Sunday, May 20, 2018

Available for home viewing: In the Fade ★★★½

Although the events depicted in Fatih Akin’s In the Fade are fictional, their implications and consequences are grounded in reality. Terrorist events are becoming sadly commonplace and, although news reports focus on the immediate action, rarely is the emotional collateral damage explored. In the Fade shows how the most devastating damage caused by terrorists sometimes isn’t to those who die; it’s to those who remain alive.

In the Fade is presented in three acts. The first establishes the characters and their relationships and illustrates how Katja Sekerci (Diane Kruger) copes (or fails to cope) in the immediate aftermath of learning that her husband, Nuri (Numan Acar), and 6-year old son are killed in a bombing. The second act depicts the court hearing in which the accused killers, husband-and-wife Nazi sympathizers Andre and Edda Moller (Ulrich Brandhoff and Hanna Hilsdorf), face justice for their actions. The third act shows that, even after the trial, Katja cannot find peace and chronicles what she does in a desperate bid for closure.

In the Fade is about the pain of bereavement — and not just any bereavement but the loss of a child. For Katja, the peaceful familiarity of her home suddenly becomes an unwelcome refuge. Once-comfortable surroundings threaten to suffocate her with happy memories turned rancid in the wake of her loss. Depicting grief — especially one as crippling as this — is a challenge for even the most talented filmmaker. Akin succeeds and the result is as emotionally difficult a film as I have seen in the last year. The movie rewards because of its sheer power but it has no value as the escapist vehicle often craved from motion pictures. This is a raw, searing experience.

When Hollywood tackles terrorism, it rarely offers the degree of ambiguity on display in In the Fade and I have never seen a studio-funded film opt for this kind of uncompromising ending. There is perhaps a message in the subtext that the rah-rah machismo associated with anti-terrorism revenge thrillers is fundamentally and emotionally dishonest. However, where those movies invent fantasy as an antidote, this one stays grounded in reality. Nowhere is the chasm between the two approaches more evident than in the final act. Those who look to the Hollywood template for a roadmap to In the Fade will find themselves going in the wrong direction at nearly every way post.

If In the Fade was more mainstream, or at least more visible, Kruger would merit consideration for a Lead Actress nomination. She didn’t get one but that’s not because her performance wasn’t worthy. She embraces the character’s pain and externalizes it, going through all the stages of grief while failing to come intact through the fire. Kruger conveys the reactions of a mother who has lost the pillars of her life but has no choice but to forge ahead. It’s a credit to both her portrayal and Akin’s direction that the movie has such a strong sense of potency and immediacy.

In the Fade asks questions it can’t answer about the role of jurisprudence in terrorist trials. In some ways, it feels like the usual roles in a courtroom drama are turned upside down here; it’s To Kill a Mockingbird through a dark looking-glass. The use of the Nazi party as the terrorist organization (they act to kill a Turkish immigrant) emphasizes the universality of hatred. Although there is a political element to this movie, however, it works on a primal level — that of a person struggling to find not only a path forward but some kind of meaning in an act that lacks reason, compassion, or sense.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Available for home viewing: Looking Glass ★★½

Although Looking Glass doesn’t get Nicolas Cage back to where he was in Leaving Las Vegas, it’s leaps and bounds better than some of his recent fare. (Left Behind may be the low point but, considering how many for-hire jobs he has taken in the past few years, I may be forgetting something.) Tim Hunter’s film provides him with an opportunity to act. It doesn’t demand that he represent a superhuman and, although there are a few fight scenes, this is more of a slow-burn thriller than an action-oriented one. There are some problems but most are related to the uneven screenplay and not the performances of Cage or his co-star, Robin Tunney.

As the action gets underway, married couple Ray (Cage) and Maggie (Tunney) are shown pulling into what appears to be a deserted motel. We soon learn that they are the new owners, having taken over the place in an attempt to start anew in the wake of their young daughter’s death. The first half of the film is stronger than the back end. During the early proceedings, we follow Ray as he gets the place ready for its grand re-opening, interacts with a seedy customer (Ernie Lively) and the seemingly friendly local sheriff (Marc Blucas), and goes about the day-to-day routines of a motel operator.

Ray soon discovers the previous owner’s dark secret: a passageway leading to an observation post where he can watch the goings-on in Room 10 through a one-way mirror. Soon Ray has caught the voyeur bug and is spying when a customer (Jacque Gray) invites a "friend" (Kassia Conway) to join her. After the tryst is done and Ray has returned to his room to have sex with his wife, something goes awry in Room 10. The customer’s body is found several days later.

Looking Glass boasts a strong sense of atmosphere. We get a feeling not only of the loneliness of a place that has only a handful of customers each night but of Ray and Maggie’s isolation from the locals (and, to a degree, from each other). This is a rural place where everyone knows everyone else except the newcomers. They are distrusted and the only friendly guy, the sheriff, may have ulterior motives for his chumminess. When things start going wrong at the motel, Ray learns that the first suspect is always the person no one else knows. The sense of claustrophobia grows stronger as the web around Ray tightens and his inability to stay away from the observation post exacerbates his situation.

Ultimately, the mystery is disappointingly straightforward and the resolution is weak and predictable. For a movie with such a rich tapestry of creepy secondary characters, one could be forgiven for expecting something more surprising. The strained relationship between Ray and Maggie is less developed than would have been helpful to give us a full sense of these characters. Through flashbacks and a bit of exposition, we learn that Ray blames Maggie for their daughter’s death but Maggie remains more of a narrative convenience than a fully formed human being. This is especially true at the end.

Cage’s "everyman" performance brings him back to the kind of role where he is strongest: a normal guy wrestling with demons and an uncertain conscience. Hunter’s direction is moody and evocative and the pace is slow enough to allow suspense to build but not so slow that we lose interest. Unfortunately, although the screenplay (credited to Jerry Rapp and Matthew Wilder) knows how to set things up, it fails to deliver down the stretch, leaving us with a by-the-numbers resolution that feels like a cheat and doesn’t satisfy.

For Cage, this is a big step back toward respectability. Although I wouldn’t blame anyone for shunning this at their local theater, Looking Glass is good enough to be worth the price of a rental at home. And it almost certainly will get you wondering about the mirrors on your next motel stop.

Available for home viewing: Insidious: The Last Key ★★

This is what horror has become in 2018: a jump-scare fest where things like suspense and slowly-building dread have been pushed to the side. Darkness passes for atmosphere and intensity is bypassed because it’s too strong for the all-important PG-13 rating. There’s ample evidence that the producers (and writer-actor Leigh Whannell) are milking a familiar title for all it’s worth — of the four Insidious films, only one has been any good and, although The Last Key may not be the worst of them, it’s easily the most irrelevant and generic.

The only story worth telling in the Insidious universe is the one James Wan brought to the screen in the 2010 original. The open-ended conclusion and box office success made a sequel inevitable and the result was a colossal disappointment. Stung by the backlash, Whannell decided that instead of moving forward with the third installment, he would delve into the past, bringing back his most popular character, the psychic Elise, played by Lin Shaye. For The Last Key, Whannell has elected to remain in the past, offering up a direct prequel to the first Insidious and once again focusing on Elise.

