Thursday, September 29, 2016

Review: "Queen of Katwe"

I find baseball dreadfully boring, but I’ve admired a lot of baseball movies. Chess is even duller, though I know of at least two very good chess films (“Fresh,” “Searching for Bobby Fischer”). The secret is to focus not on the game but the people playing it. You can transcend a dreary topic with a compelling story and characters.

“Queen of Katwe” largely fails to do this. It’s the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a teen girl from Uganda who dreams of rising out of the slums to become a chess master. Directed by Mira Nair (“Mississippi Masala”) from a screenplay by William Wheeler, based on an article and book by Tim Crothers, it’s actually a pretty typical underdog story along the lines of “The Rookie,” also from Disney, but with an exotic African backdrop.

Phiona is played by newcomer Madina Nalwanga, who brings much enthusiasm but meager ability to the role. It pains me to single out a fledging actor for criticism, but it’s very difficult to sustain a two-hour movie when the main character, who’s in nearly every scene, comes across as the least authentic person in the movie. Nalwanga’s stiff line readings and often inexpressive mien make Phiona hard to relate to.

Veteran actors Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo are much better playing her mother and coach, Nakku and Robert Katende. You can see how much they invest their own hopes and dreams, leavened with past tragedies, into the girl. At times, she is clearly overburdened.

The film also struggles with a poor sense of tempo, often seeming more like disparate scenes strung together haphazardly than a cohesive narrative. In chess terms it's all individual moves with little strategy. At 124 minutes, it’s also at least 20 minutes too long.

(The sound mix and heavy accents of most of the African performers render the dialogue difficult to grasp consistently without straining. I’m reminded of some recent films from the United Kingdom that, despite being in English, could also have been improved with subtitles.)

The story starts in 2007, when Phiona was 11 years old, and takes us up to almost the present. We watch her as a shy girl from Katwe, the lowliest slum of Kampala, peeking into the Pioneers shanty where Katende teaches chess to underprivileged kids.

At first, she’s attracted as much by the offer of free porridge as play. Phiona is so destitute that even the other poor kids single her out for ridicule, complaining of her foul smell. But she endures their insults, washes up and returns.

A born prodigy who can see eight moves ahead, she’s soon defeating all the other children -- the boys take it especially badly in a culture ladled with machismo -- and even her teacher.

Katende wrangles up a team for a match at a prestigious university, leading to the best sequence in the film as the slum kids experience culture shock in a world of pressed uniforms and green cricket fields. Bewildered by the concept of beds, they curl up together to sleep on the floor. Phiona’s skill and aggressive attacking style soon wipe the smirks off the faces of the rich “city boys.”

Things go on from there. There are predictable disappointments, followed by bucking-up from her mentor. “Do not be quick to tip your king,” Katende coos. A subplot involving Nakku’s factious relationship with her elder daughter, Night (Taryn Kyaze), who dreams of finer things, flits in and out of the spotlight to little effect.

I liked many things about “Queen of Katwe” without embracing the whole experience. In filmmaking, unlike chess, you can’t waste too many pieces without losing the game.

Review: "Deepwater Horizon"

There are a lot of ways you could have attacked the story of Deepwater Horizon: emblem of corporate corruption, biggest oil disaster in world history, one selfless hero saving the day, etc. Director Peter Berg and screenwriters Matthew Sand and Matthew Michael Carnahan took the most obvious, but probably also the most dramatically effective route, turning “Deepwater Horizon” into a big-budget disaster flick.

The 2010 explosion of the Transocean oil rig spewed 210 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in massive environmental catastrophe whose effects are still being felt today. Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell play the leaders who struggle to stop the crisis and save lives.

An effective crew of supporting actors make up the chorus of other victims, notably Ethan Suplee, Gina Rodriguez and Dylan O’Brien. John Malkovich and James DuMont provide the villains, sniveling corporate honchos hanging around behind the workers, demanding that safety measures by shortcut to maximize profits.

The film, which is based on a detailed reconstruction of events by the New York Times, is viscerally gripping -- once the action gets going.

Until then, it’s a barely comprehensible mishmash of industry jargon and manly chest-puffing. The sound mix on the version I saw was poor, so it’s often hard to comprehend the dialogue. (Malkovich’s Louisiana accent, slathered on heavy like sugar on beignets, doesn’t help.)

Once the blowout of the drill occurs, seeping gas that turns the entire rig into an inferno, the film finds its footing and its verve. The rest of the way is a moment-by-moment banquet of terror and bravery, as men (and a woman or two) struggle to keep the rig from floating off course, snapping the line sunk deep into the ocean floor.

Wahlberg’s Mike Williams is chief electric technician, which makes him the top safety advocate onboard. Russell plays Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell, the revered rig chief who commands the respect of his blue-collar crew. They’re both old-school film hero types, taciturn and direct, who believe in doing a job right rather than half-assing it and leaving a mess for the next guy.

But the construction of this project is already 43 days past schedule -- “the well from hell,” the crew dubs it -- which means millions in lost profits to the BP executives, who have come to pay a “friendly” visit. Ostensibly they’re there to laud Harrell and his team for their exemplary safety record. (No Hollywood hoke here.) But their real purpose is to push things along and cut corners.

“Hope ain’t a tactic,” Mike warns, to deaf ears.

The conflict quickly leads to disaster, as a geyser of mud, oil and gas storms up the line, resulting in back-breaking explosions that killed 11 crew. Kate Hudson plays Wahlberg’s wife, doing the usual disaster-movie-wife thing, making frantic calls and providing an emotional presence amid the storm.

Berg fills his screen with impressive blooms of fire, and accompanied with the near-constant impact of shrapnel raining down like bullets, it makes for a truly harrowing hellscape of death and destruction.

“Deepwater Horizon” accomplishes several things well, including rendering how the accident unfolded understandable for a general audience. Investigations have concluded it was a scenario in which virtually everything that could go wrong, did.

The film also vividly chronicles the peril the crew members faced, including the often competing impulses to do their jobs or save their own necks. A lot of people have a negative view of the oil industry, often well-deserved, but the movie uncovers not a small measure of nobility underneath the grimy surface.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Review: "Author: The JT LeRoy Story"

Some years ago author James Frey was excoriated for exaggerating portions of “A Million Little Pieces,” which was presented as his memoirs, especially the depth of his personal troubles. This led to a tense January 2006 confrontation with Oprah Winfrey on her show, where she had previously celebrated his work, and Frey’s career has never really recovered.

Perhaps because it happened at nearly the exact same time, the unveiling of author JT LeRoy has gained less notice. But it’s a far more compelling story, one well explored in Jeff Feuerzeig’s fascinating new documentary, “Author: The JT LeRoy Story.”

