Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Review: "Isn't It Romantic"

“It’s like the Matrix for lonely women!”

“Isn’t It Romantic” is a snarky, fairly smart sendup of the romantic comedy genre that still manages to gleefully indulge in every trope and cliché.

Rebel Wilson plays an unappreciated girl who gets conked on the head and wakes up in a romcom fantasy world, where New York City is a happy place that doesn’t smell like doo-doo. Every man she meets looks her in the eye and offers compliments, and at any moment a musical number is in danger of breaking out.

It’s like hell, and she can’t wait to escape.

Wilson has a lot going for her as a star. She’s been playing sidekick roles for about a decade now, and starting to get into a bit of a typecast as the chubby girl who likes to party and get sassy. Now she finally has a chance to break out as the main attraction, and employ her real Australian accent to boot.

She plays Natalie, a young architect who feels ignored in every aspect of her life. She’s got a crummy apartment and a standoffish neighbor, she’s derided and/or ignored at work and feels like no man is willing to give her the time of day because she’s not model-thin and girly.

“They don’t make movies about girls like us,” Nat’s mom chides in a flashback where she’s relishing Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.”

Of course, just a few cubicles away sits Josh (Adam Devine), a goofy but loveable guy who would, quite obviously, love to get her attention. But Nat has “friend-zoned” him because part of her can’t accept the fact that a man could adore her. Even having her assistant/best pal (Betty Gilpin) point this out doesn’t convince her.

When a guy flirts with her on the subway, Nat can’t believe her luck. Turns out he was just luring her out onto the platform to rob her, and after a scuffle receives a helluva concussion. When she wakes up, the whole world is changed: every man she meets is gorgeous and attentive. Every street is lined with flowers. Her apartment is suddenly five times as big and chic. Even her dog looks like it’s had a bath and several months of obedience training.

She’s nearly run over by the limo of Blake (Liam Hemsworth), the gorgeous billionaire who she made a design pitch to the previous day, though he blew her off as the coffee girl. Suddenly he’s entranced by Nat, calling her “beguiling” -- over and over again -- and somehow has even acquired his own Aussie accent in the meantime.

They soon begin a torrid affair, but alas! Because romcoms are always rated PG-13, there’s no sex since as soon as they start to get busy it cuts to the next morning. She can’t even curse her frustration because every swear word gets bleeped out by car horns, alarm buzzers, etc.

Meanwhile, Josh finds himself romanced by a gorgeous swimsuit model/yoga ambassador (Priyanka Chopra). And her next-door neighbor has morphed into a swishy gay sidekick (a terrific Brandon Scott Jones) who seems to have no life of his own other than showing up everywhere to support his favorite girl.

“Isn’t It Romantic” bends the satire as far as it can go without popping the bubble of the fact that the prime audience for this movie is those who love romcoms. It’s the sort film movie that has just enough ambition to make fun of a thing while also reveling in being it.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Starship Troopers" (1997)

As a teen I really loved "Robocop" and Robert Heinlein's classic science fiction book, "Starship Troopers," so I remember being very excited when it was the announced that Paul Verhoeven, the director of the former, was tackling a screen adaptation of the latter along with screenwriter Edward Neumeier.

Then the movie came out and I (along with not a few others) thought it a total piece of garbage.

It was an expensive flop and, along with the failure of "Showgirls" two years earlier, knocked Verhoeven off the A-list of directors after a decade-long run noted for pushing Hollywood's boundaries for violence and nudity. He's since returned to his roots of European art films ("Black Book," "Elle") and I think we're all better for it.

Turns out the project was not actually launched with the Heinlein book in mind. A spec script called "Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine" had a lot of similarities to the Heinlein novel -- perhaps too many to be a coincidence -- so the studio bought the rights to the book and the script was rewritten combining elements from both.

Verhoeven hated the book and even confessed he was never able to finish reading it. It's been controversial since Heinlein published it in 1959 because of its embrace of an overtly militaristic, and some would even argue fascist, future. In the novel only those who have served in the military, aka Federal Service, are eligible to become "citizens," endowed with full status and the right to vote. Things like extreme corporal punishment (whipping, etc.) and preemptive attacks are looked upon favorably.

I was particularly dismayed that the power suits worn by the intergalactic soldiers in the book were jettisoned. These allowed them to make leaps of tremendous distance and even drop mini-nuclear bombs, essentially turning each of them into a low-grade Iron Man. Instead the movie just has regular field infantry with body armor and machine guns, not terribly different from what the modern U.S. Army wears.

It's understandable why the filmmakers did this. It would have made the $105 million budget, already bloated for its time, even bigger and forced them to hide all their beautiful actors behind helmets and armor. It does make you wonder, though, how hundreds of years into the future humanity has managed to conquer space travel but still relies on an M-16 clone.

In this vision humanity has been united in their opposition to the "bugs" -- insect-like aliens that fly toward Earth on massive meteors. So far all the experts have regarded them as mindless drones, though in the course of the story we discover otherwise.

(I still wish somebody could've come up with a better moniker than "brain bug.")

I have no doubt in my mind that 1979's "Alien" and other films were inspired by the book, and in turn those movies helped shape the chitinous, bulb-headed look of the "Starship Trooper" bugs.
Seeing the movie for the first time in two decades provides a moment for reassessment. I still don't think it's a very good flick. But it's interesting how much of the social satire of "Robocop" carried over into this movie, especially the cringe-worthy TV newscasts, as well as its prescience about how digital communication would come to dominate our society.

There are a number of fake ads to join the military spread or updates on the war spread throughout the movie, always ending with the query of, "Do you want to know more?" It's quite possible that "Starship Troopers" was the very first cultural artifact to envision clickbait. There's also video conferencing, tablet computers and other tech that we now take for granted.

Verhoeven, who knew something of actual Nazism, made what is essentially a spoof of both fascist tendencies and science fiction. It goes through the motions of celebrating these soldiers blasting aliens apart while at the same time making the entire undertaking seem utterly preposterous. Of course, the irony flew right over the heads of many who saw it. 

The movie's essential weaknesses, though, remain. It has a cast of gorgeous, then-unknown actors who are given a bunch of ridiculous dialogue to say, which they issue with varying degrees of sniggering and/or woodenness. It's notable that of all of them, only Neil Patrick Harris as psychic/intelligence officer Carl was the only one to break out into a high-profile career.

Perhaps that's unkind; showbiz is fickle and anyone who can continue to work as an actor for decades already sits toward the top of a very steep heap.

Denise Richards (as ambitious hotshot pilot Carmen Ibanez), Dina Meyer (sexually aggressive tomboy soldier Dizzy Flores), Jake Busey (goofy fiddle-playing comrade Ace Levy), Seth Gilliam (bully-turned-lackey Sugar Watkins) and Patrick Muldoon (full-of-himself antagonist and competitor for Carmen's affection Zander Barcalow) have all enjoyed busy careers doing TV, voice work, video games and B-movies.

