Sunday, May 28, 2017
All movies have plot holes. Some you can drive a truck through. Others are meager quibbles that only occur to you long after you’ve left the theater.
With “Fist Fight,” the entire movie is a plot hole. As in, its very premise makes not a lick of sense. It’s hard to take a movie seriously, even a comedy, when it insults your intelligence right off the bat.
The set-up is that Charlie Day is Andy, a nebbish-y high school teacher who gets challenged to a fight by Ice Cube, also playing a teacher, but a much meaner one named Strickland. The fisticuffs are supposed to take place in the school parking lot after the last bell, so the entire student body can bear witness to the beat-down.
Even swallowing the stupidity that such a thing wouldn’t immediately be shut down by administrators and/or law enforcement -- especially after the challenge goes viral on social media and YouTube -- why wouldn’t Andy just fake a cough and go home? He certainly looks like he’s ill, trembling with fear as he spends the rest of the day contriving to get out of the fight.
Such roles have become Day’s bread-and-butter, usually as the comic relief or sidekick. As for Cube, his acting style hasn’t really varied in 20 years.
“Fist Fight” has a few scraps of funny. Tracy Morgan plays the inept football coach, and he can garner a few laughs just on sheer force of personality. Jillian Bell scores a few more as a drug-addled teacher desperately trying to hook up with one of her students. (Admittedly, it’s funnier than it sounds.)
Mostly, though, watching this movie feels like spending time in special detention for boneheads.
Extra features are pretty apathetic, consisting of some deleted scenes and (on the Blu-ray version) a feature about the Georgia Film Commission, which gives tax credits for film production. Sounds more like homework than a bonus.
Thursday, May 25, 2017
If you can keep the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie straight, your cinematic compass is keener than mine. They made four of them in nine years, then none for the last six, so they merge together in a dim fog of sameness.
I remember the first one seemed fresh because it was a typical big special effects summer action bonanza set apart by Johnny Depp’s dizzy, daffy turn as the addled Captain Jack Sparrow. He quickly supplanted the ostensible stars of the franchise, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, to the point they didn’t even appear in the last one, and only make brief cameos in the fifth edition, “Dead Men Tell No Tales.”
It’s more of the same: crazy stunt set-pieces, supernatural threats, a brief foray into town for robbing and wenching, a couple of rousing sea battles and whole lot of sozzled Jack stumbling through it all.
He’s the most inept hero of any movie franchise I can think of. Imagine Luke Skywalker being really clumsy, swinging his lightsaber around drunkenly and accidentally decapitating Ewoks left and right.
Javier Bardem is the newest villain as Captain Salazar, a former pirate hunter who’s missing part of his head, and all of his soul. The “Pirates” bad guys are defined more by their special effects than their characteristics, since they’re all undead or seeking immortality, despise Jack Sparrow and need him, one of his trinkets or a piece of lore from him to get what they want.
The effect for Salazar and his crew is pretty spectacular: they’re actually missing pieces of their bodies, as if parts of them have been erased. Salazar’s got no back of his head, his skin is cracked like old plaster and oozing blood, and his hair swirls in a ghostly nimbus around his head as if he’s underwater.
Some of his crew are missing arms, legs, even entire heads or chunks of their torsos. One guy appears to be just a shoulder and a hip.
The fresh new young faces are Kaya Scodelario and Brenton Thwaites as, respectively, Carina, a curious girl whose love of science keeps getting her branded a witch, and Henry Turner, the grown son of the Bloom and Knightley characters, and doesn’t that just make us all feel old. They get to spend the movie arguing and denying their obvious infatuation.
Geoffrey Rush turns up again as Captain Barbossa, who through the series has been a zombie, then just a human villain, then a privateer in service to the British crown, and now is just back to being a pirate again. He’s worried about Salazar cutting his fleet to shreds, so he decides to seek him to reach an accord and serve Jack’s head on a platter.
It’s a fun, giddy movie that only works if it doesn’t stop moving long enough for you to think about how the different pieces fit together. For instance, it’s weird that the local British officer (David Wenham) is hell-bent on executing Carina for supposedly being a witch, but is happy to recruit a real one (Golshifteh Farahani) to track down Sparrow.
