Friday, October 20, 2017

Review: "Breathe"

Only a short review. The release of "Breathe" was moved up suddenly with little notice, and the studio wasn't able to provide a screener until late, so I just finished watching the film last night.

Andrew Garfield stars as Robin Cavendish, a British man who was paralyzed by polio while living in Kenya at the age of 28 and lived nearly another four decades using a breathing machine. He became the longest-living "responaut" at the time, and a major advocate and innovator for people with disability.

It's another bravura performance by Garfield that is sure to gain notice during the awards season.

Before Robin came along, the 'severely disabled' -- the term he used, so I will too -- were confined to hospital beds for the rest of their lives, which not coincidentally was generally not very long. Robin himself was initially given three months to live. When his heroic wife, Diana (Claire Foy), insists on removing Robin from the hospital over the objections of the chief doctor, he snootily predicts Robin will be dead within two weeks.

Andy Serkis, an actor who has pioneered the excellence of motion capture performance, steps behind the camera for the first time as a director. William Nicholson wrote the screenplay, which takes the usual turns but does so in sensitive ways.

At first I worried "Breathe" would be a standard-issue "disabled person inspires others" type of film -- sort of the 'Magic Negro' effect with wheelchairs -- and certainly there are aspects of that to the material. But the film is pretty straightforward in depicting Robin's condition and his emotional state, which was at times suicidal -- even well after he adapted to his condition and became a beacon for change.

With the help of a friend who's a clever tinkerer (the ever-reliable Hugh Bonneville), Robin and Diana rig up a wheelchair that allows him to move around, go outdoors and interact with others. It's hard to believe, but in the early 1960s this was a shocking thing, to see a paralyzed man out in the sun in plain view, and not hidden away from sight.

Several times in the movie, people react to Robin's presence with shock, claiming it's unfair for "sick" people to be out and about. What they really mean, however, is having to be exposed to the view of someone who's different and, they think, worthy of their pity rather than simple respect.

Though a tad maudlin in the first half, "Breathe" gets stronger and stronger as it goes, and the last act is as empathetic as anything I've seen this year. Definitely bring your hankies for this one.

Interesting aside: in searching for photos to go with this review, there are many to be found of Garfield and Foy embracing against a romantic African backdrop -- but very few of Garfield lying prone, hooked up to a respirator. This is, of course, how Robin spent the majority of his life, and how Garfield spends most of the movie.

It's disappointing that a film whose entire theme is about not marginalizing the less able would be marketed in such a way as to obscure what it's really about. Let it be said that Hollywood often preaches that which it does not practice.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Review: "Too Funny to Fail"

Imagine you're a television executive and someone pitches you a show: it will be headlined by one of the biggest "Saturday Night Live" stars, Dana Carvey. At the time, he is fresh off co-starring in the "Wayne's World" movies, and everybody wants a piece of him -- he actually turns down David Letterman's gig after he decamped to CBS. Carvey can literally do anything he wants, and he chooses to have his own sketch comedy show.

ABC is giving you their full backing and a fat budget. The showrunner will be Robert Smigel, another legendary SNL alum. The head writer will be Louis C.K. Charlie Kaufman is another. The two big acting recruits will be a pair of young sketch geniuses, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. A bunch of other super-talented performers and writers are in the mix, including Jon Glaser and Robert Carloc.

Oh, and the thing will go on right after the single top-rated show on all of TV. A sure-fire can't-miss, right?

Or so everyone thought. "The Dana Carvey Show" lasted all of seven episodes in 1996 -- a crashing failure so bad it's barely even remembered by audiences today. Also plagued by health problems, including open-heart surgery the following year, Carvey's career as a film and TV star was effectively over.

And yet the short-lived debacle touched a lot of lives. It helped groom the next generation of comedy giants.

One of its popular bits, a cheeky animated superhero parody, "The Ambiguously Gay Duo," would move to SNL and become a staple for years. Colbert would be recruited by the rejuvenated "The Daily Show" based on his work on the Carvey show, and he would insist they hire Carell as well. We know how they turned out.

Now, Hulu is presenting "Too Funny to Fail," a feature documentary about the Roy Hobbs of TV comedy, the show everyone thought would break the mold but would instead become its own punchline. It debuts Saturday, Oct. 21.

