Spider-Man: Far From Home
Toy Story 4
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To make a creepy doll movie takes a lightness of touch. You have to employ atmosphere, pacing, good editing, a good script, plus a doll that you can believe that someone would actually own. The Boy has none of these things. It is a competently made movie operating on a silly premise that the filmmakers have the nerve to take seriously; and then it arrives at a third act so stupefying idiotic that you feel like throwing golf balls at the screen.
The Boy stars Lauren Cohen from "The Walking Dead" as Greta, a lonely American who has come across the pond to take a job as a nanny at an English manor that, we're told, has been cut off from communications with the rest of civilization for many years. That leads to a reasonable question: how did the owners of this house in England put out an ad that reached a prospective applicant living in Montana? That's probably the quaintest of logical questions floating around here.
Greta's change in continents is part of an attempt to get out of an abusive relationship (ask me if the boyfriend comes around in the finale). Here she meets Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire (Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle), a well-to-do elderly couple who want to hire her to take care of their son Brahms. Fine. Yet, the moment that she meets Brahms, I checked out of the movie. Brahms, you see, is a doll. He comes equipped with his own bedroom, toys, suits, cardigans and his own PJ's. He is made to look like the Hillshire's son who apparently died in a fire, his mother says, 20 years ago despite the fact that the death date on his headstone reads 1991. Either ma's a little off on the math or this script has been sitting around for six years.
Anyway, Greta's job is to do all the normal things that one might do for a child and apparently overlook the fact that he's a lifeless porcelain doll. She must clothe him, feed him, play music for him, and tuck him in at night. I would love to see how Greta lists this on her resume. But, oh well, Greta takes the job, runs through the course of her duties and figures that, hey, she's got bills to pay. For me, as a moviegoer, this is a leap I wasn't willing to take particularly when Greta warms up to the doll and starts calling him "Brahmsy."
The state of Mr. and Mrs. Hillshire's grief over their son is sort of intriguing. I was interested in the melancholy that befalls a mother and a father who are so grief-stricken over the loss of their son that they have built an entire world around his effigy. But no, this movie isn't interested in character studies. After the intros, Mom and Dad conveniently head out for a vacation/plot device leaving Greta home to take care of Brahms. Out of their line of sight, she doesn't take the job as seriously, but then she begins to hear whispers, laughter, noises in the walls. Plus, Brahms appears to be moving around on his own. These events begin to work on Greta's mental health until she comes around to accept what is happening. I couldn't, and I was off-kilter with this movie for most of the running time.
Maybe, the movie would work if the doll were at all plausible. It's a life-sized doll with a white porcelain face and deep-set eyes that stare off into space. It is suppose to look like the real Brahms but looks nothing like the one we see in the painting in the living room. The doll looks like the kind of thing you'd see in an antique store but not necessarily in someone's possession. Plus, the editors don't work with the doll to make it creepy. Subtly is the key here. We need to think something is happening when it doesn't, and then assure us that most of the time we're wrong. There also needs to be a deep psychology at work here. Alone in an enormous mansion, we need to feel Greta's isolation and there is a great opportunity to play with our sense of perception like Stanley Kubrick did with The Shining.
But no, the filmmakers here don't trust us as intelligent viewers. Instead we get isolated incidents and useless trickery that isn't part of the story but seems manufactured to give the audience its money's worth. We get jump scares, musical stings and at least three bogus dream sequences. When Brahms apparently makes Greta a PB&J and leaves it by her bedroom door, I was ready for the movie to be over.
The twist ending is just plain stupid and almost feels like it was put together by a different film crew for a different movie. Without giving too much away, I'll just say that whatever little bit of tension that director William Brent Bell earned in the first hour is completely defecated on in the last 20 minutes. Creepy doll movies require a lightness of touch. They require filmmakers who know how to build tension and play with our senses. Good ones, like Magic and the original Poltergeist and even the Talky Tina episode of "The Twilight Zone" are perfect examples. The problem with The Boy is that by its end, it's not a creepy doll movie, and in fact, never was from the beginning. So what is it?
We have progressed far enough now that we can easily look back at the turn of the millennium with a sense of wonder, reflection and some fear. The clock had barely clicked over into a new century when we found ourselves in a state of panic and paranoia; first Y2K, then a Presidential election that we couldn't resolve, then the horror of 9/11, then accidents, disasters, war, terrorism, scandals, emergencies and through it all the country suddenly found itself unsure what to make of itself anymore. It all seemed too much for such a short time. It seemed that the atonement for lot of old sins were finally being demanded.
