Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe) 2000 **** 5/29/2017

I didn’t go into this knowing it was a Rock & Roll movie.  Knowing it is now, I’m tempted to phrase my assessment like this: it’s more than a Rock & Roll movie.  But that diminishes Rock & Roll.  Nowhere is this more powerful than when Willie Miller (Patrick Fugit) is sitting on the tour bus with Stillwater, a rift in between the band and their guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup) after a bad night out in Topeka.  “Tiny Dancer” is playing and slowly everyone is joining in.  It’s a corny setup, but it’s powerful, and it heals that rift.  Willie is 15 years old, and is with the band for Rolling Stone.  He got there after writing some stuff for Creem Magazine, and having already met the band while doing a piece on Black Sabbath for his hero, rock journalist Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  At that first encounter he also meets Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), an enigmatic groupie who figures big throughout the rest of the movie.  He is only reluctantly let on assignment by his mother (Frances McDormand), who’s overbearing and already lost a husband to heart attack, and a daughter (Zooey Deschanel) to her overbearingness.  The scenes with the most to say come from Lester, on being truthful and unmerciful, and on something to the effect of “the most real things are those shared between two uncool people.”  The irony is that this is a cool movie, and me an uncool person, so it’s really only almost real.  And because of that maybe almost cool.

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War Machine (David Michôd) 2017 ** 5/28/2017

This is one of those “anti-war” movies that misses the point.  There are no bad guys – except for smug or faceless bureaucrats and those pesky rules of engagement.  Brad Pitt terribly overplays the marble-mouthed General Glen McMahon, come in to sort everything out in Afghanistan.  It’s a war, goddamnit!  The picture is narrated by a Rolling Stone journalist (the story is ‘inspired’ by Michael Hastings’ “The Operators”) writing a piece on the General and his team (shouty rah-rah meatheads, fragile raw kids, straight-laced mandarin, brash “do”ers).  He reflects on the madness of it all, a world where no one knows why we’re fighting and it’s really all too muddled to be figured out.  That’s my main point of contention with this movie; you imagine its makers fancy themselves truth-tellers when they’re really just rehashing the whole “men-of-honor,” “shades of grey,” “war is mad” line.  There’s a couple of funny moments with Hamid Karzai (Ben Kingsley), though only one of them makes you laugh.  And the movie approaches having something to say when Glen is questioned in Germany by a politician (Tilda Swinton) who identifies his stake in the war as ego and a desire for glory.  That’s ruined by her emphasizing that she doesn’t “doubt your intentions,” though, as if chauvinist dreams of valor are a moral motivation for gunfire.  Alas!  Once again the world is complicated and the US bumbled into bloodshed again.  Sorry about that.

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Wilson (Craig Johnson) 2017 ** 5/19/2017

Overall a pleasant movie, if not destined to be memorable.  Wilson (Woody Harrelson) is a mix of a cynic and an optimist; ever hopeful about the world and the people in it only to be often disappointed.  The best parts of the movie are the occasions when he starts conversations with strangers, only to have them put a headphone back in or have nothing to say.  His dad dying leads him to seek out his ex Pippi (Laura Dern), getting her life back on track after decades lost.  They get back together and part of that is Wilson finding out she had his kid 17 years ago.  They go to meet Claire (Isabelle Amara), just about ambushing her in the mall.  A halting relationship forms, but when they take her to Pippi’s sister’s for the weekend (without the knowledge of Claire’s parents), Wilson ends up in prison for 3 years on kidnapping and reckless endangerment of a minor.  When he comes out Pippi has run off with her N.A. sponsor, and his beloved dog is dead.  He falls in love then with his former pet sitter (Judy Greer), and learns Claire is having a baby.  These two new relationships help him get his life on track and the movie actually ends on a line about “it being in front of our face without knowing it.”  Yecch.  A mildly diverting quick moving first half is betrayed by the second’s dive into the saccharine.

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Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick) 1975 **** 5/13/2017

Stanley Kubrick and John Alcott have photographed some of the finest places and things in Christendom.  The performance of Redmond Barry by Ryan O’Neal progresses coherently to Barry Lyndon, and with an effective affect partially granted by the actor’s striking Irish eyes.  Lyndon goes from love with his cousin (Gay Hamilton) to a duel for her honor, which he wins.  To avoid the police, for he has shot and presumably killed an English officer, he flees to Dublin with 20 guineas in his pocket.  He is relieved of his money and horse by a Highwayman (Arthur O’Sullivan).  From there he is swept up by the 7 year war, first with the red-jacket English army, then by impressment in the Prussian forces.  He becomes a spy, then a gambler with an Irish chevalier, until he finally marries Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), and returns to England with an ersatz title.  From there the movie descends by tragedy.  His much loved son dies, thrown from a horse, and he drowns then in debt and drink.  Lady Lyndon’s first son Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) returns to (not unjustifiably) settle the scores of his youth with Barry, and a duel between the two (in a beautiful bird-filled shell of a church) leaves the older man with only one leg and a banishment to Ireland or the continent, on a 500 guinea annuity.

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Sleuth ( Joseph L. Mankiewicz) 1972 **** 5/11/2017

This movie can capably be compared to a braid; it is full of twists, one after another on top of themselves.  This misdirection is established right from the start, as Milo Tindal (Michael Caine) wanders through a hedge maze to meet Andrew Crack (Lawrence Olivier), a foppish whimsically aristocratic detective writer.  Milo has been with Andrew’s wife Margaret, and they are meeting to talk about this in a jovial manner.  Andrew has a proposal: Milo steal £250,000 of jewelry to keep Margaret in furs and ensure she stays out of Andrew’s greatly receded hair.  There is a class component here, with Milo the son of an Italian, and himself a hairdresser.  They go through the devilish routine, maintaining perfection in their clues.  This is where the first, and only the first! of many twists comes in.  It would be unfair to give it away.  Olivier is madcap and snobbish, Caine suave and fiery.  There are antique automatons that act marvelously as secondary characters for reaction shots: the laughing Jack the pirate and the portrait of Margaret.

A delicious picture.

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Apocalypto (Mel Gibson) 2006 **** 5/8/2017

A frenetic raid, a vicious march, a wild chase back.  All through this the most remarkable representation of a wildly alien people illustrates how similar they are.  Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is the survivor, and his wife and child hide in a hole during the raid.  He races back after being saved from sacrifice on the top of the infamous Mayan steps by an eclipse, and is pursued by ten killers.  The culmination of it all is escape, and reunion…for Jaguar Paw, because he only gets away because of the arrival of big ships with white sails.  And so they walk deep into the woods, safe for the moment.

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Mistress America (Noah Baumbach) 2015 **** 3/6/2017

Tracy (Lola Kirke) is in her first semester of Barnard and feels like she’s at a party where she doesn’t know anyone.  Her mother is getting married soon and tells her to call her fiancé’s daughter, who also lives in the city.  Brooke (Greta Gerwig) is someone who Tracy is in awe of.  I’m not really doing this movie justice.  Gerwig wrote it with Baumbach, and near all the characters are fabulously attractive and authentic.  The feelings the movie identifies are rare, not for the viewer, but to see on a screen.  Like a car voyage, you wish it wouldn’t end.

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