Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Review: "Certain Women"

I see around 200 movies a year, plenty of good ones, a healthy portion of bad ones, a whole bunch of mediocre ones. What I rarely see these days are movies that are just plain boring.

Say what you will about our current system for making and delivering films to the public -- the overemphasis on spectacle, too few indies and foreign movies making it out to the heartland, etc. But there’s almost always something interesting going on in films that get a significant theatrical release, even in the weakest cinematic fare.

I mean, “Jupiter Ascending” was a screaming pile of laughable dog doo-doo. But it wasn’t like I would’ve rather spent the time folding laundry.

I can’t honestly say the same about “Certain Women” -- at least, most of it. It’s three disparate stories of women living in Montana, based on the short stories of Maile Meloy. Adapted and directed by Kelly Reichardt, it has three chapters that barely intersect with each other -- literally, one character from a section may pass by another, but that’s it.

Like a lot of episodic movies, some parts rise and other parts fall. In this case, the final act is breathtaking in the quiet power of its fragile emotions. The first two are so listless I wondered why anyone thought these stories deserved to be on celluloid.

Let’s be generous and talk about the last one first.

It stars Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone as two young women who are drawn to each other. Stewart is Beth, a newly minted lawyer who signed up for a job teaching education law at night school, not realizing it was a four-hour drive away. Gladstone is Jamie, a f’real cowgirl who takes care of horses at a local ranch.

Jamie wanders into the class -- she’s not a student; she just saw people going in and was looking for something to do. She was mesmerized by the awkward, honest grace of Beth, and keeps coming back to the class. They hook up for meals at the local diner after class.

Jamie doesn’t really talk much, but Gladstone’s wide, strong face does all the communicating we need. She’s clearly smitten, and uses her limited verbal and emotional vocabulary to let Beth know how she feels.

This section, which feels both workaday and dreamy, reminded me in a lot of ways of “Brokeback Mountain” -- not just the same-sex attraction, but how everyday folks have trouble expressing their inner selves.

There’s some of that in the other two acts as well, but it’s far less compelling. Certainly there is not anywhere the emotive resonance of the final section.

Laura Dern plays another lawyer. She’s got a PITA client ( Jared Harris), who suffered a devastating on-the-job injury but foolishly signed away any liability for a small settlement. She’s spent eight months explaining to him that their hands are tied, but it’s not until she takes him to consult with an older male attorney that he finally accepts it. On the ride back to town he jokes with her about taking a machine gun to his old job, and we’re not sure where the joke ends and the pain begins.

In the middle piece, Michelle Williams and James Le Gros play a married couple building a house in the woods. They’re currently living in a souped-up tent, and there’s some friction over their parenting styles toward their teen daughter (Sara Rodier). They visit an older man (René Auberjonois) who obviously has dementia and sorta/kinda sweet-talk him out of some sandstone bricks from the old schoolhouse that are lying around his property, which they want to use for their project.

I wish I could say there’s more going on in these parts beyond what I just described, but there isn’t.

“Certain Women” is a terrific short film that is stitched unnecessarily to two far lesser short films. If you can survive the dullness of the first two acts, the third is worth hanging around for.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Escape from Alcatraz" (1979)

Director Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood made four films together in the space of three years from 1968-71, including "Dirty Harry," but hadn't worked together in awhile by 1979 -- and never would again.

Partly that was due to Eastwood taking over the helm of most of the films he appeared in, after an apprenticeship that began with 1971's "Play Misty for Me." But it also was because the two wrangled over rights to the spec script by Richard Tuggle, who spent six months researching the infamous prison after reading the book by J. Campbell Bruce. Siegel ended up buying the rights to the screenplay out from under Eastwood's nose. They went ahead with "Alcatraz" for old time's sake, but never made another picture together.

The film is a well-done iteration in the prison drama genre, though it doesn't really break much new ground. Eastwood delivers his typical inscrutable tough guy performance of that era; you can pretty much swap out his acting style between movies without missing a beat.

But it worked, so why change? As the old saying goes, actors play roles but stars play themselves.

What I found most interesting about it is how much later films, particularly "The Shawshank Redemption," resemble it. Keep in mind the latter movie only came out 15 years after "Alcatraz" did, and Stephen King's novella, upon which "Shawshank" was based, was published in 1982. I'm not accusing anyone of lifting from anyone else, but let's just say there seemed to be a lot of "inspiration" going on between the three works.

