Thursday, October 29, 2020

Review: "The True Adventures of Wolfboy"

"The True Adventures of Wolfboy" is a sweet, whimsical modern fairy tale, though also a little bit sad. But the sadness feels right.  

If it seems premised on a gimmick -- a boy born with hirsutism, aka copious facial and body hair that makes him resemble the titular nickname, goes on a road trip to discover himself -- that's because it is, though the filmmakers are quick to acknowledge it. Screenwriter Olivia Dufault and director Martin Krejcí position the tone somewhere between literary fantasy and sobering verisimilitude. 

We may find the characters a little constructed or even weird, but their emotions and exploits land with surprising weight.

Jaeden Martell ("Knives Out") is Paul, a 13-year-old kid from Ohio. It's just him and his dad (Chris Messina), a decent if not particularly sensitive sanitation worker who loves his son and wants him to fit in and be happy. He doesn't seem to realize that can't happen when people stare at you wherever you go, and many boys are keyed up to bullying mode at first encounter. 

Paul wears a ski mask most everywhere he goes, which isn't very far. His dad is pitching him on a private school for kids with varying sorts of physical disabilities, and even buys him the coat-tie-and-shorts uniform to try out. But Paul has received a surprise birthday gift from the mother he has never met, inviting him to come visit her in Pennsylvania and find out the truth of why she left.

So off Paul goes, to have the aforementioned adventures. The filmmakers cleverly divide these up into chapters based on the new people he will meet, presented as illustrated pages of a storybook. So for example when he meets a vaguely punk girl with pink hair and an eye patch with a penchant for robbing stores, she becomes the Pirate Queen.

I just love, love, love this cast. Martell is sensitive and soulful as Paul, but also not afraid to show us a young man with some bite in him. He's been kicked around and devalued by everyone in his life, most especially himself, and as he enters the cusp of manhood a part of him is eager to stiffen his spine and fight back. This could lead him to self-confidence but also potentially to becoming that which he beheld.

Eve Hewson is charismatic and cagey as Rose, the aforementioned pirate girl, who seems like she's holding onto all sorts of secrets that don't come through in her dialogue. She lives in her van and actually looks forward to the possibility of prison as a welcome break in her routine.

John Turturro plays Mr. Silk, the extravagantly ostentatious owner of a third-rate carnival near Paul's home. He wanders in there and is offered a job as a circus freak, though Silk is careful to couch it in more positive -- though certainly manipulative -- terms. We'll see more of him later.

The always-wonderful Stephen Henderson shows up as an older man who has some special insight for Paul. There's just something about Henderson's voice and poise that instantly makes you feel safe and welcome. Chloë Sevigny plays his mom, whose meeting with Paul is everything and nothing we'll expect.

And then there's Sophie Giannamore as Aristiana, the "mermaid" Paul meets in the course of his journeys. She's about the same age as him, but at night when her mom is working she wanders over to drag bars where she performs onstage, favoring colorful costumes. Aristiana is hopeful but realistic, making her way through a world that devalues her and may even shorten her life, but with a sense of willful self-awareness most people don't possess at 64, let alone 14.

It's rare that you see a child actor and immediately think, "I can't wait to see what they do next." Natalie Portman, Haley Joel Osment, Jodie Foster and Jacob Tremblay were on that very short list. Now, so is Giannamore.

"The True Adventures of Wolfboy" is a marvel, a movie that feels quite old but also very much part of the here and now. All of us have our flaws and freakishness, some closer to the surface than others. Sometimes you have to go a long way to find out where home is.


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Review: "Friendsgiving"

There aren't a lot of great Thanksgiving movies. "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" is about it, and the holiday is actually pretty tertiary to the plot. "Home for the Holidays?" "Free Bird?" "The House of Yes?" Not exactly a lot of quality choices at this table.

So given that low bar, "Friendsgiving" immediately gets counted as one of the better ones.

A comedy with some dramatic moments, as opposed to a true dramedy, it has a very TV sitcom-y feel. Malin Akerman and Kat Dennings play besties, both heartsick from recent breakups, who have vowed to spend Thanksgiving together, just the two of them, for some commiserating and libations. But then some unexpected guests show up, and then some more, and soon the house is festooned with a small army of interlopers.

It's a chaotic scene of ex-boyfriends versus rebound boyfriends, married-with-kids types bouncing off of childless singles, a wildly inappropriate mother, an irritating showbiz couple, a vegan shaman wannabe, and a random assortment of lesbians vying for attention in the form of video personals ads that they just sort of turn away and start spouting like a Shakespearean soliloquy. (They're pretty stereotypical, but also pretty funny.)

It's helmed by Nicole Paone, a veteran actress and writer who's making her directorial debut. She gets a great sense of spontaneity and charm out of her cast. The material feels a little canned, but hits all the right high and low notes.

Dennings is Abby, a loser sort who didn't even come out of the closet as gay until she was nearly 30. Her last relationship was borderline abusive, and she's got lots of self-esteem issues. She recently found out her ex is getting married, and the nails-on-chalkboard "support" from her mother and sister (via video call from Jersey) just ratchets up the tension.

Apparently Abby and her best friend, Molly (Akerman), came out to Hollywood to try to make it and only one of them did. Molly's a big movie star best known for action movies, and would seem to be living the dream with a Beverly Hills mansion and a 6-month-old son. Unfortunately, she is in the process of getting divorced and has already taken up with Jeff (Jack Donnelly), a beta-male Brit who often goes around without a top, or a bottom.

