Wednesday, June 28, 2017

How come there's never a Tony Soprano around when you need one?

Quit smoking, dammit

I doubt the name Michael Nyqvist is going to jump off the page – create an aura of instant recognition for those who see the name in print. But you might recall him if I tell you that eight years ago he played the journalist Mikael Blomkvist in the original and still popular "Girl Trilogy" — The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. (It’s the same character that Daniel Craig played in the American remake of Tattoo.) Or you might even remember him as the lead villain Kurt Hendricks in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol or as Viggo Tarasov, another lead villain, in John Wick.

Regardless, I just learned he died yesterday. Of lung cancer. And he was only 56-years-old. C’mon people. Wake up! Twenty-seven years ago, I kicked a three-pack-a day habit and I smoked unfiltered Camels for the previous 25 years and I did it cold turkey, without patches or any other form of medication. If I — someone without an ounce of will power — can do it, anyone can.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Available soon for home viewing

Drone **½ Ideologies collide when a military drone contractor meets an enigmatic Pakistani busnessman. A modest, proficient thriller.

Song to Song **½ Two intersecting love triangles highlight a story of obsession and portrayal set against the Austin music scene. The first Terrence Malick film I’ve watched where the dots never come together to form a legible image.

Vincent N Roxxy ½* A small town loner and a rebellious punk rocker unexpectedly fall in love as they are forced to go on the run and soon discover violence follows them everywhere. A nasty little piece of B-movie trash that lacks both the verve to grab you as a guilty pleasure and the artistry to be taken seriously as a dramatic thriller.

The Zookeeper’s Wife ** Chronicles the story of Antonia and Jan Zabinski, the keepers of the Warsaw zoo who helped save hundreds of people and animals during the German invasion of World War II. Jessica Chastain, who plays Antonia, seems bound up as an actress, held back in creating a character mainly by the demands of doing a Polish accent.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Jonah Hill has really lost weight

Enough said.

Available now for home viewing: "Life"

After the relatively warm-and-fuzzy space odysseys of Arrival and Passengers it’s salutary to see a relatively big studio sci-fi picture in which the final frontier is once again relegated to the status of Ultimate Menace. Genre thrill-seekers disgusted/disappointed by Prometheus but still salivating like Pavlov’s Dog at the prospect of Alien: Covenant might find Life, directed by Daniel Espinosa, a satisfactory stopgap measure, a cinematic Epipen of outer-space mayhem to steady the nerves until the ostensible Main Event. As for myself, I’ve been gorging on such fare since before Alien itself — It! The Terror from Beyond Space and Planet of the Vampires were among my various cinematic bread and butters as a young maladjusted cinephile.

As such, Life struck me as several cuts above "meh" but never made me jump out of my seat. The picture takes place almost entirely on a claustrophobic, labyrinthine space station; director Espinosa and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey have a lot of fun in the early scene "floating" the camera along with the space station crew. Ryan Reynold’s cocky Roy is the cowboy of the bunch; he goes on a spacewalk to catch an off-course capsule full of research materials straight from Mars. Cautious medical officer David, played by an often bug-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal, is initially the fella who says things like "We weren’t trained for this." Rebecca Ferguson’s Miranda plays den mother to him and others. Science dude Hugh (Ariyon Bakare), paralyzed from the waist down, loves zero gravity conditions, and initially loves the single-cell organism (named "Calvin" by a group of contest-winning schoolchildren down on home sweet Earth) he’s wrested from a sample of Martian soil. Two other crew members are played by Olga Dihovichnaya and Hiroyuki Sanada, the latter back in space for the first time since Danny Boyle’s 2007 Sunshine.

You may remember the nickname "Dead Meat" from Hot Shots, or the phrase "Bantha Fodder" from one of the Star Wars movies. However. One of the bigger-name crew members does get to play (spoiler alert, sort of) a reprise of the Steven Seagal role in Executive Decision. That’s because little Calvin suddenly starts growing awfully fast. At first it’s kind of like a living version of those icky sticky wall-tumbling toys. Which is bad enough. Eventually it grows into a tentacled cross between a mutant lotus and an irritated cobra. It’s pretty gnarly. But early on I thought, let’s face it, it ain’t Giger. Or Giger-league. And without that you’re always going to suffer by comparison. The other effects and settings are solid but unextraordinary, although the hiccupped blood bubbles that float around after escaping from Calvin’s victims are a nice ghoulish touch.

There’s also the constant, insistent score by Jon Ekstrand, bearing down right from the opening and not doing much for the cause. There are some disquieting bits — the early scene in which the maturing Calvin grabs on to Hugh’s gloved hand and simply will not let go is a nice burner, for sure. But the movie’s story "beats" are inescapably commonplace. (There’s even a bit derived from The Thing From Another World in which one ill-advised character contemplates Calvin’s scientific awesomeness.) Either screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick haven’t got the goods, or there really are only so many things you can do with a homicidal space creature and a manned ship.

It doesn’t help that just as the movie should be hurtling toward its climax, it pauses for some character development. A children’s book that makes a Chekhovian appearance in the "first act" holds the key to survival in the final one, and I didn’t buy it. What the filmmakers don’t understand is that when you try to add overtly cerebral notes to ruthless B-picture scenarios, you actually wind up making your final product dumber than the movies you think you’re transcending. Life bounces back a bit with a commitedly sour punchline, and then blows that by punching up a ‘70s hit you’ve heard a million times before in a million better cinematic contexts. And that’s Life.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Donald Trump's cameo in Woody Allen movie

Celebrity was nowhere close to being a popular Woody Allen film, so I guess it’s worth airing this chestnut for those who are completely unaware of its existence.

Available for home viewing: "Get Out"

Get Out is a horror film but it’s not like any horror film that has reached home screens in a long time. To begin with, it’s rated R, and the R-rated horror film has become something of an endangered species in this era of PG-13’ing everything. The R, however, isn’t for the usual "extreme gore" of a slasher movie. Instead, it’s mainly for profanity. Get Out has only a little blood and viscera; the approach of writer/first time director Jordan Peele is to approach the more stomach-churning aspects of his production with tact. Yes, that’s right — I used the word "tact" in describing a horror film.

Then there’s the tone. Get Out doesn’t cross over the line into outright satire or comedy — it’s a little too serious for that — but there are times when it comes close. Peele keeps things light while delivering the scares. There are some jump-out-of-your seat "boo!" moments, including one that’s enhanced by a strident musical sting. Although dated, Scream might be the best analog. The filmmakers want us to remember that horror movies don’t have to be defined by non-stop intensity and unrelenting tension. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Peele would craft something like Get Out. He is, after all, known for his comedy (co-writer of Keanu on screen and Key & Peele on TV). What perhaps is unexpected is how well he strikes a balance between the scares and the guffaws. Most directors don’t attempt this let alone succeed at it.

Get Out also has something to say about race relations although the specifics of the message are probably in the eye of the beholder. The most obvious takeaways relate to the differences between white and black culture and the curious mix of condescension and envy that can co-exist in the minds and attitudes of some. Peele doesn’t venture too deeply into this divisive minefield, however — after all, he’s trying to make a crowd-pleaser and alienating a sizable portion of his audience wouldn’t be a good way to start. Instead, he uses the black/white divide as a way to establish the "stranger in a strange land" milieu.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a black man, expects it to be uncomfortable when he accompanies his (white) girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), to her childhood home to meet her parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), and a host of their high-class friends. Although Mom and Dad seem accommodating, with Dean confiding that he would have voted for a third Obama term if possible, Chris senses that something is "off" and his fears are heightened when he notices the bizarre, zombie-like behaviors of the maid (Betty Gabriel) and the groundskeeper (Marcus Henderson), the only two other African Americans in the vicinity. Then, when Missy offers to hypnotize him to cure his smoking addiction, he wonders whether there’s a connection between her talents and the strange things going on around him.

