Thursday, December 31, 2015

My Top 75 Films of 2015

Yes, yes, Top 10 lists of movies or any other work of creation are inherently silly and inconsequential undertakings, usually done more for the vanity of the critic than the films being assessed. They're more about starting arguments than anything else, which some people dislike but I see as one of the most fundamental functions of a critic.

So if a top 10 list is a lark, then what's a top 75?

I have never gone higher than the number 10 on my year-end list of "the best" films, usually throwing in some eight to 12 other titles, unranked, that I think must be included in any discussion of the year's worthy cinematic achievements. Heck, some years I feel like I'm padding out the top 10.

I admit I take somewhat perverse pride in being known as a "tough" critic,  rarely giving out my highest score -- four stars, five Yaps or an "A," depending on where the review is appearing -- and have sometimes gone several years at a time without awarding it to any movie.

So the main purpose in a list of 75 is underline how significant a movie year I think 2015 was. Truly amazing, memorable years that are chock-full of seminal films only come along every once in a great while, like 1939 or 1968. The last one, by most reckonings, was 1994. I think this year will join them. I gave out my top score to an unprecedented five films in 2015, and the bottom half of my top 10 all got serious consideration for the honor.

In listing six-dozen-plus films, I'm telling you how terrific the movies were this year. I'm begging you to pay attention and be passionate. I'm shouting at you to get enthused about cinema and try to watch everything you find interesting. Because this year, the movies have been sooooo good.

A top 75  list is my way of saying, "Wow."

Here they are, with commentary as deemed necessary.

1.    Spotlight

2.    Room

3.    The Big Short

4.    Mad Max: Fury Road

5.    The End of the Tour

My two favorite films were "Spotlight" and "Room," and I agonized over which to declare #1. Ultimately I went with the former because it's an "important" movie that doesn't wear its importance too heavily (as opposed to the occasionally dreary and cumbersome "Concussion," #70.)

The tale of a team of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe uncovering an epidemic of sexual abuse by Catholic priests never flexes its muscles or demands that you pay attention. It simply lays out the arduous, vital work that goes on at many media outlets, even as they shrink ever smaller and became the hybrid print version of "clickbait."

"Spotlight" and "The Big Short" bear a great many similarities, featuring ensemble casts that have no true leading performance. (Something that may hurt them during the awards season.) They're crusading films that look back into the recent past to show how great misdeeds were brought to light, and ask why it didn't happen sooner before a lot of people got hurt. Their tones diverge drastically, with "The Big Short" using the scalpel of humor to make its points.

"Room" and "The End of the Tour" also are kindred films, essentially existing as feature-length conversations between two people, with other characters breaking in as necessary. The heartbreaking story of a woman and her 5-year-old son kept prisoners in a single room, "Room" featured the two standout performances of the year, Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. Just amazing work, so intimate and so true.

I knew Larson could act, and the same for Jesse Eisenberg, but Jason Segel's performance in "Tour" was  a game-changer for me. The funnyman star of TV and some dorky movies permanently altered my view of what he was capable of as an actor, playing a smart and self-loathing author whose writing style served as a precursor to today's mode of hyperlinks and annotation. It's bothersome that the film seems to have been shunted aside, both at the box office and in awards chatter.

"Mad Max: Fury Road" lies in a category of its own making: a sequel to an iconic but long-dormant action movie film franchise. In bringing in a capable new actor, Tom Hardy, to play Max, and then having him serve as second fiddle to the real protagonist, Charlize Theron's Furiosa, writer/director George Miller showed that he's not afraid to shatter conventions, including those he helped create. An exuberant mix of over-the-top action and surprising character exploration, "Fury Road" was the best time I had at the movies this year.

6.    Amy

7.    Love & Mercy

8.    Mr. Holmes

9.    Son of Saul

10.   Steve Jobs

Great performances drove "Love & Mercy," "Mr. Holmes" and "Steve Jobs." All are portraits of famous individuals, fictional and not, that try to pierce the veil of iconography that have shrouded them for decades. "Amy" serves a similar function in a non-narrative form, a documentary that is both sympathetic and unsparing to the late singer Amy Winehouse. It was the best doc in a standout year for the genre.

"Son of Saul," which will not see wide release in the U.S. for a couple of months, shows how stories from the Holocaust and World War II never fade in their power. In following around a Jew kept alive to clean up the human detritus of the Nazi genocide, "Saul" uses many of the filmmaking techniques I found so distracting in "Birdman" to actual cinematic effect. The use of a very shallow focus, so we only see clearly what is in the foreground, is groundbreaking.

11.    The Martian
12.    The Revenant
13.    Dope
14.    Mistress America
15.    Kingsman: The Secret Service
16.    Brooklyn
17.    Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
18.    Pan
19.    Beasts of No Nation
20.    Sleeping with Other People
21.    The Hateful Eight
22.    The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
23.    Paper Towns
24.    Bridge of Spies
25.    My All American

This next group comprises what would normally be my "also-rans." In virtually any other year, most of them would have easily found a spot in my top 10 or even top 5.

"Bridge of Spies," "The Martian," "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," "Brooklyn" and "My All American" are all genre pictures that represent the peak of their expression. "Dope," "Paper Towns" and "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" endeavored to tear down the mass media conception of teenage life. "Sleeping with Other People" was the best and smartest romantic film of the year.

Quentin Tarantino used a confined space to his advantage in "The Hateful Eight," spaying blood and gleeful dialogue in equal measures. (Even my frequent acting-impaired whipping boy, Channing Tatum, enjoys a solid, brief turn.) The countdown on the stage version is already running; first two rows bring plastic sheeting!

I've been up and down on Noah Baumbach, but he released two enthralling character studies this year with pet actors Greta Gerwig ("Mistress America") and Ben Stiller ("While We're Young," which technically is a 2014 film but didn't get into theaters until mid-2015).

"Kingsman" and "Pan" were risky adventure fantasias that, respectively, paid off and didn't. "Beasts of No Nation" shows us that production for streaming services, already nipping at the heels of broadcast TV, is ready to give theatrical movies a run, too.

"The Revenant," which most people won't see until 2016, is one of those love-it-or-hate-it films. I loathed director Alejandro Iñárritu's camera tricks in "Birdman," tracking his actor around like a cinematic wraith. He uses many of the same techniques here in following an intrepid frontier tracker (Leonardo DiCaprio) who struggles to survive after being mauled by a bear.

Much like "Gravity" and "The Martian," it's an effective bit of old-school "you are there" filmmaking. It doesn't really amount to much more than a very well-made harrowing adventure, but I admire it for what it is.

26.    Cinderella
27.    Coming Home
28.    Infinitely Polar Bear
29.    Paddington
30.    The Good Dinosaur
31.    Legend
32.    By the Sea
33.    Inside Out
34.    3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets
35.    While We’re Young
36.    Avengers: Age of Ultron
37.    For Grace
38.    99 Homes
39.    It Follows
40.    Bone Tomahawk
41.    Star Wars: The Force Awakens
42.    The Lady in the Van
43.    Straight Outta Compton
44.    Slow West
45.    Trumbo
46.    White God
47.    Ex Machina
48.    The Danish Girl
49.    In the Heart of the Sea
50.    Anomalisa

It was a somewhat weak year for animation and comedies, at least in contrast to the dramas and documentaries. Just a few notes:

"Bone Tomahawk" is a great Western/horror mashup, and allowed Kurt Russell to repurpose the same walrus mustache he had in "The Hateful Eight."

As good an evil music biz Svengali as he was in "Straight Outta Compton," Paul Giamatti is even better in essentially the same role in "Love & Mercy."

I liked "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," but I also liked the reviled prequels and think #7 is about on par with #1 in the franchise. (Here's my rank, best to least best: V, VI, IV, III, II, VII, I.) I felt similarly about "Jurassic World" (#73) compared to its predecessors.

"Legend" would've been better if they hadn't so consciously been trying to make "the British Goodfellas." Tom Hardy can do anything, except deign to speak his dialogue clearly if doing so conflicts with his "acting choice." (Thank God the "For Your Consideration" DVD included subtitles.)

Michael Shannon ("99 Homes") also can do anything, and is understandable.

"Ex Machina" starts out as really bold science fiction and then makes a lot of safe, boring choices.

I expect I'm on the only critic in America who put Angelina Jolie's "By the Sea" on his best-of list, even if it was at #32. I stand by it.