A few moments that stand out: we learn the origin of all those quirky bits ‘n’ pieces that make up Jack’s accoutrements; some rotted shark carcasses get reanimated by Salazar and set to snapping; and a daring Carina doffs her stuffy long dress to swim to safety. “I saw her ankles!” Henry crows.
Co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson keep things moving at a brisk pace, feeding Depp plenty of moments for his little woozy reactions and quips. Interestingly, if you think about the plot you realize you don’t really need Jack Sparrow to make it all work.
He’s the oddball bit of grease that keeps this pile of claptrap turning long after it had any business embarking on another voyage.
I never watched a single episode of the "Baywatch" TV show, or wanted to. They couldn't just have lifeguards resuscitating poor swimmers every week, so they brought in drug dealers, inter-squad passion/spats, earthquakes and even a serial killer to spice things up.
It sounded like a weird amalgam of a crime procedural and fleshfest, complete with the slo-mo running "jiggle cam" that became its signature.
Basically, it was a stripper cop show.
"Baywatch" at least seemed aware of its own silliness, and to the extent possible, embraced it. So the logical thing to do if you were going to make a movie out of it is to spoof the TV version, in the way that "21 Jump Street," “The A Team” and the more recent “CHIPS” did.
(Though perhaps these are not the… best examples.)
Director Seth Gordon, a TV and film comedy veteran (“Identity Thief,” “Horrible Bosses”), and screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift start off reasonably well, gathering together a gaggle of eye-pleasing hardbodies and concocting a bunch of goofy, raunchy scenarios to put them through.
But the film loses steam pretty early, and then hangs around way too long -- nearly two hours. If any movie needed to rock an 82-minute run time, it’s this.
It’s very aware of what it’s trying to do, at least for a while. The actors mock the TV show while paying homage to it. For instance, one of the women questions why it is their familiar fire red one-piece bathing suits ride so far up their rear ends. It makes us faster in the water, or something, the other responds… and we all know it’s the “or something.”
Interestingly, a whole lot more male flesh is on display than female which, other than some cleavage and the aforementioned butt-age, is pretty much kept under wraps. That is largely provided by Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron, two famously buff actors who butter their bread with getting their kits off.
Johnson is built like the former WWE and NFL prospect he was, massive in the Schwarzeneggerian mold. He basically looks like an 18-wheeler encased in flesh. Efron, a former teen idol, seems intent on completely ridding his body of all fat to the point he resembles those “visible man” cut-out models you saw in biology class, where every muscle strand and the guts are naked to the eye.
Apparently, this is considered attractive nowadays. I guess the next step is for people to start making their internal organs visible. Soon there’ll be a market for cosmetic surgery of the liver.
There is one schlubby guy, a new recruit named Ronnie (Jon Bass), because it’s supposed to be funny to have the rippled crew running on the beach together, and here’s this big belly sloshing around in slo-mo. But the movie awards him… other attributes as compensation.
Other newbies to the Baywatch team are Alexandra Daddario as Summer, a tough and smart girl, and Efron as Matt Brody, a former Olympic champion more famous for his out-of-the-pool tomfoolery than his gold medals. Think Ryan Lochte with gastrointestinal issues. He’s cocky as all get-out and must be put in his place, starting with Summer responding to his brodude overtures.
Johnson is Lieutenant Mitch Buchannon, a legend on the beach with hundreds of confirmed saves. One of the running jokes is that Mitch acts like a military special-ops badass -- the exact origin of his rank is nebulous -- and people have to keep reminding him he’s just a lifeguard.
Ilfenesh Hadera plays Stephanie, Mitch’s seasoned and capable #2. Rob Huebel is the jerk suit ostensibly in command. Kelly Rohrbach rounds out the team as CJ, whom Ronnie is smitten with, and she might just have a little smit running the other direction, too.
There’s a plot, but that’s not really the point. Something about a powerful businesswoman buying up beach properties, muscling politicos and offing anyone who gets in the way.
“Baywatch” actually starts out pretty funny and fresh, but they only really had about two solid “SNL” skits worth of material to go on. The rest is unfunny filler. But I guess they spent so much effort trimming the fat from the beach bods, they couldn’t bother to do the same with the script.
