Thursday, December 8, 2016

Review: "Office Christmas Party"

“Office Christmas Party” starts out a little funny, a little sweet, and then slowly devolves into a dumb raunch-fest.

Don’t get me wrong: a good filthy comedy can be just the thing to break up the dull parade of PG-13 action flicks and kiddie fare (see the first “Hangover”). But when it’s not executed well it becomes like the loud, drunk guy at the party everyone wishes would leave (see, or rather don’t, the other “Hangover” flicks).

This is the rare movie where the fringe characters are more interesting than the stars. If you cut out everything with Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, T. J. Miller and Olivia Munn, you’d have a discombobulated but very tight story of a bunch of office denizens caught up in the weirdest, wilding holiday party ever.

There’s the dweeby guy (Karan Soni) who’s been bragging to his fellow tech nerds about his hot nonexistent girlfriend, so he hires a prostitute to play her. Things go OK until she decides to freelance a little extra action from his buddies, and her she-pimp starts waving a pistol around.

Kate McKinnon of “Saturday Night Live” and “Ghostbusters” scores with another kooky character concoction, an uptight Human Resources manager named Mary who acts as the resident killjoy, but secretly has a freak flag in need of flying.

Then there’s the budding romance between single mom/office manager superstar Allison (Vanessa Bayer) and sweet-natured Fred (Randall Park), whose pet peeve is the underrepresentation of Asian men in adult films.

Fortune Feimster has a scene-stealing turn as a novice and overly exuberant Uber driver who hasn’t figured out what the appropriate level of chatter with the fares is yet. She keeps popping off one killer throwaway line after another, and I wished she would drop off Aniston and the movie could follow her the rest of the way.


The setup is that the Chicago branch of a biggish tech firm is run by the ne’er-do-well son (Miller) of the dearly departed company founder. It’s a loose house and there’s plenty of goofing off, but they make money and realize growth – just not enough to please the hardcase CEO, played by Aniston, who happens to be his sister.

She’s got a lifetime of resentment built up over having to do all the work while golden boy slacked and got ahead, so she’s determined to cut costs to the bone – even ordering a 40% layoff, nixing bonuses and even canceling the hallowed Christmas party.

Rich boy hatches a plan with his nice guy Number Two, Josh (Bateman), who really runs the office, to land a big contract with a major mover (Courtney B. Vance) and save everyone’s bacon. But, using the sort of logic that only works in movies, they’ve got to go ahead with the wildest office party ever to impress the crusty older dude.

Munn plays Tracey, the resident hacker whiz who has a plan to route Internet signals through anything electric, from street lamps to hot dog rotisserie machines. (Question: once they flip it on and everyone’s got free Wifi, how exactly do they make money?)

I think we all know where this is headed. There will be hookups, hilarious injuries, hard drugs will make an appearance, and some scary guys will threaten our heroes for about a minute and a half. Just grab the plots from the “Hangover” movies and a smattering of ‘80s comedies like “Risky Business” and “Bachelor Party,” toss it in a blender and drink deep until you can’t take it anymore.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Review: "Miss Sloane"

Elizabeth Sloane is, by universal assent (including her own estimation), “a real piece of work.”

As played magnificently by Jessica Chastain, “Miss Sloane” is the ultimate Washington D.C. insider – a famed lobbyist who uses all the considerable skills at her disposal, along with a host of nefarious methods, to get what she wants for her clients. Bullying, (barely) legal bribery, non-profit fronts, toadying, outright espionage, bald-faced lying – Sloane sees these things as merely tools in her dark arsenal.

Sloane labels herself a “conviction lobbyist,” meaning she’ll only advocate on behalf of groups or causes she personally supports. But after years gleefully fighting in the trenches and corridors of power, all that really matters for her is getting the win.

At one point her boss, Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), just stands outside her office, stunned by Sloane’s latest act of brazen manipulation upon the body politic. I just want to know, he says, how somebody like you comes to be – how you grew up, what events shaped your personality, and so on. Because Sloane’s actions often seem to indicate the operation of a brilliant mind without even an ounce of conscience.