As good as Get Out is, it’s not without flaws. The final act is peppered with nits that are easy to pick. (I guess Chris has some hitherto unseen contortionist abilities.) The biggest twists are easier to predict and less surprising than the filmmakers want them to be. (To be fair, if you’re not paying full attention — a common problem among today’s ADD-afflicted viewers — they might indeed be unexpected.) None of those things spoil the fun since many of these issues are expected from any horror film worth its salt and the experience could be deemed incomplete without them.

In additional to tonal similarities with Scream, Get Out also draws from other horror classics. In particular, echoes of Deliverance can be found, especially when emphasizing the main character’s alienation in a foreign and potentially lethal setting. And there’s more than a passing reference to The Stepford Wives in the way certain characters act and react.

The praiseworthy quality of Get Out is that it delivers the goods without copycatting every cookie-cutter horror film being released today. It’s the proverbial breath of fresh air blowing through a stale industry. Peele’s vision is largely responsible for this, as are his unconventional casting choices. Kaluuya is the key here. The British TV veteran conveys the right mix of likability and normalcy that viewers automatically relate to him. This leads to some very strong crowd-pleasing moments late in the film. Also important to the overall tone is LilRel Howery (as Chris’ best friend, TSA worker Rod), who is singlehandedly responsible for many of the film’s biggest laughs. Girls’ Williams is appealing as the color-blind woman who is perhaps a little too trusting of her family.

This early, it’s impossible to say whether Get Out will outlast the upcoming 2017 contenders to emerge as the best horror film of the year but it will almost assuredly open eyes while providing home viewers with the rare scary film that can be embraced as readily by those who avoid horror as those who crave it.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Available for home viewing: "The Lego Batman Movie"

Bring it on, Bat dudes and dude-ettes. I am not among those flapping my Bat wings with overflowing joy over The Lego Batman Movie, the latest building block in a burgeoning animated toy-box franchise based on 2014’s The Lego Movie. Before you head to the comments section below to disagree, consider that this dissent comes courtesy of someone who really liked its predecessor, a supremely original and consistently entertaining outing about resisting socially-enforced conformity.

It could simply be that I suffer from superhero fatigue these days. It’s a not-uncommon malady, one that seems to be also affecting even the stars of these repetitive enterprises as witnessed by current Bat surrogate Ben Affleck when he couldn’t summon the enthusiasm to also direct a sequel to last year’s critically maligned Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

I also haven’t really been truly fond of a big-screen Caped Crusader since Michael Keaton’s inspired outside-the-box interpretation of the role. When he sneered, "I’m Batman," it contained true menace. When Will Arnett throatily growls his lines in this Lego version, it is usually in the service of derisive mockery that only semi-regularly hits its mark.

Of course, if I wanted to spend a morning with a narcissistic grumpy billionaire who claims he and he alone can bring law and order to the world while bragging incessantly about his accomplishments, I could have simply skipped the screening and turned on any cable news channel instead. Although Batman scores points for often beat-boxing rather than tweeting his self-praise.

But besides an implacable me-first disposition, the synthetically molded superhero and a certain White House dweller also have a financial patron in common: Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin, who earns an executive producer credit on this spoofy spinoff. Hmm. Are you thinking what I am thinking about how they might just build that border wall — namely, one Lego brick at a time?

Granted, I will never be mistaken for a diehard Batman fan. I was more into Superman as a kid, mostly because of Lois Lane — but I was a loyal admirer of the campy ‘60s Batman TV series (referenced here via its "na-na-na-na" theme song, cheesy villains and the pop-art "POWs!" employed during a fight scene — a bone thrown at us oldsters). So, yes, I am not the target audience. Then again, neither are kids under 8 or so, who likely aren’t going to get most of the non-bathroom-and-butt-related humor.

Basically, those who are batty for this stuff will positively devour all the Easter eggs that whisk by. But those who aren’t as up on the 78-year history of the character will likely feel as if their brains have been scrambled.

That’s not to say I didn’t find some pleasure in this aggressively frenzied comedic spin directed by Chris McKay (who worked as an animation co-director/supervisor on the first Lego film) on this most dour of comic-book heroes as it draws upon decades of Bat lore for its inside jokes (no previous incarnation of the Dark Knight is left un-zinged, including an obscure baddie known as the Condiment King) and cultural references that zip by faster than any souped-up Bat vehicle. But it soon becomes apparent that not everything is quite as awesome this time around. For one, there is barely a plot other than how the bromance-inclined Joker (Zach Galifianakis, who turns his leering clown into an incessant whiner) is ticked off that Batman refuses to acknowledge that he is his No. 1 arch-rival. Instead, Batman hurtfully claims that Superman is his greatest enemy before admitting, "I am fighting a few different people … I Iike to fight around."

Action scenes consume most of the film's 104-minute running time, with a surplus of villainy summoned from not just the DC Comics universe but also home studio Warner Bros.’ warehouse of baddies — including the Eye of Sauron, Voldemort, King Kong, Gremlins, Godzilla and the Wicked Witch of the West and her Flying Monkeys. There is plenty of visual razzle-dazzle, to be sure, but not much else.

The sequence that I most enjoyed, however, was a rare quiet and semi-serious one when Batman returns to his near-empty secluded compound that occupies an entire island and reheats the lobster thermidor thoughtfully left in the fridge by manservant Alfred (a fine Ralph Fiennes). Dressed in a silk robe but still in his mask, Batman accidentally punches in 20 minutes instead of 2 — glad to know I am not the only one who does this — and dines in solo silence before he heads to his Wayne Manor movie theater to giggle over the romantic interludes of such relationship flicks as Jerry Maguire and Marley & Me. Later, he gazes at photos of himself as a youngster alongside his parents, who — as Batman fans know — were tragically murdered. Bruce Wayne might be, as he declares, "the greatest orphan of all time," but he also fears commitment to family, friends, even to fellow crime-fighters and foes.

That all changes when Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson, who eventually becomes Batgirl) replaces her father and takes over as commissioner. Instead of being a lone vigilante, she wants Batman to work alongside the city’s police as a team, the better to keep Gotham safe. In addition, while at a charity event for an orphanage, Bruce manages to unknowingly adopt googly-eyed foundling Dick Grayson (a nicely eager-beaverish Michael Cera), who eventually assumes his own super persona as sidekick Robin.

Certainly, the five writers who pieced together this pastiche of Batmania have done their homework. But the story peters out long before it concludes with — what else? — a dance number. I guess I should semi-applaud any movie that employs Mariah Carey to provide the voice for Gotham’s pearl-wearing and pant-suited mayor. But when it comes to humorous satire, it is the movie that has to sing even while it stings.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Available for home viewing: "John Wick, Chapter 2"

They just couldn’t leave it alone. The original John Wick, about an über assassin who’s reluctantly drawn out of retirement, was a near perfect synergy of simple premise and intricate movement — an action movie that danced. But the lightness and winking quality that softened the slaughter are less evident in John Wick: Chapter 2, an altogether more solemn affair weighed down by the philosophy that more is always more.

That means almost doubling the body count as John (Keanu Reeves, still superstoic and hyper-pliable) is once again yanked out of seclusion, this time to fulfill a debt to an Italian mobster by killing the mobster’s sister (Claudia Gerini). The plot matters only inasmuch as it allows the returning director, Chad Stahelski, to stage his spectacular fight sequences in various stunning Roman locations, where they unfold with an almost erotic brutality. In this movie, the camera contemplates weaponry with more lip-licking awe than is ever afforded Gerini’s curves.

John might remind you of James Bond, but he has no interest in the honeys. Carnage is his release, and the camera plays along, gazing up at his aspirational buttocks as he slides a knife from his back pocket, and circling his twisting torso with rapt attention. A brilliantly stylized foreplay sequence is constructed around assassin-related paraphernalia, and both Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne — as the respective heads of separate killing squads — remind us of madams, pimping death across continents.

Some of this world-building is fun, and almost all of it is dazzling, but the emotional sterility of John’s life will burden a franchise. At some point, he’ll have to care about more than his dog.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Available for home viewing: "A Dog's Purpose"

You don’t need an animal-rights group’s boycott to give you permission to avoid A Dog’s Purpose. You can skip it just because it’s clumsily manipulative dreck.

