I’ll be your Eye in the Sky, then we’ll sail away to Key Largo

Movies watched:  Eye in the Sky, Key Largo

Where watched:  Parkway Plaza 12, home

Time:  102 minutes, 101 minutes

Total elapsed time:  1 day, 7 hours, 46 minutes

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Last time I saw my son Kevin, we decided to see Eye in the Sky.  It had a short theatrical run, so we had to see it in a theater that doesn’t really show first-run major releases.  I was just glad it was still available to watch somewhere.

Eye in the Sky is a movie of our times;  it involves a British military intelligence unit, headed by the always impressive Helen Mirren.  The British are tracking some potential terrorist subjects in Kenya, and hope to arrest them if their intel proves good.   What if that intel shows that the terrorist suspects may be planning an imminent attack?  Is a drone strike, killing them all instantly, a justified use of force?  What if innocent people in the vicinity may be killed as a result?  These are the tough questions that this movie asks.

The movie devolops gradually, building to a slow burn, and takes a darkly comic turn as various diplomats on multiple continents all try to pass the buck when it is time to authorize the drone strike.   The cynic in me questions whether so much debate would ever occur, particularly in the United States, where drone strikes are the weapon du jour, used with impunity, and causing the deaths of many civilian casualties.  Of course, this is a British movie, not an American one.

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It works so well, on so many levels, because it does not appeal to maudlin sentimentality.  It is gut-wrenchingly hard to watch at times, but it feels very real. It does not moralize, or proselytize;  rather it shows the hard choices and very real consequences that result from our modern form of technological warfare, by giving a face to the faceless, those who are usually just listed as “collateral damage” in a blurb that vanishes almost as quickly as it is forgotten.

The performances are all stellar, and particularly impressive because the lead actors never worked together.  Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, and Barkhad Abdi all shot their parts of the movie separately.  The fact that they flow so seamlessly together is a testament to the great direction of Gavin Hood.  Hood may best be known for writing and directing the Oscar-winning film Tsotsi.  Since then he has directed a couple of big-budget Hollywood action movies, with mixed results.  This is arguably the best movie of his career to date.

The ending of the movie is very sobering, made all the more so with the simple dedication to the late, great Alan Rickman just before the credit roll.   Rickman could play over-the-top (his Hans Gruber was the template for every Euro-villain in every action movie of the last quarter century), and understated (revisit Sense and Sensibility if you haven’t seen it recently) equally well.  His tone of voice, and the manner in which he delivered his lines, were instantly recognizable, and unforgettable.  Rest in Peace, Alan.

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When I saw that Warner Brothers was stepping up their “Archive Collection” releases on blu-ray, I jumped at the chance to own the great Key Largo.  It sure does look fantastic in the hi-def format  It’s just a pity that Warner Bros.  isn’t taking the time to add any extra features.

Key Largo is based on a stage play, and has the feel of one, with most of the movie set in the confines of one hotel.  Humphrey Bogart plays an ex-soldier, who is paying a visit to the wife and father of one of his men, who died in combat in Italy during WWII.  The wife of the dead soldier is played by Bogart’s wife Lauren Bacall, and the father is played by curmudgeonly old Lionel Barrymore.  They are the proprietors of a hotel, and what Bogart does not realize when he arrives is that there is a secret guest staying in the hotel:  a gangster named Johnny Rocco, played to perfection by Edward G. Robinson.

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Bogart’s character tries not to get involved in a conflict with Robinson and his men, even as the situation escalates.  Bogart claims, much as his character Rick said in Casablanca, that he only looks after himself.  Robinson tries to provoke him, and ultimately Bogart’s character rises to the occasion, and saves the day.   This movie is just about perfect, with John Huston directing a screenplay that he co-wrote with Richard Brooks.  This was the  fourth collaboration between Huston and Bogart,  a pairing that would become one of the most celebrated collaborations between actor and director in movie history.

The performances are stellar throughout, but a couple deserve special mention.  Of course Edward G. Robinson chewed up the scenery as he always did when in gangster mode, and Bogart was the quiet understated hero.   But it was Claire Trevor who won an Academy Award for best-supporing actress, in her role as alcoholic, over the top showgirl, who was once Johnny Rocco’s main girl.   The famous scene in which Rocco requires Claire Trevor’s character Gaye Dawn to sing for a drink, is still very powerful and moving.

