Friday, February 28, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Five Easy Pieces (1970) 
Directed by: Bob Rafelson.
Written by: Carole Eastman (as Adrien Joyce) and Bob Rafelson.
Starring: Jack Nicholson (Robert Eroica Dupea), Karen Black (Rayette Dipesto), Lois Smith (Partita Dupea), Susan Anspach (Catherine Van Oost), Ralph Waite (Carl Fidelio Dupea), Billy Green Bush (Elton), Fannie Flagg (Stoney), Sally Struthers (Betty), Marlena MacGuire (Twinky), William Challee (Nicholas Dupea), Helena Kallianiotes (Palm Apodaca), Toni Basil (Terry Grouse), Lorna Thayer (Waitress), John P. Ryan (Spicer), Irene Dailey (Samia Glavia). 
Bobby Dupea spends the entirety of Five Easy Pieces in various stages of discomfort. When we meet him, he is working the oil fields in California – but he doesn’t quite seem to fit in there, although he is trying very hard to act like his friend Elton (Billy Green Bush) – including the type of woman he is dating – Rayette (Karen Black), a waitress who talks a lot and loves Tammy Wynette, and loves Bobby even though he is mostly terrible to her. But Bobby is prone to outbursts – he tries to keep things under control, but he’s not quite able to do so, and his contempt for those around him comes out around the edges – until one time he just comes right out and calls Elton a hick, and finds it ridiculous that he would compare his life to Bobby’s.
Bobby is played by Jack Nicholson in one of his great early performances. Nicholson had been around for years, working low-budget Roger Corman movies, and some of those early films he’s quite good in (the pair of Monte Hellman Westerns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, both 1966 for example) – but he didn’t really become known until Easy Rider in 1969 – which garnered him his first Oscar nomination. Five Easy Pieces was his first starring role coming off Easy Rider – and got him his second Oscar nomination (first in the lead category) and it remains one of Nicholson’s defining performances. There are moments when “Jack” comes out in Five Easy Pieces of course – the film’s best known moment is his speech to a waitress about his breakfast which ends with the classic line “I want you to hold it between your knees” – but much of what makes this performance so good is in between those “Jack” moments – and the subtlety with which he plays them.
We find out of course that Bobby isn’t a regular oil rig worker – he comes from an upper crust family of classically trained musicians in Washington state that he walked out a few years earlier because he wasn’t any more comfortable there then he it turned out he is with the oil field workers. He finds out his demanding father has suffered a stroke when he sees his sister, Partita (Lois Smith), who like Rayette, loves Bobby unconditionally, when really she probably shouldn’t. So he decides to head back to the hold house and see the old man – and against his better judgment, is convinced to bring Rayette, who is now pregnant, along with him.
The two halves of the film – separated by the long, often comedic car ride to get there, where they pick up a pair of hitchhikers, one of whom says “I don’t even want to talk about it” repeatedly, and then, of course, proceeding to talk about it, have very different looks and feels to them. Director Bob Rafelson and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs do this deliberately of course – contrasting the dusty, sweaty, sunburnt world of the oil fields with the greener, chillier world of Washington state – even taking a little detour through the streets with Bobby, the type of which his upper crust family would never walk down.
Bobby isn’t any more comfortable at home then he was in California. His family is mostly welcoming – his father who has had a few strokes, glowers at him, but doesn’t say away. Of course Partita is welcoming and accommodating. His brother, Carl (Ralph Waite) couldn’t possibly be politer to Bobby – of course in that sort of passive-aggressive way. Bobby, who has left Rayette behind at a motel, sets his sights of Carl’s young protégé/girlfriend, Catherine (Susan Anspach) – although I’m not even sure he could explain why. But Catherine has his number from the get-go – she may sleep with him, but she knows damn well which brother is the safer bet.
Five Easy Pieces is one of the key films of what was then a new movement – a turning away from the big and bloated Hollywood films, into something more personal, something that spoke to younger filmgoers. In his great movie essay, Roger Ebert called it the first “Sundance” film – and sure enough, in broad outlines, it certainly does sound like many a Sundance film about going home. A Sundance film though would be full of quirky characters, which other than Partita, this doesn’t really have (and she’s quirky in such a fascinating way, I wish there were a movie just about her), and would end on a happier note, after much soul baring conversations were had. Five Easy Pieces really only has one of those – late in the film when Bobby speaks one-on-one with his father, and says the types of things he could never say to him if his father could speak back. It may be the one time in the film when Bobby lets his guard down completely.
The rest of the movie Bobby is bundle of pent up anger, that he sometimes let out. It’s a youthful, immature anger – he wants to reject his family, but doesn’t really know what to do after that. Certainly, there has to be something between the pretentious family he came from, and oil fields full of hicks as he describes them he escaped to. He doesn’t fit in either place, because of course he doesn’t – he only fled to one because he couldn’t stand the other. Bobby is an asshole – an off-putting one for much of the film, and Nicholson doesn’t do anything to soften it, except to make him capable of being funny and charming when he wants to be. It’s how he sleeps with multiple women during the course of the movie. She’s also smart and well-spoken – capable of belittling that waitress, in a way that impresses that hitchhiker, but that Bobby knows is just petty, impotent protest. He doesn’t accomplish anything.
Karen Black also deserves credit for her great performances as Rayette. She is a character who is more than a little pathetic for who she clings to Bobby, how she keeps asking if he loves her when she knows he’ll never say it, and how she keeps hanging around no matter what he does. She can also be annoying in a way that makes you understand just why Bobby may be trying to get away from her. And yet, she’s not stupid. In many ways, Rayette is the smartest character in the movie – look how right up until the last scene in the film, she gets what she wants, one way or another. How she manipulates Bobby into taking her along, how when faced with a room full of stuffy intellectuals, she is able to feign innocence, and bait one of them into taking a shot at her – so that Bobby will explode and come to her defense.
The final scene in the film is justly famous. It cements Bobby as an asshole to be sure – a man who is running away once again, although you can argue just what he’s doing – just trying to get away from Rayette, or in my opinion the more likely scenario, running off to start again somewhere, anonymously. It’s a downer of an ending to be sure – but an honest one for Bobby.
Watching the film now, 50 years later, is an odd experience. It’s impossible to see it through the eyes of an audience back then - when Nicholson was a new, rising star, the rest of the cast was mainly unknown, and Rafelson was also largely unknown – but was a key figure in the time, even if his career didn’t quite turn out the way you may have expected from this movie. The film certainly tapped into the youthful rebellion of the time – but remarkably, it does so with clearer eyes than say Easy Rider did. They may well have related to Bobby – but he isn’t a hero, romantic or otherwise. He’s a self-pitying, self-destructive asshole, who wants to reject everything he was taught, but has no idea what to replace it with. You cannot help but wonder what he became throughout the ‘70s – and beyond.