Wednesday, May 24, 2017
Chuck Wepner was a big ugly mook who became semi-famous as a footnote in both the sports and entertainment worlds. You may not think you know me, he narrates at the beginning of his biopic, “Chuck,” but you do.
It’s long been said that Muhammad Ali and his manager, Don King, picked the New Jersey boxer out of obscurity in 1975 as his next opponent after downing George Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle” because they wanted a white opponent. But as this enlightening new film directed by Philippe Falardeau (“Monsieur Lazhar”) and starring Liev Schreiber shows, Wepner may have been a blue-collar club fighter, but he was hardly a nobody.
Wepner was the eighth-ranked heavyweight fighter at the time, a 6-foot-5-inch brawler known for his uncanny ability to take punch and not go down. “The Bayonne Bleeder,” they called him, a nickname Chuck detested but accepted when it bought him a round of free drinks or a salutation on the street.
As skillfully depicted by Schreiber, Chuck is somebody who revels in the affirmation of others. He carouses his little corner of Jersey, puffed up by locals who call him “The Champ,” accepting overtures from women not because he’s a philandering cad at heart but because he’s almost genetically incapable of not returning any affection shown to him.
He’s the man who bleeds -- from his face, prodigiously, but also his heart.
Liev, an elegantly handsome actor, is surprisingly convincing as Wepner, with his permanently swollen features, arched eyebrows and fu Manchu mustache. His face resembles last night’s hamburger. Mostly, he seems like a guy trying desperately not to embarrass himself.
The story -- screenplay by Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Cristofer and Schreiber -- actually wraps up the Ali fight about a third of the way through. Chuck never harbored any illusions about beating possibly the greatest of all time -- he was already 36 and losing a step -- but was determined to go the full 15 rounds to prove the naysayers wrong.
Instead, the rest of the movie focuses on Chuck’s life after, when he coasted on his bit of celebrity as the nobody who stood toe-to-toe with the champ. (Pooch Hall plays Ali.)
Then, of course, “Rocky” happened.
The similarities between Sylvester Stallone’s breakout movie and Wepner’s real life are too close to pass the credulity test that Sly made it up on his own. In the film’s version of events, Chuck saw the movie winning a boatload of box office and a trove of Academy Awards as his own victory, too.
But he was too embarrassed to tell anyone, even his best friend, John (a fine Jim Gaffigan), that he wasn’t paid a dime for his story. Eventually, though, pride gets the better of him and he reaches out to Stallone (Morgan Spector), and a surprising connection forms.
One of the film’s disappointments is it completely sidesteps the legal wrangles and war of words between Stallone and Wepner, which went on for decades after “Rocky” came out. In some ways, “Chuck” takes too many pains not to make anybody look bad.
The movie gets the look and feel of 1970s Jersey right -- the loud clothes, the big Cadillacs, the dim bars.
Wepner’s relationship with his wife, Phyllis (Elisabeth Moss), follows the familiar up-and-down tropes of cinematic married couples, and we can’t wait for the marriage to end fast enough. Chuck runs into Linda (Naomi Watts), a hard-scoured bartender, who continually puts him off. But there’s something there, so we’re not surprised when she keeps turning up.
I also liked Ron Perlman as Al, Chuck’s manager and cut-man. Al uses Wepner as a piece of meat he could stitch up and put out there, just trying to get through the next round and the next fight, but genuinely cared about the man underneath the scar tissue. When his boxing career is clearly over, Al sets up a bout with wrestling star Andre the Giant to keep the money and the attention flowing.
“Chuck” stands out from a pantheon of boxing movies, the story of a guy who wasn’t the most skilled fighter or possessed of drive far above his talent level. Wepner was a guy who stumbled into and out of trouble, became famous almost by accident and struggled with that, too. Chuck always took his lumps, and endured.
Monday, May 22, 2017
At first glance, "Action in the North Atlantic" seems like a typical jingoistic World War II war drama, conceived to pump up the troops overseas and the folks at home, while delivering some thrilling action and a little romance.
And it is. All that is missing is a "Buy War Bonds" title card.
It's about the Merchant Marines, carrying oil and military arms across the sea where they are desperately needed by Allied forces while dodging German U-boats and aircraft. It's the usual "swell bunch of guys" rogue's gallery of supporting characters, playing cards and getting into beefs, while coming together in a swell way during times of duress, with occasional nostalgic asides about their swell gals back home. It's swell!