Lazy writing abounds. To the extent that Whannell put effort and thought into crafting the first Insidious with meticulous world-building and satisfactory character development, he has been drifting since then. For The Last Key, he appears to have begun the creative process with a checklist of common horror clichés and made sure to check each one off the list as he incorporated it. This is a horror film for people too timid to appreciate real horror. It’s a regurgitated product, familiar bits and pieces of teen-friendly "scary" stuff that mimics horror in disappointingly superficial ways. Last year’s horror King, It, provides an effective counterpoint to The Last Key and proves that, when it comes to this genre, the R-rating is not a detriment.

This movie spends an inordinate amount of time detailing Elise’s abusive childhood (she’s played as a girl by Ava Kolker and as a teenager by Hana Hayes). Her father (Josh Stewart) is a psychopathic lunatic while her mother (Tessa Ferrer) is kind-hearted and understanding. Supernatural things happen in the house and she runs away, eventually growing old to become the character who has provided the foundation for the Insidious franchise. When Elise receives a call from the current owner of her childhood demesne, she and her two mismatched cohorts, Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-Dum (actually Specs and Tucker, played by Whannell and Angus Sampson) head to the Haunted House to face off against its Weird Owner (Kirk Acevedo) and Resident Demon (who is named in the credits as — I’m not kidding about this — KeyFace).

The movie is full of strange, inopportune, and largely unfunny jokes and successfully turns Elise’s odd-but-likable sidekick duo into caricatures that are as creepy in their own way as the demons. At first, we’re glad they’re joining Elise on her road trip but when they start with inappropriate overtures toward her nieces, we start to wonder whether they should have been left behind. In the end, the movie feels more like an episode of Elise Rainier: Demon Hunter than a legitimate feature film and a showcase for its star.

With Wan having left the franchise following the first sequel, Whannell took over the behind-the-scenes reins for Insidious 3. Here, he steps aside for Adam Robitel, who does an adequate job with the generic PG-13 tropes. He executes the jump-scares effectively, handles the "reveal" of the demon with enough panache to warrant mention, and does about the best anyone could probably do with such a limited and uninspired screenplay. I suspect the final product is more Whannell than Robitel but that’s something we won’t know until/unless he makes more movies (his filmography currently lists only one title, the 2014 indie horror The Taking of Deborah Logan).

There’s an audience out there for The Last Key. Although the series is in a slowly decaying orbit (with Insidious 3 having grossed considerably less than Insidious 2), production company Blumhouse knows how to make horror movies cheaply and turn a profit on even poorly-performing titles. The Insidious brand coupled with frequent shots of Shaye in the trailers virtually guarantees enough interest to move the film’s ledger into the black. The production provides a temporary fix for PG-13 horror junkies but isn’t sufficiently interesting, original, or scary to warrant attention from anyone outside that group. Insidious fans with low expectations will get what they want from this prequel and that’s all the franchise needs to keep rolling.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Available for home viewing: Hostiles ★★★½

Hostiles is an occasionally shocking, sometimes disturbing, but ultimately hopeful perspective of how the deepest of racial divides can sometimes be bridged by the simplest of actions: taking the time to relate to the other person as a fellow human being rather than as a symbol of hatred. The movie, written for the screen and directed by Scott Cooper (who directed Jeff Bridges’ Oscar-winning performance in Crazy Heart), is careful not to demonize anyone and make the path to redemption both slow and methodical. The final scenes seem earned rather than the result of a script forcing characters into particular situations.

Hostiles opens with a punch to the gut. Typically, dogs and children are safe from overt violence in films concerned about alienating viewers. There are no dogs in Hostiles but there are children and three of them (including one infant) are dead five minutes into the film. Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) loses her entire family in one violent attack on their homestead by a Comanche raiding party. The year is 1892 and the frontier is disappearing but acts of wanton violence are not unheard of.

The scene switches to a fort in New Mexico where Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), one of the staunchest anti-Native American fighters in the so-called "Indian Wars", is given the unenviable assignment of escorting the cancer-stricken Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) back to his home territory in Montana to die. Blocker, a shell of the person he once was, initially refuses. In his view, Yellow Hawk is a savage butcher. (He wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many Native Americans use the same description for him.) However, when his commanding officer (Stephen Lang) threatens him with a court martial, he has no choice but to agree. So, accompanied by four hand-picked soldiers (Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, Jesse Plemons, and the suddenly ubiquitous Timothee Chalamet), he begins the journey north alongside Yellow Hawk; his wife, Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher); his heir, Black Hawk (Adam Beach); and his two younger children.

The film is set up as a road trip with various incidents happening along the way. The first is when Blocker’s band encounters the burnt-out remnants of the Quaid house with Rosalie inside. She comes along with them. The second is when, after stopping at an army outpost, Blocker agrees to transport a criminal, Philip Wills (Ben Foster), to Montana to face justice for his crimes. Wills, who served under Blocker during several bloody engagements, is disappointed to see the anti-Native American sentiment no longer burning as brightly in his former commander’s soul. The third occurs at the end of the trip when the slow process of redemption demands that Blocker act decisively.

Hostiles is a difficult film with as dour and dreary a tone as one is likely to find. Cooper doesn’t cheapen the subject matter by introducing "lighter" moments that would seem inappropriate. This is an entirely serious movie about important matters. In one scene, when Blocker and Rosalie share a tent, their intimacy (which doesn’t include anything overtly sexual) isn’t about romance — it’s about two lonely and broken souls reaching out in the dark of the night.

For the most part, Yellow Hawk is silent. With death fast approaching, he has reached the realization that is slow in coming for Blocker. When his escort joins him in that existential place, they have a brief conversation. Both acknowledge that the past is just that — the past — and that the present and future require something different from them. They have done bloody, awful deeds but the time has come for them to move forward.

Hostiles is constructed like a Western. It looks like a Western. It has all the trappings of a Western. There are soldiers and Native Americans, shootings and scalpings, and a general sense that, although civilization may be coming, it’s not there yet. But this is really a morality play that has much in common with the so-called "revisionist" Westerns of recent years. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to throw out titles like Dances with Wolves, The New World and, more recently, The Revenant when discussing Hostiles. Studi appeared in the first two of those. Kilcher and Bale were Pocahontas and John Rolfe in The New World. And the tone matches the bleakness of the one established two years ago by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

Few actors can do soul-sick weariness with the force of Bale, who honed his familiarity with it in three unconventional Batman movies. Like Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III, Blocker wants out but they won’t let him go. Studi brings gravitas and nobility to a role that has few lines but great importance. Pike has some of the film’s most emotionally challenging scenes and was as deserving as any other actress to be on the 2017 Supporting Actress short list.

Hostiles isn’t for everyone. It demands from its viewers not only an appreciation of the Western as a genre but a willingness to experience some difficult and unpleasant scenes. It is emotionally intense but the catharsis is worth the investment. Most importantly, during a time when racial animosity has been elevated to a high level, this film offers insight into how such a seemingly unbridgeable gap can be closed … if the participants are willing to take the steps.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Available for home viewing: Star Wars: Episode 8 — The Last Jedi ★★★

Episode VIII became available for home viewing with quieter thunder than its predecessor, The Force Awakens. But, although the total viewership for The Last Jedi will almost certainly fall short of the mark set by the 2015 installment, no one should mistake this movie for anything less than a money-making behemoth, further cementing Star Wars as the most financially lucrative franchise of all time, regardless of whether inflation adjustments are being applied or not.

