Thursday, August 31, 2017

Review: "Unlocked"

“Unlocked” wears the clothes of a B-movie spy flick but has A-list talent both in front of and behind the camera. The result is a taut, well-paced thriller high in both entertainment value and uncomfortable musings about how international intelligence agencies have reacted to radical Islamic terrorism.

Noomi Rapace stars as CIA agent Alice Racine -- foreign-born, to explain the accent -- who’s taken a low-level assignment in London. Her cover is an advocate for immigrants, passing along any suspicious cases to her British MI6 counterpart, Emily Knowles (Toni Collette). It’s tedious, unrewarding work, but Alice failed to stop a terrorist attack in Paris two years earlier, and her confidence has eroded.

Her specialty is “unlocking” hostile witnesses, aka getting them to spill the beans on imminent activity. Alice is not an “enhanced interrogation” sort, tending to use her wiles and relationship-building with suspects who are usually not the bombers and shooters, but (relatively) docile bagmen and such who make the connections between terrorist cells.

She’s brought in by the European CIA chief, Bob Hunter, played by expert-in-squirrelly John Malkovich. It seems their current “unlocker” has died of a heart attack, and there’s word of a mass chemical attack being financed by a “trust fund jihadist” of English birth (Raffaello Degruttola).

They’ve caught a young courier carrying a message from an imam (Makram Khoury) suspected of radical affiliations, so it’s up to Alice to save the day. Michael Douglas pops up as Eric Lasch, a retired spook and mentor to Alice who’s ready to lend a hand.

The screenplay is by Peter O’Brien, a promising rookie who blends high-octane action scenes with plenty of plot twists and paranoia in between. Without giving away too much, Alice finds herself caught in a no man’s land between the American and British spy services, whose integrity has been compromised, and the jihadis.

Popping up to help, sort of, is Orlando Bloom as Jack, a scruffy thief who’s unlucky enough to pick Alice’s safe house to rob. They throw in together out of grudging happenstance. Tosin Cole impresses as a (legit) client of Alice’s day job who also gets recruited out of pressing needs, and is appropriately awed by all the spycraft and gadgets.

The film is directed by British filmmaking legend Michael Apted, who has to go down as one of the most important director never to receive an Academy Award nomination. (Though he has plenty of recognition from the U.K. equivalent BAFTAs, not to mention the Director’s Guild of America.) He’s perhaps best known for his “Up” documentary series documenting the lives of ordinary Brits from childhood to middle age.

But Apted also directed a Bond movie back in the day, and clearly hasn’t lost his touch for action sequences. Despite her small frame, Rapace is entirely convincing as a hand-to-hand badass. There aren’t any big-money antics, highway crashes and boat chases and such. But these constraints actually make the film feel lower to the ground and ruggedly authentic.

“Unlocked” shows you don’t need Bourne and Bond budgets to craft a top-notch spy movie.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Review: "Columbus"

“You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.”

I wanted to like “Columbus” a lot more than I did. It’s the sort of film you admire without making any kind of meaningful emotional connection to. The spare truth is I found it intriguing, occasionally mesmerizing, ambitious, and more than a bit dull.

It’s sort of movie that is loved less by audiences than critics and academics -- the very background of Koganada, the Korean video essayist who has studied the works of other directors for years and makes his first venture into feature filmmaking.

Unfortunately, the end result reads like something one film professor would make for another.

Let me put it this way: it’s the sort of film workaday people in southern Indiana hear about because it is set and was shot in Columbus, Ind. They seek out a review in The New Yorker or Rolling Stone or some other publication they don’t normally pay attention to, absorb the critic’s summary and lavish praise and ask, “So, it’s about… what, again?”

Alas, my guess is after watching “Columbus,” their question will linger.

The backdrops and famous modernist architecture of Columbus are indeed given beautiful display in this drama, which brings together two strangers who are each navigating a circuitous path between their homes and their fates.

One is a youngster, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), who grew up in Columbus; she professes to want to stay there while harboring nonstop thoughts of leaving. The other is an older but still young man, Jin (John Cho), an American who has been living in Korea and has come to Indiana for the first time for reasons not of his making. He views it as another stop in a journey that’s mostly about escaping the shadow of his father, a famous architect professor and author.

They meet by happenstance, sharing smokes and conversations, which turn into increasingly deep encounters in which they confront their choices, critique those of the other and obtain enough of a nudge to break free from the inertia that has been holding them back.

There is a suggestion of romance, but much like “Lost in Translation,” to which this film is a thematic and aesthetic descendant, these characters are struggling with their self-identity rather than solitude.

Michelle Forbes plays Casey’s mom, a recovered drug addict who works night shifts at drudgery: cleaning offices, assembling cardboard boxes, etc. The pair have been through hard times together, abusive boyfriends and the like, and it’s clear the daughter is providing the support system for the mother rather than the other way around.

Casey appears to have several jobs herself. She works in the local library, and also plays tour guide for the constant stream of tourists who come to look at the Miller House and other famed examples of Columbus architecture. She takes Jin on their own private nighttime tours, as they muse about the buildings and their own lack of structure.

Parker Posey plays Eleanor, a colleague of Jin’s dad who has a past with the son. Rory Culkin is Gabriel, a twentysomething coworker of Casey’s and essentially her only friend.

Jin has come to Columbus because his father has fallen deathly ill while preparing to give a speech, and can’t be moved. He’s being hassled by his boss to continue his work, translating books form English to Korean and vice-versa. He admits he resents being forced to play the role of the good son to a distant father. He never put his life on pause for me, Jin complains, so why should I?

The two lead actors are quite good, especially Richardson, who brings a forlorn note to every scene. Koganada arranges them like furniture, their profiles silhouetted against the architectural backdrops just so. In the end, though, we regard them with just as much connection as we would a settee or window frame.

Modernist architecture is defined by its transparency. But there has to be something compelling beyond the pane to hold our interest.

Review: "Patti Cake$"

Patricia Dombrowski has a lot of nicknames. She prefers “Killa P,” though most call her Patti, which she has bedazzled up to “Patti Cake$,” which is also the title of the movie about her.

