Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Review: "Sleeping with Other People"

"Sleeping with Other People" is the most ambitious romantic comedy I've seen since "(500) Days of Summer." It probably doesn't even belong in that category, since it contains many notes of drama and pathos in addition to plenty of laughs and witty wooing. It's also fairly raunchy, without ever showing any real skin.

It stars Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis as a messed-up pair of lovers who run into each other about 10 or 15 years after losing their virginity to each other in college. Each was a late bloomer who finally decided sex was something to just have and get over with so it doesn't become a big thing. Neverthless, it became a big thing despite their one night stand, with neither able to commit despite a string of flings.

They resolve to have a platonic friendship, despite the attraction between them, basically as a test to see if they're capable of a loving relationship sans sex. This goes on for more than a year, with predictable results.

I say the end point of this story is unsurprising, but what's unconventional is how writer/director Leslye Headland ("Bachelorette") arrives at the destination.

We quickly know that Lainey (Brie) and Jake (Sudeikis) are meant for each other; usually these sorts of movies are an exercise in the audience waiting for the characters to catch up with them. But here the couple also senses this, talks about it between them, but decide to continue the experiment because they value the relationship that's grown more than they care about physical intimacy.

Take Jake, for instance. He's a variation of the wiseacre lothario, a guy we've seen in countless movies before. But here Sudeikis and the script endow the character with self-awareness and doubt. He presents to the world the image of a fearless ladies' man, but inside he knows he's mostly a coward who's afraid of women.

"If you want someone to fall for you, you gotta be you," Lainey advises.

"Yeah, I don't think I like me enough to introduce him to other people," Jake says, but we understand the loathing underneath the quip.

Lainey, for her part, has been pining for the same guy since college, secretly believing he would choose her despite the way he's always kept her on a shelf. Matthew, now a successful OB/GYN, is played by Adam Scott, who's cold and manipulative in a way we haven't seen from the self-effacing funnyman.

He's just one of a terrific supporting cast that fills in the gap around the main players. Amanda Peet plays Jake's new boss, whom he immediately puts into his crosshairs despite the professional barrier between them. (He threatens to quit, walking away from a contract that will make him a millionaire, in return for one date.)

Jason Mantzoukas shines as Jake's long-suffering best friend, who resents but secretly desires his hedonistic, attachment-free lifestyle. (An Ecstasy-fueled scene at his son's birthday party is one of the film's giddy high points.) Natasha Lyonne plays the counterpoint role of Lainey's wingwoman, offering sage advice and a prod when needed.

I don't like to make predictions about how a movie will do, but "Sleeping with Other People" feels like it will break out a number of careers. Headland crafts some of the cleverest lines and vivid characters I've seen in a while. Brie is charming and vulnerable, a woman who can both admire and, at times, pity.

Sudeikis, though, just steals the show. Headland sets him up with a juicy part and he cracks it out of the ballpark. It's a familiar archetype that he endows with all sorts of shadings and subtleties. Sudeikis is entertaining yet believable. Plus, he's funny as all get out, spewing one-liners at a near-constant pace.

This must-see take on modern love is tragic, wise and hilarious.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Women in Love" (1969)

"Women in Love" must have seemed very daring and original in 1969. Five decades on it's horribly dated and self-important -- corny, even.

It's a bunch of stilted characters waxing philosophic about Art and Life and Love, without managing to gain a lasting insight into any. Based on the 1920 novel by D.H. Lawrence, it's very much a product of the 1960s, more concerned with breaking boundaries than finding anything meaningful on the other side.

The biggest problem with the movie is that it's called "Women in Love" and it's based on a famous novel about two daring sisters, but the film concentrates more on their male romantic interests than the women. The sisters become virtual supporting characters by the end, as it turns into an exploration of romantic love versus abiding affection between the same gender.

Nonetheless, Glenda Jackson won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the film. Though it was admittedly a rather weak year for female leading roles, with Jackson besting Jane Alexander from "The Great White Hope," Ali MacGraw in "Love Story," Sarah Miles from "Ryan's Daughter" and Carrie Snodgrass from "Diary of a Mad Housewife."

(Though a 1969 British release, it came to the States in '70 and thus competed in the Oscars given out in '71.)

