Thursday, December 31, 2020

Top 10 films of 2020


I've made a Top 10 list every year for about 25 years now, and if I were to line up 2020 in the cinematic pantheon I would call it about an average year for movies. Maybe a wee touch below -- not because we're missing nearly all of the big-budget films that pushed their release to the next year (or streaming platforms) because of "you know." But because the crop of award contenders that arrive in a rush of screeners at year's end severely disappointed me. 

I powered through about a film a day during mid-November to mid-December, and the best stuff all arrived right at the beginning. It was a long slog after that.

So by necessity all of my favorite movies were "small" films, though I must say my tastes have been trending that way the last few years anyway. What can I say, getting older and all that. I still can adore the Star Wars and Marvel pictures and whatnot, just not enough to break into my top 10.

What I did not love were the two movies I was most anticipating since springtime, when it became clear only a handful of blockbusters would see their way to wide release. I really, really, really wanted to love "Tenet" and "Wonder Woman 1984." Instead they were among the year's biggest disappointments, not truly awful flicks but a crushing fall from the heights we were used to.

A big notable change you'll see in this list is the inclusion of films that debuted on video-on-demand or streaming services like Netflix, Amazon or Apple TV+. I'll never give up my belief that theaters is the best way to experience film, but this is the way of the new, platform-neutral world.

So here is my Top 10 Films of 2020, along with the usual odd jamble of contenders I considered for the list. 

Other than the two mentioned above, I won't be doing a "worst of" or "most disappointing" list this year because, frankly, it's a depressing exercise. And bad movies tend to leave few footprints in my memory... going through my review list this year I'm amazed how many I'd complete forgotten.

  1. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom -- Yet another adaptation of an August Wilson play swings for the fences, and knocks it over. Denzel Washington's biggest impact on cinema may yet be as a producer rather than an actor. A true ensemble piece with no lead characters, it centers around Viola Davis as a powerful and resentful blues singer and Chadwick Boseman as the ambitious young coronet player who wants to do his own thing. Both buck up against the white power structure but in very different ways. Gorgeous and yet full of ugliness, musical and timeless.
  2. Mank -- This year's real love-it-or-hate-it flick. Or rather, love-it-or-be-utterly-indifferent to it. Many of my fellow Indiana critics said it left them listless and bored. Which is astonishing to me. I, who constantly complain that so many movies are too long, was never less than enthralled for 131 minutes. Another powerhouse performance from Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz, the scribe behind "Citizen Kane." (And, somewhat, Orson Welles too.) Great black-and-white cinematography, a surprisingly sensitive portrait of Hearst and Amanda Seyfried wowed me like never before. Old school "Oscar bait" filmmaking.
  3. Wolfwalkers -- Far and away the best animated film of 2020, so of course it'll lose the Oscar to Pixar's medium-good "Soul." From the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, a mythical tale of a girl who encounters were-creatures and wants to kill them, but winds up as their champion. Some soulful voice work by Sean Bean.
  4. Emma -- Autumn de Wilde has the most ostentatious directorial debut I've seen in a while with this vibrant, colorful, funny and touching take on the Jane Austen classic. No surprise, as she's actually been making shorts and music videos for years. A great cast led by Anya Taylor-Joy, who is surely among the best in her generation of actresses. I read they made this movie for $10 million, which astounds me -- surely the costumes and sets alone cost that.
  5. Nomadland -- The astonishing stillness of this movie. Not really much in the way of story; the journey mostly takes place inside the soul of Fern, an older widowed woman who has lost her job and home but chooses to travel about in her van. Another sure-fire Academy Award nomination for Frances McDormand, who is quietly making the case to take the throne as America's greatest living actor.
  6. The Personal History of David Copperfield -- Another musty old British literature classic breathed back to vibrant new life. I liked the multicultural cast where people of all hues and accents play characters without regard to origin or relationships, so a Chinese actor might have a Black daughter and so forth. Dev Patel gets another meaty role after a few years of wandering.
  7. Desert One -- The best documentary I saw this year from the immortal Barbara Kopple. It examines the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis from all angles -- the captives, the politicians, the Iranians and the members of the failed military mission to come to the rescue. I love movies that take a piece of well-known history and work it front to back to reveal all sorts of perspectives and information you didn't know.
  8. Possessor (Uncut) -- I've been underwhelmed by a lot of the celebrated horror films of recent years, but this one from Brandon Cronenberg genuinely creeped me the hell out. Thematically borrows from Philip K. Dick in the tale of assassins who invade the mind of regular people to murder others. But what happens when the best agent finds a soft spot in her heart for her latest avatar?
  9. News of the World -- Another stodgy old-timey piece I liked more than most. What can I say, I'm a stodgy old-timer myself. Shades of "The Searchers" with Tom Hanks as a Union soldier who travels the West reading newspapers to unenlightened frontier folk, and finds himself charged with returning a girl who has been raised by American Indians to her family.
  10. The Outpost -- A largely forgotten skirmish in Afghanistan was turned into a book by Jake Tapper and then a terrific war movie by director Rod Lurie. If Caleb Landry Jones doesn't get a supporting actor nod from the Academy, a true crime will have occurred.

 Best of the Rest

Usually I anguish about the last few spots on my top 10 list, moving them up and down as I decide what will make the cut. Surprisingly, this year it was pretty easy to discriminate. Here are films I respected and enjoyed. In no particular order:

  • Call of the Wild -- Go ahead and make fun of the CGI dog -- which I'll contend looks no worse than the critters in the utterly unnecessary "The Lion King" reboot -- but this film contains one of Harrison Ford's finest performances. Really.
  • End of Sentence -- The always-terrific John Hawkes plays a diffident dad trying to reconnect with his son just released from prison after his wife has died. 
  • The Painter and the Thief -- A very different kind of documentary that focuses on the weird but wonderful relationship that strikes up between an artist and the man who stole her paintings.
  • 7500 -- Another streaming service movie not enough people saw with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an airline pilot in a hijacking situation. 
  • Greyhound -- Tom Hanks in the best war picture hardly anybody saw. Some love for the Navy!
  • The Secret Garden -- A lovely, sad but uplifting adaptation of the classic novel.
  • She's in Portland -- Not your typical buddy road trip story, as the guy who would usually be the asshole antagonist or wingman gets the spotlight.
  • Yellow Rose -- Charming story about an illegal immigrant who falls in love with country-western music.
  • Beanpole -- The best foreign language film I saw this year, though it both seemed like a weak year and we didn't get as many releases as we normally would. I get the sense subtitled films don't do as well on VOD.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Reeling Backward: "St. Elmo's Fire" (1985)


 "We're all going through this. It's our time on the edge."


For another entry in my series of "Films of the '80s I Was Too Busy Doing Nerdy Stuff To Watch" we have "St. Elmo's Fire," a very cool movie starring a bunch of very cool actors that all the cool teenagers and college students went to see.

It's a seminal work in the Brat Pack phenomenon, which played out more in magazines and pop culture than actual celluloid. The story focuses on seven recent graduates of Georgetown University who are trying to get their careers and love lives going in the D.C. area, failing miserably but having a ball while doing it.

Director Joel Shumacher cast Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson based on John Hughes' recommendation for their work in his "The Breakfast Club," which hit theaters just four months earlier. Reportedly Schumacher had to beg the studio to let him hire them, since nobody really knew who they were at the time. 

Same (mostly) goes for the rest.

Demi Moore had a bit part in "Blame It On Rio" the year before, and Andrew McCarthy had a starring role in "Class," a modest hit two years before. Mare Winningham, the lone non-Packer of the bunch, had similarly been in only a few things.

Rob Lowe, just 20 years old at the time of filming, was the relative established star of the bunch, already a graduate of "The Outsiders," "The Hotel New Hampshire," a leading role in "Oxford Blues" and playing alongside McCarthy in "Class."

Looking back on "St. Elmo's" now, I can see why it was big cultural hit (and to a lesser extent than is generally acknowledged, a box office one). It straddles the the line between late Baby Boomers and Generation X in its appeal to both. The former was graduated from college and partying, and the latter was dreaming about doing so.

It's a spot-on portrait of a very specific point in life for white-collar types, where you have a close circle of friends who are not yet tied down to family and your careers are just getting started. So you are literally around each other all the time, either everybody together or smaller break-off groups. Some people work together or share an apartment. Likely there's a mix of genders, so there's a certain amount of bed-hopping and broken hearts built into the mix.