Gilliam might contest Harris' crown for top alumnus, going on to play the formerly fraidy-cat preacher in "The Walking Dead" and a prime role on "The Wire," aka the GOAT TV series.

And, of course, Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside were already grizzled veterans playing crusty officers who whip the kids into line as, respectively, Private-nee-Sergeant Zim and Rasczak, the recruits' former high school history teacher and wartime leader of the howling Rasczak's Roughnecks. Brown and Ironside are both science fiction/horror immortals.

At the top in terms of billing but at the bottom of the totem pole talent-wise sits sad Casper Van Dien as protagonist Johnny Rico. It seems clear Van Dien was chosen more for his looks than any innate acting ability. His Rico is so clean-cut and sharp-featured that he practically seems molded out of plastic.

Imagine James Dean, but with good posture and straight from an aggressive barber. (Indeed, Van Dien had just played Dean in a television movie.)

As a main character Johnny is a total zero. He joins the Mobile Infantry because that's what Carmen wants, only to find them separated when she has the math scores to make it into the Federation Fleet, essentially the Navy of this story. They eventually rejoin, though now separated by the enmity between the military branches. "M.I. does the dying. Fleet just does the flying!" Johnny says, echoing a common refrain.

It should be noted that the book and the movie posit all the youngsters as coming from Buenos Aries, and I don't think there's a legitimate Latino in the bunch.

The special effects looked cheap even in 1997, and are comically outdated now. The nascent CGI for the bugs isn't awful, just stiff and superficial-looking, but the space travel stuff was already at least two decades past its prime.

Of course, Verhoeven opted for his usual all-you-can-stand buffet of gore and violence, with literal rivers of viscera -- human and alien -- splashed across the screen.

Interestingly, probably the most talked-about scene at the time was not any of the many bloody battles but the coed shower shared by the M.I. recruits. It's a throwaway scene of little value other than to show off the bodies of the actors. According to lore the cast refused to film it unless Verhoeven would also get nude, and he readily complied.

"Robocop" actually predated this with its police locker room shared by both men and women, with the gals nonchalantly showing their upper-body wares. "Troopers" goes one better with a fully nude open-air shower room where everybody enjoys a comradely chat about their budding military careers while sudsing up their nethers. The camera is carefully framed not to show too much, and the whole thing is so goofy and jovial that it turns into a (literal) ass-slapping yuk-fest.

I'm not sure how such a scene would play today, with our fretting over who's using which public restroom and some feminist insistence on an omnipresent threat of rape. Beyond the leering voyeurism of the scene, though, it contains a hopeful message about the genders being able to relate to each other as true equals without the burden of always-on sexual dynamics -- a future I fear will remain a pipe dream.

Twenty-plus years on, "Starship Troopers" still plays as an ill-thought bit of escapist gore porn, but with a subtext of social satire and insight that I perhaps didn't appreciate then. I'll say this: the movie has more ambition than I had credited.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Video review: "Bohemian Rhapsody"

Is “Bohemian Rhapsody” too entertaining of a movie to win Academy Awards? We’ll find out in a couple of weeks, but I think people have been overlooking the film’s excellence precisely because it’s such a crowd-pleaser.

The film has been up and down in the awards race. I don’t believe it’ll win the Oscar for best picture, but it deserves at least stalking horse status. Rami Malek is a revelation playing Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, who had the voice and strut to make people stand up and take notice.

Directed (mostly) by Bryan Singer from a screenplay from Anthony McCarten, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is more than your standard rock ‘n’ roll biopic. It takes us on a journey with Freddie and bandmates Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) as they quickly rise from college bar band to one of the premier pop acts of the 1970s.

The story primarily focuses on Mercury’s tale, a buck-toothed foreign kid who had a hard time assimilating into British culture -- especially as he became more aware of his attraction toward other men. He had a years-long relationship with a woman, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), that provided the sort of stability he needed but did not satisfy his romantic urges.

And the rest of the band does not get lost in the story. They push back against Freddie’s egomaniacal behavior and artistic impetuousness. They have lives and relationships of their own going on in the background.

Mostly this film is a celebration of one of the greatest bands in popular culture -- what it took to get to the top, and why that sort of success is so rare. It may not take home Oscar gold, but “Bohemian Rhapsody” is one of the best films of 2018.

Video extras are a little disappointing. There are three documentary shorts: “Rami Malek: Becoming Freddie,” “The Look and Sound of Queen” and “Recreating Live Aid.” There is also complete footage of their famous Live Aid performance in 1985, which marked a return to glory for Queen.



Friday, February 8, 2019

Oscar-nominated shorts films -- live action


Two French ragamuffins of about age 12 are horsing around at an industrial site -- plunking rocks off pipelines, climbing on dilapidated trains, etc. They play a running game: first one to make the other laugh wins a point. Things take a fateful turn when they flee from workmen into a massive, filthy but hauntingly beautiful dump site. A little too pleased with its own visual spectacle, but there’s a good story in there.


“Marguerite” is about a relationship not often depicted cinematically – an elderly person suffering from physical or mental handicaps and the caregiver who supports them. Beatrice Picard plays the title character, a woman who has severe diabetes and possibly dementia. Sandrine Bisson is Rachel, the home healthcare worker who comes every day to bathe and feed her. They start to open up about their love lives, past and present, which brings about a moment that will feel like a healing moment to some, or crossing over of a critical line.


Troy is a kid of about 7 who seems to have a good life -- a mom and dad who love him, good friends. Problem is his people are racist white trash. When his father and his buddies beat a black man nearly to death in a grocery store parking lot for no reason, it sets off a spiral of revenge and resentment, with Troy’s counterpart as the victim’s son. A troubling tale of how hate regenerates itself.


A Spanish woman and her mother are scurrying around her apartment, snapping at each other. They get a call from her 6-year-old son, Ivan: he is all alone on a beach in France, and his father (estranged from the family) has left him there. The tension mounts as they try to find help, or even discover exactly where he is, as the boy's phone battery slowly dies. Fraught and human.


This often-riveting drama looks at the true story of two English boys who were accused of kidnapping and murdering a smaller lad. Recreated from witnesses and recordings by the police, they at first deny everything, from petty crimes committed at the mall to even encountering the victim. But a cascade of lies comes tumbling down, revealing an underbelly of violence behind angelic faces.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Review: "What Men Want"

I’m not sure if you’d dub “What Men Want” a sequel, a remake or a reboot of “What Women Want” from nearly 20 years ago. Let’s call it a spiritual inheritor.

It’s about a successful, not-particularly-nice person who gets conked on the head and finds themselves able to hear the thoughts of the opposite sex, which leads to lots of zany hijinks but also helps them become a better person.

The first film was a huge hit but wasn’t well-liked by critics, and I suspect this one won’t be, either. But it’s got heart, laughs and more than a little sass.

Taraji P. Henson plays Ali, a hard-charging sports agent at the powerhouse Atlanta firm of SWM. Anticipating being named partner, she leases a Porsche to flaunt her success. (Like anyone who’s spent time in The ATL, I chuckled at the scene showing her driving downtown at rush hour with absolutely zero traffic. Talk about Hollywood fantasies!)

