Sunday, May 29, 2016

Video review: "Gods of Egypt"

“Gods of Egypt” is kind of a junky movie, but not an unenjoyable one. It’s a sword-and-sandals fantasy epic that tries to follow on the financial success of the “Clash of the Titans” and “Thor” movies, but without the A-list stars or first-rate CGI. Despite its schlocky aspects, I couldn’t bring myself to hate the film and even enjoyed it on some puckish level.

Frankly, this is the sort of flick that would’ve made a prime pick for “Mystery Science Theater 3000” ridicule back in the day.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (“Game of Thrones”) plays Horus, the god of air, who’s about to be crowned king of all Egypt after his father Ra decides to step down. In this postulation, the gods are 8-foot-tall super-powered beings who dwell among the humans and rule them, but are still flawed and mortal.

Then his uncle, the power-mad Set (Gerard Butler), usurps the throne and kills Ra and a bunch of others. Horus has his eyes plucked out, robbing him of his unerring aim, and is banished. Then a young human thief named Bek (Brenton Thwaites) steals an eye from Set, kicking off a series of events that includes full-scale war between the gods.

This is essentially another superhero movie, with many of the same dynamics at play. Horus is a good but vain god, and must learn to lead humans instead of lording it over them.

Director Alex Proyas (“Dark City”) and screenwriters liberally borrow elements from other movies and insert them here, including sand snakes straight from “Dune” and gods who transform into metallic form for battle a la Iron Man. If you’re looking for originality, look elsewhere.

But if you’re willing to watch something ironically, I think you’ll find “Gods of Egypt” has a bounty of riches waiting to be tapped.

Bonus features are decent, though you’ll have to get the Blu-ray edition to possess most of them. The DVD comes with only two making-of featurettes, “The Battle for Eternity: Stunts” and “A Window into Another World: Visual Effects.”

With the Blu-ray you add four more featurettes on costumes and makeup, shooting on location in Australia, the cast and the overall vision, plus storyboards.



Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review: "Alice Through the Looking Glass"

I quite loathed 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland,” but here’s a pretty penny.

This sequel with only a tertiary connection to Lewis Carroll’s second Alice novel manages the rare feat of significantly outshining its predecessor. If the first film was “an exercise in cynical regurgitation,” to quote some meanie critic (*ahem*), then this movie gleefully tosses the books aside for its own freewheeling cogitation on the characters and dizzying world Carroll created.

“Alice Through the Looking Glass” is, dare I say, an exercise in audacious originality.

Screenwriter Linda Woolverton is back while director Tim Burton is not, and it pains me to say that his shifting to a producer role is undoubtedly for the best. Burton has worked with star Johnny Depp so much that he seems to have lost the ability to reign in the actor’s kookiest impulses, ceding the storytelling process to his latest costume-and-accent fetish.

In the last movie, Depp’s Mad Hatter character was a discombobulated mashup of emotions and loony behavior, a coy nincompoop one moment and a sword-wielding war machine the next. Even nonsense needs a consistent sensibility.

James Bobin, an accomplished television writer/director with only one other feature film to his credit (“Muppets Most Wanted”), gets the call and wisely keeps the Hatter in check.

Set three years after the last movie, “Glass” finds Alice (Mia Wasikowska) the captain of her late father’s shop “Wonder,” just returned from a long excursion to the Far East. Alas, upon sailing home to London she finds the family fortune raided by the local lord, whose marital advances she rejected before her deep dive down the rabbit hole into Underland.

Alice rejects the insistence of her mother (Lindsay Duncan) that she must sell the ship and give up her adventures. “I want to believe I can do as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” she stamps.

After stepping through a looking-glass portal, she finds herself returned to Underland just as Hatter has taken ill. He believes that his family, whom he long believed killed by the Jaberwocky serpent at the behest of the evil Red Queen, is waiting to be found. Alice must travel through time to save them.

The only way to do this is by stealing the Chronosphere from Time himself, here represented by Sacha Baron Cohen as a stern-yet-comical figure who oversees the great clock controlling the universe – both Underland and our world. “You cannot change the past, but you can learn from it,” he warns.

Thus sets off a jaunty trip through multiple time frames of Underland, so we get to visit with Hatter, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and their critter friends when they were younger, and then as pups. I should mention that the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), with her outsized head and matching rage, returns as well, wooing Time to get her own hands on the Chronosphere.

As before, this is a CGI-heavy romp of bright colors and wondrous backgrounds, somewhere between medieval and Dickensian in setting, pure whimsy in tone. We learn a little more about Hatter – including his real name, Tarrant Hightopp – though not the exact origin of his… specialness.

“Alice Through the Looking Glass” is an unexpected surprise: a movie you thought you were going to hate that turns out to be quite a gem.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Review: "X-Men: Apocalypse"

So here is the other other big Marvel Comics film franchise, though don’t expect any crossover between mutants and Avengers anytime soon.

“X-Men: Apocalypse” is a big, rousing, sprawling and often messy epic, the sixth in the series and the fourth directed by Bryan Singer. (Not including the “Wolverine” spinoffs.) Still, it hits its themes of alienation and xenophobia solidly, brings in an effective new villain to threaten humanity and gives us some entertaining super-vs.-super scraps.

I liked it about as much as I did “Captain America: Civil War,” which plumbed similar subject matter. What’s different here is that with the previous film, “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” the entire franchise has been retconned, i.e. reimagined with an entirely different flow of history and events.

