Thursday, July 21, 2016
OK, OK, that was a cheap and easy shot. But it’s still a bullseye.
Full disclosure first: I have only a passing acquaintance with “Absolutely Fabulous,” the popular British TV show about two awful, aging women who never want the party to stop. It ran for two decades, off and on -- though in the British M.O., a “season” of television can mean a handful of episodes.
Still, I think I’ve seen enough to pass judgment that the biggest problem with “Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie,” is the “movie” part.
It is a hoot to watch Jennifer Sanders (who also wrote the screenplay) and Joanna Lumley sink their teeth into parts they’ve honed so well over the years. But there simply isn’t enough material here to sustain a feature-length film, even a shortish one. The film has plenty of laughs, but also plenty of long dead spells.
Edina Monsoon (Saunders) and Patsy Stone (Lumley) are would-be fashionistas who make a living of sorts on the fringes of the fashion industry. Edina does P.R. for a few has-been celebrities, and Patsy is fashion editor for some hoity-toity magazine. But really they live a life of West London luxury by sucking at the teat of ex-husbands and anyone else they can scam.
Things go poorly when Edina is cut off by her ex, followed by an unfortunate event in which she apparently kills supermodel Kate Moss by knocking her off a balcony into the Thames. (Things I did not know, #1: Kate Moss is still a thing?) The women lose their gigs and become international pariahs, fleeing to the south of France to hide out and find a new meal ticket.
In tow is Edina’s granddaughter, Lola (the winsome Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness), who provides a sense of adventure – and her father’s credit card. Chasing them is frumpy daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha) and her erstwhile police detective boyfriend (Colfer). On the edges of the action is Edina’s own mother (June Whitfield) and Bubble (Jane Horrocks), her off-kilter personal assistant, who dresses in inflatable materials and appears to be sniffing the gas inside them, too.
The film features tons of cameos, literally dozens and dozens of celebrities. And by “celebrities,” I mean “people from the fashion world I think I’m supposed to know but have no clue about.” I recognized Jon Hamm and Gwendoline Christie -- “That’s Brienne of Tarth!” someone chirps -- but that’s about it. So if names like Judith Chalmers, Poppy Delevingne and Daisy Lowe ring your bell, have at it.
The best parts are simply the two main characters interacting with each other, calling their counterpart “darling” and engaging in stuff that would be irresponsible for women half their age. Assessing the facial damage after a long night on the scene, Patsy tells Eddy she needs “a little spritz of afterbirth to freshen things up.”
Director Mandie Fletcher is a television veteran, and it shows in the pacing (or lack thereof). Certain characters are cast aside as needed, plotlines are picked up and quickly dropped; in general, it feels like a greatest hits compilation of the TV show. The last act has a decidedly Benny Hill feel to it, with lots of chasing about in weird costumes and oddball modes of transportation.
My advice is to fire up two decades’ worth of “Absolutely Fabulous” on your favorite streaming service if you need a Botox-and-baubles fix.
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
“Captain Fantastic” is about a rebel who learns the limits of rebellion. Viggo Mortensen plays Ben Cash, who long ago gave up on Western civilization and is raising his six kids in the woods like primitive American Indians.
They grow or hunt their own food -- the opening scene is of his eldest son tackling a deer and slitting its throat, thereby marking his ascension into manhood. They keep some books and musical instruments to feed their minds and souls, and have an old tour bus for rare trips into town for mail, phone calls and to barter their handmade goods.
Otherwise, they’re doing the Thoreau thing to such an extreme even Bernie Sanders might find their liberalism in need of watering down. They celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday instead of Christmas, for God’s sake.
Then Ben’s wife, who has been hospitalized for some time with mental illness, dies, and he and the children undertake an adventure to attend the funeral in New Mexico and see that her last wishes are honored -- namely, cremation and flushing down the nearest toilet. Mom (Trin Miller, glimpsed only in flashbacks and visions) may have been schizophrenic and depressed, but she did not lack a sense of humor.
This means confronting modern American society, which to the kids is as alien as Jupiter, with its heffalump-sized people, violent video games and obsession with material stuff. Representing the epitome of The Man is Ben’s father-in-law (Frank Langella), a rich and connected fellow who has forbidden the motley clan from attending the burial ceremony.
