Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: "Focus"

"Focus," a new crime caper/romance starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie, is smart and sexy as hell ... for a little while, at least. Like the confidence men and women it depicts, it's good at the short game but stretches too far for the long con, and falls short.

The first and last thirds are borderline dazzling, as Nicky (Smith) and Jess (Robbie) pull off a variety of scams, heists and outright pilfering. The middle section, though, drags us down so much that it sucks vital juices from the remainder.

Will Smith is playing the classic Will Smith character -- skilled, smart and cooler than thou. Nicky is the son and grandson of legendary con men, and is making quite a mark of his own. What's interesting about this depiction is that, rather than the classic lone wolf, Nicky is the leader of a team of dozens of thieves who get together for a variety of small scores, and then disperse.

Brennan Brown and Adrian Martinez play his chief lieutenants, and the closest thing to friends a guy like Nicky allows himself to have. Martinez steals many a scene with his droll delivery and sexualized quips.

The early section is about them working New Orleans in the week leading up to the Super Bowl. They lift watches right off your wrist, nab wallets or pocketbooks, use your credit cards to run up merchandise that they then sell online and pocket the cash. These scenes are much like a well-coordinated ballet, which writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa ably stage.

But then... the girl walks in. Dames usually mark the commencement of troubles in these types of movies, and Jess is no exception. A budding thief, she takes instruction from Nicky, becomes his pupil, partner and lover, and it becomes a contest to see who's putting one over on who.

Unless of course -- they actually love each other???

Nicky teaches the art of distraction, getting to know your marks and being able to persuade anyone of anything. "You get their focus, you take whatever you want," he says. He goes on to prove his skills in an elaborate ruse that seems like a complete disaster, until it isn't.

After a hiatus of three years, for reasons I'll not spoil, the pair finds themselves together again in Buenos Aires, with both having their eye on the same mark: Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), a fabulously wealthy and arrogant race car team owner.

Nicky has been hired to pretend to sell his fuel consumption algorithm -- a classic nonsensical MacGuffin -- to his chief competitor. But Garriga's stern security chief, Owens (Gerald McRaney), suspects that something is up. Jess, meanwhile, claims to have gone straight and is simply dating Garriga -- probably for just his money, but in her line that's considered legit.

Robbie and Smith have some real sizzle onscreen, especially as we're forced to guess how much of their steamy romance is pure smokescreen.

(I do feel compelled to point out their 22-year age difference. Smith's young stud-on-the-make days are dwindling, but he seems determined to milk out every ounce.)

"Focus" has got plenty of head-jerking plot twists, surprises and double-takes. Its squishy center, though, robs the film of too much momentum.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review: "Mr. Turner"

Mike Leigh is one of the few filmmakers today who deserves the title auteur, since he writes and directs movies that are always a clear representation of his own singular vision. He’s one of a kind.

Usually Leigh has focused on the unlabored grace of modern British working class characters, but for “Mr. Turner” he reaches back to tell the tale of one of the 19th century’s greatest painters, J.M.W. Turner.

Leigh goes for a very atypical approach to the biopic genre, insomuch as I’m not sure that term even still applies. It’s a portrait of the artist told almost entirely through the lens of his craft – how he went about his work, how he felt about it, how others reacted to it and how that affected him.

There is some typical biographical stuff – his colleagues, his lovers, his poor health – but everything is filtered through the art he created. This is a man who literally lived to paint.

Rather than depicting Turner as a child or young man, showing us his formative years and then having other actors take over the part as the decades go by, “Mr. Turner” begins with him already in his middle years and an established talent, and follows him for the last two decades or so of his life. The latter portion of the film is largely taken up with his transition from traditional marine landscape artistry to more abstract styles that served as an important precursor to Impressionism.

The main appeal of “Mr. Turner” is watching Timothy Spall in the title role. You probably recognize Spall from lots of supporting parts over the years, including the “Harry Potter” flicks. He’s shortish and agreeably homely and thus got pegged as a character actor, meaning he doesn’t get many leading roles (outside of Mike Leigh movies, anyway).

Spall plays Turner as a cantankerous carbuncle of a man, a self-described “gargoyle” who tramps around England with his stocky gait and impertinently puffed-out lower lip, an easel, canvas and paints perpetually tucked under his arm. He relishes his role as the “difficult artist,” using it to keep people at a distance – preferably outside his front door – so he could concentrate on his painting.

Spall emotes largely through a series of grunts and grumbles, and a few words spat out here and there with evident reluctance. Turner only really seems to come out of his shell among other artists, enjoying back-slapping and sparring with other esteemed painters at the Royal Academy of Art.

In one of many startling depictions in the movie, the artists are shown altering their paintings after they’ve already been hung for exhibit. Most people think of art as something that is begun, toiled over and then finished, but this film portrays them as inveterate tinkerers who always think a work can be improved.

Turner continues to dabble with one painting of a sea storm until it becomes a formless, but powerful, wave of hues. He continues this aesthetic with a painting of a locomotive, a landscape, and so on. The queen herself tut-tuts at this style, and soon Turner is being dismissed as having lost his mind, or at least his eyesight.

Watching Turner interact with his canvas is thrilling. He brushes, he dabs, he scrapes, he even spits into the paint and works it around with his knobby thumb to get the desired effect. Leigh gives us the artist completely transported by the creative act.

Turner’s interactions with other people, though, are stiff and labored, and these scenes tend to carry that same aspect. Turner has two grown daughters he barely acknowledges, and a live-in servant (Dorothy Atkinson) he ill-uses, in more ways than one.

At one point he falls for a rather plain widow (Marion Bailey) in a seaside town where he often goes to make sketches, and soon he’s living a double life there, known locally as “Mr. Booth.” The scene of their first sharing of intimacy has great power, in which each acknowledges the beautiful spirit the other has residing behind an ordinary fleshy façade.

But their relationship remains in stasis, never evolving beyond that one moment – unlike his art, which goes through a dramatic transformation.

In a sense, “Mr. Turner” is the purest sort of portrait of the artist, concerned much more with the art he created than the person behind it. We’re left with a clear vision of the legacy J.M.W. Turner bequeathed to us. But the man himself remains blurred and indistinct.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Video review: "Whiplash"

As I’m writing this, the Academy Awards ceremony has not yet happened, but by the time you’re reading it J.K. Simmons will mostly likely have claimed the Oscar for best supporting actor. He deserves it. Possibly writer/director Damien Chazelle has picked up his own golden statuette for adapted screenplay, based on his own short film. Again, highly warranted.

“Whiplash” was the best film of 2014, the harrowing tale of a promising young musician and the conductor who both inspires and degrades him. It’s the sort of movie that sticks in your craw, needling your soul long after you’ve seen it.

Miles Teller plays Andrew Neyman, an understudy drummer at the country’s finest music conservatory. He’s thrilled when the powerful head conductor chooses him to play in the top jazz band. But Lawrence Fletcher (Simmons) commences a cycle of abuse and psychological torture against the young prodigy.

He screams, he spits, he throws things – even slaps the boy around in the name of keeping proper time. Then, when Andrew starts to crumble under this tidal wave of intimidation, Fletcher mocks him as “one of those single-tear people.”

