Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Director's Spotlight: Akira Kurosawa

In a new series I plan on doing here on the blog, I will be talking about some of my favorite filmmakers. I will give you my ratings for their movies (that I've seen), maybe a little background info, and share some favorite moments or shots or something about them. I'm starting off the series here with my favorite filmmaker, Japan's Akira Kurosawa.

My ratings of his movies:

1. Throne of Blood (1957) – 10/10
2. Seven Samurai (1954) – 10/10
3. Red Beard (1965) – 10/10
4. Ikiru (1952) – 10/10
5. High and Low (1963) – 10/10
6. Ran (1985) – 10/10
7. Stray Dog (1949) – 9/10
8. Kagemusha (1980) – 9/10
9. Rashomon (1950) – 8/10
10. The Bad Sleep Well (1960) – 8/10
11. Yojimbo (1961) – 8/10
12. Sanjuro (1962) – 8/10
13. Drunken Angel (1948) – 7/10
14. Sanshiro Sugata (1943) - 7/10
15. Dreams (1990) – 6/10
16. The Hidden Fortress (1958) – 5/10
Akira Kurosawa's career ran from his first feature, 1943's Sanshiro Sugata until 1993's Madadayo. In his 50 year career, he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Director for 1985's Ran, while his movies were nominated four times for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (winning twice), and was granted a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1990.

Kurosawa's international breakout came with 1950's Rashomon (winner of one of those Foreign Language Film Oscars), the story of a bandit raping a woman and murdering her husband, told from the shifting perspectives of each person involved. Rashomon is a fascinating movie to talk about, and I actually think it's more fun to talk about than it is to watch, necessarily. To see the subtle changes in the story as the bandit tells his side, the wife tells hers, through a spiritual medium the husband tells his side, and a woodcutter who saw it happen tells his side. Each person's story makes themselves look better than the others in the story, showing our subtle narcissism when recounting our memories. For example, it's not rape in the bandit's story, it's the wife being overcome with lust at seeing his masculinity in defeating her husband in a sword duel, and so giving herself to him. It's then shown as an incredible, daring sword fight in both the stories of the husband and bandit, while it's a stumbling, unchoreographed, almost comedic battle of the men barely hitting each other and slipping and falling and all kinds of messiness when the wife recounts her story. It's a shifting perspective approach that has been used in countless pieces of drama since then, but it was revolutionary at the time.

He also loved Shakespeare, though called him "too wordy", and adapted the Bard's work into movies like Throne of Blood (an adaptation of MacBeth), The Bad Sleep Well (a very loose version of Hamlet), and Ran (his take on King Lear). All are some of the best takes on Shakespeare's work that the movies have ever given us, and I'd even argue that Throne of Blood is the best Shakespeare movie period. In both Ran and Throne of Blood, Kurosawa shifted the action to his favorite time period, feudal Japan, the time of the samurai. Ran has some of the most beautiful battle scenes ever filmed, while Throne of Blood keeps the creepy foreboding spirits from MacBeth, both movies seamlessly transitioning into the change of setting.

Most of all, I think I love Kurosawa’s mastery of narrative. Even in a 3.5 hour movie like Seven Samurai, he’s paced it in such a way that there’s not a wasted moment, and it all builds towards the climax of the picture. Either through building the characters or advancing the story, Kurosawa is always telling us something. Sometimes he intrigues us simply with the plot, such as in High and Low, where a powerful young executive is told his son has been kidnapped and he must pay the ransom (which will essentially bankrupt him and have him lose everything he's worked his whole life for), only to find out that the kidnappers didn't take his son, but the son of his driver. There's an amazingly powerful shot of the eyes of both fathers meeting, unsure of how this changes things. Is the driver's son worth less than his own? Are our lives worth the same? What does the executive do? It's probably Kurosawa's most emotionally and morally complex movie, and also a terrific crime drama. It was not adapted from Shakespeare or even Dostoyevsky (whose The Idiot Kurosawa adapted as well), but from pulp American crime writer Ed McBain. Kurosawa took influence from everywhere all over the world.

