Thursday, August 16, 2018
“Alpha” is a lyrical supposition of a movie. It imagines what the first meeting was like between man and dog that did not end in violence, and shows us how human and beast might have taken the initial steps in what is surely the most enduring and consequential partnership between any two species.
This is a gorgeous, transportive adventure movie that lifts you out of your seat and sets you down in the rocky peaks and valleys of Europe 20,000 years ago. We careen off cliffs, endure howling blizzards, battle hungry animals who crave human flesh (and vice-versa), and much more.
It’s as good an example of “You are there” filmmaking as I’ve seen since “Gravity.”
Director Albert Hughes shot the movie using IMAX 3D cameras -- no squishy aftermarket conversion here. 3D movies were a big thing for a while, until audience figured out it was mostly an excuse to hit them for a $3 upcharge.
But here is one film I strongly recommend you see on a good IMAX screen. This is the sort of cinematic experience in which you should feel enveloped.
Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Keda, a young man on his first buffalo hunt with his tribe. His father (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) is the chief, and it’s clearly expected that he will one day step into those fur-skin boots. He points to the alpha wolf baying across the valley, and instructs that leadership is earned, not given.
But Keda seems a bit scrawny and kind-hearted to be a great hunter.
His father tries to teach that taking life is a necessary step in sustaining the life of the tribe. The annual buffalo hunt keeps their small band stocked with meat and furs to last them the winter. Still, when the time for confrontation happens, Keda finds his courage wanting.
Through a set of circumstances I’ll not divulge, he is separated from the other hunters, and must spend months traversing the terrain back to his village, overcoming injuries and starvation. One of his first unfortunate encounters is with a pack of wolves. Hobbled by a dislocated ankle, he manages to slice one with his stone-bladed knife and scrambles into a tree to outlast their hunger.
When he finally climbs down, Keda discovers the injured wolf still lying there. After finding he lacks the heart to slay it, he carries it to a cave and they spend time healing up together. When he finally has the strength to start his journey home, the wolf, whom he dubs Alpha, tags along.
The screenplay by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt (story by Hughes) contains oceans of silence in which no dialogue is spoken. (Even when the people do speak, it’s in an ancient tongue that sounds like a mishmash of several Western languages.) Keda eventually starts talking to Alpha, but their greatest communication is through whistles, motions and eye contact. Soon natural enemies are the surest of allies.
The cinematography by Martin Gschlacht is just jaw-droppingly amazing, assisted by a little CGI here and there. We really feel like we’ve wandered back into prehistory, where the survival of the species depended on primal instincts.
“Alpha” is a terrific piece of entertainment that also imagines how man’s best friend earned that nickname.
Monday, August 13, 2018
"Dirty Dancing" may just be one of the most seminal garbage movies ever. But, garbage it is.
Somehow I missed seeing this film, a smash success when it came out in August 1987. The omission is perhaps not surprising: I had just gone off to college, and it looked to be a sappy romance dressed up against the backdrop of dancing, something in which I have never had an iota of ability or interest. (No surprise that "Footloose" and other dance flicks of the era also escaped my contemporaneous notice.)
It's about a sweet Jewish teen girl in the early 1960s who falls for the bad boy dance instructor at Kellerman Hotel, the posh Catskill Mountain resort where her family is turning "summer" into a verb. He teaches her to dance, and to stand up for herself, and she teaches him that nice Jewish girls make good lays if you have feathered '80s hair in a story set in 1963.
I kid, I kid... but not by much.
The movie, directed by Emile Ardolinio ("Sister Act") from a script by Eleanor Bergstein, gleefully mashes up pop culture references between the two decades -- not so much an homage as a reconfiguring of the past to make it more palatable to modern audiences.
That's best encapsulated by the film's theme song, "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," to which the main characters dance in the big scene at the end, brazenly showing off their forbidden love to the world. It sounds very much like a 1987 pop song, not even attempting to mimic the rhythms and instrumentals of the era. It wound up a chart-topping hit, and won prizes at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and Grammys.
Speaking of the Big Dance: the scene where Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) strides up to the table of Frances "Baby" Houseman's (Jennifer Grey) family and announces to her dad (Jerry Orbach), "Nobody puts Baby in a corner," has become a certified Iconic Cinematic Moment.® It's been endlessly referenced and parodied, and even today people toss it around as a phrase of empowerment.
Coming so very late to the game, I have two observations:
- The moment makes no sense. Baby is sitting against a wall on the side of Kellerman's ball room, not in a corner. She's next to a stone column that sticks out about 8 inches, but it's not like she's deeply ensconced in shame and shadows. And her dad didn't order her to sit there; she's sitting next to her mom (Kelly Bishop). Presumably, she chose the spot herself, leaving the seat closest to the stage for her sister, Lisa (Jane Brucker), who was part of the summer-ending show.
- When Baby's father (Jerry Orbach) briefly stands up to object, there's an awkward do-si-do where Johnny takes Baby's hand, negotiates her around dad and they stride off together to the stage. Orbach, a tall Broadway actor, towers over the much shorter Swayze in a way not favored for screen protagonists. In other scenes where the two men confront each other they're eye-to-eye, so I suspect the old reliable "apple box trick" was employed.
Grey, who previously had small roles in "Red Dawn" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," soon saw her star fading, largely resigned to television movie roles amid a pair of botched nose jobs that (in)famously left her unrecognizable. It was an odd choice to make: Her petite, slightly hooked schnoz is the very feature that made her stand out from other actresses of the day, giving her an authentic, relatable look. But she was hardly the first starlet to be undone by ill-advised visits to the plastic surgeon.
(Though I use "starlet" in the most generous sense. As is Hollywood custom, Grey was a decade or so older than her teenage character.)
Swayze went on to become one of the top leading men of the late 1980s and '90s, ping-ponging back and forth between romance pictures ("Ghost") and ridiculous action flicks -- "Road House" and "Point Break," two more movies that have gone on to cult status despite having charms that elude me.
