Monday, November 30, 2020

Reeling Backward: "The Stand" (1994)

How can a screen adaptation be so faithful to one of my favorite books, and yet I borderline can't stand it?

That's what I, and I believe many other fans of Stephen King's "The Stand," thought when the ABC miniseries came out in 1994. Although it got generally good reviews and audience numbers at the time, I speak for a lot of people who were put off by the cheap television production values and a few spots of crucial miscasting.

Now the story is being made again as a miniseries for CBS' premier channel coming out next month. Obviously, a story about a mysterious plague that kills 99% of the human population has a lot of topical weight at the moment, though I'm sure the producers couldn't have known that when they were shooting it. The timing seems perfect for our age of anxiety and rage.

The high anticipation for the new adaptation made me want to revisit the original to see if my opinion has changed significantly.

Short version: not really.

If you're not familiar with the book or show, I'll give a very stripped-down summary: a bio-weapon  escapes from an American military facility and quickly kills most of humanity. A tiny percentage prove to be immune to this "Superflu," and those who survive begin to experience psychic dreams that draw them toward one of two loci of power: the evil Randall Flagg in Las Vegas and the saintly Mother Abigail in Nebraska (later relocating to Boulder, Colo.) for an apocalyptic showdown for the soul of humanity. The story tracks about two dozen characters as they join the fray.

It's not surprising the miniseries, which played as four two-hour episodes (totaling six hours once you remove commercial breaks), hews closely to the book since King wrote the script himself. He hated what Stanley Kubrick did with "The Shining" and, along with a few other miscues with other adaptations in the 1980s, led the author to have more direct control. So he was both teleplay writer and executive producer of the miniseries, along with having a small role as an actor.

Director Mick Garris had previously helmed the King-sourced "Sleepwalkers," and King liked it well enough to tap him for "The Stand." Garris has mostly worked in television and seems captured by the limitations of the medium, or at least those that existed at the time. There's a very crabbed view of the world, as if Garris is afraid to point the camera at anything outside of his limited set dressings.

For example, we don't get to see all of the garish majesty of Las Vegas, only a few signs and a few other visual slices.

It's amazing how old-fashioned the more squarish 1.33 aspect ratio of television looks to my eyes now; even "regular" TV has used the wider ratio of feature films for about 15 years. It adds to the effect of tunnel vision watching the miniseries. To save money they also shot it on 16mm film instead of 35mm, giving everything a slightly hazy indistinctness.

From a story perspective, "The Stand" sticks to the book pretty faithfully, at least the original version published in 1978 that was somewhere in the 700s in pages. I only ever encountered it when the extended version was published in the early '90s, coming in around 1,200 pages. That's an absolute gob of source material, and if you were to try to include absolutely everything you'd be looking at a 20- to 30-hour run time, not six.

The new version will reportedly be nine, presumably one-hour episodes. So it sounds like my desire to have every little subplot and minor character included is never going to happen. Though I hope someday someone does a mini-show that just chronicles the Trashcan Man's chilling, unforgettable encounter with singular malevolence of The Kid.

Aside from that, one thing I find lacking in the miniseries is backstory. Most every major character was given a pretty flesh-out persona and history to help you understand or even empathize with them. For example, Trash was a childhood firebug spurred on by the constant bullying he received, and ancient Mother Abigail overcame racism around the turn of the century -- the last one, which is I guess a qualification we'll increasingly have to start using.

Stu Redman gave up his college sports dreams to work and support his family; Nick Andros was an isolated orphan until another deaf-mute took him under his wing; Larry Underwood was a self-destructive jerk who was just on the verge of making it big in the music industry, and so on.

For me one of the most emotionally affecting was Frannie Goldsmith. Her fractured relationship with her mother was the key underpinning for her character's mix of resolve and self-doubt. I still remember distinctly the scene in the book where a child-age Fran hurts herself and bursts into her mother's social gathering, seeking reassurance and instead getting screamed at for spilling blood on her mother's favorite rug. That'll stick with you.

The miniseries doesn't have any of that, not even relying on flashbacks to inform each character's motivation. Everyone exists exactly in the moment they are in, and no more.

A few of the things cut from the adaptation also turn out to be key. The most notable is Larry, whose interactions with women leave something to be desired. He dallies with a young tart and then blows her off, leading her to utter a line -- "You ain't no nice guy, Larry!" -- that becomes his haunting mantra as his journey, both geographically and spiritually, progresses.

Later, while trying to get out of New York City, Larry hooks up with an older woman, Rita, who has mental health and substance use problems. Larry uses her for sex and emotional support, then pushes her too far until she commits suicide. So it seems for a very long time we're not sure if Larry will wind up in Mother Abigail's camp or Flagg's.

The miniseries swaps out Rita with Nadine, the woman who is destined to become Flagg's bride and bearer of his child, cementing the reign of evil over the land. In the book, Larry doesn't meet her until later on when she is acting as guardian for Joe, a 10-year-old boy traumatized by the epidemic, not speaking and threatening Larry with a knife.

Larry's growing friendship with the boy marks his first steps toward becoming a more outer-directed person, so having Joe relegated to a virtual walk-on really saps the strength of his transformation. Instead, Lucy Swann is introduced at that point and becomes Larry's lover.

Later, when Nadine turns up in Boulder about a month later, throwing herself at him in a bid to foil Flagg's plans for her, Larry bizarrely refers to Lucy as "my wife."

A lot of philosophical musings and shadings in the book are lost as well. I was really intrigued by King's suggestion that certain personality traits generally seen as positive -- analytical minds, those who crave structure, defenders of rules and laws -- tend to migrate toward Flagg's camp. So he gets the bulk of the scientists and soldiers. Whereas the artists and freethinkers go to Mother Abigail.

