Monday, December 12, 2016

This week's DVD releases


Little Men ***½

Ira Sachs' 2014 film Love Is Strange told the story of a longtime couple (played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) forced to live apart because of the reality of New York's real estate market. The film was devastating in its emotional impact. Little Men, Sachs' follow-up, tells the story of two families, living and working on one block in Brooklyn, and has the same fraught background of relationships and real estate. The script, co-written by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, does not stack the deck one way or the other. Looking at the situation in Little Men is like looking through a prism: what you perceive depends on the angle. It is reminiscent of Asghar Farhadi's A Separation, a similar story of the clash of two families from different backgrounds and classes. Little Men doesn't reach the humanist tragedy of Love Is Strange, but that's an unfair comparison since very few films achieve what Love Is Strange does. Little Men is extremely powerful in its own right, with its devotion to its characters' differing perspectives so refreshing in an increasingly black-and-white world.

When Brian (Greg Kinnear) inherits his dead father's Brooklyn brownstone, it is a step up for him and his family. Brian is an actor who doesn't make much money, and his wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) is the breadwinner. But even she doesn't make enough to purchase a brownstone. Their 13-year-old son Jake (Theo Taplitz) is a quiet, artistic boy who has a hard time making friends. All of that changes when they move into the brownstone. On the ground floor is a dress-making shop, there for decades, run by Leonor (Paulina Garcia). Brian's father had liked Leonor, and gave her a break on the rent, allowing her to stay even as the neighborhood gentrified around them. Brian's sister (Talia Balsam) thinks Leonor should be evicted to make way for a more profitable tenant but Brian hopes for a compromise. He attempts to open up a conversation with Leonor about altering the agreement she had with his father. To say this does not go well is an understatement.

Little Men is only 85 minutes long, and its brevity works in its favor. The mood is compressed and urgent. Leonor's 13-year-old son Tony (Michael Barbieri) is a gregarious, friendly kid, and he and Jake strike up an unlikely friendship. They have a lot in common, mainly their ambition for their futures. Jake is serious about being an artist, and Tony wants to be an actor. They roam the streets, Jake wobbling on roller-blades, Tony zipping along on a kick scooter, Brooklyn passing in a blur, music surging up around them. (These shots repeat. They are explosions of wordless emotion.)

In the adult world, however, things go south fast. Brian finds Leonor not only intractable, but openly unfriendly. Leonor goes against every unexamined assumption about "class" that Brian probably didn't even know he had. He doesn't say this, but it is clear he expected her to be grateful that she got a break in rent for as long as she did. Leonor is not grateful, not deferential to his supposed higher status. She sucks down smoke from her cigarettes like a fuming dragon. She's not afraid to go for the jugular. As the war intensifies between the parents, the boys find themselves caught in the middle.

Little Men has a melodramatic set-up out of 1930s agitprop theater (landlords vs. tenants). Melodrama for some reason has a bad reputation, seeming to suggest soap operas or three-hanky weepers, but melodrama has always been one of the most effective genres for social and economic criticism because down on the ground things really are that important. There is nothing melodramatic about losing one's home and livelihood. It's life and death to the people involved. Sachs' approach to melodrama is human-sized and almost casual, one of his greatest gifts as a director. His shots are careful but not over-determined or showy. He is interested in the rhythms of everyday life and how those rhythms are disrupted when events accelerate.

Kinnear is superb as a man torn in many different directions, the most secret one being his disappointment at how his life has turned out, and his conflicting emotions when confronted with the artistic ambitions of his young son. His frustration at Leonor's attitude shows the residues of entitlement that have helped form and warp his personality. Brian is ashamed that his wife supports him financially, but it's something he can't allow himself to say out loud.

The two young actors playing Jake and Tony are so natural that it feels like they strolled in off the street and started improvising. Little Men does not condescend to ambitious serious children. Tony takes an acting class in what appears to be the Meisner technique, and seeing him in action during a repetition exercise (a great scene) is important because it shows Tony's desires are not theoretical. He wants it. Tony is fearless; Tony is easily intimate with other people; Tony is open.

García gives one of the best performances of the year as Leonor. To Greg and Kathy she is a maddening witch-like creature, but that's only because they look through the prism at their own angle. García keeps her performance controlled, with surging explosions of rage and contempt churning beneath the surface. She's terrifying. She's terrified. When she crushes her cigarette out on the sidewalk, you can picture Brian and Kathy's faces underneath her shoe. She is not a villain. She is fighting for her life.

Native New Yorkers watch a lot of films and television shows set in Manhattan and think, "The apartments are too big. The hallways are too wide. I had to cut my bedframe in half in order to get it up the stairs." Sachs does not have a tourist's mentality towards the city. The apartments are cluttered and cramped, people are on top of each other in any given space. New York is (increasingly) just for the rich, with entire neighborhoods driven out of existence by rising costs. When a city forgets or ignores its own past, what else is lost in the process? Loss is the air that Little Men breathes.

