Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Review: "Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw"

My gosh, it just keeps going and going, doesn’t it?

Officially the runtime of “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” -- and yes, Hollywood title insanity has reached the point of two ampersands -- is two hours and 15 minutes. But it feels much, much longer. If it’s possible to be bored by a movie in the middle of slo-mo explosions, then here it is.

For my money, the secondary characters of Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) were the least interesting of the F&F universe. The latter is a thief/mercenary turned British MI6 agent, while the former is a badass agent of the Diplomatic Security Service (Google it, it’s a real thing) who is often loaned out to the CIA.

They clashed in some of the earlier movies, or so I’m told, those movies coming so fast and so furious -- and ever further afield from a simple story of street racers -- that they long ago became a blur in my mind.

The gig is they’re brought together on a job, and spend that 135 minutes sneering and snarling at each other, in between a whole lot of beat-downs, the aforementioned explosions and some occasional car chases. Of course, we know they’re going to bond in the end.

Watching this movie play out is an exercise in foregone conclusions. We know there will be some early double-crosses. There will be a beautiful woman they can fight about. There will be a bad guy who somehow seems more than a match for two action-movie heroes. And Dwayne Johnson will wear T-shirts three sizes too small for him, with one obligatory shirtless scene for the two weeks he was doing extreme water weight cutting.

I had high hopes for Johnson once. He was doing quirky comedic roles in “Be Cool” and developing into an interesting performer. Somewhere along the way he got obsessed with being a 1950s-style screen muscleman. His body has become a grossly swollen mass of veins. His star persona is indelibly linked to freakishness now.

I guess it gets box office, but he’s lost something along the way -- realism and relatability, to start.

Vanessa Kirby plays a rogue MI6 agent accused of stealing CT17, aka Snowflake, a deadly virus that could kill everyone on Earth. Actually, she was set up by the evil Eteon corporation, and injected herself with the virus to keep it from falling into their hands. Hobbs and Shaw are brought in to locate her and secure the MacGuffin.

Idris Elba plays Brixton Lore, a cybernetically enhanced villain who actually refers to himself as “the bad guy.” Later on he brags to our boys that he’s “black Superman.” Certainly he seems to have the upper hand in their early encounters.

I usually enjoy Elba in just about anything, but he doesn’t see to be having much fun here. Before every fight he says something cryptic and then his eyes briefly glow amber to let us know he’s Terminator Lite or something.

Director David Leitch piles on the shaky-cam like a 4-year-old put in charge of dispensing the whipped cream. Screenwriters Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce ladle in copious one-liners, our two bald badasses growling in that strangled croak all action heroes seem to use now.

Where will it all end? Are we going to keep getting Fast & Furious movies -- and now spinoffs -- until absolutely everyone in the world objects? As long as people keep buying tickets, or Johnson’s pecs finally fall or fast cars are outlawed.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Between the Lines" (1977)

"Between the Lines" qualifies for COFF status -- Criminally Overlooked or Forgotten Films, the unofficial series I've long noodled with to spotlight movies most people have never heard of. It's not a great film, but it is a very good one and, more importantly, it's an interesting one, both culturally and in terms of cinematic history.

It recently got a handsome Blu-ray reissue from Cohen Media Group that's definitely worth checking out.

It was the second feature helmed by Joan Micklin Silver, a female director when there weren't many people who could say that. She made a small splash two years earlier with "Hester Street," a story about turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants that earned Carol Kane a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Silver would go on to direct "Chilly Scenes of Winter," "Crossing Delancy" and "Loverboy," among others, and worked steadily into the early 2000s.

"Between the Lines" is a movie about journalism but also how the counterculture of the 1960s morphed into complacency during the '70s. It's a snapshot of Baby Boomers as they embraced the full adulthood of their middle- to late-20s, in much the same was as "The Big Chill" caught them a few years later settling down and "Grand Canyon" ruminated on their middle years.

It features a pretty astounding cast of then-unknown actors including Jeff Goldblum, John Heard, Lindsay Crouse, Jill Eikenberry, Stephen Collins, Marilu Henner, Bruno Kirby, Gwen Welles, Raymond J. Barry, Richard Cox, Joe Morton and Lane Smith.

It's part sex comedy, part ensemble piece, part newspaper drama.

The setting is The Back Bay Mainline, an alternative weekly newspaper in Boston that began in 1969 as a rabble-rousing call to arms -- student protesters turned journalists. Seven years later with the Vietnam War over, the Mainline is going through an identity crisis, along with its newsroom staff. Most readers now consume it for its cultural coverage of rock music and film, along with a few investigative pieces that don't punch at the same level as they used to.

The film quintessentially captures the spirit of the alt-weekly culture -- cramped offices piled high with old papers and files, movie and concert posters, a rabbit warren of constant activity and heady interaction.

Nobody is married or has kids, so the paper becomes everyone's de facto family. They bicker and smoke joints and sleep around with each other, and also do some reporting.

Silver had once worked for The Village Voice, and screenwriter Fred Barron was a veteran of The Phoenix and The Real Paper, so the story sings with the authentic voice and rhythm of this world. Like "Bull Durham," it's the sort of movie that you can tell comes from a place of not mere observation but lived experience.

I never worked at an alt-weekly, though I had friends who did and got a few pieces into weeklies in Orlando and Indianapolis, and hung around their offices enough to feel the vibe. I also started at a small community weekly that we eventually turned into a daily: they doubled the reporting staff when they hired me.

Our office was in a (slightly) refurbished paint storage warehouse, the taint of turpentine still lingering. There wasn't even a newsroom per se, the reporters having desks in the hallway on the way to the sales department. I worked 70 hours a week for $17,000 a year, barely above the minimum wage at that time. I won't say I loved every minute of it, but I learned a lot of about journalism and about life.

The Mainline is successful, which is to say it has a presence in Boston -- at least the seedier parts -- and rumors of it being bought up by a larger media outfit are constantly in the air. The staff works for virtual slaves wages, though.

