Sunday, December 17, 2017

Video review: "Dunkirk"

A very atypical war movie, “Dunkirk” shows us the plight of the Allies during the lowest point of World War II, when hundreds of thousands of British troops were trapped on the shores of France with no way to get home. It’s a story of heroism, rather than individual heroes.

There are characters – the cast includes Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Jack Lowden, Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles and Mark Rylance – but they exist more as archetypes than specific people. Most of them are not even named, and their dialogue is restricted to the mission at hand.

There are no wistful remembrances of girls back home, or what job you had before the war, such as in “Saving Private Ryan.” Director/writer Christopher Nolan keeps his camera’s eye focused on the immediate peril, the mad dash to survive, and the nobility that ensued.

You might be surprised to find how little fighting there is in the film. Aside from an aerial dogfight and a few volleys of gunfire here and there, the movie’s intensity comes from the fear of death more than the actual depiction of it. Hans Zimmer’s musical score gives us beats and notes without much clear semblance of a melody.

If it sounds like I’m criticizing the film, I’m not. I appreciated how “Dunkirk” took a very different approach to depicting war, focusing more on the you-are-there experience of it rather than the geopolitical forces or personalities.

The film’s true triumph comes in showing us that, nearly 80 years on, there are still new stories to tell about that terrible conflict, and new ways of telling them.

Bonus features are quite extensive, and are the same for the DVD or Blu-ray editions. They consist of 16 making-of featurettes, each focused on a specific part of production. Like the film itself, they are divided into sections of Land, Air and Sea, along with another section dubbed “Creation.”

Collectively they essentially form a feature-length documentary about the making of “Dunkirk,” covering everything from camera work to the air battles and conjuring a flotilla of small private boats.



Thursday, December 14, 2017

Review: "Ferdinand"

It's interesting that the two best animated films of the year -- "Coco" and "Ferdinand," in that order -- have an overt Latin theme. "Ferdinand" is set in Spain against the backdrop of the popular national sport of bullfighting. It is an egregiously cruel and useless endeavor, but rather than take angry shots at bullfighting, "Ferdinand" shows us the pull of the opposite of aggressiveness and violence.

"Ferdinand" is a film about love, but also about masculinity. It's no mistake that there are literally zero female cows in this story, which focuses on young bull calves and later grown adults. They have been reared their entire lives being taught that the best -- and only -- joy in their lives will come from being selected by a matador to fight in the ring.

The matadors are, of course, still batting 1.000 in the ongoing contest, but the bulls don't know that. They are bulls, so the only legitimate form of behavior is to be aggressive and competitive with all other bulls.

Sound familiar? The nexus of sports and male behavior is often a toxic space.

Then along comes Ferdinand, a gentle little calf who prefers sniffing flowers to fighting. He's mocked by the other young bulls at the Casa de la Toro, a breeding and training ranch for their kind, and not a little bullying takes place. But he eventually escapes that crucible and grows up on a remote farm raised by a gentle girl, who nurtures that side of him.

And grow he does. Ferdinand ends up as a truly monstrous-sized bull, bigger than even than the greatest champion bulls of old. But he doesn't care about being the biggest or the strongest -- he just enjoys his life of quiet and peace.

(He is voiced by John Cena, which is a rather contradictory choice for a character who hates battle. I guess you could argue that since Cena is a fake fighter, that makes it somehow OK.)

Later Ferdinand finds himself back on the bull ranch, where he's once again forced to vie for a spot in the ring, or be sent to the meat factory next door.

He finds that his old tormentors have grown up, and added a few new faces. There is Valiente (Bobby Cannavale), chief bully and enforcer of the bull code. Peyton Manning does the voice of Guapo, who acts as Valiente's wingman but has star aspirations of his own. Anthony Anderson is Bones, the undersized bull who joins in the treatment of Ferdinand, mostly because he would be the next logical target.

David Tennant does the voice of Angus, a woolly bull from Scotland who can't see very well because of the long hair in his eyes. And Tim Nordquist is Maquina, the result of genetic splicing who doesn't speak much and has very robotic qualities.

Kate McKinnon delights as Lupe, a "calming goat" assigned to Ferdinand to keep him chill, but ends up acting as his bullfighting coach. She's a typical animated sidekick, mostly there for comic relief, but she also provides a lot of heart and not a little wisdom.

