Monday, January 30, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Barbarella" (1968)

So it turns out the most lasting cultural impact of "Barbarella" is boobs.

The movie came out in late 1968 at almost the exact same time the new MPAA rating system went into effect, becoming one of the first mainstream films to feature a copious amount of nudity and sex. The opening credit sequence where star Jane Fonda strips down from her space suit to her birthday suit, her lithe body somewhat obscured by some cheekishly flickering titles, remains an iconic moment in cinema.

Admittedly, the sexual encounters are largely implied or spoofed. But there's nakedness aplenty apart from Fonda's occasional dropping frock, and at one point her character is placed inside a machine that's supposed to kill her with sexual pleasure, only the power of Barbarella's orgasms overwhelm the gizmo.

Not too bad for a PG rating. (F'reals.)

A little boob and butt may not seem like such a big deal a half-century hence. But the fact that American movies were again willing -- after a fleeting acceptance of nudity in silent films -- to show the human body in its entirety finally put cinema on an equal footing with other visual arts like sculpture, photography and painting.

Since then Hollywood has gone back and forth on how much flesh it is willing to show, including our current atmosphere where it seems like it's more common to see a penis than a vagina. (Don't squawk, fellas: we held an overwhelming advantage in that regard for well past a century.)

"Barbarella" helped usher in a new era of moviemaking that wasn't strictly aimed at families with kiddies, and we're all better for it.

The fact remains, however, that even the most generous contemporary reading of the film and its legacy comes to the conclusion that "Barbarella" is am embarrassingly awful POS.

It has achieved "cult" status almost from the moment it came out, because the movie is so ridiculously silly that it's hard to take the humor at face value. We never quite feel like the film is in on its own joke. Camp can go quickly from self-ridicule to pathetic pandering. Maybe people laughed with "Barbarella" in 1968, but in 2017 we can't help but laugh at it.

Producer/master of schlock Dino De Laurentiis put the project together based on the French comic book about a space traveler/sex adventuress. Screenwriter Terry Southern punched out a cheeky script, only to see director Roger Vadim and six Italians receive billing alongside him.

According to legend Southern didn't know about the story changes until he saw the other men's credits onscreen. And there were at least a half-dozen more writers who contributed without credit, dashing off revisions even as the cameras rolled. Fonda herself has claimed that they shut down production several times, ostensibly due to her own illness, but really so the next scenes could be written.

After her nude appearance in the opening, Barbarella gets naked again after her spaceship crashes on a planet near the city of Sogo, and she hooks up with a hirsute "Catchman" (Ugo Tognazzi). She offers him any reward for saving her life and he requests sex the old-fashioned way, not the 41st century method of taking a pill and having a vibrating commune through the touching of hands. Barbarella finds the experience... invigorating.

From there, Barbarella's displays come mostly through costume changes, including outfits where one or two breasts are seen through transparent cups, or partial destruction of her clothes. Background characters take up the slack, however, with a multitude of bare-chested/bottomed residents of Sogo or the surrounding labyrinth of exiles. It's enough to make a voyeur's fingers work overtime over the pause/rewind buttons.

It's difficult for me to conceive that in the 1960s Jane Fonda was largely regarded as an inconsequential sex kitten. We're so used to modern conceptions of her as a serious actress, Hanoi Jane, exercise matriarch and now aged icon. But Henry's little girl was still evolving back then.

Vadim was married to Fonda at the time, and he reportedly pursued several other screen vixens, including Bridget Bardot and Sophia Loren, before settling on the missus. She attacks the part with a mix of confident verve and shrinking neuroticism. Her Barbarella is erotic but reactive, a feminist icon who lets the men (and one potential female mate) make all the first moves.

Barbarella has been sent to Sogo by the Earth president to find the wayward scientist Durand Durand, who has developed the first weapon in centuries. (This did give the idea for a name to the '80s pop band, ironically by dropping a pair of double D's.) She eventually finds him, played by Milo O'Shea, having taken on the role of the concierge to the city's Great Tyrant, the Black Queen (Anita Pallenberg, her voice dubbed by Joan Greenwood).

Durand has been ravaged by age while experimenting with the Mathmos, an ocean of volatile liquid energy underneath Sogo that is fed by negative emotions and thoughts. His goal is to overthrow the queen and then take over Earth, except that she is always protected by the robot-like sentinels, the Black Guard.

We actually see the queen a little earlier, dressed up with an eye patch and an outfit with a transparent crotch, doing the emperor's old act of pretending to be a commoner -- in her case, to cavort with the idle and willing. She comes onto Barbarella, calling her "Pretty Pretty," but things don't culminate that way.

David Hemmings turns up as Dildano, the leader of a bumpkin rebel movement that seems to consist entirely of his unkempt bachelor pad of a headquarters, also located underneath Sogo. (Why not awash in Mathmos goo, we know not.) He makes a deal with Barbarella to get her into the queen's Chamber of Dreams, and they share a hair-raising sexcapade using the contemporary Earth method.

Master of mime Marcel Marceau has a small part as Professor Ping, one of the outcasts in the labyrinth.

The other notable character is Pygar, an angel (or "ornithanthrope," as he calls himself) who has been blinded and left unable to fly. He's fixed up after a romp with Barbarella, and becomes her ally and main mode of transport after that.

Tall, tan, muscular and blond, I thought at first that Pygar must be played by a young Terence Stamp after some peroxide and time at the beach. But it's actually John Phillip Law, who had a brief heyday as a sex symbol in the late 1960s and early '70s. This was a throwback to a time when Hollywood freely accepted fair-haired fellows as virile examples of masculinity, unlike today.

The look of "Barbarella" was considered quite astonishing for its time, what with the lasers and robots and spaceships. And this was not a low-budget film (somewhere between $4 million and $9 million, depending on who you ask.) But when you consider that this movie came out the same year as "2001: A Space Odyssey," it looks like positively primordial science fiction.

Part of this was intentional, as "Barbarella" is meant as fun, not cerebral rumination. The floating or flying scenes are quite obviously accomplished with wires or tilted cameras, giving the movie a funhouse aspect. The whole thing feels grubby and cheap, but not without titillation.

Today it operates mostly as an exercise in voyeurism. The inheritors of "Barbarella" came not in the sci-fi realm but in soft-core movies like the Emmanuel series, with our heroine a somewhat naive lass wandering through an alien landscape of bacchanalia and carnal revelry, in which she is invited to partake.

Part sex tourism, part futurist plaything and whole lot inept craftsmanship, "Barbarella" is one of those films that became important without ever actually being any good.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Video review: "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back"

Tom Cruise pretty well gets the hell beaten out of him in “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.” His character, an ex-military investigator turned freelance do-gooder, has all the hand-to-hand skills we’ve seen before in the movies. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get hit, or feel pain when he does.

Cruise, arguably the biggest movie star in the world for 30 years, seems to be downshifting into more ordinarily human characters as he gets older. Unlike his Ethan Hunt from the “Mission: Impossible” series, Jack Reacher doesn’t have an international spy infrastructure or tons of space-age gadgets at his disposal. He does most everything he needs to with his fists, or a few well-placed threats.

In this second go-round, Reacher finds that his main contact at military headquarters in D.C. (Cobie Smulders) is being investigated for espionage. Soon enough he’s the target of the same suspicions, and he’s busted her out of jail so the two of them can conduct their own detective work while on the lam from the feds.

