Sunday, October 29, 2017

Video review: "The Dark Tower"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Thursday, October 26, 2017

Review: "Goodbye Christopher Robin"

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

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

This is the tale of the darkness behind the magic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Review: "Lucky"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 23, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Planes, Trains & Automobiles" (1987)

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and mine is this: "Planes, Trains & Automobiles" is simply one of the funniest movies every made, not to mention a beacon of absolute joy.

I can't think of a film that I have laughed at harder, longer or more consistently. And it's not especially sophisticated humor -- mostly pratfalls, gross-out moments and personality clashes. It's the classic odd couple tale, with a more or less straight man bothered and befuddled by a loudmouth lout. These are signature roles in the careers of both Steve Martin and John Candy.

With a few script changes, you could easily have made it in the 1940s with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.

It's hard to believe it's been 30 years since "Planes" came out, but here it is getting a very nice Blu-ray combo pack video reissue from Paramount. This is definitely one that will stay in my library. It includes a great transfer plus plenty of cool bonus material, including a press footage from the film's promotional tour and a comprehensive overview of the career of John Hughes.

Up till then Hughes had been known exclusively for teen dramedies, so it was considered a big risk at the time for him to make an R-rated comedy featuring a pair of middle-aged men. The film was a critical and commercially successful, though not a runaway hit. Its reputation has only grown with the years.

You know the story: persnickety marketing executive Neal Page (Martin) is trying to get back home to Chicago for Thanksgiving after his meeting in New York runs late. He is repeatedly foiled by circumstance and the intrusion of Del Griffith (Candy), a jovial traveling salesman who hocks shower curtain rings. They ping-pong back and forth between antagonism and cooperation as they make their journey by the various conveyances listed in the title, along with a few others.

I can easily tell you the movie's high point for me. After having their plane grounded in Witchita by bad weather and their train broken down on the tracks, their cut-rate bus tickets only get them as far as St. Louis. (All their cash had been stolen by a motel thief.) Del manages to secure a rental car -- using Neal's credit card, which had earlier gotten switched between wallets by the hapless motel operator, Gus (Charles Tyner) -- and they're cruising down the road.

(The car, an ugly little green Chrysler LeBaron Town and Country convertible with wood paneling, surely must be the diminutive cousin of the station wagon from "Vacation.")

This entire sequence is 10 minutes or so of pure hilarity. Hughes warms us up with some contretemps over the passenger power seat, which Del manages to break. Then Del loudly cranks up the radio playing Ray Charles' "Mess Around" while Neal snoozes next to him. Del be-bops and shakes his thing while driving down the road in the middle of the night, repeatedly looking over to Neal, hoping he'll wake up and join in.

It's a tiny encapsulation of their entire relationship: Del, the man who can't stop reaching out, and Neal, the guy who just wants to be left alone.

Del gets his coat sleeves caught on the seat while trying to remove it, leading to a crazy screaming spin-out that finally awakens Neal. Del, trying to cover up his latest screw-up, reassures him and starts driving again, not realizing they're going the wrong way on the interstate. Failing to heed the warnings of another motorist, they carom between two semis, a fireworks of sparks spraying everywhere. Neal looks over at Del and envisions him dressed in the full red devil's suit, from horns to cape, laughing with wild glee.

Funny stuff, but what follows is even funnier. As they realize how close they've come to death, each man discovers the extent of their peril. Del has bent the steering wheel in half, and Neal gripped the dashboard so ferociously that he's left finger-shaped indents, an audible pop sounding as he pulls his hands free.

If you don't bust a gut laughing at that, I can't help you.

I love that the mystery of Del's oversized trunk is never solved. He trundles that thing everywhere, platooned with stickers and an endless source of grief. It's his totem and, quite literally, his baggage. Does he keep his shower rings in there? Souvenirs from his wife? Like the glowing suitcase in "Pulp Fiction," it works better because it remains a mystery.

Watching the film again for the first time in awhile, I was struck by how many cameos there are by recognizable performers -- character actors and future stars. Kevin Bacon plays the young businessman who outraces Neal for a cab at the start of the film. Owen, the redneck son of the Witchita motel owner who gives them a ride to the train station in Stubbsville, is played by none other than Dylan Baker, doing a bestial snort/croak thing that's impossible to mimic without giving yourself an anyeurism.

William Windom has a cameo as the corporate honcho whose indecisiveness results in Neal being late for his plane, and Lyman Ward, who played the dad in Hughes' previous film, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," is Neal's colleague from Chicago. Bill Erwin does his signature cantankerous old man routine on the plane, and Ben Stein turns up as an airline worker delivering catastrophic news in soothing, dulcet tones.

Larry Hankin, whose specialty is playing skeevy interlopers, plays Doobie, the Kansas taxi driver with a pimped-out muscle car. Michael McKean plays the state trooper who makes Del and Neal take their burnt-out rental car off the road. Martin Ferrero, another classic "that guy" actor known for his snivelly connivers, most notably the lawyer who gets chomped by a T-rex in "Jurassic Park," is the motel clerk who accepts bribes in lieu of cash. He happily pockets Neal's expensive wristwatch, but resists Del's energetic sales job for his Casio, even after Del dangles the cheap ticker over his knuckles in full trade show mode.

Without a doubt the most iconic cameo in "Planes" belongs to Edie McClurg, who's made an entire career out of her chirpy voice, Midwest accent and matronly demeanor. She plays the car rental agent upon whom Neal unfurls a banner of f-bombs as long as your arm after he's ditched in the distant parking lot with no car. It's the most famous scene in the movie bar none, with Neal using the f-word in gerund form dozens of times before Edie lands the punchline using the same base word as a descriptive adjective.

