Monday, July 30, 2018

Reeling Backward: "The Kentuckian" (1955)

Usually when a movie star gets big enough to be in charge of their own films, the resulting pictures tend to be vehicles for them to portray larger-than-life heroes who bestride the globe like a colossus.

So it's interesting that in "The Kentuckian," the first of only two movies he ever directed, Burt Lancaster plays an unsophisticated common man who frequently finds himself the brunt of ridicule and misfortune -- losing the skin off his back, both figuratively and quite literally.

He plays "Big Elias" Wakefield, a rustic son of the Kentucky hills who is on the run -- though he eschews those words -- with his son of about 10 years, Little Eli (Donald MacDonald, who had a short run as a child actor with just three years of credited roles). It seems the Wakefields and the Fromes are the Hatfield and McCoys of the Bluegrass State, carrying on a war of dark deeds so long and bloody, the enmity has engendered its own bit of well-known verse.

Though it's never directly stated, it appears Elias killed a Frome in some sort of dispute, and lit out for Texas to escape his troubles and find some elbow room. An apparent widow (again, we're left to surmise), Elias is an expert hunter and tracker who has little ken when it comes to city life -- which, in 1820s Kentucky, means any collection of shanties where more than a dozen people congregate.

His true home is in the woods, his faithful hunting dog Pharaoh chasing after foxes, their meals whatever game they can catch or shoot, and their bed made by shuffling together a pile of leaves. Lancaster's wide face beams with smiling pride in the outdoor scenes, while a stoic frown overtakes him when they must go into town for supplies or whatnot.

Elias carries the Gideon Horn -- which is also the title of the novel by Felix Holt upon which A.B. Guthrie Jr. based the script -- a massive bone hunting horn that he uses to call Pharaoh back from the chase. Little Eli often bears the horn for him, a totem of their untamed heritage, and tries unsuccessfully to blow out a note himself. When he's finally able to, that means he's become a man, Elias says.

Troubles befall them in myriad form. Elias has the princely sum of $235 saved for their trip, mostly to pay for the ferry ride down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and the ship to Texas. But in town he runs afoul of the local sheriff, who sicced his dog on Pharaoh and didn't like when it lost the fight.

Thrown in jail for resisting when the constable made to shoot his dog, Elias is helped escape by Hannah (Dianne Foster), a local "bought" woman -- aka an indentured servant -- who works for the pub owner in virtual slavery. Little Eli insists she come along with them to Texas, and it seems a nice little domestic group has formed.

But the sheriff and bartender catch up with them (too much sleeping in the leaves, I guess) and demand all their money in bribe to let them go.

Elias had hoped to stop off to visit his older brother, Zack (John McIntire) and his wife, Sophie (Una Merkel), in the riverside village of Humility. But the lack of funds forces them to hole up there for a few months so they can work up a grubstake. Zack's stated intention is to tame Elias and turn him into a businessman like himself, running a trade depot that deals in tobacco, furs, etc.

Sophie takes an instant dislike to Hannah, seeing the lines of affection forming between her and Elias, deeming a "bought girl" as socially unfit to join the family. Hannah takes up working at the local bar run by Stan Bodine, the resident dandy/bully played by Walter Matthau. He has his eyes set on the schoolmarm, Susie Spann (Diana Lynn), so when she takes a shine to Elias that sets up the inevitable conflict between the two men.

Things do not go well for big and little Eli in Humility. The latter can't abide being cooped up inside a schoolhouse all day long when there's sunshine, trees and a great river to enjoy. Elias even lets Aunt Sophie tie up Pharaoh, which breaks both the boy's heart and the dog's spirit.

Elias is mocked by the townsfolk for his buckskin clothes and quaint ways. The derision grows to a fever pitch when he finds a huge pearl while harvesting river oysters. He consults a traveling salesman, Ziby Fletcher (John Carradine), impressed by the man's eloquent speechifyin'. Elias is cagey enough to know the (almost literal) snake oil shyster is a fraud, but figures someone that learned can clue him in where to get a good price on the pearl. Little does he know freshwater pearls are worthless compared to the saltwater kind.

Seeing a chance to secure his place in town by kowtowing to Bodine, Fletcher makes up a story about former President James Monroe being the biggest collector of river pearls in the land. Elias writes a letter to the ex0president, paying four bits in postage. The ruse sprung, the menfolk all enjoy a good laugh at Elias, while little Eli endures taunts by schoolchildren: "Your pa is President Pearl!"

Undoubtedly the most famous scene in the movie is the showdown between Elias and Bodine. It's initiated when Bodine sends his son to pick a fight with little Eli -- much the same way that sheriff sent his dog after Elias' -- and the boy is bloodied by a makeshift whip of rope. The boys are separated and the fathers take up their places, with Bodine wielding a real whip against the unarmed Elias, who is soon cut to pieces. He finally prevails, but only when Hannah surreptitiously intervenes to trap Bodine's whip under her wagon wheel.

I also enjoyed a jaunty little gambling scene aboard the steamboat Gordon C. Greene -- the same one used in "Gone With the Wind." Elias makes a show of his big bag of gold (actually Zack's money) to pass himself off as a rube, conning the con men by placing some smaller bets in conjunction with the experienced gambler demonstrating the game of roulette.

The idea is to lure in the sucker by showing him how easy it is to win, but Elias knows the game is rigged and he will win as long as he mirrors the other man's bets. After winning $280, he, little Eli and Pharaoh are then chased around the ship by the gamblers, who instruct the pilot not to stop at Humility, so they're forced to jump for it and swim to shore.

The proprietor of the steamboat -- though not involved with the gamblers -- is Pleasant Tuesday Babson (John Litel), a colorful figure who's recruiting pioneers to help settle Texas. He takes an instant liking to Elias, seeing him as the perfect specimen for wide open lands. However, by this time Zack and Susie have gotten their claws into him, and Elias is determined to stay.

The story wraps, not entirely convincingly, with the arrival of two Fromes brothers to claim their revenge. Played without credit by Paul Wexler and Douglas Spencer, these are twin, grim specters, so lean and hollow-eyed they appear to have set aside all nutrition in their crusade. After the obligatory shoot-out, in which both Bodine and Babson are collateral casualties and Hannah against saves Elias' bacon, Hannah, Elias and Eli resolve on the spot to unite into a family.

