Thursday, April 28, 2016

Review: "Keanu"

Great hitters can't always field the ball, good choral singers aren't necessarily strong soloists, and fine orators often make poor leaders. And so it is with television comedians trying to make the jump to feature films.

Like Amy Schumer with "Trainwreck," the team behind the Comedy Central hit "Key and Peele" fail to grasp the difference between sketch comedy and film comedy. The former only has to be funny or make sense for a few minutes; the latter has to carry its energy all the way through.

"Keanu" does not. The story of a pair of uptight, upper-middle-class black dudes who spend an evening in the roughest L.A. 'hoods, it's got a handful of laugh-out-loud moments. Most of these revolve around Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) and Rell (Jordan Peele) screaming like little girls when confronted with some horrific act of violence or the prospect of their imminent demise.

On their show, Pelle and Key can easily jump from character to character -- there's always a commercial to break up the sketches. Here they start out as nerdy "Oreos" (black on the outside, white on the inside) and spend the rest of the movie trying to talk and act like the sort of hardcase gangstas they've only experienced through television and film.

The setup is that Rell has his new kitten, Keanu, stolen after his house is broken into -- apparently a case of mistaken identity, as his next door neighbor (Will Forte), is a drug dealer. The kitty keeps changing hends, from Colombian drug lords to a pair of ghost-like killers known only as "the Allentown boys" (actually Key and Pelle, heavily made up) to Cheddar, a local banger played by Method Man.

The running joke is that all these grim characters instantly fall in love with Keanu, and will do anything to get him back, including kill or be killed.

Rell and Clarence foolishly head over to Cheddar's HQ, the Hot Party Vixens club (check that acronym), where they are immediately called out as suburban wimps. So they adopt the personas of Tectonic and Shark Tank -- after the puffer fish in "Finding Nemo?" -- which means dropping their voices an octave and saying the n-word a whole lot.

One of the funnier sequences is where a bunch of them are waiting in Clarence's minivan, which he says he drives because it's inconspicuous, and they turn on his stereo, which left off on a George Michael song. Clarence, ahem, Shark Tank, manages to convince them Michael is actually cool black music.

Tiffany Haddish plays Hi-C, one of Cheddar's crew who starts to take an unlikely shine to Rell/Tectonic, Nia Long is Clarence's wife and Luis Guzman plays the drug lord.

Co-written by Peele and Alex Rubens and directed by Peter Atencio, "Keanu" is the sort of thing you expect from a bunch of TV guys who think they've got what it takes for the big screen. It's a whole lot of obvious jokes -- want to guess if the cat's most famous namesake turns up, at least aurally? -- and playing off the stars' television personalities.

There are three or four good and funny scenes, about enough for a single half-hour episode of "Key and Peele."

Monday, April 25, 2016

Reeling Backward: "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1982)

You could probably summarize the entire plot of "The Year of Living Dangerously" on a postcard, with space left over. Not a lot really happens, yet what does transpire seems so consequential and filled with dramatic heft.

The film, directed by Peter Weir based on the novel by C.J. Koch, is a testament to the observation by screenwriting legend William Goldman that dialogue is often the least important part of a script. The movie has many long wordless or near-wordless scenes that use imagery and music to pull us into an emotional vortex of longing and dread. Weir and Koch co-wrote the screenplay along with David Williamson.

Take the scene where callow young Australian journalist Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) and British embassy worker Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver) first hook up in Indonesia circa 1965. They've been introduced -- set up, really -- by a mutual friend (more on that later) and have sort of skipped around each other nonchalantly a couple of times before. Then they show up at a party for Westerners, each accompanied by different people.

Jill is just ravishing, creamy shoulders and lithe limbs bursting out of a strappy dress; Guy is seething and sweaty, filled with primal urges. They're incredibly beautiful people, and everyone in the room can't take their eyes off them. They bump into each other while dancing with others, try to brush it off, but their attraction is combustible, and palpable.

One gets the sense the other party goers are only there to serve as witnesses to their joining.

Later they escape from a stuffy embassy party and drive off in his car for a tryst, despite the strict military curfew and shocking break with the Brits' starched-shirt decorum. They run a blockade, Guy's Chevy Impala gets filled with bullet holes, but they laugh and smile at their little rebellion, as the electronic thrum of Vangelis' "L'Enfant" buoys them into the night.

Most of the talk Jill and Guy do share is logistics: Where are you going? When are you leaving? Why won't you return my calls? The only real substantive conversation they have onscreen is Jill (who's actually a spy in the book though it's only hinted at in the movie) telling Guy about an incoming shipment of arms to support the Indonesia Communists (PKI), a clear indication a coup is imminent. Guy opts to use the intel for a story -- rather than save his own neck as she intended -- vaulting his career but betraying Jill.

"Year" is masterful at evoking a specific time and place -- one that, frankly, isn't high in the consciousness of most Americans. Indonesia in the mid-1960s was a place of burgeoning rebellion, and a backwater for aspiring foreign corespondents like Guy. He and the other journalists, from the Washington Post or whatnot, pine for promotions to Saigon, where the real action is. They're fighting each other for scraps of information from the government of the dictator-like president, Sukarno, and for newsprint inches and airtime back home before an indifferent public.

Weir spent much of his film stock simply representing the street people of Jakarta, underlining the humbling poverty and rising anger of that period. (The film was actually shot in the Philippines, as the Indonesians were hostile to the story; the movie was banned there until 1999.)

Here was a people who had felt the yoke of the West, shrugged it off, and now felt the push-and-pull of various factions vying for power: the establishment, the Muslim leaders, the Communists, etc. Meanwhile, the people suffered and starved.

The film is likely most remembered today for the casting of Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan, the mysterious and oddly affecting photographer/enigma who befriends both Guy and Jill, and nudges them together. It was one of the first major instances of a performer playing a character of the opposite gender. Hunt won the Academy Award for her performance by a Supporting Actress, launching an unlikely career that has remained busy till today.

She's completely believable as a man; Hunt chopped her hair to a severe short style, wore padding under Billy's standard uniform of trousers and a vaguely Hawaiian shirt, with the shirt pocket stuffed to give it a weighted, untidy look. Billy, of course, is not an average-looking person: he's supposed to be half Caucasian and half Chinese, and a dwarf to boot.

Billy also seems to be asexual; everything about him screams Other. Yet he easily slides in and out of the Sukarno corridors of power, or mingles with the street people unnoticed. He is accepted, or at least tolerated, wherever he goes. His exceptionalism somehow grants him a form of invisibility, which he cherishes and utilizes for his purposes.

Billy's motivations are hard to discern, and fickle. He claims to admire Sukarno for his puppet master skill at balancing the forces arrayed against him, but cares deeply about the suffering of the people. He has unofficially adopted a prostitute and her sickly young boy, bringing toys, medicine and cash to their miserable hovel by the polluted river, where they bathe and drink. When the boy dies of starvation and illness, Billy snaps and vents his anger at the regime that fails to feed its people.