Even though the fight against evil is often framed in fiction as holding off chaos, in these terms Flagg uses very rigid, hierarchical systems to maintain control -- executing all the drug addicts being a prime example -- whereas Abigail essentially thrives on a cult of personality built upon her station as a figure analogous to a second Christ.

Both systems are prone to threats their leaders couldn't see: hers from without, his from within.

Finally, let's get to the casting. It ranges from pretty spot-on to gag-inducingly awful. Seeing it again, I feel like most of the actresses are good fits while the male lineup is where things go terribly wrong.

Molly Ringwald as Fran, Ruby Dee as Abigail and Laura San Giacomo all do fine or better. I'll also put Miguel Ferrer as Flagg right-hand man Lloyd Henreid, Ossie David as Judge Farris, Ray Walston as Glen Bateman and Matt Frewer as Trashcan Man in that category.

From there, things quickly get dicey. I like Gary Sinise but he just can't sell calling people "hoss" or doing the taciturn Texas thing. Stu Redman is the sort of role Gary Cooper was built for -- in fact, I think in the book one of the scientists studying Stu for clues to his immunity refers to him as a Gary Cooper type.

I've often said that Scott Glenn would be my dream pick for Stu, but even in 1994 he was long in the tooth to play the character, who's about 30. Curiously, Glenn would've made a great choice to play Randall Flagg, who's supposed to be ageless and charming, with a dead-eye stare.

Speaking of, that brings us to Jamey Sheridan as Flagg. He's not bad, but he's not good, either. He gets the general mood right, which is twinkly charisma with a belt of rage right underneath it. But I dunno, I never really felt scared of the guy. Certainly not during his transformations to a demon-like figure, which won an Emmy for makeup but looked pretty chintzy even in 1994.

All of Flagg's inner thoughts are hidden, so he's just an existential threat and that's it. Within the book Flagg himself doesn't know his own origins, other than at some point he simply became... and also has the understanding that he will go on after corporeal death. An epilogue added with the expanded novel has him reincarnating in prehistoric times, and indeed King has gone on to use him in other books including as the principle antagonist in the sprawling "Dark Tower" series.

Adam Storke is more puckish than self-loathing as Larry, and I laughed at his very-90s wind-blown hairstyle and vest-over-T fashions. (Hilariously, other members of the Boulder community come to adopt this look.) Bill Fagerbakke has the height and hue for boy-man Tom Cullen, though I was put off by his using the exact same voice delivery that he did for his two other notable roles, Dauber from the TV show "Coach" and Patrick from "SpongeBob SquarePants."

(His hairstyle is even more distracting than Storke's, with long pale blond locks that hang like a curtain over the side of his head. His odd balding pattern with a large carve-outs on the sides result in a weird-looking back-to-forward combover that I doubt someone of Tom's limited mental capacity would trouble himself with.)

Harold Lauder is a terrific anti-hero in the book, a teenage genius with an obsessive fixation for Frannie. Like Trash, he's been bullied and isolated his whole life and it's led him down a dark path. Initially part of the Boulder group, he is enlisted by Nadine at Flagg's behest -- offering her body as payment -- and tries to assassinate Mother Abigail's hand-picked leadership group.

No doubt King saw Lauder as a stand-in for himself, since the character is a wannabe writer. He's also an awkward 16-year-old, described as quite fat, with bad acne and greasy hair. There's not a lot of young actors in Hollywood who look like that, and Corin Nemec certainly does not. He's lean as an icepick with a sharp jawline.

In the story, Harold loses weight and cleans himself up as he travels west and undergoes challenges. He actually becomes well-liked in Boulder for his intelligence and hard work -- even garnering the nickname "Hawk" -- and has a break point where he realizes this could be his actual life going forward.

Ideally, the actor playing Harold would lose weight as the story goes on, but that's a pretty hard feat to pull off logistically, especially given as most productions are shot out of order. It might be easier now than in 1994, what with the rise of CGI and better practical makeup effects.

Last, and least, let's get to Nick Andros.

He was my favorite character in the book, a young man cut off from everyone else by his disability who finds genuine friendship with Tom and a community that values him in Boulder. One of the things that define him is his physicality. He's supposed to be 22, small and skinny, probably with jug ears and freckles, and is not the sort of person who makes a strong first impression.

Moreover, as the result of an assault at the beginning of the story, Nick is supposed to have several of his front teeth broken and nearly has one of his eyes gouged out, so he wears an eyepatch thereafter. It adds to his sense of ugliness, not to mention his terror and anger at the prospect of becoming blind as well as deaf.

And here is pretty boy Rob Lowe.

With his feathered hair and soft blue eyes. No eyepatch, of course, though he gets some makeup bruises that soon go away. In a word, a dreamboat. And a lightweight.

Now, I think Lowe has grown a lot as an actor in the years since. He found his niche in deadpan comedy and seems like a delightful, self-aware person in the recent interviews I've seen him in. Ironically, I think he could pull off Nick Andros quite well now, though he's too old.

But this was such a fundamentally wrong piece of casting, I'm surprised King or somebody didn't step forward and say, "He can't be Nick." Or at least try to ugly him up with some makeup or a bad haircut.

Looking back I can understand why Lowe was cast. His feature film career had softened but he was still a big "get" for a television miniseries. And Hollywood understands that audiences like to look at pretty people. Still, it's eternally grating to have a fixed vision of a character you identify so strongly with and see it trammeled upon.

So, my takeaway after a second view of "The Stand," the first in a quarter-century, is that it's well intentioned but poorly executed. It looks just plain bad, with its poor, cheap camera work and limitations of the television format of the time. It serves to be instructive just how much shooting for "small screens" has improved since.

