Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Review: "Infinitely Polar Bear"

(Don’t ask me about the title, because I don’t know.)

“Infinitely Polar Bear” is writer/director Maya Forbes’ semi-autobiographical account of her challenging childhood. It’s less about the kids, though, than an adoring portrait of parents seen from a distance of years, when all the heartache and anger has faded and the love shines through the memories like summer sun at twilight.

Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana play the parents. It’s 1978 and their interracial marriage has nudged them to the fringes of polite society in Boston. They’re not quite outcasts, but it’s hard for Maggie (Saldana) to get a good job and Cameron (Ruffalo) is the black sheep of his well-to-do family.

Also, Cam is a manic-depressive whose high highs and low lows tend to render a normal family life difficult. An educated guy who can’t keep a job, he mostly just putters around, shooting photographs and video, fixing things that are broken, and acquiring broken things that he intends to fix.

Imogene Wolodarsky (Forbes’ real-life daughter) and Ashley Aufderheide play their children, strong-willed kids of about 14 and 10, respectively, who are left to craft their own little support system to replace the missing pieces of the primary one.

As the story opens, Cam has gone on one of his bipolar sprees and is just coming out of a psychiatric hospital and seguing into normalcy. Maggie has to be the strong, stern one, insisting that they maintain separate apartments and lives as he recovers.

But then Maggie is presented with an opportunity to get her M.B.A. from Columbia University. It means 18 months in New York, so Cam will have to take care of the girls by himself. It will give him structure and a sense of importance. Then she can return to them, get a better job and hopefully the family can reassemble itself.

The relationship between Cam and the girls is affectionate but complicated. They’re embarrassed to death by their dad, who has a tendency to do things like forget to wear pants, and don’t want their friends to see the detritus-filled “hellhole” of their apartment. Cam will occasionally clean up his act, clean up their home, everything seems great, and then their momentum will just sort of… fade.

Maggie returns regularly on weekends, checking in while feeling remorseful about having checked out, even if it’s temporary and for the greater good. Cam is needy, resentful, proud, and desperately wants to resume their romantic relationship. Wisely, she sidesteps him.

Ruffalo gives a masterful performance, with precise little movements and mannerisms contrasted with wild ravings and thoughts. He puffs cigarettes madly, buys and sells jalopies every couple of months, loves his family the same way he does everything else: with total abandon. He doesn’t give any big “Oscar clip” speeches because Cam couldn’t concentrate on anything long enough to summon up a soliloquy.

Saldana has a challenging part, too, in what is essentially the Meryl Streep role from “Kramer vs. Kramer.” In this case, though, the mother doesn’t simply disappear but steps aside for a combination of altruistic and personal reasons. We witness her anguish and guilt, and appreciate it.

This is the first film directed by Forbes, a veteran screenwriter and television producer. She’s clearly got a future behind the camera. “Infinitely Polar Bear” is a highly personal story with a universal theme: parents don’t just raise children; the kids participate in the parents’ own growth, too.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Video review: "Home"

We are living in a second golden age of animation, which means there are a lot of really great cartoon films out there at any given time. But it also means there's a higher standard to meet. So even movies like "Home" that are merely good have a patina of disappointment about them.

This tale of a friendly alien who gets estranged from his kind and lost on Earth just doesn't have that spark of extra magic from, say, "Finding Nemo," "Up" or the first couple of "Shrek" movies. It's great-looking... but then, aren't most animated films great-looking these days? Again, it's a matter of our standards having gotten so inflated that the formerly dazzling is barely noticed.

Jim Parsons provides the voice of Oh, a member of the notoriously cowardly Boov people. When I call them cowards, it's not an insult; they consider it the highest praise, actually. Creatures who actually stand their ground and face their problems are considered weird.

Currently they're fleeing from their arch-enemy, the Gorg, and using our planet as a hideout. Of course, this means the pesky humans have to be rounded up for their own good.

Even by Boov standards, Oh is something of a timid fellow. Like the others he looks like a little purple land octopus, who changes color and jitters according to his current emotional state. Talk about wearing your emotions on your sleeve... or your face.

After getting the boot from the other Boov, Oh hooks up with Tip Tucci (Rihanna), a human girl who's also been displaced by all the alien activity. Together they go on a road trip quest, except in a hover car. Along the way are the expected hi jinks, musical interludes and unsubtle life lessons.

Look, "Home" is a fun, fun flick. It's sure to delight little kids and keep their parents modestly entertained as well. It's just second-tier entertainment in comparison to the field.

Bonus features are quite good, and like the movie itself geared toward the wee set. There are a number of games and interactive music features, such as "Oh's Shake Your Boov Thing" and "Oh's Boovy Jukebox." There are also deleted scenes, interviews with the voice cast, a drawing tutorial, music videos and more.



Thursday, July 23, 2015

Review: "Southpaw"

You go to see a movie like "Southpaw" for the gritty performances and slam-bang boxing scenes. From a story standpoint it's a pretty generic boxing plot, with our scrappy champion rising and falling, falling and rising, from the mat and metaphorically.

The screenplay by Kurt Sutter is original only on a technicality, liberally cribbing its plot from the "Rocky" movies and other boxing flicks. (He reputedly wrote the script with Eminem in mind, basing it loosely on the rapper/sometime actor's life story. Em doesn't appear, though he supplies a couple of punchy songs.)

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the protagonist with the not-at-all-subtle name of Billy Hope, who rose from the hard streets of New York City through dint of hard work and an unmatched ferocity in the ring, an unwanted orphan who became light heavyweight champion.

Then through a succession of senseless disaster and self-destructive behavior, Billy loses it all, including custody of his 10-year-old daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). He's forced to reinvent himself as a fighter and as a man, starting from the bottom again and earning his way back to glory and redemption.

