Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Review: "Last Flag Flying"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Review: "Coco"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 20, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Now and Then" (1995)

Pretty much forgotten today, "Now and Then" was dismissed at the time as a brazen ripoff of "Stand By Me" with girls swapped out for boys. That criticism is legitimate but doesn't completely define this good-hearted coming-of-age story, directed by Lesli Linka Glatter from an original(ish) script by I. Marlene King, two celebrated television creators who continue to work today.

The premise holds promise: gather four well-known adult actresses -- Melanie Griffith, Rosie O'Donnell, Rita Wilson and Demi Moore -- and pair them with four young counterparts to play the same characters at age 12. It doesn't quite hold water, though, as the youngsters carry the movie and the famous stars only turn up for brief bits to bookend the beginning and end.

The film is notable if only because most of the young actresses have gone on to significant careers as adults: Christina Ricci, Thora Birch and Gaby Hoffman. Ashleigh Aston Moore gave up acting a couple of years later, and died quite young a decade hence.

Their characters do line up uncomfortably close to the general personas of the boys from "Stand By Me." Hoffman is Samantha, the pensive writer with troubles on the home front who also narrates. Roberta (Ricci) is the troublesome, surly kid who gets into a lot of fights. Tina aka Teeny (Birch) is the one destined to break out of their cloistered small town and pursue greatness, in her case becoming a big movie star. Moore plays Chrissy, the "fat kid" (barely chubby by today's standards) who's not terribly bright and ends up being the butt of a lot of the jokes.

(Young Moore reportedly was required to gain 20 pounds for her role, which seems clueless at best and downright abusive in less kind lights.)

The idea is the girls make a pact in 1970 to always be there for each other -- "All for one, and one for all" is their borrowed mantra -- which brings them back together two decades later when Chrissy is pregnant, the first child for any of them. The film is set in Shelby, Indiana, though it was mostly shot in Georgia.

As with "Stand By Me," the quest that bonds them is the death of a young boy. Rather than a fresh body by the railroad tracks, though, it involves a gruesome murder of the kid and his mother decades earlier. While performing a seance in the local graveyard, Samantha thinks she's woken the spirit of "Dear Johnny," evidenced by his gravestone turning up broken, and they set off to solve the mystery.

Their antagonists are the Wormers, a foursome of grody brothers who like to play pranks on the girls, and vice-versa. This culminates with our heroines spying on the boys skinny-dipping and stealing their clothes, which results in a plethora of preteen nudity that tests the limits of the PG-13 rating. The oldest Wormer (Devon Sawa) secretly pines for tough Roberta, and they share a kiss... after she trounces him at some 1-on-1 basketball.

The supporting cast is broad and colorful. I really enjoyed Cloris Leachman as Samantha's frenzied grandmother, who takes on more of a role when her father walks out on her mother (Lolita Davidovich). Grandma takes pains to hide the details of Dear Johnny's story, and hustles off to bingo games with such enthusiasm we suspect it's a cover for some other activity.

Hank Azaria turns up as a smarmy candidate for the role of Samantha's stepdad; Bonnie Hunt is Chrissy's mom, passing on her fussy manners and tragically inaccurate information about sex; Rumer Willis has a bit role as Samantha's kid sister; Brendan Fraser plays a burnt-out Vietnam vet who shares cigarettes and a little hard truth with the girls; and Janeane Garofalo plays Wiladene, the town's resident creepy woman who's a diner waitress by day and a moonlights as a psychic-for-pay.

Walter Sparrow has a small but pivotal role as Crazy Pete, the ubiquitous scary old coot with a backstory that will flesh him out in the end.

The modern part of the story is too thin to have any real weight. Chrissy has turned into a prissy fussbudget just like her mom, her home a parade of doilies and reeking of excessive hairspray. Roberta became a doctor, though she doesn't seem very happy about it, or anything. Even during the warm-and-glowy scenes at the end, O'Donnell remains determinedly grim-faced for some reason.

Samantha has become a successful paranormal writer who can't commit to a relationship, wearing men's suits and an air of superiority. Teeny has already been married and divorced three times, and seems to thrive on any kind of attention she can get.

The movie has a clear television feel to it, although the production values are pretty decent. It suffers mostly from a sense of predictability, not to mention a "Wonder Years" type of hazy nostalgia that could use a few more rough edges. Even Samantha's frustration over her parents divorcing feels ephemeral and insubstantial.

