Sunday, March 31, 2019

Video review: "The Mule"

Clint Eastwood is almost 90 and still cranking out almost a movie per year as a director/producer. Many of us thought he was done appearing in front of the camera after 2008’s “Gran Torino” and 2012’s “Trouble with the Curve,” but here he is in “The Mule,” playing a nonagenarian who becomes a courier for the drug cartels.

It sounds like Hollywood hoke, but it’s based on a true story written up by Sam Dolnick, which formed the basis of the screenplay by Nick Schenk.

Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a horticulturist who’s reaping a golden years beset by regret because of a lifetime treating his family as secondary to his other passions. When his farm is foreclosed upon he hears about a chance to make some quick cash.

It’s a pretty simple gig: some people put bags in the back of his battered Ford pickup, he drives it a few states over, parks it in a certain spot and leaves the keys in. When he comes back, the bags are replaced by wads of cash. It isn’t hard to suss out what’s going on.

Gradually Earl grows more and more confident in his new venture, spreading money around generously in his hometown. Unbeknownst to him, a crafty DEA agent (Bradley Cooper) is seeking out the legend of “Tata,” the cartel’s sneakiest mule.

Tonally, this is a strange film. It starts out very fun-and-games, becomes a cat-and-mouse chase in the middle and then turns toward tragedy in the last act. Each piece works well on its own, though they don’t especially mesh.

“The Mule” is the sort of film you sit back and enjoy, but afterward wonder what it all was really about.

Bonus features on Clint Eastwood flicks tend to be rather sparse -- the old-school director isn’t much for promoting his material -- and this one is no exception. There is a making-of documentary, “Nobody Runs Forever: the Making of the Mule” and a Toby Keith music video, “Don’t Let the Old Man In.”



Thursday, March 28, 2019

Review: "Dumbo"

Where’s the magic?

There’s nary a sprinkle of faerie dust in “Dumbo,” the new take on a Disney icon from director Tim Burton that never takes flight. Instead of a gentle fable about circus animals helping each other, it’s a standard-issue action spectacle complete with adorable kids, a missing parent and a cackling villain.

The new “Dumbo” is so human-heavy, the CGI elephant is relegated to being a sideshow.

Look, I’ve been agnostic about Disney’s let’s-take-our-animated-classics-and-turn-them-into-live-action-flicks obsession. I thought “Cinderella” perfectly wonderful. “Maleficent” was uneven but inspired. And this trend isn’t going away. Heck, we’ve got “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” on the docket just in the next few months.

But this adaptation is a total flop. It’s flat, colorless and almost hypnotically unemotional. The screenplay by Ehren Kruger feels like it was written by someone who only saw the 1941 original underwater with the sound turned off.

Danny DeVito gets in a few early kicks as Max Medici, the chatterbox owner of the Medici Bros. Circus where Dumbo is born. (Like most things with Max, the “brother” is flimflam; he’s the sole Medici.) After he agrees to sell out to upscale conman V. A. Vandevere, owner of the extravagant Dream Land amusement park, Max just stands around with hardly anything to say.

Vandevere (Michael Keaton) manages to be both humorless and un-scary. He wears a swoopy silver toupee and has an announcer preceding him everywhere he goes so folks know he’s important. He keeps a French former aerialist, Collette aka “Queen of the Heavens” (Eva Green), on his arm just because he wants people to think he’s sleeping with a knockout rather than actually sleeping with her.

Colin Farrell, an Irishman doing a woeful Okie accent, plays Holt Farrier, former center ring king as the head cowboy act of the Stallion Stars, recently returned from the war. Alas, he lost an arm to battle overseas and his wife to influenza while he was away. His two moppets, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), act as de facto friends and guardians of Dumbo.

The story, set in 1919, starts in Sarasota, Fla., and turns through small towns to Joplin, Mo., where Dumbo is born to a mother elephant named Jumbo that Max has just bought at discount. When baby Jumbo pops out with those big floppy ears, Max immediately wires to demand a refund for damaged goods.

The kids notice that the baby seems to hover for a second or two whenever he sneezes after inhaling a feather, though of course none of the grown-ups believe them. Eventually, though, he puts on the act in front of a crowd and soon dollar signs are springing in front of everyone’s eyes. Vandavere shows up almost immediately and offers Max a partnership -- the kind where he calls all the shots.

I’m truly not sure why this movie exists. There’s no overtaxed stork delivering Dumbo; Timothy Q. Mouse is glimpsed briefly but doesn’t speak and plays no role; the pink elephants on parade are mere soap bubbles; and forget about a murder of crows teaching Dumbo to fly. It’s pure elephant ear power.

Speaking of those ears: the CGI is good enough that it seems plausible Dumbo could get airborne by flapping them hard enough. But he’s just a little baby; what happens when he grows up and weighs five tons? Even hummingbird speed wouldn’t be enough to get higher than a peanut’s breadth off the ground.

Same goes for the movie, earthbound and ugh-y.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Review: "The Aftermath"

"The Aftermath" is one of those tragic period romances that's so sad and affecting, afterward you vow to never love again.

What's the opposite of a romantic comedy? This.

