Monday, December 26, 2016

Video review: "American Honey"

Sasha Lane sashays through “American Honey” with confidence and verve. Literally plucked off a beach by writer/director Andrea Arnold with no acting experience whatsoever, she plays the teenage protagonist in a rambling, nearly 3-hour-long contemplation of wastrel youth living and partying on the road.

The film is the spiritual successor to the oeuvre of Larry Clark and Harmony Korine -- films like “Kids” that essentially just follow young people around, observing their wild behavior without commentary. Here they are lost souls riding a bandwagon to oblivion, a dozen or so youngsters crammed into a huge van traveling from town to town, knocking on doors to sell magazine subscriptions.

You’ve probably seen these kids at your doorstep, talking about hard times they’ve been through and how you can help them reach their dreams by helping them earn “points” toward a college scholarship. Jake (Shia LaBeouf) is the oldest and savviest player in this game, donning an old sport coat and whipping up a new tale of woe based on how he reads each person answering the door.

Star (Lane) is stuck in some hillbilly town caring for a pair of kids while their mother spends her days in a stupor in a honkey-tonk bar, and the father makes increasingly disturbing sexual overtures. When she spots the magazine crew of free spirits, she hitches along on a whim.

It’s an eclectic mix of losers and wannabes, most of whom remain in the background as a sort of Greek chorus. There’s the goth girl, the surfer dude, the buff guy who never wears a shirt and has a tendency to take his junk out and wave it at people for laughs.

The main dynamic is between Jake, Star and Krystal (Riley Keough), the hardcase young woman running the show. She treats the members of the crew like lost puppies she picks up by the side of the road, and discards just as easily if they don’t play by her rules and earn money. At the end of a run, the two lowest-earning people have to square off in a fight at the “Losers’ Ball.”

Jake is her plaything, exuding an attitude of independence and brashness, but ready to serve as her chauffeur or bed partner as Krystal demands. Clearly enamored with Jake, Star is soon at odds with the boss-lady.

Things play out from there, carefree encounters punctuated by long spells inside the van, cruising along, getting high and rockin’ to some tunes. The most memorable episode is Star taking off with a trio of middle-aged rich cowboys, the type who wear 10-gallon hats and big belt buckles, but probably haven’t done any manual labor in 20 years.

I didn’t mind Arnold’s unstructured narrative, though many people may find it languid. I did wish it would round out to something more consequential than a simple love triangle. But the tour goes on, some faces disappear without warning and new ones show up to replace them.

Soon Star is now longer the newbie, but a veteran of the rainbow troupe. She finds herself by losing herself, I guess you’d say. “American Honey” is a whirlwind of a film, a harsh breeze of chaotic energy that doesn’t really have any purpose or direction, but kicks up quite a ruckus along the way.

Bonus features are deplorably lacking, consisting entirely of an interview with Keough and Lane.



Friday, December 23, 2016

Review: "Fences"

In general I’m not a fan of most stage-to-screen adaptations. The mediums are lot more different than people think, and the stitch marks show too glaringly from the conversion process. Like the way the action is largely confined to one or two places, the cast is artificially small, and people have that weird habit of walking a few steps away, but the other characters continue the conversation as if they can’t be heard.

But “Fences,” directed and starring Denzel Washington from a screenplay adaptation that August Wilson did himself, is an absolute triumph. It’s a deeply affecting portrait of African-American lives in 1950s Pittsburgh, with the patriarch of a small family raging against injustice and the life that has left him feeling shackled.

Part of Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” “Fences” is the first in what Washington has declared will be screen versions of all 10 plays. If the first is any indication, we’re about to see one of the most ambitious undertakings in cinematic history.

Certainly, “Fences” belongs on any list of the best films of 2016.

The story takes place mostly in the kitchen and cramped back yard of Troy and Rose Maxson. He’s a garbage man and she’s a housewife, living in a tidy but poor section of Pittsburgh. They’ve been married 18 years and have a son in high school, Cory (an impressive Jovan Adepo), who is a star player on the football team and has an offer to play on a scholarship in college.

Troy, though, is both a product and a rebel of his time. He had a wild youth, living as a thief and fathering another boy, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), by another woman. He gave it all up long ago to be a garbage collector, because it was a safe and stable existence. But now he’s agitating for a promotion to driver of the garbage truck, something no other “coloreds” are allowed to do.

Troy was also a star baseball player prior to integration of the sport at the professional level, and doesn’t want to see Cory go through the same disappointment that he did. The fierce nature of his love unfortunately translates into ogreish behavior that pushes the boy away, and starts a growing rift with Rose.

Over the course of the story, Troy works (in fits and starts) on building a fence in his back yard, for reasons that are apparent only to himself. I suspect it’s because Troy is a man who has a firm grasp on his own identity, and knows what things he wants to keep in his life and what he wants to keep out. His tragic flaw is the delusion that he has control over these things.

Most of the rest of the cast are carryovers from the recent Broadway stage revival. Stephen Henderson is a revelation as Bono, Troy’s coworker and best friend. Henderson takes would could have been a typical wingman role and gives Bono all sorts of depths and shades. He loves Troy and Rose, so much that he can’t stand when they begin to tear each other up. Bono is endlessly supportive but not an enabler.

Rounding out the cast is Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel, Troy’s younger brother who was left mentally shattered after being wounded during World War II. As the story opens, Gabriel has been living with Troy and Rose -- indeed, his disability checks helped buy the house -- but recently moved out to his own place. Carrying a trumpet he can’t play and a tattered vestige of his manhood, Gabriel is a pitiable symbol.

“Fences” sticks close to the play in terms of character, story and dialogue. Washington employs some subtle but effective director’s tricks to open things up, such as having the camera slowly rotate around a small knot of people having a conversation.

Washington and Davis both give powerful, Oscar-worthy turns, and the supporting cast hits all its notes squarely and true. This is the rare stage play that only grows in impact when it’s given a little more room to flourish.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Review: "Sing"

“Zootopia’s Got Talent.”

That was the three-word review provided by a pal who saw the movie before me, and it sums up “Sing” better than I could.

This is a breezy, glitzy animated jukebox show in which movie stars play singing critters getting together for a big talent competition. It will probably win with most children, especially those who like pop songs and want to hear Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson and the like belting them out through the mouths of pigs and porcupines.

Grownups may find it a bit tedious -- I came awfully close to catching a few Zzzs during our screening -- but it builds a good head of steam toward a showstopper finale.

Written and directed by Garth Jennings, who also provides the voices of one of the minor characters, “Sing” is set in an all-animal metropolis very much like the one in “Zootopia,” where humans are neither seen nor heard, and may not even exist in this world.  (Christophe Lourdelet is co-director.)

Matthew McConaughey, who turns out to be a real vocal chameleon between this and his voice acting in “Kubo and the Two Strings,” plays Buster Moon. He’s a koala bear charlatan who runs a grand old theater that’s had one big failure after another.

McConaughey plays Moon light and schmaltzy, employing the upper register of his voice without a hint of that famous Texas drawl. Moon is an old-school “let’s put on a show” type with a heart of gold, but isn’t above stiffing contractors and a dab of flim-flam.

With the bank threatening repossession, he comes up with an idea for a huge singing contest using local unknowns. Scraping together his last bit of cash, he instructs his elderly iguana secretary to put out flyers advertising a $1,000 prize, but through some slapstick action it gets turned into $100,000. Soon every critter in town who thinks they can warble worth a darn is beating down his door.

McConaughey doesn’t get past humming, but there is a great deal of singing, both old standards and a few new tunes. Some of the actors we already knew could sing -- Johansson, Seth MacFarlane. But it’s a treat to hear Reese Witherspoon, as hectored porcine housewife Rosita, fry up some bacon and serve it with style.

