Monday, September 25, 2017

Reeling Backward: "L'Avventura" (1960)

"Believe me Anna, words are becoming less and less necessary, they create misunderstandings."

If ever a film's themes could be summed up by a single line of dialogue, then this one does so splendidly for "L'Avventura," Michelangelo Antonioni's dreamy rumination on love lost and found.

The first of an unofficial trilogy from the Italian master, "L'Avventura" ("The Adventure") follows the search for a missing girl where no one truly wants her to be found. This includes the woman herself, and especially her fiance and best friend, who fall for each other during their quest to find her. The film has been criticized for its languid plotting, lack of narrative resolution and overall "artiness." At its first screening at Cannes, the film was roundly booed -- before going on to win the Jury Prize.

Watching the movie, we get a very distinct sense that what the characters do and say is less important than how they look and feel while doing or saying it.

It's fair to say that Antonioni and his ilk helped redefine the cinematic aesthetic to one more about existential contemplation than traditional conflict and action. Antonioni and co-screenwriters, Elio Bartolini and Tonino Guerra, peered under the modern advancements of the 20th century to find the discontent that lay like a thick layer of crud beneath a beautiful rug -- particularly how people relate to one another with sinking levels of empathy, or even basic humanity.

"Ennui" is the word that best sums up the mood of "L'Avventura," a sort of listless boredom that arrives from feeling trapped by circumstances and expectations.

Sandro, the male lead played by Gabriele Ferzetti, studied art and architecture but became a wealthy young(ish) man by performing estimates of other people's post-war construction projects. He owns a sporty convertible and a summer home on the coast, tokens of his status rather than things he covets. His fiancée, Anna (Lea Massari), at once misses him desperately while harboring a barely hidden revulsion for her intended. Sandro is absent for long business trips, but when he's back they tire of each other rather quickly after the fire of lovemaking has blown out.

Right before she mysteriously disappears off a remote island where they and other well-to-do couples have stopped for a bit of sun and fun, Anna tells Sandro that what she most wants is to be alone. He dismisses her fears about their impending marriage rather brusquely. When she turns up missing, Sandro undertakes a personal search for Anna more out of a sense of duty than with the enthusiasm of a heartbroken lover.

Tagging along is Anna's best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitta), who eventually becomes the film's real main character. Feeling out of place on the yacht among three couples, she gradually comes to the fore of the story as she and Sandro develop feelings for each other while conducting their "search."

I put that word in quotes because, after the authorities scour the island -- including divers plumbing the shores for a body -- no one really holds out hope that she'll eventually turn up. The only really solid lead is when a smuggler's ship is interdicted by the police, but it's soon clear the teenage petty criminals had nothing to do with Anna's disappearance. After all, what are we to believe: that Anna hailed a passing ship and climbed aboard without anyone else on the tiny atoll noticing?

The disappearance quickly fades from our minds as the brewing romance comes to a boil. We've gotten an idea that Claudia was attracted to Sandro even before they departed on the voyage, and that she holds a level of envy for Anna. She's got what Claudia hasn't: a rich boyfriend, a rich father to boot, nice clothes and few responsibilities. We never learn too much about Claudia's background -- or anyone's, really -- but the impression is she's a working girl enjoying her independence, though open to the idea of settling down.

Claudia makes a great show of protesting Sandro's advances, including one scene where she essentially throws him off a departing train. They later meet again, and this time the excitement of being pursued overcomes her judgement about keeping up appearances. When they eventually rejoin the other couples at a posh hotel, they check into the same suite without batting an eye.

Always, though, reminders of the real purpose that threw them together arrive, and it would seem their love must be doomed from the start. Perhaps it is, especially after Sandro, starved for sexual attention from Claudia, has a dalliance with an attention-seeking floozy (Dorothy De Poliolo).

But Antonioni's famous ending scene, in which each weeps tears at their inability to find and keep love, leaves us with at least the suggestion that they will keep trying to overcome that which keeps them apart.

I was struck watching the film how much observation there is of other couples. To a one, they all seem miserable together, more like prisoners sharing a shackle than the bonds of matrimony.

There is Corrado (James Addams), an older man who seems to spend most of his energies denigrating the actions and speech of his much-younger wife, Giulia (Dominique Blanchar). Corrado is a pinched man, physically and spiritually, who gains joy by denying it to others. Later, we will watch Giulia  dally with a 17-year-old boy right underneath Claudia's nose, and understand her motivations.

Then there is Patrizia (Esmeralda Ruspoli), who acts as something of maternal/guide role for Claudia, seeing what is happening between her and Sandro and offering her understanding and empathy how two people could end up in such a place, without condoning their scandalous affair. Patrizia's own marriage to Raimondo (Lelio Luttazzi) has the feel of a detente, a war that has grown cold and desolate. They have forgotten both the love and the hate they once had for each other.

When their search takes them to a small town, Sandro and Claudia come across a pharmacist and his new bride, who already seem well on their way to a lifetime of regret. The locals regard the searchers as glamorous strangers, celebrities even. (The search for Anna has stayed in the newspapers, due in part to Sandro's bribes to a reporter.) Indeed, when Claudia is briefly left alone in the street she attracts a small horde of men, milling about to ogle the beautiful alien.

(Sinister in tone, this scene takes on alarming notes seen through today's prism of awareness about sexual violence.)

Really the only positive glimpse of romance we encounter is a young pair who have just met on the train. Claudia watches with delight as they perform the intricate dance of the wooer and the wooed. The man insists he knows the girl through mutual acquaintances, she knows he is lying just to get her attention, and allows herself to be lied to.

The shooting of "L'Avventura" was famously arduous, both physically and financially. For weeks at a time the crew operated with no budget, sleeping on the island and even going short on food until a new production company could be found. Antonioni and Vitti were a romantic couple themselves in real life -- before, during and long after the shoot -- which must have complicated matters in a ways that beggar the imagination.

Yet this is undeniably one of the all-time most gorgeous pieces of cinema ever. The photography by Aldo Scavarda remains stunning in its multitudinous layers of gray -- thankfully well-preserved with a top-notch restoration and reissue some years back. In contrast to the hazy, meandering moods of the characters, the film has a crisp realism that veritably leaps off the screen.

Antonioni and Scavarda also make interesting use of Claudia's blonde nimbus of hair, especially in contrast to all the other dark-haired Italian women. It lends her the air of a fallen angel, wandering the land without true purpose or power.

My own feelings are mixed for "L'Avventura." Like "Citizen Kane," I recognize its greatness and appreciate its importance in the evolution of movies without necessarily embracing the experience of watching it. A story of people who are unmoored from themselves, unsure how they should feel or act, it often fails to engage us at an emotional level.

It's like a great masterpiece painting that we are told we must admire, so we do, while knowing in our hearts there are more meaningful pieces hanging on the wall nearby more amenable to our gaze.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Video review: "The Mummy"

More studios are now into the whole world-building thing, notably with the Marvel and DC comics cross-overs, where superheroes have solo films and then team up for group projects. The latest “universe” to hit the big screen is horror-based, as Universal Studio rounds up a bunch of its classic movie monsters and mixes them up.

In theory, I’m all for it. Dracula, the Wolfman, Invisible Man, Frankenstein, etc. having throw-downs in between teaming up? Sounds awesome. But in practice the enterprise is off to a shaky start.

First up is “The Mummy,” starring Tom Cruise in a film that borrows heavily from the Brendan Fraser/Rachel Weisz flicks that debuted almost two decades ago. (Well, technically “Dracula Untold” from 2014 was supposed to be the official start of DU, but the studio has since backed off of that owing to the film’s middling box office performance.)

Tossing an aging action star into what is essentially a remake doesn’t sound like a great idea, and Cruise does his level best as Nick, a soldier/scallywag who’s more interested in treasure hunting than doing his duty. He gets picked by Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), the revived spirit of an Egyptian princess/sorceress, to be the vessel of the reincarnation of the death god, Set.

