City of Ghosts.

City of Ghosts, now available on amazon Prime, follows the citizen-journalist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, which began disseminating information online about the atrocities committed by the Daesh, also known as ISIS and ISIL, during their three-plus year occupation of the once-prosperous Syrian city. RBSS won the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2015, even as some of its leaders were being hunted down and executed by Daesh supporters in Syria and in Turkey. The group continues to operate, with its leadership in exile, relying on anonymous contributors still in the city, which was just liberated from Daesh control by Kurdish-led anti-government forces three weeks ago.

(The group that occupied Raqqa goes by many names, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, but the RBSS members interviewed in this documentary appear to favor the term Daesh, which ISIL leaders themselves dislike. As that is what the RBSS members use, I’ll follow that convention here.)

Raqqa was the sixth-largest city in Syria, with a population of 220,000 in the 2004 census (per Wikipedia), and hosted many anti-government protests during the Syrian portion of the Arab Spring, with the toppling of a statue of the late Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad coming when a mixed coalition of opposing forces took the city from the Syrian army. In less than a year, however, Daesh forces took control of Raqqa, setting up a sharia court and executing opponents in the middle of the day in the town square. The journalists and activists who formed RBSS began almost immediately to document the conditions in the town under the Daesh, including the executions and the extreme privation, by posting videos, photos, and written content to social media and Youtube. With no foreign journalists on the ground in the city, RBSS quickly gained credibility as one of the few reliable (non-Daesh) information sources there, and a film directed by RBSS co-founder Naji Jerf helped them win the aforementioned award from CPJ. RBSS were quickly targeted by the occupying forces, who threatened to kill every member they could find – and the family members of those they couldn’t. They executed several members still in Raqqa, and assassinated several others outside of the country, including Jerf, killed in broad daylight in Turkey in 2015.

City of Ghosts follows the remaining leaders of RBSS, walking back to the group’s origins and carrying the story forward about two years, through the losses of several group leaders, the flights of many others into exile, and their continuing work to tell the world of the conditions in Raqqa – and to try to contradict the Daesh’s recruiting videos, which, shocking as it is, don’t exactly depict real life as a member of the jihadist group. Director Matthew Heineman manages to give the viewer the information s/he needs on the actual progress of the civil war and the occupation of Raqqa as foundation, while still centering the documentary itself on the individuals, all men, who are risking their lives and even those of family members to fight the Daesh with information. Each has his own story, whether it’s specific reasons for joining the effort or the very personal cost paid for his involvement. Watching them flee to exile in Germany, only to be confronted by neo-Nazis and anti-immigrant protesters, only serves to underscore how incredibly lonely this existence must be.

The film did leave me with one question, although it may have been too dangerous to answer. Someone has to be funding the group; we never see these courageous men discussing money, but they have laptops, smart phones, video cameras, and obviously are eating and buying the essentials. The effort may have started organically, but somewhere there must be a source of funds that allows them to continue to live, and thus to work on informing the world that Raqqa is burning. Of course, identifying any funding sources could have put them in jeopardy, and thus jeopardizing the group’s work. At the time of the film’s release, Raqqa was still under Daesh control, and their efforts remained as important as ever.

Documentaries about the ongoing catastrophe that is the Syrian civil war are everywhere now; The White Helmets won the Oscar for short-subject documentary last year, and Last Men in Aleppo is a full-length feature on the same topic (and in my queue to watch). Sebastian Junger’s Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS is supposed to take a more direct look at the state of the war and the failed state of Syria. HBO’s Cries from Syria focuses on the human cost and humanitarian crisis. As obsessed as much of our polity here is with the Daesh and the occasional terrorist attack abroad by adherents, there’s still so little happening to stop the crisis; even if the Daesh, who control a fraction of the territory they did at their peak, are totally removed from power, there will still be a civil war in Syria, with Kurds at odds with the central government, and numerous other rebel groups vying for control of the country. By putting a few young heroes at the heart of its story, City of Ghosts provides a new lens on the disaster while testifying to the relentless human desire to be free.

The Lost City of Z.

The Lost City of Z is based on David Grann’s bestselling 2009 book about Percy Fawcett, a renowned British explorer who disappeared in central South America sometime after 1925 during an expedition to find the remnants of a long-gone advanced civilization there. Starring Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett, the movie hews relatively closely to Fawcett’s true story and offers many compelling scenes from his first two expeditions to the Amazon basin, but doesn’t give us enough understanding of its protagonist to create real interest in the character’s fate. The movie is available free on amazon prime.

Hunnam plays the dashing hero, complete with a Poirot-esque mustache, whom we first meet as the Royal Geographical Society asks him to journey to the center of the continent to help map the disputed border between Brazil and Bolivia. (If you don’t know much South American history, here’s a good summary: Bolivia kept picking border fights with its neighbors and lost every one of them, including one fight that cost the country its narrow coastline on the Pacific.) He’s reluctant to take on a non-military mission, but does so in the hopes of restoring his family name – the film has his father as a degenerate gambler and drunk, although that may be fictional – and sets off with the help of Coatson (Robert Pattinson) to chart the border and eventually find the source of a major river. The journey is perilous, many redshirts don’t survive it, and even the men who do are in sad shape when they reach the river’s source, but they do and return home to a heroes’ welcome. That spurs another expedition that doesn’t go quite so well, but the two combine to convince Fawcett of the existence of the city of Z, and he yearns for one more chance to go discover it.

