Sunday, August 20, 2017

Available for home viewing: "The Fate of the Furious"

One of the givens of Fast and Furious is that the latest movie will be bigger and more enjoyably ludicrous than the last. The miniskirts will be shorter, the toys zoomier, the stunts more delirious. Yet, like every successful series, this one delivers its sleek new bits and pieces in reassuringly familiar packaging. James Bond has queen and country. Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto — the monotonal Fast and Furious paterfamilias — has cars and camaraderie, an ideal combo for movies about American outsiders whose home has always been one another.

Family is the most important word in these movies, the one that’s dropped with moist emotion and hushed Sunday-sermon reverence. It’s the idea that has held the franchise together — movie to movie, race to race, prayer to prayer — in an episodic soap about kith, kin and custom cars. It’s what connects this franchise to its fans, another kind of family, though one that pays to sit down at the table. It’s what has always bound Dom to his wife, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), and the rest of his crew, most crucially Brian, the cop-turned-soul-partner played by Paul Walker, who died in an off-set car collision in 2013.

The latest movie’s title, The Fate of the Furious, seems like a nod to the lingering existential crisis created by Walker’s death, as do the tears that fall in the story. They’re shed over time but before they are, the movie does what’s expected, which is cut loose attractive characters in different choreographed formations in assorted machines and locales. Directed by F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton), this one opens in Havana, where the young local beauties swirling around Dom and Letty move and dress more or less like the other young beauties in the series, as if they were part of a continuing global house party, this time with Che Guevara and prettily peeling buildings.

Gray, an action-movie veteran, gets that party started quickly. Dom and Letty are hanging out in the new Havana, which in this case means chatting in Spanish and English while checking out a vintage car with a boat motor under the hood. It’s a nice emblem of the movie’s old-school opener, which involves some macho posturing that leads to Dom racing in a rusted-out beater. As he drives, ripping past one classic American car after another, he clutches the wheel, the camera pointing up at him. Like a supermodel’s long legs, Diesel’s sculptured, often-bared arms are one of his trademarks, and they do a lot of work, signifying strength and command. Here, though, they shudder.

Both the old cars and Dom’s unsteadiness set up a movie that clearly still needs to contend with Walker’s death even as it delivers the goods. To that end, the filmmakers quickly isolate Dom from his crew (Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, et al.) and give him a proxy heartbreak. Elsewhere, the franchise’s increasingly most valuable players, Dwayne Johnson and the bouncy Jason Statham, take care of business, going hard and funny. Kurt Russell shows up as a man in black with a newbie played by Scott Eastwood, whose resemblance to Big Daddy Clint adds intertextual genre frisson. Charlize Theron slinks in as a villainous hacker in silly blond dreads, jetting around while doing a lot of fast, furious typing.

Punctuated by crashes and drums of doom, the movie moves to a dependable blockbuster beat, as a little exposition is followed by an action scene, and more exposition is followed by a bigger, noisier, nuttier action scene. As the cars zig and the story line zags, these sequences grow baroque, defying reason and gravity, which have progressively come under siege in this franchise. In New York, cars swan-dive off buildings or cut corners like rampaging dogs or, outfitted with Bond-like gizmos, harpoon a bucking ride. There’s an odd Melville thing going on here: In a Bond-esque battle in Russia that typifies the franchise’s expanded reach, a submarine breaches like Moby-Dick.

Zoom, crash, repeat with squealing, burning and flaming tires — it’s all predictably absurd and self-mocking, and often a giggle when not a total yawn. The tedium that sets in is a function of the blockbuster ethos in which everything must smash and ignite so that a solitary man can emerge phoenix-like to fight another franchise fight. Yet while Dom endures baptisms of fire, he is never genuinely alone. Part of the draw of the Fast and Furious movies has always been their multicultural cast, but the series’ strength is a utopian communitarianism that insists the group must be greater than any one man or nation. That’s why Dom will only ever be the franchise’s co-pilot; it’s the crew that rules.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Available for home viewing: "The Zookeeper's Wife"

It's a great — and as yet untold — story: Jan Zabinski and Antonina Zabinska, Polish husband and wife zookeepers, owners of the Warsaw Zoo, opened their zoo to Jewish refugees after the September 1939 German invasion of Poland, and continued to "host" people throughout the occupation, smuggling them out of the Warsaw ghetto, hiding them in animal cages and basement tunnels leading from the house to the zoo. Considering that the German army had commandeered the zoo for an armory, this "hiding in plain sight" strategy was extremely risky. Diane Ackerman, an author who focuses on the natural world, told the tale in her book The Zookeeper's Wife, dovetailing stories of animal camouflage techniques with stories of human survival. Sometimes the metaphor was a bit strained, but Antonina's vivid journals (she also wrote a children's book about animals) was the thread that held it all together. Only two of the 300 Jewish "guests" (as they referred to them) hidden in the zoo were captured by the Nazis and murdered. The rest survived.

The film adaptation, written by Angela Workman and directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider), has many lovely and moving moments but fails to capture the many layers of this unique story, relying instead on plainly-stated metaphors. "A human zoo," Antonina (Jessica Chastain) breathes, when Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) suggests they take in Jews. There are also some fictionalizations that come straight out of the familiar and cliched Nazi-movie playbook. The opening sequences are effective, showing Antonina's daily routine before the bombs start falling, her affinity for animals, her Snow-White-like gift for relating to them on their level. She is called to the elephant yard to aid with a suffocating baby elephant, and is able to remove the obstruction from the baby's trunk all while calming down the panicked mother elephant. The couple's villa, on the zoo premises, is filled with an eccentric menagerie: badgers and parrots and a pair of baby lynxes, snoring in bed with the Zabinski son Rys (the Polish word for lynx). It's an Edenic world.

But so much information is missing, including the real personalities of these eccentric and tough people. Jan's involvement in the Polish Underground and the Home Army, his weapons stashes all over the city, his long absences, are sketched in, if that. He is shown fighting the Germans at one point, but it's handled so haphazardly it's not clear what's going on. In the book, Jan and Antonina carried cyanide pills on them at all times, to be used if their secret should be discovered. What an illuminating fact! But Workman chooses to leave that out (and many other details), focusing instead on the less-interesting (and fictionalized) domestic dramas going on inside the house: Antonina coaxing a feral Jewish child (raped by Nazi soldiers) to trust her, in the same way she coaxed animals to trust her, in case you didn't get the connection. The Zookeeper's Wife also spends a lot of time showing the lengths Antonina goes to to ingratiate herself to nosy German zookeeper Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). She flatters him, flirts with him, and all of this makes Jan jealous. There are unfortunate moments when the real cliffhanger of the film is whether or not Antonina will sleep with Heck, instead of what will happen to the Jews curled up in animal pens.

Caro is on sure ground when showing familiar events through a new filter. There's a haunting sequence on the day of the invasion when the animals in the zoo sense what is coming before the humans do. The sound drops out. The tiger paces wildly in its cage. The monkeys scream into the air. When the zoo is bombed, the animals are let loose on the city, and Warsaw residents peek out their windows at the bizarre sight of a camel trotting by, or a couple of lions prowling through rubble on the corner. Caro shows some of the activities of the Polish Underground, its organization and coordination: setting up a room in the back of a bakery where documents are forged, the rituals of dyeing Jewish black hair platinum blonde, the underground-railroad of helpful citizens who put their lives on the line to save their neighbors, the machinations and bribes that allow Jan to enter the Ghetto officially, and smuggle people back out: these details are fresh, specific, frightening.

Meanwhile, back at the zoo, Antonina hangs out with Heck, listening to his babble about the Nazi's plans to breed back to life the extinct "auroch" as a testament to German's racial purity, and she unbuttons her top button, allows him to wash her hands near the bison pen. These sections are forced, unnecessary. The villain is not Lutz Heck the potential rapist-seducer Nazi. The villain is the Nazi war machine and the racist ideology that kept it alive.