The two men, representing arch extremes of the American Dream, are set up for an inevitable showdown.
If this were all there was to the movie, then I doubt I would’ve admired “Captain Fantastic” as much as I did. Sure, Mortensen has a sly, dry charisma to his performance, the kids are distinctive and authentic, and there’s plenty of comedic material in their encounters with everyday awfulness.
“What’s cola?” one munchkin asks during an impromptu (and abortive) visit to a diner. “Poison water,” Ben deadpans.
But writer/director Matt Ross -- who won the director award at the Cannes Film Festival -- takes the next, more ambitious steps. Without giving too much away, the movie shows the supremely confident Ben confronted with his own ego. He’s forced to recognize that the super-kids he’s raising are still just children, and have needs beyond the intense home-schooling and survival skills he imparts with a stern hand.
The relationship between Ben and his children is at the heart of the movie. Each child actor shines, creating a distinct personality that stands out while assimilating into the group’s commune existence.
George MacKay plays Bodevan, the eldest. (All the children have unique names, so they’re the only one of them in the world.) Though he’s smart enough to get into every Ivy League school -- applications made without his father’s knowledge -- Bo finds he knows little of the real world, especially young women.
Kielyr and Vespyr (Samantha Isler and Annalise Basso) are the red-haired voices of reason and contemplation. Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) is the tween and resident rebel, and the most eager to leave the cloistered home. Zaja (Shree Crooks) is 8 years old but can already give an insightful overview of the Citizens United Supreme Court case. Nai (Charlie Shotwell) is the youngest and most mercurial, having to be reminded to wear clothes at meals.
(Though Dad also needs such reminders, as we see in a brief encounter with Mortensen breaking his fast.)
“Captain Fantastic” is a very entertaining film, but I was impressed by its willingness to question its own premise. Here is a family with its own very radical interpretation of independence, finding that true wisdom isn’t relegated to a single place or creed.
For a decade or so there’s been a thing in Hollywood called the Black List, which is screenplays that are greatly admired but for some reason haven’t been picked up for production. In general these tend to be smaller, more challenging stories that might not necessarily have mass appeal. The idea is to garner these languishing scripts attention so somebody will make a movie out of them.
Roughly one-third have been, including Best Picture Oscar winners “Argo,” “The King’s Speech,” “Spotlight” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” But there have also been many Black List flops like “Black Snake Moan,” “Our Brand Is Crisis,” “47 Ronin,” etc.
“Hell or High Water,” despite that subpar, generic-sounding title -- I at first thought it had something to do with boats -- belongs among any estimation of home runs.
Deeply moody and evocative, yet with a potboiler plot that steadily builds a head of steam, “Hell” is sharp as a leather strap cracked against bare skin in the scorching West Texas sun.
The film is part crime story, part throwback Western, part family reconciliation. It’s about old cowboys and young, lawmen versus bandits, the sins of bank robbers weighed against those of the bankers. It wears the long prairie duster of the Old West, as hard men wander out of the hot, flat pan and converge toward a grim reckoning.
Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster each deliver some of the best performances of their careers, layered and bone-deep. They’re playing outwardly simplistic men who’ve thought about their lives and found them wanting.
Bridges is Marcus, a Texas Ranger facing mandatory retirement in a few weeks who’d like to go out in a blaze of glory rather than face the terror of sitting on his front porch with no purpose to life.
With a silver mustache, thick middle and a tendency to chew his words like cud, Marcus is a legend fading before his own eyes -- probably been carrying around the same bullets in his sidearm for 15 years. He’s ornery and cussed, likes to insult the hybrid Mexican/Comanche heritage of his partner, then dismiss it as teasing.
“I don’t know how you’re going to survive without someone to outsmart,” the partner (a fine Gil Birmingham) says, giving a little back.
Pine and Foster are Toby and Tanner Howard, brothers both alike and differing in a lot of ways. Toby is reserved, thoughtful, remorseful. His marriage and job have cratered, he’s estranged from his ex-wife and teenage sons, just buried his mother after a long illness and is trying to prevent the bank from foreclosing on the family ranch.