It brings the film to an abrupt end, without even so much as a final pull-out shot of the trio riding the steamboat south toward their fate.

As a director, Lancaster gets lively, authentic performances out of his cast. He seems to have largely left the camera work to veteran cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, resulting in some picturesque scenes of the countryside and river. The film was shot almost entirely on location in Kentucky, and it shows.

"The Kentuckian" is a very atypical adventure story for its time. Elias Wakefield is an ordinary man who carries a rifle, but never even fires it once in the course of the picture. He largely looks to avoid conflict, and when he does resort to battles of fists or wits, he always comes up on the losing side -- or would, if it weren't for help from Hannah.

It would be interesting to see this film remade from her point of view. She's actually the one who makes everything good happen for Elias, and in that sense Hannah is the truest Kentuckian.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Video review: "The Miracle Season"

“The Miracle Season” is a pretty typical sports flick, with a few worthwhile exceptions.

It focuses on volleyball, not historically a cinematic gold mine, and features a high school girls’ team. I’m trying to even think of another recent women’s sports movie -- “Bend It Like Beckham” is all I can come up without resorting to Google, and that was 16 years ago.

More importantly, this drama features not one but two Oscar winners in leading roles: Helen Hunt as Kathy “Brez” Bresnahan, the longtime coach of West High School Iowa City, and William Hurt as Ernie Found, a doctor and father of the team’s best player, Caroline aka “Line” (Danika Yarosh).

Line is an exuberant personality who would be the center of attention even if she wasn’t captain of the team, which has a long string of state championships under its belt. When she tragically dies early on, it shakes up the entire team, and community.

Erin Moriarty plays Kelly, Line’s best friend and a marginal player on the team. She suddenly finds the mantle of leadership thrust into her hands, and struggles with the role. There’s also conflict with Brez, who is aces at the X’s and O’s of the game but not really a touchy-feely type. She learns to come out of her shell a bit and coach them not just in the game, but how to handle their emotions after a devastating loss.

The movie -- directed by Sean McNamara from a screenplay by Elissa Natsueda and David Arron -- follows the traditional path of sports movies. The team goes from presumed favorites to underdogs stringing up a bunch of losses or forfeitures. But they eventually get their act together to take another run at the state title.

Nobody is going to confuse “The Miracle Season” with groundbreaking cinema. But it takes a tried-and-true formula, executes it well and tosses in some superlative acting and spotlighting of an overlooked sport to give it distinction.

Video extras are disappointingly slim. There’s a single documentary short, “Star Player,” and a gallery of production stills.



Thursday, July 26, 2018

Review: "Mission: Impossible -- Fallout"

Image result for mission impossible fallout

I’ve felt pretty much the same about all the “Mission: Impossible” movies. They’re great fun, filled with stunts and double-crosses and gunplay and explosions, and at least two scenes per movie of Tom Cruise running. And a week after I’ve seen one, I forget all about it. Now, they all sort of merge together in the mind.

This is apparently the sixth one in the series, and a few familiar faces are back, besides Cruise as superspy Ethan Hunt. There’s Ving Rhames as Luther, reliable wing man and munitions expert; Simon Pegg as Benji, a British tech whiz; Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa, an MI6 agent who sometimes helps Ethan and sometimes chases after him; and Angela Bassett and Alec Baldwin as civilian spook leaders, always with the lip and the second-guessing.

Even the villain is recycled from the last flick: Sean Harris as Solomon Lane, a terrorist who wants to rain great suffering down upon in the world in order to bring about global peace, or something. He was captured by Ethan in the previous movie, but as we well know confinement can be a pretty temporary state in the MI series.

There’s two notable inductions of new blood. Vanessa Kirby plays the White Widow, a wealthy philanthropist who’s secretly dealing in arms and all sorts of nasty stuff on the side. She regards Ethan as a delectable snack that might or might not have something distasteful at the center, and she’s trying to decide whether to take a bite.

As the story opens, three plutonium cores have been stolen from Russia. The Widow is willing to sell them in exchange for springing Lane out of prison on behalf of his crew, the Syndicate.

The other newbie is Henry Cavill as Walker, a feared CIA assassin who’s assigned to shadow Ethan’s team and report back on any rogue activities. He’s got a sort of hulking, grim charisma -- a guy who can smile at you and then pummel you to a pulp, depending on the demands of the situation.

Early on Cavill and Cruise share a terrific fight scene in a restroom against a guy they think is buying the nukes from the Widow. The plan is to drug him, then whip up one of those cool insta-masks Ethan’s gang is known for, impersonate him and seal the deal. It doesn’t exactly go that way, and the two spies find more than their match in a dude about half Cavill’s size.

(This is the scene with the much talked-about “fist reload” move, which you can Google if you like.)

Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie, returning from the last go-round, gives us a cavalcade of over-the-top action scenes and daring stunts. Many of them recognizably feature Cruise doing his own stunts, which adds to the sense of peril. (He f’real broke an ankle during production, finished the shot and limped out of the frame, and you can tell he ain’t faking.)

There’s one long chase where Ethan pursues some bad guys on a motorcycle, then climbs into a car and immediately finds himself chased by somebody on another motorcycle. Plus a daring duel of helicopters -- both in the air and otherwise -- dank basement shoot-outs, foot races through Paris and London, and a whole lot of other gee-whiz candy.

The action sequences are interrupted by talkie scenes in which the characters set up the next kerblooie part. If you stop and listen to it, it’s pretty bonkers, since people start spouting minute details about things they could not possibly know about.

“We’ve managed to isolate the code on Lark’s electronic wristband so we can track him.” Oh? How did you do that without even knowing who he is, or what he looks like, or who gave him the wristband?

Whatever. These scenes blessedly do not last very long, as the last thing anybody wants to experience in a “Mission: Impossible” movie is copious dialogue. Personally I think they’d be better if they just took out all the plot and had 2½ hours of Cruise running and jumping and doing heroic stuff.

