Monday, May 20, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Night Train to Munich" (1940)

You have to think about the situation in England when "Night Train to Munich" came out in August 1940. Hitler ruled Europe uncontestedly. The Brits had just rescued their remaining forces from France at Dunkirk. The Blitz was about to commence, a year of nightly terror for London dwellers.

The U.K. had been the world's mightiest global empire, now humiliated and (most thought) about to be conquered.

And here is this cheeky romantic comedy caper -- a lark, a piffle, starring Rex Harrison as a supremely self-pleased spy posing as a Nazi to smuggle a brilliant scientist and his daughter out of Germany. Heck, when we first meet Harrison he's singing penny-ante tunes while hocking records at a wharfside shop.

(Although, given Harrison's legendary talk-singing turn in "My Fair Lady," one tends to doubt the mellifluous warbling is his own.)

One can fault the British for their stiff-upper-lip routine, tired classism and tamping down of emotions. But this film, innocuous as it is, represents a massive middle finger waving across the channel at the bloodthirsty huns.

It starts with the German invading Czechoslovakia. Axel Bomasch (James Harcourt) is a scientist working on a formula for armor plating superior to what Germany has. He manages to escape on the last plane out, but his daughter, Anna (Margaret Lockwood), is captured and sent to a concentration camp.

There she meets Karl Marsen, an impudent young man who is nastily beaten by the prison guards for a speech against Nazi brutality. They hang out at the barbed wire line separating the men's and women's section, and a little POW romance starts to bloom. Karl is able to bust them out and get her to England, where she is reunited with papa.

Alas, it has all been a ruse. Karl is secretly an agent of the Gestapo, using Anna to find her father. He snatches them and smuggles them onto a German U-boat.

Paul Henreid plays Karl, and it's a bit disconcerting at first to see him as a Nazi, considering his iconic role is as resistance leader Victor Laszlo in "Casablanca" just three years later. He even sounds different, eschewing Laszlo's deep, sonorous tones for a higher pitch.

Harrison plays Gus Bunnett aka Dickie Randall, the British agent charged with guarding the Bomasches who got one-upped by Karl. He asks to be given a chance to return the favor, as they know the scientist and his daughter will be transported on the titular train.

Dickie is puckish and too clever by half, a confidence man with a charter from the British government. He dresses as a German Corps of Engineer Major, Ulrich Herzog. Using only a forged letter of introduction and his own wits, he bluffs his way past successive layers of the Nazi bureaucracy.

It's funny how, having convinced one German functionary, he actually recruits them to brag on his behalf to the next layer of the hierarchy.

Claiming he had an affair with Anna four years earlier, he worms his way aboard the train with the mission of convincing the scientist to cooperate by the time the arrive. So Herzog/Dickie woos Anna -- partly for show, party for real -- pretends to recruit her father and plays a cat-and-mouse game with Karl, who both harbors suspicions about Herzog and resents him for horning in on Anna.

Despite betraying Anna, Karl still seems to harbor hopes of continuing their prison camp liaison.

Butting into the mix is the curious pair of Charters and Caldicott. This is a comedic relief duo first introduced by Alfred Hitchcock in "The Lady Vanishes." Played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, they're British chaps who travel about the globe on some vague sort of business, talking obsessively about cricket and backing up into various goings-on.

They were such a hit with the crowd that various filmmakers started inserting Charters and Caldicott into their movies. They were a staple for about a decade, did some radio and were eventually reprised as a BBC show.

They're funny for a little while, including their introductory stretch where various German officers order them off the train, out of a waiting room, off of wagon, and so on. At first they express indignation, followed by obstinance, inevitably giving way to compliance when large men with guns are called in.

"Night Train to Munich" was directed by Carol Reed ("The Third Man") from a screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder -- the same scribes behind "A LadyVanishes" -- based on a short story by Gordon Wellesley.

It's obviously a low-budget affair, notable for the persistent use of miniatures for exterior shots. The entirety of Karl and Anna's escape from the POW camp is accomplished by tracking across the prison yard to show a barbed wire fence ripped open. It looks little more than a child's model.

Harrison and Lockwood make for an interesting pair. She's a smart and independent woman (by 1940 standards, anyway), and is continually vexed by Dickie's risk-taking and abundance of self-confidence. While he's passing himself off as Major Herzog -- why just a major? why not a colonel? -- he wears a monocle and an even more inflated sense of superiority than he normally does.

At one point he barges into her bedroom while she's abed in her nightie, explaining that he has told the Germans he will reignite her passions based on their previous affair. He calmly explains the situation and proposes they toss for who gets the couch. Pretty risque stuff for that era.

I don't think "Night Train to Munich" is a particularly great film. The story can't seem to decide who to follow. At first it's Anna, then it's Dickie, and for awhile -- too long, really -- Charters and Caldicott are the main show.

Still, I like the idea of this movie more than the one they made. Producing a flip, insolent send-up of the Nazis at a time they were facing the very real possibility of becoming subjugated by them is an act of enormous cheek. Can you imagine what would've happened to everyone involved in the film if the Axis had won?

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Video review: "The Upside"

“The Upside” is a film of modest ambitions but obvious charms. It stars Kevin Hart doing his adorable false bravado thing, though with a role boasting more shadings than he’s been given before. And it shows off the under-utilized comedic skills of Bryan Cranston, best known for his dramatic roles. (This despite first coming to fame as a sitcom dad.)

Cranston plays Phillip Lacasse, a billionaire investor-turned-author whose life has been on a downward spiral the last few years, losing his wife to cancer and his mobility to a leisure sport accident. Worse yet, his will to live is at a low ebb, despite the bucking up of his faithful executive, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), who runs his enterprise and watches out for him.

So when it’s time to hire a new “life auxiliary” -- aka personal assistant -- Yvonne knows right away that Dell Scott (Hart) is all wrong for the job. An ex-con who’s only halfheartedly looking for a job; he says and does all the wrong thing. But he impresses Phillip with his attitude, and lands the gig.

You can probably guess where things go: initial disaster followed by bare competence, which grows into a budding friendship that’s due for a major fracture right at the end of the second act. Director Neil Burger and screenwriter Jon Hartmere play things strictly by the numbers, with story beats and emotional catharsis timed down to the audience-tested minute.

And yet, it works. The trio of main actors share genuine warmth with each other, playing character who each have trouble connecting with the greater world in some way.

“The Upside” is a prototypical laughter-and-tears dramedy, a remake of a better French film. It won’t surprise you, but it will entertain.

Bonus features are middling-to-good. They include deleted scenes, a gag reel and five documentary shorts: “Onscreen Chemistry: Kevin and Bryan,” “Creating a Story of Possibility,” “Bridging Divisions,” “Embracing Divisions” and :Presenting a Different Side of Kevin Hart.”



Thursday, May 16, 2019

Review: "John Wick: Chapter 3 -- Parabellum"

John Wick runs like an old man with rheumatoid knees.

Hollywood can do amazing things with faces, but the knees always give you away. Star Keanu Reeves staggers and clomps in a herky-jerky cadence that bespeaks of a man in his 50s who’s more worried about preserving his tendons than achieving maximum speed.

Yes, yes, if you’ve followed the legendary assassin’s journey through the first two movies, you know that Wick’s been repeatedly pummeled, stabbed and shot as he’s pursued by a virtual army of other killers, so that certainly factors into how much he’s slowed down. A couple of other assassins even makes jokes about his lurching ways.