Actually, in Japan, though successful (Seven Samurai was the all-time box office king in Japan for a long time), he was often dismissed as "too western", as John Ford was his favorite filmmaker and he loved the westerns popular in America at the time. Really, when you look at it, Kurosawa's samurai films are not really any different than Ford's (and others') westerns, just samurai instead of cowboys. His movies have even been adapted into westerns. The Magnificent 7? Just a remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai translated from feudal Japan into the American west. Rashomon was also remade into a western called The Outrage, with Paul Newman. And, maybe most famously, Sergio Leone took Kurosawa's Yojimbo and turned it into A Fistful of Dollars with Clint Eastwood. Eastwood has even said that he took the role because he loved Kurosawa's movie so much and was then told not to tell anyone that they were remaking Yojimbo because they weren't giving Kurosawa credit and legal issues would ensue.

Kurosawa was long associated with his two favorite actors, Takashi Shimura and (more famously) Toshiro Mifune. Shimura acted in 21 of Kurosawa's movies, more than any other actor, and gives one of the great performances of all time in Ikiru, the story of a man who finds out he has terminal cancer and resolves himself to do something worthwhile with the small time he has left, deciding to help build a playground for children on a hotly contested piece of real estate. Mifune starred in 16 of Kurosawa's movies, always in a lead or co-lead role. It led to Mifune becoming an international icon and the biggest star in Asia at the time. John Belushi created his classic SNL Samurai character based on his love of Mifune's movies. Mifune gave many powerful performances during his time with Kurosawa, the gruff but loving doctor in Red Beard being my favorite. Although if you'd told me that his work in High and Low or Yojimbo or even Seven Samurai was better, I wouldn't argue much. Mifune later said that despite having nearly 200 acting credits on his resume, he wasn't proud of much of the work he'd done, except for everything he did with Kurosawa.

Kurosawa's framing is astounding as well, showing his background as a painter. Unlike other directors who often sketch their storyboards with stick figures, Kurosawa painted his. Here are some examples, alongside their eventual movie counterpart:

There are so many images from Kurosawa movies stamped into the heads of cinema fans, whether it’s the arrow through the neck in Throne of Blood, the remaining samurai looking at the graves of the fallen in Seven Samurai, or, my favorite, the ending shot in Ikiru, of the man on the swing. Even in lesser movies like Dreams (where those last two painting versus real shot examples came from), an anthology film based on Kurosawa's own dreams, I have many images stuck in my head like the dead soldiers coming out of the tunnel, the snow mountain, or the demon on the fiery mountain.

Hugely influential to filmmakers in his own time and now, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese have referred to themselves as "Kurosawa's children", and in the late 70's when Kurosawa was having trouble finding funding for his work, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola added their names as Executive Producers and got the funding secured so that Kurosawa could make 1980's Kagemusha.

Kurosawa died in 1998, at age 88. When writing of his death, famed film critic Roger Ebert said "Of the postwar giants who redefined the art of the cinema, what other director, save perhaps Sweden's Ingmar Bergman, could claim so many masterpieces? The titles are like a roll-call of greatness...He combined two qualities not always found together in filmmakers: He was a visual stylist, and a thoughtful humanist. His films had a daring, exhilarating visual freedom, and a heart of deep human understanding. He often made movies about heroes, but their challenge was not simply to win; it was to make the right ethical choice."

He is a certifiable cinematic legend, my favorite filmmaker, and I hope to have shed some light on him for you whether you're new to his work or a seasoned viewer like myself.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

“May you be in heaven a full half-hour before the devil knows you’re dead.”
-Irish saying

When Philip Seymour Hoffman died four years ago, he was the best actor working in movies and had been for quite a while. He was powerful when he needed to be, charismatic even, funny, but often played creeps and weirdos, or bullies and smarmy assholes. He could play it all. His one team up with the legendary Sidney Lumet for 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead was some of the best work of either’s career, which is saying something considerable. The story of two brothers, Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, who try to rob a jewelry store, only for everything to go wrong is one of the best crime dramas that not enough people have seen. It was to be Lumet’s last movie, as he died four years later at age 86 from lymphoma, but what a swansong this movie was for him.

Directed by the Lumet, 50 years after his directorial debut 12 Angry Men announced him as a bright new talent, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is both a fascinating character study of a disintegrating family, and a terrifically suspenseful crime thriller. Hank (Hawke) is 3 months behind on his child support payments, and his older brother Andy (Hoffman) is in trouble with the IRS for embezzling countless dollars from his employer. Andy's wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) complains that he doesn't open up to her the way he did on their vacation to Rio, and Andy thinks maybe they could start over their life by moving there. Andy comes to Hank one day with a proposition, a mom and pop jewelry store robbery where they'll use toy guns so that there's no chance of anybody getting hurt, the owners will be taken care of by insurance, and the overall haul should be around $600,000, more than enough for both of them to fix their problems. Hank says that it sounds like a victimless crime, so he agrees to pull the job.

