Sunday, June 25, 2017

Video review: "Trainspotting 2"

It’s funny how the long-term cultural relevance of a film has such low correlation with its box office tally. “Trainspotting” earned only $16 million in 1996, but is arguably one of the most influential movies of the past quarter-century. Certainly, director Danny Boyle and star Ewan McGregor have become important figures.

Its sequel, “Trainspotting 2,” made more than double that -- but, I think, is destined to be largely forgotten in popular culture, in much the same way the “Wizard of Oz” sequel was.

(See? Bet you didn’t even know there was one.)

It’s a well-made film: entertaining, smart, sharp performances and plenty of nifty items out of Boyle’s bag of filmmaking tricks. In the end, though, we’re left wondering why this endeavor needed to happen.

We revisit the old gang of addict/criminals 20 years later, now middle-aged guys in various states of evolution, or not. Renton (McGregor), who ripped off his pals after a big drug score, turned to straight work in Amsterdam. Begbie (Robert Carlyle) has been serving hard time in prison ever since, dreaming of getting his hands around Renton’s throat.

Simon “Sick Boy” (Jonny Lee Miller) has taken over his family’s crumbling bar, and runs a little extortion racket on the side. Spud (Ewen Bremner), the gentle, somewhat dimwitted soul of the bunch, is very much the same -- working itinerantly in between getting high and visiting his wife and son.

After a health scare, Renton returns to look up his old friends -- well, not Begbie -- to see if there’s any way he can make amends. Spud is receptive, Sick boy less so. But they’re eventually back to their old ways, doing drugs and dreaming up cons to run. Begbie soon escapes from prison and comes seeking his own sort of reconciliation.

Renton’s old screeds about commercialism overtaking middle-class values are nicely updated for these streaming-and-Tweeting times. Maybe the real lesson of “T2” is the old saw about things staying the same the more they change.

Bonus features form a short list, but it’s pretty meaty stuff. Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge team up for a feature-length commentary track, there’s a making-of featurette with Boyle and his cast, plus deleted scenes.



Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Review: "The Hero"

There’s a scene in “The Hero” where Sam Elliott, as aging cowboy actor Lee Hayden, runs through lines for an audition. It’s for one of those generic big-budget spectacles, the sort of movie that could give Lee’s moribund career a life-changing boost.

And the dialogue is just complete garbage -- we’re talking Razzies awards territory here.

Yet Lee invests the lines with so much authority, such hard-wrung emotional intensity, that you’d swear he’d sauntered out of a shot from “Unforgiven.” His reading leaves the buddy running lines with him, and us, just floored.

You could say much the same about the whole of Elliott’s performance, which should be remembered as the zenith of a long and noble career.

Blessed with a voice like creased leather and a face straight out of a Ken Burns historical documentary -- that iron glare, haphazard angles and totemic mustache -- Elliott has spent decades playing cowpokes, deputies and other hard men who support the hero of the story with unflagging loyalty and, when necessary, sterner steps.

Now Elliott is the leading man, playing a sort-of version of himself, if maybe a few rungs down the ladder of fame.

Lee is a TV and film actor whose heyday faded half a lifetime ago. By his own reckoning he only ever made one movie worth a damn, from which this film takes its title. These days he mostly just smokes a lot of weed, hangs around with his former co-star/solitary friend/drug dealer, Jeremy (Nick Offerman), and waits for the phone to ring.

His only real gig is doing voiceovers, commercials for barbecue sauce and such – something the real-life Elliott knows a thing or two about as pitchman for trucks, beef and beer. In the opening scene, he is repeatedly prompted by the offscreen technician to do “just one more” take, ad nauseum.

It’s an apt metaphor for Lee’s career: stuck in a rut, but one he’d like to keep plying if anybody’d let him climb back in the saddle for real.

