Sunday, April 30, 2017

Video review: "Gold"

Matthew McConaughey goes Full Skeeze in “Gold,” a little-seen drama that came out near the end of 2016 and didn’t generate the awards buzz hoped for.

He plays Kenny Wells, a has-been/never-was mining prospector at the end of his rope who stumbles across a massive gold deposit in the deepest jungles of Indonesia. The story is loosely based on David Walsh, CEO of Bre-X, whose gold strike was found to be fraudulent back in the 1990s. Tens of billions of dollars in company value went up in smoke overnight.

McConaughey, not long removed from the skeletal figure he struck in his Oscar-winning turn in “Dallas Buyers Club,” spreads an impressive middle-aged paunch to go along with a scanty head of hair, hollow eyes and a mouthful of crooked teeth. Kenny is perpetually sweating and shifty-eyed, the sort of guy who makes others uncomfortable just by walking in the room.

As the story opens, his company is about to go belly-up. His long-suffering girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) seems to have half a foot out the door. But Kenny learns about Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), a geologist who’s come up with a new system for finding mineral deposits that the rest of the industry has scoffed at.

Crabbing together his last few bucks and corralling a few investors, they do some exploratory drilling deep in the bush. Soon they’re just about out of money, the local workers flee the mine and Kenny nearly succumbs to dysentery. But his faith in Michael is unshakeable and, improbably, it bears fruit when soil samples reveal gold.

Soon the big moneymen (Corey Stoll among them), who had previously written off the flimflam man, come begging for some of the crumbs to fall from Kenny’s plate. And Bruce Greenwood plays the cutthroat competitor maneuvering to take it all away.

Directed by Stephen Gaghan (“Syriana”) from a script by John Zinman and Patrick Massett, “Gold” barely made a ripple at the box office. But it’s a worthy film, if a bit overly familiar in its themes, cemented by McConoughey’s fully invested performance.

Inside every slick Wall Street high-roller, like the one McConaughey played in “Wolf of Wall Street,” there’s a hungry scrounger fighting for wealth and respect.

Bonus features are pretty good, and are the same for Blu-ray and DVD editions. They include one deleted sequence, feature commentary by director Gaghan and three making-of featurettes: “The Origins of Gold,” “The Locations of Gold” and “Matthew McConaughey as Kenny Wells.”


Extras: B

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review: "Graduation"

It may seem like an odd reference, but "Graduation" reminded me greatly of "High and Low," Akira Kurosawa's 1963 drama about a businessman negotiating a spider's web of crime and corporate intrigue.

This film is set in modern-day Romania, and the protagonist is a put-upon doctor whose marriage has crumbled and his sole hope left in life is securing a scholarship for his daughter to study in the United Kingdom. When she is attacked and nearly raped, he must engage in a tortured path that involves nurturing his child, calling in favors to ensure she gets a high enough grade on her finals, compromising his morals and gathering together the tatters of his various, mislaid personal relationships.

The main character is not a powerful tycoon, as in the Kurosawa film -- it being important to remember that in Romania, and indeed much of the world, physicians are not compensated with the sort of largesse they are in the U.S. But within his Transylvanian town, he knows the system of give-and-takes, favors and outright bribes that are SOP to getting anything done.

Adrian Titieni plays Romeo Aldea, a 50-ish physician with a reputation for being honorable. He studied abroad, but years ago he and his wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), made the decision to return home and try to make things better. Flash forward a quarter-century or so, and things are very much the same.

They own a modest apartment in a deteriorating part of the village; a rock is thrown randomly through his window. His mother is old and her health is failing. Romeo sleeps in the living room, and has for some time. He carries on a quiet affair with Sandra (Malina Manovic), a 35-year-old teacher with a young son. The women know about each other, and resent having to share Romeo's split attention.

It seems clear the situation is in a holding pattern. Once Romeo's daughter, Eliza (Maria Drăguș), goes off to England, he and Magda will formally separate and he'll be able to give Sandra something more permanent.

But after Eliza is assaulted, everything in Romeo's world is upended. Left with a sprained wrist and few witnesses, the girl is not allowed to delay her final exams. (Cheating is rampant in the schools, as in the rest of their society, so cribbing notes inside an arm cast is an old trick.) Romeo asks for special dispensation from the test administrator, but is rebuffed.

While dealing with the search for Eliza's attacker, Romeo connects with old police friend for help, who talks to a department sketch artist, whose uncle is a government minister who needs a liver transplant -- perhaps the good doctor could see what he could do to speed things up? And in return, maybe the teachers could help out a little with the tests?

Before long, Romeo's descent into shady deals and general underhandedness is confirmed, with no bottom in sight. He even begins to suspect Eliza's motorcycle instructor-cum-boyfriend, Marius (Rares Andriçi), may be complicit in her attack.

Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu ("4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"), "Graduation" is one of those films where little things add up to great portents. The humdrum tribulations of a humdrum village doctor feel sprawling and fateful, as if a microcosm of everything wrong in his country. It's like he represents the entire heart of Romania.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Laura" (1944)

"I don't know a lot about anything, but I know a little about practically everything."
                                                            --Shelby Carpenter

I think I should adopt that quote as my new motto. Recently asked to contribute a piece of wisdom I've learned through my career, I offered: "Everyone will disappoint you eventually. So try not to take it personally." Maybe I can meld the two together.

A warm-and-fuzzy guy I am not, and neither is Otto Preminger's 1944 film noir, "Laura." It's a movie with a distinctly pessimistic view of humanity that is photographed with an aching, shadowy beauty. Roger Ebert, in his retrospective column, said the film achieves "a kind of perfection in its balance between low motives and high style."

Joseph LaShelle won the cinematography Oscar that year, beating out "Double Indemnity," "Lifeboat" and "Gaslight," among others. Luckily, unlike some other classic films "Laura" has been wonderfully preserved with a high-quality video transfer.

Some have complained about the impenetrability of the story, but I found it pretty easy to follow. The film also got an Academy Award nomination for adapted screenplay -- along with art direction, supporting actor and director -- based upon the 1943 novel by Vera Caspary. Though, as with a lot of film noir, the convolutions of the plot are less important than the emotions and individual moments.

"Laura" has an audacious premise that's essentially the upside-down version of "Psycho." Instead of the leading lady dying 30 minutes into the movie, here the dead titular woman shows up very much alive around that same time frame. Successful advertising businesswoman Laura Hunt (Gene Tierny) is presumed dead after a woman's body is found in her apartment, wearing her negligee with a face blown apart by two shotgun blasts.

Dana Andrews plays Mark McPherson, the laconic police detective assigned to the case who becomes increasingly obsessed with the victim. "Falling in love with a dead woman," or something like it, is the key line of dialogue mirrored several times in the movie, and on the posters and other promotional materials for the film.

