Thursday, April 30, 2020

Review: "The Flood"

"The Flood" is a gut-wrenching tale with real-world urgency: the deluge of refugees fleeing oppressed areas of the world for the safe(r) havens of the West. We're very familiar with the issue here in America, focusing on our porous southern borders (with less attention given to the broken visa system).

Lena Headey ("Game of Thrones") plays Wendy, a tough immigration officer charged with interviewing people who have entered England illegally to see if they qualify for refugee status and are allowed to stay, or are shipped back to their home countries where they face dire consequences. The fix is in -- the vast majority of cases are rejected, and it's Wendy's job to make the case against them.

She's a workaholic and an alcoholic, struggling through a nasty divorce and making pathetic pleas to her estranged husband at all hours. At one point Wendy calls at 3 in the morning and demands to talk to her young daughter. We feel pity for her, but also not a little revulsion -- we can see how a tough job has hardened her skin, and her heart.

It's a good performance that's as tight as a snare drum. But really, the story isn't hers.

That belongs to Ivanno Jeremiah as Haile, a former soldier from Eritrea. He was arrested after jumping out of the back of a lorry (what we'd call a semi-truck), wielding a knife and knocking over a police officer. The story has caused a sensation in the press and Wendy's boss, Iain Glen (also from GoT), is under heavy pressure from above to see Haile deported as quickly as possible.

Trouble is, his story has the ring of truth. Director Anthony Woodley and screenwriter Helen Kingston adroitly cut back and forth between the interview and flashbacks to Haile's arduous journey.

The man is noble and honest -- to a fault. Asked if he has ever been charged with a crime, he truthfully answers yes. Except it was for pretending to execute a man in cold blood. For this he was tortured, with skin on the soles of his feet flayed off. He still walks with an unsure gait.

Haile makes it to Italy, but only after the flimsy boat used to cross the sea sank, presumably killing everyone but him. The sight of him washing up among their detritus of clothes and life vests is a haunting image.

He winds up in The Jungle, an ad hoc camp for refugees like him. Every once in a while the local authorities raid it and tear it down, but it gets rebuilt even bigger.

Haile meets Faz (Peter Singh) and Reema (Mandip Gill), a married couple from Pakistan who, like him, dream of making it to the U.K. She is pregnant and has family there. They have the resources to buy illegal passage, but use Haile as a middleman because the Afghani power broker (Arsher Ali) despises Pakistanis.

Things go from there. There's a lot of tension, not just from the nature of Haile's trip but in the way it registers with Wendy. She clearly senses he's a worthy candidate for refugee status, but knows where her duty lies.

Sometimes doing the right thing is not the same as doing what's expected of you. "The Flood" is a powerful and sobering look at the flow of people hoping for something better, but finding that you can't always escape your problems with a change in locale.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Video review: "The Rhythm Section"

Blake Lively has staked out a nice little film career in a lot of “pretty girl” roles. She was beguiling in the uneven “A Simple Favor” and spent an entire movie in a bikini in “The Shallows.” She takes a very different and bold turn in “The Rhythm Section,” a rather atypical but quite effective take on the spy thriller genre.

She plays Stephanie Patrick, a young prostitute and drug addict who lost her entire family three years earlier in a plane crash – a flight she was supposed to be on herself. Plagued with guilt and self-loathing, Stephanie seems stuck in an inescapable downward spiral until a journalist (Raza Jaffrey) shows up with shocking news: the crash wasn’t an accident but a terrorist bombing that’s been covered up by international intelligence authorities.

This leads her to Boyd (Jude Law), a reclusive ex-MI6 agent. He instructs her about the mysterious unidentified mastermind behind the attack, U17, and that he’s planning more. Through intensive tough-(no)-love training, Stephanie is gradually transformed into a capable adversary herself.

She adopts the persona of Petra Reuter, a notorious German assassin Boyd himself killed. The trail to the killers leads to Marc Serra (Sterling K. Brown), who brokers in intelligence information; Leon Giler (Max Casella), a slimy New York businessman with sticky fingers and lascivious tastes; Reza (Tawfeek Barhorn), a bomb-maker and errand boy; and Lehmans (Richard Brake), a sickly, half-blind middle man.

One of the things I really liked is that director Reed Morano) and screenwriter (Mark Burnell, adapting his own novel) don’t try to change Stephanie overnight into a superhuman agent in the mold of Bourne or Bond. She still remains very much human, and is capable of being tricked or hurt.

But her will, and her taste for retribution, are unmatched.

It’s Lively’s best role, as she gets to transform both physically and emotionally as Stephanie turns from strung-out dead-ender to a strong woman who finds she has a penchant for the hunt. In a year separated from bigger pictures, this low-key thriller is a gem waiting to be found.

Video extras are solid. They include deleted and extended scenes, and the following making-of documentary shorts:
  • Stephanie’s Journey – a look at her physical and emotional transformation.
  • Fight Or Flight – filming the stunt sequences.
  • Never Leave Second Gear – focusing on the top-notch car chase sequence in Tangier.
  • One Shot Explosion – a climactic, concussive scene.
  • Designing The Rhythm Section – the filmmakers’ approach to the look of the film.


Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Review: "The Willoughbys"

It's built into the DNA of the modern animated family film that there must be "life lessons" aimed at wee ones. "The Willoughbys" has that, too, though it's buried pretty deep in this tale, based on the book by Lois Lowry, about fractured families.

Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby are... really terrible parents. And not in a strictly ha-ha, they'll-come-around-in-the-end kinda way. They truly, deeply, madly do not like having children.