Chastain is an actress who quivers with a vulnerability so palpable you can practically see the pulse beating in her throat. She is able to completely submerge her softness (Crimson Peak), or transform that softness into single-minded obsession (Zero Dark Thirty) or taut anxiety (Miss Julie). In Take Shelter, her wifely concern for her husband's increasing madness is partially why Michael Shannon's performance is so powerful. And of course there's The Tree of Life, a celebration of her vulnerability. As Antonina, though, Chastain seems bound up as an actress, held back in creating a character mainly by the demands of doing a Polish accent.

If an actor's accent is belabored and clumsy, the audience doesn't think, "Wow, I am so involved in this story." They think, "Oh, look, a famous actor trying to do an accent." Chastain's inconsistent Polish accent calls so much attention to itself that even she seems aware of it, lowering her voice to a near-whisper throughout. She is surrounded by European actors, all of whom speak English in a variety of accents (and Jan is played by a Flemish actor), so her attempt is even more distracting.

These are some pretty serious caveats, but it's important to reiterate that there are many sequences of the film that work beautifully, filled with emotion and tension, fear and pain (the Warsaw Ghetto scenes are especially terrible, a spectacle of horror). The story of the zookeepers who risked their lives repeatedly throughout the war is an incredibly moving and important story, in and of itself. Years later, when asked why they did what they did, Jan Zabinski answered, "I only did my duty — if you can save somebody's life, it's your duty to try."

Friday, August 18, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Gifted"

What’s in a child’s best interest? It depends on who’s answering the question. That’s the crux of Gifted, the director Marc Webb’s return to small-scale features after tangling with Spidey.

The gifted child here is a 7-year-old math prodigy, Mary (Mckenna Grace, charmingly precocious), who is being raised by her uncle Frank (an impressive Chris Evans). He wants a normal life for Mary; her mother, also a math genius, was under pressure and committed suicide when Mary was a baby. So they live a simple life with their one-eyed cat in Florida, where Frank fixes boat engines; the grime under his nails (and the beer he swigs) suggest that he’s firmly rooted in the working class.

Yet Frank and Mary’s strong bond — one of the film’s most convincing parts — is tested when he sends her off to the first grade. She’s been home-schooled, but Frank thinks it’s time she tried "being a kid." While Mary can solve differential equations, she has less-than-advanced social skills and manners. Her teacher (Jenny Slate) recognizes her abilities immediately, and floats the idea that Mary would be better served at a prep school. Frank objects, but it’s too late: Soon Frank’s rich mother (a haughty Lindsay Duncan) arrives from Boston to usher Mary off to a life of higher learning. Next stop: the local court, where a fight for her "best interest" ensues, bogging down the story.

Octavia Spencer also pops up in this otherwise fleet-footed film, but the supporting role — if you can call it that — is paltry. She’s brilliant in her few scenes, yet hardly plays as full-fledged a character as she did in another film about mathematicians, Hidden Figures. If only there were a court for this injustice.

Available soon for home viewing

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 **½ Directed by James Gunn. The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mystery of Peter Quill's true parentage. It’s tough being a hitmaker who isn’t weighed down by corporate expectations, but for a while, Gunn does a pretty good job of keeping the whole thing reasonably fizzy, starting with an opener that winks at the audience with big bangs and slapstick.

Kill Switch ½* Directed by Tim Smit. A pilot battles to save his family and the planet after an experiment for unlimited energy goes wrong. The plot, unlike its execution, is not terrible.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Kong Skull Island"

As a big-budget B-grade monster movie, Kong: Skull Island is a home run. It offers all the tropes and clichés one expects from this sort of endeavor, sparing no expense when it comes to special effects. As a King Kong movie, however, Skull Island is less successful. The supersized ape stomping around this tropical atoll isn’t recognizable as any Kong we have previously seen. Call him "Kong in Name Only." Superficial physical resemblances aside, it’s hard to find much of the Big Guy’s personality in this incarnation. The Kong of Skull Island is a hulking force of nature who exists exclusively to wreck helicopters and beat up other monsters. Forget all that Beauty and the Beast crap. At 300+ feet tall, he’s about 10 times the size of his 1933/1976/2005 "little brother" — a change that was made so he can eventually go toe-to-toe with Godzilla — something that wouldn’t work if he was only in the 30-50 foot range. For the producers, the end game is 2020’s King Kong versus Godzilla, as is made evident in a post-credits scene.

Kong: Skull Island isn’t a sequel, prequel, or reboot. It’s a completely new story set in a parallel universe where nothing that happened in any previous King Kong movie has transpired. Why use the name Kong when so much is different and previous continuity has been thrown out the window? Marketing! The name "King Kong" has tremendous name recognition. How many millions of people will see this movie because of "Kong" that wouldn’t see it if was about "ApeX"?

Unlike Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, which kept its title creature under wraps for half the running time, it doesn’t take Kong long to get into the action. After a brief cameo during a prologue set in 1944 (which has two World War 2 pilots crash-landing on Skull Island), Kong makes his grand entrance about 20 minutes into the main story. Set in 1973, this allows for countless nods to Apocalypse Now and a few references to the 1976 King Kong. Ignoring the time period, Skull Island has a Jurassic Park 3 vibe.

The movie follows the travails of a group of scientists and soldiers who become trapped on Skull Island after Kong smashes their transport helicopters to smithereens. They’re a diverse lot: mission leader Bill Randa (John Goodman) and his assistants, Houston (Corey Hawkins) and San (Tian Jing); Vietnam vet Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson); tracker and ex-British operative James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston); anti-war photographer and feminist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson); and the Rip Van Winkle-inspired Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), who has been marooned on the island for about 30 years.

Some aspects of Kong lore have been retained. As in the 1976 version, the island is obscured by clouds. It’s also inhabited, although the natives don’t speak (a clever way to avoid the language barrier). The iconic wall is there, although it has been repurposed since there’s no way it would be much of a deterrence to a 30-story ape who can swat helicopters out of the sky. The dinosaurs of the 1933/2005 movies (DeLaurentis opted to go with just a giant rubber snake) have been replaced by lizard monsters since a T-Rex wouldn’t be much of a challenge for this Kong. The movie collapses into three basic elements: Kong vs. people, Kong vs. animals, and lots of running.

The special effects are extraordinary considering the low bar set by the screenplay. This is a wise decision and a case of the producers understanding the audience. No one goes to a King Kong movie expecting well-developed characters and a complex narrative. They go for adventure, excitement, and kick-ass monster battles and all three are in place. As I wrote earlier, this is a good monster movie. It has all the elements. 13-year old boys will be in heaven. It only disappoints when one considers that Kong, distinguished in earlier incarnations as one of the most anthropomorphized of all the big monsters, has been diminished in concept.

For director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, this is an introduction to the big time and he handles it well. His focus is where it should be and the various human actors (including an Oscar winner, two Oscar nominees, and a former Taylor Swift boyfriend) do their best to provide background color. Despite having the best stare of the cast members, Jackson is out-overacted by Reilly, who ends up being the only person we care about.

There have always been pro-environmental themes in the King Kong movies (most clearly emphasized in the 1976 version) and it’s impossible to miss the inclusion of those ideas here. Sticking with the tenet that subtlety has no place in a monster movie, the screenwriters get out the sledgehammer and slam home their commentary about humanity’s (negative) impact on the world around us. They also throw in some anti-war stuff as well, although the frequent call-backs to Apocalypse Now become tiresome after a while. We get the point from the poster’s homage; no need to keep beating the dead horse.

To be fair to Legendary Entertainment, there have been worse representations of King Kong. The two Japanese movies with their laughable production values and man-in-a-monkey-suit approach top the list with the (thankfully) forgotten kids’ cartoon not far behind. Compared to these, Skull Island, despite genericizing the legendary ape, comes across as deeply respectful. And if the ultimate point of this movie is to get Kong into the ring with Godzilla, this isn’t a bad appetizer.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Available for home viewing: "The Lost City of Z"

The Lost City of Z is an adaptation of David Grann’s non-fiction book of the same name. Expanded from the author’s 2005 New Yorker article, the 2009 hardcover became a New York Times bestseller and garnered over a half-dozen major awards and citations. Part biography and part true life detective story, The Lost City of Z recounted the life and exploits of early 20th century explorer Percy Fawcett, who became obsessed with a mythical city in the Amazon that he simply called "Z". Since many things about Z and Fawcett’s final mission remain shrouded in mystery, Grann’s book looked at various scenarios and explored the available evidence.

