Thursday, March 23, 2017

Review: "Life"


Just a mini-review today:

"Life" is an effective but derivative thriller in the mold of "Aliens" and "The Thing." A group of intrepid scientists stumbles across humanity's first contact with alien life. They are fascinated and overjoyed at the prospect of discovery, until the organism proves itself able to rapidly mutate into a larger, scarier form and starts eating faces. The crew is slowly picked off one by one, despite some ingenious attempts to fight the creature, with varying degrees of courageous sacrifices and boneheaded cowardice.

There's really nothing here we haven't seen before: snippets of the personal lives of each person, surprises as the tiny critter turns into a looming beast, chases down darkened passageways, gruesome deaths while another person watches, etc.

But director Daniel Espinosa and script men Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick find effective moments and genuine scares, a long with a large dollop of humanistic notes.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the medical doctor and former military man who's set a new record with 479 days in space; Ryan Reynolds the cocky Ryan Reynolds-type pilot and needler-in-chief; Olga Dihovichnaya is the station's resolute Russian commander; Rebecca Ferguson is the scientist in charge of making the hard decisions about whether to contain the beast or protect themselves; Ariyon Bakare is the scientist who forms a weird bond with the monster, dubbed "Calvin"; and Hiroyuki Sanada is the engineer type whose baby is born while he's high in the sky.





Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review: "Trainspotting 2"


“So we all get old and then we can’t hack it anymore? Is that it?”
                --Mark Renton, “Trainspotting”

“You’re a tourist in your own youth.”
                --Simon aka “Sick Boy,” “Trainspotting 2”

File “Trainspotting 2” under Sequels We Never Thought We’d See. (Not to be confused with Sequels Nobody Wanted; e.g., “xXx: Return of Xander Cage.”)

“Trainspotting” from 1996, which followed a rough group of Scottish heroin addicts/thieves, launched star Ewan McGregor and director Danny Boyle, who have both gone on to major movie careers. Serious, Oscar-winning filmmakers tend to shy away from sequels because they’re seen as a generally unworthy endeavor.

But Boyle has long expressed interest in a sequel, though it took a while to round up the old gang. And it turns out that Irvine Welsh, the author of the book upon which the first movie was based, penned a follow-up novel that revisited the characters about 10 years later.

“Trainspotting 2” takes us even further out to 20 years. Our young anti-heroes -- Mark Renton (McGregor), Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller), Danny “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner) and Francis Begbie (Robert Caryle) -- are now middle-aged schlumps struggling to get on with meaningful lives.

The story (screenplay by John Hodge) brings the quartet back together to address old grudges, work out their individual disappointments and dream up some new schemes. It borrows heavily from the first movie, from particular shots to musical cues, including a reversal of the famous ending scene where Renton walks toward the camera with a cynical admonishment to “Choose life,” having just ripped off his mates following a big drug score.

I’ve seen the movie and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Certainly, I liked it. Almost equally as certain, I don’t think it needed to be made.

Watching it is not unlike the experience of an estranged friend showing up on your doorstep after a long absence, a meeting filled with awkward pauses and mumbled apologies. When they leave a part of you is glad to have seen them again, while the other part wonders if some things are better left unsaid, some mysteries savored for remaining just so.

Renton has been living in Amsterdam working a straight job in accounting. He returns to Edinburgh after a couple of life-changing experiences, and to look up his old chums and see if forgiveness is a possibility. He finds Spud clean (albeit temporarily) but out of work, estranged from his wife and son.

A truly gentle soul, who seems to have gotten even more bird-like with the passing of years and the thinning of his plume-like shock of hair, Spud stands a bit apart from the story and acts as our eyes and ears.

Sick Boy is still addicted, though shifted to a more upscale cocaine habit. He runs his family’s run-down old pub, and has a side business setting up his prostitute girlfriend, Veronica (Anjela Nedyalkova), with well-to-do customers so he can film the antics and then blackmail them.

His reunion with Renton is less amicable than Spud’s, at least initially. Soon they’re back in cahoots, reminiscing about old times, running new scams and seeing who can be the first to betray the other.

Even less amenable is Begbie, the truly terrifying psychopath who seems to enjoy hurting others for its own sake. He’s been languishing in prison this whole time, and has Renton’s name on his lips in an unceasing litany for revenge. We know things are going to end grimy and bloody.

“Trainspotting” was an edgy, groundbreaking film because it provided us a funny, caustic window into the lowest dregs of society, then turned that glass around into a mirror that asked if everyday lives were really that much better. “Trainspotting 2” underlines many of the same themes without adding any meaningful postscript.




Sunday, March 19, 2017

Video review: "Lion"


“Lion” is a prime example of the old saw of the movie not being as good as the book.

Saroo Brierley’s book, “The Long Way Home,” recounted his incredible biography as a boy of India who became separated from his family at a very tender age and ending up raised by adoptive parents in Australia. At around age 30 he became obsessed with finding his biological mother and siblings, and spent years searching Google Earth to find their remote village and be reunited with them.

No hints on how things turned out.

Directed by Garth Davis from a screenplay adaptation by Luke Davies, “Lion” is a solid film but one of the most overpraised of the past year, including six Oscar nominations. One of those, ridiculously, was for star Dev Patel in the supporting actor category.

True, he takes over the adult role of Saroo about halfway through the movie from Sunny Pawar, who is an absolute revelation as the lost orphan. But I still need someone to explain to me how one can play the title character of a film, be the face on the posters and still be a “supporting” actor. A pox on brazen category-hopping.

