Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Review: "Possessor (Uncut)"


I'm a hi-lo man when it comes to horror. I grew up on the stuff, a true devotee devouring gory zombie flicks before I had down-there hairs. This continued into adulthood, but somewhere around 2000 either I changed or the fright flicks did, and horror films haven't held the same appeal for me since.

It's strange because a lot of horror diehards believe we're in the middle of the genre's golden age, with a lot of popular stuff going straight to video or niche streaming services along with a few high-profile theatrical flicks everyone insisted were so good and so scary where I was firmly ensconced in Meh-town.

"Heritage?" "Midsommar?" I didn't even so much as twitch an eyelid.

But "Possessor?" Yeah, this movie creeped me the hell out.

It's written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg, a family name that is like the Cartier of scare flicks. Daddy David specialized in mind-twisty frightful films ("Videodrone," "Scanners") where our conception of reality was as much threatened as the characters' lives. "Possessor" is thoroughly of that bloodline, something that feels like it was hatched out of the mind of sci-fi pessimist Philip K. Dick ("Blade Runner").

Note: the film is being distributed with an "Uncut" suffix as if to suggest there was a previous, tamer version of the film (of which I'm unaware). It's not being released with an MPAA rating but would surely be NC-17 if it were, with hard-to-look-at violence, nudity and porn-adjacent activity.

The high/low concept is that assassins are recruited to invade the minds of an innocent victim through a neural link inserted in their brain and then use them as avatars to kill high-price targets with no risk to themselves. The possessor then has the host kill themselves, at which time they return to their own body and consciousness. 

To the rest of the world, it seems like a random murder-suicide rather than an orchestrated hit.

We see one of these to start the story, as dolled-up female entertainers enter a high-roller club, and one of them (Gabrielle Graham) plunges a knife into a lawyer somebody must really hate. And then she does it again, and again, and again, and many more agains. But it turns out the possessor isn't able to pull the trigger on her (borrowed) self, nearly fouling up the job.

This is Tasya Vos, played by Andrea Riseborough, the proverbial best of the best. Outwardly, she seems like an icy blonde but, as we shall see, there are cracks in her facade as a remorseless killer.

Her handler, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), treats Tasya almost like an adopted daughter, and is even grooming her to be her own replacement. Though Girder is a little worried Tasya's personal life is intruding on her work -- really best to snip out those pesky distractions like a husband (Raoul Bhaneja) and son (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot). 

Tasya has moved out of her home but clearly the pull to return is strong.

They've got a big job up next: taking out an egomaniac billionaire -- is there any other kind, apart from maybe Warren Buffett? -- named  Parse, played with delicious snarl by Sean Bean. The "in" is his wayward son-in-law-to-be, a former drug dealer named Colin (Christopher Abbott) who fell in love with one of his clients, Parse's daughter Ava (Tuppence Middleton).

Colin sort of reminds me of a young Richard Gere -- a low, impenetrable wall of wavy hair, slim almost boyish build, and a beautiful but bland face that needs some time and creases to give it  character. He could be on the cover of a magazine and yet you might walk right by him if you saw him on the street.

He also seems to be stronger-willed than anyone thought, and Tasya has to fight for control of the body, both before and after the deed. (Which is horrifyingly grisly, in how it happens and the ultimate outcome.) Girder scrambles to pull her top agent out, knowing that permanent brain damage has already occurred and will worsen the longer she's trapped inside Colin.

The special effect used to portray the possession is both novel and unnerving, as Tasya's face dissolves like melting wax and then is reconstituted into Colin's features. When things go wrong it becomes like a terrifying, half-formed mask they're both forced to wear.

This isn't really a deep character study, and yet we find ourselves closely identifying with both Tasya and her host. We desperately want her to get out of the body she's trapped in and we'd also like it so that somehow Colin doesn't wind up dead or in prison. 

That's a nifty trick to pull off for a filmmaker, to have the audience feel empathy for both the murderer and the victim. Thought he lines are a bit hard to draw, as both learn unpleasant things about themselves they'd rather not know.

"Possessor" is the rare modern horror movie that truly gets under your skin and is content to stay there, like happily burrowing worms.

Review: "On the Rocks"


Sofia Coppola's "On the Rocks" is filled with great ideas and penetrating questions about life, love, and men and women that the movie itself doesn't do a particularly good job of exploring. It's like a fantastic gift box from someone you adore, and then you open it and what's inside is a little disappointing but man, what wrapping! And the thought!

The film will generate a lot of interest for Coppola's reuniting with Bill Murray for the first time since "Lost in Translation," which if you can believe it was 17 years ago and doesn't that make us all feel old, except for Scarlett Johansson who was so young then she's still a youngster. There are some similarities between Murray's characters as older, charismatic men who act like they've got all the answers but are just dealing with their hangups and insecurities eating them from inside like everybody else.

Coppola and Murray do seem to share some kind of psychic bond beyond the normal writer-director/muse dynamic. Murray is so smooth and comfortable as Felix, a semi-retired art dealer whose entire life seems to consist of having lunches at swanky New York clubs, wearing splendid suits even though he probably hasn't gone into an office since the '80s, dropping in at parties and riding around in his Mercedes -- chauffeured, of course, because who can be bothered with all that parking and driving when you can sit in the back and practice your whistling?

