Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Review: "Motherless Brooklyn"

“Half the city is getting a ride on one of his horses.”
                                   --Paul Randolph
Man, there’s a lot of great stuff going on in “Motherless Brooklyn.” Splendid acting. Terrific cinematography and music. Spot-on period costumes, cars and backdrops. Snappy dialogue and an intricate plot.

It’s not a great movie, but it’s a damned interesting one.

This gorgeous and haunting crime drama, written, directed and starring Edward Norton, is like a beautiful chess board someone has set up with intricately carved pieces. You admire the handiwork that went into them and anticipate how they will be put to use.

Then you get ready to play, and they dump two more sets of pieces onto the board. What was a highfalutin parlor game becomes something of a chaotic mess.

Based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem, it’s set in 1950s New York City along the line dividing the slums, lowlife gumshoes and seedy jazz clubs from the skyscrapers, moneymen and spheres of politics. Norton is Lionel Essrog, the fifth man on the totem pole at a five-man private investigation firm who stumbles from the low end into the high.

Lionel is, by his own description, a mess. He has severe tics and outbursts of embarrassing words or sounds -- "if!" is the most common -- which today we would call Tourette syndrome. But back then it got him labeled as “spastic” or “freakshow,” and that’s by his friends.

“Bailey is what my head calls me,” Lionel explains, and many of his unwilling pronouncements are self-criticism using that nickname. He grew up in a rough foster home, protected by an older boy, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who later became a war hero, his boss and solitary backer.

Lionel’s brain makes all sorts of weird demands on him, like how objects must be ordered in a certain way or provoke another mortifying event. But it also gifts him with a tremendous memory and eye for detail. These are the tools he will bring to bear after Frank is murdered by some toughs sent by the big boys downtown.

The first third of the film is essentially a straight snooper story, and we are bedazzled and befuddled as Lionel travels from place to place, meets new people, takes pictures, tails cars and uncovers info. It’s shot in bright light and vibrant colors.

In the middle section, director Norton turns on the film noir look and mood, the action shifts largely to nighttime and shadows bend into the frame at odd angles. Lionel impersonates a reporter, asks lots of questions, inserts himself into the action and tries to assemble the pieces from the first part -- without much success.

The final act is the most vibrant, but also the most bewildering. There are shades of “Chinatown” by way of “Rain Man.” I enjoyed the hell out of it even as I struggled to make sense of it.

Other actors and story elements float in and out the film, sometimes disappearing for long stretches. The other three guys at the L&L investigation company -- Bobby Cannavale, Dallas Roberts and Ethan Suplee --  which also doubles as a car service when times are slow. Leslie Mann briefly turns up as Frank’s gun moll wife, as beautiful and hard as a nickel-plated .38.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Laura Rose, a beautiful “colored girl” and smart lawyer who would seem to be at the center of whatever Frank was digging up. Cherry Jones as a crusading community organizer fighting the city’s race to convert working-class black neighborhoods into pristine public works. Michael K. Williams as a smooth and tortured jazz man. Willem Dafoe as a seemingly crazed fellow who hangs around the back of important rooms, says a lot and knows even more.

Lurking over the entire film like a threatening cloud is Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolph, a storied public servant who has labored to transform the city for 30 years. He is the commissioner of parks, construction and buildings, planning, and seemingly any other office he wants. Mayors and other elected officials come and go; Mo is eternal.

It’s a grandiose performance by Baldwin, who seems physically immense, like a charging buffalo shaved down and squeezed into a suit. He has a great scene where he and Lionel finally hash things out in a bath house, where Mo reveals his true nature while he describes what having power is really like.

Having true power, Mo explains, means when somebody else has an idea you don’t like, or you just don’t like the person who has it, then that idea goes away. He sees himself as a builder and a doer who denigrates the thinkers whose lofty dreams are never realized.

It’s a scarily mesmerizing soliloquy, not to mention a well-aimed dart at the mentality of those in real life holding the reins of power.

I sat back and marveled at “Motherless Brooklyn,” the keen way it evokes a place and time while effortless throwing off great writing like a description of being “calm as Hindu cows.” I can’t say I was completely engaged by the film; my guess is most people will find it confusing and scattershot.

But I was never less than fascinated.

Review: "Harriet"

We have a tragic tendency to sanitize great American historical figures, usually to their benefit but mostly to our own detriment. The unwillingness to see George Washington or Thomas Jefferson as complete human beings seems to take one of two forms: deifying them to the point of absurdity or trying to hold their failings as evidence of utter moral decrepitude.

Harriet Tubman is ripe for reexamination as a complicated figure. Taught in the history books as a saintly lady who was a key “conductor” on the Underground Railroad bringing slaves to freedom, Tubman has been revealed in more recent scholarship as a rough, pistol-packing woman capable of great egotism and jealousy.

