Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review: "Our Brand Is Crisis"

Forty years ago we made movies like "The Candidate" about well-meaning people who get sucked up into the dirty tide of electioneering that comes with democracy. Ours was portrayed as a corrupt system with political operates whispering dark counsel into candidates' gullible ears.

Now we've moved on from idolizing the candidates to embracing the mercenary advisers themselves. Dark money? How about dark Hollywood.

"Our Brand Is Crisis" is based on a documentary of the same name made a decade ago based on the true story of some veteran American political operatives, including Clintonistas Bob Shrum and James Carville, who were recruited to help a candidate for President of Bolivia. They made a bunch of money and their guy won the election, but not much changed in the poverty-stricken South American country.

Instead of paunchy middle-aged guys going south of the border, it's a wan but steely woman named Jane Bodine, aka "Calamity Jane" for her tendency to blow things up with her erratic behavior. It's a showcase role for Sandra Bullock, who is the best thing about the movie, along with Billy Bob Thornton as Pat Candy -- love that name! -- as her slithery nemesis.

They're also about all that works about the film. The pair like to sidle up to each other in the middle of campaign events, softly and delicately threaten each other and the opposing candidate, and then walk off with the upper hand. Candy even takes the hotel room directly opposite Jane's so he can intimidate her, leering at her and even putting his hand down his pants to adjust his package.

Jane was the best of the best but hit a string of failures, most at Candy's hands, and gave up the political racket six years ago to make pottery in a cabin in the mountains. She gets recruited by Ann Dowd and Anthony Mackie as Nell and Ben, who need help because their guy is down 28 points, and alsy because they want someone to blame if they don't win.

The problem is the candidate, Castilla (Joaquim de Almeida). He's a symbol of the oligarchs who have ruled the nation but are resented by the mostly poor and uneducated indigenous people. Castillo actually briefly was president 15 years ago, and is mostly remembered for having the police open fire on protesters. He's arrogant, aloof and resentful -- of his upstart opponent, Rivera (Louis Arcella), but also at having had to bring in Americans.

Our crew slowly brings things around, through a combination of negative campaigning and teaching Castillo to push the idea that the country is in crisis. Of course, Candy's got a few tricks up his sleeve, and the underhanded plays go back and forth.

Directed by David Gordon Green ("Pineapple Express") from a script by Pete Straughan ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"), "Our Brand Is Crisis" has the classy veneer of an awards contender. It was produced by George Clooney and partner Grant Heslov, and Straughan is one of their go-to screenwriters.

The film's main problem is trying to do too much with too little.

For awhile it's a character study of Jane, who's so checked out when first arriving in Bolivia that she throws up at her first meeting with the candidate. Then it seems to want to be about the fraught relationship between Jane and Candy, which contains a dangerous undertone of unacknowledged sexual attraction. Then there's Jane's approach to Castillo, which zigzags from dismissing him as a total loser to seeing him as her last hope for redemption.

Scoot McNairy, one of my favorite character actors working today, is ill-used as a self-deluded media flack. Zoe Kazan turns up as LeBlanc, Jane's pet opposition research whiz kid.

The movie leaves the politics as vague as possible, only alluding to the IMF as a playing card to be dealt and shuffled as the need suits.

Bullock and Thornton have a lot of snap in their shared screen moments, but they're fleeting and ultimately lack any real meat. "Our Brand Is Crisis" needed a rethink from the grass roots on up.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" (1974)

"There ain't no more chances!"
Every other filmmaker looked at Warren Oates and surely thought, "What a great face for a character actor." Only Sam Peckinpah gazed up on his pinched, wizened features, unimpressive physique and horsey teeth and said, "That's my star."

(Well, him and John Milius, whose "Dillinger" with Oates in the title role beat Peckinpah's film to the theaters by a few months.)

Oates, perhaps in a combination of gratitude and resentfulness toward his famously exacting director, used him as a model for his signature irascible performance, going so far as to wear Peckinpah's personal sunglasses throughout most of the movie -- even scenes set indoors, at night.

You can't see very well that way, of course, or be seen, but maybe that's the point. In his Bennie, an ex-Army mook slumming his way through Mexico's seediest bars as a piano player for Yankee tourists, Oates gives the indelible impression of a man in hiding, mostly from himself.

Peckinpah was something of a south-of-the-border tourist himself, his last few movies failing to grab attention the way his masterpiece, "The Wild Bunch," did a handful of years earlier. He filmed "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" in Mexico using an entirely Mexican crew, and at one point vowed never to shoot in the States again. That got him in trouble with the film and television unions, who relented their boycott of the movie after the appropriate bowing and scraping.

The director, who co-wrote the script with Gordon Dawson, has acknowledged that the genesis for this film came from his friend Frank Kowalski, who suggested the idea of a manhunt for a man who was already dead.

Like much of Peckinpah's oeuvre, it's an overt reaction to and repudiation of tired Hollywood traditions. How many movies have we seen where some boss offers a rich reward for the capture, dead or alive, of some hated foe, and then we dutifully watched as the miscreant was hunted down -- or, if he was the hero, righteously overcame his pursuers?

Only Peck would short-circuit the chase in the first act, informing us that the quarry was killed in a drunk-driving accident days earlier. Bennie, starting to spin in a circle of what he knows to be a slow spiral to the bottom, sees a last chance for a payday and a fresh start by simply finding the sap's body and appropriating the head, without even having to kill anybody.

He arranges to collect $10,000 for finding and killing Alfredo from American mercenaries, not knowing they're merely the frontmen for El Jefe (Emilio Fernández), the regional crime lord who has offered a cool million for the offending head. It seems Alfredo, once regarded by El Jefe as his own son, has impregnated his teenage daughter and run off. In the opening sequence, he has the girl tortured to reveal the name of the father in full view of the assembled family, her bones breaking with a sickening crunch.

An entire army of assassins and bounty hunters is dispatched. Two of the creepiest, a pair of Americans named Sappensly (Robert Webber) and Quill (Gig Young), stumble upon Bennie's bar and ask after Alfredo. One of them knocks out a prostitute for plying her wares by simply swinging an elbow, demonstrating both their ruthlessness and queer propensities (and I don't mean the Tolkien-esh use of that word).

