Movie Reviews (December 2018)
Here are my short reviews of six films I’ve seen during the last month. All were released in December 2018:
The Front Runner
Jason Reitman directed and co-wrote the lifeless screenplay for The Front Runner, a painfully sluggish nearly-unwatchable factual re-enactment of Gary Hart’s salacious sex scandal precipitating his ill-fated 1988 presidential campaign.
This film is about as imaginative as something you’d flip on while channel surfing and landing on The History Channel at 4 am. Based on the far more engaging book authored by Matt Bai, All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, Reitman’s movie is so mind-numbingly dull that I walked out. I bolted more out of boredom than disgust. Like Gary Hart some 30 years ago, I couldn’t take it anymore. I made it about halfway through the primary viewing before concluding this was an exercise in cinematic futility. So, I cut my losses and dropped out of the theater.
To those who may be unfamiliar with the real history — Gary Hart was a charismatic progressive and the presumptive challenger to George H. W. Bush in the hotly-contested ’88 race. But within a topsy-turvy, three-week period of cat-media toying with a mouse-candidate, Hart was ruined by a reckless and some might say senseless extramarital affair exposed in the media. Instantly, Hart went from political golden boy to a late-night talk show punch line, the first major political figure to be spotlighted and then spliced for his sexual indiscretions (the precursor to Clinton and Trump). While countless other politicians before (and since) have engaged in similar behavior, including acts far worse, Hart became the first modern-day casualty of the tabloid era, which now often overshadows legitimate journalism.
Hugh Jackman is convincingly cast as Hart. So too, are the supporting cast of actors in their respective roles — which includes the consistently-good Vera Farmiga (Hart’s faithful wife), J.K. Simmons (his campaign manager), and Alfred Molina (a newspaper editor). This isn’t a problem of execution but of planning. The movie’s flaws start and end with a drab script and (mis)direction that’s lacking both in imagination and establishing any measure of intrigue. Alas, even though many in the audience undoubtedly know the real story and remember Hart’s ultimate fate, a sense of drama must still be conveyed by the skilled filmmaker. Compare this failure to the far superior Vice, a very similar type of movie reviewed later in this article. Jason Reitman apparently doesn’t know what he’s doing — and yes, I’ve seen his other movies. The only apparent reason he’s directing movies is that his last name is Reitman.
WATCH THE OFFICIAL TRAILER TO THE FRONT RUNNER HERE.
No surprise, this film disappeared from theaters almost immediately after it’s release. I give The Front Runner a rating of 2 stars (out of 10) and cannot recommend it, even when it comes out on cable. A total bore.
Johnny English Strikes Again
British actor Rowan Atkinson is arguably one of the most misused and underutilized leading men in movies. His immense comedic talent was evidenced by the hit U.K. television show of the 1990s, Mr. Bean, which became an international sensation for its utter simplicity and total reliance upon sight gags, sans any dialogue. [Personal Note: I developed a particular fondness for Atkinson in the role of Mr. Bean because non-English speaking family members could watch, understand, follow, and enjoy the show, which was all Atkinson]. Even though the Mr. Bean-themed follow-up movies were disappointments, I’m still hopeful he’ll find some creative cinematic niche which displays his abundant gifts as an actor.
So, I’m biased.
Johnny English Strikes Again is Atkinson’s third film based on his portrayal of a bumbling British spy tasked with saving the world from doom. His character is a cartoonish hybrid of James Bond on a bad day and Inspector Clouseau on his best day. Much like the equally-dreadful, but sporadically marvelous, Austin Powers series, the storyline is merely a set up for a series of gags. Trashed by the critics, some scenes are cringe-worthy. Awful. Excruciating. Of course, all this means is — the film generated more than $200 million at the box office (so far) — one reason these painfully dumb movies continue rolling off the assembly line like Big Macs.
So, what’s my verdict? I laughed out loud enough times at the juvenile jokes and sight gags to say it was worth the bargain matinee price. Citizen Kane, this certainly isn’t. Guilt-free, instantly-forgettable, throwaway humor. That’s what this is.
Gee, I wish someone would get Atkinson some better material. Never mind. He’s probably laughing all the way to the bank.
