Monday, September 24, 2018

Reeling Backward: "The Moon Is Down" (1943)

"The Grapes of Wrath" is a true rarity: a book universally touted as Great Literature that's actually a genuinely good read -- unlike others I could name; see Joyce, James -- that was subsequently turned into movie so fine, it's arguably as iconic as the novel itself.

For his followup to "Grapes," John Steinbeck chose to pen a contemporaneous piece of fiction about the German occupation of a small Norwegian mining town. Though the author was more circumspect, referring to them as the townspeople and "the invaders."

Sensing another big hit, and with the advent of World War II creating a voracious appetite for films with a propagandist bent, the studio again paired Steinbeck with his "Grapes" screenwriter/producer partner, Nunnally Johnson, with whom he had become close friends.

Steinbeck reportedly gave Johnson free reign to tinker with the novel, which he wrote with the intention of adapting it into a stage play, hitting Broadway in 1942. I haven't read the book, but from what I gather Johnson did not take his friend's permission to heart, sticking quite faithfully to the text.

The result is probably the least-remembered film adaptation of a Steinbeck work. Though he ended up receiving the highest civilian award from the Norwegian king as thanks after the war, "The Moon Is Down" is a rather staid, self-serious movie that aims a little too obviously to demonstrate the nobility of "small men" in the face of Nazi oppression.

It features a trio of fine character actors -- Lee J. Cobb, Cedrick Hardwicke and Henry Travers, forever the angel Clarence from "It's a Wonderful Life."

But the film suffers from having no main character or strong narrative through-line. The Germans take over the town with ease, a quiet war of wills begins between the conquerors and the conquered, and the heavy hand of the Nazi regime soon stokes the embers of resentment into an outright blaze of revolt.

The title, incidentally, is from an obscure line in Macbeth that portends imminent violence.

Travers plays Orden, the mayor of the (never named) village. A simple, soft-spoken man, Orden is prepared to accept the German occupation with grace and deference. As he repeatedly says, he's a little man, and not a particularly brave one, the elected head of a little town. But he has strong beliefs that no people can ever be truly defeated if they keep their sense of independent freedom in their hearts.

Hardwicke is Col. Lanser, the German officer placed in charge of the town. In the opening scene we see him receiving his orders from a general, and seems positively bored about the prospect of his new assignment, so far away from the front. His job is simple: keep the people down, and extract every ounce of iron from the nearby mine as he can.

Lanser is not a classic screen villain: he's intelligent and prefers to rule via decree rather than violence. But he's not afraid to kill innocent men as an example to others, taking hostages and then executing them publicly when there are acts of sabotage or resistance. Of course, this only spurs more reprisals, as Orden had predicted to him.

Cobb, as I've previously mentioned, is an actor remembered for a long line of older, often angry men, most notably in... well, "12 Angry Men." But he was usually much younger than the characters he portrayed. Here playing Albert Winter, the elderly town doctor, Cobb was barely into his 30s, but quite convincing in a silver hairpiece and subtle aging makeup.

Winter attempts to be the conciliatory force working between the mayor and German colonel, but it does not turn out very well, as we might expect.

The movie is at its best when the three primary actors are bouncing off each other. There's a powerful scene toward the end where, after being condemned to execution, Orden recalls a speech he made in high school, reciting Socrates' Denunciation. It's the strident call of a man about to die, eloquently spitting his defiance at his murderers.

Lanser wanders in during the speech, recognizes both its source and the context in which it is being recalled, and even assists Orden with a word he's forgotten. We find ourselves liking all three men, if for different reasons.

The real bad guy is E.J. Ballantine as George Corell, the traitor who helped prepare the town for invasion. It's a little unclear what this consisted of, other than providing intelligence about the general layout and the presence of a tiny 12-man militia comprised of local men. As if they could have stood up to the Germans' 250 crack troops, even without them being tipped off.

Orden refuses to have anything to do with Corell, unable to grasp how a native-born Norwegian could betray his own people. Lanser also doesn't take a particular like to the spy, making light of the small injuries Corell keeps turning up with at the hands of the perturbed villagers. Lanser refuses Corell's insistence that he be installed as mayor, but later is overruled when the traitor travels to Berlin to complain, returning with orders for harsher tactics.

(The notion that the Third Reich would side with a foreigner over its own high-ranking German officer is highly suspect.)

Hardwicke gets plenty of screen time, but Travers and Cobb disappear for long stretches involving other townsfolk and doings, which don't carry much emotional heft. The biggest one involves a sequence with Molly Morden (Dorris Bowdon), the widow of one of the murdered local militiaman, and a young German lieutenant, Tonder (Peter van Eyck).

