Sunday, August 20, 2017

Video review: "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2"


Usually when a movie is successful enough to merit a sequel, the inclination is to do more of what the first one did well. An action flick must be even more packed with it, a supernatural thriller needs bigger twists, and so on.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” was the first flat-out comedy superhero film. Yet rather than just go for more laughs, the filmmakers made a conscious decision to focus on character-building rather than just yuks. I think it was the smart move.

“Vol. 2” doesn’t have the freshness and zing of its predecessor, but it’s a satisfying extension of this corner of the Marvel universe – which, in this case, is a good chunk of the actual universe.

The gang is all back: smirking human hero Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt); green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana); muscular brute Drax (Dave Bautista); genetic creation/pilot/racoon/raconteur Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper); and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), the monosyllabic, tree-like creature who was mostly destroyed in the last movie and has returned as a pint-sized shoot.

The basic plot is that the Guardians are once again being chased by a bunch of galactic forces for various reasons, mostly of their own making. They run into an odd being named Ego (Kurt Russell), a powerful alien who claims to be Peter’s father. Everyone hops back to his DIY planet to hash out familial connections and hidden motives. There we meet Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Ego’s assistant/pet, an empath whose naivete about mortals is a strange parallel with Drax’s tendency to verbalize the things most people would leave unspoken.

Returning characters include Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora’s death-seeking, cybernetic sister, and Yondu (Michael Rooker), the colorful space pirate who kidnapped/adopted Peter when he was a boy.

It’s not better, but I would say “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is in many ways bigger than the first movie. Its ambitions, and the depth of its mythology, has expanded considerably.

Video extras are quite expansive, though you’ll have to spring for the Blu-ray edition, as there are none on the DVD.

These include a four-part making-of documentary; intro featurette with director James Gunn; a galactic retro dance party music video; gag reel; four deleted scenes; and a feature-length audio commentary track with Gunn.

There is also some bonus material available digitally, including breakdowns of three key scenes that shows how CGI-heavy movies are built up layer-by-layer. And there’s a sneak peek at the forthcoming Guardians ride at Disneyland.

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: "Wind River"


“I know you’re looking for clues, but you’re missing all the signs.”
                    --Cory Lambert

Last year’s “Hell or High Water” was my pick for the best movie in a very good film year, and writer Taylor Sheridan is back with another superlative crime drama for late summer, “Wind River,” which he also directed.

Sheridan, who also wrote the screenplay for “Sicario,” has quickly become the most authoritative voice of the modern Western. His stories are ones of revenge, the pioneer code, paying for old debts. They’re very old-school, male-centric films, yet this one also has a strong female character near the center.

Moving from West Texas to the Arapaho/Shoshone Indian reservation of hardscrabble Wyoming, “Wind River” is steeped in Native American culture but has two Caucasian main characters. I’m sure some people will find that politically objectionable for its own sake, but the very theme of the film is about strangers -- the interlopers who barge in, and the outsiders within our own midst.

This is not one of those reservations with a big casino and fat gold belt buckles. It’s a land of bitter cold and bleak mountains that keep people apart. They huddle in mobile homes against snows that pile deep even in spring, drowning in drink, drugs and despair. A fleeting shot shows some locals burning pieces of their house to stay warm.

Cory Lambert is very much integrated into this community. A hunter of predators for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, he roams the land on a snowmobile, tracking deadly beasts that prey on livestock and, occasionally, people. He’s searching for some lions that took down a steer on his father-in-law’s ranch when he finds a teenage girl’s body in the snow.

She’s beat up and barefoot, and the frostbite extends up to her ankles -- telling you how far she walked before finally falling. “That’s a warrior,” Cory intones.

This is the first role since “The Hurt Locker” that gives Jeremy Renner full rein to explore a character from the inside out. A f’real cowboy -- he trains his own horses, makes his own bullets and favors a lever-action rifle over modern snipers -- Cory doesn’t talk much but speaks volumes. There’s a lot of hurt in his own life, and his marriage to a Native woman (Julia Jones) has crumbled.

Elisabeth Olsen plays the intruder, Jane Banner, a young FBI agent sent out from Las Vegas to investigate the death. She’s resilient and smart -- shrewd enough to know she’s completely out of her element in a land where six reservation officers patrol a land the side of Rhode Island, and screaming winds and 20 degrees below zero can cause lungs to bleed, and then freeze.

“Luck don’t live out here,” Cory warns.

Jane recruits him to be her scout and tracker, though Cory clearly has his own ideas how the investigation is going to play out. Visiting the dead girl’s father (an amazing Gil Birmingham), Jane clumsily displays her privilege and presumption, seeing the man’s pride and stoicism, and interpreting that as hardheartedness.

When Cory shows up and the dad melts into his arms, we’re as astonished as she is. They share a connection no one else can.

Acting as facilitator is Graham Greene as the reservation police chief. He knows the people and wants to do the right thing, but also understands that his job will continue after the feds have gone back home. “Hey, don’t look at me. I’m used to no help,” he says.

They follow the tracks in the snow, which leads to questions, which suggest possible answers.

If “Hell or High Water” was a bona fide masterpiece, then “Wind River” is just a half-step down. It doesn’t quite have the same narrative momentum, tending to pool in eddies of contemplation rather than driving a potboiler plot.

But this approach has its own rewards, as in a scene where Jane goes into Cory’s home, and we sense the pull between them and think we know what’s going to happen. But it’s another form of intimacy that takes place, where the leathery gunman opens up his heart in a way we can’t possibly imagine John Wayne doing.

Today’s cinematic cowboys kill, but can also weep.




Review: "The Hitman's Bodyguard"


I kinda liked “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” even though it’s a pretty rote, predictable march through all the buddy cop tropes.

Though I guess we should call it a buddy spy flick, since Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds don’t play law enforcement types but superspies, the kind who can chop-socky their way through a crowd of bad guys while the camera spins around them, or take out three dudes with three bullets from 100 feet away, while hundreds of the foes’ bullets never seem to find their mark, or if they do it’s a cute little nick that doesn’t slow them down.

It’s frenetic, fast-paced, filled with lots of quips intercut with some rather bloody carnage, Reynolds doing his charming/nervous thing and Jackson dropping a torrent of mother-effers like only he can.

It’s a fun movie. It’s not particularly smart or original; every character fits snugly into their square or round peg. We know the pair are going to hate each other, then grudgingly work together, and wind up as eternal besties.

Gary Oldman turns up as the villain, a Belarussian dictator named Dukhovich who’s on trial in the Hague for war crimes. All the witnesses against him repeatedly turn up dead, so it looks like he’s going to get sprung. Oldman alternates between chilly threats and monomaniacal raving, his cheeks even touched with a spot of pox so the bad guy can be easily picked out. It’s the sort of role Oldman has played a thousand times and could do in his sleep.

Jackson is Darius Kincaid, a legendary assassin who seems to be the last witness left against Dukhovich. Things go badly with the Interpol protection squad, led by tough lieutenant Amelia Roussel (Élodie Yung), making it obvious there’s a rat in their midst.

(Hint: always look for the swarthiest fellow amongst the Caucasians.)

Roussel is forced to call in Michael Bryce, formerly king of the protection agency game and also her ex-boyfriend. His last big gig protecting a Japanese arms dealer ended poorly, so now he’s the bottom of the barrel instead of triple-A rated -- a standard that may or may not actually exist, but one he’s obsessed with reclaiming nonetheless.

It seems Michael and Darius have often been on opposite sides of a sniper rifle from each other, so there’s bad blood. The story (screenplay by Tom O’Connor) turns into a road picture as they are chased over land, air and sea on their way to the Hague, which is going to close the proceedings against Dukhovich unless Darius shows up by 5 o'clock the next day.

(I guess the Hague judges never heard of stays? Or testimony via live video feed?)

According to what I’ve read the budget on this picture was only $30 million, and director Patrick Hughes milks a ton of high-adrenaline action scenes out of that tidy sum. A combination road/boat chase through the canals of Amsterdam was my favorite, a sequence worthy of a Bond flick.

Along the way they fight, give each other the slip, bicker over M.O.’s and lady loves -- Salma Hayek plays Darius’ imprisoned squeeze -- and even sing a couple of songs. Jackson does an off-tune rendition of “Nobody Gets Out Alive,” which I assumed was a classic blues standard, but is actually a new song the actor wrote and performed himself, delivering a much better version for the closing credits that’s worth hanging around for.

It’s the only part of the movie I would deem triple-A rated. The rest is one-and-a-half As, at best. (Aa?)




Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review: "Brigsby Bear"


I’ve seen a lot of weird movies in my day. Last year’s “Swiss Army Man,” in which a castaway befriends a corpse, was one of the weirdest. But “Brigsby Bear” is probably even stranger… not to mention an absolutely wonderful, wonderful film.

