Thursday, May 25, 2017

Review: "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales"

If you can keep the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie straight, your cinematic compass is keener than mine. They made four of them in nine years, then none for the last six, so they merge together in a dim fog of sameness.

I remember the first one seemed fresh because it was a typical big special effects summer action bonanza set apart by Johnny Depp’s dizzy, daffy turn as the addled Captain Jack Sparrow. He quickly supplanted the ostensible stars of the franchise, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, to the point they didn’t even appear in the last one, and only make brief cameos in the fifth edition, “Dead Men Tell No Tales.”

It’s more of the same: crazy stunt set-pieces, supernatural threats, a brief foray into town for robbing and wenching, a couple of rousing sea battles and whole lot of sozzled Jack stumbling through it all.

He’s the most inept hero of any movie franchise I can think of. Imagine Luke Skywalker being really clumsy, swinging his lightsaber around drunkenly and accidentally decapitating Ewoks left and right.

Javier Bardem is the newest villain as Captain Salazar, a former pirate hunter who’s missing part of his head, and all of his soul. The “Pirates” bad guys are defined more by their special effects than their characteristics, since they’re all undead or seeking immortality, despise Jack Sparrow and need him, one of his trinkets or a piece of lore from him to get what they want.

The effect for Salazar and his crew is pretty spectacular: they’re actually missing pieces of their bodies, as if parts of them have been erased. Salazar’s got no back of his head, his skin is cracked like old plaster and oozing blood, and his hair swirls in a ghostly nimbus around his head as if he’s underwater.

Some of his crew are missing arms, legs, even entire heads or chunks of their torsos. One guy appears to be just a shoulder and a hip.

The fresh new young faces are Kaya Scodelario and Brenton Thwaites as, respectively, Carina, a curious girl whose love of science keeps getting her branded a witch, and Henry Turner, the grown son of the Bloom and Knightley characters, and doesn’t that just make us all feel old. They get to spend the movie arguing and denying their obvious infatuation.

Geoffrey Rush turns up again as Captain Barbossa, who through the series has been a zombie, then just a human villain, then a privateer in service to the British crown, and now is just back to being a pirate again. He’s worried about Salazar cutting his fleet to shreds, so he decides to seek him to reach an accord and serve Jack’s head on a platter.

It’s a fun, giddy movie that only works if it doesn’t stop moving long enough for you to think about how the different pieces fit together. For instance, it’s weird that the local British officer (David Wenham) is hell-bent on executing Carina for supposedly being a witch, but is happy to recruit a real one (Golshifteh Farahani) to track down Sparrow.

A few moments that stand out: we learn the origin of all those quirky bits ‘n’ pieces that make up Jack’s accoutrements; some rotted shark carcasses get reanimated by Salazar and set to snapping; and a daring Carina doffs her stuffy long dress to swim to safety. “I saw her ankles!” Henry crows.

Co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson keep things moving at a brisk pace, feeding Depp plenty of moments for his little woozy reactions and quips. Interestingly, if you think about the plot you realize you don’t really need Jack Sparrow to make it all work.

He’s the oddball bit of grease that keeps this pile of claptrap turning long after it had any business embarking on another voyage.

Review: "Baywatch"

I never watched a single episode of the "Baywatch" TV show, or wanted to. They couldn't just have lifeguards resuscitating poor swimmers every week, so they brought in drug dealers, inter-squad passion/spats, earthquakes and even a serial killer to spice things up.

It sounded like a weird amalgam of a crime procedural and fleshfest, complete with the slo-mo running "jiggle cam" that became its signature.

Basically, it was a stripper cop show.

"Baywatch" at least seemed aware of its own silliness, and to the extent possible, embraced it. So the logical thing to do if you were going to make a movie out of it is to spoof the TV version, in the way that "21 Jump Street," “The A Team” and the more recent “CHIPS” did.

(Though perhaps these are not the… best examples.)

Director Seth Gordon, a TV and film comedy veteran (“Identity Thief,” “Horrible Bosses”), and screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift start off reasonably well, gathering together a gaggle of eye-pleasing hardbodies and concocting a bunch of goofy, raunchy scenarios to put them through.

But the film loses steam pretty early, and then hangs around way too long -- nearly two hours. If any movie needed to rock an 82-minute run time, it’s this.

It’s very aware of what it’s trying to do, at least for a while. The actors mock the TV show while paying homage to it. For instance, one of the women questions why it is their familiar fire red one-piece bathing suits ride so far up their rear ends. It makes us faster in the water, or something, the other responds… and we all know it’s the “or something.”

Interestingly, a whole lot more male flesh is on display than female which, other than some cleavage and the aforementioned butt-age, is pretty much kept under wraps. That is largely provided by Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron, two famously buff actors who butter their bread with getting their kits off.

Johnson is built like the former WWE and NFL prospect he was, massive in the Schwarzeneggerian mold. He basically looks like an 18-wheeler encased in flesh. Efron, a former teen idol, seems intent on completely ridding his body of all fat to the point he resembles those “visible man” cut-out models you saw in biology class, where every muscle strand and the guts are naked to the eye.

Apparently, this is considered attractive nowadays. I guess the next step is for people to start making their internal organs visible. Soon there’ll be a market for cosmetic surgery of the liver.

There is one schlubby guy, a new recruit named Ronnie (Jon Bass), because it’s supposed to be funny to have the rippled crew running on the beach together, and here’s this big belly sloshing around in slo-mo. But the movie awards him… other attributes as compensation.

Other newbies to the Baywatch team are Alexandra Daddario as Summer, a tough and smart girl, and Efron as Matt Brody, a former Olympic champion more famous for his out-of-the-pool tomfoolery than his gold medals. Think Ryan Lochte with gastrointestinal issues. He’s cocky as all get-out and must be put in his place, starting with Summer responding to his brodude overtures.

Johnson is Lieutenant Mitch Buchannon, a legend on the beach with hundreds of confirmed saves. One of the running jokes is that Mitch acts like a military special-ops badass -- the exact origin of his rank is nebulous -- and people have to keep reminding him he’s just a lifeguard.

Ilfenesh Hadera plays Stephanie, Mitch’s seasoned and capable #2. Rob Huebel is the jerk suit ostensibly in command. Kelly Rohrbach rounds out the team as CJ, whom Ronnie is smitten with, and she might just have a little smit running the other direction, too.

There’s a plot, but that’s not really the point. Something about a powerful businesswoman buying up beach properties, muscling politicos and offing anyone who gets in the way.

“Baywatch” actually starts out pretty funny and fresh, but they only really had about two solid “SNL” skits worth of material to go on. The rest is unfunny filler. But I guess they spent so much effort trimming the fat from the beach bods, they couldn’t bother to do the same with the script.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review: "Chuck"

Chuck Wepner was a big ugly mook who became semi-famous as a footnote in both the sports and entertainment worlds. You may not think you know me, he narrates at the beginning of his biopic, “Chuck,” but you do.

It’s long been said that Muhammad Ali and his manager, Don King, picked the New Jersey boxer out of obscurity in 1975 as his next opponent after downing George Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle” because they wanted a white opponent. But as this enlightening new film directed by Philippe Falardeau (“Monsieur Lazhar”) and starring Liev Schreiber shows, Wepner may have been a blue-collar club fighter, but he was hardly a nobody.

Wepner was the eighth-ranked heavyweight fighter at the time, a 6-foot-5-inch brawler known for his uncanny ability to take punch and not go down. “The Bayonne Bleeder,” they called him, a nickname Chuck detested but accepted when it bought him a round of free drinks or a salutation on the street.

As skillfully depicted by Schreiber, Chuck is somebody who revels in the affirmation of others. He carouses his little corner of Jersey, puffed up by locals who call him “The Champ,” accepting overtures from women not because he’s a philandering cad at heart but because he’s almost genetically incapable of not returning any affection shown to him.

He’s the man who bleeds -- from his face, prodigiously, but also his heart.

Liev, an elegantly handsome actor, is surprisingly convincing as Wepner, with his permanently swollen features, arched eyebrows and fu Manchu mustache. His face resembles last night’s hamburger. Mostly, he seems like a guy trying desperately not to embarrass himself.