Will the new version be any better? I'm excited for it, but in truth some of the same fears persist. They've hired another beauty as Nick and another skinnyboy for Harold, so mistakes of the past and all that. Though I will say Amber Heard as Nadine seems like a home run.

Sometimes great works of art are only great in their original medium. Call it a premonition if you will, but I think "The Stand" is destined to remain one of those.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Review: "Uncle Frank"



"Uncle Frank" is one of those movies that is heartfelt, splendidly acted and as predictable as a sunset. 

It's written and directed by Alan Ball, who won an Oscar for the screenplay for "American Beauty," which was something truly original and even subversive. In "Uncle Frank" he has created something utterly maudlin that wraps itself in a blanket of self-regard.

Paul Bettany plays the titular character, a man from South Carolina who moved to New York City because he was smart and gay. The smart part we figure out pretty quickly, and soon thereafter the gay smart. We can tell this from the very first scene because while home for his father's birthday he gives thoughtful gifts, doesn't yell at the children or watch football. Gay!

I just hate, hate, hate these movies that present everyone from the South as walking caricatures. Stephen Root plays the dad, whose contempt for his own child is so palpable it practically manifests into physical form. It's never explored, simply presented for effect.

Steve Zahn plays Frank's brother, Mike, well on his way to following in dad's hateful, hurtful footsteps. Judy Greer is his wife, Kitty, and Jane McNeill plays his sister, Neva, who is the one who "knows" about him. The great Margo Martindale plays his mother, who mostly stays in the kitchen but has a big heart.

Lois Smith turns up as the batty Aunt Butch, and I'll just let that name sit there where it belongs.

The person Frank is Uncle to is Beth, Mike and Kitty's daughter, played by Sophia Lillis, who you may remember from her terrific performance as Beverly in the first "It," the first one that wasn't terrible. It's doubtful you'd remember her if "Uncle Frank" was the first thing you saw her in, because the script gives her almost nothing to do but observe and be present. 

When Beth was a mousy kid, Uncle Frank counseled her to get out of Creekville and be whoever she wants to be, rather than what others expect of her. So a few years later she hightails it to New York University, where Frank is an English professor. Of course, he's not taking his own advice, living in the closet even though he's been with his boyfriend, Wally (Peter Macdissi), for a number of years.

The story is set in 1973, which was an interesting time to be gay. After the Stonewall Riots, the LBGTQ community (as we call it now, but not then) was in the pubic conscious for the first time, though usually relegated to cheap jokes in TV and the movies. Down South, though, the movie presents homosexuality as still a fire-and-brimstone offense, worthy of shunning or even stoning.

Of course, once things turn around for Frank and his family -- as we know they must -- the womenfolk will come around with stories about how their hairdresser or friend from school is also "that way" ... and it's really no big deal! 

That seems to be the big takeaway of "Uncle Frank": being gay is no big deal!

I liked Bettany, playing a sort of morose man who takes things in stride as best he can. He puts on a serene front of a self-assured intellectual, but deep down his dad's hatred -- along with a teen romance we learn about in flashback -- weighs heavily upon him. 

The precipitating event is Frank's father's death, the subsequent road trip home with Beth for the funeral, and the expected revelation of his sexual prefer... orientation! I mean orientation! Because Webster's tells me so, or at least it does now (after some recent, hasty changes).

Wally follows along, and Macdissi is the one breath of fresh air in the movie, playing an Arabic man who is confidently, openly gay. Always with a smile on his face, an open ear and a hug at the ready, Wally is light years ahead of Frank in terms of his personal journey. He's willing to wait around for Frank to catch up, but not forever.

I realize as I'm wrapping up that it sounds like I hated this movie. I didn't. It's a fine effort. The cast is splendid, and I'm a sucker for any movie featuring lots of vintage cars. It never drags and a few sections are genuinely enjoyable.

If it's possible to like everything about a movie except its basic premise, then "Uncle Frank" is it. Maybe this is the sort of visceral disconnect people had with "Green Book" that baffled me. A man coming out to his family in 1973 just doesn't seem like very daring or even interesting subject matter for a film in 2020. 

I think maybe if the Frank-Beth relationship was what really drove the story, I'd feel different. But she winds up being a blank slate who's still mostly blank at the end. Though she does get one humdinger of a one-liner while visiting an auto repair shop. If Ball had kept things going with her, or given Beth her own parallel obstacles to overcome, then Frank's anguish would seem more palpable.

Instead, she's pretty much relegated to the background for the back half of "Uncle Frank." Meanwhile, Frank wrestles with his dad's ghost and his own bitter memories, and the end point of his trip might as well be a flashing billboard everyone can see way, way off. 

Here's a movie that never kept me guessing.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Review: "Dreamland"


Hollywood has always loved outlaw movies, almost since the very first celluloid clacked through a projector, and since "Bonnie & Clyde" in 1967 it's had a particular fascination for doomed couples on open-sky crime sprees. It's been imitated countless times, from the gritty "The Getaway" to the hazy, dreamlike "Ain't Them Bodies Saints."

"Dreamland" is closer to the latter, a story less concerned with the actual mechanics of robbing banks than the inner emotional journey of its two protagonists. It's an astonishingly beautiful film, set in the 1930s Texas dust bowl, with cinematographer Lyle Vincent's vibrant warm hues giving way to nearly colorless stretches of gray-brown.

You could snip out most any frame of the movie and have a nifty postcard keepsake.

Margot Robbie stars as Allison Wells, a notorious bank robber on the run after things went to hell on her last job. Several people were killed, including a little girl and her lover/partner in crime, Perry (Garrett Hedlund). The lawmen and newspapers have been playing her up as a cold-hearted she-devil, though she's got another story to tell. Actually, several versions of it.

Robbie's blue eyes and tawny skin seem to fill the screen like a small sun, hurtling toward burnout. 

