Thursday, September 29, 2016

Review: "Queen of Katwe"

I find baseball dreadfully boring, but I’ve admired a lot of baseball movies. Chess is even duller, though I know of at least two very good chess films (“Fresh,” “Searching for Bobby Fischer”). The secret is to focus not on the game but the people playing it. You can transcend a dreary topic with a compelling story and characters.

“Queen of Katwe” largely fails to do this. It’s the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a teen girl from Uganda who dreams of rising out of the slums to become a chess master. Directed by Mira Nair (“Mississippi Masala”) from a screenplay by William Wheeler, based on an article and book by Tim Crothers, it’s actually a pretty typical underdog story along the lines of “The Rookie,” also from Disney, but with an exotic African backdrop.

Phiona is played by newcomer Madina Nalwanga, who brings much enthusiasm but meager ability to the role. It pains me to single out a fledging actor for criticism, but it’s very difficult to sustain a two-hour movie when the main character, who’s in nearly every scene, comes across as the least authentic person in the movie. Nalwanga’s stiff line readings and often inexpressive mien make Phiona hard to relate to.

Veteran actors Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo are much better playing her mother and coach, Nakku and Robert Katende. You can see how much they invest their own hopes and dreams, leavened with past tragedies, into the girl. At times, she is clearly overburdened.

The film also struggles with a poor sense of tempo, often seeming more like disparate scenes strung together haphazardly than a cohesive narrative. In chess terms it's all individual moves with little strategy. At 124 minutes, it’s also at least 20 minutes too long.

(The sound mix and heavy accents of most of the African performers render the dialogue difficult to grasp consistently without straining. I’m reminded of some recent films from the United Kingdom that, despite being in English, could also have been improved with subtitles.)

The story starts in 2007, when Phiona was 11 years old, and takes us up to almost the present. We watch her as a shy girl from Katwe, the lowliest slum of Kampala, peeking into the Pioneers shanty where Katende teaches chess to underprivileged kids.

At first, she’s attracted as much by the offer of free porridge as play. Phiona is so destitute that even the other poor kids single her out for ridicule, complaining of her foul smell. But she endures their insults, washes up and returns.

A born prodigy who can see eight moves ahead, she’s soon defeating all the other children -- the boys take it especially badly in a culture ladled with machismo -- and even her teacher.

Katende wrangles up a team for a match at a prestigious university, leading to the best sequence in the film as the slum kids experience culture shock in a world of pressed uniforms and green cricket fields. Bewildered by the concept of beds, they curl up together to sleep on the floor. Phiona’s skill and aggressive attacking style soon wipe the smirks off the faces of the rich “city boys.”

Things go on from there. There are predictable disappointments, followed by bucking-up from her mentor. “Do not be quick to tip your king,” Katende coos. A subplot involving Nakku’s factious relationship with her elder daughter, Night (Taryn Kyaze), who dreams of finer things, flits in and out of the spotlight to little effect.

I liked many things about “Queen of Katwe” without embracing the whole experience. In filmmaking, unlike chess, you can’t waste too many pieces without losing the game.

Review: "Deepwater Horizon"

There are a lot of ways you could have attacked the story of Deepwater Horizon: emblem of corporate corruption, biggest oil disaster in world history, one selfless hero saving the day, etc. Director Peter Berg and screenwriters Matthew Sand and Matthew Michael Carnahan took the most obvious, but probably also the most dramatically effective route, turning “Deepwater Horizon” into a big-budget disaster flick.

The 2010 explosion of the Transocean oil rig spewed 210 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in massive environmental catastrophe whose effects are still being felt today. Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell play the leaders who struggle to stop the crisis and save lives.

An effective crew of supporting actors make up the chorus of other victims, notably Ethan Suplee, Gina Rodriguez and Dylan O’Brien. John Malkovich and James DuMont provide the villains, sniveling corporate honchos hanging around behind the workers, demanding that safety measures by shortcut to maximize profits.

The film, which is based on a detailed reconstruction of events by the New York Times, is viscerally gripping -- once the action gets going.

Until then, it’s a barely comprehensible mishmash of industry jargon and manly chest-puffing. The sound mix on the version I saw was poor, so it’s often hard to comprehend the dialogue. (Malkovich’s Louisiana accent, slathered on heavy like sugar on beignets, doesn’t help.)