Living in virtual isolation inside an old mansion surrounded on all sides by skyscrapers, the Willoughbys (voices of Jane Krakowski and Martin Short) do have lots of love in their hearts -- but only for each other. Their ravishing romance holds no room for any ardor to escape when Tim, their firstborn, suddenly arrives. Same goes for daughter Jane and twin boys, who even have to share the same name, Barnaby (Sean Cullen).

(In the narrative safe space of movies aimed at kids, babies simply arrive unheralded, like the mail or the pest cat, voiced by Ricky Gervais, who also acts as the jaded narrator.)

The kids are basically left to their own devices, meals delivered infrequently as the parents remember to dispose of their leftovers, and any minor transgressions rewarded with confinement to the basement coal bin. This is mostly aimed at Tim (Will Forte), who as the oldest is put in charge of the litter by default.

Mostly the parents stay in their living room, cooing and kissing, and dreaming of a day when the children are gone. Unbeknownst to them, the kids are planning the same thing.

They hatch a plan to lure their parents into taking an extended trip around the world, ending with their demise in trying to climb "the tallest Alp." They're trying to manufacture their own orphanhood.

Alas, the parents did have the foresight to hire a nanny -- albeit the cheapest one possible -- and thus arrives Nanny (Maya Rudolph), a plus-sized bundle of energy. Jane (Alessia Cara), a budding songstress, immediately takes a shine to her, but the boys hatch plans to catapult her out the attic window into the city streets, and thus beyond their ken.

I really liked the look of this film, which is done in CG animation but made to seem like stop-motion, with little hiccups in the way people move. The Willoughbys all have vivid red yarn-like hair, including prodigious mustaches when they reach adulthood -- men and women.

The rest of the populace comes in all sorts of hues and shapes. Later on we meet Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews), the fictional mascot of a line of candy the kids are shocked to discover is an actual person, running a massive factory in solitude. He wears a military uniform made of gumdrops and other sugary confections, with a chest the size of a Buick and itty-bitty legs.

This is a fun, bright movie that adults will enjoy as much as children -- an increasingly rare thing you can say these days. Tim, Jane and the Barnabys share a strong bond even as they resign themselves to the fact their parents aren't going to suddenly turn into good people.

"Some people just weren't meant to have children" is not the sort of message you're used to hearing in a children's movie. It has the virtue of being true while also, in this take, quite funny.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Reeling Backward: "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, extended edition (2001-03)

I've in a groove. (Some might say a rut.) Exploring Ralph Bakshi's fantasy animation rekindled thoughts of his version of "The Lord of the Rings," which led me back to the Peter Jackson-directed trilogy of the early 2000s.

The 1978 animated film, which ended suddenly a little more than halfway through the novel -- even with skipping large volumes of material -- was sorta/kinda "finished" with the release the following year of a TV movie, "The Return of the King."

Bakshi was not actually involved in the second film, which picked up at roughly the same point his left off but featured a completely different voice cast. It was made by the same team that had done the lackluster 1977 animated version of "The Hobbit," and they apparently changed gears when they heard Bakshi's LOTR saga would not be completed. They even turned it into a musical, for God's sake.

Nightmares of "Frodo of the Nine Fingers" still haunt me at night.

In contrast to this slapdash effort, the live action trilogy was carefully planned from start to finish, with most of the principle photography for all three films completed over a contiguous one-year shoot in New Zealand. Jackson and his screenwriting team also wisely chose to separate J. R. R. Tolkien's 1,000+ page novel into three separate parts, as has generally been done during its printing history: "The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King."

For our purposes here I'm going to deal with them as one work, and specifically the longer, extended editions that were released on video within a year or two after "RotK."

Specifically, I want to focus on how the movies differ from the book, and how the extended versions for home video vary from the theatrical films. And why I think that, although the extended versions are superior, they're specifically better for the more leisurely experience of watching them at home instead of a movie theater.

To wit: let me be up front and say I did not watch the trilogy in one sitting. With additions the extended versions hit right around four hours per movie, adding somewhere between 30 and 50 minutes of screen time to each. I watched them over a one-week period with my 9-year-old as my enthusiastic companion. My 6-year-old was also there some of the time, flitting in and out as his interest waxed or waned.

I should also preface that I am a lifelong fan of LOTR and was both excited and greatly afeard of the project before the first movie came out. The Bakshi film and its wayward "sequel" are pretty universally loathed by true fantasy fans as kiddie cartoon bastardizations of a great work of literature.

Perhaps the biggest way the movies differ from the books, and the extended version from the theatrical, is the love affair between Aragorn and Arwen. If you had just read the book (and not the long appendices) you'd wonder if there even was a romance going on. It's barely mentioned in passing in the text.

This interracial affair between Man and Elf is a continuation of another romance, between Beren and Lúthien, that previously occurred in Tolkien's vast mythology of Middle-earth. You have to dive into his much less readable works like "The Silmarillion" and "Unfinished Tales" to get at that stuff.

Suffice it to say that Arwen's father, Elrond, disapproves of their love. He wants Arwen to take the ships west to the Undying Lands -- roughly the immortals' equivalent of passing into the after-life -- and Aragorn to take up the throne of Gondor. Aragorn and Arwen try to do their duty but find the pull between them too strong to resist.

Uplifting this romance, nearly to the point of having it equal Frodo's quest to destroy the One Ring, essentially makes Aragorn the trilogy's co-leading character. In the books, he's a sort of generic, stolid hero-type who mostly stays in the background, doing his derring-do, until nearly the end.

In the films we watch him gradually transform from surly Ranger to reluctant leader of the Fellowship to a kingly figure embracing the incredible weight of his destiny.

Among the added or extended scenes, we learn more about Aragorn's lonely childhood upbringing among the elves, how the romance came to be and how their love for each other presses heavily on their actions. "The Two Towers" in particular is replete with quite languid flashbacks and visions that help us embrace their melancholy.

