Sunday, April 28, 2019

Video review: "How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World"

Though I know it will inspire some pushback, I’m prepared to dub the “How to Train Your Dragon” movies the GOAT animated franchise. (That’s Greatest OF All Time, in case you didn’t know.) And yes, I’m including the “Toy Story” flicks.

Especially when considered in companionship with its short films and television/streaming show, “Dragon” has been a decade-long experience that’s both exhilarating and emotionally sustaining. It’s wrapped around the friendship between a Viking boy and a dragon, both of them striving despite physical (and to a lesser extent, psychological) disabilities.

In this definitively final go-round, scrawny nerd Hiccup (voice by Jay Baruchel) has become the unquestioned chief of his village, comprised of hardy folk who used to be enemies of the dragons but became their friends and allies. As time has gone on, their little island has become a crowded refuge for the reptilian creatures.

This draws the attention of dragon hunters, chiefly Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), a sly fellow who uses chemistry and trickery to control and, eventually, exterminate the dragons. Hiccup and his people stumble across a plan to protect them -- but it involves permanently saying goodbye to them.

Familiar faces return, including Hiccup’s wingwoman/reluctant romantic interest, Astrid (America Ferrera); his mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), herself a dragon master; Gobber (Craig Ferguson), the village blacksmith and wisest person; and Hiccup’s various sidekicks, ranging from obnoxious to nerdy.

In the most notable development, ebony night fury Toothless, though to be the last dragon of his kind, encounters a white female, setting up obvious parallels with his human counterpart.

Writer/director Dean Deblois, who’s helmed all three feature films, brings a comfortable mix of action and awe, building characters without sacrificing entertainment value. What a great ride it’s been.

Bonus features are excellent. They include a feature-length commentary track, an alternate opening, deleted scenes and a couple of animated shorts. There is also a full dozen documentary shorts, ranging on the animation process to looks at the mythology behind dragons.



Thursday, April 25, 2019

Review: "Wild Nights With Emily"

I admit I'm not sure how to take "Wild Nights With Emily," a portrait of poet Emily Dickinson in the latter years of her life. Certainly it's comedic, and the spare settings and deliberately stilted dialogue delivery make it feel like a "Saturday Night Live" spoof of period costume dramas. It's easy to poke fun at that sort of thing, and I enjoyed many a snigger.

But there's an undercurrent of anger here, too. Writer/director Madeleine Olnek wants to reclaim Emily's image as a reclusive spinster who knew not love or fame during her lifetime.

Instead, she's portrayed -- by "SNL" alum Molly Shannon -- as a vibrant if awkward woman desperate to be published who carried on a lifelong love affair with her childhood friend, Susan (Susan Ziegler), who married her brother and lived in the house next door.

The romance between the two (which is hardly supported by a consensus of scholars) is my favorite part of the movie. The Susan of this portrait was not just Emily's sister-in-law and lover, but editor of her nearly 2,000 poems and a constant source of encouragement and support. Active in society, she urges publishers and other poets to take notice of the genius next door.

Dickinson's disjointed, non-rhyming, untitled poetry was well ahead of its time, and it's funny to see a parade of stolid, unimaginative men parade into her parlor and declare her work unworthy of print. Easily the most delicious is Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Brett Gelman), editor of the Atlantic, whose buffoonery and priggishness are available in ample measures.

(He was actually among the first major publishers of her work, though viciously edited to conform to the conventions of the time.)

The villain of the piece is Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz), a younger social climber who played piano for Emily (from downstairs) and, after the poet's death, became her chronicler and champion -- but of a deliberately skewed picture. The film depicts her as literally erasing Susan's name from Emily's love letters, something later confirmed by spectrographic analysis.

Mabel also carried on a liaison with Emily's brother/Susan's husband, Austin (Kevin Seal), who's depicted as a blundering idiot completely unaware of the love affair passing literally in and out his doorstep.

There's much to admire about "Wild Nights with Emily" but no much to savor, unless you're a fan of Dickinson's poetry, which is often read underneath or as part of the scenes. Most people first encounter poems in a school setting, dooming them to dislike the experience when it's force-fed to them.

Some of that same sort of aftertaste lingers with this film, which often feels more like a thesis than a portrait.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Five Came Back" (1939)

"Five Came Back" is not to be confused with the 2017 Netflix documentary series about five noted Hollywood filmmakers who made propaganda movies for the U.S. government during World War II. It's a 1939 harrowing adventure story about a dozen people whose plane crashes in the Amazon and they have to struggle to survive while hashing out various interpersonal relationships and clashes.

The premise reminded me a lot of "Flight of the Phoenix," one of my dad's favorites, so I was eager to check it out.

It's a prototypical B-picture with some solid talent behind it. One of the screenwriters (along with Jerry Cady and Nathanael West) was legendary script man Dalton Trumbo. Director John Farrow helmed some notable pictures, including the film noir classic "The Big Clock," which was later remade into "No Way Out."

Farrow also won an Oscar for his screenplay of "Around the World in 80 Days" -- which is actually better than it's given credit for, though still a solid contender for the title of "Worst Best Picture."

The cast of "Five" included iconic "that guy" character actor John Carradine, with his signature scarecrow frame and scowl, who went on to sire an entire dynasty of thespians.

And it was one of the biggest early screen roles for Lucille Ball, before she switched to comedy and conquered television. She plays Peggy, a classic screen type: hard-bitten moll who's had all sorts of troubles with men, and finds herself judged by the high-class types.

Carradine is Crimp -- great name, that -- a "detective" who's really a glorified bounty hunter. He's got a $5,000 claim on Vasquez (Joseph Calleia), an anarchist who's being extradited back to Panama to be executed for his role in the assassination of a government official. That's about 90,000 smackers in today's dollars, so he's very keen on making the plane to Panama City.

Vasquez turns out to be very cagey, managing to swipe Crimp's gun away from him while being processed at the police station. In many ways he's the central character of the story, a man who's committed despicable acts yet winds up as the figure with the largest accrual of moral authority.

Chester Morris plays Bill, the thick-necked and, initially, thick-headed captain who continues to lead the party after the crash due to engine failure. Peggy takes a shine to him, though his hard heart takes some convincing. Rakish copilot Joe (Kent Brooks) has eyes for one of the passengers, Alice (Wendy Barrie), who's the secretary to wealthy heir Judson Ellis (Patric Knowles).

It's eventually revealed they're eloping together to escape the media glare and disapproval of their parents. Judson turns out to be, along with Crimp, the least adaptable of the survivors, quickly taking to drink -- he's got an entire suitcase packed with booze -- and despair.

Dick Hogan is Larry, the steward who's sucked out the door during the crash. (Blond guys always bite it early in adventure movies.) Casey Johnson plays Tommy, a little boy of about 3 who is the son of a mob leader on the run. Allen Jenkins plays Pete, the gun tough charged with protecting the tyke.

When the passengers (prior to the crash) hear a news account that Tommy's dad has been gunned down, the group takes on a sort of collective parenting of the boy. At first Pete won't let Peggy play mother to him, but eventually she proves her mettle.

The flight scenes are certainly a relic of their times, both for the crudity of the not-so-special effects -- their plane, The Silver Queen, looks like a child's model (and not an expensive one) -- and the depiction of air travel in the 1930s. People move about the cabin freely, the booze flows just the same, and there's no lock on the door to the cockpit, which is invaded several times by passengers.

The by-today's-standards huge chairs include a fold-down bed for each person. Joe has a pervy scene where he responds to Alice's buzzer about a stuck ventilator by flirting and invading her personal space.

The scenes on the ground are also a bit funny in their near-total avoidance of verisimilitude. Other than Bill's sleeves becoming ripped to reveal his thick arms, nobody's attire changes considerably despite weeks on the ground in stifling jungle heat. I lol'd several times at the women clip-clopping around the underbrush in their high heels. The men don't even take off their suit jackets the first few days.

Despite crash-landing in the trees (without the landing gear down), Bill and Joe commence with making repairs, this being the day when the sky jockeys who drove the planes apparently were all expert mechanics, too. They somehow manage to clear hundreds of yards of jungle for a runway with improvised tools.

But it all comes down to the proverbial "too much weight," so in the end they have to decide who goes and who stays -- after their numbers have been sufficiently thinned by the heard-but-never-seen cannibals, of course.

Some of the story plays out with predictable precision. Like the evolution by which Alice realizes Judson is no good and gloms onto the creepy-but-noble Joe. And the way Crimp and Judson both seem determined to have run-ins with the other men, so it's only a matter of time before they square off with each other.

In a hoot-worthy example of inept stunt choreography, during their fight Carradine actually starts falling backward before Knowles' mimed punch comes anywhere near him.

But I appreciated the unexpected cerebral and emotional portions of the story. The Spenglers find themselves coming to appreciate Vasquez, who points out that while the others are desperate to escape back to their lives, his destination lies with a hangman's noose. Without the headhunter subplot, my guess is he would have chosen to stay behind, assuming he escapes Crimp's greedy clutches.

In the end it's Vasquez who is allowed to decide which five people will get to ride away on the plane. Though his choices are pretty unoriginal -- two pairs of lovebirds and a kid -- the way he arrives at them hold genuine tension and intrigue.

"Five Came Back" is the sort of largely forgotten picture that strives beyond the shortcomings of its B-picture entertainment value and delivers a memorable experience.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Video review: "Destroyer"

Nicole Kidman has de-glammed for roles before, mostly notably putting on a prosthetic nose to play Virginia Woolf in “The Hours,” for which she won an Oscar. That’s a pretty standard M.O. in Hollywood: get grizzled, get Oscar gold.

The boys do it too: see Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club.”

But Kidman goes beyond unadorned to downright fugly in “Destroyer,” a hard-edged drama in which she plays a police detective who’s been spiraling toward the bottom for years. With her face mottled, eyes like two dim lamps peering out of dark holes, Erin Bell looks like she’s stared into the face of the devil and slowly gotten crispy.

She’s a boozer, a user, a cop who seems to spend very little time actually investigating crime. Seemingly sleeping out of her police car, she’s following up on an old case that involves an undercover operation she was in years ago.

It centers around Silas (Toby Kebbell), a drug dealer who inspires fear and loyalty in his crew. And there was Chris (Sebastian Stan), the fellow cop who posed as half of a couple with her and led to a real-life romance.

Other players include Erin’s estranged teen daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), who’s about to make some bad choices with her scuzzy boyfriend, and Bradley Whitford as a wealthy lawyer involved with the drug trade.

Directed by Karyn Kasuma from a screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, “Destroyer” is a tough watch but a rewarding one. Kidman deserved the Oscar nomination she didn’t get, not for just taking off her makeup but for putting on the face of self-destructive character who worms her way under your skin.

Bonus features are sparse in quantity but long in quality.

There are two separate feature-length commentary tracks, one by Kasuma -- pity Kidman did not join her -- and another with the script men. Plus there’s a making-of documentary, “Breakdown of an “Anti-Hero: The Making of Destroyer.”



Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Review: "The Curse of La Llorona"

I was genuinely creeped out by “The Curse of La Llorona.” I’m an old-school horror fan from way back who has generally been unimpressed by modern scare flicks, which all seem to substitute jump-scares for tension and foreboding. “Llorona” employs a few of those, but judiciously and skillfully.

And PG-13 horror? Please.

While this isn’t by any means a “hard R” gross-out gorefest, it’s got enough of the ol’ ultra-violence to whet the appetite for those who have one.

The story is based on a famous Mexican folktale about a mother who drowned her own children as retribution for her husband cheating on her. There have supposedly been man sightings of the “weeping woman,” who now wanders the land as a ghost bringing misfortune to those who encounter her.

For the movie version, this mythology gets woven into the existing world of “The Conjuring” movies, a vastly-expanding horror franchise with multiple sequels and spinoffs. Set in 1973 Los Angeles, it does not feature the Warren couple of occult investigators played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, although a secondary character, a priest named Father Perez (Tony Amendola), makes an appearance.

“You don’t have to be religious to have faith,” he says. Thanks Father! Now go find something good for stabbing with.

Linda Cardellini plays Anna, a social worker who was widowed about a year ago, leaving her to toil with two kids, Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) and Chris (Roman Christou), who are around 10. Early on she catches a bad case involving a mother, Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez) who has been keeping her sons locked in a closet.

Anna gets the boys put into protective custody, but they wind up drowned and Patricia curses her to have La Llorona haunt her family next.

Marisol Ramirez plays the creature, and it’s a pretty gnarly get-up: white (wedding?) dress and veil, chalky skin with pitch-black tears eternally streaming down her face, the mouth splitting into a yawning chasm and the hands blackened as if by charring. When she grabs one of her victims, it leaves burn marks.

Apparently there’s a bureaucracy involved in getting the Warrens’ help, so Father Perez hooks Anna up with Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz), a former priest turned ghost-hunting shaman. He’s got a dour attitude and a closet full of holy artifacts and potions to fight La Llorona. Wait till you see what he can do with eggs.

I like that the screenplay by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis has little to no fat. There are only really three or four setups before we get to the scaring inside the family’s house. Director Michael Chaves keeps things moving nicely, with a minimum of existential pondering and a maximum of eerie weeping lady frights.

Is “The Curse of La Llorona” an especially groundbreaking or original bit of horror? It is not. It relies a little too much on familiar tricks, like the wind that is constantly blowing open doors, windows, etc. and heralding the ghost’s arrival. Somebody needs to keep an eye on the barometric pressure.

But it’s an enjoyable scary flickershow with lots of inky shadows and tense moments. I don’t know why female horror villains are scarier, but they just are.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Video review: "Glass"

“Glass” was made for $20 million, which must be some sort of low-end record for a modern superhero flick. Heck, I think even Roger Corman’s 1994 version of “Fantastic Four” must’ve cost more.

(Note to editor: this is what’s known as “artistic hyperbole.” Corman never spent more than a quarter-mil on anything. – CL)

To be true, nobody flies through the air or emits energy beams from their eyes or turns into an orange pile of rocks. But that’s really the point of the movie from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, who with this films wraps up an ad-hoc trilogy that began with 2000’s “Unbreakable.”

“Glass” is less of a straight-up action flick than an exploration of the superhero myth. It posits three men who believe they have extraordinary abilities against a disbelieving world where skepticism and gaslighting reign.

(Another note to editor: “gaslighting” means using trickery to convince someone their beliefs or mindset are unreliable.)

David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is nearly impervious to physical harm, using his day job running a small security company to hunt criminals. Lately he’s chasing Kevin (James McAvoy), an unstable man with split personalities, dominated by one who calls himself the Beast, and exhibits extraordinary strength and sadism.

The third wheel – quite literally for the first half of the movie – is Elijah Price (Samuel Jackson), an evil genius who goes by the moniker “Mr. Glass” because of his extraordinarily fragile bones. He’s been incarcerated for the past two decades, sitting in a wheelchair in a seemingly catatonic state.

For a while all three men are jailed and treated by a psychiatrist (Sarah Paulson) who specializes in addressing superhero delusions. Using evidence and therapeutic techniques, she works to convince the trio that they are actually normal humans – because there’s no such thing as superheroes.

We’ll see how that turns out.

“Glass” is a much more cerebral superhero movie than we’re used to, but I think a satisfying one. It takes a few liberties with things that happened in the prior movies, not to mention basic logic. But maybe rearranging reality is Shyamalan’s super-power.

Bonus features are quite extravagant. There are a dozen deleted scenes and an alternate opening. I count another 12 making-of documentary shorts, ranging from the film’s special effects and sound design to early storyboards.

Two of the more interesting are “Glass Decoded,” which unveils some continuity “secrets” of the trilogy, and “Connecting the Glass Universe,” exploring Shyamalan’s concept of a comic book movie grounded in reality.



Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Review: "Little"

In Hollywood they say everyone secretly wants to direct, but the smart ones really want to be producers.

Marsai Martin, who plays one of the kids on the TV show "Black-Ish," supposedly pitched the idea for "Little" when she was 10 years old, inspired by the seminal Tom Hanks comedy, "Big." At age 14 she's now listed as executive producer of the body switcheroo comedy she stars in, the youngest person in Hollywood to receive such a credit.

It'd be an inspirational story, except for the fact that "Little" is so loudly, aggressively awful.

The setup is that instead of a 13-year-old transforming into a 30-year-old body, a grown woman played by Reginal Hall has a curse put on her that turns her back into her 13-year-old self. Rather than entering the adult world and charming everyone with their childlike innocence and imagination, here the protagonist is already a world-weary stiff who must rediscover what it means to be a kid.

(We pause here to remember "Big" director Penny Marshall, who passed away recently and never got the recognition she deserved as a filmmaker, including never being nominated for an Oscar.)

"Little" is directed by Tina Gordon ("Drumline") from a script she co-wrote with Tracy Oliver. The set-up is that Jordan Sanders it the 38-year-old owner/CEO of a tech company. She's rich, has a fabulous wardrobe, drives a BMW i8, is on the cover of magazines -- and is a total rhymes-with-witch.

When she's abusive to a food truck owner's kid, a wave of a magic wand means she wakes up the next day occupying the same body she had 25 years ago, right down to the frizzy hair and awkward glasses.

(Interestingly, she doesn't regrow the braces she had as a kid, so it's curious why she suddenly needs glasses again. Can kids not wear adult contacts? Or did the LASIK wear off?)

The biggest mistake the movie makes is making Jordan SO irredeemably nasty, both as an adult and a kid, that we can never relate to her as a person. How awful is she? Her employees are utterly terrified of her, scuttling away when they see her coming. When one fellow dares to eat an apple at a pitching meeting, she grabs it, licks then entire skin and then demands he take another bite.

There's movie-mean, and then there's she-would-get-sued-after-a-single-day-mean. One's funny, the other is not.

Jordan's middle school adventures are as predictable as you think. She encounters a new generation of nasty cheerleaders running the show, and a trio of uber-nerds who think they're going to be suddenly released from their prison of uncoolness if they compete in the talent show. You can take a wild guess where the movie's big finale winds up.

Issa Rae plays April Williams, Jordan's put-upon assistant who secretly has big ideas for an app that she's never been able to pitch. With Jordan sidelined to kiddie school, April has to take over the wheel of the company, with mixed results.

Rae has plenty of onscreen charm, but the script doesn't give her a lot to do but react to Jordan. I would love to see her in her own romcom vehicle.

The sexual dynamics of "Little" are... uncomfortable. Jordan has a gorgeous boyfriend, Trevor (Luke James), who she has listed in her phone contacts as "D-Boi." Google it for the NSFW definition, but suffice to say that she only keeps him around for sex. But, of course, Trevor has a heart of gold and secretly wants more. When he sees little Jordan, he takes her for Jordan's daughter and immediately wants to daddy her.

Really? What kind of dude lets himself be treated as sexual appendage, except for someone who's looking for the same?

Then there's Gary Marshall (Justin Hartley) -- hello inside joke -- Jordan's dreamy teacher at middle school, upon whom she attempts to put the moves despite having a preadolescent body. She actually does the same thing with Trevor, so it's a whole next-level thing of creepy.

There's even a musical sequence that seems to spring out of absolutely nowhere, with Jordan suddenly writing on a bar like Michelle Pfeiffer in "The Fabulous Baker Boys."

Martin has a lot of spunk, but the story is basically just an excuse for her to vamp in costly clothes and make smug expressions for the camera. There isn't a defined character underneath all the mugging, and what there is we can't stand.

That's a big problem.

Review: "Missing Link"

Ten years ago I was amazed by the stop-motion animation film “Coraline” from Laika, stating that it took a practiced eye to even tell it apart from standard animation. The action was so smooth and the world it occupied so vast, it was hard to believe it was made by infinitesimal changes to puppets photographed one frame at a time, 24 per second.

The newest from Laika, “Missing Link,” puts that film’s technical achievements to shame. This movie is so visually stunning that I again watched in disbelief. If not for some making-of sequences over the credits showing the painstaking process of putting it together, I might’ve thought the filmmakers were fudging.

They do use CGI animation for some of the backgrounds, but all the characters, clothes and sets are actually miniatures. Astounding.

Alas, I wish the story was a little stronger. Laika movies have been notable for their darker themes and complex narratives. (See -- especially if you already haven’t -- “Kubo and the Two Strings.”) “Missing Link” follows a rather conventional “finding your own path” story with a bigfoot creature.

Aside from similarities to other cinematic tales of late, including last year’s “Smallfoot” and “Abominable” coming out this September, the story makes the mistake of shunting the bigfoot character to sidekick status and putting all the attention on his human companion, a self-involved British explorer, Sir Lionel Frost, voiced by Hugh Jackman.