JT was a literary phenomenon and cult figure during the late 1990s and early 2000s, especially in arts and entertainment circles. A gender-fluid boy from West Virginia who grew up the child of a truck-stop prostitute, JT -- short for “Jeremiah Terminator,” his given and adopted names -- was strung out on drugs, HIV positive and selling his own body for money by the age of 13.

After being encouraged to write by a therapist, much of his experiences were illuminated in his first two novels, “Sarah” and “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things,” published while he was still a teenager. An intensely private person who eschewed in-person interviews, JT’s mystery only grew when he started making a few public appearances, clad in a long blonde wig, sunglasses and hat. In one notable event, he conducted a reading from his book onstage while hiding under a table.

Like a moth emerging from its chrysalis, JT’s celebrity grew and grew, until he became featured in photo shoots, worked on the HBO show “Deadwood” and earned a credit as a producer on Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant.” JT befriended other celebrities, including a close kinship with singer Billy Corgan.

Except for one thing: JT was a girl. And he wasn’t even real.

JT was a literary “avatar” created by Laura Albert, a rather nondescript woman from Brooklyn who was 40 at the time of the debunking. The story was widely circulated as a “hoax” -- with Albert even going so far as to dress up her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, as JT for public appearances. Fractured relationships, lawsuits, fraud charges and loss of status resulted.

Feuerzeig interviews Albert extensively, added to old footage and phone recordings to draw a fuller picture. We learn that Albert really did write as a way of therapy to transcend her own history of abuse and depression. She constructed JT as an outlet for those feelings, and was as surprised as anyone when it turned into a legitimate career as an author.

The only problem: JT wrote with such hard-scoured authenticity, everyone expected him to be the real thing.

Albert and Savannah used the ruse of JT for a German television interview, and things just cascaded from there. Albert continued to sketch out the double life, writing herself and husband Geoff Knoop into the story as JT’s housemates and friends. In public appearances, Albert herself took on the role of “Speedie,” a British-accented singer and always close at-hand confidant.

In one stranger-than-fiction occurrence, Albert attends the premier of the film “The Heart is Deceitful,” directed by and starring Asia Argento, based on her book -- but is banished from the red carpet, while Savannah, as “JT,” basks in the limelight.

If you think that’s unfathomable, things only get weirder. (For instance, a strongly implied sexual liaison between Argento and “JT.”)

I don’t want to say more, because unraveling the pretzel of Albert’s emotional journey is where much of the appeal of “Author” resides. If it’s possible to construct a mountain of lies while genuinely pursuing an inner truth, then that is what Albert was striving to do.

Here’s a mesmerizing tale of a made-up person who moved people’s hearts through words. Does it really matter whose they were?

Monday, September 26, 2016

Reeling Backward: "The Last Time I Saw Paris" (1954)

I admit I had a hard time even getting through "The Last Time I Saw Paris."

It represents exactly the sort of Golden Age filmmaking that so turned me off as a youth: melodramatic, slowly paced, maudlin to the point of groan-inducing. It's a romantic film that starts off as a joyful scamp, turns into a drama and soon a tragedy. It's what was known in the old days as a "weepie" -- I laughed, I cried, I couldn't wait for it to end.

I chose to feature it mostly because of the presence of Van Johnson, a largely forgotten performer whose career I've been wanting to explore further. During the filming of "A Guy Named Joe" he nearly had his scalp torn off in a horrible car accident, resulting in deep scars on his forehead that Hollywood makeup and lighting couldn't fully hide.

He was held out of the military as a result of his injuries, while many big stars of the era served (often in morale-boosting roles far from the danger). So for a brief moment in time, Johnson was arguably the biggest American film star. Though, like Rosie the Riveter, he soon relinquished his title when the boys came home.

Tall, freckled and strawberry blond, Johnson was a song-and-dance man whose charismatic, amiable onscreen persona left many to underestimate his talents as an actor. MGM, facing financial trouble, dropped his contract after this movie came out, but he segued into a busy career on television, and ended up doing summer stock and dinner theater into the 1970s and '80s.

The pairing with Elizabeth Taylor is an electric one. Just 21 years old, she plays Helen, a vampy seductress who pursues Charles, a Stars and Stripes correspondent, in the aftermath of the war. Her family is not wealthy but lives like they are, scraping up champagne and evening wear for a never-ending party with her father, James (an agreeable Walter Pidgeon), as the emcee and raconteur.

As Charles segues into a job as a correspondent for the Europa News Service while dreaming of writing novels, James advises him to stock his stories with the good stuff: "Riches, ruffians and rape."

Alas, his novelist career never takes off and Charles, inundated with rejections from publishers, soon turns his frustration on Helen, who withdraws back into her role as the most famous American in Paris -- noted for dancing in fountains and the like.

Neither of them are particularly good parents, with Charles off drinking and Helen socializing. This, despite the presence of an adorable moppet, Vicki (Sandy Descher). Things only compound when they become suddenly wealthy, the result of some "worthless" oil fields in Texas that yield a gusher.

Very loosely based on a semi-autobiographical short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the film has a very episodic feel, with distinct movements as judged by the changes in Helen and Charles' relationship. Director Richard Brooks ("Blackboard Jungle") co-wrote the screenplay with the Epstein twins, Julius J. and Philip G.

The title comes from a song that was already a golden oldie when the movie came out. It actually won the Academy Award for Best Song for 1941's "Lady Be Good."

The film moves in slow waves and eddies, undulating toward a sad denouement and an uplifting finale. This is the sort of movie where a perfectly healthy woman in her 20s can fall deathly hill just be being exposed to some cold weather for a few minutes. It was either that, or somebody was going to get run over by a car and crippled.

The most interesting aspect of the film is underplayed criminally. Charles does not first meet Helen, but her older sister, Marion (Donna Reed). She clearly is smitten with him, but after arriving at the party she invited him to Charles is snatched up by Helen, whom he had briefly kissed as strangers during the VE celebration in the street.

Marion is very cold to Charles the rest of the movie, even after she marries a kindly French attorney. For his part, Charles is completely ignorant of her feelings. She despises him for never returning her love. But this is all kept very much in the background, until literally the second-to-last scene, where her husband chastises Marion and urges her not to let her contempt for Charles color her actions.

To me, the story of a love triangle that goes on for years, with a man reviled for loving the wrong sister, is much more interesting than the movie we get. Marion sort of flits in and out of the background, so her emotions never really have time to register. The whole movie seems like an overlong wasted opportunity.

A couple of other stars have notable but small supporting roles. Eva Gabor plays Lorraine, a professional divorcee who marries and casts aside rich men. Charles is assigned to profile her for his news service, and the two start up a chaste companionship. Meanwhile, Helen falls into the arms of Paul, an itinerant tennis pro played by Roger Moore in one of his very first screen roles.

Hopefully, I'll find more to like about Van Johnson's career than "The Last Time I Saw Paris."

