FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER (Movie Review)

firsttheykilledmyfather
***1/2 out of ****
Rated TV-MA
(for some language, war violence, torture, brutal conditions involving children)
Released:  September 15, 2017
Runtime: 136 minutes
Director: Angelina Jolie
Starring: Sareum Srey Moch, Phoeung Kompheak, Sveng Socheata, Mun Kimhak, Heng Dara, Khoun Sothea, Sarun Nika

Streaming exclusively on Netflix

My review of First They Killed My Father, for The Tulsa Voice. It’s the true story of a Cambodian girl’s survival during the takeover of the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Based on the memoir by Loung Ung.

This “unflinching portrayal of totalitarian oppression by the Khmer Rouge…is a bone-chilling reminder of how the past is repeating itself unabated” in North Korea today.

Director Angelina Joliegives us a comprehensive understanding of something perpetrated on a massive scale, but does so through an effectively intimate lens.”

To read my full review, click here.

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SPIELBERG (Movie Review)

Spielberg_Documentary
*** out of ****
TV-MA
(for some strong language, adult themes, sexual references)
Released:  October 7, 2017
Runtime: 147 minutes
Director: Susan Lucy
Starring: 
Steven Spielberg and various collaborators

Airing exclusively on HBO, and streaming free to the public on HBO.com during the month of October

For a director as influential as Steven Spielberg – with so many movies to examine and dissect – the HBO documentary Spielberg is about as comprehensive as a broad overview from 30,000 feet can get.

Director Susan Lucy occasionally dives deeper for closer flybys, and those moments offer fascinating detail, but overall this is an entertaining highlight reel of the most influential American filmmaker from the last forty years.

Spielberg nerds, like myself, who’ve read or heard the stories and lore countless times over from various and sundry profiles, will find little that’s revelatory here. But Lucy has packaged these gems all into one narrative – from the influence of his parents’ divorce, to sneaking onto the Universal lot as a green upstart, to how George Lucas rescued him from his greatest failure, and more – and that certainly counts for something.

However, for those who aren’t familiar with these anecdotes and behind-the-scenes histories, or haven’t studied his movies beyond their entertainment value, Spielberg is an absolute treasure trove.

Indeed, we probably get the most personal accounting of those milestones than has ever been seen, all culled from over thirty hours of interviews with the wunderkind himself (a feat in its own right) which, in part, works as a “Who wore it best?” contest between Spielberg and himself with his various scarf accessories.

It’s fun to hear him reflect on his early days in the 1970s as part of the revolutionary Movie Brats – Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, and De Palma (to name a few) – and how they made one another better (even working anonymously on each other’s films, like the classic scene in Scarface that Spielberg essentially staged and shot), complete with his own archival film footage of the young geniuses hanging out together.

We also hear from famous collaborators throughout his career, all glowing of course, but perspectives like one from Lincoln’s Sally Field“Steven has a part of him that wants to see the good in the darkest of the dark.” – aren’t just warm sentiments; they’re legitimate insights that hold up under examination of his entire career.

The portrait it paints remains a hagiography (DreamWorks, for example, is mentioned but not as the struggling endeavor it was), yet it’s still a worthwhile one, even insightful, especially in those rare moments when Spielberg talks about the actual craft and not just a specific movie or influence.

In them we learn, for example, how nervous he is before every shot, even to this day. The pressure that comes from being the one person on set who bears the responsibility of being able to see the whole thing before it’s actually been made.

There’s a comfort in this confession, a reassurance to us lesser beings, showing that even for a certified master it’s still a mysterious art, not an exact science. The film could’ve used a lot more personal candor like that.

Even so, to touch on nearly every film Spielberg has ever made is well worth the two-and-a-half hour sit, especially as it’s buoyed by the scores of John Williams. It’s smartly broken into sections. Act 1, essentially, explores his populist beginnings. Act 2, his maturation. Act 3, his legacy.

Lucy does a superb job of placing his achievements in context. There’s perhaps no better example of this than 1993. That summer, Spielberg advanced blockbuster cinema by showing us what was possible with technology in Jurassic Park. Six months later, he showed us what was possible for him as an artist in Schindler’s List. In the history of the movies, it’s hard to find another filmmaker who achieved so much in a single year.

