Thursday, July 28, 2016

Review: "Jason Bourne"

I wonder if the CIA has ever run an analysis of what percentage of their resources are spent just chasing Jason Bourne. It must be at least 25 percent, based on what we see in the movies, now in their fourth go-round with this self-titled and completely redundant film.

(Five, if you count the Bourneless Jason Bourne movie starring Jeremy Renner, and nobody does.)

“Jason Bourne” isn’t so much a single story as a series of chase set pieces played out against international backdrops. Jason (Matt Damon, grayer and thicker since his last outing nearly a decade ago) appears in Berlin, the local CIA team is sent after him, he leads them on a merry chase on foot and by vehicle, he takes a few out with his super awesome spy skills, and gives the rest the dodge.

Now we’re in London. Jason appears, the local CIA team… you get the idea.

The plot, such as it is, involves Bourne again trying to ferret out the truth of his background as an assassin in the Treadstone Program. He’s already recovered most of his lost memory, but there are a few more tantalizing pieces floating out there. Like that his dad was involved in the creation of Treadstone, and the current CIA Director, the reptilian Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), had something to do with his death.

There’s also another super-spy on the hunt who’s only referred to as “Asset,” played by Vincent Cassel. No, I mean literally, people call him on the phone or one of those spy ear piece thingees and say things like, “Asset, are you in London yet?” We know it’s going to come down to a faceoff between these two, since they’re setting up Asset as Jason’s supposed equal (ha!).

There’s an inordinate number of car chases in this Bourne outing, most notably a SWAT truck driven by Asset mowing through vehicles on the Las Vegas Strip, with Jason piloting some sleek black Product Placementmobile.

Alicia Vikander is the newbie, Heather Lee, a computer expert who acts as Dewey’s protégé but really sees him as a dinosaur. The Swedish actress speaks in a weird glottal voice that I think is supposed to be Generic American but comes across as Irish with the flu. Anyway, in her Bourne finds an unexpected sympathetic ear; she wants to bring him back into the CIA fold rather than just take him out.

It’s suggested that Bourne is truly tempted by this; but hasn’t he spent the last 15 years killing or crippling CIA agents chasing him? I can only imagine what the office Christmas party would be like. “And Mark’s Secret Santa was Jason, who’s given him… an artificial knee joint to replace the one he crushed in ’03. How nice!”

Turns out Dewey’s cooked up a plan for a new program, Iron Hand, which will allow the spooks to monitor everyone, everywhere. How scary! He’s even teamed up with a Facebook-like mogul, Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), to do it without the public’s knowledge.

Of course, during the course of the film we witness the CIA cut off the power to a remote hackers’ den in Iceland, activate street cameras as spy cams in Berlin, and tap into a landline phone to use it to wipe a laptop computer sitting a dozen feet away. Why is it they need Iron Hand, again?

I also find it weird that Bourne never even makes a passing attempt at disguise. Oh, he’ll put on a hat or take one off, but that’s about it. He’s, like, the greatest spy ever, but he can’t even don a fake beard or something?

Paul Greengrass, who co-wrote the script with Christopher Rouse, directs another adrenaline-fueled expedition into the land of Shaky Cam and Hyper Edit. His action scenes have no weight or impact; watching this movie is like looking into a shattered mirror that somebody reassembled without much care as to what goes where.

The ugly truth is there’s just no juice left in the Bourne shtick. Damon seems dyspeptic and impatient; his Jason Bourne is no longer the wide-eyed youngster trying to recover his soul, just another immortal action hero mowing down bad guys. But without quips – he barely even talks, in fact.

Final edifying tidbit: In the last movie Jason’s birth year was given as 1971, but now in the documents we see flash on screen it’s updated to 1978. Clearly somebody is worried about Jason Bourne’s act getting old … with good reason.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Review: "Nerve"

Ever since we had personal computers, Hollywood has been making movies about kids getting in a pickle playing with them. Back to Matthew Broderick nearly setting off nuclear annihilation in 1983’s “War Games” up to last year’s “Unfriended,” about a half-dozen teenagers being stalked on social media, we learn that irresponsible teens and powerful electronic devices are not a good mix.

And here comes the latest cyber-thriller, “Nerve,” which sounds ludicrous until we realize all the technology that makes Pokémon Go possible could easily be repurposed this way, and already exists in our smartphones. It’s about teens accepting dares to do increasingly dangerous acts, with the rest watching as ghoulish witnesses, egging them on with money and instant fame.

Emma Roberts and Dave Franco -- who I’d like to point out are ages 25 and 31, respectively -- play the main couple, thrown together by the “watchers” of Nerve. It’s an open-sourced game with no one controlling it but deadly democracy. The watchers pay money for a voyeuristic thrill, which is then given to the players as a reward. Refusing a dare, or failing to complete it, means you’re out of the game and lose all the dough you’ve won.

Roberts is Vee, a bookish sort who sticks to photography and pining for boys she’s too shy to even talk to her. Her best friend, Sydney (Emily Meade), is already a star in Nerve. She’s after the thrill more than the money, since she’s a trust-fund baby; early on she gets suspended from school for showing her tushie during the cheerleading performance.

Too afraid to even tell her mom (a harried Juliette Lewis) that she’d prefer to go to an art school in California than local commuter college, Vee takes up the challenge to play Nerve. Her first dare is simple enough: kiss a stranger. She selects Ian (Franco) because he’s sitting in a diner reading one of her favorite books. But it turns out he’s a player too, and soon the watchers have upvoted them into a pair.

There’s a fun sequence where they’re directed to Bergdorf’s in Manhattan to try on ridiculously expensive clothes, then their own clothes are swiped (the dare of another player) and they are directed to leave the store immediately.

Vee may like breaking out of her wallflower mode, but crosses the line at shoplifting a $4,000 dress. Fortunately, she notices a loophole that the dare doesn’t say anything about keeping the clothes. So they strip to their skivvies and make a run for it; it’s an endearingly silly and flirty moment. Roberts and Franco are over-the-top cuties.

But things get much darker quickly -- like, riding Ian’s motorcycle at 60 m.p.h. while he’s blindfolded -- and ratchets up from there to deadly levels. Plus, other players up the ante, including Ty (Colson Baker), a punk type who looks like he walked off the set of the latest “Mad Max” movie.

Sydney, meanwhile, is nonplussed about the competition from her sidekick. And Tommy (Miles Heizer), a nerdy sweetheart who’s badly concealing a crush on Vee, attempts a late rescue with his hacker buddies to crash the game.

Directed by Henry Roost and Ariel Schulman from a screenplay by Jessica Sharzer, based upon a novel by Jeanne Ryan, “Nerve” is decent disposable entertainment that really wants to be a cautionary tale.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Video review: "Sing Street"

"Sing Street" is the most unabashedly romantic movie of the year. It's less about the music young people make than why they make it. Writer/director John Carney ("Once") creates movies about despair, and using art and love to find a way out of the dark holes into which we sink.

On the surface “Sing Street” would seem like a conscious effort to make this generation’s version of “The Commitments,” Alan Parker’s seminal 1991 tale of a fictional Irish band that (almost) makes it big singing the blues. But the new film is less about the allure of fame than the inner lives of those who feel compelled to start a band, get up in front of people and risk making a total fool of yourself.