Their relationship is an energetic mix of smoochy/stabby, which triggered some recollections of past girlfriends.

Annabelle Wallis plays Jenny, an archeologist who teams up with Nick in between ardent prostrations of her attraction to him. Things move along with the usual assortment of big action spectacles and a liberal helping of CGI special effects. Russell Crowe turns up fairly late in the game as a certain doctor with… temper issues.

The movie’s fun at time, but terribly disjointed and half-baked. Marvel and DC spent years germinating their franchises, and based on this film the Dark Universe needs more time in the cooker.

Bonus features are quite good. There’s a feature-length audio commentary track with director Alex Kurtzman as well as actors Boutella, Wallis and Jake Johnson, with the obvious glaring omission of Cruise. He does appear in a 1-on-1 conversation with Kurtzman.

Additional extras include deleted and extended scenes, seven making-of featurettes and “Ahmanet Reborn Animated Graphic Novel,” with more about her descent into the monstrous underworld.



Friday, September 22, 2017

"Mother!" and the Coat of Many Colors

I was finally able to catch up with "Mother!", Darren Aronofsky's ambitious new meditation on... something that has sharply divided critics and largely estranged audiences. Just a few thoughts.

All this is VERY spoiler-y. So desist if you desire to experience the film's surprises on your own.

First off, unlike many others I don't think giving a complete analysis of the movie necessarily gives everything away. It has not so much plot twists as a labyrinthine pit of meaning that grows more intense and more amorphous the deeper you go. Once you know it's a descent, it's just a matter of pondering where you're going to end up and what meanings you're going to take away from the journey.

And I think they are multitudinous. People have come forth with all sorts of interpretation of what the film "means," and I believe they're all right. Star Jennifer Lawrence herself has posited that her character is Mother Earth and her husband, called simply Him and played by Javier Bardem, is God. But it's clear this is Lawrence's opinion, not Aronofsky's.

I don't think the writer/director actually intended any single vision of "Mother!". It is literally all things to all people... and nothing to some, who will find it overly mysterious and arty. It's less a portrait or a parable than an impression, and we put as much of ourselves into the vision as the artist did.

Certainly there are plenty of religious themes. The interlopers barging in their secluded mansion, played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, never named but credited as Man and Woman, are representations of Adam and Eve. Him is tickled with their presence, especially Adam, while Mother is irked at any intrusion. Aren't I enough for you? she asks Him repeatedly. He responds with protestations of love, but there's always a "but."

Man and Woman's sons, who show up and immediately get into a fight that results in one's death, are obviously Cain and Abel in this telling. The crowds of people who show up after are the rest of mankind -- messy, violent, worshipful of Him's poetry. The outcome of Mother's pregnancy follows pretty obvious Christ parables.

But I think there are also a lot of themes about parenthood, and the chasm between male and female gender roles. These take place on a simple humanistic level, where the characters cease on some level being allegorical and are simply who they appear to be.

I also believe the film has a lot to say about the role of the artist in society, and their relationship to their fans/followers. These types of movies can quickly become tiresome, particularly in the prism of Hollywood -- 'Oh please, tell me more about your struggles with fame, adoration and all those millions of burdensome dollars.'

But Aronofsky lays out his tale without a lot of obvious egotism, showing how the creative process starts as a singular act and the work ends up becoming something that is shared and dissected and stolen. The artist gives and gives, and takes and takes. Like Charlie Kaufman's "Adaptation," "Mother!" is a Gordian knot that inextricably ties up the story being told and the role of the storyteller.

In a lot of ways, the movie is really about itself.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Review: "Rebel in the Rye"

"I sometimes wish I’d never written it. It’s made me a prisoner. I’m shackled by my own creation." --Jerry Salinger

This will be just a very quick and shorter review. The film's release was moved up suddenly, and the studio was only able to supply me with a screener at the last minute. I always prefer to give full-length, well-thought analyses of new films, but the limits of the distribution/marketing system -- not to mention my own numerous obligations -- sometimes prevent that.

But journalists, as opposed to authors, understand that sometimes it is better to publish something quickly dashed off than nothing at all.

"Rebel in the Rye" is a biopic of "The Catcher in the Rye" author J.D. Salinger from about ages 20 to early 40s, after which he never published another word and became a virtual recluse.

As played (very well) by Nicholas Hoult, Salinger -- "Jerry" to his friends, "Sonny" to his family -- was an angry young man who understood better than others that his sort of anger is just not sustainable over the course of a lifetime. "Catcher" was published when he was barely into his 30s, very young to be dubbed "the next great American novelist," but already struggling to grasp the angst that drove him as a teen.

The film, written and directed by TV veteran Danny Strong, based on a biography by Kenneth Slawenski, has essentially two halves. The first is about Salinger's relationship with Whit Burnett, the legendary Columbia writing professor and editor of Story magazine, who discovered and shaped many of the 20th century's greatest literary voices. They start as antagonists, gradually evolve into mentor/student, followed by friendship and estrangement.

It's another knockout performance by Kevin Spacey, who has the rare ability to utterly disappear into a character. A frumpled, boozy, distracted man, his Whit recognizes raw talent when he sees it, but also knows that great writers have to be willing to sacrifice everything for their craft. When you're willing to spend your whole life typing and never be published, he tells Jerry, then you'll know you're meant to be a writer.

The second, less effective portion of the film is about Salinger's wartime experiences that left him fractured and unable to write. This is a low-budget film, so there are no depictions of battles or such, just dreamy vignettes of huddling in foxholes, liberating concentration camps, being analyzed and dismissed by Army psychiatrists.

The film tries to shoehorn an untidy life into its 110-minute running time, so Salinger's brief marriage to a German woman gets very short shrift, as does his second marriage to Claire Douglas (Lucy Boynton). They go from meet-cute to courting to raising family to resentment so fast, you'll miss the whole thing if you need a bathroom break.

I did appreciate how the film showcases portions of the writer's life that are less well-known, such as his devotion to Eastern meditation and yoga to help get over his war trauma.

Also popping up are Sarah Paulson as Dorothy Olding, Jerry's agent, who carefully navigates the pitfalls of the publishing game while genuinely caring about him as a person; Victor Garber and Hope Davis as his parents, who reacted to their son's gifts in very different ways; Zoey Deutch as Oona O'Neill, the unattainable girl Jerry woos and loses; and Brian d'Arcy James as the publisher who embraced "Catcher" when everyone else regarded it with befuddlement.

What the movie does best is show the development of Salinger from puckish kid to serious artist, and all the fits and stops along the way. He arrogantly insists that no changes be made to any of his short stories, resulting in a big break with the New Yorker getting pulled shortly before the war breaks out. Later, he finally agrees to meet with their editors and realizes they can actually improve his writing.

Salinger ultimately spent a decade developing the characters, the voice and the perspective that became "Catcher in the Rye." It's a reminder that great art never just springs forth like a thunderbolt from the gods, as most tellings would rather have it.

Usually, cinematic portraits of artists are better at revealing the person rather than their art, but with "Rebel in the Rye" the opposite is true. Salinger elevated his identity as a writer to such an extent that he ceased wishing to be the person he had been before. He shut out everything he felt was a distraction to his writing, which turned out to be... almost everything.

Review: "The Lego Ninjago Movie"

The whole concept of “Lego Ninjago” is just brilliant, from a marketing standpoint.

Kids love Legos and are positively insane for ninjas, or chop-socky action in general, and they also will watch almost anything animated. Throw all those things together and you’ve got something that smaller children, especially boys, are guaranteed to devour.

As the dad of 4- and 6-year-olds who live loudly the dogma of their Y chromosome, I am unnervingly well acquainted with the TV series, “Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu,” now in its seventh season.

