Sunday, December 31, 2017

Video review: "Lucky"

I often find it to be the case that movies dominated by a single superlative performance -- “Ray,” “Capote,” “Darkest Hour” more recently -- tend to suffer as a whole. When one actor’s in every single scene, and everything is always about him, then the storytelling can often devolve into a series of encounters, all of which are designed to give the main performer another chance to act the hell out of a scene.

I feel that way about “Lucky,” which is destined to be remembered as the swan song for legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton. He passed away at age 91 a few months ago, decades of credits of kooky, mesmerizing characters under his belt. Nearly always the supporting actor, he finally got a chance to be the lead, and he knocked the hell out of it.

(Though I should note Stanton still has one more film in the can coming out in 2018.)

It’s about a man, Lucky, who is outwardly much like Stanton himself: ancient, respected but regarded with a sort of distance by others. Living alone on the edge of a tiny city out west somewhere, each of his days bleeds very much into the next.

He exercises, makes cryptic phone calls to someone during which he picks a word out of the dictionary, then puts on his cowboy boots to amble into town to buy milk and cigarettes -- seemingly all he subsists on -- followed by a drop-in at the watering hole where he hobnobs with the other denizens.

The supporting cast is interesting, but as I said they flit in and out of the frame only so much as they can help Lucky along in his journey. Beth Grant plays the grandstanding owner of the bar, and James Darren plays her guy, who puts off a Vegas vibe. Ed Begley Jr. plays the town doctor, astonished at Lucky’s fine health despite smoking like a chimney. Tom Skerritt turns up as another veteran, with whom Lucky trades reminisces.

David Lynch, still doing that strange, robotic, hard-of-hearing line reading that he always does, plays another aging fellow with a turtle problem. (Blunt but true: if it weren’t for his directing career, nobody would call upon Lynch as an actor.) Ron Livingston is a local attorney, to whom Lucky takes an instant dislike. 

The screenplay by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja approaches Lucky sideways. We learn very little autographical information about him -- he was in the Navy, never married, but apparently was in love once -- yet we feel like we get to know him down to the ground. Lucky is defiantly atheist, yet as the end approaches he has many questions and concerns about what comes after.

The directorial debut of John Carroll Lynch, himself a noted character actor, “Lucky” is more concerned with raising difficult questions than dashing off easy answers.

Bonus features are slim but decent. They include two segments with Stanton, “A Few Words from Harry Dean Stanton” and “Behind the Scenes: Harry Dean Stanton’s Final Film Take,” along with interviews with Lynch and the screenwriters.



Friday, December 29, 2017

The Relativity of TV Comedy

Ed Johnson-Ott of NUVO Newsweekly sat down recently with Christopher Lloyd of The Film Yap to talk about the state of television and streaming comedy. The following is a mostly complete transcript, absent a few off-color jokes and noisy bodily functions.

Ed: I am excited these days about the TBS program, “People of Earth.” A group of residents in Beacon, New York, are in a support group for people who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens. They have been. While that’s going on, we go up into the sky and look at three alien races who are trying to take over the Earth. So we get the relationships and craziness down on Earth and the office comedy up in the sky. It’s wonderful, funny, weird, bittersweet. It’s all the things we’d say about “Parks and Recreation” and shows like that. It just got renewed for its third season and I hope it’s primed for a breakout.  It’s just quietly built a library of episodes and people can discover it when they’re ready.

Chris: A lot of people are calling this the second golden age of television, as long as you’re willing to expand the definition of what television is.

Ed: The revival of the comedy is really getting not as much attention. Shows like “Veep,” “Silicon Valley” and “Review.”

Chris: I know about “Review” because you and other people are constantly telling me I look like the star, Andy Daly. I can’t compete with his dimples, but I think my hairline is stronger.

Ed: A little. You put that guy to shame, Chris!

Chris: So I will admit that as a dad with small kids and a guy with a full-time job and a robust side gig, I don’t watch nearly as much television, comedy or otherwise, as I used to.

Ed: That’s a shame.

Chris: It is, but I do watch some things, and I think there’s a lot of good stuff out there I’d watch if I had more time. I think what’s changed is our definition of television and what it means to be a fan of a show. Because the old days of the 37-episode season that came into your home once a week and only took summers off is gone. Even the shortened 22-episode standard is becoming an anomaly. So many shows are just 13 or even 10 episodes, so it’s less of a commitment. TV shows used to be a relationship; now it’s quick flings. I do feel more freedom to catch stuff that’s streaming or here and gone, like “Master of None.” I’m just not watching comedy shows like I used to with “Parks and Recreation” or “30 Rock,” which for me have set the standard in recent times.

Ed: What are some of your favorites?

Chris: Certainly those two. I liked the first season of “Master of None” a lot, and was gravely disappointed in the dreary, not-funny second season that just won an Emmy for writing for some goddamn reason.

Ed: What about “The Big Bang Theory?”

Chris: Never seen a single episode. Everything I know about the show says I would love it.

Ed: It’s a very easy show to watch. I don’t think in the beginning they planned to have stories. Instead they were just going to do the typical sitcom, but then the show took off. It caused a dilemma: “How do we fill this?” And that’s when the stories started becoming more complex. Meanwhile on the network you still have things like “Kevin Can Wait,” which is the old traditional sitcom that makes some people very happy.

Chris: Have you seen that? Is it as bad as it looks?

Ed: It’s just an old-fashioned situation comedy that does its thing. I noticed you didn’t mention “The Office.”

Chris: Oh yes, I loved “The Office.” I like it even more than the few episodes of the British version that I’ve seen.

Ed: The aftertaste of the British show changed for me once I saw that the public Ricky Gervais was uncomfortably similar to David Brent, his character on the show. His equivalent Michael Scott. I preferred the friendlier American version of “The Office” as well.

Chris: What made that show great was their commitment to developing those characters. It sounds cliché, but after the first couple of season you really felt like you were just popping into visit old friends and even interacting with people you didn’t like that much, but were familiar to you. Here’s my opinion that not many share: I still liked the show after Steve Carell left. No, it wasn’t as good as it was. But it was still a vibrant, funny show to me, with Pam and Jim taking over the lead spots and Andy Bernard kind of acting as the mascot.

Ed: The English woman, Nellie Bertram (Catherine Tate), always felt wedged in.

Chris: Yeah, I think the last couple of years you had this parade of people coming in and out the door and not all of them stuck in our mind. For instance, I had really forgotten about the Nellie character. But there were enough of our touchstones left that these felt like guests who just came to stay a while.

Ed: Let’s look at it this way, what show that we really like or is just arriving on the scene is going to be really big: what’s going be the next “Seinfeld?” Obviously, “Big Bang Theory” is one right now, and it looks like it’s going to go on and on and on.

Chris: My response is I wonder if anything’s ever going to be as big as “Seinfeld” was, or “Big Bang Theory” is now. Because the platforms and the audience are just becoming more and more fractured.

Ed: Remember, “Seinfeld” did it without an ongoing storyline. Maybe “Veep.” I’ve never seen it. Never seen “Silicon Valley,” either. I don’t think they have ongoing storylines, either. And those have been around for a while. “Veep” is going into its seventh and final season.

Chris: That’s one thing I do appreciate about the modern TV game, is that shows don’t constantly stick around way past their sell-by date. I’m thinking of even big monster shows like “Friends” and “Frasier,” which were really good for a really long time, and then just kept going a couple of years past their natural end point. People got hooked on their million-dollars-an-episode paydays.

Ed: I think “Frasier” went so long that it kind of circled back to itself. I wasn’t sure what was going on with “Parks and Recreation’s” ratings. I think people are now rediscovering it on cable reruns.

Chris: Yeah, “Parks are Recreation” and “30 Rock” I think are great examples of shows that would rather bow out at their creative peak than stay around too long. They offered Jerry Seinfeld literally nine figures to do a 10th season, but he knew it was time.