(Some things never change, the newspaper racket being very remunerative for owners and executives, not so great for journalists who eventually want to buy homes or send their kids to college.)

Max Arloft, the zany rock music critic played by Jeff Goldblum, probably has the biggest following at the paper but only takes home $75 a week. By his own reckoning he doesn't work very hard, but it's still less than minimum wage for an ostensibly full-time gig.

Max tools around in a mechanic's jumpsuit underneath a bright red sports jacket, hitting people up for drinks or joints or a few bucks. Both parties are aware of the true nature of these "loans." He's not above dropping his name at a bar to strangers if it'll get him a free beer.

There's a wonderful scene where Max is giving a tired talk to some college coeds on the future of rock 'n' roll, and the real purpose of the endeavor is so transparent that he finally gives up and just announces his phone number to the rapt women.

The star of the paper, or at least he thinks he is, is Harry Lucas (John Heard), the chief investigative reporter. He won a big award a few years ago for a series on poor conditions at nursing homes, but nothing much really changed and he's mostly skating on past glory these days. His chief rival for top dog status, Michael (Stephen Collins), left the paper a few months ago to work on a book, and Harry is clearly tempted to follow.

Michael is sponging off of his girlfriend, Laura (Gwen Welles), a columnist, living at her apartment and making her take care of his dog while he whacks away at a typewriter all day. A smooth WASP-y presence, Michael has already given up untucked plaids for oxford shirts and sports coats with jeans, a look reputedly pioneered by Lorne Michaels of "Saturday Night Live" fame that bridged the gap from hippie to yuppie.

About halfway through the movie, Michael sells the rights to his book and immediately transforms into (or is finally revealed as) an egotistical sellout, reveling in being the center of attention and chatting about "the movie rights." In another 20 years he'll be a talking head on cable TV news.

He automatically assumes that Laura will move with him to New York to carry on the duties of supportive significant other, while also beneficently opining that the Mainline could use a Big Apple perspective column.

Lindsay Crouse is Abbie, the chief photographer and on again/off again girlfriend of Harry. She's clearly in charge of their relationship, and it irks Harry to no end. With his schleppy hair and cute-guy glasses, he's the sort of person to knock committed relationships while desperately wanting one. Abbie pops over to his place one night to sleep with him, ignores him when Harry says he loves her, and is out dancing with other guys the next day.

"Between the Lines" is illuminating for its portrait of male/female relationships in the 1970s -- personally, professionally and where those two areas blur. There's a constant refrain of the men talking over the women, or even substituting their own voices: "I think what Laura really means is..." The women vary between craving independence and their own identity (Abbie) and knuckling under after a fit of rebellion (Laura).

In the latter case, this means Laura going home with Harry after she feels ignored by Michael, leading to an awkward bedroom encounter. It seems pretty obvious the two men are just using Laura as a tool to hash out their own antagonism.

The other notable female character is Lynn (Jill Eikenberry), who acts as secretary/central hub/den mother at the Mainline office. There's a terrific scene where the three women hang out together, dancing and fretting about boys but also the dynamic of the newspaper and its mission.

(Thus meeting the standards of the useful-but-often-misleading Bechdel Test.)

We get the sense that Lynn started out as another one of the writers but ended up shouldering the administrative duties because no one else wanted to. She is in many ways the true soul of the newspaper. When push comes to shove and the Mainline is finally sold to the minor media baron Roy Walsh (Lane Smith) -- who is perfectly willing to can the entire editorial staff unless they toe the line -- it is she who preempts him by quitting first.

The hard-charging true believer editor, Frank (Jon Korkes), who talks a good game about the importance of a free and independent press, cans Harry at Walsh's directive rather than "adding my own job to the pile." The rest seem to swallow this, and the paper's transformation from rebel iconoclast to quirky product of the mainstream is complete.

Other background players include Joe Morton as Ahmed, a jovial and flirty presence; Lewis J. Stadlen as Stanley, the buttoned-up sales manager who clashes with the reporters while secretly wanting to be part of their crowd; Michael J. Pollard as The Hawker, who sells the paper on the streets and sleeps under a pinball machine at the office, essentially acting as their mascot; and Bruno Kirby as David, a timid young reporter who wants to follow in the footsteps of Harry and Michael.

The movie doesn't focus on the process of journalism much, though I liked the portrayal of a rambling budget meeting where that week's stories are pitched. Harry works half-heartedly on a piece about sex workers, where we meet Marilu Henner as a surprisingly self-aware stripper. She and Abbie end up bonding, and Harry is annoyed that the photographer asks far better questions than his.

The only other story we really follow is David attempting to expose a local music promoter as the source of a lucrative series of bootleg tapes. Max already knows who it is, but is too lazy to do anything with it.

There's a fair amount of sex and skin in "Between the Lines," and trailers for the movie play this up pretty heavily. Welles has a sexy scene where she emerges nude from the shower and begins to apply makeup in the kitchen mirror where Michael is working, then pretends to be surprised when he reacts lustily.

Goldblum is also an earthy, charismatic presence as the hedonistic Max. At one point he is beset by a pair of groupies both named Annie. Later he engages in some butt-bumping dancing with them as Southside Johnny Lyon croons the night away, which is perhaps the film's most iconic moment.

Smart and sexy, "Between the Lines" reminds me a little of "Everybody Wants Some!!", a recent film I absolutely adored. At first glance it doesn't seem to be about much of anything, until you realize it's a  little bit about everything.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Video review: "Long Shot"

Let’s get this out of the way first: no, in real life women who look like Charlize Theron do not fall for guys who look like Seth Rogen. Unless, of course, they actually are Seth Rogen.

Well, I guess Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley were a real thing. But let’s stipulate that outside of showbiz -- where outsized talent, wealth and fame tend to kick the usual laws of attractiveness out  the window -- these sort of pairings do not naturally occur.