There's also a trio of trouble-making hedgehogs, another threesome of smug horses who all have Germanic accents for some reason, and El Primero, the aging matador (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), who insists on fighting the greatest bull for his final match.

"Ferdinand" has all the ingredients for an enjoyable kiddie flick -- plenty of action, cute critter antics, a bit of gastrointestinal humor. But it's the deeper themes that give the film surprising weight and meaning. Just like the bull who prefers flowers, this is a different kind of animated film that wants to do more than merely entertain.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Review: "The Shape of Water"

The greatest compliment I can give to a filmmaker is they make movies that aren’t like anybody else’s.

I didn’t much care for director Guillermo del Toro’s first few American films, but then I discovered his early Mexican stuff and fell in love. Subsequent efforts like “Pacific Rim” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” are films I cherish deeply.

Even when he wandered into a hothouse of Gothic silliness with “Crimson Peak,” I appreciated that it represented a singular vision unlike no other.

Like all of del Toro’s films, “The Shape of Water” defies easy convention. It contains elements of fantasy, horror, science fiction, comedy and even, most surprisingly, romance. Like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” it has a timeless quality, as if the story could have taken place a long time ago or a few years from now.

It’s a deeply affecting film that makes us feel and also makes us think. And it boasts no less than a half-dozen terrific performances worthy of consideration during the awards season. Even characters at the edges of the story feel complete and fully drawn.

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute youngish woman. In the opening minutes we observe her go through the quotidian routine of her day: waking, getting dressed, boiling eggs, shining shoes, a quick round of masturbation in the bathtub -- timed to coincide with the eggs, no less.

I liked that del Toro, who wrote the screenplay with Vanessa Taylor, included this last bit. It’s shocking, and it’s meant to be -- watching the main character get naked and rub one out moments after we’ve meant her. But it clues us in that Elisa is not some sexless fawn who deserves our pity because of her handicap, but a vibrant woman full of corners and contradictions.

After her amazing turn in “Maudie” earlier this year, it seems clear that Hawkins’ biggest competition for the Best Actress Oscar is… Sally Hawkins. She shows us Elisa’s yearning and doubt, but also her bravery and pride. What women.

Her entire life seems to be taken up with two things: her job, working as a cleaning lady at a secretive military laboratory, and her friendship with her next-door neighbor, Giles. Played by Richard Jenkins with humor and grace, he’s a fussy, aging commercial artist who frets about his baldness and loneliness. He repeatedly visits an awful pie franchise simply to chat up the sweet young boy working the counter. We get the sense, without it ever being stated, that Giles lost his day job because of his romantic impulses.

The lab where Elisa toils with her loyal friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is a dank underground steampunk denizen of white coat-wearing scientists and gruff military types tromping to and fro. We half expect to glimpse through an open door and see James Bond strapped down with a laser pointed at his nethers.

One day a hard man named Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives with a secretive container holding a wild water creature that he has captured. Elisa is repulsed by the man but strangely drawn to the captive.

Strickland is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, the sort who wields his privilege as a weapon. He is the man who never fails, because he is always willing to take whatever steps are necessary to reach his goals. To him it’s a simple equation: do your duty, reap the rewards -- rank, prosperity, family, a glossy new 1962 Cadillac DeVille that is most definitely teal and not green.

Elisa starts spending her lunches in the lab with the creature, and soon finds he’s not the fearsome, mindless beast Strickland would have everyone believe. She starts to bring him eggs to eat, plays music to soothe and even discovers he can be taught to use her sign language.

Things go from there… though not in the way we expect.

Doug Jones, a master of costumed performance, plays the amphibious man, with the help of a little CGI. He slightly resembles the Creature from the Black Lagoon, with some outer space alien added in.

The other notable character is Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), the chief scientist overseeing the creature. He objects to Strickland’s rough treatment, including the use of a cattle prod. He wants to learn from their captive rather than experiment upon him. At first coming across as a soulless technologist, Stuhlbarg’s wide, wet eyes clue us into a man whose heart is pulled in several directions.

The best thing about “The Shape of Water” is that we feel like the story could follow any one of these characters down their individual path and still feel satisfied with the journey. And to a large extent, the film actually does that.

It’s a story of two that is actually about many. We’re all connected -- sometimes in ways that are obvious, often more mysteriously.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Video review: "Kingsmen: The Golden Circle"

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” was a dashing, original and highly entertaining flick that spoofed the conventions of the spy genre while generally adhering to them. Its much-anticipated sequel, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” is none of those things.