Directed by Josh Greenbaum, it's an insightful, wry and thought-provoking look at what goes on behind the screen of network television. ABC thought it was buying Dana Carvey's suitcase full of popular impressions and characters, from the Church Lady to President Clinton. What they got instead was a truly subversive show with off-the-wall scenarios and a puckish attitude.

The young renegades wanted to do their own thing, by their admission "draw a line in the sand" for audiences who weren't cool enough to understand their brand of funny. For their very first sketch, they chose to have the POTUS demonstrating his empathy by taking drugs to grow realistic-looking teats, and have him suckle live puppies and kittens on-air.

Quite literally, millions of people turned off their TVs after the first five minutes -- and they never came back. Critics were even less kind.

Another one of their ideas was to have the name of the show change every week with a rotation of sponsors. So the debut was "The Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show." The first show was such a train wreck, with national headlines talking about how offensive and unfunny it was, Taco Bell loudly announced they were cutting ties -- even though sponsors were only supposed to last one show.

But it started a virtual evacuation of advertisers. By the end, the sponsor was literally the local Chinese diner where the crew bought their lunch.

Festooned with in-depth interviews with nearly all of the principles -- Louis C.K. being the notable exception -- "Too Funny to Fail" comes at the perfect time, as the people involved in making the show have seen their careers recover sufficiently to laugh about how young and deluded they were.

Probably the least injured is Carvey himself, who had such high hopes and knew right away his enterprise was doomed. But it allowed him to be close to his family, raise his two young boys and return to standup on his own terms.

It's a cliche to say something was ahead of its time, but with "The Dana Carvey Show" I think that's literally true. Panned as racy and kooky, it was probably a better fit for late night than prime time. Certainly, it did not mesh well with its pedantic lead-in, "Home Improvement" starring Tim Allen.

One bit, a real promo for a maudlin "very special episode" of HI, followed by the "The Mug Root Beer Dana Carvey Show," had me laughing as hard as anything I've seen in awhile. Greenbaum knows how good the moment is, too, milking it with a collage of the interviewees guffawing over the clanging contrast.

Comedy is by definition highly subjective. In its (very short) day, not many people appreciated Carvey's show for what it was, rather than what they wanted it to be.

Review: "Only the Brave"

"Only the Brave" is really a war movie, with the characters battling wildfires instead of Germans or ISIS. It's throwback sort of filmmaking -- manly men doing manly things, while occasionally tussling with the womenfolk back on the home front.

I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. Josh Brolin is a rock-solid presence as Eric Marsh, the "supe" of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots. The "Seal Six" of wildfire containment, Hotshots go wherever the big forest fires are, digging break lines and back-burning to keep the blaze from overrunning towns or destroying entire swaths of the American West.

Marsh is basically a mystical warrior, staring the "black heart" of the wildfire dead in the eye, spying signs others can't see to predict where the devastation will spread. Thick-armed with a steely gaze behind Harry Potter glasses, he loves his crew proudly but gruffly, encouraging plenty of Y-chromosome joshing and light hazing.

Miles Teller is the other lead as Brendan McDonough, a young screw-up and junkie who sees the light when a daughter is born to an old girlfriend, and he realizes he needs to step onto a worthier path. Marsh sees something of his younger self in Brendan and gives him a shot.

The first half of the movie, directed by Joseph Kosinski from a script by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, covers Brendan's efforts to make the team, and the team's attempt to be certified as Hotshots, the elite of the elite in outdoor firefighting. As the story opens they are "deucers," a local team funded by the city of Prescott, Ariz., who do mop-up and other drudge work far from the front lines. All the other Hotshots are federal outfits, and they're trying to become the first municipal group to become Hotshots.

I'm sure you can guess how it turns out.

Marsh is hot-headed but his instincts are nearly always true. Brendan is dubbed "doughnut" because of his inability to answer any questions about firefighting strategy when quizzed. (At least, during his early going.) He gets razzed pretty hard by the other members of the crew, but gradually begins to prove himself.

He also steps up as a father, dropping off diapers and groceries on the doorstep of his baby mama (Natalie Hall), who wants nothing to do with him. Though heroism has a way of changing minds...

The second half covers the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013, in which the Granite Mountain team faced tremendous odds, a "skunker" -- an easily contained fire -- that turned into a fast-moving death trap.

