Sunday, June 30, 2019

Video review: "The Best of Enemies"

Sometimes a film works because of the performances more than the story. There’s nothing unpredictable about “The Best of Enemies,” a feel-good drama about the real-life episode in which a KKK leader and a black activist joined forces to abolish segregation in their community.

We know from the very start that C.P. Ellis will eventually recant his racist views and befriend Ann Atwater, a loud-and-proud African-American leader. It’s practically written in stone.

And yet, because these roles are occupied by Sam Rockwell and Taraji P. Henson, the result is a compelling movie that carries us through the inevitability of its plot.

The story opens in 1971 Durham, where blacks and whites still live very much apart. But when the “black” school is severely damaged requiring a months-long closure, an imbroglio begins after a judge punts on the decision to merge the schools. The result is a “charrette,” an old-fashioned council of community members who will listen to the evidence and vote on defacto desegregation.

Atwater is an obvious pick to lead the pro-integration side. Ellis is selected by the white power-holders to represent their stake and ensure that the vote goes down. The two are elected co-chairs, and immediately set out to clash.

But then they gradually get a chance to get to know the person behind the stereotype, and hostility gives way to growing respect, and even friendship. Despite his overt bigotry, Ellis is depicted as a man devoted to his family and community – or at least “his” half of it.

I just enjoyed watching Henson and Rockwell inhabit these characters. You won’t be surprised, but you may find yourself engaging with “The Best of Enemies.”

Bonus features are modest, and are limited to three documentary shorts: “Make a Connection,” “Ann Atwater” and “An Unlikely Friendship.”



Thursday, June 27, 2019

Review: "Being Frank"

"This isn't some game, Phillip. This is everyone's lives you're playing with."
"Well, lucky for you, you have a spare."

 I like the idea of "Being Frank" more than the movie they actually made.

It stars comedian Jim Gaffigan as a guy who has two different families -- distinct homes, wives, pairs of his-and-her offspring. Then one of his kids finds out and they spend the rest of the flick trying to contain the situation, after a little light extortion.

It's a broad sitcom of a movie, which is OK, along with a few poignant moments that the cast and crew do not seem to know how to handle. It's less deep emotional catharsis than people just standing around staring at each other.

A lot of stand-up comedians have turned into excellent actors, Robin Williams being the obvious example. Gaffigan's done a few supporting roles in dramas and been quite good, like "Chappaquiddick," one of the best films of 2018 than virtually nobody saw.

Here he's very much doing a riff on his stage persona as the inept middle-aged dad who tries to do the right thing but inevitably messes it up. Starting, of course, with falling in love with one woman, Bonnie (Samantha Mathis), after getting engaged to a childhood sweetheart, Laura (Anna Gunn).

Then they both became pregnant around the same time, Frank couldn't bear the thought of being separated from his children, and one lie built upon another. He runs a ketchup company inherited from his dad, and explains the long abscenes with fictional business trips to Japan.

(Hadn't realized they were big consumers of Yankee squished tomaters.)

Of course, you know within the first few minutes where all this is going to end. There's going to be a big confrontation where everybody discovers the truth, with obvious finger-pointing and stammering. "But he... and you... which makes her your...!!"

Director Miranda Bailey and screenwriter Glen Lakin are both feature film first-timers in their roles and, well, it shows. "Being Frank" has television written all over it.

I like Gaffigan's comedy a lot, though his shtick is a bit hard to take for 108 minutes. He doesn't really attempt to act like a man who is trapped and tormented, just mugs for the camera and milks every moment for laughs.

The movie would've been better off doing an overt replication of Gaffigan's standup routine in a fictionalized movie version -- though may be leaving out the Hot Pockets jokes.

Logan Miller is solid as Philip, one of Frank's sons and the real main character. He and Frank constantly clash about his dad's high expectations and Philip's constant failure to achieve them. He can't wait to decamp to New York University and start a music career. But Frank insists he stay close to home at the state college.

Isabelle Phillips plays Kelly, Frank's daughter in his other family. After Philip catches Frank with his other family, he starts hanging around with them, posing as the friend of Richie, Frank's never-seen best friend. As you might guess, Kelly makes moony eyes at Philip, which is somehow sweeter than you'd think it'd be. She has a strong, inquisitive face and seems destined for better material.

Rounding things out are Gage Polchlopek as Eddie, Frank's seemingly perfect football player of another son; Emerson Tate Alexander as Lib, Philip's acerbic younger sister; Danielle Campbell as Allison, a girl Philip is sweet on; Daniel Rasihd as Lewis, Philip's best friend who tags along for funsies; and Alex Karpovsky as Ross, Lewis' stoner uncle who gets recruited to play the ersatz Richie.

It's basically a slamming-doors farce set in the bucolic suburbs. Pivotal conversations are started and then interrupted, people misinterpret what someone has said for something else, and so on.

There are some genuinely funny moments and some interesting pieces in "Being Frank." But I apply the Gene Siskel Test: would you rather have just watched this cast of actors hanging around, eating lunch and chatting? I think I'd rather be there than here.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Review: "Yesterday"

“Yesterday” is a little bit daffy, a little bit sappy and lotta bit heartwarming.