I'll stop plot description there because one of the movies many pleasures is the way it slowly reveals the complete happenings of how the robbery goes spectacularly wrong. I will say that it shows remarkable confidence from first time screenwriter Kelly Masterson that the robbery is not the climax of the story, but the catalyst for it.

The casting of Hawke and Hoffman as brothers seems wrong at first, but the movie uses it as an advantage to show the opposing effect that each brother has within the family, Hoffman as the first born, and Hawke as the baby. They also work so well with each other that you feel the sense of history and brotherly connection that Hank and Andy share. Andy has always felt like an outsider, and Hank has always been the good son, the baby. The two men have grown up to be very different people, but the brotherly connection is surprisingly very strong from the actors.

Hawke should be commended for his fine work here as Hank. Most actors would shy away from the role of the obviously weaker brother, but Hawke completely nails Hank as the inadequate scared little boy in over his head. Marisa Tomei, who looks better at 43 than she did at 27, when she burst onto the scene in My Cousin Vinny, does her best work to date as Gina, Andy’s wife, a role that easily could've been played as the standard secondary "wife" character. She and Hoffman actually feel like a married couple having problems, and not like a movie married couple whom the screenwriters have given hurdles to jump over. A lesser actress's performance would've been gobbled up by how powerfully incredible Hoffman is in his role, but Tomei's secret lies in her reactions and subtleties rather than any "big moment" type histrionics. Albert Finney also does superbly subtle work as Andy and Hank's father Charles, who has as much at stake as his boys do. There’s also a small part here from Michael Shannon, as the brother-in-law of the guy Hawke’s Hank hires to help him pull the job. Shannon is electric in the role, and it was the first time I’d seen him in anything. I’m glad that he’s shown us over and over again that it was no fluke.

But Hoffman is the star here. He has two key scenes of great power, one opposite Hawke as they're trying to cover up their tracks at a drug dealers house (the tension is palpable in that sequence), and the other while in the car with Tomei. In that scene, you see Andy's emotional armor come down for a minute and he gives us years of hurt, disappointment, self-pity, and most of all anger before we can see in Hoffman's eyes as Andy's armor goes back up and he drives away (Tomei looking like she's never seen her husband before). It's the best scene in the movie, and probably the best scene that either actor ever played. Andy has been nagged by Gina about his growing coldness, as Andy is preoccupied with trying to cover his tracks for the terrible things he’s done. It all started so that he and Gina could start over in Brazil, get a fresh start, but as the movie goes on it seems like everything is falling apart to the point that Andy and Gina may not be together, if even still alive.

Sidney Lumet had such a great varied career as a filmmaker. He wrote a book, Making Movies, that many filmmakers like George Clooney have said they use to guide them even today. His masterpieces range from the previously mentioned 12 Angry Men, to The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Prince of the City, The Verdict, Running on Empty, and then here with Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Few directors can claim as many great movies, and that’s even leaving out plenty that other people would classify as greats. He directed 17 Oscar nominated performances, with four wins. He himself was nominated 4 times as Best Director, and was given an honorary Oscar as well, but is rarely mentioned alongside the Hitchcock's and Scorsese's of the movie world. I think it's because as a director, his style was always to serve the story and the actors before anything else; so that's what people remember from his movies. Many people come out of watching Before the Devil Knows You're Dead talking about how great the ensemble of actors is, how ingenious the plotting of the movie is, how tightly wound so much of the suspense is, but don't forget that the master behind the camera was just as deserving of praise for putting those things on the screen as well. Let’s hope his Hidden Gems like this become less hidden as time goes on.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Martin Scorsese's Silence

