Thursday, February 15, 2018

Review: "Early Man"

I’ve always admired stop-motion animation in general and the British Aardman Animations films in particular -- “Chicken Run,” “Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and “Shaun the Sheep Movie” most recently in 2015. So it gives me little pleasure to report that the latest, “Early Man,” is a rather lackluster affair.

The story of cave men who discovered what we Yanks call soccer, it quite literally drops the rock… er, ball.

It seems our hirsute ancestors were inspired when a meteor landed somewhere around modern Manchester, snuffing out the dinosaurs to boot. The cave men began kicking the hot rock around, created a game around it, and even made drawings about their exploits.

Fast-forward a few thousand years, and a tribe of Stone Age types are still dwelling in the bucolic valley where the game of football (the everywhere-but-America kind) got started. Eddie Redmayne provides the voices of Dug, an excitable young man who urges the tribe to aim higher than just hunting rabbits -- perhaps even mammoths?

(Trigger warning for vegetarians.)

The Chief (Timothy Spall), a wise elderly man at the ripe old age of 32, cautions against high hopes. But when they’re suddenly invaded by some well-armed Bronze Age types and thrown out of their valley, it’s up to Dug to journey to the Roman-style city of their enemy and figure out a solution.

Curiously, the cavemen lost the tradition of football somewhere along the way, so Dug is amazed to discover the city’s entire culture is centered around games held in a giant arena. The home team, Real Bronzio, made up of tall Nordic types, is always the winner, playing at the whim of the nefarious Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston). He’s also the guy who booted Dug’s tribe out of their home so he could dig for ore there, and is amassing a fortune by charging admission to the mandatory games.

One of the movie’s better running jokes is that bronze is used for almost everything, from weapons to currency to housewares. “Have you got change for a dinner plate?” one old lady inquires at the arena gate.

Dug challenges Nooth’s team to a match, with the fate of the valley in the balance. If the cavemen lose, they’ll be forced to work in Nooth’s mines. (Which seems like something he could’ve enforced with or without the game.)

They start training under the tutelage of Goona (Maisie Williams), a city woman who takes a liking to the plight of the prehistoric folks. Plus, she’s always dreamed of booting in a goal of her own, since Real (pronounced REE-yal) Bronzio doesn’t allow women.

It’s a decently fun flick, at least intermittently, directed by Aardman veteran Nick Park from a script by Mark Burton and James Higginson. The cavemen don’t have much in the way of distinct personalities -- there’s the burly woman, the dumb one who puts everything in his mouth, etc.

The scene-stealer is Hognob (voiced by Park), an animal companion of Dug’s who appears to be a mix of boar, dog and sheep. I guess he forms the critter triumvirate with Gromit and Shaun.

If you’re thinking it’d be wacky for Hognob to get into the game, you won’t come away disappointed. Which is more than I can say for me.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Review: "Black Panther"


Pretty good, even.

But the superhero movie to end all superhero movies? C’mon.

“Black Panther” is an invigorating but hardly revolutionary entry into the Marvel Comics Universe, taking the African king who wears a (mostly) indestructible cat suit we saw in the last Avengers movie and draping a colorful backstory around him. Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa, ruler of the fictional kingdom of Wakanda, in a calm and charismatic performance that foretells many happy returns for this character in future MCU movies.

Rather than a traditional origin story, we get the fall-from-grace saga: T’Challa assumes the throne after the death of his father, and with it the powers -- courtesy of a mysterious flower pod -- and costume of the Black Panther. But almost just as quickly, he finds his leadership in question and his very claim to the throne challenged.

Directed by Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) from a script he co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole, “Black Panther” will resonate with some for its nods to the Black Power movement of the 1960s and its more recent echoes. White characters are few; when they do show their faces are derided as “colonialists;" and the taint of slavery is frequently brought up in describing the fate of black people, both in America and Africa.

But these aspects struck me -- a white kid from the suburbs -- as merely fashionable put-ons for the young and hip, flashy decorations over the familiar bones of superhero tropes.

