Thursday, October 19, 2017

Review: "Too Funny to Fail"


Imagine you're a television executive and someone pitches you a show: it will be headlined by one of the biggest "Saturday Night Live" stars, Dana Carvey. At the time, he is fresh off co-starring in the "Wayne's World" movies, and everybody wants a piece of him -- he actually turns down David Letterman's gig after he decamped to CBS. Carvey can literally do anything he wants, and he chooses to have his own sketch comedy show.

ABC is giving you their full backing and a fat budget. The showrunner will be Robert Smigel, another legendary SNL alum. The head writer will be Louis C.K. Charlie Kaufman is another. The two big acting recruits will be a pair of young sketch geniuses, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. A bunch of other super-talented performers and writers are in the mix, including Jon Glaser and Robert Carloc.

Oh, and the thing will go on right after the single top-rated show on all of TV. A sure-fire can't-miss, right?

Or so everyone thought. "The Dana Carvey Show" lasted all of seven episodes in 1996 -- a crashing failure so bad it's barely even remembered by audiences today. Also plagued by health problems, including open-heart surgery the following year, Carvey's career as a film and TV star was effectively over.

And yet the short-lived debacle touched a lot of lives. It helped groom the next generation of comedy giants.

One of its popular bits, a cheeky animated superhero parody, "The Ambiguously Gay Duo," would move to SNL and become a staple for years. Colbert would be recruited by the rejuvenated "The Daily Show" based on his work on the Carvey show, and he would insist they hire Carell as well. We know how they turned out.

Now, Hulu is presenting "Too Funny to Fail," a feature documentary about the Roy Hobbs of TV comedy, the show everyone thought would break the mold but would instead become its own punchline. It debuts Saturday, Oct. 21.

Directed by Josh Greenbaum, it's an insightful, wry and thought-provoking look at what goes on behind the screen of network television. ABC thought it was buying Dana Carvey's suitcase full of popular impressions and characters, from the Church Lady to President Clinton. What they got instead was a truly subversive show with off-the-wall scenarios and a puckish attitude.

The young renegades wanted to do their own thing, by their admission "draw a line in the sand" for audiences who weren't cool enough to understand their brand of funny. For their very first sketch, they chose to have the POTUS demonstrating his empathy by taking drugs to grow realistic-looking teats, and have him suckle live puppies and kittens on-air.

Quite literally, millions of people turned off their TVs after the first five minutes -- and they never came back. Critics were even less kind.

Another one of their ideas was to have the name of the show change every week with a rotation of sponsors. So the debut was "The Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show." The first show was such a train wreck, with national headlines talking about how offensive and unfunny it was, Taco Bell loudly announced they were cutting ties -- even though sponsors were only supposed to last one show.

But it started a virtual evacuation of advertisers. By the end, the sponsor was literally the local Chinese diner where the crew bought their lunch.

Festooned with in-depth interviews with nearly all of the principles -- Louis C.K. being the notable exception -- "Too Funny to Fail" comes at the perfect time, as the people involved in making the show have seen their careers recover sufficiently to laugh about how young and deluded they were.

Probably the least injured is Carvey himself, who had such high hopes and knew right away his enterprise was doomed. But it allowed him to be close to his family, raise his two young boys and return to standup on his own terms.

It's a cliche to say something was ahead of its time, but with "The Dana Carvey Show" I think that's literally true. Panned as racy and kooky, it was probably a better fit for late night than prime time. Certainly, it did not mesh well with its pedantic lead-in, "Home Improvement" starring Tim Allen.

One bit, a real promo for a maudlin "very special episode" of HI, followed by the "The Mug Root Beer Dana Carvey Show," had me laughing as hard as anything I've seen in awhile. Greenbaum knows how good the moment is, too, milking it with a collage of the interviewees guffawing over the clanging contrast.

Comedy is by definition highly subjective. In its (very short) day, not many people appreciated Carvey's show for what it was, rather than what they wanted it to be.

Review: "Only the Brave"


"Only the Brave" is really a war movie, with the characters battling wildfires instead of Germans or ISIS. It's throwback sort of filmmaking -- manly men doing manly things, while occasionally tussling with the womenfolk back on the home front.

I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. Josh Brolin is a rock-solid presence as Eric Marsh, the "supe" of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots. The "Seal Six" of wildfire containment, Hotshots go wherever the big forest fires are, digging break lines and back-burning to keep the blaze from overrunning towns or destroying entire swaths of the American West.

Marsh is basically a mystical warrior, staring the "black heart" of the wildfire dead in the eye, spying signs others can't see to predict where the devastation will spread. Thick-armed with a steely gaze behind Harry Potter glasses, he loves his crew proudly but gruffly, encouraging plenty of Y-chromosome joshing and light hazing.

Miles Teller is the other lead as Brendan McDonough, a young screw-up and junkie who sees the light when a daughter is born to an old girlfriend, and he realizes he needs to step onto a worthier path. Marsh sees something of his younger self in Brendan and gives him a shot.

The first half of the movie, directed by Joseph Kosinski from a script by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, covers Brendan's efforts to make the team, and the team's attempt to be certified as Hotshots, the elite of the elite in outdoor firefighting. As the story opens they are "deucers," a local team funded by the city of Prescott, Ariz., who do mop-up and other drudge work far from the front lines. All the other Hotshots are federal outfits, and they're trying to become the first municipal group to become Hotshots.

I'm sure you can guess how it turns out.

Marsh is hot-headed but his instincts are nearly always true. Brendan is dubbed "doughnut" because of his inability to answer any questions about firefighting strategy when quizzed. (At least, during his early going.) He gets razzed pretty hard by the other members of the crew, but gradually begins to prove himself.

He also steps up as a father, dropping off diapers and groceries on the doorstep of his baby mama (Natalie Hall), who wants nothing to do with him. Though heroism has a way of changing minds...

The second half covers the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013, in which the Granite Mountain team faced tremendous odds, a "skunker" -- an easily contained fire -- that turned into a fast-moving death trap.

Jennifer Connelly plays Amanda, Marsh's wife, and it's a lot meatier than the usual "wife at home" role. She's a tough nut herself, running her own business rescuing abused horses, and the two share a relationship that's close but not without strife. She gets a great speech late in the story on what it means to love long-term.

Jeff Bridges plays Duane Steinbrink, a local man of influence who helps with the Hotshot certification and acts as mentor to Marsh. Andie MacDowell is his wife, with wisdom of her own. James Badge Dale is Jesse Steed, Marsh's reliable right-hand man. Taylor Kitsch is Christopher MacKenzie, Brendan's chief tormentor-turned-wingman. Geoff Stults, Ben Hardy and others round out the background players.

The firefighting scenes are pretty terrifying, as we see just how quickly a fire can spread, jumping trees like an angry zephyr. The men both love and hate the fire, and see it as a living foe. Marsh's nickname is "Bear," and we'll find out why.

Marsh shows his trainees a beautiful forest view, then tells them that soon they'll only be able to look upon it as fuel to the fire. Plumped up with resin, the burning trees can literally explode when they fall.

"Only the Brave" is straightforward and unironic movie-making. I could easily see this film coming out in the 1940s, though the special effects wouldn't be nearly as good. In this time of so much focus on toxic masculinity, here's a movie that reminds us why he-men are worth having around.




Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Review: "The Florida Project"


“Do you know why this is my favorite tree? Because it’s tipped over but it’s still growing.”
                               --Moonee

It is the nature of children to adapt to circumstance, even that which no child should have to bear. Their intrinsic miracle is that they can find joy just about anywhere.

In “The Florida Project,” 6-year-old Moonee (a vibrant Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) lives on the edge of the most magical place in the world, the Walt Disney Resort near Orlando, Fla. But hers is not the world of $100-a-day admissions to theme parks, luxury hotels and getaway vacations.

Rather, it’s the seedy underbelly of minimum wage workers who feed the tourism machine, living in towns like Kissimmee, packed together in squalid motels slapped with bright paint so as not to depress the out-of-towners when they’re passing by on their shuttle bus to the Magic Kingdom.