Once the blowout of the drill occurs, seeping gas that turns the entire rig into an inferno, the film finds its footing and its verve. The rest of the way is a moment-by-moment banquet of terror and bravery, as men (and a woman or two) struggle to keep the rig from floating off course, snapping the line sunk deep into the ocean floor.

Wahlberg’s Mike Williams is chief electric technician, which makes him the top safety advocate onboard. Russell plays Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell, the revered rig chief who commands the respect of his blue-collar crew. They’re both old-school film hero types, taciturn and direct, who believe in doing a job right rather than half-assing it and leaving a mess for the next guy.

But the construction of this project is already 43 days past schedule -- “the well from hell,” the crew dubs it -- which means millions in lost profits to the BP executives, who have come to pay a “friendly” visit. Ostensibly they’re there to laud Harrell and his team for their exemplary safety record. (No Hollywood hoke here.) But their real purpose is to push things along and cut corners.

“Hope ain’t a tactic,” Mike warns, to deaf ears.

The conflict quickly leads to disaster, as a geyser of mud, oil and gas storms up the line, resulting in back-breaking explosions that killed 11 crew. Kate Hudson plays Wahlberg’s wife, doing the usual disaster-movie-wife thing, making frantic calls and providing an emotional presence amid the storm.

Berg fills his screen with impressive blooms of fire, and accompanied with the near-constant impact of shrapnel raining down like bullets, it makes for a truly harrowing hellscape of death and destruction.

“Deepwater Horizon” accomplishes several things well, including rendering how the accident unfolded understandable for a general audience. Investigations have concluded it was a scenario in which virtually everything that could go wrong, did.

The film also vividly chronicles the peril the crew members faced, including the often competing impulses to do their jobs or save their own necks. A lot of people have a negative view of the oil industry, often well-deserved, but the movie uncovers not a small measure of nobility underneath the grimy surface.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Review: "Author: The JT LeRoy Story"

Some years ago author James Frey was excoriated for exaggerating portions of “A Million Little Pieces,” which was presented as his memoirs, especially the depth of his personal troubles. This led to a tense January 2006 confrontation with Oprah Winfrey on her show, where she had previously celebrated his work, and Frey’s career has never really recovered.

Perhaps because it happened at nearly the exact same time, the unveiling of author JT LeRoy has gained less notice. But it’s a far more compelling story, one well explored in Jeff Feuerzeig’s fascinating new documentary, “Author: The JT LeRoy Story.”

JT was a literary phenomenon and cult figure during the late 1990s and early 2000s, especially in arts and entertainment circles. A gender-fluid boy from West Virginia who grew up the child of a truck-stop prostitute, JT -- short for “Jeremiah Terminator,” his given and adopted names -- was strung out on drugs, HIV positive and selling his own body for money by the age of 13.

After being encouraged to write by a therapist, much of his experiences were illuminated in his first two novels, “Sarah” and “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things,” published while he was still a teenager. An intensely private person who eschewed in-person interviews, JT’s mystery only grew when he started making a few public appearances, clad in a long blonde wig, sunglasses and hat. In one notable event, he conducted a reading from his book onstage while hiding under a table.

Like a moth emerging from its chrysalis, JT’s celebrity grew and grew, until he became featured in photo shoots, worked on the HBO show “Deadwood” and earned a credit as a producer on Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant.” JT befriended other celebrities, including a close kinship with singer Billy Corgan.

Except for one thing: JT was a girl. And he wasn’t even real.

JT was a literary “avatar” created by Laura Albert, a rather nondescript woman from Brooklyn who was 40 at the time of the debunking. The story was widely circulated as a “hoax” -- with Albert even going so far as to dress up her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, as JT for public appearances. Fractured relationships, lawsuits, fraud charges and loss of status resulted.

Feuerzeig interviews Albert extensively, added to old footage and phone recordings to draw a fuller picture. We learn that Albert really did write as a way of therapy to transcend her own history of abuse and depression. She constructed JT as an outlet for those feelings, and was as surprised as anyone when it turned into a legitimate career as an author.

The only problem: JT wrote with such hard-scoured authenticity, everyone expected him to be the real thing.