The actual romance between Andrews and Tierny is pretty much kaput from the get-go, with them only exchanging one quick smooch as he's leaving her apartment that feels more Dagwood and Blondie than cascading waves of True Love. But jealousy is more the movie's true subject.

Essentially, "Laura" is a love quadrangle, in which three men vie against each other for her affection. Laura had been engaged to a ne'er-do-well scamp, Shelby Carpenter, a strapping Kentuckian who came from money, lost it all, and now relies on the kindness -- and handouts -- of others.

Hilariously, he is played by Vincent Price, and it is repeatedly commented upon that Shelby is a male bimbo who skates by on his good looks and sex appeal. Price tries on a molasses accent and gives it all a good go, but the notion of his playing a gigolo just doesn't comport with his subsequent screen persona. Plus, he just plain looks weird without his signature pencil mustache.

McPherson takes an instant dislike to Shelby, of course, and places him in the crosshairs as the main suspect.

The fourth leg of the love party is Waldo Lydecker, a pompous and effete newspaper columnist played by Clifton Webb, who scored the film's only acting Oscar nomination. It's a little unclear what his column is about; attacking anyone who pisses him off, as near as I can figure. He's richer than Crassus, spends all his time having lunches and socializing, and also records literary lectures for the radio.

More celebrity than journalist, Waldo first meets Laura when she's a junior adwoman who approaches him at lunch to offer $5,000 to endorse their client's new line of pens. (That's almost 70 grand in today's dollars, folks.) He snootily refuses and goes out of his way to embarrass her in front of high society diners.

"I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom!" he sneers. (Sneering is pretty much Waldo's default setting.)

But then Waldo remembers that Laura is a hot young thing, so he seeks her out to apologize, takes the pen deal, introduces her to some important people and launches her career. They're frequent, ostensibly platonic friends, though it seems clear to everyone in the world but Laura that Waldo pines for her.

It goes without saying Waldo absolutely loathes Shelby, and does everything in his power to break up Laura's engagement to him. Later, he turns his ire upon the intrepid lawman when he starts to get moony-eyed staring at the large portrait of Laura that hangs over her mantelpiece. When you're the man who has everything, Waldo finally admits, being denied the one thing you most desire can push you over the edge.

(And if that's not enough of a spoiler on who the murderer is revealed to be, I don't know what could be.)

"Laura" is pretty well bookended by a small sphere of locations and characters. It has the feel of a theatrical adaptation, and indeed Caspary originally drafted it as a play. Other than those characters I've mentioned, there's really only Bessie, the neurotic maid played by Dorothy Adams, and Judith Anderson as Ann Treadwell, Laura's wealthy socialite aunt.

Diane Redfern, the actual dead woman, doesn't even merit a credit in the film (and I haven't been able to find one for the actress who plays her on the usual movie sites). She was a model in Laura's firm who was carrying on an affair with Shelby; he brought her over to his fiancee's apartment while Laura was spending a quiet weekend away.

Ann has been writing checks to Shelby, and hungers to have him for himself. He's a weakling and a coward, she admits, but she wants him for what he is -- whereas her niece sees him as she wishes him to be. A physical affair is strongly implied.

Just so we're clear: that means Shelby has been carrying on with Laura, her aunt and the model. King cad, indeed.

The preproduction/shooting of "Laura" was a complete disaster. Preminger was original slated to just produce because of lingering enmity with a studio honcho. They actually began rolling cameras under another director, who got his wife to produce the famous fireplace painting. Preminger had him sacked and replaced with himself, and even got another painter to as the final insult.

How very Waldo of him!

Other than Webb, the performances don't really stand out from the material. Andrews is pretty flat, and not terribly believable as a streetwise gumshoe. Too handsome, too middle America. (Someone should have seriously considered swapping his role with Vincent Price's.)

Tierny's character is supposed to be very intelligent and personally driven, but we don't get a sense of that from the performance. Despite being a figure well ahead of her time -- a rich and savvy businesswoman who doesn't need a man to complete her -- Laura is rather mousy, reserved and reactive to the men around her.

She's the object, not the subject of the film.

"Laura" is a rather untidy movie, but it makes the most of its strengths and turns some of its weaknesses into assets. It's truly Waldo's story, the tale of a fussy, prissy man who places himself above everyone else, the self-appointed chessmaster who's continually vexed when the pieces won't move around as he directs.

Otto Preminger could probably relate.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Video review: "La La Land"

I’ve been accused of being a “La La Land” hater. It’s not really so. I admired a lot about writer/director Damien Chazelle’s second feature film, and am a big fan of his first, “Whiplash.” It’s a gorgeous love letter to the city of Los Angeles, as well as a homage to old-school film musicals of the Golden Age of movies.

I just didn’t think it deserved the mountain of Oscar nominations it received, which tied “All About Eve” for the most ever.

“La La Land” is a little bit of a lot of things -- funny, sad, romantic, melodious, handsome, charming. But it just doesn’t impact you in one or two strong ways. Rather than landing hard with both feet, the film dances around you like a zephyr, entertaining but not engrossing.

For movies, it’s better to do a few things well rather than try to be a lot of things at once.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play Sebastian and Mia, struggling young L.A. artists. He’s a jazz purist who pounds the keys for coins, but keeps losing jobs because he doesn’t want to stick to the stingy playlists. She works as a barista to the stars but dreams of becoming one herself. She goes on an endless series of soul-numbing auditions, where casting directors take phone calls while she’s performing.

They waltz through a familiar boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wants-girl-back narrative. In between the movie also puts the pair through their paces in several musical numbers (composed by Justin Hurwitz). The tunes aren’t particularly memorable, and neither Stone or Gosling will ever be confused with singers.

I like “La La Land,” admire things about it. But it didn’t even crack my list of the top 25 movies of 2016.

Bonus features are excellent, and even the DVD edition has a handsome suite of goodies. Though you’ll have to pay for the Blu-ray version to get everything.

The DVD has a feature-length commentary track with Chazelle and Hurwitz and three making-of featurettes focusing on specific musical numbers, as well as a piece on song selection.

The Blu-ray adds a host of more featurettes, focusing on things like Gosling learning to play piano for the movie and John Legend making his featuring film acting debut. Best bonus bit: “Damien & Justin Sing: The Demos,” in which the guys behind the camera and piano, respectively, belt out some tunes.



Thursday, April 20, 2017

Review: "Unforgettable"

Let's be clear: "Unforgettable" is garbage movie-making. It's trashy and silly, and gleefully so. But it embraces what it is and has fun with it.

This movie is firmly in the tradition of thrillers about women characters in conflict with each other, usually over a man, a child, a job, or all three -- "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," "Single White Female," etc. One is a normal gal with some issues, and the other is a seemingly perfect woman who turns out to be a maniac, and possibly a homicidal one.

We just know things are going to end up with extensive hair-pulling and some stabby-stabby stuff.

