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2 stars

 

I am a huge fan of Jeff Nichols (Mud, Shotgun Stories), and in particular, his methodical, textured and grounded style of filmmaking. And boy does he exhibit all of those qualities in Loving, the story of the Virginia couple, Mildred and Richard Loving (played by Ruth Negga and the hardest working man in show business, Joel Edgerton) at the heart of the Supreme Court decision legalizing interracial marriage.  Nichols’s depiction of their small Caroline County Virginia town, with its slow pace and cloistered mentality, eschews the Hollywoodization of most civil rights flicks.  The system is wrong and cruel, and the instruments of same (the police, the courts) are in service of that wrong, but these are just people, neither mustache twirling villains or radiant, untouchable martyrs.

The problem with the film, however, is that not every historical figure is deserving of a movie treatment. George Patton, sure, but Omar Bradley?  The fact is, the Lovings, as presented by Nichols, are so simple, so unremarkable, that they feel less like leaves caught in a whirlwind or champions for their own cause and more like bystanders.  Mistreated bystanders, but mere bystanders nonetheless.  Negga shows some deftness in delivering her culture shock at having to escape to the city, and you can see a steel in her spine stiffen at the injustice at play (the Lovings were essentially banished from Virginia).  But Edgerton is so internal and non-demonstrative that he doesn’t even classify as inscrutable.  He’s just a dud, bordering on the disinterested.

It is almost to Nichol’s credit that this film is so boring.  He steadfastly refuses to dramatize.  But boring and entertainment are not reconcilable.

Perhaps Nichols sensed this flaw, because while he gets estimable but sober help from Bill Camp and Martin Csokas as the local attorney and sheriff who, respectively, assist and plague the Lovings, he tries ever so slightly to give the audience some flash in the form of comic actor Nick Kroll, as the ACLU lawyer for the couple. The gambit fails.  Kroll is, frankly, a lousy, one-note dramatic actor and it almost feels like he wants to start cracking up.  The effect is weird and off-putting.

Ultimately, this film feels like an obligation.  If you feel so obliged, go to it.

I want to applaud and encourage ambitious filmmaking, and this picture is certainly an example of that.  A man (Colin Farrell) whose wife leaves checks himself into a facility resembling a hotel, where he is given 45 days to find a new life mate amongst its inhabitants.  If he fails to do so, he will be transformed into the animal of his choice.  Hence, the title.

When the film stayed in the hotel, it maintained my interest.  Writer-director Yorgos Lanthrimos created an increasing feel of dread and desperation as the guests jockeyed for position, and while it was blackest of the black, there was comedy to be found.  But Lanthrimos attempts to mesh this strange land of the bargain into a wider society, with loners (individuals who are as zealous about being single as the hoteliers are about coupledom) hiding out in the woods while the city enforces duos to such an extent that security personnel will harass lone shoppers.  The picture becomes more and more ridiculous and yet, the tone gets darker rather than more whimsical.

It’s all too clever by half, and ultimately, casually cruel, to no real end.  Lanthrimos’s obvious talents are wasted on this lame social satire.

But don’t listen to me.  My tastes for this sort of thing are vanilla to an almost disabling degree, the critics adored it, and it cleaned up at Cannes.

 

David O. Russell’s American Hustle was an over-heralded, stream-of-consciousness mess, but it was nominated for Best Picture, and I was a huge fan of Silver Linings Playbook, so the watching of Joy was obligatory. It was not an altogether unpleasant experience given Russell’s command of the camera and his early sense of pace. Russell briskly lntroduces us to Joy Mangano, a little girl and then a young woman destined for great things, if only she weren’t consistently thwarted by her lunatic family, a coterie of misfits and weirdos so peculiar they veer into Tim Burton territory. Still, with her one big idea – a self-wringing mop – she perseveres to become queen of The Home Shopping Network, though her journey is an exhausting “one step forward, two steps back” ordeal so arduous, even Jennifer Lawrence’s pluck and a kick ass Rolling Stones song (“Stray Cat Blues”) can’t make the resolution tolerable. One gets the sense Russell knows his audience is bored, because he appears to get bored, veering off into a resolution so off-kilter (Lawrence faces down her business foe in Texas, cutting her hair and donning leather, after reviewing some documents in a “Voila!” moment) it is laugh out loud funny.

And those stars go to Alfred Hitchcock’s deft hand and Cary Grant’s irrepressible charm. Grant plays a society cad who gloms on to spinster Joan Fontaine, who impulsively marries him out of rebellion and passion. She soon learn Grant, charming though he may be, is a liar, a thief and a lay-about gambler, and his debts may be propelling him to more capital crimes. The essential tension, however, is wasted. The deck is so stacked against Grant that when he professes “it was all a misunderstanding”, you’re left disappointed at the expenditure of time and contemptuous of Fontaine, who just seems like a ninny. If Grant could not commit the capital crime, the studio sure did by insisting their star male lead could not play a wife murderer.

The film was nominated for Best Picture, Fontaine won Best Actress for her very delicate, frail but stagey performance which does not travel, and in an interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock summed it up when he reported the actions of a producer who initially took every scene out that indicated Grant was a murderer, leaving a 55 minute product.

Anyone interested in Truffaut’s interviews with Hitchcock, enjoy.

 

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Adam McKay’s The Big Short is ingenious, economical, and expert in translating a difficult subject – the mortgage crisis of 2008 – for non-expert viewers.  McKay makes what could be an arcane and tedious topic move, and his use of characters and celebrities to directly address and instruct the audience is particularly effective. The film is also wildly entertaining, and for the most part, well paced. In adapting Michael Lewis’s book, McKay alternates between keeping a sense of humor and paying appropriate deference to the deadly serious nature of the crash, revealing the seeming lunacy of modern finance and inherent flaws in our system. As we cover the prescient characters who foresaw the collapse of the mortgage market, and created a new financial instrument to short it to their advantage, the film builds to a depressing climax that is educational and even moving.

