Sunday, March 29, 2020

Video review: "The Rise of Skywalker"

Full disclosure: I’ve never disliked a Star Wars movie. It’s even fair to say on some level I’ve loved everyone one of them. Yes, this includes the hated prequels. And all three of the “sequel” trilogy, culminating with the release of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”

This is a grand, energetic, undeniably flawed but also satisfying conclusion to a nine-movie saga sprawling over more than four decades. It relies a little too much on fan service and repackaging characters and story elements from previous films. Yes, it’s a bit lazy (spoiler warning) to recycle Emperor Palpatine as the main villain. On the other hand, he was such a good one that we don’t mind a reprise all that much.

The matter of the parentage of newbie Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley), which had been teased and argued about, is dispensed with in a twist I doubt many saw coming. The good-guy characters of Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are relegated largely to the background in favor of Sith hottie Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his turbulent relationship with Rey.

It’s part enmity, a little bit romance and not a little ego/ambition.

The first part of the movie is wildly uneven, but they rope it all together for a thrilling second half. There are lightsaber duels, Force fireworks, space battles and all the other hallmarks we’ve loved about the Star Wars saga.

Yes, there is some fumbling storytelling and occasionally hammy acting. This has actually been a feature, not a bug, of all Star Wars movies. But there is also plenty of power and majesty here. Having grown from childhood to middle age with these movies, I’m allowed to both revel in and chuckle at them.

Bonus features are nice, starting with an expansive making-of documentary, “The Skywalker Legacy.” There’s a “creature feature” about the process of creating all the film’s aliens, whether by makeup, puppetry or CGI animation. I appreciated the spotlight on Warwick Davis, who played an Ewok as a youngster and does so again, this time in conjunction with his son, Harrison.

There are also featurettes on creating the landspeeder chase on Pasaana; the history of that strange little blowdryer-looking droid, D-O; and creating the desert world aliens.

A digital-only exclusive with composer John Williams reflects on his amazing body of work for the Star Wars films.



Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Review: "Resistance"

And now let us praise those forgotten heroes of World War II: the mimes.

Yes, "Resistance" is yet another tale of those who fought against the depredations of the Nazi regime and their Final Solution. No, I never really tire of Holocaust movies. As long as you've got a fresh angle to take and a committed group of storytellers, there's nothing wrong with reminding us all of the greatest evil in human history.

I might draw the line at pantomime, however.

Aside from the utterly generic title, "Resistance" suffers from choosing to focus on the story of Marcel Marceau, the world's most famous mime and his wartime activities with the French resistance. Jesse Eisenberg plays Marceau, an aspiring young actor who works in his father's kosher butcher shop on a French town next to the German border.

From what I can gather the story has gotten a showbiz sexing up. It covers the period between 1938 and 1942, when Marceau was still a teenager. Eisenberg is almost 37 and while still famously baby-faced, can't pull that off. So he and his brother, Alain (Félix Moati), are aged up. Alain is also portrayed as the older and stodgier of the two, when in reality he was the baby brother.

The familial setup is typical: dad (Karl Markovics) disapproves of his son's artistic ambitions. Marcel argues that to him being creative is a necessary as going to the bathroom is to his dad. His mother teases at setting Marcel up with a nice local Jewish girl, Emma (Clémence Poésy).

Alain is active with the Boy Scouts, who at the time were taking in Jewish orphans displaced by Germany's movements to the east. Géza Röhrig plays Georges, the shrewd leader who recruits Marcel to  help care for the children they've ensconced in a nearby unused castle. Marcel uses his little bits of mime acting to calm the kids' nerves and lighten their spirits.

When Germany starts conquering countries to the east, Marcel's family and the orphan operation move west into the heart of France. But of course Hitler's armies take over in 1940, leading to a precarious situation for French Jews. Eventually Marcel, Alain, Emma and her sister, Mila (Vica Kerekes), volunteer to take a small group of the children to the Swiss border to find refuge.

Matthias Schweighöfer plays the heavy, Klaus Barbie, an ambitious young Gestapo lieutenant who seems to look upon Jew-hunting as his divine right. He's a chilly presence, and one tense scene aboard a train plays very well with nail-biting suspense.

Barbie was a real figure, though it seems unlikely the "Butcher of Lyon" ever personally encountered Marcel or his compatriots. Curiously, the movie actually takes the time to follow Barbie into his personal life and his relationship with his wife and newborn daughter, which seems shoehorned in unnecessarily.

Bella Ramsey, who memorably played young Lady Mormont in "Game of Thrones," turns up as the older orphan girl, Elsbeth, who acts as the audience's eyes and ears. There's even a suggestion of a bit of schoolgirl crush toward Marcel.

Toward the end of the war, Marcel served as a translator for General George Patton. The movie actually opens and closes with Ed Harris playing Old Blood and Guts himself, in a framing device that you just know is going to end with Marcel pulling out the white makeup routine for a command performance for the troops. Even after hearing his tremendous tale, they don't seem very impressed by the mime stuff.

I'd crack on Eisenberg for not appearing to be a very accomplished mime. But then even the best of them grow tiresome after just a minute or two. It's even suggested Marcel's acting skills allow him to hide in trees with virtual invisibility.

I guess I'm Woody Allen in the scene from "Annie Hall" where he observes a park mime pretending to lose his balance and decides to just push him over.

Writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz has given us a well-meaning but rather flat Holocaust story. We know every story beat before it lands, observe the laughter-turning-to-tears-and-back-again moments without really feeling them. You can practically meet a character and know they're eventually going to die.

It almost feels like someone is sketching out a story in the air, rather than actually telling it to us.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Fritz the Cat" (1972)

Some movies became iconic in such a way that nearly everyone is familiar with a film without actually having seen it. That had been my experience with "Fritz the Cat."

From the standpoint of content that pushed the envelope, 1968 to 1975 or so were very interesting years for American cinema. In less then a decade we went from movies being seen as more or less suitable for all ages to having films that were very intentionally made for adult audiences only.

"Fritz the Cat" is most remembered today for being the first animated film to receive an X rating from the MPAA. It features a lot of animals with anthropomorphic genitals, breasts and asses. There's a fair bit of sex -- more groping and tugging than humping, notably -- drug use and some fairly grisly violence.

Interestingly, "Fritz" hit U.S. theaters about six months before "Deep Throat" and "Behind the Green Door," the two films that largely ushered in the era of mainstream pornographic movies. One wonders if having a movie come first doing basically the same stuff with cartoon critters helped ease the transition to acceptability.

I'm not sure if it's a great movie, but it sure is a bizarre and energetically original one. I was struck by the contrast of "just effing around" fun scenes with a lot of pretty biting sociopolitical commentary. Overall it's quite critical of the hippie/free love/revolutionary movements of the 1960s, reveling in the debauchery of their antics while attacking the nihilism that often hid behind a shroud of passion.

In a lot of ways, it would not be surprising to see "Fritz the Cat" labeled as reactionary by the standards of today's culture of hyper-tribalism.

"Fritz" is the sort of movie that makes fun of both counterculture youngsters and their sworn enemy, the police -- portrayed as, literally and not terribly imaginatively, lunkheaded pigs.

There are really only four classes of animals in the movie: the porcine, violent LEOs; the jivin' black crows, who are stand-ins for African-Americans (or Afro Americans, as they would've been called then); the violent anarchists, who are reptilian or have squid-like tentacles hidden under trenchcoats; and all the other commonplace mammals, who represent "normal" white society, or at least the weed-smoking faction of it.

Tellingly, there is a complete absence of the standard American family life. We never see any suburbs, and hardly any kids or elderly people. Rather than standing outside regular society, the denizens of this crooked crackpot world are all that there is.

Fritz (voice of Skip Hinnant) is an NYU student who is totally focused on getting high and getting laid. He has been all around the world, he says -- though not much beyond Washington Square Park, it would seem -- 'fought many a good man and laid many a good woman.'

Fritz of course was the creation of underground comics legend R. Crumb, who had to be convinced by writer/director Ralph Bakshi to sign over the rights. In fact, he never actually did, but his wife had power of attorney and sold Fritz to Bakshi for $50,000 plus a cut of the profits.

Crumb did not care for the finished film, disliking Hinnant's voice and seeing it as more Bakshi's creation than a reflection of his comics. "There's something really repressed about it," Crumb said of the film, and he promptly responded to its release by publishing a comic in which Fritz is messily killed, and never used the character again.

At a brisk 78 minutes, "Fritz the Cat" really has a just few story elements to it. In the opening sequence he convinces a trio of hippie girls to come back to a friend's apartment for a consciousness-raising session, which of course is just a cover for getting it on.

Fritz was hoping for a one-on-one with the thickest girl, but it becomes a four-way and then, to his disdain as the drugged-up denizens invade the bathroom, an outright orgy. This is broken up by the pig cops, making Fritz a wanted feline.

On the lam he makes his way to Harlem, befriending a cool old pool shark named Duke (Charles Spidar) who saves his bacon in a crows-only bar. They steal and crash a car, take haven with a drug dealer, Big Bertha (Rosetta LeNoire), who gets Fritz high and has sex with him. Zoinked out on Bertha's high-potency marijuana, Fritz decides mid-coitus that he must devote himself to revolution, starting a race riot in which Duke is shot to death by the police.

In the last bit Fritz decides to run away from his life in New York City and resolves to drive out to San Francisco -- mirroring Crumb's own real life -- along with his hectoring former/future girlfriend, Winston Schwartz (Judy Engles). Fritz ditches her and falls in with Blue (John McCurry), a strung-out bunny biker and his busty horse girlfriend, Harriet (Mary Dean). They introduce him to some revolutionaries who enlist Fritz to blow up a power plant, which ends with a bang.

I liked how all the animals, from birds to lizards to mammals of every description, are completely compatible sexually. Bakshi and his team of animators don't show any penetration or hard dicks, but pretty much everything else. All the female creatures have bounteous, bouncing boobs that are  flounced about soon after meeting them.

I think Winston, as the designated buzzkill, is the only girl who never gets naked.

The gender dynamics, reflective of nearly 50 years ago, are what they call "problematic" today. There's no denying a strong vein of misogyny underneath all the adoration of the female form. Winston, as seemingly the only woman with a brain, is derided and abandoned. Bertha has agency and is firmly in control of her fling with Fritz, though her physical and vocal depiction dallies somewhere between mocking racist tropes and diving into the deep end with them.

The poor figure of Harriet is deeply troubling. When she objects to the revolutionaries' plans, Blue beats the hell out of her with a length of chain, though she seems to possess superhuman (or super-equine) toughness. She displays maximum defiance and (it's heavily implied) gets gang-raped as punishment.