What is faith? Why does God allow terrible things to happen in the world? What does His silence mean in the face of these atrocities? These are the types of weighty questions pondered in Martin Scorsese's 2016 masterpiece Silence. Adapted from Shūsaku Endō's 1966 novel of the same name, which Scorsese first optioned for adaptation in 1993 and has been working on since, Silence is possibly the most Scorsese-y movie that Scorsese has ever made.
Though most famous in the public consciousness for his mob movies like Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, and The Departed, Scorsese has always been the most Catholic of filmmakers, obsessing over guilt, martyrdom, absolution, and the weight of those things on the souls of his characters. Most potently until now was in Raging Bull, with Jake LaMotta's struggles of anger, jealousy, and purification through the pain and self inflicted (and self destructive) punishment of boxing, but hoping and trying for redemption later in life. But even Scorsese's gangsters are mired in these obsessions. His 1973 breakthrough, Mean Streets, opens with his hoodlum hero saying "You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it." And that's what Silence tackles as well, the real world applications of the tenants of the Christian faith, often in the face of heavy opposition. It's easy to have faith when you've never tested it. But what about when it's tested over and over and over again? What if people live or die based on how you proclaim your faith? What then? What about His silence then?
The movie opens in the mid-17th century Japanese countryside, as Jesuit priest Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) watches while a group of Japanese converted Christians are tortured in unimaginable ways while he is told to apostatize, publicly reject his faith and renounce Christianity by stepping on a plate carrying the image of Jesus. See, the thing about mid-17th century Japan is that Christianity was illegal. Japan was in a time of strict isolationism and wanted no part of this European religion that wasn't their own (the modern parallels of the fear of Islam and America's increasing desire for isolationism in the Trump era is ripe for exploring, but that's not what Scorsese has any interest in, this is not a metaphorical movie). That's why Ferreira was witnessing the torture of Christians. That was the punishment dealt out by the Inquisitor, the man in charge of making sure law and order is carried out. 

We cut to two young Portuguese priests, Father Garrupe (Adam Driver) and Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), being told that father Ferreira has renounced the faith and is lost to them. Both young priests say that's not possible, as Ferreira was the priest that taught them and whose faith is stronger than anyone's. They resolve to go to Japan and find Father Ferreira, while also spreading the faith in the country. It is into this inhospitable land that Rodrigues and Garrupe arrive, led by a guide they picked up in Macau, a Japanese man named Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), who insists that he's not a Christian, when he's introduced as one to the priests. He takes them to a small village where they eventually learn that Kichijiro was a persecuted Christian who was made to watch as his family was slaughtered in front of him, even after he apostatized. He considered himself a lost soul after that, but asks the fathers for forgiveness and becomes a key figure in their journey.
Most of the first half of the movie is taken up with this story of Rodrigues and Garrupe landing in the small village and finding an underground group of Christians, forced to practice in almost complete silence, and in the dead of night so as not to be discovered by the authorities. The villagers are ecstatic to find priests, which grants them the ability to give confession and baptize their babies. In one of the only scenes of levity in the movie, Garrupe has to have a woman start her confession over and over because she's speaking too fast in Japanese and his grasp of the language can't keep up yet. He eventually concedes and Rodrigues narrates that sometimes they forgave sins during confession even though they weren't sure what they were forgiving. But their mission is to find Father Ferreira and these villagers don't know him. So the priests split up, with Garrupe going one way, as we follow Rodrigues the other way.
Rodrigues is soon captured by the authorities, betrayed by Kichijiro, who later asks for forgiveness and claims he didn't accept the money given to him for selling out the priest. Rodrigues is taken to the Inquisitor (Issey Ogata). While imprisoned by the Inquisitor, Rodrigues continues to preach to the fellow converts imprisoned, as well as have philosophical conversations with the Inquisitor and the translator (Tadanobu Asano) on the nature of religion, martyrdom, Japan, and more. It's to Scorsese's great credit that he allows the Japanese to eloquently defend their side of the story as much as Rodrigues gets to talk about his own. 

Although he presents a front to his captors of strong impenetrable faith, we hear Rodrigues, through narration, asking himself where is God. He asks why these things must happen. Why must His followers put themselves on the same path of suffering that Jesus went through? Jesus was both God and man, he went through his trials so that men like Rodrigues need not. Why does the church even persist in a land as inhospitable as Japan is at this moment in time? The Inquisitor says that Japan is a swamp and the tree of Christianity will not grow there. Why are the priests here? For what purpose? Rodrigues wonders if God hears his prayers, or if he's simply praying into silence. 

Although none of the three white actors do anything resembling a Portuguese accent, they were all perfectly suited for their roles. Andrew Garfield has small, delicate, even angelic features, but subtly expressive. We see his doubt even before we hear his narration telling us of it. Adam Driver, much as he does with his excellent work as Kylo Ren in Star Wars, shows us the face of never changing fanaticism. When Father Garrupe's followers are bound in straw and thrown into the ocean, rather than giving in to the pressure to apostatize, he doesn't hesitate to swim after them, giving everything he's got to save the lives of others. Liam Neeson, when we see him again, has all the downcast eyes of a completely broken man. He says all the words the Inquisitor wants to hear, but you can feel that his soul isn't in them. This huge man has become an obedient dog, even as you hope the internal soul doesn't follow his external behavior. 

