Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Review: "First Reformed"

Some movies you know exactly where they're going to go, and others take you to the places you least expect. The latter isn't necessarily superior to the former, since it's the journey that has to be satisfying to the audience, not just the destination.

"First Reformed" is an austere, bold picture that looks at the crisis of faith being experienced by Toller, a Protestant pastor played by Ethan Hawke. I was completely absorbed in the plight of this man of faith, and Hawke's absolutely committed performance.

Religion is not a topic that films tackle regularly with anything resembling insight or sensitivity, so I was engrossed in what appeared to be a genuine attempt to do so by veteran writer/director Paul Schrader ("Taxi Driver," "Affliction").

Then the movie starting going off in some weird directions, progressing from off-putting to disturbing to shocking. Part of me resisted all the left turns. But I still found myself believing in the authenticity of Toller's emotional and spiritual journey.

Toller is a former military chaplain whose life crumbled some years ago when his son joined the Army and died in Iraq, which also doomed his marriage. Now he's the pastor of the titular church in Snowbridge, N.Y., a beautiful relic where almost nobody attends services. First Reformed is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary, and Toller's job is more caretaker of the facility than to flocks of the faithful.

He gives tours, sells T-shirts and hats, fixes leaky toilets, etc. Toller's church is under the financial and ecumenical wing of Abundant Life, a nearby megachurch where Joel Jeffers (a surprisingly un-showy, effective Cedric the Entertainer) is pastor. Toller does a little volunteering there, since there aren't really enough duties at First Reformed to fill his time, and checks in with Jeffers.

Jeffers isn't an unkind man, but his relationship with Toller holds a lot of casual disdain. He refers to First Reformed as "the souvenir shop church" and treats Toller more as a wayward child than a pastoral partner. He expresses concern, which borders on impatience, for Toller's recent health troubles and political/environmental leanings, which he worries will impinge on the big reconsecration celebration being financed by an energy tycoon (Michael Gaston).

"For you, every hour is the darkest hour," Jeffers counsels/criticizes.

The truth is Toller seems to be on a downward path with no turning. As the story opens, he has decided to keep a daily journal of his thoughts, which he sees as a form of prayer to replace the traditional kind he undertakes less and less. He starts out with the resolution that he will do this for a year, then shred and burn the handwritten pages so that no one ever reads them.

What is going to happen in 12 months? We don't know, but the self-imposed deadline doesn't portend well.

Schrader presents us with a bleak but bountiful portrait of a man in crisis, whose religion is failing him even as he tries to be a good shepherd. The director gives us stark spaces in his frame, such as Toller's residence nearly lacking in furniture, and fills them up with the turmoil of the soul.

The film reaches a crescendo when Toller is approached by a young married couple. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant and worried about her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), who's become despondent about the lack of political movement on climate change, foreseeing the very end of mandkind.  Here is a reason to be a real clergyman again.

Toller and Michael's first counseling session is electric, in which Toller offers no sugar-coated reassurances or appropriate Bible quotations. He talks about his own struggles, and says that wisdom comes from having the ability to keep both despair and hope in your heart at the same time.

I'll say no more about what follows, other than even as Toller reengages as a reverend, his own temptations toward depression loom ever larger.

Hanging around the edges is Esther (Victoria Hill), the choir director at Abundant Life. She and Toller are friends, with hints at something more happening between them in the past. It's clear she wants more, and he does not have that which she needs him to give. Their final encounter is utterly naked in its raw, devastating emotions.

"First Reformed" is not the movie I expected. But even though I know some people will be disturbed or even offended at what transpires, in many ways it's a deeper, richer cinematic experience than I could have hoped for.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Video review: "Annihilation"

“Annihilation” falls into that section of science fiction that’s more cerebral and contemplative than the rest. Despite the name, the genre can often be pretty dopey in its premises and storytelling.

It’s not the most entertaining film, but like “Contact,” to which it is a thematic cousin, its rewards operate more at the intellectual level than the gut.

Natalie Portman plays Lena, a scientist/soldier who’s chosen by fate and her own instincts to enter the Shimmer, a mysterious, growing sector of forbidding energy that cropped up a few years ago. So far the government has managed to keep it under wraps because it’s in a remote area, but it’s only a matter of time before it starts gobbling up entire cities.

Lena’s husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), went into the Shimmer a year ago and never came back -- no one ever does. She’d assumed him dead, but when he suddenly pops up out of nowhere, emotionally distant and physically ailing, she’s sucked into the consortium of science and military types reacting to the crisis.

Interestingly, the entire team going in is comprised of women. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the inscrutable Ventress, a psychiatrist leading the team. Gina Rodriguez is Anya, the group’s brash muscle. Tessa Thompson is Josie, a brilliant wallflower. And Tuva Novotny is Cass, the only one who makes an attempt to befriend Lena.

Obviously I don’t want to give away too much about what they find in the Shimmer, but suffice it to say some kind of alien force is messing around with the DNA of every living thing inside, turning it into a hothouse of toothsome horrors and gorgeous delights.

Written and directed by Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”) based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, “Annihilation” got a very mixed reaction from critics and audiences. It’s an engaging blend of horror, sci-fi and thriller elements, with a little bit of philosophical musings thrown in.

Bonus features are interesting, and organized unlike others I’ve seen. (You’ll need to spring for the Blu-ray version to get them, as the DVD contains zippo.)