David Wenham and Nicole Kidman (who scored her own unmerited Oscar nom) play his parents, who also adopted another Indian lad, Mantosh, who has emotional and cognitive problems. One of the things the movie fails to adequately explore his Saroo’s strained relationship with his adoptive brother, which is a discomfiting mix of affection and disgust.

Rooney Mara plays his girlfriend, Lucy, who struggles to relate to Saroo while he’s in the deep throes of his obsession. Priyanka Bose plays Saroo’s biological mother.

I think the first half of the film works better than the second. Saroo’s separation and wandering is a very compelling tale: he and his older brother sneak into a train station, and he ends up locked inside an empty passenger train as it makes a 1,000-mile journey to the other side of India, where they speak a different dialect.

He doesn’t know the name of his village, so he falls into the care of well-meaning orphan authorities, who seem more intent on making him available for adoption by foreigners than performing an exhaustive search for his true family.

“Lion” is an emotional film that sometimes pulls the heartstrings a mite too forcefully.

Bonus features include deleted scenes, production still photos and the “Never Give Up” music video by Sia.

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Extras:



Thursday, March 16, 2017

Review: "Beauty and the Beast"


Time passes for us all, and for the movies. Since “Beauty and Beast” came out in 1991 and became regarded as one of the greatest animated films of all time, an entire generation has been born, grown up and started having babies of their own. Though it might make some of us feel old to say, it’s passing into cinematic antiquity.

I walked into the 2017 live-action remake with but a single word of question on my lips: “Why?” I left without grasping any kind of answer.

The new movie, starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, is almost a shot-by-shot remake of the animated film, with a few extra flourishes and minor changes. They reuse the Oscar-winning musical score by lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, with four new songs by Menken and Tim Rice that don’t measure up to the old stuff.

Most of the cast spends the movie in CGI form as enchanted clocks, teapots, harpsichords, wardrobes, candelabras, etc. Directed by Bill Condon (“Mr. Holmes”), it’s a beautiful, colorful film with energetic musical numbers, distinctive characters and an ageless love story.

And it has no reason for existing.

I’m not a purist on remakes and sequels. If you can make something that adds to the mythology of a film, or extends the characters and their individual arcs, then you’ll get no arguments from me. Disney has launched a number of live action remakes of its classic animated flicks, including “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book,” and I’ve liked almost all of them.

But this one feels different… hollow, somehow. The tragic love story of the Beast (Stevens) and Belle (Watson) lacks the gut-churning emotional wrench of 1991. The best thing about the animated movie was its unexpected dramatic heft. That had the tone of “Romeo and Juliet.” This new one is the TV sitcom version.

It’s not helped by Watson’s singing voice, which is unequal to the task of carrying songs. That’s become a thing lately: casting non-singers as the leads in musicals. (See “Land, La La.”) Maybe it’s time to reconsider.

Stevens’ portrayal of the Beast using a mix of costume, makeup and CGI doesn’t exactly work, either. He looks like a smaller, softer, prettier version of the animated Beast. Even his leonine nose swoops down appealingly toward a modest snarl. I liked the cartoon Beast’s busted, crooked honker and every-which-way fangs. The new one looks like he got Jenny Craig and a plastic surgeon.

You know the story: village bookworm Belle stumbles into the castle of the Beast looking for her lost father, Maurice (Kevin Kline, changed from inventor to artist here). The master of the house and all his servants have been hexed with a terrible curse, which will become permanent if the magic rose loses its last petal before he finds true love. Belle agrees to become his prisoner in exchange for dad, and antagonism gives way to blooming romance.

The heavy is again Gaston (Luke Evans), the swaggering musclebound hunter/soldier who desires Belle for himself. Josh Gad, as the flunkie LeFou, adds notes of jaded longing for his longtime companion. Some people are upset about having a (more or less) openly homosexual character in a Disney movie, but I was more perturbed he falls into the weary cliché of gay man pining for an unavailable straight.

Ewan McGregor takes over the Lumiere role of rapscallion candelabra; Emma Thompson is Mrs. Potts, and does a reasonably good job warbling the title song; Ian McKellen is unctuous butler Cogsworth; Audra McDonald is the operatic wardrobe; Stanley Tucci is a new character as the wardrobe’s musical and marital accompanist.

Originally they were going to weave some of the songs from the stage musical version into the movie, but instead went with four new ones. Two are just short trifles, while the Beast’s “Evermore” is a bland Broadway hollerer. Though “Days in the Sun,” sung by Watson with help from the supporting characters, more adequately explores the dilemma of the servants caught up in their master’s curse.

I think the lesson is if you’re going to remake a beloved classic, you need to let it evolve. Take some risks, change it around and see how audiences react. They may not like it as much. But there’s no magic in mere repetition.




Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Review: "The Sense of an Ending"


Anthony Webster, as portrayed by Jim Broadbent, is an older gent playing out the string of a lonely life with a few untidy ends. “The Sense of an Ending,” based upon the novel by Julian Barnes, shows us Tony now and as a young man at university, and how he got to here from there.

It’s essentially a murder-mystery, as we puzzle out how he killed his younger self and became the man he is.

Tony wanted to be a poet but ended up running a tiny shop -- literally the width of a closet -- where he repairs and sells beautiful vintage cameras. He’s fussy and set in his ways; he is annoyed by actual customers and only opens up every day out of habit. Seems like the perfect sort of niche business to market on the Web, but Tony’s barely graduated to email.