Few bombshells hit quite as hard as the one that went off on the morning of January 6, 2002 when The Boston Globe began running a series of a stories about the permissiveness of The Catholic Church when several priests were accused of systematically molesting young boys. The Globe revealed that such a thing was hidden by The Church whose response was to quietly transfer the guilty to other parishes. There were deals with victims, legal statutes, and worst of all, local Catholics so fearful of taking on the church that they were willing to keep quiet about it. Within less than a year, Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston resigned a disgrace - yet that didn't stop Pope John Paul II from giving him a position in Rome. One man in the film puts it bluntly: "The Church thinks in centuries."
Spotlight is not about abuse, nor is it about the machinations of the priests themselves - what they did was horrible enough. The movie is an intelligent examination of the investigation to break down the ancient walls that kept the story from becoming front page news. There are no priests seen in this movie and what they did is mercifully not seen in flashback. We hear about their actions through the words of the victims, about how such abuse breaks not only self-esteem but also breaks one down spiritually. We hear very clearly that some of those who were abused found solace with the needle, or the bottle. They were lucky because the rest resorted to suicide. These stories bring an urgency to the investigation.
The horrible stories come from the words of the victims, but we the viewer are kept out of the walls of the church. Spotlight is instead an exhilarating old-fashioned newspaper movie in the mold of All the President's Men, Zodiac and Absence of Malice that follows a team of Boston Globe journalists called Spotlight as they begin to dig under the allegations that some seem determined to keep under wraps. The editor of The Spotlight Team is Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton) who oversees a team of three reporters; fair-minded Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams); work-a-holic Michael Rendez (Mark Ruffalo); and combative Matty Caroll (Brian d'Arcy James). All four of these reporters are Boston locals, all are Catholics, but all admit that they have fallen away from the church. When the paper gets a new editor, a soft-spoken Jewish Floridian named Marty Baron (Live Schreiber), he begins to question why the story isn't being followed up. Why did the Globe receive information on these priests and then bury it in the Metro section? Why were those stories not followed up?
The movie follows their investigation as they begin with the case of John J. Geoghan, who is alleged to have molested many children over a long period of time. But that case opens another case and then another and then another until the case of one man has become the case of many men who committed an atrocity and then were protected by The Church. What did those in power know? What do those in power know? How many were there? How far back does it go? How high up does it go?
We feel the David and Goliath struggle here but director Thomas McCarthy doesn't force anything, yet keeps the story at a breathtaking pace. He lets the information be the star as we become so engrossed in their investigation that we wait for the moment when something will break. The tension here is at the level of a great thriller, especially when the story's forward momentum is interrupted by a certain national event that delayed The Globe's progress by for four months. Plus, watching these reporters hitting the streets, questioning witnesses, tussling with lawyers over documents, and flipping through file cabinets we are aware that their kind of journalistic leg work is soon to end. Long form journalism still exists but not at this level at a time when true journalism has to fight for space with the superficiality that is sweeping it right into the dustbins of history. To watch Spotlight is to watch history in action, not just in busting open the long-delayed stories of molestation in the Catholic Church, but in the manner in which it is done. This is one of the best, and most important, films of the year.
Picture in your mind the output of a Quentin Tarantino movie if it were written by Agatha Christie. Try and imagine "Ten Little Indians" wrapped in reams of Tarantino-style dialogue and splattered with buckets of blood and guts and there you have the idea of The Hateful Eight, a retro spaghetti western that is as brilliant as it is brutal. After 20 years, Tarantino is still the most creative filmmaker that we have, a director who mines cinema's past while making it all seem fresh and new. He's so in love with the art of film the he's presenting the film in a beautiful 70mm print around the country. How well does the movie work? Let me put it this way, it was nice that when I finally tore myself away from Star Wars that Tarantino would be there waiting with one of the best films of the year.
The Hateful Eight is, essentially, a Bottle Movie. For three hours, it traps eight worthless human beings in a cabin in the midst of a blizzard of Biblical proportions and lets them do what despicable people do, especially when they all have guns. It opens staggeringly with the vision of a wooden stake carved into the image of Christ on the cross. If the Bible reminds us that the wages of sin is death, then the sinners at the center of this story should not be surprised by their fate.
The movie takes place somewhere in 19th century Wyoming at a time when the wounds of The Civil War are no longer bleeding, but the scars - emotionally and literally - still sting. In the midst of this blizzard we begin with a traveler and his companion riding a horse-drawn stagecoach to a place called Red Rock. The man is a bounty hunter named John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and the woman is his bounty, a beleaguered soul named Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ruth never stops reminding us, or her, that she has a date with the hangman's noose.