The extras are organized into three parts, based on the journey the women take over the course of the movie. Each part contains a documentary short about an aspect of production, along with interviews with cast and crew reflecting on that topic.

“Southern Reach” looks at the concept of the story and translating it into film. “Area X” is about the transformation of live sets into the fantastical world. “To the Lighthouse” examines the visual effects and how they’re incorporated into the storytelling.



Thursday, May 24, 2018

Review: Beast"

I had never heard of Jessie Buckley before, but I shan't soon forget her after her ravishing, emotionally outsized performance in the erotic thriller, "Beast."

Buckley appeared on one of those "anybody can be a star" TV programs in Great Britain a few years ago, and has since made a name for herself as a singer, stage and TV actress. This is her first starring film role and, if we're lucky, the prelude to many more.

There's a startling immediacy to her screen presence; we don't sense the usual thespian tricks and remove of the craft. Buckley is just there, right in front of us, never hiding.

She plays Moll, the youngest daughter of a well-to-do family living on a picturesque, unnamed British island. When I first glimpsed her, I thought Moll to be a teenager, but that's just how everyone treats her. Geraldine James plays her disciplinarian mother, who views Moll as a mere extension of herself and her household.

Moll's older siblings (Oliver Maltman and Shannon Tarbet) are already married and starting families, so she's expected to stay at home, caring for her dementia-stricken father, and offer endless obedience. She works in the day as a tour bus guide, droning to blue-haired ladies about the island where she's lived her whole life, but which holds no enchantment.

She's upstaged at her own birthday party, and exercises a rare moment of rebellion by sneaking away to a club, dancing until dawn. We sense this may just be the happiest night of Moll's life, until the fellow she's with gets handsy. Luckily Pascal Renouf (Johnny Flynn) shows up to chase him away, wielding the rifle he's been using to poach rabbits.

Problem is, Pascal is far scarier than the fellow he ran off. With his hollow face etched with scars, framed by scruffy pale hair and beard, blue eyes that stare with unnerving clarity, ragged clothes and hands casually stained with blood, Pascal is like a primordial version of man sprung from the sea, a hunter wandering among the prey.

Moll is instantly captivated by him, and they soon begin a torrid affair that causes much frowning. At first it's just because of tired class divisions -- he wears black jeans to a country club dinner! -- but soon there are whisperings about his sordid past.

More disturbingly, a series of murders is plaguing the isle, one dead girl turning up after another. They've all been raped and suffocated, their mouths stuffed with raw earth. Pascal easily becomes the prime suspect, and by extension Moll becomes a target herself for the community's ire.

Clifford (Trystan Gravelle), a police officer who's long harbored a crush for her, tries to warn Moll off, but is rebuffed. More official inquiries soon follow; the lies start to pile up.

Moll, a girl who's been a victim her entire life, is resentful that everyone is pressing down on Pascal, ruining her first -- possibly only? -- chance at love. But part of her can't shake the suspicion the accusations are true.

She even starts to have daydreams about committing unspeakable acts herself. A tidbit from her own past reminds us that sudden, sharp violence is not unknown to her. Moll occasionally plucks random long hairs she discovers growing from her body.

Is Pascal the beast, or she? Or maybe they both are, and he just wears his malevolence more outwardly?

Writer/director Michael Pearce, making his feature film debut, gives us an astonishingly evocative film in which the spoken words carry the least of the information to the audience. Much of the movie is spent just looking at Moll, seeing how awkward and timid she is, then watching her grow -- not always in a positive way -- in the warmth of Pascal's seething glow.

Buckley has an amazingly frank, raw, almost feral beauty. With her one-sided smile and tangle of crimson curls, we know in our hearts Moll was always the bullied girl at school, the one they called ugly who never had a boyfriend. She's internalized that abuse to such an extent it's become an intrinsic part of her shriveled personality.

She is the unwanted, the woman everyone takes for granted. Now someone finally wants her for her, and she throws herself into that desire with frightening abandon.

There's one brief, wonderful scene where Moll has come home after a night out with Pascal. Her hands are filthy, and she sits on the couch, grinding her crusted fingernails into the pristine cushions, leaving tracks of filth. Her face beams with dark satisfaction in this act, the good little girl finally finding the fierce woman inside.

"Beast" is a gorgeous, sensuous, forbidding work of cinema. It's like a warm embrace, and then it starts to squeeze with a killer's strength.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Review: "Solo: A Star Wars Story"

“Solo: A Star Wars Story” is in a lot of ways daring, and in other ways plays it very safe.

It’s the first film in the franchise to cast another actor as one of the principal characters from the first trilogy, and attempt to sketch out a backstory for that universe’s most deliberately vague period: what smuggler/rogue/occasional nerf herder Han Solo was doing in the years before he bumped into Luke and Leia.

By all accounts Harrison Ford -- who seems to be lobbying to kill off all his iconic characters with the exception of Indiana Jones -- is happy to pass along Han’s mantle to Alden Ehrenreich. My guess is most audience members will be fine with it, too. Ehrenreich is cocky, twinkly and likeable.

(Wait until they cast someone besides Carrie Fisher as Leia, and we’ll see how people feel. Btw, I don't count Darth Vader because other actors played Annakin before his fall.)

The result is a film that’s fun and frivolous. There aren’t really a lot of stakes, since we know Han is going to survive, meet up with furry friend Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and acquire the Millennium Falcon in a game of cards with fellow scoundrel Lando Calrissian (a charismatic Donald Glover).

Pretty much any other character who shows up, we can make some good guesses about their fate.

There are two main new ones. Emilia Clarke plays Qi’ra, who grew up with Han on Correllia, a junk planet where runaway kids work for a local crime boss. They are separated while attempting their escape, and Han vows to become a pilot, buy (or otherwise acquire) his own ship and return for her. Instead, he winds up in the trenches as a grunt soldier for the Empire, after being kicked out of their version of pilot school.

The two do eventually meet up again, though circumstances are very much changed. Despite the old passion still burning, they play a cat-and-mouse game with their faith in each other.

The other main addition is Woody Harrelson as Tobias Beckett, an old scallywag who takes Han under his wing. He teaches him how to shoot a blaster with finesse, pull off daring heists and, above all, to trust no one.

Paul Bettany turns up as Dryden Vos, the scarred, sneering boss for the criminal syndicate, Crimson Dawn. The long and short of it: after failing to steal a batch of hyperspace fuel from the Empire, Beckett and Han are tasked with pilfering a load of its unstable raw component from a mining world deep within the dangerous Kessel nebula.

If that name sounds familiar, especially in context with the avowed speed of a certain spaceship, you won’t come away disappointed. 

Phoebe Waller-Bridge provides the voice and motion of L3, Lando’s sassy droid/copilot. It’s a very different take on the subservient role robots usually take in the Star Wars universe, with L3 making puns about her supposed “organic overlord,” and encouraging other droids to rise up against their masters.

Director Ron Howard isn’t known as a master of action scenes, and I often found the fights hard to follow. The film also seemed very murky to me, as if they shot it without a lot of foreground lighting, though that may just have been the theater where I saw it.

But Howard, who took over the film from a pair of co-directors several months into production, finds a nice balance between comedy, character development and laser blasts. The screenplay is by Star Wars veteran Lawrence Kasdan -- hey, how come no one’s ever thought to let him direct one of these? -- and his son, Jonathan.

I feel about “Solo: A Star Wars Story” about the same as I did “Rogue One,” “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi.” They’re fun rides, and I like dancing around in this universe as much as anyone. But they don’t hold a candle to the original trilogy, which no one would debate, and aren’t even as good as the second trilogy -- a statement I know will inflame my fellow geeks everywhere.

It’s a peppy rehash, but a rehash it remains.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Jamaica Inn" (1939)

Though it's largely a forgotten film, "Jamaica Inn" is notable for a number of reasons. It was a huge commercial (thought not critical) hit, marking the heyday of star and producer Charles Laughton, who gives a daffy, twinkly performance as an off-kilter nobleman/crime lord.

It was also the first major screen role for Maureen O'Hara, who was discovered by Laughton and signed to an exclusive contract that defined the early part of her career. She'd already made a big splash as a teenage stage star, and they would next go on to star together in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," making O'Hara an international sensation. She and Laughton enjoyed a convivial father/daughter relationship that lasted until his death in 1962.

The film was the last British production for director Alfred Hitchcock, who chafed under Laughton's lordly yoke, including demands for many retakes and closeups, and departed for Hollywood thereafter.

"Jamaica Inn" essentially marks the last time Hitch worked as a hired gun instead of the shot-caller. He reportedly deplored the final film, and many Hitchcock observers consider it his worst.

It was also the first of three times Hitchcock adapted a novel by Daphne du Maurier, the other two being "Rebecca" and "The Birds," two of his biggest successes. Though du Maurier was reportedly irked by the many changes the movie made to the book, including transforming the villain from a clergyman to a justice of the peace.

(Though that was owing to the British censors, who deemed no man of the cloth could be depicted as evil.)

Despite its low reputation, I largely enjoyed the picture. It's hauntingly beautiful, replete with gorgeous black-and-white compositions by cinematographers Bernard Knowles and Harry Stradling, including lots of slanted light and shadows that shows the influence of German Expressionism.

What to say of Laughton's performance as Sir Humphrey Pengallan? It's like a ride on a motorcycle lashed to a runaway rocket: you either strap in and go along for the trip, or you don't.

Sir Humphrey is a high-living squire in the remote Cornish coast who's also the local justice of the peace, i.e. something like a cross between an Old West sheriff and judge. What nobody knows is that Sir Humphrey is also running a gang of cutthroats operating out of the titular establishment, who deliberately douse the beacon lights on the ocean cliff to lure merchant ships into crashing, making off with the cargo and murdering all the seamen.

With his mincing walk -- Laughton played waltzes in his head to get the flow just right -- juggernaut pomposity and fake caterpillar eyebrows wandering a full two inches above his real ones, Laughton's Sir Humphrey comes across as a psychedelic combination of Baron Harkonnen from "Dune" and Hannibal Lecter's swishier cousin.

Laughton himself reportedly envisioned the role as an extension of his Oscar-winning one from "The Private Life of Henry VIII" a few years earlier. As producer, he was in a position to make that vision real.

Sir Humphrey's house is an immense Versailles-like palace, with lavish banquets and a parade of noble guests. His extravagant outfits are a miracle of rotund ostentatiousness, a cornucopia of shiny buttons, double-breasted vests and dickeys, topped off in later scenes by a leering black tophat.

Sir Humphrey's schemes start to go awry with the arrival of O'Hara's Mary, a young orphan girl just arrived from Ireland. Her aunt, Patience (Marie Ney), lives at the Jamaica Inn with her brutish husband Joss Merlyn (Leslie Banks), the ringleader of the "land pirates" wrecking the ships. He's secretly beholden to Sir Humphrey, who provides information about the richest passing ships from his position and social engagements.

Joss is portrayed as drunken lout, but the utterly devoted Patience has loads of... well, you get it. She sticks to him until the end (which is also her own)

Joss would like to throw Marie out on her head right away, or possibly rape her, but there are other matters to attend to. Marie witnesses Joss and his gang attempt to hang a mouthy new recruit, Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton). She cuts him down and rescues him, and then they're both on the lam.

Turns out Trehearne is really an undercover officer of the court sent to investigate the spate of shipwrecks. He and Marie take refuge at Sir Humphrey's, unaware of his involvement, leading to an inevitable showdown in which Sir Humphrey double-crosses... pretty much everybody.

Growing increasingly kooky, Sir Humphrey tries to make a getaway to France with Mary as his captive and intended sex slave. Things end with him plummeting to his death after a deliberate leap from the topmost rigging of a ship -- the high man finally brought low, aboard the same type of conveyance he targeted to fill his insatiable greed.

The only other cast member who makes any kind of deep impression is Emlyn Williams as Harry the Pedlar, Joss' suspicious number two. Young, thin as a whippet and dressed like a downmarket dandy -- always wearing a cockeyed tophat of his own -- Harry has a terrifying penchant for whistling to let his intended victims know of their fate.

In many ways, he's like a shrunk-down, funhouse mirror reflection of Sir Humphrey.

You'd definitely have to rank "Jamaica Inn" as a minor work in the Hitchcock oeuvre. But it's not nearly as bad many have regarded it, and stands as a waypoint for many important careers.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Video review: "Early Man"

For those of us who care about the viability of feature films as a platform for stop-motion animation, the failure of “Early Man” was disturbing. It was a product of Aardman Animations, which is basically the Pixar of this particular niche of moviemaking (“Wallace & Gromit,” “Chicken Run,” etc.). It was a critical and box office flop.

If these guys can’t get it right, it makes it harder to for other stop-motion films to get produced.

The setup is that a group of Stone Age folks have their happy little valley invaded by Bronze Age types, and are thrown out so the natural resources can be exploited. Dug (Eddie Redmayne), the puckish young member of the tribe who’s always pressing them to try new ideas, travels to their adversary’s city and finds out the entire populace is nuts for football. (What we Yanks call soccer.)

He challenges the imperious Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) to a match against his top team, Real Bronzio, made up entirely of giant Nordic types. If they win, they get their homeland back. If not, they must abandon it forever. Thus commences a few days of intensive training, helped by Goona (Maisie Williams), a city woman who herself dreams of playing in the all-male game.

It’s a colorful film, and the soccer action gets the juices flowing in the second half. There are also a few solid throwaway jokes. My favorite involves the aged chief of Dug’s tribe (voice of Timothy Spall), fighting off decrepitude at the age of 32.

But overall, it just doesn’t have the smarts and zing of other Aardman efforts.

Let me offer this caveat: although I was somewhat bored by the film when I first reviewed it, I caught it a second time in the company of my boys, ages 4 and 7, who positively adored it. And I will say I actually enjoyed it more upon second viewing.

Here’s hoping more, and better, stop-motion animated movies are just around the corner.

Video extras are merely adequate, and are the same for Blu-ray and DVD editions. They consist of four making-of featurettes: “Before the Beginning of Time: Creating Early Man,” “Nick Park: Massaging the Funny,” “The Valley Meets the Bronze” and “Hanging at Aardman Studios: A Workshop Exploration.”



Thursday, May 17, 2018

Review: "Deadpool 2"

The first “Deadpool” was the naughty, foul-mouthed cousin of the Marvel Comic Universe -- sharing much DNA but separated by sensibilities and different studios. One of the running jokes of the lively sequel is that they can’t afford any of the “expensive” other heroes to share the screen as they did in the latest “Avengers” flick… though they manage to sneak in some cameos.

Once again, unkillable killer Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), aka Deadpool, visits the mansion of the X-Men school, only to find the same two downmarket mutants around: the steely Colossus (voice of Stefan Kapičić) and the firecracker teen Negasonic. Though there’s a quick peek at some of the other X-folk hiding out in an antechamber.

It’s another slapdash, freewheeling train of one-liners and ultra-violence, with Deadpool as our merry ringmaster. If you’ll remember from the last movie, Wilson was a special forces soldier turned mercenary who was experimented upon nastily, rendering him a scarred monster who can nonetheless heal virtually any wound.

The thing about Deadpool isn’t that he’s indestructible -- he’s most very destructible. He gets destructed, or deconstructed, on several occasions, only to knit himself back together. In an early sequence he decides to blow himself up over some sad occasions, only to have the pieces bundled up to reform again.

Without giving anything away, Deadpool finds himself in need of a new purpose in life, and latches onto a 14-year-old mutant from New Zealand, Russell (Julian Dennison), who dubs himself Fire Fist. (He likes the kid too much to tell him how awful the moniker is.) He’s a troubled youngster heading down a dark path.