"It Follows" shows that supernatural horror films are at their best when they don't feel the need to explain every metaphysical nook and cranny of their story. Leaving the "how" and the "why" open-ended heightens our fear.

Michael Fassbender ("Slow West") looks awfully good in a cowboy bandit rig. Of course, he looks awfully good in just about anything. (Or, as "Shame" showed, absolutely nothing at all.)

"For Grace" was a new paradigm: a documentary made by a newspaper, The Chicago Tribune. I'd love to see more of this. It's about restaurants, becoming great and sacrifices.

"Paddington" was a delightful British family flick that got dumped into American theaters in January without fanfare or press, and still managed to find an audience.

"Anomalisa" was wonderfully inventive but ultimately too quirky for its own good. Like the memorable advice from Robert Downey Jr.'s "Tropic Thunder" character, you should never go full Charlie Kaufman.

Here's the rest, sans comment:

51.    Creed
52.    Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
53.    Goodnight Mommy
54.    Peanut Gallery
55.    Diary of a Teenage Girl
56.    Crocodile Gennadiy
57.    Black Mass
58.    A Brilliant Young Mind
59.    45 Years
60.    The Peanuts Movie
61.    What We Do in the Shadows
62.    Southpaw
63.    Escobar: Paradise Lost
64.    The Connection
65.    The Duff
66.    The Walk
67.    Wildlike
68.    Woman in Gold
69.    Grandma
70.    Concussion
71.    In the Name of My Daughter
72.    Far from the Madding Crowd
73.    Jurassic World
74.    Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine
75.    Jimmy’s Hall

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Video review: "Sleeping with Other People"

"Sleeping with Other People" never made it far past the festival circuit and a modest theatrical release, but it was probably the best romantic movie I saw this year. It's funny, smart, sexy and treats its main characters like knowable people rather than mice scuttling through the same tired old romcom maze.

Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis play a pair who lost their virginity to each other back in college, and reconnect as friends. Unlike the usual romantic movie tropes, in which the couple spend the entire film ignoring the fact that they're perfect for each other, Lainey and Jake openly acknowledge their lingering attraction.

But they undertake a conscious effort to break free from their inability to commit, using each other as foils and advisers for the journey. They make a pledge not to hook up to see if they're capable of love without sex, a notion that of course gets tested.

The dialogue from writer/director Leslye Headland ("Bachelorette") is whip-smart and surprisingly honest. The supporting cast is uniformly good, existing as believable people who go on living their lives whenever they're not hanging around the main characters.

This is the sort of movie that blends romantic, comedic and dramatic elements so deftly that we don't work to label it.

Alas, bonus features are non-existent, on both DVD and Blu-ray editions.



Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Review: "The Big Short"

I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a movie as simultaneously funny and angry as “The Big Short.”

Ostensibly a dramatic, spit-flecked tirade against the real estate crash and the widespread financial shenanigans that caused it, the film is also wickedly hilarious, dripping in black humor and rife with sharp one-liners. It’s a smart, insightful howl against a system that was rigged -- and, the movie argues, still is.

Here is a sure Oscar contender, and one of the year’s best films.

Director and co-writer Adam McKay, known for lowbrow comedies often starring Will Ferrell (“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”) unbeloved by me, makes the unlikeliest left turn in Hollywood history. He and Charles Randolph deftly adapt the book by Michael Lewis, celebrating a disparate band of anti-heroes who bet against the real estate market when the rest of the world of high finance, from the most junior broker to the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, viewed it as Gibraltar solid.

The most amazing accomplishment of the film, beyond maintaining that bravura blend of wit and fury, is making the complicated world of mortgage financing not only understandable, but turning it into the villain of the piece. We glimpse a few smarmy manipulators, a handful of real estate brokers writing mortgages they know their clients won’t be able to pay, etc. – but they’re cogs in the machine.

Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, a former M.D. who founded his own hedge fund. It was he who first looked at how banks were packaging subprime mortgages and selling the debt as an asset, using volume to hide the millions of cracks in what appeared to most observers to be an unassailable wall of strength. Burry, a kook who runs his office barefoot, bet early and bet big that it would all come tumbling down.

Others took his cue and ran with it, further uncovering pieces of the jumbled puzzle. Steve Carell is terrific as Mark Baum, a money manager operating his own shop under the umbrella of Morgan Stanley. A provocateur who lashes out at those who seek to take advantage of others – an odd disposition for an investor, obviously – Baum sees the looming crisis as less an opportunity than a fount of outrage.

Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett, a slick operator who helps put the pieces together for others and acts as our snide narrator. Brad Pitt turns up as Ben Rickert, a dispossessed trader brought in to act as mentor/facilitator by a pair of young hotshots (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) who sniff out the opportunity. Pure mercenaries looking for a score at first, they slowly become educated that those numbers on a spreadsheet represent real homes, families, lives.

The story essentially moves forward as a triad, each of the three investor groups experiencing pushback and pressure from their colleagues. Just when we think the house of cards must come tumbling down, it magically stays afloat through the sorcery of confidence and delusion.

Like “Spotlight,” this is an ensemble film that essentially has no central character or leading performances. Only with Carell’s Baum do we learn much about him outside of the office, which provides a little illumination into how somebody dedicated to making money could wear his conscious so plainly on his sleeve. As good as he was in “Foxcatcher,” Carell is even better here.

Even as it lauds the rebels who went against the grain and said ‘no’ when everyone else said ‘yes,’ “The Big Short” never lets us forget that the accounting chicanery that caused the worst recession since the 1930s is the real story. Burry, Baum and company may have won a pile of money for their insight. But we all lost in the big game we didn’t even know was being played.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Reeling Backward: "The Night Porter" (1974)

"The Night Porter" was deliberately provocative, and the reaction it provoked ran the gamut.

It was banned outright in a few countries, celebrated in some high society circles, reviled in others. It got glowing reviews and seething ones. The  depiction of a sexual obsession between a Nazi concentration camp officer and one of his female prisoners, both during the war and 12 years after its end, was overtly erotic and deeply disquieting.

This was the cinematic equivalent of a punch in the face -- accompanied by a grope to the groin. Films may go for one or the other, but the combination is combustible.

Roger Ebert famously dubbed it "a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering." The many critics praising it, he wrote in his one-star review, had managed to "interpret trash as 'really' meaningful."

I'm somewhat inclined to agree, though we diverge on the value of trash. Pauline Kael made the distinction between trash and "glorious trash" -- gleefully enjoyable junk -- and I think "The Night Porter" falls into the latter category. (Though, for the record, Kael also despised the film.)

Its only offense is in trying to pretend to be more than it is: a garish portrait of the uncomfortable convergence of love, hate and sex.

People who complained that it trivializes tragedy, as well as those who claimed it spotlights the perpetuation of the Nazi mindset, both seemed to get their glands swelled by the movie -- just not the ones intended.

Today, four decades on, "The Night Porter" is comfortably ensconced in respectability, adorned with scholarly articles and the de rigueur Criterion Collection video release.

The nudity, criticized as excessive in 1974, seems borderline tame. If you take out the musical sequence in which Charlotte Rampling performs a bawdy German tune topless while wearing a Nazi officer's hat and jodhpurs -- a scene now firmly iconic, in which the movie reaches its erotic apex -- her skin time in the film probably adds up to half a minute or less.

Of course, co-star Dirk Bogarde manages to engage in a handful of sex scenes without even so much as baring his midriff. Though the BDSM aspect of their relationship is pretty well-drawn. Writer/director Liliana Cavan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Italo Moscat, plus additional collaboration by Barbara Alberti and Amedeo Pagani, establishes in the grainy flashback sequences that he enjoyed lording his power over her, and she enjoyed being submissive.

The modern sequence takes place in Zurich in 1957 at the Hotel Zur Oper. Max (Bogarde) is the aforementioned front desk man for the night shift. He's sleek, courteous, obsequious in an imperious way. He meets all the demands of the clientele, including supplying some of the older, lonelier women with services of a personal nature. He declines invitations to do so himself, using the bellboy as a sex lackey.

Max has friends, German cinematic archetypes -- right down to the huffing bürgermeister and the stern, monocled authority figure -- who show up from time to time for clandestine meetings. They are former mid-level Nazi officers who hold their own internal "trials" to determine their individual exposure to war crime charges. This mostly involves tracking down incriminating documents or witnesses and getting rid of them.