The license plate on her crumbling Cadillac is “PATTIWGN.” A 23-year-old aspiring rapper from the harder Jersey neighborhood, she and a fellow dreamer go by “Thick & Thin,” a reference to their respective body types. The one she really hates, though she pretends to embrace it when it’s hurled at her incessantly on the streets, is “Dumbo,” given in middle school and unfortunately what stuck.

One guy, whom Patti secretly has a crush on, disparagingly calls her “White Precious” during an impromptu rap battle, and that’s probably the one that’s most descriptive.

This audacious debut film from writer/director Geremy Jasper and starring Danielle Macdonald is in many ways an inheritor to 2009’s “Precious,” which spotlighted an obese, illiterate girl. It also borrows from “Hustle & Flow,” in that it’s the story of a person rapping about their circumstances and stuck dreams as a way of breaking out of the crabbed role other people have defined for them.

The movie is not so much about Patti being fat as the disparagement that comes with it. Patti has spent her whole life being told she’s less than because of her outsized body. That dynamic has bled into her work, her relationships and every other aspect of her existence. She’s come to internalize that pain, forge it in the fire of her resentment and spit it out back into the world in the form of brash, boastful raps.

“Patti Cake$” is not about overeating, but feeding an undernourished soul.

Macdonald is astonishing in the lead role, her broad face often buried underneath a tangle of blonde frizzles, her eyes peeking out with a mix of fear and self-assurance. We feel the crush of how others disregard her, sense the artist behind the façade of the woman who bartends and works catering events, intuitively understand her need to strive for something more.

Her best friend is Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay), a pharmacist and her rapping partner. He’s the ebullient ying to her downtrodden yang. They hang out, bust some rhymes and dream of one day getting onstage. Like most other Jersey kids, black and white, they idolize the O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), a local rapper who made it big and is referred to as the “godfather,” or simply “God.” Patti has green-tinged dreams about becoming O-Z’s protégé.

Patti’s most fraught relationship is with her mother, Barb (Bridget Everett), a powerhouse of a woman who owns a big personality, big voice and big everything else. Fiftyish, a former rock singer, now a hair stylist with money problems clinging desperately to the shreds of her sexpot renown, Barb has poured all of her disappointment about life into her kid.

Cathy Moriarty shines as her grandmother, laid up by ill health and her own woes, who nonetheless gives Patti encouragement and unmeasured love.

I was also really impressed with Mamoudou Athie as a vagabond musician who reluctantly joins their group, lending his technical expertise and a gentleness that hides behind a deliberately dangerous exterior. Athie has gobs of what Hollywood used to call “presence” -- you can’t not watch him.

The scene where they compose their first song in the unlikeliest of venues, dubbing themselves “PBNJ” with a little sampling help from grandma, is pure magic. These are all people who society has told they’re nothing, coming together to create something.

I’m not a rap aficionado, but it’s hard not to be sucked into the beats and bravura rhymes of the music (by Jasper and Jason Binnick). Highlights are the catchy PBNJ intro song and “Tough Love,” which borrows from and describes Patti’s family dynamics.

“Patti Cake$” is the sort of fine little movie that can get lost in the wasteland of September releases, so I’m hoping it will find the audience it deserves, as well as some attention during the awards cycle.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Reeling Backward: "7 Men from Now" (1956)

John Wayne wanted to star in "7 Men from Now," purchasing the script from rookie screenwriter Burt Kennedy, but was already committed to another role -- "The Searchers." He suggested his friend Randolph Scott for the part, staying on himself as producer. Bud Boetticher was brought in, a director known for his bleak, spare style that seemed to fit the tale of revenge and redemption.

Thus began a collaboration of seven Westerns over four years for Boetticher and Scott, with Kennedy joining them for four of them as script man. Scott, who was already in his late 50s at the time, found a whole new stretch of leading roles in what has come to be known as the Ranown Cycle.

After making one more Western, "Ride the High Country," in 1962 with fellow cowboy actor Joel McCrea for an upstart young director named Sam Peckinpah, Scott promptly retired from acting, having said all he felt he needed to on the big screen. (McCrea followed suit).

"7 Men" gives new meaning to the concept of taut storytelling. It's 77 minutes of pure Old West mythos: outlaws, stolen gold, bandits, Indians, pioneers, cavalry, lawmen, old coot prospectors, the code of manhood, six-gun duels, noble womenfolk and the repaying of old debts.

It's a lonesome, whistling ode to the Western genre without a single extraneous note.

Scott is the apotheosis of the Western star: tall, rangy, weathered face with sharp eyes, slow to anger and reluctant to speak one more syllable than absolutely necessary. When he does talk, he's invariably ordering other people around.

He plays Ben Stride, former sheriff of Silver Springs, now an outlaw himself chasing the seven men who held up the Wells Fargo bank, inadvertently killing his wife in the process. Stride wasn't actually involved in the shootout; he'd lost the vote for reelection six months earlier and declined an offer to stay on as deputy. His wife took the job to support them, and his pride cost her life.

Of course, all this isn't revealed until very late in the game. And Stride doesn't say most of it: He's a man who is talked about, not one who talks about himself.

The opening sequence is typical of the entire film: during a terrible rainstorm, Stride saunters into a cave where two men are taking shelter. He was jumped by Indians 10 miles back and his horse killed, he grunts in between sips of coffee. After establishing the pair were involved in the robbery, two shots ring out in the night, startling the men's horses.

Now riding with the other horse in tow, Stride encounters John Greer (Walter Reed) and his wife, Annie (Gail Russell), a couple of pioneers striking out for Californee. After helping them get their wagon unstuck, Stride accompanies them as unofficial protector. He's clearly attracted to Annie, who reminds him of his wife.

John is depicted as "short on spine," to use another character's words, a salesman by trade ill-suited to life on the open range. Annie adores him nonetheless, but also is drawn toward the masculine magnetism of Stride. The screenplay provides just enough to make us understand they care for each other, without getting into any kind of overt betrayal of marital vows.

A single, abrupt embrace is all they share.

Russell had a bad problem with alcohol after an early rush of stardom in the 1940s, including "Angel and the Badman" with Wayne. "7 Men from Now" was her first film in five years, and the crew reportedly took pains to keep her away from drink during production. The following year she'd plow her car into an iconic L.A. coffee shop, and only had a handful of other roles before drinking herself to death at 36.

