Monday, February 29, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Bedazzled" (1967)

People nowadays forget that Dudley Moore came to prominence as part of a comedic duo rather than as a solo personality. He and Peter Cook were collaborators on theater productions of "Beyond the Fringe," then on the TV show "Not Only... But Also" -- which originated as a Moore vehicle but quickly became a partnership when everyone realized how strong was their onscreen chemistry and off-screen writing.

They starred in a number of movies together, starting with "The Wrong Box" in 1966 and then "Bedazzled" the next year, for which they co-wrote the story, reusing some of their favorite gags from stage and screen. The relationship continued with more movies, television specials, theater work and comedy albums until the late 1970s, when it ended because of Cook's drinking and Moore's sudden, unexpected vault to romantic leading man status with Blake Edwards' "10."

They make for an arresting pair, with a full foot of difference in height, Cook usually playing the outgoing schemer and Moore as the self-doubting wallflower. Their divergence is used to full effect in this takeoff on the parable of Faust, in which an ordinary man is tempted by the Devil with promises of fabulous wishes in exchange for his measly soul.

Cook, with his cocked eyebrows and imperial carriage, plays Lucifer, of course, known in his London form as George Spiggott. Moore is Stanley Moon, a shy short-order cook at Wimpy's -- a real British burger franchise of the time -- who is hopelessly smitten with a waitress, Margaret (Eleanor Bron).

Stanley Donen directed, about midway through an impressive Hollywood career spanning 50 years (and he's still with us!). According to lore, Donen shot an opening for the movie that was never used: he speaks directly to the audience about not wanting to make such a frivolous film, but Cook as the Devil whispers into his ear about all the money they'll make.

A wonderful story, true or not.

The film is replete with impish humor and caustic one-liners. George tempts Stanley with seven wishes, which he then sabotages because, he says, he is compelled by God to spread misery. But the pair genuinely grow to like each other, and much of the story is simply them hanging around together, chatting about life's mysteries and why Stanley is so despondent that he tried to hang himself.

(A 2000 remake, with Brendan Fraser as the sap and Elizabeth Hurley as the devil, reflected no glory upon the original.)

This Devil is a busy man. He's constantly distracted with little jobs to make people unhappy, such as rifling through people's luggage or cutting up their dry cleaning. -- "Just a bit of routine mischief," he says. In one memorable bit, he sets a pigeon loose from a rooftop to release his "doo-dahs" on the hat of a gentleman, who is appropriately miffed.

Stanley: "If you're the Devil, why didn't you go for that Vicar down there?"
George: "Oh, no. He's one of ours."

Cheekily mocking organized religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular was a favorite pastime of British comedians of that era -- see Hill, Benny -- as seen late in the film when the Pope himself drunkenly hits upon Stanley, currently dressed in a nun's habit: "Come on sweetie, let's dance."

George runs a night club/strip bar in the seedy end of London, the Rendezvous Club, which doubles as his HQ. All the Seven Deadly Sins work there for him -- Anger is the surly bouncer, Sloth is a lawyer who rarely awakes, Gluttony is a heavyset woman perpetually shoving food into her face, etc.

"What rotten sins I've got working for me. I suppose it's the wages," George quips.

I particularly liked Barry Humphries as Envy, who has a pretty undemanding workload but complains endless nonetheless about not getting the best table, being forced out of Satan's bed by Stanley, etc. There are some other interesting bit characters, some head-scratching, such as Lord Dowdy, an unctuous nobleman with a crippling stutter. (A comment on a contemptible political figure of the day? If so, the reference escapes.)

Lust herself is played by Raquel Welch, doing a brocaded American Southern accent, who tries to seduce Stanley but is interrupted by George (prearranged, perhaps?) just as they're about to seal the deal. Welch, famous for her well-flaunted physical assets and not much more, gets the job done.

(Despite having only two scenes, Welch appeared on virtually all the film's posters and promotional materials, leaving the somewhat mannish Bron in the lurch. Donen seems to have gone out of his way to render her more unattractive, including distracting blue eye shadow and a soaring hairstyle that is best described as Mod Pippy Longstocking.)

"Bedazzled" is one of those silly pictures with something more serious going on underneath. Cook, Moore and Donen deliver their criticisms of the modern age -- plastic flowers, for heaven's sake! -- with a wink and a smile, rather than a sneer and a pout. Perhaps the most devastating is one of Stanley's wish sequences, in which he is transformed into pop star adored by all the girls, including Margaret, swooning at his ballad entreaty to "love me!"

But then George steps in, following up this televised act with his own as "Drimble Wedge and the Vegetations," in which he talk-sings his disdain for any kind of feminine attention. Of course, the women drop pop Stanley like a hot potato in order to clamor for the Devil's (dis)interest. It's a sly comment that cuts at many targets: pop music, the English Psychedelia movement, female intuition, television's impact on popular culture, etc.

Stanley's existential state during his association with Lucifer is somewhat vague in a metaphysical sense. Occasionally the action goes back to follow Margaret assisting the police in investigating Stanley's disappearance and presumed suicide (based on his note), where she is not-so-subtly hit on by the much older lead detective (Michael Bates).

Presumably this represents reality, or at least the version George allows Stanley to see. But Margaret also appears in all of Stanley's wish scenarios, which are either illusions or alternate realities.

Some of the wish scenes are wickedly funny, though some are merely uncomfortable, such as the first in which Stanley wishes to be well-spoken, quoting philosophers and rolling his R's with the fervor of a drunken Welshman. In other iterations he is a multimillionaire frustrated by Margaret's canoodling with the harp teacher, a college boy who is the homewrecker himself or, literally, a fly on the wall.

George also appears in all the wishes, playing different roles in the set pieces -- "There's a little of me in everyone," after all.

Inevitably, the Devil's promised bliss is ruined by some loophole Stanley forgot to elucidate that George must exploit. "Doctor's orders," he intones, finger pointed heavenward.

In the last one Stanley is trapped as a nun ("Sister Luna") in a new order that reveres their chosen saint by jumping on trampolines. Always, Margaret remains just out of reach. Things end happily with the Devil being thwarted by the Lord, Stanley receiving his soul back and resolving to try things his way without any celestial (or damned) intervention.

"Bedazzled" is a fun movie, clever and smart with a few things to say underneath the snickering.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Video review: "Legend"

“Legend” is a solid gangster picture and a showcase for the versatile Tom Hardy, who played both halves of the infamous Kray sibling duo, who ruled London’s criminal underside in their 1960s heyday.

Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, based on a book by John Pearson, it tries a little too obviously to be the “British ‘Goodfellas’” -- but if that’s the worst thing you can say about a movie, that isn’t too shabby.

The challenge for Hardy is playing two men who outwardly are very similar but personality-wise are quite different. Reggie Kray was smooth, dapper, an ex-boxer and consummate ladies’ man who liked to run swank nightclubs and hobnob with celebrities. Ronnie was a sociopath -- he’d been committed to psychiatric hospital -- belligerent and bisexual. He was devoted to Reggie but resented the way people were drawn to him, so Ronnie repelled others as a way to compensate.

Even the way the twins talk diverges in Hardy’s interpretation. Ronnie sounds as if he has a mouthful of marbles, through which his harsh cockney accent bleats and spits.

(Hardy, while a monumentally gifted actor, seems to have a contemptuous disregard for comprehensibility. You’ll want to watch this one with the subtitles on.)

Emily Browning plays Frances, who gets courted and wed by Reggie, which she soon comes to regret as they are separated by his partying and prison stints. She narrates the film, performing much the same role as the William Holden character in “Sunset Boulevard.”

Also turning up are Paul Bettany as a rival mobster; David Thewlis as the Krays’ right-hand man; Christopher Eccleston as the London Yard detective on the case; Chazz Palminteri as an American mafia figure offering a business relationship, and danger; and Taron Egerton as Ronnie’s volatile boy toy.

It’s a wonderful-looking film, full of mod clothes and cars and tunes. It really does emulate the style of “Goodfellas,” with breezy scenes intermixed with bursts of horrific violence. These movies are not just trying to depict gangsters as interesting figures, but sex them up into iconic anti-heroes.

Extra features including a feature-length commentary track by Helgeland and a making-of documentary, “Creating the Legend.”



Thursday, February 25, 2016

Review: "Gods of Egypt"

"Gods of Egypt" is the sort of thing you're tempted to laugh out loud at -- and believe me, I did, several times -- but I can't bring myself to hate it. It's the sort of goofy disposable entertainment that seems self-aware of its nature, embraces it and has fun with it.

We've had big-budget spectacles featuring the Greek/Roman pantheon of deities as well as the Norse ones via the Thor movies, so now it's the Egyptians' turn. Because everyone was demanding a Horus/Set throwdown, right?