The similarity in character types is pretty amazing. The main character, Frank Morris, is a fairly non-communicative fellow, smarter than the rest, whose arrival shakes up the status quo in the inmate populate. He befriends an older black man, English (Paul Benjamin), a long-timer whose wisdom and caution have propelled him to the top of the food chain. He's threatened with homosexual rape by a vicious thug, Wolf (Bruce M. Fischer), who wants to turn Frank into his "punk," aka prison wife.

Sounds familiar, huh? Well, the parallels go even further.

There's an old man, Doc (Roberts Blossom), who leaves the story about halfway through under tragic circumstances that underline the plight of the main character. In this case, Doc is an artist who lives to paint portraits. He does one of himself with a flower pinned to his shirt, representing "the part they can't take away." But the spiteful warden (Patrick McGoohan), who thinks the purpose of Alcatraz is punishment rather than rehabilitation, takes away Doc's paints, crippling his spirit.

A young uppity inmate, Charley Butts (Larry Hankin), enters the story around the same time Doc leaves, whose gentle nature and enthusiasm for life lifts the other prisoners' mood. He gets roped into Frank's plot to escape, along with two generic tough guy brothers, John and Clarence Anglin (Fred Ward, Jack Thibeau), who are veteran jailbreakers.

Throw in a few other archetypal prison types -- like Litmus (Frank Ronzio), who puts up a hard front but keeps a pet mouse in his pocket -- and you could almost transpose the entire cast of "Alcatraz" into "Shawshank" without much of a bump. (Danny Glover has a blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameo that marks his feature film debut.)

It should be noted that Frank and the Anglins were real people, while pretty much everyone else is made up or a variation on reality. There was indeed a fourth inmate in on the escape attempt who was left behind, but his name wasn't Charley Butts. The real guy cooperated with investigators and never received any punishment for his collaboration.

Pretty much the entire second half of the film is a tense crime procedural as Frank and his co-conspirators work out the method of their escape. Using a nail clipper -- ostensibly stolen from the very desk of the warden himself -- welded to a spoon handle, Frank chips out the rotting cement around the grate underneath the sink in his cell. The three men squeeze through into a utility corridor, climb up and out the roof by bending some bars with a pipe and use life preservers and a crude raft fashioned from raincoats to swim away.

To conceal their work, they dump the gravel from their excavations into the prison yard through their pant legs, as we've seen in "The Great Escape" and countless other prison break films. They fashioned paper mache dummy heads, complete with pasted hair from the prison barber, to make it look like they were asleep in their bunks. And similarly fashioned facade grates covered the holes in their cells.

"Escape from Alcatraz" was filmed in the actual prison itself, which was shut down shortly after the Morris escape in 1962, but remains a tourist destination to this day. All the automatic cell doors and everything else still worked, though the studio had to spend half a million dollars to run massive power lines under San Francisco Bay, since the prison's electrical plant no longer functioned.

Obviously, this lends the film a lot of innate authenticity, as we get to see how inmates lived and moved around in cells that were literally the size of a broom closet -- 5 feet by 9 feet. Watching how the men arranged their meager belongings on shelves, or using their commodes as a desktop, I kept musing to myself that prison inmates were the original pioneers of the "tiny home" fad.

There's never really a huge sense of peril in the movie since it's, y'know, Clint effing Eastwood. Unlike Andy Dufresne, you just know he's not going to take it up the keister from time to time. Although it is notable that Frank is marched into the prison in the buff, which as far as I know represents Eastwood's only nude scene in his long career.

Historically, it is highly debated what happened to Morris and his two fellows. Alcatraz had long been fabled as the prison from which no one escaped alive, and there's a certain inspiration for officials to want to keep that streak alive. No bodies were ever found, so there's no way to be certain either way.

"Escape from Alcatraz" looks at first glance like a by-the-numbers prison flick that borrowed heavily from other movies -- until you realize other movies are borrowing from it.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Video review: "Lights Out"

There’s something to be said for short movies.

Barely cracking the 80-minute mark, “Lights Out” is a terse and tense horror film that relies on familiar tropes -- half-imagined spirits stalking people, especially while they’re trying to sleep -- but does so with verve and some very effective scares.

Watching it, I thought about the fact that we don’t learn too much about the backstories of the characters, especially protagonist Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), a wayward daughter who tries to protect her younger brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), from her psychologically unbalanced mother, Sophie (Maria Bello).

