Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review: "Menashe"

Menashe, a widower in Brooklyn’s tightly cloistered Hasidic Jewish community, is known to be a world-class schlimazel -- Yiddish for “unlucky person.” Though in this engrossing drama from director/co-writer Joshua Z. Weinstein, I’d say Menashe is more of a schlemiel than a schlimazel. That’s a bumbler who screws up all the time.

"The schlemiel spills his soup on the schlimazel," goes an old saying that helps distinguish the two.

Played by Menashe Lustig, upon whose real-life experiences this fictional film was based, Menashe is the loser in his extended family, who regard him with a mix of pity and contempt. He’s the guy who never made good, working in a kosher grocery while other men his age are running businesses of his own.

Husky and sweaty, he ambles about the neighborhood in his shirtsleeves and tzitzit frock, eschewing the proper coat and hat of other good Jews. His son, Rieven (Ruben Nidorski), loves his daddy but is keenly conscious of how he is looked down upon by most everyone, especially his uncle, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), a successful real estate dealer.

Menashe lost his wife, Leah, almost a year ago and has been separated from his child ever since. According to The Ruv, the powerful local rabbi played by Meyer Schwartz, a boy must be raised in a proper two-parent household. The Ruv quotes the Torah, saying a mensch must have a nice home, a nice wife and nice dishes.

Menashe has been resisting matchmaking efforts, including one scene where he tells a woman widowed just four months ago that she’s “not my type,” which leave her more bewildered than insulted. In their community, marriage is about bonding families and raising children, not romance.

“And you’re everything I’d pray for in a husband?” she retorts contemptuously.

Shot over the course of two years within the Hasidic neighborhoods and told almost entirely in Yiddish, “Menashe” is the story of a man who lives both within and outside the traditions of his people. He is industrious in his job, but often shows up late or drops the fish. He dearly loves Rieven but rebukes the boy for poor impulse control that he himself mirrors.

Mostly, he craves the respect that eludes him. Menashe has complicated feelings about his wife, the result of an arranged marriage that was not a happy one. He argues with Eizik about custody of his son, requiring the intervention of The Ruv. This results in them being temporarily reunited, a few days during which they can bond while exploring the boundaries of their fractured relationship.

Adorned with a simple sort of beauty, “Menashe” takes us deep into a people of traditions that may seem strange to most eyes, where we recognize problems and conflicts that occur everywhere humans make their home. It’s a reminder that all of us play the schlimazel at some point in our lives, as well as the schlemiel.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Video review: "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2"

Usually when a movie is successful enough to merit a sequel, the inclination is to do more of what the first one did well. An action flick must be even more packed with it, a supernatural thriller needs bigger twists, and so on.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” was the first flat-out comedy superhero film. Yet rather than just go for more laughs, the filmmakers made a conscious decision to focus on character-building rather than just yuks. I think it was the smart move.

“Vol. 2” doesn’t have the freshness and zing of its predecessor, but it’s a satisfying extension of this corner of the Marvel universe – which, in this case, is a good chunk of the actual universe.

The gang is all back: smirking human hero Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt); green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana); muscular brute Drax (Dave Bautista); genetic creation/pilot/racoon/raconteur Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper); and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), the monosyllabic, tree-like creature who was mostly destroyed in the last movie and has returned as a pint-sized shoot.

The basic plot is that the Guardians are once again being chased by a bunch of galactic forces for various reasons, mostly of their own making. They run into an odd being named Ego (Kurt Russell), a powerful alien who claims to be Peter’s father. Everyone hops back to his DIY planet to hash out familial connections and hidden motives. There we meet Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Ego’s assistant/pet, an empath whose naivete about mortals is a strange parallel with Drax’s tendency to verbalize the things most people would leave unspoken.

Returning characters include Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora’s death-seeking, cybernetic sister, and Yondu (Michael Rooker), the colorful space pirate who kidnapped/adopted Peter when he was a boy.

It’s not better, but I would say “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is in many ways bigger than the first movie. Its ambitions, and the depth of its mythology, has expanded considerably.

Video extras are quite expansive, though you’ll have to spring for the Blu-ray edition, as there are none on the DVD.