The story -- screenplay by Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Cristofer and Schreiber -- actually wraps up the Ali fight about a third of the way through. Chuck never harbored any illusions about beating possibly the greatest of all time -- he was already 36 and losing a step -- but was determined to go the full 15 rounds to prove the naysayers wrong.

Instead, the rest of the movie focuses on Chuck’s life after, when he coasted on his bit of celebrity as the nobody who stood toe-to-toe with the champ. (Pooch Hall plays Ali.)

Then, of course, “Rocky” happened.

The similarities between Sylvester Stallone’s breakout movie and Wepner’s real life are too close to pass the credulity test that Sly made it up on his own. In the film’s version of events, Chuck saw the movie winning a boatload of box office and a trove of Academy Awards as his own victory, too.

But he was too embarrassed to tell anyone, even his best friend, John (a fine Jim Gaffigan), that he wasn’t paid a dime for his story. Eventually, though, pride gets the better of him and he reaches out to Stallone (Morgan Spector), and a surprising connection forms.

One of the film’s disappointments is it completely sidesteps the legal wrangles and war of words between Stallone and Wepner, which went on for decades after “Rocky” came out. In some ways, “Chuck” takes too many pains not to make anybody look bad.

The movie gets the look and feel of 1970s Jersey right -- the loud clothes, the big Cadillacs, the dim bars.

Wepner’s relationship with his wife, Phyllis (Elisabeth Moss), follows the familiar up-and-down tropes of cinematic married couples, and we can’t wait for the marriage to end fast enough. Chuck runs into Linda (Naomi Watts), a hard-scoured bartender, who continually puts him off. But there’s something there, so we’re not surprised when she keeps turning up.

I also liked Ron Perlman as Al, Chuck’s manager and cut-man. Al uses Wepner as a piece of meat he could stitch up and put out there, just trying to get through the next round and the next fight, but genuinely cared about the man underneath the scar tissue. When his boxing career is clearly over, Al sets up a bout with wrestling star Andre the Giant to keep the money and the attention flowing.

“Chuck” stands out from a pantheon of boxing movies, the story of a guy who wasn’t the most skilled fighter or possessed of drive far above his talent level. Wepner was a guy who stumbled into and out of trouble, became famous almost by accident and struggled with that, too. Chuck always took his lumps, and endured.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Action in the North Atlantic" (1943)

At first glance, "Action in the North Atlantic" seems like a typical jingoistic World War II war drama, conceived to pump up the troops overseas and the folks at home, while delivering some thrilling action and a little romance.

And it is. All that is missing is a "Buy War Bonds" title card.

It's about the Merchant Marines, carrying oil and military arms across the sea where they are desperately needed by Allied forces while dodging German U-boats and aircraft. It's the usual "swell bunch of guys" rogue's gallery of supporting characters, playing cards and getting into beefs, while coming together in a swell way during times of duress, with occasional nostalgic asides about their swell gals back home. It's swell!

What sets it apart from the pack, though, are two things: the truly impressive naval combat sequences/special effects, and the realistic grim tone and depictions of violence.

Let's talk about the latter first. I was struck by the overt (for its time) depictions of bodies being flung away in explosions or otherwise severely traumatized. Usually in films of this era, you'd hear an explosion off-sceen and then cut to dissipating smoke as a noble hero lies dying, but largely undamaged other than some handsomely blackened cheeks.

In one early scene, a lifeboat full of men is rammed by a German submarine, and a body is seen being chewed up by its propellers. It's very brief -- I rewound and played the film frame-by-frame to confirm -- but still gruesome stuff.

Beyond the depictions of violence, though, is the dire sense of consequences ready to befall anyone. (Well, maybe not star Humphrey Bogart.)

During that same sequence, when an oil tanker is torpedoed and sunk, one of the younger crewman, Johnny Pulaski (Dane Clark), valiantly rescues one of his mates who got trapped in the mess room. He turns back from the clamor toward the lifeboats, busts through the door with an ax, shields him from the raging inferno, straps him into a life vest, then takes it off when they see the ocean is a pool of fire from burning oil, dives into the icy brine together, helps him swim under the glames... only to have the man drown a few feet from the lifeboat.

Similarly, the captain and first mate (Raymond Massey and Bogie, respectively) learn there are men trapped in the stern of the ship, and make to go back and rescue them personally. But they take one look a the burning deck in front of them and conclude it's suicide. Neither do they go down with the ship, though they are the last ones into the lifeboat.

That may not seem like a big deal. But normally we'd see some kind of "we'll find a way!" heroics. The fact they decline to sacrifice themselves in a brave but pointless act speaks to the realities of wartime.

And speaking of war, the depictions of it are just tremendous. By 1943 the U.S. military had accrued a decent library of stock footage from the war, which is sprinkled throughout the film. But for the most part director Lloyd Bacon, a workhorse of the Warner Bros.' pen, used actual actors on actual sets, often with fire and debris right up in their faces.

I was mentally comparing it to similar scenes in the recent "Deepwater Horizon," and "Action" holds up quite well 74 years later.

This is especially impressive given that war edicts prevented any filming at sea -- the threat of enemy submarines right off our coastlines being a very real thing in 1942-43. So everything was shot on the Warners lot, including some rather good ship models for the complicated maneuvers depicted.

Even by today's standards, the war scenes are engrossing and impressive.

(I should note that Bacon did not actually complete filming on the production, as his contract was up and a dispute with the studio resulted in an uncredited Byron Haskin wrapping things up.)

The story's a pretty straight line. John Howard Lawson penned the screenplay, from a story by Guy Gilpatric. Gilpatric got an Academy Award nomination for his work while Lawson did not, under the more arcane rules of the Oscars back then.

Massey plays Steve Jarvis, Captain of the tanker Northern Star, and Bogart is his wiseacre first office, Joe Rossi. Their ship is torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine, whose crew even films and taunts the survivors before running aground their lifeboat. Jarvis vows to get his revenge, and after some floating in a raft and a little shore time for lovin' and such, they get a new mission aboard the Liberty-class cargo ship Seawitch, and another scrap with the Nazis.

The Germans are repeatedly referred to as Nazis, though of course the terms are not interchangeable. The depiction of the enemy is one of the harshest I've ever seen in a WWII film, with the Germans seen as bloodthirsty killers not dissimilar from a pack of slavering wolves. They also speak their native language throughout, a notable departure for films of that era, in long dialogue scenes that can be annoying if you don't sprechen sie deutsch.

Alan Hale, Sr. -- daddy of "The Skipper" and a noted character actor in his own right -- plays "Boats," the older bosun who's in charge of the enlisted men. He rarely goes ashore, because that means facing legal papers from his growing gallery of wives, ex- or otherwise. Sam Levene plays "Chips," the vaguely ethnic veteran  who can divine the movement of the Germans by the ache in his corns. He's supposed to be a veteran of World War I, though Levene was only born in 1905.

Dick Hogan is the young cadet fresh from Merchant Marine officer school, distrusted by the captain for getting his learning from books instead of the open sea. Though he proves himself able in the end. Julie Bishop plays the lounge singer who attracts Bogart's eye and becomes his wife in about a minute and a half.

Ruth Gordon, who would go on to an accomplished screenwriting career before becoming a star late in life, tackles one of her early acting role as Jarvis' loving wife. She would not act in another movie until 1965.

Wilhelm von Brincken plays the sneering German submarine captain. He has an interesting backstory. He met his wife in America while serving in the German consulate during World War I, and was arrested for espionage and sent to prison (including Alcatraz). Afterward he was recruited by Erich Von Stroheim to work in Hollywood, enjoying a busy career for the next two decades, including playing the Red Baron in Howard Hughes' "Hells Angels." When war came again, he was kept quite busy playing enemy commanders on land, sea and air.

"Action in the North Atlantic" may not amount to much more than wartime propaganda. But it's very well-done propaganda.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Video review: "Logan"

As the superhero genre enters middle age, we’re seeing more films break out of the mold of the standard origin/call to duty/existential threat storyline. “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool” explored the comedy end of things. “Logan” goes the other way -- an uncompromisingly grim, sad and angry drama.