We know she’s somewhat defensive and cut off from others, seeing as how she keeps her boyfriend, Bret (Alexander DiPersia), at arm’s length -- even going so far as to deny his boyfriend status after eight months together. She favors Goth clothing and makeup, and decorates her crummy apartment with disturbing drawings and posters.

But really, in a movie like this, do we really need to know her whole life story? Rebecca’s job here is to be relatable, someone who starts out scared and grows stronger, who we can root for when the boogums come calling.

Here that spirit is a skeletal female figure who only appears in darkness. The movie’s signature scare tactic is having the lights go on and off, either by a switch or some other device, with the creature flashing closer each time the lights go off. It’s simple, but quite effective.

Director David F. Sandberg, who adapted this feature from his own short film, and screenwriter Eric Heisserer focus on the scares rather than the psychology. The result is a stripped-down, spare horror tale that is all muscle and little fat.

Bonus features are pretty scant, limited to just a few deleted scenes. It’s hard to believe there was much material to cut out, considering how lean the movie already is. Apparently, sometimes less really is more.



Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review: "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back"

One thing I appreciated about “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is that action scenes existed within the realm of the possible. Sure, Tom Cruise’s ex-Army officer can dish out the chop-socky with the best of the Bournes and Bonds.

But when he gets hit, it staggers him. Blows leave marks; his face swells up and stays puffy.

I’m not sure how many moviegoers have ever been punched in the face. I have, once, in second grade. It was a bigger kid, but even fourth graders don’t pack all that much in a swing. Still, I went down, hard. That’s what actual people do when punched straight-on.

It helps make Reacher seem more relatable. Especially when he does things that border on super-human, like luring four bad guys into a factory so he can take them out, unarmed --  but not before the prerequisite taunting and quipping.

“Jack Reacher” is a straightforward bubblegum action flick. It does not pretend to be more than it is. If it’s important for humans to know thyself, then that goes doubles for movies. Most of the bad ones are trying to be something they’re not, or haven’t figured out what they are.

Director Edward Zwick, who co-wrote the screenplay with Richard Wenk and Marshall Herskovitz (based on the book by Lee Child), takes over for Christopher McQuarrie. His action scenes may not have the same zip – it’s not hard to spot Cruise’s stunt double -- but the narrative has a little more cohesion.

Reacher retired from the military a few years ago to wander the land with nothing more than the clothes on his back and his military pension to pay for some scuzzy motels. He lends a hand wherever he can, especially when do-gooders are being rousted by no-good-doers.

His contact back in D.C. is Maj. Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who took over his old job heading up the military investigations unit. After years of phone flirting, they resolve to have a date in-person. But when Reacher shows up, he learns she’s been arrested for espionage. Soon enough, he’s implicated too.

The rest of the movie is a series of chases, with our pair trying to stay ahead of some ex-military contractors named ParaSource, while simultaneously trying to pin the crimes on them. A trail of bodies soon grows.

Complicating things is 15-year-old Samantha (fresh-faced Danika Yarosh), who may or may not be Reacher’s daughter. It doesn’t really matter if it’s true, since if she’s being used as leverage against Reacher, he figures he has to protect her anyway. Not exactly the paternal type, he’s kind of baffled by the vagaries of teendom.

Rounding out the cast are Robert Knepper as a sinister general, Aldis Hodge as the straight man following orders to a fault, and Patrick Heusinger as Reacher’s dark twin -- a similarly skilled operative but without the moral code.

The movie’s a showcase for Cruise, as are pretty much all of his movies these days. He’s 54 now and finally starting to show it. His face has gotten some new crevices and hollows, and he wears it well. He looks like a guy who’s gotten beat up a lot, and dished out even more. His body is toned as always, but no matter how many crunches and cardio you do, at a certain point things start to droop and spread out.

It all works. Twenty years ago we wouldn’t have bought Tom Cruise as a burnt-out loner. But now Jack Reacher fits him like a glove.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Review: "A Man Called Ove"

At first glance “A Man Called Ove” seems like a Swedish version of the bitter old man roles we’ve seen from the likes of Paul Newman (“Nobody’s Fool”) and Jack Nicholson (“About Schmidt”).

But really, it’s a love story. Not about falling in love, but reclaiming it.