These include a four-part making-of documentary; intro featurette with director James Gunn; a galactic retro dance party music video; gag reel; four deleted scenes; and a feature-length audio commentary track with Gunn.

There is also some bonus material available digitally, including breakdowns of three key scenes that shows how CGI-heavy movies are built up layer-by-layer. And there’s a sneak peek at the forthcoming Guardians ride at Disneyland.



Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: "Wind River"

“I know you’re looking for clues, but you’re missing all the signs.”
                    --Cory Lambert

Last year’s “Hell or High Water” was my pick for the best movie in a very good film year, and writer Taylor Sheridan is back with another superlative crime drama for late summer, “Wind River,” which he also directed.

Sheridan, who also wrote the screenplay for “Sicario,” has quickly become the most authoritative voice of the modern Western. His stories are ones of revenge, the pioneer code, paying for old debts. They’re very old-school, male-centric films, yet this one also has a strong female character near the center.

Moving from West Texas to the Arapaho/Shoshone Indian reservation of hardscrabble Wyoming, “Wind River” is steeped in Native American culture but has two Caucasian main characters. I’m sure some people will find that politically objectionable for its own sake, but the very theme of the film is about strangers -- the interlopers who barge in, and the outsiders within our own midst.

This is not one of those reservations with a big casino and fat gold belt buckles. It’s a land of bitter cold and bleak mountains that keep people apart. They huddle in mobile homes against snows that pile deep even in spring, drowning in drink, drugs and despair. A fleeting shot shows some locals burning pieces of their house to stay warm.

Cory Lambert is very much integrated into this community. A hunter of predators for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, he roams the land on a snowmobile, tracking deadly beasts that prey on livestock and, occasionally, people. He’s searching for some lions that took down a steer on his father-in-law’s ranch when he finds a teenage girl’s body in the snow.

She’s beat up and barefoot, and the frostbite extends up to her ankles -- telling you how far she walked before finally falling. “That’s a warrior,” Cory intones.

This is the first role since “The Hurt Locker” that gives Jeremy Renner full rein to explore a character from the inside out. A f’real cowboy -- he trains his own horses, makes his own bullets and favors a lever-action rifle over modern snipers -- Cory doesn’t talk much but speaks volumes. There’s a lot of hurt in his own life, and his marriage to a Native woman (Julia Jones) has crumbled.

Elisabeth Olsen plays the intruder, Jane Banner, a young FBI agent sent out from Las Vegas to investigate the death. She’s resilient and smart -- shrewd enough to know she’s completely out of her element in a land where six reservation officers patrol a land the side of Rhode Island, and screaming winds and 20 degrees below zero can cause lungs to bleed, and then freeze.

“Luck don’t live out here,” Cory warns.

Jane recruits him to be her scout and tracker, though Cory clearly has his own ideas how the investigation is going to play out. Visiting the dead girl’s father (an amazing Gil Birmingham), Jane clumsily displays her privilege and presumption, seeing the man’s pride and stoicism, and interpreting that as hardheartedness.

When Cory shows up and the dad melts into his arms, we’re as astonished as she is. They share a connection no one else can.

Acting as facilitator is Graham Greene as the reservation police chief. He knows the people and wants to do the right thing, but also understands that his job will continue after the feds have gone back home. “Hey, don’t look at me. I’m used to no help,” he says.

They follow the tracks in the snow, which leads to questions, which suggest possible answers.

If “Hell or High Water” was a bona fide masterpiece, then “Wind River” is just a half-step down. It doesn’t quite have the same narrative momentum, tending to pool in eddies of contemplation rather than driving a potboiler plot.

But this approach has its own rewards, as in a scene where Jane goes into Cory’s home, and we sense the pull between them and think we know what’s going to happen. But it’s another form of intimacy that takes place, where the leathery gunman opens up his heart in a way we can’t possibly imagine John Wayne doing.

Today’s cinematic cowboys kill, but can also weep.

Review: "The Hitman's Bodyguard"

I kinda liked “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” even though it’s a pretty rote, predictable march through all the buddy cop tropes.

