Thursday, July 27, 2017

Review: "13 Minutes

Review: "Atomic Blonde"

Look, I see a daggone lot of movies -- 200 a year, I reckon -- so it’s pretty hard to impress me. I’m the guy who yawns at a 20-second piece of CGI that cost $5 million and took a team of computer animators six months to create. But there were parts of “Atomic Blonde” where I had to scoop my jaw off the sticky floor of the theater.

Essentially the first imitator in the “John Wick” mold, this spy action/thriller combines unbelievable kick-butt stunt sequences with a whole lot of intrigue and double crosses. Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a British MI6 agent sent into the rat’s nest of Berlin on the eve of the Wall coming down in 1989.

The plot is a largely forgettable dance through the usual spy movie tropes: enemies, allies, those lying somewhere in between, all sides playing the long game of leverage, with the threat of a double agent and a MacGuffin-esque “list” that could bring the whole order tumbling down.

What sets “Blonde” apart are the in-your-face stunts. Director David Leitch is a rookie behind the camera but a veteran stunt coordinator -- much the same as "Wick" -- and he shows an audacious verve that kicks the usual hand-to-hand combat scenes to the next level.

The high point is a sequence on a flight of stairs that segues from one group of opponents to the next, with the camera following Broughton every step of the way. She gets thrown down a flight, the camera tumbles right along with her. And Leitch uses minimal cutting, so we get to see the whole thing play out from beginning to end, as the combatants grow battered and exhausted.

Theron proves an able physical presence, completely believable as someone who could take on her all-male gallery of adversaries. She also brings subtle acting chops to the connective scenes, lending Broughton a haunted quality -- a deceiver and killer who flings herself into the life she’s chosen, but doesn’t enjoy it.

James McAvoy plays David Percival, a fellow Brit agent who acts as her sneering host, helper and foil. He’s been stationed in East Berlin for a decade, carving out an identity as a black market dealer in Western goods and information. Percival knows everyone, has all the angles covered, is familiar with the back ways and hidden passages. What’s unclear is where his true loyalties lie.

Based on the graphic novel, “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, the screenplay by Kurt Johnstad (“300”) is long on too-cool mood and punk imagery. What people say isn’t nearly as important as how and why they are saying it.

It seems a Soviet intelligence agent code-named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) is ready to defect, and is dangling a list that contains the identities of every known spy of every nationality. Everyone is desperate to get their hands on it, so the orders are “trust no one.”

Sofia Boutella plays a mysterious French woman tagging along everywhere, whose importance will grow. Roland Møller is Bremovych, the local Russian chief, who has hands in every pot. Bill Skarsgård plays a helpful young proto-computer geek, and Daniel Bernhardt is memorable as a local tough who goes toe-to-toe with our heroine in a couple of brutal blond vs. blonde matchups.

The film is told through the framing device of a debriefing interview back in West Berlin, where Broughton has turned up beaten to a pulp, her mission failed. Toby Jones and John Goodman play English and American spooks, respectively, giving her the business and trying to interrogate some straight answers out of her.

Theron works the poker face, letting her mask slip but once.

Sexy, smart and seriously high-energy, “Atomic Blonde” is like James Bond mixed up with steampunk fantasy and a heavy dollop of feminism. John Wick, meet your match.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Review: "A Ghost Story"

A few years back writer/director David Lowery made the expressive, offbeat “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as a star-crossed couple whose story is pulled along more by imagery and music than a conventional narrative.

Now the trio has reteamed for another film that pushes the boundaries of the cinematic experience even further, and with keener effect.

“A Ghost Story” may sound superficially like “Ghost,” in which Patrick Swayze famously played a dead man whose spirit lingered long enough to watch over his beloved. Similarly, the Affleck character (nobody’s ever named) stays in his old house after his death, watching his girlfriend (Mara) as she mourns and, eventually, moves on.

Thematically, though, the films couldn’t be wider apart.

Affleck is represented entirely in his afterlife like a cheap Halloween ghost: literally, just a voluminous white sheet with two ragged eyeholes cut out. At first off-putting or even slightly comic, the look soon becomes a totemic representation for a soul who has always been wandering, even as it refuses to leave its chosen domain.

The ghost mostly just stands around, observing the doings of the living with an air of pained regret. It also walks about seemingly normally -- people amble by unawares, rather than passing through an immaterial figure.

For him, time flows with great irregularity, a turn of the head resulting in days or even weeks passing in the living world. We get the sense of a guest stranded in a vast museum, who becomes enraptured with small details and doesn’t notice when the doors open and close.

We see glimpses of their life before, as she urges them to move out of their decaying rural home to someplace nicer in the city, but he resists with a form of passive obstinacy. Later, the ghost has further encounters with others, about which I’ll say no more, other than these do not conform to a strict temporal progression.

Shot mostly in a single derelict house for a reported budget of $100,000 -- or about how much they spend on one week’s worth of catering on a superhero flick -- “A Ghost Story” is an indescribably eerie, affecting experience.

It is very deliberately paced, with Lowery holding his camera for long unmoving takes and unspoken pauses. For instance, there is one scene that goes for probably five minutes, consisting entirely of Mara wolfing down a giant pie.

And yet, rather than becoming boring, time flew. I was astonished when the closing credits came up; I had assumed we were only 30 or 40 minutes into the movie.

Once again Lowery teams up with musical composer Daniel Hart, whose blend of melodies and atonal sounds adds immeasurably to the moody mixture. There are portions of the score that sound like just random clangs and effects, other parts with the grand air of church music, and even an eerie art-pop song sung by Affleck’s character, a musician in life.

It’s hard to judge Affleck’s performance using a traditional ruler -- after all, some might say, all he does is literally stand around with a sheet over his head. Mara and other actors -- notably Sonia Acevedo and Will Oldham -- project an unfailing naturalistic quality; we never catch them performing for the camera.

I’m quite sure “A Ghost Story” is not everyone’s bag. Many will find it dull or maybe self-indulgent. But for those with patience and curiosity, here is a truly audacious take on the hereafter that makes us desperately cling to the now.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Video review: "Gifted"

A small film with some huge names attached to it, “Gifted” is a tender little drama about an extended family fighting over the fate of a 7-year-old girl genius. Directed by Marc Webb, best known for the previous two Spider-Man movies, it’s a touch formulaic but well-acted and earnest.

Chris Evans plays Frank, uncle to the girl, Mary (Mckenna Grace), whose mother took her own life some years ago. Now she lives with Frank in a grubby community of rental homes in a part of Florida where the tourists don’t flock. He fixes boat engines for a living, but has his own past that we’ll find out more about down the line.

Octavia Spencer is Roberta, friend a maternal figure to Mary, and Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) plays Frank’s mother, Mary’s grandmother. She pops up about halfway through the movie to sue him for custody of the girl.

Grandma wants to take Mary to a very specialized educational facility where she can work on big-brain mathematical problems – in particular, one her mother failed to solve. It’s clear Evelyn sees her granddaughter as less a child to nurture than a source of greatness that has gone untapped.

Frank would prefer that Mary stay in a regular school to gain better emotional intelligence and just be a kid. But the movie (screenplay by Tom Flynn) acknowledges that there are flaws in his line of thinking, too. Mary’s own teacher (Jenny Slate) is among those who thinks the girl would be better served in a special setting, even as she tries to resist her own attraction to Frank.

