Thursday, August 25, 2016

Review: "Equity"

Stories of Wall Street corruption are all the rage these days, from the sharp and smart ("The Big Short") to the pedantic and predictable ("Money Monster"). But what's undeniable is that these movies have been heavily -- almost entirely -- male-dominated.

It makes sense, since if you take a look around the financial industry you see a whole lot of testosterone. But there are women in high finance, and "Equity" aims to show that they can be just as conniving and unscrupulous as the guys. But it also displays some of the special challenges and biases females face in a very male-centric world.

It's notable if only for the fact that the writer, director, producers and main stars are all women. Anna Gunn plays Naomi Bishop, a hard-charging underwriter of initial public offerings (IPOs). There's a great early scene where she speaks to college women at an alumni function with some other high achievers, and she talks about how great it is that they can openly express their ambition.

"I like money," Naomi says, talking about the security and status of making a lot of dough, and echoing Gordon Gekko's "Greed is good" speech for a generation ago.

But Naomi wants to move up. A top spot in her company has opened up, but the boss (Lee Tergesen) dismissively tells her "this isn't your year." Though she's made a lot of money -- 20 major IPOs in the last five years -- one slipped through her fingers and she's getting the blame.

Tellingly, she's often accused of rubbing people the wrong way, a charge we doubt would happen if Naomi had a Y chromosome. Now she's got another huge stock debut coming up for Cachet, a social network with an emphasis on privacy, and it could make or break her reputation.

Naomi dallies with Michael (James Purefoy), who works for the same company on the stock trading side -- meaning federal rules are supposed to draw an impenetrable wall between their activities. But Michael's a devoted player of "the game," as everyone calls it, and is not above looking for a little inside information between the bedsheets.

Sarah Megan Thomas plays Erin, Naomi's right-hand woman. She's basically Naomi, 12 to 15 years earlier, trying fruitlessly at balancing a family life with a job that requires 24/7 eyes on the prize. Erin has recently learned she's pregnant, and throughout the movie she squeezes herself tighter and tighter into her business suits, knowing that the "mommy track" isn't the one that will take her to the top of the mountain.

Alyesia Reiner plays Samantha, a classmate of Naomi's who is now a prosecutor overseeing Wall Street corruption. Like Michael, Sam uses her personal relationship with Naomi to get what she wants out of her. It's an interesting character, someone who wants to root out malfeasance but isn't above employing some shady tactics to get what she wants.

"Equity," directed by Meera Menon from a script by Amy Fox (Reiner and Thomas contributed to the story), does a great job at capturing the alluring, and repulsive, world of high finance. There are the back-breaking hours in the office, followed by the de rigeur dinners, drinks and schmoozing late into the night. It's an existence that is centered entirely around money. Even the faintest whisper of doubt about a company can send their stock tumbling ... so it follows that some people will start rumors for their own benefit.

Gunn is steadfast and strong as Naomi, who's the straightest player in a rigged game where everyone is at least a little bit crooked. But she's far from perfect. One scene suggests she slept around early on to advance her career. There's also a very tense scene where Naomi, who's very strict about her diet and exercise, screams at a subordinate for bringing her a chocolate chip cookie with only three chips in it.

We've scene male characters go on these unhinged power trips before, so it's in some ways empowering -- in a disturbing way -- to see a powerful female character go down the same path.

Review: "Hands of Stone"

“Hands of Stone” gets by on the power of its performances and the lifelike depiction of Roberto Duran’s fighting style in the boxing ring. Like a lot of biopics, it stumbles when trying to shoehorn a long, complicated life into a 105-minute story.

For instance, the movie covers Duran’s early career from brawler in the streets of Panama to his 1983 comeback fight against a young Davey Moore, after the humiliation of his infamous “No Mas” rematch with the great Sugar Ray Leonard, in which he relinquished the title by refusing to fight anymore.

In fact, Duran had already lost a couple other “comeback” fights before that one, and would continue to fight for nearly three decades after – including a third bout with Leonard in 1989 (which he also lost).

Still, I can understand why writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz, a Venezuelan making his English-language feature film debut, chose to cut the string of this story thread where he did. Boxing movies tend to follow a familiar rise/fall/rise again three-act story structure, and you know what they say about that which ain’t broke. It makes the movie predictable, but also more digestible.

Edgar Ramírez, almost 40, shines playing Duran from about 19 to age 32. He’s much prettier than the real Duran, but that’s Hollywood for you. Ramírez gives him a sort of feral charm, a street urchin who fought bare knuckles for cash turning into the hungry young boxer who stalked his opponents like a beast of prey in the ring.