"St. Elmo's" is terrific at capturing that time. At pretty much everything else, it's atrocious.

My biggest impression after watching it for the first time is that the four male characters are, without exception, terrible human beings. They're manipulative and caddish and make like they're friends with the three women, but are usually just trying to get into their pants, or any woman's.

Any regular reader of this column will know that I generally stay away from political analysis of film, and I absolutely loathe bashing movies from long ago for not syncing with today's sensibilities. That said, "St. Elmo's" makes the 1980s in general and the young men of that age look terrible.

Let's take the best first. McCarthy's Kevin is a sullen, chain-smoking mope who hasn't had sex in years. He's landed a plum job at the Washington Post straight out of college -- which is starting a journalism career on third base -- but is upset that he's consigned to writing obits. Everyone seems to think Kevin's gay, and there's a brief, interesting flirtation with the idea that would've been interesting to explore in a mainstream 1985 movie. 

So, of course, it doesn't.

Kevin seems like the quintessential "friend zone" dude that girls love as a pal but don't want to jump in the sack with. Veeeerrrryyy late in the movie -- so late it feels tacked on -- we learn the object of his mopey obsession is Leslie (Sheedy), an ambitious architect with cold feet about getting tied down too soon.

Unfortunately, Leslie is pre-engaged to Alec (Nelson), the most aggressively awful of the boys. A gung-ho liberal in college, he's working for a Republican senator because it pays better and because it's the current flavor of the decade. Alec keeps pressuring Leslie to marry him, though hides the real reason: he's a serial cheater, and has deluded himself into believing that if he puts a ring on it, it'll settle his Lothario urges. 

In one of the film's few clever tweaks, Alec and Leslie begin dressing more alike as the movie goes on, with heavy doses of the popped collars and skinny ties of the era.

Alec is the unofficial, self-appointed leader of the group of friends. One of his prime duties is bailing out Billy (Lowe) from his latest scrap or finding him a new job. A saxophone-playing party machine on campus, Billy is gorgeous and guileless, without a mean bone in his body but self-absorbed down to his guts. 

Billy already has a wife (barely seen Jenny Wright) and baby girl, the result of a schooltime romance and quickie marriage, but he's barely ever home. The group fuckup, Billy crashes with whoever will take him.

He leans most heavily on Wendy (Winningham), who's 22 going on 50. The straight-arrow virgin Jewish girl, Wendy comes from money but has taken a job working for the city public assistance agency, where she's hollered at or ignored by the entitled downtrodden. She is infatuated with Billy, who "borrows" money via her father (the great Martin Balsam), a greeting card store baron who wants to bribe his daughter with a Chrysler LeBaron to marry a nice Jewish boy who has committed the unpardonable sin of being homely.

(Really, dad? Couldn't even spring for a Corvette?)

In the movie's calculation, being a total loser who looks like Billy is better than being smart, stable and doting.

Billy uses Wendy quite poorly, making a mockery of her affection for him, then offering to bed her like a master passing out table scraps to the family pooch.

He makes much the same offer to Jules (Moore), the hard-charging self-described slut of the group. Julies is a party-every-night girl who's failing at her banking job while spending her way into a pile of debt. On the surface she seems like the toughest one in the group but we know it's a matter of time before her house of cards comes piling down on her. 

Probably the most underwritten of the main characters, Jules registers as a retrograde "type," the have-it-all feminist who's really a narcissistic weakling.

The one character who seems to operate more or less outside the rest of the gang is Estevez' Kirby, who works at the titular bar while studying law. Early on he bumps into Dale (Andie MacDowell), an ER doctor who was three years ahead of him at college. He more or less decides on the spot that he's still in love with her... and therefore she must be with him, too.

Kirby contrives all sorts of sitcommy contretemps to lure her in, from booking a table at a fancy restaurant (arriving two hours early and paying double to secure it), switching to medical school to follow in her footsteps, borrowing his boss' limo to pretend to be suddenly rich, and tracking Dale down at a ski lodge where she's canoodling with another doctor. 

Kirby's behavior is straight-up psycho stalker, and the fact the movie tries to spin it into some kind of adorable love quest seems really skewed. Things wind up with him stealing a kiss so rapturous that as he drives off, Dale is left touching her lips with a "what if" look on her face.

Date rape -- it means he really likes you!!

You can practically see the seeds of "Friends" being sown her, along with a dozen other TV shows about single young people in an urban setting. Indeed, "St. Elmo's" has a very situation dramedy feel to it, and we feel like it starts in the third season. So the audience is assumed to intuitively grasp the characters' backstories and various magnetic poles, and pulls.

They even have their own built-in nonsense catchphrase, where they all lean into a circle and chime something like, "Boogedy boogedy boogedy Ah Ah Hah!"

The film starts out very light and goofy and steadily tries to get more serious. The script by Schumacher and his former assistant, Carl Kurlander, is fast-paced to the point of approaching a slamming-doors comedy or the patter of "His Girl Friday." We never have time to become emotionally invested in the characters, so we don't.

(It was, appropriately, Kurlander's only feature film writing credit.)

There was an attempt a few years back to turn "St. Elmo's Fire" into a TV series, but I think its best expression would be as a limited streaming series of 13 one-hour episodes or so. Each of the characters' journeys could start and stop at different points, overlapping and intersecting with each other.

Instead, it feels like a music video version of a movie -- lots of teased hair and pop rock, then we're on to the next cool thing.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Review: "Fatale"


Hollywood has never had a firm idea exactly what to do with Hilary Swank. After winning two Oscars in her 20s for non-traditional gender roles, she's been constantly busy but rarely found strong parts in big films or a particular niche to fill. She was wonderful in the under-appreciated "The Homesman" a few years back, which almost nobody saw.

As a result, like Ben Kingsley she's an unfortunate contender for the title of "Oscar winner who appears in the most bad movies."

Sadly that's another point on the board for her with "Fatale," an aggressively awful psychological thriller where she plays a dirty cop setting up a sports management mogul played by Michael Ealy. It's one of those movies intended for mostly African-American audiences where she's relegated to the Evil White Person role. 

I'm OK with making Caucasians the heavy, but just like it when it's done with something like originality and panache. This is like a grade-Z modern film noir where you can literally see every perambulation of the plot three moves ahead. It's crime story as soap opera.

Swank does get to play something we don't get to see her do a lot, a sexy role as an alluring woman of mystery. Her looks have unfortunately become something of a pop culture meme, including that famous "Is Hilary Swank hot?" episode of "The Office" some years back. To me, the answer is unambiguously "yes," so I don't exactly know why this is a thing or has acted to limit her roles.

Maybe it's because of her strong jaw or roles playing a boxer and transman. We've come so far...

The film is directed by Deon Taylor ("Lakeview Terrace") and scripted by David Loughery, both of whom have a knack for these sorts of slick, multicultural, vaguely exploitative dramas. (They worked together on "The Intruder," another crazy-honky-torments-beautiful-black-folk story, also starring Ealy.)

The end result is something that feels formulaic and unfocused. The filmmakers seem obsessed with bedazzling us with the bling of an affluent L.A. lifestyle -- fancy mansions in the hills, zero-edge pools, cars that cost as much as the average American house -- to the detriment of competent plotting and character development.

Ealy is Derrick Taylor, a rising sports agent who built his company from the ground up with his buddy and partner, Rafe (Mike Colter). They're already rich but about to break into the big time with A-list signees. (This being a low-budget film, Lance Stephenson, formerly of the Pacers and most recently the Liaoning Flying Leopards, is the biggest name they get for a cameo.)

His marriage with beautiful-but-icy Traci (Damaris Lewis) is on the rocks, and he starts to suspect all those late nights celebrating with real estate agents are something else. So when he's in Las Vegas for a friend's bachelor's party, Derrick falls to temptation with Veronica (Swank), a tall brunette who's simultaneously tough but needy in a locks-your-phone-in-her-hotel-room-safe kinda way. 

Back in L.A., Derrick is nearly killed by a masked intruder in his home, and who would be assigned to the case but Veronica, who turns out to be a storied police detective. She's got some personal troubles of her own, including a snidely ex (Danny Pino) who's a city councilman keeping their daughter from her.