He does this, Fletcher says, to make Andrew a better musician. And there’s no denying the lad pushes himself to the limits of his ability as a result. But as he comes to resemble his tormentor more and more, we’re forced to ask ourselves what the price of ambition is.

“Whiplash” is a searing character study that raises challenging questions we’d maybe rather not ask ourselves.

Video extras are excellent. The DVD contains a feature length commentary track featuring Chazelle and Simmons – I always feel these are best when at least some of the principle actors are involved. There’s also an interview feature from the Toronto International Film Festival featuring both men plus Teller.

The Blu-ray version also has a deleted scene with commentary, interviews with famous drummers discussing their craft, as well as Chazelle’s original short film with commentary.

Movie: A
Extras: B-plus

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Oscar picks & predictions

Once again, there is no runaway favorite in this year's Academy Award race. "Boyhood" and "Birdman" have duked it out for frontrunner status during the awards season, with each picking up their share of preliminary prizes.

"Boyhood" had the early lead as the sentimental pick, but "Birdman" has has come on strong late in the process by winning both the director's guild and producer's guild awards, indicating it may have more artistic respect.

I happen to think both are spectacularly overrated films, though "Boyhood" is clearly the superior of the two.

To me, this year's Oscar story is about the plethora of good-not-great movies pushing the deserving ones out of the limelight. We had a handful of truly great movies -- "Whiplash," "Life Itself," "St. Vincent," "The Imitation Game," "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" -- that received few or no Academy nominations.

Meanwhile, many of the highest-profile films are on some level disappointing to me. Along with "Boyhood" and "Birdman" I would add "The Theory of Everything," "Selma," "Foxcatcher," "Interstellar," "Into the Woods" and "Unbroken" to the list of movies that are undeserving of their bounteous recognition from the Academy.

Perhaps the one that has received the most attention is "Selma," which caused genuine outrage when it only received two -- how dare they! -- Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

Much of the discussion surrounding "Selma" has focused on racism, the lack of diversity among Academy voters, backlash against the film's liberties with the historical record, and so on. I think the real reason it didn't fare better is simpler: it's just not that good of a movie. Outside of the powerful march sequences, it's stiff and stodgy. The film's similar lack of support from the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, etc. only serve to underline that sentiment.

So here are my picks and predictions for Sunday's Academy Awards in all 24 categories. As in past years, I'll tell you who will win, who should win, and replace some nominees with ones I think are more deserving. I've called this last part various things over the years, but I'm sticking with "Chris Cross" from last time, since I'm crossing names off a list and writing in new ones.

Best Picture

Will Win: "Birdman"
Should Win: "Whiplash"
Chris Cross: "St. Vincent", "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" and "Wild" replace "Selma," "The Theory of Everything" and "Birdman."

I think Academy voters are in a mood to split up the awards again this year. "Boyhood" will win a number of key awards, including director, screenplay and supporting actress, and most Oscar voters will feel that's enough. They'll go for "Birdman" to win the top award because everyone else is talking about how ambitious and serious it is, so they'll think so too.

Michael Keaton is great in "Birdman" but Alejandro Iñárritu's directorial choices seriously sabotaged the film. It almost felt like the director was trying to jump in between the actors and his floaty camera to scream, "Look at me!"

I like a lot of things about "Boyhood," but in the end it works more as an actors' workshop project than a coherent film.

It's notable that these two movies lead the pack due in large part to their status as "actor movies." Actors make up the largest voting bloc of Academy members, and tend to favor (imho) showy performances over telling a riveting story.

"American Sniper" has been having a historic run at the box office -- it could actually wind up as the top-grossing film of 2014 -- so it has a puncher's chance to win Best Picture. If so, it would replay the strategy of "Million Dollar Baby," another Clint Eastwood drama that made a late charge in the season.

Personally, I don't think that'll happen because the film has been swept into partisan political debates, unnecessarily and unfairly. Since it's now perceived as a "conservative movie," liberal Hollywood won't go for it.

"Whiplash" is my pic for best film of the year, for reasons I've outlined before. The lack of any nominations for "St. Vincent" is disappointing but not surprising, given how small a film it was. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" was the best of the big-budget spectacles of 2014, which always are overlooked at Oscar time.

Best Director

Will Win: Alejandro Iñárritu, "Birdman"
Should Win: Wes Anderson, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Chris Cross: Clint Eastwood and Damien Chazelle replace Bennett Miller and "Alejandro Iñárritu"

Yes, that's right: me, the perceived perpetual Wes Anderson hater, thinks he deserves the golden statuette for directing. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" was his best in years, mainly because he finally got unstuck from his artistic rut.

Damien Chazelle of "Whiplash" didn't get nominated because he's too new -- probably the same reason Ava DuVernay of "Selma" was left off this list.

Conversely, Clint Eastwood's status as a legend who's already received his due probably hurt his chances, along with the partisan squabbling. The lack of a directing nomination for Eastwood is also the best evidence that "Sniper" won't win best picture.

I don't like showy direction that calls attention to itself, so Iñárritu is out for me. Hollywood was bamboozled by his camera trickery, so there you go.

A directing nod for Miller when "Foxcatcher" didn't get a best picture nomination is the biggest head-scratcher of the season. I thought that movie got lost in its own mood swings.

Best Actor

Will Win/Should Win: Michael Keaton
Chris Cross: Bill Murray and Ralph Fiennes replace Steve Carell and Eddie Redmayne

This one's a real nail-biter between Keaton and Eddie Redmayne of "The Theory of Everything." The latter is the traditional choice, since the Oscars love actors who portray characters with physical or mental challenges, especially true-life ones.

Keaton was genuinely brilliant in "Birdman," though, and my quibbles with the film are mostly about the direction rather than his performance. Plus the Academy loves to see actors turn their flagging careers around with a brave role; see Matthew McConaughey's win last year.

Bradley Cooper won't win, but I'd love to see it happen. He changed his game with this bold, watershed performance. Notably, he's been nominated in this category three years in a row. That's quite an accomplishment, but hardly unprecedented: he's the 10th actor to do so.

Tough to cross anybody off this list, but I loved Bill Murray in "St. Vincent" and Ralph Fiennes gave a complex, funny/sad portrait in "Grand Budapest." I'll kick Carell and Redmayne because they seem like such deliberate Oscar-bait parts.

Best Actress

Will Win/Should Win: Julianne Moore
Chris Cross: Hilary Swank replaces Marion Cotillard

The easiest pick this year. Julianne Moore caps a career of terrific performances, and finally takes home an Oscar on the fifth try. And she deserves it: she's authentic and sensitive as an Alzheimer's patient in "Still Alice."

Until I saw Moore I thought Swank gave the best female turn of the year in the flawed "The Homesman." People like to joke about Meryl Streep getting nominated just for showing up, but Cotillard's work in "Two Days, One Night," while solid, is hardly among her best.

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win/Should Win: J.K. Simmons
Chris Cross: None

OK, I lied, this is the easiest pick of the season. Simmons has won virtually every preliminary award for his portrayal of a vicious jazz conductor, and deserved to. In the wrong hands it could have so easily become a cartoon villain a la Michael Fassbender in "12 Years a Slave." Simmons dared us to snicker.