His agent, who clearly has bigger clients on his mind, drops one piece of news: a group called the Western Appreciation and Preservation Society would like to give him their lifetime achievement award. It’s just a bunch of oldsters who like wearing cowboy hats and throw themselves a party once a year, and Lee brushes it off.

He is long divorced from his wife, Valerie (Katharine Ross, who knows from Westerns), and barely has a relationship with his adult daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter). When he bumps into Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a cool, smart chick who’s about his kid’s age and makes goo-goo eyes at him, Lee’s first instinct is to become defensive about the preposterousness of it.

“Seventy,” Lee snarls when he finally goads her into asking his age, practically spitting out the addendum, “One!”

But they start to have a thing, and Lee decides he might as well go accept that award after all, especially if he can have a pretty thing on his arm. They drop some drugs beforehand to mellow out, stuff happens at the ceremony, and without going into it all, his phone starts to ring again.

There’s one other key piece of information: Lee has just learned he has a deadly form of cancer that is mostly going to put him six feet under before too long. He starts to experience dreams/flashbacks in which he is again the star of a Western, an existentialist jaunt in which old debts have piled up and a reckoning comes creeping.

It’s still stunning how a widebrim and six-shooter fit Elliott so well, less accoutrements than intrinsic parts of the man’s iconography.

Things go from there. Director Brett Haley, who previously worked with Elliott on “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” co-wrote the script with Marc Basch as a clear homage to the actor. It’s a look at a guy who’s been waiting his whole life for his fortune to change, and when it happens it’s at exactly the wrong time.

Sullen yet hopeful, with even a nugget or two of joy, “The Hero” isn’t a swan song to a type of actor whose day has passed, but a showcase for one very much in his prime.

Review: "Band Aid"

Here’s something you don’t see every day: a smart romantic dramedy from a distinctly feminine perspective that also gets its male character down to the ground.

Zoe Lister-Jones wrote, directed, produced and co-stars in “Band Aid,” a desperately funny and surprisingly insightful look into the marital gender wars. Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally) are thirtysomething marrieds with dead-end jobs and a quickly shrinking roster of friends who don’t have kids.

They’re getting the pressure from all sides to procreate, but what they actually spend most of their time on is fighting.

One of the things they do for fun is play music at kids’ birthdays and such. After one particularly bad row, they pull out their guitars from the garage and start goofing around, carrying on their arguments through rock ‘n’ roll verses.

Their songs are duets of pure anger and resentment about the things that vex them: the dirty dishes in the sink, the lack of sex, his laziness, her neediness, their fear that they’re really losers and too afraid to admit it.

Ben has a sort of dreamy/schlubby thing going on, a mix of animal magnetism and puckish insouciance. Pally’s rakish hair, are-they-real eyelashes and very ordinary physique give a sense of a high school loverboy going slowly to pot. Ben is the kind of guy who may not seem like there’s a lot there, but the waters run deeper. He’s is a work-at-home graphic artist who can barely be bothered to respond to his client’s requests.

Anna was a writing prodigy in college who briefly had a book deal -- if you didn’t know, you can be sure she’ll tell you. Now she drives for Uber and frets about falling behind her friends, who all seem to have fabulous careers and/or adorable moppet kids. Anna wears prim outfits, almost Amish with Adam’s Apple-high top buttons, her hair pulled into a severe topknot.

Their relationship has its ups and downs, mostly downs lately. They’d probably be heading for the divorce if not for the songs providing an outlet for them to scream their frustrations at each other without the other taking it (too) personally. Once they start performing for audiences, the thrill also puts some zip back into their love life.

There are a few recognizable faces in supporting roles, including Retta (“Parks and Recreation”) as their disengaged therapist. Fred Armisen plays Dave, the creepy next-door neighbor who gets recruited to be their drummer because, well, they don’t really know anybody else. He turns out to be a recovering sex addict who has a lot of very cute “best friends.”

Ravi Patel, Brooklyn Decker, Hannah Simone and Susie Essman round at the cast as friends, relatives and best friends. Lucius provides the snappy songs.