Jeff is... a piece of work. He seems incredibly warm and nice and supportive and deluded. He and Molly have only been together two weeks but he's already talking life journeys together. But he's not big on responsibility, or making money, or other grown-up things. He travels the globe running charities of indeterminate nature, which is how he makes do in between sugar mommas like Molly.

First to crash the party is Molly's Swedish mother, Helen (Jane Seymour), who shows up for a "surprise" visit of dubious intent. Helen is one of those women who claims to be unconcerned about her age but will throw herself at anybody, or everybody, as long as it means holding the spotlight. 

This includes Molly's ex boyfriend (before the husband, so a double-ex), Gunnar (Ryan Hansen), another big movie star, who shows up semi-invited looking to pitch woo.

Aisha Tyler and Deon Cole play Lauren and Dan, described as "the perfect couple," who have a great relationship, two wonderful kids and never any real problems. Andrew Santino and Christine Taylor are Rick and Brianne, just-married Hollywood types who seem to be in a war to out-douche each other. Then there's Barb (Dana DeLorenzo), who professes to be a holy woman carrying a song of peace but is just another loud-mouthed New York type underneath.

You can feel where everything in the movie is going to go before it goes there. Abby and Molly will have some sort of falling out, quickly repaired by the final scene; Helen will embarrass herself and her daughter repeatedly; Gunnar and Jeff will play a game of passive-aggressive one-upmanship; and there will be some sort of crisis that puts everything on hold (for a bit).

My biggest surprise was that instead of pulling out pot or pills for the inevitable "let's get high" scene, they turn to mushrooms instead.

I mostly enjoyed myself watching this movie, even though it held few surprises for me. Akerman and Dennings have a nice chemistry together as lifelong pals, and the various supporting characters perform their individual little dances well. 

As usual, movies that reflect Hollywood do so in a jaw-droppingly naïve way, such as the fact that Molly is supposed to be a movie star and yet doesn't have a single employee or entourage member to help out. So there's a lot of bustle about who's watching the baby or who's making sure all the food gets heated up in the right order, and we all know there'd be like two nannies and four cooks at a bare minimum, all forced to work on Thanksgiving and probably with instructions not to look anybody famous in the eye, too.

Molly even takes a Lyft to get from place to place, and if your suspension of belief hadn't dropped by then, at that point it falls down a well.

Still, this is a well-meaning and warmhearted movie that doesn't aim very high, but doesn't disappoint.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Sleepy Hollow" (1999)


One of the greatest disappointments of my cinematic lifetime is the devolution of Tim Burton. 

Along with the Coen brothers, he was at the very top of my list of favorite filmmakers during the 1980s and '90s. Burton made breathtakingly original movies, often combining existing stories or mythologies with elements of horror and twisted comedy to create something that felt at once new and very old: "Beetlejuice," "Batman" and its sequel, "Edward Scissorhands," "Ed Wood," "The Nightmare Before Christmas," and on.

1999's "Sleepy Hollow" seemed to represent the apex, or at least the median, of his career. It was an R-rated, big-budget spectacle that took the legend of the Headless Horseman as a mere jumping-off point for something that was singularly Burtonian. It's hardly his best film but perhaps one closest to the essence of his filmmaking ethos.

And then, disaster.

Beginning with his next film, 2001's awful "Planet of the Apes," Burton dove over the edge of some boundless abyss. He went from being arguably Hollywood's most original voice to the King of the Crappy Remakes. 

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Dark Shadows," "Dumbo," "Alice in Wonderland," "Dark Shadows," "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" -- it seems there was no moldy intellectual property knocking about that Burton was unwilling to sign onto for a cynical, opportunistic reboot. Most of them made a lot of money, and so we've gotten more of the same.

Meanwhile, on the rare occasion Burton returned briefly to his outsider roots -- "Big Eyes," "Big Fish" -- it's been less of a commercial success. 

(Oddly, I split with the Coen boys the same time as Burton, beginning with 2001's "The Man Who Wasn't There." Just as they achieved mainstream success both commercially and with the respect of their peers as expressed through prestigious awards, I've found them afflicted with a case of the dread Serious Filmmakers disease. Only their Westerns, "True Grit" and "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," have truly pleased me since.)

I haven't watched "Sleepy Hollow" in at least a decade, so given the season I thought it would be a nice visit down pleasant memory lane. Don't think ill of of me, but joining the trip was my youngest, who seems to share my taste for scary movies that the oldest son lacks. Other than one or two fingers-over-eyes moments, he did just fine and enjoyed the movie as much as me, and possibly more. 

I must say that today the film's R rating seems rather overburdensome, as it's no bloodier than the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy of the same period. Though I suppose a few lingering closeups of severed necks, along with a general theme that's heavy on the occult, likely tipped the scales toward the harsher rating from the MPAA. 

The script by Andrew Kevin Walker -- known for films dallying with perversion, "8MM" and "Se7en" -- combines the Gothic horror aspects of the original story by Washington Irving with a sort of Sherlock Holmes-esque murder-mystery, with a dash of the moralistic musings of "The Scarlet Letter." Here, Irving's fable of a love triangle mixed with local legends of hauntings gives way to a much more complex conspiracy involving most of the town's key figures.

Apologies: just one spoiler warning after more than two decades, so turn back now if you wish to keep the film's secrets to discover yourself.