Ed: I do think “Parks and Rec” suffered when they spent a little too much time celebrating the small town America eccentricities. They had all the eccentrics in there and they had Chris Pratt. He’s a big reminder of why we all liked it. By the time they were getting all their tributes and getting ready to go, it was time to go.

Chris: What about “30 Rock?”

Ed: Everything went perfect with “30 Rock” from what I could tell. I was really curious about “Young Sheldon,” the spinoff with the Jim Parsons character as a 9-year-old that’s now debuting. I just don’t know about that. It’s not going to be an audience and a laugh track. It’ll be a one camera show, and won’t have any of the people looking the way they did.

Chris: That sounds interesting but also scary.

Ed: They’ve got to flesh out the other characters really quick. It’s going to have a 9-year-old and his sister, his mother and the unhappy father. We hope for the best.

Now, if you were going to binge watch, what we you line up to watch in terms of comedy?

Chris: It’s tough to say. I know a lot of people like to revisit their old favorites they’ve already seen, but I’d much rather encounter stuff that’s new to me and comes highly recommended. If I were to wander backward, I’d probably go with “Big Bang.” Or “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which gets a lot of praise from people I trust.

Ed: “Review” was about the host of a TV show who reviewed life events. I think it only ran for three seasons, and then came back with a three episode arc to wrap it up. What made it work was you saw the ramifications of everything he did. And this guy was totally committed. If it was a fatal disease, he was into that. It was this headlong impulsive rush to have him do things that nobody in his right mind would do. He ruined his marriage, he killed his father-in-law. But it’s one of those things people would look at it and say, “This is just grim and weird.”

Chris: What’s weird to me is the definition of comedy has become very fluid. You see a lot of dramatic and even tragic stuff in what is, quote unquote, a comedy. Like “Better Call Saul,” which to me is ridiculous to call that a comedy. Or even “Louie” some of the time.

Ed: I know what you mean. It’s an outright comedy at times. But some episodes are so serious and terrifying.

Chris: Yeah, I remember the episode of “Louie” where he loses his daughter in the subway. And it’s just a frantic father searching for his kid, with Louis C.K. looking utterly terrified. And that was the whole episode – not even an attempt at humor anywhere in the mix. And to me that’s off-putting.

Ed: Comedy is so hard to define in terms of the popularity and appeal of it. Aside from a few shows like “Friends” or “Big Bang,” comedy is so relative. Can you convince someone to watch comedy? I know I never had any luck with getting anyone to watch “Parks and Rec.”

Chris: You did with me!

Ed: That’s good. It’s hard to tell somebody why a particular flavor of something tastes good. I’m just asking everyone who reads this to watch “People of Earth.” The first season was the perfect season for a show. The second season, what I’ve seen I’ve loved. I think it’s going to be around a long time.

Top 10 Films of 2017

It is true that Top 10 lists are by their nature arbitrary, frivolous and wholly unnecessary. If you were to wipe my memory and force me to make this list again a month from now, there's no guarantee it wouldn't be considerably different from what you're reading today.

But it's equally true that these sorts of lists are fun to write and fun to read. They spur conversations and disagreements about what is right and wrong about today's cinema. In short, they get people talking about movies, which is quite possibly the only thing I like more than watching them.

I found 2017 to be a quite good year for film. I awarded four movies my highest rating -- 4 stars, 5 Yaps or an "A," depending on where it was being published -- at the time of their release, and have since upgraded one more to that level. I consider all them masterpieces, and saw at least a dozen more I would deem only a half-step down from that.

In making my top 10 list, I had a much easier time deciding on #1-5 than #6-10, particularly in deciding what would drop off the list. That's why I always make sure to also include a list of also-rans: films I adored that that didn't quite make the top 10. This year the counting of contenders runs to 18.

You'll notice that my list(s) are dominated by smaller indie movies this year. I offer no explanation or apology for this. In deciding my favorites, I deliberately try to avoid any overarching theme or bias. I likes what I likes. For whatever reason, in 2017 it was the low-budget, the offbeat, the overlooked.

So without further ado:

1.    Blade Runner 2049

I feared this film more than any other. I thought there was no way to do a sequel to "Blade Runner," one of my favorite movies, that was narratively and emotionally logical. I was wrong. It's a brilliant, beautiful, disturbing look into a future that is very different from what we have today, yet easy to see the pathway from here to there.

2.    Lady Bird

After more than a decade cementing her place as the queen of indie films, then apprenticing as a screenwriter, Greta Gerwig forcefully announces herself as an important new filmmaker. A look at teenhood that is very specific yet universal. Smart, brave and riveting.

3.    Brigsby Bear

At first I took this to be a quirky hipster comedy about a manboy who finds himself living in a strange and frightening new world. Instead, I found the most emotionally satisfying journey of any film in 2017. It's a story of overcoming our fears and reaching out to others.

4.    The Shape of Water

"Pan's Labyrinth" is probably still my favorite Guillermo del Toro movie, but this makes a strong case for second. Sally Hawkins is great, but the film also boasts a half-dozen supporting characters whose stories are just as distinct and compelling as the heroine's. Dark, offbeat, mysterious.

5.    Maudie

The year of Sally Hawkins. She'll get her Oscar nomination for "Shape of Water," but her work in this beautiful little indie about a meek Canadian artist was the performance of the year for me. And Ethan Hawke wasn't bad, either.

6.    The Florida Project

Willem Dafoe may well win his own Oscar for this movie, but for me it's one of the best examples of a terrific ensemble cast. An unflattering portrait of the underside of my hometown of Orlando, it resonates with strength and truth.

7.    Patti Cake$

Danielle Mcdonald wowed me as a girl who's been degraded her entire life, and spits back her resentment in the form of vicious volleys of rap lyrics. An audacious debut by filmmaker Geremy Jasper.

8.    Wind River

This bleak drama looks at two Caucasian protagonists working a murder case inside an insular Native American reservation. It's a story of outsiders and aliens, belonging and frontier justice.

9.    Baby Driver

By turns funny, jazzy and dangerous, "Baby Driver" is tonally all over the map -- yet somehow it all works. Ansel Elgort enhances his acting credentials as a young getaway driver with a few twists.

10.  The Post

Steven Spielberg's historical drama examines the bravery of Washington Post maven Katharine Graham and a few others in defying the White House to publish the Pentagon Papers, detailing the country's shameful history in Vietnam.


Other contenders

Any one of these films had a real shot at making my top 10 list. If you twisted my arm and made me pick a #11, it would have been "A Ghost Story," which I had on the list until the very end. "Stronger" or "Dunkirk" would be next. Listed alphabetically.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown -- Very offbeat Western in which Bill Pullman essentially plays the classic Walter Brennan "incompetent old coot" character, who takes over the story when the John Wayne type bites it.
Crown Heights -- The male performance of the year for me by Lakeith Stanfield as a wrongfully imprisoned man.
Dunkirk -- A different sort of war picture; not about individual heroes but the concept of heroism.
A Ghost Story -- Slow, deliberate, haunting. Not the sort of picture I usually go for.
Goodbye Christopher Robin
The Hero -- It looks like Sam Elliott's greatest role is being forgotten during the awards race. Pity.
Hostiles -- There is dour. Then there is grim. Then there is bleak. Then there is despair. Then there is "Hostiles." 
It Comes at Night
Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992
Paris Can Wait
The Promise
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri -- Frances McDormand is amazing. So is Woody Harrelson, though it's Sam Rockwell who's being pushed for awards.
Tommy's Honour -- A drama about fathers and sons, Scotland and the history of golf. Another picture I didn't expect to adore.
A United Kingdom
War for the Planet of the Apes
Wonder Woman -- The superhero movie of the year.