He’s long divorced and still maintains a friendly/biting relationship with his ex-wife, Margaret (Harriet Walter). Their 36-year-old daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery), has given up on men and is having a baby on her own. Tony affably (but somewhat grudgingly) ferries her to Lamaze classes, substitutes as coach and even chats up the lesbian couples.

Then a letter arrives in the email relating that he has been named in a will. After some confusion, he learns that the mother of an old girlfriend has bequeathed him a diary. And it’s not the mother’s diary, or the girlfriend’s, but belonged to his best friend from university, Adrian Finn. However, the girlfriend, Veronica, refuses to turn it over.

Director Ritesh Batra and screenwriter Nick Payne then shift back and forth to decades ago, where Billy Howle takes over the role of Tony. We meet Veronica (Freya Mavor), and eventually her parents and brother. The mother is played by Emily Mortimer, who is vibrant and flirty and a little bit sad. She looks at Tony in a way he wishes her daughter would.

Veronica is a mysterious young woman who takes great pleasure in remaining so. She loves to tease Tony and lead him on. She gives him his first camera, and photography starts to crowd out poetry. The relationship eventually falters.

Rather late in the movie we meet the modern Veronica, now played by Charlotte Rampling. Neither her beauty or her aura of deflection have faded. They meet, quarrel a bit about the diary, and she abruptly departs. Tony becomes obsessed with puzzling out this riddle that seems to have lain unexamined at the root of his life for so long.

Having not read the novel, I can only speculate as to what was left in and what was taken out. The examination of Tony’s friendship with Adrian (Joe Alwyn) feels skimped upon. Adrian is the standout genius of the class, who takes the tired lessons of their teachers, ties them into knots and throws them back in their faces.

Most movies these days could stand some degree of trimming in the editor’s bay, but “The Sense of an Ending” is the rare film that could stand to be longer.

It’s still an engaging personal journey, and Jim Broadbent is in his usual fine form. It’s a contemplation on memory, which is really the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Some are more impenetrable than others.





Review: "The Last Word"


“The Last Word” is the sort of movie that’s made explicitly for an aged screen legend to provide them with one last moment in the spotlight, and maybe a shot at an Oscar. This is Shirley MacLaine’s star vehicle swan song, as surely as “Venus” was Peter O’Toole’s.

I liked the movie, especially MacLaine’s irascible turn as a hateful old woman who’s shown to have inner depths and redeeming qualities.

The role borrows a little too heavily from her iconic portrayal of Ouiser Boudreaux in “Steel Magnolias.” And the screenplay (by Stuart Ross Fink) starts off on an edgy note and becomes progressively more filled with hugs and clichés, right down to the obligatory road trip and chirpy kid sidekick.

Still, it’s a winning turn from a master thespian. Aspiring actors would do well to watch how MacLaine tosses in subtle little expressions and glances that bend the character’s dialogue and behavior into shades of other meaning.

As the opening vignettes make plain, Harriet Lauler is a pill. She seems to have no friends or relations. A wealthy woman in her 80s, all she does is putter around her mansion, waited upon by a team of put-upon servants she deems incapable of doing their jobs. She doesn’t like the gardener’s (Gedde Watanabe, forever Donger from “Sixteen Candles”) clipping of the hedges, so she takes over and sends him home. The cook gets the same treatment.

Then she stumbles across an obituary of someone she knew, and is struck by all the wonderful things people said about the woman. Harriet’s dilemma is clear: What will they say about me? Nothing nice, she’s sure -- because she has made sure.

So the ultimate control freak sets out to have the ultimate last word: commissioning her obituary while she’s still alive, so it meets with her approval.

Harriet seeks out Anne Sherman, the 30ish obit writer at the Bristol Gazette, and orders her obituary -- even providing a list of 200 people to talk to. Harriet can do this because her old advertising firm kept the smallish-town newspaper afloat, and the fumbling inheritor publisher (Tom Everett Scott) complies because he’s… grateful? Afraid? Hopes she can help their bottom line? It’s a little unclear.

Anne dutifully talks to the people, and finds no one with anything good to say. “If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you,” one former employee quotes Harriet. Forbidden from talking to the ex-husband, Anne seeks him (Phillip Baker Hall) out anyway; he refuses to disavow Harriet’s warts but doesn’t regret marrying her.

When the first draft of the obituary is dead on arrival, Harriet takes her self-dealing to the next level and enlists Anne to help her do some benevolent/interesting things so there will be material to mine.

They visit a program for at-risk kids (“hooligans”), where the keen-eyed Harriet spots Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dixon), a smart, mouthy girl railing against the stupidity of the Dewey decimal system. Harriet quasi-adopts her as a mentee, though we never really learn more about the girl other than she has plenty of sass and cutes to lighten things up.

Harriet also turns her newly helpful gaze upon Anne herself, asking about the essay book she’s always scribbling in -- but never shows anyone! -- and pushing her toward the hipster-handsome manager of the radio station that plays “independent music for independent minds.” She even dusts off her old record collection, waltzes into the same station and announces that she wishes to be a DJ.

(I found this whole sequence unintentionally hilarious, showing a tiny indie radio station with dozens of on-air talent hurrying about at all hours. Even huge radio offices more closely resemble crypts.)

Director Mark Pellington (“Going All the Way”) keeps things in a nice balance between comedy and pathos, showing us a portrait of a nasty person that we’re going to watch be painted over -- or have obscuring layers removed from -- to reveal a distinct, vibrant human.