A trained dancer via the Joffrey Ballet, Swayze won the part of Johnny over the much-younger Billy Zane, who apparently couldn't dance a lick. He and Grey butted heads on the set of "Red Dawn," but they dance beautifully together. And while their dancing montages are loaded with schmaltz -- Johnny playing air guitar to her feline stalking representing the zenith -- it's hard to deny the onscreen heat between them.
The choreography (by Kenny Ortega) plays pretty well to these untrained eyes. The story is set in motion when Johnny's usual dance partner, Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), is felled by a botched abortion, and Baby offers to sub in. Johnny teaches her the ins and outs of the mambo and other conventional steps shown off at Kellerman's, as well as the more "dirty" dancing that the resort workers engage in at private parties.
This seems to consist entirely of the two dancers stepping between each other's overlapping legs, so they can grind their crotch against the other's thigh. Ah, l'amore.
Interestingly, Baby does not turn into a spectacular dancer overnight. She learns enough in a few days of cramming to perform a passable mambo for a gig at another resort, though she makes a few mistakes and is too afraid to execute the dramatic lift. Saving that for the last scene, I suppose.
There really isn't much plot other than I've outlined here. There are some jealousies and intrigues that pass via secondary characters, notably Robbie (Max Cantor), the snotty medical student who knocked up Penny, and Neil Kellerman (Lonny Price), the also snotty son of the resort owner (Jack Weston) who's in training to take over the business and has eyes for Baby.
Baby's dad is a hardworking, upstanding doctor who is beloved by Baby. When she asks him to treat Penny in secret, he does so but comes away with the assumption that it was Johnny who impregnated her. Displaying classic "wrong side of the tracks" pride, Johnny allows this to pass, used to being looked down upon. When and Baby begin their secret affair, their biggest challenge is she won't stand up for him, or herself.
Well, that and his side gig as a male prostitute.
While it's never overtly depicted, it seems that Johnny's true role at the resort is not just to teach middle-aged Jewish ladies to dance, but to have sex with them for money. Sometimes this is done discreetly, but in at least one case, it's actually the husband paying off the dance stud to bed his wife and keep her out of his hair so he can play cards. This is the sort of scenario that has only ever existed in a Hollywood movie.
It's curious that Baby never seems bothered by Johnny's side hustle as a hustler. (Or the danger of STDs... a curious thing for a physician's daughter.) At one point in the movie Johnny announces to Baby that he's giving up sleeping with those other women for cash, and it's laughably depicted as a poignant moment.
One other thing struck me about the movie: the lack of commentary on the schism between the Jewish clientele vs. the gentile staff at the resort. The cultural references are not exactly hidden -- Catskill Mountains, the emphasis on girls marrying lawyers or doctors, the surfeit of "-man" surnames -- yet it's never brought up explicitly as another reason to drive these star-crossed hoofers apart.
As you've probably detected from the tone of this essay, I don't have a lot of respect for "Dirty Dancing." Nobody expected it to be anything other than a low-budget romantic musical featuring some nostalgic pop tunes and some slightly sweaty, PG-13-rated naughtiness.
It became something far more, and our popular culture is lesser for it.
Sunday, August 12, 2018
If the first “Avengers” movie felt like a convergence, the point toward which years of disparate superhero film franchises had been building, then the third, “Avengers: Infinity Wars,” is the beginning of the end times.
I don’t say that to mean superhero flicks are on their way out. Anything but. You can take a look at the box office tallies for this movie, “Black Panther” and other recent iterations from the Marvel Comics Universe and know they’re going to keep making them until people stop going.
But my take is that in the hereafter fans of these movies will refer to the genre in terms of “before AIW” and “after AIW.”
This is a game-changing film that takes all our hopes and dreams bound up with the modern mythology of superheroes, and dashes them against the wall. The story arc of dozens of future movies will hinge upon this movie and its sequel, due out next May.
I won’t give anything away for the few people who haven’t seen it, but before “Avengers: Infinity War” came out it was a common parlor game to guess how many characters would die in it, and choose which ones. Afterward… let’s just say a lot of people making picks were right.
You know the story. World-beater Thanos (Josh Brolin) is coming to Earth to claim the last of the Infinity Stones, which will essentially render him all-powerful. His goal: to eradicate half the living beings in the cosmos so the others can prosper on the remaining resources.
This is more than just an Avengers movie, as almost every single hero of all the Marvel franchises make appearances -- the Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, and so on. There’s too many characters to list, but Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) are the most pivotal.
The plot lines move through a number of smaller battles, culminating in a massive one in the hidden nation of Wakanda. On a number of occasions the heroes have a chance to sacrifice one of the Stones in order to prevent Thanos from collecting them all, and decide that the principle of protecting one life is more important than emulating their enemy’s behavior.
We’ll see how that works out for them.
“Avengers: Infinity War” is the culmination of the superhero cinematic adventure that’s been growing for more than two decades. Where things go from here, I can only wait to see.
Bonus features are good, not great. There’s a feature length commentary track by directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; a gag reel; four production documentary shorts totaling about a half-hour; and deleted and extended scenes adding another 10 minutes of footage.
Wednesday, August 8, 2018
I’ve been looking forward to “BlacKkKlansman.” It’s been awhile since I could say I was genuinely anticipating a new Spike Lee movie.
Heck, I’ll admit that lately I haven’t been aware when a new Lee “joint” -- his word for his work -- has been about to come out. Let’s just say the acclaimed cinematic purveyor of African-American experiences hasn’t been the cultural force he once was in the 1980s or ‘90s. I think “Miracle of St. Anna” from a decade ago was his last feature I saw in a theater.
“BlacKkKlansman” won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, an annual event that lately has told us more about how the French feel about America or its current president than they do about a particular film.
Lee’s movie, based oh-so-loosely on the true story of a black police officer who successfully infiltrated (sorta) the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, is an explicitly anti-Trump movie that unambiguously links the president’s worst rhetoric with the overtly racist tactics of white supremacy groups of the day.
They’re still doing the same things, Lee argues, they’ve just dressed it up in more palatable terms.
Based on the book by Ron Stallworth, with a screenplay Lee collaborated on with Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott and David Rabinowitz, “BlacKkKlansman” follows Stallworth (a charismatic John David Washington) as he joins the Colorado Springs Police Department in the late 1970s. Through grit, talent and spunk, he moves up from the records room to undercover detective.
