Thursday, August 30, 2018

Review: "The Little Stranger"

“The Little Stranger” is a very different sort of ghost story.

There are thumps in the night and strange scratchings on wardrobes and all of that. But it’s more a tale of psychological obsession than supernatural boogums. It’s a claustrophobic, deeply immersive gothic horror film that takes its own sweet time getting to the scares -- and even then they come sideways from where you expected.

Domhnall Gleeson plays Dr. Faraday, a youngish country physician who finds himself summoned for a house call at Hundreds Hall, the crumbling mansion of the noble but decaying Ayers family. He’s intrigued -- his mother worked there as a maid decades ago, and he himself visited the place for a ceremony as a young boy, a grand day that lives large in his memories.

Now, in the post-World War II years, Hundreds is looking more like Dozens. The only residents are the matriarch, Angela (Charlotte Rampling), and her children Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Ruth Wilson), plus a maid, Betty (Liv Hill), who’s barely into her teens. Every year they have to sell off more of the immense acreage to pay their taxes and keep the brandy cart stocked.

Roddy was in the RAF during the war and left badly scarred and crippled. Faraday -- no first name is every supplied -- has an idea to treat his limp with electrical impulses, and over the next few weeks something like a kinship forms. The mother is serene and superior, her funds meager but her entitlement in high reserves, and she looks upon Farraday as an uppity village boy who made good but will never be their equals.

Caroline is intriguing, though. Described as the smartest of the clan, she’s stuck caring for her brother and mother, not to mention trying to keep the house from falling down around them. While Faraday carefully plays the role of the family friend, Caroline sees to it that most of his attention falls on her. People in the community talk about the state of affairs, but without resentment.

This is a very interior performance by Gleeson, a chameleon-like actor who is quietly asserting himself among the finest performers of his generation. Faraday often wears a stern look, staring at people with a mix of keen observation and concealed longing. With his strawberry locks pasted against his skull and bits of fiery hair above his eyes and lips, he seems both very old and very young at once.

Without giving away too much, it seems the root of the family’s problems lies with the eldest daughter, Susie, who took ill and died not long after Faraday’s childhood visit. Angela becomes convinced that her spirit is still residing in the halls, and physical manifestations start appearing to confirm her suspicions.

Director Lenny Abrahamson’s last film was the mesmerizing “Room,” and some of that same sense of closed-in space is at work here, too. While Hundreds Hall is vast, it weighs upon the characters like a putrefying corpse in danger of suffocating them. Lucinda Coxon (“The Danish Girl”) wrote the screenplay based upon the novel by Sarah Waters.

I appreciated the dusky, warbling moods of “The Little Stranger,” though the film teases out the mysteries of its narrative to the breaking point, and then a little further. It’s mostly interesting as a psychological portrait of a man who is always helpful and polite, the very picture of a true English gentleman, yet seems to have a smudge on his soul he can’t quite blot out.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Review: "Searching"

“Searching” may seem like a breakthrough movie, though it’s not. It’s a pretty good one, but it’s hardly the first mainstream film to take place entirely through the computer screens we use to chat, search the internet and connect with others. The horror film “Unfriended” did it four years ago.

Yes, the movie is just what it sounds like: the only shots of people we see are through their chat windows, or live feed television coverage of unfolding events. Otherwise, it’s a whole lot mouse cursors scrolling around clicking on stuff, opening up and windows and typing.

It’s actually a lot more engaging than you’d think. Director Aneesh Chaganty, who co-wrote the script with Sev Ohanian, makes his feature film debut keeping things moving along pretty briskly. John Cho anchors the movie as David Kim, a dad desperately searching for his missing teen daughter, Margot (Michelle La).

It’s essentially a mystery-thriller, with David finding out that he didn’t really know his daughter at all. Her mom (Sara Sohn) passed away two years earlier, and they’ve been stumbling forward without ever really communicating with each other about the loss.

At first David thinks Margot is just being a typical teen, forgetting to empty the trash and blowing off his voice messages and texts. But then he finds out she left early from the study group she was at the previous night, and didn’t go camping in the mountains as had been suggested.

He hacks into her email and social media accounts on her laptop, and is surprised to find that the Margot reflected there seems rather… sad and lonely. She doesn’t seem to have any close friends, eating alone in the cafeteria every day, and other kids only have vague impressions of her. She gets invited along to stuff mostly out of a sense of obligation to her mourning.

Eventually the police are brought in, and David is at first comforted by the presence of Detective Sergeant Rosemary Vick, a veteran in the missing persons department. She seems on the ball and determined. More clues appear, things grow hopeful then dire, and the case eventually becomes a media sensation.

It is rather interesting, and also depressing, to see an entire movie that plays out like the experience of sitting at your computer. Part of me couldn’t help wondering if any of the online platforms paid for product placement, or were shut out if they didn’t pony up. For example, Facebook and Instagram play prominent roles but Twitter not at all. Ditto for Venmo but not PayPal.

All of us are spending so much time creating and annotating these digital facsimiles of our own lives, like a funhouse mirror where we lose our sense of self in the many reflections. How much of what people see of us is only what we want them to see? And do we start to believe the stories we tell about ourselves?

“Searching” drags a little toward the middle, but speeds up for a twisty ending that’s like something straight out of an Agatha Christie novel. It just goes to show that, even if you use a lot of cool new tools, filmmaking is at its heart a very tried and true process.

Review: "The Bookshop"

Oh, those repressed Brits! So impossible to say what they mean! How they must stammer and not look each other in the eye or express their true feelings! I’m not sure if ever a people got as much cinematic mileage out of having a large piece of lumber ensconced in their collective backsides.

Part "Remains of the Day," part "Local Hero" and with a few bits 'n' pieces of other British pastoral flicks tossed in, "The Bookshop" is set in a quaint little village where big things are happening beneath the workaday hustle and bustle.

Emily Mortimer plays Florence Green, a widower of early middle years who arrives in the lovely (fictional) seaside town of Hardborough in 1959. She lost her husband in the war, and now has the idea to open up the bookshop she’s always dreamed of. She buys a dilapidated old house in the middle of town, known as The Old House, fixes it up and is set to open her doors.