Hunnam himself is a charmless man in the lead role – he probably knows his claret from his Beaujolais – and the movie truly suffers for it. Benedict Cumberbatch was originally attached to the project, and his charisma is sorely missed here. Pattinson steals every scene he’s in with Hunnam, thoroughly inhabiting his character’s rakishness and loyalty right to the very end of his arc. Sienna Miller is similarly blank in her role as Fawcett’s wife, looking pretty but feeling one-dimensional – she’s the suffering wife, no, she’s the loyal little lady, no, she’s the proud wife and mother, as if we see three different women at different points in the film.

The scenery, however, is stunning – it is an expertly made film, with gorgeous, expansive shots of the jungle and the rivers. There’s real action and suspense when they’re on expeditions, and the scenes in London feel more like interstitials. There’s a short subplot, based on actual events, around another explorer who comes on their second mission and is badly injured, giving Fawcett a real antagonist but also ending abruptly (as it did in real life). When Fawcett came home, as a father and husband I couldn’t understand his willingness to leave his wife and children, but as a viewer I wanted him to get back to the jungle and do stuff.

Of course, the movie suffers from the unknown: Theories abound as to what happened to Fawcett and his son on their final mission, and Grann used a legend he heard from one of the native tribes in the region to craft a new hypothesis, but we just don’t know. The script doesn’t deal well with the uncertainty, giving us an ambiguous egress for the two men and a sentimental ending for Fawcett’s wife. Perhaps fabricating a specific outcome would have gone too far, but charting their progress and disappearance from London may have served the film better.

This is a very solid, competently made film that just lacks the extra level of emotion that would connect viewers to the story or the main character. We learn so little of Fawcett’s background that his wanderlust is a bit hard to grasp, and Hunnam plays him so clinically that, if I didn’t know better, I’d think he was an American actor trying too hard to nail the upper class British accent. (Hunnam is English.) More prologue might have helped – or less, if perhaps we’d started in the Amazon and skipped some of the home scenes. It feels very much like a movie that could have been great, but isn’t.

Our Souls at Night.

The new film Our Souls at Night, now available on Netflix, reunites Robert Redford and Jane Fonda for the first time since 1979’s The Electric Horseman in an adaptation of Kent Haruf’s final novel, published shortly after his death in 2015. It’s a slow, sentimental story of two neighbors, both widowed, who end up in an unlikely romance that brings each of them out of their long, dark nights of mourning while exposing the past wounds that haunt them both … but really, it’s about watching Redford and Fonda remind everyone why they were iconic actors of their generation.

Addie (Fonda) knocks on Louis’s (Redford) door one evening with a proposal: That he come to her place some night to sleep with her, literally, rather than in the Biblical sense. They’re both alone, she says, and she’s finding the nights particularly troublesome. It’s a cute conceit, but of course, the more they spend time together, the more they both open up, and we learn that each has a major, life-altering event in the past that remains unresolved – a death for one, an affair for the other – only to have their pasts sneak up on them as their romance blossoms. When Addie’s son asks her to watch her grandson for an indefinite period, the boy bonds with Louis, Louis himself opens up further to Addie, and Addie’s own mistakes come full circle and threaten to derail their newfound happiness.

The story is bookended by two less-than-credible events – Addie’s proposition to Louis that sets the story in motion, and her decision near the very end of the film that at least temporarily splits them up. The first is a necessary plot device, and it’s at least played out well by Fonda (nervous, but determined) and Redford (reticent and befuddled). The second is a bit harder to accept, because the plot gives Addie a false choice – she could have both, and for reasons that aren’t fully justified in the script, chooses to sacrifice her relationship with Louis. That leads to a very cute and somewhat more credible conclusion, but I could never quite buy into how we got there. It is primarily to the credit of the two actors and the familiar, comfortable chemistry between them that any part of this story plays out seriously, and that the audience can be absorbed in the minutiae of their relationship – the small-town gossip, the first-date hesitancy, the reactions of their adult children. (Judy Greer appears in one scene as Louis’s daughter, playing the character type at which she excels – off-kilter, goofy, effusive, and seeming younger than her actual age.)

The details are what really sell Our Souls at Night, as the plot itself is limited; the script just sort of throws these two characters together and sees what will happen. It avoids the worst cliches, like a forced conflict between the two where they fight and “break up,” and instead gives us two kind but hurting people who choose to be kind to each other. The deaths of secondary characters underline the idea that this is a last shot at happiness for Addie and Louis, rather than saddle the two of them with morbid dialogue, which further allows the script to focus on the organic evolution of the two characters’ relationship and their discussions, largely prompted by Addie, of the old wounds they each suffered that never fully healed.

Our Souls at Night played briefly in a few theaters in September, which should make it eligible for awards, which may really matter for the two lead actors, both of whom are previous winners and, at 79 (Fonda, who’ll turn 80 in December) and 81 (Redford) may not have many more leading roles in their careers. Fonda has won Best Actress twice, with five other nominations, and has three more Golden Globe wins for the same. Redford, to my surprise, has never won a Best Actor Oscar, earning just one nomination in the category (The Sting), with a win for Best Director (Ordinary People) his only regular Oscar, along with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. The Best Actor category is so competitive that I wouldn’t predict a nod for Redford here, even given the natural boost he’ll get from his reputation and age, but Fonda, who carries a little more weight with her role in this movie, has a fair shot at some nominations for playing Addie. It’s more than a mere nostalgia play, though; Our Souls at Night showcases two great actors in a movie unadorned by anything but dialogue and some beautiful panoramas of the Colorado landscape, with performances that elevate the simplistic plot into something memorable.