Although a documentary might have offered a straightforward interpretation of the book, director James Gray moved forward with a feature instead. This approach necessitated taking liberties with the text, not the least of which was condensing episodes from the protagonist’s life. The ending is muddled as an unsuccessful attempt is made to provide closure to a story that, if told frankly, shouldn’t have one.

The movie opens in 1906 with the 39-year old Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) traveling for the Royal Geographic Society to the wilds of South America to map the Brazil/Bolivia border. Accompanying him are two other British army soldiers: Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley). Although several members of the expedition die, it is considered a success and Fawcett returns home as a minor celebrity (explorers being revered in the early 1900s). He is convinced that the remains of a great city exist within the Amazon awaiting a well-funded and determined mission to uncover them.

Accompanied by another explorer, James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), who served on Shackleton’s 1907 Antarctic crew, Fawcett returns to the Amazon in 1911. This trip, although offering additional evidence of the existence of the ruins, fails to provide conclusive evidence and, when Murray falls ill with blood poisoning, an abrupt return home is necessitated. World War I breaks out, scuttling additional expeditions. It isn’t until 1925 that Fawcett is able to once again head into the wilderness, this time accompanied only by his son, Jack (Tom Holland).

The Lost City of Z’s structure is problematic. Covering nearly 20 years of Fawcett’s life results in discontinuities in the character’s life and, although more than a half-dozen expeditions have been compressed into three, the movie rushes through each to get to the next chapter. There’s arguably too much material to fit into a 141-minute movie, especially presenting it chronologically, and there are times when The Lost City of Z’s approach feels superficial.

"Green Inferno" movies (as they have come to be called) often rely strongly on a sense of atmosphere — something almost entirely absent in The Lost City of Z. Here, the Amazon isn’t some implacable adversary whose dense foliage hides unimaginable terrors. Instead, it’s camera-friendly scenery that allows the great cinematographer Darius Khondji an opportunity to display his skill. Gray’s arm’s length storytelling offers a coherent narrative but there’s little in the way of suspense or tension. The journeys are perfunctory, offering little in the way of adventure. Although it’s probably unfair to make a comparison with the likes of Apocalypse Now, Fitzcarraldo, and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, the Heart of Darkness journeys in those movies possessed a visceral power that The Lost City of Z never achieves. They were uncomfortable and immersive; The Lost City of Z seems inspired by them but its jungle scenes are indistinct echoes at best. On the home front, attempts to flesh out the loving relationship between Fawcett and his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), are only partly successful and the resolution of the long-simmering resentment of Jack for his father is sudden and unsatisfying.

Strong production values and a capable lead performance by Charlie Hunnam offset some of the film’s narrative issues but, although The Lost City of Z held my interest, it felt like a missed opportunity. Like too many biographical movies, this one tries to do too much. There are tantalizing glimpses of ideas that could have blossomed (obsession, patronizing Colonial attitudes, resource exploitation) but were nipped in the bud because of time constraints and a determination to concentrate on breadth rather than depth. The result is a collage of people, places, and events set in an era that seems foreign despite having existed only a century ago. Historical inaccuracies aside, the film provides an uneven but compelling portrait of one of the last members of a dying breed and gives us cause to mourn how technology has made the explorer extinct.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Colossal"

What if Godzilla was a projection of your issues? That's the question posed by Colossal, a film by Nacho Vigalondo in which an alcoholic screwup named Gloria (Anne Hathaway) unleashes terror on Seoul, South Korea, in the form of a giant monster by getting blackout-drunk.

This sounds like the premise of a Saturday Night Live sketch blown up to feature length, but part of the weird charm of Colossal is its willingness to be that kind of movie to the Nth degree. It warmly embraces the central idea and explores it in detail, without burdening it with gravity that it can't support. Vigalondo, who has carved out a niche making wry, small-scaled, rather peculiar genre films, doesn't do that. This movie feels as if somebody woke from an intense nightmare, decoded it and realized it was rather unsubtly working through some of their unresolved problems, then brought it to Judd Apatow and said, "Here's your next comedy."

The story starts in New York City. Gloria's boyfriend (Dan Stevens) breaks up with her after she spends all night out with reprobate friends without notifying him. Dan breaks up with her and kicks her out. There will be no second chances this time: he already packed a suitcase for her. Gloria returns to her hometown in upstate New York, moves into the home that her parents vacated when they moved south after their retirement, and runs into a childhood friend named Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who owns a local bar, a perfect place to get a job if you're an alcoholic who doesn't have two nickels to rub together.

After a long night drinking at the bar with Oscar and his friends Joel (Austin Stowell) and Garth (Tim Blake Nelson), she stumbles home and wakes up to hear that a gigantic creature has attacked Seoul. Colossal doesn't send Gloria on a time-wasting journey to figure out if there's any connection between her issues and the creature's rampage; instead, it spends its energy asking what such a discovery might mean to Gloria personally and how it relates to her train wreck of a personal life.

I should pause here and allow that to enjoy this film, you have to accept that it unfolds in a space somewhere between dream/allegory and realistic psychological comedy and that it's never going to treat the rampage as anything other than a representation of Gloria's problems. Imagine a relatively laid back, small-scaled indie comedy about a woman coming to terms with the mess she's made of her life, but with her demons represented by a kaiju that looks like something out of an older Godzilla movie.

Part of the film's unique sense of humor comes from the way it plays against our expectation that Vigalondo is going to make things bigger at some point. He never does. The film takes the characters' problems seriously, but it never becomes self-important. There is property damage and a body count on the other side of the world, and this gives Gloria an urgent reason to convince her friends that what she believes is happening is, in fact, happening, and take a long look at herself and urge her fellow barflies, who aren't exactly temperate individuals, to do the same.

Hathaway is quite appealing here, striking the right note between desperation and "whatever, dude" haplessness. Her performance has a Diane Keaton-ish quality. Vigalondo's screenplay and her acting do a terrific job of shaping Gloria as the kind of person you may have known, or perhaps been, at some point. She's clever enough and good looking enough to get other people, particularly men, to forgive her tendency to make messes and take advantage, but only up to a point. She's a user of both intoxicants and other people, and she knows it. She also knows that unless she gets a handle on things, she going to keep re-enacting the same cycle until she's either dead or an old lady who lives in a tiny rented bedroom somewhere and spends most of her monthly Social Security check on booze.

My only major complaint — and I'm not sure it's even a valid one, considering that Colossal never seems that interested in addressing it — is that the movie has a political and racial dimension that it doesn't really explore because it's so focused on Gloria and her pals: it's a movie about comfortable Americans who project their personal turmoil on another culture without giving their wanton destructiveness a second thought. There's a more multilayered and rich genre film somewhere in that notion, and I can imagine a filmmaker like Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) or George Romero (Dawn of the Dead) or John Carpenter (They Live) dealing with it directly. My only minor complaint is that, even though it's short, it still feels a bit slight, its evident modesty notwithstanding.

But just when you think you've gotten everything that the premise can give you, Colossal takes things in a slightly different direction than you expected. I don't want to say much more about the rest of the plot, because it takes surprising turns. I'll just say that the cast is quietly superb, that the movie always knows what it is and what it wants to say. If you decide to view Colossal expecting another Pacific Rim or Kong: Skull Island, you will finish it less than two hours later puzzled or perhaps angry at what you just saw. Everybody has issues. Maybe we should be grateful that they don't have giant footprints.

Available soon for home viewing

Alien: Covenant *** Directed by Ridley Scott. The crew of a colony ship, bound for a remote planet, discover an uncharted paradise with a threat beyond their imagination, and must attempt a harrowing escape. At its best, the film echoes the creepiness and tension of Alien. At its worst, it sinks into the pretentiousness that at times threatened to derail Prometheus.

Blind * Directed by Michael Mailer. A novelist blinded in a car crash which killed his wife rediscovers his passion for both life and writing when he embarks on an affair with the neglected wife of an indicted businessman. The film wants to be a steamy romance, but it ends up leaden and occasionally laughable.

