The Hero

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The Hero

If you’ve been waiting for actor Sam Elliott to deliver a perfectly calibrated swan song performance, his work in The Hero is it. Women of a certain age (my mother being one of them), who remember Elliott from his heyday in the late 80s and early 90s in made-for-TV movies like The Quick and the Dead, and theatrical releases like Roadhouse and Tombstone can’t resist him. Hell, it might be all women for all I know. It’s that voice. And that mustache. Now that I think about it, maybe I can’t resist him, either.

Director Brett Haley wrote the part – and basically the whole movie – for Elliott. The actor doesn’t let his director friend down. His portrayal of aging Western star Lee Hayden, an actor whose glory days are behind him, is tranquil, but also beautifully mournful. Elliott is, without a doubt, extraordinary in The Hero.

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It Comes at Night

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It Comes at Night

When the lights came up at my screening of It Comes at Night, director Trey Edward Shults’ second feature film, I was stuck to my seat. I was emotionally pulverized not only by the very last shot, but almost everything that came before it. This is a movie that gives no quarter. Do not look for solace here. The film is bleak and grim, and it will test your resolve. If you’re willing to take the journey, It Comes at Night will also reward you with ruminations on a variety of themes, including trust, paranoia, and the idea of community. Be warned, though, you might not like its conclusions about any of them.

The movie is set after some sort of plague has befallen the earth. We meet a family: Paul, Sarah, their teenage son Travis, and the family dog, Stanley. There is one other member of the family, Sarah’s father, Bud, but when we meet him he is already sick from whatever disease has ravaged the outside world. What Paul is forced to do in the first five minutes of the movie to end Bud’s suffering expertly establishes the tone of what’s to follow in the next 85 minutes.

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Wonder Woman

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Wonder Woman

It’s not my intent to damn Wonder Woman with too much faint praise by measuring it favorably against the abysmal Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. After all, saying this movie is leagues better than that one is akin to lauding really good fast food over something you found in the dumpster because, well, at least it isn’t actual garbage. The comparison needs to be made, though, because both exist in DC’s attempt at a Marvel-style cinematic universe, and the character made her debut in that earlier film. Wonder Woman is a well-crafted action spectacle with its greatest strength (both the title character and the actress playing her) right at the center. The elements orbiting that center, though, keep it from being transcendent.

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The Lovers

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The Lovers

There’s a rhythm to the romantic dramedy The Lovers that’s as unique as its quirky characters. If you can hook into that rhythm, the film will take you to some unexpected emotional places. The premise is a slight twist on the familiar story of married couples who rekindle their love after years of neglecting each other. The charm and sparkle of The Lovers is in the way writer/director Azazel Jacobs infuses a sense of magical realism into the tale of his married couple Mary and Michael. When it comes to the actors portraying them, Debra Winger and Tracy Letts, it’s just plain magic.

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Alien: Covenant

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Alien: Covenant

A great thing about the early entries in the Alien franchise is that they are exciting and scary good fun. Alien: Covenant is too obsessed with its own mythology to be much of either. Director Ridley Scott had the perfect opportunity to pull a George Miller. That filmmaker revived his Mad Max series with the fresh and inventive Fury Road. Miller wasn’t concerned with what he did in the past. With Fury Road, he gleefully started from scratch, and as a result produced a rip-roaring action film, one of the best of the decade. Alien: Covenant is the first true Alien movie in 20 years. Scott’s 2012 film Prometheus was a sort of spiritual sequel to the franchise, taking place in the same universe, but centered on its distant origins. Covenant is a direct sequel to Prometheus. Instead of surprising us with the possibilities of a clean start, Scott and his writers, John Logan and Dante Harper, give us that sinking feeling with Covenant that this is someplace we’ve already been.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The most enjoyable thing about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is exemplified in its very first action sequence. An alien race called The Sovereign have hired the guardians – Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Racoon, and Groot – to protect some highly powerful and very valuable batteries from a giant space slug. An epic battle ensues as a backdrop to the opening credits. There’s plenty of razzle-dazzle special effects work and camera trickery in this sequence, to be sure, but the real focus isn’t the fight at all. Groot, the 12-foot tall extraterrestrial tree-creature, sacrificed himself in the first Guardians film, and regenerated as a tiny seedling now known as Baby Groot. Obviously, he’s not much help in this fight. Instead, director James Gunn has him avoiding danger by showing off some hilarious dance moves to Electric Light Orchestra’s classic hit Mr. Blue Sky.