With a little bit each of family melodrama, courtroom intrigue and character study, “Gifted” is a simple movie about some large issues. It may not be the smartest or most original movie around, but it never hits a false moment or fails to engage the heart.

Bonus features are adequate, and are identical for the DVD and Blu-ray editions. These include five deleted scenes, a production gallery of still photos and location footage. There are also five making-of featurettes: “Gifted: A First Look,” “Story,” “An Accomplished Cast,” “Inside the Equation” and “Marc’s Method.”



Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: "Maudie"

With every one of Sally Hawkins' endearing, deeply etched film roles, we fall a little bit more in love with her.

Hawkins' performance as Maud Lewis is essentially a portrait of pure love. Maud was a woman from Nova Scotia who was racked by crippling rheumatoid arthritis from childhood. She spent most of her life in a tiny shack without electricity or running water, living in abject poverty with her husband, Everett, a fish peddler who was gruff and ornery on his best days, a much worse on his worst.

Despite this, Maud became a renowned artist whose work was collected far and wide. Her paintings were bright, bold sweeps of unmixed colors, flowers or other nature scenes. She painted on almost everything: cards, pieces of scrap wood, virtually every single surface of their cottage. Today Maud's entire house is a work of art enshrined inside a museum.

Directed by Aisling Walsh from a screenplay by Sherry White, "Maudie" focuses not on the tiny, disabled body but the titanic soul contained within it. Hawkins portrays Maud's disease without fetishizing it, a slightly crooked, awkward woman who becomes more bent and bowed with the passing of years, her little hop of a limp turning into a tremulous stagger.

But that's not what the movie is about. Indeed, I don't think the word "arthritis" is even spoken aloud until near the end.

Like nearly all of Hawkins' other roles, even the most tragic of circumstances cannot bury her character's joyful essence. Maud smiles and twinkles, even when she is ignored or treated ill, always finding a way to carry on and hope for better.

Among those failing to give Maud her due are her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) and brother Charles (Zachary Bennett). They view Maud as a naive invalid, someone to be looked after and kept inside tight bookends of their own proscription. After Charles sells the family home to fund his business schemes, Maud is forced to live with Ida, under her strict rules -- a kept woman with no lover.

Certainly, Maud is not very smart in the traditional sense. She's a simple woman of simple tastes and desires. She wanders down to the local club to have a beer and do a little dance by herself, which Ida finds scandalous.

Then Maud spies a disheveled man coming into the local five-and-dime store to advertise for a housemaid. The man is obviously simple-minded, prone to outbursts of anger, and fiercely independent. Despite this, Maud answers the ad, seeing an opportunity to move out of Ida's place and have a piece of life that is her own.

The advertisement is for a live-in position, despite the fact the man's shack would qualify as what we today call a "tiny home," with a single walk-up loft bed. It soon becomes apparent that what the man was really advertising for was a wife to look after him.

We hear Everett before we see him, and it's hard to believe that sound could come out of Ethan Hawke. Low and guttural like a pair of stones being ground together, Everett's voice is that of a man not used to speaking, because he does not have much to say.

Everett is very particular about how things are done. He believes his home is his castle, and he the unquestioned lord. Everett is at once a very proud man and one who believes that everyone looks down upon him. Possibly there are undiagnosed mental health issues.

The arrangement causes a minor scandal in their little town -- "shacking up together" is tossed around. Maud doesn't really mind, and part of her is happy to be noticed at all, or spoken about in a romantic context.

The relationship, such as it is, gets off to a rocky start. There are outbursts, controlling behavior, even some physical violence. Everyone expects Maud to crawl back to Aunt Ida's. But she stays, the wavelength and intensity of Everett's rages become wider and smaller, and they settle into something like a routine, which finally becomes a marriage almost by default.

There's not much house to clean, so Maud passes the time painting little flowers here and there to brighten up the place. One of Everett's fish customers, a sophisticated woman from New York named Sandra (Kari Matchett), notices one of Maud's doodles and offers 25 cents for it.

Soon others buy them, painting becomes a regular source of income, and eventually people from all over stop by the little house to purchase a Maud Lewis original. Newspaper reporters and TV camera crews come calling.

Everett begrudgingly takes over the chores so Maud can have more time to paint -- which is as close to an overt expression of love a man like him can utter.

In its own plain way, "Maudie" is an incredibly beautiful movie. The photography by Guy Godfree has an unornamented charm, and the sweet strings of Michael Timmins' musical score sing a lullaby of humble passion.

Walks are used as a visual representation of Maud and Everett's evolving relationship. At first she walks behind him while he pushes his cart of goods about town; later they walk together, then she sits in the front of the cart facing away from him, and finally she rides nose-to-nose with her husband.

I think these are among the finest performances of both Hawkins' and Hawke's careers -- and that's saying something. Theirs is a duet of troubled love, expressing how two people with fierce challenges and emotional limitations can find contentment and a sense of permanency together. Both should remembered come time for Academy Award nominations.

"Maudie" is a quiet, candid movie that reminds us that beauty is not just found, it often must be made.

Review: "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets"

"Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" is a very creative movie, but it's a shallow sort of creativity.

Based on the comics by  Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, "Valerian" is kind of a goofy James Bond-in-space adventure with tons of aliens and CGI. Written and directed by Luc Besson, it makes his "The Fifth Element" look like a hard and gritty drama.

Government agents Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner and hoped-to-be lover, Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), traipse through the galaxy getting into and out of all sorts of scrapes. The plot is barely comprehensible -- not that it's really meant to be -- having to do with a refugee race of aliens, a critter MacGuffin and the prerequisite sneering villain.

The tone is overtly comic book, and the expensive digital imagery ($180 million, I hear tell) has a deliberately cartoony look. I never quite knew how I was supposed to take the movie, or its characters. Certainly, we never feel any kind of connection to them. They're like our avatars in a video game that can't control all that well.

I'm not sure about the casting of the two leads. DeHaan, with his tired eyes and spindly frame, certainly doesn't look the part of an action movie hero. I'm actually OK with that: not every male body we see onscreen needs to have a six-pack and cannonball biceps. DeHaan plays Valerian as a smirking playboy who thinks he's finally found true love in Laureline, and tries to live up to that.

Delevingne brings some kick-ass authority to her role, a duty-bound soldier who's also able to look past the rule book when it doesn't fit circumstances. She continually puts off Valerian's advances, but the way she glances at him when he walks away tell us she secretly wants it to go on.

Things center around Alpha Station, a former Earth orbit platform that grew and grew as humans encountered more alien species and incorporated them into their galactic government. Eventually it got so big its gravitational pull threatened Earth's, so Alpha has traveled millions of miles over the last 400 years, and is home to multitudes.

The creature effects are quite impressive. Some, like those from planet Mül, look like stretched-out humans with translucent skin and no hair. Other aliens resemble the ogres from the "Lord of the Rings" movies, or butterflies, or sea slugs. Some are even liquid or gaseous, contained within space suit for interaction with humanoids, and others are living machines.

Combined with the wonders of Alpha and beyond, there's no denying "Valerian" is a feast for the eyes.

In one neat sequence, we enter a marketplace that exists in another dimension, so visitors don special eyewear to interact with the peddlers. Valerian sticks a laser pistol and his hand into a special gizmo, so he can shoot at bad guys while the rest of him remains phased in safety.