This does not seem like something out of the oeuvre of Danny Boyle, the British director known for “Trainspotting,” “127 Hours,” “28 Days Later” and other dire portraits of humanity at its brink. But then he also made “Slumdog Millionaire,” a fairy tale-ish story about an Indian kid changing his life by winning a game show, and it’s to that more tenderhearted, hopeful skew that this film belongs.

But then, he is paired with screenwriter Richard Curtis, an expert heartstring-puller: “Love Actually,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral” as well as the criminally unseen “About Time.”

Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a 27-year-old Indian-Brit who’s been trying to make it as a singer -- and failing spectacularly. His gigs consist of street warbling for tips, dive bars and kids’ birthday parties. Pretty much his only fan is Ellie (Lily James), his childhood friend and erstwhile manager.

She drives him around, bucks him up and -- because this is a romantic comedy -- is ravishingly in love with him, despite Jack being completely blinkered about it.

He’s ready to pitch it in when a strange thing happens -- a worldwide electrical blackout, possibly caused by solar flares, during which he is clocked by a bus. When he wakes up in the hospital, he is astonished to discover that nobody else has ever heard of The Beatles. When he strums out “Yesterday” for his friends, they are entranced and wonder at how such a mediocre musician wrote a masterpiece.

Jack quickly realizes his opportunity: he can pass off the entire Beatles songbook as his own work, instantly catapulting to fame and fortune. Of course, there are bumps along the way, like indifferent parents (Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal), difficulty recalling some of the lyrics and the lack of recording equipment.

A nice local fellow named Gavin (Alexander Arnold) provides the latter, and Jack also gets a boost from Ed Sheeran, playing himself, who invites Jack to be his opening act and is quickly eclipsed by him. It’s an odd, anxious turn for a real-life star, who at one point challenges Jack to a speed songwriting contest, only to be bested by John, Paul, Ringo and George.

Patel is a winning presence and a pretty decent singer, too. I also liked James a lot, squishing up her face and doing a charming/frumpy thing that would’ve been played by Winona Ryder 25 years ago.

My patience wore thin at some of the obvious romcom baggage, like Ellie waiting a decade and a half to tell Jack that she cares for him, and then making unreasonable demands at the moment he begins to return her favor. Or the constant interruption of pivotal conversations by ringing phones or intruding people.

There’s a silent mode, Jack!

Kate McKinnon turns up fairly late as Debra, a mercenary producer from L.A. who is quite open about the fact that she views Jack as a “product” who will make her money. She sets him up with a bunch of phony marketing types and frets about his image. “Is this the best that you can look?” she asks.

Even though it’s totally a Kate-McKinnon-doing-her-SNL-shtick turn, I still welcomed the comic relief. Some is also supplied by Joel Fry as Rocky, who’s the dimwitted screw-up of Jack’s social circle but also kindhearted and genuine. Rocky becomes Jack’s roadie/body man/spirit guide, keeping him (mostly) on schedule and humble.

And, of course, there’s the glory of all that Beatles music. I risk eternal damnation and a Twitter pox by opining that I think the Beatles are a really good band that somehow got exalted to GOAT status. Still, toe-tapping will unavoidably commence.

“Yesterday” takes a lot of obvious turns, though there are a few unexpected ones that demonstrate a little more storytelling ambition. Jack is increasingly haunted by thoughts that he will be exposed as a fraud, which leads to a final act that is both farfetched and emotionally pleasing.

A few discordant notes aside, it’s a lovely tune of a tale.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Video review: "The Aftermath"

“The Aftermath” came and went without making much of an impact on critics or the box office, but for my money it’s one of the better films I’ve seen this year. It’s a tragic romance starring Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke and Alexander Skarsgård as damaged people caught in a love triangle in post-WWII Germany.

I use “caught” deliberately, because unlike most movies in this oeuvre, which tend to focus on lovers swept away by their passions, here it really feels like all three are in some way trapped. Love does not set them free, but is the instrument of their doom.

Sad films seem to have fallen out of favor these days; here’s a prime example underlining their worth.

As the story opens, Rachel Morgan (Knightley) is joining her husband at his new military posting in Hamburg, overseeing the rebuilding of the war-ravaged city. It’s their first meeting since the war began; Lewis (Clarke) did not even return home for the funeral of their son.

Their estrangement is fueled by the presence of Stephen Lupert (Skarsgård), an architect whose house has been given over to the British Army to be the Morgans’ living quarters. Life is squalid for most Germans, toiling at clearing the bomb-flattened terrain and scrimping for food, so Lewis offers to let Stephen and his teen daughter continue to live in the attic.

At first, Rachel and Stephen are antagonistic, reflecting the resentfulness of the Germans -- someone of whom openly pine for the return of the Nazi regime. Lewis is actually more sympathetic to their plight than most of his fellow officers. But his attitude changes as his wife grows closer to the man above.

The acting is uniformly terrific, especially Clarke. He’s been doing great leading-man work in small movies most people didn’t see, including this and “Chappaquiddick.” He gives rich shadings and depth to a character who could have come across as very distant and emotionally unavailable.

Bring a hanky, but give “The Aftermath” a try. Rarely has sad been so good.

Video extras aren’t abundant, but the features it does have are substantial. They include a feature-length commentary track by director James Kent; deleted scenes with more commentary; a “First Look” feature; and VFX progressions of how they depicted war-torn Hamburg, also with commentary.



