From the Archive — The Last King of Scotland

last king

I don’t have much to add about this review, originally written for my former online home. I’m a little surprised it’s as long as it is, given this is a film I’ve barely spared a thought for in the years since, even if it was responsible for Forest Whitaker winning an Academy Award.

I would argue that film has a greater capability than any other medium to forcefully depict the unthinkable acts perpetrated by humanity against itself. The shock of visually seeing something awful can transcend even the most intricate descriptions of the same act, and the immersive quality of film — that settling into a theater seat and allowing the images to create an overwhelming experience — can lock out distractions that would otherwise blunt the impact. Whether in a documentary or a fictional depiction of actual events, filmmakers can make the desperate horrors of the world more real to those of us removed from them than they would be otherwise.

Idi Amin was took power in Uganda in 1971 and remained the president until deposed in 1979. During that span, as many as 500,000 were murdered under his regime. In the new film The Last King of Scotland, those deaths are reduced to a few photographs scattered onto a table in front of the the protagonist. The movie is about Idi Amin and his rule, but the missed opportunity to make us feel the damage of his rule, perhaps even the abdicated responsibility to bring us the emotions and fear and terrors of that time and place, suitably encapsulate everything that is wrong with the film.

Strangely enough, director Kevin Macdonald’s previous film, the reenactment-aided documentary Touching the Void, was all about recreating and conveying the emotions of the story he depicted. That film related the tragic consequences of a duo’s mountain climbing adventure in the Andes, and every agonizing bit of their dilemma is there on the screen. With more freedom in Last King, Macdonald counter-intuitively winds up with a final product that is far less impactful.

The film is based on an award-winning 1998 novel by Giles Foden. The story centers on a fictional Scottish doctor who impulsively journeys to Uganda for relief works, and finds himself drawn into Amin’s circle as a personal physician and political confidant. Not only does this follow in the sorry filmmaking tradition of examining the history of Africa through the eyes of white lead characters, but it ostensibly provides a conduit to reasonably accessing any facets of Amin’s rule that the film wishes to examine. If the character is completely invented and established as close to Amin, he can get anywhere, see anything the filmmakers want him to see. He is also, theoretically anyway, always in danger. The film decisively establishes Amin’s volatility, but there’s little tension. Moments that should be harrowing are instead distant. James McAvoy does a passable job with the role of the doctor, but he’s given little to do beyond pine after married women and spiral into guilty despair over the history he’s witnessed. His character is there to build some contrived conflict into the film (a largely unnecessary conceit given that the region itself is already rife with conflict) and spiral into guilty despair when a third act is needed.

Forest Whitaker is admittedly a powerful presence as Idi Amin. Whitaker captures the swagger in Amin’s self-composure, the boldness in his public pronouncements of dedication to the people. Without every compromising the undercurrent of madness in the dictator, Whitaker manages to demonstrate how he could be a compelling figure. He shows why Ugandans would initially cheer for this man. He digs as deeply into the character as the film and the script will allow, but when he largely disappears for significant stretches — at one point doing little more than play the accordion during a crucial stretch in the middle of the film — it’s hard to buy into the enveloping quality the man had, and harder still to understand him as a full-blooded character. It’s nice work by Whitaker, to be sure. It’s just a shame that the film builds in so many buffers to keep us from feeling the performance and the horrible touch of the man he portrays.

Now Playing — Bad Times at the El Royale

bad times

Drew Goddard’s feature directorial debut, The Cabin in the Woods, has aged very nicely for me. The film’s impish deconstruction of the horror genre was fun from the start, but the layers of cunning stirred in me a long-lasting appreciation for the ways in which Goddard embraced the inherent power in well-worn tropes while also giving them a knowing tweak. The delighted meta shenanigans give the whole enterprise a winning intelligence and low-sizzle current of insightful commentary.

The follow-up has been a long time coming, in part because Goddard got waylaid by Sony’s bumbling management of their Marvel properties, working for ages on a Sinister Six project that was eventually scrapped. An Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Martian kept Goddard somewhat in play (and he deserves extra credit for directing the wildest episode of The Good Place), but it’s taken too long for the latest film to bear his full authorial signature.

Bad Times at the El Royale is another genre exercise, albeit one less ruthless in its demolishing of established narrative devices. Set in the late nineteen-sixties, the film brings together several disparate characters in a border-straddling motel that’s seen better, far more glamorous days. As they check in, it’s clear that all carry heavy, tricky secrets, and Goddard’s ingenuity is in the way he systematically reveals all, holding back key details until the most opportune time to foist them on the audience, like bursts of confetti that just may carry toxins, or maybe wisps of psychotropics. All the ingredients of twisty thrillers are in place — kidnappings, gunplay, missing stashes of stolen money, sordid doings of all stripes — and Goddard absolutely revels in the grand excess he’s created.

