are. Those films push deeper into their characters, and in the case of Palindromes, is a slippery moral puzzle, where Solondz is constantly pulling the rug out from underneath the audience – forcing us to change our minds from scene to scene. What Wiener-Dog is though is a return to form for Solondz, after the misfire of Dark Horse, and an unapologetic one. Say what you will about Solondz – he isn’t about to become David Schmerz.

Movie Review: The BFG

The BFG
Directed by: Steven Spielberg.
Written by: Melissa Mathison based on the book by Roald Dahl.
Starring: Mark Rylance (BFG), Ruby Barnhill (Sophie), Penelope Wilton (The Queen), Jemaine Clement (Fleshlumpeater), Rebecca Hall (Mary), Rafe Spall (Mr. Tibbs), Bill Hader (Bloodbottler), Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Maidmasher / Cook), Adam Godley (Manhugger / Lout #1), Michael Adamthwaite (Butcher Boy / Danish Driver), Daniel Bacon (Bonecruncher / Lout #2), Jonathan Holmes (Childchewer / Pub Landlord), Chris Gibbs (Gizzardgulper / Late Night Walker), Paul Moniz de Sa (Meatdripper / Lout #3), Marilyn Norry (Matron). 
 
It may seem silly to say, but there are times when I think that Steven Spielberg is underrated. There is a certain type of film lover who sees Spielberg as just a sappy sentimentalist, manipulating audiences into feeling good. This is silly in more ways than one – filmmakers who are more willing to go dark than Spielberg is, are just as emotionally manipulative – they just pull you in another direction. It also misreads the fact that Spielberg has, at times, been more than willing to go dark – even to end films darkly. Munich is the darkest film of Spielberg’s career – a film about how the obsession with violence and vengeance can seep in and poison every part your life. A.I. literally ends with all of humanity wiped out. Minority Report can be read to have a very dark ending if you want it to. And the much maligned War of the Worlds has a lot of very dark stuff in it – yes, in that case, he messed up the ending, but that doesn’t undo everything he did before then. Yet, even when Spielberg doesn’t go dark – and that is, admittedly, most of the time, he crafts films that appear completely effortless – so much so, that I think it’s sometimes easy to overlook just how complex they are. Last year’s Bridge of Spies is a breathless thriller – yes its classical in its style, but since when is that a bad word. His latest, The BFG, harkens back to Spielberg’s more kid friendly films – like E.T. which is one of the greatest films ever made. It is full of marvelous set pieces, and some of the best special effects in any film this year – special effects that enhance the story, rather than detract from it. Yes, the film skews young – a little too young for my tastes, and yet I’m sorry that my oldest daughter is just a year or so older so I could share the movie with her in a theater. It would be nice to show her a new movie that is a candy colored, animated film. The BFG is a children’s film that proves that not all of those have to be loud, obnoxious and brain-dead.
 
Based on the Roald Dahl book, the film is set in the 1980s, and is about Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) – an 8 year old orphan, living in London. She’s a precocious child – she stays up all night reading, and ensuring the safety of the orphanage and the children in it. Its during one of these long nights where she catches a glimpse of the BFG (Mark Rylance) – a giant, who unlike the rest of his kind, does not eat humans, but only wants to give children sweet dreams. Even still, the BFG cannot have Sophie spreading the word about his existence, so he kidnaps her and takes her to the Land of the Giants. This isn’t a safe place for her – the rest of the giants will eat her if they get the chance. But the BFG, who is actually much smaller than the rest of the giants, thinks he can protect her. The two, of course, bond – and set out to protect the children of the world from the rest of the giants.
 
The BFG is fairly light on plot – but then again, it doesn’t really need a lot of narrative to hold the film together. The film does an excellent job in just a few short minutes setting up Sophie’s world in the orphanage – and her personality. It’s rather refreshing to see the film centered on a smart pre-teen girl, who while she is adorable, isn’t annoyingly so. Spielberg hasn’t centered a film on a female protagonist in decades, but he does an excellent job here. Once we are whisked away into the Land of Giants, Spielberg does an excellent job at building that world as well – in particular, the expertly designed cave that the BFG lives in – a cave that has a dusty, lived in feel – that hides some beautiful secrets behind a waterfall – and also, some sad ones. Another actor probably would have been better for the films box office, but Mark Rylance is the perfect choice for the title role. He is sweet and innocent, without being cloying. He speaks a weird version of English, complete with a lot of silly words – which I know some adults will find annoying, but kids will likely eat up. The light narrative allows Spielberg to take his time with his set pieces – the scary moments when another giant, Fleshlumpeater (Jermaine Clement) tries find and eat Sophie for example. The best set piece is when, in the third act, the narrative stops cold and allows Sophie and the BFG sit down with the Queen of England for a robust breakfast – which is so silly and full of joy that the end of the film – the action climax – is a little bit anti-climactic by comparison.
 