How to describe this off-kilter comedy? Well, first I’d say that while it’s made by a bunch of people known for comedy, and it indeed does have many wry moments, it really isn’t a humorous film. It’s an unusually emotional experience that centers around a disconnected character who gradually finds a way to insert himself into a world where he’s always been an observer.

It’s also a very hard movie to review without giving away key bits you should experience for yourself. I’ll try to give you the premise without all the moving pieces.

James (Kyle Mooney) is a 30ish man who is still very much a boy in most ways that are meaningful. He lives in isolation with some folks (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) who are loving but a little distant. His only real experience of the world beyond their desert bunker is “Brigsby Bear Adventures,” a cheesy kids’ TV show in which a guy in a bear costume with an enormous head leads the audience through weekly adventures involving intergalactic space adventure, while also learning some life lessons, and maybe a little grammar and math.

Think of “Barney” mixed with a heavy dollop of “Star Wars” and “Sesame Street,” with the production values of Canadian cable access.

The villain is Sunsnatcher, who looks like an orange planetoid with a face and goatee; one of Brigsby’s key allies is Goody Goose (a total visual rip-off of Donald Duck); and James has literally grown up with the Smiles Sisters, twins with telekinetic powers.

(James has fallen in love with Arielle Smiles, but is indifferent to Nina.)

James is utterly obsessed with the show, now deep into the 700s of episodes, and hosts an online fan club for Brigsby followers to argue about the very convoluted mythology and plot lines, much like people do about “Game of Thrones.” His bedroom is full of Brigsby swag, right down to his clothes and bedsheets.

Anyway, through a series of circumstances James is pushed out into the greater world, where he finds himself with a new family he doesn’t really know. He’s also very curious as to why nobody seems to know anything about Brigsby, which as far as he knew was the most popular show there is (not to mention the only one).

Michaela Watkins and Matt Walsh play his parents, desperate to reconnect after such a long separation. Ryan Simpkins plays his sister, Aubrey, deep into her own teenage issues and resentful of so much of the spotlight being shifted onto her sibling, who disappeared long before she was even born.

Claire Danes plays the therapist assigned to help James transition into his new life, and Greg Kinnear is the detective on the case, who becomes involved in an extracurricular capacity. Jorge Lendeborg Jr. and Alexa Demie play friends of Aubrey’s who get sucked into his orbit. Andy Samberg (also a producer) and Kate Lyn Sheil turn up in small roles as people who cross James’ path.

Mooney, who also co-wrote the script with Kevin Costello, is a wonder as James. With his spaghetti curls and glasses, he resembles Napoleon Dynamite’s less assertive kid brother. His awkwardness and naivete are nth level off-putting, yet somehow we find ourselves caring about this peculiar little man.

Dave McCary, a rookie as a feature film director, manages to balance a very tenuous tone that includes shadings of tragedy, mirth, resentfulness and the purest joy. “Brigsby Bear” is one of the oddest, and oddly satisfying, things to see at the cinema.






Monday, August 14, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Wreck of the Mary Deare" (1959)


"The Wreck of the Mary Deare" starts off as a seaborne action/adventure, turns into a character study and winds up as a staid courtroom drama/whodunit -- with a little splash of excitement at the end.

It's a well-made but schizophrenic film with jarring segues between land and sea. The movie is mostly notable today for marking the end of Gary Cooper's film acting career, the peak of Charlton Heston's and the beginning of Richard Harris'.

Alfred Hitchcock was originally slated to direct, but couldn't find a way to prevent it from turning into a courtroom procedural without jettisoning much of the novel by Hammond Innes. Hitch and his writer, Ernest Lehman, turned the project over to screenwriter Eric Ambler and British journeyman director Michael Anderson (“Around the World in 80 Days”), who pressed on.

Cooper suffered ill health during a big chunk of his latter years, and would be diagnosed with the cancer would claim his life shortly after the release of "Wreck." Despite having to suspend shooting several times due to his illness, Cooper still mastered a physically demanding role as Gideon Patch, a disgraced seaman trying desperately to retain his honor -- and keep his captain’s license -- after the ship under his command is abandoned by the crew.

He would only make one other film, “The Naked Edge,” before his death at age 60.

As for Harris, it was his first major film role – and nearly his last, at least on this side of the Atlantic. He hated the Hollywood filmmaking experience so much he returned to England straight away and eschewed American productions for years.

Harris plays Higgins, the devious second mate of the Mary Deare, who’s secretly working in cahoots with the owner to scuttle the ship to hide the fact the expensive cargo, some newfangled airplane engines, had already been offloaded in Rangoon. The captain had been lost at sea right before, and Patch, as first officer, took over.

Heston plays John Sands, a salvage team member who first sees the Mary Deare as a huge payday, an intact cargo ship floating dead and abandoned in a stormy sea. He clambers aboard to find Patch shambling about the decks like a ghost, covered in soot and muttering about the crew jumping ship even though the fire that caused the panic had been contained.

He has a large cut on his head from being brained by one of the crew (probably Higgins) and spends his first stretch of screen time seeming addled or senile. He orders Sands to help him beach the rapidly sinking ship on the Minquiers (aka "the Minkies"), a series of teeth-like rocks in the English Channel. Then, Patch extracts a promise from Sands not to tell anyone about the fact that the ship isn't at the bottom of the ocean until the official board of inquiry. He implies Sands will receive full salvage rights in return.

We spend the middle part of the movie wondering wondering about these two men -- whether Sands is merely a soulless mercenary, and if Patch's motivations are truly what he says. We learn Patch previously lost another ship under his command and had his license ("master's ticket") suspended. Another screw-up on his watch would mean the end of his career.

He sets about what seems very much like a cover-up: refusing to answer questions by the insurance company or owner of the ship; seeking out the daughter (Virginia McKenna) of the dead captain to see if he has letters that support his claim; renting a fishing boat so he can secretly go out to the wreck on his own; obscuring the full truth from Sands and his partner, which includes the fact Patch accidentally killed he captain when the latter attacked him in a drunken rage.

Then we arrive at the courtroom sequence, during which things look worse and worse for Patch. The rest of the crew testify he gave the order to abandon ship, though Patch denies it. He wants to read a statement before the court to explain everything, including revealing the fact the ship was not sunk. 

When this is discovered independently by other salvage crews -- thus depriving Sands of his payday -- it seems Patch has no allies.

The last sequence sees Sands and Patch joining forces again to secretly dive through the holes in the ship's hull to investigate if the airplane engines are still in the hull of the Mary Deare. Cooper, an experienced scuba diver, did his own stunts.

The movie is tied together only by the inimitable screen presence of Gary Cooper, whose ease at projecting a sort of plain decency allowed him to be one of the few actors to bridge the silent and sound film eras. We probably suspect Patch is going to turn out to be a hero, since that's the only kind of character he played. 

Gideon Patch is a more brooding sort, but the outcome of "The Wreck of the Mary Deare" is never in doubt.





Sunday, August 13, 2017

Video review: "Alien: Covenant"


“Not an utter embarrassment” is unfortunately the new bar for films in the “Alien” franchise, and I’m pleased to say the latest iteration manages to clear that low threshold quite easily.

It breaks no new ground and gives us no character as compelling as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. But it puts the people through their familiar paces with technical and emotional vitality in a way that will leave audiences not exactly thrilled, but surely not disappointed.

It’s nice that original director Ridley Scott, after seeing his movie pass through the hands of multiple imitators, finally took back the reins himself with “Prometheus” and now this film, which exists as its sequel within the (admittedly somewhat murky) timeline.

The set-up is that a space ship is carrying thousands of hibernating humans (and some fertilized embryos) to a distant solar system to colonize it. When a solar flare damages the vessel, the crew is awakened early – all except the captain, who is incinerated in his sleeping pod.

Not wanting to face the prospect of living and dying before they reach their destination, and too scared to go back into hibernation, the crew settles on a nearby planet that appears to be able to sustain life. Billy Crudup is the fickle second-in-command calling the shots, while Katherine Waterston is the more sensible subordinate who we know will eventually take over.

The rest of the cast includes Carmen Ejogo, Demian Bichir, Amy Seimetz and Danny McBride. Interestingly, the crew is made of matched romantic pairs, so there’s a lot of tension about protecting loved ones and, soon enough, mourning them.

Michael Fassbender returns as an android named Walter assigned to help the humans. He previously played another, more malevolent “synthetic,” David, in “Prometheus,” and that character turns up again, a bit implausibly. Their clashes and ruminations about the mystery of human behavior represent the movie’s high point.

When the planet turns out to be populated with the iconic aliens -- face-huggers that give way to two-mouthed killers -- the blood starts flying, the character clashes grow more intense and the aliens start spreading.