I did not grow up in this world, but I observed it from close at hand. When you are reared in a town that’s famous for visitors coming and going to partake in illusions, you quickly learn that perception and reality are often at cross purposes.

(I still chuckle upon meeting people who say they found Orlando “too touristy,” and with a few queries ascertain that they never got closer to the city’s downtown than International Drive, aka “I-Drive,” some 15 minutes away.)

In the stifling humidity of the Central Florida summer, where shirts are stuck perpetually to the smalls of backs, Moonee and other kids roam feral between the motels and third-rate tourist attractions, unattended by working mothers and long abandoned by their fathers. Moonee and her best friend, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), curse, spit on cars and hit up soft strangers for free ice cream.

Their behavior is a little shocking at first, but director Sean Baker (“Tangerine”), who co-wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, soon settles us into an episodic rhythm of observation. We witness the strong connections between these children, and come to see their daily life as not so different from that of Scout and Jem roaming around their quaint town in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Watching over them is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the beneficent manager of the fuschia-hued Magic Castle motel where Moonee and Scooty live with their mothers. Part caretaker, part social worker, part cop, Bobby works tirelessly to keep everything aboveboard, though there’s always something broken. Bobby repeatedly threatens to throw people out, but the offer of another last chance is always forthcoming. Seemingly the only line he’s unwilling to cross is allowing prostitution to take place on “the premises.”

There’s not a lot of narrative to “The Florida Project,” just the ebb and flow of the summer tide. Kids rotate in and out of Moonee’s circle, with shy, red-haired Jancey (Valeria Cotto) entering the sphere and gradually absorbing its brash energy.

Bria Vinaite plays Halley, Moonee’s mom, an occasional stripper who’s always on the prowl for a quick buck. Tatted up generously, with a slattern strut and hair to match the Magic Castle’s walls, Halley works the nicer locales where the tourists stay, crashing the free breakfast buffets and buying cheap perfume to sell at markup. She brings Moonee along to help with the pitch, because what kind of scammer brings a little kid with them?

The movie edges right up to daring us to condemn Halley, but then keeps pulling us back. Any conventional narrative would quickly dub her the villain of the piece, the quintessential terrible mother. But Baker also asks us to revel in Halley’s defiant rebel nature, a woman clinging to the last rung of society’s ladder, extending two middle fingers to anyone who would disparage her, or especially her kid.

There’s a quick scene where Halley gives the helpful woman who works in the Magic Castle’s laundry some weed, and she thanks her with a hug, saying everything will be all right. Halley limply accepts the embrace, indifferent to the woman’s soothing outreach, and we sense that Halley is not simply a mean person, but one in whom some of the gears that guide emotionality are just plain missing.

“The Florida Project” is a triumph of grainy verisimilitude. Watching the film is like stepping behind the backdrop of a theater stage to find real life, grimy and exuberant, turning away behind the pretty façade.




Sunday, October 15, 2017

Video review: "Spider-Man: Homecoming"


From a creative standpoint, Spider-Man is deep in middle age, debuting in Marvel Comics some 50-odd years ago. Even as a cinematic hero, Spidey is hardly a newbie, with seven films and three different sets of actors portraying the web-slinger since 2002.

But the latest iteration, “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” is very much a product of teenage angst. Its hero, Peter Parker, is a 15-year-old high school sophomore played by Tom Holland. He’s a pretty typical kid: he’s a nerdy brain on the academic all-stars team, pines for an unattainable senior girl (Laura Harrier) and has a close circle of like-minded friends, chiefly fellow geek Ned (Jacob Batalon).

Except for one thing: he’s also secretly Spider-Man, who sneaks off from school and the Queens apartment of his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) to fight low-level evildoers.

After getting a taste of Avengers action at the behest of Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Peter is eager to leave his dull school life behind and join the super-team full-time. But the invitation seems to have gotten lost in the mail, though Stark did give him a super-suit with a bunch of cool features to help him along.

Michael Keaton plays the villain, who’s not really at the center of the story. He plays the Vulture, aka blue-collar contractor-turned-criminal Adrian Toomes, who parlayed some of the alien technology that fell on Manhattan a few years ago into a thriving underground enterprise. He and Spider-Man run afoul of each other’s activities, with the professional antagonism eventually taking a decidedly personal turn.

Directed by Jon Watts from one of those screenplays-by-committee, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” can be rather uneven at times, with cockeyed action scenes and a little too much silliness for its own good.

But it energetically takes the hero back to his roots, without rehashing old creations myths. (Does anybody need to see that radioactive spider bite thing ever again?)

Holland may just be the best Spider-Man yet, giving us a teen in turmoil who just happens to be able to bench-press a bus.

Bonus features are quite expansive, starting with “The Spidey Study Guide” with all sorts of wiki-style info and clues about the web-head. There are also 10 deleted scenes and seven making-of featurettes, ranging on everything from storyboarding to creating the film’s oft-amazing stunts.

There is also a production photo gallery, a gag reel and more of those hilarious “Rappin’ with Cap” fake public service announcements featuring Chris Evans as Captain America, which were briefly glimpsed in the film.

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Review: "Marshall"


Chadwick Boseman has played James Brown and Jackie Robinson on the big screen, superlative performances both, and completes a trifecta of historical biopics with "Marshall," an engaging look at Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall during an early point in his career when he was a rabble-rousing lawyer for the NAACP.

The movie is a straight-down-the-line "great man" drama that does everything very well without taking any chances or breaking new ground. The only unexpected turn is Boseman's take on the legal giant, portraying him as brash bordering on cocky, a two-fisted drinker who also uses those same knuckles against fat-faced racists when they inevitably come a-knockin', in a scene that's a bit of pure Hollywood hokum.

(Question: why are all the villains in historical racial injustice stories big, beefy guys? Didn't they have any lean racists back in the day?)

Josh Gad co-stars as Sam Friedman, a mousy insurance attorney in Bridgeport, Ct., who gets roped into being Marshall's partner in the trial, because the patrician judge (James Cromwell) doesn't want to approve any uppity (code word) out-of-town lawyers for the sensational case. He's also good friends and former law partners with the dad of the prosecutor, played by Dan Stevens in full flaring nostrils mode.

Set in 1941, the story (screenplay by Jacob and Michael Koskoff) centers on a rather unknown part of Marshall's life, when he acted as co-counsel in the defense of Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), an African-American chauffeur who was accused of brutally raping his master's... oops, excuse me, employer's wife, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).

The case has enraged the entire community, the sort of thing we usually only see in Southern cinematic settings. Marshall is the only attorney for the legal defense fund of the NAACP, making it his business to travel around the country defending black people falsely accused of crimes because of their race.

"Marshall" is directed by Reginald Hudlin, who was one of Hollywood's busiest directors during the 1990s but hasn't made a feature film in 15 years. He gets terrific performances out of his cast, and shoots the film beautifully with vintage cars and costumes. (Boseman is decked out in gorgeously contrasting three-piece suits.)

The heart of the film is the relationship with Friedman. It's nice to see Gad doing a non-comedic, non-musical role for once. He plays Friedman as a timid man who comes to discover reservoirs of iron underneath his nebbish facade.

It's not a partnership of equals: because Marshall is forbidden to speak at trial by the judge, Friedman essentially acts as his co-counsel's puppet in the early going, gradually coming into his own as a lawyer and as a man because of Marshall's tutoring.

On the one hand, I recognize that "Marshall" is rather conventional filmmaking, setting us up with the usual surprises and changes in tempo. (You can practically count down to the moment when Marshall and Friedman, having come to gain a measure of respect for each other, are split by circumstance and renew their hostilities.)

But it's hard to deny this is a smartly acted, entertaining movie about one of the titans of the civil rights movement. What "Marshall" lacks in originality it more than makes up for with assured confidence and capability.







Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review: "The Foreigner"


“The Foreigner” is a novel concept: a Jackie Chan movie in which Jackie Chan is completely unnecessary to the plot.

I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. This joint Chinese/British production has all the hallmarks of a Chan film: chop-socky action, Westerners underestimating an undersized Asian man, and cool/quirky stunts in which the 63-year-old action star demonstrates he’s still got plenty of spring in his step.