It's a marvelously acted film starring Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke and Alexander Skarsgård in a love triangle set in post-World War II Hamburg. Knightley is Rachel Morgan, the wife of a British colonel, Lewis (Clarke). Reuniting for the first time since the war began, they live in the mansion that used to belong to a local architect, Stephen Lubert (Skarsgård), but has been requisitioned by the military.

Much of the city has been reduced to rubble, so the newfound opulence in which they live stands in stark contrast to the starving hordes of Germans teeming in the streets.

Lewis is more sympathetic to the conquered Germans than his fellow officers, and allows Lubert and his teen daughter, Fred (Flora Thiemann), to stay in the attic rather than go to one of the squalid relocation camps. This makes for an awkward situation, as Lewis is gone all the time and Rachel bumps around the huge, modernist house while the actual residents shamble about in the background.

Freda is openly hostile, as are many of the German youth. Some even brand their arms with "88" to show their resistance -- a stand-in for the eighth letter of the alphabet, "HH." I think we all know what that means, and where it will lead.

Stephen is accommodating and gracious, though he's nursing a deeply buried resentment over his wife, who died in the Allied bombings of Hamburg. He's forced to work as a machine press operator instead of helping rebuild his country.

It turns out the Morgans have their own, unspoken tragedy: their 11-year-old son was killed in the German bombings of London. Astonishingly, we learn that Lewis never even came home for the funeral.

There's a telling moment at the beginning when Rachel is stepping off the train. She spies other couples reuniting and smiles at their open affection. This is contrasted with the stiff greeting and embrace from Lewis. They've forgotten how to be a couple.

There's a concerted effort to correct this situation, with some longing glances and canoodling. But circumstances intervene and Rachel finds herself drawn to the mournful German under her own roof.

The love scenes between Knightley and Skarsgård are quite steamy. They're both extremely beautiful people, Skarsgård with his long face and tired eyes, and Knightley with her always-open mouth and impossibly angular figure -- she's like a mannequin sprung to life.

It's astonishing to think that Knightley has just turned 34; it seems like she's been in the movies forever. Tonally, this film almost seems a reprise of "Atonement," which if you can believe it was 12 years ago. Though she still looks the ingenue, this is her first picture playing a woman of close-to-middling years. I'm genuinely curious as to where her career takes her next.

In the end, though, it's Clarke's performance that truly impressed me. It's hard to play a man who is stolid and reserved and project any kind of emotional resonance. Yet Clarke gives us the impression of a man who is trapped by duty in his head, but the feeling hasn't yet settled in his heart. His reaction when he learns of the affair will tear at the audience's heart.

Director James Kent comes from a television background, though I realize such distinctions are becoming increasingly blurry. The screenplay is by Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse and Rhidian Brook, based on Brook's novel of the same name.

"The Aftermath" is a terrific film, though not one to leave you feeling wonderful about the world or the people that inhabit it. Sad movies are an acquired taste for most, though this one is a good place to start.

Review: "Hotel Mumbai"

One of the most lamentable thing about terrorist tragedies is the tendency to forget about them, especially when they happen outside our normal sphere of attention. The average American can tell you a lot about 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombing, but things like the 2008 attacks in Mumbai recede from memory with lamentable haste.

Director Anthony Maras, who co-wrote the script with John Collee, has recreated the event with generous measures of empathy, tension and insight. We watch the attacks, which took place in multiple places across the teeming Indian city, through the prism of perhaps the highest profile one: the glorious Taj Hotel.

The cast of Indians and a few Westerners is led by Dev Patel, playing Arjun, a humble member of the wait staff. Their model of service is an ambitious one: “Guest is God” is their motto. Anupam Kher plays the head chef, Hemant Oberoi, who acts as not just the de facto leader of the staff but keeper of the sacred flame.

The untold story of Hotel Mumbai, as the Taj was colloquially known, is that nearly as many employees were killed as guests because they chose to stay and protect their charges instead of escaping to safety. Despite being shot up, bombed and set ablaze, the hotel was reopened for business barely three weeks after the attack.

Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi play David and Zahra, a married couple caught up in the incident. He is an American architect and she is a Muslim woman, and they have brought with them their baby son and British nanny, Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).

It’s interesting to watch them arrive and take up residence in their lavish penthouse, since the staff might presume the two Westerners are the parents and the brown woman is their servant. But discretion is the byword at the Taj.

Jason Isaacs plays Vasili, a piggish Russian oligarch who casually sifts through photographs of his potential female escorts for that evening in the hotel restaurant, loudly inquiring over the phone about their physical attributes. He shows his mettle when things turn bloody, though, including some quaint chivalry expressed toward Zahra.

The attackers are depicted as young, deluded Muslims who have been conned by “Brother Bull” to carry out this despicable act in the name of jihad. He remains in constant contact via headset phone -- from a safe distance, of course -- ordering the men to kill all Indians, take Westerners hostage and, when the time comes, sacrifice their own lives.

The perpetrators are essentially naïve peasants, astounded by the opulence of Mumbai’s upper crust and indoctrinated to see it as wealth stolen from the just.