The adventure, though, soon grows tiresome as it seems there are no consequences to be encountered. For every obstacle or enemy, there's some kooky solution involving cool technology or interaction with a bizarre creature.

For instance, when Laureline needs to track down the lost Valerian, she seeks out a jellyfish that she has to, uh... interface with in an interesting way to learn his location. When roles are reversed, Valerian recruits a "glamopod" named Bubble who can transform her appearance. She's played by Rihanna, who does a very sexy and athletic burlesque routine as her introduction.

When she has to do dialogue, though... ugh. Rihanna can certainly perform, but she can't act.

Others rounding out the cast are Herbie Hancock (!) as the intergalactic minister calling the shots, Clive Owen as the local commander with a history, Sam Spruell as his upright number two, and Ethan Hawke as a cowboy pimp.

I had fun for awhile watching "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets," but it grows tiresome, like a circus show that runs too long. There's only so much bedazzlement the eye can take in before becoming strained.

We jump from dizzying scene to scene like we're progressing through a role-playing video game, and waiting at the end is a prize we don't really want that badly.

Review: "Dunkirk"

There aren’t any characters in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” at least not really. It’s not a story of individual men so much as a tale of mankind -- his possibilities for mayhem and potential for nobility. This is a war film with very little fighting, an ode to humanity in which no one man stands too far above the rest.

Nolan recreates the mass evacuation of Allied forces at Dunkirk in 1940, the lowest point of World War II when it seemed that the Reich truly was on the verge of toppling the entire world. Hundreds of thousands of troops were trapped on the French coastline, surrounded by Germans, desperately trying to make their way across the Chanel despite too few ships to transport them and not enough planes to protect the ones that did manage to disembark.

The individual story threads are fiction, but together they weave themselves into a thundering representation of the heroism, cowardice and sheer terror of those few days. I have no doubt this film will receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, and many others.

I was surprised when I learned this movie was one hour and 46 minutes long; I thought for certain I had misread it instead of two hours, 46 minutes. But no, “Dunkirk” is the rare war epic that sprawls in scope but not length. There’s an economy to Nolan’s filmmaking here, harkening back to his breakout with “Memento,” like a middleweight fighter who’s all sinew, packing a powerful punch from a modest frame carrying no fat.

The narrative consists of a handful of storylines that intersect when we least expect it, intercutting between them in an order that is not necessarily chronological. At one point we encounter a man, beaten and hollow-eyed, and are surprised to later see him calm and in command. We can guess what happened to him in between, but we don’t know.

This is a true ensemble acting effort, with no lead performers. Fionn Whitehead comes closest to that designation, playing a private who ends up encountering nearly all the other characters in one way or another. He’s a young private who tries to sneak his way to the head of the evacuation line, and keeps finding himself pushed by circumstance further away from salvation. Like many other characters, we never even hear his name.

Kenneth Branagh is the naval officer in charge of the evacuation, standing like a sentinel against the coming apocalypse. Mark Rylance plays Dawson, a Brit civilian who launches his tiny boat, Moonstone, in a seemingly vain effort to help out, his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend (Barry Keoghan) tagging along.

Up in the skies, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden portray RAF fighter pilots chasing the German planes who are hunting those soldiers who have managed to get off the shore in boats. Their fuel is running lower and lower, but they know that every enemy shot down could mean hundreds of lives saved. So they watch their gauge needles, and stay a little longer.

(Though he’s not credited, I’m fairly certain it’s Michael Caine as the voice of their commander over the radio.)

There are no genuine battles in “Dunkirk,” other than some aerial dogfighting. The Allied soldiers hunker on the beach, hoping for a ship, or if they made it onto one, pray they’re not spotted by German planes or U-boats. There is no illusion of winning here, merely a frantic struggle to survive.

The film is a technical marvel, a seamless combination of live action and CGI effects that convince us we’re right in the thick of it. The metal hulls of the Spitfires pop with the stress of sharp banking; the seas go nearly black with oil spilled from ships stoven in by bombs like playthings.

Hans Zimmer’s musical score is a masterpiece of mood without melody. Reminiscent of the old Vangelis scores from the 1980s, the eclectic combination of tones and rhythm soars or sinks as the prospects for survival wane and wax.

In the middle of a summer of popcorn movies and dimwit comedies, “Dunkirk” rises, grim-faced and commanding, to grab our attention.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Natural" (1984)

In the vast and expanding forest of films whose echoes take up much of my cognitive array, "The Natural" stands out like a crowning oak. Its memory towers above nearly all others; its roots are sunk deep into the formation of my perception of cinema.

It's one of the movies that made me fall in love with movies.

I think about it often, though it's probably been close on to a decade since I last saw it in its entirety. I recall flashes, moments, snippets of dialogue -- generally not the big "wow" stuff, like Roy Hobbs smashing the final home run into the stadium lights, setting off a shower of falling stars.

More like, Pop's grumblings about his awful team and the middle-aged rookie they stuck him with; his whistling contest with Red to guess old songs; or the nimbus of light director Barry Levinson continually puts behind Robert Redford's head to give Hobbs a beatific halo.

Like the best sports movies, it's not really about the game. Rather, it's an exploration of the creation of myth.

Roy Hobbs was destined to become a legend, but didn't. Then in the twilight of his youth he decides to make another go of it, and runs into a buzzsaw of disdain, suspicion, sudden fame, greed, envy, betrayal and regret.

Odysseus' journey was no more laborious.

Ostensibly an uplifting movie, "The Natural" has sadness clinging to its every molecule. Bernard Malamud, upon whose novel it was based, had a very pessimistic view of humanity in the days after World War II. If you've read the book, you know that the big difference from the movie is that in his ending Hobbs strikes out, and is forgotten.

(At least, that's what we gather, given Malamud's signature run-on sentence writing style, where trains of thought can go on and on and on and on and on and on and...)

The essential tale is thought to have been inspired by Phillies first basemen Eddie Waitkus, who was stalked and shot by a female fan in a hotel in 1949. He had been nicknamed "the natural" during a brief major league stint prior to the war. However, he was already several years into his career when he was injured, returned to play less than two months later and batted .306 for the season.

Hobbs, of course, was just a kid going for a tryout with the Cubs when he was wounded by a black widow (Barbara Hershey) who'd already killed two other famous athletes and was gunning for the trifecta. She had set her sights on "The Whammer," a not-at-all subtle mirror of Babe Ruth played by Joe Don Baker. But after the young pitching prospect, on a dare, strikes out the pompous star with three straight pitches, her aim is altered.

Hobbs spent two years in the hospital recovering and was told he'd never play ball again because of the silver bullet lodged in his guts. As he reluctantly answers anyone who asks where he's from, he knocked around from here to there, odd jobs of this and that. Sixteen years after his shooting, now in the 1930s, he decides to give his dream one more try.

After two weeks of playing for the semipro Hebrew Oilers -- a fictional team that became a real one -- he's signed to a $500 contract by a scout for the lowly New York Knights.

Aging and the passage of time are very much at the forefront of the film's themes. To my recollection, the book is pretty specific in giving Hobbs' age as around 35 -- which is advanced but hardly ancient for baseball. Even back then, top players continued their careers into their early 40s.

(And, if they're Satchel Paige, allegedly well past that.)

Redford was nigh unto 50 when the movie came out, and looked every day of it. He remained gloriously handsome -- still is, past 80 -- but he wore his years plainly and proudly. Not until "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" has another movie star's aging process been so intrinsically woven into the fabric of a film.