“The Last Word” may not be the end-all in character studies, but it’s good enough to hold a place of honor on a legend’s filmography.





Monday, March 13, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Angel and the Badman" (1947)


"Angel and the Badman" is regarded as one of the signature films in the John Wayne library, but it doesn't deserve to be.

It's a rather stiff and unoriginal Western, filled out with an insipid female lead and clichéd supporting cast, containing zero surprises in the plot. Wayne plays Quirt Evans, a legendary bandit who tries to go straight after he's taken in, healed and befriended by a family of Quakers. Of course, he falls in love with the daughter, Penelope (Gail Russell), setting off a whole lot of 'am-I-good-enough' perambulations.

The villains have generic cowboy names, Laredo (Bruce Cabot) and Hondo (Louis Faust), and they came straight off the Central Casting Express. We're never even really sure what their conflict with Quirt is about -- something to do with claiming a piece of land Laredo wanted. Later, Quirt and a pal rustle some cattle that Laredo & Co. had just rustled, setting up the final showdown where Quirt must choose between resorting to violence or the love of a good woman.

Penny is so pure, so devoted to Quirt and such a straightforward depiction of the 1940s feminine ideal that she's a total bore. To wit: I have no more words to spare for her.

It's your typical John Wayne flick: He's taller than everybody else, louder than everybody, all the women are crazy for him, all the men feel a combination of hate and envy, wanting to either kill him or befriend him. He takes guff from no man, though he'll knuckle under to an appropriately maternal figure if there's flapjacks and sausage in the offing.

Wayne is the epitome of the old saw about the difference between a movie star and an actor: He always plays himself. That's fine, but watching the movie for the first time, I felt like I'd already seen it a hundredfold.

John Halloran plays the Quaker dad, Mr. Worth, who sort of reminded me of a smaller, gentler version of Rory McCann, the actor who plays The Hound in the "Game of Thrones" series. Irene Rich is Mother Worth, Stephen Grant plays the scrappy younger brother whose name (of course!) is Johnny.

Olin Howland plays the nervous-nelly telegraph operator, who brags about being a close friend of Quirt's despite having just met him, which of course brings the black hats around for a visit. Tom Powers portrays Dr. Mangram, the atheist doctor who comes by to tend to Quirt and spare a little philosophy with Mrs. Worth. He advises her to give Quirt the boot, and of course she ignores him.

Paul Hurst plays Frederick Carson, the local meanie farmer who's damned up the river, depriving the Quakers of water to irrigate their crops. A quick visit from Quirt not only rectifies that situation, but the cantankerous oldster even befriends Penny's parents. Soon they're exchanging pleasantries and poultices.

These are all fine veteran performers, but the script by James Edward Grant, who also directed the film, just doesn't give them anything special or interesting to do. We know what each character's going to do as soon as they're introduced, and it's just a matter of waiting for them to get around to it.

Grant was a busy screenwriter who worked on a lot of John Wayne movies, including "The Alamo" and "McLintock!" "Angel" was his first stint as a director, and shows his lack of visual flair or ability to elicit strong performances from his cast. He only directed one other film, 1954's "Ring of Fear."

There's one thing worth a quick comment: much has been made of who wears the black hat and the white hat in Westerns. Quirt literally wears both, exchanging a big white 10-galloner from the first part of the movie for its black counterpart in the last act. This happens during a typical saloon brawl, and after being thrown out the door (several times), Quirt is tossed the black hat in lieu of his own, and he acquiesces to the change.

A better movie would have made more of this moment, as Quirt -- who has temporarily wavered on his commitment to a kinder, gentler life -- fumbles in confusion over what his true role is.

Really, the only thing I liked about this movie was Harry Carey as the aged local marshal with the humdinger of the name, Wistful McClintock.

(I wonder if Grant repurposed the moniker, slightly varied, 16 years later for "McLintock!", a script Wayne commissioned from him.)

Carey was as big a cowboy superstar in the silent era as John Wayne was a generation later, so it's nice to see the two play in a movie together. Almost 70, this was one of the last films he made, passing away a few months after production wrapped.

His Wistful is a cagey old coot, sharp with the tongue and still deadeye with the long gun. He knows Quirt's reputation, recognizes that he's trying to make a fresh start, and just doesn't place any faith that it'll stick. He refuses to grant Quirt the benefit of the doubt, but at least acknowledges its possibility.

He shows up every now and then to interrogate Quirt about his doings, and the pair develop as much mutual respect as hunter and hunted can. Wistful even promises to pay Quirt the honor of using a brand-new rope when he comes to hang him.

"Angel and the Badman" is worth a look-see, if only to witness the hand-off from one ersatz cowboy legend to another.






Sunday, March 12, 2017

Video review: "Fences"


I was reading one of those articles before the Oscars where a voting member anonymously reveals their ballot, and they were quoted as saying they didn’t put a lot of stock in “Fences” because “they just shot the play.”

Cow patties.

The reason “Fences” was one of the best films of 2016 was not just because of the excellence of the writing, for which August Wilson adapted his own play. Denzel Washington, Viola Davis and the rest of the excellent cast made those characters leap off the screen and into our hearts.

And Washington, stepping behind the camera to direct a film for just the second time, employed a host of camera and editing tools to make us feel like we were in the middle of the story, rather than squinting from the back row.