Around this same time, a strange cyborg dude from the future, Cable (Josh Brolin, playing his second super-baddie this month), pops up to take out Russell for some crimes his adult self committed. He’s got a metal arm, robotic eagle eye and a surly attitude. It becomes a running battle, with Cable wielding a variety of futuristic weapons and Deadpool his ability to take a punch and give a quip.

When things don’t work out with joining the X-Men, he even decides to start his own super-team, naming it X-Force for reasons of gender equality, and because he couldn’t think of anything more original. It’s a gangly crew of low-level mutants and one extraterrestrial, although Domino (Zazie Beetz), a churlish lass who claims her power is “good luck,” seems like a keeper.

The film is directed by David Leitch, a veteran stunt coordinator who made the leap behind the camera with “Atomic Blonde,” which for my money was even better than the similar “John Wick” flicks. The screenplay is a return of the same trio, Simon Kinberg, Lauren Shuler Donner and Reynolds himself.

The sequel has a few dead spots around the middle, though it’s still an insanely smart, fast-paced merry-go-round of fun and f-words. Deadpool again repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, commenting upon the movie as it unspools.

For instance, one background player from the last movie gets a brief, nervous speech, and Deadpool immediately declares, “No more speaking lines for you!”

Or, when Cable delivers another gravelly bit of doom dialogue: “You seem very dark. Are you sure you’re not from the DC Universe?” Before Colossus is about to go toe-to-toe with a very large, cult favorite villain, Deadpool announces “the big CGI fight.”

Make sure to stick around for the end credits, where Deadpool makes some unexpected appearances in related superhero venues, including one hilarious reprisal, which I’ll not spoil. “Just cleaning up the timelines,” he offers.

It’s not quite as funny or filthy as its predecessor. But “Deadpool 2” still has a gleeful sense of shamelessness to it that, at least in this little corner of the superhero genre, fits like leather spandex.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Review: "RGB"

I admit I did not have high hopes for the “RBG.” Documentaries about a public figure, made by people who are admittedly big admirers of their subject, tend to be uncritical and uninteresting. I prefer my documentary films to be exploratory and journalistic; but the favored mode today, especially on political topics, is hard-edged polemics.

So “RBG” is a pleasant surprise. Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, both veterans of the documentary genre, it’s a movie that is clearly in love with its subject, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the diminutive, soft-spoken woman who has become the lioness of the liberal wing of the Supreme Court. Yet it’s not afraid to poke into the life of a very private person, and ask at least a handful of critical questions.

A pioneer of gender equity law, who argued a half-dozen cases before the SCOTUS (winning five) before being appointed a judge herself, Ginsburg has gained notoriety in recent years. Indeed, she’s become a bona fide pop culture icon, with T-shirts, memorabilia and even tattoos heralding her as “The Notorious R.G.B.,” a play on the pseudonym of rapper Biggie Smalls.

The portrait that emerges from the film is at once intimate but also iconographic. Ginsburg goes by a number of other nicknames: Kiki to her childhood friends, Tata to her grandkids, the Great Dissenter to those on the left who relish her increasingly frequent dissents in sharply divided court cases, which Ginsburg has taken to reading in person from the bench to register her disapproval.

She’s an outwardly simple yet inwardly complex figure, someone who has literally lived for her work, loving the law so much that, even at age 84, she often works until the wee hours of the morning, being forced to relent for meals or sleep. Retiring, even shy, raised by Russian immigrants who believed nice women do not raise their voices, Ginsburg is nonetheless softly brilliant and self-possessed.

For example, she is clearly tickled by all the public attention she’s been getting in recent years, making plenty of public appearances, taking photos with fans and even appearing in several of her beloved operas. She’s become an aspirational figure for young people, despite being very old-fashioned herself, barely partaking in pop culture.

In several instances, the filmmakers show Ginsburg some of the stuff about her, which she’s obviously seeing for the very first time, and film her reaction. She bubbles with laughter at Kate McKinnon’s parody/homage of her on “Saturday Night Live.”

With her signature giant glasses, prim judge’s robes accented with feminine collars and slightly stooped frame, her chin perpetually drooping toward her chest, Ginsburg seems like a wizened, wise old bird who has something to say.

In addition to generous interviews with Ginsburg herself, the film also uses archival footage, quotations from her voluminous writings and interviews with friends, colleagues, family members and admirers to draw from. We touch upon her key court cases as a lawyer and then as a justice.

Ginsburg believes that the deepest and most enduring change happens gradually, and her legal career has been “like knitting a sweater” of progressive legal thought, according to a colleague.

I was ravished by the half-century romance between Ginsburg and her husband, Martin, an accomplished lawyer himself who willingly set aside his own career to support his wife. Funny and outgoing to Ruth’s social reticence, theirs was an unmatched match.

“RBG” also looks at some parts of her life that are less flattering, or at least confusing to her admirers. Chief among these was her deep, genuine friendship with Antonin Scalia, the late justice who represented the court’s conservative wing as passionately as she does the leftward side. Both were known for employing acid pens in their court opinions, but also for warm hearts.

Other topics touched on are Ginsburg’s injudicious comments about then-candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 election, which shocked and disappointed even her admirers. And there’s that time she slumped asleep during President Obama’s State of the Union address. Event today, she seems a mite embarrassed.