The story opens with a framing device of Sloane being grilled by a U.S. Senate committee chaired by a glowering politico (John Lithgow) demanding answers about her unseemly methods. So we assume her nefarious history has finally caught up with her.

But as the story goes deeper and we learn more about Sloane and her skillful machinations, we start to wonder whether she’s sitting in the hot seat by choice.

Sloane is the star player at the biggest lobbying firm in town, run by a patriarchal figure (Sam Waterson) who’s been dying to land the gun lobby as a client for years. A new bill is coming up for a vote that would require universal background checks, and they want Sloane to send it down in flames by appealing to women. Sloane literally laughs in their faces, and bolts to a much smaller company backing the measure.

About half her team defects with her, including protégé Jane Molloy (Alison Pill), who regards Sloane as both mentor and cautionary tale. Meanwhile, she’s facing off with her conniving old partner Pat Connors, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays key new ally Esme Manucharian, a passionate gun control advocate with a personal history.

It all plays out in the high-stakes world of the media, as various forces and circumstances align themselves to help or hurt the cause.

Director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”), working with rookie screenwriter Jonathan Perera, give us an intricately plotted political thriller, a drawn-out game of cat and mouse, with a character study in the middle.

Sloane is so busy training her high-powered vision upon her adversaries and allies, there’s not much time for self-exploration of the person behind the façade. She literally doesn’t sleep, subsisting on pills and food from the same Korean BBQ place every night. Sloane even arranges trysts with male escorts to satisfy her basic primal urges; when an urban cowboy type (Jake Lacy) shows up in place of her usual faux beau, it leaves her both miffed and intrigued.

The film touches on the current debate about gun rights vs. control, and there’s certainly a bit of Hollywood moralizing, but it isn’t really about that. It’s just the backdrop for a larger tale about the rot in our political system, and a portrait of one of its chief schemers.

Can one have a noble heart but wallow in corruption? Just how bad do the ends have to get before they cease justifying the means? “Miss Sloane” explores these questions in a slick but probing way.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Video review: "The Hollars"

John Krasinski’s second feature film as a director and star isn’t terribly ambitious, but it gathers together a truly wonderful cast and gives them interesting things to say and do. Margo Martindale and Richard Jenkins both fall into that tiniest category of actors I think of as “people I would pay to read my medicine bottles.” They’re always distinctive and alive.

Toss in Anna Kendrick, Sharlto Copley, Charlize Day, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Krasinski himself, and that’s enough reason to choose “The Hollars” for a home viewing right there.

Krasinski plays John Hollar, a typical arrested-development sort who can’t get his career or personal life out of first gear. He’s got an amazing girlfriend (Kendrick) who’s pregnant with his baby, but he hasn’t put a ring on it.

When family matriarch/rock Sally (Martindale) falls ill, dad Don (Jenkins) more or less dissolves into a puddle, while wayward son Ron (Copley) is dealing with his own issues, losing both his job and his family. Meanwhile, the Hollar family business is going under.

So John returns to a scene of chaos and resentment, as all these sharp divides must be spackled together with love and trust.

Everything goes exactly as you’d expect. Most of the time I dislike movies that are completely predictable. But “The Hollars” has genuine heart and some snappy dialogue courtesy of script man Jim Strouse.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you won’t get even a hint of any real surprises. But I doubt anyone who watches this film will consider it time ill spent.

Bonus features are decent. Krasinski and Martindale team up for a feature length commentary track, and there’s also a Q&A with the two plus Kendrick from the LA Film Festival. It also comes with two featurettes: “Persistent Vision: Margo Martindale” and “The Family Trust: Inside The Hollars.”



Reeling Backward: "Cheyenne Autumn" (1964)

I was surprised by how inert and ineffective "Cheyenne Autumn" is. I've been meaning to catch up with it for years and came away quite disappointed from the experience.

The film is seminal for a couple of reasons: it was John Ford's last Western, and it was pretty much the first deliberate attempt by Hollywood to cast American Indians in a positive light, showing how they were ill-used by the American government as it expanded into the West.

