Monday, March 30, 2015
Let me start by stipulating that John Travolta and Debra Winger, both terrifically talented performers, are crashingly unconvincing as a cowboy and cowgirl. They don't for a second look, talk or behave like people who grew up ridin' and ropin' on the dusty Texas plains.
Travolta's accent, in particular, is a horrid sham of generic Southern clipped consonants and bent vowels that falls just this side of Kevin Costner's Robin Hood in sheer awfulness. And Winger... well, let's just say that she looks more like she sprung from a kibbutz than a frontier claim.
But perhaps that's appropriate.
The film was directed by James Bridges from a script co-written by him and Aaron Latham, based on Latham's magazine story, "The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America's Search for True Grit." It was an exploration of the cowboy myth as it's been transposed to a modern big-city setting, with the accompanying music, clothes and other touchstones reimagined for a new generation that grew up thinking broncos were boxy trucks, not frisky ponies.
It was an era of faux cowboys trying to recreate the image of their forefathers, just as disco'd-up "country" bands were exploding on the airwaves with synthesized beats that would've made Hank Williams Sr. faint in his boots.
In a follow-up story written 20 years later, Latham opined that "the cowboy is the only truly mythic figure that America had created so far. He comes to the fore in the culture, then he recedes for a time, but he always seems to reemerge when we're uncertain about the future."
The late 1970s and early '80s certainly qualifies for that description. After seeing America diminished by Vietnam, Watergate and polyester suits, there was an undercurrent of fear, of feeling unmoored from the nation's pioneer legacy. Men were trading in their Stetsons for hardhats to work on the ocean of oil wells scattering the state.
So Travolta's Bud is a representational figure standing amidst the crossflow of cultural sea changes. A legitimate cowboy who turns into a fake one, he leaves his tiny hometown of Spur for Houston hoping he can catch a job at the refinery where his Uncle Bob works.
Bob is a mentor and role model to Bud, a fellow cowpuncher who made it "big time" in the city with his own family and spread. Never mind that Bod's homestead is part of a crammed subdivision of cheap prefab houses with a grand backyard view of high-power electrical lines.
Bob is played by Barry Corbin, one of those actors with such a consummate authenticity and workaday solidity that he often plays figures of pastoral authority. (And, like Alec Guinness and Ossie Davis, he was always much younger than audiences imagined him to be -- he was still in his 30s when this movie came out.) He's terrific in a rather underwritten role.
The story revolves around the love-hate romance of Bud and Sissy (Winger), a local gal who lives to mix it up. She and Bud impetuously wed after barely starting to date, and a week later they've already separated. The main cause of friction, at least initially, is that she's better at riding a mechanical bull than he is, at least initially.
The robot bull is the hottest new attraction at Gilley's Club, a real-life honky-tonk where a large chunk of the movie takes place. Run by country star Mickey Gilley, who appears and sings in the movie, Gilley's is practically a supporting character, a modern-day bastardization of the Old West saloon, now splayed out across "3½ acres of prairie concrete" and complete with a dance floor, carnival games and more silliness.
One wonders if they even have whiskey behind the bar.
Other pop/country acts of the day also show up to perform, including the Charlie Daniels Band, Bonnie Raitt and Johnny Lee, whose "Lookin' for Love" became a #1 Billboard hit and helped propel the movie's soundtrack into a top seller. Many in the country music biz even mark "Urban Cowboy" as the demarcation between old-school country and new, when it became more popular but more commercialized.
"Urban Cowboy" is in essence a musical, with long stretches of the action taking place sans dialogue as music blares, rendering the entire endeavor into something of a nascent music video. (It was later turned into an unsuccessful stage musical.)
Don't forget, in 1980 Travolta's two big screen hits were "Grease" and "Saturday Night Fever," so the studios no doubt saw "Urban Cowboy" as a way to extend his run as a song-and-dance star. Of course, Bud doesn't sing in the movie, though there is one scene of him doing some impressive clogging (or "kicker dancing," as they would call it in Texas).
The heavy is Wes Hightower, played by my all-time favorite "That Guy" actor, Scott Glenn. Recently released from prison where he was a champion bullrider in the big inmate rodeo, Wes sidles into the scene at Gilley's like a shark swimming into a school of guppies. Amidst the posers and wannabes, he's a real-deal cowboy, a throwback hardcase who's always looking for a good ride and a big payday -- even if a little blood has to be spilled in the process.
First seen wearing a ridiculous see-through mesh shirt that shows off Glenn's signature chiseled torso, Wes easily sets Bud to shame with his prowess on the mechanical bull, then starts making smiling eyes at Sissy. They scuffle, Bud has his drunken rear end handed to him, and before you know it Sissy is shacked up with Wes in a trailer out back of Gilley's, and Bud has decamped to the arms of Pam (Madolyn Smith), a rich city girl who likes to slum it with cowboys.
The story wobbles this way and that, with a whole lot of behavior and music for music's sake. At 132 minutes the movie is at least a half-hour too long. And certain events have an obligatory feel, such as a sudden tragedy and the build-up to the big bullriding competition worth a $5,000 purse (about $15k in today's dollars).
Still, the film has its memorable moments, such as Winger's sexy slo-mo bull ride, her limbs splayed across the mechanical animal like a white trash Diana prancing with the satyrs. With her liquid, soulful eyes and cantankerous stubbornness, she's the best thing about the movie.
I can't finish this essay without discussing the violence against women depicted. Sissy gets smacked around pretty hard by both Bud and Wes, though the former at least apologizes for it after the fact. Disturbingly, in both cases it's presented as something women just have to put up with if they take up with a guy in a 10-gallon hat.
"Urban Cowboy" isn't a standout piece of filmmaking, but it did launch a bunch of careers, and helped change the tide of country music, whether for good or ill. It's one of those movies that stands as a totem representing a time and place; there are worst inscriptions on cinematic tombstones.
Sunday, March 29, 2015
Some people were fascinated by “Interstellar,” Christopher Nolan’s ruminative space adventure, while others were simply bewildered. Count me as both.
The film, which Nolan directed and co-wrote, is at once very science-heavy and dreamy. It uses the mechanics of space exploration to tell a humanist tale about parents and children, reaching for the stars versus keeping your head on the ground, and other big-think topics.
