Sunday, January 15, 2017

Island in the Sky (1953)

Very much a product of its time, this disappointingly dry and too often boring film by the very solid director William A. Wellman, is often overshadowed by the more emotionally accessible, and color filmed, 'airplane in trouble' film he made the following year The High and the Mighty. Island in the Sky tells the story of the civilian crew of a (supply?) plane that goes down in the north of Canada during World War II, the crews efforts to survive, and the efforts of others to rescue them. The movie features a large cast headed by John Wayne, and including Lloyd Nolan, James Arness (pre  Gunsmoke), Andy Devine, and Regis Toomey, there are almost no women in this movie, it is a story about noble, if too often boring, men. There are far more engaging movies built along similar lines, and the scenes featuring the characters involved in the rescue efforts are routinely more interesting then those involving the lost crew, who I never felt all that invested in. The film is perhaps most notable as the only movie that I can recall seeing where John Wayne convincingly conveys a sense of fear in his performance, when it starts to look like he is indeed going to die in the icy wilderness. Still probably not worth you time unless your a very committed Wayne junkie. This film has the form down pat, but its lacking in emotional core. **

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

The second film by fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford, Nocturnal Animals is adapted from the 1993 novel Tony and Susan by the late novelist, critic and literature professor Austin Wright. This movie is kind of tough going, not a lite or happy film. The opening sequence is of an 'art' exhibit featuring obese naked woman wearing marching band hats, a way I suppose of telegraphing that this is going to be a movie about ugly people, even if the actual cast is good looking. This is not surprisingly a very 'literary' movie, nicely structured and very well put together. There are two primary narratives, the 'framing' narrative focusing on Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a rich art gallery owner living in Los Angeles whose marriage is gradually dying, and the second the narrative of a novel that Morrows first husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) has written, dedicated to her, and sent an advance copy before publication. The action switches between Susan and her life, the novel's narrative as she reads it in sections, and flashbacks through the rise and fall of her marriage  to Edward. We see how each of these narratives feeds into the others and tells us more about Susan and Edwards relationship and why it failed.

The narrative of Edward's novel is like something out of Cormac McCarthy or early Ian McEwan. It is set in Texas, where both Susan and Edward grew up, and concerns a man (Jake Gyllenhaal) who while traveling by night through a rural part of the state with his wife and daughter is forced off the road by some rough redneck local boys, and is left for dead in the middle of nowhere while his wife and child are rapped an murdered (to further push home that the wife in the novel is a stand in for Susan, red headed Amy Adams ins replaced by red headed Isla Fisher in these sequences). Gyllenhaal eventually makes it back to civilization and teams up with a local police detective played by Michael Shannon. in probably the most memorable characterization of the film, and over the course of years they work the case to bring the perpetrators to justice, and when it looks like one of them might get off, they start to discuses going outside of the law to see that justice is served, and that is where I will leave you with that story line.

The move is full awkward and tense scenes, particularly during the novels narrative, and none of those is more tense then the prolonged sequence on the side of a desert highway at night, in which those three roughens menace Edward and his family, it can be really hard to sit through because you know where this is ultimately heading. The movie is filled with great actors, often in little more then cameo parts, such as Laura Linney as Susan's mother, and Michael Sheen and Jena Malone as Susan's friends. Aaron Taylor-Johnson won the Golden Globe for best supporting actor as the ringleader of the gang that terrorizes Edward's family. This is a very dark, very fine film, a real achievement for all of those involved, yet I'd have to advise most people I know against seeing it. This is a rough one, but still ****

Captive (2015)

This is the story of that Georgia woman who got the escaped killer who had taken her hostage to give himself up to the police by reading to him from pastor Rick Warren's book The Purpose Driven Life. In actuality its more complicated then that of course, both Brian Nichols and Ashley Smith were 'broken people' and that helped them to relate to each other enough to prevent the crises from getting worse and more people from dying. This is an interesting enough story in an off its self, but it is also interesting that it was made into a theatrical style movie, though I think it may have been released straight to video. I believe this story had also been previously done as a TV movie, which is what this movie feels like a slightly more polished version of. It's also ostensibly a Christian movie, which is why it at first felt a little weird to me that Kate Mara was cast as the lead, given my impression of her is of being a rather sensual actress. Mara is good in the part however, as is Daivd Oyelowo as Nichols, and Michael K. Williams as Detective John Chestnut. The movie is capably enough directed by Jerry Jameson, who has mostly done TV work along with a few disaster type movies such as Airport 77 and Raise the Titanic, so he was an appropriate choice for this. **1/2