Felix isn't even the main character, just the dad to the real protagonist, Laura, played with a depth and a weary unease by Rashida Jones that stands in contrast to Felix's lackadaisical glibness. The setup is that Laura begins to suspect that her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), is having an affair, she mentions this to Felix, who warns her about the straying ways inherent to all men and boy howdy does he know from cheating, and off they go on a rockheaded Nancy Drew investigation into the matter themselves.

You can probably guess where this leads, and I certainly did: laughs, tears, recriminations, lovable hijinks, confrontation and an ending you can see coming an hour off but still lands with a solid emotional smack.

This is one of those "I loved spending time with these characters" film. It winds itself up and you know exactly where it's going, and then it gets there and you're sort of like, "Yeah, saw that coming." But you still appreciate the trip from here to there.

Felix saunters in and out of the story, and any scene he's in is a winner and most scenes he's not you're checking your watch -- those're timey things we used to wear on our wrists, kids -- wondering when he'll be back. The high point is a purportedly clandestine street stakeout in a cherry red Karmann Ghia ragtop complete with caviar snacks, binoculars and a blinky starter motor. 

Then the cops show up and... well, you'll see, but only Felix can be Felix.

For her part, Laura has what seems like one of those blissful Big Apple marriages: Dean is head of charging tech start-up, they live in a fabulous expansive brownstone that has more commas in the price than most New Yorkers have bedrooms, and have two thoroughly adorable daughters. (In the tradition of all Hollywood movies, the kids are around just long enough to demonstrate that the parents feel harried but disappear for long stretches whenever the adults want to do some adulting, which is to say most of the time.)

Laura is a writer who has already sold her book but finds she can't write a single word, what with writer's block and all. That's a thing that only happens to people already rich enough that they can dilly and dally for weeks or months on end and there's nobody to tell them to stop talking on the phone with their friends about how much they can't write and put some goddamn words down or no paycheck-y come Friday. 

(I'm writing this after 10 hours at my day job in the twilight glow between making everyone's dinners and before the dog starts scratching on my leg for a walk before dark, in case you wants a nice little compare/contrast. #$@&%*! "writer's block"...)

Felix leads Laura through a set of adventures that seem designed as much to rekindle their relationship as find out the truth about Dean. Felix walked out on Laura's mom and has all sorts of theories about how men are genetically programmed to need to sleep with lots of women, which he'll happily espouse out loud at length while casting moony glances across the room. 

I think part of Felix knows his shtick is grotesque to 97% of women, but he's happy to keep aiming fire at the other 3.

Can I also just say I hate, hate, hated the character of Dean? He's literally always away on business or working until late at night and is the sort of guy who thinks of himself as a wonderful husband and father but really he's just about the worst there is just north of outright abusive. He makes goofy faces with the kids for a few minutes before leaving for his next stretch of days that he's gone, and doesn't help one bit with getting them dressed or picking up around the house even while he's there.

They say 90% of life is just showing up, and if that's true for being a real man then Dean will never make the grade even with a generous curve. Strangely, Coppola gives him something of a pass, happy to empty her quiver at the scampy Felix but holding fire for Mr. I'll Skype with You Tomorrow.

This film feels like mid-career Woody Allen with its uniquely New York characters, settings and problems. It's filled with people who are so wrapped in a sense of entitlement they aren't even aware of the concept of being entitled. 

At one point Felix insists they pop in at his downstairs neighbor's party because "she has Twombly" and I thought that was some sort of expensive whiskey because that's another thing Felix is into but it's one of those painters you're supposed to pretend you know. I'm just an air freight agent's son who couldn't tell the difference between pricey hooch and moderately aged varnish and knows a little about art but not enough to care who Twombly is. 

(Correction: who Twombly was, I just Googled and he's dead.)

It's weird. I definitely felt let down after finishing "On the Rocks" but now I've sort of talked myself into liking it again. Like Felix, it'll probably let you down but be thoroughly charming while getting there.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Review: "She's in Portland"


Wes is usually the guy who's the villain in movies, or at least the smarmy foil for the likable main character. 

He's a rich corporate A-type personality who's charismatic, glib, a handsome elbow-bender and ear-whisperer. He always seems to have a drink in his hand and a shit-eating grin on his face, and never appreciates what he has in life, always looking for something else to feed a need he himself can't explain.

So it's interesting to see him as one of the main characters, and actually written and played with nuance and subtlety. He's one half of the duo in "She's in Portland," the story of two college buddies who go on a road trip/love quest that ends up being much more about assessing where they are than where they're heading.

As played by Tommy Dewey, Wes is a young executive in some ambiguous high-finance enterprise who doesn't know how good he has it. He's one of Tom Wolfe's "Masters of the Universe" with a palatial house, a beautiful wife (Minka Kelly) and toddler daughter, and everything in his life is pointing to an upward arc. And yet, he's unhappy.

The exact source of his malaise is unclear. He doesn't like his omnipresent in-laws and his marriage has settled into that phase where you're more partners in a daycare business venture than ardent lovers. 

At a college reunion he runs into Molly, the girl his best friend, Luke (François Arnaud), was infatuated with back in school and gets an idea. He'll fly out to Los Angeles, where Luke is a struggling video editor, and they'll take a trip up the Pacific Coast Highway to see her in Portland, stopping along the way for a business deal he has in Frisco. 

