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2017

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This is a competent, amusing, even mildly affecting film, but ultimately, it is no great shakes.  It presents the story of Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), a mysterious no-talent who bankrolled, directed, wrote and starred in his own film, The Room, which was so terrible it became a cult classic.  Wiseau is indeed awful in all respects, so there is a lot of cringe-worthy viewing.  His idiosyncrasy and idiocy, however, travel only so far, and when there is nothing more to plumb from this weirdo wannabe, the mind wanders.  There’s nothing to root for (Wiseau is a bit of a cretin to his cast, collaborators and friends) and the film doesn’t compensate with enough humor.  So, it’s fine, but forgettable.

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I stumbled on this Saturday, and it took some time to figure out what I’d gotten myself into.  Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington) is a relic from the civil rights era, still fighting the good legal fight with his more prestigious mentor in a musty LA office.  While the mentor is the dazzle, Israel is the quirky brain.  But soon, like Bumpy in American Gangster, the mentor dies, and Israel is set adrift.  The firm is closed and now, Israel has to fend for himself, eventually taking a job with a criminal defense mill helmed by a slick former student of the mentor (Colin Farrell) whose firm has gone all corporate and Johnnie Cochran.  Will Roman kowtow to “the man” and play the game or will his deep conviction to the plight of the downtrodden and forgotten snap him back from the pit of doom?

That’s essentially the story, and it is told in a clunky and plodding manner.  Writer-director Dan Gilroy tries to give it some zest, but the only vigor comes from the fact that Israel is clearly on the spectrum (this must be a thing now; even Ben Affleck has donned the autism robes).  This allows Washington to mug and riff, which he did well enough to earn a Best Actor nod, but his work is in the service of an at-best pedestrian and at-worst mind-numbingly boring tale.  Gilroy’s last effort – Nightcrawler – was a sharp, edgy commentary on tabloid culture.  It’s a shame he followed it up with this schmaltzy morality tale.

 

An incisive, engrossing documentary which synthesizes the artistic and cultural impact of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and in particular, the murder of poor Janet Leigh (the title refers to the setups and cuts in the shower scene), with a technical analysis of its construction.  Segments of the interviews of filmmakers, actors, critics, and academics are conducted as the commenters watch the scene.  It is a neat touch to have them affected and excited as the murder flickers before their eyes, some mesmerized, some providing a play-by-play, all in awe.

Many of the memories are wildly entertaining.  Peter Bogdanovich’s recounting of the theater erupting in screams that matched Bernard Hermann’s score is particularly vivid.  There is also an impressive amount of film scholarship tying Hitchcock’s technique and evocation to previous works of art, and a solid case is made that the picture constitutes “an act of aggression [by Hitchcock] against fans, critics, and actors.”  And if you ever want to know what was stabbed to give the effect of a knife piercing flesh, you will have your answer.

There are some stretches that get a little high-falutin’ (mainly from the film academics, who, naturally, see import in everything).  There are also some questionable participants, including the kid from Lord of the Rings (who has no appreciable connection but seems fan-boyish), while one interviewee, the estimable David Thomson (who wrote the brilliant The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock taught America to Love Murder), gets one comment, which is criminal neglect.

Currently on Hulu.

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The orgasmic acclaim is a little much, but this is mostly good fun. A little Lion King, a little James Bond (they have their own Q, who shows off the technological gizmos, and a CIA operative Felix Lighter) and even a Millennium Falcon. There’s also some simplistic politics thrown in. Should Wakanda, a magical African kingdom powered by vibranium (a kick ass metal that provides strength, power and wealth) stay hidden in its borders or should it come out from shadows and take on the world struggle for the black and dispossessed?

I dunno. Who cares? Let’s cut the high-minded chatter about what happens when vibranium becomes plentiful and get to clever quips and fisticuffs.

As with most of these movies, it is weakened by the need to have comic book characters in silly suits address weighty matters (guess what? Vibranium is going to revitalize Oakland!) but as these things go, it’s a solid popcorn flick, and the action is first rate.