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Video review: "The Shallows"

Sometimes you have to resist knocking a movie for what it isn’t and just appreciate it for what it is. “The Shallows” is a modestly ambitious girl-versus-shark thriller that is breezily entertaining and, yes, rather dumb. But it acknowledges and embraces its own simplicity: 87 minutes of Blake Lively in a bikini, battling a voracious man-killing beast.

That really is the whole story. Nancy is a young doctor-in-training who’s taking a break to surf in Mexico after a tragedy. She’s returning to the same remote beach where her mom surfed while pregnant with her in 1991. It’s an idyllic getaway and a chance to heal… until a great white rips open her leg and traps her on some shoals a few hundred yards offshore.

The rest of the movie (directed by Jaume Collet-Serra from a screenplay by Anthony Jaswinski) is Nancy trying to out-think the shark. It circles constantly, more a force of malevolence than a mindless devourer. She has only her medical skills and perseverance to help her survive.

Nancy is constantly verbalizing her plight, which I found distracting, as if the filmmakers didn’t trust their actress and the audience to communicate what the character is thinking without spelling it out for us.

It’s a great-looking picture, with some terrific above- and -below water photography, plus some snappy editing.

“The Shallows” won’t linger in your memory, but it should keep you entertained.

Bonus features are so-so. They include deleted scenes and four making-of featurettes: “Shooting in The Shallows,” “How to Build a Shark,” “Finding the Perfect Beach: Lord Howe Island” and “When Sharks Attack.”



Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review: "Demon"

A Polish/Israeli horror/comedy? Color me intrigued.

But, alas, not entertained. "Demon" is set in a tiny Polish village on the night of a huge wedding that apparently all the locals are invited to. Things slowly start to go from awkward to disturbing, with visions of dead girls and skeletons in the ground.

The groom begins acting weird, until it becomes clear he has been taken over by a dybbuk, a mythological Jewish spirit that wanders the earth, possessing humans in an attempt to resolve their torment.

It sounds like a neat idea, sort of a Blair-Witch-meets-The-Exorcist affair but with lots of vodka and dancing. Alas, director Marcin Wrona, who co-wrote the script with Pawel Maslona, fails to build tension or a pervading sense of dread. The film ends up being a spectacle of people trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Its main problem is that people never... stop... talking.

They yap and yap and yap. Every fearful encounter only elicits more rambling conversations. People argue and do little. Even as the groom strips off his clothes on the dance floor and starts convulsing with dark spirits, the father of the bride is telling everyone not to worry, it's nothing, let's open some more bottles.

Strangely, nobody leaves the reception. I like to think I'm the polite sort, but if I'm at a party and the guest of honor starts speaking in tongues, it's time to make up an excuse about the babysitter calling.

Not to get all nationalistic here, but one thing American horror filmmakers discovered long ago was the power of silence. You can often communicate a lot more through visuals, sound effects and music than having a bunch of people standing around talking about what's going on.

It's never a good thing when you're constantly thinking about the characters, "Just please shut up for awhile."
The bride is a popular local girl, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), daughter of the relatively wealthy owner of a mining company, while the groom is a Brit, Piotr (Itay Tiran), whom the parents and the rest of the family are just meeting for the first time. He speaks Polish passably well, seems to be a well-to-do professional type.

His father-in-law (Andrzej Grabowski) provides them with a run-down house to fix up as their own. While running an earth mover nearby, Piotr uncovers an old skeleton. When he tries to show it to others, not only the body but his entire excavation disappears. Then he has a dream -- or is it?? -- about being swallowed up in the mud.

The wedding goes off without a hitch, except for Piotr experiencing a little tic during the exchange of rings. But as the rain pours down on the barn where the reception is taking place, his behavior gets weirder and weirder. At first Zaneta's family tries to say he is simply drunk, but it's clearly something more sinister.

They bring in a doctor (sort of ... his qualifications seem spotty) to offer his opinion. A priest offers little assistance. An elderly professor, who had just been dismissed from the stage for his rambling toast, relates the tragedy of a Jewish girl, Hanna, who disappeared when he was just a boy -- which would have been right around the Holocaust. As one man observes, the country is practically built on corpses.

I'll leave the plot summary there, as you can probably guess what follows. "Demon" is a great idea for a movie than never comes to fruition.

On a sad note, Marcin Wrona killed himself right before the film's release -- and shortly after his own wedding -- apparently disappointed it didn't win a film festival prize.

Review: "Storks"

“Storks” is a better concept than final product. It’s middle-of-the-road animation for kiddies with some humor thrown in for adults that doesn’t really click. I guess we should appreciate the effort, but whether they tried to include us or not, we’re not laughing.

The setup is that storks actually were in the baby delivering business until 18 years ago, when a colossal screw-up left them in the lurch and they had to take on a lost infant themselves, who’s grown up into an annoying teen who screws everything up. The boss stork, Hunter (voice of Kelsey Grammer), came up with the idea of transforming them into, an Amazon-like outlet for all kinds of consumer junk delivered door-to-door via free bird.

(Right now somewhere, Jeff Bezos is cursing his army of expensive drones.)

Hunter’s ready to move up the chain and hand the business off to Junior (Andy Samberg), a neurotic yet ambitious young climber. Except Nate (Anton Starkman), a lonely human kid who wants a baby brother to play with, sends a letter off to the storks requesting same. (“Please include ninja skills,” he underlines.) And Tulip (Katie Crown), the storks’ pet orphan, accidentally feeds it into their dormant giant gizmo that turns the letter molecules into the DNA of a new baby, or something. Out spits an adorable tyke with cotton candy-colored hair.

The metaphysics don’t make a lick of sense, but just go with it.

…except I can’t. Leaving aside the stationary-into-infant-humans thing, does this mean people weren’t having sex prior to the storks abandoning their trade? And now they’ve been making babies the old-fashioned way? If that’s the case, I’d think the headlines wouldn’t read “Storks back to making babies” but rather “Evil birds out to ruin your sex life!”

Anyway, Junior and Tulip embark on a trip to return the little girl to her rightful place, which involves journeying across sky, land and sea. (Junior conveniently busts his wing right before, thus removing the “Why not just take the eagles to Mordor?” argument a la the “Lord of the Rings” movies.)

Along the way they encounter a wolf pack that first wants to eat, then adopt the baby for themselves. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele voice the alpha dogs. The wolves have the curious, but genuinely hilarious, ability to link their bodies together to form a bridge, a boat and more stuff. There’s also a nasty little pigeon toadie (Stephen Kramer Glickman) looking to deep-six Junior’s favored status.

The movie keeps cutting away to Nate’s house, where he manages to pry his workaholic realtor parents (Jennifer Aniston and Ty Burrell) away from their phone headsets long enough to get some overdue bonding in.

Nicholas Stoller, who wrote the screenplay and co-directed with Doug Sweetland, has a fondness for rapid-delivery dialogue that is reminiscent of classic screwball comedies. Except they overuse it to the extent it becomes just irritating. It’s almost like theyassumeverythingbecomesfunnierjustbecauseyousayitfast.