Taken purely as a popcorn flick, “Alien: Covenant” is filled with plenty of creepy, moody sequences set apart by bursts of high-octane action. It’s not like it was in “Alien” or “Aliens,” but it gets a passing grade.

But seriously, when are people going to figure out the thing that made the first two “Alien” movies great was not the critters, but Ripley? Maybe Scott or somebody will realize Weaver is still around, and still pretty spry.

Bonus features are pretty substantial, starting with a feature-length commentary track by Scott. It’s bothersome that so many storied directors -- Spielberg, Coppola, etc. -- have refused to do commentaries. He also takes part in a “Master Class” documentary on making the film.

There are also a dozen deleted or extended scenes, gallery of production photos, and six making-of featurettes.

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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Review: "Landline"


Actress Jenny Slater reteams with her “Obvious Child” director/screenwriter, Gillian Robespierre, for another comedically observational look at the trials of young womanhood.

“Landline” follows a twentysomething woman played by Slater toeing the precipice of marriage and concurrent anxiety about permanency, as well as her teenage sister caught in the phase of acting out and seeking all around her for meaning, and finding only disappointment in her immediate surroundings.

It's a smart, tender, wry and sensitive portrait of a family in turmoil. Edie Falco and John Turturro play the parents, harried in their own lives and bewildered by the two independent-minded women they’ve raised. They have their own problems as well, which Robespierre explores with co-screenwriter Elisabeth Holm, who also worked on the story for “Child.”

Set in 1995, the title refers to the numerous telephone conversations in the movie, before mobile phones were ubiquitous. Most of the impact interactions take place face-to-face, however, and “Landline” also speaks to the deeper connection the sisters form throughout the course of the story when circumstances throw them into unexpected proximity.

Slate plays Dana, who superficially seems pretty stable with a decent starter job, apartment and fiancé, Ben (Jay Duplass). They get on well together, but even before the wedding vows take place a sense of sameness has crept into the relationship. The sex has even gone stale, which they attempt to solve with an unfortunate change of locale. But Dana discovers deeper cravings she’s afraid will get stifled.

This leads to a flirtation with college flame Nate (Finn Wittrock), whose crooked smile and off-kilter regard for things like marriage and family personify Dana’s increasingly chilly feet.

Abby Quinn plays Ali, who’s about 16 but seems to have skipped over the teen angst phase and hurried straight into menopausal orneriness. Her dad, Alan (Turturro), jokes that maybe getting mugged will tame her nighttime wanderings, but then takes it back: muggers would be too scared of her.

Ali is in a hurry: to grow up, to drink and do drugs, to lose her virginity, to go to college or whatever else it takes to get away from her parents as soon as possible. She has a guy she keeps around (Marquis Rodriguez) to help with her carnal explorations, but Ali treats him as an appliance to her own evolution.

One of the more interesting things about “Landline” is the way the women tend to use men poorly, rather than the other way around. Early on the girls discover love poetry written by their dad, an advertising copywriter and wannabe playwright, to a mysterious woman named “C.” They spend much of the movie trying to sniff out who that is -- not quite believing such a self-doubting person would have the gumption to cheat.

They nurse their secret resent for their dad, even as Dana carries out the exact same sort of duplicity, and Ali casually squashes her would-be boyfriend’s feelings when they intrude up on her plans.

Falco is the center of the clan as matriarch Pat, who has a very public position of power and employs a slightly softer version of that on the home front. In one scene she dismisses her husband as a “failure” in front of their daughter, and Turturro’s face is a mask of restrained pain. Pat’s not a bad person, but she’s been shouldering the parenting load for so long, she can’t help resent her floundering mate.

Things go on, with much pain as well as laughter. The appeal of “Landline” is its spot-on observation of characters who resemble real people rather than Hollywood constructs conveying themselves from Point A to B in the plot. These people knock around, sidestepping and backtracking, in a chaotic path that bends (hopefully) toward grace.





Sunday, August 6, 2017

Video review: "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword"


I grew up reading and loving the Arthurian Legends, and have mostly groaned at the cinematic adaptations of them. The sub-genre reached its zenith with 1981’s “Excalibur,” and hasn’t come anywhere close since. If John Boorman’s version was the pinnacle, then surely Guy Ritchie’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” represents rock bottom.

Some movies are confusing; others are simply confused. I doubt this seemingly random mash-up of King Arthur lore, martial arts chop-socky, steampunk criminal intrigue and New Age-y mysticism made much sense even to the people making the film.

Charlie Hunnan plays Arthur, reimagined here as a street urchin who grew up among thieves and has risen to be their lord. Just a little light extortion and prostitution, if you please. He watched his father, King Uther Pendragon, die at the hands of his evil uncle, Vortigern (Jude Law), and has evolved into a standard-issue Avoiding My Destiny protagonist, a la Simba from “The Lion King.”

Soon enough he pulls Excalibur from the stone, and assumes the leadership of the rebellion consisting of some Uther loyalists, the thieves’ guild, a wayward mage who can control animals and not much else, and the rest of the ragtag.

Meanwhile, Vortigern is building a magical tower that augments his own sorcery, which never really gets all that impressive. Behead that architect!

Ritchie’s whirling dervish directing style, which is the cinematic equivalent of attention deficit disorder, is known for jumping around in time and space with head-snapping velocity. It works in small doses with the right material -- see his 2015 “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” for a prime example.

But “Arthur” often seems like a random assembly of shots without any kind of cohesive aesthetic connecting them. We’ll see Arthur swinging his sword in battle, for instance, and then cut to a shot of the mage standing enchanted on a hill far away, a murder of CGI crows swirling about her in slo-mo.

It’s a great-looking movie, but the story, characters and tone are disconnected from each other, or anything that could be reasonably termed entertaining.

Video extras are decent. The DVD comes only with a single featurette, “Arthur with Swagger,” a profile of Hunnan’s take on the character.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray edition and you add seven more featurettes, focusing on Ritchie’s vision, sword training for the cast, creating a grimier Camelot, stunt choreography, behind-the-scenes relationships and the mythology behind Excalibur.

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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Review: "Detroit"


Political correctness is a sordid game I refuse to play. But even I admit I’m uncomfortable with a feature film about the 1967 Detroit riots with an almost entirely white creative team.

Director Kathryn Bigelow reteams with her “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker” screenwriter, Mark Boal, in a film that attempts to look at the watershed civic unrest from the perspective of African-Americans who suffered at the hands of brutal police tactics. While most of the cast is black, the movie struggles to get over a sense of existing more to soothe white guilt than chronicle a racist tragedy.

Indeed, the first words we see or hear refer to the 1967 riots, also known as the 12th Street riots, as “the Detroit Rebellion.” I don’t know any serious historian who would use that term, which refers to an organized uprising designed to topple the power hierarchy, either by replacing the exiting government or splitting off from it.

Somehow, I doubt even the people who took to the streets, throwing rocks and setting storefronts on fire, would have called their actions a rebellion. They were simply enraged at being continually abused and stepped upon, and reached a point where they didn’t want to take it anymore.

I admired the film but got stuck on the fact this wasn’t the movie I was expecting. This is not a comprehensive look at the root causes of the unrest, the tactics undertaken by authorities to quell the violence, or the aftermath suffered by a community that struggles to this day to overcome that dark moment in history.

Indeed, if any moment can be pinpointed as the tipping point of when the great modern divide in America began -- between cities and suburbs, whites and those of color, blue and red -- the ’67 riot is it.

Although Bigelow and Boal start their story in the streets, this is really the tale of the Algiers Motel incident. Largely forgotten now amidst the bigger backdrop of the riots, this was the case of Detroit police officers, state police and national guardsmen detaining a group of young black men and two 18-year-old white women after gunshots were heard from the annex of the motel, a party spot a few blocks away from the mayhem.

Over the course of several hours, the suspects -- who were never charged with anything -- were beaten, abused, assaulted. It became clear the white officers were angered by white girls dallying with black boys. Three black men were fatally shot, with trumped-up excuses after the fact to justify self-defense by the officers. It was, as depicted in the film, essentially torture.

Anthony Mackie plays one of the victims, a recently discharged Army soldier, and Hannah Murray plays the mouthy girl. Algee Smith is Larry, lead singer of an up-and-coming Motown group called The Dramatics, who gets caught up along with his manager (Jacob Latimore).

Baby-faced Will Poulter is the central villain as the police officer directing the interrogation; earlier in the day we watched him pump two shotgun blasts into the back of a looter carrying groceries. Jay Reynor and Ben O’Toole are his wing men, dim and deliberate, respectively.

John Beyega is more or less the central character as Mel Dismukes, an African-American man working as a private security officer protecting a nearby business. He continually inserts himself into situations, using his uniform and officious demeanor to stave off some of the worst law enforcement abuses of black folks.