I have to say that for a kids’ show, I’ve been impressed with the level of storytelling involved. The relationship between Lloyd Garmadon and his estranged father, the evil Lord Garmadon, has had permutations of Skywalker-ian complexity, with Lloyd starting out as a snotty kid and evolving into the “chosen one” Green Ninja.

After “The Lego Movie” became a hit, it seemed inevitable that the ninjas would get their own feature film. My kids, and to a lesser extent I, looked on with genuine anticipation.

So I have to say I’m disappointed. The veritable platoon of filmmakers -- with three credited directors, five screenwriters and seven people receiving story credit -- seem to have gone out of their way to toss the entire television series, even swapping out the whole voice cast for bigger names who, frankly, aren’t nearly as good.

The addition of live action sequences, which was probably unavoidable after Will Ferrell did it, is off-putting and disruptive, with Jackie Chan playing a stereotypical Asian shopkeep who has important lessons to impart. He also does the voice of Master Wu, the ninjas’ serene and mysterious teacher. There’s also a furrier addition late in the game that’s just goofy.

The movie is essentially an entire reboot of the Ninjago universe, with the six ninjas more or less back to square one in terms of their martial arts/elemental powers, relying instead on huge robot ‘mechs to battle Lord Garmadon. However, Nya, the lone female ninja voiced by Abbi Jacobson, has already joined the group, Lloyd (Dave Franco) is already grown up and the Green Ninja, and Zane (Zach Woods) has already been revealed to be an android, though he seems to be somewhat in denial about this.

Rounding out the crew are Fred Armisen as Cole, the earth ninja, Kumail Nanjiani as Jay, the lightning ninja and Michael Peña as Kai, the fire ninja. Olivia Munn voices Lloyd’s mom, Koko, who used to be married to Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), who has blackened skin from a deadly snake bite, four arms and cries tears of fire. Talk about falling for the bad boy.

The story is sort of a very condensed version of the first few seasons of the TV show: the ninjas fight Lord Garmadon, then find themselves allied with him, leading to some tenuous father/son bonding between him and Lloyd, followed by some scorpion-and-frog-like realignment.

It’s an energetic movie, with cool martial arts action scenes and neat creatures. The biggest problem with “The Lego Ninjago Movie” is that they’re trying to force it into the template of “The Lego Movie,” with crazy quips and comedic asides.

It’s almost as if, instead of creating something new and cool, they were determined to re-use the same pieces in a different configuration -- like trying to build the boat using the parts for the tank. Whether it’s construction toys or movies, you just gotta let things be what they are.

Before I go, in the interest of fair journalistic criticism, I should report a couple of things. First, duty requires me to disclose that I nodded off a few times. I think this is the third time this has ever happened to me, and both of the others were also kiddie flicks that failed to hold my attention.

Also, my kids really liked the movie. We talked a little afterward about how it was different from the show, but it still came down to the fact that this movie included: A) ninjas B) Legos, and C) cartoons. So you can mark the target audience down as “sold,” even if dad was sleeping on the job.

Review: "Kingsman: The Golden Circle"

Well, that was disappointing.

I absolutely adored 2015’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” It was a dizzy, daffy parody of the spy genre that nonetheless was in unabashedly in love with cool gadgets, dastardly plots and slo-mo action scenes. And it featured a bunch of dashing guys in swanky British suits to boot.

So here comes the sequel, subtitled “The Golden Circle,” using the same core cast and creative team, and it’s a discombobulated hot mess of a movie. It's like going to a party where you like all the people, but somehow the conversations are lame.

What I enjoyed about the first film was the brash, giddy tone that combined R-rated mayhem with sharp comic zingers. It featured Colin Firth as Galahad, the oh-so-suave top agent of the Kingsmen, a private spy agency working secretly to keep the world safe. Their cover is as tailors, so they all sport the same style of clothes, right down to the striped tie and spectacles, which double as X-ray goggles and tactical display.

So why does the follow-up go so awry? Director Matthew Vaughn is back along with his co-screenwriter Jane Goldman, based on “The Secret Service” comic books by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. Firth also returns -- despite the slight inconvenience of Galahad being killed in the last movie -- along with Taron Edgerton as Eggsy, his young Cockney protégé, and Mark Armstrong as Merlin, their Bond equivalent of Q, the master outfitter.

I’m not giving anything away by saying that Galahad does indeed turn up again, missing an eye and most of his memories, though he does put all the pieces back together again in the end.

(Well, not depth perception...)

It’s also not a spoiler that the Kingsmen are attacked and mostly wiped out by this movie’s villain named Poppy, a bubbly billionaire drug dealer played by Julianne Moore, who’s built her own 1950s nostalgia town in the middle of a remote jungle for reasons that are never entirely clear. Her signature thing is burning a solid gold emblem onto her henchmen.

She’s got some robot guard dogs, a huge meat grinder (guess where that's heading!) and a plan to poison the entire world population of drug users, holding their lives hostage unless the U.S. president (Bruce Greenwood) legalizes narcotics.

Never mind that that would immediately put her out of business. But the conniving POTUS -- who seems to be a cocktail of the worst traits of Clinton, Bush and Trump -- has his own chess move to make.

The other big twist is that Galahad, Eggsy and Merlin team up with their American counterparts, the Statesmen, who are in the whiskey business and dress as drawling cowboys. I guess the Brit filmmakers don’t understand the difference between Kentucky and Wyoming.

Jeff Bridges shows up as their boss, and we think Channing Tatum is going to team up with the Kingsmen, but then something happens. Their real pardner is Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), who carries a mean electrified whip and a few grudges of his own. Halle Berry plays Ginger, their counterpart to Merlin, who secretly yearns to get into the field.

The action scenes are energetic and fun, as the camera swoops around the combatants, the speed picking up and slowing down as needed to highlight an especially nifty move. This movie’s not nearly as gory as the last one, which may be a relief to some but was a letdown for me.

Elton John shows up as himself, kidnapped by Poppy and forced to play his songbook for her entertainment, right down to the iconic feathers-and-star-glasses outfit. It’s one of the most bizarre celebrity cameos I’ve ever seen, bloated and peevish and dropping f-bombs all over the place. I can’t imagine Sir Elton needs the money, so somebody must have talked him into this.

I haven’t even mentioned Poppy’s cyborg lieutenant, Eggsy’s Swedish princess girlfriend or the European rock concert where a tracking device is implanted in a very squirmy location. This movie has too many characters and a lot of moving parts, and many spin merrily in their own, untethered orbits.

“Kingsman: The Golden Circle” feels like pieces from three or four sequels, cut into bite-sized pieces that aren’t enough to satisfy and don’t taste good together.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Review: "Brad's Status"

“You’re 50 years old, and you still think the world was made for you.”
“…I’m 47.”

“Status” is one of those words that used to have a different connotation than it does now, due to the quiet revolution of social media. Most of us spend an inordinate amount of time “updating our status,” whether it’s an important life event or (more likely) sharing the quotidian details of our existence.

Most interesting is the phenomenon of social media envy -- looking at other people’s posts and feeling jealous about their fabulous new vacation, car, family portrait, concert they attended, etc. It’s a self-feeding loop, as people then feel compelled to share only the positive stuff going on in their life.

Not sure if anyone’s invented a term for that, but if not, may I suggest “status curation” as an option.

Brad Sloan is positively a ball of status envy. Though “Brad’s Status” does not specifically incorporate social media into its message, this smart black comedy/drama certainly feels the weight of those digital interactions. Brad is a seemingly normal middle-aged guy torn up by the relative success of his college chums.

Thematically, the movie is similar to Nicole Holofcener’s “Friends with Money” from 2006.

Ben Stiller is perfect for this role, and I have little doubt writer/director Mike White (“School of Rock”) crafted it specifically for him. There’s an underlying aspect of self-doubt and neuroticism to his comedic sensibility -- usually playing the smart, talented guy who feels that everyone else is much smarter and more talented.