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo plays Cosmo, an upright lad of 15 who’s just had to transfer to the rough-and-tumble Catholic public school because his parents are breaking up and can’t afford his posh private school anymore. Bullied by the working-class tough (Ian Kenny) and lorded over by the priests -- he’s forced to go about in his socks because he can’t afford the requisite black shoes -- Cosmo struggles to fit in, and struggles hard.

Then he sees Her.

Raphina (Lucy Boynton) is a year older, already out of school and might as well as live on another planet. She stands on the stoop of the orphan girls’ home across the street, smoking a cigarette and projecting disdain. She’s rumored to have an older boyfriend who’s a drug dealer, and says she’s soon to depart Dublin for London to start her modeling career.

In a fit of uncharacteristic confidence, Cosmo walk up to her and convinces Raphina to be in the video his new band is shooting. What band? asks his equally dweeby friend, Darren (Ben Carolan). The one I have to start now, he responds.

Cue the familiar process of putting together the band, practicing, dealing with doubting parents, the nervousness of the first gig, and so on. One of Carney’s best moves is avoiding the mistake of trying to flesh out the other members of the band, instead relegating them to their deserved roles in the background.

Only Eamon (Mark McKenna) is given anything like co-equal status, since Cosmo doesn’t really have anything beyond a basic musical background, while the bespectacled loner can pick up just about any instrument and play it. Like a teenaged McCartney and Lennon, they’re soon cranking out pop hits.

(Gary Clark wrote most of the tunes, while Adam Levine co-wrote and sings one for the end sequence.)

Jack Reynor shines as Cosmo’s brother Brendan, who dropped out of college and hasn’t really left his room ever since, smoking doobies and hurling resentment at their parents. He ends up as his younger brother’s mentor, giving him records to listen to and imparting wisdom, both musical and otherwise.

So what is “Sing Street” really about?

It's about being a teenager and loving a girl clearly out of your league and Ireland in the '80s and brothers who brim with disappointment at themselves and hope for others and warring parents and bullies and abusive priests and gender morphing and rock 'n' roll.

Really, it's about everything.

Bonus features are a wee bit on the slim side. There are audition tapes for nine principle cast members, a making-of documentary and a Q&A with Carney and Levine.



Sunday, July 24, 2016

Video review: "Elvis & Nixon"

Forty-six years after it was taken, the iconic photo of Elvis Presley meeting President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office is still the most requested image in the National Archives. Here are two disparate figures who still have a tight hold on the national consciousness, decades separated from their heydays.

“Elvis & Nixon” is a great premise for a movie: What’s the story behind that impromptu meeting? Director Liza Johnson and screenwriters Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes explore the subject with humor and a surprising amount of insight into each man’s troubled soul.

It’s a fictionalized account, but we suspect events could’ve transpired much as they are depicted.

Michael Shannon plays Elvis and Kevin Spacey is Nixon. Both are completely authoritative in their roles, despite never trying to do an impersonation of their character. Shannon, the king of brooding cinematic figures, doesn’t much look or sound like Elvis but suggests a thoughtful wariness behind the gaudy façade.

There’s a great scene where he’s putting on his standard get-up of that era – black coat and pants, gold buckle, shirt open to the navel, high-altitude pompadour, omnipresent sunglasses -- and comments to one of his rare, close friends, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), that people only see the “thing” and not the boy from Memphis.

Already the recipient of numerous honorary badges, he undertakes the mission because he craves a federal one. Dismayed at the drugs and unrest he sees on television, he concocts a story of becoming an undercover “agent-at-large” to help save America’s youth. He’s so cut off from the world he doesn’t realize you can’t take firearms on a commercial airplane.

Spacey gets less screen time, but projects an image of a man who never got over his humble roots despite the position he’s attained. At first he doesn’t want to meet Elvis, partly because he’s so handsome; guys like me had to work hard to get a girl’s attention, he grumbles to one of his flunkies.

(To Nixon, everyone is a flunky… or should be.)

Colin Hanks plays Egil Krogh, the president’s right-hand man who pushes the meeting to help with the youth vote; Evan Peters is fellow flunky Dwight Chapin; Johnny Knoxville plays Sonny West, another Elvis hanger-on who’s not above using the boss’ allure to entice feminine company.

I won’t say too much of the meeting, other than it goes exactly as we might expect, and completely not. Nixon is totally flustered by the singer’s self-importance – slurping down the Dr. Pepper and M&Ms reserved for the POTUS – but to his own surprise finds a kindred soul to whom he can relate. Both men are constantly surrounded, yet eternally lonely.

A bit kooky with a serious undertone, “Elvis & Nixon” is a smart and funny take on the little foibles history throws at us.

Bonus features are a mite skimpy, consisting of a commentary track by director Johnson and the real Jerry Schilling, and a featurette, “Crazy But True.”



Thursday, July 21, 2016

Review: "Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie"

Absolutely mediocre.

OK, OK, that was a cheap and easy shot. But it’s still a bullseye.

Full disclosure first: I have only a passing acquaintance with “Absolutely Fabulous,” the popular British TV show about two awful, aging women who never want the party to stop. It ran for two decades, off and on -- though in the British M.O., a “season” of television can mean a handful of episodes.

Still, I think I’ve seen enough to pass judgment that the biggest problem with “Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie,” is the “movie” part.

It is a hoot to watch Jennifer Sanders (who also wrote the screenplay) and Joanna Lumley sink their teeth into parts they’ve honed so well over the years. But there simply isn’t enough material here to sustain a feature-length film, even a shortish one. The film has plenty of laughs, but also plenty of long dead spells.

Edina Monsoon (Saunders) and Patsy Stone (Lumley) are would-be fashionistas who make a living of sorts on the fringes of the fashion industry. Edina does P.R. for a few has-been celebrities, and Patsy is fashion editor for some hoity-toity magazine. But really they live a life of West London luxury by sucking at the teat of ex-husbands and anyone else they can scam.

Things go poorly when Edina is cut off by her ex, followed by an unfortunate event in which she apparently kills supermodel Kate Moss by knocking her off a balcony into the Thames. (Things I did not know, #1: Kate Moss is still a thing?) The women lose their gigs and become international pariahs, fleeing to the south of France to hide out and find a new meal ticket.

In tow is Edina’s granddaughter, Lola (the winsome Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness), who provides a sense of adventure – and her father’s credit card. Chasing them is frumpy daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha) and her erstwhile police detective boyfriend (Colfer). On the edges of the action is Edina’s own mother (June Whitfield) and Bubble (Jane Horrocks), her off-kilter personal assistant, who dresses in inflatable materials and appears to be sniffing the gas inside them, too.

The film features tons of cameos, literally dozens and dozens of celebrities. And by “celebrities,” I mean “people from the fashion world I think I’m supposed to know but have no clue about.” I recognized Jon Hamm and Gwendoline Christie -- “That’s Brienne of Tarth!” someone chirps -- but that’s about it. So if names like Judith Chalmers, Poppy Delevingne and Daisy Lowe ring your bell, have at it.