Chuck *** Directed by Philippe Falardeau. A drama inspired by the life of heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner. Liev Schreiber has almost no physical resemblance to Wepner, in his heyday a burly, mustachioed redhead. Schreiber is a terrific actor, however, and he pulls it off. His portrayal works partly because of its understatement.

Everything, Everything ** Directed by Stella Meghie. A teenager who's spent her whole life confined to her home falls for the boy next door. The matter-of-fact portrayal of a bi-racial relationship is presented just as it should be — unremarked upon.

How to Be a Latin Lover * Directed by Ken Marino. Finding himself dumped after 25 years of marriage, a man who made a career of seducing rich older women must move in with his estranged sister, where he begins to learn the value of family. The movie all too quickly devolves into a nearly two-hour slog showcasing Mexican comedy superstar Eugenio Derbez’s attempt to seduce U.S. audiences with a cheesy bilingual spoof of an ethnic stereotype long past its expiration date.

The Wall * Directed by Doug Liman. Two American soldiers are trapped by a lethal sniper, with only an unsteady wall between them. Where the movie excels is in the creation of an extra-untantalizing desert atmosphere. The dust is practically unhalable, the sunlight glaring and the characters grow even more sand-gritted with each mishap. Overall, however, it still feels like an exercise, one so dramatically monotonous and tonally high-pitched that you want to escape almost as much as the characters do.

Available now for home viewing: "Song to Song"

I'm in the tank for Terrence Malick. I don't believe that the Austin-based director has ever made a bad movie, just ones that were too fragmented, mysterious and intuitive to connect with a wide audience. I thought Knight of Cups was one of last year’s most daring features, but I realize this is a minority opinion. Mention the director to a movie buff these days and you’re likely to get jokes about voice-overs and perfume ads and twirling in fields, plus complaints that Malick is too much of this and not enough of that, and not what he used to be.

I don't care. I love that after 44 years of feature filmmaking, his style is still an issue. Even at its most obtuse, Malick’s work never plays by commercial cinema's rules, coming at characterization and story from odd angles when it isn’t chasing the ineffable, as his camera chased a butterfly in The Tree of Life. The actor and filmmaker Tim Blake Nelson, who had a small role in Malick's epic 1998 war poem The Thin Red Line, said the difference between Malick and most other filmmakers is "the difference between [Georges] Seurat painting with dots and [Paul] Cezanne, who's a more painterly painter."

Nevertheless, here we are, at long last: Song to Song, a romantic drama set against the backdrop of the Austin pop scene, is the first Malick film I’ve watched where the dots never came together to form a legible image.

Rooney Mara plays a woman in love with two men, a musician played by Ryan Gosling and a producer played by Michael Fassbender. Natalie Portman plays a waitress who has an affair with Fassbender. I’m not entirely sure who Cate Blanchett is supposed to be, but she gets involved with Ryan Gosling at one point. All of the characters have issues with their parents: Portman’s mom, played by Holly Hunter, sacrificed everything for her after their father left or died, I’m not sure which. Gosling takes care of his terminally ill father (Neely Bingham) and has a flirtatious relationship with his mother (Linda Emond), who stares at him the way a person on the street might stare at Ryan Gosling.

I’m referring to the actors by their real names throughout this review because it scarcely matters what their characters are named. Like To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, the two other Malick films set in the present, Song to Song feels improvised — so much so that for stretches you may feel as if you’re watching a documentary about Terrence Malick trying to devise a film on the fly.

The title obliquely refers to the "Song of Songs," the last section of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible and also the fifth book of Wisdom in the Old Testament. It is often described as a celebration of physical love between women and men. The movie invites that association with its many images of gorgeous people kissing, caressing, touching each other’s hips and bellies, nuzzling near sunlit windows, and lounging on beds and in parks. And twirling. The architecture of civilization and nature enfolds the actors as they glide through Malick’s frames. There are close-ups of feet traversing hardwood floors and the damp stone edges of swimming pools (these are often the type that seem to cut off at the edge of a cliff or hillside). Like the superior Knight of Cups, this is a warmer cousin of the cosmic-minded bourgeois dramas that Michelangelo Antonioni (La Notte) used to make 50 years ago.

We get a sense, as in most Malick films, of civilization holding nature at bay, or falsely believing that’s what it’s doing. Leaves fall, flowers wave, pollen swirls in the air, the sun peeks through treetops, but we also hear jet engines and car horns, amplified music and feedback. Flocks of bats whirl in the air near the Congress Street Bridge in downtown Austin. Dogs snuggle with their owners. Deer explore suburban lawns. Gosling takes a break from tending to his dad, goes outside, and feeds a horse an apple while interstate traffic rumbles through the background. One of the film’s modernist houses is built around an old, tall tree that rises through a skylight. The whole film could be a premonition of Pocahontas, the heroine of The New World, after moving to England.

Spectacle and sensation are all. Live songs start a few bars in and end a half-minute later. Classical score music, narration and dialogue compete with them, creating a cacophony that is sometimes pleasurable, sometimes grating. Malick and his regular cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, capture concert scenes in outdoor venues with thousands of people, and intimate scenes in gorgeously decorated homes where characters practice songs or noodle on a piano or guitar. The actors are filmed as if they were dancers performing without the aid of a choreographer. Women pirouette and skip like little girls. Men mock-battle each other over a woman or roughhouse in the grass like little boys. Fassbender imitates an angry ape and makes Gosling laugh so hard he falls over. Such bits could be a statement about the eternal child inside every adult or they might be examples of what actors do when they aren’t sure what they’re supposed to do. This was not a distinction that mattered much in other Malick films, even recent, maligned ones, but it matters here because the movie is so entropic.

Malick’s cast features many famous musicians, including Iggy Pop, whose chest and abs draw stares of amazement from Lubezki’s camera, and Patti Smith, who talks about her husband Fred’s 1994 death from a heart attack with such insight that you may wish you were watching a documentary about her instead. An uncredited Val Kilmer appears in a concert sequence, plunging a chainsaw into an amplifier and telling the crowd, "I got some uranium … I bought it off my mom!" About halfway through, Fassbender starts turning into his character from Shame. Mara and Gosling never turn into anything. The hint of a roiling interior life that Blanchett manages to give her character feels more anchored than anything else in the movie, except for a tight close-up of Gosling contemplating his father’s mortality and a scene of Mara arguing with her dad in a gas station parking lot.

At one point Malick gives us a 30-second snippet of a twerking contest. That is not a sentence I ever expected to type.

The most affecting moments in Song to Song are close-ups of people crying while they remember mistakes and wallow in regret. These moments would be devastating if there were … well, not a story, exactly — like Jean-Luc Godard, Malick doesn’t need a story to do his thing — but perhaps a clearer personal context and a bit of rhetorical connective tissue linking it to the movie’s grand themes (grief and loss, compromise and corruption, the anesthetizing superficiality of modern existence).

Song to Song is disjointed even by the standards of a Malick film with a title that announces "this is a collection of bits." Huge developments in the characters’ lives come out of nowhere (often after being heralded by awkward bits of voice-over) then are never mentioned again. There’s a raw, loud confrontation scene where Gosling accuses Fassbender of cheating him, but a couple of scenes later things seem OK between them. A major character appears to die, causing a family member to collapse in grief, but the event is presented so fuzzily that it takes a few minutes to be sure that the character is dead.

The results were hit and miss in Malick’s other contemporary dramas, too, but you always felt as if there was a method to the madness. Malick presided over accidents as if he were a God who had conjured them through mischief and prayer. There was a grave sincerity to the films' presentations of guilt, nostalgia, longing and spiritual crisis, and a smiling confidence to the way Lubezki’s camera circled the actors while they flirted, brooded and frolicked. But in Song to Song there are times when the storytelling might remind you instead of a book report by a student who wants you to think he read the book cover to cover when he actually just skimmed the dust jacket five minutes ago. It doesn’t help that Gosling and his siblings’ resentment of their dad, the central love triangle and other elements are all rehashed from recent Malick films.