He’s still game for a third go-round in "John Wick: Chapter 3 -- Parabellum,” which is a continuation of the story that plays out over a few days' time, during which Wick has waded through an increasingly deep ocean of blood.

The last portion of the title is Latin for “prepare for war,” so you know things are just getting ratcheted up to another level of ultra-violence.

I liked the raw kinetic energy of the first two movies, which were known for putting veteran stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski in the director’s chair, a then-novel approach that has since been much imitated. (And surpassed, imho, by “Atomic Blonde.”) The fights were in our face, unmasked with no jumpy editing or obvious stunt doubles.

The franchise reaches middle age here, relying more on CGI and other cheats, and with some fights that go on way longer than they should. Same for the movie in general, which feels bloated at 10 minutes past the two-hour mark. These sorts of action-reliant spectacles are best at a tight 101, like the first one.

Still, it’s hard to deny the movie’s still a lot of fun, what with all the Glock blasts to the face, people getting thrown through windows, motorcycle sword fights and chop-socky rope-a-dope. There are just enough talkie scenes to act as a deep breath before we plunge in for more slice-and-dice.

It seems in the last film Wick, who was reluctantly drawn out of retirement after five years, had committed the ultimate transgression against the High Table, the fictional ruling part of a worldwide association of assassins. They have their own little pet rules, with sanctuary hotels in each major city, always called the Continental, where killers can trade in special gold coins for refuge and weapons.

Wick killed a member of the Table on Continental New York grounds, so now he’s hunted -- excommunicado -- with a $14 million price on his head with nowhere to turn for help. A mysterious “adjudicator” (Asia Kate Dillon) shows up and deems that others are at fault too, including Winston (Ian McShane), the gravely manager of the Big Apple hotel, and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), who runs the seedier side of town with an army of winos.

They helped John Wick before, and now must pay their own pound of flesh.

Halle Berry is a new face as Sofia, who manages the Continental in Casablanca and owes him an old favor. Ditto for Anjelica Huston, a Belarus matriarch who runs the ballet school where Wick grew up. That at least explains his grace with guns and knives, twirling in place like Nureyev as he takes one life after another.

Wick even gets his own assassin fanboy (Mark Dacascos), who runs a streetside sushi bar by day and commands a cadre of ninja assassins at night. He keeps telling Wick how honored he is to be fighting him, which is a hint of his long-term prospects.

Bedecked in a sleek black suit, long hair and scraggly beard, Reeves is more a force of vengeance than an actual person. But this is not the sort of movie you go to for dialogue and character development. It’s a gleeful orgy of bullets and bruises, film noir as bloodbath.

Drink deep, because it looks like we’re in for a whole lot more of these.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Video review: "The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part"

It took five years to make a sequel to “The LEGO Movie,” but that apparently wasn’t enough time to come with anything more original. This is basically a rehash of the smash animated flick based on the ubiquitous building toys, which most parents are convinced are secretly designed to cause maximum pain when stepped on.

Emmet (voice of Chris Pratt), the everyman hero from the first movie, finds himself shunted aside after his cheery savior shtick has worn thin. The world has become very apocalypse-y in the years since, with daily attacks by brightly-colored aliens.

As you may recall, the toys are living out their lives at the direction of real-world human kids, in this case a brother and sister whose animosity gets played out in the toy realm.

Transported to the aliens’ world, Pratt and his crew --Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks), Unikitty (Alison Brie), MetalBeard (Nick Offerman) and Benny (Charlie Day) -- find themselves faced with a proposed alliance. Specifically, their leader, Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) wants to put a ring on it with the earthlings’ brooding Batman (Will Arnett).

Face-paced to the point of incoherence, “The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part” is made strictly for the kids.

Bonus features are quite good. They include a commentary track by the filmmakers, a sing-along version that includes trivia and games, a music video for the song “Super Cool,” deleted scenes and outtakes, plus several making-of documentary shorts.



Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Review: "Red Joan"

"Who was using who? I was a shadow in a man's world. Invisible... but in the end, powerful." 
                                         --Joan Stanley

The "old" Joan in "Red Joan" is played by the incomparable Judi Dench, while the younger version -- who actually has the majority of the screen time -- is portrayed by Sophie Cookson, who reminded me a lot of Midge Wood, the bookworm girl played by Barbara Bel Geddes in "Vertigo."

They're clever, perpetually unappreciated women with obstinate chins who eventually undertake to assert themselves for what they want and the things they believe in. In Joan's case, this means spiriting atomic bomb secrets to the Russians during and after World War II.

"Red Joan" toys around with this fact for its first half, in a somewhat lackluster did-she-or-didn't-she game of storytelling cat-and-mouse. Of course, we know she'll be revealed as a spy in the end, as if common sense and the title of the movie didn't instruct us so.

What I found more interesting was how the Joan of the year 2000 has resolved the inner struggles of her self from 1938 and the years immediately thereafter. The film, written by Lindsay Shapero and directed by Trevor Nunn, depicts young Joan as struggling with the morality of her spying, manipulated by a pair of Russian émigré siblings who pick at her vulnerabilities.

By her 80s, though, Joan has mostly put away this part of her life. When her activities are discovered and investigated, she feigns ignorance before eventually embracing her role in a matter-of-fact way. She reminds her interlocutors that the Allies had promised to share their nuclear research with each other, but the Americans got to the atomic bomb first and quickly shut out the British-Canadian research team and the Russians.

I felt if everyone had the bomb, it was less likely they would use it on each other, she patiently explains to her shocked son (Ben Miles) -- essentially crediting herself as author of the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction.

Even though we know where the movie is going to go, I was intrigued and entertained by the journey getting there. The story is loosely based on that of Melita Norwood, who passed on secrets to the Russians while employed as a secretary.

The Brits' counterpart to the Manhattan Project was codenamed Tube Alloys, which is a very British codename. Stephen Campbell More plays Max, the head of the research team who eventually falls for the much younger Joan.

Her heart, and also much of her head, still resides with Leo (Tom Hughes), the dreamy young Communist firebrand she met during her student days at Cambridge. He has a sort of slouchy charm, doing a lot of side-eye ogling at her through one of those floppy haircuts that falls into his eyes.

His sister, Sonya (Tereza Srbova), is the more subtle of the two, befriending Joan and encouraging her romance with Leo.

There's a lot of subtext about how Joan is denigrated for her gender, constantly being asked to fetch the coffee or run the fancy new clothes dryer when she actually has a degree in physics and is one of the sharpest tacks in the department. She's the first one to suggest a centrifuge to separate the radioactive material isotope thingee.

(OK, I'm not a science guy.)

It's a great-looking film, filled with vintage cars and clothes and street scenes. I also liked Freddie Gaminara as a socialist sympathizer who coasts on his title and privilege.

Dench is terrific as always, though Cookson makes the strongest impression. It's enervating to see a timid young thing blossom and grow in confidence, overcoming adversity even as others vie to bend her to their will. Joan does indeed bend, though more as a result of internal resolve than external pressure.

It's not every spy drama that depicts the traitor as the heroine. But "Red Joan" operates in the shadows of ambiguity and compromises.