Shot in the leg, Allison holes up in the barn of 17-year-old Eugene (Finn Cole), a kid with his nose in the dirt and head in the clouds. He steals detective comic books and dreams of reuniting with his long-departed father, who ran out on them when he was little and moved to Mexico. 

He loathes his deputy stepdad (Travis Fimmel), who wears a strange, vaguely Hitler-esque haircut. His own blue eyes are the icy counterpoint to Allison's heat. Gene does have a soft spot for his hard-pressed mom (Kerry Condon) and kid sister, Phoebe (Darby Camp).

The wonderful Lola Kirke provides the narration as Phoebe's grown self looking back long years to the events that took place in 1935.

There really isn't a whole lot of story to speak of. Director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte and screenwriter Nicolaas Zwart concentrate on setting up situations and character impulses, and then seeing how the pieces will move around on their own.

We know that Gene will be completely ensorceled by Allison, and she will do little to discourage this sentiment so long as he's helping her hide out and heal up. And that the $20,000 bounty on her head will lead the locals to start closing in on the couple, with Gene's stepdad as the head bloodhound. 

And eventually, she will need to move on and Gene will go with her. I'm not giving anything away; the narration says as much in the very beginning, Phoebe talking about the legend of her brother and "the Wells woman."

I just loved the look of this film, with great attention detail paid to the frayed edges of the people's clothing, the rusty screws in the bed of the family truck and the slight sheen of sweat that hangs on people's foreheads to remind us of the Texas crop-killing drought. 

When things go south, people tend to get squirrelly, acting normal on the surface but ready to jump at the slightest chance to change the dire direction of things -- even if it chances things getting worse. Gosh, that sounds familiar...

Even the smallest supporting actors are right in the groove, never altering the sense of well-worn authenticity. I especially liked Stephen Dinh as Joe, Gene's American Indian friend looking for his own way out, and Joe Berryman as the gimlet-eyed local sheriff, who eats BS for breakfast. 

There's one terrific sequence where Gene goes off to take a peek at the evidence the police have against Allison while everyone is at a town dance, as an old-timer performs energetic hambone -- percussive knee-slapping and such -- supplying the tension-building music underneath. Marvelous.

The film does seem to be missing a few pieces, a little more backstory for Allison and more about Gene's longing for his dad's memory to fill out the connective tissue. In an age where I'm constantly harping about how many movies are too long, here's a handsome one that needed a little more fat on the bone.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Flight from Ashiya" (1964)

When it comes to war films, I often feel like the kid in "The Princess Bride," his little face screwed up into a perpetual pout -- "They're kissing again."

I don't know why Golden Age Hollywood felt like it couldn't make a war picture without ladling in a huge dollop of gooey romance. Particularly in the 1950s and thereafter. In the years immediately after World War II, there were some great, gritty dramas that focused solely on the combat and existential peril of the soldiers -- like the wonderful and under-appreciated "Battleground." 

But with 1953's "From Here to Eternity" and beyond, it seemed like the movies couldn't separate the fighting men from their dames. A perfect example is "Flight from Ashiya," which is supposed to be a paean to the U.S. Air Force Air Rescue Service, which retrieved military personnel and private citizens from perilous situations. Their motto, as we're reminded several times, is "That Others May Live."

Apparently, the unwritten sub-motto is "That We May Smooch."

Director Michael Anderson ("Around the World in 80 Days") and screenwriter Waldo Salt, working from Elliott Arnold's 1959 novel, use the rescue stuff as the mere backdrop to lovey-dovey stories. The movie actually spends the majority of its running time in flashback to the backstories of the three main characters played by Yul Brynner, Richard Widmark and George Chakiris.

Chakiris was the youngest and least-established of the actors, despite having just won an Oscar for "West Side Story," "Flight" being only his second starring role. As such, his tale as Lt. John Gregg gets the short shrift, focusing on a helicopter rescue attempt some years earlier in the European mountains following an avalanche. After only being able to carry out a handful of the survivors, Gregg insists on a second attempt, but the sound of his rotors causes another downfall, killing the rest. Now he's shaky behind the controls.

His was the first flashback presented, so I was lulled into a sense that the other two men's histories would also focus on their professional exploits. All we know thus far is that Sgt. Mike Takashima (Brynner) is a gung-ho Polish/Japanese-American paratrooper and Col. Glenn Stevenson (Widmark) is a cautious group commander in the South Pacific who was a prisoner of war of the Japanese, and harbors racial animus against them.

"These things run deep," he confesses to Takashima after they have an inevitable run-in.

It's interesting -- Brynner was widely regarded as Asian by American audiences, mostly owing to his most iconic role in "The King and I," both on stage and screen. He was actually Russian, with some Swiss but also Mongol ancestry. Brynner, a notorious teller of tall tales, provided various mythologies over the years about his background, helping elevate the sense of the exotic for his screen persona.

(He also had hair, or at least some, but after "The King and I" made him an international star he continued to shave his head for the rest of his life for the same reason.)

In the framing story set in the early 1960s, the three men are flying in propeller seaplanes to rescue some Japanese survivors of a sunken ship. 

(The film was a Japanese/American co-production, and I guess you could technically argue it's not a war picture since it's ostensibly set in peace time.) 

After the first plane attempts a landing in stormy seas and breaks up, Stevenson has to weigh whether to risk his crew to rescue hated Japanese, with Gregg as his co-pilot and Takashima as the guy who jumps into the drink.

For Stevenson, the flashback -- which must last at least 30 minutes -- involves his romance with Caroline (Shirley Knight), a reporter and photographer covering the Philippines in 1941. He was the owner/operator of a one-man airline delivering needed supplies to the war-torn villages, and she hopped a ride, changing out her skirt for a pair of his borrowed pants. 

