Monday, June 29, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Minority Report" (2002)

"Minority Report" is the most un-Spielberg film ever made by Steven Spielberg.

There is plenty of heartbreak and sadness in Spielberg's movies. Certainly fractured families are a central theme. He's made movies about the Holocaust, D-Day and World War I trenches. The film he made right before this one was "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," in which bereaved parents replace their dying son with a robot who's been tricked into thinking he's a real boy.

And yet, there is an undercurrent of light and hopefulness in his oeuvre that I find (mostly) missing in "Minority Report," though "A.I." probably comes closest in its dystopian themes and dour mood.

In both movies technology has led to seemingly amazing achievements to benefit society, but there's an insidious bargain underneath that threatens to upend the balance. That's not surprising since it was based on a short story by the immortal Philip K. Dick, whose fears about the future essentially created its own film genre, tech noir. It was adapted for the screen by John Cohen and Scott Frank.

I remember liking the film when it came out but not being amazed as other critics were. One of the areas I still find it lacking is the sense of an entire world being built around star Tom Cruise. Instead, it seems like Spielberg and his team created just enough pieces to serve as a backdrop, and no more. He doesn't paint in the corners.

There are the automated cars that move both horizontally and vertically, but other than a chase scene where Cruise leaps from vehicle to vehicle, they're not really explored as a (literally) transportive societal evolution. Things seem... pretty well the same as they are now. They even have The Gap, in a self-reflexive bit of product placement.

Though maybe the sameness is a commentary in and of itself.

Set in the year 2054, the film has been pointed to as being prescient in its depiction of coming technological upheaval. We obviously don't have the ability to predict the future or record thoughts into a video stream, though VR headsets can do a pretty good job of putting you into a created reality. And the mind-altering drug people use in the film, neuroin, bears disturbing similarities to the opioid epidemic of today.

All the newspapers and magazines automatically update with the latest headlines, which if you were in the news business in the early Aughts, the talk of "e-paper" being the format of the future was all the rage. Instead we turned to reading on hard, graceless, 4-inch screens.

Most interesting is the ever-present eye scanners, taking a cool gadget that's a staple of the spy and sci-fi genres and turning it into an intimating facet of a world where our movements are continuously tracked -- ostensibly for consumerist purposes, but as we quickly see the government is piggybacking on the gaze.

We don't use "eye-D," as it's called in the movie, so ubiquitously or without consent. But think about how our online explorations are customized through cookies and trackable data. Everyone knows how they've searched for a product and then seen ads for similar wares plastering our web carousing. Or getting a report every month from Google Maps telling you exactly where you've been, and when.

Most of us would be mortified to have our browser history made public. In the world of "Minority Report," everything about us is on continual surveillance and display, up to and including the things we think about doing. Literally, people are arrested and punished for things they were about to do.

The story is at its root a meditation on free will and predestination. Usually such tales are set against a theological backdrop -- if God determines our path, how are we really free to choose?

As a good Catholic boy growing up, I was instructed that thinking about committing an act is just a much a sin as actually doing it. This was taught as a way to forbid sinful thoughts, but as any pubescent soon realized, they're as impossible to shut out as the old saw of "Don't think about elephants."

I think it was George Carlin who observed that the majority of Catholics who lapsed figured out that if you were going to be punished equally for thinking about doing something, you might as well experience the fun of actually doing it.

("I'll take glaring holes in catechism for $1,000, Alex.")

The film largely eschews religious issues, other than the decoration of some people considering the three "precogs" as deities unto themselves. They are children born of early neuroin users with psychic gifts, which used in conjunction can read people's evil intents before even they themselves are aware of them.

Of course, this also involves being imprisoned in a floating "milk bath" that heightens their powers, kept eternally pumped full of hallucinogens and fawned over by a quite possibly lecherous keeper, Wally (Daniel London).

Agatha (Samantha Morton) is the "most gifted" of the three, twins Dashiell and Arthur basically serving as assist men to the true genius. The three are named after famous mystery writers, and were trained by Dr. Hineman (Lois Smith), now living out her days in lonesome regret.

As is often the case in real life, the creative partner was outlasted and outmaneuvered by the business shark, in this case Max von Sydow as Lamar Burgess, who is now desperate to take the "PreCrime" experiment from Washington D.C. to a national stage. This means jumping through small hoops held by big people.

Hence the arrival of the inquisitive mind of Danny Witwer, a wolf-like young assistant attorney general played by Colin Farrell in his breakout role in American films. He instantly focuses his attention on Chief John Anderton (Cruise), who is the heroic public face of PreCrime. John lost his own son in a bizarre abduction at a public swimming pool years earlier, tanking his marriage to Lara (Kathryn Morris) and turning him into a stealth neuroin user.

In early scene, John goes jogging through the shady part of D.C., his real purpose to obtain a fix, which he uses to heighten his mood while watching (crude) holographic home movies of his lost kid. The blind dealer removes his glasses to reveal cavernous empty eye sockets, seemingly revealing his very brains, with the admonishment, "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king!"

Watching the movie again, this line heralds a lot of high-contrast photography by cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, including a plethora of shots where one of a character's eyes are turned away or lost in shadow.

