Monday, August 29, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines; Or, How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 hours 11 minutes" (1965)

"Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" is a lark, a piffle, a reminder that big-budget movie-making for pure entertainment existed long before the blockbuster era. It is probably as well remembered today for its period-authentic aircraft as it is for the charmingly goofy theme song, which was released as a hit single.

"Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines.
They Go Up, Tiddly, Up, Up.
They Go Down, Tiddly, Down, Down."

Featuring a bunch of no-names with a few midlevel stars as bait -- Benny Hill and Red Skelton make cameos -- the film is set in 1910 and is about a fictional air race from London to Paris sponsored by a newspaper magnate who's keen on aviation. The idea was to show people that this crazy notion of humans flying through the air was something that could be safe and reliable as transportation.

Of course, more planes crash than make it to the finish line. Though, in the miraculous way of film comedies, nobody is ever seriously hurt.

I've always been fascinated by this era of flying. Just a few years after these contraptions were cobbled together, often by amateur enthusiasts working in barns and garages, they would be deployed as serious machines of war. Soon after World War I ended, commercial flying took off, and suddenly the world became a much smaller place.

Director Ken Annakin, who co-wrote the script with Jack Davies, was a flying nut himself and committed to making the planes and stunts as real -- or at least real-looking -- as possible. They built a lot of aircraft using vintage blueprints, or mocked up their own. The result is the movie acts as something of a time capsule, showing us what nascent aviation looked like.

Annakin was a busy filmmaker who specialized in popular fare, including a bunch of stuff for Disney, but also tackled big-budget war dramas like "The Longest Day" and "Battle of the Bulge." He actively made feature films from the 1940s through the 1990s, and even had a Genghis Khan biopic come out a year after his death in 2009.

(Annakin is an old Anglo-Saxon surname, so I doubt George Lucas named his "Star Wars" central character after the filmmaker, which was my first thought.)

Competitors arrive from all over the globe with all sorts of zany machines to fly. The Japanese pilot (Yujiro Ishihara) is considered the favorite, based on his highly advanced yellow biplane.

But he's felled -- along with several others -- by the machinations of Sir Percy Ware-Armitage (Terry-Thomas), a snobby and extravagantly mustachioed nobleman who sees sabotaging the aircraft of his competition as key to his winning strategy.  He even pays some seamen to ferry his wobbly plane across the English Channel aboard their ship, then pretend he flew the whole way. Not unlike some modern marathon runners pulling similar tricks.

James Fox plays Richard Mays, a stiff British officer who also is wooing the daughter of Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley), the man whose newspaper is sponsoring the race. Sarah Miles is Patricia, the daring young proto-feminist, who rides a motorcycle on the sly and yearns to go up in a plane, though daddy forbids it.

For some reason, the makeup artists on the production slather Miles' face with gobs of blush and eye shadow, to the point she resembles Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter in her closeups. It's almost like there was a concerted effort to make her less attractive.

Stuart Witman plays Orvil Newton, the American cowpoke who brings his outdated flyer across the sea to compete for the huge cash prize. Wearing a 10-gallon hat and jeans that would be considered too tight even by Tony Manero from "Saturday Night Fever," he forms the main competition to Mays -- both for the trophy and Patricia's affections.

Alberto Sordi plays Ponticelli, the Italian count who doesn't need the money but does need a plane, as his tend to make too much tender acquaintance with the ground. Jean-Pierre Cassel plays the French hope, Pierre Dubois, who keeps getting sidetracked by a series of identical women wherever he lands, all played by Irina Demick, at whom he pitches woo.

Gert Fröbe is a hoot as the German competitor, Colonel Manfred von Holstein, who knows literally nothing about flying but is convinced that "a German officer can do anything." After training up a younger and much slimmer man as pilot, he jumps in the cockpit himself when the fellow turns ill. (Courtesy of Sir Percy.) He's a by-the-book man, so he follows the instructions to a T, including the first one, "Sit down."

Probably the most famous scene in the movie is von Holstein hanging upside-down from his plane as it flies a few feet above the sea, his feet flailing wildly as he tries to "run" along the surface of the ocean. Achieved with wires and camera trickery, it's something straight out of Bugs Bunny.

I wondered about the geopolitical implications of "Magnificent Men," even though this is not the sort of film to invite such contemplation. There seems to me something problematic with poking fun at the martial rigidity of the Germans, given that in a few years after the film's timeline they would launch a deadly war, followed by another.

This film came out around the same time "Hogan's Heroes" debuted on American television, so maybe everyone felt 20 years after WWII was enough to treat the Germans as the butt of the joke again.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Video review: "The Jungle Book"

Here’s to show that not every recent remake has been a total waste of time. I actually prefer the new live-action version of “The Jungle Book,” with a heavy assist from CGI animals, to the original animated film from 1967. This one amps up the action, tamps down the musical numbers to an acceptable level, and delivers a fun and rousing family-friendly action adventure.

Neel Sethi is Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves in the jungle, especially adoptive mother Raksha (voice of Lupita Nyong’o) and Bagheera, a helpful black panther voiced by Ben Kingsley. But Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a hateful Bengal tiger, reviles all humans and wants Mowgli between his jaws. After tragedy, the boy is on the lam.

He meets up with Baloo, a lazy bear (Bill Murray) who wants to use Mowgli for his own purposes – mostly involving procuring honey – but starts to develop a tender spot for the kid. They face off with King Louie (Christopher Walken), a giant orangutan with his own monkey army who demands Mowgli give him the human secret of the “Red Flower” – the ability to create fire.

It’s interesting how this is a twist on the usual dynamic in human/animal stories. Here most of the animals, even benevolent ones like Baloo, are looking to exploit Mowgli for his physical attributes, instead of the other way around.

The digitally animated creatures are completely believable – their eyes, fur, movements and anthropomorphic emotions all seem quite authentic. When Shere Khan is bearing down, we can practically feel his breath on our necks.

The action scenes can be pretty intense, so the smallest children may need a little reassurance (or a pass until they’re older).

With its fancy computerized critters and throwback charm, “The Jungle Book” is a pleasing mix of old and new.

Bonus features are good, though you’ll have to upgrade to the Blu-ray combo pack to get most of them. The DVD comes only with a featurette on creating King Louie layer by digital layer. With the Blu-ray you add a making-of documentary with director Jon Favreau and his visual effects team, a feature on the casting call for Mowgli and an audio commentary track with Favreau.



Thursday, August 25, 2016

Review: "Equity"

Stories of Wall Street corruption are all the rage these days, from the sharp and smart ("The Big Short") to the pedantic and predictable ("Money Monster"). But what's undeniable is that these movies have been heavily -- almost entirely -- male-dominated.

It makes sense, since if you take a look around the financial industry you see a whole lot of testosterone. But there are women in high finance, and "Equity" aims to show that they can be just as conniving and unscrupulous as the guys. But it also displays some of the special challenges and biases females face in a very male-centric world.

