Thursday, June 30, 2016

Review: "The BFG"

“The BFG” is a homecoming of sorts, with director Steven Spielberg reuniting with “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” screenwriter Melissa Mathison for the first time. (And, alas, the last: she passed away last year.) The theme and tone of the films are very similar, about lonely children bonding with a fantastical creature who helps them take their first steps into a bigger world.

Based on the Roald Dahl book, it’s a dreamy and delightful tale in which actor Mark Rylance, who won an Oscar playing for Spielberg in last year’s “Bridge of Spies,” is transformed into a 40-foot-tall giant through motion capture and computer animation.

Known simply as the “Big Friendly Giant” -- in contrast to his nine fellows, who are crude and crave human flesh -- BFG is a cheerily odd fellow with enormous ears and (for his sort) an intellectual bent.

Though he has a habit of using words all wrong or making up new ones to substitute -- “gobblefunk,” Dahl called it -- BFG is thoughtful and kind. His “work” involves catching dreams, represented as colorful balls of spritely energy, and blowing them into the bedrooms of humans using his trumpet. He can also hear most everything owing to his outsized ears -- even, he says, the very stars.

Ruby Barnhill plays Sophie, a young British orphan who spots the BFG at his labors one night. Fearing discovery, he snatches Sophie and takes her to Giant Country, a place of indeterminate geography where he and the other giants live, pilfering human stuff (and sometimes humans) for their amusement.

Sophie, a brave and inquisitive lass, is fearful but intrigued, and figures living with an affable giant certainly beats life at the orphanage. But the threat of discovery from the other giants is ever-present. Even more disturbing, it is apparent that BFG has repeated this act of stealing himself a companion before, with tragic results.

The CGI is just fantastic, married with Rylance’s tender performance. BFG’s quizzical smile, dash of thinning gray hair and crane’s neck make him seem strangely authentic.

Mathison’s script is similarly a marvel, beckoning us in as we explore the spectacle of the giants’ world, but then going further and developing themes about bullying. Indeed, BFG is a mere stripling compared to the other giants, who call him “runt” and mercilessly push him around. Jemaine Clement brings a growly, threatening aspect to their loathsome chief, Fleshlumpeater.

Kids will love the goofy antics and kooky language, which the film frequently combines. For instance, BFG ferments a green drink from snozzcumbers, the vile vegetable he is forced to eat, which he calls throbscottle. The bubbles flow downward instead of up, and instead of burps (which giants find rude) you get… uh, prodigiously forceful emissions from the other end (which giants celebrate heartily).

If you think it’s funny when it happens to BFG, wait’ll you see how the Queen reacts.

Oh yes, I forget to mention this is the sort of tale where the Queen of England herself shows up as a character, along with nice, helpful servants (Rebecca Miller, Rafe Spall). Sophie gets the idea to mix up one of BFG’s dream brews to induce “your Majester,” as he puts it, to lend a hand with Fleshlumpeater & Co.

In a lot of ways “The BFG” is the completion of full circle for Spielberg, who made his name as a wizard of childlike wonder, then went on to soberer adult fare. How wonderful it is not to put away childish things.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Review: "The Purge: Election Year"

Despite the title, “The Purge” isn’t an overtly political take in its third outing into a nasty dystopian future where people are allowed to murder and rape each other one night a year to vent their collective spleen.

There is indeed a presidential election going on, with the leading candidate a member of the New Founding Fathers of America, who wants to preserve the Purge as a quasi-religious way for citizens to rid themselves of their sin and wanton urges -- sort of preemptive confession and absolution, but with violence instead of penitence.

Christ spilled his blood for our sins; now let us spill others’ for the ones we haven’t committed yet.

The good candidate who wants to do away with the purge is Charlie Roan, an idealistic young Senator played by Elizabeth Mitchell. Eighteen years ago she was a victim of the Purge, losing her entire family, and now wants to do away with the day of infamy once and for all. She points out that most of those killed are poor and minority, claiming the NFFA is doing it simply to ease the burden on welfare rolls.

There’s definitely a one-percenters-versus-the-rest-of-us vibe to the Founding Fathers, who are uniformly white, old and patriarchal as all get out. If you can’t figure out who’s supposed to be who in this configuration, then a red and blue electoral map towards the end spells it out for us.

Still, this film is about bloody mayhem first, with any sort of coherent political message a distant second… or seventh.

The first “Purge” movie fell more in the horror/psychological thriller camp, as a single family was stalked inside their fortress home. The second and now the third ones are purely cathartic action flicks, with Frank Grillo as Leo, a tough but virtuous cop who gets caught up in the killing frenzy.

I liked the first two movies well enough, different as they were, but “Election Year” grows tedious at times. Like the last one it features a thrown-together group of folks just trying to survive the onslaught, who end up banding together to take down the nefarious leaders of the Purge -- giving them a goodly taste of their own medicine in the process, of course.