This bewilderingly limp follow-up brings back the same cast and creative team, yet fails to recapture the magic. It’s got too many characters, a non-scary villain and seems too in love with itself to spare any affection for its audience.

You may remember that in the last movie, veteran superspy Galahad (Colin Firth) was killed, shot through the head. This proves only a mild inconvenience, as he’s resurrected in short order, minus one eye and lacking any memories. Though we just know his killer skills are residing there, Bourne-like, underneath the timid exterior.

Galahad protégé Percival (Taron Edgerton) takes center stage, as nearly the entire Kingsmen coterie of spies is wiped out by Poppy (Julianne Moore), who controls the world’s drug trade from her secret headquarters deep in the jungle, which she’s built to resemble her nostalgic middle America childhood. She has a plan to hold the world’s drug addicts hostage unless the governments pay her a massive ransom.

The key new wrinkle, the introduction of an American version of the Kingsmen, turns out to be the film’s biggest disappointment. They’re Statesmen, Kentucky whiskey-brewin’ cowboys in Stetsons – which suggests the British filmmakers can’t distinguish the New South from the Old West. Channing Tatum turns up as their best and brightest, but he’s soon sidelined in favor of a lesser operative (Pedro Pascal). Jeff Bridges chews his dialogue like cud as their top kick.

Director Matthew Vaughn still has the chops for some seriously fancy action scenes, as the camera spins around the combatants like an untethered raven, the action speeding up or slowing down as aesthetics needs be.

Whenever the bullets and blades aren’t flying, though, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is a cringe-worthy retread that’s more embarrassing than enjoyable.

Bonus features are pretty decent. The DVD comes with the “Kingsman Archives,” a collection of concept art photos and behind-the scenes stills, plus “Black Cab Chaos: Anatomy of a Killer Case.”

Upgrade to the Blu-ray edition and you add a feature-length making-of documentary film focusing on everything from the Kingsmen and Statesmen’s respective gear, “Suited and Booted,” to visual effects and Elton John’s guest-starring appearance.



Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review: "The Disaster Artist"

I am a virgin to “The Room,” at least the movie from end to end, though it exists as such a monumental cultural touchstone now that it’s impossible to be totally ignorant of its sideways charms.

Often called “the Citizen Kane of bad movies,” it has gone on to become a cult hit for its atrocious acting and nonsensical plot, with people packing midnight screenings to howl in laughter and shout out the dialogue in unison with the film, the same way their parents did for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Google it and you’ll find a multitude of gifs and memes, often centered around writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau’s hilariously inept line delivery (“You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”), vague Eurotrash accent and odd looks -- like an ‘80s hair band singer unaware of the passage of time and the fading of fame.

Showbiz people have long been fascinated by “The Room” and Wiseau, and indeed “The Disaster Artist” begins with a montage of (mostly) recognizable celebrities talking about how gobsmacked they were by the film. Director and star James Franco, along with screenwriters Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, have clearly created their movie as combination homage to/mockery of Wiseau.

He may have been a ridiculously inept filmmaker, but nobody can deny the man his commitment and passion, reportedly sinking $6 million of his own money into the project. No dummy, Wiseau has spent the years since “The Room” came out proclaiming that he meant it to be a comedy all along.

James Franco nails Wiseau’s Schwarzenegger-meets-Phonics speech patterns and odd affectations, and we get a great deal of amusement out of him and the film. I’m not sure if the movie ever truly gets us deep inside his head and reveals what makes him tick. As the closing scroll reminds us, to this day nobody is exactly certain of where Wiseau is from, how he got his fortune or even his real age.

Tommy befriends a wannabe teen actor, Greg Sestero, played by Franco’s real-life brother, Dave. Together they move to Los Angeles to be struggling young actors… although they don’t really struggle too much, as Tommy drives a white Mercedes and already had an apartment in L.A. in addition to the one in San Francisco. He resists any questions about his background, claiming to be from New Orleans, or the source of his prodigious wealth.

Greg is tickled to have someone supporting him financially and emotionally, and the pair set about the usual round of auditions and agency interviews, with hilariously predictable results.

At an acting class, Tommy is distraught when the teacher tells him he’s a natural screen villain, refusing to be laughed at or placed in a box. To buck him up, Greg says he should make his own movie, and we’re off to the races.