At the end of Stephen King's It, narrator Bill Denbrough muses: "He thinks that it is good to be a child, but it is also good to be a grown-up and able to consider the mystery of childhood … its beliefs and desires … it's nice … to think that childhood has its own sweet secrets and confirms mortality, and that mortality defines all courage and love." The friendship of Jake and Tony in Little Men carries that kind of bittersweet weight. Jake and Tony hold hands over the growing abyss between their parents. They're only 13 years old. Do they know that relationships are fragile and need protection? Do they understand how precious their friendship is, how much they need to hold onto it, how much they will miss it if it ends? These questions carry intense reverberation long after the film ends.


Southside With You ***
If Southside With You, a warm and surprisingly engaging account of the first date of Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, had been made four or eight years ago, during the presidential campaigns, it would have been accused of being outright propaganda for the candidate. As it stands now, writer-director Richard Tanne’s first feature can simply be enjoyed as perceptive, intelligent, entirely credible imagining of how these two very bright young lawyers broke the ice during a long afternoon and evening in Chicago in 1989. It was a long shot to be convincing but it plays very well.

The basic outline of the couple’s initial outing — Michelle made it very clear at the outset that it was not a "date" — is well known: These two young colleagues at a top law firm went to an exhibition at the Art Institute, then (possibly) to a community center where Barack gave an impressive speech, grabbed a couple of drinks, saw the just-released Do the Right Thing and, for a nightcap, went for ice cream to a Baskin-Robbins, outside of which they kissed for the first time.

The details of what they talked about and their personal dynamics are not part of the record, and Tanne’s impressive accomplishment rests in not having been intimidated by his protagonists’ stature, thereby opening the door for him to create a living and breathing picture of two people spending a few hours together, offering select details about their lives and personalities, probing, questioning, pushing things a bit on his side and her pushing back on the other.

The result makes you realize how few realistic and three-dimensional date movies have been made in an era of throbbing hook-up encounters and R-rated horny teen gross-outs. And how many films have ever devoted themselves exclusively to extensively detailing a single date, a concept that puts great pressure on the screenwriter to keep the talk interesting and avoid standard cliches of awkwardness and sexual tension?

Tanne keeps the good talk coming, along with fluctuating moods and nuance. Of course it helps that the two individuals are attractive, extremely well-spoken, serious and, due to educational success, clearly on the path to distinguished professional careers. At the outset, we see a bit of Michelle’s family life, as she still lives at home with her mother and adored father, now sidelined with MS. She lauds her family to Barack and is whip-smart, a real catch — more impressive, it must be said, than he is at this stage. His skills may be visible, but they’re not yet as sharp and wholly formed.

Trying to keep his smoking habit from her as he picks her up in his tin can of a car, Barack takes her downtown to see an exhibition of the distinctive black painter Ernie Barnes. Without getting platitudinous about it, Michelle succinctly explains the double jeopardy of being black and female at the major law firm where she’s a second-year associate, speaks about her upbringing, of playing piano and learning French in a family where "education was always priority No. 1."

In contrasting himself with her strong family ties, Barack illuminates his odd upbringing in Jakarta and Hawaii, his parents ("My father looked like Nat King Cole and my mother looked like Patsy Cline") and especially his late father’s "incomplete" life. They argue strongly at one point when she feels he’s passing judgment on her, but he smartly apologizes and the day goes on as they drive to a black community meeting where Barack inspires an agitated crowd to rethink and reframe its approach to gaining some much-needed funding. The basics of the man’s speaking skills are very effectively shown off in this interlude, even if Michelle initially suspects he’s brought her here just to impress her.

But that he does, and over beers in the evening they get down to some serious talk about their beliefs and career goals. ("Politics?" she asks. "Maybe," he says.) These two really could make a great couple, you begin to feel here, as Michelle finally begins to slightly let down her very well-constructed guard.

The ending of Do the Right Thing has a strong impact (excellent period detail: a poster for the upcoming sex, lies & videotape outside the theater), and the stop for a chocolate cone afterward seals the deal. It’s been a great date and pretty damn good date movie.

The film is sufficiently absorbing and genial that whatever issues one might have about Obama as president are easily put aside for 80 minutes. It also provokes speculation as to how the first dates of other presidents and first ladies of the past half-century would play as movies: JFK and Jackie? LBJ and Ladybird? Ron and Nancy? Bill and Hillary? Saturday Night Live (or maybe Amy Schumer) might jump on this quite soon.