But that’s the main dynamic of “Long Shot,” in which a nobody loser falls for an incredibly ambitious and beautiful woman, and she somehow returns his affection. In fact, she’s not just your workaday looker; Charlotte Field is actually the U.S. Secretary of State and running for the big job: POTUS.

Rogen plays Fred Flarsky, a high-minded but bottom-feeding journalist who finds himself out of work and running into Charlotte, who babysat for him back when they were teens. He had it bad for her, and it doesn’t take much to rekindle his desire. She offers him a job as speechwriter, he accepts, and they start jet-setting around the world, reconnecting and love blooming.

Director Jonathan Levine and screenwriters Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah pepper the background with interesting supporting characters.

Bob Odenkirk play the current president, a former TV actor who sees the White House as a springboard to features films. Andy Serkis is a nasty media mogul who sees a strong independent contender as a personal affront. And O’Shea Jackson is Fred’s best friend, a successful entrepreneur who offers some unexpected insight.

There are some goofy aspects to “Long Shot,” but I was surprised that the beauty-and-the-geek pairing is actually the best thing about it.

Bonus features consist entirely of 11 documentary featurettes. They are:
  • “All’s Fair in Love & Politics: Making Long Shot”
  • “Seven Minutes in Heaven: Seth + Charlize Uncensored”
  • “Secret Weapons”
  • “Epic Flarsky Falls”
  • “Prime Minister Steward O-Rama”
  • “Hanging with Boyz II Men”
  • “Just Kinda Crushing It!”
  • “The First Mister: A Portrait”
  • “An Imperfect Union”
  • “Love & Politics”
  • “Friends Like These”



Thursday, July 25, 2019

Review: "The Farewell"

In this age of (some) people constantly fretting about cultural misappropriation, we sometimes forget that homogenous cultures can seem very strange rather than alluring to outsiders. Things that are innocuous to one people can be incredibly off-putting to others. Stuff that we do every day can seem utterly bizarre to someone else who has never lived that experience.

“The Farewell” is a heartfelt Chinese-American story about a young woman who’s lived in New York City since she was a little girl traveling back to her homeland after she learns that her grandmother is dying of lung cancer. She’s astonished to find out that her entire family is keeping the diagnosis secret from her beloved “Nai Nai.”

Turns out, this is not at all unusual for traditional Chinese families. They believe that it is not the disease itself that kills somebody but their giving up all hope when they find out about it. So they simply do not tell the dying person about their condition.

This can go so far as enlisting doctors and other medical professionals to lie to their patients, falsifying test results and so on. It’s essentially society-sanctioned terminal gaslighting.

If this sounds too amazing to be true, consider that writer/director Lulu Wang’s own family provided the source material. “The Farewell” is a largely autobiographical tale about an American woman who finds herself at odds with her family, but ultimately comes to embrace their traditions.

Billi (singer/actress Awkwafina) is a 30ish woman for whom her family has high hopes. Her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), emigrated to the States when she was 6 years old. Although she speaks the language reasonably well and has made regular trips back to the homeland, she’s a pretty typical Millennial, a bit overly self-involved but basically a good egg.

Nai Nai (a radiant Zhao Shuzhen) and Billi have a close relationship, despite the distance between NYC and Changdun. They talk often on the phone, with Nai Nai teasingly calling her as “stupid child” despite beaming about her intelligence and promise.

We don’t learn too much about Billi’s life before the story moves to China. She lives alone and is strapped for cash, and has just been turned down for a Guggenheim Fellowship to continue her musical studies. She doesn’t seem to have close friends or a significant other.

Things really get rolling when the entire family gathers at Nai Nai’s place in order to bid farewell. To round out the pretense, they have even invented a fictional marriage to take place between Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Han), and his Japanese girlfriend (Aoi Mizuhara).

Like her own parents, her uncle Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) long ago moved to a foreign land to pursue a career. The faux gathering is the first time everyone has been home at the same time in 25 years.

Nai Nai is charming but domineering, insisting on being the queen bee of everything. Of course, she quickly overrules a small marriage ceremony and organizes a major reception. Everyone’s worried that Americanized Billi will spill the beans, but it turns out her relations have a harder time masking their emotions.

This the rare movie I wished was longer. At 98 minutes, we don’t get quite enough time to flesh out Billi’s relationships, especially with her mom and dad. She and Jian have one pivotal exchange where we learn that the dutiful wife and mother harbors her own conflicts and dashed dreams; she chides Billi for her self-centeredness while offering her own life as a warning.

“The Farewell” is a pretty conventional tale with few surprises – well, with the exception of one, which I’ll not give away.

The film contains a lot of scenes of food and eating, and it made me wonder if the Chinese use the concept of “comfort food” – simple but satisfying dishes that make you yearn for hearth and home. Certainly this is the cinematic version of that.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Video review: "Hellboy"

A reboot of the “Hellboy” franchise seemed doomed from the start, but intriguing.

After all, the two movies directed by Guillermo del Toro based on the comic book antihero did not exactly smash down any doors at the box office. And while many people are fans of them, I am not. They fall into the classic “better idea than the movie they made” category. When the studio couldn’t get GDT to commit to a third film, and star Ron Perlman said he wouldn’t appear without him, that led to a predictable reboot pathway.

When I heard it would be R-rated and feature Milla Jovovich as an ancient evil sorceress, and star David Harbour of “Stranger Things” fame as the titular devil-turned-hero, it seemed a sufficient enough departure to warrant granting a wait-and-see pose.

Then I saw. Hoo boy.

The 2019 “Hellboy” is a whirring sink disposal of a garbage movie. Literally nothing about it works. It’s not funny when it’s clearly trying to be, and hilarious when it wants to be serious. Harbour’s take on the character is somehow both grating and forgettable. It’s a pale shadow of Perlman’s laconic, zero-f-words-to-give turn.