Tommy cranks out a script, drops a load of cash on a fourth-rate movie studio and hires a bunch of film veterans before they’ve barely finished their introduction. Seth Rogen gets in a lot of comic digs as the script supervisor who often acts as the de facto director, as Tommy’s on-set antics and abuse continue to spiral as the shoot goes along.

June Diane Raphael, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson and Jacki Weaver play members of the cast, actors who desperately want a paying gig on a feature film but soon recognize they’ve signed up for a one-man disaster parade. They’re the real unsung heroes of “The Room.”

The primary dynamic of the movie is the relationship between Tommy and Greg, who gets cast as the second lead in “The Room.” Greg gradually begins to realize he must separate himself from Tommy’s chaotic influence, helped by the urging of his new girlfriend (Alison Brie). The Franco brothers play off each other very nicely, keeping things comedic without tipping over into daffy.

Bad movies are not exactly a novel concept for good filmmakers. Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” lampooned a man far weirder than Wiseau. “Troll 2” might argue about which film truly deserves the crown of “Best Worst Movie,” as it also had a documentary made about it that used that title.

“The Disaster Artist” is a very fun and entertaining film that amuses and informs, without every truly getting below the surface of these characters. Purely on amusement factors, I give it Hi Marks.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Panic in Needle Park" (1971)

"You rat up, you don't rat down."
                                     --Detective Hotchner

"The Panic in Needle Park" was Al Pacino's second official screen role, but the first one of any consequence. It's mostly remembered today for that reason, though his co-star, Kitty Winn, actually won the best actress award at the Cannes festival in her own first starring role. But her career faded pretty quickly after this and the "Exorcist" films, and she retired from screening acting in 1978.

It's a pretty staggering performance by Pacino, his screen presence already fully formed and filled with that agitated vigor that would become his hallmark. His Bobby, a low-level street hustler and drug dealer, is a charming sweetheart when there's plenty of heroin to be had, but a manipulative lout when there's a panic -- aka an extended period of short supply.

Decades before "Kids" or "Trainspotting," "Panic" offered a grisly glimpse of drug-addicted youths hanging around Sherman Square Park, a meager finger of vegetation crammed along Broadway on the Upper West Side of New York City. The film was considered very shocking for its day -- it was even banned in several countries -- and is believed to be the first mainstream movie that depicted people injecting themselves with needles.

The nomenclature is a bit dated, as you might expect. Sleeping with someone is "making it" or, in more negative connotations, "balling." Users refer to their product, mostly heroin, as "junk." Or they just use vague references to available quantity: "Got any?" or "I need some." Though they are hesitant to refer to themselves as "junkies," preferring to say they're "chipping" -- using because they want to, not because they need to.

In their universal delusion, everyone is "chipping," especially Bobby and his new old lady.

Seen today, it's an episodic film that rambles through the highs and lows of the junkie lifestyle without a particularly cohesive narrative. It follows the perspective of Helen (Winn), a nice girl from Fort Wayne, Ind., who gradually dissolves into the counterculture, moving downward in association from artists to street scamps to whacked-out users, eventually becoming a prostitute and dealer herself.

Her lowest point, not actually depicted in the movie, is when she sells pills conned out of a doctor to some kids, and is arrested by "Hotch," aka Detective Hotchner (Alan Vint). The local "narco" cop, Hotch wears a leather jacket and long hair, drives around in a beat-up VW Bug and has more or less made Needle Park, aka Sherman Square, his own stomping grounds.

Hotch knows all the junkies, coexists with them on a largely peaceful basis of shared enmity, occasionally busting one of them and using them as leverage against their fellows. There's not much animosity among the ostensible friends, who understand the game and realize there are times they will be ratted out, just as there are times they will be the rat. Occasionally someone disappears from the park for awhile, then turns up again a few months later after their stint in jail is up.

As long as there is heroin and needles to be shared, this squalid form of friendship abides.

Richard Bright, best known as the enforcer Al Neri from the "Godfather" films, turns up as Hank, Bobby's older brother. He's a career criminal himself, but carries himself around wearing suits and a superior smirk. He's chipping too, but doesn't sully himself with handling the junk, sticking to burglaries of high-end apartments.