"Women in Love" also got Oscar nods for director (Ken Russell), adapted screenplay (Larry Kramer) and cinematography (Billy Williams). The film essentially launched Russell's career, and he became known as sort of the British counterpart to Fellini, helming very artsy films that tended to have a lot of sex and nudity in them ("The Devils," "The Lair of the White Worm").

Speaking of which, "Women in Love" is undoubtedly most famous for its nude wrestling scene between stars Oliver Reed and Alan Bates. The two play old chums, sufficiently lubricated with liquor, who decide to have a spontaneous bout in front of a roaring fireplace, and muse that they don't want to ruin their finery.

The scene is pretty comical now -- the choreography, apparently worked out by the actors themselves, is entirely unconvincing as an example of Far East-style martial arts -- but the brazen view of flopping male genitalia raised interest and eyebrows at the time.

A female acquaintance of mine who saw the film in its heyday has told me she and her contemporaries considered it quite erotic, particularly when the men's competition wanders over the line between grappling and groping. This isn't exactly some costume period version of "Brokeback Mountain," but it's certainly implied by Russell and Kramer that the best friends share some sort of buried attraction for each other.

The story ends with Rupert Birkin (Bates) lamenting his long-lost friend Gerald Crich (Reed,) a wealthy coal mine owner who was overcome with jealousy when his lady love, Gudrun Grangwen (Jackson), declared that she has never truly loved him. While on a skiing trip abroad she gloms onto a gay German artist (Vladek Sheybal) who offers her a life of more than bourgeois confinement.

Afterward Rupert tells his now-wife, Ursula Brangwen, that while she satisfies him entirely as a romantic counterpart, he doesn't understand why he couldn't also share a loving relationship with another male, too. Ursula (Jennie Linden) insists that he simply can't have "two kinds of love," due to societal dictates. Rupert says he accepts this, but states it's still his prerogative to want something he can't have.

Ursula is a virtual non-entity, following in the wake of stronger personalities like Gudrun and Rupert. Reed is the most interesting of the bunch, a man of means who isn't entirely comfortable with his place in ordered society but doesn't have the imagination to create something else for himself.

Elanor Bron plays Hermione Roddice -- I wonder if this is where the little witch's name came from? -- a super-wealthy socialite who enjoys controlling others and has essentially claimed Rupert as her personal property. When he chafes at this role and finally breaks free, she's enormously put out. (And immediately disappears from the movie.)

From there, it's a whole lot of coupling and sniping, protestations of love and declarations of hate. It's one of those classic examples of characters telling you how they feel rather than showing it. Toward the end Gerald delivers this pretentious humdinger:

"Do you know what it is to suffer when you're with a woman? It tears you like a silk. And each bit and stroke burns hot. Of course I wouldn't have not had it. It was a complete experience. She's a wonderful woman, but I hate her somewhere. It's curious."

I respected but did not enjoy "Women in Love." It's one of those relics of another age that had its place in cinematic evolution, and now resides as something of a fossil, curious for inspection but no longer a living, breathing thing.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Video review: "Avengers: Age of Ultron"

As sequels go, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” delivered everything it had to.

It brought the gang of Marvel superheroes back together for another round of computer-generated mayhem and quips. It added some new wrinkles to the characters’ background stories and continuing evolution. A few new key super-powered folk were added to the mix. And a really crafty and charismatic villain emerged to steal the show.

The heavy here is Ultron, an artificial intelligence program created by Tony Stark aka Ironman (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to protect the world, since they’re each anxious to get out of the caped crusader game. (Yes, I know neither one actually wears a cape; work with me, people!)

Ultron, menacingly voiced and motion-captured by James Spader, quickly decides that the Avengers themselves are the biggest thread to Earth. Thus their battle is joined, with Ultron jumping from robot body to body, like a virus that’s impossible to care.

Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor, (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are here, too. The new kids are mutant siblings Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who have mind powers and super-speed, respectively.

The supes race about the world trying to contain Ultron’s misdeeds, with a few character-driven subplots to keep the human angle fresh. We learn Hawkeye isn’t just a deadeye loner, and that Banner and Widow have feelings for each other.

It’s a rip-roaring time, not quite as good as the original, but what is?

Extras include deleted scenes, several making-of featurettes, feature-length audio commentary track and a gag reel.



Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Review: "Hotel Transylvania 2"

The first "Hotel Transylvania" was an uninspired amalgam of other movies, stitching together the current cinematic fascination with vampires, zombies and the like with angsty teen imperatives. The sequel is a distinct improvement, though curiously almost none of it takes place in the titular hotel.

