Sunday, September 29, 2019

Video review: "Spider-Man: Far From Home"

When I first reviewed “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” I described it as “the fun ‘n’ games portion of the milieu,” which I think well describes this most lighthearted of the Marvel Comics Universe films.

(And also my penchant for fifty-cent words like “milieu”… and “penchant.”)

That was before the revelations of studio squabbling over the rights to Spidey, which appears to sound the death-knell for this iteration starring Tom Holland as the friendly neighborhood wall-crawler. That’s a shame, as I think Holland was the best fit for the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man.

I really think being a teenager is inextricably linked to the dynamic of the Spider-Man story. What makes it compelling is the idea of a 15- or 16-year-old endowed with incredible powers at a time in life when most of us are struggling to forge an identity that will carry us through our adult lives.

Or just finding someone to kiss. Never underestimate the importance of that.

In this story, Peter’s science class is taking a field trip to Europe that seems to involve no actual scientific exploration. It’s basically a glorified holiday. Set in the events after the recent “Avengers” movies, Peter sees this as a chance to get back to regular-kid normalcy and try to turn his friendship with Mary Jane (Zendaya) into a boyfriend/girlfriend thing.

But then the trip keeps getting interrupted by world-threatening incursions from elemental creatures popping up and attacking cities. Peter is joined and mentored by Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), a hero from an alternate universe to whom he quickly takes a paternal shine.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is there to ride Peter hard, while Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) acts as a kindlier handler. He’s also making eyes at Peter’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei, putting the character’s gray hair buns in the comic books to shame).

“Spider-Man: Far From Home” may not linger long in the memory, but perhaps it’s just what the superhero franchise needed in middle age: a little shot of fun for fun’s sake. This movie is dad’s red sports car.

Bonus features are quite expansive, and include an all-new short film, “Peter’s To-Do List,” showing the workaday preparations behind being a teen superhero.

I also count 11 making-of featurettes, a roundup of Easter Eggs, gag reel and other outtakes, previsualization of special effects vs. the final product and extended/alternate scenes. Pretty much the only piece missing is a filmmaker commentary track.



Thursday, September 26, 2019

Review: "Judy"

“I still believe in it, y’know -- the love you find with an audience.”

Judy Garland was known for having more career comebacks than you could count. Really, her entire adult career was one long comeback from the Golden Age stardom of her child/ingenue years. She was the studio’s hand-picked “America’s sweetheart” -- until she become a grown woman who stumbled through addiction, financial instability and one bad marriage after another.

RenĂ©e Zellweger hasn’t been the star of a mainstream movie since 2009’s “New in Town,” so people are calling “Judy” her comeback picture. She’s 50 now, an age when many Hollywood many actresses find themselves lonely for projects. So there’s a certain synergy in her playing an over-the-hill flameout trying to make one last go at stardom.

(It should be noted, she’s already older than Garland was at her death, though they have to use aging makeup to make her sufficiently haggard.)

She is indeed a knockout playing Garland during the last months of her life, a faded star who’s sick of showbiz but is forced to suck at the only teat available to her. Unable to get booked anywhere else, she just wants the financial means to support her two younger children, over whose custody she is fighting a long-game war with ex-hubby Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell).

Zellweger nails the mannerisms and singing of Garland, including that strange head-shaking, humped-posture thing she acquired later in her career. The looks aren’t exactly spot-on, but the hair, makeup and lighting are close enough that after a while you don’t think about it much.

The actress will almost certainly get an Academy Award nomination out of this, and deserves to.
But I can’t help but put “Judy” in a pile with other similar Oscar-bait biopics like “Ray” and “Capote.” The central performance so dominates the film as to overpower the narrative function. The acting is the story.

So side characters are not given space to live and breathe, and the narrative tends to hover in place rather than go anywhere.

It’s quite literally all Judy, Judy, Judy.

I confess the iconography Garland holds in certain communities, particularly among gay men, is bewildering to me. Garland was a talented singer, though more as a crooner-for-hire than as someone who made indelible music of her own. By my lights she was a middling actress at best.

The screenplay by Tom Edge, based on a play by Peter Quilter, focuses on a period of a few months in the late 1960s when Garland sang at a big London theater. Director Rupert Goold (“True Story”) stages the many musical numbers with appreciable skill and flair, and they are the highlight of the experience.

The wonderful Jessie Buckley is largely wasted as Rosalyn, the British handler assigned to take care of her during her London stay. This mostly involves making sure she shows up in the right places at the right times at an acceptable level of inebriation.

I kept hoping the two characters would forge some kind of bond or even an All-About-Eve-ish antagonism, but their interactions skim the surface.

Michael Gambon plays the theater owner, standing in the wings and fretting about Judy’s erratic performances on his stage. Royce Pierreson is Burt, the band leader who craves collaboration but is dismissed to the background.

Darci Shaw plays Judy as a teen in flashback scenes, where she is controlled by Louis B. Mayer, who sees her as his personal creation, and pet. (I can’t find a credit for the actor who plays Mayer, but he’s terrific.) Their insistence that she starve herself began a lifelong habit of pill-popping and insomnia.

Finn Wittrock plays Mickey Deans, an agreeably scruffy young admirer who presses himself upon Garland at a party thrown by her daughter, Liza Minnelli, already a big star on her own. That mother-daughter relationship is left almost completely unexplored, though we traipse through the tiresome infatuation/ingratiation/dissolution journey with Mickey.

The time elapse from their marriage to breakup scene must set some kind of filmmaking record.

I enjoyed a lot of things about “Judy,” but it’s one of those movies that is good bordering on very good without ever finding true greatness. People will go see it to witness one Hollywood legend playing the hell out of another bygone one.

That’s fine, but I wish there was more story to tell beyond the spotlight.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Review: "Abominable"

I was not expecting much out of “Abominable,” because it seemed like such a mishmash of ideas from other animated kiddie flicks. But then I took the movie on its own terms, and found something quite wonderful indeed.

It’s the same studio behind the “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise, and there’s a similar theme of a young person forming a spiritual connection with a seemingly ferocious wild beast. There’s the “going on a quest to an exotic locale” bit from “Up.” Heck, they even borrowed that film’s villain, an ancient explorer who wants to bag the mythical creature to silence the naysayers.