You don’t have to agree with Ginsburg’s legal opinions to recognize that she’s a great American. I went into “RGB” expecting hollow flattery, and came out wowed by the woman, and the documentary that explores a quietly extraordinary life.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Video review: "Black Panther"

I thoroughly enjoyed “Black Panther,” though I was mystified by the nigh-orgiastic fervor with which others received it. If I were to rank the entire Marvel Comics Universe (MCU) flicks from top to bottom, I’d put this one about square in the middle.

It’s a beautiful-looking film filled with action and dominated by a lordly, charismatic central figure. Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa, recently anointed king of Wakanda, and also the beneficiary of a super-suit and mystical potion that turn him into the titular hero, protector of the kingdom.

But the main villain doesn’t make much of an impact. Michael B. Jordan plays Erik Kilmonger, an American special forces mercenary with a very personal connection to Wakanda. I’m a big fan of Jordan’s talents, but the script gives him little more to do than strut and spew ‘hood bravado, which stands in such stark contrast to the lilting, graceful accents of T’Challa and his subjects.

To the rest of the world, Wakanda is another backward little African nation, shrouded in poverty and isolated mystery. In reality, they’re the most technology advanced nation on Earth. Letitia Wright plays Shuri, the king’s kid sister and brilliant chief scientist.

Danai Gurira is Okoye, leader of the royal elite guard, who are all bald-headed, badass women. Daniel Kaluuya is W’Kabi, T’Challa’s oldest friend and ally, while Winston Duke plays a tribal rival. Martin Freeman is the token white, a Western spy who mostly just gets in the way.

Directed by Ryan Coogler, who co-wrote the script with Joe Robert Cole, “Black Panther” is an exciting spectacle with some very familiar heroic story arcs. There’s an understandable amount of excitement about having such an audacious launch to a superhero franchise featuring an African-American protagonist.

Though, as I keep having to remind people, the superhero movie craze really got started 20 years ago with “Blade.” I’ll still take the first film of that franchise over that of “Panther.”

Bonus features are quite princely. They include a director’s introduction, roundtable discussion of the script, deleted scenes, gag reel, feature-length audio commentary track by Coogler, an overview of the first 10years of the Marvel Comics Universe (MCU), as well as four making-of mini-documentaries touching on various aspects of production.



Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Review: "Disobedience"

“Disobedience” has a storyline that seems, at first, to be very familiar: prodigal child returns to the fold of the cloistered community they grew up in, and subsequently fled in disgrace, to find that things have not changed so very much. In this case, it’s Rachel Weisz as Ronit, who was raised in a strict Orthodox Jewish enclave in London, the only child of the revered Rav (Anton Lesser), the rabbinical leader of their kind.

Now a successful photographer, Ronit is coming home after years away -- I’m guessing around 20 -- because of the death of her father. In a powerful opening sequence, he crumples to the floor of the synagogue while delivering a passionate lesson on free will.

Her reappearance is greeted with something between tolerance and disdain. From the moment she locks eyes with Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), a youngish rabbi, we know there is great history between them. We start to read things into the story: they had a torrid affair, which perhaps caused the schism with her father, who was Dovid’s teacher and he the old man’s star pupil.

Ronit is somewhat shocked to learn that Dovid has married her childhood best friend, Esti (Rachel McAdams). But they seem happy, or at least content, and after agreeing to stay in their house, Ronit learns to accept the situation for what it is. Or at least what we think it is.

It’s another knockout performance by Weisz, who’s been wowing in smaller films for several years now. She might just have the best claim to the title of finest actress working movies today.

In virtually every scene we feel her tension, her resentment, knowing that she is constantly being looked at, spoken about, judged. It’s apparent Ronit was never formally shunned, but clearly everyone views her as the black sheep. She’s crushed when the Rav’s obituary lists him as childless.

Based upon the novel by Naomi Alderman, “Disobedience” was directed by Sebastián Lelio, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Like Lelio’s previous effort, the Oscar-winning “A Fantastic Woman,” this is the tale of a woman who has been relegated as an outsider, resenting this status but also thirsting to be accepted for who she is.

It’s a quietly observant movie that soaks us in the culture of strict British Judaism. For instance, Ronit’s uncle (Allan Corduner) makes his business in women’s wigs. Married women in their sect traditionally cover their hair like Muslims, though they use wigs rather than scarves. The idea is that only her husband is allowed to see her natural hair -- a form of intimacy that ventures disturbingly close to subjugation.

McAdams is very good, too, in an emotionally complex role in which Esti experiences as much turmoil as Ronit, and more intensely so.

As it turns out (spoiler warning), Ronit’s forbidden teenage romance was not with Dovid, but with Esti. Esti is forced to resolve her reawakened feelings, after having spent years trying to adhere to the role of the good Jewish wife. The two actresses’ sex scenes are astonishingly emotional, raw and erotic, despite displaying very little flesh. In contrast, Esti is often nude in Dovid’s presence, but their interactions are virtually sexless.

I was also impressed in Dovid’s portrayal. Most movies of this sort would be eager to pigeonhole him as the villain, and indeed he does not react well upon realizing what is going on underneath his own roof. Dovid is in line to succeed the Rav, so he must face a crisis of conscious of his own as a husband, a spiritual leader and a man living in a patriarchal society that demands he keep his “house in good order.”