Pop singer Tori Kelly plays Meena, an elephant who takes a job as stagehand because she’s too shy to show her talent. Johansson is Ash, a surly teen porcupine rocker who gets to step out of the shadow of her controlling boyfriend. MacFarlane voices Mike, a streetwise mouse who dresses, behaves and sings like he stepped right out of Sinatra’s Rat Pack.

The real sensation is Taron Egerton, the affable Brit you may remember from “Eddie the Eagle” and “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” He plays Johnny, a Cockney gorilla who comes from a clan of career criminals, and doesn’t want to follow in the family footsteps. Egerton’s got some truly golden pipes, soft and silky.

There’s really not a whole lot of narrative ambition to “Sing.” Each character has a mini arc to travel along, and we know where they’re going to land two minutes after we meet them. But the songs are nice to listen to, the creatures are crazy cute and your kids will be entertained for 108 minutes.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Review: "Passengers"

“Passengers” is a lot cleverer and more contemplative than I took it for.

The trailers make it look like a dopey romance-in-space story starring the ridiculously cute couple of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. They’re two passengers on a massive colonization ship from Earth who get woken up from hyper-sleep 90 years too early, and have to face the prospect of their own mortality while falling head-over-heels in love -- quite literally, in zero gravity suits.

Talk about the ultimate Meet Cute: “They found love along the way to a galaxy far, far away.”

Instead, director Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”) and screenwriter Jon Spaights (“Doctor Strange”) give us something more ambitious and much darker. The syrupy love story is still there, but it’s leavened with moral quandaries and existential threats. The last act is pretty typical we-must-save-the-world action sequences, but what comes before sets it up convincingly.

Their ship is headed to a lush green planet across the cosmos. The Homestead II looks a lot like the ship in “Wall•E” -- a luxury ocean liner in space, with robots to cater to their every need. Except the 5,000 passengers and 258 crew are only supposed to wake up when they’re four months out from their destination.

Something goes wrong with the hyper-sleep pods, and as it happens, the two most attractive people onboard wake up. Aurora Lane is a journalist who found her life on Earth constraining and hungered for adventure. Her idea was to travel to the colony, spend a year living there and write a book about it, then travel back again in hyper-sleep, so she’d end up 250 years into the future.

Jim Preston is a much more down-to-earth guy. A mechanic living on a planet where it’s cheaper to buy new things than fix old ones -- sound familiar? -- he yearns for a place where his skillset is valuable. He dreams of building his own house on a distant planetside.

Their only other real companion is Arthur, a legless bartender android played by Michael Sheen. All the other robots are mechanized automatons, but Arthur’s been programmed to listen and react to psychological issues. He’s even smart enough to recognize his limitations.

“These are not robot questions,” he cautions at one point.

After an appropriate amount of sorta-courtship, Jim and Aurora eventually abandon hopes of saving themselves and dive deep into their “accidental happiness.”

Now, something happens in this movie that I can’t really tell you about. I kind of want to, because it’s critical to our discussion of why “Passengers” is a superior sci-fi film. Although the plot development has apparently been alluded to and/or outright discussed in articles about the movie, I can’t assume you’ve read them. The trailers certainly don’t spell it out. So I’m bound by my oath as a respectable critic not to say anymore.

OK, stuff that. I’ll talk about it, but not before uncorking one standard-issue Spoiler Warning®. Please, skip down so as not to ruin your experience.

Ready? Alright, the deal is that Jim’s hyper-sleep pod really does go kerflooey, but after spending a good chunk of time alone trying all sorts things to save himself, including getting back to sleep, he deliberately wakes up Aurora on his own -- after studying her profile and becoming smitten. Also, she looks like Jennifer Lawrence.

Now, it may sound creepy that a guy would do this, effectively condemning another person to death long before they reach their destination, just so he won’t be alone. And it may sound even creepier that he chooses the hottest girl on the ship to satisfy his primordial male urges.

The reason this sounds creepy is because it’s incredibly creepy and gross. Hiding-cameras-in-the-toilet creepy and gross. But because Pratt projects such an innate decency, and because the filmmakers take pains to explore the depth of his despair, we at least understand his choice without condoning it.

(Personally, I’d have woken up the person whose profile said they were a scientist who knows a lot about hyper-sleep pods, but that’s me.)

End Spoiler Warning®. I’d have used bigger ones but hey, these things aren’t cheap!

For those just rejoining us, suffice it to say that “Passengers” is much more than it seems on the surface. It’s a smart and sexy movie that also has some deep thoughts beyond the pretty façade. It’s less Star Wars and more Philip K. Dick.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Broken Lance" (1954)

Here's a description I found of Jerome Weidman's 1941 novel, "I'll Never Go There Anymore," unread by me:
This semi-classic Weidman novel places a handful of vibrant characters together for a two week stay at a lonely summer cabin. "A summer vacation thrust him into manhood."
And yet this largely forgotten book was turned into not one, not two but three disparate movies spread out over just 12 years. First was 1949's contemporaneous "House of Strangers" starring Edward G. Robinson as a corrupt New York City banker. For 1954's "Broken Lance," the story was transposed to the wide open country during the late 19th century, featuring Spencer Tracy as a hard-bitten cattle baron. Finally Esther Williams and Cliff Robertson starred in 1961's "The Big Show," set in the world of a traveling German circus.

Talk about artistic license. A summer vacation story gets turned into a film noir, a Western epic and a European flying trapeze romance?

At their hearts, though, all of the stories are about a strong father figure struggling to wrangle his offspring and deal with his own tragic choices. "Lance," directed by Edward Dmytryk, takes on Shakespearean notes at time, with the tale of four brothers vying for the scraps of dad's crumbling domain, while the once-vital patriarch slips further and further into physical and spiritual decay.

Interestingly, the screenplay by Richard Murphy was not nominated by for an Academy Award -- nor did it deserve to be -- but the story by Philip Yordan actually won the Oscar. The Academy has shifted around the writing categories more than any other award area over the years, though they've been pretty stable since about 1970. Prior to 1957 there were separate story and screenwriting awards.

Under modern rules, a "story by" credit means the writer had to have submitted an earlier version of the script, or at least a treatment or some kind of written product. Simply "having an idea" doesn't get you a story credit -- otherwise, a lot of producers would be considered writers.

I thought Dmytryk, a journeyman with many notable credits to his name (including "Crossfire," "The End of the Affair" and "The Caine Mutiny"), does a fine job shooting the rocky vistas, making excellent use of the CinemaScope widescreen format.

I did have one significant complaint, however: the lack of close-ups for Spencer Tracy. Tracy was a famously naturalistic performer, whose subtle facial cues and postures could convey a lot of emotional information with just a centimeter of movement. But Dmytryk keeps his camera at middle distance or further for nearly the entire film. That tends to let the orneriness of his character, Matt Devereaux, play out but not his little moments of self-doubt and reconciliation.

Contrastingly, young Robert Wagner is given many loving close-ups as Matt's youngest (and prettiest) son, Joe. Given a slight color tinge to reflect Joe's "half-breed" Indian status, the camera swoops in adoringly for him again and again.

Joe's a pretty straightforward and uninteresting character, the good son who stands by his father while his brothers all stab him in the back. Richard Widmark plays Ben, the oldest, still resentful over a lifetime of being treated more like a hired cowpuncher than heir apparent. Ben is certainly savvy and probably would make a good next-generation cattleman -- he suggests opening an office in town to negotiate the best prices with the Chicago meat markets.

But Matt is an old-school authoritarian type. He expects his sons to be eternally loyal and subservient. He built an empire with his own two hands, and wants to keep it that way forever. 