Complicating things is Samantha (Danika Yarosh), a teen who’s being threatened as leverage against Reacher, who supposedly is her long-lost father. We’re not quite sure if it’s true, but it doesn’t really matter because Reacher is not the sort to let an innocent kid get squeezed for him.

The action scenes are exciting yet believable, and the simple wind-up plot -- talk, chase, fight; talk, chase, fight -- does exactly what it’s supposed to do.

Some films have pretensions of being more than they are, but the cool thing about “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is that it never forgets that it’s meant to be pure popcorn fun.

Bonus features are middling, though you’ll have to spring for the Blu-ray upgrade to get them, as the DVD has none. The Blu-ray comes with six making-of mini-documentaries: “Reacher Returns,” “An Unexpected Family,” “Relentless: On Location in Louisiana,” “Take Your Revenge First: Lethal Combat,” “No Quarter Given: Rooftop Battle” and “Reacher in Focus: With Tom Cruise and Photographer David James.”



Thursday, January 26, 2017

Review: "A Dog's Purpose"

“A Dog’s Purpose” is an unrepentant tearjerker, as movies about dogs often are.

There’s just an indescribable purity about a dog. Treat it well, and it will return that to you in the form of boundless love. A dog will wait hours in your office while you do stuff they consider dreadfully boring (like writing a movie review), hoping for a chance at five minutes of playtime.

They may not be great for the pocketbook -- how much for flea medicine again?? -- but when it comes to spiritual replenishment, the ROI on dogs cannot be beaten.

Director Lasse Hallström, who made the seminal “My Life As a Dog” 30-odd years ago, gives us a fanciful tale of a super canine, a red retriever named Bailey who lives out several lives during the course of the movie, always being resurrected as a puppy with a new chance at finding its reason for existing.

Josh Gad, with that incredibly flexible voice of his, narrates Bailey as he morphs into Ellie, a German Shepherd police dog, a Corgi named Tito with a tremendous appetite, and a big hound named Buddy. He retains his memories as Bailey, and strives to do good by the humans in his life, despite some of them not being very caring owners.

The strongest relationship is with Ethan, a boy growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s. He’s played by Bryce Gheisar as a kid and K.J. Apa as a teen. They’re inseparable buds, even when Ethan becomes the star quarterback on the high school football team and starts dating Hannah (Britt Robertson), who’s clearly The One.

But dark stuff in Ethan’s family and circumstances push things in a darker direction, with Bailey trying to make sense of it all from his perspective underneath the kitchen table. In his simplistic paradigm where sniffing, eating, playing and licking are the sum total secrets to happiness, humans are a tremendous conundrum.

Let’s talk about controversy. Or rather, nontroversy. There’s a video floating around of one of the dog actors for the film being pushed into water by its trainer during production. It got scared but was not hurt or ever in any danger. Some activist types are pushing a boycott of the movie as a result. Please. People who call that animal abuse have obviously never seen real animal abuse. I did worse than that to my pooch last weekend when she stole a piece of pizza.

It does appear to have had an effect, which it is my duty to report. For starters, the movie is a lot shorter than the 120-minute running time that’s been published. It appears something like 20 minutes have been hastily cut out. The credits also list a bunch more people as screenwriters besides Cathryn Michon, who adapted the novel by W. Bruce Cameron. And the Hollywood premier was scrapped.

OK? Got all that? Let’s get back to reviewing the movie.

This is not an especially clever or sophisticated film. Dogs do things to make us happy, dogs do things to make us sad. Life (or rather, lives) unfold with the requisite mix of joy, betrayal, tragedy and pathos.

I’m not giving anything away in saying that the story eventually returns to Ethan and Hannah, a half-century later, now played by Dennis Quaid and Peggy Lipton. We know what’s going to happen, the dog knows what’s going to happen, and it’s just a matter of waiting until the people catch up.

But doggarnit, if you don’t shed a few tears and crack a few smiles during “A Dog’s Purpose,” then there’s no hope for you.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Video review: "The Handmaiden"

Part family drama, part class intrigue and partly a story of sexual awakening, “The Handmaiden” was one of last year’s most unexpected -- and finest -- films from foreign shores.

Directed by Korean master Chan-wook Park, it’s about a young woman who’s brought in to be the personal servant to a wealthy woman from Japan during that country’s colonial rule of Korea. Their estate an incredibly odd and insular world, where Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) is actually the heiress of all the fabulous wealth, but her uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), acts as her regent and authoritarian master. A dealer in antique erotica, he forces her to recite from the incredibly smutty texts to an elite clientele.

But much is not as it seems. The uncle secretly harbors plans of marrying his niece and then having her committed to an asylum. The girl servant, Tamako (Kim Tae-ri), is actually a thief trained from childhood to steal and beguile. She’s been recruited by Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a master criminal who passes himself off as a count tutoring the heiress, to help ensure that his own courtship of Lady Hideko is not undermined by the uncle.

Then, unexpected things happen. I can’t tell you more about what they are, as the story depends upon keeping its secrets. (Park co-wrote the screenplay with Chung Seo-kyung, based on a novel set in Victorian England by Sarah Waters.) Suffice it to say that that the rich lady and the penniless con artist get caught up in a torrid affair that complicates everything.

(Note: the film is not rated, but contains enough sex/nudity and violent imagery to edge near NC-17 territory.)

With so many double-crosses and hidden intents, it’s hard to discern what emotions are real, and which machinations are ruses. “The Handmaiden” is a fascinating exploration of deceit, love and betrayal.

Alas, it appears this fine film is being given a video release without any extras at all.



Friday, January 20, 2017

The Riddle of Trump

I will cede my #NeverTrump credentials to no one. I spoke out early and forcefully about his candidacy, even when it was a parlor joke. I advocated for other, better candidates (any of the 16 would do). I warned what his nomination would do to the Republican party, and the nation on the remote chance he would win. "The only thing worse than him losing in a landslide is him winning," I warned.

So here we are. My friends, who are overwhelming progressive, are clearly still deep in the anger phase of the coping process, if my Facebook feed is any indication. As I've tried to tell them, you are now where I was last March. I'm long past apoplexy and depression. I'm in the coping stage: "Maybe things won't be cataclysmically awful, after all."

It is my firm belief that the next four years will proceed much as the 75 days between election and inauguration did: chaos, contradictions with his own Cabinet, warring with the media, Twitter hissy fits against Democrats and entertainers who outrage him, and a general ineffectualness.

Barring the launching of a major war -- a remote but not inconceivable possibility -- the nation will bear President Trump like a burden made ever more dreary by the fact it was picked up willingly.

As this articles publishes, I will be lying in a local hospital having cancerous skin cells cut away. No form of cancer is desirable, but mine is the kind that doesn't spread. You have the operation, you pay a steep bill and take home the scar to remember it all by. Maybe in the future you think more about taking better safeguards against harmful energies.

The aptness of this analogy seems pretty evident to me.

Unlike President Obama, whom I've argued he resembles inwardly if not outwardly, Trump's faults are evident for all to see. He seems to have a clinical form of narcissism in which he only regards other people by how they feel about him. If they're complimentary and helpful, they're great. If they criticize him or make fun of him, he'll go on a rage.

He sees no contradiction in praising a person or thing one minute, and calling them the "worst (insert blank here) ever" the next. He seems wholly incapable of letting an insult pass without response. Trump never learned the lesson that there's rarely a benefit in "punching down." As the most powerful man in the world, everybody else is now "down."