Though I guess we should call it a buddy spy flick, since Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds don’t play law enforcement types but superspies, the kind who can chop-socky their way through a crowd of bad guys while the camera spins around them, or take out three dudes with three bullets from 100 feet away, while hundreds of the foes’ bullets never seem to find their mark, or if they do it’s a cute little nick that doesn’t slow them down.

It’s frenetic, fast-paced, filled with lots of quips intercut with some rather bloody carnage, Reynolds doing his charming/nervous thing and Jackson dropping a torrent of mother-effers like only he can.

It’s a fun movie. It’s not particularly smart or original; every character fits snugly into their square or round peg. We know the pair are going to hate each other, then grudgingly work together, and wind up as eternal besties.

Gary Oldman turns up as the villain, a Belarussian dictator named Dukhovich who’s on trial in the Hague for war crimes. All the witnesses against him repeatedly turn up dead, so it looks like he’s going to get sprung. Oldman alternates between chilly threats and monomaniacal raving, his cheeks even touched with a spot of pox so the bad guy can be easily picked out. It’s the sort of role Oldman has played a thousand times and could do in his sleep.

Jackson is Darius Kincaid, a legendary assassin who seems to be the last witness left against Dukhovich. Things go badly with the Interpol protection squad, led by tough lieutenant Amelia Roussel (Élodie Yung), making it obvious there’s a rat in their midst.

(Hint: always look for the swarthiest fellow amongst the Caucasians.)

Roussel is forced to call in Michael Bryce, formerly king of the protection agency game and also her ex-boyfriend. His last big gig protecting a Japanese arms dealer ended poorly, so now he’s the bottom of the barrel instead of triple-A rated -- a standard that may or may not actually exist, but one he’s obsessed with reclaiming nonetheless.

It seems Michael and Darius have often been on opposite sides of a sniper rifle from each other, so there’s bad blood. The story (screenplay by Tom O’Connor) turns into a road picture as they are chased over land, air and sea on their way to the Hague, which is going to close the proceedings against Dukhovich unless Darius shows up by 5 o'clock the next day.

(I guess the Hague judges never heard of stays? Or testimony via live video feed?)

According to what I’ve read the budget on this picture was only $30 million, and director Patrick Hughes milks a ton of high-adrenaline action scenes out of that tidy sum. A combination road/boat chase through the canals of Amsterdam was my favorite, a sequence worthy of a Bond flick.

Along the way they fight, give each other the slip, bicker over M.O.’s and lady loves -- Salma Hayek plays Darius’ imprisoned squeeze -- and even sing a couple of songs. Jackson does an off-tune rendition of “Nobody Gets Out Alive,” which I assumed was a classic blues standard, but is actually a new song the actor wrote and performed himself, delivering a much better version for the closing credits that’s worth hanging around for.

It’s the only part of the movie I would deem triple-A rated. The rest is one-and-a-half As, at best. (Aa?)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review: "Brigsby Bear"

I’ve seen a lot of weird movies in my day. Last year’s “Swiss Army Man,” in which a castaway befriends a corpse, was one of the weirdest. But “Brigsby Bear” is probably even stranger… not to mention an absolutely wonderful, wonderful film.

How to describe this off-kilter comedy? Well, first I’d say that while it’s made by a bunch of people known for comedy, and it indeed does have many wry moments, it really isn’t a humorous film. It’s an unusually emotional experience that centers around a disconnected character who gradually finds a way to insert himself into a world where he’s always been an observer.

It’s also a very hard movie to review without giving away key bits you should experience for yourself. I’ll try to give you the premise without all the moving pieces.

James (Kyle Mooney) is a 30ish man who is still very much a boy in most ways that are meaningful. He lives in isolation with some folks (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) who are loving but a little distant. His only real experience of the world beyond their desert bunker is “Brigsby Bear Adventures,” a cheesy kids’ TV show in which a guy in a bear costume with an enormous head leads the audience through weekly adventures involving intergalactic space adventure, while also learning some life lessons, and maybe a little grammar and math.

Think of “Barney” mixed with a heavy dollop of “Star Wars” and “Sesame Street,” with the production values of Canadian cable access.

The villain is Sunsnatcher, who looks like an orange planetoid with a face and goatee; one of Brigsby’s key allies is Goody Goose (a total visual rip-off of Donald Duck); and James has literally grown up with the Smiles Sisters, twins with telekinetic powers.