The last go-round was about Dracula (Adam Sandler, sounding like a Borscht Belt Bela Lugosi) learning to find tolerance for humans when his teen daughter -- well, hundred-and-teens, anyway -- Mavis (Selena Gomez) fell in love with goofy human Jonathan (Andy Samberg).

Flash forward a few years. Mavis and Jonathan are now happily wed and have an adorable tyke, Dennis (Asher Blinkoff). Drac is thoroughly delighted with his grandson ... though he's a little worried that he has yet to indicate any vampire-ish abilities. He seems to be a carbon copy of Jonathan: big poof of red hair, pasty skin, normal, non-sharp incisors, etc.

"He's just a late fanger," Dracula dismisses, though he's secretly worried the kid is really all human. And how disappointing would that be!

Mavis is considering moving their family to Santa Cruz to raise him alongside Jonathan's parents (chirpy Molly Shannon and droll Nick Offerman) and other regular humans. Drac can't stand the idea of being apart from them, so while they're away scouting out the potential new hometown, he and his crew whip up a plan for a road trip to encourage Dennis' monsterish side to come out.

Hijinks ensue, of the lightly scary/slightly vulgar variety.

The gang of supporting characters are back, including Steve Buscemi as a werewolf hectored by his wolf-wife and small army of pups; Frankenstein (Kevin James), big and blandly nice; a fabulous mummy (Keegan-Michael Key); and an invisible man (David Spade), who keeps trying to convince his buddies he has an invisible girlfriend.

The new guy on the block is Dracula's daddy, Vlad, wonderfully voiced by Mel Brooks. He's an old-school type who keeps the fires of hate toward humans well-stoked, and he's got a crew of giant vampire bat henchman to do his bidding. Drac takes steps to ensure Vlad doesn't find out his great-grandkid isn't a bloodsucker.

Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky with a screenplay by Sandler and buddy Robert Smigel, "Hotel Transylvania 2" won't win any contests for originality. It's television-quality storytelling with better animation and voice cast.

But it's breezy, fun and dopey, and sure to keep your little monsters entertained for an hour and a half.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Video review: "Love & Mercy"

“Love & Mercy” is an unconventional biopic about an unconventional musician. Brian Wilson was a self-taught prodigy who composed Billboard Top 10 hits for the Beach Boys of increasing musical complexity, even as his personal life sank into a morass of drugs, harmful relationships and mental illness.

Director Bill Pohlad, a veteran producer stepping behind the camera, and screenwriters Michael A. Lerner and Oren Moverman, set the story in two distinct points in Wilson’s life, the mid-1960s and mid-80s, and cast a pair of different actors to play him. The performances don’t match, deliberately so, since they’re showing Wilson as he descended into his two-decade period of purgatory, and then trying to climb out of it.

Paul Dano portrays Wilson as a young man looking to break out of the mold of flighty songs about girls, surfing and cars – much to the consternation of his brothers, bandmates and controlling father, who just want the hits to keep on coming.

John Cusack plays him in early middle age, struggling to break free of his torpor and reenter the world, with the help of a tough-but-tender Cadillac saleswoman (Elizabeth Banks) who acts as his touchstone.

Serving as the anchor is Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), the Machiavellian psychiatrist who kept Wilson under virtual lock and key for years, deciding where he would go and with whom he would associate. As good as Giamatti was as the conniving manager in “Straight Outta Compton,” you should be aware it was his second – and second-best – portrayal of an infamous musical Svengali this year.

The movie really sings during the studio sessions where Wilson created the album “Pet Sounds” essentially in secret, using professional musicians instead of his siblings’ barely competent guitars and drums. Wilson is trying to replicate the sounds and voices he hears in his head, and funnel the burgeoning madness into what would become one of the greatest pop records of all time.

“Love & Mercy” is a stunning portrait of a man who made beautiful music while suffering a tragic existence. This discord is finely in tune.

Bonus features are agreeable, and are the same for Blu-ray and DVD editions. There are two making-of featurettes, “A California Story: Creating the Look of ‘Love & Mercy’” and “A-Side/B-Side: Portraying the Life of Brian Wilson.” There are also deleted scenes and a feature-length commentary track by Pohlad and Moverman.