Amandeep Singh and Suhail Nayyar play the two most prominent terrorists. What’s most disturbing is not their acts, but the casual way they carry them out, almost like farmers sorting out the stock for slaughter. When one calls his father, we’re astonished at how he pours out his love for his family yet does not hesitate an instant to brutalize the Taj residents.

“Hotel Mumbai” is a celebration of the human spirit, but not a blindly obtuse one. It recognizes that evil is nearly always something we ascribe to others, even as people carry out the most dastardly acts as proof of virtue. Those who believe they are victims are most likely to pass along the mantle.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Reeling Backward: "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1945)

Most people know the parable of Dorian Gray without actually being aware of the story. I admit I wasn't.

Oscar Wilde's only novel has a great premise: a promising young man has his portrait painted, and wishes for eternal youth by having the passing of time reflected upon his artistic reflection rather than his actual visage. (A mysterious statue of a cat included in the painting is supposed to be the source of the charm.) As the years go by and people marvel at his unchanged appearance, Dorian hides the painting so no one will discover his secret.

But rather than being about just looking young, the real essence of the tale hinges upon Dorian's very soul. He engages in all sorts of terrible behavior, including drugs and debauchery, eventually leading up to murder. The portrait winds up looking like something hanging on the walls of Disney's Haunted Mansion -- a wild, leprous old man with lunatic eyes and blood on his hands.

Adapted by journeyman writer/director Albert Lewin, "The Picture of Dorian Gray" is a sort of Gothic horror melded with a cautionary note. It's a gorgeous-looking picture with terrific costumes and sets, earning an Oscar nomination for art direction and a win for Harry Stradling's cinematography, which is black-and-white except for the shots of the portraits, which are rendered in vivid Technicolor.

Hurd Hatfield portrays Dorian in his first starring role, which would end up defining his career. He deliberately plays the role with a nearly placid face, his powerful emotions being etched upon the painting rather than his face. Angela Lansbury also makes a bow in just her third screen credit, playing Dorian's doomed lady love, songstress Sybil Vane.

George Sanders got top billing as Lord Henry Wotton, a detestable nobleman who lives only for pleasure and to toy with others. (Think John Malkovich's character in "Dangerous Liaisons.") It is he who first plants the idea of an unchanging portrait in Dorian's mind, as well as serving as the film's narrator.

Dorian is a minor nobleman of about age 20. Blessed with wealth, independence and extraordinary good looks, he would seem to be set up for a happy life. When Wotton stumbles upon him, Dorian is being painted by their mutual friend, the good-hearted Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore). His young niece, Gladys, playfully adds her own "G" to Basil's signature upon the painting.

Years later she will grow into a beautiful young woman (played by Donna Reed) who is entirely ensorceled by Dorian and wants to marry him. He puts her off repeatedly, although eventually comes to see wedding her as his only chance to redeem himself.

His first love is Sybil, a singer in a low-rent carny show on London's seedier side. Given a front-row seat by the opportunistic emcee, Dorian becomes entranced by her rendition of "Little Yellow Bird," a lovely ditty about a free sparrow refusing a chance to enjoy love with a beautiful songbird if it means joining him in his golden cage. The song was written specifically for the film.

Lansbury is a wan, authentic presence, earning her own Academy Award nomination.

Dorian returns night after night, earning the enmity of Sybil's brother (Richard Fraser). But he proves his honorable intentions by proposing marriage, which shocks Wotton, Hallward and his other high-society connections. Wotton offers a test: insist that she stay the night with him and, if Sybil refuses, she is worthy of his name. At first she makes to go, and Dorian breaks a rare smile; but she returns, (presumably) they sleep together and he then dumps her.

She takes her own life, and this is when Dorian first notices a change in the portrait -- a bit of a cruel curve to the mouth. He pledges himself entirely to Wotton's ethos of self-indulgence, and the years fly by.

It being a 1945 film based on a book that was quite controversial in the 1890s, the movie is predictably circumspect about the nature of Dorian's debauchery. It shows him frequenting a lonely tavern on the wrong side of town, taking a sip of cherry while he wants for deformed servant to lead him to an unseen room upstairs. A mix of opium and sodomy, we presume.

The last part of the film is a bit messy plot-wise, introducing characters rather late in the game we're supposed to care about. One is Allen Campbell (Douglas Walton), an old school chum of Dorian's who has become a chemist. Dorian blackmails him to do his bidding with some embarrassing piece of information, but since we've just met the guy and the film offers no details on Campbell's past transgressions, it's heard to feel the weight of his guilt, or his later (off-screen) suicide.

There's also David (Peter Lawford, in a breakout role), playing Gladys' jealous other suitor, who eventually stumbles upon Dorian's secret.

Still, "The Picture of Dorian Gray" -- I always want to call it "Portrait" -- is a reasonably decent adaptation of a classic story. Even if it's one most people know only superficially.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Video review: "Aquaman"

There are trashy movies and there are garbage movies. The former are decent flicks that engage in various tawdry indulgences and lowered ambitions; the latter have surrendered to them completely.

As the late, great Pauline Kael said, there is trash and then there is glorious trash. And while “Aquaman” may not exactly be glorious, it is an entertaining film that revels in its own trashiness.