For crying out loud, we just had two other yeti animated films earlier this year: the middling “Smallfoot” and the underwhelming “Missing Link.” So “Abominable,” featuring yet another bigfoot character, arrives as the latecomer to this well-worn party.

Despite the overly familiar themes, I found “Abominable” absolutely enchanting. It’s a magical and musical journey that starts out as fun ‘n’ games and by the end will burrow into your soul. I found myself humming the main soundtrack theme (courtesy Rupert Gregson-Williams) on the way home, and for hours after.

Set in China, it is the story of Yi (voice of Chloe Bennet), a Shanghai teenager who is disconnected from her family. Her father died some time ago, and she’s obsessed with raising enough money to go on the tour of the country he always imagined. She plays his violin on the roof of their building, and one day discovers a huge, white furry creature.

It sort of resembles the head of the dog-dragon from “The NeverEnding Story,” with a massive lower jaw and fist-sized teeth that practically touch its wide eyes. Voiced by Joseph Izzo as a series of growls and hums, the creature does not speak but is clearly intelligent and kindly. Based on its reaction to a billboard for Mount Everest, Yi determines that this is his home, and resolves to help him get back there. Everest also becomes his name.

Tagging along is a pair of downstairs neighbors: Peng (Albert Tsai), a basketball-obsessed kid of about 12, and Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), a narcissistic playboy about Yi’s age. It seems they were fast friends as children, but these days Jin is more concerned with his hair and clothes, and getting as many “likes” as possible for his constant social media posts.

(As with “Smallfoot,” the battery life of smartphones depicted here is truly astonishing.)

The bad guy is Mr. Burnish (Eddie Izzard), an ancient tycoon who captured Everest. Burnish first encountered a yeti as a young man. Laughed at for his claims, he was preparing to present Everest to the authorities when he escaped. Assisting Burnish is Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson), a benevolent scientist who only wants to study the yeti for scientific purposes (she says).

(It’s a little fuzzy why they couldn’t immediately take some video of Everest and text it over to the explorer honchos, but that’s the sort of logistical knots one has to look over.)

Writer/director Jill Culton (“Open Season”) brings a wonderful sense of pace and space, as the foursome make their way across all sorts of Chinese landmarks like the Gobi Desert with the bad buys in black suits in pursuit. After a while, the story becomes less about the chase-chase than finding the spaces within our own hearts that we have left closed for too long.

Everest also displays magical powers, evoked by deep-throated humming that can manipulate nature in increasingly wondrous ways. A dash across a rippling ocean of marigolds is a particularly memorable.

A lot of movies telegraph what they’re going to be all about, especially entertainment geared toward families. You go into something like “The Secret Life of Pets” knowing exactly what you’re going to get. Even when it’s done well, there’s a tang of discontent from expectations met.

“Abominable” is a most unexpected and surprising thing, a retread that feels new and exhilarating.

Review: "Aquarela"

"Aquarela" can be a hard movie to watch, even though it's often mesmerizing. It's also quite difficult to review.

This documentary from director Viktor Kossakovsky is about water -- specifically, ocean water that starts out as glacier ice, splits off into hulking ice floes, becomes waves upon the open sea, and eventually winds up flooding the inland abode of humans who are largely indifferent to its source, or its power.

Obviously, there's an inherent environment message at the heart of the project. Without it ever being overtly stated -- indeed, after the first few minutes the film hardly has any words at all -- the documentary is a cautionary tale of global warming. As the ice at the poles melts, it leads to indelible effects on the rest of the globe.

Kossakovsky winds the human story alongside that of water. It opens with a sequence set in the northernmost reaches of Russia as spring approaches. People are used to driving their cars across the frozen river, but the melting is starting earlier and earlier, so the vehicles wind up plunging through the ice. We watch, fascinated, as crews work to pull the cars out.

The people seem jaded to this experience, with two men calmly explaining they swam out the hatchback door. Mostly they're concerned with the damage to the front bumper and if it can be fixed. Later, we witness a much more dire circumstance in real time.

Footage also travels to Scotland, Greenland, Venezuela, Portugal, the United States, Mexico to continue the story of water, as well as the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

The star of the movie is the photography, which has to be seen to be believed. (Kossakovsky and Ben Bernhard serve as cinematographers.) We see the water in every form, from ice to liquid to vapor and various halfway states in between. We watch as massive glaciers melt and split apart into a crumbling wasteland of mush.

Then, when large hunks of the ice float away, the cameras dive underneath them as the journey, seemingly living things, far and away.

Sometimes the water is very blue; other times it seems to exist in only shades of black. Pinks, oranges, grays and other hues pulse across the screen.

Often, we're not sure at first what we're looking at. What seems like a ribbon of ebony rock is actually the waves of the ocean, seen roiling at night from high above.

The music that accompanies this trip (by Eicca Toppinen) is very non-traditional, ranging from metallic atonal clanks to what can only be described as heavy metal rock. It revs up and down as gigantic ice floes the size of cities bob up and down in the ocean.

Yes, the footage can get repetitive at times. At 89 minutes the film lingers too long on certain segments. I kept thinking the sweet spot for "Aquarela" would be as a 68-minute IMAX movie. Certainly, the visual majesty is there.

This is not the sort of documentary that makes you think, but simply presents astonishing images that take your breath away. The thinking comes after.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Executive Suite" (1954)

While a fairly typical Golden Age drama in a lot of ways, "Executive Suite" diverged from other Hollywood dramas of the day.

Most notably, it was set inside the top leadership of a national furniture company and focuses on a struggle for power when the enigmatic president suddenly drops dead. That's it. There is no spy intrigue, no murders, not very much sex (or the implication thereof, this still being 1954).

Nope, it's a business story set in a business world.

Hollywood has never liked business settings, then or now. Since few writers or directors came up in the business world, they struggle to find something interesting to tell a story about in a common office setting. Even when creative stories are set at work, they tend to focus on the personalities rather than the actual job, like the TV series "The Office."