Tanner is a career criminal who calculates he’s spent half of his adult life behind bars, a dead-ender who embraces his outlaw reputation and calls it an ethos. He never makes any plans beyond the limits of the cash in his pocket or what he can steal. He does what he does because he’s good at it and he likes it; as Marcus wryly observes, if Tanner ever got himself a big pile of money he’d probably spend it all on stupid junk just so he could have an excuse to go out and steal again.
The Howard boys are knocking over small-fry banks in tiny Texas towns, places with names like Coleman and Post, sometimes two or three a day. Too small a haul to warrant FBI attention, it’s dropped into Marcus’ lap. He makes the rounds, interviews the witnesses, is confounded by the repeated lack of video surveillance. At first bored, his old juices get flowing again. They’re just the sort of crimes that seem random and stupid, but require a smart mind to string together.
Directed by David Mackenzie (“Young Adam”) from a script by Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”), this is the sort of movie that’s always on the move but never seems in a hurry. It takes the time to flesh out scenes and polish minor characters, like the sassy waitress who refuses to relinquish the fat tip the brothers left with (maybe) stolen money. Or the elderly cowpoke caught up in one of the robberies who, when asked if he’s armed, spits, “Of course I’ve got a gun!”
“Hell or High Water” is a taut modern masterpiece that learned its lessons well from the classics -- both the tough, unruly Texas folk and the movies made about them.
Monday, July 18, 2016
"Cleopatra" is remembered today almost entirely for its largeness -- its budget, its ambition, its length, the ego of its two stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the scope of its fiscal disaster. It was the top-grossing film of 1963 but still nearly put 20th Century-Fox out of business due to spiraling costs: $44 million for production and marketing, the equivalent of $340 million in 2016 dollars.
The film single-handedly killed off the big-budget Hollywood period epic for a couple generations. Many careers were sunk or least laid low for a time, including director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Though not Taylor and Burton, who scandalously carried on a public affair during the shoot while married to other people, eventually leaving their spouses to wed and star in a number of other notable pictures together.
Its name has become synonymous with the term "flop," often mentioned in the same breath as "Waterworld," "Ishtar" and "Heaven's Gate." Taylor's health often delayed shooting, including an emergency visit to the hospital where she received a tracheotomy, resulting in a scar that's visible in many shots. Her weight also fluctuated dramatically over more than a year of shooting as a result of her medical issues -- the London sets were torn down and rebuilt in Italy during the hiatus -- so that Cleopatra's double chin and waistline come and go from scene to scene.
There is in fact so much ridicule associated with "Cleopatra" that people tend to look past its magnificence.
Yes, at four hours and change it is entirely too long (especially with the curious omission of an intermission, direly testing patience and bladders). Things flow well until about the 2½ hour mark, when the brooding romance between the Egyptian queen and Mark Antony sends the film into a torpor, revived only at the end with the pair's dramatic deaths, recalling Romeo and Juliet.
It seems like there is a solid hour of screen time in which Burton does little more than swig from his ever-present flagon of wine and shout ineffectually at those around him.
Yet the grandness of its spectacle cannot be denied. The procession of Cleopatra into Rome should rightly be regarded as one of the most opulent, jaw-dropping moment in cinematic history. The scale of the sets, thousands of extras, Cleopatra's moving sphinx stage -- the mind boggles trying to take it all in at once.
"Cleopatra" may have cost a boatload, but the millions are right there on the screen to behold.
The story actually covers about 20 years of history, and fairly faithfully. Julius Caesar -- played by Rex Harrison in one of his best performances, I think -- comes to Alexandria while fighting enemies on all sides. He had previously installed teenage siblings Cleopatra and Ptolemy as co-rulers of Egypt, but the brother had pushed her out.
The much-older Caesar regards the young Egyptian girl as an impertinent pest, but in time he comes to see her as a prized pupil in the ways of leadership, and eventually something more intimate. Taylor plays Cleopatra as an intensely intelligent and calculating person, who absorbs the wisdom of Caesar and then puts it to her own use.