Somehow, Veronica funnels her hatred for her ex into her contempt for Derrick, because he "used" her back in Las Vegas. Veronica's motivation for her subsequent dastardly actions is the movie's most under-explored territory, which leaves Swank having to stand around spewing a lot ridiculous gun-moll dialogue without any context to ground her character in. I hate to say it, but some of her line readings even come off as amateurish.

As for Ealy, Derrick is built as such a passive, reactive character that he seems like a puppet in his own life. We get lots of scenes of him with brow furrowed and jaw tucked into his chin as he struggles with his fate. I think he's supposed to smolder but largely comes across as an indecisive wimp.

Movies like "Fatale" are made to serve a very specific purpose, and I'm guessing the audience it's intended for will be sated by spoon-feeding them what they want. Personally I hate to see Swank used so poorly once again -- but then again, she signed on for this dreck. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Air Force One" (1997)

"Air Force One" was one of those movies that, even when it came out, people instantly recognized it for exactly what it what was: effective, jingoistic entertainment in which we get to root for our national leaders as legit butt-kicking heroes instead of the shrunken egotists and feeble pretenders they've largely become. 

President Bill Clinton would screen the movie at the White House twice, no doubt happy to share the limelight with Mr. Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford, as his alpha-male stand-in, James Marshall. He's a Vietnam vet and Medal of Honor winner who goes toe-to-toe with a group of splinter Russian terrorists who have hijacked his eponymous plane.

The timing of the film's arrival is funny, since at the time we had turned out one legit war hero to elect a waffling draft-dodger, who would then win a strong reelection campaign against another, crippled war hero. It seems people like the idea of a president who lays it on the line, shooting guns and throwing haymakers, only in the abstract.

Written by Andrew W. Marlowe, his first feature film (and one of only three), "Air Force One" is notable for its tight, interlocking layers of storytelling and fantabulous cast. It's one of the leanest two-hour movies you'll ever see, and besides the perennially underrated Ford it also boasts Glenn Close, Gary Oldman, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall, Dean Stockwell and Xander Berkeley.

And, of course, it's directed by German master Wolfgang Petersen, who came to America and had a great two-decade run -- "Troy," "In the Line of Fire," "Outbreak" -- before being sunk by "Poseidon." Petersen is terrific at taking stories with lots of moving pieces and disparate characters and assembling it all so it clicks into a cohesive whole.

I was surprised watching it again for the first time in at least a decade how much geopolitical intrigue there is in the film. In the fictional world of the movie, the U.S. and Russia are chummy and have just deposed the dictator of Kazakhstan, Gen. Ivan Radek (Petersen pet Jürgen Prochnow), who oversaw a mass refugee exodus and threatened to use nuclear weapons.

Marshall has just declared a new interventionist stance on the world stage -- with the centerpiece being that they will take the fight to terrorists and oppressors instead of negotiating with or accommodating them.

So, of course, he's immediately faced with a situation where the president must choose between the welfare of his own family and staff or giving into a Russian terrorist, Ivan Korshunov (Oldman), who wants Radek sprung from prison.

Actual American interventionism would, of course, lead to some very dire outcomes not too many years down the line.

Korshunov gets a couple of chilling speeches that I'm sure went right over the heads of American audiences in the middle of the dot-com boom. Responding to the bitter denunciation of the First Lady, Grace Marshall (Wendy Crewson), that he has just murdered an innocent woman, Korshunov spits back:

"You, who murdered a 100,000 Iraqis to save a nickel on a gallon of gas, are going to lecture me about the rules of war?!?" This is a reference to the first Persian Gulf War, lauded around the world as a high point for American might married with collaborative diplomacy -- but not without its collateral damage.

Later, finally confronting the president in person, Korshunov rejects Marshall's insistence that he can't just call the Russian leader and have Radek released. Three years before Vladimir Putin came into power, Korshunov gives voice to a sentiment that was already gaining volume in the former Soviet Union.

"You talk as you have nothing to do with this. This is all your doing, this infection you call freedom -- without meaning and without purpose. You have given my country to gangsters and prostitutes. You have taken everything from us! There's nothing left!"

It's a little foggy about what Korshunov intends to do if his scheme works -- replace the weak Russian president with Radek? Of course, elaborate plots by heavily accented villains in the movies tend to have very limited steps. (See Gruber, Hans.)

The middle of the movie is essentially one real-time cat-and-mouse chase, with the Russians posing as journalists to get aboard Air Force One, then easily overpowering the Secret Service with the help of one of their own, Gibbs (Berekeley). For some reason, we never learn Gibbs' backstory or why he would undertake such treachery. He's actually treated as just one of the other hostages, until the very (literal) last minute.

Everyone thinks Marshall has safely gotten away in the escape pod, but secretly he hid in the bowels of the airplane and seeks to save his wife and daughter, along with everyone else.

"Air Force One" was in a lot of ways the apotheosis of the phenomenon of "Die Hard on a..." rip-offs, with "Speed" giving us "Die Hard on a Bus" and this being the "on a plane" variation. (Though, really, "Passenger 57" did that a few years earlier.) The basic concept is the same: the hero is trapped in a confined space with murderous forces and innocent bystanders, and has to puzzle out a solution.

Smartly, rather than just making the plane seem like an amorphous behemoth, the movie essentially divides it into a few key sections where the all the action takes place. The hostages are held on the main passenger level, with regular seats in the back and private space and a larger conference room for the POTUS and his staff up front.

Marshall is largely confined to the lowest deck filled with baggage, blinking gizmos that'll become important later, and the loading ramp -- which, along with the escape pod and a few other features highlighted in the film, didn't actually exist in the real presidential aircraft. He makes a few forays upstairs when he can, or draws the terrorists down to him by dumping the plane's fuel.

Korshunov mostly stays in the command center that's a half-flight up from the presidential quarters, along with the cockpit where his pilot (Elya Baskin) handles the flying, though as we'll see the fancy plane is practically autonomous, even ripping the steering column away from manual control when it's performing evasive maneuvers against incoming missiles.

Probably about a quarter of the action cuts away to the White House, where the Vice President, Kathryn Bennett (Close), tries to keep a tamp on the situation while dealing with a bunch of alpha male officials who would love to push her out of the way. Stockwell plays the defense secretary who has an "I'm in control here" moment in the Alexander Haig school; Hall is the Attorney General offering counsel; and Bill Smitrovich appears to be the top military brass at the table.

It was a pretty big deal in 1997 for a mainstream movie to depict a female vice president as an ordinary thing, in much the same we got our first black president in "Deep Impact" a decade before the real one. Bennett is shown as smart, tough and willing to make the hardest calls -- even with sexist taunts from Korshunov about sweating through her silk blouse.

Interestingly, for all our talk lately of "the 25th Amendment" option for deposing a U.S. president, it actually nearly happens in the movie. The A.G. obtains the signatures of a majority of the cabinet to declare Marshall unable to carry out his duties, and all it requires is for Bennett to sign off and become president. Her final moment of triumph in the movie is ripping up this declaration, thus proving both her mettle and loyalty.

Jerry Goldsmith shows up with one of his most most brass-heavy music scores, horns blasting out militaristic marches that land just this side of overwrought.

Is there more to "Air Force One" than it seems? I don't really think so. It's a very well done, manipulative (I mean that as a compliment) thriller with just enough political overtones to sound on the level without getting into any serious America-bashing.

Many other movies have done similar things, so here's what that can look like when it's done with an A-list cast, director and production values. This is the sort of Hollywood contraption that you go into knowing exactly what you're going to get, and come out mightily pleased that you got it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Review: "Let Them All Talk"

Reviewing movies is a little different these days. It's fair to say we're having to work extra hard. It used to be a relatively simple matter of seeing what new theatrical releases were coming up, scheduling/lobbying for screenings with the regional studios reps, and making a plan of what to cover.

With everything format-neutral now, it's difficult to know what's coming out in theaters, on Video on Demand and the varying streaming services in any kind of strategic way. I kind of have to take an educated guess about what's most important to review, and do that. The end result is that some outlets get more attention than others.

But this week was an easy call: I heard that a movie was coming out on HBO Max starring Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen and said, "I'm there." Throw in Lucas Hedges and director Steven Soderbergh, and that's 29 Oscar nominations and six wins between them.

Talk about pedigree, and the film didn't disappoint.

Consider that over the past four decades, there has never been longer than a five-year period in which Streep was not up for an Academy Award. And she's earned every one of them. Streep continues to show ferocious strength and emotional subtleties in nearly all her roles, and "Let Them All Talk" is no exception.