Try to think of some modern films that are entirely set in the quotidian workplace, and you'll be hard pressed to name many, especially those that aren't "sexed up" with murdery-mystery elements. "Working Girl," "Glengarry Glen Ross," "9 to 5" and "Michael Clayton" are the only ones I can come up with off the top of my head.

Director Robert Wise also made the interesting choice not to use any musical score or soundtrack of any kind, which was very unusual for the day. The board room proceedings play out in tense silence, which I don't think would've been helped with a ladling of syrupy strings.

"Executive Suite" features the prototypical 'cavalcade of stars' that was popular in that era, particularly from MGM., which had a vast pool of talent to pull from. This includes William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Pidgeon, Fredric March, June Allyson, Paul Douglas, Dean Jagger, Louis Calhern, Shelly Winters and Nina Foch.

In a lot of ways it reminds me of a forbear of "Modern Men," focusing on the men and women carousing the Big Apple corridors of power, often winding up in each other's laps or beds. (Or at least what I know of the show from pop culture, having never seen an episode.)

These great actesses are largely relegated to the role of the wife, the secretary, the jilted mistress, the girlfriend -- or some combination thereof.

Produced by John Houseman (who does not appear), written by Ernest Lehman from a script based on the book by Cameron Hawley, this is defintely a tale of a man's world where the womenfolk populate the fringes of the story.

The president, Avery Bullard, is never actually depicted in the film, other than his body being seen put into an ambulance from afar. The film actually opens with a first-person perspective of Bullard exiting the Wall Street headquarters of the Tredway Corporation, filling out a telegram calling for a board of directors meeting for that Friday evening at 6 o'clock, then keeling over dead from an apparent heart attack.

His wallet, which he'd just used to pay for the telegram, flies out of his hand into a street gutter, where it is pilfered for cash and the ID tossed into a trashcan. So it takes a few hours for the police to identify Bullard.

As it would happen, two people in the Tredway building saw the commotion and identified Bullard: George Caswell (Louis Calhern), a conniving playboy board member, and Julius Steigel (Edgar Stehli), an old hand who would seem to be a lawyer or similar advisor. This sets all sorts of higgledy-piggledy into motion.

The men had just been arguing about Bullard's failure to appoint one of his vice presidents as executive VP, thereby anointing an heir apparent. Julius had waved the need off, pointing out that Bullard was a hale 56 years of age, while he himself is almost 71.

Caswell responds to the death by immediately selling off of as much of his stock as possible, anticipating the price will crash when Bullard's death hits the news. But because of the snafu with the wallet, this happens after the stock market has closed, so on Monday he will either turn a handsome profit or be wiped out.

As the story plays on, we learn the identity of the other executives and the background of Tredway. It seems the company's founder died some years ago leaving it in a lurch, and Bullard was able to turn things around and make it very profitable. But in recent years they've gotten away from their hallmark of well-made furniture in favor of cheap stuff like the new K-H line, which is little more than the DIY pressboard so common today.

Don Walling (William Holden) is a hard-charging young designer who was brought in personally by Bullard five years ago to develop new styles and experiment with more efficient production methods. He's mostly a rolled-up-sleeves type hobnobbing with workers in the factory rather than authoring memos in "the tower," aka the NYC HQ. His wife, Mary (June Allyson), is supportive but assertive, insisting that it's time for him to move on from Tredway.

Frederick Alderson (Walter Pidgeon), the treasurer, would seem to be the obvious pick to succeed Bullard. He's been at the company forever, is appropriately grey-haired with a patrician mien, and yearns for a return to the company's glory days.

However, Alderson is outmaneuvered by Loren Shaw (Fredric March), the controller who sees everything in terms of dollars and cents. He gets to the office before anyone, handles the press, the official statement, even arranges the funeral so it will not interfere with Monday's day shift. Shaw also takes the liberty of releasing the company's stellar earnings report early to mitigate the hit to the stock price.

Of course, this has the effect of underming Caswell's little scheme. The two men hatch an arrangement to transfer some of the company's reserved stock to Caswell to cover his wager in return for his vote to make Shaw the next president.

It's a very subtle, internal performance from the great Fredrick March. He plays a man of quiet ambition who has been licking his chops for the top job for years, and obviously has done the legwork to make it happen. If there were an element of intrigue in this story, I'm sure it would be Shaw who had poisoned Bullard's martini or something.

Shaw's not a bad guy, or certainly he would not see himself as such. He's just a (then) new breed of corporate denizen who believes everything should be about maximizing shareholder dividends rather than thinking about and investing in the future.

After Shaw undercuts Alderson's self-confidence, he feels he's blown his own chance at taking over the corner suite, and withdraws his own candidacy. (This is ludicrous, of course; though surrendering after one minor defeat is probably a good indicator he doesn't possess the mettle for the job.)

Alderson and Walling flail around trying to find somebody else who would be less objectionable than Shaw, but the most obvious choice, manufacturing chief Jesse Grimm (Dean Jagger), had already determined to retire, tired of the company's decline in quality products. They try to tag Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas), the likeable sales VP, but Walling feels he'd do little to halt the company's wayward path.

What they don't know is Shaw has already secured Dudley's vote by subtly blackmailing him over his affair with his secretary, Eva (Shelley Winters). Meanwhile, Walling puts himself forward as an alternative. Alderson is initially hesitant given his age, and likely his own pride, but eventually comes around.

The other major player is Julia Tredway (Stanwyck), daughter of the company founder and owner of the largest share of company stock. It was also a well-known secret that she had carried on a 10-year affair with Bullard, who ultimately rejected her in favor of the company. She's easily manipulated by the men, particularly Shaw.

Stanwyck has one great scene where she's confronted by Walling, and she nearly throws herself off the skycraper balcony. It's not a big part, but Stanwyck makes the most of it.

Foch plays Erica Martin, the president's secretary and keeper of secrets. It's an interesting role, played very close to the vest as the loyal person who carries out orders. She's the one who makes the calls, arranges the meetings, tallies the votes. Shaw tries to press her for dirt on Bullard but is sharply rebuffed.

