Sunday, February 18, 2018

Hidden Figures (2016)

Like I suspect most people before seeing previews for this film I was unaware of the efforts of the black female math experts at NASA in the early 1960's. What they accomplished is admirable, this film is admirable, but I must confess I found it slow (even for me) and sometimes boring. I feel like this is a movie that should have been made 20 years ago, and I felt bad that I couldn't help thinking about the superior Apollo 13 almost the whole time. Mea culpa, mea cupla. Still late is better then never I suppose, it's a story worth know and everyone does a good job in it, but I just couldn't muster loving it. ***

The Shape of Water (2017)

Guillermo del Toro presents a cold war parable, Beauty and the Beast by way of Creature from the Black Lagoon. While figuratively this is a movie about social outcasts who find each other, literally it is a film about crypto zoological bestially. So....

Set in Baltimore in 1962 Sally Hawkins plays a mute janitor at a government research facility who falls in love with a fishman (Doug Jones) a government agent (Michael Shannon, playing the kind of tightly wound bureaucrat he excels at) brought in from South America. With the help of her friend from work (Octavia Spencer), her gay neighbor (Richard Jenkins) and a scientist of questionable motives (Michael Stuhlbarg) Hawkins' Elisa Esposito helps the creature escape with the intent of hiding him until they can release him safely into the sea.

With an excellent cast and beautifully evocative sets, love the apartments above the old theater, The Shape of Water is an expertly made film, which by its very nature you still have question a bit. The film has a fanciful air about it even among its gritty surroundings, you can almost feel the layer of slime on things, and I'm not just talking about the creature. It's almost unexpectedly punctuated by sequences of extreme violence, even torture, and has nudity in it which I was not expecting. The film has all the markings of a labor of love for its director, and the performances, particularly Jenkins are impressive. Certainly not for all tastes, what its attempting seems admirable, and sometimes it succeeds, though its lessons and its politics are often muddled and simplistic, in both good and bad ways. ***1/2

Tony Rome (1967)

Tony Rome is the first in a trilogy of neo-noir detective films Frank Sinatra stared in during the late 1960's, followed by Lady in Cement (1968) in which he also played the detective Tony Rome, and The Detective (also 1968) in which he played a New York City cop named Joe Leland. Tony Rome is a Florida based beach bum P.I. who lives on a boat, as such he is much like the character of Travis McGee in the John D. MacDonald novels of the 1960's through 80's. Tony is hired by his ex partner, now the house detective at a local hotel, to make sure the inebriated daughter of a wealthy local (Sue Lyon of Lolita fame) makes it home safely after a binge, this proves his doorway into various shady goings on and the main plot. Plot however is not the central concern here, the movie is more then happy to take side trips and feature little vignette of eccentric local characters ala Dragnet. While not really challenging material Sinatra does seem to be giving it a decent effort and the movie is an enjoyable through back to the kind of film Humphrey Bogart excelled at. Nancy Sinatra sings the theme song. ***

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Wicker Tree (2012)

Nearly four decades after making the landmark and wonderfully innovative folk horror masterpiece The Wicker Man, writer/director Robin Hardy, then in his 80's, made The Wicker Tree based on his 2006 novel Cowboys for Christ. A kinda, sorta sequel to The Wicker Man, only a single performer from the original film, Christopher Lee, returns in this one, and only briefly in flashback and its not even clear if he's supposed to be the same character he played in the first film. So this is really more of a rumination on similar themes to The Wicker Man. The Wicker Tree isn't good, but its honestly not as bad as I thought it would be, when I begin watching I didn't necessarily plan on finishing, but it was intriguing enough to sustain one viewing. The film hits a lot of the same notes as the first movie, though nowhere near as well. Both films are about Christian outsiders unknowingly making their way into stealthily pagan communities in Scotland, in the first film the outsider was a dowdy and pious English cop played by Edward Woodward, in this movie its a once sultry country singer remaking herself as a Christian recording artiest (Brittania Nicol), and her cowboy fiancĂ© (Henry Garrett). The fact that the Christians in this film are more surfaceie and hollow then the one in the original is probably the closest this movie comes to having something to see about contemporary faith dynamics. I wish they had cast a more impressive singer and a better actress though, Brittania is simply servable at best. The whole cast in fact is unimpressive, other then Lee the biggest 'get'  here is probably British TV star Honeysuckle Weeks, whose name is more memorable then her performance. For such a blatant and flat re rendering of the original film I'm surprised I didn't hate this more, but Hardy still has a flair for a subtly creepy air which makes the movie work better then it should. *1/2.

