Monday, August 26, 2019

Reeling Backward: "The Story of G.I. Joe" (1945)

I admit I was confused about the premise of "The Story of G.I. Joe," which I had thought to be a biopic of renowned war correspondent Ernie Pyle. It's probably the signature role of Burgess Meredith's career -- aside from playing the Penguin on the Batman TV show -- and the film also marked the breakout of Robert Mitchum.

In fact, Pyle is barely a character in the movie, which focuses on a motley Army outfit fighting its way up the Italian peninsula. Pyle tags along from time to time, telling their tale as his favored group of "my guys," though their story continues even when Pyle isn't around. In the movie it's C Company, 18th Infantry, which wasn't actually deployed in Italy.

Pyle was involved in the production of the movie, which debuted around the time the theater in Europe was wrapping up. Pyle, who wrote in one of his last pieces that he hated the title but was too lazy to come up with a better one, was killed two months earlier. He personally approved Meredith for the role, with Walter Brennan and James Gleason also in the running.

Meredith was actually serving as a captain in the Army at the time, a fairly unknown character actor whose most prominent film role till then had been as George in the 1939 adaptation of "Of Mice and Men." The Army initially refused to let him go, and the matter was kicked all the way up to the White House. Meredith received an honorable discharge, ending his military service.

Directed by the great William Wellman, the film received wide acclaim and four Oscar nominations, including a supporting actor nod for Mitchum -- amazingly, the only recognition he ever got from the Academy Awards.

"Joe" is a terrific-looking film, with stark contrasting black-and-white photography from Russell Metty. He really makes the grime of the battlefield stand out. Many of the settings reminded me of Bill Mauldin's "Willie and Joe" comic strips.

Overall, though, I don't think the picture has aged all that well, and plays now as a fairly standard "buncha swell guys" ensemble war picture. Certainly it pales in comparison to Wellman's "Battleground" from 1949, which I call a masterpiece.

This is the sort of movie where we see a lot of faces moving in and out of the frame, and just a handful are meant to stick. They include Mitchum as Captain Walker, the noble everyman leader of the outfit who grows grimmer as time goes on and the losses mount, confessing that he often feels like a murderer.

Boxing champ-turned-actor Freddie Steele plays Warnicki, the no-nonsense, high-voiced sergeant who gets things done. He carries around with him a record his wife sent of his baby boy speaking his first words, which for some reason always plays backwards. Toward the end he finally gets it to work, and hearing junior say "Hi Daddy" sends him over the edge.

Wally Cassell is Dondaro, the Romeo of the outfit who seems to have a girl at every stop. Even when they're holed up for weeks in caves surrounding an ancient monastery at Cassino the Krauts are using as an observation post, he somehow sneaks out for his hookups.

Slightly less notable figures are John R. Reilly as "Wingless" Murphy, who washed out of the Air Force because he was too tall, and Pvt. Mew (William Murphy), who starts out as a faceless nobody and pretty much ends up the same way.

One of the film's watershed moments -- screenplay by Leopold Atlas, Guy Endore and Philip Stevenson -- is when Wingless marries his fiancé, who's also serving in Italy as an Army nurse. (She was played by Wellman's real-life wife, Dorothy.) The boys rig up a honeymoon sweet for them in the back of a bombed-out truck. He falls asleep on his wedding night, and we pretty much know what his fate is.

Mew is an orphan with no family, so his main role is keeping track of others through his $10,000 insurance policy courtesy of the Army. He makes a list of beneficiaries, which are crossed out and adjusted as people are killed.

Early on the company adopts a little pooch, which they name Arab -- pronounced so it rhymes with "HAY-rag" -- who's always being snuggled on somebody's lap or inside their coat. The captain initially forbids the men from bringing him along, arguing that the dog will get killed. Of course, he ends up outliving all the KIAs, including Walker himself.

The movie is more cyclical rather than having a traditional three-act plot, and seems aimed at relating what the life of a real dogface was like to the people back home rather than spinning a story. The soul of the movie is not the battle sequences, which are fairly brief and sporadic, but in the waterlogged caves where the rain never stops but time seems to.

The screenplay sprinkles in narration by Pyle taken from his actual writings, which I wanted more of.

Since Ernie Pyle preferred to tell others' stories rather than his own, maybe it's appropriate that "The Story of G.I. Joe" isn't really about him. From what I've learned he had a fairly conventional writer's life, combining long absences from home with bouts of alcoholism and marital discord.