And Goddard has assembled a band of game collaborators. The art direction, production design, and costume design are all dazzling, as is the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey. And the assembled actors tackle their complicated roles with verve. Jon Hamm continues his stretch of roles that reward (and benefit from) his robustly playful instincts, Lewis Pullman somehow keeps finding new pockets of internal turbulence as the sole employee of the motel, and Cynthia Erivo is nothing short of sensational as a girl group singer trying to eke out a living in a hard business that rejected her. The actors have the enticing but tricky task of using bold strokes while also keeping the characters grounded enough that there are real stakes to the mounting mayhem. Largely, they succeed admirably.

The film loses its way somewhat in its final act, in part because Goddard allows one particularly character to push too far into outright villainy, at odds with what’s been previously established. Following the intricate care of the earlier portions of the film, the descent into simply drawn conflict seems too pat, even as Goddard stages it energetically. Bad Times at the El Royale misplaces some of its inventiveness when it’s arguably needed the most, when a sharp ending could have served as the perfect bookend with the film’s crisp, shrewdly conceived opening sequence. It’s a touch of disappointment that isn’t likely to linger. As I’ve come to realize about Goddard’s work, it’s the strengths that endure.

Playing Catch-Up — T2 Trainspotting; Game Night; RBG

t2 train

T2 Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 2017). From the moment it was announced, director Danny Boyle’s choice to develop a sequel to his breakthrough film, Trainspotting, seemed highly suspect, a seemingly desperate creative retreat for a filmmaker whose recent projects — even when generally well regarded — just weren’t quite clicking. I was wrong. In peeping back in on the Scottish hooligan drug users twenty years later, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge (working with characters created by novelist Irvine Welsh) craft a cinematic effort of stinging emotional bruises, grimly wise humor, and marvelous visual invention. The dabs of nostalgia, in the form of imagery echoes and musical cues (in one perfect moment, literally presented as a needle drop), are consistently presented with jolting ingenuity. It also helps that the various returning actors have all grown stronger at their craft. T2 Trainspotting is equal to its predecessor. It might even be better.

 

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Game Night (John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, 2018). This comedy is essentially a riff on The Game, David Fincher’s 1997 feature that trapped Michael Douglas’s wealthy misanthrope in an enjoyably ludicrous LARP of dangerous riddles and mounting conspiracy. The regular gathering of board games and generous wine pours hosted by married couple Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, respectively) is infiltrated by Max’s hotshot brother (Kyle Chandler), who wants to add a little excitement by hiring a company that specializes in elaborately dramatized mysteries, a little like an escape room place that makes house calls. Then the make believe mayhem coincides with real thugs storming, but the genial suburbanites think its still a harmless diversion. Mark Perez’s screenplay is clever and well-constructed, and directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who were shockingly artless in their approach to the Vacation update) handle the plot’s complexities and splintered perspective with admirable skill. It’s the cast that really sells it, though, led by Billy Magnussen, who nails the requisite dumb guy role, and especially Rachel McAdams, who works wonders in a bar scene in which her character is delightfully invested in the whole affair.

 

rbg

RBG (Betsy West and Julie Cohen, 2018). Rather opportunistically, this documentary grabs ahold of the Supreme Court Justice who’s surged to unlikely superstar status in recent years and squeezes tight with lots of love. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career merits reverence as much for the gender discrimination cases she argued as an attorney before the highest court in the land as it does for her decades served as a justice. Initially a pragmatist, Ginsburg has become a bulwark for progressive values as new colleagues have skewed far to the right. Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen deliver a survey more than a deep consideration on Ginsburg’s work and legacy, which sometimes keeps the film at such a surface level than it’s almost glib. Despite the flaws, Ginsburg — who gave the filmmakers ample access — shines through as a vital, inspiring presence.

From the Archive — Lars and the Real Girl

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As Ryan Gosling blasts into theaters as Neil Armstrong, I’ll take advantage of this space to look back to when he was still venturing on occasion into a different kind of character role. I think this might still represent his strongest acting to date. The review here was originally written for my former online home. 