Bennie knows Alfredo as the former beau of his erstwhile girlfriend, Elita (Isela Vega). He learns from her that 1) Alfredo is dead, and 2) he spent several days in her company immediately beforehand. He quickly gets over his anger for her cheating, since how can you really break fidelity vows that remain untaken?

Bennie hatches upon what he thinks is a brilliant plan: he and Elita will take a pleasant car trip to the countryside to retrieve Alfredo's topmost appendage, and use the money to go someplace they've never been before and start a life as man and wife. Bennie, heretofore reluctant to commit, is so ensorceled by the idea that he even begins to refer to Elita as his missus.

Things, obviously, don't go so well. First there is an encounter with a couple of pot-bellied bikers who want to rape Elita, or kill Bennie, or both. She readily goes along to spare his life -- as a prostitute, the use of her body as a commidity is familiar to her. But Bennie, who has stated that he "shot a lot of pistols in the Army," gets the drop on the bikers and plugs 'em both.

(One of the miscreants is played by Kris Kristofferson, an odd cameo by a singer/songwriter who'd already segued into leading film roles in "Cisco Pike" and "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.")

The sudden incursion into violence, and Bennie's evident expertise in that area, leaves Elita shaken. Their disunion grows wider when Bennie finally reveals the reason for wanting to visit Alfredo's grave; Elita makes clear that she'll help him if that's what he chooses, but it will be their final moment together.

Vega, like many actresses in Peckinpah's films, is used mostly as a canvas upon which to paint male lust and venality, evidenced by her frequent nude scenes of the barest necessity. She has her top down more in this movie than Bennie's battered red 1962 Chevy Impala convertible.

The last act is a tragedy worthy of MacBeth. Elita falls victims to the plot, and Alfredo's head becomes Bennie's obsession and totem, as it passes hands from one interested party or another, but always finding its way back to Our Man. He begins talking to Alfredo, blaming him, then absolving him.

Bennie is less interested in the money than exacting revenge -- though, it should be noted, after plunking El Jefe in cold blood, he turns back to pick up the briefcase full of cash.

In the end, the story to me is about how we capriciously assign value to things, and how that can change in a wink. Bennie at first invests little emotional currency in his relationship with Elita, but that quickly compounds. Elita places more worth on saving Bennie's life than her own virtue. Bennie is not willing to kill for $10,000, but will do so to preserve his own pride. A man's legacy is worth nothing, but his bodily scraps will buy you into the millionaires' club.

"Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" is a weird, glorious and brutal film. It is not Peckinpah's greatest movie but is probably his most quintessential one. If you wanted to boil Peckinpah's worldview and cinematic aesthetics down to their base elements, this is what you'd get.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Review: "Steve Jobs"

"Steve Jobs" is the second screenplay by Aaron Sorkin that peeks behind the fabricated legend of an Information Age titan and finds a small boy bearing many scars who lashes out at those around him. It's not quite on the level of the Oscar-winning "The Social Network," but even a half-step below is pretty rarified territory.

Michael Fassbender plays the title role of Apple co-founder Jobs, a man who was equal parts visionary and bully. As one character points out to him, he couldn't write code or create circuit boards or really do much of anything practical, but was a master at getting those who could to synthesize products in dynamic new ways.

Jobs didn't believe in letting the customer tell you what they wanted; he would invent a need they didn't know they had, then construct a product and marketing bombardment to convince people to satisfy it.

Directed by Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire"), "Steve Jobs" is already being attacked as a largely fictional version of the man and those around him. I don't doubt that. Although based on the book by Walter Isaacson, a mostly friendly portrait in which Jobs willingly participated prior to his 2011 death, Sorkin conducted extensive interviews and research on his own, and has used the text as a mere springboard.

What we're seeing is less biography than cogitation.

Start with the story structure, which is divided into a three-act play format, each centered around pivotal product launches in Jobs' career: the Mac in 1984, the NeXT cube in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. Each time Jobs is visited by key people in his life, and spars with them, like Scrooge and his ghosts. They difference is that here the man rejects the lessons his interlocutors would impart.

There's a whole lot of big speeches and emotional tirades, always in the minutes leading right up to the moment Jobs is supposed to go on stage and wow the audience. Pretty amazing coincidence, that.

Some of what is put forward is pure bullshit. For instance, Jobs' marketing chief and major domo, Barbara Hoffman (Kate Winslet), is shown putting out fires all three times, when she actually retired in 1995. And Jobs is shown as using the NeXT launch to springboard himself back into the Apple camp, when really that didn't happen until a decade later.

So keep in mind as you watch Jobs battling with co-founder and rare friend Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) or Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) that we're not seeing stuff that actually happened. These are Sorkin's words, not the real people's.

This is Hollywood-style high art here, folks: 'Lying in order to impart a greater truth.'

That's reflected by Fassbender in the title role, a sterling actor who does not resemble or sound like Jobs in the faintest. But it's still a whiz-bang performance, portraying a man of limitless imagination and stunted emotions. Here was a guy who denied the paternity of his daughter, Lisa, for years, allowing her and her mother to subsist on welfare while he became worth billions.

The movie is essentially a series of dialogues between Jobs and one other person. With each he has a different motivation and mindset, and that evolves over time along with events. He starts out friendly with Sculley, even seeing him as a father figure, but that changes when dad orchestrates his ouster from Apple. (Though, as the movie claims, it was a mutual assured destruction scenario.) For "Woz," there is affection tempered with resentment, each man recognizing and desiring qualities in the other they themselves lack.

Michael Stuhlbarg plays Andy Hertzfeld, a key figure in the early days of Apple, who is bullied and berated by Jobs but somehow attains a sort of geeky grace with time. The relationship with Hoffman is probably the deepest, as she seemed to be the one person in his life who didn't need anything from Jobs and could stand up to him without endangering her own position.

The face-offs with his daughter's mother (Katherine Waterston) are more rote than the others and therefore less interesting; we know how it's going to play out, with recriminations and eventual demands for money, and wait for them to pass. His interactions with Lisa probably best mirror reality: halted, fractured, but gradually moving toward warmth.