T’Challa operates as a sort of royal James Bond who’s not just an agent of the coolest cloak-and-dagger outfit in the world, but is actually running the whole show. He’s even got his own Q-like gadgetmaster, in the form of his kid sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), concocting playful new toys to augment his super-suit.

Wakanda is viewed as a poor third-world nation, but actually is the most technologically advanced people on Earth, helped by a vast store of vibranium that fell there in the form of a meteor long ago. The strongest substance in the universe -- but wait, I thought that was supposed to be admantium? -- vibranium has all sorts of cool abilities to absorb and transmit energies. This allows Black Panther not only to jump and scratch, but set off mini sonic explosions.

It seems a nasty mercenary named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) stole a store of vibranium 25 years ago, and now it falls to T’Challa to bring him to justice. He’s helped by Okoye (Danai Gurira), the head of his personal guard, who are all very stern-looking, bald women, as well as Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a Wakandian spy who also happens to be T’Challa’s ex.

The X-factor, who shows up rather late in the game, is Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger, an American former special ops soldier/assassin who at first appears to be working for Klaue, but turns out to have a very dark connection to Wakanda, which I’ll not spoil here.

Also turning up are Martin Freeman as a helpful, if naïve CIA agent; Angela Bassett as the queen mother; Forest Whitaker as the Wakanda high priest; Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s best pal; Winston Duke as the head of a rival tribe; and Sterling K. Brown as another member of the royal family.

“Black Panther” certainly is one of the most visually sumptuous films in the MCU, with a pageant of bright costumes, stunning CGI technology and colorful vistas. The hidden Wakanda capital city looks like some glorious cross between “Blade Runner” and “Zootopia.”

I enjoyed the movie, but didn’t come close to being blown away by it. The hype machine has been cranked to 11 for this film, which turns out to be a low 7, at best.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Valdez Is Coming" (1971)

Let's get one thing out of the way first: Burt Lancaster does not pass for Mexican, or even half-Mexican, even with the help of a deep tan and possibly the judicious application of brownface makeup.

One of the stupidest and most useless human endeavors is the imposition of modern sensibilities upon cultural material from years, decades or even centuries past. Of course people in 1971 didn't think about cultural appropriation the same way they do in 2018. Caucasian actors routinely played Latino, Arab, Asian and even African characters in Hollywood movies up until fairly recently in our cinematic history.

If John Wayne can play Genghis Khan and Laurence Oliver can play Othello, then I'm not going to get too worked up over Lancaster posing as an over-the-hill Mexican-American lawman.

He pulls off the accent pretty well, playing Bob Valdez, the constable of a small border town somewhere around the turn of the century. His authorities extend only to the "Mexican half" of the city, perhaps owing to his title of constable rather than sheriff (as many references to the film erroneously call him).

It's not even a full-time job, as Valdez supplements his income riding shotgun for a shipping company, and he travels to and fro riding a wagon rather than a horse. He's bordering on elderly, and doesn't even carry a six-shooter, the standard arm of the Western hero, but a two-barrel scattergun -- the weapon favored by those with failing eyes and shaky hands. Valdez shuffles about in an obsequious manner, and speaks to the wealthy whites who run things with shoulders stooped and hat in hand.

Valdez clearly doesn't like having to kowtow, but it's how he gets by in a land where his kind is dismissed as "greasers." At least, that is, until he finally gets pushed too far.

The story opens with an ugly scene, where a posse has trapped a man suspected of murder in a lonely shack, and a crowd of women and children has gathered to watch as the men playfully plug bullets into its bleached-out boards. The accused is a black man, so it seems the standoff will end either with a lynching or a hail of rifle rounds.

Valdez walks down to talk to the man in an attempt to deescalate the situation. But a hotheaded young sharpshooter named R. L. Davis (Richard Jordan), operating at the behest of Frank Tanner (Jon Cypher), the rich cattleman leading the posse, fires in the middle of Valdez' parlay with the accused, making him think the whole thing has been a ruse. Valdez is forced to kill the man, after which it becomes clear he was innocent after all.