The film unequivocally presents Dismukes as a hero, when in fact he was charged with abusing the Algiers suspects along with the three police. All were found not guilty (though not, as the movie condenses, in the same trial).

Exactly what happened in the motel remains sketchy even today, though the movie carelessly presents its own version with crisp black-and-white lines, knowing this is what will be etched into the public consciousness.

From a narrative and technical standpoint, “Detroit” is a very well-crafted film that strings the audience’s emotions along with an expert hand. What’s less clear is who this movie is about, or for.




Monday, July 31, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Ryan's Daughter" (1970)


A lot of people were very upset about "Ryan's Daughter" when it came out, though feelings toward the romantic epic have warmed considerably with time.

Director David Lean was so hurt by harsh criticism of the film -- including some from the people who worked on it -- that he vowed never to make another. (He would, but only one more, "A Passage to India," 14 years later.)

Robert Mitchum said working with Lean was "like constructing the Taj Mahal with toothpicks." Others had already declined the role, including Pete O’Toole, and Mitchum nearly did so too, telling Lean he was contemplating suicide as an alternative. (Later, he would call Lean one of the best directors he ever worked with.)

Leon McKern lost his glass eye and nearly drowned while braving the crashing waves for a scene, and grumbled about the stretches of downtime on Lean's famously long, meticulous shoots.

How obsessed was Lean with getting a shot just right? He reportedly waited for an entire year for a sufficiently violent storm to film one of the most memorable scenes, when an entire Irish village turns out to help Irish Republican Brotherhood rebels retrieve weapons that have been dropped from a German ship for them.

Probably the person with the best case for complaining, though, is co-star Christopher Jones, playing the physically and spiritually mangled British soldier who falls for the Irish schoolteacher’s wife. “Ryan’s Daughter” effectively marked the end of his acting career.

Jones was already struggling with the death of ex-lover Sharon Tate in the Manson murders, and he repeatedly clashed with Lean on the set. Jones and star Sarah Miles detested each other to the extent that Lean struggled to shoot their love scenes together.

After Jones refused to film the famous forest tryst, Mitchum and Miles conspired to lace his morning cereal with a hallucinogenic, possibly with Lean’s consent, rendering him virtually catatonic and pliable. (No "allegedly" qualifier necessary; Miles herself confessed the deed in her autobiography.) Unaware of the drugging, Jones thought he was having a nervous breakdown, and crashed his car afterward.

As the final insult, Lean thought Jones’ line readings were too flat, and had his entire vocal performance redubbed by Julian Holloway. Jones didn’t even find out until he saw the movie. The vicious reviews made a point of singling him out -- "An actor could hardly express less without playing a corpse," wrote Roger Ebert -- and Jones gave up acting at age 29, spending the rest of his life as an artist and beach bum.

(Not counting a brief 1986 role.)

The only person who came out of the experience relative well was Miles, who broke out of a parade of rather obscure screen and stage roles to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. She was helped by a bit of nepotism in that her husband, Robert Bolt, wrote the screenplay and pitched it to Lean with Miles in mind for the lead.

Bolt originally wanted to do a film version of “Madame Bovary,” but acquiesced to Lean’s request to change the setting and story dynamics. He chose 1916 Ireland in the days of the Easter Uprising, in the remote fictional seaside village of Kirrary on the Dingle Peninsula, where the movie was shot. (Though some of the beach scenes were filmed in South Africa.)

The town set was razed at the end of the production, but the ruins of the schoolhouse remain to this day and are a stopping point for tourists.

As you expect from a Lean film, the cinematography by Freddie Young and a lush musical score by Maurice Jarre, both constant collaborators, combine to give us a sense of immense space, and the tiny human contretemps happening as one small part of that vast environment. Young would win an Oscar for his work, beating out “Patton,” amongst others.

Whatever else you want to say about “Ryan’s Daughter,” it is a ravishingly beautiful movie to gaze upon.

Rosy Ryan (Miles), daughter of the local publican/pub owner, Tom Ryan (McKern), pines for her former schoolteacher, Charles Shaughnessy (Mitchum), a middle-aged widower. He resists her overtures, citing their age difference and lack of compatibility. She's a frisky Irish pony, and he's a dour dabbler in botany, collecting gorgeous native flowers just so he can press them into books no one will ever see.

But they marry anyway, and she is soon bored by a quiet life of little passion.

The local priest, Father Hugh Collins (a terrific Trevor Howard), tries to offer her counsel and comfort, to no avail. He’s up to his ears every day trying to keep his little flock of a couple hundred or so from straying too far into sinfulness beyond a little excessive drinking and carousing. He also protects Michael (John Mills), the resident village halfwit, from the taunts and abuse of the poor, plain folk.

Evin Crowley stands out as Moureen Cassidy, the brazen young woman leading the motley Greek chorus.

There’s a tiny British military outpost nearby, just over the hill from the schoolhouse. Insults are tossed but there’s little threat of real violence. But when a new commander is installed, war hero Maj. Randolph Doryan (Jones), things quickly sour – especially after he’s found to be carrying on an affair with Rosy.

Doryan is a complete wreck, shell-shocked and despondent. He wears the Victoria Cross for some vague heroics, and drags his right leg like a totem of the wounds inside. He even has a vertical scar near the corner of his eye that makes him look like he’s weeping. He’s treated with a slight sense of awe, but the man has nothing but the tatters of his soul.

The coupling with Rosy is sudden, almost violent, and inexplicable. He has a flashback to his war experiences while sitting alone in Ryan's bar, where Rosy is tending while her dad's away. Cradling the crumpled man in her arms, they kiss fiercely, which revives him instantly. Without exchanging names, they agree to meet again to consummate their passion.

Things go from there. Charles suspects right away, but receives her assurance that she'd never betray him. They carry out the affair more or less in the open, meeting for horse rides and walks, then sneaking off to ruined towers, beach caves or that idyllic forest to have sex.

There's one memorable scene where Charles' suspicions are aroused while taking his students on a field trip along the beach, and he spies footprints that he surmises belong to Rosy and the major. (His scraping walk is the telltale heart.) Lean intercuts Charles' imaginings with the couple playing out his dark fantasy -- when Rosy's footprints turn barefoot, he beholds Doryan tenderly removing her shoes for her.

Eventually, the cuckold and his betrayers are merged onto the same screen; Charles even slides behind a rock to conceal his spying.

He tracks them to a cave, and we expect a violent scene of discovery will follow. Instead, Charles turns away from that forbidding knowledge.

Rather, it is Michael who unwittingly gives them away. Sneaking into the cave -- possibly with the same suspicions as Charles -- he discovers Doryan's Victoria Cross in the sand. He pins it to his own chest and parades about town in a military uniform he makes out of junk, and the villagers put two and two together.

Mills would win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Michael, in a wordless performance of pantomime, yearning emotions and a mouthful of horrid teeth. He is desperately in love with Rosy, something that is apparent to everyone, though they try to pass off his pleading behavior toward her as characteristic of his quirks. She, in turn, is alternately mean and tender toward him, clearly embarrassed by the attention.

At Rosy and Charles' wedding, all the men push through the crowd to give the bride a kiss (on the cheek), but when Michael presents himself for the honor, everyone bursts into laughter and Rosy is humiliated. He finally gets that kiss in the end, though.

The role as written by Bolt seems rather antiquated now, not to mention insensitive toward the mentally and physically challenged. In addition to his simple-mindedness, Michael drags one leg around in a clear mirror of Doryan's. Both are wounded souls pierced by the arrows of outrageous fortune, who have little left to give. Their affection for Rosy is their one redeeming quality.

The storytelling moves along with the re-arrival of Barry Foster as Tim O'Leary, a famous Irish rebel who has decided to start a beach head of revolt on this quiet stretch of shore. He turns to Tom Ryan, the local publican -- a sort of small-town office dating back to medieval times -- for help in rounding up some good lads to help.

What nobody knows is that Ryan is secretly on the payroll of the British. You'd think somebody would be curious about his (relative) wealth in the poor fishing town, wearing smart suits and even buying an expensive mare for Rosy to ride. Faced with going turncoat against his people or being exposed by the English, he chooses to have it both ways -- with dire consequences for the village, and the tragic love triangle in particular.

Admittedly, there's not a lot of story for a film stretching past 3½ hours, including musical interludes at the beginning, middle and end. Much of the criticism of "Ryan's Daughter" upon its initial release focused on its indolent plotting. Ebert again: "Lean's characters, well written and well acted, are finally dwarfed by his excessive scale."

Some movies require the right moment and mood to be truly enjoyed. By today's standards, "Ryan's Daughter" is rather slow-paced and self-obsessed, stretching out shots that could be three seconds into 30.

But I just think that's part and parcel of the David Lean aesthetic. The man just didn't do small pictures. So even an intimate portrait of an Irish lass on the wrong side of love is churned up into a maelstrom of rent emotions and deeper meaning.