(James has fallen in love with Arielle Smiles, but is indifferent to Nina.)

James is utterly obsessed with the show, now deep into the 700s of episodes, and hosts an online fan club for Brigsby followers to argue about the very convoluted mythology and plot lines, much like people do about “Game of Thrones.” His bedroom is full of Brigsby swag, right down to his clothes and bedsheets.

Anyway, through a series of circumstances James is pushed out into the greater world, where he finds himself with a new family he doesn’t really know. He’s also very curious as to why nobody seems to know anything about Brigsby, which as far as he knew was the most popular show there is (not to mention the only one).

Michaela Watkins and Matt Walsh play his parents, desperate to reconnect after such a long separation. Ryan Simpkins plays his sister, Aubrey, deep into her own teenage issues and resentful of so much of the spotlight being shifted onto her sibling, who disappeared long before she was even born.

Claire Danes plays the therapist assigned to help James transition into his new life, and Greg Kinnear is the detective on the case, who becomes involved in an extracurricular capacity. Jorge Lendeborg Jr. and Alexa Demie play friends of Aubrey’s who get sucked into his orbit. Andy Samberg (also a producer) and Kate Lyn Sheil turn up in small roles as people who cross James’ path.

Mooney, who also co-wrote the script with Kevin Costello, is a wonder as James. With his spaghetti curls and glasses, he resembles Napoleon Dynamite’s less assertive kid brother. His awkwardness and naivete are nth level off-putting, yet somehow we find ourselves caring about this peculiar little man.

Dave McCary, a rookie as a feature film director, manages to balance a very tenuous tone that includes shadings of tragedy, mirth, resentfulness and the purest joy. “Brigsby Bear” is one of the oddest, and oddly satisfying, things to see at the cinema.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Wreck of the Mary Deare" (1959)

"The Wreck of the Mary Deare" starts off as a seaborne action/adventure, turns into a character study and winds up as a staid courtroom drama/whodunit -- with a little splash of excitement at the end.

It's a well-made but schizophrenic film with jarring segues between land and sea. The movie is mostly notable today for marking the end of Gary Cooper's film acting career, the peak of Charlton Heston's and the beginning of Richard Harris'.

Alfred Hitchcock was originally slated to direct, but couldn't find a way to prevent it from turning into a courtroom procedural without jettisoning much of the novel by Hammond Innes. Hitch and his writer, Ernest Lehman, turned the project over to screenwriter Eric Ambler and British journeyman director Michael Anderson (“Around the World in 80 Days”), who pressed on.

Cooper suffered ill health during a big chunk of his latter years, and would be diagnosed with the cancer would claim his life shortly after the release of "Wreck." Despite having to suspend shooting several times due to his illness, Cooper still mastered a physically demanding role as Gideon Patch, a disgraced seaman trying desperately to retain his honor -- and keep his captain’s license -- after the ship under his command is abandoned by the crew.

He would only make one other film, “The Naked Edge,” before his death at age 60.

As for Harris, it was his first major film role – and nearly his last, at least on this side of the Atlantic. He hated the Hollywood filmmaking experience so much he returned to England straight away and eschewed American productions for years.

Harris plays Higgins, the devious second mate of the Mary Deare, who’s secretly working in cahoots with the owner to scuttle the ship to hide the fact the expensive cargo, some newfangled airplane engines, had already been offloaded in Rangoon. The captain had been lost at sea right before, and Patch, as first officer, took over.

Heston plays John Sands, a salvage team member who first sees the Mary Deare as a huge payday, an intact cargo ship floating dead and abandoned in a stormy sea. He clambers aboard to find Patch shambling about the decks like a ghost, covered in soot and muttering about the crew jumping ship even though the fire that caused the panic had been contained.

He has a large cut on his head from being brained by one of the crew (probably Higgins) and spends his first stretch of screen time seeming addled or senile. He orders Sands to help him beach the rapidly sinking ship on the Minquiers (aka "the Minkies"), a series of teeth-like rocks in the English Channel. Then, Patch extracts a promise from Sands not to tell anyone about the fact that the ship isn't at the bottom of the ocean until the official board of inquiry. He implies Sands will receive full salvage rights in return.