It's notable if only for the fact that the writer, director, producers and main stars are all women. Anna Gunn plays Naomi Bishop, a hard-charging underwriter of initial public offerings (IPOs). There's a great early scene where she speaks to college women at an alumni function with some other high achievers, and she talks about how great it is that they can openly express their ambition.

"I like money," Naomi says, talking about the security and status of making a lot of dough, and echoing Gordon Gekko's "Greed is good" speech for a generation ago.

But Naomi wants to move up. A top spot in her company has opened up, but the boss (Lee Tergesen) dismissively tells her "this isn't your year." Though she's made a lot of money -- 20 major IPOs in the last five years -- one slipped through her fingers and she's getting the blame.

Tellingly, she's often accused of rubbing people the wrong way, a charge we doubt would happen if Naomi had a Y chromosome. Now she's got another huge stock debut coming up for Cachet, a social network with an emphasis on privacy, and it could make or break her reputation.

Naomi dallies with Michael (James Purefoy), who works for the same company on the stock trading side -- meaning federal rules are supposed to draw an impenetrable wall between their activities. But Michael's a devoted player of "the game," as everyone calls it, and is not above looking for a little inside information between the bedsheets.

Sarah Megan Thomas plays Erin, Naomi's right-hand woman. She's basically Naomi, 12 to 15 years earlier, trying fruitlessly at balancing a family life with a job that requires 24/7 eyes on the prize. Erin has recently learned she's pregnant, and throughout the movie she squeezes herself tighter and tighter into her business suits, knowing that the "mommy track" isn't the one that will take her to the top of the mountain.

Alyesia Reiner plays Samantha, a classmate of Naomi's who is now a prosecutor overseeing Wall Street corruption. Like Michael, Sam uses her personal relationship with Naomi to get what she wants out of her. It's an interesting character, someone who wants to root out malfeasance but isn't above employing some shady tactics to get what she wants.

"Equity," directed by Meera Menon from a script by Amy Fox (Reiner and Thomas contributed to the story), does a great job at capturing the alluring, and repulsive, world of high finance. There are the back-breaking hours in the office, followed by the de rigeur dinners, drinks and schmoozing late into the night. It's an existence that is centered entirely around money. Even the faintest whisper of doubt about a company can send their stock tumbling ... so it follows that some people will start rumors for their own benefit.

Gunn is steadfast and strong as Naomi, who's the straightest player in a rigged game where everyone is at least a little bit crooked. But she's far from perfect. One scene suggests she slept around early on to advance her career. There's also a very tense scene where Naomi, who's very strict about her diet and exercise, screams at a subordinate for bringing her a chocolate chip cookie with only three chips in it.

We've scene male characters go on these unhinged power trips before, so it's in some ways empowering -- in a disturbing way -- to see a powerful female character go down the same path.

Review: "Hands of Stone"

“Hands of Stone” gets by on the power of its performances and the lifelike depiction of Roberto Duran’s fighting style in the boxing ring. Like a lot of biopics, it stumbles when trying to shoehorn a long, complicated life into a 105-minute story.

For instance, the movie covers Duran’s early career from brawler in the streets of Panama to his 1983 comeback fight against a young Davey Moore, after the humiliation of his infamous “No Mas” rematch with the great Sugar Ray Leonard, in which he relinquished the title by refusing to fight anymore.

In fact, Duran had already lost a couple other “comeback” fights before that one, and would continue to fight for nearly three decades after – including a third bout with Leonard in 1989 (which he also lost).

Still, I can understand why writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz, a Venezuelan making his English-language feature film debut, chose to cut the string of this story thread where he did. Boxing movies tend to follow a familiar rise/fall/rise again three-act story structure, and you know what they say about that which ain’t broke. It makes the movie predictable, but also more digestible.

Edgar Ramírez, almost 40, shines playing Duran from about 19 to age 32. He’s much prettier than the real Duran, but that’s Hollywood for you. Ramírez gives him a sort of feral charm, a street urchin who fought bare knuckles for cash turning into the hungry young boxer who stalked his opponents like a beast of prey in the ring.

When he spots a pretty young schoolgirl, Felicidad (Ana de Armas), he corners her and proposes marriage on the spot. Here was a man who knew real craving in life, so when he saw the things he wanted, he pounced.

Robert De Niro is in his usual fine form as Ray Arcel, a legendary trainer who was pushed out of the game 18 years earlier when he defied Frankie Carbo (John Turturro), a New York mobster who controlled the fights. Nearly killed, he promised never to make another dollar in the ring. So he agreed to train Duran for free.

Usher Raymond (using his full name here) shines as Leonard, who is depicted as a lightning-fast fighter with loads of charm and wit. Goaded by Duran to “fight like a man” in their first bout, he smiled after losing because he knew he had been outsmarted. By the time their rematch came a few months later, Leonard was a honed blade while Duran had let himself get badly out of shape.

There’s an interesting tension here between Duran, Arcel and Carlos Eleta (Ruben Blades), the wealthy Panamanian businessman who bankrolled Duran. Arcel, who seems himself as much as a father to his fighters as a trainer, sees nothing wrong with letting Duran take some time off, eat whatever he wants, and enjoy what he’s earned. But Eleta, sensing a big payday, sees money as more important than winning.

De Niro’s character imparts a lot of wisdom, both in the ring and in the narration. He differentiates between tactics, which are a fighter’s moment-by-moment decisions in the ring, with strategy, which is the long-term plan of how to outmaneuver your opponent. Arcel also employs little idiosyncratic moves, like combing Duran’s hair before each round, so he seems fresh and invincible.

Jakubowicz goes for a moderate blend of styles for the fight scenes, eschewing the ridiculousness of the “Rocky” movies – where guys absorb haymaker after haymaker without going down – and the lyrical slo-mo blood sport of “Raging Bull” and its ilk. The boxing is straightforward and deliberate, with enough “flash bulb” moments for the audience to grasp the impact of the blows.

In boxing parlance, “Hands of Stone” has punching power but a poor sense of timing. The story dances here and there, skipping over most of the 1970s and then rushing the final act. It’s a worthy picture, but destined to remain a contender.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Review: "Our Little Sister"

 Maybe I’m getting older and wiser after all. (The first is a demonstrable certainty; the latter is highly debatable.) I’m finding myself enjoying types of movies that I used to eschew. Perhaps my tastes are growing broader, or the films are just getting better.

I prefer movies that have a strong narrative arc. “Tell me a story,” is the silent plea I always make as I settle into my theater seat. So movies that are more about character and dialogue, a sense of place and mood, tend to lose my attention if there’s not a good yarn to go with it.

There’s not much of a story to “Our Little Sister,” a beautiful Japanese movie about a foursome of young sisters living together in an old ramshackle house in a seaside village. Three are professionals in their 20s, enjoying their singlehood and sisterly bond. Then their 14-year-old half-sister comes to live with them, and the rest of the movie is about how this addition shifts the dynamic of relationships in the household.