Review: "Tolkien"

I’m not sure what the recent fascination is for biopics of British authors of fantasy/children’s books. We’ve had not one but two of the “Winnie the Pooh” creator, and now here is “Tolkien,” based on the young life of “The Lord of the Rings” writer J.R.R. Tolkien.

It’s a stately and respectful film that doesn’t reveal any huge insights on John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, played empathetically by Nicholas Hoult -- especially if you already knew how his gruesome experiences in the trenches of World War I shaped his views and writing.

This is one of those rare movies that could’ve stood to be either much longer or much shorter.

There is imagery from the “Rings” saga interspersed throughout the film, flashes of imagination or dream fever where Tolkien sees a fiery Balrog rise from the furnace of the battlefield, or a towering crowned Sauron figure outlined over the twisted bodies of the fallen. The dragon Smaug and even the snowy steed Shadowfax make appearances.

It’s clear this movie would not exist without the success of the “Rings” trilogy and the subsequent (overly sprawling) film adaptation of his earlier novel, “The Hobbit.”

My guess is this movie will appeal more to hardcore fantasy fans who want to see the inspiration behind their beloved stories than a more general audience.

The Tolkien family has apparently objected to the film, no doubt because they were not consulted on its production (and presumably received no remuneration). But it’s a fairly standard  biopic that certainly does not seek to uncover character flaws or hidden secrets.

The film largely focuses on two sets of relationships that defined Tolkien. Orphaned at a young age and awarded a scholarship to a prestigious prep school, Roland (as he was known) at first clashes with and then befriends a trio of upper-crust boys. (They are played by Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson and Tom Glynn-Carney in their adult years.)

All are artistically inclined but afraid to reveal their passions to their stodgy parents. In Roland’s case, this means the caring but strict priest (Colm Meany) who acts as his legal guardian.

Dubbing themselves the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, or TCBS, they spend their years at the Barrons shop exchanging poetry and musical inspiration. When all four enlist in the military upon the advent of war, it sets up a series of expected, but still devastating tragedies.

The other significant piece of the tale is his romance with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), who came to live at the same boarding house where Roland and his younger brother (who’s not given much of a presence) were assigned. She is a piano prodigy who feels hampered by her lack of opportunities, and the pair soon begin a furtive courtship.

The main story is framed by a war sequence in which Roland sets out on a quest to find one of his school days chums, fearing for his safety. Wracked with fever, he is accompanied by a diminutive but stout junior officer named Sam (Craig Roberts), and it’s hard to miss the reference to Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom with a loyal lackey in tow.

It’s also interesting to see how Tolkien was building the little pieces that would become Middle Earth going back to his childhood, with drawings and snippets of stories festooning his walls and cramming his desk. This is a man who created his own languages, and then used them to weave a mythology as vast and intricate as anything by the Greek or Chinese.

I’m not sure if “Tolkien” unearths any tremendous understanding of the author’s life, other than he was a diligent, talented loner who was shaped equally by tragedy and fellowship.

I’m personally skeptical of the idiom that you have to suffer in order to be a great artist, but here is a man who would not have sprung forth an entire world without experiencing the darkest hells of this one.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Reeling Backward: "A Man for Hanging" (1972)

Made-for-television movies, particularly before the modern era, usually had low production values and even lower ambitions. "A Man for Hanging" is certainly guilty of the former but not the latter. It's a surprisingly effective -- and risk-taking -- Western that in a lot of ways plays more like a horror flick.

The main character, eventually named as Avery Porter, is a masked madman who roams the prairies indiscriminately raping and killing for seemingly no purpose other than his own appetites. He wears a black hat and vest, dandyish yellow shirt and bright blue bandana, and a curious custom mask that's like an oversized eye patch, covering the entire left side of his face.

Played by Peter Breck with a signature jackal-like cackle, Porter is essentially a nightmare creature from sprung from the gates of hell. From whence he came, and soon shall he go.

He genuinely hates his prey, and especially women, teasing and taunting them before victimizing them. It seems that a woman once got the drop on him, resulting in his hideously scarred features, as well as his antagonism to everyone of the feminine gender.

Curiously, when Porter's mask is ripped away in the early going, it's revealed that while most of his cheek is mangled -- seemingly more by acid than fire or physical trauma -- his left eye is entirely intact.

It's strange that he would cover it along with his poor flesh, robbing him of three-dimensional vision. (Which is sorta useful in the Old West, what with all the ridin', ropin' and shootin'.) Apparently his appearance is more important to him than having the full measure of his senses.

Directed by Joseph Mazzuca from a script by Joan Gardner, both television veterans, "Hanging" is quite overt in its depiction of violence for its time and venue. I was surprised to actually hear the word "rape" used in reference to his attacks. Theatrical films had even shied away from that term until very, very recently.

The story starts with Porter gleefully shooting his own horse while laughing. He later says it went lame, but we get the sense he purposefully rode it until the poor animal gave out. We later learn he and some fellow bandits have robbed a bank, leaving a wake of bodies behind, and Porter is set to meet up with them to split the loot.

In most Westerns, the money would be the MacGuffin that everyone is chasing after. But here it's barely mentioned. We never even see the cash. It's only brought up when it proves a source of conflict between Porter and his chief henchman near the end.

The tale is set in motion when Porter stumbles upon the Barrenger family farm looking for a new horse. After watching the menfolk depart on a wagon for town, he saunters into the barn and terrorizes Sally (Victoria Thompson), the wife of one of the brothers. She manages to escape when the tussle is interrupted by Ma Barrenger (Lesley Woods), who gets speared on her own pitchfork for her trouble.

Porter makes a beeline for the border, while brothers Shep (Paul Carr) and Tom (David Macklin) form the core of a posse led by Deputy Willie (Steve Raines). Tom is the young hothead who always wants to wade in guns blazing, while Tom is the older and wiser of the two. Both are complete pinheads compared to Willie, who keeps counseling them to caution they never observe.

In one clever bit, they manage to pin Avery down on a rocky outcropping. While the Barrengers argue and tussle about making their move, the masked killer sneaks down the side of the little mountain, steals a horse and all their canteens.

The rest of the story is a slow, dry chase as they stagger across the desert and the posse seems hopelessly outmatched by the wily Porter. A late addition to the proceedings is Liz (Brooke Bundy), a rootin'-tootin' cowgirl wannabe who comes closest to outgunning Porter on his own  terms.

Her sister, blonde bombshell Ellen (Virginia Wood), gets an especially vicious beating from Porter when he visits their homestead/stagecoach landing, and her husband, Fred (Michael Pataki), receives a six-gun to the face for his trouble.

What's interesting about Porter is his total lack of hesitation in killing. At least Han Solo talks before he shoots. Porter will interact with somebody only as long as it takes to get what he needs out of them -- information, in the case of Fred, or forcible sex from Ellen -- and then his guns or fists come out.

He shoots Fred nonchalantly as he's working the telegraph machine. The film even shows a fair amount of blood and bullet holes. Compared to a theatrical Western from just eight or 10 years earlier, it's a virtual gore-fest.

As the title foreshadows, there's a hanging in this film after the intrepid posse finally catches up with Porter. It doesn't go down like anyone thinks. The brothers argue about whether it's right to hang Porter without a trial, and as they're bickering he takes off on the horse they thought to use for his execution, the untied noose around his neck flapping behind. But then it gets caught in a tree root and his head is snapped backward, essentially hanging himself.