I heard one person describe it as the “Unforgiven” of Marvel Comics movies, and that wraps it up neater than I ever could.

Very loosely based on the “Old Man Logan” limited comics series, “Logan” is set a few years down the road in a dystopian future where nearly all the super-heroes (and villains) have been exterminated by a tyrannical government. Wolverine himself (Hugh Jackman) is a wreck: his fantastical healing power has withered, he walks with a limp and is racked by coughing. But he still has those freaky metal claws and a skeleton of unbreakable metal.

He’s staying incognito as a limo driver, earning money so he can buy a boat and put to sea, permanently. Logan is acting as protector/imprisoner of his old mentor, Professor X (Patrick Stewart), now in his 90s and suffering from dementia that causes him to go into fits – bad news for others when you’re talking about the world’s most powerful telepath. Puttering around as the help is Caliban (Stephen Merchant), an old enemy turned ally.

The threat is familiar: Mad scientists are experimenting with a new generation of mutants so they can harness their powers to do nefarious bidding. Laura (Dafne Keen), a mute young girl with abilities very similar to Logan’s, turns up to join their not-so-merry little band, which is soon being chased by mercenaries and… something else.

Once again, Logan acts as if he just wants to be left alone. But he’s constantly compelled to put others’ needs before his own.

Director/co-writer James Mangold gives us a relentlessly tragic film in which mankind has lost touch with its humanity, and the would-be savior is a self-hating fellow who slices people up with his claws. It was always an odd fit, trying to sandwich Wolverine into comics for preteens and PG-13 movies. Finally, the gore matches the character’s feral ferocity.

They needed three tries, but they finally got a Wolverine movie right – just in time to bring his grim saga to a close.

The most interesting Blu-ray bonus feature is “Logan Noir” -- an entirely black-and-white version of the movie. It also comes with a feature-length audio commentary track by Mangold, deleted scenes with optional commentary by Mangold, and a making-of documentary.


Extras: B

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Review: "Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent"

It wasn't that long ago in the ongoing feast that is the American story when chefs were considered servants, not celebrities. Jeremiah Tower grew up in that Old World of privileged dining, where white-gloved underlings flitted to and fro, fetching exotic dishes that other nameless persons had meticulously prepared for well-heeled diners.

Then Tower crossed over to the kitchen side, bringing scintillating new ideas about cooking that permeated our culture and, in the process, upending the classic dynamic between the feeder and the fed.

Tower served as a bridge between two culinary traditions, a largely self-taught cook who ran huge restaurants and almost single-handedly created what came to be known as California cuisine, which blended classic French cooking with American tastes and a then-novel emphasis on local ingredients. He was this country's original celebrity chef -- not counting Julia Childs, whose province was teaching housewives to cook with flair -- and from the early 1970s to the early 2000s, countless rising young chefs looked to him for inspiration and emulation.

And yet, Tower's name is not one that resonates today in the minds of most people, even devoted gastronomes -- certainly not in the way of other chefs whose fame came after, such as Wolfgang Puck.

The new documentary from director Lydia Tenaglia, "Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent," explores not only the genius of Tower, but how and why it's been overlooked.

It's a penetrating portrait of a man who loves to be around other people, a naturally charismatic figure toward whom others are pulled, yet one who can be off-putting, stubborn and brittle. As depicted in this film, Tower is now wandering through his eighth decade of self-imposed loneliness, an obsessive artist whose first, and best, relationship has always been with food rather than the people who ate it.

Tenaglia’s background is in food television, including a long collaboration with Anthony Bourdain of "No Reservations." She interviews dozens of well-known culinary figures, including Bourdain himself, Martha Stewart and former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl, along with a host of other chefs who apprenticed under Tower or admired him from afar.

And there are talks with his few longtime friends, several of whom admit that despite adoring Tower for 40 or 50 years, they don’t truly know him. As Bourdain eloquently puts it, Tower has a private room inside himself that few, if any, have ever visited.

Tenaglia’s camera also follows Tower himself around his solitary contemporary perambulations, first living near the sea in Mexico, cooking exquisite dishes for 10 even though he’s the only guest at the table. And later, we shadow him during his brief, ill-fated attempt to return to high-profile restaurateuring, taking over the mammoth kitchen operation of Tavern on the Green, a New York City landmark where many chefs have failed to match quality to the quantity served.

The film’s best sequences explore Tower’s youth and unlikely rise as a chef. As a son to a distant, wealthy executive and a caring but alcoholic mother, Tower recounts long trips they took all over the globe, often for weeks or months at time, during which he was left almost entirely to himself. He was waited on hand and foot by servants, trying out every kind of food he could, memorizing and collecting menus, and eventually being taken under the wing of the kitchen staff.

"From early on, I really think food was my best pal, my companion," he says.

He tells the tale of walking alone along the beach near the Great Barrier Reef at the age of 6, encountering an Aborigine who shared a dinner with him consisting of the barracuda he had just caught. Tower vividly describes smelling the fish searing on a makeshift grill right there on the sand, rubbed with herbs the man had gathered from the jungle. It’s a moment of crystallized memory and pure magic, but one with a conclusion of unexpected darkness.

After misspent years in his teens and 20s, studying architecture at Harvard, exploring counterculture and cooking fabulous meals for friends, Tower found himself cut off from his rich boy’s allowance and in need of a job. Based on the strength of a berry tart he’d tasted and the recommendation of friends, he inquired about a job at Chez Panisse, the storied bohemian Berkeley bistro founded and run by Alice Waters.

Taking over as chef, Tower soon put the place on the national map, and also joined the freewheeling party of carefree souls ensconced in the kitchen -- cooking, eating, drinking, laughing, carrying on affairs. This included Tower and Waters, despite Tower knowing from an early age that he was gay. Eventually the personal and professional affiliation dissolved, ending in bitter accusations over credit for the cuisine.

The movie occasionally wanders chronologically, especially in the second half, in a way that doesn’t serve the storytelling process well. For instance, people who worked at Tower’s signature restaurant, San Francisco’s Stars, question why it closed up suddenly in 1999 after years of being one of the top-grossing restaurants in the country. Some even offer psychological divinations, insisting Tower became distracted with other ventures, or had simply grown tired of the gig. Then the documentary retreads this same ground near the end, offering another reason that is as mundane as it is likely accurate.

As you might expect, Tenaglia and her cinematographer, Morgan Fallon, lovingly caress the food with their lens -- kaleidoscopes of shapes, colors and textures that practically leap off the screen, burrow themselves into your soul and make you yearn to eat, no matter when your last meal was.

The latter portion of the film’s title, “The Last Magnificent,” comes from the nickname of Lucious Beebe, a 20th century journalist and top hat-wearing man-about-town who is credited with creating café society. It’s clearly a role Tower desired for himself -- the center of attention in a never-ending swirl of people who loved to gather together for conversation, comradery and, above all, great food. Yet his ability to push people away, even leave them furious, was as boundless as his skills at the stove.

The cuisine endures, but the fame did not. Jeremiah Tower was a celebrity, and then he became almost invisible. But as this probing documentary shows, he was always in the midst of a disappearing act.

Review: "Alien: Covenant"

Everyone knows the “Alien” franchise stopped being good after the second movie, reaching its nadir when the iconic mouth-within-a-mouth critter squared off against the Predator.

Original director Ridley Scott, no doubt grumpy about the state into which other filmmakers had led his creation, came back in 2012 with the moody, dizzy “Prometheus,” which he coyly declined to describe as a prequel, saying it “shared DNA” with his 1979 movie.

Well, now Scott has made a sequel, “Alien: Covenant,” and there’s no more doubt remaining about where the two latest films fall within the canon. (Squarely.) These events take place 10 years after “Prometheus,” and still some decades before “Alien.”

It’s energetic and fast-paced, covering familiar territory with (mostly) new characters playing out a lot of the same scenarios and musing upon the same themes. Despite the lack of originality, I liked it better than any of the other “Alien” movies since 1986.

It’s probably the closest inheritor to the story and mood of the original, with a crew of woefully unprepared humans exploring an unknown planet where alien bugaboo will infect them, releasing larger versions that grow rapidly and kill even quicker.