That’s it; that’s all there is to it.

Raised on American movies, I kept expecting the little sister to reveal some terrible dark secret, or turn out to be a burgeoning serial killer, or something.


Suzu (Suzu Hirose) is just a tender, open-hearted young girl, glad to be out of her trying old circumstances but still wary about fitting in with the new. Her father has just died after a long illness, during which the burden of caring for him fell to her. Her stepmother had little relationship with her, so she gladly accepts her older sisters’ spontaneous invitation after the funeral to come live with them.

There is some potential for conflict. Suzu’s mother, who died herself long ago, was her father’s mistress during the time he was married to the older sisters’ mother. At the time the affair was revealed, their mother abandoned them in emotional distress, and they have not seen or spoken to her since. So their little sister is the outcome of their own family’s fracturing.

Suzu is terrified at the prospect of being resented, but the sisters offer her nothing but warmth. Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) is the wild child of the bunch, who loves to drink and trade in boyfriends for new ones, in between her day job at a bank. She often fights with her oldest sister, Sachi (Haruka Ayase), a nurse who has assumed the role of household matriarch, kindly but often more stern than she needs to be. Chika (Kaho) is the oddball with eclectic tastes in men, food and other things, but is probably the most centered.

Later the elder girls’ mother (Midoriko Kimura ) shows up, and needless to say she’s not thrilled about seeing the offspring of the woman who betrayed her living in her former home. She proposes selling the old house, but the girls grew up there and have no intention of leaving.

Again, I presumed this storyline would head into a nasty legal battle or something equally dramatic. But the tension finds another, more pleasing resolution.

Much of the movie is simply the four young women, coexisting in the house – sharing meals, occasionally bickering, teasing each other about their boyfriends or lack thereof, making the family’s traditional plum wine from the old tree in the garden. There’s an idyllic, contemplative nature to these scenes, supplemented by the gorgeous cinematography. I never felt like there was a need for “something to happen.”

These four characters are the something, as we watch them grow and change simply by the nature of coming closer. Writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda, who adapted the manga comic by Akimi Yoshida, has left me not just entertained, but enlightened.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Video review: "Maggie's Plan"

A smart and sharp comedy with a streak of insightful social commentary, “Maggie’s Plan” is the latest starring Greta Gerwig, the current queen of indies. Writer/director Rebecca Miller fashions a story that’s funny, sad -- even enraging at times – about the conflicting choices young women face these days.

Maggie is an accomplished woman who has a great job, great friends (Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph) and an overall wonderful life. The one thing she’s lousy at his relationships. But she hears the tick-tick-tick of that biological clock, and determines to have a baby on her own. She arranges a donor and seems headed for a life of bliss as a mother.

But then she falls for John (Ethan Hawke), a brilliant but troublesome academic who wants out of his miserable marriage to Georgette (Julianne Moore), a domineering type. Flash forward a couple of years, and Maggie now has a wondrous little girl, takes care of John’s kids… and John, too. He’s writing a novel that will never be finished, and Maggie finds herself burdened with an extended family she didn’t really plan on.

So she hatches a scheme to get John and Georgette back together. He’s like a car she bought that, showing a bunch of knocks and pings once it got down the road a bit, she’s looking to trade into the dealership.

“Maggie’s Plan” is very funny, with wonderful performances by the three main actors. Mina Sundwall also is terrific as John’s teenage daughter, who knows a lot more about what’s going on than the adults do.

But the film goes the extra mile to explore these people and their confounded relationships, and question whether having a spouse is really necessary to a rewarding life as a parent.

Bonus features are decent. Miller provides a feature-length audio commentary track; there are funny outtakes; a Q&A at the Sundance Film Festival; and a making-of documentary short.



Thursday, August 18, 2016

Review: "War Dogs"

 “War is the economy,” or so says Efraim Diveroli, a twentysomething hustler who inexplicably landed a contract from the Pentagon worth hundreds of millions of dollars to supply arms to the Afghan army.

Played by Jonah Hill in “War Dogs,” a slightly fictionalized version of real events, Efraim is a rudderless shark who will troll anywhere if it means a big payoff. He recruited his childhood friend, David Packouz (Miles Teller), into the company, AEY Inc., and together they became hipster wunderkinds of the international arms trade, which was doing banner business in the Aughts at the height of American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These are the sort of guys that if Hollywood dreamed them up on their own, we’d be calling B.S. But it really happened. The bro buddies were eventually busted for repacking decades-old AK-47 ammunition from China (thus breaking an embargo) via a connection in Albania.

David, who turned evidence and got a few months house arrest, narrates the story and acts as the decent guy tempted by the indecent guy. Efraim served a few years in prison, but continued selling ammunition to the government through another company. David was a massage therapist before, and became one again. (The real David appears briefly in the movie as a bad singer).

Director Todd Phillips is known for crude comedies, notably the “Hangover” trilogy, and at first we think “War Dogs” is going to go down that route, having a good time with the guys as they drink, do drugs, party with girls and exploit the loopholes of a corrupt war machine. There’s a certain panache in the early going, as these know-nothing dolts drive 5,000 embargoed Berettas through Iraq’s “Triangle of Death,” barely escaping with their necks, then snigger about it like schoolboys.

“Yeah, we drive through all triangles … including your mother’s,” Efraim cracks.

The screenplay by Phillips, Jason Smilovic and Stephen Chin was based on a Rolling Stone article, later turned into a book, called “Arms and the Dudes.” That was the film’s original title, too, and I wish they’d stuck with it. “War Dogs” is generic and easily forgotten; you know a movie has a bad title when they have a character break away from the story to explain it to you.

The film’s fairly entertaining, until it tries to go too “Goodfellas” and become an all-encompassing indictment of our adventures in the Middle East. You gotta love it when scumbags break the law and do bad things for piles of cash, then blame it on “the system.” The movie throws a few anti-war nods -- both David and his girlfriend (Ana de Armas), are opposed to the war in Iraq -- along with some predictable shots at Dick Cheney and George W. Bush.

The last third of the movie becomes increasingly labored, as the circle slowly tightens and the buddies start to eye each other warily, waiting to see who will stab the other in the back first.

Bradley Cooper turns up briefly as Henry, a legendary arms dealer who represents what David and Efraim could be in another 15 or 20 years. I also enjoyed Kevin Pollak as a Jewish Miami dry cleaner operator who acts as their moneyman and, later, father confessor.

I liked a lot of things about “War Dogs” but not quite enough to recommend it. Miles Teller is hard to take your eyes off of, as usual; he’s got a natural rakish charm and is good at projecting his emotions in between the dialogue.