When the two dimwitted middle kids -- Mike (Hugh O'Brian) and Denny (Earl Holliman) -- steal a couple of old steers to supplement the meager $40 a month wage the old man gives them, he's ready to send them packing. Matt callously kills the two Mexicans who helped them, as he's done his whole life to rustlers or anyone who tried to infringe upon his land. Tin stars and courtrooms are unnecessary delays in the attainment of justice, Matt figures, strongly prejudiced toward the frontier kind.

Matt doesn't kill the Indian hands who also assisted in the theft, since it's obvious Matt has a tender spot for their kind. His wife, played by Katy Jurado (who got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod), is addressed by all as Señora, despite being a for-real Comanche "princess" (daughter of the chief). He married her after his first wife, mother of his three oldest, died during the hard early years on the Devereaux ranch.

It's a true romance, but racial prejudice is always loitering just outside the door. Horace, the bendable governor played by E.G. Marshall, owes his position to Matt's pulling the levers of power. But when Joe starts to fall for his own daughter, Barbara (Jean Peters), the governor registers his objections while apologizing for his inability to change with the times.

Matt abruptly ends their friendship just when he needed it the most. A trial is coming after Matt and his boys raided a copper mine that was dumping its waste into his stream, killing 40 head of cattle. Despite the inconsequential nature of the loss -- representing something like 0.08% of Devereaux's massive herd -- Matt sternly orders the mine foreman,  Mac Andrews (Robert Burton), to shut down or be shut down.

When the scores of miners learn their livelihood is threatened by a bossy cattleman and his four sons, they prepare to put an end to the Devereaux clan. But then Two Moons (Eduard Franz), Matt's trusted Indian foreman, rides in with their own men and lay waste to the mine.

Nobody's killed, but Matt is put on trial and his cussed obstinance on the witness stand -- repeatedly threatening the opposing attorney (Philip Ober) with bodily harm -- pretty much puts the nails in the coffin.

To save his dad, Joe claims that he started the fight and gets sentenced to three years in jail. His release from prison acts as a framing device, with Joe now the prodigal son returned to the dusty ruins of the ranch, which is gradually being turned over to oil drilling.

Matt had a stroke after losing his honor by allowing Joe to take the fall, a raging dog confined to his chair with no bite to back up the bark. He foolishly split up the ranch among his four sons as a preventive move in case the court case went against him, but that now means Ben, with the support of the brothers dim, is now in charge.

In perhaps the film's best scene, Matt begs Ben not to sell off part of the ranch to oilmen, and is haughtily refused. Widmark and Tracy really go at each other, two men who are two alike to ever really get along with each other. Matt confesses that he couldn't stand his own father's stern yoke and rode off to seek his fortune, and it's clear that he would have preferred Ben follow suit.

Really, this is what the movie should have been about. The lackluster Joe character and the needless romance aspect should all have been given the dusty boot.

At 96 minutes, "Broken Lance" aspires to be an epic Western but just doesn't have the narrative sweep and distinctive characters to go any higher than it is: a serviceable story of fathers and sons, squabbling on the squalid plains.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Video review: "The Magnificent Seven"

There’s not a lot that’s quite magnificent about “The Magnificent Seven,” though there is plenty to like. It’s got great actions scenes, twinkly anti-heroes, scornful villains, memorable supporting characters and lots of eye candy.

What it doesn’t have is any reason for existing. A remake of the seminal 1960s Western, which itself was based on Akira Kurosawa’s landmark “Seven Samurai,” this film is essentially a PG-13 nostalgia romp for its own sake.

Still, what’s not to like about Denzel Washington as creased, calculating bounty hunter Sam Chisolm? Or Chris Pratt as wise-cracking gambler/shootist Josh Faraday? Add in Ethan Hawke as a genteel Civil War legend/sharpshooter, Vincent D’Onofrio as a weirdly amusing mountain man/lunatic and a passel of other wayward cowpokes, and you’ve got yourself a movie.

You know the story: evil power-monger (in this case, Peter Sarsgaard’s sneering cattle baron) puts his boot on the collective neck of a town of farmers, who decide to hire their own gunslingers to protect them. Our seven heroes are mercilessly outnumbered, but with a little luck and some careful planning, they make a battle of it.

Director Antoine Fuqua, who’s made some stellar movies with Washington, and screenwriters Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto don’t try to fancy things up beyond the essentials: stand-offs, wisecracks, a few lightly scary moments, a noble sacrifice or two. The last third of the movie is essentially one long action scene, and it’s harrowing stuff.

This film surely won’t be immortalized like the original was. But “The Magnificent Seven” has a job to do, and does it with skill.

Bonus features are decent if not especially expansive. The DVD edition comes with four making-of featurette documentaries. Upgrade to the Blu-ray version, and you add two more plus several deleted scenes.

The Blu-ray’s highlight is a “Vengeance Mode,” where you can watch the movie with key scenes broken down with comments from the director and cast.



Friday, December 16, 2016

Review: "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story"

Befitting its title and main character, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is the grittier, edgier entry in the Star Wars saga. Right from the get-go, director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy give us the tonal and sensory cues that we’re in for something very different.

No ubiquitous text scrawl at the start of the movie. No blast of John Williams’ iconic Star Wars theme to set the mood. Indeed, Michael Giacchino’s score has a dark and forbidding beauty to it. The rebels are shown to be capable of underhanded dealings and even cold-bloodedness in battling the Empire. Hardly a lightsaber in sight.

There’s still a line between good and evil, but lots of graying at the fringes.

There are also plenty of hallmarks of Star Wars. It’s a tale of orphans and adoptive parents, of hope shoving off despair, of those who desire power for its own sake and those who would oppose them. The Force certainly plays less of a direct role than any of the seven other movies, but its energy still thrums in the background, living on the characters’ tongues and in their hearts.

It’s easy to call it the weakest of the Star Wars movies. The first half especially is discombobulated, with too many fringe characters demanding their moment in the spotlight. Including not one, not two but three Asian-influenced warriors who aid the cause. One of them is even the embodiment of that tired old saw, the blind-but-still-a-badass combatant.

Still, it’s a matter of degrees. The weakest Star Wars flick is better than 90% of sci-fi/fantasy films out there. And “Rogue One” continually builds energy as it goes instead of losing it, leading to an action-packed final act I suspect will leave zero fans disappointed.

You probably already know that “Rogue One” shines a light on the events leading up to the destruction of the (first) Death Star, depicting the men and women (and aliens) who procured the secret plans that made it possible for Luke Skywalker to blow up the planet-killing station.

(And, in doing so, it definitely rejiggers around some of the established Star Wars lore. To wit: Apparently, many Bothans didn’t die to bring us this information.)

Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, capable thief and miscreant. Abandoned as a child after her father (Mads Mikkelsen) was conscripted by the Empire to help construct the Death Star, she finds herself falling into the hands of the Rebel Alliance. Leader Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) recruits her to seek out Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a radical who rescued Jyn as a child. Saw’s a battle-scarred sort who’s missing parts of his body, and we suspect that’s not all.

Chief baddie is Ben Mendelsohn as Director Orson Krennic, chief architect of the Death Star project, while Diego Luna provides the counterpoint, rebel spy chief Cassian Andor. Donnie Yen plays Chirrut Imwe, aforementioned blind guy, and Wen Jiang is stoic gunslinger Baze Malbus. Riz Ahmed plays Imperial pilot/turncoat Bodhi Rook, whose entire role could’ve been outsourced to a gaggle of stunt men and extras, and probably should have been.