Thursday, September 17, 2015

Review: "Black Mass"

Johnny Depp is expectedly magnificent in "Black Mass," the tale of Irish-American gangster Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger and the unholy alliance he forged with the FBI.

Icy stillness. Searing rage. Dead gaze. A man who exists almost as an energy form: pure malevolence and terror.

It's a terrifically commanding performance. I'm not certain it's a terribly complex one.

Depp holds our every attention every second he's on the screen, as we witness Jimmy's dark, violent saga over a 20-year period. What his character does not do is change one iota over the course of that span.

He arrives in 1975, fully formed and unspeakably evil. We leave him in 1995 without any notable alterations.

His circumstances do shift: initially a small-time hood fighting to control just his hardscrabble Southie neighborhood, Jimmy winds up as Boston's kingpin -- with the unwitting (and witting) help of the local feds. Countless murders are attributed to him or his henchmen, the dank river bridge piles serving as his personal well-stocked graveyard.

He came, he saw, he buried.

The unnerving physical transformation is what first grabs our attention. With stabbing blue eyes, scant, slicked-back hair, corpse-like pallor and a dead tooth, Depp looks like he was dug up out of the ground 10 minutes ago and ensorceled back to rotting half-life.

He seems at once ancient and virile, strutting Mick bravado encased in a body that reflects the soul's irreversible decay. Notably, his appearance does not change as the other actors' faces thicken with increasing layers of age makeup.

Based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, "Black Mass" aims to be a sprawling gangster saga a la "Goodfellas," showing how absolute corruption seeps everywhere like an oil spill. The plot tends to wander, piling up secondary and tertiary characters, and compounding scenes of Jimmy facing down adversaries that begin to blur into each other.

Director Scott Cooper debuted with the amazing "Crazy Heart," then got caught in a family crime ramble with 2013's "Out of the Furnace." He seems to be a filmmaker who's a master at evoking vivid figures, but is less adroit at assembling a raft of characters and events into a coherent, compelling narrative.

Screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth craft some great individual scenes, but the connective tissue has a Frankenstein feel. I wouldn't so much say that "Black Mass" is too long, but that it allocates its 122 minutes unwisely.

The focus of the story is, or should be, Jimmy's two decades as an informant for the FBI. He found a partner in agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a fellow Southie who grew up idolizing Jimmy. Connolly offers to protect him if he'll feed information about fellow mobsters. Jimmy's reptilian mind immediately sees an opportunity to use the feds to take out the competition.

Since Jimmy was notoriously vicious toward "rats" in his own organization, this would seem a ripe area for exploration -- how he justified in his own mind the act of informing on other criminals.

But this movie does not get into those sorts of interior monologues. "Black Mass" witnesses Jimmy Bulger only at external angles.

The supporting cast is bulging with talent and, well, just bulging. The sheer number of names and faces to keep track of is overwhelming at times.

Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson play the long-suffering significant others of Jimmy and John, respectively, given little to do but cry and kvetch. David Harbour is John's tainted wingman. Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott are skeptical FBI honchos who crave the intelligence Jimmy provides but suspect they're being played.

Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane and W. Earl Brown play Jimmy's core crew, whom we first meet as aged turncoats giving testimony against him. Corey Stoll is the upstanding new prosecutor who finally starts to ask questions about the Jimmy/FBI arrangement. Juno Temple is a wide-eyed streetwalker who shows up just in time to leave. Peter Sarsgaard turns up as a twitchy accomplice who practically seems to have the mark of doom etched on his forehead.

Most ill-used is Benedict Cumberbatch as Jimmy's brother Billy Bulger, a state senator a political power player who somehow managed to maintain a close relationship with his mobster sibling while (the film would have us believe) staying completely and deliberately oblivious of his business.

All these people waltz in and out of the frame, wah-wahing through Boston accents that seem lacquered on like all the dark wood constantly occupying the movie's backgrounds. Each actor has a scene or two to establish their character's bona fides, then dissolves into the other furnishings.

"Black Mass" was built as a movie to feature Johnny Depp in a dominating, unforgettable performance. At this it succeeds, but to the detriment of the total cinematic experience.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Time Limit" (1957)

"Time Limit" was the only film directed by Karl Malden, and it's probably better for everyone that he spent the rest of his career in front of the camera instead of behind it. I say this not as an insult to his filmmaking skills, which were adequate, but in praise of his inimitable power and intensity as an actor.