To me, the most interesting part of this sequence is not all the manly strutting and pronunciations. It's the part where the holed-up man's wife, an Apache woman, blithely walks out of the house during the barrage to fetch a pail of water. R. L. repeatedly shoots near her to scare her off, but she doesn't even flinch.

Valdez decides to take up a collection as a gesture of goodwill to the widow, and the townsmen agree to put up $100 if Tanner will pay the other $100. Tanner angrily refuses, first having his men shoot at Valdez, in much the same way R. L. did at the Indiana squaw, and then resorting to crucifixation when he returns for another try. That's when Valdez snaps and vows revenge.

(Curiously, Valdez himself never offers to pitch in any of his own money toward the sum, even though he was mostly directly responsible for the murder.)

The rest of the movie follows a fairly traditional revenge/redemption cycle. Valdez takes up arms and his old uniform, revealing that he was a U.S. Cavalry soldier during the Indian wars. He stalks Tanner and his men, picking them off in ones and twos. His favored method is a Sharps rifle, a single-shot weapon notorious for its long-range accuracy.

"Valdez" was directed by Edwin Sherin in his feature film debut behind the camera. He would direct one other movie later in 1971 before turning to television, where he worked busily well into the 2000s. Screenwriters Roland Kibbee and David Rayfiel, adapting the novel by Elmore Leonard (unread by me), keep things taut and spare, with nary a spoken word or image that's not absolutely necessary to the plot.

Frank Silvera plays Diego, a humble Mexican farmer and Valdez' best (possibly only) friend, who helps him recover from his wounds and is made to pay for it by Tanner's gang. Héctor Elizondo turns up in one of his earliest screen roles as a lookout for Tanner's gang. Mason (Phil Brown) is the chief of the white aristocracy, notable for sharing a degree of respect with Valdez.

Barton Heyman plays El Segundo (literally, "The Second"), Tanner's right-hand man, who proves far cagier than his boss. He repeatedly urges Tanner to break off from pursuit of Valdez to go through with a lucrative sale of rifles to the Mexican army. Segundo would seem to be a standard Western henchman at first, but as more of his men perish he carefully weighs the loss of life against any possible benefit. He eventually gains the upper hand over Valdez, but not before developing a health reverence for the old man's skills.

The other major character is Gay Erin (Susan Clark), who is Tanner's consort and, at least at one point, his betrothed. The whole story has been set off by the murder of her husband, Tanner's friend. Tanner carries on the quest to find the killer mostly because many people believe Tanner himself killed him to get Gay.

She's a proud woman who seems to despise Tanner, and yet on some level embraces his dastardly nature because she think she deserves no better. About halfway through the movie, Valdez takes her captive and tries to use her as a bargaining chip for the $100. It's a classic fruitless quest, since the Apache woman has long departed to return to her people. Valdez treats Gay tenderly, but without any suggestion of romance.

Tanner himself is an interesting character. He cuts an imposing yet slightly comical figure, with hair and mustachio suggesting a resemblance to Colonel Custer. He revels in the power of having his own gang, enjoying giving orders to torture somebody who has bothered him: "Fix him like we did that other fellow." But in the end Tanner reveals a distaste for getting his own hands dirty.

"Valdez Is Coming" ends with an odd standoff, with no overt resolution. It would seem impossible that events play out in any way other than with Valdez' death, but you never know. It's a grim story of lost causes embraced and good intentions wasted. And maybe how we should treat the meek a little nicer.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Video review: "Wonder"

“Wonder” is a tender-hearted flick that makes no bones about being a tearjerker. Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson star as the parents of Auggie, a 10-year-old boy played by Jacob Tremblay who was born with severe facial defects.

He’s been more or less hiding out his whole life, being home-schooled by his mom or wearing an astronaut’s helmet in public to ward off stares and comments. But now he’s attending school for the first time, and this is the story of his entering a broader, scarier world.