Albert and Savannah used the ruse of JT for a German television interview, and things just cascaded from there. Albert continued to sketch out the double life, writing herself and husband Geoff Knoop into the story as JT’s housemates and friends. In public appearances, Albert herself took on the role of “Speedie,” a British-accented singer and always close at-hand confidant.

In one stranger-than-fiction occurrence, Albert attends the premier of the film “The Heart is Deceitful,” directed by and starring Asia Argento, based on her book -- but is banished from the red carpet, while Savannah, as “JT,” basks in the limelight.

If you think that’s unfathomable, things only get weirder. (For instance, a strongly implied sexual liaison between Argento and “JT.”)

I don’t want to say more, because unraveling the pretzel of Albert’s emotional journey is where much of the appeal of “Author” resides. If it’s possible to construct a mountain of lies while genuinely pursuing an inner truth, then that is what Albert was striving to do.

Here’s a mesmerizing tale of a made-up person who moved people’s hearts through words. Does it really matter whose they were?

Monday, September 26, 2016

Reeling Backward: "The Last Time I Saw Paris" (1954)

I admit I had a hard time even getting through "The Last Time I Saw Paris."

It represents exactly the sort of Golden Age filmmaking that so turned me off as a youth: melodramatic, slowly paced, maudlin to the point of groan-inducing. It's a romantic film that starts off as a joyful scamp, turns into a drama and soon a tragedy. It's what was known in the old days as a "weepie" -- I laughed, I cried, I couldn't wait for it to end.

I chose to feature it mostly because of the presence of Van Johnson, a largely forgotten performer whose career I've been wanting to explore further. During the filming of "A Guy Named Joe" he nearly had his scalp torn off in a horrible car accident, resulting in deep scars on his forehead that Hollywood makeup and lighting couldn't fully hide.

He was held out of the military as a result of his injuries, while many big stars of the era served (often in morale-boosting roles far from the danger). So for a brief moment in time, Johnson was arguably the biggest American film star. Though, like Rosie the Riveter, he soon relinquished his title when the boys came home.

Tall, freckled and strawberry blond, Johnson was a song-and-dance man whose charismatic, amiable onscreen persona left many to underestimate his talents as an actor. MGM, facing financial trouble, dropped his contract after this movie came out, but he segued into a busy career on television, and ended up doing summer stock and dinner theater into the 1970s and '80s.

The pairing with Elizabeth Taylor is an electric one. Just 21 years old, she plays Helen, a vampy seductress who pursues Charles, a Stars and Stripes correspondent, in the aftermath of the war. Her family is not wealthy but lives like they are, scraping up champagne and evening wear for a never-ending party with her father, James (an agreeable Walter Pidgeon), as the emcee and raconteur.

As Charles segues into a job as a correspondent for the Europa News Service while dreaming of writing novels, James advises him to stock his stories with the good stuff: "Riches, ruffians and rape."

Alas, his novelist career never takes off and Charles, inundated with rejections from publishers, soon turns his frustration on Helen, who withdraws back into her role as the most famous American in Paris -- noted for dancing in fountains and the like.

Neither of them are particularly good parents, with Charles off drinking and Helen socializing. This, despite the presence of an adorable moppet, Vicki (Sandy Descher). Things only compound when they become suddenly wealthy, the result of some "worthless" oil fields in Texas that yield a gusher.

Very loosely based on a semi-autobiographical short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the film has a very episodic feel, with distinct movements as judged by the changes in Helen and Charles' relationship. Director Richard Brooks ("Blackboard Jungle") co-wrote the screenplay with the Epstein twins, Julius J. and Philip G.

The title comes from a song that was already a golden oldie when the movie came out. It actually won the Academy Award for Best Song for 1941's "Lady Be Good."

The film moves in slow waves and eddies, undulating toward a sad denouement and an uplifting finale. This is the sort of movie where a perfectly healthy woman in her 20s can fall deathly hill just be being exposed to some cold weather for a few minutes. It was either that, or somebody was going to get run over by a car and crippled.

The most interesting aspect of the film is underplayed criminally. Charles does not first meet Helen, but her older sister, Marion (Donna Reed). She clearly is smitten with him, but after arriving at the party she invited him to Charles is snatched up by Helen, whom he had briefly kissed as strangers during the VE celebration in the street.