Even with an X-rating, Bakshi thankfully does not depict that.

The female bodies seem to reflect Crumb's fetish for a particular type: chubby, thick-waisted with outsized breasts and a voluminous bottom. In a lot of ways his kink predated today's favored Kim Kardashian look by several decades.

The film has a number of musical sections, with existing tunes by various artists along with original songs "Winston" and "You're the Only Girl (I Ever Loved)." I was also struck by a couple of transitional sections that switch to animated stills of real New York City photographs, including a poignant one depicting all the trash and squalor around Harlem.

"Fritz the Cat" became part of the midnight movie scene of the 1970s and '80s, meaning a lot of people watched it with pharmacological companionship. I can see how it's viewed as a trippy flick that's wild and goofy.

But there's a lot more to the movie than just X-rated hijinks. It stands as a notable time capsule for its era, as the anger and passion of the anti-war movement cooled into irony and cynicism.

It's one of the earliest movies to look back on the '60s with something like regret, or at least sober-eyed reassessment. It depicts the contemporary urban setting (accurately) as a morass of filth, violence, hard drugs and racial division.

It made a boatload of money on a tiny production budget -- there's some disagreement about exactly how much, but $90 million is the figure most commonly batted around. There was a 1974 sequel, "The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat," that also featured the voice of Hinnant but neither Bakshi or Crumb were involved.

Ironically, it received the tamer R rating, becoming the first animated film to receive that designation in an odd historical one-two punch.

Bakshi was somewhat bothered by garnering the label of the "dirty cartoon" guy, which was underscored by his next film, "Heavy Traffic," also getting an X-rating and the R-rated "Coonskin" attacked as racially exploitative.

He went on to become the king of indie animation, working in collaboration with or apart from studios on seminal movies like "Wizards," "Cool World" and the well-intentioned-but-ill-fated "The Lord of the Rings." Many of the artists who helped launch the second golden age of animation were inspired by Bakshi.

Fritz may have been little more than a horndog cat, but he still made history.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Video review: "1917"

Although I would be hard-pressed to describe the World War I drama “1917” as controversial, it certainly had its share of detractors. The “gimmick” of the seemingly continuous one shot is just that to them, as two young British soldiers traverse a hellscape of trenches and death at every turn.

You spend the first few minutes marveling at the technique of director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins, and puzzling over the seemingly thousands of details that had to be kept straight. Every actor and prop on cue, in the right place, doing the right thing at exactly the right time.

The mind boggles at the logistics of it all.

But for me, that period quickly faded and I just became engrossed in the experience. This is old-school “you are there” filmmaking, where the camera puts you in the shoes of the characters and you experience their peril step-by-step alongside them. So I stopped thinking about the technique and focused on the tale.

Others couldn’t. The most common complaint I heard was that it felt like watching an avatar in a video game, except you couldn’t control them.

That’s fair enough. Certainly this is not the sort of movie that focuses on characterization. I think casting relatively unknown actors in Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay was a deliberate move to make them feel like Everymen. Still, during the course of their journey we do learn a little about their interior worlds, such as that one yearns for home while the other went back there on leave and couldn’t wait to return.

Their mission: bring word to a unit cut off far beyond the front line that their attack planned for the next morning is a trap laid by the Germans. If they fail, 1,600 soldiers are doomed to die, including a lieutenant who is one of the men’s brother.

A few recognizable actors show up in supporting roles: Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, Colin Firth. These cameos act as touchstones to the larger world, reminding us that there is more than blasted holes in the ground filled with bloated bodies.

There is surprisingly little violence in “1917.” Mostly we are witnessing the after-effects, as flesh and steel are ripped apart like the fallen toys of the gods. We feel humbled, repulsed, occasionally joyful and very, very much alive.

Often big-name filmmakers tend to eschew video bonus features, especially for high-toned awards contenders -- “letting the film speak for itself” and all that. I’m pleased to say Mendes and company did not do this.

There are two separate feature-length commentary tracks, one by Mendes and on by Deakins. There is of course a documentary on the logistics of the one-shot, 360-degree format and how it was executed. Mendes also hosts his own featurette in which he discusses his personal connection to WWI. Other features include:

⦁    “The Music of 1917”
⦁    “In The Trenches”
⦁    “Recreating History”



Wednesday, March 18, 2020

What we miss when we miss going to the gym

Though it may seem trivial given everything that’s going on -- including the virtual shutdown of movie theaters, libraries, live performances, museums and other centers that form the basis of our culture -- one area I’m feeling quite personally is the loss of our public gyms. I visited our local YMCA on Saturday, and I fear it will be my last visit to a workout facility for a while.

This pains me for a number of reasons, both physically and spiritually.

Thirty years ago this year, I wandered into the basement gym at my NYU apartment building to perform an awkward workout. And in a way, I never really left.

During the three ensuing decades, I have never missed going to the gym for more than a week. And even those occasional misses were owing to things like travel, illness or surgery. Even if one part of my body was temporarily immobilized -- including most recently the excision of melanoma on my shoulder -- I still found a way to exercise the rest of me.

I am not a gym rat by disposition. In fact, it’s fair to say I dislike working out. I loathe “muscle culture” and the performative aspect some people bring with them to the gym. Dudes who grunt loudly during their reps or women who do butt lifts right in front of the treadmills while the area off to the side is empty earn their eye-rolls.