If there’s a point to the story, it’s that kids are great, and you should have kids, and hug them lots and spend time with them. I can think of better ways to accomplish that than taking them to “Storks.”

Anyway, that’s my review. Now here’s one from Joel Lloyd, age almost 6: “Omigaw I love this movie!! I liked the part where the machine made a million babies with rainbow hair. Can we get it on DVD for Christmas??”

Review: "The Magnificent Seven"

“The Magnificent Seven” is a thoroughly enjoyable Western shoot-em-up that really has no purpose for existing. It’s a remake of the 1960 classic that itself is an Americanized version of a greater film, Japan’s “Seven Samurai.” But the basic tale has even deeper roots: a band of castoffs and deplorable is thrown together for a noble purpose in service to something greater than themselves.

So we watch this iteration of the familiar folklore, knowing full well what’s going to go down. There are no surprises to be unearthed, only admiration for the craftsmanship of the filmmakers and some finely drawn characters courtesy of the cast.

This is not the first rodeo together for director Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington (“Training Day”), and their films always seem to have a hum of energy about them. There are no dull patches, though we don’t delve into the backstories of the seven gunmen too much, or the villain who besets them.

It is 1879 in the tiny mining town of Rose Creek somewhere in California. The opener is a slam-banger in which sneering robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) kills most of the tougher men in town and demands the rest of the farmers leave in exchange for $20 apiece for their plots. Sargaard brings a sort of feral sickliness to the man, a bit of Biblical brimstone married to some notions about capitalism that even Ayn Rand would find overly harsh.

It’s all designed to make us hate Bogue and his army of faceless mercenaries, and it does.

Haley Bennett plays Emma Cullen, wife to one of the murdered who takes it upon herself to find some hard men of their own to stand up to Bogue. The first she recruits is Sam Chisolm (Washington), who demonstrates his affinity with the six-shooter by waltzing into a saloon and taking out half the local miscreants.

Washington is obviously having fun with this role, the bounty hunter of dark deeds who carries a carefully hidden chip on his shoulder. Outfitted in black garb, black hat and black horse, he carries a classic sense of righteousness and a modern undertone of grievance. The scene where Chisolm emerges from the saloon with hands in the air while half the town has their guns on him, the only black man around, speaks silent volumes.

Next up is Josh Faraday, a smirking gambler played by Chris Pratt. He’s a self-described ladies’ man whom all the women turn their noses up at, though he’s fast with a gun and card tricks. I kept waiting for the movie to peel back more layers on him, but it never happens. Pratt gets a lot of the best one-liners, and milks them well.

The rest sort of blur together, as the movie hurries through the recruitment phase to get to the showdown.

Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) is a marksman whose accuracy made him a legend during the Civil War, but now the genteel Southerner seems to get by more on bluster than bullseyes. “Fame is a sarcophagus,” he opines over his whiskey, and he is overly fond of both his drink and his own voice.

His partner is Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), an Asian assassin of indeterminate origin who’s equally adept with guns and blades. Apparently Goodnight and Billy made some sort of pact to protect each other’s secrets, but they protect them too well.

Vincet D’Onofrio is an oddball bearcat of a mountain man, Jack Horne, a lonely former scalp-hunter who warbles in a high-pitched voice, saying nonsensical things that bemuse and befuddle his compatriots. He seems more than slightly teched, killing brutally but always seeking assurance that he is justified in doing so.

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier are Vasquez and Red Harvest, rather generic warrior types of Mexican and Comanche heritage, respectively. Red Harvest at least gets some titular war paint to make him distinctive. Bogue has himself an evil Indian, so we just know it’s going to come down to a standoff with our good Indian.

The gunfight takes up almost the second half of the movie, and that’s the main attraction. It’s an orgy of choreographed PG-13-rated violence, in which blood flows after someone is shot but never spatters on impact. Our seven heroes manage to seem incredibly skilled but not superhuman. One guy gets shot full of arrows (bad Indian!) and we think he’s going to keep on coming, but… well, you’ll see.

If it’s possible to like a movie without really admiring it, that’s my take on “The Magnificent Seven.” I think the time and energy of cast and crew would’ve been better spent making any sort of original movie instead of remaking a remake. But the picture shoots straight.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review: "The Hollars"

“You won’t know till you get there that you’re OK.”
--Sally Hollar

On points for originality, “The Hollars” scores a great big goose egg. It’s an overly familiar recitation of the Going Home dramedy, in which a wayward adult returns to their childhood home because of some kind of family crisis and has to face a lot of old fears and doubts, heaped on top of some new ones.

But this cast is just amazing: Margo Martindale, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Sharlto Copley, Charlie Day, Mary Elizabeth Winstead. And, of course, John Krasinski (“The Office”), who stars, produces as well as directing his second feature film.

It’s a warm-hearted story that delivers exactly what you expect, yet never has a false moment or trips over any pretensions.

This movie is a big ol’ slice of pecan pie. The taste is like a memory etched into your mind, yet you can’t help finding yourself asking for more. This is the rare movie I actually wished was a bit longer.

John Hollar (Krasinski) lives in New York City and labors in misery as a graphic artist for an advertising firm. He’s got an amazing girlfriend, Rebecca (Anna Kendrick), who’s very pregnant with their child. But he hasn’t put a ring on it, and obviously has cold feet about the sudden push into real adulthood.

Back home things aren’t much happier. (The exact location of the Hollar homestead isn’t specified, but I’d guess somewhere small-town Midwest.)

The father, Don (Richard Jenkins), projects outward stoicism concealing a jumpy bundle of nerves. The family business is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Oldest son Ron (Sharlto Copley) is the resident screw-up; he’s back living in his parents’ basement after being fired by his boss -- that would be his dad -- and is long divorced. He’s taken to spying on the house where his ex-wife and daughters live.

Margo Martindale is Sally, the matriarch and spiritual center of the clan. Don even calls her “Chief,” tacitly acknowledging her prominence. As the story opens she collapses in the bathroom, which at first Don dismisses as a prank. He’s anything but mean-spirited; he’s just rested on that Rock of Gibraltar so long he just assumes Sally is immortal. But tests reveal a large brain tumor.

John returns home, and it’s apparent he was disconnected from his family long before he left. But his momma treats him with patience, knowing the sheep has to wander back to the herd on its own rather than being led. She offers opinions, gives comfort and accept some, too. Martindale is just a wondrous performer, and projects the wave of fear Sally is experiencing underneath a tough game face.

“I like Rebecca,” she tells John. “She’s pushy. Men need to be pushed.”

Rebecca herself soon arrives too, due in part to some tension with an old girlfriend of John’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is now married to Sally’s nurse, Jason (the always acerbic Charlie Day). We think it’s going to turn into a love triangle, but the third leg is not the one we expect.