There are other things we get an appreciation for, too, not the least of which is the influence of his wife Kate Capshaw. Known to most as the shrill Indy babe from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (who couldn’t hold a whiskey shot to Karen Allen’s Marion), Spielberg helps us to understand in credible terms of genuine gratitude how Capshaw was the person that made Steven’s maturation as a filmmaker possible.

There are also more honest yet still loving appraisals from Spielberg’s siblings. The family background helps illuminate a movie like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which Spielberg also wrote the screenplay for. A fair, new reading of that film – and of Roy Neary in particular – is that it’s Spielberg extending grace, empathy, and forgiveness toward his own father, who he perceived as “leaving” the family when his parents divorced.

It’s telling what movies are bypassed, some without nary a single clip. Always and The Lost World: Jurassic Park are ignored completely, while Hook, The Terminal, The Adventures of Tintin, and War Horse get little more than fleeting glimpses at best (but no commentary). No doubt those references were left to the original 4-hour cut, some deservedly and others unfortunately.

The primary beneficiary of that neglect, however, is Munich, Spielberg’s 2005 thriller about Israel’s retaliation against the PLO for the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. It’s a film that remains the best, most complex cinematic reflection on our post-9/11 War on Terror, and its toll on our personal and collective soul.

It’s also the most underappreciated masterpiece of Spielberg’s oeuvre, especially now that 2001’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is getting its due. Lucy studies Munich at length; inspiring people to give it another look may be the best virtue her documentary can boast.

It’s virtually impossible to sum up a career like Spielberg’s in one movie and actually do the man’s work justice. But to Lucy’s credit, Spielberg helps us to appreciate in full what her film can only scratch the surface of, an inherent truth best summed up by actor Bob Balaban“He doesn’t want to make little personal movies. He wants to make big personal movies.”

And each one, in its own way, is a close encounter.

You can read my reviews of every Steven Spielberg film ever made, and see how I rank them, in The Spielberg Canon.

New BLACK PANTHER Trailer Gives MCU The Shaft (VIDEO/POSTER)

Who’s the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about? It used to be Shaft, but now it’s Black Panther. Right on. Cuz in this latest trailer for the upcoming Marvel movie, he’s a bad mutha–SHUT YO MOUTH!

From director Ryan Coogler (Creed), the MCU gets its “daaaamn right!” swagger in Black Panther, so much so that it’s begging for a Nick Fury cameo with full doses of Samuel L. Jackson attitude.

Starring Chadwick BosemanMichael B. JordanLupita Nyong’oMartin FreemanAngela BassettForest Whitaker, and Andy SerkisBlack Panther opens on February 16, 2018.

BlackPanter_OfficialPoster

OFCC Podcast: Episode 15 – BLADE RUNNER 2049, BATTLE OF THE SEXES, & More (PODCAST)

ofcc

Episode 15: Replicating The Future and The Past

For this edition of The OFCC Podcast, available on iTunes, our roundtable of critics from the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle return after a month off from podcasting to discuss the latest in movies for early October 2017.

You can also stream Episode 15 by clicking here.

On this episode, the critics include:

DISCUSSIONS
 Blade Runner 2049 (starting at 1:20)
Battle of the Sexes (at 20:40)

HOT TAKES
– American Made (at 38:46)
– Kingsman: The Golden Circle (at 40:10)
– Stronger (at 43:12)

Click here to subscribe through iTunes, and look for the October 14, 2017 episode.

THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) (Movie Review)

Meyerowitz_Siblings
***1/2 out of ****
Rated TV-MA
(for strong language, nudity, and some sexual content)
Released:  October 13, 2017
Runtime: 112 minutes
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Marvel, Grace Van Patten, Emma Thompson

Streaming exclusively on Netflix

It can be exciting to see filmmakers try new things or push their own boundaries, but there’s something to be said for a director doubling down on his or her own wheelhouse. Within that, some of the best, most confident and exciting movies are forged, and occasionally the most personal.

What makes The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) particularly special is that it not only emerges from writer/director Noah Baumbach’s most natural creative instincts; it hits the visceral sweet spot for its leads, too. Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler, and Ben Stiller seem born to play father and sons, and the sister and daughter aren’t shortchanged either.

If The Squid and the Whale is Baumbach’s best work to date (and it is), then the The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) transforms that film’s template by removing its cynicism without castrating its honest bite, yet maintains its comic sophistication.

