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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.

 

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This expensive, sweeping, surreal saga was an international production but most of the heavy lifting was done by the Soviets, who lent their land, 17,000 soldiers, their director and many millions of dollars to re-creating the battle.  From Wikipedia:

To recreate the battlefield authentically, the Soviets bulldozed away two hills, laid five miles of roads, transplanted 5,000 trees, sowed fields of rye, barley and wildflowers and reconstructed four historic buildings. To create the mud, more than six miles of underground irrigation piping was specially laid. Most of the battle scenes were filmed using five Panavision cameras simultaneously – from ground level, from 100-foot towers, from a helicopter, and from an overhead railway built right across the location.

Actual filming was accomplished over 28 weeks, which included 16 days of delay (principally due to bad weather). Many of the battle scenes were filmed in the summer of 1969 in often sweltering heat. In addition to the battlefield in Ukraine, filming also took place on location in Royal Palace of Caserta, Italy, while interior scenes were filmed on the large De Laurentiis Studios lot in Rome. The battle sequences of the film include about 15,000 Soviet foot soldiers and 2,000 cavalrymen as extras and 50 circus stunt riders were used to perform the dangerous horse falls. It has been joked that Sergei Bondarchuk was in command of the seventh-largest army in the world.  Months before the cameras started filming, the 17,000 soldiers began training to learn 1815 drill and battle formations, as well as the use of sabres, bayonets and handling cannons. A selected 2,000 additional men were also taught to load and fire muskets. This army lived in a large encampment next to the battlefield. Each day after breakfast, they marched to a large wardrobe building, donned their French, British or Prussian uniforms and fifteen minutes later were in position. The soldiers were commanded by officers who took orders from director Sergei Bondarchuk via walkie-talkie. To assist in the direction of this huge, multi-national undertaking, the Soviet-Ukrainian director had four interpreters permanently at his side: one each for English, Italian, French and Serbo-Croatian.

The expanse of the endeavor is breathtaking and the efforts of the Soviets are plainly evident in the cinematography:

The script is, well . . .  dated.  The players intone with great import, and before most lines, they damn near lean into the frame.   As Wellington, Christopher Plummer is so effete and aristocratic, he approaches the Monty Pythonesque.  I implore you, go to 4:03 of the above scene for my brief in support.  Yet, somehow, he works.  Rod Steiger’s Napoleon is a raving consumer of all things Lee Strasberg, yet he too seems to work.  Indeed, one of the charming qualities of the script is when, in the middle of the goddawful melee, the soundtrack goes silent and we hear each man’s thoughts in voice-over.  “Who is this man, who fights on his ass,” Napoleon muses as he watches Wellington dig in.

Full disclosure:  this move was a staple on the 4 o’clock move when I was growing up and along with Zulu and Where Eagles Dare and countless other war pictures, informed my young sensibilities in the areas of hyper-masculinity, glory, bravery under fire and all the rest of it.  White collar life is empty of such things, so my emotional nostalgia may be at play here.

Still, it is really a wondrous picture to watch.

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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After Paddington 2, it made sense to watch Jumanji 2 (next up – Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. II).   We loved it.  It moves like a freight train, and the gimmick of having the modern teens stuck in detention (ala’ The Breakfast Club) stumble on an old 90s video game, which literally sucks them in, is handled expertly.  Better, when they come out on the other side, they are in the adult form of their video game characters (one poor, vain teen queen is encased in the plump body of Jack Black, while the football star is relegated to the diminutive Kevin Hart).   The juxtapositions are hilarious; in particular, the cranky and unnerved Hart, who can make you laugh in spite of yourself in the lamest of vehicles.  One minor complaint – the video game world was dazzling, but the villain (Bobby Cannavale) was wasted.  A more robust baddie was in order.

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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.