The screenplay by Jim Strouse stays firmly in the groove of laughing-while-crying melodrama, decidedly sentimental without ever wallowing into sappy. There are a lot of great one-liners – such as Sally, fretting over having to have her head shaved for surgery, predicting she’ll “look like Rod Steiger.”

This is the sort of movie that rises and falls on the strength of its cast, and it’s got a doozy. There’s so much heart in the Hollars; watching a film about them is like a warm, wet hug.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Video review: "Beauty and the Beast: 25th Anniversary Edition"

I’ve often said that we live in the second Golden Age of animation. Most film historians trace its beginning to 1989’s “The Little Mermaid,” a competent but hardly groundbreaking picture. I think the enlightenment truly began two years later with the release of “Beauty and the Beast.”

Universally hailed as a masterpiece, it remains the first animated film ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award.

“Beauty” took an old fairy tale, which had previously been adapted into a 1946 French film by Jean Cocteau, and turned it into something new. Part kiddie flick, part romantic tragedy and part Broadway musical, it combines breathtaking imagery, heartfelt voice acting and unforgettable music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.

You know the tale: Belle, a smart and strong-willed young woman voiced by Paige O’Hara, is captured by the Beast (Robby Benson), formerly a handsome prince cursed with a spell that turns him into a monstrous form, resembling a cross of a dog, lion and bull. The enchanted kitchenware and furniture (who are actually members of the prince’s staff, similarly bewitched) nudge along their burgeoning romance, hoping to break the curse.

Meanwhile, the huntsman Gaston (Richard White), who resembles the normal sort of hero you see in the movies but is really a narcissistic bully, whips up a frenzy of fear against the Beast in hopes of capturing Belle for himself as his unwilling wife.

“Beauty and the Beast” was one of the first hand-drawn animated films to also incorporate computerized imagery into the final effect, most notably in the stunning ballroom scene. It also kicked off a revival of film musicals -- though animated films have moved away from that lately -- along with the now-standard practice of using established film and TV actors (including Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach and David Ogden Stiers) instead of just career voice actors.

Truly a watershed moment in film, “Beauty and the Beast” deserves its place as one of the greatest animated movies of all time.

There have obviously been several versions on video before now, but Disney has pulled out all the stops for the 25th Anniversary Edition on blu-ray.

This includes three different versions of the film: the theatrical release, the extended edit with an additional song, “Human Again,” and a new sing-along version. You can also access a work-in-progress version using Disney’s digital service. And you can watch bonus material from prior video releases the same way.

There is also a host of new material, including footage from the original recording booth sessions; “Always Belle,” a reminiscence with Paige O’Hara; a look back at Walt Disney’s fascination with fairy tales; “25 Fun Facts About Beauty and the Beast;” and “Menken & Friends: Years of Musical Inspiration.”



Thursday, September 15, 2016

Review: "Blair Witch"

“Blair Witch” reclaims the techniques and some of the sense of creeping dread that made “The Blair Witch Project” such a game-changing hit in 1999. 

Certainly, it helps erase some of the lingering bad taste from the slapped-together quickie sequel, “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” which cut out all of the young filmmakers from my hometown of Orlando who dreamed up what has now become a much-copied genre: found footage thrillers.

Taken on its own, “Blair Witch” is above-board horror with some genuine scares. But it’s hard to recapture lightning in a bottle, that sense that maybe, just maybe, this lost-in-the-woods tale could be a tiny bit true.

You can go home again, but it’s hard to fool an audience using old tricks.

Director Adam Wingard and script man Simon Barrett return to the story’s roots: set 15 years after the events from “Project,” this film presents James (James Allen McCune) as the much-younger brother of Heather, the leader of a trio of novice documentarians who wandered into the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, and were never seen or heard from again.

The legend of the Blair Witch remains just that: whispered stories and half-truths about a martyred woman who returned from the grave to haunt the Black Hills Woods surrounding the town.

Then James receives some grainy footage from a video memory card found in the woods that appears to show his sister. He launches his own expedition, bringing along best friend Peter (Brandon Scott), Peter’s girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Lisa (Callie Hernandez), a young filmmaker and friend (and possibly more).

They meet up with the YouTube poster who found the clue, Darknet666, who turns out to be a local hillbilly named Lane (Wes Robinson) who wants in on the group in exchange for his assistance. He brings along his lady, Talia (Valorie Curry), who seems a little more respectful of the Blair Witch mythology than he.

They camp in the woods, and familiar things start to happen -- strange noises, those iconic stick men figures appear out of nowhere at their campsite, they find themselves walking in circles, etc. The tension quickly ratchets up, some members of the party get hurt or go missing, and we just know it’s going to culminate in that dilapidated house in the middle of the forest.

Ensuing improvements in technology make the filmmaking aspect of the story a little more palatable. That’s been a weakness of found-footage movies: why would characters in mortal terror continue to hold ungainly video cameras and conveniently aim them at their attackers? The new film gets around that by outfitting everyone with tiny ear piece cameras with a microphone. They even have a drone camera to help them find their way in the thick woods.

“Blair Witch” obviously has a much higher budget than the shoestring original, which both helps and hurts. Back in 1999, people swore they saw a witch figure chasing the kids around, when it was all purely in their minds. That’s the power of film, to use mood and emotion to trick us. This movie goes a little more overt, which it probably had to, but that only serves to remind us we’re watching a sequel.

(A personal aside: I was acquainted with the producers and directors of “The Blair Witch Project” in Orlando, and was/am good friends with the production designer who created the stick men. They actually invited me to go work on the movie, but I didn’t have eight days off to go traipse through the Maryland woods. I’m an old-school sort who believes critics shouldn’t try to dabble in creating, so it was probably for the best.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Review: "Complete Unknown"

Rachel Weisz plays a mesmerizing lady of mystery in “Complete Unknown,” although it’s not the usual sort of cinematic femme fatale we’re used to. Usually these women have a dark past they’re running from, or a date with destiny they’re trying to outstep. Alice is simply a person who sees life as a series of divergent episodes rather than a single long arc.

Alice… or shall we call her Jenny? Those are the names she has now and started with, respectively -- though there have been almost a dozen in between and, we suspect, many more to come after the movie closes its door on this part of her story.

When her existence becomes tedious or tiresome, Alice just walks out on her old life and starts another. New identity, new look, different attitude, a fresh location. New vocation, too - she’s been a nurse, Chinese magician’s assistant, classical pianist, some other things. Currently she’s a herpetology research assistant, who’s supposedly discovered a new species of frog on Long Island of all places, distinctive because of its special croaking song.

That’s Alice in a nutshell: something utterly unique, right under our noses.