The movie, directed by Lasse Hallstrom and based on a novel by W. Bruce Cameron, serves up one cloying story after another as it drags us through the multiple lives of a dog named Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad). Bailey dies, as dogs do, yet keeps being reincarnated, as a different breed and sometimes a different sex.

He has a few cute mannerisms and tricks that are consistent from life to life, which ultimately becomes tear-jerkingly important as he tries to find his way back to Ethan (Bryce Gheisar, K. J. Apa or Dennis Quaid, depending on which year and dog it is), an early owner with whom he was especially tight.

Along the way, though, he has various other owners, allowing the movie to indulge in assorted hero-dog fantasies. Save people from a burning house? Check. Plunge into raging waters to keep a child from drowning? Check. Nudge a lonely woman into a romantic relationship? Check. Only "Timmy has fallen into a well" is missing.

It was that raging-waters scene, by the way, that incurred the wrath of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has urged a boycott of the film. A video published by TMZ showed a dog resisting being put in the water during the scene’s filming; others have said the video is misleading.

The PETA opposition will no doubt trouble some of the dog lovers at whom this film is aimed. (Reviewer discloser: I own a Golden Retriever with whom I am extremely close, to say the least.) It’s difficult to resist on a superficial level anyway, because hey, it’s dogs delivering insipid lines about bacon and the joys of eating from the garbage.

It’s also family friendly, the vignettes being nothing but a string of nonthreatening clichés with a dog injected into them. Which brings up another shortcoming of this film: It seems likely to prompt youngsters to ask for a dog, but it depicts almost none of the challenges and responsibilities of pet ownership. In this glossy world, dogs require little maintenance. They’re just there, at the ready, waiting for you to fall into a river so they can pull you out.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Available for home viewing: "The Space Between Us"

While the idea of moving to Mars might not sound so terrible right about now, The Space Between Us is about a young man who’s spent all of his 16 years on the red planet and can’t wait to visit Earth — specifically, to meet the cute high school girl with whom he’s sparked an online flirtation. Trouble is, he may not physically be able to withstand the journey — or last long once he gets here.

It’s kind of an intriguing premise, even if it plays a bit like a "Muppet Babies" version of Starman, with an appealing lead performance from wide-eyed Brit Asa Butterfield. But the sci-fi/mystery element of the film works far better than the romance between Butterfield and an annoyingly feisty Britt Robertson as his interplanetary pen pal, and the whole thing ultimately collapses in a heap of unintentionally hilarious melodrama.

Veterans like Gary Oldman and Carla Gugino bring flashes of dignity and sometimes even emotional truth to this frequently silly enterprise. But — like Will Smith, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren and Naomie Harris surely found while making Collateral Beauty — there’s only so much you can do with a soggy Allan Loeb script. The twists are just unbearably ridiculous, which drains all the power out of their supposed catharsis.

Then again, awkward tonal shifts abound in the film from director Peter Chelsom, known for such early-2000s misfires as Town & Country, Serendipity and the English-language remake of Shall We Dance? Chelsom, who also provides the voice of the boy’s wisecracking robot pal early on, can’t quite make the transition from a character receiving terrible news to a joyous hot air balloon festival, for example. And a scene in which Robertson’s fiercely independent foster-child character starts playing the piano and singing a ballad in the middle of a Sam’s Club shopping spree is more likely to prompt giggles than the poignancy for which it clearly aims.

There’s reason for hope at the outset, though, simply through the involvement of Oldman. He plays a Richard Branson-type billionaire explorer named Nathaniel Shepherd who’s funding a mission to set up a colony on Mars called East Texas. (There’s the glimmer of a notion that climate change is a motivating factor, but any sort of political underpinning quickly gets swept aside.) But it turns out that the lead astronaut (Janet Montgomery) was pregnant when she boarded the rocket; several months later, she dies during childbirth. (Not a spoiler, folks — it happens early in the movie.) The ethical questions at stake are intriguing: whether Nathaniel and his team should report to the world that a boy has been born on Mars, or keep it a secret to avoid jeopardizing the mission. But that’s about the extent of the intellectual ambitions at play here.

Sixteen years later, the colony is thriving and the baby has grown into an inquisitive, slightly awkward young man named Gardner Elliot. Gugino plays the intelligent, supportive astronaut who was sent to East Texas to function as a mother figure to him. But Gardner’s daily chats with Robertson’s character — a similarly frustrated, isolated teen who goes by the nickname Tulsa — make him increasingly curious about Earth. He also hopes to learn the identity of his father, whom he’s seen in photos and snippets of home movies.

Despite the physical toll it likely will take on him, Gardner makes the trek to Earth, where he promptly escapes his government handlers and seeks out Tulsa (who lives in Colorado). Fish-out-of-water antics involving exotic phenomena like rain aim for easy, obvious laughs, but they’re vaguely amusing because of Butterfield’s pleasingly guileless persona. The two go on a road trip across the American West, stealing various cars and stopping in Las Vegas on the way to California, trying to outrun the authorities and his mounting health problems along the way.

Which brings us to the multitude of distracting, inconsistent details. It’s supposed to be 16 years in the future, right? Some elements (like laptops) have a high-tech look about them, while others (like dry erase boards in a classroom and old pickup trucks and cars) are clearly from the present day or even a few decades ago. They make a big deal out of the fact that the beach house that’s their ultimate destination is in the tiny beach town of Summerland, Calif. — a few miles down the coast from Santa Barbara — but then the authorities that arrive are from Los Angeles. Stuff like this sticks out when you’re not engaged emotionally in what is supposed to be the film’s dramatic climax.

Butterfield and Robertson (who’s about 10 years too old to be playing a high-school student at this point) don’t exactly get sparkling dialogue with which to convince us of their burgeoning love. Neither does the score, which works overtime to make us feel all the feels.

But hey, at least there’s an exploding barn. That’s something you don’t see on Mars every day.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Fifty Shades Darker"

It is, as they say, what it is. Fifty Shades Darker, the sequel to the critically panned but fan-loved Fifty Shades of Grey, will likely satisfy those who liked the first film (or the books upon which the movies are based) while distancing everyone else. This is a bad film — at times it’s nigh unwatchable — but that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Fifty Shades Darker was developed with a narrow audience in mind and the producers don’t care whether anyone outside of that group sees or enjoys the result. In order for the film to work on any level, it’s necessary to have read the books. Character development on screen is non-existent. Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are attractive avatars used to playact sex scenes. To relate to Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, it’s mandatory for a viewer to bring something to the movie. Otherwise, the result will be utter boredom.

There isn’t much of a plot. After breaking up at the end of Fifty Shades of Grey, the couple must be reunited. Despite Ana’s determination that a relationship with Christian is bad for her health, it takes all of a 15 minute dinner conversation before they’re kissing. Then, irrespective of a decision to "take it slow", they’re having "vanilla" sex before the movie is 20 minutes old. After that, Fifty Shades Darker is essentially a chronicle of the ups-and-downs of their relationship until the inevitable marriage proposal. Along the way, we get subplots involving the appropriately named Mr. Hyde (Eric Johnson), who’s Ana’s boss at an indie publishing firm; Christian’s ex, Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger); and a girl who appears to have wandered in from a horror film. There’s also a helicopter crash that generates less tension than a slack rubber band.

The BDSM elements have been toned down. The sex here is never rough and only occasionally a little kinky. There are ben-wa balls, blindfolds, and little light spanking — nothing outrageous or outside the scope of couples interested in "spicing up" their sex lives. The film’s erotic content is better than in the first film. The characters have marginally stronger chemistry and the movie is more interested in showing off their bodies (although we see neither The Full Johnson nor The Full Dornan, for those who are curious). The "bedroom" scenes (which only occasionally occur in the bedroom) are the only times, in fact, when the movie becomes engaging. They happen frequently enough to keep viewers awake who may be tempted to take naps.