What sets it apart from the pack, though, are two things: the truly impressive naval combat sequences/special effects, and the realistic grim tone and depictions of violence.
Let's talk about the latter first. I was struck by the overt (for its time) depictions of bodies being flung away in explosions or otherwise severely traumatized. Usually in films of this era, you'd hear an explosion off-sceen and then cut to dissipating smoke as a noble hero lies dying, but largely undamaged other than some handsomely blackened cheeks.
In one early scene, a lifeboat full of men is rammed by a German submarine, and a body is seen being chewed up by its propellers. It's very brief -- I rewound and played the film frame-by-frame to confirm -- but still gruesome stuff.
Beyond the depictions of violence, though, is the dire sense of consequences ready to befall anyone. (Well, maybe not star Humphrey Bogart.)
During that same sequence, when an oil tanker is torpedoed and sunk, one of the younger crewman, Johnny Pulaski (Dane Clark), valiantly rescues one of his mates who got trapped in the mess room. He turns back from the clamor toward the lifeboats, busts through the door with an ax, shields him from the raging inferno, straps him into a life vest, then takes it off when they see the ocean is a pool of fire from burning oil, dives into the icy brine together, helps him swim under the glames... only to have the man drown a few feet from the lifeboat.
Similarly, the captain and first mate (Raymond Massey and Bogie, respectively) learn there are men trapped in the stern of the ship, and make to go back and rescue them personally. But they take one look a the burning deck in front of them and conclude it's suicide. Neither do they go down with the ship, though they are the last ones into the lifeboat.
That may not seem like a big deal. But normally we'd see some kind of "we'll find a way!" heroics. The fact they decline to sacrifice themselves in a brave but pointless act speaks to the realities of wartime.
And speaking of war, the depictions of it are just tremendous. By 1943 the U.S. military had accrued a decent library of stock footage from the war, which is sprinkled throughout the film. But for the most part director Lloyd Bacon, a workhorse of the Warner Bros.' pen, used actual actors on actual sets, often with fire and debris right up in their faces.
I was mentally comparing it to similar scenes in the recent "Deepwater Horizon," and "Action" holds up quite well 74 years later.
This is especially impressive given that war edicts prevented any filming at sea -- the threat of enemy submarines right off our coastlines being a very real thing in 1942-43. So everything was shot on the Warners lot, including some rather good ship models for the complicated maneuvers depicted.
Even by today's standards, the war scenes are engrossing and impressive.
(I should note that Bacon did not actually complete filming on the production, as his contract was up and a dispute with the studio resulted in an uncredited Byron Haskin wrapping things up.)
The story's a pretty straight line. John Howard Lawson penned the screenplay, from a story by Guy Gilpatric. Gilpatric got an Academy Award nomination for his work while Lawson did not, under the more arcane rules of the Oscars back then.
Massey plays Steve Jarvis, Captain of the tanker Northern Star, and Bogart is his wiseacre first office, Joe Rossi. Their ship is torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine, whose crew even films and taunts the survivors before running aground their lifeboat. Jarvis vows to get his revenge, and after some floating in a raft and a little shore time for lovin' and such, they get a new mission aboard the Liberty-class cargo ship Seawitch, and another scrap with the Nazis.
The Germans are repeatedly referred to as Nazis, though of course the terms are not interchangeable. The depiction of the enemy is one of the harshest I've ever seen in a WWII film, with the Germans seen as bloodthirsty killers not dissimilar from a pack of slavering wolves. They also speak their native language throughout, a notable departure for films of that era, in long dialogue scenes that can be annoying if you don't sprechen sie deutsch.
Alan Hale, Sr. -- daddy of "The Skipper" and a noted character actor in his own right -- plays "Boats," the older bosun who's in charge of the enlisted men. He rarely goes ashore, because that means facing legal papers from his growing gallery of wives, ex- or otherwise. Sam Levene plays "Chips," the vaguely ethnic veteran who can divine the movement of the Germans by the ache in his corns. He's supposed to be a veteran of World War I, though Levene was only born in 1905.