Screenwriter Andrew Cosby and director Neil Marshall rehash Hellboy’s origin story, in which he was summoned by Nazis to unleash hell on earth but rescued by kindly Brits and turned into an investigator/hatchet man by the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.

He’s still got that cool look: fire engine red skin, forked tail, sanded-down head horns and an oversized right arm that’s basically a stone piledriver. Part action hero, part exorcist, Hellboy finds himself betrayed by those he serves and tempted by apocalyptic visions in which he wields the ultimate power.

The story is a confusing web having to do with the Blood Queen (Jovovich), who was seemingly slain by King Arthur a millennia ago, returning to cast her dark arts again. There’s also a jaguar lycanthrope, a trio of ugly giants and other typical fantasy film beasties.

Weirdly, the thing I most remember about the movie is Harbour repeatedly moaning in pain whenever he’s beset in combat. Even seemingly trivial episodes, like sliding down a small slope, sets off another round of bleating.

It’s one thing to have your superheroes exhibit some vulnerability, but this “Hellboy” wears – and yells – his failings for all to see.

Bonus features are anchored by an expansive three-part making-of documentary “Tales of the Hunt: Hellboy Reborn.” There are also deleted scenes and previsualizations of some of the FX heavy scenes.



Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Review: "The Art of Self-Defense"

I admit I’m not entirely sure what to make of “The Art of Self-Defense.” My first thought was that it’s like a cross of “The Lobster” and “Kick-Ass,” a dour existentialist parable mixed with a goofy martial arts flick.

It’s a comedy, or at least it thinks it’s a comedy. Opinions may vary.

Certainly, there are not very many laugh-out-loud moments in the movie. Or any. I think I got all the way up to a wry smirk a couple of times.

Jesse Eisenberg plays an anxious wimp who toughens himself up through karate under the tutorship of a charismatic sensei whose quiet ease obscures a maniacal malevolence. Think of the evil teacher in “The Karate Kid” -- “Mercy is for the weak!” -- after he’s had a talking-to by the HR department.

I found the movie often infuriating but also kind of enjoyable.

My main frustration is it’s part of this growing trend of movies, perhaps most notably with “The Lobster,” where actors deliberately deliver their lines in flat, inflectionless tones.

It’s almost like they’re reciting their dialogue rather than speaking it spontaneously. The characters announce themselves instead of exchanging their thoughts.

I think some people in Hollywood believe this is an aesthetic, when really it’s a crutch that’s annoying as hell. It puts the artifice of movie-making front and center. Mostly it serves to keep the characters at a distance.

Writer/director Riley Stearns seems to want to make a grand statement about the modern state of masculinity. It’s curious, then, that he chose to set the story in the mid-1990s or so.

Eisenberg plays Casey Davies, a meek drone in the accounting department of an unnamed large company. He tries to ingratiate himself into break room conversations but is brusquely cast out by his fellows. He has an inexpensive car, a small apartment and a dachshund, and that seems to be everything in his life.

One night while walking to the store to get some dog food -- ‘Why would he walk when he has a car?’ you may ask, though Stearns does not -- he is severely beaten and robbed by some motorcycle hoodlums, seemingly at random.

While recovering he walks by a seedy karate storefront, wanders in and is impressed by the sensei, who holds a hypnotic thrall over his students. He’s less teaching chops and kicks than selling an ethos of self-regard, and Casey is desperate to buy in.

Sensei -- the only name he goes by -- is played by Alessandro Nivola, who casually insults people while purporting to help them. He repeatedly derides Casey for his lack of masculine traits, from his “feminine-sounding” name to favoring small dogs and adult contemporary music. Sensei instructs him to start listening to heavy metal, and Casey begins to mirror the aggressive behavior he’s despised in other men.

After being awarded a yellow belt, Casey is so thrilled he makes a trip to the grocery store and buys only yellow foods, and yearns to wear his cloth karate belt everywhere he goes. This is the high-water mark, comedy-wise.

He starts to bond with other students, including an older man (David Zellner) who shows him the ropes and Anna (Imogen Poots), who leads the kids’ classes and would seem to be the best martial artist besides Sensei. Sensei smoothly observes that Anna will never reach her full masculine potential since she’s a woman.

Things go on. Casey hears tell of a mysterious “night class” with hardcore students and yearns to join. He becomes intrigued with the red or black stripes some students have on their belts, signifying achievements that largely have to do with loyalty to Sensei.

If you think about it, a lot of human activity shares aspects with cultism. There are explicit hierarchies and physical totems doled out as rewards. They only hold what value we choose to invest in them.

I don’t know how much cinematic value there is in “The Art of Self-Defense.” It’s the story of a weak man who learns to get stronger, but finds that strength does not equal happiness as he was taught. That’s an important, but rather basic, lesson on the road to true manhood.

Twenty years ago “Fight Club” spurred a lot of conversations about masculinity, even though not many people thought it was a very good movie at the time. We’ll see on this one.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Bad Day at Black Rock" (1955)

There are no close-ups in "Bad Day at Black Rock," a film that deliberately keeps the characters at arm's length. Close-ups are sustenance to most film actors, who feel like mannequins put through their paces unless they get a chance to scowl and sob and seethe and otherwise use their marvelous faces to their full effect.

I imagine that acting in this film was like being on a forced diet.

"Bad Day" could be best described as a film noir Western. Director John Sturges started as an editor, then directed a lot of B-pictures until he broke into the A-list with this movie. He would go on to make "The Magnificent Seven," "The Great Escape" and "The Old Man and the Sea," among others.

The film has a very painterly quality, wide vistas filling in the backdrop as characters saunter and interact in the foreground. It's filled with bright desert colors, deep blues and browns, except for the main character who is a slab of black, like a null space in the middle of the frame.

Even if you haven't seen "Bad Day" you're probably aware of the premise. A one-armed stranger gets off a train in the middle of nowhere, a collection of a few shanties collectively known as Black Rock. It is the first time the train has stopped here in four years. His presence provokes strong resentment and suspicion among the townsfolk, especially after the newcomer starts poking around asking questions.

