Tuesday, June 27, 2017

“BABY DRIVER” IS ONE HELLUVA RIDE


Filmmaker Edgar Wright is the real deal. He’s only made a handful of film comedies but in each he has demonstrated a mastery of what it takes to tell tales that elicit howls of laughter. Not only does he know how to write characters and stories, but as a director, he’s expert at composition, editing and scoring, knowing just how to frame a scene to make it funnier. Only Wes Anderson is as definitive a comedy impresario today. But now, Wright is branching out. His latest film is called BABY DRIVER and while it is still funny as hell in many places, it’s mostly one helluva ride into the adventure realm. This one displays Wright working at the top of his game and it may finally give him the household name status he deserves.

By all rights, he should have been such for his “Cornetto Trilogy” he wrote with actor Simon Pegg, consisting of SHAUN OF THE DEAD, HOT FUZZ, and THE WORLD’S END. Those films got him a beloved cult status, as did his adaption of SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD. That’s still his most remarkable achievement for my money, as he truly created a world full of bizarre energy and rhythms that made it wholly unique in the comic book movie universe. I’m also a huge fan of his parody trailer DON’T, contained in the middle of GRINDHOUSE, and wish it would become an actual movie just like MACHETE did. But now, with BABY DRIVER poised to be the monster hit the pre-opening buzz suggests it will be, the world may soon be Wright’s oyster, and he’ll be able to do anything he wants and get proper due for it.

Filmmaker Edgar Wright.
Every shot, sound effect and gesture in BABY DRIVER has Wright written all over it. It is truly the film of an auteur firing on all cylinders. In fact, it’s such the work of a virtuoso, it at times comes close to being too self-conscious. Still, I think what Wright is doing with this picture is not only entering the world of action/adventure that is driving so much of the cinematic market these days, but I believe he is parodying it too. After all, a story about an underworld employee looking to get out of his employment situation by pulling off one last heist/job/murder has practically become a sub-genre itself. But if Wright is toiling here in the land of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, or for that matter Steven Soderbergh, at least he’s applying his Wright-ian eccentricities and sense of humor to it all.

His story focuses on Baby (an adorable and sly Ansel Elgort), the baby-faced getaway driver working for crime impresario Doc (Kevin Spacey). Doc plans intricate robberies and employs hardened criminal veterans to do so. His “good luck charm” is the post-teen Baby who is in his employ because he stole from him in his youth and is paying off a debt. As the movie starts, Baby is pulling off his second-to-last heist to fulfill said debt, and as talented as he is at maneuvering a set of wheels, he doesn’t enjoy being a criminal.

Ansel Elgort as the title character in BABY DRIVER.
In the very first moments of the film, Wright sets his audience up to take Baby’s POV through music and rhythm. Not only does Baby listen to specific tunes that get his adrenaline going but he times his actions to them. Every gesture that Baby makes, from how he casually taps his fingers on the wheel, to how he revs his engine to meet the crescendo in a song, to how he brakes during well, a break in the orchestration, is synched to his choice of music. Of course, Wright is not only writing a specific character quirk, one that will both help and hurt the future heists that are coming, but he’s also pimping the use of music in movies to underline how an audience should feel given the track someone like a Tarantino or Scorsese has so painfully picked to manipulate us with. It’s both in the moment and meta, and it keeps us glued to Baby as well as takes us out of his story a bit too. It’s as if Wright wants us to know we’re watching a movie, and that he is pulling our strings. He’s that magician on those specials from a decade ago who dazzled us with his feats, but did so while showing us the tricks of his trade.

Baby’s music peccadillos help him tune out the unsavoriness of the crime, replacing it with his “happy place”, but they also keep him from having to interact more than necessary with the unsavory sorts that Doc chooses to accompany him. In that first heist scene, a bank robbery in the middle of the afternoon in Atlanta, Baby drives the automatic weapon-toting Buddy (a grizzled Jon Hamm), his hottie girlfriend Darling (an ungrizzled Eiza Gonzalez) and Griff (a very grizzled Jon Bernthal). The romantic couple treats him fairly but the hardened Griff doesn’t like Baby’s ear buds and taunts him about being antisocial. Even after the success of the raid, Griff gives Baby grief as Doc counts out the money. It shows us how dangerous Baby's world is, with 'friends' who could turn into foes at any moment.

Jon Bernthal with Elgort in BABY DRIVER.
Bernthal is great in this small part, and he's proven to be an actor who can play anything. He was wonderfully smarmy as Ewan McGregor’s agent in Roman Polanski’s THE GHOST WRITER and both likable and threatening in his years on THE WALKING DEAD. Here, he’s in wild-eyed asshole mode and he’s very scary. It’s a shame that he is only around for that first robbery, but then Doc boasts about not using the same guys all the time. (Famous last words, Doc.)

Baby feels buoyed as he has but one heist left on his contract, and as he goes to retrieve coffee for his colleagues, he literally dances all the way to the coffee shop and back. And as if that isn’t a clever enough conceit for Wright to write, which makes us all fall in love with the lanky, loose-limbed youth, Wright even shoots it all in one long take. The choreography is incredible, not only from Elgort (trained by Ryan Heffington) but by Wright’s cameraman Bill Pope. It's fluid, whimsical and one of 2017's best scenes. And even though Baby may think he’s about to dance out of the trade, we know better from having seen how these things play out in gangster films. Of course Doc will never let him go. 

Lily James as Debora (not Debra) in BABY DRIVER.
The naïve Baby is so open to the whole new world that he thinks is in front of him that he falls instantly in love with the gorgeous waitress at the diner he frequents. Her name is Debora (played by Lily James, perhaps the world’s best ingénue these days) and when he hears her sing and chats her up about the music, he’s smitten like a kitten. The two young stars have genuine chemistry here and what could be an ooey-gooey relationship becomes truly charming as it is both sexy but poignant. They're both unhappy people who are looking for better horizons. (What is it with diner waitresses in these things? Is slinging hash that awful?)

Of course, the next heist will create all kinds of problems for Baby as he’s saddled with chauffeuring around Bats (Jamie Foxx) who is either bat-shit crazy or the man on the planet with the biggest chip on his shoulder. Foxx is both fierce and funny, subtly seething through his entire performance. He gives an amazing villain performance in BABY DRIVER and his growing irritation at how one of his heist colleagues has mistaken his request for Michael Myers Halloween masks to hide their identities for the job got misinterpreted for the actor Mike Myers is one of the funniest bits in the film. Watching three robbers run amok with Austin Powers masks is a stitch the entire sequence. And again, the gag works on a couple of levels as Wright as makes it funny in situ as well as reminds us of the fact that his film is also about moviemaking.

Jamie Foxx doesn't like the Mike Myers masks in BABY DRIVER.
Bats ends up killing one of his doofus sidekicks along the way and this creates further consternation for Baby. Now, he’s an accessory to murder, and is even tasked with getting rid of the body. (He takes it to an auto junk yard where the vehicle and the body are crushed into a metallic cube.) His dancing joy turns into a need to run and as his professional life seeps into his personal life when Doc coerces him into staying by threatening Debora. Spacey can always summon up that deadpan menace he's done so brilliantly in everything from SEVEN to HOUSE OF CARDS. And even while wearing nerd glasses and a frumpy suit, the acclaimed actor manages to make us fear every word that he utters.