The scene-stealer is droid K-2SO (voice and motion capture by Alan Tudyk), an Imperial enforcer who was captured and reprogrammed by Andor. He’s rather peevish but also protective of his human charges, and is so used to more freewheeling behavior that when the time comes to impersonate his former role, he’s spectacularly awful at it.

I enjoyed “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” – but then I’ve liked all the Star Wars movies, even the unfairly maligned prequels. (To those who harp on their clunky dialogue and goofy humor: that’s a feature, not a bug, of all these films.)

It’s a departure, but also a return to roots for a franchise that seemingly has whole new universes yet to explore.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Review: "La La Land"

“La La Land” is kind of adorable and kind of inconsequential. It’s writer/director Damien Chazelle’s (“Whiplash”) ode to Old Hollywood, both the city of Los Angeles and the musical films it once spawned like sunrises.

It’s a stunning-looking movie, with eye-pleasing vistas, vivid colors and detailed production design and costumes. Not to mention the eminently ogle-able stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. You could take their faces and charms and transpose them into any Hollywood musical from its 1940s and ‘50s heydays, and they would not look out of place.

Both, alas, have rather modest singing voices. Hers is breathy and girly; his has a narrow range to which Justin Hurwitz, who composed the songs and soundtrack, carefully bookends his melodies so as not to strain. “City of Stars” is the most memorable tune and main theme, repeated in various forms and with both singers.

The story’s as old-fashioned as can be: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy tries to woo girl back. The narrative only really takes on some heft in the final act, as our star-crossed lovers struggle to reconcile their passions and hearts -- which don’t necessarily always point in the same direction.

Chazelle uses a nifty parallel structure, so we see the tale unfold from first one perspective, and then the other. Later, this trick will be used again, unspooling in the opposite direction.

Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz purist eking out an existence hammering standards on the piano at a hip restaurant. But he has a tendency to lapse into his own compositions, much to the ire of the owner (J. K. Sebastian). One night in walks Mia (Stone), an aspiring actress worn out from endless auditions, and she’s smitten.

It’s got all the ingredients of a classic Meet Cute – until Sebastian angrily brushes past her after getting canned.

But they do meet again, he’s a little more attentive this time, and things rise from there. A long walk to parked cars ends in a dance against the starry sky, with Gosling and Stone (or at least their doubles) flowing beautiful in a pas de deux. Later they’ll wind up at the planetarium and their hoofing will grow more literally celestial.

Their careers rise and fall, which alters and leavens their romance. Sebastian abandons his principles to join a very lucrative band that’s more Kenny G than Coltrane. Soon he’s on the road all the time, doing interviews, making bank but emptying out his reserves of integrity. Mia, meanwhile, gives up on auditions and her day job as a barista to stage her own one-woman play.

I find myself deeply in like with this movie. It’s charming, it’s gorgeous, it’s nostalgic without seeming like a mere throwback. But I was emotionally detached during most of it. I understood Mia and Sebastian as constructs for a story, not living beings I could invest in. “La La Land” gives us the ol’ razzle-dazzle, but doesn’t get around to plucking the heart strings.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Video review: "Suicide Squad"

People seem to want to have an instant relationship with movies these days. Large swaths of the moviegoing public had judged the “Ghostbusters” reboot long before it came to theaters. Folks fell in love with the new “Stars Wars” sequel in a similar fashion, seeing it as the antidote to the unfairly maligned prequels.

After the Sturm und Drang of the lackluster “Batman v Superman,” I think many were not willing to judge its follow-up, “Suicide Squad,” with an open heart. And while the movie’s certainly got some problems, especially in the first half, it’s actually a notable variation on the gradually tiring superhero genre.

Instead of all-powerful do-gooders racked with guilt over their abilities, we are given a half-dozen flawed villains who are given a chance to get out of prison to work for the government. It seems there’s some sort of energy vortex in the middle of the city that could destroy the world, so our gang of creeps is sent in to take care of it.

The A-listers are Will Smith and Margot Robbie as Deadshot and Harley Quinn, respectively. He’s an ace assassin who never misses, while she’s a former psychiatrist who turned into a deranged go-go girl under the influence of her even crazier boyfriend, the Joker (Jared Leto). Alas, if you’ve watched the trailers for “Suicide Squad” you’ve already seen a good chunk of Leto’s entire role. The Joker’s not the main bad guy, just a colorful backgrounder here.

I’m not even going to list the others, because there’s too many of them, plus other secondary figures. Suffice to say they’re a pleasing multicultural mix of killers and psychopaths.

Things take too long in the first half, with quick riffs on each character to introduce them. But it all builds up nicely to a carefully choreographed orgy of mayhem and CGI special effects.

“Suicide Squad” may not be a great super hero/villain flick, but it’s more entertaining and fun than snap judgments might suggest. Sometimes you have to just wait a little bit and let the movie come to you.

The lynchpin of the bonus features is an extended cut that adds 13 minutes of previously unseen footage. You can also watched synchronized pop-up content related to each scene using the VUDU app.

Other extras include seven making-of featurettes and a gag reel.



Thursday, December 8, 2016

Review: "Office Christmas Party"

“Office Christmas Party” starts out a little funny, a little sweet, and then slowly devolves into a dumb raunch-fest.

Don’t get me wrong: a good filthy comedy can be just the thing to break up the dull parade of PG-13 action flicks and kiddie fare (see the first “Hangover”). But when it’s not executed well it becomes like the loud, drunk guy at the party everyone wishes would leave (see, or rather don’t, the other “Hangover” flicks).

This is the rare movie where the fringe characters are more interesting than the stars. If you cut out everything with Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, T. J. Miller and Olivia Munn, you’d have a discombobulated but very tight story of a bunch of office denizens caught up in the weirdest, wilding holiday party ever.

There’s the dweeby guy (Karan Soni) who’s been bragging to his fellow tech nerds about his hot nonexistent girlfriend, so he hires a prostitute to play her. Things go OK until she decides to freelance a little extra action from his buddies, and her she-pimp starts waving a pistol around.

Kate McKinnon of “Saturday Night Live” and “Ghostbusters” scores with another kooky character concoction, an uptight Human Resources manager named Mary who acts as the resident killjoy, but secretly has a freak flag in need of flying.

Then there’s the budding romance between single mom/office manager superstar Allison (Vanessa Bayer) and sweet-natured Fred (Randall Park), whose pet peeve is the underrepresentation of Asian men in adult films.

Fortune Feimster has a scene-stealing turn as a novice and overly exuberant Uber driver who hasn’t figured out what the appropriate level of chatter with the fares is yet. She keeps popping off one killer throwaway line after another, and I wished she would drop off Aniston and the movie could follow her the rest of the way.


The setup is that the Chicago branch of a biggish tech firm is run by the ne’er-do-well son (Miller) of the dearly departed company founder. It’s a loose house and there’s plenty of goofing off, but they make money and realize growth – just not enough to please the hardcase CEO, played by Aniston, who happens to be his sister.

She’s got a lifetime of resentment built up over having to do all the work while golden boy slacked and got ahead, so she’s determined to cut costs to the bone – even ordering a 40% layoff, nixing bonuses and even canceling the hallowed Christmas party.

Rich boy hatches a plan with his nice guy Number Two, Josh (Bateman), who really runs the office, to land a big contract with a major mover (Courtney B. Vance) and save everyone’s bacon. But, using the sort of logic that only works in movies, they’ve got to go ahead with the wildest office party ever to impress the crusty older dude.

Munn plays Tracey, the resident hacker whiz who has a plan to route Internet signals through anything electric, from street lamps to hot dog rotisserie machines. (Question: once they flip it on and everyone’s got free Wifi, how exactly do they make money?)