There is also a lot more footage of the relationship between Aragorn and Eowyn, the princess of Rohan who falls in love with him. The extended editions have a number of interactions added not in the book, from taming a wild horse to the revelation that the long-lived man of Númenor is 87 years old at the time of the events in LOTR, having fought alongside King Théoden's grandfather during his wandering years.

Eowyn's ache is quite palpable in the longer version, and the addition of glances and dialogue heightens our sense that he returns her affection in at least some way. (This takes place during the section where he mistakenly believes Arwen has departed Middle-Earth.)

The additions also flesh out Eowyn's character to a much greater degree, so at the moment when he dismisses her -- "It is but a thought and a shadow that you love; I cannot give you what you seek" -- her pain is sharply palpable. It colors her subsequent decision to secretly accompany the men to war as not just proto-feminist bravery but the actions of someone who has truly given up on life.

Another character who sees a lot more screen time and shadings than in the book or theatrical movies is Faramir. When I first read the book, he instantly became my favorite character: an introverted, scholarly figure whose worth is often discounted in a world of men-at-arms. Living eternally in the shadow of his older brother, Boromir, Faramir is openly scorned by his father, Denethor, the increasingly mad Steward of Gondor.

The late romance between Faramir and Eowyn is given, I think, just a few sentences in Tolkien's text, and got even less in the theatrical films. Here we get a couple of sequences of their interaction, and we grasp how these two, wounded in body and soul, would find refuge in each other's company.

One addition to the extended versions I'm not especially keen on is Faramir's interaction with Frodo and Sam on their journey to Mount Doom. In the extended version Faramir forces them to return with him as far as the river fortress of Osgiliath -- quite a diversion from their journey, both geographically and thematically -- before allowing them to continue on their way. This never happens in the book.

Ostensibly this makes sense, since Faramir learns of the Ring and seeks to give it to Denethor as a way to show his "quality" to his father. But from a strictly narrative standpoint, it feels like a bit of a bait-and-switch, creating tension solely for the purpose of releasing it.

I have the same quibble with Treebeard initially refusing the plea from Merry and Pippin to declare war on Saruman, something wholly absent from the book. The ents have their (ridiculously overlong) entmoot and say no, preferring to weather out the coming storm. The hobbits trick Treebeard into taking them south, instead of west, so that he can witness the destruction of his beloved trees of Fanghorn Forest by Saruman and become enraged into action.

Aside from the obvious question -- how would the halflings know Saruman had done this? -- it again feels like a screenwriting ploy that's too clever by half. It also presents a logistical impossibility, of Treebeard being able to travel for hours through his forest for what must be dozens of miles, do a little toodley-toot to call the other ents, and having them appear almost instantly.

I caught one other temporal incongruity created by the addition of the extended footage. In this case Sam and Frodo, having finally made it inside the rim of Mordor, talk about having to "find a way down" to the plains below infested with orcs. We then cut to a discussion of the surviving leaders after the battle of Gondor, followed by a mustering of their forces and riding to the Black Gate many leagues away to draw Sauron's eye and armies. Then we cut back to the hobbits arriving at the bottom just in time to watch the orcs shuffling away.

So we have parallel timelines conjoined even though one action must have taken, at most, a couple of hours and another that would have needed, at a minimum, a few days' time.

Gimli the dwarf and Legolas the elf get bits and pieces of added screen time, mostly to affirm their growing friendship. Their friendly competition in killing the most orcs, which seems like a Hollywood add-on but is right there in the book, is given a few extra beats.

Similarly, Merry and Pippin are both rounded out a bit more, with some shadings to make them seem more than just fun-loving rapscallions. I also enjoyed the addition of the little subplot about them growing much taller as a result of drinking Treebeard's ent draught, with commensurate one-upmanship.

Within Tolkien's book the younger two hobbits are supposed to be in their "tweens," aka in their 20s, which would make them about late teen years for humans -- so not beyond the possibility of a late growth spurt, with a little entish help.

Speaking of ages, Tolkien was quite specific about those of Frodo and Bilbo. At the time of their shared birthday party that launches the book and films, Frodo is turning 33 (roughly 21 for human), signifying full adulthood, and Bilbo is turning 111. However, the movies omit the 17 years that passes between the party and the beginning of Frodo's quest with the ring.

Both Frodo and Bilbo were about 50 when they had their great adventures, which would be approaching middle age for humans. I think that greatly colors Frodo's personal journey. Elijah Wood was only 19 when they began shooting the movie, and was fresh-faced as a new apple. By the end of RotK, he legitimately seems decades older.

It's also harder to explain such a large gap of time in a cinematic version than one on the page. It makes it seem like Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel and the other leaders of the resistance against Sauron were tragically inept. As one of the five Istari sent by the godlike Valar to Middle-earth to oppose the enemy, what else exactly has Gandalf to do?

Maybe he was off spending too much time infatuated with the halflings' tobacco leaf, as Saruman mocks.

Samwise Gamhee also is greatly elevated in the extended versions of the films, almost to the point of being the dominant character in the last film. Many people were vexed when Sean Astin did not receive an Oscar nomination for his performance, and my recent viewing has only served to underscore those complaints.

In many ways, Sam is the heart and soul of LOTR. Not coincidentally, both Tolkien's book and the extended version end with his return to Bag End.

With regard to the film's historic haul of Academy Awards, "The Return of the King" won an astonishing 11, despite not receiving a single acting nomination, which must represent some kind of record. It also won in every single category in which it was nominated, besting the batting averages of even "Ben-Hur" and "Titanic," which also won 11 each, the most ever.

Finally, let us talk of Tom Bombadil.