Malden himself seemed to agree, writing in his autobiography that he "preferred being a good actor to being a fairly good director."

"Time Limit" is an effective if rather stodgy and stagey legal drama that could've been directed by just about anyone. It only has three locations, and if you left instructions for where the cinematography should set up the cameras, similar edicts for lighting, props, etc. and a word or two for the actors, the film literally could've directed itself.

Unsurprisingly, it's based on a play by Henry Denker and Ralph Berkey, with Denker doing the screenplay. Some stage-to-screen adaptations gain power through a confinement of space, time and characters -- "12 Angry Men" being the classic example -- but others like this one wind up feeling crimped.

It's the sort of picture where characters inevitably make big, stentorian speeches about the fallibility of mankind and such -- always while standing. Have you ever noticed people in movies never deliver a key soliloquy sitting down? Personally, I think better off my feet.

Richard Widmark, who starred in and was a producer of the film, was the one who recruited Malden to direct. No doubt he was thinking of Malden's masterful speech from "On the Waterfront" a few years earlier, and hoping the actor who delivered that could help him craft his own performance.

Widmark is good in it, as a conscientious military lawyer investigating a former POW accused of treason, though I've always found him more interesting in villainous or ambivalent roles. Something about his face, a set sternness of expression, a certain mania behind the eyes, lends itself to frightening rather than reassuring characters.

Major Harry Gargill (a solid Richard Basehart) has been accused of collaborating with the enemy while a prisoner of war during the Korean conflict. He gave speeches to his fellow soldiers urging them to embrace communist ideals, made radio broadcasts falsely admitting to Americans using germ warfare against the North Koreans, etc.

It seems the proverbial open-and-shut case, with all of Cargill's fellow POWs testifying against him, and Cargill declaring himself guilty, refusing to offer any kind of defense for his action.

To top things off, General Connors (Carl Benton Reid) has ordered the investigating officer, Lt. Col. William Edwards (Widmark), to hurry up his recommendation for court martial. The general's own son died in the same POW camp, so he has a personal interest in the outcome.

But Edwards can't let the case go, and keeps digging further. He even visits Cargill's wife (June Lockhart), who offers her own affecting song of despair about the sad man who has returned to her from war -- but no concrete information.

It's up to Edwards to see if the truth lines up with the facts.

Martin Balsam is a hoot as Edwards' conniving sergeant, who offers advice and scuttlebutt from the career Army office pool. He warns the colonel that his career is in danger if he doesn't bring in a judgement quickly -- stamped with the right recommendation. Dolores Michaels assists as the wily secretary with a background in law; she and Edwards are implied an attraction.

A very young and virtually unrecognizable Rip Torn, in one of his earliest screen roles, turns up as young Lieutenant Miller, who provides damning testimony and a suspiciously easygoing manner.

Eventually, a peek of light appears in the carefully constructed wall of lies. It seems a lot of very bad things went on inside that POW camp, briefly seen in a trio of flashback scenes. Lots were drawn, vows were made, dark deeds committed.

Caught between the ethos of General Connors and that of Major Cargill, Edwards has to weigh the merits of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons versus the right thing for the wrong reasons.

"Time Limit" is one of those well-meaning films that wears its good intentions a bit too too openly on its sleeve. It's also burdened by that awful, generic-sounding title. It refers to the idea that a man can be heroic his entire life, but eventually pressure and circumstance can force anyone to break. Do the limits of his willpower negate any prior good done in a man's life?

I do applaud the movie for its willingness to embrace ambivalence, and honor military ideals while questioning if they can be applicable even to the foulest of circumstance. The film ends with Cargill headed to certain court martial, with Edwards promising to personally defend him. Sometimes asking the right questions is more important than obtaining definitive answers.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Video review: "Cinderella"

Taking classic Disney cartoons and turning them into live-action picture is a recent and largely wasted effort. Most of the resulting films have been silly and swollen. (See – or rather, don’t – the two competing Snow White adaptations.)

“Cinderella” is the remarkable exception, a smart and heartwise movie with plenty of pluck.

Lily James plays the titular Ella, who is given the “Cinder” affixation by her nasty stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera) because she sleeps by the sooty hearth for warmth. Ella’s days and nights are a ceaseless march of work and disdain, but she retains her sense of joy. Her wondrous childhood was taken from her, first by the death of her mother and then her father’s marriage to the harsh, vain Lady Tremaine and subsequent orphaning.

