Thursday, February 22, 2018

Mini-review: "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool"

There's nothing more challenging that trying to review a movie nearly three months after you saw it, especially when it's added to the release schedule at the last minute. So all I have time and capacity for is a short review.

"Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool" has a premise that seems like pure Hollywood hooey: a faded film actress and Oscar winner, virtually forgotten in late middle age, takes up with an aspiring actor several decades her junior from the rough neighborhoods of England. But that actually was the romance between Gloria Grahame in the late 1970s, as recounted in the memoir of Peter Turner, and adapted into a feature film by director Paul McGuigan and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh.

The film is a showcase for solid performances from Annette Bening and Jamie Bell. It's also a sensitive meditation on the power of love and loyalty.

Grahame was a major player in the 1950s, headlining in films like "The Bad and the Beautiful," "The Big Heat" and "The Naked Alibi," a favorite femme fatale. But she garnered a reputation for being difficult to work with and neurotic about her looks -- not to mention tawdry tabloid articles about her cheating on her second husband, Nicholas Ray, with his underage son, Anthony, who would go on to become her fourth husband.

The story takes up as she's eking out an existence on the British stage, and bumps into Peter, an unsophisticated wannabe. She's clearly in charge of every step of their relationship, including when it will begin and end, and the strange and wonderful reconciliation they find after her health starts to fail.

Vanessa Redgrave and Frances Barber turn up as Gloria's mother and sister, respectively, and their quietly savage undermining lets us understand how she became a bundle of barely stitched-up wounds. Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham plays Peter's simple parents, who are bewildered by their son's tortuous romance with this odd, beguiling woman.

It doesn't add up to more than a portrait of unlikely romance, but "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool" is worthwhile if only to see Bening and Bell pour their souls into their performances.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Mini-review: "Happy End"

“Hi, we’re French and rich and awful, come spend two hours with us.”

That was my cheeky micro-review of "Happy End," the French drama starring Isabelle Huppert as the matriarch of a wealthy family of horrible people. I'm not really sure what master director/writer Michael Haneke ("Amour") was going for here. There doesn't seem to be any kind of coherent theme, other than everyone in the Laurent family is somehow damaged, spiteful and/or emotionally stunted.

Huppert's character heads up the large construction company that brings them their riches. Her wayward son, the heir apparent, is a drunk who doesn't want to work. Her brother is divorced and carrying on a sadomasochism-tinged affair behind the back of his new wife, while his daughter takes dangerous steps to catch his attention, including poisoning her own mother. The father is suffering from dementia and wants to die.

Meanwhile, an accident at a construction site results in a serious injury that threatens to bring their empire down.

You don't have to like the main character in a movie, but it helps to like at least one person in the movie. Sometimes the story can even be saggy, but to use the old critic's hoe, you enjoy spending time with those characters. Here, I enjoyed not spending time with these characters.

"Happy End" is a near-torturous meditation on hate, estrangement and suicide. After watching it, I finally identified with the family.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Video review: "The Florida Project"

Every serious film enthusiastic always has at least one favorite film that doesn’t make the short list of Best Picture Academy Award nominees. I’ve learned to take the exclusions in stride -- tastes vary, the pre-awards hype game is chaos incarnate, and the Oscar nomination formula is just this side of goat entrails and knucklebone dice in terms of decipherability.

So I wasn’t terribly disheartened when my favorite film of 2017, “Blade Runner: 2049,” didn’t get a Best Picture nod. The one that did really cut to the bone, though, was “The Florida Project.”

This magnificent little film, shot on a shoestring with mostly non-actors, had a vibrancy and an authenticity that leapt off the screen. There is essentially no real story, just the wandering camera as we fall a group of kids living in a garish, cheap motel in the backwaters surrounding Walt Disney World and the other, lesser tourist attractions near Orlando, Fla.

Life is seedy and tenuous here, but it holds an ocean of grace.

Brooklynn Kimberly Prince plays Moonee, the 6-year-old protagonist. She lives with her mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), who resides in the neon-hued Magic Castle motel, working itinerantly at reselling cheap perfume to tourists, stripping, or selling her body, as opportunities arise. Moonee and the other children are left to roam on their own, getting into minor trouble like spitting on cars or hitting strangers up for change to buy ice cream.

Willem Dafoe, the only recognizable actor with a substantial part, shines as Bobby, the manager of the Magic Castle. People come and go, there’s always something to fix, and Bobby watches over the tide of humanity like a beneficent oversee. Bobby plays the part of the hardass, cracking down on illegal activity, especially prostitution, and chirping at the wayward kids. But any time he threatens to throw anybody out, things always seem to work out in the end.