Mykelti Williamson plays Joe, owner of a tidy little deli/convenience store who’s determined not to see it go up in flames. He acts as both comic relief and the blue-collar voice of reason, and gets most of the best lines in the movie -- courtesy of writer and director James DeMonaco, the man behind all three movies.

Joe’s employee, a persevering Mexican-American immigrant named Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), turns out to have some useful skills picked up during the drug wars down in Juarez. He’s also got a friend (Betty Gabriel) who runs a volunteer ambulance on Purge night, but used to be known as a champion nicknamed Little Death on the wrong side.

Edwin Hodge plays Dante Bishop, leader of upstart rebellions who oppose the Purge, but adopt its tactics. And Terry Serpico, who looks like Anthony Michael Hall’s malevolent twin, is chilling as the leader of some white power mercenaries.

“The Purge: Election Year” replicates the experience of the previous movies well enough (especially the last one) without really adding any new layers or expanding this world. There’s some disturbing images cooked up for their own benefit -- purgers dressed up as bloody Abraham Lincoln and Lady Liberty, for instance -- but there’s nowhere left for this series to go.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Video review: "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot"

It crashed and burned at the box office, but “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is a wry and disturbing look at the underbelly of wartime journalism.

Tina Fey plays Kim Baker, a trepid reporter sent to cover Afghanistan in the years after the American invasion. At first put off by the threatening surroundings, alien fundamentalist culture and hard-partying ways of her fellow expats, she eventually learns to “embrace the suck” until the insane feels normal.

Very loosely based on a memoir by Kim Barker – I’m not really sure what the one-letter name change accomplishes – it’s a dark comedy with some surprisingly dramatic notes.

(If you’re wondering about the title, it’s NATO phonetic alphabet as used by the military; take the first letters of each word to obtain an all-encompassing acronym.)

Kim is a struggling cable TV news producer of a certain age who finds her life stuck. On a whim she accepts an assignment to Kabul, intending to stay three months but eventually signing on for the long haul. She struggles to adapt to life here, where foreign journalists all live in the same compound, drinking, dancing and sleeping together.

Tanya, a stunning veteran played by Margot Robbie, helpfully informs Kim that while she may be a “5 or 6” on the attractiveness scale in New York, here in the macho male-dominated “Kabubble” she’s at least a 9. Kim resists the urge to fall into people’s beds and instead racks up some impressive scoops with the help of Fahim (Christopher Abbott), a smart and sensitive local man who acts as her interpreter and “fixer.”

There is also a charming scamp of a Scottish photographer (Martin Freeman) offering his services, both professional and personal; a powerful Afghan official (Alfred Molina) trading in similar wares, though he wants to trade his for hers; and Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton), a severe Marine general who views Kim as another annoyance but eventually develops something resembling… grudging tolerance.

“This war is like f***ing a gorilla,” he offers, when asked about the state of the conflict. “You keep going until the gorilla wants to stop.”

It may not be as smart and sharp as, say, “Broadcast News,” but “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” provides a funny peek behind the curtain of those foreign reports we see on television – usually just for a moment before we change the channel.

We’ve cheered and wept aplenty about our foreign adventures over the last decade and a half, so here is a welcome chance to laugh a little, too.

Video extras are quite good, though you’ll have to spring for the Blu-ray upgrade to get them: the DVD contains exactly zero.

With the Blu-ray you get deleted and extended scenes plus a comprehensive making-of documentary, “All In.” There are also featurettes on the real Kim Barker, how the military embeds journalists, Afghan weddings and the vices foreign correspondents use to cope with the threat of constant danger.

Movie: B
Extras: B+

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Review: "The Shallows"

If you think "The Shallows" looks like an excuse to get Blake Lively in a bikini for 87 minutes and scare us with a CGI shark -- but not too scared; this is a PG-13-rated thriller, after all -- you'd be right. But not entirely.

Though at first this might seem like a rocks-in-its-skull-dumb movie, director Jaume Collet-Serra and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski manage to whip up a decently entertaining flick. It's in the tradition of "you are there" filmmaking that's made something of a comeback in recent years with movies like "Gravity." The idea is to put the audience in the protagonist's shoes.

Well, not in this case, since she isn't wearing any... or much of anything, for that matter. 

Lively plays Nancy, a nice wholesome girl from Galveston, Texas, who's come to Mexico to seek out the same beach where her mother went surfing while pregnant with her in 1991. Eventually we learn that mom has recently died and Nancy dropped out of medical school as a result. She's a typical screen heroine: smart, braver than she thinks, wary, a little disconnected from others.

She finds the beach alright and soon enjoys a marvelous day of tube-cutting and cork-rolling, or whatever surfers call it. (People of my hue stay away from the beach, as a rule.) She shares the cove with a couple of local guys, including one using a helmet with a waterproof camera to record his exploits, which we know will become important later. 