It’s a clever, goofy way of launching directly into the oddball sense of humor that made the original movie from 2014 so entertaining.

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Colossal

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Colossal

If all you know of the movie Colossal is its marketing campaign, then all you know is a complete lie. I rarely ever talk about the marketing or trailers of films I’m writing about because I view all of that as superfluous. What really matters is what happens between the production company logos and the final credits. The team in charge of selling this movie, though, are responsible for a bait-and-switch of such unbelievable scale that it’s impossible not to mention. What I thought I was getting into and what I actually saw were completely different, and that made me wrestle with Colossal in a way I wouldn’t have if I had known nothing going into it.

The elevator pitch premise – and what the trailer would have you believe – is that Colossal is a quirky, comedic twist on the giant monster movie genre (called Kaiju in Japanese cinema). The twist is that our hero Gloria, a down-on-her-luck-just-moved-back-to-her-hometown woman in America, actually controls, with her body movements, a strange creature that materializes in South Korea whenever Gloria steps into a children’s playground at exactly 8:05 a.m.

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Free Fire

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Free Fire

Free Fire is an outrageous little movie. It shouldn’t be as entertaining as it is. This hilarious gun-deal-turned-shoot-out is provocative and cathartic, with cartoonish violence aimed mostly for laughs. It’s Tarantino, but straight-slapstick.

It would be reasonable to think a movie that consists almost completely of people shooting each other would become tedious, not to mention a little hard to watch considering the unimaginable spate of mass shootings constantly featured in the news. Director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump – who co-wrote the script together – pull it off, though.  Set in 1978, the movie begins with two factions traveling to a Boston warehouse to complete an illegal weapons deal. An intermediary, Justine, represents the buyers: a group of IRA members, led by Chris, who want firearms for use against their enemies in The Troubles. Justine’s colleague, Ord, is bringing the seller, a South African gun runner named Vernon, who is accompanied by his own group of associates. An uneasy tension hangs in the air as all the interested parties, ten people total, attempt to exchange cash for guns.

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Wilson

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Wilson

If you watch a lot of movies, odds are you end up spending time with characters you don’t like very much. Sometimes that can lead to insight into a perspective you’ve never considered, or to experience a character’s growth as they change over the course of the movie. Other times you can perversely enjoy behavior in which you would never engage, but is cathartic to watch from a safe distance - a comfy chair in a dark room, say. Sometimes it just means you have to grind your teeth for 90 minutes as you suffer through a comedy that’s not funny featuring characters that are gratingly annoying. Such was the case for me with Wilson. I don’t always need characters to learn and grow, especially not in broad comedies. I’m as big a fan as anybody of a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm or Seinfeld, which thrived by the ethos “no hugging, no learning.” If that’s the approach, I do need the comedy to be clever, and it would be nice to not want to throttle the “hero” in every scene.

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Aftermath

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Aftermath

Movies, like just about every other art form, are manipulative. For each one, there are hundreds of people working together to make the audience laugh or cry, feel uplifted or depressed. The best movies, and the best filmmakers, can achieve the desired emotional response without the audience ever being aware it’s happening. That is not the case with Aftermath. This is a movie that is relentless in telling the audience just how they should feel, and whose makers – most egregiously, director Elliott Lester, and composer Mark Todd – throw subtlety completely aside. There are elements that work against this trend, one performance in particular, but they aren’t enough to salvage the rest.