Director Sean Baker (“Tangerine”), who co-wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, gives us a film that is unstructured in terms of narrative but is neatly sown together in its emotionality. Whenever we are tempted to judge the people we see, such as Halley’s erstwhile efforts as a mother, we are quickly reminded that these characters are doing the best with the scarce tools they have.

It’s a reminder that behind every land of dreams, there’s a grimy backlot where the support crew toil in unseen majesty.

Bonus materials are modest but insightful. They include “Under the Rainbow: Making The Florida Project,” a short documentary; bloopers and outtakes; and interviews with the cast and crew.



Thursday, February 15, 2018

Review: "Early Man"

I’ve always admired stop-motion animation in general and the British Aardman Animations films in particular -- “Chicken Run,” “Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and “Shaun the Sheep Movie” most recently in 2015. So it gives me little pleasure to report that the latest, “Early Man,” is a rather lackluster affair.

The story of cave men who discovered what we Yanks call soccer, it quite literally drops the rock… er, ball.

It seems our hirsute ancestors were inspired when a meteor landed somewhere around modern Manchester, snuffing out the dinosaurs to boot. The cave men began kicking the hot rock around, created a game around it, and even made drawings about their exploits.

Fast-forward a few thousand years, and a tribe of Stone Age types are still dwelling in the bucolic valley where the game of football (the everywhere-but-America kind) got started. Eddie Redmayne provides the voices of Dug, an excitable young man who urges the tribe to aim higher than just hunting rabbits -- perhaps even mammoths?

(Trigger warning for vegetarians.)

The Chief (Timothy Spall), a wise elderly man at the ripe old age of 32, cautions against high hopes. But when they’re suddenly invaded by some well-armed Bronze Age types and thrown out of their valley, it’s up to Dug to journey to the Roman-style city of their enemy and figure out a solution.

Curiously, the cavemen lost the tradition of football somewhere along the way, so Dug is amazed to discover the city’s entire culture is centered around games held in a giant arena. The home team, Real Bronzio, made up of tall Nordic types, is always the winner, playing at the whim of the nefarious Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston). He’s also the guy who booted Dug’s tribe out of their home so he could dig for ore there, and is amassing a fortune by charging admission to the mandatory games.

One of the movie’s better running jokes is that bronze is used for almost everything, from weapons to currency to housewares. “Have you got change for a dinner plate?” one old lady inquires at the arena gate.

Dug challenges Nooth’s team to a match, with the fate of the valley in the balance. If the cavemen lose, they’ll be forced to work in Nooth’s mines. (Which seems like something he could’ve enforced with or without the game.)

They start training under the tutelage of Goona (Maisie Williams), a city woman who takes a liking to the plight of the prehistoric folks. Plus, she’s always dreamed of booting in a goal of her own, since Real (pronounced REE-yal) Bronzio doesn’t allow women.

It’s a decently fun flick, at least intermittently, directed by Aardman veteran Nick Park from a script by Mark Burton and James Higginson. The cavemen don’t have much in the way of distinct personalities -- there’s the burly woman, the dumb one who puts everything in his mouth, etc.

The scene-stealer is Hognob (voiced by Park), an animal companion of Dug’s who appears to be a mix of boar, dog and sheep. I guess he forms the critter triumvirate with Gromit and Shaun.

If you’re thinking it’d be wacky for Hognob to get into the game, you won’t come away disappointed. Which is more than I can say for me.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Review: "Black Panther"


Pretty good, even.

But the superhero movie to end all superhero movies? C’mon.

“Black Panther” is an invigorating but hardly revolutionary entry into the Marvel Comics Universe, taking the African king who wears a (mostly) indestructible cat suit we saw in the last Avengers movie and draping a colorful backstory around him. Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa, ruler of the fictional kingdom of Wakanda, in a calm and charismatic performance that foretells many happy returns for this character in future MCU movies.

Rather than a traditional origin story, we get the fall-from-grace saga: T’Challa assumes the throne after the death of his father, and with it the powers -- courtesy of a mysterious flower pod -- and costume of the Black Panther. But almost just as quickly, he finds his leadership in question and his very claim to the throne challenged.

Directed by Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) from a script he co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole, “Black Panther” will resonate with some for its nods to the Black Power movement of the 1960s and its more recent echoes. White characters are few; when they do show their faces are derided as “colonialists;" and the taint of slavery is frequently brought up in describing the fate of black people, both in America and Africa.