Jonah Hill’s got a dead-eye stare that he whips out to show the moral vacuum of his characters, but he needs to expand on that. And someone needs to tell him he’s funnier than Joe Pesci, but he’ll never be as scary.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Review: "Kubo and the Two Strings"

I think I was about halfway through the screening of “Kubo and the Two Strings” before I even realized it was stop-motion animation. The movement is so smooth, the backgrounds so dense and the action so unbound, I figured there was no way this could be the work of puppets slowly moved a frame at a time.

But Laika, the stop-motion studio behind “The Boxtrolls,” “ParaNorman” and “Coraline,” has made another gem with this lyrical story set in medieval Japan.

It’s about a boy, Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson), who has grown up as a virtual orphan near a tiny beach village. He lives in a cave with his mother, who exists in a seemingly never-ending daze, needing help even to eat. But in her more lucid moments she spins tales about the dark history of their family, including the death of his father, Honsou, a mighty warrior, and how as a baby Kubo had one of his eyes stolen by his own grandfather.

(Though the material is carefully presented not to be too frightening, the themes and action scenes may be too intense for smaller children. I would take my 5-year-old to see this, but probably not the 3-year-old.)

Kubo has inherited the magical gift of his mother, which he employs to tell variations on his mother’s stories in the village for money. Using a traditional three-string Japanese banjo, plinked with a triangular pick, and colored paper that comes alive at his beckon to turn into shape-shifting origami to illustrate his tales, it’s an astonishing blend of dazzling visuals and jaunty music. (Dario Marianelli provides the latter.)

Tragedy befalls when Kubo ignores his mother’s warning to never remain outside after sunset, when his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), can see him. The boy finds himself exiled to the barren Farlands. His only companion is Monkey (Charlize Theron), a wooden charm he always carried that came alive via his mother’s spells. Monkey is very protective of the boy, and sternly urges him on his quest to retrieve the three pieces of magical armor necessary to defeat the enemy.

Along the way they encounter the Sisters, very creepy masked twins who are a disturbing amalgam of Japanese and European conceptions of witches, both voiced by Rooney Mara. They also run into this odd creature who looks like a man trapped inside a bug’s chitinous shell; he has no memory, other than insisting he was once a samurai who was cursed. Dubbing the forgetful fellow Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), he joins their little band.

The animation is just wondrous to behold. Several ocean scenes have a mesmerizing quality, especially once you realize there’s no water used. One encounter with a giant skeleton is particularly memorable, both for its fearfulness and intricacy.

“Kubo and the Two Strings” is not your typical animated flick. Though it’s suitable for (nearly) the whole family, it’s got an edge and a timelessness that goes far beyond the familiar cute-critters-and-life-lessons formula. It feels like an ageless Eastern parable, dreamed up by 21st century American artists.

“If you must blink, do it now!” Kubo invokes at the beginning of each of his tales. Even a wink is too much magic to be missed.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Big Trouble in Little China" (1986)

A goofy doof of a movie -- part martial arts flick, part fantasy, a little bit Western, a lot '80s -- "Big Trouble in Little China" damaged a lot of careers in the short run, but made a lot of long-term fans. Now a remake starring Dwayne "Don't Call Me The Rock... OK, You Can Call Me The Rock" Johnson is in the works.

I remember my friends just raving about the movie when we were in high school, but somehow I never got around to seeing it. I'm a mite disappointed now that I have. While amusing at times, it looks like a cheap and schlocky flick that can't quite decide if it's in on the joke or not.

It's best to take it as a silly send-up of different genres, a fun adventure undertaken for its own sake. The scary stuff is never very scary, unlike, say, the Indiana Jones movies, which preserved the horror elements of its throwback inspiration. I make that connection because this film, like others from the era such as "King Solomon's Mines" and "High Road to China," were clearly thematic imitators.

This tone is set by Kurt Russell, who's playing a prototypical 1980s cinematic action hero -- muscle-y and smirking -- yet is continually sabotaged by comedic imperatives.

For instance, he waltzes into the inner sanctum of the villain near the end to deliver a typical defiant "go to hell" speech -- except his face is covered in bright pink lipstick, having finally gotten that kiss from The Girl. Or, at the start of the massive final brawl between the good and evil gangs, he shoots a chunk out of the ceiling and gets conked on the head, and goes sleepy-time.

Indeed, the film's enduring achievement is featuring a bunch of actors of Asian descent with a generic white guy figurehead as protagonist. 

Originally conceived as a Western by fledgling screenwriters Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein, the story was completely redone by W.D. Richter at the behest of the studio and director John Carpenter, who wanted a modern setting (and a lower budget). There was quite a tussle over credits, with the rookies ultimately getting the screenwriting nod, while Richter got an "adapted by" credit and Carpenter, who made his own alterations, received nothing.

Carpenter was just coming off one of the finest directing runs of popular entertainment movies in Hollywood history -- "Halloween," "Elvis," "Escape from New York," "The Thing," "Christine" -- and the commercial failure of "Big Trouble" laid his career low. He's sort of bobbled on the edges ever since, an admired icon associated with the indie/horror field, but couldn't get his mainstream projects greenlit.

The plot is essentially one long chase, and takes place in very close to real time.

Russell plays Jack Burton, driver of a tractor-trailer hauling pigs which he dubs the "Pork Chop Express." He likes to ride around and yammer away on the CB radio to anyone who'll listen, stories about his life and pronunciations of his creed. He's a wanderer with friends in every port of call.

Among them is Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), a young Chinese immigrant who runs a restaurant in San Francisco's Little China. He's excited because his betrothed,  Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), is arriving from his homeland for their wedding. She's got green eyes, which are highly prized by the Chinese (at least in the movie's telling). This is the only attribute the screenplay bothers to give her, barely speaking or emoting throughout the film.

Here jade peepers raise the attention of David Lo Pan (James Hong), an ancient and evil sorcerer who's been relegated to a ghost-like existence due to an old curse. He needs to marry, then murder a green-eyed woman to lift it. It's never made clear why he wants to become mortal again, since he's essentially invulnerable to attack.

Of course, I've never been withheld from a woman's gentle touch for 2,000 years. (Even if it sometimes felt like it.)

Leading the forces of good is Egg Shen (Victor Wong), a crotchety and benevolent magician. His favorite trick is throwing little balls of light that blow up his enemies. Kim Cattrall plays Gracie Law, a white attorney who often defends Chinese clients, and gets sucked up in to the action and, inevitably, tossed into Jack's arms. Turns out she has green eyes, too, so Lo Pan decides to go for a twofer.

Neither actress actually had green eyes, so they had to wear uncomfortable 1980s colored contact lenses during production. Also, if the bride doesn't need to be Chinese, I'm not sure why it took Lo Pan two millennia to find a woman.

There's also a reporter (Kate Burton) and best friend (Donald Li) who really serve no purpose in the story, and are conveniently forgotten about for long stretches of the film.