But it’s something that’s become so ingrained into my day-to-day existence that having it suddenly removed feels traumatic.

My relationship to my body, like many people, has evolved over the years. I was painfully thin and self-conscious as a child and teenager. I still remember the older boys on my block being fascinated with my toothpick-like arms, forcibly rolling them in their larger, rougher hands to marvel at the lack of muscle tissue. My senior year in high school I struggled to get above 135 pounds.

Then came college, where the proverbial “freshman 15” became double that or more. It was around the time I was somehow both scrawny and doughy that I started lifting weights and doing cardio.

Practices become patterns, patterns become habits, and habits become lifestyle. The first couple of years, I worked out without fail every other day.

There actually existed a brief time in my early 20s when I was in really good shape, though I was largely unaware of it at the time. I managed to build a little muscle mass and trim down, and daresay I was fairly “cut” by standards of the time. I was even approached by a photography student about doing some modeling, which I turned down because it involved nudity.

(Here’s where my brain was then: I thought she was making fun of me, because no one could possibly want to see me without my clothes.)

The years turn and now I’m a middle-aged guy with the accompanying aches and pains. My workout goals today are simple: keep the flab at bay, maintain a little muscle tone and flexibility. I’ve incorporated more core exercises and stretching. I had to permanently give up bench presses upon doctors’ orders after operations on both shoulders.

My biggest change was dropping from three gym visits a week to two. After our second child arrived, it just became too difficult and stressful to find the time, especially with two parents trying to coordinate workouts. I found myself getting frustrated at missing my regular workouts, which often led to skipping another. Once I gave myself permission to stay at two for the time being, I’ve been able to maintain the schedule with little compromise.

I’m hardly buff and could stand to lose 10 pounds, but I take some measure of pride in having a better-than-average “dadbod.” My torso slopes inward rather than outward from top to bottom. When I buy shirts or suit jackets I get a small, secret thrill from picking from the “slim” or “fitted” selection.

My late friend Matthew Tully and I would bump into each other at the same Y, and talked about how the age of 45 seems to be a major breaking point for most men. It’s around then you make the commitment to try to live healthfully, or largely give up and let yourself go to pot. Ironically, before his bout began with the cancer that would eventually claim his life, Matt was at or near the best shape of his life.

I didn’t think I liked socializing at the gym -- get in, work out, get out was my creed. But I fear I will miss the sense of connection with familiar faces at the front desk or in the main wellness center. There is a very small but reliable group of regulars with whom I exchange a few words or just a nod.

My teensy bit of fame as someone who regularly appears on local television occasionally leads to strangers initiating conversations about movies. At first I found it weird but admit to enjoying being solicited for my opinion on what to see.

For someone who doesn’t really like to exercise, I am afeared of breaking my 30-year habit. Early this morning I was able to take a 45-minute brisk walk and do quick sets of sit-ups, push-ups and dips (balancing on the backs of two chairs). But it can’t substitute for the free weights and specialized equipment at a gym.

There are many communal experiences we’ll have to eschew for the time being. It feels like putting your life on hold, or at least parts of it. But sometimes you have to subtract in order to add, or in this case risk losing even more.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Video review: "Richard Jewell"

Richard Jewell was a man who was treated very unfairly by the media, and “Richard Jewell” is the movie that returns the favor. Despite being a very solid film, it was buried underneath a mountain of bad press and died a quick death at the box office. As the old saying does, don’t pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel.

(Or whatever the modern equivalent of that would be -- “people who leverage digital impressions by the terabyte?”)

The beef has to do with the way the movie suggests that Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) obtained information in an unethical way. Her reporting (and those of many other outlets) indisputably was wrong and terrible, jumping to the conclusion that security guard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) planted the bomb at the Olympics rather being a hero who saved countless lives.

I hate that director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray felt compelled to portray Scruggs as sleeping with an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) to obtain the dirt that led to her big scoop. There is no evidence to suggest such a thing happened, and she (like Jewell) died young.

You can’t libel the dead, but you can try to resurrect their reputation. And this “Richard Jewell” does very well, despite the glaring flaw.

Hauser is very solid as Jewell, a simple man who yearned to be seen as a protector of others. But because he was an overweight guy with a slow Southern drawl, people were ready to jump to conclusions about him because he didn’t fit the image of the stereotypical hero.

Kathy Bates got an Oscar nomination for playing Jewell’s mom, Bobi, and she delivers a head-wallop of a speech in defense of her boy.

Also wonderful is Sam Rockwell playing Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant, a peevish loner who finds his best self defending an innocent man who has literally the entire country’s law enforcement and media establishment lined up against him.

Give “Richard Jewell” a chance on video. I hate that they maligned a journalist, even if she was the one who opened up a spigot of false information that nearly claimed a man’s freedom and very life. One bad turn does not deserve another, and it’s a really good movie despite this bad take.

Clint’s movies tend not to have a whole lot of bonus features on video release -- he’s an old-school guy who doesn’t believe in filmmaker commentaries and such. So all you get are two featurettes: “The Making of Richard Jewell” and “The Real Story of Making Jewell.”



Thursday, March 12, 2020

Review: "The Traitor"

"Cosa Nostra" translates literally as "our thing."