If there's a theme to be had, it's that evil will not dally while the forces of good vie for what justice is best.

I don't mean to pretend that "A Man for Hanging" is any kind of great cinema. It's a cheap, hastily-shot bit of claptrap made for the TV, almost entirely forgotten today. Yet I think it's worth recognizing for being edgier than similar fare you'd see that of that day.

Any TV movie that can get mothers to clap their hands over the eyes of their wee ones and exclaim, "I can't believe this is on television!" can't be all bad.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Review: "UglyDolls"

There's some A-list singing talent behind this C-list animated musical, which "borrows" heavily from the Toy Story franchise. This includes Kelly Clarkson, Pitbull, Blake Shelton, Janelle Monae and Nick Jonas.

Alas, this based-on-a-toy-line tale doesn't have the verve of the first "The LEGO Movie" or the emotional heart of those Disney toy flicks. It's a pretty standard "finding your own voice" story, directed by Kelly Asbury from a screenplay by Alison Peck, with co-producer Robert Rodriguez contributing the story.

The songs aren't as good as "Sing," standard floaty pop ballads and forgettable upbeat ditties. Clarkson and Monae, who handle the bulk of the singing duty, are wonderful singers but are constrained by the fact their voices and styles are astonishingly alike.

Clarkson is Moxy, a bright pink "ugly" doll with a gappy grin and unidentifiable appendage atop her head. The setup for this world is that every doll is created for a particularly child to love, but some of them get screwed up in the factory and are rerouted to the Uglyville cove, where monster-like creatures with extra (or missing) limbs, eyes, etc. comprising all sorts of shapes get along fabulously.

Moxy is the lone resident who pines to still make it into the "Big World" and receive her assigned child, but this involves going through the training program where the perfect dolls compete and snipe with each other to conform.

Jonas provides the voice of "Lou," the seemingly benevolent leader of the perfect dolls, who has a bright blond pompadour comprised of yellow yarn and a dazzling smile. It's all a front for a very nasty "mean boy" mentality, in which he constantly nitpicks and belittles the other dolls for not shaping up to his standard.

You can take a wild guess where this all ends, with the perfect dolls turning out to be not so perfect and the ugly ones displaying beautiful insides. By that I mean their hearts and souls, not their stuffing. No dolls are in serious danger of being hurt, though there is one scene toward the end that's pretty much lifted straight out of the last Toy Story movie.

Monae is Mandy, one of Lou's henchchicks who has more sympathy for Moxy and her crew, and for good reasons we'll find out later. Blake Shelton plays Ox, the one-eyed bunny mayor of Uglyville. Pitbull does Ugly Dog, Moxy's main wingman, and Wang Leehom is Lucky Bat, the town's resident sage critter.

Other non-singing voice cast members include Wanda Sykes, Jane Lynch, Emma Roberts and Gabriel Iglesias.

I found my mind wandering a lot during "UglyDolls," though my 8-year-old was pretty tuned in and entertained. There's no mistaking the downmarket level of creativity in this movie, which feels like the sort of thing you'd get as an original on Amazon Prime Video or Netflix. It'll be there soon enough.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Review: "Long Shot"

I’m not quite sure if the title of “Long Shot” refers to the woman running for president of the United States or the dweeby guy who becomes her speechwriter and falls for her. Given they are played by world-class beauty Charlize Theron and frumpy beta male extraordinaire Seth Rogen, respectively, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter.

Hollywood: the only place where guys who look like they were plucked straight out of a video game tournament get supermodels to fall for them.

Once, just once, I’d like to see a mainstream movie where a regular-looking guy is ensorcelled by a regular-looking woman, or vice-versa. But this is showbiz, and we like to look at pretty people.

There are a lot of things that don’t work in this movie, but surprisingly the Theron-Rogen pairing is not one of them. It’s a sweet and awkward dance, about two very busy but lonely people, and in the end we believe she really could fall in love with him.

(The other way is a given.)

Mostly this is due to a very strong and subtle performance by Theron, who shows us layers of emotion, ambivalence and calculation we don’t usually see in the romantic comedy game.

Also, he is hitting at only about 60% of Full Rogenness, which turns out to be the perfect dose of his neurotic/obnoxious shtick.

He plays Fred Flarsky, a crusading journalist at the Brooklyn Advocate who has built a reputation for spit-flecked invectives against those he sees as evildoers. As the story opens he is infiltrating a Nazi sect (Brooklyn Nazis?) and goes so far as to agree to a swastika tattoo to prove his bona fides.

Theron plays Charlotte Field, Secretary of State serving under an idiot president (Bob Odenkirk) whose only preparation for the role of POTUS was playing one on TV. But now he’s decided not to run for reelection in favor of something “more prestigious” – feature films – and offers to endorse Charlotte for her own run.

She and Fred run into each other at a posh party Fred’s best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) invites him to as a cheer-up after losing his job. Turns out Charlotte babysat for Fred when they were teens, and there was an early and embarrassing, uh, indication of his desire for her -- the pudgy D&D bookworm pining after the student council president wannabe.

The political flacks tell Charlotte she isn’t funny enough, so she brings Fred on as a punch-up writer who travels with her around the club promoting a major environmental initiative she wants to use as a springboard for her presidential announcement.

Bearded, wearing the same type of rainbow-hued tracksuit he did as a kid, carrying a copious amount of drugs at all times, Fred stands out like a sore thumb on the international stage. But as they spend time together, they find the old attraction still burns.

Soon she’s teaching how to be a real grownup, and he’s helping her find her inner kid. One sequence, where they drop drugs and dance till dawn, ineptly plays national security issues for a goof.

In the black column is the film’s ability to hold up a funhouse mirror to our current political environment. Like any good satirist knows, it’s better to wield a scalpel than an ax.

Rather than being a blowhard Trump clone, Odenkirk’s prez is a self-deluded hack. Similarly, Andy Serkis (barely recognizable behind a Steve Bannon-esque wig and facial prosthesis) is a stand-in for a Roger Ailes type as the conniving head of the Wembley global media conglomerate.

Several cutaways of a Fox News-like morning talk show, replete with sniggering goombahs tossing around sexist jokes, are just devastating.

But the movie also has a surprising moment I didn’t expect where Fred gets an eye-opening reveal about his own biases and intolerance.

Director Jonathan Levine and screenwriters Liz Hannah and Dan Sterling wisely stay away from getting too deep into the political weeds. This is reflected by one of Charlotte’s political image consultants on their strategy to stress her glamour rather than her plans: “We don’t drill down too deep on policy, and that’s because our research finds people don’t care.”

Witty, funny, occasionally gross, “Long Shot” is that rarest of cinematic animals: a political romantic comedy with a fuzzy, warm center.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Video review: "How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World"

Though I know it will inspire some pushback, I’m prepared to dub the “How to Train Your Dragon” movies the GOAT animated franchise. (That’s Greatest OF All Time, in case you didn’t know.) And yes, I’m including the “Toy Story” flicks.

Especially when considered in companionship with its short films and television/streaming show, “Dragon” has been a decade-long experience that’s both exhilarating and emotionally sustaining. It’s wrapped around the friendship between a Viking boy and a dragon, both of them striving despite physical (and to a lesser extent, psychological) disabilities.