Mostly, though, it's a chance to reconnect, bond over past experiences and raise questions they're afraid to answer on their own as they eyeball middle age on the near horizon.

This is a splendidly well-acted and observant film. Usually in low-budget indies like this you'll see a lot of amateurish acting in the smaller supporting roles, but here everyone we meet feels authentic and like they're exactly in the place they should be. Director Marc Carlini, who wrote the script with Patrick Alexander, shows a sure hand despite it being his first stint in the big chair of a feature film.

This is the sort of movie where not a lot "happens" but everything that does seems pivotal and life-changing. Wes, who has stashed a gob of cash in an envelope, buys a vintage Ford Bronco just for this trip, and they make all sorts of side stops -- some of them planned, some of them not. 

They visit their old campus at UC Santa and play the role of aging Lotharios partying it up and hitting on girls. Curiously, although Wes is a natural flirt and Luke is more the quiet brooding type, he sticks to his marriage vows while Luke plays around as opportunities present.

Along the way they encounter three pairs of women: one much younger (Medalion Rahimi and Olivia Crocicchia), one a bit older (Joelle Carter and Lola Glaudini) and the last one Luke calls "not a detour, just a wrong turn." Each time the men try to impress and end up being the ones who receive an education, for good or for bad.

Wes and Luke's relationship is one of give and take, trade-offs and compromises. Each to an extent envies the other, while also resenting them a bit. Wes wants Luke's freedom and creativity and Luke covets Wes' material success and stability.

Wes has come to Cali on a quest to "save" his friend, but it soon becomes clear he's the one who needs help. He's not really capable of asking for it, so he disguises his vulnerability in a manipulative sort of beneficence. 

The production values are very good, from the lush cinematography by Devin Whetstone to the musical score by the Mondo Boys, an empathetic mix of classic melodies and atonal moods.

"She's in Portland" is the sort of ride you maybe don't look forward to, but once you're on the road you don't have anywhere else you want to be.


Monday, September 21, 2020

Reeling Backward: "The Dead Zone" (1983)

Stephen King writes a lot of books and during the 1980s to '90s there were so many film adaptations of them you can hardly keep them straight. They range from excellent to awful and various flavors of mediocre.

The poor box office performance of "Hearts in Atlantis" and "Dreamcatcher" in the early aughts -- both better flicks than they're given credit for -- sent the market for King movies south for a bit, but now there's been a resurgence with the "IT" duology and remake of "Pet Sematary."

We've also got another crack at a miniseries of his epic, "The Stand," one of my all-time favorite books, coming this December to the CBS premier access platform. (The less said about the 1994 TV miniseries, the better, though I still plan to say it in a little bit. Stay tuned.)

"The Dead Zone" came out in 1983 along with two other King adaptations that year: "Christine" and "Cujo." None of them were particular hits, though the other two at least have the benefit of a killer dog and a haunted car to cement their place in the cultural lexicon. "Dead," despite getting the best reviews of the lot, has been pretty well memory-holed.

It's the story of a school teacher who goes into a coma for five years after an accident, and when he awakes finds he has psychic powers to predict the future and see into the past. His visions occur when he touches another person (living or recently dead), and as things go on he discovers there's a "dead zone" in his premonitions wherein he can take action to prevent terrible events such as death or catastrophe.

I can only imagine being a casting director in the early 1980s and trying to figure out what to do with Christopher Walken. An Oscar winner for "The Deerhunter," his first major film role, he did song-and-dance in the bomb "Pennies from Heaven," then made two movies in 1983 about people with mind powers, this one and "Brainstorm," with which it is often confused.

Then he played Bond villain Max Zorin a couple years later in "A View to a Kill," and the "kooky Chris Walken" trope was firmly established. His disjointed speech patterns and mad sorcerer's stare have pretty much defined his career since, from "more cow bell" to a 1,001 impersonations.

Though he occasionally gets better material.

His character, Johnny Smith, isn't terribly well defined before the accident. He's a somewhat dweeby high school English teacher in an idyllic town, Castle Rock, one of King's fictional New England settings. He's engaged to be married -- or at least engaged to be engaged -- with another teacher, Sarah (the winsome Brooke Adams).

Curiously, Walken wears his hair combed forward in an exaggerated Roman style prior to the accident, then in his familiar swept-back pompadour after. He also goes from tweed coats to flipped-collar raincoats, giving him a vaguely Dracula thing.

Raised by religious parents (Jackie Burroughs and Sean Sullivan), Johnny's relationship with Sarah is chaste, despite her entreaties. "Some things are worth waiting for," he tells her, before driving off into the rain to meet his destiny in the form of a detached semi-tractor tanker lying in the road.

Interestingly, right before the accident Johnny had experienced a painful headache/hallucination while riding a roller coaster with Sarah -- perhaps an indication his psychic powers were already there, just lying dormant.

I enjoyed the scene where he wakes up in the long-term care clinic. His doctor, Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom), warns his parents not to reveal too much to Johnny about what has happened to him. Then his mom immediately blurts out that he's been conked out for five years, and Sarah abandoned him to marry another man. Nasty old rhymes-with-witch.

She soon dies of a heart attack, and we're glad to see her go.

Johnny's first vision results in one of his nurses rushing home to save her daughter from a burning house, which results in him becoming a local celebrity. He also uses his power to reveal to Sam, with whom he forms a bond that goes beyond doctor/patient, that the mother Sam thought he'd lost during the Holocaust is still alive.

Sam calls her to confirm the information, but hangs up on her and leaves it there. He tells Johnny that finding each other 40 years later "wasn't meant to be," suggesting that he considers his patient's abilities to be some kind of perversion of the natural order. Sam also hosts a rambunctious press conference for Johnny that results in a nasty encounter with an obnoxious reporter, and all in all Sam seems a better friend than physician.

The plot meanders thereafter, the middle section playing as a crime procedural, followed by a family/romance drama, and the last act as an incongruent political thriller.

In the former, nearby Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) comes calling to enlist Johnny's aid in solving a series of stabbing murders of young women. It's a pretty tired dance of refusal, then enlistment, then doubting of his abilities, and then denouement as the killer is confronted. I'll skip right to the chase and reveal that it's the sheriff's smirky deputy, played by Nicholas Campbell.

(Sorry, no spoiler warnings after 37 years.)

Johnny uses these events as an excuse to move away, setting up shop as a personal tutor in a nearby town. He lives in a pretty grand three-story house all by himself, as once again Hollywood movies seem entirely incapable of grasping the basic economics of regular folks. These are hardly the sort of accommodations a semi-employed teacher could obtain.

He also retains a pronounced limp and uses a cane to get around, though the movie doesn't delve too much into how Johnny's psyche is affected by his disability. Dr. Sam seems to think that Johnny's body will only get weaker as his mental powers grow stronger.

During this time he becomes personal tutor to Chris (Simon Craig), the ostracized son of a very wealthy man (Anthony Zerbe), and they form a brotherly camaraderie. Johnny uses his powers to prevent Chris' death in an ice hockey accident he foresees, and he begins to embrace his abilities as a blessing rather than a curse.

Chris has a bunch of cool nerdy stuff in his bedroom, including a then-rare personal computer, figurines and comic books, and I think he and I would've gotten along famously.

Around this time Sarah also reappears with her toddler son in tow. She claims to be happy with her life but regrets the one with Johnny she left behind, so she throws him a bone by having sex with him. Only this one time, she warns, and presumably his only time, since Johnny is implied to still be a virgin.

Sarah seems to think she's doing him a favor rather than letting Johnny's feelings slowly burn out naturally. This is just throwing a log on the fire, and borderline emotional terrorism.

The film's last bit is hokey and contrived, as Johnny encounters an ambitious young candidate for the U.S. Senate, Greg Stillson, played with dyed-black hair and cartoonish aggression by Martin Sheen. Stillson rides around in a Cadillac limo but dons a construction hard hat for his campaign appearances, doing push-ups and delivering rambling monologues about what's gone wrong with this country.

Johnny inadvertently shakes Stillson's hand during one of these, and sees a vision in which the man becomes President and launches a preemptive nuclear strike, seeing it as his personal destiny bequeathed by God. He consults with Sam, obliquely, about whether it would be right to commit murder to prevent massive tragedy, using the obvious Hitler proposition.

I adored Sam's non-prevaricating response: "All right. I'll give you an answer. I'm a man of medicine. I'm expected to save lives and ease suffering. I love people. Therefore, I would have no choice but to kill the son of a bitch."

Thus Johnny sets off on an assassination mission with his father's old World War II carbine, which is successful though not in exactly the way he intended. Of course, his own life is forfeited in the exchange.

"The Dead Zone" is like a meal in which the chef was given a lot or promising ingredients and never figured out the right way to put it together. Jeffrey Boam wrote the screenplay adaptation, in a short but busy career that also included "The Lost Boys," "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and the second and third "Lethal Weapon" films.

It was one of director David Cronenberg's rare non-horror films during the early part of his career, busy with mind-bending tales like "Videodrome," "Naked Lunch" and "Scanners." I get the feeling Cronenberg didn't quite know what to do with such a relatively straight story, and ended up churning out the sort of bland studio fare any one of a hundred other filmmakers could've delivered.

It's not especially scary, or exciting, or emotionally engrossing... or especially anything, really. I can grasp why it's been mostly forgot.

Apparently King did write his own version of the screenplay, though Cronenberg reportedly rejected it for being too brutal -- a rather hilarious statement, given the grisly nature of his own oeuvre. Even funnier: the person originally imagined to play Johnny, and King's own choice, was Bill Murray.

Just trying to imagine that version of the movie gives me visions of my own -- most unpleasant ones.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Review: "Blackbird"

"You didn't raise us to be strong. You just raised us not to bother you with weakness!"

"Blackbird" is one of those rare movies that held few surprises for me, but I still embraced every moment I spent with it. 

It's very much an "actors' film," without any real plot other than a bunch of characters getting together, interacting and reacting. It's remade from a Danish film by Billie August (unseen by me), directed by Roger Michell ("Notting Hill") from a script by Christian Torpe. 

The cast is terrific, and it's a movie that's warmhearted but not without considerable tension and pain.

It stars Susan Sarandon, still luminous at 73, as a woman named Lily who is dying. She has some sort of degenerative disease that will eventually leave her unable to walk, talk or even breathe on her own, so she has decided to hurry things along by undertaking physician-assisted suicide, which in her case the doctor also being her husband, Paul (Sam Neill). 