WATCH THE OFFICIAL TRAILER TO JOHNNY ENGLISH STRIKES AGAIN HERE
This film gets rated a 5, with a slight recommendation provided that you enjoy the occasional dumb comedy.
Green Book looks to be this year’s most polarizing film. Some critics rank it as one of the year’s best movies. Others complain it’s an insulting fabrication of history and yet another needless “White Savior” tale diminishing the civil rights struggle during the early 1960s in the American South. I see (and mostly agree with) these two disparate points of view.
However, here’s one thing everyone will agree with: Both leads — played by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali — are outstanding. They carry the buddy movie with a burning cross as a backdrop making it both entertaining and revealing. Like a sugar-coated pill, the occasionally lighthearted treatment of uncomfortable subject matter makes this easier to swallow.
The characters portrayed by Mortensen and Ali come from opposite sides of the tracks — racially, culturally, financially, and in other surprising ways too (as the film gradually reveals). But inevitably, some might say predictably, a close bond of friendship based develops between these two men with nothing in common except their shared struggles and a simple human desire to make it to the next day and the next town with their dignity intact, when a large number of people in this country weren’t entirely comfortable with that very simple idea.
Mortensen plays a street-smart, wisecracking, nightclub bouncer from Brooklyn entrusted with the responsibility of chauffering and protecting a Black classical pianist (the real-life Don Shirley) on a groundbreaking tour of the South in 1962, during a dangerous time when Blacks were being firehosed, harassed, threatened, attacked by police dogs, and sometimes murdered for stepping outside prescribed racial boundaries and challenging the status quo. The pianist is played by Ali, who slowly comes to recognize his driver and bodyguard as essential.
What I found most revealing about the film (and something I hadn’t thought much of before) was the way Blacks as entertainers were often viewed by White society versus their actual lives once the spotlights were switched off. This holds true not just in the South, but throughout the country. Black musicians and athletes were often beloved cultural icons in America. Willie Mays. Sammy Davis. Jr. Louis Armstrong. On and on. But the instant they stepped offstage and/or departed the playing field, many treated them as niggers. This incongruity is repeated throughout Green Book, a title which refers to a real book put out at the time which served as a travel guide for Blacks and other minorities. Shirley, the gifted pianist, is adored by genteel Southern society for his musical talent. But once his performance ends, time and time again he’s reminded that he belongs drinking at the colored fountain.
Unfortunately, today, many of us are inclined to tune out discussions on race. We’re kinda’ sick of it already. Very few people in White America want to pay to see a movie about civil rights and what millions of Blacks were forced to endure. The underlying echo remains — haven’t we been down this road before? Hence, cloaking an important reminder within a somewhat sanitized film which doesn’t always take itself as seriously as it should — can and probably should be forgiven. Sometimes, vegetables taste better when flavored with butter. By Any Means Necessary seems to be appropriate justification here — as one astute Black man once penned.
WATCH THE OFFICIAL TRAILER OF GREEN BOOK HERE.
I give Green Book a 7.5 on a 10 scale and a hearty thumbs up.
Maria By Callas: In Her Own Words
I’m a sucker for documentaries. In fact, the documentaries I’ve enjoyed most were often about individuals and subjects that I knew little about. I like to be surprised. I enjoy learning new things.
Maria By Callas: In Her Own Words, created and directed by German filmmaker Tom Volf, was a surprising new experience for me revealing the depths and details of prodigal talent and global superstardom that I hadn’t fathomed before. The film was an eye-opening and often mesmerizing emotional experience to watch Callas, still a magnetic presence on the big screen all these years later after her death. But the movie is at its best while reeling off dusty old archival footage portraying an astoundingly gifted yet deeply vulnerable and often isolated woman never quite sure how to deal with her immense fame. Increasingly, she found it challenging to meet the expectations of adoring fans mostly unaware of the excruciating costs performers will go to in order to satisfy insatiable appetites for perfection.
