Sunday, April 29, 2018

Video review: "12 Strong"

War films don’t generally score much of an impact in movie theaters these days. Along with Westerns, they’ve fallen out of favor as our culture increasingly favors hipster dweebs over old-school examples of manliness. I’m closer to dweeb than cowboy myself, but I can still recognize the loss in our cinematic richness.

“12 Strong” stars Christopher Hemsworth and Michael Shannon in the true story of the very first ground troops sent into Afghanistan after 9/11. Those references you heard at the time about soldiers on horses taking on Russian-made tanks? That was these guys.

It’s a rousing war picture that also has some historical lessons to impart about culture clash. The Taliban enemy, and to a large extent even their nascent allies, came from a tradition of embracing an honorable death, but also of lots of infighting and internal strife. The Horse Soldiers, as they came to be known, were Army special forces, spent as much time preventing civil war as taking on the terrorists.

Hemsworth is Mitch Nelson, captain of his elite team, who has a lot of sense but not much in-combat experience. Shannon plays Cal Spencer, the grizzled noncom who acts as his right-hand man and subtle mentor.

Rounding out the cast are Michael Peña as another savvy veteran, William Fitchtner as the ops commander and Rob Riggle -- best known for his comedy but a real-life Marine -- as Nelson’s direct superior.

The movie’s a bit too long (most are these days, it seems), with director Nicolai Fuglsig growing a little too enamored of lengthy battles in which bullets fly and cameras whiz around the action. Still, it’s a solid war movie in a time when such things are rarely even made, let alone any good.

Perhaps owing to its middling box office performance, the film is being issued on video with a modicum of bonus features. Available only on the Blu-ray combo pack, they consist of two featurettes:

“12 Strong: The Making of an Impossible Mission”
“Monumental Effort: Building America’s Response Monument”



Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Review: "Avengers: Infinity War"

We’re 20 years and more than 50 movies into the renaissance of cinematic superheroes, when you count the various iterations of Marvel Comics and the handful of DC. It’s usually a time when middle age sets in, a sort of creative malaise where stars age out of their roles, studios grow covetous of their cash cows and the storytelling inevitably suffers.

Caution, and reliance on tried-and-true formula, becomes the name of the game.

Then here comes “Avengers: Infinity War” to blow everything up in ways we completely didn’t expect or, indeed, would have said could never happen if foretold to us. Watching it, I kept saying to myself, “Well, there’s no way they’re going to go there,” and then they went there, and then they want past there.

This is a dazzling, ambitious, overpowering film experience that gives bracing new life -- and some deaths -- to the superhero genre. This feels like a watershed moment, a paradigm shift. Wherever this type of filmmaking goes, from now on we’ll think of superhero movies in terms of “before” and “after” this film.

Here’s the unpleasantness: the earth-shaking nature of this movie makes it very, very difficult to review. If I were to even hint at half the stuff that happens in this movie, your mind would be blown. I will endeavor to do my best in the rest of this review not to commit any spoilers. I advise you to avoid conversations or social media posts from anyone you don’t trust in that regard.

Things pick up a couple years after the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” with the group cloven by internal strife and government interference. Thanos, the world-conquering villain who’s been alluded to in previous Marvel Cinematic Universe films, finally makes his big push on Earth -- and a number of other planets -- to gather the six Infinity Stones that will give him virtually unconquerable power.

Literally everybody in the MCU appears in this movie, or nearly so. Just listing the cast would take up the rest of this review, but it includes Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.); Norse god Thor (Chris Hemsworth); patriot/headman Captain America (Chris Hemsworth); Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman); Star Lord (Chris Pratt) and the rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy crew, notably Gamora (Zoe Saldana), rebel adopted daughter of Thanos, muscleman Drax (Dave Bautista), raccoon pilot/warrior Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and tree creature Groot (Vin Diesel); sorcerer supreme Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch); super-spy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson); Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen); robot sentinel Vision (Paul Bettany); teen supe Spider-Man (Tom Holland); and many, many more.

Josh Brolin plays Thanos, in an oddly emotive motion-capture CGI performance. He truly believes himself to be the universe’s savior, making the hard choices no one else is willing to. A vaguely purpleish titan with a craggy face and muscles big enough to beat the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) senseless, Thanos pursues ultimate power, and is willing to pay the ultimate price to obtain it.

Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, who helmed the last two Captain America movies, from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, “Avengers: Infinity War” is an action-packed maelstrom that somehow manages to fit in enough little moments for the actors to let their characters’ essential nature shine through.

I often complain that movies these days ramble on too long, but at 2½ hours, this film flew by. Again, I really don’t want to give anything away, but when the credits started to roll, I truly couldn’t believe the film was going to end the way it does. I was left shocked, amazed, exhausted and spectacularly entertained.

Review: "1945"

"1945" has an almost Hitchcockian feel, even though it's a historical drama rather than the mystery/thriller sphere that was Hitch's domain. It uses potboiler plot devices to build tension among a group of people, pushing them to do extreme things in duress.

This Hungarian film from director Ferenc Török, who co-wrote the script with  Gábor T. Szántó, is set in a tiny unnamed village in August 1945, after VE day but before the surrender of Japan. Two men dressed in black get off the morning train, bearing two large cases full of perfume and other ladies' cosmetics, according to the bill of ladling. They hire a pair of local men with a cart to carry the trunks into town an hour away, but refuse to ride, walking stoically behind on an unknown mission.

For this, they are rewarded with a frenzy of activity that eventually builds to near panic. You see, the men are Jewish, though their names and faces are unknown in these parts. All of the Jews were rounded up by the Nazi regime and taken away... and apparently not without some assistance from the townsfolk.

A reckoning is at hand, one the villagers fear with the sort of urgency that only comes from certain shame.

Török cuts back and forth between the men on their journey and the building reaction in town, and the story plays out more or less in real time. The Jews are an old man and a young one, possibly father and son (played by Iván Angelusz and Marcell Nagy). They barely speak, but their hard stares tell of an important purpose. (Which I'll not reveal here.)

Meanwhile, the villagers act as if they were expecting something like this all along. The news is conveyed mostly by saying some variation on, "They're here," and everyone is to understand what that means. A hand sketching a hooked nose is the fallback for those in need of more explicit, vile meaning.

Apparently Jewish property was seized during the war, and the newly endowed are worried about losing what they have. The thought of the visitors perhaps representing the first wave of returned survivors -- their former neighbors, business partners and friends -- inspires no joy, only fear and guilt.

Péter Rudolf plays István, the town clerk and owner of a prosperous drugstore, a man who likes to throw his weight around and order everyone about in a benevolent but firm way. If this were an Italian film or one inspired by that region like "The Godfather," we would call István a pezzonovante, a self-decalred big shot. His entire head shaved except for mustache, wearing a full black suit even in the summer heat, he's best described as a petty tyrant.

His son, Arpad (Bence Tasnádi), is to be married this very afternoon, to a pleasant but socially inferior girl, Rozsi (Dóra Sztarenki). István puts on a happy face, stopping by the bride's house to share toasts with her parents, but he's not thrilled about the marriage.

His first business of the day is to visit the farm of Jancsi (Tamás Szabó Kimmel), a local Communist sympathizer, to deliver veiled warnings. Constantly in tow is Pali, an older soldier who acts as his motorcycle chauffeur, bodyguard and, when necessary, enforcer. István is worried about the upcoming elections, but their talk also something to do with the wedding.