Director Alex Proyas is known for this sort of thing -- "Dark City," "The Crow" and similar middle-brow adventures in the fantasy/science fiction wing. At $140 million, it approaches triple the budget of "Deadpool," though the CGI, while extensive, often has that cheap shallow texture endemic to cut-rate/foreign jobs.

I noticed Proyas often cut away from money shots quickly, giving us time to absorb the impact without letting our gaze linger too long to seek imperfections.

The final package is a giddy sandals-and-swords romp that feels like it plucked elements from various other movies. The gods transform into metal warriors, there are sand snakes plucked straight out of "Dune," there's lots of parkour-ish stunts involving flips and contortions that aren't really necessary to get the job done.

Plus the expected quotient of heaving bosoms, comic sidekicks and so on.

The setup here is that in this version ancient Egypt -- script by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless -- the gods literally dwelled among the mortals and ruled them. They're eight feet tall, have amazing powers and live a thousand years, but they can certainly be killed and maimed -- and certainly will be over the course of the next 127 minutes.

They're essentially super heroes, dealing with the same-ol' great powers/great responsibility conundrum.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, best known for portraying the morally conflicted Jamie Lanister on "Game of Thrones," plays Horus, the lord of air, known for his keen sight and true aim. As the story opens he's about to be crowned king of Egypt, as daddy Osiris (an oddly uncredited Brian Brown) has reined over peace and prosperity for an eon and is ready to pass the mantle on.

But Uncle Set (Gerard Butler, in full shout-and-flex mode) isn't happy about being banished by father Ra to the wasted desert, and decides it's his turn to rule. He does some Very Bad Things, including plucking out Horus' eyes and banishing him.

Cut to our adorable human facilitator, a young thief named Bek (Brenton Thwaites) whose gorgeous lady love, Zaya (Courtney Eaton), worshiped Horus before his overthrow. She convinces Bek to steal Horus' eyes -- represented as glowing blue jewels -- from the elaborate maze of traps constructed by Set's chief builder (Proyas favorite Rufus Sewell). He manages to snatch one, but Zaya is killed in retaliation.

Bek revives the self-pitying Horus, but with one eye he's only a half-powered god. They set off on a familiar quest for revenge and true love, as Horus promises to rescue Zaya from Anubis' underworld.

Helping out are Hathor (Elodie Yung), the goddess of love who has been joined to both Horus and Set, depending on her need; and Thoth (Chadwick Boseman), the prissy but good-hearted god of knowledge and wisdom.

It's not a particularly Egyptian-looking cast, but there at least is a decent enough mix of ethnicities to pass muster as a multicultural mashup.

I liked Coster-Waldau in the lead role, even though he isn't given much to do other than fight and seethe. He's got an easygoing charisma and likable screen presence. I was glad to see the depiction of a normal male body that's athletic without the usual veiny/engorged look that's become so prevalent.

The movie takes tons of liberties with traditional Egyptian mythology, whipping up all sorts of side characters and events to fit their purposes, and sweeping anything that doesn't fit under the rug. (Look up the recorded conflict between Horus and Set; it was much more, uh, spunky.)

One of the coolest set pieces is Ra's chariot pulling the sun across the sky each day -- in this depiction, the earth is most definitively flat -- doing nightly battle with Apep, the worm of destruction. Played by Geoffrey Rush, Ra is an ancient, remote god who watches the exploits of his descendants below, silently judging but taking no direct action.

The whole sequence is quite majestic and beautiful, which is an amusing contrast with the squirmy, silly stuff happening in the sand. I think if Ra were to weigh this movie on its celestial worth, he'd probably toss it into the trashbin of the cosmos -- but he'd chortle while doing it.

Fearless Oscar predictions and picks: 2015

I've said it before and I will say it again with Rubio-like constancy: 2015 will go down as one of the all-time great years in cinema. It's only appropriate, then, that the race for the Academy Award for Best Picture is one of the most contentious and unpredictable in decades.

Usually by now a portrait emerges: a clear favorite, its chief competition and a dark horse or two. The clear favorite nearly always wins, the last big upset coming for 1999 when "Shakespeare in Love" beat "Saving Private Ryan." (While "Crash" from 2006 was a clear mistake, I'm not sure how popular deserving winner "Brokeback Mountain" really was among Academy voters.)

This time around, the picture is as clear as mud.

Based on the preliminary awards, it's a three-way race between "The Revenant," "Spotlight" and "The Big Short." All three arrive with the credentials to be called a front-runner.

The result? Utter, glorious higgledy-piggledy.

So here are my predictions for the winners in all 24 categories. (Hey, you can't call yourself a true Oscar prognosticator unless you're willing to make a pick for Best Black and White Costume Short.)

As always, not only will I tell you who think will win and who should win, I'll gleefully toss out some of the nominees in favor of more deserving ones, in a soon-to-be hallowed tradition I call the "Chris Cross."

Best Picture

"The Revenant" won the Golden Globe for drama (with non-Oscar-contender "The Martian" ludicrously taking the comedy award), BAFTA best film and, most significantly, Directors Guild award. Director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu has the gloss of prestige as last year's Oscar winner. A repeat would be historic, only the third time a director has won back-to-back awards and the first in 65 years.

"Spotlight" got the Screen Actors Guild award for best cast -- their equivalent of best picture -- the Writers Guild award for drama and the top award from the Broadcast Film Critics Association. (Including my ballot as a first-time voting member.) Plus the endorsement of many regional film critic groups, including the Indiana Film Journalists Association. (I'm everywhere!)

Coming in strong at the end of the race is "The Big Short," directed by goofball comic filmmaker Adam McKay, which shocked many with a win from the Producers Guild, which historically has been one of the best predictors of the Oscar winner. It also took the Writers Guild award for comedy.

Like I said, it's a tough call. I'm going to throw out "Big Short," more or less on gut feeling. It just doesn't have that shiny patina of a Best Pic. On paper "Revenant" seems to have the edge -- it's got "prestige picture" written all over it, and a solid pedigree of previous Oscar nominees and winners.

But there's a backlash growing against "Revenant." A lot of people feel it's too violent and overpraised. There was also a sizeable contingent in Hollywood who thought "Birdman" was similarly overblown -- my hand goes up! -- and don't like to dole out golden statuettes haphazardly.

So I predict "Spotlight" will eke out a win.

For the Chris Cross, I don't feel that any of the eight nominees are truly undeserving. All made my list of the best films of the year -- just much lower down.

Will Win: Spotlight
Should Win: Spotlight
Chris Cross: The End of the Tour, Love & Mercy, Mr. Holmes and Steve Jobs replace Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, The Martian and The Revenant.


Iñárritu won the DGA award, which is usually the Oscar winner, so he has to be called the front-runner. Tom McCarthy of "Spotlight" and Lenny Abrahamson of "Room" are low-profile filmmakers without a lot of credits under their belt. Adam McKay has been known for gross-out comedies, often starring Will Ferrell, and that will hurt him. So the only real competition is George Miller.

I would give it to Miller. More than any film, "Mad Max: Fury Road" represents one artist's singular vision. The Aussie revived a nearly 40-year-old franchise with a new actor and then went one better and centered the story around another (female) character. Bold, visionary filmmaking.

Miller is hurt by the fact that his film falls into the action/adventure mold, and those do not fare well in the awards.

If Iñárritu prevails he would join Joseph L. Mankiewicz and John Ford as the only directors to win back-to-back Oscars. That's pretty rarefied country, and I think voters will take a hard look at "The Revenant" and "Birdman" and ask if those are films that really deserve to go down as all-time greats.

Will Win: George Miller
Should Win: George Miller
Chris Cross: Tough call, but I will knock out Iñárritu for James Ponsoldt of "The End of the Tour," a criminally overlooked film. Ridley Scott deserved a nom, too, but not sure who I'd cross out.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

The screenplay categories are where the Academy likes to reward smaller films that don't have a shot at winning Best Picture. So whichever category doesn't have the Best Pic winner is the one where they can "spread the love." Since I think "Spotlight" will win Best Picture, it will likely win the Original Screenplay category.

The favorite here is "The Big Short," which took a complex issue and melded it into a digestible, funny and infuriating take on the real estate bubble. It also won the WGA award, so it's the clear favorite.

Its main competition is "Room." While it's a wonderful film, #2 on my list of the year's best, I think its strength lies in its performances rather than the script. (Which does have a few minor problems, particularly in the second half with the William H. Macy character.)

Contrastingly, it's amazing to me that "Steve Jobs" and "The End of the Tour," both carefully constructed narratives, did not get nominations. Meanwhile, old-fashioned storytelling in "Brooklyn" and "Carol" was recognized.

It's important to note that "The Revenant" did not get a writing nod, which I think underscores the movie's weakness in the big race.