The character dynamic between Ana and Christian has changed. She’s still as squishy and unformed as in Fifty Shades Grey but he has been softened. Their relationship echoes a standard from a bygone era: she’s the pretty girl who falls for the strong, alpha male. The dom/sub stuff is glossed over or explained away. Christian has turned over a new leaf. His tendencies aren’t the result of his true self but were cultivated by Elena and are related to childhood incidents. I’m not going to get into the film’s psychological inadequacies but I can imagine a professional therapist needing an ophthalmologist to repair the damage done by too much eye-rolling.

Kudos to Johnson and Dornan. These are two courageous performers. Not only do they engage in convincing simulated sex while displaying everything except what’s between their legs but, more impressively, they handle reams and reams of godawful dialogue. Okay, so most of the time Johnson delivers it in a monologue and Dornan has a tendency to growl his lines but they get through it without falling asleep or breaking into laughter. Meanwhile, Johnson completes his transformation from white-hatted hunk to mustache-twirling villain without skipping a beat and Basinger makes everyone forget that she was once the star of her own soft-core erotic movie. Where’s Mickey Roarke when you need him?

Fifty Shades Darker is probably one slight shade better than Fifty Shades of Grey. Although the movie’s aesthetics are different (resulting from James Foley displacing Sam-Taylor Johnson in the director’s chair) and the script is substantially worse (E.L. James’s husband, Niall Leonard, ensures that his wife’s purple prose is retained), the actors seems more comfortable, the sex scenes are hotter, and the movie runs 10 minutes shorter. Ultimately, none of that matters and I understand that. Film quality isn’t an issue for those who plan to watch this. That’s a good thing because if it was, Fifty Shades Darker would have a dim home-viewing future indeed.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Available for home viewing: "The Salesman"

For the few Americans fortunate enough to visit Iran, one of the most startling discoveries can be the vitality, diversity and popularity of the arts scene in cities like Tehran. Literary festivals of all sorts abound, as do most varieties of the visual arts. Granted, the government’s Islamic restrictions put the damper on all but traditional forms of dance, and public performances of vocal music by women are effectively verboten. Yet, as Bahman Ghobadi’s delightful 2009 documentary No One Knows About Persian Cats showed, pop music including punk and rap thrives in urban undergrounds, the efforts of government censors notwithstanding. Indeed, the chance to defy the regime’s thought police seems a prime motivator for many young artists and their fans.

Theater is also a lively center of cultural action. While Iran, uniquely in its region, has not only an indigenous form of traditional theater (Ta’ziyeh) but also a strong modernist descendant that includes such monumental talents as writer-director (and filmmaker) Bahram Beyzaie, Tehran also sees frequent stagings of works by playwrights including Ionesco, Beckett and Pinter. When a friend asked if it was realistic that Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-nominated The Salesman shows an Iranian company staging Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman — a play by an American Jew — I replied that such things are common, as are presentations of works by Americans such as Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and Sam Shepard.

Next to Beyzaie, Farhadi is the prominent Iranian filmmaker most associated with theater. Arriving in Tehran hoping to study cinema in college, he was instead assigned to the theater school, an apparent misfortune that he has called one of the luckiest things that ever happened to him. Studying the literature of theater — he did his dissertation on Pinter’s use of silence — he has said, taught him to write, and that skill has been integral to his career as a filmmaker. While other Iranian directors seem to reflect the influence of the Italian neorealists and other Europeans, Farhadi freely admits his admiration for films like Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire, with its fusion of cinema and the stage. The Salesman, though, marks the first time he’s ever taken us into the theater.

The meaning and importance of that move are worthy subjects for discussion, because in no sense does the film seem to be about theater. Farhadi was recently asked at a festival showing of this film if he was familiar with theater-themed Jacques Rivette films such as L’Amour Fou and Out 1, and he said he wasn’t. That makes sense, because he’s not an experimenter like Rivette. More akin to R.W. Fassbinder, he uses the language of theatrical melodrama to probe social and psychological fissures. Like all but the first two of his features, The Salesman tackles what has become his signature subject: middle-class marriage.

The film opens showing us a marriage bed — a startling image in an Iranian film. But the lighting soon signals that this bed is on a theater stage; it will be the bed of Willy and Linda Loman. Next, we are in a suburban apartment building at night where the inhabitants are screaming and running for the exits. A disaster has destroyed the structure’s foundations and among the newly homeless are Emad (Shahab Hossieni) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti). They are amateur actors playing the Lomans on the stage we’ve just witnessed, and that avocation turns out to be fortunate in one sense: one of their fellow performers generously guides them to a vacant apartment he knows about.

A spacious two-bedroom on the top floor of a building, it seems close to perfect, so they move in. Meanwhile, we see Emad in his day job teaching literature to a class of teenage boys. The key reference here will be unfamiliar to American viewers, so it’s worth unpacking. Emad is assigning the short story The Cow by Gholem-Hossein Sa’edi, a leading Persian 20th-century literary figure and political activist. After publishing the story, Sa’edi converted it to a film script that became the basis for Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow (which we glimpse in a subsequent scene), the 1969 film that legendarily launched the Iranian New Wave of the 1970s and, after the Iranian Revolution, reportedly inspired the Ayatollah Khomeini to give his blessing to the continuance of Iran’s cinema, leading to its revival and global success in the 1980s and beyond.

In The Cow, when an impoverished village loses its one cow, its owner goes insane, mooing and eating flowers as he imagines himself to be his beloved animal. "How does a man turn into a cow?" one of Emad’s students asks. ("Look in the mirror," another cracks, provoking laughter.) The question, it turns out, prefigures what happens in The Salesman, even as the scene also suggests a correlation between the tragic protagonists of The Cow and Death of a Salesman. Emad names the Miller work when a student asks what play he’s rehearsing. He asks the students if they know it; none do. (That many educated adults in Iran undoubtedly would know the play points toward a divide more generational than national: While adults worldwide have grown up in cultures that value literary tradition, young people are more preoccupied with video games and phones.)

One night, Rana is taking a shower when the apartment’s buzzer sounds. Thinking it’s Emad, she buzzes him in and returns to the shower. Soon we are in a hospital, where a frantic Emad sees his wife getting stitches in her head, badly injured. As he pieces together what happened, it seems an intruder came upon Rana in the shower, there was a struggle, glass was broken that cut her and left the intruder fleeing with bloodied feet. Neighbors heard the commotion, found Rana and got her to the hospital. She tells Emad she doesn’t want the police involved as she doesn’t want to tell the story again.

In pursuing his own investigation, Emad finds out that their apartment’s previous tenant was a prostitute. It seems that the intruder wasn’t a random stranger but a client thinking he was joining her in the shower for some action (he even left some money in the bedroom). Putting the pieces together, Emad first vents his anger on the fellow actor who turned him on to the apartment, snarling improvised insults at him during Death of a Salesman. But as this guy is obviously guiltless, the wounded husband becomes more and more obsessed with finding the real guilty party.

The previous film that took Farhadi to the Oscars was A Separation. This one could be called A Violation. Rana seems to make shaky but real progress in her recovery, even if her return to the stage entails difficulties: she can’t complete one performance because she says the eyes of one man in the audience remind her of the intruder’s. Increasingly, though, it seems the harshest violation was of Emad — his self-worth, his ego, his manhood.

Some descriptions of The Salesman call it a thriller, suggesting a Hollywood-style suspense film. It’s not. It’s a psychological and moral drama about how one man’s anger and damaged self-image drive him to the brink of destroying the very thing he ostensibly most wants to protect: his marriage. Yet Farhadi’s stylistic proclivities remind us that he is the most Hollywood-influenced of major Iranian directors. While the shower scene here is just as crucial as (if far less explicit than) the one in Psycho, Farhadi’s depictions of people ascending or descending stairs recall Hitchcock’s, just as his way of moving through rooms (usually shot in smooth hand-held by cinematographer Hossein Jafarian) evokes Kazan’s sinuous, stage-influenced sense of mise-en-scène.