Yes, Jason Momoa still can’t act his way out of a bag. But if any actor today deserves to have the “Seinfeld” term of “mimbo” bestowed upon him, it’s Momoa. He’s easy on the eyes, if your thing is beefy-but-not-overly-‘roided Polynesian dudes with long dark ringlets.

He doesn’t exactly look like the sort of guy who swims with the fishes and talks to them too, but he’s a charismatic, swarthy presence.

I’ll pause here to note that once again Hollywood has managed to take a blond superhero and turn him brunette. Captain America, the Human Torch, the Flash -- it’s practically an entire super-team’s worth of color changers. Even Thor was revealed to have brown roots when his ‘do got buzzed in his last solo flick. Aquaman at least has a little sun-dappling around the edges.

Anyway, the premise is that Arthur is the long-lost son of the queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman), who fell in love with a land dweller (Temuera Morrison) and grew up estranged from his people. He still has the powers of a high-born Atlantean, including super-strength, durability and swimming crazy fast, plus the additional trick of communicating with sea life.

Worlds collide when his brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson), declares war on the surface world -- mostly as an excuse to unite the tribes of Atlantis and have himself declared the supreme Ocean Master.

(Sounds like a fad diet.)

Aided by wise sage Vulko (Willem Dafoe) and plucky princess Mera (Amber Heard), Arthur goes on a quest to recover the lost trident of his forbears, depose his wayward sibling and bring about peace. Besides Orm the heavy duties are shared by Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a modern-day pirate who bears a special grudge against Aquaman.

The realm of Atlantis is represented in Day-Glo colors and trippy mood music, as director James Wan and script men Will Beall and David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (got enough names, dude?) milk the comedy and science fiction angles.

It’s like “Flash Gordon” meets the briny deep. You may find yourself sniggering at this trashy gen, but doubtless having a good time while doing it.

Bonus features are pretty nice. They include breakdowns of key scenes and the following featurettes: “Going Deep Into the World of Aquaman,” Becoming Aquaman,” “James Wan: World Builder,” “Aqua Tech,” “Atlantis Warfare,” “The Dark Depths of Black Manta,” “Heroines of Atlantis,” “Villainous Training,” “Kingdoms of the Seven Seas,” “Creating Undersea Creatures” and “A Match Made in Atlantis.”



Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Review: "Us"

“How many of everybody is there going to be?”

“Us” is top-drawer horror, a creepily convincing modern fable that haunts our hearts without getting caught up in the busy semantics of explaining everything. Like “It Follows” from a few years ago, there is a weird, existential threat and all you really need to know about it is that it’s coming for you.

Being of the horror genre its effectiveness is somewhat attenuated by obedience to tried-and-true tropes. The story moves quickly from brutal house-to-house disturbances to systemic society-wide chaos in a hurried way that feels like a reach. And because you know there’s going to be a big twist, it turns out to be not nearly twisty enough.

Seriously, I had it figured out halfway through. So would anyone who’s watched movies, I think.

That quibble aside, this is a much more interesting and better picture than Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” which I thought solid but overpraised. “Us” has a tactile feel to it, and it’s almost as if we can sense the scrape of scissors against skin or the globby drops of sticky blood.

Lupito Nyong’o plays Adelaide, a 40ish wife and mother of a prosperous, happy family. They are heading to their summer home near the beach: her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), is big, goofy and loveable; their daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), is a typical teen girl, plugged into her phone and tuned out of her family; and son, Jason (Evan Alex), is pleasant if a bit odd, prone to occasional epithets and wearing a monster mask wherever he goes.

This same beach town, though, holds tragic memories for Adelaide. In the flashback prologue, we witness her being separated from her parents as a little girl in 1986, wandering away from the carnival into the “Vision Quest” funhouse, which for some reason has been built facing the beach rather than the boardwalk.

There she encounters her own reflection -- except it’s not a simple refraction in a mirror.

Without giving too much away, it turns out that this twin is not just a figment of her imagination, but a very real figure. It seems she has been living in shadow ever since their childhood encounter, nurturing a growing resentment that has turned into a murderous rage.

There are others who come along with her and act as her companions, an inverted version of the family. They all wear red denim jumpsuits and carry large golden shears.

Nyong’o uses an eerie breathless voice while playing the “other mother,” which at first may tempt you to laugh but quietly burrows under your skin like a seeking insect. Her followers are even less verbal, confined to beastly growls and howls.

“Us” starts out like a standard horror thriller, as the marginal hunted are quickly sliced up, though more pivotal characters escape their tormentors, fight back and eventually become the hunters. Then the story gets bigger and bigger, losing the intimacy of close-bodied assaults and strangled threats. By going meta, it loses the wonderfully uncanny minutiae that made it sing.

It wraps up in a satisfying way, though as I said one that won’t come as much of a shock to horror veterans. Sometimes, though, knowing the blade will sink deep doesn’t make it bite any less.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Video review: "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"

Apparently, it takes an animated superhero to defeat Disney/Pixar.

I don’t mean to imply that the animation giant from Mouse House is deserving of villain status. Far from it. But they’ve dominated the Academy Awards category for best animated feature and short for a dozen years at least. It was time for new blood.