Baby Driver.

Baby Driver (available to rent now on amazon and iTunes) was among the most anticipated films of the summer, and was released to solid reviews and an enthusiastic box office, clearing $100 million domestically and over $200 million worldwide. It very much looks like a movie, with actors, dialogue, set pieces, and something like a story. But it’s really an extended series of music videos, loosely stitched together by some semblance of a plot, and if you took the music out you’d just have Bad Boys 6 featuring Jon Hamm.

The main character is a driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort), and he can really drive. When he was still little, he was in the back seat of his parents’ car when they were arguing and ended up slamming into the truck in front of them, killing his parents and somehow leading him to a life of boosting cars and driving them like a champion stunt driver – but he can only drive while listening to music, and he has an iPod and a playlist for each day of the week (or something like that). He stole the Wrong Guy’s car one day, and ended up driving for that guy, Doc (Kevin Spacey), to repay his debt. The movie lets us know after the first heist that Baby just has to do One More Job and he’s “square” with Doc, after which he intends to do something not illegal. He also meets a waitress, Debra (Lily James, looking adorable), and they improbably fall in love despite spending almost no time together, but of course Doc isn’t willing to just let his best driver go – and the next caper is the one that goes wrong.

The movie is bookended by three chase scenes – two at the start, one at the end – that, if you like a good car chase, are tremendously fun to watch. They’re well choreographed and well shot, and Elgort is more than up to the task of showing steel-faced resolve behind the wheel while everyone else in the car is generally freaking out. But everything else about this movie is some exponential power of dumb. Baby records conversations he has with others and remixes them into amateurish home electronica, a habit that is both inexplicable and incredibly stupid, since he’s recording conversations he has with known criminals. With the exception of Hamm’s Buddy, the criminals themselves are caricatures, none more so than Bats (Jamie Foxx), who seems to be going out of his way at all times to let us know how crazy and unpredictable he is (which, in its own way, makes him utterly predictable). The scene with the arms dealer called The Butcher – a welcome cameo by songwriter/actor Paul Williams, playing thoroughly against type – is a complete mess, hinging on Doc failing to tell his crew a rather pertinent detail about the transaction. And throughout the movie, people get shot without any apparent pain or difficulty getting back up and returning fire.

That’s not to say that Baby Driver isn’t fun, because at many points, it is a blast. The car chases are fantastic. The script has some great lines and sight gags, often silly but frequently funny. The visual style throughout the film is arresting, no pun intended, especially during the first heist when Buddy, his wife Darling (Eiza González, wearing skintight clothes and not doing much else), and Griff move in tandem as they exit the car and approach the bank they’re about to rob. The scene opens the film and gives that music-video vibe that director/writer Edgar Wright just can’t maintain through the rest of the movie.

And boy is the rest of the movie a mess. The story is a lot of nothing, with plot conveniences strewn everywhere to keep it moving. The characters are mostly nothing; only Buddy has a hint of an interesting back story, and Hamm manages to turn the character into a credible antagonist. Elgort is solid as Baby, but not given a ton to do; the only scenes where the character shows a little depth are with his deaf, wheelchair-bound foster father, who unfortunately is more prop than anything else in the film. Doc is a parody of a caricature of a crime boss; Spacey’s performance here is indistinguishable from his work in those e-Trade commercials. The film really sputters out at the end, as if Wright couldn’t figure out how to end the story without killing everyone off, giving us a closing sequence that feels tacked on, incongruent, and very much like the end of some epic music video. Wright can certainly put together a good driving playlist, but he might have done better to ask someone else to help him write the story.

A Ghost Story.

A Ghost Story reunites Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, and director David Lowery, who all worked together on 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints?, this time in a peculiar film that manages to combine elements of dark humor, pathos, grief, and existential fear in its 90 minutes. It’s about as slow-paced a movie as I can remember seeing, varying scenes that go on twice as long as necessary with compressed time-lapses, and for much of the second half of the film the direction seemed unclear or just lacking. It takes a strong payoff at the end – and this payoff is very strong, thematically and in terms of plot resolution – to justify some of the earlier choices Lowery makes in getting to that final scene. It’s currently available to rent/buy on amazon or iTunes.

Affleck, who won Best Actor this spring for Manchester by the Sea just after allegations of sexual and personal harassment surfaced against him, plays M, who has just moved into a house with C, played by Mara. They seem to have an idyllic little romance, but shortly into the film, M is killed in a car accident just outside of their house. After C identifies his body at the morgue and leaves the room in her grief, M rises from the gurney … with the sheet on, and two dark ovals for his eyes, and then spends the rest of the film wandering around as a ghost in that sheet. It sounds ridiculous, and it largely plays out that way: It’s hard to take anything too seriously when the dude is standing there in the cheapest Halloween costume ever.

