Sunday, October 21, 2018

Video review: "Sorry to Bother You"

I wouldn’t be shocked if you missed “Sorry to Bother You” in theaters. It’s a tiny picture, although it made a decent media splash at the time of its release. Its star, Lakeith Stanfield, is one of the best young actors working in film today, so it had already been on my radar.

It’s hard to describe this film from first-time director Boots Riley -- it’s science fiction, cautionary tale, social satire, racial parable and raucous comedy all rolled into one.

In a dystopian not-so-distant future, Cassius Green (Stanfield) lands a job as a telemarketer for a huge multinational corporation. He’s not very good at it until a fellow black employee (Danny Glover) clues him to use his “white voice” when on the phone. Cassius does -- with the voice dubbed in by David Cross -- and immediately realizes incredible success.

Before long he finds himself the right-hand man of CEO/villain Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), moving into a posh downtown condo and driving some cool wheels. His girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), worries about him selling out to the man.

Things get stranger with the revelation of some crazy half-human, half-horse creatures that the company is secretly developing as cheap labor. But I’ll leave that as a surprise.

By turns hilarious, angry, prescient and irritating, “Sorry to Bother You” is one of the most unique cinematic experiences you’ll have this year. I can’t guarantee you’ll love it, but there’s nothing else like it to compare.

Video extras are pretty expansive. They include a feature length commentary track by Riley, who also hosts a “Beautiful Clutter” featurette. There’s a gallery of photos from production, and two making-of documentary shorts: “The Art of the White Voice” and “The Cast of Sorry to Bother You.”



Thursday, October 18, 2018

Review: "Halloween"

“Halloween” is a decently energetic horror flickershow. But it doesn’t pass the basic litmus test of, “Does this movie need to exist?”

As you know, this film reunites Jamie Lee Curtis, in her most seminal role as Laurie Strode, with Michael Myers, with white-masked, silent killer who tried unsuccessfully to off her in the original movie of the same title from 40 years ago. It’s essentially a reunion.

But then, they already held this party in 1998 for “Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later.” She managed to whack off Michael’s head with an axe in that one, Lizzie Borden-style. Undeterred, he reappeared a few years later for “Halloween: Resurrection,” and returned the favor by killing Laurie.

And this doesn’t even take into account the Rob Zombie reboot and its own sequel a few years back, or the various Laurie-less sequels of the 1980s and ‘90s. “Halloween III” didn’t even bother with featuring Michael or Laurie, making television the villain, or something.

The point is, it’s impossible to take this franchise seriously any longer. It’s been rebooted and remade and retconned to hell and back again. There is no sense of consequences because anybody who dies can just be brought back for the next iteration by the next round of filmmakers. Rinse and repeat.

This 40th anniversary reunion is part homage to the original and part new story jag. It requires us to ignore all the previous Halloween movies since the second one. It even asks us to forget that Laurie and Michael are supposed to be brother and sister -- a key piece of the franchise’s iconography for five decades.

In this telling, Michael Myers has been rotting in a mental institution for the past 40 years, never speaking a word to anyone. Meanwhile, Laurie seems to have done little in the years between other than arming herself and preparing for the eventual day he would come after her again.

There’s another creepy, vaguely European doctor trying to puzzle his way into Michael’s brain, Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer). Laurie takes on look at him and cuts to the chase: “You’re the new Loomis,” she says, referring to Donald Pleasance’s psychiatrist, whose obsession turned from curing Michael to ending him. I think Pleasance has actually been in more Halloween movies than Curtis.

Judy Greer plays Laurie’s estranged adult daughter, who was raised under the threat of Michael’s return, and has her own teen daughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak). She goes off to a Halloween party with her friends, and soon finds herself stalked by her grandmother’s not-brother.

Will Patton turns up as Frank Hawkins, a veteran cop in the fictional town of Haddonfield, who reputedly was the first one on the scene for the 1978 murders. He putters around here and there, discovering the bodies Michael leaves in his wake, killing time until his own inevitable offing.

Nowhere in the movie is it ever mentioned that Michael would have to be close to 70 years old now. You’d think at some point even maniacal serial killers would segue from slicing horny teenagers to Metamucil and a nice day in the park.

Directed by David Gordon Green, who comes from a comedy background and co-wrote the screenplay with funnyman Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley, “Halloween” contains a smattering of funny moments, such as two police officers comparing their lunches while sitting in their patrol car waiting to be stabbed.

How very different the horror genre has gotten in the last 40 years. I don’t think the original “Halloween” would’ve become anything like the iconic film it is with this sort of verbal diarrhea and passing attempts at levity.

John Carpenter knew that when you’re trying to scare people, concentrate on the scaring.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Review: "Free Solo"

“I just need it to end.”
        --Alex Honnold

The basic problem with the movie is that it wouldn’t exist if he had died.

“Free Solo” is a documentary from National Geographic about Alex Honnold, the first person to climb the El Capitan mountain in Yosemite National Park without ropes or other equipment. In the cloistered world of mountain climbing, this was considered a watershed achievement on the order of summiting Mt. Everest.

To the indifferent observer, it seems very much like a self-centered man risking his life for no good reason at all.

The very best documentary films do more than just show you things. They take you away from your own life and perspective, forcing you to discover people who are very different from you in how they think and what they do. By the end, you find yourself, if not embracing the difference, at least understanding and accepting it.

“Free Solo” is not that kind of movie. I went into it believing that mountain climbing is an utterly useless endeavor undertaken by thrill-seeking people who don’t have much else going on in their lives to recommend. I finished it thinking exactly the same thing.

Perhaps that’s my failing, but I think it’s the movie’s.

Honnold isn’t a particular likable, or even compelling, subject for a feature-length film. A rangy man-child in his 30s with large eyes and monkey-like feet and hands, he lives in a van and tools around from mountain to mountain, practicing for his historic ascent. He eats his meals out of the same frying pan he cooked in, using the spatula as an outsized spoon. His only acquaintances are other climbers with whom he trades notes.

At some point during filmmaking he acquires a girlfriend, a vibrant woman named Sanni McCandless with the patience of Job, who follows him around for a time. He suffers a pair of injuries while doing some light climbing with her, and blames her for setting back his plans.

“I will always choose climbing over a lady,” he tells the camera. I have no doubts. He’s become fairly rich and famous, appearing on the cover of numerous magazines, but has eschewed purchasing a home. It’s the same emotionally: Honnold is a renter, not a buyer.

There’s a lot of beautiful photographer in “Free Solo,” as directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin and their crew of danger-defying cameramen (they’re all men) climb the mountain to capture Honnold’s attempt. But as I say, there really isn’t much suspense involved. The crew frets constantly about having Honnold fall to his death while they’re shooting him, but we know this won’t happen.

It’s the biggest false tease imaginable: “Watch this movie to see if he dies!” (Stage whisper: he’s fine.)

Honnold and his ilk like to portray themselves as the inheritors of the mantle of Sir Edmund Hillary and Magellan: fearless folks pushing the limits of their humanity in order to be the the first.

There’s a big difference between exploration and recreation, though. One is undertaken to expand mankind’s knowledge, and the other to enhance a person’s reputation.

Alex Honnold climbing El Cap without any ropes -- spoiler alert! -- successfully adds nothing of value to the universe. “Free Solo” chronicles a meaningless march up a mountain, without managing to illuminate why he, or anyone, would do so.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Review: "The Sisters Brothers"

You might be tempted at first to think "The Sisters Brothers" is a Western comedy. It stars John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as a pair of gunslinger siblings operating out of the Pacific Northwest circa 1851. One's a drunk, the other's a wet rag, and the trailer makes it look like they get into all sorts of hijinks while frequently tussling verbally and occasionally physically.