When he spots a pretty young schoolgirl, Felicidad (Ana de Armas), he corners her and proposes marriage on the spot. Here was a man who knew real craving in life, so when he saw the things he wanted, he pounced.

Robert De Niro is in his usual fine form as Ray Arcel, a legendary trainer who was pushed out of the game 18 years earlier when he defied Frankie Carbo (John Turturro), a New York mobster who controlled the fights. Nearly killed, he promised never to make another dollar in the ring. So he agreed to train Duran for free.

Usher Raymond (using his full name here) shines as Leonard, who is depicted as a lightning-fast fighter with loads of charm and wit. Goaded by Duran to “fight like a man” in their first bout, he smiled after losing because he knew he had been outsmarted. By the time their rematch came a few months later, Leonard was a honed blade while Duran had let himself get badly out of shape.

There’s an interesting tension here between Duran, Arcel and Carlos Eleta (Ruben Blades), the wealthy Panamanian businessman who bankrolled Duran. Arcel, who seems himself as much as a father to his fighters as a trainer, sees nothing wrong with letting Duran take some time off, eat whatever he wants, and enjoy what he’s earned. But Eleta, sensing a big payday, sees money as more important than winning.

De Niro’s character imparts a lot of wisdom, both in the ring and in the narration. He differentiates between tactics, which are a fighter’s moment-by-moment decisions in the ring, with strategy, which is the long-term plan of how to outmaneuver your opponent. Arcel also employs little idiosyncratic moves, like combing Duran’s hair before each round, so he seems fresh and invincible.

Jakubowicz goes for a moderate blend of styles for the fight scenes, eschewing the ridiculousness of the “Rocky” movies – where guys absorb haymaker after haymaker without going down – and the lyrical slo-mo blood sport of “Raging Bull” and its ilk. The boxing is straightforward and deliberate, with enough “flash bulb” moments for the audience to grasp the impact of the blows.

In boxing parlance, “Hands of Stone” has punching power but a poor sense of timing. The story dances here and there, skipping over most of the 1970s and then rushing the final act. It’s a worthy picture, but destined to remain a contender.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Review: "Our Little Sister"

 Maybe I’m getting older and wiser after all. (The first is a demonstrable certainty; the latter is highly debatable.) I’m finding myself enjoying types of movies that I used to eschew. Perhaps my tastes are growing broader, or the films are just getting better.

I prefer movies that have a strong narrative arc. “Tell me a story,” is the silent plea I always make as I settle into my theater seat. So movies that are more about character and dialogue, a sense of place and mood, tend to lose my attention if there’s not a good yarn to go with it.

There’s not much of a story to “Our Little Sister,” a beautiful Japanese movie about a foursome of young sisters living together in an old ramshackle house in a seaside village. Three are professionals in their 20s, enjoying their singlehood and sisterly bond. Then their 14-year-old half-sister comes to live with them, and the rest of the movie is about how this addition shifts the dynamic of relationships in the household.

That’s it; that’s all there is to it.

Raised on American movies, I kept expecting the little sister to reveal some terrible dark secret, or turn out to be a burgeoning serial killer, or something.


Suzu (Suzu Hirose) is just a tender, open-hearted young girl, glad to be out of her trying old circumstances but still wary about fitting in with the new. Her father has just died after a long illness, during which the burden of caring for him fell to her. Her stepmother had little relationship with her, so she gladly accepts her older sisters’ spontaneous invitation after the funeral to come live with them.

There is some potential for conflict. Suzu’s mother, who died herself long ago, was her father’s mistress during the time he was married to the older sisters’ mother. At the time the affair was revealed, their mother abandoned them in emotional distress, and they have not seen or spoken to her since. So their little sister is the outcome of their own family’s fracturing.

Suzu is terrified at the prospect of being resented, but the sisters offer her nothing but warmth. Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) is the wild child of the bunch, who loves to drink and trade in boyfriends for new ones, in between her day job at a bank. She often fights with her oldest sister, Sachi (Haruka Ayase), a nurse who has assumed the role of household matriarch, kindly but often more stern than she needs to be. Chika (Kaho) is the oddball with eclectic tastes in men, food and other things, but is probably the most centered.

Later the elder girls’ mother (Midoriko Kimura ) shows up, and needless to say she’s not thrilled about seeing the offspring of the woman who betrayed her living in her former home. She proposes selling the old house, but the girls grew up there and have no intention of leaving.

