Thursday, December 28, 2017

All the Money in the World

Yesterday I saw All the Money in the World, starring Christopher Plummer and Michelle Williams.

The film is based on the true story of Paul Getty's kidnapping in 1973. Getty (Charlie Plummer) was of course the grandson of JP Getty (Christopher Plummer), the billionaire oil tycoon.

Gail Getty (Michelle Williams) receives a call one day that her son Paul has been abducted and the kidnappers are demanding a ransom of $17 million. Though she's not in contact with her drug-addicted ex-husband, she does appeal to his wealthy father for the money, which he flatly refuses, suspecting Paul staged the kidnapping himself to extort cash from him.

As the weeks go on, it's evident the abduction is real, but Getty still can't be convinced and getting tired of waiting, the captors sell him to another group of criminals who aren't as nice (the first group let him listen to the radio, fed him relatively well, etc.)—everything escalates and a violent action is taken to prove they're serious.

It's only then that the victim's grandfather considers the situation 'real' and decides to help ... with conditions.

The film is heart-pounding suspenseful, even if you know the outcome. To say the acting is good would be an understatement, especially considering that this film was "in the can" so to speak when Kevin Spacey's controversy emerged and director Ridley Scott decided to replace him with Christopher Plummer.

How they seamlessly re-shot all of the senior Getty's scenes and edited them into the final print in time for their original release date is baffling to me, but they did. And they did it well.

No one would ever know that Plummer came in on the fly or that any of the scenes were filmed out of sync with the rest. It's flawless and the story is so strong, you forget about the "replacement" about 5 minutes in.

I loved this movie because it's a good movie, but I recommend it with twice as much emphasis because of the circumstance.


The Shape of Water

On Christmas Eve I saw The Shape of Water, starring Sally Hawkins and Michael Shannon.

Elisa (Hawkins) is a mute cleaning lady at a scientific facility in the early 1960s. She leads a simple life: sleeps alone in a modest apartment; watches TV with her neighbor and prepares the same lunch every day. Her best friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) can easily communicate with her despite the fact she doesn't speak. She seems content with her situation.

One day, the horrible boss (Shannon) brings in a male sea creature that captures Elisa's attention. Though he's chained to his survival tank and has displayed violent behavior to the team, she is unafraid and begins sharing her lunch with him.

The two different species develop a friendship and soon enough Elisa is obsessed with saving the creature from a miserable fate. She enlists the help of Zelda and her neighbor (Richard Jenkins, at his comedic best), risking her job and perhaps her life.

This is a movie with everything. It has humor, sadness, fright, romance, fear—seriously, everything.

As a huge fan of director Guillermo del Toro's Pan Labyrinth, I was expecting to be entertained in an intelligent, unique way, but this soared well above and beyond even that level of greatness. Though there was more blood than I typically tolerate, none of it was gratuitous, nor was the sex or the language (and there's that too).

It's just a brilliantly acted, beautifully shot masterpiece with a beating heart.


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Tonight I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi, starring Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher.

The film picks up soon after The Force Awakens left off showing us Rey (Daisy Ridley), a cliffside compound and the legendary Luke Skywalker (Hamill). Instead of the badass we know him to be, Luke has retreated to a monk-like lifestyle, watching over the ancient Jedi texts as he reflects on his regrets regarding nephew, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). He has no desire to return to battle.

Meanwhile, the Resistance is facing more drama and they're in desperate need of some backup. After perhaps too many characters get a few moments in the spotlight, everything scatters into chaos. There are welcome additions, however, like the spritely Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) who meshes well with Finn (John Boyega).

I could have done with less of them, though—and Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Though they're all good characters portrayed by good actors, I'd just have preferred a shorter movie that had less going on the side. The core of the film is Luke and Leia (Fisher) and Ren and Rey. And they can hold their own.

That said, I still think this was a great movie. The original Star Wars was the first film I ever saw in a theater and I will always get goosebumps when that iconic score bursts into sound, no matter what installment of the story I'm watching. I haven't loved all of them, but this one to me felt like the classic in many ways, and for that I am grateful.

Yes, the characters tell us throughout that the torch is being passed. The title itself implies the Jedis are on their way out. A new generation is taking over, blah blah. But I'd argue that the real message here was that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Through all that transpires (and I won't spoil for those who have yet to see), it all goes back to Luke and Leia. C-3PO and R2-D2 pop in, along with Chewbacca and Yoda. In the traditional sense, some of those appearances are cameos, but they don't feel that way. Their presence (whether literal or metaphorical) is a comfort; something that's always been there and that will continue to be when all of us kids from the '70s—who were the first to freak out in this alternate reality—are long gone to enjoy it.