When a poet fails, it’s not always easy to put your finger on why, because the failures are created through the same elusive, interior process as the triumphs. I wouldn't presume to guess exactly what went wrong here. Malick is employing the same audiovisual vocabulary as in his previous three films (with a few refinements, including the widspread use of tiny GoPro cameras), and he’s dealing with a lot of tried-and-true Malickian themes and situations. But no matter how warmly you feel towards Malick, the film still doesn’t click as it should. It's a brainy concept album made up of B-sides and filler. The musicianship is superb but the songs needed work.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Available soon for home viewing

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul ½* Directed by David Bowers. A Heffley family road trip to attend Meemaw's 90th birthday party goes off course thanks to Greg's newest scheme to get to a video gaming convention. Jettisons everything that’s honest and worthwhile about the books in favor of hackneyed misadventures and gross-out scatological humor.

The Dinner * Directed by Owen Moverman. Two sets of wealthy parents meet for dinner to decide what to do about a crime their sons have committed. An incredibly frustrating movie, almost purposely so.

The Exception **½ Directed by David Leveaux. A German soldier tries to determine if the Dutch resistance has planted a spy to infiltrate the home of Kaiser Wilhelm in Holland during the onset of World War II, but falls for a young Jewish Dutch woman during his investigation. A diverting and occasionally exciting film, though it is rarely disturbing or thought-provoking in ways the material might require.

The Hunter’s Prayer * Directed by Jonathan Mostow. An assassin helps a young woman avenge the death of her family. This is like a Luc Besson film that’s been put through a deflavorizing machine to remove any element that could be distinctive, energetic, or fun.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword * Directed by Guy Ritchie. Robbed of his birthright, Arthur comes up the hard way in the back alleys of the city. But once he pulls the sword from the stone, he is forced to acknowledge his true legacy whether he likes it or not. The film is an oxymoron: a frenetic slog.

Snatched ** Directed by Jonathan Levine. When her boyfriend dumps her before their exotic vacation, a young woman persuades her ultra-cautious mother to travel with her to paradise, with unexpected results. It’s a mismatched-buddy comedy. It’s a fish-out-of-water comedy. It’s a raucous girl-power comedy.

Wolves ** Directed by Bart Freundlich. An 18-year-old basketball star who is being recruited by Cornell University seems to have it all figured out: captain of his team, a good student, has a longtime girlfriend and some good friends. But at home he's struggling with his troubled father who has a gambling addiction. The actors do nice work before things derail.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "Beauty and the Beast"

Once upon a time, before the acronyms VHS and DVD were commonplace, Disney would quaintly safeguard such animated classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio like priceless gems while benevolently re-issuing them every few years on the big screen before stashing them back in the studio vault.

But in the 1990s, with the advent of home entertainment, the studio started to consider new ways beyond revivals to cash in on the same beloved stories. First came Broadway productions, followed by direct-to-video sequels, TV series spinoffs and then, starting in 2010 with Tim Burton’s effects-laden Alice in Wonderland, digitally-enhanced live-action renditions.

It was therefore all but inevitable that a property as adored as 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film to not just compete in Oscar’s Best Picture category but also top the $100 million box-office mark, would receive a 21st-century makeover after Cinderella and The Jungle Book followed the rousing $1 billion worldwide box-office reception for Alice in Wonderland.

The bottom line: This gloriously old-fashioned musical with gee-whiz trappings is a dazzling beauty to behold (with enough Rococo gold decor to gild all of Trump’s properties) and is anything but a beastly re-interpretation of a fairy tale as old as time. Also welcome is the more inclusive display of love in its various forms, which go beyond the sweetly awkward courtship between brainy, brave and independent-minded bookworm Belle (Emma Watson, much cherished for her gutsy portrayal of Hermione Granger in the eight Harry Potter films) and the cursed prince in the ill-tempered guise of a ram-horned bison-faced creature (Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey, whose sensitive blue eyes serve him well amid all his CGI faux-fur trappings).

As for that "exclusively gay moment" you have been hearing about? It appears near the conclusion when LeFou, a comic-relief character brought to life by Josh Gad (the voice of Olaf the snowman in Frozen) who clearly has an unrequited man-crush on his bulky and boorish buddy Gaston (Luke Evans of The Girl on the Train), fleetingly dances with a male partner. That’s it. If your kids aren’t freaked out by Michael Keaton’s coy in-the-closet Ken doll in Toy Story 3, they will be fine here — especially considering the central relationship in this PG-rated fantasy basically promotes bestiality.

Still, this is a much denser — and longer, by a considerable 45 minutes — confection, one that doesn’t always go down as easily as the less-adorned yet lighter-than-air angel food cake that was the original. It’s true that my heart once again went pitty-pat during the ballroom waltz as Emma Thompson voicing Mrs. Potts honors her sublime teapot predecessor Angela Lansbury by warmly warbling the title theme. But I couldn’t help but feel that the more-is-more philosophy that lurks behind many of these remakes weighs down not just the story but some key performances. This Beauty is too often beset by blockbuster bloat.

The familiar basics of the plot are the same as Maurice, Belle’s father (Kevin Kline, whose sharp skills as a farceur are barely employed), is imprisoned by the Beast inside his forbidding castle for plucking a rose from his garden and Belle eventually offers to take her papa’s place. Meanwhile, the enchanted household objects conspire to cause the odd couple to fall for each other and break the spell that allows both them and their master to return to human form again.

There are efforts by screenwriters by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) to provide emotional links between Belle and her Beast involving their mutual absent mothers that don’t add much substance. And, in an ineffectual attempt to embolden her feminist cred, Belle invents a primitive version of a washing machine. Such additions don’t hold a candelabra to tried and true sequences as when the Beast, in a wooing mood, reveals his vast library of books to Belle. One can only describe the reaction on Watson’s face as she takes in this leather-bound orgy of reading material as a biblio-gasm.

That is not to say there isn’t much to admire, especially with director Bill Condon’s dedication to injecting the lushness and scope of tune-filled spectacles of yore. His resume, which includes penning the adapted screenplay for Chicago and calling the shots behind the camera for Dreamgirls and the final two FX-propelled Twilight films, shows he knows his way around both musicals and special effects. Watson might be at her best right out of the gate while performing the song Belle, which begins with her bemoaning her provincial existence in a small town and ends with her singing on high amid lush green hilltops dotted with yellow wild flowers while channeling Maria in The Sound of Music. That the camera lingers upon the freckles on her pert nose is an added bonus.

Alas, once she is ensconced in the massive gothic castle, Watson is more reactive than active as her slightness causes her to be swallowed up by the ornate scenery and upstaged by the chatty servants in the guise of furniture and knickknacks. I was a little nervous about how the voice cast including Ewan McGregor as the urbane French-accented candle man Lumiere and Ian McKellen as the chubby nervous mantel clock Cogsworth would fare. But they all do a bang-up job with the stand-out number Be Our Guest, the so-called "culinary cabaret" where plates, platters and utensils turn into performers in a Busby Berkeley-style spectacular. Condon wisely takes the choreography to the next level with nods to everything from West Side Story and Les Miserables. Meanwhile, Gad and Evans — both musical theater veterans — pull off the humorous pub number Gaston with playful aplomb.

Less successful are the action sequences where the Beast and Gaston battle it out Hunchback of Notre Dame-style among rooftop turrets, crumbling buttresses and gargoyles. But most disappointing are the not-so-memorable new songs that pop up in the second half whose melodies are once again written by composer Alan Menken but with lyrics by Tim Rice (The Lion King). They just cannot compete with the old favorites that never fail to tickle the ears with their irresistible wordplay supplied by the late great Howard Ashman. But with its racially diverse cast (at one point, I wished that Broadway dynamo Audra MacDonald as the wardrobe Madame Garderobe and the sprightly Stanley Tucci as her harpsichord hubby Maestro Cadenza could have done their own duet) and wink at same-sex flirtation, this Beauty presents a far more inclusive view of the world. One that is awash with a sense of hope and connection that we desperately need right now. If you desire an entertaining escape from reality right about now, be my guest.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "Logan"

On the surface, Logan is a superhero movie featuring the return of two of movie-dom’s most beloved and venerable mutants. Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman were both on hand when Bryan Singer’s 2000 feature X-Men blew open the doors to modern motion picture superhero movies, allowing Marvel to challenge DC’s previous dominance. Now, 17 years later, Stewart and Jackman are back, playing the characters they have repeatedly returned to over the course of this century. Barring a change of heart by one or both actors, this will be the last time we’ll see this Charles Xavier and this Wolverine.