But really, with a little rewriting you could completely eliminate his character, Ngoc Minh Quan, from the movie without missing much of a beat. The real heart of the story is about an internal struggle within the IRA, with Pierce Brosnan playing the smooth political operator trying to keep the peace, attempting to stave off young upstarts blowing things up and threatening the détente with the Brits.

The set-up is that Quan’s teen daughter (Katie Leung), is killed during a gruesome bombing, and vows revenge. Everyone dismisses the timid little restaurant owner, who keeps persistently calling and showing up in people’s offices. His chief target soon becomes Liam Hennessy, an Irish deputy minister who used to be part of the IRA brigade but these days plays both sides.

Brosnan, as Hennessy, brings smarmy charm and a buried volcano of rage, trying to find a solution that serves both his IRA allies and the British authorities. Meanwhile, this nettlesome “Chinaman” keeps getting in the way.

Needless to say, Quan turns out to be a whole lot more capable than anyone imagines. His part of the story is sort of a mix of Sylvester Stallone in “First Blood” and Liam Neeson in “Taken,” content to leave others alone but ready to whip out a mondo-sized can of whup-tushie when confounded. He has a very specific set of skills…

Charlie Murphy plays Maggie, Hennessy’s mistress who has a little more to her story; Ray Fearon is the chief police inspector on the case, looking to cut a deal with Hennessy; Orla Brady is Hennessy’s wife, who has her own old resentments stirred up; Dermot Crowley is one of Hennessy’s old running buddies; and Rory Fleck Byrne plays Hennessy’s nephew, who has a military background that’ll come in handy later.

In case you didn’t notice from that summary, all the main supporting players are all defined by their relationship to Hennessy, not Quan. It’s a pretty standard-issue procedural thriller, as various forces converge to stop a terrorist plot. But then this odd little man shows up and throws everyone’s plan into kerflooey.

Chan seethes as the determined father who harbors a lot of secrets and past pain. But let’s face it, he’s a star in the Schwarzeneggerian mold, featured for his physicality rather than his emoting. His mask of rage looks more like a peptic ulcer.

Directed by Martin Campbell, who helmed a few James Bond films and the execrable “Green Lantern,” from a screenplay by David Marconi based on a novel by Stephen Leather, “The Foreigner” works reasonably well as a martial arts action flick, and as political thriller. Only trouble is, those parts don’t go well together, like mismatched suit pieces that clash rather than complement.




Monday, October 9, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Far Country" (1954)


James Stewart and director Anthony Mann made eight films together between 1950 and 1955, five of them Westerns that have stood the test of time, with "Winchester '73" probably the best known of the bunch. Though the stories are very different, there are a lot of thematic similarities, with Stewart usually playing an ornery loner who comes to recognize that he can't completely detach himself from society without suffering an ill fate.

His Jeff Webster from 1954's "The Far Country" is a prime example. A doggedly independent cattle driver who throws off any attempt to yoke him to a place or a people, Jeff's credo is, "I can take care of myself." He repeatedly rejects calls to act in an altruistic way, believing that if can look after himself, then others should do the same for themselves.

Of course, in the end he must rely upon others to survive, and in turn is motivated to take up arms to protect them against other gunmen who are much like his old self.

What's truly interesting about "The Far Country" is what's left unsaid. Screenwriter Borden Chase, who also penned the scripts for "Winchester '73" and another Stewart/Mann Western, "Bend of the River," gives his characters a distinctive sense of presence without necessarily an explicit backstory to go with it. That we must fill in ourselves.

We don't know much about Jeff Webster, other than he came from Wyoming, is driving a herd of cattle up to Alaska, and plans to use the proceeds to buy a ranch in Utah with his longtime companion, Ben Tatem, a cantankerous oldster from the Walter Brennan stock of cowboys, miners and soldiers.

Ben walks with a hitch, wear a hat with an upturned brim, speaks in a squawky yodel, can do most anything with his hands but doesn't have a lot of sense. His tendency to amiably gab about most anything repeatedly gets the duo in trouble, most notably his buying of two pounds of coffee grounds the day after buying two more, which raises eyebrows and suspicions that turn fatal.

Why Ben is the only person Jeff seems to have any attachment to remains a total mystery, even after Ben is killed off about three-quarters of the way through the movie. (Sorry, no spoiler warnings after 63 years.) Jeff will even affectionately grab Ben's chin or cheek and light his pipe for him, pledging to protect him and look after him in his doddering years.

Clearly they have history together, but its nature remains doggedly obscured. They actually once owned a spread together, but Jeff got the itch to wander again, and off they want, pursuing the bird in the bush they already had in hand. Jeff took the tinkly little bell that Ben hung over their door and attached it to his saddle horn, which becomes his quirk and calling card.

There's not a lot to the story, which is more driven by character clashes than anything else. Jeff and Ben arrive in Seattle with a small herd of cattle that they intend to ferry up to Skagway, Alaska, and then on to the gold rush town of Dawson. The film is set in 1896, long after the California rushes had played out, but while there was still plenty of color to be had panning the streams up north.

(I'm not sure if there were budget constraints on the film, but Mann struggles to achieve any shots where it looks like there's more than 20 steers.)

There are two cowhands with them who are paid $100 apiece, and clearly want to plug Jeff in the back now that the job is done. It seems two other fellows tried to ride off with part of the herd and Jeff shot them down. They report him to the local authorities, who arrive to arrest Jeff just after the ferry has departed. Jeff hides out in the state room of a wealthy woman, Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman), and a romance ensues that simmers the rest of the movie.

Things go poorly when they arrive in Alaska. The ferrymen try to extort Ben and a new addition, the lawman-turned-drunkard Rube Morris (Jay C. Flippen), out of $5,000 in bogus fees. But Jeff rides the cows right off the boat ramp into town, where they jostle the hangman's gallows the local lawman, Judge Gannon (John McIntire), has built to string up three men.

In short order, Gannon has confiscated the herd as a fine for disrupting the execution. It quickly becomes clear that Gannon is little more than a local robber-baron, using the mantle of the law to confiscate property to add to his growing wealth and influence. It turns out that Miss Castle is his partner, running the Skagway Castle saloon as part of his empire designed to gyp gold miners. For instance, Gannon has a local law that no one can depart town without at least 100 pounds of food, and he owns the only grocery.

Castle is sent ahead to Dawson to establish a base there, with Jeff and Ben's cattle as grubstake. Castle hires Jeff as driver of his own herd, along with add-on cowboys (including Harry Morgan.) There are dangers and arguments along the way, including an avalanche where Jeff initially refuses to help those trapped.

Acting as his conscious is Renee Vallon (Corinne Calvet), a strong-headed French/Canadian ingenue who also sets her adoring gaze upon Jeff. The love triangle continues throughout the rest of the story, with Jeff manfully displaying absolutely no interest in either one of the women.

(I'm sure a critic writing from a queer perspective would have a field day with this film.)

Things go fine for a while in Dawson, with Jeff stealing back his herd from Castle, and her then buying it back for him, outbidding the local hash house run by three tough older gals: Hominy (Connie Gilchrist), Grits (Kathleen Freeman) and Molasses (Connie Van). With the hastily put-up Dawson Castle serving steaks and the trio of ladies stuck with bear stew, Gannon quickly has a foothold.

Soon he'll show up himself in his top hat and mortician's suit, laying claim to gold claims that aren't his. He rounds himself up some muscle, including Morgan and google-eyed Jack Elam, and personally guns down good-natured miner, Dusty (Chubby Johnson), when he tries to stand up to him. He also backs down Rube, who has been tapped as marshal (after Jeff refuses the job).

Jeff parlays his cattle proceeds into a prosperous claim of his own, planning to split town as soon as he and Ben have enough gold for their Utah dreams. Gannon's men are staking themselves outside town to jump departing miners at Two Mile Pass, but Jeff has a plan to take a secret Indian route along the river. But then Ben blabs about the coffee, he's killed and Jeff is shot up.

Nursed back to health by Renee, with a little assistance from Castle, Jeff finally sees the error of his ways and opts to take on Gannon in an obligatory showdown.