Thursday, June 20, 2019

Review: "Echo in the Canyon"

"People have been trying to put salt on its tail for awhile, trying to figure out why it happened there and how it happened there."
                         --David Crosby
The "it" in the quote above is what became known as the California sound, a mix of folk and rock music emerging in the 1960s that helped define much of popular music ever since. "Echo in the Canyon" is the superlative new documentary that explores the folk rock phenomenon and how it was birthed in one place, Los Angeles' Laurel Canyon.

A lush, hilly enclave overlooking the seediness of the Sunset Strip on one side and the elite opulence of Beverly Hills on another, Laurel Canyon became home to eclectic showbiz figures like Harry Houdini and Tom Mix, and later young 1960s musicians including Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Stephen Stills and David Crosby, who were in a couple of bands together.

Director Andrew Slater and executive producer/narrator Jakob Dylan gather many of the iconic musicians themselves, who talk about how the music cross-pollinated simply because everyone was in such close proximity to each other. People would show up at another's doorstep and start to riff.

(Along with not a little pharmacological recreation and hanky-panky.)

They also gather musical artists of today who talk about how they were influenced by the California sound, culminating in a huge revival concert at L.A.'s Orpheum Theatre. Rather than trying to reimagine those 1960s songs, the contemporary musicians do their best to replicate them.

It's pure aural ecstasy, a thrill to see people like Dylan, Fiona Apple, Beck, Regina Spektor, Norah Jones and others harkening back to their forbears.

Dylan makes an intriguing spirit guide, acting as a quasi-journalist as he interviews the legends. As the son of one himself who established his own substantial identity as frontman of The Wallflowers, he's able to maintain a little bit of detachment instead of just acting as a gushing fanboy.

Crosby is one of the most forthcoming, turning to the camera and declaring the real reason his bandmates turned on him. "It's because I was an asshole," he mock-whispers.

Many of the old-timers whip out guitars, effortlessly recalling songs they created 50+ years ago, and telling how they came to be.

The story of the California sound begins with the American folk music movement, but got its impetus from the British invasion -- aka the Beatles. Young musicians were blown away by the combination of folk chord progressions with a rock beat, and wanted to make their own version of it.

This ushered in an era of ambitious, poetic lyrics that went beyond standard-issue lovey/dovey mush.

"Echo" talks a lot about the Beatles and the Beach Boys, but also does a good job of exploring how other short-lived groups provided fuel for the movement. Bands like The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield aren't as well known today, but they were pivotal in developing folk rock, along with The Mamas the Papas, and many others.

There's even a reference to a little-remembered film from 1969, "Model Shop," which the pioneers say captured the look and feel of Laurel Canyon in the '60s as well as anything they sang. I'll have to put that down as one to check out.

Perhaps the most endearing presence in the film is Tom Petty, despite the fact he's the one interviewee who doesn't perform a song. He does do a little riff on a vintage Rickenbacker guitar, and also underlines that it's a Ricken-BACK-er, not a Ricken-BACH-er.

Petty was just a kid from Gainesville, Fla., when the California sound first emerged, but as soon as he heard it he knew where he belonged.

Graham Nash says that music can change the world, even if it's in little ways that aren't immediately apparent. "Echo in the Canyon" gives ample voice to a period of musical exploration that is still resonating today.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Review: "Toy Story 4"

“Toy Story 4” is like one last rodeo with the old gang, an unexpected revival long after we thought they’d retired. It doesn’t have the energy or emotionality of any of the others, but it’s nice to see the old-timers back up to their old tricks.

A fourth feature for the cornerstone Pixar Animation franchise seems unnecessary. After all, the third one from nine years ago felt like a very conspicuous wrapping of the bow, as the little family of toys who come to life when people aren’t around were passed on from Andy, now all grown up, to adorable pre-K Bonnie.

And yet, here we are.

Not much time has passed since Bonnie became “their kid,” although a flashback to nine years earlier shows us how Bo Peep (Annie Potts), the love interest of Woody the cowboy sheriff (Tom Hanks), disappeared between the second and third movies. It seems she didn’t share Woody’s enthusiasm for “always being there” for their kid, so when Andy’s sister decided to pass Bo on to another child, she was ready to go.

She returns triumphantly, in a much more athletic iteration than we remember. Eschewing her modest shepherdess’ cape and laughing off a broken arm kept attached with tape, Bo swings and swoops all around using her hooked staff and a bottomless reserve of guts. She embraces her status as a “lost toy” free of human constraints.

She’s practically a toy superhero.

When Bonnie’s family goes on a road trip in an RV, it reveals fractures in the toy universe. Woody chafes at no longer being the head toy calling the shots. Even worse, he’s fallen out of Bonnie’s rotation of favored toys, often relegated to the back of the closet during playtime.

Still, his sense of loyalty remains true when Bonnie goes off to kindergarten and creates a toy of her own from a plastic spork and pipe cleaners. Woody and the gang are surprised when the creature springs to life, raising all sorts of metaphysical questions about the Toy Story universe.

Dubbed Forky (voice of Tony Hale), the new tribe member at first is very confused and self-endangering. Since he was made out of spare parts, he insists that he’s trash and keeps trying to escape to the nearest garbage bin, requiring repeated rescuing from Woody.