One last brief aside before we continue: Sleepy Hollow was not actually a town, but merely a glen (neighborhood) of Tarry Town in upstate New York, today called Tarrytown. It originally incorporated in the 19th century as North Tarrytown, but owing to the lingering notoriety and tourist appeal from the story and various cinematic adaptations, changed its name to Sleepy Hollow in 1996. 

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery has remained throughout, however, along with the Old Dutch Church referenced in the story. My father-in-law, who grew up in Tarrytown, is buried there (along with Irving) and his service was held at the church.

"Sleepy Hollow" is a magnificent-looking film, shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki so as to seem leeched of nearly all color, except for some vibrant blood reds and other dashes of hue that stand out in stark relief. The costumes and production design are also sumptuous -- by Colleen Atwood, and Peter Young and Rick Heinrichs, respectively -- and all three received well-deserved Oscar nominations, with the latter winning.

The big joke of the movie is that Ichabod Crane, played by Burton muse Johnny Depp, is not your typical action hero but a squeamish sort prone to fainting and being repelled by blood and dead bodies -- which, of course, he encounters in abundant frequency. Rather than being a visiting schoolmaster vying for the hand of the town rich man's daughter, he is a constable sent from New York City (banished, really) to investigate three recent murders using newfangled scientific techniques and contraptions. 

With his milk-pale skin, foppy hair and persnickety mannerisms, Depp's Crane seems like a deliberate rejection of stereotypical Hollywood manhood, and for one I could not be more pleased by it. This more or less began Depp's penchant for highly stylized performances, epitomized by his Willy Wonka and Captain Jack Sparrow from the (seemingly endless) "Pirates of the Caribbean" series. 

Christina Ricci plays Katrina Van Tassel, the aforementioned daughter of Sleepy Hollow's most propserous citizen, Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon). At one point she becomes Crane's prime suspect behind the Headless Horseman, played with great effect in a wordless performance by Christopher Walken. 

At first Crane believes the Horseman to be a mere myth, and indeed there's some play on this by local strongman Brom (Casper Van Dien), his chief rival for Katrina's affections, who at one point dresses up as the Horseman and frightens Crane half to death, knocking him out with a flaming pumpkin smashed to the head. (I'd forgotten, but this is actually the event that mostly directly recalls Irving's story.)

Soon Crane becomes convinced the Horseman is real, but being controlled by some local party who possesses his skull and uses this power to assassinate their enemies.

I must confess I'd quite forgotten about all the contretemps with the townsfolk, and even who the true villain turns out to be. It's a messy bit of exposition that never is really clearly spelled out, other than it centers around a local widow who has been impregnated and the various parties -- midwife, doctor, magistrate, notary and several witnesses -- who became embroiled in the scandal.

Katrina is soon revealed to be a witch, though eventually shown to be a good one. In fact, she is just one of a bevy of witches to be revealed in the story. Others include Baltus' second wife, Mary, and her twin sister (both played by Miranda Richardson), and Crane's own mother, seen in flashback by Lisa Marie, who was tortured and murdered by his religious father. 

Katrina was presumably taught her craft by her late mother (apparently murdered by Mary), so Baltus had the distinction of wedding not one but two witches.

Other players include Ian McDiarmid as Thomas Lancaster, the town doctor, who is sleeping with the Van Tassel servant, Sarah; James Hardenbrook (Michael Gough), the cowardly banker and keeper of documents; Jeffrey Jones as Rev. Steenwyck, who is secretly dallying with Mary Van Tassel; Samuel Philipse (Richard Griffiths), the local magistrate who buries his guilty conscience in drink; and Marc Pickering as Masbath, a boy whose father is murdered by the Horseman for bearing witness and becomes Crane's stalwart servant. 

In perhaps the film's most genuinely terrifying sequence, the horseman is sent to slay the midwife, Killian (Claire Skinner), and ends up killing her husband (Steven Waddington) and young son (Sean Stephens), too. The boy watches his parents murdered through the slats of the floorboards under which he is hiding, and then gets his own axe treatment, too.

(And if there's one part likely to wind up giving my kid nightmares, that's probably it.)

Like a classic Agatha Christie whodunit, the movie is surprisingly loaded with movements of the plot. We soon lose track of which of the townsfolk are doing ill and to whom, and bide our time until the next occasion the Horseman shows up to do some death-dealing.

Done up in all black, variously wielding swords and axes and riding his massive steed Daredevil (apparently undead as well), the Headless Horseman is quite unnerving. He whips about with surprising speed and pinpoint precision, as if able to see perfectly well despite not having a head. 

Stuntman-turned-actor Ray Park, best known for playing Darth Maul in the Star Wars franchise, takes over the Horseman for the combat and riding scenes. Rather than doing the usual built-up rig worn up on the shoulders, he performed the entire role wearing a blue ski mask that was digitally removed by Industrial Light & Magic. It's a terrifically effective presence.

Seeing the movie again, I'm reminded that the pacing of "Sleepy Hollow" is not the soundest -- terrific, horrifying action scenes giving way to some rather dull talkie parts in between. But it's the mood that makes it such a spectacular success.

We variously find ourselves laughing, or cringing, or being completely befuddled by what's going on. Some scenes land as straight-up horror, like when Crane and his companions track the Horseman down to his grave at the Tree of the Dead, where he springs forth from the grasping roots, and returns the same way, as if through the dripping gate of Hell itself.

