Thursday, March 29, 2018

Review: "Ready Player One"

I’ve been playing video games for 40 years, so it’s no surprise I would truly dig a book that’s about them, and the movie they made of the book -- from director Steven Spielberg, no less, a filmmaker who’s always been plugged into the pop culture of the day.

The Oasis in “Ready Player One” is essentially every video game rolled into one. Based on the novel by Ernest Cline, who co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn, the story is set in a dystopian future in the year 2045, where life on Earth is hell and all meaningful interactions take place in the virtual world of the Oasis. People wear VR goggles, gloves and other gear to act out their dreams.

Think of it as Star Trek, Dungeons & Dragons and World of Warcraft all rolled into one -- along with every creature or gadget from every science fiction/fantasy film ever made.

There, you can do almost anything you can dream of: live as an 8-foot-tall ogre cyborg, drive the DeLorean from the “Back to the Future” movies… even fall in love.

But the Oasis has a downside. It’s become the center of world economy, which means it’s a ripe target for those who would exploit it for their own gain, like Innovative Online Industries, or IOI. They’re swarming the grid with their drone-like army of avatars, known as Sixers, to solve the riddles left by creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) after this death, which will lead the finder of three keys to the mother of all Easter Eggs.

The prize? Nothing less than control of the Oasis itself.

Though it differs from the book in myriad ways, small and huge, “Ready Player One” is still a dazzlingly entertaining movie that also nudges its audience to consider the weight of their own existence in RL (gamer lingo for “real life”). As fantastical as this world is, we’re left with the conclusion that nobody should spend all their time wrapped up in a comfortable cocoon spun out of technology.

The story brings together a band of young freedom fighters waging war against the tyranny of IOI and its conniving leader, Nathan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). To get a flavor of his M.O., in one scene Sorrento cheerfully informs his corporate board that once they take over the Oasis, they believe they can fill players’ visual fields with advertising up to 80% “before inducing seizures.”

Chief among the rebels is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a humble teenager who goes by the handle Parzival in the Oasis, taking the form of an androgynous, albino-haired punk. His best friend is Aech (pronounced “H”), the aforementioned ogre, who’s the fun-loving, self-assured yin to Parzival’s dweeby yang.

The most famous “Sixer Fixer” in the Oasis is Art3mis, an elf-like warrior played by Olivia Cooke. Parzival and Aech soon join forces with her, with Wade predictably falling in love with the avatar of someone who, as Aech points out, could very well by a 300-pound dude from Detroit.

Like James Cameron’s “Avatar,” most of the prime action in the movie plays out in a CGI dreamscape, punctuated by occasional returns to the “real” world, which is dank and grim. There’s so much to see and take in, and so many little Easter eggs and pop culture references, you’d have to rewind and freeze-frame the movie to catch them all.

(My personal favorite: the chant used for an important spell is the same used in 1981’s “Excalibur.”)

There’s no way the filmmakers could have obtained the intellectual rights to all the bits of pop culture stuffed into Cline's book, most of it hearkening back to the 1980s and '90s, so they swap them out with other ones, or invent new stuff entirely. I was a little bummed we didn’t get to see Ultraman make a pivotal appearance, though his replacement isn’t exactly mincemeat.

Cline and Penn also significantly alter and truncate the actual quest line in the book, making the three keys themselves the object rather than the gates they open. (Probably a wise choice, as it could easily have pushed an already long movie to the three-hour mark.)

For example, things start off with a slam-bang road race, rather than a very RPG (role-playing game) descent into a classic D&D module that must seem like dim history to Millennials.

“Ready Player One” is part computer-generated thrill ride, part Luddite warning, and all Spielbergian nostalgia adventure. Insert your quarter -- er, about 40-50 of them, at today’s ticket prices -- and get ready for a gleeful romp in the ultimate video game playground.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Reeling Backward: "The Changeling" (1980)

"The Changeling" has an impeccable cinematic pedigree. Not to be confused with the 2008 drama starring Angeline Jolie, this was a horror/thriller featuring George C. Scott as a famous composer who discovers strange things going bump in the night in the old mansion he has rented out.

In the tradition of all haunted house stories ever, rather than immediately decamping upon realizing the threat, he stays and tries to puzzle it out. Because, of course, otherwise we wouldn't have a movie.

(Though some aspects of Eddie Murphy's stand-up days are now considered impolitic, I still think he best nailed it on haunted house movies.)

In addition to Scott, who was then at the height of his powers, the movie also features Golden Age screen legend Melvyn Howard in his next-to-last role, playing (we eventually learn) the titular character. Scott's real-life wife, Trish Van Devere, co-starred with him as a helpful local and hinted-at love interest. Director Peter Medak was (and still is) a busy, respectable maker of film and television.

A Canadian production, "The Changeling" cleaned up at the first-ever Genie Awards, their equivalent of the Oscars, winning best picture as well as the prizes for adapted screenplay, cinematography, sound, sound editing and art design. Amusingly, Scott and Van Devere also won Best Foreign Actor and Best Foreign Actress, respectively.

(Native Canadians Christopher Plummer and Kate Lynch won Actor and Actress, with all others dismissed to the furriner categories.)

So with all that said, I was tremendously disappointed in the movie. The first hour is stultifyingly boring, largely consisting of Scott puttering around the enormous mansion, reacting to noises, peering quizzically at objects. Somehow, he seems to wear a sportcoat, sweater vest and tie in every scene, to the point I wondered if he sleeps in that outfit.

He's playing John Russell, a well-known music composer who has just suffered the tragedy of losing his wife and young daughter in a car accident. He leaves New York City to take a job in Seattle teaching at a local university, to quiet his mind and get away from it all.

The local historical society decides to rent him the Carmichael mansion, which has been vacant for more than a decade, though no one will say why. It's demonstrably ridiculous for one middle-aged man to occupy such a huge space -- four stories and dozens of rooms -- but the place comes with a cool old piano for Russell to noodle upon.

Though it's a supernatural thriller, "The Changeling" doesn't have that dizzying aspect of serendipity about it, as if any number of metaphysical possibilities abound in this place. When we finally learn "the secret" of the haunting, it becomes a mundane story of greed and power. Douglas plays a tycoon and U.S. senator who turns out to be an orphan raised in place of the actual Carmichael son, who was murdered by his father for being born sickly.

(Sorry, the sell-by date on spoilers for 1980 movies has long passed.)

Russell does the usual stuff -- poring through historical records, talking to oldsters, holding a seance at which objects go flying. But it's not until he listens to a recording of the seance that he starts to hear the voice of the boy, pleading for mercy.

Perhaps the film's only truly scary scene is the one in which the murder is depicted, as the father goes into the attic room where the child has been hidden away and drowns him in his bathtub.

The story is supposedly based on the actual experience of a playwright who moved to Denver in the 1960s, and events played out more or less the way they are shown in the film, right down to the hidden body and gold medallion the child wore.