At first I thought this was an attempt to introduce a mentally challenged toy, which would’ve been an interesting development. But Forky gets wiser with time, and eventually grows to embrace the toy ethos.

Part of his tutelage comes at the knee of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a vintage toy stuck in an antique shop in the mountain town of Grand Basin. She’s seemingly benevolent, but resents that she’s never had a kid to call her own. She blames it on her malfunctioning voice box, and sets her designs on claiming Woody’s.

Gabby is portrayed as more misguided than evil, though she employs a force of identical ventriloquist dolls who act as her muscle, and are as creepy as all get out.

Other new characters include Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a Canadian motorcycle daredevil who’s lost his nerve; Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki), a pint-sized police officer who acts as Bo’s shoulder-riding sidekick; and Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key), a pair of long-suffering plush toys stitched together hand-to-hand who’ve spent an eternity as the top prize at a malfunctioning carnival duck hunt arcade.

Directed by Josh Cooley from a screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, “Toy Story 4” is easily the weakest of the series, but it’s still a fun ride. It seems the sendoff was not their final bow, and they’re destined to keep collecting nostalgia curtain calls.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Reeling Backward: "The Stalking Moon" (1968)

"The  Stalking Moon" is a largely forgotten Western, owing mostly I think to arriving around the time the genre was being reexplored with a more critical eye -- "The Wild Bunch," "Little Big Man," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

But it contains some of those same questioning elements, including a subtle (maybe too subtle) examination of the relationship between an expanding America and the native peoples who were often trampled along the way.

Gregory Peck, a dramatic leading man who occasionally dabbled in cowboys, had been down this path before a decade early in "The Bravados," playing a rancher-turned-killer. Here it's the other way around, portraying Sam Varner, an Army scout helping round up American Indians who tries to settle down but finds his old life pulling him back in.

The first half is more interesting than the second, which oddly plays out almost like a slasher flick as the good guys are hunted by a seemingly unstoppable assailant. It's a rousing bit of Western action, abetted by the novelty of an Indian antagonist who clearly outskills the white hero. But in the end, it's just standard tension-and-release filmmaking.

How the movie got there has more merit.

Getting ready to muster out after 15 years with the Army, where he garnered a reputation as the best of the best, Sam is enticed to escort a white woman, Sarah Carver (Eva Marie Saint), who was kidnapped by Apaches 10 years ago when she was a girl.

(This would put the character in her mid-20s at the oldest, which is a bit of a stretch for the then-44-year-old actress. Peck, at 52, is a little closer to Sam's presumed age.)

Since then she has married and produced a boy of about age 8 (Noland Clay), a "half-breed" or "breed" using the parlance of the film, who has not yet been named in the tradition of his father's folk. After the vestiges of her tribe are captured and she is afforded the opportunity to return home to Columbus -- while the Apache will assumedly be taken to a reservation -- Sarah is desperate to leave right away, guilt-tripping Sam into being their escort.

It's eventually revealed that her husband is none other than Salvaje, a legendary killer feared even by his own people. Salvaje, which roughly translates as "ghost" or "he who is not here," is intent on getting his son back, if only for pride's sake.

Sam intends to put Sarah and her boy on a train and be done with them. But after all the people at a coach station are killed while they were off chasing down the boy during a runaway attempt, he's ready to be quit immediately.

There's a wonderful, largely wordless scene where Sam stares at the woman and her son as they wait at the lonely train station. He knows it's the smart thing to do, but he's also seen the looks and reaction the pair produces in white society and guesses what their future will hold. Carefully weighing matters, coupled with his own longing for stability (read: family), Sam invites them to come live with him at his ranch in New Mexico.

It's a fateful decision, yet knowing what the outcome is we suspect Sam would still make the same choice.

Salvaje soon comes a-knocking, wiping out Sam's new neighbors as well as his oldster caretaker, Ned (Russell Thorson). He's helped for a time by Nick Tana, another "breed" Sam took under his wing a decade earlier and shaped in his image as a scout.

The relationships between Sam and Nick and the boy are the film's most compelling dynamic. Certainly it's more worthy of note than the repressed romance that slowly builds between him and Sarah. Saint really isn't given a whole lot to do, other than sit stoically waiting for the menfolk to do stuff as she speaks in clipped cadences of her nearly forgotten English tongue.

Sam clearly regards Nick as a son, even if he's a somewhat resentful, churlish one. In an early scene Nick throws a knife at Sam's retreating back, clearly a demonstration of the arrival of his full manhood and commensurate independence. He feels like Sam is running away for him, and there is an unspoken hurt that the elder did not invite him to share in his new life.

Maybe Nick would've said no, but he's bothered by the lack of an ask.

All this is barely revealed in the dialogue. A rough caress of Nick's cheek as he dies at Salvaje's hand is all the evidence the film provides.

For his part, the boy largely remains an enigma -- but it's clear that he bears Sam even less regard. He's rebelling at being forced away from his people to live in a white man's world. He tries several times to escape and be reunited with his father. He steals a white man's knife and is tempted to use it on him before Sam intervenes.

Really, the best thing for all concerned would be for the boy to go back to Salvaje and for Sarah to marry Sam and produce another son. But that's not how a mother's love, or Western films, work.

"The Stalking Moon" has impeccable credentials. It's directed by Robert Mulligan, who made "To Kill a Mockingbird" with Peck five years earlier, with a screenplay by renowned scribe Alvin Sargent, who won two Oscars (for "Paper Moon" and "Julia") and found a second 21st-century spurt as the script man behind three of the Spider-Man movies. This was just his second feature film writing credit after starting out in TV.

Based on the novel by Theodore V. Olsen with an adaptation credit to Wendell Mayes, the filmmakers make the curious choice to depict Salvaje as little as possible. He's only glimpsed as a shadow or distant figure until the very end, and he never speaks a single word. His showdown with Sam is shot so as to avoid showing his face or revealing his humanity. It's basically a stuntman role.

I was struck by the musical score by Fred Karlin, best known for his music for "Westworld" and its sequel. It's more a collection of atonal sounds than melodies, with an oft-repeating discord strummed across a string instrument of some kind used for building tension.

(My ear isn't attuned enough to tell, so I'll take a stab that it's a mandolin, zither or dulcimer.)

Is there a hidden meaning to all this? If so, we're barely given more than a few wind-scattered tracks in the sand to decipher.

My guess is the theme has something to do with Sam facing a reckoning for his transgressions as an Indian hunter. He's reached an age where he wants to let go of that life, and finds that it has a hold on him he can't ignore. Having raised and ultimately rejected a half-Indian child, he is given another chance at fatherhood -- but has to endure a mountain of sacrifice as punishment.

The lack of a real character for Salvaje indicates he's more a remorseless force of history than a full-blooded human being, more existential threat than person.

"The Stalking Moon" is well-made, but seems like a sketch for a grander, grimmer tale the filmmakers weren't ready to tell. After the Peckinpahs and Penns of the world had their say, movies like this were destined to fade away.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Video review: "Us"

I think the best kind of horror films, particularly those with a supernatural edge, are the ones that don’t try to explain everything to you. They just present a confounding mystery, and let it hang there.

One of my favorite of recent years was “It Follows,” in which people are inexplicably pursued by relentless doppelgangers. I would add “Us” to the list.

Writer/director Jordan Peele’s sophomore effort is superior, in my opinion, to his previous venture, the smash hit “Get Out.” Lupita Nyong’o stars as a seemingly normal woman with darkness in her past that will catch up to her and her family.

Thirty years ago as a child, Adelaide had a chilling experience inside a carnival funhouse, where the image in the mirror turned out to be a real live reflection. Now that person, who has grown up just as she did, returns to the “real” world to exact a blood-soaked revenge.

I don’t want to give away too much, since the very appeal of “Us” lies in its teasing out information and surprises. Suffice it to say, Adelaide isn’t the only one with a nefarious shade following her around.

Winston Duke plays her husband, Gabe, a good-natured guy; Evan Alex plays their son, Jason, who has a few disturbing aspects to his own personality; and Shahadi Wright Joseph is teen daughter, Zora, who makes a show of her independence until it’s time to fall back on her family.

The big twist of the movie wasn’t a surprise for me, but I watch a lot of films and there’s only so many tricks in the bag. But it’s still a very satisfying ending to a terrific movie fraught with frights.

Bonus features are quite expansive and include six deleted scenes, funny outtakes and an extended version of the dance sequence. There’s also an in-depth exploration of the making of three pivotal scenes and five documentary shorts.



Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Review: "Late Night"

"Late Night" operates as a good companion piece to "Bookmart," which came out just a few weeks earlier. Both are about female relationships, how they can be so important and so complicated. The first movie centered on high school kids, while "Late Night" looks at a professional conflict between an older Millennial and a younger Boomer.

It's written, produced and stars Mindy Kaling as a youngish new writer for a legendary late night talk show host played by Emma Thompson. Kaling's script has television rife through its DNA, but I guess that's not too objectionable since it's about a TV show. It begins wickedly sharp and funny, and grows surprisingly sentimental as it goes along.

The movie starts out aiming for laughs, and gets them, and then shoots for the heart, and nails that, too.

I liked Kaling as Molly Patel, who's added to the roster of writers after it's pointed out that "Late Night with Katherine Newbury," on the air for 27 years, doesn't have any female writers. She's wholly unqualified for the job, working in quality control for a chemistry plant in Pennsylvania, but she's got a nose for funny and for what's true.

Thompson is the real revelation as Katherine. It's a fierce and amazing performance. Katherine is domineering and often downright nasty. On Molly's first day, she's astounded to discover that most of the writers have never actually met their boss before. Too harried and contemptuous to learn their names, Katherine assigns each of the writers numbers so she can call on them more easily, and shoot down their ideas.

It's a role that reminds me a lot of Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada," though Kaling's script and director Nisha Ganatra grant Katherine a lot more interior real estate to explore. In fact, about halfway through it stops being Molly's story and really becomes Katherine's.

I loved how the two women talk to each other. Molly is a bit of a wallflower but not afraid to stand up for herself. When Molly expresses her qualms about being seen as a token diversity hire, Katherine brazenly tells her that's exactly what she is. But then she advises her to go earn her place.

Katherine's show has become tired, out of touch, favoring chats with authors or intellectuals instead of cracking topical jokes. Think David Letterman during the last years of his show: still funny, but you got the sense he was coasting and more than a little annoyed at having to chat up celebrities and entertain audiences.