Lily and Paul have let everyone know their plans and have gathered their extended family to their beach house for one last weekend of togetherness and goodbyes. After they leave Sunday evening, she will drink something Paul has prepared for her and let go. It's her (fiercely defended) choice.

Of course, the weekend will not proceed with utter tranquility. There are built-up tensions with their two daughters, well-played by Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska, and within their own family units, that will come out and spark arguments and recriminations. 

You can feel the slow-burn buildup to these outbreaks coming a long way off. And yet, strangely, the moments never felt artificial or hurried. They seemed more like the revolutions of the tide, which comes rolling in whether you want it to or not.

Lily is the clear alpha in the family, a woman who doesn't necessarily like to be the center of attention but absolutely insists on being the center of power. Paul seems content to adore her, support her and take a back seat to the interpersonal dynamics. 

Lily has a good heart but often doesn't see how her desire for things to be a certain way can cause them to go astray. She has a tendency to delude herself, insisting things are as she wants them to be rather than the way they really turned out.

Michell starts off shooting mostly from medium distance, slowly bringing the camera closer to the actors' faces as the story goes on. I knew that Winslet was in this movie and kept waiting for her to show up, and I think was 30 minutes in before I realized older daughter Jennifer was her. Somehow her ponytail, owlish glasses and hard, flat American accent had me completely fooled. 

Jennifer has a lot to be thankful for in her life, but instead obsesses with "straightening the picture frames," as someone aptly puts it. She's very critical of everyone, including herself, and can't seem to just sit back and let the sun shine in.

Her husband, Michael (Rainn Wilson), is likeable but diffident, the kind of guy who tends to have his nose buried in a newspaper or book, and most of his conversations with other people have a "did you know?" hook to them. He's not showing off, but this is how he gets around his awkwardness.

Their son, Jonathan (Anson Boon), is about 16 and just starting to spread his wings. He wants to be an actor, but has never even told his parents about it. He often acts as the audience's eyes and ears.

The other daughter, Anna (Wasikowska), is the black sheep of the family. She's had trouble keeping a job or a relationship, and often drops out of communication for long stretches. Anna shows up with her girlfriend, Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus), in tow, which causes consternation because Jennifer asked that she not be brought. 

Apparently they've broken up and gotten back together several times, and Chris is seen as a destabilizing force on Anna's life. Though we'll see how true that is.

Finally there's Liz (Lindsay Duncan), Lily's lifelong best friend who has been riding along with the family on vacations, get-togethers, and so on for decades. She doesn't have a lot to say or do, but we suspect she will factor into matters more deeply as things go on.

As I say, there isn't really a whole lot of storytelling here. There's the Friday arrivals, Saturday activities followed by a big dinner, and the Sunday dénouement. At first the main conflict is between the sisters, but it migrates around so that virtually every relationships is revealed and tested in some way.

I'll say I pretty much knew everything that was going to occur before it did. (Watch hundreds of movies a year, and you will, too.) But again, the strength of a film like this is not "what happens" but the how and the why.

Sarandon is such a treasure, always interesting to watch even in movies that don't hold much appeal on their own. I liked seeing Winslet in such an emotionally pinched role; we're used to seeing her as women throwing around big emotions. I really took pleasure in Wilson, so identified with his iconic character from "The Office," getting a chance to show his dramatic chops.

Movies like "Blackbird" are not about big surprises, but how the patterns of life that become stable and familiar are vulnerable to disruption and being upended -- and that's not a bad thing. At the every end of her life, Lily knows who she is and what her life has been about, and wants to say goodbye on her own terms. So do we all.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Reeling Backward: "The Lords of Flatbush" (1974)

I figure it this way: the more maps you read, the more you know about where you want to go."
                                                                                --Stanley Rosiello

It's curious that by the early 1970s there was already an intense nostalgia for the 1950s and early '60s, at least if you looked at film and television representations.

Having just come through arguably the most intense cultural upheaval in American history, audiences seemed to crave a return to the relative calm of a half a generation earlier, when getting a switchblade pulled on you was about the worst thing you could expect if you wandered into a big city.

"The Lords of Flatbush," chronicling the coming-of-age of four Brooklyn toughs, came out a year after "American Graffiti" but failed to make the kind of impact George Lucas' film did -- though it turns out to be important in other ways, helping launch the careers of a number of notable people.

Among them was Martin Davidson, who directed along with Stephen Verona, the pair writing the script in conjunction with Gayle Gleckler (her only credit). They also had some dialogue contributions from Sylvester Stallone, who starred along with Perry King, Paul Mace and Henry Winkler.

Making his directorial debut, Davidson seemed to embrace nostalgia as his niche, going on to direct "Almost Summer," which helped jump-start the bawdy teen comedy genre, and "Eddie and the Cruisers," set in the same era as "Flatbush" and with a similar surfeit of leather jackets and greasy hair.

It was Stallone's second starring role in a film, and he would have supporting or bit roles in "Capone," "The Prisoner of Second Avenue, " "Death Race 2000," "Farewell, My Lovely" and "Cannonball!" before his breakout in "Rocky" two years later. He makes quite an impression as Stanley, the surly alpha male leader of the Lords, a "social athletic club" aka street gang.