“Harriet” is the vibrant new cinematic portrait of Tubman played by relative unknown Cynthia Erivo, who won’t stay that way long. Director Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard, has delivered a bravura film that is part reverence, part religion-tinged redemption and part action/adventure.

It’s a compelling, complex biopic.

The story begins in 1849 Maryland, where Aramintra “Minty” Ross was born to slave parents held by the Brodess family, though her father (Clarke Peters) later earned his freedom. Minty was also allowed to marry another free black, John Tubman (a soulful Zackary Momoh), but remained in bondage after the patriarch of the slave owners died and the yoke passed to the spiteful son, Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn, utterly chilling).

The film actually follows the historical record pretty closely, with obvious fictionalized portions to fill in the gaps. So there are created figures like Walter (Henry Hunter Hall), a charming rapscallion slave tracker who walks the line between friend and foe, and the much scarier Bigger Long (Omar Dorsey), who seems to regard returning slaves to bondage as his personal calling.

Other aspects of the story that might seem like Hollywood hokum are actually part of the historical record. For example, that Minty was injured by a heavy object thrown by a master splitting her head open as a girl that left a dent in her forehead, and was prone to somnambulist spells the rest of her life where she would go into a daze.

It was during these times that Tubman claimed to commune with God. “The hole in my head just made God’s voice more clear,” she says.

Emotionally rent by already having three older sisters sold and lost to the family forever, Minty resolves not to let the same happen when Gideon means to sell her away down south. She runs away to Philadelphia, a harrowing journey assisted by kindly black preacher (Vondie Curtis-Hall) who cites Biblical scripture about slaves honoring their masters during the day but preaches a different tune when white folks aren’t around.

There she meets and allies with noted abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and finds friendship with Marie Buchanan (Janelle Monáe), a sympathetic but privileged black hotelier.

The film’s strongest sections relate to Tubman’s escapades back to Maryland and other slaveholding states to rescue other slaves, her legend steadily growing. Because she dresses in a man’s clothing and sings hymns about slaves freeing themselves from the Egyptian pharaohs, she is given the name of Moses by the slave masters. For her part, Minty takes her husband’s last name and her mother’s first to form her own “free name.”

It’s a wonderful, rich story, and at the center of it all is Erivo as Harriet.

The actress plays her as a woman born to believe she is nothing, but her faith and resolve eventually force her to strive against a system that is evil and unjust. Especially haunting is the strange relationship she has with Gideon, who grew up with her as children and clearly covets her for more than her cash price.

She begins the film with eyes wide and fearful, and as time goes on her gaze gains a hard glint. The legend of Harriet Tubman has grown to titanic size, but “Harriet” shows the extraordinaire real woman who begat centuries of stories. This is one of the year's best films.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Battle of Britain" (1969)

There really isn't much acting per se in "Battle of Britain," the big-budget recreation of the war in the skies over the U.K. in the summer and fall of 1940, which historians regard as a turning point in World War II.

If Hitler had pressed the attack after Dunkirk instead of relying on the German superior air power to soften up the Brits, the thinking goes, the United Kingdom almost certainly would have fallen, and they'd be eating sauerkraut in the Bronx these days.

The aerial spectacle is the real star of this show, despite the presence of luminaries like Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Edward Fox, Christopher Plummer, Trevor Howard, Susannah York, Robert Shaw, Ralph Richardson, Harry Andrews, Michael Redgrave and even a young and off-puttingly smooth-faced Ian McShane.

Unlike most war pictures of this era that make extensive use of stock footage and terrible models, director Guy Hamilton and his crew assembled an impressive armada of vintage aircraft (or contemporaneous lookalikes) and deployed them in the skies, using real WWII pilots as consultants. They did use models for some of the scenes where planes blow up in the sky, and life-size replicas on the ground for similar pyrotechnic mayhem.

At the time, the producers boasted of having the "35th largest air force in the world." And it pays off: I couldn't spot a single instance of canned footage in the movie.
The final result is a film of impressive verisimilitude. One really gets a taste for what it must have been luck to be a British RAF pilot in those days, where they might fly five missions in a single day and new recruits might last a week. The sound design is quite impressive for its time, often the only audio we hear except for occasional radio chatter.

You might lament the lack of anything more than superficial characterization of any of the figures. McShane gets a surprisingly large amount of the non-flying screen time, playing a young pilot whose entire family is wiped out while hiding in an air raid shelter.

Shaw -- still sporting that blond dye job he used while fighting James Bond -- also gets a few moments on the homestead as Skipper (his name, not title), a demanding squadron leader known for rattling newbies with his aggressive in-air dogfighting simulations.