One of the film’s triumphs is treating its characters as complex human beings, so the “cruel stepmother,” ably played by Cate Blanchett, is a bundle of neuroses and bad karma rather than the personification of evil. The prince (Richard Madden) even gets something to do other than be handsome. Helena Bonham Carter, who we normally expect in the dark roles, shines as the fairy godmother.

The CGI is astounding without overshadowing the story, a gentle fable about how appearances can be deceiving. It’s a great-looking film that builds on the animated tale rather than simply regurgitating it.

“Cinderella” comes with a good variety of bonus features, though you’ll need to buy the blu-ray combo pack to get most of them.

The DVD comes with “Frozen Fever,” a new animated short starring Elsa and Anna, plus “Ella’s Furry Friends,” a featurette on the animal actors.

With the combo pack you add five deleted scenes, an alternate opening sequence and three more featurettes: “A Fairy Tale Comes to Life,” “Costume Test Fun” and “Staging the Ball.”



Thursday, September 10, 2015

Review: "The Visit"

Time turns on, whether we acknowledge it or no. In my mind M. Night Shyamalan is still the young wunderkind who dazzles us with dark, artful dodges of cinematic confection, the master of mind-rocking plot twists. He feints here, we look there, he wallops us backside of the head, and we are grateful.

Of course, Shyamalan's star has been falling almost since it first shone, his punches becoming more telegraphed and his storytelling frameworks ever more rickety. Alerted to the certainty of a surprise, audiences got better at sniffing them out beforehand.

People began to greet the arrival of his films not with anticipation but a sigh of awaited disappointment. His last two forays were into big-budget science fiction, a place where he knows the words but not the music, and the results spoke for themselves.

So here we are in the second week of September, filmdom's arid purgatory, and Shyamalan is back in his familiar territory of dread-filled mysteries with a supernatural bent. The setup is that two precocious teens are meeting their grandparents for the first time, staying a week at their remote Pennsylvania farm, and the oldsters turn out to be a bit strange, and then more than a bit.

It's an intriguing premise, and the actors playing the grandparents, Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie, are sly and scary, and even silly when called for. The kids aren't bad, Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, though memories of Haley Joel Osment leave most child actors seeming a pale gossamer.

The movie's biggest failing is falling back on the now-moldy canard of "found footage." We're expected to believe that everything in the film was shot by the characters as they experienced it. It was a groundbreaking idea in 1999 when "The Blair Witch Project" first did it, subsequently copied endlessly, with more recent iterations including the "Paranormal Activity" series and "Unfriended."

Of course, the question at hand is always why the people keep filming themselves when they're being chased by a witch or chainsaw-wielding madman or whatever. Shyamalan's footage looks way too polished and high-definition to be the jittery recordings of teen amateurs, so the effect never really takes hold. It ends up seeming like a tacked-on gimmick.

Here, the 15-year-old, Becca (DeJonge), is a budding filmmaker who's making a documentary about meeting their grandparents, and also discovering what caused the terrible break between them and her mother (a vibrant Kathyry Hahn) years ago. The days are announced in title cards, with what we're seeing consisting of what was shot the day before as the girl edits it.

Becca's brother, Tyler (Oxenbould), is a 13-year-old wannabe rapper whose slams are mostly theoretical boasts about his finesse with girls and sports. In reality he's a bucktoothed loner who froze up during his last game in peewee football.

They all settle in for a nice week at Nana and Pop Pop's big country house, with the only rule being that the kids are not to leave their room after 9:30 at night. Of course they do, and observe grandma acting strangely, scampering about in her nightie (or less), moaning and vomiting. Grandpa explains that this is "sundowning," a common malady of the elderly in which they become agitated during the transition from day to night.

She also cooks a lot, and has the unfortunate habit of asking Becca to physically climb into the oven -- all the way, dear! -- to clean it. Could she be pinching their arms on the sly? "I have the deep darkies" is all she'll say.

Pop pop's got his own foibles. He seems preternaturally strong for a man over 70, heaving hay bales like Styrofoam packing. He avoids looking people in the eye, gets confused easily, accosts strangers he imagines are following him, and tells unnerving tales of glimpsing "a white thing with yellow eyes" in the factory, but nobody believed him.

Things go on from there, which obviously I'll not reveal. Here Shyamalan is consciously working against the audience's expectations, not trying to hide the fact a big twist is coming but keeping us guessing about what form it'll take.