I’m reminded of the recent “Dumbo,” in which a bunch of humans took over the tale and the little flying elephant lost the spotlight.

The setup is that Frost has been trying and failing for years to be admitted to an elite club of adventurers, but the nasty leader, Lord Piggot-Dunceb (Stephen Fry), is determined to keep him out. Then Frost receives a letter alerting him to sightings of a bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest of America. This is the discovery that will finally secure his status, he figures.

Finding the bigfoot isn’t a problem -- turns out he wrote the letter himself. Resembling an 8-foot orangutan, the mild-mannered creature is voiced by Zach Galifianakis. As the only one of his kind, he’s always felt terribly alone, and wants to enlist Frost’s help in transporting him to the Himalayas to seek out the yeti, whom he feels are his long-lost cousins.

Dressing him up in a comically undersized suit so he can pass as a man, they refer to him as “Mr. Link,” short for missing link, though he later acquires an unexpected nickname.

Along the way they pick up an antagonist in Willard Stenk -- love that name -- a pint-sized shootist with claw marks across his bald head, and some (reluctant, initially) help in Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), a vivacious former girlfriend of Frost who holds a map to Shangri-La, where the Yetis reputedly reside.

The basic dynamic is that Frost is a self-centered jerkwad who only thinks of himself and his reputation, rather than relating to Link as a person with feelings and longings of his own. Adelina doesn’t have much to do but point out to Frost his missteps.

Writer/director Chris Butler previously helmed the excellent “ParaNorman.” I liked a lot of things about “Missing Link,” but it reads like a deliberate attempt by Laika to make a picture that has more mainstream commercial appeal.

Despite its glorious visuals, its lack of originality leaves it as a little better than middling bit of animation.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Enter the Dragon" (1973)

"Now, why doesn't somebody pull a .45, and bang, settle it?"

This is the question I ask about literally every martial arts movie made, ever.

I was surprised to discover that Bruce Lee asks it himself in "Enter the Dragon," perhaps the most iconic such film. The fact the movie makes a bit of a joke out of the proposition that one well-placed firearm could render its entire plot moot doesn't change the fact that it's still hard to take such flicks seriously given this reality.

The truth is the world's greatest kung fu (or name your discipline) master is hopelessly outclassed by your average twitchy junkie with a Saturday night special. The real world doesn't actually work like in that Remo Williams movie.

I just plain don't care for "chopsocky" movies, as they're derisively known. For awhile you're impressed with the pure athleticism, the exuberant kinetic flow. But it soon gives way to a maddening, repetitious drumbeat of chops, punches and kicks. I mentally refer to it as "I-kick-you-you-kick-me-we-kick-each-other" action.

Give me a real story with authentic characters that has some martial arts layered in, like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and I'm all on board. But I can't take 90+ minutes of endless hand-to-hand combat. As Arnold Schwarzenegger said when they were shooting "Pumping Iron," the audience might like muscles but you've got to have something else going on besides a bunch of guys flexing.

Lee choreographed all the fights in "Dragon" in addition to being its star, his final movie before dying of cerebral edema at the tragically young age of 32. He was actually in the process of completing his ADR -- dubbing over the dialogue recorded on-set -- for "Dragon" when he died.

Like James Dean, his greatest stardom only came after he was gone.

I get why Lee became such a cinematic legend, despite starring in only a handful of movies. He was handsome and charismatic, with one of the first well-known iterations of the body type preferred for men in popular culture these days: very lean and cut, with virtually every muscle striation and tendon popping out of the skin. Bruce Lee had a six-pack before anyone even knew what to call it.

He had a very soft way of speaking, slightly clipped with a medium-ish Hong Kong accent, and an almost musical cadence to his speech.

I still can't wrap my head around his utterances while fighting: animalistic falsetto yips and hoots as he slammed opponents, often preceded by drawn-out strangled, taunting notes. He sounded like a monkey trying to swallow a cat.

From what I've been able to gather, it has no legitimate basis in martial arts and was just something Lee did to attract attention. Honestly, it seems pretty girly and goofy to these ears. But it's become an indelible part of his iconography.

Ask any kid in the late 20th century to imitate a martial arts master, and they'd probably lift their hands in a splayed-finger crane stance while doing a (not terribly) exaggerated version of Lee's "whhhaaaaaoooooaaaahhhhh!" thing.

The plot of "Dragon" -- directed by Robert Clouse from a script by Michael Allin -- is as nonsensical as can be. Lee (also his character's name) is the best fighter at the Shaolin Temple, and is tabbed to go after Han (Shih Kien), his predecessor who turned against the mystical teachings to open his own martial arts academy on a lonely Pacific island.

He's doing so on behalf of three parties: the British government, which is ready to swoop in with a military operation but needs proof of Han's illicit drug activities; the Shaolin leadership, who are affronted by Han's betrayal of their ethos; and Lee's family honor, which was offended when his sister was killed by Han's bodyguard, O'Hara (Robert Wall), some time earlier, which Lee has just found out about from his father.

It's a good thing the revenge element was added in, because otherwise the whole operation makes no sense. According to Braithwaite, the British operative played by Geoffrey Weeks, "We know everything, but can prove nothing" about Han's narcotics activities. He insists their military forces can't intervene without proof. Really? Han's island belongs to no country, so there's nothing stopping the Brits except colonialist restraint.

The second reason is even weaker. Why do the Shaolin care of one if their former students started his own martial arts academy? Are they afraid of the competition? Are all of their students required to swear lifelong fealty? Their obsession with killing Han and wiping out his school seems awfully petty and vindictive for a bunch of serene mountain monks.

It turns out Han runs his academy, and holds an international competition every three years, all as a means to recruiting new talent for his drug operation. Those who do well are given the "offer he can't refuse" treatment.

Lee's other main competitors are Roper, a down-on-his-luck gambler played by John Saxon, and Williams, an unorthodox African-American fighter played by Jim Kelly. The two actually know each other from their service in Vietnam, and form a quick alliance.

(Kelly, by the way, would go on to become one of the first blaxploitation stars, parlaying his martial arts abilities and notoriety from "Dragon" to star in "Black Belt Jones" the following year.)

Both men freely partake of Han's offer of feminine companionship. Williams chooses no less than four girls -- apologizing for being tired from his trip, or it'd be more. Roper goes for Tania (Ahna Capri), the Caucasian woman who acts as Han's emcee.

Lee eschews sex to sneak around the island at night looking for evidence, getting into fights with various Han henchmen who never seem able to identify who their attacker was afterward. I guess a bunch of Asian guys can't distinguish between one of their own and a white guy or black guy, either of whom stand a head taller. Whatever.

There are several "boss fights" throughout the story, building up from an obnoxious fellow competitor  (Peter Archer) to key henchmen to Han himself. In addition to O'Hara there is Bolo (Bolo Yeung), a musclebound fighter. Both go down rather easily at Lee's hands... or rather, feet.

Another supporting character is Mei Ling (Betty Chung), an operative sent in by the British months ago who disappeared. Lee soon locates her, and we're never clear on what she had been up to all this time.

Han himself is an interesting figure. Kien was 60 years old when the film came out, and he (or his obvious stunt doubles) aren't particularly athletic. He wears his hair in an impressive widow's peak pompadour, though when it gets mussed up during the fights it is unmasked as an elaborate combover of Trump-esque extravagance.

The most notable feature about Han is his hands, which are revealed to be metal prosthetics. At one point he takes Roper on a tour of his personal museum, which largely consists of various hand skeletons and replacements from antiquity. He pauses before a particular set of bones, and it's suggested that his hands were not injured but amputated by choice.

We can see why: he easily bests Williams using his impervious hands. And, of course, there's the final showdown with Lee where Han swaps out one of the hands with a Wolverine-like set of claws, using them to leave the famous triple trails of aesthetically-pleasing-but-tacticallly-inconsequential bloody scratches on his face and chest.

Interesting thing: after trapping Lee in a funhouse of mirrors, Han manages to sneak up behind Lee. Rather than just impale him with those long claws, he goes for another scratch on the shoulder. One gets the sense Han isn't trying to defeat his opponent, but tenderize him.

To end with the beginning: so why doesn't someone just sneak a handgun onto the island and take out Han? (Or better yet, a long rifle with a scope.) "Enter the Dragon" answers this fundamental question by not answering it. This is not the sort of movie you're supposed to think about in any depth, but shift your brain into neutral and enjoy the popcorny action.

Bare-handed combat is impressive to look at on a movie screen, but something humans evolved past hundreds of thousands of years ago. If you really want to put someone down, what's the smarter way to go: get a gun or spend decades in arduous martial arts training in the hopes the guy hasn't brains enough to arm himself with something capable of dealing damage from more than five feet away?

I mean, at least get a shuriken or something, dude.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Video review: "Welcome to Marwen"

Every now and then, audiences and critics just plain get one wrong.

“Welcome to Marwen” was a complete box office bomb, grossing $10 million against a $39 budget. It currently has an abysmal 33 percent score on the Tomatometer -- about half that of the ludicrous Liam-Neeson-as-a-vengeful-snowplow-driver thriller, “Cold Pursuit.”

It came out for the Christmas rush and was promptly swallowed by “Aquaman,” “Mary Poppins Returns” and other blockbuster releases. Despite some big names being involved, including star Steve Carell and director/co-writer Robert Zemeckis, “Marwen” has essentially been memory-holed.

I urge you to go check it out on Blu-ray/DVD or streaming. It’s a wonderfully offbeat film -- funny and sad, grounded and giddy. It might be too weird for some people’s tastes, but for those who like unconventional storytelling it’s a true treat.

Carell plays Mark Hogancamp, an artist who was brutally beaten by a gang of men at bar because they thought he was gay. He isn’t, but Mark does like to wear ladies’ shoes, which apparently was enough reason. His injuries left him unable to draw, as well as wiping clean most of his memories prior to the attack.

His hobby-slash-obsession involves the creation of a model-scale fictional town in Belgium during the days of World War II. Mark populates the village with doll-side versions of himself and his female friends. Collectively they are freedom fighters taking on the evil Nazis.

These sequences are rendered in CGI with a cartoony, surreal quality that nonetheless packs a lot of emotional punch. Mark photographs the vignettes, which usually involve his character being tortured, as a sort of oddball personal therapy.

Now a major exhibition of Mark’s work is about to go on display, and he’s expected to testify in court for the sentencing of his attackers. He’s terribly anxious about both, as well as the arrival of an enticing new neighbor (Leslie Mann) across the street.