While Best Picture winners occasionally lack any acting nominations -- "Slumdog Millionaire" most recently -- it's rare for them to not be recognized for the screenplay. Only seven films have won Best Pic without a screenplay nod, and most of them were in the very early days of the Academy Awards. The most recent being "Titanic" in 1997 and "The Sound of Music" in 1965.

Will Win: The Big Short
Should Win: The Big Short
Chris Cross: The End of the Tour and Steve Jobs replace Brooklyn and Carol.

Writing (Original Screenplay)

One of the easiest calls of the night, for "Spotlight." It won the WGA award and could be the Best Picture. If it doesn't, then this is its make-up award.

Why no screenplay nom for "Mad Max: Fury Road?" Sure, there's not a lot of dialogue and there is a lot of action. But structure-wise it's just brilliant. And the characters are really distinctly written. It was a chase movie that built a whole world around it. Meanwhile, "Ex Machina" had an innovative starting concept and then made a lot of overly safe choices.

Will Win: Spotlight
Should Win: Spotlight
Chris Cross: Mad Max: Fury Road for Ex Machina.

Actress in a Leading Role

Brie Larson of "Room" has been one of Hollywood's best-kept secrets for a while, and she's all lined up to become her generation's Hilary Swank, winning this award at a young age for a tiny picture, which will hopefully boost her into the sort of roles that Jennifer Lawrence or Carey Mulligan are getting now. Those of us who caught "Short Term 12" a few years back saw this day coming.

Her main competition is Cate Blanchett, a former winner with a great pedigree. Charlotte Rampling was a sentimental choice in a movie hardly anyone saw. "Joy" underperformed in box office and critical praise, so J. Law is probably on the sidelines this time. "Carol" got a lot of early buzz before anyone saw it, then they saw it, and the buzz died down.

Maggie Smith of "The Lady in the Van" and Charlize Theron of "Mad Max: Fury Road" deserved nods.

Will Win: Brie Larson
Should Win: Brie Larson
Chris Cross: The commanding Charlize Theron and the sublime Maggie Smith knock out Jennifer Lawrence and Cate Blanchett.


Actress in a Supporting Role

A busy category with no clear favorite. Kate Winslet would seem to be the front-runner, as a past multiple nominee and winner, and she was great in "Steve Jobs." And she took the Golden Globe. But Alicia Vikander won the Screen Actors Guild Award and seems to have the late momentum. Of course, hers was clearly a leading role, but we're used to shenanigans in category hopping by now. That could help and hurt her.

Coin flip. Most of the prognosticators are picking Vikander. I'll take the load less traveled and say Winslet.

My choice would be Rachel McAdams, who shined in a non-showy role.

Will Win: Kate Winslet
Should Win: Rachel McAdams
Chris Cross: Elizabeth Banks centered "Love &  Mercy," while Rooney Mara contributed to the overwrought snoozefest that is "Carol."

Actor in a Leading Role

Another easy call. Leonardo DiCaprio has been Hollywood royalty for two-plus decades. He's been nominated five times without winning, and probably had at least a couple other times he should've been. He's run the the table on the preliminary awards and seems to have this locked up. Like Paul Newman, he'll win not for the finest performance of his career but because "it's his time."

That's not a diss; Leo was indeed outstanding in "The Revenant," in a largely non-vocal role, which is a huge contrast to his filmography of fast talkers. Of those nominated, I would give the slight edge to Michael Fassbender, who played the myth rather than the man in "Steve Jobs."

My picks to win would be Jacob Tremblay of "Room" or Jason Segel for "The End of the Tour," but neither was nominated. Would've also loved to see nominations for Ian McKellen, Tom Hanks, Jesse Eisenberg, Paul Dano, Johnny Depp and Mark Ruffalo, but more love than nominations to go around.

Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio
Should Win: Michael Fassbender
Chris Cross: Jacob Tremblay and Jason Segal replace Bryan Cranston and Eddie Redmayne.

Actor in a Supporting Role

Nearly always the busiest category with the most number of snubs, and this year's no different. The lack of nominations for Idris Elba of "Beasts of No Nation" and Michael Shannon of "99 Homes" really, really grates. Their films don't work without them. Essentially, they're the subjects of their movies and the protagonist is the object.

You could've also put up Paul Giamatti twice, for playing musical Svengalis in "Straight Outta Compton" and "Love & Mercy." Also dissed were Michael Keaton, Steve Carell, John Cusack (arguably a leading role), and a few others.

Of those nominated, Sylvester Stallone appears to be the strong sentimental pick. Capping off a great career and all that (so long as you conveniently forget long stretches of it). Mark Rylance is big in theater and kind of anonymous in film, so I don't expect the actors' wing to vote for him in great numbers. Tom Hardy was good in "The Revenant" but it was possibly his fourth best performance of the year. (If you count "Legend" as two, and I do.)

I would say Mark Ruffalo is the stalking horse here. Very respected actor who shifts easily between indies, mainstream dramas and now big-budget spectacles. He would be my pick of those nominated.

Will Win: Sylvester Stallone
Should Win: Mark Ruffalo
Chris Cross: Steve Carell, Michael Shannon and Idris Elba edge out Christian Bale, Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance.


Animated Feature

Despite being an outstanding movie year, it was a rather weak one for animated films and comedies. Disney/Pixar is seen as having kicked themselves out of a moribund funk with "Inside Out," after years of sequels and cut-rate rehashes. For my money I slightly preferred the heartfelt "The Good Dinosaur," which wasn't nominated. Meanwhile, the fun but utterly forgettable "Shaun the Sheep Movie" was.

My fellow Indiana critic adored "Anomalisa," but I felt it was weird and quirky for he sake of being weird and quirky. I think Charlie Kaufman, like George Lucas, works better as an idea and story man who hands off the nuts and bolts elsewhere.

I haven't seen the two foreign nominated films -- virtually no one has -- so I can't assess their quality.

Will Win: Inside Out
Should Win: Inside Out
Chris Cross: The Good Dinosaur for Shaun the Sheep Movie.

Foreign Language Film

Historically a tough category to pick as most of the nominees typically don't make it to U.S. theaters until long after the Oscars have been given out. "Son of Saul" has made a strong showing in the preliminary awards, and made my top 10 list.

Will Win: Son of Saul
Should Win: Son of Saul

Documentary Feature

"Amy" has this one all locked up, and deserves to.

Will Win: Amy
Should Win: Amy

Documentary Short

 I haven't seen any of these.

Will Win: A Girl in the River: The Prince of Forgiveness

Short Film (Animated)

I adored "Bear Story," but most people are predicting the darkly (very darkly) comedic "World of Tomorrow."

Will Win: World of Tomorrow
Should Win: Bear Story

Short Film (Live Action)

A very clear standout here imho.

Will Win: Shok
Should Win: Shok



The most important of the "minor" awards. The way a film is photographed has a major impact on how we react to it emotionally and intellectually. Take a look at "Son of Saul" for a prime example. I also adored the hauntingly beautiful "The Martian" among the snubees.

"The Revenant" seems to have this one in the bag, due to the oft-cited difficulty of shooting in a natural setting with extreme climate. I will take "Mad Max: Fury Road" for its great, grainy look and practical camera effects.

I love to rag on "Carol," but it was indeed an exquisite-looking film; indeed, the thrust of my complaint is that it's a pretty box with nothing inside. Robert Richardson managed to be quite inventive inside a confined space... but 19/20ths of "The Hateful Eight" still takes place inside a single room. If we're going to award brownie points to "Revenant" for degree of difficulty, we have to subtract for ease.

Will Win: The Revenant
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Chris Cross: The Martian and Son of Saul for Sicario and The Hateful Eight.

Costume Design

In a year with a strong favorite for Best Picture, many of the other categories tend to fall in line with wins whether they deserve them or not. That isn't the case this year, so people feel free to vote for what they thought was the truly most outstanding achievement in a given field -- a novel idea, that.

You'd think "The Danish Girl" would win here, since it's a story told largely through clothes. Most people are picking "Mad Max: Fury Road." I think it will go to "Carol."

Will Win: Carol
Should Win: The Danish Girl

Film Editing

The consensus seems to be that "Mad Max: Fury Road" is going to run the table on the "technical" awards, or close to it. I find little reason to disagree. Just a masterpiece of craftsmanship. Though I think "The Revenant" will pick off a few, mostly for its dense aural landscape.

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Production Design 

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Sound Mixing

Will Win: The Revenant
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Sound Editing

Will Win: The Revenant
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Visual Effects

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Makeup and Hairstyling

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Music (Original Song)

"Simple Song #3" was about the only thing I actually liked about "Youth." The fact that "Fifty Shades of Grey" has one more Oscar nomination than "Love & Mercy," "Mr. Holmes," "The End of the Tour" and many other outstanding films is worthy of Dante's Inferno-style damnation.