Very tall and bereft of Obama’s slight geekiness (a moment devoted to his protruding ears doesn’t convince because the actor’s are not), Parker Sawyers crafts an immaculately considered portrait of a man of stature in the making; the ideas and ambitions are visible in rough-hewn form, quite recognizable from what we know publicly but with a ways to go. This is an ambitious man, but this trait doesn’t define his personality as presented here.

From the first second she’s onscreen, the striking Tika Sumpter is 100 percent the Michelle Obama the public has come to know: formidable, intellectually probing and a bit fierce. She may come across as overly guarded and judgmental but, as Barack obviously decides during the date, she’s worth every bit of the extra effort necessary to know her. Sumpter brings out all these qualities and more in a spot-on performance.

Production values and stabs at period evocation are modest but apt, and the musical backgrounding helps amplify the quietly shifting moods of the day and evening.


Florence Foster Jenkins ***
The defining talent of Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) was that she had no talent. Of this she was unaware. As a singer, she could not hit a note, yet somehow she touched a chord — murdering tune after tune, and drawing a legion of fans to the scene of the crime. Never has ignorance been such cloudless bliss; her self-delusion, buoyed by those about her, amounted to a kind of genius, and the story of that unknowing has now inspired a bio-pic. Florence Foster Jenkins, written by Nicholas Martin and directed by Stephen Frears, stars Meryl Streep in the title role. Who better to play the incompetent Florence than someone whose plenitude of gifts has been an article of faith for almost 40 years?

There is something of a pattern here, and a risk. If you want to see real-life women of a certain age incarnated by the most formidable actresses, then Frears is your man. Think of Philomena (2013), in which Judi Dench played a simple soul on a quest for her long-lost son. The tale was astutely told, though it couldn’t avoid a murmur of condescension. Seven years earlier, in Frears’s The Queen, Helen Mirren took the part of Elizabeth II and lent it a musing reflectiveness that, however winning, seemed slightly at odds with the dutiful pragmatist, braced by common sense, who occupies the British throne. In both cases, sheer dramatic skill threatened to overwhelm the facts of the character, and you half-expect Streep to follow suit. Yet her performance is the most successful of the three; not once do you feel that she knows better than Florence — that the leading lady is looking down on her creation, as it were, with an arch of the eyebrow or a taunting glint in the eye. On the contrary, Streep is right there, solidly invested in the folly of Florence’s dreams. When she declares that "music has been, and is, my life," you believe her.

The first person we meet is not the heroine but her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who was once an actor and likes to keep his hand in. Resplendent in white tie and tails, he recites a speech from Hamlet, for the benefit of guests at a New York soirée. His delivery is, let us say, more impassioned than convincing, and we are instantly aware that here is someone who has fallen short. The most touching thing is that he doesn’t seem to mind. To realize that one is second-rate can be an epiphany of sorts, or, at least, an immense relief. St. Clair claims to be "free from the tyranny of ambition," and you can see his point. In any case, he has found a higher calling. His earthly task is to serve the needs of his wife, who inherited money and, with it, a plush sense of entitlement. All goes well until, one evening, an old need rears its head again. The tyranny is back. Florence wants to sing.

Frears, whose slyness has deepened with the years, is not averse to teasing. Notice how he delays the first caterwaul, like a maker of war films who waits to unleash the opening boom of artillery. Before Florence can start her glass-shattering routine, she requires an accompanist, and the movie pauses to consider Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), a reedy young pianist who applies for the job. Offered a wage of ludicrous generosity, he leaves Florence’s apartment, in Manhattan, with a dizzy grin on his face, and the camera, savoring the moment, watches him drift down the street. Helberg has the long sad mug of a mime and the body of a boy; instead of strolling, he seems to hover along, with his hands held stiffly by his side. (You can imagine him in silent pictures, as a hopeful stooge.) When Florence finally lets rip, what Frears attends to is not just the noise that she creates, reminiscent of a hyena giving birth, but the awestruck expression on Cosmé’s face. Why, he asks himself, is nobody laughing?

The answer, as usual, is money. David Haig, a brisk and cheering presence, plays Carlo Edwards, a vocal coach from the Metropolitan Opera, who regularly provides Florence with private tuition. This he must do, for she is an effusive patron, and his plaudits, as she lurches ferociously off key, are small masterpieces of ambivalence: "There’s no one quite like you," "You’ve never sounded better," and the ominous "You’ll never be more ready." For Florence has plans that soar beyond the limits of her drawing room. In the course of the film, she performs first before a cluster of aging acquaintances, many of them blessedly hard of hearing, and, later, at Carnegie Hall, which is packed, at Florence’s request, with soldiers and sailors, most of them blessedly drunk.

