Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Review: "Cut Throat City"

"Cut Throat City" is a grim and grating tale of crime and despair. Set in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it spins the story of Blink, an aspiring comic book artist who turns to the gang life in order to get his family by. Over the course of the next two hours he descends into his personal heart of darkness, encountering increasingly depraved souls -- and risking the state of his own.

Blink is played by Shameik Moore, a young actor I've had my eye on for awhile. He had a terrific breakout in the criminally under-seen "Dope" five years ago, and was the lead voice actor on 2018's hit "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse." He's got a sly sensitivity to him, and in his portrayal of Blink we see a kind soul who must harden himself to the harsh conditions surrounding him like a shroud.

Blink winds up doing some pretty terrible things, and yet we never glimpse in him a person who revels in these acts -- unlike some other, contrasting figures we'll meet.

"Cut Throat City" is overtly a morality tale, looking at the largely Black community in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was flooded by the storm and then allowed to fester in a fever of drugs, unemployment, abandonment and despair. To Blink, the levees breaking was just the latest act in a long history of being ignored and put down by the government.

It's a solid crime saga with a real social bite to it.

The film is directed by RZA, best known as a rap artist with the Wu Tang Clan but who has increasingly turned to moviemaking, including two previous features (unseen by me). He already shows considerable skill as a storyteller, and has an intrinsic feel for how to get actors to be their most present in a scene. RZA is also good at knowing when to hold a moment a beat or two longer, and when to move on.

The screenplay by P.G. Cushieri, his first feature, isn't nearly as tight as it could be, especially in the second half as we keep introducing new characters that probably aren't necessary to the story. But the ones we do encounter are sharply drawn, and the dialogue has the authentic crack of people who have made their life on the streets and have little patience for sophistry.

"Cut Throat City" also boasts an amazing supporting cast of name actors: Ethan Hawke, Isaiah Washington, Terrence Howard, Rob Morgan and Wesley Snipes among them. Snipes in particular has terrific presence as Blink's absent father Lawrence, who he must turn to in time of need.

Bald, his chin tucked to his prodigious chest and teeth clenching a pipe, Lawrence ambles around his poor shack in the swamp like an exiled king. Here is a man who knows the costs of his mistakes and would impart those tough lessons to his son.

After a career of ups and downs, it's nice to be reminded that Snipes has serious acting chops when he given a chance to use them.

The story starts with Blink's wedding to Demyra (Kat Graham), then flashes to the time after Katrina. Blink is rudely rejected for an artist job, but they don't qualify for FEMA assistance. With the bills piling up, he and his best friends figure they'll try a heist to get them a boost. Of course, the "one job" becomes a downslide to increasing violence.

This means aligning with Cousin Bass, the local head gangbanger (who actually is Demyra's cousin, but everyone calls him that). Cousin is a pure feral creature, concerned with making money and inflicting pain. Chillingly played by musician T.I., he has (ersatz) vertiglio patches on his face that make it seem like his skull is trying to shrug out of his skin.

Blink's crew are Miracle aka T.C. (Demetrius Shipp Jr.), a low-level drug dealer with a temper; Andre (Denzel Whitaker), the quiet, kindly one who plays trumpet; and Junior (Keean Johnson), the white kid who embraces Black culture and is accepted as part of their little tribe, though with a little trash-talking banter.

Their job, ripping of a casino -- seemingly the only legitimate businesses growing in New Orleans -- goes south and they find themselves on the run, caught between Cousin and the cops. Eiza Gonzalez plays Valencia, the stiff-necked detective on the case. And Ethan Hawke shows up as Symms, the corrupt city councilman who's drowning himself in drink and mourning his dead wife, and trying to do the right thing... possibly for the first time ever.

The story loses steam between the second and third acts, as the number of side characters and plots builds up and threatens to upend the weight of Blink's journey. Morgan plays Courtney aka Cowboy C, another local crime boss with an ace up his sleeve; Isaiah Washington is Sinclair, the slithering and perpetually smoking funeral home director; and Howard turns up lat as the Saint, a mysterious figure who seems to live in an old church and is said to be pulling everybody's strings.

There's a lot good things going on in this movie. There are too many extra pieces to the puzzle and the film could easily stand to be 15-20 minutes shorter. (A comment lament I have these days.)

But there's undeniable energy and verve here. Watching "Cut Throat City" feels like a journey into its own little universe where there are no good choices and the rules of fair play have been washed away.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Reeling Backward: "King Creole" (1958)

Elvis Presley was not much of an actor, and I've not been much of a fan of his movie work.

