Sunday, December 10, 2017

Video review: "Kingsmen: The Golden Circle"

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” was a dashing, original and highly entertaining flick that spoofed the conventions of the spy genre while generally adhering to them. Its much-anticipated sequel, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” is none of those things.

This bewilderingly limp follow-up brings back the same cast and creative team, yet fails to recapture the magic. It’s got too many characters, a non-scary villain and seems too in love with itself to spare any affection for its audience.

You may remember that in the last movie, veteran superspy Galahad (Colin Firth) was killed, shot through the head. This proves only a mild inconvenience, as he’s resurrected in short order, minus one eye and lacking any memories. Though we just know his killer skills are residing there, Bourne-like, underneath the timid exterior.

Galahad protégé Percival (Taron Edgerton) takes center stage, as nearly the entire Kingsmen coterie of spies is wiped out by Poppy (Julianne Moore), who controls the world’s drug trade from her secret headquarters deep in the jungle, which she’s built to resemble her nostalgic middle America childhood. She has a plan to hold the world’s drug addicts hostage unless the governments pay her a massive ransom.

The key new wrinkle, the introduction of an American version of the Kingsmen, turns out to be the film’s biggest disappointment. They’re Statesmen, Kentucky whiskey-brewin’ cowboys in Stetsons – which suggests the British filmmakers can’t distinguish the New South from the Old West. Channing Tatum turns up as their best and brightest, but he’s soon sidelined in favor of a lesser operative (Pedro Pascal). Jeff Bridges chews his dialogue like cud as their top kick.

Director Matthew Vaughn still has the chops for some seriously fancy action scenes, as the camera spins around the combatants like an untethered raven, the action speeding up or slowing down as aesthetics needs be.

Whenever the bullets and blades aren’t flying, though, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is a cringe-worthy retread that’s more embarrassing than enjoyable.

Bonus features are pretty decent. The DVD comes with the “Kingsman Archives,” a collection of concept art photos and behind-the scenes stills, plus “Black Cab Chaos: Anatomy of a Killer Case.”

Upgrade to the Blu-ray edition and you add a feature-length making-of documentary film focusing on everything from the Kingsmen and Statesmen’s respective gear, “Suited and Booted,” to visual effects and Elton John’s guest-starring appearance.



Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review: "The Disaster Artist"

I am a virgin to “The Room,” at least the movie from end to end, though it exists as such a monumental cultural touchstone now that it’s impossible to be totally ignorant of its sideways charms.

Often called “the Citizen Kane of bad movies,” it has gone on to become a cult hit for its atrocious acting and nonsensical plot, with people packing midnight screenings to howl in laughter and shout out the dialogue in unison with the film, the same way their parents did for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Google it and you’ll find a multitude of gifs and memes, often centered around writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau’s hilariously inept line delivery (“You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”), vague Eurotrash accent and odd looks -- like an ‘80s hair band singer unaware of the passage of time and the fading of fame.

Showbiz people have long been fascinated by “The Room” and Wiseau, and indeed “The Disaster Artist” begins with a montage of (mostly) recognizable celebrities talking about how gobsmacked they were by the film. Director and star James Franco, along with screenwriters Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, have clearly created their movie as combination homage to/mockery of Wiseau.

He may have been a ridiculously inept filmmaker, but nobody can deny the man his commitment and passion, reportedly sinking $6 million of his own money into the project. No dummy, Wiseau has spent the years since “The Room” came out proclaiming that he meant it to be a comedy all along.

James Franco nails Wiseau’s Schwarzenegger-meets-Phonics speech patterns and odd affectations, and we get a great deal of amusement out of him and the film. I’m not sure if the movie ever truly gets us deep inside his head and reveals what makes him tick. As the closing scroll reminds us, to this day nobody is exactly certain of where Wiseau is from, how he got his fortune or even his real age.

Tommy befriends a wannabe teen actor, Greg Sestero, played by Franco’s real-life brother, Dave. Together they move to Los Angeles to be struggling young actors… although they don’t really struggle too much, as Tommy drives a white Mercedes and already had an apartment in L.A. in addition to the one in San Francisco. He resists any questions about his background, claiming to be from New Orleans, or the source of his prodigious wealth.