Essentially, they hit the “Restart” button on the X-Men. This is their first adventure in a new universe.

Part of this was simple logistics: the actors playing Storm, Jean Grey, Beast, Cyclops, etc. were getting a mite long in the tooth to play characters who are supposed to be stuck in that comic book realm of perpetual late 20s to early 30s. (Let’s face it, watching Kelsey Grammer trying to hump around in a blue suit was getting downright embarrassing.)

So now the cast is led by Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult as Mystique, Professor Xavier and Beast, respectively. We also introduce a bunch of new actors to take over other roles: Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, who has uncontrollable killer beams projecting from his eyes; Kodi Smit-McPhee as transporting shadowman Nightcrawler; and Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, a telekinetic/telepath with untapped power.

The story is set in 1983, 10 years after the last movie. Humanity has begrudgingly come to accept the existence of super-powered folk. Though, as one character notes, “Just because there’s not a war doesn’t mean there’s peace.” Mystique, previously a villain, is actually held up as a role model by many young mutants, such as Storm (Alexandra Shipp), here a fledgling thief in Cairo.

Meanwhile, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has moved on from his vengeful ways, working as a humble steelworker in Poland, and even has a wife and young daughter. But, as always with him, dark urges beckon.

Events are brought to a head with the resurrection of Apocalypse, though he does not call himself that, an ancient being who regards himself as the father of mutants. Over the centuries he has transferred his consciousness into new mutant bodies, acquiring their abilities. Played by Oscar Isaac in impressive purple/black armor and makeup, he’s determined to cleanse the world of weakness and rule those he deems strong enough to live.

The story (screenplay by Simon Kinberg) is all go-go-go. We jump from one threat to the next, one confrontation to another. Along the way there will be many deaths and wholesale destruction, including Xavier’s entire School for Gifted Youngsters.

Quicksilver, who made such an impression in a brief spot in the last movie, gets a bigger role here, again played by Evan Peters. He can move so quickly that to him it seems the rest of the world is moving in slow motion – even bullets and explosions. If you thought his hyperactive exploits were impressive last time, wait till you see how he lends a hand now.

“X-Men: Apocalypse” is a big, big movie -- 2½ hours long, dozens of characters. I haven’t even mentioned who makes up the Four Horsemen. If you’re like me, you may lose track of the names and faces. Plus there are brief cameos, including a certain bestial fellow with a harsh point to make. From a pure entertainment perspective, it gets the job done.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Up the River" (1930)

Yes, John Ford again. I recently did a double feature of Frank Sinatra films in this space, so I figure there's no harm in doing it again with another artist.

"Up the River" was not Ford's first feature film, or even his first sound film. He made dozens of silent features starting in 1917, most of which have not survived the ages. "River" is notable mostly for having the first screen credits for Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart.

(Though both had appeared briefly in uncredited roles prior.)

This largely unheralded body of work represented John Ford's training ground, as he learned the craft of filmmaking, studied other directors' work, found his ethos as an artist and started to build his famous stable of pet actors. It was he who recommended both Bogie and Tracy to the studio, but they were both dropped after this film was made. (And surely regretted it in perpetuity.)

It was the only time Ford and Bogart ever worked together, and it would be nearly three decades before he and Tracy teamed up to make a film again.

It's a wacky comedy about a bunch of jailbirds, busting in and out of prison, falling in love and whatnot. It's rather amusing, a parade of broad caricatures and easy jokes, though if it weren't for the two main stars I doubt the film would be much remembered.

There are no pristine prints of "Up the River" surviving, so watching it takes some patience. It's scratchy and poppy, with a lot of distracting marks and missing frames. Dialogue will cut out in the middle of a scene and pick up half a sentence later, so it's helpful to watch with subtitles to track the missing words.

Bogart plays Steve, the good-hearted young kid doing a short stretch after making a bad choice. It's hard to think of Bogie as a youngster, even a little disconcerting. Tracy too, though he didn't physically change much from young to old, just getting a little grayer and thicker.

Some Hollywood stars remain stuck in time, at least in our minds. Spencer Tracy is forever the sage father figure; Julia Roberts will always be the sprightly ingenue.

Humphrey Bogart seemed born in early middle age and only went a little further. But he once was a smooth-faced, sharp-jawed stripling, as in this film.

Steve comes from a well-to-do family in New England, and they don't even know he's in prison. His family believes he's working in China, and he even has friends there who send fake correspondence from time to time. While working as an interviewer for incoming inmates, he meets Judy (Claire Luce), a 21-year-old who got sucked up into the rackets by Frosby (Gaylord Pendleton), an older crook who passes himself off as a fine gentleman.

In one of those things that only happens in the movies, Steve and Judy fall irrevocably in love after just two meetings totaling perhaps five minutes. They make plans to get married after they get out, start at the "bottom rung of the ladder," and become respectable again. Frosby tries to put the kibosh on that by moving into Steve's hometown, threatening to brow his cover as an ex-con if he doesn't play ball.

Tracy plays "St. Louis" -- that's the only name he ever goes by; I assume it's a nickname but since even the warden calls him that, we'll never know. He's a dapper career criminal who's a celebrity among convicts and lawmen alike. The opening scene shows him escaping from a state prison along with his sidekick, Dannemora Dan (Warren Hymer), a cigar-chomping dimwit with a good heart.

Those two stage another escape in order to go help Steve out. This culminates in a prison variety show in which St. Louis performs a knife-throwing act on a very nervous Dan. When the lights go out, they dress up as women and sneak out with the wealthy benefactors who came to watch the show.