I can't complain about any of these worthy nominees. Usually this is one of the busiest categories -- last year I swapped out four out of the five nominees. But I can't think of any this go-round.

I've heard some harrumphing about Robert Duvall, but he was genuinely terrific in "The Judge," starting with a one-note character and adding layers. Name another actor of his generation who could've pulled off that courtroom testimony scene so well.

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Patricia Arquette
Should Win: Meryl Streep
Chris Cross: Melissa McCarthy and Jessica Chastain replace Laura Dern and Emma Stone

OK, this time I really mean it, this is the easiest category to predict. Like Simmons and Moore, Patricia Arquette has run the table in other contests. I thought she was good, not great -- Ethan Hawke had the meatier part of the two parents in "Boyhood." Her character kind of just ends up reacting to everyone else.

Meryl Streep was the best thing about "Into the Woods." She sang, she danced (a bit), she was scary, she was funny, and the movie slipped a couple of gears slower whenever she wasn't onscreen.

McCarthy gave her finest performance in "St. Vincent," and Chastain was solid in the largely humdrum "A Most Violent Year." Laura Dern's part seemed like it was written as simply a string of "Oscar clip" scenes where she gets to be wistful and sympathetic, rather than actually building a character. Emma Stone was better in "Magic in the Moonlight" than in "Birdman."

Original Screenplay

Will Win: Richard Linklater, "Boyhood"
Should Win: Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Chris Cross: "The Babadook" and "St. Vincent" replace "Birdman" and "Foxcatcher

Another slugfest between "Boyhood" and "Birdman."As I've said, I think Academy voters will reward the direction of "Birdman" and give Richard Linklater the nod for his write-as-you-go screenplay effort. Wes Anderson could possibly sneak in here with a win if those other two split the vote, and that would be a fine thing.

The little-seen Australian horror film "The Babadook" was a marvel of originality, and the characters oozed with authenticity in "St. Vincent."

Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: Graham Moore, "The Imitation Game"
Should Win: Damien Chazelle, "Whiplash"
Chris Cross: "Gone Girl" replaces "Inherent Vice"

There was a big kerfuffle about "Whiplash" being included here rather than in the original screenplay category, in which my critics' group, the Indiana Film Journalists, was right in the middle. Near as I can figure, we were the only critic or industry group to categorize it this way, and were much ribbed for it. Now that the Oscars decided the same way, not so much laughing now.

It's simple: A short film version of "Whiplash" came out the previous year, did quite well on the festival circuit, and raised enough interest to finance the feature-length version. The film's backers have argued they only made the short film to finance the full-length one. Well, that's fine, but you're talking about intent. If they hadn't been successful with the short film, then that's the only version of "Whiplash" that would've existed.

The irony is that "Whiplash" has a much better chance of winning an award here than in the much more competitive original screenplay category, where it would've been crushed by "B&B." However, virtually all the other prognostications I've read are putting "Imitation Game" down as the frontrunner to win. Reluctantly, I'm going with my head instead of my gut and following the crowd in my prediction.

I thought Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice" a colossal waste of talent and time, so I'd been inclined to replace it with just about anything. The careful revelations of information in "Gone Girl" were a primary part of its appeal.


Will Win: Emmanuel Lubezki, "Birdman"
Should Win: Robert Yeoman, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Chris Cross: "Interstellar"  replaces "Birdman

Look, I'm all for artists trying new and inventive things. It's just that those attempts are best done in service to the greater good, aka the story and the performances. I thought the floating, no-cuts aesthetic of "Birdman" did it far more harm than benefit. It prevented me from getting really invested in the characters, as the focus of the viewpoint overshadowed that of the people. It was artsy for the sake of being artsy.

"Interstellar" was also a deeply flawed film, but the visuals were sumptuous and transporting. "Grand Budapest" was visually fun and colorful.

Documentary Feature

Will Win: "CitizenFour"

"Life Itself," easily the best documentary of the year, was not nominated, in a category that is more famous for the films it's unfairly ignored than the ones it has honored. The sad result, in my case, is that I ended up with a roster of five nominees of which I've not seen a one. I'd have to go back 20 years for the last time that happened. "CitizenFour" seems to have this locked up.

Documentary Short Subject

Will Win: "Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1"

On the flip side, it's very unusual for me -- or anyone -- to have seen any of the documentary shorts beforehand. Stab in the dark, as usual.

Animated Feature Film

Will Win: "Big Hero 6"
Should Win: "The Boxtrolls"
Chris Cross: None

Much complaining about "The Lego Movie" not being nominated, but it was merely a pretty-good movie in a terrible year for animated films. "The Boxtrolls" and "How to Train Your Dragon 2" were the only ones even worthy of being nominated, imho. The fact the entirely lackluster "Big Hero 6" is the frontrunner is worthy of a depressing rumination on the state of cartoons.

Animated Short Film

Will Win/Should Win: "The Dam Keeper"

Usually Disney/Pixar has owned this category, but I've been bitten in recent years by making the jaded pick instead of my favorite, and ended up getting it wrong. "Feast" is lovely and joyous, but I adore the haunting animation and theme of  "The Dam Keeper."

Live Action Short Film

Will Win: "Boogaloo and Graham"
Should Win: "Aya"

Several terrific nominees this year. "Boogaloo" is sentimental and has a pat ending, "Aya" is contemplative and ambiguous.

Foreign Language Film

Will Win: "Ida"

Costume Design

Will Win: "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Should Win: "Maleficent"

Back when I saw "Maleficent," I noted that it would seem to have this award and the one for makeup locked up, given Angelina Jolie's unearthly appearance. But it didn't even get nominated for makeup (!) and appears headed to a loss in this category. The costumes were magnificent in "Hotel," so this isn't a "Gandhi" vs. "Tron" travesty.

Film Editing

Will Win: "Boyhood"
Should Win: "American Sniper"

Voters are going to give it to "Boyhood" for stringing together 12 years of footage. But I think the tension of the battle scenes in "American Sniper" is a more worthy achievement.

Makeup and Hairstyling

Will Win: "Foxcatcher"
Should Win: "Guardians of the Galaxy"
Chris Cross: "Maleficent" replaces "Foxcatcher"

Tough one to call. I found Steve Carell's get-up in "Foxcatcher" distracting, not to mention not even resembling the guy he was depicting. (WTF was up with those rabbit teeth?) But Hollywood likes transformations where famous actors become unrecognizable. "Grand Budapest Hotel" has a shot, too, but I'll take the excellent creature features of "Guardians." I really don't think "Maleficent" would've been the huge international hit that it was if not for Angelina Jolie's inhuman look.

Production Design

Will Win/Should Win: "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

Wes Anderson finally abandoned his precious little dioramas for actual sets, and the results were smashing. A great, great-looking film.

Sound Editing

Will Win/Should Win: "American Sniper"

The soundscape of the combat scenes in "American Sniper" was at least as important as the visuals.