He was the apotheosis of today's high-profile journalists, always making it about themselves. Maybe it's time we got back to celebrating the little guy -- but with a more coherent story.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Video review: "The Secret LIfe of Pets 2"

Movies like “The Secret Life of Pets 2” are a perfect fit with home video, because they’re the sort of thing that kids will love and parents can use to buy themselves 86 minutes of precious free time.

I didn’t much care for either the first CGI animation film or this sequel, which basically takes the “Toy Story” concept and applies it to doggies, cats and a few other pet varieties. It’s a look at the adventures they have while we leave them at home.

Max, the Jack Russell Terrier voiced by Patton Oswalt, is more or less the protagonist, though Kevin Hart puts in a challenge as Snowball, an excitable rabbit who dresses like a superhero and starts to imagine he is one, too. Each goes off on their own adventure through the big city, with a third story thread headlined by Gidget, the snooty Pomeranian voiced by Jenny Slater.

I won’t belabor you with a plot summary, other than to say there’s a lot of chases, slightly scary encounters with some tough circus animals and more than a little gastrointestinal humor.

It’s middle-of-the-road moviemaking expressly aimed at kids.

I’m not advocating for skipping movies at the theater, which would render my endeavor rather moot, or with letting your television act as a 24/7 babysitter. What I am saying is that you should spend quality time with your kids, while acknowledging there will be times you need a break from them and a grandparent isn’t around.

Bonus features are quite good, and get better the higher up the price scale you go. The DVD edition includes two short films and accompanying making-of featurette; four deleted scenes; character “pods” highlighting each of the critters; a making-of documentary short; a puppy training school trip with Kevin Hart; tutorials on drawing and making a flip book; and a pets-themed “Yule Log” for the holidays.

Upgrade to the 4K/Blu-ray version and you add “The Further Adventures of Captain Snowball,” a motion comic highlighting the further adventures of the ersatz hero. Digital access-only content amounts to four more documentary shorts.



Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Review: "Angel Has Fallen"

“He knows how we do this. He knows all our tricks.”

Any spy thriller character who hangs around long enough eventually makes it to the betrayal phase. The top guy -- it’s nearly always a guy -- is set up as the stoolie for some nefarious scheme to sabotage the agency from within, and is hunted by the government.

Bond, Borne, Smiley -- it’s always the same thing. They find themselves on the run, having to outwit their own team.

You could argue that “Fallen” isn’t technically in the spy genre, since protagonist Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is a Secret Service agent, not CIA or something similar. But all the hallmarks are there: unstoppable combat skills, stubbornness bordering on mania, international plots and lots of cool technology able to do stuff straight out of, well, a movie.

I liked the first film, “Olympus Has Fallen,” well enough though the sequel, “London Has Fallen,” got tedious and not a little overly macho. All three have the same basic plot: the President’s life is threatened, and only Mike can save him. This time around it’s Allan Trumbull, played by Morgan Freeman with signature gravitas

In most movies like this, the action scenes propel you onward and the slower talkie sequences are what you must suffer through to get back to the pyrotechnics. This time around I was impressed by the “downtime” more than the parts with flying bullets.

Piper Perabo is an empathetic presence as Mike’s suffering wife, put through hell along with their baby girl when he is fingered as the culprit behind an elaborate assassination attempt on Trumball. Freeman spends most of the movie in a hospital bed, but when he was not I was reminded why it’s pleasing to have a man who is seemingly so wise and kind as POTUS.

I really was touched by Nick Nolte as Mike’s long-lost father, Clay, whom he eventually turns to when the chips are down. Clay ran out on the family a long time ago, and is stuck doing the crazy-loner-in-the-woods thing. But Nolte’s wet, pleading eyes, along with a couple of solid speeches about his motivations, genuinely hit the heart.

Quality acting in a dumb blow-em-up flick? Imagine my surprise.

The rest of the story is fairly forgettable, though it moves along at a nice clip under the direction of Ric Roman Waugh, one of the first stunt coordinators to move behind the camera. He co-wrote the screenplay with Matt Cook and Robert Mark Kamen.

Danny Huston plays Wade Jennings, an old Army buddy of Mike’s who now runs his own training facility with a hand-picked crew of mercenaries, and OMG if you don’t know where that’s going then you must not have seen Danny Huston in any movies over the past 20 years.

Seriously, Danny, get a new agent. Otherwise your first scene might as well come with a title card like the silent movies: "The villain has arrived."

Mike’s rumored to be in line for the director’s job at Secret Service, and could steer some business Wade’s way. Secretly he frets about not wanting to hang up his gun for a desk job, plus his body is breaking down after years in the field, leading to some ferocious pill-popping.