With Rian Johnson inheriting characters and situations from J.J. Abrams, the movie breaks with Star Wars tradition and begins exactly where its predecessor left off. Although Johnson doesn’t mine Star Wars history as extensively as Abrams did to concoct his narrative, echoes and call-backs are inevitable and will be noticeable even to the casual viewer. If you’ve seen The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, you’ll experience the occasional déjà vu moment. Perhaps that’s inevitable when approaching a franchise of this nature. Johnson, however, doesn’t play things as safe as Abrams and some of his story points are unexpected. In fact, he not only advances the overall narrative but brings it almost to a conclusion. There seems to be very little left for Episode IX to accomplish beyond tying up some loose ends.

The Last Jedi is a film of moments. There are perhaps a half-dozen of them: goose-pimple inducing, fist-pump encouraging, heart-racing bursts of cinematic satisfaction. The problem is that the narrative threads connecting them are lazily knitted and sometimes tangled or broken. The overall plot is underwhelming and there’s far too much padding, especially during the first hour. There’s a sense that Johnson is giving busy-work to certain characters while others are catching up. The Last Jedi is a great 105-minute movie stretched too thin.

Perhaps the most telling thing we’ve learned from The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi is that George Lucas was right with his 2005 claim (later reversed) that there wouldn’t be an Episode VII because there was no more story to tell. Filmmakers can bring back Han, Luke, and Leia but that doesn’t mean there’s a compelling narrative for them. Return of the Jedi, for all its faults, was a triumphant end to Luke’s journey, Anakin’s arc, and the Empire/Rebellion war. For this post-Lucas trilogy, the stakes seem smaller, the villains less intimidating, and the story too familiar. Every new movie gives us additional planets but, with the last two films, the far, far away galaxy seems to be shrinking.

From this point onward, there will be spoilers. No major plot points will be revealed and no surprises will be ruined but I will become more specific in my references to certain characters and events. If you haven’t seen the movie and want a pure experience, I would suggest stopping here and coming back later…

When we last left Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Rey (Daisy Ridley), they were standing atop a mountain sizing up each other. The latter was earnest as she held out a lightsaber to its rightful owner. The former looked peeved, probably because it had taken the whole of The Search for Luke Skywalker to get to him and the moment passed without a line of dialogue. Well, in The Last Jedi, Luke speaks and much of what he has to say isn’t happy or inspirational. He may look like Obi-Wan in A New Hope, but he’s not much interested in teaching Rey or returning with her to play the role of heroic icon. And he’s not as lonely on the isolated planet as it initially seems. He has all sorts of CGI-created friends, including the penguin-like porgs, which ended up in a Star Wars movie on their way to a Pixar film. Has there ever been a more annoyingly cute, merchandise-friendly creature? Oh, yeah: Ewoks.

While Luke and Rey are playing their game of will-he-won’t-he-train-her, the Resistance is in trouble. Apparently, there aren’t many ships left in the fleet and, after the First Order catches them fleeing their latest hidden base, there are destined to be fewer of them. Still, ex-Princess-now-General Leia (Carrie Fisher in her final performance) is nothing if not determined. When hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) disobeys an order, it results in massive losses in service of a major victory. But the Resistance is trapped and the end appears nigh, especially when Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, doing his usual motion-capture thing) shows up in person to confer with his minions, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and General Hux (a frothing-at-the-mouth Domhnall Gleeson). Meanwhile, back with the Resistance, injured hero Finn (John Boyega) wakes up and embarks on a filler quest accompanied by newcomer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and R2-D2 knock-off BB8.

Without question, the best scenes in The Last Jedi feature Hamill and, being a fan of old, Johnson makes sure that Luke is given his due. He’s not a secondary player thrown onto the screen to stoke the fires of nostalgia. He has a major part to play in the way things evolve and nothing that Johnson accomplishes over the course of this movie undoes any of Luke’s monumental legacy.

The yin-yang between Kylo Ren and Rey represents one of the more intriguing elements of The Last Jedi — it’s a concrete embodiment of the Dark Side/Light Side conflict that we haven’t previously seen in the movies and offers the possibility of differing paths existing for each character. Rey hints at seeing a future in which Ren stands with the forces of Light; conversely, Ren envisions a darker road for Rey. Meanwhile, Luke is haunted by his perceived failings and all these years later, he still grapples with his own impure tendencies. When The Last Jedi focuses on these characters and their stories, it’s on solid ground.

Prior to hearing Hamill’s first words as Luke in 34 years, we are treated to an impressively rendered space battle. This pits the Resistance’s few remaining fighters against the First Order’s more impressive fleet in a desperate attempt to destroy the newest weapon in the villains’ arsenal: the mini-Death Star-esque Dreadnaught. From a technical standpoint, the sequence recalls the opening fight of Revenge of the Sith, where Anakin and Obi-Wan lead a mission to rescue Palpatine from Dooku.

After a surprisingly weak score for The Force Awakens, John Williams is back on his game with The Last Jedi meaning that, if nothing else, this sounds like Star Wars. Williams scored two movies last year (not bad for an 85-year old) and his efforts here are better than his workmanlike music for The Post. In addition to composing new material, Williams mixes in popular themes from every film in the original trilogy, including The Imperial March.

As an easily-digestible piece of pop culture, The Last Jedi does its job even if it takes longer than is necessary to do it. But nothing about Star Wars is ever that simple because every frame gets studied, parsed, and dissected by a passionate fandom. Will The Last Jedi be like Revenge of the Sith, which received a lukewarm reception upon release but has gained in respect over the years? Or perhaps The Force Awakens, which was loved far and wide in 2015 but has seen a dramatic reversal in opinion during the two years since it debuted? Or perhaps something else?

The reason to see The Last Jedi (not that anyone needs one beyond the Star Wars moniker) is for those half-dozen moments I mentioned above. There’s enough verve and artistry here to tip my thumb skyward and avoid the tomato from going rotten. But I’ll admit to having been disappointed by aspects of the scope and scale of the narrative, especially considering the high regard in which I hold Johnson (his Looper was one of my favorite films of 2012). Standout, signature scenes make for moments of great viewing power but can’t hide the flaws of an untidy, overlong story.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Available for home viewing: The Post ★★★½

If one looks back at U.S. history during the 1970s, the importance of The Washington Post immediately becomes clear. The paper, which began the decade as just another local daily with little national prominence, concluded it as an important bastion of investigative journalism. Watergate and The Washington Post are inextricably linked through Woodward, Bernstein, and Deep Throat. Although The Washington Post didn’t bring down Nixon, its contributions didn’t help the embattled president remain in office. The Post, however, isn’t about Watergate; it’s about events that preceded the 1972 break-in and how, by defying the Nixon administration in publishing excerpts from The Pentagon Papers, The Washington Post became a major player.

Although the events of Steven Spielberg’s movie transpired 46 years ago, they find surprising relevance in today’s political climate. Most presidents have had adversarial relationships with the press and more than one bemoaned the latitude resulting from the First Amendment but, until Nixon, none tried to throttle the free press. Now, less than a half-century later, we face similar growing concerns. The Post provides us with a history lesson in the hope that, by remembering what happened in 1971 and how important it was to the integrity of the government, we won’t again slide down the slippery slope.