This could have been a rather short film, a thriller clocking in at just over the 90-minute mark is often the norm, but Wright has different things in mind here, preferring to deepen the crime genre, even if he's essentially spoofing it. Thus, Wright ensures his script spends a lot of time developing character. Such efforts deepen the narrative of this well-trod territory, and that’s why late in the game he expands upon the characters of Buddy and Darling. They return for a new robbery, and Wright lets us get to understand them more before that climatic heist. Gonzales stole every scene she had on FROM DUSK TILL DAWN: THE SERIES and as a robber here she comes close to stealing her final scenes with her alternatingly coy and exasperated reactions to what's going on around her. She’s the real deal too, and here's hoping Hollywood continues to let her flourish.

Kevin Spacey doles out the dough as Doc in BABY DRIVER.
Hamm’s Buddy is revealed to be a Wall Street crook who turned to a more obvious life of crime after being caught stealing from clients, and the Emmy award-winning actor manages to convey both the posh suit he once was as well as the dark hood he is now. Sometimes simultaneously. In the climax, his character turns into the main villain and a bit of a psychopath. We never quite believe Buddy is that nuts, and that may be how Wright intended it, but it’s funny because the accomplished Hamm rendered more menace staring quietly in MAD MEN than he does here shouting profanities at Baby in their final showdown. The finale almost needs the return of Bernthal's Griff.

What makes BABY DRIVER such a kick, even if it feels quite familiar, is that Wright applies himself wholly to enlivening every moment of his endeavor. He edits almost all of Baby’s movements and gestures to the soundtrack. Wright employs the music as underscore and in situation. Why, this clever creator even times the subtitles of conversations between Baby and Joseph (C.J. Jones), his deaf and soulful step-dad, to be humorous. How so? Watch how the delay of the words, waiting for an expression to be made by the actors, gives it all the more time to be funny. Comedy is timing after all.  

Eiza Gonzalez and Jon Hamm shoot 'em up in BABY DRIVER.
And Wright wrings pathos out of places that are often quite unexpected. He could've just written Debora as “the girl.” Often, having a beautiful damsel in distress is enough in things like this, but Wright ensures that the character is three-dimensional and James gives a sly and winning performance that works on many levels. One of the best scenes she has is when Baby is forced to stop at the diner with bad company in tow and Bats ends up threatening to kill her. It’s an awful tense moment for sure, but the crux of the scene is in both Baby's humiliation at her seeing his worlds blend together, and in her mourning at seeing her dreams crash and burn. It’s also the sign of a greatness when a comedy director can be that serious and Wright is all that.

BABY DRIVER plays like an awesome rollercoaster ride. It’s reminiscent of other coasters you’ve been on before, but it’s executed with better twists, savvier turns, and deeper emotions. Here, we’re strapped into that car with Baby and his skills behind the wheel raise our pulse. But more importantly, Wright gets our blood pumping by creating vivid characters that we're invested in and care about. He's also managed to make this into something of a musical really. We’re grooving along with Baby as he shimmies, shakes, and coco-pop’s through life, totally in tune with his playlist and fearing that this all could be his last dance. Wow, who knew that Wright could be Bob Fosse as well as Blake Edwards?

Monday, June 26, 2017

THE BIG SICK IS THE BIG ROMANTIC COMEDY WE’VE BEEN WAITING FOR

Original caricature by Jeff York of Kumail Nanjiani, flanked by Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter,
in THE BIG SICK.
One of the most beleaguered genres on film these days is the romantic comedy. So wholly maligned and unsuccessful have such movies been during the last decade, the genre has all but dried up as a staple at the Cineplex. Long gone are the days when the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Kate Hudson, and Jennifer Aniston were churning them out with regularity and claiming superstar status at the box office. The closest the rom-com has come to greatness in the last decade was twice - first with the cult hit 500 DAYS OF SUMMER in 2009, and then with the Oscar-winning HER in 2013. But to show you how strange the genre has become, in the former, the couple bitterly breaks up, and in the latter the protagonist falls for his Seri-like computer program. No wonder the genre struggles to find meaningful expressions of lasting love.

Well, the new romantic comedy THE BIG SICK could and should change all that, though I hesitate to even call the film such a thing in the first place because it’s so much more than that. It’s a complex character study, a social satire, and a timely commentary on race relations. Mostly, it’s a first-rate comedy, plain and simple, one of the best to appear onscreen in a long, long time. And it is easily one of the best films of 2017.

There are many things that make THE BIG SICK so special and unique, none more so than its exceptional and wholly distinctive main character. The romantic protagonist is named Kumail, a Pakistan comedian who’s trying to make it in Chicago. He’s played by Kumail Nanjiani, the Pakistan born actor and comedian who’s made a big splash the past few years with his stand-up specials, various podcasts he hosts, supporting roles in movies, and most notably, his starring role on HBO’s SILICON VALLEY. Indeed, this film is very biographical, as Kumail’s story onscreen is essentially the same true one that happened a decade ago. During that time, Kumail dated an American named Emily Gordon, and this film is about the winding road their relationship took in those early years.

Together, they’ve written THE BIG SICK and it is one of the most specific and intimately involving scripts ever written, no matter what the genre. In the movie, superbly brought to life by director Michael Showalter (HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS), the character of Kumail is struggling with many issues, including love. He’s trying to make it in the demanding world of stand-up. His family is pressuring him to be a good Muslim, including their attempts to set him up with the right Pakistani girl to marry. And Kumail also must deal with the day-to-day racism that someone of his persuasion faces in the age of Trump travel ban wishes.

This film was shot starting in May of 2016, right as the 45th president-to-be was wrapping up the GOP nomination. Trump’s stoking of the flames of intolerance became a crucial part of the story here, particularly when a heckler at a comedy club implores him to “Go back to ISIS.” It’s a painful, cringe-inducing moment, and it underscores the fact that this movie is bold in not only having a Pakistan-American in the lead, but that it does so in a time when certain audiences may not even give this film a chance because its hero is of such descent. It’s one of the many bold choices this film makes. But there are amazing risks taken across the board.

Most notably, the film is incredibly daring in how it defies the conventions of the romantic comedy. Sure, the first third of the film chronicles how Kumail met Emily (Zoe Kazan) in a somewhat typical fashion. Their “meet cute” occurs in the comedy club when he sarcastically asks the audience if “Pakistan is in the house.” (Hinsdale and Bucktown, sure, but Pakistan? Ah, no.) She whoops and hollers, even though she’s a Midwest girl, and that draws his attention. From that moment, they forge a mutual bond based on similarly ironic senses of humor, as well as their strong physical attraction to each other.

My favorite moment in their courtship is when he pops a copy of THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, the 1971 horror classic starring Vincent Price, into his DVD player with the intention of watching her reaction to it. After her response doesn’t seem enthusiastic enough to Kumail, Emily dryly remarks, “I love it when men test me on my taste.” Who wouldn’t love a woman so keenly aware of the games the opposite sex plays during courtship? Indeed, Kumail does fall for her, and they quickly become two peas in a pod, developing a glib and playful banter reflecting similar sensibilities and rhythms.