Then Old Mr. Shark shows up, trapping Nancy on a shoal just a couple hundred yards from shore. She's left with a nasty bite on her leg, which she patches up using her doctor skills. Meanwhile, the deadly predator circles and feints, clearly not going anywhere until he's got himself some Texas-style sushi. She sits and frets, watching her foot slowly turn purple as thirst and exhaustion leech the life out of her.

The photography and editing are quite good (courtesy of Flavio Martínez Labiano and Joel Negron, respectively), giving us some dazzling views above and below the water, and some quick cuts to stoke our sense of peril.

The film's biggest flaw is telegraphing too much of what's going on inside Nancy's head, rather then letting us watch her and figure out what she's thinking. For instance, as the tide rises, threatening to send her perch back underwater, she gazes at a distant buoy and says out loud, "Too far." 

It's almost like the filmmakers didn't trust their actress to convey her internal struggle using just facial expressions. Think about the long wordless stretches of "Cast Away" with Tom Hanks, and how effective they were without any verbal support.

Speaking of which, Nancy gets her own "Wilson," the volleyball Hanks befriended. In this case it's a wounded seagull, who got his wing bent in the same shark attack that injured Nancy. The filmmakers use this device for a little while, then set it aside.

"The Shallows" doesn't stack up against "Jaws," but then how many movies do? It's a short, engrossing film with modest goals, which it accomplishes well. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Review: "Dheepan"

"Dheepan" won the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and deservedly so. It's a French film that examines the lives of a family of refugees who fled to Paris, an issue very much top of mind these days. Director Jacques Audiard ("Rust and Bone"), who co-wrote the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debr, gives an empathetic look at people from an exotic land struggling to assimilate in the West.

Things would be hard enough for Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan), his wife Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and their 9-year-old daughter, Illayaal, (Claudine Vinasithamb). They're destitute people from warn-torn Sri Lanka, where the Tamil Tigers have fought a decades-long insurgency, and speak only a few words of French. They're placed in a public-assistance slum where drug dealers control every walk of life.

But there's an additional challenge for this family: they're not who they say they are.

Dheepan was actually a Tamil fighter who deserted after his real family was killed. Enlisting a random young woman in a refugee camp, they find an unwanted girl and together pose as a dead family, using their identification and concocted stories to gain access to French sanctuary.

So in addition to having to adapt to an alien culture and language, they're also negotiating a delicate dance as strangers who have to pass themselves off as loved ones. What makes the story so compelling is that they start off as an ersatz family and gradually evolve into a real one.

Dheepan is sober and serious, a man foreign to smiles and laughter. At one point he asks Yalini if she understands French jokes. She, naturally more sunny, tells him that he doesn't get their jokes because he has no sense of humor to begin with. 

He is given a job as caretaker for a cluster of buildings -- part janitor, part postmaster, part engineer. He takes his duties seriously but is constantly harassed by the criminals who truly run the place, making him wait outside before he can go in and sweep up their garbage. They dismiss him as the funny little foreign man, not knowing he's a trained soldier who's killed more men than all of them combined.

For her part, Yalini is enlisted to work for an old man (Faouzi Bensaïdi) who lives in the rougher building across the way, where Dheepan has been warned not to go. The man's nephew, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), is soon released from prison and takes up residence in the apartment, wearing an ankle monitor while he starts directing the criminal activity in the neighborhood. They form an odd bond, since Yalini labors to forge one with her supposed husband.

Meanwhile, young Illayaal struggles in school, set apart by the language barrier and the brush-off from some mean girls. But she slowly begins to transition to a healthier state, in many ways better than her "parents."

This is a very emotionally delicate tale, and the cast and crew pull off a remarkable feat in making all of the major characters relatable, even if their cultural background or motives might seem strange to us. Yalini gradually breaks out of the shell of housework and child-rearing women of her background are expected to stick to. And Dheepan confronts some of the chauvinistic and militaristic attitudes of his past with newfound disdain.

"Did you end up believing this story?" Yalini taunts him at one point, after a brief romantic flowering between the two has eroded into despair and strife. 

"Dheepan" is a story about the stories we tell ourselves, and finding that the greatest lies can become truth if we embrace them long and hard enough.

Review: "Art Bastard"

Robert Cenedella is so much of an artistic rebel, even the avant garde crowd treated him with disdain… or rather, he treated them so. “Art Bastard” is a documentary about a painter whose work cannot be classified, mostly because he refuses to accept any labels.

"Jeff Koons, he has a vacuum cleaner. Now it's art. At some point it's going to become just a vacuum cleaner again,” he says. “That's really where we're at at this point. The question isn't what is art. The question is what isn't art."

Writer/director Victor Kanefsky offers this probing look at Cendedella, now in his mid-70s, who managed to become controversial without ever really getting famous. Indeed, many of the interviews are with art experts or journalists talking about how trends come and go, a certain type of art becomes “hot” and then not, but Cenedella is as constant as the Northern Star, even as his aesthetic invariably evolves with the decades.

