Sunday, March 18, 2018

Video review: "Downsizing"

If they gave out awards for most promising films that come out during the awards cycle and turn out to be a colossal disappointment, I’ve no doubt “Downsizing” would be a top contender to win.

Starring Oscar winners Matt Damon and Christoph Waltz, from director Alexander Payne (“The Descendants”) and frequent script collaborator Jim Taylor (“Sideways”), both Academy Award owners themselves, “Downsizing” looked to be a pointed satire about consumerism and American obsession with status.

Matt Damon plays ordinary schlep Paul Safranek, who volunteers to go through the process of “minimization” along with his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig). This is a relatively new procedure developed in Norway where humans are shrunk down by 99%, so they consume much less food, water and space, thus putting the planet on a stronger path to a stable environment.

Of course, that’s not how it’s sold to the public. It turns out that it pays to “get small” -- quite literally. Like a lot of middle-class Americans, Paul and Audrey are struggling to get by financially. But it turns out that little folks live like kings, because of some screwy economic calculations that are deliberately left a little fuzzy.

Go little, retire early and trade in your hovel for a McMansion! Sounds great, right?

Things go south quickly for Paul when (spoiler alert) Audrey gets cold feet right before the procedure, and he’s left lonely, divorced and working in a lowly call center for little folk. His next door neighbor, Dusan (Waltz), lives the high life filled with parties and connections.

Through him Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a political activist-turned-maid who opens up his eyes to the economic inequity at the heart of the minimization racket. The haves live the life of luxury they don’t deserve, while people like Tran can’t even get a decent prosthetic for her missing leg.

(Accenting the split between the ultra-rich and those who serve them is always an odd ploy coming from mainstream Hollywood, where multimillionaires are waited on hand and foot by subsidence help. But let’s move on.)

Things get really strange when the story takes the trio to Norway, where we meet some of the scientists who first developed the breakthrough and are now having second thoughts.

The first act of “Downsizing” is fairly smart and filled with funny observations. But right at the point where Paul is abandoned by his spouse, the movie jumps completely off the tracks and never finds its way back.

Lesson: if you’re going to hire Kristen Wiig, don’t give her the boot 30 minutes into the film.

Video extras are a might slim, and are limited to the Blu-ray version: the DVD contains none. They consist of six making-of documentary shorts: “Working with Alexander,” “The Cast,” “A Visual Journey,” “A Matter of Perspective,” “That Smile” and “A Global Concern.”



Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review: "Tomb Raider"

 I hadn't even seen "Tomb Raider" yet and I was already sick of hearing about it.

How they translated the video game series into a rebooted film franchise for a new generation. About all the nifty stunts and set pieces. How tiny Swedish star Alicia Vikander worked out for months and subsisted on one of those fish-avocados-and-eggs diets in order to bulk up and get the prerequisite bumpy belly.

(I really don't know when in our popular culture bumpy bellies became a thing. It used to be you wanted to look trim and tight. Now we're supposed to want our stomachs to look rippled potato chips. Seems like a screwy contradiction, if you ask me.)

As a ciswhiteoldishmale, I've been reliably instructed that I'm not allowed to comment on women's bodies. Nuts to that. If you make a big-budget movie based on a game whose major appeal was a heroine who looked like a Victoria's Secret model, then her appearance is well within the bounds of discussion -- especially when it impacts how the film plays.

This is decidedly different take on Lara Croft than the Angelina Jolie movie from 2001. Say what you will about that movie, but Jolie seemed more than physically capable. Could take it, and dish it out, like any male action hero counterpart. In a word, she was tough.

Vikander, in a word, is frail. Even with the aforementioned buffing-up, her look is still more ballerina than badass. Her Lara gets her ass kicked a lot in the movie, almost entirely by male combatants (with the exception of a female sparring partner near the beginning, who also wipes the floor with her). And she emits a lot of girlish squeaks and dainty yelps in the process.

So it's a much more vulnerable version of the character. I guess the idea for director Roar Uthaug and screenwriters Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons was to have Lara more relatable. But the overall effect is to make her come across as weak.