Sound Mixing

Will Win: "Birdman"
Should Win: "Whiplash"
Chris Cross: Any film released in 2014 replaces "Interstellar"
When large swaths of the audience are talking about how awful the sound mix of your movie was, it's astonishing that "Interstellar" got a nod here. Remember, Academy Award nominations are determined by the voters in each respective field. So I guess professional sound people liked director Christopher Nolan's "bold" artistic choice to wash out the dialogue with thrumming music and sound effects. Awful, awful decision. If it wins, I may put hot pokers in my ears.

Visual Effects

Will Win/Should Win: "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

Original Score

Will Win: "The Theory of Everything

Original Song

Will Win: "Glory" from "Selma"


Review: "McFarfland, USA"

"McFarland, USA” is about as formulaic as movie can be. But despite the fact that every single step of the plot seems preordained, it’s a well-made film with some genuinely moving moments. This falls firmly into the “inspiring sports drama” category, with Kevin Costner playing a coach who takes a ragtag bunch of misfits and turns them into a championship cross-country team.

It follows the “Hoosiers” template pretty closely, with the coach being a down-on-his luck type whose past transgressions have banished him to the remotest outpost to ply his trade. There’s a Jimmy Chitwood type, the gifted standout who has to be wrangled into joining/not quitting the team. And the one kid who has a lot of heart but not much talent, and the lippy student who comes to respect the coach, and so on.

The twist is that it takes place in a dreadfully poor California town made up almost entirely of Mexican-Americans who toil in the fields as pickers. These boys get up at 4:15 in the morning to go pick vegetables for a few hours, go to school, and then pick some more. Everyone they know is a picker, they assume they will be too, and thus a high school diploma is the only thing that’s ever been demanded of them.

Winning? It’s a foreign concept.

Costner plays the new football coach, Jim White -- and boy, does he get ridiculed for that name because, y’know, he’s white! The kids dub him “Blanco” and he soon loses his football job to a rival. But White notices that these kids who work in the sun all day can run fast and long, and pitches the idea of a cross-country team.

At first the boys deride cross-country as a sport for rich white schools, but eventually they come around because, of course, otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie. Niki Caro directed from an original screenplay-by-committee (Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson are credited) based on a true story.

Carlos Pratts is solid as Thomas, the best runner who has trouble at home from an abusive father who thinks sports are a waste of time. Maria Bello plays Mrs. White, in a conventional sort of role in which she rides her husband for not spending more time with his family. And Morgan Saylor plays their teen daughter, Julie, who struggles to adapt to her new circumstances.

The movie is as much about the White clan assimilating into a community in which they are the outsiders as it is about sports. At first Coach White is dismissive of the school and his prospects of finding success there, and xenophobic about the young men in bandanas and low-riders whom he assumes to be gangbangers. He’s desperate to get out, but eventually settles into the rhythms of the neighborhood. Costner is his usual steady, assuring self.

In a sense, this movie has much in common with another famous Costner film about a representative of white mainstream society getting lost in a foreign culture and discovering he belongs there -- “Dances With Corredors,” perhaps?

“McFarland, USA” won’t win any points for originality. But it’s got comfortable, naturalistic performances and a few stirring moments to tickle your tear ducts.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review: "The DUFF"

High school movies are practically carbon copies of each other these days, but "The DUFF" is smarter, braver and more novel than the average bear. It follows a few of the conventions of the genre, but also ignores some, bends others or stands them on their head.

Yes, it's got the usual array of actors who are closer to 30 than 17, but that's about par for the course.

Mae Whitman is terrific as main character Bianca Piper, a smart, nervy girl who generally ignores the sort of ridiculous pressures teenage girls are subjected to: weight, clothes, popularity, boyfriends, etc. She writes for the school paper, favors denim coveralls, is kind and a bit kooky, loves horror flicks, and 25 years ago she would've been played by Winona Ryder.

Her two BFFs are Casey (Bianca Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels), who are super-cute and super popular. They are all warm and close with each other, but Bianca does notice that other people tend to either ignore her or talk to her about her friends rather than engaging with her. Meanwhile, she pines from afar for the blond, sensitive, guitar-strumming Toby (Nick Eversman).

The trio's foil is Madison (Bella Thorne), the bitchy "mean girl" who rules the popularity roost through intimidation and cyber-bullying. Her sometime boyfriend, Wesley (Robbie Amell), is captain of the football team -- and also Bianca's next-door neighbor and one-time childhood friend.

Things are going great until Wes casually observes to Bianca that she is her social clique's "DUFF" -- aka, Designated Ugly Fat Friend. Bianca is hardly ugly or fat, of course -- in the grand tradition of high school movies, she's a shlumpy swan just waiting for her transformation.

But Wes notes, in a joking but still somewhat mean way, that Bianca is the non-threatening, less attractive girl the others keep around to make themselves look good, and act as a social screen. He even points out that, among the football players, they use freshmen as their own DUFFs.

Needless to say, once the veil is lifted from her eyes Bianca's not too happy about her social status. She dumps Casey and Jess as friends, and begins a Eliza Doolittle-like transformation into a cool, self-reliant chick.

As her tutor she picks Wes because, despite his immature jocularity, he tells the truth and seems to instinctively grasp male-female electricity. They go shopping for clothes -- he advises her to dress "less like Wreck-It Ralph" --  talk about how to move in for the first kiss, share some jokes, and find out the other isn't as terrible as they thought.

If the Bianca-Wes pairing might seem out of left field, Whitman and Amell sell it well. He's solid as the guy who's spent so long playing the inconsiderate doofus that he can't immediately turn it off when genuine emotions intrude. And she is compelling as the girl who's convinced herself she's above all this petty stuff, until it starts to swallow her.

Director Ari Sandel won an Oscar for his short film a few years ago, and now makes his confident feature debut. Josh A. Cagan adapted the screenplay from the book by Kody Keplinger. The pacing and tone, two of the hardest things for young filmmakers to get right, are spot on.

The filmmakers keep things on a brisk, youthful level, with screen text and animation reflecting the way modern kids' lives are filtered through digital aids and social media. (When Toby flips his hair in slo-mo, Bianca mentally projects "Amazeballs" all over the image.)

Ken Jeong livens things up as Bianca's dippy-yet-demanding journalism teacher, and Allison Janney plays her distracted mom. I also enjoyed Chris Wylde as a snippy science teacher. ("When I was in high school in the '90s, we didn't have emoticons.")

"The DUFF" ends up more or less exactly where you expect it to, but the main characters actually seem to grow and gain a little insight about themselves and the world, rather than just competing to fall in love.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Angels One Five" (1952)

"Angels One Five" is one of those war movies in which it's fairly difficult to capture an actual glimpse of war.

Except for a few aerial combat scenes toward the end -- poorly staged with static planes superimposed against a background, models and repetitious shots of an aircraft turning into the camera -- you'd barely know the pivotal Battle of Britain was occurring before our very eyes.

Mostly, "Angels One Five" concerns itself with the grounded portion of the lives of British air pilots at one airfield along the English Channel, particularly the daring squadron that dubs itself the Pimpernels. They drink enthusiastically -- often right before taking to the air -- carouse with whatever few women are on hand, and engage in a whole lot of high-spirited banter in between missions.