Every one of us faces a point in life where we must decide if we are to live according to other’s expectations for us, or our own. “Disobedience” is a fine, insightful film that shows how this choice not so easy or conclusive as we might think.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Sorcerer" (1977)

"Sorcerer" sure is an odd duck of a movie. The best thing you can say about it is it's not like anything else.

The title implies some sort of fantasy/science fiction element, of which there is none. It's based on a 1950 French novel by Georges Arnaud, "The Wages of Fear," and was made into a well-regarded 1953 French-Italian movie of the same name (unseen by me). The story is four desperate men driving trucks loaded with volatile dynamite through the South American jungle, so the movie is closer thematically to "Convoy" than "Wizards," both roughly contemporaneous films.

It's the personal project director William Friedkin chose to make after the runaway successes of "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist," and its soaring costs and box office demise -- buried under the release of "Star Wars" -- more or less ended his career as an A-list director.

The title actually refers to the name given to one of the trucks by the drivers, the other being Lazaro. Friedkin came up with them himself, and in a subsequent interview said it referred to "the evil wizard of fate." It's a pick he came to regret, though it still beats his first choice, "Ballbreaker." More than anything else, the movie's mysterious name helped doom its prospects, as audiences expecting another supernatural thriller in the mold of "The Exorcist" walked out in droves.

Still, Friedkin counts it among his personal favorites. And the moody musical score by Tangerine Dream, their first, launched a decade-long romance between movies and electronic music that I, for one, deeply cherish and that still influences modern film composers like Hans Zimmer. Friedkin personally oversaw a digital restoration of "Sorcerer" released in 2013, and the film is hailed in some critical circles as an overlooked masterpiece.

But not here.

"Sorcerer" has been compared to "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," both films that contemplate the randomness of fate, man's capacity for violence and the way a suffocating environment can seep into their souls.

I can see what Friedkin was aiming for, and certainly appreciated the movie's refusal to sentimentalize its characters or shoehorn them into strict hero/villain categories. Everyone we meet has degrees of nobility and rottenness.

But the stark truth is watching the movie is an often tedious affair, unless you are thrilled by countless close-ups of truck wheels striving against mud, crumbling rock or other terrain while accompanied by the grumbling of engines straining in low gear.

At just a hair over two hours, "Sorcerer" would be much better at a half-hour shorter.

The high point of the film is surely the arduous crossing of a rickety wooden suspension bridge over a swollen river -- a 12-minute sequence that took literally months and millions of dollars to shoot. It really does look like the trucks are teetering at a precarious angle on this ridiculously undersized suspension -- like a rhino trying to balance on a tightrope -- and indeed the vehicles actually reportedly did fall over into the drink several times during production.

The story is quite straightforward, screenplay adaptation by Walon Green, who also penned "The Wild Bunch" and went on to a busy career in television production that continues today. Four international vignettes introduce the men, who each had to leave their home country due to criminal acts. They find themselves stuck in Porvenir, a tiny Latin American village of inexact location, where an American oil company dominates the economy.

When the oil well explodes, the local manager (Ramon Bieri) is given a tight timeline to get the blaze capped and production restarted. The only way to do that is with explosives, and apparently the only dynamite available was stored 200 miles away, rotting away in a jungle shack for a year. Because the nitroglycerine has leaked, any sudden motion would cause it to explode. 

So the four best drivers are recruited to make the arduous journey, with a huge payday balanced against the high likelihood of some of them not making it back.

Now, think about that for a minute. Literally the ONLY dynamite readily available is these dripping, exploding sticks o' doom?!? It strains credulity far past the breaking point to believe the oil honchos, who have their own helicopters, couldn't fly somewhere within a few hundred mile radius to buy some other dynamite. 

Heck, in the week or so time frame it takes the drivers to build two serviceable trucks out of scrap parts and make the trip there and back, they could have flown in several airplanes filled with virgin dynamite fresh out of the factory. As plot holes go, this one's an ocean maelstrom, sucking the film's believability down to the briny depths.

Speaking of the trucks: they're pretty visually interesting, practically characters unto themselves. They're both based on GMC M211 military trucks from the Korean war area, heavily modified to look distinctive.

Sorcerer has a reddish hood, white teeth-like grill bars with ad-hoc headlights mounted above, which gives it the look of an angry crimson insect. Lazaro, the one piloted by star Roy Scheider, resembles a battered elderly man, and is most notable for having its exhaust pipes routed out under the front bumper, so the old fellow is perpetually smoking.

Scheider's character is Jackie Scanlon, a low-level Irish mob crook whose gang knocks over the collections at a local church, with Jackie's hot-headed partner shooting the priest in the process. Turns out it's the personal church of a rival mafia chief, so Jackie is forced to flee the country. He goes by the name Juan Dominguez down south.

It's not your typical role for Roy Scheider, playing a guy who's rather passive and not particularly outspoken. We're so used to seeing him in charge onscreen, and here's a rather miserable lump of a man.

Bruno Cremer plays Victor Manzon, aka Serrano, a French businessman who embezzled a bunch of money along with his brother-in-law. When his father-in-law refuses to repay the debt and they're threatened with ruin and jail, he runs away while the son kills himself.

The last two members of the team are ever shadier. Nilo (Francisco Rabal) is a Mexican assassin who finds himself low on cash and in need of a way out of Porvenir. Amidou plays Kassem, aka Martinez, a Palestinian terrorist whose cell sets off a bomb in one of the opening vignettes, killing a bunch of innocent Israelis.