Coming more or less in the middle of Hollywood's haunted house/possession heyday -- "The Exorcist," "The Amityville Horror," "Poltergeist," etc. -- "The Changeling" is the stodgy uncle that wants to hang with the cool kids, knowing the words but not the music.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Video review: "Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

Some people were upset with me when I dubbed “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” the weakest film in the franchise. But I think it’s an easy call.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t like the movie. I surely do. I’ve adored all the Star Wars films on some level. Again: that doesn’t mean I turn a blind eye to their flaws.

The ninth entrée in the franchise introduces new characters, in addition to the ones we met in “The Force Awakens.” The two most notable newbies are Kelly Marie Tran as Rose, a mechanic with the rebellion who goes off on an (in the end, totally unnecessary) adventure with Finn (John Boyega), and Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo, who takes over leadership of the rebellion when Leia (Carrie Fisher) is laid up.

The plot is essentially one long chase, as the Empire (now called The First Order, but functionally identical) pursues the last remnants of the resistance across space, in a race that becomes a standoff. (Apparently, all large ships in this universe travel at the exact same sub-light speed.) Hothead pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is hatching all sorts of schemes to turn things around, but the lady leaders stay the course.

The real meat of the action takes place with proto-Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley), who seeks out self-exiled Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to beg him for help. But Luke has become disillusioned and despondent, refusing to join the cause… though he offers Rey a little light Jedi training.

Meanwhile, Darth Vader grandson/heir apparent Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey find themselves sharing a psychic bond through the Force. Their communication leads to an uncomfortable sense of attraction between the two, which will get played out when the pair is eventually presented to the new Emperor, Snoke (Andy Serkis).

That’s a lot of moving pieces -- without even bringing in Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), Yoda (Frank Oz), Maz (Lupia Nyong’o), sneering General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), cosmic lock-picker DJ (Benicio Del Toro) and a few others.

Writer/director Rian Johnson often struggles to formulate all the people and events into a cohesive narrative whole. At a smidge over 2½ hours, this is the longest “Star Wars” movie, and it could greatly have benefited with some tightening of the story.

Still, it’s an enjoyable bit of space opera, filled with massive special effects and action set pieces. The entertainment value is still very, very high. But I find it hilarious that people who love to rag on the “terrible prequels” aren’t willing to train the same level of scrutiny on these newer films.

As we’ve come to expect with “Star Wars” video release, bonus features are pretty spectacular.

These include a feature-length audio commentary track with director Johnson; deleted scenes; footage of Serkis’ on-set portrayal prior to the post-production digital makeover into Snoke; extended breakdowns of three key sequences; “Balance of the Force,” which explores the mythology of the Force; and “The Director and the Jedi,” a feature-length documentary on the making of the movie.



Thursday, March 22, 2018

Review: "Pacific Rim: Uprising"

I approached "Pacific Rim: Uprising" with a mix of fear and optimism. I absolutely adored the first film from five years ago, in which skyscraper-sized monsters and robots face off against each other. It was like turning the dial back to my childhood, watching Ultraman paste some prehistoric critter, but with 8,000 percent better production values.

But I was surprised a sequel was even being made. The first one did not do spectacularly well at the box office, though I think it did better on video. Director Guillermo Del Toro is not involved, other than the obligatory producer credit and presumed check, with TV/streaming veteran Steven S. DeKnight ("Daredevil") taking over the helm. He brought in his own writing team, none of whom worked on the first film, and shares a script credit himself.

All that is not exactly... reassuring.

As I settled in to watch, I was anticipating how the new set of filmmakers would address the obvious challenge of a sequel: how the world would suddenly have more jaegers, the giant metal machines controlled by twin human pilots, now that the kaiju creatures had all been defeated and the breach into their universe sealed at the end of the last movie.

After all, it's easy to come up with some science fiction-y reason why the breach could be reopened and new monsters roam the Earth. Less simple to explain how mammoth jaegers that probably cost hundreds of billions of dollars and years to build suddenly materialize, especially when they're no longer needed.

Curiously, the approach the creative team used to overcome this storytelling obstacle was... to just ignore it.

Yep. Really.

As the movie opens, it's 10 years later and there have been no new kaiju. The busted-up parts of civilization have been rebuilt and peace is at hand. And the reconstituted jaeger program is up and running smoothly with dozens of new models and pilot teams.

Wait, what?

Why the frick would nations devote large chunks of their economies to a military option that is now unnecessary? It's almost like the entire international community was anticipating a movie sequel.

It seems mostly what the new jaegers do is patrol junkyards of old jaegers to keep miscreants from stealing parts to build their own much smaller, crappier jaegers, which they then use to... well, we're not actually told what they do with them. Rob banks? Impress their neighbors? Guard still smaller junkyards against the possibility of even tinier scrap jaegers?

The whole concept is like its own infinity loop.

One of the rascals building their own jaegers is Amara Namani, a teenage castoff played by Cailee Spaeny, who looks like some studio chief hollered, "Get me a Hailee Steinfeld clone, but younger!" Her jaeger, which she has dubbed Scrapper, can roll himself into a ball and do all sorts of parkour-style flips and tricks.

In general, the jaegers look much less like the clanky robots built by humans from the first film, and more like free-flowing action heroes. Basically, the franchise has gone Transformers.

Amara runs in with Jake Pentacost (John Boyega, back to his hard-to-understand natural British accent), who from his name we know is the wayward son of Stacker Pentacost, the badass jaeger chief played by Idris Elba. He used to be in the program but got kicked out, spending his days hunting jaeger scrap to fund his partying. But much like Charlie Hunnan's Riley, he gets an improbable jump to the front of the line and finds himself back in the pilot's seat.

(Speaking of Riley, no word on why he's not in this movie. Spoiler: His partner, Mako Mori, gets one of those walk-on-and-promptly-die treatments.)

Scott Eastwood plays Nate, the new head jaeger ranger, who has history with Jake that will get played out in a lot of Y-chromosome quips and strutting. Amara joins the crew of cadets, who are a nice spectrum of brown skin tones, except for Victoria, the snarly Russian she clashes with. I learn Victoria is played by Ivanna Sakhno, after I had assumed the Olsen sisters had spontaneously created another sibling to keep he chain going.

The only characters from the first movie back in a meaningful way are the two dweeby scientists, Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day). Gottlieb is still working for the jaeger program, while Newt has sold out to be an expert with Shao Industries, whose imperious CEO (Tian Jing) wants to replace the jaeger pilots with remote-controlled substitutes.

The action scenes are still a lot of fun, and we get to see teams of jaegers go up against a group of kaiju, which isn't something we really got to see before. We get to ooh and ahh at all the new variants of monsters and robots. Disappointingly, I registered a steep drop in the level of kaiju blood 'n' guts compared to the original film.

"Pacific Rim: Uprising" isn't a terrible sequel, but one that wears its commerciality without much camouflage. It's pretty rare to make a great movie, have almost everybody involved in it leave and come up with a decent sequel. Especially when you don't even bother to explain the premise.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Review: "Isle of Dogs"

Watching trailers for “Isle of Dogs,” I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Now I’ve seen it… and I still don’t quite know what to make of it.

This weird, whimsical and often wonderful concoction from writer/director Wes Anderson is his second step into stop-motion animation after “Fantastic Mr. Fox” from 2009. A critical success but commercial flop, it intertwined Anderson’s sardonic, twee sensibilities with bright visuals and cuddly critters.

Having adored “Fox,” I had high hopes for “Dogs.” But it soon became clear after the opening minutes that we were in store for something decidedly different. Not awful, just… different.

Set against a Japanese backdrop in the fictional Prefecture of Kobayashi 20 years into the future, it’s about a city that has banished all its dogs to the distant island where they dump their trash. A 12-year-old, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), undertakes to rescue his beloved pet, Spots, instead falls in with a distaff crew of mutts, which sets off a whirlwind of adventure and political intrigue with Atari’s uncle, the mayor (Kunichi Nomura), as their nemesis.

(After his parents were killed, Atari was taken in by his “distant” uncle, one of the film’s running jokes.)

The canines all speak English (as translated from bark, an introductory scroll informs us) while the humans largely speak Japanese, usually without the benefit of subtitles or translation. So the proceedings often have a kabuki theater feel to them, aided by the percussion-heavy musical score by Alexandre Desplat, which employs traditional Japanese drums.

The dogs are all voiced by recognizable American actors, many of them Anderson favorites: Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, F. Murray Abraham, Harvey Keitel, Frances McDormand. Newbies to the Anderson troupe include Greta Gerwig, Bryan Cranston and Yoko Ono… yes, that Yoko.

The story starts out pretty simple, but grows increasingly complex. Atari crash-lands on the Isle of Trash (now renamed the Isle of Dogs), getting a propeller clutch stuck in his brain for his trouble. He’s taken in by a troupe of mutts, ostensibly led by Rex (Norton), though all critical decisions are put to a vote. They’re all former pets, except for Chief (Cranston), a mighty fighter with a surly attitude, especially toward humans.

“I bite,” he often growls.

They determine to help Atari find his long-lost pet, and set off to discover the unexplored mysteries of the island. Meanwhile, back on the mainland the mayor is accused by his scientist rival of various evil machinations, including manufacturing the “dog flu” and “snout fever” that served as the pretext to banish all the pooches in the first place. Tracy Walker (Gerwig), an exchange student from Ohio, rallies the student newspaper to take up the cause.

“Isle of Dogs” is an absolute visual marvel. Occasionally I even found myself so ensorcelled by the look of the film that I realized I hadn’t been following the dialogue so closely. The dogs and humans are simultaneously hyper-realistic and cartoony, with big, wet eyes that seem to stare into souls. I loved all the little old-timey animation flicks, like masses of string used to simulate smoke, or the way the dogs’ fur sways with just enough movement to make it believable.

Warning: This is definitely not a flick for kiddies. It carries a PG-13 rating, mostly for gross and/or graphic imagery of dogs eating or fighting. Some of the canines used to be the subject of gruesome scientific experiments, and there’s some stark imagery of them with missing limbs or eyes.

I enjoyed “Isle of Dogs,” as one of the most inventive and offbeat movie-going experiences I’ve had in a while. It’s nice to encounter a film so different there’s nothing to compare it to. If I have a substantial criticism, it’s that the movie could have benefitted from a pared-down storyline and cast -- too many extraneous humans in tale that’s all for the dogs.

Review: "Flower"

Zoey Deutsch gives a colorful, vibrant and ultimately wasted performance in "Flower," a movie that keeps steering into thematic dead ends.

She plays Erica, a 17-year-old wasting her life in a nonstop party with her closest buds (Maya Eshet and Dylan Gelula) doing the usual teen stuff -- roaming malls, taking selfies, imbibing chemicals they oughtn't to. Typical acting out, you might say, except they finance their exploits by enticing men into receiving oral sex from Erica, documenting it and then blackmailing them for dough.

Erica certainly doesn't lack gumption; as the story opens, they are executing their latest scam on no less than a deputy sheriff (Eric Edelstein) in his patrol vehicle. The man's abject humiliation as he hands over the cash from the ATM and begs them not to put the video online almost makes us feel genuinely sorry for him.


Does luring their targets into scuzzy/criminal behavior absolve Erica and company from their own scuzzy/criminal behavior? That would be an interesting subject to explore, but unfortunately director Max Winkler and his co-screenwriters, Matt Spicer and Alex McAuley, always seem to turn away from the harder questions, preferring to focus on the vagaries of Erica's moods and outbursts.

Erica and her mom (Kathryn Hahn) think they have a good relationship -- one of those "we're just two semi-crazy girls trying to get by!" kinda things. But Erica is a taker, treating every interaction as a transaction in which she must come out ahead. She's upset because mom has taken up with a monstrously "uncool" guy, Bob (Tim Heidecker), moving into their physical and emotional space.

Her own dad is currently incarcerated for some kind of casino business, and we sense she's more her father's daughter than her mother's.

Things grow worse when Bob's 18-year-old son, Luke (Joey Morgan), is released after a year in rehab. Erica, who uses her sexuality as the coin of the realm, is hoping for a hot future stepbrother she can carry on a shocking affair with. But she's miffed when Luke turns out to be timid, socially paralyzed and, worst of all, fat.

Erica's idea of comforting Luke after a panic attack is to offer -- to insist, actually -- on giving him a blowjob. When he refuses, she insults him as being either gay or under-endowed. A real winner, this one.

Part of the film's failing is never providing us a wide enough opening into Erica's vulnerabilities, assuming she has any cracks at all.

Eventually, Erica and Luke warm up to each other a bit more, and Luke opens up about his harrowing journey. I don't want to give away too much, but suffice it to say that it involves Will (Adam Scott), the "old hot guy" -- he appears to be in this 30s -- who Erica and her friends have been crushing on while hanging out at the bowling alley where he plays in a league.

At least, we think they like him. In Erica's world, where nothing is taken at face value, you can never tell if something that falls out of her mouth is meant the way it seems. Often not even by Erica herself.

Things go from there. This movie is billed as a comedy/drama, but it's neither particularly funny or momentous. Even at a brisk 93 minutes, it often drags.

I enjoyed Deutsch's energy and Morgan's genuineness. I'd love to watch their two characters in almost any other story, to see how they'd fare.

It was also a bit interesting to see Scott, who's made his career playing earnest dweebs, get a meatier role. We're never quite certain about Will, whether he's really a disturbed individual or an unfairly maligned one. Erica vacillates between trying to entrap him and being authentically attracted to him.

The final act goes on a bit of a bender, which felt more like where the screenwriters wanted to take their story rather than where it organically would go. "Flower" is a story about a wild teen sexpot blowing past boundaries -- the sort of thing an all-male creative team dreams up and then doesn't know what to do with.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Video review: "Downsizing"

If they gave out awards for most promising films that come out during the awards cycle and turn out to be a colossal disappointment, I’ve no doubt “Downsizing” would be a top contender to win.

Starring Oscar winners Matt Damon and Christoph Waltz, from director Alexander Payne (“The Descendants”) and frequent script collaborator Jim Taylor (“Sideways”), both Academy Award owners themselves, “Downsizing” looked to be a pointed satire about consumerism and American obsession with status.

Matt Damon plays ordinary schlep Paul Safranek, who volunteers to go through the process of “minimization” along with his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig). This is a relatively new procedure developed in Norway where humans are shrunk down by 99%, so they consume much less food, water and space, thus putting the planet on a stronger path to a stable environment.

Of course, that’s not how it’s sold to the public. It turns out that it pays to “get small” -- quite literally. Like a lot of middle-class Americans, Paul and Audrey are struggling to get by financially. But it turns out that little folks live like kings, because of some screwy economic calculations that are deliberately left a little fuzzy.

Go little, retire early and trade in your hovel for a McMansion! Sounds great, right?

Things go south quickly for Paul when (spoiler alert) Audrey gets cold feet right before the procedure, and he’s left lonely, divorced and working in a lowly call center for little folk. His next door neighbor, Dusan (Waltz), lives the high life filled with parties and connections.

Through him Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a political activist-turned-maid who opens up his eyes to the economic inequity at the heart of the minimization racket. The haves live the life of luxury they don’t deserve, while people like Tran can’t even get a decent prosthetic for her missing leg.

(Accenting the split between the ultra-rich and those who serve them is always an odd ploy coming from mainstream Hollywood, where multimillionaires are waited on hand and foot by subsidence help. But let’s move on.)

Things get really strange when the story takes the trio to Norway, where we meet some of the scientists who first developed the breakthrough and are now having second thoughts.

The first act of “Downsizing” is fairly smart and filled with funny observations. But right at the point where Paul is abandoned by his spouse, the movie jumps completely off the tracks and never finds its way back.

Lesson: if you’re going to hire Kristen Wiig, don’t give her the boot 30 minutes into the film.

Video extras are a might slim, and are limited to the Blu-ray version: the DVD contains none. They consist of six making-of documentary shorts: “Working with Alexander,” “The Cast,” “A Visual Journey,” “A Matter of Perspective,” “That Smile” and “A Global Concern.”



Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review: "Tomb Raider"

 I hadn't even seen "Tomb Raider" yet and I was already sick of hearing about it.

How they translated the video game series into a rebooted film franchise for a new generation. About all the nifty stunts and set pieces. How tiny Swedish star Alicia Vikander worked out for months and subsisted on one of those fish-avocados-and-eggs diets in order to bulk up and get the prerequisite bumpy belly.

(I really don't know when in our popular culture bumpy bellies became a thing. It used to be you wanted to look trim and tight. Now we're supposed to want our stomachs to look rippled potato chips. Seems like a screwy contradiction, if you ask me.)

As a ciswhiteoldishmale, I've been reliably instructed that I'm not allowed to comment on women's bodies. Nuts to that. If you make a big-budget movie based on a game whose major appeal was a heroine who looked like a Victoria's Secret model, then her appearance is well within the bounds of discussion -- especially when it impacts how the film plays.

This is decidedly different take on Lara Croft than the Angelina Jolie movie from 2001. Say what you will about that movie, but Jolie seemed more than physically capable. Could take it, and dish it out, like any male action hero counterpart. In a word, she was tough.

Vikander, in a word, is frail. Even with the aforementioned buffing-up, her look is still more ballerina than badass. Her Lara gets her ass kicked a lot in the movie, almost entirely by male combatants (with the exception of a female sparring partner near the beginning, who also wipes the floor with her). And she emits a lot of girlish squeaks and dainty yelps in the process.

So it's a much more vulnerable version of the character. I guess the idea for director Roar Uthaug and screenwriters Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons was to have Lara more relatable. But the overall effect is to make her come across as weak.

Arriving in the footsteps of the physically and thematically muscular "Wonder Woman," this feels like something of a retreat.

Lara isn't even a real adventurer as the story opens, just an orphaned young woman working as a bicycle courier and doing a little kickboxing on the side. She's a sadgirl because her beloved daddy (Dominic West) disappeared mysteriously seven years ago, leaving her with regrets -- along with a massive fortune and estate, if only she'll sign the papers declaring him legally dead.

This she has refused to do, because... well, there is no good reason. Only movie people would toil, unable to even pay their gym fees, when there's billions at your beckoning.

Anyway, she discovers that father was secretly an Indiana Jones-type archeologist. When he went missing, he was working on the mystery of an ancient Japanese queen named Himiko, a sorceress who could kill with just a touch. Her tomb is shrouded in secrecy on a mystery island, and the elder Croft was trying to prevent an evil group called the Order of Trinity from finding it and exploiting her wretched powers.

In his death decree, daddy Croft instructs Lara to destroy all his research so as not to endanger the fate of the entire world. Instead, she carefully gathers it all up and books a ship so she can sail to the island and deliver it right to the bad guys.

This Lara Croft may be tight in the abs, but she's soft in the head.

Walton Goggins plays Vogel, the heavy leading a force of mercenaries and slave labor on the island. Unable to escape himself until he's completed his mission, Vogel stumbles about in a fog, occasionally shooting someone to make a point. Daniel Wu plays Lu Ren, the helpful ship captain who becomes Lara's henchman.

"Tomb Raider" is a decently entertaining movie, especially in the second half as they make their way into the tomb and encounter all sorts of nasty traps, tricks and puzzles. I never played any of the video games, but those who have tell me the film's plot follows the recent reboot of the game fairly faithfully.

I especially liked one river-born sequence, where Lara is in danger of being swept over a massive waterfall, and uses the carcass of a rotted B-17 bomber as her (rapidly deteriorating) lifeline.

I'm not sure we needed a wimpier version of Lara Croft, or indeed if we needed another film version of the video game at all. Energetic but unnecessary, it sits there like a giant meatball, simply existing.

Review: "7 Days in Entebbe"

It is a strange truism of history that we better remember the disasters than the victories. At least, on a smaller scale. The really huge successes like, say, the evacuation of Dunkirk spawn reams of books and even an Oscar-nominated film.

But the rescue of a hundred mostly Jewish hostages from terrorist hijackers? That sort of thing of thing tends to recede into the ocean of the collective consciousness.

I’ll admit I was not very aware of the Air France flight hijacking of 1976. True, I was a small child at the time. But it’s inarguable that it doesn’t have the sort of profile in the public record that the Munich Olympics kidnappings or the United Airlines Flight 93 hijacking on 9/11 do.

(Both examples got their own major motion picture adaptation, by the way.)