But this is a serious-as-salt production from French director Jacques Audiard, who has made some excellent pictures including "Rust and Bone" and the little-seen but marvelous "Dheepan." He adapted the screenplay along with Thomas Bidegain from Patrick deWitt's novel of the same name.

It's part anti-Western, part existentialist rumination on manhood, along with a decent amount of shoot-em-up thrown in. The movie feels like a bunch of eclectic pieces that work well together, for awhile.

Charlie Sisters (Phoenix) is the hard-bitten one of the pair, a born killer who has no thoughts beyond earning his next bounty and spending it on drink and whores. Eli (Reilly) is the older, wiser one. He's not soft; he doesn't hesitate to put a bullet in a man's head when he's down. But he does these things because it is Charlie's way, and so it must be his as well.

He is his brother's keeper, which he regards as both duty and prison.

They work for a man called the Commodore (Rutger Hauer, only glimpsed) who sends them off on various assassination missions. They all involve revenge for stealing something from the Commodore. Eli ponders aloud why the Commodore is robbed so frequently. Charlie doesn't really care.

Their latest job involves Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who has come up with a formula that he thinks will make it easier to pan gold from the water in California. Jake Gyllenhall plays John Morris, a detective assigned to locate Warm and track him until the Sisters Brothers can arrive.

Morris is a curious figure. He doesn't seem prone to violence, has the refined manners of a rich man's son and mostly watches his quarry from a distance while writing his thoughts into a journal he's keeping. Unlike the Sisters, we get the sense manhunting is simply a phase he's passing through on the way to other adventures.

I won't give the plot away, other than the first two-thirds of the story involves following these two men in their parallel journeys, one pair tracking the other on their way down the coast to San Francisco.

Phoenix has been giving one terrific, offbeat performance after another lately, but here he plays a more or less straight character, a prototypical Western anti-hero. He's very deliberate about not thinking too hard about anything. Eli, on the other hand, is a cauldron of swirling thoughts and regrets. He carries a red shawl from a lady friend like a totem, a reminder of their fading youth and foul choices.

It's probably one of Reilly's best performances. Unfortunately, the movie loses steam during its last half-hour or so. The story reaches a natural end point, and then it keeps wandering away on the prairie, like a cowpoke with nowhere to go and in no hurry to get there.

Video review: "Ant-Man and the Wasp"

Some think the introduction of wholesale comedy into the superhero genre was a poor match with the generally dark tone of these films. But I welcome movies like “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” which aims for funny first, exciting second and perilous a far distant third.

After the shock-and-awe of “Avengers: Infinity War” and other flicks, we needed a dose of funny as antidote.

You may recall that Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) was a charming but loveable loser of a thief who suddenly found himself a super-hero after stumbling across the suit built by scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). It allows him to shrink down to insect size, though gaining strength in the process, as well as command the bugs that bear his name.

His brief stint with the Avengers landed him on the wrong side of the law, and as the sequel opens he’s spent two years under house arrest. He’s determined to go the straight and narrow path for the sake of his daughter. But that all comes tumbling down when Hank and his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), come calling to recruit his help.

Hank and Hope are searching for their long-lost wife and mother, respectively, who was cast into the quantum zone 30 years ago while committing some derring-do. Essentially, she got shrunk down so small that she’s stuck in another dimension -- and they want Scott to go after her.

Hope has her own suit, which also boasts wings and several other add-ons, and goes by the moniker of the Wasp. Soon they’re a duo.

Spoiling the mix is the Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a young woman with the ability to phase in and out of solidity. Her aims clash with Hank’s crew, and she’s also being helped by an old science rival of his, Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne).

Walter Goggins shows up as a villainous technology dealer whose role is to turn up whenever the plot slows down to kick off some more thrown-downs.

Rudd is his usual twinkly self. There’s something about the innate amiableness of the actor that just makes you want to smile. God help us he never wants to go down the “I’m a serious artist” path and start cranking out doom-and-gloom Oscar bait movies.

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” is just what it looks like: a purely entertaining film that won’t ever bring you down.

Bonus features are decent. There are gag reels and outtakes, deleted scenes with commentary by director Peyton Reed, who also offers an introduction. Plus there are four making-of featurettes: “Back in the Ant Suit: Scott Lang,” “A Suit of Her Own: The Wasp,” “Subatomic Super Heroes: Hank & Janet” and “Quantum Perspective: The VFX and Production Design of ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp.’”


Extras: B

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Review: "First Man"

Neil Armstrong is the most famous person that nobody really knows.

He occupies a pivotal place in human history, an explorer who was the first person to step onto another celestial body other than the Earth. And yet while his name is known to virtually everyone, the man himself remains an utter enigma.

We quote his most famous words -- “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” -- yet I doubt anyone on the street could tell you where life took Armstrong after leading the Apollo 11 mission to the moon and that fateful step.

(For the record, he resigned from NASA shortly afterward, taught at a regional college, raised his family, did a little endorsement work and lived on a farm. He even stopped signing autographs when he learned there was a lucrative black market for them.)

“First Man” is the new film from actor Ryan Gosling and director Damien Chazelle fresh off their shared success on “La La Land.” It’s a decided left turn from a flight-of-fancy musical, a deep-dive space drama that tries to get inside the head of a man who many people were unable to get close to. The screenplay by Josh Singer is based on a book by historian James R. Hansen.

It’s a surprising movie in a lot of ways. The most obvious is how it portrays the long struggle to get to the point where Armstrong could take that first step onto the moon, starting with his days as a civilian test pilot in 1961. To put it bluntly, he’s portrayed as a bit of a screw-up, a better engineer than stick-man, constantly in danger of being grounded.

He surprises everyone by being accepted into the Gemini astronaut program -- they pronounce it “GEM-i-knee,” not “gem-ah-NIGH,” by the way -- and showing a steady, calm approach to the work. It took seven years from the time President John Kennedy called for going to the moon until it actually happened, and along the way there was a mountain of setbacks, resistance, failure and deaths.

Chazelle goes through some of the usual space program preamble we’re used to from “The Right Stuff” or “Apollo 13” -- spinning test machines, cocky scientist types in short-sleeve dress shirts and buzzcuts, macho competitiveness between the astronauts leavened with mutual respect, etc. But it’s really a movie about Armstrong, who he was and how others related to him.

His wife, Janet (Claire Foy), is often as much in the dark about her husband’s interior state as everyone else. Like a stubborn turtle, Armstrong just plods along with his work, relentlessly focused on his goals, occasionally pulling into his shell when others prod too much. She loves him enough to grant him his space, but also knows when to intervene.

A pivotal event little known about is the death of their daughter, Karen, at a very young age after a long illness. It happened right before he applied for the space program, and in a startling admission during his job interview, he answers that it could have a psychological impact on him.

Chazelle shoots the space scenes as if he’s going for the opposite of big, showy, rah-rah moments. He’ll focus his camera on the condensation running off the rocket booster or the bolts surrounding the space capsule window. “First Man” demonstrates how the first generation of space flight was not accomplished in sleek “Star Trek” ships, but clanky contraptions that often looked like they’d been hammered together in somebody’s garage.

“First Man” may not be for everyone. It’s a slow-moving and contemplative picture, one more concerned with the space between Neil Armstrong’s ears than the dark matter that lay between him and the moon.

But for those who favor films that portray real people realistically, this one shoots for the stars.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Review: "The Old Man & the Gun"

There’s a moment in “The Old Man & the Gun” where Robert Redford appears suddenly in a doorway backlit by a sunrise, and I swear it could have been from the 1970s. The ol’ California blond still has that ineluctable twinkle that just makes you grin.