The best parts are simply the two main characters interacting with each other, calling their counterpart “darling” and engaging in stuff that would be irresponsible for women half their age. Assessing the facial damage after a long night on the scene, Patsy tells Eddy she needs “a little spritz of afterbirth to freshen things up.”

Director Mandie Fletcher is a television veteran, and it shows in the pacing (or lack thereof). Certain characters are cast aside as needed, plotlines are picked up and quickly dropped; in general, it feels like a greatest hits compilation of the TV show. The last act has a decidedly Benny Hill feel to it, with lots of chasing about in weird costumes and oddball modes of transportation.

My advice is to fire up two decades’ worth of “Absolutely Fabulous” on your favorite streaming service if you need a Botox-and-baubles fix.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review: "Captain Fantastic"

“Captain Fantastic” is about a rebel who learns the limits of rebellion. Viggo Mortensen plays Ben Cash, who long ago gave up on Western civilization and is raising his six kids in the woods like primitive American Indians.

They grow or hunt their own food -- the opening scene is of his eldest son tackling a deer and slitting its throat, thereby marking his ascension into manhood. They keep some books and musical instruments to feed their minds and souls, and have an old tour bus for rare trips into town for mail, phone calls and to barter their handmade goods.

Otherwise, they’re doing the Thoreau thing to such an extreme even Bernie Sanders might find their liberalism in need of watering down. They celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday instead of Christmas, for God’s sake.

Then Ben’s wife, who has been hospitalized for some time with mental illness, dies, and he and the children undertake an adventure to attend the funeral in New Mexico and see that her last wishes are honored -- namely, cremation and flushing down the nearest toilet. Mom (Trin Miller, glimpsed only in flashbacks and visions) may have been schizophrenic and depressed, but she did not lack a sense of humor.

This means confronting modern American society, which to the kids is as alien as Jupiter, with its heffalump-sized people, violent video games and obsession with material stuff. Representing the epitome of The Man is Ben’s father-in-law (Frank Langella), a rich and connected fellow who has forbidden the motley clan from attending the burial ceremony.

The two men, representing arch extremes of the American Dream, are set up for an inevitable showdown.

If this were all there was to the movie, then I doubt I would’ve admired “Captain Fantastic” as much as I did. Sure, Mortensen has a sly, dry charisma to his performance, the kids are distinctive and authentic, and there’s plenty of comedic material in their encounters with everyday awfulness.

“What’s cola?” one munchkin asks during an impromptu (and abortive) visit to a diner. “Poison water,” Ben deadpans.

But writer/director Matt Ross -- who won the director award at the Cannes Film Festival -- takes the next, more ambitious steps. Without giving too much away, the movie shows the supremely confident Ben confronted with his own ego. He’s forced to recognize that the super-kids he’s raising are still just children, and have needs beyond the intense home-schooling and survival skills he imparts with a stern hand.

The relationship between Ben and his children is at the heart of the movie. Each child actor shines, creating a distinct personality that stands out while assimilating into the group’s commune existence.

George MacKay plays Bodevan, the eldest. (All the children have unique names, so they’re the only one of them in the world.) Though he’s smart enough to get into every Ivy League school -- applications made without his father’s knowledge -- Bo finds he knows little of the real world, especially young women.

Kielyr and Vespyr (Samantha Isler and Annalise Basso) are the red-haired voices of reason and contemplation. Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton) is the tween and resident rebel, and the most eager to leave the cloistered home. Zaja (Shree Crooks) is 8 years old but can already give an insightful overview of the Citizens United Supreme Court case. Nai (Charlie Shotwell) is the youngest and most mercurial, having to be reminded to wear clothes at meals.

(Though Dad also needs such reminders, as we see in a brief encounter with Mortensen breaking his fast.)

“Captain Fantastic” is a very entertaining film, but I was impressed by its willingness to question its own premise. Here is a family with its own very radical interpretation of independence, finding that true wisdom isn’t relegated to a single place or creed.

Review: "Hell or High Water"

For a decade or so there’s been a thing in Hollywood called the Black List, which is screenplays that are greatly admired but for some reason haven’t been picked up for production. In general these tend to be smaller, more challenging stories that might not necessarily have mass appeal. The idea is to garner these languishing scripts attention so somebody will make a movie out of them.

Roughly one-third have been, including Best Picture Oscar winners “Argo,” “The King’s Speech,” “Spotlight” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” But there have also been many Black List flops like “Black Snake Moan,” “Our Brand Is Crisis,” “47 Ronin,” etc.

“Hell or High Water,” despite that subpar, generic-sounding title -- I at first thought it had something to do with boats -- belongs among any estimation of home runs.

Deeply moody and evocative, yet with a potboiler plot that steadily builds a head of steam, “Hell” is sharp as a leather strap cracked against bare skin in the scorching West Texas sun.

The film is part crime story, part throwback Western, part family reconciliation. It’s about old cowboys and young, lawmen versus bandits, the sins of bank robbers weighed against those of the bankers. It wears the long prairie duster of the Old West, as hard men wander out of the hot, flat pan and converge toward a grim reckoning.

Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster each deliver some of the best performances of their careers, layered and bone-deep. They’re playing outwardly simplistic men who’ve thought about their lives and found them wanting.

Bridges is Marcus, a Texas Ranger facing mandatory retirement in a few weeks who’d like to go out in a blaze of glory rather than face the terror of sitting on his front porch with no purpose to life.

With a silver mustache, thick middle and a tendency to chew his words like cud, Marcus is a legend fading before his own eyes -- probably been carrying around the same bullets in his sidearm for 15 years. He’s ornery and cussed, likes to insult the hybrid Mexican/Comanche heritage of his partner, then dismiss it as teasing.

“I don’t know how you’re going to survive without someone to outsmart,” the partner (a fine Gil Birmingham) says, giving a little back.

Pine and Foster are Toby and Tanner Howard, brothers both alike and differing in a lot of ways. Toby is reserved, thoughtful, remorseful. His marriage and job have cratered, he’s estranged from his ex-wife and teenage sons, just buried his mother after a long illness and is trying to prevent the bank from foreclosing on the family ranch.

Tanner is a career criminal who calculates he’s spent half of his adult life behind bars, a dead-ender who embraces his outlaw reputation and calls it an ethos. He never makes any plans beyond the limits of the cash in his pocket or what he can steal. He does what he does because he’s good at it and he likes it; as Marcus wryly observes, if Tanner ever got himself a big pile of money he’d probably spend it all on stupid junk just so he could have an excuse to go out and steal again.

The Howard boys are knocking over small-fry banks in tiny Texas towns, places with names like Coleman and Post, sometimes two or three a day. Too small a haul to warrant FBI attention, it’s dropped into Marcus’ lap. He makes the rounds, interviews the witnesses, is confounded by the repeated lack of video surveillance. At first bored, his old juices get flowing again. They’re just the sort of crimes that seem random and stupid, but require a smart mind to string together.