When one of the green pilots is ordered up for a one-on-one session, the veterans give him a teasing prelude, mimicking the commanders' radio simulation of machine-gun fire: "Attackattackattackattackattacka…"

Plummer and York probably have the most depth as a married couple both in the military. He plays squadron leader Colin Harvey, and she is Maggie, an officer in the women's air support unit. He repeatedly presses her -- demands angrily, really -- that she transfer to a closer station so they can be together. But she desires an identity of her own and keeps putting him off, which sours their infrequent liaisons in pubs or hotels.

At one point she is introduced to another flight officer with severe burn scars, which serves as an obvious premonition to Colin's own bout with being trapped in a flaming Spitfire. Lamentably, the screenplay by James Kennaway and Wilfred Greatorex simply drops their story after the revelation of his injuries, so we don't get to see the impact on their already tenuous relationship.

I rather liked Olivier as RAF chief Hugh Dowding, who is analytical and outspoken, eschewing the usual sort of military bluster. He writes a letter to his superior advocating for abandoning air support of the remaining French forces, knowing it will be controversial and go straight to the desk of Winston Churchill.

Later, after a rare victory in which the British fighters take out a horde of German bombers without a single loss, Dowding is called by a press official looking for confirmation and a quote so he can flog the story. "I don't care for propaganda," he responds, simply hanging up the phone on the man.

Most of the 2¼-hour running time is taken up with the air show, which surprisingly doesn't grow tiresome. My dad was in the Air Force (navigator/bombardier) during the Korean War and there are a number of pilots on my wife's side of the family, so I have a bit of an affinity for this stuff.

Director Hamilton doesn't even use the usual trick of constantly focusing on the pilots' faces to emphasize the human element. There are some cuts to the cockpit, but since it's difficult to even tell which actor is which with their goggles, mask and flight cap, there really isn't much point.

I was joking to myself that Caine's role was more voiceover than lives shots. He could've literally phoned it in, though I don't think he does. He plays another squadron leader, Canfield, who's vexed by how his unit is constantly being moved around. He doesn't seem to have any family or friends, just a dog as his companion/totem.

Interestingly, "Battle of Britain" has two completely different sets of musical score. Sir William Walton's music was rejected by the United Artists chief, who tried to get John Barry to do one, but he declined. Ron Goodwin was finally tapped to do the replacement score.

Olivier got wind of this and threatened to take his name off the credits, so the bigwigs relented and incorporated some of Walton's music into the final film. His complete score was later discovered, recorded and released.

The scenario reminds me of what happened to Bernard Hermann's score for "Torn Curtain," which was rejected by Alfred Hitchcock and ended their long and storied collaboration. To my ear, Goodwin's music is fairly standard-issue military march stuff.

"Battle of Britain" is also interesting for spending a little time on the German side of the fight, as scrappy overconfident pilots slowly become disillusioned with their commanders' tactics.

A festive beachside feast where they look though spyglasses at the white cliffs of Dover across the channel, yearning to conquer those shores, is contrasted with a much more subdued dinner toward the end. Hein Riess plays Hermann Göring, the plump and pompous head of the Luftwaffe, who seems more interested in strutting about in a white uniform that coming up with a winning strategy.

"Battle of Britain" succeeds as a spectacle if not as a human drama. I would contrast it with Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk," which was all about the people with the hardware in the background. Still, watching all those Stukas and Spitefires duke it out in the sky is an undeniable treat.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Video review: "The Lion King"

Disney’s obsession with remakes shows no signs of slowing, even with the occasional stumbles like “Dumbo.” “The Lion King” made more than a billion dollars at the box office, despite adding nothing to the legacy of one of animation’s most iconic achievements.

When “The Lion King” came out in 1994, animation was in the midst of a revitalization after having been in the doldrums for three decades. And here was this big, epic story with Shakespearean notes about a murdered king and his exiled son.

Except it was a cartoon with animals and pop music songs.

Turning it into a live-action movie, with few minor changes in the story and even the same musical numbers, seems like an exercise in artistic futility. I’d rather just watch the original again and be done. The studio actually released a 3-D version of it a few years back to milk some more dollars out of it.

It’s a beautiful-looking picture, directed by Jon Favreau from a screenplay by Jeff Nathanson. It just doesn’t have any reason to exist.

Oddly, even though nearly the entire voice acting cast is still around, only James Earle Jones was allowed to return with his basso profundo growl as King Mufasa. Notable new players include Donald Glover as Simba, Beyoncé as Nala, John Oliver as Zazu, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, Seth Rogen as Pumbaa and Billy Eichner as Timon.

You know the story: young Simba the lion is set to inherit the throne from his father, but when dad is killed by his nefarious uncle, he runs away to live a carefree life with some new buddies he stumbles upon. Eventually circumstances, and the romantic pull of running into his childhood friend, entice him to return and try to reclaim his birthright.