His character, Forrest Tucker, is known for his smile. He’s a well-aged bank robber who’s always charming and polite to those he steals from. He barely even bothers with a disguise, just donning a fake mustache. He even wears the same blue suit and brown fedora hat when he’s tooling around on his non-robbing days.

Granted, those aren’t a lot: this is a man born to steal.

This film, written and directed by David Lowery (“A Ghost Story”), is based on the true-life story of Tucker, a man who spent most of his life in prison for his various crimes. The movie looks at the period in the early 1980s when he and a couple of confederates (Danny Glover and Tom Waits) knocked over banks all over the country, becoming a media sensation as “The Over the Hill Gang.”

He also robs banks solo when he’s not part of the gang. His M.O. is simple as can be: show the bank teller or manager the gun, order them to fill a briefcase with money, tip your hat and walk out the door, calm as can be. Robberies often occurred without anyone else in the bank even knowing it was happening.

That’s what happens to John Hunt (Casey Affleck), a Dallas police detective who was starting a bank account for his son when Forrest robs the place. He’s miffed that it happened right under his nose. The case becomes a personal obsession for him. He hunts up clues from other law enforcement agencies, and is the first one to put together that all the robberies are related.

If you think this is another tense cinematic cat-and-mouse game where the criminal taunts the cop on his tail, you’d be only half right. The movie isn’t really about the hunt, but both men’s need for the hunt.

John has just turned 40 and is contemplating giving up police work because he’s tired of never fixing anything. The deep stack of cash in Forrest’s floorboard cache proclaims that he doesn’t really need the money. What they both need is a purpose, and for a time that’s squaring off with each other.

The film actually spends relatively little time with the usual procedural stuff: hunting up clues, a near miss, taunts traded through the appropriate communication vehicle of the day. When Forrest sees a TV news segment featuring John chasing him, he inscribes a $100 bill to him at their next heist.

Forrest is wooing Jewel (a glowing Sissy Spacek), a lonely farmer/widow he happens across after one of his jobs. He tells her he’s a traveling salesman, but then he tells her he’s actually a bank robber, and finally he says he was just pulling her leg.

That’s how it is with Forrest Tucker: you may not get the truth, but you will always get the authentic man.

There’s been some talk that Redford has declared “The Old Man & the Gun” his final film, though he’s pulled back from that since. If it turns out to be true, it would be a fitting coda to one of the finest careers Hollywood’s ever seen. It won’t stand among his most memorable films -- of which there are too many to name -- but it left this critic smiling wide.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Jason and the Argonauts" (1963)

Take away the then-groundbreaking special effects courtesy of Ray Harryhausen, and "Jason and the Argonauts" is a pretty darn hammy, silly fantasy film. Actually, it's pretty silly and hammy even with them, as the stop-motion creature creations haven't aged particularly well.

They've become certifiably iconic -- which is another way of saying that even though everyone agrees they represent a watershed moment in cinema, the effects look pretty antediluvian today.

Produced outside the traditional studio system, it's a cornucopia of stiff acting, nonsensical plotting and mythological bits 'n' pieces. A "B" picture by progeny but with a healthy budget of $3 million, it nonetheless got some "A" bookings in theaters at the time. Harryhausen considered it his finest work, and frequent musical score collaborator Bernard Hermann delivered a rousing, brass-heavy fanfare.

The most famous scene is the fight at the end between Jason, a couple of his men and a dozen or so skeleton warriors. It remains a rousing sequence, with the human actors blended pretty believably against the stop-motion undead. Fifty-five years after first delighting audiences, the skeletons gave my boys, ages 4 and 7, quite a thrill.

But the precursor to the fight is an utter credulity-twister. It actually wraps up the strengths and weaknesses of the film rather well: great eye candy spoiled by nigh-incompetent storytelling.

The setup: Jason and his crew have just stolen the Golden Fleece from King Aeëtes of Colchis (Jack Gwillim), killing the hydra that was guarding it, and are fleeing back to their ship. Joining them is Medea (Nancy Kovack), the king's high priestess, who betrayed him because Jason was all hunky and stuff.

Aeëtes harvested the teeth of the hydra, and after catching up with Jason's group proceeds to spread the teeth around in an elaborate ritual that must take three or four minutes for the skeletons to spawn. Jason sends Medea and most of his crew on to the ship, while he and two of his men just... stand there, waiting for the spell to be completed.

"Hecate, Queen of Darkness, revenge yourself against the Thessalians. Deliver to me the children of the hydra's teeth, the children of the night!" the king thunders.

And... he goes on.

"Rise up, you dead, slain of the hydra. Rise from your graves and avenge us. Those who steal the Golden Fleece must die!"

Still, Jason stands there, mouth agape.

I don't know about you, but if I've just ripped off an angry monarch of his most coveted treasure and he starts a foul incantation, saying he's going to summon some unkillable warriors, I'm not going to just wait for him to finish. It's skedaddlin' time.

If you think it's unmanly for a cinematic hero to run from a fight: that's exactly what he does anyway. After his fellows have been slain, Jason simply jumps off the cliff and swims to his ship, the Argo, begging the question of why they couldn't have done that right away and saved some living flesh.

(By the way, if you look closely the emblems on the shields of the skeletons are representations of previous Harryhausen creations.)

Jason is played by Todd Armstrong, who's a rather thin figure, both metaphorically and literally, for a legendary warrior out of Greek mythology. His most persistent expression is one of puzzlement/astonishment, eyebrows knitted as he reacts to Harryhausen's latest invention. He stubbornly keeps his spindly arms and chest covered even as the Argonauts toil shirtless for most of the movie. Even his voice is not his own: Armstrong's entire vocal performance was reportedly dubbed over by Tim Turner. This Jason is the pencil-necked counterpoint to Steve Reeves' Hercules of the same era.

Speaking of: the ultra-strong hero is part of Jason's team, played by Nigel Green -- a decidedly thick-waisted, back-slapping iteration of Hercules. He abandons the voyage about halfway there, overcome with grief over the disappearance of Hylas (John Cairney), the intellectual member of the crew, while battling the gigantic statue of Talos on the Isle of Bronze.

The two had awakened the titan by stealing from his treasure. Jason defeats Talos by removing the nail from his heel, causing the magical ichor that sustains him to leak out. Hylas was smushed by the falling behemoth, though Hercules doesn't know that.

If your Greek mythology is a little rusty, Jason was the son of the deposed king of Thessaly, who is foretold by Zeus to avenge himself upon his father's usurper, Pelias (Douglas Wilmer). In order to restore glory to the kingdom and claim his rightful place, Jason is tasked with retrieving the Golden Fleece, the magical hide and skull of a golden ram, from the ends of the earth.

He holds a series of games, a progenitor of the Olympics, to select the finest heroes to man the princely ship that Argus (Laurence Naismith), the wise old shipbuilder, constructs for the trip. In addition to the aforementioned crew is Acastus (Gary Raymond), conniving son of Pelias, sent along to undermine the mission. Despite using his real name, nobody seems to recognize the offspring of Jason's hated enemy.

The weakest of the Harryhausen spectacles is the battle with the harpies, who plague the oracle Phineas (Patrick Troughton), blinded by the gods for his arrogance. (He was once the king of his land, though this is not stated in the movie.) The harpies are crude-looking and nonthreatening, appearing as if they were sculpted out of Play-Doh.

Jason gets occasional help from Hera (Honor Blackman), queen of the Greek gods, who has declared Jason her champion in a battle of wits with Zeus (Niall MacGinnis), her honored but often opposed husband.  Her latest protest against Zeus, aside from his wide-ranging and morphologically diverse philandering, was that her temple was profaned when Jason's family was killed.