Kazan’s example may also be felt in the film’s strong, finely tuned performances. Though the first post-revolutionary Iranian films to gain international attention often used non-actors, Farhadi’s recent films have derived much of their precision and power from the skills of accomplished film and stage actors. Here, Hosseini’s work as Emad anchors the film with its deceptively casual gravity: precisely because he’s so modern and hip-urban in demeanor, it’s hard to imagine that this guy can collapse into primal vindictiveness, but so he does. Bringing out Rana’s combination of disorientation and underlying decency, Alidoosti shows why she’s become one of Iran’s leading young actresses. Some equally fine performances occur in secondary parts, including ones that come to the fore in the film’s tensely suspenseful final act.

When A Separation capped its global success by becoming the first Iranian film to win an Oscar, Farhadi effectively became an international director, a fact he implicitly acknowledged by making his next film, The Past, in France. With The Salesman, he returns not only to Iran but to some deeply Iranian themes, examining an atavistic tendency even in the most modern-seeming men and pitting that against the compassionate humanism at the core of both secular and religious thought in Iran. At the same time, the film finds Farhadi now inhabiting a strangely transnational place in cinema, one where bridging Gholem-Hossein Sa’edi and Arthur Miller is more a playful, aspirational gesture than a purposeful strategy. As impressive as the dramatic facility of The Salesman is, it lacks any real urgency or sense of daring, as if a night in the theater (or cinema) was not supposed to signify outside its walls.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Remembering Gregg Allman

I am saddened, although neither shocked nor stunned, by today’s death of Gregg Allman. In fact, I am somewhat surprised, with all his substance abuse and health problems, he lasted this long. I was moved much more by the death, 46 years ago now, of his brother Duane in a motorcycle accident.

I will admit to not succumbing to the musical expertise of the Allman Brothers until I stumbled upon their second album, Idlewild South, in 1970 and between then and Duane’s death in October, 1971, I tried to see their in-concert performances whenever I could.

I will also admit to liking bits and pieces of the Allmans’s catalog that followed, songs such as Blue Sky, Come and Go Blues, Jessica, Wasted Words (all from 1973), Seven Turns (1990), and especially No One to Run With and Soulshine (1994) as well as much of the 2003 album Hittin’ the Note. But there was nothing to equal that early 1970s output with Duane that included Dreams, Whipping Post, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, Midnight Rider, Revival, Done Somebody Wrong, Hot ‘Lanta, Statesboro Blues, Stormy Monday, One Way Out and Trouble No More.

In fact what sticks in my memory the most about Gregg is the story about his causing a scene in a restaurant by fainting in a plate a spaghetti during a dinner with then-wife Cher.

But it seemed Gregg was always on a self-destructive path and, as I said earlier, I am mildly surprised he lived until the age of 69. My younger brother, born the year before Gregg and the person responsible for introducing me to the Allman Brothers Band, embarked on a similar life’s journey and died 30 years ago. Allman became addicted to heroin in the early 1970s and was arrested on drug charges in 1976. He avoided jail time by testifying against one of the band’s road managers, who was sentenced to 75 years in prison. That move alienated Gregg from the rest of the band. His alcohol abuse reached its peak in the 1980s, when, while living with friends in Sarasota, Fla., it was reported he was drinking at least a fifth of vodka a day. He was arrested during that time, charged with DUI and spent five days in jail. In the late 1980s he moved to Los Angeles, living at and overdosing at a place called the Riot House. The Allman Brothers Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, but Gregg was so inebriated he could not make it through his acceptance speech. He later wrote in his autobiography that he was so mortified when he saw that event on later television broadcast, that he hired two in-home nurses working round-the-clock shifts to help him get over his alcohol and drug addictions.

He was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, which he blamed on a dirty tattoo needle. In 2008, doctors discovered three tumors in his liver and in 2010 he underwent a successful liver transplant. At the beginning of the following year, he released a decent solo album, Low Country Blues, but had to cancel a European promotional tour for the album because of upper respiratory problems. In 2012 he went into rehab because of addictions he developed following medical treatments.

The above video shows the Allman Brothers Band at their best, with Duane on lead guitar and Gregg on vocal and keyboards. I guess the word I will always associate with the Allman Brothers Band and Gregg Allman is "if."

Available for home viewing: "Office Christmas Party"

Let’s be generous to Office Christmas Party and note that its two directors (whose resume includes Blades of Glory and a short-lived sitcom based on the GEICO caveman ads) and six writers (among them, a Borat enabler and the two guys who created The Hangover) were onto something when they tapped into our nation’s growing pushback against political correctness. A workplace throwing an early-morning "non-denominational holiday mixer" with a one-drink maximum, as portrayed in the opening scene, is pretty much the on-the-job version of that overtly generic Starbucks yuletide coffee cup that was declared part of the supposed war on Christmas, is it not?

They also recognize that current-day corporate culture regularly rewards those in the upper echelons of power who save money by screwing over the staff with downsizing, lower pay, fewer benefits and greater demands. Who better to represent these modern-day Scrooges than Jennifer Aniston, a veteran of both Horrible Bosses films? I would rather see her in Cake 2: Another Slice than one more mediocre mainstream movie, but maybe that's just me.

But the former Friends star’s career choices aren’t the issue here. Comedy is. Something most of us are in desperate need of right now, given the current headlines and the usual spate of downer films that normally become available for home viewing around this time of year. Alas, Office Christmas Party serves as yet another reminder that allowing your cast to madly improvise (as evident with an unnecessary end-credits blooper reel) instead of actually providing a coherent script with a scintilla of logic often leads to a decline in sustained laughter. Imagine if the iconic toga party in Animal House was the entire movie. It might be a kick for a while. But it was so much better coming after the Deltas were about to reach rock bottom and needed to have their rebellious spirits revived with excessive drinking, wild cavorting and acoustic-guitar smashing.

Instead, this ragged R-rated wallow in bad behavior, some of which eventually results in exposing naked body parts of people who should definitely be wearing more clothes and not less, comes up with a rather ill-conceived concept to put the plot in motion. Basically, Aniston’s hard-of-nose and sleek-of-hair CEO Carol stomps into the Chicago branch of an internet company called Zenotek, starts tearing down the festive tinsel and threatens to close it because it isn’t contributing enough to the bottom line.

The twist is that the office full of insecure geeks is run by her irresponsible and carefree brother, Clay (T.J. Miller of TV’s Silicon Valley), who hatches a plan to woo a staid new client (Courtney B. Vance, much more amusing in his Emmy-winning role as Johnnie Cochran on The People v. O.J. Simpson) by impressing him with an out-of-control holiday orgy. Highlights include a living manger complete with a rented baby Jesus, an ice sculpture with a priapic spout that suggestively squirts eggnog (responsible for the scene that draws the biggest reaction), water coolers labeled "Tequila," "Vodka" and "Gin," and a snow-making machine that at one point accidentally blasts cocaine at the revelers.

Assisting in the debauched excess is a rather subdued Jason Bateman as Clay’s newly divorced right-hand man with an unrequited crush on Olivia Munn’s sexy brainiac, who is on the verge of a discovery that will forever change the internet. But first things first, as she and Bateman have to dress up in chubby snowmen costumes and bounce their bellies together on the dance floor.

It takes a certain kind of film to waste Saturday Night Live standout Kate McKinnon’s reliable talents but this would be the one, forcing her into the role of an uptight human-resource enforcer who threatens employees by sneering, "I know why you took a medical leave," and telling females who don low-cut blouses to put "Dancer and Prancer" back where they belong. She even is burdened with trying to sell the requisite running fart joke, one that actually involves cut cheese.

Thanks to a subplot launched after a leggy escort is hired to pose as a shy employee’s girlfriend, Bateman, McKinnon, Munn and Aniston end up attempting to rescue Miller from a den of gangsters, one of whom engages in the lost art of mumblypeg for some reason. That leads to a dangerous high speed chase that should have resulted in several arrests and even lawsuits — not to mention the gross amount of damage done to the high-rise that houses Zenotek. Instead, it all leads to an improbable happy ending.

