Oklahoma!

A big thanks to Ken Morefield for inviting me to contribute to his series on Fred Zinnemann with this retrospective on Oklahoma!

 

 

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Suicide Squad

Year of Release: 2016             Directed by David Ayer.          Starring Margot Robbie, Will Smith, Viola Davis, Cara Delevingne, and Jared Leto.

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The biggest problem with DC’s latest attempt to set up the Justice League is that Suicide Squad is nowhere near bonkers enough. Given the original premise, it quickly falls back on generic superhero film tropes, playing it safe and sometimes boring. Basically, Suicide Squad is a remake of The Avengers in which the team of superpeople is compromised by their past unethical actions, which we never really see, raising the question: why aren’t these bad guys, bad?

A flashback tells us Will Smith’s Deadshot is a ruthless assassin, but he spends most of the film worrying about his daughter (and repeatedly telling us he’s a bad guy). Diablo (Jay Hernandez) spends all his time worrying his powers will kill people, because of what the film suggests was technically a tragic accident. Honestly, Batman’s (Ben Affleck) sucker punching of Harley Quinn – disturbingly played for laughs – is more unethical than most of the actions of these supposedly evil villains.

Captain Boomerang and Killer Croc (Jai Courtney and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, respectively) merely fill in gaps between set pieces; it would make no difference to the plot if they were taken out. And then there’s Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.

Robbie’s gleeful abandon and scenery chewing is so campy and over-the-top that I couldn’t help enjoy her performance (and, by extension a good chunk of the film as well.) If all the cast had thrown themselves into their characters with equal panache, and if the script had thrown caution to the wind embracing a nonsensical, nonlinear, go-for-broke, style-over-substance method of storytelling, this could have been one of the best superhero films yet. I’m not sure who would constitute the audience for such a film, but I know I’d really enjoy watching it. Wait, that film already exists; it’s called Batman Returns.MV5BY2ZjOGQzODMtMjk1Yy00MTQ2LTg0N2ItNjE5ZWUwZGU2Y2ZjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUwNzk3NDc@._V1_

Speaking of Burton’s 1992 cos-play camp-fest – which for the record, I think is arguably the best comic book film there is (unquestionably if you exclude Nolan’s Dark Knight) – Michelle Pfeiffer basically played the same type of character that Robbie plays here, and played it better. You could also believe Pfeiffer’s Catwoman was evil and conflicted, unlike Robbie’s Harley Quinn who comes across more as a juvenile delinquent, another undermining of the “bad guys” premise.

As it is, Suicide Squad has glimmers of the campy vitality it needed a lot more of, and for this non-comic book geek, they were enough to make this marginally more enjoyable than Captain America: Civil War. For anyone else who has normal taste, it looks as if Suicide Squad will be roundly hated, which I wouldn’t argue.

Other pluses are director Ayer’s choice to keep the violence on a more contained scale than other recent supertype films, and the choreography of fight scenes is not a chaotic frenzy, even though his color palette quickly becomes monotonous.

MV5BMjA4OTczODM5NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDk3NDY1OTE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1503,1000_AL_As to actual villains, the film gives us three: Viola Davis’ unethical and eminently hateable antiheroine Amanda Waller, Cara Delevingne’s diabolical Aztec witch Enchantress whom the team must assemble to defeat (and whose plan and final confrontation looks like a knock-off of Gozer the Gozerian with updated special effects), and Jared Leto’s Joker who randomly pops in when the script needs him to throw a wrench into the proceedings. Leto has so little screentime, it’s hard to know what to make of his funny voice and creepy sensual antics, other than it seems he’s going out of his way to make sure no one thinks of Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson.

Like many recent superhero films, the script feels overstuffed with too many characters who make no difference to the plot. I appreciated the efficiency of the opening montage in which Waller details who she’s recruiting and gives us a brief overview of their past, but the film takes no time to develop them later, other than Harley Quinn and Deadshot.

For a film that was meant to make us root for antiheroes as they attempted to do some good, I honestly can’t even call these members of the Suicide Squad that. Either we don’t see them as evil, or the few bad choices they make they later regret and wish to avoid repeating. The result is just another superhero film with two (maybe three) memorable characters and a cast of easily forgettable action-fillers. But the soundtrack uses the opening of Bohemian Rhapsody, so let’s bump it up half a letter grade.

 

Content Advisory: Much action violence, frequent partial rear nudity, unethical behavior throughout, occasional vulgarity, and a few mild obscenities.            MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment

Personal Recommendation: B-

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The Last Days of Disco

Year of Release: 1998             Directed by Whit Stillman.     Starring Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Chris Eigeman, Mackenzie Astin, Matt Keeslar, Tara Subkoff, and Robert Sean Leonard.