Early on we learn that the new network president (Amy Ryan) wants to push Katherine out. This propels her to try to reinvent herself, get a little more personal and political. Molly acts as her Svengali, urging her to get out of the studio, connect with people and do fun bits that can go viral.

Reid Scott and Hugh Dancy play Tom and Charlie, lead writers on the show who resent Molly's presence but gradually start to warm up. There's even a budding romance with Charlie, though the movie misplaces his character in the second half.

Denis O'Hare is a solid presence as Brad, Katherine's dependable right-hand man; John Lithgow plays Katherine's eternally supportive husband, Walter, who can see past the casual cruelty to the person underneath; Ike Barinholtz is a hot young insult comic who is held up to Katherine as the wave of the future, much to her revulsion.

One of the most interesting things about "Late Night" is its portrait of showbiz and the types of neurotic personalities that thrive there. Katherine treats her staff like cattle, firing people on a whim, and they in turn crave any scrap of attention from her. "We're not here because you're nice. We're here because you're good," Brad says.

This is a movie that works as both an insider's view of TV comedy and as a character piece about two women clashing and connecting. We instinctively like Molly, and just as instantly loathe Katherine. But by the end we understand what makes these women tick and feel less impulse to judge them, but simply embrace them as they are.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Video review: "Captain Marvel"

Brie Larson soars as the latest Marvel Comics Universe superhero, a figure who’s a mix of bravado and self-doubt. She plays Carol Danvers, a military pilot-turned-outer-space warrior, manipulated by others but eventually working to find her way back to her true self.

The theme of “Captain Marvel” is to explore your own path and not define yourself as others want to. Irradiated with alien energy that scrambled her memories, she’s been fighting for years on behalf of the Kree, cosmic do-gooders fighting against the evil Skrulls.

As with many things, the line between good and evil isn’t quite as bright as it first appears. Carol is in for a major letdown/reawakening when she returns to Earth and starts reconnecting with her old persona.

Samuel L. Jackson plays Nick Fury before his days as the boss of S.H.I.E.LD. The story is set in the 1990s when superheroes where a novel notion the powers-that-be labored to keep under wraps.

Jude Law plays Carol’s Kree commander/mentor, who’s always making her prove herself. Ben Mendelsohn plays the chief of the Skrulls, shape-shifters who have been leading terrorist attacks. Lashana Lynch is an old human friend, and Annette Bening has a dual role as a scientist and the living embodiment of the Kree artificial intelligence.

“Captain Marvel” boasts both plenty of action and a hefty hero with a compelling journey. It’s tough to know yourself, especially when so many people have competing ideas.

Bonus features on Blu-ray are quite good. There’s a feature-length commentary track by directors/screenwriters Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, as well as an introduction. Plus six deleted scenes, a gag reel and the following documentary featurettes: “Becoming a Super Hero,” “Big Hero Moment,” “The Origin of Nick Fury,” “The Dream Team,” “The Skrulls and the Kree:” and “Hiss-terical Cat-titude.”



Thursday, June 6, 2019

Review: "The Secret Life of Pets 2"

"The Secret Life of Pets 2" is not made for me, or thee -- unless one of us is under the age of 10. In which case, I'll endeavor to keep the cursing in this review to a bare minimum.

Like the original film from three years ago, "Pets" is specifically and intentionally made for little kids to enjoy, and for parents to endure. During the screening whenever I started sighing or feeling my thoughts start to wander, I just looked over at my two boys, smiling and laughing their heads off.

Eighty-six minutes of intensely cute and predictable storytelling is not too much to endure for your children.

If anything, I like the sequel a little more than the first one. It splits up the action into three separate storylines, so just when one is getting a little tiresome it switches things up.

The main role of Max, voiced by Louis C.K., is taken over by Patton Oswalt (for #MeToo reasons). He's an excitable Jack Russell Terrier who's resistant to change. Duke, the big shaggy doofus voiced by Eric Stonestreet whose introduction into Max's household formed the basis of the first film's story, gets relegated to the backburner here.

A few years have passed and their woman has married and produced a baby, Liam, to whom the dogs are very attached. When the New York City family goes off for a vacation in the country at an uncle's farm, it sets all sorts of activities in motion.

Gidget, the cultured Pomeranian (voice of Jenny Slate) who pines for Max, is put in charge of his favorite toy, Busy Bee, but quickly loses it into the intimidating lair of the old lady downstairs who has a literal regiment of scary cats. To infiltrate this den of hiss, Gidget must disguise herself as a feline and learn the ways of the cat from her too-cool neighbor, Chloe (Lake Bell).

Meanwhile, uppity rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart), who's really committed to playing super-hero dress-up with his girl, goes on his own mission. Befriending a Shih Tzu named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), they rescue an albino tiger from a nasty circus owner (Nick Kroll). Then, of course, they've got to find somewhere to stash it.

Out on the farm, Duke and Max are impressed with the farm dog, Rooster, voiced with delicious gruffness by Harrison Ford. He's everything they are not: self-reliant, authoritative and master of other critters.

Rather than a typical movie dynamic, where Rooster resents the urban invaders and then gradually warms up to them, the country dog is more or less benevolent from the start. He's clearly annoyed by their lack of skill in essential dogginess, like herding sheep and howling at the moon. But Rooster sees Max not as a city slicker to be dismissed so much as a youngster in need of tutoring.