Hera drops hints about his quest, bestow gifts, etc. Other gods make occasional appearances, including Hermes (Michael Gwynn), who doubles as an impressively coiffed earthly priest, and Triton (William Gudgeon), who holds open the Clashing Rocks so the Argo can pass through.

This is one of those movies where the gods are depicted as white-robed sentinels parading about a cloudy Olympus realm, pushing men and monsters around like pieces on a mystical chess board. It was quite a common storytelling device through the 1950s and '60s, straight up through "Clash of the Titans" in 1981.

Nowadays, though, gods are the flawed doers in movies rather than just the beneficent (or not) observers/manipulators.

Directed by journeyman filmmaker Don Chaffey, who bounced around between TV and film for 40 years, from a script by Beverly Cross and Jan Read, "Jason and the Argonauts" exists now mostly as a fine piece of nostalgia. Viewed clearly, it's a poorly-made collection of fantastical tropes. Through rose-colored glasses, though, it's a vibrant, colorful masterpiece of cheese.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Video review: "Skyscraper"

I’ve frequently complained about Dwayne Johnson’s choices of role. After doing some interesting work during the early part of his movie career, he downshifted into musclebound lunkhead action roles, the sort of braggadocios alpha male type I’ve come to loathe onscreen -- basically, Schwarzenegger II.

Then he turns around and actually tackles a more complex part, playing a disabled ex-military guy with PTSD and a lot of self-doubt. And the movie bombs, at least at the domestic box office.

This is why no one should take career advice from movie critics.

Johnson plays Will Sawyer, an Army/FBI team leader who switched to designing security systems after an op went bad, leaving him with a prosthetic leg and a lot of regret. His buddy Ben (Pablo Schreiber) hooks him up to do the security work on The Pearl, a next-gen building in Hong Kong that will be the tallest in the world.

While they’re doing the final run-through some very “Die Hard”-esque international bad guys show up and start blasting the place apart with bullets and explosions. Will has brought along his family (Neve Campbell, McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell) for the trip, so of course they’re caught up in the peril.

The movie itself is a pretty straight-forward action/thriller, with plenty of fight scenes and CGI action. It’s nice to see Johnson -- or anyone, for that matter -- playing a hero who’s not automatically the most physically capable person in a room. And he even refrains from the usual quips, eye rolls and bicep-flexing that has become his M.O.

It’s not a great movie, and you kind of have to tuck your sense of logic aside at points. But “Skyscraper” is a genuinely entertaining FLICK with Dwayne Johnson showing a little ambition as an actor.

Bonus features are decent, cemented by a feature-length commentary track by director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who also worked with Johnson on “Central Intelligence.” Pity the actor didn’t join the director for this track. Thurber also provides commentary on a number of deleted or extended scenes.

There are also six making-of documentary shorts that focus on different aspects of production. The most interesting is a talk with Jeff Glasbrenner, the real-life amputee and motivational speaker who inspired the character of Will.



Thursday, October 4, 2018

Review: "Venom"

"Venom" is pretty goofy and kind of a garbage movie. But it's the sort of thing that's fitfully entertaining, enough so that you tend to forgive the goofiness and garbageness.

Tom Hardy graduates from playing a Batman villain to a Marvel one, although in this telling he falls more into the anti-hero groove. You may remember from "Spider-Man 3" -- unless you've purged the entire thing from memory, which isn't a bad idea -- that Eddie Brock was a rival to Peter Parker's at the Daily Bugle who eventually become infected with the same alien symbiote that lent him his cool new black suit and darker powers.

This presumably takes place in some alternate timeline, where Eddie never became Venom but instead was chased out of the New York media scene for veiled indiscretions. He landed in San Francisco and has done well for himself, operating as a mobile investigative reporter for a local network doing "The Eddie Brock Report." He's got a cool townhouse, a nifty motorcycle and even niftier fiancee (Michelle Williams).

Things come a-tumblin' down when he goes after an Elon Musk-like tech billionaire whose space program brought back the alien creatures, which resemble twitching balls of tarry goo, and is experimenting with bonding them to mammal hosts, soon upgraded to human guinea pigs.

Eddie loses his job, his home, his girl and his reputation. Oddly, although his clothes and hair get scragglier, he never seems to run short on cash, generously handing a $20 bill to a homeless woman. And he's able to keep his bike and park it in a dingy alley without ever having to worry about it being stolen.

The villain is played by Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed, and I thought it was cool that we're at a place culturally and cinematically where we're comfortable with a brown bad guy. Though for some reason the movie grants him the overpoweringly WASP-y name of Carlton Drake.

One of the alien symbiotes attaches itself to Eddie, turning him into a monstrous figure that resembles Spider-Man dipped in boiling pitch, with a nasty sexualized tongue constantly wagging. He gains superhuman strength and agility, and the symbiote can create spikes or other shapes with its tentacle-like appendages.

Hilariously, the creature also speaks to him, using the same rough, growly Batman voice that has become de rigueur for darker comics characters. It can control Eddie's body and actions, though he remains conscious the entire time, even when Venom wants to (and does) chomp on people.

At one point Venom looks at a gang of mercenaries they have just defeated, and suggests he bite off their heads and arrange the pieces, just for the aesthetic pleasure of it. "Pile of bodies, pile of heads!" it demands.

There are some decent action scenes, though the CGI often becomes bewildering and hard to follow. Hardy plays Eddie as another one of his mush-mouth twerp characters, more Ratso Rizzo than Peter Parker.

"Venom" starts out a little scary and eventually turns into a weird buddy cop comedy, except one of them's a voracious alien creature and neither one of them is a cop.

Review: "A Star Is Born"

What’s it like to become famous? “A Star Is Born” provides as close an approximation as us peasants are ever apt to experience.

It’s a story of being a nobody and feeling all alone and ignored, and then suddenly there are people all around you constantly telling you what you should do and strangers acting as if they know you.

Lady Gaga, arguably the most famous singer in the world -- if it’s not her, then it’s Beyonce, who was originally in talks for this role -- plays a regular girl, Ally, who goes from crooning in a dive drag bar to the biggest stage in the world.

As with the three previous film versions of this story, the young star is helped along through their romance with an older big star, who eventually sees theirs become eclipsed and grows resentful. I’ve only ever seen the 1937 original and not the musical versions starring Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand from the 1950s and ‘70s, respectively.

Here Gaga’s co-star is Bradley Cooper, who also jumps into the director’s chair for the first time, as well as co-writing the script with Eric Roth and Will Fetters. I’m sure it will be Gaga who gets most of the attention, in a big showy performance that meshes well with her massive star persona. She wrote or co-wrote many of the songs in the movie, and at least a handful are showstoppers.

But it’s Cooper who grabbed my heart in a stricken performance as Jackson Maine, a boozy rocker/cowboy who everybody sees as the golden boy but really feels like a star-crossed loser in his heart. It’s as fine and sensitive performance as he’s ever given, and should be remembered during the awards season.

Cooper also proves to be a more than passable singer, belting out hard-edged rock tunes with a country tinge, as well playing the guitar (or miming doing so) quite believably.

He drops his voice into the basement, chewing his dialogue in a rich, deep burr that immediately made me think of Sam Elliott, which makes sense since he plays Jackson’s much older half-brother.

They used to sing together, but Bobby has now become the tour manager-slash-troubleshooter. Resentments abound -- about the music, the sweaty state fairs where they play, the hearing loss that secretly plagues Jackson. (I identified with him, trying to play it cool while having to ask people to repeat themselves.)