I think the Academy will go Gaga. At least Sam Smith's falsetto warbling, aka "Worst Bond Title Song Ever," won't win.

Will Win: Til It Happens To You from The Hunting Ground
Should Win: Til It Happens To You from The Hunting Ground

Music (Original Score)

This could be the most sentimental category of the night. You've got two film music legends, John  Williams and Ennio Morricone, going head-to-head. Despite this being his 50th nomination -- that's right, 5-0 -- Williams won't win because "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" simply builds on his already iconic music of nearly 40 years ago. "The Hateful Eight" is one of Morricone's most playful scores, if not among his very best -- though that's rarefied terrain indeed.

Having never won in five previous tries -- even being written off with the "We think you're done" honorary Oscar in 2007 -- this will finally be the 87-year-old Italian's time.

Will Win: The Hateful Eight
Should Win: The Hateful Eight

Review: "Eddie the Eagle"

“Eddie the Eagle” looks at first glance like a standard sports underdog story. Indeed, it’s a virtual remake of “Cool Runnings,” the 1993 film about the Jamaican bobsled team that competed at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

In fact, “Eddie” is set at the same time and place and involves another unlikely competitor who got his ticket punched to the Olympics only because of a complete absence of competition from their home country. With both the Jamaicans and British ski jumper Eddie Edwards, the goal was not to win but simply to earn a place in the competition.

They even recycle the made-up character of the washed-up, alcoholic athlete who reluctantly takes on the mantle of coach and mentor -- played by John Candy then and Hugh Jackman now.

But scratch but a little deeper, and you’ll find a story that’s actually about bullying, and overcoming it.

Director Dexter Fletcher and screenwriters Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton see in Eddie, a humble working-class plasterer played by Taron Egerton, an awkward kid who’s been picked on his entire life, and smelts that negative energy into determination to prove everyone wrong.

“I was kicked off every team I ever tried out for even before I had a chance to prove myself,” Eddie says.

A lot of the fascination with Eddie, and the reason that gives power to his redemption, is that he’s homely. With coke-bottle glasses, pinched features, horsey teeth and strangely angled jaw, Eddie gets written off by most everyone he meets. He wore braces on his legs as a child, and there’s still a quality of ungainliness about him. Just standing still, he looks awkward.

Earnest and not bright enough to be called a nerd, Eddie is the guy everybody laughs at.

The British Olympic selection committee certainly laugh him off, declining to let him try out for the skiing team despite being one of the top amateurs in England. Later it’s the veteran ski jumpers from Finland or Norway who titter when Eddie decides to take on the sport. They’re all long, lean Vikings, and here’s this stumpy, half-blind guy who resembles the antithesis of athleticism.

But Eddie is determined, declining to listen even to his father, who orders him repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to give up his Olympic dream and settle down in a stable trade. Mum (Jo Hartley) is more supportive, slipping him money and the even more valuable currency of absolute affection.

Eddie selects ski jumping because Britain hasn’t had one in Olympic competition in more than 50 years. That means there’s no community to train him up -- but also no one he has to try out against.

It might seem easy to be the best at something that no one else is doing. But this is a sport where mistakes lead not to disgrace, but a coffin.

Jackman plays Bronson Peary, a legendary former ski jumper who got kicked off the U.S. team for his drinking and carousing. Now the old lush who runs the snow plow, he becomes Eddie’s only friend and trainer. He doesn’t want the job, but reckons that if he doesn’t help, Eddie is liable to wind up dead.

Fletcher stages the jumps engagingly, showing us the soaring beauty and almost insane danger of the sport. The decathlon may be the measure of the finest overall athlete, but nobody routinely ends up with a broken body.

Egerton, who played second fiddle to Colin Firth in last year’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” gets more of a chance to shine here as the gullible but sweet Eddie. He shows us how this remarkable young man turned derision into cheers, and how triumph does not necessarily mean receiving a medal.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Video review: "The Good Dinosaur"

"Shaun the Sheep" got an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, but "The Good Dinosaur" did not? Color me confused.

In a relatively weak year for animated pictures, "The Good Dinosaur" stands out for me as marginally the best of the lot. Certainly better than the cute-but-predictable "Shaun," or the weird-for-weird's-sake "Anomalisa." I'll even take it over the giddy but hardly superior fellow traveler in the Disney/Pixar universe, "Inside Out."

(The other two Academy Award nominees are foreign language films that haven't been widely released on these shores.)

I enjoyed "Dinosaur" because it was an empathetic, vibrantly told tale with some originality and verve. It's about a juvenile dinosaur, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), who gets separated from his family and falls in with a feral human boy, Spot (Jack Bright). In one of the movie's many clever twists, here the reptiles are the evolved species that talk and use tools, while the homo sapiens are primitives who use their beastly skills to survive -- in Spot's case, mostly by stealing from Arlo's clan.

It's a familiar 'hero's journey' type of story, with Arlo having to experience all kinds of scary, and occasionally thrilling, adventures in order to find his rightful place in the world.

It's a beautifully rendered planet, with the humans and dinosaurs drawn in a deliberately cartoon-y way, while all of the natural backdrops and supporting critters are super realistic. You'd think the combination would be off-putting, but after a bit we settle in and it feels right.

Screenwriter Meg LaFauvre's script is a solid mix of familiar elements -- a little bit "Finding Nemo," a smidgen of "The Lion King" -- and new stuff. The story has a way of scaring us just when we thought things were safe, and turning fearsome encounters on their head.

It did pretty mediocre at the box office, so there's a good chance you didn't see "The Good Dinosaur" in theaters. Give it the second chance it richly deserves on video.

Bonus features are quite good. In addition to a feature-length commentary track by director Peter Sohn and key crew members, there are also three deleted scenes, five making-of featurettes, some original animation used for promotional purposes, and the animated short "Sanjay's Super Team" -- which DID get an Oscar nomination.



Thursday, February 18, 2016

Review: "Risen"

"Risen" has the unfortunate timing of arriving a couple of weeks after "Hail, Caesar!", the Coen brothers' spoof of old Hollywood mores. George Clooney starred as a pompous stiff of an actor playing a Roman officer who gets swept up in the adoration of the Christ. Then I saw the ads for this movie and thought, "Uh oh..."

At second blush it seems like it has the potential to be an ill-thought attempt to mash up Biblical tales with modern storytelling tropes, with Joseph Fiennes playing a Roman tribune tasked with investigating the disappearance of Jesus' body. It starts off with all the hallmarks of a crime procedural: talking to witnesses, gathering evidence, unexpected twists.

I think I may have even muttered under my breath, "CSI: Judea?"

But after these early hesitations I warmed to the movie. It's well-acted and earnest without becoming cloying. A lot of those Golden Age epics touching on Christian themes could be smarmy as all get out, but director Kevin Reynolds ("Waterworld"), who co-wrote the script with Paul Aiello, keeps things sober and on an even keel.

Fiennes, as ambitious officer Clavius, acts as our clear-eyed observer into the Resurrection mythology. He's skeptical without being an amoral heel who only cares about power -- like Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth), who just wants things tidied up before the Emperor arrives for a visit. He orders Clavius to put an end to the crucifixion and get rid of the bodies.

Except, of course, Jesus' corpse goes missing, and the people start whispering about having risen from the dead. Clavius, along with his impressionable new right-hand man, Lucius (Tom Felton), starts the task of ferreting out the truth. Eventually this forces the rational, pragmatic Roman to start questioning if miracles really are in the offing.

Cliff Curtis plays Jesus (here called Yeshua in Hebrew), whom we first see turned to bloody bits at the end of his ordeal. But this is not "The Passion of the Christ," obsessed with the rending of flesh, but the humanistic tale of what came after. Things build to Clavius being presented with Jesus after the resurrection, alive and smiling, showing his disciples the holes in his hands and side. The Roman decides to follow as they flee to Galilee, his role transformed from conducting interrogations to bearing witness.

The Apostles are depicted as everyday men capable of great faith and doubt, who are ensorcelled by this purported son of the one true God. Stewart Scudamore is a powerful presence as Peter, the oldest and unofficial leader of Jesus' followers. He even gets to show unexpected flashes of humor.

"I haven't every answer," Peter responds to Clavius' many inquiries. "We're astonished, too."

I didn't think I'd like "Risen," but the movie surprised me. It's neither a mushy call to the faithful or a revisionist take laboring to cast doubt on scripture. Rather, it simply depicts how the story of Jesus might have played out in the moment, without that overly dramatic sense of portent that normally invades films about Christianity.

Whether you're a doubter, true believer or indifferent, it's a story of peace and hope worth embracing.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Review: "The Lady in the Van"

The best storytellers often seem to have things happen to them that are worthy of a story.

Take Alan Bennett, a well-regarded playwright living in a quaint house in London’s Camden Town during the 1970s. He allowed a homeless woman living in a van to park in his driveway out of pity. She stayed 15 years, resulting in a love/hate relationship for the ages.

