Friday, November 16, 2018

Requiem for a Curmudgeon: William Goldman (1931-2018)

William Goldman so mastered Hollywood's byzantine rules that he not only became known as its greatest screenwriter, he also saw through its charades and shenanigans -- and wasn't afraid to write that, too.

When his "Adventures in the Screen Trade" was published in  1983, he was riding as high as anyone could: winner of two Oscars (for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "All the President's Men"), highly-paid and sought after both for his own screenplays and as a script doctor for others', someone whose name alone could help get a project green-lit.

But he wrote honestly and acidly about the business of Hollywood in the book, including his own travails and butting of heads with giants like Robert Redford. Perhaps not coincidentally for a place known for the phrase "you'll never eat lunch in this town again," the next few years were a downtime for him. Even "The Princess Bride," based on his beloved own novel, was a middling hit in 1987. But he hit a second stride that lasted through the 1990s and into the early 2000s.

Bill has died at age 87. I'm proud to say I knew him, if only a little.

He and my father, Jim, were fast friends at Oberlin College and kept in touch over the years. When I was growing up my dad would make occasional references to knowing somebody in showbiz, which I largely ignored until I was a teenager and knew I wanted to write about movies. He would always call him "Bill," as in mentioning to my mother, "Just got off the phone with Bill Goldman." And so I will, too.

I first met Bill in 1990 when I transferred to New York University to join the Cinema Studies department -- not the much larger and more heralded Film department; we watched movies rather than make them for an education. By then he was divorced and his daughters grown, so he was living alone in an expansive apartment in a Manhattan hotel.

I remember it was raining a deluge that day; my parents and I all got soaked to the skin. So we decided to eat lunch in, wearing some of Bill's old sweatshirts. I got to hoist his Oscars, which he kept lackadaisically on an old bookshelf. Many people have commented how they're much heavier than they appear, which I found to be true.

My dad was a little nervous about leaving his only son alone in the big, mean city. He gave me the phone numbers of two friends in New York City I was supposed to call upon if I had any trouble, and one was Bill's. I kept it for many years without ever using it.

That first day we spent some hours talking movies -- I'm afraid to say I probably came across as a little snotty. My tastes still ran to visual spectacles in those days, before I'd learned that I needed to learn more. Bill was polite to his friend's son, declining to tell me what an ass I was. The only hint was the inscription he wrote in my copy of "Adventures," which reads: "To Chris Lloyd, You knew all this anyway, God Bless, Bill."

Luckily, we did not leave it there.

When email dawned, I reached out to Bill and was pleased to get a response. For many years we kept up a correspondence, generally about movies but also sharing personal news and thoughts. He was one of the first people I let know when my dad died six years ago; I still remember his warm remembrance fondly.

Bill was just as direct via email as he was in person or in his writings. If Bill thought the favorite to win the Best Picture Oscar that year was piece of shit, that's exactly what he would write. We occasionally argued, but in a good-natured way.

Interesting aside: in email, Bill mostly eschewed things like capitalization and punctuation. Sentences tended to be very short or run on. Perhaps someone so used to writing in the careful formatting of screenplays craved having a sphere where he could throw out all rules.

But he always signed them the same way: "God bless, Bill."

I knew he was ill in recent years, and the death of his daughter three years ago marked about the last time we spoke. I'm glad to see the various news services giving his passing  glowing coverage. His last produced screenplay was "Dreamcatcher" in 2003, based upon Stephen King's book, and it was a commercial flop. I remember some of the reviews at the time were quite vicious in mentioning Goldman's name.

Bill Goldman was a great writer who was also open about how painful the process of writing was for him. He talked of "going into my pit" upon embarking on a new project. He often felt cut off and alienated from others. The reputation of a curmudgeon eventually formed around his persona, especially as he got older.

But as everyone else spends this time talking about his achievements as a writer, I just wanted to pay my own meager tribute to the man. His most famous saying was "Nobody knows anything," but I'm one of many who can say that this was a man who knew a lot.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Review: "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald"

What an utterly imcomprehensible movie.