Lars and the Real Girl has an absurd premise. Withdrawn to the point of being socially maladjusted, Lars is an office drone in a small Wisconsin town. He’s paralyzed by the plainest pleasantries from his coworkers and practically runs away when his sister-in-law tries to coax him from his tiny garage apartment to a family dinner in the main house. He begins to open up a bit when he gets a new girlfriend. Unfortunately, he gets her by ordering from a Website. She’s a life-size plastic doll that he’s dubbed Bianca. To Lars, Bianca is completely real. She communicates with him, often showing a hearty inquisitiveness about him, and has a full life story that precedes the time she came into his world via a packing crate.

It is a delusion, but it enlivens Lars and the local doctor advises his family to play along. Eventually the entire community has willingly bought into the illusion of Bianca, showering her with appreciation and affection as a means to embrace Lars.

For any of this to work at all dramatically requires delicate, thoughtful work from all involved, and that’s exactly what’s on display in Lars. The actors have a particularly heavy load. It must be tempting to approach this material with an air of condescension, pushing the comedic elements. It’s easy to imagine this transformed into a broad, hateful Adam Sandler comedy, and what a woeful beast that would be. Instead, everyone onscreen makes a supreme effort to find the emotional truth in the scenario. Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer, as Lars’ brother and sister-in-law, adeptly play the frustrated caring that would reasonably lead them to accommodate the delusion. The integrity of the performance in the lead role is even more important, and it’s perhaps no surprise that Ryan Gosling is absolutely stellar. He burrows into the physicality of Lars, capturing the sorts of pained, twitchy movements that are a signal of extreme discomfort in the company of others. He makes Lars a touching portrait of someone lost in pain and finding an unlikely path to emerge from it. To Gosling, it seems, the character is as true and potent as any you would find at the center of a heavy drama.

The script by “Six Feet Under” writer Nancy Oliver is shrewdly constructed, not only mixing its comedy with warmth and pathos, but also building in a psychology that makes sense. With a few deft scenes, it becomes understandable how Lars could reach this strange point, how his only way to reach out is through an inanimate companion. She “tells” him the things he cannot tell himself, that he has never mustered the strength to hear from anyone else. That none of this ever comes across as contrived is an astonishing accomplishment. The script is incredibly kind-hearted and director Craig Gillespie captures and accentuates that tone.

In a way, Lars and the Real Girl is everything last year’s beloved misfire Little Miss Sunshine was striving to be: charming in its very goofiness, affectionate towards the idiosyncrasies of its characters and finding unexpected comedy in the details (the heinous winter coats that cocoon the characters are sadly accurate). While Sunshine was in love with its own offbeat sensibility to an unappealing degree, Lars and the Real Girl is in love with every person, even the plastic one, that populates the film. It’s a far healthier affection, and it definitely led to significantly better movie-making.

Now Playing — Private Life

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I haven’t dug into any interviews with Tamara Jenkins to learn the insider story of why over a decade passed between her last film and her latest, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find the reason serves as narrative fuel for that new cinematic offering. It’s not simply that Jenkins prior two features — Slums of Beverly Hills and The Savages — had the unmistakable weight of autobiography to them. Private Life, the new film from Jenkins, has the rawness of brutal, brave truth. Someone still could have drawn such a story purely from their imagination, but the details sting with authority that suggests rueful reminiscing is the more likely source.

Private Life focuses on Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti), married New Yorkers who have spent years trying to conceive a baby. The film begins with them taking what appear to be weary, final swings at the problem, like a battered boxer in the late rounds of bout that has long been lost. Nearly everything has already been tried. Even adoption proved to be such an arduous process that they’ve circled back to medically enhanced methods, such as in vitro fertilization, which adds a whole other set of tasks to their routine. The relationship is clearly buckling, stressed beyond capacity by the fact that their shared identity is one of futility.

Matters are further complicated by the arrival of their niece Sadie (Kayli Carter), who’s taken a sudden leave of absence from college. She is taking respite with her cool city relatives in part because they move in the lower tier bohemian artist circles Sadie sees as a hopeful destination, but also because of the emotional skirmishes she gets into with her own mother (Molly Shannon). Sadie’s presence gives Rachel and Richard a diversion from their interpersonal struggles, simply by providing another person to focus on in their cramped apartment. But she may also provide some assistance with the larger problem, as the couple has reached the point where the possibility of an egg donor has been broached.

Jenkins tilts the material towards wry comedy, albeit of the gut-punch variety. Of course, her lead performers are particularly skilled at maneuvering the narrow pathways between humor and pathos. Hahn is uniquely capable of keeping brash expressiveness firmly tethered to intricate characterizations, and Giamatti’s gift for the slow burn has evolved to a point at which it’s really more of a pilot light dimming to infinity. They give dignity to every tremor of emotion in the roles, showing how these people make their way, sometimes delicately, sometimes bravely, sometimes humbled by the inescapable grind of defeat.