When Jackson stops off in a bar for a drink after one of his shows, he’s ensorcelled by Ally, belting out a saucy version of “La Vie En Rose” while handing out flowers. They spend a magical night drinking, talking, flirting and singing. Next thing she knows Ally has been flown in by jet for his next concert, invited on stage and made to sing one of her songs -- which no one’s heard before -- to a crowd of thousands.

The story is pretty languid and magical the first half, as her star blooms. The second half of the movie flies by very quickly as Ally goes from featured singer in Jackson’s band to a pop sensation all on her own, assisted by Rez (Rafi Gabron), a brilliant but mercenary manager.

This is the rare movie that, even at 135 minutes, could have stood to be a little longer.

The electricity between Gaga and Cooper is undeniable. It’s also fascinating to watch their relationship morph. In the beginning he’s clearly in charge, enjoying granting her a moment in the sun. Later, as his boozing outstrips his talent, Ally becomes the caretaker.

In one memorable scene, they cuddle on a balcony overlooking a massive billboard of her face just before her first album hits. He whispers in her ear to stay true to herself as an artist, not to lose herself in the hype the way he did.

It’s easy to look at all the drinking, drugs and partying and wonder why so many famous people throw their talents away. “A Star Is Born” invites inside the rarest of bubbles and helps us grasp the intense pressure that comes with having to perform. The biggest names often hide the most vulnerable souls.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Review: "Colette"

At first blush “Colette” sounds like a retread of the recent wonderful film “The Wife” starring Glenn Close as the wife of a Nobel-winning author who (spoiler alert) actually wrote all of his books.

But in fact “Colette” is more or less the original tale of a long-suffering woman creating great art under her husband’s name, and is based on the historical early life of arguably France’s most celebrated female writer.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) was a simple country girl who married a famous Parisian author some years her senior, Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), known by his pen name, Willy.

It may seem shocking to us that writing could be published under another person’s name, but as the film makes clear, it was common practice in the late 1800s and early 1900s. (And, as I can personally attest, it still is.)

Willy was a publisher himself who kept a stable of writers working feverishly to crank out stuff under the Willy brand -- generally salacious romances for high-society types. When their finances grow slim and he cannot afford to pay his ghost writers, Willy suggests that Gabrielle dash something off.

Her novel, “Claudine at School,” becomes an overnight sensation, detailing the lascivious thoughts and practices of a 15-year-old schoolgirl from provincial Burgundy. More books followed, chronicling the character’s rise to the Parisian salons and increasingly volatile romances. Willy and Colette become the toast of Paris, until the inevitable resentment over his assuming authorship of the books comes to loggerheads.

West is blowsy and self-pitying as the libertine Willy, suit vests barely able to contain an ample belly, a gray squiggle of goatee dancing off the end of his chin. He’s like a well-meaning but incorrigible walrus who always promises not to steal all the fish, but gives in to his appetites every time.

For him, this means basking in the attention of the French literary world, as well as the attendant feminine attention for a purveyor of socially acceptable smut.

At first decimated by his cheating, Gabrielle soon finds herself indulging her own romantic interests with other women -- with Willy’s blessing and urging. An early affair with a wealthy American socialite (Eleanor Tomlinson) becomes a public sensation, as both Gabrielle and Willy trade turns under her sheets. This provides more fodder for the next novel, of course.

This is where the movie is at its best, exploring how a provincial girl morphs into a worldly woman testing the boundaries of social constraint. Knightley -- who seems not to have aged a line since breaking out 15 years ago -- lets us feel Gabrielle’s surging passions and how they translated into art.

She and Willy enjoy a love/hate relationship, not exactly abusive but certainly controlling. He actually locks her in a room and forces her to write. As time goes on, she casts off more of his yoke, particularly via her long-term relationship with Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough), a renowned noblewoman who dressed in suits and essentially lived as a man.

It’s almost as if Gabrielle dreamed up a parallel universe of affairs and scandal at Willy’s suggestion, and then they were determined to live out this shared fantasy.

The latter third of “Colette” loses a lot of narrative steam, eventually devolving into what seems like a series of naughty vignettes with little connective tissue between them. New lovers come and go like a theatrical parade.

Gabrielle’s marriage to Willy essentially dissolved over the course of some years, the rights to the Claudine books were sold off and she lived at a near-poverty level, subsisting as a stage actress. Her greatest works -- under her own byline -- came later, including “Gigi,” which had its own cinematic adaptation.

Director Wash Westmoreland (“Still Alice”), who wrote the screenplay with Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Richard Glatzer, struggles (as many filmmakers do) with folding the messy, chaotic ends of a real life into a 1¾-hour movie. The result is an engaging biopic that loses steam.

By the way, I promise you I wrote this review myself, and did not force my wife to do it. Although who knows? Maybe she could’ve done a better job.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Video review: "Leave No Trace"

The tiniest of indie films, “Leave No Trace” barely was released into theaters. I’m agnostic on the big/little movie split -- I’ve seen just as many low-budget films that were honkers as blockbusters. But this is one of those cases where I make an outright pitch for people to catch something on video that got past them at the cinema.

Ben Foster, one of the finest actors working in film today, plays Will, the father of Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), a girl in her early teen years. He doesn’t seem to have anything important in his life other than being a parent. He and Tom live in the dense woods outside Portland, Ore., existing somewhere in the netherworld between camping and homelessness.

This film is directed by Debra Granik, who made the excellent “Winter’s Bone” a few years back and co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini based on a book by Peter Rock. It’s a very still, quiet, observant film. There isn’t a whole lot of plot or dialogue. The movie simply observes its characters and presents them as authentic.

We’re never explicitly told what sent Will and Tom into hiding -- and that is the best word for what they’re doing. Breadcrumbs of hints are dropped suggesting perhaps he is an ex-soldier with PTSD. He receives medication from time to time that he turns around and sells to homeless veterans.

Without giving anything away, events transpire to draw the pair out of their secluded world and into a larger community. This is treated by Tom as an opportunity to grow and change, and by Will as a danger that will result in the loss of the only thing he truly treasures: his relationship with his daughter.

“Leave No Trace” has a quiet power. It’s a look at a very unique bond between two people that is threatened by their introduction into regular society.

Bonus features are decent. There are deleted scenes, behind the scenes footage, a photo gallery of shooting locations and a making-of documentary.



Thursday, September 27, 2018

Review: "Night School"

I wasn't even going to bother to write up a review of "Night School." It's a complete waste of time of the people who made it and the people who are unlucky enough to watch it. I already invested over three hours into it, including driving to and from the theater, and figured why compound it with more wasted ticks of the clock?

But bad movies are part of the gig, so I'm going to at least dash out a few thoughts.

This film, starring Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish, is not to be confused with the excellent documentary set in Indianapolis from a couple of years ago. That's currently streaming on Netflix, and I highly recommend you see it. It followed the journey of three Indianapolis adults attempting to obtain their GED high school equivalency degrees. It's a sobering and uplifting look at people trying to improve their lives despite massive roadblocks.

The new film is the cartoon version of that. Hart plays Teddy Walker, a 35-year-old high school dropout who is living above himself financially because he has a beautiful, successful fiance and feels the need to impress her. He drives a Porsche and lives in a swank apartment, but it barely getting by as the top salesman at a BBQ grill store. When the place blows up, he's out of work and without prospects.

In an absurd opening sequence, all the actors pushing 40 portray themselves as teenagers taking the SAT. Teddy finds himself unable to concentrate and blows off the test. The film doesn't seem to realize that you don't need to take the SAT in order to graduate from high school. Maybe he walked out of school, too, but the movie doesn't bother to show that.