The experience of watching this remake after the original is like seeing a new play on Broadway that goes on to win a raft of Tony awards and has seismic reverberations in the industry, and then years later seeing it again on the stage at the Peoria civic theater with the roles reprised by local school teachers and CPAs. 

Even when it’s well done, it’s merely an echo of something great from long ago.

Bonus features are expansive and sumptuous. They start with a feature-length audio commentary track by Favreau’ seven “song selections” of key musical pieces two music videos by Beyoncé and Elton John for their two new songs; animation progression sequences showing how four key scenes were built in layers; three making-of documentary shorts: “The Music,” “The Magic” and “The Timeless Tale;” plus “Project the Pride,” and about conservationist efforts the studio undertook to help protect African lions.



Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Review: "Maleficent: Mistress of Evil"

I was somewhat ambivalent about “Maleficient” from five years ago, liking the idea of the movie -- the villainess from “Sleeping Beauty” recast as a troubled protagonist -- more than the one they actually made. Certainly visually it was striking, with otherworldly beauty Angelina Jolie done up in horns, death-white flesh and strangely angular cheekbone prosthetics.

It made a boatload of money, so here’s another.

If I sound jaded, it’s because I am. But even though this sequel seems unnecessary and rather ham-handed at times, I found I enjoyed it more than the first one.

It has fewer pretensions about doing a truly dark and brooding movie while still retaining the family film label and PG rating. Jolie still gets to scowl and threaten as the winged witch of the north, though this time it’s played for laughs. At one point someone actually urges her to smile more, but not enough to show fangs.

The expectations society has for fairy demonesses these days! You must smile, but not too much, take a human lover but later kill him.

If you’ll recall the story from the first film, Maleficent is queen of the Moors, the shrouded land of fairies bordered (on all sides, it seems) but human kingdoms. Her human boyfriend betrayed her, cutting off her wings in order to secure the throne of his kingdom. For revenge Maleficent cursed his daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning), though later grew close to her and even became her godmother.

Five years have passed, and now Aurora is set to wed her comely-but-disposable gentleman love, Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). This means Maleficent must meet his parents, King John (Robert Lindsay) and Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) of Ulstead, in a celebratory feast. And before you ask: Yes, the film milks the obvious “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” joke.

Things.,. don’t go well.

It doesn’t take much thought to realize that John is a wise and peaceable king, while Ingrith harbors Cersei-ish inclinations. Before you can say “poisoned needle,” she has launched a war against the fairies, intending to wipe them all out in one go. It also seems she’s the one who has been spreading nasty rumors about Maleficent all these years so humans will fear her.

It’s basically high school, but with curses instead of gossipy texts.

The really interesting thing is that all though we had thought Maleficent was one of a kind, it turns out there’s a whole lost race of them. Called “dark fey,” they’re sort of a cross between feral hawks and indigenous natives, covering their bodies in paint or scars.

They’ve been exiled for centuries on an island that is apparently just a 90-second flight away from Maleficent’ s kingdom, which shows you how much of a homebody she is. Their leader is the benevolent Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) while the younger and hunk-ier Borra (Ed Skrein) calls for war.

It’s a bit strange that Ingrith has engineered the creation of an entire war machine of specialized weapons deadly against the fey, despite never having any knowledge that they existed. Warwick Davis crops up as her pet weapons master, experimenting upon captured fairies and using their most sacred flower, “tomb blooms,” in his dank dungeon laboratory.

There are plenty of action scenes, including lots of deaths, though fairies tend to just sort of “phsh” into clouds of dust or pollen rather than bleed out. There’s quite a menagerie of creatures, with my favorite being the giant tree golem creatures with woody skull faces and no eyes.

The “Maleficent” sequel a big, colorful, fun and not terribly plausible movie that weaves its silly spell well.

Review: "Dolemite Is My Name"

I went into “Dolemite Is My Name” without any foreknowledge; I only knew that it starred Eddie Murphy and was set in the 1970s. It was not until the film’s end credits that I learned it’s a biopic of a real person, singer/actor/comedian Rudy Ray Moore.

I’m not familiar with Moore’s 1975 film, “Dolemite,” or the ones that followed. I confess I’ve never delved deep into the Blaxploitation genre, as the ones I’ve seen are pretty silly and/or icky.

Interestingly, that’s one of the key themes of the movie: how white and black audiences value different things in their cinematic tastes. For example, nobody depicted in this movie would ever use the word “cinematic.”

There’s a terrific scene where Rudy (Murphy) and his buddies go to see “The Front Page,” a 1974 comedy starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthew as squabbling journalists. They peer around at the mostly white audience, laughing it up and enjoying the heck out of the picture, which they find completely unfunny and limp.

Where are the boobies, kung fu fighting and explosions? Rudy demands. That’s what black audiences want to see. So they set out to make their own movie for their own tribe.