Greg is tickled to have someone supporting him financially and emotionally, and the pair set about the usual round of auditions and agency interviews, with hilariously predictable results.

At an acting class, Tommy is distraught when the teacher tells him he’s a natural screen villain, refusing to be laughed at or placed in a box. To buck him up, Greg says he should make his own movie, and we’re off to the races.

Tommy cranks out a script, drops a load of cash on a fourth-rate movie studio and hires a bunch of film veterans before they’ve barely finished their introduction. Seth Rogen gets in a lot of comic digs as the script supervisor who often acts as the de facto director, as Tommy’s on-set antics and abuse continue to spiral as the shoot goes along.

June Diane Raphael, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson and Jacki Weaver play members of the cast, actors who desperately want a paying gig on a feature film but soon recognize they’ve signed up for a one-man disaster parade. They’re the real unsung heroes of “The Room.”

The primary dynamic of the movie is the relationship between Tommy and Greg, who gets cast as the second lead in “The Room.” Greg gradually begins to realize he must separate himself from Tommy’s chaotic influence, helped by the urging of his new girlfriend (Alison Brie). The Franco brothers play off each other very nicely, keeping things comedic without tipping over into daffy.

Bad movies are not exactly a novel concept for good filmmakers. Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” lampooned a man far weirder than Wiseau. “Troll 2” might argue about which film truly deserves the crown of “Best Worst Movie,” as it also had a documentary made about it that used that title.

“The Disaster Artist” is a very fun and entertaining film that amuses and informs, without every truly getting below the surface of these characters. Purely on amusement factors, I give it Hi Marks.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Panic in Needle Park" (1971)

"You rat up, you don't rat down."
                                     --Detective Hotchner

"The Panic in Needle Park" was Al Pacino's second official screen role, but the first one of any consequence. It's mostly remembered today for that reason, though his co-star, Kitty Winn, actually won the best actress award at the Cannes festival in her own first starring role. But her career faded pretty quickly after this and the "Exorcist" films, and she retired from screening acting in 1978.

It's a pretty staggering performance by Pacino, his screen presence already fully formed and filled with that agitated vigor that would become his hallmark. His Bobby, a low-level street hustler and drug dealer, is a charming sweetheart when there's plenty of heroin to be had, but a manipulative lout when there's a panic -- aka an extended period of short supply.

Decades before "Kids" or "Trainspotting," "Panic" offered a grisly glimpse of drug-addicted youths hanging around Sherman Square Park, a meager finger of vegetation crammed along Broadway on the Upper West Side of New York City. The film was considered very shocking for its day -- it was even banned in several countries -- and is believed to be the first mainstream movie that depicted people injecting themselves with needles.

The nomenclature is a bit dated, as you might expect. Sleeping with someone is "making it" or, in more negative connotations, "balling." Users refer to their product, mostly heroin, as "junk." Or they just use vague references to available quantity: "Got any?" or "I need some." Though they are hesitant to refer to themselves as "junkies," preferring to say they're "chipping" -- using because they want to, not because they need to.

In their universal delusion, everyone is "chipping," especially Bobby and his new old lady.

Seen today, it's an episodic film that rambles through the highs and lows of the junkie lifestyle without a particularly cohesive narrative. It follows the perspective of Helen (Winn), a nice girl from Fort Wayne, Ind., who gradually dissolves into the counterculture, moving downward in association from artists to street scamps to whacked-out users, eventually becoming a prostitute and dealer herself.

Her lowest point, not actually depicted in the movie, is when she sells pills conned out of a doctor to some kids, and is arrested by "Hotch," aka Detective Hotchner (Alan Vint). The local "narco" cop, Hotch wears a leather jacket and long hair, drives around in a beat-up VW Bug and has more or less made Needle Park, aka Sherman Square, his own stomping grounds.