Her character is described as "25 or 26," and Russell herself was only 31 when the film was shot. Between her baggy eyes and heavily lined brow, which Boetticher 's camera labors to conceal, you'd think she was Scott's contemporary.

The other notable character is Bill Masters, an outlaw who has a past with Stride. Wearing a bright green scarf around his neck and another red one twisted upon his sleeve, he's played by Lee Marvin in one of his more memorable supporting roles as he established himself as an actor.

Masters wasn't involved in the robbery but knows who was, and tags along with Stride and the Greers in hopes of securing the $20,000 in gold for himself. He and Stride enter a sort of undeclared detente, setting aside their past roles as the criminal and the sheriff who closed a jail door on him. Also coming along is Masters' henchman, Clete (Don "Red" Berry).

Much of the middle section of the movie plays out as a tense love quadrangle, with Masters openly desiring Annie for himself, while also being the only one to acknowledge the attraction between her and Stride. He attempts to undermine John, describing him to Clete as "half a man." Though Greer's got a secret of his own, and eventually displays his mettle (if not the greatest of brainpower).

There's one terrific scene, which takes place in another downpour, as the three men and Annie take shelter inside the wagon. Masters taunts Greer right up to the point of insulting him outright, as well as showcasing his lascivious feelings for Annie. Finally having enough, Stride runs him and Clete off, then makes his bunk in the dry spot underneath the wagon while Greer stands watch.

Separated by just the floor of the wagon, Stride and Annie share a tender exchange of aching yearning neither one of them is able to fully articulate.

Of course, this being a Western it has to end with a shootout. Finally arriving in Flora Vista, we meet Payte Bodeen (John Larch), the leader of the seven robbers. He's an oddly contemplative villain for a Western, always scratching his chin and glancing sideways. Bodeen is the sort who's so busy trying to think three chess moves ahead, he winds up wasting all his pawns.

Suffice it to say that Stride, the remaining five outlaws and Masters' twosome are destined to collide in the deep mountain valley outside of town. Hobbled early on by a bullet in the leg, Stride uses his long rifle as a crutch, employing his wiles to get the drop on his enemies.

"7 Men from Now" isn't a particularly well-remembered film, and I can understand why. It's so distilled down to its purest essence that it doesn't feel like a complete cinematic meal. It's like a dinner consisting entirely of charbroiled steak without any seasoning or fixin's. You have to really enjoy that kind of meat to appreciate the meal.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Video review: "Baywatch"

Stretching is good if you’re exercising but not if you’re making movies. “Baywatch” is a sorta-spoof of the television show that has about 30 minutes’ worth of decent material, but then tries to string that out to a two-hour movie. The end result is a flick with a few good laughs and a whole bunch of filler in between.

Dwayne Johnson plays Lieutenant Mitch Buchannon, the veteran leader of the local lifeguard crew. (Motto: “Risking Our Lives and Flexing for $9/hour.”) The running joke is that he takes his job way too seriously, behaving more like a special ops operative than a dude in jams and flipflops.

As the story opens Mitch is recruiting two new spots on the team. Matt Brody (Zac Efron) would seem to be the top candidate, an Olympic swimming star who can cut through the water like nobody else. But he’s also an arrogant ass who disgraced himself and is looking to take the next steps.

Summer (Alexandra Daddario) is the competition he takes a shine too, who’s too smart to fall for his bro-dude antics. Rounding out the cast of contenders is Ronnie (Jon Bass), a schlubby but good-hearted guy who would seem to be a long shot to make the team.

It’s a pretty raunchy affair, with the boys showing off a lot more skin than the girls. The plot is a forgettable lark, something about an evil businesswoman buying up the beach. Mitch and his fellow lifeguards take on the extra duty of solving some murder and fraud in between elliptical workouts.

There’s been a whole slew of old TV shows turned into movie spoofs in recent years. I’m not opposed to the idea, but I can’t think of a one of them that’s been better than mediocre. “Baywatch” doesn’t sink, but it doesn’t exactly swim, either.

Bonus features include an extended version of the film with new and longer scenes, plus four-making of featurettes. They’re only available on the Blu-ray, though, as the DVD edition has none.



Thursday, August 24, 2017

Review: "Leap!"

Objectivity is not part of the criticism game, but I do think it’s important for critics to go into their encounter with a piece of art/entertainment without preconceived notions or opinions. And when that’s not possible, it’s best to divulge that straight off the bat so readers know where you’re coming from and factor that into their reading of the review.

To wit: I went into “Leap!” with the lowest of hopes. The previews for this French-Canadian animation production make it look like a low-rent, derivative affair aimed at young girls -- Disney TV’s “Sofia the First” with an overstuffed runtime.

Furthermore, my 4- and 6-year-old boys, who will literally watch any kind of animated fare 73 times, had to be convinced/cajoled/bribed into joining me. The latter’s main objection being that it’s about ballerina dancing and therefore too much of a “girl movie” for him and his all-male cadre.

(The preteen misogyny is strong with this one...)

I’m happy to report the movie is much better than I expected, a light enjoyable romp about chasing your dreams and such. My kids both enjoyed it, the older one with the proviso that “Leap!” is both a girl movie AND boy movie, because it also has a couple of significant Y-chromosome characters. Feel free to use that with your lad or tomboy.

Let’s not go overboard and call it a great piece of entertainment. Directed by Eric Summer and Éric Warin, from a screenplay by Summer, Laurent Zeitoun and Carol Noble, “Leap!” does have a television feel to it, with a tightly bookended narrative that you could practically write yourself after watching the first 20 minutes.

And the animation is second- to third-tier, without the smooth action and dense detail we’ve come to expect from Disney/Pixar, Laika and DreamWorks.

Still, it’s an engaging adventure with a spunky heroine, quirky sidekicks and a lush Parisian background. It even manages to make ballet (sort of) appealing.

Félicie (voice of Elle Fanning) is a 12-ish pixie living in an orphanage in the countryside outside Paris circa 1875. She spends most of her days dancing and daydreaming ways to escape to the city and join up with the Paris Opera Ballet. Mel Brooks provides the voice of Luteau, the ogreish custodian.

Her only real friend is Victor (Nat Wolff), a dizzy boy who dreams of becoming a great inventor and is clearly smitten with Félicie. The pair make their way to Paris, but soon go their separate ways with occasional check-ins. (This is her story, not theirs.)

She becomes a servant in the household of a snooty rich woman, Le Haut (Kate McKinnon), with an equally arrogant daughter around Félicie’s age, Camille (Maddie Ziegler), who is about to study at the ballet school. She passes herself off as Camille and begins to pursue her dream of becoming a ballet dancer.

Carly Rae Jepsen voices Odette, a caretaker who for some reason works at both the ballet and Le Haut households. She uses a cane and is very jaded, but also seems to know enough about ballet to give Félicie enough tips/training to make the cut. The sneering instructor, Mérante (Terrence Scammell), is searching for a young girl to play Clara in “The Nutcracker,” and every day one more dancer is tossed, “Bachelor”-style.

There’s even a bona fide Russian prince/prodigy, Rudolph (Tamir Kapelian), who’s tall and dreamy and pays Félicie plenty of attention, earning Victor’s bumbling ire.

Originally released in Canada under the title of “Ballerina” with a few changes in the voice cast, “Leap!” won’t win any awards for originality. But it easily clears the low bar of expectations I had set for it. And that’s my life-lesson.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review: "Menashe"

Menashe, a widower in Brooklyn’s tightly cloistered Hasidic Jewish community, is known to be a world-class schlimazel -- Yiddish for “unlucky person.” Though in this engrossing drama from director/co-writer Joshua Z. Weinstein, I’d say Menashe is more of a schlemiel than a schlimazel. That’s a bumbler who screws up all the time.

"The schlemiel spills his soup on the schlimazel," goes an old saying that helps distinguish the two.

Played by Menashe Lustig, upon whose real-life experiences this fictional film was based, Menashe is the loser in his extended family, who regard him with a mix of pity and contempt. He’s the guy who never made good, working in a kosher grocery while other men his age are running businesses of his own.

Husky and sweaty, he ambles about the neighborhood in his shirtsleeves and tzitzit frock, eschewing the proper coat and hat of other good Jews. His son, Rieven (Ruben Nidorski), loves his daddy but is keenly conscious of how he is looked down upon by most everyone, especially his uncle, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), a successful real estate dealer.

Menashe lost his wife, Leah, almost a year ago and has been separated from his child ever since. According to The Ruv, the powerful local rabbi played by Meyer Schwartz, a boy must be raised in a proper two-parent household. The Ruv quotes the Torah, saying a mensch must have a nice home, a nice wife and nice dishes.

Menashe has been resisting matchmaking efforts, including one scene where he tells a woman widowed just four months ago that she’s “not my type,” which leave her more bewildered than insulted. In their community, marriage is about bonding families and raising children, not romance.

“And you’re everything I’d pray for in a husband?” she retorts contemptuously.

Shot over the course of two years within the Hasidic neighborhoods and told almost entirely in Yiddish, “Menashe” is the story of a man who lives both within and outside the traditions of his people. He is industrious in his job, but often shows up late or drops the fish. He dearly loves Rieven but rebukes the boy for poor impulse control that he himself mirrors.

Mostly, he craves the respect that eludes him. Menashe has complicated feelings about his wife, the result of an arranged marriage that was not a happy one. He argues with Eizik about custody of his son, requiring the intervention of The Ruv. This results in them being temporarily reunited, a few days during which they can bond while exploring the boundaries of their fractured relationship.

Adorned with a simple sort of beauty, “Menashe” takes us deep into a people of traditions that may seem strange to most eyes, where we recognize problems and conflicts that occur everywhere humans make their home. It’s a reminder that all of us play the schlimazel at some point in our lives, as well as the schlemiel.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Video review: "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2"

Usually when a movie is successful enough to merit a sequel, the inclination is to do more of what the first one did well. An action flick must be even more packed with it, a supernatural thriller needs bigger twists, and so on.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” was the first flat-out comedy superhero film. Yet rather than just go for more laughs, the filmmakers made a conscious decision to focus on character-building rather than just yuks. I think it was the smart move.

“Vol. 2” doesn’t have the freshness and zing of its predecessor, but it’s a satisfying extension of this corner of the Marvel universe – which, in this case, is a good chunk of the actual universe.

The gang is all back: smirking human hero Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt); green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana); muscular brute Drax (Dave Bautista); genetic creation/pilot/racoon/raconteur Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper); and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), the monosyllabic, tree-like creature who was mostly destroyed in the last movie and has returned as a pint-sized shoot.

The basic plot is that the Guardians are once again being chased by a bunch of galactic forces for various reasons, mostly of their own making. They run into an odd being named Ego (Kurt Russell), a powerful alien who claims to be Peter’s father. Everyone hops back to his DIY planet to hash out familial connections and hidden motives. There we meet Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Ego’s assistant/pet, an empath whose naivete about mortals is a strange parallel with Drax’s tendency to verbalize the things most people would leave unspoken.

Returning characters include Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora’s death-seeking, cybernetic sister, and Yondu (Michael Rooker), the colorful space pirate who kidnapped/adopted Peter when he was a boy.

It’s not better, but I would say “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is in many ways bigger than the first movie. Its ambitions, and the depth of its mythology, has expanded considerably.

Video extras are quite expansive, though you’ll have to spring for the Blu-ray edition, as there are none on the DVD.

These include a four-part making-of documentary; intro featurette with director James Gunn; a galactic retro dance party music video; gag reel; four deleted scenes; and a feature-length audio commentary track with Gunn.

There is also some bonus material available digitally, including breakdowns of three key scenes that shows how CGI-heavy movies are built up layer-by-layer. And there’s a sneak peek at the forthcoming Guardians ride at Disneyland.



Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: "Wind River"

“I know you’re looking for clues, but you’re missing all the signs.”
                    --Cory Lambert

Last year’s “Hell or High Water” was my pick for the best movie in a very good film year, and writer Taylor Sheridan is back with another superlative crime drama for late summer, “Wind River,” which he also directed.

Sheridan, who also wrote the screenplay for “Sicario,” has quickly become the most authoritative voice of the modern Western. His stories are ones of revenge, the pioneer code, paying for old debts. They’re very old-school, male-centric films, yet this one also has a strong female character near the center.

Moving from West Texas to the Arapaho/Shoshone Indian reservation of hardscrabble Wyoming, “Wind River” is steeped in Native American culture but has two Caucasian main characters. I’m sure some people will find that politically objectionable for its own sake, but the very theme of the film is about strangers -- the interlopers who barge in, and the outsiders within our own midst.

This is not one of those reservations with a big casino and fat gold belt buckles. It’s a land of bitter cold and bleak mountains that keep people apart. They huddle in mobile homes against snows that pile deep even in spring, drowning in drink, drugs and despair. A fleeting shot shows some locals burning pieces of their house to stay warm.

Cory Lambert is very much integrated into this community. A hunter of predators for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, he roams the land on a snowmobile, tracking deadly beasts that prey on livestock and, occasionally, people. He’s searching for some lions that took down a steer on his father-in-law’s ranch when he finds a teenage girl’s body in the snow.

She’s beat up and barefoot, and the frostbite extends up to her ankles -- telling you how far she walked before finally falling. “That’s a warrior,” Cory intones.

This is the first role since “The Hurt Locker” that gives Jeremy Renner full rein to explore a character from the inside out. A f’real cowboy -- he trains his own horses, makes his own bullets and favors a lever-action rifle over modern snipers -- Cory doesn’t talk much but speaks volumes. There’s a lot of hurt in his own life, and his marriage to a Native woman (Julia Jones) has crumbled.

Elisabeth Olsen plays the intruder, Jane Banner, a young FBI agent sent out from Las Vegas to investigate the death. She’s resilient and smart -- shrewd enough to know she’s completely out of her element in a land where six reservation officers patrol a land the side of Rhode Island, and screaming winds and 20 degrees below zero can cause lungs to bleed, and then freeze.

“Luck don’t live out here,” Cory warns.

Jane recruits him to be her scout and tracker, though Cory clearly has his own ideas how the investigation is going to play out. Visiting the dead girl’s father (an amazing Gil Birmingham), Jane clumsily displays her privilege and presumption, seeing the man’s pride and stoicism, and interpreting that as hardheartedness.

When Cory shows up and the dad melts into his arms, we’re as astonished as she is. They share a connection no one else can.

Acting as facilitator is Graham Greene as the reservation police chief. He knows the people and wants to do the right thing, but also understands that his job will continue after the feds have gone back home. “Hey, don’t look at me. I’m used to no help,” he says.

They follow the tracks in the snow, which leads to questions, which suggest possible answers.

If “Hell or High Water” was a bona fide masterpiece, then “Wind River” is just a half-step down. It doesn’t quite have the same narrative momentum, tending to pool in eddies of contemplation rather than driving a potboiler plot.

But this approach has its own rewards, as in a scene where Jane goes into Cory’s home, and we sense the pull between them and think we know what’s going to happen. But it’s another form of intimacy that takes place, where the leathery gunman opens up his heart in a way we can’t possibly imagine John Wayne doing.

Today’s cinematic cowboys kill, but can also weep.

Review: "The Hitman's Bodyguard"

I kinda liked “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” even though it’s a pretty rote, predictable march through all the buddy cop tropes.

Though I guess we should call it a buddy spy flick, since Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds don’t play law enforcement types but superspies, the kind who can chop-socky their way through a crowd of bad guys while the camera spins around them, or take out three dudes with three bullets from 100 feet away, while hundreds of the foes’ bullets never seem to find their mark, or if they do it’s a cute little nick that doesn’t slow them down.

It’s frenetic, fast-paced, filled with lots of quips intercut with some rather bloody carnage, Reynolds doing his charming/nervous thing and Jackson dropping a torrent of mother-effers like only he can.

It’s a fun movie. It’s not particularly smart or original; every character fits snugly into their square or round peg. We know the pair are going to hate each other, then grudgingly work together, and wind up as eternal besties.

Gary Oldman turns up as the villain, a Belarussian dictator named Dukhovich who’s on trial in the Hague for war crimes. All the witnesses against him repeatedly turn up dead, so it looks like he’s going to get sprung. Oldman alternates between chilly threats and monomaniacal raving, his cheeks even touched with a spot of pox so the bad guy can be easily picked out. It’s the sort of role Oldman has played a thousand times and could do in his sleep.

Jackson is Darius Kincaid, a legendary assassin who seems to be the last witness left against Dukhovich. Things go badly with the Interpol protection squad, led by tough lieutenant Amelia Roussel (Élodie Yung), making it obvious there’s a rat in their midst.

(Hint: always look for the swarthiest fellow amongst the Caucasians.)

Roussel is forced to call in Michael Bryce, formerly king of the protection agency game and also her ex-boyfriend. His last big gig protecting a Japanese arms dealer ended poorly, so now he’s the bottom of the barrel instead of triple-A rated -- a standard that may or may not actually exist, but one he’s obsessed with reclaiming nonetheless.

It seems Michael and Darius have often been on opposite sides of a sniper rifle from each other, so there’s bad blood. The story (screenplay by Tom O’Connor) turns into a road picture as they are chased over land, air and sea on their way to the Hague, which is going to close the proceedings against Dukhovich unless Darius shows up by 5 o'clock the next day.

(I guess the Hague judges never heard of stays? Or testimony via live video feed?)

According to what I’ve read the budget on this picture was only $30 million, and director Patrick Hughes milks a ton of high-adrenaline action scenes out of that tidy sum. A combination road/boat chase through the canals of Amsterdam was my favorite, a sequence worthy of a Bond flick.

Along the way they fight, give each other the slip, bicker over M.O.’s and lady loves -- Salma Hayek plays Darius’ imprisoned squeeze -- and even sing a couple of songs. Jackson does an off-tune rendition of “Nobody Gets Out Alive,” which I assumed was a classic blues standard, but is actually a new song the actor wrote and performed himself, delivering a much better version for the closing credits that’s worth hanging around for.

It’s the only part of the movie I would deem triple-A rated. The rest is one-and-a-half As, at best. (Aa?)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review: "Brigsby Bear"

I’ve seen a lot of weird movies in my day. Last year’s “Swiss Army Man,” in which a castaway befriends a corpse, was one of the weirdest. But “Brigsby Bear” is probably even stranger… not to mention an absolutely wonderful, wonderful film.

How to describe this off-kilter comedy? Well, first I’d say that while it’s made by a bunch of people known for comedy, and it indeed does have many wry moments, it really isn’t a humorous film. It’s an unusually emotional experience that centers around a disconnected character who gradually finds a way to insert himself into a world where he’s always been an observer.

It’s also a very hard movie to review without giving away key bits you should experience for yourself. I’ll try to give you the premise without all the moving pieces.

James (Kyle Mooney) is a 30ish man who is still very much a boy in most ways that are meaningful. He lives in isolation with some folks (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) who are loving but a little distant. His only real experience of the world beyond their desert bunker is “Brigsby Bear Adventures,” a cheesy kids’ TV show in which a guy in a bear costume with an enormous head leads the audience through weekly adventures involving intergalactic space adventure, while also learning some life lessons, and maybe a little grammar and math.

Think of “Barney” mixed with a heavy dollop of “Star Wars” and “Sesame Street,” with the production values of Canadian cable access.

The villain is Sunsnatcher, who looks like an orange planetoid with a face and goatee; one of Brigsby’s key allies is Goody Goose (a total visual rip-off of Donald Duck); and James has literally grown up with the Smiles Sisters, twins with telekinetic powers.

(James has fallen in love with Arielle Smiles, but is indifferent to Nina.)

James is utterly obsessed with the show, now deep into the 700s of episodes, and hosts an online fan club for Brigsby followers to argue about the very convoluted mythology and plot lines, much like people do about “Game of Thrones.” His bedroom is full of Brigsby swag, right down to his clothes and bedsheets.

Anyway, through a series of circumstances James is pushed out into the greater world, where he finds himself with a new family he doesn’t really know. He’s also very curious as to why nobody seems to know anything about Brigsby, which as far as he knew was the most popular show there is (not to mention the only one).

Michaela Watkins and Matt Walsh play his parents, desperate to reconnect after such a long separation. Ryan Simpkins plays his sister, Aubrey, deep into her own teenage issues and resentful of so much of the spotlight being shifted onto her sibling, who disappeared long before she was even born.

Claire Danes plays the therapist assigned to help James transition into his new life, and Greg Kinnear is the detective on the case, who becomes involved in an extracurricular capacity. Jorge Lendeborg Jr. and Alexa Demie play friends of Aubrey’s who get sucked into his orbit. Andy Samberg (also a producer) and Kate Lyn Sheil turn up in small roles as people who cross James’ path.

Mooney, who also co-wrote the script with Kevin Costello, is a wonder as James. With his spaghetti curls and glasses, he resembles Napoleon Dynamite’s less assertive kid brother. His awkwardness and naivete are nth level off-putting, yet somehow we find ourselves caring about this peculiar little man.

Dave McCary, a rookie as a feature film director, manages to balance a very tenuous tone that includes shadings of tragedy, mirth, resentfulness and the purest joy. “Brigsby Bear” is one of the oddest, and oddly satisfying, things to see at the cinema.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Wreck of the Mary Deare" (1959)

"The Wreck of the Mary Deare" starts off as a seaborne action/adventure, turns into a character study and winds up as a staid courtroom drama/whodunit -- with a little splash of excitement at the end.

It's a well-made but schizophrenic film with jarring segues between land and sea. The movie is mostly notable today for marking the end of Gary Cooper's film acting career, the peak of Charlton Heston's and the beginning of Richard Harris'.

Alfred Hitchcock was originally slated to direct, but couldn't find a way to prevent it from turning into a courtroom procedural without jettisoning much of the novel by Hammond Innes. Hitch and his writer, Ernest Lehman, turned the project over to screenwriter Eric Ambler and British journeyman director Michael Anderson (“Around the World in 80 Days”), who pressed on.

Cooper suffered ill health during a big chunk of his latter years, and would be diagnosed with the cancer would claim his life shortly after the release of "Wreck." Despite having to suspend shooting several times due to his illness, Cooper still mastered a physically demanding role as Gideon Patch, a disgraced seaman trying desperately to retain his honor -- and keep his captain’s license -- after the ship under his command is abandoned by the crew.

He would only make one other film, “The Naked Edge,” before his death at age 60.

As for Harris, it was his first major film role – and nearly his last, at least on this side of the Atlantic. He hated the Hollywood filmmaking experience so much he returned to England straight away and eschewed American productions for years.

Harris plays Higgins, the devious second mate of the Mary Deare, who’s secretly working in cahoots with the owner to scuttle the ship to hide the fact the expensive cargo, some newfangled airplane engines, had already been offloaded in Rangoon. The captain had been lost at sea right before, and Patch, as first officer, took over.

Heston plays John Sands, a salvage team member who first sees the Mary Deare as a huge payday, an intact cargo ship floating dead and abandoned in a stormy sea. He clambers aboard to find Patch shambling about the decks like a ghost, covered in soot and muttering about the crew jumping ship even though the fire that caused the panic had been contained.

He has a large cut on his head from being brained by one of the crew (probably Higgins) and spends his first stretch of screen time seeming addled or senile. He orders Sands to help him beach the rapidly sinking ship on the Minquiers (aka "the Minkies"), a series of teeth-like rocks in the English Channel. Then, Patch extracts a promise from Sands not to tell anyone about the fact that the ship isn't at the bottom of the ocean until the official board of inquiry. He implies Sands will receive full salvage rights in return.

We spend the middle part of the movie wondering wondering about these two men -- whether Sands is merely a soulless mercenary, and if Patch's motivations are truly what he says. We learn Patch previously lost another ship under his command and had his license ("master's ticket") suspended. Another screw-up on his watch would mean the end of his career.