"Steve Jobs" reminds me of a phrase used in another context but pertinent here: "Fake but accurate." It's a remarkable film that gets to the essence of a person largely by making things up.

What a magnificent fib.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review: "Coming Home"

“Coming Home” is a simple story of love, loss and sacrifice. This Chinese drama reunites luminous star Li Gong with director Yimou Zhang, who have been collaborating on films like “Raise the Red Lantern” for two decades.

It’s set during and immediately after the Cultural Revolution, when intellectuals and free-thinkers were locked away in the name of Maoist conformity. Chen Daoming plays Lu, a college professor and accused “rightist” who has been imprisoned for 10 years, then escapes.

The authorities know he will make straight for his wife, Feng (Li), and daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), who was just a girl when he was taken away. The Communists make it clear they must not aid Lu and, indeed, are compelled to turn him in if he shows up.

This is obviously more than any loving spouse could bear to do, but Dandan has grown up under the Communist yoke and is loyal to the party rather than the father who, as she sees it, betrayed her. Also, she’s a top dancer in the state ballet company, and hints are dropped about her chances of securing the lead role in the big upcoming production if she cooperates.

Flash forward a few more years, and the Revolution has ended and Lu is allowed to return home in peace. But the little family has changed much in that time. Dandan and Feng are living apart and barely speaking. Even worse, Feng is suffering from a mysterious ailment that affects her memory. We would now recognize this as classic dementia, but the Chinese medical system was not sufficient back then for such a diagnosis.

Feng does not recognize Lu as her husband. Despite pining for his return, she insists that the man before her is a stranger. She is offended when he attempts familiarity.

Lu talks to the doctors. He tries to recall memories of himself through photographs and letters. He rides the train so she will see him coming off of it, as Feng stands there with a hand-painted sign with her husband’s name on it. She looks past him again. They repeat this scenario every month on the 5th, which is when Feng thinks Lu is returning.

Time passes; his efforts continue to fail, and Lu grows discouraged. He sees her every day, but she regards him as merely a helpful comrade. He is living in an abandoned shop across from their apartment, unable to return home, declining to taking up teaching again, devoting his entire life to curing Feng. But what if no cure is possible?

It’s a spare story with minimal dialogue and musical accompaniment. Based on the novel “The Criminal Lu Yanshi” by Geling Yan with a screenplay by Zou Jingzhi, “Coming Home” examines the meaning of true devotion. Is it enough to give everything of yourself to a loved one, even if they never acknowledge the sacrifice? Can romantic love endure when the normal exchanges of sex and intimacy are precluded?

With its parable-like structure, “Coming Home” is less about reaching an answer than the yearning journey toward meaning.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Video review: "Paper Towns"

The teens and early twentysomethings we see in the movies bear little resemblance to actual youth as it is experienced these days. “Paper Towns” is the rare exception, a film that regards young people as complex, fallible and capable of a grace even they couldn’t have envisioned.

Nat Wolff plays Quentin, a band geek who’s coasting through high school, just waiting for it to end so he can transmogrify into someone better, and less invisible. As a kid he used to pal around with his neighbor Margo (Cara Delevingne), who is the adventurous yin to his timid yang, but they grew up, and apart.

One night Margo takes Quentin on a magical journey of wrong-righting and right-wronging, which she promises will be the best time of his life. And it is. But then Margo disappears, and Quentin and his small circle of friends launch a quest to solve the mystery, track down Margo and – in Quentin’s mind, anyway – close the loop and make her his girlfriend.

Things don’t go that way, though I won’t spoil the wondrous ways in which expectations are subverted. Suffice to say, Quentin finds the thing he didn’t know he was looking for.

Based on the book by John Green, and written by the same guys who adapted last year’s hit “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Paper Towns” is a wise, sad, funny and realistic portrayal of what it’s like to live, love and yearn as a teenager.

Video extras are tremendous, and you don’t have to pay more for blu-ray to get some good stuff. The DVD edition comes with a feature length commentary track by Green and director Jake Shreier; photo gallery; four promotional featurettes; and “lightning round” dialogues between Green and his two main stars.

Upgrade to blu-ray and you add five deleted or alternate scenes, a gag reel and three making-of mini documentaries.



Thursday, October 15, 2015

Review: "Bridge of Spies"

I've always enjoyed history, and am particularly tickled by the incongruous little stuff that doesn't break into the public consciousness. Like the Fourth Crusade, which set out to retake Jerusalem from the Saracen horde, but instead sacked the allied city of Constantinople to plunder its great wealth. Or the slaves who rose up against their masters aboard the ship "Amistad" and won their freedom before the Supreme Court, some of whom went on to become slave traders themselves.

History buffs, or those who just like a good geopolitical yarn, will probably enjoy "Bridge of Spies" as much as I did. The latest collaboration between director Steven Spielberg and actor Tom Hanks, it’s the curious story-behind-the-story of the U-2 incident of 1960, in which the Russians shot down a U.S. spy plane, heating up the Cold War to the point nuclear war seemed possible.

Hanks plays James B. Donovan, a respected but unheralded insurance attorney from Brooklyn who found himself in the unlikely role of negotiating for the return of the American pilot.

He had previously represented a Soviet spy caught by the CIA, Rudolf Abel, and convinced the authorities not to execute him since they might need to use him one day for leverage. Donovan’s prescience was rewarded by being tossed into the cauldron of geopolitical intrigue, making cloak-and-dagger forays across the Berlin Wall as an unofficial negotiator for his country.

The screenplay by young Matt Charman was punched up by Oscar-winning veterans Joel and Ethan Coen, and is essentially divided into two parts. Roughly the first half is about Donovan’s representation of Abel, which causes strain in both his professional and personal lives. He becomes a public pariah for doing more than offering a token defense, even taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The second half is the negotiations in Berlin.

He comes to find a grudging respect for Abel, who is portrayed by Mark Rylance in a strong, restrained performance. Abel is completely guilty, an incongruous figure born in England who speaks with a strong British lilt, raised in Russia and a devoted patriot. Posing as a painter, he refuses to share information or acknowledge he’s a spy, though he does not take great pains to conceal it.