Released in 2017, this film bio-portrait of the late opera singer was re-tooled in English-language earlier this year (2018), and then granted a limited U.S. theatrical distribution, albeit way too short-lived (here in Las Vegas) in December. Admittedly, I knew little about Callas, a Greek-American, New York-born opera diva who died when I was still a teenager. Unfamiliar with opera during the mid-20th Century when Callas was at her creative peak and height of fame, and acutely unaware of her personal story and historical significance postmortem, I was eager to learn why she continues receiving such veneration worldwide among so many different people 40 years later. Callas has become, a sort of Marilyn Monroe meets Elvis Presley meets Judy Garland meets Enrico Caruso all rolled into combustible dynamite exploding with a distinctive voice and stage presence which defies convention and continues being revered long after the soprano hit her last high-C.
Equal parts sassy, sophisticated, stunning, and sexy, Callas somehow was able to exceed all her peers and eclipse those who sang before her. But that struggle to reach the top was not easy and came at a steep price. At one point, she shed 80 pounds, and while the physical transition dramatically improved her mass-appeal as a celebrated international icon, her most loyal fans then complained her voice was never the same again. And so, the documentary goes beyond what we might expect and raises more unsettling philosophical questions than the usual adoring bio-epic, revealing the constant juxtaposition between art and image — the tug-of-war between looking great versus sounding great. These were difficult decisions for Callas, the performer, and the woman, ultimately causing her to become dismissive of her fame. But then, proving the folly of it all, her brashness made her into more of a diva, an icon, and a hero for those moved by her voice and inspired by her example.
“Glory terrifies me,” she once said. “I would have given up the career to have a happy family, but destiny is destiny — and there’s no way out,” she told an interviewer.
in the end, Maria Callas’ despair was ultimately our gain. That sacrifice merits knowing more about her and remember who she was. This is a marvelous film documentary deserving to be seen. To no one’s surprise familiar with this subject matter, there are lessons to be learned in this film which are just as relevant today as when Maria Callas was revered as the 20th Century’s greatest soprano. Make an effort to see this movie.
WATCH THE OFFICIAL TRAILER OF MARIA BY CALLAS HERE
I give it a score of 9/10 with one of my highest recommendations of the year.
Clint Eastwood has been playing movie badasses for six decades. His latest offering, The Mule, reveals a much softer and more vulnerable Eastwood than we’re used to seeing. It’s as though Eastwood, who directed and stars in what’s likely to be one of his final film projects, decided to strip away the abrasive veneer of punk-blasters and show us a kinder, cuddly side. I just wish Eastwood hadn’t waited until age 88 to reveal this lesser-known, multi-layered portrait of himself with so much appeal.
We already know Eastwood, the gifted director, knows how to strike an emotional chord with movie audiences. Million Dollar Baby was a marvelous departure for the action film icon who’s identity shall forever be stamped by Spaghetti Westerns and Dirty Harry. The Mule takes those same elements of self-reflection and ultimate revelation we’ve seen in Million Dollar Baby to their rightful progression, with Eastwood playing the inmate of his own life’s prison, somehow achieving redemption through pain and loss.
The Mule is loosely based on the true story of a drug-running senior citizen a few years ago who — through an unexpected series of events some might say were beyond his control — was enticed into driving million-dollar shipments of cocaine in his pickup truck from the Mexican border to the upper Midwest. Eastwood, who’s perfect for the dangerous and illegal task because no law enforcement officer would suspect a sweet-talking octogenarian who also happens to be a proud Korean War vet. Unfortunately, Eastwood doesn’t realize what he’s getting himself into until it’s too late.
I didn’t expect The Mule to be as good as it was. Eastwood delivers a memorable performance and shows that he still knows how to make an excellent film — with the help of an strong supporting cast and his crack film crew. It’s not often one says this about someone approaching age 90: I can’t wait to see what Eastwood will do next.
WATCH THE OFFICIAL TRAILER FOR THE MULE HERE.
I give The Mule an 8 with a strong recommendation to go and enjoy an iconic actor and film director who seems to still be doing unexpecting things and taking on new challenges.
There are several different ways of looking at Vice, the new movie directed by Adam McKay, about the life and profound political influence of Dick Cheney, a controversial American political figure best known for serving as Vice President under George W. Bush. According to some, including the makers of this movie, Cheney was the actual point man in charge of most things in government from 2001-2009. Indeed, he wasn’t merely a subordinate. Cheney was the opportunistic and pro-active architect who carefully crafted his position in a manner no Vice President, either before or since has done.