The relationship between Gannon and Jeff is rich with subtleties. They take an instant like to each other, despite the consistently oppositional nature of their encounters. They are closely aligned in skillset and their belief that people should rise or file by dint of their own willingness to stand up for themselves and claim what's theirs.

The difference is that while Jeff is a pure individualist, preferring to "find his own trails," Gannon uses the pioneer code as cover to mask his malevolent manipulations. Despite his title of Judge and position as the law, he really thrives on chaos and bullying. Gannon represents the evil that prospers when good men like Jeff do nothing, concerning themselves with themselves.

(Screenwriter Chase doubtlessly based Gannon on legendary Western con man "Soapy" Smith, who operated in a number of places including Skagway, where he was eventually gunned down in a dispute over a bag of stolen gold flakes. Though Soapy preferred to have lawmen on his payroll rather than wear a badge and a gun himself.)

"The Far Country" is really a tidy morality tale that acts as counterpoint to the classic John Wayne type of Western, where a man's gotta be a man, and womenfolk stay put in the background -- preferably the kitchen.





Sunday, October 8, 2017

Video review: "Baby Driver"


After well more than a century of cinema, it’s very difficult to do something that’s completely original. “Baby Driver” achieves the next best thing: taking something old and putting a completely fresh new spin on it.

In this case, it’s the heist movie genre. We think we know all there is to see: a team of thieves is assembled, a plan is made, there are intragroup squabbles, the job goes horribly awry, and consequences play out. From bloody fare like “Reservoir Dogs” to fuzzy comedies like the recent “Going in Style,” there’s a through-line of familiar characteristics.

“Baby Driver,” written and directed by Edgar Wright (“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”), has many of those, too. But it’s a heist movie less concerned with the robbery than the interior journey of the protagonist, a young getaway wheel-man who goes by the unlikely moniker, “Baby.”

This is a breakout role for Ansel Elgort, best known from “The Fault in Our Stars.” His Baby is an ocean of cool, calm waters hiding a wake of roiling turbulence underneath.

Hardly speaking, with pounding earbuds perpetually in, he seems not to pay any attention at all to the robbery briefing being given by Doc, the Atlanta crime boss played by Kevin Spacey. But given a quiz at the behest of the other irked members of the crew, and it’s clear he’s 100% dialed in. He has prodigious tics that confound his interactions, but equally generous gifts.

Behind the wheel, he’s hell on.

Doc’s M.O. is that he puts together big jobs, never using the same lineup twice. Early on baby does a robbery with a few notables who, however, are sure to return. They include Jon Hamm as Buddy, an affable guy with a dark side; Eliza Gonzalez as Darling, Buddy’s wife and the one who holds his leash; and Jamie Foxx as Bats, whose assumed name is handy cue as to his hair-trigger mindset.

Doc has Baby under his thumb with a long pile of debts close to being repaid, but it’s hard to miss he hides some genuine affection for the kid. Baby, relishing the thought of his impending freedom, meets Debora, a sky-is-blue waitress whose casual singing first attracts his ear. Interesting thing: for a driver with champion hand-eye coordination, Baby operates primarily by his sense of hearing rather than sight.

The heist does go awry, as heists are wont to do in the movies, though with a different thumb in the pie than you’d expect.

Dizzy with music and action, splendidly acted, dangerous and fun, “Baby Driver” is the rare movie that makes you feel like you did when you first went to the movies.

Bonus features are quite good, and are cemented by two feature-length audio commentary tracks – one with director Wright solo, and a second one with him joined by cinematographer Bill Pope.

There are also deleted and extended scenes totaling about 20 minutes of screen time, a music video, storyboard gallery and 10 making-of featurettes focusing on various aspects of production, including an “Annotated Coffee Run Rehearsal” and Elgort’s audition tape.

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Monday, October 2, 2017

Review: "Blade Runner 2049"


The truth: I didn’t really want a “Blade Runner” sequel.

Just as I did not want to see a live-action version of “The Lord of the Rings,” or a reboot of the “Mad Max” franchises. And yet I love those movies now, offshoots of things I cherished as a youngster -- edging to the point of favoring the new over the old, if my middle-aged self was unflinchingly honest with my teen me.

So: “Blade Runner 2049” is the finest film I’ve seen this 2017.

It’s brilliant, disturbing, sad, beautiful, tragic and filled with tempered joy. It continues the journey of a dystopian, not-so-distant future of bioengineered humans made to be servants of genuine ones, and how each struggles at the shackles that bind them together.

This is the rare sequel that is an extension which is both logically and emotionally sound. Having watched it, I can’t imagine it beginning, or ending, another way.

The film manages to introduce us to a new hunter of replicants, played by Ryan Gosling, while reuniting us with Deckard, as Harrison Ford reprises one of his most indelible roles. “I had your job once… I was good at it,” Deckard taunts upon their first meeting. It’s a titanic clash of generations, quite literally.

My suspicion arose chiefly because the sequel, which is set 30 years later than the original and arrives 35 years after, is not directed by Ridley Scott, who’s still around and quite busy at nearly age 80. Yet Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) has perfectly captured the qualities that made the 1982 film so vivid and groundbreaking -- the sense of alienation, the way life is devalued simply because of its origin, the invasion of commerce into every corner of our lives.

Things are helped immensely by the return of original script man Hampton Fancher, joined by Michael Green, working from the novel by Philip K. Dick. (Though ever more loosely, it must be said.)

In this version, there is no question about the nature of Gosling’s blade runner: he is a replicant who hunts his own kind. Known by his serial number, KD6-3.7, or simply “K,” he moves freely among normal humans with a gun, an LAPD badge and all the powers that come with those tokens. Though he is (almost literally) spat upon by other police officers.

While on a routine “retirement” of an old-model replicant (Dave Bautista), K makes a discovery that sets off a world of strife. The old Tyrell corporation that created the first replicants, aka “skin jobs,” is long defunct. But Niander Wallace, a power-mad blind oracle played by Jared Leto, has crafted new replicants more pliable and palatable, which makes his otherworldly ambitions possible.

K’s boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), whom he addresses as “madam,” wants K to cover the whole thing up. But Niander’s right-hand replicant, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), is ordered to follow the follower. She possesses an arresting combination of contempt and empathy for the humans who created people like her.

K has a quiet, constrained life, complete with a hologram wife to keep him from wanting more than the routine of ceaseless murder. Joi (Ana de Armas) is fully emotionally connected to him, even though she’s another product of Wallace’s omnipresent corporation. K uses his bonus for successful retirements to buy Joi an “emanator,” which allows her to leave their apartment and have some semblance of corporeal existence.

Slaves of slaves -- so where do the boundaries of servitude begin and end? These are the sorts of vexing thoughts the film raises for us.

Appropriately, this is one of the most hauntingly beautiful films ever made. Cinematography legend Roger Deakins gives us slants of organic light contrasted with inky pools of darkness, vivid colors, blasted landscapes and tactile displays of proffered flesh. Nominated 13 times for an Oscar without winning, Deakins may finally get his due.

At nearly three hours long, “Blade Runner 2049” is not an endless parade of action. People who have not seen the original movie in a while may be surprised in revisiting it how deliberate and contemplative the film is. Likewise, its cinematic inheritor blends moments of gripping violence with languid stretches where the characters just look, and are looked upon, think and react.

Rather than slowing things down, these sequences give the movie its rightful sense of weight and purpose. Here is the uninvited sequel, now indispensable.





Sunday, October 1, 2017

Video review: "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales"


There really isn’t any reason for a fifth “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie to exist, other than guaranteed ticket sales and a boost to Johnny Depp’s flagging star. Still, as mindless special effects-driven entertainment go, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” was far from the worst the summer had to offer.

It’s pretty much more of the same: Depp stumbling about as Captain Jack Sparrow, the worst pirate in history; a CGI-enhanced villain, with Javier Bardem as Captain Salazar, an undead pirate hunter missing large chunks of his crucial anatomy; winsome youngsters in peril, in this case Kaya Scodelario and Brenton Thwaites; lots of swordplay and big action set-pieces; reprises from franchise alums Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, although the latter two are barely more than cameos.