Also worth mentioning is the character actor Thomas Gomez, who plays Curly, a member of Rocco’s gang.  Gomez gives a very memorable performance, one of the best in his career.  Gomez was the first ever Latino actor to receive an Oscar nomination in an acting category.

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Edward G. Robinson, center, as gangster Johnny Rocco. The great character actor Thomas Gomez is far right.

This movie is deserving of the label “classic”, with great writing, directing and performances.  If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and give it a go.  The Warner Brothers blu-ray looks fantastic.

This movie inspired a not-entirely bad  song in the early 80’s, from one hit-wonder Bertie Higgins.  I apologize for the horrific video, just remember it was 1982.  My God; the beard, the white jacket open to his midriff, the arrogant puff on the cigarette, quelle horreur!

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Japanese double feature: Spirited Away, High and Low

Movies watched:  Spirited Away, High and Low

Where watched:  Home

Time:  124 minutes, 143 minutes

Total elapsed time:  1 day, 4 hours, 23 minutes

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Spirited Away is the first Hayao Miyazaki movie I ever saw.  I remember taking my son Kevin to see it when it was released in theaters.  That was about the time that Disney became the American distributor for Studio Ghibli.  I was completely unprepared for the world that he created.  This film is an absolute masterpiece of animation and of story, very deserving of the Best Animated Feature Oscar that it won in 2003.

And it holds up very well today.  Disney has released almost all of Miyazaki’s catalog in English language versions, and they have employed top-notch voice talent for the movies.  This one features Daveigh Chase in the lead role of Chihiro, as well as Suzanne Pleshette, David Ogden Stiers, and John Ratzenberger.

But it is the original vision of Miyazaki and the artists at Studio Ghibli that make this so timeless.  The movie is about a young girl named Chihiro who is moving to a new city with her parents.  As they approach their new house they see a derelict theme park, and begin to explore.  But this is no ordinary place;  after dusk, strange things begin to happen, including her parents being turned into pigs!

Chihiro finds herself in a bath house for members of the spirit world, and meets dozens of fascinating and original characters.  My personal favorite are the “soot sprites”.  And also the river spirit, who comes to the bathhouse to be cleansed, and is full of garbage, including a bicycle.  This is based on a real life episode when Hayao Miyazaki helped to clean a polluted river near his home town, and they found a bike stuck in the mud of the river  bottom and had to pull it out.

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For anyone who is averse to the idea of watching Japanese “anime”, let me put you at ease.  Hayao Miyazaki is not like anything else you have ever seen, American or Japanese.  His films will transport you to another place, they will move you and astonish you.  And if you have kids, they will really dig it for sure!

Next up I decided to watch an Akira Kurosawa movie that I have owned on blu-ray for awhile but hadn’t gotten around to watching.  And that is High and Low.  It’s amazing how many different sources Kurosawa drew on to make his movies:  Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Gorky, many traditional Japanese sources, and for this movie the 50’s noir detective writer Ed McBain.  (McBain was a pseudonym for Evan Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock’s The Birds.)   The novel, titled “King’s Ransom” is a great potboiler detective work, that breezes along at just under 200 pages.  Kurosawa would use this as a launching pad for a much broader and bolder story.

I have loved Kurosawa’s samurai movies for a long time, and I was interested to see how he did with this contemporary picture.  And I have to say that this is probably my favorite Kurosawa movie.  The movie involves a kidnapper who thinks he has taken the child of a wealthy industrialist, but accidentally takes the child of the wealthy man’s chauffeur by mistake.  Will the rich man still pay the ransom, even though it is not his child that was taken, and even though it may break him?  Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune plays the industrialist, who is involved in a power play at the shoe company he works for, when the kidnapping occurs.   This movie is not only a gripping suspense story, but also a movie with a moral center, that asks some real questions, and leaves the audience members to form their own conclusions.