Rolf Lassgård plays Ove, who seemingly lives solely to be a pain-in-the-tuckus, constantly insulting others and holding everyone to his own set of high standards. He’s the sort of petty authority figure who has bestowed himself with all sorts of powers, and acts as if this is something everyone has agreed upon.

Wearing the same nondescript cap and coat every day, he trudges around his orderly little village, tugging on locks to make sure they’re secure and hollering at the pet owners to keep their furry friends from piddling where they oughtn’t. Once upon a time he was chairman of the residents’ association, but his position was stripped years ago in a “coup” -- i.e., a democratic election -- and Ove clings to his bitterness like a talisman.

He has worked at the train depot for 43 years, following in his late father’s footsteps. When two young managers offer to transition him to a training program for older workers to acquire new skills, Ove cuts to the chase: Why don’t I just get up right now and leave, and make it simpler for all of us?

At age 59, Ove does not suffer fools -- a description he believes applies to virtually everyone but him.

Directed and written by Hannes Holm from the novel by Fredrik Backman, “A Man Called Ove” starts out in a very dark place and gradually moves toward the light. We sense the change and embrace it, so Ove’s evolution feels natural rather than compulsory.

After losing his job, Ove resolves to kill himself. His beloved wife, Sonja (a vibrant Ida Engvoll), passed away six months ago and with her his only connection to the happier things in life. Like many men his age and class, Ove is a hands-on sort who can fix almost anything and defines himself by his usefulness; he leaned on Sonja to be his connection to the community.

He tries suicide hanging, but is interrupted by a new family moving in across the street. The husband (Tobias Almborg) is an “idiot” (Ove’s favorite designation) who can’t even back up a car. But his wife, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), is a headstrong woman from Iran who drops off saffron rice and enlist the older man’s in everything from babysitting her two daughters to giving driving lessons. She offers friendship, and eventually Ove responds with… irked tolerance.

(For him, that’s a breakthrough.)

Subsequent suicide attempts -- asphyxiation, shotgun, etc. -- are similarly disturbed by the intrusion of others, until it becomes a running joke. Visiting his wife’s grave daily, he promises to be with her soon… after he fixes a bicycle for a youngster, and Parvaneh’s baby is born, and so on.

Flashback sequences show us Ove as a boy (Viktor Baagøe) and later as a teenager and young man (Filip Berg). He obtained much of his blue-collar view of the world from his father (Stefan Gödicke), as well as his devotion to Saab automobiles. Later, he strikes up a friendship with a like-minded villager, but they angrily part ways over the other man’s affinity for Volvos and later -- ye gods! -- a BMW.

As the story unfolds, we discover Ove and how he became the man he is, and he rediscovers his own past and finds things there that are missing now. Here is a man who is constantly telling the story of himself, how the world is unfair and the corporate “whiteshirts” always get their way, whether it’s tearing down the family home or institutionalizing a neighbor. Ove learns he doesn’t like the yarn he’s been spinning.

“A Man Called Ove” is a splendidly acted and oddly sweet film. It’s about a miserable old wretch who wants to kill himself, and is continually foiled by other people who need him around. In seeking death, he keeps finding new reasons to live.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Video review: "Alice Through the Looking Glass"

I guess I’m just Mr. Contrarian. I despised 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland,” starring Johnny Depp as a decidedly off-kilter Mad Hatter. But the sequel is a charming romp that uses Lewis Carroll’s second novel as a mere jumping-off point for its own series of crazy, colorful adventures.

Of course, the first movie was a huge hit and the second died a quick death at the box office. Apparently, the majority of moviegoers like what I hate and hate what I like.

(Considering that for my epitaph.)

Perhaps give “Alice Through the Looking Glass” a chance on video, and maybe we’ll find we’re not so far apart after all.

This story (screenplay by Linda Woolverton) digs deeper into the Hatter’s past, using a kooky time-traveling device to see how he became so delightfully dinghy. Three years after the events in the last movie, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) returns to Underland to find Hatter has taken deathly ill.

In a delirium -- I know, hard to tell the difference with this one -- Hatter insists that his family, long thought killed by the Jaberwocky, is somehow alive and waiting for him. They track down Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen) and steal his Chronosphere to jump back to years past.

Of course, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), she of the outsized head and aggressiveness, returns to muck up their quest. Anne Hathaway also shows up as the White Queen, and we find out a little more about the sisters’ long-ago divergence.

