Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Review: "Last Flag Flying"


Just a short review today, as I'm in the midst of the holiday/awards season rush and watching movies at a brisk pace.

"Last Flag Flying" is pretty much writer/director Richard Linklater's attempt to do his version of "The Last Detail," the seminal 1973 film that helped launch Jack Nicholson's career about a pair of soldiers taking a comrade to military prison. It's a physical and metaphysical journey. Though instead of young bucks, we follow a trio of former Marines 30+ years after they served in Vietnam.

Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston all give very naturalist, lived-in performances as once-close buddies who have gone their separate ways. Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Carell) was the youngest of the bunch (he technically served in the Navy) and the meekest, and still is. Richard Mueller (Fishburne), once known as "the Mauler" for his outrageous behavior, has become an easygoing reverend with a bum leg. Sal (Cranson) is the least changed of the bunch, a party animal and womanizer who is constantly cracking jokes and drinking.

The reason for their ad-hoc reunion is tragic: Doc's only child has died while serving with the Marines in Iraq, and he wants his old buddies with him to pick up the body and bury him. The story is set in 2003, and there is a caustic political tinge that marries the two wars -- how the government uses its fighting men poorly, then lies to their families about the true nature of their mission and their deaths. Darryl Ponicsan, upon whose book the movie is based, co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater.

The movie is essentially one freewheeling two-hour-long conversation, as the men make their way by car, train and bus on a circuitous trip to and from the military base. They talk about their lives, their marriages and relationships, their disappointments. Old memories are shared with warmth and laughter, like good scotch swirled in a favorite tumbler.

Much is spoken, but much is also left unsaid. There was a terrible event that occurred during their service, which resulted in another Marine dying and Doc serving time in the military brig for two years. The details are left hazy.

Cranston has a lot of fun with his part, the extroverted loudmouth who spends much of the early going trying to get a rise out of the good reverend. (He does.) He leans a little too heavily on a stumblebum accent replete with "deez" and "doze."

Carell is the polar opposite, quiet and polite, though he shows some determination with regards to the disposition of his son's resting place. Fishburne is charismatic and centered, and the film lets him talk about his faith without the usual winking or mockery.

J. Quinton Johnson plays Washington, a young Marine who served with Doc's kid and ends up accompanying them on part of their trip. Yul Vazquez plays the colonel in charge of the grieving detail, whose politeness masks other impulses.

"Last Flag Flying" was touted as a contender for the awards season, and while I liked it quite a bit I don't see it as being in that stratosphere. It's a sad, funny portrait of soldiers still coming to terms with who they were as youngsters, and the old men they are slowly becoming. It's intimate, insightful and never hits a false note.




Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Review: "Coco"


So, it turns out the 1% are living it up even in the Land of the Dead.

In “Coco,” the delightful new animated film from Disney/Pixar, we journey to the great beyond during the Mexican holiday of Día de Muertos, a day dedicated to remembering the dead. In this telling, the spirits of the dead are partying it up themselves in a fabulous city filled with color and music.

Represented as skeletons who still retain their hair and clothes, the dead have their own set of currency. And it’s not money, but memories.

If you’ve got a lot of people among the living who still remember you and place your photograph on a shrine, you get to travel back to the living to visit with your loved ones. You also get to keep the gifts they offer up to your memory, and the admiration of your fellow bags of bones.

It’s a dizzy, delightful concept from screenwriters Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich. “Coco” is a Latin-flavored feast of lavish entertainment that also nudges us to remember what’s most important: family. Veteran Pixar director Lee Unkrich (with Molina serving as co-director) ably guides us through an action-filled plot that pauses for a few sustaining moments of stillness and contemplation.

Anthony Gonzalez provides the voice of Miguel, the scrappy offspring of a family of shoemakers who hate music. Well, that’s not strictly true, but his great-great grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach) was furious when her troubadour husband ran off on her and forbade any music in their household. Trouble is, Miguel is a gifted musician who craves to release the song in his heart.

Miguel idolizes Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), “the world’s greatest musician” and an Elvis-type figure who became rich and famous on the back of his movies and songs, most notably his power love ballad, “Remember Me.” (Molina, Germaine Franco, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez provide the film’s wonderful songs.)

Through a bunch of contretemps I won’t bore you with, Miguel finds himself transported to the Land of the Dead, trapped to remain there forever unless he obtains the right blessing by sunrise. And that means tracking down his hero, Ernesto, who resides in a castle where the “rich” -- those revered and remembered -- are having a big fiesta.

Tagging along is his dimwitted canine friend, Dante -- a street pup who for some reason can also travel to the land of the not-living. And he picks up another companion in Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a clownish rapscallion who claims to know Ernesto.

During their journeys they visit the slums of the dead, where those in danger of being forgotten completely eke out a pitiable existence. Miguel and Hector also bump into other notable figures, like Miguel’s ancestors and artist Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley), who gets slightly skewered.

The skeletons are visual marvels, with expressive eyeballs floating magically inside their skulls and bones that easily come apart and join back together again. For instance, when Hector needs to get down a precipice, he simply lets his body fall to the bottom and smash, then the pieces snap back together.

Be forewarned: although there’s no overt violence at all in the movie, the skeletons, themes about death and a few fearsome critters will prove scary to smaller children. My 4-year-old needed some lap time during the movie.

It’s been a rather weak year for animation, so it’s an easy to call to crown the imaginative, emotive “Coco” as the best I’ve seen in 2017.




Monday, November 20, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Now and Then" (1995)


Pretty much forgotten today, "Now and Then" was dismissed at the time as a brazen ripoff of "Stand By Me" with girls swapped out for boys. That criticism is legitimate but doesn't completely define this good-hearted coming-of-age story, directed by Lesli Linka Glatter from an original(ish) script by I. Marlene King, two celebrated television creators who continue to work today.

The premise holds promise: gather four well-known adult actresses -- Melanie Griffith, Rosie O'Donnell, Rita Wilson and Demi Moore -- and pair them with four young counterparts to play the same characters at age 12. It doesn't quite hold water, though, as the youngsters carry the movie and the famous stars only turn up for brief bits to bookend the beginning and end.

The film is notable if only because most of the young actresses have gone on to significant careers as adults: Christina Ricci, Thora Birch and Gaby Hoffman. Ashleigh Aston Moore gave up acting a couple of years later, and died quite young a decade hence.

Their characters do line up uncomfortably close to the general personas of the boys from "Stand By Me." Hoffman is Samantha, the pensive writer with troubles on the home front who also narrates. Roberta (Ricci) is the troublesome, surly kid who gets into a lot of fights. Tina aka Teeny (Birch) is the one destined to break out of their cloistered small town and pursue greatness, in her case becoming a big movie star. Moore plays Chrissy, the "fat kid" (barely chubby by today's standards) who's not terribly bright and ends up being the butt of a lot of the jokes.

(Young Moore reportedly was required to gain 20 pounds for her role, which seems clueless at best and downright abusive in less kind lights.)

The idea is the girls make a pact in 1970 to always be there for each other -- "All for one, and one for all" is their borrowed mantra -- which brings them back together two decades later when Chrissy is pregnant, the first child for any of them. The film is set in Shelby, Indiana, though it was mostly shot in Georgia.

As with "Stand By Me," the quest that bonds them is the death of a young boy. Rather than a fresh body by the railroad tracks, though, it involves a gruesome murder of the kid and his mother decades earlier. While performing a seance in the local graveyard, Samantha thinks she's woken the spirit of "Dear Johnny," evidenced by his gravestone turning up broken, and they set off to solve the mystery.

Their antagonists are the Wormers, a foursome of grody brothers who like to play pranks on the girls, and vice-versa. This culminates with our heroines spying on the boys skinny-dipping and stealing their clothes, which results in a plethora of preteen nudity that tests the limits of the PG-13 rating. The oldest Wormer (Devon Sawa) secretly pines for tough Roberta, and they share a kiss... after she trounces him at some 1-on-1 basketball.