Along the way Ruth's stagecoach comes across a wayward traveler, a fellow tracker named Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Ruth recognizes Warren who was a highly respected Major from the Union Army. Legends of his exploits are as famous as they are infamous, but the most persistent is the legend that he carries a personal letter that he received from The Great Emancipator himself in his coat pocket - everyone wants to see it.
Possible spoilers ahead
What happens along the way is far too complicated to completely explain here. Tarantino's characters are never just one thing; they have dimensions, histories, side notes, personal tics, sins, successes, and legions of enemies far and wide. The destination for these travelers is a place that might have been a rest stop on the way to damnation itself, a far-flung haberdashery with more amenities then these people probably deserve. What's waiting there brings tension all around: A charming Englishman named Mobray (Tim Roth), a quiet drunken gunslinger named Gage (Michael Madsen), a wet-behind-the-ears sheriff (Walter Goggins), a former Confederate General named Smithers (Bruce Dern), and a narrow-eyed Mexican stable man named Senor Bob (Damien Bicheir). All of these characters seem to know each other, if not personally then by reputation. One of the greatest achievements in this screenplay by Tarantino is that every character is given a full backstory, not quirks, not traits, a history. We learn not only their names, but their sins as well. Each has a story to tell, each has a mean-streak ten miles wide, and each will pay greatly for it.
Right away we sense that something is happening at this tiny haberdashery but we aren't exactly sure what. We can sense it the moment that the stagecoach arrives at the front door. There are clues and questions: Why is there are piece of candy on the floor? Why is one of the chairs covered in fur coats? Why does the Mexican stable man seem so distant? Why is the latch on the front door missing? It is Warren who pieces things together. He notices things that the others seem to overlook, and he who controls tries to control a situation that threatens to become a bloodbath. Little by little, piece by piece the mystery of this wayward store begins to reveals its mysteries. That leads to a great virtuoso scene with Sam Jackson at the center doing what he does best.
Of course, as with any Tarantino movie there must be a twist in the narrative - this one has a doozie. We spend at least an hour inside the cabin with the title octet, but then something happens. An event takes place that opens up this nervous setting. Halfway through the movie, Tarantino pauses the action, reverses back to events that take place before Ruth and Warren arrived and then returns to their story so that we understand how and why everything is happening. It's a brilliant narrative, on part with the reverse tactics of Pulp Fiction twenty years ago.
Much more of this story I cannot reveal. Much more of this story I could not reveal. It's so complex yet so approachable and so engaging. We're there every second even though 90% of the movie takes place in the same room. We're so interested in these people because Tarantino always makes them interesting. He creates a gaggle of horrible people who have done horrible things and watches them all get their comeuppance one by one. The story's sense of moral decay has put off many critics, but I won't go there. I feel that I'm looking at Tarantino's vision of Hell on Earth, a place so placid, forbidding and dark, and filled with nasty - yet, interesting characters - that deserve each other.
It is difficult to be blasé about Star Wars if you happen to be one of the millions who have spent the last 40 years with George Lucas' seminal epic rattling around in your brain - believe me, there are a lot of us. But even if you aren't, even if you're only a casual bystander, you still cannot deny that Star Wars is an experience, something special, a mythology given to those of us who were lucky enough to have spent our formative years in the last third of the twentieth century. Yes, It is fashionable to make fun of it, but those who dismiss it are completely overlooking its impact. Look around you. Look at the movies you've been attending for the last three decades; look at the video games; look at the high tech; look at the storytelling. It all owes something to Star Wars.
Alas, George Lucas. Once thought to be the master of all he surveyed, the architect of an enterprise that worked so well because he was surrounded by an army of talented people. When he tried to reverse back and tell the origin story of Darth Vader, he decided to go it alone and stumbled badly with a new series that did not meet factory standards and left the public reeling from the revelation that the emperor had no clothes.
When Lucas retired three years ago and handed the property off to Disney, it was the best thing that could have happened, especially since the man he handpicked to direct the next generation was a Star Wars fan himself. It is obvious that J.J. Abrams has a deep passion for Lucas' cinematic mythology. If he didn't then this whole new venture would have been for nothing. This is a saga very close to his heart and you can see the evidence right there on the screen.
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a red-blooded adventure, teeming with heavy atmosphere; filled with dread and wonderment, action and suspense, wondrous and fearsome creatures, magic and mayhem, but most importantly the human element. Abrams opens up the world of Star Wars and digs into its buried myths, reminding us that - in this world - the legacies of good and evil are generational, and are based in very human qualities.
From this point on, Spoilers!