J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" spinoff, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," was a lackluster effort that showed that successful novelists don't always make for good screenwriters. It featured a drab, uninteresting protagonist, a retread of the Harry/Voldemort dynamic of good/handsome young wizard versus the evil/ugly old wizard, and a lot of hard-to-follow CGI. Even though it only came out two years ago, I barely have any solid memory of it.

The not-needed sequel, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald," is so nonsensical that I spent the entire 2¼-hour run time just trying to figure out who was who and what was what. I still didn't have it all properly sorted by the end.

You may recall that the end of the first film, magical zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, still stooping and mumbling his dialogue) had battled a member of the Ministry of Magic, which acts as the law enforcement for the parallel world of wizards and witches, who was revealed to be the nefarious Grindelwald. Like Voldemort, he believes that magic-users are destined to rule the world over the non-magical Muggles, especially those of pure blood.

He quickly escapes his confinement in a daring mid-air battle, and sets about leading his revolt. Professor Dumbledore (Jude Law), the most powerful wizard in the land, refuses to take on Grindelwald himself, and begs Newt to do so instead.

"You do not seek power or popularity," Dumbledore tells Newt as the pretext of why he should do battle in his place. Flashbacks, however, reveal a friendship of a... special nature from when he and and Grindelwald were young.

(Rowling still keep insisting, in a cheap bit of post-publication revision, that Dumbledore is gay, though as a screenwriter she hasn't yet seen fit to make it explicit.)

This sets off another round of international magic-hopping, face-offs, Newt being chased by the ministry "aurors," including his own brother, and the introduction of some new critters from Newt's briefcase menagerie, including one that looks like one of those Chinese parade dragons brought to life.

Several side characters return, without good purpose. There's Newt's Muggle friend, Jacob (Dan Fogler), and his witch lady love, Queenie (Alison Sudol). Credence (Ezra Miller), a disturbed wizard everyone refers to as "a boy" even though Miller looks to be pushing 30, acts as the Macguffin everyone is chasing after because he's the key to something.

(Things are always keys to something in the Harry Potter universe.)

Katherine Waterston returns as Tina, an auror who arrested Newt in the last movie and then fell in love with him, although no one actually says so because everyone's British. This movie literally has no idea what to do with her, so she's shunted off to the sides of the action and we largely forget about her. We're to believe that she's an expert investigator, but took at face value an erroneous wizard newspaper article claiming Newt was engaged to Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) rather than Newt's brother, Theseus (Callum Turner), thus hurting her feelings.

Johnny Depp is pretty much the only interesting thing in the movie, needling and coaxing like a mythical serpent, essentially colorless with a shock of platinum hair, death's-head pallor and mismatched eyes. As written he's merely a more charismatic version of Voldemort, but still, whenever he's onscreen you can't take your eyes off him.

The opposite can be said for Newt, who's just as bloodless and boring as the last time around. It often happens that the protagonist of a story, especially one with a fantastical backdrop, is made to be less interesting than the whiz-bang supporting characters and villains, acting as a familiar anchor for the audience to relate to.

But Redmayne's Newt is just a drip. The fact that he's caught in a raging storm of impossible-to-follow subplots and eye candy makes it understandable that he's swallowed by his own story.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Review: "Wildlife"

“Wildlife” features some truly wonderful actors plying their craft at the highest of levels. And I didn’t believe a one of them for a cold minute.

This drama set in 1960 stars Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal as a youngish couple whose marriage is fracturing. Ed Oxenbould plays their sensitive 14-year-old son, Joe, who is forced to sit a front row seat to the slow, raucous dissolution. The film is based on the novel by Richard Ford, unread by me.

In stories of this kind we’re used to a lot of repressed emotions and raised voices behind closed doors. In the Hollywood view of this period, America was a cloistered place where people didn’t like to publicly air their dirty laundry. Things like marital estrangement and infidelity were swept under rugs.

Here, the film takes things so far to the opposite end it strains credulity to the breaking point, and beyond.