The supporting cast is broad and colorful. I really enjoyed Cloris Leachman as Samantha's frenzied grandmother, who takes on more of a role when her father walks out on her mother (Lolita Davidovich). Grandma takes pains to hide the details of Dear Johnny's story, and hustles off to bingo games with such enthusiasm we suspect it's a cover for some other activity.

Hank Azaria turns up as a smarmy candidate for the role of Samantha's stepdad; Bonnie Hunt is Chrissy's mom, passing on her fussy manners and tragically inaccurate information about sex; Rumer Willis has a bit role as Samantha's kid sister; Brendan Fraser plays a burnt-out Vietnam vet who shares cigarettes and a little hard truth with the girls; and Janeane Garofalo plays Wiladene, the town's resident creepy woman who's a diner waitress by day and a moonlights as a psychic-for-pay.

Walter Sparrow has a small but pivotal role as Crazy Pete, the ubiquitous scary old coot with a backstory that will flesh him out in the end.

The modern part of the story is too thin to have any real weight. Chrissy has turned into a prissy fussbudget just like her mom, her home a parade of doilies and reeking of excessive hairspray. Roberta became a doctor, though she doesn't seem very happy about it, or anything. Even during the warm-and-glowy scenes at the end, O'Donnell remains determinedly grim-faced for some reason.

Samantha has become a successful paranormal writer who can't commit to a relationship, wearing men's suits and an air of superiority. Teeny has already been married and divorced three times, and seems to thrive on any kind of attention she can get.

The movie has a clear television feel to it, although the production values are pretty decent. It suffers mostly from a sense of predictability, not to mention a "Wonder Years" type of hazy nostalgia that could use a few more rough edges. Even Samantha's frustration over her parents divorcing feels ephemeral and insubstantial.

To be honest, I'm not even sure how I came to include "Now and Then" in my look-back movie column. As I've mentioned in previous entries, I keep a voluminous list of flicks between my queues for Netflix DVD and streaming, Amazon Prime, stuff I've DVR'd -- mostly from Turner Classic Movies -- and new video releases of old films. The total generally hovers around 100 films, so it might be two or three years between selecting something to add and getting around to seeing it.

Possibly it was the Indiana setting, or the actresses involved, or the fact I once penned a newspaper column called "Now & Then," though that was in reference to the fact it ran only when I had space or time for it.

I at first struggled to get through the movie. The first half-hour or so rather clunky and borderline amateurish. But I warmed to the material as it went on, and ended up with the appropriately fuzzy/wistful feelings the filmmakers no doubt were hoping for.

This exercise has been a helpful reminder that, although Hollywood doesn't pump out the sheer number of movies it did during the Golden Age, the ratio of what stands out in memory and what doesn't has remained about the same. "Now and Then" may be a forgotten film, but it isn't forgettable.



Sunday, November 19, 2017

Video review: "Wind River"


A half-step down from a masterpiece, “Wind River” didn’t quite get the attention or traction at the office as last year’s “Hell or High Water.” Both are thematically similar neo-Westerns written by Taylor Sheridan, who also steps behind the camera to direct. It’s a gripping tale of alienation, justice and revenge, and how those impulses mix together when a young girl turns up dead.

Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a hardscrabble man who is a hunter of hunters -- in his case, dangerous predators for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. Though with his big bolt-action rifle, peerless outdoorsman skills and dead eye, it’s apparent to anyone that his capacity to kill is not limited to the four-legged.

His jurisdiction, and his home, is the Native American reserve in the cold, craggy reaches of Wyoming, where the snows blow year-round. When a local teen turns up frozen to death, having fled across the icy ground barefoot, an investigation is launched. The local lawman (Graham Greene) goes through the motions, but an FBI agent is sent to do the real snooping.

Played by Elizabeth Olsen, Jane Banner is green enough to immediately be in over her head, and smart enough to recognize it. She recruits Cory to be her tracker, and the two begin to sift through the barely buried dirt of the reservation, where pride and despair resound in equal measures.

The scene where they interview the victim’s father, played by Gil Birmingham, packs as big an emotional wallop as anything you’re apt to see at the cinema this year.

Filled with a bleak, despairing sort of beauty, “Wind River” is one drama that hits its storytelling targets with surefire accuracy.

Alas, video extras are sorely lacking for this film. They consist of a few deleted scenes and a gallery of still photos from the set.

Movie:



Extras:




Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review: "Wonder"


"Wonder" is an old-fashioned, straight up weepie. Tears will be jerked, you can be sure. I liked the fact that the movie is unambiguous about its intentions, and carries them through effectively without irony or coyness.

Jacob Tremblay, who was so amazing in "Room," plays Auggie Pullman, a boy of 10 born with severe facial defects. He's been through 27 surgeries -- his family displays the hospital wristbands as a collage -- and has been home-schooled all his life by his ferocious devoted mom, played by Julia Roberts. Now, as he enters 5th grade, it has been decided it's time for him to integrate into a regular school with other kids.

Well, sort of. In Hollywood parlance, a "regular school" is an exclusive New York City private institution, Beecher Prep, where families that live in multi-million-dollar brownstones pay something like the U.S. median household income to send their kids to rub elbows with the best of the best. But for the purposes of the story, which is based on the best-selling by R.J. Palacio, what's important is that he's around other children consistently for the first time in his life.

The underlying themes of the movie are bullying and otherness. Mom and dad (Owen Wilson) send Auggie to school with the full knowledge that he will be stared at and picked on. They figure it's something he's going to have to deal with sooner or later, and calculate he's reached a level of emotional stability to deal with it.

Also, there's a subplot about the mom wanting to complete her master's thesis that was put on hold a decade ago to be his full-time guardian and tutor. And, frankly, she rightly wants to reclaim a little piece of her own life. I admired that the filmmakers -- director Stephen Chbosky, who co-wrote the script with Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne -- included this dynamic.

I know it runs counter to commonly accepted precepts and hagiography about mothers, but I personally think it's unhealthy for parents to let their kids think they have nothing going in their lives beyond raising them. Part of being a role model is not being afraid to display ambition and individuality.

The makeup effects on Tremblay are very good, to the point I didn't recognize him until I read the credits afterward. Auggie is a smart, sensitive kid who likes science and Minecraft, and has adapted pretty well to life inside his family unit. He tends to wear an oversized astronaut's helmet in public to avoid stares; it's his armor, really. So he has a tough time when his parents ask him to relinquish it.

Auggie does face teasing and isolation, but also picks up a friend in Jack Will (Noah Jupe), a poor scholarship kid with a nice streak. The joy on mom's face when he brings home a pal to play is worth the price of admission alone. Still, old troubles soon follow and Auggie finds himself estranged again.

He's got an older teen sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), and I was impressed the film devotes a significant amount of screen time following her life and seeing how it's impacted by having a brother who soaks up every ounce of attention from their parents. She's quiet and shy, and dealing with an unexpected fallout with her own best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell).

She starts to blossom when she joins the school theater club, and meets a cute, funny boy named Justin (Nadji Jeter) who takes a fancy to her.

I also greatly enjoyed Mandy Patinkin as Mr. Tushman, the headmaster of the school who understands the way kids actually think and behave, rather than the idealized regard in which their parents hold them. He is infinitely patient and kind, makes jokes about his name before the students have a chance to, and even manages to treat the bullies in a way that lets them know they are not irredeemable. He's basically the Santa Claus of educators.

"Wonder" plays out exactly the way we expect. Given the premise, we could practically write the ending ourselves. But it's still a touching movie that celebrates the weak and the meek, and shows there different kinds of strength.






Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: "Justice League"


All is forgiven for "Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice." The DC Comics supergroup franchise that seems like it's been teased for an eternity finally arrives with a peal of thunder.