Jada Pinkett Smith plays the lead FBI agent hunting Mike; Lance Reddick is the outgoing Secret Service chief; and Tim Blake Nelson plays the nervous nelly vice president who has to take over the reins of office while the president is in a coma.

Butler is decent at the physical stuff, despite looking rather puffy and jowly these days, though the other actors have to carry him through the touchy-feely stuff.

He looks like his skin is sliding off his face and all gathering around his neck. I think the filmmakers were trying to make him look like crap, but also they went that way because that's the clay they had to work with.

Butler seems poised to take over the “Kickass Geezer” mantle that’s been passed down from Harrison Ford to Denzel Washington to Liam Neeson.

Filled with some decent action sequences and even a few well-plucked heartstrings, “Angel Has Fallen” surprises as the best of the trilogy.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Review: "Good Boys"

Image result for good boys

Just a quick mini-review today. Head over to The Film Yap to read Manuel Fernandez' "official" take on the comedy.

This struck me as a pretty conscious attempt to do "Superbad" for the tween crowd -- the running joke being that 12-year-olds want to be outrageous and grown-up but are still too kiddie to know how to do it right. And, of course, we've got to do some sober life-lessons moments.

The end result plays like a bawdy comedy version of "Stand By Me." There are a few good laughs, and I enjoyed Jacob Tremblay as the quasi-leader of the trio of kids who dub themselves "The Bean Bag Boys."

(Why? Because they met in kindergarten and there were some bean bags lying around.)

The setup is that they ditch school, accidentally find themselves in possession of some Molly (aka Ecstasy, or as they refer to it, a "sex drug") and destroy an expensive drone that belongs to one of their fathers (Will Forte). So the rest of the movie is spent trying to fix what they screwed up in the first act.

The boys are each a "type." Tremblay is Max, a young heartbreaker who's obsessed with his classmate Brixlee (Millie Davis), determined to kiss and then marry her, despite having never spoken to her.

Lucas (Keith L. Williams) is the bigger, older-looking kid who's actually the shyest and most sensitive of the troop. His parents are divorcing, and he's so honest and guileless that he keeps blurting out the truth, foiling the BBB's plans.

Brady Noon plays Thor, a talented singer who too often listens to the taunting of his bullying classmates, who dub him a "tryhard" for seeming like he cares too much about something. Heavens!

Molly Gordon and Midori Francis play the teen girls who are the main antagonists, swiping the drone that the boys were using to spy on them so they could learn how to kiss. There's a big party tonight at the house of Soren (Izaac Wang), the reigning king of cool, and word has it spin-the-bottle is on the menu.

Director Gene Stupnitsky ("Bad Teacher"), who co-wrote the script with Lee Eisenberg, has a good feel for what it's like to be 12 and wanting to grow up overnight. But the movie's main failing is repeating the same basic joke over and over again: the boys dropping a lot of f-bombs while being completely in the dark about the mechanics of sex.

For instance, we're supposed to believe that these lads have Googled the word "porn" for the very first time in the course of the story. And they keep mixing up terms like "feminist" and "misogyny" so they're basically interchangeable.

They have arguments about who's the nicest kid in their grade -- Lucas is affronted it's not him -- and play at being rebellious while fretting about their actions "going on our permanent record."

There's some good stuff in "Good Boys," but in the end I like the idea of the movie more than the one they made.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Eraserhead" (1977)

I admit to having meager patience for cinematic surrealism. I think it can be compelling as a still image like a painting or photograph, but when it comes to moving pictures surrealism tends to get really old, really fast.

It may because when confronted with a surrealist image, you absorb the creator's imagination, but then you let your own take over, melding it with theirs to create an impression that's unique to each observer. But with surrealist cinema, you're forced to ride along as hostage on someone else's unhinged mind trip.

It becomes an exercise in interrogating the filmmakers' "meaning" instead of letting the art come to you.

Somehow I'd missed David Lynch's "Eraserhead" all my life, despite being an avid lover of horror and weird/kooky movies from an early age.

It's experimental and moody, with little in the way of story other than a man's hallucinatory encounter with his own mutant baby, along with a lot of squirmy sexual imagery and themes. If it seems like the sort of indulgent thing a film student would produce, that's because it technically is a student film, financed in part by the American Film Institute, where Lynch studied as a painter-turned-filmmaker.

Beginning as a 20-minute student film project, its production eventually spiraled over a five-year period, with additional financing provided by friends and fellow filmmakers, as well as Lynch's newspaper delivery route for the Wall Street Journal.

I was pleased to discover that leading man Jack Nance's iconic hairdo, a wavy column of impressive verticality informing the film's title, was the real McCoy. He apparently retained that coif the entire five years of shooting, which must have made his social life interesting.