Foch is in the only peformer in the film to receive an Oscar nomination, which must have stung for all these male thespians wearing their three-piece suits and spouting urgent dialogue. The film also received nods for the cinematography (by George J. Folsey), costumes (Helen Rose) and art direction.

In general I love black-and-white pictures, though I do wish this one had been in color. All the handsome wood board rooms and costumes probably would've looked quite amazing in Technicolor.

An odd egg of a movie that still slides seamlessly into mainstream Hollywood fare of that era, "Executive Suite" is well-acted and undeniably entertaining. Even if business films have hardly ever been a going concern, this one is cinematically profitable.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Video review: "Yesterday"

“Yesterday” is a feel-good romantic dramedy that telegraphs all its punches, but even though you know everything that’s going to happen, it’s still emotionally satisfying.

The set-up is that a struggling Indian-British musician gets bonked on the head in a traffic accident. When he wakes up, he’s astonished to learn that nobody in the world but him knows the music of the Beatles.

It’s as if the greatest (in some people’s opinion) rock band of all time had never existed, except Jack (Himiseh Patel) still has all those iconic songs at his fingertips. So he sets out to become the greatest overnight sensation in the history of popular music, passing off the tunes of George, Ringo, John and Paul as his very own.

Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis don’t bother with the metaphysical causes of this event. This isn’t science fiction, it’s a comedic pluck at the heartstrings.

Lily James plays Ellie, Jack’s erstwhile manager/best friend/secret admirer. She’s been driving him around to penny-ante gigs and bucking up his spirits for years. Of course, we all know this is going to build toward a big reveal of suppressed emotions.

How very British.

The story wearily treads through some of the staples of the romantic comedy genre -- misunderstandings based on overheard conversations, or building toward a big conversation that gets interrupted by a phone call or knock at the door.

Kate McKinnon, Joel Fry and Ed Sheeran round out the supporting cast, playing a mercenary music producer, feel-good buddy/roadie and himself, respectively.

“Yesterday” is a whipped sundae of a film -- not very substantial or nutritious, but engineered to deliver easy, sweet pleasures. That it does, along with a lot of great music.

Video extras are quite good. There’s an alternate opening and ending, a dozen deleted scenes and a gag reel.

Boyle and Curtis team up for a feature-length commentary track, and also have their own documentary featurette. There are similar shorts about McKinnon, Sheeran, a performance by Patel at Abbey Road Studios, and more.

Movie: 4 Yaps

Extras: 4 yaps

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Video review: "Dark Phoenix"

Most people and critics regarded “Dark Phoenix” as a bad stumble to end the X-Men franchise -- at least for the time being, as it may be rebooted under anew banner. While the film has its failings, I think it stands up to most others in the superhero game.

I remember years ago interviewing Famke Janssen, who played Jean Grey in the original films, and hearing her disappointment that her group didn’t get around to depicting the Dark Phoenix Saga. Comic book fans speak reverentially about the DPS as one of the greatest storylines told, in which pure-hearted telepath/telekinetic Jean turns into one of the most malevolent forces of evil ever seen.

Sophie Turner takes over the role, and while I can’t help thinking Janssen would’ve been better, I think Turner acquits herself just fine. The important thing is that the relatively meek Jean discovers a taste for power she never knew she had.

It seems that her mentor, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), has hidden some aspects of her past from her, which sets off a chain of events that will see her square off with her fellow X-Men, including Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and even nemesis/occasional ally Magneto (Michael Fassbender).

This is a lean, mean superhero story without much preamble or contemplative downtime. With so many overwrought, overlong flicks these days -- yeah, I’m lookin’ at YOU, “IT: Chapter Two” -- it’s nice to experience one that prefers the straight-ahead approach.

Bonus features are good, anchored by a feature-length video commentary by wrier/director Simon Kinberg and producer Hutch Parker. There is also an expansive five-part making-of documentary, “Rise of the Phoenix: The Making of Dark Phoenix,” five deleted scenes and the following featurettes:
  • Scene Breakdown: The 5th Avenue Sequence
  • How to Fly Your Jet to Space with Beast



Saturday, September 14, 2019

Review: "Human Capital"

"Human Capital" is a tale of leverage -- the invisible lines of influence and control we all have exerted upon us by others, and in turn use to manipulate people to our ends. It's a story of weaklings and bullies, lovers and enemies, and how quickly these roles can shift.

In an unnamed New York City wealthy suburb, two families are loosely joined by their children. Liev Schreiber is Drew, a middle-aged real estate broker looking for a piece of the better life. His teen daughter, Shannon (Maya Hawke), is dating Jamie (Fred Hechinger), the son of a major hedge fund tycoon. As the story opens, Drew offers to drop Shannon off at her boyfriend's house, but he has ulterior motives.

Peter Sarsgaard plays Quint Manning, the other father, with a pitch-perfect mix of arrogance and dismissive contempt. He invites Drew to play tennis with him, and he already seems to know it's a set-up to ask about investing in his hot new venture. It's a casual sort of neighborly corruption.

To Quint, everything and every person has a price tag on them.

Drew borrows the $300,000 to get in on the hedge fund (at the lowest "friends and family" entry) and falsifies his financial paperwork. Meanwhile, his younger wife Ronnie (Betty Gabriel), an idealistic therapist, has just learned she is pregnant. Drew, who used to have a problem with gambling, embraces the possibilities while pushing down the fear about the consequences -- especially when the deal starts to go south.

An accident on the road happens -- a car sideswipes a cyclist in the middle of the night, then drives on. Who was driving? What happened to the man on the bicycle? Will anyone be held to account in this world where seemingly sings go punished?

The story, based on the novel by Stephen Amidon and adapted by Oren Moverman, keeps shifting perspectives and gears on us. We think it'll be Drew's story, but then the movie rewinds and we see some of the same things from another point of view, and then another. It all builds to a confrontation that is inevitable but still remains surprising.

Director Marc Meyers ("My Friend Dahmer") keeps the pieces of the puzzle constantly moving, introducing new ones and setting aside others we thought would be pivotal. The novel was previously adapted into an Italian movie of the same name.