None of the film versions of LOTR have even attempted to depict him. Even Peter Jackson saw no reason to include him in the extended versions. His part in the story is not long, and surely could've been handled in 10 minutes, or even less.

But I understand the reason for the omission. He's a mysterious figure, resembling a dwarf but having druid-like powers over his domain. Indeed, his Old Forest on the borders of the Shire is described as being very similar to Fanghorn, overgrown and dark of mood, and in many ways he's analogous to Treebeard. He's depicted as being the one entity in Middle-earth who is immune to the temptations of the One Ring.

In the end, the hobbits' encounter with Bombadil is little more than a diversion that forces them to tarry on the way to Bree, which is where the story really picks up. The only thing notable that happens in his company is when Tom rescues them from the barrow-wights and gives their ancient blades to the halflings. In the movie, Aragorn simply pulls them out and hands them over.

Reading a book and watching a movie in a theater are very different experiences, and watching a movie at home is more different from the cinema than we would think.

In general I think two hours is about the most amount of time a person can concentrate deeply on an activity without needing a mental (or bladder-related) break. We're human and our minds begin to wander, even if we are intellectually and emotionally engaged. None of the LOTR movies were distributed with an intermission like "Lawrence of Arabia" or other long films of antiquity.

(For the record, 2003's "Gods and Generals" was the last one to include one, and I don't believe there had been another since "Gandhi" in 1982.)

My DVD edition of the extended versions each came with two discs about two hours each, so we essentially watched the movie in six parts. This makes for a very satisfying experience, as we can enjoy the enhanced storytelling and have time to think about it in between.

I'm not here to tell which version of "The Lord of the Rings" is "best." The book is its own singular experience, with Tolkien's dense imagination and writing style of the language-loving academic he was. I wouldn't be the first to admit that I tend to skim over his long stanzas of poems and songs.

The theatrical movies were marvels, made for the big screen. And the extended director's cut, or whatever we want to call them, are a more sumptuous experience for watching at home.

Watching the last credits roll to the end, I let Annie Lennox's marvelous "Into the West" wash over me, with almost heartbeat-like pulses of emotion. "The Lord of the Rings" represents the apex of the fantasy genre on film, even better than anything during pop culture's brief fascination with these kinds of movies 20 years earlier.

Fantasy has largely moved to television shows and streaming platforms, with wildly varying degrees of success. For every "Game of Thrones," there's a crappy show with shallow-end actors swinging swords or miming spells.

But there will only be one "The Lord of the Rings" -- even if there are now several ways to experience it.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Video review: "Like a Boss"

Not a lot of movies focus on the workplace. They tend to treat people’s jobs as the in-between stuff that happens offscreen so the story can focus on more interesting things like relationships, crime, alien attacks, etc. It’s weird, because for a lot of people, especially unmarried folks without kids, work is often the dominant thing in their life.

I remember watching a Woody Allen movie years ago where he played a sportswriter, and if the flick was any indicator, he worked about 45 minutes a week.

“Like a Boss” is primarily about the relationship between two friends, but plays out at work because they’re partners running a small cosmetics business. Mia (Tiffany Haddish) and Mel (Rose Byrne) have been friends since childhood, are best friends and live together.

Mel is a little worried that all their other gal pals are getting married and settling down, but Mia enjoys her freedom and sees no end on the horizon. They have casual hook-ups with guys but for once, a mainstream movie doesn’t see the need to tack on a heedless love connection.

They enjoy their work, and Jennifer Coolidge and Billy Porter bring warmth as their employees, treated more like family. But they’re massively in debt, so when famous cosmetics tycoon Claire Luna offers to buy a stake, they feel like they’ve hit the big time. But Claire’s real motive is drive a wedge between the pals so she can gain control of the company.

Claire is played by Salma Hayek in extravagant hair, makeup and neon-colored outfits. She’s sort of a Latina Martha Stewart with a killer instinct. It’s a fun role, though it gets a little tiresome after a while.

There’s a lot to like about “Like a Boss,” even though the story drags a bit in the middle. It’s a celebration of female friendship and independence, on the job and in the heart.

Bonus features are rather weak. There are deleted scenes and just two featurettes: “With Coworkers Like These, Who Needs Friends?” and “Get Some with Ron and Greg.”



Thursday, April 16, 2020

Review: "Selah and the Spades"

"Selah and the Spades" reminds me a little bit of "Heathers" by way of Spike Lee's "School Daze" with not a little Shakespearean rivalry thrown in. It takes the seemingly pedestrian conflicts of high school and amps them up to a level of life-shattering consequences and existential crisis. Here, prom is not just an overhyped dance by a seismic event that could lead to an outright war.

Writer/director Tayarisha Poe, making her feature film debut, introduces us to Haldwell Boarding School, a posh prep school for privileged children to prepare for college and the life beyond it by practicing the sort of cutthroat politics usually reserved for corporate high-rises or the halls of Congress.

These teens aren't just growing into cynical, malevolent adults -- they're already there.

Interestingly, even though the school is ethnically diverse, even predominantly kids of color, racial animus is not what divides the five factions who have staked out their turf like preppy street gangs.

The most powerful is the Spades, led by Selah Summers (Lovie Simone, going places), who control the illicit narcotics trade. The fact that Selah and her squad are black and deal drugs is not presented as a reflection of wider society, but simply how the balance of power has played out in this particularly little chunk of it.

As the story opens, the leadership and spheres of influence have stayed mostly stable after a contentious war a couple of years ago. The other factions are the Bobbys, led by Bobby (Ana Mulvoy-Ten), who run the illegal dorm basement parties; the Skins, led by Amber (Francesca Noel), who oversee gambling; the C's, led by Tarit (Henry Hunter Hall), the brains who sell essays and other homework; and the Prefects, led by Two Toms (Evan Roe), who run interference to keep the adults ostensibly running the school in the dark.