She strikes up a conversation with Clyde (Michael Chernus), a nebbishy guy at the government building cafeteria. But it’s all been carefully planned: she knows Clyde is friends with Tom (Michael Shannon), an uptight sort who works on environmental issues. His entire job, we learn, is writing emails urging certain policy recommendations that have almost no chance of coming to pass.

If Alice is a chimera, constantly changing the face she presents to the world, then Tom is a man of immovable stone, wallowing in the deepest of ruts.

Alice gets Clyde to invite her to Tom’s birthday party -- showing off a potential new girlfriend to a close circle of friends, it would seem. They’re appropriately charmed by her leonine beauty, retiring brilliance and cool job.

But Tom immediately recognizes her as Jenny, his girlfriend from college 15 years ago. Shannon is great at playing characters uncomfortable in their own skins, and he builds Tom as a bundle of nerves and unvocalized regret. He has an amazing wife, Ramina (Azita Ghanizada), an aspiring jewel maker of Persian descent. They’re currently considering a huge change in their lives, but Tom is not the sort to let things go easily.

After the party grows increasingly uncomfortable, Tom and Alice/Jenny decamp to the streets to confront each other. Why is she here? Why the ruse with Clyde? Does she want to get back together, despite Tom’s obvious unavailability?

The questions are limitless, and definitive answers few. But the old connection is still there, and Tom becomes engrossed in Alice’s ability to put on and take off masks at will, as she demonstrates in a chance encounter with an older dogwalker (Kathy Bates) and her husband (Danny Glover). Tom goes along with it, even participates in the exercise, and the temptation for change is clear on his face.

Speaking of which, just watching these actors ply their craft is often mesmerizing in of itself. I would watch Michael Shannon's face for hours on end; so many angles and crevices to explore. The topography is interesting, of course, but it’s the sudden weather shifts that really dazzle.

And Weisz is so good at showing us the emotion that lies underneath Alice’s mountain of lies. Though she often leaves people she loves behind without even a goodbye, there’s no malice in her. She does not own a rear-view mirror; it’s the thrills ahead that compel.

Directed by Joshua Marston (“Maria Full of Grace”) from a screenplay he co-wrote with Julian Sheppard, “Complete Unknown” is a film that questions not just one woman’s opus of false personas, but the very concept of identity as a fixed point.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Duck, You Sucker!" (1971)

Like a lot of Sergio Leone's films, "Duck, You Sucker!" has some big ideas lurking beneath a gaudy facade of violence and miscreant behavior. This is personified by the character of Juan Miranda, an illiterate bandit who likes to pass himself off as a meek peasant, but is quite cunning at his craft and, in his own brutish way, has a better grasp on human nature than his learned would-be betters.

"Duck," set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20, was the Italian master's final Spaghetti Western and his second-to-last directorial effort. He lay fallow for 13 years before making his final picture, 1984's "Once Upon a Time in America." This served as a bookend for "Once Upon a Time in the West" from 1968.

This movie is usually slotted as the middle picture between those two, and indeed an alternate title sometimes used is "Once Upon a Time... the Revolution." Frequent collaborator Sergio Donati pitched the story to Leone while he was still filming "West." Certainly there is some thematic continuity between the two that is a bit forced when applied to "America."

But "Duck, You Sucker" also hearkens back to Leone's early Westerns, and the film was largely issued under the title "A Fistful of Dynamite" to better evoke memories of the Clint Eastwood hit. Juan's character is essentially an extension of Tuco from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" -- a sniveling thief with (deeply) hidden reservoirs of nobility.

Eli Wallach, who played Tuco, was hired for the Juan role but the studio decided he wasn't a big enough name. Wallach, who'd dropped out of another part to play for Leone, ended up suing him.

Juan is played by Rod Steiger, who's about as Mexican as I am (or Wallach, for that matter). But the character actor of German, Scottish and French stock was a classic screen chameleon who played all sorts of nationalities and creeds throughout his long and illustrious career, from European Jew to Italian-American mobster to Deep South bigot. So his casting is not as disagreeable as it might seem at first to modern sensibilities.

Besides, Leone's Spaghettis were marked by a flippant tossing aside of national boundaries, shooting stories set in the Americas on locations in Spain using largely Italian casts and crews, with actors speaking their own native language on-camera with dubbing taking over as needed.

James Coburn plays Juan's counterpart, John Mallory, an Irish IRA revolutionary on the lam after some explosive troubles back home. John is an expert in dynamite, nitroglycerin and pretty much anything else volatile. He himself presents a serene, nonchalant exterior, in contrast to the little baubles he whips up to blow up anything bothersome to him.

Their first meeting takes place about 20 minutes into the movie, after Juan has robbed a stagecoach of spoiled rich folks. Juan employs a gang comprised of his six sons, ranging in age from about 8 to 18, all by different mothers, along with his aged father and an indeterminate gaggle of add-on banditos.

Juan has used his ruse of the dumb, barefoot peon to beg entry to the coach, where he is continually insulted and his kind compared to loathsome beasts. Leone swoops his camera in for an uncomfortable series of extreme close-ups as the people gnash their food while letting loose a barrage of unpleasantries.

He gets his revenge by taking them for literally everything they've got, setting the men to march bare-assed up the road, as well as the (implied) rape of a snooty woman.

Having commandeered the elaborate coach for his roaming home base, Juan and his gang are bewildered when John comes motoring by on his bike, ignoring their threat as if it weren't there. Juan puts a bullet into the motorcycle to stop him, and John responds by coolly sauntering up and blowing a hole in the roof of Juan's royal carriage.

Juan is convinced not to plug the upstart Irishman because he's festooned from stem to stern with explosives, along with John's warning that the resulting boom would be big enough "they'll have to change the maps." After a little more back-and-forth, the thief hatches a plan to enlist the wayward bombardier, who's come to Mexico to work in the mines of a silver oligarch, to help him knock over the bank in Mesa Verde.

Mesa Verde...

The very words evoke a hallucinogenic vision in Juan's mind somewhere between glory and salvation. Everything from the gates to the spittoons are made of gold, he promises. The vault is spilling over with money. Never mind that he's recalling a boyhood visit decades ago. You make the holes, Juan promises, and I'll fetch the money to split 50-50.

Noting the continuity of their names, he offers to dub their new gang "Johnny & Johnny." Maybe they'll even take their act north to the United States afterwards, mi amigo, where every little town has a ripe bank, Juan coos agreeably.

It's a fake brotherhood that eventually develops into a real one, as two men with nothing left to lose become unwitting heroes in the Revolution. Turns out the bank in Mesa Verde is housing nothing other than political prisoners these days. John knew this, having hooked up with the head honcho of the local insurgents, a physician named Villega (Romolo Valli).

With Juan tricked into heroism, the two debate the merits of the revolution. John is the sort who needs a cause to fight for, while Juan demands to know what the endeavor will gain for himself, and by extension the common man. The book-readers whip the peasantry to take up arms against injustice, he says, but after all the blood is spilled their lot never changes. They've just exchanged one set of overlords for another. He'd rather just grab the loot and go.

