Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The 15:17 to Paris / *½ (PG-13)

Spencer: Spencer Stone
Anthony: Anthony Sadler
Alek: Alek Skarlatos
Ayoub: Ray Corosani
Joyce: Judy Greer
Heidi: Jenna Fischer
Spencer (11-14): William Jennings
Alek (11-14): Bryce Gheisar
Anthony (11-14): Paul-Mikél Williams

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Dorothy Blyskal. Based on the book by Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone and Jeffery E. Stern. Running time: 94 min. Rated PG-13 (on appeal for bloody images, violence, some suggestive material, drug references and language).

The 15:17 to Paris, Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort, is a film of our times. The world has become violent. Terrorist attacks are becoming so common that we are teaching our children how to live in a world rife with them. We look for examples of how to survive them. More importantly, we look for examples to follow to inspire us to be better in the face of evil. Eastwood has found those examples in Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler. The first two service men, all three lifelong childhood friends who helped to thwart a planned terrorist attack on the Thalys train line from Amsterdam to Paris. There is no doubt that these three men are heroes. This, however, is not the movie they deserve. Nor is it the movie we deserve from their example.

In a rare, but not completely original concept, Eastwood chooses to let these heroes play themselves in this story, which is more about how they ended up on that train than it is about the attack itself.  In a screenplay based on their own published account of the events, I don’t know if writer Dorothy Blyskal just didn’t recognize a lack of drama in the source material or just turned in one of the laziest dramatic accounts of real life events I’ve ever witnessed. The screenplay is the film’s low point. Blyskal fails to find any sort of dramatic through line to tie the heroic acts of these men with the lives that led them there. As children they seem to have more awareness of the world in which they inhabit than they do later as adults. While the events immediately preceding their heroics, seem to serve little purpose beyond a travelogue of a trio of American tourists in Europe.

Teasing the audience with occasional flash forwards to the terrorist attack, Eastwood begins their story in grade school, where Stone and Skarlatos (played at this point by child actors) are already friends. They bond as school misfits who don’t have any other friends and can’t seem to keep out of trouble with the teachers and administration. They meet Sadler in the principal’s office. Despite his ability to charm, his misfit status is brought about by his penchant for getting into trouble. The principal warns Stone and Skarlatos to stay away from Sadler as if he had wanted them together all along.

Stone and Skarlatos are children of single moms, played by Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer respectively, who struggle to find a solution to getting their sons to fit in. This section of the film seems fueled by the mothers’ points of view that their children were treated unfairly in school. They attend a Christian school after being removed from public school. Their faith is actually one of the few interesting things the screenplay attributes these people. However, none of the other Christians represented here seem to have even the slightest notion of the Christian values they are supposed to be teaching. Every adult, teachers and administrators alike, are presented as cruel and uncaring about the children’s well being. Certainly any Christian community has those people who don’t seem to understand what it is to actually be Christian, but here it is every single person that inhabits this school. This plays like sour grapes that came directly from the two mothers’ accounts.

The friends are separated from each other by the time they become adults, but they keep in touch. Eastwood wisely focuses the second act of the film on Stone, the most dynamic of the trio. I would’ve liked to know more about Sadler and Skarlatos, but it’s clear the camera liked Stone the best. His failures to achieve his goals from his military career fuels the notion of fate encapsulated by his character and his faith. This is the most interesting aspect of any of the trio’s characters, but it isn’t exploited enough to allow the audience to care very much for their rather eventless lives before fate does come knocking. Not enjoying school, a failed eye exam, and a lost backpack seem to be the greatest extents of strife they face before the train.

The performances aren’t terrible; but by focusing on Stone, I feel Eastwood is making the best of working with untrained actors. I feel he might’ve hurt their performances a bit, however, by populating the childhood scenes with very capable actors. Gifted character actors, such as Tony Hale playing their I-hate-my-job PE teacher and Thomas Lennon as their heartless principal, fill even the smallest roles.

The greatest crime this film commits against its audience, and subjects for that matter, is the seemingly endless European vacation the friends take leading directly to the events that made them heroes. It’s like having to watch someone else’s home movies they took on their European family vacation from ten years ago. “This is us at the Coliseum. And this is the day that Anthony decided he just couldn’t walk anymore. Look at him pretending to be done in. Oh, What a rascal!” I sat there wondering why I should care about any of this, and praying that this was finally the day that they would get on that train to Paris. There are sequences here that baffle my mind in terms of their significance. Why did we need to know that Spencer was under the illusion that Hitler ended his life in the Eagle’s Nest with American Forces closing in on him until the Berlin bike tour guide pointed out to him Americans’ ignorance of history and that Hitler was actually in his Berlin bunker with Russian soldiers closing in? Was this to correct the audience’s misconceptions too?

