Sunday, May 29, 2016

Video review: "Gods of Egypt"

“Gods of Egypt” is kind of a junky movie, but not an unenjoyable one. It’s a sword-and-sandals fantasy epic that tries to follow on the financial success of the “Clash of the Titans” and “Thor” movies, but without the A-list stars or first-rate CGI. Despite its schlocky aspects, I couldn’t bring myself to hate the film and even enjoyed it on some puckish level.

Frankly, this is the sort of flick that would’ve made a prime pick for “Mystery Science Theater 3000” ridicule back in the day.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (“Game of Thrones”) plays Horus, the god of air, who’s about to be crowned king of all Egypt after his father Ra decides to step down. In this postulation, the gods are 8-foot-tall super-powered beings who dwell among the humans and rule them, but are still flawed and mortal.

Then his uncle, the power-mad Set (Gerard Butler), usurps the throne and kills Ra and a bunch of others. Horus has his eyes plucked out, robbing him of his unerring aim, and is banished. Then a young human thief named Bek (Brenton Thwaites) steals an eye from Set, kicking off a series of events that includes full-scale war between the gods.

This is essentially another superhero movie, with many of the same dynamics at play. Horus is a good but vain god, and must learn to lead humans instead of lording it over them.

Director Alex Proyas (“Dark City”) and screenwriters liberally borrow elements from other movies and insert them here, including sand snakes straight from “Dune” and gods who transform into metallic form for battle a la Iron Man. If you’re looking for originality, look elsewhere.

But if you’re willing to watch something ironically, I think you’ll find “Gods of Egypt” has a bounty of riches waiting to be tapped.

Bonus features are decent, though you’ll have to get the Blu-ray edition to possess most of them. The DVD comes with only two making-of featurettes, “The Battle for Eternity: Stunts” and “A Window into Another World: Visual Effects.”

With the Blu-ray you add four more featurettes on costumes and makeup, shooting on location in Australia, the cast and the overall vision, plus storyboards.



Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review: "Alice Through the Looking Glass"

I quite loathed 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland,” but here’s a pretty penny.

This sequel with only a tertiary connection to Lewis Carroll’s second Alice novel manages the rare feat of significantly outshining its predecessor. If the first film was “an exercise in cynical regurgitation,” to quote some meanie critic (*ahem*), then this movie gleefully tosses the books aside for its own freewheeling cogitation on the characters and dizzying world Carroll created.

“Alice Through the Looking Glass” is, dare I say, an exercise in audacious originality.

Screenwriter Linda Woolverton is back while director Tim Burton is not, and it pains me to say that his shifting to a producer role is undoubtedly for the best. Burton has worked with star Johnny Depp so much that he seems to have lost the ability to reign in the actor’s kookiest impulses, ceding the storytelling process to his latest costume-and-accent fetish.

In the last movie, Depp’s Mad Hatter character was a discombobulated mashup of emotions and loony behavior, a coy nincompoop one moment and a sword-wielding war machine the next. Even nonsense needs a consistent sensibility.

James Bobin, an accomplished television writer/director with only one other feature film to his credit (“Muppets Most Wanted”), gets the call and wisely keeps the Hatter in check.

Set three years after the last movie, “Glass” finds Alice (Mia Wasikowska) the captain of her late father’s shop “Wonder,” just returned from a long excursion to the Far East. Alas, upon sailing home to London she finds the family fortune raided by the local lord, whose marital advances she rejected before her deep dive down the rabbit hole into Underland.

Alice rejects the insistence of her mother (Lindsay Duncan) that she must sell the ship and give up her adventures. “I want to believe I can do as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” she stamps.

After stepping through a looking-glass portal, she finds herself returned to Underland just as Hatter has taken ill. He believes that his family, whom he long believed killed by the Jaberwocky serpent at the behest of the evil Red Queen, is waiting to be found. Alice must travel through time to save them.

The only way to do this is by stealing the Chronosphere from Time himself, here represented by Sacha Baron Cohen as a stern-yet-comical figure who oversees the great clock controlling the universe – both Underland and our world. “You cannot change the past, but you can learn from it,” he warns.

Thus sets off a jaunty trip through multiple time frames of Underland, so we get to visit with Hatter, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and their critter friends when they were younger, and then as pups. I should mention that the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), with her outsized head and matching rage, returns as well, wooing Time to get her own hands on the Chronosphere.