Part of Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” the story examines a blue-collar black family in the 1950s. Troy Maxson (Washington) is an aging cock of the walk, a former Negro League baseball player and thief who went straight to become a family man. He’s a garbage collector who has just agitated to become the first black city employee who doesn’t just pick up the cans but drives the truck.

It tells you something that Troy demanded the opportunity, despite not knowing how to drive.

David plays his devoted wife, Rose (Davis). Their relationship is strong, but one based upon Troy’s dominance over every aspect of their lives -- especially how the treat their teenage son, Cory (Jovan Adepo). He’s a football star with the prospect of a college scholarship, but Troy’s own crushed sports dreams and the racial divide color his reaction.

The rest of the cast is also spectacular, including Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson playing Troy’s best friend, older son from another relationship and disabled brother, respectively.

Wilson and Washington have supposedly made plans to film the other nine plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle. If so, they’re off to a magnificent start.

Video features are a mite on the light side. The DVD contains none at all. The Blu-ray boasts six making-of featurettes: “Expanding the Audience: From Stage to Screen,” “The Company of Fences,” “Building Fences: Denzel Washington,” “Playing the Part: Rose Maxson” and “August Wilson’s Hill District.”

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Extras





Thursday, March 9, 2017

Review: "Kong: Skull Island"


King Kong, along with Godzilla, are the great white whales of moviedom. Their first iterations were unforgettable classics, and since then there have been multitudinous attempts over the decades to recapture lightning in a bottle.

Most have fizzled, and even the best failed to spark half as bright.

Every 12-15 years or so, studios and filmmakers -- and, they think, audiences -- will have forgotten the last (probably disastrous) movie and decide there’s still gold in them thar cinematic hills. So off we go again on another big-critter hunt.

Peter Jackson, fresh off the “Lord of the Rings” movies, gave us his dreary “King Kong” in 2005, and his career hit a slump that lasted until he ran back to Tolkien. “Godzilla” from 2014 managed to hide the monster until the halfway point, which is like manufacturing a sports car that has a top speed of 180 m.p.h. but takes three minutes to get from zero to 60.

So here comes “Kong: Skull Island,” and gosh darn if I didn’t enjoy the thing. It’s goofy as all get out, it has lots of stars but no single compelling character, and it has the sort of final fight scene where the big baddie we think is dead is going to need a couple more tries to get it right.

It’s a fun and surprisingly funny bit of popcorn movie-making. Tonally, it’s all over the map. You’ve got scenes of extreme gross-out deaths and dismemberments -- this may be hardest PG-13 ever given -- set off by silly quips, often within seconds of each other.

On several occasions after a primordial beastie leaps out of nowhere and kills off a couple more members of our intrepid party, they’ll get ready to soldier on and one of them will say something like, “Are we NOT going to talk about what just happened?!?” And the rest will in some way glumly respond that no, we’re not going to talk about what just happened. (Which, of course, is a way of talking about what happened.)

Smartly, big K appears within a couple of minutes of the beginning. He’s got a classic look, grand and majestic and threatening. Kong’s stature has grown with his legend. Climb the Empire State Building? Dude IS the Empire State Building.

Here he’s a lonely god-king, lumbering around his hidden island in the South Pacific circa 1973. He’s angry but also seems sad, and we’ll find out why later. When a bunch of scientists and Army types show up on an exploration mission, dropping seismic bombs and causing a ruckus on his turf, Kong quickly lays down some smack. But he’s got other things on his plate, and humans are just the pesky crumbs.

You want a plot summary? I’m not sure we really need one. Kong rules his secret island, the humans have come in helicopters to find out what’s there, and they quarrel. All 14 choppers are crashed, so it becomes a quest for survival by those who are left.

This is not the sort of movie to quibble over details. You want to know why there are prehistoric monsters on this one island? Let the eggheads bicker about subterranean vents and whatnot. How can there be a permanent hurricane surrounding the island, cutting it off from previous exploration? What are you, a damn meteorologist? Go find some low-pressure systems to warn Aunt Bessie about.

The ensemble cast is a collection of types rather than characters: Tom Hiddleston is the burnt-out British survivalist with suspiciously tight T-shirts and frosted highlights; Brie Larson is the “anti-war photojournalist” (her words) who represents the group’s soulful side; John Goodman is the kooky scientist running a fringe government agency called Monarch that searches for bigfoots, and Corey Hawkins is his dweeby protégé; John Ortiz is the uptight bureaucrat whose role is to be the lawyer in “Jurassic Park;” Samuel L. Jackson is the guts-and-glory wing commander who makes it a personal grudge with Kong; Toby Kebbell is Jackson’s resolute No. 2, who writes “Dear Billy” letters home to his son, which becomes a running theme among the rest; and Tian Jing is the inconsequential Asian supporting character included only to shore up the Chinese market.

The guy who probably had the best time making the movie is John C. Reilly, who plays an addled American pilot who crash-landed on the island during World War II, and can’t understand why nobody listens to the guy who actually knows what’s what. He gets a lot of great one-liners and milks them for every drop.

I also enjoyed Shea Whigham as the taciturn older soldier who’s been around and isn’t fazed by much; after Kong has torn up all their Hueys he offers, “That was an unconventional encounter.” He’s exactly the sort of character who’s kept around to make a noble sacrifice near the end, which goes exactly as we think, but also not.

Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly wrote the screenplay, along (I hear) with a host of uncredited others. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts was an interesting choice; his only other feature film credit is “The Kings of Summer,” a tiny coming-of-age indie that made its way around the festival circuit awhile back.