The actual attack sequence is very well done. It requires the unsensational hand of a director like Eastwood. The violence is quick and does a good job of recreating the feeling of a bystander who is unaware of just what is happening. Eastwood reveals that the Americans are hardly the only people responsible for stopping this attack. One of the first people to react is another American who becomes the shooter’s only casualty. Spencer is responsible for his survival in the end. The attack and subsequent take down of the terrorist is quick and confusing—a combination of response and luck. It is nearly perfectly executed. Unfortunately, that also means it takes up only a few minutes of the film’s mercifully brief running time. The scene’s perfection highlights the lackluster build up to these events.

It would be easy to think that there really just wasn’t a story to tell here; but as I watched the final scenes, where Eastwood uses news footage of the French President awarding the trio the Legion of Honour, it occurred to me that there are a bunch of stories here that were just ignored by this uninspired screenplay. There’s a fourth man at the awards ceremony being honored. Who is he? I think we glimpsed him a couple of times during the effort to save the man who had been shot; but we learn nothing about him. What about the man who was shot? He was American. His female companion (wife, I think) was French? What’s their story? What about the other man who was the first to see the attacker emerge from the restroom? What about the first responders who met the train at the station? What was their state of mind going into this situation where they didn’t really know if there was still an active threat or not? What about that terrorist? I read later that he claims it was not terrorism but a robbery. There’s no effort to reveal the truth behind this. There was plenty more here to tell than just the American trio’s story. I think everyone would’ve been better served by exploring the greater truth than anyone was by this lame patriotic stunt.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Sam Shepard (1943-2017)

My first knowledge of Sam Shepard came while watching Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” (1983), in which he portrayed Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier and then some. Yeager was a hero of my father’s, who was a Marine Corps. fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. Despite the fact that the film was about much more than Yeager’s accomplishments and another American hero and fellow Marine, John Glenn, was also depicted, the movie was all Yeager for my father and I. As such, he became a hero of mine and in many ways so did the actor who portrayed him, who did so in such a cool, matter-of-fact manner that he may well have also informed the actor I would eventually come to be.
I really knew little else of Shepard upon entering my acting training at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. Within days of meeting people who would become my peers for the next four years of my life, the name Sam Shepard kept coming up around me. Apparently, I looked like and even exhibited mannerisms of a playwright and actor named Sam Shepard. I’m not even sure if I realized it was the same actor who portrayed Yeager at that point, although since my obsession with films was already underway, I probably did. But I had to pretend that I already knew that he was also a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. As such, he probably also influenced me to become a writer as well.
Words like “stoic” were being used about him in reference to me. An accomplished upperclassman looked at me and said, “You’re so fucking aloof.” But there was no derision in his words. It was a compliment of uniqueness, which most certainly could’ve been said about Shepard in his professional life. His early career was ensconced in the New York music and theater scene, quietly hanging in the background and co-writing songs with the likes of Bob Dylan and John Cale, even playing drums for the group Holy Modal Rounders, who once opened for the progressive rock group Pink Floyd.
I heard the comparisons, but I couldn’t really see Shepard in myself, looks or otherwise, until mere weeks into my student tenure when I found myself in one of the top floors of the Hofstra library high-rise immersed in Shepard’s pen. I read them all in a way I had never consumed plays before. “Buried Child”, “A Lie of the Mind,” and “True West” became not just potential productions, but something that connected with me on a more visceral level. The way Shepard lived and spoke in his matter-of-fact, almost classical western way, but explored the extremes of drug culture and somewhat psychedelic themes in his plays and his life was very much where I found myself at that time. That Christmas I asked for every Shepard collection and tome I knew of. His memoir “Motel Chronicles” could’ve been an alternate life of mine, at least in an oddly messed up romantic sense.
I still didn’t see the look that everyone else was seeing though, until I found a picture of him at 16 wearing a trench coat that looked eerily similar to a Canadian Air Force trench I wore during my last couple of years of high school. It was like seeing yourself in a picture that was taken years before your birth. We were definitely doppelgängers as young adults. I’m not sure I’ve aged as gracefully as he did. I certainly don’t have his hair.
I was lucky enough to weasel my way into the lead of a student production of “Fool For Love” at too young an age due to some unfortunate back problems of an upperclassman. Sorry, Jason, but in so many ways it seemed meant to be. I think I was able to channel Shepard pretty well if not fully understanding the maturity of his themes. I was never threatening enough in the role, but damn, I did look like him. I also played Doc in two different productions of “Crimes of the Heart”, the same part played by Shepard in the 1986 film.
Later, another actor I knew from Hofstra was lucky enough to meet Shepard at a NYC coffee shop. Shepard forgave him the rights to a production of “True West” he had directed when my colleague confessed that he had yet to pay for them. He informed me of the location of the coffee shop where Shepard was a regular. I took the cue to meet the man myself in what might’ve been the ultimate meeting of stoics. I told him it was an honor to meet him and he said, “Likewise,” which I don’t imagine it really was for him, and that was about all that was said. I like that it went down like that, though.
After college, the comparisons disappeared, but my connection to his work remained. I sought out the films of his I’d missed, like Terrence Malik’s “Days of Heaven” (1978) and “Paris, Texas” (1984), for which he wrote the screenplay. I even revisited film’s I hadn’t really thought of as his work, like “Baby Boom” (1987). Any time he showed up in a new movie, I was eager to see it—great films like “Black Hawk Down” (2001) and “Mud” (2012), and even terrible ones, like “Stealth” (2005). I ate up his own directorial efforts, “Far North” (1988) and “Silent Tongue” (1993), and more recent screenplays, such as Wim Wenders’ “Don’t Come Knocking” (2005). I loved seeing him in the first season of Netflix’s “Bloodline” (2015-2017). Probably more so than his performances, I enjoyed seeing him be himself in the documentaries “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction” and his nastier side in “Shepard & Dark”, both from 2012.