But Operation Thunderbolt, in which Israeli special forces mounted a daring rescue at Uganda’s largest airport, is one of those quiet watershed moments that deserves its own cinematic commemoration. It arrives in the form of the thoughtful and suspenseful “7 Days in Entebbe.”

The rescue became the model for the militaries of other nations, including the U.S., to study for successful operations of this type. It marked the moment when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and other senior Israeli officials started to back away from their policy of never negotiating with their enemies.

The operation was also notable for the single Israeli soldier who was killed being the older brother of Benjamin Netanyahu, the current hard-line leader of Israel.

Director José Padilha and screenwriter Gregory Burke approach the historical events at eye level, showing us how the week transpired from the sides of the hostages, the airline pilots, the Israeli leaders mulling over whether to give into demands and the soldiers tasked with planning and executing a bold solution.

Perhaps controversially, they also include the terrorists in the equation, depicting them not as killing automatons, but human beings with doubts, convictions and complexities.

Daniel Brühl and Rosamund Pike are, in fact, the main characters as Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann, two German revolutionaries responsible for leading the actual hijacking of the flight from Tel Aviv, diverting it to Entebbe, Uganda.

They are doing this out of solidarity with Palestinians, and in fact the major demand of the terrorists was the release of 50 or so mostly PLO prisoners held by Israel. They fret about being viewed as Nazis, since roughly a third of the passengers are Jew -- especially if it becomes necessary to kill the hostages.

They wrestle with their conscious, especially after they arrive in Uganda and the Arabs take over, separating the Jews from the rest of the hostages, some of whom are released at the urging of Ugandan leader Idi Amin (a terrific Nonso Anozie), who collaborated with the terrorists.

In the Israeli corridors of power, Prime Minister Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) vies with Defense Minister Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) over whether to negotiate with terrorists or attempt a rescue. It’s an interesting power play, as Peres urges the attack not only because he believes it’s the right thing to do, but also because its failure would likely push Rabin out of office.

“7 Days in Entebbe” is an often gripping movie that tells about a pivotal moment in time that’s been largely forgotten, and the very real people caught up in it -- both the tragedy and the triumph.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review: "Love, Simon"

So here is the first truly great and important movie of the year, and no, it’s not the one about the guy in the black cat suit who thinks he’s so cool.

“Love, Simon” reminds me a lot of those John Hughes high school movies from the ‘80s. They seemed like pop confections at first glance, filled with love triangles and teen angst. But they had deeper themes going on just behind the surface, about how we all feel alienated and alone.

This movie is a little more conspicuous in its ambitions, starring Nick Robinson as Simon Spier, a high school senior who’s on the verge of coming out as gay. He gains the courage to do so after striking up an anonymous correspondence with another student who posted to their school’s message board, and over time finds himself falling for this unseen lover.

Very Cyrano de Bergerac.

Part of the fantasy is that Simon envisions different boys he encounters to be “Blue,” his pen pal’s pseudonym. Each leads to a dead end, which depresses Simon but also spurs him to the next romantic bloom.

Meanwhile, he finds himself unwittingly pushing away his three best friends: Leah (Katherine Langford), best pals since kindergarten; Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), an exuberant soccer star; and Abby (Alexandra Shipp), the new girl at school whom they’ve adopted into their little clique. Complicating things further are some unseen love lines between the foursome that will come into play.

It’s based on the novel, “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” by Becky Albertalli -- which is a much better title -- adapted for the screen by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, and directed by Greg Berlanti.

“Love, Simon” wears the clothes of a high school comedy, and indeed it’s often a ferociously funny film. But it’s also wise and perceptive, treating its largely teen cast as imperfect individuals rather than idealized or contemptible caricatures.

One of the things I really admired about the movie is that almost everybody in it comes across as looking foolish at some point or another, but also has moments of nobility and grace. Even Martin, the socially inept heel who threatens to out Simon after intercepting his emails -- played with unnerving, offbeat charisma by Logan Miller -- gets a turn to be the cool kid.

Likewise, Simon’s dad is played by Josh Duhamel, a jokey, ex-jock type who we suspect wouldn’t be too receptive to having a gay son. They get a scene together that left puddles under my seat. Jennifer Garner is the mom, who’s more serious and centered.

Tony Hale turns up as Mr. Worth, the incredibly exuberant vice principal at the school, constantly forcing uncomfortable connections with students in between confiscating their cellphones. Yet he projects an aura of desperation beneath the punch lines, and we can easily envision what his own high school experience was like.

“Love, Simon” is a lovely movie because it accepts that everybody feels weird and awkward as a teenager, especially when we’re negotiating the first stumbling steps in the dance of love, and even more so when we find our affections flowing in a direction not always deemed socially acceptable.

Here’s a film that simply says it’s OK to be young and gay and in love... even if you don’t know exactly who you’re in love with just yet.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Reeling Backward: "The Outlaw" (1943)

As my friend and colleague Bob Bloom best put it, "The Outlaw" is a movie famous for two things -- and neither one of them has to do with the film's inherent attributes.

Literally the entire iconography of the movie lies with Jane Russell's ample bosom. The film was actually shot in 1941 but didn't get a released until 1943 after director/producer Howard Hughes tangled with the production code stewards. And even that theatrical run was only for one week, after Hughes ginned up a controversy to create demand for the movie, which the censors quickly shut down. It didn't actually see wide release until 1946, and became a box office smash.

I've always wondered how Russell felt about the hullabaloo from her first movie role. "The Outlaw" made her an overnight star and national sex symbol. Imagine having everyone in America looking at and thinking about your boobs. 

If you remember "The Aviator," you know that Hughes became obsessed with displaying Russell's breasts in the movie, even going so far as to invent a cantilevered bra with steel rods to push up her cleavage. Splashy posters showing her lying in hay with her shirt spread wide open -- and, in friskier versions, ripped into see-through holes -- instantly became part of the national popular culture.

That's why I was surprised to watch the film for the first time, and realize that moment never actually occurs in the movie. There is a scene in a barn, but she's never just lying there with a heaving chest. In fact, Russell's bust is actually fairly demure through most of the film's run time, though it gets a little more display toward the end.

What gives? How can a movie famous for one thing -- OK, two things -- not actually contain that which made it such a spectacle?

The answer is simpler than you'd think. Hughes' brassiere contraption was horribly uncomfortable, so Russell took it off a few minutes after first trying it on. She simply stuffed her own bra with tissue and told Hughes she was wearing his invention.

The garment now lies in a museum somewhere, a testament to Hughes' penchant for showmanship and flimflam. How delicious that the ultimate con man was conned by a stubborn starlet... and never even knew it.

Putting aside all the boobage lore, what we're left with is an incredibly trashy B-movie Western with solid production values. It's a complete mishmash of the historical record, less mythology than flight of fantasy.