But these aspects struck me -- a white kid from the suburbs -- as merely fashionable put-ons for the young and hip, flashy decorations over the familiar bones of superhero tropes.

T’Challa operates as a sort of royal James Bond who’s not just an agent of the coolest cloak-and-dagger outfit in the world, but is actually running the whole show. He’s even got his own Q-like gadgetmaster, in the form of his kid sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), concocting playful new toys to augment his super-suit.

Wakanda is viewed as a poor third-world nation, but actually is the most technologically advanced people on Earth, helped by a vast store of vibranium that fell there in the form of a meteor long ago. The strongest substance in the universe -- but wait, I thought that was supposed to be admantium? -- vibranium has all sorts of cool abilities to absorb and transmit energies. This allows Black Panther not only to jump and scratch, but set off mini sonic explosions.

It seems a nasty mercenary named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) stole a store of vibranium 25 years ago, and now it falls to T’Challa to bring him to justice. He’s helped by Okoye (Danai Gurira), the head of his personal guard, who are all very stern-looking, bald women, as well as Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a Wakandian spy who also happens to be T’Challa’s ex.

The X-factor, who shows up rather late in the game, is Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger, an American former special ops soldier/assassin who at first appears to be working for Klaue, but turns out to have a very dark connection to Wakanda, which I’ll not spoil here.

Also turning up are Martin Freeman as a helpful, if naïve CIA agent; Angela Bassett as the queen mother; Forest Whitaker as the Wakanda high priest; Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s best pal; Winston Duke as the head of a rival tribe; and Sterling K. Brown as another member of the royal family.

“Black Panther” certainly is one of the most visually sumptuous films in the MCU, with a pageant of bright costumes, stunning CGI technology and colorful vistas. The hidden Wakanda capital city looks like some glorious cross between “Blade Runner” and “Zootopia.”

I enjoyed the movie, but didn’t come close to being blown away by it. The hype machine has been cranked to 11 for this film, which turns out to be a low 7, at best.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Valdez Is Coming" (1971)

Let's get one thing out of the way first: Burt Lancaster does not pass for Mexican, or even half-Mexican, even with the help of a deep tan and possibly the judicious application of brownface makeup.

One of the stupidest and most useless human endeavors is the imposition of modern sensibilities upon cultural material from years, decades or even centuries past. Of course people in 1971 didn't think about cultural appropriation the same way they do in 2018. Caucasian actors routinely played Latino, Arab, Asian and even African characters in Hollywood movies up until fairly recently in our cinematic history.

If John Wayne can play Genghis Khan and Laurence Oliver can play Othello, then I'm not going to get too worked up over Lancaster posing as an over-the-hill Mexican-American lawman.

He pulls off the accent pretty well, playing Bob Valdez, the constable of a small border town somewhere around the turn of the century. His authorities extend only to the "Mexican half" of the city, perhaps owing to his title of constable rather than sheriff (as many references to the film erroneously call him).

It's not even a full-time job, as Valdez supplements his income riding shotgun for a shipping company, and he travels to and fro riding a wagon rather than a horse. He's bordering on elderly, and doesn't even carry a six-shooter, the standard arm of the Western hero, but a two-barrel scattergun -- the weapon favored by those with failing eyes and shaky hands. Valdez shuffles about in an obsequious manner, and speaks to the wealthy whites who run things with shoulders stooped and hat in hand.

Valdez clearly doesn't like having to kowtow, but it's how he gets by in a land where his kind is dismissed as "greasers." At least, that is, until he finally gets pushed too far.

The story opens with an ugly scene, where a posse has trapped a man suspected of murder in a lonely shack, and a crowd of women and children has gathered to watch as the men playfully plug bullets into its bleached-out boards. The accused is a black man, so it seems the standoff will end either with a lynching or a hail of rifle rounds.

Valdez walks down to talk to the man in an attempt to deescalate the situation. But a hotheaded young sharpshooter named R. L. Davis (Richard Jordan), operating at the behest of Frank Tanner (Jon Cypher), the rich cattleman leading the posse, fires in the middle of Valdez' parlay with the accused, making him think the whole thing has been a ruse. Valdez is forced to kill the man, after which it becomes clear he was innocent after all.

To me, the most interesting part of this sequence is not all the manly strutting and pronunciations. It's the part where the holed-up man's wife, an Apache woman, blithely walks out of the house during the barrage to fetch a pail of water. R. L. repeatedly shoots near her to scare her off, but she doesn't even flinch.