Again, I presumed this storyline would head into a nasty legal battle or something equally dramatic. But the tension finds another, more pleasing resolution.

Much of the movie is simply the four young women, coexisting in the house – sharing meals, occasionally bickering, teasing each other about their boyfriends or lack thereof, making the family’s traditional plum wine from the old tree in the garden. There’s an idyllic, contemplative nature to these scenes, supplemented by the gorgeous cinematography. I never felt like there was a need for “something to happen.”

These four characters are the something, as we watch them grow and change simply by the nature of coming closer. Writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda, who adapted the manga comic by Akimi Yoshida, has left me not just entertained, but enlightened.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Video review: "Maggie's Plan"

A smart and sharp comedy with a streak of insightful social commentary, “Maggie’s Plan” is the latest starring Greta Gerwig, the current queen of indies. Writer/director Rebecca Miller fashions a story that’s funny, sad -- even enraging at times – about the conflicting choices young women face these days.

Maggie is an accomplished woman who has a great job, great friends (Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph) and an overall wonderful life. The one thing she’s lousy at his relationships. But she hears the tick-tick-tick of that biological clock, and determines to have a baby on her own. She arranges a donor and seems headed for a life of bliss as a mother.

But then she falls for John (Ethan Hawke), a brilliant but troublesome academic who wants out of his miserable marriage to Georgette (Julianne Moore), a domineering type. Flash forward a couple of years, and Maggie now has a wondrous little girl, takes care of John’s kids… and John, too. He’s writing a novel that will never be finished, and Maggie finds herself burdened with an extended family she didn’t really plan on.

So she hatches a scheme to get John and Georgette back together. He’s like a car she bought that, showing a bunch of knocks and pings once it got down the road a bit, she’s looking to trade into the dealership.

“Maggie’s Plan” is very funny, with wonderful performances by the three main actors. Mina Sundwall also is terrific as John’s teenage daughter, who knows a lot more about what’s going on than the adults do.

But the film goes the extra mile to explore these people and their confounded relationships, and question whether having a spouse is really necessary to a rewarding life as a parent.

Bonus features are decent. Miller provides a feature-length audio commentary track; there are funny outtakes; a Q&A at the Sundance Film Festival; and a making-of documentary short.



Thursday, August 18, 2016

Review: "War Dogs"

 “War is the economy,” or so says Efraim Diveroli, a twentysomething hustler who inexplicably landed a contract from the Pentagon worth hundreds of millions of dollars to supply arms to the Afghan army.

Played by Jonah Hill in “War Dogs,” a slightly fictionalized version of real events, Efraim is a rudderless shark who will troll anywhere if it means a big payoff. He recruited his childhood friend, David Packouz (Miles Teller), into the company, AEY Inc., and together they became hipster wunderkinds of the international arms trade, which was doing banner business in the Aughts at the height of American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These are the sort of guys that if Hollywood dreamed them up on their own, we’d be calling B.S. But it really happened. The bro buddies were eventually busted for repacking decades-old AK-47 ammunition from China (thus breaking an embargo) via a connection in Albania.

David, who turned evidence and got a few months house arrest, narrates the story and acts as the decent guy tempted by the indecent guy. Efraim served a few years in prison, but continued selling ammunition to the government through another company. David was a massage therapist before, and became one again. (The real David appears briefly in the movie as a bad singer).

Director Todd Phillips is known for crude comedies, notably the “Hangover” trilogy, and at first we think “War Dogs” is going to go down that route, having a good time with the guys as they drink, do drugs, party with girls and exploit the loopholes of a corrupt war machine. There’s a certain panache in the early going, as these know-nothing dolts drive 5,000 embargoed Berettas through Iraq’s “Triangle of Death,” barely escaping with their necks, then snigger about it like schoolboys.

“Yeah, we drive through all triangles … including your mother’s,” Efraim cracks.

The screenplay by Phillips, Jason Smilovic and Stephen Chin was based on a Rolling Stone article, later turned into a book, called “Arms and the Dudes.” That was the film’s original title, too, and I wish they’d stuck with it. “War Dogs” is generic and easily forgotten; you know a movie has a bad title when they have a character break away from the story to explain it to you.

The film’s fairly entertaining, until it tries to go too “Goodfellas” and become an all-encompassing indictment of our adventures in the Middle East. You gotta love it when scumbags break the law and do bad things for piles of cash, then blame it on “the system.” The movie throws a few anti-war nods -- both David and his girlfriend (Ana de Armas), are opposed to the war in Iraq -- along with some predictable shots at Dick Cheney and George W. Bush.

