Over the past two weeks, Hammer to Nail published three reviews of mine for films that played at recent film festivals, one at Slamdance and two at Sundance: Fursonas, Rams and All These Sleepless Nights. Enjoy!
Today, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film & Moving Image, Stevenson University – joined Dan Rodricks on his Baltimore Sun podcast, “Roughly Speaking,” where we discussed the just-released Hail, Caesar! and the work of the Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan) in toto. If you’re a fan – of us, Dan and/or the Coens, then you must listen (and we’re not the only ones on the podcast!).
45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)
Pity the poor Tom Courtenay (Quartet). He’s a marvelous actor, yet paired opposite the grand Charlotte Rampling (Never Let Me Go) – Oscar-nominated for this film – he cannot help but pale in comparison. He’s very good; she’s brilliant. Of course, his role here is to play the more doddering member of a long-married couple, while hers is to simmer in a long burn that erupts in flame in the final moments of the movie. The cause of that upset? A long-buried memory – the ghost of a long-lost love – that surfaces just as Geoff (Courtenay) and Kate (Rampling) are about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary.
If that’s not a usually noted marker (unlike the 40th and the 50th), that’s kind of the point. It’s a symbol of how much these two have tried, without perhaps even being conscious of it, to remind themselves that their life together has meant something. There’s clearly love – or a lot of familiar comfort, anyway – but is there passion? In any case, Geoff, it turns out, was undergoing heart-bypass surgery at the time of the 40th, and so Kate has decided to make a big deal out of the 45th. From the start, it’s clear that she is the one who wants this; Geoff can take it or leave it.
I haven’t seen any of director Andrew Haigh’s other work, but in movies like Weekend and Greek Pete he explored relationships between gay men, and according to this movie’s press kit, he sees 45 Years as an extension of his interest in intimacy (or lack thereof) within couples. After seeing 45 Years, I feel the need to check out his earlier work, as I found the new film both beautiful and devastating in its portrayal of the way in which a single (perceived) betrayal can undo a lifetime of shared experience. Haigh adapted the screenplay from a short story by British writer David Constantine, entitled “In Another Country,” and while the source text is a brief gem (at just 11 pages), what he adds to it – including the setting of the anniversary – makes it truly profound.
For what we see is nothing less than the details of a life, as it is revisited, parsed and redefined. The greater the specificity of Kate and Geoff’s shared (and unshared) secrets, the more universal their distress. Rampling, especially, gives much with very little, the restrained emotions of the years finally breaking free in an almost-stifled whimper of distress. It’s an amazing performance, and it makes me wish that this year’s crop of best-actress nominees were not so strong (the smart money, apparently, is on either Brie Larson or Saoirse Ronan to win). Rampling didn’t help her chances recently by claiming that the #OscarsSoWhite controversy was “racist to whites” (uh, really?). But no matter: let’s judge the work. 45 Years is a movie that must be seen by anyone who has ever been in a relationship, which is (I hope) most, if not all, of us. Two fine actors at the top of their respective games, working off of a smart script, take us on a journey through time and memory where past sins – in this case, of careful omission – haunt present-day realities. One of the best films of 2015.
Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2016)
I sometimes struggle over what to make of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. Certain ones, I adore. These include: Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy (hardly a popular choice, but I love it just the same), Fargo, A Serious Man and True Grit. In others, while I may enjoy parts, I do not find the completed whole particularly satisfying. In this category we find: Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, Inside Llewyn Davis, and now … Hail, Caesar! (we won’t discuss the films I do not like at all, which are but few). Filled with scenes of great brilliance, with equally brilliant performances, Hail, Caesar! somehow manages to be less than the sum of its (un)equal parts. Still, when it succeeds, it does so with panache. Whatever my opinion of the entire movie, I had a great time watching (most of) it.
Loosely based on the life of real-life Hollywood “fixer” Eddie Mannix, the movie immerses us in the world of the late studio era, when each production house was a universe unto itself, with laws set by the moguls that Could. Not. Be. Broken. Mannix was one of the men tasked with keeping stars in line, lest their shenanigans end up in the gossip columns, ruining their public image and jeopardizing profits. The Coens have terrific fun with the setting, just as they did with their previous (twisted) love letter to Hollywood, Barton Fink. Here, their affection for a bygone age feels less cynical and more genuine, which is good in that we get many more delightful pastiches of their thoughts on what it must have been like, but bad in that the film has much less bite. What, exactly, is it all for? Every time I feel this way at the end of one of their movies, I sense that they spent too much time laughing at their own jokes (but what great jokes!) and forgot about the need for an ultimate punch line.
Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice) plays Mannix as a tough drill sergeant who loves what he does. He sees himself as the pillar that supports the entire studio edifice. As always, Brolin is very good; it’s a shame the movie doesn’t quite do justice to his performance. Others shine as well. There’s Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin) as a pregnant starlet in the mode of Esther Williams, mermaid suit and all; Channing Tatum (Magic Mike) as a Gene Kelly-esque dancer; Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel) as a temperamental director; and, almost best of all, relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures) as a young Western star whom the studio has (oddly) decided to recast in a drawing-room drama. George Clooney (The Monuments Men) is around, as well, playing the fatuous leading man of the biblical epic that Mannix is shepherding, but his attempts at stupid feel too obvious, and he ends up being the least interesting member of the cast.
The plot centers around … a plot! And this being the 1950s, the Communists are behind it. A cabal of disgruntled writers plans a kidnapping which stops Mannix’s production cold, with money on the line. The gossip columnists start circling, like vultures, to figure out what’s going on, and before too long Mannix has a real mess on his hands. Meanwhile, here and there, we get diverting scenes of this and that – as if the Coens wanted to shoehorn every story element that would sense in that time period into the script. The Esther Williams and Gene Kelly numbers are wonderful, as is the Ben-Hur-like movie within the movie; the Communists, less so. The period details are all exquisitely rendered, and any film aficionado or lover of film history should get a kick out of so much of what is on screen. But when the credits come up, we have to ask to what end all that effort?
Kung Fu Panda 3 (Alessandro Carloni/Jennifer Yuh)
In the interest of full disclosure, I must announce that I went to college with one of the two screenwriters – Jonathan Aibel – of this new DreamWorks Animation picture. He and his longtime writing partner, Glenn Berger (whom I have never met), after first making a name for themselves collaborating on scripts for the FOX TV show King of the Hill, and then anonymously script-doctoring on feature films, finally received their first on-screen movie credit for Kung Fu Panda. They did not originate that screenplay, but changed enough of it that the WGA, in arbitration, determined that they should share credit with the original screenwriters.† That film was a success, and they were then contracted for the sequel (along with other films for DreamWorks, and other studios, such as Monsters vs. Aliens, Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water and the upcoming Trolls). Whatever conflict of interest that may present for yours truly (check out my review of SpongeBob to see that I am capable of mixing praise with criticism, however mild, to a friend), I am happy to report that the latest installment in the adventures of Po, the Panda, is a winner, even if not quite as sublime as its predecessor. If you enjoyed the first two films, you must see this one, as it offers what feels like the perfect conclusion to a lovely trilogy. Of course, if it makes money, there might be another one, but let’s pretend, for now, that the series ends here. After all, how many times can Aibel and Berger (sorry, Aibel & Berger*) work their considerable magic to create yet one more interesting journey of self-discovery for their main character?
The first Kung Fu Panda was released in 2008; the second in 2011. When we last we saw Po, he had come more into his own – after embracing his destiny as an unlikely kung fu master in the first movie – defeating a powerful enemy of China and saving his friends, the “Furious Five.” He had also discovered that he was adopted (i.e., not the son of his goose dad), and we had seen, in the final scene, that his biological father was alive and well, living in a secret village of fellow pandas. Kung Fu Panda 2 confirmed that it is possible for a sequel to enrich an established world and add a profound backstory to its characters (Aliens and The Godfather: Part II also stand out, for me). All the while enjoying the witty banter, amusing antics and beautiful animation, I found myself quite sincerely moved by the tale of Po’s origins in that second installment. It was a masterpiece of family entertainment, good for kids and adults, alike.