In this story (screenplay by Jules Furthman), Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday are old rapscallion friends who become enemies after the intrusion of Billy the Kid. Now a sheriff, Garrett chases the pair around for awhile, as the old outlaw and the young one are constantly on the verge of drawing guns on each other. Garrett kills Doc after the latter refuses to draw on him, and then lets Billy go so he can ride off into the sunset with Russell's character, a tart named Rio.

Of course, in real life it was Garrett who pursued and killed Billy the Kid, notoriously shooting him dead while hiding in the shadows. And he and Holliday never even met, the movie witlessly transposing his famous friendship with Wyatt Earp for an invented one with Garrett.

"The Outlaw" was only the second of two movies Hughes ever directed, the first being the silent film about WWI pilots, "Hell's Angels." Whatever his gifts as an inventor and showman, the man had a pretty thumbless grasp for crafting scenes or getting halfway competent performances out of his cast.

According to Jane Russell's autobiography, Hughes never personally directed any of her scenes, leaving most of the on-set work to subordinates. Howard Hawks also reputedly lent a hand behind the camera.

Most of the movie was actually already in the can when Hughes brought in famed cinematographer Gregg Toland ("Citizen Kane") to replace the first DP, and it was reshot entirely. In between the film's initial production in 1941 and eventual wide release five years later, the actors were dragged back several times to reshoot scenes or add new ones, often to amp up the film's sexual overtones.

There are two implied rapes of Rio by Billy, played with comic ineptitude by Jack Beutel, who was also making his film debut. The barn scene where Russell supposedly splayed her chest is actually one where Rio attacks Billy for killing her brother. After overpowering her -- in a not entirely convincing fight scene, as the boyishly narrow-hipped Beutel was about the same size as Russell -- Billy lies on top of her as the scene fades to black.

The second instance is even more troublesome. After Rio nurses Billy back to health and they begin a tepid romance, the relationship turns sour after he believes she has betrayed him to Garrett. Contemptuously calling her "darling," they have this exchange in her bedroom:
Rio: "What are you waiting for? Go ahead."
Billy: "Say, that sounds real nice. I like to hear you ask for it. Keep it up. Beg some more."
Rio: "What would you like me to say?"
Billy: "Well, you might say, 'Please,' very sweetly."
Rio: (Scornfully) "Please."
Billy: (Approaching her menacingly) "Will you keep your eyes open?"
Rio: "Yes."
Billy: "Will you look right at me while I do it?"
(The pair trades intense looks as the music swells.)
In the parlance of Hollywood in that day, this would be read as Rio giving into Billy's smoldering manly manliness, rather than coerced sexual assault. In today's #MeToo lights, though, their up-and-down affair looks much less egalitarian.

 No matter how you want to read it, though, one has to admit it's one of the most overt references to the sex act you'll find in a Golden Age flick.

The film is almost saved by the presence of a pair of crafty veteran character actors for the other  main roles, Thomas Mitchell as Pat Garrett and Walter Huston as Doc Holliday. It seems clear the two were left to wing their own characterizations, and operate somewhat on autopilot.

Mitchell, best known as the bumbling Uncle Billy from "It's a Wonderful Life" and the drunken doctor from "Stagecoach," plays Garrett as a somewhat ridiculous figure, an outlaw-turned-lawman who pursues his new vocation with a cantankerous intensity underlining his desire to redeem his former life. A merely competent gunman, he knows he's outmatched on the draw by either Billy or Doc, and is left to use his wiles and subterfuge to gain the upper hand.

Huston, an engineer who turned to the stage and begat an entire filmmaking dynasty -- son John, grandkids Anjelica and Danny, great-grandson Jack -- is a mix of coyness and bombast as Doc. He has a favorite horse, a little roan named Red, that he and Billy are fighting over possession of for most of the movie.

There's clearly a part of him that sees himself in that young braggart, and wants to shape that. At the same time, Doc is a famous gunman facing the twilight of his career -- Huston was about 60 when the film was shot, his ample abdomen straining against twin holsters -- and isn't about to accept guff from any man.

The story is a confused litany of generic Western elements: faceless marauding Indians, subservient Mexicans, whipped-together posses and, of course, face-offs with pistols. I will say that the camera work is among the most convincing I've seen at depicting the speed at which gunslingers could clear their holsters.

"The Outlaw" has the rare distinction of being a film that's more exalted than it is remembered. People recall the controversy and nascent eroticism that made it famous. But they forget the squalid, grimy Western that lies beneath the timeless façade.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Video review: "The Shape of Water"

One of the best thing about Guillermo del Toro’s movies is they’re so difficult to cram into any box. Is it a horror film? Science fiction? Romance? Historical parable? Fairy tale? Musical comedy?

All of the above, I’d say. After its impressive win at the Academy Awards last week, “The Shape of Water” will surely go down as one of the kookiest Best Picture winners ever.

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute woman who works as a cleaning lady in a secret government laboratory circa the early 1960s. Her world is tightly bookended: the routine of her job, her friendship with Giles (Richard Jenkins), the gentle illustrator who lives next door, and another with Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who works with her in the dank underground facility.

One day, a strange aquatic man is brought into the lab, where he’s prodded and tortured like a curious science experiment. But Elisa befriends the creature, and even learns how to communicate with it using sign language. She discovers there is a gentleness behind his fearsome exterior, which is like a cross between the Creature from the Black Lagoon and a space alien.

Hawkins, Spencer and Jenkins all received acting nominations at the Oscars, and the movie could easily have gotten three more. Michael Stuhlbarg plays the chief scientist with conflicting impulses and loyalties; Michael Shannon is chilling as the military man running the operation, who sees the aquatic man as just another fish to be cut up; and Doug Jones, who elegantly plays the creature with the help of an elaborate costume and some CGI.

Perhaps the thing I liked best about “The Shape of Water” is that it manages to not only incorporate these six characters into the story, but it actually lets the audience follow each of them for a while, seeing how they became the people they are and how they will interact with each other, in commune or in conflict.

Bonus features are decent, but not great. They consist of five making-of documentary featurettes: “A Fairy Tale for Troubled Times,” “Anatomy of a Scene: Prologue,” “Anatomy of a Scene: The Dance,” “Shaping the Waves: A Conversation with James Jean” amd “Guillermo del Toro’s Master Class.”



Thursday, March 8, 2018

Review: "Gringo"

"Gringo" is a strange movie, and a hard one to review. I didn't particularly like it. Didn't particularly hate it, either. If there's a cinematic equivalent of eating a sustaining meal without ever really tasting your food, this is it.

I think it was going for a mix of comedy, action and intrigue, perhaps along the lines of "Midnight Run." Certainly, it did not achieve this.

The most notable thing about the movie is how forgettable it is... quite literally. I saw the film last night, got busy with other things, and forgot that I had to write this review.