A cult classic that became a mainstay on the midnight movie circuit, "Eraserhead" is today pretty universally regarded as a landmark piece of filmmaking.

Alas. Other than a few arresting images and a haunting, deliberately irritating soundscape, I didn't really care for it.

It would've been better as the 20-minute version. The first half is stultifyngly dull, and even when we get to the gross-out stuff with the baby, the movie is shot in such extreme black-and-white darkness that I spent most of the time just trying to puzzle out what I was looking at.

It's German Expressionism meets grindhouse schlock.

Lynch himself has called it his most spiritual film. It got him plucked from obscurity to direct "Elephant Man," earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Director at just his second feature film at-bat. He would go on to the disaster of "Dune" and then his masterpiece, "Blue Velvet," which is still one of the most subversive mainstream films ever made.

And then his "Twin Peaks" show and movie and show revival, none of which I have experienced but seem to be the apotheosis of his surrealist inclinations.

I can see why "wandering through a dream" is an appealing model for filmmakers. It relieves them of the burden of telling a coherent story, instead just juxtaposing random imagery in hopes of evoking a strong feeling or reaction.

The story, as such, involves Henry Spencer, a nebbish denizen of an unnamed dank metropolis who works in a printing factory. As played by Nance, Henry is purely anonymous everyman: he only reacts to circumstances and the actions of others, wandering about in a hunched little stoop with a quizzical look of innocence upon his cherubic face.

Many have supposed that the film's "theme" is about Lynch's fears and ambivalence about becoming a father, since his daughter was born with clubbed feet and required extensive corrective surgery. The movie's deformed baby, which resembles a tiny, tightly swaddled E.T. from the 1982 Spielberg movie, is the result/punishment for his lust.

After a bizarre dinner date at his girlfriend's parents' house -- in which he is asked to carve fist-sized "man-made" chickens that twitch and ooze blood -- Henry is told that Mary (Charlotte Stewart) has had a baby and they must marry. Henry acquiesces, even though Mary's pregnancy occurred unwitnessed by him in a biologically impossible time frame while they were parted.

The rest of the film takes place in Henry's dank apartment, which is seemingly filled with piles of dirt and randomly growing vegetation. The baby, ensconced on a pillow on top of a dresser -- real parents cringe at the rollover risk -- fusses at night, prompting Mary to abandon them. The baby won't eat and seems to grow sick, breaking out in pus-filled sores.

After being seduced and later rejected by the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Anna Roberts, and yes, that's how she's credited), Henry experiences a series of disturbing visions. Some harken back to The Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk), who seems to be some sort of steampunk demigod who lives inside the Earth, pulling levers to compel actions above.

The most important was extracting a long, stringy creature that looks a lot like a man's spermatozoa out of Henry's mouth at the beginning of the movie, apparently representing the baby's conception.

The other key vision involves the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), who he imagines resides behind his radiator. With an extravagant blonde bouffant and monstrously swelled cheeks, the Lady performs on a little stage to tinny music, doing a side-to-side dance shuffle and later some singing.

With her hands clasped at chin level and a fixed, pleading expression on her face, the Lady in the Radiator seems desperate for Henry's -- or anyone's -- approval. She's the Girl Next Door in a nuclear fallout apocalypse. But when more of the sperm-like creatures start raining down on the stage, she gleefully stomps on them as part of her dance, sending off sprays of icky goo.

Eventually Henry is compelled to cut open the bandage-like swaddling the baby still wears from the hospital -- I guess mutant babies don't poop --  revealing that it has no limbs or torso, and that its internal organs were only kept arranged by the cloth. After deliberately slicing its innards with scissors, Henry watches as the baby swells to massive size and, presumably, kills him while his spirit joins the Lady in the Radiator in some kind of brightly-lit heaven.

I should also note than on a couple of occasions Henry's head is popped off, revealing a nub that looks just like the baby's head. In the first instance his decapitated head sinks through a pool of blood, drops down into a city alley, where a boy picks it up and takes it to a factory where some men use it produce pencil erasers. These rubberized shavings surround Henry during many of his hallucinations.

I will not attempt to decipher what all this means. I will say that I had more fun just now summarizing the movie than I did actually watching it.

"Eraserhead" is incredibly slow-moving and indulgent. I'm reminded of the ridiculously overpraised "Roma," in which we watch an everyday family doing ordinary things unworthy of cinematic memorialization. Some interesting things happen in "Eraserhead," but they're interrupted by dozens of minutes of tedium in between.