She plays Alice Hughes, a renowned novelist nearing the end of her career. Alice is one of those smart people who works very hard to let everyone know how smart she is. She's observant, sensitive, and has a generosity of spirit, even if it only goes a certain way. Not a bad person, a little full of herself, though most people agree she has every right to be.

The story (screenplay by rookie screenwriter Deborah Eisenberg) entails a cross-ocean ship voyage Alice is taking with her two oldest friends, Roberta (Bergen) and Susan (Wiest), as well as her nephew, Tyler (Hedges). The purpose is to collect a major literary award in England, and Alice does not fly. 

Her agent, Karen (Gemma Chan), also tags along, unbeknownst to Alice. Her latest manuscript is due, and no one in the publishing world even knows what it's about. Karen and her peers hope it is a sequel to Alice's most celebrated novel from 35 years ago about a woman, Rowena, who tanked her marriage horribly. It was a best-seller that was turned into a movie, and the agents and publishers can smell the surefire green of a follow-up.

Several dynamics are happening at once on board the ship. Alice has brought Tyler along to look after her two friends, since she stays in her cabin most of the day working, only emerging for a shared lunch and a solo swim. But Tyler gets recruited by Karen to be her spy to find out more about the new book, and becomes infatuated with her.

Meanwhile, Roberta and Susan are feeling left out and stiffed. Although they were the closest of friends in college, they don't really see each other much and their friendship has evolved to that stage of Christmas cards and occasional phone calls.

Susan, who works with abused families, is fine with this arrangement but Roberta is not. She seethes with resentment toward Alice, believing that the Rowena character was based on her. 

Roberta is a real piece of work, toiling at a lowly (to her) job selling lingerie while openly campaigning for a rich man to marry. She's one of those people whose life hasn't worked out the way they hoped and now feel they are owed something -- and Roberta has decided Alice is the one who owes it.

For her part, Alice thinks she's doing her pals a great favor by getting them free passage on a glorious two-week ship cruise. It never occurs to her that spending time with her friends should be part of the bargain.

Left more or less to themselves, Susan and Roberta play loads of board games and natter away about the situation with Alice. They bump into Kelvin Krantz (Dan Algrant), a famous mystery writer -- think John Grisham and Dean Koontz rolled together -- who's also on the cruise. At first heaving-breast fangirls, they are delighted to strike up a chatty friendship.

There's a great juxtaposition of two scenes between Alice and Kelvin. She makes a great show of protesting she's never heard of him, even though it's likely he has sold many times the number of her books. While she's giving a talk, Kelvin gets up and gives a lovely paean to her favorite book (not the Rowena one). Later, she asks him about his own writing process and manages to insult him without seeming aware she's doing so.

(Though I suspect Alice is keenly cognizant of how she comes across.)

"Let Them All Talk" is a gem of a little movie with a half-dozen well-drawn characters, each of whom we feel like we get to know, and would like to do so even further. Even though Roberta and Alice can be rather unpleasant, the feel like full-bodied, authentic women who live in the real world.

I wasn't familiar with Algrant and Chan as actors, and both give very nice supporting performances that are small in screen time but feel big in their impact on the story. In most movies Karen would be depicted as a one-dimensional, conniving character but here we get to see all sorts of shadings we didn't expect. My only regret is she kind of gets pushed to the background in the last act.

And there's Streep, a cinematic giant who, at 71, somehow still seems to be building toward her peak rather than sliding down the back end of it. She's America's greatest living film actress (or actor), and I never get tired of talking about that.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Review: "Luxor"


As I've gotten older, I've found myself much more appreciate of slower, languid filmmaking. Movies that would have bored me to death with the lack of a strong narrative thread at age 20 can more easily worm their way into my heart now. 

I can't say, though, that "Luxor" was one of those.

Andrea Riseborough plays Hana, a woman at the crossroads of life, figuratively and literally. A surgeon who practices in some of the world's worst hot spots for conflict and economic strife, she has some time off before moving on to her next assignment. She's decided to spend it in and around Luxor, the Egyptian city where she made pleasant memories 20 years earlier.

Much of the movie, written and directed by Zeina Durra, consists of just following Hana around as she travels and looks at things. The wordless stretches are sometimes so long that when a character speaks again, we're momentarily jarred by the relative cacophony. 

I guess we would call this movie a romance, since not long into her journeys Hana stumbles across Sultan (Karim Saleh), an archaeologist she knew back in the day. It is soon apparent that they were lovers, and their respective career and personal paths diverged. But now rejoined, they find the mutual longing is still there.

We get the sense that Hana, with her seemingly random day trips to historical spots, was probably searching for Sultan -- even if she didn't know it herself.

Not much really happens after that in the traditional sense of film storytelling. He shows her a "feminist temple" where a pair of lovers of an insignificant king raided his burial place, scattering his remains and replacing his images with their own. They go to his current dig to meet up with some of her other friends from back in the day. 

Sultan follows Hana around like a presumptuous puppy, constantly with an arm on her or just encircling her body without touching, as if declaring ownership of her space. She is less receptive to a reunion than he is, but it feels like she's arguing with her own heart against the direction it's pulling.

With her omnipresent pulled-back blonde waves, thin face and shapeless clothes, Hana is playing the role of tourist in her own life rather than living it. She does cast sidelong glances at children playing nearby, and mentions to Sultan that she doesn't look at his Facebook page because it would be hurtful to see him happy on a beach with a wife and children.

I was never truly bored watching "Luxor," though I'll add I wasn't happy when its brief 85-minute runtime came to a close. I formed a pretty good idea of where the movie would end up, which it did exactly, and that's always a trifle disappointing.

"Luxor" is essentially the visualization of one woman wrestling with the first half of her life, which will end up deciding how the second one unfolds. That's ripe material for a really compelling story, but instead we just get the contemplation.


Monday, November 30, 2020

Reeling Backward: "The Stand" (1994)

How can a screen adaptation be so faithful to one of my favorite books, and yet I borderline can't stand it?

That's what I, and I believe many other fans of Stephen King's "The Stand," thought when the ABC miniseries came out in 1994. Although it got generally good reviews and audience numbers at the time, I speak for a lot of people who were put off by the cheap television production values and a few spots of crucial miscasting.

Now the story is being made again as a miniseries for CBS' premier channel coming out next month. Obviously, a story about a mysterious plague that kills 99% of the human population has a lot of topical weight at the moment, though I'm sure the producers couldn't have known that when they were shooting it. The timing seems perfect for our age of anxiety and rage.

The high anticipation for the new adaptation made me want to revisit the original to see if my opinion has changed significantly.

Short version: not really.

If you're not familiar with the book or show, I'll give a very stripped-down summary: a bio-weapon  escapes from an American military facility and quickly kills most of humanity. A tiny percentage prove to be immune to this "Superflu," and those who survive begin to experience psychic dreams that draw them toward one of two loci of power: the evil Randall Flagg in Las Vegas and the saintly Mother Abigail in Nebraska (later relocating to Boulder, Colo.) for an apocalyptic showdown for the soul of humanity. The story tracks about two dozen characters as they join the fray.

It's not surprising the miniseries, which played as four two-hour episodes (totaling six hours once you remove commercial breaks), hews closely to the book since King wrote the script himself. He hated what Stanley Kubrick did with "The Shining" and, along with a few other miscues with other adaptations in the 1980s, led the author to have more direct control. So he was both teleplay writer and executive producer of the miniseries, along with having a small role as an actor.

Director Mick Garris had previously helmed the King-sourced "Sleepwalkers," and King liked it well enough to tap him for "The Stand." Garris has mostly worked in television and seems captured by the limitations of the medium, or at least those that existed at the time. There's a very crabbed view of the world, as if Garris is afraid to point the camera at anything outside of his limited set dressings.

For example, we don't get to see all of the garish majesty of Las Vegas, only a few signs and a few other visual slices.

It's amazing how old-fashioned the more squarish 1.33 aspect ratio of television looks to my eyes now; even "regular" TV has used the wider ratio of feature films for about 15 years. It adds to the effect of tunnel vision watching the miniseries. To save money they also shot it on 16mm film instead of 35mm, giving everything a slightly hazy indistinctness.

From a story perspective, "The Stand" sticks to the book pretty faithfully, at least the original version published in 1978 that was somewhere in the 700s in pages. I only ever encountered it when the extended version was published in the early '90s, coming in around 1,200 pages. That's an absolute gob of source material, and if you were to try to include absolutely everything you'd be looking at a 20- to 30-hour run time, not six.

The new version will reportedly be nine, presumably one-hour episodes. So it sounds like my desire to have every little subplot and minor character included is never going to happen. Though I hope someday someone does a mini-show that just chronicles the Trashcan Man's chilling, unforgettable encounter with singular malevolence of The Kid.

Aside from that, one thing I find lacking in the miniseries is backstory. Most every major character was given a pretty flesh-out persona and history to help you understand or even empathize with them. For example, Trash was a childhood firebug spurred on by the constant bullying he received, and ancient Mother Abigail overcame racism around the turn of the century -- the last one, which is I guess a qualification we'll increasingly have to start using.

Stu Redman gave up his college sports dreams to work and support his family; Nick Andros was an isolated orphan until another deaf-mute took him under his wing; Larry Underwood was a self-destructive jerk who was just on the verge of making it big in the music industry, and so on.

For me one of the most emotionally affecting was Frannie Goldsmith. Her fractured relationship with her mother was the key underpinning for her character's mix of resolve and self-doubt. I still remember distinctly the scene in the book where a child-age Fran hurts herself and bursts into her mother's social gathering, seeking reassurance and instead getting screamed at for spilling blood on her mother's favorite rug. That'll stick with you.

The miniseries doesn't have any of that, not even relying on flashbacks to inform each character's motivation. Everyone exists exactly in the moment they are in, and no more.

A few of the things cut from the adaptation also turn out to be key. The most notable is Larry, whose interactions with women leave something to be desired. He dallies with a young tart and then blows her off, leading her to utter a line -- "You ain't no nice guy, Larry!" -- that becomes his haunting mantra as his journey, both geographically and spiritually, progresses.

Later, while trying to get out of New York City, Larry hooks up with an older woman, Rita, who has mental health and substance use problems. Larry uses her for sex and emotional support, then pushes her too far until she commits suicide. So it seems for a very long time we're not sure if Larry will wind up in Mother Abigail's camp or Flagg's.

The miniseries swaps out Rita with Nadine, the woman who is destined to become Flagg's bride and bearer of his child, cementing the reign of evil over the land. In the book, Larry doesn't meet her until later on when she is acting as guardian for Joe, a 10-year-old boy traumatized by the epidemic, not speaking and threatening Larry with a knife.

Larry's growing friendship with the boy marks his first steps toward becoming a more outer-directed person, so having Joe relegated to a virtual walk-on really saps the strength of his transformation. Instead, Lucy Swann is introduced at that point and becomes Larry's lover.

Later, when Nadine turns up in Boulder about a month later, throwing herself at him in a bid to foil Flagg's plans for her, Larry bizarrely refers to Lucy as "my wife."

A lot of philosophical musings and shadings in the book are lost as well. I was really intrigued by King's suggestion that certain personality traits generally seen as positive -- analytical minds, those who crave structure, defenders of rules and laws -- tend to migrate toward Flagg's camp. So he gets the bulk of the scientists and soldiers. Whereas the artists and freethinkers go to Mother Abigail.

Even though the fight against evil is often framed in fiction as holding off chaos, in these terms Flagg uses very rigid, hierarchical systems to maintain control -- executing all the drug addicts being a prime example -- whereas Abigail essentially thrives on a cult of personality built upon her station as a figure analogous to a second Christ.

Both systems are prone to threats their leaders couldn't see: hers from without, his from within.

Finally, let's get to the casting. It ranges from pretty spot-on to gag-inducingly awful. Seeing it again, I feel like most of the actresses are good fits while the male lineup is where things go terribly wrong.

Molly Ringwald as Fran, Ruby Dee as Abigail and Laura San Giacomo all do fine or better. I'll also put Miguel Ferrer as Flagg right-hand man Lloyd Henreid, Ossie David as Judge Farris, Ray Walston as Glen Bateman and Matt Frewer as Trashcan Man in that category.

From there, things quickly get dicey. I like Gary Sinise but he just can't sell calling people "hoss" or doing the taciturn Texas thing. Stu Redman is the sort of role Gary Cooper was built for -- in fact, I think in the book one of the scientists studying Stu for clues to his immunity refers to him as a Gary Cooper type.

I've often said that Scott Glenn would be my dream pick for Stu, but even in 1994 he was long in the tooth to play the character, who's about 30. Curiously, Glenn would've made a great choice to play Randall Flagg, who's supposed to be ageless and charming, with a dead-eye stare.

Speaking of, that brings us to Jamey Sheridan as Flagg. He's not bad, but he's not good, either. He gets the general mood right, which is twinkly charisma with a belt of rage right underneath it. But I dunno, I never really felt scared of the guy. Certainly not during his transformations to a demon-like figure, which won an Emmy for makeup but looked pretty chintzy even in 1994.

All of Flagg's inner thoughts are hidden, so he's just an existential threat and that's it. Within the book Flagg himself doesn't know his own origins, other than at some point he simply became... and also has the understanding that he will go on after corporeal death. An epilogue added with the expanded novel has him reincarnating in prehistoric times, and indeed King has gone on to use him in other books including as the principle antagonist in the sprawling "Dark Tower" series.

Adam Storke is more puckish than self-loathing as Larry, and I laughed at his very-90s wind-blown hairstyle and vest-over-T fashions. (Hilariously, other members of the Boulder community come to adopt this look.) Bill Fagerbakke has the height and hue for boy-man Tom Cullen, though I was put off by his using the exact same voice delivery that he did for his two other notable roles, Dauber from the TV show "Coach" and Patrick from "SpongeBob SquarePants."

(His hairstyle is even more distracting than Storke's, with long pale blond locks that hang like a curtain over the side of his head. His odd balding pattern with a large carve-outs on the sides result in a weird-looking back-to-forward combover that I doubt someone of Tom's limited mental capacity would trouble himself with.)

Harold Lauder is a terrific anti-hero in the book, a teenage genius with an obsessive fixation for Frannie. Like Trash, he's been bullied and isolated his whole life and it's led him down a dark path. Initially part of the Boulder group, he is enlisted by Nadine at Flagg's behest -- offering her body as payment -- and tries to assassinate Mother Abigail's hand-picked leadership group.

No doubt King saw Lauder as a stand-in for himself, since the character is a wannabe writer. He's also an awkward 16-year-old, described as quite fat, with bad acne and greasy hair. There's not a lot of young actors in Hollywood who look like that, and Corin Nemec certainly does not. He's lean as an icepick with a sharp jawline.

In the story, Harold loses weight and cleans himself up as he travels west and undergoes challenges. He actually becomes well-liked in Boulder for his intelligence and hard work -- even garnering the nickname "Hawk" -- and has a break point where he realizes this could be his actual life going forward.

Ideally, the actor playing Harold would lose weight as the story goes on, but that's a pretty hard feat to pull off logistically, especially given as most productions are shot out of order. It might be easier now than in 1994, what with the rise of CGI and better practical makeup effects.

Last, and least, let's get to Nick Andros.

He was my favorite character in the book, a young man cut off from everyone else by his disability who finds genuine friendship with Tom and a community that values him in Boulder. One of the things that define him is his physicality. He's supposed to be 22, small and skinny, probably with jug ears and freckles, and is not the sort of person who makes a strong first impression.

Moreover, as the result of an assault at the beginning of the story, Nick is supposed to have several of his front teeth broken and nearly has one of his eyes gouged out, so he wears an eyepatch thereafter. It adds to his sense of ugliness, not to mention his terror and anger at the prospect of becoming blind as well as deaf.

And here is pretty boy Rob Lowe.

With his feathered hair and soft blue eyes. No eyepatch, of course, though he gets some makeup bruises that soon go away. In a word, a dreamboat. And a lightweight.

Now, I think Lowe has grown a lot as an actor in the years since. He found his niche in deadpan comedy and seems like a delightful, self-aware person in the recent interviews I've seen him in. Ironically, I think he could pull off Nick Andros quite well now, though he's too old.

But this was such a fundamentally wrong piece of casting, I'm surprised King or somebody didn't step forward and say, "He can't be Nick." Or at least try to ugly him up with some makeup or a bad haircut.

Looking back I can understand why Lowe was cast. His feature film career had softened but he was still a big "get" for a television miniseries. And Hollywood understands that audiences like to look at pretty people. Still, it's eternally grating to have a fixed vision of a character you identify so strongly with and see it trammeled upon.

So, my takeaway after a second view of "The Stand," the first in a quarter-century, is that it's well intentioned but poorly executed. It looks just plain bad, with its poor, cheap camera work and limitations of the television format of the time. It serves to be instructive just how much shooting for "small screens" has improved since.

Will the new version be any better? I'm excited for it, but in truth some of the same fears persist. They've hired another beauty as Nick and another skinnyboy for Harold, so mistakes of the past and all that. Though I will say Amber Heard as Nadine seems like a home run.

Sometimes great works of art are only great in their original medium. Call it a premonition if you will, but I think "The Stand" is destined to remain one of those.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Review: "Uncle Frank"



"Uncle Frank" is one of those movies that is heartfelt, splendidly acted and as predictable as a sunset. 

It's written and directed by Alan Ball, who won an Oscar for the screenplay for "American Beauty," which was something truly original and even subversive. In "Uncle Frank" he has created something utterly maudlin that wraps itself in a blanket of self-regard.

Paul Bettany plays the titular character, a man from South Carolina who moved to New York City because he was smart and gay. The smart part we figure out pretty quickly, and soon thereafter the gay smart. We can tell this from the very first scene because while home for his father's birthday he gives thoughtful gifts, doesn't yell at the children or watch football. Gay!

I just hate, hate, hate these movies that present everyone from the South as walking caricatures. Stephen Root plays the dad, whose contempt for his own child is so palpable it practically manifests into physical form. It's never explored, simply presented for effect.

Steve Zahn plays Frank's brother, Mike, well on his way to following in dad's hateful, hurtful footsteps. Judy Greer is his wife, Kitty, and Jane McNeill plays his sister, Neva, who is the one who "knows" about him. The great Margo Martindale plays his mother, who mostly stays in the kitchen but has a big heart.

Lois Smith turns up as the batty Aunt Butch, and I'll just let that name sit there where it belongs.

The person Frank is Uncle to is Beth, Mike and Kitty's daughter, played by Sophia Lillis, who you may remember from her terrific performance as Beverly in the first "It," the first one that wasn't terrible. It's doubtful you'd remember her if "Uncle Frank" was the first thing you saw her in, because the script gives her almost nothing to do but observe and be present. 

When Beth was a mousy kid, Uncle Frank counseled her to get out of Creekville and be whoever she wants to be, rather than what others expect of her. So a few years later she hightails it to New York University, where Frank is an English professor. Of course, he's not taking his own advice, living in the closet even though he's been with his boyfriend, Wally (Peter Macdissi), for a number of years.

The story is set in 1973, which was an interesting time to be gay. After the Stonewall Riots, the LBGTQ community (as we call it now, but not then) was in the pubic conscious for the first time, though usually relegated to cheap jokes in TV and the movies. Down South, though, the movie presents homosexuality as still a fire-and-brimstone offense, worthy of shunning or even stoning.

Of course, once things turn around for Frank and his family -- as we know they must -- the womenfolk will come around with stories about how their hairdresser or friend from school is also "that way" ... and it's really no big deal! 

That seems to be the big takeaway of "Uncle Frank": being gay is no big deal!

I liked Bettany, playing a sort of morose man who takes things in stride as best he can. He puts on a serene front of a self-assured intellectual, but deep down his dad's hatred -- along with a teen romance we learn about in flashback -- weighs heavily upon him. 

The precipitating event is Frank's father's death, the subsequent road trip home with Beth for the funeral, and the expected revelation of his sexual prefer... orientation! I mean orientation! Because Webster's tells me so, or at least it does now (after some recent, hasty changes).

Wally follows along, and Macdissi is the one breath of fresh air in the movie, playing an Arabic man who is confidently, openly gay. Always with a smile on his face, an open ear and a hug at the ready, Wally is light years ahead of Frank in terms of his personal journey. He's willing to wait around for Frank to catch up, but not forever.

I realize as I'm wrapping up that it sounds like I hated this movie. I didn't. It's a fine effort. The cast is splendid, and I'm a sucker for any movie featuring lots of vintage cars. It never drags and a few sections are genuinely enjoyable.

If it's possible to like everything about a movie except its basic premise, then "Uncle Frank" is it. Maybe this is the sort of visceral disconnect people had with "Green Book" that baffled me. A man coming out to his family in 1973 just doesn't seem like very daring or even interesting subject matter for a film in 2020. 

I think maybe if the Frank-Beth relationship was what really drove the story, I'd feel different. But she winds up being a blank slate who's still mostly blank at the end. Though she does get one humdinger of a one-liner while visiting an auto repair shop. If Ball had kept things going with her, or given Beth her own parallel obstacles to overcome, then Frank's anguish would seem more palpable.

Instead, she's pretty much relegated to the background for the back half of "Uncle Frank." Meanwhile, Frank wrestles with his dad's ghost and his own bitter memories, and the end point of his trip might as well be a flashing billboard everyone can see way, way off. 

Here's a movie that never kept me guessing.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Review: "Dreamland"


Hollywood has always loved outlaw movies, almost since the very first celluloid clacked through a projector, and since "Bonnie & Clyde" in 1967 it's had a particular fascination for doomed couples on open-sky crime sprees. It's been imitated countless times, from the gritty "The Getaway" to the hazy, dreamlike "Ain't Them Bodies Saints."

"Dreamland" is closer to the latter, a story less concerned with the actual mechanics of robbing banks than the inner emotional journey of its two protagonists. It's an astonishingly beautiful film, set in the 1930s Texas dust bowl, with cinematographer Lyle Vincent's vibrant warm hues giving way to nearly colorless stretches of gray-brown.

You could snip out most any frame of the movie and have a nifty postcard keepsake.

Margot Robbie stars as Allison Wells, a notorious bank robber on the run after things went to hell on her last job. Several people were killed, including a little girl and her lover/partner in crime, Perry (Garrett Hedlund). The lawmen and newspapers have been playing her up as a cold-hearted she-devil, though she's got another story to tell. Actually, several versions of it.

Robbie's blue eyes and tawny skin seem to fill the screen like a small sun, hurtling toward burnout. 

Shot in the leg, Allison holes up in the barn of 17-year-old Eugene (Finn Cole), a kid with his nose in the dirt and head in the clouds. He steals detective comic books and dreams of reuniting with his long-departed father, who ran out on them when he was little and moved to Mexico. 

He loathes his deputy stepdad (Travis Fimmel), who wears a strange, vaguely Hitler-esque haircut. His own blue eyes are the icy counterpoint to Allison's heat. Gene does have a soft spot for his hard-pressed mom (Kerry Condon) and kid sister, Phoebe (Darby Camp).

The wonderful Lola Kirke provides the narration as Phoebe's grown self looking back long years to the events that took place in 1935.

There really isn't a whole lot of story to speak of. Director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte and screenwriter Nicolaas Zwart concentrate on setting up situations and character impulses, and then seeing how the pieces will move around on their own.

We know that Gene will be completely ensorceled by Allison, and she will do little to discourage this sentiment so long as he's helping her hide out and heal up. And that the $20,000 bounty on her head will lead the locals to start closing in on the couple, with Gene's stepdad as the head bloodhound. 

And eventually, she will need to move on and Gene will go with her. I'm not giving anything away; the narration says as much in the very beginning, Phoebe talking about the legend of her brother and "the Wells woman."

I just loved the look of this film, with great attention detail paid to the frayed edges of the people's clothing, the rusty screws in the bed of the family truck and the slight sheen of sweat that hangs on people's foreheads to remind us of the Texas crop-killing drought. 

When things go south, people tend to get squirrelly, acting normal on the surface but ready to jump at the slightest chance to change the dire direction of things -- even if it chances things getting worse. Gosh, that sounds familiar...

Even the smallest supporting actors are right in the groove, never altering the sense of well-worn authenticity. I especially liked Stephen Dinh as Joe, Gene's American Indian friend looking for his own way out, and Joe Berryman as the gimlet-eyed local sheriff, who eats BS for breakfast. 

There's one terrific sequence where Gene goes off to take a peek at the evidence the police have against Allison while everyone is at a town dance, as an old-timer performs energetic hambone -- percussive knee-slapping and such -- supplying the tension-building music underneath. Marvelous.