Ranking the Decade's Best Director Oscar Winners

I remember the days when Picture and Director usually matched 9 out of 10 times a decade (in the 1990s it happened only once – with Shakespeare in Love/Spielberg in 1998, in the first decade of the 2000s it happened three times - Gladiator/Soderberg, Chicago/Polanski, Crash/Lee, and that seemed insane. This decade, it happened five times, and twice, the Best Picture winner didn’t even have a director nominated – something that happened in 1989 when Driving Miss Daisy won – and other than that hadn’t happened since the mid-1930s. The preferential ballot has certainly changed the game this decade – without it, the below list may look a lot more like the Best Picture winners than it does.
10. Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech (2011) – Strangely, one of the first of the five winners whose film won as well is perhaps the only one of those five that feel like a win where Picture dragged along its director. Certainly Hooper’s direction is the weakest major element of the film – which is buoyed by a fun screenplay, and great performances, far more than anything he does behind the camera. The direction is fine – but little else.
Who Should Have Won (of the Nominees): The opposite of Hooper’s direction was the job done by David Fincher for The Social Network who really does find a way to elevate a film with a great screenplay and cast, and find the perfect visual and aural feel for the film. I could see you liking The King’s Speech, and still giving Fincher your vote for director – curious why they didn’t.
9. Ang Lee, Life of Pi (2012) – It’s probably safe to assume that Ang Lee likely wouldn’t have won the Oscar had the directors nominated Ben Affleck for Argo for this prize – the uproar of his “snub” propelled him to win the Best Picture Oscar. Still, Lee has undeniable crafted a visually stunning film – great cinematographer and special effects throughout. I don’t think I’ve thought much about this film in the 9 years since I saw it – it’s fine, but not the best work of Lee’s career.
What Should Have Won (Of the Nominees): I really think the best directing job nominated that year was by Michael Haneke for Amour – a perfect example of that master at his most controlled, and best – a devastating film, and brilliant directing job.
8. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, The Revenant (2015) – Even more than his first directing win (see above) – this one really did feel like Gonzalez Innaritu was showing off more than anything. There is little doubt that the cinematography is great, and the film is technical achievement – but it’s also a long, grim slog of a film that I don’t really think means much of anything. It feels like what drove Gonzalez Innaritu to direct this is a chance to show off his long tracking shots, whether or not they mean anything.
What Should Have Won (Of the Directors): Seriously people, if you wanted to reward someone for showing off, at least give it to George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road- who shows off brilliantly throughout that film, and shows off some truly jaw dropping level of ingenuity.
7. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, Birdman (2014) – This kind of feels like an example of great cinematography masking great directing – because the swooping, spinning camera work by Emmanuel Lubezki is great here, and it makes far more sense to do all those long takes here than in The Reverent. Still, it still feels like showing off more than anything else here.
What Should Have Won (Of the Nominees): You had two directing jobs that took far more daring to pull off – Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel – which plays games with aspect ratio (which could be seen as a gimmick as the long takes in Birdman, but works better) or Richard Linklater for Boyhood – who had to mold this film over a decade.
6. Damien Chazelle, La La Land (2016) – I think it’s easy to make fun of La La Land – mainly for a bunch of things it doesn’t actually do (like say it’s white hero saved jazz) – but I do think we have to give the film credit for being the rarest of things – an original musical, made in a Hollywood that clearly doesn’t do that very well, and more often than not, even screws up musical adaptations. The film is fun and romantic, and has some catchy songs, and coasts along on the charm of Gosling and Stone and, yes, is very much a directorial achievement for Chazelle.
Who Should Have Won (of the Nominees): It really would have been great to see Barry Jenkins for Moonlight win this award – his is the better film, the better directed film, and it won Best Picture, so it would have been fitting. It’s also would have crossed one more “first” off the Academy’s list at long last.
5. Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water (2017) – It’s always nice to see a wonderful director – and one who has usually been seen as too idiosyncratic to win major awards, be able to do just that, without sacrificing what makes them special in the first place. That is what Del Toro really accomplished here – he made a film that is undeniably his, and connected with the Academy. It isn’t his best film – but it’s a wonderful one.
What Should Have Won (of the Nominees): A director who even better describes the “too idiosyncratic to win awards” would be Paul Thomas Anderson who, with Phantom Thread showed his master of control, and made an extremely dark, twisted comedy. It’s a masterpiece, and should have been the winner.
4. Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist (2011) – I think Hazanavicius and The Artist get a somewhat bad rap – probably because he has struggled since then, only making two films, and neither particularly well-received. But what he did with this film truly is wonderful – The Artist is a marvelous technical achievement, recreating silent film Hollywood in meticulous style. Yeah, you wish great filmmakers would win the award – but occasionally someone comes along, and nails it just once.
Who Should Have Won (of the Nominees): I really wish the Academy had the guts to embrace the monumental achievement that was The Tree of Life – if not for picture, at least for Terrence Malick – who shocking has only been nominated for Best Director twice, and hasn’t won.
3. Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity (2013) – The first of two Best Director Oscars Cuaron won this decade, his win for Gravity was a triumph for his immense technical achievement – a swirling, twirling mixture of great cinematography and visual effects, on a breathtaking, breakneck journey through space. Sure, you can complain that the film plays fast and loose with the science – but who the hell cares – the film is brilliantly directed.
Who Should Have Won (of the Nominees): My favorite was probably Martin Scorsese for The Wolf of Wall Street – one of his best films – but part of me wishes that they gave the award to Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave, that won best picture, and is brilliantly directed. This was a year of Gravity of 12 Years a Slave – and although I love both, I was definitely 12 Years a Slave.
2. Alfonso Cuaron, Roma (2018) – Cuaron’s second Oscar – and one of his very best films – is another technical marvel, but a very different one than Gravity. It has some of the best cinematography of the decade – brilliant black and white, by Cuaron himself, in long, master shots. Gravity moves at a breakneck pace; Roma slows way down – brilliantly so.
Who Should Have Won (of the Nominees): For me, a lifelong fan, I would have loved to see Spike Lee win for BlackKklansman – one of his very best films, and my favorite of the nominees. It was great to see him a screenplay award – Best Director would have been even better.
1. Bong Joon-ho, Parasite (2019) – Once again, they saved the best for last – Bong Joon-ho’s win for Parasite was great – it was the second in a row for a film not in English, and was also an example of a great director winning for his best film – a film his entire career had been leading up to. It is a meticulously crafted film on every level – and easily one of my favorite Best Director winners ever.
Who Should Have Won (of the Nominees): True, I would have loved to see my favorite director of all time Martin Scorsese win again for The Irishman (although the shout out by Bong was almost as good) or see Quentin Tarantino finally win best director for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – if only because I always thought he was a better director than writer, and he keeps winning screenplay prizes, but I’m more than fine with Bong winning.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Ranking the Decades Best Picture Oscar Winners

