Monday, July 13, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Number One" (1969)

To me Charlton Heston's star persona always carried with it a hefty asshole vibe.

I'm not conflating his later-in-life activism, replete with stern "cold dead hands" machismo. I've always been pretty adept at separating a filmmaker's real-life behavior from what they put up on the screen.

(Otherwise I'd probably have gone insane or quit criticism long ago.)

No, I'm talking about his choice of movie roles and how he played them. Even in heroic parts Heston's characters tend to act with a hard-eyed glare rather than a beneficent gaze. From Ben-Hur to Col. George Taylor to Moses, the men he's played are closely aligned with rage, stubbornness and a sense of victimhood.

He rarely played villains but his characters often had antihero shadings to them. Heston's were not "turn the other cheek" kinda guys. They were often wronged men who fought back with an equal measure of hard-heartedness as was inflicted upon them.

I don't go for political analyses of film, but it's not hard to see the outlines of threatened patriarchy in Heston's profile. "The noble jerk" is probably the best summation of his persona.

It's on full display in "Number One," a little-remembered sports drama from 1969. He plays Ron "Big Cat" Catlan, the 40-year-old quarterback for the New Orleans Saints facing down the prospect of retirement. (The Saints and the NFL were full participants in the project, and a bunch of real players fill the background.)

Cat is the best of the best, a contender for the football GOAT (greatest of all time) mantle, who previously led the team to a championship. (Fun fact: although the Super Bowl started in 1967, it didn't become the recognized NFL championship game until the year after "Number One" came out.)

He doesn't necessarily have a swelled head, but Cat is used to being treated with deference by everyone around him. Now his skills are clearly fading, and the fans have started to boo more than cheer. As the story opens and he leaves the last exhibition game after aggravating an old knee injury, one man loudly suggests he sign up for Social Security.

The coach (John Randolph) tells Cat he's got three more good seasons in him, though we sense he's got his own doubts. 

Worse yet, his would-be successor, young uppity (I use that word purposely) black QB Kelly Williams (Richard Elkins) is openly vying for his job. He plants a rumor with a New York Times columnist that Cat is thinking about hanging it up, which wasn't true before but launches a whole lot of doubt on the older man's part, and throughout the Saints organization.

Interestingly, Cat seems OK with the competition, only objecting to Williams' betraying of the team ethos by taking it outside the huddle. In a flashback scene we see him driving Williams to his first training camp and giving him plenty of encouragement. And when the coach asks Cat about which of his backups to cut, he chooses keeping Williams because he admits the kid scares him, while he others do not.

There's a romantic angle in the movie -- because of course there is. Cat is seemingly happily married to Julie (Jessica Walter) though they're childless and her interest in in football has waned as her own career as a fashion designer has started to take off. (Without producing a lot of income, though, which adds to the tension.)

He runs into Ann Marley (Diana Muldaur), a former model who now owns a tennis club. She performs an elaborately coy seduction, simultaneously aggressive and hard to get. Ann lets Cat know she's interested and available, drops lots of hints, then acts timid and sorrowful when he finally is ready to close the deal.

Ann and Julie are very similar, from their wide faces with big eyes framed by soft brown hair, to the fact they're strong-willed women who have their own vocations, yet are willing to submit to Cat's dominance. (This is still a mainstream film from Hollywood, after all.)

One scene that registers very high on the "icky" scale is where Cat arrives at Julie's studio after a show and finds her getting a backrub from Robin (Steve Franken), her flamboyantly gay colleague. Robin likes to fling a lot of inert flirtations at Cat just to get a rise out of him, and this time ne nearly takes the man's head off, hollering that his mannerisms disgust him.

The couple proceed to have a knock-down fight -- quite literally, as he angrily grabs her, bends her backward over a couch and basically forces himself on her. (Though she ultimately gives in and joins in... again, Hollywood.)

One of the big impediments to Cat retiring is, surprising to us today, money. Though well paid by contemporary standards, Cat complains the NFL owners treat their players like "peons." Most of the men he came up with in the game have gone on to lucrative second careers -- or become stumblebums asking for a handout while relishing their glory days.

Doing a little research I learn the average NFL salary in 1969 was $25,000, or about $150k in today's dollars. Top players like Cat might earn double that, so although firmly in the comfortable range his pay wouldn't have allowed him to stop working at 40 -- unless he were willing to live a crimped life, which he is not.