The screenplay by Steve Conrad, Jack Thorne and Stephen Chbosky, who also directed, is a straightforward string of encounters. We know the teasing and taunting is going to come, but it’s no less painful when it does. Auggie soon finds a friend in a scholarship student (Noah Jupe), but the inevitable setback is just around the corner. Mandy Patinkin plays the wise and helpful school headmaster.

The movie, based on the best-selling novel by R.J. Palacio, also follows around Auggie’s older sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), for a bit, and we get to see the family dynamic from her perspective. She loves her little brother, but it’s hard to be teenager when your sibling soaks up all of the grownups’ attention.

It may not be the most original movie to come down the pike, but “Wonder” is decorated with nice, crisp performances and an authentic human story that’s hard to resist. Three hankies, at least.

Bonus features are quite good. The DVD edition has a feature-length commentary track by Chbosky and Palacio, music video for “Brand New Eyes” and a featurette on the soundtrack.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray version, and you add two more featurettes, “A Child’s Sense of Wonder” and “What a Wonderful World,” plus a five-part making of documentary titled, “Summer of Fun.”



Thursday, February 8, 2018

Review: "The 15:17 to Paris"

You can appreciate a bold choice while still recognizing that it was the wrong one.

Such is the case with Clint Eastwood's "The 15:17 to Paris," a drama about a 2015 terrorist attack on a train that was thwarted by three young Americans, two of them military service members. After initially casting three actors to play the heroes, Eastwood did a sudden about-face and decided to use the actual men in the movie, recreating not only the attack but their journeys -- figurative and otherwise -- leading up to it.

That was mistake #1... and mistake #2.

Acting is one of those things people think anybody can do, until they try to do it. Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos are obviously fine young men, but it's often painful watching the movie and wading through their blank expressions, flat line delivery and emotional vacancy. Stone is the best of the bunch, which is to say he's ready for a walk-on role in a community college play.

How hard can it be to play yourself? Pretty difficult in a feature film, what with all the lights and equipment, long delays between setups and logistics of hitting your mark, etc. And of course, it's natural to want to behave like an idealized version of yourself, rather than the flawed, authentic person we all are.

The movie could survive the leaden performances -- the events are certainly compelling enough -- but mistake #2 proves even more fatal. In basing the story on the book the three men wrote (along with Jeff Stern), the film explores not just the events of that fateful day, but everything leading up to it: their childhood friendship, struggles to find purpose after high school, early military careers, etc.

On the surface, it seems like a logical move. Eastwood and screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal can't center an entire movie around an encounter that lasted a few minutes. And we have to get to know these three fellows in order to be invested in their story.

But the prologue ends up consuming two-thirds of the movie, which even at a scant 97 minutes often drags badly.

The deadliest stretch chronicles their trip across Europe prior to the fateful train ride, which has all the narrative cohesion of YouTube footage of a real twentysomething's unedited travelogue. They go to a pub in Germany, nightclub dancing in Amsterdam, eat at a riverside Venice cafe, make copious use of the selfie stick, etc. All the while, chatting amiably and aimlessly about where they should go and what they should do next.

Skarlatos, who joined the Army and was on leave from Afghanistan at the time, comes across as earnest and a little dizzy. Sadler is the charmer of the group, who as a kid got in trouble at their Christian school for spewing expletives at the teachers. Stone is a bit of a big doofus, kind and outgoing and a bit of a screw-up as an Air Force airman, washing out of school to be that branch's version of a medic.

Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer are more or less wasted as the single mothers of Skarlatos and Stone, respectively, showing for a few clashes with the awful school principal (Thomas Lennon) and then for the medal awarding ceremony at the end.

The movie finally hits its stride in the last half-hour. After brief flashes of the incident during the interminable wind-up, we see how the encounter with the terrorist (Ray Corasani) played out, in all its bizarre and bloody mayhem. The man had an AK-47, a pistol, blades and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Dozens, if not hundreds would almost surely have been killed.

After overcoming and shooting another man who initially tried to stop him, the attacker was tackled by Stone and beaten to submission by the trio. It all plays out in the confined space of a train cabin, and in those few moments Eastwood reminds us of his magnificent ability as a director to depict violence while contemplating the repercussions of it.