The Spades and the Bobbys are the dominant clans, essentially the Montagues and Capulets of this star-crossed school, though there are no romantic crossovers. Indeed, there's no love lost at all.

Simone is a treat as Selah, who puts off a vibe of strength and confidence but is quite the turmoil of self-doubt underneath. Her mother (Gina Torres) drives her for utter perfection, seeing a 93 on a test in a subject Selah has struggled in not as an improvement to be celebrated but a failure ripe for scolding: "Where's the other seven points?"

As the spring semester of senior year unfolds, Selah would seem to have plenty of reason to coast. She rules the inter-faction council that meets to collaborate and hash out differences like a grande dame at the ball. She has a solid right-hand man in Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome), who keeps the books and handles the da-to-day. The only real task facing her is choosing a successor to take over the Spades after graduation.

Selah thinks she may have found a ripe target in Paloma Davis (Celeste O'Connor), a newly arrived underclassman who works for the school newspaper and is always about, watching and taking pictures. Selah takes her under her wing, shows her the ropes and then in classic "All About Eve" fashion, begins to resent her hand-picked protégé.

I liked a lot of things about this movie, even as I recognized Poe had gathered some very interesting pieces without quite figuring out how they all fit together. The rivalry between Selah and Bobby holds a lot of untapped potential -- I kept expecting things to build to a "Godfather" level of strife, but after occasional verbal clashes things always settle down.

Jesse Williams plays the school headmaster, who occasionally turns up to give speeches that make it sound like he knows all about what's going on under his roof, though he never seems to do anything about it.

It's also unclear how the Spades and the other factions keep the sheep in line. On a couple of occasions they corner someone who's gotten out of line and give them a few bruises, but there isn't even so much as a brass knuckle in terms of ratcheting up the threat. Seems like all it would take is a little firepower, or surreptitious video, to take down the whole system.

What we end up with is a titillating but somewhat disappointing tale that doesn't meet us at eye level. "Selah and the Spades" feels more like a parable than a realistic story about children playing a high-stakes adult game.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Video review: "Just Mercy"

In last week’s column I spotlighted a movie, “Little Women,” which many thought magnificent but I blieve is merely good. This week I’d like to flip it and showcase a film hardly anybody saw, but I think was one of last year’s best.

Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx star in “Just Mercy,” a based-on-true story of an innocent man and the intrepid long lawyer who fought to have him freed. It’s a familiar tale but one told with heart, conviction and some absolutely wonderful performances.

Jordan is Bryan Steven, a recent Harvard Law School graduate who eschews the big firms to open up a legal defense fund for death row inmates in Alabama in the late 1980s, which at the time was notorious for hardly ever overturning convictions. Foxx is Johnnie D. McMillian, convicted of killing a drug store clerk even though multiple witnesses put him nowhere near the crime scene.

We know the patterns of this kind of movie: Johnnie distrusts Bryan at first, but then grows to believe this young man will fight for him, followed by various setbacks in the courts, a fraying of bonds, followed by redemption. I’m not giving anything away.

Rob Morgan plays Herbert Richardson, another convicted murderer whose case follows on a parallel pattern with Johnnie’s, who also comes to be represented by Bryan. There’s actually a section of the movie where Herbert’s story begins to overshadow the main plot.

Tim Blake Nelson is loathsome and yet oddly sympathetic as Ralph Myers, who testified against Johnnie in order to get out from under his own crimes. He’s full of ticks and shame, and seems like a reptile who keeps molting layers of skin to reveal new shadings underneath.

All four men give Oscar-worthy performances. Alas, “Just Mercy” was ignored by the awards juries and barely made a ripple at the box office. If I’m any judge, this one’s a near-masterpiece.

Bonus features are decent, though not expansive. There’s a making-of documentary, deleted scenes, a featurette on the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama and another titled “This Moment Deserves.”



Friday, April 10, 2020

Review: "Trolls World Tour"

 "That was amazingly better than the first one."
                                                --Joel Lloyd, 9

So sayeth the target audience for "Trolls World Tour," the sequel to the 2016 animation hit based on those scary-cute dolls with neon hair and, apparently, golden singing pipes.

Back then I recognized "Trolls" for what it was -- craftily-made entertainment that parents would find tolerable but designed to dump straight into the bloodstream of their offspring like some beat-driven pharmacological candy. A mite cynical, mayhaps, but undeniably skillfully executed.

So here's the next one, and truth be told I actually dug it more than the first.

The song playlist is maybe not quite as good but the story's actually got a little meat on the bone, as Poppy (voice of Anna Kendrick), Branch (Justin Timberlake) and the rest of the troll popstars find out the world -- both musically and otherwise -- is a lot bigger and more complicated than they took it for.

It turns out the trolls of the original movie are merely one-sixth of the species, representing the pop music segment in a spectrum that's been divided up by genre. The others are rock, funk, classical, country and techno. According to the long-ago-but-just-rediscovered lore, the troll tribes went their separate ways long ago because of their musical differences, each taking with them one magical string from the mythological harp encompassing all things tuneful.

Now I now what you're saying: how does techno qualify as part of a proposed hexad representing all music? Does jazz fall under rock or funk or even classical? And where's a capella? Or folk? Or swingtime? Or punkabilly?

(Hey, don't knock it till you've tried it.)

Don't worry, the filmmakers -- director Walt Dohrn and a small army of screenwriters too lengthsome to list -- get around to recognizing that their framework involves a whole lotta square-peg-pushin' into them proverbial round holes.

My favorite acknowledgement of this is the deployment of four sets of bounty hunters just as diverse as the rogues' gallery of industry colleagues from "The Empire Strikes Back." These include smooth jazz, K-pop, yodeling and reggaeton, marginalized outcasts each vying for their own (very) little piece of real estate in the troll world.