Otherwise known as the Italian mafia or the mob, it has existed in various forms for a long time, and in the movies a bit less so. After the "Godfather" movies life began to imitate art, or maybe it was after the James Cagney films of the 1930s. Mobsters liked how they were glamorized on the big screen and took to imitating the Corleones et al.

As the late, great William Goldman reminded us, the mob we saw onscreen was a cuddly version of the real, malevolent killers who preyed on human weakness like a cancer. There's one scene in "The Traitor" that reminds us of this, where a teenage boy is killed for no other reason than who his father is, but not before chopping off his arm -- just because.

This Italian film stars Pierfrancesco Favino as Tommaso Buscetta -- that's "boo-SHET-a," not "boo-SKET-a," you should know -- the man who is largely credited with breaking the dam of omerta, the code of silence that held back a river of bloody secrets held by the mafia.

His testimony in a variety of trials in the 1980s and '90s resulted in the arrest and conviction of hundreds of mob leaders who had previously been seen as untouchable.

Needless to say, Buscetta became an instant pariah among his former peers. Many of his family members were murdered just because of their association, and there's one astonishing scene where his own sister screams to reporters that her brother should kill himself before he will be forgiven.

You probably recognize Favino from a few American movies like "Angels & Demons" and "World War Z." With his dark, craggy looks and smoldering glare, he's the sort of actor who can play cops or scoundrels, or scoundrel cops, and everything in between.

This is a long (2½-hour) movie from director Marco Bellocchio, who also wrote the screenplay along with four others whose names are too long to spell out. But I never found my attention wandering, even though the first part is largely a bunch of scheming and shooting while the second part is a succession of court scenes and the spaces between them.

As an Italian-American friend of mine once said, mafia movies tend to be just a lot of Italians killing each other and then wailing over their dead children. "The Traitor" certainly has that, but what it's best at is showing us how one loyal soldier felt compelled to break with the mob after 40 years.

I won't get into listing all the real mafia leaders names -- again, all those letters -- but suffice it to say that by 1980, when the story opens, things had changed in Cosa Nostra. Men like Buscetta swore loyalty at a young age and could convince themselves they were men of honor, even as they stole and killed for living.

They were criminals, but had their own rules and code, including such things as never endangering children or women.

By 1980 heroin and other drugs had taken over, and mobsters used to making millions were suddenly looking at billions. It was too much for Buscetta, who decamped his family to Brazil to avoid the constant wars and reprisals.

Maria Fernanda Cândido plays his third wife, Maria, with whom he had several children along with two grown sons, Benedetto and Antonio, from a previous marriage. Think Fredo and Sonny, respectively. They decide to stay in Italy and make names for themselves in the organization, and I don't think I have to tell you what that means.

Fabrizio Ferracane plays Pippo Calo, one of Buscetta's oldest and dearest friends, who urges him to return to Italy and take up the fight against their enemies. Luigi Lo Cascio is Contorno, a fast-talking Sicilian who has a way of making enemies of all the right people.

The other big figure in the story is Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), the judge assigned to interrogate Buscetta after he was extradited from Brazil. There he had been tortured and hounded for years, without giving up so much as a whisper of information.

But after a couple of sessions with the quiet, probing court officer and the sharing of cigarettes, Buscetta finds himself opening up. He is angry over having innocent people killed for no reason, including those close to him. In his mind, it's the senior mob leaders who have broken faith, not him. His life is forfeit, so why not do something meaningful with it while he draws breath?

Things go from there. I was amused by the raucous Italian trials, where the defendants are locked up en masse at the rear of the courtroom, freely shouting insults at Buscetta during his testimony. Meanwhile he must face forward toward a line of judges (while protected by a bulletproof glass partition) and they essentially trade barbs while rarely making eye contact.

There's a lot of thematic similarities to "Goodfellas" here, as a guy who had been with the mafia since he was a teen finds himself forced to choose between sacrificing himself and everything he loves for nothing, or try to make it count for something.

Favino gives a lovely, layered performance as a man who was far from a saint but had an undeniable sort of bull's courage. Though his name is still spat out in much of Sicily, "The Traitor" bears witness to a terrific true story.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Review: "I Still Believe"

“I Still Believe” is a good old-fashioned three-hanky romantic tearjerker. Boy meets girl, girl runs from boy, boy chases and catches, girl gets sick, and the tears start flowing. It’s been a familiar formula with minor variations since “Love Story” 50 years ago.

It’s a heartfelt, engaging movie bristling with music, light, joy and sadness.

You could actually enjoy this picture beginning to end without realizing it’s part of the faith-based film pipeline. There’s no overt proselytizing and it has recognizable actors like Britt Robertson, K.J. Apa, Shania Twain and Gary Sinise.

If this biographic of musician Jeremy Camp weren’t set at a Christian college and feature songs with lyrics about faith and forgiveness, it would be pretty indistinguishable from any other flick at your local cinema.

I say that not as praise or disapproval, but simply observing how you can measure the success of outlier movements by when they join the mainstream.

I can’t say as I’m a big fan of Christian pop music or Camp’s songs in particular. To my ears there’s a generic sameness to them, starting with plaintive, plucked guitar strings and inevitably building to soaring crescendos for pronouncements of faith and glory. It’s a white-people aural pudding.

(Speaking of, good luck finding many POC in the movie.)