Then we'll have parts, like the Horseman's assault on the Old Dutch Church with the townsfolk trapped in side, where he spears Van Tassel through the heart using a post of the sanctuary fence, which plays more for laughs than cries of fear. 

Or both, or one and then the other, or the other way around. I can imagine being in the theater when this film first came out, and I'd bet when this scene came round half the audience was shrieking and the other chortling.

That's the Tim Burton I remember and cherish. Maybe we'll get him back again someday, for good.


Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Review: "The Devil Has a Name"

A real head-scratcher, though a fitfully enjoyable one, "The Devil Has a Name" is part Western revenge thriller, part corporate intrigue, part courtroom drama and a little bit exploration of the psychotic mind. 

Imagine if Anton Chigurh from "No Country for Old Men" went head-to-head with Daniel Plainview from "There Will Be Blood" in a dispute over oil drilling pollution, and the whole thing wound up in court where Marlene Dietrich was the key figure a la "Witness for the Prosecution," with a bombastic attorney and sniveling media figure tossed in for good measure.

The basic story is an older, small-time California farmer getting muscled by a huge energy company called Shore Oil that has been poisoning the area groundwater for a decade. After he refuses to sell, they bring in their intimidator to try to knock him down, and instead he enlists a crusading lawyer to sue the company for billions.

This screenplay by Robert McEveety is a classic example of too many ingredients in the gumbo. The fact that a lot of them are quite tasty, especially the performances by an eclectic cast of name actors, doesn't mitigate the fact there's just too damn much going on.

I was never bored by "Devil," and enjoyed seeing actors I admire like David Strathairn and Edward James Olmos get meaty parts. But the film -- which Olmos also directed -- feels at once too big and too small for the story it's trying to tell. We get lots of swell little moments but they come and go quickly without a lot of build-up or weight.

This project seems like it would have lived and breathed better as a six- or eight-episode limited series on a streaming service, maybe something juicier and deliberately funnier with a tabloid feel.

Strathairn is the central figure as Fred Stern, who owns a small orchard. He and his wife always dreamed of sailing away together, but she died the previous year and Fred's not much use to anybody these days, letting his foreman and steady friend, Santiago (Olmos), run the show. 

Just as some of his trees start to show evidence of polluted water from the nearby dumping ponds, which Shore Oil doesn't even bother to line with protective material, Fred is approached with a strange offer. Alex Gardner (Haley Joel Osment), who worked for him as a kid and now is a small-town TV personality, offers fifty grand for the property. 

Reading between the lines, Fred figures he can get more by holding out.

Then into the picture enters Ezekiel, played by Pablo Schreiber in a big, loud, energetic performance that feels like it belongs to entirely another movie. He's the enforcer sent by the Big Boss in Houston to ensure things go smoothly,  but it soon becomes clear he's a completely unhinged, power-hungry type playing to his own off-chord tune -- and is unafraid to resort to violence if it suits him.

His back now up, Fred turns to Ralph Wegis (Martin Sheen), an over-the-hill but still feisty lawyer famous for having once taken Ford down over the Pinto. Ralph found out Ford knew the Pinto had a fatal problem that would take $11 to fix, but calculated it was cheaper to pay lawyers to fight wrongful death claims than save lives, and he figures that's what's going on now with Shore.

Standing at the center of the tale but somehow almost entirely unnecessary to it is Gigi Cutler, who has a family stake in Shore and has been sent to watch over things. Gigi doesn't seem to do much but wear furs and smoke cigarettes and gargle booze while giving everyone a femme fatale stare from hell, but Kate Bosworth is obviously having a hell of a time doing it.

A framing story has Gigi giving her account to the Big Boss (Alfred Molina) on how things went south, with her about to lose her stake in Shore as a result. Her character has terrific verve but no real interior as written. We're just supposed to admire the puzzle and not bother putting anything together.

Sheen is always reliable in this sort of role as a man who likes the sound of his own voice, and Strathairn gets to show a few empathetic notes as an old-timer who's been eating regret for so long he surprises himself by learning he's eager for a fight.

I also liked Osment, who's struggled to find good roles after a fantastic stretch as a kid actor, playing a fellow who's a natural bootlicker type, a guy who can't lose his moral compass because he was never issued the equipment in the first place. Please keep casting him, Hollywood.

I was half expecting Ezekiel to go full Buffalo Bill from "The Silence of the Lambs," or Gigi to hook up with the lawyer or the journalist or anybody, really. I've been trying to figure out what this movie is, with all its disparate, ill-fitting pieces. I think I've realized it's a dusty soap opera set in the California desert, where anything can happen and just might, even if it doesn't make a lick of sense.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Review: "The Last Shift"


Stanley is the sort of guy you look past. 

He's a working stiff from a dumpy Michigan town, never really been anywhere, never amounted to much and never will. He's unfailingly polite, even deferential, gimps around on two balky knees and just makes do. Approaching an age where many people give up their driver's license, Stanley is just about to obtain one for the first time.

As played by Richard Jenkins in "The Last Shift," Stanley is the sort of resonating character you don't see much in the movies anymore: an older, blue-collar guy without much education or sophistication. Spend some time with him and you might even conclude he's a little slow. 

The easy choice would be to grant him a heart of gold, but writer/director Andrew Cohn instead chooses to plumb the depths of what some might consider shallow waters and finds a simple, authentic soul worthy of our observation and empathy.

As the story opens and the title implies, the events of the story surround Stanley's last days on the job at Oscar's Chicken & Fish, a rundown fast-food joint favored by drunks and teenagers because it never closes. He has worked the third shift, 10 p.m. to dawn, for 38 years and is ready pack it in. His plan is to drive down to Sarasota, move his mom out of the low-end nursing home where she lives, and take care of here, well, until.

But first he has to train his replacement, and he's not too happy with the choice: Jevon (Shane Paul McGhie), a young black kid who has just been released from prison on probation. Javon is sharp but unseasoned, a guy who's not bad at heart but can't keep anything up for long, including a job. He's got an ex-girlfriend with whom he has a toddler son, all of them crashing at his mom's place in domestic non-bliss.

Working the night shift at a dead-end greasy spoon is not Jevon's idea of a fantastic turn of events, and he's not shy about making that known. He and Stanley have multiple clash points: generational, racial and their approach to work. Stanley's the kind of guy who'll happily recount the cash drawer if it's 30 cents off. Jevon avows his intention to do the bare minimum to get by.

Cohn is an increasingly familiar creator: a filmmaker who stated out in documentaries and is now making the jump to narrative movies. He previously made the excellent docs "Medora" and "Night School," both set in Indiana cities. (He has twice been awarded the Hoosier Award by the Indiana Film Journalists Association, of which I'm a founding member.)

Cohn is not here to comfort or provoke but to simply show us two very different men and how they tick, presenting them without adornment or obfuscation. This is a film of few big "moments" and many wondrous small observations.

Like, Stanley's crabbed little locker filled with what appear to be family photos. Is this his wife and son? What happened to them? Where are they now? Did abandon them, or lose them? Stanley and the story are silent, allowing us to fill in our own ideas.

Or the way, after a few nights on the job, Jevon and Stanley have a throw down argument about race, with Stanley the sort of guy who is incapable of wrapping his brain around the notion of "systemic racism," which ends with them both walking off in a huff. But Jevon is careful to push in the chair he was sitting in.

A few other characters flit in and out of the story, mostly during the daytime when these two are apart. Like Ed O'Neill as Dale, Stanley's lifelong buddy, and Sidney (Birgundi Baker), Devon's long-suffering ex. There's also Kelly (Allison Tolman), Devon's probation officer and Shazz (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), the no-nonsense head manager at Oscar's. Stanley flatters himself he and Shazz have a "co-thing going on," but we know the score.

Things go on. Stanley makes $13.50 an hour, and his life savings amounts to maybe a couple thousand bucks of stashed cash. His plans to get his license, buy a cheap car and drive a thousand miles to Florida will not go smoothly, as we instinctively know.

Jevon was a gifted writer in high school, including a column in the school paper, but has slid sideways since. As one person puts it, he's just an "outdoor cat" who isn't going to stick with the standard 9-to-5 -- or even 10-to-6 -- lifestyle. We root for him and feel like he's going to get there, but it may just take longer than usual.

And Stanley shall always be Stanley. He's a man who thinks he knows his place in the world, and professes to be content with it, but somehow hasn't really met himself yet. The lost souls often aren't wandering, but toiling in one place right in front of us, unseen. 



Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Review: "Yellow Rose"


"Yellow Rose" is like an old, familiar tune you've heard many times before, but played in a pleasing new arrangement performed with heart and grace.

We've seen lots of variations of this story, as with the recent iteration of "A Star Is Born." A nobody from nowhere with tremendous talent but not a lot of connections or self-confidence grows into their role as an artist, walking through a door that will define the path of their lifetime. Here, it's not to superstardom and Grammy Awards -- at least, not yet -- but to a simpler plateau of acceptance and acknowledgement. 

The star-to-be is Eva Noblezada as Rose Garcia, a Filipino/Latina teenager living in the backwaters near Austin, Texas. She grew up loving country music, but only plays for herself in her bedroom on a beat-up old guitar. She's like beautiful kite laying on the ground, that just needs the right gust of wind to pick up and soar.

The central conflict is that Rose and her mother (Princess Punzala) are illegal immigrants who moved to Texas from the Philippines seven years ago. They're scraping by with mom working as a maid and front desk attendant at a lowdown motel, and Rose getting ready to start her senior year in high school. But then her mother is snatched up by immigration authorities, taken to a detention far away and threatened with deportation.

Meanwhile, Rose goes on the run with the help of Elliot (Liam Booth), a classmate who would clearly like to be more, but works hard at seeming nonchalant about it. She stays with her wealthy aunt Gail in Austin (Lea Solanga) for a bit, but there's been little connection between the family members and her husband soon insists Rose move out.

(Interestingly, Salonga is the biggest established singing star in the cast, winning a Tony Award for "Miss Saigon," but barely warbles a note in the movie.)

Rose winds up at the Broken Spoke honky-tonk in Austin, an old-school boot-scootin' place run by Jolene (Libby Villari), a tough old broad who lends a hand to the downtrodden. Rose works waiting tables and selling merchandise, sleeping in an upstairs room.

When the ICE agents come raiding again, Rose moves on to the backyard trailer of Dale Watson (playing himself, or at least a movie version of it), a deep-voiced crooner with a tremendous silver pompadour and a world-weary vibe. They start to collaborate on some songs, as Rose now has the lived experience necessary to write about pain, separation and always feeling like an outsider.

Noblezada, who has lots of stage experience in musicals, has a lovely pure voice like a fresh flower bloom with the dew of morning still clinging. The movie actually takes quite a while before she really belts one out, but the wait is worth it.