Having moved past the stages of grief, I'd like to focus not on Trump's shortcomings but on how the rest of us are supposed to act going forward.

Many people seem to believe that no amount of derision or obstruction is too much in dealing with a president who they see as unfit. They'll say and do incredibly nasty and petty things that, if they were done about our previous POTUS, would have made those same people's heads explode with anger. And rightly so.

They also feel justified in extending this hostility to every far corner of a Trump administration, too. Recently I had a spirited debate in a Facebook post about Sen. Elizabeth Warren refusing to shake the hand of the Secretary of Education nominee. It shouldn't be a partisan issue to regard this as a classless move, I argued.

The overwhelming consensus of the response was that Trump is so awful, and his nominee is so awful, that the common traditions and courtesies should not apply. Many refuse to "normalize" or legitimize Trump by going along with a peaceful transfer of power. Or, indeed, the simple dignity of a handshake.

Here was my response:

The problem with saying "we shouldn't normalize the next administration" is it precludes a time and date when we get back to normal. It says: This IS the new normal. If my lefty friends think they can behave like this for four years and then expect a return to comity for President Warren (or whomever) in 2021, I've got some nice real estate to sell you.

Remember "When they go low, we go high"? It seems now like a faint and forgotten echo.

And this is the true Riddle of Trump. His disease is a highly infectious one. It's essentially high-octane hate. Once you drink deeply from that cup, it's hard to stop gulping. (I freely confess I've had a swig or two myself over the past year-plus.) 

In detesting Trump, you become him. In refusing to acknowledge his legitimacy, you diminish not just Trump but every future president. Once the well of social order is poisoned, no additional flow of clean water will fully remove the taint.

I'm reminded of Elliot Ness at the end of 1987's "The Untouchables": "I have foresworn myself. I have broken every law I have sworn to uphold, I have become what I beheld and I am content that I have done right."

The problem with using any means to do that which you think right is that it wounds you in ways you can't even know. And it becomes much easier to reach first for the deadliest weapons when you have need again. Very soon the right is supplanted by the supremacy of might. (The real Ness, of course, ended up as a broken-down drunk who lost everything important to him.)

The challenge for us during the next four (or, gulp, eight) years is to not become that which we behold. Yes, President Trump is a terrible thing for this country. But it will not be the end of these United States. We must defend and preserve those things which make our country great, even if the man at the top of the pyramid seems not to share many of those core tenets.

Those does not mean we lie down. By all means, fight. March, write, criticize, legislate and, above all, vote.

But do not commit the ultimate act of validation for Trump by mimicking him.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Outgoing thoughts on 44

On this the last day of his presidency, I am genuinely glad to see Barack Obama exit the White House. It's hardly a novel feeling.

Indeed, since I came of age I've grown tired of every presidency long before it came to an end. Perhaps it has something to do with going 1-for-8 in presidential elections going back to 1988. When you think the electorate keeps making the wrong choice over and over again, one's patience for the winner is bound to wane.

(In case you're curious, this center-right voter's ballots for POTUS have gone like this: Bush, Perot, Dole, Gore, Michael Badnarik, McCain, Romney, Gary Johnson.)  

I thought I'd share my thoughts on President Obama, if for no other reason than now seems like the last good chance to do so. Some of this is purely writer's ego, as I've crystallized some things about our 44th president over the years and never had an opportunity to say them. So permit me my indulgence.

(I'll have a similar essay tomorrow for 45.)

Barack Obama is a wonderful speaker (if he has a teleprompter in front of him), but not much of a leader. He came into office without ever having led, literally, anything. No leadership positions in the state legislature, no U.S. Senate chairmanships, little free enterprise experience, no executive experience at a nonprofit, no major legislative accomplishments worth noting.

He was a fine thinker and writer, and those are good things.

But the notion of somebody launching a campaign for the highest office in the land after just two years in the U.S. Senate, without ever having been looked to for leadership in any organization or cause, was just ludicrous to me. (Don't just take my word for it: in an interview upon taking office in 2005, he dismissed the idea of running for president 'after having just gotten here.')

To me, the mark of a true political leader is the ability to gather together a disparate rabble of constituencies and ideologies and forge them into coalitions on specific policies and actions. Obama has never done that, or even tried. Part of it was circumstance -- he came into office during a terrible economic pitfall, and was armed with overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate.

He didn't need Republican buy-in, so he didn't seek it. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid rammed through the stimulus, healthcare reform and other major actions without bipartisan votes, and the president was happy to go along.

(GOP intransigence cannot be dismissed, either, though I've always argued this is a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Mitch McConnell and his ilk were poised to play the role of the loyal opposition from day one. But I believe there were moderate Republicans who were willing to play along on a few issues until they witnessed the extent of Democratic hardball.)

But beyond circumstance, Obama is inherently disinclined to listen to those who disagree with him, or even grant them the legitimacy of their disagreement. Oh, he'll talk a good game about hearing everyone out, but when the rubber meets the road he cares more about liberal/progressive victories than working to achieve consensus.

Obama is exiting office with some of the highest approval ratings of his presidency, around 60 percent. I think that's largely due to the contrast he made in comparison to the two main nominees to replace him. Whatever you want to say about our 44th president, he always acted like the grown-up in the room, the voice of reason rather than the diviner of populist anger.

But Obama is much more like Donald Trump than either man is willing to concede. Both are preening men awash in their own unique set of abilities and gifts. Trump has the audacity to claim that 'I alone' can solve all the problems that beset us.

But it was Obama who said, “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”

The hubris of that statement, while far more eloquently stated than Trump's, is just staggering.

Like George W. Bush before him, Obama seems genetically incapable of admitting error. If the American people disagree with him on a policy preference, it's because his surrogates didn't do a good enough job of communicating its benefits -- which is another way of saying the ignorance of the public. Never because people had paid attention, understood the different arguments, and rejected his as unworthy.

Here is a man who swims in an ocean of self-regard. A person who literally said the seas would stop rising upon his ascendancy.

His sense of superiority and smugness were eternally grating. Abetted by an often fawning media and entertainment infrastructure, Obama loved to go on talk shows and sit down for chats with friendly bloggers or pod/vodcasters -- including one who'd previously featured herself taking a bath in Froot Loops -- while mightily eschewing press interviews/conferences with adversarial journalists (assuming there were any to be had).

If there is any justice in this world, then President Obama's recent smarmy appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" to taunt the Republican nominee, "At least I will go down AS PRESIDENT" -- complete with dead-eye phone drop -- will play on a continuously loop in every chamber of his presidential library.

The harshest truth I can say is this: Obama loathes Trump, but helped create him. He proactively transformed the presidency into a cloying cult of personality, parlaying his own prodigious gifts into two strong electoral victories, even as his party crashed to its lowest levels of power at the federal and state level in decades.

Obama was always good at electing himself and, when briefly buoyed by a pliant Congress, at delivering on partisan goals. When forced to rely on his powers of persuasion, though, he found his talents unequal to the task.

During his second term he largely relied on presidential orders and other expansion of executive power to achieve his desires -- even when he himself had publicly stated dozens of times that he lacked a specific power. Or when he claimed the discretion to tell the Senate when it is in session and when it is not. (This earned a 9-0 rebuke from the Supreme Court, with even his own two appointees weighing against.)

Now Obama's party, and our nation, will reap the whirlwind of an increasingly imperial presidency -- now in the hands of someone dangerously unprepared for that office.