This is Boxing Movies 101 stuff. Check that; it's actually 201. Boxing 101 is "Rocky" and "Rocky II," where an unknown pug rises to the championship. "Southpaw" is "Rocky III" and "IV" -- they're virtually interchangeable, really -- where the reigning champ takes things for granted, gets knocked down a peg or seven, and has to scrap back to former heights.

There literally isn't a single surprise along the way, including the inevitable final match. You've got the familiar nemeses along the way, including a black-hearted young boxer (Miguel Gomez) who was responsible for Billy's fall, and the mercenary boxing promoter/manager (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson), who tells Billy they're family but saves his deepest love for the hottest prospect.

It's an interesting role for Gyllenhaal, who jumped off the traditional Hollywood star train a few years back to pursue smaller, more personal projects like "Nightcrawler" and the excellent "End of Watch." He's fought against his blue-eyed prettiness during this time, and in "Southpaw" he really works the scarred, stumblebum angle, muttering his lines and cocking his one good eye.

After losing a bunch of weight for "Nightcrawler" he packs on the ripped muscles for this role, and director Antoine Fuqua obligingly sweeps his camera and lights across Gyllenhaal's torso to emphasize the craggy wall of his abdomen. (I'm not really sure when abs became a thing; you'd think a boxer would want a little padding there to better absorb blows.) The actor's body becomes this strange mix of revulsion and fetishized object; we linger over his spent blood and abused flesh like a latter-day Lazarus.

The fight scenes are well-choreographed and energetic, though in the commonplace failing of Hollywood boxing movies, the fighters absorb more solid blows in a single round than most pugilists encounter in a year. Billy's strategy, if you can call it that, is to let opponents wallop him until he gets furious enough to uncork his pent-up rage.

Forest Whitaker is terrific as Tick Wills, an old-school trainer who teaches kids at an inner-city gym. Billy comes to him at his bottom, after lost having his wife (Rachel McAdams) to tragedy, his daughter to social services and his fame and fortune to his own self-hating spiral. Tick is old and tough, has taken his own cuts, and retrains Billy as a defensive fighter. "Protect yourself" is his mantra, underlined by one cloudy eye.

Just as the two men begin to trust one another, the filmmakers shortcut the journey and we're back to the ring again for Billy's deliverance. A smarter, better movie would've had Billy turn down the offers of quick money and a shot at the title, realizing that when you've gone down the path of destruction you can't just back up to solve your problems.

But who wants to see a boxing movie about a boxer who doesn't want to box anymore? Me, but apparently few others.

Review: "Pixels"

"Pixels" is the dream revenge movie for pretty much every kid who came of age post-1980: the world needs a hero, and it can only be someone who wasted countless hours and a Smaug-sized pile of quarters playing primitive arcade games at the Electric Dreams Factory (or whatever it was called in your town).

Isn't this the ultimate geek fantasy? To have the skills that were laughed at as a kid suddenly become valued in society the same way throwing deceased porcine hide is?

Since this is a geek movie, we've got to have some geeks to cheer for. Enter Adam Sandler, Josh Gad, Kevin James and Peter Dinklage. All were video game superstars circa 1982, culminating in a championship marathon in which one emerged as the victor, his exploits recorded on video for posterity and sent into space.

Unfortunately, alien boogums found the video and mistook the old-school games -- Pac-Man, Defender, Centipede, Joust, Frogger, Q-bert, etc. -- as a challenge. They whipped up some versions of these digital "warriors" and sent them to Earth to do battle with humans.

They even look like the old 8-bit versions of the arcade characters, crude and seemingly pixilated when blown up to giant size. Though not as big as you might think: the poster shows a behemoth Pac-Man slurping up San Francisco in one gulp, but in the movie he's about the size of a smallish RV.

It's a goofy premise, courtesy of screenwriters Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling, based on a short film by Patrick Jean. It's kind of a rip-off of "Ghostbusters," with brainy losers vaulted into champions, but the notion still holds appeal.

Directed by hitmeister Chris Columbus, "Pixels" is breezy, dimwitted, action-filled and goofy. I certainly was never bored, though some of the gags and story threads were better left snipped on the editing room floor.

For instance, we're supposed to believe that James' character, Cooper, has grown up to be the President of the United States. Except he's not some competent, savvy politician, but the standard doofus Kevin James character he plays in every movie. Not surprisingly, his POTUS has become a laughingstock.

It's hard to believe anybody would ever vote such a guy into the highest office in the land... though I should note as I write this, Donald Trump is leading in the polls.

Brenner (a bored-looking Sandler) had the most natural talent of any gamer, but his confidence was shot when he lost the championship. Now he's become a Geek Squad-like drone who sets up tech for other people. Getting tapped by his best buddy in the White House to lead the fight against the invaders starts his underachiever-cum-savior journey.

Gad plays Ludlow, a wallflower who grew up to be a conspiracy theorist. He gets some of the best lines in the picture, and the "Book of Mormon" star also gets to belt out a tune for no good reason, other than it's nice to listen to.

Michelle Monaghan shows up, because the studio honchos felt we needed a pretty girl to look at. She's a military officer who takes an instant shine/dislike/maybe love? attitude toward the Sandler character.

Dinklage steals most of his scenes as Eddie, aka "Fire Blaster," an egocentric gamer who won the '82 championship (and also gave himself that nickname). Sporting a ferocious mullet and Southern-fried patter of quips about how awesome he is, Eddie is a despicable hoot. Actually, with the hair and self-puffery he reminds me of Donald Trump, though reportedly Dinklage based him on a real-life jerk seen in the excellent video game documentary, "The King of Kong."

Arriving as the summer movie season is cooling down, "Pixels" is clearly third-string fare, the sort of thing you go see while waiting for the movies that came out in May to hit video. It's decently entertaining, though it needed less Sandler and more mullet for the win.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Review: "Paper Towns"

"Paper Towns" is one of those films that starts out well, grows steadily stronger, makes you think it's going one way and then head-fakes in the other. When it reaches its destination it's a refreshing surprise, smarter and subtler than we'd imagined, and yet as we think back on the journey we realize it couldn't have arrived anywhere else without seeming false and forced.