Again, a female junior officer chafes under the yoke of clearly less competent male superiors, having to wait her turn until a sufficient number of them have died to place her in command. Here it’s Katherine Waterston as Daniels. As before, characters are known simply by their last names, and share a sort of martial comradery.

There are some differences, however. The ship Covenant is traveling to colonize a far planet, carrying 2,000 colonists in cryo-sleep and another 1,400 or so human embryos to speed up the population-building. Interestingly, pretty much all of the crew are paired off into romantic couples – an arrangement better suited to starting a new life far, far away.

“Alien: Covenant” has lots of fascinating ideas like this that it never bothers to really explore. Such as the captain, Oram (Billy Crudup), being a man of faith whose leadership is questioned by a crew more typical of an agnostic future.

Actually, they doubt him because he’s a squirrelly, inconsiderate weakling who was never meant to be the leader in the first place. The real captain (a cameo by James Franco) dies in the opening sequence, in which a solar flare damages the Covenant, necessitating the early awakening of the crew, and his hyper-sleep pod fails horribly.

They receive a strange signal they believe is human from an uncharted planet. Since no one wants to brave the sleep pods after the accident, and this planet can sustain human life, they decide to go there to check it out as an alternative to their destination. Daniels and Oram clash over this, and we know who is going to turn out to be right.

Demián Bichir plays the chief of the security squad (along with his husband – hey, it’s the year 2104, people); Amy Seimetz plays Faris, the hyperventilating one; Carmen Ejogo is Karine, Oram’s mate and the science chief. Danny McBride shows he can not be goofy as Tennessee, the cowboy hat-wearing pilot who gets to show his right stuff.

Michael Fassbender reappears playing Walter, the creepy “synthetic” – aka android – assigned to the Covenant. He’s a later model of David, the trouble-making synthetic from “Prometheus.”

Mild spoiler alert: Fassbender also has a dual role playing David himself, whom we might have dismissed, seeing as how he was decapitated in the last movie and all. The two get to have a number of philosophical conversations about the nature of humanity before the inevitable square-off.

“Alien: Covenant” doesn’t break any new ground or raise the bar for the franchise. But it’s entertaining and doesn’t embarrass itself in front of its forbears.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Review: "Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer"

"Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer" is the story of a flimflam man with his heart, if not his methods, in the right place.

We've seen movies before about consummate power players, the sort of slick “House of Cards” types who slide through the intersecting webs of politics and finance with ease, relying on their connections with big names to close the killer deal or bend the right ear.

Norman Oppenheimer is not one of those fellows, though he would desperately like to be.

Richard Gere gives another dazzling performance in the small indie films that have become his bread-and-butter during an impressive late-career surge. His Norman is a sort of everyman nebbish, a good Jew who trolls the waters of the titans of New York, following in their shadows and hoping to poke his nose into the light.

His nephew, a rising young lawyer played by Michael Shannon, tries to warn Norman that he's a guy flailing in the sea trying to get the attention of ocean liners and massive submarines. "But I'm a good swimmer," Norman counters.

Norman is at once incredibly audacious in his ability to worm his way in to see just about anyone, but Gere and writer/director Joseph Cedar also gift him with a tremendous amount of fear and doubt. He's a guy at retirement age without any accomplishments or enduring monuments.

Unlike Willy Loman, he doesn't even seem to have a home or a family to go back to, though he'll mention his deceased wife used to work for so-and-so if it gets him in the door, or his daughter just graduating from graduate school and getting a job at XYZ prestigious firm.

It's clear Norman lies prodigiously, so we amuse ourselves by trying to parse out what’s real, what’s not, and what’s a hybrid of each.

Clad perpetually in a yellow camel overcoat, cap and old-school earbud microphone for his never-ending phone calls, Norman is as much a type as an actual person. Indeed, the right-hand men and women to the giants talk about the need to keep “the Normans” of the world away from those they serve and protect.

In a lot of ways, he reminds me of the John Candy character from “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” He’s a hustler who’s always hustling, a genuinely warm people person who’ll gently grab your arm and nudge you the way he’d like you to go. Talking ears off his what he does, dropping names and invitations for introductions.

Norman’s manipulations are quite transparent, and it’s up to you to decide if you want to go along for the ride or give him the cold shoulder.

Either way, Norman reacts pretty much the same: more attempts to ingratiate. At several points during the movie people more or less tell him, ‘Stop talking to me and leave me alone right now,’ and Norman will comply for a second, then follow with the inevitable, “Yes, but…”

The contretemps of the plot I’ll leave you to discover. Suffice it to say they involve finding $14 million so his Hebrew congregation can keep its building, with Steve Buscemi as the rabbi with the patience of Job; a billionaire financier (Josh Charles) whom Norman wants to entice; a Wall Street trader (Dan Stevens) and his dad, more fish for Norma’s hook; Charlotte Gainsbourg as a mystery woman on a train forced to listen to Norman’s prattling; and Hank Azaria as a younger, slightly more pathetic version of Norman himself.

The biggest connection Norman makes is with Micha Eshel, a young Israeli politician played by Lior Ashkenazi in a charismatic, attention-grabbling performance. Norman sees him at a conference, follows him around afterward, finally summons the courage to talk to him, and together they go into one of those New York men’s clothing stores where each customer gets their own attendant, and all the price tags include a comma.

For literally the price of a pair of shoes -- granted, possibly the most expensive pair of shoes in the world -- Norman finally gets his “in” to the big time.

A tale of tragedy that’s also mightily funny and discerning, “Norman” is another feather in Richard Gere’s already considerably festooned cap.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Video review: "The Space Between Us"

Part science fiction, part road movie, a whole lot angst-y teenage romance, “The Space Between Us” shows the limits of what you can do with a good cast of actors.

Asa Butterfield is a talented young thespian (“Hugo,” “Ender’s Game”), Britt Robertson has stood out in some not-so-great flicks (“The Longest Yard”), and Gary Oldman is, of course, Gary Frickin’ Oldman. Toss in Carla Gugino as a supporting figure, and that’s more talent than most movies can muster.

Alas, the story (screenplay by Allan Loeb) is a mish-mash of random themes and plot threads that don’t weave themselves together in any sort of coherent way. It ends up feeling like a combination of the old David-Bowie-as-space-alien movie, “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” with a human boy standing in for the cute outworlder being chased by a small army of scientists and law enforcement.

The set-up is that Gardner Elliott (Butterfield) is the first human born on Mars – an accident, as his mother and the leader of the astronaut expedition got herself pregnant shortly before takeoff. Now 16, he’s a super-smart kid with obvious impulse issues and a clinging longing for a chance to walk on Earth -- preferably in the company of a cute teen girl.

Tulsa (Robertson) is the gal in question. They’ve been communicating via video chat and messages for a while. She’s a tough outcast sort, so they share a sense of loneliness.

Through a lot of high-tech hi jinks, Gardner manages to get himself to Earth and, eventually, hook up with Tulsa. Unfortunately, after growing up in a low-gravity atmosphere, his body isn’t very suited to Earth’s weight. Ignoring the advice from the NASA eggheads, he and Tulsa run off together for an adventure.

After landing the girl, tops on his list is finding out who is father is. All Gardner has to go by is a photo he found in his mother’s stuff. (She died, of course, because otherwise we wouldn’t have a movie.)

Leading the chase for them is Nathaniel Shepherd (Oldman), a super-rich entrepreneur who dreamt up the Mars colony years ago, but has become something of a recluse ever since. He’s very fidgety and prone to neurotic outbursts, and seems able to command government troops and resources with a phone call, for some reason.

Director Peter Chelsom (“Hannah Montana: The Movie”) can’t manage to sustain a consistent tone to the movie or a steady emotional keel from his actors, so it’s not surprising that they seem to go off in different directions from each other. For Butterfield, that means coming across rather flat, while Oldman is a whirligig of haphazard behavior. Robertson tries to break out of the teen romcom prison bars the movie puts her behind.

“The Space Between Us” is a stellar idea for a film that never achieves liftoff.

Bonus features include five deleted scenes and an alternate ending. There is also a feature-length commentary by Chelsome and a 4-minute featurette, “Love.”