It seems the queen of rock, Barb (?!?), voiced by Rachel Bloom, is determined to take over all the other troll countries, steal their magical strings and weave them onto her mighty guitar to strum the Ultimate Power Chord, which will instantaneously remake the troll universe in something akin to Thanos' Infinity Gauntlet, though less mass genocide-y, this being a PG-rated kids' movie.

Like Poppy, Barb has recently risen to the throne of her monarchy, similarly inheriting her mantle from an over-the-hill dad. Hers is voiced by Ozzy Osborne, riding a motorized wheelchair decked out in leather and spikes. He needs a little help with making the devil's horns gesture these days, rebellion and agedness making poor companions. She's not truly evil, just misguided, though it turns out Poppy is, too.

There's some stuff about Branch wanting to take things to the next level romantically, which must be neck rubs or something, since they don't even get a closing-shot kiss. Trolls are all into hugs and friendship but are quite conspicuously chaste, even being revealed to reproduce asexually through their bountiful wellspring of hair.

Kelly Clarkson provides the voice of the country & western queen, with a Dolly Parton 'do and a mournful wail upon her lips. George Clinton and Mary J. Blige head up the funk realm, which has Wakanda-like technological superiority over the other trolls, cruising about in their spaceship.

The leaders for techo and classical are one-noters, quickly written off into the background.

Sam Rockwell turns up as Hickory, a derring-do man of mystery from the country side who breaks Poppy and Branch out of jail. He also provides a romantic threat, what with his rust-colored jaw scruff and even chest hair, which by troll standards makes him a 6th-grader amongst kindergartners.

He also has four horse-like legs, which might seem unusual except that the funktown inhabits are quadrupeds as well, though theirs are more camel-like. The technos are actually underwater creatures with fins, though this somehow gets lost during the big togetherness concert at the end, where all differences are recognized and celebrated.

Like the original, "Trolls World Tour" is colorful, bright (almost blindingly), fast-paced and keeps a light touch. There's a fairly sophisticated message inside this sugary confection, which is that being different isn't bad, unless we try to impose our preferences on others, or fool ourselves into thinking our culture doesn't bleed into others and vice-versa.

It'll mostly go over the heads of the kiddos, but grownups will be there to catch it, and maybe appreciate a toss with a little more zip on it.

P.S. In a world gone suddenly topsy-turvy, ain't it nice to have one high-profile flick eschew the pack and still release on the same date it was supposed to, even if it's in your living room? I for one hope the theatrical model returns from its slumber, but one way or the other movies will always be there for us, if we are for them.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Fire and Ice"

Teegra encounters Otwa

"Fire and Ice" has more cheek than redeeming qualities.

This 1983 fantasy cartoon from director Ralph Bakshi and producer/illustrator Frank Frazetti received a PG rating from the MPAA despite being a virtual non-stop parade of nearly-bare butts and breasts. It's basically "Heavy Metal" with less blood and a thin sheen of material to cover up the good stuff.

It's one areola away from adulthood.

The movie has a lot of cool elements, but is still just a half-step above total garbage. The animation detail is pure Saturday morning cartoon quality, and some of the voice work is not much better. It's 81 minutes long but feels like it could easily lose 20 by excising the overlong shots of people running here or there.

And "Fire and Ice" goes into an excessive amount of unnecessary slo-mo, particularly as the camera leeringly lingers over female bodies in a way that seems designed to be juuuuuust palatable fare for 12-year-old boys.

The film combines elements of both "low" and "high" fantasy -- the former being more closely aligned with Conan and his ilk and the latter with hobbits. When you say high fantasy, think kings and wizards and powerful magic and world-ending stories. Low fantasy is more like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, with bloodier quests for individual glory.

There was a brief heyday of fantasy movies in the late 1970s and early '80s, including some pretty gory fare with "Conan the Barbarian," "Excalibur," "Heavy Metal" and so on. As I've previously opined, I think the roots of its destruction were sown when they tried to extend fantasy filmmaking into family-friendly spheres.

Movies like 1982's "Beastmaster" skirted right along the hard edge of the PG rating, with plenty of blood and even (brief) bare breasts. "Fire and Ice" is close in line with that aesthetic, with lots of bloodless deaths and a female lead who spends most of the movie essentially nude.

Written by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas, the story setting is a prehistoric world where everyone wears fur loincloths, and that's about it. They wield knives and spears and other basic weapons, though a few of the more advanced people have swords and axes.

There appears to be two tribes of people, the subhuman minions of the evil lord and the slightly more upright free folk; think Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. Adding to the implicit racial discomfort, the "good" people all have brightly Caucasian skin while the subhumans are drawn in distinctly duskier tones, with somewhat indistinct/generic facial features.

As he had with his "Lord of the Rings" movie, Bakshi opted to film much of the movie in live action and then transfer it to animation through a process called rotoscoping, where artists trace over the figures frame by frame. The idea is to capture a more naturalistic movement than free-form animation, but in my opinion it usually doesn't work very well.

Bakshi often had separate actors perform the live action and voice parts, including all three leads: the young, untried warrior Larn (voice by William Ostrander, action by Randy Norton); Teegra (Maggie Roswell and Cynthia Leake), the T&A princess/damsel in distress; and Nekron (Stephen Mendel, Sean Hannon), the powerful sorcerer and villain.

The land is divided between the frozen mountainous north and jungle-ish south kingdoms, with their headquarters in Icepeak and Firekeep, respectively. Nekron is using his powers to slowly advance his glacier over the land, and demands that the fire king, Jarol (Leo Gordon), subjugate himself completely. He refuses, and Teegra, his daughter, is kidnapped as blackmail.

The power dynamic up north is curious. Nekron is represented as a fairly common archetype in fantasy: the albino-ish weakling who harnesses great unnatural powers. He goes into a sort of rolled-eyes palsy whenever he is exerting himself magically.

Nekron is the son of another magic-user, Juliana (voiced by Susan Tyrrell, who also provides the narration), who taught him his arts only to be surpassed by him. They have a contentious relationship, with her supporting his imperialist ambitions but working to manipulate him.

For example, it is her idea to kidnap Teegra to offer her as a bride to Nekron. He haughtily refuses, even expressing disgust at her appearance which, along with some not-terribly-subtle swishiness in his mannerisms, points to other proclivities.

Though physically scrawny compared to other prehistoric males, Nekron enjoys personally dueling his enemies, using his magic to halt their blows or crush their bodies.

The running time of the movie is largely taken up with what I refer to as "process" storytelling. It puts an emphasis on slavishly following every step along the way of a journey or undertaking rather than giving us the highlights.

For example, when Larn is scaling the side of a mountain, rather than just showing him starting, a couple shots a long the way, maybe he nearly slips one time and then he's at the top, "Fire and Ice" will show us the whole, boring ascent.

So it ends up feeling like we're watching a bunch of dull, time-filling footage. It's also used for a lot of shots of Teegra, who initially wears a flimsy bit of cloth on her upper and lower body that is torn away by the subhumans. Underneath is comically tiny thong underwear and two triangles of cloth that just cover her nipples.

It's a triumvirate display of cleavage, sideboob and underboob.

Teegra writhes and stretches prodigiously to show off her assets. She also has the most hilarious running style I've ever seen, with virtually no arm pumping at all. She keeps her hands slightly in front of her and out to the sides -- as if to ward off any chance of her bosom being momentarily blocked from view.

William Ostrander plays Taro (voice and action), the princeling son of Jarol who is sent by his father to negotiate with Nekron for Teegra's release, with the full knowledge this will result in his certain demise. When informed of his son's death, Jarol has virtually no reaction at all, which makes him seem almost as hard-hearted as his nemesis.

Elizabeth Lloyd Shaw (voice and action) plays Roleil, a witch living in the woods who briefly captures Teegra. She has a giant, dimwitted servant named Otwa (Micky Morton), and it seems like the start of an interesting side plot until they're both slain by Nekron's minions a few minutes after meeting them. The "sexy witch interlude" is another hallmark of low fantasy.

Entering the story fairly late in the game is the mysterious figure of Darkwolf (Steve Sandor, voice and action), the mightiest warrior in the land. He stumbles across Larn after his village is destroyed and becomes a sort of mentor/protector figure, without ever saying very much. Darkwolf wields a two-bladed battle ax and wears a wolfskin headdress with glowing green eyes. He's also the only character who doesn't have his ass hanging out the entire time.

Darkwolf seems quite consciously to be a ripoff of Conan, and indeed it's he who has the final faceoff with Nekron, not Jarol or Larn. In his last shot he's seen slouched over a horse holding his ax in clear imitation of a famous painting Franzetti did that later became the cover for the debut album of Molly Hatchet.

It's worthwhile to note that in the end, the heroics of Larn and Teegra and Darkwolf are all for naught. All along King Jarol has a plan to release the massive river of lava he keeps dammed up within his keep and use it to utterly destroy Icepeak. He only delays doing this while his children are in the northern domain (and presumably for hesitation to destroy all the lush land in between).

In this sense, the fire king never truly feared the icy invasion as he knew he had the equivalent of a nuclear bomb in his pocket.

A couple of other notable sequences: Jarol has a small force of "dragonhawks," which resemble pterodactyls, which are ridden by his elite warriors. Larn and Darkwolf use them to infiltrate Icepeak for the final showdown with Nekron, and most of them are killed.

I also loved the brief scene where Larn encounters a graveyard spirit who lends him assistance when she learns he seeks vengeance on Nekron, who slew her and the rest of her village. She has a mostly skeleton head with a few wisps of long hair and some flesh still covering her upper torso, and there's a vaguely flirty air about her interactions.

It reminded me of the interrogation of a half-corpse in "The Return of the Living Dead," one of my favorite horror movies.

I had hopes for a little light necrophilia but, like the witch interlude, this communing is over just when it gets interesting.

"Fire and Ice" had a budget of about $3 million in today's dollars, so it was a pretty low-rent affair. That's reflected in the slapdash-looking animation with very little shading or texture. Larn in particular looks like he could've leaped right out of a newspaper comic strip.

Contrast the bland look of the film with its awesome poster, which looks like the cover of a Conan novel with a bit of anime style thrown in. What if the whole movie had looked like that instead of a lame Johnny Quest cartoon, I couldn't help but wonder.

Plans were laid for Robert Rodriguez to remake "Fire and Ice," with Bakshi's blessing but not his involvement. But nothing has emerged in the last six years.

'The fading of magic into mythology' is perhaps the most pervasive theme in fantasy storytelling. My only hope is that the future of fantasy cinema doesn't follow this as well. We had a brief golden age in the early '80s and early 2000s, with some trashier efforts along the way.

It's time for this genre to be brought back from the dead, for good.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Video review: "Little Women"

It’s a strange thing today where people can’t accept that you merely like a film -- you must love it.

Every year I have movies I adore that other people just think are pretty good or even so-so. “Harriet” is a prime example from 2019. More commonly, films that the consensus of critic and audiences insist are great I find admirable but hardly exceptional.

The most recent Best Picture Oscar winner, “Parasite,” is one of these. Another that many lamented didn’t make a bigger splash during the awards cycle was “Little Women.”

