Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Review: "Cold War"

Love is fickle, and often unkind.

Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski (“Ada”) has made a film about love and tragedy that inextricably links the two in a way that is both sad and profound. Very loosely based upon his own parents’ relationship in Soviet-controlled Poland between 1949 and 1964, it is the tale of two very different people who are bound to each other, yet kept eternally apart by fate and their own indelible natures.

They say opposites attract, and sometimes it is the attraction itself that brings about opposition.

When they first meet, Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) are both young, talented musicians on the rise. He is part of a team starting a conservatory dedicated to celebrating Polish folk music and dancing. She is one of the young recruits who catches his eye.

Zula’s got a good voice, though others are better, but she’s got a stage presence that makes an impression. There are rumors that she’s a city girl passing herself off as a peasant, and has even served time in prison.

Things go well and their traveling show becomes a hit. These are exuberant set pieces with all the intricacy of a Busby Berkeley musical, but with babushkas instead of glitter gowns. Meanwhile, the couple’s romance blooms behind closed doors.

Wiktor is a classic artist/dreamer type; he plays the piano, writes and arranges compositions, and feels stifled in his Russian-controlled homeland. Nonetheless, when the bureaucrats suggest they incorporate some homage to Stalin and agricultural programs in the show, he is smart enough to know when their sort request something, they aren’t just asking.

Zula is a woman who wants both more and less out of life. She shares Wiktor’s craving for freedom of expression. At the same time, she’s happy being the centerpiece of the troupe. When he makes plans for them to defect while playing a show in Berlin, Zula purposefully tarries in meeting him. We sense this is a test: if he leaves without her, then it wasn’t meant to be.

She craves the ties that bind, preferring love in a constrained society to feeling disposable in an open one.

Several time slips occur. They meet again in Paris in 1954 where Wiktor is eking out an existence as a jazz performer, and she has become the unquestioned star of the show, appearing on the posters. They talk about how they missed their chance, yet neither is ready to cut the cord for good.

Despite other relationships and even marriages, they find ways to meet again, as their story takes them to Yugoslavia and eventually back to Poland. Wiktor finds he wants to take Zula’s test over again, even if the penalties for playing have grown much steeper.

The film was shot in gorgeous black-and-white by Lukasz Zal, who earned an Oscar nomination for “Ida” and should merit another one here.

Co-written by Pawlikowski and Janusz Glowacki, “Cold War” works so well because the stars register as authentic star-crossed lovers instead of just props for a political metaphor. This coupling feels both predestined and cursed. Their love is doomed, but unconquerable.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Reeling Backward: "The Miracle Worker" (1962)

"The Miracle Worker" is one of those works that has become a staple of popular culture even though many people today haven't actually seen the movie or the play that originated it... including me.

I knew the film mostly through its various spoofs and references. I seem to recall a "South Park" segment in which teacher Annie Sullivan repeats the line, "Water, Helen, water!" to blind-and-deaf student Helen Keller as she magically makes the connection between objects in her world and the words that have been spelled out by hand to her, and then the student chorus picks it up for a kicky musical number.

But like many lines from the movies that have become immortal, Annie (Anne Bancroft) never actually says those words in the film -- at least not in that sequence and context. For the record: Bogie never actually says "Play it again, Sam" in "Casablanca," either.

Keller became famous in the early 1900s for her scholarship and writings, especially her 1902 autobiography, "The Story of My Life." (Less well remembered these days is her political activism and embrace of socialism.) She and Annie became lifelong companions, and her autobiography chronicles their journey from the time they met when Helen was 7 until about age 22, when she became the first deaf-blind person in America to graduate from college.

William Gibson turned it into a television play in 1957, and then a smash Broadway hit in 1959 that won Tony Awards for Gibson, Bancroft and director Arthur Penn. This provided the impetus for a film version, though at first the studio wanted a bigger star than Bancroft, suggestion Elizabeth Taylor instead. But Penn stuck with his leading lady, as well as Patty Duke reprising the role of Helen, even though she was 15 years old by then.

It turned out well, launching the film careers of Bancroft and Duke, who won the Academy Awards for best actress and supporting actress, respectively. It also revived the Hollywood viability of Penn, whose only film to that point, 1958's "The Left Handed Gun," was re-edited against his wishes and ended up a flop. He had a rather short but vibrant heyday with "The Chase," "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Little Big Man."

If it were coming out today, I think "The Miracle Worker" would be quickly pegged as an "Oscar bait" kind of movie. It's a period costume drama set in the South -- the sort of thing where men wear three-piece suits to dinner and black people occupy the background as live-in servants, seen but not heard. It's got a lot of quotable lines and emotional scenes that would serve nicely as the clip during the Academy Awards ceremony.

In today's lights it's a finely crafted film, well-acted, a bit stiff.