Dick Hogan is the young cadet fresh from Merchant Marine officer school, distrusted by the captain for getting his learning from books instead of the open sea. Though he proves himself able in the end. Julie Bishop plays the lounge singer who attracts Bogart's eye and becomes his wife in about a minute and a half.
Ruth Gordon, who would go on to an accomplished screenwriting career before becoming a star late in life, tackles one of her early acting role as Jarvis' loving wife. She would not act in another movie until 1965.
Wilhelm von Brincken plays the sneering German submarine captain. He has an interesting backstory. He met his wife in America while serving in the German consulate during World War I, and was arrested for espionage and sent to prison (including Alcatraz). Afterward he was recruited by Erich Von Stroheim to work in Hollywood, enjoying a busy career for the next two decades, including playing the Red Baron in Howard Hughes' "Hells Angels." When war came again, he was kept quite busy playing enemy commanders on land, sea and air.
"Action in the North Atlantic" may not amount to much more than wartime propaganda. But it's very well-done propaganda.
Sunday, May 21, 2017
As the superhero genre enters middle age, we’re seeing more films break out of the mold of the standard origin/call to duty/existential threat storyline. “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool” explored the comedy end of things. “Logan” goes the other way -- an uncompromisingly grim, sad and angry drama.
I heard one person describe it as the “Unforgiven” of Marvel Comics movies, and that wraps it up neater than I ever could.
Very loosely based on the “Old Man Logan” limited comics series, “Logan” is set a few years down the road in a dystopian future where nearly all the super-heroes (and villains) have been exterminated by a tyrannical government. Wolverine himself (Hugh Jackman) is a wreck: his fantastical healing power has withered, he walks with a limp and is racked by coughing. But he still has those freaky metal claws and a skeleton of unbreakable metal.
He’s staying incognito as a limo driver, earning money so he can buy a boat and put to sea, permanently. Logan is acting as protector/imprisoner of his old mentor, Professor X (Patrick Stewart), now in his 90s and suffering from dementia that causes him to go into fits – bad news for others when you’re talking about the world’s most powerful telepath. Puttering around as the help is Caliban (Stephen Merchant), an old enemy turned ally.
The threat is familiar: Mad scientists are experimenting with a new generation of mutants so they can harness their powers to do nefarious bidding. Laura (Dafne Keen), a mute young girl with abilities very similar to Logan’s, turns up to join their not-so-merry little band, which is soon being chased by mercenaries and… something else.
Once again, Logan acts as if he just wants to be left alone. But he’s constantly compelled to put others’ needs before his own.
Director/co-writer James Mangold gives us a relentlessly tragic film in which mankind has lost touch with its humanity, and the would-be savior is a self-hating fellow who slices people up with his claws. It was always an odd fit, trying to sandwich Wolverine into comics for preteens and PG-13 movies. Finally, the gore matches the character’s feral ferocity.
They needed three tries, but they finally got a Wolverine movie right – just in time to bring his grim saga to a close.
The most interesting Blu-ray bonus feature is “Logan Noir” -- an entirely black-and-white version of the movie. It also comes with a feature-length audio commentary track by Mangold, deleted scenes with optional commentary by Mangold, and a making-of documentary.
Thursday, May 18, 2017
It wasn't that long ago in the ongoing feast that is the American story when chefs were considered servants, not celebrities. Jeremiah Tower grew up in that Old World of privileged dining, where white-gloved underlings flitted to and fro, fetching exotic dishes that other nameless persons had meticulously prepared for well-heeled diners.
Then Tower crossed over to the kitchen side, bringing scintillating new ideas about cooking that permeated our culture and, in the process, upending the classic dynamic between the feeder and the fed.
Tower served as a bridge between two culinary traditions, a largely self-taught cook who ran huge restaurants and almost single-handedly created what came to be known as California cuisine, which blended classic French cooking with American tastes and a then-novel emphasis on local ingredients. He was this country's original celebrity chef -- not counting Julia Childs, whose province was teaching housewives to cook with flair -- and from the early 1970s to the early 2000s, countless rising young chefs looked to him for inspiration and emulation.
And yet, Tower's name is not one that resonates today in the minds of most people, even devoted gastronomes -- certainly not in the way of other chefs whose fame came after, such as Wolfgang Puck.