Other characters figure in, like pieces on a chess board. There's Kustar (József Szarvas), the town drunk, the first to panic at news of the Jews. Eszter Nagy-Kálózy is István's wife, a near-invalid who huffs on potions from the drugstore to chase away her loathing. There's also the local priest, the elderly war veteran, the wives and near-invisible lower classes.

Trolling around without apparent purpose are a trio of Russian soldiers in a battered jeep, the only tangible sign of the nascent Soviet Eastern Bloc. They observe all, occasionally threaten, keep a hand out for bribes, and act as a vaguely malevolent Greek chorus.

Shot in astonishingly crisp, gorgeous black-and-white (by cinematographer Elemér Ragályi), "1945" has the look and feel of a documentary, but the pulse and mood of well-wrought fictional storytelling. The musical score by Tibor Szemzö is a spare trickle of percussion and tones, almost like the music of a gentle stream building toward turbulence.

In every war there are aggressors, victims and bystanders. "1945" is a darkly evocative film that shows how the lines between these are much more blurred than we care to think.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Bad Company" (1972)

A teaser I used to like to spring on people was this: "Do you know who is very quietly having himself one of the all-time great film acting careers?"

Prior to 2009, when he finally won an Academy Award after five tries, I don't think many people would have answered "Jeff Bridges." But I think it's true -- and evidently more now agree with me, helped by two more Oscar nominations since.

Seriously: Bogie. Cary Grant. John Wayne. Jack Nicholson. Brando. Pacino. Duvall. De Niro. You name 'em... Bridges can match (or beat) any of them in terms of acting technique, career longevity, range, choice of roles and emotional genuineness.

Think of a time over the last five decades when Jeff Bridges wasn't making great movies. You can't. From "The Last Picture Show" up until "Hell or High Water" a little more than a year back, he's always inhabiting roles with an unpracticed authenticity, from giant blockbusters to little indies, playing everything from presidents to aliens to cowpokes.

Each time, we never question him for an instant. We never think, "Here's the big movie star, doing his thing." (Unlike, say, Harrison Ford, who's roughly his contemporary.) Maybe it's because he's never been much of a public celebrity -- married to the same woman for 40-plus years -- or politically outspoken, but Bridges has that ability to instantly disappear right in front of us. I think part of the reason he didn't get the credit he deserved was because he made it look so easy.

Fresh off an Oscar nomination for "Picture Show," Bridges co-starred in "Bad Company," a Western directed by Robert Benton ("Kramer vs. Kramer"), in his first foray behind the camera, from a script he co-wrote with David Newman. The two had also collaborated on the screenplay for "Bonnie and Clyde," and with this film Benton launched an important directing career spanning four decades, including the underrated "The Human Stain" from 2003. In all, Benton has notched six Oscar nominations with three wins.

Bridges was about 22 when they shot the film, playing maybe 17 or 18 as the leader of a distaff gang of boys fleeing conscription in the Union army to seek their fortunes in the West.

I admit I'd never heard the term "acid Western," which more or less got started with "El Topo" in 1970, and was loosely applied to a number of films in the ensuing years, including "Bad Company." The movie is certainly not surreal or bizarre like Jodorowsky's. In a lot of ways, it's very old-fashioned, with its washed-out colors -- almost sepia-toned -- familiar Western archetypes and tinny piano musical score (by Harvey Schmidt).

Perhaps it got thrown in with the acid crowd because of its youthful cast, which was taken to mean Benton and Newman were espousing a counter-cultural stance. It's a tale of how very young boys were chewed up and spit out by a burgeoning young nation's expansion. For me, it's notable that they set out not out of a sense of adventure, but fleeing from serving in the Civil War. Of course, they end up finding as big a bellyful of violence, malevolence and despair as they would've on the front lines.

Robert Ebert, in his contemporaneous review, noted correctly that the story is essentially a series of self-contained episodes. Drew Dixon (Barry Brown), an upright Christian lad from Ohio, is sent packing by his parents after the bluejacket recruiters come calling at every household, dragging out boys outfitted in dresses to fool the draft. The Dixons already sacrificed their older son to the war, and send the younger one west to seek safety and fortune, with $100 and his sibling's gold watch to guide him.

He soon runs in with Jake Rumsey (Jeff Bridges), a bushwhacker who befriends Drew by warning him about the prevalence of bushwhackers in these parts. After cautioning him that all the stagecoaches west are booked for six months solid, Jake plunks him over the head and steals all the money in his pocket (not knowing that Drew has hidden the bulk of his fortune in his boot).

Coming to, Drew seeks solace at the house of the local preacher, but after the wife leaves to fetch him, who should come calling but Jake, holding the purse one of his gang stole earlier, hoping to return it for a double-dipped reward. The two lads take up a ferocious row, smashing apart the woman's drawing room, before making their peace with Jake offering to take Drew into his gang.

First, Drew has to prove his worth by pulling off a job alone, which he fakes by spinning a story of robbing a local merchant, presenting $12 from his secret stash as evidence.

From there, the story is a gradual descent in fortunes as the boys move marginally westward, encountering bandits, farmers, whores, lawmen and other fates that whittle their numbers until only Drew and Jake remain. Ardent friends who often behave like foes, it's the low-born scallywag trying to make sense of the educated fellow who reads "Jane Eyre" and refuses to steal, and vice-versa.

The supporting cast is a veritable who's who of "that guy" character actors:
  • John Savage, in just his third film role, as Loney, the suspicious member of the gang.
  • Jerry Houser, forever Killer Carson from "Slap Shot," as Arthur, the nervous one.
  • Ed Lauter, a lifetime of cops and robbers roles, as a hard bandit who narrates his own death.
  • Geoffrey Lewis, recognizable by his blue eyes and bald pate, as another robber who gets his hands on Drew's watch... for a time.
  • Jim Davis as the hard-hearted Marshal who eventually catches up with everyone.
  • John Quade, another bald-headed bad guy known for his porcine visage, who often tussled with Clint Eastwood onscreen.
  • Charles Tyner, with a scowl that could curdle milk, as a (barely) generous farmer in the boys' time of need.
The boys' gang is rounded out by Jim Bob (Damon Douglas), a dimwitted blond, and Joshua Hill Lewis as Boog, a pint-sized fountain of foul-mouthed insults. Boog is only about 11 or 12 years, usually the brunt of the other boys' teasing, so his inevitable death -- his head blasted apart by a shotgun for stealing a pie -- marks the film's turning from fun 'n' games to tragic lesson.

The real standout of the supporting cast is David Huddleston as Big Joe, the aging leader of the gang of bandits who waylay Jake's crew, after he has fallen asleep during his turn at watch. Wearing a stovepipe hat, a voluminous fur coat and often chewing a pipe, Big Joe serves as Jake's chief antagonist, and teacher.

There's a great moment where Jake levels his pistol at Big Joe, who doesn't even flinch, talking the boy into complacency, then casually whipping out his own sidearm and blasting Jake's revolver away. "Still got it," he mutters to himself, before tendering this sage counsel:
"My boy, let me give you a little piece of advice. If you're going to pull a gun on somebody, which happens from time to time in these parts, you better fire it about a half a second after you do it... because most men aren't as patient as I am."
He orders his men to seize every last bit of their wealth -- even their beans and coffee -- but leaves the boys with their guns and horses. Because it's acceptable in this eat-or-be-eaten hellscape to inflict every means of deprivation, but you don't leave another man immobile and defenseless.