Similarly, Billy takes an immediate liking to Guy, seeing him as a white knight, and uses his influence and connections to see that his career is a success, getting Guy interviews with the Muslim leader and other key figures. Billy also sets him up with Jill, whom he adores in a chaste way -- even once asking her to marry him. When Guy betrays Jill for the story, Billy sees it as cheating on his own trust, too.

Capable of great affection and monumental anger, Billy blows like a zephyr in whatever direction his passions take him. He keeps meticulous files on everyone he knows, including Jill and Guy, whose meetings he secretly photographs.

After Guy discovers this, Billy denies being a spy, and this is probably true. He's observing life rather than living it, gathering information and using it to move people around like pawns in a game of chess he's not trying to win or lose, but simply play with a sense of purity he knows is unattainable.

I marvel at how politically incorrect this film would be if it were released today. Hunt playing a man would probably still be celebrated as brave, if for different reasons, but a white actress portraying an Asian character would be unacceptable.

Similarly, Billy calling out another Australian correspondent (Noel Ferrier) for dallying with his boytoy servant -- a virtual death sentence in the Indonesia of six decades ago -- is an act that today would be viewed as irredeemably homophobic. Add in the way the American reporter (Michael Murphy) enjoys using the cheap local female flesh as fodder for his vile self-aggrandizing.

But "The Year of Living Dangerously" is not a film that tries to comfort us. Rather, it shows us the dark underbelly of what humanity is capable. The Americans and British and Aussies do not have a direct hand in perpetuating the misery of the Indonesian people, but they're more than happy to employ it as a lever for their own personal devices. I think of the many scenes in which the Westerners drink and carouse as the natives look on with envy and growing hatred.

Gibson's Guy Hamilton is neither hero, as Billy would have him, or villain, but somewhere in the grey. He wants the scoop and he wants the girl, and he's willing to do questionable things to get them, even if it means parlaying one for the other. But he's genuinely sickened by the poverty and human waste; the other reporters and even Jill criticize him for the "melodramatic" tone of his copy.

"The Year of Living Dangerously" is a grand and grim reminder of our capacities for hope and despair, and that you don't need a lot of words to convey big ideas.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Video review: "Son of Saul"

A deserved winner of the Academy Award for best foreign language film, “Son of Saul” takes a very innovative approach in telling a familiar and heartbreaking tale.

This Holocaust drama from Hungary looks at the Sonderkommando – Jews kept alive and granted a sort of immunity to shepherd their fellows into the gas chambers, and then load the bodies into the crematorium or earthen pit. Their reprieve is temporary, though, as the Nazi regime makes sure to cycle them out every few months to eliminate evidence of their crimes against nature.

They are ferrymen on the river of death, destined to become passengers themselves.

Saul (Géza Röhrig) is quiet and grim, known for blending into the background and keeping his head down. But one day he observes a boy who somehow survived the deadly gas, who is then coldly suffocated by a German doctor. Saul claims him as his own son, and becomes determined to see the lad given a proper Jewish burial, with a reading of Kaddish by a rabbi.

Is this really his child? It seems more like delusion. But Saul’s obsession is less about preserving the boy’s dignity than reclaiming some measure of his own humanity. He sneaks through the camp, putting his own life at risk and those of other Jews, trying to find a rabbi and get the body out.

Meanwhile, the Sonderkommando leader is organizing a rebellion and escape, and Saul is lured into the plot. He agrees, but only since it grants him some freedom of movement to pursue his own goal.

Director László Nemes, in his directorial debut, uses a roving camera with a shallow depth of focus to keep our perspective in line with Saul’s. Here’s a man who has spent the last months of his life never looking past the 10 feet in front of him, in order to keep the greater terror obscured.

We see things in the background of the frame, somehow made more disturbing by remaining indistinct. Nemes lets our imaginations bring our own clarity to the fuzziness.

Here is a story of horror, from which we cannot – and should not – avert our gaze.

Bonus features are limited in scope but of great depth.

They’re centered around a feature-length commentary track in which Nemes, Röhrig and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély all participate. I always feel the best commentaries are those that combine multiple levels of the creative process. The triad of filmmaker, performer and visualist are what make this movie great.

There is also a Q&A from an appearance at the Museum of Tolerance, and a deleted scene.



Thursday, April 21, 2016

Review: "The Huntsman: Winter's War"

And here arrives Hollywood's most unlikely, unanticipated sequel.

"Snow White and the Huntsman" was an execrable piece of garbage, mindless churning of mythology with a heavy ladling of flashy CGI sauce. But it conjured up a cauldron full of money -- nearly $400 million. So a follow-up became inevitable.

Then star Kristen Stewart was revealed to have dallied with the very married first-time director. Both were promptly given the boot. So how to make a Snow White sequel without Snow White, and give the (unnecessary) male sidekick the spotlight?

Apparently, you give the special effects supervisor from the last film, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, his own rookie shot in the director's chair, order up a script from a pair of journeymen screenwriters (Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin) and put the whole thing on a hurry-up production schedule of 12 months from start of shooting to release -- extraordinarily short for a big-budget spectacle with lots of computerized imagery.

Sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, right?

Here's the funny thing: "The Huntsman: Winter's War" is actually an improvement on the original. Which isn't to say it's a great film, or even a good one. But it's a breezily entertaining piece of escapist claptrap, breathed to life by some fine actors who make a brave go at some awkward dialogue and plotting.

And Emily Blunt shines as Freya, the ice queen and sister to Ravenna (Charlize Theron), who was undone by Snow White. In an affecting opening sequence set years before the first movie, we witness her tragedy and transformation into a withdrawn, super-powered mistress who steals children and turns them into her army of huntsmen to conquer all the lands of the north.

This was how Eric, aka The Huntsman, came to be. He rebelled against Freya's edict on showing love by falling for Sara (Jessica Chastain), another unwilling recruit. They were punished severely and separated, apparently by death, though I'm not giving anything away in saying that Sara shows up alive and well -- and mightily P.O.'d -- about a third of the way through.

She blames Eric for abandoning her, but they've got bigger issues to tackle. Namely, that the Magic Mirror has been stolen after giving off all sorts of Evil Warning emanations. Freya wants it for herself as its magic would make her unstoppable, so the huntscouple are on the case.

Tagging along are a pair of dwarves, sweetly dim Nion (Nick Frost) from the last movie and his half-brother Gryff (Rob Brydon), a cross bean-counting sort. They're coming with because... actually, I'm not sure why they're there. Or why a pair of female dwarf thieves (Alexandra Roach and Sheridan Smith) are soon added to the troupe, with obvious smoochy possibilities.

Love conquers all, I guess. Even dangerously thin plots.

