Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Top 10 Movies of 2019

I'd call 2019 a slightly below-average film year. I only gave one film my maximum rating (4 stars, 5 Yaps or an "A," depending on where you were reading it). In retrospect there are two others I would retroactively raise to that level.

What can I say, I'm a stingy critic.

After the top seven or eight movies, though, things drop off pretty sharply. I've been somewhat underwhelmed by many of the concussion picks, including "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," "Parasite" and "Little Women." None of them even made my "also ran" list that comes after the Top 10.

If there's a theme in this year's picks, it's that I went for smaller films over the higher-profile "Oscar bait" or big-budget ones. A lot of films where women or people of color are the center of the story and/or on the key creative team. I'm pleased by that, though I certainly am not one to favor films purely because of identity politics.

So here's my list of the very best, the contenders and a few disappointments.

Top 10

1. Late Night -- I seem to be virtually alone in loving this film starring and written by Mindy Kaling, with Emma Thompson giving the performance of the year as an acerbic late-night TV host. Vivid female characters and a compelling story about a particular niche industry. It sort of mislays the boyfriend character, but maybe that's not such a bad thing.

2. Harriet -- Another film that received respectful reviews and very good box office for an indie, but somehow got overlooked by nearly every critic. Cynthia Erivo is terrific as Harriet Tubman in a film by Kasi Lemmons that refuses to treat a historical figure as anything less than a complicated, flesh-and-blood person.

3. Ford v Ferrari -- A wonderful movie in the "best sports story you never heard of" mold like "Hoosiers." A charismatic American car builder and a Brit loner racer join forces to vie for the crown at Le Mans. Great action scenes, but the relationships and terrific acting from Christian Bale and Matt Damon put it over the top.

4. The Last Black Man in San Francisco -- I saw this one very late in the awards season, and if I'd been aware of it earlier I would have pushed it harder for awards. A film like no other, as two men contemplate their love/hate relationship with their home city and their families -- whether through bloodlines or the ones they made on the streets. Haunting, poetic, singular.

5. Just Mercy -- This one isn't on anyone's awards radar because of its late release -- it won't hit most theaters until mid-January -- and that's a shame. In many ways it's a conventional courtroom/legal drama about a falsely convicted murderer, but superb performances make the day. Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Rob Morgan and Tim Blake Nelson all should get Oscar noms.

6.  Portrait of a Lady on Fire -- I can't pronounce any of their names, but actresses Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel are amazing as a painter and her muse in this riveting love tale set in the 1800s. Nobody directed a film better this year than Céline Sciamma. This one stays with you.

7. Marriage Story -- It may sound like a "Kraver v. Kramer" reboot, but this layered look at divorce from Noah Baumbach features a pair of great acting turns by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, as well as very good supporting turns from Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta. There's a lot of lawyering but the film is less concerned with the legal stuff than the effect it has on the heart.

8. 1917 -- Yes, Sam Mendes directing this World War I drama in one long take is a gimmick, but it's a good gimmick. It serves to heighten the intensity rather than just existing for its own sake. Two no-name actors traverse a hellscape of trenches and strewn bodies to try to commit one good deed.

9. Bombshell -- Really, the first #MeToo movie. Charlize Theron should get an Oscar nomination playing Fox News star Megyn Kelly as she carefully negotiates an atmosphere of sexual harassment and depravity. Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman and John Lithgow are top-notch, too.

10. Richard Jewell -- Despite its glaring (and easily avoidable) flaw, Clint Eastwood's latest is still a compelling look at how the media scrum of the early 24/7 new cycle age nearly destroyed an innocent man who was actually a hero. DOA at the box office, alas.

The Very Good

I always include a tally of the films that contended for my Top 10 list. Listed alphabetically.

Abominable -- One of the best animated film of the year, doomed by being the third yeti movie of 2019.
The Aftermath -- Completely overlooked post-WWII love triangle with Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke and Alexander Skarsgård.
Avengers: Endgame -- A fitting wrap-up to the first generation of Marvel movies.
Captain Marvel -- My pick for the best superhero flick this year.
Jojo Rabbit -- Brash, original, funny, occasionally quirky for quirky's sake.
Joker -- Another off-kilter powerhouse turn from Joaquin Phoenix.
Honey Boy -- Made me respect Shia LaBeouf again.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World -- I say the Dragon series is the GOAT animation franchise, especially after the lackluster and totally unnecessary "Toy Story 4."
Knives Out -- A fun twist on the whodunit genre with a wonderful ensemble cast.
One Child Nation -- The best documentary I saw this year; you think you know the issue and then find out you don't.
Pain and Glory -- Not enough love for Pedro Almodovar's latest.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker -- Many quibbles, but I have never not loved a Star Wars movie.
Sword of Trust -- Beautiful little indie comedy that should lay to rest any question about Marc Maron's acting ability.
The Two Popes -- The rarest of animals: a deep cinematic exploration of religious faith.
Us -- I thought Jordan Peele's "Get Out" tremendously overrated, but "Us" is the rare horror film that actually unnerved me.

The Underwhelmed

Some of these I actually liked, but just found they punched way below their touted weight. Others I actively loathe.

Apollo 11 -- I didn't learn one new thing I didn't already know, other than spacemen are boring on the radio.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood -- Classic good-not-great drama. *Interesting* choice to make Fred Rogers a supporting character in his own movie.
Booksmart -- All the right people love this flick, which just isn't as funny or original as it seems to think it is.
Dumbo -- Occasionally I still hear Colin Farrell's awful cowboy accent in my nightmares.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters -- All these modern makeovers seem to forget these are supposed to be cheesy movies.
It: Chapter Two -- What an epic faceplant. How Not to Sequel.
The Lion King -- Why? ... Why?
Little -- Congrats to Hollywood's youngest executive producer, which will be a good epitaph after her and this aggressively awful comedy are forgotten.
Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood -- Quentin Tarantino shoots great scenes, but three decades in still doesn't know how to string stories together.
Rocketman -- Wants so desperately to be as good as "Bohemian Rhapsody." P.S. Freddie Mercury had a better voice and story.
Uncut Gems -- An exercise in annoyance. I don't see Adam Sandler's performance as breaking any new ground. The talents of the Safdie brothers continue to elude me.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Cruising" (1980)

"Who's here? I'm here. You're here."

"Cruising" has the distinction of being the first mainstream movie to garner a major protest from the gay community.

Just a decade after Stonewall, the gay rights movement had gotten organized enough to stage street protests to try to disrupt the production in New York City. They blew whistles during the outdoor shots, forcing director William Friedkin to redub the  movie post-production, and even used reflectors from atop high rises to screw up their lighting.

It got more protests when it finally came out, though not enough -- or perhaps just the right amount -- to make it a moderate hit. Critics were fairly unimpressed, and today the film is pretty well forgotten except for the controversy.

Looking back with the perspective of 40 years, "Cruising" still isn't a very good movie but it's not a terrible one, either. Nor is it the lurid, gay-bashing piece of pulp it was labeled at the time.

Instead, it stands now as an observational piece that turns its eye on a particular place and time. In this case, it's the "leather" scene of the  1970s to early '80s typified by a fetish for leather jackets, pants, hats and other paraphernalia. Gay men would gather in  exclusionary bars to dance, flirt, have sex, do drugs, etc.

Gay hangouts had been underground for decades, and now they were becoming more public as the community founds its identity. It no doubt horrified "the straights," but that was an essential part of the movement up until fairly recently.

Interestingly,  the NYC gay club were largely operated by the Mafia, which is one reason they were relatively protected and allowed to thrive. Thanks, Guido!

Friedkin wanted Richard Gere for the lead because he had an androgynous prettiness to him, but settled for Al Pacino. There is obviously a lot of similarity to Pacino's breakout role in "Serpico," where he also played a cop going "deep undercover" into a world that was alien and frightening to him.

He plays Steve Burns, a street cop in his late 20s who is eager to get his "gold shield," aka make detective. (Pacino was actually 40.)

Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino, made up to look haggard and prematurely old), who has been assigned to solve a string of gruesome murders of gay man, many of them discovered in dismembered pieces, taps Burns because he resembles the physical type favored by the killer: small stature, slim, dark hair and eyes. The idea is to use Burns as bait to draw the slasher out.

(Never commented upon is that the majority of men Burns encounters in the leather bars look just like him.)

Until now these killings have been swept under the rug, filed as CUPPI (Circumstances Undetermined Pending Police Investigation) with the body parts literally shoved in a coroner's drawer and forgotten. But they've started to get some press and gay activists, gifted with power for the first time, are pressuring city politicians for action.

So the movie gives a nod to the gay community that was trying to prevent it from being shot. The main criticism was the suggestion of an inherent connection between violence and homosexuality. Friedkin et all dismissed that, saying they were only telling a story about one small slice of gay men.

Later he came to acknowledge the film wasn't representative of a burgeoning movement.

The film follows Burns as he gradually immerses himself into the leather scene. "Cruising" was initially given an X rating by the MPAA rating because of the depiction of sex between men in the bars. (One wonders if identical scenes with heterogeneous couples would have been similarly labeled.) A bunch of the footage was cut out to make the grade.

Voyeurism is a key part of the aesthetic of the film, though it's fairly tame by today's standards. There are a bunch of asses but no dicks; we see plenty of men making out and groping each other, some simulated blowjobs and one fairly oblique depiction of fisting.

I wonder what the experience was like for contemporary audiences, which had just learned to accept pornographic films as part of the mainstream, and now were shown obvious, if not overt, gay sex.

The film doesn't just treat these men as objects, though. We meet Ted (Don Scardino), a struggling playwright living next door in the apartment Burns takes up as part of his cover. He's a spectacularly normal guy, worrying about money and his career, as well as conflicts with his roommate, a controlling dancer named Gregory (James Remar) we meet late in the movie.

We get introduced into this world, which like any other segment of human society has its own particular sets of rules and expectations. Burns notices men with colored bandannas hanging out of their pockets and asks a store vendor (Powers Booth) what they mean, learning they're signals for sex acts desired to be performed or received.

Later, when Burns wears one in a club and is approached, the other man becomes enraged when Burns says he only likes to watch. On another night he is gobsmacked when he returns to the same place and finds everyone is dressed as police officers, one of the regular "theme nights." He's asked to leave because, ironically, the one actual cop in the place isn't dressed as one.

A key failing in the story is how Burns is supposed to pass himself off as gay if he never engages in any sex acts with other man. It's like the classic trope among drug dealers suspicious of undercover LEOs, "Take a hit to prove you're not a cop."

I would think that he would quickly gain a reputation as a suspicious interloper, a curious dilettante or a cockteaser.

The movie was based on a 1970 novel by Gerald Walker, a New York Times crimes reporter who fashioned his story out of bits 'n' pieces of actual murders from his beat. My understanding is Friedkin, who also wrote the screenplay, inserted the leather scene  based on magazine articles and his own research, including frequenting some bars himself.

So it's very much a straight perspective exploring the gay scene like a zoological expedition, which no doubt played a part in resentment toward the movie. There was a budding gay cinema back then, including the films of Andy Warhol, though these didn't penetrate mainstream Hollywood.

Friedkin has said that he very much saw the project as another one of his gritty  investigative dramas, like "The French Connection," but set against a different backdrop. Indeed, once you take away the (lite) S&M and boys macking on each other, it's pretty much a straight police procedural.

The story occasionally returns to Burns' relationship with his girlfriend, played by Karen Allen, and how he grasps at her as a touchstone to his "normal," straight life that he yearns to return to. However, there is some suggestion that Burns is genuinely piqued by his exposure to homosexuality. He puts on eye makeup and pumps iron while staring in the mirror.

This would be a more interesting area to explore that the film dallies with and then drops.

The most compelling part about "Cruising" is the ambiguous way it treats its murderer. The story ends with the case officially solved, with a gay grad student (Richard Cox) who took a class from a professor who was killed charged as "the guy." However, Ted later turns up dead and the cops blame it on a lovers' quarrel so as not to spoil their case.

What's really interesting is that Friedkin uses three different actors who swap in and out playing the killer or the victims. He's seen as a tall guy in leather cap and sunglasses who likes to do a little playful singsong routine with his victims right before he stabs them with an outsized steak knife.

So the first man killed, a muscular young actor, later plays the killer himself. Cox plays the killer in another murder in Central Park, but appears to be innocent when Burns later lures him into the park and they try to stab each other.

At one point a waiter named Skip (Jay Avocone) is fingered because he works at a steakhouse that uses similar knives and because he has a reputation for liking the rough stuff. Burns initiates a tryst that cops burst in on, arresting them both.

During the interrogation Skip is beaten to a pulp by the police before being released on no evidence. Burns complains this isn't what he signed up for, and nearly quits.

He's also not happy about, for the purpose of continuing the ruse, getting smacked around himself by a huge black cop wearing only a hat and jock strap, in what is surely the film's most completely unhinged moment. This officer is never named and speaks no dialogue, and his outfit is never explained.

There's other portions that show some dirty cops harassing the cross-dressing hustlers, arresting them without cause and forcing them to perform sex acts on them. My guess is the interrogation room cop was trying to instill that same fear.

"Cruising" had its heart in the right place, despite accusations, but its head in the wrong one.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Top 10 of the 10's

I hadn't originally intended to do a "best of the decade" list, just because it seems like everyone else is and such things are by their nature a bit arbitrary. Plus, as the eggheads like to remind us, technically the new decade doesn't start until Jan. 1, 2021.

(Frankly, they can blow it out their wazoo. By this reckoning a person who's just shy of 41 can claim they're still in their 30s.)

But it's kind of fun and I like having arguments about favorite things.

Also, the "10's" or whatever we're calling it -- weird that we reached the end of this decade without coming up with a universally accepted name -- marks a full decade of The Film Yap and my blog as standalone, independent movie outlets. So I was able to just look at my annual Top 10 lists and winnow them down.

Not surprisingly over the course of a decade some films rise and fall in my estimation. Entire years are not represented -- including 2019, a below-average cinematic year in my book, which is why this piece is actually publishing ahead of my list for this year.

Fully 40% of this list is comprised from one year, 2015, which I still contend is a once-in-a-generation year for movies, like 1994 or 1939.

You might be surprised to find that in some cases movies that ranked lower on that year's Top 10 ended up higher on the decade list, while others moved down or didn't make it at all. That represents how movies wax or wane in our eyes with the passing of years.

So here's the list:
  1. Mad Max: Fury Road
  2. Lady Bird
  3. Blade Runner 2049
  4. Life Itself
  5. Spotlight
  6. Hell or High Water
  7. Green Book
  8. The Big Short
  9. Room
  10. The Social Network
"Mad Max: Fury Road" has it all: reviving a cinematic icon while creating a new character who is just as compelling as he is, and surrounding them with a world that feels dense and lived-in. Much the same goes for "Blade Runner 2049," which is a completely satisfying follow-up to a film I thought defied sequelization.

"Lady Bird" is a singular movie: semi-autobiographical, specific to a time and place, with riveting performances all the way down. I was a little disappointed in "Little Women," but I'm looking forward to the next 30-40 years of Greta Gerwig films with bated breath.

More than anyone Roger Ebert determined the form of film criticism going forward: starting in newspapers, graduating to television and finding his fullest voice online. I saw no better documentary than "Life Itself" this decade.

"Spotlight" and "Hell or High Water" are the fullest expressions of very specific genres: journalism movies, for which I have an obvious affinity, and modern/revisionist Westerns.

"Green Book" and "The Big Short" are polar opposites: one seeks to comfort/uplift and the other to afflict/accuse.

Both accomplish their goals rapturously well. "Room" is still a great movie but has fallen down my list, just because seeing it for the first time is such a singular experience that subsequent viewings aren't as completely engaging. "The Silence of the Lambs" is the same way.

"The Social Network" will be studied as a terrific time capsule of our culture at the cusp of the social media/mobile device age. It's hard to describe how different our daily interactions are from where they were just 10 or 12 years ago.

I could make a tally of "almosts" as long as your arm, but I will share the other films I struggled to eliminate from this list: "Whiplash," "Her," "Prisoners" and "Pacific Rim."

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Review: "LIttle Women"

I’ve never read “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott, and I think that hurts my perception of the latest cinematic adaptation of it by writer/director Greta Gerwig. (The eighth, it is believed.) I was a huge fan of Gerwig’s debut film, “Ladybird,” and although I liked this one, too, I couldn’t escape the feeling I was a tourist wandering through this story.

Alcott’s seminal semi-autobiographical tale follows the four March sisters as they progress from girls to young women, struggle with their places in 19th century society and their various romantic and familial entanglements. Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) is more or less the lead character, a headstrong proto-feminist who wants to be a writer first and a wife maybe never.