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So check out the composition of the shot above;  it is staged almost like a play.  The first 55 minutes of the movie follow very closely the plot of the original Ed McBain novel, and it all takes place in the house of the protagonist.  As a matter of fact, it almost all takes place in the same room.   Toshiro Mifune’s performance is astonishing, playing businessman as samurai. He exudes confidence when the movie opens, then his anger and frustration build in a slow burn, until he erupts into action.

Then, Kurosawa does something astonishing.  He takes the film in an entirely different direction.  The last hour and 20 minutes are entirely original, having almost nothing to do with the novel.  It begins with a scene shot on a bullet train in Japan.  This sequence was actually filmed on a moving train, with 9 cameras, and lasts around 6 minutes.  It is one of the boldest and most exciting sequences ever captured on screen.

After this the movie becomes a police procedural, and Mifune all but disappears for over half an hour.  This section is very well structured.   We then get a sequence in a jazz club, which is filmed with no dialogue, and is as over-the-top as Kurosawa ever got in a movie.  Then the movie visits a street of heroin addicts, and becomes very expressionistic, in contrast to the early documentary-like police scenes.

The movie is brilliantly structured, and really holds up by today’s standards.  And the Criterion Collection blu-ray looks exquisite in hi-def widescreen.  The conclusion, in which Mifune faces the kidnapper through a prison window, is both enigmatic and powerful, leaving as many questions as answers.

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If you are a fan of Kurosawa, then you absolutely have to see this.

After we ride the Midnight Special, we better Take Shelter

Movies watched:  Midnight Special, Take Shelter

Where watched:  Lakewood Towne Center, home

Time:  111 minutes, 121 minutes

Total elapsed time:  23 hours, 56 minutes

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My best friend Tom has been singing the praises of writer/director Jeff Nichols for awhile now, and he asked me if I wanted to see his newest film, Take Shelter.  Of course I said yes.  Up to this point, the only Nichols film I had seen was Mud, the Matthew McConaughey flick from 2012.  I liked that movie, but I didn’t love it.  The story line was original, and the story worked for the most part.  I just felt that the languorous pace did not justify the payoff.  But this was clearly a director who was making his movie.

So Midnight Special stars Jeff Nichols’ go-to actor, Michael Shannon, as the father of a boy who has some strange powers.  The boy’s mother is played by Kirsten Dunst, and it’s nice to see her having a bit of a resurgence with this and the most recent season of Fargo on television.  Also featured prominently is Joel Edgerton, an actor who continues to impress with every performance.  Obviously Jeff Nichols enjoys casting kids in central roles; all of his movies involve children as central plot figures.  And the child actor, Jaeden Lieberher, who already appeared in the slightly overrated St. Vincent, is quite good in this movie.

The movie moves at the pace of Nichol’s earlier movies, with the plot advancing deliberately, then suddenly exploding into action.  Some have seen this movie as an allegory for faith, or religion.  Nichols himself says it is all about parenthood.  Nichols is a true auteur, in the sense that Hitchcock and Kurosawa were;  his fingerprints are all over his movies, good or bad.  This movie may actually suffer for the big-budget special effects at the end, which almost seem out of place.  His last movie, the aforementioned Mud, was made for just under $10 million, a bargain by today’s standards, and grossed over $30 million.  So for this movie his budget was closer to $20 million.  But I’m not sure those CGI effects were really necessary to tell the type of story that Nichols wanted to tell.  He should just stick to making his movies, and his audience will find him.

So much as I thought with Mud, I would say this was a good, but not great film.  Definitely worth watching.

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So then Tom loaned me Nichols first two movies so I could watch them at home.  I watched Take Shelter, and I can say that so far this is Jeff Nichols’ masterpiece.  It is close to a flawless film;  the writing, directing and performances all work seamlessly together.   Michael Shannon stars again, as a man who begins to have visions about a violent storm approaching.  His dreams, and his preparations for this storm, begin to take a toll on both his job and his family life.  His mother was institutionalized for schizophrenia many years earlier.  Is he following in her footsteps?  Is he seeing true visions of the future?  I will leave it to you to see the movie and draw your own conclusions.