Interestingly, without this scene and one or two other brief bits of language, "Planes" could have easily gotten away with a PG rating from the MPAA. Well, there's also the "two pillows" scene, which is probably the second most memorable scene.

Let's talk about that for a minute.

Seen today, the motel room sequence would probably be frowned upon as a homophobic example of gay panic. Forced to share a double bed, they awake in the morning to find themselves snuggling contentedly, with Del giving Neal an affection nibble on the earlobe for good measure. Then, of course, they discover the location of Del's other hand, between two pillows that are not actually pillows. They leap to their feet, screaming in disgust, then quickly covering up the awkward moment with football chatter about the Bears.

Hughes and audiences probably took the scene at face value in 1987. Seen today, though, I think the joke endures with a distinctly different color. In their half-awake state of sleep, both men are quite happy to share physical closeness and a mild bit of affection. It's only when their grogginess is punctuated, and they realize how this scene must appear, that their instincts kick in to reassert their straight self-image.

The joke is not that they might be gay, but that they're petrified of others thinking they are.

There are so many other memorable moments of "Planes, Trains &; Automobiles" to mention, but time and space runs short. Such as Del raising cash for their trip by passing off his shower rings as fashionable ladies' earrings -- which, given the state of '80s fashion, is not so incredulous as you might think.

If you haven't caught "Planes" in a while, I urge you to go back and check it out again. It's one of the true comedic gems of the 1980s.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Video review: "War for the Planet of the Apes"

“War for the Planet of the Apes” didn’t do as well commercially and critically as its two predecessors, virtually reassuring that the reboot of the franchise will end as a trilogy. That’s a shame, because this is one of the best threesomes to come along in the action/fantasy wing of moviedom – due in large part to its eschewing of traditional summer movie tropes.

Directed by Matt Reeves from a screenplay he wrote with Mark Bomback, “War” is a surprisingly smart and contemplative film. There are plenty of action scenes, with human actors portraying apes through CGI and motion capture.

Once again Caesar is played by Andy Serkis, a pioneer of his own in the realm of motion capture. But for me it’s the quiet moments that are most technically impressive, as subtle emotions flicker across Caesar’s face. You have to pinch yourself to be reminded that what you’re seeing is made up completely of pixels mapped over Serkis’ visage.

The tale continues the journey of Caesar, who is more or less the Adam of talking apes within the franchise’s mythology. Here he must face off with a mad human colonel (Woody Harrelson) who seems intent on eradicating the simians – and a good chunk of the remaining humans, too.

“War” has often biblical overtones, as Caesar orders his tribe to go on an Exodus-like journey to escape the colonel’s clutches, while he and a few loyal followers stay behind to face him down. They also meet new apes, some who will become allies but also willing slaves of the humans.

Sad, thrilling and introspective, “War for the Planet of the Apes” stands apart from the typical summer blockbuster fare.

Bonus features are excellent. The DVD comes with a feature-length commentary track by director Reeves, a gallery of concept art and a featurette on Caesar as a protagonist. There’s also a nifty digital feature that shows side-by-side comparisons of 10 scenes with the raw performance capture next to the final CGI version.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray and you add 10 deleted scenes with commentary, four more featurettes and “Waging War for the Planet of the Apes,” an in-depth documentary on the making of the film.



Friday, October 20, 2017

Review: "Breathe"

Only a short review. The release of "Breathe" was moved up suddenly with little notice, and the studio wasn't able to provide a screener until late, so I just finished watching the film last night.

Andrew Garfield stars as Robin Cavendish, a British man who was paralyzed by polio while living in Kenya at the age of 28 and lived nearly another four decades using a breathing machine. He became the longest-living "responaut" at the time, and a major advocate and innovator for people with disability.

It's another bravura performance by Garfield that is sure to gain notice during the awards season.

Before Robin came along, the 'severely disabled' -- the term he used, so I will too -- were confined to hospital beds for the rest of their lives, which not coincidentally was generally not very long. Robin himself was initially given three months to live. When his heroic wife, Diana (Claire Foy), insists on removing Robin from the hospital over the objections of the chief doctor, he snootily predicts Robin will be dead within two weeks.

Andy Serkis, an actor who has pioneered the excellence of motion capture performance, steps behind the camera for the first time as a director. William Nicholson wrote the screenplay, which takes the usual turns but does so in sensitive ways.

At first I worried "Breathe" would be a standard-issue "disabled person inspires others" type of film -- sort of the 'Magic Negro' effect with wheelchairs -- and certainly there are aspects of that to the material. But the film is pretty straightforward in depicting Robin's condition and his emotional state, which was at times suicidal -- even well after he adapted to his condition and became a beacon for change.

With the help of a friend who's a clever tinkerer (the ever-reliable Hugh Bonneville), Robin and Diana rig up a wheelchair that allows him to move around, go outdoors and interact with others. It's hard to believe, but in the early 1960s this was a shocking thing, to see a paralyzed man out in the sun in plain view, and not hidden away from sight.

Several times in the movie, people react to Robin's presence with shock, claiming it's unfair for "sick" people to be out and about. What they really mean, however, is having to be exposed to the view of someone who's different and, they think, worthy of their pity rather than simple respect.

Though a tad maudlin in the first half, "Breathe" gets stronger and stronger as it goes, and the last act is as empathetic as anything I've seen this year. Definitely bring your hankies for this one.

Interesting aside: in searching for photos to go with this review, there are many to be found of Garfield and Foy embracing against a romantic African backdrop -- but very few of Garfield lying prone, hooked up to a respirator. This is, of course, how Robin spent the majority of his life, and how Garfield spends most of the movie.