Yes, “Welcome to Marwen” may seem like a real head-scratcher at first. But it’s filled with so many wonderful things, especially Carell’s sensitive performance as a strange man with off-kilter impulses but a true heart.

Take a chance, and you might just find yourself bedazzled by this quirky jewel.

Bonus features are adqueate. They include deleted scenes and the following documentary shorts: “Marwen's Citizens,”  “A Visionary Director,” “Building Marwen” and  “Living Dolls.”



Thursday, April 4, 2019

Review: "The Best of Enemies"

Hoo boy. The people who went after "Green Book" for not being sufficiently "woke" are going to lose their collective gourd over "The Best of Enemies."

The basic gist is a racist white dude overcomes his upbringing with the help of a black character he befriends, written and directed by a white guy based on a book by a white guy. And the white star is Sam Rockwell, who ate backlash over winning an Oscar for playing another racist character who takes steps toward redemption in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."

Man the brigades!

Or, actually take the film on its own merits, which speak to a solid if unspectacular historical drama about the little nudges and shakes that form the earthquakes resulting in societal change.

This true story set in Durham, North Carolina in 1971 relates the tale of a KKK leader and a black civil rights activist who became unlikely friends. They are clashing as part of a broader effort to decide if the black and white elementary schools should be integrated after the black school was severely damaged by fire.

This is the sort of movie where you sit down in your seat knowing exactly what's going to happen every step of the way. And yet because Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell are such gifted performers, and writer/director Robin Bissell unspools the story with sensitivity and emotional heft, every scene feels unpracticed and fresh.

Henson is Ann Atwater, a loud, big (helped with ample padding) woman who know how to get the black community motivated and out to support causes. But she's continually shot down by the Durham city council, led by thick-necked, white-suited genteel cracker types (like Bruce McGill).

"I better see your face looking black and angry," she warns one of her people who says she's too busy to show up.

The white politicians and bureaucrats keep chummy but arm's-length ties to the local Klan, led by C.P. Ellis (Rockwell). He runs a gas station that black folks know to avoid. He's uneducated and stubborn, but has a certain genuineness and charisma about him, which led him to being elected president -- or wizard, or cyclops, or whatever the hell the KKK calls them.

A judge doesn't want to own the decision of whether to integrate the schools, so Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay), a black lawyer from "up north" (meaning northern North Carolina) is brought in to lead a charrette. This is an old-school meeting of the minds, which lasts two weeks, with half the council black and the other half white, and a two-thirds majority is needed to pass anything.

C.P. and Ann are elected co-chairs, and they go about the usual dance of hating each other and then getting to know one another. C.P. is committed to his wife (Ann Heche) and four kids, including a boy who's institutionalized with severe mental and physical challenges. You can take a wild guess if Ann winds up helping him out with his boy's situation.

Meanwhile, his Klan buddies (Wes Bentley chief among them) are leaning on C.P. to deliver a no vote, as well as individual white members of the charratte in the usual crackers-with-shotguns-and-friends ways.

Curiously, although we delve fairly deeply into C.P.'s background and mind, we never really learn much else about Ann other than her involvement in civil causes.

That's a failing of the script, but it also boasts lots of other little lovely moments. Like the white city council member who happens to turn his chair away whenever Ann is talking. Or the dumbstruck look on Ann's teen daughter's face when she C.J. is introduced to her. And the authentic, if colossally misguided, way in which C.J. initially believes the Klan is all about sticking up for one another.

"The Best of Enemies" is the sort of old-fashioned movie-making that's falling out of style now. That's a shame, but mostly for the people who stay away from a film about hatred giving way to mutual regard and, eventually, friendship.

Just don't talk about which actor is the lead and which the supporting, though.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Review: "The Public"

One of the most vicious aspects of Hollywood is how cyclical it is. You can be on top one moment, a nobody seemingly the next. This dynamic is especially cruel to actors, who rely on good looks and vitality more than their behind-the-camera colleagues.

Even those performers who "make it" can often only enjoy a high-profile stint of maybe five to 10 years. In a blink of an eye, you've been relegated to "whatever happened to" status.

Emilio Estevez had about that long of a run, and today's he's known mostly as brother of Charlie or son of Martin. But he's been quietly working this whole time, steadily of not frequently, gradually seguing into producing, directing and writing.

His newest project, and his first acting gig in six years, is "The Public," which he also wrote and directed. It's a heartfelt drama about a meek library worker who finds himself caught up in an ad-hoc protest by homeless men. It's not a great movie, but it's a solid one and worthy of your attention.

He plays Stuart Goodson, a nebbishy supervisor at the downtown Cincinnati public library. Like a lot of big-city libraries or other public institutions, it doubles as a place for the homeless, the elderly and the unwanted to hang out. Some come to read, some to use the computers, many just for a comfy place out of the elements.

Stuart and the other staff take it all in stride -- part knowledge custodian, part social worker. Stuart's coworker on the social studies level is Myra (Jena Malone), a young woman who likes to advocate for environmental causes. They banter playfully if chastely, though there's a tension in that she's continually put in for a transfer to the art and literature department.

Jeffrey Wright plays the boss, Anderson, fretting over budgets and rules. You know he's a tight-ass because he wears a bow tie.