Marisa Tomei plays Carrie, Quint's wife and Jamie's mother, a kept woman who enjoys her immense privilege. Drew first spots her through a window in the opening scene, and we suspect they might have a romantic liaison. But their first meeting is awkward and off-putting, and seems to close the door on that.

Carrie has an idea to buy and restore a magnificent cinema in the nearby city, and Quint is content to indulge his wife's latest whim. She forms a board and sets about with the project, and dallies with her hand-picked artistic director (Paul Sparks), a professor who is as mesmerized by her as Quint is with his money.

The story turns again to Shannon, who mutually splits with Jamie while maintaining the pretense of their continued relationship in order to appease their parents. She is intrigued by Ian (an excellent Alex Wolff), one of Ronnie's patients who is a minor local celebrity for his drug-dealing. Shannon takes up with the dour young man, at first to fracture her goody-goody image but then for deeper reasons.

Ian tells her upfront that he is a broken person, and even seductively vows that he will never love her. But we'll see.

Things go from there. Even with its "Roshomon"-like structure, "Human Capital" is less interested in the twists of the storyline than the impact they have on the very human figures caught in the web of intrigue.

The cast is pretty uniformly terrific, with Hawke and Wolff standing out in particular. Their star-crossed relationship is the beating heart of the movie, the real romance hiding behind a fake one.

We all tell lies, and are lied to. It's one thing to betray another but quite another to be dishonest with yourself. Here's a tense, observant film that explores the authenticity of our own hearts.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Review: "Linda Ronstandt: The Sound of My Voice"

It's hard to overstate how big a music star Linda Ronstadt was in the 1970s. She dominated the rock, pop and country charts, and collected awards by the armful. By the 1980s and '90s she had started to segue into projects that were meaningful to her but did not boost her popularity, such as jazz, Broadway musicals and traditional Mexican music.

So by the time I came of age enough to be interested in popular music, she was already something of a faded legend in my mind. I was aware of her and could probably hum one or two of her hits, but she was no longer a "big deal."

Let's put it this way: when "Don't Know Much" became a chart-topper in 1989, I was aware that Aaron Neville was half of the duet but didn't know Ronstadt was the other.

The new documentary, "Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice," is an intimate, insightful look into her life and career, or at least the early part of it. It pretty much skips over the last 25 years, in which her voice declined and she was eventually diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Ronstadt officially retired in 2011 and claims she can no longer sing a note -- a terrible fate for someone famous for her rich, powerful voice.

(But stick around to the end of the film, and we shall see...)

Ronstadt talks and appears in the doc, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, but it's mostly others speaking about her musical legacy. We've seen a slew of those documentary movies about aging singers, and the purpose behind them is most evident in the title of another recent one, "David Crosby: Remember My Name."

The notables include legends like Dolly Parton, Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley, Cameron Crowe, Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne, David Geffen as well as lesser-known musicians and producers like Ry Cooder, J.D. Souther and Bobby Kimmell.

Many people were surprised when at the height of her fame Ronstadt decided to do an album of traditional Mexican folk songs, unaware that the product of Tuscon, Ariz., comes from a family of Mexican heritage. She talks about growing up listening to her father singing these tunes.

"I thought Spanish was this magical language. When I was growing up I thought you sang in Spanish and spoke in English," she says.

She started playing in a folk band with her siblings, but they were older and soon had jobs and families to deal with. So Ronstadt lit out for California at age 18, forming the band the Stone Ponies along with songwriter Bobby Kimmell. It was the late 1960s, and the genres of folk, rock and country were blending together in delicious ways.

One of the most interesting things is that despite arriving at the height of the singer/songwriter phase, Ronstadt herself did not write songs herself. But she did covers of other people's work, often improving upon the original.

Nowadays the term "song stylist" is seen as something of an insult, but that's the best description of Ronstadt's place in the musical galaxy. Others talk about how she would put the imprint of authorship on a song not by writing it, but by singing it like nobody else could or would.

The portrait that emerges is one of a perfectionist who loved to sing but not necessarily in front of crowds, was very committed to her craft, put her career ahead of romantic relationships, and was a proactive collaborator who nonetheless experienced jealousy about other artists.

For example, upon first seeing Emmylou Harris perform, Ronstadt says: "Here's this beautiful girl with long hair and big brown eyes, and she's doing what I'm doing -- and she's doing it better!"

But after a brief period of green-eyed fever, instead Ronstadt approached the other singer and they began to work together, forming a life-long friendship. Similar things happened with Bonnie Raitt and Dolly Parton.

One thing I didn't know was how Ronstadt was pivotal in the formation of the Eagles. Don Henley became her drummer for $250 a week, and other members of her backing band eventually split off to form their own group -- with her help and blessing.

The documentary is more concerned with Ronstadt's music than her personal life, though there are interviews with former lovers and admirers. She famously dated Jerry Brown while he was governor of California (the first time), but for the most part she saw relationships as something that ebbed and flowed rather than endured a lifetime.

Perhaps the most interesting section is when she talks about what it was like to essentially be one of only a handful of female rock stars in the 1970s, and the loneliness of being on the road with a bunch of guys -- since there were few women instrumentalists in the day. Not surprisingly, despite being a huge star some of the men who worked for her were contemptuous of having a "chick out front."

Ronstadt started as a hippie folk singer, performing on stage barefoot, but embarked upon a journey that saw her cross over into so many other musical genres that she made the demarcations start to seem hazy. (Though not disco, thank god.)

At 93 minutes, this is the rare movie I wish was a little longer. Ronstadt's voice may have faded with age and disease, but her story is a vibrant one worth hearing, again and again.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Reeling Backward: "The Dark Crystal" (1982)

"The Dark Crystal" wasn't exactly a flop when it came out in 1982, earning a decent amount at the box office and mixed-to-positive reviews. Jim Henson was still known as "the Muppet guy," and while audiences and critics praised the artistry of  the film, the reaction was overall more respectful than enthusiastic.

Mostly it was seen as a weirdo fantasy kiddie flick from a guy who had struck it rich in puppets and was now flying too close to the sun with his ambitions.