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Swiss Army Man (2016)

This is that movie where a haggard Paul Dano rides the farting corpse of Daniel Radcliffe across the ocean from the island on which they were marooned. Well its more complicated then that, but its still as weird as you'd expect, if not weirder. The movie did not take the cop out ending I was expecting it to, though its certainly not a straight forward resolution. This films odd humor mixes well with some poignancy for what at heart is a meditation on loneliness. Kind of a brave performance by Dano, and a very still performance by Radcliff. Film felt like a cross between the works of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. ***

Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (2016)

Fortuitously timed documentary about the relationship between mother/daughter stars Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher. I suspect this was originally planed to air closer to Mothers Day but was moved up after the films subjects died within about a day of each other last month. Reynolds and Fisher's relationship had been strained in the past, and Fisher had written a thinly disguised book about that called Post Cards from the Edge, which later became a (pretty good) movie with Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine. By the time this documentary begin production Fisher and Reynolds relationship had largely healed and the two were very close, living for around 2 decades or so in neighboring homes on a small "compound" outside Los Angeles. It's a very charming relationship they had with each other, and I found myself wishing they had been relations of mine and I had been able to visit them periodically, it would have been great fun just to sit in a room and watch them interact. The film gives you a good sense of how frustrated Reynolds was by her declining heath, she seemed to want to do nothing more then perform. Fisher seems like a delightfully wry character who had achieved a impressive peace with herself given a prolonged rough patch. This film is a wonderful portrait of a beguiling relationship. ***1/2

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), The Wolverine (2013)

The previews for the upcoming third Wolverine standalone film Logan, looked pretty good, and surprisingly "indie" for a superhero movie. So in preparation for seeing that I decided to watch the other two Wolverine films. I did the same thing with the first two X-Men prequels in prep for watching Apocalypse this summer, and I was impressed by both those movies, Apocalypse less so. The Wolverine movies were a mixed bag.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine was the first of what I think was supposed to be a series of 'X-Men Origins' films, an idea that later got absorbed into the prequel trilogy. This movie was mostly rehash of preexisting lore, I did like that they fixed Wolverine's age somewhat, we find out that he was born (presumably in Canada) in the 1830's, and the montage at the beginning of Wolverine fighting in various historic wars was cool. On the whole though the movie was nothing special, there is a kind of long con perpetrated on Wolverine that I didn't really care for, also the chronology is really messy and hard to pin down, as is true of all of the Fox X-Men movies. This film also seemed more of a 'spiritual', if that's the right word, continuation of the original trilogy whereas The Wolverine feels more a part of the prequels, which is ironic because it is set in 'the present day' while the first movie is the prequel. 

The Wolverine I actually quite liked, because it didn't feel all that much like an X-Men movie, more like some other movie that they dropped Wolverine into, at least until towards the end but even that mostly worked for me. This was really an innovative and unexpected way to do a Wolverine film and I hope to see more superhero movies take a similar approach. The movie is largely about intrigue surrounding the pending death of a elderly patriarch to a large Japanese business empire, a man who had become obsessed with Wolverine and mutants more generally after Logan saved his life from the atomic bomb blast on Nagasaki (portrayed in a very well done sequence at the beginning of the film). I know that Hugh Jackman has announced his retirement from the role, but I would have been up for seeing a similarly handled series of Wolverine films from him, let's hope that Logan lives up to or even surpasses this entry.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) **
The Wolverine (2013) ***

Monday, January 9, 2017

La La Land (2016)

La La Land really cleaned up at the Golden Globes last night, setting a record by sweeping all seven categories in which it was nominated. Now it's a real good movie, but I think one of the reasons it was able to do so remarkably well is 2016 was kind of a weak year for movies, and also Hollywood is a town where even the foreign press like to participate in its navel gazing. La La Land, more effectively then any film I've ever seen, manages to recapture the essence of a Gene Kelley movie musical of the 1950's. Both Singing in the Rain and An American in Pairs are well represented in the films motifs, and yet even more remarkably the nostalgia here is not overpowering. While it harkens back to an earlier age it consistently feels organic rather then forced, these characters are contemporary even as they evoke an earlier time, and the film doesn't try to shoe horn too much in, or make Ryan Gosling sing all the time. The opening number is joyous, the stylized one at closing is of a type we haven't seen in around 60 years, and Gosling and Emma Stone doing a little lite footwork on the street while looking for her car, well that just feels right. Still while I greatly appreciated the film I never quite felt the sense of enrapture I think it was aiming for. A fine score by Justin Hurwtiz. ***1/2