Logan is about mortality. We all grow old. Everyone reading this who saw X-Men theatrically in 2000 has undergone a major life shift during the intervening years. Grandparents and parents age and die. We see their strength diminish as the years pass. It’s as melancholy as it is inevitable. For superheroes, however, there are no "golden years." Reboots and remakes are common. If an actor gets too old to play a role, the part is recast. That’s why Superman circa 2017 is about the same age as Superman circa 1950. Logan changes this up with a simple premise: What happens to superheroes when they get old? In this final Wolverine movie, Professor X is in his 90s. He is afflicted with some form of degenerative brain disease which has sapped his powers and made him prone to violent psychic seizures. Logan’s strength is diminished and his healing powers are waning.

The setting is vaguely dystopian. It’s 2029 and Mutant-kind has been all-but-eradicated. No new mutants have been born in 25 years and the existing ones have been hunted to extinction. Except for Professor X, Wolverine, and the bald-headed tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant), there may be none left. The screenplay, credited to Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green doesn’t provide much background. Although Logan is technically the conclusion of the so-called "Wolverine Trilogy" and is the ninth film focused on X-Men characters, this is designed as a stand-alone. The story is less interested in canon and continuity than establishing a framework for a tale about love, guilt, responsibility, and redemption. There are traditional bad guys in Logan — a mad scientist type (Richard E. Grant), a cock-sure henchman (Boyd Holbrook), and a next-gen killer (Jackman) — but the true villain is one that no one, not even the great men of this piece, can overcome: mortality, the robber of virility and strength, the crippler of all.

The movie introduces us to Logan the caregiver. Along with Caliban, he is watching over the terminally ill 90-something Charles Xavier, who even at his most lucid isn’t the man he once was. Charles has no future and, to prevent him from harming others with his occasional mental meltdowns, he is kept in confinement. The job suits Logan, who wants no part in interacting with humans and whose legacy of death and violence weighs heavily on his conscience. That’s when Laura (Dafne Keen) enters his life. Not only is she the rarest of rare — a young mutant — but she has been genetically engineered using Logan’s DNA. She’s his daughter and she is being hunted. That sets the stage for a chase, a road trip, and a final confrontation. This is like no superhero movie we have ever before seen. Nor is there likely to be another one of this sort anytime soon. I’m curious about how enthusiastically those who enjoy the over-the-top spectacle of typical comic book fare react to Logan. Has this been seen as too grim and joyless or is it regarded as a much-needed antidote to the blasé blandness that has overtaken the genre?

Logan isn’t the first superhero movie with a dark tone. Batman has lived there for decades and Zack Snyder did his best to pull Superman into the abyss. For a Marvel character (even one being produced outside of the MCU due to the X-Men’s rights having been parceled off to Fox), this is new territory. In his Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan discovered the magical formula that makes dour superhero movies work; it has to do with the melding of tone, atmosphere, and emotional content. Snyder didn’t understand this and made it all about the aesthetic. Mangold, who was also responsible for 2013’s The Wolverine, returns to what one might call the "Nolan basics." It’s therefore no surprise that Logan is the best superhero film since The Dark Knight.

There’s no shortage of violence in Logan. The movie earns its R-rating by not pulling away from the gruesome results of Wolverine’s claws encountering human flesh. (There’s also a fair amount of profanity. We get to hear Professor X utter the f-word.) The visceral take on Wolverine’s beheadings and disembowelments is in keeping with the overall tone. Yes, there are a few scenes when the protagonist loses control and eviscerates large numbers of opponents but the rah-rah element common in comic book-fueled action sequences isn’t there. This is a pugilist in the twilight of his career. He might win a round but it’s hard to see him making it to the end of the bout. Laura adds an element of youth and newness to the proceedings. She’s no less ferocious than Wolverine, has an equally large chip on her shoulders, and is just starting to come into her own. But inexperience limits her effectiveness and that’s where Wolverine comes in.

We’ve seen Jackman grow as an actor during the nearly two decades he has played Wolverine. He has added layers of depth and films like Prisoners (for which he should have gotten an Oscar nomination) have challenged viewers’ perceptions of him. Yet, in playing a character he has returned to over the years, he has now given his finest performance, a complex mix of regrets and self-doubt that reveals a Logan we never got to know. Stewart, who has worn the co-crown with Ian McKellan as the most lauded actor in the X-Men franchise, provides viewers with a character who, like McKellen’s Sherlock in Mr. Holmes, has been reduced by age but still retains fragments of his once-mighty intellect. Newcomer Keen is all passion and energy and would provide a worthy lead for a spin-off series if the filmmakers choose to go in that direction. Laura’s ascension almost makes this a Rocky/Creed situation (with Jackman as Stallone).

Strangely, this time of year has become the go-to time for non-standard, R-rated superhero films. In terms of tone and content, Logan is Deadpool’s polar opposite but both productions refuse to play by traditional superhero movie rules. With its overt allusions to Shane (clips of which are shown) and echoes of Unforgiven, Logan demands to be given consideration as a "serious" movie. More than any other comic book character outside of Nolan’s Batman, Wolverine has evolved. With his glimpse into what superhero movies can be, Mangold has given us something sadly lacking in recent genre entries: hope.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Available soon for home viewing

The Circle * Directed by James Ponsoldt. A woman lands a dream job at a powerful tech company called the Circle, only to uncover an agenda that will affect the lives of all of humanity. Has a lot of good ideas and a few engrossing sequences, but it never quite finds a groove, or even a mode, and it ends in an abrupt, unsatisfying way.

Colossal ***½ Directed by Nacho Vigalondo. Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is an out-of-work party girl forced to leave her life in New York City, and move back home. When reports surface that a giant creature is destroying Seoul, she gradually comes to the realization that she is somehow connected to this phenomenon. This movie feels as if somebody woke from an intense nightmare, decoded it and realized it was rather unsubtly working through some of their unresolved problems, then brought it to Judd Apatow and said, "Here's your next comedy."

Don’t Knock Twice * Directed by Caradog W. James. A mother desperate to reconnect with her troubled daughter becomes embroiled in the urban legend of a demonic witch. Disappointing because its creators don't do anything interesting with a fairly novel theme: a mother's possessive love for her estranged daughter.

The Drowning ½* Directed by Bette Gordon. A psychiatrist faces his past, present and future when he finds himself involved in the treatment of a young man recently released from prison for a murder committed when the boy was just 11 years old. The problem with this movie isn't that the characters are insubstantial, but rather that they don't dry up and disappear fast enough.

Going in Style ** Directed by Zach Braff. Desperate to pay the bills and come through for their loved ones, three lifelong pals embark on a bid to knock off the very bank that absconded with their money. Although the movie’s heist represents a high point and gets props for being suitably clever, it’s swamped by bad melodrama and lame comedy.

The Lovers ** Written and directed by Azazel Jacobs. Debra Winger and Tracy Letts play a long-married, dispassionate couple who are both in the midst of serious affairs. But on the brink of calling it quits, a spark between them suddenly reignites, leading them into an impulsive romance. Falling with a thud between two stools, it has neither the zip nor the zaniness of farce nor the airy vivacity of the best romantic comedies.

The Ottoman Lieutenant ½* Directed by Joseph Ruben. A love story between an idealistic American nurse and a Turkish officer in World War I. A couple of action sequences are well staged. That’s about it for the plus side.

Phoenix Forgotten * Directed by Justin Barber. Twenty years after three teenagers disappeared in the wake of mysterious lights appearing above Phoenix, unseen footage from that night has been discovered, chronicling the final hours of their fateful expedition. Borderline generic, desert-set found footage that apes genre constraints to a snooze-worthy T.