Marion is very cold to Charles the rest of the movie, even after she marries a kindly French attorney. For his part, Charles is completely ignorant of her feelings. She despises him for never returning her love. But this is all kept very much in the background, until literally the second-to-last scene, where her husband chastises Marion and urges her not to let her contempt for Charles color her actions.

To me, the story of a love triangle that goes on for years, with a man reviled for loving the wrong sister, is much more interesting than the movie we get. Marion sort of flits in and out of the background, so her emotions never really have time to register. The whole movie seems like an overlong wasted opportunity.

A couple of other stars have notable but small supporting roles. Eva Gabor plays Lorraine, a professional divorcee who marries and casts aside rich men. Charles is assigned to profile her for his news service, and the two start up a chaste companionship. Meanwhile, Helen falls into the arms of Paul, an itinerant tennis pro played by Roger Moore in one of his very first screen roles.

Hopefully, I'll find more to like about Van Johnson's career than "The Last Time I Saw Paris."

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Video review: "The Shallows"

Sometimes you have to resist knocking a movie for what it isn’t and just appreciate it for what it is. “The Shallows” is a modestly ambitious girl-versus-shark thriller that is breezily entertaining and, yes, rather dumb. But it acknowledges and embraces its own simplicity: 87 minutes of Blake Lively in a bikini, battling a voracious man-killing beast.

That really is the whole story. Nancy is a young doctor-in-training who’s taking a break to surf in Mexico after a tragedy. She’s returning to the same remote beach where her mom surfed while pregnant with her in 1991. It’s an idyllic getaway and a chance to heal… until a great white rips open her leg and traps her on some shoals a few hundred yards offshore.

The rest of the movie (directed by Jaume Collet-Serra from a screenplay by Anthony Jaswinski) is Nancy trying to out-think the shark. It circles constantly, more a force of malevolence than a mindless devourer. She has only her medical skills and perseverance to help her survive.

Nancy is constantly verbalizing her plight, which I found distracting, as if the filmmakers didn’t trust their actress and the audience to communicate what the character is thinking without spelling it out for us.

It’s a great-looking picture, with some terrific above- and -below water photography, plus some snappy editing.

“The Shallows” won’t linger in your memory, but it should keep you entertained.

Bonus features are so-so. They include deleted scenes and four making-of featurettes: “Shooting in The Shallows,” “How to Build a Shark,” “Finding the Perfect Beach: Lord Howe Island” and “When Sharks Attack.”



Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review: "Demon"

A Polish/Israeli horror/comedy? Color me intrigued.

But, alas, not entertained. "Demon" is set in a tiny Polish village on the night of a huge wedding that apparently all the locals are invited to. Things slowly start to go from awkward to disturbing, with visions of dead girls and skeletons in the ground.

The groom begins acting weird, until it becomes clear he has been taken over by a dybbuk, a mythological Jewish spirit that wanders the earth, possessing humans in an attempt to resolve their torment.

It sounds like a neat idea, sort of a Blair-Witch-meets-The-Exorcist affair but with lots of vodka and dancing. Alas, director Marcin Wrona, who co-wrote the script with Pawel Maslona, fails to build tension or a pervading sense of dread. The film ends up being a spectacle of people trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Its main problem is that people never... stop... talking.

They yap and yap and yap. Every fearful encounter only elicits more rambling conversations. People argue and do little. Even as the groom strips off his clothes on the dance floor and starts convulsing with dark spirits, the father of the bride is telling everyone not to worry, it's nothing, let's open some more bottles.

Strangely, nobody leaves the reception. I like to think I'm the polite sort, but if I'm at a party and the guest of honor starts speaking in tongues, it's time to make up an excuse about the babysitter calling.

Not to get all nationalistic here, but one thing American horror filmmakers discovered long ago was the power of silence. You can often communicate a lot more through visuals, sound effects and music than having a bunch of people standing around talking about what's going on.

It's never a good thing when you're constantly thinking about the characters, "Just please shut up for awhile."
The bride is a popular local girl, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), daughter of the relatively wealthy owner of a mining company, while the groom is a Brit, Piotr (Itay Tiran), whom the parents and the rest of the family are just meeting for the first time. He speaks Polish passably well, seems to be a well-to-do professional type.