When one of their number perishes, which is fairly often, his passing is barely commented upon, beyond him being a good lad who put on a good show before spiraling in.

Indeed, when we first meet the squadron they are literally wrestling like boys at the officers' club, piling onto each other in their shirtsleeves and socks like preadolescents at day camp. This includes their boss, Group Commander Captain Small (Jack Hawkins), known universally by his call sign of "Tiger." Except, of course, he doesn't fly anymore,

There's some vague intimation of him being grounded by injury, and the Tiger appears to leap at any opportunity to prove his manhood, such as challenging pilots 20 years his junior to a footrace, or literally shoving aside a machine gunner when the field is under attack so he can "poop off" (his words) at some jerries,

Hawkins, of course, was a very big deal in English cinema roundabouts 1952, and one of the movie's biggest problems is it can't decide who it wants the protagonist to be. The Tiger would seem to suit the bill, but he disappears for large stretches of the movie, and of course he never gets airborne. (Not that the actual pilots seriously outdistance him in this regard.)

I think the real main character is supposed to be T.B. Baird, soon callsigned "Septic," the new squadron pilot whose upper lip is stiffer than most, even by British war film standards. Played by John Gregson, he's a medical student who gave up his studies to fight in the war, and seems to have studied the operations manual backward and forward without ever gaining a real grasp of what it's like to be in combat.

His arrival is inauspicious. He's flying in one of three badly needed replacement Hurricanes. But a veteran pilot returning from a combat mission with an inoperable radio lands cross-wind of him, forcing Baird to pull up to avoid a collision and consequently crash-land on the doorstep of Barry Clinton (Cyril Raymond), the good-natured chief of the operations center. This is the underground HQ that dispatches orders to all the flights and charts their path on the inevitable gargantuan map we always see in this type of war picture.

For mysterious reasons, Baird is blamed for damaging the airplane (and himself, slightly) and ordered to take a seat in the operations bunker with Clinton. During that time he gets to know his superior officer and his wife, Mrs. Clinton (Dulcie Gray), who is stout and resolute and will invariably be referred to as "a remarkable woman."

The remarkable woman also sets Baird up with another one of her kind, Betty Carfax (Veronica Hurst), who drives an ambulance for the war effort. In two scenes they manage to fall in love, about par for the course in this kind of movie, and you just know somebody is doomed.

For all the considerable mayhem, the characters remain annoyingly chipper. I realize this is the image the Brits like to present of themselves, particularly in times of turmoil. But even by that standard the people seem so oblivious to the horrors of what's transpiring that they begin to seem dumb, or at least smashingly callous.

The Blitz was not exactly tea and biscuits, you know.

Peter Moon (Michael Denison) competes for screen time as Clinton's predecessor as head of operations, who later gets promoted to commander of the Pimpernels after the old one buys it. There are actually a great deal of similarities between him and Baird -- both earnest, tightly-wound men who suffer during their time on the ground, eager to get into the skies and prove their stuff. I'm surprised director George More O'Ferrall and screenwriter Derek N. Twist didn't combine the characters.

The enemy remain faceless and vague, just a few references during strategy meetings to let us know how badly the Brits are outnumbered by the Germans (five planes to one) plus the fleeting glimpses of bombers and a (very) few fighters during the brief, unconvincing combat sequences.

I've never been in war, but I've watched a lot of war movies and thus I know the first thing you have to do for them to be effective is establish the foe, or at least the circumstances lined against the heroes, as distinct and formidable. With all these smiling Englanders having a grand time talking about combat but rarely engaging in it, "Angels One Five" fails its first lesson and (nearly literally) never takes flight.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Video review: "Life Itself"

The death of Roger Ebert more or less coincided with the death of film criticism as a viable vocation, and perhaps that’s part of the reason so many of the stubborn stragglers – me included – have dubbed “Life Itself” the best documentary of 2014. He was our irascible champion, wielding unprecedented power and influence, who helped bring an unabashed love of movies into America’s living rooms.

The film, directed by Steve James based on Ebert’s own book of the same title, is much like the man’s writing style: clear-eyed, unpretentious and incisive. It ably covers the rote autobiographical aspects of this Chicago son, his meteoric rise to prominence as the movie reviewer for the Sun-Times, and his ascension to iconic status as the co-host of the various iterations of the TV show he shared with his  partner/combatant, Gene Siskel.

But it also lays bare his complicated soul in unexpected ways. Ebert’s words are read by actor Stephen Stanton in an uncanny mimicry of the critic’s own voice. He talks about his struggles with alcoholism, egotism and professional jealousy.

“Life Itself” was made with the full cooperation of Ebert and his wife, Chaz, and James’ cameras follow the pair around during the final months of his life as Roger struggled with tremendous health issues, including his total loss of speech. The hospital scenes are emotionally tough to watch, as Ebert tries to carry on with his work and life despite crippling illness.

This film spotlights Ebert’s grace, but also his prodigious flaws, in a way that’s even-handed and illuminating. Few cinematic portraits of a famous person are so honest and indelible.

I think Roger would’ve loved this movie, but beyond that, I think you will, too.

Bonus features are merely OK. There are a handful of deleted scenes, an interview with director James, a tribute at the Sundance Film Festival and a television profile of the movie.



Thursday, February 12, 2015

Review: "Fifty Shades of Grey"

Honestly, it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Which isn't to say it was any good, just not laugh-out-loud ridiculously dreadful.

Every few years Hollywood likes to get naughty. They'll make a big-profile movie with an overtly sexual angle and then milk it for all it's worth. "See? We're not afraid to push the envelope!"

Of course, most of these flicks end up being pretty tame. The best test is to wait a few years and see how it registers. Most likely people who bypassed the hullabaloo at the time will discover it's shown up on Netflix or what have you, watch it and think to themselves, "This is what all the fuss was about?"

Heck, remember when people got all boiled over about "Striptease"?

"Fifty Shades of Grey," based on the uber-popular book, is about a romance between an innocent young college girl and a billionaire with a taste for BDSM play. That stands for bondage, dominance and sadism-masochism -- I had to look it up -- which most people would just shorthand as bondage or S&M.

The book by E.L. James started out as fan fiction and is unread by me, but those who have tell me the writing is atrocious, including misspellings and bad grammar you rarely see in the mass publishing industry. Nonetheless, it's struck a chord with an overwhelmingly female audience, with it and its two sequels selling something like 100 million copies worldwide.

The story and dialogue are pretty goofy. It's the classic boy-meets-girl, boy-woos-girl, boy-wants-to-whip-girl-but-she's-not-so-sure-about-it kind of tale. They spend much of the movie discussing an actual contract to govern their sexual relationship, but somehow never get around to signing the thing and just go for it anyway.

(Attorneys will thus consider it a horror film.)

Everyone will want to know about the sex scenes, so let's go ahead and discuss that.

There are three -- well, four, with the last coming right on the heels of the third, so they kinda blend -- and there's a fair amount of flesh to be seen. We see a lot of her boobs and butt, and a whole bunch of sidal nudity where we imagine we might have gotten an oblique glimpse of the great-and-holy, but not really. He's also naked a lot, though not nearly as often, and somehow we don't really see very much of him -- certainly not a pickle shot, even a fabled and fleeting glimpse like Ben Affleck's peen in "Gone Girl."