He sets about what seems very much like a cover-up: refusing to answer questions by the insurance company or owner of the ship; seeking out the daughter (Virginia McKenna) of the dead captain to see if he has letters that support his claim; renting a fishing boat so he can secretly go out to the wreck on his own; obscuring the full truth from Sands and his partner, which includes the fact Patch accidentally killed he captain when the latter attacked him in a drunken rage.

Then we arrive at the courtroom sequence, during which things look worse and worse for Patch. The rest of the crew testify he gave the order to abandon ship, though Patch denies it. He wants to read a statement before the court to explain everything, including revealing the fact the ship was not sunk. 

When this is discovered independently by other salvage crews -- thus depriving Sands of his payday -- it seems Patch has no allies.

The last sequence sees Sands and Patch joining forces again to secretly dive through the holes in the ship's hull to investigate if the airplane engines are still in the hull of the Mary Deare. Cooper, an experienced scuba diver, did his own stunts.

The movie is tied together only by the inimitable screen presence of Gary Cooper, whose ease at projecting a sort of plain decency allowed him to be one of the few actors to bridge the silent and sound film eras. We probably suspect Patch is going to turn out to be a hero, since that's the only kind of character he played. 

Gideon Patch is a more brooding sort, but the outcome of "The Wreck of the Mary Deare" is never in doubt.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Video review: "Alien: Covenant"

“Not an utter embarrassment” is unfortunately the new bar for films in the “Alien” franchise, and I’m pleased to say the latest iteration manages to clear that low threshold quite easily.

It breaks no new ground and gives us no character as compelling as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. But it puts the people through their familiar paces with technical and emotional vitality in a way that will leave audiences not exactly thrilled, but surely not disappointed.

It’s nice that original director Ridley Scott, after seeing his movie pass through the hands of multiple imitators, finally took back the reins himself with “Prometheus” and now this film, which exists as its sequel within the (admittedly somewhat murky) timeline.

The set-up is that a space ship is carrying thousands of hibernating humans (and some fertilized embryos) to a distant solar system to colonize it. When a solar flare damages the vessel, the crew is awakened early – all except the captain, who is incinerated in his sleeping pod.

Not wanting to face the prospect of living and dying before they reach their destination, and too scared to go back into hibernation, the crew settles on a nearby planet that appears to be able to sustain life. Billy Crudup is the fickle second-in-command calling the shots, while Katherine Waterston is the more sensible subordinate who we know will eventually take over.

The rest of the cast includes Carmen Ejogo, Demian Bichir, Amy Seimetz and Danny McBride. Interestingly, the crew is made of matched romantic pairs, so there’s a lot of tension about protecting loved ones and, soon enough, mourning them.

Michael Fassbender returns as an android named Walter assigned to help the humans. He previously played another, more malevolent “synthetic,” David, in “Prometheus,” and that character turns up again, a bit implausibly. Their clashes and ruminations about the mystery of human behavior represent the movie’s high point.

When the planet turns out to be populated with the iconic aliens -- face-huggers that give way to two-mouthed killers -- the blood starts flying, the character clashes grow more intense and the aliens start spreading.

Taken purely as a popcorn flick, “Alien: Covenant” is filled with plenty of creepy, moody sequences set apart by bursts of high-octane action. It’s not like it was in “Alien” or “Aliens,” but it gets a passing grade.

But seriously, when are people going to figure out the thing that made the first two “Alien” movies great was not the critters, but Ripley? Maybe Scott or somebody will realize Weaver is still around, and still pretty spry.

Bonus features are pretty substantial, starting with a feature-length commentary track by Scott. It’s bothersome that so many storied directors -- Spielberg, Coppola, etc. -- have refused to do commentaries. He also takes part in a “Master Class” documentary on making the film.

There are also a dozen deleted or extended scenes, gallery of production photos, and six making-of featurettes.



Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Review: "Landline"

Actress Jenny Slater reteams with her “Obvious Child” director/screenwriter, Gillian Robespierre, for another comedically observational look at the trials of young womanhood.

“Landline” follows a twentysomething woman played by Slater toeing the precipice of marriage and concurrent anxiety about permanency, as well as her teenage sister caught in the phase of acting out and seeking all around her for meaning, and finding only disappointment in her immediate surroundings.

It's a smart, tender, wry and sensitive portrait of a family in turmoil. Edie Falco and John Turturro play the parents, harried in their own lives and bewildered by the two independent-minded women they’ve raised. They have their own problems as well, which Robespierre explores with co-screenwriter Elisabeth Holm, who also worked on the story for “Child.”

Set in 1995, the title refers to the numerous telephone conversations in the movie, before mobile phones were ubiquitous. Most of the impact interactions take place face-to-face, however, and “Landline” also speaks to the deeper connection the sisters form throughout the course of the story when circumstances throw them into unexpected proximity.

Slate plays Dana, who superficially seems pretty stable with a decent starter job, apartment and fiancé, Ben (Jay Duplass). They get on well together, but even before the wedding vows take place a sense of sameness has crept into the relationship. The sex has even gone stale, which they attempt to solve with an unfortunate change of locale. But Dana discovers deeper cravings she’s afraid will get stifled.

This leads to a flirtation with college flame Nate (Finn Wittrock), whose crooked smile and off-kilter regard for things like marriage and family personify Dana’s increasingly chilly feet.

Abby Quinn plays Ali, who’s about 16 but seems to have skipped over the teen angst phase and hurried straight into menopausal orneriness. Her dad, Alan (Turturro), jokes that maybe getting mugged will tame her nighttime wanderings, but then takes it back: muggers would be too scared of her.

Ali is in a hurry: to grow up, to drink and do drugs, to lose her virginity, to go to college or whatever else it takes to get away from her parents as soon as possible. She has a guy she keeps around (Marquis Rodriguez) to help with her carnal explorations, but Ali treats him as an appliance to her own evolution.

One of the more interesting things about “Landline” is the way the women tend to use men poorly, rather than the other way around. Early on the girls discover love poetry written by their dad, an advertising copywriter and wannabe playwright, to a mysterious woman named “C.” They spend much of the movie trying to sniff out who that is -- not quite believing such a self-doubting person would have the gumption to cheat.

They nurse their secret resent for their dad, even as Dana carries out the exact same sort of duplicity, and Ali casually squashes her would-be boyfriend’s feelings when they intrude up on her plans.

Falco is the center of the clan as matriarch Pat, who has a very public position of power and employs a slightly softer version of that on the home front. In one scene she dismisses her husband as a “failure” in front of their daughter, and Turturro’s face is a mask of restrained pain. Pat’s not a bad person, but she’s been shouldering the parenting load for so long, she can’t help resent her floundering mate.

Things go on, with much pain as well as laughter. The appeal of “Landline” is its spot-on observation of characters who resemble real people rather than Hollywood constructs conveying themselves from Point A to B in the plot. These people knock around, sidestepping and backtracking, in a chaotic path that bends (hopefully) toward grace.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Video review: "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword"

I grew up reading and loving the Arthurian Legends, and have mostly groaned at the cinematic adaptations of them. The sub-genre reached its zenith with 1981’s “Excalibur,” and hasn’t come anywhere close since. If John Boorman’s version was the pinnacle, then surely Guy Ritchie’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” represents rock bottom.

Some movies are confusing; others are simply confused. I doubt this seemingly random mash-up of King Arthur lore, martial arts chop-socky, steampunk criminal intrigue and New Age-y mysticism made much sense even to the people making the film.

Charlie Hunnan plays Arthur, reimagined here as a street urchin who grew up among thieves and has risen to be their lord. Just a little light extortion and prostitution, if you please. He watched his father, King Uther Pendragon, die at the hands of his evil uncle, Vortigern (Jude Law), and has evolved into a standard-issue Avoiding My Destiny protagonist, a la Simba from “The Lion King.”

Soon enough he pulls Excalibur from the stone, and assumes the leadership of the rebellion consisting of some Uther loyalists, the thieves’ guild, a wayward mage who can control animals and not much else, and the rest of the ragtag.

Meanwhile, Vortigern is building a magical tower that augments his own sorcery, which never really gets all that impressive. Behead that architect!

Ritchie’s whirling dervish directing style, which is the cinematic equivalent of attention deficit disorder, is known for jumping around in time and space with head-snapping velocity. It works in small doses with the right material -- see his 2015 “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” for a prime example.

But “Arthur” often seems like a random assembly of shots without any kind of cohesive aesthetic connecting them. We’ll see Arthur swinging his sword in battle, for instance, and then cut to a shot of the mage standing enchanted on a hill far away, a murder of CGI crows swirling about her in slo-mo.

It’s a great-looking movie, but the story, characters and tone are disconnected from each other, or anything that could be reasonably termed entertaining.

Video extras are decent. The DVD comes only with a single featurette, “Arthur with Swagger,” a profile of Hunnan’s take on the character.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray edition and you add seven more featurettes, focusing on Ritchie’s vision, sword training for the cast, creating a grimier Camelot, stunt choreography, behind-the-scenes relationships and the mythology behind Excalibur.



Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Review: "Detroit"

Political correctness is a sordid game I refuse to play. But even I admit I’m uncomfortable with a feature film about the 1967 Detroit riots with an almost entirely white creative team.

Director Kathryn Bigelow reteams with her “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker” screenwriter, Mark Boal, in a film that attempts to look at the watershed civic unrest from the perspective of African-Americans who suffered at the hands of brutal police tactics. While most of the cast is black, the movie struggles to get over a sense of existing more to soothe white guilt than chronicle a racist tragedy.

Indeed, the first words we see or hear refer to the 1967 riots, also known as the 12th Street riots, as “the Detroit Rebellion.” I don’t know any serious historian who would use that term, which refers to an organized uprising designed to topple the power hierarchy, either by replacing the exiting government or splitting off from it.

Somehow, I doubt even the people who took to the streets, throwing rocks and setting storefronts on fire, would have called their actions a rebellion. They were simply enraged at being continually abused and stepped upon, and reached a point where they didn’t want to take it anymore.

I admired the film but got stuck on the fact this wasn’t the movie I was expecting. This is not a comprehensive look at the root causes of the unrest, the tactics undertaken by authorities to quell the violence, or the aftermath suffered by a community that struggles to this day to overcome that dark moment in history.

Indeed, if any moment can be pinpointed as the tipping point of when the great modern divide in America began -- between cities and suburbs, whites and those of color, blue and red -- the ’67 riot is it.

Although Bigelow and Boal start their story in the streets, this is really the tale of the Algiers Motel incident. Largely forgotten now amidst the bigger backdrop of the riots, this was the case of Detroit police officers, state police and national guardsmen detaining a group of young black men and two 18-year-old white women after gunshots were heard from the annex of the motel, a party spot a few blocks away from the mayhem.

Over the course of several hours, the suspects -- who were never charged with anything -- were beaten, abused, assaulted. It became clear the white officers were angered by white girls dallying with black boys. Three black men were fatally shot, with trumped-up excuses after the fact to justify self-defense by the officers. It was, as depicted in the film, essentially torture.

Anthony Mackie plays one of the victims, a recently discharged Army soldier, and Hannah Murray plays the mouthy girl. Algee Smith is Larry, lead singer of an up-and-coming Motown group called The Dramatics, who gets caught up along with his manager (Jacob Latimore).

Baby-faced Will Poulter is the central villain as the police officer directing the interrogation; earlier in the day we watched him pump two shotgun blasts into the back of a looter carrying groceries. Jay Reynor and Ben O’Toole are his wing men, dim and deliberate, respectively.

John Beyega is more or less the central character as Mel Dismukes, an African-American man working as a private security officer protecting a nearby business. He continually inserts himself into situations, using his uniform and officious demeanor to stave off some of the worst law enforcement abuses of black folks.

The film unequivocally presents Dismukes as a hero, when in fact he was charged with abusing the Algiers suspects along with the three police. All were found not guilty (though not, as the movie condenses, in the same trial).

Exactly what happened in the motel remains sketchy even today, though the movie carelessly presents its own version with crisp black-and-white lines, knowing this is what will be etched into the public consciousness.

From a narrative and technical standpoint, “Detroit” is a very well-crafted film that strings the audience’s emotions along with an expert hand. What’s less clear is who this movie is about, or for.