I think we all know where this is headed. There will be hookups, hilarious injuries, hard drugs will make an appearance, and some scary guys will threaten our heroes for about a minute and a half. Just grab the plots from the “Hangover” movies and a smattering of ‘80s comedies like “Risky Business” and “Bachelor Party,” toss it in a blender and drink deep until you can’t take it anymore.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Review: "Miss Sloane"

Elizabeth Sloane is, by universal assent (including her own estimation), “a real piece of work.”

As played magnificently by Jessica Chastain, “Miss Sloane” is the ultimate Washington D.C. insider – a famed lobbyist who uses all the considerable skills at her disposal, along with a host of nefarious methods, to get what she wants for her clients. Bullying, (barely) legal bribery, non-profit fronts, toadying, outright espionage, bald-faced lying – Sloane sees these things as merely tools in her dark arsenal.

Sloane labels herself a “conviction lobbyist,” meaning she’ll only advocate on behalf of groups or causes she personally supports. But after years gleefully fighting in the trenches and corridors of power, all that really matters for her is getting the win.

At one point her boss, Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), just stands outside her office, stunned by Sloane’s latest act of brazen manipulation upon the body politic. I just want to know, he says, how somebody like you comes to be – how you grew up, what events shaped your personality, and so on. Because Sloane’s actions often seem to indicate the operation of a brilliant mind without even an ounce of conscience.

The story opens with a framing device of Sloane being grilled by a U.S. Senate committee chaired by a glowering politico (John Lithgow) demanding answers about her unseemly methods. So we assume her nefarious history has finally caught up with her.

But as the story goes deeper and we learn more about Sloane and her skillful machinations, we start to wonder whether she’s sitting in the hot seat by choice.

Sloane is the star player at the biggest lobbying firm in town, run by a patriarchal figure (Sam Waterson) who’s been dying to land the gun lobby as a client for years. A new bill is coming up for a vote that would require universal background checks, and they want Sloane to send it down in flames by appealing to women. Sloane literally laughs in their faces, and bolts to a much smaller company backing the measure.

About half her team defects with her, including protégé Jane Molloy (Alison Pill), who regards Sloane as both mentor and cautionary tale. Meanwhile, she’s facing off with her conniving old partner Pat Connors, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays key new ally Esme Manucharian, a passionate gun control advocate with a personal history.

It all plays out in the high-stakes world of the media, as various forces and circumstances align themselves to help or hurt the cause.

Director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”), working with rookie screenwriter Jonathan Perera, give us an intricately plotted political thriller, a drawn-out game of cat and mouse, with a character study in the middle.

Sloane is so busy training her high-powered vision upon her adversaries and allies, there’s not much time for self-exploration of the person behind the façade. She literally doesn’t sleep, subsisting on pills and food from the same Korean BBQ place every night. Sloane even arranges trysts with male escorts to satisfy her basic primal urges; when an urban cowboy type (Jake Lacy) shows up in place of her usual faux beau, it leaves her both miffed and intrigued.

The film touches on the current debate about gun rights vs. control, and there’s certainly a bit of Hollywood moralizing, but it isn’t really about that. It’s just the backdrop for a larger tale about the rot in our political system, and a portrait of one of its chief schemers.

Can one have a noble heart but wallow in corruption? Just how bad do the ends have to get before they cease justifying the means? “Miss Sloane” explores these questions in a slick but probing way.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Video review: "The Hollars"

John Krasinski’s second feature film as a director and star isn’t terribly ambitious, but it gathers together a truly wonderful cast and gives them interesting things to say and do. Margo Martindale and Richard Jenkins both fall into that tiniest category of actors I think of as “people I would pay to read my medicine bottles.” They’re always distinctive and alive.

Toss in Anna Kendrick, Sharlto Copley, Charlize Day, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Krasinski himself, and that’s enough reason to choose “The Hollars” for a home viewing right there.

Krasinski plays John Hollar, a typical arrested-development sort who can’t get his career or personal life out of first gear. He’s got an amazing girlfriend (Kendrick) who’s pregnant with his baby, but he hasn’t put a ring on it.

When family matriarch/rock Sally (Martindale) falls ill, dad Don (Jenkins) more or less dissolves into a puddle, while wayward son Ron (Copley) is dealing with his own issues, losing both his job and his family. Meanwhile, the Hollar family business is going under.

So John returns to a scene of chaos and resentment, as all these sharp divides must be spackled together with love and trust.

Everything goes exactly as you’d expect. Most of the time I dislike movies that are completely predictable. But “The Hollars” has genuine heart and some snappy dialogue courtesy of script man Jim Strouse.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you won’t get even a hint of any real surprises. But I doubt anyone who watches this film will consider it time ill spent.

Bonus features are decent. Krasinski and Martindale team up for a feature length commentary track, and there’s also a Q&A with the two plus Kendrick from the LA Film Festival. It also comes with two featurettes: “Persistent Vision: Margo Martindale” and “The Family Trust: Inside The Hollars.”



Reeling Backward: "Cheyenne Autumn" (1964)

I was surprised by how inert and ineffective "Cheyenne Autumn" is. I've been meaning to catch up with it for years and came away quite disappointed from the experience.

The film is seminal for a couple of reasons: it was John Ford's last Western, and it was pretty much the first deliberate attempt by Hollywood to cast American Indians in a positive light, showing how they were ill-used by the American government as it expanded into the West.

It's based on a real bit of history, the Northern Cheyenne Exodus of 1878-79, during which hundreds of native people left the harsh, arid reservation land that had been set aside for them and traveled more than 1,000 miles north to their ancestral home. There were several skirmishes with the U.S. military along the way, and newspapers of the day portrayed it as a rampaging army of Indians on the warpath.

In truth, they were largely elderly, women and children, and posed no threat to anyone unless their trek was opposed.

The movie was actually based on two novels, "The Last Frontier" by Howard Fast and "Cheyenne Autumn" by Mari Sandoz, though only the latter received a screen credit. Screenwriter James L. Webb had recently won an Oscar for another Western, "How the West Was Won," of which Ford directed one of the five sequences. They ended up reusing a lot of the same talent for this picture, including stars Richard Widmark and Carroll Baker, Webb and Ford.

"Cheyenne" can't quite decide who is its main character. Its heart seems to lie with the Indians, particularly Little Wolf and Dull Knife, the two main leaders of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. They're played by Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland, respectively, both actors of Mexican heritage. Italian-American Sal Mineo plays Dull Knife's hot-headed son, Red Shirt. Most of the other Cheyenne are played by Navajo, and speak in their own language during the film.

But Widmark is put front and center as Capt. Thomas Archer, a fictional Army officer assigned to make them stay put, and later pursue them after they begin their exodus. He's a sympathetic figure torn between his military obligations and his own recognition of the suffering of the Cheyenne. Baker plays Deborah Wright, a Quaker devoted to educating the Indian children who ends up tagging along on their quest.

Their tepid romance is barely sketched in the early part of the film, then quietly tucked away for the rest. There isn't even a big reunion scene and kiss at the end. They have a little cheeky repartee, addressing each other as "Friend Deborah" and "Friend Thomas" in the Quaker way.

The movie's pacing staggers this way and that, an occasional fight scene between the Cheyenne and Army with lots of talking in between. Archer tries to convince his superiors to show the Cheyenne more respect and restraint, but it falls on deaf ears. Eventually he takes his case directly to the Secretary of the Interior, Carl Schurz (Edward G. Robinson).

Karl Malden has a small but vigorous role as an Army officer who imprisons the Cheyenne on orders, leaving them to freeze and starve to death in a warehouse because he's too afraid to take other action without authorization. The character refers to himself as a Russian, though his accent sounds more German to these ears. Perhaps we'll be generous and say Malden was going for Prussian, and leave it at that.