Of course, he instantly fell in love and later tracked her down. They married but she died, along with their unborn son, in a Japanese POW camp because the commander refused to share their medicine.

Knight is a coy, intriguing presence. On one hand Caroline is a brave proto-feminist war journalist who, at one point, is ready to ditch Stevenson because neither one is the type to be tied down. But she also displays a sensuous, subservient manner that's closer to breathy Marilyn Monroe than edgy Kate Hepburn.

Brynner's love story takes place in Algeria during the war, where as a volunteer with a French demolitions unit he falls for Leila (Danièle Gaubert), a girl from a strict Muslim family. He instantly falls for her after she removes her veil, then reveals much more by taking him to the beach to cavort around in a black bikini. 

This may seem incongruous behavior, but a helpful café owner explains that in this spot, various cultural impulses of the East, West and Africa tend to collide and mix.

Gaubert isn't really given the opportunity Knight is to create a fleshed-out character, mostly consigned to forlorn glances and such. Leila only speaks French, so she and Takashima have to bother a shop owner to translate for them.

Leila's father and grandfather naturally disapprove, he tries to take her with him when the Axis forces attack, she follows him in a fit of passion and dies in an explosion from charges Takashima rigged himself.

So both of the older men are carrying major torches for dead loves, though Takashima has a barely acknowledged thing going in the present-day story with Lucille (Suzy Parker), who works in the air rescue HQ.

The filmmakers do a pretty good job of making Widmark seem younger during his flashback, the harder edges on his iconically angled face softened by makeup and lighting. Brynner looks exactly the same though, like the bald pate, his seeming agelessness was an intrinsic part of his schtick. 

Eventually the movie wanders back to the story at hand, rescuing the Japanese castaways. After parachuting in and transferring them to an inflatable raft, Takashima instantly bonds with a Japanese boy he names Charlie (Mitsuhiro Sugiyama), who calls him "G.I." 

The obvious sound stage water tank set isn't terribly convincing as a stormy ocean, with wind machines blowing spray past the actors' heads at 30 m.p.h. but the water moving at barely a heavy chop. At one point Takashima dives overboard to rescue Charlie, then nearly drowns himself, which is hamfistedly used as the break point for his flashback.

Of course, as you might guess Stevenson overcomes his caution and racism -- for a bit, at least -- to land the plane and rescue everybody. 

There's some interesting technical stuff that interests me about the movie because of my own family history in aviation. For ocean takeoff the crew attaches booster rockets to the exterior of their Grumman HU-16 Albatross like a schoolboy soda can trick -- something that sounds like Hollywood BS but was a real thing: JATO (jet assisted take off). Variants of the Albatross are still in use today.

When "Flight from Ashiya" actually bothers to focus on the derring-do of Air Rescue Service pilots and personnel, it's a pretty riveting story. The smoochie stuff doesn't really fit, though, and would've better been dropped for weighing down the film's flight profile.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Review: "Ammonite"


Two very different women meet on a lonely windswept island during corsets-and-repression times. They are brought together by circumstances involving artistry and marital obligations. After an initial period of hostility, they soon fall for each other and begin a torrid romance. But then, the reality of their forbidden love in a world ruled by men reasserts itself, leading to bitterness and regret...

Another paean to "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," one of my favorite films from last year? Could be; I love singing that movie's praises.

But it's actually a description of "Ammonite," a new film starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan that thematically sounds almost like a carbon copy of the earlier French film. I can only imagine writer/director Francis Lee and his cast learning about "Lady" while gearing up for their own production -- must've been a real facepalm moment.

This movie is perfectly fine, and no more. Winslet is terrific as always, playing a woman who lives so much inside herself that it's a veritable miracle that she can let anyone else in, even briefly. And Ronan continues to display a range and depth heralding her as one of the finest actresses of her generation.

But the film has a dread lack of surprise to it. You can practically count the beats until the next change in a choreographed dance. It's never good when you already know where a movie is going to go.

Winslet plays Mary Adding, very loosely based on a real paleontologist of the same name in early 19th century Britain. In another age Adding would've been recognized as a great mind, chaired a university department and been showered with awards and honors. Instead, she operates independently as a self-taught scientist on the island of Lyme Regis, collecting marine fossils from the beach that she sells to tourists in order to earn a hardscrabble existence.

Mary has never wed or had children, nor regretted it, plunging herself into her painstaking work -- collecting fossils, then cleaning and cataloguing them. She also writes and draws well, and her shop is more of an artist's studio than a scientist's laboratory. Mary lives with her aged mother (Gemma Jones), who bore 10 children and watched eight of them die, taking a piece of her soul each time. 

Now mostly they just skulk about their claptrap house, trying not to get in each other's way.

One day Mary is visited by Mr. Murchison (James McArdle), a wealthy young paleontology buff attracted by Mary's faded reputation. Years earlier she discovered a complete ichthyosaurus skeleton, now on display in the London natural history museum. She immediately spots Murchison as a cheeky dilettante, the sort who'll be on to painting or chemistry by next year. But she accepts his coins to let him follow after her for a bit.

Murchison has brought with him his wife, Charlotte (Ronan), who is suffering from a long state of melancholy after a familial tragedy. Back then, doctors did not distinguish between ailments of the body and mind, so she has been instructed to take the sea air and make herself better. 

Murchison would rather go on a fossil-hunting exhibition than be tethered to a moody spouse. He's the kind of fellow who thinks he can impose on others because he has money, so he bribes Mary to be Charlotte's companion while he's gone a few weeks.

Pinched and dour, Mary is a hard person to know. Winslet makes do with the smallest of gestures and expressions to communicate changes in disposition. At first put out by Charlotte's presence, she grows more sympathetic when the young woman falls ill, moving into her house and, quite literally, her bed.