The CGI is quite good, though Freya's frost attacks are too clearly inspired by Elsa's from "Frozen." The molten gold effect of the mirror's magic is revived, with a twist.

The action scenes are rather discombobulated, with a lot of needless parkour-style jumps and flips. And there's an abundance of "shaky cam" situated too close to the action to make sense of anything -- the hallmark of filmmakers who don't know how to stage properly.

Hemsworth's character is still a sneering jerk whose ability doesn't match up to his attitude. Given his grim upbringing in Conan-style martial slavery, you'd think he'd be a bit darker. So Chastain's Sara supplies the gloom aplenty.

There really wasn't any reason for this sequel to be made. It's a slapdash affair, using special effects trickery to wallpaper over a story made up of spare parts. But I'd rather watch it 10 times in a row than the first movie again.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Review: "Miles Ahead"

“Miles Ahead” is Don Cheadle’s riff on the life of Miles Davis, a master of improvisation, so it makes sense in many ways for him to treat the official biography of the jazz genius as a mere stepping-off point for his own concocted refrain.

But just as having masterful technical skills as an instrumentalist doesn’t necessarily mean you have the chops to make up music on the spot, the film’s dizzying attempts to inventively cogitate on Miles’ mythology sometimes wander off into narrative cul-de-sacs and side tracks that just don’t sing.

The esteemed actor gives perhaps the finest performance of his career, showing us the contemplation and calculation behind that ferocious mask of Eff You self-regard with which Davis obscured himself. We see and feel his hunger to create, the rage at anything that stood between him and his music, understand a bit of the towering pride that often harmonizes with talent.

Cheadle also directed and co-wrote the screenplay (with Steven Baigelman), his feature film debut in both roles. It’s technically accomplished work; it hits a lot of emotional scenes solidly and certainly bespeaks of someone who has a future behind the camera if he wants one.

The movie mostly concentrates on Davis’ fallow period from 1975 to 1979, when he stopped publishing music and even ceased playing the trumpet at all, with flashbacks to his heyday in the 1950s and early ‘60s. The early biographical stuff more or less plays it straight, while the later scenes have the barest bridge to reality.

The latter involve a wild scenario in which Davis’ session tape, supposedly the chariot of his comeback, is stolen and re-stolen back and forth between himself and Harper Hamilton, a shyster agent played by Michael Stuhlbarg, complete with squealing car chases and blazing gun duels.

Acting as his wingman/witness is David Brill, a hipster Scottish journalist played by Ewan McGregor who was sent by Rolling Stone magazine to get the scoop on Davis’ return. Though Brill may be fudging about whether he was actually assigned the story, or just knocked on Davis’ door on spec. His initial attempts at an interview don’t go well.

Davis: “My story? I was born, I moved to New York, met some cats, made some music, did some dope, made some more music, then you came to my house.”
Brill: “That's it? …I guess I'll fill in the blanks later.”
Davis: “That's what all you writin' mother****ers do anyway.”

The movie is framed by a formal sit-down interview with the same journalist, apparently meeting for the first time, which is our cue that everything that comes between is mere rumination.

Cheadle gets deep inside Davis’ physicality, somehow bending a slight resemblance into near-doppelgänger accuracy. It starts with that sheathed voice, partly croak and partly purr, as if consciously trading volume for intensity. Then there’s the shuffling limp -- the result of a congenital hip disorder in real life, but something else in the movie’s telling -- and the deadpan snarl.

Cheadle even nails the straight-fingered way Davis bent his digits at the first knuckle perpendicular over the horn’s valves, instead of rounded like they teach you. As in everything, Davis played it his way.

Emayatzy Carinealdi is a vibrant presence as Frances, Miles’ first wife and muse, even appearing on the cover of his 1961 album, “Someday My Prince Will Come.” She was a rising dancer who gave up her career at his bequest, which sets off a downward spiral of resentment and, eventually, violence. The film regrettable short-shrifts Davis’ long history of domestic abuse.

Keith Stanfield, a young actor who’s been phenomenal in small films like “Dope” and “Short Term 12,” plays Junior, a fictionalized young trumpeter who gets unconvincingly caught up in the scramble for the session tape, yet still receives a little mentoring from the legend.

Davis was famously reticent to play his famed standards, preferring to focus on his ever-evolving taste for freeform jazz (or “social music,” as he preferred), bebop, fusion, etc. “If the music don’t move on, it’s dead music,” he says.

In trying to embrace his subject’s ingenuity, Cheadle erred too much on the side of fancifulness to the detriment of coherence. That doesn’t degrade the power of his performance. Sometimes the solo outshines the tune.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Six for Summer: Top picks for the hot movie season

 The summer movie season is upon us.

I know, I know... you're saying, "Hey, it's only mid-April! How can you call this the time for summer flicks?" The truth is the summer season has moved up earlier and earlier. And it ends sooner, too. The biggest movies are usually done by the Fourth of July.

The first Friday in May had been the official kickoff for many years. Then the "Fast and the Furious" franchise made April the new hot thing by racking up massive box office in that month. Last week saw "The Jungle Book" debut to huge numbers, and "Batman v Superman" a couple of weeks before that.

Since I'm not doing a full summer movie preview this year, I thought I'd at least pick the films I'm personally most looking forward to in mid-2016. Let's call it "Six for Summer."

Captain America: Civil War

(May 6) Some people are complaining about the spate of super hero movies taking over cinemas. But audiences certainly don't seem to be tiring of them, based on the grosses of the last few films. And neither am I. The trailers have been a big hit and hype is out of this world.

Don't be surprised if "Captain America: Civil War" contends for the prize of top-grossing film of the year.

In this go-round based on a huge multi-comic mashup, the super hero world squares off against each other in a fight over accepting government control -- including their secret identities. Captain America is the leader of the freedom movement, while Iron Man heads up the opposition.

There's a particular excitement for this film since Marvel is finally going to integrate its box office champion, Spider-Man, into the mix.

X-Men: Apocalypse

(May 27) Speaking of super-heroes, the "other" big comics film franchise -- which has existed in a parallel cinematic universe due to ownership rights -- is up at bat again after having "retconned" everything in the last movie. Jennifer Lawrence returns as Mystique, Michael Fassbender as Magneto, James McAvoy as Charles Xavier, etc. Sophie Turner of "Game of Thrones" takes over the pivotal role of psychic Jean Grey.

It's essentially a next-generation tale, with Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and the old gang turning over their characters to younger actors.

Here Oscar Isaac plays Apocalypse, a super-powerful bad guy who intends to make the entire race extinct with the help of his four horsemen. By the way, this will be the first X-flick without Wolverine. Despite remaining the most popular character, two attempts at solo movies didn't cut it.

Finding Dory

(June 17) Many people feel "Finding Nemo" represented the apex of Disney/Pixar animation, so anticipation for the long-rumored sequel is deeper than the deep blue sea.