The Underwhelmed

These are films that were widely praised, often by people whose opinions I respect, yet I found them on some level disappointing. Many I still liked, just not crazy about them. If there was one unifying theme in movies that let me down this year, it's that they were too long. I saw so many 140-minute films that could've been 96.

Get Out -- Yes, it's a smart horror film that also boasts snappy humor and social commentary. A pillar for our times? Please.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi -- I've liked all the Star Wars movies, though this is easily the weakest. I mean, an entire plotline set off by illegally parking your starship?
The Meyerowitz Stories -- Clever portrayals of people you don't think for a minute could exist in the real world. Also, I'm still confused: was the inside joke supposed to be that they're all actually shitty artists?
Call Me By Your Name -- The last 40 minutes or so packs an emotional punch. The first hour-and-fifteen should've been edited down to about 20.
Good Time  -- Chase, chase, chase, why, why, why? All existential peril with no interior life. 
The Big Sick -- Ray Romano and Holly Hunter were the best things about this.
Mudbound -- As depressing as "Hostiles," without anything compelling to make it worthwhile. During all the different characters' narration, I kept hearing Mr. Mackey from "South Park" droning, "Cuz racism is bad."
The Disaster Artist -- A funny movie with a spot-on impression by James Franco. And nothing more.
IT -- At least it didn't end in a preteen gangbang.
Lucky -- Harry Dean Stanton can act the hell out of anything. David Lynch cannot act, other than doing that one hard-of-hearing speech pattern he always does. As someone who's hard-of-hearing, I was offended.
Beats Per Minute
Marjorie Prime
Happy End -- "Hi, we're French and rich and awful, come spend two hours with us."
Blade of the Immortal -- Martial arts movies are like baseball movies: they're better the less actual baseball/swordfighting it has. There's a great 84-minute flick in there somewhere.
Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Review: "All the Money in the World"

F. Scott Fitzgerald was probably not the first to notice it, though maybe he was the one to write it down: Rich people are strange; they're almost like a separate species from us.

I've never been wealthy, but have had the opportunity to observe or interact with a few up close over the years. Being fabulously rich doesn't automatically make you a bad person, but the opportunities and temptation to behave poorly are almost overwhelming.

Even those I would describe as "good rich" were united by a sort of unconscious arrogance, a sense that the people around them exist merely to acquiesce to their whims.

Ever try to disagree with a rich person? They will stare at you with a sort of puzzled detachment, like a wayward chihuahua that growls at them instead of fetching the paper as ordered. They know you can do them no real harm.

(I'm talking the really rich here, not the ordinary well-to-do. The sort who charter or buy airplanes instead of booking flights on one. They are innocent of TSA lines and pat-downs.)

A couple of quick anecdotes from my own experience:

I spent a year trying to nail down an interview with an A-list movie star who was improbably building a home in my neck of the woods. Without boring you with the details, I finally managed to get ahold of the person whose job title indicated he handled all of the star's media interviews. After talking with him on the phone, it became clear that his entire role consisted of keeping people like me away from his client. Like, imagine if the door on your office said "Director of Sales," and your actual job description consisted of preventing any sales from occurring.

Another time I oversaw the shooting of a PSA video that featured a billionaire. I'd done a bunch of these, and had taken to the practice of bringing a bottle of water for each of the principles, writing their name on it with a Sharpie. These shoots usually go on for an hour, requiring a couple dozen takes under hot lights. People's mouths get dry and they have trouble getting their lines out right. Anyway, I handed the b-man his water, and rather than thanking me he he looked annoyed. A flurry of activity was suddenly set off, as one of his many handlers present came forward to whisk the offending libation out of sight, to be replaced with a fancier one from the private stock. I've no doubt someone got a "talking to" about keeping peasant water away from the big man.

Alright, I've been going on for some time now without even mentioning the movie I'm supposed to be reviewing, which is "All the Money in the World." It's not among the higher-profile films coming out at Christmastime, and it's possible the only thing you've heard about it is that Kevin Spacey was in it, until he was not, and his scenes were hastily re-shot with Christopher Plummer replacing him.

All I'll say about the switcheroo is: I'm impressed. That it could be pulled off so quickly -- barely a month before the film's release -- or that Plummer's scenes fit so seamlessly into the whole of the piece. Though it's not the lead role, it's a pivotal one with about 15-20 minutes of screen time. A consummate professional and actor's actor, Plummer is evidently the sort you could hand the script to for the first time 30 minutes before shooting, and he'll still nail it on the first take.

The movie in total is good, not great. It's an "inspired by" look at the kidnapping of Paul Getty (Charlie Plummer, no relation to Christopher), a teen heir to the Getty oil fortune that happened during in Italy during the early 1970s. The young Getty was held for months, and suffered some rather nasty treatment, because his grandfather, tycoon J. Paul Getty (the other Plummer), refused to pay the ransom.

The story really centers on Paul's mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), who was estranged from her husband and out of favor in senior Getty's eyes for supposedly taking his beloved grandchildren away from him. (Never mind that he had not even met them until a few years before the film's events.) She spends the movie trying to navigate a delicate balance between her wealthy ex-father-in-law and his cronies, a sympathetic kidnapper (Romain Duris) and the media scrum that ensued.

She's helped by Fletcher Chase, an ex-CIA agent-turned Getty lackey played by Mark Wahlberg who, I strongly suspect, is one of those pure Hollywood bullshit creations. I couldn't find any mention of such a person in historical accounts of the kidnapping, though it's not surprising that Getty might employ someone like that. There's also that name: Fletcher Chase -- sounds like the lead character in a fourth-rate spy novel.

I've been impressed by how much Wahlberg has evolved as an actor since his "Basketball Diaries" days, but he's pretty clearly miscast in this role. He wears three-piece suits and chunky glasses like they were handed to him by a rando costume designer five minutes before the cameras rolled. Ostensibly cool and professional, he comes off as bored and churlish.

Directed by Ridley Scott from a script by David Scarpa (based on a book by John Pearson), "Money" plays out like a standard-issue procedural crime drama, with all the usual twists and setbacks. We know the kid's going to survive -- otherwise the junior Getty wouldn't have gone on to sire actor Balthazar Getty in real life. So it's mostly an exercise in observing the how rather than the what.

Plummer is really the best thing about the movie. All his scenes sing with energy and music, even the stuff where he squares off with Wahlberg. They share a great moment late in the movie where Getty is walking away from Fletcher, who suddenly grabs him by the arm.

Plummer's eyes flare with a cold fire that illuminates the dark, rotting arrogance inside the old man's soul: The. Sheer. Audacity!

J. Paul Getty was a miserable old miser who placed more value on a stock ticker than his own flesh-and-blood. Not all rich men are like that -- hardly any, let's hope -- but "All the Money in the World" is an effective, if not terribly original, portrait of that which corrupts.

Video review: "Stronger"

“Stronger” is probably not the movie most people were expecting. They may know it’s the story of Jeff Bauman, perhaps the most visible victim of the Boston Marathon bombing. He became famous for a grisly photo of him being wheeled away from the carnage, both of his legs shattered by the blast into gruesome shards.

When he helped identify the killers, recovered from his wounds and eventually was able to walk again with the use of two prosthetic legs, Jeff became of the face of Boston’s defiance against the terrorists, a beacon of pride and bravery for millions.

Except, Jeff didn’t feel like a hero. He was a regular joe with challenges and problems, who folded under the pressure of having his body torn apart by strangers, while other strangers lauded him for the simple act of surviving.

Directed by David Gordon Green from a screenplay by John Pollono (based on Bauman’s book), “Stronger” could have been a very corny movie. I think most filmmakers would have gone a very standard route: inspirational dialogue, syrupy musical score, a big speech at the end where Jeff appears before a stadium full of Red Sox fans and is celebrated.