This sequence includes the incredibly painful spectacle of two white actors performing in blackface as "Black & Blue," an aw-shucksin' pair in the Amos and Andy mold. In the middle of this travesty, Ford even cuts away to a closeup of an African-American prisoner in the front year screaming in hysterics at the act. I realize this was simply how many folks felt back then, but it's still tough to watch.

The script, by Marine Dallas Watkins, contains a lot of pratfalls and other vaudevillian slapstick comedy of the era. It is notable for the naturalistic acting of Tracy and Bogart. We even get a preview of Bogie's famous clenched-jaw grimace, which he would later go on to express depths of pain in noir and romantic films of the 1940s and '50s.

This was very much an era in which cinema was seen as an offshoot of the legitimate theater; the credits still use the term "the players" in introducing the cast. Ford and other pioneers of the advent of sound pictures started to move away from that very stiff, formal style of acting.

While modern audiences might have a tough time sitting through "Up the River," for both aesthetic and moral reasons, it's an energetic and amusing film for its era. And it launched a trio of Hollywood giants.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Video review: "The Finest Hours"

“The Finest Hours” is in the finest tradition of derring-do true life adventures in which ordinary men did extraordinary things, and you’re going to hear about them.

It’s the story of the 1952 rescue of the SS Pendleton, which was split in two by a fierce storm off New England. Men from the U.S. military’s least-celebrated branch, the Coast Guard, get their moment in the spotlight as we learn how they effected one of the most daring rescues in naval history.

Chris Pine plays Bernie Webber, a crew leader stationed in Cape Cod. He’s a gentle soul, rather dim, speaks as if he’s got a mouthful of cod and crab all the time like any good Greater Bostonite. He actually believes the old seaman’s lore that he has to seek permission from his commander (Eric Bana) before getting married to his girl, Miriam (Holliday Grainger).

Frankly, he’s the guy the other Coast Guard guys pick on, though he’s too oblivious to realize it, and too kind to do anything about it if he did.

But when the storm hits and there’s nobody else to help, Bernie picks a handful of guys and they take off on their tiny powerboat to brave waves the size of cliffs. Ben Foster, one of Hollywood’s most reliable young character actors, shines as Bernie’s unexpectedly loyal right-hand man.

One of the best storytelling decisions by director Craig Gillespie and screenwriters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson was not to treat the men onboard the Pendleton as faceless and helpless. Casey Affleck plays Ray Sybert, the chief engineer, who organizes his team to keep the remains of the ship afloat. They even rig up a makeshift navigation system using spare parts and spit.

I found the movie interesting because it’s the story of two men, neither of whom are natural born leaders, who stepped into the fray when the call came and found that others looked to them for guidance. The film serves as an appreciation for the alpha male, the fellows who are usually stuck in the background of movies like this.

The seaborne action sequences are well-done and often thrilling. Bernie’s boat actually crashes through the waves rather than trying to go over them, briefly becoming a submersible craft as the desperate men hold their breath. Gillespie lets the seconds tick by as we expect the boat to emerge back into the life-giving air… any moment now…

“The Finest Hours” may not win many points for originality. But it’s a solid blend of action, drama and historical celebration.

Bonus features are pretty good, though you’ll have to spring for the Blu-ray upgrade to get the majority of them. The DVD version comes only with a documentary about the real-life rescuers, “The Finest Inspiration: The U.S. Coast Guard.”

With the Blu-ray edition you get three making-of featurettes: “Against All Odds: The Bernie Webber Story,” “Brotherhood” and “Two Crews.” You also receive firsthand accounts of real-life Coast Guard rescues and two deleted scenes.



Thursday, May 19, 2016

Review: "The Angry Birds Movie"

Movies fail for all kinds of reasons. Poor casting, bad story structure, uninspired direction -- even the music can ruin a moment. I’ve seen it all, and generally don’t hold it against the filmmakers. They swung, they whiffed, maybe they’ll do better at their next at bat.

The one reason I can’t abide, though, is sheer brute laziness.

“The Angry Birds Movie” is a merchandising opportunity in search of a movie. It’s based on a video game, and the batting average for that conversion is still .000. And the Angry Birds games aren’t even really games, they’re apps -- ways to pass the time on your smartphone while you’re waiting for the dentist.

There are no characters, no story, no drama. You just plink bird ordnance at pig structures to smash them. Ostensibly it’s because the pigs stole the birds’ eggs and they’re angry about it… but you never even get to the eggs.

You might as well try to make a film out of tic-tac-toe.

Still, the total lack of a format means rookie directors Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly and screenwriter Jon Vitti had no structure to hold them back. They could make up any kind of scenario they wanted and inserted imaginative characters and situations into them. Totally free reign.

Instead, they slapped together a droning mélange of quips, crude body humor and zippy action. Entire scenes and exchanges of dialogue seem improvised on the spot, which is impressive (in a way) for an animated film with an estimated budget of $80 million.

Little kids may be carried along by the bright colors and goofy action. But this parent was bored nearly to the point of walking out.

Here the birds all live on one happy island, protected by legendary guardian Mighty Eagle, who’s more aspirational than operational these days. The one malcontent is Red (voice of Jason Sudeikis), a pugnacious bird with Groucho Marx eyebrows and a tendency to lose his cool. For his crimes he’s sentenced to anger management class, led by hippy-dippy chickie Matilda (Maya Rudolph).