Not surprisingly, the actors displaying all their wares are ones you've probably never heard of. Dakota Johnson plays Anastasia Steele and Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey, and if those aren't the two most fake-sounding character names ever committed to paper, then I don't know what is.

You see, big stars don't like to show their bodies too much. Maybe they think it'll limit their careers, or they don't want to worry about it getting screencapped all over the web, or they just want to maintain a little bit of mystery around their persona.

You'll notice that even the rare ones that do prodigious nude scenes, like Ewan McGregor and Kate Winslet, tend to get kidded about it and then suddenly the kits stop coming off. Angelina Jolie used to drop trou all the time, and now we've had barely a hiney shot from her in the last decade. Maria Bello was Old Faithful for full frontal, and now she's making inspiring Disney flicks.

A young actor might do a daring nude scene to get noticed and launch their career, which is what I'm guessing Johnson and Dornan -- or at least their handlers -- are hoping for. Then they might have a cheeky scene (literally) or two as they're segueing into mainstream movies. But once they become a big box office draw or get nominated for an Oscar, the no-nudity clauses come out of the woodwork.

Maybe, if their star dims with time, they might do a nude scene for the sheer shock of it, but by then audiences are more interested in somebody else's niblets. This is known as the Meg Ryan effect. Finally, when they get old there's a possibility of a flash for sheer comic effect, like when Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas mooned us or Jack Nicholson walked in on Diane Keaton

Anyway, I guess I should talk about "Fifty Shades of Grey" some more, but I don't really feel like it. It's mildly sexy, at least the first time Christian blindfolds Anastasia with one of his ties and reaches for a leather riding crop. But mostly it's a bunch of talking about sex rather than doing it, false emotions and shitty dialogue.

I have no doubt this will big a big hit, because if even 20% of the people who read the book go see the movie, that's a lot of tickets. And clearly director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel are setting us up for a sequel. Maybe we deserve it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Review: "Kingsman: The Secret Service"

Matthew Vaughn, the talented young filmmaker behind "Kick-Ass" and "X-Men: First Class," dropped out of directing last summer's "X-Men: Days of Future Past" to make this movie. In other words, he passed on a sure thing to make a film adaptation of a comic book hardly anyone has heard of about British super-spies, which is being released in the cinematic wasteland known as February.

Some might call that move questionable -- including Vaughn's agents, no doubt.

Then he went and did something even more dubious: he changed the name of the movie, based on the graphic novel "The Secret Service" by Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar, to add the "Kingsman" moniker, and switched the story around so the spies all wear similar natty suits. He even commissioned a line of "Kingsman" clothing from a high-end clothier, so you can affect the same stylish look you saw star Colin Firth wearing.

(Want the wristwatch? It's only $24,430!)

Which essentially renders the entire movie an exercise in brash product placement. I'd be tempted to be disgusted, if the film weren't so dashingly, gleefully superb.

"Kingsman: The Secret Service" is a heaping squirt of hot sauce in the cinema calendar's equivalent of the salad course. It's a daffy, dizzy send-up of the James Bond genre that nonetheless checks off the list of everything we love about super-spy flicks.

It's got a suave, charismatic leading man (Firth), outstandingly staged action scenes, crazy gadgets, a mad global plot, and a terrifically strange villain who maintains a running commentary on the stupidity of movie villains. (Without, apparently, realizing that he is one.)

The set-up is that young Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton), a Cockney street tough, is recruited by the Kingsmen via Harry Hart (Firth), aka Galahad, who once had his life saved by Eggsy's dad. Harry has a cool intro scene where he takes out an entire pub full of thugs who want the lad's head using only his umbrella -- which, to be fair, has all sorts of super-power functions like stopping bullets when opened.

(If you think that's neat, wait'll you see what the watch can do.)

Soon Eggsy is going through super-spy school, competing with a bunch of high-class wankers to see who can claim the only open slot in the Kingsmen ranks. Or Kingswomen -- there are a couple of highly competent female recruits, too, including the resourceful Roxy (Sophie Cookson), who takes a shine to Eggsy's rough edges. Merlin (Mark Strong) is the veteran taskmaster and outfitter, while Arthur (Michael Caine) is the wise old leader.

Harry takes on Eggsy's tutelage personally, teaching him how to dress and behave and, above all, remain discreet. The Kingsmen are a privately funded intelligence agency, and take pride in having their exploits remaining unknown. "A gentleman's name should appear in the paper three times: when he's born, when he marries and when he dies," he instructs.

The heavy is Richmond Valentine, a ridiculously powerful tech billionaire who gives away his merchandise and Internet service for free, because he has a dastardly plot to... well, I won't spoil. Suffice to say his plan has a certain liberal Machiavellian purity, enough to convince most of the planet's prime movers and shakers to sign on.

Valentine is played by Samuel L. Jackson in a performance that is deliciously over the top... or under the top, or somewhere completely sideways of the top. He sprays his sibilants in a mighty lisp, dresses in slanted hats and neon pastels like a ghetto bopper who hit the lottery, and grows girlishly nauseous at even the hint of violence, despite setting quite a tidal wave of it in motion.

His henchwoman is, if possible, even more exotic. Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) has two prosthetic legs, the kind used in running known as blades, except hers are also outfitted with actual blades, which she uses to slice and dice her foes while spinning through the air with athletic aplomb. She makes Oddjob with his killer top hat seem positively pedestrian.

Co-written by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, "Kingsman: The Secret Service" maintains a careful tone. It's incredibly funny, yet the gruesome fight scenes have weight and kinetic punch. Jackson's scoundrel is simultaneously laughable and chilling. This is a pastiche, mockery and homage to spy movies all wrapped in one well-tailored package.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Video review: "Laggies"

“Laggies” came and went quickly at theaters -- too quickly. This dramedy doesn’t quite flesh out the promise of an intriguing premise, but the trio of lead actors is tremendously appealing. This is the sort of movie where you just like spending time with these characters.

Keira Knightley plays Megan, drifting through life in her late 20s with a degree in family counseling but who can’t summon the energy to do more than be a sign carrier for her dad’s CPA business. Realizing that she’s become the “sad one” of her social circle and after a surprise marriage proposal she wasn’t prepared for, Megan skips out on everything and ends up hiding out at the home of Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz), a precocious 16-year-old she happens to meet.

Annika’s dad, Craig (Sam Rockwell), is a cynical divorce attorney still bitter about the breakup of his own marriage. He can’t figure out why a grown woman is hanging around with her kid, but goes with the flow after determining she’s not dangerous. Soon, though, both recognize a pull between them.

Director Lynn Shelton and rookie screenwriter Andrea Seigel make the common mistake of introducing an intriguing group of characters and setting, and then not really knowing what to do with them.

The primary relationship would seem to be between the two young women, but then the Megan/Craig romance starts to heat up and Annika sort of disappears into the background. Rockwell’s role is rather underwritten, but he still makes it vibrant and memorable because, well, he’s just that good.