The last third of the movie becomes increasingly labored, as the circle slowly tightens and the buddies start to eye each other warily, waiting to see who will stab the other in the back first.

Bradley Cooper turns up briefly as Henry, a legendary arms dealer who represents what David and Efraim could be in another 15 or 20 years. I also enjoyed Kevin Pollak as a Jewish Miami dry cleaner operator who acts as their moneyman and, later, father confessor.

I liked a lot of things about “War Dogs” but not quite enough to recommend it. Miles Teller is hard to take your eyes off of, as usual; he’s got a natural rakish charm and is good at projecting his emotions in between the dialogue.

Jonah Hill’s got a dead-eye stare that he whips out to show the moral vacuum of his characters, but he needs to expand on that. And someone needs to tell him he’s funnier than Joe Pesci, but he’ll never be as scary.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Review: "Kubo and the Two Strings"

I think I was about halfway through the screening of “Kubo and the Two Strings” before I even realized it was stop-motion animation. The movement is so smooth, the backgrounds so dense and the action so unbound, I figured there was no way this could be the work of puppets slowly moved a frame at a time.

But Laika, the stop-motion studio behind “The Boxtrolls,” “ParaNorman” and “Coraline,” has made another gem with this lyrical story set in medieval Japan.

It’s about a boy, Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson), who has grown up as a virtual orphan near a tiny beach village. He lives in a cave with his mother, who exists in a seemingly never-ending daze, needing help even to eat. But in her more lucid moments she spins tales about the dark history of their family, including the death of his father, Honsou, a mighty warrior, and how as a baby Kubo had one of his eyes stolen by his own grandfather.

(Though the material is carefully presented not to be too frightening, the themes and action scenes may be too intense for smaller children. I would take my 5-year-old to see this, but probably not the 3-year-old.)

Kubo has inherited the magical gift of his mother, which he employs to tell variations on his mother’s stories in the village for money. Using a traditional three-string Japanese banjo, plinked with a triangular pick, and colored paper that comes alive at his beckon to turn into shape-shifting origami to illustrate his tales, it’s an astonishing blend of dazzling visuals and jaunty music. (Dario Marianelli provides the latter.)

Tragedy befalls when Kubo ignores his mother’s warning to never remain outside after sunset, when his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), can see him. The boy finds himself exiled to the barren Farlands. His only companion is Monkey (Charlize Theron), a wooden charm he always carried that came alive via his mother’s spells. Monkey is very protective of the boy, and sternly urges him on his quest to retrieve the three pieces of magical armor necessary to defeat the enemy.

Along the way they encounter the Sisters, very creepy masked twins who are a disturbing amalgam of Japanese and European conceptions of witches, both voiced by Rooney Mara. They also run into this odd creature who looks like a man trapped inside a bug’s chitinous shell; he has no memory, other than insisting he was once a samurai who was cursed. Dubbing the forgetful fellow Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), he joins their little band.

The animation is just wondrous to behold. Several ocean scenes have a mesmerizing quality, especially once you realize there’s no water used. One encounter with a giant skeleton is particularly memorable, both for its fearfulness and intricacy.

“Kubo and the Two Strings” is not your typical animated flick. Though it’s suitable for (nearly) the whole family, it’s got an edge and a timelessness that goes far beyond the familiar cute-critters-and-life-lessons formula. It feels like an ageless Eastern parable, dreamed up by 21st century American artists.

“If you must blink, do it now!” Kubo invokes at the beginning of each of his tales. Even a wink is too much magic to be missed.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Big Trouble in Little China" (1986)

A goofy doof of a movie -- part martial arts flick, part fantasy, a little bit Western, a lot '80s -- "Big Trouble in Little China" damaged a lot of careers in the short run, but made a lot of long-term fans. Now a remake starring Dwayne "Don't Call Me The Rock... OK, You Can Call Me The Rock" Johnson is in the works.

I remember my friends just raving about the movie when we were in high school, but somehow I never got around to seeing it. I'm a mite disappointed now that I have. While amusing at times, it looks like a cheap and schlocky flick that can't quite decide if it's in on the joke or not.

It's best to take it as a silly send-up of different genres, a fun adventure undertaken for its own sake. The scary stuff is never very scary, unlike, say, the Indiana Jones movies, which preserved the horror elements of its throwback inspiration. I make that connection because this film, like others from the era such as "King Solomon's Mines" and "High Road to China," were clearly thematic imitators.