Thursday, May 11, 2017

Review: "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword"

“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is the sort of movie that ends careers… or ought to.

This is just a stinking garbage pile of a movie. Director/co-writer Guy Ritchie, who turned the Sherlock Holmes stories into a dizzy Ferris wheel of grimy alleys and knife fights, takes on the Arthurian legend with the same aesthetic and considerably less skill.

It plays like a random assembly of Ritchie-esque shots -- slo-mo fights, cutaways to characters standing around looking cool as the wind swirls around them, and that thing he does where the people describe what’s going to happen, intercut with it actually happening.

It’s like they took the cut scenes from the video game version of the movie and made that the movie.

It’s a common insult for critics to say a movie plays like a video game. But I like video games, and such a comparison would be an insult to them.

The entire legend of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, the tragedy of Lancelot and Guinevere, etc. is tossed out the window by Ritchie and fellow script men Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram. Instead, Arthur is a street scamp who rises to become the quiet crime lord of Camelot, running brothels and collecting extortion money from merchants.

He’s played by Charlie Hunnan, wearing a smirk and one of those haircuts that are popular these days where it’s buzzed to the scalp everywhere except the top. (Note to men: If you’re north of age 14, don’t.) He manages to pull the sword from the stone pretty early in the going, and spends the rest of the movie working out his daddy issues.

Eric Bana plays Uther Pendragon, murdered by his brother (!), Vortigern, played by longtime Ritchie thespian Jude Law. He’s trying to build a tower to increase his magic powers, except we never see him do anything more impressive than light a candle with his mind. Well, he does have one other trick up his sleeve, but it’s actually the work of a strange sea creature that resembles Ursula from “The Little Mermaid,” who demands a heavy price.

Merlin is off away doing something, but he has sent another mage, known simply as The Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), in his stead to help out. It seems Vortigern has been carrying out a genocide against the mages. She can do that thing where her eyes go all-pupil and she takes over the body of wild creatures. We keep thinking she and Arthur are going to hook up, but first somebody needs to feed her.

Rounding out the cast are Djimon Hounsou as Bedivere, a loyal general to Uther who helps out the son; Aiden Gillen from “Game of Thrones,” who apparently is now required to be in every medieval movie, as Goosefat Bill, who makes quips and flings arrows; and Kingsley Ben-Adir and Neil Maskell as Arthur’s criminal lackeys, Wet Stick and Back Lack.

There’s also a martial arts school in the middle of Camelot, with an Asian teacher named George, who tutored young Arthur in the ways of badassery. And David Beckham turns up in a cameo as a flunky with a nasty eye scar.

(Lots of people have eye scars, for some reason, including Arthur.)

Other weird stuff: Arthur passes out a lot. No, really, whenever he touches Excalibur, he just faints dead away like a Southern belle with the vapors. For some reason, the rebels looking to overthrow Vertigern keep following him.

There’s also Arthur’s odd montage quest to the Darklands, which is supposed to be his big descent into darkness and accepting of his lineage. Except he’s still a prick when he comes back.

I grew up reading and loving the Arthurian legends -- what, most 9-year-olds don’t tear through “Le Morte d’Arthur”? -- so to see them used for this sneering bit of tomfoolery pains me to no end.

There’s not a spark of magic in “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” It’s a visually splendid movie that proves the limits of what eye candy alone can do.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Major League" (1989)

My affection for baseball movies is a puzzle, even to me. I don't care for the sport at all, but it's rendered a lot of great fictional legends over the years. Perhaps it's because you only see tiny snippets of the game, and just the interesting stuff.

Baseball may be the most boring sport, but perhaps precisely because the mind wanders so much, it's the one that best lends itself to storytelling.

I never got around to seeing "Major League" at the time, and had little interest. It seemed like a big, dumb, crude movie about and for jocks. In a lot of ways it's the apotheosis of "Bull Durham," which came out a year earlier and was more my speed. That film was about people who happened to be connected by minor league ball; it was very much of baseball but not about baseball.

"Major League" was a big hit that spawned two sequels and has become embedded in the lore of baseball in a way that hasn't really happened with football or basketball flicks. Players and broadcasters frequently reference the film, such as catcher David Ross filming a tribute upon the movie's 25th anniversary in which he played most of the major roles himself.

It launched or buoyed a lot of careers. "Wild Thing," aka Ricky Vaughn, probably remains Charlie Sheen's most memorable role as the oddly coifed badboy pitcher who eats a big slice of humble pie when he's made to wear dweeby glasses to improve his control issues. It made Wesley Snipes, playing Willie Mays Hayes, the speedster base-stealer, such a big star to the extent he declined to appear in the sequel.

This was also the period of Peak Corbin Bernson, who specialized in playing well-groomed, blond preppy dicks, most notably on TV's "L.A. Law." Here he's Roger Dorn, the highest-paid and sole marquee player on a team of misfits and has-beens. Tom Berenger, already a big star, bought a few more years in the spotlight as Jake Taylor, a broken-down veteran given one last shot at the majors before his balky knees give out.

Dennis Haysbert and Renee Russo both made their big-screen debuts (other than tiny cameos) at age 35 in "Major League," and have gone on to long and productive film and television careers. He played Pedro Cerrano, the voodoo-worshiping power hitter who has trouble with the curve; she was Lynn Wells, Jake's spunky ex- and, he hopes, future wife.

Bob Uecker plays the Indians' play-by-play announcer, Harry Doyle, who generously tips a bottle of bourbon into his coffee, and tries to spin gold to the mostly-empty seats.

Probably the unlikeliest career boost was to James Gammon, the (now) famously gravelly voiced manager of the team. The rare cameraman-turned-actor, Gammon bounced around for years playing cowboys and tough guys. With that iconic voice, which sounds like a motorized purr, and authoritative mien, Gammon would go on to a very busy career in the 1990s and aughts, doing movies, plays, television ("Nash Bridges") and voice work ("The Iron Giant").

Gammon steals pretty much every scene he's in, and "Major League" remains his signature role.

(A personal aside and missed opportunity: Gammon owned a horse ranch in the Ocala, Fla., area while I was a reporter and later entertainment editor at the Ocala Star-Banner. I tried to hook up with him a number of times for an interview, but he preferred his privacy when not working. He died at age 70 in 2010.)

The plot from writer/director David S. Ward is a pretty typical sports underdog story: the beloved owner of the Cleveland Indians passes away of old age, and his spoiled bitch trophy wife (Margaret Whitton), a former Las Vegas showgirl, decides to decamp the organization to Miami for warmer pastures and a huge, modern stadium built with local tax dollars.

(The Miami Marlins would, of course, go on to do just that four years later.)

Her contract with the MLB says she can move the team if attendance falls below 800,000 people for the season. So the roster is packed with newbies, problem children, creaky old minor-leaguers, wannabes and never-beens. The plan is to tank the season, drive the fans away and say hello to ocean breezes.

Gammon plays Lou Brown, manager of the minor league Toledo Mud Hens, brought in to run the circus into the ground. When he first fields the phone call with the offer, Lou is at his off-season job, running the service desk at a local tire shop; he puts the Indians' general manager on hold to haggle with a customer about some whitewalls.

Even if you haven't seen the movie, I think we all know how this turns out: after a run of comedically atrocious performances, the ragtag team starts to gel, overcomes cultural differences and personal beefs to make an unexpected run at the title. The villainous owner buckles down even harder, trading in their team jet for an aged propeller plane and later a smoke-filled bus, but that only brings them closer together.

In perhaps the film's most famous bit, Lou Brown places a life-size cutout of the owner in the locker room, promising to remove one piece of clothing for every win. They make it to the big game, facing off against their longtime rivals the New York Yankees, as the last piece is removed to reveal her pastie-covered woobies.

Interestingly, for what's remembered as a bawdy comedy, this is the closest we come to any female nudity in the film -- though there's male asses aplenty.

The side plot stuff is pretty lame, mostly revolving around dalliances with women. Ricky is seduced by a strange woman who turns out to be Dorn's wife, seeking revenge for his brazen philandering. Their inter-team squabble plays out literally during the down moments of the championship game. (It's never really explained why self-styled badass Ricky is afraid of the team dandy, the guy who won't sacrifice his body to shag a ground ball.)