M goes back to the house and sees C mourning, including a scene that was longer than Krusty the Clown’s SNL sketch where C eats a pie left by a friend, and then sees her go on a date and starts moving things around in the house in his anger. She moves out, another family moves in, and suddenly M is haunting the house, leading to a fairly harrowing scene out of a gothic horror film, made worse because the son of the family can actually see him (the only evidence I saw that any living character saw the ghost). M even interacts with another besheeted ghost next door, although she at least gets a pattern on her sheet, in a couple of brief conversations that are so morose that they played out as the blackest of comedy to me. Eventually, the house is destroyed while M is standing in it, cleared out to make room for a skyscraper … and things just get weirder from there, as M loops backwards in time and eventually approaches the present where he can see himself as a ghost watching himself as a living person with C in their house.

A story like this only works if enough of the details that seem trivial in passing turn out to matter in the resolution, and by and large Lowery does so. The ghost next door turns out to matter. C’s habit of leaving notes in crevices of places she’s lived turns out to matter. The scene early in the film where a strange noise in the middle of the night gets the two out of bed matters. Some things don’t – I mean, really, I love pie, but the pie scene is just too damn long – but Lowery brings enough of these quirks home in the conclusion to justify the length and pace of the journey.

Although it’s a supernatural film in the sense that M is a ghost, A Ghost Story doesn’t dwell at all on the spiritual aspects of what’s happening, even though much of its internal theology draws from the practices and beliefs of modern spiritualism or religions that draw from it like Baha’i. What appears to be a story about a tragic romance ends up a story about moving on after loss, about how you can get stuck in your grief and unable to move forward, forced to repeat or relive the worst experiences of your life when you still have life ahead of you.

Affleck doesn’t appear in the film very much except under the sheet – I’ve read that it was usually him under there – and it could have been almost anyone in that role. Mara has more weight to carry, and I don’t think she was fully up to the task. Mara has a vacancy to her looks, her speech, even her appearance that undermines the character’s presence on the screen. I understand C’s grief, but I don’t feel it from Mara. It doesn’t help that she looks so much younger than Affleck, or that her voice is so insubstantial; she reminded me of Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick or Emily Browning on American Gods (easily my least favorite actor on that show), where the casting director seems to have confused “waifish” with “vulnerable.” I don’t care about how a character looks if s/he brings the right emotion to the role, but Mara just isn’t present enough in C’s character to sell me on the depth of her grief or make her recovery from it feel compelling.

A Ghost Story is a tough sell on so many levels, and I’m still not sure how much of what I found comic in the role was intentional. Had Lowery flubbed the ending, I’d have little positive to say about it, because he constructed the script on the foundation of that concluding scene. But it works extremely well when he gets there – and it’s fast, so if you do watch this, don’t blink – and infuses almost everything that came before with greater meaning, so that A Ghost Story really does tell us something about loss and continuing to live beyond it.

The Big Sick.

The Big Sick was one of the few bright spots in an ugly summer for the movies, racking up over $40 million in a limited release to lead all indie films from 2017, 2016, or 2015. The romantic comedy is a rarity in its genre, a genuinely funny film with a big heart that doesn’t talk down to its audience, and is boosted by two strong supporting performances by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Oh, and one of the two romantic leads spends about half of the film in a medically-induced coma. (I know, it’s serious.) Amazon purchased The Big Sick in the spring but hasn’t put it on Prime (yet), so you can rent it from the usual sites in the meantime, including amazon and iTunes.

The script draws from the true story of Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself) and Emily Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), incorporating her real-life illness and the cultural conflict Kumail faced as the secular son of religious, traditional Pakistani parents in Chicago. The two strike up an unlikely relationship that falls apart when Emily finds out that Kumail hasn’t told his parents, who expect him to make an arranged marriage to a girl of Pakistani descent, that he’s dating a white woman. Shortly after their breakup, however, Emily ends up in the hospital with what appears to be a serious infection, and one of her friends calls Kumail – perhaps unaware how things ended between them – to ask him to go be with her in the ER until her parents get into town. In the interim, the doctors put Emily into a coma, so that when her folks, played by Hunter and Romano, arrive, Kumail meets them for the first time under strained cirumstances, and since they know what he did, they’re not especially open to his presence. Over the remainder of the film, of course, they grow fond of each other, pushed along by outside events, while Kumail has to confront his inner conflict between fealty to his parents and his desire for an independent, non-Muslim life in the U.S.

While Nanjiani is affable and charming throughout the film, Hunter and Romano – especially Hunter – carry this movie beyond regular meet-cute territory, with performances that manage to feel real without crossing into pure sentiment. Hunter, playing Beth, pulses with a sort of quiet rage that spills out in the most unlikely place, where she defends Nanjiani from a bigoted heckler, signaling (obviously) a turning point in her view of her daughter’s ex and making clear that his ethnicity or background are just not relevant to her. The strained relationship Beth and Terry (Romano) have also gets a little more explanation as the story progresses, but this is primarily about how Kumail and Emily’s parents formed a bond while Emily was under, and Kumail’s own realization that he’d rather defy his family and face the consequences than walk away from Emily forever.

There are bits of The Big Sick that don’t work as well, that feel a bit more like, if not exactly cheap laughs, then slightly less expensive ones. I don’t know how true to life the scenes of Kumail with his family are, but we’ve certainly seen these assimilation stories before, right down to the mom blithely pretending she’s not trying to arrange a marriage for her son while she’s obviously trying to arrange a marriage for her son. His parents come off as very one-note in the film, and in an unconvincing way – the importance of tradition or religion for them is just assumed, never shown, and their reaction when he reveals that he’s dating a white girl and has no intention of accepting an arranged marriage feels out of proportion to what we’ve seen before then.