The songs were written by Christopher M. Knight, and at least a couple are real keepers. My favorite was "Square Peg," which sounds like something straight out of the Patsy Cline playlist. 

Writer/director Diane Paragas gets tremendous empathy out of her actors, not just Noblezada but the entire cast, from the leads to the smallest roles like Gustavo Gomez as another immigrant runaway Rose befriends. The story is inspired in part by the real-life upbringing of Annie Howell, who has a story credit.

This is a simple, lovely tale without a lot of embellishment or look-at-me showboating. It reminded me for some reason of "Straight Story" and "The World's Fastest Indiana," sentimental films about old men on their last big jaunt in life. Here it's a young girl taking her first steps toward a life making music, and we're so happy to dance along the way for a bit. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

On movies, theaters, studios, streaming and the future of watching

The former Wometco Park 11 Theatre in Winter Park, Fla.

As I'm writing this, more big tentpole films scheduled for 2020 are being pushed back to the next year. "Dune" just announced today it will arrive not in late 2020 but late 2021 -- more than a year from now. James Bond, several Marvel and DC superhero movies, and the car franchise where Vin Diesel tries to conceal his triple-chin have all decamped for greener pastures. Along with most big Oscar hopefuls.

But where to? That's my question.

The math is pretty simple -- if you've got a big-ticket blockbuster that needs that half-billion-plus gross just to break even, you must have packed theaters. And that's not something that's going to happen until springtime at the earliest. Maybe not even then.

So the studios are pulling their wannabe blockbusters until things are safer. Problem is, their partners in the exhibition wing of the model, aka theaters, may well not be around come spring. Regal Cinemas has shuttered all its theaters and I'll bet a week's pay AMC is not far behind. They're the two biggies controlling the lion's share of the nation's screens.

It has been an uneasy alliance for decades between theater owners and studios/distributors. Ironically, now that the law has been struck down that prohibited studios from owning cinemas, I doubt they'd want to.

I can easily envision a scenario come May where COVID is more or less under control and Hollywood is ready to make a big splash back into theaters, and the infrastructure simply isn't there to show their content. It'll be like race cars with no tracks to compete at. 

And by then their key audience will have grown so used to watching new stuff on their phone or home set-up it'll take the truly huge event films to bring them out again.

Movie fans have had to suffer through half a year of smaller flicks with a few occasional big-profile video on demand or streaming releases ("Mulan," "Trolls World Tour") that, at least according to their studios, have done pretty well. Now we could well be looking at a permanent shift.

Even in the best of times, only about 10% of the population were hardcore movie-goers, meaning they went at least a couple of times per month. This is largely teens and young or childless adults. The broad swath probably sees six to 10 feature films in a cinema per year, many more see only a handful, and a not-small contingent didn't go to the movie theater at all

Given the current state of pandemic, movie theaters, streaming services and VOD -- not to mention the quality and type of watching people are growing accustomed to -- what we're seeing is a Darwinian event of rapid, mass (d)evolution in the way we consume movies and shows (between which the line continues to blur.)

I think the issue with theaters is the head of the problem we can see right now and audience behavior is the long, vaguer but more significant tail.  

Between the death-or-crippling of movie theaters, the rise of streaming services and VOD and the slow decay-by-formula of TV, my controversial hot take is there's too much content

There's so much stuff to watch, you don't know what to watch. It's hard for any single creative work to break through the noise. Oscar winners and A-list (or at least B+) actors/filmmakers are making stuff and you don't even hear about it. Two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank debuted in a splashy space show one month ago and we've already collectively forgot about it.

Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV+ and Amazon don't spend much on external advertising/promotion to build up hype for their product, so there's just this constant drip-drip-drip of stuff coming out, and by the time you turn your head to notice it's moved off the homepage spotlight and is lost in the search universe. 

Disney+ does better, mainly relying on its vast kiddie-friendly library with a more judicious schedule of new movies and shows. (And if there's a big power that'll be first to abandon theaters entirely, except for maybe a "Toy Story" sequel or the like, my money is on the House of Mouse, which has cleverly positioned itself with a completely vertical production-distribution-exhibition pipeline with no revenue-sharing.)

Today we live in a world of 10,000 screens where there's an infinite array of things to watch, but the audience is so fractured it's hard for enough of us to coalesce around any one thing to get excited about for long. Remember when "Stranger Things" was a big deal? Now it's just another show. (And one not long for the world, what with Millie Bobby Brown on the A-list fast track -- at least for Netflix.)

I don't know about you, but it's also pretty rare these days I actually start and finish a movie without interruption. Even if you don't have small kids like me, you probably pause or take breaks for the bathroom, snacks, pet interruptions, or just because you're tired and figure you'll finish the rest on your next lunch break. 

This is a terrible way to watch movies, and to be a movie-watcher. You really have to be enveloped in the experience to get the full effect. Think of symphonies played in the middle of a busy city street. 

Some creative works don't translate to the little screens. Not just the big spectacles, but smaller and quieter films like "A Ghost Story."  In the theater I found it languid and beguiling, but on our phone at 11 p.m.? I doubt few people would make it to the end.

(And that's a dirty little secret the streaming services would rather you didn't know about.)