But one has to remember, McKay tacked on tedious moral lessons about our financial system in, of all things, the moronic buddy comedy The Other Guys. So after watching Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg engage in their crazy hijinx, we received a sermon on the ponzi scheme that is Wall Street, though blessedly, only during the credits.  McKay did the same thing for campaign finance reform in the Ferrell/Zach Galifinakis comedy The Campaign, but his jeremiads actually crept into the film, and I’ll bet dollars to donuts he considers Anchorman 2 a modern Network.  Anybody who had to append morality epilogues to these light stinkers clearly was itching for more serious fare.

Unfortunately, when McKay got it, he made a riveting, rip-roaring, true life story, and then . . . he choked. A moral fable was not enough.  McKay wanted a moral scolding.  So, every representative of the establishment – bankers, investors, an SEC investigator, a bond rating company analyst, two Florida real estate brokers, the financial reporter – are to a person grotesque cartoons. As depicted by McKay, they might as well be spit-roasting the homeless. Worse, every single one of our hedge fund manager protagonists, all of whom made a shit ton of money off of the collapse, is presented as a tortured, morally conflicted hero. Profiteer Brad Pitt scolds two characters by reminding them that when unemployment rises 1%, 40,000 people die. They are chastened, though I doubt chastened enough to do much about it. Christian Bale, who made billions for his firm betting on the economy to fail, closes his shop with an email to investors that bemoans the cruelty of the market. And the third genius, Steve Carell, literally apes Christ on the cross as he weighs whether to sell. He is urged to do so by his staff as they call him from the steps of a church! And yes, he too cashes in, but only after much soul searching and many, many lectures. And after all that, McKay adds a coda where he warns us that it is all happening again, no one went to jail for it the last time, and so, we are not absolved.

It was all right there, the deed done with, if not a scalpel, a stiletto.  But McKay couldn’t trust his own narrative and so, he used a butcher knife. The ensuing bludgeoning is gonna’ pay off with an Oscar tomorrow night, followed by, I am sure, a sermon much like the one that kneecapped his own movie.

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(Reporting from the blizzard of ’16)

My childhood memories of kick-ass Clint Eastwood are vivid. I think I was first mesmerized by him as the cool, sardonic killer in the World War II drama Where Eagles Dare, and after that, as Dirty Harry Callahan, a cops’ cop, rejecting Miranda and spitting in the eye of pencil-pushing bureaucrats who were the real menace to San Francisco. Somehow, I missed the westerns, catching them in the 80s.

The Eiger Sanction was on the Channel 7 daily movie rotation, and I’m sure I saw it several times. It’s a testament to the sway of Eastwood that I did, because I watched it today, and the impact was decidedly different. Eastwood directed (his fourth feature) and let’s just say he wasn’t at peak form. Very pedestrian, and hum drum, it tells the story or an art professor (Eastwood) who is actually a retired assassin for the government. He is summoned by his former boss, a straight-out-of-early-Bond albino with a Germanic voice who will die if the sun touches him, and cajoled into taking on a contract, an unknown member of a party he is to join attempting to scale the north face of the Eiger mountain. Eastwood’s clue as to the man’s identity? The man has a limp.

The mountain climbing sequences are the best thing about the film. Eastwood performed many of his own stunts, and, certifying the danger, a stunt climber was killed in the filming. But this is a dated flick, not only in its blocky, unimaginative feel, but in its dialogue.  For example, the bizarre line Eastwood gives to a stewardess he is seducing: “You never know. Sometimes people do things…they thought they’d never do again. (pause). Like rape, for instance. I thought I’d given up rape, but I’ve changed my mind.”  And then they kiss and make love by the fire.

This is the second film Eastwood got after Paul Newman passed.  Newman was wrong about Dirty Harry but not this one.

Moving, didactic and unsurprising.  The film suffers from what I call the Milk syndrome, a heartfelt fealty to its subject so strong it obliterates any sense of being real.  Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) is etched in marble, and marble is both beautiful and boring.  While the film is occasionally poignant, we are left with a one-dimensional hero, colorless acolytes (Coretta Scott King and everyone who works with King) and cartoonish villains (Tom Wilkinson’s LBJ and Dylan Baker’s Herbert Hoover are particularly ridiculous).

The film’s best moments come when King is not ennobled, but crafty, as when he explains to two Selma locals why he needs to elicit violent repression from the authorities for publicity purposes; King as tactician is just more interesting than King as mythic figure.

The worst moments come in quiet discussions, where the activists trade speeches littered with biblical passages and maxims like “eyes on the prize.” There are too many long, inauthentic, uninterrupted sermons placed to educate an audience director-writer Ana DuVernay doesn’t trust (in particular, a conversation between Coretta and her husband with regard to his infidelities is simply incredible for its reserved dignity).  In a film punctuated by Oyelowo’s expert recitations of King’s actual speeches, the effect is tiresome.  These people are in the middle of a pressure-cooker maelstrom, uncertain as to which road to take, pinched in by any number of political and social forces, and beset by violence at any turn.  Yet, they are reduced to the roles of resolute and/or suffering nobles.  When one black man wants to go get his gun after the marchers have been brutally bloodied, he is met with a sermon on the foolhardiness of his instincts and its effect on their historic struggle.  After an ass-beating, it’s a rare man who can summon a soliloquy.

The film, however, is beautifully photographed. Cinematographer Bradford Young (who, in A Most Violent Year, captured early 80s NYC) employs a lyrical, classic style he describes as a “period, Kodachrome-esque look.”  The effect creates memorable moments, some stunning.  But pretty isn’t enough.