In 1962, though, my guess it was seen as a powerhouse movie with a lot of dynamic rule-breaking. Annie is hardly gentle in imparting her lessons to Helen, manhandling her and even slapping her in a way that would probably land a teacher in jail these days. At one point she effectively keeps Helen hostage for two weeks, ensconced in a dilapidated old cottage so she can exert her will on her stubborn pupil without intrusion or contact from the parents.

The 10-minute scene where they wrestle around the dining room, smashing everything in sight as Annie forces Helen to eat from her own plate rather than just grabbing what she wants from others', is notable for its sweaty physicality.

You didn't see too many movies back then where women work themselves into a lather. (We still don't.)

Bancroft's Annie is a strong proto-feminist figure, an independent woman with limited sight herself who was raised in hellish conditions inside an institution for orphans, the elderly and the unwanted. The scene where she recounts her and her little brother playing with the bodies of babies stacked in the "dead room," as if they were broken dolls, will make you catch your breath.

Duke, of course, does not speak in the film, other than trying to utter the word "water" during the pinnacle scene. She does I think a decent job portraying a sightless person who also cannot hear. There are several times in the movie where she's reaching around a room with her hands and comes within a hair's breadth of knocking something over that's outside her peripheral vision. I wonder what sort of training she did for the role.

The other three notable characters are her mother, Kate (Inga Swenson); her father, Arthur (Victor Jory), a Civil War veteran whom everyone addresses as "Captain," even his wife; and her brother, James, (Andrew Prine), a snotty man/boy who loves playing the contrarian, even expressing an attraction to Annie that he would never act upon since his type sees hers as below his station.

(I should note the movie excises three other real-life siblings of Helen's for expediency.)

Annie finds that she needs to craft a way to relate to each family member. To Kate, she adopts a bit more of a matronly attitude, though careful not to intrude about her motherly domain. Annie sees James for what he is, a self-important prig, and gives him just enough attention to propel him to unload his verbal droppings and then go about his business.

The relationship with the Captain is the most interesting of the bunch. Annie manages to ingratiate herself through embracing her own sternness and using martial allegories to compare her rough teaching tactics to his own deeds during the war. When he objects to Annie refusing to let Helen have her food after misbehavior, she guesses that he was not above cutting off the enemy's supply chain when necessary.

Jory was 30 years older than Swenson, in a May-November onscreen pairing that was not all that unusual for the time. Nearly 60 when they shot the film and not a large man, the actor has one scene where he's required to carry Bancroft over his shoulder while climbing down a ladder, and another where he picks up and carries the teenage Duke, and clearly struggles to do so.

I should mention that Duke starred in a 1979 television remake, this time playing the Annie role to Melissa Gilbert's Helen.

I respected "The Miracle Worker" more than I enjoyed it. Some old movies still seem vibrant and alive; others are like moldering artifacts stuck behind glass for us to pass by, glimpse and move in. This movie is closer to the latter.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Video review: "The Wife"

I hope and believe Glenn Close will win an Academy Award for her superlative performance in “The Wife.” That’s because a) she’s been nominated six times without winning; b) it would be a welcome career-capper for an actress who, at almost 72, probably isn’t going to get many more shots; but mostly c) because she so richly deserves it.

She masterfully plays Joan Castleman, a promising writer who gave up her career to raise a family with her husband, Joe (Jonathan Pryce). As the story opens they are edging into their golden years, seemingly happy and about to welcome their first grandchild. Joe, a respected novelist, receives a phone call tell him he is to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

As they fly off to Sweden for the ceremony, cracks in their tranquil façade appear. There are flashbacks to their young lives decades earlier (played by Annie Starke and Harry Lloyd) when we see things weren’t going so well. Joan wasn’t taken seriously by a patriarchal publishing industry, and Joe’s early drafts floundered. They fought and knew anguish.

Problems that started then will come back to haunt Joan in the modern setting… but also liberate her. Close is so good because it’s the epitome of an inside/outside performance. Joan is putting on a face for the world -- a lie, if you will -- and it’s one she’s become very good at maintaining. At the same time, we sense that she has grown tired of this mask and is ready to cast it off.

It’s a brilliant performance inside another performance.

As much as I admire the other lead actress performances vying for awards -- Melissa McCarthy, Lady Gaga -- Close is head and shoulders above the rest.

Bonus features are rather modest. There is a Q&A session with Close and author Meg Wolitzer, who wrote the book upon which the movie is based. Plus a conversation with all of the leading cast members, and a making-of documentary short, “Keeping Secrets: Glenn Close on The Wife.”



Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Review: "Stan & Ollie"

“Stan & Ollie” is a melancholy look at the relationship between one of film’s great comedic duos: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Though their place in the pop culture consciousness is closer to distant reverence than relevance these days, they were as big in Hollywood as you could get in the 1930s and ‘40s.

In their onscreen act, Oliver Hardy was the portly, overbearing one while Stan Laurel was the skinny numbskull. But as the film makes clear, in real life Stan was the stodgy brains of the outfit who wrote all their material, while Oliver was the joyful retiring sort who was happy to let his partner handle the business side of things.