It's disappointing that a film whose entire theme is about not marginalizing the less able would be marketed in such a way as to obscure what it's really about. Let it be said that Hollywood often preaches that which it does not practice.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Review: "Too Funny to Fail"

Imagine you're a television executive and someone pitches you a show: it will be headlined by one of the biggest "Saturday Night Live" stars, Dana Carvey. At the time, he is fresh off co-starring in the "Wayne's World" movies, and everybody wants a piece of him -- he actually turns down David Letterman's gig after he decamped to CBS. Carvey can literally do anything he wants, and he chooses to have his own sketch comedy show.

ABC is giving you their full backing and a fat budget. The showrunner will be Robert Smigel, another legendary SNL alum. The head writer will be Louis C.K. Charlie Kaufman is another. The two big acting recruits will be a pair of young sketch geniuses, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. A bunch of other super-talented performers and writers are in the mix, including Jon Glaser and Robert Carloc.

Oh, and the thing will go on right after the single top-rated show on all of TV. A sure-fire can't-miss, right?

Or so everyone thought. "The Dana Carvey Show" lasted all of seven episodes in 1996 -- a crashing failure so bad it's barely even remembered by audiences today. Also plagued by health problems, including open-heart surgery the following year, Carvey's career as a film and TV star was effectively over.

And yet the short-lived debacle touched a lot of lives. It helped groom the next generation of comedy giants.

One of its popular bits, a cheeky animated superhero parody, "The Ambiguously Gay Duo," would move to SNL and become a staple for years. Colbert would be recruited by the rejuvenated "The Daily Show" based on his work on the Carvey show, and he would insist they hire Carell as well. We know how they turned out.

Now, Hulu is presenting "Too Funny to Fail," a feature documentary about the Roy Hobbs of TV comedy, the show everyone thought would break the mold but would instead become its own punchline. It debuts Saturday, Oct. 21.

Directed by Josh Greenbaum, it's an insightful, wry and thought-provoking look at what goes on behind the screen of network television. ABC thought it was buying Dana Carvey's suitcase full of popular impressions and characters, from the Church Lady to President Clinton. What they got instead was a truly subversive show with off-the-wall scenarios and a puckish attitude.

The young renegades wanted to do their own thing, by their admission "draw a line in the sand" for audiences who weren't cool enough to understand their brand of funny. For their very first sketch, they chose to have the POTUS demonstrating his empathy by taking drugs to grow realistic-looking teats, and have him suckle live puppies and kittens on-air.

Quite literally, millions of people turned off their TVs after the first five minutes -- and they never came back. Critics were even less kind.

Another one of their ideas was to have the name of the show change every week with a rotation of sponsors. So the debut was "The Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show." The first show was such a train wreck, with national headlines talking about how offensive and unfunny it was, Taco Bell loudly announced they were cutting ties -- even though sponsors were only supposed to last one show.

But it started a virtual evacuation of advertisers. By the end, the sponsor was literally the local Chinese diner where the crew bought their lunch.

Festooned with in-depth interviews with nearly all of the principles -- Louis C.K. being the notable exception -- "Too Funny to Fail" comes at the perfect time, as the people involved in making the show have seen their careers recover sufficiently to laugh about how young and deluded they were.

Probably the least injured is Carvey himself, who had such high hopes and knew right away his enterprise was doomed. But it allowed him to be close to his family, raise his two young boys and return to standup on his own terms.

It's a cliche to say something was ahead of its time, but with "The Dana Carvey Show" I think that's literally true. Panned as racy and kooky, it was probably a better fit for late night than prime time. Certainly, it did not mesh well with its pedantic lead-in, "Home Improvement" starring Tim Allen.

One bit, a real promo for a maudlin "very special episode" of HI, followed by the "The Mug Root Beer Dana Carvey Show," had me laughing as hard as anything I've seen in awhile. Greenbaum knows how good the moment is, too, milking it with a collage of the interviewees guffawing over the clanging contrast.

Comedy is by definition highly subjective. In its (very short) day, not many people appreciated Carvey's show for what it was, rather than what they wanted it to be.

Review: "Only the Brave"

"Only the Brave" is really a war movie, with the characters battling wildfires instead of Germans or ISIS. It's throwback sort of filmmaking -- manly men doing manly things, while occasionally tussling with the womenfolk back on the home front.

I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. Josh Brolin is a rock-solid presence as Eric Marsh, the "supe" of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots. The "Seal Six" of wildfire containment, Hotshots go wherever the big forest fires are, digging break lines and back-burning to keep the blaze from overrunning towns or destroying entire swaths of the American West.

Marsh is basically a mystical warrior, staring the "black heart" of the wildfire dead in the eye, spying signs others can't see to predict where the devastation will spread. Thick-armed with a steely gaze behind Harry Potter glasses, he loves his crew proudly but gruffly, encouraging plenty of Y-chromosome joshing and light hazing.

Miles Teller is the other lead as Brendan McDonough, a young screw-up and junkie who sees the light when a daughter is born to an old girlfriend, and he realizes he needs to step onto a worthier path. Marsh sees something of his younger self in Brendan and gives him a shot.

The first half of the movie, directed by Joseph Kosinski from a script by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, covers Brendan's efforts to make the team, and the team's attempt to be certified as Hotshots, the elite of the elite in outdoor firefighting. As the story opens they are "deucers," a local team funded by the city of Prescott, Ariz., who do mop-up and other drudge work far from the front lines. All the other Hotshots are federal outfits, and they're trying to become the first municipal group to become Hotshots.