Alas, I can't recommend one-third of a good movie. "The 15:17 to Paris" mostly goes to show that often the best way to enshrine history is to fake it... and leaving the boring parts out.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Review: "Dead Man's Line: The True Story of Tony Kiritsis"

The image that first grabs you is of two men walking in their shirtsleeves, which immediately sticks them out of place against everyone heavily bundled up in the bitter Indianapolis February.

Both are in their 40s, sporting bald spots and those hellacious sideburns that were popular in the late 1970s, like psychedelic pyramids rooted on their cheeks. One is short, dark-haired, burly, sleeves rolled up over thick, hairy forearms. The other is taller, with the wispy remains of what was probably once a fine blond head of hair, the collar of his business shirt popped up against the cold.

The shorter man walks closely behind, a sawed-off shotgun pressed up against the base of the other's skull. He is screaming expletives at the police and gawkers in downtown Indianapolis, while the other man seems haunted, resigned, almost calm.

They are strung together by a thin wire that binds the gunman's hand to the weapon, and the gun to his victim's neck. He calls it a "dead man's line" -- his nearly invisible assurance that if he dies, from a sniper's bullet or such, the gun will go off and end the other. The police, helpless, keep their distance.

This went on for 63 hours, as car salesman and erstwhile real estate developer Tony Kiritsis held mortgage company executive Richard Hall hostage in a dispute over a piece of land where Kiritsis wanted to build a grocery or other big store.

After a rambling one-hour "press conference" carried on local and national TV in which he was assured that he would not be prosecuted, received an apology from Hall's Meridian Mortgage company and a promissory note for $5 million, Kiritsis let Hall go and was promptly arrested -- but not before pumping off one blast out a nearby window to prove the shotgun had been loaded.

Despite being one of the most famous crimes in Indianapolis history, the Kiritsis hostage crisis has faded in memory since 1977, laughed off as one of the city's most bizarre incidents but never deeply explored. After being found not guilty by reason of insanity, Kiritsis was released in 1988 and lived out the rest of his years in quiet, never speaking about the incident. Hall also largely kept his mouth shut, until finally publishing a book about it last spring to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the event.

Now two local men, Alan Berry and Mark Enochs, both marketing writers by day, have given us the definitive history of the incident. Their splendid documentary, "Dead Man's Line: The True Story of Tony Kiritsis," will be released online on Feb. 8, available initially on Amazon and iTunes.

It's a painstaking recreation of the kidnapping from start to finish, as well as exploring Kiritsis' troubled life beforehand plus the resulting trial. Utilizing a treasure trove of news footage and photos -- much of it never seen before -- as well as exhaustive interviews with more than three dozen witnesses and participants, it puts the audience right into the fray with nail-biting intensity.

This is the sort of documentary that takes something that outwardly seemed ridiculous and tragic, and reveals it as the defining moment in two men's lives.

The Kiritsis that emerges from this portrait is a bundle of blue-collar contradictions. Braggadocios and foul-mouthed -- no doubt the wall-to-wall live coverage was the first time many heard the F-word spraying copiously from their TVs -- he also seems to have a comradely workingman's charm about him.

Friendly with many cops, he often singles one out for conversation or a quip in the midst of the crisis. When he's trying to make a point, he tends to drop the word "baby" into his sentences.

The list of interviewees is voluminous, but includes Indy Star/News journalists Jim Young and Skip Hess; Indianapolis Police Department detective Judd Green; hostage negotiator John Michael Grable; Marion County Deputy Prosecutor George Martz; Kiritsis attorneys Nile Stanton and John C. Ruckelshaus; Kiritsis' beloved brother Jimmie; jury foreman Greg Hach; plus assorted psychiatrists, profilers and officers of the court.

Some of the information contained in the film will no doubt come as a revelation even to contemporaries who remember the event clearly. Such as the IPD police chief carrying a handkerchief in his pocket during the press conference -- his signal to take Kiritsis out, even if it meant having Hall's brains blown out on live national television. Or that Kiritsis had pulled a similar stunt years before, holding his sister hostage for 2½ days in a family dispute over money.