There are two performers in smaller roles that deserve to be put on Santa’s nice list. First up is Da’Vine Joy Randolph, as an aggressive security guard who probably has the best chemistry banter-wise with Bateman. Warily eyeing the rowdy overflow of off-the-street party crashers filling the office building’s lobby, she alerts him before he goes off to save Miller, "The security guard was the first one to go in Die Hard."

Then there is the intriguingly named Fortune Feimster as a testy first-time Uber driver who takes Carol back to the office from the airport after a snowstorm grounds all flights. She launches into a spiel about how Carol is an old person’s name that contains a reference to the Pixar animated film Up, which provided me a rare chance to laugh without guilt.

Hey, if anything here makes you smile, go for it. It just didn’t do much for me. But I still can’t get over one cheesy move when Aniston starts waving around the book, The Girl on the Train, for no reason. It seems the same production companies that made this (DreamWorks SKG and Reliance Entertainment) also gave us that earlier hit based on the bestseller. Now that’s the spirit of the season.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Available for home viewing: "The Great Wall"

If this is the future for motion pictures, god help us all. A major collaboration between the Chinese film industry and Hollywood, The Great Wall features a primarily Asian cast with a few big-name American actors sprinkled in. The brainless story is the product of (primarily) U.S. authorship while the director is the internationally celebrated filmmaker Zhang Yimou. With the biggest budget in the history of Chinese motion pictures and special effects by ILM, The Great Wall can be considered a true multinational co-production. 12-year-old boys will love the result. That’s not a good sign for anyone who has passed beyond their teenage years.

It’s baffling that so much talent could produce something this lackluster. Then again, the involved parties knew from the start that the objective was to make a commercially viable worldwide product. To achieve that, a simple checklist was followed. Dialogue mostly in English but with few multisyllabic words — check. Big American star (Matt Damon) — check. Lots of CGI and explosions — check. A hot warrior woman who kicks butt every bit as effectively as the Big American Star — check. A story that exists simply to justify the special effects and action/battle sequences — check.

Nevertheless, with a director like Zhang Yimou and writers that include Tony Gilroy and Edward Zwick, viewers could be forgiven for expecting something a little more substantive. Zhang, after all, was behind the camera for such universally praised classics as Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, and Shanghai Triad (although his recent work has been more checkered). Gilroy’s credits include the Bourne films and the recent Rogue One. And, although Zwick is better known as a director, he and partner Marshall Herskovitz have collaborated on the likes of The Last Samurai, Love & Other Drugs, and the long-running TV series thirtysomething. Yet for The Great Wall, this group has turned out something monumentally forgettable. (To be fair, Zhang provides a few accomplished tracking shots, including one with light streaming through a series of stained glass windows.)

The Great Wall takes place in a fantasy-influenced version of the 10th or 11th century. Two Europeans, William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), stumble on the title monument while seeking to trade for (or steal) the mysterious "black powder" that’s being whispered about in the West. Before coming upon the wall, they kill a lizard-like monster that looks like it escaped from a bad Alien spinoff. William takes its arm as a trophy and this earns him some respect after he and his smack-talking buddy are captured by the wall’s garrison. When the monsters attack en masse, William and Tovar are co-opted by Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) into helping with the defense. The rest of the movie is mostly a series of battles as waves of creatures attack. Subplots include an alliance of criminals between Tovar and another European, Ballard (Willem Dafoe); a low-key, quasi-romance between William and Lin Mae; and an investigation of what effects magnetism have on the monsters.

Damon does what’s necessary to earn his paycheck. He struggles more with his accent than with his dialogue, manages to look like a caveman under all the dirt and fake hair, and does some nifty party tricks with his bow and arrow. Jing Tian has sufficient presence and charm to make it obvious why her star is on a sharp ascending trajectory across the international film industry — she brings poise and physicality to her performance. Pascal provides a dose of comedy; a few of his deadpan lines are genuinely funny.

The real stars of the movie are supposed to be the special effects. 12-year-old boys love monster movies and there’s no shortage of ugly, nasty, hissing creatures in this one. Unfortunately, not a lot of imagination went into the development of their look. Derivative is the first word that comes to mind. Battles against their legions absorb about 2/3 of The Great Wall’s running time and the sameness of the combat becomes monotonous after a while — this isn’t Helm’s Deep where we were invested in the characters. These are a bunch of cardboard cut-out mannequins whose sole purpose is to play second fiddle to what the computer designers dreamed up.

So, although the boy in me appreciates on some level what the filmmakers have done with The Great Wall, the adult realizes there are a lot of better ways I could have spent the two hours I devoted to watching this.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Split"

Unimaginative horror movies are a dime a dozen, but overlong, boring, unimaginative horror movies? Those are rare. However, in Split, that’s what writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has provided the May 2017 home movie-viewing populace. Since his success with The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan’s once-hot career has been on a downward trajectory and it’s unclear whether he’s hit bottom yet. Split is among his worst films. It’s also his longest and arguably his most disappointing. The narrative is choppy, the tension is less pervasive than it should be, and there’s no ending. Instead of telling a complete story, Split brings us to a stopping point where little has been resolved before dangling the possibility of a sequel (tying it into a larger "Shyamalan Universe"). It’s unsatisfying and feels like a cheat for anyone who paid a rental fee expecting to see a whole film rather than just Part One of a proposed series.

Split opens with the abduction of three teenagers following a birthday party. Two of them, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), are popular girls. The third, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), is an outsider. Their kidnapper is an odd and frightening man (James McAvoy) who, as we soon learn, suffers from a severe case of split personality disorder with 23 distinct personas emerging. During the course of the film, we meet a few of them, including the dominant Dennis, the feminine Patricia, and the childish Hedwig. They refer to the coming of "the Beast"; Dennis claims the three girls have been captured to "feed" him. Psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) surmises that "the Beast" is either a previously unrecognized personality or a fantasy.

A good portion of Split focuses on the girls’ inept escape attempts. They do all the things one would expect in a horror movie of this sort, including finding structural weaknesses they can exploit, using coat hangers to try to trip door locks, and trying to outsmart their deranged captor. To his credit, Shyamalan limits the gore and keeps the body count low. The PG-13 rating has something to do with this (it also explains why the girls only strip down to their underwear when it’s stated that Dennis likes to watch women dance naked) but Split is designed more as a psychological thriller than a slasher film. Unfortunately, there’s too little genuine tension for the movie to really work. One scene that attempts to use camerawork, music, and point-of-view to build suspense fails to do more than slightly elevate the pulse. Shyamalan should have studied John Carpenter’s Halloween for inspiration about how to accomplish this sort of thing.

Numerous scenes featuring "sessions" between Dr. Fletcher and Dennis (who is masquerading as Barry, a more "reasonable" personality) serve as exposition dumps. These sequences, although advancing the storyline by providing background, are momentum-killers. They take our attention away from the captives who are so thinly-drawn that two of the three resemble attractive cardboard cut-outs. The third, Casey, is given a semblance of multidimensionality via a series of flashbacks.

Split is riddled with horror movie clichés, the most obvious being that characters often react illogically because their idiocy is the only way the story can move forward. When it comes to atmosphere, Shyamalan stumbles. There are a lot of strange underground corridors but they are lit too brightly and, as a result, are more garish than spooky. The film as a whole is like that — the elements seem to be in place for a serviceable horror/thriller but the director constantly missteps.

When it comes to acting, McAvoy understandably takes center stage with his deliciously over-the-top representation of about a dozen personalities. McAvoy delights in chewing on the scenery; his performance is without any attempt at subtlety or realism. He goes all-out with a gusto that at times almost makes Split watchable. Unfortunately, he isn’t matched by any of his co-stars. Taylor-Joy gives a sullen, one-note portrayal. Buckley is a walking horror movie stereotype. And the two other women, Richardson and Sula, are forgettable.