Jenkins assembles the film with a keener eye than I recall from previous films. She crafts visuals that tell compelling stories all on their own and generally assembles the film with the spartan certainty of Woody Allen in his cinematic prime. These qualities also give Private Life a disarming lightness that cuts across the darker subject matter. It has the feel of something that came easily, which isn’t meant to diminish the evident work that went into it. Quite the contrary, a film that can be pointed, precise, and loose all at once is likely the product of a director who knows without a doubt what they want to do, what they are ready to convey. It’s as if Jenkins spent those many years between films envisioning Private Life to the seams in the corners, and only when it was fully formed did she gift it to the rest of us. It should be received with the deepest gratitude.

Now Playing — A Star is Born

star born

It is now almost quaint to think of A Star is Born as a signature example of Hollywood’s tendency to repeat itself, and yet that’s exactly the status bestowed upon the showbiz tale by the time Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson provocatively clinched on the poster for the 1976 version. That was the merely the third big-screen iteration of the story (not including any officially unrelated features drawing obvious inspiration). It took them forty years to reach that point. We’re rushing headlong toward our third Joker in a decade’s time.

But A Star is Born still looms large enough that Bradley Cooper’s choice to deliver a new remake as his directorial debut feels like the ultimate combination of opportunism and hubris. Done with any panache whatsoever, the film is almost certain to set cinematic awards bodies swooning, especially in this era in which movies about the entertainment industry (even tangentially) have proven as irresistible to Oscar voters as hefty paydays from Marvel Studios. But then again, staking a claim on such a project means putting oneself on the level of William Wellman and George Cukor (and, less problematically, Frank Pierson), implying that there’s something new to add that eluded those highly skilled predecessors. To begin a directorial career with A Star is Born is to announce a titan of cinematic prowess is entering the gilded premises of filmmaking artistes.

Lest it seem as though I’m revving up the backlash turbine, I should plainly state that Cooper’s film is a strong debut in many respects, demonstrating an sharp eye for visuals and a graceful way with actors, particularly those with a handful or fewer scenes. His overall sense of pacing is iffy enough that large portions of the film drag, but several individual scenes hum with confidence as they play out with deliberate casualness, taking the time to absorb the interactions between characters.

In this new A Star is Born, the main characters are Jackson Maine (Cooper), a country rocker playing to cheering arena crowds and soothing his emotional ails with an overabundance of alcohol and pills, and Ally Campana (Lady Gaga), a singer who has long since given up on her dreams of a music career. She’s stuck in a crummy job with a verbally abusive manager, but scratches her performing itch by occasionally take the stage at a local drag bar. That where Jackson, stumbling past the bouncer in search of liquor, spots her and immediately becomes enraptured by her talent.

From there, the story proceeds largely in accordance with earlier versions. Jackson takes Ally into his fold of traveling musicians, as both a lover and performer on stage. He’s not the only one alert to her gifts, though. She’s eventually recruited by a producer (Rafi Gavron) intent on transforming her into the next great pop diva, leading to intense conversations about authenticity and helping prod Jackson a little further along on the spiral he’s been riding downward. The more standard version of the story hinges on flaring jealousy, but Jackson’s response is more complicated than that, a snarl of loneliness, personal inadequacy, guilt, and helplessness in the throes of addiction.

Cooper commits fully to the heavy drama of the piece, but it’s decidedly less compelling than the courtship that proceeds it. Across the first third of the film, Cooper develops a dazzling chemistry with Lady Gaga, and she’s at her best when playing a working class young woman whose time with a loving, gruff single father (Andrew Dice Clay, surprisingly charming in the role) has given her an instinctive rebellious streak. There are implausibilities aplenty in the screenplay (credited to Cooper, along with Eli Roth and Will Fetters), but Cooper so winningly taps into the story’s fairy tale qualities that the narrative flaws are largely forgivable. When situations grow grim, the diversionary compensation of charm fades away enough to let the manipulations show.

Like a lot of first-time directors, especially movie stars branching out, Cooper puts everything he’s got into A Star is Born. Sometimes that results in distracting motifs or thematic fuss. Mostly, it translates to a work that is a deeply personal expression, no matter how many skips across the water’s surface the stone of a story has taken. Cooper has a lot he wants to say about creativity, celebrity, love, and familial commitment. That his messages sometimes twist in on themselves like paper clips only heightens the sense that his intellect is whirring relentlessly, making a certain amount of thematic indecision a perverse strength of the film. I certainly don’t know why Cooper felt compelled to make this film this way — and he isn’t really talking — but I can see that it was no lark. The one thing Cooper decisively does is erase any question about the need to take A Star is Born through its paces again. For whatever reason, it’s clearly a project he needed to do.

