Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Review: "Queen Bees"


“Queen Bees” is sort of a “Mean Girls” for the golden years set -- nice older woman moves into a retirement home ruled by a group of imperious gals, clashes with and then joins them, helps them chill out a bit and also finds a nicely creased fellah to get all moony with.

It’s pretty predictable stuff, and you can practically map out the entire plot beforehand with sure-handed accuracy. But it’s also genuinely warmhearted, has some solid funny moments and features an admirable cast of older performers.

If movies were a meal, this is meatloaf with mashed potatoes and buttered corn: familiar comfort food. It won’t wow anyone with originality, but if you like that sort of thing you’re sure to come away satisfied.

This movie, directed by Michael Lembeck from a screenplay by Donald Martin, is notable if for no other reason that it isn’t often you see an 88-year-old actress as the lead in a mainstream film. That would be the inimitable Ellen Burstyn, who plays Helen, a fairly recent widow who clings to her independence.

Her daughter, Laura (Elizabeth Mitchell), is pushing her to sell her home and move into the nearby Pine Grove community. Her loving grandson, Peter (Matthew Barnes), acts as the supportive middleman and peacemaker between them.

But when Helen, who has a tendency to lock herself out of her house, accidentally burns down her kitchen, she agrees to move into Pine Grove for a month while repairs are done.

She soon runs afoul of the titular group that has all the other seniors running -- OK, ambling -- away in fear. They rule the central table in the dining room, decide who is or isn’t in the bridge club, and do early morning exercises in the courtyard with military precision, complete with whistles to wake everyone up.

Jane Curtin plays Janet, the iron-fisted leader of the group who takes a special dislike to Helen. But when one of their bridge foursome dies, Sally (Loretta Divine) recruits her to be her partner. It seems that she and the other queen bee, Margot (Ann-Margret), have been bucking under Janet’s stern yoke, and see Helen as a means to shake things up.

I enjoyed the portrayal of elderly folks in a rather closed community, and the comparisons to high school society are apt. Because the women outnumber the men, romance tends to be a by-committee type of thing. For example, Margot is currently sharing the amorous affections of one randy stud played by Christopher Lloyd (not me, the talented one) with a few other women. Lloyd is clearly having fun in a humorous role, complete with a squirrel’s nest toupee, though he gets one terrific, brief dramatic scene.

The other piece of the puzzle is James Caan as Dan, who moves in shortly after Helen and quickly commences with pitching woo at her, inviting her to every event going on at the retirement home. Helen resists, but soon finds those tender feelings welling up inside just when she thought they were long gone.

Caan’s a little worse for wear these days, walking gingerly with a noticeable stoop. But his scenes with Burstyn still have plenty of magic, and when they gaze into each other’s wet eyes with a feeling of longing and joy… well, I defy you not to get a little misty yourself.

“Queen Bees” is a story about fitting in, taking chances and the need to love and feel loved -- all of which are vital at any age. 




Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Review: "Awake"

I checked, and the idea for "Awake" originated in 2019, well before the coronavirus outbreak. I wanted to be sure, since it seems like a creepily accurate encapsulation of our anxiety-ridden, sleep-deprived times.

Gina Rodriguez stars in this science fiction story that registers closer to cautionary tale than technological fantasy. A mysterious global event results in the shutdown of all our fancy technology, which is a pain but fixable. But another, more serious side effect soon rears its head: nobody can sleep. 

The scientists are baffled. People still get tired, and their cognitive abilities rapidly decline. But no matter how exhausted and frustrated they get, they cannot sleep. And this is not just an annoyance: the human brain needs downtime, and without it will swell and cause erratic behavior and eventually... kill the person.

So this is actually an extinction event, with a few people racing against time to find a cure.

Rodriguez plays Jill, a former soldier who was drummed out of the service for drug addiction, though she still serves in the reserves and works security in a quasi-military laboratory. A single mom with two kids -- adorable moppet Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt) and reliably disengaged teen Noah (Lucius Hoyos) -- Jill snatches expired pills from the medical waste bins to sell to drug dealers and pad her meager income.

Director Mark Raso, who cowrote the screenplay with his brother, Joseph, based on a story by Gregory Poirier, puts us immediately into the action a few minutes into the movie, and uses the events to build characterization rather than dilly-dally with a lot of endless, needless exposition, unlike some other Netflix creatives.

(Yeah, I'm lookin' at you, "Shadow and Bone.")

Jill's car suddenly dies along with everyone else's, an accident pitching them into a lake from which they barely escape. Matilda actually drowns, but is luckily revived by a sheriff's deputy involved in the fracas.

People soon do all the thing panicked people do: buy out groceries, raid pharmacies for sleeping pills that do not work, get into arguments that turn into scraps that turn into deadly melees. Jill tries to keep it together, even going into work, but learns that the Army doctor with a dark past (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who helped her get her job is leaving with a special unit investigating something miraculous: a woman who can sleep.

Turns out Matilda can, too, which immediately makes her a unicorn in a world suddenly very suspicious of anything or anyone different. Jill tries to hide Matilda's status, but it is discovered when her religious mother-in-law (Frances Fisher) takes the girl to her church to be prayed over. 

This results in a truly harrowing and haunting sequence where the well-meaning preacher (Barry Pepper) tries to lead his flock to peace and faith rather than accusations and conflict. Look around at the real world right now -- how do you think that works out?

There are moments of hope, such as getting a bitchin' 1970s Dodge sedan running -- older cars, with their lack of digital add-ons, are less vulnerable -- and running into a prison convict (Shamier Anderson) who joins their crew, gifting himself the name of their ride. He should be an enemy to be fought, but turns out to be the most amiable, reliable person they'll meet. 

Things go on from there. At 96 minutes, "Awake" is fast-paced and energetic, but also finds moments to quietly ratchet up the suspense and sense of foreboding. Jill shows her mettle as a warrior mom determined to protect her children from all comers, even though everyone (and herself) find they can no longer think straight. 

It's basically a twist on the familiar zombie apocalypse, but instead of the dead eating the living, we let our failings and fears consume us from within. Again, sound familiar??

"Awake" is a tidy little thriller that scares us with the immediate perils Jill and her family will face, and on a deeper level with the implications of their catastrophe, which seems like a descending staircase with no turning. 

Remember, it's always darkest just before it becomes pitch black.





Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Review: "Undine"

 

Is "Undine" a story of supernatural romance, or just the tale of a mentally unbalanced woman who seems to love and hate with equal devotion?

I'm not sure, and I'm not sure we're supposed to know. 

This German romance/tragedy follows Undine, played by Paula Beer, who is named after a mythical water nymph who falls in love with a mortal man but is doomed to die when he is unfaithful to her. In this telling from writer/director Christian Petzold, though, she is more of a vengeful spirit than haunted victim.

As we first meet her, Undine is being dumped by her boyfriend, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz). They are having coffee at the little restaurant next to the Berlin museum where she works as a historian (though I'd call her job more of a high-end tour guide, giving talks to foreign visitors).

Johannes has a very concerned look on this face that also seems very practiced. He has really good hair and the air of someone who doesn't have to worry about money and didn't labor to reach that state. He has found someone (Julia Franz Richter) that he would prefer to be with, so even though he has told Undine he will love her forever, to him it's a simple matter to make the switch, enduring no cost other than the price of a coffee.

Undine is having none of it, however. She coldly instructs Johannes that she will kill him if he leaves her. She orders him to wait at the shop while she gives her talk to tourists, and if he is not there when she returns, his death is assured. He lingers for a bit, but then off he trots.

Obviously at this point the audience is not sure how to feel about Undine. Is she suffering from mental illness? As played by Beer, this would not seem to be the case. She seems always in control of her emotions and calculating about getting what she wants. So is there a chilling darkness inside her, pushing to get out?

These concerns are laid aside for a time as she meets Christoph, a commercial diver who caught her tour and offers to buy her a coffee. He is the opposite of Johannes, seemingly introspective and even shy. Played by Franz Rogowski, Christoph speaks in a soft, apologetic tone touched by a slight speech impediment from a cleft lip, reminding us very much of a young Joaquin Phoenix.