Donovan seems bewildered by the man’s preternatural calm, repeatedly asking him if he’s worried or scared about being put to death for espionage. “Would it help?” is Abel’s stoic reply.

In turn, Donovan’s wife (Amy Ryan), law partner (Alan Alda) and even the judge (Dakin Matthews) are perplexed and bothered by his diligence in defending a traitor who divulged secrets to America’s greatest adversary. He resolutely points out that since Abel is not American he cannot be a traitor, but is an honorable enemy who deserves to be treated as such.

Flash forward a few years. American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down and captured while flying an ultra-secret U-2 plane. It causes great embarrassment to the U.S., as Powers failed to self-destruct his craft or kill himself with poison per orders. The CIA taps Donovan to set up an exchange: Abel for Powers.

The wrinkle is that the East Germans have also captured a young American student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), and are holding him on trumped-up charges. Instructed by his CIA handler (Scott Shepherd) to concentrate on the pilot and forget the student, Donovan takes it upon himself to enter tense three-way negotiations between America, the USSR and its young German satellite country. His goal: two for one.

It’s a typically skillful performance by Hanks, playing a man out of his depth who compensates by rigging the game according to rules he understands.

The film doesn’t really get deep inside Donovan’s head, but “Bridge of Spies” is less character study than political thriller. It’s about spotlighting a key piece of little-known history, and somehow even makes lawyerly negotiations enlivening. That’s a masterful bit of cinematic subterfuge.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Review: "Crimson Peak"

This goofy, gothic horror/romance from Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labrynth") is positively dripping in bloody mood, but forgot to pack the intrigue. It's a ghost tale in which the supernatural twist is spelled out for us from the very start. When the mystery is gone, so goes the thrill.

If that weren't bad enough, the evil twin siblings actually stand around and discuss their nefarious plans to the audience and, eventually, even the intended victim herself, who the brother has married for her money and then, tragically, actually fallen in love with.

We should kill her now, sister urges. Let's wait a while longer, he cautions, heart fluttering.

My God, people, do I really need to sit here and tell you that having characters blurt exactly what they're going to do and how they're going to do it tends to make a movie less, y'know, good? That when the heroine of the picture is the only one who's not clued in to what's happening, the audience will resent her for her stupidity rather than root for her resourcefulness?

Del Toro, who co-wrote the script with Matthew Robbins, is a feast-or-famine director whose stuff I've either loved ("Pacific Rim") or loathed ("Mimic"). He's a visionary filmmaker who sometimes fumbles with the ABC's of storytelling.

There was some consternation when the trailer for this highly anticipated movie seemed to reveal too much of the plot. That ire seems hilarious now; the film gives away so much of itself from the very outset that there's nothing left to tease. It's like a stripper who walks out onstage and drops all her clothes in a heap at once right after the song's started.

Mia Wasikowska plays Edith, an aspiring writer and proto-feminist in 1901 Buffalo. Dad (Jim Beaver) is a wealthy real estate guy who built himself up; mother is long dead of cholera, but occasionally turns up as a smoking, blackened corpse to warn her daughter to stay away from Crimson Peak.

(The creepy effects for the ghosts ae one of the few things about the movie that's special.)

In waltzes Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), the charming son of an old British house fallen low. He and his steely sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who practically hisses at the local gentry, are in town to raise some grub to revive the family mining operation. In short order Edith is bedazzled and wedded, but not bedded.

The Sharpes bring her back to the family manse, Allerdale Hall, which is literally sinking into the earth. It seems there's a very rare ore that's blood red and oozes up from under the building foundation, staining the ground as Thomas labors on a machine to harvest it.

Don't be worried about the walls that bleed or the constant groaning sounds produced by the wind, Lucille reassures, and Edith, the ninny, goes along with it. Even when she starts to see more corpses crawling up out of the mansion's rotting floorboards, her devotion to a man she met like three weeks earlier manages to overcome her doubts.

Things go on from there, which I won't reveal because I don't want to rob you of the satisfaction of figuring it all out for yourself 15 minutes into the movie.

"Crimson Peak" is an overstuffed movie of poofy dresses and poofy hair hiding airheaded characters who tell you what they're about so you don't have to overtax your brain. What a bloody nightmare.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Reeling Backward: "A Thousand Clowns" (1965)

There have been 520 films nominated for the Academy Award for best picture (as of this writing), and you would think every one of them is a cherished classic. After all, how many movies that don't get a best picture nod still go on to attain immortal status? If the best picture nominees are, broadly speaking, the best of the best, it seems intuitive that they would be remembered the best as well.

And yet, there are many films that received this distinguished honor that I have never even heard of, let alone seen. I've been making it a point to try to watch all the best picture winners -- by my count, there are nine remaining, the most recent being 1968's "Oliver!". Trying to get to all those that have merely been nominated seems a task worthy enough for a bucket list.

Let's start with "A Thousand Clowns," nominated for 1965. It's the tale of Murray Burns, a burnt-out television comedy writer who quit his job on the "Chuckles the Chipmunk" show in a fit five months ago and seems disinclined to rejoin ordered society. The unofficial ward of his 12-year-old nephew Nick, the iconoclastic Murray is threatened with having the boy taken away by child services unless he agrees to return to work and respectability.

Murray is played by the great Jason Robards, one of those actors made so iconic by his middle-age film roles that it's sometimes hard to even conceive of him as a young man. That's probably because he only got into acting after a naval stint during World War II, starting on the stage and working his way up to Broadway -- where his eight Tony nominations remain a record -- only making his feature film debut when he was sidling up to 40.

Robards starred in the Broadway production of the play by Herb Gardner, which ran for two years, so it was only natural for director Fred Coe to tap him for the film adaptation. It's a vibrant, scene-dominating performance. But interestingly, Robards did not get an Oscar nod himself. Gardner did for his screenplay, as did Don Walker for his music -- a schizophrenic mix of musical snatches, single instruments and random marches.