It's based on a real bit of history, the Northern Cheyenne Exodus of 1878-79, during which hundreds of native people left the harsh, arid reservation land that had been set aside for them and traveled more than 1,000 miles north to their ancestral home. There were several skirmishes with the U.S. military along the way, and newspapers of the day portrayed it as a rampaging army of Indians on the warpath.

In truth, they were largely elderly, women and children, and posed no threat to anyone unless their trek was opposed.

The movie was actually based on two novels, "The Last Frontier" by Howard Fast and "Cheyenne Autumn" by Mari Sandoz, though only the latter received a screen credit. Screenwriter James L. Webb had recently won an Oscar for another Western, "How the West Was Won," of which Ford directed one of the five sequences. They ended up reusing a lot of the same talent for this picture, including stars Richard Widmark and Carroll Baker, Webb and Ford.

"Cheyenne" can't quite decide who is its main character. Its heart seems to lie with the Indians, particularly Little Wolf and Dull Knife, the two main leaders of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. They're played by Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland, respectively, both actors of Mexican heritage. Italian-American Sal Mineo plays Dull Knife's hot-headed son, Red Shirt. Most of the other Cheyenne are played by Navajo, and speak in their own language during the film.

But Widmark is put front and center as Capt. Thomas Archer, a fictional Army officer assigned to make them stay put, and later pursue them after they begin their exodus. He's a sympathetic figure torn between his military obligations and his own recognition of the suffering of the Cheyenne. Baker plays Deborah Wright, a Quaker devoted to educating the Indian children who ends up tagging along on their quest.

Their tepid romance is barely sketched in the early part of the film, then quietly tucked away for the rest. There isn't even a big reunion scene and kiss at the end. They have a little cheeky repartee, addressing each other as "Friend Deborah" and "Friend Thomas" in the Quaker way.

The movie's pacing staggers this way and that, an occasional fight scene between the Cheyenne and Army with lots of talking in between. Archer tries to convince his superiors to show the Cheyenne more respect and restraint, but it falls on deaf ears. Eventually he takes his case directly to the Secretary of the Interior, Carl Schurz (Edward G. Robinson).

Karl Malden has a small but vigorous role as an Army officer who imprisons the Cheyenne on orders, leaving them to freeze and starve to death in a warehouse because he's too afraid to take other action without authorization. The character refers to himself as a Russian, though his accent sounds more German to these ears. Perhaps we'll be generous and say Malden was going for Prussian, and leave it at that.

Patrick Wayne, son of John, has a small part as an impetuous young officer Archer has to continually reprimand. John Carradine turns up in Dodge City as a gambling gentleman.

The music by Alex North is quite good, but often too obtrusive. There's an opening piece and an intermission that is probably unnecessary.

By far the biggest problem with the film is the Dodge City sequence. It arrives just before the intermission, and completely rips the audience out of the story of the Cheyenne.

It stars Jimmy Stewart as Wyatt Earp and Arthur Kennedy as Doc Holiday, portrayed here as peevish, aging gamblers who have taken up the offices of sheriff and deputy simply to allow them to sit in the saloon and play cards all day. They want nothing to do with the Cheyenne "horde" passing nearby, and Earp even contrives to lead the ad-hoc force of vengeful vigilantes in a different direction.

It's a weird, weird sequence that belongs in another movie. It's completely comedic in tone, right down to a saloon wench losing her dress and some vagrant cowpunchers getting one-upped by the wily Wyatt. One wonders what Ford and Webb were thinking including it in the film, especially seeing as the original cut was creeping up on three hours -- Ford's longest movie.

Indeed, after being initially released in theaters the Dodge City section was cut out, and wisely so. Most modern versions on video include it, to the detriment of the overall experience. This is where the "chapter skip" button comes in handy.

"Cheyenne Autumn" is undeniably a magnificent-looking film, shot largely in Ford's beloved Monument Valley with widescreen and lots of vivid colors. Cinematographer William H. Clothier deservedly received the film's sole Academy Award nomination.

At the time of its release, John Ford publicly declared "Cheyenne Autumn" to be an elegy for the Native American. It says something of the man that during his lifetime he came to recognize that his own work bore a great deal of responsibility for the popular depiction of Indians as whooping savages, and it was something he regretted.