It’s the best film role Eddie Murphy has had in years, playing an over-the-hill, 6th-rate comic who works in a record shop by day and does a lame emcee shtick at a local music club at night. He can’t even get the DJ (Snoop Dogg) of the little in-house radio station at the record store to play some of his old R&B 45s.

With an ample belly, thinning patch of hair that he covers with an afro wig and outlandish velour-and-polyester outfits, Murphy’s Rudy Ray Moore is a formerly cool guy grasping at the scraps of his youth. He moved to Los Angeles from his backwater home in Arkansas to make it big, and decades later he’s still small-time.

“I ain’t got nothin’ nobody wants,” he laments.

One day Rudy gets an idea to create a new act out of the boasting and jokes of the local “bums” -- using the parlance of the day – particularly their affinity for a mythological urban hero named Dolemite. His sex-and-braggadocio exploits are used as a common riff. Rudy pays them for their jokes, then assembles them to create the character of Dolemite for himself.

It’s an instant hit, and soon he’s touring the country doing the Dolemite act, cutting comedy records that inch their way up the Billboard charts, and even takes on a protégé in the form of Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a plus-sized woman who’s spent her life being put down.

Remember how Rudy’s gang was mystified by the white-people comedy? That’s how I felt about the Dolemite act. There don’t appear to be any real jokes, just a series of put-downs and relating of endless sexual exploits. But audiences at black clubs eat it up.

It’s a telling dichotomy: African-Americans, after centuries of degradation, crave loud and boisterous self-affirmation; while privileged whites like me cling to humility as the lost virtue, and find such displays crass.

Despite his success, Rudy decides that to truly be a big star he needs to make a movie. He scrapes together some money and recruits his friends, adds some UCLA film students and a smattering of white actors to play the heavies, and unofficially takes over an abandoned hotel as their studio.

Of course, none of them know what the hell what they’re doing. So D’Urville Martin, an actual name actor played by Wesley Snipes, is recruited to co-star in the picture. Effete and snobby, he initially refuses until he’s offered the director’s chair -- a position he seems to hold only titularly, spending most of his days on the set drinking, having to be prodded to say “Action” or “Cut.”

The rest of the cast includes Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chris Rock, Tituss Burgess, and a few other notables of black Hollywood. But the spotlight is clearly on Murphy here.

It’s an entertaining, thoroughly raunchy movie, directed by Craig Brewer from a screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. (All white guys, it should be noted.)

The movie also serves as an excellent time capsule of the cultural shift in the early- to mid-70s, a time when you could walk into a movie theater and see pornographic movies but record stores wouldn’t carry albums containing too much cursing.

“Dolemite Is My Name” is the story of a man whom popular culture had decided deserved to be a Lilliputian, but harbored gigantic ambitions that would not accept that judgment. Rudy Ray Moore willed himself into the star he felt he should be, despite not having any particular talent.

But he knew what his people wanted, and gave it to them. Whether what they wanted was worthy is above my pay grade.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Video review: "The Art of Self-Defense"

“The Art of Self-Defense” is one of those curious pictures that has a lot of things going for it but never really adds up to much.

It clearly is “influenced” by 1999’s seminal “Fight Club” – to use the polite word. Writer/director Casey Davies is looking to say something about the state of modern masculinity, how we’ve entered this strange bullied/bullier dichotomy where men are either strong and malevolent or weak and preyed upon.

It’s a very dark comedy, which is another way of saying there are few, if any, laugh-out-loud moments.

Jesse Eisenberg, king of ironic Millennial cinematic wimps – though Michael Cera might challenge to the throne – plays Casey, a lonesome fellow who works in the accounting department of some unnamed large company. One day while going to the store he is viciously beaten up by some hoodlums on motorcycles.

While recovering from his injuries he wanders into a karate dojo in the low-rent section of town and is bedazzled by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), who wants his students to punch with their feet and kick with their hands. He is seemingly calm and soothing but also confrontational and disparaging.

We sense that he likes the martial arts because it allows him to establish a pecking order, clearly delineated by ranks and colored belts, with himself at the top of the chain. It soon becomes clear that he sees those he instructs not as students but recruits into his cult of personality.

Casey starts listening to heavy metal and acting in a belligerent way at the urging of Sensei. In becoming what he beheld, though, he finds little emotional fulfillment.

This is a very dour, wry movie. It seems more interested in imparting a lesson than telling a story. And even the tale it does tell is one we’ve heard before.

Not surprisingly for a low-budget indie that made little ripple at the box office, “The Art of Self-Defense” is rather sparse on video extras.

They include “An Important Message from Sensei” featuring Nivola, and short interviews with cast and crew. That’s it.