Hobbs isn't the only major character worrying about his last shot at baseball glory passing him by. Pop Fisher is the manager and co-owner of the Knights, who loves the game more than anything but saw his heart strewn to pieces by it. His lament is a refrain: "I shoulda been a farmer!"

It's probably the signature role of Wilford Brimley's career -- he's just two years older than Redford, by the way -- a cantankerous oldster who's capable of small-mindedness and vindictiveness. He refuses to play Hobbs and is ready to send him down to the minors before a batting practice performance in which the lefty right fielder seems to hit every seat in the far stands.

Hobbs has many nemeses in the movie, the chief of which is The Judge, the other owner of the Knights. But the Judge's true antagonist is Pop, from whom he bought controlling shares of the team the previous season when fortunes were down. Unless the Knights win the pennant, Pop is out and the Judge becomes sole owner.

Physically Brimley and Robert Prosky, who plays the Judge, resemble each other so much it could not have been happenstance on the part of director Levinson. They're both older, squat men with thinning hair and owlish glasses. While Pop lives very much in the dirt and the sun, forever traipsing about the dugout, the Judge preens blackly in his high nest above the ballfield, the shutters kept perpetually shut against any ray of sun or inadvertent glimpse of baseball.

The sun-dappled counterpoint to all this darkness is Glenn Close as Iris, Roy's childhood love and (unofficially) betrothed. He was so hurt and embarrassed about being seduced and wounded by another woman that he apparently never bothered to even contact her again -- and likely would not have, if she hadn't gone to a game when the Knights were visiting Chicago. In one of the film's more iconic scenes, she stands in the sun when Roy, in the midst of an epic hitting slump, goes to bat, inspiring him to wallop a titanic homer.

The character isn't well fleshed out -- Close only has a handful of scenes, in which Iris remains rather remote and distracted. Nonetheless, she scored the film's only acting Academy Award nomination. We get the sense that she is reaching out for her own sake, a sense of closure, rather than seeking to rekindle long-dormant ashes. But, of course, she brings the light back into Roy's eyes.

He had been carrying on with Memo Paris (Kim Basinger), niece to Pop but secretly a creature of the Judge and his nefarious partner, Gus Sands. I love that name: Memo Paris; it connotes that she's exotic and beautiful but also somehow lacking a complete humanity. Her story is not a book or a chapter or even a poem -- just a scribble is all you need.

Roy's poor play coincides with his romance with Memo, who distracts him with the high life and moral corrosion. Iris acts as the tonic that cures him of what ails. It's the classic good woman/foul temptress dichotomy straight out of the mythology of the Greeks, Norse, Egyptians, etc.

Gus (a curiously uncredited Darren McGavin) is the bookie who's got a line on everyone, laying odds on everything and always finding a way to come up the winner in the long run. He even claims to have a magic eye to help him pick winners and losers. I had never noticed before this most recent viewing that one of Gus' eyes appears to be larger than the other, possibly even prosthetic. I believe this was achieved with makeup, as McGavin had two good googlers.

Richard Farnsworth plays Red, the laconic assistant manager who acts as Pop's shield man, protecting him as he can from the uncaring fates, but also from Pop's own ornerier instincts. Red's the one who convinces Pop to keep Hobbs around after he shows up unannounced, and quietly nudges everyone to behave better than they are.

Any movie about mythologizing isn't complete without the character of the chronicler, a journalist or storyteller whose job is to bear witness and relate the great events to the world with tremendous accuracy, or not. Here it's Robert Duvall as Max Mercy, a weaselly sports columnist and hustler.

He's happy to use Roy as a springboard to a great story -- oldest rookie inspires kids -- and also more than happy to turn him into a chump as needs be. It's implied that he's on the payroll of the Judge and Sands. He's the one who digs up Roy's salacious past and threatens to use it against him, after the gambits with Memo and outright bribery fail to force Hobbs to throw the big game.

Also bearing witness is Bobby Savoy (George Wilkosz, in his only film role), the plump, smiling batboy for the Knights who becomes Roy's first baseball apostle. He makes a bat of his own, the Savoy Special, as tribute to Hobbs' mighty Wonderboy, which he carved out of a tree split open by lightning outside his boyhood home.

When Wonderboy is shattered in Roy's last at-bat, Bobby offers up the Special like a knight's page surrendering his own sword to his master. Indeed, if Roy Hobbs is a mythological hero straight out of an Edith Hamilton text, then he needs his signature weapon: Hobbs/Wonderboy, Arthur/Excalibur, Thor/Mjölnir

Let me tell you about my favorite scene, which since I first saw it I have been able to recall with near-eidetic clarity:

The Knights are on a roll, playing great team ball on the back of Roy's power hitting. Max, who was witness to Hobbs striking out the Whammer so many years ago, has been unable to recall where he met Roy, or how such a great player could have come out of nowhere. He even drew a cartoon of the event that was going to go out to all the papers that syndicate him, but presumably when Roy failed to show up for his Cubs tryout, the story died.

(How any competent reporter would forget the young lad who struck out Babe Ruth, or fail to follow up on that story, we'll chalk up to Hollywood's general ineptness in depicting journalists.)

Perturbed at this vexing puzzle, Max hangs around the team all the time, even sneaking into the stands during batting practice. Roy saunters in from right field, passes across the pitcher's mound and is challenged by another player to throw one pitch in for fun. Roy pauses, considers, goes into a long wind-up -- possibly for the first time in 16 years -- and throws a heater with such force it sticks in between the links of the chain fence.

Everything goes into slow time; the music dims to practically a hum. Pop, Red and the other players sit speechless, before and after the pitch. The challenging hitter simply lets his bat slide through his hands to the plate, an ineffectual cudgel against such an immortal beast of a throw.

And up in the stands... Max's perched seat is suddenly empty. The lost connection has been made.

Randy Newman's musical score is critical to the success of this scene, and indeed to much of the movie's surging emotional tides. Its soaring crescendos and blaring horns have justly become some of the most recognized musical cues in moviedom.

Director of photographer (as he prefers to be credited) Caleb Deschanel had just scored his first Oscar nomination the year before for "The Right Stuff," and would add his second with "The Natural." There's an elegant washed-out beauty to his cinematography, a slightly gauzy quality that underscores the sense of history unfurling.

"The Natural" may be one of my favorite movies, but it is not one without flaws.

The character of Roy Hobbs is at the center of a tremendous tale, but he is rather uninteresting in of himself, aside from his prowess at baseball. He is good-hearted, unfailingly polite and cherishes the game for its own sake rather than what it could do for him materially. As we know, his only wish in life is to be able to walk down the streets and have people say, "There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was."

Screenwriters Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry translate Malamud's depiction of Hobbs as deliberately flat and pure. Like King Arthur, he is the stuff of legends, and I guess they thought the legends would be enough.

Still, at times it seems like even Redford struggles to imbue Hobbs with the basic shadings of an individual personality beyond the mythic persona.

The plot can be rather languid and shaky, particularly in the third act leading up to the big game. Hobbs has been laid low after being poisoned by Memo, which caused doctors to pump his stomach and inadvertently retrieve the silver bullet -- a totem of past misdeeds that causes the hero to doubt himself.