I'm sure you can guess how it turns out.

Marsh is hot-headed but his instincts are nearly always true. Brendan is dubbed "doughnut" because of his inability to answer any questions about firefighting strategy when quizzed. (At least, during his early going.) He gets razzed pretty hard by the other members of the crew, but gradually begins to prove himself.

He also steps up as a father, dropping off diapers and groceries on the doorstep of his baby mama (Natalie Hall), who wants nothing to do with him. Though heroism has a way of changing minds...

The second half covers the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013, in which the Granite Mountain team faced tremendous odds, a "skunker" -- an easily contained fire -- that turned into a fast-moving death trap.

Jennifer Connelly plays Amanda, Marsh's wife, and it's a lot meatier than the usual "wife at home" role. She's a tough nut herself, running her own business rescuing abused horses, and the two share a relationship that's close but not without strife. She gets a great speech late in the story on what it means to love long-term.

Jeff Bridges plays Duane Steinbrink, a local man of influence who helps with the Hotshot certification and acts as mentor to Marsh. Andie MacDowell is his wife, with wisdom of her own. James Badge Dale is Jesse Steed, Marsh's reliable right-hand man. Taylor Kitsch is Christopher MacKenzie, Brendan's chief tormentor-turned-wingman. Geoff Stults, Ben Hardy and others round out the background players.

The firefighting scenes are pretty terrifying, as we see just how quickly a fire can spread, jumping trees like an angry zephyr. The men both love and hate the fire, and see it as a living foe. Marsh's nickname is "Bear," and we'll find out why.

Marsh shows his trainees a beautiful forest view, then tells them that soon they'll only be able to look upon it as fuel to the fire. Plumped up with resin, the burning trees can literally explode when they fall.

"Only the Brave" is straightforward and unironic movie-making. I could easily see this film coming out in the 1940s, though the special effects wouldn't be nearly as good. In this time of so much focus on toxic masculinity, here's a movie that reminds us why he-men are worth having around.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Review: "The Florida Project"

“Do you know why this is my favorite tree? Because it’s tipped over but it’s still growing.”

It is the nature of children to adapt to circumstance, even that which no child should have to bear. Their intrinsic miracle is that they can find joy just about anywhere.

In “The Florida Project,” 6-year-old Moonee (a vibrant Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) lives on the edge of the most magical place in the world, the Walt Disney Resort near Orlando, Fla. But hers is not the world of $100-a-day admissions to theme parks, luxury hotels and getaway vacations.

Rather, it’s the seedy underbelly of minimum wage workers who feed the tourism machine, living in towns like Kissimmee, packed together in squalid motels slapped with bright paint so as not to depress the out-of-towners when they’re passing by on their shuttle bus to the Magic Kingdom.

I did not grow up in this world, but I observed it from close at hand. When you are reared in a town that’s famous for visitors coming and going to partake in illusions, you quickly learn that perception and reality are often at cross purposes.

(I still chuckle upon meeting people who say they found Orlando “too touristy,” and with a few queries ascertain that they never got closer to the city’s downtown than International Drive, aka “I-Drive,” some 15 minutes away.)

In the stifling humidity of the Central Florida summer, where shirts are stuck perpetually to the smalls of backs, Moonee and other kids roam feral between the motels and third-rate tourist attractions, unattended by working mothers and long abandoned by their fathers. Moonee and her best friend, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), curse, spit on cars and hit up soft strangers for free ice cream.

Their behavior is a little shocking at first, but director Sean Baker (“Tangerine”), who co-wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, soon settles us into an episodic rhythm of observation. We witness the strong connections between these children, and come to see their daily life as not so different from that of Scout and Jem roaming around their quaint town in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Watching over them is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the beneficent manager of the fuschia-hued Magic Castle motel where Moonee and Scooty live with their mothers. Part caretaker, part social worker, part cop, Bobby works tirelessly to keep everything aboveboard, though there’s always something broken. Bobby repeatedly threatens to throw people out, but the offer of another last chance is always forthcoming. Seemingly the only line he’s unwilling to cross is allowing prostitution to take place on “the premises.”

There’s not a lot of narrative to “The Florida Project,” just the ebb and flow of the summer tide. Kids rotate in and out of Moonee’s circle, with shy, red-haired Jancey (Valeria Cotto) entering the sphere and gradually absorbing its brash energy.

Bria Vinaite plays Halley, Moonee’s mom, an occasional stripper who’s always on the prowl for a quick buck. Tatted up generously, with a slattern strut and hair to match the Magic Castle’s walls, Halley works the nicer locales where the tourists stay, crashing the free breakfast buffets and buying cheap perfume to sell at markup. She brings Moonee along to help with the pitch, because what kind of scammer brings a little kid with them?

The movie edges right up to daring us to condemn Halley, but then keeps pulling us back. Any conventional narrative would quickly dub her the villain of the piece, the quintessential terrible mother. But Baker also asks us to revel in Halley’s defiant rebel nature, a woman clinging to the last rung of society’s ladder, extending two middle fingers to anyone who would disparage her, or especially her kid.

There’s a quick scene where Halley gives the helpful woman who works in the Magic Castle’s laundry some weed, and she thanks her with a hug, saying everything will be all right. Halley limply accepts the embrace, indifferent to the woman’s soothing outreach, and we sense that Halley is not simply a mean person, but one in whom some of the gears that guide emotionality are just plain missing.