Not only do Jeanette and Jerry Brinson (Mulligan and Gyllenhaal, respectively) make no effort to hide their growing war from Joe, they actually enlist him as a participant. He sits in on their arguments and is explicitly asked to offer an opinion or take sides.

Later, the grotesquerie will grow even more overt, and less believable.

The Brinsons move around a lot because Jerry is always chasing the next big thing. He was recruited to be a golf pro at the club in Great Falls, Montana, but soon loses the job because he’s too “familiar” with the guests. (Read: he gambles with them.) They quickly offer to take him back, but Jerry’s pride is hurt and he refuses. Soon he’s doing little more than lounging on the couch, listening to ball games on the radio and sipping an endless parade of beers.

Jeanette is outwardly supportive of her husband’s lackadaisical job search. She even takes work herself as a swim instructor, and Joe gives up football to work in a photo studio afternoons after school to help make ends meet. 

That changes when Jerry agrees to take a job fighting the fires that seem to rage every year in the vast Montana forests. It will take him away from the family for weeks on end, which Jeanette views as a betrayal of sorts. She imagines him dallying with women, and uses that as justification for stepping out on her own.

The target of her amorous energy is an unlikely one: Warren Miller, a much older man played by Bill Camp. Balding, portly, bespectacled and walking with a pronounced limp, Warren isn’t much to look at. But he owns a car dealership, so Jeanette views him as a trade up from Jerry.

This is the directorial debut of Paul Dano, a very offbeat and good character actor, who also co-wrote the screenplay adaptation with actress Zoe Kazan (“The Big Sick”).

The biggest problem with “Wildlife” is never giving Joe any kind of distinct identity. His role is to just be there and witness the turmoil. Many stories use a character of this sort to be the audience’s lens to look at the real subjects, in this case Jerry and Jeanette.

But Joe isn’t even much of a real character. He doesn’t seem to have any interests, or motivations, or thoughts, or personality. There’s a girl who takes an obvious interest in him, but Joe sort of shrugs her off and the movie forgets about her.

There’s one scene in “Wildlife” that’s make-or-break. Jeanette puts on her “desperation dress” and takes Joe with her to have dinner at Warren’s house while Jerry is away. It’s an exquisitely awkward event. Mulligan skillfully shows us Jeanette’s obvious intention: to throw herself at Warren. For his part, Warren doesn’t appear disturbed about initiating the affair in her son’s presence, even offering fatherly advice.

I can’t for the life of me fathom people who would act like this. The problem isn’t that the film presents characters who are beyond comprehension; it’s that it doesn’t even attempt to explain these people to themselves.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Video review: "Alpha"

One of my greatest pleasures as a critic is pointing people to wonderful films they may have missed. It’s cool to review the latest blockbuster, but nothing beats helping others find movies they might not have otherwise.

“Alpha” is a rousing prehistoric adventure tale that presumes to depict the first cooperation between humans and canines. It’s a gorgeous film with great production values, convincingly portraying Europe circa 20,000 years ago.

Kodi Smith-McPhee plays Keda, a youngster on the verge of manhood. He’s been picked by his father, the chief of their tribe, to participate in a buffalo hunt for the first time. It’s the unofficial rite of manhood, since it involves a long, arduous journey and a dangerous encounter that will determine whether they have enough food and furs to survive the coming winter.

When Keda is injured and separated from his people, he must find his way back on his own. After fighting off a pack of wolves, he nurses the one he stabbed with his knife back to health. He names the animal Alpha, and after some initial antagonism, together they begin the long trip home.

Director Albert Hughes and screenwriter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt craft a story that is part spectacle, part coming-of-age tale. The humans speak in an ancient language with subtitles for our benefit. The movie almost doesn’t need them, because you can usually discern Keda’s thoughts without his speech. He communicates with Alpha through hand motions, whistles and eye contact.

It might be too intense for younger children, but “Alpha” is a great adventure story for the whole family.