Arriving in the footsteps of the physically and thematically muscular "Wonder Woman," this feels like something of a retreat.

Lara isn't even a real adventurer as the story opens, just an orphaned young woman working as a bicycle courier and doing a little kickboxing on the side. She's a sadgirl because her beloved daddy (Dominic West) disappeared mysteriously seven years ago, leaving her with regrets -- along with a massive fortune and estate, if only she'll sign the papers declaring him legally dead.

This she has refused to do, because... well, there is no good reason. Only movie people would toil, unable to even pay their gym fees, when there's billions at your beckoning.

Anyway, she discovers that father was secretly an Indiana Jones-type archeologist. When he went missing, he was working on the mystery of an ancient Japanese queen named Himiko, a sorceress who could kill with just a touch. Her tomb is shrouded in secrecy on a mystery island, and the elder Croft was trying to prevent an evil group called the Order of Trinity from finding it and exploiting her wretched powers.

In his death decree, daddy Croft instructs Lara to destroy all his research so as not to endanger the fate of the entire world. Instead, she carefully gathers it all up and books a ship so she can sail to the island and deliver it right to the bad guys.

This Lara Croft may be tight in the abs, but she's soft in the head.

Walton Goggins plays Vogel, the heavy leading a force of mercenaries and slave labor on the island. Unable to escape himself until he's completed his mission, Vogel stumbles about in a fog, occasionally shooting someone to make a point. Daniel Wu plays Lu Ren, the helpful ship captain who becomes Lara's henchman.

"Tomb Raider" is a decently entertaining movie, especially in the second half as they make their way into the tomb and encounter all sorts of nasty traps, tricks and puzzles. I never played any of the video games, but those who have tell me the film's plot follows the recent reboot of the game fairly faithfully.

I especially liked one river-born sequence, where Lara is in danger of being swept over a massive waterfall, and uses the carcass of a rotted B-17 bomber as her (rapidly deteriorating) lifeline.

I'm not sure we needed a wimpier version of Lara Croft, or indeed if we needed another film version of the video game at all. Energetic but unnecessary, it sits there like a giant meatball, simply existing.

Review: "7 Days in Entebbe"

It is a strange truism of history that we better remember the disasters than the victories. At least, on a smaller scale. The really huge successes like, say, the evacuation of Dunkirk spawn reams of books and even an Oscar-nominated film.

But the rescue of a hundred mostly Jewish hostages from terrorist hijackers? That sort of thing of thing tends to recede into the ocean of the collective consciousness.

I’ll admit I was not very aware of the Air France flight hijacking of 1976. True, I was a small child at the time. But it’s inarguable that it doesn’t have the sort of profile in the public record that the Munich Olympics kidnappings or the United Airlines Flight 93 hijacking on 9/11 do.

(Both examples got their own major motion picture adaptation, by the way.)

But Operation Thunderbolt, in which Israeli special forces mounted a daring rescue at Uganda’s largest airport, is one of those quiet watershed moments that deserves its own cinematic commemoration. It arrives in the form of the thoughtful and suspenseful “7 Days in Entebbe.”

The rescue became the model for the militaries of other nations, including the U.S., to study for successful operations of this type. It marked the moment when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and other senior Israeli officials started to back away from their policy of never negotiating with their enemies.

The operation was also notable for the single Israeli soldier who was killed being the older brother of Benjamin Netanyahu, the current hard-line leader of Israel.

Director José Padilha and screenwriter Gregory Burke approach the historical events at eye level, showing us how the week transpired from the sides of the hostages, the airline pilots, the Israeli leaders mulling over whether to give into demands and the soldiers tasked with planning and executing a bold solution.

Perhaps controversially, they also include the terrorists in the equation, depicting them not as killing automatons, but human beings with doubts, convictions and complexities.

Daniel Brühl and Rosamund Pike are, in fact, the main characters as Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann, two German revolutionaries responsible for leading the actual hijacking of the flight from Tel Aviv, diverting it to Entebbe, Uganda.