She bore him a son, Caesarion, and they wed despite Caesar already being married to a proper Roman woman. Upon being named dictator for life -- but still requiring the consent of the Senate to do anything -- he summons Cleopatra to Rome, resulting in the spectacle mentioned above. She is at the height of her powers, and Taylor positively thrums with authority and confidence.
Eventually Caesar is brought down and assassinated, and loyal right-hand man Antony shares leadership for a time with two others, notably Octavian, Caesar's cunning nephew. He's played by Roddy McDowell in a coy turn, clearly presented as homosexual, but a far superior politician and tactician than Antony.
Given stewardship of the eastern portion of the Roman Empire, Antony soon falls into Cleopatra's arms himself. Here, rather than using her wiles to distract a potential conqueror, Cleopatra seems to genuinely fall in love with the complex, proud Antony. Like Caesar he is accused by his peers of "going native," and is later summoned back to Rome and forced into a political marriage to Octavian's widowed sister.
Eventually Octavian, who would go on to become the first Roman Emperor, solidifies his power and maneuvers Antony into war, where his overconfidence undoes him in the naval Battle of Actium. It's an amazing sequence, with full-size ship replicas, flaming ballistas, the works.
Unmanned in defeat, Antony's despondency increases when his troops abandon him before a bold land attack against Octavian's legions. He took his own life and then Cleopatra took hers.
This all sounds fairly incredible, one woman at the center of so much pivotal history, but as I said the movie is actually pretty accurate to the known historical record. The film's major omission is removing any reference to the three children the pair had together, who were spared by Octavian and brought to Rome to be raised by his sister.
(Caesarion and Antony's other son by a previous marriage did not fare so well, literally dragged screaming to their executions.)
The cinematography, sets, special effects and costumes are lavish beyond imagining. The film won Oscars in all four categories, setting industry standards that could only be achieved today through the extensive use of CGI. "Cleopatra" also earned Academy Award nominations for best picture, sound, editing, music score and best supporting actor, for Harrison.
I was surprised by how much flesh there is in the film. Taylor appears nude twice, obscured by a towel during a massage and by the water of a bath. Various servants and such in the background are often scantily dressed. A dancer during the procession appears wearing only a thong and pasties over her nipples, which must have made quite an impression in 1963.
Martin Landau and Hume Cronyn are solid in supporting roles as cagey advisors to Antony and Cleopatra, respectively. Carroll O'Connor turns up as Casca, one of Caesar's leading murderers, and I admit encountering Archie Bunker in a toga was disconcerting. Andrew Keir is a stalwart presence as Agrippa, a longtime foe of Antony's.
I'd been meaning to get to "Cleopatra" for several years, and am pleased by what I found. Like "Gone With the Wind," it's a terrific movie that got swallowed by a much longer film. The difference being that while the former is lavishly overpraised, "Cleopatra" deserves much better than to be regarded as a cinematic punchline.
Here is Hollywood moviemaking teetering at the end of its golden age, grand and gaudy, its flaws inseparable from its many virtues.
Sunday, July 17, 2016
I remember when it was first announced a couple of years ago that Ben Affleck would play Batman in the epic throwdown between him and Superman, the fanboys lit up the Web with their ire. Turns out he’s the best thing about “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”
Indeed, he’s just about the only good thing.
The D.C. Comics folks, poring over the box office grosses of the last 15 years of Marvel movies, were desperate to get their super heroes back into flicks. Really, this film is the set-up to a bunch of Justice League and solo hero movies they have planned. That’s great, but they were in too much of a hurry to get the ball rolling that they don’t properly set up this universe.
“BvS” feels like it’s in too much of a hurry, even at 2½ hours.
The premise is that Batman/Bruce Wayne is enraged over the thousands of people killed during Superman’s fight with General Zod (as chronicled in “Man of Steel”) -- including some of his own employees -- and comes to view the boy in blue as too much of a threat to have around. Of course, he’s also being manipulated by Lex Luthor, here presented as a conniving boy billionaire played by Jesse Eisenberg, who knows of such things. Imagine his Mark Zuckerberg from “The Social Network” but (slightly) more malevolent.