Bonus features are quite good. The DVD has two making-of short documentary features: “The Wolf Behind Alpha” and “Boy & Wolf.” Upgrade to the Blu-ray edition and you add two more: “Building the World” and “A Hero’s Journey.”

The Blu-ray also boasts a new director’s cut of the theatrical film, plus three deleted scenes with commentary by Hughes and an alternate opening and ending with commentary.



Thursday, November 8, 2018

Review: "The Grinch"

“The Grinch” is bright, joyful, goofy and largely misguided.

Personally I always liked the darker undertones of Dr. Seuss’ tales. The Grinch is literally green with envy, a nasty old crank who looks down on the perpetually happy denizens of Whoville, while obviously wishing he could join in their caroling and merry-making.

He has to find his bottom before he can grow -- three sizes, heart-wise.

This new animated version jettisons much of the nastiness of the book, 1966 television special and 2000 live-action version starring Jim Carrey. He’s sad rather than loathsome, more worthy of pity than scorn. I certainly can’t imagine someone writing a whole song about how mean he is.

Dratted, he’s even nice to his dog, Max. He still makes him pull the sleigh, but it’s not all that hard and he gives lots of praises. “You’re the best dog a Grinch could hope for,” he practically purrs.

There are lots of changes from the original story. (Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney directed by a screenplay adaptation by Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow.) Instead of being an outcast, Grinch is a member of the community who occasionally drops into town to buy groceries. A flashback places him at the Whoville orphanage as a lad, and it’s possible he’s actually a Who himself. I noticed they all have furry faces, though not so hirsute as the Grinch’s bounteous neon body hair.

Though, in one of the better throwaway jokes, it’s suggested that Grinchy is going gray and the green is a dye job.

Grinch is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s proven himself to be a true vocal chameleon who can do both this and the dragon Smaug from the “Hobbit” movies. He lives in his vast mountain cave lair, getting about mostly by automatic chair. In his iteration he’s essentially a brilliant inventor throwing together contraptions to serve his whims.

Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely), the adorable little girl who helps teach Grinch the spirit of Christmas, even gets a backstory as the daughter of a harried single mom (Rashida Jones). She hatches a scheme to capture Santa on Christmas Eve so she can ask him to help her mother out, recruiting her friends to rig cookie traps. I don’t think Cindy Lou thought this out very well.

There’s lots of boingy action and kiddie-friendly humor thrown in to pump up the entertainment quotient. For instance, there’s a mountain goat that just randomly screams instead of braying. And an apprentice reindeer, Fred, who’s immensely fat but willing.

“The Grinch” is one of those movies that comes along, entertains children and is soon forgotten by adults.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Review: "Boy Erased"

“Boy Erased” is a little too self-important for its own good, but it boasts emotive performances and a generally sensitive look at how some people struggle to reconcile their religious tenets with the reality of people who believe they were born gay. It’s essentially one belief system vying against another.

This is the second drama in the last few months about the controversial practice of “gay conversion therapy,” in which people attend intensive retreats administered by church groups to “cure” their same sex attraction through a mix of Bible teachings, pseudo-science therapy and even alleged psychological and physical abuse. Some minors have reported being held against their will, and there are instances of them committing suicide as a result of the practice.

It’s outlawed in 14 states and, as the end titles make explicit, the filmmakers would really like their movie to be a vehicle for banning it in the other 36.

I was put off by this sort of brazen electioneering, especially since the movie I had just seen took pains not to depict all people of faith as bizarre loons.

Writer/director Joel Edgerton adapted the story from the book by Garrard Conley, chronicling his own two weeks in the Love in Action conversion program as a teenager in 2004. Lucas Hedges, a surprise Oscar nominee a couple of years ago, cements his acting chops playing Jared Eamons, an All-American kid from Arkansas who struggles with his burgeoning homosexuality.

Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe play the parents, Baptists who wear crosses and try to live by the literal word of the Bible. They seem to have a good life. They’re a close-knit trio, prospering under dad’s Ford dealership. He also preaches in their church. Mom wears a blonde bouffant and a perpetual smile, plays the role of dutiful wife and mother but clearly has a strong sense of self.