The script is chock full of great dialogue, equal parts snark and love. For half an hour, they fall in love, and we fall in love with them too. But then the inciting incident happens in the script and here it’s a doozy. Emily breaks up with Kumail upon the discovery of his refusal to tell his parents about her. He admits to her that he sees no future for them as she is not Pakistani and cannot fit into the traditions and expectations from his stringent family. It devastates her and she dumps him. But then, she becomes sick and is taken to the hospital. A classmate asks Kumail to look in on her as it’s finals week - Emily is a psychology major grad student – and Kumail does so, only to find that the doctors need to induce her into a coma to save her life. He ends up giving them permission to do so as her parents are states away and could not be contacted. Now Kumail is linked to here again. And yet, for the next hour of this romantic comedy, Emily is unconscious.

It’s audacious plotting for sure, but as the narrative veers into this most unconventional of Act Two’s, the film becomes truly outstanding. Kumail’s character arc is now primarily concerned with how he relates to Emily’s parents once they show up to take care of her. Beth and Terry, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, adore their daughter and drop everything to devote themselves to her care. They’re the kind of parents who know most everything going on in their child’s life, including all the details of Emily’s messy break-up with Kumail. Needless to say, they are not too fond of him. Yet, even with that working against him, Kumail starts to realize just how much he truly does love and care about Emily, and he starts to develop a deeper relationship with her even though she is in a coma, as well as with her parents. The three became staples in the hospital, vigilantly staying by her side for weeks.

Over the course of the next hour of the movie, Kumail and Emily’s folks develop a complex relationship, one that turns from tension with each other to helping take care of Emily together to a friendship where they take care of each other as well. To tell more about the plot at this point would be to spoil some of the wonderful laughs, tears and surprises in store, but the film indeed does become a love story between Kumail and Emily’s parents as well.

Hunter and Romano give extraordinary performances here, capturing Emily’s parents’ fears, sorrow, hopes and enthusiasms with equal aplomb. Their marriage is complicated, one of the more complex and nuanced couplings ever presented onscreen. Their bond is strained by personality differences, past resentments and even some terrible indiscretions. The two actors play together and apart so well, I wouldn’t be surprised if come Oscar time, they both are remembered with nominations in the supporting categories.

Also impressive are the other featured players. Showalter’s impressive resume as an actor makes him a natural to bring out the best in his cast, and indeed he does. Anupahm Kher and Zenobia Shroff add nuance and even sympathy to their stubbornness as Kumail’s parents, Adeel Akhtar and Shenaz Treasury mine plenty of laughs as Kumail’s brother and sister-in-law who are trying to navigate Pakistani tradition and American modernity, and Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunholer and Bo Burnham create vivid impressions as Kumail’s curt but caring fellow comics. It also doesn’t hurt that the executive producer here is Judd Apatow, a man and mogul who knows how to assemble top-notch casts from top to bottom be it on the big screen or the small one.  

Still, at the end of the day, this film’s success depends upon how much we care about the relationship between Kumail and Emily. And we care a lot. Both Nanjiani and Kazan are incredibly engaging performers - accessible, warm, sly, and knowing. Kazan makes a profound impression early as Emily as we must care about her so much during that first act that we become invested in her plight wholly even when she’s barely onscreen for that middle hour. She’s very funny and lovable, even when she’s being obstinate, and she and Nanjiani have great comic rapport. They’re so far from typical romantic leads, bringing something far quirkier and even odd to the proceedings. I like how Emily is messy and how Kumail often wears the clothing of a junior high nerd. Sure, the film hits the beats necessary for such a genre piece as a rom-com, and the script has a deep belief in love at its core, but at most every instance this film zigs where others would zag.

Even Nanjiani, who can earn laughs by merely staring at someone onscreen, gives a performance that is so strongly dramatic it will surprise you. This part requires him to hit notes of melancholy, fury, and uncertainty, and he nails every one of them. Whether it’s his confession that he doesn’t know if there’s a god, or his pained body language when he’s rejected by Emily, or when he bombs in front of a Hollywood exec, Nanjiani is a wondrous actor. His is truly is the performance that needs to be remembered by critics and Oscar come awards time. 

THE BIG SICK may be about a girl in a coma, but like another film with a similar theme – Pedro Almodovar’s 2002 drama TALK TO HER – this is one of the most involving and compelling love stories ever put onscreen. This rom-com defies convention from its narrative to its leading man to its political timeliness. I walked in not knowing anything about it except who was in it. I walked out buoyed by its brilliance. I hope this film finds an audience. If it doesn’t, then heaven help the romantic comedy, or for that matter, the state of film.

Monday, June 12, 2017

DEAR ACADEMY, GIVE DONALD SUTHERLAND AN HONORARY OSCAR

Original caricature by Jeff York of Donald Sutherland. (copyright 2017)

Dear Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,

This is my fifth and final open letter suggesting candidates who are long overdue for Academy recognition. In the past weeks, I have made the case for the following artists to receive the honorary Governors Award: filmmaker David Lynch, actress Catherine Deneuve, actor Kurt Russell, and filmmaker Ridley Scott. My last nomination is an actor who’s been a star since the 1960's. Drama, comedy, farce, thrillers, sci-fi, horror - he’s thrived in them all. This character actor is one of Hollywood’s best and most prolific, and his IMDB page lists over 200 credits. Yet, remarkably, this living legend has yet to receive a single Oscar nomination. This oversight must be corrected immediately by bestowing the 2017 Governors Award upon Donald Sutherland.

From 1967, when he broke through with his unforgettable supporting turn in THE DIRTY DOZEN, Sutherland has played both leading man and featured player. And he's done so in dozens upon dozens of critically acclaimed films and box office hits. Here is just a portion of his extraordinary credits: M*A*S*H, START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME, KELLY’S HEROES, ALEX IN WONDERLAND, KLUTE, DON’T LOOK NOW, THE DAY OF THE LOCUST, ANIMAL HOUSE, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, ORDINARY PEOPLE, A DRY WHITE SEASON, EYE OF THE NEEDLE, BACKDRAFT, JFK, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION, DISCLOSURE, OUTBREAK, A TIME TO KILL, COLD MOUNTAIN, PRIDE & PREJUDICE, HORRIBLE BOSSES, and THE HUNGER GAMES quartet.

He's done extraordinary work on television too, winning Emmys for two of his inspired turns -  CITIZEN X (1995) and THE PATH TO WAR (2002), both on HBO. In fact, it's hard to go a month without seeing Sutherland appearing on a screen somewhere in something. He chalks up close to six credits a year, bouncing back and forth between mediums. He is a constantly in-demand talent, even now at 81. He can play heroes or villains, lunatics or professors, government men or revolutionaries. His acting legacy is so vast he's even the patriarch of an esteemed acting family. He is the father of Kiefer Sutherland (24 and DESIGNATED SURVIVOR) and the grandfather of Sarah Sutherland (VEEP).

So, what is it about Donald Sutherland that makes him so extraordinary, and why does he continue to work so often? For starters, even his physicality has range. His tall, slim frame has always been able to suggest dignified masculinity or even a willowy feline quality. And his soft, husky voice can strike a tone that is commanding or the near opposite - ethereal. He’s able to cover a lot of ground with such attributes. He can convince audiences he’s a surgeon (M*A*S*H) or a lawyer (A TIME TO KILL) or a spy (EYE OF THE NEEDLE). He can play officious (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) or someone unhinged (DAY OF THE LOCUST). He can play straight (DON'T LOOK NOW) or fop (START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME).