I also didn’t feel like Kazan, who of course isn’t in the movie as much as Nanjiani, brought a ton of personality to Emily’s character; she’s little, and has a cute smile, but there’s little depth to her personality on screen and Kazan’s youthful appearance ends up working against the character by making her seem insubstantial. The story is more about Kumail and Emily’s parents than it is about Emily, and there’s enough chemistry between the two leads that the romance itself is credible, but I thought Kazan was less than ideal for the role.

This feels like perfect fodder for The Golden Globes, with that show’s separate category for comedies, and could end up with nominations for best comedy, maybe best actor in a comedy (Nanjiani), and perhaps a supporting nod for Hunter (although the Globes don’t distinguish between supporting roles in dramas or comedies). It seems most likely to me to end up a film that while generally unrecognized by industry awards makes a slew of critics’ year-end top ten lists.

Marjorie Prime.

Marjorie Prime is a soft science-fiction movie that delivers a brooding, dark meditation on the interlocking nature of grief and memory, buoyed by a thought-provoking idea at its center and carried by several individual strong performances in demanding roles. Set almost entirely in one house, the film moves slowly through time for its first half, then undergoes a disconcerting acceleration that leads to a concluding scene that doesn’t deliver on the promise of the remainder of the film.

Marjorie, played by Lois Smith, is an 85-year-old widow whom we meet in the opening scene as she talks to a young man named Walter, played by Jon Hamm. Walter is actually Walter Prime, a holographic projection, powered by a machine-learning program, and Marjorie talks to Walter Prime to grieve the real Walter, her late husband, while teaching the AI how to be more like the real Walter was … or how she remembers him, at least. Her own memory is starting to fail, and her adult daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law John (Tim Robbins), have moved in with her; getting Walter Prime was John’s idea, and he also speaks to the AI to try to further train it, which includes teaching it certain subjects to avoid when it is with Marjorie, while Tess is uncomfortable with the illusion and more than a little creeped out by it. As the title implies, Marjorie dies, and we then get Marjorie Prime to help Tess grieve, so we see glimpses of the early learning process, along with a few flashbacks to reveal the truth of certain anecdotes the people and the Primes share with each other.

The script relies almost entirely on dialogue, which puts a tremendous weight on the actors involved to execute it, and to envelop the audience in the philosophical and emotional questions the script raises. How do we grieve? How do we remember the loved ones we’ve lost – and to what extent are our memories functions of what we choose, rather than what our brains have stored? (There’s one scene that’s a little too explanatory on this point.) Why does Marjorie choose a very young version of Walter for his Prime, while Tess chooses Marjorie as she was just a few years before her death? Why does she ‘correct’ Walter Prime’s story about the night when Walter proposed to Marjorie? Do the Primes give the bereaved closure, or merely prolong the grieving to a harmful extent? In Marjorie’s case, Walter Prime seems to help, and John has set up the AI to encourage Marjorie to eat (and deduce when she’s not eating), while Tess seems to suffer from the experience of talking to Marjorie Prime in the second phase of the story. The film asks how we should grieve, but the answer it gives seems no more specific than “it depends on the person.”

The four main actors do all of the heavy lifting in this film, with just brief appearances by a few others. Hamm only has to play a Prime, except for one flashback scene, but has to convince the audience that his affect and expressions are real enough to evoke genuine conversations with the bereaved, which he does thoroughly and handsomely, displaying a little rakish charm in the film’s final scene. Robbins was the revelation here; I’ve seen plenty of his work and often found him too obtrusive an actor, a big guy who could only deliver a big personality on screen. In Marjorie Prime, he’s understated throughout, playing small in voice and in deed. When John has one brief moment where he acts out of frustration, it’s shocking because it’s so out of character, and Robbins loses just enough of his equilibrium to keep John together as, a heartbeat later, Tess enters the room. He’s also kind to Marjorie in the way of a doting son-in-law, a counterweight to Tess’s resentful, frustrated daughter, which Davis presents by frequently talking through her teeth.

(In general, I don’t discuss the physical appearance of actresses, because it’s superficial and generally irrelevant, and the pressure on women in film & TV to never age must be immense. Something was amiss with Davis’ face in this film, however; whether it’s plastic surgery, Botox, or something beyond her control, it altered her way of speaking in a way that I found distracting and a little hard to understand.)

Smith’s portrayal of Marjorie, first as person and then as Prime, hit me a little more than the other performances because she had some of the same expressions and cadences as my own grandmother did in the last few years of her life, including the same gait – not quite a shuffle, but a careful one, the walk of someone whose every step shows her awareness of the possibility of a fall. There’s a scene early in the film where John is standing behind a seated Marjorie, and she turns to talk to him … and in her facial expression I saw my grandmother, making the same face, talking to me as I stood behind her (she was tiny, no more than about 4’9″, so she didn’t have to be seated for this to take place). Smith hits all of the micro-elements of an elderly person facing both mortality and memory loss, like the little irritations at having someone prompt her with something she did remember, or the visual response to the confusion of, say, asking about someone who died many years ago.