When they get a call from someone at Jared’s college outing him, his parents threaten to throw him out of their house and their lives unless he agrees to the therapy recommended by their pastor. It seems OK at first, a 9-to-5 set of workshops in which there’s lots of support and loving the sinner while hating the sin. The other attendees seem just as lost as Jared, but determined to “lean into” the therapy.

But cracks soon start to show. There is crying and browbeating glimpsed on the fringes. Jared’s personal items are confiscated each day, and pages of his journal torn out to be inspected for troublesome thoughts. Jared is especially jarred to learn the month-log program is just an assessment period; some people move in and stay for a year or more.

Edgerton himself plays Victor Sykes, the man running the program. He’s not an out-and-out villain, more a guy in over his head who thinks he’s a great coach but is steadily running the team into the ground. He has a system for breaking down gay kids in order to build them back up again, but he only seems to have thought out the breakdown part.

Truly terrifying is Brandon, a tattooed ex-con played by bassist Flea. He’s the “scared straight” portion of the program, though Brandon is clear in expressing that his problems did not extend to same sex attraction. His main job is to literally teach the male attendees to act manly, e.g. not crossing your legs and having a firm handshake. Triangles are the strongest shape, he instructs.

“Boy Erased” is best when it focuses on Jared’s increasingly extreme experiences at the therapy program and his fragile relationship with his parents, especially his dad. Flashbacks to his early gay encounters are fitted in rather awkwardly.

The movie also doesn’t make much of an attempt to illuminate the interior lives of Jared’s fellow attendees. He and Jon (a darkly charismatic Xavier Dolan) keep starting conversations that never really go anywhere. I kept expecting them to initiate a secret friendship or even a relationship, but the movie misplaces this dynamic.

It’s still a worthwhile film, one that doesn’t treat either gay kids or Christians as cartoon figures, all bright lines and easy answers.

Review: "The Happy Prince"

I sometimes imagine what Oscar Wilde would be like if he lived in our age. My guess is he would be the king of Twitter, dicing up issues of the day in devastating short poems, or host of a late-night talk show where he would bring on guests of a more intellectual bent than Stephen and the Jimmys, exchanging bon mots and some light flirting over martinis.

In the 1890s Wilde was the leading literary figure in England, dashing off popular plays, books and verse at a staggering pace. He was also a major star of what we would now call pop culture, a must-have on the upper crust social circuit.

That all came crashing down when was convicted of a crime for his more-or-less open homosexuality in 1895, especially an ongoing affair with the son of the Marquess of Queensberry. He served two years of hard labor in prison, and endured a penurious existence without the benefit of fortune or fame until his death in 1900 at age 46.

It’s this period that “The Happy Prince” chronicles. It is written, directed and stars Rupert Everett, who I did not recognize throughout the course of the movie. It’s a devilishly charming and deeply tragic performance, a look at a genius laid low for the crime of being who he was.

Self-pitying, manipulative and self-centered, it’s a portrait of Wilde that tries to show both his enormous talents and evident flaws.

He shambles about Paris and Italy, living off the generosity of his few remaining friends, such as agent Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and actor Reggie Turner (Colin Firth), a meager allowance from his estranged wife, Constance (Emily Watson) and whatever he can beg or grift.

The story moves backward and forward in time, with glimpses of a vibrant Oscar at his prime, standing on stages before rapt audiences. We also see him immediately after getting out of prison, when he thought he was at his lowest, and also when he falls even lower. He does little writing, spending his time and meager funds on absinthe, cocaine and dallying with pretty boys.

Things grow tense when his former lover, Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan) turns up and they rekindle their relationship. Oscar knows that he lost literally everything he cared about to Bosie’s family, but he can’t resist his pull. For his part, Bosie is a spoiled rich boy who enjoys being the most important person in the world to a great man.

The title comes from one of Wilde’s tales, which he used to tell to his young boys as a sad bedtime story. He writes letters to Constance begging her to take him back, though we suspect this has more to do with wanting to be in money again.