This is definitely a "boys to the side" movie. There are a couple of male characters, but they represent opposite ends of the spectrum: the idyllic boyfriend, devoted and non-threatening, and the bad boy from the past who's abusive but exciting.

The movie belongs to Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl. It's a nice contrast, both physically and in their star personas. Heigl is the tall, icy blonde with a reputation for not playing well with others. Dawson is the ethnically diverse heroine with an innate sense of genuineness. It's clear who we're supposed to root for.

Dawson plays Julia, a story editor who's moving from San Francisco to small-town Foothill in southern California to be with her beau, David (Geoff Stults) and his young daughter, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice). It's a big move for her, as several years ago she escaped an abusive relationship with a man (Simon Kassianides) whose specialty was making her feel worthless.

The protective order she had against her abuser is about to expire, so one benefit of the move is it'll make it harder to find her. She keeps a low profile, with no Facebook or other social media presence.

David is a former Merrill Lynch hotshot who gave it up a few years ago to move back to his hometown and start the Copper Mountain Brewery. His ex-wife, Tessa (Heigl), still lives in their old house and has joint custody with Lily. She doesn't work, or seem to do anything but clip-clop with the other Stepford wives along the rows of tony shops lining the little downtown.

Tessa is outwardly friendly to Julia, but subtly undermines her relationship with David and her growing one with Lily. It starts out as little digs, dropping by the house unannounced, possessiveness of her daughter, etc. At one point they try to mend fences with a lunch and margaritas, during which Tessa talks about how great her sex life with David used to be, followed by the mike-drop line: "But I don't have to tell you how he is."

Of course, the next time Julia sees David, she feels compelled to jump on him for some hot canoodling. The sex scenes in this movie are the sort where the women always keep their tops on, because we know men are totally not into breasts or anything. 

Things go from there, to outward hostility, fights over whose day it is with Lily, and more. Tessa steals Julia's online identity and uses it to reach out to her abusive ex.

We know exactly where this is going, but director Denise Di Novi, a veteran producer making her directing debut, and screenwriters Christina Hodson and David Leslie Johnson keep things moving briskly. There are practically cue cards when we're supposed to hiss at Tessa, cheer for Julia or laugh at some of the goofier bits.

Cheryl Ladd (!!) turns up as Tessa's suspiciously smooth-faced mother, and we see where her overly critical ways -- "Don't drag your knife, and the silver needs polishing" -- come from. Whitney Cummings has a nice turn as Ali, Julia's former boss and fiercely protective she-friend.

The socioeconomics of Foothill are interesting; it's like Sonoma meets Carmel. Everybody seems to be rich as shit, yet David cracks lines about his tiny little start-up, not being able to pay his friend's wife for her legal work, etc. Tessa trades in her daughter's pony for a full-size horse, and muses about getting a job just to make use of her degree. That's contrasted with Julia's more economical wardrobe and econobox car.

My guess is Tessa is living off her divorce settlement and/or alimony. David drives a Beamer and lives in his parents' house, a sprawling, secluded stucco manse that would go for seven figures even if it were in Indianapolis instead of SoCal.

The late, great critic Pauline Kael loved to love movies that were, in her words, "glorious trash." I don't think I'd put "Unforgettable" into that category. But I can't deny it's enjoyable in a cheap, slightly naughty way.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Review: "The Promise"

“The Promise” is a film of startling authority and ravishing power. It has all the elements of classic epic: a sweeping historical backdrop with a very intimate human story at the center. It’s one of those rare fiction movies that has the weight of truth behind it.

Oscar Isaac, recalling a young Omar Sharif in looks and screen presence, plays an Armenian medical student who is caught up in the Armenian Genocide during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. To this day its successor nation, Turkey, refuses to acknowledge the systematic murder of 1.5 million children, women and men.

Not apologize or make reparations -- just say that it happened.

If the film harbors a reservoir of rage about this at its core, then director Terry George, who co-wrote the script with Robin Swicord, takes great pains to conceal it. Instead, the focus is on the love triangle at the center, with Christian Bale playing an American journalist who also romances Charlotte Le Bon.

Rather than an angry polemic, “The Promise” takes on the tone of an elegy -- a wistful tribute to a people who were wronged but still endure, continuing a story that goes back thousands of years.

Isaac plays Mikael, an apothecary from a small town who wants to be a doctor. He can’t afford the tuition to the Imperial Medical School in Constantinople, so he agrees to an arranged marriage to the daughter (Angela Sarafyan) of the wealthiest man in the city, using the dowry of 400 gold coins to pay his fees. The betrothed pair is pragmatic about the arrangement, content to build a life together and hope that affection can grow there.

In the capital, Mikael is awed by the trappings and possibilities of one of the great cities of the world. He falls in with Emre (Marwan Kenzari), a wealthy playboy and son of a high Turkish mercantilist. He stays with his well-to-do cousin, befriending his family and their tutor, a spirited young woman named Ana (Le Bon). Like him, she is from a small Armenian town, but has spent the last few years touring the world with her boyfriend.

Her relationship with Chris Myers (Bale), a noted reporter for the Associated press, is difficult but stable. He fearlessly insults the Turkish leaders’ cozying up to the Germans, and when war breaks out he becomes the leading chronicler of the genocide for the West. Chris is hardly an objective observer, instilling his outrage into every dispatch and telegram.

The love between Mikael and Ana slowly grows, apparent to them both but something they are reluctant to pursue. He has promised himself to another, a vow that seems less and less viable as entire towns and populations are displaced or murdered outright. She feels a duty to stand by Chris, even as his work becomes all-consuming.

Shohreh Aghdashloo is a memorable presence as Mikael’s mother, who pushes him to put his romance aside and remain faithful to his family and traditions. Rade Serbedzija turns up as a leader of Armenian refugees, who is willing to run from the Turks -- but only so far.

It’s a terrific, career-defining performance by Isaac, playing a man of innate gentleness and decency trying to negotiate an age of madness and hatred. It reminded me in a lot of ways of Sharif’s character in “Doctor Zhivago.” I hope his turn will be remembered when the next awards season rolls around.

I should note that “The Promise” has been targeted by genocide deniers for their bile. Among other things, they’re plastering negative ratings on movie websites like Laughably, it received more than 80,000 ratings after debuting at the Toronto Film Festival with just three screenings, with most of those being one-star scores.

I’ve always said that anyone can be a critic, but the one sacrosanct requirement is that you have to have seen the movie before you’re allowed to offer your opinion on it.

I have seen “The Promise,” and my opinion is it’s the best film so far in 2017.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Video review: "Split"

Yes, “Split” is based on one of the oldest scary movie clichés there is: split personalities. The film, from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, scores no points for originality. It’s about a villain who has 23 distinct identities, who each vie with each other for time “in the light.”