In this plot the blue tang with short-term memory loss -- unforgettably voiced by Ellen DeGeneres -- goes on a quest to find her long-lost family. Albert Brooks is back as worrywart clown fish Marlin, and new voice talents include Idris Elba, Diane Keaton, Bill Hader, Michael Sheen and Eugene Levy.

What I liked about "Nemo," "Up," "Wall-E" and other top Pixar films is they blended a child-like sense of wonder at the world with some very grown-up ideas and morals. Not to mention groundbreaking CGI.


(July 1) Director Stephen Spielberg returns to the themes of his early career, reteaming with "E.T." screenwriter Melissa Mathison in this adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel. There's not a lot of visibility for this movie right now, but I expect that to change as the trailer starts getting some play in theaters in May and June.

A young girl encounters a "big friendly giant" and finds he's not the terrible child-eating beast they're made out to be. In fact, he's something of an outcast himself because if his more humane dietary choices.

Also, despite being the size of a building, he's actually a pipsqueak among his people. The part was originally supposed to be played by Robin Williams, but alas things did not work out.

This one could be pure magic.


(July 15) There's a huge backlash against this remake because some guys are apparently offended by the idea of a group of girls replacing Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson.

I don't know what to say other than: "Dudes, get over yourselves."

Melissa McCarthy headlines, and she's currently the most consistently bankable star in Hollywood right now. Add in Kristen Wiig, who deliberately chose smaller and more dramatic projects after her "Bridesmaids" breakout. Lesser-known stars Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones seem like good fits.

In a cheeky post-feminist nod, hunky Chris Hemsworth plays their receptionist.

Forget the naysayers and chat room trolls. They have the tools, they have the talent.

Suicide Squad

(August 5) -- D.C. Comics' second foray into building their own franchise starts with the counter-intuitive notion of making the villains the main characters. Here the government rounds up super-powered bad guys and give them a shot at getting out of prison in exchange for doing their dirty work.

The most talked about aspect, of course, is Oscar winner Jared Leto being cast as the Joker. After Heath Ledger gave the character his own iconic stamp before his early death, some are wondering if it's possible -- or even appropriate -- to reboot the character with another performer. I see: Let's see what he does with it.

Will Smith plays Deadshot, Margot Robbie is Harley Quinn and plays the Enchantress.

And ol' Batman himself -- well, the new Batman, Ben Affleck -- turns up for a cameo.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Video review: "The Revenant"

In my original review of “The Revenant” I predicted it would be a love-it-or-hate-it film, and I was even more right than I knew. People who had a year earlier divided by Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman” quickly chose up sides again, mostly falling into the same camps.

But I switched teams. I thought Iñárritu’s direction mostly showed restraint, using roving cameras and other cinematic tricks largely in service to the story, rather than for their own sake. (As was the case with the overwrought “Birdman.”)

Leonardo DiCaprio deservedly won his first Oscar for his near-wordless portrayal of Hugh Glass, a real 18th-century scout who was mauled by a bear and left for dead by his companions. In their defense, the party was deep in the wilderness and many of them had just been killed in an attack by American Indians, and were still being chased.

Glass spends weeks dragging his maimed body through a barren frozen wasteland, with death waiting at nearly every turn. The film has a spare, harsh beauty to it that’s undeniable.

Tom Hardy is a brooding presence as John Fitzgerald, a Machiavellian member of the group who advocates leaving Glass behind to die, but then volunteers when a large bounty is offered to guard him. Of course, his intentions are less than pure.

I also liked Forrest Goodluck, a novice actor who plays Glass’ half-Indian son. He doesn’t say a lot, but his face conveys much without words.

Based on the “historical novel” by Michael Punke, “The Revenant” can be tough to watch. The bear attack itself, done mostly with CGI, is a technical marvel. The real gruesomeness, though, comes in watching a man who’s literally been torn apart struggle and refuse to die.

It’s a grim existential journey worth the investment of 2½ hours of your time.

Bonus features are disappointingly scanty. The blu-ray comes with a making-of documentary, “A World Unseen” – and that’s it.



Friday, April 15, 2016

Review: "Everybody Wants Some!!"

"This is one of the best days of my life ... until tomorrow."

My God, I just loved the hell out of this movie.

Writer/director Richard Linklater is nearly unmatched in his skill at evoking a specific time, place and mood. His 1993 breakout film, "Dazed and Confused," looked at slacker high school kids in Texas circa 1976. Actually, it didn't just examine them, but plopped us right into their midst, attuned us to their vibe, made us feel like part of the crowd.

His newest -- and, I think, best -- film fast-forwards a few years to 1980, as those kids (or ones very much like them) move on to college. "Everybody Wants Some!!" is a haze of partying, drinking, doping, dancing and sex that unexpectedly segues into mystical profundity, as young people grow up fast and start to figure out who they are, even before classes start.

It's also a sports movie, but in the same sense as "Bull Durham," in that the real action happens off the field. We never even glimpse the baseball team at Southern Texas University playing in a game, just a single practice. Yet the sport remains central to the men's identities and outlook.

If it's possible for a movie to be all about sports without actually containing any, then this is it.

This is simply one of the best executions I've ever seen in ensemble acting, both as written in the screenplay by Linklater and played by a huge group of largely unknown actors. Each of the dozen or so players focused upon comes across as distinct and authentic. Even the shy freshman who becomes the target of jokes has his moment in the sun. Even the god-like seniors have instances of shortcomings.

The film is also a tiny bit autobiographical. Linklater played college baseball himself, and knows the rhythms and cadences of the team's speech and behavior like second nature. We see how they constantly bust on each other, turn everything into a competition, chase girls with the abandon of the pre-AIDS era. Yet they're supremely self-aware of their jock-itude, to use a made-up word they would probably embrace if they heard it.

These are the cool kids, but we witness how hard they work to make it look effortless.

You want a summary of the plot? I'm not really sure there is one. Set in the four days before classes begin, we follow the team as they migrant from party to party, prowling for girls, listening to music, smoking weed and dancing to different kinds of music.

They're rock 'n' roll guys in their souls, but disco is what the ladies want to dance to, so they put on their Tony Manero shirts and tight pants and shake their groove thing at the Sound Machine club. After that venue no longer becomes viable (for reasons you'll see), they move their act to the new urban cowboy saloon, and later a punk rock concert and theater student party. They joke about changing their clothes like camouflage to fit in -- wherever there's women, beer and a good time to be had.

I'd like to introduce you to all the characters, but I'd need to start a whole other review. Hours afteward, they're still living inside my head.

Jake (Blake Jenner) is the ostensible main character, a straight-arrow type, pitcher from a small California town. After some obligatory hazing, he's quickly assimilated into the motley crew, though pitchers as a rule are made to stand apart. Their job, after all, is to make them fail at theirs.

McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin) and Finnegan (Glen Powell) are the seniors who unofficially run the team, different as night and day but united in their mission to win the championship come spring, and have a good time until then. McReynolds is a genuine pro prospect, strong as a bull and twice as intense. Finnegan is the resident philosopher/philanderer, a man without a plan who can talk himself into or out of any situation -- feminine undergarments, mostly.

There's also the insufferable wacko transfer pitcher (Justo Street) rumored to have a 95 mph fastball; the hick roommate with girlfriend problems (Will Brittain); the even-keeled black guy who takes Jake under his wing (J. Quinton Johnson); and Willoughby, the resident hippie who gives spacey ruminations on telepathy, guitar chord progressions and finding your inner freak.

(It doubtless sounds better after a few deep bong hits.)

Beverly (Zoey Deutch) is the smart girl who arrives at college with a typewriter in her car trunk; she blows off the seniors' enticements but favors Jake with a compliment, which later turns into the start of something.

There's a lot more I'd like to say about "Everybody Wants Some!!", but time and space run short. I haven't even mentioned the early '70s muscle cars the players all drive, the diverse smorgasbord soundtrack of period music, the snug T-shirts with piping on the sleeves and collars that show off the lean bodies. So much to experience, and think about after.

Mostly, what I'd like to do is go see the movie again, right now.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Review: "The Jungle Book"

Disney certainly has an appetite for "Jungle Book" iterations. Or at least they think we do. Lucky for them, they're right ... at least when it comes to good ones.

Beyond the cheesy 1967 animated feature, there was its (wisely) forgotten sequel, "The Jungle Book 2" in 2003; "TaleSpin," a short-lived 1990 TV spinoff; a live-action version in 1994 starring a nearly 30-year-old Jason Scott Lee as the boy Mowgli; another live-action version in 1998 that went straight to video; an animated cheapie in 2010; and another TV series that's still running.

The newest version directed by Jon Favreau ("Iron Man") is a pleasing mix of old and new elements. It uses high-end CGI to render all the animals, and the results are pretty stunning. Neel Sethi plays Mowgli, a "man-cub" abandoned in the jungle and raised by wolves, particularly fierce mother Raksha (voice by Lupita Nyong'o), with a little help from wise black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley).

The animals still talk, as they did in the books, and recite Rudyard Kipling's verse containing wisdom from the mouths of creatures. The action is fairly intense -- it was a bit scary for our 2-year-old -- and quite well-choreographed.

This is the sort of movie designed expressly for kids but entertaining enough to keep their parents engaged.

And yes, they do bust out a few iconic songs from the '67 movie, including "The Bare Necessities" and "I Wan'na Be Like You," sung by Bill Murray as the bear Baloo and Christopher Walken as the massive ape King Louie, respectively. Both end up serving as comic relief in the middle of some tense sequences.

Murray's version is actually quite charming, and in general his voice work is so emotive and spot-on that I hereby forgive him for the "Garfield" movies. Walken does a talk-singing thing that almost ends up in yodeling territory.

Scarlett Johansson also has a brief role as Kaa the mesmerizing serpent, but her best contribution is a gorgeous rendition of "Trust in Me" that plays over the end credits. Kaa actually helped Mowgli in the books, but here he's a she, and she's all bad.

The story mainly revolves around Mowgli's conflict with Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a massive Bengal tiger who deeply resents a boy living among the jungle denizens. A human wielding "the red flower" (fire) left him scarred and blind in one eye, and now the power-hungry feline wants to exact his revenge on all their kind.

Bagheera and the alpha wolf, Akela (Giancarlo Esposito), decide to return Mowgli to the human village in the name of maintaining comity between the jungle species, but their plans go awry.

Mowgli ends up under the protection of Baloo, a large and lazy bear who wants him to use his human ingenuity to get at all the wonderful honeycomb sticking to a cliff. He says it's for his hibernation, but as others point out jungle bears don't hibernate.

"It's not total hibernation, but I do take naps," he sniffs.

Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks wisely keep the preachy life-lessons stuff to a bare minimum. The only real moral of the story is that humans shouldn't try to be animals, and vice versa -- but that doesn't mean they can't get along.

Sethi is winsome and agreeable as Mowgli, but as you might guess his character is just a vantage point from which the audience can view all the amazing creatures and action.

I was never a big fan of the old Disney animated film, and most of the other cinematic and TV versions have passed me by. This new "The Jungle Book" manages to seem fresh and full of energy, and that says something all on its own.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Review: "Krisha"

"Krisha" is one of the strongest feature film debuts I've ever seen by a young filmmaker.

The fact the film was shot in nine days using a five-figure Kickstarter campaign is impressive. But what truly astounds is that writer/director/co-star Trey Edward Schults used his own family and friends as the cast, shot in his own parents' home, based on an incident that really happened during a Thanksgiving gathering.

If you think, based on that description, that this is some sort of semi-pro effort, the sort of thing that rarely sees light beyond the festival circuit, you'd be very wrong. It is an incredibly poised, emotionally mature and technically assured piece of work -- the sort of lightning in a bottle most veterans hope to capture once or twice in a career.

The performances are uniformly marvelous, which is more impressive when one considers many of them are non-actors. They largely use their real-life names, including the central character. For some their only other experience was playing in a short film version of this same story Schults made in 2014.

Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) is both the subject and object of the film. A sixtysomething woman who walked out on her extended family a decade ago, she rejoins them at a critical stage -- for them, and for her. She has just reached the point of desiring to reintegrate herself into their midst and atone for old sins. They have just reached the threshold of being willing to accept her. (Though some more so than others.)

This simple family gathering becomes Krisha's crucible. She reacts, and is reacted to. Past resentments quickly flare to the surface. There is reason for hope and cause for dismay. Eventually things reach a crisis point from which there is no return. (About which I'll say no more.)

Fairchild is Schults' real-life aunt but plays his mother here; he plays himself (or a version thereof). Abandoned by his mom as a kid, Trey is now about to graduate from college with a business management degree. Krisha presses him to not abandon his youthful dream of becoming a filmmaker. He is clearly unreceptive to her overtures.

Fairchild is a remarkable physical subject for the camera. With a strong, magnificent face and flowing mane of silver hair, she resembles a powerful Earth goddess traipsing among the mortals. But Krisha (the character) is a bundle of wounds and needs. In between the frantic give-and-take of a large house full of people, she makes short, urgent phone calls, apparently to a new lover. Ostensibly checking in, they sound just this side of desperation.

Unexplainedly, Krisha is missing part of an index finger, which she keeps wrapped in bandages and occasionally spritzes with medicine. It's a direct, if understated, visual message: she's lost parts of herself, parts of her loved ones' lives are missing to her.