In short order Hobbs is visited in the hospital by his teammates, Iris and the Judge, who offer him condolences, empathy and $20,000 in cash, respectively. (About $350k in today's dollars.) Tonally, these encounter are all over the map, and for a moment it almost seems the movie will trundle completely to a halt just as it's approaching its denouement.

There's also the matter of Bump Bailey -- the star player played by Michael Madsen in one of his earliest roles, who happens to occupy the same position as Roy. He's a petulant prima donna, a thorn in Pop's side, and an impediment to Roy's rise. So the movie simply kills him off, having Bump ridiculously crash through the outfield wall chasing a long hit. His ashes are scattered over the field by airplane in a comic hiccup that sticks out from the rest of the movie like a sore thumb.

(And granted, my baseball knowledge is bupkes, but is playing right field really that different from center or left? Bump that guy.)

Still, in my long view these faults are less deficiencies in the facade of "The Natural" than intrinsic parts of a great movie's makeup -- like moles on the Madonna. Somehow, the imperfections make the film more approachable, human and eye-level. It's a story about how we come to look up with reverence, but the movie never condescends.

Can a film still be a masterpiece while remaining intrinsically flawed? If so, "The Natural" comes as close as it gets. Here is a movie that swings away.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Video review: "Kong: Skull Island"

There hasn’t really been a decent King Kong movie since the original one 84 (!) years ago. But “Kong: Skull Island” finally sets things to right with a version that’s thrilling, a little bit scary and surprisingly funny.

It’s weird to think how well frights and laughs go together. Go back and rewatch the original Jurassic Park,” and you’ll find what is essentially a comedy with gruesome ingredients mixed in. The new Kong movie has a similar mix of awe, excitement and chortling.

In this version, set in 1973, Kong roams his lonely island in the South Pacific like a fallen god from Olympus. He is worshiped by the few humans living there, who appear to be wayward souls whose became trapped.

There’s also one castaway of more recent vintage, an American WWII pilot played with great mirth by John C. Reilly. When a new crew of soldiers and scientists arrives in their helicopters, his warnings about angering Kong go hilariously unheeded.

Among the new interlopers are Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, John Goodman and Corey Hawkins. They all have their roles to fill, from half-crazed warrior (Jackson) who makes it a personal battle of wills with the great ape, to the peace-loving hippie photographer (Larson) and the survival expert (Hiddleston), who doesn’t actually do such a great job at keeping people alive.

Kong is truly massive in this iteration, the size of a skyscraper, and he’s got some well-justified grudges that drive his dour demeanor. Like the first film, we arrive at the end with a mix of fear and sympathy for him.

Sometimes the third time's the charm, or as with “Kong: Skull Island,” something like the 23rd.

Bonus features are quite robust, and in an increasingly rare instance for video releases, don’t require an upgrade to the Blu-ray edition. It and the DVD version have the same extras.

These include a director’s feature-length commentary track, deleted scenes, a fake backstory on the “Monarch” monster research group and several making-of documentary featurettes. The most interesting one is Larson’s photographs from the production set.




Thursday, July 13, 2017

Review: "War for the Planet of the Apes"

Can a summer blockbuster film also be contemplative and downright sensitive? The third entry in the reboot of the “Planet of the Apes” certainly manages to achieve that, in a movie with thrills but one that truly engrosses with a probing study of its central character and the nature of leadership.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” takes us a few more years down the road, about 15 years after the outbreak of a simian flu that killed off most humans while granting all forms of apes higher intelligence. Caesar, the leader of the simians played through motion capture by Andy Serkis, has tried his best to avoid conflict with the remnants of mankind, who seem insistent about wiping out their genetic cousins before expiring themselves.

Grayer and grimmer, Caesar has grown tired of always turning the other cheek, and is ready for some payback.

Three movies in, the CGI effects for Caesar and the other apes continue to astound. The subtlest emotions play out on his face, especially eyes that know rage, despair, bravery and tenderness.

The antagonist is Woody Harrelson as the Colonel, a seemingly close relation to Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now,” who’s gone off the deep end while carrying out his own particular sense of mission. Uncharacteristically bloated and stiff, Harrelson comes across more as more blinkered than crazed.

Caesar and his kind are astonished to find not only apes crucified on stakes, but also other human soldiers. Both are branded with the alpha and omega symbols, and it’s clear the Colonel’s crew is more focused on end times than the beginning.

After their first face-to-face encounter goes badly for the apes, Caesar is determined to have his revenge, even if it means abandoning his clan while they go on an Exodus-like journey for a new homeland. The biblical references are never far from hand, and Caesar’s plight often takes on a Shakespearean quality as the hero must endure continuous tragedies and challenges, including confronting his own rash decisions.

Joining him on his quest are Maurice (Karin Konoval), a wise orangutan, and Rocket (Terry Notary), a former adversary turned loyal and muscular presence. Along the way they pick up a mute human girl (Amiah Miller), whose angelic demeanor reminds Caesar of his own losses. And they meet Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a zoo chimpanzee-turned-kooky-hermit who somehow acquired the power of speech -- and comedic relief -- separate from Caesar’s tribe.

One of the more disturbing aspects of this movie is the “donkeys” -- apes who have willingly turned themselves over as slaves to the humans in exchange for better treatment. Among them is Red (Ty Olsson), a mighty gorilla who treats Caesar cruelly but is impressed with his resolve.

Director Matt Reeves co-wrote the script with Mark Bomback, a holdover from the last movie. “War” has an almost elegiac quality, underscored by the restrained music by Michael Giacchino, which often slims down to just a few affecting trills of piano notes.

Amidst a summer explosion of dumb popcorn movies, it’s reassuring to see that it’s still possible to do big-budget filmmaking with brains and heart.

Indy Film Fest: "Wind River"

“I know you’re looking for clues, but you’re missing all the signs.”
                    --Cory Lambert

Last year’s “Hell or High Water” was my pick for the best movie in a very good film year, and writer Taylor Sheridan is back with another superlative crime drama for late summer, “Wind River,” which he also directed.

Sheridan, who also wrote the screenplay for “Sicario,” has quickly become the most authoritative voice of the modern Western. His stories are ones of revenge, the pioneer code, paying for old debts. They’re very old-school, male-centric films, yet this one also has a strong female character near the center.

Moving from West Texas to the Arapaho/Shoshone Indian reservation of hardscrabble Wyoming, “Wind River” is steeped in Native American culture but has two Caucasian main characters. I’m sure some people will find that politically objectionable for its own sake, but the very theme of the film is about strangers -- the interlopers who barge in, and the outsiders within our own midst.

This is not one of those reservations with a big casino and fat gold belt buckles. It’s a land of bitter cold and bleak mountains that keep people apart. They huddle in mobile homes against snows that pile deep even in spring, drowning in drink, drugs and despair. A fleeting shot shows some locals burning pieces of their house to stay warm.

Cory Lambert is very much integrated into this community. A hunter of predators for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, he roams the land on a snowmobile, tracking deadline beasts that prey on livestock and, occasionally, people. He’s searching for some lions that took down a steer on his father-in-law’s ranch when he finds a teenage girl’s body in the snow.

She’s beat up and barefoot, and the frostbite extends up to her ankles -- telling you how far she walked before finally falling. “That’s a warrior,” Cory intones.

This is the first role since “The Hurt Locker” that gives Jeremy Renner full rein to explore a character from the inside out. A f’real cowboy -- he trains his own horses, makes his own bullets and favors a lever-action rifle over modern snipers -- Cory doesn’t talk much but speaks volumes. There’s a lot of hurt in his own life, and his marriage to a Native woman (Julia Jones) has crumbled.