They have a strange meeting accident involving an aquarium from which Undine hears a voice, part warning and part reassurance. So it seems the water spirits are blessing this new union. 

Later he takes her on one of his underwater trips where he has written her name under a bridge, and they encounter a legendary mammoth catfish in a way that's both traumatic and magical. And he gives her a miniature statue from the aquarium of an older-school version of his diving equipment with a big bell helmet. This will become their totem.

Things go on from there. Undine appears to truly fall in love with Christoph, as opposed to her feelings for Johannes (who we'll see again), which felt more like a greedy form of possession than ardor. Undine needs to feel needed, and when she is she is a paragon of compassion, and when she is not her malevolence can be frightening.

I liked a lot of things about this movie but not the sum total. Beer has terrific onscreen presence and commands our attention. Even at 89 minutes long, it's very languid in its pacing and wants to linger over things that detract from the romantic impulses that are at its center. For example, Petzold holds on Undine's speeches about the history of Berlin, which she herself says are boring, and she's right. 

I think he's trying to make some sort of point about the reunification of Germany, the transition from socialism to capitalism, and the often transitory nature of recalling that which has passed. If so, maybe you have to be German to get it -- to these American ears, it's dead screen time.

One interesting thing about European versus American films is you don't see a lot of domestic movies in which the woman is the romantic primary actor rather than the object of desire. Even our romcom female protagonists tend to be frazzled and flighty and waiting for some stud to come along and calm her down.

Undine may be an ancient water spirit and may or may not be murderously evil, but at least she's setting things into motion rather than waiting for love to happen to her.


 


 

Review: "Spirit Untamed"

 


“Spirit Untamed” is an adventurous movie about girls and horses -- though if you don’t tell boys that, they will probably enjoy it just fine.

This DreamWorks Animation movie is a sorta-spinoff of the 2002 movie “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” and the Netflix series “Spirit Riding Free.” The protagonist here is Lucky Prescott, a 10-year-old Latina girl whose mother died in a tragic horse stunt riding accident when she was a baby. She’s a typical plucky youngster with a sense of adventure and a taste for stubbornness.

Voiced by Isabela Merced, she’s been raised in the city by her loving but strict aunt Cora (Julianne Moore) and is now going to spend the summer with the father she barely knows. This brings her to Miradero, a frontier town somewhere near the Mexican border filled with apple orchards, beatific canyons and galloping pastures.

Horse country, in other words.

It’s a little unclear to me if Spirit, the horse, is the same one from the other movie and TV show, though he appears similar as a honey-colored Mustang stallion with a dark brown mane and big, penetrating (and very anthropomorphized) eyes. Maybe, as the name implies, he’s more a representation of the freedom and independence that animates horses like Spirit and girls like Lucky.

Directed by Elaine Bogan (with Ennio Torresan Jr. as co-director) from a script from Aury Wallington, Katherine Nolfi and Kristin Hahn, “Spirit Untamed” employs deceptively simplistic-looking animation in which humans and horses aren’t drawn with a lot of detail, but the background vistas are lush and vibrant. It’s a style Japanese anime first pioneered.

In Meradero Lucky meets a variety of figures who will factor into her story. Her dad (Jake Gyllenhaal), broken after the loss of his wife and unsure how to connect with the daughter he sent away. Pru (Marsai Martin), a fearless 13-year-old trick rider and daughter of the local stable owner, Al (Andre Braugher). Abigail (Mckenna Grace), a guitar-pickin’ girl who’s supportive but can be annoying, and whose brother (Lucian Perez) is a little operator hunting pennies; and Walton Goggins gives voice to Hendricks, leader of a gang of horse wranglers.

You can probably guess where this is all going to go, and it does: Lucky rebels against her father and aunt, running off with Spirit every chance she gets; she’ll bond with Pru and Abigail, who share in her adventures; the wranglers will capture Spirit and his herd and try to break them; Lucky et al will rescue the horses and much daredevil hi jinks will ensue.

The best part is where Lucky works to win Spirit’s trust, rolling out apples until he’ll take one by hand, wanting to jump onto his back right away but willing herself to patience until he’s ready. It’s a simple yet effective metaphor for life, especially her relationship with her father.

It’s not a bad movie, but not terribly ambitious. The action scenes are well-staged and lively, the talkie parts drag on longer than they need to. There isn’t a lot of nuance or complexity to the characters, each representing a type whose duty is to perform the aspects that define them.

Animated features have been on a downturn the last few years in my opinion, and “Spirit Untamed” is a competent if uninspiring example that does nothing to change that view.





Monday, May 31, 2021

Reeling Backward: "It Happened Tomorrow" (1944)

 

"It Happened Tomorrow" combines several of my favorite things: movies, journalism, romance and the supernatural.

Dick Powell plays Lawrence Stevens, a young newshound who magically starts receiving the next day's newspaper and tries to twist this foreknowledge to his advantage -- especially with regards to wooing his new lady love, Sylvia Smith (Linda Darnell), who ironically stars in a stage show in which she pretends to go into a trance and predict the future.

She's a charming faker, but everyone knows it and enjoys the deception, while he's telling the truth, yet no one believes him.

Fast-paced and filled with rapid-patter dialogue, it's part "Groundhog Day," part "His Girl Friday," a dash of "It Happened One Night" and "It's a Wonderful Life," with a little vaudeville blarney thrown in. It's typical B-movie mid-century cinematic fare, featuring middling stars and production values. 

It's amusing and worth a look, though not a film to linger long in the memory. It's out in a handsome new Blu-ray edition from Cohen Media.

It was directed by René Clair from a screenplay he wrote with Dudley Nichols -- both former newspapermen themselves -- adapted from an unproduced script by Howard Snyder and Hugh Wedlock, which may have been "inspired" by a one-act play by Lord Dunsany from 20 years earlier.

Clair wanted Cary Grant for the lead role and couldn't get him, and the project knocked around Hollywood a bit before finally getting made as a downscale production. At 85 minutes, the movie moves along quickly, almost in a hurry.

As the story opens Larry has just completed his 500th obituary for The Evening News, marking his elevation from newsroom lackey to journalist. After a celebration of hard drinking, he is surprised to see the elderly clerk, Pop Benson (John Philliber), back at the office and is even more startled when the old fellow hands him a copy of tomorrow evening's edition with Larry's byline on the lead story about the opera being held up. 

However, Pop -- who is later revealed to be a ghost or angel a la Clarence from "Wonderful Life," having passed away that first night -- repeatedly warns that even knowing what the future brings will not win Larry the advantages he thinks.

The subtext is hard to miss in the middle of World War II is hard to miss: having all the pleasures and advantages you desire will not guarantee you happiness.

Larry uses the paper to force a raise from his editor (George Cleveland), since he always seems to be where the news is happening, and win the admiration of the more seasoned reporters. Brimming with newfound confidence, Larry pitches woo at Sylvia after catching her act with her uncle, Oscar Smith (Jackie Okie), who goes by the stage name Cigolini and wears some tremendously ostentatious outfits, even when he's not performing.

A framing story is set in 1944 when Larry and Sylvia are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary surrounded by a huge family gathered in their mansion, so we know from the start things turn out well for them. Larry wants to tell the truth about his magic newspapers, though Sylvia is worried their loved ones will think he's a loon.

In 1894, people get around in horse-drawn cabs and telephones are the two-piece kind, often with a crank for electricity. The mores are a little more restrictive too, as in a scene where Sylvia gets drenched in the rain while out with Larry so he loans her one of his old suits to wear. The old biddies at the boarding house where she lives see her sneaking in the window and think a male masher has made his way in for a dalliance. 

Cigolini arrives to protect her honor but, seeing the suit stashed under the bed, thinks Larry has run off without his clothes determines to shoot him the next time they meet.

There's also a fun sequence where Larry finally thinks to place bets on the winning horses at the races the next day, quickly amassing a fortune with which he and Sylvia can live happily ever after. Unfortunately, by this time he has seen the third day's paper announcing his death in a shootout on the front page. So he's actually depressed when each horse wins, seeing it as more evidence of the surety of the newspaper's predictions and another nail in his coffin.