It's about as close to a blue state/red state bonding as we're apt to see in the movies these days.

Director Chris Renaud and Brian Lynch continue to ride their "Minions" formula: slapstick mixed with fart jokes and doe eyes. It's unsophisticated filmmaking for a kiddie audience, nothing more and nothing less.

You can bemoan that this type of movie exists, or pony up to the ticket booth and make your young'uns happy.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Review: "Dark Phoenix"

I still think the first iteration of the X-Men would’ve done a great job with the Dark Phoenix Saga, one of the most storied arcs in comic book history. That cast of the superhero outcast mutants -- Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, Patrick Stewart -- felt the most emotionally true of any super-franchise.

You could feel their sense of alienation and conflict about whether they should serve the humans who hated their kind, or dominate them.

But I’m pleased to say the “new” X-Men still pull it off with plenty of emotional and action oomph. “Dark Phoenix” will reportedly be the final film in the series produced by 20th Century Fox, though my guess is eventually it’ll be merged with the Marvel Comics Universe (MCU) the way Spider-Man was, and we’ll see more X-films with yet another cast.

The Dark Phoenix story is well-known to even casual comic book fans. Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), a telepath/telekinetic and protégé to Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), is irradiated with alien energy during a rescue mission. She seemingly dies but is resurrected with fantastically heightened powers, dubbed Phoenix like the mythical bird that rises from its ashes.

But great power brings great temptation, and Phoenix begins to use her abilities for less-than-benevolent purposes. Eventually her own team of X-Men turns on her, seeing her as a threat to their hard-fought peace with humans.

This film time-jumps to 1992, seven years after “X-Men: Apocalypse.” The X-Men have become accepted by mainstream society and hailed as heroes. Professor X has gotten bit drunk on his status, both figuratively and literally, swilling from omnipresent tumblers and enjoying a direct phone line to the President.

“The way the women keep saving the men around here, you might consider changing the name to X-Women,” one veteran needles him.

After the accident, Jean goes searching for clues to her long-buried past, and the terrible accident that killed her parents and brought her into Professor X’s charge at his school for mutant children. She gets angry when she learns the truth, things escalate, and collateral damage soon becomes an existential threat that brings multiple power centers to bear.

Writer/director Simon Kinberg, a veteran producer and screenwriter directing his first feature (after Bryan Singer exited the franchise in a cloud of controversy), has a good eye for action scenes, though some of the talkie scenes are rather clanky.

(He also knows how to shoot Turner to beneficial effect in a way her myriad “Game of Thrones” directors never seemed to grasp, aka chin down.)

Michael Fassbender turns up again as Magneto, conflicted former villain now maintaining an uneasy peace with humans. Other familiar faces are Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, who shoots energy beams from his eyes and is Jean’s beau; Alexandra Shipp as weather-controlling Storm; and Evan Peters as max-speed Quicksilver.

And then, of course there’s the “blue trio”: Jennifer Lawrence as shape-shifting Mystique; Kodi Smit-McPhee as teleportation devil Nightcrawler; and Nicholas Hoult as the Jekyll/Hyde scientist/monster, Beast. It’s weird that it never struck me before they all share the exact same shade of midnight sapphire.

Jessica Chastain is the chief villain as Vuk, the icy blonde leader of a mysterious alien race known as the D’Bari that has a nefarious interest in Phoenix and her dark power.

There’s not a lot of subtext, humor or wasted energy in “Dark Phoenix,” just a straight-ahead thrill-seeker about a woman everyone had dismissed as timid who finds she enjoys the taste of power too much. I admit that if I had that kind of cosmic control in my hands, I’d be inclined to command some more X-Men movies.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Reeling Backward: "The Last Hurrah" (1958)

Despite being so closely associated with Westerns and, to a lesser extent, war/adventure films, John Ford did in fact make straight-up dramas -- and even a romance or two. "The Last Hurrah," a box office disappointment that has been largely forgotten today, is the unlikeliest of John Ford pictures: a political drama.

The story is still a familiar archetype we often saw with Ford's John Wayne collaborations: an aging leader/loner looks back on his life with both pride and regret, and resolves to ride off into the sunset doing what he knows best. Instead of a gunslinger, though, Spencer Tracy's protagonist is Frank Skeffington, mayor of an unnamed New England city who is running for his fifth term in office.

Frank had previously been governor, too, so it seems apparent to everyone but him that he has nothing left to prove. But Frank has been running things for so long that he can't imagine ever giving up the reins of power willingly. He enjoys charging about town in a Cadillac limousine equipped with a police siren so he can run all the red lights, a small group of loyal henchmen always at his side.

Despite telling his nephew, Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter), that this will be his final campaign, a "last hurrah" -- pronounced "hoo-RAH" in New Englandese -- we suspect that if he had won Frank would be saying the same thing again four years down the road.

Spoiler alert: Frank loses the election in the end. And not just to a talented up-and-comer, but to a spectacularly unqualified young nimrod put up by the bankers, church leaders and newspaper publishers who have dogged him for decades. It's the ultimate humiliation, and Frank succumbs to a heart attack soon after.