Review: "Split"

It would be hard to deny the silliness in “Split.” Certainly, any movie that in 2017 dusts off the hoary chestnut of split personalities as its main dynamic risks ridicule and guffaws. But I think writer/director M. Night Shyamalan is aware of this, bends our expectations to his purposes and sneaks plenty of genuine scares in between the smirks.

The two impulses feed off each other and co-exist in something that’s not exactly harmony, but at least stability.

After years of big-budget failures, Shyamalan returned to his supernatural horror/mystery roots with the ultra-cheap “The Visit” in 2015, and continues his career resurgence with this movie.

It mostly works because it depends upon the abilities of two very talented actors, James McAvoy – probably best known as the young version of Professor Xavier in the recent “X-Men” movies -- and Anya Taylor-Joy, who made a big impression in last year’s “The Witch.”

It starts off with a pulp horror setup: three teen girls are drugged and kidnapped by a mysterious stranger, who ensconces them in an underground bunker reminiscent of Jame Gumb’s from “The Silence of the Lambs.” All sorts of rape/cannibalism scenarios are soon flashing through their minds.

Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula play the more popular girls, who invited Casey (Taylor-Joy) to a birthday party out of sympathy. She’s the school’s problem child, in and out of detention and more serious beefs. But it also makes her oddly better equipped to deal with their dire circumstances.

Their captor is just as creepy as we might figure: dressed in gray coveralls, skinhead, glasses and a perpetual scowl. He’s massive and strong, so thoughts of overpowering him fade. This is Dennis, who cannot abide disorder or uncleanliness. If one of the girls gets a tiny bit of dirt on an article of clothing, even if it’s the result of his own actions, he forces them to remove it. They, and we, are sure we know where this is headed.

But then they hear a woman’s voice, and think they are saved. Only it’s Patricia, one of 23 identities inhabiting one body, warring for time “in the light.” It seems Dennis and Patricia were banned long ago for bad behavior, but lately they’ve shunted aside the rest to take control of things – to protect all of us, they say. Other personalities include Barry, a friendly and positive fashion designer, and Hedwig, a 9-year-old with naughty tendencies abetted by the new order.

Complicating things is Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), the therapist who treats this multitude. She’s a bleeding edge practitioner, who believes that people with dissociative identity disorder actually represent the next step in human adaptability. Simply by believing they are separate identities, parts of Dennis et al are capable of needing glasses or not, having diabetes, tremendous strength – perhaps even more.

McAvoy achieves some pretty amazing transformations through sheer technical craftsmanship. Despite his head never changing, from that blank, pale hairless orb, he actually seems to shrink and grow in size, and displays a wide range of mannerisms. Dennis looms over the girls like an ogre, while Hedwig seems like a scrawny naïf.

Yes, the movie becomes goofy at times. That’s partly the nature of the material, but also partly the design of Shyamalan. He knows that the audience is bound to titter, and milks the humor rather than fleeing from it.

And yet “Split” is undeniably disquieting, too. It harkens back to the best of Shyamalan’s early films … perhaps too obviously in the end.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Sundowners" (1960)

"The Sundowners" was a financial flop in the U.S. but made bank in other parts of the world, especially Australia, where it was set and shot. Despite its lack of domestic box office, the film received critical acclaim and an impressive slate of Oscar nominations: best picture, director, screenplay, actress and supporting actress, winning none.

Like a lot of quality of pictures of that era, its reputation has unfortunately waned with the passing of years, to the point it straddles into the "forgotten films" category.

Robert Mitchum was a last-minute replace for an ailing Gary Cooper, reteaming with his "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" co-star, Deborah Kerr, even offering her top billing. They play a husband-and-wife team of sheep drovers wandering the early 20th century outback. The title from the 1952 novel by Jon Clearly refers to people who willingly wander without a home: they pitch their tent wherever the sun goes down.

(I should mention this movie bears no relation to a 1950 one with the same title, a cattle-rustling Western starring Robert Preston.)

Both Kerr and Mitchum employ workable Aussie accents, though Mitchum's has a tinge of the Irish, befitting his portrayal of fiercely independent Paddy Carmody. It's a little unclear if Paddy actually emigrated from Ireland; based on the accent I'd guess he's a first-generation natural born son. He still has a fondness for drinking, fighting, gambling and singing, which apparently every Irish in the history of cinema does.

I've noted before that Mitchum's characters almost always have an aspect of danger about them, but Paddy's no threat to anyone. His tragic flaw is his wanderlust, which compels him to always stay on the plains, driving sheep from here to there, taking seasonal jobs as a shearer or what have you when the cash in the family jelly jar starts to run low again.

After nigh on 20 years of this, though, the life has taken its toll on his wife, Ida. As she often did, Kerr plays a strong-headed, smart redhead who knows just how to deal with rough, gruff men while letting them operate under the delusion they're in charge. Though Paddy is a little less blinkered, occasionally referring to Ida as "boss" in front of other men.

Ida desperately wants to buy a farm and settle down. She's a woman of simple tastes: she desires a big kitchen with a real stove, something solid over their heads and a bit of security for their future. Though there's one terrific wordless scene where Ida is standing next to their wagon, windblown and sunburnt, and gazes enviously upon a woman in fine clothes sitting in a train powdering her nose. Their eyes lock for just a second.

But she's mostly thinking of their son, Sean (Michael Anderson Jr.), who is 15 going on... maybe 13. He's a quiet, respectful lad but is clearly being held back by his pop, who won't even let him ride drover with him, despite having the size and skills. Ida wants him to go to school, learn a trade, meet some girls, and otherwise scoot on down the road toward manhood.

As the story opens Paddy has accepted a commission to drove a large herd of sheep to Cawndilla. Because they only have one old horse they need to pull the wagon, they have to take on another drover with a couple of mounts for himself and Paddy. Conveniently they run into Rupert Venneker, a refined British gentleman played by the great Peter Ustinov. He offers to come along, mostly to escape the clutches of the woman he works for, who clearly would like to convert him from employee to husband.

Rupert is a benevolent but intemperate soul with an air of mystery he enjoys cultivating. Rumor has it he was once a nobleman with lands and a title, disgraced and exiled after some mishap. He himself cops to having once been a cavalryman in Her Majesty's army and an officer of a merchant vessel in the Far East. He's not that old, but seems to have soaked up several lifetimes' worth of world-weariness during his treks. Like Paddy, he prefers to be on the move.

Paddy and Rupert exchange a few tongue-lashings that are understandable given their difference in breeding, but despite appearances the latter is a competent horseman and they make it to Cawndilla, escaping a fast-moving forest fire in the process. They're prepared to part ways, but Ida convinces the men for them all to take jobs working the sheep-shearing season at a big local farm operation.

Rupert later refers to himself as the Carmody's pet, a dyspeptic creature with "a hard shell and a soft underbelly." He even falls in with the local pub owner, a lively widow named Mrs. Firth (Glynis Johns). Rupert repeatedly talks about how he knows one day he's going to break her heart when it's inevitably time to leave again. Until then, they enjoy lively nights together, with Rupert creeping back to the farm around dawn.

But when that fated day does arrive, it's Firth talking c'est la vie while Rupert owns the hangdog pout.

Much of the second half of the movie has to do with money. Ida carefully counts their growing savings, quietly maneuvering to put a down payment on a lovely farm they passed at the beginning of their journey. Paddy mostly plays along, as long as he can go into town with the boys every now and then to drink, sing old Irish ditties and lose a little money at "two-up," a popular coin-flipping game. He doesn't know about the farm plan, but he's cagey enough to figure out she's up to something.