We watch as his not-hapless (hapful?) victim (Anya Taylor-Joy) struggles to negotiate this delicate balance of power, doing whatever she can to stay alive and thwart her enemy … or should that be plural?

Still, it’s a surprisingly effective thriller that understands the audience is going to laugh during parts of the movie. Rather than flee from this expectation, Shyamalan lands on it with both feet and milks the laughs when appropriate.

That doesn’t change the fact the film is very creepy and effective at times, anchored by James McAvoy’s performance in the lead role.

When we first meet him he’s Dennis, a massively strong but dimwitted type who has a forbidden fascination with young girls. He’s kidnapped three of them (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula play the other two) and has them ensconced in his underground bunker. We seem to be heading to a dark place.

But then we meet Patricia, a charming woman, and later Barry, a gregarious fashion designer, and Hedwig, a mischievous 9-year-old lad. As with other split personality movies, they don’t bother to flesh out the other 19 identities to any great degree.

Even as the girls try to find a way out of their captivity, their captor sneaks away to see his therapist (Betty Buckley). She has some revolutionary ideas about patients like him, arguing that multiple personalities represent the next stage of human evolution. The mind’s ability to believe anything can even grant the body supernatural powers, she supposes -- a theory that we know is going to be tested.

Even as it trundles toward a final act we surely can guess well ahead of time, “Split” rarely fails to entertain. It’s downright disturbing how giggles and shrieks go together so well.

Bonus features are ample, and are the same for DVD and Blu-ray editions.

These include an alternate ending, deleted scenes, a making-of documentary, and in-depth features on McAvoy’s transformations and Shyamalan’s unique filmmaking process.



Thursday, April 13, 2017

Review: "My Life as a Zucchini"

“My Life as a Zucchini” has a very childlike animated look and premise. It’s very much about childhood, though I don’t think children are its proper audience.

This French/Swiss stop-motion gem, which received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, can be quite glum and even depressing. I daresay most people will shed a tear or two while watching it. But there's also quite a bit of magic and awe packed into its slim 70-minute running time.

It's about a sad, hollow-eyed 9-year-old named Icare, who prefers to go by the nickname his mother has given him, Zucchini. He spends his days in his loft bedroom playing alone, while his mother, despondent over his father's long-ago abandonment, drinks herself into a stupor while watching TV. There is almost certainly abuse happening, emotional and probably physical, too.

"Zucchini" undoubtedly originated as an insult, but now the boy clings to that identity with a clinging sense of desperation.

But then Zucchini accidentally kills her and is sent to an orphanage called Fountaines. The officious policeman handling his case, Raymond, tries to be nice on the way there, letting the boy fly his beloved kite from the police car. He has drawn a picture of his father upon it dressed as a superhero, and if that doesn't make you well up right there, then I can't even.

The other kids are lost souls like him with a mix of tales of parental woe -- missing, deported, dead, high on drugs. The children all bear emotional scars and some on the outside as well.

The biggest boy, a redhead named Simon, takes on the role of bully, though he sees himself more as the unofficial leader and tough-love protector. He collects all the stories behind each orphan and wants Zucchini's, too. Simon teases, and cajoles, and bothers, and eventually things come to blows and we think we know where this is heading. But maybe not.

The other children include the boy who wets the bed and refuses to lie; the girl who hides her face with her hair and nervously taps her fork; the timid lad who buries his sorrows in food; and the girl who runs out excitedly at every approaching car, thinking it's her mother returned.

Things start to ease up with the arrival of Camille. She's been staying with her aunt after the death of her parents, but the uncaring woman can't stand her moping anymore. She and Zucchini form an instant rapport that shows the buds of romance.

The other kids are endlessly fascinated by this, and soon there's lots of talk about love and sex, which in Simon's description involves the man's willy "exploding." The chubby kid, terrified, declares he will remain celibate forever.

(Like I said, not really for little kids. The film's PG-13 rating is more for themes than any explicit violence or language.)

Directed by Claude Barras, who wrote the screenplay along with three others based on the novel by Gilles Paris, "My Life as a Zucchini" has a deliberately throwback look, with the characters and objects seemingly formed out of molded clay. I liked how the animators played with perspective -- cars have tires the size of doughnuts -- and the way the people's elbows just curve, with no bend.

The bright colors and sharp lines are a contrast to the movie's sense of melancholy and ambling story. The situation evolves, but in a naturalistic way rather than via a structured narrative.

The nicely goofy teacher, Mr. Paul, takes up with Rosy, the assistant administrator, prompting more exploding willy talk. Zucchini writes to Raymond the cop, who comes for occasional visits where the other boys drop water balloons on his head. (Most of them have not had positive interactions with law enforcement.) Camille's aunt reappears and causes trouble.

Mostly, the film is an interior look at what it's like to be a kid when they take you to the place where there's "nobody left to love you," to use Simon's words. The children are constantly in conflict with each other, but there's also an unspoken understanding of camaraderie for a diverse set of young souls caught in the same situation.

The way Camille quietly undermines Simon's authority, while appearing to knuckle under to his alpha-male vibe, is quite charming.

I also loved the simple poetry of how the orphanage provides a slider bar for each child to express how they're feeling, with illustrations ranging from sunny to stormy. Simon's is perpetually sunk to the bottom, while the others' rise and fall with the emotional tide.

The film is being released in both its original French with subtitles and with English dubbing. The French voices include Gaspard Schlatter, Sixtine Murat, Paulin Jaccoud, Michel Vuillermoz and Brigitte Rosset, while the American cast has Erick Abbate, Ness Krell, Romy Beckman, Nick Offerman, Will Forte, Ellen Page and Amy Sedaris.

It's a wonderful movie in any tongue, smart and tender yet straight-eyed and unsentimental. It grasps that children understand a lot of what is going on when things turn bad, even when they seem confused and non-responsive.

Review: "The Fate of the Furious"

As we already knew from the movies, you can outrun an explosion, provided it happens in slo-mo. Now from “The Fate of the Furious,” the franchise that started out about illegal street racers and somehow morphed into full James Bond-esque international intrigue and action set pieces, we learn you can block an explosion simply by parking a car in front of it.

It’s true -- the flames won’t go above, below or around the vehicle at all! Thanks, Furious!

I know, I know; nitpicking the “Fast and the Furious” franchise, now in its astonishing eighth iteration, is like criticizing the dancing bear’s form. People pay to see it because it does what it does, not because it’s particularly good at it or whether the whole enterprise makes a lick of sense.

The thing is, people got hooked on these movies because they combined hot rods, bulging muscles, macho preening, hoochie mamas and lots of hard-throttle racing. Most of that has gone by the wayside in “Fate.” Oh, there are a few cool cars, and neither Vin Diesel nor Dwayne Johnson seem to own any shirts that include sleeves.