If the threshold for great docudramas are actual fact and line-by-line verbatim dialogue regurgitated from dusty historical transcripts, this movie misses the mark entirely and should rightly be dismissed for any academic relevance. Not surprisingly, National Review, a leading conservative media outlet viciously trashed it. However, as entertainment and a more creative interpretation of actual historical events laden with critical messages for a mass audience, Vice is — simply put — a fantastic film. Think of it as a sort of cinematically opportunistic political interpretation of actual events, ala Dr. Strangelove (1964).
Back when Strangelove came out, no one thought the Stanley Kubrick masterpiece was an actual historical recount of what went on among the Joint Chiefs of Staff inside the bowels of the Pentagon. But the film exposed a far more intriguing portrait of quasi-reality and neo-history that was important to ponder. Similarly, Vice deserves to be canonized in this same class of satirical, shockingly revealing, and ultimately devastating unmaskings of the often dubious American power structure. It’s wickedly funny, revealing, and comprehensively satisfying.
One aspect of Vice I wasn’t expecting: Surprisingly, Dick Cheney is given fair treatment. He’s portrayed as genuinely sympathetic, especially when dealing with the scandalous political fallout of his daughter’s sexuality (she was gay, an anathema to Cheney’s conservative-religious political base). One presumes the real-life Cheney was just as supportive, at least privately. Cheney is also given plenty of camera time to defend his notorious abuses of power, he insisted that were used to defend American national security. You’ll have to see the film for yourself to make up your own mind as to which historical interpretation should prevail. But I was glad to see a broad spectrum of possibilities. That said, I departed the theater, not with any ramped-up hatred for Cheney (which I expected), but a more nuanced understanding of human and political complexity.
The supporting cast is marvelous, no one any better than Amy Adams who plays Cheney’s faithful, devoted wife, Lynn. Adams nails every role she’s in, and she chews the hell out of every scene in which she’s present, somehow upstaging congressmen, senators, vice presidents, and presidents — and even her husband portrayed by one of the greatest movie actors alive. Adams should get an Oscar for this role.
Steve Carrel plays former Dec. of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to utter perfection. Sam Rockwell, fresh of his Best Supporting Actor Oscar win last year, plays George W. Bush. Unnecessarily exaggerated at times, if one thinks of the Strangelove moviemaking model which is to leave viewers with over-simplistic, hyperbolic, yet memorable impressions, the weird caricatures all somehow fit. Alfred Molina nearly steals the movie in one 3-minute scene which pretty much sums up Cheney’s entire Vice Presidency. I won’t divulge any more than that.
With this latest role, Christian Bale seizes the actor’s mantle away from Daniel Day-Lewis as the Lawrence Oliver of the present generation with his spot-on, viciously accurate portrait of Dick Cheney. The British Bale (who gained 45 pounds of the role and strikes every facial tic and nuance to perfection) walks, talks, and acts just like Cheney in every scene. Evoking inevitable comparison to Gary Oldman for portraying the much older Winston Churchill last year, this year’s standout performance belongs to Bale for somehow making a dull Republican bureaucrat into a mesmerizing political portrait.
There are scenes in Vice which are brilliant and wickedly funny. Like The Big Short, a 2015 film which distilled the capitalist banking meltdown that nearly microwaved the world’s economies into a palatable story that was both digestible and wildly entertaining, Vice takes the 45-year career of a highly-connected Washington swamp serpent and remarkably makes him and his actions something intriguing.
We know how this story ends. Well, kinda’ (Cheney is still alive — one wonders what he’d say after seeing himself portrayed in this way). But even though there are few historical surprises, because of outstanding direction, a compelling script, and astounding performances, we can’t take our eyes from the screen. That’s the sign of a compelling movie worth seeing and savoring.
WATCH THE OFFICIAL FILM TRAILER FROM VICE HERE.
I give Vice a strong recommendation and a score of 8.5. This movie tells us how we got to now in America, politically-speaking.
Coming Up: On Deck for January 2018 [here are the movies I plan to see in the coming weeks]:
Roma, Vox Lux, Mary Poppins Returns, On the Basis of Sex, Cold War, Holmes & Watson, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs