Thursday, June 29, 2017

Review: "Despicable Me 3"

It’s still a fun romp for kids, but the “Despicable Me” franchise has run out of steam for me. It’s a formula by now: super-villain-turned-good-guy Gru goes up against a former colleague, with goofy minion twerps interrupting with antics and a nonsensical song or two, plus more bonding with adopted daughters, cool gadgets and convoluted schemes, and so on.

The X factor is supposed to be Dru, Gru’s long-lost twin brother, also voiced by Steve Carell about a half-octave higher. But the sibling turns out to be a needy drip, and we can guess how their relationship is going to shape up a lot earlier than they do.

As the story opens, Gru has married Anti-Villain League agent Lucy (Kristen Wiig), joined her on the job and they’re settling in with kiddoes Margo, Edith and Agnes (Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier and Nev Scharrel, respectively). His new nemesis is Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), a 1980s kid TV star who played a pint-sized villain. He still carries a grudge for having the show canceled when he hit puberty, so he’s determined to turn showbiz into reality.

Bratt is really the best thing about the movie, even if it gets a bit repetitive. He wears outlandish ‘80s clothes and haircut, and continually busts dance moves to Michael Jackson and other pop tunes while carrying out his heists. His super-power involves bubble gum that expands upon contact, trapping his victims in a sticky trap. This leads to Gru’s first, and hopefully last, nude scene in the series.

(Was bubblegum an especially big thing in the 1980s, compared to the ‘70s or ‘90s? I don’t remember it so.)

Gru and Lucy are summarily dismissed by the new head of the AVL when they fail to catch Bratt. But then word arrives that Dru and Gu’s father has died, and the agreement their parents had to split the boys and never tell them about each other becomes null and void.

It’s played for laughs, but that’s pretty cruel stuff. Julie Andrews does the voice of their mom.

Dru has been raised in the family’s native Freedonia where, strangely, no one else has their vaguely Slavic accent, having more of a German peasant vibe. It seems the brothers come from a long line of stories super-villains, but Dru isn’t up to snuff and wants his brother to help him work on his scoundrel game.

The running joke is that Gru resents Dru because he has long, flowing blond locks while he’s bald as a barrel – not to mention seeming to be a bit taller and more svelte.

(By the way, did you know Gru is actually their surname, so they’re actually both Gru, and he’s Dru Gru? Our Gru’s first name is Felonious, something I just learned and don’t think I’ve actually heard anyone say in any of the movies.)

There’s one amusing sequence where they don mismatching black and white super-suits to break into Bratt’s hideout, which is an island tower topped with a Rubik’s Cube. It’s like the Avengers meets Keystone Kops.

The minions are largely absent this go-round, all quitting (except for one pair) over Gru’s stubborn abeyance from dastardly deeds, though we all know these little yellow chickens are going to come home to roost. Henchman Dr. Nefario is shunted even further to the side, trapped in carbonite a la Han Solo; I guess Russell Brand just didn’t want to do the voice anymore.

Look, my kids had a blast watching this movie, and yours probably will, too. We like to think of children as being impatient, but the truth is adults grow tired of things faster than they do.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Video review: "Trainspotting 2"

It’s funny how the long-term cultural relevance of a film has such low correlation with its box office tally. “Trainspotting” earned only $16 million in 1996, but is arguably one of the most influential movies of the past quarter-century. Certainly, director Danny Boyle and star Ewan McGregor have become important figures.

Its sequel, “Trainspotting 2,” made more than double that -- but, I think, is destined to be largely forgotten in popular culture, in much the same way the “Wizard of Oz” sequel was.

(See? Bet you didn’t even know there was one.)

It’s a well-made film: entertaining, smart, sharp performances and plenty of nifty items out of Boyle’s bag of filmmaking tricks. In the end, though, we’re left wondering why this endeavor needed to happen.

We revisit the old gang of addict/criminals 20 years later, now middle-aged guys in various states of evolution, or not. Renton (McGregor), who ripped off his pals after a big drug score, turned to straight work in Amsterdam. Begbie (Robert Carlyle) has been serving hard time in prison ever since, dreaming of getting his hands around Renton’s throat.

Simon “Sick Boy” (Jonny Lee Miller) has taken over his family’s crumbling bar, and runs a little extortion racket on the side. Spud (Ewen Bremner), the gentle, somewhat dimwitted soul of the bunch, is very much the same -- working itinerantly in between getting high and visiting his wife and son.

After a health scare, Renton returns to look up his old friends -- well, not Begbie -- to see if there’s any way he can make amends. Spud is receptive, Sick boy less so. But they’re eventually back to their old ways, doing drugs and dreaming up cons to run. Begbie soon escapes from prison and comes seeking his own sort of reconciliation.

Renton’s old screeds about commercialism overtaking middle-class values are nicely updated for these streaming-and-Tweeting times. Maybe the real lesson of “T2” is the old saw about things staying the same the more they change.

Bonus features form a short list, but it’s pretty meaty stuff. Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge team up for a feature-length commentary track, there’s a making-of featurette with Boyle and his cast, plus deleted scenes.



Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Review: "The Hero"

There’s a scene in “The Hero” where Sam Elliott, as aging cowboy actor Lee Hayden, runs through lines for an audition. It’s for one of those generic big-budget spectacles, the sort of movie that could give Lee’s moribund career a life-changing boost.

And the dialogue is just complete garbage -- we’re talking Razzies awards territory here.

Yet Lee invests the lines with so much authority, such hard-wrung emotional intensity, that you’d swear he’d sauntered out of a shot from “Unforgiven.” His reading leaves the buddy running lines with him, and us, just floored.

You could say much the same about the whole of Elliott’s performance, which should be remembered as the zenith of a long and noble career.

Blessed with a voice like creased leather and a face straight out of a Ken Burns historical documentary -- that iron glare, haphazard angles and totemic mustache -- Elliott has spent decades playing cowpokes, deputies and other hard men who support the hero of the story with unflagging loyalty and, when necessary, sterner steps.

Now Elliott is the leading man, playing a sort-of version of himself, if maybe a few rungs down the ladder of fame.

Lee is a TV and film actor whose heyday faded half a lifetime ago. By his own reckoning he only ever made one movie worth a damn, from which this film takes its title. These days he mostly just smokes a lot of weed, hangs around with his former co-star/solitary friend/drug dealer, Jeremy (Nick Offerman), and waits for the phone to ring.

His only real gig is doing voiceovers, commercials for barbecue sauce and such – something the real-life Elliott knows a thing or two about as pitchman for trucks, beef and beer. In the opening scene, he is repeatedly prompted by the offscreen technician to do “just one more” take, ad nauseum.

It’s an apt metaphor for Lee’s career: stuck in a rut, but one he’d like to keep plying if anybody’d let him climb back in the saddle for real.

His agent, who clearly has bigger clients on his mind, drops one piece of news: a group called the Western Appreciation and Preservation Society would like to give him their lifetime achievement award. It’s just a bunch of oldsters who like wearing cowboy hats and throw themselves a party once a year, and Lee brushes it off.

He is long divorced from his wife, Valerie (Katharine Ross, who knows from Westerns), and barely has a relationship with his adult daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter). When he bumps into Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a cool, smart chick who’s about his kid’s age and makes goo-goo eyes at him, Lee’s first instinct is to become defensive about the preposterousness of it.

“Seventy,” Lee snarls when he finally goads her into asking his age, practically spitting out the addendum, “One!”

But they start to have a thing, and Lee decides he might as well go accept that award after all, especially if he can have a pretty thing on his arm. They drop some drugs beforehand to mellow out, stuff happens at the ceremony, and without going into it all, his phone starts to ring again.

There’s one other key piece of information: Lee has just learned he has a deadly form of cancer that is mostly going to put him six feet under before too long. He starts to experience dreams/flashbacks in which he is again the star of a Western, an existentialist jaunt in which old debts have piled up and a reckoning comes creeping.

It’s still stunning how a widebrim and six-shooter fit Elliott so well, less accoutrements than intrinsic parts of the man’s iconography.

Things go from there. Director Brett Haley, who previously worked with Elliott on “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” co-wrote the script with Marc Basch as a clear homage to the actor. It’s a look at a guy who’s been waiting his whole life for his fortune to change, and when it happens it’s at exactly the wrong time.

Sullen yet hopeful, with even a nugget or two of joy, “The Hero” isn’t a swan song to a type of actor whose day has passed, but a showcase for one very much in his prime.

Review: "Band Aid"

Here’s something you don’t see every day: a smart romantic dramedy from a distinctly feminine perspective that also gets its male character down to the ground.

Zoe Lister-Jones wrote, directed, produced and co-stars in “Band Aid,” a desperately funny and surprisingly insightful look into the marital gender wars. Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally) are thirtysomething marrieds with dead-end jobs and a quickly shrinking roster of friends who don’t have kids.

They’re getting the pressure from all sides to procreate, but what they actually spend most of their time on is fighting.

One of the things they do for fun is play music at kids’ birthdays and such. After one particularly bad row, they pull out their guitars from the garage and start goofing around, carrying on their arguments through rock ‘n’ roll verses.

Their songs are duets of pure anger and resentment about the things that vex them: the dirty dishes in the sink, the lack of sex, his laziness, her neediness, their fear that they’re really losers and too afraid to admit it.

Ben has a sort of dreamy/schlubby thing going on, a mix of animal magnetism and puckish insouciance. Pally’s rakish hair, are-they-real eyelashes and very ordinary physique give a sense of a high school loverboy going slowly to pot. Ben is the kind of guy who may not seem like there’s a lot there, but the waters run deeper. He’s is a work-at-home graphic artist who can barely be bothered to respond to his client’s requests.

Anna was a writing prodigy in college who briefly had a book deal -- if you didn’t know, you can be sure she’ll tell you. Now she drives for Uber and frets about falling behind her friends, who all seem to have fabulous careers and/or adorable moppet kids. Anna wears prim outfits, almost Amish with Adam’s Apple-high top buttons, her hair pulled into a severe topknot.

Their relationship has its ups and downs, mostly downs lately. They’d probably be heading for the divorce if not for the songs providing an outlet for them to scream their frustrations at each other without the other taking it (too) personally. Once they start performing for audiences, the thrill also puts some zip back into their love life.

There are a few recognizable faces in supporting roles, including Retta (“Parks and Recreation”) as their disengaged therapist. Fred Armisen plays Dave, the creepy next-door neighbor who gets recruited to be their drummer because, well, they don’t really know anybody else. He turns out to be a recovering sex addict who has a lot of very cute “best friends.”

Ravi Patel, Brooklyn Decker, Hannah Simone and Susie Essman round at the cast as friends, relatives and best friends. Lucius provides the snappy songs.

It’s a strong debut for Lister-Jones as a writer/director. Her comedic voice recalls that of Tina Fey, a blend of robust feminist authority and nutty neuroticism. She writes a lot of biting things for Ben to say that no man should ever say to his wife, though virtually everyone has wanted to. She and Pally also have good onscreen chemistry; I totally bought them as a couple.

I also appreciated how story flirts with the obvious plot possibilities -- a sudden pregnancy or surprise record deal -- before returning back to Earth.

I spent such good time with these characters, I’d actually love to see a sequel one day. Maybe five years down the line, when Anna and Ben have a rugrat or two, and actually have something to fight about.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Last Days of Patton" (1986)

This is a movie website, though I do occasionally wander into personal musings, politics and even television. I feel comfortable including the made-for-TV "The Last Days of Patton" here, since it is the largely unknown sequel to 1970's seminal "Patton."

General George S. Patton was surely the signature role of George C. Scott's long film career, and that's saying something. He won a Best Actor Oscar for the 1970 film (which he declined) and no doubt relished the chance to revisit the character, who died shortly following the end of World War II after being paralyzed in a freak auto accident.

It's the classic "lion in winter" sort of tale, with the grizzled old warrior facing his own mortality, his reputation tarnished as wartime gives way to peace and celebrated fighters like Patton quickly turned into anachronisms. Literally until his dying breath, Patton yearned for the chance to take on the "mongrel" Russians, allies of necessity whom he predicted would become America's greatest global foe.

Interestingly, despite the 16-year gap between the film and its made-for-TV followup, Scott was actually about the same age as the character during the second go-round. He was barely into his 40s when he first played Patton, who turned 60 shortly before his death.

Director Delbert Mann started and ended his career in television, though he helmed a bunch of seminal feature films in the 1950s and '60s, including winning an Academy Award for "Marty." Teleplay writer William Luce was a TV guy through and through, and co-script man Ladislas Farago wrote the historical book about Patton upon which the movie was based.

The movie is anchored by Scott's formidable presence as Patton. He's a mountain of a man, always seeming too large for whatever space he's occupying. Scott plays the character as an egotistical, hard-wound but genuinely audacious person, the sort that the study of history is made more interesting for having him.

It suffers a bit from the technical confines of television, especially the nearly square aspect ratio and tendency toward camera work that is slightly fuzzy and dominated by saturated colors. I would love to see the exact same story shot in widescreen with high-end equipment.

The first half of the movie is much more compelling to me than the second, which is entirely comprised of Patton laid up in his hospital bed, making gruff pronouncements to anyone who visits while experiencing wistful (read: out of focus) flashbacks to his youth and childhood.

As the story opens, Patton has been declared military governor of Bavaria, overseeing a stretch of Germany devastated during the war. It's an ironic twist of fate: the very men responsible for turning an area to rubble are now given the responsibility for feeding the people and rebuilding the infrastructure.

Ensconced in a magnificent German castle, Patton would much rather be fighting the Russians but still attacks his assignment with gusto. Soon the shipping canals are open, the German POWs are whipped into shape (Patton dreamed of using them to bolster his own troops against the Rooskies) and the threat of mass starvation during the winter of 1945-46 is averted.

Unfortunately, Patton largely accomplishes this by keeping the wartime civilian leaders in place, in defiance of General Dwight D. Eisenhower's edict to expel all Nazi party members from positions of authority. He (correctly) argues that most of them only paid the Nazis lip service in order to remain in power, and turning things over to a bunch of inept novices would devastate the populace.

Eventually, Ike (Richard Dysart) and Patton have a confrontation in which the war dog is dressed down and relieved of his command. It's clear that this also marks the end of their long, troubled friendship. Like his conflict with Omar Bradley in "Patton," it's another example of how filmmakers portrayed Patton as a man who knew he was destined for greatness, only to be continually confounded by lesser military minds who were more adept at the political maneuvering necessary to reach the highest levels of command.

Patton is placed in charge of Fifteenth Army, a literal "paper army" that consisted of a few clerks who were tasked with writing the official history of the war. He is despondent and writes to his wife, Beatrice (Eva Marie Saint), that he intends not to return to Europe following his Christmas leave beginning Dec. 10.

In the film's oddest sequence, Patton is given a surprise birthday party by a bunch of his old troops. Initially seeming perturbed, he soon warms to the occasion, even leading a bawdy sing-a-long about a British prostitute who's the ugliest girl in England, but still does brisk business owing to the darkness of the constant blackouts from German air raids.

Then she appears. Jean Gordon (Kathryn Leigh Scott, no relation to George) is Patton's niece, with whom he reputedly carried on a long affair during the war. She was a nurse who sometimes followed Patton in his postings.

Historians have argued about whether the affair really happened, noting that a bedridden Patton may have been boasting about his sexual prowess because he was facing the prospect of death or invalidism. Given that she committed suicide shortly after his death, and was found surrounded by his photographs and letters, I'd say there was plenty of merit to the charge.

Weirdly, Patton introduces Jean as his "half-niece." I'm not sure whether this was the filmmakers' appellation or a term Patton actually used to mitigate his horrid behavior. Either way, it's ridiculous. You can become someone's uncle by marriage -- as did I, picking up two nephews, a niece and now a grand-niece by saying "I do" -- but that does not make them your "half niece" or "niece-in-law."

(It is possible to have a half-niece, but only if your half-sibling has a daughter.)

The affair has a strange effect on how we regard Patton. Here is this huge, bombastic figure who helped crush Hitler's regime. And the scenes between him and Beatrice in the film's second half, as well as the many flashbacks to their younger life, make clear the love between them was strong and true. Yet he was having sex with his niece. That is 9th-circle-of-Hell sinfulness, folks.

Not to be judgemental of actual people from antiquity, but I'm not surprised things ended with a suicide.

Patton's accident is presented as it actually happened: a freak occurrence that should have resulted in, at most, a few bruises. (Indeed, none of the five other people involved were seriously hurt.) Patton's  limousine, which was carrying him and longtime chief-of-staff/pal Lt. Gen. Hobart "Hap" Gay (Murray Hamilton) to go pheasant hunting, collided with an Army truck at a railroad crossing. Patton struck the window partition and suffered a severe scalp laceration and spinal compression fracture.

I'm afraid I pretty well lost interest in the film after this point. There's some slightly interesting stuff about how the famous general's injury was described in the press, who in typical form are depicted as nameless, scurrying rodents nipping at the heels of truly important VIPs. One female journalist is shown complaining that she was thrown out after inquiring after the general's very personal hygiene.

Ed Lauter plays Paul Hill, the Army doctor in charge of Patton's recovery. At first they attach an anchor to the top of his skull to get traction to relieve pressure on the broken spine. Later this is exchanged for "fishhooks under the cheekbones," to use the non-medical colorful phrase. Ol' Blood and Guts literally smiles through the pain.

In the end Ike orders the doctors to transport the patient back to the U.S. because American authorities do not want to have one of their most famous generals die on German soil. But Patton succumbs to an embolism before this can happen. His final scenes have Patton declaring his devotion to Beatrice, then closing his eyes for the last time to the sound of Christmas carolers walking through the hospital.

I am glad they made a sequel to "Patton," though I wish it were a superior one not cramped by the limits of 1980s television. It's not a bad film, but two great men -- George S. Patton and George C. Scott -- deserved better.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Video review: "The LEGO Batman Movie"

You've got to love a spin-off where they just added one word to the title: “The LEGO Batman Movie” plucks the breakout character from the first movie and gives him his own flick, with gleeful fun for kiddies resulting.

There is a goodly helping of inside jokes for grownups, but these movies are aimed squarely at the 10-and-under set. They’re colorful, fast-paced, full of action and mildly crude humor.

Will Arnett returns as the voice of Batman/Bruce Wayne, who’s a self-centered jerk trying to mask his yearning for a family to stave off his crushing loneliness. One is soon presented to him in the form of a boy ward of the state who will become Robin (Michael Cera), Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) and his own loyal butler, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes).

Zach Galifianakis voices the Joker, who launches a scheme to free all the villains trapped in the Phantom Zone. He’s stuck somewhere between trying to kill Batman and wanting a relationship with him. Perhaps one will lead to the other.

We get to see virtually every bad guy Batman has fought over the years in LEGO form, along with a bunch of new ones like Condiment Man. (His power his exactly what you think.) The blocky, deceivingly crude animation is slick and appealing.

“The LEGO Batman” movie is entirely a retread of the first movie, but with the pieces changed all around into different forms.

Bonus features are quite extensive, and -- in a move that’s increasingly rare -- you get the same goodies with the standard DVD version as the Blu-ray upgrade.

There’s a feature-length commentary track by director Chris McKay and his crew, deleted scenes, four new Batman animated shorts (favorite title: “Batman is Just Not That Into You”) and another short for the upcoming “LEGO Ninjago” movie. Plus, social media promos, trailers and six making-of featurettes.



Thursday, June 15, 2017

Review: "47 Meters Down"

You may remember a nice little shark thriller from last year, "The Shallows," in which Blake Lively played a surfer menaced by a toothsome Selachimorpha while on a Mexican vacation. "47 Meters Down" is practically a direct clone, except instead of a girl stranded on a rock it has two sisters trapped in an underwater shark cage.

Their air slowly running out, they hope for rescue while knowing they're eventually going to have to take matters into their own hand.

It's a tense, well-made piece disposable entertainment, with 45% more shark but 92% less bikini than "The Shallows."

Mandy Moore has mostly stayed out of the movies the last few years, doing a lot of voice work mostly on TV. The former teen pop idol seemed to lose interest in Hollywood stardom -- and/or vice-versa -- so I'm curious why she chose this project for her comeback to the big screen.

She's an empathetic presence as Lisa, who's vacationing in Mexico with her sister, Kate (Claire Holt). She was supposed to take this trip with her boyfriend, Stuart, and Kate was a last-minute replacement. We soon found out the reason is they have split up, with Stuart complaining that Lisa isn't a "fun" person.

Of course, she's about to get the adventure... of a lifetime!!

Lisa starts to come out of her shell while partying with a pair of local pretty boys, Louis (Yani Gellman) and Benjamin (Santiago Segura). They suggest they go shark-seeing, as they know a captain (Matthew Modine) with a boat and a shark cage.

They're a little put off by the grimy condition of the boat, and the mate (Chris Johnson) doesn't do much to alleviate Lisa's fears, teasing her about the 25-foot great whites trolling these waters. After sufficiently chumming up the waters with fish blood and parts, the boys go down and come back up just fine.

Kate is an experienced diver but Lisa is not, though she gets the hang quickly and soon they're enjoying the view. These clearly are some hungry sharks, as one swallows their water camera after they drop it.

Then the winch breaks and they're sent plummeting down to the bottom of the ocean at the titular depth -- that's over 150 feet deep, for us Yanks. The rest of the movie plays out in real time, as hysterics give way to resolve and increasingly daring ventures to save themselves.

The violence is pretty mild even by PG-13 standards. When someone gets munched -- as must happen in a shark movie -- it's pretty much just a flash of action, a surprised yelp, a diffuse cloud of blood and it's over. Honestly, it could easily have been PG with a few tweaks.

(And here is your reminder that the granddaddy of this genre, "Jaws," replete with spurting blood, body pieces and nudity, received a PG rating back in 1975. Wow.)

Director Johannes Roberts, who co-wrote the script with Ernest Riera, comes from a horror background, and it shows. Scares tend to be of the "boo-gotcha" variety, and the appearances of the sharks are so telegraphed we can practically hear John Williams' iconic two-note musical refrain starting in our minds.

It's a decent popcorn movie -- short (89 minutes), effective, not terribly imaginative. But it's got bite enough.

Review: "Cars 3"

“Cars 3” is a movie of full circles coming round.

It’s amusing, glitzy entertainment for kids that also ponders what happens when we get old and start to worry about life passing us by. We’re going so fast, and suddenly you find yourself sitting in a pasture, unsure if you drove yourself in or were put out.

I can’t think of a film series that better incorporates the death of one of its stars into the core themes of the story. Paul Newman was the beating heart of the original “Cars” as the cantankerous Doc Hudson, who sets aside his ancient grievances against the sport of racing to coach a cocky young upstart, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson).

In a lot of ways, it was as much Doc’s story as McQueen’s.

Doc is very much on Lightning’s mind as the film opens, using his lessons and inspiration to become a living legend himself. He’s essentially traded places with Strip “The King” Weathers, the aging champion from the first movie, having to deal with an upstart rookie trying to take his crown. Except in this case, it’s not just one opponent but the entire field of competitors.

Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) is a “next gen” racer, and looks the part -- few curves, efficiently unpretty, a sleek personification of function over form. He drives like an automaton, straight down the groove, no risks and lots of speed. He also has little patience for old-timers like McQueen, brusquely shoving the old generation to the side.

Soon, all the older racers have been replaced by Storm clones, and Lightning suffers a major crash just like Doc did. Can he come back and race again, or has his time gone by?

Brian Fee, a Pixar animation veteran, ably takes the director’s chair for the first time, with a screenplay by Mike Rich, Pixar do-everything-guy Bob Peterson and Kiel Murray, one of the writers on the original “Cars.” Their entry into the franchise stands out from the other two movies by taking some left turns we don’t expect.

It doesn’t quite have the emotional horsepower of the first one or the dizzy Mater-centric antics of “Cars 2.” But I think most people, young and old, will find it a satisfying iteration – possibly conclusion? – of the saga.

It is a little disappointing to mostly leave the Radiator Springs crew behind this time, including Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), Sally (Bonnie Hunt), Luigi (Tony Shalhoub), Ramone (Cheech Marin) and the rest. But they make a few appearances, and there are new faces.

Most notable is Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a hyperactive young “race trainer” who wants to whip Lightning back into shape with computer simulations and kooky psychological motivations. She sees him as her “senior project,” and prescribes lots of naps and an oil drip pan as needed. Watching over is Sterling (Nathan Fillion), the seemingly benevolent new owner of the Rust-Eze race sponsors.

(The Magliozzi brothers of NPR “Car Talk” fame, who did the voices of their animated counterparts, get their own nice little sendoff.)

And there’s a sentimental journey to Doc’s old dirt-track stomping grounds, where Lighting encounters the mentor of his mentor, Smokey (a pitch-perfect Chris Cooper), and a few other old-school racers. Plus a madcap dash through a demolition derby where Miss Fritter (Lea DeLaria), a smashmouth school bus, always steals the show.

You can quibble with some of the particulars of the plot, including a rather… novel take on racing rules that I don’t think NASCAR is going to incorporate anytime soon. But its heart is never far from the right place.

I should mention that Newman’s character and voice appear in this movie, flashbacks from the original but also a few lines of dialogue that were recorded and never used. It’s great to hear that beautiful gravel baritone again, and we learn some things about Doc we didn’t know. It’s like hearing new stories about your departed father, told by people who adored him.

Happily, this means that “Cars 3” will stand as Newman’s final official film credit. A lifelong car nut, I don’t think he would mind.

The movie itself is a lot like classic cars. They don’t have the power they used to. But oh, to watch them go by…

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review: "Paris Can Wait"

Eleanor Coppola has seemingly had a full life, wife of Francis Ford and mother of Sophia and two others. Over the years she shot footage on their movie sets, which formed the spine of the landmark 1992 documentary, “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” and a few documentary shorts.

Now, at 81, Eleanor has written and directed her first feature film, “Paris Can Wait,” about an older woman going on an unexpected romantic adventure in France.

What a sheer delight -- the movie itself, and Coppola’s resounding affirmation that it’s never too late to chase dreams.

Diane Lane plays Anne, wife of Michael (Alec Baldwin), a powerful and distracted movie producer. They’re in France for vacation, but Michael spends most of his time on the phone dealing with a production in crisis in Morocco. The director wants a hundred camels for his scene, but the script calls for goats -- and Michael happens to know they work cheaper.

There’s clearly affection between them, but they’ve settled into a late middle age routine of not being fully present even when they’re around each other. They have a grown daughter in college, Anne recently closed up a dress shop when her partner moved away, and she’s standing on a precipice where she has to figure out what form the rest of her life is going to take.

Anne and Michael are supposed to fly to Budapest -- private jet, natch -- before returning to France to stay in a friend’s Paris apartment. But she develops an ear infection and the pilot warns the flight could be very painful for her. Michael’s producing partner, Jacques (Arnaud Viard), offers to drive her to Paris in his car instead.

Since it’s obvious Michael is not going to pay her any attention for the next few days, everyone agrees.

The French version of the road trip is very different from an American one. Jacques owns an ancient, temperamental two-seater. He likes to stop every hour or so to stretch legs, have a smoke and add coolant to the radiator. Anne notes that the first hourly stop actually happens after just 42 minutes.

Jacques is about Anne’s age, a charming bachelor who views flirtation as his civic duty as a Frenchman. He likes to point out landmarks and detail the history behind them. And he loves food, so their detours become destinations as they explore restaurants, grocers, cafes.

They talk a lot about how different the French and Americans are, but without a sense of enmity. To Jacques, it’s perfectly natural to spend two days on a drive that should take a few hours, or to consume everything in life that appeals, without guilt.

“We eat what we enjoy,” he says, clearly inferencing more than just food.

Anne grows gradually suspicious. Is Jacques just toying, or putting moves on her? Frantic phone calls from Michael indicate he’s worried it’s the latter. “Frenchmen have no scruples about married women,” he growls.

There are other concerns. Jacques is having trouble with his credit card, so Anne must pay for everything with a promise of reimbursement when they reach Paris. He also seems to know -- and be known by -- pretty women everywhere they stop.

He’s not especially handsome: thinning gray hair, turkey neck and a paunch. But there’s something about the twinkle in his eye and kind voice, speaking so lightly he barely seems to touch the consonants.

Lane positively glows in the film, playing a woman who’s smart and savvy, but a little unsure of herself. She likes to take photographs of everything she encounters, especially food and fabrics, extreme closeups that suggest the greater whole. The vivid, colorful cinematography by Crystel Fournier is just stunning.

They keep traveling, and Paris never seems to get any closer.

Like “My Dinner with Andre,” “Paris Can Wait” is an entire movie about a conversation, though in this case one that moves all around. Will Anne’s life change after her excursion with Jacques? There’s always time to explore.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Video review: "John Wick 2"

The best thing about the John Wick movies is that they do not pretend to be anything other than what they are: slick, ultra-violent escapism that mixes a grim revenge saga with gallows humor.

Keanu Reeves reprises his role as the reluctant hitman pulled back into a world of murder and double-crosses. Also returning is screenwriter Derek Kolstad, who dreamed up this nutty, vibrant world, and Chad Stahelski, a longtime stuntman and coordinator handpicked as director.

The actors and crew seem perfectly aligned in their goal, which is to deliver kick-ass mayhem with a minimum of fat or fuss.

Things pick up almost exactly where they left off. Wick completes his revenge on the Russian mobsters who killed his dog and stole his classic Mustang, with much damage to said pony car. Then new trouble surfaces: Santino D’Antonio (Ricardo Scamarcio), an Italian crime lord who wants Wick to knock off his sister so he can take her seat at the High Table – a sort of United Nations for villains.

Wick takes some convincing, but finally takes on the assignment.

There’s the usual army of disposable henchmen to take on, as well as a few elites: Common and Ruby Rose play veteran assassins who know Wick’s reputation from the old days. Wick gives better than he gets, but he still gets gradually worn down: pummeled, slashed, shot. He keeps going, if a bit more awkwardly with each step.

The stunts are the star of “John Wick 2,” and it’s a thrilling mix of amazing action that happens at a believable speed. Stahelski largely shoots Reeves in full body without a lot of cuts, so we can actually see the violence play out.

The ending makes no pretenses about setting up a “John Wick 3,” and I for one am happy to sign on for another ride.

Bonus features are good, anchored by a feature-length commentary track with Reeves and Stahelski. The best commentaries usually include input from both stars and filmmakers. The DVD edition also has two featurettes:  “As Above, So Below: The Underworld of John Wick” and “RetroWick: Exploring the Unexpected Success of John Wick.”

Upgrade to the Blu-ray version, and you add seven more featurettes touching on various aspects of production, including a “Kill Count” just in case you were wondering how many people Wick offs during the movie. (It’s impressive.) Finally, there is a bonus short film, “Dog Wick.”



Thursday, June 8, 2017

Review: "The Mummy"

“The Mummy” doesn’t sound like a particularly good idea: pairing up an aging action star with a creature feature staple that’s been shambling around in one form or another since the 1930s.

This reboot of the franchise doesn’t do anything particularly new or exciting, though it works up a fair amount of sweat getting there. It’s definitely in the mold of the Brendan Fraser/Rachel Weisz romps, which placed an emphasis on digital effects, humor and light horror.

The role of soldier/treasure hunter Nick definitely falls outside of Tom Cruise’s groove: likable good guys with a scallywag twist. Here it’s all scally and no wag.

The girl keeps telling him he’s good guy down deep inside, but then he does things like flee from the mummy in a van, leaving her behind. But no, she insists, remember when we were on the plummeting plane and you gave me the only parachute?

“I thought there was another one,” he confesses.

This refers to one of the film’s more memorable scenes, were Nick goes down in a plane crash and wakes up in the morgue writhing inside a body bag, not a scratch on him. It seems he’s been selected by an ancient Egyptian princess to be his “Chosen One,” who will become the vessel of Set, god of death, bringing about a reign of evil upon the Earth. In the meantime, the curse keeps him from dying.

Considering how her betrothed keeps rejecting her, running away and stabbing her with stuff, you’d think a smart she-mummy would just go off and choose someone else for the honor.

Sofia Boutella plays Ahmanet, the mummy. She’s visually arresting but not particularly scary. She starts off as a twisted bug-like skeleton wrapped in bandages, and gradually gains strength and flesh by kissing people and sucking out their vital essence, which in turn adds them to her growing army of zombies.

Her skin is an ashy gray riddled with etched markings, while a few bones pop out of her wrappings. Most arresting are her eyes, which have double irises.

Annabelle Wallis plays Jenny, an archeologist who had a fling with Nick and now considers him a waste of her time. It’s an odd, mismatched pairing, almost as if they split Indiana Jones into a couple and made each half resent the other.

Jake Johnson plays Nick’s wingman, Vail, the sort who’s always urging him to take the safer path, and his advice is never heeded. And Russell Crowe pops up as a very polite doctor with a mean streak.

You may have heard “The Mummy” is the first picture in Universal Studio’s “Dark Universe” project, an attempt to revive all their classic monsters -- Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, Dracula, etc. -- and bind them together in a shared world like comic book superheroes.

I’m all for it, but based on this movie they’re off to a shaky start. Director Alex Kurtzman is a seasoned writer/producer marking only his second stint behind the camera. He lacks visual flair, and has an unfortunate tendency to shoot the action from oblique angles so we don’t get the full impact of the gruesome beasties.

The script, credited to Christopher McQuarrie, David Koepp and Dylan Kussman, borrows liberally from other movies. There’s a fight inside a truck lifted straight out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and there are plenty of visual cues from other mummy movies, such as the creature’s face appearing out of a sand storm. Also an ongoing postmortem conversation with a friend a la "An American Werewolf in London."

“The Mummy” isn’t a bad movie, just a disjointed one. They should’ve left this one buried a little while longer until the time was ripe.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review: "My Cousin Rachel"

“My Cousin Rachel” is a tale of revenge, love and especially  betrayal -- how we are betrayed, how we betray others, and even ourselves.

It’s based on the 1951 novel by Daphne du Maurier, which was previously adapted for the screen in a 1952 film starring Olivia de Havilland. (Who’s blessedly still with us, turning 101 on July 1.) Set in the 19th century, Rachel Weisz plays the title character, a mysterious woman who is suspected of manipulating and murdering her husband, only to turn the same tactics on his heir.

Sam Claflin plays Philip Ashley, heir to the estate and fortune of his cousin Ambrose, who adopted him after he was orphaned and raised Philip as his own son. Consumed by ill health, Ambrose is sent to Italy to recover, where the lifelong bachelor unexpectedly meets and marries Rachel, who is his distant cousin (and therefore Philip’s).

But his letters turn sinister, complaining of being kept isolated by his wife, having his correspondence monitored or confiscated, constant headaches, etc. Philip, grown to young manhood, finally comes to the rescue to find Ambrose dead and Rachel fled with all his effects.

He suspects greed is the motive, but is surprised to learn from the stalwart family friend and attorney, Kendall (Iain Glen), that everything has been left to him with no provision for the wife. He soon settles into the life of a wealthy landowner. He’s a kind master, working side-by-side with the servants in the field.

His betrothal to Kendall’s daughter, Louise (Holliday Grainger), seems preordained – though Philip labors strenuously to deny the obvious. She’s intelligent, kind and loyal, and Philip seems a good sort, too, if a tad impulsive and self-centered.

Everything gets flipped with Rachel comes for an extended visit. Philip is determined to confront her over her treatment of Ambrose, but quickly finds himself outwitted by the older, wily woman. It’s not long before he himself becomes infatuated, leading to a maze of conflicting emotions and impulses.

Weisz, who might just be the consistently finest actress working in film today, is all subtlety and misdirection in this performance. We’re expecting a harpy and instead Rachel is ladylike, demur -- a bit prudish even. She sets boundaries, but leaves just enough bait for an impressionable young man to pick up the scent, and follow.