With the decade behind us, and my own Top 100 list also done, I decided to rank the Oscar winners for the last decade – for Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress and then throwing in the Palme D’or from Cannes as well. So over the next week or so, I’ll post one per day – starting with Best Picture.
Best Picture
I think probably the nicest thing you can say about the Academy is that they end up with fairly mainstream tastes. There are factions within the Academy who like more daring fare, artier fare, foreign fare, etc. – but when it comes down to what actually wins Best Picture, it’s pretty popular, old school movies. And yet, there were times this decade when I thought that maybe – just maybe – they were going in a more daring direction with its Best Picture winners – but that seems to have changed in the last couple of years. Still – I will say that while there hasn’t been a single year this decade where my favorite film of the year won Best Picture – and only two where the Best Picture winner were even on my top 10 list - they have made some good choices, in that the movies that have won are fine, entertaining movies. It’s just become increasingly clear that what the Academy think of as great movies, and what I do, is very different. So now, onto the ranking, from worst to first for the past decade.
10. Green Book (2018) – I don’t hate Green Book like many seem to – it’s an entertaining film, with funny and heartfelt moments, and broad but emotionally satisfying beats. It’s also a film that feels like a best picture winner from the 1980s, with its view of race relations more akin to the time the movie is set in – the 1960s. Viggo Mortenson and Mahershala Ali are very good – and it must be said that Peter Farrelly knows how to make a satisfying, entertaining comedy. I suspect that had Green Book had just kind of came and went, with no Oscar love, it wouldn’t have generated the hate that it has. Still, it’s the worst Best Picture winner of the decade – and it isn’t particularly close.
What Should Have Won (of the Nominees): People last year were certainly cheering for Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma – as it really did seem to be a two-horse race heading into Oscar night, and that would have been a great choice. My personal favorite though was Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman – and the irony isn’t lost on me that Green Book won in the year with a great Spike Lee film about race, just like the year Driving Miss Daisy won, and Lee’s Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated.
9. Argo (2012) – Ben Affleck knows how to make an entertaining thriller – and Argo is certainly that. It’s the Iran hostage crisis, focusing on the CIA agent who helped sneak them out of the country, with the help of Hollywood, Argo is a crackerjack thriller, that moves swiftly through its two hour run time and does so in entertaining fashion. It’s a throwback to the days when studios would make this type of film – which seem even further in the rearview mirror now than it did in 2012.
What Should Have Won (Of the Nominees): I remember this being a particularly nasty Oscar year in terms of campaigning – and questions of historical accuracy took out two superior films to Argo – Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln (you can be bothered by the historical accuracy of those films, and still be baffled that apparently the only year the Academy seemed to care about that, they went with Argo). My favorite would have been Michael Haneke’s Amour however – an absolute masterpiece, and would have put to rest this whole idea if a foreign film could win Best Picture.
8. Birdman (2014) – I liked Birdman a lot when I first saw it – but something about it bugged me – and when I watched it again, it bugged me even more. I do think the performances – especially by Michael Keaton – are fantastic, and I admire the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, and the energy Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu gets throughout. I also think the whole thing is a little too shallow, and doesn’t really add up too much. It’s an ambitious film in some ways – but not in others. Still, it’s an odd film for the Academy to embrace, so we can celebrate that – even if they embraced it because it celebrates how great actors are.
What Should Have Won (of the Nominees): I will certainly admit that perhaps I’d be a little less down on Birdman had the Academy not had a chance to give the top prize to two other great films. My favorite was Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel – which won a bunch of awards, but couldn’t break through in the top categories, and the film that may have won had it not been for Birdman was Richard Linklater’s Boyhood – a truly innovative film. Either choice would have aged better than Birdman.
7. The King’s Speech (2010) – The King’s Speech is perhaps the least ambitious Best Picture winner of the decade (aside from Green Book) – and yet as an example of the type of film it is, it’s hard to beat. Perhaps it’s because as someone who suffered from a childhood stutterer, I related to the film, and admired the hell out of Colin Firth’s performance. Yes, The King’s Speech is a stereotypical “Oscar bait” film – but it’s done just about as good as it could be done.
What Should Have Won (Of the Nominees): We all know that David Fincher’s The Social Network really should have won this one – that film seems even timelier now than it did a decade ago.
6. The Shape of Water (2017) – When I get down about how the Academy doesn’t seem to be moving forward in its taste, I have to remind myself that it wasn’t that long ago when the Academy gave the Best Picture Oscar to a movie about a woman who falls in love with – and has sex with – a fish monster. Yes, the film is very classically structured – a nostalgic look back, with the feel of classic Hollywood. Still, the woman has sex with a fish man – and it’s classic Guillermo Del Toro – one of the good guys of cinema.
What Should Have Won (Of the Nominees): I do believe that at some point, we’re going to look back and marvel at the fact that the Academy never saw fit to give a film by Paul Thomas Anderson the best picture Oscar – and Phantom Thread is both the year’s best film and about as close as Anderson is going to make to Oscar bait.
5. The Artist (2011) – I’ve always felt that had The Artist did what most likely expected it to – come and go from theaters quickly and quietly, and then be forgotten, than movie lovers would likely bemoan how a film this much fun was ignored. It is, after all, a black and white, silent film, made to look and feel like a film from 1929 – and with a cast of mostly French actors (no, that doesn’t make it a foreign film). The film is a wonderful technical achievement. I don’t think it adds up too much more than that – but it’s fun and a movie lovers dream.
What Should Have Won (Of the Nominees): The best film nominated – and the best film of the year – was clearly Terrence Malik’s The Tree of Life – which we all know was never going to win, but would have been amazing if it had. If they really wanted to celebrate silent film and technical achievement, I preferred Martin Scorsese’s Hugo to The Artist.
4. Spotlight (2015) – Spotlight is the kind of low key film that usually doesn’t win the Best Picture Oscar – it’s a writer’s showcase, and an actor’s showcase, and it tells an important movie with sensitivity and subtlety, and only a couple of moments that go a little big. It’s the type of film that works just about perfectly for what it is.
What Should Have Won (Of the Nominees): How cool would it have been if the exact opposite type of film to Spotlight had pulled off the victory – I’m talking of course of Mad Max: Fury Road – a balls to the wall action film that is the best film of the its kind of the decade.
3. Moonlight (2016) – Moonlight is the type of film that film lovers love – it feels like an American version of a Wong Kar Wai film, but still very much its own thing – a three-part story of a young black man, as a kid, as a teenager, as a young adult, going through the motions of acting masculine, to cover for his own homosexuality. It is a brilliantly acted and written film – but it’s really a showcase for Barry Jenkins behind the camera, who has crafted a masterpiece.
What Should Have Won (Of the Nominees): I don’t think any single film this decade left me more emotionally devastated or drained than Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea – which would have been my choice.
2. 12 Years a Slave (2013) – 12 Years a Slave is a brilliantly constructed, and emotionally powerful film about a freeman kidnapped, and sold into slavery, where he suffers for more than a decade. Steve McQueen’s film is more than just another portrait of black pain, to make white people feel better – it is a gut wrenching film, that confronts you, and dares you not look away. It is a masterwork – and fully deserving of the prize.
What Should Have Won (Of the Nominees): I love it then, and love it more now – Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street really is one of the best film of his career – and the decade, and for me, a little better than the winner.
1.Parasite (2019) – The Academy saved the best for last – and as good as both 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight are; it still isn’t really all that close. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a Hitchcock-ian masterpiece about class warfare. It is meticulously crafted, and for a long time, it is immensely entertaining – smart, clever, suspenseful, even funny – which is what makes the ending of the film hit so hard – he lets you think a happy ending is possible, and then almost cruelly takes it away. It was a giant leap for the Academy to go with Parasite for the win – and it was the right choice.
Who Should Have Won (of the Nominees): Yes, I liked both The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood even more than Parasite – it was a great year – but somehow, I still think they made the right choice.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Movie Review: The Call of the Wild