Lining up on the bad side are Lo Pan's three main henchman, all gifted with super powers tied to the elements. Thunder (Carter Wong) is all muscle and snarling attitude; Rain (Peter Kwong) is the resident swordsman and pretty boy; Lightning (James Pax) can project energy and even levitate. All three of them wear oddball straw hats that literally cover them down to the neck; one wonders how they fight effectively without having to tilt their heads.

Lo Pan also has a beholder-like creature, a circular blob with eyes and little tentacles, that acts as his scout. It's a cheap-looking and silly effect, even for 1986.

In general you can say that about the entire film. Other than one big set-piece for Lo Pan's sanctum santorum, which has some impressive statues, the whole movie looks like it was shot on a back lot. Most of the characters don't even change clothes. One battle has Wang dueling in the air with Rain, and it's an embarrassing collection of obvious wire shots and tilted cameras.

Compared to the elegant swordplay of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," it's positively archaic.

The budget for "Big Trouble" was $20 million, hardly chump change at the time -- about $44 million in today's dollars, but this was before the era of gonzo-sized budgets even for special effects spectacles. Consider that the magnificent "Aliens," which came out the same year, cost $2 million less.

An overpriced mess, this film doesn't even deserve the cult status it has today.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Review: "Don't Think Twice"

When I was around 20 and 21 years old, I went almost every weekend to an improv comedy show in my native Orlando. I was taking a break from college to make money so I could go back, so the $7 admission price was a good fit with my entertainment budget. Sometimes the group hit the top floor, laughs all around, and occasionally the performance struggled to get off the ground. But I always enjoyed the dynamics of the form -- a blend of stand-up comedy, acting technique and traditional theater.

It was pretty obvious to anyone who went to the show regularly that there were a couple of standouts. And nobody was surprised when they went on to productive showbiz careers. Wayne Brady is a well-known stage and television actor/singer who briefly had his own talk show; Joel McCrary had a funny bit on "Seinfeld" and went on to appear in "American Beauty" and the "Princess Diaries" movies, among others.

I occasionally pondered what it must have been like for the members of their old troupe to see them onscreen. I'm sure like any human being, they felt a combination of joy and envy. 'Why them and not me?' they think. Or they wonder how a group effort that they all had a hand in creating ended up capturing attention for one of their number, but not the others.

"Don't Think Twice" is essentially the cinematic embodiment of that predicament. It's written and directed by Mike Birbiglia, who's known mostly for his stand-up routine and comedy specials; a few years ago he spun off his one-man show "Sleepwalk with Me" into a narrative film. His shows blend laughter and sadness, with a great deal of insight about how people think and act in the real world when they don't think anyone's looking.

Birbiglia is a wonderful storyteller, so it makes sense that he approached a movie about an improv comedy group with the intention of giving all six of them equal screen time and treatment. I'm not sure if that was the best move. Because just as in any endeavor, some people are more interesting than others; some are going to make it big and some are not.

There's also an intrinsic melancholy to a tale about a tight-knit group that comes unraveled when one of them, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), gets called up to "Weekend Live," a not-at-all obscured version of "Saturday Night Live." This causes a great deal of tension and accusations, especially from Miles (Birbiglia), the oldest guy and founder of their group, The Commune.

He essentially taught all the others how to do improv, and now they're a family with him as the goofy patriarch. Miles tried out for "Weekend Live" a dozen years earlier himself and didn't make the cut. He's young enough (36) to have a lot of pathways in life still open to him, but old enough to store up resentments and self-doubt.

Gillian Jacobs plays Sam, who is probably the best natural performer of the group and also Jack's girlfriend. She herself was called in to audition for the show at the same time, but wigged out and blew it off. Now they're stuck in a situation where he's gone all the time to work on this big high-profile TV show, and she's perfectly happy performing in The Commune, even if it means she has to work a crappy day job.

Chris Gethard has a poignant presence as Bill, the resident straight man and nebbishy nice guy. His old man is rich so he doesn't really worry about money, but there's the ever-present sense that his dad considers him a failure. Your 20s is all about giving it all for your dreams, he observes, while in your 30s you realize how much of that time and energy was wasted.

Kate Micucci is Allison, a bit of a wallflower who had a great start as a cartoonist that never panned out, so she segued into improv. Tami Sagher plays Lindsay, who also performs out of a sense of love rather than financial need, yet often seems like the most devoted member.

I immensely enjoyed spending time with these people, as they go through the episodic routine of getting ready to go out onstage and function as a team. This has carried over into their personal relationships, where they can't ever "turn it off," making jokes even while kissing (Jack and Sam) or dealing with a serious family medical crisis.

Their improv works as a circular arrangement, but people need to eventually break out of that loop and go somewhere else, or their lives suffer.

"Don't Think Twice" is a story about people reaching that point of departure in their lives, professionally and personally. It's one they probably would have come to soon enough, but Jack's sudden success acts as the tripwire that sets things in motion.

Like Birbiglia's other work, it's funny, a little depressing, and a lot smart.


Video review: "The Angry Birds Movie"

“The Angry Birds Movie” is an exemplar of the generational divide: I loathe it, but my kids love it.

Since the Blu-ray showed up in the mail, my 5-year-old has watched it twice and asked about a third, at which point a parent’s protective instincts kick in. The quality of entertainment for children has gone through the roof since my day, so lazy and inept stuff like this is even more egregious.

People like to disparage movies based on video games as dredging the bottom of the cultural barrel. But Angry Birds isn’t even a real video game, in the same way that tic-tac-toe bears little resemblance to Monopoly. It’s a smartphone app in which birds hurl themselves via a giant slingshot at the buildings and other structures of evil green pigs.

(Oddly, no one has ever thought to question why none of these birds have functioning wings. I mean, you figure any multicultural bird community is going to have a few penguins, ostriches and the odd emu here and there. But 100% flightless? Darwin says, “Uh uh.”)

Directors Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly and screenwriter Jon Vitti give us a paint-by-numbers cast and story. Red (voice of Jason Sudeikis) is a bird with anger management problems and the ostensible hero. His buddies include Chuck, a motor-mouth yellow guy voiced by Josh Gad, and Bomb (Danny McBride), who does as his name implies when he gets excited.

There’s also Terence, a massive red fellow who just growls at everyone, never speaking. He’s voiced (if you can call it that) by Sean Penn.

When the pigs land on bird island, they befriend the locals before making off with all their eggs. Bill Hader does the voice of Leonard, their smarmy leader. It’s only a matter of time before Red and company follow them back home and start slinging themselves at piggy places.

Perhaps the film’s only genuine laugh is provided by Peter Dinklage as Mighty Eagle, the mascot/mythical protector of the birds, who lives the high life up in his eyrie.

The rest is a generic jumble of fart jokes and zippy pratfalls. It’s just lazy moviemaking.

But enough parents got dragged to the theater by their kids to make this a huge hit, so get ready for the sequel. In the meantime, “The Angry Birds Movie” is the sort of thing you set your little guys up with in the living with some popcorn, and go get 97 minutes to yourself.