From the Archive — The Savages

savages

I’m always pleased when I discover something in one of these old reviews that carbon dates it to the era in which is was written. I think the reference to Blockbuster in the lengthy opening paragraph accomplishes that feat nicely. For today, I though about dredging up my old review of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, the first cinematic appearance of the character Venom, but it turns out I didn’t type word one about the character or the performance by Topher Grace (who, amusingly, is so different from new Venom portrayer Tom Hardy that the two could be photo negatives of one another). So instead, I’ll commemorate Netflix once again providing a distribution outlet for a tremendous filmmaker whose material doesn’t fit comfortably into the current grasping-at-tentpoles strategy of most studios. You know, like I did three weeks ago. It has been too long between films for Tamara Jenkins. I hope that was her choice. I fear it wasn’t.

Categorizing films, placing them into broad, encompassing genres, is a tricky — arguably futile — endeavor. The new film The Savages has been casually referred to as a comedy, a dark comedy to be sure, but a comedy nonetheless. The official movie poster is sure to including laudatory critics’ quotes the words “funny” and “humor” and features art by comic artist Chris Ware, which is sure to signal something safer to most moviegoers — for whom the phrase The Acme Novelty Library is about as meaningful as any four randomly selected poetry magnets — than it actually should. The Golden Globes were even more decisive, slotting Savages into the “Comedy/Musical” categories in their film awards (and, as an aside that will tip my hand as to what I thought of The Savages, you may not a stronger example of the ineptitude of the Hollywood Foreign Press as arbiters of excellence than their omission of Laura Linney from the relevant Best Actress category in favor of, well, at least four of the five honored performers, but especially the I’m-just-happy-to-be-here enthusiasm of Hairspray‘s Nikki Blonsky). It’s a strange situation for this smart, fairly grim film. I laughed appreciatively many times during The Savages, but I can say the same about No Country for Old Men and I don’t see anyone laying groundwork for it to be filed somewhere between Meet the Fockers and Old School in the local Blockbuster’s comedy section a few months from now. I imagine more than a few people will go to The Savages expecting a film much lighter and thoroughly comic than it really is and wind up blindsided. Hopefully, that harsh surprise won’t distract those people from noticing that’s it’s also terrific.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney play siblings who are called upon to retrieve their elderly father from Arizona, in part because he’s suffering from dementia that has made it impossible for him to care for himself. It’s a simple beginning for a film that’s anything but simple. For one thing, this is neither a warm-hearted story of family coming together or a pummeling exercise in opening old wounds. It’s far more complicated. Hoffman and Linney’s characters are basically estranged from their father, but don’t carry the resulting personal emotions from that distance like heavy, burdensome overcoats. It is part of who they are, it has shaped them, but it doesn’t inform every scene in highly dramatic ways. They go about the business of getting him into a nursing home and interact with him during his descent in ways that are revealing largely because their gestures are more about giving themselves comfort than building additional happiness into his waning days. It is a hard truth that, like everything else in the film, is largely presented as just another facet of life.

The whole film can be described as a big slab of life. Hoffman’s character is a college professor specializing in Bertolt Brecht, and he helpfully writes a lesson on a blackboard about “plot” versus “narrative.” He never gets around to explaining that difference to questioning student, but The Savages serves nicely as its own lesson plan for the classroom of the movie audience. Don’t look for the scheme of the storytelling to following a familiar framework, necessarily. Instead, watch these characters live out a piece of their time, their frailties heightened by their situations, their patience tested and torn. Hoffman’s professor defends himself with his pragmatism, alert to criticism but largely too weary to dispense his own judgment. Linney’s struggling playwright is a mountain of vulnerabilities with occasionally reserves of potential fortitude exposed. These pro actors dig into the roles with disciplined gusto.

Writer-director Tamara Jenkins creates with her own disciplined gusto. A long-gestating follow-up to her feature debut, the sloppy but somewhat endearing The Slums of Beverly Hills, the film is focused and unsparing, a gut punch of lingering dysfunction. As opposed to another recent film that could be described that wayThe Savages never pushes the problems or personality flaws to such extremes that it strains credibility. There’s an understated truth to the storytelling that makes its moments of heartbreak and tentative redemption all the more potent.