This tone is set by Kurt Russell, who's playing a prototypical 1980s cinematic action hero -- muscle-y and smirking -- yet is continually sabotaged by comedic imperatives.

For instance, he waltzes into the inner sanctum of the villain near the end to deliver a typical defiant "go to hell" speech -- except his face is covered in bright pink lipstick, having finally gotten that kiss from The Girl. Or, at the start of the massive final brawl between the good and evil gangs, he shoots a chunk out of the ceiling and gets conked on the head, and goes sleepy-time.

Indeed, the film's enduring achievement is featuring a bunch of actors of Asian descent with a generic white guy figurehead as protagonist. 

Originally conceived as a Western by fledgling screenwriters Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein, the story was completely redone by W.D. Richter at the behest of the studio and director John Carpenter, who wanted a modern setting (and a lower budget). There was quite a tussle over credits, with the rookies ultimately getting the screenwriting nod, while Richter got an "adapted by" credit and Carpenter, who made his own alterations, received nothing.

Carpenter was just coming off one of the finest directing runs of popular entertainment movies in Hollywood history -- "Halloween," "Elvis," "Escape from New York," "The Thing," "Christine" -- and the commercial failure of "Big Trouble" laid his career low. He's sort of bobbled on the edges ever since, an admired icon associated with the indie/horror field, but couldn't get his mainstream projects greenlit.

The plot is essentially one long chase, and takes place in very close to real time.

Russell plays Jack Burton, driver of a tractor-trailer hauling pigs which he dubs the "Pork Chop Express." He likes to ride around and yammer away on the CB radio to anyone who'll listen, stories about his life and pronunciations of his creed. He's a wanderer with friends in every port of call.

Among them is Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), a young Chinese immigrant who runs a restaurant in San Francisco's Little China. He's excited because his betrothed,  Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), is arriving from his homeland for their wedding. She's got green eyes, which are highly prized by the Chinese (at least in the movie's telling). This is the only attribute the screenplay bothers to give her, barely speaking or emoting throughout the film.

Here jade peepers raise the attention of David Lo Pan (James Hong), an ancient and evil sorcerer who's been relegated to a ghost-like existence due to an old curse. He needs to marry, then murder a green-eyed woman to lift it. It's never made clear why he wants to become mortal again, since he's essentially invulnerable to attack.

Of course, I've never been withheld from a woman's gentle touch for 2,000 years. (Even if it sometimes felt like it.)

Leading the forces of good is Egg Shen (Victor Wong), a crotchety and benevolent magician. His favorite trick is throwing little balls of light that blow up his enemies. Kim Cattrall plays Gracie Law, a white attorney who often defends Chinese clients, and gets sucked up in to the action and, inevitably, tossed into Jack's arms. Turns out she has green eyes, too, so Lo Pan decides to go for a twofer.

Neither actress actually had green eyes, so they had to wear uncomfortable 1980s colored contact lenses during production. Also, if the bride doesn't need to be Chinese, I'm not sure why it took Lo Pan two millennia to find a woman.

There's also a reporter (Kate Burton) and best friend (Donald Li) who really serve no purpose in the story, and are conveniently forgotten about for long stretches of the film.

Lining up on the bad side are Lo Pan's three main henchman, all gifted with super powers tied to the elements. Thunder (Carter Wong) is all muscle and snarling attitude; Rain (Peter Kwong) is the resident swordsman and pretty boy; Lightning (James Pax) can project energy and even levitate. All three of them wear oddball straw hats that literally cover them down to the neck; one wonders how they fight effectively without having to tilt their heads.

Lo Pan also has a beholder-like creature, a circular blob with eyes and little tentacles, that acts as his scout. It's a cheap-looking and silly effect, even for 1986.

In general you can say that about the entire film. Other than one big set-piece for Lo Pan's sanctum santorum, which has some impressive statues, the whole movie looks like it was shot on a back lot. Most of the characters don't even change clothes. One battle has Wang dueling in the air with Rain, and it's an embarrassing collection of obvious wire shots and tilted cameras.

Compared to the elegant swordplay of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," it's positively archaic.

The budget for "Big Trouble" was $20 million, hardly chump change at the time -- about $44 million in today's dollars, but this was before the era of gonzo-sized budgets even for special effects spectacles. Consider that the magnificent "Aliens," which came out the same year, cost $2 million less.

An overpriced mess, this film doesn't even deserve the cult status it has today.