They are doing this out of solidarity with Palestinians, and in fact the major demand of the terrorists was the release of 50 or so mostly PLO prisoners held by Israel. They fret about being viewed as Nazis, since roughly a third of the passengers are Jew -- especially if it becomes necessary to kill the hostages.

They wrestle with their conscious, especially after they arrive in Uganda and the Arabs take over, separating the Jews from the rest of the hostages, some of whom are released at the urging of Ugandan leader Idi Amin (a terrific Nonso Anozie), who collaborated with the terrorists.

In the Israeli corridors of power, Prime Minister Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) vies with Defense Minister Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) over whether to negotiate with terrorists or attempt a rescue. It’s an interesting power play, as Peres urges the attack not only because he believes it’s the right thing to do, but also because its failure would likely push Rabin out of office.

“7 Days in Entebbe” is an often gripping movie that tells about a pivotal moment in time that’s been largely forgotten, and the very real people caught up in it -- both the tragedy and the triumph.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review: "Love, Simon"

So here is the first truly great and important movie of the year, and no, it’s not the one about the guy in the black cat suit who thinks he’s so cool.

“Love, Simon” reminds me a lot of those John Hughes high school movies from the ‘80s. They seemed like pop confections at first glance, filled with love triangles and teen angst. But they had deeper themes going on just behind the surface, about how we all feel alienated and alone.

This movie is a little more conspicuous in its ambitions, starring Nick Robinson as Simon Spier, a high school senior who’s on the verge of coming out as gay. He gains the courage to do so after striking up an anonymous correspondence with another student who posted to their school’s message board, and over time finds himself falling for this unseen lover.

Very Cyrano de Bergerac.

Part of the fantasy is that Simon envisions different boys he encounters to be “Blue,” his pen pal’s pseudonym. Each leads to a dead end, which depresses Simon but also spurs him to the next romantic bloom.

Meanwhile, he finds himself unwittingly pushing away his three best friends: Leah (Katherine Langford), best pals since kindergarten; Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), an exuberant soccer star; and Abby (Alexandra Shipp), the new girl at school whom they’ve adopted into their little clique. Complicating things further are some unseen love lines between the foursome that will come into play.

It’s based on the novel, “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” by Becky Albertalli -- which is a much better title -- adapted for the screen by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, and directed by Greg Berlanti.

“Love, Simon” wears the clothes of a high school comedy, and indeed it’s often a ferociously funny film. But it’s also wise and perceptive, treating its largely teen cast as imperfect individuals rather than idealized or contemptible caricatures.

One of the things I really admired about the movie is that almost everybody in it comes across as looking foolish at some point or another, but also has moments of nobility and grace. Even Martin, the socially inept heel who threatens to out Simon after intercepting his emails -- played with unnerving, offbeat charisma by Logan Miller -- gets a turn to be the cool kid.

Likewise, Simon’s dad is played by Josh Duhamel, a jokey, ex-jock type who we suspect wouldn’t be too receptive to having a gay son. They get a scene together that left puddles under my seat. Jennifer Garner is the mom, who’s more serious and centered.

Tony Hale turns up as Mr. Worth, the incredibly exuberant vice principal at the school, constantly forcing uncomfortable connections with students in between confiscating their cellphones. Yet he projects an aura of desperation beneath the punch lines, and we can easily envision what his own high school experience was like.

“Love, Simon” is a lovely movie because it accepts that everybody feels weird and awkward as a teenager, especially when we’re negotiating the first stumbling steps in the dance of love, and even more so when we find our affections flowing in a direction not always deemed socially acceptable.

Here’s a film that simply says it’s OK to be young and gay and in love... even if you don’t know exactly who you’re in love with just yet.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Reeling Backward: "The Outlaw" (1943)

As my friend and colleague Bob Bloom best put it, "The Outlaw" is a movie famous for two things -- and neither one of them has to do with the film's inherent attributes.