His paintings seem cartoony and even amateurish at first glance, specializing in large scenes with lots of faces and things going on, clashing and collaborating against an urban backdrop. It’s reminiscent of old-time political comic strips. But Kanefsky’s camera looms in closer and tracks across the images like a travelogue of a landscape.

This documentary explores Cenedella like a country with hidden vales and mysteries.

There is the rote biographical stuff: Cenedella grew up in a dysfunctional family in the 1950s, a weak father and a drunken mother. His dad, a prominent radio writer, was blacklisted for refusing to testify during the McCarthy hearings, and his subsequent upbringing was filled with poverty and anger. He was expelled from high school for refusing to sign a loyalty oath.

From there he wandered to the Art Students League of New York -- putting himself through school by selling “I Like Ludwig” pins -- where he came under the tutelage of George Grosz, a German Expressionist master. His skill and his taste for art grew like flower buds opening to the sun.

Cenedella was associated with the Pop Art movement for about a minute and a half, but he ultimately rejected the tongue-in-cheek treatment of commercial products as art like Andy Warhol’s crowd. Similarly, he discards pure abstraction like Jackson Pollock as “half a painting,” all technique without purpose.

He started to gain notoriety for his cheeky paintings, sometimes political, always personal. A rendering of Santa Claus crucified on the cross brought him no new friends. He would receive commissions and then have his art rejected for display. Cenedella just kept painting, experimenting with other styles and forms, such as a scenic painting two inches wide and five feet tall.

The film explores the artist from stem to stern, gets inside his head a little, provides a glimmer of his mischievous soul. There is happiness and fulfillment, such as his obvious loving relationship with his middle-aged son. And nearly incomprehensible tragedy and confusion, such as learning that his father was not his biological parent, but the man who was didn’t show any more skill at being a dad than the ersatz one.

Today Cenedella is back at the artists’ league, teaching in the very same classroom where his mentor trained him, passing along his skill and passion to others. “Art Bastard” is a portrait of the artist as an old man, still fiercely independent and alive.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Game of Thrones: Wrapping it up

There's only one episode and one season left of HBO's "Game of Thrones."

I'm still flummoxed how they're going to wrap all this up in just 11 more episodes. 

Bring on the wild speculation!

  1. Dany and her khal cross the Narrow Sea, supported by Yara, and make landfall in Westeros after defeating Euron, but with heavy losses. They land in Highgarden and make common cause with the Tyrells, and their combined armies make their push north.
  2. After many troubles, the Starks reunite around a returned Bran, the true heir of Winterfell. They make mincemeat out of the Freys but then fall to arguing about going after the Lannisters or defending the North from the White Walkers.
  3. Cersei is brought low by the High Sparrow, but with the help of Margaery whispering in Tommen’s ear, manipulate events to their advantage, possibly using some of the Mad King’s leftover wildfire. A certain 8-foot knight makes a messy end of the septon.
  4. Arya and the Hound hook up again for a vengeance spree, later being joined by Brienne, that culminates with Arya using her assassin skills to kill Cersei, and possibly Tommen, too.
  5. After a huge and nasty battle, Dany captures the Red Keep and names herself Queen. Tyrion becomes Hand again. Samwell becomes their maester/advisor. Brienne becomes Captain of the Kingsguard. Jamie is spared so he can take the black.
  6. Jon is revealed as the secret love child of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar, meaning he actually has a better claim on the Iron Throne. But he rejects this to lead the combined army against the White Walkers.
  7. Bran uses his powers to outwit the White Walker chief, and becomes Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. The remaining wildlings settle the barren spots of the North, with a few being made lords to replace some bad eggs.

Reeling Backward: "The Agony and the Ectstasy" (1965)

Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison were both booming screen presences with a decided tendency toward hamminess. They knew the taste of the scenery, and enjoyed it.

But I think both actors deliver some of their best work in "The Agony and the Ecstasy" -- a measure of restraint and disappearance into the character, as opposed to bursting out of the box as was their wont. Neither received Oscar nomination, and indeed the film in general was rather ignored during the awards season, receiving five nods from the Academy in only "technical" categories, winning none.

This, in a weaker year for film, with "The Sound of Music" winning Best Picture -- a film I've still not been able to bring myself to watch all the way through -- and the overwrought "Doctor Zhivago" and the overrated "Ship of Fools" forming its main competition.

I would put "The Agony and the Ecstasy" above them all.

It's a very good, borderline great film that takes a historical subject and muses upon the two men who made it happen: Michelangelo and Pope Julius II (played by Heston and Harrison, respectively). It falls into the category of what we now would call "historical fiction," based upon the book by Irving Stone. The story is part history, part mythology and part dramaturgy.

History is full of ironic inconsistencies. Like the Fourth Crusade, which departed to free Jerusalem from the Muslim horde but instead sacked the allied city of Constantinople. Or Joseph Cinqué, one of the slaves who fought for freedom aboard the ship Amistad later (by some accounts) becoming a slave trader himself.