Matthew McConaughey plays an engineer/pilot who’s been grounded by an ecosystem disaster that’s destroying all of mankind’s crops. The human race will eventually starve. He’s offered a chance to lead a last-ditch mission to find a way to save the species by traveling through a wormhole to distant galaxies.
It seems other astronauts were dispatched on similar trips years ago and never returned. So it’s a high-risk/high-reward situation.
Anne Hathaway is the doubting Thomas co-pilot, while Jessica Chastain plays McConaughey’s daughter. If the age difference between Chastain and McConaughey doesn’t sound plausible, that’s because in different parts of space time can flow much faster – meaning years pass by while they’re dawdling on a lonely planet.
The visual majesty of how Nolan and his crew depict inter-dimensional travel is just mind-blowing. I wish I could say the same about the soundscape, which in a typically Nolan-like way with a thrumming musical score by Hans Zimmer, makes it very hard to make out dialogue at times. You may remember having similar difficulty understanding Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises.”
(Of course, now you can just turn on subtitles during those hard-to-decipher scenes to see what McConaughey was really saying. I’m taking bets on whether it was actually anything substantive, or if he was just muttering something about Earth chicks getting older while he stays the same.)
In the end it’s just well-crafted sound and fury signifying not much, but “Interstellar” is certainly never boring.
The film is being released with a host of goodies, though you’ll have to pay for the Blu-ray edition to get any of them: the DVD comes with exactly nothing.
Extras include interviews with the cast and crew reflecting on the filmmaking experience, and a ton of making-of featurettes touching on virtually every aspect of production. This includes the real science behind space travel, shooting in Iceland to replicate a desolate planet, concept art and much more.
Thursday, March 26, 2015
"Get Hard" wins zero points for originality, or subtlety. It's basically a rip-off of "Trading Places," with Will Ferrell as the snooty-yet-decent rich white guy who gets wised up to the hard knocks of life by a wiseacre black man, Kevin Hart, who pretends that he's more ghetto than he really is.
This comedy relies on multitudes of stereotypes, homophobic fears about prison rape, and a heaping helping of just plain old raunch to get its laughs. Yet get its laughs it does.
This is the sort of movie that you roar with laughter at, then feel ashamed about it afterward.
Ferrell plays James King, a young(ish) master of the universe who's about to move from being really rich to disgustingly rich. It's basically the line between people who have cavernous homes with servants around 24/7 and those who own their islands.
James has just been made partner at Wealthrop Fund Management, Los Angeles' top investment firm, and he's marrying the daughter (Alison Brie) of the CEO (Craig T. Nelson) to boot. He treats those around him as chattel, not out of innate meanness but just because that's the world he was brought up in. It's the 1 percent of the 1 percent, where you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps ... with help of $8 million in seed money from your daddy.
One of those underlings he occasionally hobnobs with is Darnell (Hart), who owns Hollywood Luxury Bubbles, the low-rent car wash company that services the chic fleet of James and company. Darnell needs a $30,000 loan to launch his own storefront and get his family out of a crappy neighborhood, but James would rather dispense condescending advice than startup money.
When James is arrested and convicted of securities fraud, however, he's forced to reevaluate his priorities. The silver spooner is facing 10 years of hard time in maximum security -- "I'm going to be attending San Quentin," is how he puts it in his fey way. Petrified by the prospect of becoming the target of gay sexual overtures, he hires Darnell to toughen him up before his stint begins.
Darnell is actually a striving family man with an adorable wife and daughter (Edwina Findley Dickerson and Ariana Neal, respectively) who wears khakis and has never had so much as a parking ticket in his life. But if the rich white dude is willing to shower him with money, he's happy to act the gangster. He gets by through borrowing the plot of "Boyz in the Hood" for his own life story, and copping tips from his cousin Russell (T.I.), who really is a scary gangbanger.
Things go from there, with the two bonding over Darnell's concocted training regimen, which includes turning James' mansion into a simulated lockdown, with his servants acting as his oppressors. (They are only too happy to comply with the play-acting.) James learns about "mad dog face," shivs and "keistering" any necessary contraband.
At various points they infiltrate a white supremacist gang and a gay hangout, since Darnell surmises that because James is so hopeless at self-defense, he either needs to recruit someone to protect him or, ah, learn how to be a people-pleaser.
Directed by rookie Etan Cohen, who also wrote the screenplay with Jay Martel and Ian Roberts, "Get Hard" is a gleefully un-politically correct comedy that doggedly pursues humor no matter what dark crevice in which it may hide. Ferrell and Hart do amiable variations of their familiar character types, and share good onscreen chemistry and comedic timing.
You may cringe while watching this movie, but it'll be with a smile on your lips.
"If my face is recognized, I am 100 percent popular for being arrested!"
So says Oh, the friendly little alien who looks like a purple (most of the time) land octopus with an oversized mouth and sounds like Yoda after he's received a touch of New Age philosophy and mild brain damage, not necessarily in that order.
He's the star of "Home," the new animated film from DreamWorks, which like Oh himself is agreeable enough so long as he doesn't overstay his welcome. A natural screw-up, the running joke is that Oh is the unwitting outcast of his people, whose groaning exclamations whenever he shows up lend him his name.
(The audience starts out the movie resenting them for their intolerance, but by the movie's end we gain a little sympathy.)
Oh is voiced by Jim Parsons, who is the star of the immensely popular TV comedy "The Big Bang Theory," which is about a gaggle of nerd friends and is right up my alley, except for the fact I've never seen it. My understanding is that he plays a guy who has trouble fitting in with normal humans, so obviously this role is right up his alley.
Parsons gives Oh a wonderfully high yodel-y voice with the stiff speech patterns of the Boov, who all sound like they learned English via American television commercials translated to Japanese and back again. They're simultaneously very precise and borderline incoherent.
A delightful quirk is that the Boov literally can't control their emotional displays. Their bodies tend to reflect everything they're feeling, like changing colors (red is happy; green means they're lying) or having their squiggly little ear/horn thingees go crazy.
Wait'll you see what effect Earth music has on them.