The Call of the Wild ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Chris Sanders.
Written by: Michael Green based on the novel by Jack London.
Starring: Harrison Ford (John Thornton), Dan Stevens (Hal), Omar Sy (Perrault), Karen Gillan (Mercedes), Bradley Whitford (Judge Miller), Colin Woodell (Charles), Cara Gee (Francoise), Scott MacDonald (Dawson).
I miss real animal actors in films – they’ve been replaced by CGI versions of animals in big budget movies – particularly ones where the animals are the main characters. You can understand why – animals are unpredictable, so you can never tell if they’re going to give you what you need, whereas you can put some dots on an actor, and give and they’ll do precisely what you need. You can also make them more expressive than real animal actors. And yet, in something like the new The Call of the Wild, these CGI animals never really strike me as real animals. That is key to the story here – as it is about Buck, the giant dog who is the main character here, embracing his inner wild animal. Here, you are always aware that you aren’t watching a real dog, so his animal instincts don’t exist. It undermines the whole movie, which ends up feeling rather toothless and bloodless and becomes just another movie about a cute, lovable animal.
Jack London’s story has existed for more than 100 years now and has been adapted several times for the screen – but I venture it’s safe to say that none of them are the definitive version of London’s infamous story. This version is largely faithful – it cuts some of the episodes in the episodic structure, softens some of the characters and the mistreatment Buck receives, and really softens the ending (which would likely be deemed problematic now, as Buck kills several Indigenous people, after they kill his final master) – but many of the episodes, and Buck’s ultimate fate remains the same. But it’s all been softened to make it a family friendly adventure story – instead of the much harsher and more brutal story London was telling.
Taken then as a family adventure film, then, fine, the film works somewhat. The film is well cast with Harrison Ford doing good work as John Thornton, the lonely man who becomes Buck’s final human master, and really does show him more kindness than anyone else. Omar Sy and Cara Gee are fun as Perrault and Francoise – the pair of mail delivery drivers who first make Buck into a sled dog. Dan Stevens has a lot of fun, almost literally twirling his mustache as the bad guy. The film directed by animation veteran Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon, The Croods) clearly knows how to direct an exciting action sequence for the whole family, and also clearly knows how to integrate the CGI dog with the real people that surround him. It is a handsomely mounted production to be sure. My kids, 8 and 6, both liked the film – particularly the older one, who I think was drawn in by the action.
Yet, to me, I could just always feel that corporate touch to the proceedings – that hand that wants to soften everything, sand off the edges, make everything less nuanced, and more black and white. To give us a cute dog, who looks and acts enough like a dog to fool you at moments but is so clearly animated at others that it becomes a distraction. It turns a harsh survival story into a thrilling family romp – and you keep feeling as if the film is going to go dark, and then it pulls back before it goes too far, because heaven forbid, they lose a couple of dollars at the box office to make a better film. This is what corporate entertainment has become in 2020 – films that try everything possible to appeal to as wide of an audience as it can, sanding off all the edges, all the things in this story that have made it survive for more than 100 years. But hey, that CGI really is cute.