Chief among fate's little jokes is that Michelangelo is probably best known for his painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, when in fact he labored nearly all of his life as a sculptor. The Pope insisted upon the greatest living artist decorating his chapel, despite Michelangelo's objections. This is the story of their clashing, from which emerged one of the enduring works of mankind.

Julius was known as the warrior-pope who fought many battles to keep the papal lands under Rome's control, rather than being gobbled up by the French and others. The movie depicts him literally sword in hand, wearing ornate plate armor and striking down his enemies in bloody splashes of violence. Harrison plays him as a vainglorious man given to fits of anger, but one who truly believes his mission in life is to exalt God and raise up his church.

The movie takes a little while to get really rolling. Michelangelo is working on the pope's tomb -- 40 statues, all told -- and clashing with Bramante (Harry Andrews), the pope's stiff-necked and territorial architect. Julius decides that his chapel needs some saints on the ceiling, and more or less forces the artist to do his bidding, at cut-rate wages.

There's a nice little speech that Raphael (Tomas Milian), another great artist of that age, gives about two-thirds of the way through in which he nicely describes the economics of artistry in the early 1500s. We're whores, he says, dependent on the wealthy and powerful to provide the funding to do what we are compelled to do.

Michelangelo certainly lives out this description on the film, repeatedly defying Julius only to eventually bend the knee and kiss the ring (quite literally).

His first rebellion is to start the portraits of saints, only to scrape them off the wall or ruin them with buckets of paint in a drunken fit after deciding "the wine is sour," meaning he has no creative will to do anything inspiring. After hiding out as a marble quarryman, he's struck by a vision to do a grand collection of frescoes depicting most of the pivotal acts of the Old Testament, centered by God's creation of Adam.

The image of a bearded old man reaching his hand out to Adam's is surely one of the most enduring images in the public consciousness.

Weeks become months, months become years. "When will you make an end?!?" Julius repeatedly shouts up to Michelangelo, high above the floor of the chapel on his scaffolding. "When I am finished!" the artist replies, equally thunderous. Michelangelo quits, is fired, gives up, but always returns to the task.

The film really gains steam in the third act, where first Michelangelo and then Julius are struck down by ill health -- exhaustion for the painter, war wounds for the pope. Each man is forcefully made aware of his mortality, and finds himself reaching out to the other for understanding. The dynamic of begrudged servant and domineering master slowly evolves into a pairing of mutual respect.

Director Carol Reed helmed a lot of "prestige" projects like this; he's probably best known for "The Third Man" and his Oscar-winning direction of "Oliver!". Screenwriter Philip Dunne ("How Green Was My Valley") turns in a fairly conventional but well-done piece in the "Great Man" tradition of moviemaking.

Diane Cilento has a fairly forgettable role as a matron of the Medici family, the powerful clan that controlled his hometown of Florence and first sponsored his artistry. The idea, a predictable one, is that the pair loved each other in their youth, but he chose sculpting as his expression of ardor, and she married another. Indeed, Michelangelo gives a speech in which it's made clear he essentially lives a monastic existence without sex.

Honestly, it's just an example of a very Y-chromosome movie in which the studio decided to inject a little feminine flavor.

Quibbles aside, though, I enjoyed "The Agony and the Ecstasy" a lot more than I thought it would. It's an exploration of how men accomplish great things, usually by sacrificing some large part of their personal happiness to rededicate to a noble endeavor.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Video review: "Midnight Special"

“Midnight Special” is a little science fiction indie that you probably haven’t heard of. It got talked up a lot among film geeks, turned heads on the festival circuit, but then was dumped into theaters without fanfare – or even bothering to screen it for critics.

It quickly disappeared, earning about $6 million against an $18 million budget.

Hopefully it’ll find the audience it deserves on video. While the movie has some flaws, it’s an engaging and offbeat supernatural mystery/thriller featuring some fine actors. The pacing is a little off -- the filmmakers hold onto their secrets too tightly and for too long, then overwhelm us with sudden revelations. But it’s got a verve of originality so often missing from this genre.

Michael Shannon plays Roy, a determined man on the run with is son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who is 8 years old and… peculiar. He wears dark glasses all the time, never goes out in the sunlight and is regarded by others with a mix of fear and awe. Tagging along is Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a former cop who acts as their knight-errant protector.

I won’t get into all the convolutions of the plot, but suffice to say they are both running away from something and running toward something. Men from The Ranch, an end-times cult that Roy and Alton used to belong to, are in pursuit along with the law.

Kirsten Dunst turns up later as Alton’s mother, who’s been in hiding. Adam Driver plays a sympathetic scientist trying to puzzle out Alton’s mystery. Sam Shephard plays the eerily charismatic Ranch leader.

Strange portents are all around, and there’s a giddy feeling like the movie could slip off in any number of directions.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” “Take Shelter”) is an original voice who deserves to be heard. Though “Take Shelter” doesn’t quite have the emotional punch of his earlier movies, here is a filmmaker who thinks outside the lines.