But she doesn’t get the gig, as she’s again passed over in favor of some lunkhead young dude. It’s a boys’ club, and they’ll let her play but not take home the trophy.

“You do great in your lane, so why don’t you stay in your lane?” her smarmy boss (Brian Bosworth) says.

As she’s raging against the injustices of her environment, we also learn that Ali is not a very well-rounded person. She treats her assistant, adorable gay dweeb Brandon (Josh Brener), like dirt. When she seduces a gorgeous bartender named Will (Aldis Hodge), we even learn that she’s pretty lousy in bed.

Redemption lies in the person of Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), who will soon be the #1 NBA pick for the hometown Hawks. Land Jamal, Ali’s boss offers, and she’ll get her prize. But that also means negotiating around Jamal’s unbalanced control-freak father, Joe “Dolla” Barry, played by Tracy Morgan in a portrayal that is totally not a sendup of LaVar Ball.

The cast is rounded out by Jason Jones and Max Greenfield as adversarial fellow agents; Tamala Jones, Phoebe Robinson and Wendi McLendon-Covey as Ali’s lady crew; Pete Davidson as a donut-pushing office denizen; Erykah Badu as Sister, the kooky psychic/weed dealer who gives Ali the tea that sparks her newfound power; and various sports celebrity cameos by the likes of Lisa Leslie, Shaquille O’Neal, Grant Hill, Karl-Anthony Towns and Mark Cuban.

Richard Roundtree also turns up in a nice, sensitive role as Ali’s patient father.

There’s a lot of things to like about “What Men Want.” Henson oozes a sort of anxious charisma playing a woman who’s never slowed down enough to consider whether she’s making a positive impact on those around her. There’s some good snaps in the dialogue, and a crazy wedding scene that looks like something out of a reality show meltdown.

The movie isn’t terribly insightful about the differences between the genders. And the mostly-male creative team strives mightily to clean up men’s thoughts from the cesspool I’d guess they’d really be.

My guess is what men want most is for women to never find out just how gross we are on the inside.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Review: Oscar nominated short animated films

One Small Step

Wow, this little space story will get your right in the heart. Told wordlessly with simple animation, it’s the tale of a daughter and her father. Knowing her love of space and science, the dad encourages her with astronaut boots and helmet. As the years pass she grows into a determined young woman who keeps him at arm’s length. A tailor, he expresses his love through food and repairing her shoes. Timeless and evocative.


This ambitious Pixar short caused some controversy when it came out due its portrait of a sensitive subject – a mother’s cloying relationship to her son. Upset about continually being pushed away, she creates a surrogate in the form of a dumpling that comes to life. But the same dynamic grows between them, a young man anxious to cut the apron strings and a mother whose love can sometimes be an intrusive burden.

Late Afternoon

Yes, another short film about the relationship between parent and child. In this case it’s the tale of Emily, an old woman living with dementia. With the assistance of her helper, Kate, she spends the afternoon flitting in and out of the past, recalling her childhood playing on the beach, trying to catch a train, taking a bike ride, etc. Earnest and exquisite


A little boy spends weekends with his dad in his heartstring-pulling look at a fractured family. Things are fun and cool at dad’s: he lives in the city, is into video games and Japanese samurai stuff. Meanwhile, mom’s place is dull and she’s studying to be an accountant. But as time passes the boy comes to see the value in both parents’ environments, as well as the shortcomings.

Animal Behavior

Points for being the one short that’s not about the animator working out their parental hang-ups. A bird, a cat, a leech, a pig and a praying mantis are having a group therapy session with Dr. Clement, a dog psychiatrist. They’ve each got issues -- the leech has abandonment issues, the mantis has a tendency to kill her boyfriends -- but then an angry ape shows up and things really get wooly and wild. Fun, funny and smart.

Review: "The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part"

There’s a moment that arrives for each of us when we first truly feel old.

Maybe it’s flailing at some athletic endeavor that barely made you break a sweat back in the day. Or it’s a cultural disconnect, when you realize you not only don’t like the music that’s popular right now, but you can’t even name a top artist or song.

For me it was 2014’s “The Lego Movie.” My then-3-year-old found it to be wonderfully zippy, colorful and fun. Although I liked the film, I spent most of it mentally shouting, “Please slow down, this movie is going way too fast for me to follow!!”

Though it’s more palatable on subsequent viewings -- especially on video where you can pause and rewind -- the movie throws so much visual and verbal information at you at once, it can be an overwhelming experience for us past-young folks.

The sequel, “The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part,” doubles down on the blazing incomprehensibility. My son, now 8, declares it even better than the original. My eyes and brain, now five years older, had an even harder time keeping pace.

Though there are certainly some enjoyable sections and throwaway jokes aimed at adults, this is a movie strictly for the kids.

The story picks up exactly where the last left off. If you’ll recall, the LEGO figurines were acting out a version of the playtime of a human father and son, in a very “Toy Story” kind of way. Dad finally learned to let go and allow his son to mess up his elaborate LEGO sets, but since he was letting him play with the stuff it was only fair to bring in his kid sister, too.

Turns out the siblings (Jadon Sand and Brooklynn Prince) did not get along. The utopian LEGO wonderland created by the fall of Lord Business has morphed into a Mad Max-like wasteland dubbed “Apocalypseburg” in which the sullen inhabits fight off near-daily invasions by cutesy aliens courtesy of sister’s more bedazzled imagination.

Emmet (voice of Chris Pratt), the everyman hero whose quest was all about finding out whether he was special -- hint: we all are -- is now seen as hopelessly out of touch. Even his lady friend, Lucy/Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), tells him he needs to grow up and get grimmer. Batman (Will Arnett) is their new savior since he’s already sufficiently dark and brooding.

The trio and a few other key team members -- robot/pirate MetalBeard (Nick Offerman), spaceship-obsessed Benny (Charlie Day) and bipolar unicorn/feline Unikitty (Alison Brie) -- are whisked away to the Systar System where they must face off with their counterparts. But it turns out their leader, shapeshifting Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (say it out loud), voiced by Tiffany Haddish, is proposing an alliance.

Another newcomer is Rex Dangervest, a dashing adventurer also voiced by Pratt who gives Emmet advice about growing up and being more manly. The joke is that Rex is a mash-up of Pratt’s other big-screen roles as a raptor trainer, space hero and cowboy.

There are a few fun musical sequences, with a new earworm to replace the “Everything Is Awesome” song from the last movie, which also gets a somewhat moody reprise. Haddish gets her own tune, and turns out to be surprisingly more mellifluous than you’d think based on her comedy persona.

“The LEGO Movie 2” is pretty much more of the same. If you’ve seen any of the other LEGO movies you know what you’re getting, and that your kids will undoubtedly like it, and you’ll feel a little dazed after watching it. Take heart that this will be them someday.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Video review: "At Eternity's Gate"

A lot of people were surprised when Willem Dafoe earned an Oscar nomination for “At Eternity’s Gate,” a tiny art film about the last days of painter Vincent van Gogh. But for those lucky few who’ve seen the movie, they know the accolade is well-deserved indeed.