Believe it or not, this did indeed take place, on Oct. 25, 1944: a holy day in the annals of ineptitude. (You are taken aback by the Second World War uniforms, and by St. Clair’s report that Florence has "sold out faster than Sinatra," because her demeanor, like her décor, belongs to an earlier age.) If Florence has remained a cult, it is thanks to her bravado in plowing ahead, regardless of her faults. That is certainly the view of Agnes (Nina Arianda), the wife of a rich meathead, who springs to her feet at the concert, rebukes the crowd for jeering, and whips up a storm of applause. Though the film as a whole is less raucous than Agnes, it obeys her instructions, bestowing benign approval on its subject. The result is at once a work of efficient charm and, to those of us who treasured Frears in his more acerbic phase, a mild disappointment. Would the man who made My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), The Grifters (1990), and two foul-tongued Roddy Doyle adaptations have been quite so tolerant of Florence’s fancies? After all, the wealthy of today are equally flattered and indulged, and, as Frears proved in Dangerous Liaisons (1988), costume dramas are no excuse for softness. They need a drop of venom in their veins.

The best news about Florence Foster Jenkins is that, just when admirers of Hugh Grant were asking if the poor guy would ever get a role of any ripeness, he plucks a peach. The dithering that bore him through Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Notting Hill (1999) arose not merely from indecision but from a stutter of the spirit — a genuine horror of doing the wrong thing. That fear comes to fruition in St. Clair: his wife does wrong every time she opens her mouth onstage, but he reassures her, time and again, that she is in the right. He pays music critics to be nice; when one of them, refusing the bribe, writes a mean review, St. Clair tries to destroy every copy of the paper in the neighborhood. "For 25 years I have kept the mockers and scoffers at bay," he says. His love, though true, is a perpetual agony, and maybe no one but Grant, writhing with misplaced chivalry, could bring such reverence to life. Florence may have been a one-joke wonder, and, to be honest, there is only just enough of her to fill a movie. In the eyes of her husband, however, she is no joke at all.


Bridget Jones’s Baby **
It’s been 12 years since I last saw Bridget Jones on screen, and while it’s unclear if the world has been crying out for her return, in a testing year, the beleaguered Brits could certainly use a dash of her carefree tomfoolery and sheer adorability. And so Bridge is back – not with a bang, but two in fact, of the variety that leads to a bun in the oven and a brand new dilemma.

In Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding’s hapless heroine, indelibly played by Renee Zellweger, despaired of being a 30s singleton before literally being fought over by two men. In Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, she struggled to maintain what she’d always wanted: A relationship. In this new installment, she is again single, but now 43, and wondering if she has lost her chance to be a mother.

In keeping with the franchise’s pattern, when she becomes pregnant, Bridget is unsure which of two men is the father, and so a much wished-for event again becomes the stuff of farce.

It ought to be said that those earlier Jones films haven’t aged that well. They were directed (first by Sharon Maguire, who returns here, then Beeban Kidron) with the worst tropes of rom-com shorthand, notably that knee-jerk reach for the soundtrack to mark every new emotional beat. And however endearing Zellweger made the character, Bridget’s attitude was pretty puerile – the fixation on a man as a prerequisite for happiness, the obsession with her appearance, her immediate recourse to karaoke and the bottle to ease her depression.

Apparently women loved her, but she made a dubious role model. And if Fielding was making an ironic social comment, it was more relevant to the’90s, when she first introduced Bridget in a newspaper column, than the 2000s in which the films were made.

The saving graces of both films were the performances — Zellweger nailing the accent and managing to make Bridget both appalling and appealing, Colin Firth cutely reprising his Darcy from Fielding’s inspiration, Pride and Prejudice and Hugh Grant a scream in an image-reversing turn as the incorrigible womanizer Daniel Cleaver.


It would have been encouraging now if true love Darcy and the caddish Cleaver were again competing, this time over paternity rights, but that won’t be possible, since the film opens with the latter’s funeral, Cleaver having died in a plane crash, appropriately "going down in the bush." His service is full of young Eastern European models; Jones, the de facto elder of his conquests, tells the congregation that Daniel "touched us all." We miss him already. So the immediate question is, can Baby survive without Cleaver?

It does, just, in part because it has its fair share of laugh-out loud moments, and partly because Fielding has finally allowed Bridget to act her age. The shift is subtly done: She dresses better, at times being positively elegant; her public speaking is still eccentric, but with more composure; the same chaos surrounds her, but this time it is as much to do with circumstance as her own dizziness — it’s a relief to be spared the earlier, forced idiocy. And while she still feels lonely, neurosis has been replaced by a certain grace and stoicism.

Once again excelling, Zellweger has much to do with the safe transition of this new Bridget, maintaining all the old quirks and sweetness, but in a believably more mature shell. And while she’s not added the pounds this time, neither is she hiding her age. The actress has been away from the screen for six years; it’s tempting to see this as the start of a new phase in her work.

Having started her TV news career as an accident-prone, roaming reporter for the low-rent "Hard News," Bridget is now its producer. Her new best friend is the show’s irreverent anchor, Miranda (Sarah Solemani), who in a neat corrective to the previous films is a 30-something woman not obsessed with being married, and with none of the fundamentally inane hang-ups that have weighed Bridget down. It’s Miranda who takes Bridget to the Glastonbury music festival, where amid the mud and hedonism she has a one-night stand with dashing Jack (Patrick Dempsey), a dating website billionaire who can show Jones the algorithm that proves their perfect match.

Meanwhile, though it’s been five years since the end of her relationship with Darcy, the man keeps on popping up at funerals and christenings, until a momentary rapprochement leads to Bridget’s uncertainty when her pregnancy shows itself. Bridget struggles with revealing her pregnancy to the two potential fathers, and that’s pretty much it. The plot is terribly thin and stretched to its breaking point. Though the likeable Dempsey has his moments, he’s no Grant, and the progressive Jack is no Cleaver. Hell, he and Darcy even hug each other. There’s so little variation or tension that a huge middle chunk of the film is instantly forgotten.

If anyone replaces Grant, it’s Emma Thompson, who is one of Fielding’s new co-writers as well as featuring as Bridget’s obstetrician. The other writer is Dan Mazer, a regular collaborator with Sacha Baron Cohen and director of Dirty Grandpa. While it’s difficult to gauge Mazer’s contribution, Thompson’s is clearer: On screen, that wonderfully wry presence; in the script, quite possibly some of the moments of beautifully phrased, incidental humour, along with her character’s advice to Bridget that her baby needs neither man — another welcome corrective to the fawning dependency of the earlier films.


Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children **
For at least the first hour, perhaps a bit more, Tim Burton seems well on his way to making one of his best films in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. The director, whose style has remained distinctively recognizable across 18 features in 30 years even as his inspiration has varied, seems entirely in synch with the most pertinent aspects of Ransom Riggs' 2011 young adult best seller, especially with the odd vintage photographic elements the author so spookily employed, and the eccentric British setting is right up the director's alley. But, alas, then the beauty and the bane of mass market contemporary cinema — CGI and enormous special effects — take over and marginalize the genuine narrative conviction that has up to then been generated in this cleverly conceived confection.

The film should generate some initial home viewing interest based on the built-in teen fan base as well as Burton fans, but whether it's enough to spur sequels to the two remaining books in the trilogy is an open question.

There are unmistakable Harry Potteresque influences at play in Riggs' text — for a start, a boy with uncomprehending elders at home, an old British school populated with a teacher and kids of very particular talents, goings-on that outsiders mustn't know about and evil creatures needing to be kept at bay. At the same time, certain themes and human conditions are ripe for the picking by the likes of Burton, beginning with the oddball kid of impatient parents, a celebration of eccentricity and the downright weird, and a partiality toward style so outre it's cool.

Like any number of previous young Burton leads, Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield, Hugo) is rather a problem child, not remotely understood by his parents (Chris O'Dowd, Kim Dickens) but very close to his paternal grandfather Abraham (Terence Stamp), who lives with them all in suburban Florida. Jake never tires of hearing Grandpa's fabulous stories about how, after having gotten out of Poland just before World War II, he'd lived in a house with "the special children" before joining the British army.

Grandpa has always referred to the "monsters" he fought in the war, and has mysterious old photographs of freakish human oddities and supernatural-like phenomena that would make David Lynch jealous. But when pressed for more details, Grandpa says he doesn't want to talk about it, which everyone has always understood as his way of referring to Holocaust-related horrors he witnessed and narrowly escaped. Jake thinks there's more to it than that, so when Grandpa dies (his eyes mysteriously turned into black holes), annoyed Dad carts his son off to Wales, the location of Grandpa's old school, to put the matter to rest once and for all.

Already, unusual ripples are coursing through the film, especially in regard to the father's disdain for his son; the way O'Dowd plays him, it's as if he's got a physical allergy to the boy. Under the circumstances, it's easy to see why Jake has gravitated to the far more interesting Grandpa.

The principal object of Jake's interest is the school Grandpa attended, which was hit by German bombs on Sept. 3, 1943. Indeed, when Jake and his dad inspect it, they find only a shell. But when Jake sneaks back on his own, he's able to enter a portal that lands him back on that fateful day some 70 years earlier. And in the then-gorgeous school, he meets its inhabitants, who are both decidedly peculiar and rather enchanting. Ruling the roost is the stunning, pipe-smoking, black-attired headmistress Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), who welcomes the outsider and explains the "recessive" gene of peculiarity; she, when the occasion calls for it, can transform into a falcon.

Most interesting among the perennial students is blonde-tressed Emma (Ella Purnell), whose unbearable lightness is such that she must wear heavy metal boots to keep from floating off into space. She and Abraham were "close" before the bombardment and she's sworn off attachments ever since. Among the others blessed and cursed with the recessive gene of peculiarity are an invisible boy and Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), a junior taxidermist who creates doll-sized creatures and makes them fight. Burton could have made a short film just about him.