Bonus features are middling. With the DVD there is a single deleted scene; the Blake Shelton music video, “Friends”; character sketch gallery; music vignettes with composer Heitor Pareira; and a “symphony mode” where you can watch the movie with only music.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray version and you add five making-of featurettes; more deleted scenes; several mini-movies featuring the Hatchlings characters; and the short film, “The Early Hatchling Gets the Worm.”



Thursday, August 11, 2016

Review: "Pete's Dragon"

Movies nowadays tend to fall, like our beleaguered politics, into silos. Superhero movies and gross-out comedies are aimed at men under age 30, animated flicks have lots of colors and boingy action for tykes, there are grim dramas and action movies for older men, a few pictures aimed at adult women are sprinkled here and there, often with a romantic flavor and usually as an antidote for the other stuff.

It’s all rather neat, and dreadfully boring.

“Pete’s Dragon,” beyond being utterly charming, is a throwback: a true family picture. Literally anyone from little children to oldsters to in-betweeners like me will fall under its sway.

It bears little resemblance to the 1977 Disney movie with a cartoon-y green dragon named Elliot who befriends an orphan. Here, the magical creature is part parent, part pet, all best friend. He protects and nurtures Pete, here played by Oakes Fegley as a 10-year-old feral boy who was lost in the woods six years earlier after a tragedy befell his family.

The dragon is portrayed effectively through CGI, with just enough realism to make you feel like he could exist, but fantastical enough that he still seems mystical. He’s green, but with plush fur instead of scales, a body that is leonine (though the belly is a tad soft) and a dog-like snout with one broken fang. He seems to have human-level intelligence, and can fade into invisibility when pesky hunters or tree-cutters come snooping around.

Robert Redford turns up as a crusty old grandfather who had a run-in with Elliot decades ago, and his stories have become part of the lore of the town of Millhaven. No one really believes him, but they like having the yarn to spin for kids and visitors. His daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) grew up into a park ranger who’s protective of the trees and critters.

Her husband, Jack (Wes Bentley), is nice in a bland sort of way, but her brother-in-law, Gavin (Karl Urban), is a jerk who likes to take his woodcutting crews too deep into the forest. This results in the discovery of Pete, who’s taken back to civilization while a lonely Elliot wanders along the trail looking for his little boy.

There follows some predictable but still poignant stuff where the grown-ups fail to believe Pete and his stories about his dragon guardian, but Grace’s wide-eyed daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), bonds with him immediately. Pete starts to see the appeal of leaving the woods to live with people again, but pines for his dragon.

The film is directed and co-written (with Toby Halbrooks) by David Lowery, whose last feature, 2013’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” is as different thematically as you can get from this Disney remake. Still, that drama about a convict on the run to be reunited with his family, was filled with a lyricism that segues naturally into the tone of “Pete’s Dragon.”

Alas, childlike wonderment seems to be in short supply these days, both among filmmakers and film-goers. “The BFG” bombed horribly at the box office, and there were more empty seats than filled at the preview screening I went to for “Pete’s Dragon.”

But, if for a precious few, there is still a magic that lingers.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Review: "Florence Foster Jenkins"

What’s worse, a passionate hack or an artful fraud?

Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant play two sides of a coin in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” the true-ish story of a wealthy socialite who lived to sing, and was unspeakably awful at it. She lived until nearly the end of her days before anyone bothered to tell her how terrible was her voice.

Florence is one of those creatures of history whose story we would call too farfetched for fiction. Her recitals became the stuff of New York legend, with carefully cultivated lists of hifalutin guests for the invitation-only affairs.

Critics were forbidden, except those who could be relied upon to pen effusive, vaguely-worded reviews. Her common-law husband, British thespian St. Clair Bayfield (Grant), managed her career, which was another way of saying he took great pains – and spread lots of gratuities – to ensure nary a negative word ever reached her ears.

Last year the French made their own version of Jenkins’ life, “Marguerite,” which won actress Catherine Frot their equivalent of the Oscar and took great historical liberties. Now America’s grand dame of cinema makes her own go at the tale, more or less following the known biographical facts but adding a heavy ladling of artistic interpretation, courtesy of director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Nicholas Martin.

It’s another stupendous turn from Streep, playing a woman who led a life of happy delusion. Her Florence brims with a burning passion for music, with carefully hidden reservoirs of self-doubt. She’s domineering in a benevolent sort of way, a woman who’s spent decades expecting everyone around her to bend to her will.

Streep does her own singing, and it’s a testament to her skill that she’s so good at sounding so bad. Florence is off-key, off tempo, off everything. Her pitch is shaky and her diction questionable.

Grant has a nice turn as Bayfield, a cad who lives a double life with another woman (Rebecca Ferguson), but truly is devoted to Florence. Every night he tucks her into bed, puts her to sleep with a recitation of Shakespeare, and then carefully removes the vestiges of vanity she clings to: the wig, the fake eyelashes, and so on.

He’s not so much Florence’s lover as caretaker of her carefully preserved mausoleum-in-waiting.

Simon Helberg plays Cosme McMoon, the meek but talented young pianist hired for $150 a week (that’s about two grand in today’s dollars) to accompany Florence during practices and, later, live performances. Cosme acts as our entrance into this constructed little world, where everyone up to famous conductors and composers go along with the ruse in return for money and patronage.

It’s easy, Bayfield instructs young Cosme, once you agree to “live life free from the tyranny of ambition.”

Eventually, of course, Florence is confronted with a dash of reality after she insists on funding a live performance for soldiers – at Carnegie Hall, no less. Then the proceedings, which have thrived on a fun and frivolous note, take on a tragic tone with a surprising amount of dramatic weight.

“People can say I can’t sing, but nobody can say I didn’t sing,” she says.

Is it really so hard to believe that a person could go so long completely deluded about their own merits? I’m sure Donald Trump is constantly surrounded by hangers-on who tell him his hair looks terrific, and Hillary Clinton’s sycophants give constant assurances her misstatements have an air of authenticity.

Seventy years after her death, Florence’s recordings and playbills are highly sought after, there have been plays about her life, a French movie and now an American one. Was ever a worse artist so lionized?

It’s often said it takes a great deal of bravery to get up in front of an audience and risk making a fool of yourself. “Florence Foster Jenkins” is the story of one of the fools.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Review: "Suicide Squad"

If “Batman v Superman” was a hot mess, then its DC Comics companion, “Suicide Squad” is an even hotter mess -- but also a more enjoyable one.

It’s essentially a “Dirty Dozen” spin on the superhero genre, taking a disparate gaggle of bad guys out of the clink and throwing them into a squad of supposed do-gooders. They fight with each other and rebel against their overlords, and eventually get around to doing some good.

The movie takes waaaaay too long during the “putting together the team” portion of the movie, but it pays off with a second half that is virtually non-stop action and CGI-heavy mayhem. Our gang of misfits actually transforms from sneering baddies into those in whose hands the fate of the very world rests.