Tonder wanders into the local pub one night, desperately bored and lonely, and is hurt when all the local men depart -- staying only the requisite 15 minutes he orders them to. Later he has a near-crackup in front of other officers, even going so far as to suppose that Hitler is crazy. He then winds up on the doorstep of Molly, pitching woo.

It's implied that she summons him to her bedroom and then murders him with a large pair of knitting shears. But the act is never commented upon further, other thana  vague reference to Molly having made it safely over the border. You'd think the murder of a German officer would be a pivotal event in the narrative, but it's completely brushed under the rug.

This very short, doomed romance winds up being all buildup and no payoff.

A couple of asides about the pair of actors. Despite supposedly being a callow youth, van Eyck was actually five months older than Cobb. Bowdon was another holdover from "Grapes," playing one of the Joad sisters. She was married to writer/producer Nunnally Johnson, perhaps suggesting why such a dead-end story thread is allowed to spool out so long. Bowdon had her first child after production, and willingly (or perhaps not) ended her acting career at age 29.

Another sequence that holds some early traction is the delivery of individual sticks of dynamite -- along with a chocolate bar -- from the Royal Air Force, dropped in with little parachutes and accompany suggestions about how to use them to foil the Germans. Soon train tracks, supply dumps and even the mine itself are beset by explosions. Again, this aspect of the tale just sort of wanders off and is forgotten until the very end.

"The Moon Is Down" isn't a bad film, just a forgettable one. Perhaps it was having a journeyman director, Irving Pichel, at the helm instead of John Ford, one of the greats of cinema. But I don't think so.

The truth is Steinbeck's story just doesn't work very well on the screen. It's episodic and rambling, showing us interesting characters and then misplacing them, or presenting insipid characters who tarry much too long.

Great home-run hitters usually struck out a lot too, but people remember the titanic swats instead of the fanning. Steinbeck's percentage was very good, but nobody hits 1,000.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Video review: "Solo: A Star Wars Story"

“Solo: A Star Wars Story” was the first bona fide flop for the storied sci-fi franchise. I’m not sure why. Although it certainly deserves a ranking toward the bottom of the Star Wars canon, it’s still a fun, action-filled entry with plenty of entertainment value.

My 7-year-old declared it the best Star Wars flick of all. That’s overstating the case, though I would put it at least above “Rogue One” and “The Last Jedi.”

Alden Ehrenreich takes over the role of intergalactic smuggler/smirker Han Solo from Harrison Ford, and it’s a pretty seamless handoff. Aside from being a head shorter, Ehrenreich’s Han has all the scruffy charisma we’re used to. This story looks at his formative years prior to meeting Luke, Leia and the gang.

Raised on the crime-ridden planet of Corellia, Han manages to escape the den of thieves where he was raised, though his lady love, Qui’ra (Emilia Clarke), is captured. He vows to become a great pilot, snag his own ship and return to rescue her.

Flash forward a few years, and things didn’t turn out that way. After washing out as a pilot in the Imperial academy and deserting as a foot soldier, he stumbles into Qi’ra to find out she isn’t in need of any rescuing at all. She’s become the right hand woman for Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), a high-up in the criminal syndicate Crimson Dawn.

Han has fallen in with a group of bandits led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who takes him under his wing, shows him how to spin a laser blaster and a few things about double-crosses, too. Their assignment -- failure means death -- is to boost some raw hyperspace fuel from inside the Kessel nebula.

It’s volatile stuff, so if they don’t get it out fast enough, the whole plan goes explodey-splodey.

We also get to witness Han’s meeting up with Chewbacca, and his first encounter with self-pleased rogue Lando Calrissian, captain of the Millennium Falcon. He’s played with dizzying charm by Donald Glover, and if the Star Wars honchos don’t give him his own movie, they’re dumber than nerf herders.

Another fun addition is Lando’s navigation droid L3 (voice/motion by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who is a distinct break from the polite/subservient model of C3PO and his ilk. Sassy and rebellious, she advocates for robots overthrowing their “organic overlords” and even hints at a possible romantic relationship with Lando.

I’m hoping more people will discover “Solo” on home video. It’s a worthy addition to the Star Wars library, fleshing out the backstory of (arguably) its most popular character and giving us some thrills along the way.

Bonus features are very good. They include eight deleted or extended scenes, including one showing Han as an Imperial cadet; a roundtable with director Ron Howard and his cast; interviews with veteran Star Wars scribe Lawrence Kasdan and his co-writer, son Jonathan; and much more.