Movie Review: A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon **** / *****
Directed by: Will Becher and Richard Phelan.
Written by: Jon Brown and Mark Burton and Nick Park based on characters created by Park.
Starring: Justin Fletcher (Shaun / Timmy), John Sparkes (The Farmer / Bitzer), Chris Morrell (Farmer John), Andy Nyman (Nuts), David Holt (Muggins), Kate Harbour (Agent Red / Timmy's Mum), Amalia Vitale (Lu-La), Joe Sugg (Pizza Delivery Boy).
Sometimes, it feels as if the universe is laughing at you, doesn’t it? A week after I saw the horribly cynical Sonic the Hedgehog – a crass commercial enterprise in brand extension disguised as children’s entertainment, I saw the utterly delightful A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon. The plot of the two movies is virtually identical – an alien creature has to go on the run with an earthling, on the run from a government agent who wants to capture the alien – but other than that, the two films couldn’t be more different. Whereas Sonic the Hedgehog has nothing on its mind other than empty nostalgia, Farmageddon is a delightful film with influences from the entire history of animation and silent film comedians like Tati, Keaton, Lloyd and Chaplin (including a direct reference to Chaplin’s Modern Times). It is children’s entertainment done right – sweet, without being saccharine, funny without being cynical or depending on pop culture references. While Sonic is making a ton of money at the box office however, Farmageddon has been quietly dumped to Netflix. There is no justice in the world.
Shaun the Sheep is, of course, the franchise from Aardman – that wonderful British animation studio best known for Wallace and Gromit. Shaun the Sheep is a long running TV franchise – easily translatable around the world, because basically there’s no dialogue at all – the animals sound like animals, if they make any noises at all (which they don’t often do) and the humans speak in gibberish – as if it’s what those animals are hearing. The first Shaun the Sheep movie came out in 2015 – and was even better than this, a pure delight for children. It didn’t make any money in North America – because we’re idiots – which explains why this film, which played in theatres everywhere else late last year – was dumped to Netflix here, where its audience will not find it.
This time, our hero sheep has to team up with Lu-La, an alien child, who accidentally crash landed on earth, who wants nothing more than to get back to their mom and dad. To do this, Lu-La and Shaun go on the run to try and recover their spaceship – and have all kinds of hilarious adventures – a stop at a grocery store, where Lu-La discovers candy and soda is a particular delight. The Farmer, Shaun’s oblivious owner, decides he wants to capitalize on the alien craze by building a theme park. And a government agent is chasing down Lu-La, to try and prove her lifelong obsession with aliens isn’t fruitless.
The film is a sweet delight from beginning to end. Aardman knows precisely what they are doing, precisely how to reach children – probably smaller children, for whom a lot of “funny” dialogue is meaningless. The ambitions here are not great – just making very funny, sweet children’s entertainment – that is also incredibly smart for the adults in the crowd. It’s a mixture that sounds easy but is very hard – but something Aardman does better than just about anyone.
So please, see A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon – and show yours kids. You’ll both be delighted by the film, and they’ll get way more out of it than they will from Sonic. And so will you. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.