For me, the faster the movie's plot-stirring gets, the more I tend to lose interest as it gets into pure chase-chase mode. Neal McDonough plays Fletch, John's former right-hand man now charged with leading the hunt for him. "Everybody runs" is their mantra, leading to some slick action scenes with flying power suits and "sick sticks," glowing batons that instantly make their target retch.

In one of the movie's coolest but most inscrutable sequences, John goes to have his eyes swapped out in a black market procedure to fool the eye-D scans.

Peter Stormare plays the bottom-bucket doctor, who blows snot all over his hand right before sucking out John's eyeballs. In a riveting soliloquy, the not-good doctor reminds John -- now addled by anesthesia -- that the chief locked him away years ago for intentionally setting his patients on fire, and now back-alley eye jobs are the only medical work he can do.

It revs up to a classic "I shall have my revenge" declaration:

"For true enlightenment there is nothing like... well, let's just say taking a shower while this large fellow with an attitude you couldn't knock down with a hammer, that keeps whispering in your ear: 'Oh Nancy, Oh Nancy.' Now that was a lot of fun, thank you so very much John for putting me in there, thank you so very much for giving me an opportunity to get to know myself much better."

As near as I can figure, though, the doc never actually extracts any kind of revenge. He competently performs his job, at less than his usual rate, even. John has a nasty encounter with a putrid sandwich and spoiled milk placed in the fridge of his recovery flophouse, though they appear to be genuine accidents as he blindly reaches on the wrong shelf from where the fresh sustenance lies.

As much as I enjoy Stormare's effortless creepy presence and off-kilter line readings, this whole bit feels like a buildup to an important moment that never arrives. I believe the whole thing could be chopped down to quick montage and improve the pacing. Though this would maybe suck some of the life out of the subsequent house search by tiny "spiders," disc-like robots with wire-thin appendages deployed by the PreCrime brutes to infiltrate and forcibly eye-D people

Hence Cruise's green eyes become dark brown halfway through the movie. He keeps the old eyes in a plastic biggie to sneak back into the PreCrime HQ (no one thinking to lock out his profile, apparently) with the intent to have them put back one day, but comically loses one down a drain.

Tim Blake Nelson turns up as Gideon, the wheelchair-deployed officiate of the PreCrime "prison" where reside people judged and sentenced without actually committing any dastardly acts. They lie forever dreaming in plastic tubes, wearing coma-inducing "halos" around their heads like fallen angels as Gideon plays them orgiastic organ music to calm their prematurely damned souls.

As Nelson brings an innate disquieting anxiety to his roles, one instantly wonders if, like Wally, Gideon is supplanting his official duties with an occasional tug 'n' grope of his comelier charges.

John himself is briefly sentenced to the halo prison, his long run finally ending due to the machinations of Burgess, who is using his protege as the sacrificial pawn to ensure PreCrime is cleared for a national rollout. Lara springs him... surprisingly easily, and many have wondered if the film's entire last act is a big guffaw and everything we've seen is merely the imaginings of John, still trapped in his plastic prison on a never-ending high.

This would, of course, be a mirror of the finale of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," one of my all-time favorite films and a clear inheritor of Philip K. Dick's prescient, precious paranoia. His cinematic children were legion, even without an official credit.

And while I don't think "Minority Report" is among the finest of the adaptations, it's a film that has aged rather well in nearly a couple of clicks down the big highway. There was even a briefly lived TV series a few years ago that came and went without me (or anyone) much noticing.

Things end on a (somewhat artificial) high note -- Burgess slain by his own hand, PreCrime disbanded and the not-yet criminals released, Agatha and the twins relocated from their enforced isolation in the pool to a self-imposed one in a lonely cottage on a Scottish cliff or wherever, free to live in the now and not the future.

John even caresses the swelling belly of Lara, their love reborn with another life and shot at parenthood. It seems that free will does reign, along with happy endings in Spielberg flicks -- even if it takes two-plus hours of haunting parable to get there.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Review: "Irresistible"

I always thought Jon Stewart was overrated as a TV fake news host, but he’s turning out to be a pretty decent filmmaker.

His fine directorial effort, “Rosewater,” had an international backdrop and didn’t get seen by too many people. Stewart’s second, “Irresistible,” is a sharp political satire that takes aim at the money, hype and competition-for-competition’s-sake mentality that drives our electoral system.

Political comedy/dramas are a fraught cinematic subspecies that’s been historically hit or miss, and as a result have fallen out of favor these days. “Long Shot,” “Vice” and “The Campaign” are the only ones I can immediately recall from the last few years, and they range from decent-ish to plain awful.

Stewart (who also wrote the screenplay) manages to avoid a big pitfall by casting Steve Carell as the lead, a scheming Democratic campaign veteran named Gary Zimmer. Gary represents pretty much everything wrong with American politics, and yet we can’t help liking him. It’s tough to march through an entire movie not being able to stand your main character.

As the story opens, the Hillary Clinton campaign has crashed to earth and the Democratic party is in a shambles, looking for any kind of win. Gary, who used to work for Bill, comes up with the idea of backing a conservative-leaning candidate in the heartland to show everybody the Dems can have a broad tent that includes guys with pickups and rifles.

When Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) makes an impassioned speech at his town council about not excluding illegal immigrants and a video of it goes viral, Gary knows he’s found his man. Jack looks straight of central casting in the Gary Cooper mold -- a farmer, retired Marine colonel and widower, doesn’t talk a lot but is a fountain of homespun wisdom when he does.