In this definitively final go-round, scrawny nerd Hiccup (voice by Jay Baruchel) has become the unquestioned chief of his village, comprised of hardy folk who used to be enemies of the dragons but became their friends and allies. As time has gone on, their little island has become a crowded refuge for the reptilian creatures.

This draws the attention of dragon hunters, chiefly Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), a sly fellow who uses chemistry and trickery to control and, eventually, exterminate the dragons. Hiccup and his people stumble across a plan to protect them -- but it involves permanently saying goodbye to them.

Familiar faces return, including Hiccup’s wingwoman/reluctant romantic interest, Astrid (America Ferrera); his mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), herself a dragon master; Gobber (Craig Ferguson), the village blacksmith and wisest person; and Hiccup’s various sidekicks, ranging from obnoxious to nerdy.

In the most notable development, ebony night fury Toothless, though to be the last dragon of his kind, encounters a white female, setting up obvious parallels with his human counterpart.

Writer/director Dean Deblois, who’s helmed all three feature films, brings a comfortable mix of action and awe, building characters without sacrificing entertainment value. What a great ride it’s been.

Bonus features are excellent. They include a feature-length commentary track, an alternate opening, deleted scenes and a couple of animated shorts. There is also a full dozen documentary shorts, ranging on the animation process to looks at the mythology behind dragons.



Thursday, April 25, 2019

Review: "Wild Nights With Emily"

I admit I'm not sure how to take "Wild Nights With Emily," a portrait of poet Emily Dickinson in the latter years of her life. Certainly it's comedic, and the spare settings and deliberately stilted dialogue delivery make it feel like a "Saturday Night Live" spoof of period costume dramas. It's easy to poke fun at that sort of thing, and I enjoyed many a snigger.

But there's an undercurrent of anger here, too. Writer/director Madeleine Olnek wants to reclaim Emily's image as a reclusive spinster who knew not love or fame during her lifetime.

Instead, she's portrayed -- by "SNL" alum Molly Shannon -- as a vibrant if awkward woman desperate to be published who carried on a lifelong love affair with her childhood friend, Susan (Susan Ziegler), who married her brother and lived in the house next door.

The romance between the two (which is hardly supported by a consensus of scholars) is my favorite part of the movie. The Susan of this portrait was not just Emily's sister-in-law and lover, but editor of her nearly 2,000 poems and a constant source of encouragement and support. Active in society, she urges publishers and other poets to take notice of the genius next door.

Dickinson's disjointed, non-rhyming, untitled poetry was well ahead of its time, and it's funny to see a parade of stolid, unimaginative men parade into her parlor and declare her work unworthy of print. Easily the most delicious is Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Brett Gelman), editor of the Atlantic, whose buffoonery and priggishness are available in ample measures.

(He was actually among the first major publishers of her work, though viciously edited to conform to the conventions of the time.)

The villain of the piece is Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz), a younger social climber who played piano for Emily (from downstairs) and, after the poet's death, became her chronicler and champion -- but of a deliberately skewed picture. The film depicts her as literally erasing Susan's name from Emily's love letters, something later confirmed by spectrographic analysis.

Mabel also carried on a liaison with Emily's brother/Susan's husband, Austin (Kevin Seal), who's depicted as a blundering idiot completely unaware of the love affair passing literally in and out his doorstep.

There's much to admire about "Wild Nights with Emily" but no much to savor, unless you're a fan of Dickinson's poetry, which is often read underneath or as part of the scenes. Most people first encounter poems in a school setting, dooming them to dislike the experience when it's force-fed to them.

Some of that same sort of aftertaste lingers with this film, which often feels more like a thesis than a portrait.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Five Came Back" (1939)

"Five Came Back" is not to be confused with the 2017 Netflix documentary series about five noted Hollywood filmmakers who made propaganda movies for the U.S. government during World War II. It's a 1939 harrowing adventure story about a dozen people whose plane crashes in the Amazon and they have to struggle to survive while hashing out various interpersonal relationships and clashes.

The premise reminded me a lot of "Flight of the Phoenix," one of my dad's favorites, so I was eager to check it out.

It's a prototypical B-picture with some solid talent behind it. One of the screenwriters (along with Jerry Cady and Nathanael West) was legendary script man Dalton Trumbo. Director John Farrow helmed some notable pictures, including the film noir classic "The Big Clock," which was later remade into "No Way Out."

Farrow also won an Oscar for his screenplay of "Around the World in 80 Days" -- which is actually better than it's given credit for, though still a solid contender for the title of "Worst Best Picture."

The cast of "Five" included iconic "that guy" character actor John Carradine, with his signature scarecrow frame and scowl, who went on to sire an entire dynasty of thespians.

And it was one of the biggest early screen roles for Lucille Ball, before she switched to comedy and conquered television. She plays Peggy, a classic screen type: hard-bitten moll who's had all sorts of troubles with men, and finds herself judged by the high-class types.

Carradine is Crimp -- great name, that -- a "detective" who's really a glorified bounty hunter. He's got a $5,000 claim on Vasquez (Joseph Calleia), an anarchist who's being extradited back to Panama to be executed for his role in the assassination of a government official. That's about 90,000 smackers in today's dollars, so he's very keen on making the plane to Panama City.

Vasquez turns out to be very cagey, managing to swipe Crimp's gun away from him while being processed at the police station. In many ways he's the central character of the story, a man who's committed despicable acts yet winds up as the figure with the largest accrual of moral authority.

Chester Morris plays Bill, the thick-necked and, initially, thick-headed captain who continues to lead the party after the crash due to engine failure. Peggy takes a shine to him, though his hard heart takes some convincing. Rakish copilot Joe (Kent Brooks) has eyes for one of the passengers, Alice (Wendy Barrie), who's the secretary to wealthy heir Judson Ellis (Patric Knowles).

It's eventually revealed they're eloping together to escape the media glare and disapproval of their parents. Judson turns out to be, along with Crimp, the least adaptable of the survivors, quickly taking to drink -- he's got an entire suitcase packed with booze -- and despair.

Dick Hogan is Larry, the steward who's sucked out the door during the crash. (Blond guys always bite it early in adventure movies.) Casey Johnson plays Tommy, a little boy of about 3 who is the son of a mob leader on the run. Allen Jenkins plays Pete, the gun tough charged with protecting the tyke.

When the passengers (prior to the crash) hear a news account that Tommy's dad has been gunned down, the group takes on a sort of collective parenting of the boy. At first Pete won't let Peggy play mother to him, but eventually she proves her mettle.

The flight scenes are certainly a relic of their times, both for the crudity of the not-so-special effects -- their plane, The Silver Queen, looks like a child's model (and not an expensive one) -- and the depiction of air travel in the 1930s. People move about the cabin freely, the booze flows just the same, and there's no lock on the door to the cockpit, which is invaded several times by passengers.

The by-today's-standards huge chairs include a fold-down bed for each person. Joe has a pervy scene where he responds to Alice's buzzer about a stuck ventilator by flirting and invading her personal space.

The scenes on the ground are also a bit funny in their near-total avoidance of verisimilitude. Other than Bill's sleeves becoming ripped to reveal his thick arms, nobody's attire changes considerably despite weeks on the ground in stifling jungle heat. I lol'd several times at the women clip-clopping around the underbrush in their high heels. The men don't even take off their suit jackets the first few days.