But it turns out to be a case of mistaken identity. The thief who took off with the $60,000 Larry won at the races -- just shy of $2 million in today's dollars -- is the one who gets gunned down, misidentified by having Larry's wallet on his person. So Larry and Sylvia get their happily ever after, after all.

I liked "It Happened Tomorrow" well enough, though it's a bit slapdash and superficial. I would've liked to have seen another version played for pathos, with Larry haunted by the tragedy of always knowing the future, never being able to stop it. But this movie ain't that animal.




Thursday, May 27, 2021

Review: "Cruella"


“Cruella” is not the movie I was expecting them to make.

I’ve wavered on Disney’s recent obsession with turning its iconic animated titles into live action films. “Cinderella” was perfectly wonderful, “Dumbo” was a horrid embarrassment, and most of the rest have been somewhere in the middle like “The Lion King” -- technically accomplished but artistically unnecessary.

So for “101 Dalmatians,” I was expecting them to crank out another iteration of the live-action version featuring Glenn Close 25 years ago, putting iconic villainess Cruella de Vil in the driver’s seat in a family-friendly romp. Emma Stone seemed a strange casting choice, as Cruella is definitively a well-etched harridan, and Stone is barely past the ingénue stage.

“Cruella” is deeper, darker and more ambitious than I could’ve hoped. I should have expected nothing less from director Craig Gillespie, known for odd and offbeat fare like “Lars and the Real Girl” and “I, Tonya.”

It’s rated PG-13 and is an edgy origin story in which Dalmatians barely show up -- and only then as furry antagonists. That’s right, Cruella is recast as a misunderstood antiheroine who’s not trying to turn spotted puppies into a fur coat but is someone who’s been victimized and traumatized and learns to lash out.

It’s also an exquisitely striking movie filled with vibrant colors and fabulous clothes. You can already go ahead and bank on costume designer Jenny Beavan getting an Oscar nomination for all the fabulous, ostentatious gowns and get-ups Stone and the rest of the cast get to wear.

I was also impressed with the originality of the backstory (screenplay by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara). Here she is Estella, an orphaned moppet born with shocking black-and-white hair raised by a kindly British mum (Emily Beecham) who instructs her to bury her nastier instincts, even when she’s picked on by prigs at her posh school. (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland plays the role as a child.)

In this version, “Cruella” is the name they come up with for her evil-leaning alter ego. But Estella learns to push down these characteristics, both figuratively and literally, dying her bi-color hair red and hiding behind owlish glasses. After her mother’s shocking death, she grows up as a petty thief with fellow orphans Jasper and Horace (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser), though she aspires to be a fashion designer.

She gets a job at the snooty Liberty of London store but is consigned to cleaning lady. A drunken sabotage of a display window lands her a position with the Baroness (Emma Thompson), the queen of Brit fashion, who takes her under her wing and teaches Estella the finer points of being a sneering, hateful overlord.

The Emmas, Stone and Thompson, are a delicious pairing, a battle of haughty English accents and upturned noses. The comparison to Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada” seems obvious, and welcome. Though in this case, Estella looks upon her tormentor as someone to be emulated and defeated rather than serve as cautionary tale.

Estella revives her Cruella persona as the public challenger to the Baroness’ tight grip on the fashion world, using her criminal team -- the two boys plus two little dogs, including one in an eye patch -- to pull off a series of attention-grabbing stunts that double as crimes and put-downs. With a story set in the 1970s, there’s a bittersweet feminism subtext at play about extraordinary women who must command fear because they aren’t allowed to earn respect.

“Aren’t they gorgeous and vicious? It’s my favorite combination,” Baroness says of her trio of guard Dalmatians.

John McCrea turns up as Artie, a gender-fluid vintage clothing store owner who becomes a friend and ally; Mark Strong as John, the Baroness’ right-hand man and the only person allowed to talk back to her; Andrew Leung as a more toadying flunky, perpetually astonished or horrified; and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as a childhood friend turned fashion journalist.

Rather than fall back on formula, “Cruella” uses its animated and live action predecessors as a mere launch pad for something different and -- dare I say about a remake of an old cartoon? -- dazzlingly original.



Review: "American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally"

 

I had not heard of Mildred Gillars, an American erstwhile actress who was a star of the German radio propaganda campaign during World War II and was eventually tried and imprisoned as a traitor -- the first woman ever to be so convicted. Her broadcast moniker was "Axis Sally," though she also went by a few other, less savory nicknames like "The Bitch of Berlin."

Much like the more familiar Tokyo Rose, Sally's broadcasts were a mix of variety show and warning, giving American soldiers a little taste of home while trying to convince them their lives were being thrown away in the war effort.

Her trial in 1949 was a big media event, largely forgotten now. The new drama, "American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally," attempts to revive her infamy with some allusions to today's political strife.

Alas, the movie wavers between saccharine and silly, with Mildred herself played by Meadow Williams as an icy blonde lording it over the courtroom in an homage to Marlene Dietrich in "Witness for the Prosecution." Director Michael Polish, who co-wrote the screenplay with Vance Owen and Darryl Hicks, shoots the thing like a postwar soap opera, all gauzy lighting and syrupy string music.

The only real reason to watch is Al Pacino, who plays her attorney, James Laughlin, a kooky anti-establishment type who is handed the case with the intention to lose. At first I worried that Pacino would just have a cameo, the sort of thing where an aging star is paid a bunch of dough for a tiny role to goose a project's marketability. 

But no, it's a meaty part, and arguably bigger and more consequential than Sally herself. 

In fact, as enjoyable as Pacino is in this, the movie's main shortcoming is his character is far more interesting than hers. Mildred is played as a calculating woman who initially took the Germans' job for prestige, but later found herself trapped by circumstances, unable to leave the country or stop or alter the broadcasts.

The story plays out in a choppy fashion, the trial in 1949 intercut with flashbacks to Mildred's five years doing the broadcast between 1940 and the end of the war. There's also stock war footage thrown in here and there, rather clunkily.

Mildred had two main handlers in Germany: Max Otto Koischwitz (Carsten Norgaard), the German-American director of her radio programs and her fiance, and Joseph Goebbels himself, played by Thomas Kretschmann as a slithering serpent who summons her for threatening debriefs if she changes his script referencing the German army as "unbeatable" instead of "invincible." Indeed, it's depicted that Goebbels personally assaulted Mildred and threatened to kill her.

The romance with Max is an onscreen dud, and the scene where she visits him at his deathbed just this side of parody. Williams has a few solid scenes but also several of amateurish tone deafness.

Mitch Pileggi plays the priggish prosecutor who seems to actually lust for Mildred's blood, while Lala Kent is his right-hand assistant, Elva, who used to work for Pacino's character and seems to have some kind of vendetta against him. He is shown to be a little flirty, though nothing too over-the-top dirtbag for the 1940s.

The perpetual third wheel is Billy Owen (Swen Temmel), an untried attorney and former Marine who signs on to be Laughlin's co-counsel. Though a real figure, his story adds little to Mildred's or Laughlin's, portrayed as a moony idealist who is browbeaten by the attorney and entranced by the defendant. Their jail visit scenes are positively cringe-worthy, with Mildred haughtily rejecting his pleas to help at first, then using her feminine wiles to recruit him as a lifeline to Laughlin when it suits her needs.

Laughlin is an odd egg, wearing shambly suits with his tie knot loosened four inches low, mad-scientist hair and the affect of an ignored genius who knows he's bound to lose against the system but genuinely enjoys jousting at windmills. It's different from other, fiery courtroom scenes Pacino has played in "...And Justice For All" or "Scent of a Woman."

That was angry young Pacino and resentful and still angry middle-aged Pacino, respectively. Here he's a canny old bird who presents himself as folksier and less capable than he really is, content to rope-a-dope with the judge, jury and opposing counsel. We even learn that Laughlin had his own son who lost his life during the war, so clearly he cares more about this case than he lets on.

Honestly, they should've just made it the lawyer's story and kept Sally as this remote, mysterious figure who we never really figure out, sort of like Jeremy Irons in "Reversal of Fortune." The movie they made has the look and feel of a Lifetime Channel historical melodrama, with a central figure who's not empathetic or hateful but just simply... there.




Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Review: "Dream Horse"

 

"Dream Horse" belongs to a very specific and heretofore unlabeled genre that I will now attempt to name: the British Communal Feelgooder. Like "Calendar Girls" and "The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain," these are movies about commonfolk Brits in a particular town or group getting together to do something unusual and noteworthy.

The tone is uplifting, though invariably tinged with sad undertones, final acts needing challenges to overcome and all that. Such movies have a few key characters surrounded by a rich ensemble of supporting players and "types" -- the crotchety oldster, the impressionable youngster, the middle-age burnout, the penny-pinching naysayer, and so on.

For some reason, you don't really see equivalent movies from America or other nationalities, it being a peculiarly English thing. Though I should amend that to say United Kingdom to encompass all the islands, as my forefathers would roll in their graves if this (half) Welshman inadvertently lumped the Taffy-folk in with Londoners.

This movie has the benefit of being based on the true story of a bunch of small-town working-class Welsh folk creating a syndicate to breed a racehorse. Their product, Dream Alliance, would go on to gallop beyond their wildest hopes, winning important races and putting the stuffy noblemen who rule the sport in their place.

Truly inspiring stuff -- and no, I'm not giving away anything you didn't already know, because if the horse had turned out to be a plodder they wouldn't have made this movie. It's the same reason they don't make films about William Wallace's fourth cousin, the blacksmith who passed out drunk and drowned in his soup.

(Yes I made that up, but it could've happened, and the point is no one would've remembered if it did.)

The great Toni Collette plays Jan Volkes, a woman of early-middle years whose daily existence is one of toil and unappreciation. She works dawn to dusk, cleaning the floors and working the till at the grocery and helping out her aged parents, and then she works some more tending bar at the local pub well into the night. 

Jan isn't so much unhappy as living life in a limbo without joy or tragedy, one day very much the same as the next. She's an empty-nester who needs something to direct the rest of her life.

Her husband, Brian (Owen Teale), is well-meaning but stuck in a rut, having lost his job long ago due to arthritis and a new one having never turned up. He sits in front of the telly all day watching farming shows, which allows him to recall his youthful endeavors and criticize the TV people for doing it all wrong. Brian resembles a great owl mixed with a bear, missing a lot of hair and teeth, but still has a twinkle behind his spectacles and likely was strapping in his day.

One night Jan overhears a local tax advisor, Howard (Damian Lewis), talking about a horse syndicate he was involved in. It didn't go anywhere but it sounds like fun to her. She spends months doing research, buys a promising mare on the cheap, has Brian fix up their garage into a suitable stable and advertises around town for those who want to join the syndicate, putting in £10 a week apiece to save up for the stud and training fees.

I won't go too much into the background characters, because frankly their job is to each provide a little bit of color and support the main characters, which are Jan and Howard. 

There is an older woman, a young twerp, some business associates of Howard's, the corner baker, and so on. The only one that makes a strong impression, by design, is Kerby (Karl Johnson), the local drunk, hanger-on and designated comic relief. He gets a fun scene where he divides up his spending money into jars, with the two biggest being "beer" and "horse."

Jan's journey is pretty obvious -- she's a mousy, hardworking woman who has buried her dreams, or even the notion of having a dream, to serve others and decides she needs to grasp for a sense of hope again. Howard's is a little harder to see at first, though we eventually meet his wife (Siân Phillip) and learn about some problems he had in the past that suggest maybe horse-racing shouldn't be his passion.

The racing action is well-staged and thrilling, but doesn't eat up a ton of screen time, and Dream Alliance actually disappears for long stretches of a movie that puts its emphasis squarely on the people. It's mostly hurdles tracks, and the moments when the horses leap blindly over contrived fences and then must come down solidly on their hooves again are highly nerve-wracking, for good reason.

Director Euros Lyn and screenwriter Neil McKay deliver a well-paced, entertaining family picture that doesn't break any molds but fits comfortably into the one it has chosen. 

We don't see a lot of these movies, which is probably good because things would feel a bit syrupy if we had British Communal Feelgooders as often as we do robot flicks or romcoms. And I know it's not a particularly great name, but it is the best one anybody's come up with, which is a benefit of being the only pony in the race.



Review: "The Dry"


"Everyone looked away; everyone still looks away. We're very good at it."

I like it when movies fake you out by seeming like something very familiar and then making every decision in a different direction than you expect. "The Dry" is about a federal agent who goes home to investigate the death of a friend, and going in I felt like I could tell you everything that's going to happen before it does.

He'll get emotionally invested in the case and make irrational decisions; he'll get in a scrap with old antagonists and teach them a lesson or three; he'll look up an old lady love, reconnect and wonder about staying; and he'll learn something about himself and the place he grew up, banishing the ghosts that led him to flee.

All of that happens, at least in some way, though not the way we think.

It's a fairly languid story, at least at first, and gradually picks up steam and intensity. Director Robert Connolly, who co-wrote the screenplay with Harry Cripps based on the best-selling novel by Jane Harper, is more concerned with staking out characters' interiors than the usual crime procedural perambulations of the plot.

Eric Bana plays Aaron Falk, who works for the Australian equivalent of the FBI, making headlines for cracking big cases. He left his home region of Kiewarra, a nowhere expanse of farms, 20 years earlier as a teen under suspicious circumstances. It's now beset by a terrible drought lasting nearly a year, turning all the crops to dust and drying out the people's hearts as well.

His childhood friend, Luke (played by Martin Dingle-Wall and Sam Corlett as a kid), has just killed his wife and young son before turning the shotgun on himself, leaving only his baby son alive.

At least, that's the official story. Luke's parents (Bruce Spence and Julia Blake) insist their son was a good man and would never do such a thing, but of course what else would they think? The father browbeats Aaron into opening his own investigation, using the cudgel of Aaron's own disgrace as leverage.

We see flashbacks to Aaron and Luke as teens (Joe Klocek plays young Aaron) and their friendship-slash-romantic dalliances with two girls, Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt) and Gretchen (Claude Scott-Mitchell). Luke and Gretchen were kind of an item, and Aaron and Ellie were beginning to be, since in the gravitational pull of a mixed foursome, when two hook up the others must do the same or become a pair of third wheels.

There were elements of Luke's young behavior that rub at the edges of Aaron's perception, suggesting he could have been capable of this violence. He was egotistical and a bully, and in one scene playfully dunked Ellie underwater, which seems merely jerk-ish until it's revealed she drowned in that same river. Luke and Aaron concocted an alibi about shooting rabbits, but in a small town gossip is more important than facts, and Aaron's dad made him move away before things got ugly.

So really, Aaron's journey is about solving not one murder but two, both inextricably connected in his soul.

Aaron goes through the motions of an unofficial investigation, just to pay the debt, not expecting to find anything. He works with the lone local police officer, Greg (Keir O'Donnell), a meek fellow who's dedicated but way out of his depth and is glad to have a famous lawmen leading the way. Questions  lead to more questions, but not enough answers for Aaron to let it go.

Other characters flit in and out of the story, suggesting possibilities with regard to crimes both old and new. Adult Gretchen (Genevieve O'Reilly) is now a single mother, looking fine and with her dance card open. Things fell apart between her and Luke after Ellie died, so maybe she and Aaron can have a second chance with each other. 

Grant (Matt Nable) is the local troublemaker (we'd call him a redneck) and also Ellie's brother who still believes Aaron is somehow responsible for her death. He keeps pushing Aaron for a confrontation that in most movies would be inevitable, but Aaron sees what he's doing and won't give in to the expected, though he's tempted. 

Bana gives a subtle performance as an even-keeled guy, looking upon Grant more with pity than fury. Like any man he has his breaking point, but prides himself on checking his emotions.

Scott (John Polson) is the principal at the town school where Luke's wife worked, and acts as the local peacemaker. Jamie (James Frecheville) is a squirrelly farmer who supposedly saw Luke shortly before the violence, and uses the same alibi about shooting rabbits that Aaron did so long ago. Daniel Frederikson plays the town doctor, stitching people up after bar fights and such.