Previous cinematic portraitures of van Gogh have focused on his turbulent life, especially his relationships with his brother, Theo, and fellow painter Paul Gauguin. And, of course, there’s the infamous time he cut off his own ear.

What “Gate” brings to the mix is indelibly linking van Gogh’s mental instability with his art. Director Julian Schnabel, who co-wrote the screenplay with Louise Kugelberg and Jean-Claude Carrière, include lots of examinations of his paintings, including less famous ones like the one from which the movie takes its title, “Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate).”

The camera follows van Gogh around the countryside as he looks for scenes to capture, seeing the world through his eyes.  Dafoe portrays him as a woman for whom painting is his whole life, because he’s disturbed and thrilled by what he sees and wants to share it with everyone.

It portrays the ear incident and its aftermath, but as simply one more step along the unstable path he trod, instead of a fetishistic totem of self-hatred.

Gorgeous, haunting and insightful, “At Eternity’s Gate” is a harrowing portrait of a mad who embraced both beauty and madness, and joined the two on canvas.

There’s a tendency for small video releases like this to have very skimpy bonus features, but this one is the pleasing exception. There’s a feature-length audio track by Schnabel and Kugelberg (who also edited the film), and three making-of documentary shorts: “Made by a Painter,” “Channeling Van Gogh” and “Vision of Van Gogh.”



Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Review: "Cold War"

Love is fickle, and often unkind.

Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski (“Ada”) has made a film about love and tragedy that inextricably links the two in a way that is both sad and profound. Very loosely based upon his own parents’ relationship in Soviet-controlled Poland between 1949 and 1964, it is the tale of two very different people who are bound to each other, yet kept eternally apart by fate and their own indelible natures.

They say opposites attract, and sometimes it is the attraction itself that brings about opposition.

When they first meet, Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) are both young, talented musicians on the rise. He is part of a team starting a conservatory dedicated to celebrating Polish folk music and dancing. She is one of the young recruits who catches his eye.

Zula’s got a good voice, though others are better, but she’s got a stage presence that makes an impression. There are rumors that she’s a city girl passing herself off as a peasant, and has even served time in prison.

Things go well and their traveling show becomes a hit. These are exuberant set pieces with all the intricacy of a Busby Berkeley musical, but with babushkas instead of glitter gowns. Meanwhile, the couple’s romance blooms behind closed doors.

Wiktor is a classic artist/dreamer type; he plays the piano, writes and arranges compositions, and feels stifled in his Russian-controlled homeland. Nonetheless, when the bureaucrats suggest they incorporate some homage to Stalin and agricultural programs in the show, he is smart enough to know when their sort request something, they aren’t just asking.

Zula is a woman who wants both more and less out of life. She shares Wiktor’s craving for freedom of expression. At the same time, she’s happy being the centerpiece of the troupe. When he makes plans for them to defect while playing a show in Berlin, Zula purposefully tarries in meeting him. We sense this is a test: if he leaves without her, then it wasn’t meant to be.

She craves the ties that bind, preferring love in a constrained society to feeling disposable in an open one.

Several time slips occur. They meet again in Paris in 1954 where Wiktor is eking out an existence as a jazz performer, and she has become the unquestioned star of the show, appearing on the posters. They talk about how they missed their chance, yet neither is ready to cut the cord for good.

Despite other relationships and even marriages, they find ways to meet again, as their story takes them to Yugoslavia and eventually back to Poland. Wiktor finds he wants to take Zula’s test over again, even if the penalties for playing have grown much steeper.

The film was shot in gorgeous black-and-white by Lukasz Zal, who earned an Oscar nomination for “Ida” and should merit another one here.

Co-written by Pawlikowski and Janusz Glowacki, “Cold War” works so well because the stars register as authentic star-crossed lovers instead of just props for a political metaphor. This coupling feels both predestined and cursed. Their love is doomed, but unconquerable.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Reeling Backward: "The Miracle Worker" (1962)

"The Miracle Worker" is one of those works that has become a staple of popular culture even though many people today haven't actually seen the movie or the play that originated it... including me.

I knew the film mostly through its various spoofs and references. I seem to recall a "South Park" segment in which teacher Annie Sullivan repeats the line, "Water, Helen, water!" to blind-and-deaf student Helen Keller as she magically makes the connection between objects in her world and the words that have been spelled out by hand to her, and then the student chorus picks it up for a kicky musical number.

But like many lines from the movies that have become immortal, Annie (Anne Bancroft) never actually says those words in the film -- at least not in that sequence and context. For the record: Bogie never actually says "Play it again, Sam" in "Casablanca," either.

Keller became famous in the early 1900s for her scholarship and writings, especially her 1902 autobiography, "The Story of My Life." (Less well remembered these days is her political activism and embrace of socialism.) She and Annie became lifelong companions, and her autobiography chronicles their journey from the time they met when Helen was 7 until about age 22, when she became the first deaf-blind person in America to graduate from college.

William Gibson turned it into a television play in 1957, and then a smash Broadway hit in 1959 that won Tony Awards for Gibson, Bancroft and director Arthur Penn. This provided the impetus for a film version, though at first the studio wanted a bigger star than Bancroft, suggestion Elizabeth Taylor instead. But Penn stuck with his leading lady, as well as Patty Duke reprising the role of Helen, even though she was 15 years old by then.

It turned out well, launching the film careers of Bancroft and Duke, who won the Academy Awards for best actress and supporting actress, respectively. It also revived the Hollywood viability of Penn, whose only film to that point, 1958's "The Left Handed Gun," was re-edited against his wishes and ended up a flop. He had a rather short but vibrant heyday with "The Chase," "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Little Big Man."

If it were coming out today, I think "The Miracle Worker" would be quickly pegged as an "Oscar bait" kind of movie. It's a period costume drama set in the South -- the sort of thing where men wear three-piece suits to dinner and black people occupy the background as live-in servants, seen but not heard. It's got a lot of quotable lines and emotional scenes that would serve nicely as the clip during the Academy Awards ceremony.

In today's lights it's a finely crafted film, well-acted, a bit stiff.

In 1962, though, my guess it was seen as a powerhouse movie with a lot of dynamic rule-breaking. Annie is hardly gentle in imparting her lessons to Helen, manhandling her and even slapping her in a way that would probably land a teacher in jail these days. At one point she effectively keeps Helen hostage for two weeks, ensconced in a dilapidated old cottage so she can exert her will on her stubborn pupil without intrusion or contact from the parents.

The 10-minute scene where they wrestle around the dining room, smashing everything in sight as Annie forces Helen to eat from her own plate rather than just grabbing what she wants from others', is notable for its sweaty physicality.

You didn't see too many movies back then where women work themselves into a lather. (We still don't.)