He turned the tale into a hit play in the late 1990s, and now adapts it into this screenplay. Bennett teams up with director Nicholas Hytner, who previously helmed other film versions of his plays, “The History Boys” and “The Madness of King George.”

It’s a lovely story, a bracing mix of sweet sentiment and acerbic confrontation. Alex Jennings is sensitive and quietly charismatic playing Bennett himself. But the movie is largely a showcase for Maggie Smith, who originated the role onstage and also performed it on radio broadcasts.

It’s the perfect marriage of performer and script, letting Smith explore a seemingly repellant person and find out a little about how she got that way. I won’t say that we end up adoring her, but we gain a firm grasp of her humanity.

The screen version of Bennett is a bit of a pisser himself, a loner who enjoys his status and his solitude. He arranges for clandestine trysts with other men, since being openly gay is not really an option in that time period, though his sexuality is not much of a mystery to his few friends and neighbors. Roger Allam and Deborah Findlay play the seemingly nice couple across the street, who are obsessed with their snooty image and the bohemian charm of their street.

One of the neighborhood traditions is seeing who has to “host” Mary Shepherd, an eccentric old lady who lives in an ancient van that she parks in front of a house for weeks or months at a time. She’s seen as annoying but harmless, a combination of local mascot and curse, and it’s become something of a game as to who she will favor with her presence. Soon enough Bennett becomes the lucky one.

Then the van breaks down and she goes from boarder to squatter.

Smith, as Miss Shepherd, can be hilarious one moment and abhorrently inappropriate the next. She seems to have a very high opinion of herself, and has a habit of making the most outlandish statements, which she will temper ever so slightly as to their veracity by adding the word “possibly” to the end.

Miss Shepherd makes all sorts of little requests, which soon turn into demands, such as using the lavatory. She spends most of her time in the van, which is filled to the brim with assorted bits of junk. As time goes on the van/home changes, acquiring new coats of paints and even a complete change-out to a new vehicle. But Miss Shepherd remains as unalterable as a mountain.

Eventually we learn more about her and her real background, which I’ll not reveal here.

Miss Shepherd does get some visitors, mostly unwanted: a social worker (Cecilia Noble), who warns Bennett that by allowing her to stay so long he’s acquired some measure of responsibility over her. And a shadowy man named Underwood (Jim Broadbent), who comes banging on the van at night, making threats and demanding cash.

“The Lady in the Van” is a cozy little picture, the sort of movie that leaves us feeling a little warmer and wiser than before. It’s a reminder that life is what happens to us while we’re looking the other way.

Review: "The Witch"

Atmospheric and archaic, “The Witch” is a bold take on the horror genre that’s both quite old and disturbingly new.

Set in 1630 New England against a backdrop of Puritans fresh off the boat from England, it’s about a hyper-religious family that stakes its claim in a remote stretch of forest only to experience disturbances they ascribe to satanic forces. One of the beauties of writer/director Robert Eggers’ approach, who makes his feature film debut, is that he leaves their state deliberately open to interpretation -- at least for a time.

At first, we think it’s all in the heads of these superstitious people, who cast suspicion on each other for what’s happening to them. The family believes in the literal truth of every word in the Bible, so the idea of the Devil appearing to enlist them or witches trolling the forest is viewed as entirely plausible. We see how pliable they are, and understand how the Salem witch trials came to be.

But eventually it becomes clear that just because the siblings accuse each other of being witches to deflect blame doesn’t mean there really isn’t an old hag off brewing spells.

Things go bad early when the baby boy Samuel is snatched out of the care of the oldest daughter, Thomasin, literally while her eyes are closed during a game of peek-a-boo. Played by the luminous Anya Taylor-Joy, Thomasin shoulders much of the burden for caring for the younger children -- not to mention the quiet, inexplicable ire of her mother, Katherine (Katie Dickie).

After days of searching, they give up the infant’s fate. The father, William (Ralph Ineson), blames a wolf rather than believe Thomasin’s supernatural tale of sudden vanishing. But then eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) disappears, too, and the tykes, Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) seem to share a fey commune with the alpha goat, whom they dub Black Philip.

With his long face, sad eyes and voice so deep it seems to issue up from the very pit of the earth, Ineson is a compelling figure as the patriarch, whose soul is weaker than his commanding demeanor suggests. And Dickie, who played a mentally unbalanced mother in “Game of Thrones,” brings some of those unnerving aspects to this role, too.

But it’s really Thomasin’s story, as we see everything through her eyes. We understand her resentment at such a cloistered life, her yearning for a wider world and even her attempts to cast blame elsewhere. She’s good, but not pure, because no one is.

With its perpetually gray skies and earthy backgrounds, the film is virtually monochromatic except for Thomasin’s golden hair -- and the inevitable blobs of blood that come drip, drip, dripping into the frame.

It’s not the most accessible film, and Eggers’ devotion to accurate period speech -- thees and thines, etc. -- often makes it difficult to understand the dialogue.

But “The Witch” is a movie you feel more in your bones than the head. It creeps into your innards like a pestilence, and stays to feast.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Reeling Backward: "No Way Out" (1950)

I first became aware of "No Way Out" because it shares the same title as a largely forgotten 1987 political thriller starring Kevin Costner, Sean Young and Gene Hackman that I am particularly fond of. Then I found out it was the first film appearance by Sidney Poitier, and also starred the great Richard Widmark in one of his inimitable villain roles. I knew I had to see it.

The movie was directed by Golden Age giant Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who also co-wrote it along with Lesser Samuels, and the two men shared an Oscar nomination for their original screenplay. It's a taut potboiler that accomplishes its narrative goals while also being quite brazen in its tackling of racial animosity circa 1950.

The word "nigger" gets bandied almost as much as your average Quentin Tarantino feature, along with a host of other racial epithets like coon, darkie and so on. Poitier, whose screen presence was defined by intelligence and grace, shows prodigious quantities of both as Luther Brooks, a first-year intern at the large county hospital who is on the receiving end of nearly all that vileness. Just 22 when the film was shot, Poitier is boyishly handsome and painfully thin.

On his first night working the prison ward, a pair of brother bandits from Beaver Canal are brought in with serious but non-life-threatening gunshot wounds. The elder, Ray Biddle (Widmark), leers and taunts at Dr. Brooks -- outraged that a black man is putting his hands on his brother. When Johnny Biddle (Dick Paxton) dies during a spinal tap because Brooks suspects he is suffering from a brain tumor, it turns into an all-out war of wills between the two men.

If Poitier is celebrated for his smarts, then perhaps no actor accessed anger as well as Widmark. In the right role -- like Tommy Udo in his screen debut in "Kiss of Death" just three years earlier -- hatred and resentment just emanated from Widmark like waves of a radiation from a nuclear meltdown.

Something about his rawboned face, the way his skull seemed to want to pop right out of his skin, set off by those enormous sapphire eyes, gave him a jackal's ravenous charm. Many of his characters, including Ray Biddle, drip with poisonous strain of humor that's funny only to them. He laughs at you, but the dead glint in his eye lets slip that he's kill you as soon as sneer at you.

Some predictable stuff happens -- Ray breaks out of the hospital prison ward, with the help of his "deef and dumb" other brother, George (Harry Bellaver), who can read lips and acts as a sort of spy for the family, visually eavesdropping on the conversations between the doctors and policemen who guard the prisoners.

Insisting that Brooks is responsible for Johnny's death, Ray whips up a race riot, rounding up his lug friends to stage an attack on the African-American part of town. The black men in the community get the drop on them, though, learning of the preparations and sending an even larger force to beat them to a pulp.

This results in perhaps the film's most singularly powerful moment, in which family members of the injured men crowd inside the hospital as their loved ones are brought inside. One woman can't stand to see Brooks treating her guy, and spits in his face. The stunned doctor simply walks away, fleeing out into the night.

Notable aside: screen icons Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee turn up in supporting roles as Dr. Brooks' brother and his wife. Though they did not get a screen credit, these are far meatier roles than the usual sort of background screen cameos you saw in this era. The husband leaves their shared home to go join the fight, talking about going for a walk. When his wife tries to stop him, his mother quietly admonishes the younger woman to let the man make his own choices.

I was expecting the Davis character to turn up dead or gravely injured -- that's how these kinds of movies normally go -- and was glad to see the film avoid the usual tropes. 

The film wastes some time and energy on Johnny Biddle's ex-wife, Edie (the sloe-eyed Linda Darnell), who gets sucked into the story. Ray refuses the doctors' request to perform an autopsy on his brother, ostensibly because he doesn't want to see him cut open but really because he fears Dr. Brooks was correct in his diagnosis of a brain tumor. So the chief resident, Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally), and Brooks track her down thinking she's the next of kin.