I noticed that whenever Brad is feeling particularly diminished, director White always manages to place him standing next to taller characters, especially women. Stiller’s not a big guy, and his Brad seems to seethe passively when he’s vertically challenged by others -- as in a choice scene were a haughty restaurant hostess gives him a poor table, and literally looks down on him when he nicely asks for a better.

The story is structured around Brad taking his 17-year-old son, Troy (Austin Abrams), on a whirlwind of college tours/interviews in the Boston area, especially Harvard (where Troy wants to go) and Tufts, Brad’s own alma mater. Meanwhile, his wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), is stuck at a work convention and offers her ebullient encouragement from afar.

They live in Sacramento in a nice middle-class house. Brad’s a former journalist who started running a nonprofit after newspapers went south, and Melanie has a stable government job. They seemingly want for nothing.

But four of Brad’s friends are big, famous successes, and it weighs constantly on him. Craig (Michael Sheen) is a former White House communications flak doing the high-power author/speaker thing. Jason (Luke Wilson) runs his own hedge fund and flies his big family around on a private jet. Nick (White himself) is an A-list Hollywood director who just had his house featured in Architectural Digest and hosted a fancy wedding (which Brad wasn’t invited to). Billy (Jemaine Clement) sold his dot-com startup for a bundle and retired at 40, now galivanting around Maui with his two girlfriends.

In his dour narration, Brad ponders the injustices of the haves and have-nots: “For them, the world isn’t a battleground. It’s a playground… a dream. It’s heaven, manifested.”

Troy’s a talented musician, and Brad thinks he's doing his fatherly duty by cautioning him not to get his hopes up. He’s surprised when the youngster relates that his guidance counselor feels he’ll get into Harvard, and anywhere else he applies.

Brad is stunned, and halts his self-pity train long enough to revel vicariously in his kid’s success… before wondering if he’ll start to envy his own son. He even wonders if Melanie’s happy, supportive nature failed to provide the impetus he needed to strive harder.

In case you haven’t figured it out, Brad’s a basically decent guy who blames a lot of other people for his problems, which barely even exist. Watching the movie, I kept thinking how nice it must have been to actually have the time/money to take cross-country trips with your dad to check out colleges in person. I did it all by brochure.

“Brad’s Status” is a funny movie with some unexpectedly deep pokes at our collective tendency to self-criticize and self-aggrandize. Take it from an award-winning film critic!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Video review: "Wonder Woman"

I sometimes stop to think why “Wonder Woman” is such a superior super-hero flick.

After all, it is fairly conventional in its storytelling structure: a standard-issue origin tale, in which a reluctant youngster acquires extraordinary abilities/status, applies them in the greater world in what they think are appropriate ways and later learns the pitfalls of that whole great powers/great responsibilities rubric.

It starts, I think, with this heroine and this actress. The superhero genre has gone through some interesting changes over the past two decades, but it’s still heavily predominated by male filmmakers presenting male characters for a male audience. The women are, literally, the background characters and the sidekicks.

Even Wonder Woman started out that way, as a third-act boost to -- and in many ways the best thing about – last year’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

There was a sad, reluctant quality to Wonder Woman in her few moments of non-fighting scenes, and we get to explore that fully and forcefully in her solo flick. Directed by Patty Jenkins – who had to wait 14 years between her first and second feature film directing credit – from a screenplay by Allan Heinberg, the film re-introduces us to the character, fleshing out the flashy exterior in ways that surprise and touch us.

She journeys from naivety to poise, from innocent to hardened warrior and from privileged princess to self-imposed outsider.

And you cannot separate Gal Gadot from the success of “Wonder Woman.” She embodies the character’s strength and vulnerability, bringing a weighty presence you don’t normally see in a superhero flick. It may just be the best acting performance in this genre since… ever.

Chris Pine acquits himself nicely in the “romantic interest” role normally reserved for a female character, as an American spy infiltrating the German World War I war machine working on chemical weapons of mass destruction.

Danny Huston is his usual sneering self as the chief villain, but I was much more affected by Dr. Maru, the creepy scientist dubbed “Dr. Poison,” played so soulfully by Elena Anaya. With her broken mask and shattered psyche, the character is worthy of her own movie.

In the end, “Wonder Woman” triumphed not just because it was about a female hero, but because the people involved in making it obviously invested so much of their passion and souls into this wondrous film.

Bonus features are quite expansive and exquisite, and are nearly the same for DVD and Blu-ray editions. The centerpiece is “Crafting the Wonder,” a comprehensive making-of documentary.

Probably the highlight is a series of featurettes called “A Director’s Vision,” as Jenkins takes viewers on exclusive behind-the-scenes journeys through filming several key sequences and themes of the picture. There is one bonus new scene and several extended ones, a blooper reel, and interactions with young female filmmakers, poets and other artists who have been inspired by Wonder Woman.

Other features explore her role within the DC Comics “Trinity” with Batman and Superman and creating the Amazonian army.



Monday, September 11, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Blue Dahlia" (1946)

It seems everybody was happy with "The Blue Dahlia" but me.

It was another hit film noir for stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, in the third of their seven on-screen pairings together. It was the first Hollywood screenplay for Raymond Chandler, who got an Oscar nomination out of it (despite having to be bribed/threatened to stop drinking long enough to complete the script).

And the movie was another feather in the cap of director George Marshall, who enjoyed one of the longest and most productive careers in moviedom, working consistently from 1916 to the early '70s. Today, the film is widely considered the apotheosis of the noir genre.

Alas, I am not a fan.

I enjoyed Ladd's cool, slightly mean demeanor and how it contrasts with Lake's serene, angelic moll. The photography (by Lionel Lindon) is pretty stunning, shafts of darkness volleying across bright scenes and vice-versa. And there's an interesting rogues gallery of grim gangsters, spider women, joyless coppers, shifty snoopers and other colorful supporting characters.

But the story is just a complete mess. "The Blue Dahlia" is a dull, confusing mishmash of phone calls and anticlimactic confrontations.

Chandler didn't even mean for it to be a movie; he was writing a book, got stuck and was ready to chuck it. Producer John Houseman showed it to Paramount, which bought the story within 48 hours. Chandler was on-set during production, madly dashing off pages as the crew shot the movie even faster. The ending got changed around at the last minute because the studio was worried about portraying a wounded serviceman as a woman killer, as the writer intended.

Chandler bumped heads with Lake and confided he thought she ruined every scene she was in, famously dubbing her "Moronica Lake."

The story has many moving pieces, some of which barely seem to rub up against each other. Ladd plays Johnny Morrison, a decorated Navy officer who has just returned home from the Pacific theater with chums Buzz (William Bendix) and George (Hugh Beaumont). Buzz has a metal plate in his head and reacts poorly to loud noises, especially hot swing tunes (which he dubs "monkey music"), causing him to go into agitated, violent fits. George is the calm-headed caretaker, and a lawyer.

Johnny decides to surprise his wife, Helen (Doris Dowling), by not calling her in advance of his return. He finds her living in a swanky campus of hotel bungalows where there's always a party going on. Helen has been carrying on an open affair with Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva), the slick owner of the titular night club and a reputed gangster.

Eddie's the sort to play the percentages, so he's ready to bow out when the husband returns. But Helen wants none of that. During a quarrel, she even reveals to Johnny that their son, whom she'd told him had died of diphtheria during his overseas deployment, had actually been killed in a car crash while she was driving drunk. Enraged, he pulls out his .45 service pistol to threaten her.

The long and short of it is Helen winds up dead, and we spend the rest of the movie trying to figure out who the killer is. Buzz had also been in her bungalow that night, looking for Johnny and not realizing who she was; Marshal throws in a few leering, low-angle shots of Buzz looking crazed to heighten our suspicions. Eddie also swung by, so he would seem a likely candidate -- especially after we find out more about his past.

Meanwhile, Johnny was out walking in the rain and was picked up by Joyce (Lake), with whom he immediately hits things off. Later it's revealed that she's Eddie's estranged wife. Strangely, the movie never really follows up on the love quadrangle/wife-swapping angle.