"What about me?" is Juan's repeated lament. At first comic, it takes a poignant turn when the "uniforms" slaughter his entire family.

John has his own history of loss and woe, as shown in flashbacks to his days in Ireland. Shot in gauzy slow motion, they depict a young John romancing a beautiful lass with a best friend joining in their revelry. Later this friend betrays him to the British, and John guns down both police and informer. David Warbeck plays this role, outfitted with a large prosthetic mole on his forehead, both to make him physically distinctive and provide a target for John's avenging bullet.

This experience is replicated when Dr. Villega is captured by the uniforms and tortured to identify revolutionaries before the firing squad. John eventually confronts Villega about his betrayal, but declines to judge him, even proclaiming him a "grand hero of the revolution" with his dying gasp.

Disillusion may be John's bread and butter, but he recognizes the importance symbols hold for others. He'd rather not make Juan drink from his own bitter cup. Let the good doctor, who sacrificed himself aboard a locomotive loaded with John's dynamite, die with grace.

"Duck, You Sucker" contains some of Leone's most ambitious camera work, including a crane shot of a mass shooting of political prisoners that deserves an iconic place in his filmography -- lines of soldiers firing down into long, deep pits of dying men, who scramble like ants set on fire by a lonely boy exploring his capacity for malevolence.

I also loved how he framed little throwaway scenes, such as Juan bidding good-bye to his sons as he and John prepare for a seemingly futile two-man assault on a column of army soldiers. As Juan embraces the boys, Dr. Villega watches on serenely while John loads a machine gun with a belt of bullets.

Any competent director can compose a great shot for the big "wow" moments in a movie. I love it when a filmmaker sneaks in elegant mise en scene when we're not looking.

As always, the great Ennio Morricone provides the score, and it's a testament to his prodigious creativity that the man never seemed to repeat himself after 500+ soundtracks. It's a combination of orchestral instruments, tinny sound effects and post-verbal singing ("shom, shom" is as close to formal language as the lyrics get).

I'm always astounded how Morricone can slalom from silliness to violent tension to grandiosity, often within the space of a few bars of melody.

It's probably the most non-political film ever made about a revolution, casting all sides of the Mexican conflict as amoral and power-hungry. It's the sort of film an angry young man makes as he transitions into middle age, and Leone, then in his early 40s, clearly evokes a sense of pointlessness that was bound to be interpreted as counterrevolutionary.

Unsurprisingly, the film was banned in Mexico until 1979.

There isn't even really a bonafide villain, though Colonel Reza (Antoine Saint-John) comes closest, an Army officer who hunts the pair after they double-handedly destroy his entire command. (John rigs a bridge with explosives, then he and Juan use machine gun fire to drive the soldiers underneath it for cover, than kaboom.)

Reza has a very Nazi SS look and feel to him (despite being played by a Frenchman), another example of Leone deliberately mixing up nationalities and political causes to suit his cinematic aesthetic.

A failure at the time of its release, "Duck, You Sucker!" has since been rediscovered by audiences and critics -- including this one -- as one of Leone's best films.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Video review: "Captain America: Civil War"

If it’s possible to enjoy a movie while simultaneously being disappointed by it, then that’s my take on “Captain America: Civil War.” The third in the series with fresh-faced Chris Evans as the revived World War II warrior in the ostensible lead role, what it really is is the third Avengers movie -- the one in which they’ve finally gotten on each other’s nerves enough to trade blows instead of quips.

I kid, I kid. The motivation for the conflict is that the U.S. government has decided to start registering and controlling super-powered beings. People are very nervous and angry about the collateral damage the Avenges incurred while saving the world (twice). This leads to a McCarthyite atmosphere where the lauded heroes are now mocked and feared.

Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), who’s been very ambivalent about continuing in his super-suit anyway, quickly signs on. But Cap argues the patriotic route, saying the Avengers should be free to make their own choices about what is best for the common good. Sides quickly form up, leading to an inevitable showdown.

Because the two heaviest hitters, the Hulk and Thor, are inexplicably nowhere in sight, it’s incumbent upon the filmmakers to bring in some scabs … er, I mean, add-on heroes … to round out the squads.

Many of them we’ve seen before, like Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Vision (Paul Bettany). Spider-Man shows up, rebooted for a second time with Tom Holland in the role, and Chadwick Boseman is a muscular presence as Black Panther, an African prince with some animalistic super-duds.

“Captain America: Civil War” contains thrills aplenty, but is miserly when it comes to surprises. You go into it knowing what you’re going to get, but also that you won’t get anything else.

Bonus features are as good as we’ve come to expect from the Marvel Comics adaptations.

There’s a feature-length commentary track with directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; deleted and extended scenes; gag reel; sneak peek at “Doctor Strange”; featurettes following the character development of Captain America and Iron Man leading up to civil war; and “United We Stand, Divided We Fall,” a feature-length making-of documentary.



Thursday, September 8, 2016

Review: "Sully"

Every cinematic story, especially those based on real life, can be seen as a string. Lives and events are spun out long before and after the couple of hours we see, into the infinite horizon. So the first and most important decision the director and screenwriter make is where to cut that string -- determining what forms the movie's beginning, middle and end.

I'm not sure if I agree with where Clint Eastwood and Todd Komarnicki placed their cuts in relaying the tale of Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who ditched US Airways flight 1549 into the Hudson River on a frigid January day in 2009 after double engine failure, saving everyone onboard. But I still admired and enjoyed their version of what has now become legend.

I think the filmmakers felt the need to invent some villains to create dramatic tension, overplaying the investigation of the incident into some kind of Salem witch hunt that did not really amount to much at all. Sully and his co-pilot, Jeffrey Skiles (an excellent Aaron Eckhart), were quickly lauded as heroes for their actions -- national media appearances, awards ceremonies, a White House visit, the whole kielbasa. 

Sure, the National Transportation Safety Board members asked some hard questions; that's their job. But, as portrayed by Anna Gunn, Mike O'Malley and Jamey Sheridan, they form the triumvirate of bad guys the story didn't really need, jumping to conclusions and issuing threatening statements that we know they're going to eventually have to eat. 

(Needless to say, their real-life counterparts are none too happy.)

It ends up too much resembling "Flight," a 2012 film starring Denzel Washington as a fictional pilot who is initially lauded as a hero, then excoriated for recklessness. (A friend dubs this new film "White Flight.")

Despite the Hollywood-izing of the events, it's still a grand tale. The main challenge comes in Tom Hanks playing a guy who is, by any objective measure, ill-suited for the role of film protagonist. His Sully is mild-mannered, duty-bound and courteous, diffident to the point of often coming across as a bit of a stiff. 