The story is about… well, do you even need to know? As usual, it involves various forces chasing a MacGuffin, with most of the animosity aimed squarely at Sparrow.

Depp always has a lot of fun in this role, and the filmmakers keep things fresh with a look toward Sparrow’s youth -- with a little de-aging CGI help -- where we find out a little about how he became the drunken nincompoop he is. For instance, there actually is a reason behind all those little bits of jewelry and odds-and-ends he wears.

It’s undeniably a fun movie, as long as you’re willing to pull up oars on your brain and just coast with the giddy current.

Video bonus features are ample, cemented by a comprehensive making-of documentary that includes interviews with all the principle actors and crew members. There are also four deleted scenes, a photo diary by producer Jerry Bruckheimer and a blooper reel.

You’ll have to pay a few dollars more to get most of this stuff, as only a single featurette is included on the DVD version.

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Thursday, September 28, 2017

Review: "Year by the Sea"


"Year by the Sea" is one of those little movies about seemingly small things that has big import. It stars Karen Allen as a woman who has spent the last 30 years being a wife and mother, and decides it's time to try something else.

For her, this involves separating from her husband and living in a ramshackle cottage on the shores of Cape Cod. A writer struggling to find something to write about, she meanders about for a bit before making some new connections, while reassessing her marriage and deciding what kind of life she wants to have going forward.

We are lucky to be seeing more films starring older women feeling the second blush of romance, as in "Paris Can Wait" earlier this year with Diane Lane. But "Year" is not so much about romantic love as finding new things in life to love.

The film was a labor of love by producer Laura Goodenow, who lives in Indianapolis and turned from journalism to creative ventures. Based on the best-selling memoir by Joan Anderson, the project got its initial funding from a Kickstarter. It's a testament to the notion that you don't need major studio backing or a Hollywood address to make movies.

Allen is sensitive and empathetic as Joan, who's become a rather passive person. Her husband, Robin (Michael Cristofer), is a businessman consumed by anger and resentment. He's close to retirement age and finds he is being transferred from Nyack to Witchita.

After one son gets married and the other moves out, Joan decides seemingly spontaneously to not join Robin in Kansas, and instead rent a cottage in a small fishing town, Sealway. This widens the split with Robin, who feels everyone is looking to put him out to pasture.

I became silent, Joan narrates, and he became stony.

The cottage is very remote -- as in, it's only accessible by a ride on a dinghy across the bay. Joan settles in and starts to explore the town and its denizens. Her first encounter is with another Joan (Celia Imrie), a free spirit who's as grounded as our Joan is adrift. This Joan has the self-knowledge our Joan lacks. She's married to a famous psychiatrist who's convalescing in a nursing home, uncommunicative but still emotionally attached.

Joan's other lifeline is her book agent, Liz (S. Epatha Merkerson), who calls and drops in to ask about when the next work is coming. (It's not.) She also takes a job in the shop of a kindly local fisherman, Cahoon (Yannick Bisson). He's married to Judy (Jane Hajduk), the town scold.

There's also a friendly shopkeep at the local store/diner (Monique Gabriela Curnen), whose boyfriend is controlling and belligerent. Plus the usual array of background characters, such as the old coot who lives off the generosity of people like Cahoon, who gives him unsold bait for his stew.

Things go from there, without much of a narrative thread other than Joan's gradual progression into a distinct person who does and thinks for herself. Robin swings in for a Christmastime visit, but old troubles remain much as they were. There's a suggestion of a spring/autumn attraction with Cahoon -- but as I said, "Year by the Sea" is about the totality of a woman rather than just her amorous attributes.

The movie was adapted and directed by Alexander Janko, a rookie behind the camera whose background is on the musical end of film -- a transition you don't often see. (Never, in my own experience.) He shows a steady hand with controlling the mood and pace of the film, which is deliberately languid and contemplative.

The performances from the cast are uniformly wonderful, especially Allen. Her lovely, naturally weathered face is a mask of yearning and sadness, counterbalanced with burgeoning joy. There is an unavoidable touch of Hallmark Channel-type sentimentality in the proceedings, unhelped by Janko's own musical score of piano trills and strings.

The cinematography by Bryan Papierskiis terrific, using the washed-out colors and natural wonders of Cape Cod, including abundant seals and other creatures, to great effect. In many ways the backdrop resembles the inner turmoil of Joan, who's watched the tide go out on her own life and is waiting for something else to replace what was there.

"Year by the Sea" is a movie that thinks, not one where stuff happens just to fill the running time.





Review: "American Made"


How much of “American Made” is true and how much is Hollywood hokum?

There’s certainly a healthy helping of the latter, as even a cursory glance at the life of pilot/smuggler/government informant Barry Seal shows. You could go into quibbles -- the movie shows him as married with small kids, but he was already long divorced (twice) when the events depicted commence.

The main departure, though, is showing the “gringo who always delivers” -- drugs, rifles, people, whatever -- as a pawn of the CIA who more or less fell backwards into a massive elicit transport operation. Everything I’ve been able to read in short order about Seal shows he’d already been a smuggler for years, and only went to the feds when he was facing major jail time, offering to be their stooge.

But this is a Tom Cruise star vehicle, not a historical docudrama. The film mostly reminded me of “Blow,” the 2001 film starring Johnny Depp as an unheralded key figure in bringing the South American drug trade to our shores. Seal has actually been depicted on film and television a number of times before, including by Dennis Hopper and Michael Paré.

Taken on its own, “American Made” is a fun, dizzy and convoluted movie that shows how deeply the U.S. government was involved in the mess south of its border in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, and indeed to what a large extent those problems we created, as the title suggests.

Cruise smiles and twinkles through it all, affecting a Louisiana drawl to intermittent effect. Director Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”) and screenwriter Gary Spinelli set out deliberately to portray Seal as a lovable scamp, when a harder edge is probably required. But aside from one brief foray I can recall, “Collateral,” outright villainy just isn’t in the Tom Cruise toolbag.

The net effect winds up feeling like “Goodfellas” Lite, with the Colombian Medellín Cartel swapped out for Italian gangsters.

The story opens in 1978 with Seal bored with his life as a TWA commercial pilot. (False: the airline had actually fired him six years earlier.) A mysterious young CIA agent, Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), busts him for sneaking Cuban cigars into the country and offers to set him up with his own hangar and high-end plane.

His job: reconnaissance photos of Sandinistas and other Communist-backed insurgents. A cowboy at heart, Seal enjoys the daredevil flying and even getting shot at. But the money’s not so great, and when Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia) offer to pay him $2,000 per kilo of cocaine he flies into America on the way back from his CIA missions, he has a hard time saying no.

Before long, Seal is running other pilots in and out of South and Central America on virtually a daily basis, picking up guns, trading them for dope, and dropping the drugs in the Louisiana delta. He sets up a network of front companies in tiny Mena, Ark., but still accumulates so much cash that he literally runs out of places to hide it, stuffing it in horse stalls or burying it out back of the house.

“I’ll rake it up tomorrow,” he says when his wife (Sarah Wright) tells him one of his stashes has been breached, cash blowing all around.

Jesse Plemons play the local sheriff paid to look the other way; Caleb Landry Jones is Seal’s idiot brother-in-law whose screw-ups start the downward spiral; Jayma Mays is the state attorney general who wants his head on a platter; Benito Martinez is the head of the DEA, who ratchets up Seal’s involvement straight to the White House.

“American Made” is a tragicomedy about our great nation, worried about getting mired in another Vietnam, creating a smaller version in our backyard. It’s so funny, it hurts.






Review: "Battle of the Sexes"


The match was a lark, a piffle, a silly spectacle, until it became something more. Likewise, the film version of the iconic 1973 tennis game between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs is much weightier and more substantial than you’d think.

It shows the game itself, of course, featuring Emma Stone and Steve Carell as King and Riggs. If the volleying looks slow and wimpy compared to what you’d see today, it’s not because a pair of Hollywood actors couldn’t make a better show of it. Go watch tapes of the real match; the movie copies it pretty well. All sports got faster and stronger; Serena’d kill either one of them.