Bonus features are… interesting. Instead of the usual making-of documentary or commentary track, both the DVD and Blu-ray versions have five “Origins” featurettes on each of the five main characters. There’s also another featurette, “The Unseen World,” on the film’s metaphysical musings.



Thursday, June 16, 2016

Review: "Finding Dory"

Of course it doesn’t hold a candle to “Finding Nemo,” but that’s a pretty darn bright flame to be held up against. We’re talking “best animated film ever” territory here.

“Finding Dory” isn’t that, but it is an agreeable and welcome follow-up to the 2003 hit from Disney/Pixar. Even more than the first “Toy Story” flicks, “Nemo” showed us the boundless possibilities of computer-based animation, in terms of technical accomplishment but especially emotional engagement.

Ellen DeGeneres brought incredible empathy to her voice performance as Dory, a forgetful blue tang who befriends worrywart clownfish Marlin while searching for his fishnapped son, Nemo. A story about reaching out beyond our limits while learning to let go of fears -- and children’s apron strings -- “Nemo” took us on an emotional journey as real as the cross-ocean trek of our gilled companions.

Now it’s Dory’s turn to go on a trip of discovery. Struggling with short-term memory loss her entire life, so she forgets new experiences minute by minute, she suddenly has dim flashbacks of her parents, and sets out to find them -- with her orange-and-white pals in tow, it goes without saying.

Albert Brooks is, of course, back as the voice of nebbishy Marlin, who’s grown a lot in the year since the last story took place, though he’s still overly protective of Nemo. (Hayden Rolence takes over the role of the tyke since original actor Alexander Gould is a twentysomething now.)

This movie, again written and directed by Andrew Stanton, focuses less on the trip than the destination: the (fictional) Marine Life Institute on the California coast. A sort of sea-life utopia with a dark undertow, it’s a place where injured fish are snatched up from the ocean, rehabilitated and returned to the sea -- unless they’re needed for an aquarium in Cleveland, that is.

The human workers are rather blasé about how they treat the critters, and some of the fishies have acquired off-kilter personalities during their confinement, such as a lonely giant oyster who’ll talk your ears (if you have them) off. Sigourney Weaver provides the soothing voice of the tourist park’s narrator, lulling us into a false sense of benevolence.

Among the new characters is Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a nearsighted whale shark; Bailey (Ty Burrell), a beluga whale convinced his echolocation ability is on the fritz; and Fluke and Rudder (Idris Elba, Dominic West), a pair of lackadaisical sea lions, former residents of the marine institute who now serve as a sort of territorial Greek chorus.

Undoubtedly the film’s finest creation is Hank, a cantankerous octopus voiced by Ed O’Neill. A longtime captive of the marine center, Hank agrees to help Dory find her parents in return for a one-way ticket to a quiet life in a glass box. He can change his color and contort his slippery body to camouflage himself against virtually any object -- not to mention manipulate human tools with hilarious aplomb.

The movie’s a little too overly reliant on slapsticky action to carry the plot forward. I lost count of the number of times Dory & Co. jumped or were dunked from one body of water to another, from a sippy cup to child’s sand pail to a janitor’s mop bucket, without ill effects. You just have to roll with it.

(A former aquarium hobbyist, my brain kept screaming: “But those sudden changes in temperature, pH level and salinity would be deadly!”)

Despite the fact it’s nowhere near as accomplished as its predecessor, I wasn’t disappointed by “Finding Dory.” The second trip is rarely as exciting as the original excursion, but you can ride the current of warm feelings from the last time.

It felt nice to be back in good company, going on another adventure with the gang. Speaking of which: make sure to stay all the way through the credits.

Review: "Central Intelligence"

I like both Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson. They have winning personalities, beaming smiles and great screen presence. I’m not sure if either one of them is nearly as funny as he thinks he is, though.

It’s the same way with “Central Intelligence,” their new buddy cop comedy. It’s an agreeable picture with some outrageous jokes, wacky setups and a few harder-edged action scenes to spice things up. A laugh riot it is not.

Most of the attempted humor comes from Hart playing his type and Johnson playing against type. Hart, by virtue of his diminutive height and comedic personality, is always the nervous nelly trying to front that he is cooler/tougher than he really is. Johnson, playing a lot of hyper-masculine action roles lately, is a dweeb who loves unicorns, fanny packs and cinnamon pancakes.

This really is part of his cover as CIA agent Bob Stone. Formerly the fat kid in high school who was the subject of a cruel prank -- Johnson’s body is digitally morphed onto another actor’s body for the flashback -- he’s grown up into a tower of muscles who can take out a handful of bad guys without even blinking.

There’s no cockiness to him, though, and in fact Bob is in awe of Calvin “The Golden Jet” Joyner (Hart), the BMOC in high school who everyone looked up to. Flash forward 20 years and his promising life has turned into disappointment, a nowhere job in forensic accounting, a fantastic wife (Danielle Nicolet) but no kids. He’s just… stuck.