I've actually only seen some of the hokier stuff from the '60s, "Viva Las Vegas" and such, which was rapidly-produced pop junk built around Presley's rock 'n' roll persona. "Girls, fast cars and some tunes" was the credo. It was less filmmaking than "marketing synergy" before they had a name for that, his movies bolstering his singing career and vice-versa, keeping him top-of-the-bill status even as the longhairs passed him by musically.

I am astonished to learn Elvis starred in 31 films between 1956 and 1969, including two a year between 1960-63 and three a year after that until hanging it up at the ripe old age of 34.

Presley often cited "King Creole" as his personal favorite role, and I'm inclined to agree.

I think it's one of his best because it wasn't conceived as a "Hey, let's make an Elvis movie" project. Having a legendary director like Michael Curtiz ("Casablanca") at the helm doesn't hurt, either. It was shot on an incredibly fast schedule (even by Elvis standards) of just seven weeks, owing to the fact Presley received his draft notice and got a 60-day deferment from the Army to complete the picture.

Based on a novel by Harold Robbins about a teenage boxing sensation pressured by the mob, the movie was actually developed for James Dean before he was killed in 1955. They switched the setting from New York to New Orleans and boxing to singing, and Curtiz insisted upon shooting in black-and-white with a heavy film noir shading, courtesy of cinematographer Russell Harlan ("Blackboard Jungle"), six times an Oscar nominee without winning.

The screen adaptation was by Herbert Baker, who'd worked on a previous Elvis picture, "Loving You," and Michael V. Gazzo, completing his second and last feature film script before moving on to a second career as an actor including playing frickin' Frankie "Five Angels" Pentangeli himself in "The Godfather Part II," and how the crap did I not know that already?

Shades of Ruth Gordon...

The story setup is a classic "boy from nothing hits the big time and is tempted by corruption of the soul" tale. Danny Fisher is a high-school dropout working as a busboy in one of the Bourbon Street saloons owned by local big man Maxie Fields, who he's never even met. On a dare he gets on stage and belts one out, becoming an overnight singing sensation.

He has daddy issues, vowing never to be a meek sheep like his old man, and is balancing romances between a nice girl and a gun moll. Danny gets squeezed hard by the crimelord and his thugs and is forced into bad choices he'll soon regret.

The supporting cast is simply delish. Maxie is played by Walter Matthau, growly and commanding. Carolyn Jones has a pathetic but alluring pull as Ronnie, Maxie's wastrel mistress/pawn. Dean Jagger, often a cowboy or soldier, plays Danny's pathetic dad, a widower pharmacist who can't keep a job. Vic Morrow, one of those actors you think couldn't possibly have ever been young, has sly charm as Shark, the hoodlum whose blond pompadour is nearly as impressive as Elvis' jet black one.

(Interesting aside: Elvis had naturally sandy blond hair, dying it with shoe polish before getting famous enough for professional color jobs. As the self-appointed Grand Vizier of Cinematic Blondness, I hereby claim Presley for our team.)

Dolores Hart, who also played an Elvis love interest in "Loving You," her film debut, is Nellie, the virginal five-and-dime shopgirl Danny falls for in between being tempted by the older, worldier (read: easy) Ronnie. Hart was pegged as the next Grace Kelly, making 10 pictures in five years before shocking Hollywood by abruptly quitting acting just as Kelly did, only in her case to become a nun instead of a princess.

(More interesting asides: the story of Hart's life was told in the 2011 documentary short, "God Is the Bigger Elvis," which got an Oscar nomination. She attended the 2012 Academy Awards ceremony in full black-and-white habit; the last time she had strolled that red carpet was in 1959.)

Other cast members include Jan Shepard as Danny's long-suffering older sister, Mimi, forced to take on the role of mother after their own passed away. She later falls for Charlie LeGrand, the twice-her-age owner of the titular club played by Paul Stewart. Charlie is pretty much the only guy in Nawlins not under Maxie's thumb, and sees Danny as a way to rejuvenate the failing King Creole.

The movie falls into a pretty steady rhythm of one song every 12 to 15 minutes or so, so there's a pretty decent collection of soundtrack tunes. None of them really stood out to me, though "Hard Headed Woman" hit the top of the charts. Performing as Danny, Elvis does a somewhat understated version of his singular stage routine, a little bit of shakin' but not any egregious pelvis-ing.