But “Battle of the Sexes” focuses more on the year leading up to the faceoff, giving it context within changes happening in the sport and society as a whole. Directed by “Little Miss Sunshine” team Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, from a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”), it’s also an astute character study of two people who were more alike than we’d think.

The early 1970s was the era of women “libbers,” Roe v. Wade, the first large wave of women entering the workforce and finding the traditional corridors of influence barred to them. Men liked the free love stuff, but wanted to keep the country clubs and the reins of power. Naturally, they resented people like King who had the audacity to demand that the male and female tennis champions be paid the same.

Carell looks pretty well like Riggs, with the help of some false teeth and a wig. Stone resembles King not at all, and even a pair of glasses and dark brown shag haircut fail to close the gap. But each manages to carve an authentic character out of the fog of history.

Stone’s King is at once headstrong and retiring, very self-aware and also self-effacing. She squares off with Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the smug head of the chief tennis association, and starts her own competing league for the top women players. Sarah Silverman plays Gladys Heldman, who provided the business savvy and sponsorship -- from Virginia Slims, because doesn’t smoking and tennis go great together?

But King is also staggered by her attraction to Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), a hairdresser who eventually becomes her lover. This while she was married to Larry King (Austin Stowell), a former player who gave her unwavering support as a fellow athlete. The scene where he learns of their affair, but still tenderly applies ice packs to her knees with well-practiced efficiency, is sensitive to all three souls.

(The film fiddles with history here; King began to explore her attraction to women years earlier, and started the affair with Marilyn in 1971. And she was King’s secretary, aka employee, not a hairdresser. Years later she sued King for palimony, which resulted in her sexuality being publicly outed.)

Riggs is portrayed much as the world saw him: an over-the-hill former champ with a gambling addiction who was down on his luck and saw challenging the top women’s players of the day as a way to garner attention and money. With his own marriage to Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) foundering, he used his gift of gab and natural showmanship to play up the King match, dubbing himself a “male chauvinist pig” and giving interviews about keeping women in the “bedroom or the kitchen,” stuff he may not have even half believed.

Largely forgotten today is that Riggs had already challenged and beaten the top-ranked female player of the day, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee). Every film needs a villain, and Court is shoehorned into that role, sneering at King’s dalliance with full religious fervor. (This owes more to Court’s modern-day fight against same-sex marriage in her native Australia than anything she said or did at the time, methinks.)

Both Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King are revealed as flesh-and-blood creatures who lived behind the headlines. They make for an interesting pair: the hustler and the heroine, the lobber and the libber. They put on a show for funsies, and people paid attention and not a few minds were changed a wee bit.

In real life, King remained friends with Riggs until the day he died, which was awfully chivalrous of her.




Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Review: "Victoria & Abdul"


“Victoria & Abdul” is one of those beautiful true stories that sounds too fantastical to have actually happened. Indeed, many people deliberately tried to hide the tale and succeeded in doing so, until the truth came out many decades after the principles were dead.

Directed by Stephen Frears from a screenplay by Lee Hall, it’s a tale of love and friendship between a powerful monarch and a lowly servant from across the globe. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of “Driving Miss Daisy,” in that it shows how people from different backgrounds and stations can grow very close without romantic love -- and how that sort of bond threatens other folks.

During the last 15 years of her life, Queen Victoria of England had an Indian Muslim man as her attendant. He waited upon her as a servant, but the relationship developed into friendship as he taught her about his homeland, of which she was the Empress, as well as the Urdu language. She called him “the Munshi,” or teacher.

The entire British court was scandalized by this, including her heir, the Prince of Wales, who worked actively to undermine the man, Abdul Karim. When his mother finally died, the Munshi and his family was essentially thrown out of the castle as soon as the funeral was over, and the new king ordered all photographs and correspondence between and Abdul and Victoria seized and burned.

Essentially, his legacy was swept clean from the history books.

It’s another powerhouse performance from Judi Dench as Victoria. It’s certainly a warts-and-all portrayal of the queen, showing her as an old, addled and bored woman who wears her royal mantle as a burden rather than a responsibility. Her entire life is an unceasing litany of dinners, presentations, signing of documents, etc. The crown is her cage.

There’s one terrific scene where Victoria recites all her own faults with stark honesty, showing a sharp mind and strong soul underneath the layers of time and the trappings of office. The longest-reigning English monarch (until the current one), Victoria is depicted as someone who has loss the zest for life, and regains it in her friendship with Abdul.

Played by Ali Fazal, Abdul is shown as a young, idealistic man plucked from obscurity and picked by fate for his role. A low-level clerk in a jail near Agra, he is selected to present a ceremonial coin to the empress simply because he is 1) tall, and 2) chose some carpets a functionary liked.  Fazal plays him as earnest, good-hearted and rather naïve.

He and another man, Mohammed, spend two months traveling by ship to England for a ceremony that lasts 30 seconds. Such was the state of the royal court, where tuxedos are considered daywear and each course of every meal is preceded by a trumpet blast. It’s an amazingly gorgeous film, with period sets and costumes to catch your breath.

Frears, Hall and their cast carefully craft the growing relationship between the pair, with hints of romantic passion that give way to a deeper connection. Shocked upon learning Abdul is married, she orders his wife and mother-in-law brought to live with them at court.

The cast is uniformly excellent, including Tim Pigott-Smith as the head of her majesty’s court; Eddie Izzard as the bombastic heir apparent; Michael Gambon as the befuddled prime minster; Paul Higgins as the pig-headed royal doctor; and Olivia Williams and Fenella Woolgar as the chief ladies-in-waiting.

Though some might dismiss the story as a historical footnote, “Victoria & Abdul” is a delightful look at the surprising things that bring us together, and the not so surprising things that drive us apart.





Monday, September 25, 2017

Reeling Backward: "L'Avventura" (1960)



"Believe me Anna, words are becoming less and less necessary, they create misunderstandings."
                             --Sandro 

If ever a film's themes could be summed up by a single line of dialogue, then this one does so splendidly for "L'Avventura," Michelangelo Antonioni's dreamy rumination on love lost and found.

The first of an unofficial trilogy from the Italian master, "L'Avventura" ("The Adventure") follows the search for a missing girl where no one truly wants her to be found. This includes the woman herself, and especially her fiance and best friend, who fall for each other during their quest to find her. The film has been criticized for its languid plotting, lack of narrative resolution and overall "artiness." At its first screening at Cannes, the film was roundly booed -- before going on to win the Jury Prize.

Watching the movie, we get a very distinct sense that what the characters do and say is less important than how they look and feel while doing or saying it.

It's fair to say that Antonioni and his ilk helped redefine the cinematic aesthetic to one more about existential contemplation than traditional conflict and action. Antonioni and co-screenwriters, Elio Bartolini and Tonino Guerra, peered under the modern advancements of the 20th century to find the discontent that lay like a thick layer of crud beneath a beautiful rug -- particularly how people relate to one another with sinking levels of empathy, or even basic humanity.

"Ennui" is the word that best sums up the mood of "L'Avventura," a sort of listless boredom that arrives from feeling trapped by circumstances and expectations.

Sandro, the male lead played by Gabriele Ferzetti, studied art and architecture but became a wealthy young(ish) man by performing estimates of other people's post-war construction projects. He owns a sporty convertible and a summer home on the coast, tokens of his status rather than things he covets. His fiancée, Anna (Lea Massari), at once misses him desperately while harboring a barely hidden revulsion for her intended. Sandro is absent for long business trips, but when he's back they tire of each other rather quickly after the fire of lovemaking has blown out.

Right before she mysteriously disappears off a remote island where they and other well-to-do couples have stopped for a bit of sun and fun, Anna tells Sandro that what she most wants is to be alone. He dismisses her fears about their impending marriage rather brusquely. When she turns up missing, Sandro undertakes a personal search for Anna more out of a sense of duty than with the enthusiasm of a heartbroken lover.

Tagging along is Anna's best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitta), who eventually becomes the film's real main character. Feeling out of place on the yacht among three couples, she gradually comes to the fore of the story as she and Sandro develop feelings for each other while conducting their "search."