We meet Elizabeth (Fiona Shaw), the town apothecary and a free spirit. Without anything being said, we quickly surmise that she and Mary previously had a relationship that ended badly. So she's sorely put out when she sees Elizabeth taking a shine to Charlotte. Perhaps this impels her to become more urgent with this new prospect.

There's a tidy little scene where they go to the beach after Charlotte has recovered, both wearing the poofy dresses and clunky boots of the time. A ray of sun finally poking through the dim south England clouds, Charlotte discards her shoes and socks, perching her pale bare feet on a rock -- as much for Mary's eyes as the warmth. Just that tiny sliver of forbidden flesh pushes her over the edge.

Their pairing is a meeting between hot and cold, old and young, the beat-down and the hopeful. (The sex scenes are also surprisingly explicit for A-list actors.) We know where this is going to end, but do feel some of their joy and pain along the way, and that we do is to both actresses' credit.

Perhaps I would've admired "Ammonite" more if it had come out before "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," and the latter, less. Somehow, though, I doubt it. 


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Review: "Wolfwalkers"


In recent years when the Oscar nominations came out, it often seems like there's an animated feature on the list I hadn't heard of. Some come from Asia, but a surprising number arrive from the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, the makers of "The Secret of Kells," "Song of the Sea" and "The Breadwinner."

Invariably, I catch up with them later and find out they're some of my favorite animated films of the year. Their newest, "Wolfwalkers," easily takes the lead position as the best I've seen in 2020.

It's hard to describe the breathtaking beauty of this movie. It appears to be largely hand-drawn, though these days some kind of computer-generated effects are often involved for backgrounds or special effects. The colors are incredibly vibrant, a veritable symphony of scarlets and oranges and yellows.

It's a very deliberately 2D effect, which is accentuated during a number of sequences when the action changes to an overhead perspective of a location whilst the characters are still at eye-level to us, sort of like a medieval painting of soldiers inside a walled castle or whatnot. 

That fits the setting of the city of Kilkenny during the dreariest part of the Dark Ages.

Robyn Goodfellowe (voice of Honor Kneafsey) is a sweet but willful girl of about 10 who dreams of becoming a mighty hunter like her father (Sean Bean, surprisingly emotive). But most girls are tasked with working in the scullery, something Robyn eschews for practicing with her crossbow and sneaking off into the forbidden woods with her pet raven, Merlin.

The Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) wants to raze the forest to make more room for sheepherding and farming, but a stubborn pack of ghostly wolves harries them. Goodfellowe is tasked with killing them, but has been a miserable failure. Meanwhile, the Irish townsfolk are already in a state of agitation about their English overlords, and whisper stories about wolfwalkers who are part human, part wolf.

It turns out these stories are only partly true. Upon venturing in the woods Robyn meets Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a little girl with a fiery canopy of hair who seems completely feral. She tells Robyn that wolfwalkers like her are not werewolves, but their wolf spirit breaks free of their sleeping body and runs free. 

I loved the light and sound effects used for the wolfwalker magic -- it's almost like liquid gold waiting to spill out of their skins. Mebh can control the wolves and even heal wounds by howling keenly. 

Mebh's mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy), the leader of the pack, has been sitting unawakened for many months now, her wolf spirit apparently lost or worse. Robyne resolves to help them, increasingly putting her at odds with her father and the steely Lord Protector.

Director Tomm Moore helmed the three movies previously mentioned, and brings in Ross Stewart as co-director. The screenplay is by Will Collins based on a story about Moore, Stewart and Jericca Cleland. It has aspects of the fairy tale genre but also has a modernist immediacy with its themes about alienation and accepting those who are different from us.

The music by Bruno Coulais is just lovely with traditional Irish strings and flutes by the folk group Kila. There's also a song, "Running with the Wolves" by Norwegian singer Aurora, that should get serious awards attention.

Same goes for "Wolfwalkers" as a whole, which will appear on the Oscar short list for animated feature, or there's something wrong with the voting system. This is a story of magic and mystery, heart and grace -- human, and otherwise.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Review: "Hillbilly Elegy"

How do you translate to the screen a book that’s not so much a narrative memoir as an evocation of a place, a culture and a mindset? This was the challenge facing director Ron Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (“The Shape of Water”) in translating J.D. Vance’s best-seller, “Hillbilly Elegy.”

The path they chose was probably the best one laid before them, resulting in a solid if somewhat constructed-feeling look at one man’s journey from the hollers of Appalachian Kentucky to Yale Law School graduate. It boasts a pair of spectacular performances by Glenn Close and Amy Adams, both of whom should get awards notice.

The book came out in 2016 and was quickly tabbed as a political artifact, a wayfinder to the reason why many rural, white lower-class voters chose the way they did. The filmmakers behind “Hillbilly Elegy” wisely eschew any outright political machinations, rightly guessing that any such attempt would come across as a bunch of Hollywood leftists looking down their noses at a bunch of hicks.

Indeed, the biggest strength of the film is that it approaches its characters at eye level. The main dynamic centers around the trio of Vance himself -- played by Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos in his 20s and teens, respectively -- his mother, Bev (Adams), and grandmother (Close).

The family moved north to Middletown, Ohio, when J.D. was small, but he spent most of his childhood summers in Kentucky and that’s where their roots lie. The Vances are dirt poor living among others just so, but every clan holds firmly to the belief they’re a bit better than their neighbors.

The story shifts back and forth between the years of J.D.’s childhood and a few days in his life in law school, bucking for an internship at a top Washington D.C. firm. In the latter frame, his motivation is both practical -- he needs the money from a high-end gig to make up the shortfall in his financial aid -- and personal, wanting to stay with his girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto), an Indian-American who already has a job lined up there.