Like last year's "The Fault in Our Stars," also based on a book by Indianapolis author John Green, it is keenly observant of teens not as we would like them to be, but closer to the actual neurotic, self-doubting, self-aggrandizing, glorious young adults they are.

Oops, I used "the words" -- young adult, abbreviated to YA, employed to describe, and often dismiss, an entire sphere of literature. Green is known to despise the term, with some justification.

All I'll say is that these young adult characters are believable, approachable and relatable.

Perhaps that's not a surprise, since the same screenwriting team behind TFIOS, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, penned this script as well. They also wrote "The Spectacular Now" and "(500) Days of Summer," which, along with the Green movies, pretty much comprises the list of the best films about young people of the last few years.

(I'd add "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," too.)

Nat Wolff plays Quentin, a dweeby band geek and academic overachiever who hasn't really stretched his wings his entire life. He grew up next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), an adventuress with a zest for mischief and boundary breaking.

But he resisted her siren call, and as their senior year of high school unfolds, she's become the popular wild girl and he's become... rather invisible. He mostly hangs out with fellow nerds  Radar (Justice Smith) and Ben (Austin Abrams), commiserating about the suffering existence they can't wait to leave behind.

Then one night Margo shows up at his window, and urges him to join her for an evening of revenge-taking and thrill-seeking.

"Tonight we are righting some wrongs. And wronging some rights. Basically, this is going to be the greatest night of your life," she insists. Margo insists a lot, and people generally go along with it. She also believes in random capitalization within words, lIke tHis, because "it's so unfair to the letters in the middle."

The proceed so have the promised night, which I won't spoil. Quentin is, needless to say, deeply smitten. But then something strange happens: Margo disappears. Days go by, no one has a clue where she is, her parents are used to this sort of nonsense and dismissive. Quentin is left to deal with the consequences of their antics, including Margo's best friend Lacey (Halston Sage), who feels wronged.

They launch an amateur Hardy Boys expedition, seeking out clues the mystery-loving Margo may or may not have left them as to her whereabouts. Eventually Quentin and his two buddies resolve to go on a road trip halfway across the country in search of her. Lacey tags along, as does Radar's girlfriend, Angela (Jaz Sinclair). (This is the sort of movie where even band geeks sometimes have girlfriends.)

None of this makes a terrible lot of sense for smart, ambitious young people who want to go to college and become oncologists and such. But it is good for them to occasionally get out of their comfort zone, especially the self-limiting Quentin.

The title comes from a real thing map-makers did, creating fake towns to prevent forgers from copycatting their work. It's also a knock at Orlando, the place where the characters live and also my own hometown, which often gets dismissed as ersatz and artificial -- usually by tourists who never make it far enough away from Disney and Universal Studios to glimpse O-town's actual downtown. Margo sees paper everywhere, searching for something authentic in life; like Holden Caulfield, she has a tendency to see phonies all about.

Director Jake Schreier, helming his second feature, elicits layered and effusive performances out of his young cast. Wolff is slyly charming, while Delevingne has the unenviable task of having to seem larger than life, and does.

But legends are embellishments of the truth, and in the end "Paper Towns" is more about busting myths than building them up. This is an intelligent, funny, sad yet hopeful take on the folly of waiting for big miracles, instead of creating small ones of our own.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Born Yesterday" (1950)

Judy Holliday had one of those comet-like Hollywood careers, burning fast and bright. She won an Oscar for "Born Yesterday," her first lead role after a lauded turn in "Adam's Rib." She starred opposite Jack Lemmon in his first two films, went back to Broadway, endured ill health and died of breast cancer in 1963 at the age of 43.

It seemed like Holiday was everyone's second choice for a role that she then knocked out of the park. Playwright Garson Kanin wrote the part of Billie Dawn, the tough moll with the squawky voice, for Jean Arthur. When she left the show, Holiday was picked to replace her for the Broadway run, which was so successful the movie studios soon came calling. But the Columbia Pictures chief didn't want her. It took a lot of wrangling by director George Cukor and some big stars to help her land the part.

She was rewarded with a Golden Globe and the aforementioned Academy Award, beating out the likes of Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard" -- which also featured William Holden in the supporting role of the boyfriend. Though instead of being an object of degradation, Holden's character in "Born Yesterday" serves to lift Billie up out of her dreary circumstances.

The film also received Oscar nods for screenplay, director, best picture and costume design.

The story centers around a junkyard magnate/mobster, Harry Brock, played by Broderick Crawford. He's an abusive bully, lording it over everyone in the same room, including the Congressman (Larry Oliver) he's come to Washington, D.C. to help him pass desired legislation for his junk business. Harry treats his longtime fiancee Billie like an accessory, often bellowing at her, "Do what I tell you!!"

I was surprised watching the film how edgy it is. Harry says the word "pregnant" at one point, which was banned on nascent television but still more or less verboten in the days of the Production Code, which was still very much in effect in 1950. Even more surprisingly, Harry's threats of violence against Billie result in a sudden moment where he belts her very hard several times onscreen. Billie's face is turned toward the camera when it happens, so we see the impact of his neanderthal blows.

Harry, with the help of his obsequious attorney Jim Devery (Howard St. John), hires high-minded journalist Paul Verrall (Holden) to tutor Billie so she'll be more acceptable to the hoity-toity D.C. social crowd. Verrall takes the job less for the money -- $200/week, or twice his newspaper salary -- than an opportunity to infiltrate Harry's circle and get the scoop on what he sees as a greedy sod working the system for his own benefit.

But he doesn't count on Billie falling for him, or him eventually returning the favor. It's interesting to see Holden in two movies in a single year where he is the pursued object of feminine attraction, rather than the traditional wolf on the hunt.