This is reflected not just in the shows/movies and the audience, but also the journalism covering it. There used to be, at most, something 100 people who made a living from film criticism. Probably a couple dozen now. (No, Lester, sleeping in your grandma's basement while collecting $11k a year from your website that you pad out with rideshare driving is not "a living.")

Film criticism has (d)evolved from a rarefied craft to a hobby. I say that without snobbery; I've always been a back-bencher myself who never made more than a small side income from this.

Now there's thousands of critics and not one of them, or even a hundred put together, has the cultural influence of an Ebert of Siskel, or even a Travers or Maltin. We have too many things to watch and too many ways to watch and too many pro-ams writing/yakking about them.

If this seems like an elitist viewpoint, that's because it is. We had better movie/shows imho when there was a narrower funnel creative projects had to squeeze through and hence more oversight of what did or didn't get made, especially on the screenwriting side.

The two most common -- even prevalent -- problems I see in movies today are 1) they're too long, and 2) the script needed a few more rewrites. With 1) often being the result of 2). 

Oh, and the role of editors has been drastically undercut in recent years. Call it the Tarantino Effect. Studios too afraid to say, "No, your movie doesn't need to be 2 hours 47 minutes long." But with streaming/video the dominant distribution, length isn't as much a concern so theaters can squeeze in four showings a day instead of three.

The sum product of all this is to make film seem so much more... disposable. I have long bragged that I've never walked out of a movie theater, but I sure as hell have turned off streaming movies 20 minutes in, or even much later. 

I laughed so hard at Spike Lee's indulgent, lazy "Da 5 Bloods" that I flipped it off -- right at the unintentionally comical "He even walks backward pigeon-toed" part, in case you're curious -- and doubt I'll ever go back, even if it gets Oscar nominations in what will surely be the weakest year in film awards history.

Speaking of, the two critic groups I belong to -- the Indiana Film Journalists Association and Critics Choice Awards (formerly Broadcast Film Critics Association) -- are still planning to give out our annual awards, and it's going to be an interesting process. I'm hoping some of the lower-budget Oscar hopefuls will still come out to vie in a sparse field. 

So, wither movies? I wish I could say. I don't blame anyone who doesn't want to risk going to a theater right now, though compared to other activities people are engaging in quite frequently -- indoor dining, gyms, large political rallies or protests -- sitting in a sparely populated cinema is fairly safe with proper masking and distancing.

Seismic shifts are called that because change can happen incrementally over a long time, but we don't really notice it until there's a sudden, large movement that drops a bunch of homes and cars into a pit. I fear that's what's happening with film right now. As viewing habits rapidly shift to what we used to call "home video," the communal experience of participating in a big event with hundreds of others is likely to become much rarer.

From where I sit I think the studio bean-counters are seriously misjudging the situation. They'd be smarter to keep a steady stream of lower-budget releases to keep the hardcore and heavy-casual fans engaged in the exhibitor platform, and push out an occasional "Wonder Woman" or "Dune" even if it doesn't rack up big numbers. They're so afeared of taking a $200 million write-down that they're endangering the entire future of their industry.

People stopped going to museums in large numbers when it became possible to replicate high-quality images of the art in other, more convenient but less spiritually satisfying ways. We're all poorer, and can get much poorer still.

Reeling Backward: "The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell" (1955)

"The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell" is exactly the sort of stolid, mid-century fare Golden Age Hollywood churned out with extraordinary regularity and speed. I wouldn't call it a B-picture because it stars Gary Cooper and was directed by Otto Preminger, both still at their creative peaks.

But it's not a particularly well-remembered movie. Much the same could be said of its titular character, Billy Mitchell, who is regarded as the father of the modern Air Force.

He was a World War I hero pilot who ended up in command of all American aerial forces, back when they were part of the Army. He received a field commission to brigadier general but was busted back to colonel for insubordination owing to his strenuous advocacy of air power, and eventually was court-martialed, a punishment he deliberately brought upon himself because it would lend a public forum for his criticisms.

He threw away his military career to make a point, and almost everything he advocated for eventually came to pass. Mitchell received many posthumous honors after his death in 1936, including a commission to major general by FDR, with whom he'd clashed repeatedly when the future POTUS was Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

Preminger was a master of the courtroom drama ("Anatomy of a Murder," "Advise & Consent"), which takes up the second half or so of this film. That's where it really starts to snap, even though Cooper spends most of his time sitting ramrod in a chair, saving his energy for his big testimony scene at the end.

The film takes a few liberties with the historical record, with a screenplay by Milton Sperling and Emmet Lavery, with uncredited contributions by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, Michael Wilson and Ben Hecht.

For example, it's depicted that it was Mitchell disobeying orders during an air power demonstration that caused him to be demoted, when it was other antagonisms brought on by his testifying before Congress.

In the movie Mitchell is allowed to prove his air force's capability by trying to sink the mammoth German battleship Ostfriesland, but his antagonistic superior, Maj. Gen. Jimmy Guthrie (Charles Bickford), handcuffs him by ordering the planes to attack at high altitude with small bombs. After one ineffectual run, he disobeys orders, swoops in with the big boomers and easily sinks the ship.

None of this actually happened; in fact Mitchell was demoted four years later.

The film also shows Mitchell refusing to challenge the impartiality of any of the 13 judges at the court-martial, saying he wouldn't want to impugn the integrity of a general officer. In actuality his attorneys successfully struck three of them, including the president of the court (depicted, ahistorically, as Guthrie in the movie).