His father-in-law (Andrzej Grabowski) provides them with a run-down house to fix up as their own. While running an earth mover nearby, Piotr uncovers an old skeleton. When he tries to show it to others, not only the body but his entire excavation disappears. Then he has a dream -- or is it?? -- about being swallowed up in the mud.

The wedding goes off without a hitch, except for Piotr experiencing a little tic during the exchange of rings. But as the rain pours down on the barn where the reception is taking place, his behavior gets weirder and weirder. At first Zaneta's family tries to say he is simply drunk, but it's clearly something more sinister.

They bring in a doctor (sort of ... his qualifications seem spotty) to offer his opinion. A priest offers little assistance. An elderly professor, who had just been dismissed from the stage for his rambling toast, relates the tragedy of a Jewish girl, Hanna, who disappeared when he was just a boy -- which would have been right around the Holocaust. As one man observes, the country is practically built on corpses.

I'll leave the plot summary there, as you can probably guess what follows. "Demon" is a great idea for a movie than never comes to fruition.

On a sad note, Marcin Wrona killed himself right before the film's release -- and shortly after his own wedding -- apparently disappointed it didn't win a film festival prize.

Review: "Storks"

“Storks” is a better concept than final product. It’s middle-of-the-road animation for kiddies with some humor thrown in for adults that doesn’t really click. I guess we should appreciate the effort, but whether they tried to include us or not, we’re not laughing.

The setup is that storks actually were in the baby delivering business until 18 years ago, when a colossal screw-up left them in the lurch and they had to take on a lost infant themselves, who’s grown up into an annoying teen who screws everything up. The boss stork, Hunter (voice of Kelsey Grammer), came up with the idea of transforming them into, an Amazon-like outlet for all kinds of consumer junk delivered door-to-door via free bird.

(Right now somewhere, Jeff Bezos is cursing his army of expensive drones.)

Hunter’s ready to move up the chain and hand the business off to Junior (Andy Samberg), a neurotic yet ambitious young climber. Except Nate (Anton Starkman), a lonely human kid who wants a baby brother to play with, sends a letter off to the storks requesting same. (“Please include ninja skills,” he underlines.) And Tulip (Katie Crown), the storks’ pet orphan, accidentally feeds it into their dormant giant gizmo that turns the letter molecules into the DNA of a new baby, or something. Out spits an adorable tyke with cotton candy-colored hair.

The metaphysics don’t make a lick of sense, but just go with it.

…except I can’t. Leaving aside the stationary-into-infant-humans thing, does this mean people weren’t having sex prior to the storks abandoning their trade? And now they’ve been making babies the old-fashioned way? If that’s the case, I’d think the headlines wouldn’t read “Storks back to making babies” but rather “Evil birds out to ruin your sex life!”

Anyway, Junior and Tulip embark on a trip to return the little girl to her rightful place, which involves journeying across sky, land and sea. (Junior conveniently busts his wing right before, thus removing the “Why not just take the eagles to Mordor?” argument a la the “Lord of the Rings” movies.)

Along the way they encounter a wolf pack that first wants to eat, then adopt the baby for themselves. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele voice the alpha dogs. The wolves have the curious, but genuinely hilarious, ability to link their bodies together to form a bridge, a boat and more stuff. There’s also a nasty little pigeon toadie (Stephen Kramer Glickman) looking to deep-six Junior’s favored status.

The movie keeps cutting away to Nate’s house, where he manages to pry his workaholic realtor parents (Jennifer Aniston and Ty Burrell) away from their phone headsets long enough to get some overdue bonding in.

Nicholas Stoller, who wrote the screenplay and co-directed with Doug Sweetland, has a fondness for rapid-delivery dialogue that is reminiscent of classic screwball comedies. Except they overuse it to the extent it becomes just irritating. It’s almost like theyassumeverythingbecomesfunnierjustbecauseyousayitfast.

If there’s a point to the story, it’s that kids are great, and you should have kids, and hug them lots and spend time with them. I can think of better ways to accomplish that than taking them to “Storks.”

Anyway, that’s my review. Now here’s one from Joel Lloyd, age almost 6: “Omigaw I love this movie!! I liked the part where the machine made a million babies with rainbow hair. Can we get it on DVD for Christmas??”