The Boov spend their lives on the run -- literally. They've been fleeing for years from the Gorg, a fearsome species who resemble the creatures from the "Alien" movies wearing death metal rock 'n' roll grab.
Under the underwhelming-yet-overconfident leadership of their leader, Captain Smek -- terrifically voiced by Steve Martin -- they have relocated from planet to planet escaping the Gorg. With the Boov, cowardice is complimented as a virtue. Risk-taking is discouraged.
And now they want to make Earth their new hideout. Of course, that means the humans will all have to be relocated -- in a benevolent, non-threatening way, of course.
The Boov employ a fantastic technology that revolves around bubbles, which they use for everything from transportation to defense and getting rid of any human objects they don't understand, which are floated up into the air in clusters. Thus, a giant floating ball of toilets becomes a commonplace sight.
After everyone else is moved to Boov-planned communities in Australia, a young girl who escaped their notice is determined to find her mom. Gratuity Tucci -- a great name made even better by its nickname, Tip -- is a smart and sassy kid voiced by Rihanna, who manages a passable tween tone.
Oh commits another one of his classic mistakes: accidentally sending a housewarming party invite to all the cosmos, including the Gorg. Soon he's on the run from his angry own, has joined forces with Tip and they are set up for that classic film storytelling device, the road trip. Though theirs takes place mostly in the air, as Oh turns Tip's mom's car into a hovercraft using Slurpee power.
Directed by Tim Johnson from a screenplay by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, based on a book by Adam Rex, "Home" is heavy on the goofy action and funny critters, though it doesn't have the emotional pull of other recent animated gems. The life-lessons stuff is ladled in haphazardly and rather unconvincingly -- "be who you are" is the basic, banal point.
It's a fun flick that the whole family can enjoy, while wishing it had set its sights a bit higher.
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Scott Glenn is hardly a household name, but he's long been one of my favorite actors. With his taut gaze, sharp-featured face, stoic demeanor and rangy physique, Glenn is the sort of actor's actor who could play a cowboy, an astronaut, a lawyer, just about anything -- and has.
Often when I'm reading a book with a distinctive male character, I unconsciously summon the image and sound of Glenn to personify him. It can even happen more than once in the same novel. Reading Stephen King's "The Stand," I instantly pictured main protagonist Stu Redman as him. But then when I came across the exploits of antichrist-like Randall Flagg, aka "the Walking Dude," I realized that his darkling smile would be ideally suited on Glenn's face, too.
Actors with that sort of malleable screen persona tend not to get cast in many leading roles, and now that Glenn is in his 70s his recent work has been almost entirely in supporting parts -- often playing the villain or the wise old master who tutors the hero, as in the new television version of "Daredevil."
So I was glad to hear about "The Barber," a psychological thriller in which Glenn stars. It's being released in a few theaters nationwide and on video on demand this week. Even if you're not the sort, like me, who'd watch pretty much anything Glenn was in, it's a well-made film with some nice performances and some clever twists of the plot.
He plays Eugene Van Wingerdt, an amiable older man living in an amiable small town in the Midwest, Moraine. It's a picture-pretty place with a main drag of handsome stores, one of which is Gene's barber shop. There he plies his trade, admonishes his young apprentice, Luis (Max Arciniega), not to swear so much, and pals around with the chief of police (Stephen Tobolowsky, another standout veteran character actor).
Then a scruffy young man named John (Chris Coy) comes to town, muttering something about all the girls Gene killed long ago. It seems that Gene, then known as Frank Visser, was the main suspect in a rash of 17 serial killings in which young women were abducted and buried alive. He was released for lack of evidence, pulled up stakes and moved to Moraine for a fresh start 20 years ago.
It's soon revealed that John is the son of the Chicago detective who pursued Visser all those years ago, eventually putting a bullet in his own head over his inability to catch the murderer, who repeatedly called to taunt him about not saving the latest victim. A cop himself, John is determined to catch the guy his father couldn't, by pretending to be a fellow killer looking for a mentor.
Director Basel Owies and screenwriter Max Enscoe adroitly play around with the audience's expectations, first giving us a picture of an innocent man who really was the victim of an overzealous police investigation. Gene walks around with a stooped, stiff-ambled gait, is a regular church-goer and quiet pillar of the community.
"A man's appearance should always show self-respect, not self-importance," Gene opines, like a seer of the Norman Rockwell set.
But the mask slips, revealing a calculating oldster with a bird-of-prey mien who clearly has something to hide. Is Gene really the serial killer, or is he just leading John on in a lame attempt for attention and companionship in his declining years? The way he talks about young girls as "yummies" or "birdies" who tempt his inner demons certainly gives us pause.
But Glenn's grizzled poker face has no tells, so we're left puzzling.
The two men begin a strange sort of tutelage, in which Gene prepares tests for John, and imparts little tricks to put others at ease -- like offering a girl a ride, and looking at your watch when she hesitates so she'll think you're in a hurry.
The film is a little fat in the middle, with a few too many subplots and extraneous characters -- such as Audrey (Kristen Hager), a fellow cop from Chicago who turns up just in time to throw a gear in the works. She's merely a damsel waiting for her distress to appear.
The heart of the movie is Gene and John feeling each other out, like two wary wolves unsure of the other's true intent. It's a twist on the old cop-and-killer game that's a cut above, with Scott Glenn portraying a man adept at blending in as either the hunter or the prey.
Sunday, March 22, 2015
With the final film in the “Hobbit” trilogy, the Tolkien train has finally rumbled to its last cinematic stop -- assuming, that is, that director Peter Jackson & Co. aren’t intending to turn the barely readable “The Silmarillion” into a 57-part television series.
(Shhh… don’t give them ideas.)
I’ve appreciated the scope and splendor of this 13-year enterprise to turn one of my most beloved literary touchstones into movies that have been, by and large, magical. But if I could give a two-word review of “The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies,” it would be “too much.”
There are too many secondary characters and side plots, most of them greatly expanded from things barely whispered at in author J.R.R. Tolkien’s slender tome -- or simply invented out of whole cloth by the filmmakers.
As you can guess from the title, the tale of a band of dwarves trying to reclaim their mountain kingdom from a dragon usurper ends with a massive war wherein the various races of Middle-earth squabble over the spoils. Humble hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is literally caught in the middle, and his choices have an outsized effect on the course of history.