I was interested that Danny starts out being backed by bands comprised mostly of African-American jazz musicians, but by the time he's ensconced as the main attraction at the King Creole they've all mysteriously turned white. Perhaps some additional credence for charges of cultural appropriation by rockers, laid out starkly onscreen.

Danny's dynamic with women is... a bit disturbing. On his first date with Nellie, he fools her into thinking he's taking her to a party, when really it's a ruse to get her alone in a seedy hotel room and pressure her into sex. Weirdly, despite seeing right through the ploy she tells him she's still willing to go along, so ensorceled is she by his hunka-hunka burnin' love vibe.

It seems clear they're both virgins, and Danny quickly apologizes for trying to act like the street rat everyone treats him as. From there they have a pretty typical chaste screen romance.

I should mention Nellie first met him when Danny and Shark worked in cahoots to rob her store. They run a couple of jobs together, first on their own then later at Maxie's behest. The latter includes walloping Danny's dad while taking the deposit to the bank, initially thinking it was his father's overbearing boss at the pharmacy. This requires an expensive brain surgery, which Maxie pays for, putting Danny further under his screw.

If the pairing with Nellie is uncomfortable, the one with Ronnie is positively loathsome. She's probably only a few years older but seems worn down as if by decades of abuse, burying herself in drink and self-loathing. She wears an old-school Louise Brooks bob hairstyle, with big pleading eyes and a cynically turned mouth.

Technically she's Maxie's girlfriend, but men like him have little use for women beyond sex, so he's happy to loan her out to his friends or use Ronnie as bait for dumb fish like Danny. They share an early flirtation where he rescues her from some drunks and she makes a pass at him -- while dropping him off at his high school! -- and Maxie, recognizing the attraction, uses her to manipulate Danny.

She's not an innocent by any stretch. In one scene where Danny is forcibly brought to Maxie's place for a meeting, it's clearly a set-up to get him to sleep with Ronnie. She tells him this outright, but uses her victimhood as a weapon, pleading with Danny to stay a few hours to prevent punishment from Maxie.

Ronnie saves Danny's bacon in the end after he's hunted and stabbed by Shark and the rest of Maxie's thugs, driving him to a beach house getaway to get bandaged up and consummate their love without the taint of the city. Of course, the place belongs to Maxie, so he soon shows up for revenge, accidentally shooting Ronnie so she can die in Danny's arms and free him up to return to Nellie.

Elvis did not have the most expressive face in the world, and I noticed that virtually every actor in the movie gets plenty of close-ups from Curtiz other than the star of the show. Still, he's able to put some genuine emotion into his voice and body language that makes us feel for Danny.

I was quite taken with the gloomy sense of doom that feels woven into the very DNA of "King Creole." If it had been made a few years later I think Danny would've been more of an antihero character who winds up perishing in the end, a lesson about the consequence of giving into temptation.

But for an Elvis movie that's only partially an "Elvis movie," "King Creole" stands up well to the test of time. Put it this way: I think it'd be a very watchable picture even if it didn't feature him.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Review: "Radioactive"

There’s little crackle of original energy in “Radioactive.” This by-the-numbers biopic of scientist Marie Curie holds few surprises and insights, and feels like it’s just checking off boxes on somebody’s clipboard.

Rosamund Pike plays Curie, the famed French – actually, born in Poland as Maria Sklodowska – scientist who along with her husband Pierre Curie (Sam Riley) pioneered the research of radioactivity, i.e. the process by which unstable matter decays and gives off energy.

Directed by Marjane Satrapi (“Persepolis”) from a screenplay by Jack Thorne (based on a book by Lauren Redniss), “Radioactive” plays out as a standard “great man/woman” film. We are astounded at the massive accomplishments of one person while learning about the personal challenges that nearly kept them from historic achievement.

Certainly, Curie’s bona fides for notoriety are indisputable: first woman to win the Nobel Prize, shared with her husband and fellow physicist, she matched that a few years later by becoming the first person to win a second Nobel in a different field, chemistry. She was the first female professor at the University of Paris, discovered two new elements for the Periodic Table and pioneered the use of X-ray machines on the battlefield of World War I, saving countless lives and limbs.

Curie is, quite literally, in the Panthéon of greatness.

The story starts with Curie’s death – likely due to radiation poisoning, as thousands of chucklers have loved to joke. Both Curies unwittingly received massive doses of harmful energy during their years of experimentation. Only later did they learn about people who had partaken of the benefits of their research who were developing tumors or anemia.

This is the sort of movie where the star is wheeled into the hospital in copious stippling makeup to make her look older, and the head physician loudly exclaims: “But this is Madame Curie!!” Everything in the story feels twice underlined as if we were missing how this is all Much Importance.

The portrait that emerges is of a headstrong woman who put her science first, but nevertheless found true love with Pierre. Early on she loses her place in the university laboratory due to sexist pig-headedness, and he offers Marie a spot in his. Despite their promise not to share experiments or beds, they soon do.

Pierre died in 1906 in a street accident, and for a time Curie found herself buffeted by oppressive forces from French society – especially when she took up with her younger, married colleague, Paul Langevin (Aneurin Barnard). She was even accused of being a foreign collaborator and a Jew to boot.

The film loses juice in the second half after being sustained by Curie’s relationship with Pierre. It is interesting to see a portrait of historical marriage in which the woman is clearly the dominant force. At one point she even coldly informs him, “My mind is finer.”

Once that cycle of magnetic attraction and repulsion is over, though, the story seems to bleed energy with an astonishingly short half-life. Anya Taylor-Joy briefly shows up too late as Curie’s now-adult daughter, Irene. (Who would later go on to win her own Nobel in conjunction with her husband/collaborator.)

There are a few dream-like sequences set in the future where we see the consequences of Curie’s discoveries, such as a crippled boy receiving radiation treatment or an atomic bomb test in 1960s America. The movie tries too hard to convince us of the monumental consequence of this life, as if Marie Curie were a name wholly unknown.

Pity that “Radioactive” didn’t better take to heart the lessons of its subject, and shown a little more enthusiasm for experimentation.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Review: "Flannery"

It can be a little off-putting when someone is described as "the greatest writer of the 20th century," and you've never even heard of them.

But maybe it's not surprising that Flannery O'Connor's name is not known further than it is. She was only active for a decade-and-a-half, publishing two novels and about 30 short stories before her untimely death at age 39 in 1964 owing to a long struggle with lupus. She spent most of her adult life on crunches, only leaving her mother's Georgia farm to attend Catholic Mass every morning.

I've not read any of her writing, so I can't say if the aspirational valedictory given her (by Tommy Lee Jones, no less) is true. I will say that "Flannery," the probing documentary about her life and work, is a true joy to behold.

Written and directed by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco, the film uses Mary Steenburgen's voice in place of Flannery's, which was a wonderful choice. (A few recordings of her contemporaneous readings and appearances show what a good match it is.) If you've ever spent time in the South you'll appreciate the rolling cadences and lilting signs of exasperation of a woman who was proudly an iconoclast but would never think of behaving in a tawdry or impolite manner.

Flannery was a woman of deep faith in God, which she wrestled with in her writings and in her vibrant correspondence with others (which was published posthumously). She loved flawed, even reprehensible characters who she could hold up for observation or ridicule. Her stories were serious and satirical, filled with the grotesque and violent, people who killed wantonly or (barely) harbored deeply hateful beliefs.

In essence, Flannery saw herself as a chronicler of the South, and did not blink from its racism and depravity while also stubbornly cherishing the foibles and grace of its living characters. Today, her unblinking portraiture and not-infrequent use of the n-word put her at risk of being labeled "problematic" -- the pedant's phrase for their own inability to measure passing of time and culture.

The film has lavish interviews with many of the people Flannery knew or worked with, as well as modern academics and writers who have discovered or rediscovered her work. Among them are Sally Fitzgerald, Tobias Wolff, Alice Walker, Hilton Als and Conan O'Brien.

And there's the usual biography fare. We learn of Flannery's upbringing, high in gentility but low in funds, her early loss of an encouraging father and a frigid -- but stable -- relationship with a mother who clearly would rather've had a daughter who was less talented but prettier.

There is her correspondence with a lesbian friend at a time when such things could threaten one's livelihood and even life; her refusal to meet with James Baldwin because she knew such an encounter with the fiery thinker/activist would imperil her ability to be a chronicler of her home state; brief dalliance with anti-Communism as a young writer-in-residence; and brief romantic overture with a foreign book salesman who would later show up in her next book in a less-than-flattering light.

(Ever the proper lady, Flannery laughed off such insinuations in a letter to the gentleman, even though anyone with an eye and a heart can see they were so.)

One of O'Connor's books, "Wise Blood," was turned into a 1979 feature film directed by John Huston and nine stories became short films or TV episodes. Another feature, an adaptation of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," is in pre-production.