To be honest, I'm not even sure how I came to include "Now and Then" in my look-back movie column. As I've mentioned in previous entries, I keep a voluminous list of flicks between my queues for Netflix DVD and streaming, Amazon Prime, stuff I've DVR'd -- mostly from Turner Classic Movies -- and new video releases of old films. The total generally hovers around 100 films, so it might be two or three years between selecting something to add and getting around to seeing it.

Possibly it was the Indiana setting, or the actresses involved, or the fact I once penned a newspaper column called "Now & Then," though that was in reference to the fact it ran only when I had space or time for it.

I at first struggled to get through the movie. The first half-hour or so rather clunky and borderline amateurish. But I warmed to the material as it went on, and ended up with the appropriately fuzzy/wistful feelings the filmmakers no doubt were hoping for.

This exercise has been a helpful reminder that, although Hollywood doesn't pump out the sheer number of movies it did during the Golden Age, the ratio of what stands out in memory and what doesn't has remained about the same. "Now and Then" may be a forgotten film, but it isn't forgettable.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Video review: "Wind River"

A half-step down from a masterpiece, “Wind River” didn’t quite get the attention or traction at the office as last year’s “Hell or High Water.” Both are thematically similar neo-Westerns written by Taylor Sheridan, who also steps behind the camera to direct. It’s a gripping tale of alienation, justice and revenge, and how those impulses mix together when a young girl turns up dead.

Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a hardscrabble man who is a hunter of hunters -- in his case, dangerous predators for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. Though with his big bolt-action rifle, peerless outdoorsman skills and dead eye, it’s apparent to anyone that his capacity to kill is not limited to the four-legged.

His jurisdiction, and his home, is the Native American reserve in the cold, craggy reaches of Wyoming, where the snows blow year-round. When a local teen turns up frozen to death, having fled across the icy ground barefoot, an investigation is launched. The local lawman (Graham Greene) goes through the motions, but an FBI agent is sent to do the real snooping.

Played by Elizabeth Olsen, Jane Banner is green enough to immediately be in over her head, and smart enough to recognize it. She recruits Cory to be her tracker, and the two begin to sift through the barely buried dirt of the reservation, where pride and despair resound in equal measures.

The scene where they interview the victim’s father, played by Gil Birmingham, packs as big an emotional wallop as anything you’re apt to see at the cinema this year.

Filled with a bleak, despairing sort of beauty, “Wind River” is one drama that hits its storytelling targets with surefire accuracy.

Alas, video extras are sorely lacking for this film. They consist of a few deleted scenes and a gallery of still photos from the set.



Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review: "Wonder"

"Wonder" is an old-fashioned, straight up weepie. Tears will be jerked, you can be sure. I liked the fact that the movie is unambiguous about its intentions, and carries them through effectively without irony or coyness.

Jacob Tremblay, who was so amazing in "Room," plays Auggie Pullman, a boy of 10 born with severe facial defects. He's been through 27 surgeries -- his family displays the hospital wristbands as a collage -- and has been home-schooled all his life by his ferocious devoted mom, played by Julia Roberts. Now, as he enters 5th grade, it has been decided it's time for him to integrate into a regular school with other kids.

Well, sort of. In Hollywood parlance, a "regular school" is an exclusive New York City private institution, Beecher Prep, where families that live in multi-million-dollar brownstones pay something like the U.S. median household income to send their kids to rub elbows with the best of the best. But for the purposes of the story, which is based on the best-selling by R.J. Palacio, what's important is that he's around other children consistently for the first time in his life.

The underlying themes of the movie are bullying and otherness. Mom and dad (Owen Wilson) send Auggie to school with the full knowledge that he will be stared at and picked on. They figure it's something he's going to have to deal with sooner or later, and calculate he's reached a level of emotional stability to deal with it.

Also, there's a subplot about the mom wanting to complete her master's thesis that was put on hold a decade ago to be his full-time guardian and tutor. And, frankly, she rightly wants to reclaim a little piece of her own life. I admired that the filmmakers -- director Stephen Chbosky, who co-wrote the script with Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne -- included this dynamic.

I know it runs counter to commonly accepted precepts and hagiography about mothers, but I personally think it's unhealthy for parents to let their kids think they have nothing going in their lives beyond raising them. Part of being a role model is not being afraid to display ambition and individuality.