Plenty of Gen X kids adored it though, including me, and it's developed into enough of a cult classic that Netflix has created a new series that's a prequel of the same world.

To prepare for the new show I decided to rewatch the original, which I probably haven't seen in at least 15 years. I managed to convince my boys, ages 6 and 8, to join me and although they took a little while getting into it, they thoroughly enjoyed it.

Seeing it now with adult eyes, I can grasp its limitations as well as its innate, undeniable magic.

The conceit to do an entire live-action movie with puppets isn't a good one. Despite the amazing creature designs and manipulation by Jim Henson and his fellow puppeteers, the characters are still very stiff and lacking in facial expression. The eyes are pretty decent, and even manage to have a wet sheen that reflects in the camera lights, just as a person's would.

The cheeks and brows are pretty stuck, however, and the gelfling characters still retain some of the fuzzy skin look of the Muppets, making them seem like they were made out of curtains. As for the hands and arms, although you don't see the puppeteer's sticks -- most of the manipulation was done from inside the costumes -- their slow, deliberate movements bespeak of something that is controlled from without rather than within.

There was also some use of animatronics, I'm guessing with the large Garthim marauders, which look like some combination of crab and beetle morphology. Reportedly the costumes were so heavy they had to be periodically hung from racks to let the puppeteer inside have a rest. Brian Froud did the concept art for most of the creatures in the movie.

The film was claimed to be the first live-action movie without any humans in it, though I spot some obvious cheats when the main character, the gelfling Jen, is shown in full-body from a distance running or jumping. It seems pretty clear to me they used a child or small adult for these long shots, as his movements are swift and unfettered.

The gelflings, Jen (voice by Stephen Garlick) and Kira (Lisa Maxwell), are the most uninteresting of the creature designs, basically resembling standard-issue elves or fairies. They have pale yellowish skin, slim builds, delicate features and long upright ears that sprout out of manes of straight long hair.

The Mystics, or "natural wizards" who represent the forces of good, are hunched-over figures with four arms, tails and swirls of arcane symbols etched in their dun-colored flesh. They wear shapeless robes and walk veeeeeeerrrrryyyy slowly with staves. They sort of resemble hippie camels, and it appears that they sleep on elongated shelf-like beds with their long-necks craned out chin downward.

The Podlings are essentially featureless slaves, meant to disappear into the background of the story. Henson's crew literally designed them based on potatoes. They speak their own musical language, with smatterings of Russian, Polish, Serbo-Croatian and other Slavic languages mixed in.

By far the most compelling denizens of the film are the Skeksis, the evil counterparts to the Mystics who rule the land as cruel overlords. They appear to be vaguely reptilian, but with some bird-like features and fur. They wear elaborate robes, armor and jewelry, with each Skeksis varying quite a bit according to their role and personality.

For example, the two main Skeksis almost appear to be from different species. The gruff General (Michael Kilgarriff) is huge and wolf-like, while the fawning Chambelain (Barry Dennen) looks like a bipedal vulture. Others vary somewhere between upright alligators and rats.

Chamberlain speaks in a high, cloying wail and has a tendency to issue a keening whimper whenever he's not talking, annoying the General to no end. (My friends and I spent years imitating it.)

When the Emperor dies, the two face off in a duel to see who can place the best cut using swords on an obelisk of stone. The mighty General easily defeats the diminutive Chamberlain, stripping him of his raiments and banishing him into the wild.

Of course, you probably know already that the Mystics and Skeksis represent two halves of a greater power, so when one dies or is injured the same fate befalls their counterpart. Thus the dying of the evil emperor coincides with the passing of Jen's father/Master, the wisest of the Mystics, whose final words send him on a journey to heal the Dark Crystal and fulfill the prophecy.

From a quest standpoint, this has to be the simplest one ever conceived. It only has two steps: Jen must retrieve the Shard broken from the Crystal, and then put it back into place. He doesn't even have to hunt for the Shard, simply travel a day to see the oracle Aughra, who readily surrenders it to him.

Aughra (Billie Whitelaw) appears to be a unique creature, an astrologist who has created a massive orrery of their solar system spinning about the dome of her abode. She appears as a squat, vaguely toad-like witch who seems to have suffered a massive injury at some point, a large scar where her right eye used to be. She can also pull out the left one and use it to extend her vision.

Jen does have to use his pipes to discover which of Aughra's many crystal shards is the correct one, much in the same way the Mystics use their deep-throated humming to work their magic. Music seems to lie at the center of "good" magic in this world, with Kira singing to effectuate her power, which is to communicate with animals.

She also has wings, unlike Jen, which she can use to glide for short distances. Her dismissive response when he is astonished at this difference still draws a chuckle: "Of course not, you're a boy!"

"The Dark Crystal" was directed by Henson and Frank Oz from a screenplay by David Odell based on Henson's original story. He originally got the notion from some drawings of Lewis Carroll's writing depicting robed crocodiles.

Originally there were many more Skeksis and Mystics, but they have aged over a thousand years and are down to 10 as the story opens -- nine, after the Emperor and Master pass away. The Skeksis use the Dark Crystal in a ritual to capture the rays of the three suns to replenish themselves -- supplemented by drinking the liquid "living essence" of other creatures extracted in much the same way, which temporarily reverses the aging process.

The Skeksis do not appear to have any sort of innate power and are rather shriveled weaklings, apart from the General. Their rule seems to depend entirely on the ability to command the Garthim -- something the Chamberlain retains even after being banished -- and pseudo-science use of the Dark Crystal to stave off the decay of their wretched bodies.

Dying and decrepitude are odd themes for a children's story, not to mention the duality of good and evil. I can see why many people were puzzled or even disappointed by the film when it came out.

Still, strictly from an artistic standpoint "The Dark Crystal" broke a lot of ground. It was a very dark, imaginative and offbeat form of storytelling, particularly for one aimed mostly at children. Puppet movies didn't really take off afterward like Henson & Co. hoped, but the idea of heftier, gloomier tales as popular entertainment did live on.