He doesn't say very much about himself, only giving his name -- John J. Macreedy -- and inquiring about the whereabouts of a local Japanese-American farmer named Komoko with whom he apparently has some business. The cowboys insist Komoko was interned at the start of World War II, and no one's heard from him since.

As the story takes place it is late 1945, a few months after the war has ended. We eventually learn that Macreedy has just mustered out of the Army, losing the use of his arm in Italy. And that, despite the loss of his limb, he's more than a match for any headstrong cowpunchers. They foolishly take his retiring ways as cowardice.

"I believe a man is as big as what'll make him mad. Nobody around here seems big enough to get you mad," observes Smith (Robert Ryan), a rancher who seems to have everyone quietly under his grip.

Macreedy is played by Spencer Tracy, who didn't particularly want to be in the movie and for people who didn't especially want him in it, either.

Millard Kaufman, who wrote the screenplay from an adaptation by Don McGuire based on a short story by Howard Breslin, thought Tracy was far too old to play an Army platoon commander. Tracy, then in his mid-50s and struggling badly with alcoholism that made him appear much older, had to be cajoled and threatened and finally fooled -- by the assurance that Alan Ladd was ready to step into the role -- before finally committing to play in it.

It's quite obvious that Tracy still has his left arm and is just tucking it into his suit pocket. Interestingly, nobody in the movie actually refers to Macreedy as missing his arm, though every description ever written about the movie contains that description. In one exchange two men opine about the stranger's "stiff arm" and if he's hiding something in his pocket, like booze or TNT.

Coley Trimble, the most antagonistic of the locals played by Ernest Borgnine, does accuse Macreedy of endangering the roads with his "one-armed driving," though that's a quibble as you can drive with one arm despite having two. This after intentionally running Macreedy off the road in the Jeep he had rented from the local gas station, run by the town's only female, Liz Worth (Anne Francis).

When he returns to town, Macreedy is accosted by Coley for his poor driving, and even offers to pay for the damages to the other man's car. It seems that nothing will rile up this odd duck of a stranger.

Except, of course, something eventually does. It appears Macreedy is finally ready to give up on his mysterious mission, gaining the help of the local veterinarian/mortician, Doc Velie (the inimitable Walter Brennan), who offers the stranger the use of his old hearse. In the meantime, Smith has leaned on Liz, so no more Jeep rentals are available.

Hector (Lee Marvin), the most mean-spirited of the cowboys, rips out the distributor cap and spark plug wires, stranding Macreedy. It seems he has asked one question too many and they're planning to off him when night comes.

Little do they know, the unarmed one-armed man in black has them right where he wants them. And now he's find a purpose in life that had been missing.

It would be interesting to see what this movie would look like if it was made today. No doubt it would quickly dissolve into a bloody shoot-em-up or broken bones melee. But other than Macreedy taking out the beefy Coley with some karate chops and flips, there really isn't much violence.

The film wound up turning a healthy profit and earning three Oscar nominations: for Sturges, Tracy and Kaufman.

Even at a quick 81-minute run time, "Bad Day" has an almost languid pace to it as the tension gradually builds and builds. The screenplay drops hints and forebodings, and we're able to figure things out long before the characters speak the words: Komoko was killed and his farm burned to the ground, and the entire town has been keeping this dark secret ever since.

In a way, it's as if all life stopped at Black Rock that day four years earlier, and everyone's just been waiting around for someone like Macreedy to show up. The secret has become their purpose for existence.

Other notable players include Dean Jagger as Tim Horn, the drunken sheriff who has lost all his grit; John Ericson as Pete Wirth, Liz' weakling, pompadoured brother who runs the local hotel; Russell Collins as Hastings, the timid telegraph and train station man; and Walter Sande as Sam, owner of the local diner who delivers one of the film's most remembered exchanges of dialogue in a strangled honk of a voice:
Sam: "What'll you have?"
Macreedy: "What've you got?"
"Chili and beans."
"Anything else?"
"Chili without beans."

"Bad Day at Black Rock" is short on story but long on mood and themes half-buried in the desert dust. It has the feeling of something both ancient and modern, as the last vestiges of the Old West resist an intruder it feels has no business there.

The town is a piece of history, trapped in amber and looking very much the same as it ever did, even though its heart died a long time ago. The ending has a hopeful note, that evil will be punished and Black Rock can start to heal. But my guess is Macreedy's was the last train stop before the tumbleweeds took over.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Video review: "Shazam!"

The DC superhero cinematic universe seems to be perpetually five to eight years behind the Marvel one. That’s when the MCU went into full-on comedy mode with “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

“Shazam!” appears to be the DC reaction, a yuk-it-up aimed squarely at older kids and teens.

It’s basically a remake of “Big,” with the protagonist as a cape-wearing do-gooder instead of a toy company executive. Asher Angel plays Billy Batson, a troubled 14-year-old who stumbles upon an ancient wizard and is granted the powers of Shazam.

When he says that word, he is transformed into a musclebound adult wearing a red-white-and-gold costume, played by Zachary Levi in a (obvious) padded suit. His powers are basically Superman Lite: strength, bullet-proof and flight – though it takes Billy a little longer to figure this last part out. He can even shoot electrical bolts from his hands.

His wingman is Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a smart kid on crutches who knows the superhero shtick better than Billy and tutors him on how to act the part. They quibble over alias names – Red Cyclone and Minster Philadelphia among the offerings –work on becoming YouTube stars, and eventually fight some evil.

Mark Strong plays the villain, Dr. Sivana, who has spent his entire life seeking the power of Shazam only to have it fall into another’s hands. Billy and Freddy, who live in a foster home, later recruit some of their fellow orphans to form a super-team, since that seems to be the thing these days.