The Japanese actors as well are uniformly brilliant. Ogata, as the Inquisitor, brings a campiness and unpredictability with his high pitched voice and annoyed demeanor. Instead of making him seem fey and weak, it gives him the menacing quality that Vincent Price would bring to his roles. Humor, but dangerousness as well, and power. Asano, as the Interpreter, brings Rodrigues seeds of doubt and although he often outwardly appears to be on the side of our protagonist, you can feel his ulterior motives without having to spell them out. You don't trust him. The other most impressive of the Asian cast (and most of the movie is Asian) is Shinya Tsukamoto as Mokichi, a man in the first village the priests visit. His internal integrity radiates, and he has one of the most powerful arcs in the movie, which I won't spoil for you.

Yōsuke Kubozuka, as the wretch of Kichijiro, is astounding in a performance that reminded me of Toshiro Mifune's work in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. For a long time I wasn't sure what to make of Kichijiro. He betrays Father Rodrigues multiple times, always coming back to ask forgiveness for being so weak. Ask forgiveness for being unworthy. Rodrigues isn't sure what to make of him either, but he always forgives him, even if it's hesitantly. It wasn't until near the end of the movie that I realized that Kichijiro is us. Always straying, always weak, but stronger than we know. Always asking forgiveness for our sins. Kichijiro is our mirror, even if he's one we don't particularly like looking into. 

Although he has tackled some of these things before in his work, most obviously in 1988's The Last Temptation of Christ and 1997's Kundun, Scorsese really gets to dive in and thoroughly explore these Catholic themes this time. What must God think if you publicly denounce Him, but in your heart still hold your faith true? Are you damned? Did the Inquisitor win if he gets you to apostatize? The interpreter keeps telling Rodrigues to just do it, it's a meaningless gesture that will save lives. But does he represent the voice of God or of Satan? At one point Rodrigues hears what he believes to be the voice of Christ. Is it? Or is it his own conscience telling him what he wants to hear? Is it better to hold onto your faith even if it means death, or to denounce but still believe in your heart? God sees your heart, but does that make the denouncement okay?

I've seen Silence described as a perfect movie for the faithful, because it tackles these questions of faith and the dichotomy between what we say and do and what's in our hearts. But I think that's narrow minded. I'm an atheist and I found this movie fascinating and endlessly thought provoking. It's exploring human nature, really. It need not apply to only those who follow Christianity, it has so much to offer all of us. It's long, 2 hours and 40 minutes, but honestly I think it earns its length. It's not easy to watch, but it's not The Passion of The Christ, an endurance test of watching torture, testing your gag reflex but not your mind. Silence has the brain and soul of true belief, even if that includes doubt, because it must include doubt. If you haven't doubted, you've not really believed. Silence won't stay a Hidden Gem. It's too powerful, too challenging, and too brilliant. But I hope I brought some extra light onto this newest masterpiece by our greatest living filmmaker.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

"The world's a mess and I just need to...rule it."

Although Joss Whedon has given us multiple beloved creations including The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Firefly, his greatest creation, in my mind, is his 2008 internet miniseries Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. It's a comedy/drama/musical, which doesn't sound like it would work, but really really does. Done in 3 acts, each only about 13-14 minutes, we get the story of Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris), a mad scientist type, and his quest to get into the Evil League of Evil, while also pining for the cute girl at the laundromat, Penny (Felicia Day), and battling his archenemy, Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion). All while singing ridiculously catchy songs that all further both plot and character.

Neil Patrick Harris is so engaging in the lead role that we're with him immediately from the opening scene, as he's a got a good sense of humor, self awareness, and even honor and decency. The role of Dr. Horrible is not too dissimilar to two different characters that came out 2 years later, Gru, from Despicable Me or Megamind from, um, Megamind. He's a villain, but he's the protagonist and we have the twisted morals to follow him as our "hero". He's likable and fun, and the most evil thing he's doing is stealing. He refuses to fight someone in a park because "kids play in that park, so..." and when it's suggested that he should murder someone to get into the Evil League of Evil, he dismisses it as not his style, because it's not "elegant or creative." Whedon and Harris do a masterful job of not necessarily making Dr. Horrible a villain with a heart of gold. He does have a good heart, but he's also a villain, not above doing villainous things. That's where the writing is so good, because we like Dr. Horrible, but we know that he's bad, and things will likely not turn out well for him.