Apa plays Jeremy, an impressionable kid from Lafayette, Ind., who moves out to California to attend bible college circa 1999. There he meets Melissa (Robertson), who seems a little older and wiser, and immediately is struck by the strong pull they have. Jeremy has a gift as a singer/songwriter, and dreams of following in the footsteps of Jean-Luc (Nathan Parsons), an alumnus who broke out big.

Apa brings a lovable decency to the role. With his dark, lanky good looks and breezy charisma, his Jeremy sort of reminds me of Jim Halpert from “The Office,” minus the snark. Jeremy’s parents (Sinise and Twain) are struggling financially and have a younger special needs son, but there’s love and support all around.

I really like Robertson as a performer. She hasn’t broken through in any big movies, with “Tomorrowland” and “The Space Between Us” both missing and starring roles in several short-lived TV/streaming shows. There’s a probing intelligence behind her eyes, and she takes what could have been a very reactive role and really becomes the engine that drives this movie’s emotional momentum.

We see her fear at falling for someone so quickly – especially, as we soon learn, because Jean-Luc has feelings for her. Melissa asks Jeremy to keep their (chaste, of course) romance a secret.

But then she falls ill with stomach cancer, just as Jeremy’s music career is taking off. He sings to the audience of his love for God and his fiancé, and begs their prayers to heal her. For a while it seems like a miracle is in the offing.

No, this isn’t a particularly subtle or sophisticated movie. But it’s a well-told one, by directing team the Erwin Brothers, Jon and Andrew, with Jon also supplying the screenplay with Jon Gunn. They’re all veterans of the Christian film school and seem to know its rhythms well.

Young love is powerful, transformational… and sometimes tragic. “I Still Believe” gives us the highs and the lows, and what comes after.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Erik the Conqueror" (1961)

"Erik the Conqueror" is pretty well a total trash movie. How I love it so.

This 1961 Italian/French production is more or less a ripoff of 1958's "The Vikings" starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. Cameron Mitchell and Giorgio Ardisson play sons of the Viking king who are separated as children and become enemies as adult warriors.

It's shot in DayGlo-bright colors by director Mario Brava, who spent 40 years bouncing around between adventure and fright films. Some call him the Italian master of horror.

The most interesting thing about "Erik" is that the title character is a purely tertiary figure. Ardisson wears a resplendent blond pompadour and loses every fight he's in. The real center of attention is his older brother, Eron (Mitchell), the bloodthirsty inheritor to their father's colonialist ways.

Mitchell was 13 years older than his acting counterpart, with short-cropped copper hair that suddenly turns brown for awhile about two-thirds of the way through the movie. Eron's characterization similarly flips all around, from calculating war chief to egotistical revenge artist to conciliatory lover of all men.

Twin sister actresses Alice and Ellen Kessler play the ladies the brothers fall for, Rama and Daya. They feel like they belong in a 1960s television comedy, constantly pretending to be each other, getting into capers and giving the high hat to impudent boys.

The Vikings apparently have some very dire rules about female vestal virgins dallying before their marriage, and at one point the eldest chieftain sacrifices her own daughter for having a tryst. Both the girl and her lover are tied to racks and taken out to the wilderness for the vultures to feast upon them.

Eron watches this, knowing that he is secretly carrying on an affair with Daya. However, it appears they are careful not to fully consummate their love.

In a terrific sequence, Eron vies for the title of Viking war chief. His main opponent is Garian (Joe Robinson), a blond muscleman, and to settle the issue they are required to smith their own weapons on the spot and then fight to the death with them.

I love the idea of that -- it's like having a car race but the drivers must first build their own vehicles. Eron wins but spares Garian's life, naming him his chief lieutenant.

The backstory is that 20 years earlier, Eron and Erik's father, King Harald (Folco Lulli), captured a portion of Britain but was betrayed and their colony destroyed. The villain was Sir Rutford (Andrea Checchi), who was ordered by the English king to seek peace with the Vikings but instead massacred them. For good measure Rutford also assassinates his own liege when he arrives to administer justice.

During the fight, Harald orders his boys, then perhaps ages 3 and 8, spirited away to safety but they are separated and Erik washes up on the British shores. There he is found by the just-widowed Queen Alice (Françoise Christophe) and claimed as her own child -- no one apparently contradicting the possibility of the king siring a semi-grown son before his death.

Harald had both boy branded with the same serpent tattoo he has on his chest to prove their lineage, which seems like a fairly easily faked bit of evidence. I had a vision of a "Spartacus"-like scene where men rise to their feet, tearing open their shirts and declaring one after another, "I'm Erik!"

Just as Eron is named the Viking war chief, Erik is made Duke of Helford by the queen and leader of the British naval forces. Each side apparently only has one ship, which clashes in the North Sea in a spectacularly foggy and cheap-looking contest.

Erik's forces are defeated, with the help of an agent of Rutford who sets fire to the hold. He washes up on the shore and is revived by Rama, instantly falling in love.

Eron takes Alice prisoner, suddenly morphing into a wild boasting barbarian. He names Rutford his regent and instantly leaves England, warning the knight not to betray him like he has done to every single monarch he's ever served. It sort of begs the question of why you'd invade a country just to put somebody else in charge of it.

The fight scenes are staged pretty well, with plenty of speed and heft. The final duel between Erik and Eron, with the titular character again getting his ass handed to him, is sweaty and exciting. Of course, it ends with some shirts getting ripped open just in time for them to recognize one another as brothers, instantly transforming from mortal enemies into besties.