Here, we pick up that family thread, and learn much more about the power of pandas. But don’t worry, all of our old friends are back, with Jack Black (Bernie) as Po, Dustin Hoffman (Chef) as Shifu and character actor James Hong (R.I.P.D.) as Mr. Ping (the goose), as well as the Furious Five, all of whom have various well-known actors voicing them, even if they have few lines, including Angelina Jolie (Maleficent) and Lucy Liu (Elementary). Bryan Cranston (Trumbo) joins the cast as Li, Po’s father, as does J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) as Kai, this movie’s villain. To complement that considerable array of vocal talent, DreamWorks has pulled out all the stops and given its animation department enormous artistic freedom, allowing them to create a gorgeous world of carefully designed landscapes that surround the characters and immerse us in a truly cinematic experience. I have always been impressed with what DreamWorks can do (How to Train Your Dragon 2 was especially beautiful) – they are, for me, the only animation studio that can rival Pixar in loving attention to visual detail – but here they have outdone themselves. Not only is the 3D animation a delight, but the way they mix in 2D and multiple-panel storytelling, as occasionally befits the narrative, feels truly inspired.
As the movie opens, Po is satisfied with the place he has found among his friends, happy to be recognized for his previous accomplishments. Of course, this contentment cannot last (or we’d have no movie), and the unraveling begins first with the arrival of General Kai, freshly returned from the land of dead, ready to reconquer China, and second with the arrival of Li, who wants Po to reconnect with his panda roots. Just as his country needs him, in other words, Po stands torn between his duty to the cause and his duty to family. It’s a good dual conflict, with high stakes for all. Along the way, despite the threats to peace and prosperity, there are plenty of jokes, most of which land, and a good time is had by all (of us). Skadoosh, indeed!
[*Here’s an interesting bit of trivia, in case you have ever wondered about the difference between “and” and “&” in screenwriting credits. An “and” means that people have worked separately, as in you did your draft and I did mine. An “&” means that they have worked together, in collaboration, as in Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger always work as partners. If you see both both, that means that there were multiple drafts credited, and at least one of those drafts was written by a pair or group of people, together.]
[†Correction from later on 1/29/16, courtesy of Jonathan Aibel, himself: “As an FYI, DreamWorks isn’t a WGA signatory, so there is no WGA arbitration on their movies. Credit is determined internally. On the first Panda, the story credit was given to the two writers who first fleshed out the title (they came up with the basic premise of the five animals representing the five styles of kung fu, for instance). After they wrote a draft or two, other writers came on. At least 3 by my count. Then we joined, starting more or less from scratch. So in the end, there wasn’t any debate over the credit – we didn’t originate the premise (so didn’t get a story credit) – but we were the writers for every scene in the final movie (hence, screenplay credit). Because we originated Pandas 2 and 3 and wrote them all the way through we have ‘Written By’ credit: that’s the writing credit that incorporates both story and screenplay.”]
The Finest Hours (Craig Gillespie, 2016)
Based on the daring 1952 rescue of the oil tanker Pendleton by a Massachusetts-based Coast-Guard crew – or, rather, based on the book about that rescue – The Finest Hours does its best to immerse the audience in the derring-do of its heroes – and succeeds for a while – before merely submerging us in the overflow of its melodramatic waters. Directed by Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm) and starring Chris Pine (Star Trek: Into Darkness), Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone) and Holliday Grainger (Cinderella), among others, the film is not without its qualities, and is, in fact, quite gripping in its first half. Unfortunately, like some of the ships in its story, it loses its way in an attempt to take the already harrowing events and prolong the agony of their unfolding for the sake of (failed) tension. Still, while it works, it works quite well.
When we first meet Bernie Webber (Pine), it is just before a date with Miriam (Grainger), a young woman with whom he has frequently spoken (on the phone), but never met. We are told that he is extremely handsome (and he is Chris Pine, after all), but his manner is not that of a ladies’ man; quite the contrary. He’s all shyness to her brash confidence. Later, she is even the one who proposes. Interesting. Will this film – ostensibly about a true-life drama – offer a revisionist take on 1950s sexual politics? Sadly, that is not to be, as Miriam eventually finds her way – quite literally – to the kitchen, like a good little girl, and all is right with the world (I’m kidding, but she is in the kitchen).
But enough about that part of the story. You came here for adventure! And so we get it. It’s February, and a nasty winter storm breaks apart a large oil tanker. Make that two oil tankers, one of which is unable to signal its position. That would be the Pendleton. Its bow section sinks rapidly, but its stern still has power, and ship’s engineer Ray Sybert (Affleck, giving the best performance in the film) thinks he can keep them afloat long enough for the Coast Guard to arrive (if they’re even coming). Back on shore, Webber is told to head out to sea to save the Pendleton after all the other ships go in pursuit of the other tanker. It’s a suicide mission, but he agrees to go, since, as we’ve learned by this point, he always does his duty. And so, with a crew of three other unlucky sailors, off he goes, in a 36-foot boat, into the waves and the wind.