Shyamalan has established his career on third-act surprises and many of his better movies have been characterized by these. It’s therefore a little disappointing that Split fails to offer even a modest twist that would take things in a fresh or interesting direction. The director provides an unexpected throw-away moment (featuring a cameo) in an epilogue but all this does is muddy the waters by setting up a sequel that would merge the milieu of Split with that of an earlier (and better) Shyamalan film. If that movie ever gets made, perhaps it will improve how audiences look at Split but, as a stand-alone, this is a sad, tired, and un-scary venture into tediousness.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Why Him?"

The title of the movie is Why Him?, your first indication that this raunchy R-rated comedy is far more interested in the men engaged in battle across generational, emotional and socioeconomic lines than it is about the woman at the center of the fight.

That woman, by the way, is a bright and bubbly Stanford University senior played by Zoey Deutch — a character of ambition and theoretical agency. But the likable actress (see: Everybody Wants Some!!) is relegated to functioning as more of an idea and a pawn than anything else. Why Him? spends more time and energy (SO much energy) on the age-old struggle between an overprotective father and the eager-to-please young man who hopes to become his son-in-law.

Bryan Cranston and James Franco are stuck in these one-note roles, respectively, in what is a one-joke movie. Director and co-writer John Hamburg, creator of the Fockers franchise, borrows liberally from himself here, making slight tweaks to the central dynamic of those films while upping the gross-out factor. Cranston is uptight and overprotective; Franco is unfiltered and overpowering. Why Him? hammers that central notion, hard, for nearly two hours.

But we’re supposed to find both of these characters adorable (or at least admirable) because of one line from Deutch’s character, Stephanie, which suggests perhaps they’re not as different as they seem because they’re both truly authentic, for better and for worse. They’re at least consistent, that’s for sure.

Cranston’s Ned Fleming is the longtime owner of a Michigan printing business, which has been suffering lately in this age of digital greetings. (Why Him? plays his Midwestern folksiness for easy, condescending laughs from the very start with a celebratory scene at Applebee’s.) But he agrees to travel to California for Christmas, along with his chipper wife, Barb (Megan Mullally), and their teenage son, Scotty (Griffin Gluck), to meet their daughter’s new boyfriend.

That would be Franco’s Laird Mayhew, who Stephanie’s parents don’t realize is a) 10 years older than she is, and b) a tech billionaire. Laird lives in a ridiculous, minimalist monstrosity high in the hills above Silicon Valley, where various employees, hangers-on, celebrity chefs and farm animals wander in and out during the day. Why Him? has nothing to say about the grotesquerie of such a nouveau riche display; these are just random ideas that flit by. Although Kaley Cuoco as the voice of Justine, Laird’s intrusive, in-house version of Siri, doesn’t seem like a possibility that’s too far away.

Keegan-Michael Key gets the film’s few laughs as Gustav, Laird’s right-hand man, concierge and personal trainer. A running bit in which Gustav attacks Laird out of nowhere to keep him sharp and hone his parkour skills might have been amusing if the script from Hamburg and Ian Helfer didn’t feel the need to spell out its similarity to the relationship between Inspector Clouseau and Cato. Jokes are just so much funnier when you explain them afterward, right?

But reining Laird in is impossible — he’s all impulse with his puppyish enthusiasm and profane chatter. He wants desperately to gain Ned’s approval (because Barb’s clearly doesn’t matter) but risks alienating him instead. Oddball characters are Franco’s bread and butter — he’s repeatedly shown he’s game for whatever weirdness is required of him — but he’s afforded no nuance here. He’s just extreme and exhausting. Cranston, meanwhile, is hemmed in on the opposite end of the spectrum. Ned is judgmental and inflexible, with repeated references to how much he and Barb love the band KISS serving as the only indication that he was ever any fun.

Anyway, after an increasing cavalcade of flatly crass visual gags featuring high-tech toilets, moose urine and poorly-timed sexual shenanigans, Why Him? collapses the way so many R-rated comedies do. It goes soft and nice and wants us to care about these characters who barely resemble human beings. After all, it all takes place around Christmas. But everyone involved here should have asked Santa for a stronger script.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Patriot's Day"

For the second time in less than six months, Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg have collaborated to recreate a "based on a true story" event that, at one point in recent history, dominated the news cycle for days on end. Deepwater Horizon, which was released for home viewing on Jan. 10, told the story of the disaster that sank a Gulf of Mexico oil-drilling rig. In it, Wahlberg played real-life survivor Mike Williams. In Patriots Day, the actor is once again front-and-center except, in this case, he plays a "composite" character. That’s a nice way of saying that Tommy Saunders isn’t a real person but was invented so the filmmakers would have someone they could insert into all of the key sequences without being accused of distorting the historical record.

Berg’s chronicle of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent manhunt is a first rate docudrama. For those who followed the events as they unfolded, there won’t be anything new here. It’s simply a cinematic re-enactment of things that happened beginning on April 15 and continued for several days after. Told from the perspective of (fictional) Boston cop Saunders (Wahlberg), the movie hits all the milestones although it perhaps tries too hard to be uplifting and inspirational. It also overreaches, attempting with little success to shoehorn the stories of several victims and other tangentially involved individuals into the proceedings. The final product is apparently the fusion of two separate scripts and it shows. The ending is odd — after the feature film is done, Berg provides us with a seven-minute documentary in which he shows interview clips with many of the real people involved in the incidents.

As with all of Berg’s films, Patriots Day does an excellent job with sets and locales and is compulsively watchable. Two things limit its effectiveness. The first is that the story lacks a "freshness" factor. Even more so than Deepwater Horizon and Sully (two other recent, high-profile, "ripped from the headlines" movies), Patriots Day covers events that were exhaustively broadcast on TV as they were happening. There’s little more to learn about things than we already know and that gives a "been there, done that" quality to the proceedings. There’s never much tension because we know what’s going to happen next and how it’s all going to end.

Secondly, the structure is unwieldy. Perhaps aware that the entire running length shouldn’t be devoted to the acts and observations of a person who doesn’t exist, Berg includes the stories of several victims and real-life cops who were involved in the search-and-capture mission. Most of these are ineffective due to time constraints and come across as filler. Especially unnecessary is a narrative surrounding Saunders’ wife, Carol, who serves no purpose beyond giving actress Michelle Monaghan screen time. Actors John Goodman (as Police Commissioner Ed Davis), Kevin Bacon (as FBI agent Richard DesLauriers), and J.K. Simmons (as Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese) do good work in underwritten roles.

One area where the screenplay effectively captures a side-story is in its handling of the Tsarnaev brothers, Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) and Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze), along with Tamerlan’s wife, Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist). Patriots Day provides the terrorists with motivations and shows how they followed the news coverage of their action before deciding on their next steps. This is arguably the most interesting element of Patriots Day because it’s one of the least-covered aspects of the story. We found out who the Tsarnaevs were during the manhunt but didn’t learn about their backgrounds until days (or weeks) later, when the story was no longer "hot" and therefore not worthy of front-page coverage.

Berg was essentially a "director-for-hire" brought in mid-way through pre-production on Deepwater Horizon, but Patriots Day was his project from the start. Nevertheless, his involvement from inception to completion hasn’t resulted in an appreciably better motion picture. Both films are effective at what they intend to do. Patriots Day wasn’t an Oscar contender nor does it offer much in the way of escapism but it’s not a bad way to spend a couple of hours — a far better prospect than what comes with most video time-wasters that are released around this time of the year.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Gold"

Gold is the latest in a subgenre of films that seems to think that the sight of men moving gigantic amounts of money around electronically — and sometimes just stealing it, or having it stolen from them — is innately fascinating. Matthew McConaughey stars as Kenny Wells, who is continuing in the family business carved out by his dad (Craig T. Nelson, glimpsed briefly in flashbacks). The movie repeatedly refers to their ilk as "miners," and they see themselves that way, with pride. But while this film by writer-director Stephen Gaghan (Syriana ) does show Kenny and various allies and rivals traveling to foreign countries and searching treacherous terrain for veins of metal, there's not much pick-axe swinging, bulldozing or blasting to be seen. These self-described miners are more likely to be seen yelling into phones about money, staring anxiously at TV reports about stock prices because they're worried about money, or flying to other states or countries to find out what happened to their money.