It’s a strong debut for Lister-Jones as a writer/director. Her comedic voice recalls that of Tina Fey, a blend of robust feminist authority and nutty neuroticism. She writes a lot of biting things for Ben to say that no man should ever say to his wife, though virtually everyone has wanted to. She and Pally also have good onscreen chemistry; I totally bought them as a couple.

I also appreciated how story flirts with the obvious plot possibilities -- a sudden pregnancy or surprise record deal -- before returning back to Earth.

I spent such good time with these characters, I’d actually love to see a sequel one day. Maybe five years down the line, when Anna and Ben have a rugrat or two, and actually have something to fight about.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Last Days of Patton" (1986)

This is a movie website, though I do occasionally wander into personal musings, politics and even television. I feel comfortable including the made-for-TV "The Last Days of Patton" here, since it is the largely unknown sequel to 1970's seminal "Patton."

General George S. Patton was surely the signature role of George C. Scott's long film career, and that's saying something. He won a Best Actor Oscar for the 1970 film (which he declined) and no doubt relished the chance to revisit the character, who died shortly following the end of World War II after being paralyzed in a freak auto accident.

It's the classic "lion in winter" sort of tale, with the grizzled old warrior facing his own mortality, his reputation tarnished as wartime gives way to peace and celebrated fighters like Patton quickly turned into anachronisms. Literally until his dying breath, Patton yearned for the chance to take on the "mongrel" Russians, allies of necessity whom he predicted would become America's greatest global foe.

Interestingly, despite the 16-year gap between the film and its made-for-TV followup, Scott was actually about the same age as the character during the second go-round. He was barely into his 40s when he first played Patton, who turned 60 shortly before his death.

Director Delbert Mann started and ended his career in television, though he helmed a bunch of seminal feature films in the 1950s and '60s, including winning an Academy Award for "Marty." Teleplay writer William Luce was a TV guy through and through, and co-script man Ladislas Farago wrote the historical book about Patton upon which the movie was based.

The movie is anchored by Scott's formidable presence as Patton. He's a mountain of a man, always seeming too large for whatever space he's occupying. Scott plays the character as an egotistical, hard-wound but genuinely audacious person, the sort that the study of history is made more interesting for having him.

It suffers a bit from the technical confines of television, especially the nearly square aspect ratio and tendency toward camera work that is slightly fuzzy and dominated by saturated colors. I would love to see the exact same story shot in widescreen with high-end equipment.

The first half of the movie is much more compelling to me than the second, which is entirely comprised of Patton laid up in his hospital bed, making gruff pronouncements to anyone who visits while experiencing wistful (read: out of focus) flashbacks to his youth and childhood.

As the story opens, Patton has been declared military governor of Bavaria, overseeing a stretch of Germany devastated during the war. It's an ironic twist of fate: the very men responsible for turning an area to rubble are now given the responsibility for feeding the people and rebuilding the infrastructure.

Ensconced in a magnificent German castle, Patton would much rather be fighting the Russians but still attacks his assignment with gusto. Soon the shipping canals are open, the German POWs are whipped into shape (Patton dreamed of using them to bolster his own troops against the Rooskies) and the threat of mass starvation during the winter of 1945-46 is averted.

Unfortunately, Patton largely accomplishes this by keeping the wartime civilian leaders in place, in defiance of General Dwight D. Eisenhower's edict to expel all Nazi party members from positions of authority. He (correctly) argues that most of them only paid the Nazis lip service in order to remain in power, and turning things over to a bunch of inept novices would devastate the populace.

Eventually, Ike (Richard Dysart) and Patton have a confrontation in which the war dog is dressed down and relieved of his command. It's clear that this also marks the end of their long, troubled friendship. Like his conflict with Omar Bradley in "Patton," it's another example of how filmmakers portrayed Patton as a man who knew he was destined for greatness, only to be continually confounded by lesser military minds who were more adept at the political maneuvering necessary to reach the highest levels of command.