Patrick Wayne, son of John, has a small part as an impetuous young officer Archer has to continually reprimand. John Carradine turns up in Dodge City as a gambling gentleman.

The music by Alex North is quite good, but often too obtrusive. There's an opening piece and an intermission that is probably unnecessary.

By far the biggest problem with the film is the Dodge City sequence. It arrives just before the intermission, and completely rips the audience out of the story of the Cheyenne.

It stars Jimmy Stewart as Wyatt Earp and Arthur Kennedy as Doc Holiday, portrayed here as peevish, aging gamblers who have taken up the offices of sheriff and deputy simply to allow them to sit in the saloon and play cards all day. They want nothing to do with the Cheyenne "horde" passing nearby, and Earp even contrives to lead the ad-hoc force of vengeful vigilantes in a different direction.

It's a weird, weird sequence that belongs in another movie. It's completely comedic in tone, right down to a saloon wench losing her dress and some vagrant cowpunchers getting one-upped by the wily Wyatt. One wonders what Ford and Webb were thinking including it in the film, especially seeing as the original cut was creeping up on three hours -- Ford's longest movie.

Indeed, after being initially released in theaters the Dodge City section was cut out, and wisely so. Most modern versions on video include it, to the detriment of the overall experience. This is where the "chapter skip" button comes in handy.

"Cheyenne Autumn" is undeniably a magnificent-looking film, shot largely in Ford's beloved Monument Valley with widescreen and lots of vivid colors. Cinematographer William H. Clothier deservedly received the film's sole Academy Award nomination.

At the time of its release, John Ford publicly declared "Cheyenne Autumn" to be an elegy for the Native American. It says something of the man that during his lifetime he came to recognize that his own work bore a great deal of responsibility for the popular depiction of Indians as whooping savages, and it was something he regretted.

He tried to get the movie made for years without success. When he finally did, it was his longest and most expensive project, and one of the few that was a commercial failure. Ill health and a lack of confidence from the studios resulted in Ford only completing one other feature film.

It's such a shame that one of the greatest movie directors ended his career on such a sour note. John Ford's song of regret for the Indian, while noble in purpose, is a discordant and dull affair.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Review: "Man Down"

“Man Down” presents us with a dystopian nightmare, interspersed with flashbacks to what preceded it, and dares us to try to find where the true horror lies.

This ambitious but wandering war drama from director Dito Montiel (“Empire State”), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Adam G. Simon, stars Shia LaBeouf as Gabriel, a young but hardened Marine who is searching for his son. As the story opens he and fellow soldier/best friend Devin (Jai Courtney) are wandering a blasted landscape of crumbled buildings and reeking death. Their uniforms are mostly tatters, their buzz cuts have given way to long hair and beards.

Their mission, whatever it once was, is now centered on reuniting Gabriel with his family. We know from flashbacks that they previously served together in Afghanistan, but some colossal misfortune has since befallen the world. They whisper about infections, interrogate a scatterbrained scavenger (Clifton Collins Jr.) for information, and keep going.

Meanwhile, we see snippets of Gabriel’s seemingly idyllic life before the war, marriage to spunky, strong Natalie (Kate Mara) and tranquil father/son bonding with Jonathan (Charlie Shotwell). Plus the easy camaraderie with Devin, how they grew up practically as brothers.

But there are also scenes of Gabriel being interviewed by a Captain Payton (Gary Oldman), who keeps pressing him to talk about “the incident.” What at first seems to be a military debriefing becomes something like a counseling session, and we wonder how this question-and-answer duel fits in with his life before and after the apocalypse.

LaBeouf has grown thicker and grimmer after his early spate of roles as the fresh young thing, and he wears it well. He chews his dialogue, playing Gabriel as a guy who’s not terribly bright but earnest and true. When he tells the captain he feels “betrayed” by what went down in that sandy village, it exposes all sorts of emotional roots sunk deep.

LaBeouf has gotten a lot more attention for his publicity stunts/performance art/whatever you want to call it the last few years. But here is an actor with talent and dedication, searching for the right role. This one isn’t it, but in his screen presence we sense that yearning.

I can’t say more about “Man Down” without dissecting it into death. There are some surprises that aren’t terribly surprising if you’ve been paying attention, as well as some things we expected that don’t come to pass. It’s a well-meaning film but not an especially well executed one.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review: "The Eagle Huntress"

Aisholpan is a pretty typical 13-year-old kid. She likes prattling with her friends, putting on fingernail polish and brags about out-wrestling all of the boys in her class. Her mom’s on the traditional side and worries about her being too bold and reaching too high, but her father is very proud and supportive, constantly encouraging her to pursue her dreams.

The difference, of course, is that Aisholpan lives in Mongolia on the steppes of the fierce Altai mountains, and her dream is to become an eagle hunter – the first female to do so in a tradition dating back hundreds of years.

This new documentary, directed by Otto Bell and narrated by Daisy Ridley, follows Aisholpan over the course of several months as she strives to learn the ways of her forefathers, who were elite eagle hunters going back generations. Her dad was even twice champion at the annual Eagle festival, where dozens of the best gather to compete in a series of competitions.

The film is an eclectic step back in time, watching these people exist much as they did a hundred years ago, living in fur-lined tents on the plains, riding horses and hunting for foxes and other mountain critters. They train the eagles to swoop down upon the beasts, procuring the precious meat and fur to their human masters.

Bell emlploys a lot of impressive camera work – cinematography by Simon Niblett -- including drone photography, to capture the mighty birds in flight, often looking down upon the yawning expanse of the Mongolian plains below. This is well complemented by Jeff Peters’ thrumming musical score.

There is some conflict about Aisholpan being a gender pioneer, with Bell milks for every ounce (perhaps overplaying at times). Elder eagle hunters tut-tut and offer their archaic wisdom – “Women are meant to stay indoors and quarrel for the catch,” one says – but no serious effort to discourage her ever arises. She’s even allowed to compete in the Eagle Festival, making quite the impression.

Probably the most thrilling section is capturing her bird. The Altai hunters must personally climb into the nest of some eaglets and spirit one away before the mother bird returns. Watching Aisholpan scramble down an unstable mountainside, we are awed by this rite of passage.

Some might fret about the hunters exploiting the eagles, but they seem to share a largely symbiotic relationship. Aisholpan hand-feeds her bird until it’s old enough to fly on its own, cementing the bond. They are fawned and revered like an honored guest. Otto also opens the film with a wizened hunter releasing his eagle back into the wild after years of service – something mandated by their traditions.

“The Eagle Huntress” is less a straight journalistic exploration and more a celebration of one girl’s journey into womanhood, and history. With her strong, broad face and unflappable courage, Aisholpan has broken her nation’s last proverbial glass ceiling, leaving a heavenly sky open to all possibilities.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Review: "Moana"

I’ve always thought “Pocahontas” was one of the weakest Disney animated films because it seemed like it simply wanted to present a multicultural experience and didn’t care about what story they used as the vehicle to do it. “Moana” stands as stark counterpoint, a completely enthralling, original tale that just happens to immerse us in the vibrant traditions of Polynesia.

Disney has hit another home run with the story of Moana (voice of Hawaiian actress Auli'i Cravalho), a teen who breaks the grip of her people’s land-bound laws to go out into the deep seas and try to restore the dying lands. Part anthropology, part mythology and pure imagination, it’s an action-filled musical romp that will delight parents as much as kids (and possibly more).

Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (“The Princess and the Frog”) are old Disney hands who came up in the hand-drawn animation tradition and with this picture segue completely into CGI. Jared Bush’s screenplay employs actual Polynesian history and lore to come up something old and something new.