His classmates are Chuck, a hyper-fast yellow bird voiced by the excitable Josh Gad, and Bomb (Danny McBride), a burly black fellow with a tendency to literally explode when stressed, though his body is only slightly singed in the process. (The movie’s metaphysics are suspect.)

Oh, and there’s a massive red bird named Terence the size of a blimp -- he mostly resembles Red on steroids, eyebrows and all – who only ever glares at people and grumbles. I’m astonished to learn he is voiced by Sean Penn, who has hereby accomplished the Method Acting pinnacle of getting paid to grunt.

Anyway, the green pigs roll up on the beach one day offering friendship, led by the officious Leonard (Bill Hader), and they quickly set about spoiling bird paradise with their machines and noise. It’s all an excuse to make off with the birds’ eggs for their feast … which they sure seem to take their time getting around to. (Three-minute boil, anyone?)

Eventually, an hour into the movie, the birds starting launching themselves into the pig town via a giant slingshot the pigs brought with them, also for reasons unknown.

Mighty Eagle makes an appearance, gallantly voiced by Peter Dinklage, having now gone to seed. His first undertaking, after Bomb and Chuck have bathed in the mystical lake on top of his mountain, provides the movie’s sole laugh-out-loud moment.

As I say, I don’t often get mad about bad movies. But when you can feel the people who made them not trying, consider my feathers ruffled.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Review: "The Meddler"

"The Meddler" is a movie without a lot of big moves, but it spins joyfully in its own little circle.

Susan Sarandon plays Marnie, a Jersey widow who moves out to Los Angeles so she can smother her daughter with kindness. The daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne), pushes her away at every turn, so Marnie continually seeks out other venues in which to insert herself in other people's lives.

That's pretty much the entire story. It may not sound like enough for an entire movie, but writer/director Lorene Scafaria ("Seeking a Friend for the End of the World") and Sarandon give us a wonderful character study with a lot of heart and a little wisdom, too.

This is one of those deals where you just enjoy spending time with these characters, and that's enough.

Sarandon tries on an agreeable Brooklyn honk (though it has a tendency to fade a bit from time to time) as she narrates Marnie's story, told largely through a series of long -- and unreturned -- voice messages she leaves for Lori. It's mostly rote checking-in kinda stuff, here's what I'm up to, hope things are going well with you, etc.

But Marnie unwittingly slips in constant little digs that tear at Lori's fragile psyche. She's a successful writer who's got a new TV show lined up, but recently broke up with her boyfriend (Jason Ritter) who's also a big action movie star. She's getting on in years, cherishes her independence but also quietly pines for children, and Marnie is there to pick-pick-pick at all her insecurities.

A mother's love is boundless -- which is another way of saying it's ceaseless.

Marnie is an interesting gal. She's not exactly dim, but she's not very self-reflective and instinctively crosses over borders. Years of being told she's doing so by Lori only enables her to acknowledge that she's crosses boundaries while she's doing it.

Her husband, Joe, left her a big pile of money so she doesn't have to work. There are a lot of hours in the day, and Marnie tries a bunch of things to fill them up. She starts volunteering at the hospital (without actually signing up to do so), walks into a movie set and becomes a regular extra, befriends the young Genius at the Apple store (Jerrod Carmichael) and soon is driving him around to the college classes she encouraged him to take.

That doesn't begin to mention how she inserts herself into Lori's circle of girlfriends -- Lucy Punch, Cecily Strong, Sarah Baker, Casey Wilson -- showing up at a baby shower as a +1, without the 1. Soon she's planning an extravagant post-wedding party for one of them costing tens of thousands of dollars, out of her own pocket. Marnie basks in this attention, even if it is a faux substitute for the mother/daughter relationship she craves.

Heck, Marnie even signs up for sessions with Lori's therapist (Amy Landecker) just so she can talk about her daughter, since the real thing doesn't want to.

The funny thing is, for all her brazen feats of meddling, Marnie can be quite shy and retiring when others pull the same move on her. She's clearly intimidated by her late husband's family back East, a gregarious clan of Italians. And when a nicely creased older cop shows her some romantic attention, she demurs at first.

Zipper -- his real name, btw -- is played by J.K. Simmons, who just oozes rustic charm and magnetism. He's a lonely divorced guy who lives in the rural outskirts of L.A., playing Dolly Parton music for his chickens and lamenting his distant relations with his daughters. Marnie's drawn to him, but she's so used to being the interloper, she's a bit confused when someone intrudes into her sphere.

I really enjoyed this movie. It doesn't feel like it's trying to push any big revelations on you or impress you with an intricate storyline. It's just people, bumping into each other and interacting. Sometimes their flaws rub each other the wrong way, and sometimes a weakness is beheld as a strength by others.

Mostly "The Meddler" is a showcase for Susan Sarandon, who's usually known for playing such strong women. Marnie is too, but in a different way. Her yearning never really goes away, but starts out as desperation and turns into something more positive. It's like watching someone drowning, and then their frantic flailing becomes a calm, sustaining stroke.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Video review: "The Witch"

Horror films seem to fall into two categories these days. There are the traditional slasher/paranormal fright fests, replete with nudity and gore. And then there are the outliers who get talked up as game-changers that will take the genre in a different direction. I’m not sure how much they actually succeed at this, but they at least represent a measure of striving often lacking in run-of-the-mill horror.

Last year’s “It Follows” and now “The Witch” fall into the latter category.