The Squid and the Whale was tale of family dysfunction set against the backdrop of New York academia, with a father who longs for the embrace of cultural elites and the two sons who are burdened by that ambition. Jeff Daniels’ failed writer is replaced by Hoffman’s failed sculptor, each having “settled” for teaching careers at top collegiate institutions, and the teenage sons are now grown adults.

If Squid was a release of semi-autobiographical venting, then Meyerowitz is Baumbach’s act of reconciliation.

It’s certainly no random choice to have Hoffman’s Harold Meyerowitz be a failed sculptor, because it serves as a perfect metaphor to his role as a father. The dysfunctional atmosphere he created, born of parental neglect mixed with high expectations, has molded three very different grown-ups.

Sandler’s Danny is an amiable failure, Stiller’s Matthew is highly successful but living on the opposite coast, and sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) landed somewhere in between, stable but still messed up.

A series of events brings them all together, exhuming unresolved conflicts, dashed hopes, and regrets. It’s a familiar formula, but for Baumbach it comes from a very real place. Now with more time and distance (it’s been over a decade since Squid), Baumbach is able tear off some emotional band-aids as an act of love, not spite.

The Meyerowitzes are a family grappling with the legacy of its patriarch, a bitter intellectual who impacted his students while scarring his kids. The surface-level results are recognizable, but Baumbach and his cast give them a unique specificity.

Sandler’s Danny, for instance, has a wonderful relationship with his college age daughter, Eliza, not a strained one. They are genuinely close. Instead of Danny repeating his dad’s mistakes, he’s intentionally avoided them. Sandler and Grace Van Patten have some of the sweetest, warmest moments of the movie (and of any Baumbach film). Danny may have failed professionally, but as a parent he got it right.

Sandler is a revelation here, even when considering his formidable, fragile turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. In that, Sandler was able to hide behind that film’s perverse, demented quirk. Here, in Baumbach’s naturalism, he’s completely out in the open, and Sandler lays everything bare.

Matthew is certainly the most functional, normal one of the bunch, but neither Stiller nor the script have to force his latent baggage. It emerges progressively, organically (and yes, comically), from a person who’s run from his issues but mistaken that for having dealt with them, climaxing in one of Stiller’s best-ever on-screen moments. Elizabeth Marvel elevates the eccentric sister role, too, and takes full advantage of the scenes she’s given, but this (understandably) is primarily a story of father and sons.

And Dustin Hoffman? Actors dream of late-in-life roles like this one, a character rich in his neurosis yet oblivious to its severity, creating a sharp-tongued non-PC narcissist who thinks his intellect absolves all of his defaults.

Hoffman takes all of these delicious layers and, instead of chewing the scenery, makes them spontaneous, lived in, self-evident, and completely unconscious, creating tension and disaster all to hilarious effect. If a performance can break through from the Netflix streaming ghetto to an actual Oscar nomination, it’s this one.

Not everything works here, namely Eliza’s pursuit of film studies. Her short subjects are little more than French New Wave pornos, so they’re limp as satire and not credible in substantiating her as truly gifted (something the film really tries to sell), but that’s a rare overreach in a movie that’s otherwise firing on astute, insightful cylinders.

The comic and the tragic often intermingle here, and that balance allows truly sad, poignant moments to pop up, grab us, and resonate. This is certainly Baumbach’s most sentimental film, but it’s never schmaltzy. The Meyerowitz Stories makes frank observations of life and family, but with wise notes of self-deprecation and grace.

Meyerowitz_Parents

The Gospel According To Rick Deckard (ANALYSIS) (SPOILERS)

deckard2049

Is Deckard really a replicant?

Despite my perception that Blade Runner 2049 cleared that issue up once and for all – with an obvious answer of “No” – apparently it’s still an open question, according to some of the filmmakers involved.

That’s a shame, because declaring Deckard human is what gives this whole universe spiritual meaning.

First, just the facts. The case should’ve been closed with the trailer, quite frankly. Why? Because we see an old Deckard, and replicants don’t age. Sure, fans may have been wondering if 2049 would reveal that this replicant could age, but that twist wouldn’t make any sense. It would actually defy logic. Replicants were made to be slaves, after all, and what’s the purpose of an aging slave?

The only reason this was ever debated to begin with is because, long ago, original director Ridley Scott posited quite firmly that, so far as he was concerned, Deckard was a replicant. Meanwhile, screenwriter Hampton Fancher (for both Blade Runner films) has always and resolutely stated that Deckard is, without a doubt, human. Harrison Ford has prescribed to Fancher’s view as well.