Literally the entire iconography of the movie lies with Jane Russell's ample bosom. The film was actually shot in 1941 but didn't get a released until 1943 after director/producer Howard Hughes tangled with the production code stewards. And even that theatrical run was only for one week, after Hughes ginned up a controversy to create demand for the movie, which the censors quickly shut down. It didn't actually see wide release until 1946, and became a box office smash.

I've always wondered how Russell felt about the hullabaloo from her first movie role. "The Outlaw" made her an overnight star and national sex symbol. Imagine having everyone in America looking at and thinking about your boobs. 

If you remember "The Aviator," you know that Hughes became obsessed with displaying Russell's breasts in the movie, even going so far as to invent a cantilevered bra with steel rods to push up her cleavage. Splashy posters showing her lying in hay with her shirt spread wide open -- and, in friskier versions, ripped into see-through holes -- instantly became part of the national popular culture.

That's why I was surprised to watch the film for the first time, and realize that moment never actually occurs in the movie. There is a scene in a barn, but she's never just lying there with a heaving chest. In fact, Russell's bust is actually fairly demure through most of the film's run time, though it gets a little more display toward the end.

What gives? How can a movie famous for one thing -- OK, two things -- not actually contain that which made it such a spectacle?

The answer is simpler than you'd think. Hughes' brassiere contraption was horribly uncomfortable, so Russell took it off a few minutes after first trying it on. She simply stuffed her own bra with tissue and told Hughes she was wearing his invention.

The garment now lies in a museum somewhere, a testament to Hughes' penchant for showmanship and flimflam. How delicious that the ultimate con man was conned by a stubborn starlet... and never even knew it.

Putting aside all the boobage lore, what we're left with is an incredibly trashy B-movie Western with solid production values. It's a complete mishmash of the historical record, less mythology than flight of fantasy.

In this story (screenplay by Jules Furthman), Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday are old rapscallion friends who become enemies after the intrusion of Billy the Kid. Now a sheriff, Garrett chases the pair around for awhile, as the old outlaw and the young one are constantly on the verge of drawing guns on each other. Garrett kills Doc after the latter refuses to draw on him, and then lets Billy go so he can ride off into the sunset with Russell's character, a tart named Rio.

Of course, in real life it was Garrett who pursued and killed Billy the Kid, notoriously shooting him dead while hiding in the shadows. And he and Holliday never even met, the movie witlessly transposing his famous friendship with Wyatt Earp for an invented one with Garrett.

"The Outlaw" was only the second of two movies Hughes ever directed, the first being the silent film about WWI pilots, "Hell's Angels." Whatever his gifts as an inventor and showman, the man had a pretty thumbless grasp for crafting scenes or getting halfway competent performances out of his cast.

According to Jane Russell's autobiography, Hughes never personally directed any of her scenes, leaving most of the on-set work to subordinates. Howard Hawks also reputedly lent a hand behind the camera.

Most of the movie was actually already in the can when Hughes brought in famed cinematographer Gregg Toland ("Citizen Kane") to replace the first DP, and it was reshot entirely. In between the film's initial production in 1941 and eventual wide release five years later, the actors were dragged back several times to reshoot scenes or add new ones, often to amp up the film's sexual overtones.

There are two implied rapes of Rio by Billy, played with comic ineptitude by Jack Beutel, who was also making his film debut. The barn scene where Russell supposedly splayed her chest is actually one where Rio attacks Billy for killing her brother. After overpowering her -- in a not entirely convincing fight scene, as the boyishly narrow-hipped Beutel was about the same size as Russell -- Billy lies on top of her as the scene fades to black.