There's not much of a plot to speak of -- Harry's various machinations getting tripped up by Billie's increasing social consciousness being about the extent of it. Half his business is on paper in her name for legal protection, an asset she eventually puts to good use.

The movie is really just a showcase for Holliday. Her Billie is a tramp with a heart of gold buried underneath seven years of cynicism and abuse from Harry, whose taint has infected her outward behavior if not yet her soul.

Her voice is hard to listen to for 103 minutes -- screechy, nasal-y timbres tend to give me a headache.  Holliday makes Billie's tawdriness a feature rather than a bug, though. She'll never lose her brash style and rapport with regular folks. That's integral to her charm. Paul doesn't try to change her, just expand her ambition and internal library.

The film's political commentary is a mite heavy-handed at times -- Albert Mannheimer is given sole screenwriting credit, though Kanin contributed, too. Harry is in many ways a cartoon version of the brute subverting democracy to his own self ends. If instead of ordering people around and paying off a congressman he started a PAC, Harry would be indistinguishable from traditional lobbying efforts. Meanwhile, Verrall seems to be advocating for a collectivist hive of selfless citizens working together for the good of the people, which is an awfully naive mindset for a cynical reporter.

"Born Yesterday" is also something of a love letter to the city of Washington, D.C., showing all the various tourist spots and hidden lovely vistas. It's a fun, romantic dash of a movie that also has something to say. And it features one of the all-time iconic female comedic performances.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Video review: "What We Do in the Shadows"

Mockumentaries have been around for 30 years or so, while the pop culture obsession with vampires for maybe the last 10. “What We Do in the Shadows” is the hilarious intersection of those two ideas, so obvious you wonder why anyone hadn’t done it before.

Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi co-wrote, co-directed and star in the film as centuries-old blood-suckers struggling to fit in with the modern world. Vladislav (Clement) is an old-school Vlad the Impaler type, a former European despot who’s now living in a crummy Wellington apartment with several other nosferatu. Viago (Waititi) is a bit of a ponce who favors elaborate outfits and tries to be nice to people before killing them.

Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is a party-hearty type, while Petyr (Ben Fransham) is thousands of years old, looks like a pale, desiccated corpse and barely speaks.

The faux documentary follows the group around as they have roomie spats – fangs bared! – go to parties, lure victims (often ineptly) and have a running feud with a pack of local werewolves. Other wrinkles include Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), an annoying dude who accidentally gets turned into a vampire and tries to worm his way into the group.

It’s goofy and very droll, with the underlying gag that just because you’re immortal, live in darkness and feast on human blood doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time.

Bonus features are rather good. Clement and Waititi team up for a feature-length commentary track, there’s “Behind the Shadows,” a making-of doc, deleted scenes, interviews with cast and crew plus a poster gallery.



Thursday, July 16, 2015

Review: "Trainwreck"

The difference between writing for sketch comedy and doing a feature-length comedy script stretches wider than the Grand Canyon. Sketches rely on a quick set-up/punchline rhythm and absurd concepts, the zanier the better. Making a whole movie is exponentially tougher: you've got to weave the humor into a broader narrative, fashion engaging characters and come up with a satisfying arc for them to journey along.

"Trainwreck," written by and starring Amy Schumer, has a few good individual laughs but fails pretty miserably at the big-picture stuff.

It's essentially a two-hour-long iteration of the quasi-autobiographical version of herself Schumer presents in her standup routine and television show: hedonistic, hard-partying girl who loves to sleep around and mocks the idea of commitment. It's made for a lot of winning gags for TV, with Schumer's sly intelligence and feminist undertones percolating through the laughs.

There are three or four decent scenes like that in "Trainwreck," but the connective tissue in between is tough to wade through. The answer that Schumer and director Judd Apatow seem to have to come up with is to feature well-known actors or celebrities in punchy minor roles to spice up the dull patches. It works a little, but only a little.

You've probably heard that NBA superstar LeBron James plays himself in the movie, as a patient of wunderkind sports surgeon Aaron Conners (Bill Hader). Amy is Amy, a writer at a Neanderthal men's magazine called "Snap" who's been assigned to profile the doc, despite knowing exactly zilch about sports.

For instance, we're supposed to laugh at the notion that Amy has no idea who LeBron is when he pops into Aaron's office while she's meeting him. Except you'd have to have lived underground since birth not to recognize King James. In a common refrain in comedies these days, LeBron plays a goofy version of himself. Here, he's a cheapskate who insists on splitting the lunch bill and pals around with dweeby doctors.

Tilda Swinton plays Amy's boss, who has an abundance of confidence and a paucity of taste; Brie Larson is her younger, wiser sister; Colin Quinn plays their father, a philanderer who taught them "monogamy is unrealistic"; Ezra Miller is the impressionable young intern with a dark side; Mike Birbiglia is the kind-yet-dull brother-in-law; John Cena shows up -- and flashes a lot of skin -- as Amy's initial 'roided-up boyfriend; Amar'e Stoudemire portrays himself as a fictional patient of Aaron's; Dave Attell plays a mouthy panhandler; and Norman Lloyd, a bonafide 100 years of age, twinkles as a sparring partner of Amy's dad at the old folks' home.

One of the chief weaknesses of the movie is that I never bought the romance between Schumer and Hader for even a second. The idea is that Amy, having promptly slept with the guy she's supposed to be profiling, gets unwilling sucked into a relationship with him. But Hader isn't given much to do in the script that would make him endearing to such a wild-and-crazy gal... or anyone. He feels like a personality vacuum who got lucky.

At 125 minutes "Trainwreck" is about a half-hour too long, a near-universal feature of Apatow films that I had previously chalked up to his own undisciplined writing style and apparent unwillingness to hire an editor with any kind of clout. (Someone needs to tell him less is more, and with his style of motormouth comedy, less less is even more more.)