It is implied, though not directly stated, that Max was actually the highest-ranking officer among them, but now is their socioeconomic peasant, preferring to live as a "quiet church mouse" in a nondescript job of servitude rather than becoming bourgeois elite like themselves.

They speak of their trials in the Age of Aquarius language of the 1970s rather than the '50s, of being cleansed of their transgressions so they can live in peace and harmony. Perhaps, Max suggests, he's chosen the life he has because he alone has a remaining sliver of shame that is only expressed in the light.

Then one day into the hotel walks Lucia (Rampling). They lock eyes, porter and patron, recognize each other instantly and know fear. Through the flashback scenes we establish that Max liked to shoot films of his prisoners, especially while tormenting young and pretty girls, and she was his chief victim. Later, though, we learn that she eventually came to appreciate the attention. He called her simply "my little girl," and theirs was a twisted romance for the ages.

Lucia's personage is nettlingly dubious. It's stated that she is an American, the daughter of a socialist, rather than a Jewess. But the wartime scenes show her mingled with the victims of genocide, right down to the familiar striped pajamas and sheared heads. Rampling's famous cascading mane is hidden, unconvincingly, under a poofy and obvious hairpiece.

Her preternatural lithe body, bordering on scrawniness, is used to obvious effect, along with very theatrical makeup to make her so pale as to be ghost-like. Indeed, many of the Germans favor the same makeup or even wear masks during the flashbacks, and these scenes take on a Fellini-like daze of heightened reality.

These are memories, not history, and are therefore colored by the characters' evolving emotional relationship to these experiences.

The film's somewhat kooky tone grows kookier in the second half. Max's pals become worried about the presence of the woman, believing she'll turn him in and therefore endanger themselves. In actuality, the two resume their fractured romance. He embraces her and hits her, she enjoys it and hits him back, he chains her up for awhile, she resents it, and not. A little blood is drawn, so frequently we suspect it acts as a lubricant to entice the emission of other essential fluids.

Lucia runs away from her famous symphony conductor husband, the police come asking questions, the Germans grow more anxious, and the lovers ensconce themselves in Max's apartment, slowly starving as their supply of delivered groceries is turned away by the schemers.

Their lack of initiative is dazzling, even for a bit of fantasia. The Germans' arrayed forces amount to three or four middle-aged men, a wasting wreck of a friendly dowager (Isa Miranda) and one inept henchman youth. Yet Max cannot procure food from any source or find a back entrance to sneak out of.

Perhaps he's not really trying to escape his fate, but simply wants one more taste of passion before the light dims. It's hard to say; Bogarde was a master of thespian mannerisms, but could not project internal anguish the way later generations of actors did. Lucia's internal mechanisms are even more masked. She exists as a conduit for erotic energy, and little more.

It seems no matter what reaction people had to "The Night Porter," it was a tizzy. It is one of the most reviled and celebrated art films of the last half-century. Personally, I don't see the two reactions as mutually exclusive.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Video review: "Pan"

File "Pan" under biggest flops of the year that deserved much better. This delightful, rousing adventure is the Peter Pan origin story, how a spirited English orphan first found his way to Neverland and learned how to never grow up.

Levi Miller plays Peter, who gets kidnapped from his London orphanage by some henchmen of the dread pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) to slave away in his mines, searching for lost fits of faerie dust. It seems Blackbeard, who looks like he was dug up out of the ground 10 minutes ago, defeated Tinkerbell & Co. and is now ruling Neverland as a semi-sane despot.

With the help of an incorrigible rogue names James Hook (!), Peter manages to escape from the pirate's clutches and falls in with Princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) and the Indians, leading to yet more adventures.

It's a mishmash of wildly disparate story elements -- part J.M. Barrie, part Indiana Jones, and even something of a musical with a couple of interludes put to modern tunes like "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

If all this sounds loopy and unhinged, that's because it is. Director Joe Wright ("Atonement") and script man Jason Fuchs have essentially used Barrie's novels as a mere jumping-off point for their own industrious imaginations. They've essentially "retconned" one of the most enduring fantasy tales of all time, stealing inspiration and turning it to their own purposes.

Somehow, I think Peter Pan's rascally heart would approve of the appropriation. This is one flight of fancy worth booking.

Bonus features are decent, though not expansive. The DVD comes with only one making of featurette, "The Boy Who Would Be Pan."

Upgrade to the Blu-ray combo pack and you add three more featurettes: "Wondrous Realms," "The Scoundrels of Neverland" and "Never Grow Up: The Legend of Pan." Director Wright also provides a feature-length commentary track.



Thursday, December 17, 2015

Review: "Sisters"

Amy Poehler and Tiny Fey have been called the best comedy duo since Martin and Lewis. That may hold for fake TV news shows and emceeing awards programs, but their film resumes are rather spotty -- both together and apart.

Each had bit roles in "Mean Girls," written by Fey, and that was the high point. The less said about their first big-screen pairing in lead roles, "Baby Mama," the better. Now comes "Sisters," with their traditional roles swapped -- Fey playing the party-hearty girl and Poehler as the responsible one in dire need of cutting loose.

Written by longtime "Saturday Night Live" scribe Paula Pell and directed by Jason Moore ("Pitch Perfect"), "Sisters" demonstrates two things: women comediennes, despite the naysaying of some uptight fossil comics, can be every bit as raunchy and uproarious as any male. Second, the tendency for recent comedies to be wildly uneven and overlong is a gender-neutral affair.

The setup is simple: the Ellis sisters were famous for throwing legendary parties back in the '80s in their Orlando hometown. (Also my own; O-town is having a renaissance on film this year, with this movie, "99 Homes" and "Paper Towns" all set there.) Not much is going right as they enter middle age, with beautician Kate (Fey) unable to hold down a job or keep the trust of her teen daughter Haley (Madison Davenport). Maura (Poehler) is divorced, downbeat and coasting.

When they find out their parents (Diane Wiest and James Brolin, brazen scene-stealers) are planning to sell their posh childhood home in order to movie into a swingin' seniors village, the Ellis girls resolve to throw one last big bash before reality resumes its rightful place.

The parts of "Sisters" that work are a sort of eulogy for the spent youth of Generation X, those perpetually overshadowed by the Baby Boomers and their children, the Millennials. Almost the entire second hour is the party itself, a blowout of epic proportions that will involve music, drugs, sex (mostly interrupted or implied) and property damage.

It's fun to see these aging adults, whose rebellions were mostly confined to getting drunk and cutting class to go see "Breakfast Club," finally discovering their inner hellions. For one night, all bets are off, along with the shirts, and who cares if the bellies and chins are slacker than they once were.

The Poehler/Fey dynamic pays off, mostly, but then they keep bringing in their SNL buddies like Rachel Dratch and Maya Rudolph for supporting storylines that distract and drain. It reminds me of how Adam Sandler keeps digging up spots for David Spade and Chris Rock in his flicks, all of them clutching each other as they sadly circle the drain.

This is one of those movies that has more attitude than jokes. There are scenarios, not scenes. Some of the best stuff is when the women don't have to drag the plot forward, but can just hang out and goof on each other -- such as when they prepare for the party by trying on entirely age-inappropriate outfits.

"We need a little less Forever 21 and a little more Suddenly 42," Maura quips.

There are love interests, of a sort. Ike Barinholtz plays the guy down the street also preparing to sell his folks' home, who gets sexually harassed by the Ellis sisters, but enjoys it. Wrestler John Cena gets recruited to show off his guns as a scary drug dealer with a soft side. ("My safe word," he instructs, "is 'Keep Going.'")

There are also stereotypical gags about lesbians and Asians that, if they were in a dude comedy, would get diced on Twitter by a legion of P.C. valkyries, and deservedly so.

"Sisters" isn't the lamest comedy of the year, but there is lots of competition for that spot. In an otherwise sterling year in cinema, the animated films and comedies have been decidedly lackluster. Some stars, and strains of humor, are simply a better fit for the small screen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Review: "The Danish Girl"

“The Danish Girl” is the true-ish story of Einar Wegener, a well-known Danish painter who became a woman in the early 20th century. Today we would refer to this as a transwoman “transitioning” to her true gender, and use her adopted name, Lili Elbe, and the appropriate pronouns.

But the film is less about conforming to modern-day sensibilities than presenting Lili/Einar as she/he was -- a gentle soul confused about the journey being undertaken, but who steadily gains strength and resolve as the challenges grow.