His latest headache is the library is being sued for $750,000 by a mentally ill homeless man who was evicted because of his powerful body odor. The city prosecutor, Josh Davis (Christian Slater), talks down to everyone involved, including Ernesto (Jacob Vargas), who along with Stuart threw the guy out.

Davis is running for mayor, and he gets involved when the homeless men, tired of risking the bitter cold every night when the shelters are full. It's a typical bureaucratic prick role, but Slater has some moves as a privileged man who thinks he's doing the right thing while always keeping his eye on the next job.

(Prosecutors don't actually get involved with civil lawsuits or police hostage negotiations, but I won't quibble.)

The homeless guys aren't looking to do a civil disobedience thing -- it's just damn cold and they don't want anymore of their numbers to freeze to death. They're worked up beacause believe their friend Caesar, who can quote historical trivia all day long, is missing and they fear he's the latest to succumb to the cold. The group is led by Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams), a veteran who likes to tease Stuart a bit about his bleeding heart.

Alec Baldwin plays Bill Ramstead, the police detective brought in to conduct the negotiations. He's got his own issue with a strung-out son he's been out looking for, and you'd have to be pretty dim to not see that one coming.

Taylor Schilling is Angela, the erstwhile building manager where Stuart lives, the sort of gorgeous women who populate movies and like to put the moves on quiet, introverted men and get them into bed, because that is totally a real thing that happens in life.

The movie strangely loses steam right around the time the protest begins, though things pick up as it goes along and becomes a media sensation. Gabrielle Union plays Rebecca, the TV reporter who only cares about getting a good story, whether or not it's the right one. She plays up the scenario as a hostage situation instead of a bunch of tired, scared men demanding a warm place to sleep.

Stuart throws in with the protesters and gets pegged as the ringleader, so he's the one who negotiates with Ramstead and trades quips with Davis.

The film ends on a strange note, which I'll not reveal here, other than I defy anyone to see it coming. "The Public" is a little bit of "Dog Day Afternoon" meets the Nick Nolte movie "Teachers" and a few other pieces thrown in. It's got a fine cast and a story to tell, and as long as you've got something to say you're never a has-been.

Review: "Shazam!"

“Shazam!” is a fun flick but frightfully schizophrenic. It seems made to appeal to kids but it’s rated PG-13 with some rough language and adult references I wouldn’t want my children to see. It’s a straight-up comedy, DC Comics’ version of the “Guardians of the Galaxy,” though not nearly as raunchy as “Deadpool.”

At 132 minutes it’s about a half-hour too long, and the final showdown goes on so languidly you actually start to get tired of all the super-smackdowns.

Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy myself. The DC superhero movies tend to be a little more cartoony than the Marvel ones, and “Shazam!” -- do I really have to include the exclamation point on every reference? -- waltzes straight over the line into cartoonish.

The setup is that Billy Batson (played by Asher Angel, which is actually a better alter ego name than his character’s) is a 14-year-old kid who’s bounced from foster home to foster home. He’s recruited by a dying wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to take over his powers and continue his eons-long battle against the seven deadly sins, who want to get ahold of his glowing power-egg thingee.

The idea is that the wizard has been searching for decades to find a suitable replacement who’s pure of heart, but can’t locate one so he settles for Billy, who is prone to stealing police cars and thwacking bullies in the face. When Billy says the name, he suddenly transforms into a grown man in an extravagant red-white-and-gold costume with a lightning bolt on his chest.

He’s got the usual super traits: strength, speed, invulnerability, flight (eventually), plus he can shoot lightning out of his fingertips. With the help of his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a sardonic kid who uses a crutch and knows all the ins and outs of the superhero shtick, he sets out to use his powers to… have fun, make money and impress chicks, as most 14-year-olds would.

Eventually he gets around to do-gooding, though circumstances force his hand.

While he’s been becoming a YouTube sensation, the deadly sins, represented as gargoyle-like statues come to life, find their open champion in one of the wizard’s rejects, a kid who grew up to be the nefarious Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong). He has essentially duplicate powers of Shazam, plus he’s got the wizard’s stolen power-egg, which he’s using as an eye.

Let me tell you one thing I appreciated about the movie: Zachary Levi, who plays Shazam, wears a quite-obviously padded muscle suit instead of spending a year punishing his body so he can spend five seconds flashing a ripped torso.

Levi’s a goofy, giggling presence, playing an amped-up teenager who’s geeking out on suddenly turning into a super. He has a tendency to sayhisdialoguetrippingfastlikehecan’twaittogettothelastword, as teens are wont to do.

There’s also a subplot about Billy struggling to bond with his new foster family. Freddy’s the fast-talking standout of the group, though I also liked Faithe Herman as the adorable hug-addicted tyke, Darla. She's a terrible secret-keeper, but at least she's honest about it. The rest kind of fade into a jumble.

One of the running jokes is that Billy and Freddy can’t come up with a decent name for the new superhero, rejecting “Shazam” as too silly. So at alternate points in the movie he’s referred to as Mister Philadelphia, Thundercrack, Maximum Voltage, Red Cyclone and a few others.

The DC movie universe has been a pretty grim place, so I’m glad to see them attempt to lighten things up with “Shazam!”. It doesn’t quite zap you to superhero nirvana, but there are enough laughs and jolts to recommend.