His affection for his estranged sons seems genuine, though, and he semi-adopts a pair of street urchin brothers as stand-ins. Ever a prisoner to his vices, though, he occasionally has sex with the teenage one.

The dialogue is beautiful and intricate, bits of actual Wilde writings intermixed with words that sound like something he would say. Everett issues much of this in a gravelly purr that is both evocative and often hard to understand.

“The Happy Prince” is the tale of the deeply unhappy last days of Oscar Wilde. He was a victim of his times, but also of his own avarice for pleasure and self-idolatry. One of our greatest talents was treated cruelly, especially by himself.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Torn Curtain" (1966)

I've been making an effort the last couple of years to catch up on Alfred Hitchcock's earlier films before he came to Hollywood and experienced his heyday in the 1940s through early 1960s. But the truth is I haven't seen any of his later movies.

I'm not a big fan of "The Birds" and consider "Marnie" to be an utter embarrassment. So I have sort of unconsciously lumped all his post-"Psycho" filmography into a mental bin I dismissed as unworthy.

"Torn Curtain" isn't going to be confused with Hitch's best stuff, but I was surprised at how effective and tense it was. His 50th feature, it was fairly savaged by critics of the time, who said Hitch's style was worn out, though it did decent box office.

The mercurial, mischievous director was eager to do another spy film because of the popularity of the James Bond flicks, and he even received the biggest movie star in the world at the time, Julie Andrews, to play in it.

Truth was Hitchcock didn't want Julie Andrews or her co-star Paul Newman, preferring Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant, who paired nicely in "North by Northwest." But Grant was retired and Saint deemed not a big enough star anymore. Despite the director's reserve, Newman and Andrews make an excellent onscreen couple, playing an American nuclear scientist defecting to East Berlin and his asssistant-slash-fiance.

The movie opens with the two rollicking in bed together, missing breakfast and then lunch in favor of some extended lovemaking. The very fact that a mainstream movie showed an unmarried woman and man in bed together tells you something about how much cinematic mores had changed by 1966.

The movie has two distinct halves. In the first, Michael Armstrong (Newman) defects to the Soviet bloc with his lady love, Sarah Sherman (Andrews), tagging along uninvited. He attempted to give her the slip at a Copenhagen science conference, but she followed him on the plane and is horrified to discover that he is going behind the Iron Curtain. Their relationship is strained and in danger of shattering.

In the second, he reveals to her what we suspected all along: he's not actually a traitor betraying America's nuclear secrets to the enemy, but doing quite the opposite: trying to pick the brain of a legendary German scientist, Gustav Lindt (Ludwig Donath), for the last piece of the puzzle to building a missile defense system that would give the U.S. the advantage in the nuclear Cold War.

Their relationship blooms again, just in time to spend the last hour of the movie being chased around by the Stasi security forces. From their kiss-kiss in a park, it's all chase-chase to the end, with a little bang-bang thrown in.

Hitchcock's camera work (photography by John F. Warren) is notable for its extreme close-ups of its stars, especially when their faces are close for kissing or conversation. It's distracting at first, seeing a star from eyebrows to chin, but the smothering effect also draws us into their passion.

He also uses the same technique for what is probably the film's most famous scene: in which Armstrong and a German farmer's wife (who's secretly part of the resistance) beat, stab and wrestle his "security guide," aka shadow, to death, finally doing him in by forcing his head into an unlit gas oven.

It's an astonishing sequence of grunts, sweat and blood, the flip side -- and more overt depiction -- of Michael and Sarah's canoodling.

The thug is Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling), a leering presence in a black leather jacket who prattles annoyingly about his days living in New York City, no doubt as a Soviet-sponsored spy. In a classic bit of Hitchcockian misdirection, Gromek perpetually struggles with a lighter that won't produce a flame. I figured this would prelude some fireball-related demise, though in the end it's the lack of a spark that ends him.