"The Visit" is engaging enough as a mood piece, more about generating a pervading sense of dread than truly scaring us. If this is to be Shyamalan's last shot as a celebrity filmmaker, he could do worse.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Video review: "The Age of Adaline"

A bit of romantic trifle with a science fiction twist, “The Age of Adaline” is most hurt by its main star, and most helped by a late-arriving supporting player.

Blake Lively isn’t given enough to do by the script, which posits her as a San Francisco woman whose strange, electrified car crash in 1929 prevents her from aging any more. She wanders through time, trading identities every decade or so to prevent suspicion, her only permanent connection being her daughter, who today has become an old lady played by Ellen Burstyn.

Still, Lively’s performance is drab and emotionally unaffecting. She becomes a Zelig-like figure, someone who shows up everywhere but leaves little trace of their passing.

Adaline has been careful to avoid romantic entanglements for obvious reasons, but now a new beau (Michiel Huisman) has wandered into her life and knocked over some emotional furniture. Soon they’re an item and making long-term plans together – longer, perhaps, than he knows.

It’s a pretty straightforward story, with some flat, dry narration to make things even duller than they might already be.

Then Harrison Ford turns up about halfway through the movie as Adaline’s boyfriend’s dad, and suddenly the movie takes off. Ford, not exactly known as an overly emotive actor, shows us all kinds of vulnerability and doubt that we don’t usually see from cinema’s most reliable heroic everyman.

I won’t give away the details of what transpires, other than to say some old painful memories are dredged up.

Despite the slow start and the underwhelming protagonist, “The Age of Adaline” eventually finds its footing.

Director Lee Toland Krieger provides a feature-length commentary for the special features, which are the same for both DVD and Blu-ray editions. There are also deleted scenes and three featurettes: “A Love Story for the Ages,” “Style Throughout the Ages” and “Discovering Young Harrison Ford: Anthony Ingruber, An Online Sensation.”

Note: Ingruber gained notoriety for his YouTube impressions of Ford and other famous actors, which eventually led to this gig. He is indeed eerily reminiscent of a 1970s Harrison Ford.



Thursday, September 3, 2015

Review: "Jimmy's Hall"

For a good chunk of the 20th century the worst thing you could accuse somebody of in the United States or United Kingdom was being a communist. Even today labels like "socialist" and "fascist" get tossed around much too easily, used more as ad hominem insults than descriptive labels.

James Gralton actually was a communist; he led the precursor to the Communist Party of Ireland during the 1930s and agitated openly for his views. You'd barely know it from "Jimmy's Hall," the new historical drama from director Ken Loach, who has essentially spent his entire career portraying the lives and struggles of the British working class ("The Wind That Shakes the Barley").

For the first 75 minutes or so, it's the story of a prodigal son (Barry Ward) who in 1932 has returned to his homeland from America to care for his ailing ma, and is cajoled by the local youth into reopening the local hall built a decade earlier on the family plot so they can have a place to dance and be carefree. Jimmy's Hall becomes a refuge from the squalor and subjugation that marks the lives of the common folk roundabouts Leitrim.

This development is received with much frowning and disapproval by the local parish priest and the town fathers, which escalates into harsh words, public shaming and eventually violence. It almost plays out like a period costume version of "Footloose," with the cool interloper fighting against the man so the kids can get their jitterbug on without being hassled.

The owlish priest, Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), comments to his young apprentice that this is how the commies get ahold of you: they start at the feet and work their way up to the head.

It's not until the last act that Jimmy finally climbs aboard a hay wagon and gives a fire 'n' brimstone speech about the earls keeping the little people under his thumb, letting the working man enjoy his spot of freedom, etc. And again, he has to be strong-armed by the locals to do it.

The screenplay by Paul Laverty, based on the play by Donal O'Kelly, plays fast and loose with the historical record, as such films are wont to do. In their vision the dilapidated hall is the repository of the agrarian soul, a sacred place where the Irish peasantry can play traditional music, dance a jig, learn songs in their native tongue and maybe have a boxing match or two.

It is, in a word, everything to them.

Ward is stolid and charismatic as Jimmy, in this telling more a ship tossed upon the waves of history than a captain steering a resolute course. Simone Kirby plays a long-lost love, now married off to another man but still pining for her wee rebel boy. They get to share a lovely moonlit dance, but their romance is kept in a corner.