Paddy gets roped into a shearing contest against another farm crew, and finds himself put up against a doddering 80-something fellow. But the movie goes sideways from expectations, as the strapping Paddy is laid low by the tireless oldster. Still, no one blames him for the loss and life goes on. In some ways this sequence best encapsulates the film's theme, which is that luck changes but relationships endure.

At one point Paddy has a massive winning streak at two-up, and not only do they have enough cash for the farm he also wins a thoroughbred racing horse. Soon Sean is recruited as jockey and they're winning races and more dough. But something's got to give, and it does.

Gorgeously directed by Fred Zinnemann with wonderful cinematography by Jack Hildyard, "The Sundowners" is part travelogue exposing the Australian outback, part adventure story and part family dramaturgy. Isobel Lennart provided the screenplay adaptation, and it's probably her best-remembered work apart from "Funny Girl." (For which, oddly, she did not receive an Oscar nod.)

It's an old-fashioned story with some modestly modernistic aspects, such as a fairly frank attitude toward sex for 1960. Kerr disrobes for a nighttime scene with her figure starkly outlined behind a backlit negligee, as Paddy talks admiringly of her curves. And it would be hard to suppose exactly what else Rupert would be up to during his nightly sojourns into Cawndilla.

The film ends on an ambiguous note, with the Carmodys losing their entire stake but cementing their love for each other, with Rupert as the add-on uncle/mate/sheepdog. Some things can't be counted, only embraced.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Video review: "The Girl on the Train"

The most important aspect of a potboiler movie is that the pot has to keep boiling, gaining in intensity rather than losing it. “The Girl on the Train,” despite having some strong story elements and a very good performance by Emily Blunt, loses steam to the point the plot congeals.

Blunt plays Rachel, a woman who’s seemingly lost everything -- her career, her marriage, her sobriety, her hopes of having a baby. She spends her days in an alcoholic stupor, riding the train into the city for the job she lost a while ago. This allows her to glide past her old house, where her ex-husband (Justin Theroux) has remarried to the woman he was cheating on her with, and they’ve just had a gorgeous baby girl.

While she’s pummeling herself with this vision of what could have been, Rachel also becomes curious about another couple living a couple of doors down (Haley Bennett and Luke Evans), who tend to have a very, um… vigorous romantic life, which they engage in without apparent regard to the trains passing by their very unobstructed windows.

When this woman goes missing, Rachel becomes a prime suspect, since she had one of her frequent blackouts on that day and woke up confused and bloody (not hers). Nonetheless she undertakes her own amateur investigation, befriending the grieving husband and signing up for therapy sessions with their shrink.

Slowly, she starts to emerge from her self-induced fog -- just as the dangers grow to confront her.

Based on the novel by Paula Hawkins (unread by me), “The Girl on the Train” loses momentum as it goes rather than gaining it. Director Tate Taylor and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson give us their own mediocre version of “Gone Girl,” which accomplished almost everything this film does not.

It’s too bad Blunt’s haunting performance got wasted with such inept plotting.

Bonus features are pretty good. They include deleted and extended scenes, a couple of making-of documentaries and a feature-length commentary track with director Taylor.



Thursday, January 12, 2017

Review: "Patriots Day"

The Boston Marathon bombing was less than four years ago, but already it seems a deeply embedded piece of our national lore, like a piece of shrapnel in our collective soul. Two Chechen brothers with radical Islamist sympathies planted a pair of improvised bombs along the race route, killing three people, including a child, and injuring hundreds of others.

The sight of Boylston Street spattered with blood and limbs is not something any of us should soon forget -- or want to.

“Patriots Day” is a painstaking recreation of that fateful day, from the early morning hours leading up to the attack to the time the Tsarnaev brothers were captured and killed. It takes the form of a police procedural, following parallel paths of the domestic terrorists and the army of law enforcement chasing them.

Director Peter Berg, who co-wrote the script with Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer, based on the book “Boston Strong” by Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge, has delivered an unrelentingly grim film that somehow leaves us with a sense of hope and community. It takes pains not to depict the perpetrators as soulless vessels, the victims as mere statistics or the cops as faceless automatons.

There are many powerful images and moments that will linger for me. Such as a young bride waking up after the blast, seeing that both her and her husband’s legs have been torn to pieces, and choosing to bind up his wounds before her own. Or a father, his body similarly shredded, trying to prevent a rescue worker from whisking his toddler son to safety.

Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon and J. K. Simmons play the main roles as police officers on the chase, and are all resolute and effective. Wahlberg plays Boston Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders, while John Goodman is Police Commissioner Ed Davis. Bacon plays the FBI guy, Richard DesLauriers, brought in to lead the investigation, and Simmons is Jeffrey Pugliese, the sergeant in nearby Watertown who become involved when the chase led to his sleepy burg.

It’s a fine and realistic portrait of dedicated men with strong personalities trying to do an important job, and occasionally getting into beefs with each other. The feds-versus-locals is a common theme in crime stories, and we also get to see how politics plays into events like these, with Michael Beach as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, pushing for more information to be released to the public.

Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze play Tsarnaev brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan. It’s essentially an abusive relationship, with the older married Tamerlan constantly bullying his 19-year-old brother, a seemingly normal college student who’d probably be spending his days smoking weed and cutting classes if not for his radicalized sibling’s harassment.

Like the best historical reenactments, I learned things about a wildly publicized event that I hadn’t previously known. Like the Tsarnaevs kidnapping a young Chinese-American businessman (Jimmy O. Yang) and forcing him to ride around with them in his brand-new SUV for hours. Or the assassination of an MIT cop sitting in his vehicle. Or the extent of the firefight they engaged in with Watertown cops, complete with pipe bombs and vehicles rocketed into the air.

Wahlberg is the biggest star in the movie, but there’s no real main character in this ensemble cast. His police sergeant is an amalgam of several different officers, which I might normally find objectionable but I think works narratively here.

This way the audience can experience a continuous face from the scene of the bombing to the behind-the-scenes forensic investigation that quickly pinpointed the Tsarnaevs to the actual manhunt. He serves as the locus of the story, a source of constancy amid a tumult of faces and details.

His character has a bum knee that he aggravates right before the marathon, so he spends the whole movie hobbling around. The fact that he’s already wounded on the outside gives him a connection to the victims we comprehend at a visceral level.

“Patriots Day” is a hard movie to watch, but ultimately an extremely rewarding one. It’s only at their worst that people show us their best.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Review: "Silence"

Thirty years ago Martin Scorsese read the historical novel “Silence” by Shūsaku Endō and resolved to make a movie from it. Now it has finally arrived, and in many ways it represents the culmination of the great filmmaker’s cinematic representation of his own struggles with faith and religion.

These are not the same thing, and it is this dichotomy that “Silence” explores over a languid -- but never for a moment dull -- 161 minutes.

It is the semi-fictionalized tale of feudal Japan in the 1600s, when Christianity quietly spread over the island despite the brutal attempts by the ruling hierarchy to suppress it. This took the form of horrifying torture, beheadings, peasants being bound and burned alive if they refused to renounce their faith by stamping on a crude representation of Jesus.

The worst agonies were often left to the Western priests who led these hidden flocks. Early on we see several monks bound to crosses while steaming liquid from volcanic hot springs is drizzled over their bare flesh. No doubt the worst device was anazuri, a ritual in which a person was hung upside down over a pit, with a single cut behind the ear to slowly leach the life out of them drip by drip, even as the loss of blood prevents them from passing out.