Martin Balsam, the wonderful character actor known for numerous sidekick roles, from "Psycho" to "Cape Fear" (both the original and remake), won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for playing Murray's brother, Arnold. He actually only has two substantive scenes in the entire movie totaling perhaps 12 minutes, but his rebuttal speech to Murray, defending his status as a well-to-do businessman toeing the line in the middle of the stream, is undoubtedly what earned his award.

He beat out the likes of Tom Courtenay as the dastardly Strelnikov in "Doctor Zhivago" and Ian Bannen as an uppity Scotsman in "The Flight of the Phoenix."

William Daniels has a fun, small role as Albert Amundson, the persnickety child welfare official sent to interview Murray after he predictably fails to respond to any of their letters or phone calls. He's brought along a junior assistant, one Dr. Sandra Markowitz, who is soon revealed to be a recent graduate and also Albert's fiancee. Over the course of the rambling interview, Sandra (Barbara Harris) becomes so disillusioned that she actually refuses to leave with Albert, resulting in the loss of her job and pending marriage.

Murray is not a particularly likable guy, and by that I mean he's kind of a self-important turd. Not only does he think a normal life of work and stability isn't right for him, he's contemptuous of those who do (in his mind) conform to societal dictates. He has a habit of interrupting people while they're talking with deliberately distracting non-sequiturs, trying to leave them confused and uncomfortable. He's quite successful at this.

In a lot of ways he makes me think of a grown-up Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of "Catcher in the Rye," who is endlessly obsessed with how much of a phony everybody but him is. Like a lot of underemployed folks predisposed to philosophizing, Murray is excellent at discerning the faults and foibles of others but does not care to point his high-caliber powers of observation at himself.

In a not particularly convincing turn of events, Sandra camps out at Murray's cramped, disheveled apartment -- which is repeatedly referred to as a "one-room apartment," even as characters walk through doors to other rooms. The two also are clearly inferred to have had sex, in a scene in which Sandra wakes up nude and Murray hands her her clothes behind a partition. Things would soon change with the death of Hollywood's production code, but for 1965 it's still a pretty ballsy scene.

They spend a magical day cruising around New York City, doing quirky things like bidding bon voyage to a departing passenger ship, pretending like they know somebody on board. At the end they are in love, and Sandra urges Murray to clean up his life the same way she's going to clean up his apartment for him.

(For unemployed people, Sandra and Murray appear to have plenty of money for a horde of flowers, new drapes, a new suit and briefcase, trips to the Statue of Liberty, etc. I always hate it in movies when characters are described as destitute and then they can seemingly pay for anything they want without any worries.)

Nick is an interesting kid. Played precociously by Barry Gordon, he's turning into a miniature Murray, cynic and wiseacre, who acts as his wingman and collaborator in making other people feel like fools. Nick isn't even his real name, as his mother (Murray and Arnold's sister) dropped him off as a tyke without even bothering to give him a legal moniker. So Nick awards himself a new name every now and then. Near the end of the film he decides to abandon Nick because, he says, it's a short person's name and he doesn't want to call attention to his stature.

Murray relents and goes to listen to some job offers Arnold has set up, which of course he haughtily refuses -- even slinking out of a lunch while some producer is in mid-pitch. Strangely, the job he has in mind is for Murray to just appear on television as himself, talking about whatever he wants. This would seem to be his dream gig, a venue in which he could tell the world they're a bunch of deluded clowns and get paid handsomely for it.

Instead, Murray agrees to meet with his old boss, Leo Herman (Gene Saks), a pathetic middle-aged man who puts on a furry suit to play Chuckles the Chipmunk for an idiotic kids' show in the Howdy Doody mold. Chuckles seems to exist mostly to sell merchandise, including some potato chips that are described as the worst-tasting in the world.

Leo is taken down by Nick, who tries to be polite for Murray's sake, but finally is honest when asked by Leo if he thinks his shtick is funny. It's the most effective moment of the film, probably because it's a (mostly) innocent kid speaking truth to power, rather than a resentful grown man who regards everyone else as chumps.

I wasn't particularly impressed with "A Thousand Clowns." Its message is muddled -- work is bad? Those who conform have withered souls? -- and its messenger often seems mean-spirited and cowardly. Maybe there's a reason some Oscar nominees are forgotten.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Video review: "Tomorrowland"

The most disappointing films are usually not aggressively bad, merely forgettable. Though it has been but four months since I saw “Tomorrowland,” I can barely recall the plot without reading my own summary of it.

With director Brad Bird at the helm -- a man whose previous worst film was merely “very good” -- and an intriguing premise, “Tomorrowland” seemed to have all the makings of a sci-fi fairy tale. But the movie gets bogged down in a convoluted plot, and even George Clooney seems grumpy and fuzzy about what’s going on.

The story centers on a bright young teen, Casey (Britt Robertson), who finds herself transported into an amazing future world whenever she touches a mysterious pin. It’s all an illusion, sort of, but leads her to the door of reclusive inventor Frank (Clooney), with the help of an enigmatic British girl (Raffey Cassidy).

Things go on from there, which are hard to describe without ruining the movie’s (attempted) allure. Suffice to say they end up on a Da Vinci Code-like ride, finding clues to the Tomorrowland in famous places. They eventually reach it, but of course there’s more to the futuristic fantasyland than meets the eye.

A well-meaning film loaded with stellar talent, “Tomorrowland” is the proverbial sleek rocket that never gets off the launch pad.

Bonus features are excellent, though you’ll have to spring for the blu-ray combo pack to get most of them. One of the neatest things is production diaries by Brad Bird. There are three, though the DVD edition only comes with one of them. It also has “Blast from the Past,” a fictional commercial for Tomorrowland.

With the Blu-ray combo pack, you get all the diaries, eight deleted scenes, four Easter eggs, three making-of featurettes, a fictional children’s show, “The World of Tomorrow Science Hour” with futurologist David Nix, and an animated short, “The Origins of Plus Ultra.”



Thursday, October 8, 2015

Review: "99 Homes"

“99 Homes” is an earnest little drama that focuses on the foreclosure craze during the Great Recession. It shows how the will to survive can be gradually bended into a willingness to exploit the tragedies of others for personal gain. It’s a deliberately discomfiting portrait of how the line between victim and victimizer can easily blur.

