Sunday, June 26, 2016

Video review: "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot"

It crashed and burned at the box office, but “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is a wry and disturbing look at the underbelly of wartime journalism.

Tina Fey plays Kim Baker, a trepid reporter sent to cover Afghanistan in the years after the American invasion. At first put off by the threatening surroundings, alien fundamentalist culture and hard-partying ways of her fellow expats, she eventually learns to “embrace the suck” until the insane feels normal.

Very loosely based on a memoir by Kim Barker – I’m not really sure what the one-letter name change accomplishes – it’s a dark comedy with some surprisingly dramatic notes.

(If you’re wondering about the title, it’s NATO phonetic alphabet as used by the military; take the first letters of each word to obtain an all-encompassing acronym.)

Kim is a struggling cable TV news producer of a certain age who finds her life stuck. On a whim she accepts an assignment to Kabul, intending to stay three months but eventually signing on for the long haul. She struggles to adapt to life here, where foreign journalists all live in the same compound, drinking, dancing and sleeping together.

Tanya, a stunning veteran played by Margot Robbie, helpfully informs Kim that while she may be a “5 or 6” on the attractiveness scale in New York, here in the macho male-dominated “Kabubble” she’s at least a 9. Kim resists the urge to fall into people’s beds and instead racks up some impressive scoops with the help of Fahim (Christopher Abbott), a smart and sensitive local man who acts as her interpreter and “fixer.”

There is also a charming scamp of a Scottish photographer (Martin Freeman) offering his services, both professional and personal; a powerful Afghan official (Alfred Molina) trading in similar wares, though he wants to trade his for hers; and Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton), a severe Marine general who views Kim as another annoyance but eventually develops something resembling… grudging tolerance.

“This war is like f***ing a gorilla,” he offers, when asked about the state of the conflict. “You keep going until the gorilla wants to stop.”

It may not be as smart and sharp as, say, “Broadcast News,” but “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” provides a funny peek behind the curtain of those foreign reports we see on television – usually just for a moment before we change the channel.

We’ve cheered and wept aplenty about our foreign adventures over the last decade and a half, so here is a welcome chance to laugh a little, too.

Video extras are quite good, though you’ll have to spring for the Blu-ray upgrade to get them: the DVD contains exactly zero.

With the Blu-ray you get deleted and extended scenes plus a comprehensive making-of documentary, “All In.” There are also featurettes on the real Kim Barker, how the military embeds journalists, Afghan weddings and the vices foreign correspondents use to cope with the threat of constant danger.

Movie: B
Extras: B+

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Review: "The Shallows"

If you think "The Shallows" looks like an excuse to get Blake Lively in a bikini for 87 minutes and scare us with a CGI shark -- but not too scared; this is a PG-13-rated thriller, after all -- you'd be right. But not entirely.

Though at first this might seem like a rocks-in-its-skull-dumb movie, director Jaume Collet-Serra and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski manage to whip up a decently entertaining flick. It's in the tradition of "you are there" filmmaking that's made something of a comeback in recent years with movies like "Gravity." The idea is to put the audience in the protagonist's shoes.

Well, not in this case, since she isn't wearing any... or much of anything, for that matter. 

Lively plays Nancy, a nice wholesome girl from Galveston, Texas, who's come to Mexico to seek out the same beach where her mother went surfing while pregnant with her in 1991. Eventually we learn that mom has recently died and Nancy dropped out of medical school as a result. She's a typical screen heroine: smart, braver than she thinks, wary, a little disconnected from others.

She finds the beach alright and soon enjoys a marvelous day of tube-cutting and cork-rolling, or whatever surfers call it. (People of my hue stay away from the beach, as a rule.) She shares the cove with a couple of local guys, including one using a helmet with a waterproof camera to record his exploits, which we know will become important later. 

Then Old Mr. Shark shows up, trapping Nancy on a shoal just a couple hundred yards from shore. She's left with a nasty bite on her leg, which she patches up using her doctor skills. Meanwhile, the deadly predator circles and feints, clearly not going anywhere until he's got himself some Texas-style sushi. She sits and frets, watching her foot slowly turn purple as thirst and exhaustion leech the life out of her.

The photography and editing are quite good (courtesy of Flavio Martínez Labiano and Joel Negron, respectively), giving us some dazzling views above and below the water, and some quick cuts to stoke our sense of peril.

The film's biggest flaw is telegraphing too much of what's going on inside Nancy's head, rather then letting us watch her and figure out what she's thinking. For instance, as the tide rises, threatening to send her perch back underwater, she gazes at a distant buoy and says out loud, "Too far." 

It's almost like the filmmakers didn't trust their actress to convey her internal struggle using just facial expressions. Think about the long wordless stretches of "Cast Away" with Tom Hanks, and how effective they were without any verbal support.