What I like best about Sutherland is that despite having one of the most soulful and distinct voices in the history of cinema, one that is constantly employed as a voice-over, it is his non-verbal acting that    remains the most compelling. He is an actor who specializes in reacting, and his reactions constitute some of the best onscreen acting ever. Just watch any Sutherland performance and you will see an actor truly playing off the other actors. He is a consummate listener, always paying attention, always thinking before speaking. His ability to give so much of a performance without words would have made him a great silent movie star if he were born a few decades earlier. 

Take for example his exemplary performance as the title character in KLUTE (1971). Yes, Jane Fonda played prostitute Bree Daniels to strident, panicked perfection and received a richly deserved Oscar for it, but it could have come off as too much if it wasn't for Sutherland balancing her with his quiet strengths in each scene. As Detective John Klute, he listened, observed, and held in reserve his feelings as Fonda delivered her acidic quips and unzipped that stunning sequined dress. 

It's called Klute because it's a fish out of water story as a small-town detective searches NYC for his missing family friend, a man with big secrets. (One of them is that he was a john of Bree's.) At times, playing off the mouthy, sexually forward Bree, Klute could almost seem wimpy, but it's his quiet resolve to keep focused on the case and not lose himself in the muck of the Big Apple that keeps the audience with him. Sutherland had Klute listen and think before speaking in almost every scene. Watch how Fonda plays off of his hesitancy, which allowed her vulnerability to shine through more as she waits for his reaction. It’s the first of many times that Sutherland would imbue his characters with so much while saying so little, and raise the stakes of every player opposite him.

Sutherland pulled off a similar feat in 1980’s ORDINARY PEOPLE. In Robert Redford’s directorial debut about a well-to-do Lake Forest family coming apart at the seams after the oldest teen son drowns in a boating accident, Sutherland was cast as the quiet patriarch Calvin. Again, those he played off had the bigger, showier roles. The protagonist in the story is Conrad (Tim Hutton), the son who blames himself for his brother’s death and cut his own wrists when that pain became too unbearable. The antagonist in the story is mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), a perfectionist seething with resentment that her world has been usurped by death, shame and Conrad's suicide attempt. Attempting to hold them all together is Calvin, but not able to connect with either of them. 

Again, Sutherland’s is a largely reactive performance. His son’s erratic behavior gives Calvin pause as he tries to figure out the best way to approach “Connie” without ruffling his feathers. And Beth’s brittleness spurs Conrad to walk around her on egg shells, uncertain what to say as she rants. At one point, she suggests that she and Calvin go to London alone for Christmas, leaving their son behind. That doesn’t sit well with Calvin as he realizes her selfishness. When he gently pushes back, she becomes more strident, insisting she wants this one to be "a nice Christmas.” Sutherland hesitates for a moment before delivering Calvin’s response, “I want them all to be nice Christmases.” Sutherland makes sure that the audience understands the uncertain waters that his character is negotiating too. 

In the last third of the story, Conrad is on his way to being whole again. He learns to forgive himself for surviving the accident, as well as his mother for her shortcomings. Beth does not change. Her resentment grows more pungent. And Calvin realizes that she is holding them all back. He quietly tells her he no longer loves her and it's devastating. Beth leaves, leaving Calvin a single parent. And in the final scene, we see how Calvin has grown. He's honest with his wife and his son, telling them both hard truths they need to hear. His change is the final piece in the puzzle, and the arc should have gotten Sutherland an Oscar. The fact that he didn't even get nominated is a testament to a lack of justice and judgment amongst too many voters. 

And in case there was any doubt what Redford thought of Sutherland’s extraordinary work in this film, watch the scene where Calvin visits Conrad’s psychotherapist (Judd Hirsch). It is a confession scene and the first time in the film that the sacrificing Calvin puts his own feelings first. As he shares his thoughts, Redford keeps the camera on Sutherland for most of the five-minute exchange Calvin starts by hesitating to tell the whole truth, but as he talks, his monologue full of telling, meaningful pauses, starts to be more forthcoming. It is one of the Best Picture winner’s finest scenes, and it’s all Sutherland’s really, as he daringly peels away all of Calvin’s selflessness and formality, layer by layer, until the grief-drenched man is revealed. It still knocks my socks off today.

Over the last few decades, the silver-haired, and often bearded Sutherland has done superlative work too, mostly in supporting roles. He was superb playing the naïve art dealer taken in by Will Smith’s confidence man in SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION (1993); stole his one scene from Robert De Niro and Billy Baldwin as he rendered the smilingly cordial arsonist up for parole in BACKDRAFT (1991); and most recently, made for one calmly maleficent villain hounding Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss in THE HUNGER GAMES (2012) and its three sequels. For my money, his finest supporting was that of the mysterious CIA operative called “MR. X” in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). In it, he gives his most verbose performance ever, and it’s startling to see Sutherland use words so forcefully.

X enters the film at the beginning of the third act, with the purpose of telling Kevin Costner’s well-meaning but ill-prepared New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison what he needs to know about a conspiracy at the heart of the assassination. Against the backdrop of all the towering monuments in Washington, D.C., Sutherland’s X explains all the intricate links and details illuminating the collusion. It's a big scene, spanning some 12 pages of monologue, and Sutherland is riveting spelling it all out.

The actor's forceful, calm authority gives it such power. He may have convinced tons of skeptics out there that the CIA was behind it all. But whether you believe in the story or not, Sutherland makes it seem all too real and it plays as one of the scariest scenes in any film the past 30 years. What makes it even more affecting is how Sutherland slumps on the park bench at the end, spent, and beaten down. He makes sure we see that this disillusioned patriot takes no joy in telling his tale.

As Sutherland has aged, he is often called on to play such authority. He can play the good guy, and then with just a few degrees of difference, he can turn it into malevolence. His performances are always that masterful. So many critics, peers, and pundits are stupefied that he's never been nominated for an Oscar. It's time to change that this year. The Academy should bestow their 2017 Governors Award upon Mr. Donald Sutherland. 

Sincerely,
Jeff York

Film critic for The Establishing Shot
Host of the Page 2 Screen podcast for the International Screenwriters Association
Member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

THE 10 BEST THINGS ABOUT WONDER WOMAN

Original caricature by Jeff York of Gal Gadot as WONDER WOMAN
Why has the new big screen version of WONDER WOMAN struck a chord with so, so many?

Perhaps it has something to do with loyal fans waiting for decades for a WW movie and their joy at seeing it materialize so spectacularly. Maybe it’s because Gal Gadot already won audiences over with her scene-stealing turn in last year’s otherwise dour BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and fans were ready for more of her clever take on the role. Certainly, a lot of it had to do with talented filmmaker Patty Jenkins avoiding the dark, aloof tone that has characterized the DC style for too many big screen outings now.

No matter, the WONDER WOMAN movie did huge box office its opening weekend and was the number one film worldwide. Praise for the movie was near universal too, holding at a 93% “certified fresh” rating at RottenTomatoes.com. I believe that there are many factors that contributed to its sterling success, probably too many to list in this blog. Still, I can think of ten right off the bat that made it so wondrous. (Warning: Spoilers lie ahead.)

WONDER WOMAN IS AN OPTIMIST
The vicious snark of Deadpool is hilarious. As is Tony Stark’s glib banter. And I understand why Batman is so dark and dour – his parents were killed in front of him – I get it. But Princess Diana (AKA Wonder Woman) is earnest, kind, and a believer in humanity. She’s no cynic trying to keep an ugly world at bay. She wears her heart on her sleeve and that makes her unique in the superhero movie world. It also makes her quite the elixir considering the depressing news dominating our newsfeed almost daily these days.