"The Girl", Penny, is played by Felicia Day, one of the most instantly likable actresses I've ever seen. She had my immediate sympathy and I adored her as soon as I saw her. Dr. Horrible meets her at the laundromat, tells her his name is Billy (which maybe it is, Dr. Horrible is obviously not what his parents put on his birth certificate) once he's finally able to say anything to her. They become fast friends, but she starts going out with Hero of the City, Captain Hammer ("Captain Hammer, corporate tool" as the Dr. refers to him). Nathan Fillion has been called a "lovable rogue" for his lead role in Whedon's Firefly, but there's something about him I just don't care for or find likable. That's why he's so perfect as the uppity douche Captain Hammer. We hate Captain Hammer not because he's a hero, but because he's a shallow, narcissistic asshole. And Horrible must then figure out how to keep the girl of his dreams from falling into the arms of his nemesis, while also impressing Bad Horse, the leader of the Evil League of Evil. There's a lot packed into the 42-minute runtime of the series.

The supporting cast is filled in by people like Moist (Big Bang Theory's Simon Helberg), Dr. Horrible's roommate and "evil moisture buddy," a singing trio of Captain Hammer groupies who serve as a kind of Greek chorus, and the singing minions of Bad Horse, but the three leads are where the meat of the project is. All three are perfect for their roles, and their singing voices all fit the piece in various ways. Fillion's is unadorned but serviceable, and Day's is sweet and sadly delicate, even melancholic. Harris, being the most experienced singer of the bunch, has the most dextrous and impressive voice. In one of the best songs, "My Eyes", Day and Harris sing their own verses as Billy sees the downward spiral of his life, and therefore his psyche, while Penny sings about being hopeful for the future and how she can't believe the good luck of her life. Their voices begin to twist and slither in and out of each other in a beautiful mix of the light and dark of the characters and their worldviews. It's the most impressive song, even if, for me, the finale song "Everything You Ever" is the most powerful.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is brisk, delightful, funny, and surprisingly emotional. The finale has moved me to tears many times. This is one of my most watched movies/shows/whatever. I've seen it over and over again and doing all this writing about it has made me want to go watch it again. You can find it many places, my library had a DVD, but it's also uploaded multiple places on Youtube, in its entirety. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

So here we are, at the middle juncture of another movie trilogy. This is where many series shine brightest, whether it's Terminator 2, The Dark Knight, The Road Warrior, or this franchises own legendary The Empire Strikes Back. This is where the characters have been introduced and so the filmmakers are free to take them on their wildest ride while not having to introduce the players. Unfortunately, The Last Jedi stumbles for many reasons, one of them being that there are too many characters. Writer/director Rian Johnson has all the characters still around from the original trilogy (Luke, Leia, R2D2, C-3PO, Chewbacca), and the ones introduced in 2015's The Force Awakens (Rey, Kylo Ren, Finn, Poe, Supreme Leader Snoke, BB-8), and instead decides to ratchet things up with even more new characters to introduce, including a nervous maintenance worker named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), Leia understudy Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), and a safecracker played by Benicio Del Toro in one of the oddest performances in a major tentpole movie I've ever seen. This ends up meaning that most all characters get shortchanged, and the ones we care about don't get the kind of development they need. This also causes the action to have less weight, which is aided by Johnson's incessant twists and turns trying to stay ahead of the audience, and the movie ends up being too long while not accomplishing anything to justify its length.

After an effective cold open, where rogue hero Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) ignores an order from General Leia (Carrie Fisher) and ends up taking out a dreadnaught First Order ship, but losing a lot of good resistance fighters in the process, we pick up right where we left off at the end of Force Awakens. Rey has found Luke Skywalker in his self imposed exile, and intends to convince him to join the rebel fight against the Empire (First Order, whatever, movie Nazis under a different name, it doesn't matter and Empire is quicker to write than First Order, though Domhnall Gleeson is playing his role of General Hux to the absolute delicious hilt of movie Nazism). And I'll stop with the plot description there because it doesn't matter. You've either seen it, or are going to see it, and plot description isn't gonna change that so let's get into the meat of the discussion.

What really works in this movie are the actors. Kelly Marie Tran as Rose is really good and a nice compliment to Finn on their end of the adventure. Carrie Fisher brings a nice gravitas to Leia's role, although her surviving in deep space with use of the force, and then being exhausted and comatose when she gets back inside the ship didn't work for me. I guess it was there to remind us that Leia is powerful in the force too, but since this is basically the only time we've ever seen it, it hit a false note to me. Laura Dern is fine in her role, but there's really not much there. She's an actress I always enjoy seeing on screen but I wish she was given more to do.