Speaking of which, Nancy gets her own "Wilson," the volleyball Hanks befriended. In this case it's a wounded seagull, who got his wing bent in the same shark attack that injured Nancy. The filmmakers use this device for a little while, then set it aside.

"The Shallows" doesn't stack up against "Jaws," but then how many movies do? It's a short, engrossing film with modest goals, which it accomplishes well. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Review: "Dheepan"

"Dheepan" won the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and deservedly so. It's a French film that examines the lives of a family of refugees who fled to Paris, an issue very much top of mind these days. Director Jacques Audiard ("Rust and Bone"), who co-wrote the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debr, gives an empathetic look at people from an exotic land struggling to assimilate in the West.

Things would be hard enough for Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan), his wife Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and their 9-year-old daughter, Illayaal, (Claudine Vinasithamb). They're destitute people from warn-torn Sri Lanka, where the Tamil Tigers have fought a decades-long insurgency, and speak only a few words of French. They're placed in a public-assistance slum where drug dealers control every walk of life.

But there's an additional challenge for this family: they're not who they say they are.

Dheepan was actually a Tamil fighter who deserted after his real family was killed. Enlisting a random young woman in a refugee camp, they find an unwanted girl and together pose as a dead family, using their identification and concocted stories to gain access to French sanctuary.

So in addition to having to adapt to an alien culture and language, they're also negotiating a delicate dance as strangers who have to pass themselves off as loved ones. What makes the story so compelling is that they start off as an ersatz family and gradually evolve into a real one.

Dheepan is sober and serious, a man foreign to smiles and laughter. At one point he asks Yalini if she understands French jokes. She, naturally more sunny, tells him that he doesn't get their jokes because he has no sense of humor to begin with. 

He is given a job as caretaker for a cluster of buildings -- part janitor, part postmaster, part engineer. He takes his duties seriously but is constantly harassed by the criminals who truly run the place, making him wait outside before he can go in and sweep up their garbage. They dismiss him as the funny little foreign man, not knowing he's a trained soldier who's killed more men than all of them combined.

For her part, Yalini is enlisted to work for an old man (Faouzi Bensaïdi) who lives in the rougher building across the way, where Dheepan has been warned not to go. The man's nephew, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), is soon released from prison and takes up residence in the apartment, wearing an ankle monitor while he starts directing the criminal activity in the neighborhood. They form an odd bond, since Yalini labors to forge one with her supposed husband.

Meanwhile, young Illayaal struggles in school, set apart by the language barrier and the brush-off from some mean girls. But she slowly begins to transition to a healthier state, in many ways better than her "parents."

This is a very emotionally delicate tale, and the cast and crew pull off a remarkable feat in making all of the major characters relatable, even if their cultural background or motives might seem strange to us. Yalini gradually breaks out of the shell of housework and child-rearing women of her background are expected to stick to. And Dheepan confronts some of the chauvinistic and militaristic attitudes of his past with newfound disdain.

"Did you end up believing this story?" Yalini taunts him at one point, after a brief romantic flowering between the two has eroded into despair and strife. 

"Dheepan" is a story about the stories we tell ourselves, and finding that the greatest lies can become truth if we embrace them long and hard enough.

Review: "Art Bastard"

Robert Cenedella is so much of an artistic rebel, even the avant garde crowd treated him with disdain… or rather, he treated them so. “Art Bastard” is a documentary about a painter whose work cannot be classified, mostly because he refuses to accept any labels.

"Jeff Koons, he has a vacuum cleaner. Now it's art. At some point it's going to become just a vacuum cleaner again,” he says. “That's really where we're at at this point. The question isn't what is art. The question is what isn't art."

Writer/director Victor Kanefsky offers this probing look at Cendedella, now in his mid-70s, who managed to become controversial without ever really getting famous. Indeed, many of the interviews are with art experts or journalists talking about how trends come and go, a certain type of art becomes “hot” and then not, but Cenedella is as constant as the Northern Star, even as his aesthetic invariably evolves with the decades.

His paintings seem cartoony and even amateurish at first glance, specializing in large scenes with lots of faces and things going on, clashing and collaborating against an urban backdrop. It’s reminiscent of old-time political comic strips. But Kanefsky’s camera looms in closer and tracks across the images like a travelogue of a landscape.

This documentary explores Cenedella like a country with hidden vales and mysteries.

There is the rote biographical stuff: Cenedella grew up in a dysfunctional family in the 1950s, a weak father and a drunken mother. His dad, a prominent radio writer, was blacklisted for refusing to testify during the McCarthy hearings, and his subsequent upbringing was filled with poverty and anger. He was expelled from high school for refusing to sign a loyalty oath.