Shin Godzilla **½ Directed by Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi. Japan is plunged into chaos upon the appearance of a giant monster. The film is at its best when it’s in parody mode, though it keeps that card too close to the vest for much of its two-hour length. The humor, not the monster, is what you’re left wanting more of.

Sleight *** Directed by J.D. Dillard. A young street magician (Jacob Latimore) is left to care for his little sister after their parents passing, and turns to illegal activities to keep a roof over their heads. An auspicious debut from this up-and-coming filmmaker.

Wakefield ** Written and directed by Robin Swicord. A man's nervous breakdown causes him to leave his wife and live in his attic for several months. The film, scrupulously faithful to its source, is decidedly literary, but not in an especially satisying way.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "Free Fire"

There was a period in the mid- to late 1990s when it seemed as if every other gritty independent film and a few studio wannabes were built around scenes where tough white guys smoke cigarettes, insult each other and launch into interminable monologues about some aspect of popular culture until an argument breaks out and everybody points guns at each other. This, unfortunately, has been the main legacy of Quentin Tarantino, whose first two hugely influential films Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction could be boiled down to that very description, provided that you disregarded everything else that made them distinctive and good.

What followed the release of those movies was the cinematic version of a land rush, with directors, screenwriters and actors racing each other to stake out little plots of earth where they could build secondhand versions of films that were themselves constructed from borrowed and stolen pieces of other films (and often made no secret of what had been lifted). Probably 80 percent of these knockoffs could have been retitled, "Watch Me Do Something I Think Is Easy But That Really Isn't." The Boondock Saints, Reindeer Games, Phoenix, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, 2 Days in the Valley, American Strays, The Way of the Gun, Suicide Kings, 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag — I could go on, but then we'd be here all day, and I'd never get around to talking about Ben Wheatley's Free Fire, a Tarantinoid film that arrives just in time to mark the 25th anniversary of Reservoir Dogs, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in 1992.

Free Fire is neither the best nor the worst of the Tarantino wannabes; at its worst, it's tediously unoriginal, and at its best, it's funny and reasonably involving. Either way, its temporal distance from Reservoir Dogs — a film it brazenly imitates, right down to the warehouse setting and the grandiose use of kitschy pop — makes it noteworthy. So does its status as part of one of the most striking filmographies of recent years: that of Wheatley and his screenwriting partner Amy Jump, who made High Rise, A Field in England and 2011's Kill List, a superior foray into somewhat QT-like territory.

The story begins with Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) driving to a Boston warehouse to take part in a weapons deal that includes a couple of Irish Republican Army members, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley). Two intermediaries involved in the deal, Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer), lead the group inside and introduce them to the chief weapons dealer, a smug, glad-handing, unfunny little jokester named Vernon, who of course is played by Sharlto Copley, an actor whose whole career seems to have been modeled on Hart Bochner's performance as Ellis the Yuppie cokehead in Die Hard. Vernon has three associates, Martin (Babou Ceesay), Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor).

The cast soon expands to include several additional characters, including a couple of assassins who shoot into the warehouse with rifles from outside. Hidden motives and grudges are exposed as factors complicating this arms deal, which should have been simple and brief but becomes a complete disaster, with the core group shooting at each other from behind pillars and scrap heaps and discarded machinery and tending to their own wounds and others'. There's a bit of subtext involving the financial crash and the general decline of old fashioned manual labor (as photographed by Laurie Rose, the warehouse and the surrounding buildings and docks have a post-apocalyptic feel), and of course a lot of the dialogue has to do with the expectation of honor among thieves and the collective realization that in situations like this, there isn't any. There's a hint of budding romance between Chris and Justine (the only woman in the movie) and a couple of twists that you might or might not see coming, mostly having to do with hidden motivations.

That the actors all seem to be enjoying themselves goes a long way towards making Free Fire something other than a slog through played-out situations. Wheatley is a superb director with a strong sense of both geography and psychology, which means that, despite the film's overpopulated cast, you are never confused about where people are or what they're feeling at any given moment. Some of the actors make a strong impression — in particular Noah Taylor, who has been leaning hard into the grizzled-character-actor thing and is developing a Harry Dean Stanton vibe; and Hammer, whose eloquent, self-deprecating handsomeness evokes Brad Pitt. And the more deranged touches elevate Free Fire beyond its familiar setup. I never imagined that a filmmaker would press John Denver into service as, basically, the Ennio Morricone of a modern spaghetti Western, and yet here we are, and damned if it doesn't work.

All in all, though, this feels like a step backward for a director whose work has confounded and surprised more often than not. This is a relatively short feature that still feels too long, because once you realize that there's only one way that most of these relationships can resolve — with one party or the other dying of gunshot wounds —there isn't much for the viewer to do besides wait out the final credits and hope for some tasty character bits along the way.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "The Promise"

Weighed down by the worthiness of its intentions, The Promise is a big, barren wartime romance that approaches the Armenian genocide with too much calculation and not nearly enough heat.

It can happen all too easily. An otherwise highly competent director (in this case, Terry George) succumbs to the lure of addressing a real-life atrocity (here, the still-contested slaughter of more than a million peaceful Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I). Somewhere along the way, though, the need to do justice to the slain and call out the perpetrators becomes a pillow that smothers every spark of originality. Even actors with the heft of Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale — playing an Armenian apothecary named Mikael and an American war reporter named Chris — appear muffled and indistinct.

This dimming extends to an excruciatingly corny plot that has both characters vie for the twinkling affections of Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a Paris-educated, terminally cute tutor. But first Mikael must finagle a dowry to finance medical school in Constantinople, so he promises to marry Maral (Angela Sarafyan), a lovely innocent from his village. Once in the grip of the city and Ana’s charms, however, Mikael is lost; the combined demands of a soggy love triangle and the approach of war soon banish all thoughts of marriage — to Maral, at least.

Mikael, then, is not particularly sympathetic, and Chris is a humorless newshound; so when the jackboots tramp and the killing begins, their fates are of less concern than they should be. And while Mikael endures the horrors of an Ottoman work camp, and Chris and Ana are busily saving orphans at a Protestant mission, their director — who was infinitely more adept with his other genocide movie, Hotel Rwanda — appears oblivious to the story’s inadequacies. Aspiring to the sweep of epics like Doctor Zhivago and Reds, George achieves neither the romantic delirium of the first nor the sheer swaggering gumption of the second.

Money does not seem to have been the problem: The film reportedly cost almost $100 million, and some of it is even on the screen. Yet we never forget for one second that we’re watching actors in fancy dress; behind the curtain of cattle cars and starving workers, above the noise of the explosions, we can hear the moviemaking machinery clank and whir.

In 2002, the Canadian-Armenian director Atom Egoyan took a more modest yet ultimately more potent path to the genocide with his underseen Ararat. Though not entirely successful, that film — which directly addressed the cinematic challenge of representing history — profited from sharply perceptive writing and a studious avoidance of melodrama. With even one of these attributes, The Promise might have had a chance.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "Wilson"

Wilson — it’s not clear if that’s his first or last name — is a misanthrope with a sentimental streak, a guy whose grouchiness is leavened by oddball touches of Minnesota Nice. He is furiously disdainful of most of the people he meets, but also has a habit of sidling up to them and initiating awkward conversations with a smile halfway between a snarl and a leer. Humanity annoys him, and he’s happy to return the favor.

Which makes him, on paper, an intriguing character. By "on paper" I mean, specifically, in the pages of Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel Wilson, a funny-sad, episodic portrait of everyday loneliness and longing. American literature — and American comic-book literature in particular — hardly lacks for disaffected, middle-age white guys, but Wilson has his own special brand of abrasive charm.

Not onscreen, though. The movie version of Wilson, directed by Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins) from a screenplay by Clowes, illustrates the difficulty of translating an idiosyncratic temperament from one visual medium to another. The dark, comic poignancy of the book is drowned in garish, self-conscious whimsy, and the work of a talented ensemble is squandered on awkward heartstring snatching.