One especially neat bonus feature: “The Millennium Falcon: From Page to Park,” depicting the history of the famous spacecraft and its upcoming translation into a theme park ride.



Thursday, September 20, 2018

Review: "The House with a Clock in Its Walls"

“The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is a little bit of a lot of things -- none of which work all that well.

It’s a kids-do-magic fantasy adventure in the vein of Harry Potter; a redemptive tale about an orphan growing up fast; a comedic lark with over-the-top characters; a creature feature with plenty of colorful/gross critters; and a few other odd ends.

It’s a little funny, a little scary -- probably too frightening for small children, despite its PG rating -- a little magical, and a little dull at times.

This film is directed by Eli Roth, known for getting his start making the hardest of hardcore horror: “Hostel,” “Cabin Fever.” It’s pretty hilarious that he’s now doing a family-friendly scare romp. Eric Kripke provided the script.

Based on the classic novel by John Bellairs, unread by me, it stars Owen Vaccaro as Lewis Barnavelt, a 10-year-old who arrives in fictional New Zebedee, Mich., in 1955 after the death of his parents. He is to live with his uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black), the self-described “black swan” of the family. He wears an impressive pompadour, a fixed, unnerving smile and a kimono.

Owen moves into the home at 100 High St., a dilapidated old mansion filled with clocks, weird antiques, stained glass windows that tend to change shape, creepy mannequins and other essentials of any decent haunted house.

Another permanent fixture is Mrs. Zimmerman (no first name is every supplied), the haughty but likable next-door neighbor who apparently spends all her time at Jonathan’s place. She and Jonathan exchange a steady stream of insults like old marrieds, but insist their relationship is platonic.

It doesn’t take long for Owen to figure out that his uncle and Mrs. Zimmerman are warlock and witch, respectively. He insists they teach him magic, too, and they resist for about five seconds before turning Dumbledore on them. Soon Owen is doing spells to spray the bully at school in the face with the water fountain. Good times.

The previous owner of the house was one Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), a great magician and Jonathan’s former partner. (In the movie’s telling, many stage magicians are in fact real warlocks and witches who use the cover to pay their bills.) His craft turned decidedly dark after some horrible experiences in the war, and he died after attempting the foulest of spells.

Of course, in these types of movies, death is often just a temporary phase.

I liked Black as the monumentally self-pleased warlock, who has a surfeit of confidence and yet has no hesitation in dubbing Zimmerman a far superior magic user. The shtick got a little old after a while, though.

The movie follows Owen on his adventures at school for a time, especially his budding friendship with Tarby (Sunny Suljic), a popular jock temporarily laid up with a broken arm. But the relationship takes a turn for no good reason other than to service the plot.

There are some amusing and scary sequences that are memorable. I particularly liked a battle with enchanted Jack-o’-lanterns that gets satisfyingly gooey.

I can’t recommend this movie -- I didn’t even like it enough to bother writing out the whole title again. It’s too creepy for really small children, while those over age 10 will probably deem it kiddie fare. It’s not terrible, but it did not cast a spell on me.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Review: "Lizzie"

ChloĆ« Sevigny and Kristen Stewart are beautiful women with tired eyes. In “Lizzie,” their characters seem to be sleepwalking through life, addled and awry, as if dreamers hoping desperately to awake from a nightmare.

You may have heard that this is a movie about famed axe murderess Lizzie Borden. What you may not know (I didn’t) is that Borden was acquitted of killing her father and stepmother, returned to her hometown and lived out the rest of her days there. Think about that.

In this fictional (?) version of events, director Craig William Macneill and screenwriter Bryce Kass focus on the romantic relationship between Lizzie (Sevigny) and the family maid, Bridget Sullivan (Stewart). A 1984 novel had supposed a lesbian affair between the two and the discovery of the tryst as the trigger for the murders. (The film’s credits curiously do not attribute the book.)

Here Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) is the true villain, a dictatorial patriarch who treats Lizzie and her sister, Emma (Kim Dickens), as chattel, embarrassing old maids who continually defy and vex him. He also takes liberties with Bridget in her attic bedroom at night, as an Irish immigrant in 1892 Massachusetts was treated as little more than an indentured servant.

The first half of the movie plays out as a tortured romance, while the second half is a whodunit as we witness the consequences of the crime and flashbacks to the actual killings.

I found the scenes between the two actresses more interesting than the crime-and-punishment stuff. They resist the magnetic attraction toward each other, captives of their time and place that looked upon such love as blasphemy, not to mention the yawning class distinction between them.