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As a Catholic, frequenting the sacrament of confession has been a fairly regular aspect of my life.  And for the most part, I have spent a good portion of my life confessing the same sins over and over again, despite my best intentions not to continue committing them. I think of that when Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), who spends a good portion of this film blissfully unaware that she tries to control others’ lives while cattily judging them, reflects on the beauty of Amazing Grace. As she proceeds to sing the first two verses, we see some of the costly consequences of her and her friend Alice’s (Chloë Sevigny) mistakes as well as opportunities for second chances. And after this moment of moral insight, in the next scene, she returns to being a bitch toward her friends.

That mixture of trying and promptly forgetting to try to do what’s right is what gives The Last Days of Disco an endearing balance of comedy, pathos, and insight. As Eve Tushnet wrote:

“There are ways of doing tragedy or satire where it’s about people willfully being awful, but I think my favorite tragedies and satires are about how many important things we botch when we’re trying very hard not to.”

From the very first scene, we watch all the characters stress and meticulously calculate the most probable way they will gain admittance to the prestigious disco club in Manhattan. After walking to the club, Charlotte and Alice decide it will look more prestigious if they arrive in a cab, so they hail one to drive them less than a block. Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), whose advertising firm has given him the odd ultimatum to get clients into the disco club or be fired, frets over the best way to make a good impression on the bouncer, and he goes so far as to give one of his clients his coat to mask the gaudy plaid jacket the man is wearing. Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) is going along with Jimmy, and he ends up getting into the club by the luck of escaping the bouncer’s notice. For all the worry of these characters about proving the value of their social lives by entering the disco club, whether they succeed, to a large extent, comes down to luck.

Last_Days_of_Disco_3R_Feature_Current_originalThe aura of prestige surrounding disco serves as a reminder that there are things worth striving for and that even a genre as reviled as disco may have more value than its detractors give it credit for. The titular words, “the last days” suggests a time that is passing and worth remembering, but it also suggests that the characters should think about a future outside of disco.

 

One permanent fixture at the club is Des, (an endearingly complacent Chris Eigeman) whose job is some sort of back entrance bouncer and other miscellaneous tasks. Eigeman perfectly captures the film’s heart of trying and failing by trying for all the wrong things. He puts his energy into making sure his ex-girlfriends still like him by telling them he’s gay, or might be gay, rather than putting energy into the relationships. He spends more time rationalizing why he’s the best for his job instead of doing his job. Ultimately, he does have a brilliant and amusing moment of insight when he turns an oft-misquoted Shakespeare line on its head:

“You know that Shakespearean admonition, “To thine own self be true?” It’s premised on the idea that “thine own self” is something pretty good, being true to which is commendable. But what if “thine own self” is not so good? What if it’s pretty bad? Would it be better, in that case, not to be true to thine own self? See, that’s my situation.”

As Charlotte and Alice, Beckinsale and Sevigny make a compelling screen duo, anchoring the ensemble and portraying a friendship and rivalry of two young women both working in publishing in New York. They both want to support one another, and the scene where they put down a patronizing male co-worker makes for great comedy, but neither wants to disadvantage her career or social standing by helping the other too much.

Alice is a more reserved person who clearly has less partying experience, and her hesitance in ordering drinks and only naming one or two cocktails with which she’s familiar is funny to anyone who’s been in a bar for the first time and only knows a couple of drinks, if any. Alice’s desire for a dating life leads to regrettable consequences as she tries her hardest to go about it the culturally “right” way. Charlotte’s insists that she and Alice will be good friends, even as she pushes Alice into awkward scenarios for the sake of boosting her ego. Nearly all of their behavior contributes to that central character flaw of trying the wrong way and repeatedly making the same mistakes.

Finally, the film is loaded with subtle moments of humor, which I must confess, I totally missed on my first viewing several years ago. The comic awkwardness of trying to do what is expected while being totally unsure what that is comes across beautifully, and it makes all these characters loveable as they try, despite their propensity for messing up. Because after all, we have a God who loves us despite our messing-up the same way over and over again.

 

Content Advisory: Brief full frontal nudity, a fleeting shot of an interrupted sexual encounter, casual discussion of sex acts, and some drug use.              MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Arts & Faith 2016 Top 25 Films on Mercy

The Arts & Faith Community has released their 2016 Top 25 film list, and the theme for this year is films on mercy. That theme was partially chosen as a way of participating in this year of mercy, as proclaimed by Pope Francis. I’m proud to say that I nominated the theme of films on mercy, although I doubt it would have been chosen without some serious lobbying from Deacon Steven D. Greydanus of Decent Films. So thanks, Deacon SDG!