I’ll say this: at 56, he’s giving Cary Grant a run for his money as the star who aged most gracefully. It’s the same with these MI movies, which have a timeless Dorian Gray quality, never really changing much.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Video review: "Ready Player One"

Many of us are living significant chunks of our lives inside virtual spaces these days, probably without even noticing. Example: My son and I have been co-playing a fantasy war game on our phones, bonding over downing gruesome beasties and recruiting an especially powerful new hero. I’d defy anyone to label it anything other than a positive shared experience.

But there is a downside to constructed realities in general and video games specifically, one that “Ready Player One” explores in the form of a dystopian future where most of the important reactions happen inside the Oasis, a virtual reality where people can pretend to be just about anything.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a high school senior living in poverty -- both in the real world, where he resides in stacks of trailer homes, and in the Oasis where he plays a low-level nobody named Parzival. But there is a grand contest going on, put on by the deceased co-creator of this world, and the winner gets to control the entire Oasis.

Needless to say, some corporate bad guys are gaming the game to try to get an advantage. Ben Mendelsohn plays the CEO of a conglomerate that is flooding the system with anonymous players called Sixers all working in conjunction to win the booty. But the whole world is upended when humble Parzival manages to unlock the first door.

Soon an all-out war is brewing. Wade finds allies in Aech (Lena Waithe), his longtime friend and running buddy, as well as Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a legendary player that he has been harboring a crush on. All the legions will gather to do battle.

Like a lot of director Steven Spielberg’s more popcorn-y movies, “Ready Player One” is a visually dazzling picture that’s a lot of fun, but also hides some hefty themes just under the surface.

In the Oasis people can do stuff that’s straight out of a 14-year-old’s daydream -- Parzival races the DeLorean from “Back to the Future” in a smash-and-dash race, for instance. But they also spend much of their lives wearing VR headsets and suits, eschewing the dank corporeal world for one filled with pleasures and eye candy. I don’t think it’s accidental that whenever the filmmakers pull us out of the Oasis to see what’s going on in the RL (real life), the movie’s energy takes a dip.

Based on the novel by Ernest Cline, who co-wrote the script with Zak Penn, “Ready Player One” is an entertaining movie that also shows us the dark side of the entertainment machine.

Video extras are decent, though not as lavish as you’d expect from a big-budget Spielberg picture. They consist of six making-of documentary shorts:

  • “Game Changer: Cracking the Code”
  • “Effects for the Brave New World”
  • “Level Up: Sound for the Future”
  • “High Score: Endgame”
  • “Ernie & Tye’s Excellent Adventure”
  • “The ‘80s: You’re the Inspiration”



Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: "The Equalizer 2"

There’s a rote sense of sameness to “The Equalizer 2.” The original action/thriller four years ago starred Denzel Washington as an ex-CIA killer plying his skills for the benefit of random strangers -- the Good Samaritan with a heaping helping of chock-socky. It was (very) loosely based on the 1980s TV show, which starred a dapper Brit instead of a stern middle-aged black man.

If you liked the first one, you’ll probably find the second agreeable. There just aren’t many surprises or new revelations to recommend it.

Old guy. Who kicks ass. That’s the movie.

Every scene starts for the proposition of, “How could this frumpy guy bumping up against senior citizen status possibly take out multiple bad guys each decades his junior?” And then he does.

It’s fun for a while. The whole film is like a magician performing variations on the same trick, over and over again. At some point you get tired of seeing the hare come out of the hat and want them to saw a lady in half, or something.

Director Antoine Fuqua returns, having paired with Washington on a number of films now over nearly two decades. The star and the filmmaker seem to have an innate sense of each other’s rhythm, so we don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the inner workings of Robert McCall. Instead, we feel like we just know him.

He’s lonely, a bit bitter. Bad stuff has happened in his life -- chiefly the death of his wife, Vivian. But he puts on a brave face and encourages those around him to be the best version of themselves. Robert is presumed dead by the CIA, and appears to move around every few years to start a new life. Strangely, he never changes his name, and nobody ever comes looking for him.

In the last film he was a stockboy at a hardware wholesaler; this time he’s a driver for Lyft. He tools around Boston in a black Chevy Malibu, picking up and dropping off people, listening to their conversations and acting as a voyeur in their lives instead of living one of his own.

Occasionally he hears something distressing, and decides to help. In the opening sequence aboard a speeding train in Turkey, he takes on a villain who has kidnapped his own daughter from his American wife. Later, he faces off with some young Wall Street types who have used a stripper poorly and expect Robert to ferry away the problem.

On the side he’s also helping an elderly Jewish man (Orson Bean) track down a valuable painting of his sister that was stolen during the Holocaust. And mentoring Miles (Ashton Sanders), a black teenager bouncing between his affinity for art and running with the wrong crowd.

The meat of the central story doesn’t get rolling until the 45-minute mark, and when it does it’s not particularly interesting. A CIA asset in Belgium is killed along with his wife, and made to look like a murder/suicide. Then those responsible set about “tying up loose ends,” which appears to mean killing anyone even remotely involved with the affair. This leads to more loose ends, and so on. Jonathan Scarfe is effective as one of the chief bad guys, the type of who sneers while he kills.

Mellissa Leo plays Susan, a friend of Robert’s -- his only one, really -- who still works at the CIA and helps him out with info. Bill Pullman is her husband, a doddering academic. Pedro Pascal plays Dave, Robert’s old partner who’s surprised to find out he’s still alive.

Written by Richard Wenk, who also penned the first movie, “The Equalizer 2” contains a whole lot of hand-to-hand combat, yet when it comes to storytelling it telegraphs its punches like an over-the-hill fighter with a huge windup.

The audience figures out who the chief antagonist is long before Robert does. It’s never a good thing for a super spy to seem slow on the uptake.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Sergeant York" (1941)

Of all his many roles, "Sergeant York" may well be the one that is most quintessential to the iconography of Gary Cooper.

It was never truer of anyone the old saw that actors play roles, but movie stars play themselves. Cooper made a career out of portraying simple, straightforward men of unimpeachable integrity, humility and all-American values. His protagonists were usually dim, or at least poorly educated, though they possessed a homespun sort of caginess -- especially with regard to the manly arts of shooting, building and fixing.

But not romancing. When it came to women, Cooper's coterie of characters were usually adorably inept, more often the catcher of woo rather than the pitcher.

"Sergeant York" was the top-grossing film of 1941, an unabashedly patriotic picture that was helped by playing at the same time as Pearl Harbor. It won Cooper his first Academy Award (the other being for "High Noon"), launching the richest period of his career.

I was surprised how little of the movie actually depicts the wartime exploits of Alvin York, the most decorated American soldier of World War I. The film doesn't even get us to the European front until the last half-hour, and York's solitary charge upon a series of German machine gun nests takes but a few minutes.

Astonishingly -- but historically accurate -- Alvin single-handedly killed more than 20 enemies and captured 132 more. This from a deeply religious man who applied for, and was denied, exemption from the military draft as a conscientious objector.

Most of the story, by a quintet of screenwriters that included John Huston, concerns itself with York's pastoral existence in Pall Mall, Tenn., right near the Kentucky border, and his transformation from hard-drinking ne'er-do-well to resolute man of the Bible. Director Howard Hawks focuses his camera lovingly on the hardscrabble landscapes and wood-plank shanties that make up York's community, where everyone is either a farmer or a vendor to them.

I enjoyed this section, especially the presence of ol' reliable character actor Walter Brennan, who plays the local preacher as well as owner of the local supply store. With wire-rim glasses and improbable black eyebrows, Pastor Pile gently tries to steer Alvin toward a church-going life, rather than hanging out with his drinking buddies, occasionally riding into town and shooting his initials into the tree in front of the meeting house.

Margaret Wycherly plays York's mother, a prototypical long-suffering woman of unshakeable values, who always believes in Alvin's inherent goodness even when it's hard for others to see. Widow York and her three children live on the rocky "topland," struggling to grow a decent crop every year. Both she and Brennan received their own Oscar nominations.

Everyone speaks in a very provincial manner, which grows a little tiresome, adding "a's" before verbs: "I'm a-goin' to enter this here beef 'n' turkey shoot," etc.

Things don't really change for Alvin until he runs into Gracie (Joan Leslie), a spunky local girl, and quickly resolves to marry her. Leslie was just 15 years old when they shot the movie, nearly a quarter-century younger than Coop, who reportedly gave her a gift of a doll on the set. 

Alvin resolves to purchase some prime "bottomland" to entice Gracie, who of course loves him for who he is rather than material worth. Much of the middle section of the movie is taken up with Alvin working day and night to raise the money for a piece of land. He trades virtually everything of value he owns (except his rifle) to Mr. Tomkins (Erville Alderson) for a $50 down payment on the land, with 60 days to come up with the other $70.

With things coming down to the wire, Alvin enters a "beef and turkey shoot" contest, improbably pulling out six bullseyes in a row -- one bird, five targets -- to win the rest of the money. Only then he finds out Tomkins has broken his word and sold the land to Zeb Andrews (Robert Porterfield), the local equivalent of a "snooty rich kid," and also a competitor for Gracie's affections (or so Alvin thinks).

His dreams of having his own marital homestead dashed, Alvin seems destined to go down a dark road that will lead to murder. But during a thunderstorm on the way to revenge, lightning strikes his rifle, turning it into melted taffy. Alvin and his mule are struck senseless but unharmed, which he takes as a sign from God. A montage or two later, and he's teaching the Bible to Sunday school classes, just in time for war to break out.

Alvin's military commanders are initially suspicious of his country bumpkin routine and aversion to taking another life. He and the captain actually get into a bit of a Bible quote-off, each reciting verses that buttress their argument about the Lord's attitude on killing. After the C.O. grants Alvin furlough to go home, perch in the hills and ruminate upon the matter like an Old Testament figure, they essentially agree to disagree, taking the chance Alvin will perform his duty when the time comes.

And we know how that turned out.

"Sergeant York" is a cracklin' corn piece of enthusiastic patriotism, though not a mindlessly jingoistic one. It takes the time to get inside the head of a hero who was reluctant to fight, even though it would seem to be something he was put on this Earth to do.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Video review: "Isle of Dogs"

An animated film that is most definitely not for children, “Isle of Dogs” is the second foray into stop-motion animation by writer/director Wes Anderson. I run hot and cold on Anderson’s filmography -- adore “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel;” would require a lobotomy to get me to watch “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” again -- so I’m happy to report I’m pretty warm on this one.

It’s a Japanese-themed story set a couple of decades in the future, when the Prefecture of Kobayashi has banished all dogs to the island where they dump their trash, which is soon renamed for its canine inhabitants. It turns out there was an epidemic of deadly flu attributed to the dogs some years back.

But one boy, Atari (Koyu Rankin), who is the nephew of the evil mayor, resolves to undertake a rescue mission to retrieve his beloved pooch. He crash-lands on the island and is helped by a pack of mutts, led by Rex (Edward Norton) and also including Chief  (Bryan Cranston), a grizzled fighter.

Meanwhile, back on the mainland an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) is leading a rebellion of sorts against the mayor and the scientists he keeps under his thumb.

I should mention that the humans mostly speak Japanese, and no subtitles are provided. The dogs do speak in English, voiced mainly by American and British actors, which we are to understand is translated from bark.

It’s a weird, often wonderful movie that has no real point of comparison. You can’t point to another film and say, “It’s kinda like that.” “Isle of Dogs” isn’t for everyone, but for anyone who appreciates a bold splash of imagination, it’s the cat’s meow.

Bonus features are decent. There is a gallery of images from production and six making of featurettes: “Animators,” “Isle of Dogs Cast Interviews,” “Puppets,” “An Ode to Dogs,” “Magasaki City and Trash Island” and “Weather and Elements.”



Thursday, July 12, 2018

Review: "Skyscraper"

“In order to be brave, we gotta be a little scared.”
                        --Will Sawyer

My first thought about “Skyscraper” was that it looked dumb as a bag of rocks. And it is. But at least it’s a small bag.

I admit I liked this movie a lot more than I ever thought I would. It actually manages to coax a performance out of Dwayne Johnson that could be credible considered as… acting. No curled eyebrows, no winking at the audience, no ‘roided-up bicep flexing. He actually inhabits a character and invests him with something like dimensions.