I put that word in quotes because, after the authorities scour the island -- including divers plumbing the shores for a body -- no one really holds out hope that she'll eventually turn up. The only really solid lead is when a smuggler's ship is interdicted by the police, but it's soon clear the teenage petty criminals had nothing to do with Anna's disappearance. After all, what are we to believe: that Anna hailed a passing ship and climbed aboard without anyone else on the tiny atoll noticing?

The disappearance quickly fades from our minds as the brewing romance comes to a boil. We've gotten an idea that Claudia was attracted to Sandro even before they departed on the voyage, and that she holds a level of envy for Anna. She's got what Claudia hasn't: a rich boyfriend, a rich father to boot, nice clothes and few responsibilities. We never learn too much about Claudia's background -- or anyone's, really -- but the impression is she's a working girl enjoying her independence, though open to the idea of settling down.

Claudia makes a great show of protesting Sandro's advances, including one scene where she essentially throws him off a departing train. They later meet again, and this time the excitement of being pursued overcomes her judgement about keeping up appearances. When they eventually rejoin the other couples at a posh hotel, they check into the same suite without batting an eye.

Always, though, reminders of the real purpose that threw them together arrive, and it would seem their love must be doomed from the start. Perhaps it is, especially after Sandro, starved for sexual attention from Claudia, has a dalliance with an attention-seeking floozy (Dorothy De Poliolo).

But Antonioni's famous ending scene, in which each weeps tears at their inability to find and keep love, leaves us with at least the suggestion that they will keep trying to overcome that which keeps them apart.

I was struck watching the film how much observation there is of other couples. To a one, they all seem miserable together, more like prisoners sharing a shackle than the bonds of matrimony.

There is Corrado (James Addams), an older man who seems to spend most of his energies denigrating the actions and speech of his much-younger wife, Giulia (Dominique Blanchar). Corrado is a pinched man, physically and spiritually, who gains joy by denying it to others. Later, we will watch Giulia  dally with a 17-year-old boy right underneath Claudia's nose, and understand her motivations.

Then there is Patrizia (Esmeralda Ruspoli), who acts as something of maternal/guide role for Claudia, seeing what is happening between her and Sandro and offering her understanding and empathy how two people could end up in such a place, without condoning their scandalous affair. Patrizia's own marriage to Raimondo (Lelio Luttazzi) has the feel of a detente, a war that has grown cold and desolate. They have forgotten both the love and the hate they once had for each other.

When their search takes them to a small town, Sandro and Claudia come across a pharmacist and his new bride, who already seem well on their way to a lifetime of regret. The locals regard the searchers as glamorous strangers, celebrities even. (The search for Anna has stayed in the newspapers, due in part to Sandro's bribes to a reporter.) Indeed, when Claudia is briefly left alone in the street she attracts a small horde of men, milling about to ogle the beautiful alien.

(Sinister in tone, this scene takes on alarming notes seen through today's prism of awareness about sexual violence.)

Really the only positive glimpse of romance we encounter is a young pair who have just met on the train. Claudia watches with delight as they perform the intricate dance of the wooer and the wooed. The man insists he knows the girl through mutual acquaintances, she knows he is lying just to get her attention, and allows herself to be lied to.

The shooting of "L'Avventura" was famously arduous, both physically and financially. For weeks at a time the crew operated with no budget, sleeping on the island and even going short on food until a new production company could be found. Antonioni and Vitti were a romantic couple themselves in real life -- before, during and long after the shoot -- which must have complicated matters in a ways that beggar the imagination.

Yet this is undeniably one of the all-time most gorgeous pieces of cinema ever. The photography by Aldo Scavarda remains stunning in its multitudinous layers of gray -- thankfully well-preserved with a top-notch restoration and reissue some years back. In contrast to the hazy, meandering moods of the characters, the film has a crisp realism that veritably leaps off the screen.

Antonioni and Scavarda also make interesting use of Claudia's blonde nimbus of hair, especially in contrast to all the other dark-haired Italian women. It lends her the air of a fallen angel, wandering the land without true purpose or power.

My own feelings are mixed for "L'Avventura." Like "Citizen Kane," I recognize its greatness and appreciate its importance in the evolution of movies without necessarily embracing the experience of watching it. A story of people who are unmoored from themselves, unsure how they should feel or act, it often fails to engage us at an emotional level.

It's like a great masterpiece painting that we are told we must admire, so we do, while knowing in our hearts there are more meaningful pieces hanging on the wall nearby more amenable to our gaze.






Sunday, September 24, 2017

Video review: "The Mummy"


More studios are now into the whole world-building thing, notably with the Marvel and DC comics cross-overs, where superheroes have solo films and then team up for group projects. The latest “universe” to hit the big screen is horror-based, as Universal Studio rounds up a bunch of its classic movie monsters and mixes them up.

In theory, I’m all for it. Dracula, the Wolfman, Invisible Man, Frankenstein, etc. having throw-downs in between teaming up? Sounds awesome. But in practice the enterprise is off to a shaky start.

First up is “The Mummy,” starring Tom Cruise in a film that borrows heavily from the Brendan Fraser/Rachel Weisz flicks that debuted almost two decades ago. (Well, technically “Dracula Untold” from 2014 was supposed to be the official start of DU, but the studio has since backed off of that owing to the film’s middling box office performance.)

Tossing an aging action star into what is essentially a remake doesn’t sound like a great idea, and Cruise does his level best as Nick, a soldier/scallywag who’s more interested in treasure hunting than doing his duty. He gets picked by Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), the revived spirit of an Egyptian princess/sorceress, to be the vessel of the reincarnation of the death god, Set.

Their relationship is an energetic mix of smoochy/stabby, which triggered some recollections of past girlfriends.

Annabelle Wallis plays Jenny, an archeologist who teams up with Nick in between ardent prostrations of her attraction to him. Things move along with the usual assortment of big action spectacles and a liberal helping of CGI special effects. Russell Crowe turns up fairly late in the game as a certain doctor with… temper issues.

The movie’s fun at time, but terribly disjointed and half-baked. Marvel and DC spent years germinating their franchises, and based on this film the Dark Universe needs more time in the cooker.

Bonus features are quite good. There’s a feature-length audio commentary track with director Alex Kurtzman as well as actors Boutella, Wallis and Jake Johnson, with the obvious glaring omission of Cruise. He does appear in a 1-on-1 conversation with Kurtzman.

Additional extras include deleted and extended scenes, seven making-of featurettes and “Ahmanet Reborn Animated Graphic Novel,” with more about her descent into the monstrous underworld.

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Friday, September 22, 2017

"Mother!" and the Coat of Many Colors


I was finally able to catch up with "Mother!", Darren Aronofsky's ambitious new meditation on... something that has sharply divided critics and largely estranged audiences. Just a few thoughts.

All this is VERY spoiler-y. So desist if you desire to experience the film's surprises on your own.

First off, unlike many others I don't think giving a complete analysis of the movie necessarily gives everything away. It has not so much plot twists as a labyrinthine pit of meaning that grows more intense and more amorphous the deeper you go. Once you know it's a descent, it's just a matter of pondering where you're going to end up and what meanings you're going to take away from the journey.

And I think they are multitudinous. People have come forth with all sorts of interpretation of what the film "means," and I believe they're all right. Star Jennifer Lawrence herself has posited that her character is Mother Earth and her husband, called simply Him and played by Javier Bardem, is God. But it's clear this is Lawrence's opinion, not Aronofsky's.

I don't think the writer/director actually intended any single vision of "Mother!". It is literally all things to all people... and nothing to some, who will find it overly mysterious and arty. It's less a portrait or a parable than an impression, and we put as much of ourselves into the vision as the artist did.

Certainly there are plenty of religious themes. The interlopers barging in their secluded mansion, played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, never named but credited as Man and Woman, are representations of Adam and Eve. Him is tickled with their presence, especially Adam, while Mother is irked at any intrusion. Aren't I enough for you? she asks Him repeatedly. He responds with protestations of love, but there's always a "but."