In a normal Western the paths of Big Joe, Drew and Jake would cross again with a violent extravaganza. This does happen, but the older man sits the fight out, reassured by his lieutenant that the rest of the men can handle two boys. Jake and Drew manage to get the drop and blast apart Big Joe's entire gang, but he doesn't bother with revenge -- simply gathering up another gang to keep marauding.

After Drew and Jake have inevitably come to cross purposes, after the latter finally discovers Drew's secret stash of cash and thunks him unconscious a second time, it comes as little surprise to us to discover that Jake throws in with Big Joe. Perhaps the hot-headed lad, who loves to boss others around, has finally figured out he has a thing or two to learn.

"Bad Company" is a good, not a great film. The central dynamic between Jake and Drew never fully clicks, though each actor acquits himself well. Bridges is charismatic and slightly skeevy, while Brown comes across has hopelessly blinkered -- a do-gooder who tries to convince himself he's not careening down the slipper slope.

Sad coda to his career: Brown made a few more films, with never such another high-profile role (unless you count his billing as "trooper" in "Piranha") and a little TV, before taking his own life in 1978 at age 27.

Though the film isn't well remembered these days, it does showcase one of the most important actors of the last century, stepping from boyhood roles into grown-up ones, and from the edge of the stage to the center.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Video review: "Hostiles"

“Hostiles” was probably the best movie of 2017 that you never heard of, despite featuring some big names. It barely got a theatrical release, earning $29 million -- short of its $39 million production budget. But it’s a spare, bleak gem.

It’s a throwback-style Western that very much has Things to Say about this day and age.

Christian Bale plays Joseph Blocker, a famous Indian hunter who’s about to retire when he’s given the proverbial one last job. And it’s a doozy: escort his longtime enemy, a Comanche war chief named Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), back to his ancestral home in Montana so he can die in piece.

Blocker is racist, alcoholic and prone to violence. Yellow Hawk is proud and reserved. His son, Black Hawk (Adam Beach), tries to broach a peace between them, but old enmities die hard.

Along the winding journey they pick up other forlorn figures. Rosamund Pike plays a frontier woman who’s just had her entire family wiped out by native warriors. Yellow Hawk and his family take her in like an adopted daughter. Seeing this, Blocker recognizes human warmth in his old enemy, possibly for the first time in his life.

The inimitable character actor Ben Foster plays a disgraced former soldier, a former comrade of Blocker’s, who’s been sentenced to die. In him, Blocker sees a reflection of himself that isn’t easy to look at.

Writer/director Scott Cooper also made the wonderful “Crazy Heart” a few years ago. He’s a filmmaker who refuses to cram his characters into neat stereotypical holes, letting each person travel their own journey in a way that feels organic.

In a time when so many movies put service to the plot above building believable characters, “Hostiles” is the sturdy exception that sees the horizon beyond.

Bonus features are limited to a single item, a comprehensive making-of documentary, “A Journey to the Soul: The Making of Hostiles.” It includes three parts: “Provenance,” “Removing the Binds” and “Don’t Look Back.”



Thursday, April 19, 2018

Review: "I Feel Pretty"

“I Feel Pretty” is explicitly in the rich tradition of body switcheroo comedies like “Big,” with the caveat being that star Amy Schumer doesn’t actually change at all. Her character just thinks she does, and that gives her the wherewithal to live a life so utterly without fear, she’s able to make all her dreams come true.

The joke is that Renee Barrett (Schumer) is a frumpy girl who believes she’s just reacting to a world that suddenly shines down its approval upon her because she’s become spectacularly beautiful, when in fact it is she who is acting in a way that makes people take notice, smile and wish good things for her.

It’s dangerous for a man to talk about women’s body issues without risking alienation, but the theme is at the center of the movie, written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, who previously made “The Vow” and “How To Be Single.” So here goes.

Schumer has the smart, sassy comedic persona of a swinging bachelorette. She likes to poke fun at herself, while also inserting cutting digs about how society only values women if they look a certain way, especially thin. Schumer has a figure that’s probably about average by modern American standards, but decidedly chubby by Hollywood’s merciless yardstick.

Someone of my mother’s generation would blurt something like, “she’s got extra pounds, but she wears it in all the right places.” She looks just fine to these eyes, but hey, it’s not about pleasing this here male gaze. It’s about accepting, and even liking, what you’ve got.

Renee works in the crappy web division of cosmetics giant LeClaire, an underground cave consisting of just her and a gruff, uncommunicative computer geek (Adrian Martinez). She’s got two great friends as wingwomen, (Busy Philipps and Aidy Bryant), but the New York City dating scene is brutal for “plain” girls. The trio signs up for Grouper, a group dating website, and is crushed when their fun-loving photo garners zero views.

Anyway, Renee gets conked on the head while at spin class, and wakes up thinking she’s magically transformed into the most beautiful person in the world. She’s worried her pals won’t even recognize her. Some of the film’s best scenes are of regular people running into this prideful, energetic woman, and their quizzical reactions to her confidence.

If their thoughts could be put into cartoon word bubbles over their heads, it would go something like this: “Hey, you’re not allowed to act gorgeous unless you actually are.”

The flip side is that people are eventually so ensorcelled by her verve, great things start happening to her. She’s given a job as the main receptionist at LeClaire, and soon charms the family of owners into letting her be the face of their new lower-cost cosmetics line.

Michelle Williams plays Avery, the CEO who has an MBA from Wharton’s, but is constantly undercut because of her kewpie doll voice. Tom Hopper is the rapscallion brother, Grant, who doesn’t do much but looks great in photo shirts that are perpetually two sizes too small. He finds himself pitching woo at the cherub-faced dynamo. Lauren Hutton plays the grandmother, who wants to upend their brand’s fancy-schmancy image.

I also liked Rory Scovel as Ethan, the regular joe who finds himself more or less coerced into a relationship with Renee. He’s at first bemused, then horrified, then entranced by this woman who goes for what she wants, and gets it. “You’re so yourself,” he says, awestruck.

The filmmakers make an interesting choice by never actually depicting what Renee thinks her new form looks like. Such a thing might have been off-putting, like when they did something similar for Gwyneth Paltrow in "Shallow Hal."

There’s a great scene where Renee enters a bikini contest, shaking her ample assets up against women without an ounce of jiggle, and her enthusiasm gradually wins over the skeptical crowd. In most movies she’d win the prize, but here the heroine has so much zest it barely even matters.

“I Feel Pretty” is a feel-good comedy with some decent laughs and a few nice lessons along the way. At 110 minutes, the film would’ve been better if it was a bit skinnier, something often true of movies but not so much for women, who’ve been pummeled into thinking less is always more.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Review: "Lean on Pete"

This was not the film I was expecting.

You’d think a movie about a boy and a horse would be uplifting and affirming; e.g., damaged human and damaged animal learn to heal together, in the mold of “Seabiscuit.” But stories about young people who grow attached to animals have a long cinematic tradition of sadness and loss.

“Lean on Pete” is from writer/director Andrew Haigh, whose last film, “45 Years,” was a sharp and probing exploration of the hidden pain behind a long marriage. Based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, “Pete” is about a teen boy, Charlie (Charlie Plummer), who has managed to keep a positive outlook despite a life filled with uncertainty and abandonment -- emotionally and otherwise.

Then he gets a job working for a bottom-feeding horse trainer, chiefly looking after an over-the-hill, never-was quarterhorse named Lean on Pete. Normally in a movie of this sort, this would be when circumstances start to turn around for Charlie. He’d start riding Pete, they win the big race, etc.

But instead, things turn into a pile of manure as big as those he shovels out of the stable on a daily basis.

Obviously I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice to say it involves a cross-country journey in which Charlie and Pete are running away as much as they are running toward something. It’s a noble quest, not for any higher purpose beyond continued existence and respect as living beings worth more than what they can do for others.

Plummer is terrific, playing a man-child -- he supplies his age as 16, 18 or 15 at various times -- who is going through big life-changing experiences before he has had a chance to form the emotional armor to protect him. It’s that time in a person’s life where trivialities seem momentous, while truly impactful things are shunted to the side until we can deal with them.

His dad is Ray (Travis Fimmel), a blue-collar loser who moves from place to place and job to job, partying and sleeping around. But he truly loves his kid, and gives Charlie positive encouragement -- at least when he’s around long enough to do so. Charlie mostly lives off Cap’n Crunch and TV.

A new father figure appears in the form of Del (Steve Buscemi), a fourth-rate horse trainer. He used to run around 20 horses, now he’s down to a handful. He tools around in his ancient Ford pickup and trailer, anywhere he can make a few bucks running his horses in a race, whether it’s at a decaying track or just a barn jump.

Del takes Charlie under his wing, showing him the ropes and praising the young man’s work ethic. But he shoos Charlie away from the racing life. “You should do something else, before you can’t do anything else,” Del says.

Charlie also finds a friend in Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), who rides jockey for Del from time to time. She tells Charlie about what it’s like to be a woman in an old-school man’s sport, freely offering her friendship and advice. Such as: don’t treat the horses like pets. Lean on Pete is scraping the bottom of Del’s very shallow barrel, a 5-year-old quarterhorse who’s just fast enough to win a few purses before age and injury catch up.

But it becomes clear that Del, and even Bonnie, view Pete and his ilk as mere conveyances for their own curdled dreams, to be used and cast off as needed. Del makes cryptic references to selling horses “down to Mexico,” and it’s not hard to guess what that means.

I admit that when the film embarked on the second half of its journey, I was initially reluctant to go along on their tough ride. Charlie and Pete have some run-ins, mostly bad, though they encounter a few kind souls. Plummer, already a slender kid, grows positively stick-like as their fortunes fade.

Haigh doesn’t give us the usual easy emotional entry points. For example, he doesn’t shoot Pete in close-up, to suggest the bond between man and beast. And Charlie never once climbs onto Pete’s back. He doesn’t want to be just somebody else demanding a fast ride.

“Lean on Pete” is the wrenching story of a young man yearning for the simplest thing: to be loved and wanted, and return the same. For a while, the best he can do is a horse no one else sees much worth in. That shared need gives them a sort of startling grace.

Review: "You Were Never Really Here"

Joe -- which may not be his real name -- is a lonely person, stuck somewhere between hero and villain, not caring much about the shadings between the two. He’s a man of mystery, but also a complete open book, in that everything about him is laid bare without pretense.

Played by Joaquin Phoenix in another one of his bizarre, affecting, only-he-could-pull-it-off performances, Joe is a hired thug who specializes in tracking down young girls who have been kidnapped and put into the sex trade. He’s an ex-something -- soldier, cop, maybe DEA or ICE -- we’re never really sure. Clearly his past life taints him.

Joe’s body is thick, strong, crisscrossed with scars. Hair and graying beard grow unchecked, pinned back as necessary when the work becomes wet… which is often.

“You Were Never Really There” is a sketch of a man who has no self-identity beyond what he does. Joe is brutal, preferring to use a hammer to split open the skulls of those he encounters. (It says something that he buys a fresh one for each job.) Yet he speaks with a gentle, muffled voice, even when interrogating someone he needs to squeeze for information.

He has lived with violence all his life; it is his constant companion but not his bride.

Writer/director Lynne Ramsay, whose last feature was the disturbing “We Need to Talk about Kevin” in 2011, gives us a very spare, deliberately paced film about revenge and persona. Based on the novel by Jonathan Ames, Joe is a man haunted by demons, but able to keep them at bay -- until his latest job goes bad, bad, bad.

Without giving anything away, it involves working for a state senator (Alex Manette), whose daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has been taken. Much is left unspoken, but the politician knows more than he is saying.

“I want you to hurt them,” is his final instruction to Joe, along with the promise of $50,000.

Joe’s life is quiet and ordered, outside of the grim work he performs at night. He cares for his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), who is homebound and watches TV all day. Joe nags her for having expired food in her fridge, or taking too long in the bathroom. But it’s clear he would never leave her.

Flashbacks give hints to domestic violence in their past. To calm his nerves, Joe likes to go into the closet of his boyhood bedroom and place a plastic bag over his head. He’s not trying to suffocate himself; certainly he gains no sexual pleasure from it (or possibly from anything). It’s just his way of coping with the past by recreating it.

There’s not much else to the story. John Doman plays Joe’s frontman, who finds him jobs in exchange for a cut. Angel (Frank Pando) is his bodega banker, handling the cash for his own little piece of the action. His dealings with both men are curt, unemotional. They are the closest things to friends a guy like him can have.

Ramsay takes her time building the ingredients of her tale, which is based on a novella by Jonathan Ames. She favors long shots that just show the things Joe is seeing as he travels from place to place. I daresay some people will find the movie slow or even dull.

I think it has a darkling loveliness that’s hard to compare. The inharmonious musical score and soundtrack of old songs, especially “Angel Baby,” lend the film a creeping nostalgia. Phoenix is moody and mesmerizing, worth the price of admission all on his own.

In the end, “You Were Never Really There” is an existential portrait of a killer, someone who sees himself as utterly empty, who only realizes the value of things after he has lost them.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Video review: "The Post"

In a time when journalism in general and newspapers in particular are under so much attack -- both from economic tidal forces within the industry and political assaults from the White House --- here is a good old-fashioned drama very much in the vein of “All the President’s Men” that extols those who risk much for the simple reward of telling the truth.

“The Post” is Steven Spielberg’s ode to an era when journalists and newspapers risked all to inform the public, and also a summoning of that same spirit in a time when it’s needed more than ever.

“This is who we were,” the film practically chants, and exhorts. “This is what we can be again.”

Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks play Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee, the owner/publisher and editor of The Washington Post, respectively. In 1972 their rival, the New York Times, first published excerpts of the Pentagon Papers, a damning recitation of the nation’s failures in Vietnam, before a court injunction slammed down on them.

The Post team -- which also includes Bob Odenkirk, Carrie Coon and David Cross -- got hold of the papers and had a choice to make: publish, and face the quite literal possibility of putting the Post out of business, or press on. We all know the choice they made, but “The Post” is the story of what went on behind that agonizing decision.

Hanks is great -- he always is -- but Streep is the pivotal figure in the story. We learn about her own insecurities, a rich debutante inheriting the Post from her late husband; about what it takes to be a female leader in a time when women were routinely not listened to; and about the financial crisis that coincided with the decision, in which Graham took the company public on the stock exchange.

Part legal procedural, part historical drama, but most of all a portrait of the power -- and risks -- of journalism, “The Post” is director Steven Spielberg’s best film since “Lincoln.”