Wide-eyed and gaptoothed, with heavy-framed glasses and a copper-and-silver beard, Woody Harrelson plays Wilson as a kinetic ball of conflicting impulses. He’s unpleasant, but not in an especially interesting way, and ingratiating in a way that’s even drearier. The other people in Wilson’s life — his foils, enablers and marks — are played by capable actors. Laura Dern is his wayward ex-wife, Pippi. Cheryl Hines is her judgy sister, Polly. Judy Greer is Wilson’s dog-sitter, and Isabella Amara is the almost-grown daughter he never knew he had. Mary Lynn Rajskub and the character actress Margo Martindale each have a few minutes of screen time.

As is often the case with well-intentioned, misbegotten projects, you’re happy to see them even as you wonder how they ended up here. The same is true of the composer Jon Brion, a usually brilliant musical artist whose score in this case is an unpalatable cocktail of jauntiness and melodrama, swamping the action rather than complementing it.

Antic, joyless and sloppy, Wilson tries to provoke and beguile you, but the best you can manage is to feel sorry for it.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Available soon for home viewing

Black Butterfly ½* Directed by Brian Goodman. Outside a mountain town grappling with a series of abductions and murders, Paul (Antonio Banderas), a reclusive writer, struggles to start what he hopes will be a career-saving screenplay. After a tense encounter at a diner with a drifter named Jack (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), Paul offers Jack a place to stay-and soon the edgy, demanding Jack muscles his way into Paul's work. The movie communicates all of its empty-headed ideas idiotically, but still retains a knowing smugness regarding its intentions, like it’s pulling a rabbit out of a hat while acting like no one’s ever seen such a trick.

The Boss Baby ** Directed by Tom McGrath. A suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying baby pairs up with his 7-year old brother to stop a plot of the CEO of Puppy Co. Much like any child, even a supposedly surefire nugget of an idea requires careful nurturing. In this case, The Boss Baby often tries too hard and succeeds too little.

Ghost in the Shell *½ Directed by Rupert Sanders. In the near future, a woman (Scarlett Johansson) saved from a terrible crash is cyber-enhanced to be a perfect soldier devoted to stopping the world's most dangerous criminals. Director Sanders likes a dark palette and is good with actors, but there’s little here that feels personal, and he mostly functions as a blockbuster traffic cop, managing all the busily moving, conspicuously pricey parts.

Gifted **½ Directed by Marc Webb. A single man (Chris Evans) raising his child prodigy niece (McKenna Grace) is drawn into a custody battle with his mother. What’s in a child’s best interest? It depends on who’s answering the question, and that’s the crux of this movie.

Unforgettable *½ Directed by Denise Di Novi. A woman sets out to make life hell for her ex-husband's new fiancée. Both the director and the writer are women, but that doesn’t translate into a re-imagining of the tired formula.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage * Directed by D.J. Caruso. Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) is left for dead, though he secretly returns to action for a new, tough assignment with his handler (Samuel J. Jackson). Characters are simply triggers for the overwrought action sequences, though between the Edward Scissorhands editing and occasional wobbling background, even those are less than distinct.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "A Cure for Wellness"

I keep forgetting the title of A Cure for Wellness and calling it "The Color of Despair." It’s an accurate mistake.

As directed by Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Lone Ranger), this film about a New York financial wiz (Dane DeHaan) getting trapped in a creepy Swiss clinic wants to be sickly-dreamy horror epic. It’s a black-and-white movie done in color. The stark photography by Bojan Bozelli creates pools of blackness and acres of negative space. Jenny Beavan’s retro-gothic costuming and Eve Stewart’s production design favor ash, bone, eggshell, curdled cream, and shades of green ranging from bile to moss. If you could nick a David Fincher film’s throat, hang it upside down, and bleed it for two days, it would look like this movie. As a fetish object, it’s impressive.

But as a fully satisfying feature-length drama, it’s a bust. And it’s iffy as a visionary spectacle, too, because it’s too long and over-scaled, and its control of tone and theme never matches the care that has obviously been lavished on its production. This is all a shame, because there’s much to admire in A Cure for Wellness.

DeHaan has just the right look to play the main character, Lockhart, a corrupt young East Coast WASP who travels to Switzerland to find a missing company executive but ends up trapped at a "wellness clinic" run by a German-accented doctor named Heinrich Volmer (Jason Issacs). DeHaan looks like he could be Dylan Baker’s long lost son, all milky angularity and cold stares. He has that look that casting directors go for when they’re hiring prep school jerks or Nazi youth. The actor’s straightforward performance, by turns entitled, baffled, terrified and ashamed, makes Lockhart a punching-bag hero, the kind who exists mainly to suffer horribly before achieving an enlightenment that looks a lot like comeuppance.

Lockhart is insufferable at first because he’s supposed to be. There’s a sense in which he deserves the miseries inflicted upon him because he’s a snotty capitalist swine who would otherwise grow up to be another Ebenezer Scrooge, and because he’s representing a system that produces Scrooges by the millions. Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road, The Lone Ranger) seem at times to be making a statement about the vampire-like hold that the cultural memory of Europe still has over many rich and powerful Americans. Lockhart’s predecessor went to the clinic "to take in the waters" — which, as another character notes, is a very nineteenth century thing to do — and the all-white denizens of the place seem awed by the very existence of Volmer, a handsome gadfly who has the chiseled looks of an old movie Gestapo officer but carries himself like an ambassador of reason. The clinic grounds are a replica of an identical place that burned down decades ago on this very spot — there’s a backstory involving taboo hideousness — and there are recurring situations that pivot on insularity, hatred of outsiders, and the purity of bloodlines. (Mia Goth, who plays the doctor’s daughter, is the ultimate expression of the film’s anemic vision: she looks haunted and starved yet somehow also glamorous.)

This is a fine starting place for a social satire and also a fine thematic flavor for a compact, dreamy horror movie. There are real ideas here, good ideas even, but they remain tantalizing but insufficiently shaped.

It’s only during the last half-hour — a succession of over-the-top set-pieces that I loved, and that many colleagues found trashy and excessive — that A Cure for Wellness attains the level of bug-nuts wildness that it possibly needed all along. Verbinski isn’t bad at psychological and atmospheric horror, but he’s often at his most original when he’s letting it all hang out in sequences of clockwork suspense and ridiculous action, which is why the slapstick sequences in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the chases in Rango and the last 45 minutes of The Lone Ranger represent Verbinski at his most Verbinskian. It’s in the maybe narratively-unnecessary final half-hour that A Cure for Wellness finally starts drawing the kinds of connections (through sheer excess) that give it a distinctive personality, such as a cut from a decadent, repulsive character whirling in circles after sustaining an injury to a group of clueless rich folk waltzing in a grand ballroom.

And the two-and-a-half hour running time is too much even by standards of too-muchness. It’s ironic and unfortunate that the movie models so much of its look on German Expressionist silent movies and 1930s Universal horror films, because those tended to be short and lean. Very long horror movies often reach a point of diminishing returns no matter how skillfully the filmmakers sustain a mood — The Shining is a rare exception, though even that one has detractors — because they give you time to think about the concept and fixate on plot holes, judgment errors and other imperfections.

Verbinski is no Stanley Kubrick, although there are moments when he comes close. There are sequences involving eels that make eels seem even creepier than they did already, and a dentistry-as-torture scene that makes the one in Marathon Man look like a routine cleaning. I could easily imagine a version of A Cure for Wellness that’s all suggestion and understatement, and one that’s essentially the madcap finale played out of the length of a feature, climbing to nosebleed heights of bad taste and unfurling a freak flag at the summit. Either would have been preferable to what ended up onscreen, a rag-and-bone shop of notions.

What’s most conspicuously absent here is Kubrick’s lordly, even naughty sense of humor. A Cure for Wellness aims for black comedy often, but rarely manages anything more sophisticated than the sick joke comic rhythm of, "What’s the worst thing that could happen to this character?" followed by, "Here it comes." Lockhart’s suffering grows dull through repetition. He keeps brushing up against the same realizations, or to be lied to or misdirected and find himself back where he started. Too much of this sort of thing and even patient viewers throw their hands up and moan, "Oh, come on."