Movie Review: The Last Thing He Wanted

The Last Thing He Wanted * ½ / *****
Directed by: Dee Rees.
Written by: Dee Rees and Marco Villalobos based on the novel by Joan Didion.
Starring: Anne Hathaway (Elena McMahon), Ben Affleck (Treat Morrison), Rosie Perez (Alma Guerrero), Edi Gathegi (Jones), Mel Rodriguez (Barry Sedlow), Toby Jones (Paul Schuster), Willem Dafoe (Richard McMahon), Carlos Leal (Max Epperson), Julian Gamble (Secretary George Schultz).
Dee Rees is an incredibly talented director – her first two features – Pariah and Mudbound – are both excellent, both personal, although Mudbound has a more epic scope than Pariah did. Her films are expertly crafted – they look amazing – and generally she gets great performances out of her casts. I preface this review of her latest film – The Last Thing He Wanted – by saying all of this, because Rees latest film is pretty much a disaster. It is the most poorly plotted film in recent memory – a film that gets increasingly confusing as it moves along, before ending with a horrible final scene, and laughable final shot. Rees is still an immensely talented filmmaker – but The Last Thing He Wanted is a terrible movie.
The film stars Anne Hathaway as Elena McMahon, a reporter for a fictional, Washington based paper. It’s the early 1980s, and she is doing important work in Nicaragua, before she is quite literally chased out of the country. She is working on a story of the Contras, and their relationship with Reagan, etc. – but her bosses don’t want that story – they want her covering the upcoming election. Then, through a series of strange coincidences, she finds a personal connection to the contras and that story through her father – Richard (Willem Dafoe). He’s running some guns down to South America – of course – but he’s also very ill. He cannot make the necessary trips – so Elena ends up going in his place. This is essentially the setup for the film – and it takes half its runtime to get there. Once that trip begins though, and Elena heads down to South America, the entire film flies off the rails.
I will say this – Hathaway is acting her ass off in this film – trying her best to find a consistent character to play, and never quite finding it. Not that it’s her fault – the movie tries to give her several relatable humanizing elements – a divorce, a daughter she loves, but is distant from, breast cancer survivor, the recent death of her mother, her complicated relationship with her father, etc. – but none of them really work (seriously, the daughter, the cancer and the dead mother are basically afterthoughts). None of it really explains the central question that the movie fails to answer – why the hell she agreed to go to South America and essentially become an arms dealer for her father. The film never really answers this question – and so the whole movie has this question hanging over its head.
Still, the film could have worked except for the fact that the entire second half of it makes absolutely no sense and is essentially a series of one confusing scene after another. We are introduced to character after character – Ben Affleck’s emotionless CIA agent, who becomes a love interest of sorts of Elena, an arms dealer named Jones (Edi Gathegi), whose motivations seemingly change minute to minute, and worst of all an ex-pat who owns a hotel (Toby Jones) who waxes poetic endlessly about nothing – who Elena ends up working for getting newspapers and cleaning up (why – I HAVE NO IDEA).
The Last Thing He Wanted ends up being that rare film that somehow manages to be confusing beginning to end, and also almost all endless exposition. When characters are constantly explaining things to you, you would think it would impossible for it to be this confusing. You’d be wrong.
The film is based on a novel by the great Joan Didion. I haven’t read this novel, but Didion is a genius writer – but perhaps not one destined to be adapted for the screen. Perhaps the dialogue doesn’t come across as tin eared on the page as it does in these actors’ mouths. Perhaps she finds a way to make this convoluted series of plot twists and turns – and character twists and turns – not seem so arbitrary and confusing. Perhaps she makes you care about something. The movie does none of those things. Yes, Hathaway does what she can here – as does Dafoe (although, it’s the stereotypical Dafoe role) and some others (I always liked Rosie Perez, was disappointed when she disappeared from Hollywood, and am heartened that she’s back – but she’s given nothing to do here). The film also looks beautiful, as it hops from one tropical locale to the next. And yet, it’s a complete and total mess – almost as if the original cut of the movie was about 4 hours, and they just random cut half of it, and hoped you could follow along. Good luck with that.