Instead, the incident at the baseball field happens midway in the movie, and rather than orgiastic joy, it’s a nightmare of stress for Jeff. He practically seems to want to shiver out of his own skin.

It’s another amazing performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, who continues to astound with bold choices in his roles. Here’s a guy who possessed all the tools for a standard-issue movie star career -- blockbuster franchises, $20 million paydays, magazine covers -- and instead he searches for little projects like this that challenge him as an actor.

Tatiana Maslany plays Erin, Jeff’s erstwhile girlfriend. They had broken up at the time of his injury, and we observe them as shame and guilt serve to string the relationship along – which turns out to be doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Miranda Richardson and Clancy Brown play Jeff’s estranged parents, who react to their son’s sudden fame with motives both nurturing, and not.

“Stronger” is uplifting, but not because it puts Jeff Bauman on a pedestal. Instead, it tells the real story behind the headlines, of a human being found the weight of the world too much to bear.

Perhaps owing in part to the fact the film was not a big box-office draw, bonus features for the video release are quite slim. The only extra is “Faith, Hope & Love: Becoming Stronger,” a short making-of documentary.”



Thursday, December 21, 2017

Review: "Downsizing"

I’ve noticed that whenever Matt Damon has a comedic role where he’s playing a regular schlub, he always packs on about 25-30 pounds. At first I was impressed by the sheer devotion to physical transformation -- especially his uncanny ability to always get back to Jason Bourne fighting trim.

But over time, it’s come to feel like he’s making fun of the ordinary, unsculpted people who buy tickets to his movies. What are we to him, the pudgy faceless masses?

Hey Matt, not every middle-class person is living a life of quiet desperation with a dadbod.

I was very much looking forward to “Downsizing,” which the trailers present as a darkly satirical look at American consumerism and our footsie-playing approach to environmentalism.

In it, Norwegian scientists discover that by shrinking humans down to less than 1% of their current size, the crises of too little food and too much global warming can be addressed in a way to make human life sustainable in perpetuity. Of course, the real allure to “get small” is the scalable economy, so that a married couple struggling to get by, such as Paul and Audrey Safranek (Damon and Kristen Wiig), are instantly transformed into multimillionaires in a downsized community.

Unfortunately, this is not the film that director Alexander Payne and co-screenwriter Jim Taylor have given us. I was expecting something along the lines of Payne’s other work like “Sideways,” “About Schmidt” or “The Descendants.” They were cerebral movies that managed to explore the danker sides of the human soul while also finding plenty of occasions to make us laugh.

“Downsizing” is that, at least for the first 45 minutes or so. We watch as Paul and Audrey go through the process, meeting an old chum (Jason Sudeikis) at a high school reunion who was among the first go through “cellular minimization.” He talks it up to them -- and not just for the referral fee, he insists -- and they visit the facility where all the magic happens. They meet with a downsizing consultant, who informs them that their $152,000 in equity will make them worth over $12 million when they get small and go to Leisureland.

(The math sounds a little fishy to me, but hey, it’s Hollywood moviemaking, not an economics seminar.)

It sounds so simple: trade in your humdrum life of working hard for one in which you live in a mansion and enjoy an early retirement of luxury.

Things don’t go the way they expect, but I’m precluded from telling you more about the plot without giving too much information away. Suffice it to say there’s a point of no return, essentially marking the end of the first act, in which the movie’s tone shifts abruptly.

It’s like the movie takes a sudden left turn, it’s not funny anymore, and instead of satirical jabs we got a lot of lazy haymakers thrown at us that fail to connect.

The experiencing is like that scene in the first “Spider-Man” movie where Peter fights the school bully, and he can’t believe how slow the punches seem. That’s us: “What’s going on? Am I supposed to be laughing here?”

The special effects are pretty neat, though I kept waiting for a moment when a small person gets accidentally squished by their larger cousins. The film features plenty of celebrity cameos, including Margo Martindale, Laura Dern and Neil Patrick Harris.

Damon’s performance gets annoying rather quickly. Paul is passive and not particularly smart, continually letting others push him around. First it’s Audrey, then Dusan (Christoph Waltz), the gleefully corrupted neighbor he befriends, and later Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese maid who represents the flip side of Leisureland’s power dynamics.

She’s played by Hong Chau, in what first seems like a very stereotyped performance but later shows layers of emotions in a way that Damon’s does not.

I get what Payne and Taylor where going for: a parable about the fruitlessness of always chasing Eden. Paul and Audrey want a one-way ticket to an early heaven, but keep finding ways to make their lives more hellish. Rather than learn from it, they chase the next magic pill.

“Downsizing” is a great concept that soon spins off the track. It wants us to laugh at ourselves, but in the end it just makes us feel bad.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Review: "The Post"

“The Post” is both rose-colored hagiography and a bracing call to arms. It summons up the days of our hallowed past, in which crusading newspapers took on the most powerful and risked their very enterprises to tell people the truth.

And it’s a not-at-all bashful reminder that this sort of thing is more needed now than ever before.

The film, directed by Steven Spielberg from a script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, tells the tale of how the Washington Post in 1971 faced off with the Nixon administration to publish the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret review that captured the depth of the lies and depravity behind our nation’s tragic involvement in Vietnam.

It’s at once a terrific character study, with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks playing Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee, respectively, the publisher and editor of the Post. Hanks is very good -- he’s always very good -- but ultimately Streep carries the picture as an accidental leader who reaches inside herself to find strength and resolve.

The movie is also an excellent procedural drama, taking place over the course of just a few days as the Post reporting team first races to obtain the papers, which their rivals at the New York Times already had, and then Graham agonizes over whether to publish them in defiance of a federal injunction.

All of this was happening at the exact moment the Graham family was taking the company public on the stock exchange, in an effort to transform the Post from a “regional paper” into a titan to rival the Times on a national stage. This little-recognized bit of history, in which Graham had to make her decision knowing it could literally doom the newspaper, adds an extra layer of weight to the film.

Co-screenwriter Singer is fresh off an Oscar win for “Spotlight,” so we again see the painstaking attention to detail of how reporters dig up information, and editors/publishers decide what to do with it. “The Post” is an unsentimental portrait that underscores Bradlee’s rampant ambition; at one point he dispatches an intern to take a train to New York City and spy on the doings at the Times.

Graham and Bradlee are depicted as antagonists rather than allies, at least at first. He sees her as little more than a rich debutante who was handed the reins of a great newspaper after her husband killed himself -- a woman more concerned with society events and friendships with the elite than running a newsroom.

It’s perhaps unkind, but it’s also true: that’s how Graham sees herself. But again: only at first.

“Kathryn, keep your finger out of my eye,” he snarls at her at one point, in an engagement between boss and employee that seems very alien in today’s top-down times.

The rest of the cast is magnificent, and also expansive: Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, the lead reporter on the story; Carrie Coon as Meg Greenfield and David Cross as Howard Simons, other top scribes; Bruce Greenwood as Bob McNamara, former Defense Secretary and personal friend of Graham; Tracy Letts as Fritz Beebe, Graham’s right-hand man and rock; Bradley Whitford as the (overly) timid voice of caution; Matthew Rhys as Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who leaked the papers; Jesse Plemons as the young lawyer brought into defend the Post; and Michael Stuhlbarg as Abe Rosenthal, fierce competitor at the Times, and another Graham friend.

Spielberg’s direction shows the flair of a master who, at age 70, hasn’t lost anything off his fastball. I love the film’s tactile feel -- the dank grayness of the newsroom, the clanky busyness of the typesetters assembling the metal linotype for the next day’s front page. Longtime collaborator John Williams’ musical score paces the movie with energy and solidity.

“The Post” is a lot of things, and certainly a magnificent film is one of them. It’s about getting and running the truth, no matter the consequences. About how those in power use knowledge as something to withhold, distort or wield as a cudgel.