Hotch knows all the junkies, coexists with them on a largely peaceful basis of shared enmity, occasionally busting one of them and using them as leverage against their fellows. There's not much animosity among the ostensible friends, who understand the game and realize there are times they will be ratted out, just as there are times they will be the rat. Occasionally someone disappears from the park for awhile, then turns up again a few months later after their stint in jail is up.

As long as there is heroin and needles to be shared, this squalid form of friendship abides.

Richard Bright, best known as the enforcer Al Neri from the "Godfather" films, turns up as Hank, Bobby's older brother. He's a career criminal himself, but carries himself around wearing suits and a superior smirk. He's chipping too, but doesn't sully himself with handling the junk, sticking to burglaries of high-end apartments.

Hank will clear $600 in a single night (about $3,700 in today's dollars) and brags that he's never been caught, because he breaks toothpicks in the door lock in case the owners come home while he's burglarizing, and he can hop out the fire escape. He tries to help Bobby by bringing him in as a partner, but Bobby overdoses on the night of the job. They try again the next day, but a cop wanders into the alley and Bobby is sent off to the hoosegow for a few months.

During the break, Helen sleeps with Hank to keep her supply of dope rolling. Initially resistant to using, especially after seeing how Bobby turns into an inert zombie while high, she soon becomes a serious addict.

Both Pacino and Winn do impressive jobs playing high, wandering between euphoria and paranoia, with every stop in between. In one of the most memorable scenes, they decide to shoot up in the men's room of the Long Island ferry after buying a puppy on a whim. "I don't wanna be up while you're coming down!" Bobby snarls. He makes her put the whining pup outside the door, which quickly scampers off the edge of the deck and is lost in the swirling drink.

Other notable actors making early stops in their career are Raul Julia and Paul Sorvino. Julia plays Marco, the uncaring artist who got Helen pregnant, forcing her to undergo an unsafe and unsanitary abortion in the film's opening sequence. Bobby, turning up at Marco's studio to sell junk, takes pity on her and treats her kindly. That leads to them hooking up when Marco decamps to Mexico.

Sorvino's part is much smaller, as an agitated john of Helen's during her prostitution phase, who presses charges when she steals $75 out of his wallet.

"Panic" had an interesting genesis. It started out as a photographic essay of real junkies in Sherman Square published in serial form by Life magazine in 1965 by James Mills, who later turned it into a fictionalized novel. Husband-and-wife writing team Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne ("A Star Is Born") wrote the screenplay after John's brother optioned the rights.

Director Jerry Schatzberg had only made one other film following his own career in photojournalism, and would go on to direct a number of other notable films, including "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Street Smart," which launched Morgan Freeman's career.

Schatzberg goes for a very spare cinema verite style that works well with the film's sober, intimate tone. He even chose to throw out the entire musical score composed by Ned Rorem, relying on street sounds and chatter to from the movie's acoustic background.

"The Panic in Needle Park" isn't a great film in of itself, but it is a notable one worth revisiting. In addition to launching the career of Pacino and a bunch of other people, it depicted without varnish the toll hard drugs exact upon the flesh -- and the souls -- of people who think poison can replace what's missing.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Video review: "Despicable Me 3"

The “Despicable Me” franchise has gotten progressively more cutesy-futesy as time has gone one. The third iteration is still a decent family animated picture, though one built more for children than parents.

Some movies are great for the whole family. Others are ones you set up the kids with in the living room along with popcorn and spill-proof cups, while you go into the next room and stream “Game of Thrones” or what you have you. This is the latter.

Steve Carell is back again as the voice of Gru, spewing a thick, vaguely Slavic accent as a former criminal mastermind-turned-good guy. Gru went from basically being Dr. Evil from the “Austin Powers” movies to a happy, well-adjusted dude with a wife (voice of Kristen Wiig) and three adopted daughters.

Things go south for him quickly when he and Mrs. Gru -- not actually her name -- are booted from the international Anti-Villain League after they fail to capture Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), an ‘80s child star who has turned into the super-villain he used to play on TV.