Man and Woman's sons, who show up and immediately get into a fight that results in one's death, are obviously Cain and Abel in this telling. The crowds of people who show up after are the rest of mankind -- messy, violent, worshipful of Him's poetry. The outcome of Mother's pregnancy follows pretty obvious Christ parables.

But I think there are also a lot of themes about parenthood, and the chasm between male and female gender roles. These take place on a simple humanistic level, where the characters cease on some level being allegorical and are simply who they appear to be.

I also believe the film has a lot to say about the role of the artist in society, and their relationship to their fans/followers. These types of movies can quickly become tiresome, particularly in the prism of Hollywood -- 'Oh please, tell me more about your struggles with fame, adoration and all those millions of burdensome dollars.'

But Aronofsky lays out his tale without a lot of obvious egotism, showing how the creative process starts as a singular act and the work ends up becoming something that is shared and dissected and stolen. The artist gives and gives, and takes and takes. Like Charlie Kaufman's "Adaptation," "Mother!" is a Gordian knot that inextricably ties up the story being told and the role of the storyteller.

In a lot of ways, the movie is really about itself.


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Review: "Rebel in the Rye"


"I sometimes wish I’d never written it. It’s made me a prisoner. I’m shackled by my own creation." --Jerry Salinger

This will be just a very quick and shorter review. The film's release was moved up suddenly, and the studio was only able to supply me with a screener at the last minute. I always prefer to give full-length, well-thought analyses of new films, but the limits of the distribution/marketing system -- not to mention my own numerous obligations -- sometimes prevent that.

But journalists, as opposed to authors, understand that sometimes it is better to publish something quickly dashed off than nothing at all.

"Rebel in the Rye" is a biopic of "The Catcher in the Rye" author J.D. Salinger from about ages 20 to early 40s, after which he never published another word and became a virtual recluse.

As played (very well) by Nicholas Hoult, Salinger -- "Jerry" to his friends, "Sonny" to his family -- was an angry young man who understood better than others that his sort of anger is just not sustainable over the course of a lifetime. "Catcher" was published when he was barely into his 30s, very young to be dubbed "the next great American novelist," but already struggling to grasp the angst that drove him as a teen.

The film, written and directed by TV veteran Danny Strong, based on a biography by Kenneth Slawenski, has essentially two halves. The first is about Salinger's relationship with Whit Burnett, the legendary Columbia writing professor and editor of Story magazine, who discovered and shaped many of the 20th century's greatest literary voices. They start as antagonists, gradually evolve into mentor/student, followed by friendship and estrangement.

It's another knockout performance by Kevin Spacey, who has the rare ability to utterly disappear into a character. A frumpled, boozy, distracted man, his Whit recognizes raw talent when he sees it, but also knows that great writers have to be willing to sacrifice everything for their craft. When you're willing to spend your whole life typing and never be published, he tells Jerry, then you'll know you're meant to be a writer.

The second, less effective portion of the film is about Salinger's wartime experiences that left him fractured and unable to write. This is a low-budget film, so there are no depictions of battles or such, just dreamy vignettes of huddling in foxholes, liberating concentration camps, being analyzed and dismissed by Army psychiatrists.

The film tries to shoehorn an untidy life into its 110-minute running time, so Salinger's brief marriage to a German woman gets very short shrift, as does his second marriage to Claire Douglas (Lucy Boynton). They go from meet-cute to courting to raising family to resentment so fast, you'll miss the whole thing if you need a bathroom break.

I did appreciate how the film showcases portions of the writer's life that are less well-known, such as his devotion to Eastern meditation and yoga to help get over his war trauma.

Also popping up are Sarah Paulson as Dorothy Olding, Jerry's agent, who carefully navigates the pitfalls of the publishing game while genuinely caring about him as a person; Victor Garber and Hope Davis as his parents, who reacted to their son's gifts in very different ways; Zoey Deutch as Oona O'Neill, the unattainable girl Jerry woos and loses; and Brian d'Arcy James as the publisher who embraced "Catcher" when everyone else regarded it with befuddlement.

What the movie does best is show the development of Salinger from puckish kid to serious artist, and all the fits and stops along the way. He arrogantly insists that no changes be made to any of his short stories, resulting in a big break with the New Yorker getting pulled shortly before the war breaks out. Later, he finally agrees to meet with their editors and realizes they can actually improve his writing.

Salinger ultimately spent a decade developing the characters, the voice and the perspective that became "Catcher in the Rye." It's a reminder that great art never just springs forth like a thunderbolt from the gods, as most tellings would rather have it.

Usually, cinematic portraits of artists are better at revealing the person rather than their art, but with "Rebel in the Rye" the opposite is true. Salinger elevated his identity as a writer to such an extent that he ceased wishing to be the person he had been before. He shut out everything he felt was a distraction to his writing, which turned out to be... almost everything.


Review: "The Lego Ninjago Movie"


The whole concept of “Lego Ninjago” is just brilliant, from a marketing standpoint.

Kids love Legos and are positively insane for ninjas, or chop-socky action in general, and they also will watch almost anything animated. Throw all those things together and you’ve got something that smaller children, especially boys, are guaranteed to devour.

As the dad of 4- and 6-year-olds who live loudly the dogma of their Y chromosome, I am unnervingly well acquainted with the TV series, “Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu,” now in its seventh season.

I have to say that for a kids’ show, I’ve been impressed with the level of storytelling involved. The relationship between Lloyd Garmadon and his estranged father, the evil Lord Garmadon, has had permutations of Skywalker-ian complexity, with Lloyd starting out as a snotty kid and evolving into the “chosen one” Green Ninja.

After “The Lego Movie” became a hit, it seemed inevitable that the ninjas would get their own feature film. My kids, and to a lesser extent I, looked on with genuine anticipation.

So I have to say I’m disappointed. The veritable platoon of filmmakers -- with three credited directors, five screenwriters and seven people receiving story credit -- seem to have gone out of their way to toss the entire television series, even swapping out the whole voice cast for bigger names who, frankly, aren’t nearly as good.

The addition of live action sequences, which was probably unavoidable after Will Ferrell did it, is off-putting and disruptive, with Jackie Chan playing a stereotypical Asian shopkeep who has important lessons to impart. He also does the voice of Master Wu, the ninjas’ serene and mysterious teacher. There’s also a furrier addition late in the game that’s just goofy.

The movie is essentially an entire reboot of the Ninjago universe, with the six ninjas more or less back to square one in terms of their martial arts/elemental powers, relying instead on huge robot ‘mechs to battle Lord Garmadon. However, Nya, the lone female ninja voiced by Abbi Jacobson, has already joined the group, Lloyd (Dave Franco) is already grown up and the Green Ninja, and Zane (Zach Woods) has already been revealed to be an android, though he seems to be somewhat in denial about this.

Rounding out the crew are Fred Armisen as Cole, the earth ninja, Kumail Nanjiani as Jay, the lightning ninja and Michael Peña as Kai, the fire ninja. Olivia Munn voices Lloyd’s mom, Koko, who used to be married to Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), who has blackened skin from a deadly snake bite, four arms and cries tears of fire. Talk about falling for the bad boy.

The story is sort of a very condensed version of the first few seasons of the TV show: the ninjas fight Lord Garmadon, then find themselves allied with him, leading to some tenuous father/son bonding between him and Lloyd, followed by some scorpion-and-frog-like realignment.

It’s an energetic movie, with cool martial arts action scenes and neat creatures. The biggest problem with “The Lego Ninjago Movie” is that they’re trying to force it into the template of “The Lego Movie,” with crazy quips and comedic asides.

It’s almost as if, instead of creating something new and cool, they were determined to re-use the same pieces in a different configuration -- like trying to build the boat using the parts for the tank. Whether it’s construction toys or movies, you just gotta let things be what they are.

Before I go, in the interest of fair journalistic criticism, I should report a couple of things. First, duty requires me to disclose that I nodded off a few times. I think this is the third time this has ever happened to me, and both of the others were also kiddie flicks that failed to hold my attention.

Also, my kids really liked the movie. We talked a little afterward about how it was different from the show, but it still came down to the fact that this movie included: A) ninjas B) Legos, and C) cartoons. So you can mark the target audience down as “sold,” even if dad was sleeping on the job.