Jake's redemption is rather half-hearted. He admittedly slept around like crazy on Lynn, took her for granted, and hasn't spoken to her in three years as the story opens. Yet he expects her to drop everything she's doing to fall back into his burly arms, including giving the heave-ho to her rich jerk lawyer fiance.

In one awkward scene, Jake stumbles into a party hosted by Lynn's beau, and he is politely interrogated over his career prospects. The snooty rich guests don't even know the name of the Cleveland team, or recognize him as the starting catcher. Jake is forced to confess that he has no idea what he'll do after baseball, and that he earns the "league minimum."

(What the filmmakers don't tell you is this amounted to $62,500 in 1989. That's about $123,000 in today's dollars -- hardly mortifying chump change.)

Most of the actors reasonably pass themselves off as pro athletes. Berenger looks like a jock's jock, and Sheen was an actual pitcher in high school who reportedly got his fastball up to the mid-80s m.p.h. during production. (With a little help from steroids, according to Sheen himself.) I was struck how there are no six-packs or bulging muscles; these are normal male bodies, though more in shape than average. It was another age then.

Another enduring tidbit from the film is Jobu, the fictional voodoo god worshiped by Cerrano, including a miniature shrine built in his locker complete with rum and cigars. You can still buy little Jobu dolls, which look like a well-tanned version of Doc Brown from "Back to the Future," and other merch from "The Jobu Lifestyle" website. During their 2016 World Series run, the actual Cleveland Indians built their own modern-day Jobu shrine.

This brings me to the question of the relationship between the city and the ersatz version of their team presented in "Major League." The Cleveland portrayed in the movie is a grimy, polluted blue-collar town where the residents constantly bad-mouth their baseball team in between itinerantly going to watch them play in a run-down, cheap-looking stadium. (Actually Milwaukee County Stadium.)

"They're shitty," relates the Greek chorus, otherwise known as the team of Japanese stadium groundskeepers, using subtitles.

Usually sports movies employ fictional names and settings, as in this one, which recently appeared in this space. I'm surprised the Indians agreed to have their likeness used in a not-exactly-flattering portrait of the team and town.

I'm not sure if "Major League" deserves to be immortalized quite like it has. The jokes are pretty straightforward, and the locker room misogyny of the film hasn't aged well. (If it ever looked passable in the first place.) But it's got some distinctive characters, the baseball action is convincing and there's plenty of fun to be had. Call it a stretch double.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Video review: "Fifty Shades Darker"

Occasionally people ask me why I don’t write more terrible reviews of movies.

(I’m assuming they’re being kind and asking why I don’t call more movies terrible, rather than describing the quality of the reviews I pen.)

The truth is that I genuinely feel Hollywood doesn’t make too many truly awful films. And I like to think of myself as a generous critic with wide-ranging tastes. I can usually find at least one or two things to like about even flicks I hate.

Everything is pretested and post-tested to death with audiences these days, so if the studios know they have a real honker on their hands, they’ll shelve it or push it straight to video. For tiny budget stinkers, they’ll simply refuse to show it to critics. So those tend to come and go pretty quickly at theaters without anyone seeing them, or me writing about them.

“Fifty Shades Darker” falls into the rare category of a high-profile movie that’s truly rotten. It’s a sequel to a big hit about a young woman who falls in for a man who’s into BDSM – cuffs, whips and such – and was based on a very popular trashy trio of novels read almost exclusively by women.

What it says about modern feminism that so many females are attracted to stories about dominant men who like to bruise the flesh of his lovers, I know not.

I actually didn’t think the first movie was half bad, but the follow-up is utterly groan-worthy. It’s not even the sort of bad that you can laugh at and mock; you just want it the pain to cease.

Dakota Johnson returns Anastasia Steele, and Jamie Dornan is back as Christian Grey, in a pair of characters battling for the title of Most Fake-Sounding Fictional Name. He’s a billionaire who likes to beat on ladies, and she’s a wallflower slowly discovering her taste for the kinky stuff.

The plot – screenplay by Niall Leonard, based on the book by E.L. James – concocts several nonsensical twists to fill up time in between the bedroom romps, which are much tamer than you’d think. These include Christian momentarily thought to be lost in a helicopter crash, and an old flame of his (Kim Basinger) showing up to turn the screws on his relationship with Ana.

“Darker,” like its predecessor, made a boatload of money, though a significantly smaller boat. I’d like to think it’s because audiences are wising up. But there’s still one more book in the “Fifty Shades” saga to adapt, so I don’t think the torture is going to stop anytime soon.

Watching this movie is like being a reluctant participant in a frisky whipping, and you’ve forgotten the safe word.

The film is being released on video with an Unrated version that promises to amp up the naughty stuff. Bonus features include deleted scenes and several making-of featurettes: “Writing Darker,” “A Darker Direction,” “Dark Reunion,” “New Threats,” “The Masquerade” and “Intimate with Darker.”

Sounds dark, huh?



Thursday, May 4, 2017

Review: "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2"

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” picks up pretty much where the 2014 hit left off, with an unlikely band of miscreants anointed as saviors of the cosmos. And it also continues its stride as a full-out comedy take on the superhero genre, though the sequel has a surprising amount of character development and even a few touchy-feely moments.

It’s not quite the non-stop laugh-a-thon of the first one, but the characters feel deeper, richer and more lived in.

For instance, I didn’t much care for Drax, the musclebound marauder played by Dave Bautista in the first movie. But here his penchant for saying exactly what’s inside his head, without filter or regard of others’ feelings, seems less like a set-up for jokes than an intrinsic part of his makeup. It’s almost like he’s on the autism spectrum.

Drax doesn’t really understand the subtler aspects of behavior, but he’s trying.

The movie (written and directed by James Gunn) again centers on Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, a smirky galactic adventurer played by Chris Pratt. As we know from the last movie, he was abducted from Earth as a child, became part of a crew of space pirates led by the blue-skinned, red-mohawked Yondu (Michael Rooker), and then broke off for his own solo spree of stealing and fun.

Sporting a slightly shellacked look to his hair and skin, Peter has all but given up on searching for his father, who abandoned the family when he was still a boy, reputedly returning to the stars whence he came. Kurt Russell turns up as Ego, a strangely charismatic being who claims to be his dad. Peter’s not entirely convinced, so Ego brings him and the Guardians back to his home planet for a little convincing.

It came at just the right time, as the Guardians had just majorly P.O.’d the Sovereign, a race of gold-skinned beings for whom they’d performed some mercenary work. (Hey, being a savior doesn’t pay much.) Of course, afterward Rocket -- the irascible raccoon-like creature voiced by Bradley Cooper -- decided to steal some of their fancy gizmos for fun, so the goldies were in hot pursuit before Ego came to the rescue.

Zoe Saldana returns as Gamora, a green-skinned assassin who continually resists Peter’s attempts to woo her. I liked that even though his intentions become entirely made clear -- in a rather funny and embarrassing way -- Gamora doesn’t automatically fall into his arms. She’s a tough nut, and harder to crack.

Gamora’s sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), also shows up, a partially robotic creature with a hell-bent desire to kill her sibling, and then their father.

And, of course there’s Groot, the tree-like creature who was killed in the last movie, only to be reborn as a tiny shoot. He’s essentially having to restart his life cycle all over again, so he’s in the adorable toddler phase. He’s not terribly useful in this form, and doesn’t seem to have regained his full cognitive abilities, which is a hindrance when trying to remember which button causes instant death for everyone.

Also new are Pom Klementieff as Mantis, an odd empathic creature raised in servitude to Ego, and Sylvester Stallone as an elder pirate who has to kick Yondu out of the pirate club, or something. We get the sense they’ll play bigger roles in the third movie.

And yes, there will be a third movie: it’s announced at the start of the end credits. Speaking of which, “GotG2” sets some sort of record for most bonus scenes. I think it was five, but I may have lost count.

It’s not as fresh or funny as its predecessor, but “Guardians of the Galaxy” is still a lot of fun. They seem to have consciously sacrificed some laughs in order to flesh out this universe and make it seem more authentic and grounded. That may sound funny given all the crazy makeup and CGI to depict a kaleidoscope of fantastical aliens, but there it is.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Review: "The Dinner"

Not since “My Dinner with Andre” has a meal seemed so full of portents and human collateral.

