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When I saw the original Midway in 1976, it was notable for four reasons. First, the movie was good, smartly re-creating a confusing and often complicated naval battle while inserting a family drama (a young aviator is in love – with a Japanese internee – and needs his father and high ranking Navy officer to get her out of custody). Second, the film seemed out of fashion even for its time, loaded with classic movie stars like Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Glenn Ford, Robert Mitchum, James Coburn, and Robert Wagner, and, of course, Charlton Heston.  Third, the film, like two contemporaries, Rollercoaster and Earthquake, was presented in Sensurround (I wonder if Heston, the lead in Earthquake, was the only actor to ever have parts in two Sensurround movies).  For the uninitiated, Sensurround was a gimmick (like Smell-o-Vision) where theaters installed  large, low frequency, horn-loaded speakers, so every time a bomb dropped on screen, the entire theater shook. That was pretty cool.  Lastly, when I saw the picture, some kids were throwing popcorn and goofing around in the front row, and an older man came down and picked up one of the boys by his shirt, shook him violently, and then told him to “shut the hell up.“  That was really cool.

The remake is an absolute abomination. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie with more clumsy exposition.  Just one example. Paraphrasing, Admiral Halsey (Dennis Quaid) sits on an aircraft carrier and says to his aide, “See that man down there. That’s Doolittle. He’s one of the greatest pilots ever. He’s going to bomb Tokyo and because he won’t have enough fuel to get back, he will have to ditch his plane in China.”

And regrettably, the aide does not answer, “ I know dipshit. I was in the meeting. Do you think I’m deaf?”

If the dialogue is not overt, it is so corny as to make you wince. A taste:

Dick Best: I don’t know how to lead these men.
Ann Best: They’ll follow you anywhere.

***

Wade McCluskey: Men like Dick Best are the reason we’re going to win this war.

***

Wade McClusky: Every time we go up in one of those planes, there’s a chance we won’t come back. Now, it’s hard to follow a man who doesn’t know that. Or even worse, doesn’t care.

***

Dick Best: [to his men] I’m not going to sugarcoat it, boys. Nobody thinks we can go toe-to-toe with the Japanese. Not in a fair fight. Today, we’re going to be big underdogs. Me? I think the men in this room can fly with anyone. Maybe that’s because I’m a cocky son of a b**ch. But it’s also because I’ve seen what you can do. You’re ready for this.

Clarence Dickinson: We’re going to give them a shellacking.

***

William ‘Bull’ Halsey: God bless those boys. Turns out all they needed was a fair fight.

Worse, as delivered by the actors in this Roland Emmerich crap-pile, the lines come of as perfunctory and insincere.  Henry Fonda as Admiral Nimitz seemed to give a big line his absolute all.  Woody Harrelson as Nimitz sounds somewhere between talking to Sam and Dianne at Cheers and late for a dinner reservation.  Apropos for a film that reduces a historical and tide-turning naval engagement to a commercial for what I expect will be a first-person shooter/flier video game.

Also, the Naval personnel are so spot clean and well coiffed they look like cast members in Jersey Boys. Or 1/5 of the Village People. Or the kid on a Cracker Jack box.

Finally, not only is the picture anachronistic, with characters saying things straight out of 2020, but it even has a modern message at the end.

BD8E29F0-CCA9-450B-BF3C-9FB9383F7E0AImagine Patton or Saving Private Ryan ending with such a dedication to the Wehrmacht.

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Impares Si obvium habueris senum severiorum CULO

My daughter sussed this one out early:  “This strikes me as the kind of movie your grandma would like.”

And what is there not to like for a grandma?  Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) comes from Argentina to Rome to hand in his retirement papers to Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins).  Bergoglio is modern and hip, as evidenced by his love of fútbol and ABBA, his amiability with common folk, his insistence on sitting up front next to his driver, and his constant painful wincing whenever he sees the trappings of the Catholic Church’s vast wealth (he apparently figured he’d be picked up at the Rome airport by donkey cart and taken to a Tetto Rossa Locanda to meet the pontiff).

The two spar in a dull and obvious manner, Benedict emitting conservative values like an automaton, Bergoglio interjecting with impassioned progressive rejoinders.  They watch some futbol, share a pizza, Bergoglio gives Benedict confession and then himself confesses to having been a bit of a stooge for the right wing Argentinian military junta in the 70s, and whammo – Benedict tells Bergoglio that while his prior plan was to accept the resignation and retire himself, he now sees the light of Bergoglio’s goodness and as such, rejects the resignation and insists that Bergoglio succeed him.

Unlike some, I have no objections to the fanciful nature of the picture.  The two never had such a meeting and never colluded on succession.  But hey, it’s the movies, and as long as you aren’t completely changing the arc or import of history, that’s cool by me.  Who would argue with portrayal of a fictional meeting between Nixon and Johnson?