They are played by Steve Coogan as Stan and John C. Reilly as Oliver. Both are completely believable, physically and otherwise, in their parts. Coogan gets by with just a little Brylcreem and altering his voice; Reilly uses a fat suit and impressive facial prosthetics. We quickly look past the exterior finishing and concentrate on the souls behind the legend.

The film, written by Jeff Pope and directed by Jon S. Baird, is set in 1953 after their fame has mostly faded. Oliver is now in his early 60s and in poor health, while Stan has been cut down by his attempts to buck the Hollywood system. An opening scene from 1937 shows them butting heads with studio chief Hal Roach (Danny Huston), demanding more money, which briefly led to them splitting up the act for a time.

It’s all water under the bridge for Ollie, but Stan still has a chip on his shoulder. He’s organized a stage tour of the United Kingdom, which is to build hype for a film they’re planning to shoot playing off the Robin Hood legend. They keep working on different bits for the movie, even though the man in charge of putting the financing together isn’t returning Stan’s calls.

What this lovely film shows is how people can be a perfect fit onstage but not really get along off it. They don’t detest each other or anything like that. They’ve played golf and double-dated with their wives -- whichever ones they had at the moment; both men have married and divorced repeatedly, which has cut into their finances -- without ever really becoming true friends.

Comedy is their shared language and point of reference for, well, everything. Playing seedy theaters before small audiences and staying in third-rate hotels, they make a joke of their circumstances while seething about it. But at the urging of the vaguely slimy producer handling the tour, Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones), they do some publicity stunts in the different locales.

The crowds start to get bigger, and the boys find themselves actually enjoying working together again. What's more, they find themselves bonding in a way they hadn't before.

Around the midway point “the girls” arrive: Stan’s wife, Ida (Nina Arianda) and Ollie’s wife, Lucille (Shirley Henderson). Both men finally got it right after several tries, and found women they remained married to until they died. Ida is surly and Russian, and keeps prattling about her own dubious showbiz career. Lucille is a little shy and snarky, and worries that Ollie is endangering his health with the tour.

The women soon set to bickering, but the boys are still overjoyed to have them around.

There isn’t a whole lot of story to “Stan & Ollie.” It’s the story of two guys whose stars were inseparable, but whose personalities didn’t quite mesh. And yet, they managed to create something that endures. Sometimes just doing good work is enough.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Video review: "The Hate U Give"

“The Hate U Give” may be the best movie of 2018 most people haven’t heard of. This smart, heartfelt and riveting drama is perhaps the finest cinematic exploration of race relations in American in the past decade.

It takes as its jumping-off point the shooting of an unarmed African-American man, but this isn’t a heedless Black Lives Matter screed. Amandla Stenberg plays Starr, a smart kid from the bad part of town who attends an upscale, predominantly white high school on a scholarship. She narrates about traversing these two worlds, show us how she speaks and behaves around her white friends, including boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa), and her black family and friends.

One day she meets up with an old childhood friend she’s sweet on, and he winds up getting shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop. For a while no one in either her white or black communities know she’s a witness, and Starr struggles to find a middle way that will protect those she cares about.

The terrific supporting cast includes Russell Hornsby as her dad, who has a powerful scene where he gives “The Speech” about how black teens should behave around law enforcement; Regina Hall as her mother; Common as her uncle, who’s also a member of the LAPD himself; and Sabrina Carter as a white friend who turns out to be not as woke as Starr thought.

Directed by George Tillman Jr. from a screenplay by Audrey Wells, based on the book by Angie Thomas, “The Hate U Give” offers no easier answers but many nagging -- and important -- questions.

Bonus features are quite good, cemented by a feature-length audio commentary track by Tillman, Stenberg, Hornsby and editor Craig Hayes. Such commentaries are always better when they include cast and crew.

There are also three extended scenes six making-of documentary shorts.



Thursday, January 17, 2019

Review: "Glass"

I don’t think when “Unbreakable” came out 19 years ago anyone believed it would become a trilogy. I don’t think even M. Night Shyamalan thought of that notion when he first came up with the idea for “Split” from 2016.

(He claims otherwise, but creative types love to tell you they had a plan all along.)

But now it’s all come together, strangely but rather satisfyingly, in “Glass,” which wears the clothes of a supernatural action/thriller but is really more of an exploration of the modern superhero myth.

You may remember that in “Split,” James McAvoy played Kevin, a man with dozens of personalities, some of them friendly, many of them not. They were dominated by the Beast, a mad, feral manimal who exhibited extraordinary abilities -- including bending steel bars, climbing walls and surviving shotgun blasts.

In “Unbreakable,” it was Bruce Willis’ modest security guard, David Dunn, who discovered that he had similar abilities after surviving unscathed from a horrible train wreck the killed everyone else aboard. This also contained the revelation that (sorry, no spoiler warnings after nearly two decades) Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price, a genius comic book dealer burdened by a fragile skeleton, had rigged the train wreck to prove that superheroes really do exist.

Flash forward to present day, and Dunn is still secretly chasing bad guys with the help of his admiring son (Spencer Treat Clark), running a family security business by day. Lately they’ve been chasing Horde, a mysterious criminal who kidnaps and brutally slays teenage girls. You might have guessed this is the handiwork of the Beast.

Events transpire to bring all three men together in Raven Hill, a hospital for the mentally ill. Elijah, who dubs himself Mr. Glass, has been incarcerated there all along, kept heavily sedated most of the time.

You may think it odd that the person whose name is the film’s title spends the first half speechless and motionless, vegging out in his wheelchair while sadistic orderlies taunt and tease him. Jackson’s name even appears last in the credits.

Running this little cuckoo’s nest is Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who specializes in treating the delusion of people who think they’re superheroes. She undercuts the mythology of comic books and works to convince the trio that their supposed abilities are imaginings spurred by past trauma: David’s childhood near-drowning; Kevin’s abuse at the hands of his mother; Elijah’s brilliant mind being trapped in such a breakable body.

For a time, they start to believe her. The Beast goes into remission and David starts to question his past experiences. Elijah still just stares woodenly at the floor.

Of course, we don’t believe any of this. Eventually the men are going to get the chance to prove they’re the real deal… right?

McAvoy has the flashiest part, flexing and growling like a demon is trying to pop out of his skin. I kept worrying he was going to give himself an aneurism. His fight scenes with Willis are curiously restrained; the older man seems more perturbed than frightened.

Anya Taylor-Joy is brought back from “Split,” though this movie doesn’t really know what to do with her. Charlayne Woodard plays Elijah’s mother, horrified at his deeds while unable to hide her pride at such an extraordinary child.

The first two films featured twist endings and “Glass” is no exception. I doubt even if you’re looking forward you’ll guess what it is. I can’t say I found it the most plausible thing in the world. But then this is movie that posits that ordinary-looking people can flip cars over.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Review: "Shoplifters"

Knowing that "Shoplifters" won the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, I was surprised at how sentimental a film it is. Cannes is in love with edgy, out-there choices for its top film award -- "The Square," "Blue Is the Warmest Colour, "Amour" and "The Tree of Life" being recent picks.

Compared to these films, writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda's film is a big warm hug of a movie. It's about an ersatz Japanese family of petty thieves who take in a wayward little girl who's being neglected by her parents, and the tale of how she is gradually incorporated into this spirited little band.

It reminds me of post-war Italian neorealism movies, with maybe a little dash of Akira Kurosawa's "Dodes'ka-den" thrown in.

Osamu (Lily Franky) is the supposed patriarch of the clan, though not a domineering one. He's a construction worker who's been laid up with a broken ankle. The mother, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), works at an industrial laundry service. The son, Shota (Kairi Jō), is Osamu's main pupil in theft, using hand signals and cooperation to steal from local stores. For example, one will pretend to browse nearby, blocking the view of the shopkeeper while the other filches.

Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), who's probably in her 20s, works as a hostess at a nightclub, entertaining businessmen. Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) is the grandmother, who owns the modest house where they all live. She gets by on the pension of her deceased husband, as well as guilt-laden handouts from her wealthy stepson.

As you've probably guessed, none of these people are actually related to each other. Every one of them is, on some level or another, on the make. Although they steal, they are bonded by their commitment to their little make-do family unit. Kore-eda repeatedly suggests that their affection for each other often surpasses that in clans defined by bloodlines.

Things change when they pass by little Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who's about 5 years old, on the way home one night. She has been left out in the cold hungry while her parents do drugs and carouse. It's not the first time they've witnessed this.

Osamu brings Yuri back to their home for a good dinner and to spend the night, intending to return her the next day. But they never get around to it.

Part of it is the fact that the little girl will likely wind up starved or abused. But also, she just clicks with them. They've got a dad, mom, grandmother, aunt and rebellious preteen son, so an innocent small girl rounds out the portrait.

Even when the police start seeking Yuri and her picture is splashed all over the television, they take steps to keep her, renaming her Lin and cutting her hair. And they begin to apprentice her in the family trade.

You might be tempted to look down upon the shoplifters, but somehow we find that tender feelings have grown in our hearts for them. They may be (minor) criminals, but there's no hatred or degradation in their house.

Even their stealing has a sense of a tightly defined moral code. They're not stealing luxury items for profit, but mostly food and other essentials to help them get by. We're not surprised when it turns out the people working in the store are not as blind to what goes on as they may think.

"Shoplifters" is joyful, sad and observant. Be forewarned: this film steals hearts.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Re-Animator" (1985)

If someone was kid in the 1980s or 1990s, you can tell a lot about them by their relationship to "Re-Animator." If they've never even heard of it, then you know you're talking to a more or less upstanding person. If it's one of their watershed movies, then you're dealing with a twisted, addle-brained horror film junkie who lives for bloody gross-out scenes and gratuitous nudity.