I also really liked Miranda Tapsell as Greg's wife, who only gets a couple of scenes but makes the most of them as an Aboriginal woman with a sharp tongue who sees things as they are, and says so. In other circumstances, she'd probably turn out as a better investigator than either her husband or Aaron.

"The Dry" is one of those quietly thrilling movies that creeps up on you. It doesn't come out swinging but patiently softens you up for the haymakers that'll come later. The hero doesn't do all the stupid or obvious things, and the locals keep surprising us with more complexity and shadings than we expect.

This could've been a paint-by-numbers movie, and instead they chose to ignore all the laid-down-lines and create a portrait that's entirely different, and better.


 

 

Monday, May 17, 2021

Reeling Backward: "Princess Mononoke" (1997)

It was time to introduce my two boys to the anime genius of Hayao Miyazaki, and I thought it a good idea to start with one I hadn't seen myself: the 1997 film widely regarded as a masterpiece, "Princess Mononoke," perhaps second only to "Spirited Away" in his filmography.

Despite the 2¼-hour runtime, dense spiritual themes and surfeit of bloody/oozing imagery, the kids were absolutely enthralled by "Princess." I was, too.

Like many of Miyazaki's feature films, it combines a sense of high-minded mysticism with a very grounded connection to the natural world. Our machines and dirty industry are an assault on the spirits of the earth, he seems to argue, which physically manifest themselves into gods or demons to contest against the vile intrusion.

In "Princess," the Great Forest Spirit is passively fighting against the nearby human village of Irontown, run by Lady Eboshi (voiced by Minnie Driver in the version released in America), who is stripping the forest to get at the ore underneath. The spirit takes the form of a stag-like creature by day, but after the sun goes down transforms into the Nightwalker, a giant amorphous creature whose underlings, tiny spirits called kodama, plant new trees to replace the destroyed ones.

Eboshi is cunning and determined but not necessarily evil, and in fact in some ways is a visionary leader. She has gathered together female brothel workers, unwanted lepers and poor male laborers and forged them into a rather idyllic little society, one in which women are not chattel but mouthy, empowered individuals who own their own sexuality. The lepers are the engineers, crafting their advanced flint guns. The men are the worker drones.

Eboshi's archenemy is San (Claire Danes), the feral "wolf girl" who attacks their trade convoys. She is the adopted daughter of Moro (Gillian Anderson), the wolf god who has sworn to bite off Eboshi's head. The metaphysics are a little fuzzy, but it seems that the various animal tribes each have one or more supersized leaders who can speak with humans and have some degree of invulnerability.

San loathes the humans, possibly even more so than Moro and her two wolf pups, and hates it whenever anyone points out she is one herself. It should be noted that Mononoke is not her name, just what the humans call her, it being a Japanese word for a supernatural shape-shifting creature, roughly the equivalent of "were-" in English.

Alas, if there's a weak spot with this movie it's that the titular character is rather underwritten and tertiary to the story. With a few tweaks she could even be written out of the script entirely (which Miyazaki wrote, assisted by Neil Gaiman for the English version).

The real main character is Prince Ashitaki (Billy Crudup), a stranger from the near-extinct Emishi tribe far to the east. When the boar god Nago, turned into a demon after being shot with an iron bullet by Eboshi's men, attacked his village Ashitaki was forced to kill him, being infected with the evil taint in the process. It gives him superhuman strength, but will eat his body and soul if he does not prevail upon the Great Forest Spirit to lift the curse.

There are shades of "Yojimbo" in the narrative, as Ashitaki comes upon the war between Irontown and the forest gods and acts as a destabilizing neutral party, helping one group and then the other. Rather than using the situation for his personal gain, he tries to act as peacemaker, largely unsuccessfully. 

At one point he gets shot straight through his torso near his heart, yet is able to continue for some time before succumbing to weakness from massive blood loss. 

There's quite a lot of frisky byplay between Ashitaki and the women of Irontown, particularly Toki (Jada Pinkett Smith), who see the smooth young newcomer as a prime sexual object compared to the squat, vaguely ape-like men of the village. I don't recall there being so much fleshy displays and flirting in Miyazaki's oeuvre. 

A few other notable players include Keith David as Okkoto, the blind ancient boar king who leads an assault on Irontown (David also serves as narrator); John DiMaggio as Gonza, Eboshi's bullying but unfailingly loyal right-hand man; and Billy Bob Thornton as Jigo, a mercenary monk who allies himself with Eboshi in a bid to kill the Great Forest Spirit and take its head to the emperor, it reputedly having properties to heal or make one immortal.

Jigo is a real piece of work, exceedingly friendly to everyone and yet also willing to cut anybody's throat to get what he wants. There's mention of terrible crimes in his past requiring the emperor's pardon, but all he says of himself is that he's "just a simple monk trying to make his way in the world." He meets Ashitaka during his journey west, and somewhere along the way recruits an elite force of hunters who disguise themselves with animal pelts to move among the forest tribes.

He is short and squat, about the size of a dwarf from fantasy mythology, though he supplements his height with towering geta sandals with a single huge block that would seem impossible to balance upon for even normal walking, let alone the running and acrobatic fighting Jigo is shown to be capable of. They are common in the films of Miyazaki and other anime.

The animation of "Princess" is gorgeous but also fairly simplistic, with most characters drawn with bold, umembroidered lines that would not seem out of place in a children's comic book. Miyazaki puts the denser imagination into the natural world, so the forest background behind San or Ashitaka might actually contain more detail than the human figure.

I'm mesmerized by the depiction of the Great Forest Spirit, who in its day form almost appears to be wearing a human-like mask under a crown of countless antlers. It does not seem to possess more than rudimentary intelligence, and does not communicate with anyone directly. The Nightwalker is depicted as vaguely menacing, unable to control its instinctual actions. 

When Jigo and Eboshi succeed in cutting of its head, the creature breaks down into a writhing mass of ooze that threatens to sweep over the land, killing humans, animals and gods alike. 

San and Ashitaka's romance is utterly asexual and not terribly convincing, them both being depicted as closer to child age than full-grown adult. Indeed, the story ends not with them living happily ever after, but agreeing to remain in their separate communities.

There's a fair amount of violence and gore in "Princess Mononoke," including severed limbs and heads. My sons were a little shocked at first, but soon settled in and didn't report any nightmares. 

This film is one of dreams, sometimes dark ones, that stand alongside the real world and comment upon its failings. Miyazaki's truly is a world of magic.



 


 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Review: "The Djinn"

 

"The Djinn" is small, spare and scary as hell.

At just 81 minutes, this horror film unfolds in a single, cramped apartment. A mute boy of about age 11 has just moved in with his single dad. He discovers an old book of spells in the closet that belonged to the previous resident, an elderly man who died there, including one to grant one's "wish of desire." 

Dylan's (Ezra Dewey) wish is the most obvious choice: he would like to have a voice of his own. It's never explicitly stated how he lost the one he had, as his hearing is fine and he only uses American Sign Language to speak. We are shown a large, off-putting Y-shaped scare on his chest, and are left to infer the rest ourselves.

The spell in the "Book of Shadows" seems easy enough: light a candle an hour before midnight, put three drops of blood into it and speak an incantation. A djinn, or immortal spirit of the shadow world, will manifest and attempt to claim your soul. If you can make it to the stroke of the witching hour, the wish will be granted... one way or another.

The movie spends about 20 minutes setting up this little world, and then the hour in question plays out in real time. It is one of the most terrifying I can remember in a long while.

Rob Brownstein plays Dylan's dad, Michael, and what a perfect combination of casting and performance. He is middle-aged, calm and gentle, and the love for his son is at the center of his universe. With his deep, reassuring voice -- Michael is a radio DJ working the grave shift -- he lets Dylan know that he is perfect just as he is.

Dylan has a lot of nerves and trauma surrounding his mother. At one point he asks his father if she would still have "gone away" if he wasn't different from other kids. Later he has visions of her standing in the kitchen of their old place wearing a nightgown, an indelible image we'll not soon forget.

The djinn is more heard and felt than seen, at least for awhile. It takes corporeal form in an interesting way, which I'll leave to you to find out. Its spirit leaves its mark through black swirls of smoke that snake around objects in an almost seductive way. When Dylan manages to inflict harm on the djinn, its physical shell wants to return to that state, almost like chalk dissolving in liquid.