Directed by David Mackenzie (“Young Adam”) from a script by Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”), this is the sort of movie that’s always on the move but never seems in a hurry. It takes the time to flesh out scenes and polish minor characters, like the sassy waitress who refuses to relinquish the fat tip the brothers left with (maybe) stolen money. Or the elderly cowpoke caught up in one of the robberies who, when asked if he’s armed, spits, “Of course I’ve got a gun!”

“Hell or High Water” is a taut modern masterpiece that learned its lessons well from the classics -- both the tough, unruly Texas folk and the movies made about them.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Cleopatra" (1963)

"Cleopatra" is remembered today almost entirely for its largeness -- its budget, its ambition, its length, the ego of its two stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the scope of its fiscal disaster. It was the top-grossing film of 1963 but still nearly put 20th Century-Fox out of business due to spiraling costs: $44 million for production and marketing, the equivalent of $340 million in 2016 dollars.

The film single-handedly killed off the big-budget Hollywood period epic for a couple generations. Many careers were sunk or least laid low for a time, including director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Though not Taylor and Burton, who scandalously carried on a public affair during the shoot while married to other people, eventually leaving their spouses to wed and star in a number of other notable pictures together.

Its name has become synonymous with the term "flop," often mentioned in the same breath as "Waterworld," "Ishtar" and "Heaven's Gate." Taylor's health often delayed shooting, including an emergency visit to the hospital where she received a tracheotomy, resulting in a scar that's visible in many shots. Her weight also fluctuated dramatically over more than a year of shooting as a result of her medical issues -- the London sets were torn down and rebuilt in Italy during the hiatus -- so that Cleopatra's double chin and waistline come and go from scene to scene.

There is in fact so much ridicule associated with "Cleopatra" that people tend to look past its magnificence.

Yes, at four hours and change it is entirely too long (especially with the curious omission of an intermission, direly testing patience and bladders). Things flow well until about the 2½ hour mark, when the brooding romance between the Egyptian queen and Mark Antony sends the film into a torpor, revived only at the end with the pair's dramatic deaths, recalling Romeo and Juliet.

It seems like there is a solid hour of screen time in which Burton does little more than swig from his ever-present flagon of wine and shout ineffectually at those around him.

Yet the grandness of its spectacle cannot be denied. The procession of Cleopatra into Rome should rightly be regarded as one of the most opulent, jaw-dropping moment in cinematic history. The scale of the sets, thousands of extras, Cleopatra's moving sphinx stage -- the mind boggles trying to take it all in at once.

"Cleopatra" may have cost a boatload, but the millions are right there on the screen to behold.

The story actually covers about 20 years of history, and fairly faithfully. Julius Caesar -- played by Rex Harrison in one of his best performances, I think -- comes to Alexandria while fighting enemies on all sides. He had previously installed teenage siblings Cleopatra and Ptolemy as co-rulers of Egypt, but the brother had pushed her out.

The much-older Caesar regards the young Egyptian girl as an impertinent pest, but in time he comes to see her as a prized pupil in the ways of leadership, and eventually something more intimate. Taylor plays Cleopatra as an intensely intelligent and calculating person, who absorbs the wisdom of Caesar and then puts it to her own use.

She bore him a son, Caesarion, and they wed despite Caesar already being married to a proper Roman woman. Upon being named dictator for life -- but still requiring the consent of the Senate to do anything -- he summons Cleopatra to Rome, resulting in the spectacle mentioned above. She is at the height of her powers, and Taylor positively thrums with authority and confidence.

Eventually Caesar is brought down and assassinated, and loyal right-hand man Antony shares leadership for a time with two others, notably Octavian, Caesar's cunning nephew. He's played by Roddy McDowell in a coy turn, clearly presented as homosexual, but a far superior politician and tactician than Antony.

Given stewardship of the eastern portion of the Roman Empire, Antony soon falls into Cleopatra's arms himself. Here, rather than using her wiles to distract a potential conqueror, Cleopatra seems to genuinely fall in love with the complex, proud Antony. Like Caesar he is accused by his peers of "going native," and is later summoned back to Rome and forced into a political marriage to Octavian's widowed sister.

Eventually Octavian, who would go on to become the first Roman Emperor, solidifies his power and maneuvers Antony into war, where his overconfidence undoes him in the naval Battle of Actium. It's an amazing sequence, with full-size ship replicas, flaming ballistas, the works.

Unmanned in defeat, Antony's despondency increases when his troops abandon him before a bold land attack against Octavian's legions. He took his own life and then Cleopatra took hers.

This all sounds fairly incredible, one woman at the center of so much pivotal history, but as I said the movie is actually pretty accurate to the known historical record. The film's major omission is removing any reference to the three children the pair had together, who were spared by Octavian and brought to Rome to be raised by his sister.

(Caesarion and Antony's other son by a previous marriage did not fare so well, literally dragged screaming to their executions.)

The cinematography, sets, special effects and costumes are lavish beyond imagining. The film won Oscars in all four categories, setting industry standards that could only be achieved today through the extensive use of CGI. "Cleopatra" also earned Academy Award nominations for best picture, sound, editing, music score and best supporting actor, for Harrison.

I was surprised by how much flesh there is in the film. Taylor appears nude twice, obscured by a towel during a massage and by the water of a bath. Various servants and such in the background are often scantily dressed. A dancer during the procession appears wearing only a thong and pasties over her nipples, which must have made quite an impression in 1963.

Martin Landau and Hume Cronyn are solid in supporting roles as cagey advisors to Antony and Cleopatra, respectively. Carroll O'Connor turns up as Casca, one of Caesar's leading murderers, and I admit encountering Archie Bunker in a toga was disconcerting.  Andrew Keir is a stalwart presence as Agrippa, a longtime foe of Antony's.

I'd been meaning to get to "Cleopatra" for several years, and am pleased by what I found. Like "Gone With the Wind," it's a terrific movie that got swallowed by a much longer film. The difference being that while the former is lavishly overpraised, "Cleopatra" deserves much better than to be regarded as a cinematic punchline.

Here is Hollywood moviemaking teetering at the end of its golden age, grand and gaudy, its flaws inseparable from its many virtues.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Video review: "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice"

I remember when it was first announced a couple of years ago that Ben Affleck would play Batman in the epic throwdown between him and Superman, the fanboys lit up the Web with their ire. Turns out he’s the best thing about “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

Indeed, he’s just about the only good thing.

The D.C. Comics folks, poring over the box office grosses of the last 15 years of Marvel movies, were desperate to get their super heroes back into flicks. Really, this film is the set-up to a bunch of Justice League and solo hero movies they have planned. That’s great, but they were in too much of a hurry to get the ball rolling that they don’t properly set up this universe.

“BvS” feels like it’s in too much of a hurry, even at 2½ hours.

The premise is that Batman/Bruce Wayne is enraged over the thousands of people killed during Superman’s fight with General Zod (as chronicled in “Man of Steel”) -- including some of his own employees -- and comes to view the boy in blue as too much of a threat to have around. Of course, he’s also being manipulated by Lex Luthor, here presented as a conniving boy billionaire played by Jesse Eisenberg, who knows of such things. Imagine his Mark Zuckerberg from “The Social Network” but (slightly) more malevolent.