Set in 1600s Puritan New England, “The Witch” is the story of a family that leaves the safety of their colonial settlement to live in the remote woods, where all sorts of terrible things happen. Writer/director Robert Eggers makes a strong debut with a deeply atmospheric and downright creepy descent into repressed terrors.

The beauty of this tale is the clan’s antediluvian notions of the Holy Spirit or Satan’s malevolence residing anywhere in their environs. With our modern sensibilities, we would dismiss this as paranoia. But their superstitions prove to be true, as there really is an old hag brewing potions – and possibly other threats – residing in the forest.

Ralph Ineson is solid as the father, a fire-and-brimstone sort, as is Katie Dickie as the mentally fragile mother. The real star is Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, a teen girl and oldest child who becomes the locus of ill tidings. Things start with the disappearance of her baby brother, literally before her eyes, and get worse as other siblings begin babbling dark incantations.

We suspect they’re faking it at first, recalling the Salem witch trials, but later… not so much.

The dialogue can be hard to understand at times. I appreciated Eggers wanting to replicate period speech as accurately as possible; but this is one of those times that coherence should’ve been a higher priority. You might want to watch it with English subtitles turned on.

Still, if this is the new face of horror, I’ll suffer a few “thees” and “thines” as the price of admission.

Bonus features aren’t terribly extensive, but are impactful. Eggers provides a feature-length audio commentary. There is also a making-of featurette, “The Witch: A Primal Folklore,” a Q&A with a panel in Salem and a gallery of design stills.



Thursday, May 12, 2016

Review: "Money Monster"

Just a few thoughts, as our newest talent, Aly Caviness, is handling the main review over at The Film Yap. Make sure to head there to read in its entirety.

"Money Monster" is a well-executed cinematic effort with tightly bookended ambitions. Unlike "The Big Short," it's not trying -- or, if it is, not trying very hard -- to be an all-encompassing indictment of Wall Street and the corruption of modern digitized market trading. It aims for small observations and dramatic tension.

It gives lip service to The System and how bad it is, but then leans on a narrative that makes clear it's a rotten apple or two who are actually mucking things up.

George Clooney plays Lee Gates, the host of the titular television show in which the smart, smarmy personality gives stock tips and ass-kisses the financial masters of the universe, in between embarrassing hip-hop dance moves and weirdo costumes. It's a slight exaggeration of Jim Cramer and his ilk, but only slight.

It's a hostage story in which some dumb mook off the street took Lee's stock advice and lost his entire inheritance from his mother, and now wants revenge, an explanation or an apology.

Directed by Jodie Foster from a screenplay by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf, "Monster" provides a couple of terrific moments that I appreciated.

The first is when Lee, after first having got over the shock of having his show interrupted by a gunman who straps him into a bomb vest, finally gets around to engaging the guy, a truck driver named Kyle (Jack O'Connell). He's a talker, so he figures he'll talk to the young man. That's when he learns how much Kyle lost: $60,000.

Sixty grand? Lee asks, shocked. You're gonna kill me, maybe die yourself, over chump change like that?

Lee is a man who brags about sharing dinner at an expensive restaurant with at least one other person every night since the 1990s. He's got his millions, three ex-wives, thousand-dollar suits, etc. He's lived at the top so long, he can't even conceive of a working schmoe having to slave away at $14/hour, taking a year to save up the money he'll spend on a weekend getaway.

The second moment is when, trying to verify something allegedly said on his show a few weeks ago, Lee is forced to watch tape of himself played back on the screen. All this is happening, I should mention, on live TV, with Julia Roberts as Patty Fenn, the director in the control booth trying to keep things calm.

Lee watches the playback of himself in some ridiculous outfit, doing a dance a man of his years should not be attempting, saying stuff because it makes for good TV and not because it adds up to an ounce of fiscal sense. Clooney, who shines playing flawed men, gives a little dip of the head, his gaze faltering downward, and we bathe in his confrontation with his own meager worth.

He's a clown who revels at playing the clown, until he's forced to breathe dip the smell of the face paint, and is sickened.

Alas, the rest of the movie falls into predictable patterns. The cops come to take out Kyle, a negotiator is brought in, the action eventually leaves the studio, a weird sort of alliance forms between Lee and his captor, etc. Patty is the level-headed island of calm trying to keep all these vying forces in balance. Roberts is solid, but it's the kind of role any number of actresses could do just as well.

There is a good surprise or two. My favorite is when someone close to Kyle is located and brought in to talk him down, something we've seen many times before, and events do not transpire in any way we expected. For a brief moment, the movie pushes us out on a limb. We're delighted by the feeling of an abyss yawning; but then our steps are nudged back to the safe and dull path.

Dominic West plays the CEO of IBIS, the big corporation whose stock tanked despite Lee's reassurances to his viewers; Caitriona Balfe is the PR chief who goes rogue for reasons unexplored; Giancarlo Esposito is the head of the police force, uttering urgent things we can safely ignore; Lenny Venito is the podunk cameraman who keeps on shooting despite the danger to himself; and Christopher Denham is Lee's flunky producer tasked with anything the boss wants, including trying out an erectile claim before it goes on the market.

"Money Monster" plays out in live time, and Foster is adroit at balancing the tension and danger, stirring the pot when needed and backing off the heat when the audience needs to absorb information or take a breath. The movie also has a pleasing streak of dark humor to it, much of it deriving from Lee's feckless charm.