As a newspaper features editor I often said that the measure of a good food story was that it made you want to eat after reading it. Certainly "Flannery" has left me hungry to consume the writing of this troubled, joyous writer.

Flannery Trailer from Elizabeth Coffman on Vimeo.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Number One" (1969)

To me Charlton Heston's star persona always carried with it a hefty asshole vibe.

I'm not conflating his later-in-life activism, replete with stern "cold dead hands" machismo. I've always been pretty adept at separating a filmmaker's real-life behavior from what they put up on the screen.

(Otherwise I'd probably have gone insane or quit criticism long ago.)

No, I'm talking about his choice of movie roles and how he played them. Even in heroic parts Heston's characters tend to act with a hard-eyed glare rather than a beneficent gaze. From Ben-Hur to Col. George Taylor to Moses, the men he's played are closely aligned with rage, stubbornness and a sense of victimhood.

He rarely played villains but his characters often had antihero shadings to them. Heston's were not "turn the other cheek" kinda guys. They were often wronged men who fought back with an equal measure of hard-heartedness as was inflicted upon them.

I don't go for political analyses of film, but it's not hard to see the outlines of threatened patriarchy in Heston's profile. "The noble jerk" is probably the best summation of his persona.

It's on full display in "Number One," a little-remembered sports drama from 1969. He plays Ron "Big Cat" Catlan, the 40-year-old quarterback for the New Orleans Saints facing down the prospect of retirement. (The Saints and the NFL were full participants in the project, and a bunch of real players fill the background.)

Cat is the best of the best, a contender for the football GOAT (greatest of all time) mantle, who previously led the team to a championship. (Fun fact: although the Super Bowl started in 1967, it didn't become the recognized NFL championship game until the year after "Number One" came out.)

He doesn't necessarily have a swelled head, but Cat is used to being treated with deference by everyone around him. Now his skills are clearly fading, and the fans have started to boo more than cheer. As the story opens and he leaves the last exhibition game after aggravating an old knee injury, one man loudly suggests he sign up for Social Security.

The coach (John Randolph) tells Cat he's got three more good seasons in him, though we sense he's got his own doubts. 

Worse yet, his would-be successor, young uppity (I use that word purposely) black QB Kelly Williams (Richard Elkins) is openly vying for his job. He plants a rumor with a New York Times columnist that Cat is thinking about hanging it up, which wasn't true before but launches a whole lot of doubt on the older man's part, and throughout the Saints organization.

Interestingly, Cat seems OK with the competition, only objecting to Williams' betraying of the team ethos by taking it outside the huddle. In a flashback scene we see him driving Williams to his first training camp and giving him plenty of encouragement. And when the coach asks Cat about which of his backups to cut, he chooses keeping Williams because he admits the kid scares him, while he others do not.

There's a romantic angle in the movie -- because of course there is. Cat is seemingly happily married to Julie (Jessica Walter) though they're childless and her interest in in football has waned as her own career as a fashion designer has started to take off. (Without producing a lot of income, though, which adds to the tension.)

He runs into Ann Marley (Diana Muldaur), a former model who now owns a tennis club. She performs an elaborately coy seduction, simultaneously aggressive and hard to get. Ann lets Cat know she's interested and available, drops lots of hints, then acts timid and sorrowful when he finally is ready to close the deal.

Ann and Julie are very similar, from their wide faces with big eyes framed by soft brown hair, to the fact they're strong-willed women who have their own vocations, yet are willing to submit to Cat's dominance. (This is still a mainstream film from Hollywood, after all.)

One scene that registers very high on the "icky" scale is where Cat arrives at Julie's studio after a show and finds her getting a backrub from Robin (Steve Franken), her flamboyantly gay colleague. Robin likes to fling a lot of inert flirtations at Cat just to get a rise out of him, and this time ne nearly takes the man's head off, hollering that his mannerisms disgust him.

The couple proceed to have a knock-down fight -- quite literally, as he angrily grabs her, bends her backward over a couch and basically forces himself on her. (Though she ultimately gives in and joins in... again, Hollywood.)

One of the big impediments to Cat retiring is, surprising to us today, money. Though well paid by contemporary standards, Cat complains the NFL owners treat their players like "peons." Most of the men he came up with in the game have gone on to lucrative second careers -- or become stumblebums asking for a handout while relishing their glory days.

Doing a little research I learn the average NFL salary in 1969 was $25,000, or about $150k in today's dollars. Top players like Cat might earn double that, so although firmly in the comfortable range his pay wouldn't have allowed him to stop working at 40 -- unless he were willing to live a crimped life, which he is not.