Think about it: Marvel launches Iron Man, Captain America and Thor in solo movies, brings them together into groups, then cycles out the veterans and features newbies (Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Spider-Man) in their own flicks, and the cycle repeats. Ditto DC’s Superman, Wonder Woman et al.

I’m not sure if we’ll be seeing Shazam as a member of the Justice League anytime soon. But his goofy quips next to Batman’s nonstop brooding would be interesting.

Video extras are pretty good. There is a gag reel, deleted scenes, an exclusive motion comic and the following documentary shorts:
  • The Magical World of Shazam
  • Super Fun Zac
  • Carnival Scene Study
  • Shazamily Values
  • Who is Shazam?


Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Review: "Wild Rose"

"Why country?"
"Because it's three chords and the truth."

Sometimes a movie sets a beautiful table, knocks you out with a first course, and then the rest of the meal just doesn't sing like the early going did.

I liked a lot of things about "Wild Rose." It stars Jessie Buckley, an Irish actress (playing Scottish here) who was mesmerizing in "Beast" and has a had a few parts in things American audiences might have seen, like the HBO miniseries "Chernobyl." She's got a very raw way of acting, as if there is no filter between her emotions and ours.

Buckley is also very interesting to look at, with a wide lioness face that exists somewhere beyond conventional definitions of attractiveness, like a female version of Michael Shannon. You can't take your eyes off her.

The film has a novel premise: a youngish Scottish woman dreams of making it to Nashville and breaking out in the country music business. (Don't you dare call it country-and-western.) She's spent the last 10 years or so eking out a small following at the Grand Ole Opry of Glasgow, which I bet you didn't know was a thing.

Americans are so inundated with the conventional wisdom that everybody hates us we forget that most people in other parts of the world want to be us.

So fellows spitting out nearly indecipherable highland brogue put on embroidered shirts, boots and cowboy hats and boot-scoot it around the saloon in imitation/reverence of the Western ethos.

(Speaking of speaking: I wish the folks distributing this film had gone ahead and provided subtitles. Peoples divided by a common language and all that.)

As the story opens Rose-Lynn Harlan has spent the last year in prison on drug charges. She's eager to get back on stage; the opry management, less so. Her mother (the great Julie Walters) has been watching after her kids, ages 8 and 5 or so. She thinks Rose-Lynn should hang up her dreams of being a professional singer, get to work like she did and focus her energies on her kids.

This conflict forms the central, and really only, dynamic in the story.

Screenwriter Nicole Taylor and director Tom Harper balance these two values, showing the worth of both but also the pitfalls. If Rose-Lynn is to chase her dreams that means taking risks, long absences and leaving her children with others. If she settles into a secure maternal role, she'll be unhappy and hqf3 shown her kids a model of people giving up.

A potential solution presents itself: while working as a maid (the Brits call it "day woman") for a wealthy couple, Rose-Lynn suggests her employer, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) simply give her the few thousand quid she'd need to get to the States. From her perspective, Susannah is spending all her money on bottled water and other fancy stuff she doesn't really need. That doesn't go over so well, but a bond starts to form.

Rich people have connections: someone knows someone who knows Bob Harris, the legendary BBC broadcaster who likes country music. Maybe an introduction could be made? Or Susannah could recruit her fellow well-heeled sorts for a fundraising concert.

I won't give anything away of where the story ends up, though you can guess early on this is one of those "the journey is more important than the destination" type of tales.

That's well and good, but to sustain our interest the journey has to actually cover some mileage, either geographically or emotionally. This one seems to spin round and round on the same tired track.

The scenes between Buckley and Walters are fearsomely good, until they start repeating themselves. The interactions with the kids similarly find a groove that quickly becomes a rut.

Buckley appears to do her own singing, and she's terrific. She does a good imitation of female country singers, who often mix girly sweetness with big, audacious howls of pain and regret. It's mostly covers, though Rose-Lynn eventually gets around to writing some of her own stuff. Jack Arnold wrote the tunes.

Countless young people have struck out from their homes to pursue their dreams, with the locale depending on what those dreams are: Hollywood, New York, Paris, etc. The sad truth is very few make it. They end up waiting tables or surviving as a background player in other people's spotlight. Or they return home, knowing others will see it as a defeat.

In the end "Wild Rose" is a fairly conventional tale, aside from the exotic setting.

Review: "Stuber"

Since “Stuber” isn’t so much a coherent movie as a collection of (allegedly) comedic elements, let’s do this review in bullets.
  • Dave Bautista isn’t funny unless he’s trying not to be funny, a la the deadpan Drax in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” flicks.
  • Kumail Nanjiani plays a harried Uber driver… which he also played in his breakout hit, “The Big Sick.” Hopefully this will be his last such role, otherwise he will be the victim of the weirdest typecasting in Hollywood history. “I know, let’s get that rideshare guy!”
  • I can only imagine the pitch for this movie: “Let’s do a buddy cop movie where the tough one just had LASIK so he can’t see and the other guy’s a touchy/feely wimp.”
  • This isn’t actually how laser eye surgery works. You’re light-sensitive for a while, but can see clearly right after. If you’re functionally blind post-procedure, call an ambulance and a lawyer.
  • A prologue scene shows the partner of Vic (Bautista) getting killed due in part to his losing his thick glasses during a fight, hence the LASIK.
  • The title comes from the fact Nanjiani’s character is named Stu, and his noxious bro-dude boss (Jimmy Tatro) at his day job at a sporting goods store attaches the Uber appellation to mock him. Stu actually prefers “FIVESTAR,” the license plate on his electric Nissan Leaf. He’s obsessed with maintaining a high star rating from his riders, which doesn’t work out so well.
  • Vic crashes his car trying to hunt down the drug dealer, Teijo (Iko Uwais), who killed his partner while doing lots of parkour. Despite being unable to see well enough to work his phone the entire rest of the movie, Vic somehow manages to use it to summon Stu, and then basically kidnaps him for the rest of the way on “official police business.”
  • Stu repeatedly mentions that his car is a lease, especially as it gets progressively blasted apart by gunfire and crashes as the movie goes on. This seems unwise, since Uber drivers put a tremendous amount of miles on their cars and leases nearly always include strict mileage riders.
  • Stu’s dream is to save up enough money so he can partner up with his friend Becca (Betty Gilpin) on a women-only spin gym to be called “Spinsters,” which is an even worse moniker than Stuber. 
  • Stu secretly pines for Becca, and is prevented from hooking up with her by Vic forcing him to ferry him around, beating up criminals and otherwise treating the Bill of Rights like toilet paper.
  • Vic is having problems relating to his daughter (Natalie Morales), because he’s always about the job and never there. Clichéd Screenwriting 101 courtesy of Tripper Clancy.
  • Bautista is an intriguing physical specimen for the screen. He seems twice as wide as a normal human, could arguably claim to be a member of any race, and has a scant, mangy head of hair that seems to be at least 40% Toppik. He actually looks more normal in the Drax getup.
  • While otherwise having the look and feel of a slightly cheeky comedy, the movie is rated “R” for short bursts of violence and peen. 
  • Yes, I should’ve said “bullet points” at the beginning of this review, but since it’s a surprisingly bloody shoot-em-up, that was a joke. Not a very good one, I’ll admit. But still funnier than anything in “Stuber.”