We hear Fred Heckman, the respected news director of WIBC radio, regretting his role as Tony's principle mouthpiece over the airwaves. We get to listen to their conversations, both on the air and those recorded surreptitiously, as the "Walter Cronkite" of the Indianapolis airwaves attempted to keep Kiritsis calm and pliable.

One aspect that especially struck me was how the men were literally bound together the whole time. Because of their positions, Hall never got to see Kiritsis during the public standoff, except perhaps out of the corner of his eye. The whole time the cameras were rolling, he had to listen to the rantings of the man who repeatedly vowed to kill him if necessary, without being able to gaze into his eyes and judge the merit of those threats.

In this sense, Hall's dull, glazed expression makes sense -- he was forced to stand as unseeing witness to his own kidnapping.

The Kiritsis hostage crisis was a huge national story at the time, arriving just at the cusp of the modern information age, when camera crews could bring the news into our homes in seconds, not hours or days.

But it blew over quickly, certainly as the networks lost interest when blood failed to spill. Even some of the veteran local journalists admit it became old news quicker than it should have, with few enterprising inquirers to ask why and how such a scary, silly, sordid affair happened.

We no longer have to.

Review: Oscar-nominated Animated Shorts


7 minutes

This year’s entry from Pixar is a whimsical delight about a… creature? Spirit? … resides in the lost and found box at a school, working to return wayward items to the children who adore them. When a bully starts terrorizing the playground and stealing possessions, the creature -- comprised of lost jackets, shoes, books, and with two baseballs for eyes -- decides to extract a little revenge, and teach a lesson.


Dear Basketball

5 minutes

Here’s an unusual entry: Kobe Bryant wrote, produced and narrates this first-person ode to this first love, the game of basketball. With a musical score by John Williams and animated by Glen Keane, who also directs, it’s a surprisingly emotional testimony from a professional athlete about what he has given to sport, and what it has taken from him.


Garden Party

7 minutes

This hyper-realistic animated short follows the journey of a neon-green tree frog and a fat bullfrog through an unlikely landscape: a palatial mansion that has sat abandoned for some time, so the swimming pool has turned into a pond that nature has reclaimed. Not so much a coherent narrative as a showcase for amazing animation, with a gruesome twist. Inventive and macabre.


Negative Space

5 minutes

This dreamy stop-motion animated film examines a man’s relationship to his father as he mastered the art of packing a suitcase just right. I liked the surreal sojourn into an imaginary underwater realm where underwear and shirts swim like fishes. More of an idea than a complete movie, even a short one.


Revolting Rhymes

29 minutes

Roald Dahl’s books have been turned into a number of wonderful animated feature films, especially “James and the Giant Peach,” so here’s a short(ish) one. Wonderful voice work punctuates this fairy tale mashup of Snow White and Red Riding Hood, who in this telling are friends contesting with a trio of wolves, an evil stepmother and a greedy pig running the bank of Porkeley’s. Snow White steals the magic mirror so the dwarves (all ex-jockeys) can play the horses, while Red is more of a vigilante-style badass with a pistol tucked in her knickers.


Review: Oscar-nominated Live Action Shorts

DeKalb Elementary

20 minutes

It’s a normal day at a grade school in the suburbs. A woman (an amazing Tarra Riggs) is relieving the front desk worker for her lunch break when a man (Bo Mitchell) walks in, pulls out an AK-47 and commences a standoff with police. He’s a white man in a nearly all-black school, so are his motives racism? Terrorism? Suicide? He seems confused, not very intelligent, but not especially belligerent. This tense drama from writer/director Reed Van Dyk explores the story behind a real 911 call, which unfolds in a way we do not at all expect.