Whatever devastation it wrought on the lives of those who made it, it's a storm worth witnessing.





Sunday, July 30, 2017

Video review: "Going in Style"



Three old guys hard up for cash and with an axe to grind turn to a life of crime -- or, at least an outing -- and in the process discover a sense of purpose that’s been missing.

Sound familiar? And not just because “Going in Style” is a remake of a 1979 film. It turns out movies about oldsters robbing banks and such are a veritable enterprise unto themselves.

There are zero surprises to be had with this dramedy caper starring Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Alan Arkin. We know how everything’s going to go, 1-2-3. Part 1: Grievances. Part 2: Planning the Heist. Part 3: Things Don’t Go Exactly as Planned, But Turn Out Fine.

The main reason to watch this film is the threesome of outstanding lead actors plus a nice supporting cast. They convey a sense of lived-in warmth and contrariness that you just can’t fake without four-fifths of a century of living, or thereabouts.

Freeman plays Willie, Arkin is Albert and Caine is Joe. All three are retirees from the same steel company that’s pulling up stakes and moving overseas, dissolving their pensions in the process. Turns out their bank is complicit in the move, so they feel no qualms about robbing the place.

They’re not greedy: They just want what they’re owed, and not a penny more.

John Ortiz plays a career criminal who hooks up with the boys and walks them through the paces. Matt Dillon plays the obtuse FBI agent leading the chase. Ann-Margret is the local seventysomething hottie who casts an amorous eye at Albert.

“Going in Style” isn’t a bad movie, just an unambitious one. With three great actors like this, you could just have them read random Tweets onscreen and it’d probably be equally entertaining.

Bonus features are rather modest in scope. The DVD version contains a feature-length commentary track by director Zach Braff. Upgrade to the Blu-ray combo pack, and you add a handful of deleted scenes.

Movie:



Extras: C





Thursday, July 27, 2017

Review: "13 Minutes"


Most people are aware of the assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler by some German officers in the waning days of World War II. It's been chronicled many times, including "Valkyrie" starring Tom Cruise. But few, including myself, are familiar with the attempt to kill Hitler in 1939 by a solitary German man who saw the coming apocalypse and tried to head it off.

"13 Minutes" is a compelling drama that portrays the life and actions of Georg Esler, who set off a bomb in the Bürgerbräukeller, where Hitler and his Nazi mob initiated the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, and where the Fuhrer was scheduled to give an anniversary speech 16 years later. The explosion went exactly according to Esler's plans, bringing down the roof, killing eight and wounding dozens of others. But Hitler had wrapped up his speech and departed 13 minutes earlier than expected.

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel, who also directed the well-known "Downfall" portraying the final days of Hitler, and screenwriters Léonie-Claire Breinersdorfer and Fred Breinersdorfer take a big-picture view that goes far beyond the actual bombing and aftermath.

Well played by Christian Friede, Georg is depicted as an earnest, passionate artist who loved his country and his fiancee, Elsa (Katharina Schüttler). Using his interrogation and torture after the bombing as a framing device, we look back on his life from 1932 forward, as the Nazi regime gradually asserted its yoke even in his remote village.

We watch as the friendly barkeep adopts the uniform and demeanor of the brownshirts, and soon the entire town is awash in swastikas. Sweet young children taunt Jews, Christians and foreigners. As religious people, Georg and his family are tolerated but resented.

For a time Georg is content to look the other way, dealing with family issues -- his drunkard father is constantly in danger of losing the farm -- and his burgeoning romance to Elsa, who is married to an abusive lout (Rüdiger Klink). He works as a carpenter, plays the accordion at the local beer hall, and dallies with friends who are members of the Red Front communist party (though he himself never joins).

In the 1939 setting, Georg is subjected to all sorts of physical and emotional torture, including truth serums and hypnosis, in order to say that he was the pawn of collaborators or foreigners. He initially refuses to say a word, humming a pastoral tune in response to all their questions. But when the Nazis round him Georg's family and Elsa, with the clear threat that they will suffer the same fate as him, he finally relents and confesses.

The problem is, Hitler and his minions don't want to believe that a single man working in isolation could have come so close to killing him and dashing the fated triumph of the Third Reich. So the torture goes on, the interrogations continue, and his truth is dismissed as lies -- even after Georg draws detailed sketches of his plans and the triggering device he built from scratch.

Burghart Klaußner plays Arthur Nebe, the police chief charged with conducting the investigation. He's a true believer and wants to do his duty, but is hounded by Heinrich Müller (Johann von Bülow), the infamous Gestapo chief, to make the truth their superiors want.

Illuminating a little-known piece of history, "13 Minutes" shows us the humanity behind the figures in our history books.






Review: "Atomic Blonde"


Look, I see a daggone lot of movies -- 200 a year, I reckon -- so it’s pretty hard to impress me. I’m the guy who yawns at a 20-second piece of CGI that cost $5 million and took a team of computer animators six months to create. But there were parts of “Atomic Blonde” where I had to scoop my jaw off the sticky floor of the theater.

Essentially the first imitator in the “John Wick” mold, this spy action/thriller combines unbelievable kick-butt stunt sequences with a whole lot of intrigue and double crosses. Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a British MI6 agent sent into the rat’s nest of Berlin on the eve of the Wall coming down in 1989.

The plot is a largely forgettable dance through the usual spy movie tropes: enemies, allies, those lying somewhere in between, all sides playing the long game of leverage, with the threat of a double agent and a MacGuffin-esque “list” that could bring the whole order tumbling down.

What sets “Blonde” apart are the in-your-face stunts. Director David Leitch is a rookie behind the camera but a veteran stunt coordinator -- much the same as "Wick" -- and he shows an audacious verve that kicks the usual hand-to-hand combat scenes to the next level.

The high point is a sequence on a flight of stairs that segues from one group of opponents to the next, with the camera following Broughton every step of the way. She gets thrown down a flight, the camera tumbles right along with her. And Leitch uses minimal cutting, so we get to see the whole thing play out from beginning to end, as the combatants grow battered and exhausted.

Theron proves an able physical presence, completely believable as someone who could take on her all-male gallery of adversaries. She also brings subtle acting chops to the connective scenes, lending Broughton a haunted quality -- a deceiver and killer who flings herself into the life she’s chosen, but doesn’t enjoy it.

James McAvoy plays David Percival, a fellow Brit agent who acts as her sneering host, helper and foil. He’s been stationed in East Berlin for a decade, carving out an identity as a black market dealer in Western goods and information. Percival knows everyone, has all the angles covered, is familiar with the back ways and hidden passages. What’s unclear is where his true loyalties lie.

Based on the graphic novel, “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, the screenplay by Kurt Johnstad (“300”) is long on too-cool mood and punk imagery. What people say isn’t nearly as important as how and why they are saying it.

It seems a Soviet intelligence agent code-named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) is ready to defect, and is dangling a list that contains the identities of every known spy of every nationality. Everyone is desperate to get their hands on it, so the orders are “trust no one.”

Sofia Boutella plays a mysterious French woman tagging along everywhere, whose importance will grow. Roland Møller is Bremovych, the local Russian chief, who has hands in every pot. Bill Skarsgård plays a helpful young proto-computer geek, and Daniel Bernhardt is memorable as a local tough who goes toe-to-toe with our heroine in a couple of brutal blond vs. blonde matchups.

The film is told through the framing device of a debriefing interview back in West Berlin, where Broughton has turned up beaten to a pulp, her mission failed. Toby Jones and John Goodman play English and American spooks, respectively, giving her the business and trying to interrogate some straight answers out of her.

Theron works the poker face, letting her mask slip but once.

Sexy, smart and seriously high-energy, “Atomic Blonde” is like James Bond mixed up with steampunk fantasy and a heavy dollop of feminism. John Wick, meet your match.




Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Review: "A Ghost Story"


A few years back writer/director David Lowery made the expressive, offbeat “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as a star-crossed couple whose story is pulled along more by imagery and music than a conventional narrative.

Now the trio has reteamed for another film that pushes the boundaries of the cinematic experience even further, and with keener effect.

“A Ghost Story” may sound superficially like “Ghost,” in which Patrick Swayze famously played a dead man whose spirit lingered long enough to watch over his beloved. Similarly, the Affleck character (nobody’s ever named) stays in his old house after his death, watching his girlfriend (Mara) as she mourns and, eventually, moves on.

Thematically, though, the films couldn’t be wider apart.

Affleck is represented entirely in his afterlife like a cheap Halloween ghost: literally, just a voluminous white sheet with two ragged eyeholes cut out. At first off-putting or even slightly comic, the look soon becomes a totemic representation for a soul who has always been wandering, even as it refuses to leave its chosen domain.