It’s a compelling dance, as they struggle against their feelings and drown in the anxiety created by denying them.

The Bordens were not a happy clan. Wealthy but emotionally distant, Andrew had remarried a few years after his wife’s death. The daughters remained aloof to their stepmother, Abby (Fiona Shaw). Lizzie refuses to call her mother, though she sticks up for her stepdaughter against the worst of her husband’s cruelties.

To wit: At one point, Andrew is enraged after Lizzie steals and pawns some jewelry, and exacts his revenge by beheading all of her beloved pigeons, one by one. Then he orders Bridget to roast them up for dinner. It’s quote a gothic horror scene.

Once the elder Bordens are dead, the movie loses quite a bit of steam. I think it would have been more interesting to keep the matter of Lizzie’s guilt tucked away from this story, concentrating on why she might have been tempted to do such a thing, and how the case became one of America’s first murder media sensations.

Still, we must consider the movie made rather than the one we wish for.

“Lizzie” is at times compelling and other times listless, a look back at a grisly bit of history that has become a gag, and tries to flesh out the human lives involved. It may not be true, but this is as good an explanation as any for hacking people up with a hatchet.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Video review: "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom"

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is the unavoidable sequel to 2015’s reboot of the genetically-recreated-dinosaurs monster mash, which made a gazillion dollars. So we’re back for another romp in the jungle, another super-duper special “boss” dinosaur and a whole lot of quips from star Chris Pratt and downer tut-tutting from other star Bryce Dallas Howard.

(Btw, isn’t it telling that in blockbuster movies featuring male and female leads, the guy is always the “fun” one?)

The setup here is that the dinos are still running rampant on the remote Isla Nublar, which originally was built as a massive amusement park. Believe it or not, an environmental movement has been launched saying they should be protected as an endangered species. Other more sensible folks simply worry about getting chomped.

Dino wrangler Owen Grady (Pratt) and operations manager Claire Dearing (Howard) are duped into helping some bad types retrieve the dinosaurs in hopes of preserving them. Instead, the plan is to auction them off as very toothy pets for the deplorable rich.

Of course, things go awry and the dinosaurs start munching on their would-be owners instead -- sort of a delish triumph for the 99%, if you think about it.

The twist is an Indoraptor, a genetically modified dinosaur that’s a mix between a velociraptor and the special boss dino from the last movie. Want to guess if the next “Jurassic World” flick will feature the spawn of this movie’s “special” dinosaur?

There are some exciting action scenes, but “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is a paint-by-numbers sequel without a lot of ambition or heart.

Bonus features are ample. The neatest feature is a series of video journals kept by Pratt during production, including one-on-ones with everyone from director J. A. Bayona to his own stunt double.

There’s also a conversation between cast and crew, a “JURASSIC Then and Now” looking at key moments in the film franchise and an “On the Set With Chris & Bryce” that explores their offscreen moments. Plus, 11 making-of documentary shorts.



Thursday, September 13, 2018

Review: "A Simple Favor"

"A Simple Favor" is not a particularly good film, but it is an interesting one. Sometimes it's better to to be mediocre and interesting than decently unoriginal.

At first I thought this was going to be a romcom. Anna Kendrick plays a mommy vlogger who becomes ensorceled with a beautiful, bitchy mother of one of her son's 1st grade classmates, played by Blake Lively. I figured it would be an odd couple romp as they bond while dealing with various man issues.

There is indeed bonding and romantic entanglements, but they're a sideshow to what is essentially a comedy whodunit.

Tonally, this is a brash outlier movie. Coming from director Paul Feig ("Bridesmaids," "Spy), it appears at first blush to be a broad R-rated comedy with the ladies spouting a lot of filthy talk. I haven't read the book it's based on, though it's been compared to "Gone Girl" and "The Girl on the Train" -- pretty much the polar opposite of funny.

But screenwriter Jessica Sharzer, adapting the novel by Darcey Bell, layers in plenty of laughs even as she introduces film noir elements as the two women trade roles as admirer and admired, pursuer and pursued. There are a couple of head-whipping plot twists, though they aren't hard to guess if you've been paying attention.

It starts out fun and flirty, then turns darker, and then darker still, though there are still laughs spliced in between the doom and gloom.

Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a widowed single mom to adorable Miles (Joshua Satine) who makes helpful videos aimed at other mothers. She's sort of a downmarket Martha Stewart, living in quaint (fictional) Warfield, Conn., a New York City exurb. The other moms of their class see her as this busy bee of energy, friendly to everyone but close to no one.