The makeup effects on Tremblay are very good, to the point I didn't recognize him until I read the credits afterward. Auggie is a smart, sensitive kid who likes science and Minecraft, and has adapted pretty well to life inside his family unit. He tends to wear an oversized astronaut's helmet in public to avoid stares; it's his armor, really. So he has a tough time when his parents ask him to relinquish it.

Auggie does face teasing and isolation, but also picks up a friend in Jack Will (Noah Jupe), a poor scholarship kid with a nice streak. The joy on mom's face when he brings home a pal to play is worth the price of admission alone. Still, old troubles soon follow and Auggie finds himself estranged again.

He's got an older teen sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), and I was impressed the film devotes a significant amount of screen time following her life and seeing how it's impacted by having a brother who soaks up every ounce of attention from their parents. She's quiet and shy, and dealing with an unexpected fallout with her own best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell).

She starts to blossom when she joins the school theater club, and meets a cute, funny boy named Justin (Nadji Jeter) who takes a fancy to her.

I also greatly enjoyed Mandy Patinkin as Mr. Tushman, the headmaster of the school who understands the way kids actually think and behave, rather than the idealized regard in which their parents hold them. He is infinitely patient and kind, makes jokes about his name before the students have a chance to, and even manages to treat the bullies in a way that lets them know they are not irredeemable. He's basically the Santa Claus of educators.

"Wonder" plays out exactly the way we expect. Given the premise, we could practically write the ending ourselves. But it's still a touching movie that celebrates the weak and the meek, and shows there different kinds of strength.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: "Justice League"

All is forgiven for "Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice." The DC Comics supergroup franchise that seems like it's been teased for an eternity finally arrives with a peal of thunder.

"Justice League" is a huge, sprawling, action-packed film that also finds time to let each of the characters show a little of their heart. I know the fanboys may want wall-to-wall combat, but it's just meaningless fireworks unless we grasp what the stakes are. Director Zack Snyder and screenwriters Joss Whedon and Chris Terrio manage to find time for everything a good superhero film needs, and keep it just under two hours to boot.

Yes, it's a little goofy. Occasionally over-the-top so. Comic book movies have taken a decided turn toward comedy in recent years, and there's no putting that toothpaste back in the tube. Most of it is centered around the Flash (Ezra Miller), the self-designated comedic relief. Every team needs a cutup, I guess. Miller accepts the role with enthusiasm and aplomb.

My only really major complaint with the movie is that the villain isn't terribly memorable. He's a pretty generic big ol' axe-swinging dude promising to bring about the end of the world named Steppenwolf -- and no, it's not terribly imposing to have a bad guy named after a middling Canadian rock band. Portrayed by Cirian Hinds via motion capture with an oversized horn helmet, he looks like he could have stepped right out of the most recent Thor movie without skipping a beat.

And OK, I'm not too keen on the latest iteration of Aquaman, played by Jason Momoa. And not just because yet another blond superhero has been turned brunette for the movies. (Though Momoa at least has now-you-see-em, now-you-don't highlights.) He's portrayed as a surly, tatted-up dude who likes to blow into fishing towns to gargle whiskey in between saving lives. He's like a benevolent biker meets Caine from "Kung Fu."

When "BvS" left off, Superman (Henry Cavill) had died battling Lex Luthor's monstrous creation, leaving the world without hope. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is still brooding, but he's committed to the idea of putting together a group of meta-humans to head off looming threats. Strange bug-like flying men have taken to popping up here and there, attracted by the smell of fear.

His only recruit thus far is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who he sees as the logical replacement for Superman's beacon of virtue. But she's hesitant to take up that mantle, for reasons we saw in her solo movie earlier this year.

Wayne's other targets are Aquaman, Flash and Cyborg. Flash's only power is the ability to run crazy fast, and also generate electrical impulses while doing so. As he himself says, he's no warrior: "I've just pushed people and run away." His super-speed sequences are depicted in slo-mo, much like they did with Quicksilver in the "X-Men" movies, and there's one great scene where Flash gets a surprise of his own.

Cyborg (Ray Fisher) is your classic man/machine hybrid, who doesn't understand the full of extent of his expanding powers and sometimes even struggles to control them.

The team also gets a late, unexpected addition to the roster in time for the third act, but I'll say no more.

The plot is the usual gobbledygook about cosmic doohickeys being rediscovered and fitted together somehow to create end times. In this case, three square Mother Stones that were hidden away eons ago to prevent them from being combined to create the Unity.