Directed by Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) from a screenplay by Lucinda Coxon, based on the historical novel by David Ebershoff, “The Danish Girl” powerfully shows what it was like to question one’s gender at a time and place when such roles were rigidly defined and enforced. Eddie Redmayne, last year’s Oscar winner for Best Actor, is sure to pick up another nomination for his nuanced turn.

The story opens with Einar married to Gerda Wegener. Both young painters with a carefree lifestyle and a strong desire for children, they live rather unequal lives. Einar is feted at gallery shows, celebrated by powerful patrons, while she toils in his shadow. It’s puzzling, since he -- by his own admission -- essentially paints the same thing over and over: pastoral scenes from his drab, lonely childhood.

Gerda (Alicia Vikander, vibrant and emotive) plays Einar’s wife, who actually kick-starts his journey by asking him to don some hose and shoes so she can finish her painting after her (female) model takes ill. Einar finds himself ensorcelled by the look and feel of women’s clothing. The couple playfully continues the game, going to a party with Einar dressed as his cousin, “Lili.” She even attracts the attention of a discerning young man (Ben Whishaw), who pitches woo.

Soon, though, Einar is spending more and more time as Lili, studying the mannerisms of the fair gender and copying them – even to the point of exaggeration. Lili is easily the most girlish woman in any room she occuppies. Redmayne is convincingly coquettish and shy, showing how just because a person’s outward identity changes, the inner soul doesn’t. Since Einar was something of a blushing wallflower, Lili is, too.

Things go on from there. There are marriage troubles as Gerda grows distraught about “losing” her husband. She enlists Einar’s old childhood friend, Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), on whom he had a boyhood crush, to act as a touchstone. But Gerda ends up developing feelings for him herself.

Doctors of the time are no help, subjecting Einar to radiation treatments that leave him bedridden, then reporting him to the authorities as a deviant when their barbaric procedures bring no result.

There are, of course, many liberties taken with Lili’s story, which flow from Ebershoff’s fictionalized portrait of her. The main one is showing her struggling with her surgical transformation more or less in private, when in fact it was quite a renowned feat at the time. Her autobiography, published two years after her death, was a watershed moment in the transgender movement.

It also depicts Gerda as staying by her side throughout this process and her demise, when in fact their marriage was legally dissolved as a result of Lili’s gender change, and Gerda had moved on to other romantic partners. (She was not even present at the death, hearing about it through the news.)

Still, this falls under the filmmaking rubric of ‘lying in order to tell a greater truth,’ as we saw in the excellent “Steve Jobs” earlier this year. “The Danish Girl” may skirt the historical facts, but it still has the compelling illumination of trueness.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Video review: "Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation"

"Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" is one of the better installments in the TV-to-cinema series centered on superspy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). It can't hold a handle to the previous film, "Ghost Protocol," but that's more an indication of tht movie's strength than any lagging quality in its successor.

Story-wise, the plot bears a great deal of resemblance to the recent James Bond film "Spectre," or should I say the latter takes after the former. It seems a shadowy global criminal syndicate -- called, simply the Syndicate -- has been behind much of the troubles seen in the last few "MI" movies. Hunt is out to get them, with the help of loyal retainers Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), the gadget guy; Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), comms and muscle; and William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), the man on the inside at Impossible Missions Force (IMF).

The CIA director (Alec Baldwin) wants to shut down IMF as an embarrassment and a waste of resources. So Ethan & Co. have to take the fight to the bad guys while also evading, or conscripting the unwitting assistance of, the good ones.

It's a smorgasbord of cool chases, clever reversals and fiendish villains. It doesn't really amount to much, but it's a whole lot of forgettable fun. And, as it turns out, Ethan Hunt does this story better than James Bond does.

Bonus features are good, though you'll have to ante up for the Blu-ray edition to get them: the DVD contains zilcho.

With the Blu-ray you get a feature length commentary track by writer/director Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise; plus seven making-of featurettes.



Thursday, December 10, 2015

Review: "In the Heart of the Sea"

“In the Heart of the Sea” works as a rousing sea adventure story, the inspiration for “Moby-Dick,” though it suffers from more grandiose aspirations that largely go unrealized. And some bad Boston accents.

The film makes a half-hearted attempt at a man-corrupts-nature environmental theme, and begins a Christian-vs.-Bligh type of conflict between the ship’s first mate and captain, only to drop it halfway through. Based on a nonfiction book by Nathaniel Philbrick, the screenplay by Charles Leavitt has some structural problems, with a big dead spot about two-thirds of the way through.

But director Ron Howard ably helms the action scenes, including the thrilling bout with the massive white sperm whale. And the movie brings a great sense of authenticity about what it’s like to be aboard a Nantucket whaling boat in 1820 -- the sun-creased faces, the creaking of the sails, the ever-present fear of a squall, the way men’s personalities rub against each other after a year at sea.

Howard reunites with Chris Hemsworth, who starred in the criminally overlooked racing movie “Rush.” Here he plays Owen Chase, a seasoned whaler who thinks he’s in line to become captain, but is instead put under the thumb of George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a greenhorn with the right family name and financial backing.

As a “landsman,” the son of a poor farmer, Chase has had to work his way up from the bottom, and naturally resents the aristocratic captain. Pollard insists on showing the crew who’s boss, and nearly sinks the ship on their second day out of port. They spar, but agree to put their differences aside long enough to collect 2,000 barrels of whale oil.

Eventually they make their way into the Pacific Ocean, where they hear tales of a remote spot where the whales are bountiful. The story turns out to be true, but so does the warning of a giant bull who does not take kindly to having his colony attacked.

Their ship, the Essex, is sunk and the survivors are forced to flee on small boats thousands of miles from land, and things quickly grow dire. The actors make a believable transformation into starving skeletons -- unlike the recent “The 33” -- with the help of a little CGI.

The film uses a framing device of Thomas Nickerson, a 14-year-old member of the crew, being interviewed by Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) 30 years later as inspiration for his most famous novel. Now a mean old drunk played by Brendan Gleeson, he’s reluctant to share the true story of the Essex, which was officially recorded as having run aground. Tom Holland plays him as a boy.

(There’s a certain amount of historical shenanigans going on here with the storyline. Chase actually published an account of the Essex disaster immediately afterward, which was what inspired Melville. It was another writer who interviewed Nickerson, convincing him to write his own book. Interestingly, the film largely gets the events that happened at sea right but finagles with the epilogue.)

I’m not sure whose idea it was to have all these actors of different English-speaking vintages talk in realistic 1820s Nantucket accents, but the result is a mishmash of bent vowels and oft-indecipherable dialogue. At one point Hemsworth greets Cillian Murphy as an old comrade and they share a jaunty banter, of which I couldn’t understand a thing.

(Hemsworth is Australian, Murphy and Gleeson are Irish, Holland is English and Walker is American.)

Another swing-and-a-miss is the attempt to correlate 1820s energy challenges with our own. Whale and petroleum both lit the world in their respective eras and neither is a renewable resource (except as fast as adult whales can spawn new ones, anyway). The parallel is given a few feeble gestures, then dismissed.

“In the Heart of the Sea” is a great-looking picture; Howard is a top-drawer visual storyteller. It’s a good movie that could have been a much better one, either by being less ambitious, or more. Sometimes you have to drown your darlings.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Reeling Backward: "An American In Paris" (1951)

"An American in Paris" is wonderful as a musical -- truly 'S Wonderful, indeed -- though it isn't particularly ambitious as a film.

It's essentially pageantry for its own sake, long musical sequences in which the characters sing and prance because they love to do it, rather than advancing the story in any obvious way. It's about bright colors, vivacious George Gershwin melodies and the inestimable choreography and dancing of Gene Kelly, not to mention co-star Leslie Caron.

Despite its undeniable status as a lightweight movie, "American" won the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as earning statuettes for screenplay, costumes, musical score, cinematography and production design (or simply "Best Art," as it was called then).

Vincente Minnelli lost the director award, though he was up against William Wyler for "Detective Story," John Huston for "The African Queen," Elia Kazan for "A Streetcar Named Desire" and the winner, George Stevens, for "A Place in the Sun." That must rank as one of the toughest directors' races in Oscar history.