Of course, rather than turning himself into the police Johnny decides to go find the killer himself. This results in a few encounters with seedy sorts, most notably Leo (Don Costello), Eddie's right-hand man at the club. He's very protective of Eddie, trying to steer him away from both Joyce and Helen, raising the obvious latent homosexual possibilities.

Also shambling around the perimeter of the tale is "Dad" Newell (Will Wright), the house detective at Helen's hotel. As near as we can figure, his job is to creep about the place, mentally record the doings of the residents and keep an eye out for opportunities to blackmail them. An older man and former cop himself, Dad is repeatedly offended when people point out his blatant motives.

The storyline is a grand example of how you can have things constantly happening but not really go anywhere. Johnny's DIY investigation never actually manages to come anywhere near pinpointing the killer -- the professional police get their man in the end -- and his ersatz romance with Joyce is a stop-and-start series of chance encounters. Ladd and Lake actually share perhaps 10 minutes of screen time together.

I lost count of how many phone calls there are in a movie. If they employed modern product placement back in 1946, I'd be willing to write the whole film off as an ad for Ma Bell.

Trouble is, phone calls aren't terribly exciting as cinematic fodder, or at least they weren't back then. Filmmakers hadn't yet come around to the idea of letting the audience hear the voice on the other end. So it's just some dope standing there holding up that old-timey hearing piece up to his ear, saying stuff like, "Oh?" "Really?" "You don't say." "I'll meet you right there..."

Johnny's in-person conversations with Eddie aren't much better, a roving game of innuendo and deflection. We keep waiting for them to just sock each other. Actually, that happens pretty early on, and we hope hopelessly for a rematch.

Even the eponymous flowers get a short shrift, as their lustrous ultramarine color just looks a dull, grayish black on camera.

"The Blue Dahlia" is a wonderful artifact to look at, an emblem of an older age and a then-new hard-bitten take on the movies. But all the pretty pictures don't matter if you haven't got a great story to tell.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Video review: "Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie"

When a mainstream movie doesn’t get screened for critics, it’s usually an indication the studio knows it has a dog and its hands, and figures no publicity is better than bad publicity. They’re wrong, of course: My own observation is that films that get dumped into theaters with no fanfare or press disappear even quicker than those that got negative reviews.

But every now and then, a decent movie gets this treatment for mystifying reasons. Lately, many of these have been family- or kid-oriented fare like the wonderful “Paddington” from a few years ago.

“Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” isn’t quite that good, but it’s an amusing and rather clever kiddie flick that had my two boys, ages 4 and 6, rolling with laughter almost the entire time. And even grumpy old dad chortled not a little.

The clever set-up is that the two protagonists, George and Harold (voices by Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch), are fourth-grade cut-ups and budding cartoonists themselves. They spend most of their time creating comic books and pulling pranks on Mr. Krupp, their anger-absorbed principal. One of their favorite subjects is Captain Underpants, about a super-powered hero who only wears a cape and his undies.

Through a little hypnosis, the boys actually convince Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms) that he is Captain Underpants, leading to much hilarity as their tubby educator galivants about town in his tighty-whities. Of course, he eventually wakes up and wonders where his clothes are. Later, the Captain manages to obtain actual super-powers to go with his delusion.

Nick Kroll provides the voice of Professor Poopypants, a substitute teacher who turns to evil villainy out of consternation for mockery of his name. It all builds up to a dizzy battle with giant robots and such.

The animation has a deliberately simplistic sort of sheen, interspersed with cut scenes consisting of motion comics from the boys’ illustrations.

Based on the novels by Dav Pilkey, “Captain Underpants” didn’t do so well at the box office. (See section above re: no vs. bad publicity.) It’s definitely worth a look on video, though, as it’s chock-full of boy-centric humor and gross-outs.

Maybe if we do get a sequel, it won’t try to fly under the radar.

Bonus features are pretty good, anchored by six making-of featurettes, including one where Hart and Helms pull real-life surprises on fans. There are also deleted scenes, gallery of stills, music videos including one with theme song writer/performer “Weird All” Yankovic, and a “Tightey-Whitey Q&A with the Stars.”



Thursday, September 7, 2017

Review: "It"

Just a few quick thoughts. Sam Watermeier is handling the main review over at The Film Yap, so please head there to check out his more detailed criticism.

I am entirely innocent of Stephen King's horror novel or the TV miniseries adaptation from the early 1990s. You might say I'm a virgin of "It." (Yes, that's an inside joke for those of you who are familiar. More riffs on this in a bit.)

Taken on its own merits, "It" is an effective supernatural thriller/scarer that painstaking builds a pervasive mood of creepiness and despair. It relies entirely too much on "boo-gotcha" frights, and at two hours and 15 minutes, the jump scares quickly lose effectiveness. But it builds rather than loses momentum as it goes, which is always preferable to a movie that starts strong and sags.

The town of Derry, Maine, in the late 1980s of the film's setting is a place of claustrophobia and rot, where the pretty middle-class house facades hide moldering foundations, and seemingly every adult is unhelpful at best and actively malevolent in the higher likelihood.

I enjoyed the cast of young actors, whose characters call themselves "the Losers," though it's certainly no squad of "Goonies" or "Stand By Me" in terms of how deep an impact they make on us viscerally.

The most interesting by far is Beverly (Sophia Lillis), a rebellious girl who's been tagged as the school slut for dubious reasons. She's a mix of brashness and self-hate, plagued by a dad who walks right up to the point of sexual abuse, demanding that she always be "my little girl." Rather than just being a victim, Bev has internalized the torment and uses it to her advantage. There's a scene where she uses her burgeoning feminine wiles to dupe the town pharmacist, who returns her flirting with alarming enthusiasm.

The other standout is Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the smart, shy new kid who's a library fiend and secret poet. He takes a shine to Beverly -- actually, all the boys do -- and we keep thinking they're going to end up together. Emotionally and logically, that would be the most satisfying. But he's the short fat kid, so that's not in the cards for a mainstream Hollywood film.

My understanding is in the book the African-American kid (Chosen Jacobs) occupies the writer/chronicler role, and I guess we also couldn't have the black kid be the smart one. Damnable expectations.

The rest of the boys line up into more conventional slots: the hypochondriac, the loudmouth, the worrywart, etc. Ostensibly the main character, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is rather a dud, notable only for his grief over his young brother, Georgie, who's the first victim in a rather gruesome scene.

The presence of Finn Wolfhard, the main kid in the "Stranger Things" TV show, was discordant for me. It's like when all the same goombah actors turn up in mafia movies and shows.

It's not hard to discern that bullying is the real theme of the movie. The evil clown/spirit Pennywise (an excellent Bill Skarsgård) feeds off of fear. Killing his victims seems to be just a byproduct of his life cycle. Once we learn this, it's only a matter of time before saying "I'm not afraid of you" becomes their main weapon.

The makeup and special effects for Pennywise are first-rate. He sort of resembles Larry from The Three Stooges on acid. I liked how his two front teeth are twice as long as the rest, which throws us off visually just a smidge. Skarsgård speaks in a mix of childish sing-song and guttural croaks that put a shiver down my spine.

The young actor playing the school bully, Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), is in some ways more scary than Pennywise. He actually resembles him facially, which led me to some incorrect suppositions.

Henry terrorizes the other children with an enthusiasm that is much more familiar to me from my own childhood encounters. People always claim that bullies become bullies because they learned the behavior. I think that's true in some cases, but most kids who bully other kids do it simply because they enjoy it.

Other than the jump scares, my main complaint about "It" is the lack of first responders. At no point do any of the kids go to the authorities for help. Ben gets his stomach carved up by Bowers, and they don't even go to the hospital. And they never even attempt to bring in a adult to help them battle Pennywise.