Other key players include Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), heir to the dwarven throne and ensorcelled by the foul magic of the dragon’s gold; Gandalf (Ian McKellen), wise wizard and counselor to the adventurers; Bard (Luke Evans), the stout warrior who brings down the beast; Thranduil (Lee Pace), the headstrong elven monarch; Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Thranduil’s son and carryover from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy; Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a totally invented and unnecessary female elf warrior; and Azog (Manu Bunnett), the fearsome albino orc leader.
The battle scenes are epic in scope, but the gentle story of a hobbit’s journey there and back again gets swallowed.
Bonus features consist of five making-of featurettes: “Recruiting the Five Armies,” “Completing Middle-earth,” “The Last Goodbye: Behind the Scenes,” “The Last Goodbye Music Video” and “New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth, Part 3.”
As with the previous two movies, in a few months they will release a special extended version of “The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies” with an expanded cut of the film and better extras. Though what they could possibly add to this overstuffed meal, I can’t imagine.
Thursday, March 19, 2015
I liked "Divergent" more than the first movie in the "Hunger Games" trilogy, and its sequel is a step up from that other franchise's sequel, too.
(This despite the goofy, long-winded title. What, did they really think if they just released it as "Insurgent" that people wouldn't know what it's about?)
Based on the YA books by Veronica Roth, "The Divergent Series: Insurgent" continues the story of young rebel Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), the "chosen one" seemingly destined to overthrow the tyrannical regime that rules a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Set hundreds of years in the future in a dilapidated Chicago, where remnants of skyscrapers rise like great eroded sand castles, the people have been divided up into five factions based on their personality and attributes.
Tris was revealed to be divergent, meaning she carries traits of several factions, and thus is marked for death by Jeanine (Kate Winselt), chief of the intellectuals, Erudite. Tris had chosen the Dauntless clan, attracted by the soldier caste's embrace of adventure. She was assisted in her journey from wallflower to warrior by Four (Theo James), her trainer-cum-lover, who turned out to be divergent, too.
When last we left things, the rebels had uncovered a scheme by Erudite to wipe out the ruling faction, Abnegation, after Tris and her crew stormed their HQ. Now they're hiding out with the peace-loving Amity (led by Octavia Spencer).
Tris, now sporting a chic short haircut and a guilty conscience, is obsessed with killing Jeanine and ending the war before it's gone too far.
(Of course, she had an opportunity to do that in the last movie and settled for just impaling Winslet's hand with a knife. Shoulda coulda.)
Anyway, things continue apace with an effort to unite the other factions against the oppressors. Tris becomes a reluctant symbol of that movement -- much like Katniss does in HG.
Director Robert Schwentke and screenwriting trio Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback keep things moving along at an agreeable pace, never making the mistake of letting the talkie character scenes slow the proceedings down for long.
Things get a little trippy in the second half, with more simulated missions designed to break Tris' will, and a mysterious box which purportedly contains all of life's answers. This results in some very Matrix-y moments, such as Tris chasing a building containing her imperiled mother that's both flying and on fire.
Also turning up are Naomi Watts as Four's long-lost, and not particularly loved, mother; Peter (Miles Teller), a former Dauntless comrade who takes special delight in tormenting Tris over her failings; and Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Tris' prevaricating brother, who previously trained with the Erudites and still holds some affinity for their Machiavellian ethos.
(Woodley and Elgort have since starred as a star-crossed couple in "The Fault in Our Stars," so it's a little weird now to watch them as sibling antagonists.)
This isn't the most original material in the world -- at times the movie feels like "Hunger Games" spliced with "Inception" and "The Matrix," with a little "X-Men" xenophobia tossed in, too. But "The Divergent Series: Insurgent" is both a bit of fun and a little bit dangerous. It's like a cute, surly boy from the suburbs.
Monday, March 16, 2015
"Picnic at Hanging Rock" is a movie about a vexing mystery that cares not a whit about solving it. It's a dreamy contemplation of the power of the puzzle itself, rather than the humdrum mechanics of sorting out what piece fits where to assemble the picture on the box.
Instead, we stare at the scattered bits until we go cross-eyed, and form what image we will.
Peter Weir has always been among the first names I recall when someone asks me to list my favorite filmmakers. Along with a few others, he more or less launched the Australian New Wave. He's had a long career, though not a particularly busy one, at least in terms of number of films made, with only three in the last two decades.
But in qualitative terms he's over the moon, with at least a half-dozen works that will be -- or already are -- remembered as classics: "Witness," "The Truman Show," "Dead Poets Society," "The Year of Living Dangerously," "Gallipoli" and this one.
"Picnic," Weir's first movie to garner wide international attention, proudly eschewed the conventions of narrative storytelling and character development. The film relies on arresting visual imagery and an atypical soundscape to evoke themes and emotions, and lets the audience make their own sense of them.
I don't mind saying I usually tend not to favor this type of filmmaking. In a sense, Weir seemed to be working to out-Terrence Malick before Malick himself got too deep inside his own fever dream. But I found this movie highly engaging, and soon my persnickety critic's heart, always restless for a good yarn, settled into the film's rhythmic perambulations.
It concerns the disappearance in 1900 of several students and a teacher at a remote Australian girls' college. On a field trip to Hanging Rock, a famous volcanic formation once used by Aborigines for secret initiation rites, three young women climb up to its uppermost reaches and disappear. A teacher who goes in search of them also vanishes.
At first I thought the movie was based on an actual case. Weir presents it with such stark authenticity that, despite its dream-like quality, the story feels like something that really could have happened. But no, screenwriter Cliff Green based it on the novel by Joan Lindsay.
The notion of a field trip is intoxicating to the girls of Appleyard College because it represents such a departure from their daily lives, which consist of things like dancing, sewing and mathematics suitable for well-bred women to use when they becomes wives and mothers. They wear long dresses and tight corsets, stockings, boots and bonnets -- even white gloves, which the stern headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), advises they may remove owing to the sultry weather, but only after their carriage has cleared the neighboring town.