As before, this is a CGI-heavy romp of bright colors and wondrous backgrounds, somewhere between medieval and Dickensian in setting, pure whimsy in tone. We learn a little more about Hatter – including his real name, Tarrant Hightopp – though not the exact origin of his… specialness.

“Alice Through the Looking Glass” is an unexpected surprise: a movie you thought you were going to hate that turns out to be quite a gem.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Review: "X-Men: Apocalypse"

So here is the other other big Marvel Comics film franchise, though don’t expect any crossover between mutants and Avengers anytime soon.

“X-Men: Apocalypse” is a big, rousing, sprawling and often messy epic, the sixth in the series and the fourth directed by Bryan Singer. (Not including the “Wolverine” spinoffs.) Still, it hits its themes of alienation and xenophobia solidly, brings in an effective new villain to threaten humanity and gives us some entertaining super-vs.-super scraps.

I liked it about as much as I did “Captain America: Civil War,” which plumbed similar subject matter. What’s different here is that with the previous film, “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” the entire franchise has been retconned, i.e. reimagined with an entirely different flow of history and events.

Essentially, they hit the “Restart” button on the X-Men. This is their first adventure in a new universe.

Part of this was simple logistics: the actors playing Storm, Jean Grey, Beast, Cyclops, etc. were getting a mite long in the tooth to play characters who are supposed to be stuck in that comic book realm of perpetual late 20s to early 30s. (Let’s face it, watching Kelsey Grammer trying to hump around in a blue suit was getting downright embarrassing.)

So now the cast is led by Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult as Mystique, Professor Xavier and Beast, respectively. We also introduce a bunch of new actors to take over other roles: Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, who has uncontrollable killer beams projecting from his eyes; Kodi Smit-McPhee as transporting shadowman Nightcrawler; and Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, a telekinetic/telepath with untapped power.

The story is set in 1983, 10 years after the last movie. Humanity has begrudgingly come to accept the existence of super-powered folk. Though, as one character notes, “Just because there’s not a war doesn’t mean there’s peace.” Mystique, previously a villain, is actually held up as a role model by many young mutants, such as Storm (Alexandra Shipp), here a fledgling thief in Cairo.

Meanwhile, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has moved on from his vengeful ways, working as a humble steelworker in Poland, and even has a wife and young daughter. But, as always with him, dark urges beckon.

Events are brought to a head with the resurrection of Apocalypse, though he does not call himself that, an ancient being who regards himself as the father of mutants. Over the centuries he has transferred his consciousness into new mutant bodies, acquiring their abilities. Played by Oscar Isaac in impressive purple/black armor and makeup, he’s determined to cleanse the world of weakness and rule those he deems strong enough to live.

The story (screenplay by Simon Kinberg) is all go-go-go. We jump from one threat to the next, one confrontation to another. Along the way there will be many deaths and wholesale destruction, including Xavier’s entire School for Gifted Youngsters.

Quicksilver, who made such an impression in a brief spot in the last movie, gets a bigger role here, again played by Evan Peters. He can move so quickly that to him it seems the rest of the world is moving in slow motion – even bullets and explosions. If you thought his hyperactive exploits were impressive last time, wait till you see how he lends a hand now.

“X-Men: Apocalypse” is a big, big movie -- 2½ hours long, dozens of characters. I haven’t even mentioned who makes up the Four Horsemen. If you’re like me, you may lose track of the names and faces. Plus there are brief cameos, including a certain bestial fellow with a harsh point to make. From a pure entertainment perspective, it gets the job done.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Up the River" (1930)

Yes, John Ford again. I recently did a double feature of Frank Sinatra films in this space, so I figure there's no harm in doing it again with another artist.

"Up the River" was not Ford's first feature film, or even his first sound film. He made dozens of silent features starting in 1917, most of which have not survived the ages. "River" is notable mostly for having the first screen credits for Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart.

(Though both had appeared briefly in uncredited roles prior.)

This largely unheralded body of work represented John Ford's training ground, as he learned the craft of filmmaking, studied other directors' work, found his ethos as an artist and started to build his famous stable of pet actors. It was he who recommended both Bogie and Tracy to the studio, but they were both dropped after this film was made. (And surely regretted it in perpetuity.)