I get that that's a theme of the piece -- how grown-ups turn a blind eye to abuse they see right in front of them. One of the most powerful momenst is a fleeting one, when Ben is being tortured by Henry's gang at the side of the road and some older folks drive right by, refusing to heed his cries for help. And the fact Henry's father is the town sheriff might make 13-year-olds hesitant to report a crime.

But at some point it just becomes too much. There's no trusted teacher they could confide in? Somebody's mom is a nurse or doctor? Has an uncle in the next town who's not infected by the Derry disease? My credulity was strained to the breaking point, and beyond.

Now let's talk about virgins. What's next is a spoiler for the book, but not the movie.

I've been told by reliable sources that the battle with Pennywise ends with all the boys having sex with Beverly. Something about bringing the group together, cementing their bonds in a time of duress. So the Losers' story concludes (for now) with a goddamn gangbang.

My understanding is the film's original director, Cary Fukunaga, wanted to preserve this sex sequence, and ended up leaving the project over creative differences. (He's still listed as a screenwriter.) I'm all for artistic vision, but having a movie end with a bunch of 13-year-olds lining up to screw the only girl in their group would be a death sentence.

Also, how heteronormative: couldn't the boys just have anal sex with each other to achieve the same end?

Review: "Fallen"

“Fallen” has formula written all over it.

It’s a supernatural teen romance/adventure flick based on a (they tell me) popular YA novel by Lauren Kate. The main character is a teen girl who’s new to town and uncertain of herself, falling hard for a mysterious golden boy who turns out to be Much More Than He Seems.

There’s even a darkling competitor for her affections, who’s dreamy but not quite as dreamy as Much More boy.

You can criticize the “Twilight” movies, but at least the main actors were all within hopping distance of the ages of their characters, at least when the first movie came out. “Fallen” has Hollywood’s usual cast of 25- to almost-30-year-olds playing 16 and 17.

The film’s production and release has been troubled. It originally was supposed to come out almost two years ago, finally got dribbled out in places like Singapore and the Philippines last year, the United Kingdom this spring and is now being given a brief U.S. release before coming out on video 3½ weeks later.

Despite the tragic birthing process, I have to admit the movie isn’t bad. It’s got a solid cast, including Addison Timlin, Jeremy Irvine (“War Horse”), Joely Richardson and Lola Kirke, who was wonderful in the little-seen “Mistress America.”

Director Scott Hicks is no slouch, nominated for two Oscars for “Shine.” Screenwriting trio Kathryn Price, Nichole Millard and Michael Arlen Ross do a decent job of adapting Kate’s very derivative fiction into a passable screenplay.

Timlin plays Lucinda Price, a smart girl who’s been tormented by shadowy visions that have left her enrolled by court order in the Sword and Cross reform school. It’s housed in a massive castle where it’s always autumn and the gardeners never seem to keep up with the leaf-raking. She quickly runs afoul of the resident goth girl/bully (Sianoa Smit-McPhee), but befriends nerdy nonstop-talker Penn (Kirke).

Luce is immediately smitten with Daniel (Irvine), the handsome boy who spends all his time doing charcoal drawings in class. He pretends to ignore her or is even outright hostile, but their spark can’t be denied.

(I, for one, am happy to see a movie in which a fair-haired lad is the object of affection. Us blond boys have had a rough romantic run at the movies as of late.)

Harrison Gilbertson plays Cam, the long-haired (brunette!) bad boy who always seems to be in trouble with the law or teachers. He makes his own play for Luce and she responds, if for no other reason than the contrast with Daniel’s indifference.

Richardson plays the philosophy and religion teacher, whose curriculum seems to center entirely on biblical stories about the “Fallen” -- angels who chose neither God or Lucifer’s side in the great battle of heaven. Preferring the sanctity of human love, they’re cursed to roam the Earth in human form.

It’s not often you see a movie actually lay out its entire metaphysical blueprint -- in a classroom, no less -- so there is no confusion about who’s playing what role in the larger story.

Even though it contains few surprises, “Fallen” really isn’t that awful as teen romances go. Nobody sucks any blood or turns into a wolf, though don’t be surprised if some celestial CGI wings make an appearance near the end. It ain’t heaven, but it’s a long ways from hellish filmmaking.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Review: "Crown Heights"

Lakeith Stanfield is one of the brightest lights among young actors in Hollywood today. I remember being blown away by his feature film debut, “Short Term 12,” and he’s acquitted himself well in supporting roles since then in “Miles Ahead,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Selma” and more.

Now he gets his chance at a starring role in “Crown Heights,” playing a man wrongfully convicted for a murder he didn’t commit. Colin Warner eventually won his freedom, and if there’s any justice in the cinematic world then Stanfield’s portrayal of him will be remembered during the looming awards season.

It’s a fully fleshed-out performance as a wronged man who literally found himself picked up off the street at random. Stanfield takes the character from age 18 to about 40, and we watch him grow from a docile kid bewildered by what’s happening to him to an embittered but proud man who righteously refuses to express remorse for something he didn’t do.

As a result, Colin’s prison sentence stretches past 20 years, as the wheels of the justice system grind at an achingly slow pace. Meanwhile, the teen who actually committed the murder (Anthony Gibson) is let out after just a few years because he was a minor when he committed the crime.

It’s the sort of bracing filmmaking that leaves you aching with anger, but also filled with admiration at how people can endure great injustice.

Written and directed by Matt Ruskin, “Crown Heights” is careful not to depict Colin as a choir boy. Indeed, the early part of the film prior to his arrest shows him stealing a car in his Brooklyn neighborhood, a multicultural district where many people are foreign-born like himself, originally hailing from Trinidad. While good-hearted in his nature, he’s not above inflicting harm on a fellow immigrant if it puts a few bucks in his pocket.

But when he’s arrested and police demand he confess to a shooting, Colin balks. Not only was he not involved, he doesn’t even know the boy who was killed or the murderer. It’s as if the investigation began and ended with picking a random name and face out of a book of mugshots.

Denied bail, Colin waits nearly two years for his trial, feeling abandoned by his friends and family. Only Carl King (a superlative Nnamdi Asomugha), his best friend, continues the fight on his behalf.

Convicted on the barest of evidence -- the prime witness actually admits on the stand that he lied about Colin’s involvement -- he begins a decades-long journey to reclaim his good name and freedom.

You’d call it a comedy of errors, except it’s not funny and the mistakes were willful ones by law enforcement and prosecutors who were bent on getting a conviction, no matter what.

Natalie Paul plays Antoinette, a teen love interest who learns years later of his incarceration, and signs on to the team fighting for his exoneration. Bill Camp plays William Robedee, the lone wolf attorney who eventually agreed to take Colin’s case.

While race is never overtly presented as the reason for Colin’s wrongful conviction, the issue lingers in the background of every scene. For instance, the white prison guard who takes a special interest in berating the timid young man, cutting off his phone call to his grandmother on her birthday after a single minute, and so on. This leads to Colin being labeled a problem inmate, expanding his initial sentence of 15 years.

A powerful and moving film experience, “Crown Heights” is a resounding lesson that our criminal justice structure, which purports to rest on a bedrock of certitude, is too often a hollow system in which the weak are sucked into a pit of despair.

Here is one of the year’s finest performances in one of the year’s best films.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Video review: "Band Aid"

“Band Aid” has a clever hook: a married couple who can’t stop fighting start a band as an outlet for their frustrations and resentment. They’re still screaming at each other, but through the prism of rock ‘n’ roll songs, and it has a strangely positive effect on their relationship.

It’s a delicious and strong filmmaking debut by Zoe Lister-Jones, who wrote, directed, produced and co-stars in the romantic dramedy, which reportedly used an all-female crew. Adam Pally plays the husband, and the movie doesn’t short-shrift the male perspective like so many other films balanced in the opposite direction.