Thirty-Two years after the Empire was toppled by teddy bears, the galaxy has been marinating in its own turmoil. The Jedi, the Sith, the Death Star (and probably the teddy bears) have fallen into the realms of myth and legend, so much so that that new generation isn't even sure if the stories are true. Luke has gone missing and remnants of the Galactic Empire are reorganizing into a new regime that makes the old one look like a special kindergarten class for kids with uneasy stomachs - seriously there's a moment when the leader of the new regime addresses his legion of troops in a setting that is uncomfortably close to footage of the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg, up to and including their own brand of Seig Heil.
Comparisons to real-life events are not subtle - one of the first images in the film is patrol of stormtroopers - called First Responders - setting a small village on fire (echoes of the My Lai incident are practically shouted). The new Empire is looking for the pieces of a map that will aid them in destroying the one power in the universe that could overthrow them. The last piece of the map is housed inside the bulbous little droid named BB-8 whose head rolls around his round little body, giving expressions that R2-D2 never could.
Thrown into the mix by the course of destiny are three young heroes who become the last hope for salvation: a tough-as-nails scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley), a celebrated X-Wing pilot named Po (Oscar Isaacs), and a conscientious objector named Finn (John Boyega) who sheds his stormtrooper armor when he suddenly wakes up one morning to find that he's grown a conscience. The relief is that the new characters don't feel that they've been grafted onto the story. We feel that they are part of it, even if they don't know or understand the entire set of circumstances in which they find themselves. What is most noteworthy about the new characters is their diversity. Women, blacks, aliens all finally get a stake in a series that has traditionally been almost completely white.
The center of the evil plan is the most interesting of the new characters, a metal-masked menace named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) whose story and motivations could have come from the pen of Shakespeare. Soliloquizing over the melted mask of Darth Vader, he vows to bring back the glory days of the Sith. He's a force to be reckoned with, yet he's got a lot to learn. His youth, petulance and inexperience are present. He makes mistakes and when he does, he's prone to tearing a room apart with his lightsaber. His fears of failure are solidly linked to his master, a fearsome beast named Snoke (Andy Serkis) whose presence as a hologram towering over his charge are the most imposing image in the film. What they are planning is to build on the original Empire's galactic domination scheme by means of something that I won't spoil by saying one little word.
These new characters are interesting because they seem to be part of the world they inhabit. And their journey is helped along by the elders who have seen it all. Yes, Han and Chewie and Leia are here but they aren't just walk-through cameos. They are solidly invested in what is happening. They are the human link to what has come before. What's so wonderful about The Force Awakens is that you feel that this isn't just a carbon copy of the original Star Wars, rather you feel that you're visiting other parts of this universe that you haven't seen before. We see interesting planets and visit wondrous creatures, some in the background some in the foreground - one of the most interesting is an enormous beast that seems to be made up entirely of snout and hind-quarters. Yet, for my money, there is no new character in the movie more interesting than a diminutive pirate named Maz Kanata (played by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o), an orange-skinned pirate whose eyes can apparently see into your soul. There is a lot of experience and wonderment to this character and plenty of echoes of Yoda, though she still feels new.
One of the constants in the Star Wars trilogy is the way in which the characters are introduced to one another by the whims of destiny. Fin runs into Po. Fin and Rey accidentally run into Han Solo and Chewbacca who just happen to run into Princess Leia and then just happen to run across R2 and 3PO. It seems to be all for the convenience of the plot (or lazy writing) but then you realize that this is how all characters in fairy tales meet. This is how the characters in the original trilogy and even the prequels met. Much of this film keeps with tradition. The older characters are our link to our memories of the Galactic war and we get to see how the adamant of age and of time itself have taken their toll.
One thing that Abrams and his writers improve upon here is the character of Han Solo. As fun as the character was in the original trilogy, he wasn't much of a character beyond just easily-bruised machismo. Here he's given an arc, he's given a sense of purpose. He isn't just wise cracks. Mistakes have been made in the past and we see in his deeply-lined face that they have plagued him for years. The development of his character is at the deepest heart of this story, so I will say no more.
Is it a perfect Star Wars movie? No. Is it a great Star Wars movie? You bet. One of the most tickling things about this movie is the simple fact that this is a movie that was never supposed to exist. Lucas maintained for years that there would be no Episode 7 but, of course, time makes fools of us all. Here it is. It's not a prequel, it's not a spin-off. It's the movie that we waited 32 years to see and it is probably as good as it ever could be. It captures of the magic of that world that we played in all those years ago while being mindful of the logical place that such a world might have become in later years. It gives us the great pleasure of catching up with characters years later and seeing how they turned out. It gives us the great pleasure of seeing other parts of a world that we already know. It gives us what we've waited on pins and needles to see. The movie ends on a bittersweet note that is new for this series, and yet still on par with the traditions of the series. We've waited on pins and needles for this new installment, and here is an ending that leaves us thirsty for even more. It's gonna be great, I can feel it.