That’s why I think it’s great that “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” won the animated Oscar. Aside from simply being the best animated feature film of 2018, it also has a welcome theme about how anybody can find their inner superhero.

The idea is that several alternate universes collide, bringing a half-dozen or so different versions of Spider-Man into this existence. Peter Parker is still around, but as a burnt-out, middle-aged and paunchy version of himself.

The real star is Miles Morales (voice of Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino teenager who finds himself manifesting the same Spidey powers. Other iterations include a couple of spider-girls, a film noir version (Nicolas Cage) and even a pig version named Spider Ham (John Mulaney).

They’re all battling Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who’s building some kind of massive collider machine, along with a host of other reimagined Spider-Man foes: Doctor Octopus, Green Goblin, etc.

Told in a cool visual style that feels like flipping through a comic book, this is one new take on a well-worn hero story that’s truly fresh.

Video bonus features are sumptuous. Aside from the lack of a filmmaker commentary audio track, it’s just about the whole hog.

“We Are Spider-Man” is a deep-dive documentary into how anyone can find the hero inside them. “Spider-Verse: A New Dimension” looks at the film’s signature visual style.

Other features focus on the voice actors cast; a tribute to Spidey creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; an Easter Egg challenge; character designs; “Alternate Universe Mode” with alternate and deleted scenes; music videos; and an all-new short, “Spider-Ham: Caught In a Ham.”



Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Review: "Climax"

A psychotropic hothouse horror flick boasting artsy ambitions and filled with taut bodies getting squidgy with each other, “Climax” is a purely cinematic experience, if not an especially enjoyable one.

Strike that -- I don’t think filmmaker Gaspar Noé (“Irreversible”) makes movies with enjoyment in mind, so that’s not a fair yardstick to judge them by. I’ll put it this way: I think “Climax” largely accomplishes what it sets out to do, but I doubt very many people want to see a film of these intentions.

It's about two dozen or so young French dancers who are ensconced in a remote, snowed-in building for three days so they can rehearse. They’ve been brought together by a famous choreographer (never named or shown) who asks them all sorts of probing, uncomfortable questions in the audition interviews that act as the opening.

Clearly, they’re being set up for mischief.

Set in the 1990s, the story is supposedly based on a true story, though Noé’s screen titles are notoriously unreliable. “Climax” starts with the traditional end credits at the beginning, and then the opening credits happen halfway through -- though they list some people who are clearly not in the cast.

And then there are his “chapter” introductions. The first reads, “Birth is a unique opportunity.” What follows is an intensive, intricately choreographed dance ritual of astonishing athleticism and grace. Shot in a single long take with a Steadicam roaming all around, it’s a technically magnificent sequence that celebrates youthful suppleness and vigor.

(I could practically hear my knees creaking just watching it.)

Then there is the second chapter, “Life is a collective impossibility,” in which the dancers have a party celebrating the end of their work. They dance some more, gossip, talk about who they’ve slept with or are planning to sleep with, and so on. But someone has apparently spiked the sangria, leading to increasingly disjointed behavior.

It’s a little fun and flirty at first, as we expect to see some bed-hopping and other lascivious spectacle. (Noé  is, after all, the man behind the “Love,” with its bold, unsimulated depictions of sexuality.) But things quickly sour. The woman overseeing the troupe locks her little boy in a utility closet and then loses the key, the men start to fight each other and the women experience crescendoing bouts of mania.

Then comes the last section, “Death is an extraordinary experience,” and… well, you can probably figure it out. The camera starts twisting around like a seething serpent, flipping sideways and upside down until we’re often not even sure what we’re looking at.

Don’t expect to get to know any of the dancers as bona fide characters beyond a few superficial traits. David (Romain Guillermic) is the lothario of the group, always in conquest mode. Selva (Sofia Boutella) is the alpha female, setting the pace by dint of sheer verve. Mamadou Bathily is Dom, the outsized dancer -- “a woman-and-a-half in every direction,” as Thomas Harris would’ve said -- who tries to intimidate others.

Interestingly, the group is roughly halfway split between Europeans and Africans, though there don’t appear to be clear demarcations of cliques between the two.

In the end, I’m not really sure who “Climax” is made for. Mostly, I think Noé made it for himself, along with his small but ardent wave of devotees. It plays like a middle-aged fantasia about what it’s like to be young and beautiful and carefree, and how that must be resented and punished.

Usually in a horror movie it’s a madman with a knife meting out the destruction, but here the youngsters themselves share their own punishment, everyone taking a turn as victim and victimizer. I appreciated its shabby beauty, but ultimately it’s nothing more than a bad acid trip.

Review: "Birds of Passage"

Imagine the "Godfather" films, but set in Colombia during the 1960s and '70s as a clan of people bound by culture and tradition try to maintain them in the face of burgeoning wealth resulting from criminal ventures. That is "Birds of Passage," a film of majestic sweep and squalid human failings.

It is the story of Rapayet (José Acosta), a wayward member of the Wayuu tribe native to parts of Colombia and Venezuela, although his tale is more the sun around which other characters orbit rather than the center of attention.