Lister-Jones plays Anna, a former writing prodigy who these days drives for Uber and frets about how all her friends are having babies… and feeling the pressure to do the same. Pally is Ben, a freelance graphic designer (when he cares to work, which isn’t often). He seems to spend most of his days playing video games and not cleaning the house.

Part of them wants to have kids, part of them resents being forced into that role, and they direct their negative feelings over that conflict into each other. Already amateur musicians who cut up at birthday parties and such, they dust off their old instruments and start to pound away in the garage. Fred Armisen plays their creepy neighbor, a recovering sex addict who gets recruited as the drummer.

The songs (written by Lucius) are catchy and fun, and the movie boasts plenty of hilarity peppered with some deeper scenes that reveal the extent of the main characters’ anger. At the core of their struggle is what they don’t want to face: the feeling they’re thirtysomethings who failed to launch.

Smart and insightful, “Band Aid” looks at married life from an authentic vantage point, where all is not bliss and the power chords are sometimes painful to hear.

Bonus features are OK. They include seven deleted scenes, outtakes and a music video that’s part song and part comedy.



Thursday, August 31, 2017

Review: "Unlocked"

“Unlocked” wears the clothes of a B-movie spy flick but has A-list talent both in front of and behind the camera. The result is a taut, well-paced thriller high in both entertainment value and uncomfortable musings about how international intelligence agencies have reacted to radical Islamic terrorism.

Noomi Rapace stars as CIA agent Alice Racine -- foreign-born, to explain the accent -- who’s taken a low-level assignment in London. Her cover is an advocate for immigrants, passing along any suspicious cases to her British MI6 counterpart, Emily Knowles (Toni Collette). It’s tedious, unrewarding work, but Alice failed to stop a terrorist attack in Paris two years earlier, and her confidence has eroded.

Her specialty is “unlocking” hostile witnesses, aka getting them to spill the beans on imminent activity. Alice is not an “enhanced interrogation” sort, tending to use her wiles and relationship-building with suspects who are usually not the bombers and shooters, but (relatively) docile bagmen and such who make the connections between terrorist cells.

She’s brought in by the European CIA chief, Bob Hunter, played by expert-in-squirrelly John Malkovich. It seems their current “unlocker” has died of a heart attack, and there’s word of a mass chemical attack being financed by a “trust fund jihadist” of English birth (Raffaello Degruttola).

They’ve caught a young courier carrying a message from an imam (Makram Khoury) suspected of radical affiliations, so it’s up to Alice to save the day. Michael Douglas pops up as Eric Lasch, a retired spook and mentor to Alice who’s ready to lend a hand.

The screenplay is by Peter O’Brien, a promising rookie who blends high-octane action scenes with plenty of plot twists and paranoia in between. Without giving away too much, Alice finds herself caught in a no man’s land between the American and British spy services, whose integrity has been compromised, and the jihadis.

Popping up to help, sort of, is Orlando Bloom as Jack, a scruffy thief who’s unlucky enough to pick Alice’s safe house to rob. They throw in together out of grudging happenstance. Tosin Cole impresses as a (legit) client of Alice’s day job who also gets recruited out of pressing needs, and is appropriately awed by all the spycraft and gadgets.

The film is directed by British filmmaking legend Michael Apted, who has to go down as one of the most important director never to receive an Academy Award nomination. (Though he has plenty of recognition from the U.K. equivalent BAFTAs, not to mention the Director’s Guild of America.) He’s perhaps best known for his “Up” documentary series documenting the lives of ordinary Brits from childhood to middle age.

But Apted also directed a Bond movie back in the day, and clearly hasn’t lost his touch for action sequences. Despite her small frame, Rapace is entirely convincing as a hand-to-hand badass. There aren’t any big-money antics, highway crashes and boat chases and such. But these constraints actually make the film feel lower to the ground and ruggedly authentic.

“Unlocked” shows you don’t need Bourne and Bond budgets to craft a top-notch spy movie.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Review: "Columbus"

“You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.”

I wanted to like “Columbus” a lot more than I did. It’s the sort of film you admire without making any kind of meaningful emotional connection to. The spare truth is I found it intriguing, occasionally mesmerizing, ambitious, and more than a bit dull.

It’s sort of movie that is loved less by audiences than critics and academics -- the very background of Koganada, the Korean video essayist who has studied the works of other directors for years and makes his first venture into feature filmmaking.

Unfortunately, the end result reads like something one film professor would make for another.

Let me put it this way: it’s the sort of film workaday people in southern Indiana hear about because it is set and was shot in Columbus, Ind. They seek out a review in The New Yorker or Rolling Stone or some other publication they don’t normally pay attention to, absorb the critic’s summary and lavish praise and ask, “So, it’s about… what, again?”

Alas, my guess is after watching “Columbus,” their question will linger.

The backdrops and famous modernist architecture of Columbus are indeed given beautiful display in this drama, which brings together two strangers who are each navigating a circuitous path between their homes and their fates.

One is a youngster, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), who grew up in Columbus; she professes to want to stay there while harboring nonstop thoughts of leaving. The other is an older but still young man, Jin (John Cho), an American who has been living in Korea and has come to Indiana for the first time for reasons not of his making. He views it as another stop in a journey that’s mostly about escaping the shadow of his father, a famous architect professor and author.

They meet by happenstance, sharing smokes and conversations, which turn into increasingly deep encounters in which they confront their choices, critique those of the other and obtain enough of a nudge to break free from the inertia that has been holding them back.

There is a suggestion of romance, but much like “Lost in Translation,” to which this film is a thematic and aesthetic descendant, these characters are struggling with their self-identity rather than solitude.

Michelle Forbes plays Casey’s mom, a recovered drug addict who works night shifts at drudgery: cleaning offices, assembling cardboard boxes, etc. The pair have been through hard times together, abusive boyfriends and the like, and it’s clear the daughter is providing the support system for the mother rather than the other way around.

Casey appears to have several jobs herself. She works in the local library, and also plays tour guide for the constant stream of tourists who come to look at the Miller House and other famed examples of Columbus architecture. She takes Jin on their own private nighttime tours, as they muse about the buildings and their own lack of structure.

Parker Posey plays Eleanor, a colleague of Jin’s dad who has a past with the son. Rory Culkin is Gabriel, a twentysomething coworker of Casey’s and essentially her only friend.

Jin has come to Columbus because his father has fallen deathly ill while preparing to give a speech, and can’t be moved. He’s being hassled by his boss to continue his work, translating books form English to Korean and vice-versa. He admits he resents being forced to play the role of the good son to a distant father. He never put his life on pause for me, Jin complains, so why should I?

The two lead actors are quite good, especially Richardson, who brings a forlorn note to every scene. Koganada arranges them like furniture, their profiles silhouetted against the architectural backdrops just so. In the end, though, we regard them with just as much connection as we would a settee or window frame.

Modernist architecture is defined by its transparency. But there has to be something compelling beyond the pane to hold our interest.

Review: "Patti Cake$"

Patricia Dombrowski has a lot of nicknames. She prefers “Killa P,” though most call her Patti, which she has bedazzled up to “Patti Cake$,” which is also the title of the movie about her.

The license plate on her crumbling Cadillac is “PATTIWGN.” A 23-year-old aspiring rapper from the harder Jersey neighborhood, she and a fellow dreamer go by “Thick & Thin,” a reference to their respective body types. The one she really hates, though she pretends to embrace it when it’s hurled at her incessantly on the streets, is “Dumbo,” given in middle school and unfortunately what stuck.

One guy, whom Patti secretly has a crush on, disparagingly calls her “White Precious” during an impromptu rap battle, and that’s probably the one that’s most descriptive.

This audacious debut film from writer/director Geremy Jasper and starring Danielle Macdonald is in many ways an inheritor to 2009’s “Precious,” which spotlighted an obese, illiterate girl. It also borrows from “Hustle & Flow,” in that it’s the story of a person rapping about their circumstances and stuck dreams as a way of breaking out of the crabbed role other people have defined for them.