The key to the story lies in Miss Peregrine's ability to manipulate time. Specifically, each day, for her, her students and the school, it's still Sept. 3, 1943. By stopping her watch a matter of seconds before the Nazi bombers are to strike, she can turn back the clock 24 hours and life can go on; they can continue to live, learn, do interesting things and they do not age, but if they leave they'll quickly get old and die, hence the tension when Emma and outsider Jake become involved.

Burton pulls off the crucial time-stopping with tremendous flair and also develops a nicely low-key relationship between Jake and Emma. For a time, an appealing gentleness prevails that's rooted in this unique inter-generational romance, a feeling augmented in particular by Purnell's slow-blooming flower of a performance, and if the film had remained focused more on the improbabilities of this love story, it might have emerged as something rather special.

Instead, the script by Jane Goldman (co-writer of two X-Men and two Kingsman entries) makes a screeching third-act turn into tiresomely conventional big action territory with the arrival of a blue/white-eyed, fright wigged, pointy-toothed, lobster claw-armed villain named Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) and other "bad peculiars." Some sort of narrative excuse is invented for their sudden appearance, but the entire climax, played out at the Blackpool Tower and pier and centered on a funhouse, seems dragged in from some other movie and is an entirely unwelcome adjunct to the more rarified narrative pursued up to this point. This manufactured-feeling evil seems like it's come from some other world and seriously deflates the sensitivity and delicacy of what's come before.

To be sure, the effects throughout are marvelous, notably the portrayal of Emma's weightlessness, Miss Peregrine's phenomenal transformation into a falcon and the resurrection of a sunken ocean liner from the ocean floor. Colleen Atwood's costumes are sensational, notably the great dark garb she's created for Eva Green, as are Gavin Bocquet's production design and Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography.

Still, the heightened, fantastical elements of the story, coupled with the British wartime setting, put one in mind of Michel Powell, and one knows that, with him, the focus would have remained intently on the young lovers to the end, not on a detour into special effects.


Morgan *½
Films often impart important life lessons in the guise of entertainment. For instance, thanks to Oliver Stone’s The Hand from 1981, I will never EVER stick my own hand out of a window while driving in a car, lest it ends up being sliced off and skedaddles away in order to commit acts of great evil.

But one fairly consistent cinematic rule of thumb, especially in horror and sci-fi movies that range from 1931’s Frankenstein to last year’s Ex Machina, is this: Do not be tempted to play God and create an artificial, human-like being. Such incidents of hubris almost never turn out well. Stick with imaginary friends if you must, although they sometimes turn out badly, too (i.e. Drop Dead Fred).

Along comes Morgan to add to the chorus of misguided scientists who have proclaimed a variation on "It’s alive!" over the years. This cautionary thriller about the dangers of bioengineering doubles as a kind of a passing of the torch (not carried by angry villagers) between directors with shared DNA. That would be Luke Scott, making his feature debut, and father Ridley, who acts as producer. Clearly, this son, who was a second unit director on Dad’s The Martian and Exodus: Gods and Kings, has paid attention to the old man’s output over the years since Morgan is littered with obvious nods.

But it makes sense, considering that Sir Ridley’s Alien remains one of the most influential examples of big-screen sci-fi spookiness ever made and even features a devious fake human in the form of Ian Holm’s android Ash. In addition, Morgan concludes with a very physical face-off between two strong females not unlike the one between Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and the alien queen, while also boasting a commendably diverse cast, much like such Scott productions as The Martian and TV’s The Good Wife.

But sometimes such formulaic familiarity proves to be a drawback in a genre that is propelled in large part by plot developments meant to catch the audience off guard. For instance, the minute we see the determined visage and no-nonsense coif of Kate Mara’s risk-management consultant Lee Weathers as she drives down a gravel road to a remote woodsy compound, she is obviously not an entity to be messed with or taken lightly.

Maybe too obviously.

"Corporate," we learn, has sent her to assess the circumstances surrounding a horribly violent attack committed by Morgan, an artificial being in the guise of a fair-skinned waif of a teen girl, on one of her caretakers, behavioral psychiatrist Kathy (Jennifer Jason Leigh, with one eye obscured by a bloody bandage). Much like a detective, Lee meets and assesses the other members of this seven-member family-like collective who are responsible for Morgan’s "birth" five years ago and monitoring her rapid growth. The close-knit crew all treat Morgan — who continues to evolve both physically and mentally — as if they were proud parents reveling in their magical child’s achievements rather than objective observers of an unknown and potentially dangerous quantity.