There was a time when, upon leaving the house, I never walked out without my wallet and my keys. After the revolution of Steve Jobs, it grew to include my iPod which contains not only my music but also podcasts, lectures, documentaries and anything else that makes the drollery of my drive to work into an intellectual awakening. Yes, Jobs changed the world, and personally changed my world - and, admit it, he personally changed your world too. He wanted to free our computers from the confines of the wall socket, and make them smaller, faster and portable. Far from the paranoia of the HAL 9000, he wanted to make the future an inviting and warm place technologically, to push the future forward and make us see our portable devices as a friend. He understood what it took to make us happy. He was the master of supply and demand, supplying a demand for a product that we didn't even know that we wanted yet.
Ever since he passed away four years ago, biographers have been trying to pin down this man who bore the appearance of a wise, friendly showman on stage, a man whose innovations and beautiful mind put him in the same ranks as Edison, Tesla, Bell, Da Vinci, and The Wright Brothers. Yet, like Edison, he had a cold and bitter manner. It was said that he could be officious, dismissive and even cruel. That's the image that biographers are trying to wrap their heads around, the man who wanted the public to see their devices as a friend had few warm human interactions with those in his inner circle.
Danny Boyle's bio-pic Steve Jobs probably comes as close as anyone is likely to get with a storytelling narrative to who Jobs was personally. If you want a story closer to the bone, watch the documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine from earlier this year. It intended to break apart Jobs' cult of personality and find out what made him tick. Steve Jobs does the same thing, and maybe has a much more cold-blooded vantage point. It was tempting to want to soften his image, to give Jobs a reverent quality of a genius who simply out-guessed and out-thought those around him. Yet, while Danny Boyle's biopic does what it can to celebrate his genius, it never shies away from making him look like a schmuck, which if you believe his underlings, it not that far from the truth (I can believe it since Wozniak was a consultant on the movie).
That's the key to the movie. It never backs away from the cold, bitterness of Steve Jobs. As played in a wonderful performance Michael Fassbender, we are introduced to a man who is driven beyond all reason to make a product that will change the world, but it is not without cost. He's cold and mean to those around him. He argues every minute detail - the movie opens as he is berating his chief architect Andy Herzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) to get Mac to say "Hello" five minutes before it is due to be unveiled. Meanwhile backstage he denies the parentage of his 8 year-old daughter Lisa whom he doesn't even acknowledge until he sees her working on Mac Paint. She's a prodigy, much like her old man. Lisa is played in three wonderful performances by three different actresses who imbue Lisa with a kind of wise-beyond-her-years intelligence. Who wouldn't want a daughter like this?
Jobs' prickly relationship with Lisa extends to all around him. Aaron Sorkin's script is wall-to-wall with words as Jobs tries to push his vision forward at the expense of personal relationships. In board rooms, in hallways, in stairwells, he gets into it with colleagues, with is long-suffering marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet); former Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels); and most importantly his best friend Steve Wozniak, played in a surprisingly touching performance by Seth Rogan.
The wordiness of the script is off-set by Danny Boyle's visual style. We find ourselves in a heated conversation between Jobs and his collaborators that take place in the present but the movie will suddenly cut back to an earlier conversation from a few years before so that what was said then builds the suspense and surprise of what is said now. It makes the wordy script more than just conversation; it turns it into an exciting narrative. Boyle also makes the effort to make the three different eras - 1984, 1988 and 1998 - all look different by shooting first in 16mm then in 35mm and then in digital so that we mentally know which time period we're in.
But all the filmmaking skill doesn't override the human element. Jobs is an extremely difficult man to warm up to. Watching his interactions with those around him we are challenged to wonder if he was a misunderstood genius or an egotistical narcissist who took more interest in computer chips than human relations. Michael Fassbender is really the reason to see this movie. He's wonderful actor who is best at playing complicated and often distant men - everyone from the slave owner in 12 Years a Slave to the sex addict in Shame, to the god-like Magneto in the X-Men prequels. We are challenged with how we feel about Steve Jobs, here. We can't possibly like how he treats his colleagues or his daughter, but we feel for him because he understands the he is a flawed man. He admits to Lisa that he is a damaged product, seeing himself as an operating system that he himself can't fix. The fact that he recognized that flaw may have been his best innovation.