Soon enough the boys are at each other’s throats. It’s a fight that by any reckoning should last two seconds or less, as Superman is an immortal demi-god with laser eyes and Batman is just a regular guy with determination and a good tailor. Director Zach Snyder and scriptmen Chris Terrio David S. Goyer labor to make their combat believable.

Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Jeremy Irons as loyal Wayne butler Alfred and Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor Perry White are all pretty well wasted, showing up to move the plot along as needed and then disappearing for long stretches. The razzle-dazzle introduction of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is a high point; I look forward to her having her own film.

If it weren’t for Affleck, I’d call the movie a total disaster.

He’s brooding and self-doubting and tragic. He shows us a Batman who’s aging and losing faith, so we understand when he lashes out with anger. Frankly, I’ll take Affleck over Christian Bale, Michael Keaton or any other actor who’s worn the pointy ears.

So call it just a partial disaster.

Bonus features are pretty meaty. Although there’s no commentary track, there are 11 making-of featurettes: “Uniting the World’s Finest,” “Gods and Men: A Meeting of Giants,” “The Warrior, The Myth, The Wonder,” “Accelerating Design: The New Batmobile,” “Superman: Complexity & Truth,” “Batman: Austerity & Rage,” “Wonder Woman: Grace & Power,” “Batcave: Legacy of the Lair,” “The Might and the Power of a Punch,” “The Empire of Luthor” and “Save the Bats.”

In addition to the usual versions on DVD, Blu-ray and 3D, there’s an “Ultimate Edition” – also available via digital retailers -- that contains about 30 minutes of new footage.



Thursday, July 14, 2016

Review: "Ghostbusters"


I wish I could say better about “Ghostbusters,” the highly anticipated -- and, among a small but vocal slice of misogynistic Internet trolls, much reviled -- reboot of the 1984 comedy classic. People are mostly talking about the fact this version features four female Ghostbusters.

But what they should be talking about is why the movie is so funny and distinctive in the first half, and then spends the last hour trying woefully to mimic the old film -- right down to cameos of nearly all the original cast members that mostly serve to remind us the new version doesn’t measure up.

It’s not the abundance of X chromosomes that diminishes this “Ghostbusters.” It’s that it tries too hard to be a carbon copy instead of a wholly fresh take.

Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig play Abby and Erin, two paranormal physicists who parted ways years earlier after writing a book about ghosts. Now Erin is worried it will ruin her chances for tenure at Columbia University, while Abby slaves away at a fly-by-night science institute with a younger colleague, Holtzmann, who’s half-crazy and hammers together all sorts of experimental tech to blast and capture ghosts.

Played by Kate McKinnon, Holtzmann is the best thing about the movie. With her runaway hair, dumpster-diver-meets-1980s-John Cusack-wardrobe, yellow goggles and uncomfortable manner, McKinnon has a way of barking out her dialogue in oddly endearing ways. She’s like a stray puppy you know will chew up all your shoes, but you’re eager to bring her home anyway.

Leslie Jones plays Patty in something of a retread of the Ernie Hudson role, the sassy and street-smart black add-on, though she’s a little more proactive. She’s an MTA booth dweller who seeks out the Ghostbusters after encountering an especially loathsome apparition in the subway tunnel.

A note on the ghosts: they’re great-looking, with 30+ years of special effects advancement giving them all sorts of details and depth; I like how the bones show through their translucent clothes and epidermis. Curiously, as in the old movie the spirits never actually kill anyone directly, though one guy falls out a window after being scared to his (presumed) death.

Last time around the villain was a conniving bureaucrat indifferent to the ghostly danger, but here it’s a creepy nerd named Rowan (Neil Casey), a spit-upon hotel janitor who’s actively giving the paranormal escapees a nudge or three. The guy is supposed to be resentful about always being overlooked, but after spending some time with the charmless fellow we empathize with the overlookers.

Chris Hemsworth has a fun turn as Kevin, a dimwitted blond who becomes their receptionist, mostly by enchanting Erin (or at least her hormones). He’s so stupid his eyeglass frames are empty -- “They kept getting dirty,” he justifies -- and he covers his eyes when told not to listen. Although at some point I got the sense Kevin is just pulling a ruse to get out of not doing any work.

It’s all good stuff, right up to the time they make their first big public takedown of ghosts in front of a hall full of rock concert fans, when “Ghostbusters” runs off the rails.

Director Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”), who co-wrote the script with Katie Dippold, turns the latter hour of the movie into a greatest hits show, as we trot out the old actors and even the hot dog-eating Slimer ghost. There’s a new Ghostmobile, another Cadillac hearse (borrowed from Patty’s uncle), a showdown with a giant puffy ghost who goes around crushing buildings, and so on.

It’s like all the energy they built up in the first half got plugged into the wrong, outdated gizmo.

The women of “Ghostbusters” are great. The foursome have real chemistry together, and I would love to see them go on to other adventures -- ones in which there’s no expectation or reason to crib from a classic.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Review: "Little Men"

"Little Men" is a movie about the little moments and in-between spaces of human relationships. It sets out not to spin a complicated plot but to present a small group of people to you and then observe them closely. It's a tender and true portrait of what it's like to be a 13-year-old boy, or a parent of one.

Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri play the boys, and they're just magnificent. Honest, unadorned reflections of the awkwardness and cockiness of that age. Taplitz plays Jake, a budding artist who's reserved and thoughtful, a tiny bit alienated. Barbieri is Tony, outspoken and outgoing, delighting us with a New York patois filled with verbal idiosyncrasies and rhythms.

Tony, not surprisingly, wants to be an actor. They both aspire to get into a fancy Manhattan arts high school.

Jake's parents are Brian (Greg Kinnear, in fine form), an actor who labors for his craft but earns little income doing it, and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), a psychotherapist who acts as the family's even keel. Tony's only parent is Paulina (Leonor Calvelli), a Chilean expat who runs a quaint little dress shop in Brooklyn.

The group is brought together by the death of Brian's father, who owned the shop building shop and the apartment above, where Brian grew up. They decide to leave their pricey Manhattan place to take up residence there. Their interactions with Paulina are pleasant if a little distant. But Tony and Jake become instant best friends.

Director Ira Sachs ("Love Is Strange"), who co-wrote the original script with Mauricio Zacharias, has an intrinsic feel for the outlook and emotionality of young teenagers. It's a tough age for boys (or anyone), caught between school, girls, video games and parents. Tony feels the pull to maintain a sense of bravado, so he instigates a fight against a friend in the face of some harmless teasing. Jake is more an observer and introvert, so having someone like Tony to push and pull him into socializing is beneficial.

I adored the moment where Tony plucks up the courage to ask a classmate out while they're dancing in a crowded club and she tells him she's "into older men." (Like what? A 17-year-old? Honey, 17-year-olds don't want to date 13-year-olds unless some of their wiring is crossed.) Rather than going screwy with anger, Tony simply says, "Thank you for being honest," then slinks away.

The trouble arises when it comes time to renew the lease for Leonor's store. Brian's dad never raised the rent, so the $1,100 a month she's paying is seriously under-market in a hip gentrifying neighborhood. Brian's more mercenary sister, Audrey (Talia Balsam), insists they could get $5,000. He's a decent man but they could use the money. He offers an in-between price.