So far, so good; well, mostly, as we have to wonder what Eric Bana (Hulk) is doing here as Webber’s commanding officer, since he almost singlehandedly ruins the film. As we cut between Webber and his mates and the seemingly doomed crew of the Pendleton, the truth is that it is a thrilling ride. But then, at some point, Gillespie begins to mishandle the story. I think the score is a major part of the problem – although I normally love the composer, Carter Burwell (who is Oscar-nominated this year, for Carol) – as we do not need its swelling chords; the swelling waves are enough. But it’s not just the music; we also must deal with what begins to feel like endless and manipulative dramatic pauses in the action on both vessels, as well in what happens on land (remember Miriam?). And so it goes. It’s not a total wash, but it never lives up to the promise of its initial set-up.
Mojave (William Monahan, 2015)
The best I can say about Mojave is that it improves significantly as it proceeds. However, since its opening is a dismal dramatic wasteland, that is scant praise, indeed. Starring Garrett Hedlund (On the Road) and Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), and written and directed by William Monahan (Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Departed, with one previous feature as a director – London Boulevard – under his belt), the film is a showcase for ostensibly fine talent wasted in the service of self-indulgence. No one emerges from the exercise unscathed; in fact, the beatings suffered by the main characters, the one upon the other, are a perfect metaphor for the movie’s effect on our view of their skills. The vapid dialogue forced through the mouths of Hedlund and Isaac by Monahan reduces all three of them to mostly amateurish beginners. Here’s hoping the actors, anyway, recover.
Hedlund plays Thomas, whom we will eventually discover to be a Hollywood star (or director, or producer … we’re never quite sure). As the film opens, he talks to the camera (in what will later turn out to be footage from a documentary of which he is the subject). Cut to him leaving a bedroom where a semi-conscious woman lounges. It almost looks like he’s robbing her, since he slips off her watch and is dressed in ragged clothes. Next we know, he’s off in a jeep, headed towards the desert, grabbing alcohol along the way. As the sun sets, he drinks himself silly, yipping away at the local coyotes off in the distance. The following morning, we watch as he wrecks the jeep and heads off on foot into the wilderness. Is he suicidal? On a walkabout? Before we can dwell too long on these questions, Thomas runs into Jack (Isaac), who looks even shabbier than does he. We’re about 10 minutes into the film, and so far the mystery has not been unpleasant, but now we’re in for a rude surprise, once the dialogue starts. The two strangers face off across the fire and trade pseudo-metaphysical musings about life and … Shakespeare. And then they fight, a battle which sets in motion a cycle of revenge that can only end with one of them left alive. This fireside chat is the nadir of the movie, but though things get better, we never quite escape the initial clumsy and forced set-up.
Along for the career-damaging ride are Walton Goggins (The Hateful Eight), Mark Wahlberg (Ted 2) and French actress Louise Bourgoin (The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec) – whose strong accent makes her English-language lines near indecipherable – none of whom are better served by the screenplay than are the leads. This is the kind of movie where no one behaves in a way that makes sense, except to justify the next plot development. There’s something to be said for the existence of smaller films like Mojave as alternatives to the excess and explosive violence of so many of today’s blockbusters, but since, ultimately, we get no less violence here than there – and without the craft that makes some of the big movies palatable – then what, exactly is the point? None that I can see.
This was a big media week for me, with a new Dragon Digital Media Reel Talk episode, another Baltimore Sun “Roughly Speaking” podcast, and two new pieces (on three movies) on Hammer to Nail. Check them out: The Look of Silence is one; a double-shot of Patrick Brice, about Creep and The Overnight, is the other. Enjoy!
Today, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film & Moving Image, Stevenson University – joined Dan Rodricks on his Baltimore Sun podcast, “Roughly Speaking,” where we discussed the just-announced 2016 Oscar nominations, giving our opinion on what we agreed with and what we didn’t (here are my own lists of the best films, the best acting, and the best artistic and technical work of 2015). We also talked about the fact that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has, once again, mostly ignored people of color in its choices.