Peter Jackson was originally set to direct “Kong: Skull Island,” but I guess somebody finally got around to watching his first Kong movie. The project banged around and ended up in its current weird but rather wonderful form. Hell, a King Kong movie that throws in an “Oldboy” reference can’t be all bad.

I was going to end this review by harkening back to the first paragraph, which some professor once taught is the mark of a good essay. But I decided it was giving away too much, and if you stick around till the very end you’ll see why.




Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Review: "The Ottoman Lieutenant"


“The Ottoman Lieutenant” has the look and feel of a literary adaptation, something in the Merchant/Ivory tradition of “A Room with a View,” if it was given a more overtly soap opera tone. But it’s an original screenplay by Jeff Stockwell that contains familiar notes from other historical romance/dramas.

The best thing about it is newcomer Hera Hilmar as Lillie, an independent-minded young woman in 1914 Philadelphia. The daughter of a well-to-do family, she’s an old maid of 23 who’s chosen to work as a nurse rather than get married and push out a passel of kids. Then she is introduced to a dashing doctor, Jude (Josh Hartnett), who helps run a missionary hospital on the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), who is on a fundraising tour in the States.

Using her inheritance and over the objections of tut-tutting parents, Lillie resolves to send a truck that belonged to her late brother along with a shipment of medical supplies. Of course, she needs to go along herself to ensure its safe delivery … as well as satisfy her craving for adventure in an exotic land that is on the cusp of war.

Hilmar has a wide, strong face and an obstinate chin, and projects the aura of a proto-feminist whose worst possible outcome in life is doing exactly what is expected of her. She’s been in a few small films and TV shows, but has a bunch of films in various states of production, which I’ll be looking forward to.

Director Joseph Ruben has an eclectic resume that includes everything from sci-fi thrillers like “Dreamscape” to dumb action films (“Money Train”) and psychological thrillers (“Sleeping with the Enemy”). He lets his camera roam over the Turkish landscape, which segues from harsh deserts and mountains to sweeping fields and lake islands. (Most of the indoor stuff was shot in Czechoslovakia.)

The title concerns Ismail, a stalwart Ottoman officer played by Michiel Huisman, a Dutch actor best known for playing the smirking mercenary Daario on “Game of Thrones.” Ismail comes from a long line of military heroes and feels the need to live up to those expectations, while having more modernistic sentiments about things like a Muslim man dallying with a Christian American woman.

He helps escort Lillie through the desert on the way to the mission, where they encounter Christian bandits (Affif Ben Badra plays their leader) in a sequence that has a very Lawrence of Arabia Lite feel to it. They exchange glances and, later, more intimate things.

Of course, Dr. Jude isn’t terribly thrilled about their romance, having designs upon Lillie for himself. Hartnett plays the doctor as a basically decent guy who projects himself as a progressive Christian, but has some very old-fashioned ideas about gender, religion and nationality.

Ben Kingsley rounds out the cast as Dr. Garrett Woodruff, the founder of the mission who is wallowing in misery because of a personal tragedy, about which we’ll soon learn more (but can surely guess). He takes out his anger on this around him, and initially Lillie becomes a main target.

Meanwhile, World War I is revving up and the Russians could be arriving any day now. More wounded show up in the hospital, and there’s deadly tension between the local Christians and Muslims. It’s choose-up-sides time, including for Lillie and her two beaus.

(I should mention the film has an “R” rating for “war violence” from the MPAA, but barely should have merited a PG-13. You can literally see worse stuff on broadcast television.)

I liked a lot of things about “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” especially Hera Hilmar, without being quite swept up in the experience as a whole. It’s a very old-fashioned story without a lot of surprises. You can almost picture the cheap romance novel version: “She was caught between two worlds – and two lovers!”

I guess that counts as literature.






Sunday, March 5, 2017

Video review: "Moana"


As it happens, my family and I watched “Moana” right before the Oscar telecast, just in time to see it lose to the solid-but-inferior “Zootopia.” I actually think “Kubo and the Two Strings” was better than either. But still, this has to go down as one of the bigger travesties in recent Academy Award history.

While “Zootopia” is virtually indistinguishable in look and themes from various other critter cartoons to arrive in theaters in recent years, “Moana” is a completely original tale that pulls its inspiration from the mythology of the various Polynesian cultures.

The central (though not main) character is Maui, a legendary demigod who committed great acts of heroism, and mischief, on behalf of humans. He’s voiced by Dwayne Johnson, who actually looks like a pipsqueak next to the blocky, stocky hero festooned with tribal tattoos. Johnson even gets to sing a song, and shows off some solid pipes.

But really the story is about the title character, a teenage chieftain’s daughter – not a princess! she insists – who goes on a voyage of discovery and quest. She has been charged with returning the glowing heart of Te Fiti, the earth mother who spawned much of island life, after Maui stole it eons ago. Since then, a slow rot has crept over the lands, eventually making its way to the shores of Moana’s idyllic village.

Her job: find Maui, convince him to return the heart while battling any number of monsters, from a massive lava creature to spear-chucking pygmies wearing coconuts as armor. There’s also a stop along the way to retrieve Maui’s massive, magical fish hook from Tamatoa, a huge crab with a penchant for bling.

It’s a terrific-looking movie, the cartoony creatures set off by amazingly realistic seas and lands. And the music and songs are eminently hummable.