The movie (screenplay by Brian Moore from a story by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse) contains a rogues' gallery of interesting, colorful characters. Günter Strack plays Manfred, the well-coiffed East German scientist who recruited Michael and clearly has romantic designs on Sarah. Mort Mills is the spy chief helping them out, posing first as a farmer and then a travel agent.

David Opatoshu is Jacobi, who oversees an operation in which the underground runs a fake bus route from Leipzig to Berlin, complete with fake passengers. It runs 10 minutes ahead of the real bus, and during the trip through the countryside they're repeatedly delayed, to the point the real bus is in danger of catching up and revealing their ruse.

Leave it to Hitch to make a bus ride a nail-biter.

Tamara Toumanova has a fun role as a famous aging ballerina who is repeatedly (and inadvertently) dissed by the spy contretemps. She is first miffed when she gets off her plane and sees a horde of photographers waiting, puffs herself up for a picture, only to learn they are there for Michael's defection, which the East Germans are playing up for propaganda.

Later when Michael and Sarah are on the run, they hide in the theater where she is performing. She spots him from the stage, recognizing him from his photo being splashed in every newspaper, and calls the authorities, leading to another terrifically tense scene as the couple try to think of an escape with police closing in from every side during the performance. The haughty artiste gets her own comeuppance in the end.

By far the weirdest and most indelible supporting charactger is Countess Kuchinska, a displaced Polish noblewoman played by Lila Kedrova. Ostentatiously dressed, she is desperate to emigrate to the U.S. Spotting Michael on the street, she politely blackmails them in return for her help, which they didn't actually need.

She bemoans the terrible coffee and cigarettes of the Eastern bloc, and pleads with them to be her official sponsors to emigrate in exchange for showing them to the post office where they will meet their next contact (a location they had already discovered on their own). It never seems to occur to her that two American spies would not be looked upon favorably on her visa application.

A pathetic, cloying figure, Kuchinska makes a scene wherever she goes, hurts their cause more than she helps, though in the end she proves a figure of stouter resolve than anyone imagined.

"Torn Curtain" is also notable for another, sad reason: it marked the end of the long and fruitful partnership between Hitchcock and composer Bernard Hermann. Hitch rejected Hermann's creepy, languid score and, after the latter refused to change his, ordered up a jumpier one by John Addison, dooming the relationship. I have a copy of Hermann's rejected score, and I can't imagine why Hitchcock disliked its eerie beauty.

Reportedly the studio wanted something jazzier and more modern. During their fallout, Hermann reportedly told off the director: "Look, Hitch, you can't outjump your own shadow. And you don't make pop pictures. What do you want with me? I don't write pop music."

Hitchcock, whose career was (imho) damaged by being put upon a pedestal by the French critics, who hailed him as an auteur, spent much of his last two decades worrying about being seen as old and out-of-touch. Instead of following his inner voice, he fretted about his films being derided, leading inevitably to what he feared most coming to pass.

At least, that's my working theory. I quite enjoyed "Turn Curtain" as a well-crafted bit of old school suspense. Maybe I'll need to go deeper into Hitch's last days to see if I'm right.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Video review: "Incredibles 2"

It’s strange that it took almost 15 years to get a sequel to “The Incredibles,” the one Pixar animated film that seemed to beg for a follow-up. It appears Disney wanted to wait for original writer/director Brad to find the time and gumption to tackle the project, which was probably the right call.

Alas, “Incredibles 2” -- I didn’t mistype; they dropped the “the” for the sequel -- is a fun and frenetic movie that fails to live up to its predecessor.

I’m still recommending it, because you can’t deny the entertainment quotient it brings to the table. My boys have already watched the Blu-ray through once and are ready to go again. But this is the sort of movie that you might watch one time with your kids, and then wander out of the room for their subsequent viewings.

The story picks up right where the first one left off, with a battle with the nefarious Underminer. After that, the Parr family -- strongman Mr. Incredible (voice of Craig T. Nelson), stretchy Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), speedy Dash (Huck Milner) and invisible Violet (Sarah Vowell) -- gets a helping hand from a P.R. tycoon (Bob Odenkirk) whose sister (Catherine Keener) is a tech whiz.