I’m not going to argue that The BFG is one of Spielberg’s best films. It isn’t as deep as some of his films, and offers mainly surface pleasures, for a younger audience. Yet, it treats that audience with respect – which too many films of its ilk never do. And the work being done in the film is seamless. Yes, the film is that clichéd word – magical. Spielberg does this better than anyone else – and that’s harder to do than making something darker or edgier.

Movie Review: Eye in the Sky

Eye in the Sky
Directed by: Gavin Hood.
Written by: Guy Hibbert.
Starring: Helen Mirren (Colonel Katherine Powell), Aaron Paul (Steve Watts), Alan Rickman (Lieutenant General Frank Benson), Barkhad Abdi (Jama Farah), Jeremy Northam (Brian Woodale), Iain Glen (British Foreign Secretary James Willett), Phoebe Fox (Carrie Gershon), Monica Dolan (Angela Northman), Faisa Hassan (Fatima Mo'Allim), Aisha Takow (Alia Mo'Allim), Armaan Haggio (Musa Mo'Allim), Carl Beukes (Sergeant Mike Gleeson), Richard McCabe (George Matherson), Michael O'Keefe (Ken Stanitzke), Kim Engelbrecht (Lucy).
 
Eye in the Sky is a thriller, and a fine one, about drone warfare that deliberately – perhaps over deliberately – doesn’t give the audience an easy out – a way to feel superior to the film, or to make easy moral judgments. The film has no answers, but simply sits back and asks questions and then leaves it to the audience to decide what is right and wrong. In general, I appreciate this approach, although in this case, I felt the whole thing was too perfectly designed – it presents too perfect an unanswerable moral quandary – to truly have the impact it wants to have. This is a film that seems like it wants to inspire debate, but doesn’t really end up giving the audience much room for debate. No matter what side you’re on, you’re both right and wrong – and the film makes it too easy to simply throw your hands up and not take any side at all.
 
The film is about a drone mission in Africa, that is supposed to be little else than an observation one. Helen Mirren is Colonel Katherine Powell, who has been tracking a British Citizen, who has converted to Islam and become radicalized by her husband, for years. She finally thinks she knows where she and her husband will be, and has ground troops ready to arrest her. She has the help of the Americans – who have assigned drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), stationed in Las Vegas, to simply watch the house the couple is supposed to be at. But then things take an unexpected turn – this isn’t just a regular meeting, but is actually meant to prepare for a suicide bombing. They have eyes inside the house, and see men suiting up with bomb vests, to carry out an attack who knows where. Capture then has just become too dangerous – but letting the men leave to carry out their attack is also not an option. They could make Watts fire a hellfire missile at the house, blowing it up, but there will be collateral damage – seen here as a young girl selling bread outside the house, who will almost certainly be killed if they strike. But if they don’t strike, then how many other little girls – and their families – will be destroyed.
 
Eye in the Sky wraps everything up in a nice, neat little package then that becomes unanswerable. The bulk of the movie is the internal debates about whether or not to fire the missile. Legally, it appears, that they can fire the missile, but at the same time this mission wasn’t authorized to be deadly. The British bureaucracy dithers and twiddles their thumbs – passing the buck from one person to the next, none of whom want to make the decision. The higher ups in America are unsympathetic, and just want to fire the damn missile already. Watts, who actually has to pull the trigger, and thus, end the little girl’s life is much less sure.
 
The movie is well directed by Gavin Hood, who bounces between smaller films, and big blockbusters, and here has crafted a fairly tense thriller. The performances are almost uniformly excellent – Mirren, single minded and driven, not caring who dies if she can accomplish her mission, Paul, as morally conflicted (because that is after all why you cast Paul in anything), Alan Rickman as a General in the room with the British bureaucrats, who is frustrated by their lack of response (who also doesn’t think twice about the fact that he’s buying a present for granddaughter around the same age as the girl he may have a role in killing). There are fine British actors, dithering very British-like throughout the film. Barkhad Abdi, Oscar nominee from Captain Phillips, is pretty much wasted as an alley to the British and Americans, who is still the only one in actual harm’s way.
 
The major problem I had with Eye in the Sky, is that the whole thing seems overly calculated. It lacks true moral complexity, but instead has a manufactured one. In the end, I think, the movie takes the easy way out – it takes no stand on drone warfare at all, and instead, simply tells the audience there is no solution. Perhaps that is true – but the problem is that it’s fairly clear that is what the movie is saying from its opening scenes right down to the end. There is nothing that truly makes us re-evaluate our stance on the issues. The film dithers almost as much as its characters do, while criticizing those characters for doing just that. The film works, mainly, as a thriller. I just don’t think it’s nearly as complex as it thinks it is.