But at this point the Furious movies are big, messy, sprawling orgies of pomposity and ridiculousness. It’s all about Russian separatists and nuclear codes and elite cyber hackers and no-name American spy agencies. There are eight gazillion characters, and apparently we’re supposed to be able to remember some sideshow guys from four movies ago.

When last we left Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and his “family” of driver/robbers, they’d finally found some peace after pulling off one last big job. We learn they’ve been staying in Havana, which in this depiction is a true socialist paradise of cruising cars and women with cheeks hanging out of their skirts.

Dom gets a visit from Cipher, a computer hacker and criminal mastermind, played with hollow eyes and a taunting smirk by Charlize Theron. She shows him an image on her phone, and as a result he turns his back on his crew and becomes her mercenary in some very big heists against the Russian military. His actions are so bewildering, his friends keep wondering aloud: “Has Dominic Toretto finally gone rogue?”

Hint: Dominic Toretto has not gone rogue.

You may remember the other players: Michelle Rodriguez is Letty, Dom’s fiery lady love, now wife; Johnson is Luke Hobbs, a special ops badass who used to chase Dom & Co. but now allies with them; Tyrese Gibson is Roman, the wisecracking, cowardly one; Chris “Ludacris” Bridges is Tej, the brainy tech expert; Nathalie Emmanuel is Ramsey, a hacktivist who created some spying software called God’s Eye in the last movie and now fends off lame sexual innuendo from Roman and Tej.

Jason Statham returns as Shaw, a bad guy for at least one other movie, maybe two. (I really can’t remember.) Now he and Hobbs are in jail together for about a minute and a half, then they’re forced to team up against Cipher. They keep threatening to have a fistfullicious throwdown when their temporary alliance is ended; it gives us something to look forward to.

Kurt Russell shows up as the helpful spy guy pulling some strings, and Scott Eastwood is his dorky young apprentice who eventually wises up. I get the sense Eastwood is being groomed to assume the role of Bland Straitlaced White Guy vacated by Paul Walker.

The movie, directed by F. Gary Gray from a script by Chris Morgan, is big, loud and dumb, but perhaps not big and loud enough for its own good. There’s an astonishing amount of jabbering and people tapping away furious on computer keyboards. This is one of those movies where virtually every object in the world can be controlled by computers, including an army of self-driving cars and even a nuclear submarine.

(Quibble: If you leave the hatch of a sub open, as the characters clearly do, it tends to flood when it submerges. OK, I’ll stop.)

There was one clever and funny bit where Shaw fights a bunch of people on a plane while carrying a very important object, about which I’ll say no more. It’s basically the movie’s MacGuffin, but cuter.

“The Fate of the Furious” is a transcendentally silly movie, rock-headed and testosterone-fueled, but one not without its charms. The car stunts are fun, the bad guys are hiss-able, and even the hyper-masculine peacocking gets so silly the guys start laughing at each other in between boasts and threats.

I wish the thing was 40 minutes shorter. Come to think of it, I wish they’d stopped making these two or three movies ago. But I hear two more are coming, whether we like it or not. Just pay your money and clap for the bear.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review: "Tommy's Honour"

It is a hard thing to pursue greatness, and a harder thing still to do so as the son of a great man.

After all, if one fails to achieve parity with your father -- the most likely outcome, given the odds of talent, drive and circumstance combining in just the right way -- then you are forever destined to be forgotten as the footnote in his shadow.

But then there is the remoter possibility: surpassing him. Then you must contend with watching the man who raised you knocked down a peg in the eyes of not just everyone else, but your own.

“Tommy’s Honour” is a marvelous movie about a pair of great 19th century Scottish golfers, Thomas Morris Sr. and Thomas Morris Jr. They are famous throughout the United Kingdom and beyond, known simply as Old Tom and Young Tom.

They competed together in set matches against other players, each won multiple championships in the early years of what is now the British Open, pioneered new equipment and strategies, built and played on some of the most storied courses in the world.

Old Tom is generally regarded as the founding father of the modern game. And Young Tom? He was simply the best player the world had seen until that time.

The film is directed by Jason Connery, son of Sean, whom you may have heard of. Did a bit of acting in his day, retired now, reputedly an enthusiastic golfer throughout his life. You can see the appeal the tale of the Morrises held for the younger Connery.

The screenplay is by Pamela Marin and Kevin Cook, based on Cook’s 2007 book of the same title. It combines a sense of history, a love of the game and above all an appreciation for the difficult, bittersweet relationship father and son shared.

Old Tom (Peter Mullan) is very much a product of his time. He is beholden and deferential to the wealthy gentlemen who comprise the Prestwick Golf Club, where he is employed as chief caddie, greens keeper and proprietor of the golf shop. He literally carved the course himself out of the Scottish scrublands, and operates as sort of the local patron saint of golf. But as the story opens, he’s going on 50 and his game has started to fall off.

Meanwhile, 15-year-old Tommy (Jack Lowden) is a prodigy and the captain of the club (Sam Neill) and the rest want him to enter competitions on their behalf. In this day, players competed against each other, generally 1-on-1 or matched pairs, with the club members putting up and collecting most of the stakes.

Tommy impertinently refuses to knuckle under to the gentry, believing those who play and win the game deserve most of the spoils. He envisions a new role, the professional golfer who plays from course to course, unruled by those who would appoint themselves master of the game.

As the years pass and his reputation grows, Old Tom continues to be embarrassed by Young Tom’s upstart ways. His wooing of Margaret, a servant a decade his senior played by Ophelia Lovibond, vexes his parents further, especially after her past reputation is found to be wanting.

I loved the dichotomy between the two men. Lithe, fair-haired and handsome -- nearly pretty -- Young Tom’s mien and happy-go-lucky demeanor mask a man of tremendous determination and passion.

Mullan’s broad, beautiful face, bushy beard and stocky block of a man is an exercise in subtle stoicism. Watching his son take, and make, a daring shot, Old Tom’s face seems to move not a twitch. But oh, the eyes are smiling.

In truth, I’d rather do just about anything than play golf. “A good walk, spoiled,” said Samuel Clemens, and none have said it better. In its modern conception, I can think of few things that waste as much money, time and patience as golf.

But here’s a beautiful movie about father and son who were both divided and bound together by the game. I’ve read that it only rained one day during the shooting of “Tommy’s Honour,” which if you know Scotland practically constitutes a miracle.

Review: "Gifted"

I like it when big stars and high-profile filmmakers do small movies. Almost everybody gets their start making tiny no-budget indies, so it’s nice to see a return to roots. It’s an opportunity for them to stretch their wings and do something a little more daring artistically.

“Gifted” isn’t a terribly audacious movie, but it is a tender and warm-hearted one.

Most people know Chris Evans these days as Captain America, but here he plays Frank Adler, a seemingly hard-headed man who lives in a Florida coastal town with his 7-year-old niece, Mary. Frank fixes boat motors for a living and tools around in a rusted pickup, spending his Friday nights swallowing suds at the local dive bar while a friendly neighbor watches the kid.