But even with Schumer handling script duties, this movie is still an overstuffed mess with jangled pieces that never really fit together. It's a one-night stand in which the evening grows old, fast.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review: "Testament of Youth"

"Testament of Youth" is a memoir of the dead; like the ghosts it chases the film is haunting,  beautiful, and transparent.

At the time of its publication nearly a century ago, the book by Vera Brittain was a very big deal, launching her writing career and status as a leading 20th century pacifist. She followed it up with other "Testament" memoirs, but the first one covering her young life and the horrors of World War I was the most indelible.

It's a well-crafted film -- director James Kent has a painterly eye for landscapes, and knows how to juxtapose backgrounds with inner turmoil of the characters. His career has been spent entirely in British television, but he seems to appreciate the scale of the big screen and uses it to strong effect.

The screenplay by Juliette Towhidi attempts to pack years of Vera's life into two hours, including a young proto-feminist convincing the world she deserves to study at Oxford, the strains of romantic and familial love, and the sweeping terror of the war ripping through it all.

The result is a film that feels both hurried and languorous.

The best thing about it is Alicia Vikander as Vera. You may remember her playing a self-aware robot in "Ex Machina," and she shows a similar mix of vulnerability and sturdy determination in this role. Her Vera is fully-formed, with shadings and subtleties.

The rest of the roster doesn't fare so well. Other figures slide in and out of Vera's picture frame, catching our attention for a while but moving on without much visceral impact.

I admired the romantic imagery and themes of the early going. In an early pivotal scene, Vera walks down a country road with three beautiful boys to keep her company. They are young, vibrant, full of life and the cockiness of English upper-class privilege. We know instantly that their flesh will become gruel for the machinery of war.

The primary relationship is with Roland Leighton (Kit Harington from "Game of Thrones"), a budding writer like Vera. He takes an instant shine to her fiery sense of independence and prodigious talents, though she has to be convinced he's not a commonplace cad.

Her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) is a scamp with a noble streak, arguing to their parents (Dominic West and Emily Watson) that Vera deserves a chance to study at Oxford, too. Victor Richardson (Colin Morgan) is the quiet, well-meaning friend Edward would like to set her up with.

The story follows Vera's journey to college -- Miranda Richardson turns up as a demanding headmistress. But the grim tide of warfare rolls in, and everything becomes predictably tragic.

I appreciated what this film was trying to do more than how it went about doing it. The story held few surprises for me; it always seemed like the next steps of Vera's dark journey are telegraphed, so we know which way she will turn even before she realizes it herself.

Alicia Vikander is young actress to watch, a fierce emotional and intellectual presence onscreen. Her lush portrayal, though, does not negate the fact that this paean to the dead is too often lifeless and insensible.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Video review: "Ex Machina"

“Ex Machina” is an ambitious science fiction drama that focuses on an aspect of human nature you rarely see explored in the genre: lust.

Ostensibly, writer/director Alex Garland’s film is about a robot that seems to have crossed the threshold into human-like sentience. But really, it’s a tale of sexual attraction between man and machine, and all the troubling consequences that entails.

Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a young programmer who has won a contest to spend a week at the remote domicile of his company’s super-rich founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). A wunderkind billionaire, Nathan lives virtually alone in an antiseptic research facility with only his creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot that he thinks could be the world’s first man-made person.

Ava cannot physically pass for human: except for a fleshy face and appendages, she’s an elegant mix of metal parts. But during their long interview sessions Caleb begins to develop feelings for her, which Ava seems to return.

All the time, Nathan is watching, studying, judging. He needles Caleb with the information that Ava has been outfitted with parts to accommodate coupling with a human. Nathan can be charming one minute and bullying the next. His relationship to Ava is somewhat akin to a zookeeper who considers whether the animals were better left in the wild.

It’s an extremely engaging film, though I felt Garland avoided too many risks in his storytelling that could have led to more interesting places, plot-wise. For instance, it’s implied at one point that maybe it’s Caleb himself who is the robot, and this exercise has been his own Turing Test. That would have been a twist, but it becomes the road not taken.

“Ex Machina” is a movie that starts out with boldness and then travels too straight a line for its own good.

Video extras are a bit underwhelming. There’s a making-of featurette, footage of a Q&A with the cast and crew from South by Southwest Festival and eight behind-the-scenes vignettes.



Thursday, July 9, 2015

Review: "Minions"

I don't think there was a soul alive who watched the original "Despicable Me" and didn't think to themselves, "Man, they should give those goofy little yellow sidekicks their own movie."

So now they have, and "Minions" is exactly what it's cracked up to be: 91 minutes of CGI slapstack, sufferable cuteness and incomprehensible minion-babble. Though it might try the patience of parents here and there, it's colorful, fast-paced and amusing. It's got the formula for keeping kiddies entertained on a hot summer day down pat: three parts cartoonish violence, one part gratuitous adorableness, one and a half parts making fun of grownups, and a scoop of gastrointestinal humor.

Frankly, if your little kid isn't left giddy by this flick, you might want to keep an eye on him.

This is essentially the minions' origin story, aka the tale of their life pre-Gru, the nefarious, redeemable villain with the long schnoz and inexplicable Slavic accent voiced by Steve Carell in the "Despicable" movies. We learn that they are not, in fact, the laboratory concoction of a mad scientist, Gru or otherwise, but a natural life form that evolved long before man and whose entire evolutionary purpose is to find the biggest villain available and serve him/her/it.

A witty opening credit scroll shows them evolving from single cells to amoebas to sea critters and so forth, always latching on to something bigger and toothier to fawn over. Alas, their bumbling assistance tends to lead to the demise of whatever "big boss" they're currently serving, a fate that eventually leads them to a long, lonely existence languishing in a frozen cave.