The family seems a typical upper-middle-class one. There are so many people, we're not sure at first exactly who is who -- it's possible Krisha doesn't know, either. There are new spouses, a new baby, strapping young men horsing around and watching sports, Krisha's sisters (Robyn and Victoria Fairchild), their husbands, someone's daughter, and later Krisha's aged mother (Ballie Fairchild) freshly picked up from the nursing home.

There are two older men, husbands of the sisters, fathers of the sons, who are quite different from each other. Becker (Chris Doubek) is a doctor and an introverted bundle of nerves. He seems to seek the shadows in every social encounter. But Krisha spies on a moment of genuine warmth between him and Trey, and grows envious.

Then there's Doyle, an acerbic type who always must be the center of attention. It's a scene-stealing performance by Bill Wise, as written and played. Doyle is part Southern gentleman, part witty raconteur, part pain-in-the-ass-for-its-own-sake. He's very good at picking apart the foibles of others; less so at aiming that pinched gaze at himself.

"I'm goddamn Superman; I eat leather and shit saddles!" is one of his many annunciations. Things like this are said in a joshing tone, but we suspect he really embraces it.

Schults' camera wanders through the household like am apparition, seeking out pools of conversation and encounters. The roving cinematography is reminiscent of later Terrence Malick (under whom Schults interned), while the overlapping dialogue is straight from Robert Altman's repertoire. (If you're doing to steal, steal from the best.)

The director uses these techniques to great effect. We feel caught up in the whirlwind as Krisha experiences it. Sometimes we see things from her perspective; sometimes the reverse shot as she is gazed upon and judged. In one very powerful sequence late in the film, we revisit previous encounters and see how they registered from Krisha's point of view.

He also integrates music beautifully into the proceedings, such as a Nina Simone song that accompanies Krisha during the beginning of her downfall. It's amazing how delusion can often feel so magical ... at least for a while.

"Krisha" takes the quotidian stresses and strains of an unremarkable family and transforms them into a subtle, violent warfare of the soul. Trey Edward Shults: More, please.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Reeling Backward: "None But the Brave" (1965)

I've made it something of a hobby horse in this space to touch on movies directed by well-known actors who made it their first and last effort behind the camera. These include the only films directed by the likes of Charles Laughton, Marlon Brando and Karl Malden. Now it's Frank Sinatra's turn and his 1965 anti-war movie, "None But the Brave."

It's a rather ham-handed picture -- demonstrating that Sinatra's rightful place was in front of the camera or behind a microphone, not in the director's chair -- but it's notable for several reasons.

The most obvious are that it was the first joint Japanese/American production, and depicted World War II from more or less morally equivalent vantage points. Decades before Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iowa Jima," a companion piece to "Flags of Our Fathers," Sinatra's film melded the American and Japanese stories into one.

It's about two small forces of soldiers who are stranded together on a lonely island far away from the action. The war still plays out in a micro version, though, with an outbreak of humanism that holds the bloodshed at bay, at least for a time.

Written by John Twist and Katsuya Susaki, it's a quite pessimistic tale that essentially argues that men are doomed to repeat their mistakes by embracing violence rather than dialogue. We rigidly stay inside our respective silos, divided by nation, race, religion, etc. and fail to see the humanity in each other.

It's a noble sentiment, but one delivered without an ounce of subtlety or originality. As if the film's message weren't clear enough, the title card at the end hammers us square in the forehead: "Nobody ever wins."

(Which is, of course, an idiotic statement on its face. Ask the millions of descendants of Jews who survived the death camps if the Allies' victory was worthwhile or not.)

Sinatra gave himself a supporting role as the chief pharmacist mate aboard a cargo plane that is shot down over the island. The chief -- no name is every given -- is a combination of comic relief and needling voice of reason, who imbibes liberally of the large stock of whiskey among the medical supplies the plane was carrying. (Which all, apparently miraculously, survived a high-speed crash landing on the beach.)

The real protagonists are Captain Bourke (Clint Walker) on the American side, and Lt. Kuroki (Tatsuya Mihashi) for the Japanese. The latter narrates, as writings in a journal addressed to his bride, whom he married on the day he left for the war. Kuroki has a great deal of both humility and conceit about him, describing himself as a descendant of samurai warriors who loves life and the handiwork of mankind.

This is demonstrated in the early going as Kuroki chastises his hidebound sergeant, Tamura (Takeshi Katô), for working the men too hard in the harsh Pacific sun. They are building a boat to send a contingent to make contact with their command and replace destroyed "communicational" equipment. What they don't know is the American naval advance has pushed their tiny island far outside the reach of the Japanese Empire.

The sergeant grumbles, but obeys. Their force also includes a peasant fisherman and a Buddhist priest, both rotund and cheerful and competing for the distinction of worst soldier in the Japanese military. The men clearly respect and adore their lieutenant.

Were that it were so on the Yank side. Bourke spends the first half of the movie convincing the unruly Army soldiers to follow his lead, citing a fictitious piece of military code that any troops aboard his plane remain under his command until such time as they reach their destination. Bourke isn't power hungry, but simply recognizes that their greenhorn 2nd lieutenant, Blair (Tommy Sands), is likely to march into a Japanese ambush if he doesn't assert a more cautious hand.

A word on screen presence: Man, did Clint Walker have it. Though he's not a household name, Walker is a contender for the most impressive physical specimen ever to walk on a Hollywood sound stage. Fully 6½ feet tall, with a 48-inch chest and 32-inch waist, lantern jaw, jet black hair, Caribbean blue eyes and basso profundo voice, he was television's first Western star in "Cheyenne," which ran from 1955 to '63. He literally looks like Superman come to life.

(In 1971 he was impaled through the heart by a ski pole in a freak accident and pronounced dead. But a doctor detected slight signs of life. Walker was revived, recovered and, at 88, is still with us today.)
His Bourke is a pragmatic man with his own woman troubles back home. He's supposedly seen a lot of action -- odd for a cargo pilot -- and organizes his men on the far side of the island so they can scout the enemy. Lt. Blair openly challenges his authority at every turn, backed up by pug-nosed Sgt. Bleeker (Brad Dexter), whom Bourke has to put in his place with personal fisticuffs. (Dexter, who often played the big bully, looks like a little twerp next to Walker.)
And then there's Tommy Sands' portrayal of the headstrong lieutenant.
...Tommy, Tommy, Tommy...
This has to go down as one of the most ill-thought performances in Hollywood history. Employing an over-the-top Texas accent, Blair yelps and over-enunciates his words like a carnival barker hocking joy juice to the local rubes. He's not playing a "type," he's playing a caricature. Every time he appears onscreen, it's a distraction. It's like something out of a Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon. 