Soon enough the boys are at each other’s throats. It’s a fight that by any reckoning should last two seconds or less, as Superman is an immortal demi-god with laser eyes and Batman is just a regular guy with determination and a good tailor. Director Zach Snyder and scriptmen Chris Terrio David S. Goyer labor to make their combat believable.
Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Jeremy Irons as loyal Wayne butler Alfred and Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor Perry White are all pretty well wasted, showing up to move the plot along as needed and then disappearing for long stretches. The razzle-dazzle introduction of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is a high point; I look forward to her having her own film.
If it weren’t for Affleck, I’d call the movie a total disaster.
He’s brooding and self-doubting and tragic. He shows us a Batman who’s aging and losing faith, so we understand when he lashes out with anger. Frankly, I’ll take Affleck over Christian Bale, Michael Keaton or any other actor who’s worn the pointy ears.
So call it just a partial disaster.
Bonus features are pretty meaty. Although there’s no commentary track, there are 11 making-of featurettes: “Uniting the World’s Finest,” “Gods and Men: A Meeting of Giants,” “The Warrior, The Myth, The Wonder,” “Accelerating Design: The New Batmobile,” “Superman: Complexity & Truth,” “Batman: Austerity & Rage,” “Wonder Woman: Grace & Power,” “Batcave: Legacy of the Lair,” “The Might and the Power of a Punch,” “The Empire of Luthor” and “Save the Bats.”
In addition to the usual versions on DVD, Blu-ray and 3D, there’s an “Ultimate Edition” – also available via digital retailers -- that contains about 30 minutes of new footage.
Thursday, July 14, 2016
I wish I could say better about “Ghostbusters,” the highly anticipated -- and, among a small but vocal slice of misogynistic Internet trolls, much reviled -- reboot of the 1984 comedy classic. People are mostly talking about the fact this version features four female Ghostbusters.
But what they should be talking about is why the movie is so funny and distinctive in the first half, and then spends the last hour trying woefully to mimic the old film -- right down to cameos of nearly all the original cast members that mostly serve to remind us the new version doesn’t measure up.
It’s not the abundance of X chromosomes that diminishes this “Ghostbusters.” It’s that it tries too hard to be a carbon copy instead of a wholly fresh take.
Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig play Abby and Erin, two paranormal physicists who parted ways years earlier after writing a book about ghosts. Now Erin is worried it will ruin her chances for tenure at Columbia University, while Abby slaves away at a fly-by-night science institute with a younger colleague, Holtzmann, who’s half-crazy and hammers together all sorts of experimental tech to blast and capture ghosts.
Played by Kate McKinnon, Holtzmann is the best thing about the movie. With her runaway hair, dumpster-diver-meets-1980s-John Cusack-wardrobe, yellow goggles and uncomfortable manner, McKinnon has a way of barking out her dialogue in oddly endearing ways. She’s like a stray puppy you know will chew up all your shoes, but you’re eager to bring her home anyway.
Leslie Jones plays Patty in something of a retread of the Ernie Hudson role, the sassy and street-smart black add-on, though she’s a little more proactive. She’s an MTA booth dweller who seeks out the Ghostbusters after encountering an especially loathsome apparition in the subway tunnel.
A note on the ghosts: they’re great-looking, with 30+ years of special effects advancement giving them all sorts of details and depth; I like how the bones show through their translucent clothes and epidermis. Curiously, as in the old movie the spirits never actually kill anyone directly, though one guy falls out a window after being scared to his (presumed) death.
Last time around the villain was a conniving bureaucrat indifferent to the ghostly danger, but here it’s a creepy nerd named Rowan (Neil Casey), a spit-upon hotel janitor who’s actively giving the paranormal escapees a nudge or three. The guy is supposed to be resentful about always being overlooked, but after spending some time with the charmless fellow we empathize with the overlookers.
Chris Hemsworth has a fun turn as Kevin, a dimwitted blond who becomes their receptionist, mostly by enchanting Erin (or at least her hormones). He’s so stupid his eyeglass frames are empty -- “They kept getting dirty,” he justifies -- and he covers his eyes when told not to listen. Although at some point I got the sense Kevin is just pulling a ruse to get out of not doing any work.