Cat wants to see if he can ease out into the high life, or something like it. A couple of offers present themselves. One is at a computer company, where an executive only a few years older than him warns that with all the smart kids coming out of college, he might not be able to hire him for a management job in six months -- or even driving the company truck in another year.

It's a nice little speech, even if it quite obviously borrows from the infamous "plastics" pitch in "The Graduate."

The other gig is for a former teammate, Richie Fowler (Bruce Dern), who blithely walked away from the game at a young age after making his first Pro Bowl team, and now runs the biggest car leasing service in Louisiana. Richie's an impish playboy who encourages a female friend of his to strip at his party, and Cat's clearly repulsed by him -- not just his behavior, but that someone who wasn't the same caliber of player made it so easily in the football afterlife.

Heston isn't terribly convincing as a pro gridiron player, even for a quarterback. He had an odd build for a movie star -- tall, with a wide torso and spindly arms -- and actually got his start as a painters' model.

As he got older and Hollywood's taste for bare flesh waxed, he was only too happy to go along. Heston was in his mid-40s when they made "Number One," and gets a shower scene for his trouble. A tight turtleneck and other late '60s fashion do little to hide the flubberyness already creeping around his middle.

There isn't a whole lot of football in "Number One." Aside from the games at the very beginning and end, there's just a couple of practice sequences in between. Cat idly flips the ball around while Williams takes most of the snaps under center. According to accounts of the film's production, Heston didn't impress any of the real footballers with his athletic abilities.

Though, apparently neither Heston or director Tom Gries felt the last hit on Cat at the end of the film was convincing enough on the first take, so they did a second with instructions to the pros to really hit him. They complied, and there would be no third take -- Heston suffered three broken ribs.

Bleeding from the ear, abandoned by Julie who bolts for the exit, Cat tries to push himself up but falls to the dirt, utterly undone. Having dithered about retiring, he finds himself left without a choice.

If there's a moral to "Number One" -- the original screenplay was by David Moessinger, who spent most of his career in TV -- it's that holding on to something too long can make it turn sour. Cat knows in his heart he should quit, but too many thoughts buzzing in his head -- fear, pride, anger, embarrassment -- keep him from making the right choice, or any choice.

The same goes for Julie and Ann, who represent a parallel dichotomy to his football quandary. I think Cat could be happy with either woman, as long as he was willing to commit totally to one of them. Instead, he wants to have them both.

That's pretty jerky behavior, and something Heston was adept at playing, even in mediocre stuff like this. Maybe in person he was a lot more compassionate and laid-back than his characters. Though who'd want to buy a ticket to see that guy?

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Review: "Greyhound"

"Greyhound" yearns for the big screen. What better illustration of the majesty and power of cinema than a top-drawer war adventure I had to watch on my laptop with earbuds instead of a huge canvas and surround sound. This is film you need to be enveloped by to properly experience.

How much we have given up, 'going to the movies' being nowhere near the most important -- but also not the least.

Tom Hanks stars and, for just the second time in his career, wrote the screenplay based on the novel "The Good Shepherd" by C.S. Forester. This film was supposed to hit theaters on June 12, but instead of pushing it back to the fall or next year like so many other big-ticket movies, Sony opted to sell it to Apple TV+. So that's where you'll see it if you want to.

And you will want to, if you're in the mood for an old-fashioned, magnificent war story about sacrifice, vigilance and humility. These virtues, once so universally embraced as not needing to be voiced, seem positively quaint these days or even, if you're so inclined, reactionary.

Directed skillfully by Aaron Schneider, "Greyhound" is one of those fictional tales with the weight of authenticity in its bones. Set in early 1942 as America's entry into World War II mostly consisted of picking up the pieces in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, it's the tale of Ernest Krause, a freshly minted destroyer commander escorting a group of 37 ships to England. These badly needed troops and supplies make up the very lifeblood of the sputtering fight against Hitler's horde.

Yes, Hanks is a bit old for this role, though there's some hint in an early scene with his would-be fiancee (Elisabeth Shue) that he's a Navy career man who's been continually passed over for command. There's a sense of a man whose life has passed him by, finally given a chance to prove his mettle in the final minutes of a long game.

At a taut 91 minutes, "Greyhound" is like the titular wiry canines, all leaned out and built for speed. It jumps right into the action and never lets up as the convoy is hunted by a pack of German U-boats over the course of several days. This takes place in the "Black Pit" of the Atlantic where American air support has turned back and the British planes are still too far away.