A more experienced director would've quickly put Sands in his place, or found another actor. Sinatra didn't do that, to the movie's detriment.
Sands, who like Sinatra got his start as a teenage pop music idol, saw his career go down the poop chute right around the time this movie was being made -- reputedly with the help of Sinatra, who encouraged his showbiz pals not to hire him. Though this was most likely retaliation for Sands divorcing his daughter, Nancy. Perhaps the younger crooner saw the writing on the wall and decided to stink up his father-in-law's movie as preemptive revenge.

Anyway, things progress as you'd expect. After some initial skirmishes and deaths, including the boat being blown up, the respective commanders set up an exchange in which the chief -- who's passed off as a doctor -- amputates the gangrenous leg of a Japanese corporal in exchange for the Americans getting access to the only fresh spring on the island. 

From there it's happy-happy time, with the men smiling and exchanging fish for cigarettes, with the barest of demarcations between the American and Japanese sides of the islands. Then Bourke fixes his busted radio and manages to arrange for a U.S. destroyer to pick them up, so all bets are off and the war's back on.

Why exactly? From a character/motivational standpoint, it makes little sense. Kuroki, having been established as the wisest man on the island, suddenly insists that it's his obligation to prevent the Americans from getting aboard that ship and becoming operational parts of the American war effort again. Bourke offers to accept their surrender and take them along, but Kuroki would rather lead his men to certain death in a useless gesture toward his sense of duty.
While it's not so that nobody ever wins in war, it is very much true that many people lose. Kuroki loses his personal war by remembering his patriotic one. Narratively, this war film loses by shoehorning conflict into places it doesn't fit.

Frank Sinatra's sole directorial effort isn't awful, but it's easily the weakest of those I've visited. Of course, I haven't written about Matthew Broderick's 1996 effort, "Infinity"...

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Video: How long will DVD and Blu-rays survive?

It’s a slow week in Videoville -- no major releases in the wake of the seventh “Star Wars”-- so it’s time for another in my occasional series on the state of home video.

When I wrote the first such column about seven years ago, I stated emphatically that DVD and the then-fairly-new Blu-ray format were the inarguable superior choice for watching movies at home. The picture and sound are unmatched compared to streaming, and most disc releases include bonus features unavailable elsewhere.

Over time, I’ve crab-walked further and further over to the streaming video side of the argument. In my last such piece, I admitted that my own family’s streaming consumption far exceeded our time watching on disc.

Now I’m ready to take the next step and ask: How much longer will DVD and Blu-rays survive as a viable format?

Sales of discs continue to fall. Netflix is now largely a streaming business with an arm that mails you DVDs and Blu-rays. Even the cheapest smartphone or tablet can stream Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, Vudu, etc. Aside from the limits of your data plan and available Wi-Fi, you can watch almost anything, almost anywhere.

At home, between my Netflix and Amazon Prime subscriptions I can choose from literally thousands of films to stream instantly. And with a decent TV and surround sound, the presentation is roughly equal to DVD.

When people do want discs, they will use Redbox or a similar low-cost outlet to rent DVDs so they can see new releases on video right away rather than waiting for them to come to streaming.

In the unofficial election between video quality vs. convenience, the latter has won in a landslide. Movies on disc are the political equivalent of Barry Goldwater. DVDs have been around since 1999; Blu-ray since 2006. So what happens next?

My best guess is that discs will continue as a popular medium another decade or so. By then, the model for TV/movie/video consumption will have sufficiently blurred that it will no longer seem strange to have a new film released in theaters and streaming simultaneously.

Blu-ray and DVD will become a niche market for hardcore cinephiles who seek the absolute highest quality presentation possible -- roughly analogous to where CDs are for music today.

We are now seeing 3-D and Ultra HD televisions everywhere in stores, along with high-end Blu-ray players to accommodate them. As the price point on those comes down and more titles become available, a certain strata of consumers will migrate to that for when they really want to experience a movie at home with amazing picture and sound.

They key to the survival of the disc format is making sure next-gen players are backward compatible with Blu-rays and DVD. I, for one, don’t want to have to throw out a collection I spent years and thousands of dollars building.

(I already did that once with laserdiscs -- remember those? -- and painfully recall titles I paid $40 for being sold on eBay at $3 or $4.)

The point is, watching movies will continue to grow more democratic and versatile. People will still curl up before a big TV at home to watch a movie, but more often they want to watch while they’re eating lunch, riding in a vehicle or airplane, or even sitting in the dentist’s chair.

DVD and Blu-ray, and their disc-based successors, will endure like classic cars or sports cars. Perhaps 5 percent of the marketplace craves to drive in style; everybody else just wants to get from place to place with the greatest of ease.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Review: "Midnight Special"

"Midnight Special" has that Spielbergian element of wonderment but not the emotional connection. Writer/director Jeff Nichols' fourth feature film, all of which feature Michael Shannon, fills the mind but not the heart. It's a mystery that reveals too little of itself, as if afraid to lay down its big cards and see how the audience reacts.

It's still a worthy film. But compared to the unnerving appeal of "Take Shelter" or the twangy, Twain-esque charm of "Mud," it feels like a bit of a letdown.

Two men are on the run, having kidnapped a curious young boy. Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), 8, sits in the back of the car, content and unafraid, reading comic books while wearing dark goggles as they flee in an old muscle car -- even though it's night. Alton never goes anywhere during the day, never goes out at all in the light.

Answers are few, and drip out at a sometimes frustratingly slow pace.

Roy (Shannon) says he's the boy's father, but we're not entirely certain. He's a little distant, giving instructions in a harsh tone. He seems to regard Alton as an obligation rather than someone to be loved. The other guy is Lucas (Joel Edgerton); we know even less about him than the other two. But he handles himself well in tight corners, and we get the sense that's why he's there.

They clearly care about Alton, revere him even; but it's the sort of care you might have for a pet tiger.

Clearly Alton is special. We know this because a (too) long expository sequence introduces us to The Ranch, a religious cult run by Calvin (Sam Shepard), who is Alton's adoptive father. They've got a Branch Davidian feel -- pastoral, patriarchal, well-armed and expecting a reckoning any day now. The FBI has been watching them for some time, and when Alton is kidnapped they search the place and question everybody.

Adam Driver plays Paul Sevier, a bookish type from the NSA who's brought in because some of the Ranch's scripture includes data that could only come from top-secret satellite communications. Calvin patiently explains that the boy sometimes speaks in tongues, and they write down what he says and regard it as holy text.

There are also reports of supernatural powers, light coming from Alton's eyes, and those who commune with this illumination feel a sense of peace and fulfilmment.

After the feds have left, Calvin dispatches some of his own men (Bill Camp, Scott Haze) with guns to track Roy down and bring Alton back.

We eventually meet up with Alton's mother (Kirsten Dunst), who is eager to be reunited with her son. We get the sense Alton was taken away from her and Roy without their entire willing consent. Both used to be part of the cult, and broke away at some point, or were thrown out.