(Have you noticed that all superhero movies lately are about the end of the world? That ol’ Earth sure is a vulnerable planetoid.)

The best bet writer/director David Ayer (“End of Watch”) makes is not trying to spread around the screen time and backstory evenly. It’s a first-among-equals approach, with Will Smith’s Deadshot and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn as the main characters. Everyone else is essentially an add-on.

Deadshot is a merciless assassin who never misses with a firearm, but has a soft spot in the shape of his beloved 11-year-old daughter. He’s a “serial killer who takes credit cards,” so if fighting for the U.S. government is the price he has to pay to be reunited with her, then so be it. Viola Davis is commanding and ice-blooded as Amanda Walker, the intelligence chief running the show.

I should mention all the squad members have an explosive device implanted in their spine, and if they disobey the hardcase leader of their unit, Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), they get blown up.

Harley Quinn is written as a scene-stealer, and Robbie milks it for everything she’s got. Harley is a former psychiatrist who got turned bad by her jailbird boyfriend (more on him in a minute), and is now a flirty, sexy, homicidal maniac. Her superhero costume consists of barely-there shorts, cutoff shirt, smeared makeup and fishnets. Her favorite M.O. is to bash people in the face with a baseball bat.

It’s a crazy, off-kilter character, a woman who uses her sexuality as a weapon and a tool. She’s somewhere between a feminist nightmare and empowerment icon.

Her guy is the Joker, played in this iteration by Jared Leto, utterly horrifying in bright green hair, facial tattoos and apparently stainless steel teeth. If Harley’s unhinged, he’s the claw hammer that pulled her screws loose. Jack Nicholson’s J-man was murderously theatrical and Heath Ledger’s was crazily calculating; Leto’s is just crazy for the sake of crazy.

For a while we think the movie’s building Joker up as the main villain. But it turns out he’s basically just a street gangster, not a world-beater.

The rest of the team, in quick order, is: Boomerang (Jai Courtney), an Aussie blade master who’s got a lot of ‘tude; El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a South-Central gangbanger who can produce ferocious flames from his hands, but has made a vow of pacifism after personal loss; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Abgaje), a misanthropic lizard dude with super strength and reptilian skin; Slipknot (Adam Beach), a Native American warrior and mystery man; and Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a Japanese swordswoman whose blade steals the souls of her enemies.

Certainly the most visually interesting is Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), a dark sorceress who has actually possessed the body of a goody-goody archaeologist. She becomes a ghost-like apparition, seemingly made out of smoke and ash, with baleful eyes glowing out at us.

(At one point Delevingne breaks out into an odd, snake-y, vaguely Egyptian dance move. I kept wondering, “Is this supposed to be… scary? Because it’s actually kinda making me laugh.)

No one is going to confuse “Suicide Squad” with great moviemaking. It’s carelessly plotted and has too many hanger-on characters. But I can genuinely say I was entertained during long stretches, especially in the second hour.

Look at it this way: if the first DC Comics movie wasn’t any good, and this one is half a good movie, maybe the next one can get all the way to super.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Review: "Life, Animated"

The magic of movies knows no limits. Films entertain, they broaden our minds and make our hearts grow larger. As Roger Ebert aptly put it, “Movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

One of those people is Owen Suskind. Twenty years ago, at age 3, he was diagnosed with severe regressive autism. As his parents, Ron and Cornelia tell it, he was a normal, happy kid who liked to play and romp. Then one day he stopped talking. Sometimes he would spout gibberish, but mostly he kept silent.

It felt like someone had kidnapped my child, Ron says. And in a way, Owen was stolen from them, and from the world. Unable to cope with the barrage of sensory input, he essentially shut down and hid in the dark forest of his mind.

“Life, Animated,” the new documentary by Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams, shows us a haunting photo of the tyke standing frozen in a hallway, staring at nothing. This became his life.

It went on like this for years.

Specialists and schools made little progress. The only thing that truly seemed to lift Owen’s spirits was watching movies, especially Disney animation. He would start to repeat bits of dialogue he had memorized. He would engage more. Hope glimmered.

Ron, a noted political writer, tells of a revelatory and heartbreaking moment when Owen was 9. Seeing a puppet of Iago, the evil little parrot sidekick from “Aladdin,” he put it on his hand and hid behind the bed, speaking to Owen in an imitation of Gilbert Gottfried, who gave Iago his voice.

“Owen, how does it feel to be you?” Iago/Ron asked. “Not good,” Owen replied, clearly and sadly. “Because I don’t have any friends.”

This was, Ron says, his first real conversation with his son.

Like many amazing stories, it’s one that if you read it in a book, you wouldn’t believe it. Through years of therapy and using the portal of Disney movies, Owen returned to the world. Through watching film, he learned to talk, to relate to other people, to open up.

We meet him as he is today, a thoughtful, handsome young man – he bears an uncanny resemblance to the kid from the TV show, “The Wonder Years.” Now he’s about to graduate from school, get his own apartment and go out into the world.

Owen has the amusing odd habit of high-pitched muttering to himself as he walks, chin down as he plows ahead. Then we listen a little closer, and realize he’s doing an unending stream of imitations of Disney dialogue.

Williams deftly mixes contemporaneous footage of Owen and his family with old photographs, home video and such. He also uses animation to illustrate Owen’s inner mind, first as little “chapter” introductions in his story, but then moving on to entire cartoon sequences. Depicted as moppet-headed little boy, he does battle with a villain he invented, the Fuzzbutch, who threatens his favorite Disney characters.

Interestingly, rather than identifying with the heroes, Owen adores the sidekicks. In the inner movie playing in a loop inside his head, he sees himself as their friend and protector.

The documentary traces Owen’s long journey from “The Glop” – his own term for his dark, uncommunicative years – and maps out the road ahead, one that contains both joy and uncertainty. We see him in a tender romance with Emily, another young person with special needs, and witness the fragility of that. We talk to his older brother, Walter, who knows that one day their parents won’t be able to watch over Owen.

“I’ll be ready. I’ve been getting ready my whole life,” Walter says.

“Life, Animated” is a movie about love. It’s about a boy who was lost, and then found, one who never wanted to grow up, and did.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Video review: "Confirmation"

If you’re looking for a fair and balanced depiction of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court, you won’t find it here. “Confirmation” pretty well stacks things against Thomas, who was accused of sexual harassment by a former employee, and in favor of Anita Hill, his accuser.

She is the main character, who “changed history” by “making a stand.” The story, and the filmmakers’ sympathies, are clearly in her court.

What you will find are a pair of fine performances by Kerry Washington as Hill and Wendell Pierce as Thomas, playing two smart and ambitious African-Americans who braved the fiery hell of the media frenzy. Greg Kinnear also shines as feckless then-Senator Joe Biden, whose often inept chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee led to the spectacle of elected officials publicly discussing pubic hairs and the authenticity of Long Dong Silver’s… uh, assets.