Dylan's apartment is practically another character in the movie, one of those typical low-end stacked boxes with just a couple of common rooms, a bath and two cramped bedrooms. The boy smartly uses every nook and cranny to his advantage, hiding here, trapping the djinn there. 

It's nice to experience a scary movie --featuring a kid, at that -- where you're not constantly yelling at the characters to stop doing the stupidest, most obvious thing.

This is the second feature film for the directing/screenwriting team of David Charbonier and Justin Powell after their somewhat similarly-themed "The Boy Behind the Door" last year. As young filmmakers they've already got a masterly sense of how to use confined space and time to ratchet up the tension and fear. 

They're carefully building the suspense puzzle piece by painstaking piece, not relying on cheap "boo gotcha" scares -- the commonest of crutches for untalented or lazy storytellers.

For example, Dylan has asthma, and one of the ongoing trigger points is that his breathing will start to lock up and he has to figure a way to get past the creature and find his inhaler.

The filmmakers make very good use of the music by Matthew James and photography by Julián Estrada, adding to the pervading mood of claustrophobia. I especially liked how different light sources and reflections shift and play out around the spaces, making us feel like we're comfortable with the layout and then tricking us into doubting our own perceptions.

Dewey is flat-out terrific as Dylan, especially when you consider it's a wordless performance that requires just the emotions that play out on his face to convey to the audience what he's thinking. The character has no narration or inner voice to communicate with us -- just a fabulous young actor. 

"The Djinn" is a very tight piece of filmmaking, every little piece contributing to the greater sum with zero superfluous elements to distract or degrade the experience. As movies seem to have gotten longer and fatter in recent years, how I've wished for something leaner like this.




Review: "The Killing of Two Lovers"

 

"The Killing of Two Lovers" teases you with its title. Does it refer to an actual murder that takes place, or two? Or do the people who we think are in danger of being killed the wrong two? Or maybe it's metaphorical, alluding to the death of love between a married couple?

This is a contemplative, observational drama from writer/director Robert Machoian. It stars Clayne Crawford as David, a father and husband we're not sure how we feel about. 

He is currently estranged from his wife, Nikki (Sepideh Moafi), living just down the street with his elderly, wisecracking dad. They all reside in a run-down rural town, a flat expanse between mountains  that seem to loom in the background menacingly rather than beatifically. 

Things start with a scene, which I'll not describe in detail, which make us immediately fear and loathe David. He contemplates something cowardly and hateful, and we feel like he would have gone through with it if circumstances didn't intervene. Shortly thereafter he tries something similar, behaving like a first-rate stalker and creep.

But then we see him looking after his ailing father, and walking his kids to school in a quietly protective way, and maybe we think we don't know all there is to him. 

He and Nikki are taking break, at her urging, to "work on things" with the understanding they will see other people during this time. It soon becomes clear this means Nikki is seeing another man, Derek (Chris Coy), while David does little else but pine for her and think about how to fix their fractured family.

Machoian shoots many scenes from middle distance or even further away, so we feel like we're observers who happened upon this scene rather than seeking it out voyeuristically. In watching Crawford I'm reminded of Robert Duvall in "Tender Mercies," acting even with his back to the camera. 

We follow David around on his daily routine. He's an overalls-and-pickup kind of guy, doing whatever hard work needs done, like cleaning up a field of junk for a hundred bucks a day. He noodled around with being a singer/songwriter back in the day, but he and Nikki got hitched straight out of high school and started having kids, so their young dreams have been back-burnered, possibly permanently.

It's a strange journey because David will seem so even-keeled and mature one moment, like insisting to his troubled teen daughter, Jess (Avery Pizzut), that she shouldn't make Nikki out to be the villain because she wanted the separation and now has a stranger sleeping over. Then a few hours later he'll be following people around in his truck or losing his cool. 

Relationships and marital stress are not fun, and can feel like we're being physically pulled out of the body of the person we want to be and into a limbo wandering of dread and self-hate. This film shows all of that in a stark, realistic way that melts into your bones. 

One scene really resonated with me where David knows he is in the right about something Nikki has done regarding Jess, through carelessness rather than spite, and we see him use that fleeting power to manipulate the situation and compel an apology that he lavishes in. 

It becomes about point-keeping and one-upping, even (especially?) with the ones we love.

I also admired that way sound is used in the movie. There is no musical score and the background wind of the prairie lurks around us constantly like a ghost in the shadows. Sudden concussive, almost metallic sounds will suddenly punctuate the soundscape, suggesting the cocking of a pistol or scraping of a knife. 

It's a powerful, subtle way of making the audience feel like we're always balancing on the border of uncertainty and violence.

At 84 minutes, "The Killing of Two Lovers" is just long enough to fill us with a pervading sense of fear and tension, but also hope and empathy. We feel badly for this couple, even as they don't always act in the most compassionate way or try to be their best selves. David does some terrible things, or at least contemplates them, and we wish for him to pull back from the edge.

I'm not sure what to call this movie. Is it a crime thriller? A family drama? A revenge Western? Elements of all are in its DNA. I think it's one of those movies that actively resists categorization. 

The strange association that comes to mind is "Bonnie & Clyde." They were regular people who became outlaws, and David and Nikki often teeter on the edge between normalcy and depravity. It's a narrower line than we like to think.



Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Review: "Gunda"

 

 

"Gunda" is a very special film, and one that's difficult to review. As I set out to write this essay, I don't know if it'll be very short or rather long.

This Norwegian documentary is about life on a farm, centering in particular -- though hardly exclusively -- on a mother pig and her farrow of piglets. We watch them grow from tiny newborns to little scamps to big, burly shoats crashing into each other and causing delightful mayhem. They do other pig things like snooze contentedly in mud while the flies flicker around, a haze of buzzing they do not mind.

There is also a long stretch of "chicken cam" where we observe chickens, including an uppity one-legged fellow, following at their eye level or even from their perspective. And a sequence of cows who are caught running in slow motion, or regarding us from their grazing field without any particular interest in the camera.

And... that's it. That is the entire movie.

It is unspeakably beautiful, shot in luminous black-and-white by Egil Håskjold Larsen and Viktor Kossakovsky. I can only imagine the patience and artistry involved in setting up and manipulating their cameras, which often move in long, slow sweeps, tracking shots and pans. "Gunda" should be shown to all aspiring cinematography students. 

There are no humans, at all. Mankind and our clumsy intrusions are not seen or heard, except for the wheels of a tractor near the end. There is no voiceover or title cards; the movie is utterly wordless. People seem almost not to exist in this little world, though of course we know they must.

I see that Joaquin Phoenix served as an executive producer, so I'm thankful at least there was no reprise of his loopy Oscar speech about cow insemination.

(People sometimes ask what the role of an executive producer is on a movie, as some can have a half-dozen or more listed. The truth is no one really knows, because it means whatever the people involved want it to mean. Generally speaking, though, on smaller films like this it indicates somebody with a big profile has lent their name to help the movie get made or distributed. That's it. They had no active role in the creative process whatsoever. It is not unusual in Hollywood for the star of a small movie to never meet their executive producers, or possibly even know who they are until it comes out and they see the name on the credits along with everybody else.)

Like "Nanook of the North," "Gunda" is an exercise in pure cinema. It is a throwback, the original kind of documentary: just observation without a narrative structure. It does make me wonder why it has two people credited as screenwriters, Ainara Vera and Viktor Kosakovskiy, who also served as director.

Since they didn't know what would happen until they filmed it, how could they "write" the movie? If you're deciding how to assemble footage after the fact, that's the editing process, not creating a screenplay. Was there ever actually a real script for "Gunda," like a printed booklet of pages with everything that happens?

If there was, and it actually existed before they filmed the pigs and other critters, then it calls into the question the authenticity of what we're seeing.

The documentary genre certainly has come a long way, much of it recently, I deem, in the wrong way. So many are just partisan political tirades or "explorations" of a topic that the filmmakers had decided on the correct outcome before anything had been shot. A newer animal is last year's Oscar-nominated "The Mole Agent," which as near as I can figure is a documentary about the making of the documentary.