His first assignment: infiltrate a speech by the former Black Panther firebrand Stokley Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) to see if he’s riling up Colorado Afro-Americans. (Pity that term didn’t outlive the ebony nimbus hairdos of the day, which are replicated for the film to glorious effect.)
There he meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), president of the local black student union. He finds himself sympathetic to their revolutionary rhetoric, and drawn to her passion.
After seeing a recruitment ad in the local paper by the KKK, Ron calls up the number and uses his “white voice” to convince them he’s an Aryan type who hates all people of color. The relationship builds until they want to meet in person, which presents an obvious problem. So fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is brought in to play Ron in the face-to-face encounters, with the real Ron listening in via the wire attached to the ersatz one’s chest.
The Klansmen are an assortment of buffoons, mouth-breathers and dead-enders, so we never really take them too seriously. Topher Grace plays Grand Wizard/Executive Director David Duke, who’s still a prominent voice in the white supremacist movement, as a gullible -- even slightly needy -- fellow who thinks in Ron he’s found a fellow traveler.
They talk on the phone frequently, and at one point Ron even goads Duke into claiming he can tell the difference between a white man’s voice and a black one’s.
The only one who’s truly scary is Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), the most militant member of the local Klan. He is immediately suspicious of Flip, insisting he looks like a Jew (he is), and suspects him of trying to infiltrate the group for nefarious purposes (right again). His warnings go unheeded, of course.
Like a lot of Spike Lee’s films, “BlacKkKlansman” mixes comedic satire with barely suppressed rage. Much of the actual events depicted are Hollywood inventions, which is par for the course.
We drink in Ron’s brazenness, laugh at the cartoon Klansmen and, if we’re so disposed politically, nod our head sagely when Lee cuts to news footage of Trump or Duke speaking contemporaneously.
It’s an entertaining, messy film that thinks a bit too much of itself.
Sunday, August 5, 2018
Some people I respect are calling “The Rider” the best movie of 2018. I wouldn’t go nearly so far. This film, about a young rodeo rider recovering from a serious injury, is often hampered by some rather amateurish acting. But it’s got a spare, powerful beauty and a compelling existential journey to explore.
Real-life family members Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau and Lilly Jandreau play son, father and daughter, respectively. It’s the first screen credit for each of them. The fictional Blackburn clan lives somewhere unspecified out West -- the film was shot in the South Dakota badlands -- and virtually everything they do is connected to the land and the animals upon it.
Brady is a rodeo bronco rider who has just suffered a serious injury. As the story opens his head is shaved and there are big staples across his skull. The doctors are telling him he can’t ride competitively ever again, but he doesn’t want to hear it. He continues to hang out with his rodeo bodies, and visits a famous former bull rider, Lane Scott (using his real name), who suffered an even worse mishap and requires full-time rehabilitative care.
Writer/director Chloé Zhao has given us a film that is unafraid to wallow in stillness and contemplation. Brady is an emotive presence despite playing a character who says very little and works to hide his emotions.
There’s not a lot of narrative. Brady comes close to getting back in the rodeo chute again, but thinks better of it. He starts to work with horses, showing an almost eerie skill in breaking wild ones into docile creatures. But then his symptoms, including a hand that clenches and won’t let go, become worse. It seems fate is conspiring to keep him away from even the simple joy of riding and taming the creatures he loves most.
Most of the supporting actors use their real names, and for most of them it’s their first time in front of a camera. For a few of them, it’s painfully obvious. I don’t make it a practice to call out amateurs for performing like amateurs, so I’m not about to start now. It hurts the movie’s impact, but not fatally.
“The Rider” is still a beautiful, tragic, worthwhile film about the price of loving something with everything you’ve got.
Wednesday, August 1, 2018
"Celebrity is the industrial disease of creativity.""The King" is not your typical biographical documentary. Director Eugene Jarecki knows that the life and career of Elvis Presley are well-explored topics upon which he can layer in few surprises. So he takes a left turn -- both metaphorically and politically -- and examines what Elvis meant to us.
Few figures can boast such a deep, lasting cultural impact 40 years after their death. Presley remains arguably the the most iconic pop musician of the last century, or ever. In Bangladesh or Colombia, there are kids running around who were born decades after Presley died, yet could probably do a reasonable imitation of his "Hound Dog" swiveling pelvis dance if prompted.
As a framing device, Jarecki uses a unique approach. He somehow got ahold of Elvis' 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom -- a loaner, I'm presuming -- and drives it all around the country, giving people rides as they talk about Elvis. Some are famous -- Ethan Hawke, Alec Baldwin, Emmylou Harris -- and others are regular folks given a chance to ride in the King's chariot. Some of them are musicians themselves, who play their own music or Presley's from the back seat.
Bluesman Leo "Bud" Welch offers this stunningly audacious assessment: "I heard Elvis Presley years and years ago. He had a style of his own, and I had a style of my own." I think Elvis would have appreciated the sheer gall of that.
We drive with Jarecki to Elvis' hometown of Tupelo, Miss., which continues to milk its most famous native son to this day. We visit the "official" childhood home on the white side of town, but when they go looking for the place the Presleys lived as one of only three white families in a black neighborhood, people aren't exactly sure which of the cookie-cutter shacks it is.
Around this point is when "The King" diverges from hagiography to cultural criticism. We talk to black artists who, like Chuck D of Public Enemy, are resentful of Elvis for appropriating a black sound and getting rich and famous off of it. Political firebrand Van Jones bashes Presley for remaining devotedly apolitical his entire life and not using his celebrity in service to a cause (presumably one in sync with Jones' own views).
We talk to old girlfriends, nightclub owners who knew Elvis during his bloated last years grinding out two shows a day in Las Vegas, and a key member of the "Memphis Mafia" of hangers-on and confidantes, Jerry Schilling. "Elvis was my best friend," he says. "I don't know if I was his best friend, but I know some days I was."