--> It seems we’re losing those psychedelic cowboys that refashioned the American western mythology into something much more complicated than a John Wayne film. First Dennis Hopper, now Shepard. Clint Eastwood, Kris Kristofferson, Stanton and Dylan are still with us, but when they go, there will be a huge hole left in the folklore of American entertainment. I feel like a part of me has died with this celebrity death, and it isn’t just because I looked like him a long time ago.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Favorite Music of 2016

20 Favorite Albums of ‘16

In all my years of music obsession I don’t think I’ve ever immersed myself in music so much as I did in 2016. I’ve never listened to so many different albums and so many different artists. The year was dominated with soundtracks for me, but thanks to some new Spotify features, I was introduced to many more bands than I had ever been before.

My year end music lists are usually dominated by early year releases. For some reason the first half of most years just seem to be filled with albums that hit me harder than the albums released later. I also tend to get much more listening time for the year’s early releases than I do for the late year ones. But this year was different. After Sturgill Simpson’s amazing not-really-country ode to his son “A Sailor’s Guide To Earth”, I figured nothing could surpass it in my mind. Then a few months later Car Seat Headrest hit me despite their questionable name. That one held my top spot for quite some time; then the new Leonard Cohen blew me off my feet, released like Bowie’s early year masterpiece, just before his death. Then A Tribe Called Quest’s triumphant return floored me, and then no one expected Run the Jewels to jump their 2017 release date the day before Christmas. The hits just kept on coming until the very end.

Anyway, the best I could whittle the list down to was 20, and there were still so many great albums I had to leave off the list. Here they are:

Monday, February 20, 2017

16 Favorite Movies of 2016

OK. I had all but given up on my favorites lists for 2016. I had tried compiling my list of favorite movies in the same manner I had in past years, where I do a little write up on each movie explaining its presence and positioning on the list; but since I hadn’t written reviews on most of these movies, I found myself writing far too much about each one. It was taking me far too long. I had put off my favorite music so I could concentrate on my movies. I had pretty much decided I just wasn’t going to do it this year when it occurred to me, I had the lists. Why don’t I just present the films the same way as I present the music each year, just list them and let them speak for themselves? Well, duh.

So, it may be a little late, but here are my 16 Favorite Movies of 2016. As usual concerning omissions, there are a great many films I missed that would surely have replaced some of these films on the list, but to be sure, these are all great films in a year that was filled with them. It was a pretty mediocre year for big mainstream films, but the independents were in rare form.