Kelly did not get an acting nomination, though he was bestowed with a special award for his contributions to the cinematic musical art form. No one else from the cast got a nod, making "American" one of just 11 Best Picture winners lacking an acting nomination. ("Slumdog Millionaire" was the most recent.) Though that apparently was trend in the 1950s, with four winners from that decade lacking any recognition for its performances.

Of course, 1951 was also the year "Streetcar" nearly swept the acting awards, losing only Best Actor, where Marlon Brando probably should've beaten Humphrey Bogart anyway.

I think back then people had a taste for big-budget extravaganzas, and didn't make so much of a distinction between serious films and pure entertainment as we do today.

I enjoyed "An American in Paris," though I admit to growing a bit glazed during some of the dance scenes, some of which go on waaaaay too long. The final 16-minute ballet set to Gershwin's "symphonic poem" of the same title reportedly cost half a million bucks all by itself to stage, a colossal sum back then. If I'm totally honest, I fast-forwarded a bit through parts of it.

Dancing, particularly of the athletic variety practiced by Kelly, is dazzling in short bursts but after a while it becomes repetitive and less impressive. It's like watching a man dead-lift 1,000 pounds -- your breath is taken away the first time, but after 25 reps you're ready to see something else.

One thing I did notice about this film is that Kelly's dancing is often staged in confined spaces, such as inside the cramped apartment of his character, Jerry Mulligan, an ex-GI who stayed on in France after the war in hopes of making it as a painter. He's penniless and proud, and his only real friend is Adam Cook (Oscar Levant), a composer living next door who's similarly situated, though not nearly as cute.

(In his opening narration, Levant cracks jokes about his homeliness and "flabby exterior," even though he's hardly overweight. I always wonder, when a character in a movie talks about their physical deficiencies, what does the performer think about being cast in that role? "They needed an ugly pianist" is not exactly a confidence-booster.)

Kelly shimmies and shakes in the small gaps in between Adam's piano and bed, occasionally using the hallway as an overflow space. In other numbers he kicks and spins dangerously close to old women and children, and I kept wondering how many times Minnelli had to call cut after Kelly accidentally clocked someone with his tap shoes.

I can't help but contrast "American" with "Singin' in the Rain" from the following year, which I consider to be a vastly superior film in every way imaginable. Interestingly, both movies are largely built around songs written two or three decades earlier, Gershwin's and Arthur Freed's, respectively. But there's more singing and less dancing in "Rain," and there the characters are largely warbling about themselves or those they adore.

It's notable that "Rain" contained many memorable songs, while "American" can only claim "I Got Rhythm" as a truly enduring popular hit. Other tunes include "Our Love is Here to Stay" and the aforementioned "'S Wonderful." Most of these were written by Gershwin for Broadway shows or other films, essentially rendering "American" as a greatest hits compilation. Though the humorous "By Strauss" was a goofy ditty Gershwin performed only in private for his friends, until it was included in a 1936 revue and this movie.

The story (screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner) is pretty basic. Jerry is a starving artist who falls in love with a French girl, Lise Bouvier, played by Caron with her iconicly unconventional beauty. Little does he know she's betrothed to Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary), a famous song-and-dance man and friend of Adam's. The fact that she secretly carries on with Jerry and Henri at the same time says something about her worthiness as a romantic ideal, but this is love in the French style.

Meanwhile, Jerry is being helped-slash-seduced by Milo Roberts, a wealthy American woman who has a habit of picking up boy toys and then discarding, or being discarded by them. She introduces him to important art people, arranges a big gallery show of is work, etc. Ostensibly it's all out of art appreciation, but her fierce jealousy when Jerry pays attention to Lise unveils her true nature.

Interestingly, though Milo is supposed to be much older than Jerry, probably middle-aged, actress Nina Foch was actually 12 years younger than Kelly. At 27 she was barely past the ingenue stage, while he was bumping up against 40.

People complain about Hollywood's ageism today, but it was much more rampant back then, with aging actors romancing young girls without anyone giving it a blink. Foch even played Charlton Heston's mother in "The Ten Commandments," even though he was a year older than her.

"An American in Paris" is a delightful frivolity, fun and energetic, happy-happy moviemaking designed to make people forget their troubles. I'm not surprised it's currently enjoying a huge revival on Broadway. But Best Picture?

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Video review: "Ant-Man"

Just when it seemed like every super-hero in the Marvel universe had been covered, along came “Ant-Man” to prove that even little guys can get their own movie -- whether the world needs it or not.

The titular supe has a power that’s, well, kind of outside the mainstream. Cat burglar-turned-hero Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) puts on a special suit that allows him to shrink down to insect size, where his strength is proportionately increased because his molecules are closer together, or something. Also, he can command ants to do his bidding.

If a wee guy flying around on the back of a winged ant is your idea of high adventure, well then I’m glad for you. Personally I found this movie transcendently goofy.

It isn’t helped by Generic Corporate Villain #362, here played by Corey Stoll, who wants to adapt the technology developed by scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) for a shadowy military. Want to take a wild guess if it comes down to a battle between Ant-Man and the bad guy in his own super-suit?

There’s a girl (Evangeline Lilly) because apparently these movies cannot exist without a love interest for the hero. She’s Pym’s daughter, with predictable daddy issues.

Rudd has a twinkly rascal’s charm as Lang, and we root for him even as we wish he weren’t playing a fellow with such a dumb power. Seriously, what’s next? A movie about a guy who can split himself into multiples and creates his own boy band? The woman who absorbs the essence of an opossum and fakes her own death?

Sometimes small things stay small because they deserve to.

Marvel movies tend to have generous packages of bonus features. “Ant-Man” is no exception, though you’ll have to spring for the Blu-ray combo pack to get the best stuff. The DVD has only a single deleted scene.

With the combo pack you add several more deleted and extended scenes, a gag real, a making-of documentary, a fake news package about Pym Technologies, and a look into the subatomic realm where Ant-Man accidentally gets stuck.

There’s also a feature-length commentary audio track, with both director Peyton Reed and Rudd participating.



Sunday, November 29, 2015

Video review: "Amy"

I’m at an age where one stops paying much attention to the popular music of the day, preferring the sounds of our youth. So I experienced the swift rise and early death of singer Amy Winehouse from a distance, where it’s easier to smirk and make light of another person’s tragedy.

Workaday people have a hard time relating to the struggles of creative personalities -- especially successful ones who earn millions of dollars at a young age while doing what they love. ‘Give me those kinds of problems,’ we say.

“Amy” is a great documentary film because, like the best of its kind, it can take a subject that appears alien or even laughable to us, and make it seem immediate and very human. This portrait of a tender soul who had it all, and lost it all, is heartbreaking and fascinating.

Director Asif Kapadia (“Senna”) shows great empathy toward Winehouse, but never drops the journalistic mode of exploration to simply genuflect and celebrate. It shows the moody, bluesy singer in all her amazing glory, and pitiable squalor.

Her seriocomic life played out in an extravagant public parade of drugs, wastrel boyfriends, abuse and disaffection. With her beehive hairdo and slathered makeup, Winehouse resembled a 1960s West End hooker who wandered up on stage and turned out to have amazing pipes.

She wrote great, soaring songs about life’s lows -- her lyrics were autobiographical, confessional, defiant. We drank in the catchy R&B bliss and tittered at the ridiculous person who belted it at us. Every news cycle seemed to produce more lurid behavior; the portrait of a hard-partying girl who couldn’t say no to temptation became fixed.

This was, after all, a woman whose biggest hit single was about refusing to go to rehab.

The film has the usual testimonials from people who knew her, and plenty of interviews with Amy herself. What makes it truly revelatory are the many private videos she and her loved ones shot, talking freely without posterity looking over their shoulder. Here Winehouse reveals her innermost self – including her prediction, while still a struggling teen artist, that she will not bear fame very well.

How dreadfully right she was. This documentary underlines how misguided we were -- I was -- to laugh at Amy Winehouse. All we have now are her echoes.

Bonus features are decent, anchored by a feature-length audio commentary track by Kapadia. The DVD also has video of previously unseen performances by Winehouse, plus deleted scenes. Upgrade to the Blu-ray, and you add interviews with friends and musicians.



Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Film review: "Creed"

“Creed” is a self-conscious attempt to bring closure to the Rocky Balboa saga, by depicting the aged boxer passing on the torch to another underdog. It’s a classic story of beginnings and endings, fathers and sons, starting a new chapter and closing an old one.