“Moana” made something like half what “Zootopia” did at the box office, perhaps explaining the oversight at the Oscars. Make sure to check it out on video to see what truly audacious animated filmmaking looks like.

Video extras are quite good, though most of them aren’t on the DVD version. Still, that contains the music video for “How Far I’ll Go,” the animated short film “Inner Workings” and feature-length audio commentary with directors John Musker and Ron Clements.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray combo pack and you add a new mini-movie starring Maui, “Gone Fishing”; the inspiration of the Pacific islands people for the movie; making-of featurettes on various aspects of production, from costumes to hair and special effects; deleted scenes; and a deleted song, “Warrior Face.”

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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Review: "The Salesman"


"The Salesman" was hardly my favorite foreign language film last year, or even the best of the five nominated for the Academy Award, though its win seemed preordained. Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi had a film win the Oscar a few years ago, and once you've won one it's much easier to get nominated again, and win again. 

But given the political climate, the Academy couldn't resist the temptation to send a message by giving the statuette to an Iranian filmmaker -- especially one who'd loudly and publicly announced that he'd be boycotting the ceremony. He sent a representative (a female astronaut, no less!) to accept in his place.

I didn't like "Salesman" as much as his other Oscar-winning film, "A Separation," though both are about a husband and wife carefully negotiating cultural expectations for marriage in a modern Iranian theocracy. Neither explicitly attacks the system of Islamic laws, but takes pains to show how women -- and men -- can feel constrained by expectations upon them.

Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini play Rana and Emad Etesami, a married couple in perhaps their middle to late thirties. He's a teacher who is also starring and directing a production of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," in which his wife is the female lead.  They're childless, and thus stand out from a society that cherishes family.

Despite the title, the movie's not about the play, though there are similar themes about a common man yearning for respect and validation.

The dramaturgy kicks off when they move into a new apartment after their old one was damaged by some nearby construction. One of the actors in their play, an older man, has one to let after the old tenant, a single woman, has suddenly left. She's left most of her stuff behind, which annoys Rana. But then one night she opens the door for someone she thinks is her husband, and is attacked.

It's never explicitly stated, but Rana is raped or otherwise sexually abused during this incident. Because the neighbors found her and helped, everyone knows about it. Going to the police is not an option because she is mortified to have to repeat the story, and nothing will likely come of it.

There is implicit criticism in Farhadi's script about how Iranian culture treats women who have been sexually abused -- with the not-at-all hidden suggestion that somehow it was her fault for "tempting" the man, who is presumed to be virtuous. For Emad, he feels compelled by a sense of honor to take matters into his own hand.

The attacker was injured and left his truck behind, so that lends some clues. Eventually Emad tracks down the young man he thinks is responsible and tries to lure him into a conversation, but his soon-to-be father-in-law shows up instead.

As Emad becomes more obsessed with finding retribution, it becomes clear that for him this is less about making his wife whole again than it is about himself. An attack upon her is foremost a besmirching of his status as a Muslim man, even a liberal one who doesn't seem to go to mosque much and stages infidel plays. Needless to say, their relationship quickly sours.

The performances are rather terrific, though the film wallows through a second act that seems like it's only setting up the pieces for the final confrontation. It is indeed a powerful one, and worth the wait.

I would've given the Oscar to any number of other foreign films from last year -- "Our Little Sister," "Dheepan" and "The Handmaiden" were my favorites -- but "The Salesman" is a worthy and weighty movie that gets inside the heads of another people very different from us, and yet not so much.






Review: "Logan"


Death to the super-hero. Long live the super hero movie.

Movies based on comic books have been a going concern for 20 years now. That’s middle age for film genres, and we’ve witnessed movies agitating to break out of the mold. “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a straight-up comedy, and “Deadpool” ratcheted things up to gross-out laughs and self-aware spoofing. “Batman v. Superman” brought intra-hero beefs to the forefront of the story.

Audiences have grown tired of the same old thing, which is why when they tried to reboot another big comics team, the Fantastic Four, with yet another same-old origin story, people stayed away in droves.

“Logan” is an elegy -- for one of the most popular super hero characters, Wolverine, but also for the first blossoming of this kind of movie-making.

If films based on comic books are to have a viable future, then this is a good step toward reinventing themselves. And by that I don’t just mean casting a younger actor to take over, as they’ve done with the other X-Men characters.

This movie is dark, depressing and dreary. I mean that as a compliment. It’s not about super-powered nobility saving the day against an end-of the-Earth scenario. Nothing otherworldly comes dropping out of the sky. This is a fight played out in the dirt over the withered scraps of humanity.

It’s also the first Wolverine movie that’s rated R -- something which, given the berserker nature of the guy with foot-long claws, is long overdue.

Based very loosely on the “Old Man Logan” comic series, “Logan” takes us a few years down the road into an increasingly morbid future. All the big supers have been killed or banished; the government has become dictatorial and removed from the will of the people.

Logan has gone underground, using the name James Howlett (the one he was born with, according to some iterations) to drive a stretch limo for cash. He’s hiding out Professor X (Patrick Stewart) in the Mexican desert, as the ancient teacher and telepath is prone to seizures that cause everyone in the area to go into a crippling palsy.

Less caretaker than prison guard, Logan is keeping his old mentor under lock and key until he can save up enough money to buy them a boat so they can take to the sea, leaving their troubles behind. Puttering around their hideout is Caliban (Stephen Merchant), a former mutant-hunter who resents being treated as the chambermaid.