So I've written a fair amount of words about "Gunda" but not really told you want I think of it. Maybe it's because I'm having a hard time coalescing what I do think about it. 

Certainly, this is not the most entertaining 93 minutes you'll ever see. If you're not intimidated by a single shot of suckling piglets that goes on for six or seven minutes, their fuzzy little heads groping for the teat, then this may be an experience you can genuinely enjoy. 

If you don't have a lot of patience or aren't in the mood for something this slow-moving and placid, then I'd probably advise you to stay away. 

I don't ever read what other critics have to say about a movie before I review it, but I did see a pull-quote in the trailer that says, "This is a film to take a bath in," which I think is an awfully good description. My counterpoint would be, are you the type of person who thinks just sitting in a bath, doing nothing but staring at your toes, is a luxury or a dreadful bore?

I'm the sort of person who likes the idea of a bath, but every time I take one I lose patience after about four minutes.

One thing I can definitively say is this is exactly the sort of film that will play much better in a cinema than on your TV at home. Some movies just need the dark magic of a theater to wrap you up in the experience. "Gunda" requires your undivided attention and the indulgence of your time to be properly seen.

So we're at the end of this review and I see I landed on "long," as I'm writing this quickly and, as Mr. Twain famously once said, it takes more effort to write short. But aren't you impressed that I looked up "farrow," the proper term for a group of baby pigs?



Review: "Here Now"

“Here Now” is pretty corny and old-fashioned and rings closer to television than feature film. It’s also warmhearted, funny and entertaining with some melancholy stretches. It contains few surprises but gives you a lot more than you thought you’d walk away with.

Normally I’d probably give something like this a middling review, but I confess I have soft spot in my heart for Billy Crystal, who’s had a lovely career and was so great hosting the Oscars, back when they did that. He’s aged into grandpa roles gracefully, although if you look like Billy Crystal and not Harrison Ford, what choice do you really have?

He plays Charlie Berns, a legendary comedy writer, although “legendary” for comedy writers rarely means rich and famous. He’s had a few hit plays, a couple of memorable movies, a handful of books. Mostly he’s known as the senior writer on “This Just In,” a Saturday Night Live-esque live television show.

The set-up is that Charlie is suffering from a form of dementia that is robbing him of his ability to write and think clearly. But then he unexpectedly meets Emma, played by Tiffany Haddish, who has oodles of screen presence.

Charlie agreed to participate in a “have lunch with a celebrity” fundraiser, and is mortified to find out the winning bid was only $22, and she didn’t even bid herself but stole the ticket from her lousy ex-boyfriend. Despite this, and a memorable meal, they become close friends.

Perhaps lovers? you’re thinking, and that would be the most obvious movie thing to do, despite the 30-year age difference of the stars. I’ll just say that the film, which Crystal directed and co-wrote with Alan Zweibel based on his short story, dispenses with this choice without dismissing it as totally outside the realm of possibility.

To wit: this is the sort of movie where two people who are an unlikely romantic match have conversations about why they would be so terrible as a couple.

The humor is very broad Borsht Belt, the sort of thing where the actor winds up the pitch and puts it right down the plate, then takes a beat to let the joke sink in and be appreciated. Crystal’s timing is as sharp as ever, and he lands dozens of rat-a-tat zingers like an over-the-hill boxer who can still jab with the best of them.

Haddish plays on her star persona: a smart, brassy Black woman who knows who she is and will take guff from no one. Emma is a singer who performs anywhere she can, from subway stations to hole-in-the-wall clubs, but things are looking up for her band. This forms a crisis point when it becomes clear Charlie needs somebody to look after him, and his relationship with his kids is strained.

Laura Benanti and Penn Badgley play the children, busy professionals and parents themselves. The son is a little closer to him, playing regular tennis matches, but the daughter always seems to have furrowed brows and crossed elbows whenever she’s around.

The film is generally at its best in and around Charlie’s show, capturing the frantic, pirates-of-the-airwaves feel of the best of SNL, which Crystal was on for a minute back in the day. Max Gordon Moore plays Brad, Charlie’s former protégé who’s now running the show and has his back against the younger writers who think Charlie is old and out of touch.

That he is, and he doesn’t get as many sketches on the air as he used to. But Charlie has a good ear for the music of comedy and can’t stand it when the notes are played gracelessly. There’s a running gag about how Charlie can’t stand the way the big star of the show has a tendency to emphasize the wrong words and syllables. And there’s a nice sequence where Charlie takes a struggling young writer (Andrew Durand) under his wing.

There are also some gauzy, heart-tugging flashbacks to Charlie’s memories of his wife, Carrie (a pitch-perfect Louisa Krause), and some contretemps surrounding his granddaughter, Lindsay (Audrey Hsieh), who’s about to have her bat mitzvah and is having the usual teen conflicts with her mom, which threatens to widen the gulf Charlie already has with his daughter.

Crystal called in some favors with some old showbiz buddies who show up in cameos playing themselves including Sharon Stone, Kevin Kline, Bob Costas, Itzhak Perlman and Barry Levinson.

The stuff about dementia isn’t the strong suit of “Here Today” -- Crystal isn’t about to be confused with Anthony Hopkins -- but the onscreen vibe between him and Haddish is reassuring and has all the feels. The movie’s a little too long and a bit of a mess, but the sort of untidiness you see in a comfortable house you’re always up for a visit to.


Monday, May 3, 2021

Reeling Backward: Cast a Dark Shadow (1955)

 

Dirk Bogarde had a certain discreet charm that worked well for him as a British leading man. His enduring image on the screen is of a sleek, well-mannered gentleman of the upper crust, not very large, ramrod straight posture and almost always dressed nattily in a suit or uniform. He could be charming but also icy, and dare I say had a slightly androgynous quality, at least compared to other film actors of his era.

(By fairly reliable accounts he was gay and in a long-term relationship with another man for most of his life, and his failure to enter a show marriage of convenience like others hampered his Hollywood career.)

"Cast a Dark Shadow" is a British film noir that skillfully uses Bogarde's considerable qualities to maximum effect. It’s now out in a terrific new Blu-ray edition from Cohen Media.

He plays Edward Bare, a crafty young manipulator who uses older women for their fortunes. He contrives to kill his wife, Monica (Mona Washbourne), and stage it to look like an accident. He then marries Freda Jeffries (Margaret Lockwood), another wealthy widow, and intends to repeat the crime or otherwise squeeze her for the life of travel and ease he desires.

Dapper -- I don't think he ever appears without a tie, even at breakfast -- and with an impressively vertical pompadour, "Teddy" is slithery and charismatic. In a creepy narrative device, he continues to talk to his dead wife as if she were his conspirator and accomplice rather than victim. His pet name for her was "Moni," which in his soft Cockney accent sounds suspiciously close to "money."

Teddy is clever, and has a way of quickly intuiting the motives of others and bending them to his advantage. He appears always helpful and benevolent to every woman he meets, almost incapable of not flirting, though he is standoffish and borderline rude to other men -- especially Phillip Mortimer (Robert Flemyng), Moni's attorney who (rightfully) suspects that Teddy is after her fortune.

Although he spends so much effort thinking things through, Teddy is very much capable of outsmarting himself, as we'll see.

He seems content to go on living his quiet life with Moni, plying her with brandy and giving "magic carpet" rides by flipping through an album filled with pictures of foreign lands they'll never visit due to her health. (Washbourne was only in her early 50s when the film was made, though I get the sense her character is at least a decade older.) She gives him checks for his little amusements, including a Sunbeam Mk. III convertible he likes to dash around the countryside in, but he craves to be master of his own fate and fortune.

When Teddy hears that Moni plans to make a new will with Phillip, he tries to dissuade her, believing that if she dies with no will he will inherit everything. But he has it backward: she secretly made a will when they got married a year earlier that leaves her mansion to him but her wealth to her estranged sister, herself a widow living in Jamaica.

(So many rich widows!)