“The Dinner,” an intimate drama from writer/director Oren Moverman (“The Messenger”), gathers two brothers and their wives at one of those ridiculous “food art” restaurants for an encounter heavy with familial secrets and strife. Old grudges will be picked over, resentments stoked and then cooled, political ambitions balanced upon the edge of a knife, the future of young lives quarreled over.

Quite literally, by the time the check comes, the guests’ lives will be changed.

It’s a terrific ensemble cast: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Rebecca Hall. There’s no true main character, though Steve Coogan serves as the locus of events as Paul Lohman. He’s a former high school history teacher, a hyper-intelligent man who lives deeply inside his own mind, while struggling to relate to anyone on the outside.

Even as he’s interacting with other people -- usually awkwardly -- Coogan’s narration gives us a taste of the constant internal monologue spinning inside his brain, generally involving a mix of Civil War lore and a desperate nihilism about the fate of mankind.

Just about the only one who can reach him is his wife, Claire (Linney), a doctor who applies her great bedside manner to soothing her anxious, uppity mate. We watch her and admire the force of her presence, the beatific way she seems to calm everyone around her, the anchor amidst a sea of tumult.

Later, we’ll find reason to amend our opinion of her.

Gere is Stan Lohman, a Congressman who’s currently the favorite to win the governor’s chair. He’s got a major bill he’s sponsored on tap for a vote tomorrow, and his right-hand woman, Nina (Adepero Oduye), can’t fathom why he’s spending time on a family dinner at a critical juncture. Stan is a politician through-and-through, a clear line that runs through his personal and professional lives: a schmoozer, glad-hander and flimflam man.

But again: down the line, we’ll come to reassess this character.

Rebecca Hall plays Kate, Paul’s self-described “trophy wife,” a much younger and beautiful woman who lends him an air of sophistication and grace. She’s the sort of person people tend to dismiss, and she uses that to bend her environment to her taste.

Chloë Sevigny pops up in flashbacks as Stan’s previous wife, though whether they parted through death or divorce, we know not.

Speaking of flashbacks: there are a lot of them. Based on the novel by Dutch writer Herman Koch, “The Dinner” jumps backward and forward in time with great vigor, to the point we sometimes aren’t sure if what we’re watching came before or after the previous scene. A few changes in hairstyles are our only clue.

But it’s the emotional thread that matters.

Suffice it to say, there was great darkness in the past, and more has arrived on their collective doorstep. I don’t want to say too much, other than it involves their trio of sons: Michael (Charlie Plummer), Paul and Claire’s kid; and Stan’s boys, Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), born to his previous wife, and Beau (Miles J. Harvey), an African-American boy they adopted.

As the dramaturgy unfolds, a parade of fetishized food dishes are presented to them by platoons of waiters, emceed by a host (Michael Chernus) who describes each plate with the overworked prose of a latter-day James Joyce.

(My God, people, it’s food: stick it in your mouth and chew. When you’re hungry again, repeat.)

For a film that’s mostly people sitting and talking, “The Dinner” has an urgent energy about it. We sense that this seemingly ordinary evening will end up as the most important night of their lives. It’s a meal, and a movie, that sizzles.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Video review: "Gold"

Matthew McConaughey goes Full Skeeze in “Gold,” a little-seen drama that came out near the end of 2016 and didn’t generate the awards buzz hoped for.

He plays Kenny Wells, a has-been/never-was mining prospector at the end of his rope who stumbles across a massive gold deposit in the deepest jungles of Indonesia. The story is loosely based on David Walsh, CEO of Bre-X, whose gold strike was found to be fraudulent back in the 1990s. Tens of billions of dollars in company value went up in smoke overnight.

McConaughey, not long removed from the skeletal figure he struck in his Oscar-winning turn in “Dallas Buyers Club,” spreads an impressive middle-aged paunch to go along with a scanty head of hair, hollow eyes and a mouthful of crooked teeth. Kenny is perpetually sweating and shifty-eyed, the sort of guy who makes others uncomfortable just by walking in the room.

As the story opens, his company is about to go belly-up. His long-suffering girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) seems to have half a foot out the door. But Kenny learns about Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), a geologist who’s come up with a new system for finding mineral deposits that the rest of the industry has scoffed at.

Crabbing together his last few bucks and corralling a few investors, they do some exploratory drilling deep in the bush. Soon they’re just about out of money, the local workers flee the mine and Kenny nearly succumbs to dysentery. But his faith in Michael is unshakeable and, improbably, it bears fruit when soil samples reveal gold.

Soon the big moneymen (Corey Stoll among them), who had previously written off the flimflam man, come begging for some of the crumbs to fall from Kenny’s plate. And Bruce Greenwood plays the cutthroat competitor maneuvering to take it all away.

Directed by Stephen Gaghan (“Syriana”) from a script by John Zinman and Patrick Massett, “Gold” barely made a ripple at the box office. But it’s a worthy film, if a bit overly familiar in its themes, cemented by McConoughey’s fully invested performance.

Inside every slick Wall Street high-roller, like the one McConaughey played in “Wolf of Wall Street,” there’s a hungry scrounger fighting for wealth and respect.

Bonus features are pretty good, and are the same for Blu-ray and DVD editions. They include one deleted sequence, feature commentary by director Gaghan and three making-of featurettes: “The Origins of Gold,” “The Locations of Gold” and “Matthew McConaughey as Kenny Wells.”


Extras: B

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review: "Graduation"

It may seem like an odd reference, but "Graduation" reminded me greatly of "High and Low," Akira Kurosawa's 1963 drama about a businessman negotiating a spider's web of crime and corporate intrigue.

This film is set in modern-day Romania, and the protagonist is a put-upon doctor whose marriage has crumbled and his sole hope left in life is securing a scholarship for his daughter to study in the United Kingdom. When she is attacked and nearly raped, he must engage in a tortured path that involves nurturing his child, calling in favors to ensure she gets a high enough grade on her finals, compromising his morals and gathering together the tatters of his various, mislaid personal relationships.

The main character is not a powerful tycoon, as in the Kurosawa film -- it being important to remember that in Romania, and indeed much of the world, physicians are not compensated with the sort of largesse they are in the U.S. But within his Transylvanian town, he knows the system of give-and-takes, favors and outright bribes that are SOP to getting anything done.

Adrian Titieni plays Romeo Aldea, a 50-ish physician with a reputation for being honorable. He studied abroad, but years ago he and his wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), made the decision to return home and try to make things better. Flash forward a quarter-century or so, and things are very much the same.

They own a modest apartment in a deteriorating part of the village; a rock is thrown randomly through his window. His mother is old and her health is failing. Romeo sleeps in the living room, and has for some time. He carries on a quiet affair with Sandra (Malina Manovic), a 35-year-old teacher with a young son. The women know about each other, and resent having to share Romeo's split attention.

It seems clear the situation is in a holding pattern. Once Romeo's daughter, Eliza (Maria Drăguș), goes off to England, he and Magda will formally separate and he'll be able to give Sandra something more permanent.

But after Eliza is assaulted, everything in Romeo's world is upended. Left with a sprained wrist and few witnesses, the girl is not allowed to delay her final exams. (Cheating is rampant in the schools, as in the rest of their society, so cribbing notes inside an arm cast is an old trick.) Romeo asks for special dispensation from the test administrator, but is rebuffed.

While dealing with the search for Eliza's attacker, Romeo connects with old police friend for help, who talks to a department sketch artist, whose uncle is a government minister who needs a liver transplant -- perhaps the good doctor could see what he could do to speed things up? And in return, maybe the teachers could help out a little with the tests?

Before long, Romeo's descent into shady deals and general underhandedness is confirmed, with no bottom in sight. He even begins to suspect Eliza's motorcycle instructor-cum-boyfriend, Marius (Rares Andriçi), may be complicit in her attack.

Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu ("4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"), "Graduation" is one of those films where little things add up to great portents. The humdrum tribulations of a humdrum village doctor feel sprawling and fateful, as if a microcosm of everything wrong in his country. It's like he represents the entire heart of Romania.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Laura" (1944)

"I don't know a lot about anything, but I know a little about practically everything."
                                                            --Shelby Carpenter

I think I should adopt that quote as my new motto. Recently asked to contribute a piece of wisdom I've learned through my career, I offered: "Everyone will disappoint you eventually. So try not to take it personally." Maybe I can meld the two together.

A warm-and-fuzzy guy I am not, and neither is Otto Preminger's 1944 film noir, "Laura." It's a movie with a distinctly pessimistic view of humanity that is photographed with an aching, shadowy beauty. Roger Ebert, in his retrospective column, said the film achieves "a kind of perfection in its balance between low motives and high style."

Joseph LaShelle won the cinematography Oscar that year, beating out "Double Indemnity," "Lifeboat" and "Gaslight," among others. Luckily, unlike some other classic films "Laura" has been wonderfully preserved with a high-quality video transfer.

Some have complained about the impenetrability of the story, but I found it pretty easy to follow. The film also got an Academy Award nomination for adapted screenplay -- along with art direction, supporting actor and director -- based upon the 1943 novel by Vera Caspary. Though, as with a lot of film noir, the convolutions of the plot are less important than the emotions and individual moments.

"Laura" has an audacious premise that's essentially the upside-down version of "Psycho." Instead of the leading lady dying 30 minutes into the movie, here the dead titular woman shows up very much alive around that same time frame. Successful advertising businesswoman Laura Hunt (Gene Tierny) is presumed dead after a woman's body is found in her apartment, wearing her negligee with a face blown apart by two shotgun blasts.

Dana Andrews plays Mark McPherson, the laconic police detective assigned to the case who becomes increasingly obsessed with the victim. "Falling in love with a dead woman," or something like it, is the key line of dialogue mirrored several times in the movie, and on the posters and other promotional materials for the film.

The actual romance between Andrews and Tierny is pretty much kaput from the get-go, with them only exchanging one quick smooch as he's leaving her apartment that feels more Dagwood and Blondie than cascading waves of True Love. But jealousy is more the movie's true subject.

Essentially, "Laura" is a love quadrangle, in which three men vie against each other for her affection. Laura had been engaged to a ne'er-do-well scamp, Shelby Carpenter, a strapping Kentuckian who came from money, lost it all, and now relies on the kindness -- and handouts -- of others.

Hilariously, he is played by Vincent Price, and it is repeatedly commented upon that Shelby is a male bimbo who skates by on his good looks and sex appeal. Price tries on a molasses accent and gives it all a good go, but the notion of his playing a gigolo just doesn't comport with his subsequent screen persona. Plus, he just plain looks weird without his signature pencil mustache.

McPherson takes an instant dislike to Shelby, of course, and places him in the crosshairs as the main suspect.

The fourth leg of the love party is Waldo Lydecker, a pompous and effete newspaper columnist played by Clifton Webb, who scored the film's only acting Oscar nomination. It's a little unclear what his column is about; attacking anyone who pisses him off, as near as I can figure. He's richer than Crassus, spends all his time having lunches and socializing, and also records literary lectures for the radio.

More celebrity than journalist, Waldo first meets Laura when she's a junior adwoman who approaches him at lunch to offer $5,000 to endorse their client's new line of pens. (That's almost 70 grand in today's dollars, folks.) He snootily refuses and goes out of his way to embarrass her in front of high society diners.

"I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom!" he sneers. (Sneering is pretty much Waldo's default setting.)

But then Waldo remembers that Laura is a hot young thing, so he seeks her out to apologize, takes the pen deal, introduces her to some important people and launches her career. They're frequent, ostensibly platonic friends, though it seems clear to everyone in the world but Laura that Waldo pines for her.

It goes without saying Waldo absolutely loathes Shelby, and does everything in his power to break up Laura's engagement to him. Later, he turns his ire upon the intrepid lawman when he starts to get moony-eyed staring at the large portrait of Laura that hangs over her mantelpiece. When you're the man who has everything, Waldo finally admits, being denied the one thing you most desire can push you over the edge.

(And if that's not enough of a spoiler on who the murderer is revealed to be, I don't know what could be.)

"Laura" is pretty well bookended by a small sphere of locations and characters. It has the feel of a theatrical adaptation, and indeed Caspary originally drafted it as a play. Other than those characters I've mentioned, there's really only Bessie, the neurotic maid played by Dorothy Adams, and Judith Anderson as Ann Treadwell, Laura's wealthy socialite aunt.

Diane Redfern, the actual dead woman, doesn't even merit a credit in the film (and I haven't been able to find one for the actress who plays her on the usual movie sites). She was a model in Laura's firm who was carrying on an affair with Shelby; he brought her over to his fiancee's apartment while Laura was spending a quiet weekend away.

Ann has been writing checks to Shelby, and hungers to have him for himself. He's a weakling and a coward, she admits, but she wants him for what he is -- whereas her niece sees him as she wishes him to be. A physical affair is strongly implied.

Just so we're clear: that means Shelby has been carrying on with Laura, her aunt and the model. King cad, indeed.

The preproduction/shooting of "Laura" was a complete disaster. Preminger was original slated to just produce because of lingering enmity with a studio honcho. They actually began rolling cameras under another director, who got his wife to produce the famous fireplace painting. Preminger had him sacked and replaced with himself, and even got another painter to as the final insult.

How very Waldo of him!

Other than Webb, the performances don't really stand out from the material. Andrews is pretty flat, and not terribly believable as a streetwise gumshoe. Too handsome, too middle America. (Someone should have seriously considered swapping his role with Vincent Price's.)

Tierny's character is supposed to be very intelligent and personally driven, but we don't get a sense of that from the performance. Despite being a figure well ahead of her time -- a rich and savvy businesswoman who doesn't need a man to complete her -- Laura is rather mousy, reserved and reactive to the men around her.

She's the object, not the subject of the film.

"Laura" is a rather untidy movie, but it makes the most of its strengths and turns some of its weaknesses into assets. It's truly Waldo's story, the tale of a fussy, prissy man who places himself above everyone else, the self-appointed chessmaster who's continually vexed when the pieces won't move around as he directs.

Otto Preminger could probably relate.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Video review: "La La Land"

I’ve been accused of being a “La La Land” hater. It’s not really so. I admired a lot about writer/director Damien Chazelle’s second feature film, and am a big fan of his first, “Whiplash.” It’s a gorgeous love letter to the city of Los Angeles, as well as a homage to old-school film musicals of the Golden Age of movies.

I just didn’t think it deserved the mountain of Oscar nominations it received, which tied “All About Eve” for the most ever.

“La La Land” is a little bit of a lot of things -- funny, sad, romantic, melodious, handsome, charming. But it just doesn’t impact you in one or two strong ways. Rather than landing hard with both feet, the film dances around you like a zephyr, entertaining but not engrossing.

For movies, it’s better to do a few things well rather than try to be a lot of things at once.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play Sebastian and Mia, struggling young L.A. artists. He’s a jazz purist who pounds the keys for coins, but keeps losing jobs because he doesn’t want to stick to the stingy playlists. She works as a barista to the stars but dreams of becoming one herself. She goes on an endless series of soul-numbing auditions, where casting directors take phone calls while she’s performing.

They waltz through a familiar boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wants-girl-back narrative. In between the movie also puts the pair through their paces in several musical numbers (composed by Justin Hurwitz). The tunes aren’t particularly memorable, and neither Stone or Gosling will ever be confused with singers.

I like “La La Land,” admire things about it. But it didn’t even crack my list of the top 25 movies of 2016.

Bonus features are excellent, and even the DVD edition has a handsome suite of goodies. Though you’ll have to pay for the Blu-ray version to get everything.

The DVD has a feature-length commentary track with Chazelle and Hurwitz and three making-of featurettes focusing on specific musical numbers, as well as a piece on song selection.

The Blu-ray adds a host of more featurettes, focusing on things like Gosling learning to play piano for the movie and John Legend making his featuring film acting debut. Best bonus bit: “Damien & Justin Sing: The Demos,” in which the guys behind the camera and piano, respectively, belt out some tunes.