These films run the gamut, from Oscar contenders to surprise horror entries, from a nearly 8-hour documentary of an American sports legend whose life turned toward infamy to a costumed comedy of manners made by a master of the genre, from a classic 70s-style crime drama, to one of the most original premises for a movie I’ve ever seen, from a sci-fi thriller about linguistics, to the greatest performance of Sam Neill’s rather odd career. It was a great year for film, and I’m glad I didn’t pass up this opportunity to share my favorites.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Suicide Squad / **½ (PG-13)

Deadshot: Will Smith
Harley Quinn: Margot Robbie
Boomerang: Jai Courtney
Rick Flagg: Joel Kinneman
June Moone/Enchantress: Cara Delevinge
El Diablo: Jay Hernandez
Katana: Karen Fukuhara
Killer Croc: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Amanda Waller: Viola Davis
The Joker: Jared Leto

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film written and directed by David Ayer. Based on the comic book created by John Ostrander and characters created by Ostrander, Bill Finger and Ross Andru. Running time: 123 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language).

DC Comics and Warner Bros. have finally brought the comic book battle to the cinemas, once again facing off against their arch nemesis Marvel. It took DC a long time to get their act together. While they were doing that Marvel wrote the book on a cinematic superhero universe. DC is playing catch up. They’ve already taken a good deal of flak for their first two entries “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”. The third, “Sucide Squad”, has likewise been a critical disaster, but not a box office one. It’s probably important to remember that the first two didn’t exactly slack at the box office either.

None of this really matters. The only thing that really matters is that Marvel took their time building their universe and DC wants to be where Marvel is right now. Marvel put out five films before they threw their heroes together in a team. DC put out 2, and one of those is pretty much a team up between three heroes, only one of which had a previous movie in this particular superhero universe. A total of three villains were introduced in those two movies, and now we get a superhero team made up of villains known as the Suicide Squad. They get their own movie, and we’ve never met any of them before. Batman makes an appearance, and a new version of the madman villain The Joker, with whom audiences are basically familiar from other films unrelated to this universe. But, neither of these previously revealed characters have anything to do with the Suicide Squad itself. What I’m taking a great deal of time to get at here—but DC has not—is that in the movie “Suicide Squad” we’ve got two hours to familiarize ourselves with nine new major characters and give them an engaging plot to survive, which just isn’t enough time.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Star Trek Beyond / ***½ (PG-13)

Captain James T. Kirk: Chris Pine
Commander Spock: Zachary Quinto
Doctor ‘Bones’ McCoy: Karl Urban
Lieutenant Uhura: Zoe Saldana
Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott: Simon Pegg
Sulu: John Cho
Chekov: Anton Yelchin
Jaylah: Sofia Boutella
Krall: Irdris Elba

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Justin Lin. Written by Simon Pegg & Doug Jung. Based on the “Star Trek” television series created by Gene Roddenberry. Running time: 122 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action and violence).

I overheard a critic speaking recently who said that nostalgia doesn’t belong in criticism. I’m not so sure I agree with this, which is no surprise since I write from a very nostalgic point of view. I understand what this critic was saying. There is an objectiveness that is necessary in criticism and getting too nostalgic runs the danger of adopting the false entitlement of ownership that so many fans espouse these days, leading to much of the illegitimate criticism felt by franchises, such as the “Ghostbusters” reboot. However, I think it’s impossible to critique these franchises without acknowledging their reliance on what has come before. Of course, the best franchise films work just as well if you’ve never seen any entry in the series before, but most are made with the notion their audience is familiar with the franchise characters, tone and mythology.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Twitter Thoughts—July 2016 Final Week

Downton Abbey, season 6 (2016) ****
Ghostbusters (2016) **½
The Shadow (1994) **
Star Trek Beyond (2016) ***½
Modern Family, season 7 (2015-2016) ***½
Jason Bourne (2016) ***
Androcles and the Lion (1952) ***

To call this the final week of July is a bit of a stretch. It’s more like the final half of the month. And this was all I watched in that time period. It was a busy time for both work and family that did not allow for much in terms of watching a screen for long periods of time.

My wife and I finally finished the BBC series “Downton Abbey” and couldn’t have been happier with it. It was consistently good and, like most British shows, did not outstay its welcome. I was happy with how the lives at the Abbey turned out, and while it might be nice to see how progress continued to change the class structure of British Royalty and their servants, it more than likely would’ve seemed more sad than what the results of progress really are. Like the elder generation, we all like our entertainment to stay the way it was.

In other television opinion, ABC’s “Modern Family” continues to quietly provide some of the most hilarious commentary on its titular subject matter. After seven seasons, you might expect some of the characters to become tired or irrelevant. You might think the barb would be dulled, but such is not the case with this series. It continues to pull out quality comedy from familial life without much change in style, structure or even cast. It’s quite remarkable.