The thing I’ll take away the most from the movie is it’s a woman’s story. Katharine Graham, rich and renowned, suffered from imposter syndrome just as most of us do. She stood up in a world made by men and put her own mark on it.

There’s a terrific moment near the end, where they’re standing on the steps of the Supreme Court after having won a decision against the injunction. Rosenthal and the other men talk into the microphones, pronouncing for posterity. Kay Graham savors the victory for herself, striding down silently past a small sea of women who smile upon her with open admiration and gratitude.

Lovers of free speech, stand up: Your mother’s passing.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Legend of Hell House" (1973)

In 1973, horror was transitioning into its modern form. Prior to that it had always been a marginalized, rather sedate genre -- closer to fantasy than sheer terror. Killer blobs, killer birds, Byron-esque vampires. Horror movies often seemed to feature an erudite male authority figure trying to explain all the weird phenomena away, at least until he gets his comeuppance.

Roger Corman, Hammer Films and a few others were decidedly different with a gleeful, schlocky approach, though they rarely punctuated the upper levels of mainstream cinematic consciousness. Horror was seen as kiddie movies, and were pitched as such: scary, but not too scary.

George Romero changed things with 1968's "Night of the Living Dead," which actually tickled the primeval fear centers of the brain, not to mention featuring some rather gory violence. But Romero's next few films were fairly forgettable until the "Dead" sequel came a decade later.

Things really got kicked into high gear with the December 1973 release of "The Exorcist," followed by "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" the following year, and "The Shining" the year after that. Six months before "Exorcist" came "The Legend of Hell House," which in many ways stands as the dividing line between new and old horror.

The film, directed by John Hough from a screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on his own book, can be seen today as the wellspring of the "haunted house" subgenre, in which all the action (or nearly so) takes place in a single supernatural location. We can see a lot of its features in subsequent films, from "Poltergeist" on up.

The setup is straightforward: four people spend a week in the Belasco House, the "Mount Everest of haunted houses," at the behest of a decrepit old tycoon (Roland Culver). Each of three experts is to be paid £100,000 -- almost $1.5 million in today's dollars -- to discover if "survival after death" is factually possible. The lineup:
  • Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), a renowned physicist specializing in the study of the occult. He plays the role of the rational doubter, always tut-tutting others' fears.
  • Ann Barrett (Gayle Hunnicutt), Dr. Barrett's wife and extraordinarily unwise +1. 
  • Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), a young medium and spirtualist who is the most attuned to the house's evil emanations.
  • Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowell), another medium and the only survivor -- of sound mind and body, anyway -- from the last attempt to penetrate the mysteries of Belasco House 20 years ago, when he was just a teenager.
The one thing I couldn't help noticing about the story is that the investigators fulfill their contractual obligations within the first day or two, as objects start flying and voices begin moaning. Barrett is using cameras, microphones and more sophisticated equipment to record it all. So they could all have decamped by Tuesday supper, collected their fees and lived happily ever after.

Instead, they determine to solve the puzzle of "Roaring Giant" Emeric Belasco, the debauched millionaire who built the house decades earlier and disappeared after his family was massacred. For some reason this involves spending nights at the house, where they're more vulnerable to the nefarious energies that swirl about there, particularly of the erotic kind. 

Both Hunnicutt and Franklin have nude scenes -- rather chaste by today's standards, as the film did carry a PG rating from the then-new MPAA -- and experience invasions by spirits that compel them to engage in sexual endeavors. 

Ann, rebuffed by her unaffectionate husband, throws herself at Ben, not once but twice, including a memorable suggestion that the four visitors engage in an orgy. Florence, convinced that the primary presence in the house is Daniel Belasco, the lord's tortured son, agrees to let him have ghost-sex with her if it'll calm his restless spirit.

(Spoiler: it doesn't. Whether corporeal or not, men will say anything to a woman to get laid.)

Interestingly, the events take place in the days leading up to Christmas, though the significance of that is never commented upon. The days of the week would put the story as set in 1971 rather than '72.

It's an interesting movie, though not a particularly scary one by modern standards or even, I should think, those of its day. It's a whole lot of talking, questioning, arguing, with a few interruptions by doors that open and close themselves, falling chandeliers, that sort of thing. There's never any sort of physical manifestations of the Belasco spirits. 

The performances are enervating, especially Franklin as a nascent goth girl type of figure, dressing in witch-y clothing. As Ben, McDowell seems largely constipated during most of the film, concentrating his energies internally rather than outward in a protective stance. Given he barely survived his last encounter with the house, we're never provided a compelling reason why he would return.

Much is made in the story about the difference between Ben and Florence's abilities, with the former being a physical medium and the latter a mental medium. These terms are banded about nonchalantly, as if the audience should understand the difference -- or even what a medium is, for that matter. The distinction also grows increasingly meaningless as the movie goes on, with Florence manifesting physical effects of her communion with lost souls, and Ben engaging directly with the spirit of Belasco in the final confrontation.

Speaking of which, the final battle and outcome is rather disappointing. It seems the great mystery of Belasco (spoiler ahead) is that he was actually short, rather than the 6-foot-5 behemoth he purported to be. Ben taunts him as a sawed-off runt he doubts was five feet tall. Belasco even took the dire measure of amputating his own legs so longer prosthetic ones could be installed. 

Talk about the mother of all Napoleon complexes. But I have to say, "He killed because he was wee" does not exactly make for a compelling keystone for a vortex of supernatural evil.

Barrett's plan is to use his big whirring machine as a "reverser" to drain the house of the electromagnetic energy that has built up there over the years. It's totally gobbledygook, but it works, or at least mostly but not entirely, for reasons we shall see.

"The Legend of Hell House" is an interesting film, though not an especially good one. It's more notable for its place in the history of horror than any substantial terror generated. Brasher, wetter fare was still just around the corner.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Video review: "Dunkirk"

A very atypical war movie, “Dunkirk” shows us the plight of the Allies during the lowest point of World War II, when hundreds of thousands of British troops were trapped on the shores of France with no way to get home. It’s a story of heroism, rather than individual heroes.

There are characters – the cast includes Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Jack Lowden, Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles and Mark Rylance – but they exist more as archetypes than specific people. Most of them are not even named, and their dialogue is restricted to the mission at hand.

There are no wistful remembrances of girls back home, or what job you had before the war, such as in “Saving Private Ryan.” Director/writer Christopher Nolan keeps his camera’s eye focused on the immediate peril, the mad dash to survive, and the nobility that ensued.

You might be surprised to find how little fighting there is in the film. Aside from an aerial dogfight and a few volleys of gunfire here and there, the movie’s intensity comes from the fear of death more than the actual depiction of it. Hans Zimmer’s musical score gives us beats and notes without much clear semblance of a melody.

If it sounds like I’m criticizing the film, I’m not. I appreciated how “Dunkirk” took a very different approach to depicting war, focusing more on the you-are-there experience of it rather than the geopolitical forces or personalities.

The film’s true triumph comes in showing us that, nearly 80 years on, there are still new stories to tell about that terrible conflict, and new ways of telling them.

Bonus features are quite extensive, and are the same for the DVD or Blu-ray editions. They consist of 16 making-of featurettes, each focused on a specific part of production. Like the film itself, they are divided into sections of Land, Air and Sea, along with another section dubbed “Creation.”

Collectively they essentially form a feature-length documentary about the making of “Dunkirk,” covering everything from camera work to the air battles and conjuring a flotilla of small private boats.



Thursday, December 14, 2017

Review: "Ferdinand"

It's interesting that the two best animated films of the year -- "Coco" and "Ferdinand," in that order -- have an overt Latin theme. "Ferdinand" is set in Spain against the backdrop of the popular national sport of bullfighting. It is an egregiously cruel and useless endeavor, but rather than take angry shots at bullfighting, "Ferdinand" shows us the pull of the opposite of aggressiveness and violence.