Still, this is an ending comparable to the cowboy shootist dying in the ultimate gunfight: he may lose, but he goes out on his own terms.

Frank, lying abed clinging to his last moments of life, is visited by one of his longtime enemies who opines that maybe the old politician, having just made his last confession, would have done things different if he could. "Like hell I would," Frank bleats, opening his eyes just long enough for one last act of defiance.

Frank has lived with a chip on his shoulder his whole life, and it became his defining trait. Born in the town's Irish-Americans slums, he crawled and scraped his way up the ladder, using charm and grit in place of money and prestige. The old Yankee bluebloods who controlled the city's levers of power for centuries resent the Irish upstarts -- just as their children will one day resent the browner wave of newcomers.

The screenplay by Frank S. Nugent was based on the book by Edwin O'Connor, who didn't take much trouble to hide the fact it was a portrait of Boston mayor James Michael Curley, a notorious crook. He served four terms as mayor, including five months of his last while in prison for mail fraud.

Curley was out of politics but still alive when "The Last Hurrah" came out. He threatened the studio, not because he worried about an unflattering portrait but because he harbored delusions of selling the rights to his life for a biographical movie. Columbia Pictures paid him $25,000 to go away -- one last grift for the shady pol.

The film takes pains not to depict Frank as explicitly corrupt. We never witness him using his powers for evil or self-interested ends, though he's not above a little old-fashioned light blackmail.

In one instance, he persuades a prominent banker (Basil Rathbone) to release loans for a new low-income housing development by pretending to appoint his idiot son (O.Z. Whitehead, complete with a spectacular lisp) as fire marshal, threatening to release photographs of him looking ridiculous in a white firefighter's hat and yachting outfit.

Still, Frank lives in a magnificent mansion that would seem out of sorts with a public servant's salary. (Mayors did not usually have official residences back in that day -- Curley did not, and his ostentatious abode was the subject of much controversy.) Frank also thinks nothing of throwing a $1,000 gift (disguised as coming from his deceased wife) to a new widow whose husband left her in a poor state.

The story doesn't say much about Frank's politics or positions, though it's pretty clear he's a Democrat Catholic while the bluebloods are Republicans and largely Protestant. In the few bits of dialogue relating directly to his acts as mayor, Frank references different statues that competing constituencies wanted to place in a prominent spot, and he compromised by picking a female saint.

Frank's biggest nemesis is Amos Force (John Carradine), publisher of the chief local newspaper; the men openly despise each other with a lifetime's worth of enmity. It seems Amos fired Frank's mother when she worked for him as a maid, "stealing" a few pieces of leftover fruit. Frank can't let go of the affront, and Amos can't believe someone so low rose so high.

This complicates things with Adam, Frank's nephew, since he is the star sports columnist for that same newspaper. Frank invites him to follow him along during his last campaign, not as a journalist but an adored relative. The reasoning is never provided, though I might surmise he hopes to rope Adam into going into the family business someday.

Certainly his own son will not. Frank Jr. (Arthur Walsh) is a happy-go-lucky playboy who seems to do little more than go on dates with girls -- two at a time, even -- and seek out hot bebop music. It's clear how disappointed Frank is in his son, though he takes pains not to show it to the kid.

Adam's character is really a piece of storytelling furniture that never goes anywhere. He doesn't actually seem to follow along during the campaign very much, and his few scenes away from the action detract from the goings-on. He has arguments with his wife, Maeve (Dianne Foster), over father's contempt for Frank.

His only really interesting interaction is when he leaves a funeral in a huff, upset that Frank's presence attracted hundreds of people to the wake of a man who, by all accounts, had few friends and was an ungrateful skinflint. But someone points outs to him that even though Frank effectively turns the funeral into a political event, it's better than the widow having to grieve in an empty room.

The various side characters and hangers-on are a motley bunch of comic stereotypes. There's "Cuke" Gillen (James Gleason) and John Gorman (Pat O'Brien), hard-nosed types and old-school ward heelers who know how to grease some palms and get the vote out.

By far the most colorful is "Ditto" Boland (Edward Brophy), a bald little dynamo of obsequiousness, who always refers to the mayor as "His Honor" and seems to serve no other function than to follow Frank around, fetch and tote, and mellow out the old man's volatile moods. He even buys a peaked hat identical to the boss', which they refer to as a "hamburger."

Charles B. Fitzsimons plays the election opponent, Kevin McCluskey, a war veteran and family man who looks good so long as he doesn't open up his hole. In one hilarious bit, they shoot a live TV promo depicting his family life. His wife is so camera-struck she reads her lines woodenly from a cue card, and a mutt brought in from the dog pound to round out the portrait won't stop barking.

Tracy is comfortable and cantankerous in the role, showing us a man who is genuinely great but also ridden with flaws and faults. He's a brilliant retail politician, eschewing radio and TV for old-fashioned rallies and pressing of the flesh. But Frank has trouble seeing the forest for the trees, looking at the odds stacked up against him and seeing them as just more obstacles to be overcome rather than bellwethers pointing him toward a comfortable, content retirement.

One of the best lessons I've learned later in life is that everything has a beginning, middle and end. The start is usually a struggle, so when you get to the middle you revel in it so much it's often very hard to see the end staring you in the face. When you let your experiences define you, rather than the other way round, the letdown becomes inevitable.