The portrayal of the priest is more nuanced than you might think; he seems to genuinely care about the people and abhor violence. But, as Jimmy says, this church prefers its flock upon their knees.

As is his practice, Loach casts non-actors in a lot of the supporting roles, and it's a great treat to see real human faces in all their misshapen glory rather than Hollywood's usual parade of generic pretty people.

It's a moving story about injustice and intolerance, with the commies as the good guys and the clergy and landed gentry as the heavies. Which is just fine. I just wish "Jimmy's Hall" was a little more upfront about its namesake. If you're going to make a famous communist your hero, don't be shy about calling your hero a communist.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Review: "Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine"

“Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” is more explanatory than revelatory. If you’ve paid any sizeable degree of attention to the life and career of the late co-founder of Apple, Inc., there probably will be little in the new documentary by Alex Gibney you didn’t already know.

Gibney, an Oscar winner (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) and a doc genre titan, is of the new wave of documentarians who openly weave their own thoughts and opinions into a journalistic exploration of a subject. What he does here is start with a question in his own head – Why was Jobs’ 2011 death so personally affecting to so many people? – and then sets out to try to answer it.

It’s an interesting premise, and one I’ve often thought about myself. I remember the wash of social media posts and ad-hoc shrines when Jobs succumbed to pancreatic cancer at age 56, and was puzzled by them. I asked people why they were weeping for a man who 1) they had never met 2) was pretty universally regarded as unpleasant by anybody who interacted with him, and 3) personally invented very little, but readily vacuumed up the credit and billions in financial windfall on behalf of those who did.

I never really got any answers that satisfied, and I don’t think Gibney does, either. But the journey is still worthwhile, even if the desired destination remains unattainable.

The film dances around Jobs’ biography, in roughly chronological order but skipping over large chunks of years that Gibney didn’t find pertinent to his angle. (His more than a decade in the wilderness after being booted as Apple CEO and then returning triumphantly for the turning of the millennium becomes carpet sweepings.) There’s a lot of archival interviews with Jobs himself, plus fresh ones with people who knew or worked for him.

Certainly Gibney takes care to check off some of the uglier aspects of Jobs’ personal life – initially refusing to acknowledge paternity of his daughter, his estrangement from Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak – but it doesn’t come across as a hit piece. There are also plenty of salutations from people who worked with or for Jobs, who unerringly describe his genius at synthesizing the ideas of others into a new paradigm.

It’s interesting that most of Jobs’ interpersonal relationships all seemed to be transitory. He would have people that he essentially spent every minute of time with for years on end. Did you talk to him much in his last 10 or 20 years, Gibney will ask. No, I haven’t seen him at all, they will reply. Jobs could be very close to people, until he didn’t want to be anymore.

What emerges is a portrait of a man filled with a sense of grand purpose but also an abundant reservoir of venality. He really meant it when he would give one of his apocryphal presentations about Apple changing the world. What’s apparent is that Jobs ignored the question of whether for good or ill.

Gibney recounts the big stuff: the launch of the Macintosh, iPod and iPhone; the dire circumstances of Chinese factory workers who build these $500 toys for a buck a day; the sharp-elbowed, protectionist ways Jobs and other Silicon Valley giants did business, etc.

He also has time for a few less-explored aspects of Jobs, such as fascination with Eastern mysticism, and other biographical bits ‘n’ pieces.

My favorite anecdote in the film is his learning that new cars in California have a six-month grace period to affix a license plate, thus Jobs made an arrangement to keep leasing identical silver Mercedes sedans so he could drive around with a blank tag. Ostensibly it was for security purposes so he couldn’t be identified, but of course it became his calling card. Jobs would brazenly park his untagged Mercedes in handicapped spaces around the Apple campus.

Clearly, this is a man who felt the rules didn't apply to him -- and wanted everyone to know it.

The most interesting part of the film is near the end, when Gibney philosophizes about how the technological shift that Jobs helped foment has left us “alone together,” staring at our little digital windows into another universe while ignoring the actual people around us. We’re all connected by our disconnectedness, substituting shiny, elegant boxes for real actual human interaction. People now freely spout hateful stuff on comment boards they know would get them punched in the nose if spoken aloud.

This has left us a world where we’re all a little bit smarter, but also a little bit meaner. Perhaps that is Steve Jobs’ truest reflection, and legacy.