Spielberg is a great storyteller and, in relating the tale of how The Washington Post landed on the front lines of The Pentagon Papers battle (alongside The New York Times), he has his work cut out for him. This is not inherently cinematic material — it’s the kind of narrative that demands a wide canvas. In an example of his mastery over the medium of film, Spielberg is able to (a) provide sufficient background for the uneducated viewer to understand the basics of the situation, (b) avoid oversaturating the film with exposition, (c) developing two compelling characters, and (d) keep the pace from flagging.

The movie attacks the story from two angles that eventually converge in a scene pregnant with tension and future implications. Never has a conference call been so suspenseful! Prior to that pivotal moment, however, we follow the actions of The Washington Post’s timid owner, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), to steer the paper along a conservative course as it prepares for an IPO that will provide a needed infusion of cash. Meanwhile, news editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), after doggedly tracking the so-called "Pentagon Papers" (a Department of Defense history of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam from the Truman through the Johnson administrations), comes into possession of the entire 4,000-page document and has an opportunity to uncover one of many damning stories and take it to print. His aggressiveness throws The Washington Post into a legal quagmire that pits the paper against the Nixon administration in court and threatens jail time for many of the key players. Kay is faced with a choice: allow Ben to go forward or put the brakes on things, let a suit involving The New York Times play out, and avoid alienating skittish investors. Then comes the phone call…

The central conflict is easily delineated. One the one side — the cautious, conservative one — are those who believe that rash action could irreparably damage The Washington Post by causing its investors to balk and sending it into bankruptcy. They are enemies not of journalism but of controversy. They don’t want to cross Nixon nor do they want to risk jail. On the other side are the aggressive journalists who see Nixon’s actions as fundamentally anti-American. They believe that the content of The Pentagon Papers should be available to all and that releasing the information isn’t precluded by the Espionage Act. They are willing to defy the administration and the courts and go to jail if necessary to protect the freedom of the press. All of the film’s dramatic tension arises from the clash between these sides, each of which is represented by factions within the newspaper. But with which position does Kay align herself? And, once she has declared her allegiance, do new revelations raise the stakes and make a change of position possible?

Spielberg is meticulous in his recreation of a 1970s-style newsroom and in his revival of how papers were set up and printed before there were computers. Also, although Nixon is mostly off-screen, he makes two appearances. On those occasions, Spielberg opted not to employ a voice actor. Instead, we see the silhouette of a stand-in as excerpts from the president’s tapes are played. So, in the name of authenticity, Nixon plays Nixon and his voice speaks from beyond the grave. The Post’s historical accuracy is as strong as its attention to detail.

The Post marks Spielberg’s fifth collaboration with Hanks but this is his first time working with Streep. As one would expect with Streep and Hanks at the top of the bill, the acting is top-notch. Both are skilled performers and, while it’s hard to argue that either gives a portrayal of Oscar-worthy exceptionalism, they are credible and convincing. Hanks’s Ben is the same force of nature at the end that he is at the beginning. Streep’s Kay has an arc as she evolves from timid and uncertain to confident in her power and position. The movie’s commentary on Kay’s importance as a woman in this position of power isn’t subtle — consider the scene when she wades into the crowd on the courthouse steps and finds herself surrounded by female well-wishers.

The Post is reminiscent of Spotlight, which captured the 2016 Oscar. Both films extol the importance of investigative journalism. Spotlight is a little more about the nuts-and-bolts of putting together a story whereas The Post has a wider scope. In the end, however, both movies are about how important stories generate powerful push-backs and that’s when the First Amendment is at its most important. Although prone to occasional sermonizing, The Post offers a stirring reminder of the importance of these kinds of unsung heroes in protecting the American way of life.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Available for home viewing: The Greatest Showman ★★★

In style, if not substance, The Greatest Showman is reminiscent of the Disney film, Newsies. Like the 1992 live-action musical, The Greatest Showman comes to life when the characters are singing or dancing but struggles through the sequences in between. The show-stopping numbers are well-choreographed and feature catchy tunes (courtesy of La La Land’s duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) but the film’s dramatic arc, despite purportedly being "based on a true story", is a string of clichés knitted together to tell an unremarkable story. Lead actor Hugh Jackman is charismatic and knows how to hold an audience’s attention during a musical sequence but this is far from his best performance.

Although The Greatest Showman claims to tell the tale of showman P.T. Barnum (Jackman), who leant his name to a circus during the 19th century, the narrative is as untrue and exaggerated as Barnum’s most outrageous falsifications. Also, in an attempt to be relevant, The Greatest Showman tries too hard to establish parallels between the misfits of Barnum’s troop and those suffering from discrimination in today’s society. As well-meaning as those thematic elements might be, they seem forced and largely ignore the underlying truth that Barnum was exploiting these people for personal gain. (The screenplay downplays this aspect, presenting the circus as a multi-cultural venue for self-empowerment.)

It’s astonishing how much more energy the musical numbers have than the purely dramatic sequences. This discrepancy highlights the film’s greatest strength but also represents its most apparent weakness. Every time Jackman or one of his co-stars starts to sing, you want to stay in your seat. Once the song is over, a bathroom break or visit to the kitchen seems appropriate. The plot moves along a familiar trajectory. Barnum, the low-born son of a tailor, falls for a girl far above his station and, once he has made a little money (emphasis on little), he marries her. After working a series of conventional jobs to support his wife (Michelle Williams) and two daughters, Barnum takes a walk on the wild side and buys a museum. When attendance is poor (there’s not a lot of interest in wax figures and the work of taxidermists), he replaces inert attractions with a show featuring human oddities: a bearded woman (Keala Settle), a dwarf (Sam Humphrey), a trapeze artist (Sendaya), and others of their ilk. Barnum’s low-brow production becomes an overnight sensation and he recruits a partner, the younger and well-connected Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron), who arranges an audience with Queen Victoria. While in England, Barnum meets singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), the "Swedish Nightingale", and convinces her to embark on a tour of the United States.

The predictable sweep of Barnum’s rise, fall, and resurrection prevents the movie from exploring any interesting or unexpected territory, so The Greatest Showman relies on two elements for its success: the songs, which are sufficiently contemporary to avoid alienating younger viewers (Pasek and Paul’s numbers are pop and hip-hop influenced), and Jackman’s reliable presence. The filmmakers aren’t discomfited by the anachronistic music and it proves to be The Greatest Showman’s most effective selling point.

The direct-to-the-screen movie musical (as opposed to the adapted play or remake) has been an endangered species for decades and the box office failure of Newsies back in 1992 nearly killed it. Its revival during the last couple of years with the songwriting of Pasek and Paul reminds us of how uplifting a well-executed screen musical sequence can be. The Greatest Showman lacks the chops to compete against La La Land on a story level but it’s every bit as engaging (and perhaps even moreso) than the live-action re-imagining of Beauty & the Beast. It’s a family film whose infectious, crowd-pleasing song-and-dance numbers justify a 105-minute running length when the pedestrian story can’t.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Available for home viewing: Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool ★★½

Despite some great acting, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a largely unpleasant viewing experience and the downbeat tone isn’t helped by a narrative that flits back and forth in time without rhyme or reason, sometimes confusing the viewer with the needlessly convoluted transitions from flashback to present (and vice versa). The film, which focuses on the relationship between a young actor, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), and his much older (and more famous) lover, Oscar-winning Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening), spends too little time establishing the relationship to effectively convey the pain that results when Peter becomes Gloria’s caregiver. The frequent chronological jumps, which attempt to convey various stages of their affair, instead give a sense that the director is assembling a puzzle in which half the pieces are missing.