I had not realized that the book was published in two volumes, or that Alcott actually produced a pair of sequels. Gerwig’s screenplay juxtaposes the two sections, set seven years apart, using parallel storylines with the March sisters roughly occupying their teen years during the first and 20s during the second.

In addition to Ronan, who also was Gerwig’s star in “Ladybird,” the cast is uniformly superb. Emma Watson plays oldest daughter, Meg, who yearns to be an actress but embraces the push to marry and have children. Florence Pugh is Amy, the youngest and most willful child, who seethes in Jo’s shadow. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is the wan one who loves music and has the purest heart, so we all know her fate.

Laura Dern plays their mother, aka “Marmee,” who seems impossibly upbeat and saintly but is allowed a few moments of eye-level humanity. Bob Odenkirk turns up late as their father, perennially away serving in the Civil War and not very consequential to the story even when he is around.

The Marches call themselves poor, though they have a nice, large house in Concord and a servant, and give away astonishing piles of food to the truly indigent. Their next-door neighbors are the super-wealthy Laurences, acquaintances who eventually become friends. Chris Cooper plays the patriarch, whose sternness fades after he takes a shine to Beth. Timothée Chalamet plays his layabout grandson Theodore aka “Laurie,” the object of myriad affections.

With his foppy hair, pencil-thin frame and insolent eyes -- if he were a March, he'd unquestionably be the prettiest sister -- Chalamet is the very picture of unearned privilege. He convinces Jo that he loves her, though we sense that emotionally Laurie is a renter, not a buyer. She rejects him, though later comes to regret it.

In the early scenes the March house practically hums with warmth and energy, while in the later sequences it has become drab and colorless. The family suffers setbacks and heartbreak, but carries on.

In the later section, Jo has moved to New York City to work to pursue a career as a writer, with some success. Tracy Letts plays the publisher who mercilessly cuts her pages and encourages her to write short, pulpy stories in which single women are dead or married by the end. “Either one will do.”

Meryl Streep plays their wealthy Aunt March, who could help them a lot more than she does, though she does offer some employment to the daughters and stresses the importance of marrying well. She’s distraught when Meg falls for John Brooke (James Norton), a penniless tutor. Louis Garrel enters the picture late as Friedrich, a romantic alternative for Jo.

I can see why generations of women have grown up loving “Little Women,” because it embraces them as they are and shows how crushing expectations can be, then or now. We instinctively like Jo because she rejects the wife-or-spinster dichotomy and forges her own path. We understand Amy’s impatience and admire Marmee’s innate generosity of the heart.

The movie tells women it’s OK to embrace a family life, or reject it, fall for boys or shove them away, feel strong but sometimes vulnerable, too. “Girls should go out into the world and make up their own minds about things,” Aunt March says.

If I were a woman or an Alcott reader, I’d probably love this film instead of just admiring it.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Video review: "Judy"

"What’s ‘Judy’ about?” someone asked me when the film was hitting theaters.

“It’s about Renée Zellweger making her big comeback and giving an Oscar-bait performance,” I responded.

“No, no, I mean the story. What’s the movie about?” they said.

“It’s a movie about getting Renée Zellweger her big comeback performance and maybe winning an Oscar.”

A bit flip, but true. “Judy” is one of those movies that isn’t just built around a leading performance, it is the film in its entirety. Zellweger plays Judy Garland during her last bitter years, her star faded but her voice still strong.

It’s a great role for an actress whose career hit a slump around age 40, as so many sadly do. Hollywood loves the ingénue and seems to have little room for women in their middle years. It happened to Susan Sarandon, Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep, too.

They managed to turn it around and cruise into their “grand dame” years, and that’s what Zellweger’s turn here is trying to do.

I liked the film without really falling in love. I often find that biopics containing a single overpowering performance – “Ray,” “Capote,” etc. – tend to have an innate ceiling below greatness. Stories and secondary characters are shunted aside in the bid to keep the spotlight burning bright on the star.

Set in the late 1960s, the story follows Garland when she was booked to play an extended engagement at a London theater. She was long sick of showbiz, but with bills to pay and an ongoing custody battle for kids, Garland didn’t have much choice.

Jessie Buckley plays Rosalyn, the handler assigned to watch over Garland and make sure she shows up for her performances and not get too drunk. Some flashback scenes feature Darci Shaw as a teen Garland first getting a harsh introduction to Hollywood via a creepy Louis B. Mayer.

“Judy” is a solid biopic, but once you get past Zellweger’s snappy performance as a self-loathing faded star, there’s not much fairy dust to speak of.

Bonus features are fairly skimpy. There’s just an image gallery from the set and a documentary, “From the Heart: The Making of Judy.”



Friday, December 20, 2019

Spoiler-ish thoughts on "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker"

Spoiler-ish thoughts on TROS ahead, so avert your eyes now if you don't want even a hint of foreknowledge.

I liked it; the first half is wildly uneven but they pull it together for the second.

Didn't care for all the callbacks, most of which just felt like fan-service curtain calls instead of moving the story along. Did a certain smuggler get an eye job?

It was obvious how they had to shoot/edit around Carrie Fisher's limited existing footage. Stand-ins used for over-the-shoulder shots. My guess is they didn't want to just CGI her in, with the result that one of the saga's most enduring characters exits essentially invisibly.

Had no idea what Chewie's "gift" at the end was, so I asked somebody who seemed to. Apparently righting a 42-year-old wrong, but I'm not sure how many will get that. Plus, why is Maz the person who a) has that item in her possession and b) has the agency to bestow it? It feels like a homeless vet taking off one of his ribbons and handing it to some random passerby.

The new characters treat the Millennium Falcon like a cum rag on a pornographic movie set. It's been trashed so many times in these three movies I lost count. And there's never even a moment to acknowledge that or express regret. It has actually become a running joke.

Han and Chewie treated that ship like an aged but adored lover, and I don't like seeing it get milked for comedic effect.

I did not guess the truth of Rey's lineage, other than it was obvious her parents were not "nobodies." So Kylo lied, but in a  Ben Kenobi "certain point of view" kinda way.

My biggest beef is the use of the Force. It has become like magic in the Harry Potter movies: what are its limits? What are the rules? What are people capable of and what feats are clearly impossible? The answer is, "Whatever the writers want to happen to service the plot."

So Anakin Skywalker, the most powerful Jedi ever, was limited to telekinesis, choking people out and deflecting blaster bolts. Now they're just frickin' Dungeons & Dragons clerics. "Anybody need a rez?"

People will grouse about reusing a villain, but the sequel trilogy has recycled practically everything else, so why not?

Still, plenty of power and majesty here. I remember nearly 40 years ago when other kids first shared the speculation that there were going to be nine of these movies. I don't think child me would be disappointed in the culmination, though the adult one has no reservations about pointing out its many flaws.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Review: "Cats"

Welcome to the 15-minute review exercise! That's how much time I have to write this on my lunch break, so you can feel free to compare it to my more studied musings.

First of all, I am a "Cats" virgin. Which is to say I had no experience or knowledge of the stage musical going in. I knew it had people dressed as cats, there was that one ubiquitous "Memory" song, and... that was it.

My understanding is the film version diverges in ways large and small from the Andrew Lloyd Webber stage version. Victoria, who is more or less a sideshow dancer live, is the main or at least the central character here, playing a castaway kitten who is our eyes and ears into the story.

Played by ballet star Francesca Hayward, a film newcomer, Victoria doesn't have a strong character of her own but spends most of the time mouth agape with awestruck eyes reacting to the stuff around her. Her dancing is unsurprisingly magnificent, as if she is not bound to the earth like the rest of us. She also has a great singing voice, like the peal of a clear, pure bell.

Frankly, I much preferred hearing her than Taylor Swift, who is being played up as the star of the movie. She actually has only one scene, a musical number that's one of the weaker in the movie. She isn't even talking about her own character, but acting as an emcee introducing Macavity, the villain of the piece played by Idris Elba.

Indeed, most of the musical numbers are a showcase for one particular cat to talk about their life and experiences. For example, Ian McKellen plays Gus (short for Asparagus), a decrepit old "theater cat" whose soliloquy is basically him relating past greatness. Like a few other non-singers who were cast, McKellen does the "talk-singing" thing that Jimmy Cagney first made famous.