The Wayuu have been there before the Spaniards, the white man or anyone else. Their community is proud but insular, regarding all others as alijuana -- outsiders who are lesser. This even includes Rapayet's friend, Moisés (Jhon Narváez), a black man who regards him as a brother. If Moisés is boisterous and unpredictable, Rapayet is retiring and methodical.

Think Fredo and Michael.

As the story opens a young woman, Zaida (Natalia Reyes), from one of the more prominent families is coming of age. It's an elaborate celebration that brings many people together, preceded by an entire year of ritual isolation where she weaves a complex tapestry to prove she is a full-fledged woman. Wearing a colorful dress, she dances with a young boy in a teasing game. Then Rapayet claims his own dance -- and his intentions to marry her.

Alas, the family is demanding an exorbitant dowry. This is the idea of Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), the strict matriarch of her clan. She is the keeper of a sacred talisman and believes that falling from the Wayuu way means utter damnation.

Úrsula does not like Rapayet, though she has some regard for his uncle, Peregrino (Jose Vicente Cotes), a "word messenger" who is trusted to carry important communications between the families.

To get the dowry, Rapayet hatches a scheme to sell a large quantity of marijuana to some American Peace Corps members, depicted as carefree hippies who just use the excuse of international service as a means to get high and party. They buy the weed from Rapayet's older cousin, Aníbal (Juan Bautista), an itinerant merchant of the stuff.

The first big score leads to increasingly bigger ones, and soon enough Rapayet has become the head of major narcotics operation. (Interestingly, they only ever deal in marijuana, not the harder and more lucrative cocaine that thrived in the same region.) He and Zaida have children, and Úrsula operates as sort of the sneering majordomo of the family.

Eschewing the simple wood-and-stone huts of their people, they build a stark white castle in the middle of nowhere -- a symbol of their wealth and, to other Wayuu, their pride.

Moisés proves to be an unreliable partner, spending freely and using his influence with the police and local politicians to make a big name for himself. This leads to conflict with Aníbal, and Rapayet finds himself pressured by his people to choose a side. He attempts a third way, which leads to his utter downfall.

(I'm not giving anything away -- a framing sequence uses an old man's singsong lament to preface that this is the tale of a man's rise and fall.)

Further complicating things is Leonidas (Greider Meza), surely the Sonny Corleone of this story -- a hot-tempered force of nature whose pure verve would be admirable if he didn't keep letting it get him into deeper and deeper trouble. He is Úrsula's son, and ostensibly the head of her portion of the family. No doubt she would prefer to see him replace Rapayet.

Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra directed, from their own story turned into a screenplay by Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal. Despite the realistic edge to much of the tale, "Birds" has a lyrical, almost mystical feel. Zaida is the seer of the family, visited by dreams that portend how their ancestors feel about their ambitions and actions.

"Dreams prove the existence of the soul," one character observes. By the end Zaida confesses that she hasn't had any such dreams in years.

This is a grand, haunting tale of tradition and hubris, and how clinging too fiercely to our desires only ensures they will eventually slip our grasp.


Monday, March 11, 2019

Reeling Backward: "The NeverEnding Story" (1984)

When "The NeverEnding Story" came out in 1984, I pretty much loathed it to its core.

I thought of the movie as being to the fantasy genre what Ewoks were to Star Wars: egregious cutesy-fu claptrap ginned up to mollify small children. Sword-and-sorcery movies had a brief heyday in the late 1970s and early '80s, taking their spirit from the blood-and-guts "low" fantasy of Conan creator Robert E. Howard. (As opposed to the "high" fantasy of Tolkien and G.R.R. Martin, featuring kings and world-ending stories.)

These movies had barbarians and dark sorcerers and nekkid ladies and magical items and all the other stuff that rubbed the erogenous zones of my fecund pubescent brain.

Then here came this kiddie fantasy with a cloying pop song theme, a dragon that looked more like an amiable poodle than a reptilian titan, and starring a boy with not a wisp of hair below his earlobes as the purported greatest warrior in the land. It was even rated PG, for God's sake, not even taking advantage of the new PG-13 label that the MPAA had made available just three months earlier.


I haven't seen it since it came out, banishing it from my brain. I was not even aware that there was a sequel in 1990 and a third film four years after that.

But I've encountered a few pop culture references to it from time to time, and learned that many other Gen X kids have an abiding relationship with the movie. So I thought I'd give it another chance in the company of my boys, who at ages 5 and 8 would seem to be the prime intended audience for the film.

I learned several things right away I hadn't expected:
  • It's better than I remembered. Once you accept that it's a children's movie, a lot of my earlier grievances wash away. It's the same way people of my generation eventually had to accept that the Star Wars movies (at least the George Lucas ones) were primarily aimed at kids.
  • I was astonished to learn it was directed by Wolfgang Petersen, his first English-language film. It still seems an odd choice for a filmmaker known for tense realism ("Das Boot," "In the Line of Fire").
  •  It really is a simple, gentle story about using your imagination to wander into new worlds to explore, and encourages reading as a way to do so.
In the red column, the theme song by Brit pop star Limahl is still just as horrid as I recall. ("Ah-haha-aha-hahaaaaaa...") The special effects, which weren't very special even for 1984, have aged terribly -- a mix of miniature puppets shot to look bigger and crude lasers and other lighting effects that had already been surpassed by "Star Wars" seven years earlier.