Charlize Theron is pretty much the only thing interesting or compelling about it. She plays Elaine Markinson, the co-president of a shady pharmaceutical company that is developing a pill that copies the psychotropic effects of marijuana, while also playing footsie with the Mexican cartel on the side. There's a scene where they pitch the drug to an even bigger company, talking about how rapidly marijuana is becoming legalized.

I kept waiting for someone to ask why if pot is heading toward universal legality, anyone needs to buy a pill that simulates it?

Anyway, Elaine is a real piece of work, a land shark with absolutely no regard for others. Swims, eats, and f*cks, baby.

There's a pivotal scene where she berates herself for momentarily showing signs of basic humanity, which she interprets as weakness. A former beauty queen who enthusiastically wields sex as a weapon, Elaine divides the world into winners, and everybody else. "Guilt is for losers" is her mantra.

Her partner is Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton), her gender opposite but spiritual mirror, so there's no surprise the two are carrying on an affair. Though the word "affair" connotes some sort of emotional connection, of which neither is capable. Richard is the type of guy who, when he's thirsty, doesn't bother asking his secretary to fetch him something, simply bellowing into the intercom, "I'm thirsty."

The ostensible main character is Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo), a Nigerian immigrant who has discovered the American Dream isn't what it's cracked up to be. Married to a spendthrift (Thandie Newton, utterly wasted) who has driven them deep into debt, Harold is the quintessential white knight, a guy who believes that those who do good will find it returned to them.

Harold believes Richard is his friend, who gave him a job out of kindness. He couldn't be more wrong.

The running joke is that everybody in the movie is on some level out to get Harold. He's the patsy, the pushover, the naïf, the guy who's kept in the dark until it's time to pin something on him. Even one character, who shows up rather late in the game and whose mission is to save Harold, ends up trying to turn the screws to his advantage.

Harold has been making regular trips down to Mexico to oversee the company's operation there. Some inventory has turned up missing, which concerns him. He's also heard the company, Prometheon, may be swallowed up by a much larger competitor and he'll likely be out of work. Still, he soldiers on, doing good by everyone he interacts with -- even bringing Chicago barbecue to their head of security south of the border (Yul Vazquez).

What he doesn't know is Richard and Elaine have been secretly selling part of their stock to a Mexican drug lord. On the latest trip down south, things go awry, some blood is spilled and Harold is made wise to all those who have betrayed him.

Finally growing some moxie, Harold remembers the company has a kidnapping insurance policy for their executives, and hatches a scheme to blackmail them for $5 million. But it turns out Harold is worth more to them dead than a live, and soon it's all chase-chase and bang-bang.

Sitting on the sidelines of the story, without ever really providing a clear view of their role in it, are Amanda Seyfried and Harry Treadaway as Sunny and Miles, American tourists who have an ulterior purpose for their trip to Mexico.

Sharlto Copley turns up as a mercenary hired to rescue, then kill, Harold. He's recently had a change of heart and vocation in his own life, but we'll see if his newly kinder, gentler instincts will prevail.

Directed by Nash Edgerton (Joel's brother) from a script by Matthew Stone and Anthony Tambakis, "Gringo" is the sort of cinematic fodder that arrives in between behemoth releases, and is quickly crushed and forgotten. And probably deserves to be.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Review: "A Wrinkle in Time"

What an awful and disjointed mess.

I never read the popular children's novel by Madeleine L'Engle (or even knew it existed, for that matter). But any movie should be able to stand on its own from its source material, especially one aimed at a YA audience of 9- to 13-year-olds. Instead, we get a big-budget movie that requires a written program and screen subtitles just to approach basic comprehensibility.

Directed by Ava DuVernay ("Selma") from a screenplay by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, "A Wrinkle in Time" is the story of a brave, precocious girl who goes on spiritual and inter-dimensional trip across the universe in search of her long-lost father, a dreamer and voyager, who abandoned the family out of a sense of higher purpose.

(If that sounds like it has a more than passing resemblance to the plot of "Interstellar," that's because it does. One wonders if this movie could exist without that one, or that movie could exist without the book. But that's one for the philosophers and/or copyright lawyers to ponder.)

The film is getting most of its attention for the starring role of Oprah Winfrey as the chief of "the Missuses," odd interstellar beings easily identifiable by their pancake makeup, kooky elaborate costumes and bedazzled faces and hair. As Mrs. Which, Winfrey wears what appears to be a cross between a suit of armor and Cinderella's ballroom gown, jeweled eyebrows and an albino wig of sea foam swirls.

For most of her scenes, Mrs. Which materializes in an outlandishly outsized form, so she's literally towering above the other characters, delivering pronouncements from on high like a beneficent god-queen. I realize that's already how a large chunk of our population views Winfrey, so it will likely not seem out of place to them.

Though, in keeping with the broadcasting titan's self-love ethos, Mrs. Which admonishes one of her lessers that there is 'no such thing as the wrong size' -- which is something you can get away with saying if you are a billionaire who has literally been every size.

Her sisters/followers are Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who always seems a little dazed and is constantly reciting famous quotes -- with attribution! -- and Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), who appears to be the novice of the trio, having been assigned to help out Meg Murray (Storm Reid), the story's protagonist.

The Missuses actually disappear about halfway through the movie, leaving the kids in charge. Meg has become moody and angry in the four years since her dad vanished, claiming it's possible to bend space and time with the help of a Tesseract. It's unclear if this is a physical object or a term for using one's mind, since the act of wrinkling the cosmos is also used as a verb "to tesser."

Conjugate that, kiddies!

Her adopted 6-year-old brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), is supposed to be some kind of pint-sized science genius, although with his chirpy voice shouting most of his dialogue at parakeet octaves, I'll have to take the filmmakers' word that what he had to say was smart. He comes along for the trip, for reasons that remain unclear.

Even murkier are the motivations of Calvin (Levi Miller), a dreamy boy who's nice and supportive to everyone. His job is basically to just stand around and tell Meg how great she is. In most movies, Calvin and Meg would end up as a cute teen couple, but despite some moony looks passing back and forth, there's barely even a supportive hug.

Calvin is not so much a character as a Beta Male fantasy of what 12-year-old girls think the perfect boy is supposed to be like, at least until they get to high school and dump him for the football jock or the parking-lot pothead.

Anyway, they visit various fantastical-looking worlds filled with flying flowers and other CGI curiosities, and at one point Whatsit transforms into a flat, furry flying creature that looks like a vegan version of the critter from "The Neverending Story."

There's also some kind of evil force spreading across the universe, known simply as the It, which I thought we had all clearly established was an underground clown that either kills children or makes them have group sex with each other.

Zach Galifianakis turns up as the Happy Medium, who's some kind of lonely guru; Chris Pine is Meg's dad, sporting Hollywood hair that looks short but droops down past the cheekbones when it gets mussed; Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the mom, consigned to just looking smashing and doing nothing; and Michael Peña plays a guy on a beach who seems helpful but really has his mind on one thing, which either makes him the villain or every single teenage boy ever, who wouldn't be caught dead buying a ticket for this movie.