Cat wants to see if he can ease out into the high life, or something like it. A couple of offers present themselves. One is at a computer company, where an executive only a few years older than him warns that with all the smart kids coming out of college, he might not be able to hire him for a management job in six months -- or even driving the company truck in another year.

It's a nice little speech, even if it quite obviously borrows from the infamous "plastics" pitch in "The Graduate."

The other gig is for a former teammate, Richie Fowler (Bruce Dern), who blithely walked away from the game at a young age after making his first Pro Bowl team, and now runs the biggest car leasing service in Louisiana. Richie's an impish playboy who encourages a female friend of his to strip at his party, and Cat's clearly repulsed by him -- not just his behavior, but that someone who wasn't the same caliber of player made it so easily in the football afterlife.

Heston isn't terribly convincing as a pro gridiron player, even for a quarterback. He had an odd build for a movie star -- tall, with a wide torso and spindly arms -- and actually got his start as a painters' model.

As he got older and Hollywood's taste for bare flesh waxed, he was only too happy to go along. Heston was in his mid-40s when they made "Number One," and gets a shower scene for his trouble. A tight turtleneck and other late '60s fashion do little to hide the flubberyness already creeping around his middle.

There isn't a whole lot of football in "Number One." Aside from the games at the very beginning and end, there's just a couple of practice sequences in between. Cat idly flips the ball around while Williams takes most of the snaps under center. According to accounts of the film's production, Heston didn't impress any of the real footballers with his athletic abilities.

Though, apparently neither Heston or director Tom Gries felt the last hit on Cat at the end of the film was convincing enough on the first take, so they did a second with instructions to the pros to really hit him. They complied, and there would be no third take -- Heston suffered three broken ribs.

Bleeding from the ear, abandoned by Julie who bolts for the exit, Cat tries to push himself up but falls to the dirt, utterly undone. Having dithered about retiring, he finds himself left without a choice.

If there's a moral to "Number One" -- the original screenplay was by David Moessinger, who spent most of his career in TV -- it's that holding on to something too long can make it turn sour. Cat knows in his heart he should quit, but too many thoughts buzzing in his head -- fear, pride, anger, embarrassment -- keep him from making the right choice, or any choice.

The same goes for Julie and Ann, who represent a parallel dichotomy to his football quandary. I think Cat could be happy with either woman, as long as he was willing to commit totally to one of them. Instead, he wants to have them both.

That's pretty jerky behavior, and something Heston was adept at playing, even in mediocre stuff like this. Maybe in person he was a lot more compassionate and laid-back than his characters. Though who'd want to buy a ticket to see that guy?

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Review: "Greyhound"

"Greyhound" yearns for the big screen. What better illustration of the majesty and power of cinema than a top-drawer war adventure I had to watch on my laptop with earbuds instead of a huge canvas and surround sound. This is film you need to be enveloped by to properly experience.

How much we have given up, 'going to the movies' being nowhere near the most important -- but also not the least.

Tom Hanks stars and, for just the second time in his career, wrote the screenplay based on the novel "The Good Shepherd" by C.S. Forester. This film was supposed to hit theaters on June 12, but instead of pushing it back to the fall or next year like so many other big-ticket movies, Sony opted to sell it to Apple TV+. So that's where you'll see it if you want to.

And you will want to, if you're in the mood for an old-fashioned, magnificent war story about sacrifice, vigilance and humility. These virtues, once so universally embraced as not needing to be voiced, seem positively quaint these days or even, if you're so inclined, reactionary.

Directed skillfully by Aaron Schneider, "Greyhound" is one of those fictional tales with the weight of authenticity in its bones. Set in early 1942 as America's entry into World War II mostly consisted of picking up the pieces in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, it's the tale of Ernest Krause, a freshly minted destroyer commander escorting a group of 37 ships to England. These badly needed troops and supplies make up the very lifeblood of the sputtering fight against Hitler's horde.

Yes, Hanks is a bit old for this role, though there's some hint in an early scene with his would-be fiancee (Elisabeth Shue) that he's a Navy career man who's been continually passed over for command. There's a sense of a man whose life has passed him by, finally given a chance to prove his mettle in the final minutes of a long game.

At a taut 91 minutes, "Greyhound" is like the titular wiry canines, all leaned out and built for speed. It jumps right into the action and never lets up as the convoy is hunted by a pack of German U-boats over the course of several days. This takes place in the "Black Pit" of the Atlantic where American air support has turned back and the British planes are still too far away.