It's a compelling ride, as we drive down Route 66, through winter snowstorms and parched deserts, beautiful ocean-side vistas, exploring America and what it meant for Elvis, and what he meant to us. The Rolls has several bouts of mechanical troubles; at one point Jarecki turns his camera on his own pit crew boss, who tells him not only does he not know what the movie is about, he doesn't think Jarecki knows what it's supposed to be about.
He's got a point. Jarecki, no stranger to ardent lefty politics, lets the last third or so of the movie devolve into a wandering polemic, linking Elvis' descent into pills and money-grabbing to the rise of Donald Trump and his disgusting rhetoric. Many of the interviews were shot prior to the 2016 election, and several liberal folks -- James Carville and Alec Baldwin among them -- swear that Trump will never beat Clinton.
There's a desperate tinge to these pronouncements, ironic now of course, but this flavor becomes more pronounced and dissonant as the movie moves on. These are the end times, Jarecki seems to argue, because like Elvis our country always chooses the fast cash and the easy gig over staying true to ourselves.
"If Elvis is your metaphor for America, we're about to OD," says rapper Immortal Technique, laying out the film's theme as bare as can be.
Personally, I find this kind of talk to be juvenile poppycock. If your regard for America is swayed by the current occupant of the Oval Office, then I don't think you really understand the true spirit of the American experiment at all.
Still, I found the first two-thirds of "The King" to be an interesting and creative way to look at Presley's musical and cultural legacy. Even the last third, while indulgent, is never boring.
Here's a documentary that uses a portrait of Elvis Presley as a mirror for what Jarecki sees as the shattering American dream.
Monday, July 30, 2018
Usually when a movie star gets big enough to be in charge of their own films, the resulting pictures tend to be vehicles for them to portray larger-than-life heroes who bestride the globe like a colossus.
So it's interesting that in "The Kentuckian," the first of only two movies he ever directed, Burt Lancaster plays an unsophisticated common man who frequently finds himself the brunt of ridicule and misfortune -- losing the skin off his back, both figuratively and quite literally.
He plays "Big Elias" Wakefield, a rustic son of the Kentucky hills who is on the run -- though he eschews those words -- with his son of about 10 years, Little Eli (Donald MacDonald, who had a short run as a child actor with just three years of credited roles). It seems the Wakefields and the Fromes are the Hatfield and McCoys of the Bluegrass State, carrying on a war of dark deeds so long and bloody, the enmity has engendered its own bit of well-known verse.
Though it's never directly stated, it appears Elias killed a Frome in some sort of dispute, and lit out for Texas to escape his troubles and find some elbow room. An apparent widow (again, we're left to surmise), Elias is an expert hunter and tracker who has little ken when it comes to city life -- which, in 1820s Kentucky, means any collection of shanties where more than a dozen people congregate.
His true home is in the woods, his faithful hunting dog Pharaoh chasing after foxes, their meals whatever game they can catch or shoot, and their bed made by shuffling together a pile of leaves. Lancaster's wide face beams with smiling pride in the outdoor scenes, while a stoic frown overtakes him when they must go into town for supplies or whatnot.
Elias carries the Gideon Horn -- which is also the title of the novel by Felix Holt upon which A.B. Guthrie Jr. based the script -- a massive bone hunting horn that he uses to call Pharaoh back from the chase. Little Eli often bears the horn for him, a totem of their untamed heritage, and tries unsuccessfully to blow out a note himself. When he's finally able to, that means he's become a man, Elias says.
Troubles befall them in myriad form. Elias has the princely sum of $235 saved for their trip, mostly to pay for the ferry ride down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and the ship to Texas. But in town he runs afoul of the local sheriff, who sicced his dog on Pharaoh and didn't like when it lost the fight.
Thrown in jail for resisting when the constable made to shoot his dog, Elias is helped escape by Hannah (Dianne Foster), a local "bought" woman -- aka an indentured servant -- who works for the pub owner in virtual slavery. Little Eli insists she come along with them to Texas, and it seems a nice little domestic group has formed.
But the sheriff and bartender catch up with them (too much sleeping in the leaves, I guess) and demand all their money in bribe to let them go.
Elias had hoped to stop off to visit his older brother, Zack (John McIntire) and his wife, Sophie (Una Merkel), in the riverside village of Humility. But the lack of funds forces them to hole up there for a few months so they can work up a grubstake. Zack's stated intention is to tame Elias and turn him into a businessman like himself, running a trade depot that deals in tobacco, furs, etc.
Sophie takes an instant dislike to Hannah, seeing the lines of affection forming between her and Elias, deeming a "bought girl" as socially unfit to join the family. Hannah takes up working at the local bar run by Stan Bodine, the resident dandy/bully played by Walter Matthau. He has his eyes set on the schoolmarm, Susie Spann (Diana Lynn), so when she takes a shine to Elias that sets up the inevitable conflict between the two men.
Things do not go well for big and little Eli in Humility. The latter can't abide being cooped up inside a schoolhouse all day long when there's sunshine, trees and a great river to enjoy. Elias even lets Aunt Sophie tie up Pharaoh, which breaks both the boy's heart and the dog's spirit.
Elias is mocked by the townsfolk for his buckskin clothes and quaint ways. The derision grows to a fever pitch when he finds a huge pearl while harvesting river oysters. He consults a traveling salesman, Ziby Fletcher (John Carradine), impressed by the man's eloquent speechifyin'. Elias is cagey enough to know the (almost literal) snake oil shyster is a fraud, but figures someone that learned can clue him in where to get a good price on the pearl. Little does he know freshwater pearls are worthless compared to the saltwater kind.
Seeing a chance to secure his place in town by kowtowing to Bodine, Fletcher makes up a story about former President James Monroe being the biggest collector of river pearls in the land. Elias writes a letter to the ex0president, paying four bits in postage. The ruse sprung, the menfolk all enjoy a good laugh at Elias, while little Eli endures taunts by schoolchildren: "Your pa is President Pearl!"
Undoubtedly the most famous scene in the movie is the showdown between Elias and Bodine. It's initiated when Bodine sends his son to pick a fight with little Eli -- much the same way that sheriff sent his dog after Elias' -- and the boy is bloodied by a makeshift whip of rope. The boys are separated and the fathers take up their places, with Bodine wielding a real whip against the unarmed Elias, who is soon cut to pieces. He finally prevails, but only when Hannah surreptitiously intervenes to trap Bodine's whip under her wagon wheel.