Jennifer Connelly plays Amanda, Marsh's wife, and it's a lot meatier than the usual "wife at home" role. She's a tough nut herself, running her own business rescuing abused horses, and the two share a relationship that's close but not without strife. She gets a great speech late in the story on what it means to love long-term.

Jeff Bridges plays Duane Steinbrink, a local man of influence who helps with the Hotshot certification and acts as mentor to Marsh. Andie MacDowell is his wife, with wisdom of her own. James Badge Dale is Jesse Steed, Marsh's reliable right-hand man. Taylor Kitsch is Christopher MacKenzie, Brendan's chief tormentor-turned-wingman. Geoff Stults, Ben Hardy and others round out the background players.

The firefighting scenes are pretty terrifying, as we see just how quickly a fire can spread, jumping trees like an angry zephyr. The men both love and hate the fire, and see it as a living foe. Marsh's nickname is "Bear," and we'll find out why.

Marsh shows his trainees a beautiful forest view, then tells them that soon they'll only be able to look upon it as fuel to the fire. Plumped up with resin, the burning trees can literally explode when they fall.

"Only the Brave" is straightforward and unironic movie-making. I could easily see this film coming out in the 1940s, though the special effects wouldn't be nearly as good. In this time of so much focus on toxic masculinity, here's a movie that reminds us why he-men are worth having around.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Review: "The Florida Project"

“Do you know why this is my favorite tree? Because it’s tipped over but it’s still growing.”

It is the nature of children to adapt to circumstance, even that which no child should have to bear. Their intrinsic miracle is that they can find joy just about anywhere.

In “The Florida Project,” 6-year-old Moonee (a vibrant Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) lives on the edge of the most magical place in the world, the Walt Disney Resort near Orlando, Fla. But hers is not the world of $100-a-day admissions to theme parks, luxury hotels and getaway vacations.

Rather, it’s the seedy underbelly of minimum wage workers who feed the tourism machine, living in towns like Kissimmee, packed together in squalid motels slapped with bright paint so as not to depress the out-of-towners when they’re passing by on their shuttle bus to the Magic Kingdom.

I did not grow up in this world, but I observed it from close at hand. When you are reared in a town that’s famous for visitors coming and going to partake in illusions, you quickly learn that perception and reality are often at cross purposes.

(I still chuckle upon meeting people who say they found Orlando “too touristy,” and with a few queries ascertain that they never got closer to the city’s downtown than International Drive, aka “I-Drive,” some 15 minutes away.)

In the stifling humidity of the Central Florida summer, where shirts are stuck perpetually to the smalls of backs, Moonee and other kids roam feral between the motels and third-rate tourist attractions, unattended by working mothers and long abandoned by their fathers. Moonee and her best friend, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), curse, spit on cars and hit up soft strangers for free ice cream.

Their behavior is a little shocking at first, but director Sean Baker (“Tangerine”), who co-wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, soon settles us into an episodic rhythm of observation. We witness the strong connections between these children, and come to see their daily life as not so different from that of Scout and Jem roaming around their quaint town in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Watching over them is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the beneficent manager of the fuschia-hued Magic Castle motel where Moonee and Scooty live with their mothers. Part caretaker, part social worker, part cop, Bobby works tirelessly to keep everything aboveboard, though there’s always something broken. Bobby repeatedly threatens to throw people out, but the offer of another last chance is always forthcoming. Seemingly the only line he’s unwilling to cross is allowing prostitution to take place on “the premises.”

There’s not a lot of narrative to “The Florida Project,” just the ebb and flow of the summer tide. Kids rotate in and out of Moonee’s circle, with shy, red-haired Jancey (Valeria Cotto) entering the sphere and gradually absorbing its brash energy.

Bria Vinaite plays Halley, Moonee’s mom, an occasional stripper who’s always on the prowl for a quick buck. Tatted up generously, with a slattern strut and hair to match the Magic Castle’s walls, Halley works the nicer locales where the tourists stay, crashing the free breakfast buffets and buying cheap perfume to sell at markup. She brings Moonee along to help with the pitch, because what kind of scammer brings a little kid with them?