Three of the more outgoing, popular girls announce they would like to climb the rock's lower reaches to take some measurements. They are Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), blonde and stunning; Irma (Karen Robson), tall and dark; and Marion (Jane Vallis), bespectacled and serious. Tagging along is Edith (Christine Schuler), the black sheep of the class, owing to her dumpy physique and scratchy personality.
The rest of the group falls asleep in the hot sun, but the adventuresses enter a sort of mystical trance, removing their shoes and stockings so they can better commune with nature. Weir shoots this scene with almost fetishistic obsession, as young women who have spent their lives so cloistered and fettered that even this marginal unclothing somehow becomes shocking.
The trio wander off into a fissure, while a discombobulated Edith runs screaming down the mountain to report their actions. Math teacher Greta McCraw (Vivean Gray) goes in search of them, though she seems to be in as much as a daze as they, and also is lost.
Weir wisely never attempts to explain the reason for their strange behavior, leaving it as part of the film's enduring enigma. There's some hint of supernatural and/or magnetic influences -- the watches of two adults stop abruptly at exactly noon.
But Weir is less concerned with explaining than seeing how people react to that which is unexplainable.
Searches are conducted, without success. After a week has gone by and even the police have given up, a young wealthy Englishman (Dominic Guard), who had observed the girls on their way up the hill and became smitten with Miranda, resolves to go in search of them with his manservant (John Jarratt) in tow. He spends the night alone on the mountain, and is rescued himself in a near state of catatonia, but clutches a scrap of cloth that leads to Irma.
Dehydrated but otherwise unharmed, Irma remembers nothing of the encounter. Throughout the process of her recovery there is a particular emphasis placed on whether Irma has been sexually violated -- though the doctor reassures the police and school officials that she is "quite intact." As if the status of her provable virginity is more important than the lives of the three people still missing (who are soon declared presumed dead).
In one of the film's most shocking scenes, a reconstituted Irma is presented to her classmates and is set upon them like a pack of dogs, demanding to know the whereabouts of Miranda and the others. Edith is the chief interrogator, perhaps in an effort to throw suspicion off herself.
The disappearances have a tragic effect on the entire college. Mrs. Appleyard learns that a number of girls are being pulled from the school after the current semester, making the financial viability of the enterprise quite perilous. Her frazzled state is reflected in her prim appearance becoming increasingly frayed, particularly an impressive vertical hairdo that starts to wilt like summer corn left too long unharvested.
Appleyard takes much of her frustration out on Sara (Margaret Nelson), an orphaned girl whose tuition is in arrears due to lack of payment by her guardian. She even threatens to have Sara returned to the institution where she suffered much.
Sara is the closest thing to a fully realized character in the movie, a waifish thing who seems to have no personality of her own but lives vicariously through others. She was especially entranced by Miranda -- possibly a sexual attraction, calling her "a Botticelli angel" -- and begins to come apart at the seams without her touchstone.
Jacki Weaver, best known on these shores for "Animal Kingdom," has a small role as a maid with an insider's view of the school's dissolution. Helen Morse also has a strong presence as an enlightened teacher who quietly resists the college's more dire curriculum, such as having Sara tied to a wall to correct her stooped posture.
The ending of "Picnic at Hanging Rock" is just as purposefully obtuse as the beginning. Mrs. Appleyard lies and claims that Sara has been taken away by her guardian, but the girl's body is found in the greenhouse the next morning, having fallen through from above.
Whether Sara was pushed or jumped to her death remains open to debate, though it should be noted the headmistress was already wearing a black mourning dress when a teacher burst into her office to deliver the awful news. A title card informs us Appleyard was later found dead at the base of Hanging Rock, in what was presumed to be an accidental fall.
The experience of watching "Picnic at Hanging Rock" is an unnerving one, and it's meant to be. This sort of movie doesn't really go places, but sits and spins, humming its own peculiar chant.
It's up to us to decide whether to be annoyed by that siren call, or close our eyes and become ensorceled.
Sunday, March 15, 2015
Ridley Scott is one of my favorite movie directors, but it’s hard to deny the man is responsible for his fair share of duds. He’s had a bit of a string of them lately, usually as a result of trying to redo previous films that didn’t really need another iteration: 2010’s lackluster “Robin Hood,” the bewildering “Prometheus” from 2012.
“Exodus: Gods and Kings” is essentially Scott’s version of “The Ten Commandments,” with Moses and pharaoh Ramesses duking it out over the fate of the Jewish people, with plagues and miracles descending on high with equal fervor.
Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic hasn’t aged well – it plays now as a remarkable artifact of old-Hollywood hokum. But it wasn’t exactly crying out for a remake.
The result is a rather dull affair, with Christian Bale as Moses, a prince of Egypt revealed to be a Jew, spending years in his desert exile communing with the Lord, who takes the form of a small boy. Eventually he returns to Egypt and the predictable special effects fireworks crank up, along with plenty of battles. Here Moses wears armor and comes off closer to Spartacus than the robed holy man of scripture.
We’re further distracted by the heavily mascaraed presence of Joel Edgerton as Ramesses. Gosh knows I am not one to kowtow to politically correct imperatives. But casting an Australian as an Egyptian pharaoh is at least a 9.4 on the scale of White People Screwing Up Historical Stuff.
It’s a nice-looking film, with terrific costumes and sets and CG backdrops. As you’d expect of a Ridley Scott flick, the action scenes are staged crisply and energetically. But the characters all seem so glum and lifeless, as if they’ve been drained of their vital essence. Bale is so dirge-like in his disposition he makes his Bruce Wayne seem like a party animal.
Ultimately, “Exodus” fails the first test of filmmaking: why does this movie need to exist? It doesn’t, and we needn’t bother.
The movie is being given an excellent video release with a spate of bonus features, though you’ll have to pay more for the best stuff.
The DVD comes with eight deleted and extended scenes, plus a feature-length audio commentary track by Scott and co-screenwriter Jeffrey Caine. Upgrade to the Blu-ray, and you add another deleted scene and “The Exodus Historical Guide,” a feature-length trivia track.
Go for the 3-D collector’s edition combo pack, and you add an entire blu-ray disc of bonus features. These include “Keepers of the Covenant,” a feature-length documentary on the making of the film, a historical perspective on Moses, photo galleries, promotional featurettes and more.