Bancroft's Annie is a strong proto-feminist figure, an independent woman with limited sight herself who was raised in hellish conditions inside an institution for orphans, the elderly and the unwanted. The scene where she recounts her and her little brother playing with the bodies of babies stacked in the "dead room," as if they were broken dolls, will make you catch your breath.

Duke, of course, does not speak in the film, other than trying to utter the word "water" during the pinnacle scene. She does I think a decent job portraying a sightless person who also cannot hear. There are several times in the movie where she's reaching around a room with her hands and comes within a hair's breadth of knocking something over that's outside her peripheral vision. I wonder what sort of training she did for the role.

The other three notable characters are her mother, Kate (Inga Swenson); her father, Arthur (Victor Jory), a Civil War veteran whom everyone addresses as "Captain," even his wife; and her brother, James, (Andrew Prine), a snotty man/boy who loves playing the contrarian, even expressing an attraction to Annie that he would never act upon since his type sees hers as below his station.

(I should note the movie excises three other real-life siblings of Helen's for expediency.)

Annie finds that she needs to craft a way to relate to each family member. To Kate, she adopts a bit more of a matronly attitude, though careful not to intrude about her motherly domain. Annie sees James for what he is, a self-important prig, and gives him just enough attention to propel him to unload his verbal droppings and then go about his business.

The relationship with the Captain is the most interesting of the bunch. Annie manages to ingratiate herself through embracing her own sternness and using martial allegories to compare her rough teaching tactics to his own deeds during the war. When he objects to Annie refusing to let Helen have her food after misbehavior, she guesses that he was not above cutting off the enemy's supply chain when necessary.

Jory was 30 years older than Swenson, in a May-November onscreen pairing that was not all that unusual for the time. Nearly 60 when they shot the film and not a large man, the actor has one scene where he's required to carry Bancroft over his shoulder while climbing down a ladder, and another where he picks up and carries the teenage Duke, and clearly struggles to do so.

I should mention that Duke starred in a 1979 television remake, this time playing the Annie role to Melissa Gilbert's Helen.

I respected "The Miracle Worker" more than I enjoyed it. Some old movies still seem vibrant and alive; others are like moldering artifacts stuck behind glass for us to pass by, glimpse and move in. This movie is closer to the latter.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Video review: "The Wife"

I hope and believe Glenn Close will win an Academy Award for her superlative performance in “The Wife.” That’s because a) she’s been nominated six times without winning; b) it would be a welcome career-capper for an actress who, at almost 72, probably isn’t going to get many more shots; but mostly c) because she so richly deserves it.

She masterfully plays Joan Castleman, a promising writer who gave up her career to raise a family with her husband, Joe (Jonathan Pryce). As the story opens they are edging into their golden years, seemingly happy and about to welcome their first grandchild. Joe, a respected novelist, receives a phone call tell him he is to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

As they fly off to Sweden for the ceremony, cracks in their tranquil façade appear. There are flashbacks to their young lives decades earlier (played by Annie Starke and Harry Lloyd) when we see things weren’t going so well. Joan wasn’t taken seriously by a patriarchal publishing industry, and Joe’s early drafts floundered. They fought and knew anguish.

Problems that started then will come back to haunt Joan in the modern setting… but also liberate her. Close is so good because it’s the epitome of an inside/outside performance. Joan is putting on a face for the world -- a lie, if you will -- and it’s one she’s become very good at maintaining. At the same time, we sense that she has grown tired of this mask and is ready to cast it off.

It’s a brilliant performance inside another performance.

As much as I admire the other lead actress performances vying for awards -- Melissa McCarthy, Lady Gaga -- Close is head and shoulders above the rest.

Bonus features are rather modest. There is a Q&A session with Close and author Meg Wolitzer, who wrote the book upon which the movie is based. Plus a conversation with all of the leading cast members, and a making-of documentary short, “Keeping Secrets: Glenn Close on The Wife.”



Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Review: "Stan & Ollie"

“Stan & Ollie” is a melancholy look at the relationship between one of film’s great comedic duos: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Though their place in the pop culture consciousness is closer to distant reverence than relevance these days, they were as big in Hollywood as you could get in the 1930s and ‘40s.

In their onscreen act, Oliver Hardy was the portly, overbearing one while Stan Laurel was the skinny numbskull. But as the film makes clear, in real life Stan was the stodgy brains of the outfit who wrote all their material, while Oliver was the joyful retiring sort who was happy to let his partner handle the business side of things.

They are played by Steve Coogan as Stan and John C. Reilly as Oliver. Both are completely believable, physically and otherwise, in their parts. Coogan gets by with just a little Brylcreem and altering his voice; Reilly uses a fat suit and impressive facial prosthetics. We quickly look past the exterior finishing and concentrate on the souls behind the legend.

The film, written by Jeff Pope and directed by Jon S. Baird, is set in 1953 after their fame has mostly faded. Oliver is now in his early 60s and in poor health, while Stan has been cut down by his attempts to buck the Hollywood system. An opening scene from 1937 shows them butting heads with studio chief Hal Roach (Danny Huston), demanding more money, which briefly led to them splitting up the act for a time.

It’s all water under the bridge for Ollie, but Stan still has a chip on his shoulder. He’s organized a stage tour of the United Kingdom, which is to build hype for a film they’re planning to shoot playing off the Robin Hood legend. They keep working on different bits for the movie, even though the man in charge of putting the financing together isn’t returning Stan’s calls.

What this lovely film shows is how people can be a perfect fit onstage but not really get along off it. They don’t detest each other or anything like that. They’ve played golf and double-dated with their wives -- whichever ones they had at the moment; both men have married and divorced repeatedly, which has cut into their finances -- without ever really becoming true friends.

Comedy is their shared language and point of reference for, well, everything. Playing seedy theaters before small audiences and staying in third-rate hotels, they make a joke of their circumstances while seething about it. But at the urging of the vaguely slimy producer handling the tour, Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones), they do some publicity stunts in the different locales.

The crowds start to get bigger, and the boys find themselves actually enjoying working together again. What's more, they find themselves bonding in a way they hadn't before.

Around the midway point “the girls” arrive: Stan’s wife, Ida (Nina Arianda) and Ollie’s wife, Lucille (Shirley Henderson). Both men finally got it right after several tries, and found women they remained married to until they died. Ida is surly and Russian, and keeps prattling about her own dubious showbiz career. Lucille is a little shy and snarky, and worries that Ollie is endangering his health with the tour.

The women soon set to bickering, but the boys are still overjoyed to have them around.

There isn’t a whole lot of story to “Stan & Ollie.” It’s the story of two guys whose stars were inseparable, but whose personalities didn’t quite mesh. And yet, they managed to create something that endures. Sometimes just doing good work is enough.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Video review: "The Hate U Give"

“The Hate U Give” may be the best movie of 2018 most people haven’t heard of. This smart, heartfelt and riveting drama is perhaps the finest cinematic exploration of race relations in American in the past decade.