It was the only time Ford and Bogart ever worked together, and it would be nearly three decades before he and Tracy teamed up to make a film again.

It's a wacky comedy about a bunch of jailbirds, busting in and out of prison, falling in love and whatnot. It's rather amusing, a parade of broad caricatures and easy jokes, though if it weren't for the two main stars I doubt the film would be much remembered.

There are no pristine prints of "Up the River" surviving, so watching it takes some patience. It's scratchy and poppy, with a lot of distracting marks and missing frames. Dialogue will cut out in the middle of a scene and pick up half a sentence later, so it's helpful to watch with subtitles to track the missing words.

Bogart plays Steve, the good-hearted young kid doing a short stretch after making a bad choice. It's hard to think of Bogie as a youngster, even a little disconcerting. Tracy too, though he didn't physically change much from young to old, just getting a little grayer and thicker.

Some Hollywood stars remain stuck in time, at least in our minds. Spencer Tracy is forever the sage father figure; Julia Roberts will always be the sprightly ingenue.

Humphrey Bogart seemed born in early middle age and only went a little further. But he once was a smooth-faced, sharp-jawed stripling, as in this film.

Steve comes from a well-to-do family in New England, and they don't even know he's in prison. His family believes he's working in China, and he even has friends there who send fake correspondence from time to time. While working as an interviewer for incoming inmates, he meets Judy (Claire Luce), a 21-year-old who got sucked up into the rackets by Frosby (Gaylord Pendleton), an older crook who passes himself off as a fine gentleman.

In one of those things that only happens in the movies, Steve and Judy fall irrevocably in love after just two meetings totaling perhaps five minutes. They make plans to get married after they get out, start at the "bottom rung of the ladder," and become respectable again. Frosby tries to put the kibosh on that by moving into Steve's hometown, threatening to brow his cover as an ex-con if he doesn't play ball.

Tracy plays "St. Louis" -- that's the only name he ever goes by; I assume it's a nickname but since even the warden calls him that, we'll never know. He's a dapper career criminal who's a celebrity among convicts and lawmen alike. The opening scene shows him escaping from a state prison along with his sidekick, Dannemora Dan (Warren Hymer), a cigar-chomping dimwit with a good heart.

Those two stage another escape in order to go help Steve out. This culminates in a prison variety show in which St. Louis performs a knife-throwing act on a very nervous Dan. When the lights go out, they dress up as women and sneak out with the wealthy benefactors who came to watch the show.

This sequence includes the incredibly painful spectacle of two white actors performing in blackface as "Black & Blue," an aw-shucksin' pair in the Amos and Andy mold. In the middle of this travesty, Ford even cuts away to a closeup of an African-American prisoner in the front year screaming in hysterics at the act. I realize this was simply how many folks felt back then, but it's still tough to watch.

The script, by Marine Dallas Watkins, contains a lot of pratfalls and other vaudevillian slapstick comedy of the era. It is notable for the naturalistic acting of Tracy and Bogart. We even get a preview of Bogie's famous clenched-jaw grimace, which he would later go on to express depths of pain in noir and romantic films of the 1940s and '50s.

This was very much an era in which cinema was seen as an offshoot of the legitimate theater; the credits still use the term "the players" in introducing the cast. Ford and other pioneers of the advent of sound pictures started to move away from that very stiff, formal style of acting.

While modern audiences might have a tough time sitting through "Up the River," for both aesthetic and moral reasons, it's an energetic and amusing film for its era. And it launched a trio of Hollywood giants.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Video review: "The Finest Hours"

“The Finest Hours” is in the finest tradition of derring-do true life adventures in which ordinary men did extraordinary things, and you’re going to hear about them.

It’s the story of the 1952 rescue of the SS Pendleton, which was split in two by a fierce storm off New England. Men from the U.S. military’s least-celebrated branch, the Coast Guard, get their moment in the spotlight as we learn how they effected one of the most daring rescues in naval history.

Chris Pine plays Bernie Webber, a crew leader stationed in Cape Cod. He’s a gentle soul, rather dim, speaks as if he’s got a mouthful of cod and crab all the time like any good Greater Bostonite. He actually believes the old seaman’s lore that he has to seek permission from his commander (Eric Bana) before getting married to his girl, Miriam (Holliday Grainger).