Edie has escaped Beaver Canal, just barely, living hand-to-mouth in a tiny apartment with a job she hates. She goes to see Ray at the hospital, and here it's suggested they had an affair behind Johnny's back while she was still married to him. Ray, who has a brute's sense of cunning, stokes Edie's nascent racial resentment and convinces her to help him.

Her heart gets turned around, however, by Dr. Wharton's warm-hearted maid, Gladys (Amanda Randolph), who nurses her back to health after a drunken bender. Things wind up with Edie helping Dr. Brooks against Ray -- whose shield of raging machismo comes crashing down when his shot-up leg starts pumping blood all over.

I respected the way the filmmakers give depth and breadth to even the smallest characters, such as Lefty Jones, a black orderly played by Dots Johnson. Lefty has an angry scar down the side of his face, compliments of the likes of Ray Biddle. He and the other orderlies view Dr. Brooks as something of a personal hero, and are angry when he shows restraint at all the racial taunts. Their alignment is underscored by the similarities in the white outfits worn by the orderlies and Brooks' doctor kit.

It's a pretty bold thing for a movie in 1950 to show the righteous anger of the black man -- Lefty and his fellows don't even appear to get arrested for their assault on the Beaver Canal gang. "No Way Out" is one of those good movies that gets better the more you think about it.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Video review: "Steve Jobs"

Let's be clear: although "Steve Jobs" is based on a biography by Walter Isaacson, who received the official blessing of the Apple computer pioneer, the movie is an utter fabrication from beginning to end.

Well, maybe not totally. It is about Steve Jobs. And includes conversations with several key figures in his life, spaced out over the years. And it shows the launch of actual iconic Apple products, including the original Macintosh and iPhone.

And the film depicts Jobs as both visionary and bully -- qualities that everyone who dealt with him agreed he shared in equal, plentiful quantity.

But beyond that, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle have not really tried to make a factual biopic of Jobs. Rather, they are staging a sort of Shakespearean rumination on the man and the myth. Jobs encounters the most important people in his life, nearly all of whom have turned against him, almost like Scrooge with his sundry ghosts.

The movie is not just an exaltation of Jobs the technology visionary, but also an examination of how his personal failings brought him low. "Steve Jobs" is more about the idea of the man than the flesh-and-blood one who left this mortal coil in 2011.

Michael Fassbender is commanding and slithery in the title role. Perhaps deliberately, he looks and sounds absolutely nothing like the real incarnation we know from video, usually talking about how some expensive new gadget was going to forever change our lives. Fassbender's Jobs is hyper-smart, super aggressive and views every social interaction as a contest to be won.

Kate Winslet is terrific as Barbara Hoffman, his right-hand woman and fixer. Other recurring characters are Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld, an early Apple developer; Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, Apple CEO and Jobs mentor-turned-nemesis; Seth Rogen as former partner Steve Wozniak; Katherine Waterston plays his resentful ex-girlfriend.

This fictional version of Steve Jobs may or not bear much relation to the real guy. But "Steve Jobs" is a gripping tour de force portrait of an overpowering personality.

Bonus features aren't terribly extensive, but they are quite meaty.

There is a lengthy making-of documentary. And not one but two feature-length commentary tracks: one by Boyle, the other by Sorkin and editor Elliot Graham.

It's too bad that actors are so rarely included in these conversations, because it makes for some wonderful insights. Maybe that'll come in "Steve Jobs 2.0."



Thursday, February 11, 2016

Review: "Deadpool"

I think it was around the time that Deadpool farted into the face of an elderly black lady that I realized we weren’t dealing with a standard-issue superhero.

If that wasn’t the moment, then it arrived immediately after, when he needled her: “Hashtag: drive by!”

If “Guardians of the Galaxy” set the stage for comic book adaptations that were comedies first, action/adventure second, then “Deadpool” is the next step on the (d?)evolutionary scale: super heroes as gross-out laugh riots.

Golly, this movie is funny. And crude. And lewd. Even as I was watching it I thought to myself: “I can’t believe Marvel made this movie.” But I am very glad they did.

Things start with the opening credits, a freeze-frame journey of the camera around a scene of mayhem, a vehicle in mid-flight as Deadpool takes out some bad guys. As we pan and zoom around to reveal that Deadpool has his fingers poking a dude’s eyes out and the other hand giving another guy a wedgie, the credits mock themselves.

The film, we are informed, stars “a British villain,” “a CGI character” and “a moody teen,” amongst others, and was directed by “an overpaid tool.” A magazine flies by in the swirl, and it’s Ryan Reynolds’ “Sexiest Man Alive” cover of People.

Things continue as Deadpool repeatedly talks to the camera, reminding us that he’s a movie character. He breaks the fourth wall, then quips about breaking the fourth wall, then does a flashback where he again breaks the fourth wall. “That’s, like, 16 walls!” he brags.

The setup is that Wade Wilson (Reynolds) is a badboy mercenary, a smirking ex-Special Forces expert now accepting money to do bad things to people even worse than him. He catches the perfect girl, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), who shares his puckish humor and love of exploring every sexual position available. (A montage shows many, and much.)

But then he gets terminal cancer, which sucks, and signs on to a shadowy group that promises to not only cure him, but give him super abilities. This they do – he can heal virtually any wound a la Wolverine -- except it also involves turning him into a scarred freak who looks like Freddie Krueger’s next of kin.

Dubbing himself Deadpool, he resolves to hunt down the dastardly villain who did this to him, Ajax (Ed Skrein), get him to do a face fix, kill him, and win the girl back.

If this doesn’t sound like noble proselytizing about great power coming with great responsibility, that’s because it isn’t. Deadpool explicitly rejects the idea of being a hero, happily kills anyone who gets in his way and drops one-liners while doing it.

Deadpool also criticizes his own movie as it’s playing out, simultaneously acting as protagonist and nitpicking fanboy.

For instance, he has a run-in with Colossus from the X-Men (voice of Stefan Kapičić) and a young trainee (Brianna Hildebrand), then later recruits them to help him. Rolling up to Xavier mansion, Deadpool takes note that despite being such a big place, he’s only ever seen these two members of the team.

“It’s almost like the studio couldn’t afford another X-Man!” he zings.

At a reported $50 million budget, “Deadpool” is indeed a down-market spawn of the Marvel franchise. I will say that director Tim Miller milks every dollar of that budget, resulting in a great-looking film without any obvious cut corners. OK, Colossus looks a little cut-rate, not to mention very different from his previous movie appearances.

I should mention that Reynolds previously played the same character in 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” but the filmmakers are doing a total reboot and hope you’ll completely forget about that iteration of Deadpool. (Don’t worry, guys, already done.)

Also turning up are T. J. Miller as Deadpool’s wiseacre best friend, who supports him but isn’t above betting on his demise; Gina Carano as Ajax’s burly enforcer; and Leslie Uggams as the aforementioned blind lady, who’s also Deadpool’s roommate at a ghetto rattrap.

(Hey, not every supe has Tony Stark money.)

Tim Miller was an interesting pick to direct, a first-timer who comes from a visual effects background. (His salary and tool-ishness are open to debate.) He certainly gives us plenty of eye candy and a brash tone. And screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who previously brought comedy to the horror genre with “Zombieland,” crank the yuks dial up to 11 and then somehow manage to sustain it the rest of the way.

How hilarious is “Deadpool?” You’ll spend the entire time laughing, coming off a big laugh or cursing audience members for laughing so long you missed the next joke.

Welcome to the new age of super hero movies: funny, foulmouthed and farty.

Review: "How to Be Single"

"How to Be Single" is part raunchy sex comedy, and that part's fun, at least for awhile. But it also wants its moments of tenderness and wisdom, and that stuff is just pure death, man.

In addition, it sets up a female protagonist and her off-the-hook wingwoman, and then just as we're settling in with them and their man troubles, it introduces a whole other heroine, and throws in a sister for the first woman to boot. Suddenly we're dickering around with these two new ladies and their romantic contretemps, plus the main gal, and there are so many storylines and random hook-ups with dudes we lose track of who's on first.

The end result is a confused mash-up of "Love, Actually" and "The Hangover." If that sounds like an impossible mix of mutually exclusive tones, that's because it is.

"Single" is based on the debut novel of Liz Tuccillo, adapted for the screen by Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein and Dana Fox. Christian Ditter directed, and while normally I'm not much of a player in the identity politics game, the use of a male director for a story on dating from a decidedly feminine perspective feels wrongheaded.

The women wind up as feminized versions of male characters, carousing and partying and waking up in bed with people they don't recognize. Except sometimes they show a little regret afterward, whereas the guys wouldn't.

(And considering how much sex these characters have with random strangers, a more credible title would've been, "How to Deal with a Tsunami of STDs.")