The Germans know it, too, patiently waiting at a distance for the night to fall, just like the wolves from which they take their names. At several points the enemy commander breaks into their comms line, taunting them with their impending deaths and literally howling with bloodlust.

And there is Hanks, a stolid presence every step of the way. His Krause refuses to leave the bridge, even when his feet swell up and start bleeding, daring hardly even to take a bit of food. There's a nearly silent understanding between him and the head chef (the always terrific Rob Morgan), the latter bringing meals he knows will not be eaten, yet always sharing a quick prayer to bless the untasted sustenance.

Stephen Graham plays the XO, the captain's right-hand man, who spends most of his time in the bowels of the weapons room, yet always figuratively at his side. The rest of the cast are mostly younger men whose characters' names we barely catch, greenhorns looking to their leader for reassurance and stability. Among them are Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Devin Druid, Lee Norris, Karl Glusman, Tom Brittney and Joseph Poliquin.

There's the sonar technician, always in his own little bubble of headphones, listening to the sounds of the sea and trying to pick out the plinks and tremors that indicate an enemy. Or the ever-present radio man whose job is to follow the captain around like a herald, relaying his orders to whatever station needs to hear them.

The sea battles are largely accomplished with CGI, and while you can see the artifice if you look for it, I soon stopped doing so as we're swept up in the story. Most of the action takes place during frigid, stormy seas, the skies a nightmare swirl of monochrome and the ocean a frightening, ever-shifting landscape of potential threats just below the surface.

Torpedoes are dodged, depth charges dropped, submarines forced to the surface and thundering deck guns barking at each other. Thrilling, absolutely thrilling.

Despite watching "Greyhound" on a crimped platform, I still was completely swept away by it. Here is a movie that transports us back to a time of quiet heroism, when the line between good and bad seemed starker and our collective duty was clear.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Review: "Browse"

Lukas Haas plays Richard Coleman, a nebbishy nobody sliding through life in "Browse," a psychological thriller with modern skew.

Richard seems to exist entirely through his devices. At home he talks aloud to one of those services that links your phone, email, home security, lights, etc. He's always on the web or watching something. There's nobody around to tell him to take a screen break.

He seems like a nice enough guy, not terribly invested in his job or relationships, using online dating services for casual flings. When that's not enough, the woman in the apartment upstairs is available for booty calls; they literally signal each other by knocking on the floor or ceiling.

Stable but lonely is how most would describe him. With his longish, graying hair and big sleepy brown eyes, Haas has an empathetic presence as a guy who seems unmoored from his own existence.

Then Richard starts to experience an increasingly Kafka-esque intrusion into his privacy. His ex-wife, Roxy (Jocelin Donahue), complains of receiving incessant phone calls from him, even though he hasn't made any. (Though he thinks about her plenty.)

Veronica (Chloe Bridges), one of the women he's been e-flirting with and who lives in an apartment across the way, flags comments he never made on her photos as inappropriate. Eventually the cops come calling.

Things at work quickly deteriorate. He finds some young techie messing around with his computer, and wonders if his troubles are related. His boss (Ken Kirby) is an insufferable young jerk, dismissing Richard with shushes and hand waves while demanding he cut people from his team like punching cattle. One that's been targeted (Sarah Rafferty) is apparently his only friend, and whispers about nefarious deeds their boss is into.

Back at his apartment, the neurotic building manager, Kyle (Bodhi Elfman), always seems to be in Richard's business, relating lewd stories about his love life and expecting the same in return. Meanwhile, he forgets to mention things like Richard's auto-deposit rent payments being overdue or the people from the rental insurance place making similar complaints.

Things go from there, with the consequences getting increasingly dire. It's clear that someone is out to set Richard up as an online creep, rather than the victim of identity theft. (Inexplicably, he never complains to the authorities or asks for help.)

Or is he really a target? Director Mike Testin and screenwriter Mario Carvalhal layer in some scenes, fairly late in the game, suggesting that maybe Richard isn't as benign as he seems. Has he really been harassing these women all along and just blocked it out? Is it mental illness rather than a nefarious plot by invisible antagonists?

At 84 minutes, "Browse" is one of the rare movies these days I wish was a little longer. It doesn't really get deep into its own sense of intrigue until after the one-hour mark, and then it feels like a harried rush to the end credits.