"Justice League" is a huge, sprawling, action-packed film that also finds time to let each of the characters show a little of their heart. I know the fanboys may want wall-to-wall combat, but it's just meaningless fireworks unless we grasp what the stakes are. Director Zack Snyder and screenwriters Joss Whedon and Chris Terrio manage to find time for everything a good superhero film needs, and keep it just under two hours to boot.

Yes, it's a little goofy. Occasionally over-the-top so. Comic book movies have taken a decided turn toward comedy in recent years, and there's no putting that toothpaste back in the tube. Most of it is centered around the Flash (Ezra Miller), the self-designated comedic relief. Every team needs a cutup, I guess. Miller accepts the role with enthusiasm and aplomb.

My only really major complaint with the movie is that the villain isn't terribly memorable. He's a pretty generic big ol' axe-swinging dude promising to bring about the end of the world named Steppenwolf -- and no, it's not terribly imposing to have a bad guy named after a middling Canadian rock band. Portrayed by Cirian Hinds via motion capture with an oversized horn helmet, he looks like he could have stepped right out of the most recent Thor movie without skipping a beat.

And OK, I'm not too keen on the latest iteration of Aquaman, played by Jason Momoa. And not just because yet another blond superhero has been turned brunette for the movies. (Though Momoa at least has now-you-see-em, now-you-don't highlights.) He's portrayed as a surly, tatted-up dude who likes to blow into fishing towns to gargle whiskey in between saving lives. He's like a benevolent biker meets Caine from "Kung Fu."

When "BvS" left off, Superman (Henry Cavill) had died battling Lex Luthor's monstrous creation, leaving the world without hope. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is still brooding, but he's committed to the idea of putting together a group of meta-humans to head off looming threats. Strange bug-like flying men have taken to popping up here and there, attracted by the smell of fear.

His only recruit thus far is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who he sees as the logical replacement for Superman's beacon of virtue. But she's hesitant to take up that mantle, for reasons we saw in her solo movie earlier this year.

Wayne's other targets are Aquaman, Flash and Cyborg. Flash's only power is the ability to run crazy fast, and also generate electrical impulses while doing so. As he himself says, he's no warrior: "I've just pushed people and run away." His super-speed sequences are depicted in slo-mo, much like they did with Quicksilver in the "X-Men" movies, and there's one great scene where Flash gets a surprise of his own.

Cyborg (Ray Fisher) is your classic man/machine hybrid, who doesn't understand the full of extent of his expanding powers and sometimes even struggles to control them.

The team also gets a late, unexpected addition to the roster in time for the third act, but I'll say no more.

The plot is the usual gobbledygook about cosmic doohickeys being rediscovered and fitted together somehow to create end times. In this case, three square Mother Stones that were hidden away eons ago to prevent them from being combined to create the Unity.

(It's disturbing how weapons of cosmic destruction are always given such soothing names in the movies. How about the Hellacious Doom-Bringer?)

The action is frenetic and sometimes a little hard to follow. It's interesting to watch the different fighting styles of the heroes. Batman is all about intricate moves and outsmarting your opponents -- a necessity as he's the only league member lacking super-powers -- while Wonder Woman is a straight-on badass warrior who uses her sword, shield and magical rope, which forces people to reveal the truth.

Aquaman does more than just speak to fishies, wielding a trident and his own measure of super-strength. Cyborg's body is basically one big Iron Man suit, with a new gadget to pull out for every situation.

"Justice League" isn't nearly as good as the first Avengers movie, but it delivers a DC team flick that's undeniably entertaining. After the letdowns of "Man of Steel" and "BvS" -- and let's not even talk about that Green Lantern disaster -- the "other" comic book empire has finally put solid wood on the ball.

Post-script: Stick around during the credits for a couple of neat bonus scenes. The first recreates one of my favorite comic book events from my childhood, while the second demonstrates how out-of-touch I am with the modern comics scene.




Review: "The Square"


The Cannes Film Festival's highest award, the Palme d'Or, has increasingly become an emblem of European disdain for American/British cinema rather than a token of respect for the film that wins it.

Once a major indication of the best foreign films coming down the pike, it's reached the point of such irrelevance that it's now uncommon for the Palme d'Or winner to even receive an extensive theatrical release in the U.S. If you can name last year's winner without the help of Google -- it was Ken Loach's "I, Daniel Blake," for the record -- then I bow before your film trivia superiority.

This year's winner, "The Square," is a refreshing departure, a Swedish film that's actually thoughtful and engaging -- and will actually be seen by people outside of New York, L.A. and Chicago. Written and directed by Ruben Östlund, who made the terrific "Force Majeure" a few years ago, it's a rumination on art, morality and power.

Our protagonist is Christian (Claes Bang), the chief artistic director of a major museum housed in the former Stockholm castle of the Swedish royal family. In the opening scene he is interviewed in English by an American television journalist, Anne (Elisabeth Moss), who seems entirely dim and unprepared for the questions she is to ask. Christian labors not to be condescending, talking intelligently and passionately about the role between art, the museums that present it and their patrons.

His museum is about to debut a new outdoor exhibit, from which the film takes its title, a square of light amidst the stone tiles that is, well, a trifle boring. It's supposed to challenge guests to think about how they regard each other and the spaces they share. "The square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations," reads the display plaque.

Challenged to drum up excitement and donations, Christian and his team have engaged some young hotshot marketers who have very... bold ideas about how to promote The Square. Unfortunately, Christian is too engaged in his own personal events to properly oversee the plan.

Early in the film Christian has his pocket picked by some inspired thieves with a complex con job. Rather than simply call the police, Christian pressures a young employee (Christopher Læssø) to help him find his smartphone via its internal locator. Then they hatch a scheme to  have his effects returned, and things grow more and more dire.

I was occasionally bewildered by "The Square," but never bored by it. For example, in one character's apartment we are surprised to see a gorilla, apparently living there as a companion -- a fact that goes uncommented upon by anyone.

Later, the theme of beastly behavior is reprised in what is undoubtedly the film's most pivotal scene. At a lavish fundraiser at the museum for its wealthiest patrons, a piece of performance art is debuted in which a man (Terry Notary) portrays a great ape. The guests are warned they are about to encounter a savage creature, but they will be in no danger if they acquiesce to its dominance -- don't look him in the eye, etc.

The dynamic shifts as the scene plays on, and it becomes a parable about when and how we should separate performance and reality. Are acts really deplorable if they are committed under the rubric of "art?" At one point should the artist and audience interact? Be opposed?

These questions are further explored in the audience's relationship to Christian. At first a seemingly benevolent figure, he gradually shrinks in our eyes as he becomes more and more willing to trade his integrity in order to protect himself and his position.

At one point he becomes engaged in a conflict with a boy of about age 12. The kid is being entirely unreasonable, and acting as if a grown man should be subservient to his demands. But how Christian responds is even more troubling.

Men and beasts, adults and children, artists and audiences -- these are relationships that often balance according to the whims of those who hold power, and how they choose to wield it. There are times in life where we must agree to be dominated, and others where we are the one who dominates, and not enough occasions upon which we simply exchange trust.





Review: "Lady Bird"


Most teen movies aren’t really about teenagers.

Certainly, they don’t usually feature actual teens, preferring actors in their mid-20s and up. Instead of being themselves, movie teens act as vessels for adult filmmakers and audiences to work out their hang-ups, or idolize their youth.

Awkwardness and acne? The realities of teendom get kicked to the curb in favor of gleeful hookups and glowing skin.

“Lady Bird,” the first directorial effort from Greta Gerwig, is the exceptional exception: it is thoroughly of, about and for teens. Here is one of the best films of the year.

It stars Saoirse Ronan in a quasi-autobiographical take on Gergwig’s own upbringing in Sacramento, Calif., focusing on the title character’s senior year at (fictional) Xavier Catholic High School. Gerwig also penned the screenplay.