The reunion literally lasts about 30 seconds before Rutford has an arrow fired at Erik, which Eron takes in his stead. As he lies dying, he pleads to see Daya last one time. Rama, in an act of extraordinary compassion and/or cruelty, poses as her sister to see him off.

"Erik the Conqueror" was pretty well hacked apart for its various international edits, being released in late 1961 in Italy as a 98-minute film but not making it to the States until mid-1963 at 81 minutes.

Interestingly, most versions leave off the very last bit of the ending, in which Eron's funeral ship is set on fire by Daya wielding a torch. The final excised shot makes it clear that she stayed aboard, sacrificing her own life to be with her love.

I'm not even entirely sure why I liked "Erik the Conqueror" so much. It has terrible production values, a silly story and many of the actors aren't even speaking the same language, resulting in some hilarious dubbing mismatches depending on what language the soundtrack is in.

It has the feel of a Spaghetti Western before there was such a thing, bounding with fleshy vitality even as it brazenly borrows from mythology and other movies. It's Hammer meets Leone meets Harryhausen.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Review: "Greed"

Tonally “Greed” is a sticky wicket. It seems very much to be a satirical send-up of the billionaire class from writer/director Michael Winterbottom starring his frequent muse, Steve Coogan, who have made the “Trip” series of movies and TV show together.

Wearing a gloriously saturated spray tan and glaringly white fake teeth, Coogan’s Sir Richard “Greedy” McCreadie is a buffoonish figure with a hint of steel underneath. A wheeler-dealer extraordinaire, McCreadie is the self-proclaimed master of High Street, the center of the British fashion world.

His MO is famous: he swoops in and buys up a clothing brand, strips it of all its key assets to line his own pockets, then washes his hands when the enterprise topples. He uses the nefarious but perfectly legal levers of finance to essentially use a company’s own value to buy itself, passing off one debt to cover another.

The story centers on preparations for McCreadie’s massive 60th birthday party in Monaco. It’s a Mediterranean mecca of wealth where the rich and famous park their yachts and their assets in its tax-free haven.

The shindig promises to be a bacchanalian feast of delights and pomposity. Everyone is to dress in ancient Greek clothing – Sir Richard is a big fan of the film “Gladiator” -- and they’re even building a Parthenon to witness staged fights with a real lion. Alas, the lion seems old and meek and the cut-rate Bulgarians brought in to do the job are mucking it up.

Isla Fisher plays Samantha, McCreadie’s ex-wife. She’s the very picture of unearned privilege. Despite their divorce they remain quite close, in no small part because his business enterprise uses her as the primary stakeholder for those aforementioned tax cheats.

And it’s clear the old fires still burn, despite the fact each has hooked up with a younger, hot companion.
A couple of other framing stores mix in: flashbacks to an interrogation before a British Parliament committee, during which McCreadie flashes his famous contempt for his perceived lessers (which is everybody). And a mild-mannered writer, Nick (David Mitchell), has been hired to write McCreadie’s “official biography, so he hangs around in the background acting as the audience’s eyes and ears.

Dinita Gohil plays Amanda, an Indian-Brit who acts as the tycoon’s majordomo, trying to handle a thousand details for the impending party. Shirley Henderson is McCreadie’s mother, who carefully isntalled the chip on his shoulder long ago. Asa Butterfield plays Finn, the son who openly despises his dad, musing about his affinity for Oedipus.

In one of the more amusing side bits, Sophie Cookson plays the pampered daughter, Lily, who is trying desperately to launch her own “famous for being famous” brand a la the Kardashians. (McCreadie is vexed to learn Kim is richer than he is.) She has a reality TV crew following her around to film staged turmoil with her boyfriend.

That’s the world of the McCreadies: faked and overpriced.

It’s a typically on-point performance for Coogan, but the story tends to go into respective cycles where he’s constantly raining verbal abuse upon his staff (without ever actually firing anyone, strangely) or twisting elbows making deals.

“Say four and shake my hand,” is his go-to move for lowball offers.

Toward the last third “Greed” grows much angrier and sadder, as we’re asked not just to resent McCreadie and giggle at his excesses but condemn him for the way he leaves a wake of ruined prospects behind him. Problem is, we’ve spent 70 minutes or so laughing at him so it’s hard to suddenly take him seriously as a villain.

The movie ends with what must be the longest string of title cards I’ve ever seen, with all sorts of facts and figures about how big-name fashion brands exploit workers in developing countries, paying them a few quid a day to make clothes that sell for a hundred times that.

Mixing rage and laughter is a very tough amalgamation, and not one “Greed” pulls off very well. Despite plenty of nice pieces, this movie is less than the sum of its parts.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Review: "Onward"

“Magic was real but faded away” is a central theme of most fantasy fiction, from “The Hobbit” on down. Ours was once a world of elves and dragons and unicorns, until technology took over, the magic was forgotten and things got boring.

If only we could recall the wonderment…

“Onward,” the new animated film from the Disney/Pixar, starts from an interesting halfway point. In its universe blue-skinned elves, massive trolls, pixies and other fantastic beasts rule the land instead of humans. But they also misplaced the magic and things grew dull. Until, that is.

The movie is basically a Dungeons & Dragons campaign with a mix of modern and medieval elements. Two elven brothers, Ian and Barley Lightfoot, receive a magic staff from their long-dead father. Cast the spell of “visitation” and dad will return from the afterlife for one day to spend with his sons.