It takes as its jumping-off point the shooting of an unarmed African-American man, but this isn’t a heedless Black Lives Matter screed. Amandla Stenberg plays Starr, a smart kid from the bad part of town who attends an upscale, predominantly white high school on a scholarship. She narrates about traversing these two worlds, show us how she speaks and behaves around her white friends, including boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa), and her black family and friends.

One day she meets up with an old childhood friend she’s sweet on, and he winds up getting shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop. For a while no one in either her white or black communities know she’s a witness, and Starr struggles to find a middle way that will protect those she cares about.

The terrific supporting cast includes Russell Hornsby as her dad, who has a powerful scene where he gives “The Speech” about how black teens should behave around law enforcement; Regina Hall as her mother; Common as her uncle, who’s also a member of the LAPD himself; and Sabrina Carter as a white friend who turns out to be not as woke as Starr thought.

Directed by George Tillman Jr. from a screenplay by Audrey Wells, based on the book by Angie Thomas, “The Hate U Give” offers no easier answers but many nagging -- and important -- questions.

Bonus features are quite good, cemented by a feature-length audio commentary track by Tillman, Stenberg, Hornsby and editor Craig Hayes. Such commentaries are always better when they include cast and crew.

There are also three extended scenes six making-of documentary shorts.



Thursday, January 17, 2019

Review: "Glass"

I don’t think when “Unbreakable” came out 19 years ago anyone believed it would become a trilogy. I don’t think even M. Night Shyamalan thought of that notion when he first came up with the idea for “Split” from 2016.

(He claims otherwise, but creative types love to tell you they had a plan all along.)

But now it’s all come together, strangely but rather satisfyingly, in “Glass,” which wears the clothes of a supernatural action/thriller but is really more of an exploration of the modern superhero myth.

You may remember that in “Split,” James McAvoy played Kevin, a man with dozens of personalities, some of them friendly, many of them not. They were dominated by the Beast, a mad, feral manimal who exhibited extraordinary abilities -- including bending steel bars, climbing walls and surviving shotgun blasts.

In “Unbreakable,” it was Bruce Willis’ modest security guard, David Dunn, who discovered that he had similar abilities after surviving unscathed from a horrible train wreck the killed everyone else aboard. This also contained the revelation that (sorry, no spoiler warnings after nearly two decades) Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price, a genius comic book dealer burdened by a fragile skeleton, had rigged the train wreck to prove that superheroes really do exist.

Flash forward to present day, and Dunn is still secretly chasing bad guys with the help of his admiring son (Spencer Treat Clark), running a family security business by day. Lately they’ve been chasing Horde, a mysterious criminal who kidnaps and brutally slays teenage girls. You might have guessed this is the handiwork of the Beast.

Events transpire to bring all three men together in Raven Hill, a hospital for the mentally ill. Elijah, who dubs himself Mr. Glass, has been incarcerated there all along, kept heavily sedated most of the time.

You may think it odd that the person whose name is the film’s title spends the first half speechless and motionless, vegging out in his wheelchair while sadistic orderlies taunt and tease him. Jackson’s name even appears last in the credits.

Running this little cuckoo’s nest is Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who specializes in treating the delusion of people who think they’re superheroes. She undercuts the mythology of comic books and works to convince the trio that their supposed abilities are imaginings spurred by past trauma: David’s childhood near-drowning; Kevin’s abuse at the hands of his mother; Elijah’s brilliant mind being trapped in such a breakable body.

For a time, they start to believe her. The Beast goes into remission and David starts to question his past experiences. Elijah still just stares woodenly at the floor.

Of course, we don’t believe any of this. Eventually the men are going to get the chance to prove they’re the real deal… right?

McAvoy has the flashiest part, flexing and growling like a demon is trying to pop out of his skin. I kept worrying he was going to give himself an aneurism. His fight scenes with Willis are curiously restrained; the older man seems more perturbed than frightened.

Anya Taylor-Joy is brought back from “Split,” though this movie doesn’t really know what to do with her. Charlayne Woodard plays Elijah’s mother, horrified at his deeds while unable to hide her pride at such an extraordinary child.

The first two films featured twist endings and “Glass” is no exception. I doubt even if you’re looking forward you’ll guess what it is. I can’t say I found it the most plausible thing in the world. But then this is movie that posits that ordinary-looking people can flip cars over.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Review: "Shoplifters"

Knowing that "Shoplifters" won the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, I was surprised at how sentimental a film it is. Cannes is in love with edgy, out-there choices for its top film award -- "The Square," "Blue Is the Warmest Colour, "Amour" and "The Tree of Life" being recent picks.

Compared to these films, writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda's film is a big warm hug of a movie. It's about an ersatz Japanese family of petty thieves who take in a wayward little girl who's being neglected by her parents, and the tale of how she is gradually incorporated into this spirited little band.

It reminds me of post-war Italian neorealism movies, with maybe a little dash of Akira Kurosawa's "Dodes'ka-den" thrown in.

Osamu (Lily Franky) is the supposed patriarch of the clan, though not a domineering one. He's a construction worker who's been laid up with a broken ankle. The mother, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), works at an industrial laundry service. The son, Shota (Kairi Jō), is Osamu's main pupil in theft, using hand signals and cooperation to steal from local stores. For example, one will pretend to browse nearby, blocking the view of the shopkeeper while the other filches.

Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), who's probably in her 20s, works as a hostess at a nightclub, entertaining businessmen. Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) is the grandmother, who owns the modest house where they all live. She gets by on the pension of her deceased husband, as well as guilt-laden handouts from her wealthy stepson.

As you've probably guessed, none of these people are actually related to each other. Every one of them is, on some level or another, on the make. Although they steal, they are bonded by their commitment to their little make-do family unit. Kore-eda repeatedly suggests that their affection for each other often surpasses that in clans defined by bloodlines.

Things change when they pass by little Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who's about 5 years old, on the way home one night. She has been left out in the cold hungry while her parents do drugs and carouse. It's not the first time they've witnessed this.

Osamu brings Yuri back to their home for a good dinner and to spend the night, intending to return her the next day. But they never get around to it.

Part of it is the fact that the little girl will likely wind up starved or abused. But also, she just clicks with them. They've got a dad, mom, grandmother, aunt and rebellious preteen son, so an innocent small girl rounds out the portrait.

Even when the police start seeking Yuri and her picture is splashed all over the television, they take steps to keep her, renaming her Lin and cutting her hair. And they begin to apprentice her in the family trade.

You might be tempted to look down upon the shoplifters, but somehow we find that tender feelings have grown in our hearts for them. They may be (minor) criminals, but there's no hatred or degradation in their house.

Even their stealing has a sense of a tightly defined moral code. They're not stealing luxury items for profit, but mostly food and other essentials to help them get by. We're not surprised when it turns out the people working in the store are not as blind to what goes on as they may think.