Bonus features are quite good. In a clever twist, they’re divided into sections like a newspaper would be. The DVD has:
  • “The Style Section: Re-Creating of an Era,” which explores the look and feel of the Washington Post newsroom in the 1970s.
  • “Arts and Entertainment: Music for the Post,” about the 44-year partnership between Spielberg and composer John Williams.
  • “Stop the Presses: Filming The Post,” an on-set visit with Spielberg and crew during production.
Upgrade to the Blu-ray edition, and you add:
  • “Layout: Katharine Graham, Ben Bradlee & The Washington Post,” a look at the real-life personalities behind the legend.
  • “Editorial: The Cast and Characters of The Post,” about putting together the cast of performers.



Thursday, April 12, 2018

Review: "Rampage"

Just a short review today; Manuel Fernandez is handling the main review at The Film Yap, so  head over there to check it out.

"Rampage" is the best based-on-a-video-game movie I've ever seen. Granted, that's not saying much.

The roll call of these flicks ranges from the merely boring to the tragically awful. These movies tend to be big, loud and dumb. "Rampage" is too, but there's enough genuine fun in between the silliness to recommend it.

Dwayne "Not The Rock; OK, You Can Call Me The Rock" Johnson has his shtick down pretty well these days. I describe it as Flex and Smirk, Smirk and Flex, Flex and SCOWL... and Flex.

His characters (Davis Okoye) may have some other job description -- he's a primatologist here -- but he's always the biggest, baddest dude around. Woefully inadequate T-shirts fail to contain all his muscley muscleness. He is accomplished at hand-to-hand combat, firing big guns and piloting helicopters, because isn't that a skillset everyone at the San Diego zoo has?

If you don't remember the 1986 arcade game, it allowed players to control one of three giant monsters -- an ape, George; a wolf, Ralph; or a lizard, Lizzie -- destroying the city. You got to smash buildings, punch fire engines to smithereens and eat distressed damsels. It was great fun.

"Rampage" gets us to this scenario by way of some convoluted mix of corporate greed and scientific mumbo-jump. A nasty company named EnerGyne was conducting illegal experiments in space, one got loose and exploded the place, but not before three samples of the genetic editing MacGuffin landed on Earth, turning normal creatures into gigantic, aggressive smash machines.

One of them was George, an albino gorilla at Davis' zoo with whom he has a special relationship. They communicate with each other via sign language, and even joke around and flip each other the bird. The CGI for George and the other critters is quite good, especially the expressions on George's face. Ralph has spikes and a few other tricks, while Lizzie seems to be part alligator, part boar.

Naomie Harris plays Kate Caldwell, the do-gooder scientist who's helping Davis save the day; Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy are the sneering sibling villains; Jeffrey Dean Morgan does his Negan thing in the guise of a Southern-fried FBI agent who apparently has the wherewithal to go anywhere, summon any resources, give lip to anybody he wants.

Once George gets infected and starts growing at a geometric rate, Davis tries to keep the authorities from going all bang-bang on him. But it doesn't work, and soon he's tracking the path of destruction Chicago, which is about to get a big bag of hurt.

"Rampage" isn't a great movie by any stretch, but it's a decent popcorn flick to kick off the summer movie season.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Review: "Truth or Dare"

“Truth or Dare” is less a work of creative effort than a piece of merchandise you order up on your phone. It’s disposable entertainment, the cinematic equivalent of gas station pizza -- more notable for its availability than any brush with quality.

It has all the distinguishing markers of low-grade, uninspired horror these days: kitschy premise that combines an old-timey concept with social media omni-connectivity; enough violence to seem “hard” while staying safely within the confines of the economically palatable PG-13 box; an improbably attractive cast of high school- or college-age students, played by actors bumping up against -- and in a couple cases, cruising right past -- age 30; the old saw of “the game turns deadly” as youthful frivolity gives way to mounting mayhem; a toll of deaths that steadily bumps up the body count while the remaining characters frantically test the limits of the “you can’t stop it” confines.

This is the sort of movie that introduces rules that, while fantastical, at least give some definition to the boundaries of the arena in which the game will be played. Then, when these grow inconvenient to the storytelling, blows right past them.

For instance: the idea of “Truth or Dare” is that a bunch of college students head down to Mexico to party during spring break, are lured to a creepy old mission where they play the naughty eponymous game. Even after they return home, they are forced to keep playing, with death the certain outcome if they don’t go along.

Well, anybody who could get into college -- even a nondescript SoCal party school -- would soon be able to figure out to choose “truth” every time. Embarrassing secrets may hurt you, but at least that way the demonic force running the game can’t make you, say, smash your best friend’s hand with a hammer, or slash your lover’s throat open.

Director Jeff Wadlow, who co-wrote the script with three others, explodes this obstacle by inserting the “two truths and a dare” rule. Apparently, the first group of youngsters who played this game created their own addendum which says that after two people choose truth in a row, the next one must choose dare. For some reason, this change then applies to the next group to play.

(Personally, I didn’t know demons allowed those forced to play its nasty little games to change the rules at their whim. If so, and considering this involves partying college students, I’m surprised the game wasn’t further altered to add a whole lot of trou-dropping.)

Lucy Hale heads up the cast as Olivia, the prototypical “sweet ‘n’ smart girl” who we know will wind up as one of the last survivors. She wanted to build houses with Habitat for Humanity during spring break, but got roped into fun by her best friend, Markie (Violett Beane).

Other members of the crew include the ubiquitous Jerky Guy (Nolan Gerard Funk), Drinky Girl (Sophia Ali), Dweeby Creep (Sam Lerner), Nice Gay Guy (Hayden Szeto) and Dreamy Dude Who’s With the Wrong Girl (Tyler Posey).

The way the demon -- who’s named Calix, btw -- communicates his commands is supposed to be horrifying, but it’s actually ridiculously goofy. People’s faces twist into a rictus grin, sort of like the Joker’s, croaking “truth or dare.” It feels more like a Hunter S. Thompson druggie mind-warp than supernatural terror.

Dropping acid would admittedly be more dangerous than watching this movie, but certainly more fun.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Reeling Backward: "The Sound of Music" (1965)

Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but I find myself having more patience for movies I didn't care for when I was younger.

I've tried on a couple of occasions before to watch "The Sound of Music," and ended up turning it off after just a few minutes. Too cornball, too "old people movie," that fastidiously unironic tone. It seemed hard to reconcile this movie residing during the tumult of the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam war protests, surge of harder music and bolder films, and other massive cultural shifts of the '60s. It seems more a product of the 1930s-1950s.

It's a stubbornly un-hip movie from an era when "cool" became the indispensable cultural attribute.

So I decided to give it another go, if for no other reason than an effort I started a couple of years ago to watch all the remaining Best Picture winners I hadn't seen before. With Oscar season upon us again as I write this, seeing this movie was given a bit of imperative in what has admittedly been a somewhat lackadaisical project.

I still felt that tug of listlessness during the early scenes -- Julie Andrews' iconic twirling on a mountaintop while warbling "The Hills Are Alive," dour nuns who suddenly start singing with tremulous old-lady timbres. But I held on to the point Andrews' earnest nun-to-be, Maria, joins the von Trapp family at their sprawling mansion in Salzburg, and the movie suddenly took off for me, like a bloated beast that sprouts wings and takes to the air with graceful majesty.

Despite its nearly three-hour run time, "The Sound of Music" has very little fat in it. Even the song and dance scenes move along at a brisk pace and never loiter -- unlike another musical Best Picture winner I could name.