Although the film was primarily intended for an American audience, it was a West German production and reflects the generally less sophisticated filmmaking infrastructure they had in the early 1980s.

The film largely relies on two child actors: Barrett Oliver plays Bastian Balthazar Bux, a nerdy outcast in modern times, and Noah Hathaway is Atreyu, the aforementioned mightiest warrior of Fantasia. The story posits Bastian as reading a story about Atreyu, and they come to be aware of each other's existence as the tale progresses. The screenplay, by Petersen and Herman Weigel, is based upon the book (with no capital "E") by Michael Ende.

Bastian is bullied at school and looked down upon by his stern father (Gerald McRaney), a widower flailing at being a single parent. Bastian runs into a mysterious bookshop while running from the bullies (I'm guessing the setting is Chicago or some other Midwestern metropolis) and encounters an old man reading the titular book. He warns Bastian that some books are different because the reader actually experiences what is being read. Bastian "borrows" the book, hides himself in the school attic and tears through the whole thing.

There he discovers the world of Fantasia (Fantastica in the novel), whose very existence is being threatened by The Nothing -- depicted as a primordial swirl of dark energy that is gobbling up the land piece by piece. The Empress (Tami Stronach), the ancient monarch (but appearing as a small child) who normally protects the realm has been stricken by sickness, so Atreyu is recruited to battle The Nothing. For his quest he is given the amulet called an Auryn, adorned with serpents devouring each other, which as near as I can figure demonstrates no actual powers during the course of the entire movie.

I won't bother to go through all of Atreyu's quest, but it's divided up into episodic encounters with various fantastical creatures. Some fall pretty flat, like the giant turtle known as Morla the Ancient One, who directs him to the Southern Oracle for answers. The way to the oracle is through several magical gates, including one with twin statue guardians who zap intruders with laser beams out of their eyes if they lack confidence.

In the end, the boy warrior survives this test by simply diving fast through the portal. The guardians still make laser-eyes at him, so I guess speed is really more important than resolve.

Along the way he picks up Falkor as his ally. Dubbing himself a luckdragon, he has fluffy white fur and a long tail, and is voiced by Alan Oppenheimer, who also vocally played several other supporting character, including the giant stone-eating Rock Biter and Gmork, the dark wolf hunter who serves The Nothing.

Falkor gives Atreyu rides and saves his bacon on several occasions. His legs are set so far back on his body that for the flying scenes he at first appears to be a limbless serpent. He apparently can even fly through the void of space, as demonstrated after Fantasia is reduced to just a few floating fragments.

Other cute/scary fantastical supporting creatures appear throughout, though most hang around just long enough to show off their creature makeup/effects. Among them are the Nighthob (Tilo Prückner ), a goblin-like creature that rides a giant bat; Teeny Weeny (Deep Roy), a hobbit-ish figure who rides a "racing snail;" and Engywook (Sydney Bromley), a wizened gnome scientist who has lived for decades at the first gate to the Southern Oracle with his shrewish wife, studying the way forward without every attempting it.

I've noticed it's a bulwark of children's stories to have characters who seem to have no purpose in existence outside of waiting around for the protagonist to show up so they can lend assistance (or opposition, in the case of the Gmork).

I'm still not prepared to call "The NeverEnding Story" a good movie. It's a relic of its time and intentions: to make a kiddie-friendly fantasy movie as cuddly counterpoint to Conan & Co.

But the first rule of criticism is to critique the movie they made, not the one you wanted. I didn't understand that at age 14, but I do now.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Video column: "Green Book"

I didn’t think “Green Book” could win the Academy Award for Best Picture, but I’m thrilled that it did. It’s very rare for my favorite movie to take the top prize at the Oscars. Furthermore, its chances seemed dimmed after a concerted (and I think largely unfair) backlash against it.

I’m even now hearing people offhandedly refer to the film as “racist.” A movie recounting an unlikely friendship between a famous black artist and a bigoted Italian-American tough in the early 1960s is racist? Apparently not being sufficiently “woke” is now grounds not just for dismissal, but castigation as representing the very evil institution the movie exists to assail.

The assault on logic aside, I care not. The loss is theirs.

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen play Don Shirley and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, two men as different as they could be. Shirley is black, educated, imperially slim, proud and serenely confident. Tony is squat, rude, earthy, unpretentious and unsophisticated. Both are sure of themselves and equally dismissive of the other.

Shirley, a jazz pianist, is about to embark on a lengthy concert tour in the South and needs somebody to drive him and watch his back. Tony needs a paycheck while the nightclub where he works as a bouncer is closed for repairs.

They predictably clash and confront, needle and rebuke. But slowly, gradually, they start to form a bond.

First it’s over little things like contemporary pop music and friend chicken. There are moments, confrontations with rednecks and such, in which Tony is obliged to stand up for Shirley. Likewise, the musician finds himself inclined to show grace toward his backward employee, such as helping him write beautiful letters to his wife.

These are some of the finest performances of Ali and Mortensen’s careers. They fully inhabit their characters, showing us their grace as well as their faults. In the end, their friendship becomes a balm that soothes the ache in their souls.