Andrew Garfield is solid and empathetic as Dennis Nash, the true-blue-collar guy who gets evicted from his house, then goes to work for the real estate mogul who threw him out, eventually morphing into his right-hand lackey and reflection.

But Michael Shannon utterly steals the show as his boss, Rick Carver -- a conniving, contemptible yet surprisingly human figure.

Rick’s a cannibal who feels compelled to justify his actions even as he’s employing his teeth to strip the bones. He’s part Donald Trump, dividing the world into admirable winners and wretched losers; part pathetic Willy Loman, so fearful of a fall from grace that he invites it; and part Blake, Alec Baldwin’s wolfen character from “Glengarry Glen Ross,” slavering for his prey.

This is a tiny picture that I hope Oscar voters will remember when it comes time for voting on nominations. Shannon assuredly deserves a spot on the supporting actors’ list.

The story is set circa 2010 in Orlando, Fla. -- my own hometown. I can remember people back home talking about seeing at least two foreclosure signs on every block, whether houses were in the $70,000s or the $700,000s. Places like O-Town and Phoenix, Ariz., were the hot spots for the real estate bubble, with overheated prices producing the most precipitous drops when the bottom fell out.

Dennis is a construction guy, single dad, who lives with his son, Connor (Noah Lomax), and mom (Laura Dern) in a low-roofed bungalow -- the sort of crowded, low-cost housing that fueled Florida’s population boom in the 1950s and ’60s. Work’s been scanty since the real estate bubble popped, so when they get behind on their mortgage payments the courts are quick to whip out of the foreclosure card.

In a harrowing scene, Dennis and his brood are summarily thrown out of the family dwelling, their stuff piled up on the lawn by riff-raff workers, with rent-a-cops warning them of a trip to jail if they don’t comply. Rick is calling the shots, though he pretends to be just the guy with the clipboard carrying out orders. The energy is real and nervy, with everyone resorting to that sort of false politeness – “Yes, sir,” “No, ma’am,” – when they’d really like to take a swing at each other.

They pack up their stuff to a rundown motel, which houses a thriving community of evictees, all convinced they’ll move back into their own home any day now. Dennis catches a break when he stumbles upon Rick and is offered 50 bucks to help out with a vacant property that has been befouled. He possesses enough self-worth left to haggle the nasty job up to two-fifty, and Rick recognizes a hunger he can harness.

“Don’t get emotional about real estate,” Rick intones. “They’re boxes.”

Soon enough, Dennis himself is the one holding the clipboard, running his own crews, talking people into easing their keys into his hand, waving in the police to strong-arm it when required. Rick shows him how to work the grayish angles between private commerce and government subsidy, snagging whopping checks from Fannie Mae by covertly shuffling around appliances and AC’s.

(Air conditioning, for those not in the know, is practically a religion in the Sunshine State, and all must tithe.)

Written (along with Amir Naderi) and directed by Ramin Bahrani, “99 Homes” gets a bit fat in the second half, as the plot plays out its preordained contretemps between diabolical mentor and soul-searching mentee. But it manages to powerfully illustrate the human toll of the foreclose-and-flip game, just as we’ve started to forget the shenanigans and, thereby, open the door to them again.

Review: "Pan"

The latest big-screen iteration of the Peter Pan legend is rather a mess, but it’s an exhilarating mess. “Pan” mixes astonishing CG action, plucky kids, goofy musical interludes with modern pop songs, and Hugh Jackman as a fey villain who looks like he got kicked out of a “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” audition.

The result is a thrill ride of a movie by parts giddy and scary, a joyful exercise in prodigious imagineering. It’s the rare kids’ movie that parents may actually prefer.

The story – screenplay by Jason Fuchs, based on the J.M. Barrie characters -- is essentially a prequel/retcon of the Peter Pan mythology. We’re pre-Wendy & Co. here, focusing instead on how a cheeky British orphan first became the tights-wearing, flying, smirking never-grow-upper.

Most of the familiar gang is here: Smee, Tinkerbell, Lost Boys, Princess Tiger Lily, etc. But they’re living in a despoiled Neverland much grimmer than what we’re used to. The biggest curveball is James Hook, still young and unhooked, who throws off the shackles of his innate cynicism to become Peter’s ally and best friend.

(No hint as to how their relationship and his hand came to be, uh, detached.)

It’s a corker of a performance by Garrett Hedlund, who manages to suggest some of the verbal idiosyncrasies and vanity of Captain Hook, but with a cowboy American bent. He wears a long duster coat and an Indiana Jones hat, flirts shamelessly with Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) and regards Peter as a wayward kid brother.

Levi Miller plays Peter, and he’s solid in the role, blue eyes perpetually wide, though the character as written is a bit generic and bland. He’s the window through which we experience this fantastical world, and -- as is so often the case with this kind of moviemaking -- the frame is not meant to draw the eye.

The real head-turner – and scratcher, as some will see it – is Jackman’s pirate Blackbeard. He’s just… well, his own thing. He wears extravagant Renaissance-style costumes, has a ghostly pallor and feral teeth, and the dark circles around his eyes are so deep it seems like he’s staring at you from out of a graveyard hole. He’s part tyrant, part fop, all wicked.

Blackbeard, having defeated the faeries of Neverland in a war, is mining every speck of the island for remnants of their dust, or pixin, which he uses for his secret and nefarious purposes. He dispatches his flying pirate ships into the “real world” – England during WWII – to nab orphan boys to be used as laborers in his mines. Peter, who was left as a babe on the steps of the Lambeth Home for Boys by his mum along with a pan flute locket, is one such snatchee.

His introduction to Neverland is ostentatious, and odd. In a vast mining pit where boys toil with pickaxes, they pause in their labors to exalt Blackbeard with an a capella rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” with the great pirate joining in himself. The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” gets similar use for a battle scene.

Usually in movie musical scenes people sing to address somebody else, or narrate their own actions, but here Blackbeard and crew are essentially serenading themselves for its own sake. Maybe it would’ve worked better if it was more consistent, but just those two tunes are employed.

To paraphrase Robert Downey Jr.’s character in “Tropic Thunder,” you should either go full musical, or not bother.