All the stuff about trading algorithms and international hackers being brought in to help is distracting or strains credulity. But this is the sort of movie where you have to just go along with the ride. It's a day trade of a film, serving its purpose but soon left behind.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Review: "The Man Who Knew Infinity"

The “Great Man” (or Woman) genre of cinematic biography falls into two subcategories. One is about a person of great import who is already well known to us. “The Theory of Everything,” about physicist Stephen Hawking, is a recent example of this sort.

“The Man Who Knew Everything” is the other kind: a look at a person whose accomplishments are celebrated within their field but virtually unknown to laypersons. These movies face an additional storytelling challenge, since not only do they have to satisfactorily explore that person’s life, but also justify to us why we should sit through an entire movie about them.

I feel comfortable in guessing that Srinivasa Ramanujan is not a name that falls easily from your lips. Like me, most people don’t keep lists of brilliant theoretical mathematicians memorized – let alone ones from India who died nearly a century ago.

Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”) plays the gentle soul, a self-taught man with no formal education who emerged from Madras to become a Fellow at Cambridge University in England, where he collaborated with his prickly mentor, G.H. Hardy, played by Jeremy Irons.

This movie is essentially the tale of their relationship, as it very slowly evolves from teacher/student conflict to co-equal friendship based on respect. Each man has prodigious gifts and limitations, which they intermesh in a sort of combat that transforms into a dance.

This was a wise move by writer/director Matt Brown, whose only previous credit (“Ropewalk”) was 15 years ago. The audience is obviously not going to grasp even the faintest complexities of the sort of computations these men explored – prime numbers and partitions – especially since they are dealing in “pure” math without any attempt at practical applications.

Essentially, the filmmaker has to make us feel the importance of this work without understanding it. It’s a largely successful effort, as we focus on the men and not the hieroglyphic-like scratchings (to us) they make on chalkboards and in journals.

We first meet Ramanujan in his native country, where he struggles to find employment despite his brilliance. He finally attains a position of accounting clerk for a local businessman, which at least allows him to bring his new bride, Janaki (Devika Bhise), and his mother (Arundhati Nag) to come live with him. It is an arranged marriage, and the three cautiously negotiate a web of responsibilities and resentments strewn between them.

But he yearns to publish and make his theories known to the world, believing that every mathematical idea is an expression of his patron Hindu god. Eventually his work comes to the attention of Hardy, who brings him to England.

The transition is painful. Hardy, an academic with few friendships or conviviality, makes little attempt to get to know Ramanujan on a personal level. He repeatedly chides him to complete the proofs that will prove to other, less gifted mathematicians that his theories are valid. The younger man feels chastened and constrained by not being able to let his imagination run wild, and be acknowledged.

The cultural assimilation is also difficult. A strict vegetarian and devout man, Ramanujan essentially becomes a hermit who locks himself inside his room in Charnal Lane, his health becoming increasingly worse. Meanwhile, Hardy struggles to convince his hoity-toity peers to accept the prowess of his protégé.

Both actors do a wonderful job of exploring their characters, but Irons in particular manages to bring layers of nuance that perhaps are not located in any screenplay. He gives these little bobs of the head and a distracted stare that help us feel the isolation he endures, which is perhaps not so different from that experienced by his Indian student.

It’s tough to make a crusty old academic emotionally resonant, but Irons gives Hardy a sort of homely grace.

The romantic aspect of the tale is not so effective, as Ramanujan and his bride have to carry on a relationship separated by years and thousands of miles. 

Ramanujan died at the age of 32, but his fantastical theories have been almost all been proven true and, according to the film’s postscript, are still being used today to understand the behavior of black holes. “The Man Who Knew Infinity” is an engaging portrait of a hidden genius.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Reeling Backward: "When Willie Came Marching Home" (1950)

In 1950 John Ford was already a revered filmmaker, becoming the first person to win back-to-back Oscars for directing. But he was about to commence a darker and, I think, richer period of his career, marked by more pessimistic films that cast a gimlet eye at man's capacities for good and evil -- "The Searchers," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "Cheyenne Autumn," etc.

So what to make of this goofy piffle, starring largely forgotten comedian/song-and-dance man Dan Dailey, which came out the same year as "Rio Grande" and "Wagon Master?" Think of "When Willie Comes Marching Home" as the fruity apéritif before a sumptuous banquet. Though it's certainly a minor entry in the Ford oeuvre, it shows off his undervalued capacity for humor and warmth.

"Willie" was a war comedy at a time when American audiences were just getting enough distance from World War II to milk it for laughs. Dailey plays Bill Kluggs, a cutup in the finest Rodney Dangerfield "can't get no respect" tradition.

Celebrated for being the first man in Punxsutawney, West Virginia, to enlist after Pearl Harbor -- which is odd, since all he accomplished was being first in a line -- Bill becomes a punchline when he's assigned as a gunnery instructor at the local airfield.

The guy who was supposed to become a bona fide war hero essentially never leaves town, and is branded a coward as other boys go off to war, fight and die. There's even a running Chaplinesque gag of a scruffy little dog biting Bill's leg as he shambles away from his latest humiliation.

I kept expecting the movie to grow more serious. We know Bill is eventually going to get his chance to get into the fighting, so I assumed we'd see him get bloodied and grim, the goofball become savior. But even when he finally goes overseas, Bill's adventures are decidedly of the slapstick variety.