According to the epilogue, the far-flung islands of the Pacific were created by the goddess Te Fiti. But when her heart was stolen by the demigod Maui, she began to slowly die, with the festering creep gradually spreading to the other lands. Maui, who wields a massive magic fishhook that grants him the power to shapeshift into multitudinous creatures, was lost after a battle with a terrible demon that desired the heart for itself.

The brave and pure-hearted Moana is chosen by the ocean itself -- represented as tentacles of glowing water -- to take the heart, find Maui and compel him to heal the rift he caused.

Voiced by Dwayne Johnson, Maui is presented as a gargantuan man, almost as broad as he is tall, his body covered in tattoos that chronicle his Herculean exploits. One of his tats, a miniature version of himself, even moves around and acts as the fool whispering in the king’s ear.

Maui is quite full of himself, but not necessarily a bad guy. He stole Te Fiti’s heart because he wanted to give humans the power to create life itself. True, upon meeting Moana he traps her in a cave and steals her boat, but the relationship improves -- gradually.

Other voices include Rachel House as Moana’s wise but kooky grandmother, Temeura Morrison and Nicole Scherzinger as her parents and Alan Tudyk as Hei Hei, an idiotic chicken who stows away on Moana’s journey, so dumb he has to be continuously rescued from certain demise.

Jemaine Clement has a funny, memorable turn as Tamatoa, a massive crab who dwells in the realm of monsters and has a personal history with Maui. He sort of looks like the massive mutated cousin of Sebastian from “The Little Mermaid,” and has a penchant for collecting trinkets.

The music is just terrific -- rollicking, hummable and helps carry the story along. Songs were written by Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa’i and Broadway sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame. The three best are “How Far I’ll Go,” Moana’s dreaming of a life beyond; “We Know the Way,” a paean to their tribe’s voyager past; and “You’re Welcome,” Maui’s signature self-introduction.

And yes, in case you’re wondering -- Johnson, formerly “The Rock,” shows off an unexpectedly fantastic singing voice.

The movie even displays some sly humor goofing on past Disney movies, like when Moana protests Maui’s assertion that, as the daughter of a chieftain, she constitutes royalty: “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess,” he says.

Fun and funny, full of adventure, a sense of danger and a deep feeling of hope, “Moana” is Disney’s next animated classic.

Video review: "Kubo and the Two Strings"

“Kubo and the Two Strings” is my favorite animated film of 2016 so far, but it didn’t fare very well at the box office. I think people may have seen a story set in medieval Japan and dismissed it as anime. (Which in of itself is a terrible reason to avoid a movie.) So I’m genuinely hoping people will check it out on video, so more flicks like “Kubo” will be made.

Art Parkinson provides the voice of Kubo, a boy filled with loneliness and magic. With only one eye and a banjo, he trudges into town every day to spin his fantastic tales for the villagers, complete with sheets of paper that come to life, then returns to his seaside cave to care for his mother. A sorceress who fought a terrible long-ago battle with her own family, she’s nearly catatonic – but still has some magic up her sleeve

Later, Kubo is banished to the distant Farlands, placed on a quest to gather three mystic pieces of armor in order to take on the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) – who happens to be his own grandfather. His aunts, known as the Sisters (Rooney Mara), are fearsome witches on the hunt.

Kubo’s only companions are Monkey (Charlize Theron), a protective charm brought to life as be his guardian, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a cursed former samurai trapped in the body of a bug.

The stop-motion animation is just astonishing, with a battle with a giant skeleton standing out especially. The depictions of ocean waves and crackling magic are astonishingly life-like.

Director Travis Knight and screenwriters Chris Butler and Marc Haimes continue the fine tradition of stop-motion animation – “Coraline,” “The Boxtrolls,” “The Night Before Christmas” – that’s seen a terrific run the last couple of decades.

Go see/rent/buy “Kubo and the Two Strings,” and let’s keep this ball rolling.

Bonus features are quite good, including a feature-length commentary track with Knight. The Blu-ray and DVD editions also come with three making-of documentaries, focusing the Japanese inspiration for the story, varied landscapes and the mythology behind Kubo.

Upgrade to the 3D combo pack and you add five more featurettes, including ones on monsters and music.



Monday, November 21, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" (1974)

If "Easy Rider," "Vanishing Point" and "Two-Lane Blacktop" form the triumvirate of iconic counterculture road pictures of the late 1960s and early '70s, then "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" is the sellout poseur, tagging along in their wake with hollow mimicry.

Made in 1974 with a budget of $2 million -- extravagant compared to those other films -- it rode the popularity of Peter Fonda at its zenith, pairing him up with a hippy chickie blonde in a denim halter top (actually British actress Susan George, well concealing her accent but not wonky teeth).

The title and the posters of the comely couple, perched on top of their getaway car or running from a police helicopter, make it seem so exciting and even romantic: impetuous race car driver on the lam with beautiful petty thief. The combination made it a successful commercial hit.

Except there's a third character in the car with them the whole time, and he's actually the most interesting person in the movie.

But I guess "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and Taciturn Deke" doesn't make for a very memorable title.

Played by Adam Raorke, Deke is the mechanic to Fonda's wheel man Larry, much like the clearly demarcated roles in "Two-Lane Blacktop." They have dreams of getting to the NASCAR circuit. Deke's already been there, but drank his way out. Larry has the talent and the requisite complete lack of fear. All they need is money for "real speed."

They steal $150,000 from a supermarket by Deke holding the wife and daughter of the manager (Roddy McDowall) captive at home while Larry saunters into his office for the cash out of the safe. They don't even have guns, or bother to wear masks/disguises, using a fancy phone voice message machine to make the manager think they've still got his family.

A couple of questions:
  • 150 grand is $732,000 in today's dollars. What the hell kind of grocery store keeps that kind of cash on hand?
  • If their scheme is successful and they make it big in NASCAR, wouldn't that mean Larry would at least get famous enough to be recognized as the perpetrator?
You could ask these sorts of questions all day long about the movie. Larry makes a terrible effort at being inconspicuous on the road, jumping his blue 1966 Chevy Impala off a tractor ramp right after the robbery, and otherwise tearing up the street wherever he goes. You get the sense of it's part of his impulsive nature and desire to be a show-off, but that doesn't make the repeated willful stupidity of his actions any easier to swallow.

Later Deke and Larry switch to another car they thought ahead to have ready. Except they apparently parked it 50 miles away in the middle of a small town. When they arrive to retrieve it, there's a large street market going on to draw a lot of attention. If that weren't enough, the other car is a bright yellow 1969 Dodge Charger that any half-blind cop could see coming a mile away.

Often, it seems like they're trying to get caught.

(The Charger's color was actually Citron Yella, which has a lot of green in it, and indeed one police officer describes it over the two-way radio as "light green." Interestingly, the technicians who developed the film thought the greenish tint was a mistake and incorrectly corrected it -- so the movie was always presented with the wrong color palette. It was finally fixed for its DVD release in 2005.)

Larry and Deke's relationship is fraught. They clearly respect each other's skills, but Deke resents Larry's gregarious recklessness while Larry sees Deke as a killjoy, often derisively addressing him as "Bunky." Deke is supposed to be much older (though the actors were really on three years apart in age) and world-weary. Neither ever really tries to order the other one around.

When Larry pulls one of his frequent just-for-the-hell-of-it maneuvers, like slaloming between two semis and earning a cracked windshield in the process, Deke just shakes his head and frets about the damage.

Mary shows up right after the robbery. Much like the Girl in "Two-Lane Blacktop," she squats in his car uninvited and gets sucked up into the action. As she herself says, she didn't really have anything better to do.