He tried to get the movie made for years without success. When he finally did, it was his longest and most expensive project, and one of the few that was a commercial failure. Ill health and a lack of confidence from the studios resulted in Ford only completing one other feature film.

It's such a shame that one of the greatest movie directors ended his career on such a sour note. John Ford's song of regret for the Indian, while noble in purpose, is a discordant and dull affair.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Review: "Man Down"

“Man Down” presents us with a dystopian nightmare, interspersed with flashbacks to what preceded it, and dares us to try to find where the true horror lies.

This ambitious but wandering war drama from director Dito Montiel (“Empire State”), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Adam G. Simon, stars Shia LaBeouf as Gabriel, a young but hardened Marine who is searching for his son. As the story opens he and fellow soldier/best friend Devin (Jai Courtney) are wandering a blasted landscape of crumbled buildings and reeking death. Their uniforms are mostly tatters, their buzz cuts have given way to long hair and beards.

Their mission, whatever it once was, is now centered on reuniting Gabriel with his family. We know from flashbacks that they previously served together in Afghanistan, but some colossal misfortune has since befallen the world. They whisper about infections, interrogate a scatterbrained scavenger (Clifton Collins Jr.) for information, and keep going.

Meanwhile, we see snippets of Gabriel’s seemingly idyllic life before the war, marriage to spunky, strong Natalie (Kate Mara) and tranquil father/son bonding with Jonathan (Charlie Shotwell). Plus the easy camaraderie with Devin, how they grew up practically as brothers.

But there are also scenes of Gabriel being interviewed by a Captain Payton (Gary Oldman), who keeps pressing him to talk about “the incident.” What at first seems to be a military debriefing becomes something like a counseling session, and we wonder how this question-and-answer duel fits in with his life before and after the apocalypse.

LaBeouf has grown thicker and grimmer after his early spate of roles as the fresh young thing, and he wears it well. He chews his dialogue, playing Gabriel as a guy who’s not terribly bright but earnest and true. When he tells the captain he feels “betrayed” by what went down in that sandy village, it exposes all sorts of emotional roots sunk deep.

LaBeouf has gotten a lot more attention for his publicity stunts/performance art/whatever you want to call it the last few years. But here is an actor with talent and dedication, searching for the right role. This one isn’t it, but in his screen presence we sense that yearning.

I can’t say more about “Man Down” without dissecting it into death. There are some surprises that aren’t terribly surprising if you’ve been paying attention, as well as some things we expected that don’t come to pass. It’s a well-meaning film but not an especially well executed one.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review: "The Eagle Huntress"

Aisholpan is a pretty typical 13-year-old kid. She likes prattling with her friends, putting on fingernail polish and brags about out-wrestling all of the boys in her class. Her mom’s on the traditional side and worries about her being too bold and reaching too high, but her father is very proud and supportive, constantly encouraging her to pursue her dreams.

The difference, of course, is that Aisholpan lives in Mongolia on the steppes of the fierce Altai mountains, and her dream is to become an eagle hunter – the first female to do so in a tradition dating back hundreds of years.

This new documentary, directed by Otto Bell and narrated by Daisy Ridley, follows Aisholpan over the course of several months as she strives to learn the ways of her forefathers, who were elite eagle hunters going back generations. Her dad was even twice champion at the annual Eagle festival, where dozens of the best gather to compete in a series of competitions.

The film is an eclectic step back in time, watching these people exist much as they did a hundred years ago, living in fur-lined tents on the plains, riding horses and hunting for foxes and other mountain critters. They train the eagles to swoop down upon the beasts, procuring the precious meat and fur to their human masters.

Bell emlploys a lot of impressive camera work – cinematography by Simon Niblett -- including drone photography, to capture the mighty birds in flight, often looking down upon the yawning expanse of the Mongolian plains below. This is well complemented by Jeff Peters’ thrumming musical score.

There is some conflict about Aisholpan being a gender pioneer, with Bell milks for every ounce (perhaps overplaying at times). Elder eagle hunters tut-tut and offer their archaic wisdom – “Women are meant to stay indoors and quarrel for the catch,” one says – but no serious effort to discourage her ever arises. She’s even allowed to compete in the Eagle Festival, making quite the impression.