Thursday, October 10, 2019

Review: "The Addams Family"

“The Addams Family” was a great concept for a TV show, with such vivid, off-kilter characters, but I can’t recall a single episode if pressed.

It was a one-joke show, and later one-joke live-action movies: the Addamses are death-obsessed freaks and monsters who love darkness and decay. They’re the mirrored opposite of the standard American family, openly trying to kill each other instead of pretending to adore one another.

They’re a Halloween clan. Instead of embracing creepy stuff one night a year, they live it 24/7.

The two Barry Sonnenfeld pictures were a hit, but after Raul Julia (as patriarch Gomez Addams) died young no one wanted to continue the franchise. Anjelica Huston (un-maternal Morticia), Christini Ricci (dour daughter Wednesday) and Christopher Lloyd (the other one) as ultra-creepy Uncle Fester all milked good roles.

A quarter-century later the Addams are back as an animated movie with voices by Oscar Isaac, Charlie Theron, Chloe Grace Moretz and Nick Kroll (respective to how they’re listed above).

It pretty much hits all the notes you expect: familiar reprises of the main characters with a few noticeable twists; amped-up action scenes courtesy of the endless possibilities that come with computer animation; and some rote life lessons about the importance of family... even a murderous one.

We get a little of the family backstory, which sounds astonishingly similar to the "Hotel Transylvania" flicks: the monstrous clan was chased out of its ancestral home by torch-bearing villagers and set up shop in a lonely cliffside mansion in the worse place possible: New Jersey.

Cut to 13 years later, and they've never stepped outside the grounds of their haunted house, formerly an asylum, which comes complete with an evil spirit constantly moaning "Get out!" and trying to sever fingers with slamming windows or whatnot.

First son Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) is preparing for his ritual passage into manhood, known as a Mazurka -- think bar mitzvah but with deadly saber dance moves. Gomez is fearful that his offspring just doesn't have the family goods.

Meanwhile, Wednesday yearns to find out what's beyond their fence, and discovers that an entire town has sprung up in the valley below. A blowhard home-improvement TV maven named Margaux (Allison Janney) runs the show there, a pink-and-green wonderland of tackiness that's borrowed straight out of "Edward Scissorhands."

Wednesday decides to attend the junior high school in the city, called "Assimilation," in case anything's too subtle for ya. She befriends Margaux's daughter, Parker (Elsie Fisher). The two become friends and join in a rebellion going in opposite directions, with Parker adopting a goth look and Wednesday adding unicorns and color splashes to her family's signature B&W shtick.

"Everyone knows pink is a gateway color," Morticia frets.

Moretz is terrific as Wednesday, giving her just the right lilt and formality in her inflections to always render her lines funny. Theron is good too as Morticia, who has no visible feet and floats around in a skinny black dress that hides spiders and other creepy-crawlies.

I noticed most of the men are drawn with thick, chocky bodies while the women usually have cartoonish spindly limbs and torsos. The opening sequence shows Mortician literally bolting and screwing herself into her gown, and I wish the filmmakers had thought about this stuff beforehand.

Thing is here, the body-less hand bounding about in a helpful way. In this iteration he actually has a small eye at the wrist, which is either a new thing or something I'd never noticed before. In one of the film's funnier throwaway bits, we learn that Thing has something of a foot fetish, which kind of makes sense when you think about it.

Giant butler Lurch (Conrad Vernon, also one of the directors) groans and serves, though he's got a bit of an eye-roll thing and has some decidedly fancy side interests. Cousin It (Snoop Dogg) shows up pretty late in the game, big pimpin' in a Cadillac and still indecipherable under all that hair.

"The Addams Family" was directed by Vernon and Greg Tiernan, who made the much-overrated "Sausage Party" together, from a screenplay by Matt Lieberman. My kids enjoyed it well enough, but it's cookie-cutter disposable entertainment that tries just hard enough.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Review: "Gemini Man"

It’s one thing for a character to say they’re haunted by ghosts; it’s quite another to show the ghosts. “Gemini Man” does the former while scrimping on the latter.

I’ll be straight: I was prepared to duck the screening for “Gemini Man.” It’s a busy time of year and there’s a lot of movies to pay attention to. The trailers, in which Will Smith, playing a world-class assassin who encounters a younger CGI’d double of himself, looked pretty goofy.

Digital alteration of reality continues to advance, and we’ve all seen those freaky-deaky “deep fake” videos of Bill Hader transforming into Arnold Schwarzenegger or whatnot. But the truth is it still hasn’t gotten to the point where it’s totally convincing. So I was prepared to give “Gemini” a skip.

Then I saw the creative team: Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) directing? Two of the screenwriters are David Benioff (“Game of Thrones”) and Billy Ray (an Oscar nominee for “Captain Phillips”)? The credentials are there, maybe the film’s better than advertised?