Christine McPherson is struggling to find an identity, to carve out a place in the world of her own making. She’s desperate to get into a good East Coast college, land a boyfriend and lose her virginity, and most of all to get away from her critical, overbearing mother. She even gives herself an alternate name, Lady Bird, mostly as a reason to cast off her mom’s insistence on defining her.

This movie is about a lot of things, but Lady Bird’s relationship to her mom is at the heart of all. Gerwig, known for playing complex, challenging female characters onscreen, gives us two magnificent ones -- brave, flawed, with oversized personalities and shrunken appreciation for each other.

Yet there is a fierce love at the bedrock. Constantly harping about her mother, Lady Bird nonetheless rushes to defend her as having a “huge heart” when anyone echoes her criticism.

Laurie Metcalf plays the mother, in a three-dimensional performance of such ferocious trueness it will be a scandal if her name doesn’t come up during the awards cycle. We can sense the mistakes her own mother made with her, and see how she struggles to avoid them while demanding her daughter set high goals for herself.

“I just wished you liked me,” Lady Bird says to her mom, both accusing and pleading.

The film is also unexpectedly realistic in how it approaches themes rarely broached with anything resembling sensitivity in mainstream filmmaking: money and faith.

Lady Bird’s family is working class, living (literally) across the tracks from the tonier parts of Sacramento, buying clothes in thrift stores and eschewing luxuries to afford to send Lady Bird to a private school. Almost every line of dialogue her mom utters in the movie is tied to finances in some way.

Her dad (Tracy Letts) has his own struggles, including losing his job, but works mightily to keep them from affecting his relationships with his family. He tries to support both Lady Bird and his wife in their contest with each other, always offering his own quiet, unconditional love.

Lady Bird’s approach to her Catholic upbringing is somewhat rebellious, but also grounded in a sense of being home. The priests and nuns who run the place (notably Stephen Henderson and Lois Smith) impose the old rule on “leaving six inches for the Lord” between couples at dances, but also encourage their students to think and explore.

Set in 2002-03, the story has 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq firmly in the background, as Lady Bird trips through the normal watershed moments of her senior year: holidays, prom, college applications, etc. She yearns for, and then lands, the dreamy boy in theater class, Danny (Lucas Hedges). Though she finds it a little odd she has to play offense rather than defense when it comes to physical intimacy.

Her long friendship with smiling, shy Julie (a terrific Beanie Feldstein) is tested as their paths invariably diverge. Lady Bird takes up with a new pal, Jenna (Odeya Rush), the seemingly perfect rich girl she had previously mocked-while-envying. She acquires another love interest (Timothée Chalamet), who’s trying on radicalism as a fashion statement.

We see that Lady Bird’s primary weakness is her willingness to adapt her outward self to other people and circumstances. She embraces the theater scene, until she doesn’t. She smokes clove cigarettes because that’s what her friends do. She lies about who she is, in order to placate what she thinks are the expectations of others.

It’s an amazing turn by Ronan, who continues to cement her reputation as one of the finest actresses of her young generation. Though 23, she ably passes for 17, even showcasing her character’s acne-scarred cheeks and often inept sense of fashion.

“Lady Bird” is a portrait of a profound soul emerging from the cocoon of youth to regard the world with fear, resentment and awe. This is a film that knows one of the hallmarks of being a teenager is that we don’t yet know very much, but that which we do hold we grip onto with frightening strength.




Sunday, November 12, 2017

Video review: "Brigsby Bear"


Since I only feature one video a week in this column, I often struggle with which films to write about. Do I stick to just the big box office hits? Or try to showcase something smaller and quirkier?

In truth, it’s probably wiser to concentrate on the high-profile movies since more people are interested in them. But in this age of exploding content, I think it’s a critic’s highest duty to point people in the direction of worthy films that they haven’t heard about.

“Brigsby Bear” is one of my favorite films of 2017. Barring a rush of tremendous awards hopefuls in the last couple of months, it will almost certainly make my Top 10 list. It’s a weird, wonderful flick that is as emotionally engaging as it is hard to describe.

But I’ll try my best.

Kyle Mooney, who also co-wrote the script with Kevin Costello, plays James, an isolated, meek man of about 30 who still lives very much in a childlike state. He has spent most of his life living in a desert bunker with his parents (Mark Hamill is terrific as the dad) after an apparent post-apocalyptic tragedy.

At least a little bit of society is still functioning somewhere, as evidenced by the one television show still producing new episodes on a weekly basis. James has been following “Brigsby Bear” with religious devotion since he was a child -- it’s his whole world, really. It’s a cheap educational program that involves a superhero bear battling an evil villain named Sunsnatcher with the help of some special friends.

Without giving anything away, James eventually moves beyond his simple life to a much wider community. Much to his chagrin, nobody else seems to have ever heard of Brigsby. So he takes it upon himself to show them the magic of how that experience has affected him – including donning the Brigsby oversized head and making new episodes himself.

Ostensibly a comedy, “Brigsby Bear” is really a story of people who have every reason to stand apart coming together in a way that binds them and brings joy. It’s a peculiar, beautiful film that showcases the boundless capabilities of cinema.

Video extras are rather good for such a small release, and the DVD version comes with a good stock of offerings.

They include a feature-length commentary track with Mooney and director Dave McCary, a “Twin Speak” featurette with the same pair, a gag real, Q&A with the cast and “The Wisdom of Brigsby Bear” feature.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray edition and you add deleted and extended scenes and “Brigsby Bear: The Lost Episode! Volume 23 Episode 14: The Festival of Kindness.”

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Thursday, November 9, 2017

Review: "Murder on the Orient Express"


The remake of “Murder on the Orient Express” starts slow, chuffing away and spinning its wheels with little forward movement, but gradually builds a head of steam. It propels us through the usual twists and turns of a classic whodunit, as a dozen suspects are queried and sorted in the search for a killer.

By the end of the film, it has completely transcended the murder/mystery genre and become an emotionally affecting treatise on right and wrong, evil deeds and revenge.

I wasn’t expecting this movie, but I confess I wasn’t expecting much at all. I’ve neither read the book by Agatha Christie nor seen the 1974 film version.

(I assure you I mean to: it’s currently sitting in my Netflix DVD queue. Yes, some of us still pay for the shiny disc plan.)

Kenneth Branagh directs and stars as the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot -- everybody wants to call him “Hercules” -- an ostentatiously mustachioed gentleman whose courtly demeanor hides a mind as troubled as it is brilliant.

Poirot is vexed by “imbalance” -- whether it be a tie knotted askew, two boiled eggs for breakfast that are not the same size or a plot to take another human life. People wonder at his marvelous deductions, but as he explains to an admirer, when things are not perfectly aligned it stands out to him as plain as the nose on your face.

Even if, like me, you are innocent of the book and other movie, you probably know the basic plot: Poirot is plopped onto a train full of colorful characters, and one of them turns up gruesomely dead. Trapped by an avalanche that has derailed the locomotive, they stew together as the masterful investigator sifts through the evidence, which includes a torrent of lies and misdirection.

Michael Green provides the screenplay, which near as I can figure follows the book and other film pretty closely. The ethnicities and vocations of a few of the characters are shifted around, but the basic dynamics remain the same.

This is billed as one of those classic “all-star casts” -- though, truth be told, it’s more like half a cast of stars, most of them faded, a quarter recognizable character actors and a quarter you’ve never heard of.

Johnny Depp is the biggest name, playing a slimy, scarred American businessman named Ratchett. Michelle Pfeiffer turns up as Caroline Hubbard, an often-divorced woman apparently looking for her next sugar daddy, and Poirot is her prime candidate. Josh Gad is Hector MacQueen, Ratchett’s resentful secretary, and his manservant, Masterman, is played by Derek Jacobi.

Judi Dench, alas, is given little to do as a snooty displaced Russian princess, though Daisy Ridley delights and surprises as Mary Debenham, a smart and resourceful governess. Lucy Boynton and Sergei Polunin are addled dancers/diplomats/royalty.