Anyway, his best buddy says he'll hire him as a financial analyst at his firm if he gets his GED. So Teddy enrolls in the night program for adults at his old high school, where his nemesis is now the principal. Haddish plays the wise-cracking teacher who refuses to put up with Teddy's attitude and BSing.

The other students are the usual array of broad types. There's a snooty teen girl who got in trouble, a white doofus who can't work in the warehouse anymore because his back and knees are shot, a conspiracy-loving Muslim, etc. Mary Lynn Rajskub is the only one who makes any kind of impression as a harried mother who's very schizophrenic about how she feels about her role. She's the sort of woman who brings something to every church bake sale and then rolls her children into a lake.

You can pretty much guess the plot yourself. There will be capers, conflict, bonding, initial failure followed by inevitable success. The screenplay lists no less than six writers, including Hart, and I suspect there were many more adding to this mishmash gumbo. Director Malcolm D. Lee takes the approach of throwing everything up against a wall and seeing what sticks.

Not much does. "Night School" is a chronically unfunny movie. You know how in most comedies there are a few maudlin moments that you can't wait to be over? Here, I actually got more engaged by the sappy stuff than the attempts at comedy.

Hart has a built-in audience and Haddish is an emerging star, so I'm sure the movie will make bank. I like both of their screen presences, but this movie uses them poorly. "Night School" doesn't pass the old Gene Siskel test of whether you'd rather watch the cast having lunch and chatting than the movie they made.

Not only does it not get a passing grade, you actually feel dumber for having seen it.

Review: "Smallfoot"

Everybody’s a monster to somebody.

In this age of peak tribalism, people tend to cluster in like groups and don’t question the precepts of what they’re told. Especially for those whom life is good, it’s easy to stay in the bubble and enjoy. Everyone else is a potential enemy.

That’s the message of “Smallfoot,” a modestly entertaining animation flick that will certainly thrill wee ones more than adults. I found the themes heavy-handed and the pacing rather draggy.

I bet kids under age 10 will love it, though, and that’s who it’s aimed squarely at.

Channing Tatum, really reaching for the upper register of his voice, plays Migo, a young yeti -- as in bigfoot, sasquatch, etc. It turns out bigfoots (feet?) are real, and living in bliss at the top of a cloud-covered mountain the Himalayas. Daily life is a pleasant grind of chores, some of which make little sense, and good times.

Migo goes about 20 feet tall, has luminous ivory-colored fur, no nose and two horns on his head, one broken. He sort of resembles a distant cousin of Sully from the “Monsters Inc.” movies.

Migo’s dad, Dorgle, is the head gong-ringer, whose job is to be catapulted across the top of the village each daybreak and smash his head into the giant gong that beckons the emergence of the sun, which in their lore is a sun-snail traveling across the sky. (Sounds loopy, but it isn’t worse than some human mythology I’ve heard.)

Time has taken its toll: Dorgle is rather short for a yeti -- Danny DeVito does the voice; get it? -- but used to be taller than the towering Migo. Soon he will pass the mantle to his enthusiastic son.

The yetis have their laws written in stones, quite literally. Their leader is the Stonekeeper (Common), who wears tiles of stones formed into a robe, each one inscribed with a truth that goes unquestioned. The weight of the law is a real thing in this case. “It takes a strong backbone,” Stonekeeper says.

Chief among their laws is, “There is no such thing as a smallfoot,” which is their word for humans. You might think it odd that there is a law just to disprove a negative, and there are a few quiet naysayers amongst the yeti. Among them is Gwangi, the largest of their kinds voiced quite well by LeBron James, and secretly their leader is Meechee (Zendaya), the Stonekeeper’s daughter.

Migo meets up with a smallfoot but his claims are discredited and he is banished. In his exile he journeys to the human town below the mountain and bumps into Percy Patterson (James Corden), a schmaltzy British wildlife broadcaster. Think Steve Irwin, but less brave and more annoying.

His plan was to fake a yeti sighting to save his fading career. So when Migo carries him back to his village as proof, it’s a boon to them both.

I liked how screenwriters Clare Sera and Karey Kirkpatrick (the latter also directed) handle the language barrier. To the humans, yetis sound like roaring bear-lions; to the yetis, humans make squeaky mouse-talk.

There are several songs in “Smallfoot,” though I’d call this more a movie with musical interludes than a straight-up musical. By far the best is “Let It Lie,” with Common rapping out the hidden history of the yeti.

A middling bit of animation, “Smallfoot” is built for small children to love and parents to endure. Business proposal: movie theaters start featuring double bills in which grownups drop off their kids to see this in a supervised theater while they pop next door for something more to their tastes.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Review: "Blaze"

“Blaze Foley was a genius and a beautiful loser.”
                       --Lucinda Williams

“Blaze” is a hazy, mournful elegy for a man many have called the greatest country music singer-songwriter nobody’s ever heard of.

He’s revered by folks in the industry, many of whom have covered his songs (Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson) or wrote their own about him (Lucinda Williams, Townes Van Zandt). Blaze died nearly 30 years ago, gunned down at age 40 while defending a friend. His few albums barely leave much of a recorded legacy, , including instances where the master tapes were stolen or disappeared.

This film is Ethan Hawke’s attempt to resurrect Blaze’s ghost and give us a haunting portrait of a legend that never was.

Hawke has quietly directed a few small films over the years. He co-wrote the script with Sybil Rosen, based on her memoir of her romance and doomed marriage with Blaze. Musician Ben Dickey, stepping in front of the camera for the first time, gives a memorable, aching performance as a man who, as a friend described, knew the value of being zero.

An enormous person, Blaze was physically arresting, hobbling on one leg shortened by infant polio, sporting a waist-long beard and festooned cowboy hat that hid most of his head, his coat and boots trimmed with duct tape -- partly to keep them together, partly as a poke at the urban cowboy trend of the time.

He was usually drunk when he performed, and also when he did not.

Alia Shawkat plays Sybil, and the movie is at its best in skimming through their relationship. The story jumps forward and back in time, like a family album that’s being flipped around by someone clutching at painful memories. For a time they lived in a ramshackle treehouse on a commune, he picking out songs on his guitar and she acting in the local playhouse.

Narratively, the movie is deliberately unfocused. It plays out with not one but two framing devices. In the first, Blaze delivers his final performance at a dive bar in Austin -- quite literally the “Outhouse” -- where he is recording an album using his last few dollars. In between songs he delivers a heartbreaking sermon-slash-confession to the spare, indifferent audience, with one interruption to throw down with a rude patron yammering on the phone.

In the other, two of his collaborators and best friends, Townes Van Zandt (an arresting Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton), are being interviewed by a radio DJ (Hawke himself, only heard and seen from behind). It’s ostensibly to promote a new album by Van Zandt -- a fellow traveler on the path of wastrel gypsy troubadours -- but they spend the whole time talking about Blaze, someone the DJ has never heard of.

Watching the movie is like walking through a waking dream. It’s an absolutely gorgeous-looking film (cinematography by Steve Cosens) that uses Blaze’s music as the quiet engine that powers the imagery, which is often a mix of montages with little narrative intent.

For example, a song will start with Blaze singing it at that dive bar, then switch to a vignette of Blaze and Sybil rambling around their shack decades earlier, and then the moment when he first wrote it.

Characters speak in lifelike, hard-to-understand dribbles of overlapping dialogue. Especially Dickey, whose deep-chested rumbles often seem like they barely pass through his mouth for refinement into coherent words. It’s an odd trend, this incomprehensible dialogue, undertaken by disparate filmmakers in recent years, and one best reconsidered.