(It's disturbing how weapons of cosmic destruction are always given such soothing names in the movies. How about the Hellacious Doom-Bringer?)

The action is frenetic and sometimes a little hard to follow. It's interesting to watch the different fighting styles of the heroes. Batman is all about intricate moves and outsmarting your opponents -- a necessity as he's the only league member lacking super-powers -- while Wonder Woman is a straight-on badass warrior who uses her sword, shield and magical rope, which forces people to reveal the truth.

Aquaman does more than just speak to fishies, wielding a trident and his own measure of super-strength. Cyborg's body is basically one big Iron Man suit, with a new gadget to pull out for every situation.

"Justice League" isn't nearly as good as the first Avengers movie, but it delivers a DC team flick that's undeniably entertaining. After the letdowns of "Man of Steel" and "BvS" -- and let's not even talk about that Green Lantern disaster -- the "other" comic book empire has finally put solid wood on the ball.

Post-script: Stick around during the credits for a couple of neat bonus scenes. The first recreates one of my favorite comic book events from my childhood, while the second demonstrates how out-of-touch I am with the modern comics scene.

Review: "The Square"

The Cannes Film Festival's highest award, the Palme d'Or, has increasingly become an emblem of European disdain for American/British cinema rather than a token of respect for the film that wins it.

Once a major indication of the best foreign films coming down the pike, it's reached the point of such irrelevance that it's now uncommon for the Palme d'Or winner to even receive an extensive theatrical release in the U.S. If you can name last year's winner without the help of Google -- it was Ken Loach's "I, Daniel Blake," for the record -- then I bow before your film trivia superiority.

This year's winner, "The Square," is a refreshing departure, a Swedish film that's actually thoughtful and engaging -- and will actually be seen by people outside of New York, L.A. and Chicago. Written and directed by Ruben Östlund, who made the terrific "Force Majeure" a few years ago, it's a rumination on art, morality and power.

Our protagonist is Christian (Claes Bang), the chief artistic director of a major museum housed in the former Stockholm castle of the Swedish royal family. In the opening scene he is interviewed in English by an American television journalist, Anne (Elisabeth Moss), who seems entirely dim and unprepared for the questions she is to ask. Christian labors not to be condescending, talking intelligently and passionately about the role between art, the museums that present it and their patrons.

His museum is about to debut a new outdoor exhibit, from which the film takes its title, a square of light amidst the stone tiles that is, well, a trifle boring. It's supposed to challenge guests to think about how they regard each other and the spaces they share. "The square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations," reads the display plaque.

Challenged to drum up excitement and donations, Christian and his team have engaged some young hotshot marketers who have very... bold ideas about how to promote The Square. Unfortunately, Christian is too engaged in his own personal events to properly oversee the plan.

Early in the film Christian has his pocket picked by some inspired thieves with a complex con job. Rather than simply call the police, Christian pressures a young employee (Christopher Læssø) to help him find his smartphone via its internal locator. Then they hatch a scheme to  have his effects returned, and things grow more and more dire.

I was occasionally bewildered by "The Square," but never bored by it. For example, in one character's apartment we are surprised to see a gorilla, apparently living there as a companion -- a fact that goes uncommented upon by anyone.

Later, the theme of beastly behavior is reprised in what is undoubtedly the film's most pivotal scene. At a lavish fundraiser at the museum for its wealthiest patrons, a piece of performance art is debuted in which a man (Terry Notary) portrays a great ape. The guests are warned they are about to encounter a savage creature, but they will be in no danger if they acquiesce to its dominance -- don't look him in the eye, etc.

The dynamic shifts as the scene plays on, and it becomes a parable about when and how we should separate performance and reality. Are acts really deplorable if they are committed under the rubric of "art?" At one point should the artist and audience interact? Be opposed?

These questions are further explored in the audience's relationship to Christian. At first a seemingly benevolent figure, he gradually shrinks in our eyes as he becomes more and more willing to trade his integrity in order to protect himself and his position.

At one point he becomes engaged in a conflict with a boy of about age 12. The kid is being entirely unreasonable, and acting as if a grown man should be subservient to his demands. But how Christian responds is even more troubling.

Men and beasts, adults and children, artists and audiences -- these are relationships that often balance according to the whims of those who hold power, and how they choose to wield it. There are times in life where we must agree to be dominated, and others where we are the one who dominates, and not enough occasions upon which we simply exchange trust.