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Just as Dunkirk was an ode to English pluck and a representation of the viscerally brutal and arbitrary nature of war, The King’s Choice serves the dual purpose of a national homage to Norway’s resistance in the face of a Nazi invasion and the strain placed on the powerful and the ordinary in such circumstances.  Norway’s King Haakon VII, is a sweet, doting grandfather who is constitutionally deferential to a democratic body that is crumbling under the weight of events.  He must bolster the government while staving off the more muscular, ambitious desires of his son, which carry with them an implicit criticism of his father as weak.  Indeed, as the king suffers from a bad back, we often see him in a fetal position on the floor or a bed.  Meanwhile, the German attaché, who is juxtaposed favorably with the uncompromising Wermacht, desperately pleads with the king to accede to Hitler’s demand for submission, knowing that failure to do so totally will mean the deaths of many innocents.   The tension is palpable, the pace gripping, and the quiet moments – especially the scenes showing the effect on the families – poignant.

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I first heard about Molly Bloom in an NPR interview when she was promoting her movie.  Bloom was being questioned by an insipid interviewer who, naturally, tried to shoehorn her entire experience into the gender feminist blender.  Bloom was politely having none of it:

MARTIN: But, you know, as Jessica Chastain plays you as like you have kind of ice water in your veins. And, you know, Aaron Sorkin has been criticized in the past for having female characters who weren’t fully fleshed out or for feeling as if – there are those who say, look, these are a man’s idea of what women are like, OK. And I wonder, did you feel as tough as Jessica Chastain makes you out to be?

BLOOM: You know, it’s interesting. I didn’t get the sense watching Jessica that she has ice water in her veins. I get the sense that she has a lot of humanity, that she cares deeply about doing the right thing and about protecting people. I really didn’t experience her as cold. I experienced her as ambitious. And I think that we get our lines crossed oftentimes when we see an ambitious woman and we just label them cold.

MARTIN: I’m interested in you actually because she’s made up. I’m interested in you. Do you see yourself as having, like, ice water in your veins or did you – how do you see yourself?

BLOOM: I’ve always been very ambitious and very determined and very compassionate at the same time.

MARTIN: There are a lot of these stories right now about power, masculinity and abuse. You wrote your book years ago. The movie was in production – has been in production long before these current stories came out. But I wonder, you find yourself worried for these women in a way – does that make sense? – in a way that you might not have a year ago before we knew what some of the other things that were going on. Does that make sense? Do you understand what I’m saying?

BLOOM: Oh, I think there’s a lot of that. I want to make a pretty clear distinction here because my experience was of a different sort. It was just being disenchanted and being very sick of oppressive men and having to play by their rules. You know, there wasn’t this abuse, you know, that we’re seeing, but there was just this unfair sort of unjust application of power that I just constantly felt like I was coming up against, from growing up with a hard-driving sort of type A father and coaches and bosses and then players and then government.

But I also never really saw myself as a victim there because, for me, it just felt, you know, like that was a powerless situation. I tried to circumvent it. I tried to find my way around it. But I think it’s a brave new world that we’re seeing, that we really can have a voice. And we don’t have to do this alone necessarily. There’s clear power and progress from coming together.

I was immediately a fan, and as played by Jessica Chastain in this Aaron Sorkin written and directed movie, Bloom’s measured strength is what stays with you.  She is a driven would-be Olympian, guided and plagued by a driven and confrontationally intelligent father (Kevin Costner) and after a career-ending injury, she utilizes that strength not only to become a success in hosting high stakes poker games, but in eventually striking out on her own, escaping the reach of her early cruel and/or mercurial sponsors.  When it all goes bad, and she is indicted primarily for her association rather than conspiracy with criminals, she maintains the confidences of her “clients” (powerful men who shared their personal foibles and sins with her as a confidante) even as her defense attorney (Idris Elba) implores her to make a deal that will exchange those confidences to keep her out of prison.  Her resolve is both believable, impressive and rarely depicted in female characters in film.  She is the quintessential feminist hero, both cognizant of the powers and pitfalls of her gender, but ultimately, a tough and independent player educated, literally, by the school of hard knocks.  Her persona is neatly demonstrated in an  exchange with Elba on the raising of his daughter, Stella:

 Elba:  Can I ask you a question? You think I’m too hard on her?