The movie edges right up to daring us to condemn Halley, but then keeps pulling us back. Any conventional narrative would quickly dub her the villain of the piece, the quintessential terrible mother. But Baker also asks us to revel in Halley’s defiant rebel nature, a woman clinging to the last rung of society’s ladder, extending two middle fingers to anyone who would disparage her, or especially her kid.

There’s a quick scene where Halley gives the helpful woman who works in the Magic Castle’s laundry some weed, and she thanks her with a hug, saying everything will be all right. Halley limply accepts the embrace, indifferent to the woman’s soothing outreach, and we sense that Halley is not simply a mean person, but one in whom some of the gears that guide emotionality are just plain missing.

“The Florida Project” is a triumph of grainy verisimilitude. Watching the film is like stepping behind the backdrop of a theater stage to find real life, grimy and exuberant, turning away behind the pretty façade.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Video review: "Spider-Man: Homecoming"

From a creative standpoint, Spider-Man is deep in middle age, debuting in Marvel Comics some 50-odd years ago. Even as a cinematic hero, Spidey is hardly a newbie, with seven films and three different sets of actors portraying the web-slinger since 2002.

But the latest iteration, “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” is very much a product of teenage angst. Its hero, Peter Parker, is a 15-year-old high school sophomore played by Tom Holland. He’s a pretty typical kid: he’s a nerdy brain on the academic all-stars team, pines for an unattainable senior girl (Laura Harrier) and has a close circle of like-minded friends, chiefly fellow geek Ned (Jacob Batalon).

Except for one thing: he’s also secretly Spider-Man, who sneaks off from school and the Queens apartment of his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) to fight low-level evildoers.

After getting a taste of Avengers action at the behest of Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Peter is eager to leave his dull school life behind and join the super-team full-time. But the invitation seems to have gotten lost in the mail, though Stark did give him a super-suit with a bunch of cool features to help him along.

Michael Keaton plays the villain, who’s not really at the center of the story. He plays the Vulture, aka blue-collar contractor-turned-criminal Adrian Toomes, who parlayed some of the alien technology that fell on Manhattan a few years ago into a thriving underground enterprise. He and Spider-Man run afoul of each other’s activities, with the professional antagonism eventually taking a decidedly personal turn.

Directed by Jon Watts from one of those screenplays-by-committee, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” can be rather uneven at times, with cockeyed action scenes and a little too much silliness for its own good.

But it energetically takes the hero back to his roots, without rehashing old creations myths. (Does anybody need to see that radioactive spider bite thing ever again?)

Holland may just be the best Spider-Man yet, giving us a teen in turmoil who just happens to be able to bench-press a bus.

Bonus features are quite expansive, starting with “The Spidey Study Guide” with all sorts of wiki-style info and clues about the web-head. There are also 10 deleted scenes and seven making-of featurettes, ranging on everything from storyboarding to creating the film’s oft-amazing stunts.

There is also a production photo gallery, a gag reel and more of those hilarious “Rappin’ with Cap” fake public service announcements featuring Chris Evans as Captain America, which were briefly glimpsed in the film.



Thursday, October 12, 2017

Review: "Marshall"

Chadwick Boseman has played James Brown and Jackie Robinson on the big screen, superlative performances both, and completes a trifecta of historical biopics with "Marshall," an engaging look at Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall during an early point in his career when he was a rabble-rousing lawyer for the NAACP.

The movie is a straight-down-the-line "great man" drama that does everything very well without taking any chances or breaking new ground. The only unexpected turn is Boseman's take on the legal giant, portraying him as brash bordering on cocky, a two-fisted drinker who also uses those same knuckles against fat-faced racists when they inevitably come a-knockin', in a scene that's a bit of pure Hollywood hokum.

(Question: why are all the villains in historical racial injustice stories big, beefy guys? Didn't they have any lean racists back in the day?)

Josh Gad co-stars as Sam Friedman, a mousy insurance attorney in Bridgeport, Ct., who gets roped into being Marshall's partner in the trial, because the patrician judge (James Cromwell) doesn't want to approve any uppity (code word) out-of-town lawyers for the sensational case. He's also good friends and former law partners with the dad of the prosecutor, played by Dan Stevens in full flaring nostrils mode.

Set in 1941, the story (screenplay by Jacob and Michael Koskoff) centers on a rather unknown part of Marshall's life, when he acted as co-counsel in the defense of Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), an African-American chauffeur who was accused of brutally raping his master's... oops, excuse me, employer's wife, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).