"Shoplifters" is joyful, sad and observant. Be forewarned: this film steals hearts.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Re-Animator" (1985)

If someone was kid in the 1980s or 1990s, you can tell a lot about them by their relationship to "Re-Animator." If they've never even heard of it, then you know you're talking to a more or less upstanding person. If it's one of their watershed movies, then you're dealing with a twisted, addle-brained horror film junkie who lives for bloody gross-out scenes and gratuitous nudity.

I lie firmly in the latter camp.

Based on a 1922 novella by H.P. Lovecraft, "Re-Animator" falls into the nether region of subgenres, with elements of zombie, vampire and mad scientist flicks mixing together. It's essentially a Frankenstein story, with a brilliant but morally unbound scientist conducting experiments that set off a killa-palooza of murder and dismemberment.

Directed by Stuart Gordon from a screenplay he wrote with William J. Norris and Dennis Paoli, "Re-Animator"  claimed its cult film status largely based upon one truly iconic sequence. In it, a man who has been beheaded and brought back to life walks around with his body holding his head, continuing to commit dastardly deeds.

He turns the hospital morgue into his personal lair, creating other undead minions to obey his whims, including having the young feminine object of his obsession brought to him and stripped bare. His corpse holding his head in its hands, he licks her up and down her body with his bloody, dripping tongue. He's interrupted just as the head is being held hovering above her quivering loins, getting ready to do a deep dive into the holiest of holies.

It really is the purest black-or-white moment for cinephiles. You're either horrendously disgusted by that, or itching out of your skin with glee.

Jeffrey Combs plays Herbert West, a Machiavellian medical student who has developed a reagent that will bring dead tissue back to life. After being cast out of his school in Switzerland, he shows up at Miskatonic University in Massachusetts to continue his... studies. West is peevish and creepy, immediately butting heads with the medical school's star surgeon, Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), who insists that irrevocable brain death occurs six to 12 minutes after the body dies.

What's interesting about this story structure is that Herbert is introduced as the villain, and he conducts himself that way through most of the movie. But when Hill learns of Herbert's discovery and tries to horn in on the credit, he becomes the true antagonist while Herbert takes on a sympathetic note.

Herbert may be a diabolical genius who brings corpses to life and, eventually, starts killing  specimens himself. But the idea of another doctor stealing the credit for his invention somehow makes him more relatable.

Bruce Abbott plays Dan Cain, the bland golden boy do-gooder who gets corrupted by Herbert's influence when he moves into his spare bedroom. Dan's cat soon goes missing, turning up in Herbert's mini fridge. He insists the feline suffocated in a freak accident, but we suspect otherwise.

Dan is a typical horror movie hero, lacking much personality beyond a desire to do good, along with being susceptible to temptation. In his case, it's the possibility of conquering death once and for all.

Alas, the dead do not return to their former stable mental or physical state, but become violent killer beasts, blood pouring from their mouths as they attack those who reanimated them. It appears the longer the gap between death and the introduction of Herbert's neon green serum, the more psychotic they'll become.

The med school dean, Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson), gets choked out by a corpse from the morgue during Herbert and Dan's experiment, and gets turned into a loyal zombie henchman by Dr. Hill. It seems Hill, in addition to inventing a new laser drill, has also mastered the art of hypnosis -- which works on both the living and the dead, apparently. Even Herbert falls briefly under his spell. It underscores Hill's unmistakable Dracula vibe.

Dan's fiance, Megan (Barbara Crampton), is your standard-issue damsel in distress whose job is to make protestations against unwise actions, get attacked by loathsome beasties and drop trou on cue.

I'm curious about the metaphysics of Herbert's reagent. In the experiment on Dan's cat, the reanimated (for the second time) feline can't move because its back has been broken during the fight to kill it (again). But Dean Halsey has full range of motion despite having suffered a broken neck when he was killed.

Then there's Hill's ability to control his body after beheading. None of the other reanimated dead appear to have this power. After one or two initial stumbles, Hill's body seems able to carry out every normal function -- even when doing things where Hill does not have line of sight to be able to see where it is going or its hands are reaching.

It's suggested, though never overtly, that Hill has developed mental powers, including the hypnosis mentioned above. There's also some talk about isolating the "will" center of the brain. We're left to guess that his own research has developed far beyond what is depicted.

Perhaps this also explains why Hill retains his full intelligence while Halsey becomes a nearly mindless beast, despite the fact both men received the reanimation serum mere moments after death.

Hill's disembodied head is still able to speak, though in a breathless rasp. He has his body place it in a tray that is filled with blood taken from packs, which apparently are necessary to sustain the head's function. Prior to this, the head was becoming dizzy and on the verge of passing out. Though it apparently doesn't require oxygen, having been carried around in a duffel bag.

"Re-Animator" is generally labeled as a horror comedy, though I would argue it's more or less a straight scare picture with some funny moments -- some intentional, some not. It originally received an "X" rating from the MPAA for all the gore, and had to be trimmed down to receive an "R." Makeup effects artist John Naulin said he used 12 times the amount of fake blood on the production compared to other horror films.

As a result, there are several edits of the film available. The original R version included some material that had originally been left on the cutting room floor that was restored to bring the running time up to the respectable 90 minute range. You can still find the uncut version, and a more recent "Integral" edit includes both the R version with the gruesome stuff from the X. My most recent viewing, probably the first in 20 years, utilized the latter.

The film actually received some decent reviews from mainstream critics, and did enough business on video to result in a pair of lackluster sequels in 1990 and 2003.

"Re-Animator" is a cheap, skeezy horrowshow that's both ridiculous and riveting. I love it so.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Video review: "Halloween"

Why in the world did we need another entry in the exhausted “Halloween” franchise? The studio can give you 253 million reasons.

That was the box office tally of the newest Michael Myers slasher flick, and the first one to feature Jamie Lee Curtis since “Halloween: Resurrection” 17 years ago. It completely retcons the series, banishing all the movies since the second one from its memory -- the sequels, the reboots, the remakes -- and taking us back to square of the smart, tenacious girl and the masked psycho who wants to slash her to bits.

Except, of course, both Laurie Strode (Curtis) and Myers aka The Shape (played this time by Nick Castle) are both grandparent age by now. Indeed, Myers spends more time chasing Strode’s granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak) than Laurie, who has become a pistol-packin’ grandma and recluse who seems to have done little over the past 40 years but wait for Myers to get out of prison.

Supporting characters include Will Patton as a veteran cop in Haddonfield, the fictional city where all the mayhem takes place; Judy Greer as Laurie’s estranged daughter; and Haluk Bilginer as Dr. Sartain, the oddball psychiatrist who’s been treating Myers without much success, just as Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Loomis did.

The new “Halloween” has a creative team from a comedy background: director David Gordon Green and his fellow screenwriters, Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley. It’s not a total yuk-fest, but they do slip in some comedic moments to lighten the mood.

Me? I likes my scary movies pure scary.