I lie firmly in the latter camp.

Based on a 1922 novella by H.P. Lovecraft, "Re-Animator" falls into the nether region of subgenres, with elements of zombie, vampire and mad scientist flicks mixing together. It's essentially a Frankenstein story, with a brilliant but morally unbound scientist conducting experiments that set off a killa-palooza of murder and dismemberment.

Directed by Stuart Gordon from a screenplay he wrote with William J. Norris and Dennis Paoli, "Re-Animator"  claimed its cult film status largely based upon one truly iconic sequence. In it, a man who has been beheaded and brought back to life walks around with his body holding his head, continuing to commit dastardly deeds.

He turns the hospital morgue into his personal lair, creating other undead minions to obey his whims, including having the young feminine object of his obsession brought to him and stripped bare. His corpse holding his head in its hands, he licks her up and down her body with his bloody, dripping tongue. He's interrupted just as the head is being held hovering above her quivering loins, getting ready to do a deep dive into the holiest of holies.

It really is the purest black-or-white moment for cinephiles. You're either horrendously disgusted by that, or itching out of your skin with glee.

Jeffrey Combs plays Herbert West, a Machiavellian medical student who has developed a reagent that will bring dead tissue back to life. After being cast out of his school in Switzerland, he shows up at Miskatonic University in Massachusetts to continue his... studies. West is peevish and creepy, immediately butting heads with the medical school's star surgeon, Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), who insists that irrevocable brain death occurs six to 12 minutes after the body dies.

What's interesting about this story structure is that Herbert is introduced as the villain, and he conducts himself that way through most of the movie. But when Hill learns of Herbert's discovery and tries to horn in on the credit, he becomes the true antagonist while Herbert takes on a sympathetic note.

Herbert may be a diabolical genius who brings corpses to life and, eventually, starts killing  specimens himself. But the idea of another doctor stealing the credit for his invention somehow makes him more relatable.

Bruce Abbott plays Dan Cain, the bland golden boy do-gooder who gets corrupted by Herbert's influence when he moves into his spare bedroom. Dan's cat soon goes missing, turning up in Herbert's mini fridge. He insists the feline suffocated in a freak accident, but we suspect otherwise.

Dan is a typical horror movie hero, lacking much personality beyond a desire to do good, along with being susceptible to temptation. In his case, it's the possibility of conquering death once and for all.

Alas, the dead do not return to their former stable mental or physical state, but become violent killer beasts, blood pouring from their mouths as they attack those who reanimated them. It appears the longer the gap between death and the introduction of Herbert's neon green serum, the more psychotic they'll become.

The med school dean, Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson), gets choked out by a corpse from the morgue during Herbert and Dan's experiment, and gets turned into a loyal zombie henchman by Dr. Hill. It seems Hill, in addition to inventing a new laser drill, has also mastered the art of hypnosis -- which works on both the living and the dead, apparently. Even Herbert falls briefly under his spell. It underscores Hill's unmistakable Dracula vibe.

Dan's fiance, Megan (Barbara Crampton), is your standard-issue damsel in distress whose job is to make protestations against unwise actions, get attacked by loathsome beasties and drop trou on cue.

I'm curious about the metaphysics of Herbert's reagent. In the experiment on Dan's cat, the reanimated (for the second time) feline can't move because its back has been broken during the fight to kill it (again). But Dean Halsey has full range of motion despite having suffered a broken neck when he was killed.

Then there's Hill's ability to control his body after beheading. None of the other reanimated dead appear to have this power. After one or two initial stumbles, Hill's body seems able to carry out every normal function -- even when doing things where Hill does not have line of sight to be able to see where it is going or its hands are reaching.

It's suggested, though never overtly, that Hill has developed mental powers, including the hypnosis mentioned above. There's also some talk about isolating the "will" center of the brain. We're left to guess that his own research has developed far beyond what is depicted.

Perhaps this also explains why Hill retains his full intelligence while Halsey becomes a nearly mindless beast, despite the fact both men received the reanimation serum mere moments after death.

Hill's disembodied head is still able to speak, though in a breathless rasp. He has his body place it in a tray that is filled with blood taken from packs, which apparently are necessary to sustain the head's function. Prior to this, the head was becoming dizzy and on the verge of passing out. Though it apparently doesn't require oxygen, having been carried around in a duffel bag.

"Re-Animator" is generally labeled as a horror comedy, though I would argue it's more or less a straight scare picture with some funny moments -- some intentional, some not. It originally received an "X" rating from the MPAA for all the gore, and had to be trimmed down to receive an "R." Makeup effects artist John Naulin said he used 12 times the amount of fake blood on the production compared to other horror films.