Elisabeth Olsen plays the intruder, Jane Banner, a young FBI agent sent out from Las Vegas to investigate the death. She’s resilient and smart -- shrewd enough to know she’s completely out of her element in a land where six reservation officers patrol a land the side of Rhode Island, and screaming winds and 20 degrees below zero can cause lungs to bleed, and then freeze.

“Luck don’t live out here,” Cory warns.

Jane recruits him to be her scout and tracker, though Cory clearly has his own ideas how the investigation is going to play out. Visiting the dead girl’s father (an amazing Gil Birmingham), Jane clumsily displays her privilege and presumption, seeing the man’s pride and stoicism, and interpreting that as hardheartedness.

When Cory shows up and the dad melts into his arms, we’re as astonished as she is. They share a connection no one else can.

Acting as facilitator is Graham Greene as the reservation police chief. He knows the people and wants to do the right thing, but also understands that his job will continue after the feds have gone back home. “Hey, don’t look at me. I’m used to no help,” he says.

They follow the tracks in the snow, which leads to questions, which suggest possible answers.

If “Hell or High Water” was a bona fide masterpiece, then “Wind River” is just a half-step down. It doesn’t quite have the same narrative momentum, tending to pool in eddies of contemplation rather than driving a potboiler plot.

But this approach has its own rewards, as in a scene where Jane goes into Cory’s home, and we sense the pull between them and think we know what’s going to happen. But it’s another form of intimacy that takes place, where the leathery gunman opens up his heart in a way we can’t possibly imagine John Wayne doing.

Today’s cinematic cowboys kill, but can also weep.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Review: "The Little Hours"

I haven’t read “The Decameron” by Italian master Giovanni Boccaccio, but a bawdy American version complete with modern vernacular, lots of cursing and sex isn’t as out of place as it might seem. The 14th century collection of 100 stories focusing on love, virtue and mercantilism was very much a product of its time, as is this comedic iteration starring a cast of familiar screen humorists.

Plus, you’ve just got to admire the gumption of making a flick based on an obscure (to most people) medieval text that gives an excuse for a bunch of well-known comediennes to get their kits off.

I enjoyed the movie in pieces, though even at a slender 89 minutes it starts to feel like a last-third “Saturday Night Live” sketch that ran too long.

Based on one tale by Boccaccio, writer/director Jeff Baena’s story is centered on a remote convent near Cartagena in 1347. Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) is the benign and rather ineffectual priest, while Molly Shannon plays Sister Marea, the head nun who really runs the place.

Most of the resident nuns are young, repressed sorts yearning to misbehave and break out of the boredom. Alison Brie is Alessandra, goody-goody daughter of a merchant whose donations largely support the convent. She’s just doing the nun thing while dad (Paul Reiser) builds up the dowry so she can get married, but business is bad.

Genevra (Kate Micucci) is the neurotic, annoying one whose thing is tattling on the other nuns’ misdeeds. (Sister so-and-so took two portions of turnips, doncha know.) Aubrey Plaza is Fernanda, the bitchy nun who keeps wandering off to fetch the runaway donkey, and other things.

It’s a bit shocking at first to hear women in head-to-toe habits dropping f-bombs left and right, not to mention their occasional, inexplicable cruelty.

When a strapping young peasant, Massetto (Dave Franco), takes up residence at Tommasso’s invitation, all of their erotic and/or malevolent energies become focused in his direction. He ran off from servitude to a local nobleman after carrying on an affair with the missus, so Tommasso instructs him to pretend he’s a deaf mute as a cover story.

Massetto’s contretemps with his former master, Lord Bruno, is a festive side adventure of its own, with Nick Offerman as the glowering aristocrat constantly raving about “the Florentine conspiracy” and other threats to his wealth and status. No one does the combination of facial hair and peevishness better than Offerman.

Two late arrivals are Fred Armisen as the area bishop dropping in for an inspection, and Jemima Kirke as Marta, a childhood friend of Fernanda who helps magnify her livelier interests.

Soon Massetto finds himself repeatedly bedded, willingly or not, in what feels like a slowed-down Benny Hill caper. Meanwhile, the ongoing confessions with Father Tommasso become increasingly more interesting. Eventually things wind up in the forest, very bizarre and bare.

A fun and frothy fable about devotion, sex and whether they can be reconciled, “The Little Hours” shows that nuggets of comedy can be panned from just about any stream.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

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

Richard Gere is pushing 70, an age at which most movie stars who want to continue to working slide into supporting roles for younger thespians or move to TV/streaming shows. Not Gere. He continues to take starring roles in good films, showing again and again how underrated he has been as an actor.

They’re smaller films -- probably you’ve never seen many of them, or possibly even heard of them. But you gotta respect the guy for continuing to do quality work in the medium where he staked his ground.

In “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” he plays a wannabe power broker who’s really a pathetic Willy Loman figure and doesn’t want to admit it to himself. He’s perpetually on the move, dropping names and spinning lies, wearing the same coat and hat like they’re part of his DNA.

Most Wall Street financiers and politicians dismiss Norman for what he is -- a hanger-on with no real influence or juice. Even his nephew (Michael Sheen), a rising lawyer, tries to gently bring him down to earth.

But then Norman gloms onto a promising young Israeli politician named Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), buying him a pair of shoes in a fancy men’s clothier and finally nailing that “in” he’s been searching for his whole life. When the younger man unexpectedly comes into power, Norman finds himself feted, but also his life of flimflam investigated.

Facing pressure from all sides -- including his synagogue, which insists he use his new mojo to secure millions to save their building -- Norman starts to collapse into the web of lies he’s been furiously spinning.

Written and directed by Joseph Cedar, “Norman” is a smart, tragic and surprisingly funny look at how ambition can consume everyone, the big fish and the small. And featuring an actor who refuses to go quietly into that good Netflix.

Bonus features are rather modest. There is “Norman: Making the Connection,” interviews with cast and crew from the red carpet premiere, and “An Evening with Norman,” an Q&A with Gere and Cedar.



Thursday, July 6, 2017

Review: "Spider-Man: Homecoming"

“He treats me like I’m a kid!”
“But you ARE a kid.”
“Yeah, but one who can stop a bus with his bare hands!”

The newest film iteration of the most popular hero in the Marvel catalogue, “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” is a lot like a real teenager. It’s uneven, running hot and cold, is more than a little neurotic, self-centered and even annoys you at times.

But the movie is also filled with a vibrancy that practically beams off the screen like a beacon.

I know, I know… it seems crazy to think this is the sixth Spider-Man movie in just 15 years -- plus a featured turn in the last Avengers flick -- with three different sets of stars and filmmakers.

But honestly, I’m not tired of it. Especially when “Homecoming” takes things in quite another direction. More than any other super-hero movie, this Spider-Man is unsure of himself, hesitant, even scared.

Speaking of the number 15, that factors heavily into this conception of the webslinger: that’s how old Peter Parker is supposed to be. Think about that for a moment. Consider what you were like at 15: your decision-making powers, your sense of responsibility, how able you were to resist temptation when it presented itself. Now imagine you can lift a tractor and dodge bullets.