He’s one of those guys we pass by in our daily lives, wearing a dirty T-shirt and toiling at a menial job, and we think we know everything there is to know about him.

But Mary is a f’real genius, a first-grader who can do mathematics at a level to stump most doctoral candidates. She’s played by Mckenna Grace, a blonde, gapped-tooth zephyr of pure personality and joy. Mary hasn’t had much chance to socialize with kids her age, but Frank feels it’s important she go to a regular school and live the life of a normal kid.

It doesn’t take long for her sharp 1st grade teacher, Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate), to spot the Einstein in her midst, though. Soon the principal is brought in, experts weigh in with their opinion, which is that Mary should be going to a special school for the gifted. Frank resists.

Things grow more complicated when Mary’s grandmother shows up after a 7-year absence. Evelyn Adler (Lindsay Duncan) is, to use Frank’s words, “very British.” Picture the very epitome of the rich, uptight, smart, snooty English lady who think nothing is ever quite good enough -- that’s Evelyn.

It seems Mary’s mother, who killed herself while Mary was still a baby, was also a math whiz who was on the verge of solving some Very Big and Important Problem. Now Evelyn thinks Mary is the one to carry on her work, and sues Frank -- her son -- for custody.

Unlike other movies of this kind, the court case is not really the center of the movie, which spends very little time in front of the judge. Instead, we drop in there for time to time to hear more testimony, where we learn more about the characters and circumstances. So the judicial proceeding spurs the story rather than carrying it.

I really liked Glenn Plummer as Frank’s attorney, a wise and weary local lawyer who understands that family law is a tricky area where emotions and predispositions can be more important than the law part. Octavia Spencer is in her usual fine form as Roberta, Frank’s neighbor in the squalid little cluster of rental homes where they both live. She’s the super, has helped raise Mary and sees her partially her own.

“Gifted” is an original screenplay by Tom Flynn, who wrote only one other movie about a quarter-century ago. Director Marc Webb helmed the last two “Spider-Man” movies, so like Evans he’s getting back to basics with a small, intimate film like this.

The movie is a little too predictable for its own sake, but the actors embrace the material and imbue their characters with a good deal of emotional truth. Frank is a caretaker, not just for Mary but for his sister’s memory, too. He’s not terribly happy about the burden, but (mostly) carries it without complaint.

Evelyn isn’t an outright villain, and the movie is careful to show how she can give Mary a life that Frank cannot -- one that the girl herself is eager to pursue. Grace’s performance is carefully tuned to demonstrate how an extraordinary mind can exist inside the head of a little girl who still wants to frolic on the beach and play with her one-eyed cat, Fred.

Movies are a lot like kids: you have to let them be what they want to be, rather than what we might wish ourselves. Taken on its own ample merits, “Gifted” makes its own mark.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Hand" (1981)

OK, that's more like it.

After my dispiriting foray into checking out a film I incorrectly assumed was related to to 1981's "The Hand," I followed through and watched the horror film that I only saw once 35 years ago but still holds a strong place in my mind.

When it's been that long you don't really remember a movie; all you have is memories of memories -- vague impressions of mood and emotion punctuated with a few crystal-clear flashbacks.

"The Hand" was writer/director Oliver Stone's second feature film, falling into horror/psychological thriller geography. It was a big flop, got savaged by critics and didn't do much for the careers of Stone or star Michael Caine.

It's really a garbage movie, but the kind you can enjoy without guilt.

(As opposed to the British 1960 version of "The Hand," which brings guilt but no joy.)

Caine plays Jon Lansdale, a famous-ish cartoon artist who draws a syndicated newspaper strip called "Mandro," who is a not-at-all disguised clone of Conan. He loses his drawing hand in a freak car accident caused by his wife, with whom he was growing increasingly distant. They can't find the hand to reattach it, and Jon spirals into a psychotic state in which he imagines the disembodied hand comes to life and starts killing people who have wronged him.

As I mentioned in the previous column, we're lulled into thinking the entire thing is a figment of Jon's tortured mind, but the final scene would have us believe the supernatural hand is a real, malevolent entity after all.

After Jon has been incarcerated for his many crimes, a psychologist has him strapped into a medical chair, his hair disheveled into a Jewfro of impressive proportions, with a bunch of electrodes attached to his head in a scene that is very reminiscent of the one in "A Clockwork Orange."

The shrink, an older, authoritative woman -- more on that in a minute -- gets Jon to say that the hand is crawling toward her neck because it wants to kill her. But she pushes him hard, urging him admit that it's he who wants to hurt her, and confront his own fear and anger. That he does, but then the hand appears to choke her out.

I guess that was a breakthrough, of a sort.

Stone based his script on the 1979 novel, "The Lizard's Tail," by Marc Brandel. Though after the movie came out the book was reissued under the title "The Hand." Brandel was the type open to change, having legally switched his name from Marcus Beresford in the 1960s.

Back in the day, I was fascinated by the idea of a severed hand killing people, and the idea that a guy could be committing horrid acts without being aware of it -- projecting his negative emotions into an object that may or may not exist.

Also, it must be said, my teen self enjoyed the tawdry special effects (by Stan Winston) and the sheer gore of the film. Jon's un-handing scene is still arresting for the sheer amount of arterial spurts and Caine's extreme depiction of agony in a very un-Mandro type of way.

Today, the movie's horror plot perambulations are less interesting to me than the subtext about shifting gender roles. 

Jon clearly idolizes Mandro, a noble savage who knows what he wants and takes it through force of will and (ahem) hand. That's how he would like to see himself, instead of a scared, sensitive artist who is petrified that losing his hand will also rob him of his vocation, his identity as patriarch and the love of his wife.

Andrea Marcovicci plays his wife, Anne, who was already in the preparatory stages of leaving Jon when the accident occurs. She's become involved in some New Age-y movement that seems to involve a combination of yoga, Scientology-esque self-analysis and sleeping with your instructor. Mara Hobel plays their daugher, Lizzie.

(Apropos of nothing: I was struck by the downright eerie physical resemblance between Marcovicci and Gabriel Jarret, who had brief run in the '80s playing androgynous boy/men, most notably in "Real Genius." Same person?!?)

Like Jon, Anne has both redeeming and loathsome qualities. She's a woman who has spent much of her adult life under the yoke of a controlling man, and strives for independence and self-discovery. But she also treats Jon quite shabbily after his maiming, pushing through with her plan to live separately on a trial basis -- this is what they were arguing about when she caused the accident -- essentially abandoning him in his time of greatest need.

Jon never says outright that it was Anne's fault that he lost his hand, though it lies there always between them unspoken, like a marker in the quiet game of wills they're playing. Jon, in his backward way, thinks that her guilt over his injury will cause her to reaffirm her marital duties as loyal wife; she uses his alienation as justification to pull further away.