Despite being based on a true story, the movie (to its credit) doesn’t feel forced to advertise this via an introductory caption. The film’s version of Grahame is softened from the real-life person. Grahame was known throughout Hollywood for being neurotic about her appearance (there are hints of this in the movie, such as when she says that her reason for declining chemotherapy is because her hair would fall out). Her fourth marriage, to her step-son from her second marriage (with whom she began a sexual relationship when he was 13), was a tabloid scandal. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool doesn’t mention this, although the dates when the narrative transpires occur long after that. The production is based on Turner’s memoir and covers incidents between 1978 (when the two met) and 1980 (when she died).

The movie’s best sequences are the early flashbacks. There’s some magic in the "meet cute" scene where Peter and Gloria dance to a disco song. The episode in which they visit the cinema to watch Alien is equally good. Unfortunately, a lot of the movie transpires in the days leading up to Gloria’s death. During that period, she is in pain and virtually immobile. Peter and his mother, Bella (Julie Walters), function as her nurses. Director Paul McGuinan enhances the grimness of these scenes by shooting them in low light with a surfeit of shadows. It makes one consider that perhaps the reason why film stars don’t die in Liverpool is because it’s such a depressing place to live. Woody Allen is often criticized for glamorizing New York City; McGuigan is guilty of the polar opposite when it comes to Liverpool.

Bening is wonderful as Gloria, capturing the allure of a fading star. Especially in the flashbacks, we can see the playfulness and energy that captivates Peter. Later, she slips into the cliched role of the dying cancer patient. She does this credibly but I can’t say she’s any better than the dozens of other capable actresses who have preceded her on similar journey. Bell gives a dour, one-note performance. He’s good a scowling but it’s hard to feel much for him because the character is so thinly drawn. Walters is her usually delightful, no-nonsense self and provides the only opportunity for some light comedy in an otherwise humorless motion picture.

As Dying With Cancer Movies go, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is sufficiently artistic to merit consideration and it avoids the dreaded pitfall of overt manipulation and over-the-top melodrama that often afflict movies of this subgenre. However, outside the small group of potential movie-goers with an interest in Golden Age stars (Gloria appeared as Violet in It’s a Wonderful Life and won her Oscar for 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful), there’s not a lot in this production to make it compulsory viewing.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Available for home viewing: Sweet Virginia ★★★½

Sweet Virginia is an odd title for a movie set in Alaska. An early version of this moody, atmospheric neo-noir thriller was located in the Appalachian Mountains; however, when director Jamie M. Dagg came on board, he moved the setting far to the north. The title has survived because one of the film’s central locations, a motel, is named "Sweet Virginia" in honor of the state from which the lead character, ex-rodeo star Sam (Jon Bernthal) hails.

The movie opens with a brutal prologue featuring a triple murder. The killer, a steely-eyed psychopath named Elwood (Christopher Abbott) has been hired by a young woman, Lila (Imogen Poots), to get rid of her husband. Elwood decides that it’s cleaner to remove witnesses, so he kills the two men accompanying his target. One of the dead men was married to Lila’s friend, Bernadette (Rosemary DeWitt). It wasn’t a happy marriage — she’s having an affair with motel owner Sam — and she’s not devastated by her loss. At one time, she confesses to not having cried and her husband’s murder doesn’t impede her sexual liaisons with Sam. Meanwhile, Elwood hangs around, waiting for Lila to collect her husband’s estate and pay him. During his sojourn, he rents a room at the motel and befriends Sam, whom he recognizes from his rodeo days. Problems arise when all Lila inherits are debts and she’s unable to compensate Elwood.

As with most slow-burn neo-noir movies, Sweet Virginia thrives on atmosphere. It oozes it from every frame. The specific setting of Alaska isn’t relevant (in fact, the movie was filmed to the southeast in Canada for logistical and budgetary reasons) — any isolated community would have done — but cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagne captures the loneliness and emptiness of a location that might be difficult to find on all but the most comprehensive of maps.

Dagg is a master of building suspense — even if the sequence doesn’t climax with a release of the tension. Case in point: a scene in which Lila is driving across town when she suspects she’s being followed. The camera mainly shows the view through the front windshield (occasionally cutting to Lila’s face). In the rearview mirror, we see the headlights of a car that appears to be tracking her. Then, as she approaches a railroad crossing, the gates come down and a train impedes her progress. As she sits trapped, the headlights move closer… There are three or four such moments during Sweet Virginia that keep the viewer on the edge of his/her seat.

Bernthal, Marvel’s The Punisher, is cast against type. Despite his reputation as a man of action, Bernthal dials things down to play Sam who, despite an impressive physique, has a long fuse and, if it comes to a physical confrontation, he is pretty much useless. DeWitt’s Bernadette, however, is the opposite. Usually meek and unassuming, she is anything but laid-back if the situation demands it. As Elwood, Abbott (whose credits include indie movies and TV work) gives a creepy performance. With his dead eyes and awkward mannerisms, the only thing surprising about Elwood is that he’s accepting money for something he probably enjoys. Poots is solid but underused.

Dagg understands the importance of a thriller not overstaying its welcome (especially one the relies not on action but on mood). With a svelte running time of about 90 minutes, this movie hits the sweet spot. It starts with a bang, ends with a bang, and those scenes bookend some solid character moments and tense, atmospheric filmmaking. This small gem is worth seeking out.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Available for home viewing: All the Money in the World ★★½

In Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, Christopher Plummer’s performance is by far the best thing and the scenes in which he appears are the most compelling. The irony of those statements is evident since Plummer wasn’t in the original version of the completed film. Whether or not the 88-year old veteran’s portrayal of oil magnate J. Paul Getty is better or worse than Kevin Spacey’s (whose scenes were re-shot following sexual harassment and abuse allegations lodged against the actor), it doesn’t alter the central imbalance that makes this a frustratingly uneven motion picture. When Getty isn’t on-screen, the movie is a bit of a bore and it doesn’t help that Mark Wahlberg is woefully miscast and the thriller elements are anything but tense or suspenseful.

All the Money in the World is loosely based on the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer), the grandson of tight-fisted billionaire J.P. Getty (Christopher Plummer — no relation), by Italian mobsters. For the teenager’s safe return, the criminals demand a $17 million ransom. However, Paul’s mother, Gail (Michelle Williams), has no money and Getty is unwilling to part with even a fraction of what is being demanded, declaring that he has 14 other grandchildren and if he pays the ransom, all of them will be kidnapped. Instead of offering money, he dispatches his No. 1 security man, ex-CIA agent Fletcher Chase (Wahlberg), to find and retrieve Paul.

The scenes featuring Paul in the hands of his kidnappers and detailing his interaction with the sympathetic Cinquanta (Romain Duris), are unconvincing. They seem staged and artificial. The aspects of the movie focused on the attempts of Fletcher and Gail to locate and rescue Paul lack suspense. They feel obligatory and Wahlberg’s lackadaisical performance makes it difficult to relate to Fletcher on any level. Based on the available evidence, he seems borderline-incompetent, which is at variance with the repeated assertions that he’s the best in the business.