I also enjoyed a jaunty little gambling scene aboard the steamboat Gordon C. Greene -- the same one used in "Gone With the Wind." Elias makes a show of his big bag of gold (actually Zack's money) to pass himself off as a rube, conning the con men by placing some smaller bets in conjunction with the experienced gambler demonstrating the game of roulette.
The idea is to lure in the sucker by showing him how easy it is to win, but Elias knows the game is rigged and he will win as long as he mirrors the other man's bets. After winning $280, he, little Eli and Pharaoh are then chased around the ship by the gamblers, who instruct the pilot not to stop at Humility, so they're forced to jump for it and swim to shore.
The proprietor of the steamboat -- though not involved with the gamblers -- is Pleasant Tuesday Babson (John Litel), a colorful figure who's recruiting pioneers to help settle Texas. He takes an instant liking to Elias, seeing him as the perfect specimen for wide open lands. However, by this time Zack and Susie have gotten their claws into him, and Elias is determined to stay.
The story wraps, not entirely convincingly, with the arrival of two Fromes brothers to claim their revenge. Played without credit by Paul Wexler and Douglas Spencer, these are twin, grim specters, so lean and hollow-eyed they appear to have set aside all nutrition in their crusade. After the obligatory shoot-out, in which both Bodine and Babson are collateral casualties and Hannah against saves Elias' bacon, Hannah, Elias and Eli resolve on the spot to unite into a family.
It brings the film to an abrupt end, without even so much as a final pull-out shot of the trio riding the steamboat south toward their fate.
As a director, Lancaster gets lively, authentic performances out of his cast. He seems to have largely left the camera work to veteran cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, resulting in some picturesque scenes of the countryside and river. The film was shot almost entirely on location in Kentucky, and it shows.
"The Kentuckian" is a very atypical adventure story for its time. Elias Wakefield is an ordinary man who carries a rifle, but never even fires it once in the course of the picture. He largely looks to avoid conflict, and when he does resort to battles of fists or wits, he always comes up on the losing side -- or would, if it weren't for help from Hannah.
It would be interesting to see this film remade from her point of view. She's actually the one who makes everything good happen for Elias, and in that sense Hannah is the truest Kentuckian.
Sunday, July 29, 2018
“The Miracle Season” is a pretty typical sports flick, with a few worthwhile exceptions.
It focuses on volleyball, not historically a cinematic gold mine, and features a high school girls’ team. I’m trying to even think of another recent women’s sports movie -- “Bend It Like Beckham” is all I can come up without resorting to Google, and that was 16 years ago.
More importantly, this drama features not one but two Oscar winners in leading roles: Helen Hunt as Kathy “Brez” Bresnahan, the longtime coach of West High School Iowa City, and William Hurt as Ernie Found, a doctor and father of the team’s best player, Caroline aka “Line” (Danika Yarosh).
Line is an exuberant personality who would be the center of attention even if she wasn’t captain of the team, which has a long string of state championships under its belt. When she tragically dies early on, it shakes up the entire team, and community.
Erin Moriarty plays Kelly, Line’s best friend and a marginal player on the team. She suddenly finds the mantle of leadership thrust into her hands, and struggles with the role. There’s also conflict with Brez, who is aces at the X’s and O’s of the game but not really a touchy-feely type. She learns to come out of her shell a bit and coach them not just in the game, but how to handle their emotions after a devastating loss.
The movie -- directed by Sean McNamara from a screenplay by Elissa Natsueda and David Arron -- follows the traditional path of sports movies. The team goes from presumed favorites to underdogs stringing up a bunch of losses or forfeitures. But they eventually get their act together to take another run at the state title.
Nobody is going to confuse “The Miracle Season” with groundbreaking cinema. But it takes a tried-and-true formula, executes it well and tosses in some superlative acting and spotlighting of an overlooked sport to give it distinction.
Video extras are disappointingly slim. There’s a single documentary short, “Star Player,” and a gallery of production stills.
Thursday, July 26, 2018
I’ve felt pretty much the same about all the “Mission: Impossible” movies. They’re great fun, filled with stunts and double-crosses and gunplay and explosions, and at least two scenes per movie of Tom Cruise running. And a week after I’ve seen one, I forget all about it. Now, they all sort of merge together in the mind.
This is apparently the sixth one in the series, and a few familiar faces are back, besides Cruise as superspy Ethan Hunt. There’s Ving Rhames as Luther, reliable wing man and munitions expert; Simon Pegg as Benji, a British tech whiz; Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa, an MI6 agent who sometimes helps Ethan and sometimes chases after him; and Angela Bassett and Alec Baldwin as civilian spook leaders, always with the lip and the second-guessing.
Even the villain is recycled from the last flick: Sean Harris as Solomon Lane, a terrorist who wants to rain great suffering down upon in the world in order to bring about global peace, or something. He was captured by Ethan in the previous movie, but as we well know confinement can be a pretty temporary state in the MI series.
There’s two notable inductions of new blood. Vanessa Kirby plays the White Widow, a wealthy philanthropist who’s secretly dealing in arms and all sorts of nasty stuff on the side. She regards Ethan as a delectable snack that might or might not have something distasteful at the center, and she’s trying to decide whether to take a bite.
As the story opens, three plutonium cores have been stolen from Russia. The Widow is willing to sell them in exchange for springing Lane out of prison on behalf of his crew, the Syndicate.
The other newbie is Henry Cavill as Walker, a feared CIA assassin who’s assigned to shadow Ethan’s team and report back on any rogue activities. He’s got a sort of hulking, grim charisma -- a guy who can smile at you and then pummel you to a pulp, depending on the demands of the situation.
Early on Cavill and Cruise share a terrific fight scene in a restroom against a guy they think is buying the nukes from the Widow. The plan is to drug him, then whip up one of those cool insta-masks Ethan’s gang is known for, impersonate him and seal the deal. It doesn’t exactly go that way, and the two spies find more than their match in a dude about half Cavill’s size.