I was also struck by how memorable nearly every song in the film is. An adaption of the 1959 stage musical by Rodgers & Hammerstein, it includes tunes like "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," "Maria," "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," "My Favorite Things," "Do-Re-Mi," "The Lonely Goatherd," "So Long, Farewell," "Edelweiss," "Something Good" and "I Have Confidence." Even though I hadn't seen the movie as a child, I grew up hearing and singing these songs.

There's not much to the storyline. Maria is the rebellious sister at the convent, not of out meanspiritedness but an uncrushable desire to laugh, sing and enjoy life. She's sent to be the nanny to the seven von Trapp children as a way to test her faith. She soon takes the children under a maternal wing, and falls in love with their father, the imperious Captain Georg von Trapp, a retired naval commander and widower who is betrothed to a gold-digging baroness (Eleanor Parker).

Things work out and Maria ends up marrying Georg, but not until right after Austria has agreed to be annexed by Nazi Germany. Pressed into service due to his military experience, Georg sneaks his family over the border to Italy.

It's based on a real family, who eventually made their way to America and gained fame as the Trapp Family Singers. Which was ironic, as Georg refused to let his children sing outside the home, considering it common behavior to perform in public. (Though Austria officially banished the nobility in 1919, many like he still carried their unofficial titles and used "von" before their surnames.)

Quite a lot of historical details were changed for the stage production and movie, the most notable being that Maria and Georg married in the 1920s, not during the rise of Nazism. The family lost most of its wealth during the worldwide depression of the 1930s, and did not live nearly so luxuriously as depicted in the movie, with a gated mansion and servants.

And, if the accounts of the surviving children are accurate, Maria was hardly the angelic mother figure depicted by Andrews, being prone to sudden fits of range and melancholy.

Ultimately, it's the performances of Andrews and Christopher Plummer as Georg that propel the movie forward. I was struck by the fact they are actually close in age -- Andrews was 28 and Plummer was 34 when they began shooting the film. Within the context of the story, Maria would be an ingenue while Georg was a middle-aged father of teenagers -- old enough to have retired from a naval career. (The real Georg was close to 50 when they met.)

Andrews had already played in 1964's "Mary Poppins" when director/producer Robert Wise and screenwriter Ernest Lehman were able to view footage of her prior to that film's release. They immediately locked her into a contract because they knew she would become a major star.

Plummer was harder to get, a theater star who repeatedly refused the role because he thought the father character was underdeveloped. They eventually got their man, and Plummer's film career is still spinning along nicely more than 50 years later. Plummer's singing voice was dubbed by Bill Lee, a legendary "playback singer" who achieves a very naturalistic match with Plummer's speaking voice.

Richard Haydn plays "Uncle" Max, a conniving music promoter who apparently spends his day scouring the Austrian countryside for regional singing groups, and scrounging off the beneficence of wealthy hosts. He's partnering with the baroness to fleece Georg via marriage, with even the barest of suggestions the two of them are romantically involved. Still, he's portrayed in a positive light as the charming rapscallion.

Likewise, the baroness, who lies about the state of her own wealth to entice Georg, is redeemed by being the one to recognize his feelings for Maria, and initiating the breakup of their engagement herself.

Ben Wright plays Herr Zeller, the only true villain of the piece, a local official of some sort who leads the Nazification effort. Daniel Truhitte is Rolfe, the telegram delivery boy-cum-Hitler Youth recruit, who dallies with the eldest von Trapp daughter for a time.

The kids are played by, from eldest to youngest, Charmian Carr as Liesl, Nicholas Hammond as Friedrich, Heather Menzies as Louisa, Duane Chase as Kurt, Angela Cartwright as Brigitta, Debbie Turner as Marta and Kym Karath as Gretl.

(Carr was 26 when she played 16-year-old Liesel, showing that the Hollywood trend of having much older actors masquerade as teens is hardly a new phenomenon.)

Shot in beautiful, bold colors by Ted D. McCord (who lost the cinematography Oscar to Freddie Young for "Dr. Zhivago"), "The Sound of Music" has been well-preserved with a number of high-quality video additions and theater re-releases as recently as 2000. More than 50,000 people a year still take the official bus tour visiting the various filming locations around Salzburg.

What struck me most was how emotionally involving the characters and stories are. All the children have distinct personalities despite not getting a lot of individual screen time aside from Liesel. Georg's familial reawakening, in which he joins his children in song after a long period of mourning his late wife, is a real heart-grabber.

Sometimes movies just need time to mature before they're fully appreciated; the same goes for movie critics to appreciate them.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Video review: "The Greatest Showman"

“The Greatest Showman” was perhaps the quietest blockbusters of the past year. Released around Christmastime, it garnered respectful but not gushing reviews, and opened to modest buzz and box office. But this energetic musical, starring Hugh Jackman in a (very) fictionalized portrait of circus pioneer P.T. Barnum, kept staying around -- it “has legs,” as they say in the biz -- and ultimately grossed more than $400 million worldwide.

It’s a solid picture, filled with Broadway-style spectacle and songs, the sort of thing where the characters look right at you and belt their stories out in crescendoing first-person power ballads. It doesn’t feel particularly fresh or new, but it’s hard to deny the sheer entertainment value.

In this telling -- original screenplay by Bill Condon and Jenny Bicks, directed by rookie Michael Gracey -- Barnum is a dreamer who wants to spread joy to the world, as well as give a home to those who have been cast out and kicked aside as freaks. Michelle Williams plays his long-suffering wife, Charity, and Zac Efron is Phillip Carlyle, the young business-minded fellow who becomes his right-hand man.

The circus performers are a rogues’ gallery of bearded ladies, strongmen, Lilliputians and the like. A few stand out, notably Keala Settle as Lettie, the furry-chinned woman who can also knock the barn doors down with her voice, and Zendaya as Anne, a trapeze artist who dares a mixed race romance with Phillip.

Jackman, who also closed the book on his Wolverine character last year, is back in his element as a song-and-dance man, charismatic and haunted. During the course of the tale, Barnum goes from low to high and back again, tempted by a famous songbird (Rebecca Ferguson) he signs to a contract to show the world he’s not just a purveyor of oddities.

People keep saying “the musical genre is back,” until it goes away again. As long as we get a good one every few years like “The Greatest Showman,” I’m all in tune.

Bonus features ae pretty good with more than two hours of extras, including a sing-along edition and music machine “jukebox” function. There’s also a making-of documentary, dance tutorial, feature-length audio commentary with Gracey, still photo galleries and a featurette on the Barnum family.



Thursday, April 5, 2018

Review: "Chappaquiddick"

“Chappaquiddick” is a mesmerizing portrait of evil -- not an evil man, but a deed that remains one of the most black-hearted acts in American political history.

I refer not to the abject cowardice of Edward "Teddy" Kennedy in the summer of 1969, when the Senator from Massachusetts drunkenly drove a car off a bridge into a lake, leaving a campaign worker, Mary Jo Kopechne, trapped inside.

Nor to the fact that Kennedy failed to summon help, walking past houses 150 yards away to instead trudge back to the summer cottage he had just left to call his friends, all married men who were partying with single women like Kopechne. Rather than phoning the police, they scrambled to protect Kennedy’s reputation.

Nor do I even refer to Kennedy returning to his hotel room, where he slept, ate breakfast with friends and failed to report the accident for nearly nine hours. His inaction most certainly doomed Kopechne, who likely survived for hours trapped in the car, succumbing not to drowning, but suffocation as she used up the small pocket of breathable air.

The real evil, the film argues, lies in what came after.