His B-17 is prevented from landing in Britain by thick fog and low fuel, so the crew is ordered to bail out and ditch the brand-new plane in the English Channel. Asleep in the belly turret after the long flight, Bill doesn't hear the command and only parachutes out over occupied France. There he's captured by French resistance, led by the lovely and flirty Yvonne (Corinne Calvet).

Bill is tasked with carrying home some film the Frenchies shot of German rockets being tested in advance of D-Day. (The film's fidelity to the historical record is shaky, at best.) This kicks off a long sequence where he's transported to and fro, by boat and plane, questioned by doctors and generals, kept awake and plied with liquor the whole time.

Dailey basically spends the last third of the movie playing drunk, and he's pretty good at it. The audience is rewarded with several google-eyed reaction shots as the curly-headed Kluggs labors to keep his bearings.

Rounding out the cast are Colleen Townsend as Marge Fettles, Bill's wholesome next-door neighbor and betrothed, and crusty character actor William Demarest as his father, who shares in his son's mortification. Jimmy Lydon plays Marge's kid brother, a gangly type who goes on to become a famed Air Force dogfighter, adding to Bill's grief.

(He isn't credited so I can't be sure about this, but I believe Hardy Krüger has a small non-speaking role as a German soldier who waltzes into the French cafe where Bill is posing as Yvonne's newly christened husband. If so, this would make it his first appearance in a Hollywood film.)

"When Willie Comes Marching Home" is more interesting as a time capsule than as a standalone film. It's so different from John Ford's usual stuff that it bears a second peek.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Video review: "Deadpool"

Few mainstream movies are truly radical. After all, Hollywood is generally a risk-averse place. They make movies that assuage, not challenge conventions. They leave the wacky and threatening ideas to the indies and foreign films.

“Deadpool” is the exception to the rule. A super-hero flick based on a character few non-comics readers have probably even heard of, it’s violent, foul-mouthed and flippant. The protagonist is an unlikeable heel who talks directly to the audience, insults his enemies and makes no pretense at heroic deeds.

Ryan Reynolds – who previously played another iteration of the same character in (one of) the underwhelming Wolverine movies – is a charming cad as Wade Wilson, a mercenary who hurts or kills people for money. He makes no bones about his profession or status on the good/bad scale.

His happiness grows when he unexpectedly finds love with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), a prostitute with a heart of diamonds. But then he is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

He accepts a longshot chance at a cure by accepting experimental treatment from a mysterious criminal group that promises to turn him into a super-hero. The process works, after incredible pain and suffering, giving him the ability to heal virtually any wound. But it also leaves him a scarred freak.

Redubbing himself Deadpool, he launches a crusade to kill the bad guy, fix his face and get the girl back. Needless to say, there are complications along the way. Opposing, then joining him on this quest are a pair of down-market X-Men. (Deadpool himself quips that they couldn’t afford any of the expensive ones.)

Shot on a $50 million budget – peanuts for super-hero CGI and stunts – “Deadpool” is a four-letter middle finger to the establishment. Rookie director Tim Miller and script guys Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have fashioned a movie that’s a true rebel yell.

Extras are very good. These include two feature-length audio commentary tracks, one with Reynolds and the screenwriters, the other with director Miller and Deadpool co-creator Rob Liefeld; deleted and extended scenes with audio commentary by Miller; gag reel; photo galleries; and two making-of featurettes: “Deadpool’s Fun Sack” and “From Comics to Screen… to Screen.”



Thursday, May 5, 2016

Review: "Captain America: Civil War"

"Captain America: Civil War” delivers everything you expect, and little more.

Oh, it’s a fun movie, with a grim undertone, the main attraction of which is we get to see super-heroes square off into sides and smack each other around. Marvel Comics did this from their very inception 50+ years ago because they knew fans loved to argue about who would win in a fight between two favorites, such as the Thing and Wolverine.

(Uh, the Thing, of course! H’doy!!)

This is the sort of movie that hits its marks, gives you the gleeful battles between supes, but doesn’t really challenge our expectations or raise the stakes. It belongs in the second tier of Marvel movies, along with both previous “Captain America” films.

The setup is based on a huge storyline Marvel did a while back that essentially engulfed all of their titles, in which the government decided to register and control all super-powered beings. Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) headed up the different factions, one in favor and the other opposed.

For narrative cohesion and budgetary purposes, here the civil war is restricted to just the Avengers and a few new recruits. (Hey, even a $200 budget and a 2½-hour running time can only encompass so much.)

Cap, being a law and order sort, would side with the government, you’d think, and freebooting billionaire Stark is a natural fit to lead the rebels. But it actually goes the other way, and directors Anthony and Joe Russo, plus screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus -- all holdovers from “Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- spend a lot of time mapping out the psychological battle of wills between the two men.

Too much, really. If the movie has a flaw it’s that it’s too much talkie-talkie and not enough punchy-punchy. Though there is plenty of the latter, to be fair.

The plot is just a series of excuses to set up conflict. It starts with the premise that people worldwide are enraged by the innocent bystanders who have been killed while the Avengers were busy saving the world from one intergalactic threat or another. Many, including the U.S. secretary of defense (William Hurt), seem incapable of adding up the millions who otherwise would’ve been killed.

Stark, who’s been wobbly on staying in the super business, quickly signs on, while Cap trusts in the Avengers to make the right choices rather than bureaucrats. Sides quickly form up, with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Vision (Paul Bettany) going with Stark and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) sticking to Cap.

(The big green guy is conspicuously absent, other than a brief shout-out, and Thor’s neither seen nor heard of.)