But if you are going to make it up, you damn well better make it interesting.

“Do you know the Beatles?”

 “Yes, I know who they are,” Bergoglio responds. “Eleanor Rigby?”

“Who?” Pope Benedict asks, “I don’t know her.”

Oh my Lord.

As to the “import” of history, one story line is really quite egregious, as the film portrays Benedict as central to the cover up of molestation in the Church.  Bergoglio is, of course, horrified.  Apparently, digging ABBA and futbol and pizza can expiate any sin.

Pryce and Hopkins do deliver fine performances (they are both nominated for Oscars) but there are maybe one or two genuine moments in the picture, which could have just as easily starred a German Shepherd and a plucky mutt.

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Awfully slow and occasionally deadly dull. It’s 3.5 hours, 1.5 hours of which is trying to get Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) either to his senses or a meeting.

The length and pace, however, may be the least of the film’s problems.  The movie depicts the rise of mob killer and union boss Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and his relationship with his mob sponsor (Joe Pesci) and Hoffa. The novelty is the technological ability Martin Scorsese uses to make his actors younger, but the effect is only so successful. They can only make them so young.  So, you have a 76 year-old man playing a 40 year old man who looks like a 56 year old man who has a six-year-old daughter. Worse, when they are rendered young in the face, they remain old in the body. One scene, where a digitally younger De Niro beats a man, emphasizes the point.  It looks like Bad Grandpa is delivering an ass kicking.

But perhaps the worst part of the film is the fact that there is simply no drama, no tension. Every single character is the exact same person he was from beginning to end. In Goodfellas, De Niro and Pesci were a constant force, but the drama came from watching Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco rise and then try to survive.  In Casino, the entire film centered around the significant changes to the personalities of De Niro, the bookmaker made casino king in fledgling Vegas, and Pesci, the enforcer who gets too big for his britches and in-over-his-head alone in the desert.  The history of those films was compelling, but it did not have to do all of the lifting.

Here, De Niro is the same throughout. Sociopathic, steady, soulless and somnambulant.  It does not make for enthralling viewing.  Your eyes will move to the IPhone more than once.

It looks good, though. Damn good. I’ll give it that.  And there are a few exchanges in Steve Zallian’s (Moneyball, A Civil Action) script that are subtly sharp. But it’s not nearly enough.

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It’s fine. There is no need to see it in the theater, but this story of former driver and automobile designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) being subcontracted by Ford to take on Ferrari at LeMans is entertaining and fast-paced. Besides, Damon and Bale would be easy enough to watch grilling hot dogs, and Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II steals the picture in one scene.

That said, the movie is a tad too formulaic and cute and it has some thematic and structural problems. Bale’s overly precious relationship with his wife (Caitriona Balfe) is plagued by money woes and that seems to be the source of any dissension in theri union.  But then, all of a sudden, she goes bats because he apparently isn’t communicative enough, which comes out of nowhere (up until this point in the film, Bale is presented as aCockney loudmouth who can’t keep his trap shut about anything). Additionally, the relationship between Damon and Bale is unsupported, and we actually know little about either of them before their joint endeavor begins.  Some background, other than stoic and abrasive, respectively, would have helped.

But most problematic is the depiction of the Ford company, a corporate behemoth we are asked to loathe and root for at the same time.  The whiz kid who comes up with the idea of taking on Ferrari is Lee Iacocca, and as played by Jon Bernthal, he barely registers. Worse, as Ford’s no. 2, Josh Lucas is just this side of twirling a mustache. His treachery is over-the-top ridiculous.

The race footage is exciting and when you see this when it streams, you’ll be pleased, though Ron Howard’s Rush is a better racing film.

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My father took me to The Eagle Has Landed in 1976, and I of course loved it.   John Sturges (The Great Escape) can make a solid  war picture and this one was smart, cynical, compelling and the last one he directed.

As I watched it again last weekend, I imagined this script landing on some hotshot Hollywood moguls’ desk today.

First pages, not so bad.  The war is going poorly for the Nazis and they are looking into a plan to kidnap Churchill. 

Okay, so far so good.

The plan is dropped on an armless  Nazi with an eye patch.  No, not Tom, Cruise as Von Stauffenberg in Valkyrie.  That film is 30 years and a Bryan Singer sex scandal away.

This armless, eyeless Nazi is played by Robert Duvall.  And whoa!  In what he thought was a moment of whim on the part of Hitler, it turns out that the plan is feasible and the game is afoot.

So feasible that Duvall scours the records for the perfect German unit to take on the task of posing as a Polish outfit in a northern English town until Churchill arrives, when he can be snatched.  Who does he find?