I suppose I need to talk about the cat outfits. They're good... and weird. The film uses a combination of costumes and makeup with CGI for the ears and tails. They don't look anything like cats, just humans playing as cats. Some are better than others. Elba looks way too big and muscle-y for the get-up.

Weirdly, some of the cats wear shoes while others are barefoot, and they look like human feet rather than cat's paws. Some wear people clothing, hats and jewelry, while some like Victoria are essentially nude, which makes the PG rating from the MPAA seem a little incongruous.

Some actors you will recognize, like Rebel Wilson and James Corden, McKellen and Judi Dench. Others are dancers or musicians you may or may not have heard of, like Jason Derulo as Rum Tum Tugger, a capricious show-off.

The story is... straight bonkers. I couldn't make sense of it while the movie was going, and then when I read a summary of it for research afterwards I thought I had stumbled onto the secret Scientology texts or something.

Set in London we follow the tribe of "Jellicle" street cats who are in the annual process of deciding which of them will be picked to make the journey to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn into a new life. It's unclear if this marks their progression between the nine proverbial cat lives, or the end of them.

Each candidate cat performs their story and the Jellicle leader, Old Deuteronomy (a male on stage but played here by Dench), picks the "winner."

Some cats are in the front of the story, while others come and go. There's a tap-dancing "railway cat" who shows up and then leaves. Some cats get zapped by Macavity and imprisoned on a barge on the Thames, and no one notices them missing. There's twin troublemaker cats and a snobbish besuited cat and... well, you get the idea.

The last big part is Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella, a former "glamor cat" who is shunned by the others for reasons that are never hinted it. She gets to sing the iconic "Memory" song in several reprises, which is a lovely tune but when you listen to the lyrics in the context of the story are totally baffling.

Apparently Grizabella was once beloved and now is lonely and she yearns to be touched. (Sounds like my teen years.) Otherwise she'll have to wander among the lamplights and wait for a new day to begin with more ostracism, and singing.

I'm also just going to throw this out there: Am I the only one who was bothered by the copious snot trails coming out of Hudson's nostrils and streaming into her mouth while she sang? I'm sort of gobsmacked that no makeup person or PA on the set handed her a tissue between takes. Or while they were CGIing in the tails they don't wipe that out.

I like emotion in movies but draw the line at people consuming their own bodily secretions on camera.

The parts of "Cats" that work well work really well. I quite liked Laurie Davidson as Mr. Mistoffelees, a magician cat whose tricks usually don't come off very well and thus he has some pretty crushing self-esteem issues. He gets his own big musical number that, other than "Memory," is probably the best in the flick.

The parts that don't work are embarrassing or just boring. Several of the comedic numbers just aren't very funny; Wilson's is a case in point. A lot of the time I struggled to make out the words the cats were singing, other than they all seem to come down to "Hey I'm a cat so I'm doing cat stuff."

The film ends with a musical number that is so incredibly flat and purposeless that I can't believe in nearly 40 years of "Cats" no one has ever shouted at the curtain call, "Cut that last song, it's terrible."

But again, this is all new territory for me. "Cats" is still kinda magical in a goofy sort of way. No disbelief is suspended but it at least gets set aside for awhile.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Review: "A HIdden Life"

Just a quick mini-review today. I saw "A Hidden Life" a few weeks back in the run-up to awards season, and it kind of got lost in the writing shuffle.

I've admittedly been very tepid to Terrence Malick. I haven't unreservedly loved a movie of his since his first, "Badlands," and that was nearly 50 years ago. I recognize the singularity of his artistic vision while wishing desperately he would take someone's advice and not keep making films that are so long and languid, often tortuously so.

"A Hidden Life" is probably his finest and most engaging film since "The Thin Red Line." There's a great movie inside a much longer one that's merely good. It would be better at just under two hours instead of just under three, but at this point the auteur's aesthetic is written in stone.

Malick gotta Malick.

It's the true story of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a conscientious objector to the Nazi regime during World War II. An Austrian farmer of deep religious convictions, he refused to swear fealty to Adolf Hitler, was imprisoned and eventually executed. Thought the movie doesn't mention it, he was later declared a martyr and beautified by the Catholic Church -- one step below sainthood.

Valerie Pachner plays his wife, Franziska; Michael Nyqvist is a helpful local bishop; Bruno Ganz is a sympathetic judge; Matthias Schoenaerts is the reluctant lawyer assigned to defend him.

It's an unspeakably gorgeous film, cinematography by Jörg Widmer and musical score by James Newton Howard. Both should receive Academy Award nominations. Malick's MO is to juxtapose the natural world around his characters so we never forget they are part of a greater organic existence.

The Austrian mountains loom over everything we see, drawing our gasps but also lulling us into a false sense of security. These mighty stone walls can't keep out the seep of human depravity.

It's one of Malick's most traditional narrative structures, even if it's a slow-paced one. His screenplay gives equal weight to Franz' family struggling back home while he languishes in prison, unwilling to compromise his principles. We admire him but also pity his obstinance.

I seethed with rage as fellow villagers ostracize Franziska and even assault her. I can think of no better recent portrayal of the corrupting power of the mob.

"A Hidden Life" won't be for everyone, something you can say about the rest of Malick's oeuvre. I'd guess less than 10 percent of filmgoers can stomach this sort of thing. But for those who possess patience and an openness to a genuine spiritual journey, it's a worthy trek.

Review: "Bombshell"

If “Bombshell” looks like a bunch of Hollywood liberals teaming up for a vicious takedown of Fox News, the hated epitome of right-wing media, that’s because it is.

That doesn’t make it any less delicious or entertaining. And it’s as good a cinematic exploration aw I’ve seen of how sexual harassment is tolerated and even condoned.

Director Jay Roach’s last two films were a hagiography of lefty screenwriting icon Dalton Trumbo and a send-up of Republican congressional candidates. Screenwriter Charles Randolph won (deservedly) an Oscar for writing “The Big Short,” an angry and hilarious look at the housing lending crisis that set off the Great Recession.

They’re core members of the Liberal Hollywood Elite©.

And yet, “Bombshell” possesses layers and subtleties. It treats its characters as living, flesh-and-blood creatures full of complexities and contradictions. You may even be shocked to hear some of the Fox News women come out looking brave, even a little heroic.

You may have seen that freaky trailer where Margot Robbie, playing an ambitious up-and-comer at the network, is riding in an elevator. Then in walk Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson. They warily study each other through sidelong glances, the tension palpable, and you wonder how the hell the studio convinced Kelly and Carlson to portray themselves.

Except they didn’t. Kelly is played by Charlie Theron, and Carlson by Nicole Kidman. I’m not sure what kind of makeup or even possibly CGI effects were employed, but they look so much like the women they portray you’d swear there was some DNA swapping.

The voices are really good, too. Theron sounds so much like Kelly, with her upstate New York accent and odd word emphasis, it’s downright eerie. Kidman is great, too, though Carlson doesn’t have as distinct a speaking style to emulate.

These are showstopper performances that I’m sure will be remembered during the awards season.

The story follows along in 2016 during the last months of the tenure of Roger Ailes, the notorious political fixer-turned-news-mogul who ran Fox News from its inception. He’s played by John Lithgow in a naturalistic fat suit and facial prosthetics. You’d never call it a sympathetic portrait, but Lithgow manages to find the humanity inside the ogreish exterior.

Ailes believed in giving the audience what it wants, or at least what he’s convinced they wanted, which was right-wing opinion segments, short skirts and lots of yelling. He helped create Donald Trump as a viable candidate and then found himself tied to his yoke, as have so many others.

Robbie’s character, Kayla, is an amalgam of women used and abused by Ailes and a corporate culture that openly treated its on-air talent as sex objects. She begs Ailes for advice to launch her career, and they share a scene of pressure and submission that’s just devastating to watch.

Kate McKinnon plays Jess, a producer who befriends Kayla and has a brief romance with her. Jess is a liberal lesbian who hides her identity because she couldn’t get a job anywhere else but Fox News, and now no other network will hire her.

An excellent supporting cast includes Allison Janney, Connie Britton, Mark Duplass, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Stephen Root and Liv Hewson.

The best part of the film is the middle section, where the word is out about Ailes’ disgusting behavior and the lawyers are circling. Rather than the walls closing in, the newsroom breaks down into a cheerleading squad led by Jeanine Pirro and a few others, handing out “Team Roger” T-shirts and insisting people wear them.