It’s well-made, stirring, and would make for a fitting summation to a 40-year journey.

(Though as long as Sylvester Stallone, who’ll be 70 next year, is capable of shambling in front of the camera and mouthing that iconic stumblebum patois, don’t bet on this being the last “Rocky” movie.)

Just how important is Rocky to us? He’s probably the most famous sports figure who isn’t actually real. Check that; in many ways, you could argue he is real. Certainly his influence is – on movies, the sport of boxing and the city of Philadelphia.

There’s a scene in “Creed” where people are shown having their pictures taken in front of a statue of Rocky Balboa at the Philadelphia Museum of Art – the place where he famously ascended those steps in the first movie. It’s supposed to demonstrate how Rocky, now long out of the boxing game and quietly running a little restaurant named Adrian’s, became a legend.

But that’s an actual statue in front of the actual museum, put there as part of a scene from “Rocky III” -- demonstrating that myths can turn into reality, and vice-versa.

The film stars Michael B. Jordan, one of the finest young actors working in film today. Director Ryan Coogler, who co-wrote the script with Aaron Covington, also directed Jordan in the powerful “Fruitvale Station.” Tonally the two films are somewhat similar, in that Jordan’s character is a wayward soul trying to improve himself, only to be pushed down by an uncaring and capricious system.

Adonis Johnson is the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, Rocky’s opponent from the first two movies who eventually became his closest friend. He died in the ring before Adonis was born, who grew up angry in the child welfare system before being taken in my Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad.)

“Donny” was raised in comfort and security – unlike Rocky, the Creeds kept their boxing dough – but has a Drago-sized chip on his shoulder. He doesn’t feel like he belongs to anyone, is both proud and ashamed of his heritage. He fights low-end professional bouts in Mexico while working a day job in the financial sector.

After running his mouth and being humiliated in the ring by a legitimate boxer, Adonis decides to strive for his dream and make it on his own as a fighter, without using dad’s name as a stepping stone. He moves to a cruddy apartment in Philly, and enlists Rocky to train him. Donny calls him “Unc” and regards Balboa as family, though Rocky is reluctant to reenter the world where he’s lost so much.

Stallone is regretful and poignant, playing a man who doesn’t really have much to live for, but presses on because he doesn’t know how to quit. In Adonis he sees a chance to nurture, to hone and to protect – i.e., to be a father again.

Of course, because this is a Rocky movie it ends with a fight for the championship. How exactly one goes from novice to contender is left deliberately murky. A romance with the cool downstairs girl (Tessa Thompson) has an obligatory feel – why must there always be a love interest?

The bad guy is Ricky “Pretty Boy” Conlan, played by real-life fighter Tony Bellew. He’s a Cockney brawler looking for a quick payday owing to pressing circumstances, and he and his manager (Graham McTavish) see using the Creed name as a way to drum up exposure. Rocky sees what’s happening, doesn’t like it, but gives Donny the space to make his own decisions – while having to make some hard choices of his own.

“Creed” isn’t up there with the first four Rocky movies. But it summons their spirit, and adds a few grace notes of its own. “Rocky” was the story of a guy who fought because he had nothing else; this is the tale of a man with choices who traces in his father’s footsteps in order to become his own man.

Just as it was in 1976, there are different forms of victory.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review: "The Good Dinosaur"

"The Good Dinosaur" contains many notes and musical phrases from other animated films, but it's still a strong song all on its own.

It mostly feels like elements of "The Lion King" and "Finding Nemo," with a little bit of "The Croods" thrown in. Reportedly this movie from Disney/Pixar ran into all sorts of problems during production and they essentially had to start over from scratch, with a new cast and director.

It certainly was worth it, as "The Good Dinosaur" is easily the best animated film I've seen this year. (Albeit in a weak year for cartoon movies.)

Raymond Ochoa voices Arlo, a young Apatosaurus who gets separated from his family and must make an uneasy alliance with Spot, a feral human boy (Jack Bright). The twist here is that this is an alternate reality where that big asteroid didn't hit the Earth and wipe out the mammoth land reptiles. Given a few million years to evolve further, they've become the planet's dominant species, capable of speech, agriculture, tools and more.

The humans, meanwhile, can do little more than grunt and bark. Spot is essentially part wolf, a fierce warrior (for his size) and hunter with a terrific sense of smell. Spot and Arlo are enemies, then thrown-together castoffs, then circumstantial allies, then something more.

Director Peter Sohn and his team of animators made an interesting choice visually. Except for the dinosaurs and people, everything is rendered in hyper-realistic animation. The mountains, the dirt, the vegetation and even smaller animals -- collectively described by the dinos as "critters" -- almost look like they've sprung to life out of National Geographic gallery.

Arlo, Spot and their fellows, however, have a deliberately cartoony look to them, with exaggerated features and shapes. Arlo's eyeballs are so big that if they were actually spherical, they would have to extend out past the sides of his head.

But it all works. The contrast between the stylized protagonists and their often-dangerous environment makes for an oddly intuitive sort of balance, a yin and yang effect.

Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand are soothing and wise as Poppa and Momma, corn farmers who till and protect their own land and impart to their young ones the importance of "making your mark." To them this means pushing past your limits and fears and finding your place in the world.

That's easy for brash, bruising brother Buck (Marcus Scribner) and headstrong sister Libby (Maleah Padilla,) but Arlo is a smallish (for his kind) and timid sort who gets rattled just by feeding the family "chickens." When a storm comes and a tragedy visits the family, Arlo finds himself washed far away into a strange land. Only Spot, who's caused them some trouble earlier with his foraging, is on hand for companionship.

The screenplay by Meg LeFauvre, who also helped pen this summer's "Inside Out" -- the first time Pixar has released two features in one calendar year, by the way -- keeps things simple, and inspired. Arlo and Spot encounter a variety of natural challenges and other dinosaurs, including a soaring band of pterodactyls and a fearsome family of tyrannosaurs (Sam Elliot voices the dad), but things often don't shape out as they first appear.

"The Good Dinosaur" isn't the top of the animation pyramid for Pixar, which has been in something of a trough lately after 15 years of one triumph after another. But being a step down from "Finding Nemo" and "Toy Story" et al isn't a bad place to be.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Two-Lane Blacktop" (1971)

There is a purity to "Two-Lane Blacktop" that grabs you like fat tires gripping a hot asphalt road.

On the surface it is seemingly the barest of trifles, a drag-racing movie in which the two main characters literally have no existential identity beyond their roles as Driver and Mechanic -- the only names ever given them, and only then in the end credits.

Like slavering wolves with but one or two primordial imperatives constituting their entire behavioral makeup, they tool from town to town in a souped-up 1955 Chevy 150, searching for chumps to fleece in wagered side-by-side sprints. That's the whole movie.

Yet the film, a cult classic that barely made a ripple in the box office or pop culture of its day, often gets spoken about in tones bordering on reverential. Back in 1971 Esquire magazine named it the "film of the year" -- without even bothering to wait for the bloom of spring, at that.

Many people consider the movie the unsung triad of great counter-culture road pictures of the time, along with "Easy Rider" and "Vanishing Point." It is talked about frequently, and has received a handsome Criterion Collection restoration and video release.

(Though I'm aware such treatment from Criterion is not considered as ostentatious as it once was.)

Directed by B-movie denizen and Roger Corman mentee Monte Hellman, "Two-Lane Blacktop" was written by Rudy Wulitzer over a frenetic four-week period. He was an underground nobody at the time, but went on to pen notable films like "Pat Garrett and & Billy the Kid"  and "Little Buddha," and even contributed to the Oscar-winning script for "Coming Home," though he did not get a screen credit or a statuette.

Wurlitzer, who admitted he knew little about cars, threw out almost everything from a first draft by Will Corry, diving into motoring magazines and hanging out with gearheads to soak up the culture. He kept the simplicity of Corry's three main characters: Driver, Mechanic and The Girl (Laurie Bird) and added to them G.T.O., an older man played by Warren Oates who starts out as an adversary and becomes their companion.

There is very little dialogue, and most of what is spoken is by G.T.O., a born liar cruising cross-country in a brand-new flaming yellow Pontiac GTO, who constantly picks up hitchhikers, supplying each one with a different backstory about who he is and how he got the car. In different fables he is a test pilot, television producer, etc., but always a braggart and back-slapper.