It seems that Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), the local wealthy matriarch, has her own ideas for the house. She invites Florence to her latest grand party and suggests that instead she give the house over for a local arts center.

When women of Mrs. Gamart’s station offer suggestions, what they really want is acquiescence.

But Florence resolves to push on, and at first things go well. Books fly off the shelves, and she even takes on an assistant in Christine (Honor Kneafsey), who is about 12 and from a working-class family. Christine is very honest; if she were an adult we would call her blunt. She took the job making it clear she doesn’t clear for reading herself, and loathes boys. But the two get on marvelously.

Her best customer is Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), the town’s mysterious widower. He lives in a dilapidated great mansion, takes frequent walks and consumes books voraciously. Brundish does not actually come into town, at least not during the daytime. So Florence sends him books, three or four at a time, with the understanding that he can return anything he doesn’t like. None ever are, and he takes an especial liking to the works of Ray Bradbury.

Eventually the two have tea, to talk about Florence’s dilemma of whether to order 250 copies of “Lolito,” the controversial new book from Vladimir Nabokov. She carries through with the plan on Brundish’s recommendation of the novel. It causes a scandal in the bucolic town, which is all the reason Mrs. Gamart needs to launch a slow-moving but inexorable campaign against the bookshop.

Written and directed by Isabel Coixet from the book by Penelope Fitzgerald, “The Bookshop” is a keen observation of manners. The townsfolk act solicitously toward Florence, from the banker to her attorney, yet there’s a sense of predatory interest in their gaze. They’re not sure how to take a woman of independence and courage, and curiosity soon melts into malevolence.

Milo North, an indolent local bachelor played by James Lance, hangs around the edges of the story, appearing to pitch woo at Florence while also making certain to stay in the good graces of the Gamarts.

It’s a tender performance by Nighy, playing man of great sensitivity and pain, who reaches out after decades of solitude to another person through their shared love of books. It’s not exactly a romance, since he’s about 30 years older than her, but in a different time and place…

“The Bookshop” is a bittersweet story, one that celebrates the need for hopes and dreams while recognizing that they usually don’t come true. Or even when they do, other people have dreams that may conflict, which often leads to nightmares. True bravery comes from carrying on even knowing this.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Rio Lobo" (1970)

Even in 1970, "Rio Lobo" was something of an outdated relic.

It was the final film directed by Howard Hawks, made during John Wayne's post-"True Grit" period of diminishing returns, with only his final film, 1976's "The Shootist," really standing out in his filmography. (What, you don't recall "McQ" from '74?)

The following year he would make "Big Jake," another "last" picture for its director, George Sherman, which also featured a revenge/payback theme. That's actually a throughline in Wayne's final decade of films, as his characters generally react to the wrongdoing of others, rather than seeking out trouble like his younger cowboys would.

("Jake" and "Lobo" have been released together as a Blu-ray set, so I'll be featuring them next to each other in this series.)

Hawks and Wayne had of course paired up together before, for "Rio Bravo" in 1959, which was a deliberate cinematic retort to "High Noon" with a very similar plot, and for "El Dorado" in 1966, which was essentially a remake of the same formula with some of the actors around Wayne swapped out.

"Rio Lobo" has been called the third remake/response to "High Noon," which would seem to show the depth of how miffed Hawks and Wayne were at it. I don't really think that description holds water, though, as this is a light-hearted adventure story about former Civil War enemies teaming up to overthrow a corrupt sheriff and his rich landowner boss.

In this telling, Wayne and his fellows are the dangerous interlopers riding into the eponymous town -- and nobody's fretting about their coming.

The story is straight as an arrow: while seeking out the traitors who sold information to the Rebs during the war, former Union Col. Cord McNally (Wayne) follows the clues to the fictional Texas town, where everyone lives in fear for their lives of the brutal sheriff and his crew -- though not enough, apparently, for anyone to leave.

Of course, it turns out one of the deputies and the land baron were the traitors, so McNally gets to play the hero while getting his payback. His allies are Pierre Cordon, a French/Mexican Confederate captain played by Jorge Rivero, and Cordon's wily sergeant, Tuscarora Phillips (Christopher Mitchum, son of Robert).

The trio tangled at the tail end of the war, and it was actually the Rebs who killed McNally's beloved lieutenant while stealing a shipment of gold. But the good colonel figures those were acts of war performed in the line of duty, and they're soon sharing drinks and good cheer. He wants the pair who sold them the information about the shipments. The former Confederate soldiers know only the faces but not the names.

They also pick up Shasta Delaney (Jennifer O'Neill) along the way, who's a much more self-assured female than we're used to seeing in Westerns. She bosses McNally and Cordon around, not merely accepting the latter's romantic interest but actually directing it according to her whims.

Shasta gets a nice speech about what it's like to be a woman living on the frontier, constantly being pawed by men who think they have rights to her body. I kept thinking about how we never would have heard this sort of thing in a Hollywood movie even 10 years earlier. It plays as a prescient #MeToo moment by today's lights.

Her husband was killed -- he was a lout; she wasn't exactly sad about it -- and after some saloon work, Shasta hooked up with a traveling snake oil salesman, a kindly older gent who treated her like a father. But then they wandered into Rio Lobo, he was killed and she found herself being pursued by Deputy Whitey Carter (Robert Donner), an albino who is one of the aforementioned gropers.

Once they get to Rio Lobo, they find the sheriff, "Blue Tom" Hendricks (stalwart footballer-turned-actor Mike Henry), has a veritable army tracking everyone's moves within the town. They soon learn that Ketcham (Victor French) is the money behind the stink, forcing people to sell their land at a fraction of its value. He was formerly known as Sgt. Ike Gorman, when he was selling information to the Rebs.

Meanwhile, Tuscarora is taken captive by the sheriff, so McNally and his team head over to his father's place to recruit help. Played by famously googly-eyed character actor Jack Elam, the senior Phillips is a rootin', tootin' old hellion whose standard policy is to fire off his scattergun at strangers and ask questions later.