The #MeToo movement has sparked a lot of good things and also some predictable overreaching and backlash. This is basically the first mainstream movie to deal with the issue head-on, and it’s both chilling and exhilarating.

Many of us who haven’t been affected sit in our privileged perches and wonder how anyone could commit this kind of behavior, or why anyone puts up with it. “Bombshell” is a bravura portrait of how ambition, fear, lust and hypocrisy can combine in the most awful ways imaginable so that people feel trapped.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Reeling Backward: "The Andromeda Strain" (1971)

"The Andromeda Strain" was a procedural show before they had a name for such a thing.

I'm guessing in 1971 it seemed like a fairly tense, purposeful sci-fi drama at a time when such things were still fairly novel. Science fiction had been generally regarded as the plaything of young people -- at least since the early silent film era of "Metropolis" and the like.

Then after Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" in 1968, audiences were again willing to watch serious stories involving lasers, space aliens and the like. (Along with a few acid-droppers.)

Michael Crichton's novel was a huge hit for the doctor-turned-best-selling-author, launching a long run of film adaptations. The story involves an American satellite that has crash-landed in the desert, killing nearly everyone in the tiny town of Piedmont, Ariz. A crack team of scientists discovers that an alien lifeform fell to Earth with it, threatening all human life on the planet.

In a lot of ways, it's the godfather of the "outbreak" disaster movie subgenre -- "28 Days Later," "Contagion," etc.

"Andromeda" was directed by the great Robert Wise from an adaptation by pet screenwriter Nelson Gidding. Wise began as a film editor in the 1930s and directed films spanning seven decades and virtually every genre.

For a "race against the clock" type of movie, it's a rather listless, obstinately paced one. Popular films just had a generally different pace back then, with long establishing shots, pregnant pauses and an observational camera perspective.

By today's standards it's incredibly slow and mired in minutia. There's a sequence that's about 15 minutes long that just involves the scientists making their way down through five levels of a secret underground station, going through various rounds of decontamination and body scanning.

It's completely dead weight, and a modern editor would lop off the entire thing if they were halfway competent.

"Andromeda" is very much dominated by its special effects to an almost fetishistic degree. It was one of the first films to use computerized visual effects, so an astonishing portion of the 130 minutes of screen time involves staring at screens, or watching characters stare at screens. Douglas Trumbull also did the effects for "2001."

Of course it all looks terribly outdated almost a half-century later, with blocky graphics and green-lettered screen readouts. My issue is not so much with the aesthetics of the effects as how much the movies relies on them to propel the story.

Interestingly, "Andromeda" is not set in the future but the present, with contemporary military hardware, clothing, hardware, etc. It's an idealized portrait of a modernistic present, but the present nonetheless. I would very much place it in the "hard" science fiction category, with its emphasis on technology and harsh realities.

Another notable thing about the film is the cast is so, well, normal-looking. It's pretty much all middle-aged actors very much not in the Harrison Ford/Julia Roberts mold. There are ample bellies, receding hairlines and neck wattle galore.

James Olson plays Mark Hall, the brash young surgeon who provides the youthful energy on the team, and even he was in his 40s when the film came out. Arthur Hill is more or less the central characters as Dr. Jeremy Stone, architect of the Wildfire facility designed to deal with extraterrestrial encounters. David Wayne is Charles Dutton, the elder member of the scientist team.

By far the most interesting character is Dr. Ruth Leavitt, payed by Kate Reid. She's the cantankerous, independent-minded researcher who was more or less forcibly drafted to Wildfire when some soldiers with guns showed up at her laboratory. She's also later revealed to have been hiding an epileptic condition, which ends up endangering the mission.

Leavitt was a male character in the novel but Gidding suggested changing it to a woman. Wise was initially hesitant, but in the end was happy with the switcheroo.

The main conflict in the story is between Leavitt and Hall, as their personalities and specialties do not mesh. Even though Leavitt is portrayed as much older, Reid and Olson were actually the exact same age.

It's the "Hollywood Age Differential," in which male and female characters of different generations are played by actors who are contemporaries.

There are two survivors of the Piedmont disaster: Jackson (George Mitchell), a 69-year-old kook who drinks Sterno (a liquid fuel used for campires) to combat his ulcers, and a 6-month-old baby who never stops crying. It turns out these peculiarities rendered them (mostly) immune to the effect of the alien virus.

The extraterrestrials, given the titular code name, are non-sentient green crystalline structures that are constantly growing and mutating, given the right environment... such as the human body. The result is that the blood in the body turns to a powder, which makes for a couple of gruesome autopsy scenes.

Paula Kelly plays Anson, the nurse who assists Hall in the Wildfire infirmary. She's smart and sassy, though not above accepting a little light groping from Mitchell. Both her and Hall have to work in large, clumsy environmental suits.

Another notable aspect of the film is the "odd man hypothesis." Although it's pretty much fictional bunk, the idea is that unmarried men are most likely to carry out dispassionate orders with large-scale effects -- like launching nuclear missiles, for example.

As someone who didn't get married until rather late in life, I'm amused at the notion that bachelors are just assumed to be weird. Tell it to my uncle, who didn't start a family until he was 60. Thus Hall is selected to carry the self-destruct key for the Wildfire station should the contagion break its barriers and threaten the world above. Though in this case the scenario is reversed: a 5-minute countdown is automatically initiated for a small nuclear bomb hidden in the lowest level, and it's Hall's job to turn it off.

This leads to pretty much the only genuine excitement in the film, where he has to clamber through the innards of the facility while dodging lasers and the like. He takes a couple of good shots to the hand and cheek.

I'd been looking forward to catching up with "The Andromeda Strain" for some time, and am sorry to say I was sorely disappointed. Some films stand the test of time, while others give birth to later, superior copycats.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Video review: "Abominable"

“Abominable” won’t earn a lot of points for originality, especially in a year that already saw two other bigfoot-based animated films: “Smallfoot” and “Missing Link.” But it turns out to be the best of the bunch.

Yi (voice of Chloe Bennet) is a Chinese teenager who dreams of leaving behind her staid life and family, mourning the loss of her father long ago. But then she encounters a yeti who had been kidnapped from his mountain homeland and dropped into the city.

Dubbing him Everest, Yi resolves to return him to where he belongs. Tagging along are Peng (Albert Tsai), an annoying neighbor kid, and Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), a metrosexual playboy who was a childhood friend but these days is more interested in clothes and party girls.

Eddie Izzard does the voice of the villain, Mr. Burnish, a selfish tycoon who wants the yeti to show what a great explorer he is. His henchwoman is Zara (Sarah Paulson), a nicer scientist type.

There’s lots of music and magic in “Abominable,” with writer/director Jill Culton ably setting the pace. Everest is revealed to have innate abilities that start out wondrous and later become truly astounding.

“Abominable” wasn’t a huge hit at the box office, but for my money it’s better than “Toy Story 4” or “Frozen 2.”

Sometimes it pays to be last.

Bonus features are voluminous. They include a short film, “Marooned,” about a selfish robot; five deleted scenes; feature-length commentary track by the filmmakers and animators; and another Everest short, “Show and Tell.”

There are also several featurettes: “Making a Myth (Movie,” “Animating Abominable;” “Meet the Cast;” “Your Yeti Care Guide,” “Courage to Dream,” “An Abominable Tour with Chloe Bennet;” “Everest’s Talk Box;” “How to Speak Yeti-ese;” and “Cooking with Nai Nai.”

Also very neat is an animation drawing tutorial for kids, “How to Abominable.”



Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Review: "The Two Popes"

Before Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, resigned his position in 2013 no Catholic pontiff had voluntarily stepped down prior to death going back to the 1200s. The fact that his successor, Pope Francis, represented a sharp turn from Benedict’s adherence to strict, conservative interpretation of scripture underscores what a watershed moment their passing of the baton was.

“The Two Popes” is an often-mesmerizing, splendidly acted look at the relationship between the two men. It is a semi-fictitious account of their secret meeting over the course of a few days as two adversaries come to be allies, and perhaps friends.

Anthony Hopkins plays Benedict and Jonathan Pryce is Francis, aka Jorge Mario Bergoglio, in what is essentially a two-man, two-hour dialogue about religious faith and earthly tribulations.

Think “My Dinner with Andre,” with cassocks.

It’s more Bergoglio’s story than Benedict’s, as the story follows him and Benedict is only glimpsed through his eyes. Still, both men are revealed as three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood creatures riven with a combination of gloomy doubts and fiery certitude.