As a result, there are several edits of the film available. The original R version included some material that had originally been left on the cutting room floor that was restored to bring the running time up to the respectable 90 minute range. You can still find the uncut version, and a more recent "Integral" edit includes both the R version with the gruesome stuff from the X. My most recent viewing, probably the first in 20 years, utilized the latter.

The film actually received some decent reviews from mainstream critics, and did enough business on video to result in a pair of lackluster sequels in 1990 and 2003.

"Re-Animator" is a cheap, skeezy horrowshow that's both ridiculous and riveting. I love it so.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Video review: "Halloween"

Why in the world did we need another entry in the exhausted “Halloween” franchise? The studio can give you 253 million reasons.

That was the box office tally of the newest Michael Myers slasher flick, and the first one to feature Jamie Lee Curtis since “Halloween: Resurrection” 17 years ago. It completely retcons the series, banishing all the movies since the second one from its memory -- the sequels, the reboots, the remakes -- and taking us back to square of the smart, tenacious girl and the masked psycho who wants to slash her to bits.

Except, of course, both Laurie Strode (Curtis) and Myers aka The Shape (played this time by Nick Castle) are both grandparent age by now. Indeed, Myers spends more time chasing Strode’s granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak) than Laurie, who has become a pistol-packin’ grandma and recluse who seems to have done little over the past 40 years but wait for Myers to get out of prison.

Supporting characters include Will Patton as a veteran cop in Haddonfield, the fictional city where all the mayhem takes place; Judy Greer as Laurie’s estranged daughter; and Haluk Bilginer as Dr. Sartain, the oddball psychiatrist who’s been treating Myers without much success, just as Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Loomis did.

The new “Halloween” has a creative team from a comedy background: director David Gordon Green and his fellow screenwriters, Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley. It’s not a total yuk-fest, but they do slip in some comedic moments to lighten the mood.

Me? I likes my scary movies pure scary.

Bonus features are decent. They include seven deleted or extended scenes and the following documentary shorts:
  • Back in Haddonfield: Making Halloween
  • The Original Scream Queen
  • The Sound of Fear
  • Journey of the Mask
  • The Legacy of Halloween


Thursday, January 10, 2019

Review: "The Upside"

I did not expect to enjoy "The Upside" as much as I did. It's an American adaptation of one "The Intouchables," of the highest-grossing French films of all time, which in turn was inspired by a documentary about a real wealthy man who is quadriplegic and bonded with a caretaker of African descent with a troubled past.

It's been "Hollywooded up" to the nth degree, filled with easy emotional entry points and cathartic moments you can almost time with a stopwatch.

And yet, doggone it, I couldn't help being engrossed by the story.

It stars two accomplished funnymen, Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston, who are at different stages of seguing into more dramatic material. Cranston was known -- and dismissed -- for years as "the dad from 'Malcolm in the Middle' before going dark in "Breaking Bad." After a recent Oscar nomination, he's now pretty much universally regarded as a serious actor.

Hart is just taking his first steps along such a path, but I like his stride so far. I wonder if he would ever completely leave behind his stand-up comedian roots in the way that, say, Robin Williams did. I tend to doubt it. But I liked watching him stretch for something more than a laugh.

Hart plays Dell Scott, who's been in and out of prison most of his life. He's currently half-heartedly looking for a job. Asked at a burger joint what his greatest accomplishment is, he says getting out of bed this morning. He's more interested in collecting signatures to prove to his parole officer that he made an effort than actually securing employment.

He wanders into a swanky apartment building after a janitor job and winds up in the penthouse, where billionaire investment expert/author Phillip Lacasse (Cranston) and his right-hand executive, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), are interviewing candidates to be his "life auxiliary." This is fancy rich-people talk for a 24/7 caretaker, who will do everything from dress, bathe and feed Phillip to being his companion when he goes out in public in his high-end electric chair.

Phillip became a quadriplegic years earlier in a parasailing accident -- if ever there was a quintessentially wealthy person's endeavor, it's parasailing -- and lost his wife to cancer around the same time. Although he has an incredible penthouse, a best-selling book ("The Lateral Way"), a garage full of fancy cars and every wall has expensive art on it, Phillip doesn't have much zest for living anymore.

He impulsively hires the puckish Dell because he's the worst person for the job, and Phillip is looking to die. He instructs Dell about his DNR, immediately followed by explaining what a DNR is.

Dell is an interesting character. He's a guy who has never had much demanded out of him in life, and has fallen down to people's expectations. He's estranged from his son, Anthony (Jahi Di'Allo Winston), and ex-wife, Latrice (Aja Naomi King). Kicked out of his pad and way behind in child custody payments, he steals a book from Phillip's library to give to his son for his birthday.

"Which one?" Anthony demands, knowing that his father probably isn't even aware when it is.

Things go from there. Phillip and Dell slowly form a bond based on harsh truth-telling, which goes both ways. Phillip introduces him to opera and Dell helps him get funky. Yvonne is the hardcase looking for any excuse to fire Dell, but gradually warms up.