(Though I’ve never met a farmer who uses that much hair product.)

Soon Gary has arrived in tiny Deerwaken, Wis., to convince Jack to run for mayor against the incumbent (Brent Sexton). Jack resists, but agrees on one condition: that Gary himself run the campaign. Soon Gary has brought his entire army of high-priced consultants, pollsters and other experts to run a Senate-level campaign in a town of 5,000 people.

The first half or so of the movie is fun and light and terrific. Stewart gleefully mocks pretty much everybody, from both political parties to the hapless media, who are depicted as being like that dog from “Up” -- clueless and easily distracted. Meanwhile, the townsfolk are authentic and humble and nice as pie.

I appreciated “Irresistible” for not always choosing the most obvious direction, like having Gary go all “Local Hero” and fall in love with the backward ways (to jet-setters like him) of Wisconsin. There’s also a bit of romantic interest with Jack’s plucky daughter, Diana (Mackenzie Davis), who likes to point out Gary’s condescending ways with a smile and some light flirting. She’s a lot younger than Gary, but Hollywood has its ways of glossing over such things.

Probably the film’s biggest failing is re-introducing the character of Faith Brewster, an utterly soulless GOP operative played by Rose Byrne. She beat Gary in the last election, and midway through the movie arrives with her own forces to put down Jack’s nascent campaign, because apparently flipping one mayoral seat in Wisconsin will start a national trend, or something.

Gary and Faith once had a thing with each other, so it immediately becomes a tit-for-tat exchange -- Faith brings in some big-name donors, so Gary does too, etc. Lots of insults and sexual innuendo fly around. It all has a very sitcom-y feel and belongs in another, lesser movie.

Holding it all together is Carell, who has that rare, mysterious ability to play off-putting (“The Office”) or even nasty (“Vice”) characters and come across as appealing. Gary is a jerk, but (unlike Faith) he’s a jerk who doesn’t realize he’s being a jerk, and if it’s pointed out to him can be redeemed, if only for a while.

Stewart gets a little preachy and self-righteous toward the end because, well, he’s Jon Stewart and that’s his bag. But missteps aside I found “Irresistible” to be a fun, smart and even occasionally delightful send-up of a problem everybody sees but pretends not to.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Review: "7500"

Regular readers of this column know one of my biggest beefs with modern movies is length. It seems so many are longer than they need to be, often extravagantly so.

This has been exacerbated by the diminishment in the historical importance of the role of editor, where "less is more" used to be an animating principle, and by the migration to streaming platforms, where there's no impetus to keep things streamlined so viewers don't have to leave their seat for bathroom/snack breaks.

(Not to mention theaters being able to have four showtimes per day instead of three.)

Recently I was watching, or trying to, "Da 5 Bloods" on Netflix. Just within the first 45 minutes (of, groan, 155) my attention wandered as scenes sprawled out lazily, dialogue continuing long after the purpose of an exchange had been achieved, or existing for no purpose at all. Spike Lee's flabby, self-aggrandizing storytelling style seems to be the norm these days.

(Also, wth is with having the same 70-ish actors in the flashback scenes with the clanging contrast side-by-side with Chadwick Boseman? Bold artistic choice, lack of funds for stand-ins or just a straight-up middle finger to suspension of disbelief?)

So it was with great trepidation that I settled into Amazon's new feature film, "7500," and discovered a tight, taut thriller that clocks in at 92 minutes and doesn't have an ounce of flab on it. Here is one of the best movies I've seen his half-year.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Tobias Ellis, a young American co-pilot on a German airline flight that is hijacked by Islamic terrorists. It was written and directed by Patrick Vollrath, heretofore a short film maker whose "Everything Will Be Okay" receive an Oscar nomination a few years back.

He should be giving lessons to these big Hollywood types on how to keep it lean and mean.

The movie is set in real time and takes place entirely inside the cockpit of the jet (outside of surveillance camera footage of the airport terminal that plays over the opening credits). Gordon-Levitt is in every minute of every scene, and acts as the eyes and ears of the audience.

I had a special connection to this story as I have family members who were/are pilots or in aviation, including a dad who was a navigator/bombardier during the Korean War. So I had a little insight into the meticulous attention to detail their role requires, not to mention the ability to remain calm during a crisis.

Speaking of -- the title comes from the squawk code used internationally to indicate to control tower personnel that someone is attempting to hijack the plane. Tobias manages to get this off after a foursome of men try to fight their way into the cockpit, incapacitating the captain, Michael (Carlo Kitzlinger). Tobias manages to seal the door but is severely wounded, leaving his left arm limp, and knocks out and ties up the leader of the terrorists, Kenan (Murathan Muslu).

All this happens within the first 20 minutes or so, and as a result Tobias is trapped without help, sitting at the controls while the hijackers are doing God knows what to the passengers and crew. There's no music in "7500," so we're left with the whine of the jet engines and chatter on the radio as our soundtrack -- not to mention incessant thumping as the terrorists try to break down the door.

Adding to this fraught mix is that one of the flight attendants, Gökce (Aylin Tezel), is Tobias' fiancé and mother of their son -- something they've apparently kept secret from their employers. So not only is his own life imperiled and that of his 85 passengers, but also the future of his entire family.