The movie has gained some notoriety because of the last-minute reworking embarked on by director Scott in the wake of damning revelations about Spacey. To save the movie, Scott elected to remove Spacey from the finished project. Choosing Plummer as Spacey’s replacement was an inspired decision and the re-shoots (of about 21 scenes) were completed with lightning-fast speed. Anyone unaware of all the behind-the-scenes drama wouldn’t be able to detect it the finished product; Plummer’s inclusion is smooth and, with the possible exception of one CGI-aided scene, there’s nothing to indicate that someone else may have at one point played the role.

All the Money in the World shines when Plummer is on screen because Getty is by far the most compelling figure in the film. As is often the case when a supporting player rivets the viewer’s attention, this creates an imbalance that the movie is unable to resolve. Getty is audacious and, with Plummer injecting a little humanity into the cold, amoral man, he becomes more than just a two-dimensional anti-hero. But when the movie turns its attention to the participants at the forefront of the kidnapping and rescue, it loses energy. Perhaps part of the problem is what we’re told in a voiceover — that members of the Getty family are "different." Perhaps that lack of humanity fuels a certain apathy where Pauls’ fate is concerned. The possibility of his death doesn’t upset us.

It’s no surprise that the film looks great. Scott is a top-notch craftsman even when working with a less-than-masterful screenplay. His ability to rework the production to a significant degree a month prior to its release is a testimony to what an accomplished director can achieve. The problem, however, is that All the Money in the World isn’t worth the exceptional effort put into its release. It’s a serviceable thriller at best and, although Plummer’s performance is worthy of praise, the film’s failing is that it doesn’t recognize that the most interesting character by far should have a more prominent part rather than being relegated to a supporting role.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Available for home viewing: Molly’s Game ★★★½

When it comes to using dialogue as a mechanism to drive a movie, few (not named David Mamet) are better than Aaron Sorkin with his rat-a-tat-tat approach and ability to craft monologues as living things. After having had a hand in writing some of moviedom’s most memorable screenplays (A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and Steve Jobs, among others), Sorkin is making his directorial debut with Molly’s Game, an adaptation of the true-life (with names changed) memoir of "Poker Princess" Molly Bloom. In true Sorkin style, the movie is all about the nonstop dialogue, which pours out at a mile-a-minute but, as a result of the way the words flow (not to mention the skill with which they are delivered), they function as momentum builders rather than verbal diarrhea.

Molly’s Game has its share of flaws. The structure, which bounces back-and-forth across a couple of time frames (with numerous flashbacks thrown in for good measure), is needlessly tortured. A crucial conversation late in the proceedings, while providing the necessary catharsis, feels like a too-facile way to resolve a lifelong conflict. And there are times when Sorkin accelerates so quickly that details fly by (many of which are highlighted by on-screen markers) before we can process them. (Most deal with how hands are won and lost in various poker games.) Nevertheless, the level of energy is so relentless that it’s difficult not to be caught up in the current and swept along. Combined with Jessica Chastain’s ferocious lead performance and strong supporting turns by Idris Elba (finally getting a role worthy of his talent after the consecutive duds of The Dark Tower and The Mountain Between Us) and Kevin Costner (who has re-invented himself now that the spotlight is no longer so bright), the screenplay and direction keep the viewer engaged for the full 140-minute running length.

As we learn through flashbacks accompanied by detailed voiceovers, Molly (played mostly by Chastain, although Samantha Isler takes over for her as a teenager) was once a talented skier with Olympic aspirations. Driven by her perfectionist father, Larry (Costner), she seems destined for greatness until a freak accident brings her athletic career to an end. Following that, rather than throwing herself into law school, she takes some time off "to be young in someplace warm." That "someplace" is Los Angeles where, through a series of coincidences, she ends up running high stakes poker games for big spenders — actors, moguls, and sports stars. For many years, Molly is able to operate unobstructed until she runs afoul of the ambitions of "Player X" (Michael Cera), a client who wants preferential treatment, and finds herself forced to relocate to New York. There, she rebuilds her empire but, instead of catering to stars, she rubs elbows with anyone who has a lot of money. That attracts the attention of the Russian mob, the American mob, and the FBI. By the time Molly realizes her peril, she’s so deep into drug addiction that she has lost her focus and the results are brutal.

The second timeline happens more than two years after her empire has collapsed. Broke and facing indictment and possible prison time, she approaches attorney Charlie Jaffey (Elba) for representation. Although initially reluctant to become involved with someone with such a "colorful" reputation, he is able to look behind the tabloid headlines and discover that, although Molly can’t pay his retainer, she is deserving of his services. She tells him her story and he agrees to help her although she proves to be one of those clients who rarely takes her lawyer’s advice.

Chastain gets several Sorkin-scripted monologues and delivers them with the passion and tenacity of a lion ripping apart a fresh kill. Costner and Elba get their moments as well, with the latter’s speech about why the prosecutors should "do the right thing" being a perfect clip to show by anyone needing to defend Elba’s acting credentials. It’s all good stuff, delivered by a director who knows how to get the most out of performers speaking his words. Sorkin and Chastain are a perfect match — she knows what he’s after and delivers in spades (clubs, hearts, and diamonds as well).

Superficially, Molly’s Game might seem to be about poker, but that’s really just the glitzy backdrop against which the action occurs. It’s also a way to contrast the lifestyle and culture of "glamorous" Los Angeles with "gritty" New York. The movie’s themes relate to addictions of various sorts: gambling, drugs, and (as Larry explains it) having power over powerful men. Sex rarely comes into things because there’s neither time nor space in Molly’s life for a libido. She’s too busy popping pills, downing them with booze, and lording it over her clients. The players, for their part, are too focused on losing six-figure pots to care about how much cleavage their hostess is (or isn’t) showing.

Sorkin’s structure neuters the potential for dramatic tension. From the beginning, we know what’s going to happen with Molly. There’s no surprise about where things will end up and how they get there. In her first conversation with Charlie, which occurs early in the proceedings, she sums up the entire 2003-2013 portion of the movie. That puts the onus on the dialogue and character building to keep us engaged. Those are Sorkin’s strengths and he plays to them.

Molly’s Game is opening into a cultural climate ripe for a character like this. Molly is strong and self-sufficient. Driven by her addiction to "having power over powerful men", she forges her own empire and, when it crumbles, she refuses to sell her principles for better treatment or a more favorable plea bargain. She’s the perfect antidote to a post-Weinstein Hollywood, the response to ego-fueled male entitlement. Sorkin doesn’t have a crystal ball and didn’t know what loomed ahead when he was making Molly’s Game but the timing couldn’t be better for this movie or Chastain’s career.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Available for home viewing: Downsizing ★★½

For a movie about small people, Downsizing certainly thinks big … too big, perhaps. Director/co-writer Alexander Payne has done such a good job of world-building that there are far too many ideas, subplots, and opportunities for one two-hour film to contain and the sense of truncation becomes constraining. (A TV-streaming mini-series à la Westworld might have been perfect.) Unfortunately, the primary story Downsizing elects to follow turns out to be rather unremarkable. The character arc of Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) lacks verve and, although some will appreciate the low-key denouement, the film as a whole exudes unfulfilled potential and the ending provokes little more than a shrug of the shoulders. I cared less about the resolution of Paul’s story than was needed for the movie to succeed.