Michael Caine, and his close-knit commandos, who have been kicking ass and becoming more and more embittered on the Eastern front.

But Duvall needs more; he needs two boots on the ground in the little town before the “Polish” troops arrive.  Enter . . . Donald Sutherland, an Irishman who hates the English so much he’s in league with the Nazis.

Okay.  It seems like a lot of money to be throwing at the bad guys. 

Who is the hero?

Larry Hagman?  J.R EWING?

Well, no, but Hagman does play the American commander on the ground in the quaint English town.  He’s no hero.  He’s more like John Larroquette in Stripes, a martinet wannabe who craves combat badly.  Hagman is incompetent, Caine’s men repel his frontal assault with ease, and he dies in such an ignominious manner, it’s almost comic.

Oh good.  There’s a young Treat Williams and Jeff Conaway.  Good looking American GIs who . . . . hmmmmmm, these guys have no lines!  They barely even register!!

Wait, are you telling me . . . . the leads are all Nazis!!???

Yup.

In 1976, this is how Hollywood got past this inconvenient cast.  First, they made Duvall erudite and resigned, as well as armless and eyeless, and they had him present the opportunity to grab Churchill as an opportunity to sue for peace.

As for Caine, as he and his men are shipped back from the Eastern Front, they meet an SS unit rounding  up Jews at a railroad junction.  Out of sheer frustration, Caine assaults the SS commander, assists in the escape attempt of a Jewish woman, and for his troubles his men are all cashiered and consigned to tasks that will eventually result in all their deaths.  Did Caine revolt because he was torn over the Holocaust?  Well, no.  In his own words, “I have nothing for or against Jews, personally. But I’ve seen too many men die for cause, to watch a young girl be killed for sport!”

Okay.  Good enough for the Bicentennial.

And Sutherland?  Well, he’s humanized because his beef is about Ireland, not that icky master race stuff, and he’s quick with a drink and the brogue and he’s so charming, Jenny Agutter falls in love with him instantly (really, the weakest part of the picture because he’s too old for her, it’s too immediate, and what she does for her “love” is so extreme it just doesn’t pass the smell test).

Solid flick, clearly of its time.  Triggerocity at about an 8 out of 10. On Amazon.

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The first half is a blast. Following the model of Across the Universe, director Dexter Fletcher incorporates Elton John’s music into boffo biographical song and dance numbers (the movie takes the current model and reverses it; it is ready made for Broadway), and Taron Egerton is winning as our shy, brilliant, budding rock star. The depiction of his rise is light, whimsical and fun.

But the second half of the movie, much like the middle third of John’s life, is a bummer. The choreographed song and dance numbers give way to trippy, psychedelics that are not only a drag, but repetitive and tiring.  John drinks, drugs, orgies, wears more and more ridiculous outfits and goes lower and lower, much like your eyelids.

It ends precocious, as John confronts his annoyingly minor demons (overbearing mother, distant father, not-as-advertised first lover)  in a rehab group therapy.

Not quite where a film-goer wants to end up, even if it worked out for John.

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First time feature writer/director Bart Layton’s true story of four Kentucky college kids who decide to steal rare books from the archives of Transylvania University is a gem.  At root, it’s a heist picture, but this is no Oceans 4.  Layton hilariously juxtaposes the theft in the minds of the boys with the much less smooth, cool and seamless aborted and actual boosts.  Layton also captures the ennui and disassociation of the kids, which has them yearning not so much for the money but for an authentic experience, a stamp.  He does not sugarcoat their selfishness, or make “woe to the disaffected suburban affluent” excuses.  Instead, he makes what seems rather incredible understandable, if perplexing.

Layton’s approach is phlegmatic and innovative without being showy.  His vision of the inertia and isolation of the boys melds perfectly with their amenability to the caper.  He films their surroundings darkly, sparsely and uninviting.  While everyone else seems to be communing just fine, they are off-kilter, uncomfortable.

I can’t believe Layton doesn’t have a promising future in Hollywood.  I only hope he isn’t immediately jammed into The Avengers: Super Mega-Explosion.  My only nit is the failure to properly account for the motivations of two of the four conspirators, most egregiously, with the last addition to the group.  The short-shrift given the characters was noticeable and a little distracting.

The film owes a debt to Richard Linklater’s Bernie in its use of interviews of the actual participants, but rather than high comic recollections from the would-be thieves and gentle reproaches from their family and friends, he captures the criminals as reflective, remorseful and even grasping to explain how they got to their deed.  As for the families, they are disheartened and confused, not enamored of their band of merry kids now that time has passed.

Layton saves his best interview for last, that of the librarian who is most directly and viscerally affected by the robbery.  You can interpret her state of mind in many ways, but she has been affected by the experience, and in what is the film’s best message, her pain seems permanently etched on the faces of the quartet.