"A Wrinkle in Time" is like a safe acid trip for youngsters, full of color and music and powerful females and guys who know enough to get out of the way of the ladies.

Monday, March 5, 2018

#Oscars90 reaction

They started the 90th Academy Awards ceremony a half-hour earlier but still didn't wrap things up until nearly midnight. I'm an Oscars junkie, but four hours is just too damn long for an awards show. Suggested areas to cut:
  • Let the winners ramble in. But pare down the presenter banter. Especially when only about 50% of the jokes land. Think Harrison Ford: walk out, a line or two introducing the category, then reel off the nominees.
  • Any presenter who appears to be altered/nervous/insane/senile. Yeah, I'm lookin' at you, Wes Studi...
  • Full-on Best Song performances. I'd prefer a montage of the actual theatrical version of the song played against footage from its film. Maybe one minute each. This would have the benefit of eliminating horrendously off-key live performances by stars who don't sound so great when they're not in a recording studio getting 30 takes for each phrase. 
  • Gimmicky jokes that take 10+ minutes to execute, like having stars go next door to shoot hot dogs at "just folks" so they can be appropriately dazzled by having showbiz gods in their midst. 
Overall, I was pretty happy with how the awards played out. Not a whole lot of surprises... which is in of itself, something of a surprise. I was planning on at least one Mark Rylance-style out-of-the-blue win.

I managed to run the table in my predictions in the "major" categories (Pictures, Director, screenplays, all four acting awards) but didn't do so great among the more technical awards. I got 15 out of 24 categories correct, which is about my average.

Short films continue to be my bane, missing on all three. In my defense, these are notoriously hard to predict as they're usually not screened for general audiences, and there's little buzz about them in the run-up to the Oscars. There's also no preliminarily awards (SAG, Golden Globes) with short film categories to make it easier. As opposed to, say, the Director's Guild Award, which almost always predicts the Oscar winner.

As often seems to be the case, I had the luck of having my preferred film win in a category in which I predicted another movie to win. Thus I was very pleased to have my favorite of 2018, "Blade Runner 2049," walk away with two wins for Visual Effects and Cinematography. Roger Deakins, arguably the greatest living D.P., finally got an Oscar after 14 tries. And it wasn't just a "it's his turn" gimme: no other film approached the visual splendor of "Blade Runner 2049."

There were a handful of head-scratchers, though. I thought "The Silent Child" the weakest of the live-action shorts (thought it was still good). Similarly, I felt "Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405" to be the least deserving of the documentary shorts. "Remember Me" is a rather forgettable Best Song standard bearer. I still contend "Icarus" is a rather disjointed documentary.

As far as the speeches go, there were some good ones and some OK ones. No instant classics like Matthew McConaughey's stem-winder a while back, though Frances McDormand came closest. She was brave and angry and true and genuine. And she got millions of people to Google "inclusion rider," only to find very little available online. I bet there's a lot more information out there today.

In terms of the politics, I actually thought most of the ceremony hit a nice balance between indignation, humor and righteousness. Nothing too egregious. About the only bit I didn't care for was Emma Stone introducing the director nominees as "four women and Greta Gerwig," because that's deliberately denigrating four artists at the expense of another one. And that's with Gergwig as my preferred pick to win that category.

Speaking of which, I am disappointed that "Lady Bird," my #2 film of the year, got blanked on wins, though I wasn't surprised by it. I thought Gerwig had a shot at Original Screenplay, but the cultural impact of "Get Out" was bound to prevail. The one that truly hurts is Laurie Metcalf losing Supporting Actress to Allison Janney. Janney was fine in a broadly written comedic relief role. But Metcalf really got down in to the bones of her character.

A lot of people seem to favor Jimmy Kimmel as host, but I'm rather indifferent. I'd like him more of he stuck to zingers and stopped trying to do comedic set-pieces, like the theater visit or the jet ski giveaway. My take on emceeing is you're there to facilitate the ceremony, not try to recreate a version of your own thing on somebody else's dime. Personally, I'd give the job to Billy Crystal until they have to roll him out on a stretcher.

It'll be interesting to see how "The Shape of Water" holds up as a Best Picture winner. I adored it, but it's a very atypical pick for an Academy that tends to look stiff, serious historical pieces, with something like "The King's Speech" having the classic Oscar pedigree.

"Shape" is difficult to even pigeonhole -- is it a horror film? Fantasy? Romance? Comedy? Musical? Historical parable? A bit of all of them, I'd say, on top of being a magnificent exploration of not one but six or seven characters. The love for Guillermo Del Toro was palpable in that room, and I think it's genuine respect for an artist who makes movies unlike anybody else's.

(Well, let's see how that plagiarism lawsuit turns out...)

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Video review: "Thor: Ragnarok"

“Thor: Ragnarok” is the franchise’s full-flip dive into comedy mode, despite the storyline based on the fabled end-times apocalypse of the Norse gods. It’s rather an incongruous fit -- imagine a Biblical story set to the hilarious stylings of the Crucifixion -- but it’s hard to deny the sheer entertainment might of this movie.

Chris Hemsworth returns as the god of thunder, who’s brought low by the apparent death of his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and the revival of his evil sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), from eons of well-deserved imprisonment.

In short order she defeats Thor and his occasionally-do-well brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) -- destroying Thor’s mythic hammer in the process -- takes over their home world of Asgard and leaves the brothers banished to a far corner of the galaxy. They spend much of the movie trapped on the planet of Sakaar, where other civilizations dump their garbage, be it hazardous materials or underperforming life forms.

There the kooky Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) holds reign, overseeing the gladiatorial games that form Sakaar’s chief form of entertainment. Thor is quickly conscripted into the arena, where he encounters an old pal in the form of the Hulk, who sporadically reverts to his milder human version, Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).

New characters include Tessa Thompson as a bounty hunter with a secret link to Asgard; Karl Urban as Skurge, Hela’s right-hand henchman; and Korg, a sweetly dim rock-like creature surviving in the gladiator ranks, who’s performed via voice and motion capture by Taika Waititi, who also directed the film.

(Korg’s scaly, rocky epidermis is so convincing, it becomes clear to me that all previous attempts to create the Thing in Fantastic Four projects must have been deliberately tanked.)

Of course, it’s all building up to another face-off with Hela, who coos and vamps like Greta Garbo given the full super-villain treatment.

With its fantastical science fiction backdrop and rain of funny one-liners, “Thor: Ragnarok” is a gleeful entry to the Marvel Comics Universe that doesn’t really make sense, or need to.

Bonus features are quite expansive. There is a director’s commentary track, deleted and extended scenes, gag reel, a new short film that gives clues to the Grandmaster’s life in exile, and featurettes focusing on the powerful female characters, the world of Sakaar, a tongue-in-cheek look at Korg and more.

Digital exclusives add more deleted scenes and “Evolution of Thor and Hulk’s Bromance,” which pretty much tells you all you need to know.