It seems like there's a lot of unexplored territory about Richard's voyeurism -- taking pictures a la "Rear Window" -- and how our digitized interactions heighten the sense of being disconnected. Is the person you're talking to through a dating app really who they say they are? Are you? Can we even tell the difference anymore?

Interesting topics to think about, and largely ignored in hewing to a standardized horror/thriller tropes. "Browse" feels like a Christopher Nolan movie in the larval stage, before all the mind-twisty stuff is properly woven in.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Review: "Skyman"

Carl Merryweather isn't the sort of guy most people give a second glance to. He looks like just another ballcap-wearing, tattooed blue-collar dude you see tooling around in a beat-up pickup truck with a bunch of junk in the bed.

He's the sort of guy you get to come to your house to fix your tractor-mower, is nimble around machines, but when he talks you can't help notice his speech is a little on the slow side.

Nowadays his fixed stare and trouble following social cues would get him labeled as "on the spectrum" if he were still in school. But Carl is honing in on 40 and has something special planned for his birthday. He wants to recreate the experience he had in Apple Valley, Calif., when he was 10 years old and had an encounter with an extraterrestrial creature.

Yes, you heard me: Carl literally believes he's going to meet aliens in the desert outside Los Angeles.

That's the premise of "Skyman," a documentary that really isn't. Carl is actually a character played by actor Michael Selle, and his story is fiction. But it's told in an engaging scripted form that makes it all quite authentic -- and often unnerving.

If you're thinking to yourself, "That sounds like a UFO version of 'The Blair Witch Project,'" then your instincts are very good. Writer/director Daniel Myrick was one of the key figures behind that seminal 1999 horror film, and uses many of the same storytelling techniques here to similar effect.

"Skyman" has an eerie way of passively creeping under your skin and making you doubt the things you thought you knew.

(Disclaimer: I ran in the same circles as the BWP gang back in our Orlando days and slightly knew Myrick -- mostly extending to losing to him in foosball, if memory serves.)

Nicolette Sweeney plays Gina Campbell, Carl's younger sister. She loves her brother dearly while recognizing he's always been a little odd. Gina is single, divorced and two semesters from getting her nursing degree; she's the sort of woman who can still smile at life despite being worn down by it. She and Carl have a relationship where they can kid each other about the other's foibles while being ready to fiercely defend them against interlopers.

Their dad, a military careerist who flew choppers in Vietnam, died some years ago and their mother is confined to a nursing home after a stroke. Carl hasn't told his mom about his birthday plans because he believes there's a chance he may not return if the encounter is successful, if that's the right word for it.

Beneath his bumpkin-ish exterior lurks a sharp mind. Carl is a talented artist, finishes crossword puzzles in minutes and intuitively grasps any technology he encounters. His childhood and more recent drawings of the "skyman," as he dubbed it, depict a very tall, thin creature with triangle-shaped head. It spoke to him through telepathic images, and now he's convinced he's being told of their imminent return.

A great many people in Apple Valley reported the same UFO sighting he did 30 years ago, so it seems he can't just have imagined it. But while most folks dismissed the event as a fleeting anomaly, it literally took over Carl's life. He's collected every magazine or book about alien encounters and knows the lore inside and out.

Most of what's out there is BS, Carl knows, but somewhere in the fog of fiction are a few nuggets of real data that he chases like a stubborn bloodhound. One scene shows him going to a UFO convention and asking the recognized experts on the subject the sort of questions that make them stop and think, "OK, this guy may be legit."

But to most, Carl is just a benignly odd guy, the sort who can't keep a job very long and mostly stays to himself. He spends much of his time at the High Ground House, or HGH, which is basically a fallout shelter his dad established in the middle of the desert. It consists of a couple of Chinese storage containers retrofitted into a living space and assorted detritus.

The family spent a lot of time out here camping when they were kids, and it's where Carl had his encounter. To most an absolutely barren stretch of desolation, it's the one place he seems truly at home.

Pretty much the only other important figure in the story is Marcus (Faleolo Alailima), a mellow childhood friend of Carl's who now works in the hardware store where he picks up all his gear. Marcus rolls his eyes at some of Carl's behavior when he's not looking, but he's enough of a friend to accompany Carl and Gina out to the HGH and rig up the area with cameras to record any events.