Willem Dafoe plays Gerhard Hardman, a xenophobic German scientist, and Leslie Odom Jr. plays Arbuthnot, a black British doctor. Penelope Cruz is Pilar Estravados, a nurse turned missionary whose job is to make devilish pronouncements about the evil that men (and maybe women) do.

It’s a sumptuous movie of gorgeous costumes and exquisite settings. The Orient Express is not some railway for bumpkins, but a four-star hotel for the rich on wheels. Somehow even after the train engine is stopped, there’s still plenty of heat and five-course meals.

I’ll admit the turnabouts of the plot started to grow a little tiresome for me -- “It’s him! No, it’s her!” -- but the movie really starts to gel just past the midway point. Poirot is basically a human Google: he knows everything about everyone, everywhere.

I wouldn’t think to give any hints about the ending, other than to see it’s a humdinger. Forty years after it was a movie, and 40 more for the book, “Murder on the Orient Express” still has surprises aplenty.





Monday, November 6, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Bite the Bullet" (1975)


I retain many disconnected images of cinema I saw in my youth, like jigsaw puzzle pieces scattered far afield of the set. Usually, they don't ever get fitted back together again with their movie.

One of the most vivid is of an exhausted cowboy climbing off his lathered horse right before the finish line of a grueling race, pausing to give the poor animal a drink of water from his canteen before taking one himself. I had no idea of its provenance, until I recognized it from "Bite the Bullet," a largely unremembered 1975 Western written and directed by Richard Brooks.

Letting the horse drink before he does is simply the way of Sam Clayton, a former Roughrider and ranch hand who joins the 700-mile race at the last minute, seemingly on a whim. He takes his time dawdling through most of the contest, usually near the back of the pack. After awhile we get the sense he's only there to watch over the horses, and to a far lesser extent the people riding them.

Sam is introduced by another pivotal character as a "defender of dumb animals, damsels in distress, champion of lost causes." He expresses his true feelings about the race just before the jump-off:

"Mister, did you ever see a horse run himself to death just to please the man on his back? What's the horse get out of it? Cracked bones? Colic? See his picture in the paper? Horse doesn't give a damn who wins a race. Me neither," Sam snorts.

Played inimitably by Gene Hackman, Sam reminded me in a lot of ways of Tom Smith, the horse trainer so memorably portrayed by Chris Cooper in "Seabiscuit." Both are very much disciples of the range, at home among hard men and hard living, yet standing apart from them in many ways -- not the least of which being their genuine compassion for the animals who serve them.

(Though Smith does obviously care about winning races.)

Sam is entirely capable of cruelty, returning abuse when he sees it visited upon horses by humans. In the opening scene he is appalled to find an abandoned glue wagon with several horses left for dead, including a pair that have been trussed up as bait for vultures. After setting free a still-living horse and rescuing a new foal, he is choked up by a mare that has essentially been crucified, its body held down and pierced by thick wire.

The look in Sam's eye leaves us certain that if the men who committed this atrocity were at hand, murders would be in the making.

Later, Sam encounters a stupid young cowpuncher, Carbo (Jan-Michael Vincent), attempting to knock out a jackass with one blow. Sam gives the boy the exact same treatment with his own fist, leading to a running feud that culminates with Sam whipping Carbo as punishment for riding his horse to death.

He makes the kid bury the beast, using his bare hands to sift the desert sand over the carcass -- an almost religious ritual in which the boy must tend to the flesh he has abused.

In a typical movie narrative, the punk cowboy would become the villain of the piece. Instead, the stern hand of Sam actually leads to Carbo's rehabilitation. His bravado finally falling, he admits to Miss Jones, the sole female contestant played by Candice Bergen, that despite the fancy pistol rig he wears he's never been in a gunfight, or even worked as a cowboy.

When Sam experiences that glorious moment at the end, the shared slaking of thirst by man and horse, it's Carbo's face the camera cuts to, teary-eyed. He witnesses this tender example of a symbiotic relationship between partners, not servant and served, and is overcome.

We sense the youngster will go on in life, a fake cowboy who turns into a real one, and take up Sam's mantle as a true defender of the West.

The race may sound like Hollywood hooey, but it's based on an actual events. In this telling set in 1908, the contest is sponsored and promoted by the "Western Press," mostly as a vanity project for magnate J.B. Parker (Paul Stewart) on behalf of his champion horse. He and his pompous son, Jack Parker (Dabney Coleman), ride around in a luxury train along the race route, applying cajoling and pressure as needed.

Sam worked for the Parkers, and his job was to bring their horse to meet the train gathering the contestants for the race. But he screwed up by stopping to help the glue horses and missed the train, and finds himself fired.

It's a little unclear if Sam was intended to ride the Parkers' horse in the race or merely fetch him, but either way he's out of a job. We would expect the fellow who does ride the rich man's horse to be a boastful fool, but he actually describes his opponents with great respect and delivers a cagey analysis of their abilities. They include:
  • Miss Jones -- A prostitute turned rider, whose exact motives remain somewhat of a mystery until the end. Interestingly, although the reporter covering the race and many observers regard her participation as a stunt, the other racers treat her like one of their own. She's not the best rider but probably has the strongest horse, if only she would ever let it go full-out.
  • Luke Matthews -- A fellow Roughrider, friend of Sam's, gambler and con man played by James Coburn, Luke has laid all his fortune on the line with a private bet against the Parkers. He's dismayed when Sam throws in right before the start, because that means only one of them can win. And he's not above trying to bribe his friend to throw the race. Luke is a smart rider, takes lots of chances and is lucky.
  • Sir Harry Norfolk -- A British gamesman played by Ian Bannen, Norfolk has traveled the globe for the sake of sport. He relishes competition for its own sake, and his steed is the fastest in the open field. Unfortunately for him, the race course is mostly mountains, gulches, steep ravines and scorching deserts.
  • Carbo -- He's got hay for brains, but his mustang is a tough beast and Carbo is willing to flay him alive to keep him moving.
  • Mister -- We never even learn the old-timer's name, played by Ben Johnson. He's got a stiff back and a "bad pump," to use his own words, and by his own appraisal is 30 years past his prime. But after a lifetime of making any kind of living he can on the back of a horse, he dreams of winning the race and finally becoming a "top man... a man to remember."
  • Mexican -- We never get a name for him either, played by Mario Arteaga. But that's perhaps appropriate as he's dismissed as "the Mexican" by the largely Caucasian cast of characters. Plagued by a bad tooth, he actually provides the film's title, when a bit of ad-hoc dentistry results in him using a bullet casing as a crown. He's possibly the best natural horsemen of the bunch.
  • Sam -- What he lacks in horse, he more than makes up for in experience and patience. Parker's man calls him "the sleeper," the one racer he's truly worried about.
"Bite the Bullet" is a character piece that's not really driven by story. Indeed, beyond the framework of the race, there really isn't much of a narrative at all. The riders start out as individual competitors and gradually find out more about each other, eventually coming together in a bond of their own small, shared little community.

Sam sets the tone by repeatedly stopping to assist other racers, and soon it becomes infectious. Luke helps Norfolk when he tumbles down a ravine, and Miss Jones attends to Mexican with almost maternal sympathy. As mentioned, even the mercenary Carbo softens in the end.

Richard Brooks is a giant of midcentury cinema who doesn't have nearly the reputation he deserves. Often writing his own screenplays as well, his credits include "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "In Cold Blood," "The Professionals," "The Last Time I Saw Paris," "Blackboard Jungle," "Lord Jim" and "Sweet Bird of Youth." He was nominated for the Academy Award six times, and won once for "Elmer Gantry."

I think what I most appreciated about "Bite the Bullet" was the sheer atypicalness of it. The movie never moves in a conventional direction. I would call it a neo-Western or revisionist one, which harkens back to the pillars of the genre while also questioning and undermining them.