We spend the middle part of the movie wondering wondering about these two men -- whether Sands is merely a soulless mercenary, and if Patch's motivations are truly what he says. We learn Patch previously lost another ship under his command and had his license ("master's ticket") suspended. Another screw-up on his watch would mean the end of his career.

He sets about what seems very much like a cover-up: refusing to answer questions by the insurance company or owner of the ship; seeking out the daughter (Virginia McKenna) of the dead captain to see if he has letters that support his claim; renting a fishing boat so he can secretly go out to the wreck on his own; obscuring the full truth from Sands and his partner, which includes the fact Patch accidentally killed he captain when the latter attacked him in a drunken rage.

Then we arrive at the courtroom sequence, during which things look worse and worse for Patch. The rest of the crew testify he gave the order to abandon ship, though Patch denies it. He wants to read a statement before the court to explain everything, including revealing the fact the ship was not sunk. 

When this is discovered independently by other salvage crews -- thus depriving Sands of his payday -- it seems Patch has no allies.

The last sequence sees Sands and Patch joining forces again to secretly dive through the holes in the ship's hull to investigate if the airplane engines are still in the hull of the Mary Deare. Cooper, an experienced scuba diver, did his own stunts.

The movie is tied together only by the inimitable screen presence of Gary Cooper, whose ease at projecting a sort of plain decency allowed him to be one of the few actors to bridge the silent and sound film eras. We probably suspect Patch is going to turn out to be a hero, since that's the only kind of character he played. 

Gideon Patch is a more brooding sort, but the outcome of "The Wreck of the Mary Deare" is never in doubt.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Video review: "Alien: Covenant"

“Not an utter embarrassment” is unfortunately the new bar for films in the “Alien” franchise, and I’m pleased to say the latest iteration manages to clear that low threshold quite easily.

It breaks no new ground and gives us no character as compelling as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. But it puts the people through their familiar paces with technical and emotional vitality in a way that will leave audiences not exactly thrilled, but surely not disappointed.

It’s nice that original director Ridley Scott, after seeing his movie pass through the hands of multiple imitators, finally took back the reins himself with “Prometheus” and now this film, which exists as its sequel within the (admittedly somewhat murky) timeline.

The set-up is that a space ship is carrying thousands of hibernating humans (and some fertilized embryos) to a distant solar system to colonize it. When a solar flare damages the vessel, the crew is awakened early – all except the captain, who is incinerated in his sleeping pod.

Not wanting to face the prospect of living and dying before they reach their destination, and too scared to go back into hibernation, the crew settles on a nearby planet that appears to be able to sustain life. Billy Crudup is the fickle second-in-command calling the shots, while Katherine Waterston is the more sensible subordinate who we know will eventually take over.

The rest of the cast includes Carmen Ejogo, Demian Bichir, Amy Seimetz and Danny McBride. Interestingly, the crew is made of matched romantic pairs, so there’s a lot of tension about protecting loved ones and, soon enough, mourning them.

Michael Fassbender returns as an android named Walter assigned to help the humans. He previously played another, more malevolent “synthetic,” David, in “Prometheus,” and that character turns up again, a bit implausibly. Their clashes and ruminations about the mystery of human behavior represent the movie’s high point.

When the planet turns out to be populated with the iconic aliens -- face-huggers that give way to two-mouthed killers -- the blood starts flying, the character clashes grow more intense and the aliens start spreading.

Taken purely as a popcorn flick, “Alien: Covenant” is filled with plenty of creepy, moody sequences set apart by bursts of high-octane action. It’s not like it was in “Alien” or “Aliens,” but it gets a passing grade.

But seriously, when are people going to figure out the thing that made the first two “Alien” movies great was not the critters, but Ripley? Maybe Scott or somebody will realize Weaver is still around, and still pretty spry.

Bonus features are pretty substantial, starting with a feature-length commentary track by Scott. It’s bothersome that so many storied directors -- Spielberg, Coppola, etc. -- have refused to do commentaries. He also takes part in a “Master Class” documentary on making the film.

There are also a dozen deleted or extended scenes, gallery of production photos, and six making-of featurettes.