“The Florida Project” is a triumph of grainy verisimilitude. Watching the film is like stepping behind the backdrop of a theater stage to find real life, grimy and exuberant, turning away behind the pretty façade.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Video review: "Spider-Man: Homecoming"

From a creative standpoint, Spider-Man is deep in middle age, debuting in Marvel Comics some 50-odd years ago. Even as a cinematic hero, Spidey is hardly a newbie, with seven films and three different sets of actors portraying the web-slinger since 2002.

But the latest iteration, “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” is very much a product of teenage angst. Its hero, Peter Parker, is a 15-year-old high school sophomore played by Tom Holland. He’s a pretty typical kid: he’s a nerdy brain on the academic all-stars team, pines for an unattainable senior girl (Laura Harrier) and has a close circle of like-minded friends, chiefly fellow geek Ned (Jacob Batalon).

Except for one thing: he’s also secretly Spider-Man, who sneaks off from school and the Queens apartment of his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) to fight low-level evildoers.

After getting a taste of Avengers action at the behest of Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Peter is eager to leave his dull school life behind and join the super-team full-time. But the invitation seems to have gotten lost in the mail, though Stark did give him a super-suit with a bunch of cool features to help him along.

Michael Keaton plays the villain, who’s not really at the center of the story. He plays the Vulture, aka blue-collar contractor-turned-criminal Adrian Toomes, who parlayed some of the alien technology that fell on Manhattan a few years ago into a thriving underground enterprise. He and Spider-Man run afoul of each other’s activities, with the professional antagonism eventually taking a decidedly personal turn.

Directed by Jon Watts from one of those screenplays-by-committee, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” can be rather uneven at times, with cockeyed action scenes and a little too much silliness for its own good.

But it energetically takes the hero back to his roots, without rehashing old creations myths. (Does anybody need to see that radioactive spider bite thing ever again?)

Holland may just be the best Spider-Man yet, giving us a teen in turmoil who just happens to be able to bench-press a bus.

Bonus features are quite expansive, starting with “The Spidey Study Guide” with all sorts of wiki-style info and clues about the web-head. There are also 10 deleted scenes and seven making-of featurettes, ranging on everything from storyboarding to creating the film’s oft-amazing stunts.

There is also a production photo gallery, a gag reel and more of those hilarious “Rappin’ with Cap” fake public service announcements featuring Chris Evans as Captain America, which were briefly glimpsed in the film.



Thursday, October 12, 2017

Review: "Marshall"

Chadwick Boseman has played James Brown and Jackie Robinson on the big screen, superlative performances both, and completes a trifecta of historical biopics with "Marshall," an engaging look at Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall during an early point in his career when he was a rabble-rousing lawyer for the NAACP.

The movie is a straight-down-the-line "great man" drama that does everything very well without taking any chances or breaking new ground. The only unexpected turn is Boseman's take on the legal giant, portraying him as brash bordering on cocky, a two-fisted drinker who also uses those same knuckles against fat-faced racists when they inevitably come a-knockin', in a scene that's a bit of pure Hollywood hokum.

(Question: why are all the villains in historical racial injustice stories big, beefy guys? Didn't they have any lean racists back in the day?)

Josh Gad co-stars as Sam Friedman, a mousy insurance attorney in Bridgeport, Ct., who gets roped into being Marshall's partner in the trial, because the patrician judge (James Cromwell) doesn't want to approve any uppity (code word) out-of-town lawyers for the sensational case. He's also good friends and former law partners with the dad of the prosecutor, played by Dan Stevens in full flaring nostrils mode.

Set in 1941, the story (screenplay by Jacob and Michael Koskoff) centers on a rather unknown part of Marshall's life, when he acted as co-counsel in the defense of Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), an African-American chauffeur who was accused of brutally raping his master's... oops, excuse me, employer's wife, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).

The case has enraged the entire community, the sort of thing we usually only see in Southern cinematic settings. Marshall is the only attorney for the legal defense fund of the NAACP, making it his business to travel around the country defending black people falsely accused of crimes because of their race.

"Marshall" is directed by Reginald Hudlin, who was one of Hollywood's busiest directors during the 1990s but hasn't made a feature film in 15 years. He gets terrific performances out of his cast, and shoots the film beautifully with vintage cars and costumes. (Boseman is decked out in gorgeously contrasting three-piece suits.)

The heart of the film is the relationship with Friedman. It's nice to see Gad doing a non-comedic, non-musical role for once. He plays Friedman as a timid man who comes to discover reservoirs of iron underneath his nebbish facade.

It's not a partnership of equals: because Marshall is forbidden to speak at trial by the judge, Friedman essentially acts as his co-counsel's puppet in the early going, gradually coming into his own as a lawyer and as a man because of Marshall's tutoring.

On the one hand, I recognize that "Marshall" is rather conventional filmmaking, setting us up with the usual surprises and changes in tempo. (You can practically count down to the moment when Marshall and Friedman, having come to gain a measure of respect for each other, are split by circumstance and renew their hostilities.)

But it's hard to deny this is a smartly acted, entertaining movie about one of the titans of the civil rights movement. What "Marshall" lacks in originality it more than makes up for with assured confidence and capability.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review: "The Foreigner"

“The Foreigner” is a novel concept: a Jackie Chan movie in which Jackie Chan is completely unnecessary to the plot.

I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. This joint Chinese/British production has all the hallmarks of a Chan film: chop-socky action, Westerners underestimating an undersized Asian man, and cool/quirky stunts in which the 63-year-old action star demonstrates he’s still got plenty of spring in his step.

But really, with a little rewriting you could completely eliminate his character, Ngoc Minh Quan, from the movie without missing much of a beat. The real heart of the story is about an internal struggle within the IRA, with Pierce Brosnan playing the smooth political operator trying to keep the peace, attempting to stave off young upstarts blowing things up and threatening the détente with the Brits.