Sam Clayton is tough, ornery loner, but his value system is decidedly askew from that of the Saint Johns of the Western, Wayne and Ford. At one point Sam actually declares himself un-American, casting competition and the desire to be the first or the best or the richest as unworthy endeavors.

The dialogue is whip-smart and memorable, with so many great throwaway jokes and asides. Other notable characters include Rosie (Jean Willes), the world-wise madam who brings her operation along with the race, happily inflating prices. Sally Kirkland plays Honey, her main whore. Walter Scott plays Steve, Miss Jones' husband, estranged by circumstances that will become important. Robert Donner plays the reporter who acts as the audience's stand-in, questioning and chronicling.

For a movie that depicts its main event as pointless and cruel, "Bite the Bullet" is a surprisingly effective film that is much more than the sum of its dust-coated parts.





Sunday, November 5, 2017

Video review: "Cars 3"


“Cars 3” didn’t do too well at the box office compared to other Pixar animated flicks, so in all likelihood it will stand as the last in the series. I’m fine with that.

The movie is a conscious closing of the loop, as brash race car Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) finds himself in the same tires… er, shoes as his mentor, Doc Hudson. He’s now the old racer struggling against upstarts in a sport that no longer seems to want him around.

Armie Hammer provides the voice of Jackson Storm, a “next gen” racer who’s fast, relentless and uncaring. Soon Storm clones have booted all of Lightning’s old opponents to the curb, and he survives a major crash not unlike the one that ended Doc’s career. He goes into a rehab program at a fancy modern facility where his chirpy trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), embraces him as her “senior project.”

It’s more wistful and contemplative than its two predecessors, particularly the fun-but-zany “Cars 2,” which was essentially one long Benny Hill skit with hillbilly tow truck Mater front and center. This film is about the aging process, how we deal with rough patches in life, and passing the torch to a worthy successor. In the most moving sequence, Lightning looks up some of Doc’s old friends to find inspiration.

There is still plenty of time for racing action and goofy fun, such as when Lightning finds himself caught in a backwoods demolition derby against a killer school bus, Miss Fritter.

“Cars 3” doesn’t have the pure entertainment horsepower of the first two movies, but it’s sadder and wiser.

Bonus features are excellent, though most of them come with the Blu-ray edition. The DVD has a feature-length commentary track featuring director Brian Fee and his creative team, plus a short animated film, “Lou.”

Upgrade to the Blu-ray and you add a new mini-movie featuring that smashmouth bus, “Miss Fritter’s Racing Skoool.” There are also five deleted scenes and eight featurettes touching on various aspects of production, including “My First Car,” an illustrated gallery of cast and crew talking about their first vehicle.

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Thursday, November 2, 2017

Review: "Thor: Ragnarok"


“Thor in Space.”

That’s not actually the title of the third solo movie with Chris Hemsworth as the Norse god of thunder. But it could be.

“Thor: Ragnarok” definitely represents a conscious change of pace for the series. Instead of a lot of the sturm and drang characteristic of Nordic mythology, it’s a fast-paced dash of quips and dizzy action. And not just Thor swinging that big ol’ hammer around: lasers, machine guns, spaceships, a bunch of other whizzbang sci-fi gadgets.

Given the film’s overtly comedic tone and setting, you’d be forgiven for thinking it got jealous of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” flicks.

In general I’m not opposed to funny super hero flicks. If I could lift a bus or conjure lightning, I’d probably be smirking a lot, too.

But it sure is a gosh dang odd choice for Thor -- especially this story, which involves the threatened destruction of Asgard, the mystical realm of Thor and the other Norse gods. Ragnarok refers to the foretold end-times for Thor & Co., not unlike the Christian Revelations.

Not exactly a ha-ha goldmine.

Directed by Taika Waititi from a screenplay by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, “Thor: Ragnarok” is an undeniably fun movie. It’s just that with everyone muttering throwaway jokes under their breath and pratfalls that could’ve come straight out of Keystone Kops, it’s hard for the threat of doom to land with any weight.

Take Cate Blanchett as Hela, the goddess of death, sprung from the prison where Odin (Anthony Hopkins), the king and Thor’s father, exiled her eons ago. She’s now determined to claim the throne of Asgard, laying waste to the entire kingdom if needs be. In short order she defeats Thor and his mischievous brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) -- destroying Thor’s mighty hammer, the token of all his power, in the process.

The two find themselves stranded on the other side of the galaxy on Sakaar, a garbage world at the center of a bunch of time-space portals. This is a crossover from the “Planet Hulk” comics series a decade or so ago, and I’m not giving away anything by stating that Big Green makes a prominent appearance in the film, with Mark Ruffalo playing his human counterpart.

We get to see another scrappy Thor/Hulk faceoff, this time in the gladiator ring. It’s much more than just a cameo, as opposed to Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who makes a helpful (if annoyed) appearance.

(During his slave stint, Thor gets his signature long blond locks shorn off, revealing a short brown ‘do. Now everybody, not just his hairdresser, knows for sure. #FakeBlond)

Sakaar is ruled by the Grandmaster, whose main occupation seems to be finding fodder for his Contest of Champions. He’s played by Jeff Goldblum as a sort of vaguely malevolent, distracted poof -- the sort of guy just begging for a revolution.

Tessa Thompson plays a doughty bounty hunter with an unexpected past. Director Waititi also has a motion capture role as a rather sturdy fellow gladiator. Karl Urban plays Scourge, an Asgardian whose name is his destiny, or maybe not.

Meanwhile, back on Asgard the celestial watchman Heimdall (Idris Elba) is leading the resistance, vexing Hela. She has the ability to generate swords and other projectiles seemingly at will, not to mention transform her ebony mane of hair into a helmet of barbs. She’d be a pretty chilling villain, if she weren’t dropping droll one-liners of her own -- the Garbo of the gods.

Combining the sword-and-sorcery setting of Thor with a science fiction world of aliens and cool technology is a terrific idea. They maybe should have stopped there before layering in all the clown show stuff. But I guess even gods secretly want to be comedians.




Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Review: "Wonderstruck"


"Wonderstruck" is the sort of film you admire more than you love.

Directed by Todd Haynes ("Carol") from Brian Selznick's screenplay based upon his own book, this odd but occasionally enchanting film follows two children, each about age 12, going on a journey of discovery 50 years apart. Their divergent paths increasingly converge, as they make their way to New York City and specifically the Museum of Natural History.

Oakes Fegley plays Ben, a kid from Gunflint Lake, Minnesota in 1977, while Millicent Simmonds plays Rose, a girl from 1927 Hoboken. Both are afflicted with the same medical condition that leaves them feeling estranged and shut off from those around them. Each ends up running away from home, as the film cross-cuts between their stories.

For added effect, Rose's tale is related in the style of a film of her era, which is to say black-and-white, little sound beyond accompanying music and motion that's a little jumpy, as if shot on a slower shutter speed.

I don't want to give away too much about their individual stories, since the entire point of the film is to dribble out this information and leave us guessing as to the connection we suspect the two children share.

But a little is possible. Rose is mesmerized with Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), a major star of screen and stage, and is determined to meet and confront her. She flees her stern, controlling father (James Urbaniak) and heads to Broadway.

Ben lost his mother, the town librarian (Michelle Williams), to an accident a little over a year ago and is struggling to fit in at school and in the home of his aunt and uncle. He finds an old museum book, "Wonderstruck," that went along with an exhibition from long ago. A bookmark inside gives him a cblue to the whereabouts of the father he has never known, so he climbs aboard a bus to the big city.

Haynes plays up Ben's estrangement in the New York of 40 years ago -- grimy, vibrant, diverse, exhilarating and frightening. He suffers setbacks in his quest but also meets another boy, Jamie (Jaden Michael), who offers help and friendship.

"Wonderstruck" is a beautifully shot film, and the performances by the two main child actors are excellent. Julianne Moore is, of course, always Julianne Moore, which is to say vibrant yet subtle.