I can't help but think the true inheritors of this movie are stop-motion animation gems like "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Coraline." The legacy of Jim Henson endures.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Video review: "John Wick: Chapter 3 -- Parabellum"

John Wick is showing his age, as well as accumulated wear and tear, in his third outing. The legendary assassin played by Keanu Reeves, who retired before being pulled back into his own game, has been declared an enemy of the underground and is on the lam in “John Wick: Chapter 3 -- Parabellum.”

That last part means “prepare for war,” so you know there’s going to be plenty of bloody mayhem. Fans will certainly not be disappointed in the body count or spectacular action set pieces, where Wick takes on fellow killers by gun, hand, knives, sword, motorcycle and a few other methods of death.

We meet more members of the secret international society of assassins -- some helpful, some lethal. These include Halle Berry as Sofia, who runs the show in Casablanca; Laurence Fishburne as the Bowery King, who’s in charge of the army of invisible homeless; Anjelica Huston as a ballet director with some dark ties to Wick’s past; and the “Adjuticator” sent from the society leadership to clean things up.

My favorite new add is Mark Dacascos as Zero, who runs a sushi bar by day and leads a cadre of ninjas at night. He’s openly worshipful of Wick, so it’s like he’s fighting his own fanboy. We get the sense Zero but equally pleased with being the man who finally kills Wick, or joins his list of the vanquished.

Reeves is no spring chicken, and with Wick’s growing list of injuries -- he’s been shot, stabbed and pummeled over the course of the few days during which the entire film franchise has taken place -- he moves in a lurching, graceless manner.

Personally I preferred the lean, mean, stripped-down ethos of the first two films, directed by stunt coordinator-turned director Chad Stahelski. It felt like the crew had been left to make their own movie after the above-the-title folks had wandered off for a few days.

With a reported budget of $70 million, “Chapter 3” is definitely edging more toward James Bond than grindhouse. There’s even some noticeable cheating through the use of CG imagery or tricky editing, something I appreciated the earlier films for eschewing.

Still, it’d be hard to deny that Wick is still a blast, a little bit of the ol’ ultra-violence in mainstream form.

Bonus features are pretty decent, though you’ll pay more to get the best stuff. The DVD has just theatrical trailers and two making-of featurettes. Spring for the Blu-ray edition, and you add six more featurettes.



Thursday, September 5, 2019

Review: "Brittany Runs a Marathon"

Brittany Forgler is 28 years old, 5-feet-6-inches tall and weighs 197 pounds. With a Body Mass Index of over 30, this makes her technically obese, though she is shocked and offended when her doctor uses that word.

I like it when movies deal in specificity. One of the things that drives me nuts is when film characters are maddeningly vague about important stuff. Like they'll say they're poor, but don't say how little they make.

"Brittany Runs a Marathon" doesn't get into its protagonist's finances, but it does deal in absolutes when it comes to the numbers on her scale.

She's played by Jillian Bell, a wonderful actress you've probably seen in supporting roles in a lot of popular movies. Usually she plays the heroine's wingwoman or the sardonic sister. Here she gets to shine in a funny but meaty leading role about a woman who decides to make a change in her body and her mind by taking up running.

This is not a movie about a fat person who got thin and it turned their life around. Rather, it's the story of a woman who has trouble letting people in, and eating and partying too much are just a symptom of her trying to fit in.

Brittany starts jogging, simply because it's the cheapest and easiest form of exercise there is. Plus, one of her neighbors, Catherine (Michaela Watkins), is a seasoned runner and it seems like the most obvious thing. Brittany and her roommate, Gretchen (Alice Lee), resent Catherine because she has a swanky penthouse in Manhattan and is just using their building in the outer boroughs as a photography studio.

But "Brittany," written and directed by Paul Downs Colaizzo, isn't content to leave people as their surface presentation would indicate. Everyone has layers and complexities, and Catherine is no exception. Running brings them together, though its just the beginning of a complicated relationship.

Brittany has one of those busy New York City lives that seems like a lot of fun on the outside but is crushingly lonely and depressing when they're not "turned on." She has a low-level job at a local theater, buys drinks for half the bar but has never had a meaningful relationship.

Brittany and Gretchen get along, but Gretchen is one of those "influencers" whose job seems to revolve around looking pretty and chronicling her awesome life. When Brittany starts to lose weight and get her act together, it sets off friction because it disrupts the power status they had both assumed for the relationship.

"You may keep the weight off but you will always be a fat girl. It's just who you are," Gretchen snaps.

Brittany takes a second job taking care of the houses and dogs of rich people when they're traveling, and encounters Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), a loser who takes the night shift but has actually turned it into a live-in gig. He's a typical movie man-child, in his 30s but still acting like a stupid teen, using the swanky abode to get hot dates.

They immediately clash, but according to the rules of the romantic comedy they must eventually fall for each other. Seth (Micah Stock), the good-natured gay man who becomes the running friend of Brittany and Catherine, even cheekily predicts this will happen.

Things go from there. The pounds slide off and Brittany starts to feel happy and confident, and makes plan to run in the next NYC Marathon. (Bell wears padding and makeup in the early going to make her seem heavier.) She begins to assert herself and nice things start to happen. Men who had previously ignored her pay attention and hold the subway door.


As I said, Colaizzo -- who wrote the movie based on a real-life friend -- refuses to deal in absolutes or simple answers. Without giving anything away, suffice it to say that Brittany's journey takes a few detours and backsteps.

This is a good and interesting movie. It straddles the genres of romance, comedy, drama and chick flick without worrying about fitting into any one slot. Bell is marvelous, and we find ourselves rooting for Brittany even when we know she's not always the nicest person or good at self-care.

The numbers on a scale can be useful, but they do not define us. What initially seems like a story about losing weight becomes something heftier and more human.

P.S.: Body Mass Index, or BMI, is pseudo-science horseshit, btw. It's a crude height-to-weight ratio that lumps in professional athletes with buffet-line kings. Did you know that America's "fat crisis" actually became a thing when the BMI threshold was suddenly changed in 1998, tossing 30 million "healthy" people into the "overweight" category? It doesn't even differentiate between men and women, or old and young. I could go on. I'll leave with my favorite anecdote about BMI: do you remember when Matthew McConaughey got grotesquely thin for "Dallas Buyers Club, resembling a fleshy, shambling scarecrow? According to BMI, he still fell in the "Normal" weight range.)

