Saturday, July 29, 2017

Chinatown (1974) *****

Born of the marriage of German Expressionism and American, hardboiled detective fiction, film noir is a genre that keeps coming back around. The 1940's and '50s are considered the classic noir era, but directors to the modern day have continued to make starkly-lit, cynical movies about complicated men in suits who get sucked into the darkness of greed, corruption, and betrayal. Among the greatest of these is Roman Polanksi's “Chinatown.” 

 Filmed in 1974, in an America wracked by self-doubt, the movie is set in the hot, L.A. Summer of 1937, during a drought. The city of L.A. is fighting with rural farmers over every drop of precious water. During what starts as a standard cheating-spouse investigation, private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) discovers that someone is secretly dumping fresh water into the ocean. The cocky Gittes soon finds himself in over his head in a story with all the classic noir elements: a murder investigation, a scheming millionaire, an irritable police force, and, of course, a femme fatale (Faye Dunaway).

“Chinatown” could easily have been simply an homage to noir movies, but the perfection of its execution elevates it to a noir classic in its own right. Polanski's direction is spare and taut. The plot is complicated, but if you pay attention, it makes sense. Jack Nicholson appears in every scene at his charismatic best.

“Chinatown” is about many things, not least of which is the impossibility of being a good man in a system that makes it impossible to do good. As the story unfolds, we learn that Jake used to be a police officer, working in Chinatown. He found it to be a place where no one was interested in solving crimes, just in lining their own pockets and keeping things quiet. When he tried to do one good thing in the midst of all that, he failed, so he left the force to become a private eye. Now, Jake once again finds himself in a position to do something good, if only he can.

If you haven't seen “Chinatown,” it's really imperative that you check it out. The movie stands as one of the greats, alongside films like "The Third Man" and "The Long Goodbye". It holds up well to repeat viewings, and the nihilistic, final line, “Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.” will haunt you forever.

5 stars out of 5

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Entonces Nosotros (2016, English title "About Us") ***1/2

We took a chance on this movie knowing absolutely nothing about it. The risk paid off! This turned out to be a really charming, little Costa Rican romantic dramedy. It turns out it was Costa Rica's submission for the 2017 Academy Awards.

Sofia (Argentinean actress Noelia Castano) and Diego (played by the writer/director, Hernan Jimenez) are a couple in a 3-year relationship that has turned rocky. Diego, in particular can't get over the fact that Sofia hooked up with another guy during a period when they were on a break. He suggests a beach vacation where they can get away from all their old issues and reconnect. At the beach,however, they run into Malena (Marina Glezer), an old friend of Sofia's. The gorgeous Malena insinuates herself into their vacation and threatens to ruin everything, including Diego's plans to propose.

That's all there is to it. No one has superpowers or gets blown up. It's just a good, basic story about complicated love. The scenery is beautiful, as are the women. All three actors are excellent, especially Noelia Castana, who can speak volumes with a subtle change in facial expression. Jimenez, who is a professed fan of Woody Allen's work, put a lot of heart into the $400,000 film. The humor often induces more cringes than belly laughs, but it's enough to mellow the emotional honesty of the story. It might be a little TOO honest to be a good movie for a first date, but it's a great choice for a 100th date.

3.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017) *** --Spoilers!--

The struggle is over. Wonder Woman has finally made it to the big screen! Gal Gadot plays Diana, daughter of Zeus, raised by the Amazons to fight Ares, the god of War. Diana's mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) teaches her history, while her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) teaches her to fight. Living on the magically-protected, man-free island of Themyscira, the Amazons assume that the defeated Ares is still off on his millenia of exile. When Allied spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane through their magical barrier, they learn that Ares has risen again, in the form of WWI (“the war to end all wars,” LOL!) Diana leaves Themyscira with Steve, hoping to find and destroy Ares, thus putting an end to war and suffering.

I'm not really sure what to think about “Wonder Woman.” On the one hand, we are supposed to celebrate the gender-victory of the film's having been made at all. The studios have been very reluctant to invest in a comic-book movie with a female lead, especially after the failures of films like “Catwoman” and “Elektra.” Then there's the star, former Miss Israel, Gal Godot, who is so ridiculously good-looking that I would watch a film of her reading the phone book. Seeing her make things blow up while wearing go-go boots and a Wonder-Woman micro-skirt is probably worth the ticket price right there.

On the other hand, I can't look at Gadot without thinking that she has probably had a nose job, and maybe that sort of sums up my feelings about the movie. There's an inorganic feel to it. The plot and casting have clearly been carefully calibrated to draw in the largest audience possible. After all, Warner Bros. and DC Comics are counting on Wonder Woman and the larger Justice League universe to become a multi-billion dollar juggernaut to rival the Avengers franchise. They aren't going to risk a billion here or there to make a character or a movie more nuanced or complex.

Thus, “Wonder Woman” nips at the heels of some complex and controversial topics, but it never sinks its teeth into anything. We hear Steve's secretary (Lucy Davis, from the British “The Office”) mention women getting the vote, but then that's the last we hear of it. We hear a couple of characters of color briefly mention racial injustice, but ironically, their small, undeveloped roles represent the only people of color in the film.

The greatest missed opportunity in “Wonder Woman,” however, strikes at the very heart of the story. Diana sets out to defeat Ares, whom she has been taught is responsible for all war and evil. If he is defeated, she believes, mankind will return to its original, Edenic state. As she walks the earth learning of the evil that men do, she continues to blame it all on Ares. Steve tries to explain to her that things aren't as simple as “good” human nature and “evil” influence from some dark god, that every person carries within them the potential for kindness or for savagery. Even War and Peace are concepts that should not be oversimplified. As terrible and destructive as War is, it is also sometimes the lesser of two evils. Then, too, as the villainous General Ludendorrf explains, war gives man purpose. Meaning. A chance to rise above his petty mortal little self and be courageous, noble, better.

“Wonder Woman” could have skipped the numbing boss-battle at the end and instead explored these themes more deeply. Ares would have been more effective if he had remained a disembodied force, encouraging mankind's warlike tendencies, but ultimately more a manifestation than a cause. When Diana defeats General Ludendorrf, then is bewildered to see battle preparations continue, that is a great lesson for her character. It's a lesson that is undermined when she winds up engaging in fisticuffs with the actual Ares, a fight that we in the audience should know is pointless. WWI was not, as we know, the war to end all wars.

Superhero stories have done well in the last decade or so, and well they should. On the surface, they appeal to the fantasy of transcending human limitations. On a deeper level, the characters have tremendous allegorical potential. Part human, part superhuman, these characters are able to be archetypes in the same way that the mythological gods once were. The stories we tell about them help us learn about and define who we are. “Captain America” is the definition of patriotic, but he has concerns about massive government surveillance and control. Ironman Tony Stark is a brilliant billionaire who constantly struggles with the question, “Should I build powerful weapons to fight evil, at the risk that those weapons may someday be turned to evil ends?” These modern gods are all about contradictions, just as we humans are. For Diana's part, she wants to end all fighting, but she is, herself, a weapon, made to fight.

Unfortunately, Warner Bros didn't make “Wonder Woman” to explore these contradictions; they made it to make money. There is a better movie hiding in there somewhere, but fortunately it's still decent, blockbuster entertainment, if you can ignore the limited range of the actors, the mustache-twirly villains, the sometimes-sketchy CGI, and that tacked-on ending. I do recommend you watch it; just turn off your brain and enjoy your popcorn.

3 stars out of 5