But movie geeks will never be able to set aside a fascinating nerd mystery that lingers in pop culture lore, and the Deckard/Replicant question has become an all-timer for fans of the cult classic.

I’ve always felt that “Deckard as replicant” made him a less interesting character, and the story’s themes less compelling. Once you get past what a nifty little plot twist that would be, having two replicants go on the run together (after falling for each other) is, well, pretty boring. Of course that’s what two replicants would do because that’s what replicants do! They flee for their lives.

What’s more interesting is for a human and a replicant to choose to cross that species divide, particularly between “Creator” and “Creation”. The implications, themes, and ideas are much more complex and riveting.

When I saw Blade Runner 2049, it seemed to embrace and double-down on the potential of those implications. To me, the confirmation of Deckard’s humanity was pretty simple:

Deckard impregnated Rachel.

I mean, what more do you need? Human semen mysteriously (miraculously?) found fertile soil in a replicant womb. Unless, of course, we’re to suppose that Replicants have organic semen, too, not just artificial, the kind that can create life.

Nothing in the film substantiates this, which makes it harder to buy into, plus it’d be far less miraculous. Indeed, it would be literal science. Impressive, sure, and even revolutionary, but not truly miraculous. And this movie stressed in no uncertain terms that what happened here was a miracle.

Now lets take this even further, to how it all played out in the story and some of the religious symbolism going on.

The primary reason their child was so valuable was because it was a hybrid child, both human and replicant. A first of its kind (as opposed to just another replicant that happened to be conceived, not made). Their child was a new creation, not a common one created by new means.

Which finally leads us to the symbolism: their child is a Christ figure.

Sure, it’s a daughter in this case, Ana, not a son, despite being deceptively suggested for most of the movie that it was K (well played, Denis). And here’s why the Christ figure is more intriguing, even beyond the narrative Messianic possibilities.

Christ had two natures, equal parts God and man. His father was God and his mother was human. Same thing here. Deckard (“Creator”) and Rachel (“Creation”) gave birth to a child of two equal natures. This was the miracle alluded to in the opening scene, a miracle that inextricably united Creator and Creation.

The ultimate purpose of this union? To reconcile the two, so that Creator and Creation would be one. Salvation itself is at stake.

Consider these words by St. John Kronstadt, on the Incarnation of Christ:

  • “The incarnation is not only an act of love but an act of salvation. Jesus Christ, by uniting man and God in his own person, reopened for man the path to union with God.”

Another Blade Runner film could approach Ana in the same way, reopening for replicant the path to union with humanity.

In the event of another sequel (unlikely, given the low box office), this could serve as a fascinating basis, not just for the “Replicant Uprising” alluded to in 2049 but to actually have a Christ figure confound both its followers and enemies by pursuing love, peace, and forgiveness, not retribution or an earthly throne.

This would be infinitely more interesting, and challenging, than a simple “battle”, and given the philosophical depth that the first two films were driven by I’d trust that a third movie could do well by this possibility.

And in terms of the characters, they could bring K back (either not having died, or rebooting him) to serve as a John the Baptist figure for Ana Deckard’s messiah. Plus, we’d be given another Chosen One that’s female rather than male. Our pop culture could use more of those so that Rey isn’t all by her lonesome.

With Villeneuve, Fancher, and Scott guiding it all, I’d trust that this Chosen One would be as much about actual ideas and virtues and not restricted to just an iconic template for an action narrative.

That said: if it all ends here, there’s something really poetic about the final shot being of Deckard seeing his daughter for the first time. That was a moving, poignant grace note to end on.

But there’s truly great potential for so much more.

 

Last Trailer, And Poster, For THE LAST JEDI (VIDEO/IMAGE)

If director Rian Johnson had his druthers, we wouldn’t be seeing this.

But Lucasfilm marketing knows better. Fans hungered for one more bite of a marketing morsel from Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and we have it: the second and last trailer for the latest Star Wars episode.

It premiered on Monday Night Football, in October, just like the final one for The Force Awakens did. And it’s clearly the dark Empire Strikes Back of this trilogy.

I think we can now consider ourselves fully primed for Episode 8, if we weren’t already.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens on December 15, 2017.

Last_Jedi_Poster