We don't know what's going to happen, but we know it'll be... something.

In the end, "Skyman" is less about aliens from outer space than the inner space of the people who are obsessed with them. Is Carl's UFO encounter just a delusion of a childlike mind that never really grew up, or an actual event that holds the potential to be reprised?

Myrick teases us with the answer, and the notion that there even is one. And therein lies this film's considerable, disquieting appeal.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Minority Report" (2002)

"Minority Report" is the most un-Spielberg film ever made by Steven Spielberg.

There is plenty of heartbreak and sadness in Spielberg's movies. Certainly fractured families are a central theme. He's made movies about the Holocaust, D-Day and World War I trenches. The film he made right before this one was "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," in which bereaved parents replace their dying son with a robot who's been tricked into thinking he's a real boy.

And yet, there is an undercurrent of light and hopefulness in his oeuvre that I find (mostly) missing in "Minority Report," though "A.I." probably comes closest in its dystopian themes and dour mood.

In both movies technology has led to seemingly amazing achievements to benefit society, but there's an insidious bargain underneath that threatens to upend the balance. That's not surprising since it was based on a short story by the immortal Philip K. Dick, whose fears about the future essentially created its own film genre, tech noir. It was adapted for the screen by John Cohen and Scott Frank.

I remember liking the film when it came out but not being amazed as other critics were. One of the areas I still find it lacking is the sense of an entire world being built around star Tom Cruise. Instead, it seems like Spielberg and his team created just enough pieces to serve as a backdrop, and no more. He doesn't paint in the corners.

There are the automated cars that move both horizontally and vertically, but other than a chase scene where Cruise leaps from vehicle to vehicle, they're not really explored as a (literally) transportive societal evolution. Things seem... pretty well the same as they are now. They even have The Gap, in a self-reflexive bit of product placement.

Though maybe the sameness is a commentary in and of itself.

Set in the year 2054, the film has been pointed to as being prescient in its depiction of coming technological upheaval. We obviously don't have the ability to predict the future or record thoughts into a video stream, though VR headsets can do a pretty good job of putting you into a created reality. And the mind-altering drug people use in the film, neuroin, bears disturbing similarities to the opioid epidemic of today.

All the newspapers and magazines automatically update with the latest headlines, which if you were in the news business in the early Aughts, the talk of "e-paper" being the format of the future was all the rage. Instead we turned to reading on hard, graceless, 4-inch screens.

Most interesting is the ever-present eye scanners, taking a cool gadget that's a staple of the spy and sci-fi genres and turning it into an intimating facet of a world where our movements are continuously tracked -- ostensibly for consumerist purposes, but as we quickly see the government is piggybacking on the gaze.

We don't use "eye-D," as it's called in the movie, so ubiquitously or without consent. But think about how our online explorations are customized through cookies and trackable data. Everyone knows how they've searched for a product and then seen ads for similar wares plastering our web carousing. Or getting a report every month from Google Maps telling you exactly where you've been, and when.

Most of us would be mortified to have our browser history made public. In the world of "Minority Report," everything about us is on continual surveillance and display, up to and including the things we think about doing. Literally, people are arrested and punished for things they were about to do.

The story is at its root a meditation on free will and predestination. Usually such tales are set against a theological backdrop -- if God determines our path, how are we really free to choose?

As a good Catholic boy growing up, I was instructed that thinking about committing an act is just a much a sin as actually doing it. This was taught as a way to forbid sinful thoughts, but as any pubescent soon realized, they're as impossible to shut out as the old saw of "Don't think about elephants."

I think it was George Carlin who observed that the majority of Catholics who lapsed figured out that if you were going to be punished equally for thinking about doing something, you might as well experience the fun of actually doing it.

("I'll take glaring holes in catechism for $1,000, Alex.")

The film largely eschews religious issues, other than the decoration of some people considering the three "precogs" as deities unto themselves. They are children born of early neuroin users with psychic gifts, which used in conjunction can read people's evil intents before even they themselves are aware of them.

Of course, this also involves being imprisoned in a floating "milk bath" that heightens their powers, kept eternally pumped full of hallucinogens and fawned over by a quite possibly lecherous keeper, Wally (Daniel London).

Agatha (Samantha Morton) is the "most gifted" of the three, twins Dashiell and Arthur basically serving as assist men to the true genius. The three are named after famous mystery writers, and were trained by Dr. Hineman (Lois Smith), now living out her days in lonesome regret.