The story begins with a pair of young Portuguese priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), who learn from their superior (Ciarán Hinds) that their beloved teacher committed apostasy while spreading the faith in Japan. Not believing what they consider a slander against Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), they resolve to undertake his mission for themselves and find him, if he still lives.

They are smuggled across the ocean with the help of Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a pitiable drunk who they suspect of once having been a Christian himself, though he denies it. They wind up in a tiny village and soon begin ministering to a small underground of the faithful, which slowly grows as word spreads of the return of priests to Japan.

Eventually their faith is tested in ways I won’t give away, other than to say they must face the choice of whether it is possible to best serve the lessons of Christ by betraying his church.

The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto is simply marvelous, and reminded me very much of Roland Joffe’s “The Mission.” The largely Japanese cast is also wonderful, particularly Shinya Tsukamoto as a simple farmer named Mokichi whose bravery and belief puts the priests’ own to shame, and Issey Ogata as the aging Inquisitor, who turns out to be much cleverer and more subtle than his cruel methods would suggest.

Scorsese, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jay Cocks, gives us a quietly powerful and evenhanded look at how people struggle with their relationship to God in the direst circumstances. The breathtaking beauty of the land is contrasted with the grubby aspect of the common folk, who clutch little rough-hewn crosses in hands blackened by toil, their teeth rotting out of their heads even as their hearts burst with the light of faith.

If you thought Garfield was mesmerizing as a man struggling to adhere to his religious beliefs in “Hacksaw Ridge,” then his performance in this film goes many steps further.

I have no doubt that many people will struggle to watch a film like “Silence.” Most likely, they’ll simply stay away. The studio’s decision to virtually hide the movie from audiences and critics is baffling given its potential during the awards season. But I get the sense that Scorsese undertook this cinematic endeavor for other rewards.

Review: "Live By Night"

“Live By Night” is Ben Affleck’s conscious attempt to recreate the look and feel of an Old Hollywood crime drama with a modern frosting of sex and violence. It’s an overstuffed, messy narrative filled with a lot of terrific actors and strong scenes lacking connective tissue.

This movie is Full Boat Affleck: in addition to starring as a Boston Irish mobster transplanted to Tampa Bay to run their Prohibition Era operations, he also directs, produces and adapted the novel by Dennis Lehane.

All I can say is Affleck certainly knows how to shoot himself as a director, and how to shoot himself in the foot as a screenwriter.

Cary Grant himself would have to admit how dapper Affleck looks in this movie, his dark, chiseled features set off by 1920s costumes and backdrops. Robert Richardson’s photography recalls the best of the film noir tradition while employing diffuse colors and slanted light.

The story is… the sort of thing you get trying to cram a 400-page book into a two-hour movie. Though I haven’t read Lehane’s book, from what I’ve gathered it seems Affleck tried to follow the novel pretty closely, ejecting only a brief sojourn to Cuba. He would have done better to scale down the sheer number of secondary characters and tertiary plot lines.

Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, the son of a Boston police captain who went bad and became a thief. He runs into trouble when he romances the moll (Sienna Miller) of his boss, a pugnacious fellow named Albert White (Robert Glenister). A few hops and skips of the plot later, and after a stint in prison, Joe finds himself sent down to Ybor City, Fla., to take over the illicit liquor operations of his new Italian mob masters.

Joe and his partner, Dion (an excellent Chris Messina), soon put the locals on notice that there’s a new boss in town, offing some low-level hicks and even befriending the local sheriff (Chris Cooper), a deeply religious man who compartmentalizes his faith with the desire to keep the peace. Joe falls for a vivacious Cuban expat, Graciella (Zoe Saldana), and soon it seems like his snake-eyes luck is starting to change.

But challenges always abound, including pushback from a vicious local leader of the Klan (Matthew Maher), who just happens to be the sheriff’s kin. And the Italians up north aren’t satisfied that the booze business is booming, but want Joe to branch out into gambling, prostitution, drugs, etc. That means stepping on more toes in his new beachside paradise.

Elle Fanning plays the sheriff’s daughter, who gets used up in a bad way when she tries to make a go in showbiz, and returns to town preaching about the evils of men like Joe in a series of burgeoning tent revivals. One of the film’s main problems is that even though his character seems to be at the center of Joe’s thicket of problems, Chris Cooper doesn’t actually get a lot of screen time to flesh out his conflict.

We pretty much know where all this is heading, so it’s just a matter of drinking in the atmosphere and encounters before the movie winds up where it will. Lehane’s work tends to start in tragedy, then wander around a bit before returning home.

There are a lot of great puzzle pieces in “Live By Night,” but it feels like there’s too many and they don’t always fit together.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Video review: "The Accountant"

“The Accountant” is an entertaining film, but it could have been much more. It’s about a math whiz who has autism and has turned into some sort of “super spy CPA” type who cooks the books and then kills the bad guys. My best take on it is that star Ben Affleck was jealous of his buddy Matt Damon’s two most pivotal roles, Jason Bourne and Will Hunting, and decided to combine them into one movie.

The result is part character study, part romance, and a lot spy action that gradually devolves into more or a less comedy, with our hero offing villains and then tossing off quips. It doesn’t really all fit together, but there are some nice pieces to the equation.

Christian Wolff was a kid whose genius and social disability were both plain to see. Raised by a stern military dad and beset with tragedy, he’s turned into this mystery figure who runs a one-man accounting shop in a crummy strip mall, doing taxes for working class folks. On the side, though, he runs the numbers for all sorts of international bad guys, from the mafia to drug cartels.

On the hunt is Treasury agent Ray King (J.K. Simmons), who wants to bust the legendary shadow man before he’s forced to hang up his badge in a few months. Jeffrey Tambor plays another father figure, who schooled Christian on accounting while they were in prison together.

Providing the cute-n-spunky ingredient is Anna Kendrick as Dana, a junior accountant at a company that makes robotic limbs. She thinks she’s uncovered some malfeasance the CEO (John Lithgow) doesn’t know about, so Christian is brought in to work his magic. Soon the young CPAs are auditing each other’s bedsheets.

From there, things get weirder and weirder, with black ops types showing up (Jon Bernthal among them) to make dark threats and stage the deaths of minor characters. Director Gavin O’Connor and screenwriter Bill Dubuque let things slide further and further afield from the somber first half, until the movie virtually becomes a laugh riot -- sometimes intentional, sometimes not.

“The Accountant” isn’t a bad movie, it just forgets itself. In trying too hard to be both Jason and Will, Christian wanders into absurdity. It’s an entertaining train wreck, but still a mess.

Bonus features are so-so, and are limited to three making-of documentary shorts: “Inside the Man,” “Behavior Science” and “The Accountant in Action.”



Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Review: "A Monster Calls"

It’s often said that there’s nothing in life more unfair than a parent burying a child. But a child saying goodbye to their mom or dad is also one of the most traumatic things we can go through. For most of us it happens when we’re in middle age, and in some ways it marks the final waypoint in the passage to full adulthood.

But what about when we’re still kids ourselves? “A Monster Calls” tells the harrowing story of a young British boy whose mother is dying.

No one says this outright, but we sense the final destination from the very beginning. His mother, lovingly played by Felicity Jones, puts on the bravest of faces and smiles and says everything is going to be alright, because that is what a parent who loves their kid does.