The story begins in 2005, when Benedict is chosen over Bergoglio to be the next pope. The first is German, a scholar, and openly campaigns for the position. The latter is Argentinian, a conflicted man of the people, and quietly urges behind the scenes for the church to reform.

Flash to 2011, and the pope summons Cardinal Bergoglio to Rome for mysterious purposes. It turns out the subordinate had already bought a plane ticket to see his superior in order to ask for permission to retire. But it’s clear the pope is intent on taking measure of the cardinal’s mind and soul.

They share walks, meals and contentious conversations. Benedict, physically decrepit but strong in spirit, repeatedly challenges Bergoglio for failing to uphold church doctrine on things like condemning homosexuality and giving sacrament to divorced parishioners.

In turn, the younger man insists that the masses are turning away from Catholicism because of the church’s failure to live up to its own teachings, such as turning a blind eye to predatory priests who had sexually abused young members of the flock.

We also flash back to earlier periods in Bergoglio’s life, such as when he broke off his marital engagement in order to return to the seminary. (Juan Minujín plays the younger version.)

Later, there is a look at his actions as the head of the Franciscans during the Argentinian military coup of 1976. It was a dark time when citizens and even priests often disappeared into prisons, sometimes never to return. Bergoglio is challenged by his own priests, and has to make some harsh choices.

Back in the present of 2011, Bergoglio is still tortured over whether his actions were the right thing to do. Benedict, finally seeing the veil of certainty drop from the ardent reformer, sees not weakness but the humility needed to be a great leader.

Both men confess to each other, as men and as priests. Despite their lofty places in a religious order they experience crises of their faith. Bergoglio says he feels like “a salesman for a product I don’t endorse.” Benedict is haunted by the silence of God’s voice in his mind since he became pope.

Bergoglio flashes anger at the pope for letting predatory priests move from parish to parish while the victims were abandoned. Benedict both admires and resents the cardinal for the unassuming charisma he has with the people.

“Whenever I try to be myself, people don’t seem to like me very much,” he says with a painful grin.

Director Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”) and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (“The Darkest Hour”) have given us a film that is both intimate and grandiose. We don’t see a lot of serious explorations of faith in popular movies, religious characters tending to be portrayed as doctrineless saints or dastardly zealots using their deity’s teachings for their own purposes.

But “The Two Popes” is just such a film. Though it tends to paint Francis as the good-hearted reformer and Benedict as an old-world pedant, the movie refuses to worship or condemn either man. Both are given their due measure of grace.

Review: "Richard Jewell"

Everybody undervalued Richard Jewell, starting with himself.

By all accounts he was a decent, hardworking man who embraced his role as protector at times too fervently -- particularly during those periods when he worked as a security guard at a college or entertainment venue. Jewell started and ended his career wearing a badge, and knew firsthand that people respect someone with a uniform and gun more than some sweaty dude in a white polo shirt.

So when Jewell discovered a backpack at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and alerted the authorities before it exploded, saving countless lives, what happened next was perhaps not so surprising. People saw an obese, slow-talking man with a Southern accent and decided he could not be a hero as initially thought.

“Richard Jewell” is director Clint Eastwood’s ambitious and successful attempt to rescue the reputation of Jewell, he was accused of being the bomber without a scintilla of actual evidence. It also tries to cast the FBI and especially the media as the villains, and here it’s less skillful and certainly heavy-handed.

Paul Walter Hauser plays Jewell in a performance that is spot-on both physically and spiritually. He does not try to portray Jewell as a saint or a smart man -- things he surely was not. Rather, Hauser shows us a simple, authentic soul who persevered despite that fact that many people saw him as a pathetic loser.

He knew this, and trudged on.

Take the scene right before Jewell sounds the alert on the backpack. He goes over to confront a group of underage teens drinking and breaking bottles against the media tower at Centennial Park. The boys completely laugh him off, call him a bunch of insulting names tied to his weight, and continue their revelry.

The look on Hauser’s face as he walks away from this scene is telling. He does not react to the insults, because Jewell has heard them a million times before, but simply goes about doing his job. He fetches the cops, who chase off the drunks, and insists they check out the pack nearby, even though most think it’s just full of beer.

The film, written by Billy Ray based on a book by Marie Brenner, takes us through the initial harrowing events of the explosion and aftermath. It’s tense stuff. But it really kicks into high gear when Sam Rockwell rides in as his lawyer, Watson Bryant, after it becomes clear the feds, lacking any substantial clues, have focused on Jewell using the “lone bomber” profile, which had been much in the news back then.

Jewell calls Bryant because he’s the only lawyer he knows, having briefly worked together years before. Bryant (based on actual lawyer Lin Wood) is cantankerous and foul-mouthed, and barely ekes by on personal injury cases. But the way the FBI leans on Jewell, he needs someone ornery in his corner.

They share a great scene where Watson blows up at the way Jewell is deferential to the authorities, calling everyone “sir” and even offering to help while they search the apartment he shares with his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates, terrific as always). Why aren’t you as mad as I am, Watson demands. Jewell finally gets mad enough to insist that anger just isn’t his way.

Jon Hamm plays the FBI agent leading the investigation, and Olivia Wilde is Kathy Scruggs, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who first broke the story that Jewell was a suspect. In an odd choice, they kept Scruggs’ name the same as the actual person while changing that of most everyone else.

You may have heard the movie suggests -- without evidence -- that Scruggs traded sexual favors in exchange for scoops, one of the vilest and cheapest charges leveled at female reporters. Both she and Jewell died at a young age, so she’s not around to defend herself.

The movie doesn’t touch on the fact that Jewell and his attorney ended up suing many media outlets for their inept handling of the case, winning settlements from nearly all of them. “Richard Jewell” works spectacularly as a condemnation of a mass media that went from Point A to Point Z on a story without bothering to do any of the legwork in between to connect them.

It’s too bad Eastwood and his team did the exact same thing in portraying the journalist on the case. One poor turn deserves another, apparently.

Review: "Uncut Gems"

“Uncut Gems” is a 135-minute exercise in anxiety and unpleasantness. It begins with a colonoscopy, and things go downhill from there.

Adam Sandler, the doofus funnyman who makes unambitious comedies for kids and adolescents and occasionally tackles serious roles in films like “Punch Drunk Love,” kvetches and whines and shouts and connives as Harold Ratner, a Manhattan gem dealer. He’s a jerk, a coward, a philanderer, a compulsive gambler, inept businessman, a lousy husband and father and not even a particularly good boyfriend.

It’s fine to have an unlikable person as your main character in movie. But he’s got to go somewhere. He needs to start low and go high or high to low or even just side to side. Howard starts out as a putz driven by his compulsions and ends the movie the exact same way.

“Gems” is directed and written (along with Ronald Bronstein) by brothers Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie. A couple of years ago they made “Good Time,” beloved by many but not me. It felt like one long pointless chase, and this new film bears a striking resemblance.

Harold, who wears rectangular glasses that give him a sinister beetle look, is seemingly successful but is always teetering on the edge of total chaos. He owns his own jewelry shop, the kind where you have to be buzzed in through a bulletproof glass chamber. He has a big house on Long Island, a Mercedes, a nice apartment in the city, and his wife (Idina Menzel) and two sons want for nothing.

But Harold owes money all over town -- for gambling debts, for pawned watches or rings, and so on. He has debts on his debts. He’ll use the money from one loan to pay off another, and the wise guys are constantly threatening to break off a piece of him.

Julia Fox plays Julia, who works in Harold’s store and is also his mistress. He’s her sugar daddy, paying for a swank apartment and supporting her partying, while simultaneously complaining she only shows up at work when she wants to. Julia also appears to be running some kind of operation of her own on the side, which involves cozying up to an up-and-coming R&B crooner, The Weeknd (playing himself).

Julia is one of those female characters who only exist in the movies. She’s young and gorgeous and crafty, and why she hangs around with an unstable loser like Harold is never even hinted at. They undergo a seemingly regular cycle of fights, breakups and reconciliations.

The main storyline centers around a black opal Harold spent months obtaining on the sly from an Ethiopian mine. It’s basically a hunk of rock with a number of rainbow-colored gems embedded. He claims it’s worth more than a million bucks, and selling it will solve all his problems.

It won’t. Harold is not the sort of guy whom problems seem to find; he actively goes in search of them.