Soon the forces converge for the reckoning, which will involve a lot of shooting and taunts.

It's a good-looking, entertaining but rather disposable film. It does stand out for me in a few ways:
  • It's one of the most purely plot-driven movies I've ever seen. There's literally no fat in the story, written by Burton Wohl and the legendary Leigh Brackett. Every scene, line of dialogue and character advances the plot in some way. The characters lack any sort of depth outside of their role in the unfolding story. Example: what does McNally do when he's not a Union colonel or hunting traitors? We have no idea.
  • The women are surprisingly sexually frisky. In addition to Cordon's romance with Shasta, he also barges in on sweet young thing Amelita, finding her half-dressed while he's on the run from the deputies. She doesn't seem put out by this, and indeed appears ready to bed the stranger right then and there. Later, she gets her face cut up for assisting McNally & Co. Amelita is played by Sherry Lansing, a math teacher-turned-model who was trying her hand at acting. Lansing only made one other movie and, dissatisfied with her own skills as an actor, learned the business from the ground up and became arguably the most successful female producer in Hollywood history.
  • The film is rather tawdry and violent for its G rating from the relatively new MPAA, which started labeling movies two years earlier. In addition to the partial nudity and innuendo mentioned above, a number of people are shot, with the DayGlo orange blood that was favored during that era spilling generously. One person even has his rifle explode on him, ripping his face and hands to bloody shreds. Today it would surely receive a PG-13 rating. Obviously, the concept of what constituted a "general audience" was still rather nebulous in 1970.
  • This is as relaxed a role you'll ever see John Wayne in. He's constantly smiling and allowing himself to be the butt of the jokes, as when Shasta chooses to snuggle up to him instead of Cordon when the bed down on the trail because he's old and sexually nonthreatening. McNally even starts joshingly referring to himself as "comfortable," borrowing her phrase. Even when he's engaged in a shootout with the bad guys, he never seems particularly perturbed about it. For an actor whose roles were often defined by rage, it's a breath of fresh air.
In his early 60s when they shot the film, Wayne still cuts an impressive figure. As in all of his later roles, he constantly wears a jacket or leather vest to try to hide his belly, and the longer toupee he adopted in the 1960s sits lankly on his head like a dead gopher. But Wayne still has that twinkle in his eye, the rapscallion smile, the stern voice that made many an ornery assailant take a step back all on its own.
John Wayne had one of the most remarkable film careers, a star for 40 years without ever experiencing a dramatic dip in his popularity. Sure, his last few rides around the trail were more nostalgia tours than anything else. But he deserved those last laps, and "Rio Lobo" is a decent send-off for one of the great directors.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Video review: "American Animals"

“American Animals” is part documentary, part fictitious con job.

It’s the tale of one of the strangest robberies in history: four college students pilfering some very valuable books from the private library of Transylvania University in the early 2000s. Writer/director Bart Layton takes the audacious step of casting actors to portray the young men as they planned and carried out the heist, then intercutting this with interviews with the actual participants today, now in their 30s.

Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) is the ringleader, a headstrong athlete who doesn’t seem very interested in sports, school or much of anything. But he and dweeby art student Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) become obsessed with the idea of taking the books, valued at several million dollars. At first both think the other is serious, while they’re just playing around.

Soon it becomes clear, though, that this is more than just a passing fancy. They enlist Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), a rich doof, as their getaway driver, and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) as their logistics expert. They track movements, plan the timing, prepare elaborate costumes as old men and even meet up with fences to buy the hot books.

As this is all going on, the movie cuts to interviews with the real men recollecting the events we’ve just seen. They often contest the validity of the movie version, saying it’s just Hollywood hokum.

The film starts out as fun ‘n’ games, but then a strange thing happens. We start to realize these are real men who made an audacious and incredibly stupid move, and it’s still affecting their lives to this day. It was essentially an impulse decision, in long form. They became so enamored of the idea of doing this thing, they never stopped to think if they should.

Entertaining and oddly affecting, “American Animals” is less a crime story than the tale of young men who discovered themselves through a bungled heist.

Bonus features are decent, and include a deleted scene, making-of featurettes, a gallery of photo stills from production and a feature-length commentary track featuring the director and cast.



Thursday, August 23, 2018

Frequent Stalling, Excessive Speeding and a Surly Cool: The Legend of The Beast

Not an actual photo of The Beast, who never wore Mags and whose paint was like flat earth.
We called it The Beast.

It seemed as long as a World War II destroyer, and only slightly less menacing. He was the color of a well-used playground baseball diamond, earthen brown with a slightly acrid orange tint. The Beast was perpetually angry, as demonstrated by the deep-throated rumble he spat forth whenever awoken.

He was strong, but old, and like all graying warriors rose from his sleep only reluctantly, memories of past battles scattering. Through his four large eyes he glared at a world that looked upon him as a relic, a dinosaur of a bygone era.

The Beast was a 1971 Mercury Cougar, which Dylan bought for $500 (from an uncle, I believe) during the summer between our junior and senior years at high school. Next to the sleek new Beamers and Volvos the richer students at Winter Park High drove to school, the Beast resembled a rotary phone beside a new iPhone. Parked next to my sky-blue 1972 Plymouth Duster, though, the Beast emanated a surly cool.

For a young man, the first car he owns himself without dependency on any parent is like a four-wheeled ticket to freedom. Yes, you say to yourself, my car may be old and ugly to look upon, but it's mine, bought with my own money, and by turning a key I can go anywhere I want.

He was so large and heavy, the Beast literally intimidated other drivers. One look at this expansive slab of rolling Detroit steel, and they knew their modern machines of plastic and fiberglass would end up in a pile of dust in any collision. So they steered clear, and it is a satisfying thing to watch other drivers get out of your way.

This burly heft tended to be a drawback, however, when you drive a car like that to the beach and it sinks into the sand up to the quarter panels. It took a handful of guys to push it out.

It would be fair to say that Dylan was an inexperienced car owner, and did not do everything a conscientious owner should -- things like pulling the oil dipstick, checking the tires or reading the instruments with more than a passing interest.