G.T.O. wears an extravagant outfit, complete with cravat and slip-on loafers, that looks like a precursor to the disco-era leisure suit. He keeps a full martini travel kit in the trunk.

(A note on nomenclature: the iconic Pontiac muscle cars are GTOs, sometimes cheekily expanded to "Gas, Tires & Oil" -- the three things they prodigiously consumed -- or simply "Goats." But the film's credits include periods, most likely an error on Wurlitzer's part, and have become an established part of movie lore. So I'll use them here.)

G.T.O. doesn't actually know very much about cars. He proudly enumerates for a hitchhiker all the particulars of the model, including acceleration times and such, then admits he got all the information out of the owner's manual. He's a poser who views other hot-rodders with disdainful confidence, a self-proclaimed king of the road who's never actually shut anyone down.

"Performance and image, that's what it's all about," he drawls, innocent of embarrassment for these words. 

Driver and Mechanic are his polar opposite. They are young, stoic, long-haired, T-shirted, terse. They don't imbibe or toke up. They talk about nothing but the condition of their vehicle and racing strategy. They travel along Route 66, generally eastward, finding people to race and bet against. It's strongly implied they have never lost.

Their car is the antithesis of flashy, all business: primer gray paint that blurs into the road, a functional but boxy hood scoop for ramming air into the carb, sheet metal shaved and bumper stripped to cut down weight. It has no radio or heater, only rollbars in the back, and the heavy glass windows have been replaced with sliding plastic barriers.

With a mammoth big-block 454 cubic inch plant -- that's about 7.4 liters in today's parlance, or four times the engine displacement of a new Honda Civic -- paired to a 4-speed gearbox and heavily modified, their '55 Chevy is a stealth warrior, a professional machine disguised to look like a local boy's plaything. To access the engine, Driver and Mechanic have to flick a release near each door corner and together tilt the front end up, fenders and all.

Interestingly, this is the only way in which the two men collaborate on the car itself. Driver will help Mechanic take off the hood, then he studiously strolls away and sits somewhere nearby while the work is performed. Similarly, Mechanic offers no words of advice before a race, and never rides along. Each understands their clearly defined roles, and obeys the self-imposed demarcation as if a biblical directive.

They do talk shop while scouting out opponents, however. Mechanic can tell what another driver has under the hood with a glance and a listen to their exhaust note. Driver is in charge of baiting their prey, sidling up at the local car aficionados' gathering spot, offering praise for another's wheels, then derision, returning a challenge of a $50 race with a demand for $300, knowing the man can't back down in front of his hometown crew.

Driver and Mechanic are both played by famous musicians in their only feature film role. James Taylor (Driver) was just breaking out as a solo act, while Dennis Wilson (Mechanic) was sliding down from the Beach Boys' heyday, on the threshold of a dark decade and early death.

Neither has a scintilla of acting talent. Taylor actually stumbles badly during his character's only notable piece of dialogue, seeming unsure if he should keep going or wait for someone to yell "cut." Yet their blank glances, unmodulated speech and nervy unease in front of the camera actually work to the film's advantage. They're single-minded beasts, unconcerned with social niceties or anything that could distract them from speed, and victory.

The one thing that tries is The Girl. She's a hippie and a roamer who rides along with anyone who will have her. She literally waltzes up and throws her stuff and herself into the back of the '55 while the two men are inside a diner, and upon returning they acquiesce to her presence -- without comment.

Despite her reliance on the kindness of strangers, Girl takes pains to aim her verbal barbs and astringent energy at whoever's currently providing the lift. In the case of a twosome of benefactors, she tries to set them against each other. Since Driver seems to express the barest of interest in her, she bestows her affections instead on Mechanic.

It is tacitly understood by all that she will provide sex in exchange for transportation, food and shelter. In many ways she is the pair's true spiritual companion. They are devoted only to racing, and their car is the tool to that end. She is only committed to her own freedom and whims, and offering her virtue is the most obvious and replenishable currency. The Chevy and The Girl's body are merely forms of conveyance.

The trio encounters G.T.O. at a gas station, and the boys use the older man's pride to lure him into the ultimate wager: an overland race for "pinks" -- aka pink slips, or ownership of the loser's car. They mail their titles to a post office in Washington D.C., and the first one who gets there, wins all.

The race gradually devolves into a comradely jaunt. They agree on truces for repairs, eating stops and spontaneous races with third parties. G.T.O. pretends to be their manager, The Girl switches between cars as her mood strikes, and eventually it becomes unclear if they're even going to bother finishing the race.

At some point G.T.O. realizes he's clearly out of his class with Driver and Mechanic, and starts to envy and emulate them. Just as Driver drives and Mechanic maintains and The Girl chases her zephyr, G.T.O. is a chameleon who lives for deception and change. We're not sure what he really was before, but self-invention is now his single-minded vocation. He is on a quest to forget himself.

When your goal is ephemeral and ever receding, all you have left is the race itself.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Video review: "Ricki and the Flash"

If there’s nothing more exhilarating in a movie theater than finding a wonderful film where you didn’t expect, then little is more depressing than walking out let down by a movie you had awaited with enthusiasm. Such was the case for me and “Ricki and the Flash.”

I think Meryl Streep is the finest actor working in film today, and operate under the general assumption that having her in the cast makes anything worth the price of admission. And while “Ricki” certainly isn’t a bad flick, it’s got too many obvious problems in its structure and execution to ever had a chance at being good.

Streep plays a woman who ran out on her family decades ago to pursue her rock ‘n’ roll dreams on the West Coast. She never made it big, but continues to entertain at night while working days as a checkout clerk. Then Ricki gets the call that her daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life kid), is in a bad way after a terrible breakup.

You can’t go home again, at least not without stirring up old heartbreak, as Ricki discovers in a by-the-numbers trip through resentment and buried longing. The screenplay by Diablo Cody takes a “kitchen sink” approach, lobbing in all sorts of distracting sub-characters and side plots.

The main dynamic between mother and daughter gets lost, and Julie actually disappears for most of the second half. Kevin Kline is poorly used as Ricki’s ex-husband, a diffident but decent fellow who’s moved on from a shattered love life but still feels some warmth toward her.

Throw in the gay son’s coming out, the other son’s wedding, Ricki’s scratchy romance with her lead guitarist (Rick Springfield) and a face-off with her children’s stepmother, and there’s just too many notes in this cacophonous arrangement. And director Jonathan Demme can’t find a consistent tone amidst the chaos.

Streep’s great as always, but “Ricki and the Flash” gets the primary chords wrong.

Video extras are middling. The DVD comes with a making-through documentary, and that’s it. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a photo gallery and a featurette on Springfield’s reemergence as a rock icon and actor.



Thursday, November 19, 2015

Review: "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 2"

The "Hunger Games" saga ends not with a bang but a yawn. I haven't been a fan of this overstuffed film franchise based on the popular YA novels, but the final entry is easily the most tedious and least entertaining of the bunch.

Like other recent sci-fi/fantasy series, it takes the now-familiar and thoroughly discredited route of dividing the last novel into two movies. It's a transparent attempt to sell twice as many tickets for the same amount of story. With the Harry Potter books and the Hobbit, there was at least enough narrative to give the final movie momentum.

Suzanne Collins' engaging but thinly plotted book simply doesn't.

If you'll remember where we left off, the rebellious uprising against the Capitol District was starting to stick it to the villainous President Snow (Donald Sutherland, in full twinkly smirk mode) with the help of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) acting as the Mockingjay, the face of the insurgents.

But really, she has been more or less in thrall to the District 13 chief, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), head creator of the nefarious Hunger Games, in which children killed each other for sport. Meanwhile, former ersatz lover Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) -- a relationship concocted for the benefit of the Games audience -- has been brainwashed by Snow into a maniacal urge to kill Katniss. And Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss' stoic and grim actual love interest, labors hard at becoming grimmer and even more stoic.

Have I got all those names and faces straight? Good. A few other formerly important figures are in the mix, such as mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Katniss' kid sister, but they only show up to service the plot and then leave.

(Harrelson seems to have been given most of the expositive lines left over from Hoffman, who died during production.)

Basically, it's end times for Snow and the other leaders of Panem. Katniss and an ever-shrinking team of soldiers is infiltrating the Capitol on a quest (unauthorized) to take him out and end the war. But the outlying portion of the city has been evacuated and filled with pod snares, mutant mutts and other nasty challenges, essentially making it another giant booby-trapped iteration of the Hunger Games.