The case has enraged the entire community, the sort of thing we usually only see in Southern cinematic settings. Marshall is the only attorney for the legal defense fund of the NAACP, making it his business to travel around the country defending black people falsely accused of crimes because of their race.

"Marshall" is directed by Reginald Hudlin, who was one of Hollywood's busiest directors during the 1990s but hasn't made a feature film in 15 years. He gets terrific performances out of his cast, and shoots the film beautifully with vintage cars and costumes. (Boseman is decked out in gorgeously contrasting three-piece suits.)

The heart of the film is the relationship with Friedman. It's nice to see Gad doing a non-comedic, non-musical role for once. He plays Friedman as a timid man who comes to discover reservoirs of iron underneath his nebbish facade.

It's not a partnership of equals: because Marshall is forbidden to speak at trial by the judge, Friedman essentially acts as his co-counsel's puppet in the early going, gradually coming into his own as a lawyer and as a man because of Marshall's tutoring.

On the one hand, I recognize that "Marshall" is rather conventional filmmaking, setting us up with the usual surprises and changes in tempo. (You can practically count down to the moment when Marshall and Friedman, having come to gain a measure of respect for each other, are split by circumstance and renew their hostilities.)

But it's hard to deny this is a smartly acted, entertaining movie about one of the titans of the civil rights movement. What "Marshall" lacks in originality it more than makes up for with assured confidence and capability.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review: "The Foreigner"

“The Foreigner” is a novel concept: a Jackie Chan movie in which Jackie Chan is completely unnecessary to the plot.

I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. This joint Chinese/British production has all the hallmarks of a Chan film: chop-socky action, Westerners underestimating an undersized Asian man, and cool/quirky stunts in which the 63-year-old action star demonstrates he’s still got plenty of spring in his step.

But really, with a little rewriting you could completely eliminate his character, Ngoc Minh Quan, from the movie without missing much of a beat. The real heart of the story is about an internal struggle within the IRA, with Pierce Brosnan playing the smooth political operator trying to keep the peace, attempting to stave off young upstarts blowing things up and threatening the détente with the Brits.

The set-up is that Quan’s teen daughter (Katie Leung), is killed during a gruesome bombing, and vows revenge. Everyone dismisses the timid little restaurant owner, who keeps persistently calling and showing up in people’s offices. His chief target soon becomes Liam Hennessy, an Irish deputy minister who used to be part of the IRA brigade but these days plays both sides.

Brosnan, as Hennessy, brings smarmy charm and a buried volcano of rage, trying to find a solution that serves both his IRA allies and the British authorities. Meanwhile, this nettlesome “Chinaman” keeps getting in the way.

Needless to say, Quan turns out to be a whole lot more capable than anyone imagines. His part of the story is sort of a mix of Sylvester Stallone in “First Blood” and Liam Neeson in “Taken,” content to leave others alone but ready to whip out a mondo-sized can of whup-tushie when confounded. He has a very specific set of skills…

Charlie Murphy plays Maggie, Hennessy’s mistress who has a little more to her story; Ray Fearon is the chief police inspector on the case, looking to cut a deal with Hennessy; Orla Brady is Hennessy’s wife, who has her own old resentments stirred up; Dermot Crowley is one of Hennessy’s old running buddies; and Rory Fleck Byrne plays Hennessy’s nephew, who has a military background that’ll come in handy later.

In case you didn’t notice from that summary, all the main supporting players are all defined by their relationship to Hennessy, not Quan. It’s a pretty standard-issue procedural thriller, as various forces converge to stop a terrorist plot. But then this odd little man shows up and throws everyone’s plan into kerflooey.

Chan seethes as the determined father who harbors a lot of secrets and past pain. But let’s face it, he’s a star in the Schwarzeneggerian mold, featured for his physicality rather than his emoting. His mask of rage looks more like a peptic ulcer.

Directed by Martin Campbell, who helmed a few James Bond films and the execrable “Green Lantern,” from a screenplay by David Marconi based on a novel by Stephen Leather, “The Foreigner” works reasonably well as a martial arts action flick, and as political thriller. Only trouble is, those parts don’t go well together, like mismatched suit pieces that clash rather than complement.