Dakota Johnson plays Alice, a sweet girl from Wesleyan University who spent all four years in a relationship with Josh (Nicholas Braun), who's tall and nice and cute but not, y'know, vroom! So she kicks him to the curb when she moves to New York City for a new start. Officially it's a "break," not a break-up, so they can try life as singles to see if they really want to be together.

Alice gets a job in a posh law firm as a paralegal, where she meets Robin, played by the incomparable Rebel Wilson. Wilson always seems to play the same role, yet we never tire of it: the audacious party girl whose orbital confidence wows the boys and divides the girls, who either dismiss her or become her bestie. Alice opts for the latter.

Segue to a bunch of scenes of the pair dancing, drinking, sexing. Alice's first conquest is Tom (Anders Holm), an agreeable bartender whom Robin introduces as the training wheels runway to a new life of debauchery. After their coupling, Tom offers his own pointers on how to avoid emotional entanglements, such as keeping no food or running water in his apartment, so overnight guests have to leave for sustenance.

Then into Tom's bar walks Lucy (Alison Brie), using the free WiFi to maintain her 10 dating site profiles. She thinks she's got this whole mate selection thing down to a science, feeding potential dates into a spreadsheet. Meanwhile, the scruffy pourer across the bar from her might just be her ideal match after all. (When he's not screwing Alice, that is.)

Alice briefly lives with her (implausibly) older sister Meg, an Ob/Gyn doctor played by Leslie Mann who secretly hates babies but even more secretly wants one of her own. She eventually gets pregnant via an anonymous sperm donor but then attracts the eye of a much younger man (Jake Lacy), leading to some predictable prevaricating about the source of her burgeoning belly.

Occasionally the movie remembers to go back to Alice, who's tempted to reunite with Josh, then gets in deep with a slightly older widower (Damon Wayans Jr.) with a young daughter. There's one scene where the guy shows his kid pictures of her mommy for the very first time. It's genuinely moving, but a completely head-whipping changeup from what comes before and after.

I haven't read Tuccillo's book, but to my understanding its protagonist is a publicist pushing 40 who sets off to write a book about what it's like being a single woman in different parts of the world. Which makes "How to Be Single" the latest movie to buy the rights to a book just because somebody liked the title, and throw everything between the covers into the trash.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Review: "Son of Saul"

Just when you think the story of the Holocaust has been covered from every perspective, every angle, every storytelling form possible, along comes a film like “Son of Saul” to remind us that great tragedies never really end – their human echoes continue to reverberate and disturb.

“Saul” uses many of the same techniques as last year’s Oscar-winning “Birdman,” and indeed this film has been nominated for its own Academy Award as the foreign language entry from Hungary. The camera floats around the main character, a Sonderkommando working in the crematorium of Auschwitz circa 1944, in long languid takes.

A Jew kept alive to dispose of the bodies of other Jews, Saul has some measure of authority and protection from the German guards. But their own time is coming, as the head Sonderkommando learns they are about to be replaced and disposed of, so their memories can die with them. They quietly begin planning an uprising, stashing weapons and so on.

Director László Nemes, who co-wrote the screenplay with Clara Royer based on years of research and testimony by the actual concentration camp workers, keeps things unnervingly in our face. Most of the footage is close-ups of the main actor, with a purposefully short focal plane so everything a few feet past him is blurry.

This shallow focus is the breathtaking counterpoint to Gregg Toland’s use of deep focus in “Citizen Kane.” It’s a pioneering new way of looking at things that also serves a key narrative purpose: keeping us inside the tunnel vision of Saul, who sees what he needs to and blocks out what horrors he can.

Until, that is, Saul witnesses something he cannot ignore.

A young Jewish boy survives the gassing, and the German doctor is brought over to examine the medical marvel. After contemptuously ending the lad’s miracle with his own hands, the physician orders an autopsy. Witnessing this, Saul decides to intervene, claiming the boy as his own son, and determining to give him a proper Jewish burial – with the reading of Kaddish by an actual rabbi.

Is the boy really Saul’s own flesh and blood? It seems quite unlikely. When Saul shares his plans, his fellows remind him he has no son.

But Saul, heretofore known as a ghostlike presence who goes along to survive, has clearly made an irrevocable choice. Géza Röhrig, with his hard angled face and deep penetrating eyes, is a revelation in the role. His mission may not make any kind of cognitive sense, but it’s the journey of a restless spirit with but one purpose left in life.

Saul wanders around the camp, trying to find a rabbi, asking questions, sneaking into places he shouldn’t go, sticking his neck out, endangering the rebellion. One man dies as a direct result of his actions. But Saul does not waver. As the time of crisis grows closer, here is one man madly risking his life for a small, meaninglessly act of decency.

Is it worth it? Is he right, or terribly wrong? Does it matter?

“Son of Saul” is an unspeakably powerful film not about striving for life but facing a death that is inevitable. Saul chooses the path of his own unmaking, and in doing so finds grace amidst the ravages of hatred and mass murder.

Astonishingly, this is the debut feature film of László Nemes and, I hope, the first of many.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Video review: "Spectre"

It’s been said that when selecting a president, American voters seek the opposite of the incumbent, of whom they’ve grown tired. I think that holds true for James Bond actors, too.

The Pierce Brosnan Bond films were the epitome of breeziness, a celebration of the unflappable joie de vivre of the British superspy. Arriving in a grittier, scarier era, Daniel Craig’s Bond has been defined by his dourness. Here was a man to be taken seriously, and Craig was a skilled enough actor to let slip the pain that lies just behind the eyes of the icy killer.

But time marches on, and in his fourth outing, “Spectre,” the heavier nature of these movies is starting to wear down the franchise like a repetitive stress injury. Craig has mused publicly about tiring of playing Bond, and there's a lot of animated chatter about Idris Elba or Tom Hiddleston or (insert latest rumor here) sliding into the role.

The plot is… the usual near-unfathomable twist of threats, high-wire action sequences and hiss-able villains. In a not entirely convincing bit of revisionist history, the titular shadowy consortium is revealed to have been behind nearly all the troubles our man has encountered.

Christoph Waltz plays the group’s chief, a sneering manipulator named Franz Oberhauser, who has an intimate connection to Bond. He’s the best thing about the movie (which is something you can say about most films with Waltz in them).

Less successful is this iteration of the “Bond Girl,” played by Léa Seydoux. She’s the daughter of an infamous villain we’ve seen before, and gets caught up in the intrigue. (Why is it so many female characters in spy movies are the daughter of somebody important, instead of just being important themselves?) The script doesn’t give her much to do, but Seydoux is still rather drab.

The movie, the second in a row directed by Sam Mendes, is entirely watchable, and parts of it are even thrilling.

But there's something missing here, a vital essence that seems to have drained away. This iteration of the Bond legend feels tired, grumpy, chippy. It senses the anticipation for the next thing, even shares it, but isn't quite ready to let go of the Walther PPK and Aston Martin.

Bonus features feel a mite miserly. On the DVD version there are seven video blogs from production, including one by Mendes. Others touch on typical making-of topics like constructing action scenes, musical score, assembling the cast, etc.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray and you add a gallery of still photos and the making of the supposedly biggest opening sequence ever for a Bond film.



Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Review: "Hail, Caesar!"

At some point the Coen brothers are going to remember they're funny. Not this time, though.

"Hail, Caesar!" is the latest from the writer/producer/director siblings, Joel and Ethan, and the latest strikeout. It's not nearly as dour as "Inside Llewyn Davis," nor does it have the dragging sense of self-importance of the overpraised "No Country for Old Men."

But the fact that "Hail" is actually trying to be caustic and funny, and fails pretty miserably at it, perhaps makes the disappointment even more keen.

It's a daffy send-up of the Hollywood studio system circa 1950, when chiefs ran the show and stars were just playthings to be shuffled and traded like cards in a deck. It's the sort of movie in which everybody comes off looking bad -- the behind-the-scenes overlords, the dimwitted actors, the narcissistic directors, the nosy press, the whole kebab.

Even the screenwriters, who usually get portrayed as the put-upon heroes of the trade, are seen as stooges of the Communists, happily spouting Marxist theory but really desiring more of the dough and limelight for themselves.

The Coens doubtless intended this as caricature, a joke-within-a-joke about how artistic types were often viewed during the McCarthy era. Call me old fashioned, but I just don't find the Blacklist every funny.

The central character is Eddie Mannix, the fixit man for Capital Pictures. The sign on his office door says Head of Physical Production, but he really runs the studio on a day-to-day basis while the man ostensibly in charge keeps a careful remove in New York. Mannix's job is a quotidian nightmare of putting out fires, making sure the trains run on time, preventing the embarrassing stuff from getting into the press and keeping the tantrums/temptations of the stars to a manageable minimum.