The ghost mostly just stands around, observing the doings of the living with an air of pained regret. It also walks about seemingly normally -- people amble by unawares, rather than passing through an immaterial figure.

For him, time flows with great irregularity, a turn of the head resulting in days or even weeks passing in the living world. We get the sense of a guest stranded in a vast museum, who becomes enraptured with small details and doesn’t notice when the doors open and close.

We see glimpses of their life before, as she urges them to move out of their decaying rural home to someplace nicer in the city, but he resists with a form of passive obstinacy. Later, the ghost has further encounters with others, about which I’ll say no more, other than these do not conform to a strict temporal progression.

Shot mostly in a single derelict house for a reported budget of $100,000 -- or about how much they spend on one week’s worth of catering on a superhero flick -- “A Ghost Story” is an indescribably eerie, affecting experience.

It is very deliberately paced, with Lowery holding his camera for long unmoving takes and unspoken pauses. For instance, there is one scene that goes for probably five minutes, consisting entirely of Mara wolfing down a giant pie.

And yet, rather than becoming boring, time flew. I was astonished when the closing credits came up; I had assumed we were only 30 or 40 minutes into the movie.

Once again Lowery teams up with musical composer Daniel Hart, whose blend of melodies and atonal sounds adds immeasurably to the moody mixture. There are portions of the score that sound like just random clangs and effects, other parts with the grand air of church music, and even an eerie art-pop song sung by Affleck’s character, a musician in life.

It’s hard to judge Affleck’s performance using a traditional ruler -- after all, some might say, all he does is literally stand around with a sheet over his head. Mara and other actors -- notably Sonia Acevedo and Will Oldham -- project an unfailing naturalistic quality; we never catch them performing for the camera.

I’m quite sure “A Ghost Story” is not everyone’s bag. Many will find it dull or maybe self-indulgent. But for those with patience and curiosity, here is a truly audacious take on the hereafter that makes us desperately cling to the now.




Sunday, July 23, 2017

Video review: "Gifted"


A small film with some huge names attached to it, “Gifted” is a tender little drama about an extended family fighting over the fate of a 7-year-old girl genius. Directed by Marc Webb, best known for the previous two Spider-Man movies, it’s a touch formulaic but well-acted and earnest.

Chris Evans plays Frank, uncle to the girl, Mary (Mckenna Grace), whose mother took her own life some years ago. Now she lives with Frank in a grubby community of rental homes in a part of Florida where the tourists don’t flock. He fixes boat engines for a living, but has his own past that we’ll find out more about down the line.

Octavia Spencer is Roberta, friend a maternal figure to Mary, and Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) plays Frank’s mother, Mary’s grandmother. She pops up about halfway through the movie to sue him for custody of the girl.

Grandma wants to take Mary to a very specialized educational facility where she can work on big-brain mathematical problems – in particular, one her mother failed to solve. It’s clear Evelyn sees her granddaughter as less a child to nurture than a source of greatness that has gone untapped.

Frank would prefer that Mary stay in a regular school to gain better emotional intelligence and just be a kid. But the movie (screenplay by Tom Flynn) acknowledges that there are flaws in his line of thinking, too. Mary’s own teacher (Jenny Slate) is among those who thinks the girl would be better served in a special setting, even as she tries to resist her own attraction to Frank.

With a little bit each of family melodrama, courtroom intrigue and character study, “Gifted” is a simple movie about some large issues. It may not be the smartest or most original movie around, but it never hits a false moment or fails to engage the heart.

Bonus features are adequate, and are identical for the DVD and Blu-ray editions. These include five deleted scenes, a production gallery of still photos and location footage. There are also five making-of featurettes: “Gifted: A First Look,” “Story,” “An Accomplished Cast,” “Inside the Equation” and “Marc’s Method.”

Movie:



Extras:





Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: "Maudie"


With every one of Sally Hawkins' endearing, deeply etched film roles, we fall a little bit more in love with her.

Hawkins' performance as Maud Lewis is essentially a portrait of pure love. Maud was a woman from Nova Scotia who was racked by crippling rheumatoid arthritis from childhood. She spent most of her life in a tiny shack without electricity or running water, living in abject poverty with her husband, Everett, a fish peddler who was gruff and ornery on his best days, a much worse on his worst.

Despite this, Maud became a renowned artist whose work was collected far and wide. Her paintings were bright, bold sweeps of unmixed colors, flowers or other nature scenes. She painted on almost everything: cards, pieces of scrap wood, virtually every single surface of their cottage. Today Maud's entire house is a work of art enshrined inside a museum.

Directed by Aisling Walsh from a screenplay by Sherry White, "Maudie" focuses not on the tiny, disabled body but the titanic soul contained within it. Hawkins portrays Maud's disease without fetishizing it, a slightly crooked, awkward woman who becomes more bent and bowed with the passing of years, her little hop of a limp turning into a tremulous stagger.

But that's not what the movie is about. Indeed, I don't think the word "arthritis" is even spoken aloud until near the end.

Like nearly all of Hawkins' other roles, even the most tragic of circumstances cannot bury her character's joyful essence. Maud smiles and twinkles, even when she is ignored or treated ill, always finding a way to carry on and hope for better.

Among those failing to give Maud her due are her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) and brother Charles (Zachary Bennett). They view Maud as a naive invalid, someone to be looked after and kept inside tight bookends of their own proscription. After Charles sells the family home to fund his business schemes, Maud is forced to live with Ida, under her strict rules -- a kept woman with no lover.

Certainly, Maud is not very smart in the traditional sense. She's a simple woman of simple tastes and desires. She wanders down to the local club to have a beer and do a little dance by herself, which Ida finds scandalous.

Then Maud spies a disheveled man coming into the local five-and-dime store to advertise for a housemaid. The man is obviously simple-minded, prone to outbursts of anger, and fiercely independent. Despite this, Maud answers the ad, seeing an opportunity to move out of Ida's place and have a piece of life that is her own.

The advertisement is for a live-in position, despite the fact the man's shack would qualify as what we today call a "tiny home," with a single walk-up loft bed. It soon becomes apparent that what the man was really advertising for was a wife to look after him.

We hear Everett before we see him, and it's hard to believe that sound could come out of Ethan Hawke. Low and guttural like a pair of stones being ground together, Everett's voice is that of a man not used to speaking, because he does not have much to say.

Everett is very particular about how things are done. He believes his home is his castle, and he the unquestioned lord. Everett is at once a very proud man and one who believes that everyone looks down upon him. Possibly there are undiagnosed mental health issues.

The arrangement causes a minor scandal in their little town -- "shacking up together" is tossed around. Maud doesn't really mind, and part of her is happy to be noticed at all, or spoken about in a romantic context.

The relationship, such as it is, gets off to a rocky start. There are outbursts, controlling behavior, even some physical violence. Everyone expects Maud to crawl back to Aunt Ida's. But she stays, the wavelength and intensity of Everett's rages become wider and smaller, and they settle into something like a routine, which finally becomes a marriage almost by default.

There's not much house to clean, so Maud passes the time painting little flowers here and there to brighten up the place. One of Everett's fish customers, a sophisticated woman from New York named Sandra (Kari Matchett), notices one of Maud's doodles and offers 25 cents for it.

Soon others buy them, painting becomes a regular source of income, and eventually people from all over stop by the little house to purchase a Maud Lewis original. Newspaper reporters and TV camera crews come calling.

Everett begrudgingly takes over the chores so Maud can have more time to paint -- which is as close to an overt expression of love a man like him can utter.

In its own plain way, "Maudie" is an incredibly beautiful movie. The photography by Guy Godfree has an unornamented charm, and the sweet strings of Michael Timmins' musical score sing a lullaby of humble passion.

Walks are used as a visual representation of Maud and Everett's evolving relationship. At first she walks behind him while he pushes his cart of goods about town; later they walk together, then she sits in the front of the cart facing away from him, and finally she rides nose-to-nose with her husband.

I think these are among the finest performances of both Hawkins' and Hawke's careers -- and that's saying something. Theirs is a duet of troubled love, expressing how two people with fierce challenges and emotional limitations can find contentment and a sense of permanency together. Both should remembered come time for Academy Award nominations.

"Maudie" is a quiet, candid movie that reminds us that beauty is not just found, it often must be made.





Review: "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets"


"Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" is a very creative movie, but it's a shallow sort of creativity.

Based on the comics by  Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, "Valerian" is kind of a goofy James Bond-in-space adventure with tons of aliens and CGI. Written and directed by Luc Besson, it makes his "The Fifth Element" look like a hard and gritty drama.

Government agents Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner and hoped-to-be lover, Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), traipse through the galaxy getting into and out of all sorts of scrapes. The plot is barely comprehensible -- not that it's really meant to be -- having to do with a refugee race of aliens, a critter MacGuffin and the prerequisite sneering villain.