It's a terrific who's-who cast of mid-century actors, including folks who made a bigger name for themselves later on. Jack Lord plays Zachary Landsdowne, a young Naval aviator and friend of Billy's who dies flying a dirigible he knows to be unsafe. The turning point in the trial comes when his widow, Margaret (Elizabeth Montgomery), testifies about his sacrifice and shames the presiding officers into allowing other "justification" witnesses like herself.

Darren McGavin, eternally the dad from "A Christmas Story," turns up as Billy's right-hand man in the aviation unit, Russ. At one point he and the rest of the pilots ask Billy's permission to quit, since so many of them are dying from outdated planes and shoddy equipment, not to mention the spectacular indifference to air power from high command. Peter Graves also appears in a small role.

The meatiest parts go to the attorneys. Ralph Bellamy plays Frank Reid, another friend and a Congressman from Illinois who served as Mitchell's chief defense counsel during the trial. (That may sound strange, but people forget that national politics wasn't always a 24/7/365 gig. When he was president, Harry Truman used to go off on long weekend drives with just a Secret Service agent or two.)

Reid is a classic Hollywood politician: an elbow-twister and a glad-hander, a man who will talk your ear off and then make a job about how he talks too much. During one point in the court-martial, he stages a winding filibuster while the proper witnesses and evidence are gathered.

The prosecutor is Col. Moreland (Fred Clark), a cocksure sort who thinks he's got the case in the bag and finds himself overwhelmed and increasingly mocked. As shown in the movie, the court-martial really did take place in a dilapidated warehouse converted just for the occasion -- a not-subtle attempt to keep the lid on things.

For the final part of the proceeding, a young major, Allen Gullion, is brought in specifically to cross-examine Mitchell. He's played by Rod Steiger, and despite not showing up until the last act he makes a profound impression.

Steiger's Gullion has a slithery sort of charisma, sliding in and out of his chair with hips cocked like he's about to commence sashaying instead of stipulating, plump neck insufficiently contained by a tight military collar. He needles Mitchell and tries skillfully to trip him up. Billy, fighting off a bout of malaria, wipes his brow frequently but maintains his composure.

I think Steiger was really good in these smaller "batting cleanup" parts, whereas he could sometimes be overpowering as a lead.

This is the sort of role Cooper was born to play. He's the epitome of the movie star who always plays himself, or at least their screen persona. For Coop this meant men who were brave, true, humble, faithful, with cagey instincts if not the finest book-learnin', a believer in discipline who wasn't afraid to buck authority when doing the right thing dictated so.

Certainly this latter portion describes the real Billy Mitchell, who spent his last years in exile but whose true legacy was only realized after he was gone. A lot of people aren't aware (I wasn't) that the iconic B-25 bomber is named the Mitchell after him, the first military airplane to be done so.

 "The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell," and the man it lionizes, are due for better remembrance.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Literally almost nothing

Stepping away from movies for a moment for a sincere observation/rant. It's about masks.

I'm a pretty ardent mask-wearer. I work in healthcare, so I wear one whenever I'm at one of our clinics or administration buildings, only taking it off when I'm alone in my office. Ditto for everywhere I go out in public, which isn't very many places these days as we still consistently pick up our groceries and takeout. 

Heck, I even arrange for curbside pickup at the hardware store.

So I admit I'm continually flabbergasted by all the people I encounter still not wearing masks. Some insist they're cumbersome or annoying or dangerous to your health (wrong!) or that the government doesn't have the right to mandate their usage (possibly, but you should still wear them).

The thing I really don't get is that finding and putting on a mask is just so... easy. You can buy cheap cloth ones or there are a million places that will just hand you a free paper one when you walk in. I've got them stashed literally everywhere, including all my cars and in the pockets of jackets. You can buy neat superhero or alien ones.

Not only is wearing one not that big of a deal, in time you actually forget you have one on. On many occasions I've driven all the way home from work before remembering to take mine off. My 7-year-old will have three-hour outdoor play dates while masked the entire time.

Wearing a mask is so not hard, I've come up with a phrase for it: literally almost nothing. The effort to wear one is so infinitesimal it barely even registers as anything. Asking people to do literally almost nothing should not provoke so much pushback.

As we all know, wearing a mask does not protect you from coronavirus. It protects others from you. Wearing a mask doesn't say, "I'm afraid of others," it says "I want to protect others." You can have COVID and not even know it, and wearing a mask is the single best proven method -- other than total isolation -- to prevent you from spreading it others.

I know, I know -- the disease is generally only fatal to the very old or those who already had preexisting conditions. Yes, this means those weaker than the rest of us. Those are the folks we're trying to keep safe. They are our parents, grandparents, friends and others we love.

I don't know about you, but I was taught from an early age -- especially as a male -- that protecting the weak was the duty of the strong. So when I see a big, strapping guy who refuses to do literally almost nothing to protect the old and sick, it violates some kind of basic barrier inside my psyche. Like cannibalism or incest, it's something you should just know at an instinctual biological level is wrong.

Yes, literally almost nothing is still... something. Not very much of a something. But if your answer to the question, "What are you willing to do in order to guard the vulnerable?" is "absolutely nothing," then you're nothing in my eyes.

Please. Wear a mask anytime you're around others. Even more so than a vaccine, it's the best tool in our toolbox to beat this virus. Like most important things humans have accomplished, it requires that we do it together.

Plus, it makes us all kinda look like badass bandits. Be a bandit for love. Pledge to do literally almost nothing.