The second instance is even more troublesome. After Rio nurses Billy back to health and they begin a tepid romance, the relationship turns sour after he believes she has betrayed him to Garrett. Contemptuously calling her "darling," they have this exchange in her bedroom:
Rio: "What are you waiting for? Go ahead."
Billy: "Say, that sounds real nice. I like to hear you ask for it. Keep it up. Beg some more."
Rio: "What would you like me to say?"
Billy: "Well, you might say, 'Please,' very sweetly."
Rio: (Scornfully) "Please."
Billy: (Approaching her menacingly) "Will you keep your eyes open?"
Rio: "Yes."
Billy: "Will you look right at me while I do it?"
(The pair trades intense looks as the music swells.)
In the parlance of Hollywood in that day, this would be read as Rio giving into Billy's smoldering manly manliness, rather than coerced sexual assault. In today's #MeToo lights, though, their up-and-down affair looks much less egalitarian.

 No matter how you want to read it, though, one has to admit it's one of the most overt references to the sex act you'll find in a Golden Age flick.

The film is almost saved by the presence of a pair of crafty veteran character actors for the other  main roles, Thomas Mitchell as Pat Garrett and Walter Huston as Doc Holliday. It seems clear the two were left to wing their own characterizations, and operate somewhat on autopilot.

Mitchell, best known as the bumbling Uncle Billy from "It's a Wonderful Life" and the drunken doctor from "Stagecoach," plays Garrett as a somewhat ridiculous figure, an outlaw-turned-lawman who pursues his new vocation with a cantankerous intensity underlining his desire to redeem his former life. A merely competent gunman, he knows he's outmatched on the draw by either Billy or Doc, and is left to use his wiles and subterfuge to gain the upper hand.

Huston, an engineer who turned to the stage and begat an entire filmmaking dynasty -- son John, grandkids Anjelica and Danny, great-grandson Jack -- is a mix of coyness and bombast as Doc. He has a favorite horse, a little roan named Red, that he and Billy are fighting over possession of for most of the movie.

There's clearly a part of him that sees himself in that young braggart, and wants to shape that. At the same time, Doc is a famous gunman facing the twilight of his career -- Huston was about 60 when the film was shot, his ample abdomen straining against twin holsters -- and isn't about to accept guff from any man.

The story is a confused litany of generic Western elements: faceless marauding Indians, subservient Mexicans, whipped-together posses and, of course, face-offs with pistols. I will say that the camera work is among the most convincing I've seen at depicting the speed at which gunslingers could clear their holsters.

"The Outlaw" has the rare distinction of being a film that's more exalted than it is remembered. People recall the controversy and nascent eroticism that made it famous. But they forget the squalid, grimy Western that lies beneath the timeless façade.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Video review: "The Shape of Water"

One of the best thing about Guillermo del Toro’s movies is they’re so difficult to cram into any box. Is it a horror film? Science fiction? Romance? Historical parable? Fairy tale? Musical comedy?

All of the above, I’d say. After its impressive win at the Academy Awards last week, “The Shape of Water” will surely go down as one of the kookiest Best Picture winners ever.

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute woman who works as a cleaning lady in a secret government laboratory circa the early 1960s. Her world is tightly bookended: the routine of her job, her friendship with Giles (Richard Jenkins), the gentle illustrator who lives next door, and another with Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who works with her in the dank underground facility.

One day, a strange aquatic man is brought into the lab, where he’s prodded and tortured like a curious science experiment. But Elisa befriends the creature, and even learns how to communicate with it using sign language. She discovers there is a gentleness behind his fearsome exterior, which is like a cross between the Creature from the Black Lagoon and a space alien.

Hawkins, Spencer and Jenkins all received acting nominations at the Oscars, and the movie could easily have gotten three more. Michael Stuhlbarg plays the chief scientist with conflicting impulses and loyalties; Michael Shannon is chilling as the military man running the operation, who sees the aquatic man as just another fish to be cut up; and Doug Jones, who elegantly plays the creature with the help of an elaborate costume and some CGI.

Perhaps the thing I liked best about “The Shape of Water” is that it manages to not only incorporate these six characters into the story, but it actually lets the audience follow each of them for a while, seeing how they became the people they are and how they will interact with each other, in commune or in conflict.