Hanks pulls it off by showing us a man who is outwardly brave and stoic, but inwardly reels from nightmares and doubts about his actions that day. 

Indeed, I think that is what makes the story of Sullenberger so compelling, in real life and onscreen: here is an unremarkable man, who plied his trade in virtual anonymity for four decades. In his golden hour, months before forced retirement at age 60, he used his skill and experience to pull off something extraordinary.

The universality of this theme is obvious: Sully became a hero, and you could, too.

After a flock of Canada geese pummeled the aircraft shortly after takeoff, destroying both engines, Sully had 208 seconds of glide time before hitting the ground. After he and Skiles exhausted all their options, trying to restart the engines and communicating with ground control on possible emergency landing sites, Sully quickly determined they wouldn't make it. "I eyeballed it," he tells stunned investigators.

He steered his Airbus A320 toward the Hudson, and history was made.

The film chooses to show us the crash three times. First, a mere glimpse at the very beginning. A more detailed version starts about 30 minutes in. Then, a comprehensive take that forms the final act, showing us the aftermath and rescue by river ferry crews and police scuba divers.

"Sully" hits its emotional peak in the center, when the pilot is scrambling to account for everyone on board, who have been taken by different conveyance to various hospitals and such. We can see the terror in Hanks' eyes, wondering how many people have died. When he's finally given the total -- 155 souls, everyone onboard safe --  the catharsis is like a swell of pure joy.

It's dangerous for critics to play the "If I was making this movie" game, but I think that was the film's obvious ending point. Instead we get another half-hour to 45 minutes of meetings, tense phone calls between Sully and his wife (Laura Linney), and an odd encounter in a bar where Sully is recognized and offered the drink they have named after him. 

"Grey Goose with a splash of water," the barman smirks.

The narrative is a bit twisted around into unnecessary knots for my taste, but "Sully" still soars when it has to.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Video review: "The Meddler"

“The Meddler” is one of those little indie movies that are perfect for video. They tend not to get released in smaller cities, and even then it can be a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it run at the one art cinema in town. A delightful comedy with some hefty messages underneath the laughs, it treats its characters as realistic people who might exist in the world with their own peculiar virtues and faults.

The foibles of Marnie (Susan Sarandon) are pretty evident. A wealthy widow from Jersey without a lot to do, she moves out to Los Angeles to be near her daughter (Rose Byrne), a successful television writer who’s unlucky in love. Marnie is a born smotherer who repeatedly crosses boundaries -- dropping hints about grandchildren, etc. Soon enough the kid has (gently) elbowed Marnie out of the picture.

But, in her own passive-aggressive way, Marnie is unstoppable. Soon she’s co-opted her daughter’s circle of friends into becoming her own, lavishing one with an expensive wedding party. She keeps dropping by the Apple store to buy more overpriced junk she doesn’t need, and soon she’s driving a young worker there to college classes she encouraged him to take.

Marnie is a true giver -- even when the recipient can’t take anymore.

She strikes up a halting romance with Zipper, a twangy cop/farmer played with a twinkle by J.K. Simmons. He spots her on the set of a movie where he’s working security -- Marnie just walked by one day and became an extra -- and pitches some woo. Marnie, long used to being the interloper in other people’s lives instead of the one who gets loped, isn’t quite sure what to make of the creased Casanova at first.

Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, “The Meddler” is a movie that doesn’t have a lot of story to it. It’s just people intersecting, rubbing off each other, finding connections that weren’t there before. The movie takes a woman who at first seems ridiculous and even a little pathetic and lets us see her intricate humanity. It’s funny, and enlightening.

Bonus features are good, and are the same for DVD and Blu-ray editions.

There is a gag reel and two featurettes: “The ‘Real’ Marnie” and “The Making of The Meddler.” The centerpiece is a feature-length commentary track with both Scafaria and Sarandon. I really enjoy it when the filmmakers and stars participate in these together, so it’s more of a dialogue than one person droning on.



Thursday, September 1, 2016

Review: "The Light Between the Oceans"

This film is not going to fare well at the box office, I fear. People just don’t seem to want to go to sad movies anymore, or at least not like they used to. And “The Light Between the Oceans,” while in many ways excellent, is definitely what you’d call a four-hanky picture.

Based on the novel by M.L. Stedman and adapted by writer/director Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine”), it’s a tender, deliberately paced movie that takes the time to build the emotional world of its characters, so we can see how deeply events and their own tragic decisions etch themselves into their souls.

Some people will simply call it slow. Some people will call it mushy. Some people should probably go check out “Suicide Squad” in the next theater over.

Michael Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, a survivor of the trenches of World War I who returns to his native Australia without much purpose for living. He takes a job as lighthouse keeper on the remote island of Janus, which like the two-face god of mythology sits overlooking opposite directions, atop the convergence of two oceans.

On a trip back to the mainland he runs into Isabel (Alicia Vikander), a jolly lass who’s as full of life as Tom’s cup is dry. Through letters they have a long romance and courtship from afar, resulting in a happy marriage. The mainlanders are ecstatic for Is and Tom, since so few young men are left after the war and the prospect of a new generation leaves everyone giddy.

They return to Janus and set about building a jubilant life together. The island is stark and lonely, but they fill it with their passion. Is grows more independent and resourceful after a sheltered life; Tom shaves off his mustache (Is doesn’t like the prickles) and begins to set aside his guilt at living when so many have died.

But fate has its grim whirlpools and undertows. Is miscarries their baby. Most movies would skim over this with a mournful montage, but Cianfrance gives the event and its aftermath its full measure. We witness how losing their child permanently alters their approach to life and capacity for happiness. With time, they recover. They move on.

Then, it happens again.

This may be the end of things, at least for Is, when a tiny boat washes up on shore. Inside is a dead young man and a newborn baby girl. Tom prepares to do his duty and report in by telegraph. But Is, full of a furious maternal need, pleads for him to delay – for just a day or two, she says. He knows what this really means.

Fassbender and Vikander do a tremendous job of communicating much in between the dialogue. Some of the film’s most powerful scenes are the two simply staring at each other. Cianfrance carefully frames the actors so we’re often looking over their shoulders, as if stealing in on moments of intimacy rather than having them staged for us.

Things go on. The baby becomes a toddler and then a little girl, Lucy, all blonde curls and joy. Life on the island becomes idyllic, as if something from a storybook.

We know such pure happiness must end, like a tide reclaiming the beach. Much of the later developments center around Hannah (Rachel Weisz), the daughter of the rich fellow (Bryan Brown) who paid to build the lighthouse. But I’ll say no more.

“The Light Between the Oceans” is not the sort of movie you see much of anymore. It’s slow-moving and contemplative, and dares to present the possibility that people can do things out of love but still cause immeasurable harm. Logically, many of the characters’ actions make no sense. But the actors and filmmakers paint such a rich emotional portrait, we feel like they could have come to no other decisions.

Go, and weep.