Kathy even takes the blame for upsetting this nature-loving experimental being, since she told Morgan that she was basically grounded in her glass-enclosed bunker of a room. Lee counters this argument in no uncertain terms, "She is an ‘it.’ And ‘it’ has no rights."

Even before Lee speaks to the rest of Morgan’s emotionally-invested handlers — the chief scientist in charge (Toby Jones), a doctor who Morgan refers to as "mother" (Michelle Yeoh), the soft-hearted psychoanalyst (Rose Leslie) who introduced Morgan to the great outdoors, the project’s hunky cook (Boyd Holbrook) and three other staffers — she appears ready to pull the plug on Morgan. Meeting her face-to-face through protective glass doesn’t change her mind.

When an outside shrink arrives and demands to enter Morgan’s space without protection to better determine whether she is malfunctioning, it is all but certain that the session is not going to end well once Morgan begins to taunt him about his unhappy personal life. That he is played by Paul Giamatti, who specializes in roles that require blowing one’s stack, means his very presence is like tossing a stick of lit dynamite into a building already engulfed in flames.

My diagnosis of why Morgan malfunctions as a chilling plunge into blood-splattered mayhem is that, before the midway point, it is pretty obvious what the eventual outcome and supposed big reveal will be. This is not the fault of the actors necessarily — there are highly respected talents involved here. It is just that we have seen most of this unfold before.

What does work is Morgan herself — or, rather, itself. If you overlook the overdone pasty sheen of her face and the obvious ghoulish lipstick on her lips, Anya Taylor-Joy — the star of this year’s truly creepy The Witch — imbues her character with an intriguing newborn-like aura, a calm if unsettling speech pattern and a tendency to explode into a terrifying fury within seconds Then there are her alien reptile eyes, peering into the naked psyches of those who dare confront her. Basically, if you end up liking Morgan, it will probably be because of Taylor-Joy.

I do have to get one small peeve off my chest. It seemed odd that the younger Scott decided to focus his camera on Lee’s New York license plate for so long during her arrival. It felt as if he were trying awfully hard to convince us that we were upstate somewhere in the wilds. Sure enough, Morgan was shot in Northern Ireland. I can spot blarney when I see it.


Suicide Squad *½
A puzzlingly confused undertaking that never becomes as cool as it thinks it is, Suicide Squad assembles an all-star team of supervillains and then doesn’t know what to do with them.

Part smart-ass genre sendup, part grimy noir that wants to be as dirty as Deadpool but remains constrained by its PG-13 rating and part short-falling attempt by Warner Bros. to get a big-budget DC Comics mashup right, the film starts with promise but disengages as it loses its creative bearings.

Although the picture marks a departure for writer-director David Ayer from his usual turf of combat and/or street realism (Fury, End of Watch), its grungy, gritty texture not only feels related to his usual milieu but also to the malevolent, eternally nocturnal world conjured up by the Batman: Arkham video games. Beyond that, Ayer has made a point of shoehorning into the story the most reliably alluring of all DC villains, the Joker. What dedicated comics fan wouldn’t gamble a rental for his screen return?

Unfortunately, the result resembles a sports dream team whose combined efforts don’t nearly measure up to the talents of its individual players. The introduction of the dramatis personae in the extended prologue or first act, whichever you choose to call it, remains by far the film’s highlight, due to the promise it holds out: Will Smith as the ultimate American sniper Deadshot? Absolutely, and this has got to be a better bet for him than that Independence Day sequel he didn’t do. Margot Robbie as Joker’s crazed girlfriend Harley Quinn? Bring her on. Jay Hernandez as pyromaniac Diablo? Sure. Viola Davis as the government hard-ass who assembles the team? About time she got a plum role in a franchise. Jared Leto as the Joker? Yeah, he’ll deliver a few new twists.

These main baddies are joined by a few too many less significant figures such as Boomerang, Slipknot, Killer Croc and Katana under the military supervision of Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman). Problematically, the snappy, quasi-pop-art feel effectively emphasized in the film’s first trailers is felt only in the early stretch. If Ayer had been able to sharpen and sustain something resembling a darkly subversive cartoon style — which is what is suggested in the interludes centering on Harley Quinn — he might have been on to something. But he’s a grim realist at heart, and it’s a sensibility that doesn’t jibe with this sort of material, which, at this stage of the superhero cycle, benefits from being approached with irreverence (as evidenced by the more entertaining Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool).

It’s too bad the mashup of bad guys and girls doesn’t find its groove, because the format of pitting an ad hoc bunch of loners, misfits and outlaws against an even greater menace has proven to be highly reliable — from Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven to their numerous descendants. When Davis’ American intelligence honcho Amanda Waller proposes the idea of the bad-guy dream team to take on a rather vaguely described evil, it seems like a great idea: Sure, they’ll be hard to control, but it’ll be worth it.