Perhaps it was because I found writer/director Greta Gerwig’s first effort behind the camera, “Lady Bird,” so extravagantly original and vibrant that her follow-up feels like a bit of a letdown. Having her choose as her sophomore effort to make the eighth adaptation of a 150-year-old novel struck me as uninspiring and unchallenging.

What did Gerwig bring to the table that couldn’t be found in the last high-profile adaptation a quarter-century ago with Winona Ryder as the proto-feminist budding writer, Jo March? Nothing that I could see.

The one bit of innovation that others have lauded, Gerwig’s use of parallel storytelling to jump back and forth in time between the first and second sections of the novel by Louisa May Alcott, many found confusing or off-putting.

Saoirse Ronan plays Jo, the headstrong of four daughters of the Marches, a well-regarded but economically struggling family from Concord. Father is away fighting in the Civil War, mother Marmee (Laura Dern) is saintly and supportive, eldest child Meg (Emma Watson) is in a hurry to marry, youngest Amy (Florence Pugh) feels overshadowed by Jo and the pure-hearted Beth (Eliza Scanlen) loves music and is destined to die.

(Sorry, no spoiler warnings extend back as far as 1868.)

Next door live the wealthy Laurences, with Chris Cooper as the stern patriarch whose heart softens in friendship to the Marches. Timothée Chalamet plays his grandson, Laurie, a spoiled brat who the March girls go ga-ga over. Laurie pitches his woo at Jo, who haughtily refuses in order to pursue her ambitions as a writer in New York... though things have a way of turning.

This is a gorgeous-looking film, filled with bright faces and colorful costumes and tables heaped with glistening food. (Though one keeps wondering exactly how indigent the Marches really are.)

“Little Women” is a well-made film with an engaging cast. It’s also the sort of movie where characters tend to just speak the underlying themes of the movie rather than acting them out and letting us come around on our own. For me that’s an easy line to draw between the merely good and truly exemplary.

Video extras are quite nice, consisting of six making-of featurettes:
  • “A New Generation of Little Women”
  • “Making a Modern Classic”
  • “Greta Gerwig: Women Making Art”
  • “Hair & Make-Up Test Sequence”
  • “Little Women Behind the Scenes”
  • “Orchard House, Home of Louisa May Alcott”


Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Review: "The Other Lamb"

He counts the days. He knows our private rhythms.
                                         --The Cursed Wife
The older wives know.

Oh, they'd never say anything to the younger women. The girls, the sisters, the ones in blue. For they know their future, because it is their past. And it is one they feel they can't escape.

That's perhaps the scariest thing about "The Other Lamb." It's a drama with horror elements about a cult led by a charismatic man known only as The Shepherd. He looks a lot like Jesus. He thinks he is Jesus.

Or, at least, he wants his "dear faithful flock," as he addresses them, to think he is godlike.

But the older women, his wives who wear red -- yes, wives, plural -- are fully aware of what's going on. Some of them are the same age as Shepherd, who is not old but is not young, and remember back to a time when he had a regular name like any other man. They know he is a miscreant running a long con. He says they are his followers, when in reality they are his coerced harem.

They know what happened to the babies who were boys, for in this flock there is only one ram.

But this has been their life for so long, something they chose, and they cannot see how to untie themselves from his web of deceit.

Some of them have been part of the flock long enough to have daughters now old enough to vie for a place as wives. There is a growing discord between the generations. Indeed, a few barely into their teens have already left behind the coarse blue frocks of the younger set for the deep red denoting one of the Shepherd's wives. There are at least half a dozen wives, and about twice that many in blue.

There are whispered tales of former wives, mothers now departed from the flock.

Among these is Selah (Raffey Cassidy), who's on the cusp of ripening womanhood. Her mother was one of Shepherd's favorites, as he frequently reminds her, stroking her deep auburn hair that flows in the same way. Shepherd commands his little cult through a set of invented rules, and one of them seems to be he will not take a new wife until she is blooded.

Selah is seen as the purest of the girls in blue, though the seeds of rebellion are planted in her heart. She watches the way the Shepherd manipulates the women and sets them against each other. One of her friends becomes a wife before her, and sits across from Selah at the campfire fire stroking her swelling belly, pride and boastfulness enflamed in her stare.

Where and when does this story take place? There's a dreamy, castaway quality to it.

Occasionally cars pass by letting us know there is some level of modernity around. Shepherd warns of the "outside world" constantly threatening to intrude and destroy their heaven on earth. When police drop by with a warning, the flock sets off by foot on a journey to find a new home, carrying only a few possessions and trailed by the small herd of sheep that sustains them -- the flock following the flock.

Denise Gough plays Sarah, aka the Cursed Wife. The Shepherd calls her a "broken thing" and eschews her. She has hastily shorn hair and scars on her body, and without saying a word we know where they come from. When Selah begins menstruating and is placed in isolation with Sarah, they form a kinship, with the older woman mentoring the younger.

This is a strange, moody and hauntingly beautiful film. Director Malgorzata Szumowska and screenwriter C.S. McMullen are less concerned with pushing a plot than moments of contemplation and quiet power. Some will find it rather slow-moving, as I occasionally did.

The visuals are magnificent. In their initial home in the forest, the flock has used strings of yarn to create outdoor spaces -- a cathedral-like roof, for instance. For group meetings and prayers, they have constructed a "room" making four walls out of the perfectly parallel strings. It's an oddly gorgeous and disquieting effect.

Cassidy does a lot with a mostly reactive role, her gaze transforming from innocence to recognition to resentment. We feel the power that Shepherd has over her and the others, and also her slowly germinating resolve to oppose him.

"The Other Lamb" is a story of faith, family and blood. Not all shepherds are goodly guides, and some sheep will not be corralled.