“Blaze” is a very atypical biopic about a rather unusual figure. By any reasonable reckoning, Blaze Foley was a drunkard who failed at everything he tried. But he wrote a few songs that people still sing, and left an indelible portrait on those few fortunate enough to have known him. Some might call that very lucky indeed.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Reeling Backward: "The Day of the Jackal" (1973)

"The Day of the Jackal" was my father's favorite film. Or I should say it is his favorite film. I'm not sure what the proper term to use is when the person is no longer with us but the movie endures.

I'd like to think that love survives death, whether for another person or a work of art, so we'll choose the present tense.

The film has just been released in a gorgeous Blu-ray special edition out Sept. 25 that includes plenty of nifty bonus material.

I saw it with him first on HBO when I was about 10 or 11 years old, and my lifelong love of cinema was already in full bloom. I remember sitting together in our living room, him on his recliner in the corner and me lying on the ground directly in front of the TV with my head propped against a triangular pillow, my usual spot. Several other viewings took place together over the years.

He, and I, adore the absolute leanness of the narrative. Even at 142 minutes, there is not an ounce of fat in this spy thriller about a British assassin hired by French insurgents to kill President Charles de Gaulle in the summer of 1963. It's essentially a crime procedural, but instead of following the investigators as they look into a deed already committed, it's a parallel race as we track the titular killer striving to finish his contract while an international cadre of law enforcement types scrambles to prevent it.

Many movies would go on to copy this style, including 1993's "In the Line of Fire." Although there is a cast of hundreds, the story very much focuses on two figures just like the Clint Eastwood film, the assassin and the man leading the hunt. Though here there's no ongoing taunting between hero and villain as they engage in their intricate dance, only meeting at the very end.

Indeed, the film has such an incredible sense of verisimilitude, weaving actual events and locations in with fictional ones, that I had long assumed it was based on a genuine assassination attempt. In fact, the inspiration comes from the 1971 fictional novel by Frederick Forsyth, adapted for the screen by Kenneth Ross and directed by the great Fred Zinneman ("High Noon," "From Here to Eternity").

This is perhaps the signature role of Edward Fox's career, displaying an icy charm as the Jackal, aka Charles Calthrop, known as the best hit man in England, and perhaps the world. He's a chameleon-like figure, putting on and taking off identities like changes of his well-tailored suits. A compact man with a lean, boyish figure and feathered blond hair, the Jackal is as suave as anyone who's played James Bond.

The strength of "Jackal" is that we find ourselves rooting for the Jackal and his nemesis, Deputy Police Commissioner Claude Lebel (Michel Lonsdale). Like the Jackal, Lebel displays a single-minded commitment in his pursuit of his goal, literally sleeping in his office for weeks on end, assisted only by his loyal number two (Derek Jacobi).

Both men also have a tendency to be curt and impatient with those who stand in the way of his goals. The difference being that the Jackal simply kills anyone who opposes him, while Lebel hunkers down and burrows into the weak spots of the bureaucracy.

No doubt my dad's favorite moment of the film comes late when Lebel reveals the leak within the cabinet of French ministers who have been sworn to secrecy on the affair. One of them had been seduced by an insurgent spy, and Lebel plays a recording of her feeding information from his phone. Confessing his weakness, the guilty man leaves the meeting abruptly (and later commits suicide).

The ministers are pleased, having been generally dismissive of Lebel, seeing him as a low-level flunky -- not a government official but a gumshoe cop. As the meeting is breaking up, the haughty chief minister (Alan Badel) asks him how he knew which of their personal phone lines to tap. Not even bothering to look up from his papers, Lebel states that he couldn't know which of them was the source of the leak, so he tapped all of their phones.

Zinnemann holds this moment for the briefest of seconds, just long enough to register the shocked faces of the high and mighty. In our shared viewings, this was always followed by my father's high-pitched cackle of glee.

I won't bother with a detailed plot synopsis. Suffice it to say, members of the OAS -- a real splinter group of French military enraged by de Gaulle's decision to grant Algeria independence -- hire the Jackal after their own assassination attempts fail and they are forced into hiding in Rome.

He's a one-man show, doing all the planning and scouting personally. His only help is a weapons expert who creates the nifty collapsible rifle that can be disguised as a pair of crutches, and a pornographer who makes false ID's on the side. The latter tries to bribe the Jackal out of an extra £1,000, and finds himself stuffed into a locker for his trouble.

As he executes his intricate plan, the Jackal moves from England to Italy to France, swapping out vehicles and passports as needed. He even displays a pan-sexual mercenary attitude, seducing both a wealthy married woman (Delphine Seyrig) and a young gay businessman (Anton Rodgers) when he finds the need to hide out from the authorities. In the movie's historically accurate depiction of 1963, the only way authorities had to track tourists' movements was through hotel guest cards, picked up manually by motorcycle police.

"The Day of the Jackal" is not a character study, but the film does find ways to penetrate the interiors of its chief two characters. The Jackal's cover is blown early in the execution of the plan, yet he stubbornly continues with the attempt, even knowing he's a single man arrayed against thousands of Europe's best law enforcement officers.

Why? Partly it's personal arrogance, of course, but we also sense a large helping of professional ambition. In his initial meeting with the OAS leaders, the Jackal demanded a payment of $500,000 (just over $4 million in today's dollars) with the justification that whoever pulls off the job "can never work again." In other words, whether de Gaulle lives or dies the Jackal knows that his career as an international assassin is over -- and he's rather go out with a win.

Taut, supremely entertaining and with never a dull moment, "The Day of the Jackal" may not be one of my all-time favorite films. But I can't disagree with my dad -- it deserves its place as one of the best thriller ever made.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Video review: "Solo: A Star Wars Story"

“Solo: A Star Wars Story” was the first bona fide flop for the storied sci-fi franchise. I’m not sure why. Although it certainly deserves a ranking toward the bottom of the Star Wars canon, it’s still a fun, action-filled entry with plenty of entertainment value.

My 7-year-old declared it the best Star Wars flick of all. That’s overstating the case, though I would put it at least above “Rogue One” and “The Last Jedi.”

Alden Ehrenreich takes over the role of intergalactic smuggler/smirker Han Solo from Harrison Ford, and it’s a pretty seamless handoff. Aside from being a head shorter, Ehrenreich’s Han has all the scruffy charisma we’re used to. This story looks at his formative years prior to meeting Luke, Leia and the gang.

Raised on the crime-ridden planet of Corellia, Han manages to escape the den of thieves where he was raised, though his lady love, Qui’ra (Emilia Clarke), is captured. He vows to become a great pilot, snag his own ship and return to rescue her.

Flash forward a few years, and things didn’t turn out that way. After washing out as a pilot in the Imperial academy and deserting as a foot soldier, he stumbles into Qi’ra to find out she isn’t in need of any rescuing at all. She’s become the right hand woman for Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), a high-up in the criminal syndicate Crimson Dawn.

Han has fallen in with a group of bandits led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who takes him under his wing, shows him how to spin a laser blaster and a few things about double-crosses, too. Their assignment -- failure means death -- is to boost some raw hyperspace fuel from inside the Kessel nebula.

It’s volatile stuff, so if they don’t get it out fast enough, the whole plan goes explodey-splodey.

We also get to witness Han’s meeting up with Chewbacca, and his first encounter with self-pleased rogue Lando Calrissian, captain of the Millennium Falcon. He’s played with dizzying charm by Donald Glover, and if the Star Wars honchos don’t give him his own movie, they’re dumber than nerf herders.

Another fun addition is Lando’s navigation droid L3 (voice/motion by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who is a distinct break from the polite/subservient model of C3PO and his ilk. Sassy and rebellious, she advocates for robots overthrowing their “organic overlords” and even hints at a possible romantic relationship with Lando.