When presented with this problem, Leonor tends to just... disappear. She avoids conversations, or steers it in another direction. When eventually confronted, she goes into long speeches about how much Brian's father appreciated having her there, how her ship is a staple of the neighborhood. When this doesn't work she grows more subtly caustic, insinuating the Brian's father questioned his manhood because his wife brings in almost all their family income.

Leonor likes to think of herself as the voice of wisdom, valuing the community over the individual -- but she's got a streak of steel in her, too. Meanwhile, Leonor's friend the lawyer (Alfred Molina) takes a look at the paperwork, ratcheting up tensions.

The boys react to the conflict by drawing closer to each other. They make a pact not to speak to their parents until the matter is resolved. The trio of grownups try to brush off this minor rebellion, but their patience eventually wears thin. (There's only so much nodding a parent can take at the dinner table.)

"Little Men" is a movie of small revelations, not any big "aha" moment. Things end on an ambiguous note, because that's how life mostly plays out. It's a story of people intersecting -- sometimes hugging, sometimes abrading against each other.

Review: "Les Cowboys"

At the finale of “The Searchers,” perhaps the most seminal Western film ever made, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) finally catches up with the niece who was kidnapped years earlier by Comanches. A violent and virulently racist man, Ethan has vowed to kill her himself rather than let a white girl continue to live as an Indian. But then he embraces the niece and brings her back into the arms of their family. Love wins over hate.

“The Cowboys” is part ode to John Ford’s masterpiece, and part repudiation of it. Here, love does not always win, and often hate and anger define us, or at least our actions.

It’s a modern French Western -- and who knew there was such a thing? -- whose novelty is more praiseworthy than its execution. Thomas Bidegain is a noted screenwriter -- “A Prophet, “Rust and Bone” -- making his directorial debut with this movie, which he co-wrote with Noé Debré.

It consciously parallels the narrative of “The Searchers,” with a bitter authority figure who gives up everything in pursuit of a female relative taken by men he regards as alien and savage. In tow is a younger man, whose attitudes are less severe, but he ends up making the quest his own.

Initially set in 1994, the story encompasses about a decade and a half. François Damiens plays Alain Balland, a businessman who sidelines as a crooner at cowboy festivals and such, sporting a black 10-gallon hat and a swagger. His wife (Agathe Dronne) and kids enthusiastically join in the fun. But then his 16-year-old daughter, Kelly (Iliana Zabeth), disappears out of the blue.

The cops are unhelpful, the bureaucrats irritating, the leads quickly hit dead ends. Alain’s only clue is a curt letter from Kelly telling them she’s found a new life and not to seek her out. He is not the sort of man to lay aside what he sees as his duty, so he keeps looking.

It appears Kelly ran off with a boyfriend, Ahmed, a Muslim immigrant, which mortifies Alain. He angrily denounces the boy’s parents as “ragheads,” though they seem decent folk. Alain gets close a couple of times, but then the trail dries up.

Flash forward a few years. Alain is thicker, grayer, but no less determined. His son, Georges (Finnegan Oldfield), is now a teen and his resentful companion in the hunt. They go to Belgium, meet with forgers, pay off informants. Funds and help are scarce -- Alain has long ago abandoned his career and marriage -- so they resort to stealing gas to continue.

The journey goes on and on, post-9/11, into the Middle East -- troubled places where Islamic radicalism hold sway. John C. Reilly shows up as an American agent of dubious intent, offering help while carrying out his own shadowy pursuits.

Damiens is a haunting presence, a man who will do anything in pursuit of what he deems right, even if he commits much wrong along the way. Oldfield grows before our eyes from a timid youngster to a hardened man who unwittingly takes up his father’s mantle, and methods.

The story takes too long getting where it wants to, then seems in a terrible hurry to wrap things up in the final act. Momentous life-changing events are given short shrift with too little screen time for the emotional impact to land. A late-arriving character, a Pakistani woman named Shazhana (Ellora Torchia), is introduced more as an idea than a believable person.

It’s an interesting of not entirely successful film. There’s no shame in imitating a classic and falling short, as “Les Cowboys” does.


Sunday, July 10, 2016

Video review: "Everybody Wants Some!!"

If you’d have told me six months ago that by the mid-point of 2016 my favorite movie would be a plotless paean to college sex, beer and rock ‘n’ roll, I’d have called you a moonbat.

But here we are.

“Everybody Wants Some!!” is writer/director Richard Linklater’s ode to his own college days in Texas, where the members of the baseball team carouse, chase girls and philosophize about their hedonistic existence. It stars a bunch of unknown actors in a true ensemble performance where no one character dominates, but something like a couple dozen each get a share of the limelight.

Set in the four days before classes start, we fellow the players roam from room to room and party to party. They drink, dance, imbibe and partake of other earthly pleasures. There really is no story, but somehow from this aromatic stew of encounters emerges a recognizable theme of young people stepping out into the world and finding themselves.

I hesitate even to name any of the cast, since pointing out one brings up other names that should be mentioned, but here goes. Finnegan (Glen Powell) and McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin) are senior ball players determined to win the championship come spring, and party hard until then. One is brutish and blunt, the other a silver-tongued cad, but together they’re bona fide leaders who set the tone for the rest.

Jake (Blake Jenner) is a freshman pitcher and our entry point into the bacchanalia. He’s not so much the main character as the locus of activities; we follow him around and discover this world as he does. Zoey Deutch plays the smart, sassy woman he meets on the first day and lackadaisically pursues from there on.

Set in 1980, the movie is so effective at evoking a time and place: coming down the off-ramp of the 1970s, itself a sort of mellowing of ‘60s ideals and chaos, coupled with the upbeat energy of the 1980s and a consequence-free atmosphere before AIDS and hard drugs killed the party for good.

Essentially an unofficial sequel to Linklater’s 1993 “Dazed and Confused” breakout, “Everybody Wants Some!!” is offbeat filmmaking at its best. Grab a brew (or something harder/smellier), kick back and drink it all in.

Bonus features are a bit lacking, probably due to the film’s poor box office showing. The DVD has exactly no extras, so you’ll have to spring for the Blu-ray to get them.

This includes “More Stuff That’s Not in the Movie” -- deleted and extended scenes; “Rickipedia,” based on one character’s fount of knowledge; “Baseball Players Can Dance,” a montage of the various music scenes, “History 101: Stylin’ in the 80s,” a featurette looking at the clothes and culture of the era; and “Skills Videos,” which features some of the abilities the actors had to hone for their roles (beyond chugging, that is).



Thursday, July 7, 2016

Review: "The Secret Life of Pets"

Colorful, boingy, copious critters, a robust emphasis on gastrointestinal humor -- if that’s not the perfect recipe for a little kids’ movie, then I don’t know what is.

Note I said “little kids’ movie,” not “family film,” because while “The Secret Life of Pets” is a strong entry in the former, it is not much in the way of the latter. What it mostly is is a sorta-sequel to “Minions,” made by the same people, with cartoony dogs and cats (a few birds and reptiles, too) swapped out for the lil’ yellow dudes.