Things go awry and only half of their father reappears -- the bottom half. They’re able to tap out some basic communications with feet but it’s not terribly satisfying. So their quest is to recover a rare Phoenix Gem so they can finish the spell and get their special day to bond.

Ian (voice by Tom Holland), just turned 16, is the shy and awkward kid. Dad died while he was a baby so he has no memory of him at all. His older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), is twice his size and has 10 times the confidence, tooling around in a beater van he calls Guinevere and an ardent fan of Quests of Yore, the movie’s barely disguised stand-in for D&D.

Ian clearly needs to be more adventurous, while if anything Barley could stand to tone things down a bit. Their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) quips about Barley setting a record for longest “gap year.” It’s not hard to envision that in a few blinks Barley could become that boisterous middle-aged guy you see in the hobby shop who has lots of passion but no career or family.

Directed by Dan Scanlon (“Monsters University”) from an original script he wrote along with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, “Onward” has plenty of cleverness and nice throwaway jokes, like the road gang of surly pixies. (Another favorite: unicorns are omnipresent, bedraggled pests that raid your garbage like raccoons.)

They even make a joke about how these types of movies always have a missing parent, by giving us half of one -- and not the meaningful bit.

I liked Octavia Spencer as the Manticore, a once-famous adventurer who now runs a cheesy tourist trap and had to sell her legendary sword, the Curse Crusher, because of tax trouble. She gets around to lending a hand, once the karaoke machine is fixed. Mel Rodriguez voices Colt Bronco, a cop centaur who’s dating the brothers’ mom in between flinging off crusty jokes.

Of course, there is the obligatory “life lessons” stuff that every animated movie aimed at kids seems required to have. (Can’t it ever just be, “Watch a really good story and enjoy yourself”?) Here it’s about cherishing your family and what you have, even as you strive for something more.

It seems Ian is a natural at being a wizard, and with Barley’s help he gradually begins to master each spell in the Quests of Lore manual. If only this were true, I would’ve fireballed my algebra teacher long ago.

Recently my sons and I started playing D&D, or at least our version of it. I haven’t played since the 1980s and don’t remember the rules very well. We take turns being dungeon master, and basically we just tell each other stories and roll a few dice to resolve conflicts.

There’s a refreshing simplicity to “Onward.” (Not to mention being the first non-sequel Pixar feature in three years.) It’s an agreeable middling Disney cartoon feature, and  kids will undoubtedly enjoy the spells and wondrous critters. (‘Ware the gelatinous cube!)

 I won’t say it heralds the return of the missing magic, but there are plenty of sparks and few enough fizzles.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Video review: "Queen & Slim"

Angela and Earnest only had one date together, but it lasted six days and left an enduring legacy.

That's the story of "Queen & Slim," a powerful drama starring Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya in a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde tale with overtones of race, power and regret. It's not based on a true story, but has the weight of authenticity as they flee the authorities as virtual strangers and become soulmates along the way.

The movie begins with an all-too-familiar anecdote: a young black couple are driving at night when they are stopped by police on flimsy grounds. The officer (Sturgill Simpson), twitchy and white, orders them around and overreacts to Earnest's complaint that it's cold standing outside while the cop fruitless searches his trunk. Things escalate, shots are fired, and soon they're on the run, labeled as cop-killers.

The movie, directed by Melina Matsoukas from a script by Lena Waithe, diverges from a typical crime potboiler. Angela and Earnest, or Queen and Slim as they come to be known, are not in a relationship. They just finished their first date after meeting on Tinder, and frankly it didn't go very well. He was condescending, she was abrasive, and without intervention they likely never would've seen each other again.

Angela is also a criminal defense attorney, which you'd think would compel her to stop, surrender and let the system of law in which she operates take over. But no -- she knows all too well how the courts are rigged against African-Americans, and it's she who insist they flee.

Eventually they become a media sensation, dubbed Queen and Slim, carrying authorities on a chase from Ohio to Louisiana and Florida. Initially traumatized by their situation, they gradually embrace the experience and their roles as outlaw icons.

At one point Slim asks a young boy to take their photograph in front of their getaway car. They have traded in their looks of benign young professionals for street clothes from her uncle (Bokeem Woodbine), a hostile New Orleans pimp, and look very much the part of hardened criminals. This picture becomes a lesson in how an image can be distorted through its proliferation in pop culture.

I admired the way the filmmakers never quite join in the celebration of the duo, understanding that many of their actions are wrong, and that people have varying reactions to them according to their own beliefs. A black mechanic who fixes their car is indifferent, even contemptuous, while a rich middle-aged white couple (Chloe Sevigny and Flea) offer life-saving help even as they regret the uprising of anger left in their wake.

"Queen & Slim" is both angry and sorrowful, suspenseful and lyrical. We travel along with these two, feeling their sense of doom with every mile. We are hesitant to cheer or condemn them, but just wish their journey would keep going.

Bonus features are ample, starting with a feature-length audio commentary track by Matsoukas and Waithe -- two (or more) are always better than one with these. There are also four making-of documentary shorts:
  • "A Deeper Meaning," looking at the film's themes and reverberations
  • "Melina & Lena," about the two primary principle creatives
  • "Off the Script," showing the evolution of the screenplay from first draft to final
  • "On the Run with Queen & Slim," a travelogue of the settings and behind-the-scenes action