Burly, bordering on chubby, Stallone turned 28 the year the film came out playing a high school senior. Winkler would be 29, King 26 and Mace the relative youngster at 24. Just to show that the Hollywood habit of casting actors in their mid- to late-20s as teens is nothing new. Mace's career didn't last long, but King was a busy actor on TV and film for the next few decades.

Winkler would actually be the first and biggest breakout star of the group before the film even came out, with "Happy Days" debuting a few more months before "Flatbush" hit theaters. By the latter part of the decade it would be the most popular show on television, with Winkler's Fonzie a ubiquitous staple of pop culture.

It was perhaps the earliest known example of the "Urkel Effect," where a supporting player becomes so popular they essentially take over the show -- to the point the ostensible main character, Ron Howard's Ritchie Cunningham, eventually left "Happy Days" and no one really cared. Of course, the Fonz is known for his raging machismo, but in the movie Winkler's character, Butchey Weinstein, is the smart-aleck clown of the group.

He gets one nice scene in the soda whop where they congregate, mouthing off, ordering egg creams, practice a little doo-wop and occasionally arguing and fighting. The jaded counter worker offers Butchey some advice, telling him he's got brains but is too stupid to use them, which Butchey sarcastically promises to take to heart.

(Narrator: He won't.)

What you may not know is that another future star was slated to be in this movie: Richard Gere was cast in King's role as Chico, the amorously inclined member of the gang, but was fired during rehearsals when he and Stallone clashed. Supposedly the two still bear hard feelings from those days.

Story-wise... there really isn't any. At 86 minutes, "Flatbush" is a very observational, slice-of-life film without a lot of narrative. It's essentially a progression of encounters with the foursome, each getting a little bit of solo time for their own story. Chico and Stanley get the lion's share with their romantic adventures.

Chico carries on with Annie (Reneé Paris), one of the girls who runs with the Lords, while pining for Jane (Susan Blakely), the wholesome girl-next-door type who recently started at their high school. Chico seems to enjoy mocking Jane even as he woos her, wanting only to get into her pants so he can move on to the next conquest.

We suspect he has genuine feelings for her, or at least could grow to develop them if his stubborn self-image as a loverboy would let him. She puts him off, he blows her off and claims not to care, until Jane starts dating Arnie (Frank Stiefel), who has a car. This leads to a whole sequence where the Lords steal a 1956 Packard for Chico to use on dates with Jane.

Interestingly, Arnie is sort of a quasi-official member of the Lords, and actually takes Chico's place for the singing scene because he's off canoodling with Jane or Annie or whoever. This doesn't stop them from calling Arnie out to fight near the end because... well, that's just something they do on a regular basis.

The Lords defend their turf, even if they had just previously abandoned it.

The tone for the film is set in an early scene were Wimpy (Mace), the diminutive member of the gang, is playing pool with a slightly older guy in a suit. He mentions that he used to be in his own gang, the J's (since they ruled Avenue J). Stanley tries to hustle him in pool and then threatens to beat him up, dismissing the interloper as an "old man." (He's maybe 25).

It's pretty clear what's going on here: this fellow is an affront to the Lords because he grew up and sold out, embracing the conventional life they see as a trap. Secretly Stan keeps pigeons in a rooftop coop and dreams of flying away somewhere -- a soon-to-be standard trope for cinematic tough guys. Deep down, he knows he's not going anywhere.

Certainly not if Frannie (Maria Smith) has anything to say about it. She's been Stanley's sorta-girlfriend for awhile, and early on we learn she's pregnant. Frannie pushes Stan toward marriage, which he resists mightily but also with a sense of an inescapable doom. But Frannie wants to be married straight out of high school, so married she will be, with Stanley as her first -- but hardly last -- choice.

They'll fight and say the most horrible things to each other, and as soon as Stanley relents a little bit, Frannie and Annie (who is her best friend and wing-woman) shower him with praise. The best example is a visit to a jeweler (played by Davidson himself) to buy a 1½ karat engagement ring for $1,600.

That's almost nine grand in today's dollars, and we can see the panic in Stanley's eyes when he's presented with a figure that represents many times his net worth. Offered a consignment purchase, he might as well have shackles presented to him. It's not a payment plan, it's mortgaging his future.

Stan bobs and waves, asks if they can rent the ring for 10 days, is bombarded with screeches of protest from Fr/Annie, and finally gives in, offering up everything he's got, $90.

Of course, he then immediately makes a big show of being the king of the walk, accepting congratulations from the rest of the Lords. The film ends with their wedding, something Stanley was fully hornswoggled into, since Frannie's pregnancy turned out to be a bogus ploy. The marriage won't possibly last past their 30th birthdays, but he must now make a show of embracing it, even claiming the whole thing was his idea all along.

In the end, I don't really know what "The Lords of Flatbush" is trying to accomplish. It seems like the barest sketch of something bigger and deeper, like the first rough draft of a Scorsese film. Seen today, it was an opportunity for actors to swagger and mug for the camera and hope it'll lead to something bigger -- which, for most of them, it surely did.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Review: "Mulan"

“Mulan” is by my lights the weakest of the modern Disney animated films, possibly challenged by “Pocahontas” as the House of Mouse went through a period where it seemed more interested in depicting and attracting underrepresented populations than actually spinning a good yarn.