Thursday, March 12, 2015
I've not been a fan of this recent trend of turning old fairy tales and/or animated classics into live-action spectacles. The competing Snow White flicks were exercises in excess, and while visually sumptuous "Maleficent" suffered from serious storytelling issues. The less said about "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters," the better.
But "Cinderella" finds the spark of magic missing from those other films.
It's heartfelt and wise, paying homage to the Disney cartoon while smartly inserting more modernistic sensibilities into an ancient tale. Director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz craft something that is at once old-fashioned and newfangled, and is sure to delight little princesses everywhere -- and many of their kings and queens, and possibly even some princeling brothers, too.
They even manage to render the wicked stepmother... well, sympathetic's not the right word -- let's say more relatable as a flesh-and-blood character, as opposed to simply representing a stereotype.
Lily James plays young Ella, a country girl raised at a modest estate by loving parents, who alas soon depart the scene. They're played by Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin, both emotionally resonant presences despite limited screen time. They teach her to "have courage and be kind," something that becomes harder when the socially climbing Lady Tremaine (an icy Cate Blanchett) comes into Ella's life, along with her spoiled daughters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera).
She's relegated to the role of servant, living in the attic and toiling all day with only a few mice and other creatures as her companions. She is sneeringly dubbed "Cinderella" by her betters because of her penchant for sleeping by the kitchen hearth for warmth, which usually results in a sooty complexion.
In one of the movie's more sensible alterations, the stepsisters and stepmother are no longer horrid hags; ugliness is no longer the calling card for depravity within. Indeed, Ella spends much of the story in frump mode, with only a toothy smile and a warm heart to recommend her. Her transformation for the royal ball at the hands of her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, who we'd normally expect to see in the stepmother role) is just that -- a welcome respite from the soon-to-return drudgery.
The CG effects for her change are quite wondrous, with the pumpkin, mice and goose -- aided by a couple of garden lizards -- making for a dazzling coach and company.
Richard Madden ("Game of Thrones") plays the prince, who also gets an upgrade beyond Generic Handsome Dude in a Tux. He wants to marry for love, while his ailing father (Derek Jacobi) urges him to wed for advantage -- egged on by the smarmy Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård). He's smitten by Ella when they run into each other in the forest, each mistaking the other for something other than what they are.
Of course, all that gets sorted out in the end. "To be seen as we truly are" is the lesson here, with gowns and glass slippers as simply the enchantment that helps things move along.
It's the little touches that make "Cinderella" an unexpected delight. I adored the use of "Lavender's Blue," an old British nursery song, as both a musical and narrative theme. ("When I am king, dilly, dilly, you shall be queen.") Lily James makes for a sweet and self-assured Cinderella, who doesn't need a princess' crown to be noble and true.
Note: The film is preceded by "Frozen Forever," an animated short that's a follow-up to the hit feature of 2013. It gathers all the old gang together for another go-round that's fun and sweet, though the song isn't on par with the original music.
Wednesday, March 11, 2015
"Run All Night" is a revenge action movie that is at its best when the bullets aren't flying. Liam Neeson has become the patron saint of this genre now: old guys who have to roust themselves out of a torpor for One Last Job. But he's still got the goods, as a bunch of younger guys who underestimate him are soon to discover.
I really admired the setup for this story. Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously directed Neeson in "Unknown" and "Non-Stop," and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby ("Out of the Furnace") give us a compelling world that's both familiar and new, with cops and gangsters, sons and fathers, loyalty to old friends battling with familial devotion.
It's the sort of movie where the broke-down drunk with a dark past redeems himself over the course of one night.
Neeson is Jimmy Conlon, a legendary hitman for New York mobster Shawn Maguire, who's played by Ed Harris. They used to be on the front pages all the time, mostly for outfoxing the law, but now the years have rolled on, unkindly. Shawn has become a legitimate businessman -- mostly, anyway -- and their old haunts are getting turned into Applebees.
And Jimmy, once nicknamed "Gravedigger," the guy others stepped off from when he walked into the bar, has become the pitiful rummy they laugh at.
One early scene is more or less lifted straight out of "The Godfather," with Shawn's kid Danny (Boyd Holbrook) demonstrating what a loose cannon he is. Through a convoluted bit of exposition, Jimmy's own son Michael (Joel Kinnaman) gets caught in the middle of some intrigue, witnesses Danny doing some bad things, so Danny decides he's got to protect himself. Long story short, Danny winds up dead by Jimmy's hand.
It's telling that within seconds of gunning down his best friend's kid, Jimmy's first act is to call Shawn and tell him the news, without preamble. That's who he is. There is no hesitation or dissembling with him. He offers his own life in exchange for his son's. But Shawn is old school, and needs for others to suffer in order to quench his own.
The rest of the movie turns into one long big chase scene, with Jimmy and Michael, who have long been estranged for obvious reasons, trying to keep each other alive. A bunch of mob goons are after them, along with the police, a goodly portion of whom are on Shawn's payroll. The only cop Jimmy is able to trust is Detective Harding (Vincent D'Onofrio), who despises him for beating the rap so long.
This stuff is engaging enough, though it eventually becomes an indistinguishable mix of running, gunfire and beefy guys grappling with each other. Rapper/actor Common turns up as an icy assassin brought in to clean things up. He uses a fancy gun rig, night vision lenses and other modern gear, acting as Jimmy's latter-day doppelganger.
I liked a lot about "Run All Night" while still wishing it had found a better way to balance its various story elements. The scenes with Neeson and Harris facing off with each other are the finest, two grizzled partners in crime who can't scrub off the sins of the past.
But they end up getting buried in all the bang-bang scenes -- unnecessarily buttressed with "bullet time" CG and topsy-turvy editing. The weighty business about honor and debts is there, but it's grace notes and echoes of a superior movie. It's still a rousing flick, but boy, shoulda coulda.
Thursday, March 5, 2015
I'm not going to write a full "Chappie" review, because I don't have time and the Yap duties are in Nick Rogers's capable hands. But a few thoughts.
It's a movie of profound inventiveness and profound silliness. The Chappie character, a childlike robot voiced and motion-captured by Sharlto Copley, is a tremendous creation. But just as he gets ill-used by the humans around him, so too does writer/director Neill Blomkamp take Chappie's journey to places that are ridiculous, with some where-does-the-soul-reside type of musings near the end that are laugh-out-loud awful.