The movie opens at an unspecified future date. Scientists in Norway, having determined that overpopulation is the greatest threat facing humankind, devise a way to miniaturize living creatures. Five years later, a pioneer team, led by Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard), have set up a commune for small people. It becomes a major news story and, when we first meet Paul at an Omaha bar, he is amazed. Ten years into the future, "downsizing", as the process has become known, is an increasingly popular option for cash-strapped middle-class citizens seeking to stretch their money. Although scientists initially envisioned downsizing as an environmentally friendly lifestyle (a five-inch person has a vastly smaller carbon footprint than a full-sized individual), one dollar in the "big world" is worth orders of magnitude more in the "small" one. So many people are transitioning in order to lead a life of luxury.

Paul and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), decided to make a plunge when their mortgage application is rejected due to a poor earnings-to-debt ratio. They learn that their assets — all $150,000 of them — will be worth more than $12 million in "Leisureland." So they take the leap but, when Paul awakens, he learns that everything didn’t go as expected. Instead of living in the lap of luxury, he’s forced to rent an apartment living beneath the obnoxious Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz) and take a job for a cleaning service run by Vietnam refugee Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), who was forced by her government to undergo the downsizing process.

It would be easy enough to dismiss Downsizing as an adult version of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, but that would be unfair. The only elements the films share is the shrinking aspect. Downsizing isn’t an adventure film — it’s a serious movie dealing with serious issues. Environmental irresponsibility and climate change are both on Payne’s mind. He also has an ax to grind about the current culture of consumerism. Downsizing, like many sci-fi/fantasy movies, is political.

The movie’s most obvious flaw — and it’s a huge one — is that, after establishing everything and introducing the characters, it doesn’t seem to know what to do with the vast canvas. So it paints a small picture, using only a fraction of the available real estate, and doesn’t do enough to engage the viewer. The first 45 minutes of Downsizing are brilliant. The final 90 minutes are mediocre at best and there are times when things sputter and seem not to have a clear direction. Eventually, we figure out that Downsizing is about Paul’s existential journey, but he’s not the most dynamic of characters. The only thing that works is his relationship with Ngoc Lan Tran, and that’s in part because (despite caricature elements like her broken English) she’s a more interesting person than he is. The movie is already spinning its wheels when Payne decides to toss in an "end of the world" scenario. It’s either poorly thought-out or poorly explained (difficult to ascertain which is the case) and introduces a lot of head-scratching questions. The ending is muted and anti-climactic.

For Payne, whose precise, incisive efforts have included Sideways and Nebraska, Downsizing may be his most serious movie to date — and his least effective. Although it doesn’t abandon satire altogether (there are biting cameos by Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern), most of Paul’s journey is presented without tongue in cheek. There are occasions when Payne remembers to inject a little comedy into the dialogue (one example being when two characters banter about what kind of "fuck" they had) but the initially playful tone turns dour and the preaching grows louder. This is partly intentional — the more we learn about the world of the downsized downtrodden, the more apparent it becomes that the process hasn’t wiped away class struggles and income inequality — but it’s also a result of the lack of narrative momentum.

As Downsizing progressed, I realized that I wanted to learn more about just about every character in the film except Paul. Damon’s earnestness, which was an asset in The Martian, does nothing here. He and actress Hong Chau exhibit chemistry but it’s not enough to keep Downsizing from capsizing. The fundamental miscalculation is thinking that Paul’s story is sufficiently interesting to captivate a viewer. There are some fantastic things happening in Downsizing. It’s a movie of big concepts and bigger aspirations. Unfortunately, the central character is as small figuratively as he is literally, and that limits the movie’s capacity to enthrall and engage.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Available for home viewing: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle ★★★

Every year, there are a handful of pleasant and unpleasant surprises in the world of film. Count Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle among the former. A tremendous improvement over the tepid 1995 original, this quasi-sequel brings humor, fun performances, and a canny understanding of late 1990s-style video games to a party that never takes itself seriously. Although the Rock flexes his biceps and exudes charisma, Kevin Hart does the kind of comedy he excels at, and Karen Gillan kicks ass as solidly as Black Widow, the show-stealer is Jack Black, whose gender-confused wilderness explorer is not only consistently funny but represents a smart bit of acting.

Guns ‘n’ Roses reference aside, this new Jumanji opens with a prologue that begins where the previous film left off, with the troublesome board game half-buried in sand on a nameless beach. After being found and brought home by an unsuspecting man for his son, the boy, Alex Vreeke (Mason Gussione), puts it aside. After all, it’s 1996 and no one plays board games anymore. He’s into video games. Jumanji, apparently recognizing this, transforms itself into a cartridge for a SNES-style console. Alex is intrigued, starts it up, and realizes he probably shouldn’t have done that…

Skip ahead 20 years. Four random high school students — geek Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), football player Fridge Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain), hot babe Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman), and mousey Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner) — are serving detention cleaning out a basement. There, they find the Jumanji video game and, as a way to kill time, they begin playing. Like Alex, they are physically pulled into the game, where they assume the avatars they have chosen. Spencer becomes muscle-bound archeologist Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). Fridge loses "two feet" of height as Smolder’s sidekick, the diminutive "Moose" Finbar (Hart). Martha jumps way up on the hotness scale as Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan). And poor Bethany transforms from a svelte, curvy blond girl into a pudgy middle-aged man, Professor Shelly Oberon (Black).

It doesn’t take long for the characters to figure out that they’re playing Jumanji for real and that they have limited lives before it’s "game over" and winning requires progressing through increasingly difficult levels, solving riddles, and eventually battling the Big Boss. Their ultimate nemesis is the bad-to-the-bone Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), the only returning character from the first Jumanji (although played here by a different actor). Welcome to the Jungle has fun with the tropes and limitations of SNES-style console games, including clunky dialogue-exposition, limited player interaction with game characters, and bizarre strengths and weaknesses. Because the characters all start out with three lives apiece, we get to see each of them die at least once, sometimes in amusing ways.

The original Jumanji was an intriguing idea, poorly developed and executed. Welcome to the Jungle corrects many of the problems of its predecessor and provides the viewer with a better overall two hours of entertainment. Credit director Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence) with keeping things moving and getting the best out of his four leads. The movie struggles a little with pace early on but the "real world" first 15 minutes are necessary to introduce the characters and make their contrasts with their avatar-selves interesting and amusing.

Part of the fun of watching Welcome to the Jungle is seeing the actors play their roles off-key. This is particularly true of Johnson and Black. Both are believable as people uncomfortable in their own skins. Black’s impersonation of a girl is equal parts hilarious and spot-on and Johnson has no trouble poking fun at his image by displaying mannerisms associated with a lack of self-confidence. The chemistry among the actors is evident and translates (at least in part) to their real-world counterparts.

When Jumanji came out, the quality everyone mentioned was the special effects. In the early CGI era, this was touted as being a visual smorgasbord. The reality fell short of the hype. The effects work in Welcome to the Jungle is more effective because it’s less ostentatious. The animals are believable because they are no longer the point of the movie. Likewise, the action sequences are effective because they play off standard video game elements while never lasting for too long.