We’re sure she’s putting him on. There are whispers of a past filled with insatiable sexual appetite, profligate spending, shady companions. But the woman before Philip seems completely opposite of all that. Is he being conned, or conning himself?

“Did she? Didn’t she? Who’s to blame?” he wonders.

Essentially penniless, Rachel leans upon Philip for financial and emotional support, playing the widow card at every turn. Whenever social occasions arise, out comes her black veil. She brews strange teas of sour taste and supposed medicinal qualities, healing one of the servants. Philip jokes they’ll dub her a witch.

Adapted and directed by Roger Michell (“Changing Lanes”), “My Cousin Rachel” is a hauntingly beautiful film about human decay. Ashley manor serves as visual reflection of this in reverse, as the shabby house full of dogs and dust gradually becomes spruced up by Rachel into something more appropriate to her (acquired) station. As Philip’s home is restored and he grows more ensorcelled, his sense of self diminishes, like a clear pool grown cloudy.

The film is deliberately paced, and we spend the slow bits wondering how Philip could behave so foolishly. But he’s essentially a boy, raised as a stranger to womenfolk, reveling in his privilege. Philip certainly isn’t the first to confuse sex and love.

Is Rachel maneuvering him to her own ends? Certainly. But is she guilty of the crimes he suspects were committed against Ambrose, and now him? “My Cousin Rachel” is never quite the movie we expect.

Review: "It Comes at Night"

Last year I saw a tiny independent film called “Krisha” written, directed, edited and co-starring Trey Edward Schults. It was shot on a Kickstarter shoestring, had a cast largely made up of Schults’ relatives and took place in the family home. I raved about the amazing debut of an intriguing new filmmaker, and ended my review with a simple, unprecedented request: “More, please.”

More has been granted: “It Comes at Night,” an eerie psychological horror/thriller that gets under your skin quickly, and burrows.

Schults’ first studio film is a triumph of unease. I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt so uncomfortable sitting in a movie theater. Its pervading sense of paranoia and doom leeches into your body like a dank fog creeping up out of the fetid swamp of primordial humanity.

“It Comes at Night” has a familiar premise, but achieves its ends through a gradual build-up of mood rather than the standard short spurts of shocking violence.

It’s set a few years after some kind of apocalypse that has claimed most of mankind. There are scattered pockets of survivors here and there, and even they’re not truly sure what happened. People started becoming ill, the disease spready rapidly, setting off a panic, followed by waves of death. The only way to prevent it seems to be not to interact with others.

Even then, death comes stalking. Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays Travis, a teenager living with his family in the basement of a lonesome house in the woods. As the story opens, his grandfather (David Pendleton) is rasping out his last breaths, horrid sores covering every inch of his body. Wearing hazmat suits, he and his father, Paul (Joel Edgerton), carry the dying man out to the forest in a wheelbarrow.

They carry a gun and a shovel; no more needs be said.

Travis shared a bedroom with his grandpa, so visions of contracting the sickness invade his consciousness. Much of the movie involves our perspective slipping in and out of the boy’s waking and dream states, so we’re not entirely clear what is real and what is imagined.

Carmen Ejogo is Sarah, the wife and mother. They gather as a family around the eating table in dim lamplight to discuss their problems and concerns. Dad is clearly in charge and orders strict protocols: No going out at night, never be alone outdoors, don’t talk to anybody, keep weapons close at hand.

We get the lay of the land when someone breaks into the house, foraging for food. Will (Christopher Abbott) is in many ways Paul’s counterpart: a patriarch trying to keep his family alive and safe. Later, we’ll meet Will’s wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and their toddler son (Griffin Robert Faulkner) -- though I’ll leave it to you to discover how.

The two families’ parallel desires quickly come into conflict, and hard choices must be made -- and unexpected opportunities weighed.

It’s clear Paul and Sarah are prepared to do what they must, including kill. Travis has a kind heart and is inclined to trust instinctively. He’s grown to the brink of manhood knowing only the tiny microcosm of his family, and is eager to explore the greater world. He spies on Will and Kim’s intimate moments, and is intrigued by the presence of woman only a few years older than himself.

Schults carefully maps out this suffocating little world, showing us the gripping dread that lurks at the edges. The house becomes another character, a grubby hidey-hole where the family bars itself against certain death -- I thought of Anne Frank -- separated by a bright red door heralding the dangers waiting outside.

Fear can help you to survive, but is it any way for people to live? “It Comes at Night” explores the distressing no man’s land where instinct and empathy cross paths.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Cabaret" (1972)

"Cabaret" is many things, not the least of which is the answer to a question sure to stump friends on trivia night: "What film won the most Oscars while losing the Best Picture race?"

I posed this to myself on the most recent night of the Academy Awards, as the expected sweep of "La La Land" became less secure and it wound up losing the Big One to "Moonlight" ... though I suspect in the decades to come people are more likely to remember the colossal screw-up rather than the movies themselves.

"LLL" wound up with six Oscars, not enough to beat "Cabaret," which is still the record holder with eight statuettes but no Best Pic. Having seen it now, I only have one question:

How the hell did it get eight??

You will, of course, remember another little picture from 1972: "The Godfather." Although it did win Best Picture, as well as Best Actor for Marlon Brando and Best Adapted Screenplay (Jay Allen), "Cabaret" took home the lion's share of Oscars. "Godfather" was the heavy favorite going into the awards, so it must have been a tough night for Francis Ford Coppola and company, at least until the very end.

Bob Fosse beat out Coppola for director, and Joel Grey bested Robert Duvall, James Caan and Al Pacino for supporting actor -- though Pacino was obviously nominated in the wrong category.

(I didn't know it previously, but Pacino actually boycotted the Oscar ceremony because Brando, who clearly was a supporting role, was nominated for lead actor while Pacino was shunted, ridiculously, to the supporting group. And he was right to do so. Brando, of course, then refused the award. Having learned this tidbit, I now wonder if Brando's stunt of sending a Native American activist to make a political statement was actually a smokescreen to spare the feelings of his co-star.)