"Ferdinand" is a film about love, but also about masculinity. It's no mistake that there are literally zero female cows in this story, which focuses on young bull calves and later grown adults. They have been reared their entire lives being taught that the best -- and only -- joy in their lives will come from being selected by a matador to fight in the ring.

The matadors are, of course, still batting 1.000 in the ongoing contest, but the bulls don't know that. They are bulls, so the only legitimate form of behavior is to be aggressive and competitive with all other bulls.

Sound familiar? The nexus of sports and male behavior is often a toxic space.

Then along comes Ferdinand, a gentle little calf who prefers sniffing flowers to fighting. He's mocked by the other young bulls at the Casa de la Toro, a breeding and training ranch for their kind, and not a little bullying takes place. But he eventually escapes that crucible and grows up on a remote farm raised by a gentle girl, who nurtures that side of him.

And grow he does. Ferdinand ends up as a truly monstrous-sized bull, bigger than even than the greatest champion bulls of old. But he doesn't care about being the biggest or the strongest -- he just enjoys his life of quiet and peace.

(He is voiced by John Cena, which is a rather contradictory choice for a character who hates battle. I guess you could argue that since Cena is a fake fighter, that makes it somehow OK.)

Later Ferdinand finds himself back on the bull ranch, where he's once again forced to vie for a spot in the ring, or be sent to the meat factory next door.

He finds that his old tormentors have grown up, and added a few new faces. There is Valiente (Bobby Cannavale), chief bully and enforcer of the bull code. Peyton Manning does the voice of Guapo, who acts as Valiente's wingman but has star aspirations of his own. Anthony Anderson is Bones, the undersized bull who joins in the treatment of Ferdinand, mostly because he would be the next logical target.

David Tennant does the voice of Angus, a woolly bull from Scotland who can't see very well because of the long hair in his eyes. And Tim Nordquist is Maquina, the result of genetic splicing who doesn't speak much and has very robotic qualities.

Kate McKinnon delights as Lupe, a "calming goat" assigned to Ferdinand to keep him chill, but ends up acting as his bullfighting coach. She's a typical animated sidekick, mostly there for comic relief, but she also provides a lot of heart and not a little wisdom.

There's also a trio of trouble-making hedgehogs, another threesome of smug horses who all have Germanic accents for some reason, and El Primero, the aging matador (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), who insists on fighting the greatest bull for his final match.

"Ferdinand" has all the ingredients for an enjoyable kiddie flick -- plenty of action, cute critter antics, a bit of gastrointestinal humor. But it's the deeper themes that give the film surprising weight and meaning. Just like the bull who prefers flowers, this is a different kind of animated film that wants to do more than merely entertain.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Review: "The Shape of Water"

The greatest compliment I can give to a filmmaker is they make movies that aren’t like anybody else’s.

I didn’t much care for director Guillermo del Toro’s first few American films, but then I discovered his early Mexican stuff and fell in love. Subsequent efforts like “Pacific Rim” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” are films I cherish deeply.

Even when he wandered into a hothouse of Gothic silliness with “Crimson Peak,” I appreciated that it represented a singular vision unlike no other.

Like all of del Toro’s films, “The Shape of Water” defies easy convention. It contains elements of fantasy, horror, science fiction, comedy and even, most surprisingly, romance. Like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” it has a timeless quality, as if the story could have taken place a long time ago or a few years from now.

It’s a deeply affecting film that makes us feel and also makes us think. And it boasts no less than a half-dozen terrific performances worthy of consideration during the awards season. Even characters at the edges of the story feel complete and fully drawn.

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute youngish woman. In the opening minutes we observe her go through the quotidian routine of her day: waking, getting dressed, boiling eggs, shining shoes, a quick round of masturbation in the bathtub -- timed to coincide with the eggs, no less.

I liked that del Toro, who wrote the screenplay with Vanessa Taylor, included this last bit. It’s shocking, and it’s meant to be -- watching the main character get naked and rub one out moments after we’ve meant her. But it clues us in that Elisa is not some sexless fawn who deserves our pity because of her handicap, but a vibrant woman full of corners and contradictions.

After her amazing turn in “Maudie” earlier this year, it seems clear that Hawkins’ biggest competition for the Best Actress Oscar is… Sally Hawkins. She shows us Elisa’s yearning and doubt, but also her bravery and pride. What women.

Her entire life seems to be taken up with two things: her job, working as a cleaning lady at a secretive military laboratory, and her friendship with her next-door neighbor, Giles. Played by Richard Jenkins with humor and grace, he’s a fussy, aging commercial artist who frets about his baldness and loneliness. He repeatedly visits an awful pie franchise simply to chat up the sweet young boy working the counter. We get the sense, without it ever being stated, that Giles lost his day job because of his romantic impulses.

The lab where Elisa toils with her loyal friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is a dank underground steampunk denizen of white coat-wearing scientists and gruff military types tromping to and fro. We half expect to glimpse through an open door and see James Bond strapped down with a laser pointed at his nethers.

One day a hard man named Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives with a secretive container holding a wild water creature that he has captured. Elisa is repulsed by the man but strangely drawn to the captive.

Strickland is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, the sort who wields his privilege as a weapon. He is the man who never fails, because he is always willing to take whatever steps are necessary to reach his goals. To him it’s a simple equation: do your duty, reap the rewards -- rank, prosperity, family, a glossy new 1962 Cadillac DeVille that is most definitely teal and not green.

Elisa starts spending her lunches in the lab with the creature, and soon finds he’s not the fearsome, mindless beast Strickland would have everyone believe. She starts to bring him eggs to eat, plays music to soothe and even discovers he can be taught to use her sign language.

Things go from there… though not in the way we expect.

Doug Jones, a master of costumed performance, plays the amphibious man, with the help of a little CGI. He slightly resembles the Creature from the Black Lagoon, with some outer space alien added in.

The other notable character is Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), the chief scientist overseeing the creature. He objects to Strickland’s rough treatment, including the use of a cattle prod. He wants to learn from their captive rather than experiment upon him. At first coming across as a soulless technologist, Stuhlbarg’s wide, wet eyes clue us into a man whose heart is pulled in several directions.

The best thing about “The Shape of Water” is that we feel like the story could follow any one of these characters down their individual path and still feel satisfied with the journey. And to a large extent, the film actually does that.

It’s a story of two that is actually about many. We’re all connected -- sometimes in ways that are obvious, often more mysteriously.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Video review: "Kingsmen: The Golden Circle"

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” was a dashing, original and highly entertaining flick that spoofed the conventions of the spy genre while generally adhering to them. Its much-anticipated sequel, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” is none of those things.

This bewilderingly limp follow-up brings back the same cast and creative team, yet fails to recapture the magic. It’s got too many characters, a non-scary villain and seems too in love with itself to spare any affection for its audience.

You may remember that in the last movie, veteran superspy Galahad (Colin Firth) was killed, shot through the head. This proves only a mild inconvenience, as he’s resurrected in short order, minus one eye and lacking any memories. Though we just know his killer skills are residing there, Bourne-like, underneath the timid exterior.

Galahad protégé Percival (Taron Edgerton) takes center stage, as nearly the entire Kingsmen coterie of spies is wiped out by Poppy (Julianne Moore), who controls the world’s drug trade from her secret headquarters deep in the jungle, which she’s built to resemble her nostalgic middle America childhood. She has a plan to hold the world’s drug addicts hostage unless the governments pay her a massive ransom.

The key new wrinkle, the introduction of an American version of the Kingsmen, turns out to be the film’s biggest disappointment. They’re Statesmen, Kentucky whiskey-brewin’ cowboys in Stetsons – which suggests the British filmmakers can’t distinguish the New South from the Old West. Channing Tatum turns up as their best and brightest, but he’s soon sidelined in favor of a lesser operative (Pedro Pascal). Jeff Bridges chews his dialogue like cud as their top kick.