The Germans know it, too, patiently waiting at a distance for the night to fall, just like the wolves from which they take their names. At several points the enemy commander breaks into their comms line, taunting them with their impending deaths and literally howling with bloodlust.

And there is Hanks, a stolid presence every step of the way. His Krause refuses to leave the bridge, even when his feet swell up and start bleeding, daring hardly even to take a bit of food. There's a nearly silent understanding between him and the head chef (the always terrific Rob Morgan), the latter bringing meals he knows will not be eaten, yet always sharing a quick prayer to bless the untasted sustenance.

Stephen Graham plays the XO, the captain's right-hand man, who spends most of his time in the bowels of the weapons room, yet always figuratively at his side. The rest of the cast are mostly younger men whose characters' names we barely catch, greenhorns looking to their leader for reassurance and stability. Among them are Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Devin Druid, Lee Norris, Karl Glusman, Tom Brittney and Joseph Poliquin.

There's the sonar technician, always in his own little bubble of headphones, listening to the sounds of the sea and trying to pick out the plinks and tremors that indicate an enemy. Or the ever-present radio man whose job is to follow the captain around like a herald, relaying his orders to whatever station needs to hear them.

The sea battles are largely accomplished with CGI, and while you can see the artifice if you look for it, I soon stopped doing so as we're swept up in the story. Most of the action takes place during frigid, stormy seas, the skies a nightmare swirl of monochrome and the ocean a frightening, ever-shifting landscape of potential threats just below the surface.

Torpedoes are dodged, depth charges dropped, submarines forced to the surface and thundering deck guns barking at each other. Thrilling, absolutely thrilling.

Despite watching "Greyhound" on a crimped platform, I still was completely swept away by it. Here is a movie that transports us back to a time of quiet heroism, when the line between good and bad seemed starker and our collective duty was clear.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Review: "Browse"

Lukas Haas plays Richard Coleman, a nebbishy nobody sliding through life in "Browse," a psychological thriller with modern skew.

Richard seems to exist entirely through his devices. At home he talks aloud to one of those services that links your phone, email, home security, lights, etc. He's always on the web or watching something. There's nobody around to tell him to take a screen break.

He seems like a nice enough guy, not terribly invested in his job or relationships, using online dating services for casual flings. When that's not enough, the woman in the apartment upstairs is available for booty calls; they literally signal each other by knocking on the floor or ceiling.

Stable but lonely is how most would describe him. With his longish, graying hair and big sleepy brown eyes, Haas has an empathetic presence as a guy who seems unmoored from his own existence.

Then Richard starts to experience an increasingly Kafka-esque intrusion into his privacy. His ex-wife, Roxy (Jocelin Donahue), complains of receiving incessant phone calls from him, even though he hasn't made any. (Though he thinks about her plenty.)

Veronica (Chloe Bridges), one of the women he's been e-flirting with and who lives in an apartment across the way, flags comments he never made on her photos as inappropriate. Eventually the cops come calling.

Things at work quickly deteriorate. He finds some young techie messing around with his computer, and wonders if his troubles are related. His boss (Ken Kirby) is an insufferable young jerk, dismissing Richard with shushes and hand waves while demanding he cut people from his team like punching cattle. One that's been targeted (Sarah Rafferty) is apparently his only friend, and whispers about nefarious deeds their boss is into.

Back at his apartment, the neurotic building manager, Kyle (Bodhi Elfman), always seems to be in Richard's business, relating lewd stories about his love life and expecting the same in return. Meanwhile, he forgets to mention things like Richard's auto-deposit rent payments being overdue or the people from the rental insurance place making similar complaints.

Things go from there, with the consequences getting increasingly dire. It's clear that someone is out to set Richard up as an online creep, rather than the victim of identity theft. (Inexplicably, he never complains to the authorities or asks for help.)

Or is he really a target? Director Mike Testin and screenwriter Mario Carvalhal layer in some scenes, fairly late in the game, suggesting that maybe Richard isn't as benign as he seems. Has he really been harassing these women all along and just blocked it out? Is it mental illness rather than a nefarious plot by invisible antagonists?

At 84 minutes, "Browse" is one of the rare movies these days I wish was a little longer. It doesn't really get deep into its own sense of intrigue until after the one-hour mark, and then it feels like a harried rush to the end credits.

It seems like there's a lot of unexplored territory about Richard's voyeurism -- taking pictures a la "Rear Window" -- and how our digitized interactions heighten the sense of being disconnected. Is the person you're talking to through a dating app really who they say they are? Are you? Can we even tell the difference anymore?