I liked the strong message about the future being female (listen closely to Carrie Fisher's last line), the nod to children and the younger characters emerging strong. But what I liked more was the sense of history and lineage that permeates the franchise and has never been more evident as it is now.

The Force will always be with us.


Friday, December 15, 2017

Victoria & Abdul

Today I saw Victoria & Abdul, starring Dame Judi Dench and Ali Fazal.

Queen Victoria (Dench) made friends with one of her Indian servants, Abdul Karim (Fazal) toward the end of her life and ruffled many feathers in her household.

The film is based on a true story, though the disclaimer at the beginning admits it gets it "mostly" right. Knowing that, I decided just to sit back and enjoy the ride, and I very much did.

Dame Judi Dench, who has played this queen before, has her down pat. Based on how the history books describe the legendary Victoria, she exemplifies the best and worst of her without making her a caricature. Ali Fazal in the role of Abdul is handsome and likable, though probably not quite as arrogant as the real man was.

Their chemistry was real and their pairing unlikely, but the two developed a genuine kinship that so annoyed her family and staff that they burned all of her letters to him upon her passing. What survived was Karim's diary, which was passed down in his family and only revealed to the public in 2010.

Though the content is indisputably light, the story has darker tones of racism and class divisions that absolutely contributed to the controversy surrounding their friendship.

What a shame that so many years later, we still have similar issues.



Today I saw the documentary Voyeur.

In the late '60s, Gerald Foos bought a motel in Aurora, Colorado for the sole purpose of voyeurism. He built a platform in the attic and drilled a viewing panel underneath fake air vents so he could see his guests, but not be seen by them.

On this platform he spent endless days and nights witnessing random private behaviors, intimate sexual acts and once, even a murder. He doesn't express remorse or guilt over all of this because he saw himself at the time as a researcher, not unlike famed doctors Masters and Johnson (though their subjects always knew when they were watching).

Of course, his "research" wasn't always clinical, as he did confess to the sexual pleasure derived from witnessing it. But he did keep meticulous records of the guests and their actions (orgasms included).

In the early '80s, Foos wrote a letter to journalist Gay Talese, who had authored a saucy book, The Neighbor's Wife, about the fluid sex lives of Americans. Foos confessed his practices and offered the story to Talese because he felt it needed to be told. Talese kept the knowledge of this tricked-out motel confidential (even visiting and witnessing acts himself) and spent decades learning all about Foos and his obsessions.

A documentary crew got involved and chronicled the journey of Talese writing the book and regularly meeting with Foos, and that's the finished film we get here.

Though it sounds X-rated, this movie plays it safe with only brief nudity and references to sexual behaviors as part of the reenactments. Really, it's primarily talking head video of the journalist and his subject, the friends they become and the battles they get into as the years go on.

I was intrigued by the subject matter (and the fact Foos was never convicted of any crimes) but must admit after the story was told, I began to find all of the major players quite sad.

It's interesting enough not to walk away from, but not captivating enough to leave you wanting more.


Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Lady Bird

Today I saw Lady Bird, starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.

When discussing films in the coming-of-age genre, with few exceptions we typically refer to films about boys: Stand By MeThe Goonies, etc. Perhaps that's why it's so refreshing to see a girl figuring things out in this brilliant directorial debut from Greta Garwig.

Christine (Ronan) demands to be called Lady Bird and wishes to leave what she calls "the Midwest of California" (a.k.a. Sacramento) in the dust for a New York college. She's bored at Catholic school (although she doesn't do so well in it) and falls in and out of love with boys who seem to like her back. Her family is refreshingly real (Dad's out of work; Mom is overly critical) and her best friend is sweet and supportive.

As Lady Bird makes her way through her senior year of high school, she's both clever and clumsy in her quest to reach her goals. Her honesty sometimes gets her in trouble, but we continue to root for her regardless.

But her story is admittedly not terribly compelling. What's so well done here is the character exposition. We feel as if we know each of the players intimately, but none of them are shoved in our face. What isn't said between Lady Bird and her mother is far more powerful than what is, and the performances by Ronan and Metcalf are a huge part of that success.

It's been a while since a movie made me laugh and cry in equal measure—I'm thankful Ms. Gerwig brought that kind of emotion out in me. And I can't wait to see what she does next.