Director Matthew Vaughn still has the chops for some seriously fancy action scenes, as the camera spins around the combatants like an untethered raven, the action speeding up or slowing down as aesthetics needs be.

Whenever the bullets and blades aren’t flying, though, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is a cringe-worthy retread that’s more embarrassing than enjoyable.

Bonus features are pretty decent. The DVD comes with the “Kingsman Archives,” a collection of concept art photos and behind-the scenes stills, plus “Black Cab Chaos: Anatomy of a Killer Case.”

Upgrade to the Blu-ray edition and you add a feature-length making-of documentary film focusing on everything from the Kingsmen and Statesmen’s respective gear, “Suited and Booted,” to visual effects and Elton John’s guest-starring appearance.



Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review: "The Disaster Artist"

I am a virgin to “The Room,” at least the movie from end to end, though it exists as such a monumental cultural touchstone now that it’s impossible to be totally ignorant of its sideways charms.

Often called “the Citizen Kane of bad movies,” it has gone on to become a cult hit for its atrocious acting and nonsensical plot, with people packing midnight screenings to howl in laughter and shout out the dialogue in unison with the film, the same way their parents did for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Google it and you’ll find a multitude of gifs and memes, often centered around writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau’s hilariously inept line delivery (“You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”), vague Eurotrash accent and odd looks -- like an ‘80s hair band singer unaware of the passage of time and the fading of fame.

Showbiz people have long been fascinated by “The Room” and Wiseau, and indeed “The Disaster Artist” begins with a montage of (mostly) recognizable celebrities talking about how gobsmacked they were by the film. Director and star James Franco, along with screenwriters Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, have clearly created their movie as combination homage to/mockery of Wiseau.

He may have been a ridiculously inept filmmaker, but nobody can deny the man his commitment and passion, reportedly sinking $6 million of his own money into the project. No dummy, Wiseau has spent the years since “The Room” came out proclaiming that he meant it to be a comedy all along.

James Franco nails Wiseau’s Schwarzenegger-meets-Phonics speech patterns and odd affectations, and we get a great deal of amusement out of him and the film. I’m not sure if the movie ever truly gets us deep inside his head and reveals what makes him tick. As the closing scroll reminds us, to this day nobody is exactly certain of where Wiseau is from, how he got his fortune or even his real age.

Tommy befriends a wannabe teen actor, Greg Sestero, played by Franco’s real-life brother, Dave. Together they move to Los Angeles to be struggling young actors… although they don’t really struggle too much, as Tommy drives a white Mercedes and already had an apartment in L.A. in addition to the one in San Francisco. He resists any questions about his background, claiming to be from New Orleans, or the source of his prodigious wealth.

Greg is tickled to have someone supporting him financially and emotionally, and the pair set about the usual round of auditions and agency interviews, with hilariously predictable results.

At an acting class, Tommy is distraught when the teacher tells him he’s a natural screen villain, refusing to be laughed at or placed in a box. To buck him up, Greg says he should make his own movie, and we’re off to the races.

Tommy cranks out a script, drops a load of cash on a fourth-rate movie studio and hires a bunch of film veterans before they’ve barely finished their introduction. Seth Rogen gets in a lot of comic digs as the script supervisor who often acts as the de facto director, as Tommy’s on-set antics and abuse continue to spiral as the shoot goes along.

June Diane Raphael, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson and Jacki Weaver play members of the cast, actors who desperately want a paying gig on a feature film but soon recognize they’ve signed up for a one-man disaster parade. They’re the real unsung heroes of “The Room.”

The primary dynamic of the movie is the relationship between Tommy and Greg, who gets cast as the second lead in “The Room.” Greg gradually begins to realize he must separate himself from Tommy’s chaotic influence, helped by the urging of his new girlfriend (Alison Brie). The Franco brothers play off each other very nicely, keeping things comedic without tipping over into daffy.

Bad movies are not exactly a novel concept for good filmmakers. Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” lampooned a man far weirder than Wiseau. “Troll 2” might argue about which film truly deserves the crown of “Best Worst Movie,” as it also had a documentary made about it that used that title.

“The Disaster Artist” is a very fun and entertaining film that amuses and informs, without every truly getting below the surface of these characters. Purely on amusement factors, I give it Hi Marks.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Panic in Needle Park" (1971)

"You rat up, you don't rat down."
                                     --Detective Hotchner

"The Panic in Needle Park" was Al Pacino's second official screen role, but the first one of any consequence. It's mostly remembered today for that reason, though his co-star, Kitty Winn, actually won the best actress award at the Cannes festival in her own first starring role. But her career faded pretty quickly after this and the "Exorcist" films, and she retired from screening acting in 1978.

It's a pretty staggering performance by Pacino, his screen presence already fully formed and filled with that agitated vigor that would become his hallmark. His Bobby, a low-level street hustler and drug dealer, is a charming sweetheart when there's plenty of heroin to be had, but a manipulative lout when there's a panic -- aka an extended period of short supply.

Decades before "Kids" or "Trainspotting," "Panic" offered a grisly glimpse of drug-addicted youths hanging around Sherman Square Park, a meager finger of vegetation crammed along Broadway on the Upper West Side of New York City. The film was considered very shocking for its day -- it was even banned in several countries -- and is believed to be the first mainstream movie that depicted people injecting themselves with needles.

The nomenclature is a bit dated, as you might expect. Sleeping with someone is "making it" or, in more negative connotations, "balling." Users refer to their product, mostly heroin, as "junk." Or they just use vague references to available quantity: "Got any?" or "I need some." Though they are hesitant to refer to themselves as "junkies," preferring to say they're "chipping" -- using because they want to, not because they need to.

In their universal delusion, everyone is "chipping," especially Bobby and his new old lady.

Seen today, it's an episodic film that rambles through the highs and lows of the junkie lifestyle without a particularly cohesive narrative. It follows the perspective of Helen (Winn), a nice girl from Fort Wayne, Ind., who gradually dissolves into the counterculture, moving downward in association from artists to street scamps to whacked-out users, eventually becoming a prostitute and dealer herself.

Her lowest point, not actually depicted in the movie, is when she sells pills conned out of a doctor to some kids, and is arrested by "Hotch," aka Detective Hotchner (Alan Vint). The local "narco" cop, Hotch wears a leather jacket and long hair, drives around in a beat-up VW Bug and has more or less made Needle Park, aka Sherman Square, his own stomping grounds.

Hotch knows all the junkies, coexists with them on a largely peaceful basis of shared enmity, occasionally busting one of them and using them as leverage against their fellows. There's not much animosity among the ostensible friends, who understand the game and realize there are times they will be ratted out, just as there are times they will be the rat. Occasionally someone disappears from the park for awhile, then turns up again a few months later after their stint in jail is up.

As long as there is heroin and needles to be shared, this squalid form of friendship abides.

Richard Bright, best known as the enforcer Al Neri from the "Godfather" films, turns up as Hank, Bobby's older brother. He's a career criminal himself, but carries himself around wearing suits and a superior smirk. He's chipping too, but doesn't sully himself with handling the junk, sticking to burglaries of high-end apartments.

Hank will clear $600 in a single night (about $3,700 in today's dollars) and brags that he's never been caught, because he breaks toothpicks in the door lock in case the owners come home while he's burglarizing, and he can hop out the fire escape. He tries to help Bobby by bringing him in as a partner, but Bobby overdoses on the night of the job. They try again the next day, but a cop wanders into the alley and Bobby is sent off to the hoosegow for a few months.

During the break, Helen sleeps with Hank to keep her supply of dope rolling. Initially resistant to using, especially after seeing how Bobby turns into an inert zombie while high, she soon becomes a serious addict.