One time he brought the Beast to my house so my father could change the oil for him. The oil was so low it wouldn't even read on the dipstick. Dylan tried to maneuver the Beast up the portable tire ramps my Dad used, but he wasn't quick enough on the brakes and zoomed clear over the edge. The Beast came down on the ramps like a ferrous mastodon, crunching them. We disentangled them and tried again. Whomp! The ramps were starting to look rather gnarly.

At this point my father took me aside and asked me if my friend might, despite being a stellar student, have some kind of mental deficiency. I assured him that Dylan was merely spastic. On the third try we got the Beast to stay suspended, the oil was changed, and to my knowledge it was never done so again. The ramps, now twisted to a hunchback reflection of their former selves, were outlasted by the Beast.

Those who are passengers in a car driven by Dylan today might wonder who this timid and meek pilot is. As a teen, Dylan drove the Beast with a unchecked fury. He was like one fire-belched demon riding on the shoulders of another, screaming around the streets near his father's home with such reckless disregard that neighbors took to shaking their fists whenever the Beast drew near.

A late sleeper, Dylan always managed to make it from Maitland to the high school in an impossibly short span of time, never once getting a speeding ticket. On one occasion, which must represent some sort of unofficial land speed record, he drove from Orlando to Atlanta in 5½ hours, which averages out to about 85 m.p.h. Again, he never got a ticket -- even though at one point he saw a state trooper pointing a radar gun directly at him while he was doing north of 90.

This episode lends credence to the theory promulgated in some circles that the Beast's arsenal including a cloaking device.

Alas, although the Beast's speedometer and cloaking device worked perfectly, the fuel gauge stubbornly refused his duty. Dylan knew it was time to refuel after going 200 miles, which was a pretty simple calculation: 20-gallon gas tank times 10 mpg. If someone were to operate the Beast with today's gas prices, they would have to forego groceries just to keep his rapacious thirst slaked.

 One time Dylan and I were on a long trip with Mary Oglo and Moesha Claussen. We had decided it was time to let the girls drive, so they were up front while we lounged over a game of chess on one of those little magnetic sets in the back. We lost track of our time and distance, though, and soon the Beast was sputtering and coming to a rest on the side of I-75.

After a few fruitless minutes trying to flag down some help, Dylan finally convinced some folks in a run-down old RV to give him to a lift to the next gas station. The rest of us were quite convinced this was the last we would ever see of him, and that he would meet his fate is some sort of hillbilly torture orgy, a la "Deliverance."

The Beast being old, he had the usual list of infirmities. There were times when he would not start, or when he did made strange disturbing sounds that vaguely resembled groaning.

Perhaps his most public breakdown was at our high school graduation. Near the end of the ceremony, a tremendous Florida June downpour ensued. I searched in vain for Dylan, as he was my ride. There was a huge crush of graduates, parents and friends milling at the front door to the civic center where the event took place -- no one had brought an umbrella. And even if they did, they didn't want to brave a weather event that was fast approaching typhoon level.

Impetuous, I took off running toward the Beast, the inches-deep water sloshing up over my graduation gown. As I ran, I noticed another figure running parallel to me in the next row. It was Dylan, also splashing through the deluge at top speed, his black robes flowing. We made it to the Beast together, got inside and looked at each other. We could not have been more wet if we'd jumped fully clothed into a swimming pool.

We roared with laughter at our state, and at our fate at being the first ones to escape the mob. The rest would spend the next hour or more slogging through stalled traffic.

We were off, our fortunes before us, our past receding behind, and the Beast our noble chariot.

 Until the Beast hit a big puddle halfway through the parking lot, sprayed some water up his exhaust manifold, and promptly conked out. We tried to restart him, but the Beast was obstinate. Helpless in the continuing downpour, we watched as a stream of cars inched their way out of the lot, a mechanical caterpillar filled with people who gazed out their windows at the two bozos in the (literally) flooded brown junker.

Finally, one of the cars in this sad review contained Dylan's father, who somehow got the Beast started, and we were off again -- delayed, humbled and mortified.

The Beast continued to carry Dylan all through college at Rollins, although his mechanical problems mounted as Dylan's ability to fix them waned. There were times it seemed entire semesters passed without the Beast moving from his grim perch in the student parking lot, like an ancient drake dozing the eons away.

Finally, as college was ending, Dylan knew it was time to put the Beast out to pasture. As luck would have it, he got the Beast running again just in time to fetch a price of $750. For in the years Dylan owned him, the Beast had hit the magic age of 20, and was now considered a classic.

It is most likely that the Beast was soon sold for parts, or at most spent a few more years tooling around before heading to the junkyard. But I still like to think that somewhere the Beast and another curly-headed young man have formed a new partnership, an understanding between machine and man like the one Dylan had.

Somewhere, I secretly hope, the Beast still growls.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Review: "Puzzle"

The great thing about jigsaw puzzles, someone says, is that the end you know you’ve made all the right choices.

Agnes (Kelly Macdonald), a mousy housewife from the New York suburbs, is very good at puzzles. Crazy good. Which isn’t to say that she’s made all the right choices. She’s living one of those lives of quiet desperations we’re always hearing about. Puzzles end up as being not just a distraction for her, but a path out of the drudgery.

Agnes is married to Louie (David Denman), a well-meaning lunk who runs an auto repair shop. They have one boy, Gabe (Austin Abrams) about to graduate from high school and go off to college, and another, Ziggy (Bubba Weiler), just out of school and working (grudgingly) at his dad’s garage because his grades weren’t good enough.

They’re Catholic, and really mean it. Agnes’ entire existence pretty much revolves around keeping the house in order, cooking meals and attending church functions. They don’t watch the news or go anywhere other than their lakeside cabin for fishing. When Gabe brings home a girlfriend (Liv Hewson) who says she’s a Buddhist, Agnes admits she doesn’t really know what that means.

Her relationship with Louie is like a well-cared-for car that has lost its zip, or never had any.

He’s a decent guy, but he treats Agnes like an appendage rather than a partner. The movie opens with a party happening at their house, with Agnes carefully preparing beforehand and serving everyone instead of participating. It’s only when she brings the cake out that we realize it’s her birthday party.