One of the cleverest storytelling tricks is that Tobias' only connection to what's happening in the rest of the aircraft is a small camera directly outside the cockpit used for security purposes. The hijackers eventually realize this, and the most brutish, Daniel (Paul Wollin), starts dragging people up to the door to hold a jagged knife at their throats.

Tobias is compelled to negotiate with Vedat (an excellent Omid Memar), the young, high-strung member of the group. Through screaming exchanges on the phone and later more intimate ones, they gradually begin to build a surprising rapport. Just as we feel tensions begin to ease, though, the reminder that this is a life-and-death-situation soon returns.

At the center of everything is Gordon-Levitt in one of his finest performances. Bespectacled and straitlaced, his Tobias is essentially alone for much of the movie and has to carry the entire weight of the situation on his shoulders. Bloodied and bothered by the prospect of people dying at his refusal to open the door, he seems to age decades in less than an hour.

"7500" may be a streaming feature film, but it's an extraordinarily well-made one. I'd rather watch a terrific movie on my laptop than a bloated one in the grandest of theaters. Maybe soon we can get the best parts of the movie-going experience back together again.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Ghost Rider" (2007)

"Ghost Rider" came out the year before "Iron Man," which marks the official kickoff of the Marvel Cinematics Universe aka MCU. This puts it in the company of various other superhero movies based on Marvel Comics, which has been feast-or-famine territory.

These non-MCU films include the X-Men series, the first two Spider-Man iterations, a pair of lackluster Fantastic Four flicks and horrid attempted reboot, "Hulk," "Daredevil," "Elektra," various Punisher movies and the Blade trilogy, which has been deeply memory-holed by people still insisting that "Black Panther" was the first black superhero film.

"Ghost Rider" was pretty well savaged by critics but did solid business, enough to spur a 2011 sequel subtitled "Spirit of Vengeance." That did less business but was made for about half what the first one was, so it's not inconceivable that another one could ride again.

Plus, star Nicolas Cage seems to be riding something of a career resurgence. (Though he has reportedly sworn off the character.)

"Ghost Rider" has the reputation of being total garbage, and while it's not very good I would put it more in the trashy category -- meaning it has redeeming values even as it misses its targets, or takes aim at unworthy ones.

Tonally the movie isn't quite a straight-out comedy, which would put it years ahead of the watershed of "Guardians of the Galaxy," but something closer to self-conscious kitsch. Most of the actors seem to realize they're in a goofy movie and play their scenes with a mischievous twinkle in their eye and a "cashing a check" smirk on their lips.

If someone ever set out to make a superhero movie with the heart of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," they'd get something pretty close to this.

Strangely the one member of the cast who seems to be more or less playing it straight is Cage himself. He portrays stunt rider/pawn of the devil Johnny Blaze with a sort of sullen Elvis Presley shtick. His Johnny has a dead-eye stare and vaguely Southern warble. He spends most of his time cooped up in his garage/apartment in a ratty neighborhood, poring over books on the occult.

Cage doesn't transform into the flaming-skull, hog-riding antihero until one-third of the way through the film's runtime, which largely feels like wasted time. Here we establish the parameter of Blaze's history: son of a low-rent carnival stunt rider, he made a pact with the devil at age 17 to cure his pop's terminal cancer.

Alas, ol' Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda, extravagantly pompadoured and growly) plays dirty pool and immediately has dad killed during his next performance.

Johnny rides on down the road, leaving behind his once-and-only love, Roxanne. Twenty years later he has become the world's most famous stunt rider, known for leaping his motorcycle recklessly over impossible spans and recovering from seemingly fatal crashes on a routine basis.

His only real friend is Mack (Donal Logue), who arranges all the stunts and leads the crew, but keeps getting fooled by Johnny, such as bringing in military helicopters for him to jump over at a football stadium. I'd call Mack his drinking buddy, except Johnny don't drink, preferring martini glasses full of jelly beans or other sugary treats.

As far as lady loves in superhero movies go, Roxanne is pretty much the bottommost drawer. Played by Eva Mendes in full pout mode, Roxanne became a TV reporter who acts haughty but appears to have very little self-esteem. After Johnny stands her up at a restaurant to go hellfire-burnin', Roxanne downs a bottle of wine and demands that the waiter tell her she's pretty.


Wes Bentley practically slithers as the heavy, Blackheart, who's supposed to be the rebel son of the Devil, sort of the way Mephistopheles was for God, or something. He's a shrimpy, pale dude all in black whose superpowers are a freezing touch and a totally douche-y personality.

I'm a little unclear on the metaphysics-slash-mythological backdrop. It seems the Devil creates ghost riders via a contract in blood, granting them powers but forcing them to act as his "bounty hunters" to go after people who are also indebted to them.

Apparently an Old West ghost rider named Carter Slade, a sheriff-turned-villain back when they rode horses instead of motorcycles, refused to uphold his end of the deal, stealing a contract for 1,000 evil souls in the town of San Venganza. Blackheart wants it so he can use their power to take over the world, and the Devil orders Johnny to get it back.

Wait, so the Devil... doesn't want to unleash hell on Earth? That seems a little off-brand for him.

Sam Elliott turns up as the gravedigger at a local cemetery where Johnny wakes up after his first transformation into the Rider. He seems to know an awful lot about the Ghost Rider employee benefit plan, schooling him in his newfound super-powers.