Frankly, he’s the guy the other Coast Guard guys pick on, though he’s too oblivious to realize it, and too kind to do anything about it if he did.

But when the storm hits and there’s nobody else to help, Bernie picks a handful of guys and they take off on their tiny powerboat to brave waves the size of cliffs. Ben Foster, one of Hollywood’s most reliable young character actors, shines as Bernie’s unexpectedly loyal right-hand man.

One of the best storytelling decisions by director Craig Gillespie and screenwriters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson was not to treat the men onboard the Pendleton as faceless and helpless. Casey Affleck plays Ray Sybert, the chief engineer, who organizes his team to keep the remains of the ship afloat. They even rig up a makeshift navigation system using spare parts and spit.

I found the movie interesting because it’s the story of two men, neither of whom are natural born leaders, who stepped into the fray when the call came and found that others looked to them for guidance. The film serves as an appreciation for the alpha male, the fellows who are usually stuck in the background of movies like this.

The seaborne action sequences are well-done and often thrilling. Bernie’s boat actually crashes through the waves rather than trying to go over them, briefly becoming a submersible craft as the desperate men hold their breath. Gillespie lets the seconds tick by as we expect the boat to emerge back into the life-giving air… any moment now…

“The Finest Hours” may not win many points for originality. But it’s a solid blend of action, drama and historical celebration.

Bonus features are pretty good, though you’ll have to spring for the Blu-ray upgrade to get the majority of them. The DVD version comes only with a documentary about the real-life rescuers, “The Finest Inspiration: The U.S. Coast Guard.”

With the Blu-ray edition you get three making-of featurettes: “Against All Odds: The Bernie Webber Story,” “Brotherhood” and “Two Crews.” You also receive firsthand accounts of real-life Coast Guard rescues and two deleted scenes.



Thursday, May 19, 2016

Review: "The Angry Birds Movie"

Movies fail for all kinds of reasons. Poor casting, bad story structure, uninspired direction -- even the music can ruin a moment. I’ve seen it all, and generally don’t hold it against the filmmakers. They swung, they whiffed, maybe they’ll do better at their next at bat.

The one reason I can’t abide, though, is sheer brute laziness.

“The Angry Birds Movie” is a merchandising opportunity in search of a movie. It’s based on a video game, and the batting average for that conversion is still .000. And the Angry Birds games aren’t even really games, they’re apps -- ways to pass the time on your smartphone while you’re waiting for the dentist.

There are no characters, no story, no drama. You just plink bird ordnance at pig structures to smash them. Ostensibly it’s because the pigs stole the birds’ eggs and they’re angry about it… but you never even get to the eggs.

You might as well try to make a film out of tic-tac-toe.

Still, the total lack of a format means rookie directors Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly and screenwriter Jon Vitti had no structure to hold them back. They could make up any kind of scenario they wanted and inserted imaginative characters and situations into them. Totally free reign.

Instead, they slapped together a droning mélange of quips, crude body humor and zippy action. Entire scenes and exchanges of dialogue seem improvised on the spot, which is impressive (in a way) for an animated film with an estimated budget of $80 million.

Little kids may be carried along by the bright colors and goofy action. But this parent was bored nearly to the point of walking out.

Here the birds all live on one happy island, protected by legendary guardian Mighty Eagle, who’s more aspirational than operational these days. The one malcontent is Red (voice of Jason Sudeikis), a pugnacious bird with Groucho Marx eyebrows and a tendency to lose his cool. For his crimes he’s sentenced to anger management class, led by hippy-dippy chickie Matilda (Maya Rudolph).

His classmates are Chuck, a hyper-fast yellow bird voiced by the excitable Josh Gad, and Bomb (Danny McBride), a burly black fellow with a tendency to literally explode when stressed, though his body is only slightly singed in the process. (The movie’s metaphysics are suspect.)

Oh, and there’s a massive red bird named Terence the size of a blimp -- he mostly resembles Red on steroids, eyebrows and all – who only ever glares at people and grumbles. I’m astonished to learn he is voiced by Sean Penn, who has hereby accomplished the Method Acting pinnacle of getting paid to grunt.

Anyway, the green pigs roll up on the beach one day offering friendship, led by the officious Leonard (Bill Hader), and they quickly set about spoiling bird paradise with their machines and noise. It’s all an excuse to make off with the birds’ eggs for their feast … which they sure seem to take their time getting around to. (Three-minute boil, anyone?)