Patton is placed in charge of Fifteenth Army, a literal "paper army" that consisted of a few clerks who were tasked with writing the official history of the war. He is despondent and writes to his wife, Beatrice (Eva Marie Saint), that he intends not to return to Europe following his Christmas leave beginning Dec. 10.

In the film's oddest sequence, Patton is given a surprise birthday party by a bunch of his old troops. Initially seeming perturbed, he soon warms to the occasion, even leading a bawdy sing-a-long about a British prostitute who's the ugliest girl in England, but still does brisk business owing to the darkness of the constant blackouts from German air raids.

Then she appears. Jean Gordon (Kathryn Leigh Scott, no relation to George) is Patton's niece, with whom he reputedly carried on a long affair during the war. She was a nurse who sometimes followed Patton in his postings.

Historians have argued about whether the affair really happened, noting that a bedridden Patton may have been boasting about his sexual prowess because he was facing the prospect of death or invalidism. Given that she committed suicide shortly after his death, and was found surrounded by his photographs and letters, I'd say there was plenty of merit to the charge.

Weirdly, Patton introduces Jean as his "half-niece." I'm not sure whether this was the filmmakers' appellation or a term Patton actually used to mitigate his horrid behavior. Either way, it's ridiculous. You can become someone's uncle by marriage -- as did I, picking up two nephews, a niece and now a grand-niece by saying "I do" -- but that does not make them your "half niece" or "niece-in-law."

(It is possible to have a half-niece, but only if your half-sibling has a daughter.)

The affair has a strange effect on how we regard Patton. Here is this huge, bombastic figure who helped crush Hitler's regime. And the scenes between him and Beatrice in the film's second half, as well as the many flashbacks to their younger life, make clear the love between them was strong and true. Yet he was having sex with his niece. That is 9th-circle-of-Hell sinfulness, folks.

Not to be judgemental of actual people from antiquity, but I'm not surprised things ended with a suicide.

Patton's accident is presented as it actually happened: a freak occurrence that should have resulted in, at most, a few bruises. (Indeed, none of the five other people involved were seriously hurt.) Patton's  limousine, which was carrying him and longtime chief-of-staff/pal Lt. Gen. Hobart "Hap" Gay (Murray Hamilton) to go pheasant hunting, collided with an Army truck at a railroad crossing. Patton struck the window partition and suffered a severe scalp laceration and spinal compression fracture.

I'm afraid I pretty well lost interest in the film after this point. There's some slightly interesting stuff about how the famous general's injury was described in the press, who in typical form are depicted as nameless, scurrying rodents nipping at the heels of truly important VIPs. One female journalist is shown complaining that she was thrown out after inquiring after the general's very personal hygiene.

Ed Lauter plays Paul Hill, the Army doctor in charge of Patton's recovery. At first they attach an anchor to the top of his skull to get traction to relieve pressure on the broken spine. Later this is exchanged for "fishhooks under the cheekbones," to use the non-medical colorful phrase. Ol' Blood and Guts literally smiles through the pain.

In the end Ike orders the doctors to transport the patient back to the U.S. because American authorities do not want to have one of their most famous generals die on German soil. But Patton succumbs to an embolism before this can happen. His final scenes have Patton declaring his devotion to Beatrice, then closing his eyes for the last time to the sound of Christmas carolers walking through the hospital.

I am glad they made a sequel to "Patton," though I wish it were a superior one not cramped by the limits of 1980s television. It's not a bad film, but two great men -- George S. Patton and George C. Scott -- deserved better.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Video review: "The LEGO Batman Movie"

You've got to love a spin-off where they just added one word to the title: “The LEGO Batman Movie” plucks the breakout character from the first movie and gives him his own flick, with gleeful fun for kiddies resulting.