Well, except these guys are understandable. It’s a “Toy Story” -ish conceit, about the adventures our pets go on when we’re not around. To humans their speech just sounds like barks and yelps and what have you, but they can all understand each other -- no inter-species language barrier here.

The story focuses on two dogs, Max and Duke, voiced by Louis C.K. and Eric Stonestreet. Max is a fun-loving little dude who has a cozy life in New York City with his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). But then one day she brings home Duke, an enormous brown ball of fluff from the shelter, and all bets are off as they vie for title of apartment alpha dog.

Through a whole lot of implausible contretemps, they’re lost in the city trying to find their way home. Meanwhile they are pursued by two groups. The first is a rescue mission led by Gidget (the adorably squeaky Jenny Slate), the white Pomeranian from across the way who secretly adores Max.

She throws together a ragtag group that includes Max’s other dog friends, a fat and lazy cat (Lake Bell), a parakeet, guinea pig and even a hawk (Albert Brooks), who tamps down his predatory instinct to help creatures he would usually snack on.

And that’s actually the normal team. The other, more antagonistic one is the Flushed Pets, a gang of discarded creatures who’ve sworn revenge on the human world that shunned them. They have a tattooed pig, a hairless and holey cat (Steve Coogan), several alligators, assorted lizards and fish and a large one-fanged viper. Their leader is Snowball (Kevin Hart), an excitable former magician’s rabbit with the heart of William Wallace and the combat skills of… a poofy little hare.

“Liberation forever, domestication never!” is his clarion call.

Director Chris Renaud, co-director Yarrow Cheney and screenwriters Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch and Cinco Paul pitch the material straight at the 3- to 8-year-old audience. For instance, there’s a dog party where they walk in a circle sniffing each other’s butts while exchanging pleasantries. (“Enchanté!”) A high point is a sequence where the dogs break into a sausage factory and gorge themselves, leading to pork-induced hallucinations and a musical number.

“The Secret Life of Dogs” is well-made, unambitious entertainment. It’s the sort of thing you appreciate being able to let your kids enjoy, while at the same time wishing it were permissible to go off and do something else.

(Drop-off theaters with supervised double-features of this and “The Angry Birds Movie”? Now that’s an upcharge parents would happily shell out for ahead of 3-D.)

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Review: "Wiener-Dog"

Talk about black comedy. "Wiener-Dog," the newest from quirky writer/director Todd Solondz ("Welcome to the Dollhouse"), makes even his earlier work some bright and cheery.

The title refers to a cute little dachshund who acts as the film's MacGuffin, getting passed around from owner to owner through a series of unlikely happenings. The story isn't about the dog, though, rather than the dysfunctional people into whose lives she enters and impacts in often odd ways.

It's an ensemble piece starring the likes of Greta Gerwig, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn and Julie Delpy, each playing characters who are in some way bitter or sad. The dog's presence doesn't necessarily make them happier or more despondent, but serves as an impetus to them acting upon their situation, taking the next step in their pitiful lives.

They may not grow, but at least they're in motion.

For instance, DeVito plays a has-been screenwriter still eking out an existence as a film school teacher, where he's derided by the students and faculty as criminally out of touch. He's (in)famous for his old-school Hollywood "What if" approach to storytelling -- what if your girlfriend dumps you? What if you're mistaken for a spy?

His agent has just dumped him, the replacement seems eager to pass him off too, nobody wants to even read his new script, and the school's dean literally uses him to fill seats at a Q&A with an incredibly snotty alumni who just made a hit film -- where he's insulted from the stage, because who knew the old fossil was still rambling around?

He ends up with a novel use for the dog as the ultimate middle finger to everyone who's put him down.

The comedy in this portion is the most biting, especially the bile directed at know-nothing youngsters who deride the professor's approach but have nothing to contribute themselves. I especially liked the interview with a prospective student who is completely unable or unwilling to name a specific movie that inspired him. "Just name a movie!" he finally thunders.

(No doubt these scenes are inspired by Solondz' own tenure teaching at my alma mater, New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. After watching this film, I would tremble to speak up as a student in his class...)

Other sequences are less compelling, like the opening one which provides the title. The dog is given that name by a young boy, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), whose father buys his son a pet as part of his recuperation process from cancer. The parents (Tracy Letts and Delpy) employ the pup as another front in their ongoing war against each other. But the whole piece feels stiff and constructed.

Better is a strange meeting between an elderly woman (Burstyn), bitter and lonely, who gets a visit from her wayward granddaughter, played by Zosia Mamet. Their tenuous relationship is spotlit in just a few marvelous minutes of screen time -- the girl only shows up every few years when she needs money, with her latest all-wrong boyfriend in tow. This is followed by the grandmother's encounter with her own mortality that is both amusing and harrowing.

Another portion of the canine's journey is being dognapped by a veterinary assistant (Greta Gerwig, in frump mode with big glasses), who nurses him back to health after almost being euthanized. She bumps into an old tormentor from high school (Kieran Culkin) whom she secretly had a crush on, and the two begin a spontaneous road trip to Ohio. Along the way they pick up hitchhikers -- surely the most morose mariachi band that ever existed -- and the bully has an unexpectedly heartfelt conversation with his brother.

Sometimes the dog's transition is made explicit, such as the dognapping, but other times he just appears, Zelig-like, in the midst of the next chapter.

"Wiener-Dog" is an odd, odd film. That seems to be an ongoing thing nowadays, with films like this and "Swiss Army Man," that embrace weirdness for its own sake. The humor is bone-dry and wry, the sort of thing that produces a grimaced smirk rather than a guffaw.

I can't say I really enjoyed it in its totality, but it has interesting stops along the way.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Reeling Backward: "East of Eden" (1955)

Nine-tenths of James Dean's performance in "East of Eden" isn't in the screenplay.

As conceived it's already a strong part, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by John Steinbeck and helmed by one of one of the greatest directors of actors ever, Elia Kazan. Paul Osborn would receive an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay adaptation, as did Kazan.

But it'd Dean show, in every way that matters. His style of performance, along with Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and few others, more or less marks the transition to what I consider "modern" film acting. Previously most movie actors came up through the theater tradition, and were taught their performance had to be big and broad. They learned Shakespearean elocution and good posture. They still saw themselves as being on a stage, just with cameras and sound booms.

Actors were, literally, stiff.

"Real" actors didn't mumble, or stoop, or not look people in the eye. Similarly, the midcentury conception of ideal masculinity was John Wayne -- composed and remote. Yet here came Dean with his twitchy, emotionally raw turn in his very first film role. (After numerous small television roles.) He seems so uncomfortable and alienated, like he's literally about to shiver his way out of his skin

As Cal Trask, the wayward teenage son of a respected farmer in World War I-era California, Dean embodies the dark half of the parable of Cain and Abel. Cal has been raised without the respect or admiration of his stern father, Adam (Raymond Massey), which he instead bestowed on Cal's fraternal twin brother, Aron (Richard Davalos).