My Nephew Emmett

19 minutes

Writer/director Kevin Wilson Jr.’s  starkly beautiful film, shot in slanted half-light, examines the tragedy of Emmett Till from the perspective of his family in Money, Mississippi, where he was staying when the 14-year-old from Chicago was brutally lynched for reputedly whistling at a white woman in 1955. His gruesome death, more than anything, was the match that lit the fire of the civil rights movement. Till’s abduction from his great-uncle’s house in the dead of night is portrayed with nail-biting clarity, with a powerful performance by L. B. Williams as the uncle, Mose Wright. The chills will linger.


The Eleven O’clock

13 minutes

This amusing little Australian comedy short pits two men in an office who each claim to be a psychiatrist: Dr. Terry Phillips (Josh Lawson, also the writer) and Dr. Nathan Kline (Damon Herriman). He’s meeting a man who delusionally thinks he’s a psychiatrist, so each thinks the other is there to see him as a patient. An argument ensues. Things hit their high point when they conduct word association tests on each other, with each man assuming the other one’s prompt is actually the response to his own prompt. Unexpected, and fun.


The Silent Child

20 minutes

A young teacher named Joanne (Rachel Shenton, also the screenwriter) arrives at the home of a harried upper-class British family to instruct their 4-year-old deaf girl, Libby (Maisie Sly). Things go surpassingly well as she begins to learn sign language. But the mother, Sue (Rachel Fielding), feels shunted aside as the younger women quickly forms a bond with Libby that has escaped her. Tender, wise and sad.


Watu Wote

21 minutes

A young Christian woman is traveling along the border of Kenya and Somalia to care for her sick mother, in a region where Christians and Muslims often clash. She refuses to interact with the Muslim passengers of their bus, citing past tragedy in her own life. But when gunmen from the terrorist group Al-Shabaab rear their heads, suddenly a community exists where there wasn’t one before. Sharply told and authentic, based on real events.


Sunday, February 4, 2018

Video review: "Only the Brave"

It didn’t gain a lot of enthusiasm during its theatrical run, but “Only the Brave” is a sturdy, well-acted drama about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite group of wildlife firefighters. They’re the sort of guys who run into a gigantic blaze threatening to overrun towns, while everyone else is fleeing the other way.

Josh Brolin plays Eric Marsh, the veteran leader of the Hotshots, and this may just be the finest performance of his career. Resembling Paul Bunyan mixed with Teddy Roosevelt and a little bit of hippie thrown in, Eric is a tough, strong leader who’s determined to see his band of upstarts attain the highest certification for fighting wildfires -- the first municipal outfit to attain that rank.

Eric reads the movements of a fire like an expert tracker stalking his prey, communing mystically with an enemy he strives to defeat.

Miles Teller plays Brenda McDonough, the newest recruit. He’s a junkie wastrel trying to turn his life around in the aftermath of an unexpected pregnancy by an ex-girlfriend. Eric sees some grit behind the younger man’s smirky façade, and takes a risk on him.

Jennifer Connelly plays Eric’s wife, and I was glad to see the Oscar winner given more to do in this Y-chromosome-heavy flick than just sit on the home front and pine for her man. There’s pain in the couple’s past we don’t expect to encounter.

Ol’ reliable Jeff Bridges turns up as a local businessman who uses his connections to help the Hotshots. Rounding out the cast are James Badge Dale, Andie MacDowell, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Hardy, Geoff Stults and Natalie Hall.

A very old-fashioned sort of filmmaking -- it’s essentially a war movie with fires swapped in for terrorists or Germans -- “Only the Brave” has heart, vitality and unexpected wisdom.

Bonus material includes deleted scenes, a feature-length commentary with Brolin and director Joseph Kosinski, a “Hold the Light” music video and three making-of featurettes.



Thursday, February 1, 2018

Eight for '18: Year in film preview

I'm changing things up this year by presenting a truncated year in film preview, rather than the comprehensive one I usually do. I'm doing this for a couple of reasons:
  • I'm busy as sh*t.
  • There are literally six million 2018 movie previews out there, and I'd rather do my own thing than join the content farm lemmings.
So I present "Eight for '18" -- the eight films I'm most anticipating this year. Please note, these are the flicks I am looking forward to, not necessarily what would come up under a "most anticipated" poll. So don't be shocked because you don't see "Avengers: Infinity War" or some of the other big titles out there.