From there he wandered to the Art Students League of New York -- putting himself through school by selling “I Like Ludwig” pins -- where he came under the tutelage of George Grosz, a German Expressionist master. His skill and his taste for art grew like flower buds opening to the sun.

Cenedella was associated with the Pop Art movement for about a minute and a half, but he ultimately rejected the tongue-in-cheek treatment of commercial products as art like Andy Warhol’s crowd. Similarly, he discards pure abstraction like Jackson Pollock as “half a painting,” all technique without purpose.

He started to gain notoriety for his cheeky paintings, sometimes political, always personal. A rendering of Santa Claus crucified on the cross brought him no new friends. He would receive commissions and then have his art rejected for display. Cenedella just kept painting, experimenting with other styles and forms, such as a scenic painting two inches wide and five feet tall.

The film explores the artist from stem to stern, gets inside his head a little, provides a glimmer of his mischievous soul. There is happiness and fulfillment, such as his obvious loving relationship with his middle-aged son. And nearly incomprehensible tragedy and confusion, such as learning that his father was not his biological parent, but the man who was didn’t show any more skill at being a dad than the ersatz one.

Today Cenedella is back at the artists’ league, teaching in the very same classroom where his mentor trained him, passing along his skill and passion to others. “Art Bastard” is a portrait of the artist as an old man, still fiercely independent and alive.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Game of Thrones: Wrapping it up

There's only one episode and one season left of HBO's "Game of Thrones."

I'm still flummoxed how they're going to wrap all this up in just 11 more episodes. 

Bring on the wild speculation!

  1. Dany and her khal cross the Narrow Sea, supported by Yara, and make landfall in Westeros after defeating Euron, but with heavy losses. They land in Highgarden and make common cause with the Tyrells, and their combined armies make their push north.
  2. After many troubles, the Starks reunite around a returned Bran, the true heir of Winterfell. They make mincemeat out of the Freys but then fall to arguing about going after the Lannisters or defending the North from the White Walkers.
  3. Cersei is brought low by the High Sparrow, but with the help of Margaery whispering in Tommen’s ear, manipulate events to their advantage, possibly using some of the Mad King’s leftover wildfire. A certain 8-foot knight makes a messy end of the septon.
  4. Arya and the Hound hook up again for a vengeance spree, later being joined by Brienne, that culminates with Arya using her assassin skills to kill Cersei, and possibly Tommen, too.
  5. After a huge and nasty battle, Dany captures the Red Keep and names herself Queen. Tyrion becomes Hand again. Samwell becomes their maester/advisor. Brienne becomes Captain of the Kingsguard. Jamie is spared so he can take the black.
  6. Jon is revealed as the secret love child of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar, meaning he actually has a better claim on the Iron Throne. But he rejects this to lead the combined army against the White Walkers.
  7. Bran uses his powers to outwit the White Walker chief, and becomes Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. The remaining wildlings settle the barren spots of the North, with a few being made lords to replace some bad eggs.

Reeling Backward: "The Agony and the Ectstasy" (1965)

Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison were both booming screen presences with a decided tendency toward hamminess. They knew the taste of the scenery, and enjoyed it.

But I think both actors deliver some of their best work in "The Agony and the Ecstasy" -- a measure of restraint and disappearance into the character, as opposed to bursting out of the box as was their wont. Neither received Oscar nomination, and indeed the film in general was rather ignored during the awards season, receiving five nods from the Academy in only "technical" categories, winning none.

This, in a weaker year for film, with "The Sound of Music" winning Best Picture -- a film I've still not been able to bring myself to watch all the way through -- and the overwrought "Doctor Zhivago" and the overrated "Ship of Fools" forming its main competition.

I would put "The Agony and the Ecstasy" above them all.

It's a very good, borderline great film that takes a historical subject and muses upon the two men who made it happen: Michelangelo and Pope Julius II (played by Heston and Harrison, respectively). It falls into the category of what we now would call "historical fiction," based upon the book by Irving Stone. The story is part history, part mythology and part dramaturgy.

History is full of ironic inconsistencies. Like the Fourth Crusade, which departed to free Jerusalem from the Muslim horde but instead sacked the allied city of Constantinople. Or Joseph Cinqué, one of the slaves who fought for freedom aboard the ship Amistad later (by some accounts) becoming a slave trader himself.

Chief among fate's little jokes is that Michelangelo is probably best known for his painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, when in fact he labored nearly all of his life as a sculptor. The Pope insisted upon the greatest living artist decorating his chapel, despite Michelangelo's objections. This is the story of their clashing, from which emerged one of the enduring works of mankind.

Julius was known as the warrior-pope who fought many battles to keep the papal lands under Rome's control, rather than being gobbled up by the French and others. The movie depicts him literally sword in hand, wearing ornate plate armor and striking down his enemies in bloody splashes of violence. Harrison plays him as a vainglorious man given to fits of anger, but one who truly believes his mission in life is to exalt God and raise up his church.