GAL GADOT IS TRULY FUNNY
Not only was Allan Heinberg's WONDER WOMAN script exceedingly clever, but Gadot manages to be many things - heroic, relatable, and yes, very funny. She plays the ‘fish out of water’ angle of the story here with great line readings and expert physical humor. Particularly memorable is when she struggles to feel comfortable in the confining dress styles of the early 20th Century. Her acting achievement in this film reminded me a lot of what Christopher Reeve did when he took on SUPERMAN in 1978. He made being stalwart incredibly appealing as he portrayed his confident Kal-El side, but he also showed real comic chops vamping as Kal-El's corny and klutzy Clark Kent. Diana doesn't create such an alter-ego, but as Gadot plays the role, she is always noble and pure, and the actress knows how to make such affectations often appear humorous, especially as she doesn't quite understand all the cynicism around her. Here’s hoping that Gadot is an early Best Actress Oscar contender for her complex, nuanced, and truly accomplished performance in this equally amazing movie.

PATTY JENKINS DID A SUPER JOB DIRECTING IT
It’s great that Jenkins was chosen to helm the film as there has been too much of a white, male, fanboy sensibility permeating comic book adaptations. Her natural insights into knowing how to fight the good fight in the male dominated business of Hollywood clearly helped her understanding of the Amazon princess’ resistance to the prejudices of global patriarchy. But the fact is, Jenkins is a great director no matter what her sex. She knows how to keep the focus on story, let the characters drive the action, and shoot set pieces with clear and clean through lines. Jenkins also knows that while such set pieces are rousing, she takes the stand that war is still hell. She never loses sight of that in how the battles are shot. Jenkins better be handed the sequel, and she should be fielding dozens upon dozens of other offers after this singular achievement. 

WONDER WOMAN IS NOT OGLED
Sure, too many male characters make remarks about Diana's looks in the film. One even wants to be dropped on her home island because his lust is elevated by the idea that everyone there would be just like her. And yes, Steve Trevor makes Diana wear glasses to hide her beauty, which is a bit sexist as well. Such moments are my only real quibbles with the film, but at least Patty Jenkins' camera never ogles her. There are no lecherous POV's or up-the-skirt shots like a few that made their way into BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN. Jenkins made sure to keep such things at bay. Even Wonder Woman's costume doesn't have the plunging neckline like it did in the comic books and the Lynda Carter TV series from the 70's. This movie is all the better for avoiding easy sexism. And frankly, so is the audience. 

CHRIS PINE BREAKS YOUR HEART
When Chris Pine was announced as Steve Trevor, we knew he’d ace the funny aspects of the flying ace. (He's an expert comic performer - just check out his roles in SMOKIN’ ACES and INTO THE WOODS.) But who knew he’d break our hearts here? When he dances with Diana in the snow and confesses he has no idea what a normal life is like, there is such sadness in his admission that it creates a lump in one’s throat. And Pine does his best screen acting ever when Trevor sacrifices himself by taking out the threat of the bombs on that big plane in the third act. As he realizes doing so will win the war, his face shows pride, but then it turns to fear at the prospect of dying, and ultimately, he looks sad as he wonders if Diana heard him tell her he loves her. It made me cry. I'll bet it made everyone watching in theaters cry. Such a moving movie moment. Here’s hoping Pine's an early contender for an Oscar too.

THE STAKES OF WORLD WAR I GROUND THE STORY
There's nothing wrong with fighting the Loki’s of the galaxy, or made-up blob monsters mixing Kryptonite with Lex Luthor’s DNA, but a genuine historical war adds so much weight. In “The war to end all wars”, millions died or returned home maimed, and Jenkins makes sure we are keenly aware of such stakes at play throughout WONDER WOMAN. 

THE VILLAINS ARE TRULY VILLAINOUS
David Thewlis, Danny Huston, and Elena Anaya have all played villainous characters before and they’re so very good at it. Here, they also play baddies, and they truly know how to bring out a character's evil side. Action movies need strong bad guys. The success of good vs. evil stories depend on them. This film knows that and wrote three, count 'em three, truly vicious and evil adversaries into the story for our intrepid heroine to fight.

THE ACTION SCENES REFLECT DIANA'S CHARACTER
Sure, there’s plenty of Zach Snyder's slow-motion tropes to accentuate the action here. He did develop the story and produce the film, after all. But here, when Jenkins slows the action down, it’s not done to show off filmmaking technique, it's to highlight Diana’s strategic fighting style. The Amazonian isn’t out to be a killing machine, she's out to stop more carnage. That's why she doesn't slaughter at will. Instead she is shown tripping up opponents by sliding their legs out from under them with hers. Diana often takes away their weapons too, or smashes them, rendering them useless as well. She also just knocks out a lot of the German soldiers. Granted, Diana does kill some, but by and large, her fighting remains humane.

THE BACKSTORY IS FASCINATING
Often a backstory can bog down a movie, but in this one it’s utterly  fascinating. The island of women could be a film all its own. All their training, the legend of Zeus and Ares, the hierarchy - it makes for a great narrative wholly on its own before Steve Trevor’s plane bothers to crash into the island’s waters. And in future films, if Diana ever returns home, it will be a welcome addition to future tellings.  

NONETHELESS, SHE PERSISTED
Could the timing of a strong woman persisting, and winning come at a more appropriate time? Whether it was Ariana Grande returning to Manchester after the horrors of the London concert bombing, or his female victims united against Bill Cosby in court, or Angela Merkel emerging as the leader of the western world when Trump dumped all over NATO and pulled the USA out of the Paris accord agreement, this week was all about women standing tall and showing incredible heroism. Interestingly, Gal Gadot described feminism as equality, essentially stating that the word stands for people recognizing women as equals. Diana/Wonder Woman certainly demonstrated her leadership and equality to any male on screen, if not her downright superiority in every way. So many women demonstrate similar strengths all day long in every capacity throughout the world too. Thus, WONDER WOMAN is truly capturing the zeitgeist of the moment. She is that moment.

TWO NEW MOVIES MAKE THE NUMBER ONE MISTAKE THAT HORROR FILMS MAKE


In the five years that I was the Chicago Horror Movie Examiner, while that online newspaper was in existence, I saw a lot of scary films. Thus, watching anything labeling itself a frightener helped me identify what makes horror work on a macro level, as well as a micro one. Many horror movies could boast of quality budgets, high production values, and expert acting, yet if the script was problematic, none of that mattered. As the adage goes, "If it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage." And in all my years as a fan of horror, long before being paid to critique such movies, I realized that the single most egregious mistake a horror piece could make was creating characters that acted too stupid to truly invest in. 

Unfortunately, two new frighteners that just opened make that critical error, repeatedly. There is much to recommend in both IT COMES AT NIGHT and AWAKENING THE ZODIAC, as they’re well done on several levels, but they have filled their stories with stupid characters that act inanely. Rather than covering my eyes in fear, I was rolling them in frustration.