The flaw in Marjorie Prime is the script’s failure to stick the landing, reminiscent of a film I just mentioned the other day, Being John Malkovich, which had a brilliant premise but sputtered at the conclusion without any real resolution of the movie’s many plot strands. Marjorie Prime has one real plot, rolling it forward a few times, but the end of the movie shifts the focus from the living to the Primes, creating far more questions than it resolves. Are we to empathize with the Primes now? Is it a comment on our own impermanence, and how technology may outlive us all? Should we feel some obligation to AI entities we create and teach? And if any of this was the point, where were these themes in the first 90 or so minutes of the film?

If you can live with a film that broaches important or thought-provoking ideas but doesn’t quite resolve its plot, then you should seek out Marjorie Prime, which is still in theaters. It’s a quick 98 minutes, even though it’s so dialogue-driven – there is no ‘action’ to speak of here, but there’s a sense of peeling away the layers of the family history that provides some narrative greed. And these characters are so well-inhabited that you’ll be glad to have the Primes around when one of them dies.

Get Out.

Get Out (amazoniTunes) remains one of the top-reviewed movies of the year seven months after its initial release, despite multiple factors working against it: It’s a horror film, it was released in a dead spot in the calendar, and it was written and directed by an African-American man. The film has been a critical and commercial success, and is now the highest-grossing movie with an African-American director, along with a hilarious 99% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (And even that might be misleading; one of the two “negative” reviews is a 3/5 rating from a non-professional critic, while the other is noted gadfly Armand White.)

I’ve said several times here that I avoid most entries in the horror genre, almost entirely out of a dislike of graphic violence. The modern trend of “torture porn” and body horror may have its audience – sociopaths and prospective serial killers, I ssume – but I am not of it. The handful of horror movies I’ve seen and liked have been psychological or gothic horror films; I often cite The Others as one of my favorites, because it’s creepy as hell, wonderfully acted, and free of violence.

Get Out does have some blood and a not insignificant body count, but it is very much a psychological horror movie, and even takes pains to keep the worst of the violence off-screen. The horror within the movie preys on our fear of mortality, our questions about identity, and racial guilt and animus, but not outright violence. There are unoriginal elements within the film, and one horror-movie cliché so pervasive I caught it despite limited experience with the genre, but the script as a whole is tight, unified, and clever, tackling subtle racism with a story that starts out equally subtle before it explodes into a paranoid and utterly bonkers physical manifestation of the problem.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Alison Williams) have been dating four months and are about to head to her family’s estate so he can meet her parents. He expresses reservations because she hasn’t told her parents that her boyfriend is black, but she assures him that they’re progressive, open-minded people who would have voted for Obama for a third term if they could have (a phrase her father, played by Bradley Whitford, repeats almost verbatim). When they do arrive there, Chris notices that the family employs a few black servants who speak and move with a strangely flat affect, while Rose’s mother (Catherine Keener) appears hellbent on hypnotizing Chris to cure him of his smoking habit. She later manages to do this, seemingly without his knowledge, in the middle of his first night there.

When the family hosts a big garden party the next day, the various older white guests make all manner of peculiar, racial (but not always overtly racist) comments towards Chris, while the one black guest, a young man named Logan who arrives with a much older white woman, is ‘off’ the way the servants are, and completely loses his composure when Chris takes his picture, as the flash triggers a total change in his demeanor and he attacks Chris while growling at him “get out!” Chris sends the picture to his friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who is a combination of Smart Brother and Conspiracy Brother, and Rod informs him that Logan is actually Andre, who had gone missing from their neighborhood six months earlier. After that, the movie largely confirms that everything that looked amiss is very much so, and then some, with a quick transition from psychological suspense to outright horror that works because the story is so tightly written up to that point.

The script works as a straight story, with a few jump scares along the way, but succeeds more by taking the stereotype of the “post-racial” white progressive and turning it inside out, using metaphor to expose such people as fakes or flakes – people who don’t really believe what they spout, or who simply fail to back up what they say when real action is required. Rod is the most dependable person in Chris’s life, and is essential to Chris’ hopes of escape at the end of the film, while one by one the “nice” white people Chris has met end up betraying him. You could even take Peele’s example of Logan/Andre as a warning about assimilation, about losing one’s identity and culture in an effort to fit into “American” culture and society by conforming to white norms and standards.

The remainder of this review contains possible spoilers.

The escape sequence of Get Out is taut and surprisingly focused on Chris’s psychological state, and has him relying on his mental skills at least as much as his physical to try to get himself out of the house. The one cliché I mentioned earlier appears here – the person who was pretty definitely dead suddenly appearing, not dead, and at full strength, despite (in this case) suffering a rather traumatic head injury – as if Peele needed one more person for Chris to fight before he could get out of the building. That same scene ends with an off-screen death that recalled Chris Partlow’s murder of Bug’s father near the end of The Wire season 4, but with all of the violence here left off screen, whereas the HBO series made the killing more visible and graphic. Even when Chris does one of the dumb things that the protagonists in horror films do, a choice involving Georgina, it’s at least well-founded in his character’s history and further explained through flashbacks at the moment of the decision (which turns out to be the wrong one, of course).