(Also, please note I left "Black Panther" off because it's coming out in just a couple of weeks, and I wanted to give readers more of a look further down the road. Suffice it to say I'm also stoked about that one. The early word on it has been nigh-orgiastic fervor, which is exciting but also... disturbing.)

In chronological order:

Isle of Dogs

March 23

I've been very up and down on the films of Wes Anderson -- you would literally have to threaten me with the removal of a key body part to get me to watch "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" again -- but I absolutely adored his foray into stop-motion animation, "Fantastic Mr. Fox." He's back with this Japanese-inspired tale of a boy searching for his dog in the secret land of exiled canines that includes voices by W.A. regular Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton as well as Scarlett Johansson and Bryan Cranston.

Pacific Rim Uprising

March 23

What?? Two of my favorite picks debuting on the same day?!? Hopefully they won't cancel each other out at the box office. Guillermo del Toro isn't at the helm, which is concerning. But John Boyega -- using his actual British accent! -- stars as the son of Stacker Pentecost, who teams up with Mako Mori to lead a new generation of pilots of skyscraper-sized robots to take on a new threat of Kaiju monsters.

Ready Player One

March 30

Steven Spielberg tackles the dense, page-turning sci-fi novel about a dystopian future in which everyone is connected (and imprisoned) by technology, existing mostly in a Matrix-like video game universe called the Oasis. It's like World of Warcraft, but, f'reals. It's sure to be visually stunning, as well as an amusement ride of '80s pop culture references for tickle Gen X erogenous zones. I'll just be curious to see how they locked down the intellectual property rights to all the stuff in the book. If I don't get to see Ultraman blasting spaceships out of the sky...

Solo: A Star Wars Story

May 25

The production on this Star Wars prequel looking at the pre-Rebellion life of Han Solo got off to a famously rough start, with the original directors departing the project in favor of Ron Howard. Can Alden Ehrenreich pull off a Harrison Ford impression? He was the best thing about the underwhelming "Hail, Caesar!" as a dimwitted cowboy star, so fingers crossed. Also excited about Donald Glover a s a young Lando Calrissian. I personally am holding out for the big-screen adaptation of "Lando Calrissian and the StarCave of ThonBoka."

The Incredibles 

June 15

It's interesting that for yours Pixar Animation held off on making any sequels outside the "Toy Story" universe, even though one -- the story of an entire family of super-heroes -- seemed most primed for sequelization. Writer/director Brad Bird is back in the hot seat, and the story is very hush-hush, other than Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) is off saving the world while Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) is left to babysit pint-sized firecracker Jack-Jack. No word on who the new villain(s) is/are, but I'd guess either Bob Odenkirk or Jonathan Banks will provide the cackle.


Oct. 5

Isn't about time we got an entire film devoted to a super-villain instead of just another do-gooder? Venom made an appearance in the (awful) "Spider-Man 3," a strange alien symbiote that bonded with the web-slinger before turning evil. Again, the plot is very secret, but reportedly new Spidey Tom Holland turns up. Most exciting: Tom Hardy hisself plays Eddie Brock, the scummy dude who gets turned into Venom.

First Man

Oct. 12

One of America's quietest heroes, astronaut pioneer Neil Armstrong, gets his own biopic starring Ryan Gosling. Not much information available beyond that -- or even a production still -- but here's all I need to know: it's directed by Damien Chazelle ("Whiplash," "La La Land.")

X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Nov. 2

Years ago I interviewed original Jean Grey actress Famke Janssen, and she expressed her regret that they were pulling the plug on the first generation of X-Men movies before they got to explore what many consider one of the greatest story arcs in comics history, the Dark Phoenix saga. Now the franchise is finally going in that direction with Sophie Turner in the lead role, as the psychic/telepath is transformed into the most malevolent force in the universe. Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult and James McAvoy reprise their roles, with Jessica Chastain taking on a mystery part known only as "Smith."