Jon tries drawing with his left hand, but it's for naught. Then his agent arranges a tryout with a younger artist (Charles Fleischer) to handle the drafting side while Jon provides the writing. But he's infuriated when the other artist changes it around to make Mandro an existential character pondering his own motives.

Rather than turn the strip over entirely to an interloper, Jon vetoes the deal, thus also ending his family's entire source of income. Outfitted with a prosthetic hand -- which, inaccurately, is depicted as being capable of super-human strength -- he moves out to California to teach at a tiny hick community college, living by himself in a ramshackle cabin in the woods provided by the university. He befriends a drunken psychology instructor (Bruce McGill), who advises him on his blackout spells when the hand takes over.

And he dallies with a student (Annie McEnroe) named Stella who's a total figment of a male screenwriter's imagination: she simply shows up on his doorstep one evening, takes her shirt off and informs Jon that "I'm old-fashioned; I like to make it in a bed, OK?"

(As opposed to... what? The laundry room?)

The movie's deeper theme -- don't laugh; the better horror films always have ample subtext -- is about Jon's loss of masculinity, of his craving for dominance and respect.

He's a guy who lives vicariously through his creation, an all-conquering he-man who takes guff from no other. In reality, Jon is a rather effete fellow with a lilting Brit accent who wears colorful sweaters, dotes on his daughter and stands idly by while his wife's yoga instructor-cum-life-coach gradually seduces her under his nose. He earns a living by drawing pictures, not by competing with other men for the spoils of the land.

Rather than dilute Mandro's strength, Jon chooses to destroy him. Instead of accepting a payout, he forges his own, harder path. The hand becomes his new avatar for projecting his will onto others, and thus replenishing his own identity.

(If I were writing this for my old NYU cinema studies professors, I'd likely throw in some junk here about the hand being an extension of his man-parts, castration anxiety, etc. But I'm not, and I find most psychological/feminist/political analyses of film to be much more revealing of their authors than the movies themselves. So hie thee elsewhere for your dick metaphors.)

Soon the bodies pile up, the police grow suspicious and the hand turns its ire upon its weak, would-be master. Anne and Lizzie come for a Christmas visit, which is really Anne's excuse for running off to San Francisco to live with her new friends. We all know where this is heading.

More or less a forgotten film, "The Hand" brought back a lot of welcome memories from my earliest days as a movie lover. It's a silly, scary, rather skeevy film that touches a lot of erogenous zones for maturing minds.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Video review: "Hidden Figures"

Math is at the center of “Hidden Figures,” a historical drama about forgotten African-American women who were pivotal to putting the first Americans into space. “By the numbers,” though, is also an apt description of the predictable plot and characters who seem based more on algorithms than actual people.

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe play three women who were “computers” for NASA in the early 1960s – at a time when that term referred to someone who was really good at math rather than a machine. Katherine Johnson (Henson) is the standout genius of the bunch, who can see past the numbers into the “deep math” consequences of what they represent.

Monáe plays Mary Jackson, the young upstart of the trio, and Spencer is Dorothy Vaughan, who acts as manager of the computers but doesn’t get the title, pay or respect from her white supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) she deserves. The blacks and whites are kept segregated in different buildings, right down to water fountains and restrooms labeled “colored.”

Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, the NASA man in charge of the number-crunchers. He finds his all-white-and-male eggheads aren’t up to the task, so Johnson is conscripted to join his team, with predictable tensions from the engineers. (Jim Parsons plays the chief antagonist.)

The actors give a good account of themselves, especially Henson. But it all unfolds so unsurprisingly -- the meek Henson finally having her big hear-me-roar speech; Harrison taking a sledgehammer to the “colored” signs when he realizes racism is hindering scientific progress; Vaughan tackling the newfangled machines from IBM and earning new esteem.

Theodore Melfi, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Allison Schroeder, gives us an interesting and powerful piece of history. But the story spools out in a manner that’s strictly 1-2-3.

Bonus features as good. There’s a feature-length commentary track featuring Melfi and Henson; deleted scenes; a gallery of production stills; a making-of documentary, “It All Adds Up;” plus a featurette on filming on location in Georgia.




Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review: "Going in Style"

Movies about oldsters turning to crime, in particular robbing banks, are hardly a novel event. Between "Tough Guys," "The Crew," "The Grey Fox" and "Family Business," Geriatric Robbers is practically a genre unto itself. Heck, even Sinatra and the Pack were getting a mite long in the tooth when they made "Ocean's 11."

Indeed, "Going in Style" is a loose remake of 1979 film starring George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg that no one really remembers.

The new version features Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Alan Arkin. All are charming playing up their familiar persona: Freeman has a twinkly charisma and tart wisdom; Caine is peevish but warmhearted; Arkin is cantankerous and grouchy.

The plot the movie puts them through is quite tired and predictable, though. All play retirees of a steel company that's moving to Vietnam and dissolving their pensions, so they decide to get payback by robbing their own bank, which is complicit in both the pensions and trying to foreclose on one guy's house.

(I love that the screenplay, by Theodore Melfi, doesn't even bother trying to explain why a Brit has been living and working in New York City for at least 30 years but hasn't lost his Cockney accent.)

Caine is Joe, Arkin is Albert and Freeman is Willie. They're working-class guys who live across the street from each other, meet at the same coffee shop most days and are all unmarried -- whether bachelors or widowers, we know not.  Their pension checks have suddenly stopped showing up and Joe has fallen behind in his mortgage payments. When he goes to the bank, the smarmy banker (Josh Pais) blows him off. But then some bank robbers knock the place over, and as they say a seed is planted.

Willie is in the latter stages of kidney failure, and as an old guy with crappy insurance he's near the bottom of the transplant list. Arkin is Willie's longtime roomate, the kind who spends a lot of time complaining and sleeping.

Roughly the first half of the movie is the planning of the heist, with a little help from a local criminal played by John Ortiz. The second half is the actual robbery and aftermath, with Matt Dillon as the full-of-himself FBI agent investigating the case. Even dogs don't like him!

In between is a little bit of character and family stuff. Joe lives with his daughter (Maria Dizzia) and granddaughter (an irrepressible Joey King), and during the course of the heist preparation he tries to get his estranged ex-son-in-law (Peter Serafinowicz) to reeneter their lives. Willie wants to be well enough and wealthy enough to travel to see his people more than once a year. Albert finds himself pursued by Annie (Ann-Margret, still a dish at nearly 76), a grocer who shares his appreciation for cooking and jazz.

Director Zach Braff ("Garden State") milks the obvious laughs for all they're worth, such as elderly sex. Albert seems stunned to find himself in a relationship with a hot old mama. "She likes me for who I am. I don't even like me for who I am!"

And, of course, there are plenty of old jokes. "Are you guys 5-0?" asks a suspicious low-life. "We're closer to 8-0," Joe deadpans.