The set-up is that Quan’s teen daughter (Katie Leung), is killed during a gruesome bombing, and vows revenge. Everyone dismisses the timid little restaurant owner, who keeps persistently calling and showing up in people’s offices. His chief target soon becomes Liam Hennessy, an Irish deputy minister who used to be part of the IRA brigade but these days plays both sides.

Brosnan, as Hennessy, brings smarmy charm and a buried volcano of rage, trying to find a solution that serves both his IRA allies and the British authorities. Meanwhile, this nettlesome “Chinaman” keeps getting in the way.

Needless to say, Quan turns out to be a whole lot more capable than anyone imagines. His part of the story is sort of a mix of Sylvester Stallone in “First Blood” and Liam Neeson in “Taken,” content to leave others alone but ready to whip out a mondo-sized can of whup-tushie when confounded. He has a very specific set of skills…

Charlie Murphy plays Maggie, Hennessy’s mistress who has a little more to her story; Ray Fearon is the chief police inspector on the case, looking to cut a deal with Hennessy; Orla Brady is Hennessy’s wife, who has her own old resentments stirred up; Dermot Crowley is one of Hennessy’s old running buddies; and Rory Fleck Byrne plays Hennessy’s nephew, who has a military background that’ll come in handy later.

In case you didn’t notice from that summary, all the main supporting players are all defined by their relationship to Hennessy, not Quan. It’s a pretty standard-issue procedural thriller, as various forces converge to stop a terrorist plot. But then this odd little man shows up and throws everyone’s plan into kerflooey.

Chan seethes as the determined father who harbors a lot of secrets and past pain. But let’s face it, he’s a star in the Schwarzeneggerian mold, featured for his physicality rather than his emoting. His mask of rage looks more like a peptic ulcer.

Directed by Martin Campbell, who helmed a few James Bond films and the execrable “Green Lantern,” from a screenplay by David Marconi based on a novel by Stephen Leather, “The Foreigner” works reasonably well as a martial arts action flick, and as political thriller. Only trouble is, those parts don’t go well together, like mismatched suit pieces that clash rather than complement.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Far Country" (1954)

James Stewart and director Anthony Mann made eight films together between 1950 and 1955, five of them Westerns that have stood the test of time, with "Winchester '73" probably the best known of the bunch. Though the stories are very different, there are a lot of thematic similarities, with Stewart usually playing an ornery loner who comes to recognize that he can't completely detach himself from society without suffering an ill fate.

His Jeff Webster from 1954's "The Far Country" is a prime example. A doggedly independent cattle driver who throws off any attempt to yoke him to a place or a people, Jeff's credo is, "I can take care of myself." He repeatedly rejects calls to act in an altruistic way, believing that if can look after himself, then others should do the same for themselves.

Of course, in the end he must rely upon others to survive, and in turn is motivated to take up arms to protect them against other gunmen who are much like his old self.

What's truly interesting about "The Far Country" is what's left unsaid. Screenwriter Borden Chase, who also penned the scripts for "Winchester '73" and another Stewart/Mann Western, "Bend of the River," gives his characters a distinctive sense of presence without necessarily an explicit backstory to go with it. That we must fill in ourselves.

We don't know much about Jeff Webster, other than he came from Wyoming, is driving a herd of cattle up to Alaska, and plans to use the proceeds to buy a ranch in Utah with his longtime companion, Ben Tatem, a cantankerous oldster from the Walter Brennan stock of cowboys, miners and soldiers.

Ben walks with a hitch, wear a hat with an upturned brim, speaks in a squawky yodel, can do most anything with his hands but doesn't have a lot of sense. His tendency to amiably gab about most anything repeatedly gets the duo in trouble, most notably his buying of two pounds of coffee grounds the day after buying two more, which raises eyebrows and suspicions that turn fatal.

Why Ben is the only person Jeff seems to have any attachment to remains a total mystery, even after Ben is killed off about three-quarters of the way through the movie. (Sorry, no spoiler warnings after 63 years.) Jeff will even affectionately grab Ben's chin or cheek and light his pipe for him, pledging to protect him and look after him in his doddering years.

Clearly they have history together, but its nature remains doggedly obscured. They actually once owned a spread together, but Jeff got the itch to wander again, and off they want, pursuing the bird in the bush they already had in hand. Jeff took the tinkly little bell that Ben hung over their door and attached it to his saddle horn, which becomes his quirk and calling card.

There's not a lot to the story, which is more driven by character clashes than anything else. Jeff and Ben arrive in Seattle with a small herd of cattle that they intend to ferry up to Skagway, Alaska, and then on to the gold rush town of Dawson. The film is set in 1896, long after the California rushes had played out, but while there was still plenty of color to be had panning the streams up north.

(I'm not sure if there were budget constraints on the film, but Mann struggles to achieve any shots where it looks like there's more than 20 steers.)

There are two cowhands with them who are paid $100 apiece, and clearly want to plug Jeff in the back now that the job is done. It seems two other fellows tried to ride off with part of the herd and Jeff shot them down. They report him to the local authorities, who arrive to arrest Jeff just after the ferry has departed. Jeff hides out in the state room of a wealthy woman, Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman), and a romance ensues that simmers the rest of the movie.

Things go poorly when they arrive in Alaska. The ferrymen try to extort Ben and a new addition, the lawman-turned-drunkard Rube Morris (Jay C. Flippen), out of $5,000 in bogus fees. But Jeff rides the cows right off the boat ramp into town, where they jostle the hangman's gallows the local lawman, Judge Gannon (John McIntire), has built to string up three men.