Interesting topics to think about, and largely ignored in hewing to a standardized horror/thriller tropes. "Browse" feels like a Christopher Nolan movie in the larval stage, before all the mind-twisty stuff is properly woven in.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Review: "Skyman"

Carl Merryweather isn't the sort of guy most people give a second glance to. He looks like just another ballcap-wearing, tattooed blue-collar dude you see tooling around in a beat-up pickup truck with a bunch of junk in the bed.

He's the sort of guy you get to come to your house to fix your tractor-mower, is nimble around machines, but when he talks you can't help notice his speech is a little on the slow side.

Nowadays his fixed stare and trouble following social cues would get him labeled as "on the spectrum" if he were still in school. But Carl is honing in on 40 and has something special planned for his birthday. He wants to recreate the experience he had in Apple Valley, Calif., when he was 10 years old and had an encounter with an extraterrestrial creature.

Yes, you heard me: Carl literally believes he's going to meet aliens in the desert outside Los Angeles.

That's the premise of "Skyman," a documentary that really isn't. Carl is actually a character played by actor Michael Selle, and his story is fiction. But it's told in an engaging scripted form that makes it all quite authentic -- and often unnerving.

If you're thinking to yourself, "That sounds like a UFO version of 'The Blair Witch Project,'" then your instincts are very good. Writer/director Daniel Myrick was one of the key figures behind that seminal 1999 horror film, and uses many of the same storytelling techniques here to similar effect.

"Skyman" has an eerie way of passively creeping under your skin and making you doubt the things you thought you knew.

(Disclaimer: I ran in the same circles as the BWP gang back in our Orlando days and slightly knew Myrick -- mostly extending to losing to him in foosball, if memory serves.)

Nicolette Sweeney plays Gina Campbell, Carl's younger sister. She loves her brother dearly while recognizing he's always been a little odd. Gina is single, divorced and two semesters from getting her nursing degree; she's the sort of woman who can still smile at life despite being worn down by it. She and Carl have a relationship where they can kid each other about the other's foibles while being ready to fiercely defend them against interlopers.

Their dad, a military careerist who flew choppers in Vietnam, died some years ago and their mother is confined to a nursing home after a stroke. Carl hasn't told his mom about his birthday plans because he believes there's a chance he may not return if the encounter is successful, if that's the right word for it.

Beneath his bumpkin-ish exterior lurks a sharp mind. Carl is a talented artist, finishes crossword puzzles in minutes and intuitively grasps any technology he encounters. His childhood and more recent drawings of the "skyman," as he dubbed it, depict a very tall, thin creature with triangle-shaped head. It spoke to him through telepathic images, and now he's convinced he's being told of their imminent return.

A great many people in Apple Valley reported the same UFO sighting he did 30 years ago, so it seems he can't just have imagined it. But while most folks dismissed the event as a fleeting anomaly, it literally took over Carl's life. He's collected every magazine or book about alien encounters and knows the lore inside and out.

Most of what's out there is BS, Carl knows, but somewhere in the fog of fiction are a few nuggets of real data that he chases like a stubborn bloodhound. One scene shows him going to a UFO convention and asking the recognized experts on the subject the sort of questions that make them stop and think, "OK, this guy may be legit."

But to most, Carl is just a benignly odd guy, the sort who can't keep a job very long and mostly stays to himself. He spends much of his time at the High Ground House, or HGH, which is basically a fallout shelter his dad established in the middle of the desert. It consists of a couple of Chinese storage containers retrofitted into a living space and assorted detritus.

The family spent a lot of time out here camping when they were kids, and it's where Carl had his encounter. To most an absolutely barren stretch of desolation, it's the one place he seems truly at home.

Pretty much the only other important figure in the story is Marcus (Faleolo Alailima), a mellow childhood friend of Carl's who now works in the hardware store where he picks up all his gear. Marcus rolls his eyes at some of Carl's behavior when he's not looking, but he's enough of a friend to accompany Carl and Gina out to the HGH and rig up the area with cameras to record any events.

We don't know what's going to happen, but we know it'll be... something.

In the end, "Skyman" is less about aliens from outer space than the inner space of the people who are obsessed with them. Is Carl's UFO encounter just a delusion of a childlike mind that never really grew up, or an actual event that holds the potential to be reprised?

Myrick teases us with the answer, and the notion that there even is one. And therein lies this film's considerable, disquieting appeal.