The fourth member of the team is actually mean to be Marquez (Karl John), another pseudonym for the German who is obviously an officer of the Third Reich hiding out in South America. Nilo kills him and takes his place, bringing about the enmity of the others -- though he eventually earns his place.

I won't bother detailing the driving portion of the movie, other than it's the expected mix of setbacks, crossed directions and conflict within the group. As you could guess, some of the crew do not make it back alive.

I truly wanted to like "Sorcerer" more than I did. I've been trying to see the film for a couple of years, and finally had to settle for a pan-and-scan DVD that did not do the movie's visuals justice.

There's a glorious, grimy saga somewhere inside this film that, like its ill-conceived name, keeps getting misdirected the wrong way.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Video review: "The Insult"

Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) and Yasser Abdallah Salameh (Kamel El Basha) are alike in a lot of ways. They’re both middle-aged, blue-collar men with a deep love of family and pride in their work. Their only difference is the biggest one, which proves to be their undoing: Tony is a native-born Christian Lebanese, while Yasser is a Palestinian refugee.

They come to cross odds in “The Insult,” a powerful drama that was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film. For my money, it was a superior movie to the eventual winner, “A Fantastic Woman.”

Directed by Ziad Doueiri, who also co-wrote the script with Joelle Touma, the film brings the men together over the simplest of disagreements. Yasser has been hired (semi-legally) to oversee street repairs in Tony’s neighborhood. They bicker over a code violation, insults are exchanged, and eventually a physical clash results in injuries and a lawsuit.

Their court case becomes a media sensation, whipped up by Tony’s lawyer (Diamond Bou Abboud), a political insider who seems to be more interested in burnishing his own reputation than arguing the facts. It becomes a case of natives vs. interlopers, Muslims vs. Christians. Things become increasingly nasty and dire; there are protests and threats.

“The Insult” is a splendidly acted film that examines how pride can be a very deadly sin, where two men are willing to risk all that they have rather than lose face. That’s a problem not just in Lebanon, but on our own shores, too.

Video extras are rather modest, being limited to a single featurette, "Conversations from the Quad with Ziad Doueiri and Richard Peña."



Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Review: "Tully"

Director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody broke out together with the release of “Juno” 11 years ago, establishing themselves as important filmmakers while still in their 20s. Their follow-up together, 2011’s “Young Adult,” starring Charlize Theron as a woman stuck on life’s launching pad, disappointed.

Since then, their careers have fluttered in fading notoriety, with Reitman’s “Labor Day” becoming a cinematic laughing stock -- unfairly, imho -- while Cody has largely moved to television (which isn’t the big step down it used to be).

They’re back for a third time, again with Theron, for “Tully.” I don’t know if it will revive their names as A-list filmmakers, but it’s a smart and sensitive portrait of the trials of motherhood, along with a few developments we don’t see coming.

It’s a brave and unexpected movie, and Theron is magnificent in another career-turning role.

After getting lean and spare to play a one-armed warrior in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Theron reportedly gained 50 pounds to portray Marlo, a woman of about age 40 who is giving birth to her third (unplanned) child. At first I thought it was very convincing prosthetics, but the former model went all the way to personify a very convincing postpartum body.

At one point, a completely frazzled Marlo has a drink spilled on her while eating dinner with the children, as her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), returns from another of many business trips. Completely at the end of her rope, she nonchalantly strips off the sopping shirt to reveal a mammoth maternity bra and mottled belly.

“Mommy, what’s wrong with your body?” her oldest, Sarah (Lia Frankland), asks in the sweetest tone.

In addition to the baby, Marlo also struggles with her kindergartner, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), who has serious anxiety issues that cause him to be a disruption at school, and everywhere. The fact he’s undiagnosed, but universally described as “quirky,” only heightens the challenge.

Marlo and Drew have a typical three-kids relationship: someone’s always coming or going, they’re always running late and marital intimacy has been moved to the back burner, and then off the burner to the counter, and then put away in the fridge. Drew seems like a decent guy, but he works all the time, and when he’s home he’s helping with the kids or playing video games.

The primary relationship in the story is between Marlo and Tully, the young “night nanny” who has been hired by Marlo’s wealthy brother (Mark Duplass) as a baby shower gift. This is a person who takes care of the baby so mom and dad can sleep.

(Well, let’s face it, dads: so mom can sleep.)

Tully, played by Mackenzie Davis, is energetic and earnest, endlessly helpful and supportive. She not only watches the baby, she cleans up the house and bakes cupcakes, too. And she initiates a friendship with Marlo that allows the mom to perk up out of her litany of exhaustion and underappreciation.

There’s a lot of bright humor in the film, courtesy of Cody. I loved this exchange in which the two women discuss Marlo’s pre-marriage sex life:

“I rode every horse on the merry-go-round.”
“So which horse is Drew?”
“Drew is… the bench.”

I don’t want to give away too much, but suffice it to say the new friendship proceeds in surprising ways. Marlo struggles with the monotony of parenthood, but Tully advises her that kids need their moms to be “dull and constant.”

I have a number of married friends who have chosen not to have children. “Tully” is the sort of movie that would only validate their decisions, as it depicts parenthood in all its horrible, depressing, exhilarating glory. The truth is Furioso may have been tougher than Mad Max, but someone like Marlo is more than their match.