In short order, Gannon has confiscated the herd as a fine for disrupting the execution. It quickly becomes clear that Gannon is little more than a local robber-baron, using the mantle of the law to confiscate property to add to his growing wealth and influence. It turns out that Miss Castle is his partner, running the Skagway Castle saloon as part of his empire designed to gyp gold miners. For instance, Gannon has a local law that no one can depart town without at least 100 pounds of food, and he owns the only grocery.

Castle is sent ahead to Dawson to establish a base there, with Jeff and Ben's cattle as grubstake. Castle hires Jeff as driver of his own herd, along with add-on cowboys (including Harry Morgan.) There are dangers and arguments along the way, including an avalanche where Jeff initially refuses to help those trapped.

Acting as his conscious is Renee Vallon (Corinne Calvet), a strong-headed French/Canadian ingenue who also sets her adoring gaze upon Jeff. The love triangle continues throughout the rest of the story, with Jeff manfully displaying absolutely no interest in either one of the women.

(I'm sure a critic writing from a queer perspective would have a field day with this film.)

Things go fine for a while in Dawson, with Jeff stealing back his herd from Castle, and her then buying it back for him, outbidding the local hash house run by three tough older gals: Hominy (Connie Gilchrist), Grits (Kathleen Freeman) and Molasses (Connie Van). With the hastily put-up Dawson Castle serving steaks and the trio of ladies stuck with bear stew, Gannon quickly has a foothold.

Soon he'll show up himself in his top hat and mortician's suit, laying claim to gold claims that aren't his. He rounds himself up some muscle, including Morgan and google-eyed Jack Elam, and personally guns down good-natured miner, Dusty (Chubby Johnson), when he tries to stand up to him. He also backs down Rube, who has been tapped as marshal (after Jeff refuses the job).

Jeff parlays his cattle proceeds into a prosperous claim of his own, planning to split town as soon as he and Ben have enough gold for their Utah dreams. Gannon's men are staking themselves outside town to jump departing miners at Two Mile Pass, but Jeff has a plan to take a secret Indian route along the river. But then Ben blabs about the coffee, he's killed and Jeff is shot up.

Nursed back to health by Renee, with a little assistance from Castle, Jeff finally sees the error of his ways and opts to take on Gannon in an obligatory showdown.

The relationship between Gannon and Jeff is rich with subtleties. They take an instant like to each other, despite the consistently oppositional nature of their encounters. They are closely aligned in skillset and their belief that people should rise or file by dint of their own willingness to stand up for themselves and claim what's theirs.

The difference is that while Jeff is a pure individualist, preferring to "find his own trails," Gannon uses the pioneer code as cover to mask his malevolent manipulations. Despite his title of Judge and position as the law, he really thrives on chaos and bullying. Gannon represents the evil that prospers when good men like Jeff do nothing, concerning themselves with themselves.

(Screenwriter Chase doubtlessly based Gannon on legendary Western con man "Soapy" Smith, who operated in a number of places including Skagway, where he was eventually gunned down in a dispute over a bag of stolen gold flakes. Though Soapy preferred to have lawmen on his payroll rather than wear a badge and a gun himself.)

"The Far Country" is really a tidy morality tale that acts as counterpoint to the classic John Wayne type of Western, where a man's gotta be a man, and womenfolk stay put in the background -- preferably the kitchen.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Video review: "Baby Driver"

After well more than a century of cinema, it’s very difficult to do something that’s completely original. “Baby Driver” achieves the next best thing: taking something old and putting a completely fresh new spin on it.

In this case, it’s the heist movie genre. We think we know all there is to see: a team of thieves is assembled, a plan is made, there are intragroup squabbles, the job goes horribly awry, and consequences play out. From bloody fare like “Reservoir Dogs” to fuzzy comedies like the recent “Going in Style,” there’s a through-line of familiar characteristics.

“Baby Driver,” written and directed by Edgar Wright (“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”), has many of those, too. But it’s a heist movie less concerned with the robbery than the interior journey of the protagonist, a young getaway wheel-man who goes by the unlikely moniker, “Baby.”

This is a breakout role for Ansel Elgort, best known from “The Fault in Our Stars.” His Baby is an ocean of cool, calm waters hiding a wake of roiling turbulence underneath.

Hardly speaking, with pounding earbuds perpetually in, he seems not to pay any attention at all to the robbery briefing being given by Doc, the Atlanta crime boss played by Kevin Spacey. But given a quiz at the behest of the other irked members of the crew, and it’s clear he’s 100% dialed in. He has prodigious tics that confound his interactions, but equally generous gifts.

Behind the wheel, he’s hell on.

Doc’s M.O. is that he puts together big jobs, never using the same lineup twice. Early on baby does a robbery with a few notables who, however, are sure to return. They include Jon Hamm as Buddy, an affable guy with a dark side; Eliza Gonzalez as Darling, Buddy’s wife and the one who holds his leash; and Jamie Foxx as Bats, whose assumed name is handy cue as to his hair-trigger mindset.

Doc has Baby under his thumb with a long pile of debts close to being repaid, but it’s hard to miss he hides some genuine affection for the kid. Baby, relishing the thought of his impending freedom, meets Debora, a sky-is-blue waitress whose casual singing first attracts his ear. Interesting thing: for a driver with champion hand-eye coordination, Baby operates primarily by his sense of hearing rather than sight.

The heist does go awry, as heists are wont to do in the movies, though with a different thumb in the pie than you’d expect.

Dizzy with music and action, splendidly acted, dangerous and fun, “Baby Driver” is the rare movie that makes you feel like you did when you first went to the movies.