This is an angry movie, but also a probing one. Director John Curran and screenwriters Andrew Logan and Taylor Allen look at how the Kennedy family machine of advisors and lawyers sprang into action to protect a man seen by many as the frontrunner for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination.

Arms were twisted, wheels were greased, outright fabrications passed off as accepted fact.

At the center of this storm was Kennedy himself, a flawed man and last surviving son of a political dynasty consecrated with the highest of blessings and laden with the darkest of curses. Played by Jason Clarke in a riveting performance that should be remembered during the next awards cycle, Kennedy is portrayed as someone torn by tidal forces of pride, shame, entitlement and weakness.

“I’m not going to be president,” is the first thing he says after the accident. Kopechne, still struggling for air in a submerged Oldsmobile, had already been consigned to death. Kennedy’s only thought was that his political ambitions not join in her obituary.

While the movie chastens him for going along with the elaborate plot to save his career, it does not condemn Kennedy as an irredeemable fiend. Rather, it asks uncomfortable questions about who among us would have followed a similar path, given the titanic expectations for the baby brother of Jack and Bobby Kennedy.

Ted Kennedy was unwillingly anointed as the keeper of the flame for an entire generation of dreamers -- and wanted desperately not to see that torch sputter out on his watch.

Kate Mara plays Kopechne, depicted as an earnest young woman a member of the “Boiler Room Girls,” a group of secretaries and strategists who gave their souls to Bobby’s presidential campaign, and were being urged to sign on for another one. The film, while slinging many barbed arrows, does not dispute the insistence that the party was a chaste one, though there is some suggestion of longing between her and Kennedy, a lifelong philanderer.

Ed Helms is terrific as Joe Gargan, adopted son of the Kennedy clan, the friend who’s always there to clean up their messes. At first Teddy’s most ardent defender, he eventually grows sick of the lies and manipulation. He finally snaps when Kennedy, who was completely uninjured in the accident, dons a neck brace for Kopechne’s funeral. “You’re not a victim, Ted!” he bellows.

Bruce Dern is unrecognizable and piercing as Joseph Kennedy, patriarch of the clan, now grown decrepit in body to match the withered soul. Face twisted into a rictus, barely able to speak or move, he treats Ted as the prodigal son he’d rather not see returned.

When Ted first calls to report his predicament, the elder Kennedy can only croak out one word: “Alibi.”

Other notable cast members include Jim Gaffigan as Paul Markham, Kennedy pal and obedient fixer; Clancy Brown as Robert McNamara, the former Defense Secretary who leads the heavy hitters during the cover-up; Taylor Nichols as Ted Sorensen, speechwriter and PR expert; and John Fiore as the pliable local police chief.

“Chappaquiddick” is a powerful and bracing look at how power corrupts -- not just its exercise, but in its pursuit.

Review: "Blockers"

The arithmetic behind "Blockers" is not hard to add up: Take your prototypical teen sex comedy premise of three horndogs looking to lose their virginity on the night of the prom/homecoming/big party, flip their genders to girls, have their parents stumble upon the #SexPact2018, freak out and spend the night following them around to prevent said flowers from being plucked.

Layer in a little PC speech about female empowerment for show, stir in a gross-out scene or three, and you've got a movie.

It's not a bad flick, but I counted maybe four solid laughs in the movie, and a whole lot of chatter in between. In comedy, like a lot of life, many people confuse activity with achievement.


The focus is clearly on the parents, played by comedienne Leslie Mann, comedic actor Ike Barinholtz and John Cena, the WWE star who's trying to join the string of musclebound ersatz athletes -- Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Johnson -- trying to pump himself into a funnyman.

I'll be generous: he's getting there. He's building some decent timing and repertoire of deadpan reactions. Cena seems obliged to show his ass in every movie he's in these days -- in the flesh, I mean, not "Ferdinand" -- and the camera crew labors to shoot him at the proper angle to obscure his bald spot. I give him one more movie before he joins Channing Tatum in full-on Toupee Acting.

He plays Mitchell, a dweeby coach obsessed with success. His kid is Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan), who's easily the best of the three actors playing teenagers. She plays drunk well and gets several good one-liners.

Mann is Lisa, a hectored single mom who has some skeletons in her closet, and wants to ensure that her daughter, Julie (Kathryn Newton), doesn't start a graveyard in her own.

Last is Barinholtz as Hunter, the screwup of the trio. He's largely been an absentee father, and is now looking to reconnect with Sam (Gideon Adlon), who's a little bit more reserved than the other kids and a mite Goth. She's got a secret she's been harboring, and it's to Hunter's credit that he notices what's up with his kid long before anyone else does.

I wish the movie had spent more time with the teens and developed them a bit better. As it is they're just reflections of their parents, played by recognizable adult actors.

Julie has a longstanding boyfriend, Austin (Graham Phillips), so her hookup is more logical, while the other two girls more or less pick some dude at random to take to the prom. Indeed, Kayla literally peers around the lunchroom the day of the prom and points out the class druggie, Connor (Miles Robbins), as her mark.

Sam is going with Chad (Jimmy Bellinger), the sort of clueless schlemiel who thinks that wearing a short-brimmed fedora can somehow subtract an ass-ton of awkwardness. But he's just a tool, and Sam has her eye on someone else.

It's interesting that the boys are pretty much disposable accessories to the girls' mission. I guess that's fair, since that's how the young women are treated in most male-centric sex comedies.

Gary Cole and Gina Gershon turn up as Austin's mom and dad, who have a little extracurricular activity of their own scheduled for prom night, where our hapless threesome of overprotective parents make a couple of pit stops to gather intel. Both actors get a lot of, uh, exposure that was probably unnecessary.

I liked "Blockers" in pieces. Parts of it come at you with staggering predictability -- as soon a stretch limo shows up as conveyance, you just know the interior is going to get a very organic redecoration. And Mitchell is a such a tightass that we are certain some bizarre scenario is going to come along that forces him to unpucker.

(I assumed the particular type of imbibing depicted was a concoction for the movie, but I Googled it, and nope: it's really a thing. But in a world of condom snorting, I guess I shouldn't be surprised.)

Director Kay Cannon is the creative force behind the very successful "Pitch Perfect" franchise, and steps behind the camera for the first time, while screenwriting bros Brian and Jim Kehoe provide the very formulaic story.

The truth is that losing your virginity is very stressful for most people, and the actual sex itself is almost always subpar. Using the old saying about pizza and sex as a ruler, this is better than gas station slices, but tops out at around Little Caesars.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Review: "The Leisure Seeker"

There’s nothing really extraordinary about “The Leisure Seeker,” which is the very thing that makes it such a lovely little film.

Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland play a couple in their 70s from Massachusetts who spontaneously embark on a journey to the Florida Keys in their 1975 Winnebago Indian, whose nickname supplies the film’s title. The old RV hasn’t seen a lot of action in a while, more a vehicle for memories of family vacations than an actual conveyance.

You could say the same of the pair, who seemingly have had their lives stuck in stasis for a long, long time.

It doesn’t take a lifetime for director Paolo Virzì and his quartet of screenwriters (based on the novel by Michael Adoorian) to reveal the purpose behind the trek. John Spencer (Sutherland) is struggling with some sort of dementia. Ella Spencer (Mirren) pops a lot of pills, and when she takes off her wig at night reveals the sort of short-cropped ‘do worn by chemotherapy patients.

The exact nature of their ailments is never stated, but we gather enough to know that Ella’s life is slipping away, while John’s memories are doing the same.