Star Tom Holland was 20 when they shot this movie, but easily passes as a high school sophomore. He uses a tremulous voice and an expressive face to portray a kid struggling to find his place in the world alongside some very unique challenges. His yearning to belong, and to be something more, is palpable and affecting.

As the story opens, Peter is sneaking off from school and shunning any social engagement to work on “the Stark internship” -- the cover story he feeds to his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and few friends, notably exuberant fellow nerd Ned (Jacob Batalon). That’s a reference to Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, who gave Peter a super-suit to upgrade his red-and-blue underwear. Robert Downey Jr. shows up a few times to mentor or berate, as needs be.

But after helping in the Avengers clash, future missions are not forthcoming. Peter’s texts and calls to Stark and his right-hand man, Happy (Jon Favreau), largely go unanswered. Instead of getting what he really wants -- an invitation to join the Avengers team -- Spidey spends his time fighting petty criminals in and around his home in Queens.

He runs afoul of Adrian Toomes, a blue-collar scrap man who stole some alien technology from the extraterrestrial attack depicted in the first Avengers movie and is turning it into powerful weapons he’s selling on the street. Played by Michael Keaton, Toomes also has his own winged flying suit -- Peter dubs him the Vulture -- and a crew of henchmen, including Bokeem Woodbine as a guy which a shockingly strong prosthetic fist.

It’s not one of the better villains in the Marvel movies, but the filmmakers have made a conscious choice to focus more on the guy behind the Spider-Man mask than concocting some world-beater threat. There’s also no J. Jonah Jameson, Daily Bugle or freelance photographer job.

There are girls, though, specifically two: Liz (Laura Harrier), a smart senior Peter has been crushing on for some time; and Michelle (Zendaya), a morose outsider who always seems to be hanging around the fringes with Peter and Ned, mocking them for their loser status while embracing her own. They’re all on the academic all-star team together (or quiz bowl, as they called it back in my day), so there are opportunities for trips and trysts.

Director Jon Watts nails the angst and turmoil of his protagonist. I wish his action scenes were better-staged, often seeming jagged and off-angle. The screenplay could use some tweaking and trimming, but with six (!) credited writers, we’re definitely wading deep into creation-by-committee territory here.

The movie is clever and full of self-aware humor, such as when they mock the famous upside-down kiss from the first movie. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” wisely doesn’t ignore the previous films, but acknowledges the hero’s mythological middle age while finding a new offshoot that’s young and fresh.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Review: "The Exception"

“The Exception” is generally a pretty solid war romance/drama, with the exception of the confusion regarding its title.

It would seem to refer to the German army office played by Jai Courtney, who eschews the more brutal aspects of the Reich and was nearly court martialed for beating another officer who murdered women and children on the Polish front. Several times Captain Stefan Brandt is told his outlook is the exception and not the rule for those who serve Adolph Hitler.

Or maybe it’s Mieke, the Dutch woman played by Lily James who is actually a secret agent of the British, who carries on an affair with Brandt. We figure she’s doing it as part of her mission, but soon it becomes clear they share true feelings for each other -- especially after he learns of her identity as a spy and a Jew. She’s the one who keeps telling him how much of an outlier he is, but in truth Mieke is the more exceptional of the two.

The most interesting person in the movie, however, is Christopher Plummer as Kaiser Wilhelm II, the deposed monarch of Germany living in exile in Holland. Aged, proud and rather deluded, he dreams of being returned to the throne with the consent of Hitler. The courtly man takes a grandfather-ish interest in Mieke, even blessing her affair with the German officer charged with guarding him.

Director David Leveaux and screenwriter Simon Burke based the movie upon a novel by Alan Judd, which is a complete historical concoction, at least in terms of the spy intrigue. By all accounts, Wilhelm and his second wife, Hermine (Janet McTeer), lived quietly in luxury, a sort of gilded cage, until his death at age 82.

I should also point out that the spy’s exact purpose never really becomes clear. Is she supposed to kill the Kaiser? That would probably have simply taken an expensive burden off the Reich’s hands. Later, when Heinrich Himmler himself comes to pay a visit -- played unnervingly by Eddie Marsan, who specializes in this sort of thing -- we expect Mieke to set her sights on him instead, but nothing ever comes of it.

A Gestapo agent (Mark Dexter) is sent to go sniffing, using fancy radio technology to track down the signals sent from the nearby village by Mieke’s spy handler, the local priest. It all culminates in familiar scenes of screeching cars, jackbooted men tromping up and down stairs, rooms being clumsily ransacked for evidence.

So in the end, her purpose as a spy is simply to be chased.

Many movies have a MacGuffin, a thing of vague utility other than to be what every character in the movie is directed toward. This is the only film I can think of where the MacGuffin is a person instead of an inanimate object.

The romance between Mieke and Brandt is tender and believable enough. Courtney strikes the part of an arrogant Aryan Nazi who nonetheless bears wounds, physical and otherwise, he’s trying hard to keep hidden. James is affecting, projecting both shining strength and vulnerability as a woman whose emotions run ahead of her judgement.

Also notable is McTeer as the princess, quietly scheming for her husband’s return to power while obviously doing it as much for her own fortunes as his. She gets a great scene where the imperious woman, used to lording it over others, is forced to demur to another. And I liked Ben Daniels as von Ilsemann, the colonel who acts as the Kaiser’s aide-de-camp and confidante, dexterously navigating between several gravitational pulls of influence.

But it’s Plummer’s movie in the end, in another splendid turn for the marvelous thespian. There’s often an aspect of overt theatricality to his performances, but as he’s aged these have rightfully comet to be seen as a feature rather than a bug. He makes every tiny gesture or expression – a narrowing of the eye, a hand smoothing his uniform -- seem ripe with meaning.

“The Exception” never quite gets around to figuring out which is the main character, or finding its narrative focus. Still, it has well-drawn characters and a pervading sense of peril amidst the passion.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Golden Boy" (1939)

"Golden Boy" was William Holden's very first feature film, and nearly his last. The studio didn't like his looks or his acting style, and was determined to fire him in the middle of production. But star Barbara Stanwyck fought for her young colleague, he was retained, the picture was a big success and Holden became a sensation overnight.

Nearly 40 years later, while presenting an award together at the Oscars, Holden momentarily interrupted the ceremony to publicly thank her for saving his career, which was long and illustrious. So should we all.

The movie itself is a rather mushy romance about a young boxer who must choose between the ring and his love for the violin, with his manager, the manager's moll (Stanwyck) and the fighter's family acting as proxies in the tussle over his devotion. The plot isn't terribly interesting, though the dialogue and characterizations, based on the play by Clifford Odets, are quite vivid.

"Golden Boy" probably has the least amount of pugilism of any boxing movie. Director Rouben Mamoulian ("Queen Christina") doesn't bother with even cursory highlights of the matches, simply showing quick montages of Holden throwing punches that last but a few seconds each. Up until the final bout, we don't even get so much as a wink at his opponents.

When the big fight does finally arrive, I have to say Holden's not a terribly convincing boxer. He tends to do that side-to-side punching thing, almost slapping, that is the hallmark of someone who doesn't know how to fight.

The young thespian had to learn how to play the violin for the role, or at least look like he could, and I guess also learning to box would've been a bridge too far.

I'm not sure if the film was shot in chronological order -- which was more common with studio pictures of this era -- but Holden's line deliveries and expressions are indeed rather stiff in the early scenes. As kid boxer Joe Bonaparte, he calls his father "Papa" as if he's trying to caress each syllable like a delicate, newly-laid egg. But he gets a lot better as time goes on, and by midway it's vintage Holden, all fiery drive and passion.