There's an implication of a potential romance between Yvonne and Phillip, which they both strenuously deny. The movie, directed by Neil Burger from a screenplay by Jon Hartmere, toys around with the idea without ever giving it a complete workout. I'd like to think they could share a deep and abiding friendship without there having to be romantic entanglements involved.

Meanwhile, Phillip does have a female pen pal he corresponds with, exchanging lovely poetry and sentiments. Phillip dubs it an "epistolary relationship," which is how smart, rich people pronounce "pen pal." Dell encourages him to take the friendship to a new level, but he worries that she'll be put off by "the chair," as he calls it. 

Being a famous mega-wealthy billionaire is kind of a hard thing to hide from Google, which Dell is quick to point out.

If it's possible to really like a movie without necessarily respecting it, then "The Upside" is it. I recognize its shortcomings and lack of higher ambitions. But Cranston, Hart and Kidman are marvelous together. There's genuine chemistry and, eventually, affection between them. I think of the scene where Phillip has been persuaded to attend his own birthday party, and Dell coaxes the wallflower Yvonne to dance. 

The look on Phillip's face as she comes out of her shell is one of pure joy. Rather than lamenting his inability to join in (other than a little melodic wheeling), he's filled with happiness for her chance to express herself in a way normally denied her.

It's hard to be happy for yourself if you can't be happy for others. Even a modestly agreeable flick like "The Upside" understands this.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Review: "A Dog's Way Home"

Two years ago W. Bruce Cameron's novel "A Dog's Purpose" became a smash hit, barraging us with waves of pooch-ie cuteness and pathos. No surprise that he wrote another book and they've made another movie out of it, "A Dog's Way Home."

Instead of a metaphysical musing about a dog's living through multiple lifetimes as it figures out its role in the cosmos, here the protagonist, Bella (emotively voice by Bryce Dallas Howard), knows from the get-go what her purpose is: to be there for her human, Lucas. He's played by Jonah Hauer-King, who's tall and non-threatening and has impossible dimples.

They get separated by circumstance and Bella has to undertake an epic journey across two states to find her way home. These include encounters with humans good and bad, face-offs with wolves and an unlikely partnership with a CGI mountain lion. It's a little bit scary, a little bit sad, a little bit sappy and a whole lot adorable.

I felt about this movie the same as I did its predecessor: it's a great big cream-puff of a movie, unambitious but undeniably sweet. It's the rare family picture that will please audiences from 3 to 93.

You know Bella's going to reunite with Lucas in the end, but it's still a tender moment. My 5-year-old bawled tears of joy. (Dad may have had something in his eye, too...)

Bellas begins life living in a condemned wreck of a house along with dozens of cats. When her mother is impounded by the meanie animal control officer, she's raised by a "mother cat" and later joins up with Lucas, who lives across the street and works in a VA clinic that treats troubled vets. One of them is his mother (Ashley Judd), whose depression is helped by a scrabby pup.

Because she's a pit bull mix -- although the actress dog looks more like a lab/shepherd blend to these eyes -- the Denver city ordinance prevents her from being off her home property. Transferred to a temporary stay in New Mexico with some friends while Lucas sorts things out, she jumps the fence and her travails begin.

I won't belabor all her journey, though a few incidents stand out. This includes coming across a baby cougar whose mother is killed by hunters, which allows Bella to become a cat mother herself to the critter she dubs "big kitten." For awhile she becomes the (rather coerced) companion of Axel (Edward James Olmos), a homeless veteran who's desperate for a friend.

After an avalanche fells the owner of a border collie named Dutch, Bella finds herself paired up in an ad-hoc foster family with a nice gay couple. Bella likes it there, appreciates the companionship and security. But always she feels the pull of "an invisible leash" urging her to return to Lucas.

The movie is directed by Charles Martin Smith, who knows from dog tales having starred in the lovely "The Company of Wolves" back in the day. The screenplay is by Cameron and Cathryn Michon, who also co-wrote "Purpose" and previously collaborated on a non-dog movie, "Muffin Top: A Love Story."

It's brightly-shot, with pitch-perfect animal expressions and a few decent human ones, too. What can I say? Only a certified dog-hater could dislike this flick.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Review: "On the Basis of Sex"

We’ve already had one movie this year feting Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the excellent documentary “RBG.” So why not a feature film, too?

“On the Basis of Sex” is a straightforward, old-fashioned biopic-slash-courtroom drama chronicling Ginsburg’s first steps into the hallowed laws of American jurisprudence. It’s the tale of how Ginsburg, shunted aside despite graduating at the top of her class at Harvard Law School, began quietly but forcefully building a body of law against legalized discrimination based on gender.

Felicity Jones plays Ginsburg in a vibrant, assured performance of a woman raised not to make waves, but whose intellect and inner fire drove her to challenge the system. There’s not much physical resemblance, though prosthetic teeth help. Towering actor Armie Hammer is cast as her loving husband, Martin, which helps play up Ginsburg’s famous diminutiveness.