Hank will clear $600 in a single night (about $3,700 in today's dollars) and brags that he's never been caught, because he breaks toothpicks in the door lock in case the owners come home while he's burglarizing, and he can hop out the fire escape. He tries to help Bobby by bringing him in as a partner, but Bobby overdoses on the night of the job. They try again the next day, but a cop wanders into the alley and Bobby is sent off to the hoosegow for a few months.

During the break, Helen sleeps with Hank to keep her supply of dope rolling. Initially resistant to using, especially after seeing how Bobby turns into an inert zombie while high, she soon becomes a serious addict.

Both Pacino and Winn do impressive jobs playing high, wandering between euphoria and paranoia, with every stop in between. In one of the most memorable scenes, they decide to shoot up in the men's room of the Long Island ferry after buying a puppy on a whim. "I don't wanna be up while you're coming down!" Bobby snarls. He makes her put the whining pup outside the door, which quickly scampers off the edge of the deck and is lost in the swirling drink.

Other notable actors making early stops in their career are Raul Julia and Paul Sorvino. Julia plays Marco, the uncaring artist who got Helen pregnant, forcing her to undergo an unsafe and unsanitary abortion in the film's opening sequence. Bobby, turning up at Marco's studio to sell junk, takes pity on her and treats her kindly. That leads to them hooking up when Marco decamps to Mexico.

Sorvino's part is much smaller, as an agitated john of Helen's during her prostitution phase, who presses charges when she steals $75 out of his wallet.

"Panic" had an interesting genesis. It started out as a photographic essay of real junkies in Sherman Square published in serial form by Life magazine in 1965 by James Mills, who later turned it into a fictionalized novel. Husband-and-wife writing team Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne ("A Star Is Born") wrote the screenplay after John's brother optioned the rights.

Director Jerry Schatzberg had only made one other film following his own career in photojournalism, and would go on to direct a number of other notable films, including "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Street Smart," which launched Morgan Freeman's career.

Schatzberg goes for a very spare cinema verite style that works well with the film's sober, intimate tone. He even chose to throw out the entire musical score composed by Ned Rorem, relying on street sounds and chatter to from the movie's acoustic background.

"The Panic in Needle Park" isn't a great film in of itself, but it is a notable one worth revisiting. In addition to launching the career of Pacino and a bunch of other people, it depicted without varnish the toll hard drugs exact upon the flesh -- and the souls -- of people who think poison can replace what's missing.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Video review: "Despicable Me 3"

The “Despicable Me” franchise has gotten progressively more cutesy-futesy as time has gone one. The third iteration is still a decent family animated picture, though one built more for children than parents.

Some movies are great for the whole family. Others are ones you set up the kids with in the living room along with popcorn and spill-proof cups, while you go into the next room and stream “Game of Thrones” or what you have you. This is the latter.

Steve Carell is back again as the voice of Gru, spewing a thick, vaguely Slavic accent as a former criminal mastermind-turned-good guy. Gru went from basically being Dr. Evil from the “Austin Powers” movies to a happy, well-adjusted dude with a wife (voice of Kristen Wiig) and three adopted daughters.

Things go south for him quickly when he and Mrs. Gru -- not actually her name -- are booted from the international Anti-Villain League after they fail to capture Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), an ‘80s child star who has turned into the super-villain he used to play on TV.

Complicating matters further is the introduction of the twin brother Gru didn’t know about, Dru, who’s seemingly much happier, without Gru’s drippy bouts of melancholy but with a fabulous bouffant blond hairdo that contrasts grandly with his own chrome dome.

They get along well despite that, but then Gru recruits Dru to help him foil Bratt’s latest dastardly scheme, which involves a giant robot and bubblegum. Meanwhile, Dru is a little bored with the superspy gig and wants to get back to the family roots of dastardly deeds.

The uppity yellow minions, fresh off their own hit movie, are back with the usual gibberish songs and silly antics. As usual, they’re the best thing about the film.

Both “Despicable Me 3” and “Minions” grossed a billion dollars apiece at the box office, so expect to see a continuous helping of these movies for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, they’ll try harder to balance the zippy kid-friendly antics with a few more in-jokes to keep the adults tuned in.

Bonus features are pretty good, and include an all-new short film, “The Secret Life of Kyle.” There is also a making-of documentary, character profiles, one deleted scene, a “Minion Moments” feature, music video, mug shots and wanted posters, a sing-a-long with Pharrell and the Minions, a visitor’s guide to the Gru home country of Freedonia, and an Anti-Villain League database of secret spy stuff.