All this is set against a backdrop of fires, explosions and machine guns, of course. The former WWE wrestler known as “The Rock” still knows his audience, who like the smell of his cooking, and insist that he keep on cooking that recipe -- or something.

(I never watched a lot of wrestling.)

Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a former military badass turned FBI badass who… got blown up in bad op, lost his leg and now has become a rather self-doubting family man. Looking a little thick in the face, with a scraggly grey beard and doe-ish eyes, Johnson manages to project a decent amount of vulnerability for a guy the size of an NFL linebacker.

“I just kinda put my sword down,” he says to his old squad mate, Ben (Pablo Schreiber), who has recruited him to do a security assessment of The Pearl -- the world’s newly christened tallest building, courtesy of an ambitious Hong Kong billionaire, Zhao Min Zhi (Chin Han). He even brings along his wife, Sarah (Neve Campbell), who’s also the military surgeon who saved his life, and their adorable, peril-prone moppets (McKenna Roberts, Noah Cottrell).

Of course, nefarious bad guys with vague European accents (Roland Møller chief among them) are up to no good, sealing off the building and setting the 96th floor ablaze, while also disabling the fire control systems. The flames gradually higher as our hero battles the villains in a confined space while striving to protect his loved ones.

If all this sounds like “Die Hard” shotgun married to “Blazing Inferno,” that’s because it is.

Still, it’s hard to deny this is a fun flick. And it’s nice to see a character with a disability as the hero of an action thriller. Will gets around pretty well on his prosthetic leg, and even manages to use it as a prop several times during some of the more acrobatic sequences. Writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who previously teamed with Johnson on “Central Intelligence,” resists the urge to have him take the leg off and start whacking bad guys with it.

Of course, you've got to swallow a lot of action movie stupidity along the way. Like a tall building being lit on fire in the middle, the flames gradually engulfing higher stories, yet somehow the superstructure remains perfectly intact without collapsing in on itself, as basic engineering principles would dictate.

It's not like there's a real-life contrary example from the recent past that literally every single person on Earth is aware of...

Speaking of which, I talked to a few people afterward who admit they were a bit triggered by the 9/11 resemblance. I was more bothered by the transgressions against Physics 101. 

Review: "Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation"

An interesting idea that turned into a rehashed sequel that now is a bona fide animation franchise desperately in need of a stake through its cold, black heart, “Hotel Transylvania” is the undead visitor that arrives every third year for an unwanted visit, thrilling your kids but leaving you groaning.

Or, slumbering: I fell asleep during the screening. Several times. Not for long, I think, but propriety requires that I disclose this is a review of only about 96% of the movie.

You know the setup: Dracula (voice of Adam Sandler) has traded in blood-sucking for running a posh hotel for monsters, who have come out of the darkness to live (mostly) in harmony with humans. To wit: his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) has married goofy human Jonathan (Andy Samberg) and produced a half-vampire grandson, Dennis (Asher Blinkoff).

Tagging along are buds Frankenstein (Kevin James), Wayne the werewolf (Steve Buscemi), Murray the mummy (Keegan-Michael Key), and Griffin the invisible man (David Spade).

Things are pretty hectic running a hotel and watching over a passel of monsters, who come in sorts of shapes, colors and sizes. So Mavis decides the family needs a vacation aboard the Legacy, an ocean liner catering to their kind. Stops include an underwater volcano and Atlantis, which has risen from the sea in the form of a tawdry waterlogged version of Las Vegas.

Dracula soon finds himself directing his killer gaze at Ericka (Kathryn Hahn), the human captain of the ship. He’s been a widower for more than a century, but is surprised to find he can still “zing” -- the monster term for falling instantly in love.

But Ericka has some not-nice hidden motives, which are demonstrated by suddenly scowling while her face is underlit with red light that appears from nowhere to let you know she’s thinking evil thoughts.

Mel Brooks plays Drac’s dad Vlad, an old-schooler who eventually came around on not biting people. He gets some of the film’s best laughs strutting around in a tiny bathing suit, proudly flaunting his 500-year-old body. The gaggle of witches are appreciative, though.

The heavy is Van Helsing, Dracula’s old nemesis who is still kept alive through a steampunk contraption that animates his head and hands, along with a few struggling organs in jars. He’s voiced by Jim Gaffigan, doing his best impression of Bill Hader.

There’s a lot of colors, and boingy action, and spontaneous dancing. They even revive a couple of tunes from the last movie; I guess the filmmakers didn’t want to shell out for another songwriter. There’s even a DJ contest late in the game where they dust off “Macarena” as the epitome of all that is good and positive. Well.

Kids will probably enjoy “Transylvania 3,” but for anyone over the age of 10 it’s a sack of garlic, a beam of sunshine and a wooden cross all rolled into one.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Review: "Leave No Trace"

“The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.”

“Winter’s Bone” made a star out of Jennifer Lawrence eight years ago, but didn’t do much for its writer/director, Debra Granik. Hollywood still has more of a place for women in front of the camera than behind. After a couple of documentary projects, Granik is back with another fine dramatic feature set in the lonesome backwoods populated by America’s castoffs.

“Leave No Trace” stars Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie as Will and Tom, father and daughter living in complete isolation in a thick forest. At first we think they might be camping, and Will is passing along his skills as a consummate outdoorsman. They pick mushrooms, start fires from nothing, collect rainwater, etc. It seems peaceful and natural.

But clues soon appear to suggest this is not a temporary excursion.

Will shows the girl, who’s about 13 or 14, how to follow tracks… but also how to cover their own. They conduct drills in elusion and hiding. On their rare trips into town (Portland, Ore.), Will trades the medicine he receives from the hospital for cash from homeless veterans squatting on the edge of the forest.

This is a very still, observant film. Little is explicitly stated, as we’re left to watch and gather signs. Foster, one of the finest character actors in movies today, presents us with a man who is hiding behind walls of his own creation, yet the turmoil and anxiety show through.

Is he a military veteran suffering from PTSD? Will is a person who seems very capable and confident in his own skills, yet there’s a deer-like timidity to the man. His fight-or-flight instincts are honed to an edge, and we sense that he chooses the latter in order to avoid the former.