Movie Review: Come to Daddy

Come to Daddy *** / *****
Directed by: Ant Timpson.
Written by: Toby Harvard and Ant Timpson.
Starring: Elijah Wood (Norval Greenwood), Stephen McHattie (Gordon), Garfield Wilson (Ronald Plum), Madeleine Sami (Gladys), Martin Donovan (Brian), Michael Smiley (Jethro), Simon Chin (Dandy), Ona Grauer (Precious), Ryan Beil (Danny), Oliver Wilson (Young Norval).  
There is a skill involved in being an actor at the center of a film as ridiculous as Come to Daddy and making it all work – a skill that Elijah Wood has honed in the years since The Lord of the Rings ended, and Hollywood clearly had no idea what to do with him. Wood has spent much of that time making low budget horror films – so good, so not so much – but he’s clearly found a way to make even the strangest of films seem plausible – a skill many don’t have. It’s key to Come to Daddy, because this is a ridiculous film in many ways, it’s so much fun in part because Wood plays it so straight.
In the film, Wood plays Norval Greenwood, a young man who grew up in Beverley Hills, the child of an eccentric mother, and an absent father that he doesn’t even remember. Now, the old man is getting on in years, and has sent Norval a letter, telling him to come to his remote home in the middle of the woods, so the two can get to know each and bond finally. And yet, when Norval arrives, he finds his father (Stephen McHattie) doesn’t really seem to care that he’s there – doesn’t seem to remember he invited him, and spends all of his time mocking and belittling Norval – sometimes with some good reason, but that doesn’t make him an less of an asshole.
I won’t say any more about the plot, because Come to Daddy is able to twist and turn itself into some very unexpected places as it moves along, pulling off these twists. For the first half of the film, it is essentially a two hander between Wood and McHattie – and it’s a wonderful one at that. McHattie is one of those character actors I always take delight in seeing – he doesn’t often get roles this good, but he relishes them when he gets them. He delights in tormenting Norval – the way he prods him, the way he listens to his son talking about his drinking problem, before making a big show of drinking himself, the way he doesn’t care about Wood’s fancy phone, etc. McHattie is having a blast – and it’s fun to see him.
The film grows more and more far-fetched in the second half – delightedly so however, as it’s the type of film where one thing leads to another to another to another, all increasingly strange and unbelievable, but just one after another. The film is a dark comedy and a thriller, and a bloody horror movie, and other things as well. It is the directorial debut of Ant Timpson, and I suppose he deserved credit for keeping the whole thing on the tracks, when it so easily could have flown off at any point.
Wood deserves credit too though. He plays a character who isn’t entirely sympathetic – he is a liar and rather weak willed, and is 35, and hasn’t done anything with his privilege. And yet, you like him anyway – you cheer for him anyway, if for no other reason than everyone else is way worse. It’s a fine performance by Wood – and it keeps the whole thing humming along nicely.

Movie Review: After Midnight

After Midnight *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Jeremy Gardner & Christian Stella.
Written by: Jeremy Gardner.
Starring: Jeremy Gardner (Hank), Brea Grant (Abby), Henry Zebrowski (Wade), Justin Benson (Shane), Ashley Song (Jess), Nicola Masciotra (Pam), Taylor Zaudtke (Jane), Keith Arbuthnot (Monster).
Hank and Abby have been together for a decade – living somewhere in rural Florida where they run a bar together, and rambling around a big, dilapidated house that Hank always says he will fix up, and never does. They aren’t married, they don’t have kids – and Hank seems okay with that. He has his bar, his booze, his friends, his hunting and his girl – what else could he want. But early in After Midnight, Abby leaves – there’s a note that says she needs to get away for a while, but that she loves him. She hasn’t answered her phone since. And every night, after midnight, something comes to Hank’s door – scratching and clawing, and trying to get in. Of course, no one believes him.
After Midnight could probably best be described then as an indie version of one of those Judd Apatow movies where the slacker finally realizes he needs to grow up, but stripped of the comedy, and adding in some horror elements – as it really does seem like something wants in that house. As time passes – days become weeks, with no Abby, Hank’s grip on his sanity starts to slip even more – no one quite believes he has seen what he says he’s seen, although there’s something. Maybe a bear, or a panther – never mind that no one has really seen one of those around. The film alternates between flashes of Hank and Abby during happier times – although it slowly becomes clear that Hank is oblivious to Abby’s growing restlessness – and scenes in the present, of Hank either dealing with this monster, or telling people about it, and having them not believing it.
When I describe it that way, it doesn’t really sound like After Midnight should work very well – and yet it does. A large part of that goes to writer/co-director/star Gardner’s performance as Hank. It isn’t a flashy performance, and he never tries to do too much – but he’s excellent as this man who is clearly hurt by Abby’s abandonment, but doesn’t really know how to process it, and doesn’t want his friends know he’s hurting at all. It’s not really a portrait of toxic masculinity – one of the more impressive scenes is between Hank and Abby when she returns – and he listens to her, while still being hurt. It’s a portrait of a man who doesn’t want anything to change – but seemingly has everything the way he wants it, and so he doesn’t rock the boat. But that leads to stagnation.
Horror fans will likely be disappointed here – it’s not really a horror film, with the monster being a metaphor, which isn’t anything new (hell, is The Badadook one giant metaphor) – but it’s clear that the filmmakers aren’t really interested in it at all. So for most of its runtime, After Midnight is a pretty good film, well-acted, written and directed, if somewhat forgettable – but it has a scene at the end that while incredibly cheesy, I absolutely loved, so it elevated the whole film for me. An interesting little indie curio to be sure.

Movie Review: The Cave

The Cave **** / *****
Directed by: Feras Fayyad
Written by: Alisar Hasan, Feras Fayyad.
The Cave is one of those rare movies that can both inspire you and devastate you about your fellow humans. It is a film about selfless heroes, working in an underground hospital in Syria, tending to the wounded who are able to make it there – through a series of underground tunnels – even though the odds they face are staggering. Lots of people are dragged there, and it’s already too late for them – many others don’t have much hope. Most of the doctors in the area have already fled – but some have stayed, a few students, quite of few of them women, and they do their best to save lives, comfort children, and just try and get their people through another day. It is inspiring to see their selflessness. The film can also leave you feeling hopeless and depressed – for all of their work, things still do not end well.
The film was directed by Feras Fayyad, who also directed Last Men in Aleppo (2017) – which, like The Cave, was an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary. That film was about volunteer with the White Helmets – the team who went around in Aleppo after bombings, and tried to dig survivors out of the rubble to save their lives – and another of those films that can leave you inspired and crushed at the same time. This time, the film takes place in Eastern Ghouta – but the situation is basically the same. The Syrian regime, and their Russian backers, are bombing the civilian population to get at the rebels, causing a massive humanitarian crisis, which the rest of the world thinks is really very sad, but hasn’t really done anything about.
The central figure in The Cave is Dr. Amani Ballour, a pediatrician, who is one of the young, female doctors who have stayed behind to staff this hospital. She has a lot of patience in her – doesn’t even get mad at the male patients who get mad at her, wishing there was a male doctor managing the hospital, and telling her that her place should be at home raising children (you would think they would be grateful for the assistance – but you’d be wrong). She is kind and patient – does her best to save as many lives as possible, to comfort the children who come in screaming and crying and covered in dust and blood. You cannot say that she is upbeat or optimistic – but she certainly doesn’t give up.
As with any movie about Syria, there are moments and shots that you cannot forget, that engrave themselves into your brain, and won’t let go – the other wailing over her dead son, angry at him for dying for instance. The film also covers the panic and devastation that resulted when the government gasses their own people – how the hospital had to deal with the people effected and protect those who were not.
The film was released the same year as another wonderful documentary about Syria – For Sama – which is also about the selfless actions of doctors trying to save lives, and specifically how it is women who are doing a lot of the front-line work. Both films are wonderful – and should be seen – even if both basically end the same way – with the only thing left to do is leave if you can. The Syrian humanitarian crisis has been well-documented for years now – I’ve lost count of how many documentaries on it I have seen by this point. In the future, we marvel, and feel ashamed, of just how little we did.