Christopher Lloyd -- great name, that -- shows up as Milton, the hilariously senile guy at the local seniors club. Among his foibles is using a bullhorn for most of his conversations. For him, life's a non-stop bingo game and there are always balls to be called.

Ziobhan Fallon Hogan is the sassy waitress at their diner, who we just know is destined for the world's fattest tip. Kenan Thompson plays the security chief at the Value King grocery store where the boys first practice their criminal ways; he feels professionally insulted as he reviews video of the trio stuffing hams down their pants and whatnot.

"Going in  Style" reminds me of an old test Gene Siskel used to give movies: instead of the film, would you rather just watch that same cast of actors sitting around, eating lunch and chatting with each other? I'm not sure this movie would pass.

Review: "Smurfs: The Lost Village"

Last week I reviewed “The Boss Baby” and said it’s one of those movies parents struggle to get through, but you do so because little kids will love it. Normally there are only a handful of those films per year to endure, but this time we didn’t even make it seven days before encountering another one.

I’ll say this: I enjoyed “Smurfs: The Lost Village” a lot more more than that weird live action/animated hybrid from 2011 and its 2013 sequel. If there’s one thing that can make cutesy blue gnomes who substitute the word “smurf” for most every verb even more grating, it’s a heaping helping of Neil Patrick Harris.

This computer-animated version has no real humans clomping around, thank goodness. It’s a complete reboot with no relation to the NPH films. Under director Kelly Asbury’s hands, the look and feel is more of a throwback to the purity of the Peyo comics where the Smurfs originated, while giving them more texture and snark.

It manages to entertain in a simplistic way, featuring straightforward physical humor and zippy action scenes. It even manages to explore the reason why there are only boy Smurfs, except of course for Smurfette, who was actually created out of clay by the evil bumpkin wizard Gargamel before Papa Smith used some of his own magic to turn her good.

(And from brunette to blonde in the process, about which I’ll say no more.)

The story (screenplay by Stacey Harman and Pamela Ribon) reintroduces us to the Smurfs, who each have a one-word first name that defines their personality: Grouchy Smurf, Jokey Smurf, etc. But then we pick three main Smurfs – Brainy (Danny Pudi), Hefty (Joe Manganiello) and Clumsy (Jack McBrayer) -- to accompany Smurfette (Demi Lovato) on her quest.

Mandy Patinkin provides the voice of Papa Smurf, who shows up at the beginning and again at the end to provide some sage wisdom. He’s essentially the Santa Claus of Smurfs, along with a little Father Knows Best.

If you’ll remember, Gargamel (Rainn Wilson) is continually hatching plans to steal the Smurfs’ magical blue essence to grow his powers. He learns of a new source hidden deep inside the Forbidden Forest that lies behind a great wall, thanks to the unwitting help of Smurfette. She’s been feeling down in the dumps lately because she doesn’t have a preassigned role like all the boys do.

Spoiler alert: after many adventures, the foursome encounters a lost tribe of all-girl Smurfs. I don’t feel like I’m really giving all that much away, because the title does warn you about a lost Smurf village. Of course, the female Smurfs don’t consider themselves lost, and to them the forbidden part of the forest is the other side from theirs.

Sometimes you just have to Smurf yourself up some perspective.

In the lost village, the Smurfs put their identifying name after instead of before Smurf; so the tough one is Smurfstorm (Michelle Rodriguez), the overly friendly one is Smurfblossom (Ellie Kemper) and Julia Roberts is the wise old leader, Smurfwillow.

(I know, I know, using the words “old” and “Julia Roberts” anywhere near each other feels like an insult to the natural order, but she’s 50 later this year. She seems a lot cooler about it than I am.)

I enjoyed the look of this movie, such as the way the Smurfs’ eyebrows hover in thin air above their faces, or the curious nature of Brainy’s forever-falling-off glasses, which don’t connect in the middle or appear to contain any actual glass.

I don’t laugh all that much, but then the humor is pitched a few decades south of me. All I know is my boys giggled like crazy and had a blast. Fingers crossed we’ll Smurf us an animated film this year we all can appreciate.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Review: "Raw"

Every now and then you hear about movie so gruesome and disturbing there’s a rash of people fainting/vomiting/fleeing the theater. Most of the time, I suspect, this is the product of an overeager marketing department rather than a wave of true hysterics.

Or maybe it’s me, a kid who grew up on hard-R horror -- my parents were quite upstanding, I assure you – but I never fail to come away disappointed by these movies.

Is “Raw,” a French/Belgian cannibalism flick, really that gross? On the art/European film spectrum, maybe. There’s plenty of blood and indirect flesh-munching. But any decent American horror movie from the 1980s or ‘90s – before the unfortunate advent of PG-13 rated horror – will out-gore it with ease.

I literally watched “Raw” while eating lunch, and encountered not so much as a hiccup.

But let’s leave aside the bloody stuff and ask the bigger question: is this an effective film? Is it scary? Will you be disturbed? Does it raise discomforting questions about the intersection of human impulses, sexuality and violence?

On that more substantial score… I was still left wanting.

Actress Garance Marillier and writer/director Julia Ducournau both make their feature film debuts with “Raw,” though they previously worked together on a pair of short films. It’s the story of a timid vegetarian girl, Justine, who goes off to veterinary college and finds that she has culinary and carnal cravings that she’d been suppressing.

Her craving for flesh, both erotic and digestive, turns out to be of the forbidden kind.

I appreciated that Marillier looks like a real teenager: painfully thin, awkward in her own body, even some bad skin – which miraculously clears up after her character’s diet changes. With her hooded stare and angelic features, she’s the classic horror heroine who discovers she has hidden strengths and dark impulses.

I also really liked Ella Rumpf as her older sister, Alexia, who’s an upperclassman at the vet school and takes great pains to make her disdain for her sibling known. She’s got a voluptuous verve and a sensuous smirk about her; she reminds me of a young Nastassja Kinski. Her character is used to being the center of attention, and resents that her brainy kid sister could steal some of the limelight.

Their school is simply not to be believed. The academics and administrators seem to be wholly absent, leaving it to the seniors to lead the rookies through an orgiastic maze of debauchery and hazing. One of the first things they do is put the kids in their crisp new white lab coats, then dump a river of blood on them. Each new student is also forced to eat raw rabbit kidneys, which first awakens Justine’s cravings.

The students have semi-nude dance parties, take copious drugs and make newbies engage in sexual dalliances with each other. If any of this happened at a real institution, they’d have 16 lawsuits within the first week.

Justine is given a man as a roommate, Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella), but since he’s gay and Arab that’s supposed to make it cool. She eventually finds herself lusting after him, with a little shoulder-biting that grows increasingly less playful.

Somewhere there’s a good idea for a movie inside “Raw,” but the one they ended up making remains half-baked horror.