Both Pacino and Winn do impressive jobs playing high, wandering between euphoria and paranoia, with every stop in between. In one of the most memorable scenes, they decide to shoot up in the men's room of the Long Island ferry after buying a puppy on a whim. "I don't wanna be up while you're coming down!" Bobby snarls. He makes her put the whining pup outside the door, which quickly scampers off the edge of the deck and is lost in the swirling drink.

Other notable actors making early stops in their career are Raul Julia and Paul Sorvino. Julia plays Marco, the uncaring artist who got Helen pregnant, forcing her to undergo an unsafe and unsanitary abortion in the film's opening sequence. Bobby, turning up at Marco's studio to sell junk, takes pity on her and treats her kindly. That leads to them hooking up when Marco decamps to Mexico.

Sorvino's part is much smaller, as an agitated john of Helen's during her prostitution phase, who presses charges when she steals $75 out of his wallet.

"Panic" had an interesting genesis. It started out as a photographic essay of real junkies in Sherman Square published in serial form by Life magazine in 1965 by James Mills, who later turned it into a fictionalized novel. Husband-and-wife writing team Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne ("A Star Is Born") wrote the screenplay after John's brother optioned the rights.

Director Jerry Schatzberg had only made one other film following his own career in photojournalism, and would go on to direct a number of other notable films, including "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Street Smart," which launched Morgan Freeman's career.

Schatzberg goes for a very spare cinema verite style that works well with the film's sober, intimate tone. He even chose to throw out the entire musical score composed by Ned Rorem, relying on street sounds and chatter to from the movie's acoustic background.

"The Panic in Needle Park" isn't a great film in of itself, but it is a notable one worth revisiting. In addition to launching the career of Pacino and a bunch of other people, it depicted without varnish the toll hard drugs exact upon the flesh -- and the souls -- of people who think poison can replace what's missing.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Video review: "Despicable Me 3"

The “Despicable Me” franchise has gotten progressively more cutesy-futesy as time has gone one. The third iteration is still a decent family animated picture, though one built more for children than parents.

Some movies are great for the whole family. Others are ones you set up the kids with in the living room along with popcorn and spill-proof cups, while you go into the next room and stream “Game of Thrones” or what you have you. This is the latter.

Steve Carell is back again as the voice of Gru, spewing a thick, vaguely Slavic accent as a former criminal mastermind-turned-good guy. Gru went from basically being Dr. Evil from the “Austin Powers” movies to a happy, well-adjusted dude with a wife (voice of Kristen Wiig) and three adopted daughters.

Things go south for him quickly when he and Mrs. Gru -- not actually her name -- are booted from the international Anti-Villain League after they fail to capture Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), an ‘80s child star who has turned into the super-villain he used to play on TV.

Complicating matters further is the introduction of the twin brother Gru didn’t know about, Dru, who’s seemingly much happier, without Gru’s drippy bouts of melancholy but with a fabulous bouffant blond hairdo that contrasts grandly with his own chrome dome.

They get along well despite that, but then Gru recruits Dru to help him foil Bratt’s latest dastardly scheme, which involves a giant robot and bubblegum. Meanwhile, Dru is a little bored with the superspy gig and wants to get back to the family roots of dastardly deeds.

The uppity yellow minions, fresh off their own hit movie, are back with the usual gibberish songs and silly antics. As usual, they’re the best thing about the film.

Both “Despicable Me 3” and “Minions” grossed a billion dollars apiece at the box office, so expect to see a continuous helping of these movies for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, they’ll try harder to balance the zippy kid-friendly antics with a few more in-jokes to keep the adults tuned in.

Bonus features are pretty good, and include an all-new short film, “The Secret Life of Kyle.” There is also a making-of documentary, character profiles, one deleted scene, a “Minion Moments” feature, music video, mug shots and wanted posters, a sing-a-long with Pharrell and the Minions, a visitor’s guide to the Gru home country of Freedonia, and an Anti-Villain League database of secret spy stuff.



Sunday, November 26, 2017

Video review: "Crown Heights"

File “Crown Heights” under the category of terrific films that got buried in the rush of late summer/early fall releases. Lakeith Stanfield, one of the best young actors working today, stars in this prison drama based on the true story of a man wrongfully convicted of murder who had to fight for decades to receive his freedom, and justice.

He plays Colin Warner, a car thief and low-level criminal who gets picked up in connection with a shooting. Not only was he not even there when it happened, he didn’t know the victim or the real assailant. But through a massive miscarriage of the law, he finds himself sentenced to a long prison term at age 18, while the actual shooter serves minimal time because he was still 17.

Writer/director Matt Ruskin follows Colin for decades as he tries to have the conviction reversed, as various lawyers of various levels of commitment come and go. Stanfield gives a masterful turn as a meek kid who gradually grows up into adulthood and then middle age, gaining strength and resolve.

I also really admired Nnamdi Asomugha as Carl King, Colin’s one friend on the outside who doesn’t give up on his case, even as his devotion extracts sacrifices in his own personal life. Natalie Paul plays Antoinette, who had a teen flirtation with Colin that unexpectedly is rekindled while he is in prison.

It’s easy to miss small, superlative films during the course of a year. But “Crown Heights” is a powerful, gripping drama about a flawed but innocent man striving to preserve his own life.

Alas, this film is being released on video without any bonus features.



Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Review: "Last Flag Flying"

Just a short review today, as I'm in the midst of the holiday/awards season rush and watching movies at a brisk pace.

"Last Flag Flying" is pretty much writer/director Richard Linklater's attempt to do his version of "The Last Detail," the seminal 1973 film that helped launch Jack Nicholson's career about a pair of soldiers taking a comrade to military prison. It's a physical and metaphysical journey. Though instead of young bucks, we follow a trio of former Marines 30+ years after they served in Vietnam.

Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston all give very naturalist, lived-in performances as once-close buddies who have gone their separate ways. Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Carell) was the youngest of the bunch (he technically served in the Navy) and the meekest, and still is. Richard Mueller (Fishburne), once known as "the Mauler" for his outrageous behavior, has become an easygoing reverend with a bum leg. Sal (Cranson) is the least changed of the bunch, a party animal and womanizer who is constantly cracking jokes and drinking.

The reason for their ad-hoc reunion is tragic: Doc's only child has died while serving with the Marines in Iraq, and he wants his old buddies with him to pick up the body and bury him. The story is set in 2003, and there is a caustic political tinge that marries the two wars -- how the government uses its fighting men poorly, then lies to their families about the true nature of their mission and their deaths. Darryl Ponicsan, upon whose book the movie is based, co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater.

The movie is essentially one freewheeling two-hour-long conversation, as the men make their way by car, train and bus on a circuitous trip to and from the military base. They talk about their lives, their marriages and relationships, their disappointments. Old memories are shared with warmth and laughter, like good scotch swirled in a favorite tumbler.

Much is spoken, but much is also left unsaid. There was a terrible event that occurred during their service, which resulted in another Marine dying and Doc serving time in the military brig for two years. The details are left hazy.

Cranston has a lot of fun with his part, the extroverted loudmouth who spends much of the early going trying to get a rise out of the good reverend. (He does.) He leans a little too heavily on a stumblebum accent replete with "deez" and "doze."

Carell is the polar opposite, quiet and polite, though he shows some determination with regards to the disposition of his son's resting place. Fishburne is charismatic and centered, and the film lets him talk about his faith without the usual winking or mockery.

J. Quinton Johnson plays Washington, a young Marine who served with Doc's kid and ends up accompanying them on part of their trip. Yul Vazquez plays the colonel in charge of the grieving detail, whose politeness masks other impulses.

"Last Flag Flying" was touted as a contender for the awards season, and while I liked it quite a bit I don't see it as being in that stratosphere. It's a sad, funny portrait of soldiers still coming to terms with who they were as youngsters, and the old men they are slowly becoming. It's intimate, insightful and never hits a false note.