Movie Review: Mickey and the Bear

Mickey and the Bear **** / *****
Directed by: Annabelle Attanasio.
Written by: Annabelle Attanasio.
Starring: Camila Morrone (Mickey Peck), James Badge Dale (Hank Peck), Calvin Demba (Wyatt Hughes), Ben Rosenfield (Aron Church), Rebecca Henderson (Leslee Watkins). 
After re-watching Five Easy Pieces (1970) for the first time in years a few weeks ago (spoiler alert – it’s still a masterpiece), I re-read Roger Ebert’s Great Movies Essay about that film from 2003, and was struck by Ebert calling it the “first Sundance movie” – in part because in the years since Ebert wrote that, Sundance movie has become almost as cliched as mainstream movies – as they’re always full of movie stars, looking for some cred, by acting in a quirky film (I generalize, of course, but so many times out of Sundance we hear about a surefire audience hit, only for it to get ignored when it comes out a few months later, as it’s the same as last year’s surefire hit, that was also ignored). I bring this up at the beginning of a review of Annabelle Attanasio’s Mickey and the Bear, not because it’s as good as Five Easy Pieces (it isn’t) – but because I think that like Five Easy Pieces, it wouldn’t fit in as nicely in the Sundance of 2020 as it would have when Ebert wrote his great movie essay. Mickey and the Bear is the type of movie that Sundance would deem “too small” (which is why it’s a SXSW film), too small for something like the Independent Spirit Awards, and basically too small for most audiences to ever hear of the film – which is why, despite good reviews last fall, it basically came and went from theaters quickly without attracting much notice, and is now streaming, where too few people will watch it. It is a small film – but it’s a real film, in that it’s a film about real people, dealing with their real lives. As small as that is, it taps into something all too rare in movies these days – that everyday drama can still make for great movies.
Mickey is played by Camilla Morrone, and she’s a just turned 18-year-old girl from Anaconda, Montana – who outwardly seems satisfied with her small town life, her smalltown boyfriend, and what promises to be a small-town life. Her mother died of cancer a few years ago, and her father, Hank (James Badge Dale) is an Iraq war veteran, suffering from PTSD, is an alcoholic and addicted to oxycontin, and basically doesn’t leave their trailer, where he plays video games all day, unless it’s to go drinking. Mickey meanwhile goes to high school, holds down a job, and takes care of Hank – who tries to be very fun, very cool, but is an insecure mess.
Mickey does have bigger dreams for herself though – even if she doesn’t let anyone know about them. They are small in the grand scheme of things – a plan to go to San Diego City College, and leave this behind, but she worries about leaving. Will she be good enough? Will she have enough money? What will become of Hank without her? When she meets Wyatt (Calvin Demba), a transplant from the UK, she starts making small moves away from that small-town life, but will she really pull away.
The movie is no more dramatic than that really. Her friend is already pregnant – already has her life set ahead of her, and Mickey sees that her life with Aron will basically be the same. Hank makes fun of Aron but is clearly not threatened by him in any real way – if Mickey is with him, that means Mickey is still here. He is threatened by Wyatt however – which makes him act in more extreme ways with him.
The performances here are key. Morrone is excellent in the first movie role I will remember her for (apparently, she was in Eli Roth’s Death Wish – but I have already forgotten that film). What she does here is sensitive, subtle, quiet and devastating. Dale is just as good as Hank – an insecure mess of a man. Yes, you feel sorry for him – and you should – but over the course of the movie, as you see more sides of him, you realize he doesn’t even want to get better – isn’t even trying. You expect there to be a scene where he encourages Mickey to leave him for her own good, but what you get the exact opposite – him begging her to stay. In a small role Rebecca Henderson is excellent as the psychiatrist at the hospital that Hank refuses to see – she knows precisely who he is.
The film is the directorial debut of Annabelle Attanasio, and it’s an excellent debut. She has confidence in her screenplay, and her actors – she holds shot a beat longer than you may expect, and they sink in. I think the ending perhaps pushes a little too far – there is a lot that happens in a single cut that the film doesn’t explain, but I kind of feel it should have – it pushes a little too hard. But it’s that push that Mickey needs. She can stay in Anaconda and have nothing – or she can at least try to get out. That can be messy and can involve doing things that hurt others – but at some point, you have to choose between hurting them, and hurting yourself.