IT COMES AT NIGHT is actually an exceptionally well-shot and acted one, written and directed by Trey Edward Shults in his feature debut. Unfortunately, his movie makes a lot of rookie mistakes and ultimately crumbles apart. In fact, for me, he makes an unforgivable error right off the bat in his very title. Qualifying something as "It", a pronoun, suggests that there will be some sort of monster or entity attacking from the darkness. It conjures up B-movie type horror, to be perfectly honest. This film isn't like that though, and even worse, there is no "it" that comes at night, but rather, just a person who gets the plot rolling. To suggest he's an "it" is misleading and rather egregious. Why play games with the title, especially when your horror movie aims to be a more serious work. It's trying to be a savvy dissertation on desperate people in a nihilistic apocalypse tale, but the title belies that. 

Indeed, Shults’ story introduces his audience to a lone family that has boarded up their woodland house to keep out some sort of scourge that has swept the nation. Thus, these survivors rarely go outside, and they don gas masks when they believe the society crippling contagion to be at its most threatening. That’s how we are introduced to dad Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.). They are wearing masks to prevent being infected as they prepare to mercy kill Sarah's infected father. Grandpa (David Pendleton) is rolled outside in a wheelbarrow, laid in a shallow grave, and shot in the head. To ensure his disease doesn't becomes airborne or infest the land, they burn his corpse. So far, quite good. But almost immediately after that, these hitherto smart people start displaying incredible acts of utter stupidity.

Late one night, an intruder breaks into their home. He’s crafty, given that there’s only one entrance to this elaborate two-story cabin, and everything else is boarded up. But he smartly finds entry, but is stupidly loud in his entrance. The clanking and clomping about Will (Christopher Abbott) happens to be out searching for food and supplies, but would any thief enter an unknown house with such racket? I don't think so. It's dumb, and it's there just to create a scare. But it's overplayed. Then when he's caught by Paul et al., Will makes no effort to communicate with them in a proper way that would explain his need for supplies given the landscape and crisis. Instead, he says little which allows Paul, also acting rashly, to drag Will out to the woods, tie him to a tree, cover his mouth with duct tape, and cover his head with a bag. 

Now, wouldn’t Paul want to know what’s going on? Immediately? He could ask who Will is, or if maybe there's news of a cure or something else to stem the tide of death sweeping the land. Perhaps Paul could ask if Will was trying to warn him of worse marauders out there. But none of this seems to enter the patriarch's mind, a man whom we later find out, is a teacher. If he's an educator, then why not let Will educate him on his motives? Paul also has a rifle which definitely gives him him an upper hand, but he acts like a dumb rube lynching a man he knows precious little about. Worse yet, he essentially leaves him out in the wilderness to die. That is not rational behavior, it doesn't help Paul's family, and it turns audience sympathies against him. Ten minutes into the film and the filmmaker is already leaving too many questions for an audience.  

And why on earth does Paul cover Will's mouth with duct tape? His screams are still heard from all around, even though his words aren't legible. Indeed, his noisiness would invite other human marauders, let alone wild animals looking for food too. Such actions even agitate the family pooch, who barks loudly and creates even more unnecessary noise. Are these people really that unthinking?

The next morning, Paul does decide to interrogate his prisoner as he's survived the night, and finds out that Paul has a family nearby. He also has goats and chickens. Will offers to comingle his fare with Paul, and Paul accepts his offer. Soon, Will’s wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young boy Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) are moving onto the grounds, along with their animals. They’re now one big family, and in a rather corny montage, we seem them becoming friends, but the happy days don’t last long.  

From there, this brood of characters start to do dumb things that invite their ruin and lose audience empathy. These people are supposed to be cagey survivors who’ve lasted by being shrewd and careful, yet they drag the dog with them wherever they go. He makes noise constantly and shows a tendency to be uncontrollable, so why take him out? For protection? Good heavens, they already have rifles, so what the hell are they doing? The true reason he’s taken out is so Shults can have him escape and become an easy victim in lazy horror storytelling. It's one of the easiest things to do in a horror movie, and anyone with even a passing familiarity with Blake Snyder, or the genre of horror, should know better than to so blithely sacrifice the family pet.

It’s also silly that Shults' script has Travis wander around the house at night constantly, turning him into one creepy voyeur. In doing so, Travis develops a crush on Kim. He listens to her make love to Will  and that builds his lust more. Travis even flirts with Kim when he gets the chance to be alone with her, but to what purpose? It feels like manufactured conflict, not genuine character behavior, especially considering that they’re in the middle of an apocalypse, and that Kim also happens to be a happily married woman. Travis' youth shouldn’t be an excuse for such asinine behavior. He is written as the weak link, but Shults overplays the youth's stupidity at almost every turn. Travis is too weak, cowardly, and disrespectful to give a shit about. 

Travis' most absurd behavior comes in the third act. He stupidly wanders into the quarantined room where grandpa died and finds Andrew there. The boy appears to be in a trance, muttering to himself. The room was locked and covered in plastic, to keep any contagion cloistered, but Travis enters anyway. Then he takes Andrew by the hand and returns him to his room. Does any of that make sense? Lives are at stake and yet the film continues to have its characters act less like people and more like the next certain victim as the contrived plotting now demands.

Then, when the two families discover what happened with Travis and Andrew, they agree to quarantine the families to see if one or the other is now infected. But does that stop Travis from disobeying such instructions? Of course not. He hears an argument between Will and Kim, thusly choosing to investigate on his own without waking his folks. Why, oh why, wasn’t he the one who ran away and became infected instead of the dog two reels back?

At the climax, the numbskull behavior reaches its zenith, as tempers flare, cool heads fail, and the rifles come out. Now all the character perform inanely, most egregious being Sarah who has an opportunity to shoot Will as he pummels Paul's head with the butt of his rifle and doesn't until four or five blows are administered. How can one root for such imbeciles?

The fact is, we can't. Horror fans, at least the truly discerning ones, the smarter audiences, have grown too sophisticated for such pandering to violence and contrivances in stories. We have been laughing at idiots who enter a room they shouldn’t in horror movies for decades and decades now. Hell, Edgar Wright parodied it in GRINDHOUSE back in 2007 with his faux trailer for “Don’t!” Filmmakers should know better. 

Horror franchises like FRIDAY THE 13th and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET started to suffer when audiences started cheering for Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger to prevail because their victims acted too stupidly to care for. If they're too dumb they just become more fools to be slaughtered. If they're smart, then their fate means something. The best horror has characters that act exceptionally clever in combating whatever evil they’re up against, be it Ripley in the ALIEN franchise, Charley Brewster in FRIGHT NIGHT, or even the comical Ash in the EVIL DEAD trilogy. The quickest way for horror to go south is to fill it with one idiotic character after another. 

It’s a shame really, as Shults clearly has talent. He knows how to build dread, edit suspense, and direct his able cast. But his amateur script, full of plot holes a semi-truck could drive through, ruins the good things he’s got going here. Horror movies are always going to need victims, but the key is to have them act as smart as possible and not be too easy of prey. When the audience starts groaning over their asinine behavior, you’ve lost them. And in horror, when you lose your audience, you’re dead.