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Song to Song

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Song to Song

The phrase “found it in the editing” describes a perilous method of filmmaking. Basically, it’s what happens when a movie has been shot with no clear vision – or there is a voluminous, unwieldy amount of footage – but during the editing process, the filmmakers are able to shape a story that is much better than the raw materials would suggest. A famous example of this is Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. That movie initially had very little to do with the relationship between the two leads, but during cutting, Allen and his editor created one of the best romantic comedies of all time. More often than not, though, this approach leads to a muddled mess.

Terrence Malick’s creative process lends itself to this kind of metamorphosis in the editing room. The notoriously private director shoots and shoots, sometimes for years, and hones his narratives in the cutting room, also sometimes for years. Song to Song clearly follows this pattern. In a rare interview to promote the picture, Malick said the original cut of the film was eight hours long. That’s a far cry from the 129-minute final version. Song to Song is also a far cry from the beautiful transcendence of his best films, like Days of Heaven or The Tree of Life. It’s not a complete mess, but it’s a disappointment to be sure.

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T2 Trainspotting

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T2 Trainspotting

When I think back to the person I was 20 years ago, I’m amazed by how much I’ve changed. Things that I once thought were fundamental truths are laughable to me now. As true as that is, though, at my core, I’m still the same person in many other ways. That observation is at the heart of Danny Boyle’s T2 Trainspotting, the sequel to his 1996 break-out hit. We check in with Renton, Sickboy, Spud, and Begbie two decades after the heroin fueled events of Trainspotting. It’s like visiting old friends you haven’t even thought of in years, and discovering that despite all the time that has passed, you still get along like you just saw each other yesterday. Despite a few missteps, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge have captured the free-wheeling fun, sick humor, and pathos present in the original.

The screenplay for Trainspotting was Hodge’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name. This time, Hodge is adapting Welsh’s sequel to Trainspotting, titled Porno, while also using characters and elements from the first book. Porno was written in 2002, and takes place ten years after the events of the first novel. T2 moves things forward even more, and despite 20 years having gone by, we discover that echoes of the past are ever present for these characters.

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Get Out

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Get Out

There is a long history in horror movies of incorporating social commentary into the thrills and chills of the plot. The genre has had a renaissance in the last four or five years, both in terms of quality and box-office success. Movies like Don’t Breathe and It Follows caught on with critics and audiences alike, a difficult feat. Comedian Jordan Peele – best known as one-half of the sketch comedy show Key & Peele – wrote and directed Get Out, a horror movie that takes racism as its central plot element. Get Out is a complex and thought-provoking picture, sure to start some awkward, important conversations. Peele has proven himself an immensely talented writer and director. He made a horror movie that is genuinely creepy, while also providing pointed observations on what being black in a white world is like.

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Logan

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Logan

Since the beginning of the comic book movie’s modern era, arguably starting with Richard Donner’s Superman in 1978, the genre has fought for legitimacy. Critics and audiences alike would dismiss the majority of them as kid’s stuff – they’re fun and entertaining, sure, but not to be taken too seriously. The makers of these movies started challenging that philosophy in earnest when the number of comic book movies released per year ramped up, starting with Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was one major step forward. The superhero’s capacity for emotional and moral complexity got deeper even as the body count and onscreen carnage got bloodier and more overwhelming.

Director James Mangold’s Logan feels like a leap forward. There is an emotional resonance here that’s more profound than any comic book movie I’ve ever seen. It’s made more affecting because there are real stakes in Logan. Mangold – who co-wrote as well as directed – breaks through the usual pitfall of these sorts of movies by having his characters change in ways that can’t easily be reset for a next installment. Logan is a brilliant example of the heights that comic book movies are capable.