Just out of curiosity, I googled the phrase “Take Shelter allegory” to see what popped up.  There are people who think this movie is about religious fanaticism, doomsayers, and even climate change.  Personally, I think the most important word to think about when watching a Jeff Nichols movie is “family”.    This movie comes highly recommended, and is a great starting place for Jeff Nichols’ films.  But I applaud his entire catalog.  He is original, he makes the movies he wants to make, and he requires his audience to be active participants and bring their own thoughts and feelings to bear.  He reminds me of directors like Michael Haneke and Julio Medem, whose films are not always great, but are always original.  And because of that, I will always go along for the ride.

After My Dinner With Andre, we’ll stop On The Beach

Movies watched:  My Dinner With Andre, On The Beach

Where watched:  Home

Time:  111 minutes, 134 minutes

Total elapsed time:  20 hours, 4 minutes

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My Dinner With Andre existed for me as nothing more than a pop culture reference for many years.  It was one of those movies alluded to knowingly by others; an offhand remark, a laugh, and then the conversation would move on.  My cynical teenage mind just assumed it was one of those movies that people discuss without having actually seen it.

When I finally did see it, in my twenties, I was fairly impressed.   The idea of two guys sitting at a table talking (and lets not forget the eating and drinking, an important part of the setting) for nearly two hours is simplicity itself.  But how to keep it entertaining?   The screenplay, written by the movies two stars, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory never lags.  The pace of the dialogue sometimes slows, then quickens, much like a natural conversation would, but it keeps moving.  Director Louis Malle keeps things interesting as well, with some subtly shifting camera set-ups that keep things fresh without drawing too much attention to themselves.

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This movie is so natural that it has the feel of a documentary, and most of the things referenced really did happen:  Gregory really went to Poland, Shawn really did teach Latin, to name a couple.  But the characters “Wallace Shawn” and “Andre Gregory”  are many layers removed from the actor/writer Wallace Shawn and the actor/director Andre Gregory.   Think back on memorable conversations you have had with one of your best friends, those talks that move from the banal to the sacred.   Now imagine trying to distill those conversations years later into a single dialogue with a through-line and a dramatic conclusion.  That is pretty much how this movie was constructed.

Seeing it now, it holds up incredibly well, because the things discussed are all very human.  I love the talk about the electric blanket, I love Wallace Shawn defending his love of simple daily pleasures, then later admitting his fears.

This movie at times reminds me of some of the great talks I have had with my friend Tom over the years.  I feel like we are having one never-ending discussion, interrupted and resumed many times.  All the best conversations should introduce more questions than answers, and leave one with a sense of the profound.   This movie certainly does that,  because it is about life;  because it is life.

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Remember the end of Waiting for Guffman when Corky St. Clair was showing off his My Dinner With Andre action figures?  If only they were really a thing.

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During the cold war, there was a wave of apocalyptic anti-nuke books and movies, many of them quite good.  Of course everybody knows Dr. Strangelove, which has stood the test of time because of its comic tone and great performances.  On The Beach is another movie from the same time period.   It does not hold up nearly as well.

I wanted to revisit this movie because I finally read the novel by Nevil Shute.  (A novel I bought about 15 years ago, I might add.  And there it sat on its shelf, mocking me, taunting me, until I just couldn’t take it any more.)  The book, which examines the last year of human life on earth after a nuclear holocaust, was powerful and memorable.   The movie though, is primarily forgettable.

It has a lot going for it.  It was directed by Stanley Kramer during his hot streak (sandwiched between The Defiant Ones and Inherit the Wind), starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and a pre-Psycho Anthony Perkins.  The performances are all good.  Mostly.  Okay, I have to get this off my chest.  I don’t like Ava Gardner as an actress.  Can’t stand her, to tell the truth.  She may be my least-favorite actress.   I just can’t trust the acting choices of any woman who could be married to both Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra.  I mean seriously, are you effing kidding me?

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Gregory Peck, looking so Peckish, and Ava Gardner, probably looking for the nearest open bottle.

Seeing this movie in the theater in 1957,  when the threat of a nuclear war seemed very real, must have been a frightening, sobering experience.  But today it seems a little out outdated.   Most of Stanley Kramer’s other social commentary films are still very relevant today, but this one just does not captivate.  It looks great on the Kino Lorber blu-ray, and fans of Stanley Kramer or Gregory Peck should definitely give it a go.