There is a goodly helping of inside jokes for grownups, but these movies are aimed squarely at the 10-and-under set. They’re colorful, fast-paced, full of action and mildly crude humor.

Will Arnett returns as the voice of Batman/Bruce Wayne, who’s a self-centered jerk trying to mask his yearning for a family to stave off his crushing loneliness. One is soon presented to him in the form of a boy ward of the state who will become Robin (Michael Cera), Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) and his own loyal butler, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes).

Zach Galifianakis voices the Joker, who launches a scheme to free all the villains trapped in the Phantom Zone. He’s stuck somewhere between trying to kill Batman and wanting a relationship with him. Perhaps one will lead to the other.

We get to see virtually every bad guy Batman has fought over the years in LEGO form, along with a bunch of new ones like Condiment Man. (His power his exactly what you think.) The blocky, deceivingly crude animation is slick and appealing.

“The LEGO Batman” movie is entirely a retread of the first movie, but with the pieces changed all around into different forms.

Bonus features are quite extensive, and -- in a move that’s increasingly rare -- you get the same goodies with the standard DVD version as the Blu-ray upgrade.

There’s a feature-length commentary track by director Chris McKay and his crew, deleted scenes, four new Batman animated shorts (favorite title: “Batman is Just Not That Into You”) and another short for the upcoming “LEGO Ninjago” movie. Plus, social media promos, trailers and six making-of featurettes.



Thursday, June 15, 2017

Review: "47 Meters Down"

You may remember a nice little shark thriller from last year, "The Shallows," in which Blake Lively played a surfer menaced by a toothsome Selachimorpha while on a Mexican vacation. "47 Meters Down" is practically a direct clone, except instead of a girl stranded on a rock it has two sisters trapped in an underwater shark cage.

Their air slowly running out, they hope for rescue while knowing they're eventually going to have to take matters into their own hand.

It's a tense, well-made piece disposable entertainment, with 45% more shark but 92% less bikini than "The Shallows."

Mandy Moore has mostly stayed out of the movies the last few years, doing a lot of voice work mostly on TV. The former teen pop idol seemed to lose interest in Hollywood stardom -- and/or vice-versa -- so I'm curious why she chose this project for her comeback to the big screen.

She's an empathetic presence as Lisa, who's vacationing in Mexico with her sister, Kate (Claire Holt). She was supposed to take this trip with her boyfriend, Stuart, and Kate was a last-minute replacement. We soon found out the reason is they have split up, with Stuart complaining that Lisa isn't a "fun" person.

Of course, she's about to get the adventure... of a lifetime!!

Lisa starts to come out of her shell while partying with a pair of local pretty boys, Louis (Yani Gellman) and Benjamin (Santiago Segura). They suggest they go shark-seeing, as they know a captain (Matthew Modine) with a boat and a shark cage.

They're a little put off by the grimy condition of the boat, and the mate (Chris Johnson) doesn't do much to alleviate Lisa's fears, teasing her about the 25-foot great whites trolling these waters. After sufficiently chumming up the waters with fish blood and parts, the boys go down and come back up just fine.

Kate is an experienced diver but Lisa is not, though she gets the hang quickly and soon they're enjoying the view. These clearly are some hungry sharks, as one swallows their water camera after they drop it.

Then the winch breaks and they're sent plummeting down to the bottom of the ocean at the titular depth -- that's over 150 feet deep, for us Yanks. The rest of the movie plays out in real time, as hysterics give way to resolve and increasingly daring ventures to save themselves.

The violence is pretty mild even by PG-13 standards. When someone gets munched -- as must happen in a shark movie -- it's pretty much just a flash of action, a surprised yelp, a diffuse cloud of blood and it's over. Honestly, it could easily have been PG with a few tweaks.

(And here is your reminder that the granddaddy of this genre, "Jaws," replete with spurting blood, body pieces and nudity, received a PG rating back in 1975. Wow.)