That’s her life: she gets a party, but she has to bake, serve and clean up the cake herself.

She’s always been a whiz at puzzles. A 1,000-piece one that would take most people days is just a quick snap for her. Agnes decides to take a trip into New York City to find some more challenging puzzles at a specialty store, and sees an ad for a champion seeking a partner.

Who knew: there are people who actually do jigsaw puzzles -- puzzlers, they call themselves -- competitively.

This brings her to the door of Robert (Irrfan Khan), the indolent champion. He’s rich, having invented something for a big pile of cash years ago. Now he just does puzzles because he’s good at it and he never really has anything better to do. After wowing him with how fast she burns through a complex puzzle, they agree to practice twice a week in preparation for the national championships next month.

Soon Agnes is living a double life, making up stories about visiting her sick aunt to cover her absences. But she misses a few church meetings, even forgets to make dinner because she’s so busy puzzling. This sends the entire family into turmoil, with Gabe dreaming of a gap year traveling in Tibet, Ziggy thinking about culinary school and Louie scratching his big ape head at how everyone’s gone bonkers.

Director Marc Turtletaub and screenwriters Polly Mann and Oren Moverman, adapting the story from an Argentine film, are less concerned with the perambulations of the plot than emotions honestly explored. Macdonald is understated and authentic, playing a woman of simple background who finds herself enthralled and scared by new possibilities.

The Robert character is regretfully underwritten; we get the sense between his meetings with Agnes that he’s done nothing but wait around for their next scene together.

The best interactions are actually between Agnes and Ziggy. They’re both misfits who want to fit in, but also want to explore their quirky longings. Weiler brings an anxious charm to the kid’s struggles.

I liked a lot of things about “Puzzle,” but the final picture never really came into focus for me. It’s an intimate portrait of life: messy, sprawling and craving organization into a more coherent story.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Video review: "First Reformed"

Ethan Hawke is quietly enjoying the richest period of his career. Alas, most of these revelatory performances have been in small movies few people saw: “Born to Be Blue,” “Maudie” and this effort from writer/director Paul Schrader. Hawke plays Toller, a middle-aged reverend at the titular church, a small, ancient place of worship in upstate New York.

“First Reformed” is a challenging but ultimately rewarding film. Not since Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” can I think of a movie that has treated the subject of religious faith with such devotion and a complete absence of condescension. Both are about clergymen having their beliefs tested and found, at least for a time, wanting.

Toller is more caretaker of a facility than minister to the faithful. Few people attend services at First Reformed, in part because it’s seen as more of a historical stop-off for tourists, and partly because Toller is clearly a man who’s struggling too much with his own doubts to allay those of others.

He gets a chance at redemption when he is approached by a young couple (Amanda Seyfried and Philip Ettinger) in crisis seeking his help. The husband is depressed and suicidal, obsessed with climate change, and Toller shares some of his own troubles in an attempt to relate. A former military chaplain, his marriage crumbled when his son enlisted -- with his encouragement -- and died in Iraq.

Instead of helping the young man, though, Toller finds himself swept up in the same fixation he has. This causes problems in his relationship with Reverend Joel Jeffers (a very good Cedric the Entertainer), who runs the nearby megachurch that props up First Reformed financially. They’re about to celebrate the church’s 250th anniversary, and an energy tycoon is funding the lavish ceremony.

Things go from there. “First Reformed” takes some surprising turns of the plot -- ones that I’ll admit left me feeling alienated from the movie at first. But the emotional navigation is true, anchored by Hawke’s wonderful performance as a man whose torment is the only thing left sustaining him.

This is not a film for everyone. But for those willing to be challenged and questioned by a movie, it’s as worthy a cinematic experience to come along in 2018.

Bonus features are modest. Schrader delivers a feature-length commentary track -- pity it did not include Hawke; this film would be a perfect conduit for an imtimate conversation between filmmaker and star -- and a making-of documentary featurette, “Discernment: Contemplating First Reformed.”



Thursday, August 16, 2018

Review: "Alpha"

“Alpha” is a lyrical supposition of a movie. It imagines what the first meeting was like between man and dog that did not end in violence, and shows us how human and beast might have taken the initial steps in what is surely the most enduring and consequential partnership between any two species.

This is a gorgeous, transportive adventure movie that lifts you out of your seat and sets you down in the rocky peaks and valleys of Europe 20,000 years ago. We careen off cliffs, endure howling blizzards, battle hungry animals who crave human flesh (and vice-versa), and much more.

It’s as good an example of “You are there” filmmaking as I’ve seen since “Gravity.”

Director Albert Hughes shot the movie using IMAX 3D cameras -- no squishy aftermarket conversion here. 3D movies were a big thing for a while, until audience figured out it was mostly an excuse to hit them for a $3 upcharge.

But here is one film I strongly recommend you see on a good IMAX screen. This is the sort of cinematic experience in which you should feel enveloped.

Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Keda, a young man on his first buffalo hunt with his tribe. His father (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) is the chief, and it’s clearly expected that he will one day step into those fur-skin boots. He points to the alpha wolf baying across the valley, and instructs that leadership is earned, not given.

But Keda seems a bit scrawny and kind-hearted to be a great hunter.

His father tries to teach that taking life is a necessary step in sustaining the life of the tribe. The annual buffalo hunt keeps their small band stocked with meat and furs to last them the winter. Still, when the time for confrontation happens, Keda finds his courage wanting.

Through a set of circumstances I’ll not divulge, he is separated from the other hunters, and must spend months traversing the terrain back to his village, overcoming injuries and starvation. One of his first unfortunate encounters is with a pack of wolves. Hobbled by a dislocated ankle, he manages to slice one with his stone-bladed knife and scrambles into a tree to outlast their hunger.

When he finally climbs down, Keda discovers the injured wolf still lying there. After finding he lacks the heart to slay it, he carries it to a cave and they spend time healing up together. When he finally has the strength to start his journey home, the wolf, whom he dubs Alpha, tags along.