In the end the plot becomes a little rote, as the entire film's energy polarizes around solving a puzzle that the audience will unlock long before the film gets around to depicting it. As I often say, it's never good when the audience is sitting around waiting for the movie to arrive.

But just the experience of watching the film go by is worthy in of itself, a feast of sights and sounds with children as our guides, wandering and wondering.


Review: "LBJ"


Rob Reiner is the last guy you’d expect to draw a sympathetic portrait of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States who, more than anyone, was responsible for America’s tragic involvement in Vietnam. A politically outspoken filmmaker his entire career, Reiner demonstrated against the war and, by his own admission, loathed the man who threatened to send young men like him there to fight and die for a lost cause.

But “LBJ” does indeed take a kindly, or at least balanced, look at the president who was the ultimate mix of the highest nobility and the crassest venality. In the film, he’s the sort of man who would berate subordinates while squatting on the toilet in full view, then valiantly twist the arms of like-minded Southern politicians to pass landmark civil rights legislation.

The story (screenplay by Joey Hartstone) takes place during the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the days afterward, with flashbacks to Johnson’s failed 1960 bid for the Democratic nomination, recruitment as vice president and subsequent dissatisfaction with his subservient role.

Though Reiner and Hartstone map out some of the relationship between Johnson and JFK (Jeffrey Donovan), and between LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the real dynamic at the center of the tale is Johnson’s antagonism with Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David). RFK sees the scrappy Southern politician as an irksome emblem of the racist past, useful for securing the Texas vote and nothing else.

Johnson, for his part, seems genuinely mystified at having his vast experience in the corridors of Congress cast aside so he can preside over useless committees that serve mostly to keep him away from the limelight.

It’s a revelatory performance by Woody Harrelson as LBJ. At first it might seem a bizarre casting choice, given Harrelson’s colorful history of kooky and comedic roles. After seeing the film, though, it’s hard to imagine any other actor in the role.

Prosthetics help somewhat with drawing the resemblance closer, with Harrelson outfitted with Johnson’s horseshoe hairline, jowls and droopy basset hound ears. He’s got the corn-pone speech pattern down to a T, and the jangly body language of a man who projects bravado but is never quite comfortable in his own skin.

We get a few get examples of “The Treatment,” LBJ’s infamous in-your-face style of negotiating that could include browbeating, charm and begging -- sometimes within the space of a few sentences. The chief target is Sen. Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins), a Senate ally of Johnson’s from Georgia who (incorrectly) assumed the ascension of another Old South politician to the White House meant the indefinite enduring of Jim Crow.

The movie doesn’t get into Vietnam at all, other than a couple of brief mentions during the movie and some sobering end titles.

“LBJ” has had a troubled birthing. The screenplay languished on the “Black List,” an annual catalogue of the best unproduced scripts. Reiner shot the film in 2015, and it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival over a year ago before finally picking up a tiny distributor.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the movie is how funny it is. LBJ was a king of the one-liner, and just as often said things that were hilarious without his intending so. “Never underestimate the intensity of martyr’s cause, or the size of a Texan’s balls,” he says.

The film is at times a bit too sentimental, occasionally dipping a toe into sappy. (The musical score by Marc Shaiman doesn't help, laying on the syrupy strings.) Perhaps in trying to do justice to one of the most reviled men of his day, the filmmakers tipped a little too far in the other direction.

But “LBJ” is still well worth a look for Harrelson’s peppy and affecting performance.



Sunday, October 29, 2017

Video review: "The Dark Tower"


It’s a good thing “It” became a smash hit, since now no one even cares to remember the much more hyped adaptation of another Stephen King work released just over a couple of months ago. “The Dark Tower” crashed and burned at theaters and got savaged by critics and fans of the sprawling series of novels.

Color me the contrarian, but I actually enjoyed it well enough. It’s a bit of a narrative mess and the action scenes don’t always play. But Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey are compelling as eternal enemies playing out the end of a long string of hostilities that cross eons and universes.

Elba plays Roland Deschain, the last Gunslinger -- semi-mystical warriors who battle the Man in Black (McConaughey), a sorcerer/tool of evil who’s trying to topple the Dark Tower that protects the multiverse from utter destruction. (What he gets out of this, it’s never made clear.)

The Dark Tower books are unread by me, but from what I’ve gathered this story takes place outside of and possibly after the events depicted there, as essentially the endgame King never got around to writing himself. Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinker, Anders Thomas Jensen and Nikolaj Arcel form the screenwriting committee, with Arcel also directing.

Tom Taylor plays Jake, the classic alienated/gifted youngster who serves as our eyes and ears into this world. He stumbles across a portal that transports him into the Gunslinger’s realm, Mid-World, where they soon hook up and start to bring the fight to the MiB.

I think people who haven’t read the books are more likely to enjoy “The Dark Tower” than those who did. It’s an intriguing blend of fantasy, Western, science fiction and horror elements. It’s an off-brand gumbo with a few sour bites, but I appreciated the bold mix of divergent ingredients.

Plus, I’m in the school of thought that there’s always something worth watching about any performance by Idris Elba. And that McConaughey guy ain’t half bad, either.

Bonus features are OK. They include several deleted scenes, a blooper real, three vignettes that peer deeper into the Dark Tower mythology and five making-of featurettes.

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Thursday, October 26, 2017

Review: "Goodbye Christopher Robin"


If you go into "Goodbye Christopher Robin" expecting, as I did, to see a heartwarming portrait of the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh and how his own family life helped him conjure that whimsical world, you may be a little shocked by the actual film you see. It's more challenging than expected, but ultimately much more rewarding, too.

Directed by Simon Curtis from a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, "Goodbye" is a portrait of a remarkable family, but a dysfunctional one. It's a melancholy story of how parents can love their children but not always do the right thing by them, even as the outside world looks upon their circumstances as enviable -- even wondrous.

This is the tale of the darkness behind the magic.

Domhnall Gleeson plays author A.A. Milne, a decent man ravaged by the horrors of the World War I trenches. Known as Blue to family and friends, he's a typical upper-crust British husband and father, kindly but emotionally distant.

Once the family decamps London for a quiet farm in Sussex, everyone knows not to make loud noises, which trigger fits we now call PTSD, or disturb Blue while he's writing. Problem is, he's not writing. A successful playwright of light comedies before the war, he comes to find himself dissatisfied with this type of work. And he struggles to find a kind that does. Even his notion of a treatise on ending all wars lies fallow.

Margot Robbie plays his wife, Daphne, and this is neither the typical loving mother or shrewish harpy we're used to seeing in the movies. She enjoys the high life of London, but sacrifices her own joy for Blue's need for solitude. She loves their only son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston) -- known to them as Billy Moon -- with all her heart, but happily shunts most of the day-to-day duties of mothering to the diligent nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

(Billy calls her Lou... clearly, this clan loves nicknames.)

Circumstances force Blue and Billy to be alone with each other for a long period of time. They take long walks in the gorgeous forest, play games, have adventures, and slowly draw closer as father and son. Building on the voices Daphne gave to Billy's favorite stuffed animals, Blue starts to create stories to go with them, centered on a kindly teddy bear who acts as a sort of little brother.

Blue enlists illustrator Ernest (E.H.) Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore), a friend and fellow shell-shocked veteran, to come visit them and start doodling pictures to go along with the words. He includes Billy as a character in the stories, but gives him a false name, which is actually his real name, to draw some distance. For his own part, Billy Moon is a little trepidatious about being portrayed as Christopher Robin.

"If I'm in a book, people might think I'm not real," he says.

Winnie-the-Pooh becomes an international success virtually overnight, surprising everyone. There is joy and pride, but Blue also finds himself strangely resentful of his own son, who becomes an instant celebrity. People adore Christopher Robin as the ideal of childhood innocence, and can't distinguish him from the flesh-and-blood boy, Billy. Meanwhile, the writer stands in his own creation's shadow.