Three-on-three’s not really a very exciting fight, so other characters are pulled in, including Iron Man knockoff War Machine (Don Cheadle), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), fresh off his own movie, and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), fresh out of retirement.

The new guy on the block is Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), an African king with a feline super-suit. The new-ish guy is teen webslinger Spider-Man, now rebooted for the third time, with Tom Holland taking over the role of nerdy high-schooler Peter Parker. Both fellows will soon headline their own solo pictures, so you know they’re not in any serious danger.

The action centerpiece of the movie is a full-out battle between the two sides on an airport tarmac. It’s more about egos than anger, and with all the quipping we get the distinct sense punches are being pulled. Ant-Man plays an unexpectedly outsized role in the fight.

The bad guy’s a bit of a low-key dude, a non-super guy played by Daniel Brühl, who holds a lot of cards up his sleeve. He soon gains control of Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Captain America’s old war buddy, who had his mind seized by villainous forces long ago.

I enjoyed “Captain America: Civil War,” even if they’ve micro-sized the conflict for easier audience consumption. I wouldn’t call the movie lazy, but it seems to start with a presumption of limits -- places characters won’t go and things that aren’t going to happen. This movie entertains, but never surprises.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Review: "April and the Extraordinary World"

A bold mix of steampunk fantasy and historical revisionism, “April and the Extraordinary World” is a French/Belgian/Canadian production that’s decidedly different from the sort of animation we’re used to seeing in the U.S. – for both good and ill.

It’s about April, a girl separated from her scientist parents in a 1931 version of France where the Napoleonic era never ended. Europe is united but a grim, dank place still powered by steam and coal, fighting a war with the Americas for control of the Canadian forests. Ten years later and now a young woman (with the voice of Marion Cotillard), she becomes the red herring everyone’s chasing after.

It’s a world of talking animals and laser weapons but also retrograde technology and sclerotic morality. All scientists are expected to labor for the good of the empire, which is secretly controlled by genetically mutated lizards that use giant exo-skeletons to dominate the humans.

Tonally, the film is an odd and not entirely pleasing blend. The simple, old-school animation style, keystone cop pratfalls and straightforward characterizations would seem aimed at kids, but I don’t know how much those under age 12 would respond to this world.

The dragon-robots can be quite scary, whereas the humans act as the comic relief. There’s a scampy talking cat named Darwin (voice of Philippe Katerine), the result of experimentation by April’s mom, dad and grandfather (Macha Grenon, Olivier Gourmet and Jean Rochefort, respectively).

At one point he gets blasted through the chest and dies, which would be quite disturbing to small children.

Darwin is revived, for the second time, with the Ultimate Serum, something April’s parents were working on for the Empire before they escaped. It was intended as a super-soldier formula for the emperor’s armies, but had unintended consequences on the test animals. Now April has the last batch of the serum, so she’s being hunted.

Chief among those seeking her is Pizoni (Bouli Lanners), a mustachioed police inspector who let her family escape from his clutches when she was a girl. He seems to burn with a Javert-like unholy obsession, but he’s more bumbling than fearsome.

Tagging along is Julius (Marc-Andre Grondin), a street thief recruited by Pizoni to shadow April, but who gets caught up in her adventures and falls for her. She resists, then reciprocates, in the unalterable cinematic tradition.

There are some dashing and imaginative action sequences. I liked how Pops built an entire mansion that’s actually a vehicle/weapon, crawling about on spider legs and even swimming underwater. There are also hybrid helicopter/airplanes and a whole island of gadgets a la “The Incredibles.”

In the end I liked the idea for the movie than the film itself. It has a great premise that just wasn’t executed in a very satisfying way.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Video review: "The 5th Wave"

It’s funny how in young adult novels and their movie adaptations, young adults are always the key to saving the world.

In real-life it’s pretty rare for a teen to have a momentous impact on history -- Joan of Arc, King Tut… not many others.

Oh, well. It’s a central conceit of much popular storytelling that the audience sees themselves in the main character -- so why not tailor the character to them?

Here it’s Chloë Grace Moretz as Cassie, an unremarkable kid in a normal town when alien invaders swoop in and take over. They do so slowly, in stages, targeting humanity’s technology, environment, etc. in succession. The fifth and final wave is infiltration of human hosts by the invaders’ control.

There’s a lot of similarity to both “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” franchises. The female lead is indoctrinated into a militaristic existence in which young people are expected to fight and die for the cause. And, exhaustingly, there are multiple cute boys wandering into the tale to tempt and/or betray our heroine.

Here they are Ben (Nick Robinson), a classmate Cassie was sweet on, and Evan (Alex Roe), a somewhat mysterious country boy she stumbles upon after all the youngsters are rounded up by the U.S. Army, conveniently leaving her behind.

There follows some gun fights, hand-to-hand action in which our formerly mousy protagonist suddenly becomes a badass, etc. There are a couple of large plot twists, which will only seem surprising if you haven’t been paying any attention.

“The 5th Wave” isn’t bad, but after a dozen or more of these YA movies it’s hard to enjoy something when you see everything coming.

Bonus features are pretty good. The DVD comes with a feature-length commentary track with Moretz and director J Blakeson and two making-of featurettes: “Inside The 5th Wave” and “Sammy on the Set.”

Upgrade to the Blu-ray and you add three more featurettes -- “The 5th Wave Survival Guide,” “Training Squad 53” and “Creating a New World” -- plus deleted scenes and a gag reel.