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Video review: "Little"

If there’s such a thing as “failing upward” in showbiz, then “Little” is it.

Hollywood would seem to be the consummate meritocracy. You make good movies that make money, people will like you and you’ll get to keep doing it. Make three bombs in a row – or, if you’re a female director, just one – and it’s a Hulu series for you.

Marsai Martin was just 10 years old when she pitched the idea of this movie, which is basically a remake of “Big” with Tom Hanks in reverse, to one of the producers on her TV show “Blackish.” Not only is she the star, but now 14 is the youngest executive producer, ever.

She’s an adorable screen presence and, I hope, has a big future. But “Little” is just aggressively bad.

The setup is that Jordan Sanders (Regina Hall) is the head of a tech start-up company, and she’s a steaming pile of rhymes-with-spit. She bullies her employees, treats everyone she meets as the hired help, and even keeps her erstwhile boyfriend (Luke James) in perpetual dangle mode.

One wave of a magic wand later, and Jordan wakes up occupying her 13-year-old body: skinny as a whip, a nimbus of frizzy hair and giant geek glasses. For most people, reliving their adolescence is almost worse than a death sentence.

But thanks to her giant personality and giant-er ego, Jordan crushes the school scene and soon moves on to running her business through the help of April Williams (Issa Rae), her much put-upon right-hand woman. Soon a sisterly vibe starts building, a life lessons shall be learned.

Directed by Tina Gordon from a screenplay she wrote with Tracy Oliver, “Little” takes a scattershot approach – like a musical number that comes out of nowhere – or just falls back on over-the-top tropes. Not to mention the fact little Jordan seems to have all the sexual proclivity of her grownup version, which leads to some downright creepy scenarios, like hitting on her middle-school teacher (Justin Hartley).

I like Hall, Rae and Martin as screen presences, but I’d rather see them do just about anything else but get “Little.”

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Review: "Spider-Man: Far from Home"

I have received stern warnings not to hint at the “big reveal” in “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” so I won’t. All I’ll say is that if you can’t see it coming, then you must be new to the movies.

There are a couple more twists that are a bit harder to see, so stick around for the end credits for all the little Easter eggs.

This is the least consequential of all the Marvel Comics Universe (MCU) films. It’s lighthearted and feels like the cousin to that one Harry Potter movie that was more interested in teen snogging than the actual plot. It’s still plenty of fun, but is also fairly forgettable.

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is on a European “science” trip with his class and only wants to get with MJ (Zendaya), his charmingly acerbic classmate. But then all that tedious superhero stuff keeps pulling him back in.

This takes place after the events from the last two Avengers movies, which if you haven’t seen, thar be spoilers ahead. As you’ll recall, five years passed after half of all life in the universe was disappeared by Thanos, but then was brought back by the heroes. Which means that everyone who “blipped,” as the Earth people now call it, stayed the same age while those who didn’t kept getting older.

The law of averages would indicate there would be some randomness to how many of the main characters blipped, but for the purposes of screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, who obviously wanted to KISS (Google it), everyone in Peter’s social circle blipped, including MJ and best friend/wingman/keeper of secrets Ned (Jacob Batalon).

With Tony Stark dead, Captain America old and Captain Marvel and Thor conveniently off-world again, Earth is looking for a new hero as its beacon. Peter, who’s still just 16 years old, would prefer to remain a modest Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. But former S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is intent on riding Peter until he relents.

Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Tony’s right-hander, acts as go-between while canoodling with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), much to Peter’s dismay. Happy warns him not to ghost on Fury’s phone calls, without much luck.

(Seriously, try calling a Gen Zer. They consider it a personal affront.)

The job has the look and feel of a classic “we just made it up for this movie” scenario. Beings representing the four elements (fire, water, etc.) are popping up, and if left unchecked could destroy the entire planet. That’s what happened to Quentin Beck, a hero from an alternate universe, and he’s come to this version of Earth to stop the disaster from recurring.

Played by Jake Gyllenhall, Beck wears a cool green-and-gold outfit and has an obscuring mist-filled globe for a helmet, getting dubbed Mysterio by the cool kids. He immediately takes Peter under his wing, adopting the role of kindly uncle in stark contrast to Fury’s hardcase stepdad routine.

Holland is I think the best fit of all the Spider-Man actors, and at 23 is still fresh-faced and high-voiced enough to pass agreeably for a teen. His Peter still likes swinging between buildings and pummeling villains, but also wants his slice of normality. As MJ, Zendaya shines playing “the girlfriend” who’s usually a step ahead of everyone else.