As is often the case in real life, the creative partner was outlasted and outmaneuvered by the business shark, in this case Max von Sydow as Lamar Burgess, who is now desperate to take the "PreCrime" experiment from Washington D.C. to a national stage. This means jumping through small hoops held by big people.

Hence the arrival of the inquisitive mind of Danny Witwer, a wolf-like young assistant attorney general played by Colin Farrell in his breakout role in American films. He instantly focuses his attention on Chief John Anderton (Cruise), who is the heroic public face of PreCrime. John lost his own son in a bizarre abduction at a public swimming pool years earlier, tanking his marriage to Lara (Kathryn Morris) and turning him into a stealth neuroin user.

In early scene, John goes jogging through the shady part of D.C., his real purpose to obtain a fix, which he uses to heighten his mood while watching (crude) holographic home movies of his lost kid. The blind dealer removes his glasses to reveal cavernous empty eye sockets, seemingly revealing his very brains, with the admonishment, "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king!"

Watching the movie again, this line heralds a lot of high-contrast photography by cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, including a plethora of shots where one of a character's eyes are turned away or lost in shadow.

For me, the faster the movie's plot-stirring gets, the more I tend to lose interest as it gets into pure chase-chase mode. Neal McDonough plays Fletch, John's former right-hand man now charged with leading the hunt for him. "Everybody runs" is their mantra, leading to some slick action scenes with flying power suits and "sick sticks," glowing batons that instantly make their target retch.

In one of the movie's coolest but most inscrutable sequences, John goes to have his eyes swapped out in a black market procedure to fool the eye-D scans.

Peter Stormare plays the bottom-bucket doctor, who blows snot all over his hand right before sucking out John's eyeballs. In a riveting soliloquy, the not-good doctor reminds John -- now addled by anesthesia -- that the chief locked him away years ago for intentionally setting his patients on fire, and now back-alley eye jobs are the only medical work he can do.

It revs up to a classic "I shall have my revenge" declaration:

"For true enlightenment there is nothing like... well, let's just say taking a shower while this large fellow with an attitude you couldn't knock down with a hammer, that keeps whispering in your ear: 'Oh Nancy, Oh Nancy.' Now that was a lot of fun, thank you so very much John for putting me in there, thank you so very much for giving me an opportunity to get to know myself much better."

As near as I can figure, though, the doc never actually extracts any kind of revenge. He competently performs his job, at less than his usual rate, even. John has a nasty encounter with a putrid sandwich and spoiled milk placed in the fridge of his recovery flophouse, though they appear to be genuine accidents as he blindly reaches on the wrong shelf from where the fresh sustenance lies.

As much as I enjoy Stormare's effortless creepy presence and off-kilter line readings, this whole bit feels like a buildup to an important moment that never arrives. I believe the whole thing could be chopped down to quick montage and improve the pacing. Though this would maybe suck some of the life out of the subsequent house search by tiny "spiders," disc-like robots with wire-thin appendages deployed by the PreCrime brutes to infiltrate and forcibly eye-D people

Hence Cruise's green eyes become dark brown halfway through the movie. He keeps the old eyes in a plastic biggie to sneak back into the PreCrime HQ (no one thinking to lock out his profile, apparently) with the intent to have them put back one day, but comically loses one down a drain.

Tim Blake Nelson turns up as Gideon, the wheelchair-deployed officiate of the PreCrime "prison" where reside people judged and sentenced without actually committing any dastardly acts. They lie forever dreaming in plastic tubes, wearing coma-inducing "halos" around their heads like fallen angels as Gideon plays them orgiastic organ music to calm their prematurely damned souls.

As Nelson brings an innate disquieting anxiety to his roles, one instantly wonders if, like Wally, Gideon is supplanting his official duties with an occasional tug 'n' grope of his comelier charges.

John himself is briefly sentenced to the halo prison, his long run finally ending due to the machinations of Burgess, who is using his protege as the sacrificial pawn to ensure PreCrime is cleared for a national rollout. Lara springs him... surprisingly easily, and many have wondered if the film's entire last act is a big guffaw and everything we've seen is merely the imaginings of John, still trapped in his plastic prison on a never-ending high.

This would, of course, be a mirror of the finale of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," one of my all-time favorite films and a clear inheritor of Philip K. Dick's prescient, precious paranoia. His cinematic children were legion, even without an official credit.