It’s not a bad movie by any means. It’s got lots of vigorous action scenes, including a killer one where the two warriors battle on motorcycles, with the younger one using the bike itself as a weapon. There are also exotic international locales, a sniveling villain, and other hallmarks of the spy thriller genre. In terms of action set pieces, it’s basically a low-rent Bond film.

But that’s all it is. Lee and the screenwriters (Darren Lemke is the third) make aspirations toward something deeper and more meaningful, but keep falling back on stunts and shootouts instead of exploring the main characters’ inner psyches.

Smith plays Henry Brogan, a legendary sniper for the Defense Intelligence Agency. He’s spent 30 years making impossible kill shots, dubbed AMFs -- “Adios, Mother Flipper,” or thereabouts -- such as the one that opens the picture of a terrorist getting it through the window of a speeding European bullet train. Now after 72 confirmed kills he’s ready to hang it up, citing age, fading skills and the aforementioned ghosts.

Turns out the last kill wasn’t a clean one, but cooked up by old nemesis Clay Verris, played by Clive Owen in full jowls-and-scowls mode. He runs the titular Gemini program, a quasi-military force used by governments to clean up their messes. And they’ve concluded that Henry is the loose tie that needs to be snipped.

We’ve seen this before in every spy franchise, from Bond to Bourne to Jack Reacher. Someone in the government decides the veteran killer needs to be killed, racking up tremendous deaths and expenditure of resources in the process, necessitating even more stuff to throw at the guy.

At some point I’d like to see a movie where an armchair spymaster says, “You know what? Better just leave him be.”

Gemini’s secret weapon is Junior (also Smith), who was cloned from Henry’s DNA. The young man has spent his entire life being trained by Verris to be the ultimate killer. He’s got all of Henry’s moves plus a few parkour-style bits where he bounces off walls and such. But does he have the same hidden conscious eating away at him, suggesting all his jobs may not be on the up-and-up?

As I said, the likeness is not terrible, akin to Smith during his “Fresh Prince” days. He acted out the role normally and then a younger version of his face was digitally stitched on. It works OK in fleeting shots or darkness, but when the camera has to hold in bright light, it has a very video game feel.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Danny, a DIA agent sent to tail Henry who ends up becoming his capable ally. She and Henry flirt in between the firefights, while pretending not to. Douglas Hodge and Benedict Wong are old friends brought in to help out.

The dialogue is truly cringe-worthy at times, with lines such as “It’s like watching the Hindenburg crash into the Titanic.” My personal (dis)favorite is Henry waking up Danny in bed and she pulls a pistol on him. “It’s not gun time, it’s coffee time,” he purrs, handing her a brimming mug. What the…?

I was expecting “Gemini Man” to be more a psychological thriller interspersed with action scenes about two hardcases with intertwined identities, a la “Face/Off.” But it’s just a straight-up action movie featuring Old Will Smith and digitally de-aged Will Smith.

It’s garden-variety gunplay, with a Benjamin Button twist.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Funny Face" (1957)

Most film observers consider "Funny Face" a beloved musical, but I'd place it toward the shallow end of director Stanley Donen's canon.

The story's pretty trite and predictable, the sort of thing where two people loathe each other right up until the moment they realize they're madly in love. Its view of male/female relationships hasn't aged particularly well. And it plays like a sendup of Beatnik culture by a bunch of squares who didn't realize they were about to be supplanted in popular culture.

Plus, it features several numbers by notable non-singer Audrey Hepburn, as well as Fred Astaire, an iconic dance-and-song man who never suffered any illusions about where his best talents lay.

Let's put it this way: I may have skipped ahead a bit during the many overlong hoofing scenes.

It was based on a Broadway musical from 1927 by George and Ira Gershwin that helped first make Astaire a star, playing opposite his sister, Adele. (Ewwww.) It was his first appearance in the top hat and tails that would become his signature look.

The story and most of the original songs were largely scrapped for the film version, written by Leonard Gershe, who actually wrote an earlier play that inspired "Funny Face."

Of course, Astaire was no spring chicken in 1957, creeping up on 60 and still trying a little too hard to hang with the cool kids. Hepburn was nearly 30 years his junior, though the onscreen contrast isn't too egregious. With the help of Hollywood makeup/lighting, his omnipresent toupee and a paucity of close-ups, Astaire reasonably passes for late 30s or early 40s.

He plays Dick Avery, star photographer for the fictional Quality magazine, the leading publication for women's fashion. Kay Thompson is Maggie Prescott, the domineering editor who's like a somewhat more benevolent version of Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly from "The Devil Wears Prada." She's determined to base the entire magazine's identity around a single woman, one with intellect and ambition, but finds all the existing models too doltish to serve.