Some weird secondary characters that distract and discombobulate the story. Start with Hugh Jackman as a robotics engineer who, for some reason, wears shorts, a mullet and a gun amidst his suited, nerdy colleagues. He's jealous because his ED-209 ripoff got overlooked in favor of the Chappie-style police droids.
Then there's the bizarre duo of Ninja and Yolandi, a real South African rap duo who got cast in the the movie as themselves. With their weird haircuts, tats and chirpy Afrikaans accents, they're like a pair of replicants who wandered in from "Blade Runner" after a stop in the white ghetto to pick up some cultural swag.
Bizarre, occasionally touching, a humanist story that gets hijacked by an action flick. After the brilliant debut of "District 9," Blomkamp is 0-for-2.
Then there's the bizarre duo of Ninja and Yolandi, a real South African rap duo who got cast in the the movie as themselves. With their weird haircuts, tats and chirpy Afrikaans accents, they're like a pair of replicants who wandered in from "Blade Runner" after a stop in the white ghetto to pick up some cultural swag.
Bizarre, occasionally touching, a humanist story that gets hijacked by an action flick. After the brilliant debut of "District 9," Blomkamp is 0-for-2.
Wednesday, March 4, 2015
"The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" lives up to its name, a pale shadow of its vivacious 2012 predecessor about silver-haired Brits finding new life at a dilapidated hotel in India.
Of course, the filmmakers meant the title as a clever play, as young Indian entrepreneur Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) aims to open a second hotel in the course of the (overly jumbled) story. But still, a movie sequel that seems to declare itself "second best" should at least gain points for honesty.
"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" was a smart and lively dramedy from director John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love") and screenwriter Ol Parker, who return for the sequel. The basic gist was about English pensioners who find they can't afford a life of quiet ease in their home country, and decamp for the lavishly overpraised Exotic Marigold.
In the end the grimy little hotel got fixed up, as did the lives of the aging Westerners who came here expecting something, and found something quite else. All their storylines got tied up in nice little bows ... and would've stayed that way, except when your $10 million film grosses $137 million worldwide.
Sequels, unnecessary except on an accountant's ledger, become a foregone conclusion.
The main players all return, with new challenges or extensions of their old ones. Widow Evelyn (Judi Dench) is happy doing a little work for a clothing company, until they offer her a full-time job with a team to manage. Her heart's with Douglas (Bill Nighy), an amiable tour guide who split up with his wife at the end of the last movie. But in the classic quandary that befalls only movie characters, neither will simply admit their feelings until the right moment and swell of music comes along.
Persnickety spinster Muriel (Maggie Smith) is busy running the hotel with Sonny, who is soon to be wed to the lovely Sunaina (Tena Desae), if he can keep his jealousy toward an old friend and competitor in check long enough. Sonny wants to buy another nearby hotel and expand the Marigold business model ("Why not die here?"), and needs backing from an American hotel chain, for some reason.
Sonny is living in fear that the would-be partner has sent an evaluator to check out his establishment, and who should show up on his doorstep just in time but a fetching American named Guy (Richard Gere), who claims to be writing a novel by mostly has eyes for Sonny's mother (Lillete Dubey), for reasons that remain mysterious to her, and us.
"The man is so handsome, he has me urgently questioning my own sexuality!" Sonny exclaims, in a typical over-the-top bit of Indian bebop.
Other characters' troubles mostly concern matters of the heart, with former ladies man Norman (Ronald Pickup) worried that his lady friend is stepping out on him. And on-the-make Madge (Celia Imrie) has not one but two rich older Indian gentlemen ready to propose to her, yet seems to hold the most meaningful conversations with her humble driver.
"The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" is a pretty transparent attempt to capture lightning in a bottle twice. It's not a bad little flick, and with Dames Smith and Dench around there's no shortage of tart retorts and looks freighted with meaning.
But it's a retread that's tired out of the gate, a contrivance of characters we know will arrive at their fated destinations promptly at the two-hour mark. Predestined, that is, unless this one does well enough to demand a third-best iteration.
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
I admired director Bennett Miller’s first two movies, “Capote” and “Moneyball,” but I feel “Foxcatcher” is one of the more overpraised films of 2014. It’s a deeply odd exploration of a famous murder of an Olympic athlete by the scion of a super-wealthy family, an exercise in mood that eventually gets lost in its own dirge-like fog.
Steve Carell is virtually unrecognizable as John DuPont of the chemical fortune clan, who uses his riches to host the men’s Olympic wrestling team on his palatial estate, Foxcatcher Farms, during the late 1980s. He brings in Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a somewhat dim but big-hearted gold medal winner, to head things up.
DuPont is the coach of the team, at least titulary, though he actually knows very little about wrestling. He treats Mark as a combination underling/surrogate friend, someone he likes to keep around to make him feel more valuable and less lonely.
With his prosthetic nose and feral fake teeth, Carell resembles a stunted bird of prey, who knows great things are expected of him, and resents it.
Mark Ruffalo is terrific as Mark’s more accomplished brother David, whom DuPont also tries to woo into the fold. With his ambling gait and cocked head, Ruffalo seems like a great, strong, sensitive ape who knows both how to fight and how to nurture with equal aplomb.
The story is essentially the intersecting trajectories of these three men, with Mark initially bonding to DuPont as a manipulative father figure – with an unspoken undertone of sexual attraction. But later the lines of loyalty shift, with tragic results.
Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman do a wonderful job of setting up the characters and evoking a disquieting sense of dread. But they don’t really find any place to go with it, and the film ends up replaying the same emotional chords over and over again. It’s not helped by Tatum’s stilted acting juxtaposed against two top-flight talents.
Watch “Foxcatcher” for Ruffalo and Carell’s masterful performances – just don’t expect the film as a whole to win gold.
Extra features are pretty disappointing, and are the same for DVD and Blu-ray editions. Both come with a handful of deleted scenes, and a single making-of featurette, “The Story of Foxcatcher.”