The other horror movie that shouldn’t have made so many rookie mistakes is AWAKENING THE ZODIAC. (It's in theaters in select cities and on VOD all over the nation right now.) Indeed, a premise that promises the return of the legendary Zodiac killer should play as a natural for the genre. During the late 60’s and early 70’s, the serial killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay area with a series of murders and called himself the Zodiac, made him one of the most feared bogeyman in the annals of true crime. He was clever, changing his M.O. to throw off investigators, and he was cocky, taunting the public and press with letters boasting of his ‘achievements.’ Heck, the arrogant prick even called into a crime show once to banter with famed California attorney Melvin Belli. The fact that the Zodiac was never caught, and that there have been dozens of theories about just who he was, gives any filmmaker a lot of license to play in the sub-genre known as “historical faction.” And indeed, this horror movie mines from such to explore a serial killer being chased some 50 years after his heyday. 

Unfortunately, this one in less interested in truly examining the Zodiac and his crimes in a meaningful way. It mostly just scratches the surface of what he did, and what history is discussed is done mostly through heavy-handed expositional dialogue. Sure, the Zodiac's infamous ciphers show up and breaking their code becomes a key part of the plot here, but the film's real interest lies elsewhere, mostly in the shabby and shambling comedy of the two main characters playing detective as they hunt for the aged killer. 

The story purports that the Zodiac migrated east after his spree of death and violence on the west coast, and that somehow he laid roots in Virginia. Even more amazing here is that the plot hinges on the idea that the killer made home movies of his exploits. Still, most incredibly, the story would have us believe that the Zodiac would keep them sequestered in an old storage locker. Really? His greatest crimes, documented, but left to rot in a box somewhere?  Wouldn't such valuables be kept close, especially since their discovery turns the old killer back into a crafty menace hoping to keep them secret? 

The people that discover the dusty old films happen to be a local married couple who are down on their luck, and the crux of the film deals with their escapades as amateur sleuths. Mick (Shane West) and Zoe Branson (Leslie Bibb) are supposed to be low-income hicks, but of course they're ridiculously good-looking and fit, thus rendering the casting off right from the contract signing. The two characters live in a trailer park, and are looking for a big score to save their meager pocketbooks. Mick blows three months’ rent to buy the contents of that abandoned storage locker hoping to find jewelry or antiques that will deliver a big pay day. Instead, they find the Zodiac home movies and hopes for big bucks becomes a real possibility. 

They take their findings to crusty friend Harvey (Matt Craven), and together the three start investigating the locker's history, as well as that of the notoriously famous fiend who's in the films. From there, they start heading out to town, asking all sorts of questions about the Zodiac and in doing, create quite a spectacle. Rather than being subtle and clever, the three act like virtual bulls in a china shop, pissing off locals, drawing oodles of attention to themselves, and attracting the obvious interests of the hidden killer. 

And to make matters where, the whole time they're investigating their precious find, Mick and Zoe are constantly fighting. Clearly, what director Jonathan Archer was going for here, along with his fellow screenwriter colleagues Jennifer Archer and Mike Horrigan, was for banter a la that of the bickering detective couples at the heart of MOONLIGHTING or REMINGTON STEELE. But the quips and zingers that Mick and Zoe fling at each other barely pass for the cornball wit one would've found on an old episode of HEE-HAW. It's all rube comedy, with dropping g's and feisty folk galavanting about in cut-off shorts and shirts, but it betrays the needs of the horror plot. Granted, Mick and Zoe aren't meant to be Holmes and Watson, but did they have to be so much like Holmes and Yo-Yo? (If you get that reference, you know your 70's trivia!)

West and Bibb are capable actors, attractive in their chemistry as well, but they overplay the shtick. After a few reels, the film starts to feel less and less like a thriller and more like a straining romantic comedy. To make the film play even sillier, the script unwisely only introduces two possible suspects as the aged Zodiac. It's dumb to only have two characters in their late 70's, knowing that's how old the Zodiac would be today. The audience surely will figure out who's who at least 30 minutes before these two yokels do.  

Sadly, there are few genuine scares in the film as well, and those that are there feel feeble. They tend towards the cliched as well. Before Harvey can tell anyone that he’s figured out the cipher, he’s offed by the Zodiac, of course. And when Mick calls Zoe to tell her that he’s discovered that the man she’s chasing down the road is the genuine article, she can’t be bothered to listen and conveniently hangs up her cell. All the better to keep her clueless, of course, as the plot demands. Then, at the end, the filmmakers trot out one of the oldest and most mildew-infested tropes of the genre. They resurrect the Zodiac a couple of times even after he's been "killed." I guess they'd rather have him act like Jason Voorhees than an actual true crime human being, but still, why doesn't anyone shoot the bad guy twice in these things to ensure he's dead?  

AWAKENING THE ZODIAC doesn’t aim particularly high, that's true, and perhaps I'm being too hard on it. It aims to be merely a ‘feel good’ thriller, something you might enjoy at a drive-in theater during the dog days of summer, and not a worthy companion piece to David Fincher's ambitious classic from 2007. But can’t a drive-in movie be smarter than this? Can't the characters, even if they're country bumpkins, act smarter than a fourth grader?

A lot of horror fans may accept such shortcomings, satisfied with a few good bumps in the night and one or two chills down their spine, but horror should aim higher. Creating a sense of dread throughout, writing characters that are smart foils for the monsters, and placing all of them in a genuine battle of wits for their lives - these are the signs of elevated genre. Filmmakers should care enough to bring their A game, even if they're making a B movie. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

A CHURCHILL AS YOU’VE NEVER SEEN HIM BEFORE


In 1950, Time magazine didn’t choose a “Man of the Year” for their cover story. They decided upon a “Man of the Half Century.” That man, declared by Time’s editors, was the one they deemed as having the most impact on the world for the first fifty years from 1900-1945. They wrote about his contribution, this way, as he helped stem the chaos of the first half of the 20th century:
“As the Twentieth Century plunged on, long-familiar bearings were lost in the mists of change. Some of the age's great leaders called for more & more speed ahead; some tried to reverse the course. Winston Churchill had a different function: his chief contribution was to warn of rocks ahead, and to lead the rescue parties. He was not the man who designed the ship; what he did was to launch the lifeboats. That a free world survived in 1950, with a hope of more progress and less calamity, was due in large measure to his exertions.” 
No wonder Winston Churchill, Time's Man of the Half Century,  continues to fascinate. According to IMDB.com there are no fewer than 67 titles centering on his legacy, in documentary form, as well as scripted dramas. And in our current cinematic age of one superhero movie after the next, it’s important to realize who the real heroes of the world have been, and perhaps that is what drove the filmmakers to once again tell a story about a man who indeed saved the world. Yet, this new take, a theatrical release simply entitled CHURCHILL, is a very different take on the man's heroics. It focuses on the fears and foibles of the man Time lauded for calling out the "rescue parties." 

Written by Alex von Tunzelman, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, and starring veteran character actor Brian Cox in the title role, CHURCHILL presents a much different picture of “The British Bulldog” than we’ve ever seen before. Cox manages to physically embody the man almost perfectly, in all the ways one would expect.  He's got the gate, the weight, the facial expressions, the way Churchill exclaimed "victory", or held his cigar down pat. There are shots of him in the film that are utterly uncanny in conjuring up the WWII leader, that's how good his resemblance is. The differences from other portrayals exists in the inner portrayal. Cox's Churchill is wildly different from what most other portrayals. The range of emotions, from pride to panic, make this a wholly arresting and daringly new take on the venerable movie bio favorite. And it's often exceedingly hard to watch. The Churchill here is fallible to a fault, petty and rash, and battling more inner demons that Regan in THE EXORCIST. 