Bob shows up out of the blue and invites Calvin for drinks, which turns into a bar fight, which turns into a sleepover, which turns into CIA agents showing up on his doorstep claiming Bob is a rogue agent trying to sell vital intelligence to the highest bidder. From there the movie is a series of chases as Calvin tries to decide if Bob is on the level or not, in between fistfights and shootouts.

Amy Ryan plays the grim head spook who leads the hunt, and Jason Bateman turns up in an uncredited role as one of Bob’s former teenage tormentors who seems to have experienced a change of heart.

Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber from a screenplay he co-wrote with Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen, “Central Intelligence” is all broad humor and telegraphed punchlines. For instance, when Bob encourages Calvin to replicate the backward flip he was famous for back in the day, we just know it’s going to come in handy during a pivotal fight scene.

They do manage to sneak in a few clever throwaway jokes, such as Bob calling Calvin a “snack-size Denzel” for his performance in fooling some bad guys. I also liked the quip where Calvin, after first witnessing Bob in action, refers to his non-badass attire, dubbing him “Jason Bourne in jorts.”

I can’t quite recommend this movie, but I didn’t hate it. It just needed to be funnier and not take aim at the most obvious jokes possible. Sass and charisma will only take you so far.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Review: "Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance"

Falling firmly into the "fairy tales do come true" category of documentary filmmaking, "Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance" shares the story of a bunch of working-class folks in Cefn Fforest, a small former mining town in South Wales, who decided to pool their meager resources to breed a thoroughbred race horse and chase glory.

Director Louise Osmond combines gorgeous photography, revealing interviews and archival footage (with some reenactments) to chronicle their amazing tale. It's an uplifting story, told with skill and empathy.

Jan Volkes stands astride the middle of the story, a humble barmaid and store cleaner who overheard some chaps in the men's club chatting about horse racing. One of them, a tax advisor named Howard Davies, had lost 5,000 pounds a few years earlier dabbling in the exclusive hobby of the rich and titled.

Never again, he vowed. (But we'll see...)

Undeterred, Jan went home and told her husband Brian "Daisy" Volkes that she was going to breed a racehorse of her own. Tattooed, big and gruff, with a chasm of missing teeth, Daisy told her she was crazy. But he wasn't crazy enough to stand in her way.

Eventually 23 people agreed to pay 10 pounds a week to buy a cut-rate mare -- a cantankerous middle-aged beast more known for running into rails and throwing riders than winning races. Then they bred her to a middling stallion (after Daisy haggled down the stud fee) and produced a horse they named Dream Alliance, which described their endeavor to a T.

He was raised on tight piece of land in between the row houses, with a slapped-together stable and odd bits of old fence and wood as a pen. The people of the village would save their food scraps and pitch them over the wall for Dream to feast upon.

Nobody thought he'd have much of a career, including the syndicate of owners, envisioning a few runs on local tracks. Neither did Philip Hobbes, the noted trainer they engaged to get him into racing form. Dream was a "quirky Welsh boy," as Jan puts it, focused when he wants to be and frittering the daylight when he's not.

Though not particularly fast, the young stallion was a "street fighter," to use Hobbes' term, and he surprised everyone by coming in fourth in his first race. This was followed by showings at 2nd and 3rd, then a 1st place, and soon the Dream was winning all the time.

Osmond makes sure to focus on the people foremost, and the sport second, chronicling how these rough common folk are treated with disdain when they insert themselves into the top-hat-and-kerchiefs crowd. Tony Kerby, a gruff sort with a wandering eye, even snuck in sandwiches and beer to their first outing because he didn't want to overpay for his lager and lunch.

Finally Dream won the prestigious Welsh Grand National and became an international story, but then follows trial and tribulation when the horse suffers a devastating injury. Most racers would've been put down, but the syndicate from the wee town pooled its winnings to try a then-experimental procedure using stem cells.

It's a commentary, delivered with subtlety rather than seething outrage, about a racing industry that often treats these noble animals as disposable fodder for their whims. The syndicate members were unanimous: He won all this money, so it belongs to him. Do the surgery.

In the end Dream Alliance raced and won again, though all the medical care cut the villagers' earnings down to nearly nothing. It's clear these people, who sometimes literally struggle to put food on the table, couldn't care less. They were taking care of a member of their family.

"All through my life, I've never been me," Jan says near the end, talking about how the Welsh lower classes in these forgotten mining towns are expected to work hard and silently play the roles assigned to them: daughter, sister, wife, worker. Here was a chance for her and some of her mates to strive for something else.

Review: "Weiner"

“I hope that it’s more than a punchline kind of thing.”

This is Anthony Weiner at the end of the documentary that bears his name, speaking his hopes and predictions about the film we are watching. The former Democratic congressman and New York City mayoral candidate believes making it was still a worthwhile endeavor, and says he doesn’t regret granting directors Elsye Steinberg and Josh Kriegman almost constant access to his every move for months in 2013.

Still, he knows the film will gain attention for the same thing he did: sexting.