The screenplay by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt (story by Hughes) contains oceans of silence in which no dialogue is spoken. (Even when the people do speak, it’s in an ancient tongue that sounds like a mishmash of several Western languages.) Keda eventually starts talking to Alpha, but their greatest communication is through whistles, motions and eye contact. Soon natural enemies are the surest of allies.

The cinematography by Martin Gschlacht is just jaw-droppingly amazing, assisted by a little CGI here and there. We really feel like we’ve wandered back into prehistory, where the survival of the species depended on primal instincts.

“Alpha” is a terrific piece of entertainment that also imagines how man’s best friend earned that nickname.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Dirty Dancing" (1987)

"Dirty Dancing" may just be one of the most seminal garbage movies ever. But, garbage it is.

Somehow I missed seeing this film, a smash success when it came out in August 1987. The omission is perhaps not surprising: I had just gone off to college, and it looked to be a sappy romance dressed up against the backdrop of dancing, something in which I have never had an iota of ability or interest. (No surprise that "Footloose" and other dance flicks of the era also escaped my contemporaneous notice.)

It's about a sweet Jewish teen girl in the early 1960s who falls for the bad boy dance instructor at Kellerman Hotel, the posh Catskill Mountain resort where her family is turning "summer" into a verb. He teaches her to dance, and to stand up for herself, and she teaches him that nice Jewish girls make good lays if you have feathered '80s hair in a story set in 1963.

I kid, I kid... but not by much.

The movie, directed by Emile Ardolinio ("Sister Act") from a script by Eleanor Bergstein, gleefully mashes up pop culture references between the two decades -- not so much an homage as a reconfiguring of the past to make it more palatable to modern audiences.

That's best encapsulated by the film's theme song, "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," to which the main characters dance in the big scene at the end, brazenly showing off their forbidden love to the world. It sounds very much like a 1987 pop song, not even attempting to mimic the rhythms and instrumentals of the era. It wound up a chart-topping hit, and won prizes at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and Grammys.

Speaking of the Big Dance: the scene where Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) strides up to the table of Frances "Baby" Houseman's (Jennifer Grey) family and announces to her dad (Jerry Orbach), "Nobody puts Baby in a corner," has become a certified Iconic Cinematic Moment.® It's been endlessly referenced and parodied, and even today people toss it around as a phrase of empowerment.

Coming so very late to the game, I have two observations:
  • The moment makes no sense. Baby is sitting against a wall on the side of Kellerman's ball room, not in a corner. She's next to a stone column that sticks out about 8 inches, but it's not like she's deeply ensconced in shame and shadows. And her dad didn't order her to sit there; she's sitting next to her mom (Kelly Bishop). Presumably, she chose the spot herself, leaving the seat closest to the stage for her sister, Lisa (Jane Brucker), who was part of the summer-ending show.
  • When Baby's father (Jerry Orbach) briefly stands up to object, there's an awkward do-si-do where Johnny takes Baby's hand, negotiates her around dad and they stride off together to the stage. Orbach, a tall Broadway actor, towers over the much shorter Swayze in a way not favored for screen protagonists. In other scenes where the two men confront each other they're eye-to-eye, so I suspect the old reliable "apple box trick" was employed.
The film was a breakthrough for Swayze, Grey and Orbach, who each saw their acting careers launched to previously unknown heights. Orbach, the stage veteran, suddenly found himself an in-demand presence for film and TV roles in his 50s and 60s. He became so popular playing cops and heavies, mostly notably as Lennie Brisco on "Law & Order," that later on audiences were baffled to discover he was a song-and-dance man with great pipes, as he showed off playing Lumiere in "Beauty and the Beast."

Grey, who previously had small roles in "Red Dawn" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," soon saw her star fading, largely resigned to television movie roles amid a pair of botched nose jobs that (in)famously left her unrecognizable. It was an odd choice to make: Her petite, slightly hooked schnoz is the very feature that made her stand out from other actresses of the day, giving her an authentic, relatable look. But she was hardly the first starlet to be undone by ill-advised visits to the plastic surgeon.

(Though I use "starlet" in the most generous sense. As is Hollywood custom, Grey was a decade or so older than her teenage character.)

Swayze went on to become one of the top leading men of the late 1980s and '90s, ping-ponging back and forth between romance pictures ("Ghost") and ridiculous action flicks -- "Road House" and "Point Break," two more movies that have gone on to cult status despite having charms that elude me.

A trained dancer via the Joffrey Ballet, Swayze won the part of Johnny over the much-younger Billy Zane, who apparently couldn't dance a lick. He and Grey butted heads on the set of "Red Dawn," but they dance beautifully together. And while their dancing montages are loaded with schmaltz -- Johnny playing air guitar to her feline stalking representing the zenith -- it's hard to deny the onscreen heat between them.

The choreography (by Kenny Ortega) plays pretty well to these untrained eyes. The story is set in motion when Johnny's usual dance partner, Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), is felled by a botched abortion, and Baby offers to sub in. Johnny teaches her the ins and outs of the mambo and other conventional steps shown off at Kellerman's, as well as the more "dirty" dancing that the resort workers engage in at private parties.

This seems to consist entirely of the two dancers stepping between each other's overlapping legs, so they can grind their crotch against the other's thigh. Ah, l'amore.

Interestingly, Baby does not turn into a spectacular dancer overnight. She learns enough in a few days of cramming to perform a passable mambo for a gig at another resort, though she makes a few mistakes and is too afraid to execute the dramatic lift. Saving that for the last scene, I suppose.

There really isn't much plot other than I've outlined here. There are some jealousies and intrigues that pass via secondary characters, notably Robbie (Max Cantor), the snotty medical student who knocked up Penny, and Neil Kellerman (Lonny Price), the also snotty son of the resort owner (Jack Weston) who's in training to take over the business and has eyes for Baby.

Baby's dad is a hardworking, upstanding doctor who is beloved by Baby. When she asks him to treat Penny in secret, he does so but comes away with the assumption that it was Johnny who impregnated her. Displaying classic "wrong side of the tracks" pride, Johnny allows this to pass, used to being looked down upon. When and Baby begin their secret affair, their biggest challenge is she won't stand up for him, or herself.