The tone is overtly comic book, and the expensive digital imagery ($180 million, I hear tell) has a deliberately cartoony look. I never quite knew how I was supposed to take the movie, or its characters. Certainly, we never feel any kind of connection to them. They're like our avatars in a video game that can't control all that well.

I'm not sure about the casting of the two leads. DeHaan, with his tired eyes and spindly frame, certainly doesn't look the part of an action movie hero. I'm actually OK with that: not every male body we see onscreen needs to have a six-pack and cannonball biceps. DeHaan plays Valerian as a smirking playboy who thinks he's finally found true love in Laureline, and tries to live up to that.

Delevingne brings some kick-ass authority to her role, a duty-bound soldier who's also able to look past the rule book when it doesn't fit circumstances. She continually puts off Valerian's advances, but the way she glances at him when he walks away tell us she secretly wants it to go on.

Things center around Alpha Station, a former Earth orbit platform that grew and grew as humans encountered more alien species and incorporated them into their galactic government. Eventually it got so big its gravitational pull threatened Earth's, so Alpha has traveled millions of miles over the last 400 years, and is home to multitudes.

The creature effects are quite impressive. Some, like those from planet Mül, look like stretched-out humans with translucent skin and no hair. Other aliens resemble the ogres from the "Lord of the Rings" movies, or butterflies, or sea slugs. Some are even liquid or gaseous, contained within space suit for interaction with humanoids, and others are living machines.

Combined with the wonders of Alpha and beyond, there's no denying "Valerian" is a feast for the eyes.

In one neat sequence, we enter a marketplace that exists in another dimension, so visitors don special eyewear to interact with the peddlers. Valerian sticks a laser pistol and his hand into a special gizmo, so he can shoot at bad guys while the rest of him remains phased in safety.

The adventure, though, soon grows tiresome as it seems there are no consequences to be encountered. For every obstacle or enemy, there's some kooky solution involving cool technology or interaction with a bizarre creature.

For instance, when Laureline needs to track down the lost Valerian, she seeks out a jellyfish that she has to, uh... interface with in an interesting way to learn his location. When roles are reversed, Valerian recruits a "glamopod" named Bubble who can transform her appearance. She's played by Rihanna, who does a very sexy and athletic burlesque routine as her introduction.

When she has to do dialogue, though... ugh. Rihanna can certainly perform, but she can't act.

Others rounding out the cast are Herbie Hancock (!) as the intergalactic minister calling the shots, Clive Owen as the local commander with a history, Sam Spruell as his upright number two, and Ethan Hawke as a cowboy pimp.

I had fun for awhile watching "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets," but it grows tiresome, like a circus show that runs too long. There's only so much bedazzlement the eye can take in before becoming strained.

We jump from dizzying scene to scene like we're progressing through a role-playing video game, and waiting at the end is a prize we don't really want that badly.





Review: "Dunkirk"


There aren’t any characters in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” at least not really. It’s not a story of individual men so much as a tale of mankind -- his possibilities for mayhem and potential for nobility. This is a war film with very little fighting, an ode to humanity in which no one man stands too far above the rest.

Nolan recreates the mass evacuation of Allied forces at Dunkirk in 1940, the lowest point of World War II when it seemed that the Reich truly was on the verge of toppling the entire world. Hundreds of thousands of troops were trapped on the French coastline, surrounded by Germans, desperately trying to make their way across the Chanel despite too few ships to transport them and not enough planes to protect the ones that did manage to disembark.

The individual story threads are fiction, but together they weave themselves into a thundering representation of the heroism, cowardice and sheer terror of those few days. I have no doubt this film will receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, and many others.

I was surprised when I learned this movie was one hour and 46 minutes long; I thought for certain I had misread it instead of two hours, 46 minutes. But no, “Dunkirk” is the rare war epic that sprawls in scope but not length. There’s an economy to Nolan’s filmmaking here, harkening back to his breakout with “Memento,” like a middleweight fighter who’s all sinew, packing a powerful punch from a modest frame carrying no fat.

The narrative consists of a handful of storylines that intersect when we least expect it, intercutting between them in an order that is not necessarily chronological. At one point we encounter a man, beaten and hollow-eyed, and are surprised to later see him calm and in command. We can guess what happened to him in between, but we don’t know.

This is a true ensemble acting effort, with no lead performers. Fionn Whitehead comes closest to that designation, playing a private who ends up encountering nearly all the other characters in one way or another. He’s a young private who tries to sneak his way to the head of the evacuation line, and keeps finding himself pushed by circumstance further away from salvation. Like many other characters, we never even hear his name.

Kenneth Branagh is the naval officer in charge of the evacuation, standing like a sentinel against the coming apocalypse. Mark Rylance plays Dawson, a Brit civilian who launches his tiny boat, Moonstone, in a seemingly vain effort to help out, his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend (Barry Keoghan) tagging along.

Up in the skies, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden portray RAF fighter pilots chasing the German planes who are hunting those soldiers who have managed to get off the shore in boats. Their fuel is running lower and lower, but they know that every enemy shot down could mean hundreds of lives saved. So they watch their gauge needles, and stay a little longer.

(Though he’s not credited, I’m fairly certain it’s Michael Caine as the voice of their commander over the radio.)

There are no genuine battles in “Dunkirk,” other than some aerial dogfighting. The Allied soldiers hunker on the beach, hoping for a ship, or if they made it onto one, pray they’re not spotted by German planes or U-boats. There is no illusion of winning here, merely a frantic struggle to survive.

The film is a technical marvel, a seamless combination of live action and CGI effects that convince us we’re right in the thick of it. The metal hulls of the Spitfires pop with the stress of sharp banking; the seas go nearly black with oil spilled from ships stoven in by bombs like playthings.

Hans Zimmer’s musical score is a masterpiece of mood without melody. Reminiscent of the old Vangelis scores from the 1980s, the eclectic combination of tones and rhythm soars or sinks as the prospects for survival wane and wax.

In the middle of a summer of popcorn movies and dimwit comedies, “Dunkirk” rises, grim-faced and commanding, to grab our attention.




Monday, July 17, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Natural" (1984)


In the vast and expanding forest of films whose echoes take up much of my cognitive array, "The Natural" stands out like a crowning oak. Its memory towers above nearly all others; its roots are sunk deep into the formation of my perception of cinema.

It's one of the movies that made me fall in love with movies.

I think about it often, though it's probably been close on to a decade since I last saw it in its entirety. I recall flashes, moments, snippets of dialogue -- generally not the big "wow" stuff, like Roy Hobbs smashing the final home run into the stadium lights, setting off a shower of falling stars.

More like, Pop's grumblings about his awful team and the middle-aged rookie they stuck him with; his whistling contest with Red to guess old songs; or the nimbus of light director Barry Levinson continually puts behind Robert Redford's head to give Hobbs a beatific halo.

Like the best sports movies, it's not really about the game. Rather, it's an exploration of the creation of myth.

Roy Hobbs was destined to become a legend, but didn't. Then in the twilight of his youth he decides to make another go of it, and runs into a buzzsaw of disdain, suspicion, sudden fame, greed, envy, betrayal and regret.

Odysseus' journey was no more laborious.

Ostensibly an uplifting movie, "The Natural" has sadness clinging to its every molecule. Bernard Malamud, upon whose novel it was based, had a very pessimistic view of humanity in the days after World War II. If you've read the book, you know that the big difference from the movie is that in his ending Hobbs strikes out, and is forgotten.

(At least, that's what we gather, given Malamud's signature run-on sentence writing style, where trains of thought can go on and on and on and on and on and on and...)

The essential tale is thought to have been inspired by Phillies first basemen Eddie Waitkus, who was stalked and shot by a female fan in a hotel in 1949. He had been nicknamed "the natural" during a brief major league stint prior to the war. However, he was already several years into his career when he was injured, returned to play less than two months later and batted .306 for the season.

Hobbs, of course, was just a kid going for a tryout with the Cubs when he was wounded by a black widow (Barbara Hershey) who'd already killed two other famous athletes and was gunning for the trifecta. She had set her sights on "The Whammer," a not-at-all subtle mirror of Babe Ruth played by Joe Don Baker. But after the young pitching prospect, on a dare, strikes out the pompous star with three straight pitches, her aim is altered.

Hobbs spent two years in the hospital recovering and was told he'd never play ball again because of the silver bullet lodged in his guts. As he reluctantly answers anyone who asks where he's from, he knocked around from here to there, odd jobs of this and that. Sixteen years after his shooting, now in the 1930s, he decides to give his dream one more try.

After two weeks of playing for the semipro Hebrew Oilers -- a fictional team that became a real one -- he's signed to a $500 contract by a scout for the lowly New York Knights.

Aging and the passage of time are very much at the forefront of the film's themes. To my recollection, the book is pretty specific in giving Hobbs' age as around 35 -- which is advanced but hardly ancient for baseball. Even back then, top players continued their careers into their early 40s.