Rounding out the wonderful ladies of Star Wars is Daisy Ridley's Rey, once again bringing that certain undefinable star power and charisma to the character, including more emotions this time as we see Rey struggle with having no parental role models in her life as she tried to fill that hole with Han Solo, and probably Chewy to a certain extent, and now Luke. Ridley is wonderful in the role and I wish there had been even more focus on exploring her and her character. She's the lead of the series, but I think there's potential there that's being wasted.

Oscar Isaac has some good moments as Poe Dameron, but there's not a lot there outside of "rogue pilot". The same holds true for John Boyega as Finn. He brought so much humanity and humor to the role in Force Awakens, but here he's relegated to not much, really. And although we remember that he and Rey were kind of a team in Force Awakens, Finn's attachment to Rey and trying to look out for seemingly his only friend in the universe somehow rang hollow to me here. Mark Hamill brings a lot to the table as Luke, and although there's a little too many attempts at cheap humor for the character, Hamill plays everything wonderfully. You can see the hopeful kid we met in 1977's first entry, and see the wizened old man he's become, full of regrets and pain and disappointment. Andy Serkis's motion capture work as Snoke is blah. It's the standard villain role, crusty old man, deep evil voice, leaving no lasting impression whatsoever other than "nice cgi work." Though his obviously Dario Argento inspired lair is one of the movie's best highlights.

The real story of the male performances, just as he was in the previous movie, is Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. Driver has quickly grown into one of our finest actors, and he does terrific work here. He shows all of Kylo's anger and power constantly bubbling under the surface, always looking to please his masters, whether it was Luke Skywalker in the past or Snoke now. And he's destined to be hurt and disappointed until he takes full ownership of his own power and steps into it, which he does here. Gone is the petulant man child from Force Awakens, but in its place is Kylo truly discovering his inner power, with grave potential for everyone around him.

The best part of the movie is the telepathic conversations between the two young leads (and best characters), Kylo and Rey. They spontaneously begin to see into each other's worlds and are able to interact. They both also believe that they can turn to other to their side of the force. These scenes are electric and powerful and fascinating and could not be better played by these actors. That's where he heart of this movie is and where more time should've been spent.

I must admit that when that famous music started blaring with the words "Star Wars" taking up on the screen, I had a rush of childlike glee within myself. I got goosebumps. I was prepared to forgive this movie any of its flaws just like I'd been able to do for The Force Awakens (and unable to do for the disappointing Rogue One). But as the movie went on, I realized that Rian Johnson had tried to trick us. He tried to outsmart us. He tried to stay two steps ahead instead of just making a great movie. There are too many twists and turns here. When the twist comes from Benicio Del Toro's character, we've not come to know him, we didn't have a trust in him, we didn't even know who he was, so his betrayal has no weight to it. And that same thing holds true to too much of the movie. Johnson was too concerned about staying ahead of us and so his twists and turns don't mean anything.

And it feels weird to say about a sci-fi action movie, but there's too much action. The movie has too many lasers being shot and people running or flying away and it all becomes just a bunch of noise. There's too little variation, and what could've been an impactful final light saber battle between two men who need to sort things out between them, falls down narratively (even if Luke standing against the oncoming AT-AT's is an amazing shot). It just doesn't hold the weight that it should have. And I'd say that about the whole movie. Whereas Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie because it's the darkest, most emotional, and narratively riskiest, The Last Jedi certainly aspired to that, but didn't achieve it.

Also, fuck those stupid little porg animals.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

I re-watched Ron Howard’s 2000 film Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas this week as one of the Christmas movies I saw this season. It wasn’t particularly well received when it came out but I have come into contact with a surprising number of people who have a great nostalgia for it. I hadn’t seen it in quite a few years, but I’m glad I revisited it now. I didn’t enjoy it, it’s a pretty terrible movie, but I’m glad I gave it another chance.