It includes the usual strength and durability upgrades, not to mention turning his head into a flaming skull. This is part of the hellfire Johnny controls, which not only burns but can transform inanimate objects into their melty fire-and-brimstone equivalent. So Johnny's high-handled chopper becomes a screaming, twisted machine with burning wheels and a shotgun turns into a damnation-shooting boomstick.

His favorite weapon is a length of chain he keeps coiled around his torso or the back of his bike, which when enflamed he uses to snag and burn his enemies.

The other biggie power is the Penance Stare, wherein the Rider has an evildoer look into his eyes (sockets, anyway) and they are confronted with the pain of all the innocents hurt over the course of their lives. Basically, they die a horrible death while confronting the stains upon their soul. Blackheart doesn't have one of those, but we shall see how that turns out.

The CGI effects of "Ghost Rider" were criticized at the time, but they look fine to me. The biggest downside is that the Rider doesn't look or sound anything like Nicolas Cage, his voice turning into the usual growly thing with a bit of reverberating ghost quiver.

Generally studios don't want to pay big stars a bunch of money and then hide their beautiful faces. "Iron Man" cleverly solved this with a HUD display inside his helmet so we still see Tony Stark. Here, it basically switches between Cage and the Rider.

I thought I caught Rebel Wilson in an early bit role as a punk girl who is saved by the Rider. Brett Cullen plays Johnny's doomed dad, and Laurence Breuls, Matthew Wilkinson and Daniel Frederiksen play a trio of fallen angels who act as Blackheart's lickspittle minions. Strangely, he never throws them at the Rider at once, preferring one-on-one encounters where they are easily trounced.

Mark Steven Johnson wrote and directed "Ghost Rider" after the relative success of "Daredevil," which sold a decent amount of tickets despite despite being not very good. Neither is this one, though I can't say I hated the film.

It's goofy and doesn't make a whole lot of sense, freely violating its own internal logic whenever the rules don't suit. Example: Carter Slade shows up in the place we most expected him, just so we can get a cool traveling montage of flaming motorcycle rider next to flaming horseman. Then he casually rides off, saying he could only "change one more time," bowing out of the final battle with Blackheart.

Really? How did Carter know this? Did Mephistopheles provide him with a handy readout or some such? I gotta say, he fares pretty well: a lawman who betrayed his badge for greed, ran away from the devil, lived an immortal lifespan, trains up his replacement and then goes for One Last Ride without having to actually sacrifice himself in classic cinematic wingman style.

As eternal damnation scenarios go, that's a pretty sweet gig.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Review: "Mope"

"I suck at the thing I love to do!"

Am I a mope?

Are you?

Are most of us?

A mope, as used in the context of the film "Mope," is a low-level pornography actor. These aren't the horizontally gifted guys having improbable sex with three women at once. They're the hangers-on, the wannabes, the extras you glimpse in the background of a group scene. They do the depraved stuff others won't touch. Often they literally act as janitors, cleaning up the leavings after name porn stars have... plied their trade.

In other words, they're the bottom-feeders of an industry that was already a cellar-dweller in the esteem of polite society.

But really, you can apply the term to most any profession. A mope is someone waiting for the big break that's never going to come. Maybe they're unlucky. Maybe they're stuck in the wrong place or time. Maybe they just lack talent and are blind to its absence.

We've all encountered mopes in our workplace. They have lots of passion but not much ability. Worse, they don't seem to learn from their mistakes or grow in their capabilities. Everyone chuckles and shakes their head when they pass, wishing someone would tell them the truth, not wanting to be the one who does.

The movie starts out as a plucky comedy that slowly, gradually slides into deepening blackness. It's about two mopes who dream of making it big in the porn world, and are the only ones who can't see it's never going to happen. One acts erratically and can't even bother to shower. The other... well, there's a scene where he humorously places part of his anatomy in a hot dog bun, and half of it remains just bread.

But they really, really love porn. And they truly think that's enough.

I have to say, "Mope" isn't particularly interesting or good. It takes a challenging concept and does all the obvious things you could do with it, then tries to go all "Taxi Driver" in the last act, unconvincingly.

It raises a lot of uncomfortable questions, though. Why do some people make it and others don't? We've all seen individuals (we think) less talented than ourselves rise faster and further in our chosen profession, and wonder why. We put our heads down and grind, believing that if we work hard enough and yield our pound of flesh we'll eventually reach our goals. Because that's what we've been taught, right?

"Follow your dreams." "Talent finds a way." "Do what you love, and the money will follow." 

So we've been told. Always, by people sitting at the summit looking down at the multitudes of mopes striving in the valley, unnoticed.

Except the world doesn't work that way. For every movie star there are 10,000 people who tried to make a career in acting and couldn't. Same for professional athletes. Heck, even with more pedantic paths there are tons of people who slave away at endeavors nobody else seems to value.

I've been writing movie reviews for almost 30 years now. I've never made a living at it. At times it's produced a little bit of income and an appreciative audience. Other stretches I've earned literally nothing and felt like nobody is paying attention. So am I mope?

Don't get me wrong. I love doing this.

But so do Steve Driver (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and Tom Dong (Kelly Sry). Meeting up on a set where a group of mopes are paid $40 a pop (quite literally), they bond over their love of classic porn DVDs. They confess their dreams of becoming the guys on the cover instead of extras in the shadows, despite being scrawny dudes without much to boast about physically, up high or down low

(It's a little fuzzy, but the movie appears to take place in the early 2000s before porn distribution migrated to the web.)