For her part, Tom is a smart, caring girl who genuinely enjoys being with her father. Yet she is bound to become curious about the greater world beyond, and this will take the form of drawing her away from him.

There is a great and deep love between the two. Their only purpose in life seems to be to stay together.

“We can think our own thoughts,” they say, as close to a creed as they have.

Events transpire to draw them out of their seclusion. Dana Millican plays a social worker who works to preserve this tiny little family, yet nudge them toward society. Jeff Kober plays the owner of a Christmas tree farm where they come to stay for a while. He is helpful and generous, yet there is an unspoken impetus to his presence that requires deference, such as attending services at his church.

Will is not apparently anti-religious; it’s just one of many things that he has laid aside.

Dale Dickey, with that beautiful, rough face that seems like it’s hewn from raw wood, turns up as the manager of an RV park where Will and Tom live for a time. The mercurial denizens are hunters, hippies, shell-shocked soldiers and others who have chosen to recede from the world, much like Will but not to his extreme. While Tom is drawn toward this gentle space, it’s clear that Will is satisfied with a community of just two.

We know where all this is heading, but it doesn’t make the fork in the road any less hard to take. Granik, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini based on the novel by Peter Rock, turns her camera’s eye on these fragile, damaged folks and reveals them for who they are without judgment.

“Leave No Trace” is a heartfelt road picture in which the road is both the lure and the prison.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Video review: "Chappaquiddick"

I wasn’t surprised that “Chappaquiddick” didn’t make more of a splash at the box office, despite being one of the best dramas of 2018 and a film that, if it weren’t for the bifurcated political reception it provoked, would surely be talked about as an early favorite for a raft of Oscar nominations.

The movie was picked up on by conservative media months before it got a general release, adding to the perception it’s the rare “right wing” Hollywood film. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This look at the events surrounding Edward Kennedy’s defining moment in 1969, in which he (mostly likely drunkenly) drove his mother’s car into a lake with a pretty young campaign worker inside, Mary Joe Kopechne, who died. Not only was unable to save her despite (he says) many attempts, he failed to report the accident until the next morning, sealing the woman’s fate. The evidence suggests she was trapped in the car for hours, and suffocated when her air ran out.

The film, directed by John Curran from a script by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, does not set out to vilify Kennedy as a heartless fiend. In a masterful performance by Jason Clarke, it’s suggested that he was a man who wore heavily the mantle left behind by his dead brothers, Jack and Bobby, and the expectation that he would run against Richard Nixon for the presidency in 1972.

The true evil occurred in the aftermath, as an armada of loyal Kennedy men descended on the sleepy town to manipulate events with one goal in mind: saving Teddy’s political career. I can think of no better cinematic portrait of the axiom that power corrupts -- for those who have it, seek it or try to hold onto it.

Funnymen Jim Gaffigan and Ed Helms give surprisingly meaty performances as hangers-on of the Kennedy clan who engage in the cover-up. Helms’ character, adopted son Joe Gargan, is the lone voice who begins to have moral quandaries about their actions.

Bruce Dern is mesmerizing as Kennedy patriarch Joe, withered by age and moral rot, who directs the machinations from his repose. Kate Mara has a small but vital presence as Kopechne, who was not just some feminine plaything of male politicos, but a resourceful campaign player in her own right.

There’s a lot of anger, but also a lot of insight in “Chappaquiddick.” It’s a film brave enough to look back at a political scandal from half a century ago that likely altered the course of the presidency, to penetrate the fog of history and render a proper reckoning for a despicable deed.

Bonus features are scant, being limited to two documentary shorts: “A Reckoning: Revisiting Chappaquiddick” and “Bridge to the Past: Editing the Film.”



Friday, July 6, 2018

Review: "Boundaries"

Just a short review today; the studio wasn't able to get me a screener until late Thursday afternoon.

I was a bit bored and bewildered by "Boundaries." It features two world-class thespians in Vera Farmiga and Christopher Plummer, playing a daughter and father at cross ends while trying to reconnect during a road trip. It features lots of talking but not much substantive sharing. Characters do things because that's where writer/director Shana Feste wanted a scene to go, not because that's how it would have organically led there.

Farmiga plays Laura, a harried and hectored mother to troublesome teen son Henry (Lewis MacDougall), an ostracized boy who has a penchant for drawing adults in the nude in sexual and unflattering ways. Laura's jerk boyfriend, like most male authority figures, has his male parts, uh, deemphasized.

Her dad is Jack (Plummer), a rapscallion who, at 85, is being kicked out of his retirement community for repeatedly breaking the rules. He was absent during most of Laura's childhood, and they only seem to hook up when someone needs something. Circumstances align that they each have a desperate need: Laura needs money to pay for private school to help Henry with his emotional problems, and Jack needs a ride to Los Angeles.

Jack says he can't fly because of a blood clot in his leg, but Jack says lots of things. Laura has learned not to invest a lot of hope for the truth.

So off they go, driving from Seattle to Los Angeles in Jack's vintage Rolls Royce, the trio of humans along with a few of Laura's collection of castoff dogs. We're not surprised when they pick up more along the way. That's who Laura is: she protects the weak because that's how she's felt herself much of her life.

Things go from there. It turns out Jack got his money from dealing pot, and the trip is largely an excuse to drop off product along the way. Most of customers are old friends, like Stanley, a hippie who never really left the commune. He's played by Christopher Lloyd -- the other one; or rather, I'm the other one -- who gets a hot tub nude scene a la Kathy Bates in "About Schmidt."

(Unlike Farmiga in "Up in the Air," I'm confident my namesake did not use stuntbutt.)

One inevitable stop is to see Laura's ex (Bobby Cavanale), who's sort of a junior version of Jack; he's just a little more honest with himself about his failings.

I should point out that this is one of those movies that stretches out a road trip that should take one long drive into about a week. By my guess, they actually only get about four good hours on the road per day.

"Boundaries" is one of those movies where if people ask you, "What was it about?", you really have no good answer. I was willing to cut this film a lot of slack just because I like the cast so much. But it fumbles at trying to manipulate our emotions, leaving us with a road trip picture that doesn't really go anywhere.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Review: "Ant-Man and the Wasp"

One of the most frequent questions I get asked is, “When do you think the superhero genre is going to burn out?” And my answer is always the same, “When the movies get crappy.”