The movie is not so much about Patti being fat as the disparagement that comes with it. Patti has spent her whole life being told she’s less than because of her outsized body. That dynamic has bled into her work, her relationships and every other aspect of her existence. She’s come to internalize that pain, forge it in the fire of her resentment and spit it out back into the world in the form of brash, boastful raps.

“Patti Cake$” is not about overeating, but feeding an undernourished soul.

Macdonald is astonishing in the lead role, her broad face often buried underneath a tangle of blonde frizzles, her eyes peeking out with a mix of fear and self-assurance. We feel the crush of how others disregard her, sense the artist behind the façade of the woman who bartends and works catering events, intuitively understand her need to strive for something more.

Her best friend is Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay), a pharmacist and her rapping partner. He’s the ebullient ying to her downtrodden yang. They hang out, bust some rhymes and dream of one day getting onstage. Like most other Jersey kids, black and white, they idolize the O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), a local rapper who made it big and is referred to as the “godfather,” or simply “God.” Patti has green-tinged dreams about becoming O-Z’s protégé.

Patti’s most fraught relationship is with her mother, Barb (Bridget Everett), a powerhouse of a woman who owns a big personality, big voice and big everything else. Fiftyish, a former rock singer, now a hair stylist with money problems clinging desperately to the shreds of her sexpot renown, Barb has poured all of her disappointment about life into her kid.

Cathy Moriarty shines as her grandmother, laid up by ill health and her own woes, who nonetheless gives Patti encouragement and unmeasured love.

I was also really impressed with Mamoudou Athie as a vagabond musician who reluctantly joins their group, lending his technical expertise and a gentleness that hides behind a deliberately dangerous exterior. Athie has gobs of what Hollywood used to call “presence” -- you can’t not watch him.

The scene where they compose their first song in the unlikeliest of venues, dubbing themselves “PBNJ” with a little sampling help from grandma, is pure magic. These are all people who society has told they’re nothing, coming together to create something.

I’m not a rap aficionado, but it’s hard not to be sucked into the beats and bravura rhymes of the music (by Jasper and Jason Binnick). Highlights are the catchy PBNJ intro song and “Tough Love,” which borrows from and describes Patti’s family dynamics.

“Patti Cake$” is the sort of fine little movie that can get lost in the wasteland of September releases, so I’m hoping it will find the audience it deserves, as well as some attention during the awards cycle.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Reeling Backward: "7 Men from Now" (1956)

John Wayne wanted to star in "7 Men from Now," purchasing the script from rookie screenwriter Burt Kennedy, but was already committed to another role -- "The Searchers." He suggested his friend Randolph Scott for the part, staying on himself as producer. Bud Boetticher was brought in, a director known for his bleak, spare style that seemed to fit the tale of revenge and redemption.

Thus began a collaboration of seven Westerns over four years for Boetticher and Scott, with Kennedy joining them for four of them as script man. Scott, who was already in his late 50s at the time, found a whole new stretch of leading roles in what has come to be known as the Ranown Cycle.

After making one more Western, "Ride the High Country," in 1962 with fellow cowboy actor Joel McCrea for an upstart young director named Sam Peckinpah, Scott promptly retired from acting, having said all he felt he needed to on the big screen. (McCrea followed suit).

"7 Men" gives new meaning to the concept of taut storytelling. It's 77 minutes of pure Old West mythos: outlaws, stolen gold, bandits, Indians, pioneers, cavalry, lawmen, old coot prospectors, the code of manhood, six-gun duels, noble womenfolk and the repaying of old debts.

It's a lonesome, whistling ode to the Western genre without a single extraneous note.

Scott is the apotheosis of the Western star: tall, rangy, weathered face with sharp eyes, slow to anger and reluctant to speak one more syllable than absolutely necessary. When he does talk, he's invariably ordering other people around.

He plays Ben Stride, former sheriff of Silver Springs, now an outlaw himself chasing the seven men who held up the Wells Fargo bank, inadvertently killing his wife in the process. Stride wasn't actually involved in the shootout; he'd lost the vote for reelection six months earlier and declined an offer to stay on as deputy. His wife took the job to support them, and his pride cost her life.

Of course, all this isn't revealed until very late in the game. And Stride doesn't say most of it: He's a man who is talked about, not one who talks about himself.

The opening sequence is typical of the entire film: during a terrible rainstorm, Stride saunters into a cave where two men are taking shelter. He was jumped by Indians 10 miles back and his horse killed, he grunts in between sips of coffee. After establishing the pair were involved in the robbery, two shots ring out in the night, startling the men's horses.

Now riding with the other horse in tow, Stride encounters John Greer (Walter Reed) and his wife, Annie (Gail Russell), a couple of pioneers striking out for Californee. After helping them get their wagon unstuck, Stride accompanies them as unofficial protector. He's clearly attracted to Annie, who reminds him of his wife.

John is depicted as "short on spine," to use another character's words, a salesman by trade ill-suited to life on the open range. Annie adores him nonetheless, but also is drawn toward the masculine magnetism of Stride. The screenplay provides just enough to make us understand they care for each other, without getting into any kind of overt betrayal of marital vows.

A single, abrupt embrace is all they share.

Russell had a bad problem with alcohol after an early rush of stardom in the 1940s, including "Angel and the Badman" with Wayne. "7 Men from Now" was her first film in five years, and the crew reportedly took pains to keep her away from drink during production. The following year she'd plow her car into an iconic L.A. coffee shop, and only had a handful of other roles before drinking herself to death at 36.

Her character is described as "25 or 26," and Russell herself was only 31 when the film was shot. Between her baggy eyes and heavily lined brow, which Boetticher 's camera labors to conceal, you'd think she was Scott's contemporary.

The other notable character is Bill Masters, an outlaw who has a past with Stride. Wearing a bright green scarf around his neck and another red one twisted upon his sleeve, he's played by Lee Marvin in one of his more memorable supporting roles as he established himself as an actor.

Masters wasn't involved in the robbery but knows who was, and tags along with Stride and the Greers in hopes of securing the $20,000 in gold for himself. He and Stride enter a sort of undeclared detente, setting aside their past roles as the criminal and the sheriff who closed a jail door on him. Also coming along is Masters' henchman, Clete (Don "Red" Berry).

Much of the middle section of the movie plays out as a tense love quadrangle, with Masters openly desiring Annie for himself, while also being the only one to acknowledge the attraction between her and Stride. He attempts to undermine John, describing him to Clete as "half a man." Though Greer's got a secret of his own, and eventually displays his mettle (if not the greatest of brainpower).

There's one terrific scene, which takes place in another downpour, as the three men and Annie take shelter inside the wagon. Masters taunts Greer right up to the point of insulting him outright, as well as showcasing his lascivious feelings for Annie. Finally having enough, Stride runs him and Clete off, then makes his bunk in the dry spot underneath the wagon while Greer stands watch.

Separated by just the floor of the wagon, Stride and Annie share a tender exchange of aching yearning neither one of them is able to fully articulate.

Of course, this being a Western it has to end with a shootout. Finally arriving in Flora Vista, we meet Payte Bodeen (John Larch), the leader of the seven robbers. He's an oddly contemplative villain for a Western, always scratching his chin and glancing sideways. Bodeen is the sort who's so busy trying to think three chess moves ahead, he winds up wasting all his pawns.

Suffice it to say that Stride, the remaining five outlaws and Masters' twosome are destined to collide in the deep mountain valley outside of town. Hobbled early on by a bullet in the leg, Stride uses his long rifle as a crutch, employing his wiles to get the drop on his enemies.

"7 Men from Now" isn't a particularly well-remembered film, and I can understand why. It's so distilled down to its purest essence that it doesn't feel like a complete cinematic meal. It's like a dinner consisting entirely of charbroiled steak without any seasoning or fixin's. You have to really enjoy that kind of meat to appreciate the meal.