Then she meets the mom of Miles' pal Nicky (Ian Ho), the class troublemaker. Emily Nelson (Lively) is everything Stephanie is not -- tall, flawless, rich, self-confident, careerist and seemingly indifferent to the joys of motherhood. She wears swank suits with vest pocket chains, fedora hats, ladybug shoes and a permanent smirk.

After some play dates and lots of gin martinis, they're soon fast friends. Stephanie is deferential and apologetic, and Emily acts as her muse and mentor to live larger. Emily is like a caricature of feminism: controlling, manipulative, arrogant. We would hope Stephanie would be smart enough to see through her facade to the depth of her problems, but then we wouldn't have a movie.

Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that Emily suddenly disappears after leaving Nicky with Stephanie. Her husband, Sean (Henry Golding), a once-promising writer, was away in London and wasn't aware she vamoosed. Her posh clothing designer boss (Rupert Friend) though she was on a business trip in Miami.

Soon the police are brought in, Stephanie's vlog becomes a hit when she starts doing updates on Emily's case in between making friendship bracelets, and the web of suspicions quickly spreads.

There was a point about two-thirds of the way through the movie where I was literally scratching my head, wondering what the heck was going on and where the film was heading. It felt schizophrenic and weird. But it was also on some level enervating to watch a movie that keeps throwing wild haymakers at you. Many of them don't land, but some do.

I can't exactly recommend "A Simple Favor." But it's a sporadically entertaining flick that has something to say about the state of the mommy wars.

Review: "The Predator"

More than 30 years ago we had “Predator,” followed by its sequel, “Predator 2,” then “Alien vs. Predator” and its sequel, then the 2010 reboot, “Predators,” and now its sorta-sequel, “The Predator.”

Forget about whether any of these movies have been any good since the first one -- hint: they haven’t -- could we at least get some more interesting titles? What’s next, “A Predator?” “La Predator?”

The new one is directed by Shane Black, a longtime screenwriter of action movies who segued to directing a few years back. (A lot of people liked his “The Nice Guys,” but I didn’t.) With this movie, Black -- who co-wrote the script with Fred Dekker -- has achieved a level of discombobulation heretofore unseen in theaters.

Good luck following this story. The movie plays out as a bunch of people shouting a bunch of gibberish at each other, followed by shootouts and disembowelings, which somehow leads to more gibberish.


It seems the alien hunters with faces like a Venus fly trap and Rastafarian dreds are returning to Earth for the umpteenth time. A nasty quasi-governmental agency known as Project Stargazer wants to get their hands on the predator tech, which as you’ll recall can do things like turn you invisible or shoot lasers from a nifty little shoulder launcher.

A special forces dude named Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) helps capture a predator who has crash-landed in Mexico, yet for some reason this results in him being thrown into military prison by the Stargazer folks. But not before he ships the alien’s helmet and wrist controller to his P.O. Box in the States, which makes me think that when the post office worker tells me they may scan or inspect my packages that they’re just blowing a lot of smoke.

The tech ends up in the hands of his son, Rory (Jacob Tremblay), who is on the autism spectrum but is also brilliant. Quinn breaks out of prison with the help of a bunch of other military castoffs. Soon it turns into a big chase-chase-chase movie with the Stargazer goons chasing Quinn who’s running but also chasing the predator who’s chasing his son.

This is a really terrible movie with a really good and interesting cast. In addition to Tremblay (“The Room”), Keegan-Michael Key plays Coyle, one of the military misfits helping Quinn. Olivia Munn is the brilliant scientist who also knows how to shoot any kind of gun. Thomas Jane is Baxley, an unlikable mook with Tourette’s Syndrome.

Sterling K. Brown plays the Stargazer chief, who dresses very casually for a mastermind. He and Quinn can’t seem to decide if they hate each other or want to share beers and Bromance.

I also thought Gary Busey had turned up as a goofy scientist, but it’s actually his son Jake. I said this can’t be, that’s Gary Busey’s kid, but turns out Jake is creeping up on 50, and doesn’t that make us all feel old.

“Predators” is a very poorly staged action film. It looks as if Black directed the movie while looking in a mirror over his shoulder.

There’s a lot of gory violence, with intestines galore. And alien dogs that turn nice if you shoot them in just the right spot. I also learned that you can kill a predator with a bullet to the face, but something like 20,000 shots don’t hit him in the head until the one that does.

If you like a heaping helping of stupidity along with eviscerations, then this is your flick. As for me, I’m holding out for “Six Degrees of Separated Predator Heads.”