I’ve seen a subpar flick here and there (*cough* *cough* “Green Lantern”), but overall the state of the superhero movie remains strong. Marvel in particular seems to consistently have their ducks all in a row, with nary a stinker in over a decade. And, with “Avengers: Infinity War” earlier this summer, they still possess the ability to surprise and overwhelm us.

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” is the perfect counterprogramming -- or, if you will, antidote -- to all the downbeat energy that’s been dominating the genre lately.

Here is a fun, frivolous and amusing movie featuring a hero who’s several steps down from the world-beaters like Thor and Hulk. And the stakes are not the usual end-of-the-world scenarios, but simply a small group of people striving to meet personal (though largely benevolent) goals.

You may remember that Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) was a petty criminal who stumbled into the super-suit of scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), which has the ability to shrink him to the size of an ant, where he gains strength and the ability to command the insects. Long story short, he got in trouble and ended up losing it all.

As this movie opens, he is nearly finished with two years of house arrest, having to wear an ankle bracelet and being annoyed by the uppity FBI agent assigned to watch him (Randall Park). But he again falls back in with Pym and his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who wears her own version of the suit that includes wings.

Their mission is to bring back Pym’s wife, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), who disappeared 30 years ago when she had to “go sub-atomic” to defuse a nuclear missile, and as a result was trapped in some quantum netherworld.

The villain is Hannah John-Kamen as Ava, aka the Ghost, who wears an alien-looking white suit and has the ability to phase in and out of solidity, so she can walk through walls and have bullets or fists pass right through her. Turns out her powers are more a curse than blessing, so she’s working on a cure along with Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), an old scientist rival of Pym’s.

The two groups soon butt heads, along with the X-factor of Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a criminal technology dealer who wants to steal Pym’s machines and sell them to the highest bidder.

Pym and Hope are officially on the lam, but are able to move around with the help of a multistory laboratory they can shrink down to dollhouse size, pick up and go. They also have a fleet of vehicles they keep shrunk down in an old Hot Wheels carrying case.

Rudd is a twinkly, funny presence as the lovable cad. His greatest desire is to spend time with his daughter, though he’s holding out hope for Hope. Michael Peña supplies much of the comedic energy as Luis, Scott’s right-hand man at the security company startup they’re running. Apparently it’s a novel idea to put a bunch of ex-cons in charge of protecting you.

Directed by Peyton Reed from a script by an overlarge bunch of writers, who I’ll not mention other than to say Rudd is among them, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” boasts lots of energy and action. You kind of have to wade through a bunch of scientific mumbo-jumbo -- quantum entanglements, diffusers, etc. -- to get to the good stuff, but fortunately the boring stuff doesn’t linger.

This is not the sort of movie you savor and think about long after. It’s more of a breezy popcorn flick that does its job, entertains you and then gets out of the way.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things" (1972)

I've often cited "Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things" as evidence of the breadth of my cinematic tastes. I grew up on pop culture movies, and cheesy horror was a particular favorite. This movie, which I probably first encountered on TV in the early '80s, is the cheesiest of the cheese.

One of the things I hate most is when people become very snooty in their film preferences -- lauding period costume dramas, for example, but denigrating scary movies. Folks should be able to love both "Lawrence of Arabia" and "CSPWDT," I'll say.

And I do love this movie. In fact, I'm not at all ashamed to say it's one of my favorite films.

Like a bit of Gouda left to mold at the back of the fridge, it's absorbed the flavors of other things over the years, leaving it as an odd but compelling totem for its time.

It's both extremely derivative and groundbreaking, stealing liberally from George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" while also introducing an element of comedy that would come to be intertwined with the roots of modern horror flicks.

Despite current misconceptions, "Night of the Living Dead" did not set off a sudden spate of zombie flicks. "CSPWDT," arriving in 1972, was pretty much the first American film to occupy the same space in the subgenre after Romero's breakthrough in 1968. Things really took off in 1973 and thereafter, and soon zombies were munching up screens everywhere.

The film was directed by Bob Clark, who surely must go down as the owner of one of the most eclectic filmographies in Hollywood history. Best known for the tart nostalgia of "A Christmas Story," he also made the soft-core "Porky's," the wellspring of all teen sex comedies, and its decidedly tamer sequel, which came out the same year as Ralphie and his iconic Red Ryder BB gun.

Clark actually got his start in horror, and often mixed existential or political themes into his early films. He followed up "CSPWDT," his first feature, with another zombie story, "Dead Dream," about a soldier who comes back from Vietnam as the living dead.

He scored a major commercial success with the 1974 slasher film "Black Christmas," then came the Mafia action/revenge story "Breaking Point," and then he went high-toned: a Sherlock Holmes adaptation starring Christopher Plummer, "Murder By Decree," followed by "Tribute," a screen version of the Bernard Slade play starring Jack Lemmon.

After "A Christmas Story," Clark became something of a mercenary director-for-hire, piloting mainstream comedies ("It Runs in the Family," "Loose Cannons") and genre films of often dubious merit: "Rhinestone," "From the Hip" (a legal comedy that marked Peak Judd Nelson), "Baby Geniuses" and its sequel. He also made the underappreciated "Turk 182!" in 1985, starring Timothy Hutton as a vigilante graffiti artist battling a corrupt mayor.

Both Clark and his son were tragically killed in a car accident in 2007, robbing us of what I'm sure would have been an interesting final act to his career.

"CSPWDT" was shot over a fortnight on a budget of $50,000, starring many of Clark's real-life college chums, often using their real first names. Despite its amateur-hour production values, the movie is bursting with mood and merriment, laughs often giving way to moments of pure blood-soaked terror and vice-versa.

At a brisk 86 minutes, the zombies don't even come alive until after the one-hour mark. The backdrop is a theatrical troupe from Miami traipsing into an island cemetery for the unwanted deceased to dabble in a little Satan-worship. The gleefully tyrannical leader, Alan, who holds everyone else's employment in his clutches, forces them to go through with a ritualistic summoning, which appears to be a total flop, until they insult the dark lord and the dead rise up to munch everybody.