In the earlier timeframe, J.D. ping-pongs back and forth between his mom and “Meemaw,” preferring the stability of the latter but emotionally tethered to the former. Bev is a nurse who lost her job due to drug addiction, and the film is unrelenting in depicting how a broken person can be simultaneously fiercely protective and outright abusive of their child.

His only protection is Meemaw, who has a corrosive tongue and rude manner but understands that family is the only thing that really matters. Close is spot-on playing a certain Southern type, the chain-smoking old lady with crazy witch hair who can barely walk but will pin anyone to their spot with a flinty stare and a few acid words.

In the later timeframe, set around 2011, the guileless but graceless J.D. tries to fit in with snooty Beltway types, not knowing the difference between varieties of white wine or which piece of silverware to use at a fancy dinner. At the same time he is summoned back to Ohio to deal with his mom’s latest overdose, as his sister (Haley Bennett) has her own passel of kids and responsibilities now.

We can practically feel the weight of the massive chip on J.D.’s shoulder, a guy who wants to do the right thing but feels blocked at every turn. Basso seems to positively slump onscreen before our eyes. He owes a responsibility to his mother, even though she neglected and abused him horribly, and a loyalty to Meemaw’s edict about being the leader of the family after she’s gone.

There are a lot of things to admire about “Hillbilly Elegy.” It really sings when it focuses on the twisted but unshakeable triad of J.D. and the two women who raised him. It also makes a genuine and largely successful attempt to portray the sorts of folks people in showbiz and politics usually see as zoological exhibits.

It’s also one of those movies where the lead character tends to be the least interesting person in the room. So anytime we wander too far from Bev’s pitiful, manipulative antics or Meemaw’s iron rule, the movie loses air.

Still, Howard, Taylor and company deserve credit for making this movie in the first place, and making it in a way that feels true to the author and the book he wrote. We live in a time where so many are ruled by hatred and fear, and here’s a film filled with those things -- but feels like a small spring of hope.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Review: "Most Guys Are Losers"


Based on the title I was expecting "Most Guys Are Losers" to be some sort of pseudo-feminist man-hating screed about how men are such scum and who'd want to date one, at least until somebody with a six-pack and six-figure income comes along. 

I think I would've enjoyed that; everyone's kind of P.O.'d and chippy these days anyway, so it would've fit our collective mood.

But the film, written and directed by rookie Eric Ustian, omits the latter part of the title of the actual book that inspired it: "(And How to Find a Winner): Dating Wit & Wisdom from Your Dad." Yes, this is a movie based on a self-help book.

So here's the progeny of this flick: a guy named Mark Berzins, who owns a bunch of bars in the Denver area, wrote the book partly as warning to men who wanted to date his daughter, but also as advice for her on how to pick a suitable (to him) mate. It contains a lot of old-timey rules about how to be a man's man -- respect your mother, earn your own way, etc.

So Ustian turned it into a romantic comedy, with Andy Buckley (best known from "The Office") playing Mark. The location is switched to Chicago (better film tax credits, prolly) and we meet Mark's daughter, Sandy (Grace Fulton) and her boyfriend, Boy (Michael Provost).

You can probably guess what happens: Bo and Sandy, college students in California, are on the verge of getting serious. He's invited back to Chitown to meet her family, only to find out her dad is the author of a best-selling book about how nobody's good enough to date his daughter. 

Things roll out with few surprises, though a winsome cast and light mood keep things largely low-key and enjoyable. It'd be fair to say this material is much closer to broadcast television than feature film in tone and pacing. You can see the set-ups coming a mile off and wait for them to land with the inevitability of gravity.

Provost and Gulton make for a cute couple -- quite literally. Like if you bumped into them in real life you'd instantly think they were some of the most gorgeous people you'll ever meet. She has just been recruited to be social media influencer for a surfboard product company called Sex Wax (wonder if that'll come up later), while Bo has been offered an assistant director job. 

(I don't think that's actually how the influencing game works; they're more akin to freelance grifters who have to work their way up from Yelp reviews to receiving free stuff to actually having people and companies pay attention to them.)

So Sandy and Boy are at a crossroads, considering leaving school, making their thing permanent or taking a break.

Mira Sorvino plays Amy, Sandy's mom and Mark's wife, who acts as a sort of goalie/coach for dad's worst instincts. He's immediately suspicious of Bo and starts to dig into his past, setting his 9-year-old (Sander Thomas) to be his cyber sleuth. He's really upset to find out Bo's mom runs a pot farm, which is a really strange thing for a guy who got rich peddling booze to feel.

Keith David, whose voice is such pure burnished gold that I would literally pay him to read my grocery list to me, shows up as Al, Mark's best friend and head of his favorite bar. 

Avery Moss, who has a smile that could melt a frost giant's heart, is plucky as Sandy's kid sister, Carrie. Andres Rosas plays Stephon, the shy bar worker who adores her.

Mucking up the works is Trevor (Belmong Cameli), an old flame of Sandy's who Mark likes and wants to use as leverage to push Bo aside. Trevor's a jock who keeps talking about having a pro football tryout, but we know he's just the designated jerk. 

I also liked the warm presence of Aiden Berzins as Taylor, who in the movie plays Mark's adopted son but in real life is his nephew. He's got an uplifting story that gets worked into the film in a nice way.

"Most Guys Are Losers" is a pretty low-budget affair, occasionally hamstrung by some slipshod audio. (In one scene inside a car, they use one actor's on-set recording and the other's ADR, and it's glaring.) Most of the action takes place in the bar, and after awhile we kind of get tired of being in the same noisy space.