Small Town Crime (2017)

An alcoholic and disgraced former cop (John Hawkes) stumbles upon a severely beaten girl in her early 20's, and takes her to the hospital where she dies a short time later. Seeing a chance for redemption and possible re-admittance to the force the man decides he is going to solve what happened to girl, which of course takes him into the seamy underbelly of his seemingly benign small town. A conventional and even done to death story line, but its well handled and gets better as it goes along. The cast is made up largely of no names, with Robert Forster, Anthony Anderson, and Octavia Spencer (who also executive produces) being probably the most recognizable names on the screen, though Blake Lively's older sister Robyn has a small part as well. Though set in the Whittier area of California the movie was actually shot here in Utah, in fact there is a scene shot in The Belgian Waffle and Omelet Inn, an favorite local eatery of mine here in Midvale. Pretty good for a movie of its type I liked that the nefarious plot, once we figure out what is, seems like the kind of stupid scheme some not particularly bright people might actually try to pull off. **1/2

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

One of my favorite movies is Night Train to Munich (1940) a WWII espionage film with a very dry sense of humor, I've probably seen it dozens of times, yet it wasn't until this last week that I saw it's kind of prequel. The characters of Charters and Caldicott played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford respectively, made their film debut in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes in 1938, and would show up in an additional three films, by various directors played by the same two performers. Wayne and Basil are so good together that they would be teamed up as other characters in an additional eight movies, and the Caldicott and Charters characters would be resurrected by other actors multiple times including in the short lived BBC series Charters and Caldicott in 1985. The characters are two cricket obsessed upper class Brits, often depicted as delightfully aloof from weighty matters going on around them. They are fun to watch and I was looking forward to seeing them again.

Caldicott and Charters are not quite as funny in The Lady Vanishes as they are in Night Train, though they have their moments. Margret Lockwood who would be the female lead in Night Train is also the female lead here, and much of the movie of course takes place on a passenger train traveling through central Europe in the late 1930's. Despite these similarities I was ultimately disappointed with Lady, which I have to regard as one of Hitchcock's more blaw and least distinctively Hitchcokian films. The plot is like a cross between Murder on the Orient Express and So Long at the Fair, and is principally built around a case of gaslighting. Where Night Train was very packed and lively, Lady plays rather slow and relatively little really happens in it. Not even the presence of Michael Redgrave and May Whittey, who I'm usually big fans of could save this film for me. The movie is not horrible, but I think a good re-write could have made it more engaging. **

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Padmaavat (2018)

Since moving down to the Salt Lake area about 2 1/2 years ago I've been intrigued by the number of Indian films released here. Most weeks there is at least one showing in a local theater or two and I've been meaning to go and take a look. Last week I finally did so for Padmaavat, a film that has attracted a great deal of controversy on the subcontinent including riots in the city of Gujarat, an attack on a school bus in Haryana, and women threating to kill themselves in protest. The story is based on events that may or may not have happened in the Rajput kingdoms of Northern India in the 13th century. May or may not have happened in that some of the figures involved in the story are historically verified, and some, principally the Queen Padmaavat, are not and may have been added to the story later.

First a little about my experience of going to see an Indian film. I went last weekend, it was a 3D showing, and almost sold out even in matinee so I had to sit very close to the screen. I was the only white guy in the audience, which contained many families, some in traditional dress. The previews were a mix of western releases, Peter Rabbit, Black Panther, and Indian films, including one about a woman with turrets syndrome who teaches a class of unruly students (I kind of want to see that one). The film starts with some disclaimers about cultural sensitivities, and a statement that the film does not endorse the practice of Jauhar.

The story of course concerns Padmaavat (Deepika Padukone, gorgeous and one of India's biggest stars) a woman famed for her beauty and wife of the Rajput ruler Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), both of these characters are Hindu's. Padmaavat's reported beauty attracts the interest of the Sultan of Delhi a Muslim played by Ranveer Singh (Padukone's real life boyfriend). In short Ranveer goes to war with Ratan to get Padmaavat, the Hindus manage to outsmart the Muslims a few times but in the end they lay waste to the city and kill Ratan, so Padmaavat and her ladies court commit mass suicide by burning, the practice of Jauhar, to avoid being captured. Add the controversy of this unpleasant practice along with the fact that the Muslim leader Ranveer is arguably depicted as bisexual and you have a recipe for unrest in India. As is customary with Indian films there are several musical numbers and the thing is really long, almost three hours, and there is not really three hours worth of story here. The scale of the thing is mighty impressive though, and the 3D's kind of interesting, especially the cinders that fall on the audience at the end. Padmaavat is a reasonabley good movie and I'm curious to see more Indian films theatrically in the future. **1/2