Despite crash-landing in the trees (without the landing gear down), Bill and Joe commence with making repairs, this being the day when the sky jockeys who drove the planes apparently were all expert mechanics, too. They somehow manage to clear hundreds of yards of jungle for a runway with improvised tools.

But it all comes down to the proverbial "too much weight," so in the end they have to decide who goes and who stays -- after their numbers have been sufficiently thinned by the heard-but-never-seen cannibals, of course.

Some of the story plays out with predictable precision. Like the evolution by which Alice realizes Judson is no good and gloms onto the creepy-but-noble Joe. And the way Crimp and Judson both seem determined to have run-ins with the other men, so it's only a matter of time before they square off with each other.

In a hoot-worthy example of inept stunt choreography, during their fight Carradine actually starts falling backward before Knowles' mimed punch comes anywhere near him.

But I appreciated the unexpected cerebral and emotional portions of the story. The Spenglers find themselves coming to appreciate Vasquez, who points out that while the others are desperate to escape back to their lives, his destination lies with a hangman's noose. Without the headhunter subplot, my guess is he would have chosen to stay behind, assuming he escapes Crimp's greedy clutches.

In the end it's Vasquez who is allowed to decide which five people will get to ride away on the plane. Though his choices are pretty unoriginal -- two pairs of lovebirds and a kid -- the way he arrives at them hold genuine tension and intrigue.

"Five Came Back" is the sort of largely forgotten picture that strives beyond the shortcomings of its B-picture entertainment value and delivers a memorable experience.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Video review: "Destroyer"

Nicole Kidman has de-glammed for roles before, mostly notably putting on a prosthetic nose to play Virginia Woolf in “The Hours,” for which she won an Oscar. That’s a pretty standard M.O. in Hollywood: get grizzled, get Oscar gold.

The boys do it too: see Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club.”

But Kidman goes beyond unadorned to downright fugly in “Destroyer,” a hard-edged drama in which she plays a police detective who’s been spiraling toward the bottom for years. With her face mottled, eyes like two dim lamps peering out of dark holes, Erin Bell looks like she’s stared into the face of the devil and slowly gotten crispy.

She’s a boozer, a user, a cop who seems to spend very little time actually investigating crime. Seemingly sleeping out of her police car, she’s following up on an old case that involves an undercover operation she was in years ago.

It centers around Silas (Toby Kebbell), a drug dealer who inspires fear and loyalty in his crew. And there was Chris (Sebastian Stan), the fellow cop who posed as half of a couple with her and led to a real-life romance.

Other players include Erin’s estranged teen daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), who’s about to make some bad choices with her scuzzy boyfriend, and Bradley Whitford as a wealthy lawyer involved with the drug trade.

Directed by Karyn Kasuma from a screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, “Destroyer” is a tough watch but a rewarding one. Kidman deserved the Oscar nomination she didn’t get, not for just taking off her makeup but for putting on the face of self-destructive character who worms her way under your skin.

Bonus features are sparse in quantity but long in quality.

There are two separate feature-length commentary tracks, one by Kasuma -- pity Kidman did not join her -- and another with the script men. Plus there’s a making-of documentary, “Breakdown of an “Anti-Hero: The Making of Destroyer.”



Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Review: "The Curse of La Llorona"

I was genuinely creeped out by “The Curse of La Llorona.” I’m an old-school horror fan from way back who has generally been unimpressed by modern scare flicks, which all seem to substitute jump-scares for tension and foreboding. “Llorona” employs a few of those, but judiciously and skillfully.

And PG-13 horror? Please.

While this isn’t by any means a “hard R” gross-out gorefest, it’s got enough of the ol’ ultra-violence to whet the appetite for those who have one.

The story is based on a famous Mexican folktale about a mother who drowned her own children as retribution for her husband cheating on her. There have supposedly been man sightings of the “weeping woman,” who now wanders the land as a ghost bringing misfortune to those who encounter her.

For the movie version, this mythology gets woven into the existing world of “The Conjuring” movies, a vastly-expanding horror franchise with multiple sequels and spinoffs. Set in 1973 Los Angeles, it does not feature the Warren couple of occult investigators played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, although a secondary character, a priest named Father Perez (Tony Amendola), makes an appearance.

“You don’t have to be religious to have faith,” he says. Thanks Father! Now go find something good for stabbing with.

Linda Cardellini plays Anna, a social worker who was widowed about a year ago, leaving her to toil with two kids, Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) and Chris (Roman Christou), who are around 10. Early on she catches a bad case involving a mother, Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez) who has been keeping her sons locked in a closet.

Anna gets the boys put into protective custody, but they wind up drowned and Patricia curses her to have La Llorona haunt her family next.

Marisol Ramirez plays the creature, and it’s a pretty gnarly get-up: white (wedding?) dress and veil, chalky skin with pitch-black tears eternally streaming down her face, the mouth splitting into a yawning chasm and the hands blackened as if by charring. When she grabs one of her victims, it leaves burn marks.

Apparently there’s a bureaucracy involved in getting the Warrens’ help, so Father Perez hooks Anna up with Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz), a former priest turned ghost-hunting shaman. He’s got a dour attitude and a closet full of holy artifacts and potions to fight La Llorona. Wait till you see what he can do with eggs.

I like that the screenplay by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis has little to no fat. There are only really three or four setups before we get to the scaring inside the family’s house. Director Michael Chaves keeps things moving nicely, with a minimum of existential pondering and a maximum of eerie weeping lady frights.

Is “The Curse of La Llorona” an especially groundbreaking or original bit of horror? It is not. It relies a little too much on familiar tricks, like the wind that is constantly blowing open doors, windows, etc. and heralding the ghost’s arrival. Somebody needs to keep an eye on the barometric pressure.

But it’s an enjoyable scary flickershow with lots of inky shadows and tense moments. I don’t know why female horror villains are scarier, but they just are.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Video review: "Glass"

“Glass” was made for $20 million, which must be some sort of low-end record for a modern superhero flick. Heck, I think even Roger Corman’s 1994 version of “Fantastic Four” must’ve cost more.

(Note to editor: this is what’s known as “artistic hyperbole.” Corman never spent more than a quarter-mil on anything. – CL)

To be true, nobody flies through the air or emits energy beams from their eyes or turns into an orange pile of rocks. But that’s really the point of the movie from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, who with this films wraps up an ad-hoc trilogy that began with 2000’s “Unbreakable.”

“Glass” is less of a straight-up action flick than an exploration of the superhero myth. It posits three men who believe they have extraordinary abilities against a disbelieving world where skepticism and gaslighting reign.

(Another note to editor: “gaslighting” means using trickery to convince someone their beliefs or mindset are unreliable.)

David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is nearly impervious to physical harm, using his day job running a small security company to hunt criminals. Lately he’s chasing Kevin (James McAvoy), an unstable man with split personalities, dominated by one who calls himself the Beast, and exhibits extraordinary strength and sadism.

The third wheel – quite literally for the first half of the movie – is Elijah Price (Samuel Jackson), an evil genius who goes by the moniker “Mr. Glass” because of his extraordinarily fragile bones. He’s been incarcerated for the past two decades, sitting in a wheelchair in a seemingly catatonic state.