Eventually, hero-myth candidate Kevin resolves to go out in the world and seek a new villain. He's joined by Bob, a young minion -- he still carries a teddy bear -- with more determination than skills, and Stuart, the resident guitar player and cool dude.

The running joke with the minions is that they're virtual carbon copies of each, with a pill-shaped yellow body, no detectible noses, ears or reproductive organs, a scattering of coarse black hair and one or more googly, goggled eyes. There's not a huge range in personality or intelligence, either, though they seem to have no trouble telling each other apart.

Anyway, the trio make their way to Orlando, Fla., for Villain-Con, an annual gathering of baddies, and encounter Scarlet Overkill, the greatest of them all, and become her henchmen on a trial basis. They're assigned to steal the crown of Queen Elizabeth, and various hijinks ensue.

I should mention this takes place in 1968 London, so everything's very Mod with tight pants, period rock music and an Austin Powers vibe.

Co-director Pierre Coffin helmed the "Despicable" films with Chris Renaud, who opted to go his own way with the forthcoming "The Secret Lives of Pets." Here Coffin is joined by apprentice Kyle Balda, with a screenplay by Brian Lynch.

Coffin also provides all the chirpy voices for the minions, with the help of some intricate sound mixing. As you'll recall they speak in their own distinctive, nonsensical language with a smattering of recognizable words in English, Spanish and French. This results in one scene where Bob, having been temporarily granted an auspicious perch, delivers a rousing speech to a huge crowd of Brits, who are completely bewildered, but pleased.

The rest of the voice cast is quite good, led by Sandra Bullock as Scarlett, who really stretches vocally to capture her character's high highs and dastardly lows. Jon Hamm plays her lackadaisical husband/hanger-on/gadget guy, Michael Keaton and Allison Janney voice a pair of familial robbers, Jennifer Saunders is the queen and Geoffrey Rush is our helpful narrator.

"Minions" isn't a particularly ambitious animated film, especially compared with superior fare like "Inside Out." It's forgettable, but fun, and I can think of worse ways to spend a little time and money.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Reeling backward: "1900" (1976)

"1900" is a movie that is at once very large and very small.

It was Bernardo Bertolucci's self-conscious attempt to create an epic film about Italy's struggle between fascism and socialism. He framed his tale around two characters, the son of a rich landowner or padrone and the son of a peasant, who were born on the same day and raised together. We watch them from boyhood to middle age to dotage, striving against each other, eternal friends and combatants.

The title is somewhat confusing. In Italian it was known as "Twentieth Century" to indicate the scope and sweep of the story, but perhaps they thought American audiences would confuse it with the studio. So they came up with "1900," which itself is something of a misnomer, since the movie explicitly begins on the day Giuseppe Verdi died, in 1901, when both boys are born.

Released nearly 40 years ago, "1900" is known today for three things.

There is the sexual content, which at one point earned an NC-17 rating during a 1991 re-release. It includes a scene where fully nude stars Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu are masturbated by a women simultaneously -- one (obstinately flaccid) cock in each hand.

There are the various edits of the film, all of them long. Bertolucci fought with his financial backers, at one point being literally locked out of the editing room, and different iterations of "1900" have been shown at different times and venues. Traditionally the movie has been exhibited in two parts, though the run time has varied quite a bit. I saw the full director's cut, a hair over 5¼ hours, which places it among the longest narrative films ever released.

(There is no official intermission, and my viewing took place over several days, by necessity.)

Lastly, there is the pretty uniform perception that the film is a dog, a disaster even. Right after "Last Tango in Paris," Bertolucci was being hailed as the new European master. Many people were expecting the Italian equivalent of "The Godfather" parts 1 & 2, and were left sorely disappointed by the shambling narrative.

Roger Ebert put it succinctly in his review: "Bertolucci had his pick of actors, a free run with his budget, the freedom to make a personal film. And he blew it."

I think it's still a worthy cinematic experience, and certainly it is a very beautiful film to gaze upon. Ennio Morricone, one of my favorite film composers, came up with a lush score to back up the visuals of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The rustic, slightly dreamy look of it reminded me very much of Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven."

The main problem with the film is that it wants to use the two main characters, Alfredo Berlinghieri and Olmo Dalcò (De Niro and Depardieu, respectively), as representatives of the competing aims of fascism and socialism, and neither one is a particularly good fit.

Olmo is a born troublemaker who instinctively identifies with the collectivist agrarian ideas of his large clan, who have worked the Berlinghieri lands for generations, essentially as indentured servants. He has a tendency to provoke conflict but then shy away from the consequences, so he doesn't make for a very heroic leader of the proletariat. When he finally stands up enough to make the fascists respond, he runs away, so their punishment is visited upon his family instead.

Alfredo is even thornier. As played by De Niro, he's a pampered rich boy who takes his wealth and status for granted, but is more sympathetic to the socialist sentiments of his workforce than are his fellow landowners. When we first meet him in young manhood, Alfredo is extremely cocky and hedonistic, preferring parties, booze and cocaine over the dull homestead. Later, after taking his place as padrone, he becomes defined by his indecision. A main character who won't make a choice is rarely a compelling one.

He won't stand up to the local leader of the fascist blackshirts, Attila, even though he is Alfredo's employee. Donald Sutherland plays Attila, a snarling, depraved man who sees the fascist movement as the proper vehicle in which to express his masochism and lust for power. We see him use his forehead to smash the life out of a helpless cat, and later he sodomizes and then kills a young boy in a similar fashion.

Sutherland is arresting in the role, by far the most vivid character in "1900." But narratively he's problematic.

It's much the same issue I had with the Michael Fassbender character in "12 Years a Slave." By making a single person the representation of all evil in a movement that entailed millions of people, you end up making that character a cartoon. And you let the multitudes who embraced fascism/slavery/the Holocaust, etc. -- or were complacent in its atrocities -- off the hook.

