Monday, October 10, 2016

Oscars and Monsters and Poor Career Choices

The Revenant (2015): adapted by Alejandro Inarritu and Mark L. Smith from the novel by Michael Punke; directed by Alejandro Inarritu; starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Hugh Glass); Tom Hardy (John Fitzgerald); and Domhnall Gleason (Captain Henry): Set in early 19th-century Montana and South Dakota, The Revenant is an odyssey of survival and revenge for guide Hugh Glass, played almost silently by Leonardo DiCaprio in a role that won him his first Best Actor Oscar

There's nothing wrong with that acting -- boy, does Glass suffer, and boy is he covered in filth and wounds for most of the movie! Alejandro Inarritu won his second straight directorial Oscar (the first was for the previous year's Birdman), and he certainly puts on a grimy, Sublime, haunting show of photography. Vaguely based on a true story, The Revenant is the Western as horror movie with more than a hint of a Republic serial re-imagined as being deadly serious yet, through the sheer accumulation of unfortunate events, almost comic as it reaches its end. 

Glass is a Beckett character, crawling through the muck, transforming into the vengeful 'dead' man of the title. Tom Hardy has never been better as pragmatic trapper Fitzgerald, Glass' nemesis in the movie (though not in real life). Some trimming might have helped -- by the time Glass and the horse go over a cliff, my suspension of disbelief had been exhausted. Recommended.

The Thing (1982): adapted by Bill Lancaster from the novella "Who Goes There?" (1938) by John W. Campbell Jr.; directed by John Carpenter; starring Kurt Russell (MacReady); Wilford Brimley (Blair), Keith David (Childs), Richard Dysart (Copper), and Donald Moffat (Garry): Alien (1979) was a great screech of cosmic horror mingled with body horror in the best Lovecraftian tradition. The Thing is its thematic sequel, taking fears of bodily invasion and transformation and making them even more horrifying and goopy. 

The Thing was adapted previously by Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks in the 1950's as a sort-of Cold War paranoia thriller with an evil carrot rather than an evil, well, disease. This version is truer to John W. Campbell Jr.'s 1938 novella in terms of location (Antarctica, not the Arctic of the 1950's version) and monster (a body-invading, endlessly replicating Thing rather than a vampiric, Frankensteinian Creature). The Hawks film was much truer to the character dynamics of Campbell's novella, where manly, competent men met a terrible threat with overwhelming, intelligent, manly camaraderie.

Here, our heroes are fractious as per the model of the Nostromo's crew in Alien. Given that the Thing could be any one of them (or even all of them -- it's just that invasive!), their paranoia is understandable. But they still team up to battle an alien invasion. One of the things that makes The Thing stand out even more now is the lack of references to the characters' lives outside Antarctica: one imagines that, remade today, there would have to be some motivations assigned to the characters for their resistance to the invasion. 

Because people don't do things in NuHollywood unless there's a wife or child involved. This lack of 'personal motivation' makes The Thing bracing in my estimation -- the men are trying to save the world with no possible hope of rescue or survival. And even the most grumpy among them realize the scope of the Thing's danger and set to work. It's almost like people can do things for the common good without specific personal motivation!

The actors (what a cast!) are great, the creature effects still chilling and awful, the scenery still Sublime, the whole thing still rousing and disturbing. What's weird is that The Thing is hopeful about humanity in a way few horror movies allow themselves to be. But avoid the dopey 2011 prequel! Highly recommended.

Misery (1990): adapted by William Goldman from the novel by Stephen King; directed by Rob Reiner; starring Kathy Bates (Annie Wilkes); James Caan (Paul Sheldon); Richard Farnsworth (Sheriff Buster), Frances Sternhagen (Deputy Virginia), and Lauren Bacall (Paul's Agent): Kathy Bates deservedly won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Annie Wilkes, self-proclaimed "number-one fan" of historical romance writer Paul Sheldon. And James Caan is really good as Sheldon in a role that confines him to bed and wheelchair for much of Misery's running time. 

This is one of a handful of the sharpest adaptations of a novel by Stephen King, alternately funny and horrifying in a way that replicates King's prose. King signed off on Rob Reiner directing after the success of Reiner's previous King adaptation, Stand by Me, the movie from the novella that gave a name to Reiner's production company (Castle Rock). William Goldman and Rob Reiner tone down some of the novel's more gruesomely baroque moments (bye-bye lawnmower!), but there's still lots of body horror to go around. Bates' Wilkes is a menacing but at times oddly sympathetic character -- it seems at times that she's fully aware of what a monster she is. Highly recommended.

Sisters (2015): written by Paula Pell; directed by Jason Moore; starring Tina Fey (Kate Ellis) and Amy Poehler (Maura Ellis): What a dreadful movie, dreadfully wasting a talented cast in a misbegotten attempt to put smart comic actors Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in a raunchy attempt to duplicate a Judd Apatow film. Or maybe Seth Rogen's Neighbours. It's awful. An immensely talented cast is awful. The writing is awful. The desperate mugging and improvising by the cast is awful. There are laughs scattered throughout, but it's agony to reach them. Possibly the worst 'major' movie of 2015. Not recommended.

Gods of Egypt (2016): written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless; directed by Alex Proyas; starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Horus); Brenton Thwaites (Bek); Elodie Yung (Hathor); Bryan Brown (Osiris); Chadwick Boseman (Thoth); Gerard Butler (Set); and Geoffrey Rush (Ra): That none of the major characters are played by Egyptian, Persian, or Arabic actors stirred something of a media firestorm. The moviemakers may have welcomed this -- Gods of Egypt wasn't going to get any buzz for actually being good. What the Hell happened to Alex (The Crow, Dark City) Proyas in the last 15 years? Great Osiris! 