The worst thing about this movie is that it doesn’t seem to understand the source material, or Dr. Seuss in general, really. In the original story, The Grinch hates the Whos down in Whoville and that’s all we know. The narrator even tells us not to worry about why, though it does then offer the explanation that The Grinch’s heart is simply too small. The Whos, meanwhile, are total innocents, seemingly oblivious to The Grinch, as little Cindy Lou Who doesn’t recognize him as The Grinch when he’s in her house, but accepts him as Santa Claus. Here in this movie, adapted by writers Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman (coming off their even more awful adaptation of Wild Wild West), The Grinch is shown to be a sort of boogeyman to the Whos, almost a Voldemort as they cringe at the name itself, much less his presence. The Grinch is given a backstory of being bullied by the Whos when he was in elementary school, helping lead him to his Grinchy ways (although he was also unpleasant to start with). He then runs away to Mount Krumpit where he revels in the trash that the Whos dump there, wallowing in self-hatred and self pity and mostly generic dislike of the Whos.

The problems here are almost already too many to mention, as there’s no bullying in the world of Seuss, at least not of the generic kind shown here. Even in something like The Lorax, The Onceler doesn’t actively bully The Lorax, he just doesn’t heed his advice and pays the consequences for it. Here, we don’t need a backstory where The Grinch was a victim of the horrible bullying of the Whos, and in fact all of that is antithetical to the characters themselves. The Grinch is made the misunderstood hero, while the Whos are awful creatures who mock The Grinch for being different. This is an unnecessary and unexplainable reversal of character that is never really addressed. The handling of the backstory itself is actually pretty good and self-contained, I think it works. It might explain why The Grinch hates Christmas and the Whos. But is it needed? I don’t really think so. We don't need to understand how The Grinch was victimized as a child. He's The Grinch, that's all we need to know.

The Whos are also shown to be materialistic and shallow, celebrating and reveling in the commercialism of Christmas. All except for Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen, giving a really nice child actor performance), who is taken from being in two pages of the book, and expanded into the co-star of the whole piece. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Cindy doesn’t do much other than be the moral champion that nobody listens to until the finale when everyone suddenly listens to her and they all live happily ever after. I understand that there may need to be expansion of character and story when going from a 60-ish page children’s picture book to a full length feature movie, and so Cindy Lou Who is a fine choice to expand, but there’s really not a character there. She starts as the moral center nobody listens to and ends as the moral center that people listen to because....reasons. But the other Whos, including Cindy’s status quo dad Lou (the great Bill Irwin) and “winning the best Christmas lights contest” obsessed mom Betty (Molly Shannon), as well as the Mayor of Whoville (Jeffrey Tambor) and his girlfriend Martha May (Christine Baranski, who does barely contained femme fatale sexuality better than anyone) are all drawn as shallowly as possible.

Worst of all, I think, is actually The Grinch himself. While Jim Carrey may not seem a terrible choice in theory, as the man at his height is a walking cartoon himself, he’s all wrong for the character here. Carrey is manic when The Grinch should be quietly, even deliciously, menacing. He’s cartoonish when The Grinch should be deeper as a character. The makeup, which deservedly won an Oscar, transforms Carrey into looking like a terrific Grinchy lead, but he doesn’t seem to understand the character, and that’s a problem when he’s the star. Even in the finale, when Carrey really does the emotional heavy lifting of having The Grinch realize the true meaning of Christmas, he’s tremendous, only to undercut it with what should have put the emotion over-the-top (the growing of The Grinch’s heart) into really turning on the tears, Carrey goes for a wacky “it feels like I’m having a heart attack” buffoonery instead of staying in the emotion of the moment. It all amounts to nothing, and even negates the good work he does do here.

But Carrey isn’t the only one at fault, as the movie itself also doesn’t understand the story and goes for manic when it should be going for magic. The movie is both too long (at 104 minutes) and also too shallow to justify even a full length feature, much less one over an hour and a half. It has a couple of songs, but very short ones, like it was originally going to be a musical adaptation, but they changed that at the last minute. Overall it’s just an unpleasant experience. None of the magical whimsy of Seuss is captured, and even the nastiness of The Grinch isn’t entertaining, it’s off-putting. There are plenty of sexual innuendo’s in the script, as well as more adult material like The Grinch pulling a bottle of alcohol out of a Whos pocket to drink. Who are these things for? They’re not from Seuss. They’re not in the spirit of Seuss. They’re not ultimately for anybody, really. They don’t work in or out of the context of the story.

This movie as a whole doesn’t work. It may not be as bad as the mind-numbing animated feature adaptation of The Lorax was, but it’s bad. The animated TV specials of both The Lorax (from 1972) and The Grinch (from 1966) are really tremendous and are still what should be watched by everyone. They’re in the spirit of Seuss (as Seuss was involved with them) and capture what the man and his stories were really about. Watch them, show them to your kids, not this.