Review: "Rapid Response"

These days I'm seeing a lot of documentaries about musicians coming out, so it was actually something of a breath of fresh air to watch a science-y doc about medical innovations.

But "Rapid Response" isn't a dry recitation of university studies or talking eggheads, but a look at how the dangerous sport of auto racing spurred 50 years of massive improvements in safety and medical response capabilities.

This story is at its heart an Indianapolis one. Back in the early days of open-wheel racing there often wasn't even an ambulance on site at the track. If there was any emergency vehicle, it was a hearse loaned by a local mortuary that had little more than an oxygen tank in the back.

Co-directed by Roger Hinze and Michael William Miles, "Rapid Response" is essentially a love letter to auto racing that nevertheless doesn't skimp on portraying the inherent danger of the sport. Some of the statistics thrown out are just shocking: during the early heyday of open-wheel racing, one out of seven drivers was killed each season.

Two doctors in particular emerge at the center of the story: Dr. Terry Trammell, an orthopedic surgeon, and Dr. Stephen Olvey, an Indiana University School of Medicine grad who got his start as a medical student volunteer at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the 1960s. He later would became a leader of the medical teams for the United States Auto Club and Championship Auto Racing Teams. Olvey's book formed the basis for this documentary.

Playing out chronologically, "Rapid Response" paints a picture of how much medical safety has improved over the last five decades, which comprise the entirety of Olvey and Trammell's careers. Both men admit there were times they thought about walking away from the sport, horrified by the death and mayhem to the human body caused by vehicles that fly at more than 200 m.p.h.

Instead, they stayed in for the long haul and helped lead a wave of innovation that not only saved the lives of drivers, but has even became a standard part of the cars you and I drive today.

A veritable who's who of racing legends appear in interviews: Al and Bobby Unser, Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and more.

In the early days when a driver suffered a burn, they'd wipe motor oil on it. Pit crews or even members of the spectator crowd would usually be the first to respond to a crash. Eventually Dr. Thomas Hanna had the idea to establish a mini-hospital at the IMS. For years, Indianapolis was known as the best place to have a crash because the medical teams were often non-existent at other tracks.

The documentary walks us through various historical crashes, not from a voyeuristic intent but to see how the medical teams responded to the individual challenges faced. Layer upon layer, piece upon piece, a safety net was built around the drivers to better protect them from the inevitable crashes -- and save the integrity of the sport.

For example, early on the most common serious injuries were to the feet and ankles, since when the shallow noses of the cars met the wall, the driver was essentially stopping the vehicle with his legs. Longer noses with crumple zones were brought in.

Later, the effect of concussions and serious brain stem injuries led to the introduction of the HANS device, which stabilizes the racer's helmet and has now become standard equipment in virtually every sphere of auto racing.
Dr. Olvey talks about the time he actually called off a race because G-forces on the track were causing drivers to crash for seemingly no reason. Fans and race organizers grumbled, but relented. It's amazing to think of that sort of thing happening 50 or even 20 years earlier.

In another incident, driver Rick Mears suffered two badly broken ankles in a race near Montreal, where the Canadian doctors wanted to simply amputate his feet because it was the cheapest and most expedient solution. Racing doctors intervened, Mears flew back to the States for extensive surgery and still has his feet today.

The medical response to auto racing is still evolving. Amazingly, Kanaan talks about doing one of his rehabilitations in the basement of Dr. Trammell's own home. His first time back in the driver's seat was racing go-karts in the physician's circular driveway.

As "Rapid Response" notes, virtually every sport is plagued with injury and death. When doctors and organizations fail to respond, it can lead to a gradual but seismic shift in how we perceive the sport -- much as we are seeing with the NFL today.

This is the tale of how the often anonymous medical teams behind racing strove to stay ahead of the curve, and save lives.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Video review: "Men in Black: International"

The first “Men in Black” movie in 1997 was a watershed, a brilliant science fiction action/comedy that mashed up the buddy cop genre with a creature catalogue of alien critters created through a combination of animatronics and computer imagery.

The second in 2002 may hold the record as the laziest sequel of all time, and 10 years later they finally got around to a third one, which wasn’t any great shakes, either.

So for 2019 they decided to reboot the franchise without Will Smith of Tommy Lee Jones, swapping in Chris Hemsworth as the veteran agent of the secret agency that handles alien intrusion and Tessa Thompson as the cocky younger whippersnapper.

I can see the reasoning. Hemsworth is an established star playing Thor in the MCU movies, and Thompson paired up agreeably with him in a couple of them as a fellow headstrong warrior. His signature screen persona is “charismatic cad” while she’s been a vibrant presence in a bunch of smaller movies like “Sorry to Bother You” and “Dear White People.”

Alas, such was the experience of “Men in Black: International” that it was savaged by critics and did so poorly at the box office it may have dashed Hemsworth’s reign as a bankable star and stunted Thompson’s ascent into the same stratosphere.

This is just a bad and dull movie, which is a terrible combo. Sometimes awful flicks can keep moving forward under the momentum of their own trashiness. But “MiBI” just spins around in circles.

As Agents H and M, respectively, they’re battling the Hive, yet another race of alien no-gooders come to infect the Earth. Their main nemesis is a pair of shape-shifting Twins, and they get some help – or at least encouragement – from a tiny shoulder-riding alien named Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani).

Liam Neeson and Emma Thompson play senior leaders of the Men in Black, and Rebecca Ferguson is Riza, a criminal arms dealer who has a sordid romantic past with H.

Twice now I had thought the MiB franchise dead after lackluster sequels. My guess is third time’s the charm.

Bonus features for the Blu-Ray/DVD edition include a gag reel and eight making-of documentary shorts. Among the more interesting is the MiB taking on real NBA stars and another where the actors playing the Twins show off their dance moves.

Upgrade to the 4K Ultra combo pack and you add deleted scenes, a fake ad for the memory-wiping Neuralyzer device and an “” feature that allows one to track your off-world ancestors.