Peter bumps into James, who possibly has been mining there since he was a boy himself, and is rather sour about it. They soon bust out together, with perennial sidekick Smee (Adeel Akhtar) tagging along, fall in with Tiger Lily and the Indians, who here are a full multicultural gamut of castoffs. Peter, who has demonstrated nascent flying abilities, is embraced as their Chosen One who will free the banished faeries from the secret hidey place.

Director Joe Wright is best known for costume dramas like “Atonement,” “Pride & Prejudice” and “Anna Karenina.” But he seems to have found his inner child with this film, relishing high adventure and fantasy without reservation.

I don’t doubt some will find “Pan” weird and off-putting. But if you’re willing to view Barrie’s writings as inspiration rather than sacred text, you’ll find a delightful spree that captures the quintessence of childlike wonder.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Review: "A Brilliant Young Mind"

"A Brilliant Young Mind" is a sweet and sensitive tale, but it wants to be three sweet and sensitive tales -- maybe more. In exploring the world of an autistic teen boy who's also a math prodigy, the film gives into the temptation to have other figures in his life nudge him out of the frame, which diminishes him as a character.

It's still a lovely film about a troubled genius, along the lines of "A Beautiful Mind" or the more recent "Love & Mercy." I just wish the filmmakers were a little more disciplined in their storytelling choices.

Morgan Matthews is a veteran documentarian making his first foray into feature film directing, and screenwriter James Graham is a relative novice with credits in television. They make the sort of mistakes inexperienced movie-makers make, but show a deft touch toward building believable, relatable characters -- too many, in fact.

The movie's title everywhere but the U.S. is "x+y," which perhaps helps explain the movie's hazy focus. It's based on a documentary called "Beautiful Young Minds," about the International Mathematical Olympiad, also directed by Matthews.

Asa Butterfield plays Nathan Ellis, a Brit lad "on the spectrum" who has trouble connecting emotionally with others. He needs everything to be just so, from his food -- seven prawn balls, not nine! -- to his relationship with his mother (Sally Hawkins), whom he studiously keeps at a distance. His adoring father (Martin McCann) was killed years ago -- Edward Baker-Close plays Nathan as a child -- and he's been essentially floating above human contact since.

Rafe Spall plays Martin Humphreys, a former math prodigy himself, now stricken with MS and a crushing lack of self-worth, who takes Nathan under his wing and begins training him for the math Olympiad. Spall, who resembles a bearded Ryan Reynolds so much I actually thought it was him for the first half-hour or so, is tremendous in the role.

For awhile the film starts following him instead of Nathan, exploring his life away from the boy, and we grow confused. It's obvious Martin sees much of himself in Nathan, and has essentially devoted the entirety of his remaining ambition to seeing him succeed. Do we really need to follow Martin into group therapy sessions, where he lays out his doubts plain as paper? Or a burgeoning, ill-advised romance with Nathan's mom?

Similarly, once Nathan arrives in Taiwan for the math trials, the story sort of scatters into several pieces that, while engaging on their own, don't really fit together.
There is camaraderie and competition amongst the whiz kids, both within the British contingent and against the Chinese team and its adult captain, with whom Nathan's captain (the reliably nervy Eddie Marsan) has an enduring rivalry, barely concealed by convivial joshing.

One of the Brit boys, Luke (Jake Davies), seems to be the smartest and is certainly the boldest, but the others resent him, especially the more socially inclined Alex (Isaac Cooper). The power dynamic shifts this way and that, with Nathan as the neutral party. The team's lone female, Rebecca (Alexa Davies), clearly is attracted to him, but Nathan remains oblivious or unwilling to reciprocate.

Meanwhile, Zhang Mei (Jo Yang) is the Chinese team captain's niece, and makes repeated attempts to ingratiate herself with Nathan. He gradually responds and a friendship forms. Meanwhile, his work on the math team suffers. Has she been conscripted to disorient the British team's top competitor?

So is "A Brilliant Young Mind" a story about math? Or love? Academic rivalries? Second chances? Autism? Father figures? All it once, it would seem.

I may not be a math genius, but I know a thing or two about movies, and one of the first equations one needs to know is that too much addition to the story always results in a deduction of value from the final result. This film is still a positive cinematic experience, but could've been exponentially better.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Video review: "South Park: The Complete 18th Season"

Ever since “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker became a Broadway bonanza, their “day job” producing the crude, smart animated show for Comedy Central has seemed to have taken a back burner. Seasons have been pared down to just 10 episodes as of late, including the 18th, which lasted from just late September till early December of 2014.

Though clearly no longer at the top of their game, the pint-sized provocateurs of a fictional Colorado town – Kyle Broflovski, Eric Cartman, Stan Marsh and Kenny McCormick – still manage to land plenty of satirical punches.

Things got off to a strong start with the first episode, “Go Fund Yourself,” which managed to lampoon the NFL controversies over Ray Rice’s domestic violence and the Washington Redskins name, as well as online companies that leech off of do-gooder donation drives.

“South Park” episodes have generally stood as standalone entities, but this season we saw several themes carry over, especially gender identity. Cartman claimed to be transgender just so he could have access to a nicer, private bathroom at school, while it was revealed that Stan’s dad Randy was secretly the alter-ego of teen pop star Lorde.

Other episodes were up and down from there. A low point was “Handicar,” in which monosyllabic handicapped kid Timmy starts his own Uber-like transportation service using motorized wheelchairs. It mostly seemed like a lame reason to feature the return of Nathan, Timmy’s Machiavellian rival from special ed, and his dimwitted sidekick Mimsy. Their vaudevillian antics quickly grew old.

Later episodes improved, such as one in which Cartman tricks naïve lickspittle Butters into believing he’s living in a different reality by slipping a virtual reality device over his head while he’s sleeping.

Despite the repetition and tired humor that has crept into the show, “South Park” still is gleefully sharp satire.

Bonus features are limited but decent. The DVD comes with deleted scenes and “mini commentaries” by Parker and Stone on each episode. The blu-ray edition adds more commentary culled from social media about every episode.