One day Kevin Garnett walks into his shop. To show off, Harold dazzles the NBA star with the opal. But Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), the young black operator he hires to bring African-American celebrities and players into the store, convinces Harold to let Garnett borrow it for a day. (The story is set in 2012, when Garnett was still playing out the downside of his career.)

He has a monster game that night, and becomes convinced the opal is a good luck charm. There follows a cat-and-mouse game of Demany disappearing and Harold being unable to get the opal back. Meanwhile, he’s hocked stuff that doesn’t belong to him in order to place more bets on basketball games.

Circling around the edge of the story is Arnold (Eric Bogosian), one of the people Harold owes, who’s closer than most. Judd Hirsch plays Harold’s dad, unaware of how deep his son’s pathologies go. Keith Williams Richards is scary as hell as an icy-eyed goon stalking Harold.

“Uncut Gems” has boundless energy but no direction. Sandler is talking, talking, constantly talking, until it becomes a drone we wish would cease. You can hate your protagonist, but you’d better not be annoyed having him around.

Watching this movie is like winding up a kid’s toy that spins wildly in place, throwing off all sorts of crazy lights and sounds and colors. None of it really makes any sense, and then it stops.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Video review: "It: Chapter Two"

I liked the first “It,” even though it had a very derivative Goonies-meets-Stand By Me-meets-Stranger Things vibe to it. It’s about a bunch of kids who battle an ancient evil spirit that takes the form of a wicked clown, eating flesh and swallowing souls. It was moody and scary as heck, with Bill Skarsgård seriously stoking nightmares as Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

The sequel, “Chapter Two,” picks up 27 years later with the kids all 40ish adults to once again battle Pennwise, aka “It.” And it’s an often dull, discombobulated mess.

Let’s start with the fact the movie is nearly three hours long. The list of horror movies that run three hours is very short, and the ones that are any good is an even shorter, possibly empty enumeration.

It relies way too much on “jump scares,” aka sudden bursts of something bursting out at you rather than building a pervasive mood of dread. And characters, who were distinctive and interesting as kids, are rather drab and indistinct as adults. A few I had trouble telling apart.

They are:
  • Bill (James McAvoy), the leader of the self-named Losers Club and now a mystery novelist;
  • Beverly (Jessica Chastain), the only girl who overcame abuse to become a fashion designer;
  • Richie (Bill Hader), the mouthy one who became a stand-up comic;
  • Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the quiet, resilient one who become the town librarian;
  • Ben (Jay Ryan), the chubby, shy writer kid who is now a ripped architect;
  • Eddie (James Ransone), the hypochondriac of the group;
  • Stanley (Andy Bean), the pragmatic one who kinda gets lost in the mix.

As the story opens in the present day, all of the Losers except Mike left their hometown of Derry, which seems to have an overabundance of children who go missing over the years. These wave of kidnappings -- never solved -- coincide with the return of Pennywise to feed on his pet prey.

“It: Chapter Two” isn’t particularly scary, and many of the adult characters are just plain annoying. It’s one thing to root for kids, and another to be bored by the adults they turned into.

The Blu-ray combo pack contains the following special features:
  • “Pennywise Lives Again!”
  • “This Meeting of the Losers Club Has Officially Begun”
  • “Finding the Deadlights”
  • “The Summers of IT: Chapter One, You’ll Float Too”
  • “The Summers of IT: Chapter Two, IT Ends”
  • Commentary with Director Andy Muschietti



Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Review: "The Aeronauts"

“The Aeronauts” has a great, rousing aerial adventure story to tell and a pair of engaging characters to carry it. It’s a thrilling piece of white-knuckle historical entertainment.

But there’s a big “but.”

It didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film, but it’s worth talking about. More on that in a bit.

Eddie Redmayne plays James Glaisher, a noted scientist and “aeronaut,” which was the term for people who flew in hot-air balloons before there were airplanes. He was a pioneer of meteorology, arguing mankind had the ability to predict the weather.

As played skillfully by Redmayne, Glaisher is a bookworm with an obstinate streak, a hardscrabble young striver determined to show up his scientist elders who scoff at his crackpot theories. What he lacks in charisma he makes up for in mettle.

The uppity yin to his sour yang is Felicity Jones as Amelia Rennes. She is a celebrated aeronaut pilot who shows up to her launches in pure carnival mode -- including somersaults, doggie sidekick and crowd-pleasing boasts. Rennes understands that balloon flight is as much showbiz as science, and without an audience and financial backers, nobody goes up.

She’s a brash proto-feminist who knows how to please the masses while brusquely pushing aside the all-male power structures that would limit her achievements.

Jones’ is by far the more delightful and proactive character, and the bulk of the death-defiance is performed by Rennes. If you’ve seen the trailer for the film, directed by Tom Harper from a script by Jack Thorne, you already know about the scenes where she clambers up the side of the balloon while thousands of feet in the icy air.

Clearly, this film will prove a special challenge for those with acrophobia. I can’t even get up on a 6-foot ladder without getting the willies, so you can imagine how I felt during all the yawning shots of the ground staring at us from far below.

Trust me, the CGI special effects are very convincing.

The story centers on an attempt by the British to set a new height record in 1862, after the dastardly French had taken the crown. Aeronauts would plunge into the open skies without oxygen tanks, braving frigid temperatures, howling winds and mind-twisting atmospheric conditions. More than a few died.

It was a historic achievement by Glaisher, though not terribly well remembered today. So “The Aeronauts” gives us the pleasure of rediscovering a bit of forgotten lore.

You will notice I just mentioned Glaisher and did not write “and Rennes.” Here comes the “but.”
Rennes is a completely invented figure. Glaisher did not have a female partner during his ascent.

That’s fine as far as it goes – movies are wont to change history all over the place if it serves their storytelling purpose. (For example, the real Glaisher was an established scientist in his 50s in 1862, not a boyish Redmayne lookalike.)

And it’s good to recognize the overlooked role women have played in the advancement of science and discovery over the centuries. Rennes is based on some notable real-life women aeronauts, especially Sophie Blanchard. In the movie, Rennes lost her husband in an earlier ballooning tragedy, as did Blanchard.

Except Glaisher did have an actual partner for the flight, named Henry Coxwell. And he gets written out of the story entirely.

Coxwell was also middle-aged and a dentist to boot, so not nearly as exciting as a woman daredevil performing showstopper stunts.

I’m not sure how I feel about the switcheroo. Historians should be affronted – imagine doing a movie about Lewis & Clark and they swap out Clark for a nonexistent female explorer. Certainly if I was one of Clark’s descendants, I’d be pretty irked.

But I’m here to review movies, not get all intersectional on ya.

I say “The Aeronauts” is a terrific piece of entertainment, even if it treats the historical record as dead weight, like a sand bag to be untied so the balloon can soar higher.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Dragonslayer" (1981)

Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, there was a brief golden period for fantasy filmmaking. It arrived just I was coming of age, playing Dungeons & Dragons and delving into movies, novels and comic books.

It was a great time to be a kid with an imagination bent toward orcs and magic chainmail armor.

(I mean, wasn't every 8-year-old checking out books on Norse mythology from the adult section of the library?)

The content of these movies straddled the line between fluffy fantasies geared toward kids and hard-R adult adventures -- with "Conan the Barbarian," "Excalibur" and "Highlander" representing the apotheosis of the mature fare in terms of budget and ambition.

A lot of the kiddie stuff was just dreadful, which I think ended up dooming the genre as popular entertainment for a good long while. Parents were uncomfortable with small children watching movies replete with death and magic, and teens and young adults were turned off by the rigorously family-friendly nature of stuff like "The NeverEnding Story."

Straddling the line between these polar ends with the perfect mix of whimsy and terror was "Dragonslayer."

A terrible commercial flop when it came out, it was a Disney film at a time when they were branded entirely as a production house for children's movies. So despite its tame PG rating -- prior to the advent of PG-13 three years later -- the healthy servings of violence, blood, vaguely anti-religious themes, fearsome special effects creatures and even a little gore and nudity came as a shock to parents who brought their families expecting another "Herbie Goes Bananas."

It's largely remembered now for its pre-CGI dragon special effects, which still look amazing despite the occasional herky-jerkiness of stop-motion animation. Fully one-quarter of the film's $14 million budget went toward the dragon, designed by David Bunnett and a notable early achievement by George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic work on a non-Star Wars film.