(This is the scene with the much talked-about “fist reload” move, which you can Google if you like.)
Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie, returning from the last go-round, gives us a cavalcade of over-the-top action scenes and daring stunts. Many of them recognizably feature Cruise doing his own stunts, which adds to the sense of peril. (He f’real broke an ankle during production, finished the shot and limped out of the frame, and you can tell he ain’t faking.)
There’s one long chase where Ethan pursues some bad guys on a motorcycle, then climbs into a car and immediately finds himself chased by somebody on another motorcycle. Plus a daring duel of helicopters -- both in the air and otherwise -- dank basement shoot-outs, foot races through Paris and London, and a whole lot of other gee-whiz candy.
The action sequences are interrupted by talkie scenes in which the characters set up the next kerblooie part. If you stop and listen to it, it’s pretty bonkers, since people start spouting minute details about things they could not possibly know about.
“We’ve managed to isolate the code on Lark’s electronic wristband so we can track him.” Oh? How did you do that without even knowing who he is, or what he looks like, or who gave him the wristband?
Whatever. These scenes blessedly do not last very long, as the last thing anybody wants to experience in a “Mission: Impossible” movie is copious dialogue. Personally I think they’d be better if they just took out all the plot and had 2½ hours of Cruise running and jumping and doing heroic stuff.
I’ll say this: at 56, he’s giving Cary Grant a run for his money as the star who aged most gracefully. It’s the same with these MI movies, which have a timeless Dorian Gray quality, never really changing much.
Sunday, July 22, 2018
Many of us are living significant chunks of our lives inside virtual spaces these days, probably without even noticing. Example: My son and I have been co-playing a fantasy war game on our phones, bonding over downing gruesome beasties and recruiting an especially powerful new hero. I’d defy anyone to label it anything other than a positive shared experience.
But there is a downside to constructed realities in general and video games specifically, one that “Ready Player One” explores in the form of a dystopian future where most of the important reactions happen inside the Oasis, a virtual reality where people can pretend to be just about anything.
Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a high school senior living in poverty -- both in the real world, where he resides in stacks of trailer homes, and in the Oasis where he plays a low-level nobody named Parzival. But there is a grand contest going on, put on by the deceased co-creator of this world, and the winner gets to control the entire Oasis.
Needless to say, some corporate bad guys are gaming the game to try to get an advantage. Ben Mendelsohn plays the CEO of a conglomerate that is flooding the system with anonymous players called Sixers all working in conjunction to win the booty. But the whole world is upended when humble Parzival manages to unlock the first door.
Soon an all-out war is brewing. Wade finds allies in Aech (Lena Waithe), his longtime friend and running buddy, as well as Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a legendary player that he has been harboring a crush on. All the legions will gather to do battle.
Like a lot of director Steven Spielberg’s more popcorn-y movies, “Ready Player One” is a visually dazzling picture that’s a lot of fun, but also hides some hefty themes just under the surface.
In the Oasis people can do stuff that’s straight out of a 14-year-old’s daydream -- Parzival races the DeLorean from “Back to the Future” in a smash-and-dash race, for instance. But they also spend much of their lives wearing VR headsets and suits, eschewing the dank corporeal world for one filled with pleasures and eye candy. I don’t think it’s accidental that whenever the filmmakers pull us out of the Oasis to see what’s going on in the RL (real life), the movie’s energy takes a dip.
Based on the novel by Ernest Cline, who co-wrote the script with Zak Penn, “Ready Player One” is an entertaining movie that also shows us the dark side of the entertainment machine.
Video extras are decent, though not as lavish as you’d expect from a big-budget Spielberg picture. They consist of six making-of documentary shorts:
- “Game Changer: Cracking the Code”
- “Effects for the Brave New World”
- “Level Up: Sound for the Future”
- “High Score: Endgame”
- “Ernie & Tye’s Excellent Adventure”
- “The ‘80s: You’re the Inspiration”
Thursday, July 19, 2018
There’s a rote sense of sameness to “The Equalizer 2.” The original action/thriller four years ago starred Denzel Washington as an ex-CIA killer plying his skills for the benefit of random strangers -- the Good Samaritan with a heaping helping of chock-socky. It was (very) loosely based on the 1980s TV show, which starred a dapper Brit instead of a stern middle-aged black man.
If you liked the first one, you’ll probably find the second agreeable. There just aren’t many surprises or new revelations to recommend it.
Old guy. Who kicks ass. That’s the movie.
Every scene starts for the proposition of, “How could this frumpy guy bumping up against senior citizen status possibly take out multiple bad guys each decades his junior?” And then he does.
It’s fun for a while. The whole film is like a magician performing variations on the same trick, over and over again. At some point you get tired of seeing the hare come out of the hat and want them to saw a lady in half, or something.
Director Antoine Fuqua returns, having paired with Washington on a number of films now over nearly two decades. The star and the filmmaker seem to have an innate sense of each other’s rhythm, so we don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the inner workings of Robert McCall. Instead, we feel like we just know him.
He’s lonely, a bit bitter. Bad stuff has happened in his life -- chiefly the death of his wife, Vivian. But he puts on a brave face and encourages those around him to be the best version of themselves. Robert is presumed dead by the CIA, and appears to move around every few years to start a new life. Strangely, he never changes his name, and nobody ever comes looking for him.
In the last film he was a stockboy at a hardware wholesaler; this time he’s a driver for Lyft. He tools around Boston in a black Chevy Malibu, picking up and dropping off people, listening to their conversations and acting as a voyeur in their lives instead of living one of his own.
Occasionally he hears something distressing, and decides to help. In the opening sequence aboard a speeding train in Turkey, he takes on a villain who has kidnapped his own daughter from his American wife. Later, he faces off with some young Wall Street types who have used a stripper poorly and expect Robert to ferry away the problem.
On the side he’s also helping an elderly Jewish man (Orson Bean) track down a valuable painting of his sister that was stolen during the Holocaust. And mentoring Miles (Ashton Sanders), a black teenager bouncing between his affinity for art and running with the wrong crowd.