But our first instinct, to shield them from pain, is not always the best one. Conor O’Malley senses in his heart what his brain will not allow. His terror manifests itself in a fearsome vision that appears to him nightly at seven minutes past midnight: A vaguely man-shaped creature formed from the branches and leaves of a yew tree, threatening to eat him.

It says Conor can escape this fate if he listens to three true stories by the creature, and then tells one himself. But if he lies -- to the monster, and to himself -- he will be gobbled and gone.

The tree beast is the result of excellent CGI animation and the superlative voice and expressions of Liam Neeson. A mix of fury and harsh comfort, he takes role of the father figure Conor is missing. Dad, played by Toby Kebbell, is alive but living in America; emotionally, he’s even further away.

Lewis MacDougall plays Conor, and this is truly one of the great child acting performances of my lifetime. (Think Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense.”) He embodies the full range of Conor’s emotions, including a lot of negative ones involving anger and resentment. Many adult performers struggle to craft a character as three-dimensional as this.

Patrick Ness wrote the screenplay based on his own book, which was inspired by the idea of another writer who died before she could bring it to fruition. J.A. Bayona, who previously directed the disaster drama “The Impossible,” directs with humility and passion.

The filmmakers shine by not trying to force the audience into this emotional box or that one, but letting them feel the full weight of conflicting feelings washing over them just as Conor does.

The monster’s three stories are related in gorgeous animation. At first they seem like simple fairy tales, involving princes, witches and the like, but as time goes on the creature reveals deeper layers of meaning. Sigourney Weaver plays Conor’s grandmother, a brittle woman who becomes the boy’s chief antagonist (other than the yew monster) during his mother’s slow march toward death.

Since I saw “A Monster Calls” more than a month ago, I’ve been struggling with the decision of whether or not it’s an appropriate film for kids. Given the parable-like story construction and “cartoon” character, I worried that people would mistake this as a “children’s movie.” Certainly it is not that.

But I do think older children might do well to see this film, to help them deal with loss or prepare them for the possibility of it. There is very grown-up stuff here, like the push-and-pull of family members who don’t want to lose their loved one, but reach a point where they just want the suffering -- theirs and ours -- to cease.

As the film year has ended and another begins, I’ve been asked to comment on whether there’s any dominant cinematic theme I’ve noticed for 2016. Generally I consider this a dangerous game, since movies are conceived and executed so far in advance of when they come out that it mostly becomes an exercise in people projecting their own hopes and fears onto works of art.

But the notions of mourning and regret are transparently there to see in many of my favorite films of the year, such as “Manchester by the Sea” and “Hell or High Water.” An exploration of that anguish that comes before death, “A Monster Calls” belongs on that list, both for its themes and its tremendous quality.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Chuck & Buck" (2000)

Like a lot of tiny independent films, the true legacy of "Chuck & Buck" lies in the careers it launched rather than being a defining moment in cinema itself.

Writer and star Mike White has gone on to a productive career, first acting and then seguing into mostly writing, directing and producing, including "The Good Girl" with Jennifer Aniston and the TV series "Enlightened."

Co-stars Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz had just achieved breakout fame by co-directing "American Pie" a year earlier, and would receive Oscar nominations for "About a Boy" in 2002. They've since transitioned to very successful solo stints as writer/directors, with Chris directing one of the Twilight movies and earning a screenplay credit on the recent Star Wars spinoff, "Rogue One." Paul has been the guiding light behind the TV series "Mozart in the Jungle," and also directed last year's "Grandma" with Lily Tomlin.

Notably, the Weitz brothers have not done much acting since "Chuck & Buck," and based on their turns in the movie it's probably for the best. They're not horrible actors; it's just that White is the dazzling center of the piece. No less an authority than Jeff Bridges called White's performance among the best of the decade.

All three guys straddle the line between comedy and pathos in their work. That's evident in "Chuck & Buck," which is either the blackest comedy every made or a darkly funny exploration of sexuality and growing up. Director Miguel Arteta has similarly built a body of work that's hard to pigeonhole. For good measure, Maya Rudolph makes one of her earliest film appearances as Charlie's snarky assistant.

Back when they were 11, Chuck (Chris Weitz) and Buck (White) were the best of friends who did literally everything together. They were so close they actually kept other kids out of their little club, reveling in their own coolness. Though we later suspect it was also Buck wanting to keep his special friend all to himself.

They were also nascent lovers who engaged in some serious body exploration -- "Chuck and Buck and suck and fuck," as Buck calls their boyhood dalliances.

Time has reeled on, and they're now both 27 years old and following very different paths. Chuck, now going by Charlie, has moved to Los Angeles and become a very successful record producer. He has a lovely fiance, Carlyn (Beth Colt), seems content in his life and has seemingly suppressed all memories of his gay escapades.

Buck is stuck in a virtual time warp, still living at home while taking care of his ill mother for the last few years. When she dies, that brings Charlie back to his hometown for the funeral where they reconnect. Buck makes some unwelcome overtures, thinking they can pick up the friendship right where they left off.

Buck, apparently oblivious to all clues and protestations otherwise, then moves to L.A. on a whim so he can rekindle his relationship with Charlie, withdrawing his life savings to pay for it. Buck is hurt when Charlie keeps dodging his calls and blows him off at a party he throws to celebrate a recent promotion.

This ramps up to increasingly harassing behavior, then to outright stalking -- phone calls every 15 minutes, etc. Based on the timbre of the film, I wouldn't have been surprised at all of it fell over into a straight-up psychological thriller/horror flick, culminating in some desperately sweaty and bloody face-off a la "Fatal Attraction."

But "Chuck & Buck" is really, despite initial appearances, a hopeful story.

Buck eventually wanders into the run-down theater across the street from Charlie's office, where they put on unambitious kiddie plays for wannabe child actors. Buck rents the theater to put on a play he writes himself, a thinly veiled parable of his crushing desire for Buck, squeezed through a "Wizard of Oz" backdrop. Here Carlyn, despite being perfectly nice to Buck -- nicer than Charlie is, and certainly nicer than Buck deserves -- is represented as the evil witch.

I really loved Lupe Ontiveros as Beverly, the cranky house manager of the theater who befriends Buck and helps him put on his play -- for $25/hour, cash up front. She's an older woman who's obviously been beaten down by life, is fast to criticize others but with a center of warmth and ambition that she's never been given a chance to show. Given an opportunity to direct an original play, she jumps into becoming Buck's partner and then friend.

Paul Weitz plays Sam, a terrible actor Buck insists on hiring to play Charlie's role because of the physical resemblance. Sam is a tremendous lout, the sort of guy who hangs around his apartment all day drinking beer and annoying the neighbors with his loud noise. But Buck feels a connection, not just because he looks like Charlie but because Sam seems to have some of the same social wiring short-circuited that he does.

It's the dilemma of the awkward outsider, who sees people getting along easily with each other and wonders why he doesn't have that ability.

Things end on a note that's simultaneously creepy and comforting. After essentially extorting Charlie into having sex with him one last time, Buck moves on with his life -- taking a job at the theater, befriending Sam -- after Sam makes clear he's not gay -- and giving Charlie and Carlyn space.

It would have been interesting to explore what happened to Buck between age 11 and now. It's mentioned that Charlie moved away at some point, though I'm guessing it was before high school.