Peeta is unwisely inserted into the group as a PR move, and is distrusted by all, particularly Katniss. But his kind nature slowly reasserts itself over the mental "hijacking" he underwent, and she begins to remember the altruistic boy who has sacrificed so much for her.

There are surprisingly few action scenes. It's mostly running and hiding as the group makes its way toward Snow, are picked off by pods, share a few standoffs, etc. Only an attack in the sewers by mutated human "mutts" contains anything like a genuine thrill.

You wouldn't think that what is essentially one long chase would add up to a 2¼-hour movie... and it doesn't. "Mockingjay Part 2" is filled with pregnant pauses and dead spots. Despite some talented actors, the material is too goofy to ever take seriously. Snow dismisses Katniss as an easily manipulated puppet who's only good at shooting a bow, and for once the bad guy has it right.

Review: "By the Sea"

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that “By the Sea” will not be everyone’s slice of pie. Set in the 1970s, it’s a throwback to a style of filmmaking from that same era we don’t see much anymore: contemplative, personal, forthrightly erotic, at times wandering and hazy, at times mesmerizing.

I’ve long made it a point not to read other reviews or articles about a movie before I’ve written my own, but couldn’t avoid a growing and nasty wave of commentary about this film. Much of this seems to owe to it starring Hollywood supercouple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and that it was written and directed by the latter (who is credited, perhaps tellingly, as Angelina Jolie Pitt).

They haven’t made a movie together since “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” when of course Pitt was married to somebody else. It seems eons ago, but it was just 10 years. Since then they’ve wed, had a gaggle of children (adopted and natural), gone through a major medical scare for her, seen their careers bounce high and low.

Now in his 50s, he’s become choosier about his film projects, and she’s starred in fewer and fewer, preferring the space behind the camera. “By the Sea” is Jolie Pitt’s third film as a director, the first in which she also acted, and her best.

There’s not much to the story. The Bertrands, husband and wife, are motoring along the French coastline. They find a nice place with a gorgeous view of a rocky bay, and stop for a while. Their linger becomes a wallow, as he tries to use the setting as inspiration for his writing, and she seems to have little reason to exist beyond embodying resentment.

The Bertrands are not happy people. Married 14 years, they’re engaged in a wary pas de deux through the “second stage of life.” Roland mostly drinks and takes notes at the local café, but the sheet of paper in his typewriter remains obstinately unchanged. Vanessa (Ness) hangs around the hotel balcony, spying on sunbathers, occasionally going shopping in town while wearing an enormous hat and sunglasses, Audrey Hepburn-like.

They act like celebrities hiding out, and indeed he was once a noted novelist and she was a famous performer (the venue is vague). Money does not seem to be a problem, as they wear expensive clothes, buy their suppers, smoke cigarettes and drink, drink, drink.

A colleague commented after the screening that this is the sort of movie “Liz & Dick” -- meaning Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton -- might’ve made a half-century ago, and the comparison is apt. Like their earlier counterparts, Brad and Angelina are world-famous figures who seem bored and bothered by their status, and are looking to use this movie to comment upon and distance themselves from their public personas. Ness is an object of curiosity to most everyone she encounters, but she prefers to remain remote and aloof.

Things happen, slowly. Roland befriends the older bartender (Niels Arestrup) and tries to squeeze every considerable ounce of wisdom out of him -- both for his book and the sake of his marriage.

A younger couple on their honeymoon (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) moves into the suite next door, and Ness begins spying on them through a forgotten pipe. Meanwhile, she and Roland are virtually asexual. He soon joins her in voyeurism, simply to have something they can share.

“By the Sea” is an amazingly beautiful movie; Pitt and Jolie Pitt have never looked more gorgeous. It’s a very observational film, keying on little details like the way Ness always tosses her sunglasses onto the table, and he always rights them so the glass doesn’t get scratched. We watch a red-shirted fisherman row his tiny boat out of the mouth of the bay and back every day, but never meet him. There are fleshy flashes of thoughts that bound around inside Ness’ head, but it’s torment rather than desire that makes her vibrate.

This is the sort of movie that isn’t really “about” anything, other than the question of whether Roland and Ness make it as a married couple, or not. At times their situation seems dire, later hopeful, then less so. Their disillusion, carefully staked out in their days spent apart, is challenged in ways unexpected. This movie is less about the what than the how.

Some people are ready to dismiss “By the Sea” as an old-school vanity project, but I think that’s missing the point. People -- especially those who’ve spent their lives pretending to be somebody else -- often understand others better than they do themselves. Here are a pair of stars behaving like nobodies, and having a swell time acting miserable.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review: "Spotlight"

“Spotlight” is the truest depiction of journalism since… well, ever.

Even “All the President’s Men,” “Network” and “Broadcast News” -- great movies though they are -- contained a certain quotient of Hollywood BS. Here is the new standard in cinematic depictions of the journalists, along with one of the best films of the year.

This new drama depicting the Boston Globe’s discovery of a massive cover-up of sexually abusive priests never skimps on the facts, or sexes up the individual reporters and editors, or creates composite characters to skirt over the unsavory aspects of some of the real ones.

Why? Because it never has to. The real thing is compelling enough and needs no sprinkling of fictional fairy dust.

Directed by Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “Up”), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer, “Spotlight” is a great story about the making of a great and tragic story.

McCarthy knows a little about newspapering, since he played an ethically untethered reporter in the last season of the great HBO television series, “The Wire.” Having portrayed the worst of the profession, he now shows us the best.

Unless you’ve had your head in a hole, you know where the long tail of the priest molestation story eventually went: widespread sexual abuse by clergy and a coordinated effort by the Catholic Church, nationally and internationally, to cover it up rather than end it. Even the Pope personally apologized.

Here is how the shroud first began to fall.

The most realistic thing about the movie is that it shows how big stories are rarely uncovered by a single person who has the information fall into their lap. It’s almost always a group effort, it takes weeks and months and years of arduous work, and at some point in the investigative process someone will realize they already had the information they needed all along, right under their noses. But it either got swept under the rug or ignored in the rush of daily publishing.

The heroes here are the four-member team of Spotlight, the investigative project unit at the Globe. As the story opens in 2001 a new editor is arriving at the paper, an out-of-towner named Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who knows nothing of predominantly Catholic Boston and is an unmarried Jew, to boot. He’s given warm handshakes and cockeyed glances, both outside the newsroom and within.

Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) is the editor of the Spotlight, a self-described “player/coach” who doesn’t just sit in his office and circle misspellings. He’s a man of the town, went to the high school across the street from the Globe. He acts as the glad-hander and bridge to the city’s bastions of respectability -- who are hiding vile secrets.

Mark Ruffalo plays Michael Rezendes, the quintessential dogged reporter who seems to have little in his life beyond his phone and notebook. Rachel McAdams is Sacha Pfeiffer, who has a knack for getting people to talk, especially victims of sexual abuse. John Slattery plays Ben Bradlee Jr., the skeptical metro editor, and Brian d’Arcy James is Matt Carroll, the “glue guy” who eventually discovers that some of the accused priests have been living down the street from his family.

Stanley Tucci shines as Mitchel Garabedian, a cantankerous attorney suing the Church on behalf of dozens of victims, who is slow to be recruited to help the intrepid reporters. He’s fought many battles and lost. “I’m not crazy. I’m not paranoid. I’m experienced,” he intones. Also solid are Jamey Sheridan and Billy Crudup as conflicted lawyers and go-betweens.

The film nails, absolutely nails, the rhythms and culture inside a metro newspaper -- the petty rivalries, the built-in curiosity about everything, the caustic humor, the deep-seated belief that whatever you’re working on is the most important story in the world. All the little background details are there, from the men’s cheap short-sleeved shirts and ties to the hurried junk food, constant scribbling of notes and long nights away from family. (And how the librarians are the unsung heroes of every newsroom.)

It shows how journalists get reluctant people to talk, through appeals to better nature and sheer persistence, since they have no real power other than the threat of telling the truth. “You want to be on the right side of this,” they say, more than once.

The story of mass abuse of children by priests is one of immense importance, but even it is fleeting in comparison to the story of journalism itself. It’s been called the first draft of history, but what reporting most essentially represents is the intrinsic need to ask questions -- to inquire of our communities, our wielders of power, of ourselves.

“Spotlight” is the triumphant depiction of one of mankind’s noblest instincts.