And while I don't think "Minority Report" is among the finest of the adaptations, it's a film that has aged rather well in nearly a couple of clicks down the big highway. There was even a briefly lived TV series a few years ago that came and went without me (or anyone) much noticing.

Things end on a (somewhat artificial) high note -- Burgess slain by his own hand, PreCrime disbanded and the not-yet criminals released, Agatha and the twins relocated from their enforced isolation in the pool to a self-imposed one in a lonely cottage on a Scottish cliff or wherever, free to live in the now and not the future.

John even caresses the swelling belly of Lara, their love reborn with another life and shot at parenthood. It seems that free will does reign, along with happy endings in Spielberg flicks -- even if it takes two-plus hours of haunting parable to get there.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Review: "Irresistible"

I always thought Jon Stewart was overrated as a TV fake news host, but he’s turning out to be a pretty decent filmmaker.

His fine directorial effort, “Rosewater,” had an international backdrop and didn’t get seen by too many people. Stewart’s second, “Irresistible,” is a sharp political satire that takes aim at the money, hype and competition-for-competition’s-sake mentality that drives our electoral system.

Political comedy/dramas are a fraught cinematic subspecies that’s been historically hit or miss, and as a result have fallen out of favor these days. “Long Shot,” “Vice” and “The Campaign” are the only ones I can immediately recall from the last few years, and they range from decent-ish to plain awful.

Stewart (who also wrote the screenplay) manages to avoid a big pitfall by casting Steve Carell as the lead, a scheming Democratic campaign veteran named Gary Zimmer. Gary represents pretty much everything wrong with American politics, and yet we can’t help liking him. It’s tough to march through an entire movie not being able to stand your main character.

As the story opens, the Hillary Clinton campaign has crashed to earth and the Democratic party is in a shambles, looking for any kind of win. Gary, who used to work for Bill, comes up with the idea of backing a conservative-leaning candidate in the heartland to show everybody the Dems can have a broad tent that includes guys with pickups and rifles.

When Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) makes an impassioned speech at his town council about not excluding illegal immigrants and a video of it goes viral, Gary knows he’s found his man. Jack looks straight of central casting in the Gary Cooper mold -- a farmer, retired Marine colonel and widower, doesn’t talk a lot but is a fountain of homespun wisdom when he does.

(Though I’ve never met a farmer who uses that much hair product.)

Soon Gary has arrived in tiny Deerwaken, Wis., to convince Jack to run for mayor against the incumbent (Brent Sexton). Jack resists, but agrees on one condition: that Gary himself run the campaign. Soon Gary has brought his entire army of high-priced consultants, pollsters and other experts to run a Senate-level campaign in a town of 5,000 people.

The first half or so of the movie is fun and light and terrific. Stewart gleefully mocks pretty much everybody, from both political parties to the hapless media, who are depicted as being like that dog from “Up” -- clueless and easily distracted. Meanwhile, the townsfolk are authentic and humble and nice as pie.

I appreciated “Irresistible” for not always choosing the most obvious direction, like having Gary go all “Local Hero” and fall in love with the backward ways (to jet-setters like him) of Wisconsin. There’s also a bit of romantic interest with Jack’s plucky daughter, Diana (Mackenzie Davis), who likes to point out Gary’s condescending ways with a smile and some light flirting. She’s a lot younger than Gary, but Hollywood has its ways of glossing over such things.

Probably the film’s biggest failing is re-introducing the character of Faith Brewster, an utterly soulless GOP operative played by Rose Byrne. She beat Gary in the last election, and midway through the movie arrives with her own forces to put down Jack’s nascent campaign, because apparently flipping one mayoral seat in Wisconsin will start a national trend, or something.

Gary and Faith once had a thing with each other, so it immediately becomes a tit-for-tat exchange -- Faith brings in some big-name donors, so Gary does too, etc. Lots of insults and sexual innuendo fly around. It all has a very sitcom-y feel and belongs in another, lesser movie.

Holding it all together is Carell, who has that rare, mysterious ability to play off-putting (“The Office”) or even nasty (“Vice”) characters and come across as appealing. Gary is a jerk, but (unlike Faith) he’s a jerk who doesn’t realize he’s being a jerk, and if it’s pointed out to him can be redeemed, if only for a while.