Ignore the haters, and revel in this beautiful story about overcoming hatred.

Bonus features are not terribly expansive. There are three making-of documentary shorts: “Virtuoso Performances,” exploring Mortensen and Ali’s turns; “An Unforgettable Friendship” about the real-life friendship between Shirley and Vallelonga; and “Going Beyond the Green Book,” which looks as the film’s cultural impact.



Thursday, March 7, 2019

Review: "Captain Marvel"

“I don’t have anything to prove to you.”

So sayeth Marvel’s newest(ish) addition to the MCU, Captain Marvel aka a Carol Danvers aka “Vers.” She’s a human who’s been serving the Kree, a mighty alien do-gooder empire, for as long as she can remember -- which isn’t very far back. But after her adventures return her to Earth some pesky memories start reviving, throwing her entire self-conception into doubt.

This is one hero’s journey that mostly takes place between her ears.

If “Black Panther” was the (stupendously overhyped and overrated) answer to the cultural collectivism craving an African-American superhero -- “First ever!,” they squeed, forgetting Blade did it 20 years earlier -- then “Captain Marvel” is the more finely attuned answer for the gender-balance scales.

There’s definitely a grrl-power theme to this production, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who also wrote the screenplay with Geneva Robertson-Dworet. But it’s not especially in our face. More, it’s little moments where our interplanetary badass has a smile asked of her by some surly biker dude, or an older male mentor demands that she prove herself -- on terms he sets out himself, of course.

It’s an entertaining, invigorating tale introducing us to a figure who’s been described in comic book lore as possibly the single most powerful hero there is. Brie Larsen is a wonder as Carol, playing the role with a mix of confidence, self-questioning and wry humor. Her character’s default mode is to act a little remote, letting people prove themselves to her before she warms up.

Chief among these is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the S.H.I.E.L.D. boss who first had the idea of putting together a team of supers. The story is set in 1995, nearly a quarter-century earlier, but the 70-year-old Jackson pulls it off without the CGI help Robert Downey Jr. used, just a hairpiece and a little helpful makeup.

When Veers crash-lands into a Blockbuster Video store -- Google it, youngsters -- Fury is sent out to investigate. He briefly tries to put the cuffs on her, which doesn’t work so well for a woman capable of firing photonic blasts from her fists. Fury ends up following her around, leaning in to the role of wise-cracking sidekick.

The movie’s first half does take its own little time sorting out the story threads. I got a bit impatient around the one-hour mark. And you’d have to be pretty blind not to see the big turn the tale’s going to take. But the last act is an action- and emotion-packed humdinger well worth the long-winded windup.

Jude Law plays Yon -Rogg, Ver’s commander and best Kree friend; Lashana Lynch is Maria, a steadfast human pal from back in her days as an Air Force test pilot; Annette Bening plays an Earthling scientist who curiously also takes the form of the Supreme Intelligence, the AI ruler of the Kree.

The bad guys are the Skrulls, green-skinned shapeshifters who’ve been attacking the Kree outer systems. Their leader is Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), who at one point captures Vers and sifts through her fractured memories for clues to his nefarious plans.

But if there’s a string running through “Captain Marvel,” it’s that it’s up to each of us to define ourselves rather than blindly queue up to the line others have drawn. Vers/Carol spends much of the movie wondering who she is, even as so many others seek to instruct her on the matter.

And, thank goodness, here’s a superhero movie that feels no impulse to inject a totally unnecessary romance into the mix. She is Captain Marvel, and that’s enough.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Video column: "The Favourite"

As I’m writing this Olivia Colman was just revealed as the surprise winner for the Best Actress Oscar, beating out heavy favorite Glenn Close. She was absolutely wonderful in “The Favourite,” although anyone who’s honest recognizes that hers is the supporting role, while Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are the leads.

Here’s a handy primer for mainstream movies: lead characters act upon their world and make things happen (or have things happen to them); supporting characters have little of their lives depicted other than that which impacts the protagonist(s)’ journey.

To put it into grammatical terms, leads are the subjects and supporting characters are the objects.

“The Favourite” is the embellished true story of the court of Queen Anne of Britain in the early 1800s. Widowed and without heirs, Anne (Colman) has become the creature of her friend, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), a “court favorite” who more or less acts in the stead of the monarch, who is either too sick or too disinterested in the running of her government.

As the story opens England’s war with France is still raging, and there is much debate about whether to end it or continue. Marlborough is opposing the Tory party leader (Nicholas Hoult) in deciding to press on or give in.

Enter Abigail Hill, a cousin of Marlborough’s fallen on hard times who begs a job as a scullery maid in the palace. Seemingly young and witless, Abigail soon realizes that the relationship between Anne and Marlborough is filled with both romance and abuse. She slyly worms her way in between the two women, eventually taking Marlborough’s place in the queen’s bed.

Like “Dangerous Liaisons” a generation ago, “The Favourite” is a period costume drama that beats with a vibrant modern heart. It’s a tale of love, betrayal and intrigue -- with the boys mostly on the side.

Bonus features are rather scant, consisting of a few deleted scenes and a making-of documentary: “The Favourite: Unstitching the Costume Drama.”