While taking over a bohemian book shop for an impromptu photo shoot, Dick notices the drab little clerk, Jo Stockton (Hepburn), has the hidden qualities of a girl who "thinks as well as she looks." They whisk her away to Paris for a photo shoot and launch of a major new fashion line by Paul Duval (Robert Flemyng), the world's most famous designer.

The running gag is that Jo is so intellectually bent that she keeps running away to cafes and lectures, and Dick has to chase her around to get her to come model. She's ensorcelled by the teachings of a French professor, Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair), but it turns out he's just a regular ol' meanie man who's interested in her for sex.

Jo's big obsession is "empathicalism," which I thought was a made-up word but is just a noun for the state of having empathy for others. Somehow Professor Flostre isn't empathic enough to tell that the woman he's putting moves on isn't interested, and he's rewarded with an expensive vase smashed over his head.

I did like some things about the movie. Thompson is a hoot as the charmingly snooty Maggie, who sings an opening number, "Think Pink!", forcing her small army of female hangers-on to don the aforementioned shade while swearing she wouldn't be caught dead doing so herself. It's nice to see a Golden Age era depiction of a 50ish woman where she's neither a mother or a lover.

Thompson was an intriguing figure who spent most of her showbiz career in the background as a musical director and vocal coach/arranger. She spent years promoting the career of Andy Williams -- and secretly canoodling with him, according to his autobiography -- and was the author of the "Eloise" series of children's books, based on her own childhood imaginary friend and alter ego.

None of the songs really stand out in one's memory, although "Bonjour, Paris!" comes closest, an energetic tromp through the city by the three main characters, converging on top of the Eiffel Tower. "'S Wonderful" was already a standard, though Astaire and Hepburn's duet of it lacks energy.

I did enjoy the slower, more romantic dance for "He Loves and She Loves," the culmination of a montage of Paris photo shoots that ends with her wearing a wedding dress. (The modern woman may be strong and independent, but she must eventually marry.)

They flit about in the gorgeous gardens outside an old church, and at one point dance onto a river raft, which carries them across the way so they can continue prancing on the other side. Lovely stuff.

Other musical numbers fall flat. Hepburn's free-form balletic dance moves in a free-thinking café is fun for about a minute, and then it just keeps going... and going. Thompson and Astaire doing the bumpkinish "Clap Yo' Hands" -- borrowed from another Gershwin play -- while impersonating a couple from Tallahassee is downright painful to watch.

After "Funny Face" and the subsequent "Silk Stockings" didn't fare very well at the box office, Astaire announced he was retiring from dancing on film. He continued to act in non-musical movies like "Ben-Hur" and "On the Beach," and did dance on television from time to time. He danced once more in a feature film, 1974's "The Towering Inferno," for which he received his only Oscar nomination.

As for Hepburn, she was right in the middle of a major phase of stardom that would continue for another decade or so before a self-imposed step-back from acting to focus on her family and humanitarian career.

Today it seems silly that Hepburn, one of the great beauties of the screen, could star in a movie premised on her being funny-looking. But she did break aesthetic barriers with her boyish haircuts and pixie-like features.

I wish I could say I found "Funny Face" as groundbreaking as its subject.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Video review: "Toy Story 4"

I enjoyed “Toy Story 4,” though I’m not terribly happy they made it.

That may sound strange, but here’s why: “Toy Story 3” was a very conscious end to the animated franchise. In it the child Andy, now all grown into a young man, gave away his toys to little Bonnie, and quite literally rode off into the sunset.

Cowboy Woody (voice of Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and the rest of the toys, who come to life when humans aren’t around, had completed their life’s journey and started anew.

Watching them come back for another romp that’s fun but hardly up to the standards of the other movies is like going to see a favorite singer who’s now aged and can’t hold the notes anymore. You enjoy being around him, but can’t help thinking it would’ve been better for everyone if he’d hung it up.

In this story the toy gang finds themselves in a remote mountain village, where Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) is the evil/warped toy du jour. She’s of roughly the same vintage as Woody, and resents that she never got a child of her own.

The big twist is the return of Bo Peep (Annie Potts), Woody’s former girlfriend who disappeared long ago. She’s now a free-living, adventure-seeking “lost toy” who embraces her independence.

As I said, I doubt anyone who likes these movies will fail to be entertained by “Toy Story 4.” But let’s put it this way: I had to look up my review of the movie from just three months ago, because the story and details had already faded from my memory.

That never happened with the other “Toy Story” movies. They stick in the mind and the heart.

Bonus features are pretty good. There’s an audio commentary track, six deleted scenes and the following documentary shorts: “Toy Stories,” “Woody & Buzz,” “Bo Rebooted,” “Toy Box” and “Let’s Ride With Ally Maki.”

Digital-only material includes one additional deleted scene and another featurette, “Anatomy of a Scene: Prologue.”