Pitching themselves as the "Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan of porn" -- more temporal cues -- they manage to convince a fringe producer/director, Eric (Brian Husky), to take them on as bit players. They're good for things like sniffing shoes and armpits, getting peed on and "ball-busting," in which they're kicked in the nethers and abused in other ways that, some scary Googling later, I learn is actually erotic in some corners.

Tom, who gave up a cush IT job to chase adult entertainment, fixes up the company's website and online sales, so Eric is loathe to cut him loose. Steve becomes the annoying guy nobody wants to work with, his naive enthusiasm quickly morphing into wildly misplaced ego-centrism.

They try to take their act to Rocket (David Arquette, also a producer), a medium-big name in the industry, who demeans them by demanding they perform in ethnically stereotypical ways, like Tom speaking with a Japanese accent (he's actually of Chinese descent) and Steve playing the boisterous black buck.

Things go on, as their attempts to raise money to start their own company sputter out. Later we meet Steve's parents (Clayton Royner and Peggy Dunne), who he'd hoped to pump for investment money and instead deliver some startling truth. Tom starts to open his eyes to their delusion, but Steve won't... or can't.

Compared to "Boogie Nights" or "Hardcore," other mainstream movies set against the backdrop of the porn industry, "Mope" is pretty well at the mope-y end of the spectrum. It strives to be a character study but we don't deeply explore the interiors of its two protagonists. For a movie about porn it does a surprisingly poor job of humanizing the women, who are used for fleshy displays and then disposed of.

The sex scenes are deliberately cringe-y, the acting rather stilted and director Lucas Heyne, who co-wrote the script with Zack Newkirk, can't seem to land on any tone or pacing that work for very long. Frankly, I had trouble getting through it.

Here's the thing that "Mope" forces us to confront: it's just not true that if you love something and sacrifice for your craft, it'll yield the results you want. Failure and disappointment are likely, even common.

Brace yourself, because here's the really hard one. If you give your all to something you truly love and nothing happens, eventually you'll stop loving it. Maybe... even start to hate it.

I'm not suggesting the cast and crew of "Mope" chuck it all and go back to Peoria or wherever. (Actually a lovely town, btw.) By all means, try, try again. But it's a hard thing to accept that you're the mope. Sometimes it takes 25 attempts to see the light, sometimes 2,500.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Video review: "The Hunt"

"The Hunt" is a memorable film, and not just because it was the last movie I saw in a theater in "the before time." No, it's a genuinely interesting picture, though not necessarily a very good one. But sometimes it's the flawed but intriguing movies that stay with you.

The premise is a pretty standard movie trope: the "deadliest game" in which humans hunt each other for sport. We've seen it in various forms, from cautionary dramas to horror flicks to futuristic fantasies like "The Hunger Games." "The Hunt" has elements of all of those, mixed with a political edge you don't often see in mainstream film.

You may have heard this movie was supposed to be released in 2019 but was delayed after mass shootings and the controversy over the fact it features righteous liberals hunting MAGA-types. It was attacked from both the right and the left.

Turns out the political stuff isn't really all that interesting -- it's just the launching point for the story. And the movie aims plenty of satirical barbs at both sides of the aisle.

What really makes it stand out is Betty Gilpin as the main character, Crystal. She and a dozen or so other red-staters wake up from a drugged fog to find themselves in a field. A box of weapons sits at the ready, and a few of them seem capable of putting up a fight. But they're soon torn to pieces by a bunker full of leftists who are using the sport to vent their various aggressions.

Crystal is unlike any other horror or action movie heroine we've ever seen. We soon learn that she's more than capable in a fight, and keeps her head on straight while everyone else is freaking out. She spends little time agonizing over why she's been targeted and gets straight to outsmarting her would-be assailants.

She also has a wry, deadpan sort of humor that's both grim and funny. Think of a self-effacing, feminine version of Dirty Harry with a sense of irony.

Hilary Swank is the main antagonist as Athena, a big-time CEO who organized the hunt. You know it's all building to a big girl-on-girl throwdown with Crystal at the end, and it doesn't disappoint with a surprisingly spirited and bloody clash.

A few other familiar names and faces show up -- Emma Roberts, Amy Madigan, Ethan Suplee, Sturgill Simpson, Ike  Barinholtz among them -- but one of the surprising things about "The Hunt" is its willingness to kill off seemingly important characters no matter who's playing them.

Director Craig Zobel and screenwriters Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelöf go for a mix of thrills, gore, satire and humor, and at times its a wobbly balance of tones. Something happens and we're not sure if we should react with delight, laughter or abhorrence.

Still, Gilpin's butt-kicking Crystal is worth the price of admission. I'd love to see this character reappear, maybe in a Sergio Leone-esque Woman with No Name type of series.

Bonus features are a mite lite, consisting of just three documentary shorts:
  • "Crafting The Hunt" -- Discussion of how costumes and props were used to highlight political commentary.
  • "Death Scene Breakdowns" -- Special effects team discuss the goriest death scenes.
  • "Athena vs Crystal: Hunter or Hunted" -- A behind-the-scenes look at the choreography and training by Gilpin and Swank for their fight sequence.