The film does seem to be missing a few pieces, a little more backstory for Allison and more about Gene's longing for his dad's memory to fill out the connective tissue. In an age where I'm constantly harping about how many movies are too long, here's a handsome one that needed a little more fat on the bone.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Flight from Ashiya" (1964)

When it comes to war films, I often feel like the kid in "The Princess Bride," his little face screwed up into a perpetual pout -- "They're kissing again."

I don't know why Golden Age Hollywood felt like it couldn't make a war picture without ladling in a huge dollop of gooey romance. Particularly in the 1950s and thereafter. In the years immediately after World War II, there were some great, gritty dramas that focused solely on the combat and existential peril of the soldiers -- like the wonderful and under-appreciated "Battleground." 

But with 1953's "From Here to Eternity" and beyond, it seemed like the movies couldn't separate the fighting men from their dames. A perfect example is "Flight from Ashiya," which is supposed to be a paean to the U.S. Air Force Air Rescue Service, which retrieved military personnel and private citizens from perilous situations. Their motto, as we're reminded several times, is "That Others May Live."

Apparently, the unwritten sub-motto is "That We May Smooch."

Director Michael Anderson ("Around the World in 80 Days") and screenwriter Waldo Salt, working from Elliott Arnold's 1959 novel, use the rescue stuff as the mere backdrop to lovey-dovey stories. The movie actually spends the majority of its running time in flashback to the backstories of the three main characters played by Yul Brynner, Richard Widmark and George Chakiris.

Chakiris was the youngest and least-established of the actors, despite having just won an Oscar for "West Side Story," "Flight" being only his second starring role. As such, his tale as Lt. John Gregg gets the short shrift, focusing on a helicopter rescue attempt some years earlier in the European mountains following an avalanche. After only being able to carry out a handful of the survivors, Gregg insists on a second attempt, but the sound of his rotors causes another downfall, killing the rest. Now he's shaky behind the controls.

His was the first flashback presented, so I was lulled into a sense that the other two men's histories would also focus on their professional exploits. All we know thus far is that Sgt. Mike Takashima (Brynner) is a gung-ho Polish/Japanese-American paratrooper and Col. Glenn Stevenson (Widmark) is a cautious group commander in the South Pacific who was a prisoner of war of the Japanese, and harbors racial animus against them.

"These things run deep," he confesses to Takashima after they have an inevitable run-in.

It's interesting -- Brynner was widely regarded as Asian by American audiences, mostly owing to his most iconic role in "The King and I," both on stage and screen. He was actually Russian, with some Swiss but also Mongol ancestry. Brynner, a notorious teller of tall tales, provided various mythologies over the years about his background, helping elevate the sense of the exotic for his screen persona.

(He also had hair, or at least some, but after "The King and I" made him an international star he continued to shave his head for the rest of his life for the same reason.)

In the framing story set in the early 1960s, the three men are flying in propeller seaplanes to rescue some Japanese survivors of a sunken ship. 

(The film was a Japanese/American co-production, and I guess you could technically argue it's not a war picture since it's ostensibly set in peace time.) 

After the first plane attempts a landing in stormy seas and breaks up, Stevenson has to weigh whether to risk his crew to rescue hated Japanese, with Gregg as his co-pilot and Takashima as the guy who jumps into the drink.

For Stevenson, the flashback -- which must last at least 30 minutes -- involves his romance with Caroline (Shirley Knight), a reporter and photographer covering the Philippines in 1941. He was the owner/operator of a one-man airline delivering needed supplies to the war-torn villages, and she hopped a ride, changing out her skirt for a pair of his borrowed pants. 

Of course, he instantly fell in love and later tracked her down. They married but she died, along with their unborn son, in a Japanese POW camp because the commander refused to share their medicine.

Knight is a coy, intriguing presence. On one hand Caroline is a brave proto-feminist war journalist who, at one point, is ready to ditch Stevenson because neither one is the type to be tied down. But she also displays a sensuous, subservient manner that's closer to breathy Marilyn Monroe than edgy Kate Hepburn.

Brynner's love story takes place in Algeria during the war, where as a volunteer with a French demolitions unit he falls for Leila (Danièle Gaubert), a girl from a strict Muslim family. He instantly falls for her after she removes her veil, then reveals much more by taking him to the beach to cavort around in a black bikini. 

This may seem incongruous behavior, but a helpful café owner explains that in this spot, various cultural impulses of the East, West and Africa tend to collide and mix.

Gaubert isn't really given the opportunity Knight is to create a fleshed-out character, mostly consigned to forlorn glances and such. Leila only speaks French, so she and Takashima have to bother a shop owner to translate for them.

Leila's father and grandfather naturally disapprove, he tries to take her with him when the Axis forces attack, she follows him in a fit of passion and dies in an explosion from charges Takashima rigged himself.

So both of the older men are carrying major torches for dead loves, though Takashima has a barely acknowledged thing going in the present-day story with Lucille (Suzy Parker), who works in the air rescue HQ.

The filmmakers do a pretty good job of making Widmark seem younger during his flashback, the harder edges on his iconically angled face softened by makeup and lighting. Brynner looks exactly the same though, like the bald pate, his seeming agelessness was an intrinsic part of his schtick. 

Eventually the movie wanders back to the story at hand, rescuing the Japanese castaways. After parachuting in and transferring them to an inflatable raft, Takashima instantly bonds with a Japanese boy he names Charlie (Mitsuhiro Sugiyama), who calls him "G.I." 

The obvious sound stage water tank set isn't terribly convincing as a stormy ocean, with wind machines blowing spray past the actors' heads at 30 m.p.h. but the water moving at barely a heavy chop. At one point Takashima dives overboard to rescue Charlie, then nearly drowns himself, which is hamfistedly used as the break point for his flashback.

Of course, as you might guess Stevenson overcomes his caution and racism -- for a bit, at least -- to land the plane and rescue everybody. 

There's some interesting technical stuff that interests me about the movie because of my own family history in aviation. For ocean takeoff the crew attaches booster rockets to the exterior of their Grumman HU-16 Albatross like a schoolboy soda can trick -- something that sounds like Hollywood BS but was a real thing: JATO (jet assisted take off). Variants of the Albatross are still in use today.

When "Flight from Ashiya" actually bothers to focus on the derring-do of Air Rescue Service pilots and personnel, it's a pretty riveting story. The smoochie stuff doesn't really fit, though, and would've better been dropped for weighing down the film's flight profile.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Review: "Ammonite"


Two very different women meet on a lonely windswept island during corsets-and-repression times. They are brought together by circumstances involving artistry and marital obligations. After an initial period of hostility, they soon fall for each other and begin a torrid romance. But then, the reality of their forbidden love in a world ruled by men reasserts itself, leading to bitterness and regret...

Another paean to "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," one of my favorite films from last year? Could be; I love singing that movie's praises.

But it's actually a description of "Ammonite," a new film starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan that thematically sounds almost like a carbon copy of the earlier French film. I can only imagine writer/director Francis Lee and his cast learning about "Lady" while gearing up for their own production -- must've been a real facepalm moment.

This movie is perfectly fine, and no more. Winslet is terrific as always, playing a woman who lives so much inside herself that it's a veritable miracle that she can let anyone else in, even briefly. And Ronan continues to display a range and depth heralding her as one of the finest actresses of her generation.

But the film has a dread lack of surprise to it. You can practically count the beats until the next change in a choreographed dance. It's never good when you already know where a movie is going to go.

Winslet plays Mary Adding, very loosely based on a real paleontologist of the same name in early 19th century Britain. In another age Adding would've been recognized as a great mind, chaired a university department and been showered with awards and honors. Instead, she operates independently as a self-taught scientist on the island of Lyme Regis, collecting marine fossils from the beach that she sells to tourists in order to earn a hardscrabble existence.

Mary has never wed or had children, nor regretted it, plunging herself into her painstaking work -- collecting fossils, then cleaning and cataloguing them. She also writes and draws well, and her shop is more of an artist's studio than a scientist's laboratory. Mary lives with her aged mother (Gemma Jones), who bore 10 children and watched eight of them die, taking a piece of her soul each time. 

Now mostly they just skulk about their claptrap house, trying not to get in each other's way.

One day Mary is visited by Mr. Murchison (James McArdle), a wealthy young paleontology buff attracted by Mary's faded reputation. Years earlier she discovered a complete ichthyosaurus skeleton, now on display in the London natural history museum. She immediately spots Murchison as a cheeky dilettante, the sort who'll be on to painting or chemistry by next year. But she accepts his coins to let him follow after her for a bit.