So why exactly won't Alfredo simply fire Attila and banish him from his lands, given that the essentially existed in a feudal system with himself as lord? It's never really answered, or even explored.

The best part of the film is the first 90 minutes or so when Olmo and Alfredo are rambunctious boys. Roberto Maccanti and Paolo Pavesi play them as youths of about 12, and are both terrific. (They have their own controversial nude scene in which they compare their foreskins.)

They have all sorts of spats and adventures, such as Olmo lying underneath a passing locomotive. (Alfredo takes up the dare but then balks.) In one of the film's most visually memorable moments, Olmo catches live frogs from the farm's irrigation canals and ties them, alive and wriggling, to his hat.

Two figures who lord over this section with magisterial sweep are the boys' grandfathers. Leo Dalcò is played by the great Sterling Hayden, while Burt Lancaster is Alfredo Berlinghieri the elder. Each man has an intuitive grasp of his place in the world, and their relationship to each other. In some ways it mirrors that of their grandchildren, a strange brew of respect, affection and antagonism.

Leo is initially hostile to the socialist movement, teaching Olmo that he will always be a peasant and to accept his fate. Still, his heart is with the land and the people, so it doesn't take much to convince him to join a strike. Leo is a servant of capitalist tradition, but socialist ideals aren't much of a stretch for him: "If it's yours," he tells young Olmo, "then it belongs to all of us."

The older Berlinghieri has traits of both nobility and venality about him. He sees his workers as chattel, much like the stock in his milking pen, but he's also the sort of man who believes in treating his animals well. His own son, young Alfredo's father, inherits all of the man's pride and entitlement but none of his wisdom. In another seminal moment from the film, when the new padrone tells the workers he's cutting their wages in half, one of the men slices off his own ear and offers it to the master as a symbol of his lost dignity.

"1900" loses focus and momentum in the second half. Much of it is taken up with Alfredo's relationship and marriage with a half-mad Parisian woman, Ada, played by Dominique Sanda. Her face and low, dusky voice reminded me very much of Lauren Bacall. She's one of those women who insists on being the center of attention in any room she occupies, even if she has to act completely batty to force the limelight. Predictably, she becomes resentful of life in the country and turns to drink.

Olmo's own wife, Anita (Stefania Sandrelli), checks out of the movie midway, dying in childbirth. She is actually Olmo's instructor in the ways of socialism, but their relationship doesn't have much spark outside of that.

The other significant character is Regina, Alfredo's cousin and childhood playmate. She clearly expected to become his wife one day, and when he chooses a wan foreigner over her, it drives Regina into the arms of Attila. She becomes his hate-whisperer, urging him on to ever more destructive acts as a way to spite Alfredo.

Regina is played by Laura Betti. About 20 years older than De Niro and Depardieu, with a matronly build and stout face, Betti's presence is an incongruous one, seeming more like the witchy aunt than the third leg of a supposed love triangle.

It's interesting to note that Bertolucci filmed "1900" with actors from America, France, Italy and other nations, and instructed them all to speak in their native language. This was a not uncommon practice with international productions of the 1960s and '70s -- Sergio Leone did so with his spaghetti Westerns. So watching the film on video poses a dilemma.

In general I prefer to view non-English films in their own language with subtitles. But doing so meant watching De Niro, Lancaster and Hayden with obviously dubbed voices -- and not very good ones, either. Meanwhile, Depardieu speaks in French, the Italians in Italian, and so forth.

So I opted to watch mostly in English, but would switch to French for Depardieu's long dialogue scenes and occasionally to Italian. (This revealed that Sanda, with her distinctive low moan, apparently did her English and French lines herself.)

It was somewhat distracting, but not much. I can only imagine how it complicated the give-and-take between actors on a set.

"1900" is a flawed film, but it's certainly a noble failure. Seeing it is obviously not a thing to be undertaken lightly, given the sheer investment in time alone. But I am glad I did so.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Video review: "Maggie"

Arnie does indie? Well, sorta.

You may have heard that “Maggie,” the tiny-budget movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a zombie flick. That’s true but not the whole story. It’s set in an apocalyptic future where the human race is being slowly wiped out by a disease that turns people into man-eating undead.

The difference from most zombie movies is that this transformation doesn’t take seconds, but weeks or even months. Schwarzenegger plays Wade, a tough old farmer whose teen daughter (Abigail Breslin) has become infected. He brings Maggie home to care for her during her final days.

His second wife (Joely Richardson) isn’t happy about the threat Maggie poses to them and their younger children. Meanwhile, the local authorities drop by to warn Wade that they’ll be coming to collect her for quarantine when the time comes … with the strong hint that maybe he should just take care of things himself.

Wade’s an old-school kind of guy, who drives the same truck for decades and believes family takes care of its own, no matter what. Faced with inevitability, he harries and fumes at his dilemma, knowing what he must do but unable to summon the courage.

It’s a great concept, and Schwarzenegger shows that after 40 years on-camera he’s got some dramatic acting chops he never got to display before. But director Henry Hobson and screenwriter John Scott III needed to take the idea further. It feels like the movie is missing a second act, the bridge to an ending we know is coming.

“Maggie” ends up as more a slow character study than a compelling tale.

Bonus features are pretty good. There’s a commentary track with director Hobson. That’s nice, but it would’ve been terrific to have Schwarzenegger on there with him talking about tackling this kind of role at this stage of his career. There are cast and crew interviews, a making-of featurette and a single deleted scene.



Thursday, July 2, 2015

Film review: "The Overnight"

"The Overnight" is more an exercise in filmmaking than a fully realized feature, essentially a promising sketch stretched out to 79 minutes. But it's well-done and quite engaging, alternating between goofiness and thoughtfulness with barely any seams showing between the transitions.

It stars Adam Scott, who you probably know from TV's "Parks and Recreations," and Taylor Schilling, who you probably know from "Orange is the New Black," a streaming television show from Netflix. They play Alex and Emily, respectively, a married couple who have just moved to Los Angeles from somewhere cold and boring, and get invited over by another family they've just met for a playdate between their boys.