Their idea: make outlawed superheroes palatable to the public again by doing a media push spotlighting Elastigirl. They figure she’ll be more appealing than Mr. Incredible because she doesn’t tend to leave everything smashed into dust. That leaves him at home stuck with the kids, including baby Jack-Jack’s burgeoning new powers.

They run into the clutches of Screenslaver, a mysterious figure who loathes supers and is using television screens to hypnotize them into doing bad things. Iceman Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) returns to help out as Mr. Incredible’s glorified sidekick, though the movie also introduces a bunch of young (well, mostly) superhero wannabes looking to follow in the Incredibles’ footsteps.

It doesn’t have the verve and imagination of the first one, but “Incredibles 2” is still must-see for children.

Bonus features are quite handsome. There’s an all-new short film starring fashion maven Edna Mode, where we get to see more of her babysitting duties with Jack-Jack, as well as “Bao,” the touching shirt film that accompanied the theatrical release. Plus 10 deleted scenes, commentary tracks by animators and more than a half-dozen making-of short documentaries.



Thursday, November 1, 2018

Review: "The Nutcracker and the Four Realms"

The Nutcracker is a timeless tale interrupted by a whole lot of unfortunate dancing. Purists may be offended by the radical rejiggering Disney has given the story in “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” but I found it to be a colorful, amusing cinematic fairy tale that will entertain young and old.

For the record: there is still some ballet, but it’s mercifully limited to just a couple of key scenes, plus some more modern dance variations over the closing credits.

This version bears only a passing resemblance to either the original short story by E. T. A. Hoffmann or the Nutcracker Ballet scored by Tchaikovsky. There’s still a magical realm with a mouse king, toy soldiers who come to life and a brave nutcracker captain. Beyond that, it’s essentially a new creation that uses the Nutcracker story as a mere jumping off point.

Mackenzie Foy plays Clara, daughter of a well-to-do family in 1890s London. Her mother has just died, and her father (Matthew Macfadyen) is shell-shocked and rigid. His wife left each of the three children a Christmas gift, and Clara’s is a beautiful silver egg. Unfortunately, it’s locked and there’s no key.

In this retelling, London is wonderfully multicultural and Clara is a brainy science girl instead of a silly thing obsessed with dresses and boys. She seeks out the help of her kindly godfather (Morgan Freeman), an inventor who raised her mother, who herself became a great scientist. This leads to the kingdom of the four realms, a place of magic and wondrous color.

Clara’s mother created this place when she was a little girl, and became its queen. With her absence the kingdom has fallen into disarray. The realms of flowers, ice and fairies are at war with the fourth realm, which used to have a name of its own but has gotten the Voldemort treatment since things went south.

Clara wanders into the forbidden fourth realm, a place of creepy overgrown forests and hooting owls, and finds the key only to have it stolen by a nasty little mouse. She enlists the aid of the Nutcracker Captain (Jayden Fowora-Knight), a fetching lad who appears to be wearing more makeup than Clara, or anyone else in the movie.

Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) runs the fourth realm, and has a face that’s literally cracked by time or some other more nefarious cause. Eugenio Derbez plays the flower realm leader, Richard E. Grant is the frozen one, and Keira Knightley is the Sugar Plum Fairy. I wasn’t actually sure it was Knightley until well into the movie; her normally resonant voice is pitched up into a cutesy screech and her face heavily slathered with paint (though still not as much as the Nutcracker).

Directed by Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston from a script by Ashleigh Powell and Tom McCarthy, “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is pitched very much in the fairy tale mold, with broad characters and knowing looks exchanged. The outcome is never really in doubt, but there are some good twists and amusing bits along the way.

The army of tin soldiers raised to fight Mother Ginger is clanking and scary. I should note my 8-year-old was skeptical going in but enjoyed the movie thoroughly, while my 5-year-old found some sequences a bit too intense.

This film is like an enchanting bauble you hang on a Christmas tree. It’s nice to look at and makes you smile, though it’s more for what it reminds you of than anything it actually does.