(And, if they're Satchel Paige, allegedly well past that.)

Redford was nigh unto 50 when the movie came out, and looked every day of it. He remained gloriously handsome -- still is, past 80 -- but he wore his years plainly and proudly. Not until "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" has another movie star's aging process been so intrinsically woven into the fabric of a film.

Hobbs isn't the only major character worrying about his last shot at baseball glory passing him by. Pop Fisher is the manager and co-owner of the Knights, who loves the game more than anything but saw his heart strewn to pieces by it. His lament is a refrain: "I shoulda been a farmer!"

It's probably the signature role of Wilford Brimley's career -- he's just two years older than Redford, by the way -- a cantankerous oldster who's capable of small-mindedness and vindictiveness. He refuses to play Hobbs and is ready to send him down to the minors before a batting practice performance in which the lefty right fielder seems to hit every seat in the far stands.

Hobbs has many nemeses in the movie, the chief of which is The Judge, the other owner of the Knights. But the Judge's true antagonist is Pop, from whom he bought controlling shares of the team the previous season when fortunes were down. Unless the Knights win the pennant, Pop is out and the Judge becomes sole owner.

Physically Brimley and Robert Prosky, who plays the Judge, resemble each other so much it could not have been happenstance on the part of director Levinson. They're both older, squat men with thinning hair and owlish glasses. While Pop lives very much in the dirt and the sun, forever traipsing about the dugout, the Judge preens blackly in his high nest above the ballfield, the shutters kept perpetually shut against any ray of sun or inadvertent glimpse of baseball.

The sun-dappled counterpoint to all this darkness is Glenn Close as Iris, Roy's childhood love and (unofficially) betrothed. He was so hurt and embarrassed about being seduced and wounded by another woman that he apparently never bothered to even contact her again -- and likely would not have, if she hadn't gone to a game when the Knights were visiting Chicago. In one of the film's more iconic scenes, she stands in the sun when Roy, in the midst of an epic hitting slump, goes to bat, inspiring him to wallop a titanic homer.

The character isn't well fleshed out -- Close only has a handful of scenes, in which Iris remains rather remote and distracted. Nonetheless, she scored the film's only acting Academy Award nomination. We get the sense that she is reaching out for her own sake, a sense of closure, rather than seeking to rekindle long-dormant ashes. But, of course, she brings the light back into Roy's eyes.

He had been carrying on with Memo Paris (Kim Basinger), niece to Pop but secretly a creature of the Judge and his nefarious partner, Gus Sands. I love that name: Memo Paris; it connotes that she's exotic and beautiful but also somehow lacking a complete humanity. Her story is not a book or a chapter or even a poem -- just a scribble is all you need.

Roy's poor play coincides with his romance with Memo, who distracts him with the high life and moral corrosion. Iris acts as the tonic that cures him of what ails. It's the classic good woman/foul temptress dichotomy straight out of the mythology of the Greeks, Norse, Egyptians, etc.

Gus (a curiously uncredited Darren McGavin) is the bookie who's got a line on everyone, laying odds on everything and always finding a way to come up the winner in the long run. He even claims to have a magic eye to help him pick winners and losers. I had never noticed before this most recent viewing that one of Gus' eyes appears to be larger than the other, possibly even prosthetic. I believe this was achieved with makeup, as McGavin had two good googlers.

Richard Farnsworth plays Red, the laconic assistant manager who acts as Pop's shield man, protecting him as he can from the uncaring fates, but also from Pop's own ornerier instincts. Red's the one who convinces Pop to keep Hobbs around after he shows up unannounced, and quietly nudges everyone to behave better than they are.

Any movie about mythologizing isn't complete without the character of the chronicler, a journalist or storyteller whose job is to bear witness and relate the great events to the world with tremendous accuracy, or not. Here it's Robert Duvall as Max Mercy, a weaselly sports columnist and hustler.

He's happy to use Roy as a springboard to a great story -- oldest rookie inspires kids -- and also more than happy to turn him into a chump as needs be. It's implied that he's on the payroll of the Judge and Sands. He's the one who digs up Roy's salacious past and threatens to use it against him, after the gambits with Memo and outright bribery fail to force Hobbs to throw the big game.

Also bearing witness is Bobby Savoy (George Wilkosz, in his only film role), the plump, smiling batboy for the Knights who becomes Roy's first baseball apostle. He makes a bat of his own, the Savoy Special, as tribute to Hobbs' mighty Wonderboy, which he carved out of a tree split open by lightning outside his boyhood home.

When Wonderboy is shattered in Roy's last at-bat, Bobby offers up the Special like a knight's page surrendering his own sword to his master. Indeed, if Roy Hobbs is a mythological hero straight out of an Edith Hamilton text, then he needs his signature weapon: Hobbs/Wonderboy, Arthur/Excalibur, Thor/Mjölnir

Let me tell you about my favorite scene, which since I first saw it I have been able to recall with near-eidetic clarity:

The Knights are on a roll, playing great team ball on the back of Roy's power hitting. Max, who was witness to Hobbs striking out the Whammer so many years ago, has been unable to recall where he met Roy, or how such a great player could have come out of nowhere. He even drew a cartoon of the event that was going to go out to all the papers that syndicate him, but presumably when Roy failed to show up for his Cubs tryout, the story died.

(How any competent reporter would forget the young lad who struck out Babe Ruth, or fail to follow up on that story, we'll chalk up to Hollywood's general ineptness in depicting journalists.)

Perturbed at this vexing puzzle, Max hangs around the team all the time, even sneaking into the stands during batting practice. Roy saunters in from right field, passes across the pitcher's mound and is challenged by another player to throw one pitch in for fun. Roy pauses, considers, goes into a long wind-up -- possibly for the first time in 16 years -- and throws a heater with such force it sticks in between the links of the chain fence.

Everything goes into slow time; the music dims to practically a hum. Pop, Red and the other players sit speechless, before and after the pitch. The challenging hitter simply lets his bat slide through his hands to the plate, an ineffectual cudgel against such an immortal beast of a throw.

And up in the stands... Max's perched seat is suddenly empty. The lost connection has been made.

Randy Newman's musical score is critical to the success of this scene, and indeed to much of the movie's surging emotional tides. Its soaring crescendos and blaring horns have justly become some of the most recognized musical cues in moviedom.

Director of photographer (as he prefers to be credited) Caleb Deschanel had just scored his first Oscar nomination the year before for "The Right Stuff," and would add his second with "The Natural." There's an elegant washed-out beauty to his cinematography, a slightly gauzy quality that underscores the sense of history unfurling.

"The Natural" may be one of my favorite movies, but it is not one without flaws.

The character of Roy Hobbs is at the center of a tremendous tale, but he is rather uninteresting in of himself, aside from his prowess at baseball. He is good-hearted, unfailingly polite and cherishes the game for its own sake rather than what it could do for him materially. As we know, his only wish in life is to be able to walk down the streets and have people say, "There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was."

Screenwriters Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry translate Malamud's depiction of Hobbs as deliberately flat and pure. Like King Arthur, he is the stuff of legends, and I guess they thought the legends would be enough.

Still, at times it seems like even Redford struggles to imbue Hobbs with the basic shadings of an individual personality beyond the mythic persona.

The plot can be rather languid and shaky, particularly in the third act leading up to the big game. Hobbs has been laid low after being poisoned by Memo, which caused doctors to pump his stomach and inadvertently retrieve the silver bullet -- a totem of past misdeeds that causes the hero to doubt himself.

In short order Hobbs is visited in the hospital by his teammates, Iris and the Judge, who offer him condolences, empathy and $20,000 in cash, respectively. (About $350k in today's dollars.) Tonally, these encounter are all over the map, and for a moment it almost seems the movie will trundle completely to a halt just as it's approaching its denouement.

There's also the matter of Bump Bailey -- the star player played by Michael Madsen in one of his earliest roles, who happens to occupy the same position as Roy. He's a petulant prima donna, a thorn in Pop's side, and an impediment to Roy's rise. So the movie simply kills him off, having Bump ridiculously crash through the outfield wall chasing a long hit. His ashes are scattered over the field by airplane in a comic hiccup that sticks out from the rest of the movie like a sore thumb.

(And granted, my baseball knowledge is bupkes, but is playing right field really that different from center or left? Bump that guy.)

Still, in my long view these faults are less deficiencies in the facade of "The Natural" than intrinsic parts of a great movie's makeup -- like moles on the Madonna. Somehow, the imperfections make the film more approachable, human and eye-level. It's a story about how we come to look up with reverence, but the movie never condescends.

Can a film still be a masterpiece while remaining intrinsically flawed? If so, "The Natural" comes as close as it gets. Here is a movie that swings away.