Now everything cartoon shall be remade live action (and probably back again another generation down the line). I’m pleased to see the new “Mulan” made a better impression on me than the last, though it’s still plagued by some drab performances and the common ailment these days of being 15-20 minutes too long.

Based on ancient Chinese folklore, this is the story of a young woman who overcame tradition and societal pressure to become a great warrior-hero who saved the kingdom. In that day only boys took up their fathers’ sword and girls existed to be matched up and married off.  A son who died in war lived on in honor, but a daughter who does not comport herself in a mild, subservient way brought shame to her family.

It’s got a ton of action scenes and is surprisingly rated PG-13, though probably closer to PG than R. There’s too much parkour-type stuff for my taste -- people flipping sideways through the air and running up walls and such -- but I’m impressed by the sheer scale of the choreography and pageantry, which is positively Kurosawa-esque at times.

Mulan (Liu Yifei) is the eldest daughter of Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma), a crippled war hero. He has raised her tacitly encouraging her rambunctiousness and proclivity toward combat. But now that she’s old enough to marry, Mulan is nothing but an embarrassment to her mother (Rosalind Chao).

Then a threat comes to the kingdom in the form of Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee, unrecognizable under a mask of scars), a Genghis Khan-type raider seeking revenge against the Emperor (Jet Li), who killed his father. Every family is required to volunteer one male as military conscript, and since Zhou has no sons and is in no condition to fight, Mulan sneaks off with his sword and armor, passing herself off as a man.

Things go through a pretty predictable cycle: she struggles to fit in with the other recruits, particularly Chen Honghui (Yoson An), an aggressive-in-a-dreamy-sort-of-way type. Mulan endears herself to her commander, Tung (Donnie Yen), as the best fighter in the division, though her deception weighs upon her conscious and the three tenets of the warrior ethos: loyalty, bravery and truth.

One of the most interesting changes from the animated movie is the addition of the character Xian Lang (Gong Li), a powerful witch who fights on behalf of Khan. She can transform into a hawk or swarm of bats, and even enter another person’s consciousness to control them for at time.

Of course the women clash in combat, but also reveal themselves as kindred spirits who are ostracized for stepping out of the accepted roles for women. Lang tells Mulan she is poisoning her chi, or life energy, by denying her feminine identity.

Directed by New Zealander Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) from a script by Lauren Hynek, Rick Jaffa, Elizabeth Martin and Armanda Silver, “Mulan” carries the torch of feminism proudly though in a decidedly non-threatening way. All the men who sneer at Mulan, before and after she her impersonation is revealed, are just converts waiting to happen.

Liu’s performance is a bit flat and emotionally vacant. We don’t really feel the agony of her estrangement or the fierce pride that would lead someone like Mulan to be such a barrier-breaker. It’s just a lot of blank expressions and stunts.

Yet, I’ll admit I like this version of “Mulan” more than the cartoon one. There’s no silly talking animal sidekicks (sorry, Eddie Murphy) or concessions to a kiddie audience. You may find that smaller children have less patience for this version, but adults will respond with more enthusiasm than the original.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Review: "The Owners"

Youth is wasted on the young, or so they say, and horror films are sometimes spent trying to scare people too inured to easily experience genuine fright. The latter would certainly describe me and my reaction to "The Owners."

This is a well-done British horror flick that held zero surprises for me. Well, there was one, to be entirely truthful, though I have to say it left me more confused than scared. Scratching your head and going "wwwwhhhhhaaaaat?" is never a good place to be in this genre.

The film stars Maisie Williams of "Game of Thrones" fame in a story about a bunch of lower-class hoodlums breaking into the mansion of a wealthy elderly couple and finding a whole lot more than they bargained. It's supposed to be a burglary, but when they can't get into the safe they decide to wait until the oldsters come home and browbeat them into opening it up.

Needless to say, things do not go as planned, and soon enough recriminations and bloody mayhem ensue.

The best part is the early middle, a high-tension sequence that takes place in the basement where loyalties are strained and the owners turn out to be much more resourceful than you'd expect from a pair of octogenarians. I'm reminded of the torture scene in "Reservoir Dogs," where we have a pretty good idea where things are going to spin out but it's a nail-biting affair getting there.

(I was watching this part late last night when my wife came into our bedroom and thought I was having convulsions. This is another downside of watching movies on your computer, because nobody can see you squirm in a darkened theater.)

From there, things move upstairs and become less interesting as it goes along. It morphs into a cat-and-mouse game as Mary, the main character played by Williams, gradually figures out that the owners aren't nearly as harmless and benevolent as they'd initially seemed. Roles are reversed, with the intrigue all taking place inside a confined space.

Sylvester McCoy plays Dr. Huggins, the man of the house, and I knew I recognized his high-pitched, kindly brogue from somewhere, and it was as Radagast the Brown in the Lord of the Rings movies. Dressed in a bow tie and three-piece suit with owlish classes, Huggins seems like a harmless, sweet-natured man of science who cares deeply for his wife.

Ellen Huggins, for her part, is suffering from dementia and often seems more as a child than an old woman. Played by Rita Tushingham, Ellen surprises us with flashes of anger and steely resolve that bespeak of a woman who was once the feared mistress of the house. She's particularly annoyed by things that are dirty, and apparently this includes many people.