The dragon was even given its own name: Vermithrax Pejorative, which roughly translates from Latin as "the worm of Thrace who makes things worse." Director Matthew Robbins, who co-wrote the screenplay with Hal Barwood, expertly teases out our early glimpses of the black beast, much as Steven Spielberg did with "Jaws," only revealing bits at a time till near the end.

It's hard to look at more recent depictions of dragons such as in "Game of Thrones" or "The Hobbit" without seeing the snaky, horned influence of Vermithrax. Cinematically speaking, he is the godfather of flying wyrms.

The story has a theme common to old-school fantasy fiction: the idea that the innate magic of the world is fading, and we are passing from colorful mythology into staid history. There are no hobbits or elves in this story, and all the great sorcerers have died save Ralph Richardson's Ulrich of Cragganmore. The robed priests of the "new" religion, aka Christianity, are becoming commonplace.

One thing I had never noticed before this most recent viewing is that actor Ian McDiarmid, aka Emperor Palpatine himself, plays the arrogant priest who defies the dragon in an early scene and is burnt to a crisp for his efforts. His growl when he curses Vermithrax as a "foul beast" gave him away.

The star of the show is Peter MacNicol playing Galen Bradwarden, the young apprentice to Ulrich. MacNicol had that look very popular for sensitive male movie characters of the time: high-voiced, effeminate features, meek stature and a nimbus of light-brown-to-dark-blond curls -- a sort of golden halo/afro. See Christopher Makepeace, Chris Atkins or Dennis Christopher from "Breaking Away."

MacNicol actually auditioned for the latter role, but ended up making his film debut in "Dragonslayer." He's been a busy actor in film and television ever since.

I like his mix of brash confidence and crippling sense of self-doubt, using one to hide the other. Galen is utterly subservient to Ulrich, but when the master is killed the apprentice becomes a case study in unearned courage.

The story is pretty straightforward: a delegation of peasants from the kingdom of Urland travel to Cragganmore to enlist the aid of Ulrich to kill the dragon, which has plagued their land for generations.

After multiple failures at killing the beast failed, the calculating current king, Casiodorus (Peter Eyre), has implemented a lottery system in which virgin girls are sacrificed to the dragon twice a year. The common people have grown fed up with this arrangement -- especially as none of the royal or rich folks' daughters have ever been picked over the ensuing decades.

Vermithrax is never depicted speaking, but appears to have at least a base level of intelligence above that of a simple beast. It apparently abides by the lottery, refraining from raiding the countryside as long as regular meals show up.

I say "it" because the dragon's gender is never clearly defined. It's eventually revealed to have a trio of young offspring, so Vermithrax could be female -- raising the question of when it mated with a male -- or dragons reproduce asexually. It seems the dragon is cagey enough to accept the lottery arrangement to mitigate any threats while raising its brood to maturity.

Examining scales and a tooth collected from the mouth of the lair by the leader of the peasants, the willful boy Valerian, Ulrich deduces that the dragon is quite ancient:

"When a dragon gets this old, it knows nothing but pain, constant pain. It grows decrepit, crippled, pitiful... spiteful!"

This would seem to set up an epic clash: the last of the great wizards versus the last of the mighty dragons.

Of course, things change when the king's malevolent general, Tyrian -- played by John Hallam, with a creased, dark visage made for cinematic villainy -- shows up to nip this little insurgency in the bud. He challenges Ulrich's bonafides, prompting the old magic user to cast a spell on a dagger and invite Tyrian to plunge it into his breast.

Ulrich falls dead, his body is cremated in a sorcerous green fire, and Galen decides to take up the crusade for himself. The villagers are contemptuous of the young upstart, but are impressed when he manages to cause a rockslide to bury the solitary opening to the dragon's lair, trapping it. (Though not for long, as we shall see.)

I'm always intrigued how the logistics of magic use are depicted in various works of fantasy fiction. In some, such as Middle-Earth, there seem to be no specific limits on a wizard's abilities, other than what the storytelling situation demands. Others, like the Harry Potter series, establish a lot of rules and then ignore or break them as needed.

The spellcasters of "Dragonslayer" lie somewhere in the middle. They effect their magic through Latin incantations and hand-waving prestidigitations. Through this they can do simple things like telekinesis, lighting or snuffing out fires, etc. For more complex divinations, they employ chemical reagents, staves and the like.

The single "magic item" in this universe is Ulrich's amulet, which appears as an unassuming whitish hexahedron jewel with a dragon's claw setting and a leather loop to be worn as a necklace. Before allowing himself to be slain, Ulrich hands the amulet over to Galen. When the youngster assumes the quest, he uses the artifact to focus and/or magnify his own nascent powers.

There are no spoiler warnings after nearly 40 years, so I'll cut to the chase to talk about how Ulrich is resurrected through the power of the amulet, and its destruction results in the magnificent explosion of his body, dealing the killing blow to Vermithrax. It turns out Ulrich's entire enlistment of Galen was a ruse, as he knew his aging body could not make the long journey to Urland.

When you think about it, he used Galen quite badly, leveraging the boy's ambitions to be the inheritor of Ulrich's power in service to his own methods. Galen ends the movie dispossessed, his dreams snuffed... though he garners other rewards.

I wonder if this is what Ulrich planned all along, or if the appearance of Tyrian unexpectedly presented an elegant mode to transport his form from here to there.

Ulrich is shown having a certain amount of foresight -- he knows who the villagers are and what their mission is before they can say more than a handful of words -- so my guess is he had been planning for these events for some time. I would bet he created the amulet not too long before in order to temporarily house his essence.

The other big reveal of the movie is that Valerian, played by stage actress Caitlin Clarke, is actually a young woman. Her widower father, the blacksmith Simon (Emrys James), disguised her at birth as a boy in order to avoid the virgin lottery. It's an arguably passable depiction with Clarke's lovely, slightly androgynous features, paigeboy haircut and deep, resonant voice.

Once the ruse is abandoned, during the brief time the dragon is believed dead, many other Urlanders comment upon the cleverness of Simon's trick. But my guess is there would've been dozens or even hundreds of such cross-gender imposters.

It's left fuzzy why only females are chosen for sacrifice -- I doubt Vermithrax would be so choosy about its twice-annual meals. Certainly it would not care if they're virgins -- speaking of which, how in the world is that standard held to account?

This ingenious lottery system would seem to have the effect of prompting girls to cross-dress, marry quickly, have sex at an early age or lie about it.

It's a fairly small cast of characters for a movie with a relatively epic scale. The only other three notable ones are Sydney Bromley as Hodge, Ulrich's equally ancient, cantankerous serving man; Albert Salmi as Greil, a testy, doubting Thomas villager who ends up taking on the mantle of the local priest with greater success than his predecessor; and Chloe Salaman as Princess Elspeth, Casiodorus' surprisingly idealistic daughter.

The depiction of women in the movie is a mix of progressive and reactionary values indicative of the early 1980s. In their own ways Valerian and Elspeth are quite headstrong and contemptuous of the traditional power structures of men.

Elspeth acts with her own agency, freeing Galen from her father's dungeon upon learning the lottery is rigged. She also sacrifices herself to the dragon in the name of equanimity, conspiring to put her name on all the tiles of the lottery to make up for having been held off it for so long.

Valerian retains a certain glum charm, although the character loses a lot of steam after "converting" to womanhood. She grows resentful of Galen's admiration of Elspeth's virtue, exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior toward the boy she likes until he finally gives in.

The penultimate battle between Galen and Vermithrax, and the final one with Ulrich tagging in, retain every ounce of the power and glory they had in 1981. Stripped of the amulet, Galen uses a heavy metal spear forged long ago by Simon -- which he dubs Sicarius Dracorum, thus providing the film's title -- and a shield of dragon scales made by Valerian.

There's quite a healthy disgorgement of the dragon's blood after Galen stabs it in the back of the head and neck, which along with the earlier revelation of Elspeth's dismembered body, heartily test the limits of that PG rating.

Ulrich, revived from his ashes in the lake of burning water where Vermithrax resides, does battle from atop a high mountain, calling forth lightning to wound the creature and even resisting its fiery breath. Of course, he's just trying to goad the beast into carrying him away in its talons, presumably for a savored meal.

A lot of movies age poorly -- like Ulrich and Vermithrax, their power fades with time and the advent of the latest usurpers. But for my money "Dragonslayer" is every bit the thrilling piece of imagination it was almost four decades past.

It may be too gruesome to deserve the label of "family entertainment." But like the best fantasy it plucks at our dreams of what could be.