James Bobin, taking over the directing chair from Tim Burton, keeps the story more or less on an even keel. It turns out that when you have characters and creatures straight out of pure imagination, it helps to arrange them in a methodical way, rather than splaying them out randomly as the previous film did.

But don’t just take my word for it.

Bonus features are quite good, though you’ll have to buy the Blu-ray version to get the vast majority of them. The DVD comes only with one featurette about the making of the costumes.

The Blu-ray includes several more making-of mini-documenatires, the music video for “Just Like Fire” with P!nk, side-by-side comparisons of raw footage and final scenes, profiles of minor characters, deleted scenes and a feature-length commentary track with Bobin.



Thursday, October 13, 2016

Review: "The Accountant"

 There’s a lot of things to like about “The Accountant,” but tonally the film is a sloppy, gloppy mess.

It starts out as a serious character examination of a high-functioning autistic man played by Ben Affleck who works as an accountant for some very bad people -- terrorists, drug cartels, repressive regimes, etc. Then he quickly morphs into a Jason Bourne-like character who can bullseye people a mile away and chop-socky them to death up close.

It begins on a very somber note, and by the end has more or less turned into a full-out action/comedy. Somewhere in here is a romance that gets dropped down a well, and a redemptive tale of a shiftless bureaucrat who found his calling late in life.

Director Gavin O’Connor (“Warrior”) and script man Bill Dubuque gather an interesting cast of characters and story elements, but can’t assemble them into a coherent piece. Still, if you look at it purely as popcorn entertainment, there’s a lot of assets in the ledger.

The story opens with Christian Wolff as a kid (played by Seth Lee), prone to fits and cut off from the rest of the world. But he’s got brilliance beneath the behavior, as evidenced by his ability to put together a huge puzzle in minutes -- with the picture facing upside down -- while waiting to talk to a therapist. His father (Robert C. Treveiler) is a stern Army man, and gives him a brutal upbringing of tough love and combat training so he can survive.

“You’re different. Sooner or later, different scares people,” Dad instructs.

Now in his late 30s or so, Christian is a CPA with a dingy one-man practice, ZZZ Accounting, south of Chicago. Affleck does a wonderful bit of technical acting, showing us all of his quirks and obsessions. He blows on his fingers before starting a new task, and becomes distracted to the point of conniption if interrupted before he’s finished.

He does tax returns and such for farmers and the small storefronts around his in the strip mall. But on the side he takes high-dollar gigs from disreputable types, finding out who’s been skimming in operations like the drug lords who, as one law enforcement type puts it, “count their money by weighing semis full of cash.”

That LEO is Ray King (J.K. Simmons), a legendary Treasury agent with lots of huge busts to his name. He’s got a few months until forced retirement, and is determined to spend that time tracking down this ghost accountant. He recruits a young analyst with a troublesome past (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) as his paladin. She learns about a troubled young man who was in and out of institutions, including a federal prison stint where he learned at the knee of an elderly mafia numbers man (Jeffrey Tambor).

Now Christian has been recruited to check out a prominent firm that makes robotic limbs for amputees, led by a visionary leader (John Lithgow) who’s not so good with numbers. There Christian meets Dana, an adorably dorky company accountant who first found the discrepancy. They negotiate a delicate little dance, with her trying to figure out this puzzle of a man and him trying to break through decades of imposed discipline.

(Beautiful, smart and vibrant women are often attracted to awkward, socially clumsy men in the movies – which, completely coincidentally, tend to be written by awkward, socially clumsy men.)

Things go bad when a team of assassins (led by Jon Bernthal) come after Dana and Christian. He quickly makes short work of them, and the pair are in the wind.

Things are more or less fine to this point, but then the film keeps tipping over into unexpectedly funny moments that break the mood. Some are obviously intentional, such as Affleck’s affectless responses to Kendrick’s emotional outbursts. But the compounding effect is to undermine the tense atmosphere the movie has worked so hard for.

The plotting is rather obvious -- if you can’t figure out who’s the person pushing all the buttons, or the nature of the third act’s “big surprise” a long way off, you haven’t been paying much attention.

If “The Accountant” had just presented itself as a straightforward action/drama -- “Superspy CPA” -- then we could just sit back and enjoy it for its own sake. By seeking higher ground, and then settling for cheaper thrills, it’s only marginally worth an investment.