Complicating matters further is the introduction of the twin brother Gru didn’t know about, Dru, who’s seemingly much happier, without Gru’s drippy bouts of melancholy but with a fabulous bouffant blond hairdo that contrasts grandly with his own chrome dome.

They get along well despite that, but then Gru recruits Dru to help him foil Bratt’s latest dastardly scheme, which involves a giant robot and bubblegum. Meanwhile, Dru is a little bored with the superspy gig and wants to get back to the family roots of dastardly deeds.

The uppity yellow minions, fresh off their own hit movie, are back with the usual gibberish songs and silly antics. As usual, they’re the best thing about the film.

Both “Despicable Me 3” and “Minions” grossed a billion dollars apiece at the box office, so expect to see a continuous helping of these movies for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, they’ll try harder to balance the zippy kid-friendly antics with a few more in-jokes to keep the adults tuned in.

Bonus features are pretty good, and include an all-new short film, “The Secret Life of Kyle.” There is also a making-of documentary, character profiles, one deleted scene, a “Minion Moments” feature, music video, mug shots and wanted posters, a sing-a-long with Pharrell and the Minions, a visitor’s guide to the Gru home country of Freedonia, and an Anti-Villain League database of secret spy stuff.



Sunday, November 26, 2017

Video review: "Crown Heights"

File “Crown Heights” under the category of terrific films that got buried in the rush of late summer/early fall releases. Lakeith Stanfield, one of the best young actors working today, stars in this prison drama based on the true story of a man wrongfully convicted of murder who had to fight for decades to receive his freedom, and justice.

He plays Colin Warner, a car thief and low-level criminal who gets picked up in connection with a shooting. Not only was he not even there when it happened, he didn’t know the victim or the real assailant. But through a massive miscarriage of the law, he finds himself sentenced to a long prison term at age 18, while the actual shooter serves minimal time because he was still 17.

Writer/director Matt Ruskin follows Colin for decades as he tries to have the conviction reversed, as various lawyers of various levels of commitment come and go. Stanfield gives a masterful turn as a meek kid who gradually grows up into adulthood and then middle age, gaining strength and resolve.

I also really admired Nnamdi Asomugha as Carl King, Colin’s one friend on the outside who doesn’t give up on his case, even as his devotion extracts sacrifices in his own personal life. Natalie Paul plays Antoinette, who had a teen flirtation with Colin that unexpectedly is rekindled while he is in prison.

It’s easy to miss small, superlative films during the course of a year. But “Crown Heights” is a powerful, gripping drama about a flawed but innocent man striving to preserve his own life.

Alas, this film is being released on video without any bonus features.



Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Review: "Last Flag Flying"

Just a short review today, as I'm in the midst of the holiday/awards season rush and watching movies at a brisk pace.

"Last Flag Flying" is pretty much writer/director Richard Linklater's attempt to do his version of "The Last Detail," the seminal 1973 film that helped launch Jack Nicholson's career about a pair of soldiers taking a comrade to military prison. It's a physical and metaphysical journey. Though instead of young bucks, we follow a trio of former Marines 30+ years after they served in Vietnam.

Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston all give very naturalist, lived-in performances as once-close buddies who have gone their separate ways. Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Carell) was the youngest of the bunch (he technically served in the Navy) and the meekest, and still is. Richard Mueller (Fishburne), once known as "the Mauler" for his outrageous behavior, has become an easygoing reverend with a bum leg. Sal (Cranson) is the least changed of the bunch, a party animal and womanizer who is constantly cracking jokes and drinking.

The reason for their ad-hoc reunion is tragic: Doc's only child has died while serving with the Marines in Iraq, and he wants his old buddies with him to pick up the body and bury him. The story is set in 2003, and there is a caustic political tinge that marries the two wars -- how the government uses its fighting men poorly, then lies to their families about the true nature of their mission and their deaths. Darryl Ponicsan, upon whose book the movie is based, co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater.

The movie is essentially one freewheeling two-hour-long conversation, as the men make their way by car, train and bus on a circuitous trip to and from the military base. They talk about their lives, their marriages and relationships, their disappointments. Old memories are shared with warmth and laughter, like good scotch swirled in a favorite tumbler.