Mary was not even part of the group that broke in, but came along afterward at the behest of her boyfriend, Nathan (Ian Kenny). He's bemused by how much power he has over her, though later his quest for quick cash takes on a more urgent note. His boyhood chum, Terry (Andrew Ellis), is the timid, dim type who clued them into the opportunity because his mum does maid work for the Hugginses.

The malevolent X-factor is Gaz, the sidekick who appears to be the one really in charge. Played with chilling conviction by Jake Curran, Gaz is all tall angles and fair hues; he seems like an angel who fell to earth and was bent up into unspeakable shapes. He seems to have an innate sense for how to push people's buttons and probe their weak spots.

For example, Gaz quickly figures out that while Dr. Huggins may not give the combination to the safe willingly, he'll do so if the one thing in the world he dotes on is threatened, that being his wife. I'll say no more.

Julius Berg directed and co-wrote (with Mathieu Gompel) the film, his first feature, based on a French graphic novel. He seems to have a good feel for pacing and tone, which are some of the more nuanced aspects of filmmaking. Though I think he's restricted by the bookends of the horror genre, which tend to shut out any storytelling aspects that aren't aimed at eliciting scares.

It's a solid performance for Williams, making that awkward transition from kid to adult actor. Like a lot of female characters in horror, she's a fairly undefined, weak-willed person who defers to others, but when imperiled finds inner stores of resolve even she didn't know were there.

The good parts of "The Owners" are quite good, though the obligatory stuff is there to be endured.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Review: "Tenet"




This is what we waited almost half a year for? After seeing the entire spring and summer movie season swallowed by -- well, you know -- it was finally time for some big-budget, big-name movie-making.

Christopher Nolan -- “Dunkirk,” “Inception,” “Interstellar” -- yeah, that guy. His new creation, “Tenet,” with a $225 million budget (reputedly). John David Washington, Denzel’s boy and the rising star of “BlacKkKlansman.” A high-tech spy franchise supposedly with enough thrills to put James Bond to shame.

And my first trip to a movie theater in six months.

High hopes? Yes, certainly up there. Admittedly, probably, a bit too high. But this? This?

Nolan’s newest is a great big catastrophic mess. How messy? We’re talking toeing the line on sheer incomprehensibility, and often juking gleefully over the edge.

If you had trouble understanding “Memento,” then this movie is the “Hold my beer.”

“Tenet” is a strange, strange bird. It’s got tons of dialogue, long winding scenes of people jabbering away about inversion and freeports and grandfather paradoxes and plutonium 241 and Goya paintings and a bunch of other stuff.

And you. Cannot. Understand it. At all.

There are several reasons why. Primarily the over-complicated plot in which some evil mastermind wants to end the world using time travel. Well, not traveling through time per se, but reversing time. So objects and, eventually, people can actually move through time in opposite directions. More on that in a bit.

Then there’s Nolan’s well-documented penchant for having sound effects and thundering music drowning out the dialogue. (Ludwig Göransson subs in for Nolan’s pet composer, Hans Zimmer, though based on the thundering bass and dissonant chords, it’s mimicry rather than departure.)

And we have a sprawling international cast using all sorts of accent flavors, often spoken rapidly and underneath their full breath. There’s Kenneth Branagh’s vowel-twisting Russian arms dealer, Sator, who is (we think) the chief villain. And his kept wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), in clipped high-class British tones. And a warbling Indian power broker (Dimple Kapadia).

Heck, Michael Caine turns up for a bit, and he’s the most comprehensible of the lot.

Here’s how the movie plays out: there will be an exciting but bizarre action scene. Then a whole bunch of talking to explain what just happened. Then a bunch more talking to set up the next set-piece. But we can’t understand the talking, so we have to amble our way through the chases and explosions, trying so hard to make sense of what we’re seeing it carries no emotional weight.

Because it’s Christopher Nolan, the movie is sleek and shiny and moves well. Some of the bang-bang scenes play quite nicely, including a heist of a MacGuffin from a moving truck using a variety of other trucks. And a bungee-cord assault on a skyscraper.

Branagh brings genuine menace as a controlling monster who keeps his wife pressed beneath his very thumb. This, despite the fact the stork-like Debecki towers above him, and everyone else for that matter. She resembles a normal woman whom God stretched out like taffy.

“Tenet” is not actually the name of Washington’s character, who simply calls himself The Protagonist. As the story opens he has just passed a particularly cruel test to be admitted to the top echelon of spydom and entrusted with this Most Important Mission. Robert Pattinson plays Neil, a smirking playboy wingman who can pick the locks of a lot of closed doors. He’s got foppy hair and a floppy lilt. (Again, hard to make out.)

The science is left deliberately fuzzy, something to do with a nuclear blast inverting the flow of electrons so the object moves backward rather than forward in time, I think. So a bullet hole will appear before the gun has been fired, and so on.

This results in decidedly weird, borderline comical combat scenes in which one person is moving forward in time and the other in reverse. It’s a lot of fumbling around and actions that miss the mark wildly; reminds me of my early love life. Eventually we get entire battles scenes of this.

Everything’s so utterly serious in “Tenet,” as if the movie can’t see itself and grasp how ridiculous it is. “We’re living in a twilight world” is a passcode some of the spies use when they find themselves in a situation where they’re unsure of what’s what, and boy do I know how that feels.