Wednesday, June 3, 2020

My wife asked me what movie I was about to review and I said it was a comedy about the origins of the "Punch & Judy" puppet show that makes a pun out of wife-beating. Within the first 20 minutes of "Judy & Punch," Punch drunkenly kills their baby and beats Judy to death, stashing her body in the forest.

So yes, we must add the "black" prefix to the comedy designation -- as in the blackest of black comedies.

Personally I'd call this Australian film from writer/director Mirrah Foulkes more of a cautionary satire than a comedy. Foulkes is a veteran actress taking her first turn behind the camera, and it's a bracing one that hopefully will lead to more.

Set in Victorian times, the story presupposes that the Punch show is the brainchild of one man, a self-glorified puppeteer played by Damon Herriman. (From what I can learn, the actual tale sprung from Italy and was widely imitated throughout Britain and France.) He's a formerly famous performer from "the Big Smoke," aka London, who has settled in the quaint hamlet of Seaside, named without any relation to proximity to a body of water.

Punch has a seemingly benign marriage to Judy (Mia Wasikowska), his partner in the puppet show and also acts as the emcee/barker beforehand, rattling pennies into an urn to support their meager existence. The marionettes are carved to look exactly like Judy and Punch, which is disturbing since they spend the whole act beating the hell out of each other.

How come Judy never wins? asks one young observer... a weighty question indeed.

Other than puppets, the main form of entertainment in Seaside appears to be hanging, drowning and pummeling witches. They have a regular "Stoning Day" that sends everyone into a high frenzy, the festivities led by the toadying Mr. Frankly (Tom Budge).

One senses that Stoning Day will always occur even if no apparent witches have presented themselves.

Punch is revered as the local celebrity -- even getting first throw on Stoning Day -- but longs for a return to a bigger stage. They have a baby girl and an elderly couple as servants (Brenda Palmer and Terry Norris), living in the dilapidated mansion where Judy grew up.

He also has a fondness for the drink, leading to the unpleasantness mentioned at the start of this review. Since Wasikowska is the star, I don't think I'm too deep into spoilerland by saying her death is short-lived. She recovers in a heretic's camp populated by uppity women, odd children and other outcasts who might otherwise find themselves in high demand on Stoning Day.

Among them is Dr. Goodtime (Gillian Jones), formerly the town medicine woman, who advises Judy to leave Seaside and its bad memories behind her.

Punch, being Punch, has continued his habit of spectacularly selfish ways, replacing Judy with one of his local admirers (Kiruna Stamell) and chalking up his family's disappearance to devil-worshipers. Benedict Hardie plays Derrick, the untested but good-hearted constable caught in the middle of all this.

The interesting thing about Punch is that, despite all his detestable acts, when he's finally cornered still insists that he's a good man. I think his delusion rests in the belief that because he is talented and (in this small corner of the world) important, then he must therefore have value. He is good because of who he is, not because of what he does.

This sort of thinking seems a virus of the mind very catching these days, methinks.

Wasikowska is stolid and true and a little dull, to be blunt. She's one of those actresses who gets cast because she projects in image of sweet innocence, though I don't think she's particularly adept at projecting her character's inner workings.

Still, this is a good tale sharply told. I really enjoyed the music by François Tétaz, a mix of orchestral and electronica themes that seems to positively groan with dark mirth. Similarly, the photography, costumes and sets are first-rate for a low-budget movie.

Men like Punch have always had the upper hand in life -- in his case, quite literally -- but sooner or later the controlling strings will be cut.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Patriot Games" (1992)

In my book "The Hunt for Red October" is pretty well a perfect movie. Its sequel, "Patriot Games," is not. It's still a taut, worthy political thriller that's interesting for changing lead actors in the middle of what would become a film trilogy.

Strictly speaking, the events in "Patriot Games" precede those of "Red October" in the Jack Ryan timeline, which was actually the first novel by Tom Clancy to feature what would become his signature character. At the time Ryan was a young professor of military history, probably in his late 20s or early 30s, and had not yet gone to work for the CIA.

This was believable for Alec Baldwin, then a svelte 32 and just coming off the success of "Red October" two years earlier. It was much less so for Harrison Ford, a few weeks from turning 50 when the sequel came out.

But Ford was at that time arguably the biggest box office star in the world, having just wrapped up the Indiana Jones series (for a while), earned his second Oscar nomination for "Working Girl" and been cheated out of a third for "Presumed Innocent." The studio chiefs were doubtless happy to swap out the relatively unknown Baldwin for megastar Ford... though "Games" actually earned slightly less than "Red October" in ticket sales.

The 1994 follow-up, "Clear and Present Danger," is generally regarded as the weakest of the trio but actually was the biggest commercial hit.

Various tales have wandered around Hollywood over the years why the switch was made. Officially Baldwin claimed he wanted to return to his first love of Broadway and had already committed to acting in "Streetcar Named Desire." "Red October" director John McTiernan had originally wanted Ford to play Ryan in that film and saw a chance to get him.

More recently Baldwin wrote in a blog post that he was pushed out in favor of an unnamed huge movie star, who was owed a lot of money for a greenlit picture that fell apart. Giving this star "Patriot Games" would square him with the studio, so a bunch of unreasonable demands were placed on Baldwin, including committing to an open-ended shooting schedule that would endanger his Broadway gig, to encourage him to drop out.