Bonus features are decent, but not great. They consist of five making-of documentary featurettes: “A Fairy Tale for Troubled Times,” “Anatomy of a Scene: Prologue,” “Anatomy of a Scene: The Dance,” “Shaping the Waves: A Conversation with James Jean” amd “Guillermo del Toro’s Master Class.”



Thursday, March 8, 2018

Review: "Gringo"

"Gringo" is a strange movie, and a hard one to review. I didn't particularly like it. Didn't particularly hate it, either. If there's a cinematic equivalent of eating a sustaining meal without ever really tasting your food, this is it.

I think it was going for a mix of comedy, action and intrigue, perhaps along the lines of "Midnight Run." Certainly, it did not achieve this.

The most notable thing about the movie is how forgettable it is... quite literally. I saw the film last night, got busy with other things, and forgot that I had to write this review.

Charlize Theron is pretty much the only thing interesting or compelling about it. She plays Elaine Markinson, the co-president of a shady pharmaceutical company that is developing a pill that copies the psychotropic effects of marijuana, while also playing footsie with the Mexican cartel on the side. There's a scene where they pitch the drug to an even bigger company, talking about how rapidly marijuana is becoming legalized.

I kept waiting for someone to ask why if pot is heading toward universal legality, anyone needs to buy a pill that simulates it?

Anyway, Elaine is a real piece of work, a land shark with absolutely no regard for others. Swims, eats, and f*cks, baby.

There's a pivotal scene where she berates herself for momentarily showing signs of basic humanity, which she interprets as weakness. A former beauty queen who enthusiastically wields sex as a weapon, Elaine divides the world into winners, and everybody else. "Guilt is for losers" is her mantra.

Her partner is Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton), her gender opposite but spiritual mirror, so there's no surprise the two are carrying on an affair. Though the word "affair" connotes some sort of emotional connection, of which neither is capable. Richard is the type of guy who, when he's thirsty, doesn't bother asking his secretary to fetch him something, simply bellowing into the intercom, "I'm thirsty."

The ostensible main character is Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo), a Nigerian immigrant who has discovered the American Dream isn't what it's cracked up to be. Married to a spendthrift (Thandie Newton, utterly wasted) who has driven them deep into debt, Harold is the quintessential white knight, a guy who believes that those who do good will find it returned to them.

Harold believes Richard is his friend, who gave him a job out of kindness. He couldn't be more wrong.

The running joke is that everybody in the movie is on some level out to get Harold. He's the patsy, the pushover, the naïf, the guy who's kept in the dark until it's time to pin something on him. Even one character, who shows up rather late in the game and whose mission is to save Harold, ends up trying to turn the screws to his advantage.

Harold has been making regular trips down to Mexico to oversee the company's operation there. Some inventory has turned up missing, which concerns him. He's also heard the company, Prometheon, may be swallowed up by a much larger competitor and he'll likely be out of work. Still, he soldiers on, doing good by everyone he interacts with -- even bringing Chicago barbecue to their head of security south of the border (Yul Vazquez).

What he doesn't know is Richard and Elaine have been secretly selling part of their stock to a Mexican drug lord. On the latest trip down south, things go awry, some blood is spilled and Harold is made wise to all those who have betrayed him.

Finally growing some moxie, Harold remembers the company has a kidnapping insurance policy for their executives, and hatches a scheme to blackmail them for $5 million. But it turns out Harold is worth more to them dead than a live, and soon it's all chase-chase and bang-bang.

Sitting on the sidelines of the story, without ever really providing a clear view of their role in it, are Amanda Seyfried and Harry Treadaway as Sunny and Miles, American tourists who have an ulterior purpose for their trip to Mexico.

Sharlto Copley turns up as a mercenary hired to rescue, then kill, Harold. He's recently had a change of heart and vocation in his own life, but we'll see if his newly kinder, gentler instincts will prevail.

Directed by Nash Edgerton (Joel's brother) from a script by Matthew Stone and Anthony Tambakis, "Gringo" is the sort of cinematic fodder that arrives in between behemoth releases, and is quickly crushed and forgotten. And probably deserves to be.