For a while all three men are jailed and treated by a psychiatrist (Sarah Paulson) who specializes in addressing superhero delusions. Using evidence and therapeutic techniques, she works to convince the trio that they are actually normal humans – because there’s no such thing as superheroes.

We’ll see how that turns out.

“Glass” is a much more cerebral superhero movie than we’re used to, but I think a satisfying one. It takes a few liberties with things that happened in the prior movies, not to mention basic logic. But maybe rearranging reality is Shyamalan’s super-power.

Bonus features are quite extravagant. There are a dozen deleted scenes and an alternate opening. I count another 12 making-of documentary shorts, ranging from the film’s special effects and sound design to early storyboards.

Two of the more interesting are “Glass Decoded,” which unveils some continuity “secrets” of the trilogy, and “Connecting the Glass Universe,” exploring Shyamalan’s concept of a comic book movie grounded in reality.



Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Review: "Little"

In Hollywood they say everyone secretly wants to direct, but the smart ones really want to be producers.

Marsai Martin, who plays one of the kids on the TV show "Black-Ish," supposedly pitched the idea for "Little" when she was 10 years old, inspired by the seminal Tom Hanks comedy, "Big." At age 14 she's now listed as executive producer of the body switcheroo comedy she stars in, the youngest person in Hollywood to receive such a credit.

It'd be an inspirational story, except for the fact that "Little" is so loudly, aggressively awful.

The setup is that instead of a 13-year-old transforming into a 30-year-old body, a grown woman played by Reginal Hall has a curse put on her that turns her back into her 13-year-old self. Rather than entering the adult world and charming everyone with their childlike innocence and imagination, here the protagonist is already a world-weary stiff who must rediscover what it means to be a kid.

(We pause here to remember "Big" director Penny Marshall, who passed away recently and never got the recognition she deserved as a filmmaker, including never being nominated for an Oscar.)

"Little" is directed by Tina Gordon ("Drumline") from a script she co-wrote with Tracy Oliver. The set-up is that Jordan Sanders it the 38-year-old owner/CEO of a tech company. She's rich, has a fabulous wardrobe, drives a BMW i8, is on the cover of magazines -- and is a total rhymes-with-witch.

When she's abusive to a food truck owner's kid, a wave of a magic wand means she wakes up the next day occupying the same body she had 25 years ago, right down to the frizzy hair and awkward glasses.

(Interestingly, she doesn't regrow the braces she had as a kid, so it's curious why she suddenly needs glasses again. Can kids not wear adult contacts? Or did the LASIK wear off?)

The biggest mistake the movie makes is making Jordan SO irredeemably nasty, both as an adult and a kid, that we can never relate to her as a person. How awful is she? Her employees are utterly terrified of her, scuttling away when they see her coming. When one fellow dares to eat an apple at a pitching meeting, she grabs it, licks then entire skin and then demands he take another bite.

There's movie-mean, and then there's she-would-get-sued-after-a-single-day-mean. One's funny, the other is not.

Jordan's middle school adventures are as predictable as you think. She encounters a new generation of nasty cheerleaders running the show, and a trio of uber-nerds who think they're going to be suddenly released from their prison of uncoolness if they compete in the talent show. You can take a wild guess where the movie's big finale winds up.

Issa Rae plays April Williams, Jordan's put-upon assistant who secretly has big ideas for an app that she's never been able to pitch. With Jordan sidelined to kiddie school, April has to take over the wheel of the company, with mixed results.

Rae has plenty of onscreen charm, but the script doesn't give her a lot to do but react to Jordan. I would love to see her in her own romcom vehicle.

The sexual dynamics of "Little" are... uncomfortable. Jordan has a gorgeous boyfriend, Trevor (Luke James), who she has listed in her phone contacts as "D-Boi." Google it for the NSFW definition, but suffice to say that she only keeps him around for sex. But, of course, Trevor has a heart of gold and secretly wants more. When he sees little Jordan, he takes her for Jordan's daughter and immediately wants to daddy her.

Really? What kind of dude lets himself be treated as sexual appendage, except for someone who's looking for the same?

Then there's Gary Marshall (Justin Hartley) -- hello inside joke -- Jordan's dreamy teacher at middle school, upon whom she attempts to put the moves despite having a preadolescent body. She actually does the same thing with Trevor, so it's a whole next-level thing of creepy.

There's even a musical sequence that seems to spring out of absolutely nowhere, with Jordan suddenly writing on a bar like Michelle Pfeiffer in "The Fabulous Baker Boys."

Martin has a lot of spunk, but the story is basically just an excuse for her to vamp in costly clothes and make smug expressions for the camera. There isn't a defined character underneath all the mugging, and what there is we can't stand.

That's a big problem.

Review: "Missing Link"

Ten years ago I was amazed by the stop-motion animation film “Coraline” from Laika, stating that it took a practiced eye to even tell it apart from standard animation. The action was so smooth and the world it occupied so vast, it was hard to believe it was made by infinitesimal changes to puppets photographed one frame at a time, 24 per second.

The newest from Laika, “Missing Link,” puts that film’s technical achievements to shame. This movie is so visually stunning that I again watched in disbelief. If not for some making-of sequences over the credits showing the painstaking process of putting it together, I might’ve thought the filmmakers were fudging.

They do use CGI animation for some of the backgrounds, but all the characters, clothes and sets are actually miniatures. Astounding.

Alas, I wish the story was a little stronger. Laika movies have been notable for their darker themes and complex narratives. (See -- especially if you already haven’t -- “Kubo and the Two Strings.”) “Missing Link” follows a rather conventional “finding your own path” story with a bigfoot creature.

Aside from similarities to other cinematic tales of late, including last year’s “Smallfoot” and “Abominable” coming out this September, the story makes the mistake of shunting the bigfoot character to sidekick status and putting all the attention on his human companion, a self-involved British explorer, Sir Lionel Frost, voiced by Hugh Jackman.

I’m reminded of the recent “Dumbo,” in which a bunch of humans took over the tale and the little flying elephant lost the spotlight.

The setup is that Frost has been trying and failing for years to be admitted to an elite club of adventurers, but the nasty leader, Lord Piggot-Dunceb (Stephen Fry), is determined to keep him out. Then Frost receives a letter alerting him to sightings of a bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest of America. This is the discovery that will finally secure his status, he figures.

Finding the bigfoot isn’t a problem -- turns out he wrote the letter himself. Resembling an 8-foot orangutan, the mild-mannered creature is voiced by Zach Galifianakis. As the only one of his kind, he’s always felt terribly alone, and wants to enlist Frost’s help in transporting him to the Himalayas to seek out the yeti, whom he feels are his long-lost cousins.

Dressing him up in a comically undersized suit so he can pass as a man, they refer to him as “Mr. Link,” short for missing link, though he later acquires an unexpected nickname.

Along the way they pick up an antagonist in Willard Stenk -- love that name -- a pint-sized shootist with claw marks across his bald head, and some (reluctant, initially) help in Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), a vivacious former girlfriend of Frost who holds a map to Shangri-La, where the Yetis reputedly reside.

The basic dynamic is that Frost is a self-centered jerkwad who only thinks of himself and his reputation, rather than relating to Link as a person with feelings and longings of his own. Adelina doesn’t have much to do but point out to Frost his missteps.