The core conceit of the film also struck me as a direct allusion to (or lift from) Being John Malkovich, which made the casting of Keener, who earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work in the earlier film. BJM is more of a clever idea than a fully-realized film, like a short story that couldn’t bear the weight of two hours of plot, while Get Out turns the story over and makes the Malkovich analogue the center of the film, while actually finishing the story off properly. So while the central gimmick is not original, Peele manages to do in his first produced script to what Charlie Kaufman (who wrote BJM) didn’t do until his third, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which won Kaufman the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The idea at the heart of Get Out may not have been Peele’s, but he turned it into a complete work with a clear resolution.

Peele has also spoken since the film was released about alternate endings he’d considered, one of which he filmed and most of which were darker than the one we get on screen, but I’ll stand up for the script as it was actually filmed. The film asks whether black Americans can depend on whites at all to help them achieve or move towards equality, and answers it with an unequivocal ‘no.’ The ending we get at least implies that black Americans can reach those goals, but only by helping themselves, and doing so in rather heroic fashion, relying on their wits more than they do the stereotyped physical qualities that the Armitages and their ilk ascribe to African-Americans.

After hearing multiple warnings about the nature of the end of the film, I thought Get Out chose the high road in presenting a horror-film sequence with more emphasis on what’s happening in Chris’s head than what’s happening to all the bodies, including his, and I enjoyed the movie far more than I expected. The film is also boosted by some strong performances, especially Kaluuya (born in England, but nailing the American accent), Williams, Keener, and especially Howery, whose role is largely comic but absolutely fills up the screen whenever he appears and delivers by far the movie’s funniest line near its end.

I imagine, given the critical acclaim for the film and the criticism of the 2014 and 2015 Oscar nominee slates for the lack of persons of color among major nominees, that this film will be the rare horror movie to find itself with an Academy Award nomination, perhaps for Best Original Screenplay, and likely a Best Original Score nod for Michael Abels. As far as I can tell, The Exorcist is the only straight horror movie to earn a Best Picture nod – even Rosemary’s Baby didn’t get one – so there’s an outside chance we’ll see some history made if Get Out does the same. It would be an incredible outcome for a movie that had so many factors working against it before its release.

War Machine.

Three new Insider pieces for you to check out this week: scouting notes on Yu Darvish, more notes on Aaron Nola and some young Phillies hitters, and my annual look at players I was wrong about.

War Machine, released briefly to theaters this spring but residing in perpetuity on Netflix, is a thinly fictionalized adaptation of Michael Hastings’ non-fiction book The Operators, itself an expasion of Hastings’ infamous Rolling Stone article that led to the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal from his post as Commander of the coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan in 2010. It is a decidedly unflattering depiction of just about everything and everyone involved in the endless war against the Taleban, although it succeeds more in its portrayal of individual foibles than as an indictment of the war effort as a whole, laying more on the comic end of the scale than on the satirical side.

Brad Pitt stars as General Glen McMahon, the movie’s pseudonym for the McChrystal character, a tough-talkin’, f-bomb-droppin’, let’s-go-kick-some-terrorist-ass general brought in to replace the last let’s-go-kick-some-terrorist-ass general who couldn’t win the unwinnable war in Afghanistan. It appears that this is what McChrystal was really like, although he feels like a walking cliché, a Hollywood-ized representation of what a no-nonsense military leader should look, act, and talk like. He comes to the coalition with his group of acolytes and toadies, including the rah-rah Major General (based on Michael Flynn) played hilariously by Anthony Michael Hall, who largely cheer him on or at least avoid contradicting him, and has somewhat predictable conflicts with American diplomats, notably Karl Eikenberry stand-in Pat McKinnon, played by Alan Ruck (whom you know as Cameron Frye). McChrystal comes across as well-intentioned but largely naive about how unwinnable the conflict really is, although he does have moments of clarity – like the talk he gives to the European Parliament where he explains how killing insurgents likely creates more insurgents in the long run – amidst the standard military maneuvers.

Pitt seems so focused here on doing his impression of McChrystal that any nuance in the character is lost. The portrayal is all accent, facial expressions, and gait – his jogging scenes are just strange, as it seems impossible that Pitt could appear that unathletic – and lacks any depth, which is shocking because Pitt is capable of so much more. His performance is indicative of the misuse of so many talented actors in two-dimensional roles here – Ben Kingsley as the drug-addled, feckless President Karzai; Topher Grace as McMahon’s “civilian media adviser,” who sets up the ill-fated Rolling Stone article; Meg Tilly, looking disturbingly old in short grey hair, as McMahon’s ignored, adoring wife. Only Tilda Swinton, given one scene as a German politician who interrogates and questions McMahon during the talk to the Parliament, gets any material with which she can work, and it’s all of one scene. (There’s also an uncredited cameo at the end of the film that I won’t spoil but that did generate one of the many laugh-out-loud moments I had.)

War Machine has been reviewed and marketed as a satire, but I think it works better as a straight comedy with tragic elements. It’s too close to real events to work as farce; the U.S. effort in Afghanistan was destined to fail, at least once the initial goal of removing the Taleban, who harbored al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, had been achieved, and everything after that was theater. The script certainly hones that to a fine point – the value of the war effort to politicians and the political cost of increasing the engagement both come through – but without parodic exaggeration. Instead, the script succeeds by crafting comedy against an unusual backdrop, including two scenes where Kingsley’s Karzai gets probably the biggest laughs of the film, without telling the viewer anything s/he didn’t already know about the circular nature of the war effort.