Bonus features are quite good, and are cemented by two feature-length audio commentary tracks – one with director Wright solo, and a second one with him joined by cinematographer Bill Pope.

There are also deleted and extended scenes totaling about 20 minutes of screen time, a music video, storyboard gallery and 10 making-of featurettes focusing on various aspects of production, including an “Annotated Coffee Run Rehearsal” and Elgort’s audition tape.



Monday, October 2, 2017

Review: "Blade Runner 2049"

The truth: I didn’t really want a “Blade Runner” sequel.

Just as I did not want to see a live-action version of “The Lord of the Rings,” or a reboot of the “Mad Max” franchises. And yet I love those movies now, offshoots of things I cherished as a youngster -- edging to the point of favoring the new over the old, if my middle-aged self was unflinchingly honest with my teen me.

So: “Blade Runner 2049” is the finest film I’ve seen this 2017.

It’s brilliant, disturbing, sad, beautiful, tragic and filled with tempered joy. It continues the journey of a dystopian, not-so-distant future of bioengineered humans made to be servants of genuine ones, and how each struggles at the shackles that bind them together.

This is the rare sequel that is an extension which is both logically and emotionally sound. Having watched it, I can’t imagine it beginning, or ending, another way.

The film manages to introduce us to a new hunter of replicants, played by Ryan Gosling, while reuniting us with Deckard, as Harrison Ford reprises one of his most indelible roles. “I had your job once… I was good at it,” Deckard taunts upon their first meeting. It’s a titanic clash of generations, quite literally.

My suspicion arose chiefly because the sequel, which is set 30 years later than the original and arrives 35 years after, is not directed by Ridley Scott, who’s still around and quite busy at nearly age 80. Yet Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) has perfectly captured the qualities that made the 1982 film so vivid and groundbreaking -- the sense of alienation, the way life is devalued simply because of its origin, the invasion of commerce into every corner of our lives.

Things are helped immensely by the return of original script man Hampton Fancher, joined by Michael Green, working from the novel by Philip K. Dick. (Though ever more loosely, it must be said.)

In this version, there is no question about the nature of Gosling’s blade runner: he is a replicant who hunts his own kind. Known by his serial number, KD6-3.7, or simply “K,” he moves freely among normal humans with a gun, an LAPD badge and all the powers that come with those tokens. Though he is (almost literally) spat upon by other police officers.

While on a routine “retirement” of an old-model replicant (Dave Bautista), K makes a discovery that sets off a world of strife. The old Tyrell corporation that created the first replicants, aka “skin jobs,” is long defunct. But Niander Wallace, a power-mad blind oracle played by Jared Leto, has crafted new replicants more pliable and palatable, which makes his otherworldly ambitions possible.

K’s boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), whom he addresses as “madam,” wants K to cover the whole thing up. But Niander’s right-hand replicant, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), is ordered to follow the follower. She possesses an arresting combination of contempt and empathy for the humans who created people like her.

K has a quiet, constrained life, complete with a hologram wife to keep him from wanting more than the routine of ceaseless murder. Joi (Ana de Armas) is fully emotionally connected to him, even though she’s another product of Wallace’s omnipresent corporation. K uses his bonus for successful retirements to buy Joi an “emanator,” which allows her to leave their apartment and have some semblance of corporeal existence.

Slaves of slaves -- so where do the boundaries of servitude begin and end? These are the sorts of vexing thoughts the film raises for us.

Appropriately, this is one of the most hauntingly beautiful films ever made. Cinematography legend Roger Deakins gives us slants of organic light contrasted with inky pools of darkness, vivid colors, blasted landscapes and tactile displays of proffered flesh. Nominated 13 times for an Oscar without winning, Deakins may finally get his due.

At nearly three hours long, “Blade Runner 2049” is not an endless parade of action. People who have not seen the original movie in a while may be surprised in revisiting it how deliberate and contemplative the film is. Likewise, its cinematic inheritor blends moments of gripping violence with languid stretches where the characters just look, and are looked upon, think and react.

Rather than slowing things down, these sequences give the movie its rightful sense of weight and purpose. Here is the uninvited sequel, now indispensable.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Video review: "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales"

There really isn’t any reason for a fifth “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie to exist, other than guaranteed ticket sales and a boost to Johnny Depp’s flagging star. Still, as mindless special effects-driven entertainment go, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” was far from the worst the summer had to offer.

It’s pretty much more of the same: Depp stumbling about as Captain Jack Sparrow, the worst pirate in history; a CGI-enhanced villain, with Javier Bardem as Captain Salazar, an undead pirate hunter missing large chunks of his crucial anatomy; winsome youngsters in peril, in this case Kaya Scodelario and Brenton Thwaites; lots of swordplay and big action set-pieces; reprises from franchise alums Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, although the latter two are barely more than cameos.

The story is about… well, do you even need to know? As usual, it involves various forces chasing a MacGuffin, with most of the animosity aimed squarely at Sparrow.

Depp always has a lot of fun in this role, and the filmmakers keep things fresh with a look toward Sparrow’s youth -- with a little de-aging CGI help -- where we find out a little about how he became the drunken nincompoop he is. For instance, there actually is a reason behind all those little bits of jewelry and odds-and-ends he wears.

It’s undeniably a fun movie, as long as you’re willing to pull up oars on your brain and just coast with the giddy current.

Video bonus features are ample, cemented by a comprehensive making-of documentary that includes interviews with all the principle actors and crew members. There are also four deleted scenes, a photo diary by producer Jerry Bruckheimer and a blooper reel.

You’ll have to pay a few dollars more to get most of this stuff, as only a single featurette is included on the DVD version.