"Cabaret" won Liza Minnelli a Best Actress Academy Award in her very first singing role on film. It also took a number of technical prizes, including cinematography -- which would somehow seem an even more egregious a wrong than Joel Grey, except that Gordon Willis didn't even get nominated for "The Godfather."

I don't have a beef with Grey, a talented song-and-dance man, but there's simply no character there. He plays the Master of Ceremonies, aka emcee, at the fictional Kit Kat Klub in 1931 Germany, who is only seen onstage performing songs. He literally delivers no dialogue, only lyrics. We don't learn anything about him aside from the paleface makeup and vamping poses. That's performing, not acting.

Giving him the award is like giving the Oscar to the Greek Chorus, or the narrator.

The songs don't even advance the story, but act as pauses that comment upon it, as well as the rise of the Nazi regime, which starts out in the background and slowly grows in prominence. John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote several new songs for the film version, dumping several numbers from the 1966 stage debut. They wanted all the songs to happen at the Kit Kat, except for one near the end, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," a creepily beautiful piece that starts out as a generic German pastoral and morphs into a Hitler Youth anthem.

There are a few changes in the story from the stage version, including have the British Sally Bowles and American Brian Roberts (Michael York) swap nationalities. The scenes with supporting characters Natalie (Marisa Berenson), a rich Jewess, and Fritz (Fritz Wepper), a penniless huckster who adores here, were cut except for those that directly involve Sally and Brian. Max, the owner of the Kit Kat, is relegated to a walk-on.

Interestingly, in the stage version Sally is not supposed to be an especially talented singer, whereas the movie version has Liza Minnelli belting out songs with all her considerable vocal power.

I found I couldn't get past Minnelli's odd look in the film, one she has generally carried for the rest of her career: savagely plugged eyebrows above a thick coat of bright blue eye shadow, and a short bowl haircut with bangs that follow the contours of her face, with an artificial widow's peak on the bridge of her nose. It's just unattractive and distracting. 

The stage version has been revived a number of times, so the story is well-known: sheepish academic Brian Roberts comes to Berlin to teach English to the Germans, and shares a boarding house with Sally, whose outsized personality and mercurial ways are immediately apparent. They form a close friendship that would probably develop into one of Sally's many romantic flings, except Brian reveals that he is sexually indifferent to women. However, they eventually consummate the affair.

Brian grows jealous, however, when Sally is wooed by a very wealthy German gigolo named Maximilian (Helmut Griem). She sees it as their gravy train to good times, and brings along Brian to share in the fun. There's a bit where Max gives Brian an expensive gold cigarette case, which he haughtily refuses at first. When he eventually takes it out of his pocket in Max's presence, it's an acknowledgement of his acquiescing to circumstance.

It's later revealed by Brian that he has been sleeping with Max at the same time as Sally has, and there's one drunken scene where they come close to having a threesome. The sexual overtones of the film, along with a plethora of bare skin among the Kit Kat dancers -- not to mention the subplot of Sally's pregnancy that she ends with an abortion -- make the film's PG rating seem rather ridiculous today.

Still, the film is notable for treating LGBT characters with a level of respect that is pretty amazing for 1972. There's even a trans character whom Brian encounters in the men's lavatory, lifting up her dress to use the urinal. This elicits a slightly shocked reaction and shrug from Brian.

In the end, I'm not really sure what "Cabaret" is all about. The musical numbers have a certain amount of energy, though I wouldn't call any of them songs to remember. The rise of the Nazis doesn't really have much power, occurring around the fringes of the story. Brian and Sally aren't particularly compelling or sympathetic characters; we feel like we're observing them rather than getting emotionally caught up in their tale.

Perhaps it's a good thing "Cabaret" didn't win the Best Picture Oscar, because it certainly would have vied with "Around the World in 80 Days" and "The Greatest Show on Earth" for the title of Worst Best Pic.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Video review: "Beauty and the Beast"

When “Beauty and the Beast” came out in March, I asked why a live-action remake of one of the best animated films of all time even needed to exist. Since then, the movie has provided its own reasons: 1.23 billion of them, to be exact. That’s the film’s global box office take in dollars as of this writing.

It’s a well-crafted film, bright and engaging and full of vivid characters. No doubt there is a new generation of moviegoers who experienced this timeless tale for the first time, since the 1991 animated version now falls into “classic film” category, as strange as it may seem.

I can only hope they experienced as much joy and thrills I had when I first saw Belle and the Beast dance together for the first time.

But I bet not.

Let’s start with the fact that Emma Watson has many wonderful qualities, but a singer she is not. Her frail little voice just can’t carry big Broadway-style show tunes (by lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken). Her Belle doesn’t have that sense of hesitation we admired, existing more as a latter-day proto-feminist.

I also didn’t care for the look of the Beast (Dan Stevens), who can’t help looking like a dude in a fur suit. It seemed like the filmmakers were trying to turn him more into a classic romantic figure than a tragic, magically cursed prince.

The story is well-known: inquisitive young girl comes to be the prisoner of the Beast, who is trapped in his castle along with his entire staff of servants by a fell hex placed on him a decade earlier. If he doesn’t find someone to love him soon, the curse will remain forever.

Luke Evans plays the villain, martial hunter Gaston, who covets Belle for himself. Josh Bad is his right-hand henchman, LeFou, who does some pining of his own.

Rounding out the vocal cast are Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Audra McDonald, Ian McKellen and Stanley Tucci. Kevin Kline plays Belle’s (live-action) father.

There are four brand-new songs in addition to all the originals from the animated movie, though only one, “Days in the Sun,” is memorable.

Billion-dollar payday or not, there’s just very little magic in seeing a virtual shot-by-shot remake of one of the most beloved films ever.

Bonus features are truly wondrous, though you’ll have to buy the Blu-ray version to get nearly all of them. The DVD contains only a music video.

There are about 10 minutes of deleted scenes, as well as an extended version of “Days in the Sun.” A sing-a-long version lets you jump straight to all the songs.

Perhaps the neatest feature is “Enchanted Table Read,” in which the cast carries out an elaborate table read of the film, including singing, dances and set pieces.

There is also a making-of documentary and several featurettes focusing on the people in front of and behind the cameras.