David Lynch started doing short films and that's been his primary occupation in recent years, with only one feature film directorial credit since 2001's "Mulholland Drive" (not counting a compilation of old "Twin Peaks" outtakes and deleted scenes). I think in his heart of hearts he's more attuned to short film platforms, where a surrealist invention can take flight without overstaying its welcome.

Of course, few short films receive any kind of critical or theatrical attention. As much as I think "Eraserhead" would've been better as a short, the movies would've been a lot less interesting without Lynch's off-kilter contributions.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Video review: "Avengers: Endgame"

“Avengers: Endgame” is the culmination of more than a decade of painstaking cinematic world-building. However you feel about the merits of the individual films of the Marvel Comics Universe (MCU), you have to be impressed by the way they coordinated multiple cast members and sets of filmmakers toward this moment.

It’s a great big sprawling movie that incorporates virtually every superhero, from Robert Downey Jr.’s now-venerable Iron Man to Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel, who was just introduced in her own movie earlier this year.

If this feels like end times, that’s because it is.

If you’ll recall at the end of last year’s “Avengers: Infinity Wars,” galactic madman Thanos (Josh Brolin) had succeeded in his quest to gather the all-powerful Infinity Stones from the corners of the galaxy and use them to snuff out half of all life in existence. We watched as billions of people disintegrated into black ash.

This story picks up a few weeks after, as the remnants of the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and other supers track down Thanos in a bid to reverse the apocalypse. They fail, and five years pass.
But then Ant-Man returns with an opportunity to travel through time, steal the Stones from earlier points in history, and make everything right again.

Needless to say, it doesn’t all go according to plan. Without giving anything solid away, suffice it to say that some of the heroes we thought dead return to life, some living ones meet their maker – and some of the deceased stay that way.

Despite being three hours long with literally dozens of characters to keep tabs on, “Avengers: Endgame” still manages to feel like a living, breathing story where we feel the consequences of having all this cosmic power unleashed – and humanity has to bear the brunt of that.

Even though this is definitively the finale for many of the heroes we’ve come to love, it’s also a new beginning as upstarts take their place: Falcon, Spider-Man, Captain Marvel and more.

While some people are undoubtedly sick of comic book movies by now, I think I speak for many when I saw: if it’s this good, keep it coming.

Bonus features are quite expansive, and include an audio commentary track by the writers and directors, six deleted scenes, a gag reel and video introduction by directors Joe and Anthony Russo.

There are also seven documentary featurettes: “Remembering Stan Lee,” “Setting the Tone: Casting Robert Downey Jr.,” “A Man Out of Time: Creating Captain America,” “Black Widow: Whatever It Takes,” “The Russo Brothers: Journey to Endgame,” “The Women of the MCU” and “Bro Thor.”



Sunday, August 4, 2019

Video review: "Tolkien"

Audiences and critics mostly ho-hummed at this biopic of “The Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien’s early life. I can see that: it’s a bit stolid, well-acted but not showy, provides insights into the life of a noted writer that will not come as any sort of surprise to anyone who already followed them.

Still, I found it to be a pleasant restatement of things I already knew: how Tolkien’s experience of the horrors of World War I, coupled with growing more or less as an orphan after the death of his father, led him to shape entire fantastical realms and mythologies inside his head.

Tolkien only started to put his creations down on paper for publication well into his life, middle-aged and a well-established academic and family man. “Tolkien,” directed by Dome Karukoski from a script by Stephen Beresford and David Gleeson, explores the childhood and early manhood that built toward that literary watershed.

Played by Nicholas Hoult, Roland (as most called him) earned a scholarship to a prestigious prep academy where he butted heads with well-heeled, privileged types. Eventually he befriended some of them, forming deep relationships that changed him irrevocably, especially when they all gallantly signed up for war – and some of them never came home.

A framing story set during the war depicts a wounded, feverish Tolkien desperately trying to find one of his friends in the middle of death and fire, with a loyal sergeant – named Sam, in case the connection wasn’t obvious enough – with visions of Sauron’s eye or the balrog appearing in his visions.

Lily Collins plays Edith Bratt, the slightly older girl who lived in the same boarding house as him as a teen, and with whom he began a furtive courtship that eventually morphed into a lifelong bond.

Whether you’re a LOTR fan or not, give “Tolkien” a chance on streaming or home video. It’s a compelling look at the private life of a man who arguably created one of the most popular works of fiction ever, and how he arrived in Middle-Earth.

As is common with smaller releases, bonus features aren’t quite as expansive. Still, there’s a feature-length commentary track by director Karukoski, a gallery of productions still, a “first look” featurette and deleted scenes with commentary.