Like “The World’s Fastest Indian” and other road trip films involving seniors, the destination of where they’re going is less important than the reasons for setting off on this jaunt.

The Spencers have a variety of encounters along the way, some positive, a few not, most of them fleeting. Ella is a charming chatterbox who loves to talk to anybody, or everybody. John tends to trap people in long ruminations on Hemingway or other favorite writers, but usually winds up making a connection nobody expected.

Back at home, their grown children Will (Christian McKay) and Jane (Janel Moloney) are appalled at what’s going on. They had apparently convinced their parents to take some critical steps with regard to their lives -- likely involving institutions and/or hospitalization -- and are left worried sick, and resentful.

The usual sorts of encounters you might expect occur -- mechanical troubles, a run-in with Johnny Law, a meeting with miscreants -- but we never really doubt the couple will get where they’re going. Given John’s affinity for Hemingway, it’s no surprise that he’s always dreamed of seeing the (fantastically overrated, imho) writer’s home in Key West, and Ella wants to make that wish come true while there’s still a little time left.

What’s best about the movie is how it drills deep into a 50-year marriage, showing us that while the fire of passion can remain undimmed after all that time, there will naturally be resentments and recriminations that have piled up in the passing of years. John is peeved about Ella’s boyfriend prior to him, convinced she still pines for him, while Ella harbors suspicions about the many young coeds who were mentored by John in his role as a literature professor.

This is also a very realistic portrait of dementia. John can be spot-on one moment, then loses his way the next. He’ll protest his undying love for Ella, then a few minutes later confuse her for their next-door neighbor back home (Dana Ivey). “The Leisure Seeker” also shows us the strains placed on the caregiver, as Ella occasionally snaps after years of unceasing support.

Getting old is both a beautiful and scary thing, especially when two people in love do it together. Marriage is a journey, quite literally in this case, and the bumps in the road are often what we hold onto best.

Review: "The Miracle Season"

Movies like “The Miracle Season” flow like the tide -- you know exactly what it is and where it’s going. Most sports flicks possess this same sort of inexorable pull: confidence, challenge, struggle and then triumph.

There are not many surprises in “The Miracle Season,” but it’s a well-executed film that hits all the right notes and doesn’t let the on-field action overwhelm the human story. Having performances by two world-class actors -- Helen Hunt and William Hurt, both Oscar winners -- doesn’t hurt, either.

Directed by Sean McNamara (“Soul Surfer”) from a script by Elissa Natsueda and David Aaron Cohen, it’s based on the true story of the girls’ volleyball team at West High School in Iowa City. (Tax-credit-friendly Vancouver subs in for Iowa.) After winning the state championship in 2010, the team was crushed by the sudden death of its captain, best player and irrepressible leader, Caroline “Line” Found.

After forfeiting or losing the entire early season, the team comes together to make another run at the title. I won’t spoil things by saying how it turns out, but if you have to guess then you haven’t seen a lot of sports flicks.

(“Rocky” remains near the pinnacle in part because it’s one of the very few where the victory is less important than how the big match plays out.)

Erin Moriarty is the main character as Kelly, Line’s best friend. She’s a bit shy and retiring -- everyone is, compared to Line -- and isn’t nearly the dominant player. Indeed, as their senior year opens, Kelly doubts she’ll even make the starting squad. But Line is indefatigable, offering boundless encouragement and friendship to literally everyone she meets.

Played by Danika Yarosh in an attention-grabbing performance, Line is the sort of person who will drive by a family moving into their new home, spot a cute boy, slam on the brakes and hop out to introduce herself and invite him to their party the next day.

Hurt plays Line’s dad, Ernie, a surgeon/farmer who’s also dealing with a severely ill wife. The movie grants him his own journey, including struggling with his faith in the face of tragedy in a sensitive way we don’t usually see in mainstream Hollywood films. A quaint, somewhat bumbling figure who likes to perform corny magic tricks for the team, Ernie gradually takes on a sort of accepting grace.

Hunt has a difficult part as the coach, Kathy “Brez” Bresnahan. She’s a very interior person who has always given her girls tremendous expertise on the court but not a lot of emotional support off it. But the death of her best player forces Brez out of her comfort zone, making her relate to the team members as people rather than pieces to a winning season.

The other team members form the usual sort of Greek chorus of supporting players. Natalie Sharp is Mack, the tough, aggressive one; Lillian Doucet-Roche plays Taylor, the freshman lacking in confidence; Nesta Cooper is Lizzie, who plays with her emotions on her sleeve.

The volleyball scenes are energetic without overstaying their welcome. There haven’t been too many volleyball movies that I can think of, but “The Miracle Season” shows the kinetics and power of the sport. The sound crew also underlines each thump of the ball with a fat bass undertone.

You won’t be surprised by anything that happens in this movie, but darned if you’ll be able to resist having those ol’ heart strings plucked.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Video review: "13 Reasons Why"

Here’s my hot take on Netflix vs. Amazon Prime in the streaming original content wars: Amazon is better at feature films, less great at TV-style episodic shows. Netflix excels at shows, though its feature films often leave much to be desired. (See -- or rather, don’t -- “Bright,” “Mute,” etc.)

“13 Reasons Why” is an ambitious Netflix streaming series that looks at teenage bullying and suicide in a thoughtful and mature way.

The concept was novel: the story opens with Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a smart but troubled senior, having just killed herself. Turns out she made 13 audio cassette tapes talking about why she did it, directly addressing the peers who contributed to her despair.

One tape for each episode of the show. The story unspools as a whodunit, but becomes something more.

Dylan Minnette plays Clay Jensen, the ostensible protagonist who is one of the last to receive the tapes. The deal is they have to listen to them, and pass them on to the next person, or a duplicate set will be released publicly, revealing their dark deeds.

We eventually learn that Dylan was in love with Hannah, though their tortured romance never found its way to full bloom. He’s shy, dweeby but with a heart of gold. However, most of Hannah’s other interactions were not nearly so positive. Labeled the school slut for dubious reasons, she found herself riding a train downbound into despair.

Her chief antagonizer was Bryce (Justin Prentice), the charismatic captain of the basketball team beloved by all. But even people Hannah thought were her friends, like sardonic Zach (Miles Heizer) and party girl Jessica (Alisha Boe), end up hurting her in the end.

Standing slightly apart from the group is enigmatic Tony (Christian Navarro), a blue-collar kid with his own set of secrets. He acts as the protector of Hannah’s legacy, safeguarding the tapes and serving as friend/counselor to Clay.

Like a lot of streaming shows I’ve encountered, “13 Reasons Why” has a tendency to start slowly, not really hitting its stride until the fourth or fifth episode. And the hour-long chapters occasionally tread water, with pivotal conversations constantly starting and being interrupted by circumstances in what plays as a transparent attempt to pad the running time.

Maybe “9 Reasons Why” would have sufficed.

Still, this is a smart, sensitive and well-told tale with some really solid performances. Anyone who remembers their teen years without rose-colored glasses can probably relate.

Video features are pretty good, and go beyond the interviews with cast and crew that were available on streaming Netflix at the time of the show’s release. They include these documentary shorts:
  • “Hannah & Clay: An Unfinished Love Story”
  • “Justin Foley: Not Your Typical Jock”
  • “Discovering Jessica Davis”
  • “Bringing the Book to Life”
  • “13 Things About Me: Dylan Minnette and Justin Prentice”