Writer/director Chris Butler previously helmed the excellent “ParaNorman.” I liked a lot of things about “Missing Link,” but it reads like a deliberate attempt by Laika to make a picture that has more mainstream commercial appeal.

Despite its glorious visuals, its lack of originality leaves it as a little better than middling bit of animation.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Enter the Dragon" (1973)

"Now, why doesn't somebody pull a .45, and bang, settle it?"

This is the question I ask about literally every martial arts movie made, ever.

I was surprised to discover that Bruce Lee asks it himself in "Enter the Dragon," perhaps the most iconic such film. The fact the movie makes a bit of a joke out of the proposition that one well-placed firearm could render its entire plot moot doesn't change the fact that it's still hard to take such flicks seriously given this reality.

The truth is the world's greatest kung fu (or name your discipline) master is hopelessly outclassed by your average twitchy junkie with a Saturday night special. The real world doesn't actually work like in that Remo Williams movie.

I just plain don't care for "chopsocky" movies, as they're derisively known. For awhile you're impressed with the pure athleticism, the exuberant kinetic flow. But it soon gives way to a maddening, repetitious drumbeat of chops, punches and kicks. I mentally refer to it as "I-kick-you-you-kick-me-we-kick-each-other" action.

Give me a real story with authentic characters that has some martial arts layered in, like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and I'm all on board. But I can't take 90+ minutes of endless hand-to-hand combat. As Arnold Schwarzenegger said when they were shooting "Pumping Iron," the audience might like muscles but you've got to have something else going on besides a bunch of guys flexing.

Lee choreographed all the fights in "Dragon" in addition to being its star, his final movie before dying of cerebral edema at the tragically young age of 32. He was actually in the process of completing his ADR -- dubbing over the dialogue recorded on-set -- for "Dragon" when he died.

Like James Dean, his greatest stardom only came after he was gone.

I get why Lee became such a cinematic legend, despite starring in only a handful of movies. He was handsome and charismatic, with one of the first well-known iterations of the body type preferred for men in popular culture these days: very lean and cut, with virtually every muscle striation and tendon popping out of the skin. Bruce Lee had a six-pack before anyone even knew what to call it.

He had a very soft way of speaking, slightly clipped with a medium-ish Hong Kong accent, and an almost musical cadence to his speech.

I still can't wrap my head around his utterances while fighting: animalistic falsetto yips and hoots as he slammed opponents, often preceded by drawn-out strangled, taunting notes. He sounded like a monkey trying to swallow a cat.

From what I've been able to gather, it has no legitimate basis in martial arts and was just something Lee did to attract attention. Honestly, it seems pretty girly and goofy to these ears. But it's become an indelible part of his iconography.

Ask any kid in the late 20th century to imitate a martial arts master, and they'd probably lift their hands in a splayed-finger crane stance while doing a (not terribly) exaggerated version of Lee's "whhhaaaaaoooooaaaahhhhh!" thing.

The plot of "Dragon" -- directed by Robert Clouse from a script by Michael Allin -- is as nonsensical as can be. Lee (also his character's name) is the best fighter at the Shaolin Temple, and is tabbed to go after Han (Shih Kien), his predecessor who turned against the mystical teachings to open his own martial arts academy on a lonely Pacific island.

He's doing so on behalf of three parties: the British government, which is ready to swoop in with a military operation but needs proof of Han's illicit drug activities; the Shaolin leadership, who are affronted by Han's betrayal of their ethos; and Lee's family honor, which was offended when his sister was killed by Han's bodyguard, O'Hara (Robert Wall), some time earlier, which Lee has just found out about from his father.

It's a good thing the revenge element was added in, because otherwise the whole operation makes no sense. According to Braithwaite, the British operative played by Geoffrey Weeks, "We know everything, but can prove nothing" about Han's narcotics activities. He insists their military forces can't intervene without proof. Really? Han's island belongs to no country, so there's nothing stopping the Brits except colonialist restraint.

The second reason is even weaker. Why do the Shaolin care of one if their former students started his own martial arts academy? Are they afraid of the competition? Are all of their students required to swear lifelong fealty? Their obsession with killing Han and wiping out his school seems awfully petty and vindictive for a bunch of serene mountain monks.

It turns out Han runs his academy, and holds an international competition every three years, all as a means to recruiting new talent for his drug operation. Those who do well are given the "offer he can't refuse" treatment.

Lee's other main competitors are Roper, a down-on-his-luck gambler played by John Saxon, and Williams, an unorthodox African-American fighter played by Jim Kelly. The two actually know each other from their service in Vietnam, and form a quick alliance.

(Kelly, by the way, would go on to become one of the first blaxploitation stars, parlaying his martial arts abilities and notoriety from "Dragon" to star in "Black Belt Jones" the following year.)

Both men freely partake of Han's offer of feminine companionship. Williams chooses no less than four girls -- apologizing for being tired from his trip, or it'd be more. Roper goes for Tania (Ahna Capri), the Caucasian woman who acts as Han's emcee.

Lee eschews sex to sneak around the island at night looking for evidence, getting into fights with various Han henchmen who never seem able to identify who their attacker was afterward. I guess a bunch of Asian guys can't distinguish between one of their own and a white guy or black guy, either of whom stand a head taller. Whatever.

There are several "boss fights" throughout the story, building up from an obnoxious fellow competitor  (Peter Archer) to key henchmen to Han himself. In addition to O'Hara there is Bolo (Bolo Yeung), a musclebound fighter. Both go down rather easily at Lee's hands... or rather, feet.

Another supporting character is Mei Ling (Betty Chung), an operative sent in by the British months ago who disappeared. Lee soon locates her, and we're never clear on what she had been up to all this time.

Han himself is an interesting figure. Kien was 60 years old when the film came out, and he (or his obvious stunt doubles) aren't particularly athletic. He wears his hair in an impressive widow's peak pompadour, though when it gets mussed up during the fights it is unmasked as an elaborate combover of Trump-esque extravagance.

The most notable feature about Han is his hands, which are revealed to be metal prosthetics. At one point he takes Roper on a tour of his personal museum, which largely consists of various hand skeletons and replacements from antiquity. He pauses before a particular set of bones, and it's suggested that his hands were not injured but amputated by choice.

We can see why: he easily bests Williams using his impervious hands. And, of course, there's the final showdown with Lee where Han swaps out one of the hands with a Wolverine-like set of claws, using them to leave the famous triple trails of aesthetically-pleasing-but-tacticallly-inconsequential bloody scratches on his face and chest.

Interesting thing: after trapping Lee in a funhouse of mirrors, Han manages to sneak up behind Lee. Rather than just impale him with those long claws, he goes for another scratch on the shoulder. One gets the sense Han isn't trying to defeat his opponent, but tenderize him.

To end with the beginning: so why doesn't someone just sneak a handgun onto the island and take out Han? (Or better yet, a long rifle with a scope.) "Enter the Dragon" answers this fundamental question by not answering it. This is not the sort of movie you're supposed to think about in any depth, but shift your brain into neutral and enjoy the popcorny action.

Bare-handed combat is impressive to look at on a movie screen, but something humans evolved past hundreds of thousands of years ago. If you really want to put someone down, what's the smarter way to go: get a gun or spend decades in arduous martial arts training in the hopes the guy hasn't brains enough to arm himself with something capable of dealing damage from more than five feet away?

I mean, at least get a shuriken or something, dude.