Things go haywire when his biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped from the set of the Roman drama that bears the title of this film. It's Mannix' big prestige picture for the year, and soon the gossip columns have heard about the disappearance -- including rival sisters, Thora and Thessaly Thacker, both played by Tilda Swinton.

The kidnappers are... not terribly organized. They're a bunch of egghead scriptmen who bring Baird to a beatific beachside home, still in his Roman soldier get-up. They don't even bother to lock the doors, and we wonder why he doesn't simply walk up the driveway and thumb a ride back to town. But Baird is fascinated by the lefty "scientific theory" of the crew, who apparently just requisitioned it from a visiting professor. He happily chats them up, trading stories about drinking with Clark Gable, having to shave Danny Kaye's back and such.

Hanging around the periphery is Hobie Doyle, a singing cowboy star in the mold of Audie Murphy who's just been asked to change his image with a switch to erudite romantic dramas. Deliciously played by Alden Ehrenreich, Hobie is hopelessly ill-equipped for anything more than ridin' and ropin', but gamely gives it a go.

If Baird is dim, then Hobie's mind is just about pitch black. But somehow the simpleminded, earnest young star always seems to point himself in the right direction, while Mannix and his henchmen are confounded by the kidnapping.

Also turning up in bit roles -- just a scene or two apiece -- are Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Laurentz, an uppity director trying fruitlessly to whip Hobie into thespian shape; Scarlett Johansson as DeeAnna Moran, a swimsuit beauty a la Esther Williams who's more Bronx moll than angel; Jonah Hill as the ever-ready fall guy; Frances McDormand as the editing whiz toiling in her cave; and Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly-esque song-and-dance man.

Tatum shines in one of the better scenes, a homoerotic romp with a bunch of Navy sailors already missing the dames as they're about to put to sea. Kelly was light as a feather on his feet, while Tatum's tapping has a more of a lumbering quality to it, but I still appreciated the effort.

"Hail, Caesar!" is a wonderful-looking picture, photographed by Roger Deakins in the saturated colors and crisp tones of the era. The Coens seem to be having a grand old time, amusing themselves with musical numbers and other homages to Golden Age Hollywood -- while simultaneously undercutting the whole industry as trivial and silly.

It's a schizophrenic film without much narrative semblance or sense of purpose. A few bits dazzle, fool's gold for those of us who used to believe the Coens could do no wrong.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" (1983)

Released the same year as the much higher profile "The Hunger," "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" was David Bowie's own personal favorite performance of his itinerant career as a movie actor. Upon his recent death I thought I'd look up the largely forgotten film.

Bowie is indeed a mesmerizing presence in the film, which is either a Japanese film with some British actors, or a British film made by Japanese filmmakers, depending on how you look at it. His oddity is both the film's greatest strength and weakness, a World War II prisoner of war drama that is much more contemplative and fey than you usually get.

It's another example of Bowie savoring his artistic status as "the other," a stranger in a familiar land who looks at the world sideways and sees things other miss.

The most obvious thing you realize watching the film, of course, is that Bowie's Maj. "Strafer" Jack Celliers is not the main character. It's Lt. Col. John Lawrence, played by Tom Conti.

Celliers is an almost ethereal presence who arrives at the POW camp during the second act and shakes things up, especially the young Japanese commander, Captain Yonoi, who becomes convinced the beautiful blond New Zealander is an "evil spirit."

What he's really experiencing is a latent sexual attraction, though he tries hard to exorcise it nonetheless.

The homoerotic aspect of "Mr. Lawrence" is not exactly in your face. Neither Celliers or Lawrence ever have any overt romantic encounter, either with each other or the Japanese, though Lawrence does form a strange sort of relationship with Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano) that alternates between warmth and brutality. Celliers, for his part, seems to float above normal mortal interactions.

There is a depiction of homosexuality, though, between a Korean guard and a Dutch prisoner (Alistair Browning) that causes much dismay to the Japanese. It's treated as if the guard raped the Dutchman, but it's pretty clearly suggested that it was a mutual encounter that went far beyond just fleeting fleshy exchanges. When the guard is forced to commit seppuku, ritual suicide through disembowelment, the POW bites off his tongue and swallows it, so they both die moments apart in a star-crossed affair.

Still, I think the attraction between Yonoi and Celliers is there, even if it is a bit one-sided. When Celliers wants to extract the maximum amount of embarrassment from the Japanese commander, he does so by embracing him and kissing him once on each cheek, European style. Yonoi is so overcome with shame that he moves to slay Celliers with his sword on the spot, but falls back in a swoon instead, unable to destroy that which he loves.

The physical appearance of Yonoi is highly stylized; he has a rather gender-bending aspect to his look and mannerisms -- while Bowie, known for decades for his fluid sense of masculinity, comes across rather butch (for him, anyway). Yonoi seems to be wearing makeup that accentuates his eyes and mouth. He's as slender as a boy, and speaks English with an extremely pronounced lisp.

(Indeed, one of the film's unfortunate drawbacks is a lack of subtitles for the Japanese actors, even on the Criterion Collection DVD I watched. Their speech is often very hard to comprehend.)

Yonoi is played by musician/actor Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also composed the music for the film, which I greatly enjoyed. I have a fondness for 1980s films with contemporary synthesized scores, usually by American or British pop bands of the day. Sakamoto's music is a compelling mix of Eastern and Western sounds, and comments upon the action without dominating it.

Interestingly, Sakamoto also wrote another version of the main theme that includes lyrics. The title, "Forbidden Colours," I think pretty convincingly puts the final nail in the coffin on the discussion about the homoeroticism of the film. If that's not enough, then the lyrics offer another: "Learning to cope with feelings aroused in me/My hands in the soil, buried inside of myself/My love wears forbidden colours/My life believes in you once again."

Sakamoto released this as a single, sung by David Sylvian. If you'll watch the music video, you can see the pretty obvious attempt to mimic Bowie's sound as well as his look of that era, blond pompadour and sleek suit. One wonders why they didn't simply recruit the star to do the song, too -- though that is a much more modern habit.

(Watching the movie, the feminized man/boy portrayal of the Japanese POW commander reminded me very much of the one in 2014's "Unbroken." It now seems clear to me that director Angelina Jolie must have been influenced by this film. The actor in that film, Miyavi, is also a composer/actor hybrid.)

Conti gets the majority of the screen time, as the sensitive Lawrence, who was the odd one among the POWs until Celliers came along. Fluent in Japanese and a resident there before the war, he is much more capable of negotiating with their captors than the senior officer in charge, Hicksley (Jack Thompson), who seems to spend most of his time worried that Yonoi will usurp his position in favor of Lawrence, or later Celliers.

Director Nagisa Oshima ("In the Realm of the Senses") wrote the screenplay along with Paul Mayersberg, who collaborated with Bowie on "The Man Who Fell to Earth." They were working from the writings of Laurens van der Post, which were influenced by his own experiences as a WWII POW, especially the book "The Seed and the Sower," which includes sections with both Lawrence and Celliers as the main character. In the book the prisoners struggle to understand their Japanese captors and vice versa, but the sexual attraction angle is not there.

(van der Post is an intriguing figure in his own right, an Afrikaner who became a prominent adviser and friend to British politicians and royalty -- a close friend of Prince Charles, he was Prince William's godfather. After his death a whole bunch of nasty stuff came out, including that he fathered a child by a 14-year-old girl who was in his charge.)

The film is very engaging in spurts, and then seems to drift away into moony musings without a whole of narrative coherence. The best/worst example is when Lawrence and Celliers make an aborted escape attempt and are put into neighboring cells, presumably awaiting execution, and share life stories. Lawrence's is merely an anecdote about a brief love affair before the war.

Celliers' recollection turns into an entire flashback sequence about his boyhood, particularly his relationship with his angelic younger brother (James Malcolm). In the first of two sequences, Celliers defends the lad against some bullies who were mad that he mocked their off-key singing in church. He bears their blows without complaint, but grows angered at his brother for fetching the parish priest to save him.

In the second part, Celliers is a BMOC at their boarding school and fails to save his brother from the ritual hazing given to new students. The boy is carried about and made to undress, revealing that he has a mild hunchback. I guess the idea is that Celliers could've spared him this shame but chose not to, for reasons that are entirely unclear. Further compounding the confusion is that another actor of about age 12 plays Celliers in the earlier sequence, while Bowie himself takes over the character in the second -- even though the same performer plays the brother both times.

I think Oshima and Mayersberg did a poor adaptation of van der Post's book, keeping in bits they felt compelled to while layering in a bunch of stuff about forbidden love that doesn't fit with the rest of the material. They either should've been more faithful to the novel, or much less so.

Still, it's an often compelling film, with disquieting themes of alienation, love and humanism co-existing in an uneasy alliance. I can't quite agree with David Bowie that it's his best role in a movie -- that probably belongs to "The Man Who Fell to Earth" -- but it's certainly a worthy turn.