They had an interesting dynamic that was radical for a couple in the mid-1950s: both attending the same law school a year apart, already married and with a baby, equally splitting the home chores and the academic burden. When Martin came down with a serious illness, Ruth attended all his classes and took notes, as well as her own.

Still, when she graduates no New York City law firm will touch her. In one terrific little scene, the head partner of a smaller firm is clearly ensorcelled by her prodigious brainpower, but pulls back: the partners’ wives will be jealous to have a pretty young thing around the office.

The story then skips ahead to 1970, with Martin a striving Wall Street tax attorney and Ruth a professor at a modest law school. A seemingly innocuous case falls into their lap: a man sues the tax collector for rejecting his deduction of the cost of a caregiver for his elderly mother. This is something women are allowed to do, but not men.

Despite a disputed sum amounting to 200-and-some dollars, Ruth immediately seizes upon the broader possibilities: by challenging the first in a series of laws that enshrine discrimination on the basis of sex on behalf of a male client, they will open the door to years of litigation to unravel an outdated set of rules and replace them with another.

Consider that, in this same era, women had to obtain credit cards in their husbands’ names, and were forbidden to serve in any number of jobs -- completely legally and, many thought, justifiably.

Ginsburg enlists the head of the ACLU on her behalf, Mel Wulf, played by Justin Theroux as a man who’s a fierce litigator but a major pill to deal with.

“On the Basis of Sex” isn’t an especially surprising or original movie. We can feel the film moving through its beats with a carefully ordered choreography. Rookie screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman sticks a little too close to formula, and director Mimi Leder betrays some of the melodramatic influences of television where she’s largely spent the last two decades.

For instance, we know the scenes of Ginsburg clashing with her idealistic teen daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), will surely be followed by their reconciliation via the court case that captures both their passions. It’s as inevitable as the sun.

Similarly, the law school professor and dean (Stephen Root and Sam Waterston) who were once Ginsburg’s prickly mentors become her adversaries for the big case, muttering in deep tones in dark-wood offices about the dangerous precedent being attempted by this rebellious female upstart.

Jack Reynor plays the opposing counsel for the big court scene, all swollen Southern swagger, and Kathy Bates cameos as Dorothy Kenyon, a pioneering feminist from before they had a name for such a thing.

Even though the film isn’t terribly bold, it still tells a story worth hearing, and tells it very well indeed. Now let’s get the Antonin Scalia biopic rolling.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Review: "If Beale Street Could Talk"

The first time Tish and Fonny (KiKi Layne and Stehan James) step into the frame of “If Beale Street Could Talk” I thought to myself, “These may be the two most beautiful humans on earth.” Writer/director Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”) has adapted the book by James Baldwin into a lush, gorgeous film about terrible human ugliness.

There are two pieces to the movie: the romance between Fonny and Tish, and their struggle to build a life while reconciling their families; and the imprisonment of Fonny on false charges of rape, and the effort to prove his innocence. Jenkins blends these thoughtfully but not always seamlessly, as the story slides around in time and mood.

Set in the 1970s New York City, “Beale Street” is both narrative fiction and social criticism, as was nearly all of Baldwin’s work. The film examines the pernicious toll of racism on the viability of the American Dream, how people are beat down and respond to that by acting out, often fulfilling the degrading stereotypes.

Fonny and Tish have been friends since childhood, and their joining seems almost predestined. Tish is quiet and gentle, but with a band of iron she inherits from her mother (an excellent Regina King). Fonny is a budding sculptor with a kindly soul (though he isn’t above stealing tools from the carpentry shop where he briefly worked).

There are many languid scenes of the couple simply walking or staring at each other, their eyes joining in a matrimony of the hearts.

Their plans for an actual wedding are hampered: by their inability to find a landlord who will rent a loft to black people; by the objections of Fonny’s mother, who has embraced the strict edicts of the Bible but not its compassion; and finally when he is arrested for the brutal rape of a woman from Puerto Rico.

The music by Nicholas Britell and photography by James Laxton cannot be overstated in their beauty. Many sequences coast upon just these two elements and the actors’ expressions, without any significant words or actions.

The movie suffers from a surfeit of supporting characters who may have better been excised from the story. The fathers (Colman Domingo and Michael Beach) add a lot of charm but not much substance to the narrative. There are also encounters with friends of Fonny and others, some of which add to the mix and others that simply take up space and time.

One of the most moving is a run-in with a jovial presence, Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), who has recently been released from prison. At first happy and exuberant, downing proffered beers and ribs, he grows morose recalling his two-year sentence for stealing a car -- “I don’t even know how to drive a car” -- which foreshadows Fonny’s own fate.

I find myself regarding “If Beale Street Could Talk” much the way I did “Moonlight” -- more admiration than adoration. It’s a splendidly made movie that sometimes gets stuck in its own inertia. Beautiful movies are wonderful to look at, but they’ve got to keep moving.