He's essentially a walking wound. I think of the little moments, the touches and quirks Dean infuses into every minute onscreen to convey Cal's vulnerability and multitudinous flaws.

Cal can be kind and empathetic one minute, petulant and just plain nasty the next. He blows like a zephyr, and Dean does, too.

When his dad loses his entire fortune on a risky gamble to preserve and ship lettuce using a crude form of refrigeration, Cal resolves to earn the money back by investing in bean commodities. With a $5,000 loan from his estranged mother -- more on her later -- he and a partner offer local farmers a premium to grow beans, knowing they'll prove a valuable, spoil-resistant crop as America is on the cusp of entering the war in Europe.

In a brief scene -- throwaway exposition, really -- Cal suddenly takes off on a spirited frolic/dance through a bean field. He's positively giddy at the prospect of growing in his father's admiration, much like those tiny sprouts. This, like a number of other key moments in "East of Eden," was pure improvisation by Dean. Kazan wisely kept his cameras rolling to see what would happen.

In the film's pivotal scene, when Cal offers the money to his father and it is rejected as foul war profiteering, the script called for the boy to turn his back and flee in anger. Instead, Dean broke down in a gush of tears and embraced Massey, almost clawing at him as if to wring the reluctant affection out of him. Massey, a decidedly traditional actor, could only stammer "Cal! Cal!" in shocked tones.

That electric combination of old and new methods of acting is a cinematic watershed moment.

I think, though, that my favorite moment in the film is much smaller and subtler. Cal is smitten with Abra (Julie Harris), the longtime girlfriend and presumed fiance of Aron. He doesn't want to betray his brother, but the weight of keeping his feelings repressed eventually becomes unbearable. He climbs up to her bedroom window in the middle of the night and enlists Abra's aid in preparing a surprise birthday party for his father.

Dean stares at her, and in the moonlight his face is the far prettier of the two. You can see all the pain and loneliness mirrored in his sad, tired eyes. He wants her, but can't say so. So there's a distance to his expression. He smiles shyly, and just for a second he rests his face against the window frame -- like he can't stand to hold up the charade.

Better than any single image I can summon, this frame captures the essence of what it's like to be a teenager. 

The rest of the movie isn't quite as memorable as Dean's performance. It's a rather messy narrative, trying to wind big themes into a story that doesn't really add up to much. I don't envy Osborn ("The Yearling"), tasked with translating Steinbeck's sprawling novel into a two-hour film. All of the first half of the book about Adam's youth gets jettisoned, and much that remains is shifted around to place the spotlight on Cal.

Davalos as Aron doesn't get a lot to do, other than make an 11th hour conversion from perfect son to cackling loon. Abra is a more rounded character, and we get a glimpse of her life outside of the prism of her love triangle with two brothers. That's more than you can see about most female supporting characters (then or now).

I also appreciated Burl Ives as Sam the Sheriff, who sees himself as not just the law but the moral conscience of the town of Monterey. He steers Cal into more productive behavior, and puts down a bout of anti-German hysteria that could've turned into a riot with just a few glares and veiled pleasantries.

Jo Van Fleet is terrific as Kate, Cal and Aron's mother, who ran out on them as babes after shooting Adam when he tried to stop her because she couldn't bear the isolation and Bible-thumping of life on the ranch in Salinas. The boys believe her to be dead, but she's become a hard-bitten madame running a prosperous brothel in Monterey.

Cal follows her around like a lost puppy, eventually confronting her and getting her to loan him seed money for his bean scheme. He beholds himself in her, while Aron is more akin to their strict, God-fearing father.

Kate is both powerful and self-loathing, refusing to submit to any man's yoke but still hating what she's become. It's impressive work for Van Fleet, especially when you consider how little screen time she has -- really only two substantial scenes adding up to maybe five minutes. She won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn.

The cinematography is something to behold, and I'm surprised Ted McCord didn't get any notice from the Academy. Kazan was reputedly proud of his use of CinemaScope to capture the Western landscapes, in contrast with the tight urban spaces he was previously known for filming. My favorite shot is of the train bearing Adam Trask's lettuce shipment -- his dreams, really -- puffing away into the horizon. He ambles around the back of the station to watch it go, and unbeknownst Cal follows him, watching his father watch.

It beautifully encapsulates the entire father-son dynamic, with one's back turned to the other, not so much indifferent as unawares.

Kazan and McCord also used visual distortion a couple of times to wonderful effect, both during spats between Cal and Adam. One is when Adam is making Cal read from the Bible, not for enlightenment but as punishment; the other is when Cal jumps on a swing and leers at his father each time his momentum carries him near, spitting and taunting.

By zooming the wide lens in close they were able to get a bending effect in the corners, underlining the way the two men can't get their personalities to mesh. This is accented by tilting the camera mid-shot to give it a carnival funhouse effect. It's brilliant without feeling like the direction is intruding into the film.

The brevity of James Dean's career is an essential part of his iconography. "East of Eden" is his only film that came out while he was still alive; he never even got to see "Giant" or "Rebel Without a Cause," for which he would become the first posthumous Oscar acting nominee.

Rather than fretting about what might have been, we revel in a young performer's transformational journey that forever altered our conception of cinematic acting. There is before Dean, and after.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Video review: "I Saw the Light"

“I Saw the Light” falls into that category of biopics that are dominated by a great performance, but the movie surrounding it falls a little short.

We’ve seen it before in films like “Ray,” “Walk the Line” or “Capote” -- stories about legendary artists who knew trouble and strife in their lives, along with glory and fame. The problem is that it’s hard to take the stray threads of a person’s life, the contradictions and randomness, and weave them into cohesive narrative.

That challenge even comes with someone like Hank Williams, who died a country music legend at age 29. Tom Hiddleston plays the honky-tonk king as a charming scamp who couldn’t resist the siren call of booze, women and worse. He ends up hurting everyone he loves, most especially himself.

Writer/director Marc Abraham plays it straight in his storytelling, charting Williams’ rise from local radio crooner to favorite son of the Grand Ole Opry. Elizabeth Olsen plays his bossy wife, Audrey, who wanted a singing career of her own and takes it out on Hank when this doesn’t pan out. He starts to dally around, she resents being penned up at home like his plaything, and the bitterness blooms.

Much has been made of Hiddleston, a Brit, playing such an iconic American figure. I for one don’t mind; he looks the part and occupies the role with assurance and a deep sense of tragedy. His singing is quite good, though not much of an impersonation of Williams’ signature twang and moan.

One misstep Abraham makes is using interviews from people who knew Williams to cover the boring exposition stuff. It distracts us from the main character’s journey, not to mention comes across as a lame “Behind the Music” stunt.

Still, “I Saw the Light” is a worthy if not terribly daring biopic. It shows us the troubled soul of Hank Williams, the smiling man who crooned about heartache and despair.

Video extras aren’t terribly extensive, but they are impactful. Abraham offers a feature-length commentary track – though, in a novel move, you have to download it from iTunes first. There are also deleted scenes and three featurettes: “Illuminating A Legend: Inside I Saw the Light,” “Talking Hank” and “A Night in Nashville: Premiere and Musical Performance by Tom Hiddleston.”