The meat of the central story doesn’t get rolling until the 45-minute mark, and when it does it’s not particularly interesting. A CIA asset in Belgium is killed along with his wife, and made to look like a murder/suicide. Then those responsible set about “tying up loose ends,” which appears to mean killing anyone even remotely involved with the affair. This leads to more loose ends, and so on. Jonathan Scarfe is effective as one of the chief bad guys, the type of who sneers while he kills.
Mellissa Leo plays Susan, a friend of Robert’s -- his only one, really -- who still works at the CIA and helps him out with info. Bill Pullman is her husband, a doddering academic. Pedro Pascal plays Dave, Robert’s old partner who’s surprised to find out he’s still alive.
Written by Richard Wenk, who also penned the first movie, “The Equalizer 2” contains a whole lot of hand-to-hand combat, yet when it comes to storytelling it telegraphs its punches like an over-the-hill fighter with a huge windup.
The audience figures out who the chief antagonist is long before Robert does. It’s never a good thing for a super spy to seem slow on the uptake.
Monday, July 16, 2018
Of all his many roles, "Sergeant York" may well be the one that is most quintessential to the iconography of Gary Cooper.
It was never truer of anyone the old saw that actors play roles, but movie stars play themselves. Cooper made a career out of portraying simple, straightforward men of unimpeachable integrity, humility and all-American values. His protagonists were usually dim, or at least poorly educated, though they possessed a homespun sort of caginess -- especially with regard to the manly arts of shooting, building and fixing.
But not romancing. When it came to women, Cooper's coterie of characters were usually adorably inept, more often the catcher of woo rather than the pitcher.
"Sergeant York" was the top-grossing film of 1941, an unabashedly patriotic picture that was helped by playing at the same time as Pearl Harbor. It won Cooper his first Academy Award (the other being for "High Noon"), launching the richest period of his career.
I was surprised how little of the movie actually depicts the wartime exploits of Alvin York, the most decorated American soldier of World War I. The film doesn't even get us to the European front until the last half-hour, and York's solitary charge upon a series of German machine gun nests takes but a few minutes.
Astonishingly -- but historically accurate -- Alvin single-handedly killed more than 20 enemies and captured 132 more. This from a deeply religious man who applied for, and was denied, exemption from the military draft as a conscientious objector.
Most of the story, by a quintet of screenwriters that included John Huston, concerns itself with York's pastoral existence in Pall Mall, Tenn., right near the Kentucky border, and his transformation from hard-drinking ne'er-do-well to resolute man of the Bible. Director Howard Hawks focuses his camera lovingly on the hardscrabble landscapes and wood-plank shanties that make up York's community, where everyone is either a farmer or a vendor to them.
I enjoyed this section, especially the presence of ol' reliable character actor Walter Brennan, who plays the local preacher as well as owner of the local supply store. With wire-rim glasses and improbable black eyebrows, Pastor Pile gently tries to steer Alvin toward a church-going life, rather than hanging out with his drinking buddies, occasionally riding into town and shooting his initials into the tree in front of the meeting house.
Margaret Wycherly plays York's mother, a prototypical long-suffering woman of unshakeable values, who always believes in Alvin's inherent goodness even when it's hard for others to see. Widow York and her three children live on the rocky "topland," struggling to grow a decent crop every year. Both she and Brennan received their own Oscar nominations.
Everyone speaks in a very provincial manner, which grows a little tiresome, adding "a's" before verbs: "I'm a-goin' to enter this here beef 'n' turkey shoot," etc.
Things don't really change for Alvin until he runs into Gracie (Joan Leslie), a spunky local girl, and quickly resolves to marry her. Leslie was just 15 years old when they shot the movie, nearly a quarter-century younger than Coop, who reportedly gave her a gift of a doll on the set.
Alvin resolves to purchase some prime "bottomland" to entice Gracie, who of course loves him for who he is rather than material worth. Much of the middle section of the movie is taken up with Alvin working day and night to raise the money for a piece of land. He trades virtually everything of value he owns (except his rifle) to Mr. Tomkins (Erville Alderson) for a $50 down payment on the land, with 60 days to come up with the other $70.
With things coming down to the wire, Alvin enters a "beef and turkey shoot" contest, improbably pulling out six bullseyes in a row -- one bird, five targets -- to win the rest of the money. Only then he finds out Tomkins has broken his word and sold the land to Zeb Andrews (Robert Porterfield), the local equivalent of a "snooty rich kid," and also a competitor for Gracie's affections (or so Alvin thinks).
His dreams of having his own marital homestead dashed, Alvin seems destined to go down a dark road that will lead to murder. But during a thunderstorm on the way to revenge, lightning strikes his rifle, turning it into melted taffy. Alvin and his mule are struck senseless but unharmed, which he takes as a sign from God. A montage or two later, and he's teaching the Bible to Sunday school classes, just in time for war to break out.
Alvin's military commanders are initially suspicious of his country bumpkin routine and aversion to taking another life. He and the captain actually get into a bit of a Bible quote-off, each reciting verses that buttress their argument about the Lord's attitude on killing. After the C.O. grants Alvin furlough to go home, perch in the hills and ruminate upon the matter like an Old Testament figure, they essentially agree to disagree, taking the chance Alvin will perform his duty when the time comes.
And we know how that turned out.
"Sergeant York" is a cracklin' corn piece of enthusiastic patriotism, though not a mindlessly jingoistic one. It takes the time to get inside the head of a hero who was reluctant to fight, even though it would seem to be something he was put on this Earth to do.
Sunday, July 15, 2018
An animated film that is most definitely not for children, “Isle of Dogs” is the second foray into stop-motion animation by writer/director Wes Anderson. I run hot and cold on Anderson’s filmography -- adore “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel;” would require a lobotomy to get me to watch “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” again -- so I’m happy to report I’m pretty warm on this one.
It’s a Japanese-themed story set a couple of decades in the future, when the Prefecture of Kobayashi has banished all dogs to the island where they dump their trash, which is soon renamed for its canine inhabitants. It turns out there was an epidemic of deadly flu attributed to the dogs some years back.