I should also mention the score by Victor Young is quite beautiful, filled with lush strings as you might expect given the title character's musical proclivities. It earned the film's only Academy Award nomination.

The cinematography, by Nicholas Musuraca and Karl Freund, is also quite nice, with a lot of depth and shades of gray in the black-and-white. The film has been well preserved, with virtually pristine prints transferred to DVD and Blu-ray.

As the story opens, Joe is about to turn 21 and is living with his family in the apartment behind his father's grocery. He's been studying violin for the past decade but hasn't been able to turn it into a playing career. He's been spending the last year or so hanging out at local boxing gyms, practicing and studying the techniques.

When a fighter breaks his hand right before a bout, he begs the manger, Tom Moody (Adolphe Menjou), to give him a shot in his stead. Moody is at the bottom of his barrel, wistfully recalling the money days of 1928. His estranged wife is demanding $5,000 for a divorce so he can marry his much-younger girlfriend, Lorna Moon (Stanwyck), a hard-bitten type whose gold heart will eventually be unearthed.

"Oh, leave it to me, Tom. I'm a dame from Newark and I know a dozen ways," she says, in just one of the twinkly lines of dialogue.

You can pretty much guess where things go from there. Joe turns out to be a wunderkind in the ring, quickly moving up the ladder into big money, which of course goes to his head. He and Lorna fall for each other, but she feels loyalty to Tom and manipulates Joe to further his ends, which Joe eventually finds out about.

He accepts a bid from Eddie Fuseli (Joseph Calleia), the local mafia don, to take over his contract so he can get a prime match at the Garden. Soon all the stakes are riding on the fight against big-name contender Chocolate Drop (real life boxer-turned-actor James "Cannonball" Green). I appreciated that this is the rare boxing movie that doesn't end with a crack at the championship.

It was also interesting to me that the movie treats African-Americans in way that's pretty respectful for 1939. White and black boxers are shown training side-by-side, without fuss. Chocolate Drop is heavily favored in their bout, to the point the assembled reporters dismiss Joe as Fuseli's inept upstart. The black and white audience sections, though segregated, cheer lustily with equal fervor for their gladiator.

When Joe accidentally kills Chocolate Drop, there's a very touching scene where Joe goes into his opponent's room to apologize to his family. Clinton Rosemond (uncredited), as the father, gives a terrific little speech when Joe alludes to committing suicide, telling him that everyone has their burden to bear, and this killing will be his.

The father character is a small counterpoint to the other huge figure in the movie, Joe's dad, played by Lee J. Cobb in a masterful performance. Cobb is best known for playing middle-aged anger and strife, most notably as the bigoted jurist in "Twelve Angry Men." But he gives a completely ravishing turn as a simple-minded but big-hearted Italian immigrant who abhors Joe's fighting and only wants him to play the violin.

Outfitted with big curly gray hair and ethnic mustache, Cobb is pitch-perfect in showing the man's utter broken-heartedness when Joe turns away from music, refusing to touch the magnificent Ruggieri violin he saved $1,500 to buy. (That's $26,000 in today's money.) This big, beaming man seems to slowly fade into himself, his shoulders stooped and his eyes hollowing out.

It astonished me to learn that Cobb was barely six years older than Holden at the time -- he had not yet turned 28 when "Golden Boy" debuted. I completely believed him as a broken-down old man.

Like a modern-day Wilford Brimley, Cobb played old early, and often.

Beatrice Blinn plays Joe's sister, Anna, who lives with her husband, Siggie (Sam Levene), at her father's. Siggie is a character unto himself, perpetually schlepping around, wearing a wifebeater shirt and chomping on a stogie butt, complaining about not having enough money to buy his own taxicab. Despite his carping, Joe's father (he's never given a name) treats Siggie with respect, even when his son-in-law playfully slaps Anna on the rear.

Edward Brophy is the resident comic relief as Roxy Lewis, Tom's perpetually flustered partner, who owns 10% of Joe's contract. William H. Strauss has some nice moments as Mr. Carp, the elderly neighbor who comes around to kvetch with Joe's papa. I also liked Don Beddoe as Borneo, the trainer who knows his place is in the corner of the ring, but is still willing to stand up for the kid and offer him advice.

It took a foursome of screenwriters to adapt Odets' play into a movie -- Lewis Meltzer, Daniel Taradash, Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman. There's always a challenge in stage-to-screen translations, but the strength of the distinctive characters, the emotive cast and the smart dialogue carry the day.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Video review: "Berlin Syndrome"

As I was researching video release details about “Berlin Syndrome,” I saw its genre described by one source as “Sex Horror.” After a good chuckle, I realized that’s as apt a description as there is.

I’d heard it called a revival of the “torture porn” fad from a decade or so back, and superficially there are resemblances to “Hostel” and its ilk – visitor in a strange land is captured and increasingly nasty things done to (usually a) her. But “Berlin Syndrome” is less physically grisly than psychologically harrowing, as a kidnapped woman navigates a fraught quasi-relationship with her captor.

Teresa Palmer plays Clare, an Australian wannabe photographer from Brisbane (“BRIS-bun,” she corrects her host, not “Briz-bane”) visiting Germany to take pictures of buildings, experience life and maybe publish a book out of it. She’s doing it the cheap/student pathway, staying in hostels and limiting her purchases to kitschy little nooks.

Then she bumps into Andi (Max Riemelt), an intense/charming local who shows her some hidden corners of Berlin. A bit awkward and self-doubting, Clare allows herself to be quickly romanced and bedded.

Curiously, he accidentally locks her in his apartment the next morning while he goes to work as an English teacher. He lives in a remote old building on the far end of a courtyard, and no one can hear her calls for help. He returns and they commence canoodling again, with some light teasing about remembering to leave the key this time.

Then it happens again, and Clare discovers the windows are unbreakable, her cell phone has disappeared and she’s really his captive.

Director Cate Shortland, working from a script by Shaun Grant, goes through the usual motions of Clare frantically searching out ways to escape, including physical confrontation with the much stronger Andi. But the filmmakers are more concerned with how things play out emotionally between these people.

Time goes on, weeks turning into months. Andi has been using her phone to text reassuring messages to her mother. Meanwhile, he navigates a fraught relationship with his father (Matthias Habich), who wonders why his son keeps getting into romances with tourists whom he never gets to meet.

Andi seems convinced they’re in an actual relationship, and after an initial period of fear and loathing, Clare starts to act that way, too. (The title is reference to “Stockholm Syndrome,” a psychological phenomenon in which the kidnapped come to identify with their captors.) She dresses sexily for him and allows him to take Polaroids of her for his scrapbook. It should come as no surprise that Clare eventually learns this is not Andi’s first go-round in such a weird arrangement.

“Berlin Syndrome” is an interesting, disturbing film with a decent amount of tension. I found it an odd choice to focus more and more on Andi’s story than Clare’s, especially in the second half. There’s only so many shots you can have of her aimlessly wandering around the apartment, I guess.

The lesson is that the line between passion and fear is a lot thinner than we’d care to think.

Alas, my aforementioned research was in vain: I couldn’t find any details about Blu-ray/DVD bonus features. Rather than assuming there aren’t any, I’ll forego assigning a grade.