Producer Mace Neufeld, who has shepherded all the Jack Ryan movies including the reboots in 2002 (with Ben Affleck) and 2014 (Chris Pine), has said Baldwin had already exited the film before Ford was signed. But McTiernan himself largely confirmed Baldwin's version of events.

McTiernan has had his own problems, including long legal/financial troubles and a stint in prison for hiring a snoop to wiretap a producer with whom he was squabbling. He actually signed on to make "Clear and Present Danger" first, but stepped out when the studio pressed ahead with "Patriot Games," in which the villains are Irish terrorists.

As an Irish-American McTiernan declined to be involved, and seasoned Australian filmmaker Phillip Noyce ("Dead Calm") was brought in, and went on to direct the last film in the trilogy, too.

There doesn't seem to have been much of an attempt to establish continuity between the Jack Ryan character as played by Baldwin and Ford. The latter's is a resolute everyman hero in the Gregory Peck mold, a family man and straight-arrow patriot who is reluctant to get involved in violence and political intrigue, but finds he has a talent for it.

Baldwin's Ryan has a snide edge to him, a more caustic wit and a bit of primping ego. Even though Ford's one of my favorite film actors, I don't mind saying I found Baldwin's take on the character to be sharper.

But that also worked better in "Red October," where Ryan basically acted as our eyes and ears through which the audience engages the real central character, Sean Connery's Marko Ramius. I don't think people would've wanted to watch two more movies watching a guy who's basically a benevolent a-hole.

I was surprised watching "Patriot Games" again recently how streamlined and tight it is. Clancy's books tend to be fat with lots of side plots and supporting characters -- "techno-thrillers," as they came to be known, more noted for cunning postulations about potential real-world events than deep characterizations or lilting prose.

Screenwriters W. Peter Iliff and Donald E. Stewart real scrape the story down to the barest bone. It's a straight revenge tale with Ryan disrupting a kidnapping attempt on Lord Holmes (James Fox) and his family while visiting England, killing the 16-year-old brother of wolf-like terrorist Sean Miller. Miller is sprung from prison by his IRA-offshoot comrades and spends the rest of the movie trying to kill Ryan, his wife, Cathy (the always-luminous Anne Archer), and their young daughter, Sally (Thora Birch).

In the book the targets of the initial attack were actually Prince Charles and Princess Diana, though they were changed to a non-existent cousin of the Queen for the film. He comes across as something of a good-natured nobleman dolt, unaware that it's his chief aide, Geoffrey (Hugh Fraser), who's tipping off the Irish.

Patrick Bergen plays Kevin O'Donnell, Miller's calculating leash-holder, and Polly Walker is Annette, his spy/girlfriend. J. E. Freeman is a cranky figure as Marty Cantor, a senior boss at the CIA who resents the young upstart Ryan. (Fun fact: Freeman was actually four years younger than Ford.)

Alun Armstrong and David Threlfall play Irish law enforcement types who work for the Brits and spend much of the middle of the move chasing after O'Donnell, Miller and their crew. The latter has a terrific death scene after being foiled by the terrorists, his face pressed to the street and gruffly telling them, "Get on with it and be on your way" right before he's slain.

Samuel L. Jackson plays Robby Jackson, Ryan's dependable Navy buddy, and Richard Harris has a small but vibrant part as Paddy O'Neil, a "bagman" for the IRA who tries to weasel a line between O'Donnell's splinter group and playing the reasonable mick for the television cameras.

James Earl Jones reprises his role as Admiral James Greer from "Red October," pretty much the only holdover actor. He and Ryan have an interesting relationship, part father/son, part mentor/student and not a little bit king/annointed heir. As the CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence, Greer reassures without coddling, manipulates without cold-heartedness.

Greer gets the best out of Ryan by helping him find his way instead of pointing it out for him -- a patron who's never patronizing.

Greer knows how to compartmentalize the uglier aspects of his job, like sending special military forces to assassinate the residents of a secret camp in the Libyan desert based on Ryan's educated -- but hardly certain -- guess that this is where Miller is. This scene plays out with sad, scary music as Ryan watches satellite thermal images of bodies falling to the ground, horrified when another man in the room blithely calls out "That's a kill" while slurping his coffee.

"Patriot Games" was also the big breakout role in America for Sean Bean as Miller. He's so lean and rakish, and is completely committed to getting revenge that it blinds him to all other obligations. This part led to playing a Bond villain and Boromir in "The Lord of the Rings," which helped cement his semi-iconic status as someone adept at playing morally ambiguous characters.

Bit of neat trivia: during their final showdown aboard a motorboat through speeding through a storm -- absent from the novel -- Ford accidently struck Bean with the anchor both characters use as a weapon, giving him a permanent scar over his left eye. It required several stitches and they ended up working it into the movie, covering Bean's real wound with blood makeup.

Ford is famous for his chin scar, and it's a bit of Hollywood legend for him to give one of his own to Bean. It actually helped Bean secure the role of Napoleonic soldier Sharpe in the long-running British series of television movies.

I won't argue that "Patriot Games" is the equal of "The Hunt for Red October," because it's not. But they're also very different films, more cousins than siblings. Let's put it this way: I think Alec Baldwin could play Jack Ryan, because nobody knew who either one of them was. Harrison Ford played Harrison Ford in his movie, because that's what movie stars do.