In most scripted takes on Churchill, he is almost always portrayed as the irascible yet stalwart statesman. Strong, certain, a bit of a curmudgeon, blunt and righteous in his honesty. This is the Churchill that Time magazine honored, and that most historians focus on, but this showcases more than just that. This explores more of a man torn between duty and dread, history and the future, and how it was ripping him apart inside. It's not a cradle-to-grave biography, but rather one focusing on a specific and short period in a person's life. The focus here is on the battles Churchill had with the other leaders on the Allied side as they readied for the riskiest invasion of the war effort - D-Day. 


There have been many explorations of that famous battle as well onscreen, but few have shown the discourse between the leaders plotting the strategic game-changer that D-Day turned out to be as it is presented here. Tunzelman’s and Teplitzky’s effort shines a light on the frenzy and almost panic seizing Churchill in his worries about the timing and effectiveness of such a large scale invasion. And frankly, as presented here, that Herculean-sized battle was almost as ginormous as the fight raging within the Prime Minister.

Churchill suffered from depression, what he liked to call “his black dog", and according to today's knowledge regarding various mental states, his condition seemed to have been a classic case of bipolar disorder. Thus, this film presents Churchill as both bulldog and black dog. And it's hard to watch. It's quite alarming to see him on edge so dramatically. It's even frightening to watch this man we think of as so stalwart, with his sweat and panic stressing him out so completely. It is in many ways, incessantly unflattering. He's portrayed here as willy-nilly, raw-nerved, and snappish in his arguments with other leaders. His worries that the invasion could be a trap, or another version of World War I’s disastrous Gallipoli, and it propels him to lash out all his contemporaries like a bull in a china shop. Yes, he was a soldier who saw way too much death and destruction in his youth, and commanded the disaster at Gallipoli, but what are we to make of the man who started to stave off Hitler early on, before American got off its duff and joined the war effort, shown here as he all but spits and sputters his fear of battle in the war room? 

Is this truly Churchill? Indeed, his depression was at times all-consuming. Still, this film pushes this little known part of his story to the forefront and downplays much of his history as the brilliant PM he indeed was. Despite many films and television efforts showcasing parts of Churchill's crotchety temperament, whether it was in award-winning turns by Albert Finney or Brendon Gleeson, none have made the lovable Brit so unattractive. 

At one point in the film, Churchill goes toe-to-toe with General Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery), commander of the U.S. and Allied Forces, in a private conversation. The American regards his British partner as an unstable old fool or even worse, a leader who's completely lost his mojo. Was it as bad as this scene suggests? Historical biopics onscreen necessitate filling in the blanks for conversations not wholly documented, but this one is unlike most you've seen before. The two men seem bitchy and even petty with each other, and it isn't helped by the fact that Ike is played in a somewhat dismissive and superior way by Slattery. (He's still channeling too much of that Roger Sterling one-percenter smarm from MAD MEN.) Some of their dialogue together seems trite, on-the-nose, and petty in a high school sort of way. But it's showcasing the fallibility of these two men. They aren't just world leaders, they're also men with egos and insecurities. 


Historian Tunzelman's screenplay may be reaching in places like this, but his desire is to show something different than before. He aims to show just how Churchill’s mental condition affected all that he was doing, even in private conversations about strategy with Ike. Tunzelman shows the ravaged, exhausted and worried Churchill at every turn. And in making his conversation with Eisenhower play the way it does, it renders every moment of Churchill's battle with depression one that could easily lose his friends and allies. 

Some have criticized this film for being over-the-top in both how hysterical Churchill is often portrayed in such instances, as well as how some of those scenes have ‘actorly' written all over them. And indeed, veteran actor Cox tears into such scenes with sheer gusto, underlining his character's neediness with every word, gesture and arched eyebrow. It's a shocking portrayal due to the fact that Cox is usually such a restrained presence onscreen.

His screen roles tend towards the intensely quiet villain type. Be it his droll, menacingly bland delivery as the original Hannibal Lecter in MANHUNTER (1986), or his cordial ruthlessness as William Stryker in X-MEN 2 (2003), or even his CIA spook world-weary assessment of everything in THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (2004), Cox almost always underplays, and to great effect. Here though, he pitches his performance loud and manic, often overheating. It comes off as too much a lot of the time, especially when Teplitzky keeps his camera close to his actors’ faces. Still, it’s clear what Cox and Teplitzky have in mind. They're wanting us to be uncomfortable. They want us to feel as discombobulated as the Churchill we're being asked to identify with. They're going for something bigger and more daring here, and Cox bravely gives it his all. And it's enthralling, even if at times, it seems off-putting.  (BTW…it’s interesting that John Lithgow is winning awards for his portrayal of an old, conflicted Churchill wracked with a similar fears and shaky emotions on THE CROWN for Netflix. We’ll see if Cox fares as well come awards-time for his harried take. Hopefully, he will merit serious consideration.)

Cox’s scenes with Miranda Richardson as his wife Clementine play very well and may be the best in the film. Relying on his wife for her no-nonsense approach and often blunt assessment of him, Churchill is more recognizable. And likable too. The two are wondrous together and Richardson seems to bring out a tenderness in Cox that makes his Churchill even more fascinating and complex. Interestingly, both veteran thespians remind us with their bold and brave portrayals just how much higher they both should be on the list of the world's greatest actors. They are two of our absolute finest and have been for decades. It's great to see these two, who should be household names, given such juicy, starring roles here. They deserve them. And then some.


The cinematography by David Higgs, the production design headed up by Chris Roope, and the costuming from Bartholomew Cariss are all strong, as you’d expect them to be in a historical epic. But even here, Teplitzky pushes them to make things as startling as his story. Higgs uses lots of poetic, even esoteric, slow-motion images to convey metaphors for Churchill’s wandering psyche. Churchill’s tossed and rolling hat by the sea could almost earn a supporting performance credit. Some of the costuming is just as on-the-nose as that derby that's rollicking in the sand, out of control. Yes, Churchill schlepping around in his skivvies serves to show his everydayness and his vulnerability, but it plays a bit comical. It's  by design, of course, all part of this very different kind of bio. This is a warts and all depiction, even going so far as to put a few more blemishes on those warts.  

In some ways, this film reminded me of THIRTEEN DAYS, the 2000 historical drama starring Kevin Costner and Bruce Greenwood. That film, written by David Self and directed by Roger Donaldson, portrayed JFK’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 as an often petty, uncertain, and manic conversation between leaders trying their best to stave off a nuclear holocaust with Russia, but not always showing maturity and rationality in attempting to. One can argue about certain aspects of that historical portrait as well, but like here, it was intended to show that heroes from history must always be regarded as real people, fallible and vulnerable. CHURCHILL, like that effort, doesn't want to present statues of demigod-like heroes, or dry Smithsonian documents under glass. Instead, such biopics aims to make history breathe, seething with vigor and vividness, and all the more incredible for just how human a drama they were. 

The meaningfulness of CHURCHILL, opening today, is two-fold. First, it showcases a leader with all sorts of terrible problems and issues nonetheless rising to the occasion and doing the proper and righteous thing on the world stage. And two, considering what happened with NATO and the Paris accords this past week, this new film arrives with a timeliness that could not be more uncanny. Churchill's story here should be required viewing as a primer for our current American President as he deals with friends and foes on that world stage. Is it possible to upload the film into his Twitter feed?