The tale is a true one, based on a magazine story, though of course many details have been changed or embellished. Kenny is presented as a down-on-his-luck hustler, practically begging for the money he needs to get back into the precious metals game. He's is the second modern gloss on a Willy Loman/Death of a Salesman type to appear in a major film to view at home within a month — the other is McDonald's mastermind Ray Kroc in The Founder, a less ambitious but altogether more satisfying drama. Like the McDonald's film, though, Gold often can't seem to make up its mind to be disgusted and embarrassed by its hero's naked greed and the seeming moral vacuum at his heart, or get swept up in his adrenaline rush as he scampers from state to state and to South America and back, looking for the big strike that'll make him a big shot.

Kenny goes to Borneo to find a legendary "river walker" — i.e., a hands-on geologist who actually finds the ore that guys like Kenny profit from. He's named Mike Acosta, and both the character and Edgar Ramirez's performance in the role are the best reasons to see this film. Gaghan has decided to focus mainly on Kenny and treat Mike as a bit of a question mark and source of anxiety for the hero. Is he really as great as a lot of people think? Does he truly have a sixth sense for precious metal? Or is he a doppelganger for Kenny, a man whose success is always fleeting because he has more of a talent for hustling money and trust than for doing the job he says he's mastered?

I have no idea if a movie about Mike would have been more fascinating than one focused on Kenny; it's possible that he's not deep enough to hold the center of a long, dense film like Gold. But I do know that Kenny just plain wore me out. McConaughey has played many men like this one: wild-eyed true believers with a gift of gab who talk with their hands as well as their mouths, and often seem as if they're preaching. He's great at it. This is his kind of role. In another era, you could've plugged Dennis Hopper into it. But the character is so one-note, always tying everything back to his need to redeem himself and his dad, and articulating so many of his concerns verbally rather than through his eyes or body, that after a while I wanted to put in earplugs and shut my eyes to get a break from him.

Much has been made of McConaughey's physical transformation here — he shaved his hairline to play a bald man and gained about 40 pounds — but I never felt that he quite figured out how to get inside Kenny's mind and heart and animate him as a fully convincing fictional character. Too often he comes across as an actor trying on a look and a voice, and no matter how often the movie shows Kenny getting soused or chain smoking or lounging in a plush hotel lobby chair marinating in his own body odor, the character always seems more like an obnoxious vibe than a person.

I'm not sure why a similarly greedy, insistent, often repugnant protagonist didn't completely turn me off in The Wolf of Wall Street — maybe Leonardo DiCaprio is a better match for his character than McConaughey, a Wolf bit player, is for Kenny, or maybe Scorsese is just a more imaginative and varied director than Gaghan. (The jungle sequences are appropriately lush and oppressive, and there are a few deft montages scored to rock and pop, but this film often plays like a Scorsese riff by a storyteller whose natural medium is words, not images.)

Whatever the explanation, Gold ultimately fails to answer the question, "Why this story, and why put this character at its center?" Like The Founder, though less excitingly, Gold bets heavily on the audience seeing Kenny's relationship with his supportive girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) as proof that he's a good guy at heart, or at least has some redemptive qualities. But Kenny never comes off as anything other than a small shark in an aquarium filled with much bigger sharks (including Corey Stoll as a New York investment banker and Bruce Greenwood as a vastly more powerful rival).

And the film's excitement over Kenny's reversals of fortune, including a climactic stretch where he tries to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, feels frustratingly at odds with Gaghan's more skeptical, at times satirical view of American capitalism and its intrusions into the economies and governments of other nations. The movie seems to want us to root for Kenny to make piles of money and humiliate his foes even as it shows him as the conscienceless emblem of an innately corrupt world.

These two storytelling impulses are very hard to reconcile (I have argued that even Scorsese wasn't able to do it in Wolf) and Gold never manages to do it. The movie is a critique of robber baron behavior that derives great excitement from the prospect of its sweaty, conniving hero climbing to the top of the heap and lording it over the folks who used to badmouth him. Granted, this seems to be a built-in risk of any kind of biographical film, or any film period; cinema's nature as a medium is to make everything seem exciting and glamorous, even when most of the people onscreen are scummy. But it still would've been nice if Gold had figured out how to counter that tendency, or at least given us more evidence that it knew whether it wanted to.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back"

Back in 2012 I penned these prophetic words: "I wouldn’t bet the mortgage on there being a Jack Reacher 2." Shows how much I know. Even though Tom Cruise’s tarnished star is burning up in the atmosphere and it would be an exaggeration to claim he can compel viewers to screen a film without Mission: Impossible in the title, the first Jack Reacher managed to scrape together enough foreign shekels to warrant a sequel. Considering that pretty much everyone viewing this movie will have forgotten everything about its predecessor (except that it starred Tom Cruise playing someone other than Ethan Hunt), the filmmakers have decided to "go in a different direction." Or, to put it another way: forget the first movie ever existed. So, while Jack Reacher was based on the ninth book in Lee Child’s long-running series, Never Go Back jumps ahead to book 18. That means new supporting characters and only a tenuous link to the 2012 installment.

I wish I could say the result was better. Unfortunately, as with too many films being made with the international market in mind, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is a jumble of overhyped action scenes, trite dialogue, painfully bad "character development", and awful writing. Redeeming qualities are few and far between. The screenplay often requires such an extreme suspension of disbelief that even an Olympic high jumper would have trouble getting over the bar. Maybe that problem would be forgivable if the action sequences were exciting but they’re the same generic fights, chases, and shoot-outs we have seen in hundreds of other movies. This filler, unfortunately, is the point of the movie. The movie also looks cheap. Compare the Mardi Gras parade scenes in Never Go Back with the Day of the Dead carnival opening of Spectre for an example of the gulf that exists between a movie where money is spent on more than the lead actor’s salary and one where it isn’t.

The subtitle Never Go Back sounds like it belongs to a Steven Seagal movie and so does the script. The intelligence level is reminiscent of the worst of the Liam Neeson Takens. It’s a source of deep disappointment that director Edward Zwick has fallen this far. Throughout his career, it’s been possible to count on the reliable Zwick to produce good-to-great films. Never could I imagine that he would be at the helm for something responsible for the mass assassination of brain cells. I’ll admit that my stupefaction at watching Never Go Back is because I foolishly assumed that Zwick’s involvement would guarantee at least a minimum level of quality. Sadly, that’s not true.

As for Cruise … this is the Hollywood star at his worst. He’s playing to an international audience here, allowing ego and fading charisma to obfuscate his capabilities as a serious actor. As a Schwarzenegger wannabe, Cruise’s Jack Reacher is passable. When the role requires emotions, however, it becomes cringe-worthy. The key emotional component, a father/daughter attachment between Reacher and 15-year old Sam (Danika Yarosh), is undermined by the screenplay’s inability to properly motivate it. It isn’t helped, however, by Cruise’s inability to sell the relationship.

The story opens by introducing the interaction between Jack, an ex-Marine major, and his current "inside" military contact, Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). After the two carry on a flirtatious friendship by phone for a while, Jack decides to pay her a visit — only to discover that she has been thrown in prison for espionage. When he asks a few too many questions, he finds himself in the same situation but breaking out (and bringing Susan with him) only makes things worse. Soon, he has been framed for murder, is being tracked by an unstoppable assassin (Patrick Heusinger), and is trying to cope with the possibility that he might have a 15-year old daughter.

One thing the two Jack Reacher films have in common is that both feature impressive (albeit one-dimensional) villains. In the 2012 movie, it was Werner Herzog. Here, it’s Heusinger. There’s nothing special about this character. He’s a standard-order supervillain type whose physical abilities match those of the hero and who sticks around until the end so he can have one final one-on-one with Reacher. But Heusinger is good at being bad so there’s at least a little energy when he’s on screen. It’s not enough to save Never Go Back. Not nearly enough. This should be viewed six months from now. Stuffed turkeys belong on Thanksgiving.