Director Jon Watts returns from 2017’s “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” and I’m reminded that despite this only being the second standalone Spidey movie (of this, the third iteration), he’s been in a total of five MCU films, which practically makes the character middle-aged by recent standards.

This is definitely the “fun ‘n’ games” portion of the milieu, so my guess it’s set to get all dark and dreary next time around. Until then, enjoy this powder-puff stretch for what it is.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Reeling Backward: "The Seven-Ups" (1973)

So what do you do after you've produced two iconic cop movies, both featuring roaring car chases, even winning an Oscar for Best Picture to boot?

If you're Philip D'Antoni, the obvious answer is you do a third, and this time you get behind the wheel.

Alas, "The Seven-Ups," D'Antoni's first and only feature as a director, was not nearly as good or successful as "Bullitt" or "The French Connection." It boasts yet another hard-bitten cop fighting against forces greater than himself, and taking matters into his own hands where the limits of the law end.

It did mark star Roy Scheider's leap into leading-man roles, where he would stay for the next 20 years or so, carving out a respectable career as a character actor with his name above the title. Scheider's great blessing as a thespian was that he never looked like he was trying to impress. There was always something of a mystery about him onscreen, a bit of emotional withholding that left you wanting more.

Real-life New York City detective Sonny Grosso, who was the basis of Gene Hackman's character in "The French Connection," provided the story for screenwriters Albert Ruben and Alexander Jacobs to flesh out. This they did not do. Not only is there no fat in the story, it seems deprived of basic muscle and sinew. When you break out the narrative on paper, there's only about one good "Law & Order" episode's worth of story.

The rest is filled in with long, slow burns leading up to the next round of violence. It's the sort of movie where people spend more time talking about what they're going to do, or preparing for it, than actually doing it.

The setup is that Buddy Mannuci (Scheider) leads the titular four-man special undercover unit, so named for their focus on big-ticket crimes that lead to prison sentences of seven years or more. The old-school "lou" above them doesn't care for their unorthodox methods, but his boss, Inspector Gilson (Rex Everheart), likes the results and wants them to keep coming.

They stumble across a scheme to kidnap mob bosses and loan sharks by men who flash badges, and as a result the Seven-Ups find themselves under suspicion. With the IA investigation set to start on Monday, they have one weekend to pull all the pieces together.

One thing the movie doesn't make clear is if these bad guys actually are cops or not. It would certainly make for a more interesting story if they were, as it would seem unlikely that somebody wouldn't know somebody else.

Buddy has a relationship with a low-level mob guy, Tony (Vito Lucia), with whom he grew up on the same hard streets. Tony feeds him info that leads to busts, though not in an entirely un-self-serving way. I think Buddy's smart enough to know that his old friend is using him to take out the competition, but feels like Tony is one of the "good" bad guys.

Of course, it turns out that Tony is actually running the kidnapping operation, which leads to a big final-scene confrontation.

The other Seven-Ups are Ansel (Ken Kercheval), who ends up being the sacrificial lamb; Mingo (Jerry Leon), a big black guy who likes to chomp on cigars; and Barilli (Victor Arnold), a tense, wiry type who always seems to be eating. None of them are given any sort of characterizations other than what's necessary to move the plot forward.

The kidnappers are a pair of real creeps. Bo (Bill Hickman) looks like a corporate desk man and barely speaks. The real villain is Moon, played by cinematic villain par excellence Richard Lynch.

With his heavy brow and stark blue eyes, Lynch has one of those looks that makes people take a step backward. He also suffered terrible burns as the result of an LSD experience, which gave his face and neck a slightly waxy look.

Interestingly, Moon often wears near-hilarious bright color combinations, including an urban/lumberjack combo for chopping up stuff that had me bursting out loud. I was also surprised during the big chase scene, in which he's the passenger, that Moon often seems quite terrified, flashing wide-eyed gapes as they tear around corners or bounce off rises.

Very different from the icy-veined culprits we're used to.

The chase scene was filmed in the upper part of Manhattan, and while it has a few good squeals it's not nearly as thrilling as "Bullitt," which famously featured a Ford Mustang against a Dodge Challenger. Here both cop and criminal are driving brand-new Pontiacs: a massive Grand Ville for the bad guys to Buddy's sleeker Ventura Custom Sprint coupe.

It was coordinated and edited by the same guys D'Antoni used in his other big chase scenes, and ends with an "homage" to the death of Jayne Mansfield. Since it takes place about midway through the movie, Buddy of course keeps his head.

The film has a fairly blasé regard to police brutality, seeing it as a necessary step against a new generation of malevolent criminals, although Buddy and his crew do more threatening than actual pummeling.

Probably the most famous is where they surprise the key mob boss, Max Kalish (Larry Haines), in his bed and threaten him and his wife into giving over information on the kidnappers. Another mobster who has been shot by Moon is interrogated in the hospital by Buddy, who removes his oxygen feed to get him to spill.

Joe Spinell plays Toredano, a garage attendant who works with the kidnappers and is interrogated at the police station by the Seven-Ups. Refusing to help, he shows the cops his battered hands, indicating he's been worked over by their like before. "I didn't talk then, and I'm not talking now."

Immediately recognizing the futility of administering a beating, Buddy lets the guy walk and puts word out through Tony that they'll be visiting Toredano at home to get what they need out of him. Of course, this sets the bait for a final showdown with Moon and Bo.

Like the rest of the movie, it has a lot less flash and energy than you might have hoped. Moon is a classic kiss-up-and-kick-down type, preferring to run and hide as soon as some genuine opposition shows its face. He cowers inside an abandoned van until Buddy comes along. We get the sense he's less lying in wait than simply hiding and hoping his hunter will pass by.

Though it's long on grit and mood, "The Seven-Ups" is but a pale shadow of D'Antoni's earlier efforts. After this he would give up on film and turn to television, where he had some success before leaving showbiz in the late 1970s.

Though he couldn't bring the trifecta, D'Antoni still deserves a place of respect for helping steer two great films.