It’s all good stuff, right up to the time they make their first big public takedown of ghosts in front of a hall full of rock concert fans, when “Ghostbusters” runs off the rails.
Director Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”), who co-wrote the script with Katie Dippold, turns the latter hour of the movie into a greatest hits show, as we trot out the old actors and even the hot dog-eating Slimer ghost. There’s a new Ghostmobile, another Cadillac hearse (borrowed from Patty’s uncle), a showdown with a giant puffy ghost who goes around crushing buildings, and so on.
It’s like all the energy they built up in the first half got plugged into the wrong, outdated gizmo.
The women of “Ghostbusters” are great. The foursome have real chemistry together, and I would love to see them go on to other adventures -- ones in which there’s no expectation or reason to crib from a classic.
Wednesday, July 13, 2016
"Little Men" is a movie about the little moments and in-between spaces of human relationships. It sets out not to spin a complicated plot but to present a small group of people to you and then observe them closely. It's a tender and true portrait of what it's like to be a 13-year-old boy, or a parent of one.
Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri play the boys, and they're just magnificent. Honest, unadorned reflections of the awkwardness and cockiness of that age. Taplitz plays Jake, a budding artist who's reserved and thoughtful, a tiny bit alienated. Barbieri is Tony, outspoken and outgoing, delighting us with a New York patois filled with verbal idiosyncrasies and rhythms.
Tony, not surprisingly, wants to be an actor. They both aspire to get into a fancy Manhattan arts high school.
Jake's parents are Brian (Greg Kinnear, in fine form), an actor who labors for his craft but earns little income doing it, and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), a psychotherapist who acts as the family's even keel. Tony's only parent is Paulina (Leonor Calvelli), a Chilean expat who runs a quaint little dress shop in Brooklyn.
The group is brought together by the death of Brian's father, who owned the shop building shop and the apartment above, where Brian grew up. They decide to leave their pricey Manhattan place to take up residence there. Their interactions with Paulina are pleasant if a little distant. But Tony and Jake become instant best friends.
Director Ira Sachs ("Love Is Strange"), who co-wrote the original script with Mauricio Zacharias, has an intrinsic feel for the outlook and emotionality of young teenagers. It's a tough age for boys (or anyone), caught between school, girls, video games and parents. Tony feels the pull to maintain a sense of bravado, so he instigates a fight against a friend in the face of some harmless teasing. Jake is more an observer and introvert, so having someone like Tony to push and pull him into socializing is beneficial.
I adored the moment where Tony plucks up the courage to ask a classmate out while they're dancing in a crowded club and she tells him she's "into older men." (Like what? A 17-year-old? Honey, 17-year-olds don't want to date 13-year-olds unless some of their wiring is crossed.) Rather than going screwy with anger, Tony simply says, "Thank you for being honest," then slinks away.
The trouble arises when it comes time to renew the lease for Leonor's store. Brian's dad never raised the rent, so the $1,100 a month she's paying is seriously under-market in a hip gentrifying neighborhood. Brian's more mercenary sister, Audrey (Talia Balsam), insists they could get $5,000. He's a decent man but they could use the money. He offers an in-between price.
When presented with this problem, Leonor tends to just... disappear. She avoids conversations, or steers it in another direction. When eventually confronted, she goes into long speeches about how much Brian's father appreciated having her there, how her ship is a staple of the neighborhood. When this doesn't work she grows more subtly caustic, insinuating the Brian's father questioned his manhood because his wife brings in almost all their family income.
Leonor likes to think of herself as the voice of wisdom, valuing the community over the individual -- but she's got a streak of steel in her, too. Meanwhile, Leonor's friend the lawyer (Alfred Molina) takes a look at the paperwork, ratcheting up tensions.
The boys react to the conflict by drawing closer to each other. They make a pact not to speak to their parents until the matter is resolved. The trio of grownups try to brush off this minor rebellion, but their patience eventually wears thin. (There's only so much nodding a parent can take at the dinner table.)
"Little Men" is a movie of small revelations, not any big "aha" moment. Things end on an ambiguous note, because that's how life mostly plays out. It's a story of people intersecting -- sometimes hugging, sometimes abrading against each other.