Probably the most thrilling section is capturing her bird. The Altai hunters must personally climb into the nest of some eaglets and spirit one away before the mother bird returns. Watching Aisholpan scramble down an unstable mountainside, we are awed by this rite of passage.

Some might fret about the hunters exploiting the eagles, but they seem to share a largely symbiotic relationship. Aisholpan hand-feeds her bird until it’s old enough to fly on its own, cementing the bond. They are fawned and revered like an honored guest. Otto also opens the film with a wizened hunter releasing his eagle back into the wild after years of service – something mandated by their traditions.

“The Eagle Huntress” is less a straight journalistic exploration and more a celebration of one girl’s journey into womanhood, and history. With her strong, broad face and unflappable courage, Aisholpan has broken her nation’s last proverbial glass ceiling, leaving a heavenly sky open to all possibilities.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Review: "Moana"

I’ve always thought “Pocahontas” was one of the weakest Disney animated films because it seemed like it simply wanted to present a multicultural experience and didn’t care about what story they used as the vehicle to do it. “Moana” stands as stark counterpoint, a completely enthralling, original tale that just happens to immerse us in the vibrant traditions of Polynesia.

Disney has hit another home run with the story of Moana (voice of Hawaiian actress Auli'i Cravalho), a teen who breaks the grip of her people’s land-bound laws to go out into the deep seas and try to restore the dying lands. Part anthropology, part mythology and pure imagination, it’s an action-filled musical romp that will delight parents as much as kids (and possibly more).

Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (“The Princess and the Frog”) are old Disney hands who came up in the hand-drawn animation tradition and with this picture segue completely into CGI. Jared Bush’s screenplay employs actual Polynesian history and lore to come up something old and something new.

According to the epilogue, the far-flung islands of the Pacific were created by the goddess Te Fiti. But when her heart was stolen by the demigod Maui, she began to slowly die, with the festering creep gradually spreading to the other lands. Maui, who wields a massive magic fishhook that grants him the power to shapeshift into multitudinous creatures, was lost after a battle with a terrible demon that desired the heart for itself.

The brave and pure-hearted Moana is chosen by the ocean itself -- represented as tentacles of glowing water -- to take the heart, find Maui and compel him to heal the rift he caused.

Voiced by Dwayne Johnson, Maui is presented as a gargantuan man, almost as broad as he is tall, his body covered in tattoos that chronicle his Herculean exploits. One of his tats, a miniature version of himself, even moves around and acts as the fool whispering in the king’s ear.

Maui is quite full of himself, but not necessarily a bad guy. He stole Te Fiti’s heart because he wanted to give humans the power to create life itself. True, upon meeting Moana he traps her in a cave and steals her boat, but the relationship improves -- gradually.

Other voices include Rachel House as Moana’s wise but kooky grandmother, Temeura Morrison and Nicole Scherzinger as her parents and Alan Tudyk as Hei Hei, an idiotic chicken who stows away on Moana’s journey, so dumb he has to be continuously rescued from certain demise.

Jemaine Clement has a funny, memorable turn as Tamatoa, a massive crab who dwells in the realm of monsters and has a personal history with Maui. He sort of looks like the massive mutated cousin of Sebastian from “The Little Mermaid,” and has a penchant for collecting trinkets.

The music is just terrific -- rollicking, hummable and helps carry the story along. Songs were written by Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa’i and Broadway sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame. The three best are “How Far I’ll Go,” Moana’s dreaming of a life beyond; “We Know the Way,” a paean to their tribe’s voyager past; and “You’re Welcome,” Maui’s signature self-introduction.

And yes, in case you’re wondering -- Johnson, formerly “The Rock,” shows off an unexpectedly fantastic singing voice.

The movie even displays some sly humor goofing on past Disney movies, like when Moana protests Maui’s assertion that, as the daughter of a chieftain, she constitutes royalty: “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess,” he says.

Fun and funny, full of adventure, a sense of danger and a deep feeling of hope, “Moana” is Disney’s next animated classic.