"We get the sense" is largely the way the audience experiences this movie. Too many filmmakers feel compelled to spell everything out for us, to the point there are no surprises. Nichols goes too far the other way, raising tantalizing question and possibilities and then... just leaving them out there, unexplored.

Since the Ranch folks seem to regard Alton as their resident savior, did the cult exist before he came into their midst? Or did they adjust their beliefs to accommodate his supernatural abilities?

Eventually we learn more about Alton, what he can do, what his purpose is. But the information arrives so late in the going it doesn't have time to register with a lot of visceral impact. There's too much chase-chase and not enough questioning why they're running, and why others are chasing.

Despite all this, I liked the movie. It's in some ways a spiritual successor to "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial." Alton is the intriguing Other whose mystery must be puzzled out, but doing so means certain loss for those who join the quest. Dangerous people join in the hunt, some with benevolent intentions, others selfish, but either way their interference just serves to prevent Alton from fulfilling his destiny.

There's been a lot of buzz about "Midnight Special," but the studio decided to dump it into theaters without any fanfare or screenings. (They even moved up its limited release by a week on short notice.) It's a shame. It's a flawed but worthwhile film that bespeaks of better things to come.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Review: "The Boss"

Now that she's a bona fide major star who puts together her own vehicle pictures, it's heartening to see Melissa McCarthy stepping out of her box. We'd seen her do a lot of the same thing in "The Heat" and "Tammy" and other flicks, playing the rough, socially unskilled, blue-collar woman who does outrageously offensive things seemingly without any concept of how it affects others.

McCarthy has mostly carried these roles off, based on a sassy screen presence and deft comic timing. But we could feel the staleness starting to creep in.

She's playing an actual fresh character in "The Boss," the second collaboration with real-life husband Ben Falcone, who also directed. (Steve Mallory shares a screenwriting credit with the pair.) She plays Michelle Darnell, an uber-rich mogul brought low by her own arrogance, who has to start all over by crashing at the apartment of her harried ex-assistant, played by Kristen Bell.

Think Donald Trump mixed with Suze Orman, plus a smidge of Ann Coulter (the nastiness, not the politics).

I love the physical get-up McCarthy has to play Michelle. She has this impervious bob of reddish hair that drapes her head like a stubborn waterfall. She always wears extravagant outfits and jewelry, even while sleeping. And she's got that lacquered makeup seen on cable newscasters you suspect was put on with industrial paint applicators and could withstand anything short of a category 4 hurricane.

Michelle also wears roll-up collars that come right up to her cheeks. You suspect she started doing that because of a troublesome double chin, and now goes through life in perpetual Kilroy mode, looking like she's peeking over a wall at you.

The story's a bit thin, but McCarthy and Bell have decent chemistry and the jokes' funny-to-flop ratio is pretty high. It's a foul-mouthed, harmless good time.

Bell plays Claire, the straight woman in this duo. She's a hardworking single mom, devoted, a little on the dull side. Claire has spent most of her professional life catering to Michelle's every whim, from running her companies to spraying her teeth with whitener in between raucous stadium shows where she promises to make everyone rich.

Of course, the only one who ever gets rich in these deals is the person who already is.

After spending four months in prison for insider trading -- think Martha Stewart -- Michelle shows up at Claire's doorstep because her assets were seized and she's alienated everyone else she ever encountered. Some predictable bonding occurs, with Ella Anderson offering a winning, grounded presence as Claire's kid, Rachel.

When Michelle discovers how much loot Rachel's Dandelions troop makes selling cookies, she hatches on a scheme to start a competing outfit she dubs Darnell's Darlings. Using Claire's kick-butt brownie recipe, and by recruiting all the tough girls in school to act as muscle, they soon put the ersatz Girl Scouts on the ropes. This leads to an "Anchorman" style beatdown between adorable girls.

Yes, it's derivative; but yes, it still works.

Peter Dinklage turns up as the kooky villain, a former beau of Michelle's that she double-crossed long ago. Tyler Labine is agreeable as Claire's coworker and huggable bear of a love interest. Kathy Bates has a too-small role as Michelle's backstabbed mentor.

"The Boss" is moderately filthy, decently funny and features Melissa McCarthy stretching her wings a bit. It's enough to tide us over until the "Ghostbusters" reboot.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Video review: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

For the record, I’ve adored all the Star Wars movies -- even the much-maligned “prequel” trilogy. So when I say that I liked Episode VII, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” about as much as I did “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” is not the intended insult most people think.

I would put both near the bottom of any ranking of the franchise. Which is to say I think they’re still very good science fiction/fantasy films. But their flaws are more glaring than the others. I won’t belabor those of “Phantom Menace,” as they’re well-known -- kooky trade war plot, Jar Jar buffoonery, etc.

The biggest problem with “TFA” is that it’s not terribly original. It’s essentially a reboot of the first film: a nobody on a desert planet rises to glory through the mystical Force; bad guy in a black mask; cantina of bizarre aliens; roguish smuggler Han Solo sets aside cynicism to join the rebels; world-destroying space station threatens the galaxy; plans for its destruction are embedded in a perky little robot.

Director J.J. Abrams, who co-wrote the script with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, seemed more intent on making a greatest hits compilation for the fans than a logical and satisfying extension of the Star Wars saga.

Like: how is it that 30 years after its defeat, the Empire has reconstituted itself into the First Order, complete with Stormtrooper armies and a new Death Star (er, Starkiller Base). What were Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the Galactic Senate doing all this time?

The setup is that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was training a new generation of Jedi Knights when he was betrayed by his chief pupil, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who was seduced to the dark side despite his good parentage. (Which I’ll not reveal here, for the 0.2% of readers who didn’t see the movie in theaters and are still innocent of the Internet.)

The plans for Starkiller Base come into the possession of Rey (Daisy Ridley), a mysterious scavenger living the quiet life on barren Jakku, and Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper who betrayed his dark conditioning. They meet up with Han Solo (Harrison Ford), searching for his long-lost ship the Millennium Falcon, as everyone scrambles to get the plans before First Order wipes out the resistance.

It’s a delightful space adventure, with plenty of dogfights, scary critters and lightsaber duels. Kylo Ren is a new iteration of villain – self-aware, unbalanced, petulant. Rey remains an enigma, including to herself, but there are hints of great destiny ahead. The weakest character is Finn, who transforms overnight from emotionless soldier to hootin’ rebel cheerleader without even the barest of emotional journeys. (Boyega’s often over-the-top performance doesn’t help, either.)

But it’s easy to overlook the failings in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” because they don’t detract from the immediacy of the thrills. I’m just hoping future films in the series will harbor a little more ambition.

Bonus features are pretty good, mostly represented in seven featurettes that touch on special effects, John Williams’ musical score, building BB-8, etc. There’s also a lengthy making-of documentary, “Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey,” plus several deleted scenes.