Eventually, an hour into the movie, the birds starting launching themselves into the pig town via a giant slingshot the pigs brought with them, also for reasons unknown.

Mighty Eagle makes an appearance, gallantly voiced by Peter Dinklage, having now gone to seed. His first undertaking, after Bomb and Chuck have bathed in the mystical lake on top of his mountain, provides the movie’s sole laugh-out-loud moment.

As I say, I don’t often get mad about bad movies. But when you can feel the people who made them not trying, consider my feathers ruffled.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Review: "The Meddler"

"The Meddler" is a movie without a lot of big moves, but it spins joyfully in its own little circle.

Susan Sarandon plays Marnie, a Jersey widow who moves out to Los Angeles so she can smother her daughter with kindness. The daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne), pushes her away at every turn, so Marnie continually seeks out other venues in which to insert herself in other people's lives.

That's pretty much the entire story. It may not sound like enough for an entire movie, but writer/director Lorene Scafaria ("Seeking a Friend for the End of the World") and Sarandon give us a wonderful character study with a lot of heart and a little wisdom, too.

This is one of those deals where you just enjoy spending time with these characters, and that's enough.

Sarandon tries on an agreeable Brooklyn honk (though it has a tendency to fade a bit from time to time) as she narrates Marnie's story, told largely through a series of long -- and unreturned -- voice messages she leaves for Lori. It's mostly rote checking-in kinda stuff, here's what I'm up to, hope things are going well with you, etc.

But Marnie unwittingly slips in constant little digs that tear at Lori's fragile psyche. She's a successful writer who's got a new TV show lined up, but recently broke up with her boyfriend (Jason Ritter) who's also a big action movie star. She's getting on in years, cherishes her independence but also quietly pines for children, and Marnie is there to pick-pick-pick at all her insecurities.

A mother's love is boundless -- which is another way of saying it's ceaseless.

Marnie is an interesting gal. She's not exactly dim, but she's not very self-reflective and instinctively crosses over borders. Years of being told she's doing so by Lori only enables her to acknowledge that she's crosses boundaries while she's doing it.

Her husband, Joe, left her a big pile of money so she doesn't have to work. There are a lot of hours in the day, and Marnie tries a bunch of things to fill them up. She starts volunteering at the hospital (without actually signing up to do so), walks into a movie set and becomes a regular extra, befriends the young Genius at the Apple store (Jerrod Carmichael) and soon is driving him around to the college classes she encouraged him to take.

That doesn't begin to mention how she inserts herself into Lori's circle of girlfriends -- Lucy Punch, Cecily Strong, Sarah Baker, Casey Wilson -- showing up at a baby shower as a +1, without the 1. Soon she's planning an extravagant post-wedding party for one of them costing tens of thousands of dollars, out of her own pocket. Marnie basks in this attention, even if it is a faux substitute for the mother/daughter relationship she craves.

Heck, Marnie even signs up for sessions with Lori's therapist (Amy Landecker) just so she can talk about her daughter, since the real thing doesn't want to.

The funny thing is, for all her brazen feats of meddling, Marnie can be quite shy and retiring when others pull the same move on her. She's clearly intimidated by her late husband's family back East, a gregarious clan of Italians. And when a nicely creased older cop shows her some romantic attention, she demurs at first.

Zipper -- his real name, btw -- is played by J.K. Simmons, who just oozes rustic charm and magnetism. He's a lonely divorced guy who lives in the rural outskirts of L.A., playing Dolly Parton music for his chickens and lamenting his distant relations with his daughters. Marnie's drawn to him, but she's so used to being the interloper, she's a bit confused when someone intrudes into her sphere.

I really enjoyed this movie. It doesn't feel like it's trying to push any big revelations on you or impress you with an intricate storyline. It's just people, bumping into each other and interacting. Sometimes their flaws rub each other the wrong way, and sometimes a weakness is beheld as a strength by others.

Mostly "The Meddler" is a showcase for Susan Sarandon, who's usually known for playing such strong women. Marnie is too, but in a different way. Her yearning never really goes away, but starts out as desperation and turns into something more positive. It's like watching someone drowning, and then their frantic flailing becomes a calm, sustaining stroke.