Stewart gets a little preachy and self-righteous toward the end because, well, he’s Jon Stewart and that’s his bag. But missteps aside I found “Irresistible” to be a fun, smart and even occasionally delightful send-up of a problem everybody sees but pretends not to.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Review: "7500"

Regular readers of this column know one of my biggest beefs with modern movies is length. It seems so many are longer than they need to be, often extravagantly so.

This has been exacerbated by the diminishment in the historical importance of the role of editor, where "less is more" used to be an animating principle, and by the migration to streaming platforms, where there's no impetus to keep things streamlined so viewers don't have to leave their seat for bathroom/snack breaks.

(Not to mention theaters being able to have four showtimes per day instead of three.)

Recently I was watching, or trying to, "Da 5 Bloods" on Netflix. Just within the first 45 minutes (of, groan, 155) my attention wandered as scenes sprawled out lazily, dialogue continuing long after the purpose of an exchange had been achieved, or existing for no purpose at all. Spike Lee's flabby, self-aggrandizing storytelling style seems to be the norm these days.

(Also, wth is with having the same 70-ish actors in the flashback scenes with the clanging contrast side-by-side with Chadwick Boseman? Bold artistic choice, lack of funds for stand-ins or just a straight-up middle finger to suspension of disbelief?)

So it was with great trepidation that I settled into Amazon's new feature film, "7500," and discovered a tight, taut thriller that clocks in at 92 minutes and doesn't have an ounce of flab on it. Here is one of the best movies I've seen his half-year.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Tobias Ellis, a young American co-pilot on a German airline flight that is hijacked by Islamic terrorists. It was written and directed by Patrick Vollrath, heretofore a short film maker whose "Everything Will Be Okay" receive an Oscar nomination a few years back.

He should be giving lessons to these big Hollywood types on how to keep it lean and mean.

The movie is set in real time and takes place entirely inside the cockpit of the jet (outside of surveillance camera footage of the airport terminal that plays over the opening credits). Gordon-Levitt is in every minute of every scene, and acts as the eyes and ears of the audience.

I had a special connection to this story as I have family members who were/are pilots or in aviation, including a dad who was a navigator/bombardier during the Korean War. So I had a little insight into the meticulous attention to detail their role requires, not to mention the ability to remain calm during a crisis.

Speaking of -- the title comes from the squawk code used internationally to indicate to control tower personnel that someone is attempting to hijack the plane. Tobias manages to get this off after a foursome of men try to fight their way into the cockpit, incapacitating the captain, Michael (Carlo Kitzlinger). Tobias manages to seal the door but is severely wounded, leaving his left arm limp, and knocks out and ties up the leader of the terrorists, Kenan (Murathan Muslu).

All this happens within the first 20 minutes or so, and as a result Tobias is trapped without help, sitting at the controls while the hijackers are doing God knows what to the passengers and crew. There's no music in "7500," so we're left with the whine of the jet engines and chatter on the radio as our soundtrack -- not to mention incessant thumping as the terrorists try to break down the door.

Adding to this fraught mix is that one of the flight attendants, Gökce (Aylin Tezel), is Tobias' fiancé and mother of their son -- something they've apparently kept secret from their employers. So not only is his own life imperiled and that of his 85 passengers, but also the future of his entire family.

One of the cleverest storytelling tricks is that Tobias' only connection to what's happening in the rest of the aircraft is a small camera directly outside the cockpit used for security purposes. The hijackers eventually realize this, and the most brutish, Daniel (Paul Wollin), starts dragging people up to the door to hold a jagged knife at their throats.

Tobias is compelled to negotiate with Vedat (an excellent Omid Memar), the young, high-strung member of the group. Through screaming exchanges on the phone and later more intimate ones, they gradually begin to build a surprising rapport. Just as we feel tensions begin to ease, though, the reminder that this is a life-and-death-situation soon returns.

At the center of everything is Gordon-Levitt in one of his finest performances. Bespectacled and straitlaced, his Tobias is essentially alone for much of the movie and has to carry the entire weight of the situation on his shoulders. Bloodied and bothered by the prospect of people dying at his refusal to open the door, he seems to age decades in less than an hour.

"7500" may be a streaming feature film, but it's an extraordinarily well-made one. I'd rather watch a terrific movie on my laptop than a bloated one in the grandest of theaters. Maybe soon we can get the best parts of the movie-going experience back together again.