As a member of A&F for several years now, I am happy to have voted in this list, and I think it is one of our finest lists yet, with titles spanning 93 years, 4 continents, and 10 countries. As Steven says in his excellent introduction:

“Watching these films, we may reflect on the scope of – and the need for – mercy in our own lives. In the face of the latest crushing evidence of man’s inhumanity to man, the Top 25 Films on Mercy remind us that the way it too often is isn’t the whole story, or the way it has to be.”

I think all these films have the potential to challenge and uplift, and hopefully make us think about mercy and what it means to be merciful, from the mercy of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp in the bleak world of City Lights and The Kid, to the second chance offered to a troubled youth in The Kid with a Bike, and to the umpteenth attempt at reunion and forgiveness which plagues a broken family in Pieces of April – one of my favorites titles to have been included.

And now, make sure to check out all the films which made the list!

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Maggie’s Plan

Year of release: 2016    Directed by Rebecca Miller.   Starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Bill Hader, Travis Fimmel, and Maya Rudolph.

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Portraying different perspectives can be difficult in film. In writing the technique is natural – the author just switches to a different narrative voice. However, a film’s story is primarily told through the camera, which usually acts as a sort of third person observer, independent from the limited perspective of a specific character. One of the most remarkable aspects of Maggie’s Plan is the way director/writer Rebecca Miller shifts the narrative perspective from that of the titular protagonist to an independent third person observer over the course of the film.

The first act of the film is told from the perspective of Maggie, played by Greta Gerwig with her typical awkward charm and effervescence. Since Maggie is headstrong and somewhat blinded by her determination, she sees the world in clear terms of black and white. As a result, her friends and acquaintances appear almost as caricatures, or slightly too much for the story – a criticism she levels at her lover John’s (Ethan Hawke) novel.

However, after an unexpected shift coupled with a chronological jump of a few years, the narrative perspective of the film pulls back to that of an independent observer and allows us to see all the characters as they are. Maggie is determined, organized, and very optimistic, but she is also a control freak, or “bossypants,” as called by her friends’ young son. Ethan Hawke’s John is an accomplished scholar and lecturer, but something of a man-child and a workaholic as well. John’s wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) first appears as an oppressive witch, but as we learn more about her, her strong will is mitigated by her compassion and concern for her family.

MV5BNjUzMDgyODE0MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTMzMjc2ODE@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_In order to fully reflect the shifting narrative perspectives, the actors subtly alter their performances. When we first meet Georgette, Moore speaks with an over-the-top accent for the shrewish foreign wife. That accent naturally mellows as the audience sees her from a perspective other than Maggie’s. With her seamless fluctuation between stony and sensitive, Moore nearly steals the movie. When Maggie is infatuated with John, his immature ticks come across as cute, but Hawke makes those ticks more exaggerated when we are meant to see him as less mature than we initially thought.

Maggie herself is highly organized, independent, and seemingly in charge of her life. The film opens with her planning to become a single mom via artificial insemination and avoid the pitfalls of a romance. Her best friends (Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph) express some hesitance at her headstrong confidence that everything will go exactly as she wants, but she shrugs them off because she knows she is in control. As Maggie’s manipulative scheming makes a mess not only of her life, but John’s and his family’s as well, the irony of the control freak masterminding a scenario in which she has no control is highly apparent. I particularly appreciated the honesty of the film in depicting the pain and difficulty caused by divorce, affairs, and artificial insemination.

My biggest complaint is that the ending ties all the plot points together too neatly. While I appreciate the ending’s inclusion of a character who had been out of the film until then, the simple solution it offered undermined the messy consequences that the characters had all learned to live with. As a result, it returned to the too-muchness of the beginning when we only saw characters via Maggie’s perspective.

Maggie is another successful creation of Gerwig’s. She may not be as strong and as loveable and funny as Gerwig’s recent collaborations with Noah Baumbach, but Gerwig’s naturally joyful persona successfully anchors this story about learning to let go of control, and she’s bolstered by strong performances from the rest of the cast as well.

 

 

Content Advisory: Brief sexual activity with partial nudity, frank discussion of artificial insemination including a non-graphic depiction of the procedure, and casual rough language throughout.               MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Adults with discernment

Personal Recommendation: B

 

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