Valdez decides to take up a collection as a gesture of goodwill to the widow, and the townsmen agree to put up $100 if Tanner will pay the other $100. Tanner angrily refuses, first having his men shoot at Valdez, in much the same way R. L. did at the Indiana squaw, and then resorting to crucifixation when he returns for another try. That's when Valdez snaps and vows revenge.

(Curiously, Valdez himself never offers to pitch in any of his own money toward the sum, even though he was mostly directly responsible for the murder.)

The rest of the movie follows a fairly traditional revenge/redemption cycle. Valdez takes up arms and his old uniform, revealing that he was a U.S. Cavalry soldier during the Indian wars. He stalks Tanner and his men, picking them off in ones and twos. His favored method is a Sharps rifle, a single-shot weapon notorious for its long-range accuracy.

"Valdez" was directed by Edwin Sherin in his feature film debut behind the camera. He would direct one other movie later in 1971 before turning to television, where he worked busily well into the 2000s. Screenwriters Roland Kibbee and David Rayfiel, adapting the novel by Elmore Leonard (unread by me), keep things taut and spare, with nary a spoken word or image that's not absolutely necessary to the plot.

Frank Silvera plays Diego, a humble Mexican farmer and Valdez' best (possibly only) friend, who helps him recover from his wounds and is made to pay for it by Tanner's gang. Héctor Elizondo turns up in one of his earliest screen roles as a lookout for Tanner's gang. Mason (Phil Brown) is the chief of the white aristocracy, notable for sharing a degree of respect with Valdez.

Barton Heyman plays El Segundo (literally, "The Second"), Tanner's right-hand man, who proves far cagier than his boss. He repeatedly urges Tanner to break off from pursuit of Valdez to go through with a lucrative sale of rifles to the Mexican army. Segundo would seem to be a standard Western henchman at first, but as more of his men perish he carefully weighs the loss of life against any possible benefit. He eventually gains the upper hand over Valdez, but not before developing a health reverence for the old man's skills.

The other major character is Gay Erin (Susan Clark), who is Tanner's consort and, at least at one point, his betrothed. The whole story has been set off by the murder of her husband, Tanner's friend. Tanner carries on the quest to find the killer mostly because many people believe Tanner himself killed him to get Gay.

She's a proud woman who seems to despise Tanner, and yet on some level embraces his dastardly nature because she think she deserves no better. About halfway through the movie, Valdez takes her captive and tries to use her as a bargaining chip for the $100. It's a classic fruitless quest, since the Apache woman has long departed to return to her people. Valdez treats Gay tenderly, but without any suggestion of romance.

Tanner himself is an interesting character. He cuts an imposing yet slightly comical figure, with hair and mustachio suggesting a resemblance to Colonel Custer. He revels in the power of having his own gang, enjoying giving orders to torture somebody who has bothered him: "Fix him like we did that other fellow." But in the end Tanner reveals a distaste for getting his own hands dirty.

"Valdez Is Coming" ends with an odd standoff, with no overt resolution. It would seem impossible that events play out in any way other than with Valdez' death, but you never know. It's a grim story of lost causes embraced and good intentions wasted. And maybe how we should treat the meek a little nicer.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Video review: "Wonder"

“Wonder” is a tender-hearted flick that makes no bones about being a tearjerker. Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson star as the parents of Auggie, a 10-year-old boy played by Jacob Tremblay who was born with severe facial defects.

He’s been more or less hiding out his whole life, being home-schooled by his mom or wearing an astronaut’s helmet in public to ward off stares and comments. But now he’s attending school for the first time, and this is the story of his entering a broader, scarier world.

The screenplay by Steve Conrad, Jack Thorne and Stephen Chbosky, who also directed, is a straightforward string of encounters. We know the teasing and taunting is going to come, but it’s no less painful when it does. Auggie soon finds a friend in a scholarship student (Noah Jupe), but the inevitable setback is just around the corner. Mandy Patinkin plays the wise and helpful school headmaster.

The movie, based on the best-selling novel by R.J. Palacio, also follows around Auggie’s older sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), for a bit, and we get to see the family dynamic from her perspective. She loves her little brother, but it’s hard to be teenager when your sibling soaks up all of the grownups’ attention.

It may not be the most original movie to come down the pike, but “Wonder” is decorated with nice, crisp performances and an authentic human story that’s hard to resist. Three hankies, at least.

Bonus features are quite good. The DVD edition has a feature-length commentary track by Chbosky and Palacio, music video for “Brand New Eyes” and a featurette on the soundtrack.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray version, and you add two more featurettes, “A Child’s Sense of Wonder” and “What a Wonderful World,” plus a five-part making of documentary titled, “Summer of Fun.”