Jumanji has been given an unenviable availability date, becoming available for home viewing around the same time as The Last Jedi and in large part vying for the same viewing audience. I would recommend not passing over the former film in the rush to see the latter. Star Wars might be a far more significant franchise than Jumanji but I can make a compelling case that Welcome to the Jungle is a more fun film than The Last Jedi. At the very least, I can say I had a good time with this incursion into a Raiders of the Lost Ark-influenced comedy/adventure world.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Available for home viewing: I, Tonya ★★★

At first glance, I, Tonya might seem to be a darkly comedic satire of tabloid journalism excesses as seen through the prism of one of the 1990s sleaziest headline-grabbing stories. However, the film, as directed by Lars and the Real Girl’s Craig Gillespie from a screenplay credited to Steven Rogers, works on a different level, illustrating the tragedy underlying a farrago of criminal incompetence. Margot Robbie’s dynamic performance plays into both aspects of the movie — she delivers one-liners with vigor while allowing us to see a character forged in the fires of brutality lit by a self-absorbed mother (Allison Janney) and an abusive husband (Sebastian Stan).

What we remember about the early 1994 incident is straightforward: a group of thugs associated with skater Tonya Harding (Robbie) attacked Harding’s chief competitor, Nancy Kerrigan (Catlin Carver), with the goal of breaking her leg. The assault failed in its ultimate goal (Kerrigan’s leg was merely bruised), and Harding’s potential involvement became tabloid fodder. Any short-term gains, such as Harding’s capturing the U.S. title, were soon wiped away and her disappointing eighth place Olympic finish capped a tumultuous career. But in I, Tonya, we get (as Paul Harvey was fond of saying) the rest of the story.

Fair warning: the movie is presented from Harding’s perspective and she purportedly was a consultant. Undoubtedly, the story as told from Kerrigan’s perspective would have a dramatically different flavor. But I’m reviewing I, Tonya not I, Nancy. The movie shows the building blocks that went into constructing the trailer-trash public personality we came to know as "Tonya Harding." Her mother is a cold monster who drives her daughter using physical coercion and psychological abuse. Her husband, Jeff Gillooly, the architect of the attack on Kerrigan, uses her as a punching bag. In one of the film’s most memorable lines, Tonya opines that Kerrigan was hit once and it became a major news story but she (Tonya) was hit daily and no one took notice. Her lower-class, "unwholesome" background is taken into account by the judges when they score her performances. Despite technical excellence on the ice (she was the first female skater to land a triple axel in competition), she is graded on a curve because the profession doesn’t want her to be the "face of the sport." They greatly prefer Kerrigan.

Although the surface tone adopted by I, Tonya is breezy and cheeky, there’s a lot going on beneath the facade. The faux documentary approach, which allows fourth-wall breaking and razor-sharp asides, allows the movie to jump around a little in time. But, when the screenplay isn’t poking fun at various flunkies and their actions, it provides a window into the sad, lonely, affection-starved life of the main character. I, Tonya doesn’t court our sympathy so much as it encourages our understanding. No one is going to condone what happened to Kerrigan and, whether she knew about it in advance or not, Tonya cannot be held blameless, but Gillespie’s account argues that there were two victims in this incident.

I, Tonya features several standout performances and the makeup-costume corps deserves praise for the transformation of recognizable actors into doppelgangers of their real-life counterparts. Robbie, following in the footsteps of the many dazzling stars who have allowed themselves to be deglamorized when demanded by a role (often while in pursuit of an Oscar nomination), embodies Harding — heart, soul, and profane mouth. Robbie’s performance is on a level where I wouldn’t quibble with any awards acknowledgements. In the supporting category, Janney’s interpretation of Tonya’s mother is so terrifyingly real that it’s impossible not to be mesmerized and horrified that such a woman could exist. Mommy Dearest, anyone? Finally, Stan is a mirror image of the real Gillooly.

Black comedies are difficult to do right, in large part because the tone becomes a high-wire act between pathos and humor. I won’t argue that Gillespie always finds the perfect balance and there are those who will argue that Tonya’s character comes across as whitewashed. However, although curiosity about "the incident" may draw us to the film (something openly acknowledged during one of the fourth wall-breaking voiceovers), I, Tonya holds our interest by exposing the falseness and commercialism of Olympic-level skating competitions and illustrating how the perseverance shown by Tonya is perceived not as an asset but a character flaw. The film’s strength is that it does more than simply make us laugh.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Available for home viewing: Novitiate ★★★

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Novitiate is the even-handedness with which it treats religion in general and 1960s era Catholicism in particular. Set mostly within the confines of a convent, the feature debut of writer-director Margaret Betts takes pains to neither demonize nor lionize cloistered existence. The film presents the nuns — from the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) to the protagonist, a novitiate named Sister Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) — as people with their own inner insecurities and conflicts. From sexual attraction-frustration to spiritual uncertainty, a wide variety of crises are examined. All of this happens against the backdrop of initiating the Vatican II reforms, which the Reverend Mother believes will destroy the church she loves. As a side-note, Novitiate has a rare distinction: almost the entire cast and crew is female, with nearly every major behind-the-scenes role (director, writer, producers, cinematographer, and editor) filled by a woman. Given the strong female voice of the story, this would seem to be an ideal approach.

In 1954 at the age of 7, Cathleen is taken to church by her agnostic mother, Nora (Julianne Nicholson), for the "experience." Cathleen is fascinated and finds the experience positive. Five years later, she is offered a scholarship to attend a local all-girls Catholic school. By the time she’s ready to graduate at the age of 17, she has decided to become a nun — much to Nora’s despair. She enters a convent and passes through a period of postulancy, confirming the legitimacy of her calling, before becoming a novitiate. As she prepares to take her final vows, Cathleen struggles with matters of faith and develops an intimate relationship with another sister, Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan), while becoming one of the Reverend Mother’s favorites.

The film’s emotional component comes from Cathleen’s experiences and struggles. This is not like The Magdalene Sisters, the 2003 film set in a 1960s Irish girls school (run by nuns and priests) that focused on the brutalization of women in a strict Catholic environment. Even the sternest character in Novitiate (the Reverend Mother) is developed beyond the level of a stereotype, being shown to have a human soul capable of good and ill. At one point, in a voiceover, Cathleen gives an impassioned defense of why she has chosen the life of a nun, acknowledging what most people think about cloistered women while explaining that her reason is that she fell in love … with God. The ugly relationship of her parents has something to do with it as well. With their interaction as a model for marriage, one can understand the appeal of celibacy.

As strong as Cathleen’s story is, arguably the most unique aspect of Novitiate relates to the impact of adopting Vatican II reforms on the convent. The scene in which the Reverend Mother reads a letter describing the changes illustrates the sense of betrayal felt by the nuns in the room (and perhaps, by extension, across the world), especially the older ones. While Vatican II was applauded by most Catholic laypeople and garnered a mixed reaction from priests, this is the first time I can recall having seen a dramatization of its impact on nuns.

Qualley gives a breakthrough performance as Cathleen — a young woman whose initial pure faith is put to the test when she suffers doubt and finds herself attracted to another sister. The lesbian angle is not overplayed. The sex scene is brief and discreet and leaves much to the imagination. This isn’t about reinforcing stereotypes. Qualley and her partner in the relationship, Dayan, play the "romance" believably. Meanwhile, Leo (force of nature that she is as an actress) makes the Reverend Mother a commanding presence.

By avoiding the temptation to rail against religion and instead offer an introspective and respectful look at it, Novitiate becomes that rare thing: a movie willing to show the flaws of Catholicism without dwelling on its negatives. It understandably won Margaret Betts a Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Director at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. With an appealing cast and a fly-on-the-wall perspective, Novitiate offers an absorbing two hours.