Thursday, October 1, 2015

Review: "The Martian"

We're familiar by now with the standard attributes of the space disaster genre. "The Martian" checks them off one by one: astronaut marooned in the reaches of outer space, desperate struggles to survive, ingenuity overcoming dire circumstance, people back on Earth trying frenetically to puzzle out a solution, more unexpected setbacks, more spontaneous improvisation, death licking at the protagonist's heels, salvation.

What's different is the tone and the approach to storytelling. "The Martian" is exhilarating, joyous -- and surprisingly funny. If it's possible to make a feel-good movie about cheating death, then this is it.

Based on the novel by Andy Weir, the film is part "Gravity" and part "Cast Away." It leaves Matt Damon stranded on Mars, where he must survive for months and potentially years with limited resources. He wanders deep inside his own head, talking to himself constantly -- ostensibly for the station's video logs but mostly as a way to keep himself sane. Then the second half is about the effort, undertaken seemingly by the entire world, to rescue him.

What's interesting is that director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard don't make any attempt to get to know the characters before disaster strikes, jumping right into the mayhem. Much like "Mad Max: Fury Road," the story allows the characters to reveal themselves gradually over the course of a harrowing journey.

There's a mission on Mars -- third in a series of five, we're told -- and botanist Mark Watney (Damon) and the others are waylaid by a massive storm that requires they blast off early and return home. Watney is whacked unconscious by some debris, the others believe him dead, and have to leave before they themselves are killed.

From here the story turns to Watney's efforts to survive long enough to greet the next Mars landing, four years hence. But how to make his energy, oxygen, food, etc. last until then? He comes up with some pretty brilliant strategies, which I'll not reveal.

Damon is charismatic and grounded, in one of his finest performances.

Meanwhile, the NASA folks, having declared Watney dead to the world, must get things together on their end. How to establish communications with Mars? Should they devote their limited resources to saving one man? Should they tell the astronauts on their way home their comrade is still alive? They devise their own extravagant plans, a combination of altruism and covering their own asses.

On the ground, the key players include Chiwetel Ejiofor as the mission leader, passionate and aggressive; Benedict Wong as the beleaguered head of the engineers, called repeatedly upon to do things in the half the normal time; Kristen Wiig as the savvy PR gal; Sean Bean as flight commander, always advocating for the astronauts; Donald Glover as the young whiz kid with bright ideas; and Jeff Daniels as the stern NASA chief, balancing noble goals with miserly realities.

Eventually, of course, Watney's crewmates learn of his fate and must decide if they should risk their own necks to turn around and go back for him. Jessica Chastain is the decisive-yet-doubting commander; Kate Mara is the comms expert, keeper of others' secrets; Michael Peña is the pilot and resident smartass; Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie are the generic utility guys.

The two pieces of the movie, survivor's soliloquy and mass rescue endeavor, fit surprisingly well together. We spend the first hour getting to know Watney, growing to admire his grit and streak of humor. (Forced to commandeer some equipment while noodling around with the shadings of international maritime law, he declares himself "Mark Watney, space pirate.")

Having established in the audience's minds that Watney is worth saving, we're entirely caught up in the logistics of trying to bring him home. I think you can guess what the outcome is, but it's still a white-knuckled thrill ride getting there.

Review: "Sicario"

Good movies misdirect us; less accomplished ones misdirect themselves. Such is the case with "Sicario," a well-intentioned political/crime thriller set amidst the violence spilling across the Mexican/U.S. border, especially the volatile El Paso/Juarez crossing point.

This film features a couple of effective performances by Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro. But it spends so much effort keeping its main character in the dark about what she's gotten herself into, the audience is kept ignorant, too. And when people don't know what's at stake, they have a hard time getting emotionally invested in the proceedings.

Directed by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who made the wonderfully harrowing "Prisoners" a couple of years ago, "Sicario" sets us off into a labyrinth and then is content to let us wander lost and perplexed. The screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, a TV actor with his first produced screenplay, is strong on mood and character but seems to think that's enough in itself to sustain a two-hour story acrc.

Blunt plays Kate Macer, a young but well-regarded FBI foot soldier in the war against narcotics. "She's a thumper," praises her boss (Victor Garber), meaning she's strong on tactics -- with the shaded implication that she's less accomplished at the subtler aspects of the job. The story opens with her leading a raid on a house of horrors in the Phoenix area, which starts bad and ends worse.

Thinking she's about to get the hook, Kate is instead offered a plum assignment with Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), an "advisor" who is putting together an ambitious task force to take the fight to the Mexican and Columbian cartels.

"We're here to shake the trees and create chaos," Graver says, which would be more reassuring if not for his flippant manner and barefaced disregard for following the rules. She insists on bringing her partner along (Daniel Kaluuya), though Graver turns him into a glorified chauffer.

At first Kate is impressed by the apparent resources and mojo behind this task force -- they fly on private airplanes, commandeer equipment, recruit soldiers fresh from Afghanistan to be their door-knockers.

Most intriguing is the presence of a man named only as Alejandro (del Toro), whom Graver introduces as his "bird dog." He follows along on their adventures, seemingly not doing very much, but quietly nudging events this way and that. He and Kate form something less than a bond, but more than professional regard.

Scraps of information about him leak out: he used to be a prosecutor, incurred some sort of tragedy that deep-sixed his career, now he's on loan to whatever governmental agency, south of the border or north, that currently needs him. The film's title, which in Mexico essentially means hit man, refers to Alejandro.

Things go on from there. We witness how the drug trade is plied in Juarez: naked, headless bodies strung up everywhere like totems; policemen who essentially operate as another arm of the drug lords; the implication that the American government tolerated the illicit trade when they had more control over it, etc.

Everything builds up to the central question: what is the group's real mission, and what is Kate's role in it? The way Graver keeps her on the wings, it seems clear she's in some way being used. The only real mystery is finding out in exactly what way she's the patsy.

Big reveals in movies are more impactful when it's a "what," not a "how."

You may have read that a sequel to "Sicario" has already been greenlit even before this film made it into theaters, and will follow del Toro's character. That's fine; perhaps that movie can more satisfyingly unwrap the portentous pretensions of this one.