 Bloom:  I met a girl when I first moved to L.A. she was 22. Someone arranged through a third party to spend a weekend with her in London.  You know what she got?  For the weekend?

 Elba:  Five grand?

 Bloom:  A bag. A Chanel bag she wanted. Whatever you’re doing with Stella, double it.

A captivating, smart picture.  A little overwritten (it is Sorkin, so there are going to be some speeches), but other than that, highly recommended.

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It took a while, but the bloom is now completely off the Kennedy rose. When I was watching the second season of The Netflix series The Crown, an episode was devoted to a visit from JFK and Jackie to a young queen Elizabeth. In it, the Kennedys were portrayed as backbiting amphetamine addicts. Quite a distance from Camelot and Copland and the rest.

With Chappaquiddick, we receive a sober and accurate docudrama that puts us in all the rooms as Teddy Kennedy attempts to extricate himself from scandal. It is 1969, the sting of Bobby’s assassination is still fresh, and Teddy has taken the weekend off to compete in the Edgartown regatta and party with a gaggle of RFK’s former staffers. After a fair amount of drinking, and perhaps sex (the film is agnostic on this point), Teddy drives a young staffer off of a bridge, resulting in her death. His first words to his friends/advisers are, “I am not going to be president.“ They are a fitting encapsulation of Ted Kennedy‘s curse. Throughout the film, he is shown as an uneasy and insecure carrier of the Kennedy torch, and as he wavers in leading the family, he hesitates in determining what kind of man he wants to be.

On the one hand, he strives to be a true profile in courage by heeding the advice of his close cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), who persistently urges Teddy to do the right thing. Despite Gargan’s advice, Kennedy allows himself to be guided by all of the other forces that control his life. He is surrounded by a plethora of advisors who effectuate all of the fixes on his behalf, including updating his drivers license and getting poor Mary Joe Kopecnhe’s body off the island (the latter a necessity because an autopsy might reveal she may have had sex or worse, may have suffocated to death rather than drowned, suggesting an even more horrific death and, given Kennedy’s delay in reporting the accident, an unnecessary one).

The lure of the expedient and self preserving is all the more powerful given the unwavering fealty many characters exhibit to the Kennedy clan. There is no shortage of acolytes. He is the next man up and thus, the chosen one, and they will do anything on his behalf.

Finally, there is Teddy’s father (Bruce Dern), crippled by a stroke, yet still capable of blurting or writing words most hurtful. His one word to Teddy the night of the accident, when his desperate son calls for advice and comfort, is a garbled “Alibi.”

Look, as is historically appropriate, despite his facilitators, Teddy is the villain in this piece. But as played by Jason Clarke, he is not a demon. Clarke is uncanny in his resemblance, but it is not an impression, and he exudes the charm, the cleverness, the soft self regard (at one point, Gargan rips the neck brace Teddy has chosen to wear for the Kopechne funeral, screaming “ you are not the victim!” and Teddy storms off to give his Daddy a look), and most acutely, the desire for a destiny wholly different than one he has been given. It is a delicate, nuanced performance.

The film also gives a long overdue rendition of Kopechne. The winner of perhaps the worst first line of any journalistic story goes to Charles Pierce of The Boston Globe. In 2004, in a sentence that managed to be sycophantic, cruel and ghoulish, he wrote, “If she had lived, Mary Jo Kopechne would be 62 years old. Through his tireless work as a legislator, Edward Kennedy would have brought comfort to her in her old age.”

I didn’t make that up.

As played by Kate Mara, Kopechne is not a mere device. Her equivocation in joining Teddy’s staff is buttressed by a soon-to-be verified discomfort with his weakness.

This is a solid, gripping film. My only two nits are some discordant comic bits as Teddy’s brain trust advises him through the nightmare and the fact I saw it in the theater. There is no need to see it there. It is picturesque but the big screen is a luxury lessened by—

a) the exorbitant cost (3 tickets, M&Ms, Icee = $62)

b) the fuckhead kid who kept playing with his electric chair

c) the smelly dude to the right

d) the chatterboxes behind us