Murchison has brought with him his wife, Charlotte (Ronan), who is suffering from a long state of melancholy after a familial tragedy. Back then, doctors did not distinguish between ailments of the body and mind, so she has been instructed to take the sea air and make herself better. 

Murchison would rather go on a fossil-hunting exhibition than be tethered to a moody spouse. He's the kind of fellow who thinks he can impose on others because he has money, so he bribes Mary to be Charlotte's companion while he's gone a few weeks.

Pinched and dour, Mary is a hard person to know. Winslet makes do with the smallest of gestures and expressions to communicate changes in disposition. At first put out by Charlotte's presence, she grows more sympathetic when the young woman falls ill, moving into her house and, quite literally, her bed.

We meet Elizabeth (Fiona Shaw), the town apothecary and a free spirit. Without anything being said, we quickly surmise that she and Mary previously had a relationship that ended badly. So she's sorely put out when she sees Elizabeth taking a shine to Charlotte. Perhaps this impels her to become more urgent with this new prospect.

There's a tidy little scene where they go to the beach after Charlotte has recovered, both wearing the poofy dresses and clunky boots of the time. A ray of sun finally poking through the dim south England clouds, Charlotte discards her shoes and socks, perching her pale bare feet on a rock -- as much for Mary's eyes as the warmth. Just that tiny sliver of forbidden flesh pushes her over the edge.

Their pairing is a meeting between hot and cold, old and young, the beat-down and the hopeful. (The sex scenes are also surprisingly explicit for A-list actors.) We know where this is going to end, but do feel some of their joy and pain along the way, and that we do is to both actresses' credit.

Perhaps I would've admired "Ammonite" more if it had come out before "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," and the latter, less. Somehow, though, I doubt it. 


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Review: "Wolfwalkers"


In recent years when the Oscar nominations came out, it often seems like there's an animated feature on the list I hadn't heard of. Some come from Asia, but a surprising number arrive from the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, the makers of "The Secret of Kells," "Song of the Sea" and "The Breadwinner."

Invariably, I catch up with them later and find out they're some of my favorite animated films of the year. Their newest, "Wolfwalkers," easily takes the lead position as the best I've seen in 2020.

It's hard to describe the breathtaking beauty of this movie. It appears to be largely hand-drawn, though these days some kind of computer-generated effects are often involved for backgrounds or special effects. The colors are incredibly vibrant, a veritable symphony of scarlets and oranges and yellows.

It's a very deliberately 2D effect, which is accentuated during a number of sequences when the action changes to an overhead perspective of a location whilst the characters are still at eye-level to us, sort of like a medieval painting of soldiers inside a walled castle or whatnot. 

That fits the setting of the city of Kilkenny during the dreariest part of the Dark Ages.

Robyn Goodfellowe (voice of Honor Kneafsey) is a sweet but willful girl of about 10 who dreams of becoming a mighty hunter like her father (Sean Bean, surprisingly emotive). But most girls are tasked with working in the scullery, something Robyn eschews for practicing with her crossbow and sneaking off into the forbidden woods with her pet raven, Merlin.

The Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) wants to raze the forest to make more room for sheepherding and farming, but a stubborn pack of ghostly wolves harries them. Goodfellowe is tasked with killing them, but has been a miserable failure. Meanwhile, the Irish townsfolk are already in a state of agitation about their English overlords, and whisper stories about wolfwalkers who are part human, part wolf.

It turns out these stories are only partly true. Upon venturing in the woods Robyn meets Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a little girl with a fiery canopy of hair who seems completely feral. She tells Robyn that wolfwalkers like her are not werewolves, but their wolf spirit breaks free of their sleeping body and runs free. 

I loved the light and sound effects used for the wolfwalker magic -- it's almost like liquid gold waiting to spill out of their skins. Mebh can control the wolves and even heal wounds by howling keenly. 

Mebh's mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy), the leader of the pack, has been sitting unawakened for many months now, her wolf spirit apparently lost or worse. Robyne resolves to help them, increasingly putting her at odds with her father and the steely Lord Protector.

Director Tomm Moore helmed the three movies previously mentioned, and brings in Ross Stewart as co-director. The screenplay is by Will Collins based on a story about Moore, Stewart and Jericca Cleland. It has aspects of the fairy tale genre but also has a modernist immediacy with its themes about alienation and accepting those who are different from us.

The music by Bruno Coulais is just lovely with traditional Irish strings and flutes by the folk group Kila. There's also a song, "Running with the Wolves" by Norwegian singer Aurora, that should get serious awards attention.

Same goes for "Wolfwalkers" as a whole, which will appear on the Oscar short list for animated feature, or there's something wrong with the voting system. This is a story of magic and mystery, heart and grace -- human, and otherwise.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Review: "Hillbilly Elegy"

How do you translate to the screen a book that’s not so much a narrative memoir as an evocation of a place, a culture and a mindset? This was the challenge facing director Ron Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (“The Shape of Water”) in translating J.D. Vance’s best-seller, “Hillbilly Elegy.”

The path they chose was probably the best one laid before them, resulting in a solid if somewhat constructed-feeling look at one man’s journey from the hollers of Appalachian Kentucky to Yale Law School graduate. It boasts a pair of spectacular performances by Glenn Close and Amy Adams, both of whom should get awards notice.

The book came out in 2016 and was quickly tabbed as a political artifact, a wayfinder to the reason why many rural, white lower-class voters chose the way they did. The filmmakers behind “Hillbilly Elegy” wisely eschew any outright political machinations, rightly guessing that any such attempt would come across as a bunch of Hollywood leftists looking down their noses at a bunch of hicks.

Indeed, the biggest strength of the film is that it approaches its characters at eye level. The main dynamic centers around the trio of Vance himself -- played by Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos in his 20s and teens, respectively -- his mother, Bev (Adams), and grandmother (Close).

The family moved north to Middletown, Ohio, when J.D. was small, but he spent most of his childhood summers in Kentucky and that’s where their roots lie. The Vances are dirt poor living among others just so, but every clan holds firmly to the belief they’re a bit better than their neighbors.

The story shifts back and forth between the years of J.D.’s childhood and a few days in his life in law school, bucking for an internship at a top Washington D.C. firm. In the latter frame, his motivation is both practical -- he needs the money from a high-end gig to make up the shortfall in his financial aid -- and personal, wanting to stay with his girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto), an Indian-American who already has a job lined up there.

In the earlier timeframe, J.D. ping-pongs back and forth between his mom and “Meemaw,” preferring the stability of the latter but emotionally tethered to the former. Bev is a nurse who lost her job due to drug addiction, and the film is unrelenting in depicting how a broken person can be simultaneously fiercely protective and outright abusive of their child.

His only protection is Meemaw, who has a corrosive tongue and rude manner but understands that family is the only thing that really matters. Close is spot-on playing a certain Southern type, the chain-smoking old lady with crazy witch hair who can barely walk but will pin anyone to their spot with a flinty stare and a few acid words.

In the later timeframe, set around 2011, the guileless but graceless J.D. tries to fit in with snooty Beltway types, not knowing the difference between varieties of white wine or which piece of silverware to use at a fancy dinner. At the same time he is summoned back to Ohio to deal with his mom’s latest overdose, as his sister (Haley Bennett) has her own passel of kids and responsibilities now.

We can practically feel the weight of the massive chip on J.D.’s shoulder, a guy who wants to do the right thing but feels blocked at every turn. Basso seems to positively slump onscreen before our eyes. He owes a responsibility to his mother, even though she neglected and abused him horribly, and a loyalty to Meemaw’s edict about being the leader of the family after she’s gone.

There are a lot of things to admire about “Hillbilly Elegy.” It really sings when it focuses on the twisted but unshakeable triad of J.D. and the two women who raised him. It also makes a genuine and largely successful attempt to portray the sorts of folks people in showbiz and politics usually see as zoological exhibits.

It’s also one of those movies where the lead character tends to be the least interesting person in the room. So anytime we wander too far from Bev’s pitiful, manipulative antics or Meemaw’s iron rule, the movie loses air.

Still, Howard, Taylor and company deserve credit for making this movie in the first place, and making it in a way that feels true to the author and the book he wrote. We live in a time where so many are ruled by hatred and fear, and here’s a film filled with those things -- but feels like a small spring of hope.