I’m hoping more people will discover “Solo” on home video. It’s a worthy addition to the Star Wars library, fleshing out the backstory of (arguably) its most popular character and giving us some thrills along the way.

Bonus features are very good. They include eight deleted or extended scenes, including one showing Han as an Imperial cadet; a roundtable with director Ron Howard and his cast; interviews with veteran Star Wars scribe Lawrence Kasdan and his co-writer, son Jonathan; and much more.

One especially neat bonus feature: “The Millennium Falcon: From Page to Park,” depicting the history of the famous spacecraft and its upcoming translation into a theme park ride.



Thursday, September 20, 2018

Review: "The House with a Clock in Its Walls"

“The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is a little bit of a lot of things -- none of which work all that well.

It’s a kids-do-magic fantasy adventure in the vein of Harry Potter; a redemptive tale about an orphan growing up fast; a comedic lark with over-the-top characters; a creature feature with plenty of colorful/gross critters; and a few other odd ends.

It’s a little funny, a little scary -- probably too frightening for small children, despite its PG rating -- a little magical, and a little dull at times.

This film is directed by Eli Roth, known for getting his start making the hardest of hardcore horror: “Hostel,” “Cabin Fever.” It’s pretty hilarious that he’s now doing a family-friendly scare romp. Eric Kripke provided the script.

Based on the classic novel by John Bellairs, unread by me, it stars Owen Vaccaro as Lewis Barnavelt, a 10-year-old who arrives in fictional New Zebedee, Mich., in 1955 after the death of his parents. He is to live with his uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black), the self-described “black swan” of the family. He wears an impressive pompadour, a fixed, unnerving smile and a kimono.

Owen moves into the home at 100 High St., a dilapidated old mansion filled with clocks, weird antiques, stained glass windows that tend to change shape, creepy mannequins and other essentials of any decent haunted house.

Another permanent fixture is Mrs. Zimmerman (no first name is every supplied), the haughty but likable next-door neighbor who apparently spends all her time at Jonathan’s place. She and Jonathan exchange a steady stream of insults like old marrieds, but insist their relationship is platonic.

It doesn’t take long for Owen to figure out that his uncle and Mrs. Zimmerman are warlock and witch, respectively. He insists they teach him magic, too, and they resist for about five seconds before turning Dumbledore on them. Soon Owen is doing spells to spray the bully at school in the face with the water fountain. Good times.

The previous owner of the house was one Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), a great magician and Jonathan’s former partner. (In the movie’s telling, many stage magicians are in fact real warlocks and witches who use the cover to pay their bills.) His craft turned decidedly dark after some horrible experiences in the war, and he died after attempting the foulest of spells.

Of course, in these types of movies, death is often just a temporary phase.

I liked Black as the monumentally self-pleased warlock, who has a surfeit of confidence and yet has no hesitation in dubbing Zimmerman a far superior magic user. The shtick got a little old after a while, though.

The movie follows Owen on his adventures at school for a time, especially his budding friendship with Tarby (Sunny Suljic), a popular jock temporarily laid up with a broken arm. But the relationship takes a turn for no good reason other than to service the plot.

There are some amusing and scary sequences that are memorable. I particularly liked a battle with enchanted Jack-o’-lanterns that gets satisfyingly gooey.

I can’t recommend this movie -- I didn’t even like it enough to bother writing out the whole title again. It’s too creepy for really small children, while those over age 10 will probably deem it kiddie fare. It’s not terrible, but it did not cast a spell on me.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Review: "Lizzie"

Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart are beautiful women with tired eyes. In “Lizzie,” their characters seem to be sleepwalking through life, addled and awry, as if dreamers hoping desperately to awake from a nightmare.

You may have heard that this is a movie about famed axe murderess Lizzie Borden. What you may not know (I didn’t) is that Borden was acquitted of killing her father and stepmother, returned to her hometown and lived out the rest of her days there. Think about that.

In this fictional (?) version of events, director Craig William Macneill and screenwriter Bryce Kass focus on the romantic relationship between Lizzie (Sevigny) and the family maid, Bridget Sullivan (Stewart). A 1984 novel had supposed a lesbian affair between the two and the discovery of the tryst as the trigger for the murders. (The film’s credits curiously do not attribute the book.)

Here Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) is the true villain, a dictatorial patriarch who treats Lizzie and her sister, Emma (Kim Dickens), as chattel, embarrassing old maids who continually defy and vex him. He also takes liberties with Bridget in her attic bedroom at night, as an Irish immigrant in 1892 Massachusetts was treated as little more than an indentured servant.

The first half of the movie plays out as a tortured romance, while the second half is a whodunit as we witness the consequences of the crime and flashbacks to the actual killings.

I found the scenes between the two actresses more interesting than the crime-and-punishment stuff. They resist the magnetic attraction toward each other, captives of their time and place that looked upon such love as blasphemy, not to mention the yawning class distinction between them.

It’s a compelling dance, as they struggle against their feelings and drown in the anxiety created by denying them.

The Bordens were not a happy clan. Wealthy but emotionally distant, Andrew had remarried a few years after his wife’s death. The daughters remained aloof to their stepmother, Abby (Fiona Shaw). Lizzie refuses to call her mother, though she sticks up for her stepdaughter against the worst of her husband’s cruelties.

To wit: At one point, Andrew is enraged after Lizzie steals and pawns some jewelry, and exacts his revenge by beheading all of her beloved pigeons, one by one. Then he orders Bridget to roast them up for dinner. It’s quote a gothic horror scene.

Once the elder Bordens are dead, the movie loses quite a bit of steam. I think it would have been more interesting to keep the matter of Lizzie’s guilt tucked away from this story, concentrating on why she might have been tempted to do such a thing, and how the case became one of America’s first murder media sensations.

Still, we must consider the movie made rather than the one we wish for.

“Lizzie” is at times compelling and other times listless, a look back at a grisly bit of history that has become a gag, and tries to flesh out the human lives involved. It may not be true, but this is as good an explanation as any for hacking people up with a hatchet.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Video review: "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom"

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is the unavoidable sequel to 2015’s reboot of the genetically-recreated-dinosaurs monster mash, which made a gazillion dollars. So we’re back for another romp in the jungle, another super-duper special “boss” dinosaur and a whole lot of quips from star Chris Pratt and downer tut-tutting from other star Bryce Dallas Howard.

(Btw, isn’t it telling that in blockbuster movies featuring male and female leads, the guy is always the “fun” one?)

The setup here is that the dinos are still running rampant on the remote Isla Nublar, which originally was built as a massive amusement park. Believe it or not, an environmental movement has been launched saying they should be protected as an endangered species. Other more sensible folks simply worry about getting chomped.

Dino wrangler Owen Grady (Pratt) and operations manager Claire Dearing (Howard) are duped into helping some bad types retrieve the dinosaurs in hopes of preserving them. Instead, the plan is to auction them off as very toothy pets for the deplorable rich.

Of course, things go awry and the dinosaurs start munching on their would-be owners instead -- sort of a delish triumph for the 99%, if you think about it.

The twist is an Indoraptor, a genetically modified dinosaur that’s a mix between a velociraptor and the special boss dino from the last movie. Want to guess if the next “Jurassic World” flick will feature the spawn of this movie’s “special” dinosaur?

There are some exciting action scenes, but “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is a paint-by-numbers sequel without a lot of ambition or heart.

Bonus features are ample. The neatest feature is a series of video journals kept by Pratt during production, including one-on-ones with everyone from director J. A. Bayona to his own stunt double.

There’s also a conversation between cast and crew, a “JURASSIC Then and Now” looking at key moments in the film franchise and an “On the Set With Chris & Bryce” that explores their offscreen moments. Plus, 11 making-of documentary shorts.