I enjoyed “Laggies” even while recognizing that, like its main character, its lack of a coherent destination prevents it from being entirely successful.

Video features are decent, and are the same for DVD and Blu-ray editions.

Shelton provides a feature-length commentary track. There are also about 10 minutes worth of deleted/expanded scenes, and two featurettes, “Lagging On with Lynn Shelton” and “Shooting Seattle: The Look of Laggies.”



Thursday, February 5, 2015

Review: "Jupiter Ascending"

"It's the sort of awful where you don't even really want to complain or criticize. You just feel bad for everyone involved."

That quote is from me, answering an email from a colleague who missed the screening of "Jupiter Ascending" due to circumstance. Normally I don't presume my e-scribblings to be worthy of sharing. But I realized as soon as I dashed it off that it's a perfect 22-word version of everything else you're about to read.

The Wachowski siblings made "The Matrix," which will stand the test of time as one of the great science fiction films. Their work has gotten more head-scratching as time has gone on, through two increasingly worse "Matrix" sequels, a daffy Day-glo romp in "Speed Racer," and the confusing-yet-still-grand "Cloud Atlas."

You can always count on the Wachowskis for sumptuous visuals, dazzling CG action and mind-trippy plots. "Jupiter Ascending" has all that, minus anything resembling a soul or artistry. If "Cloud Atlas" was nearly incoherent, this one gets us all the way there.

Watching it feels like being stuck in a bad video game we can't turn off.

The action scenes are so frenetic and fast-paced, you can barely even follow what's happening. And when things do slow down, you've got Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum to stumble, glassy-eyed, through some ridiculous dialogue. Over the years I've riffed on them separately as lifeless performers, but finally we have a movie where they can combine their wondertwin powers in terrible acting.

She is Jupiter Jones, daughter of a murdered Russian astronomer spending her days as a maid in Chicago, cleaning toilets along with her mother and aunt, and hating life. Then one day Tatum shows up as Caine Wise -- I know, I know, these sound like porn actor names -- to protect her.

Tatum's get-up in this flick is just seriously weird. He's got brown hair but a blond goatee that looks like a Brillo pad spray-painted and stuck to his chin, plus heavily mascaraed eyes and pointy elf ears. Caine claims to be a genetically spliced half-wolf ex-military legionnaire "skyjacker" who used to have wings but they got cut off when he was court martialed for biting someone, and now works as a bounty hunter.

Y'know, just a boy from the block.

It seems the universe is actually controlled by competing siblings of the noble Abrasax clan, who like to let inhabited planets fill up with people and then harvest them to be turned into this blue goo that they use to stay immortal.

What's more, Jupiter is not just a lowly maid but the genetic "reoccurrence" of the Abrasax matron, which means she's actually royalty who owns the Earth, or something. The Abrasax overlords compete to see who can control Jupiter's fate, and she ends up getting kidnapped so many times we lose track of who's on first.

The worst of the lot is Balem, played by Eddie Redmayne using a strange low whisper/moan like he's trying to channel Greta Garbo on Valium. He sees Jupiter and her kin as mere playthings for the amusement and profit-making of their bettors.

"Life is an act of consumption. The humans on your planet are but a resource waiting to be turned into capital," Balem says, just in case the we-are-the-99-percent motif wasn't obvious enough for you.

Each of the three Abrasax factions has their own set of spaceships and henchmen, so we're treated to a constant parade of bizarre figures who appear and disappear quickly, including androids, lizardmen and a little elephant guy. A lot of the imagery is imaginative, but we're barely given enough time for it to register before more eye candy is thrown at us.

At one point, Gugu Mbatha-Raw turns up as a flunky with ears so ridiculously big and fake, they actually make Caine's seem cool.

The only time I smiled was when Jupiter and Caine wade into an intergalactic bureaucracy to establish her birthright, and it's a dense Dickensian steampunk fantasy of hobbit-like figures and gadgetry, and I thought we'd suddenly wandered into a Terry Gilliam movie. And we did, or at least a brief homage, complete with Gilliam himself.

But then it becomes "Jupiter Ascending" again, and how depressing is that?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Review: "Still Alice"

“Still Alice” has been the phantom of the awards season, much talked about but rarely seen. (At least outside of L.A. and New York.)

Sony, which had a few problems awhile back you may have heard about, declined to screen the film for many regional critic groups, including here in Indiana. And yet star Julianne Moore has been running the table during the awards cycle, racking up a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild, among other prizes, and is now seen as a mortal lock to take home the Oscar.

So I went into a press screening in a state that could best be described as a combination of high anticipation and annoyance. I came out knowing I had just seen the finest performance of the year --actor or actress, lead or supporting -- as well as one of the best movies of 2014.

Moore plays Alice Howland, a fantastically successful woman who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. A linguistics professor at Columbia University who has always defined herself by her titanic intellect, Alice is forced to deal with rapidly losing her ability to remember words, her lifetime of research, and eventually simple things like the location of the bathroom or the name of her eldest child.

It’s the performance of a career, as Moore is utterly convincing as Alice rages, despairs, fights and eventually comes to accept her fate -- “Mastering,” as she puts it, “the art of losing.”

“I wish I had a cancer,” she says at one point, and she means it. “I wouldn’t feel so ashamed.”

Writer/director team Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland previously made the little-seen (but quite good) “The Last of Robin Hood” a couple of years ago. In adapting the novel by Lisa Genova, they eschew an emphasis on plot and secondary characters, dumping any distractions to focus on their star’s incredible screen presence.

If you think “Still Alice” falls into the sappy “disease of the week” type of filmmaking, then I’m here to tell you there is not a single moment that is maudlin or contrived. We never catch Moore playing to the cameras or exaggerating a moment. If anything, she keeps things close to her vest, as a woman with a strong internal dialogue would.

For instance, her diagnosis is not a complete shock to her. Alice is smart enough to know that she’s been slipping, e.g., having to pause during a lecture to recall the term “wordstock.” Not exactly surprising, given its obscurity. But then she gets lost while jogging on the university campus, or introduces herself to her son’s new girlfriend moments after previously doing so.

Alec Baldwin plays her husband, John, and Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish play their children. All give trim and tidy performances, in the sorts of roles that are written to showcase the leading actress. The kids don’t have too much identity on their own, other than Stewart is an aspiring actress who feels unsupported, and Bosworth is her mother’s spitting image in terms of drive and ambition.

Baldwin is quite adept as the husband, a man who must balance his genuine devotion to his wife with his own considerable professional aspirations. It’s a smart and observant take on the loved ones of those who are dying, who must give them all the care and support they need, while also making their own plans for what comes after. How crushing, how true.

I also quite admired Stephen Kunken as Alice’s doctor, who strikes a good balance between being a clinician, emotional bulwark and booster.

Having been so frustrated at being denied the chance to see “Still Alice,” I’m now over the moon that I finally have. What craftsmanship, dedication and poise in this indelible portrait.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Good Will Hunting" (1997)

One of my best indications of how well a film truly impacted me is how much of it stays with me after many years. I only saw "Good Will Hunting" a single time when it came out 17 years ago. But my recall of its characters, specific passages of dialogue and visual cues has remained startlingly clear.