The new documentary from director Lydia Tenaglia, "Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent," explores not only the genius of Tower, but how and why it's been overlooked.
It's a penetrating portrait of a man who loves to be around other people, a naturally charismatic figure toward whom others are pulled, yet one who can be off-putting, stubborn and brittle. As depicted in this film, Tower is now wandering through his eighth decade of self-imposed loneliness, an obsessive artist whose first, and best, relationship has always been with food rather than the people who ate it.
Tenaglia’s background is in food television, including a long collaboration with Anthony Bourdain of "No Reservations." She interviews dozens of well-known culinary figures, including Bourdain himself, Martha Stewart and former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl, along with a host of other chefs who apprenticed under Tower or admired him from afar.
And there are talks with his few longtime friends, several of whom admit that despite adoring Tower for 40 or 50 years, they don’t truly know him. As Bourdain eloquently puts it, Tower has a private room inside himself that few, if any, have ever visited.
Tenaglia’s camera also follows Tower himself around his solitary contemporary perambulations, first living near the sea in Mexico, cooking exquisite dishes for 10 even though he’s the only guest at the table. And later, we shadow him during his brief, ill-fated attempt to return to high-profile restaurateuring, taking over the mammoth kitchen operation of Tavern on the Green, a New York City landmark where many chefs have failed to match quality to the quantity served.
The film’s best sequences explore Tower’s youth and unlikely rise as a chef. As a son to a distant, wealthy executive and a caring but alcoholic mother, Tower recounts long trips they took all over the globe, often for weeks or months at time, during which he was left almost entirely to himself. He was waited on hand and foot by servants, trying out every kind of food he could, memorizing and collecting menus, and eventually being taken under the wing of the kitchen staff.
"From early on, I really think food was my best pal, my companion," he says.
He tells the tale of walking alone along the beach near the Great Barrier Reef at the age of 6, encountering an Aborigine who shared a dinner with him consisting of the barracuda he had just caught. Tower vividly describes smelling the fish searing on a makeshift grill right there on the sand, rubbed with herbs the man had gathered from the jungle. It’s a moment of crystallized memory and pure magic, but one with a conclusion of unexpected darkness.
After misspent years in his teens and 20s, studying architecture at Harvard, exploring counterculture and cooking fabulous meals for friends, Tower found himself cut off from his rich boy’s allowance and in need of a job. Based on the strength of a berry tart he’d tasted and the recommendation of friends, he inquired about a job at Chez Panisse, the storied bohemian Berkeley bistro founded and run by Alice Waters.
Taking over as chef, Tower soon put the place on the national map, and also joined the freewheeling party of carefree souls ensconced in the kitchen -- cooking, eating, drinking, laughing, carrying on affairs. This included Tower and Waters, despite Tower knowing from an early age that he was gay. Eventually the personal and professional affiliation dissolved, ending in bitter accusations over credit for the cuisine.
The movie occasionally wanders chronologically, especially in the second half, in a way that doesn’t serve the storytelling process well. For instance, people who worked at Tower’s signature restaurant, San Francisco’s Stars, question why it closed up suddenly in 1999 after years of being one of the top-grossing restaurants in the country. Some even offer psychological divinations, insisting Tower became distracted with other ventures, or had simply grown tired of the gig. Then the documentary retreads this same ground near the end, offering another reason that is as mundane as it is likely accurate.
As you might expect, Tenaglia and her cinematographer, Morgan Fallon, lovingly caress the food with their lens -- kaleidoscopes of shapes, colors and textures that practically leap off the screen, burrow themselves into your soul and make you yearn to eat, no matter when your last meal was.
The latter portion of the film’s title, “The Last Magnificent,” comes from the nickname of Lucious Beebe, a 20th century journalist and top hat-wearing man-about-town who is credited with creating café society. It’s clearly a role Tower desired for himself -- the center of attention in a never-ending swirl of people who loved to gather together for conversation, comradery and, above all, great food. Yet his ability to push people away, even leave them furious, was as boundless as his skills at the stove.
The cuisine endures, but the fame did not. Jeremiah Tower was a celebrity, and then he became almost invisible. But as this probing documentary shows, he was always in the midst of a disappearing act.