Director Rick Famuyiwa and writer Susannah Grant do an excellent job of capturing the political climate of the early 1990s. The Republican operatives are shown as willing to do just about anything to support the nomination of Thomas, including conjuring up kooky diagnoses of Hill’s supposed “erotomania.” Meanwhile, the Democrats are transparently looking to “Bork” another conservative nominee because he won’t vote the way they like.

Sexual harassment was the cudgel they came up with, but anyone would do.

Without overtly depicting their relationship in flashbacks, the HBO film leaves some doubt as to the veracity of Hill’s claims. The film short-changes the other witnesses who testified for and against Hill, with several other former employees corroborating Hill’s statements about sexually graphic discussions in the office, but also omitting a dozen or so women who denied the claims and testified on behalf of his character.

Still, it’s never unclear where the filmmakers’ sympathies lie. Hill’s account is never doubted, while Thomas never receives the benefit of that doubt.

Perhaps the most egregious example is having Charles Ogletree (Jeffrey Wright), a revered Harvard law professor, telling Hill he’s supporting her because Thomas is “less qualified than some of my students.” Really? One wonders how many of his students had headed up two key federal agencies and been appointed a U.S. Court of Appeals district judge.

It’s a hallmark of the age we now live in – which the Thomas hearings helped usher in – in which disagreement is tantamount to revulsion. Our nation’s sense of civil discourse has never really returned.

In the end, “Confirmation” amounts to little more than picking at old scabs. We don’t learn anything we didn’t know already, though we get a better sense of Hill and Thomas as three-dimensional human beings.

Bonus features are rather thin. There are brief Q&As with Washington and Pierce on the historical impact of the hearings, plus a “Character Spot” featuring other cast members discussing the roles they play.



Monday, August 1, 2016

Reeling Backward: "How to Marry a Millionaire" (1953)

I can't quite decide if "How to Marry a Millionaire" is a daringly progressive film or a horribly anachronistic throwback. Probably one for 1953, and another for 2016.

It's silly to judge the social politics of a 60-odd-year-old movie by today's standards. Back then as women who worked in factories during World War II were pushed back into the home, "marrying well" was not a topic people shied away from talking about openly.

For men, that meant finding a spouse who was pretty, kind and a good mother. For women, it meant marrying a stable guy with a good income.

The problem comes when you put these foremost qualities on a scale, with the assumption that more must be better. If a well-to-do man of prospects is desirable, then why not a fabulously rich fellow? Why settle for next-door beauty when you can get Marilyn Monroe?

Speaking of Monroe, "Millionaire" more or less marked her ascension from breakout star to screen icon. Betty Grable was billed first in the movie, though the blonde WWII pinup girl was closing in on 40 and her legendary duels with the studios meant her career was crumbling. Monroe actually took over her part in "Gentleman Prefer Blondes," which came out a few months earlier and made her a star.

(Though Grable received top billing in the credits, Monroe was usually listed first on the posters and advertising.)

Grable's screen persona was actually somewhat similar to Monroe's, the bubble-headed blonde with hidden qualities beyond a gorgeous face. Their characters in "Millionaire" are rather the same, too; both are sweet and rather dim. They play man-hungry Loco Dempsey (Grable) and nearsighted Pola Debevoise (Monroe), who's constantly bumping into things because she fears to wear her glasses in public.

"Men aren't attentive to girls who wear glasses," Pola says, echoing Dorothy Parker and setting up an inevitable romance with a four-eyed suitor (David Wayne) who appreciates her spectacles.

The funny thing is, the movie really belongs to Lauren Bacall. She plays Schatze Page, the smartest and most outgoing of the trio. She hatches the idea for the girls, all fashion models, to pool their resources and rent out a New York City penthouse as a man-trap for rich men. She's calculating and rather mercenary, but in the end the frozen cockles of her heart melt for a guy she assumes is a gas station jockey (Cameron Mitchell), but is actually worth $200 million.

That's $1.8 billion in today's dollars, folks. Dude even has a city named after his family.

I was pleasantly surprised by the character of J.D. Hanley, a 56-year-old widower played with charm and class by William Powell. He becomes Schatze's main target, but he puts her off due to their age difference. Hanley later changes his mind and agrees to marry her, though she undergoes her own change of heart at the altar.

Hanley is gracious and considerate throughout, even when Schatze breaks his heart. That's the beauty of getting old, he says: you learn how to deal with disappointment.

Probably the most cringe-worthy scene in the movie is when Schatze dreams of how her life will be after she marries Hanley, as she leans over a display of jewelry and points, telling the salesman she would like "That... and that... and that... and that and that and that..." My modern sensibilities recoil at the notion of a woman seeing a man as simply a path to comfort and baubles.

But eventually Schatze evolves from gold-digger to kind heart.

I should point out that models of this era were not the high-paid celebrities we know today. In one of the film's signature scenes, a whole gaggle of women, including our trio, try on clothes and parade around for a client at a snooty retail store, like living, breathing mannequins. (Though how this is less degrading than doing the same thing on a runway for a hundred people escapes me.)

Palo initially falls for a rich Arab oilman, but he turns out to be a conman. She has several unwitting conversations with the man who owns their apartment, who's on the lam with IRS troubles -- he blames them on a crooked accountant -- and sneaks in to retrieve papers from a hidden safe. She doesn't know who he is and assumes it's Hanley because of her poor vision.

They later bump into each other on a plane and share love at first sight -- fuzzy first sight, to be sure, until she dons her glasses.

Loco's story is the most convoluted, and least interesting. She agrees to go up to a lodge in Maine with a crabby millionaire named Brewster (Fred Clark), thinking a "lodge" means a large gathering of men. It actually means his cozy cabin, and she's mortified at the implication.

But then she catches sick and falls into the arms of Eben (Rory Calhoun), a good-looking local bumpkin. She assumes he's rich when he shows her the mountain range and calls it "his" as far as the eye can see, but he's actually a forest ranger talking about his scope of responsibilities. Loco is disappointed when she finds out the truth, and he's disappointed that she's disappointed, but they patch things up in the end.

So when it all shakes out, two of the three women actually do marry millionaires, though Schatze didn't know it at the time and the other fortune is currently in government hock.

It's a beautiful film to look at, with vivid colors and striking costumes (which earned an Oscar nomination.) It was actually the very first film shot in CinemaScope, though "The Robe" beat it to the box office by a few months. Journeyman director Jean Negulesco makes very good use of the widescreen format to show off New York's locales.
Nunnally Johnson produced and wrote the script, which was actually based on two different stage plays, "Loco" and "The Greeks Had a Word For It."

Though it may seem terribly outdated, "How to Marry a Millionaire" is enjoyable as an artifact of a bygone era and (mostly) outgrown attitudes.