The movie takes a little while to get really rolling. Michelangelo is working on the pope's tomb -- 40 statues, all told -- and clashing with Bramante (Harry Andrews), the pope's stiff-necked and territorial architect. Julius decides that his chapel needs some saints on the ceiling, and more or less forces the artist to do his bidding, at cut-rate wages.

There's a nice little speech that Raphael (Tomas Milian), another great artist of that age, gives about two-thirds of the way through in which he nicely describes the economics of artistry in the early 1500s. We're whores, he says, dependent on the wealthy and powerful to provide the funding to do what we are compelled to do.

Michelangelo certainly lives out this description on the film, repeatedly defying Julius only to eventually bend the knee and kiss the ring (quite literally).

His first rebellion is to start the portraits of saints, only to scrape them off the wall or ruin them with buckets of paint in a drunken fit after deciding "the wine is sour," meaning he has no creative will to do anything inspiring. After hiding out as a marble quarryman, he's struck by a vision to do a grand collection of frescoes depicting most of the pivotal acts of the Old Testament, centered by God's creation of Adam.

The image of a bearded old man reaching his hand out to Adam's is surely one of the most enduring images in the public consciousness.

Weeks become months, months become years. "When will you make an end?!?" Julius repeatedly shouts up to Michelangelo, high above the floor of the chapel on his scaffolding. "When I am finished!" the artist replies, equally thunderous. Michelangelo quits, is fired, gives up, but always returns to the task.

The film really gains steam in the third act, where first Michelangelo and then Julius are struck down by ill health -- exhaustion for the painter, war wounds for the pope. Each man is forcefully made aware of his mortality, and finds himself reaching out to the other for understanding. The dynamic of begrudged servant and domineering master slowly evolves into a pairing of mutual respect.

Director Carol Reed helmed a lot of "prestige" projects like this; he's probably best known for "The Third Man" and his Oscar-winning direction of "Oliver!". Screenwriter Philip Dunne ("How Green Was My Valley") turns in a fairly conventional but well-done piece in the "Great Man" tradition of moviemaking.

Diane Cilento has a fairly forgettable role as a matron of the Medici family, the powerful clan that controlled his hometown of Florence and first sponsored his artistry. The idea, a predictable one, is that the pair loved each other in their youth, but he chose sculpting as his expression of ardor, and she married another. Indeed, Michelangelo gives a speech in which it's made clear he essentially lives a monastic existence without sex.

Honestly, it's just an example of a very Y-chromosome movie in which the studio decided to inject a little feminine flavor.

Quibbles aside, though, I enjoyed "The Agony and the Ecstasy" a lot more than I thought it would. It's an exploration of how men accomplish great things, usually by sacrificing some large part of their personal happiness to rededicate to a noble endeavor.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Video review: "Midnight Special"

“Midnight Special” is a little science fiction indie that you probably haven’t heard of. It got talked up a lot among film geeks, turned heads on the festival circuit, but then was dumped into theaters without fanfare – or even bothering to screen it for critics.

It quickly disappeared, earning about $6 million against an $18 million budget.

Hopefully it’ll find the audience it deserves on video. While the movie has some flaws, it’s an engaging and offbeat supernatural mystery/thriller featuring some fine actors. The pacing is a little off -- the filmmakers hold onto their secrets too tightly and for too long, then overwhelm us with sudden revelations. But it’s got a verve of originality so often missing from this genre.

Michael Shannon plays Roy, a determined man on the run with is son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who is 8 years old and… peculiar. He wears dark glasses all the time, never goes out in the sunlight and is regarded by others with a mix of fear and awe. Tagging along is Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a former cop who acts as their knight-errant protector.

I won’t get into all the convolutions of the plot, but suffice to say they are both running away from something and running toward something. Men from The Ranch, an end-times cult that Roy and Alton used to belong to, are in pursuit along with the law.

Kirsten Dunst turns up later as Alton’s mother, who’s been in hiding. Adam Driver plays a sympathetic scientist trying to puzzle out Alton’s mystery. Sam Shephard plays the eerily charismatic Ranch leader.

Strange portents are all around, and there’s a giddy feeling like the movie could slip off in any number of directions.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” “Take Shelter”) is an original voice who deserves to be heard. Though “Take Shelter” doesn’t quite have the emotional punch of his earlier movies, here is a filmmaker who thinks outside the lines.

Bonus features are… interesting. Instead of the usual making-of documentary or commentary track, both the DVD and Blu-ray versions have five “Origins” featurettes on each of the five main characters. There’s also another featurette, “The Unseen World,” on the film’s metaphysical musings.