Buckley is ostensibly the star of the show, though really the story should belong to Sandy, who also tends to get muscled aside by Bo. Every good dad should know to cede the spotlight to his amazing daughter, even if you didn't write a whole book about it.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Reeling Backward: "I Walk the Line" (1970)

"I Walk the Line" came out 14 years after Johnny Cash released the ubiquitous song with which it shares its name, and 25 years before the Cash biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix that also bore that title. Thematically it bears little relation to the song, which is all about devotion to a loved one and rejecting temptation, while the movie is about a man who does exactly the opposite.

Cash actually re-recorded "I Walk the Line" for the 1970 movie and, apparently inspired, wrote a bunch more songs and wound up supplying the entire soundtrack. One track, "Flesh and Blood," ended up hitting the top of the country charts, so the soundtrack is better remembered than the movie.

It's not a particularly good film but it is an interesting one, and sometimes that's a better thing -- particularly when being discovered decades down the line.

John Frankenheimer surely belongs in the sad pantheon of "best filmmakers never to receive an Oscar nomination." He's often confused (even by me) with his similarly monikered contemporary, William Friedkin, who released "The French Connection" the following year. Frankenheimer would direct its 1974 sequel, and continue on to be a busy director through the early 2000s.

The film stars Gregory Peck, a star with whom the word "decency" seems almost synonymous. So playing Tawes, the Sheriff of an unnamed rural county, is very much against type. Tawes seems resolute and upstanding, but it turns out he's a very weak man indeed, capable of capriciousness and even cruelty.

No first name is ever given for Tawes -- even his wife, Ellen (Estelle Parsons), and teen daughter refer to him as "Sheriff." He's had this post a long time and, it seems will keep the job as long as he wants. There's not much to it, mostly driving around resolving conflicts between neighbors over cut-down trees and the like.

But when he lays eyes on Alma McCain (Tuesday Weld), all bets are off. Tawes is completely swept away by her, even after learning Alma is the daughter of notorious moonshiner Carl McCain (Ralph Meeker). He enters into a strange, strained dance with the McCain clan, where he essentially rents Alma for sex in return for looking the other way from their illicit activities.

But then the stakes are raised, both criminally and emotionally as Tawes actually falls in love, or least convinces himself he is. It's quite apparent to the audience and to Alma that their relationship is just an arrangement, but the Sheriff is the only one who can't see it.

Frankenheimer wanted Gene Hackman to play Tawes, and as much as I admire Peck I can't help wondering what that version of the movie would be like. This film really required a tortured portrayal of inner turmoil, but Peck is more of the "stare hard and don't show weakness" generation of film actors.

My initial reaction was also that Hackman was too young to play an aging lawman, but the two men are actually only 14 years apart in age.

The script by Alvin Sargent, based on a novel by Madison Jones, is more notable for what it doesn't say or show than what it does.

There are references to events in Tawes' past that might leave him vulnerable to such a temptation, but they're not fleshed out. Apparently he lost his mother and sisters in a car accident some years back, which rendered his father (J.C. Evans, Frankenheimer's wife's grandfather) a doddering mess who keeps expecting his family to walk in the door.

Parsons is terrific as Ellen Tawes, who manages to be both headstrong and utterly submissive at the same time. She refers to throwing herself at the Sheriff and more or less forcing him to marry her, but now he barely speaks to her. The scenes inside their house are hard to watch, with Tawes hardly looking his wife or daughter in the eye or saying a word, as if blaming them for his lack of devotion to them.

Even after suspecting that her husband is playing around on her, Ellen makes it clear she's willing to accept his occasional philandering as long as he returns home. (Speaking of, it's an awfully big, nice house for a poor public servant.) Tawes feels like a man trapped, but this is the sort of gilded cage many a man would willingly place themselves inside.

It's also hard to grasp what it is he sees in Alma. Weld plays her as a coy, calculating but not hateful person who is more than happy to trade her body for her family's security. The McCains have been moonshiners for generations, picking up everything they have every once in a while when the feds come around sniffing. She seems as surprised as anyone when Tawes starts talking about running away together to Chicago, California or whatnot.

"You've got your people, and I've got mine," is how she puts it, which is the extent of her understanding.

Tawes and Carl McCain don't even meet until halfway through the movie, when a chortling federal agent, Bascomb (Lonny Chapman), starts investigating the interstate flow of illicit alcohol. Tawes tries to play the high-and-mighty lawman, but McCain knows he's already got the Sheriff under his thumb. He's not at all bothered by offering his daughter up for sex, seeing her as just another family asset to be leveraged.

"We'll take our chances. After all you won't be gettin' the worst of it, ya hear? You keep on gettin' the best of it," he says.

Alma has two younger brothers, Jeff Dalton as 18-year-old hothead Clay and Freddie McCloud as towheaded rapscallion Buddy, who's maybe 10. Her job is to cook and care for the men as her mother is long gone. There's a brief tender moment between her and her father that has incestuous connotations; even if he doesn't sexually covet Alma the elder McCain certainly considers her his property.

The other player is Charles Durning as Hunnicut, Tawes' only deputy. He's the sort of man, quick to a laugh or a drink, who everyone dismisses as fat and stupid. But Hunnicut is cracker cagey, constantly watching his boss out of the side of his eye.

He's the first to sniff out Tawes' affair, though it's never made clear what he intends to do with this information. Blackmail him? Take his job? Durning takes a rather underwritten role as a standard-issue redneck cop and gives him all sorts of nefarious shadings that make us fear him, even more so than the McCain patriarch.

"I Walk the Line" is a simple piece of clockworks with only a few moving pieces. There's the McCains, happy to keep to themselves and ply their trade, and willing to make whatever reasonable (to them) accommodations are necessary to keep doing so. Sheriff Tawes, the most upright man in the county but desperate for affection -- even though he's got plenty of it at home, and can't tell when presented with an ersatz replacement.

There's a good movie in here somewhere, or could be. What we're left with is a lot of interesting pieces that don't really fit together.