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I Am Not Your Negro

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I Am Not Your Negro

One of the front runners in the Best Picture Oscar race this year was La La Land. It’s a movie some people condemned due to a racially charged element: white appropriation of jazz music, a historically black art form. The white central figure sees himself as a savior of jazz music, while the film simultaneously sidelines any black characters, and sanitizes jazz of its deeply African-American origins and past. Defenders of the movie belittle this critique as making the film about racism when it’s simply a sweet love story. The backlash against the argument that La La Land is racially troubling speaks to a central theme in the magnificent documentary I Am Not Your Negro. When a society is structured around one race’s superiority to all others, everything is about race. To suggest otherwise is to be naïve or willfully ignorant. The way the film illustrates this and many other points is elegant, eloquent, and unflinching.

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Jackie

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Jackie

“Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” Jacqueline Kennedy crafted the idea of her time in the White House as the second coming of Camelot. Jackie, which takes place in the days after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, is more Shakespearian tragedy than Arthurian musical. More precisely, it’s the aftermath of one of The Bard’s tragedies. Director Pablo Larrain, screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, and star Natalie Portman have given us a compelling and intense character study of the former First Lady. She was at the epicenter of a catastrophic event in 20th century American history, and their film humanizes her in a profound way.

The main plot of the film covers the week between JFK’s assassination and his burial...

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Hacksaw Ridge

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Hacksaw Ridge

If all you knew about Hacksaw Ridge was the title, you might think it was a horror movie. That’s what I initially thought before I saw a trailer or even a poster. Hacksaw Ridge sounds like the newest Eli Roth torture-porn entry, or maybe the title of a Rob Zombie film. While it’s not a horror movie per se, director Mel Gibson’s World War II drama does share some of the genre’s iconography. It’s a function of Gibson’s preoccupations with physical suffering. There are plenty more of Gibson’s fixations present here: his hero is a Christ figure, the moral of the story involves being true to your convictions at any and all costs. Hacksaw Ridge is also a deeply flawed film, but one that manages to overcome those flaws through compelling action and a moving conclusion.

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Interview with Hollywood Composer Craig Safan

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Interview with Hollywood Composer Craig Safan

On February 21st, 2017, as part of its fifth season program, the Dallas Chamber Symphony will premiére a new score for the classic silent film The Kid, Charlie Chaplin's first full‑length movie.  Released in 1921, Chaplin wrote, produced, directed and starred in The Kid, playing his iconic figure, The Little Tramp.  I had the opportunity to interview the composer of the new score, Craig Safan.  An accomplished Hollywood composer, Safan has written scores for film and television, as well as live theater. 

Notable works include the instrumental scores for The Last StarfighterStand and Deliver, and the music for the television series Cheers. Tickets for the Dallas Chamber Symphony performance of Mr. Safan's score, which will be performed live with a screening of the film, can be purchased at the Dallas Chamber Symphony website, dcsymphony.org.

Listen to interview audio or read transcript...

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A Tale of Sadness and Regret: Manchester by the Sea

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A Tale of Sadness and Regret: Manchester by the Sea

Is there a direct antonym for the term nostalgia? If not, I’d like to submit a new word for that purpose. Lonergania: To look back on the past not with fondness or a desire to return, but with deep pain and unease. That’s exactly what director Kenneth Lonergan explores in his film Manchester by the Sea. The picture is a mix of devastating tragedy and sharp comedic moments that either work or don’t depending on the scene. It’s a bruising experience, filled with an emotional richness that achieves the goal for which all great art should strive – uncovering a fundamental truth of the human experience.

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Gold

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Gold

There’s a well-known maxim in Hollywood:  the best way for an actor to get an Oscar is to play a role in which he or she is ugly or disfigured. See Charlize Theron in Monster, or Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. Typically, this strategy only works in tandem with one other element – the movie showcasing the performance must be good or interesting in some way. Matthew McConaughey has the first part down in his new film, Gold. He isn’t exactly disfigured in the movie, but to lose his trademark good looks for a role amounts to the same thing. He plays an average schmo, complete with a potbelly and male-pattern baldness. That’s the most interesting thing about the movie, and it’s not nearly enough to salvage the mishandled structure and uninteresting story.

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