Monday, March 2, 2015
"King & Country" is a very harsh and bleak anti-war film that's been largely relegated to the cinematic dustbin of history, despite being very well-regarded at the time -- enough to earn four BAFTA Awards nominations (the British equivalent of the Oscars), including Best Picture.
Tom Courtenay gives a top-drawer performance as a dimwitted soldier on trial for his life for deserting the trenches during World War I, and Dirk Bogarde is also quite good as the officious officer charged with defending him. Narratively and thematically it's very similar to Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory," though not nearly as well known.
I think what makes the film stand out is the way it was shot by director Joseph Losey and cinematographer Denys Coop. It was really ahead of its time in terms of cutting away from the actors to show other imagery while they're talking, especially still photographs, to illustrate what's going through their heads.
For instance, when Private Arthur Hamp (Courtenay) is speaking about some of the horrible things he's seen on the front, the picture will cut away to an image of a dead soldier half-buried in the mud, or equally disturbing pictures. Losey will often accompany it with a slow zoom in or zoom out on the photo, a technique that Ken Burns would become known for in his documentaries decades later.
These visual switches will somtimes occur in the middle of a scene, without preamble; I'm guessing audiences in 1964 were confused at first at what was going on. But including these harrowing visuals lends the actors' words additional power beyond what their own faces could show.
The film opens with a long, slow tracking close-up along a statue and facade that terrifically relates the grime and muck that typified WWI fighting. Following the twists of limbs, weapons and rocky outcroppings gives an immediacy to events long ago and helps set the stage.
"King and Country" is also a damp movie, quite literally: I'm not sure if it ceases raining during the entire course of the movie. Everything is filthy and caked with mud; the men live in moldy dugouts and caves covered with tin sheeting. Pools of filthy water surround the men at all times, as if rendering them castaways on some alien planetscape.
Story-wise the movie is pretty straightforward. Hamp abandoned his post and began walking aimlessly, and nearly made it to a disembarkation point on the western coast of France before he was captured. He claims to have been barely aware of his actions, other than he wanted to get away from the sound of artillery fire and go home. Though we soon learn he doesn't even have a home; his wife and her mother, who dared him to enlist in the war, have since abandoned him.
Now he's on trial for desertion, and seems not to understand that he could well be executed if found guilty. After three years he's one of the most seasoned soldiers in his unit, and Hamp imagines this legacy will protect him. Maybe he'll get some prison time, he reckons.
Captain Hargreaves (Bogarde) does not exactly have a sterling reputation among the soldiers for his abilities as a military defense advocate. A group of Hamp's fellow grunts act as a sort of Greek chorus, hanging around the periphery of the trial and commenting upon the events. They even perform their own mock version of the tribunal, with a lowly rat -- beaten out of the rotting belly of a dead horse -- standing in as their former comrade.
At first openly hostile to Hamp, Hargreaves eventually comes to sympathize with the young soldier and mounts a stirring defense of him. It's all a sham, of course. The presiding colonel can barely be bothered to pay attention, and when he does speak it's to undermine Hargreaves' case.
An effective cross-examination of the unit's doctor (Leo McKern) reveals him to be a pompous ass who believes any soldiers complaining of shell shock are malingerers, and his prescription for virtually every case is a dose of "No. 9" -- aka laxatives.
I also appreciated James Villiers as Captain Midgley, the prosecutor who seems very detached and unemotional, occasionally standing up to a great height to leer over the witnesses like some great bird of prey.
Since the officers participating in the trial are all from the same unit, many of them share quarters and interact with each other on a day-to-day basis. So there's an additional farcical sense to the trial, as in between sessions they decamp to their bunks to share meals and cleverly insult each other in that oh-so-British way.
At one point Hamp's commanding officer, Webb (Barry Foster), who had described him as an excellent soldier, complains to Midgley about turning the screws on him during his own appearance as a witness. But it's in a good-natured, bantering way, and it's pretty clear that Webb won't be terribly upset about whatever happens to Hamp. (Indeed, he's later put in charge of the firing squad as "punishment" for defending Hamp in his testimony.)
I admired "King & Country" more than I enjoyed it. It's a well-acted drama, beautifully bleak visually and made with great craftsmanship. It's so unrelenting in its dour message -- war is bad; war is dehumanizing -- that it ends up holding no surprises for us. Hamp's martyrdom carries less power than it should precisely because it is so inevitable. Evan Jones wrote the screenplay based on a play by John Wilson and a novel by James Lansdale Hodgson.
The filmmakers would have done better to give us a little more hope for Hamp.
Sunday, March 1, 2015
So once again, a big fantasy/science fiction book-to-film franchise is coming to a close, and has decided to split up the last novel into two movies. We’ve seen it a bunch of times now, from “Twilight” to “Harry Potter,” and invariably the penultimate movie winds up being rather a bore, stuffed with exposition that will only pay off in the final flick.
“The Hunter Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” – now there’s a mouthful – is no exception.
Mercifully shorter than its predecessors, “Mockingjay” nonetheless has a much lower thrills-to-doldrums ratio, with really only one major action sequence to carry the momentum. The rest of the time, it’s Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) adjusting to her new life in the underground fortress of the militaristic District 13, epicenter of the rebellion against the evil Capitol and President Snow.
As the story opens, Katniss has been rescued from the gladiator-style Hunger Games, in which comely teenagers battle to the death as entertainment and as a way to subjugate the Districts. But her partner and ersatz lover Peta (Josh Hutcherson) remains in the hands of Snow. This section of the story covers the rising battle of propaganda between the two sides, with Katniss enlisted as the symbol of the revolt.
She’s not fully accepted by the District 13 folks, particularly the cunning president, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). Luckily there are a few familiar faces, including Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to offer counsel and prodding.
What’s made Katniss a compelling character in the other movies is that she’s a doer who takes a stand and then acts upon it – sometimes impulsively and disastrously, but always with genuine resolve. Here, she’s relegated to reacting and talking, and it makes for one dull parade.
Whatever I might think of the movie, it’s being released on video with a handsome set of bonus features.
These include a feature-length commentary track; nine deleted scenes; a tribute to Hoffman; music video and featurette; and “The Mockingjay Lives: The Making of Mockingjay – Part 1,” an eight-part feature-length documentary on the making of the film. All told, extras run to five hours of material.