If for no other reason, the film is amusing for its fashions. Alan, played by Alan Ormsby (who co-wrote the script with Clark), wears a neon orange shirt, patriotically striped tight pants, a frisky cravat and electric blue wizard's robes. The women all wear variations on brightly-colored peasant blouses popular during that era, while the men favor tight-fitting T-shirts, including one by the girthy Jeff (Jeff Gillen) that's white with pink flowers.

Alan is flamboyant and corrupted, always striving to bring out the worst in everyone else. He badgers and belittles, and responds to every suggestion that raising the dead isn't a good idea with the threat of firing. Alan projects mightily, always questioning the artistic talent and commitment of his fellows, when it's clear he's the true hack of the bunch.

Valerie Mamches plays Val, the matriarch of the troupe, and the only one to stand up to Alan's bullying. Paul Cronin is Paul, the handsome leading man who makes macho displays at resistance, but always backs down. Terry (Jane Daly) is his girlfriend, fretting and frowning. Anya (Anya Ormsby, Alan's real-life wife), is the timid waif who loses her shit about halfway through.

Roy Engleman and Robert Philip round out the group as Roy and Emerson, a pair of gay outliers tasked by Alan with dressing up as zombies to scare the others. They're among the first to get devoured, spraying stereotypical sibilant s's the whole way down.

Also notable is Seth Sklarey, in his only credited screen role, as the "boss" zombie, Orville Dunworth. The first to be exhumed, he has the perfect look for a ghoul: tall, curly widow's peak hair, gaunt face, impossibly long fingers. He even has what appears to be a bullet hole in his forehead, suggesting the method of his (original) death.

Alan continually insults and defiles the corpse, even dressing Orville up in a bride's veil and mock-marrying himself to it, so we know how his demise will go. At one point they lie in bed together alone, the others finally creeped out enough to leave the pair to their ersatz honeymoon.

"You're a great teacher, Orville. And a wonderful friend. And I think, in time, we may get even closer," Alan says, foretelling his own fate.

Watching "CSPWDT" for the first time in awhile, I was struck how little violence there is in it. There's a brief scene at the beginning of the grave caretaker being attacked by creatures, but this turns out to be our two fey thespians taking him hostage. There's not a ton of blood and guts, with Ormsby and a few others providing the special effects makeup.

Overall, the zombies aren't terribly convincing, looking like regular folks dressed up in ratty clothes and bluish-grey makeup slathered over their faces. Compared to an average episode of "The Walking Dead," it's positively primitive. But the effect is still creepy enough for 1972.

Carl Zittrer provides the largely melody-free musical score, an assortment of atonal tones, moans and whispers of the wind. He would go on to work with Clark on most of his films over the next decade.

For true zombie movie devotees, "CSPWDT" offers some interesting perspective on the two important spectrums that often define the debate: speed and intelligence. While starting out quite slow and shambling after first clawing their way out of the ground, the zombies display bursts of speed that can overwhelm the humans.

They also appear to be quite cunning in their assault, backing off when it becomes clear they can't penetrate the doors or walls of the cabin in which the troupe has retreated. The zombies also employ sneak attacks and tactical retreats, snatching Terry away to the forest to be messily devoured.

Most interesting, the final shot that plays over the credits is of the zombies boarding the sailboat the actors arrived in, and successfully launching it toward the shores of Miami to continue the carnage. It seems that, at least in the Clark/Ormsby iteration, the living dead retain at least some of their human intelligence and knowledge.

I think what makes zombies stories so compelling is the dread sense of inevitability. Individual dead may not be very quick or powerful, but together they form a wave that rolls over any resistance, absorbing and adding to the horde. They operate very much as a multifaceted organism, a disease that infects all it touches.

"Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things" is silly, cheap, deplorable and inexpressibly fun.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Video review: "Blockers"

“Blockers” is the sort of movie that a screenwriter brings into a pitch meeting with a studio executive as their third option. They’ve got their wish concept, their safe concept and their backup concept. All they want is for a concept to get a go-ahead to be turned into a script. If the first two strike out, the “here goes” idea gets dusted off, probably something they noodled with but never fleshed out.

Here’s my guess how the pitch meeting went for “Blockers”:

Writer (very nervous now): “OK, so we’ll put a pin in the gay vampires musical… what about a sex comedy about teens making a pact to lose their virginity, like ‘Superbad,’ but instead of awkward boys they’re cool girls? And the parents hear about the plan and follow them around all night of the prom to keep them from having sex.”

Producer (licking his fingers after feasting on the previous screenwriter’s soul): “Oh, so the focus is on the parents rather than the kids? I like that idea! Teen actors are a PITA to work with.”

Writer (quickly switching gears): “Yes, that’s exactly it! The parents get into all sorts of rude and crude adventures, trying to hang out with teens and be cool. We’d need a comedienne who’s good at playing blue…”

Producer: “Leslie Mann would be perfect, and would jump at top billing. And what about John Cena as a straitlaced type who has embarrassing stuff happen to him? His agent really thinks comedy is where he’s going to be able to show off his acting chops.”

Writer (stifling rising bile in throat): “Oh yes, he’s a terrific funnyman. He’s like Schwarzenegger, but willing to poke fun at himself.”

Producer (turning to assistant): “Marcy, get Kay Cannon’s agent on the phone. She’s super-hot now after writing and producing the ‘Pitch Perfect’ flicks, and I hear she’s dying to direct. This would be right in her wheelhouse. (Back to writer.) So how soon can you flesh it out into a first draft?”

Writer (distracted by thoughts of a check with lots of zeroes): “Er, um… it’s practically already written!”

The result isn’t exactly craptastic, boasting a few decent laughs. The funniest is probably the scene where Cena’s character is challenged with imbibing alcohol in a very… direct manner.

But “Blockers” is formulaic and predictable, the sort of thing that was better left half-written in somebody’s bottom drawer.

Bonus features are ample, including deleted scenes, gag reel and a “Line-O-Rama” of unused takes. There are also six making-of documentary shorts: “Rescue Mission,” “Prom Night,” “The History of Sex with Ike Barinholtz,” “John Cena’s Prom Survival Kit for Parents,” “Chug! Chug! Chug!” and “Puke-a-Palooza.”