“Disgraced” is a word that is so synonymous with Weiner that it’s practically become a (dis)honorific title that perpetually precedes his name, like Colonel or Judge. In 2011 Weiner, who’d deservedly gained a reputation as a sharp-elbowed partisan, resigned from Congress after it was revealed he’d exchanged racy texts with women other than his wife, Huma Abedin, including a photo of his crotch bulging inside his underwear.

Humbled, he kept his head down for a couple of years, regained Huma’s trust, had an adorable son, and then launched a campaign for his long-desired post of New York mayor, with the shooting of this documentary to coincide. (Kriegman, it should be noted, previously worked for Weiner as his chief of staff.)

Then a month before the election, more sexts came out indicating he’d carried on his cyber dalliances even after the first scandal, including with a woman named Sydney Leathers, who leaked nude images of Weiner’s… um, man parts. Never had a person’s sophomorically funny surname turned so tragic.

Instantly the target of nationwide ridicule, Weiner nonetheless pressed on with his campaign, riding a rolling wave of disaster to a humiliating 5% showing in the Democratic primary for mayor (which, in NYC, is the whole enchilada). After leading in the polls, he became a national joke.

“Weiner” provides an amazing view of these events from the inside out. It’s an engrossing and invaluable artifact of how politics, the media and digital information combine and collide in an age unbound by limits on our curiosity.

Weiner comes across as a deeply flawed man who nonetheless has prodigious gifts. He’s a natural politician and extrovert who lights up around other people. In lonelier settings, he stoops and seems to fold in on himself, constantly checking his smartphone, even while talking to people standing nearby. Clearly, he cannot unplug.

Huma, a well-known figure herself as a close advisor and friend to Hillary Clinton, is a strong and sympathetic figure. Used to being a background player, she’s uncomfortable with the spotlight. She clearly loves this man, but the hurt in her eyes with each new revelation, which reveals the extent of the lies he told, is palpable.

We share the room with the pair when the images of his pixelated parts are first broadcast on TV, and we have no doubt Huma is seeing them for the first time.

It’s important to note that even as we gain a full measure of Weiner’s long rap sheet of moral and marital failings, here is a man who never actually touched or even met the women with whom he exchanged prurient texts and photos. He’s never groped anyone or been accused of sexual harassment. He did something juvenile and gross that millions of people have done and then lied about it.

Compared to Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, Weiner’s treatment of women practically qualifies him for sainthood.

“Weiner” contains many seminal moments we shan’t soon forget. Probably the most memorable is him literally running through a McDonald’s to avoid Leathers, who had staked herself out in front of his campaign headquarters, so he can give his concession speech. (For some odd reason, his staffers gave her the code name “Pineapple.”)

But I think it’s the quieter moments that will have the most lasting power. In a contemporaneous interview, Weiner muses on how the superficial, transactional nature of the political relationships he’d fostered for so long easily translates to the anonymous give-and-take of text messages and photos. For all his obvious self-confidence, Weiner is a man who requires almost constant validation.

In one seemingly innocuous scene, he rides a bicycle through the midtown rush on the way to announce his candidacy for mayor. A woman pedestrian engages him in a stoplight conversation, wondering about the cameras following him.

“Are you somebody I’m supposed to know?” she asks.

“He’s Anthony Weiner,” a passing man gruffly states. Weiner pedals furiously away, as if he could flee from himself.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Video review: "10 Cloverfield Lane"

“10 Cloverfield Lane” was a mystery wrapped in an enigma slathered with clever marketing. A low-budget sci-fi/thriller that began as an original story about people trapped in an underground bunker, it morphed into a sorta-sequel to “Cloverfield,” a successful 2008 monsters-from-space flick produced by J.J. Abrams.

If you’re looking for continuity between the two cinematic universes, keep looking. But as a standalone piece of filmmaking, it’s decently engrossing.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, a woman going through personal turmoil right as the Earth seems to be experiencing some cataclysmic troubles she hears about on her car radio. Then a truck runs her off the road, she’s knocked out and wakes up in a creepy cellar.

The proprietor is Howard (John Goodman), a twitchy conspiracy theory sort who built the elaborate bunker in fear of Russian/Chinese attacks. As far as he’s concerned, that’s what has happened, and the poisonous air (he says) will be unbreathable for at least a year or two. So the three of them – John Gallagher Jr. plays Howard’s dimwitted wingman – have to just settle in for the long haul.

Things grow more tense as the days pass, with Howard attempting to assert patriarchal control over their little ersatz family. Michelle’s skepticism about Howard’s story festers, leading to escape attempts and confrontations.

It’s a fun movie to watch, even as you can hear the gears of the storytelling process grinding away. “10 Cloverfield Lane” contains few surprises, but it does what it does well enough.

Bonus features are a little skimpy; the DVD contains exactly none. The Blu-ray version has a feature-length commentary track by director Dan Trachtenberg and Abrams plus 30 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage from the production.