She's not a stranger, though: Larry just had a one night stand with her, and she's pissed about being dumped and seeks him out. How she found him, other than his rather ubiquitous-looking Chevy, is left a mystery.

The relationship of the trio gradually evolves as the miles go by. Mary initially finds Deke creepy -- we get the sense most people do -- but comes to resent Larry for making his disdain for her clear. She's a fiery ball of independence who secretly wants desperately to be needed by somebody. When her confrontation with Larry reaches a point of (mild) physical violence, it's Deke who comes to her defense.

The other major character is Captain Franklin, played by Vic Morrow. He's a surly state patrol officer who refuses to wear a badge or gun, talks back to his superior (Kenneth Tobey) and grows his hair out long  underneath his cowboy hat. But he's got serious law enforcement know-how, and leads the chase to catch the miscreants, eventually climbing into a helicopter to personally take on Larry's yellow Charger.

Soon Franklin figures out that the robbers have been monitoring his orders over the CB, and they start to have a running game of taunts and one-upsmanship. It's fun, for a little while.

Larry and company also get a (brief) challenge in the form of an aggressive young cop with a talent behind the wheel named Hank (played by Eugene Daniels, who could be Channing Tatum's dad for the eerie resemblance). Initially crashed by Larry, Hank gets himself a new souped-up police Interceptor and makes a go of it after the robbers flee into a labyrinth of walnut groves.

Director John Hough has a decent eye for the action scenes and car chases. He had a quirky career, mostly bouncing back and forth between horror films and family-friendly stuff for Disney, including both the "Witch Mountain" movies later in the '70s.

Based on the novel "The Chase" by Richard Unekis, which came out in 1963 at the dawn of the muscle car era, "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" helps mark the end of it. Big V-8 engines would soon go underground for awhile, so neither cops or robbers had them to command.

It would take until the "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Cannonball" movies for car chase flicks to become popular again, this time as escapist entertainment rather than commentary on America's competing appetites for freedom and law & order. "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" serves as something of a bridge between the two.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Video review: "Hell or High Water"

I’ve seen a lot of great movies so far in 2016, but “Hell or High Water” still rests at the top of the list for me. It’s a combination of old-school Western, film noir potboiler and modern parable. It’s an action-heavy picture that has something thoughtful to say about the banking crisis and how it’s affected dirt-poor folks in hardscrabble rural states.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner Howard, rough-hewn brothers who came up on a farm in West Texas. Tanner went the outlaw route, spending most of his adulthood behind bars, while Toby’s had a rough go with his job, marriage and surviving parent all lighting out on him. Now the siblings are robbing banks at an astonishing clip -- two, even three a day.

They seem to be out for some purpose other than just money, seeing as how they target only banks in small towns. Marcus, a soon-to-retire Texas Ranger played with authority by Jeff Bridges, is put on the case since it seems too insignificant to get the federal authorities involved. Marcus and his partner (Gil Birmingham) start making the rounds, lackadaisically interviewing witnesses, etc.

Marcus has been phoning it in for years, but his dormant instincts get peppered up by the prospect of going out in a blaze of glory. A widower with no family and no real life outside the law, he’s in some ways less afeard of going down in a gunfight than rocking his way to senility on a lonely front porch.

The men gradually converge toward a dark reckoning, in which crimes will be punished and familial struggles played out. It’s a film that feels both urgent and sprawling, iconic and fresh as a daisy pushing up through parched prairie soil.

Bonus features, which are identical for DVD and Blu-ray editions, fall into the decent range. There’s a Q&A with filmmakers, footage of the red carpet premiere and three making-of featurettes: “Enemies Forever: The Characters of Hell or High Water,” “Visualizing the Heart of America” and “Damaged Heroes: The Performances of Hell or High Water.”



Thursday, November 17, 2016

Review: "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them"

 The act of watching “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is like riding an amusement park ride with the speed set way too fast. There are indeed many amazing creatures in the movie, but they whiz by so quickly they barely have time to register. Characters are introduced and misplaced in a flash. Storylines stretch out before us like a tangle of vines, and we must step lively to figure out which ones lead to dead ends.

Even Eddie Redmayne as the main character, Newt Scamander, does not seem entirely there. Chin perpetually in his chest, eyes averted, he stammers and fidgets like a fourth-rate Hugh Grant character in a romantic comedy, minus all the charm. He’s dizzy and ditzy, a mop-headed sorcerous dipstick who’s more a set of quirks than any attempt to build a character.

(His mushed-mouth line readings don’t help, either.)

“Fantastic Beasts” was a 2001 novel by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling that purported to be the textbook written by Newt, a famed “magizoologist,” that Harry and the gang read their first year at Hogwarts. It wasn’t actually a tale of his adventures, more a creature compendium complete with doodles and scribbled notes.

Now Rowling takes her first stab at screenwriting to chronicle Newt’s adventures as a young man in 1920s New York City. David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter movies, is brought in for continuity.

Newt arrives in the Big Apple after a year abroad, studying and collecting magical creatures in the hopes of keeping them safe from wizards and witches who might do them harm out of fear. He carries a magical suitcase that he can step into and out of, and inside is his zoo full of critters. It’s enormous in there -- complete with different ecosystems for the various beasts’ needs -- but some of the naughtier ones have a tendency to escape.

Indeed, the entire manic story is about creatures getting loose from the suitcase as Newt and his companions race around to recapture them. Of course, they also deliberately free some others as circumstances demand, so the whole thing turns into a bizarre offshoot of “Ghostbusters.”

It’s stuff like this that drives me buggo. If Newt is a talented enough wizard to create a whole world inside a bag, why couldn’t he make a decent lock to keep them sealed in and safe? Also, since we know about wizards/witches living separately from the non-magical humans, how would these creatures exist in the wild next to regular critters without ever being discovered?

Almost as soon as Newt steps off the boat, his wayward creatures are blamed for several disturbing incidents around the city -- described as a dark wind with glowing white eyes tearing up buildings and streets. He’s hauled in by Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an interloping bureaucrat with the American magical authorities who’s been busted down rank for past transgressions. They’re briefly locked up by Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), the Director of Magical Security. With his martial bearing and contrasting black-and-grey hairdo, we just know he’s up to no good.

There are a lot of other characters in the mix -- too many to describe, and certainly too many for the filmmakers to adequately juggle.

There’s Porpentina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who’s got a Marilyn Monroe va-va-voom thing going on; she can read minds but isn’t bothered by the lustful thoughts men have about her. Dan Fogler plays Jacob Kowalski, a good-natured No-Maj (that’s American for muggle) who dreams of starting a bakery and gets unwittingly roped into the fray so he can ask lots of questions and carry the exposition.

Loitering around the edges of the story are the Second Salemers, who want to bring back the witch trials with a vengeance. They’re led by Mary Lou Barebon (Samantha Morton), a terrifying puritanical figure who adopts urchins off the street, then uses and abuses them. Credence (Ezra Miller) is her eldest and creepiest charge.

There’s also the rich and powerful Shaw family, with Jon Voight as the newspaper magnate patriarch, whose reason for inclusion in the movie remains a mystery till the end. A loathsome goblin gangster (voice by Ron Perlman) makes a brief impression with his backward-bent fingers.

I spent most of my time watching “Fantastic Beasts” just trying to catch up. What was the name of that creature? What did Newt just say? What’s this about a girl he once loved? What exactly are these fearsome “obscurials” we keep hearing about?

It’s often said that the main challenge in adapting a book to the screen is paring it down to size. This movie’s got a novel’s worth of imagination, all spun together in a less-than-magical vortex.