Bonus features are decent. They include seven deleted or extended scenes and the following documentary shorts:
  • Back in Haddonfield: Making Halloween
  • The Original Scream Queen
  • The Sound of Fear
  • Journey of the Mask
  • The Legacy of Halloween


Thursday, January 10, 2019

Review: "The Upside"

I did not expect to enjoy "The Upside" as much as I did. It's an American adaptation of one "The Intouchables," of the highest-grossing French films of all time, which in turn was inspired by a documentary about a real wealthy man who is quadriplegic and bonded with a caretaker of African descent with a troubled past.

It's been "Hollywooded up" to the nth degree, filled with easy emotional entry points and cathartic moments you can almost time with a stopwatch.

And yet, doggone it, I couldn't help being engrossed by the story.

It stars two accomplished funnymen, Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston, who are at different stages of seguing into more dramatic material. Cranston was known -- and dismissed -- for years as "the dad from 'Malcolm in the Middle' before going dark in "Breaking Bad." After a recent Oscar nomination, he's now pretty much universally regarded as a serious actor.

Hart is just taking his first steps along such a path, but I like his stride so far. I wonder if he would ever completely leave behind his stand-up comedian roots in the way that, say, Robin Williams did. I tend to doubt it. But I liked watching him stretch for something more than a laugh.

Hart plays Dell Scott, who's been in and out of prison most of his life. He's currently half-heartedly looking for a job. Asked at a burger joint what his greatest accomplishment is, he says getting out of bed this morning. He's more interested in collecting signatures to prove to his parole officer that he made an effort than actually securing employment.

He wanders into a swanky apartment building after a janitor job and winds up in the penthouse, where billionaire investment expert/author Phillip Lacasse (Cranston) and his right-hand executive, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), are interviewing candidates to be his "life auxiliary." This is fancy rich-people talk for a 24/7 caretaker, who will do everything from dress, bathe and feed Phillip to being his companion when he goes out in public in his high-end electric chair.

Phillip became a quadriplegic years earlier in a parasailing accident -- if ever there was a quintessentially wealthy person's endeavor, it's parasailing -- and lost his wife to cancer around the same time. Although he has an incredible penthouse, a best-selling book ("The Lateral Way"), a garage full of fancy cars and every wall has expensive art on it, Phillip doesn't have much zest for living anymore.

He impulsively hires the puckish Dell because he's the worst person for the job, and Phillip is looking to die. He instructs Dell about his DNR, immediately followed by explaining what a DNR is.

Dell is an interesting character. He's a guy who has never had much demanded out of him in life, and has fallen down to people's expectations. He's estranged from his son, Anthony (Jahi Di'Allo Winston), and ex-wife, Latrice (Aja Naomi King). Kicked out of his pad and way behind in child custody payments, he steals a book from Phillip's library to give to his son for his birthday.

"Which one?" Anthony demands, knowing that his father probably isn't even aware when it is.

Things go from there. Phillip and Dell slowly form a bond based on harsh truth-telling, which goes both ways. Phillip introduces him to opera and Dell helps him get funky. Yvonne is the hardcase looking for any excuse to fire Dell, but gradually warms up.

There's an implication of a potential romance between Yvonne and Phillip, which they both strenuously deny. The movie, directed by Neil Burger from a screenplay by Jon Hartmere, toys around with the idea without ever giving it a complete workout. I'd like to think they could share a deep and abiding friendship without there having to be romantic entanglements involved.

Meanwhile, Phillip does have a female pen pal he corresponds with, exchanging lovely poetry and sentiments. Phillip dubs it an "epistolary relationship," which is how smart, rich people pronounce "pen pal." Dell encourages him to take the friendship to a new level, but he worries that she'll be put off by "the chair," as he calls it. 

Being a famous mega-wealthy billionaire is kind of a hard thing to hide from Google, which Dell is quick to point out.

If it's possible to really like a movie without necessarily respecting it, then "The Upside" is it. I recognize its shortcomings and lack of higher ambitions. But Cranston, Hart and Kidman are marvelous together. There's genuine chemistry and, eventually, affection between them. I think of the scene where Phillip has been persuaded to attend his own birthday party, and Dell coaxes the wallflower Yvonne to dance. 

The look on Phillip's face as she comes out of her shell is one of pure joy. Rather than lamenting his inability to join in (other than a little melodic wheeling), he's filled with happiness for her chance to express herself in a way normally denied her.

It's hard to be happy for yourself if you can't be happy for others. Even a modestly agreeable flick like "The Upside" understands this.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Review: "A Dog's Way Home"

Two years ago W. Bruce Cameron's novel "A Dog's Purpose" became a smash hit, barraging us with waves of pooch-ie cuteness and pathos. No surprise that he wrote another book and they've made another movie out of it, "A Dog's Way Home."

Instead of a metaphysical musing about a dog's living through multiple lifetimes as it figures out its role in the cosmos, here the protagonist, Bella (emotively voice by Bryce Dallas Howard), knows from the get-go what her purpose is: to be there for her human, Lucas. He's played by Jonah Hauer-King, who's tall and non-threatening and has impossible dimples.

They get separated by circumstance and Bella has to undertake an epic journey across two states to find her way home. These include encounters with humans good and bad, face-offs with wolves and an unlikely partnership with a CGI mountain lion. It's a little bit scary, a little bit sad, a little bit sappy and a whole lot adorable.

I felt about this movie the same as I did its predecessor: it's a great big cream-puff of a movie, unambitious but undeniably sweet. It's the rare family picture that will please audiences from 3 to 93.

You know Bella's going to reunite with Lucas in the end, but it's still a tender moment. My 5-year-old bawled tears of joy. (Dad may have had something in his eye, too...)

Bellas begins life living in a condemned wreck of a house along with dozens of cats. When her mother is impounded by the meanie animal control officer, she's raised by a "mother cat" and later joins up with Lucas, who lives across the street and works in a VA clinic that treats troubled vets. One of them is his mother (Ashley Judd), whose depression is helped by a scrabby pup.

Because she's a pit bull mix -- although the actress dog looks more like a lab/shepherd blend to these eyes -- the Denver city ordinance prevents her from being off her home property. Transferred to a temporary stay in New Mexico with some friends while Lucas sorts things out, she jumps the fence and her travails begin.

I won't belabor all her journey, though a few incidents stand out. This includes coming across a baby cougar whose mother is killed by hunters, which allows Bella to become a cat mother herself to the critter she dubs "big kitten." For awhile she becomes the (rather coerced) companion of Axel (Edward James Olmos), a homeless veteran who's desperate for a friend.

After an avalanche fells the owner of a border collie named Dutch, Bella finds herself paired up in an ad-hoc foster family with a nice gay couple. Bella likes it there, appreciates the companionship and security. But always she feels the pull of "an invisible leash" urging her to return to Lucas.

The movie is directed by Charles Martin Smith, who knows from dog tales having starred in the lovely "The Company of Wolves" back in the day. The screenplay is by Cameron and Cathryn Michon, who also co-wrote "Purpose" and previously collaborated on a non-dog movie, "Muffin Top: A Love Story."

It's brightly-shot, with pitch-perfect animal expressions and a few decent human ones, too. What can I say? Only a certified dog-hater could dislike this flick.