Perhaps that's because it became a pop culture touchstone, launching the careers of Matt Damon and Paul Affleck, solidifying those of Robin Williams and Gus Van Sant -- and inspiring a thousand conspiracy theories about the true authorship of its Oscar-winning script.

My favorite of these is a "Family Guy" riff in which a young Damon sits at a typewriting musing on the result of many months of hard work, and a lounging, pot-smoking Affleck cheekily insists he be given a writing credit, too. More insidious was the one that screenwriting legend William Goldman had heavily doctored the script, or even made it up out of whole cloth. (Goldman, along with everyone involved, has denied this, and I believe them.)

Watching it for the second time so many years later, I'm struck what a truly great rookie screenplay it is -- still a bit rough around the edges, and one of the few movies you can say could stand to be a little longer. But as a piece of cinematic intelligence, it proved the wunderkinds -- both still in their mid-20s when the film was made -- knew a lot about storytelling.

Perhaps my favorite part of the script is when one of the characters points out the central conceit of Will Hunting's story. Namely that, as a blue-collar math genius working as a janitor at MIT, anonymously solving complex theorems on chalkboards in the dead of night, Will was trying to be discovered by the eggheads and offered a route out of his life of poverty and abuse. Even though he spends the entire movie hurling insults at anyone who tries to get close to him, and pledges eternal allegiance with his two-fisted Southie (South Boston) roots.

The guy who has this insight is, of course, Robin Williams, playing Sean Maguire, a little-heralded psychologist who takes on the court-ordered therapy of Will after five higher-profile head shrinkers demure in the wake of the patient's invective. The heart of the movie is the gentle aura of trust and love that slowly grows between these two characters -- even more so than that between Will and Skylar (Minnie Driver), a British pre-med student about to graduate Harvard.

Sean is a fellow Southie, who was college roommates with Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård), the brilliant and renowned MIT math professor -- did he mention his Fields Medal? -- who "discovers" Will's genius. The former roomies share a natural affinity but also resent each other, as Gerry feels Sean allowed himself to be tied down by domestic concerns and a lack of ambition, resulting in his present (as he sees it) career mediocrity, teaching at tiny Bunker Hill Community College. Sean, naturally, is inclined to tell him to go eff himself.

The good doctor wears drab sweater-jackets, an indifferent and unflattering hairstyle, and seems barely connected to the life he's living. As we see in a brief classroom scene, he isn't even a passionate (or very good) teacher. We soon learn his beloved wife died two years earlier, and he's been afraid to "put some skin in the game" since then. He actually stopped treating patients years ago during his wife's long decline from cancer, but agrees to see Will as a favor to Gerry.

Their first session is less than auspicious. Will does a better job of psychoanalyzing Sean than vice-versa, perusing his shabby office furnishings, especially a glum painting Sean made, and predicting that he's one step away from cutting off his ear, Van Gogh-like. Sean doesn't necessarily disagree with the diagnosis, but takes affront when the lad edges up to insulting his wife, and clamps his hand around Will's throat, threatening memorably to "end" him. Talk about a doctor/patient conflict of interest.

It's an incredibly vulnerable performance by Williams, who deservedly won an Oscar for the role. I think almost any other actor, even every good ones, would have been tempted to try to render the character tougher, stronger, more proactive. Among its many other attributes, "Good Will Hunting" stands now as a monument to what a beautiful, beautiful man Robin Williams was.

As Chuckie, Will's unwavering best friend, Affleck did not get nominated for a supporting actor Oscar -- doubtless the studio didn't want him competing against Williams -- but he should have. It's one of those tough-guy roles in which the character's soft heart and grace only slightly leak out between the cracks of his hard-bitten veneer. He gets to deliver a great speech about waking up one day and being 50, and if he still sees Will busting his hump at construction or janitorial work, he'll murder him despite his fierce love.

Casey Affleck and Cole Hauser also have small but distinct roles as other members of Will and Chuckie's crew. Casey's character, Morgan, is the cutup who seemingly can't hold onto a job for more than two hours, or resist masturbating for the same span of time. Possibly these are connected.

I love how they always ride in the exact same spots in Chuckie's car, a rusting land yacht of indeterminate 1970s Detroit vintage. Their last moment in the film is great: going to pick up Will, Chuckie returns with a smile after Will has finally taken his advice to vamoose out of town. Without a word, Morgan gleefully cruises around from his back seat to claim Will's place in the shotgun position. The low man on this totem pole of declarative masculinity, Morgan is thrilled at a chance to move up, and Chuckie, magnanimous, accedes to the new configuration. Life will go on.

Like other films that deal with math geniuses, especially mathematics ones -- "A Beautiful Mind," "The Theory of Everything" -- "Good Will Hunting" wisely stays away from the specifics of the discipline. The equations on the boards are surely gibberish to almost everyone watching the film, so Van Sant focuses on the power these hieroglyphics have over the characters, rather than the nomenclature and what they really mean. Would the movie be helped by having a character droning an explanation of the basics of chaos math or high order differential equations? I think not.

Films tend to like to introduce characters who are proclaimed as geniuses, and then proceed to have them do very dumb things. "Good Will Hunting" never makes that mistake, careful to depict how Will is always intellectually a few steps ahead of everyone else, while vividly showing us how emotionally stunted he is. He's repeatedly referred to as "the boy," something helped by Damon's foppy, quintessentially 1990s haircut.

A few amateurish moments aside -- Bill Plimpton as a very Plimpton-esque therapist Will ferrets out as  unknowingly gay after two minutes; Chuckie posing as Will at a job interview so he can scam the suits out of $73 in cash as a "retainer" -- "Good Will Hunting" shines as one of the strongest original stories of the 1990s. Good on ya, boys.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Video review: "The Homesman"

If I were to measure "The Homesman" only by its two lead performances, I'd call it a home run deserving of multiple Academy Award nominations. Unfortunately, its story wanders this way and that, an open range Western that sometimes gallops, and sometimes stumbles.

Set in about 1850, the tale is of three pioneer wives who have gone mad on the lonely stretches of Nebraska. They need to be transported back to Iowa to be cared for by their families, but none of their husbands have the will or gumption to make the journey. So Mary Bee Cuddy volunteers to be their guardian and chaperone.

Mary Bee is played by Hilary Swank, in another signature performance of her career, and is a woman of immeasurable virtues. She runs her own farm and is, as one fellow says, "as good a man as any man in these parts." However, her soul is weighed down by her inability to find a husband, owing to her plain looks and bossiness.

Early in her journey she runs across George Briggs, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay. Briggs has been strung up for claim jumping, but Mary Bee cuts him down in exchange for his help getting the women back to Iowa.

Along the way they encounter the familiar array of threats from American Indians, rapacious bandits, con men and natural elements. Somehow, these two fiercely independent souls must find a way to trust one another.

Even though the script could've used a few more runs around the corral, "The Homesman" is worth a look if only to see these two master thespians plying their trade.

Bonus features are rather disappointing. The Blu-ray and DVD editions both carry the same three featurettes: "Story to Script," "Shooting the Film" and "19th Century Life."