But one boy, Atari (Koyu Rankin), who is the nephew of the evil mayor, resolves to undertake a rescue mission to retrieve his beloved pooch. He crash-lands on the island and is helped by a pack of mutts, led by Rex (Edward Norton) and also including Chief (Bryan Cranston), a grizzled fighter.
Meanwhile, back on the mainland an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) is leading a rebellion of sorts against the mayor and the scientists he keeps under his thumb.
I should mention that the humans mostly speak Japanese, and no subtitles are provided. The dogs do speak in English, voiced mainly by American and British actors, which we are to understand is translated from bark.
It’s a weird, often wonderful movie that has no real point of comparison. You can’t point to another film and say, “It’s kinda like that.” “Isle of Dogs” isn’t for everyone, but for anyone who appreciates a bold splash of imagination, it’s the cat’s meow.
Bonus features are decent. There is a gallery of images from production and six making of featurettes: “Animators,” “Isle of Dogs Cast Interviews,” “Puppets,” “An Ode to Dogs,” “Magasaki City and Trash Island” and “Weather and Elements.”
Thursday, July 12, 2018
“In order to be brave, we gotta be a little scared.”--Will Sawyer
My first thought about “Skyscraper” was that it looked dumb as a bag of rocks. And it is. But at least it’s a small bag.
I admit I liked this movie a lot more than I ever thought I would. It actually manages to coax a performance out of Dwayne Johnson that could be credible considered as… acting. No curled eyebrows, no winking at the audience, no ‘roided-up bicep flexing. He actually inhabits a character and invests him with something like dimensions.
All this is set against a backdrop of fires, explosions and machine guns, of course. The former WWE wrestler known as “The Rock” still knows his audience, who like the smell of his cooking, and insist that he keep on cooking that recipe -- or something.
(I never watched a lot of wrestling.)
Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a former military badass turned FBI badass who… got blown up in bad op, lost his leg and now has become a rather self-doubting family man. Looking a little thick in the face, with a scraggly grey beard and doe-ish eyes, Johnson manages to project a decent amount of vulnerability for a guy the size of an NFL linebacker.
“I just kinda put my sword down,” he says to his old squad mate, Ben (Pablo Schreiber), who has recruited him to do a security assessment of The Pearl -- the world’s newly christened tallest building, courtesy of an ambitious Hong Kong billionaire, Zhao Min Zhi (Chin Han). He even brings along his wife, Sarah (Neve Campbell), who’s also the military surgeon who saved his life, and their adorable, peril-prone moppets (McKenna Roberts, Noah Cottrell).
Of course, nefarious bad guys with vague European accents (Roland Møller chief among them) are up to no good, sealing off the building and setting the 96th floor ablaze, while also disabling the fire control systems. The flames gradually higher as our hero battles the villains in a confined space while striving to protect his loved ones.
If all this sounds like “Die Hard” shotgun married to “Blazing Inferno,” that’s because it is.
Still, it’s hard to deny this is a fun flick. And it’s nice to see a character with a disability as the hero of an action thriller. Will gets around pretty well on his prosthetic leg, and even manages to use it as a prop several times during some of the more acrobatic sequences. Writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who previously teamed with Johnson on “Central Intelligence,” resists the urge to have him take the leg off and start whacking bad guys with it.
Of course, you've got to swallow a lot of action movie stupidity along the way. Like a tall building being lit on fire in the middle, the flames gradually engulfing higher stories, yet somehow the superstructure remains perfectly intact without collapsing in on itself, as basic engineering principles would dictate.
It's not like there's a real-life contrary example from the recent past that literally every single person on Earth is aware of...
Speaking of which, I talked to a few people afterward who admit they were a bit triggered by the 9/11 resemblance. I was more bothered by the transgressions against Physics 101.
An interesting idea that turned into a rehashed sequel that now is a bona fide animation franchise desperately in need of a stake through its cold, black heart, “Hotel Transylvania” is the undead visitor that arrives every third year for an unwanted visit, thrilling your kids but leaving you groaning.
Or, slumbering: I fell asleep during the screening. Several times. Not for long, I think, but propriety requires that I disclose this is a review of only about 96% of the movie.
You know the setup: Dracula (voice of Adam Sandler) has traded in blood-sucking for running a posh hotel for monsters, who have come out of the darkness to live (mostly) in harmony with humans. To wit: his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) has married goofy human Jonathan (Andy Samberg) and produced a half-vampire grandson, Dennis (Asher Blinkoff).
Tagging along are buds Frankenstein (Kevin James), Wayne the werewolf (Steve Buscemi), Murray the mummy (Keegan-Michael Key), and Griffin the invisible man (David Spade).
Things are pretty hectic running a hotel and watching over a passel of monsters, who come in sorts of shapes, colors and sizes. So Mavis decides the family needs a vacation aboard the Legacy, an ocean liner catering to their kind. Stops include an underwater volcano and Atlantis, which has risen from the sea in the form of a tawdry waterlogged version of Las Vegas.
Dracula soon finds himself directing his killer gaze at Ericka (Kathryn Hahn), the human captain of the ship. He’s been a widower for more than a century, but is surprised to find he can still “zing” -- the monster term for falling instantly in love.
But Ericka has some not-nice hidden motives, which are demonstrated by suddenly scowling while her face is underlit with red light that appears from nowhere to let you know she’s thinking evil thoughts.
Mel Brooks plays Drac’s dad Vlad, an old-schooler who eventually came around on not biting people. He gets some of the film’s best laughs strutting around in a tiny bathing suit, proudly flaunting his 500-year-old body. The gaggle of witches are appreciative, though.
The heavy is Van Helsing, Dracula’s old nemesis who is still kept alive through a steampunk contraption that animates his head and hands, along with a few struggling organs in jars. He’s voiced by Jim Gaffigan, doing his best impression of Bill Hader.
There’s a lot of colors, and boingy action, and spontaneous dancing. They even revive a couple of tunes from the last movie; I guess the filmmakers didn’t want to shell out for another songwriter. There’s even a DJ contest late in the game where they dust off “Macarena” as the epitome of all that is good and positive. Well.
Kids will probably enjoy “Transylvania 3,” but for anyone over the age of 10 it’s a sack of garlic, a beam of sunshine and a wooden cross all rolled into one.