(The film contains a clip of President Obama’s speech at West Point, announcing a troop surge in 2009; just last month, almost eight full years later, President Trump announced the same thing. The effort to train Afghan forces to protect their own country has already cost us $70 billion and costs another $4 billion every year, while parts of the country remain within Taleban control or “contested” between the government and insurgents.)

The magazine article that eventually led to this film toppled a general and drew back the curtain on a little bit of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, but ultimately led to no substantive change in our policy there. Even if this film had become a massive hit in theaters – Netflix doesn’t release viewership numbers, so we have no idea how many people have even seen it – it’s unlikely to change anyone’s mind on our policy there. War Machine is often very funny, and it may increase your weariness of the war, or our country’s repeated, failed attempts at nation-building (even where our intentions were good) abroad, but I don’t think this movie tells us anything about the war or the politics thereof that we didn’t already know.


Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception, Memento) and starring every good-looking British man under the age of 40, tells a fictionalized story of the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, France, in 1940, after German forces routed the combined allied troops and pinned them in on a small section of France’s northwest coast. Ordinary British citizens sailed their small vessels, including fishing boats and other pleasure craft, across the English channel and rescued an entire army – over 800 such boats evacuating over 330,000 troops. It would seem an impossible tale had it not actually happened.

Nolan’s script contains very little dialogue – I’m hard-pressed to recall a live-action film with less – and lets the tripartite story drive the film, with intertwined narratives focused on land (the evacuating soldiers, especially one who’s late to the beach and trying any which way to get out), sea (a father and son plus the son’s friend, sailing across the Channel to try to aid the rescue), and air (three Spitfire pilots battling the Germans). The connections seem tenuous at first, but the narratives all collide as the film progresses and their separate timelines begin to converge with the arrival of the small boats at the mole (causeway) at Dunkirk beach.

The script thus gives us little about most of the characters, and many are left unnamed within the film itself. One pilot is only seen with his mask on until his final scene near the end of the film. Kenneth Branagh, a favorite actor of mine who isn’t afraid to chew a little scenery when given the chance, is marvelously understated throughout as Commander Bolton. Oscar winner and Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance plays the civilian sailor Mr. Dawson with similar restraint, the embodiment of British stiff-upper-lip-ness in repeated crises as they sail toward France. Harry Styles – yes, Harry Freaking Styles – is one of the few young soldiers to stand out in spite of the paucity of dialogue, even overshadowing Fionn Whitehead, another acting neophyte who plays the fleeing soldier in the “land” narrative.

The script may be subtle, but the film isn’t; watching this in a theater was an extremely loud and incredibly close experience, with perspective shifts and wobbly camera shots that immerse the viewer in the action, often to an uncomfortable extent. (If you’re claustrophobic and/or have a fear of drowning, you might give this film a miss.) War movies often break the tension by shifting to planning scenes, away from the action, where old men in brass buttons plan the deaths of thousands by moving miniatures on a tabletop map, but Dunkirk never leaves the corridor from England, which we only see from Mr. Dawson’s boat, across to France, moving us from sky to sea to land and back but never pulling us far from soldiers in peril.

Nolan skirts some dangerous lines in the script, giving us Chekhov’s gun in the form of airplane fuel tanks, but writing his way out of obvious endings in two of the three main strands. He doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the conflict, with German aircraft bombing beach and ships even though these are retreating forces with little to no ability to defend themselves, yet there’s a clear effort here to keep the blood offscreen – one assumes because that would detract from the story Nolan is trying to tell and appeal to the baser instincts of those in the audience who mistakenly wandered into the theater while looking for the next Saw installment. The body count is high, even if they’re mostly redshirts, but the horror here has to come from the actors’ expressions and the constant sense of confinement, in ships’ holds, in a tiny airplane cockpit, or even on a wide-open beach that is a perfect shooting gallery for German dive-bombers. The one slight misstep, the thread that leads the ending’s one real nod to sentiment, essentially sacrifices a side character for the plot value of his death, but it’s the only time Nolan submits to that impulse and it at least has the good grace to stay out of the way of the remainder of the plot.

There’s an organic nature to the script that ultimately takes Dunkirk from good movie to great, as Nolan thinks more like a novelist than a screenwriter here. Knowing the history of the evacuation, Nolan creates sets of circumstances for each character or group, and then sees how they react to the stresses under which he places them. We get three pilots who have three differing reactions to disasters in the air. We see a wide variety of soldiers reduced to scrapping for places on ships, refusing to rescue others, or threatening to turn a soldier over to the enemy to make room on a boat. Mr. Dawson and his crew are tested repeatedly, and he becomes the stoic heart of the film, standing in for the hundreds upon hundreds of British men of all ages who risked their own lives to bring the boys home.

It’s early to forecast honors for any film, but I will throw out there right now that I think Dunkirk has to be the favorite for that SAG “best ensemble cast” award, or whatever it’s called, given in lieu of a proper “best picture” honor. Also, I was sure I saw an uncredited Una Stubbs – that’s Mrs. Hudson from Sherlock – on one of the boats, but IMDB tells me it’s an actress named Kim Hartman. But there is an uncredited appearance via voice only that I won’t spoil beyond saying every film is better for having this actor say a few words in it.