Well, that and his side gig as a male prostitute.

While it's never overtly depicted, it seems that Johnny's true role at the resort is not just to teach middle-aged Jewish ladies to dance, but to have sex with them for money. Sometimes this is done discreetly, but in at least one case, it's actually the husband paying off the dance stud to bed his wife and keep her out of his hair so he can play cards. This is the sort of scenario that has only ever existed in a Hollywood movie.

It's curious that Baby never seems bothered by Johnny's side hustle as a hustler. (Or the danger of STDs... a curious thing for a physician's daughter.) At one point in the movie Johnny announces to Baby that he's giving up sleeping with those other women for cash, and it's laughably depicted as a poignant moment.

One other thing struck me about the movie: the lack of commentary on the schism between the Jewish clientele vs. the gentile staff at the resort. The cultural references are not exactly hidden -- Catskill Mountains, the emphasis on girls marrying lawyers or doctors, the surfeit of "-man" surnames -- yet it's never brought up explicitly as another reason to drive these star-crossed hoofers apart.

As you've probably detected from the tone of this essay, I don't have a lot of respect for "Dirty Dancing." Nobody expected it to be anything other than a low-budget romantic musical featuring some nostalgic pop tunes and some slightly sweaty, PG-13-rated naughtiness.

It became something far more, and our popular culture is lesser for it.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Video review: "Avengers: Infinity War"

If the first “Avengers” movie felt like a convergence, the point toward which years of disparate superhero film franchises had been building, then the third, “Avengers: Infinity Wars,” is the beginning of the end times.

I don’t say that to mean superhero flicks are on their way out. Anything but. You can take a look at the box office tallies for this movie, “Black Panther” and other recent iterations from the Marvel Comics Universe and know they’re going to keep making them until people stop going.

But my take is that in the hereafter fans of these movies will refer to the genre in terms of “before AIW” and “after AIW.”

This is a game-changing film that takes all our hopes and dreams bound up with the modern mythology of superheroes, and dashes them against the wall. The story arc of dozens of future movies will hinge upon this movie and its sequel, due out next May.

I won’t give anything away for the few people who haven’t seen it, but before “Avengers: Infinity War” came out it was a common parlor game to guess how many characters would die in it, and choose which ones. Afterward… let’s just say a lot of people making picks were right.

You know the story. World-beater Thanos (Josh Brolin) is coming to Earth to claim the last of the Infinity Stones, which will essentially render him all-powerful. His goal: to eradicate half the living beings in the cosmos so the others can prosper on the remaining resources.

This is more than just an Avengers movie, as almost every single hero of all the Marvel franchises make appearances -- the Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, and so on. There’s too many characters to list, but Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) are the most pivotal.

The plot lines move through a number of smaller battles, culminating in a massive one in the hidden nation of Wakanda. On a number of occasions the heroes have a chance to sacrifice one of the Stones in order to prevent Thanos from collecting them all, and decide that the principle of protecting one life is more important than emulating their enemy’s behavior.

We’ll see how that works out for them.

“Avengers: Infinity War” is the culmination of the superhero cinematic adventure that’s been growing for more than two decades. Where things go from here, I can only wait to see.

Bonus features are good, not great. There’s a feature length commentary track by directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; a gag reel; four production documentary shorts totaling about a half-hour; and deleted and extended scenes adding another 10 minutes of footage.



Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Review: "BlacKkKlansman"

I’ve been looking forward to “BlacKkKlansman.” It’s been awhile since I could say I was genuinely anticipating a new Spike Lee movie.

Heck, I’ll admit that lately I haven’t been aware when a new Lee “joint” -- his word for his work -- has been about to come out. Let’s just say the acclaimed cinematic purveyor of African-American experiences hasn’t been the cultural force he once was in the 1980s or ‘90s. I think “Miracle of St. Anna” from a decade ago was his last feature I saw in a theater.

“BlacKkKlansman” won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, an annual event that lately has told us more about how the French feel about America or its current president than they do about a particular film.

Lee’s movie, based oh-so-loosely on the true story of a black police officer who successfully infiltrated (sorta) the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, is an explicitly anti-Trump movie that unambiguously links the president’s worst rhetoric with the overtly racist tactics of white supremacy groups of the day.

They’re still doing the same things, Lee argues, they’ve just dressed it up in more palatable terms.

Based on the book by Ron Stallworth, with a screenplay Lee collaborated on with Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott and David Rabinowitz, “BlacKkKlansman” follows Stallworth (a charismatic John David Washington) as he joins the Colorado Springs Police Department in the late 1970s. Through grit, talent and spunk, he moves up from the records room to undercover detective.

His first assignment: infiltrate a speech by the former Black Panther firebrand Stokley Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) to see if he’s riling up Colorado Afro-Americans. (Pity that term didn’t outlive the ebony nimbus hairdos of the day, which are replicated for the film to glorious effect.)

There he meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), president of the local black student union. He finds himself sympathetic to their revolutionary rhetoric, and drawn to her passion.

After seeing a recruitment ad in the local paper by the KKK, Ron calls up the number and uses his “white voice” to convince them he’s an Aryan type who hates all people of color. The relationship builds until they want to meet in person, which presents an obvious problem. So fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is brought in to play Ron in the face-to-face encounters, with the real Ron listening in via the wire attached to the ersatz one’s chest.

The Klansmen are an assortment of buffoons, mouth-breathers and dead-enders, so we never really take them too seriously. Topher Grace plays Grand Wizard/Executive Director David Duke, who’s still a prominent voice in the white supremacist movement, as a gullible -- even slightly needy -- fellow who thinks in Ron he’s found a fellow traveler.

They talk on the phone frequently, and at one point Ron even goads Duke into claiming he can tell the difference between a white man’s voice and a black one’s.

The only one who’s truly scary is Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), the most militant member of the local Klan. He is immediately suspicious of Flip, insisting he looks like a Jew (he is), and suspects him of trying to infiltrate the group for nefarious purposes (right again). His warnings go unheeded, of course.