This is not your father’s Wolverine. Although it takes place in the year 2029, the seemingly immortal mutant looks like he’s aged 50 years in that span. Hugh Jackman personifies the character’s rapid decline, coughing constantly and shambling about with a limp. His healing factor, which made him able to heal almost instantly from nearly any wound, has diminished to the point he’s not much tougher than a normal human.

“You’re dying. You want to die,” another observes of the scarred wreck of a man, and not inaccurately.

The threat is a familiar one: nefarious science/military types looking to exploit mutants for their abilities. This brings Laura (Dafne Keen), a young girl who doesn’t speak, into the tiny circle of Logan and Xavier. She has abilities much like Wolverine’s, raising sticky issues of her progeny, about which I’ll say no more.

Boyd Holbrook plays Pierce, a mercenary with a cyborg hand who relishes the role of huntsman. Richard E. Grant plays the mysterious Dr. Rice, who apparently has his hands upon the reins. There’s also another x-factor that shows up to taunt Logan about his younger, wilder exploits.

Director James Mangold, who also helmed the last Wolverine movie and co-wrote the script for this one, seems to have finally stumbled upon the essential tragedy of Logan. He’s the ultimate killing machine who has come to abhor death. Now he races toward it, snarling that he’s no longer a hero but always drawn toward redemptive acts.

It’s been said that everything has a beginning, a middle and an end. With “Logan,” the end of an iconic character marks the passage of super-hero movies into a grimmer stage of relevance.




Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Review: "Table 19"


Screenwriters Jay and Mark Duplass more or less established the mumblecore genre, known for its rambling, naturalistic dialogue punctuated with sly jokes. "Table 19" is familiar territory, but also not. It's got more emotional resonance than we're used to seeing from these movies, though plenty of laughs, too.

Anna Kendrick is first-among-equals as Eloise, one of six guests at the titular table of losers at the wedding of her oldest friend. El was actually the bridesmaid and helped plan the wedding, so her voice has authority when she tells the other guests how each table was organized: the grandparents, the cousins, eligible singles, shaky singles, the kids' table, etc.

The literal last, table 19, consists of people who should've known to check "declines with regrets" rather than attend, El says. They're the back of the room, shunted off and forgotten. El herself has self-demoted because she used to date Teddy (Wyatt Russell), the bride's brother and also the best man. They just broke up a couple of months ago, and it's obvious to all that El has come because she's looking to have it out with him.

It's essentially one long freewheeling conversation, that starts out with the table-mates denying that they've been assigned to the worst table, then sussing out why they got disrespected, and finally moving on to more substantial exploration.

I'm not giving anything away by revealing that halfway through the movie, they decamp en masse. More than anything it reminded me of "The Breakfast Club," where hijinks give way to somber, probing moments.

It's definitely a motley crew. Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson are Bina and Jerry Kepp, a long-married couple who own a diner in Columbus, Ohio. Either the bride or groom's family (I forget) is also in the business, so the invitation seems like more a courtesy than a call to come. She wanted to attend, he didn't, so it's already tense between them. Their marriage has reached the point where they're more snarky best friends than lovers.

One of the things they like to do is argue a bit, then flip each other off simultaneously after turning their backs. When that's your "cute thing," you know you're in trouble.

Tony Revolori plays Renzo, a nervous high school kid here to represent his family, which also has business ties. Renzo is a desperate virgin who's hoping a wedding is a great way to change that. Interestingly, his (heard-not-seen) mother is actually the one pushing him to do this. She tells him his manhood -- not the concept; his actual parts -- is a gift from God, and the wedding holds better odds for him scoring than the junior prom, which is the same weekend.

Like all teens Renzo is fervently annoyed by his mother, without realizing she's actually the best mom in the world.

Stephen Merchant is Walter, cousin to the bride. Very tall and very shy, Walter likes to disappear into the background drapes and avoid conversations. You'll find out why. 

One running gag is about Bina's maroon coat, which matches those of the servers at the wedding. Bina is continually annoyed when they mistake her for one of them, so she gives it to Walter. It tells you everything you need to know about him that when a worker instructs him to go bring drinks to table or whatnot, Walter doesn't object but tranquilly shambles off to comply.

Nanny Jo (June Squibb) -- everyone calls her that, even though she's retired -- was the first caretaker to the bride's family. Jo is operating under the delusion that she's a beloved figure invited to watch her former charges become full-fledged adults, but really they hardly remember her. She's plucky, plainspoken and has that strange sort of maternal strength that some childless women gain over the years.

Where things go, I won't tell you, though you can probably guess. El and Teddy have their face-off, and we learn more about them that we'd guess. Kendrick's a master at showing us normal women with strains of grace and neuroticism they struggle to conceal. I also really liked Russell, who acts like a cad but maybe has reason to. He was also a soulful presence in the great, virtually unseen "Everybody Wants Some!!".

There's a fun departure with a dreamy fellow played by Thomas Cocquere, who sidles up to El at the start of the wedding and starts tossing off witticisms and flirtations. She later enlists him for a scorching dance together to make Teddy jealous. We think we know where this is going, though maybe that his name is Huck provides a cautionary note. 

As multiple people point out, no one is named Huck anymore.

Directed by Jeffrey Blitz, whose background is mostly in television, "Table 19" is a fun and smart little film celebrating the screw-ups and the outcasts. The thing is, everybody screws up and everybody gets cast out, at least at some point in their life, though some of us maybe more than others.