It's hard to believe Buck would still maintain this elaborate fascination for Charlie if they had stayed friends -- especially ones "with benefits" -- all the way through senior year. It's also difficult to buy that Charlie would treat Buck as such a weirdo stranger if they had kept "sucking and fucking" up through young manhood.

I'm also not sure how much of an exploration of burgeoning homosexuality the film is. Buck is presented less as gay than an unformed man-child, a sexual tabula rasa. He doesn't seem so much attracted to men as obsessed with one man in particular. In the end, his feelings for Charlie represent a dam that prevents Buck from continuing his life's journey downstream.

At once disturbing, funny and fascinating, "Chuck & Buck" is exactly the sort of movie people make at the training grounds of their careers.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Top 10 Films of 2016

It's pretty rare that I see a movie and immediately think, "That's the best film of the year." Usually such evaluations take time to coalesce. Often, as in the spectacular year of 2015, my favorites will become eclipsed by even greater cinema that comes along later. But not this year.

The minute I saw "Hell or High Water" late in the summer, I said, "Here's the standard against which every other film will be judged."

Nothing ever came along to beat it, although the unfairly maligned "The Birth of a Nation" came closest.

2016 was an above average year for film. I saw a lot of ambitious work, a lot of entertaining movies. Some may question the appearance of a super-hero gross-out comedy, "Deadpool," on this list. It's there because it belongs.

On the flip side, neither "Moonlight" or "La La Land," which seem to be running neck-and-neck during the early going of the awards season, appear here. I find them both worthy films, but ones I had trouble engaging with on an emotional level. Most Overpraised is the only contest they'd win in my mind.

So here is my Top 10 list for the year, along with some other films worthy of mention.

1. Hell or High Water

Is it a neo-Western? A crime potboiler? Morality tale? Commentary on our Great Recession times? All at once, I think. An impeccable cast -- Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham -- lead us through a gritty and seemingly inexorable convergence of grim men shambling toward a violent reckoning. Bleak, unsparing, magnificent.

2. The Birth of a Nation

Nate Parker's career seemed ready to blow up, then it exploded in the face of old allegations of rape during college (of which he was acquitted). I'll judge a movie based on the movie, and using that scale "The Birth of a Nation" is a major triumph. Parker stars, wrote and directed a somewhat fictionalized version of the Nat Turner slave revolt with grace and startling power.

 3. A Monster Calls

Practically nobody's seen this movie as I write this, so I'm hoping it finds an audience in the new year. Based on the novel by Patrick Ness, it's the tale of a young boy coming to grips with the terminal illness of his mother (Felicity Jones) through the intrusion of a mystical tree-like creature (Liam Neeson) that comes to visit him in nightmares. Will be dismissed by some as a "children's movie," but it's surprisingly bold in its depiction of grief and loss.

4. Everybody Wants Some!!

1980s nostalgia seems to be peaking, and there's no better place to start than Richard Linklater's spiritual successor to "Dazed and Confused." It's the tale of a group of college baseball players drinking and carousing in the days leading up to the start of school. Sound like a piffle? It's a spot-on observation of life at a particular place and time. Best ensemble acting of the year.

5. Manchester By the Sea

Somebody asked me if there's a theme to emerge from this year's movies, and I said that a surprising number of the best films had the subject of grieving or loss at their center. Looking over this list, I can see that in a number of my favorites. Casey Affleck gives the performance of his career as a tight-lipped janitor whose life is turned around when he's unexpectedly named the guardian of his nephew after his father dies. Essentially a 2+ hour tone poem by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan.

6. Sing Street

Easily the most romantic film of the year, John Carney's tale of a smart, alienated kid in 1980s Ireland who finds his path forward in life through forming a band. It starts off strictly as an attempt to impress an older girl, but turns into a form of rebellion and learning. Great songs, great cast, great time.

7. Fences

As I said in my review, I'm generally turned off by stage-to-screen adaptations, because they're so stiff and forced. Not "Fences." Denzel Washington directs and stars in a version of the play penned by August Wilson himself, looking at the lives of a black family in 1950s Pittsburgh. Washington plays the patriarch, a loving and freewheeling man who wants to keep the Devil at bay, but has plenty of demons plaguing him on the inside. With Viola Davis, equally terrific.

8. Kubo and the Two Strings

Easily the best animated film of 2016, "Kubo" is a brand-new story that somehow feels like an ancient Japanese parable. It's the tale of a one-eyed boy who lives on the edge of a small village who tells stories using his magical banjo and pieces of origami paper that spring to life. When he's separated from his mother by members of his own sorcerous family, he goes on an epic journey of discovery along with a protective monkey and a strange bug-like creature.

9. Deadpool

"Deadpool" is one of the most original and certainly brashest takes on the superhero genre, which is starting to enter middle age with this year's crop of flicks that largely groaned under their own weight. Ryan Reynolds plays a criminal brought back from the (mostly) dead, who launches his own one-man revenge saga interspersed with lots of lame jokes and filthy jokes. To cap it all off, Deadpool comments about the movie as he's starring in it. So smart, so entertaining.

10. Patriots Day 

Another film that won't see wide release until later in January, "Patriots Day" is part drama, part crime procedural that takes us through the day of the Boston Marathon bombings and up to the capture of the domestic terrorists responsible for it. Mark Wahlberg plays a cop -- an amalgam of several real men -- who's with us every step of the way. A film that shows us how ordinary people achieve heroism.

Best of the Rest

It's hard to exclude any of these films from the Top 10, as I cherished every one of them for making my cinematic year richer. Here are 14 honorable mentions, in alphabetical order:


Born to Be Blue

Captain Fantastic


Elvis & Nixon

Hacksaw Ridge

The Handmaiden


The Light Between the Oceans

Maggie's Plan


Our Little Sister

Swiss Army Man


Video review: "Denial"

The British, while otherwise a fine people, have rather screwy libel laws. In the United Kingdom, when someone sues for libel, the onus is upon the accused to demonstrate the truth of their words, rather than the accuser to prove his or her claims. That’s the center of “Denial,” an Oscar-bait drama about an infamous Holocaust denier and the professor and team of lawyers who stood up to him.

In 1996 British historian sued American academic Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) for calling him a denier of the Holocaust in her book. He in turned sued her and her publisher, Penguin Books, in British court. The story follows Lipstadt as she navigates the byzantine peculiarities of English law. The net effect of the suit is that her team will have to prove that the Nazi regime murdered millions of Jews, and that Irving has deliberately distorted evidence in order to argue against this.

Timothy Spall gives a bravura performance as Irving, a charismatic man whom we almost feel sorry for, until the hateful words spill out of him like muck from a befouled spring. The odd thing about Irving, at least in his cinematic depiction, is that he’s a self-deluded charmer who thinks he can have it both ways: claiming that the German mass incinerators did not exist, for example, while also insisting he’s not a Hitler apologist.

Tom Wilkinson is the third leg of this story as Richard Rampton, the barrister who leads the case on Lipstadt’s behalf. A diffident man who seems to take great pains not to provide his client with any kind of comfort or emotional support, he nonetheless attacks the case with a sort of quiet ferocity.

Directed by Mick Jackson from a script by David Hare, “Denial” is a pretty straightforward (recent) historical drama, showing us a famous event and fleshing out the people and motivations that lay underneath it. There are few surprises, but the trio of performances by Weisz, Spall and Wilkinson are magnificent enough on their own to put this on your must-see list.

Bonus features are rather slim, limited to a theatrical trailer and a mini-documentary, “The Making of Denial.”