Alex is a stay-at-home dad and Emily the breadwinner; she's outgoing and he struggles to engage with his new environment. “Am I supposed to just ask other grown-up persons if they want to be friends?” he implores.

The other marrieds, Kurt (Jason Schwartzman) and Charlotte (Judith Godréche), are blend of every cliché about over-involved southern California types. They have lots of money but don't appear to work much; he paints and she acts, both itinerantly; they've got a New Age-y vibe and burn incense to get their kid to sleep.

But they seem amiable enough -- too amiable, actually.

After the boys are slumbering, the grownups break out the liquor and the weed, things get pretty loose, then things get a little weird. Then a lot weird. Sexual hang-ups get exposed, buried desires are unearthed, and we're all in for a bumpy night.

Writer/director Patrick Brice, in his second feature film, shows keen insight for the suffocating life of married people with small kids -- the daily squabbles about unimportant stuff, the growing resentments that get stuffed under the furniture for the sake of familial bliss, or at least the appearance of it.

(In one naughty true-to-life bit, the opening scene has Emily/Alex trying to squeeze in a little amorous time in the morning before their son wakes up. "There's still time for me!" Alex insists, urgently, while trying to complete the task at hand, urgently.)

"The Overnight" is a bit sitcom-y and hammy at times, especially the figure of Kurt, whom Schwartzman plays with a sort of graceful ease in his sliminess. He's a petty, selfish man who's convinced the world -- and himself -- that he's actually a great guy, and spends his life playing that role.

Still, it's a funny, smart and randy flick. And I do mean randy. There's quite a bit of nudity, mostly male. If you're a big Adam Scott fan, let's just say that prosthetics played a role in portraying his character's, uh, deficiencies. Ditto for Schwartzman, but in reverse.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Review: "Terminator: Genisys"

Here's a surefire hint on gauging Terminator movies: Was it directed by James Cameron? If not, then it's not worth your time.

"Terminator: Genisys" takes us back to the roots of the iconic killer-robots-from-the-future franchise, and then proceeds to trample all over those roots. It removes all the paranoid dread of the first two movies along with every drop of emotional punch, and replaces them with a loopy retcon narrative that feels pulled straight out of a cheap comic book spinoff.

Suddenly, Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese are jumping through time portals willy-nilly, and are soon joined by their son John Connor, who becomes the future leader of the resistance against the tyranny of machines trying to crush out human existence. Different timelines with different alternate realities run up against each other, and yet somehow the characters have knowledge about the different iterations and use it to their advantage.

At one point they actually get into a testy argument about where they should go next. 1997? 2017? Who's on first?

You could lay out the plot of this movie on one of those big cork boards like you see cinematic detectives using to puzzle out a complex criminal case, with little notes and photographs linking up the different elements, and you still couldn't make sense of it all. Alan Taylor directs, from a screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier.

At times it nearly turns into a full-on spoof, with Sarah and Kyle (Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney, respectively) bickering like it's a schmaltzy romantic comedy, and classic lines from the first two flicks bantered around back and forth for cheap effect -- "Nice to see you," "I'll be back," etc.

The early going includes exact reenactments of shots from the 1984 sci-fi classic, with similar-looking actors playing the alley bum, the garbage truck driver, and the trio of punk rock hoodlums.

Except, of course, the Terminator himself, who you might have heard is again played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. He gets plenty of help from body doubles and CGI trickery to portray himself as a youngster again in 1984, but reverts to something close to his actual age when the action jumps into the future.

Why would a cyborg get old, you ask? Well, since it's real human tissue surrounding a mean metal skeleton, it ages exactly as a person would. This is all patiently explained for us by various characters, of course, who often seem like they're talking past each other to address expected confusion from the audience.

It's undeniably a hoot to see Arnie back in Terminator mode, speaking monotone and trying to puzzle out human emotions while laying down the badassery. You've probably guessed that he's playing the good guy again in this one, protecting the Connors rather than trying to eliminate them.

If you'll recall, one human and Terminator were sent back to 1984 to protect and kill Sarah, then we learned another pair of antagonists went to 1994 for John as a boy. Now we're told yet another good Terminator showed up in 1973, when Sarah's parents were killed.

Her cyborg savior, whom she dubbed Pops, became her protector/parent figure. Fast forward to the future, and they've got a crotchety Sanford & Son thing going on. In this altered timeline, she's no longer the wilting wallflower when Reese shows up, but a tuned-up leader.

We also get to see a new iteration of the T-1000, the super-advanced Terminator made of liquid metal who can take on various shapes and impersonate humans. And an even newer model, who has the amazing power to... well, wait and see.

There's plenty of good action scenes, and if there's a reason to buy a ticket for this movie, that's it. There are a couple of nifty chases, including one on helicopters and aboard a bus, but the best stuff is saved for when the Terminators go to town on each other. Pops shows he's still got the stuff, despite some parts that aren't functioning quite like they used to. "I'm old, not obsolete," he insists.

J.K. Simmons, fresh off an Oscar win, seems ill-used here as a broken-down cop with a personal connection to the Terminator saga. It's one of those roles that should've been built way up or dumped entirely. Courtney B. Vance plays inventor Miles Dyson, whom you'll recall everyone was trying to kill at one point in these movies, and Dayo Okeniyi plays his son, now grown up.

If you're wondering about the title, it refers to some amazing new software that's about to be launched to link up every computer and device on the planet, but is really nasty ol' Skynet in disguise.

After two great Terminator movies and a pair of lackluster ones, I was really hoping to see something fresh that married the energy of the original films with the high-tech trickery of modern moviemaking. Instead we got something old, a bit of something new, a whole bunch of borrowed quips, and that's left me feeling blue.