Like a lot of Spike Lee’s films, “BlacKkKlansman” mixes comedic satire with barely suppressed rage. Much of the actual events depicted are Hollywood inventions, which is par for the course.

We drink in Ron’s brazenness, laugh at the cartoon Klansmen and, if we’re so disposed politically, nod our head sagely when Lee cuts to news footage of Trump or Duke speaking contemporaneously.

It’s an entertaining, messy film that thinks a bit too much of itself.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Video review: "The Rider"

Some people I respect are calling “The Rider” the best movie of 2018. I wouldn’t go nearly so far. This film, about a young rodeo rider recovering from a serious injury, is often hampered by some rather amateurish acting. But it’s got a spare, powerful beauty and a compelling existential journey to explore.

Real-life family members Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau and Lilly Jandreau play son, father and daughter, respectively. It’s the first screen credit for each of them. The fictional Blackburn clan lives somewhere unspecified out West -- the film was shot in the South Dakota badlands -- and virtually everything they do is connected to the land and the animals upon it.

Brady is a rodeo bronco rider who has just suffered a serious injury. As the story opens his head is shaved and there are big staples across his skull. The doctors are telling him he can’t ride competitively ever again, but he doesn’t want to hear it. He continues to hang out with his rodeo bodies, and visits a famous former bull rider, Lane Scott (using his real name), who suffered an even worse mishap and requires full-time rehabilitative care.

Writer/director Chloé Zhao has given us a film that is unafraid to wallow in stillness and contemplation. Brady is an emotive presence despite playing a character who says very little and works to hide his emotions.

There’s not a lot of narrative. Brady comes close to getting back in the rodeo chute again, but thinks better of it. He starts to work with horses, showing an almost eerie skill in breaking wild ones into docile creatures. But then his symptoms, including a hand that clenches and won’t let go, become worse. It seems fate is conspiring to keep him away from even the simple joy of riding and taming the creatures he loves most.

Most of the supporting actors use their real names, and for most of them it’s their first time in front of a camera. For a few of them, it’s painfully obvious. I don’t make it a practice to call out amateurs for performing like amateurs, so I’m not about to start now. It hurts the movie’s impact, but not fatally.

“The Rider” is still a beautiful, tragic, worthwhile film about the price of loving something with everything you’ve got.


Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Review: "The King"

"Celebrity is the industrial disease of creativity." 
                                --Mike Myers
"The King" is not your typical biographical documentary. Director Eugene Jarecki knows that the life and career of Elvis Presley are well-explored topics upon which he can layer in few surprises. So he takes a left turn -- both metaphorically and politically -- and examines what Elvis meant to us.

Few figures can boast such a deep, lasting cultural impact 40 years after their death. Presley remains arguably the the most iconic pop musician of the last century, or ever. In Bangladesh or Colombia, there are kids running around who were born decades after Presley died, yet could probably do a reasonable imitation of his "Hound Dog" swiveling pelvis dance if prompted.

As a framing device, Jarecki uses a unique approach. He somehow got ahold of Elvis' 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom -- a loaner, I'm presuming -- and drives it all around the country, giving people rides as they talk about Elvis. Some are famous -- Ethan Hawke, Alec Baldwin, Emmylou Harris -- and others are regular folks given a chance to ride in the King's chariot. Some of them are musicians themselves, who play their own music or Presley's from the back seat.

Bluesman Leo "Bud" Welch offers this stunningly audacious assessment: "I heard Elvis Presley years and years ago. He had a style of his own, and I had a style of my own." I think Elvis would have appreciated the sheer gall of that.

We drive with Jarecki to Elvis' hometown of Tupelo, Miss., which continues to milk its most famous native son to this day. We visit the "official" childhood home on the white side of town, but when they go looking for the place the Presleys lived as one of only three white families in a black neighborhood, people aren't exactly sure which of the cookie-cutter shacks it is.

Around this point is when "The King" diverges from hagiography to cultural criticism. We talk to black artists who, like Chuck D of Public Enemy, are resentful of Elvis for appropriating a black sound and getting rich and famous off of it. Political firebrand Van Jones bashes Presley for remaining devotedly apolitical his entire life and not using his celebrity in service to a cause (presumably one in sync with Jones' own views).

We talk to old girlfriends, nightclub owners who knew Elvis during his bloated last years grinding out two shows a day in Las Vegas, and a key member of the "Memphis Mafia" of hangers-on and confidantes, Jerry Schilling. "Elvis was my best friend," he says. "I don't know if I was his best friend, but I know some days I was."

It's a compelling ride, as we drive down Route 66, through winter snowstorms and parched deserts, beautiful ocean-side vistas, exploring America and what it meant for Elvis, and what he meant to us. The Rolls has several bouts of mechanical troubles; at one point Jarecki turns his camera on his own pit crew boss, who tells him not only does he not know what the movie is about, he doesn't think Jarecki knows what it's supposed to be about.

He's got a point. Jarecki, no stranger to ardent lefty politics, lets the last third or so of the movie devolve into a wandering polemic, linking Elvis' descent into pills and money-grabbing to the rise of Donald Trump and his disgusting rhetoric. Many of the interviews were shot prior to the 2016 election, and several liberal folks -- James Carville and Alec Baldwin among them -- swear that Trump will never beat Clinton.

There's a desperate tinge to these pronouncements, ironic now of course, but this flavor becomes more pronounced and dissonant as the movie moves on. These are the end times, Jarecki seems to argue, because like Elvis our country always chooses the fast cash and the easy gig over staying true to ourselves.

"If Elvis is your metaphor for America, we're about to OD," says rapper Immortal Technique, laying out the film's theme as bare as can be.

Personally, I find this kind of talk to be juvenile poppycock. If your regard for America is swayed by the current occupant of the Oval Office, then I don't think you really understand the true spirit of the American experiment at all.

Still, I found the first two-thirds of "The King" to be an interesting and creative way to look at Presley's musical and cultural legacy. Even the last third, while indulgent, is never boring.

Here's a documentary that uses a portrait of Elvis Presley as a mirror for what Jarecki sees as the shattering American dream.