Much is spoken, but much is also left unsaid. There was a terrible event that occurred during their service, which resulted in another Marine dying and Doc serving time in the military brig for two years. The details are left hazy.

Cranston has a lot of fun with his part, the extroverted loudmouth who spends much of the early going trying to get a rise out of the good reverend. (He does.) He leans a little too heavily on a stumblebum accent replete with "deez" and "doze."

Carell is the polar opposite, quiet and polite, though he shows some determination with regards to the disposition of his son's resting place. Fishburne is charismatic and centered, and the film lets him talk about his faith without the usual winking or mockery.

J. Quinton Johnson plays Washington, a young Marine who served with Doc's kid and ends up accompanying them on part of their trip. Yul Vazquez plays the colonel in charge of the grieving detail, whose politeness masks other impulses.

"Last Flag Flying" was touted as a contender for the awards season, and while I liked it quite a bit I don't see it as being in that stratosphere. It's a sad, funny portrait of soldiers still coming to terms with who they were as youngsters, and the old men they are slowly becoming. It's intimate, insightful and never hits a false note.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Review: "Coco"

So, it turns out the 1% are living it up even in the Land of the Dead.

In “Coco,” the delightful new animated film from Disney/Pixar, we journey to the great beyond during the Mexican holiday of Día de Muertos, a day dedicated to remembering the dead. In this telling, the spirits of the dead are partying it up themselves in a fabulous city filled with color and music.

Represented as skeletons who still retain their hair and clothes, the dead have their own set of currency. And it’s not money, but memories.

If you’ve got a lot of people among the living who still remember you and place your photograph on a shrine, you get to travel back to the living to visit with your loved ones. You also get to keep the gifts they offer up to your memory, and the admiration of your fellow bags of bones.

It’s a dizzy, delightful concept from screenwriters Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich. “Coco” is a Latin-flavored feast of lavish entertainment that also nudges us to remember what’s most important: family. Veteran Pixar director Lee Unkrich (with Molina serving as co-director) ably guides us through an action-filled plot that pauses for a few sustaining moments of stillness and contemplation.

Anthony Gonzalez provides the voice of Miguel, the scrappy offspring of a family of shoemakers who hate music. Well, that’s not strictly true, but his great-great grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach) was furious when her troubadour husband ran off on her and forbade any music in their household. Trouble is, Miguel is a gifted musician who craves to release the song in his heart.

Miguel idolizes Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), “the world’s greatest musician” and an Elvis-type figure who became rich and famous on the back of his movies and songs, most notably his power love ballad, “Remember Me.” (Molina, Germaine Franco, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez provide the film’s wonderful songs.)

Through a bunch of contretemps I won’t bore you with, Miguel finds himself transported to the Land of the Dead, trapped to remain there forever unless he obtains the right blessing by sunrise. And that means tracking down his hero, Ernesto, who resides in a castle where the “rich” -- those revered and remembered -- are having a big fiesta.

Tagging along is his dimwitted canine friend, Dante -- a street pup who for some reason can also travel to the land of the not-living. And he picks up another companion in Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a clownish rapscallion who claims to know Ernesto.

During their journeys they visit the slums of the dead, where those in danger of being forgotten completely eke out a pitiable existence. Miguel and Hector also bump into other notable figures, like Miguel’s ancestors and artist Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley), who gets slightly skewered.

The skeletons are visual marvels, with expressive eyeballs floating magically inside their skulls and bones that easily come apart and join back together again. For instance, when Hector needs to get down a precipice, he simply lets his body fall to the bottom and smash, then the pieces snap back together.

Be forewarned: although there’s no overt violence at all in the movie, the skeletons, themes about death and a few fearsome critters will prove scary to smaller children. My 4-year-old needed some lap time during the movie.

It’s been a rather weak year for animation, so it’s an easy to call to crown the imaginative, emotive “Coco” as the best I’ve seen in 2017.