Moni intends to change the will to give him everything -- he's successfully devoted himself to her to the extent she genuinely adores him. Plus he claims to have a "wonky ticker" and expects to die before she does. Believing he stands to lose much of what he considers rightfully his, Teddy gets Moni drunk and stages an accident where she appears to have asphyxiated while trying to light the gas fireplace.

If he'd waited until the next day, Teddy would have everything he wanted. Instead, he is left house-rich but cash-poor, confiding that he couldn't write a check for 10 pounds, let alone a thousand. He even contrives to rob Moni's devoted maid, Emmie (Kathleen Harrison), convincing the simple-minded woman that the £200 left to her in the will was supposed to be a lump sum to take care of future wages.

Teddy scrapes together what he has to stake out a posh seaside resort, where he spots Freda and quickly moves in. She is almost the polar opposite of Moni: loud, brassy, lower-class and with a quirk for making inappropriate or crude jokes. But she is also self-confident and self-aware, and though she falls for Teddy and marries him, Freda insists on keeping a tight grasp on her money. She refuses to invest £2,000 in a little real estate investment he proposes to buy a plot next to the town church for a cinema.

"Pound for pound" is her oft-repeated mantra.

He is now in quite a spot. The inquest into Mona's death absolved him, but Philip is still snooping around and the potential to be caught remains. Hurriedly marrying and murdering another woman would look too suspicious. So he sets his eyes on another mark: Charlotte Young (Kay Walsh), yet another wealthy widow (!) who is looking to buy property nearby. 

Teddy, a former real estate agent, shows her around while pitching woo and dropping hints about making a mistake by marrying Freda. 

Here's the really crazy thing: Teddy makes no effort to hide this from his second wife, and in fact attempts to enlist her aid in the bamboozling. He essentially lets Freda know that he is exactly what everyone says he is, and if she won't festoon him with funds then he'll have to continue his little schemes to secure them. 

Freda puts up with all this, a clear-eyed calculation that she would rather have a snake in bed with her than slithering around the back door. There's even a scene where Teddy proposes moving into Moni's old locked-up bedroom and Freda adamantly refuses, saying didn't marry him "for companionship." This is about as close as the movies would get to acknowledging feminine lust in 1955.

Things go on from there, which I'll leave you to discover. The ending is a bit abrupt and stagey, though with some impressive pyrotechnics. There is one big twist involving Charlotte that I admit I did not see coming, and was impressed that Teddy did.

Directed by the great Lewis Gilbert ("Alfie"), "Cast a Dark Shadow" was written by John Cresswell, based on the play "Murder Mistaken" by Janet Green. The cinematography by Jack Asher is sumptuous, blindingly bright sunny scenes outdoors contrasted with inky pools of shadow and darkness inside. 

The sitting room where Moni perishes is the centerpiece of the movie, and Gilbert will stage Bogarde in tight closeup in the foreground, much of his face hidden, while other characters wait in the background trying to pierce his conniving, and possibly unhinged, mind. 

At 83 minutes, the movie hurries a little too quickly through its plot points for my taste. I would've liked to have more development with Freda, a strong and original female character who's just as interesting and confounding as Teddy. They make a curious pair, two twisted, dominant personalities constantly vying for the upper hand.

I could even envision a third act where the two of them pair up to deceive a succession of old biddies, partners in the art of lovemaking -- and crypt-keeping.



Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Virtuoso

 

Something was bugging me all throughout watching "The Virtuoso." It's the tale of an assassin trying to reconcile the capricious brutalities of his life while pulling off an especially vexing job in which he's sent to a small town to kill someone -- but he doesn't know who.

Even though the film is engaging and full of plenty of suspense, I couldn't shake the vague feeling that what I was watching was not a movie. A large part of it has to do with the narration, which is done in second-person, present-tense form: "You are very careful. You know never to rush. You always take your time and do not be distracted," etc. 

At first what bothered me about the narration is that it's largely unnecessary. As our titular protagonist, a stern-looking fellow of middle years played by Anson Mount, assesses threats and undertakes risks, we can generally see his mind working clearly. For example, at one point he encounters a body in the trunk of a car, so we know that he knows that the person driving that vehicle isn't who they say they are.

Nevertheless, here comes the narrator to solemnly intone, "But if so-and-so is dead in the trunk, then who is the imposter inside the house?"

It's thudding and it's distracting. In movies it's best to lead your audience to where you want them to go, but don't spell it out for them. Show, don't tell. Less is more. It's better to let them be momentarily confused that always feel one step ahead of the characters. 

This is filmmaking 101 stuff. And director Nick Stagliano is not a newbie with three previous feature credits under his belt. Screenwriter James C. Wolf is a little greener, but they seem adept at pacing the plot it. So why the damn narrator?

It wasn't until the movie was nearly over I figured it out: it's a video game. Watching the movie is an equivalent experience to having your avatar go through the tricks and tumbles of a role-playing game, with the narrator helpfully providing clues and insights you might have missed. 

Should the virtuoso go here and talk to this woman? Or hang back and watch what unfolds? Should he start up his car, or will the taillights give away his position to the enemy? And so on.

It's too bad, because this invasive choose-your-own-adventure warbling keeps getting in the way of a perfectly serviceable story. 

The assassin lives in a shack in the woods, totally off the grid and cut off from all communication or human contact. He gets his assignments through notes in a private mail service box, and can pick and choose his jobs. 

Sometimes he gets a name, location, details, everything. Other times it's just a few clues, and he has to follow the breadcrumbs to find his mark. His only real connection is with his handler, an enigmatic fellow played by Anthony Hopkins. He's essentially an older version of the virtuoso, and even though they work together they circle each other like wary wolves, affection not giving all the way to trust.

You may wonder why a screen icon like Hopkins is doing in a little potboiler like this, and I can say with a lot of confidence that it's all because of one speech the handler gives in a graveyard scene. I'd bet a steak dinner Hopkins was flipping through that script thinking, "This guy doesn't really do much but sit at his desk and answer one of several phones in front of him," but got to that stem-winder speech and said, "I'll take the part!"

Turns out the handler was a soldier who served with the assassin's father, and has taken on a mentor role now that his old man is passed. Hopkins is frisky and a little scary as a man who knows the dark parts of man's heart, knows that duty requires wandering in there from time to time, but understands how to set it aside and move on to the next mission.

The virtuoso is having trouble with this because his last job went terribly bad, so he wants to jump back into the game so as not to stew over it. His next assignment is a doozie, and the handler suggests he pass on it, but he's resolved.

It involves going to a tiny, tiny town in the woods that seems to consist of just a motel and Rosie's Cafe, a roadside greasy spoon where he is to meet his quarry at exactly 5 o'clock. The hitch: he doesn't know who it is, other than it has something to do with "White Rivers."

He goes to the appointed place and finds several potential threats. There's an older loner (Eddie Marsan) in the corner who's carrying a concealed gun. A handsome dude with a wolf's smile (Richard Brake) who appears to be a boyfriend of a woman (Diora Baird). The assassin is trying to figure out who to kill when a sheriff's deputy (David Morse) strolls in to refuel with coffee and danish. Now what?

He subtly enlists the help of the waitress, Dixy (Abbie Cornish), Rosie's niece who is filling in while her aunt is sick. She takes one look at the steely virtuoso and recognizes a choice pick in an unlikely place, and comes on hard to him. He uses her attraction to his advantage, plumbing her for information to scope out the others. Things go from there.

It's a pretty neat setup, although I have to confess I figured out the twist pretty early on, and I'm guessing you will, too. Still, I was never bored watching it all play out.

Mount is an intriguing figure, a guy who has to practice smiling so he'll pass for a normal citizen. He's not a bad person at heart and the collateral damage that sometimes happens weighs heavily on him. Mount, who sort of resembles George Clooney's harder-hearted cousin, gives the virtuoso a sort of polite distant quality -- a gentlemen with a thousand-yard stare.

There's a lot to like about "The Virtuoso," which plays on the conventions of the killer-among-us shtick while offering enough originality to make it seem like not another cookie-cutter flick. I also appreciated that they didn't gift the assassin with otherworldly fighting skills a la Wick or Bourne, so when he gets into a scrape he gets as good as he gives.

If only they would've nixed that damnable "quest hints" narration...