Director Johannes Roberts, who co-wrote the script with Ernest Riera, comes from a horror background, and it shows. Scares tend to be of the "boo-gotcha" variety, and the appearances of the sharks are so telegraphed we can practically hear John Williams' iconic two-note musical refrain starting in our minds.

It's a decent popcorn movie -- short (89 minutes), effective, not terribly imaginative. But it's got bite enough.

Review: "Cars 3"

“Cars 3” is a movie of full circles coming round.

It’s amusing, glitzy entertainment for kids that also ponders what happens when we get old and start to worry about life passing us by. We’re going so fast, and suddenly you find yourself sitting in a pasture, unsure if you drove yourself in or were put out.

I can’t think of a film series that better incorporates the death of one of its stars into the core themes of the story. Paul Newman was the beating heart of the original “Cars” as the cantankerous Doc Hudson, who sets aside his ancient grievances against the sport of racing to coach a cocky young upstart, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson).

In a lot of ways, it was as much Doc’s story as McQueen’s.

Doc is very much on Lightning’s mind as the film opens, using his lessons and inspiration to become a living legend himself. He’s essentially traded places with Strip “The King” Weathers, the aging champion from the first movie, having to deal with an upstart rookie trying to take his crown. Except in this case, it’s not just one opponent but the entire field of competitors.

Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) is a “next gen” racer, and looks the part -- few curves, efficiently unpretty, a sleek personification of function over form. He drives like an automaton, straight down the groove, no risks and lots of speed. He also has little patience for old-timers like McQueen, brusquely shoving the old generation to the side.

Soon, all the older racers have been replaced by Storm clones, and Lightning suffers a major crash just like Doc did. Can he come back and race again, or has his time gone by?

Brian Fee, a Pixar animation veteran, ably takes the director’s chair for the first time, with a screenplay by Mike Rich, Pixar do-everything-guy Bob Peterson and Kiel Murray, one of the writers on the original “Cars.” Their entry into the franchise stands out from the other two movies by taking some left turns we don’t expect.

It doesn’t quite have the emotional horsepower of the first one or the dizzy Mater-centric antics of “Cars 2.” But I think most people, young and old, will find it a satisfying iteration – possibly conclusion? – of the saga.

It is a little disappointing to mostly leave the Radiator Springs crew behind this time, including Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), Sally (Bonnie Hunt), Luigi (Tony Shalhoub), Ramone (Cheech Marin) and the rest. But they make a few appearances, and there are new faces.

Most notable is Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a hyperactive young “race trainer” who wants to whip Lightning back into shape with computer simulations and kooky psychological motivations. She sees him as her “senior project,” and prescribes lots of naps and an oil drip pan as needed. Watching over is Sterling (Nathan Fillion), the seemingly benevolent new owner of the Rust-Eze race sponsors.

(The Magliozzi brothers of NPR “Car Talk” fame, who did the voices of their animated counterparts, get their own nice little sendoff.)

And there’s a sentimental journey to Doc’s old dirt-track stomping grounds, where Lighting encounters the mentor of his mentor, Smokey (a pitch-perfect Chris Cooper), and a few other old-school racers. Plus a madcap dash through a demolition derby where Miss Fritter (Lea DeLaria), a smashmouth school bus, always steals the show.

You can quibble with some of the particulars of the plot, including a rather… novel take on racing rules that I don’t think NASCAR is going to incorporate anytime soon. But its heart is never far from the right place.

I should mention that Newman’s character and voice appear in this movie, flashbacks from the original but also a few lines of dialogue that were recorded and never used. It’s great to hear that beautiful gravel baritone again, and we learn some things about Doc we didn’t know. It’s like hearing new stories about your departed father, told by people who adored him.

Happily, this means that “Cars 3” will stand as Newman’s final official film credit. A lifelong car nut, I don’t think he would mind.

The movie itself is a lot like classic cars. They don’t have the power they used to. But oh, to watch them go by…