The set design and CGI are the most interesting things in this movie which, like Disney's Aladdin, riffs without credit on those two old Thief of Baghdad movies by centering its story on a thief (Bek) who gets caught up in wacky supernatural adventures. The cast keeps a straight face. They should get awards for that. Not the worst big-budget, CGI spectacular ever made -- its dopiness is pretty much in line with about a hundred other gods-and-monsters movies from the 1960's and 1950's. 

The movie would be much more interesting if the Egyptian gods all had their animal heads for the entire running time rather than just when they're fighting. And given that the gods have gold running through their veins (and I assume arteries), what's their body temperature? For reasons unexplained, the great serpent Apophis looks an awful lot like a Dune sandworm on steroids, marking the sandworm's second unlikely cameo in an 18-month period (the first being in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies). Lightly recommended.

Churchill's Secret (2016): adapted by Stewart Harcourt from the novel by Jonathan Smith; directed by Charles Sturridge; starring Michael Gambon (Winston Churchill), Romola Garai (Nurse Millie Appleyard); and Lindsay Duncan (Clemmie Churchill): Prime Minister Winston Churchill suffered at least two debilitating strokes in June 1953, two years after being re-elected in 1951. The public didn't know this until decades later, as it was covered up. This partially fictional film details Churchill's recovery, with the narrative focused through a fictional nurse who cares for Churchill at his ancestral estate while he convalesces. It's a typically fine BBC/PBS production with beautifully modulated performances throughout, most notably by Romola Garai as the fictional Nurse Appleyard and Michael Gambon as Churchill.  Churchill's warts -- especially his problematic family life -- are on full display, though the entire effort really serves to humanize him. Recommended.

The Magnificent Seven (1960): adapted from the Akira Kurosawa film Seven Samurai by William Roberts; directed by John Sturges; starring Yul Brynner (Chris); Eli Wallach (Calvera); Steve McQueen (Tanner); Horst Buchholz (Chico); Charles Bronson (O'Reilly); Robert Vaughn (Lee); Brad Dexter (Harry); James Coburn (Britt); Vladimir Sokoloff (Old Man); and Rosendo Monteros (Petra): By my count, this is the second major Hollywood MetaWestern (after Shane). That is, what seems like an elegy for the vanishing American West of the late 19th century -- so vanishing that most of the action takes place in Mexico! -- is also an elegy for the American Western movie. In 1960, Westerns were well on their way out. The Magnificent Seven celebrates their strengths while also pointing the way towards the relatively brief renaissance of the grittier, grimier, more morally ambiguous Spaghetti Western that would soon rise and then quickly fade.

These are still the clean-cut cowboys of the 1940's and 1950's Western. But the early scenes that introduce protagonists Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner focus on how these two gunslingers really have nowhere to go in the increasingly civilized American West -- the only job available for McQueen in the American border town at the start of the movie is as a grocery clerk. When three Mexicans from a village annually looted by bandido Calvera and his men meet with Brynner to offer him money to solve the Calvera problem, Brynner accepts. And has little problem rounding up the other six members of his merry band.

The rest, as they say, is movie history. There's almost no blood or gore in the film. However, Sturges stages the deaths of those Magnificent Seven who don't survive the final battle with Calvera in various, almost mournfully abject ways, never moreso than with one gunslinger who collapses into an upright fetal position against a wall. It's not that much of a cinematic leap from The Magnificent Seven to the more graphic and downbeat The Wild Bunch, set even later in the Western period and offering a continuation and an amplification of this movie's elegaic qualities while also offering a revisionist take on Western morals (and clothing styles).

This is a fine movie -- stylistically still very much a last gasp of classical Hollywood cinema. The cast does lovely work, from Brynner and McQueen as the greatest of the enlisted gunslingers to Horst Buchholz as a young gunfighter from Mexican heritage. The musical score by Elmer Bernstein is also pivotal. This is the rare remake of a foreign film (Kurosawa's Seven Samurai) that works beautifully on its own. Highly recommended.

Foul Play (1978): written and directed by Colin Higgins; starring Goldie Hawn (Gloria Mundy); Chevy Chase (Tony); Burgess Meredith (Hennessey); Brian Dennehy (Fergie); Dudley Moore (Stanley Tibbetts); and Billy Barty (MacKuen): Foul Play's writer-director Colin Higgins also wrote Silver Streak and Harold and Maude, and was writer-director of 9 to 5. That's a pretty solid resume for Higgins, who died at the age of 47 in 1988. And Foul Play is still a lot of fun. Foul Play was slightly retooled to be a star vehicle for both Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase, the latter coming off his single, hyper-popular-break-out year on Saturday Night Live. I'm pretty sure Chase's pratfalls in this movie were written for him. 

The movie itself is quite charming, though there are a couple of jarring bits of violence amidst the goofball stuff. And there are Hitchcock homages galore. Burgess Meredith slathers it on a bit too thickly as Hawn's lovable Irish neighbour. Billy Barty and Dudley Moore have terrific supporting roles (this was Moore's American movie debut), with Moore's work pretty much getting him 10 and Arthur. I still think Dan Brown stole the Albino in The DaVinci Code from this film. I mean, there's even a papal assassination plot and an anti-Catholic organization in this movie! And Billy Barty! Goldie Hawn is super-cute. Chevy Chase is Chevy Chase. Recommended.

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