Before long Billy's quiet life in the country has turned into a litany of interviews, public appearances and being recognized wherever they go. Olive tries to warn Blue about the dangerous waters they're drifting into, but Daphne resents the intrusion of someone she sees as merely a servant.

Billy's childhood is happy, but growing up proves to be a much sterner proposition.

"Goodbye Christopher Robin" is a gorgeous film, with dappled sunlight streaming through trees, vivid colors and crisp details. (Ben Smithard was director of photography.) Decked out in beautiful tweed suits (by Odile Dicks-Mireaux) -- even while playing cricket -- Blue is the artist who relates better to his characters than the people they're based upon.

Gleeson is an interesting physical specimen, who can seem awkward and ungainly, or very handsome and masculine, depending on the performance and costumes/makeup. The Robbie character gets shunted to the side somewhat, but that's a reflection of a home life that was much more stilted than presented to the public.

Tilston, with his impossible dimples, is terrific as a little boy dealing with issues and emotions no one his age should have to. Alex Lawther takes over the role of Billy as he gets older, bringing new, less merry notes to the character.

Winnie-the-Pooh and Christopher Robin are beloved creations that have stood the test of time for nearly a century. But they are just that: figments based on reality, not representing it.





Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Review: "Lucky"


“Lucky” is not so much a story as a spare character study. The film will be forever remembered as the last starring role of the great character actor Harry Dean Stanton, whose movie career didn’t really take off until he was in his 40s.

Still, that was enough for a half-century of indelible roles, punctuated by Stanton’s signature sharp, gaunt visage – like a matinee idol who’d been sucked on a bit by a vampire – and languorous, offbeat line delivery.

No matter what character he was playing, Stanton never seemed in a hurry to get where he was going.

I doubt there’s ever been a more distinctly Harry Dean Stanton role than the one he has in “Lucky,” playing the titular character, a 90-something cowpoke who saunters around his sleepy little Western town, always up to not much at all. With his sad, droopy eyes and battered straw hat, Lucky is like the town’s resident mascot.

A creature of habit, he patters through the routine of his days: calisthenics, a walk into town for coffee at the local diner, a stop at the corner market for cigarettes or milk – all he consumes, as far as we can tell – more moseying, TV game shows, his evenings spent with a Bloody Mary at one of the two watering holes in town, where the same creatures come out every night.

Lucky used to go to the other bar, but got thrown out – or walked out, in his telling – for lighting up indoors long after that sort of thing became verboten.

A prideful loner, Lucky was in the Navy during World War II, and we don’t really know what he’s been doing in the 70-odd years since. Never married, no kids he can lay claim to, no pets, no responsibilities, no close friendships. He makes odd, one-sided phone calls to someone who appears to be a pal, mostly picking words out of the dictionary and discussing them.

It may not seem like much of a life, but it’s one Lucky holds to with fierce conviction. This is the sort of man who will challenge a fellow half his age to a fistfight if he thinks the guy is taking advantage of a friend.

When he sustains an inexplicable fall in his home, the wind goes out of Lucky’s sails. The doctor (Ed Begley Jr.) says he’s in exceptional health – something he can’t explain given Lucky’s pack-a-day habit. Just getting older, he shrugs. We get the sense Lucky could handle a dire pronouncement, the C-word or such. But just not knowing vexes him to his core.

“Lucky” is really a story of new beginnings. Is Lucky preparing for the end, looking for answers about the meaning of life, or trying to break out of his shell? Perhaps a mix of all three.

The creative team are all filmmaking veterans trying out new roles. John Carroll Lynch, another noted character actor, steps behind the camera for the first time as a director. Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja have also worked as actors and crew members, now trying their hands at screenwriting.

I do wish “Lucky” had a little more narrative momentum than it does. The movie plays out mostly as just a series of encounters between Lucky and other townsfolk. Beth Grant plays Elaine, the matron of his bar, who likes being the center of attention. James Darren plays her main squeeze, who gets a nice speech of his own. David Lynch plays another odd oldster with a runaway tortoise.

Tom Skerritt gets the best supporting part, a small bit as a fellow veteran Lucky connects with at a diner. He gets a 4- or 5-minute speech that’s right up there with Quint’s U.S.S. Indianapolis soliloquy from “Jaws.”

“Lucky” is not a movie about an old man who goes on a journey, but one who comes to take the first few steps. Though I wish we could’ve followed him a little further down that path, it’s a fitting coda for Stanton, who gets to ride off -- or, rather, amble -- into the sunset on the back of one of his best roles.



Review: "Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House"


How do you portray a person whose most notable attribute was remaining an enigma?

That’s the challenge facing the long-gestating cinematic portrayal of Mark Felt, the FBI lifer who was eventually revealed to be “Deep Throat,” a key source to the Washington Post stories on Watergate by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, which more than anything else helped end the cancerous presidency of Richard Nixon.

For writer/director Peter Landesman (“Concussion”), the answer is you cast a powerhouse actor in the lead role, show the Watergate saga from the perspective of the government investigators, present a dizzying gallery of players inside and outside the FBI, and hope for the best.

The result, “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” is a noble effort that doesn’t quite sing. The film ends up getting caught in the minutia of the investigation, rather than exploring the moral quandary of Washington’s rot, and why a loyal company man like Felt was compelled to speak up (if not out).

Liam Neeson, decked out in a snowy hairpiece and ‘70s executive suits, manages to resemble Felt a wee bit. He’s obviously practiced the real man’s stiff, formal speaking cadence -- though this was maybe a time when it might have been wiser to personify rather than impersonate a historical figure.

(For a contrasting example, see Chadwick Boseman’s brash take on Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall.”)

As the story opens in 1972, Nixon seems to be riding a wave to easy reelection when the Watergate break-in and arrests occur. Almost right away, Felt, the number two man at the FBI, understands the potential for the scandal to go right to the top of the White House hierarchy. He gears up his forces to investigate the crime without fear or favor to any potential consequences.

But then FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover dies after five decades at the top. Felt would seem to be the natural choice to take the director’s chair, but White House flunky L. Patrick Gray is tapped instead. Gray is played by Marton Csokas, who practically seems to drip oily servility. In short order, Felt is instructed to wrap up the Watergate investigation toot suite, and is told who he can and cannot interview.

Felt starts dropping clues for journalists to pick up the thread, including Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood) at Time magazine and Woodward (Julian Morris). As his frustration grows, so does the level of detail in his leaks. Soon, on top of the Watergate investigation Felt is charged with discovering the leaker.

Felt eventually outed himself as Deep Throat in 2005, when ill health and the encouragement of his family nudged him to seek a book deal. (Upon which this film is partially based.) Many people had speculated over the years that Felt may have been the Post source, with the shorthand justification being that he was an ambitious man who felt snubbed at not getting the top job.

The film takes a more nuanced approach, suggesting that Felt was less offended over his own status than the injurious tactics the Nixon administration employed against a government agency whose mission he held sacred. On several occasions he brazenly tells White House power brokers, such as chief counsel John Dean (Michael C. Hall), that they have no authority over the FBI, which he declares a completely autonomous agency.

Given today’s political contretemps, such an assertion seems comedically archaic.

An important subplot to the tale, which isn’t well known, is that Felt’s own daughter, Joan, had disappeared during this time. He and his wife, Audrey (Diane Lane), searched desperately for her, fearing she may have thrown in with the Weather Underground, a radical group that he himself had been investigating.

Just how good was Mark Felt at keeping a secret? Let’s put it this way: when he was later put on trial for violating the civil rights of Weather Underground associates -- and convicted, then pardoned -- one of the people who donated to Felt’s legal fund was Richard Nixon.

That sounds like the sort of guy whose head you’d like to get inside. Alas, while “Mark Felt” is an interesting exploration of Watergate’s flip side, the man in the middle remains a riddle.