But the evil is never properly defined and, worse, isn’t personified in a way that balances the firepower of the opposition. In a fuzzy and hokey manner that encourages immediate viewer checkout, unlimited malevolence is made to reside in an ancient witch goddess whose physical heart literally is held by Waller and whose horrific spirit insinuates itself into a modern archeologist (played by Cara Delevingne); the latter’s boyfriend is Kinnaman’s Col. Flag, the guy who just happens to be in charge of the criminal team. Why anyone thought this creaky narrative line was a good idea for a wannabe-edgy superhero action piece is unfathomable. Indeed, it brings any and all investment in what’s going on to a quite complete end.

All that’s left, then, is mild curiosity about relations between the Joker and Harley, the two liveliest characters onscreen. Unfortunately, the Joker never feels properly integrated into the storyline but rather seems like a special guest star on hand to enliven the show when needed, which is increasingly often. Sporting tats, green hair and metal teeth, Leto brings a measure of the requisite unpredictability and evil glee to the role, but his Joker doesn’t threaten the big-screen hold on the public imagination that Jack Nicholson and then Heath Ledger established.

The action of the film’s middle and latter stages is largely set in a gloomy murk that recalls far too many previous dour sci-fi/fantasy films, and by that point, vestiges of the opening stretch’s humor and snap long have fallen by the wayside. Suicide Squad may not quite commit harakiri, but it certainly feels like it’s taken far too many sleeping pills.


Ben-Hur *
What's the point of making a cut-rate version of Ben-Hur? Of creating a chariot race so heavily digitized and over-edited that it's the worst scene in the picture? Of casting lightweights in the leading roles? Of laying a wailing modern pop song over the end credits? Since its birth as a novel 136 years ago, Lew Wallace's grand melodrama of a Jewish prince whose life intersects with that of Jesus under Roman rule in Judea has always been a Grand Event — as a best-selling book, a stage spectacle that toured for decades and two spectacular film blockbusters, silent and sound. Misguided, diminished and dismally done in every way, this afterthought will richly earn the distinction of becoming the first Ben-Hur in any form to flop.

Production and sensibility-wise, the film feels of a piece with the numerous Biblical-themed television productions engineered by two of the present executive producers, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, and the home screen is where this under-produced and under-achieving venture would have fit far more comfortably (a two-part, three-hour miniseries was shown internationally in 2010 to reasonable success). It's possible that Trump-belt/faith-based viewers might be sufficiently roused to seek this out, but even they should get the word that watching the 1959 version, again or for the first time at home, would be far more gratifying than this Classics Illustrated-style version.

Although he plays the secondary role of an African-Arabic horse trainer who provides the four white steeds Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) will command in the big race, Morgan Freeman also has been prevailed upon to lend his Godly intonations to the opening narration, which adjoins teaser-trailer-type footage of chariot racing just to make sure the uninitiated know what's coming later on. Flipping back eight years to 25 A.D., we find the natives are restless, Judah's best boyhood pal, Roman officer Messala (Toby Kebbell), is pissy about not being able to be with Judah's sister and a mystique-enshrouded young carpenter informs Judah that God "has a plan for you."

Up to a point, the ordinarily estimable screenwriters Keith Clarke (Peter Weir's The Way Back) and John Ridley (12 Years A Slave, Jimi: All Is by My Side) do a fancy dance to avoid duplicating scenes familiar from William Wyler's film, as they try to underline the political zealotry bubbling under life in Jerusalem as well as Judah's efforts to keep family and friends' relations from fraying entirely. But director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) hasn't a clue how to stage a normal dramatic scene in which emotions gradually build and nuances shade characterization. The camera and actors are all over the place, their movements arbitrary, the cutting constant and unmotivated; the filmmaking has no internal logic, which does neither the drama nor the actors any favors.

Visually, the director forwards a couple of decent ideas: When Judah is sentenced to the slow death of rowing in a galley for years, we see of the outside world only what he can glimpse through the small portals in the ship's side, and the Circus is periodically shown under construction as it's carved out of rock on the edge of the city; as soon as he can, Messala takes horses down onto the track, in anticipation for the big day.

But in a decision that feels designed to limit the budget rather than to boost the narrative, Judah never makes it to Rome in this rendition; he doesn't get to save the Roman commander after the sea battle and briefly savor the good life in the capital of the world. Instead, the straggly survivor wins the favor of Freeman's speculator by nursing an ailing horse of his back to life, leading to the film's final not-bad scene, in which the wily, dread-locked wheeler-dealer convinces Judah to drive for him and talks racing strategy.

In a cheeky show of disdain for the 212-minute 1959 version, The New Yorker, in its weekly "Goings On About Town" listings during the epic's long run at Loew's State Theater, simply printed the time the chariot race would begin so viewers could know when to pop in for the must-see sequence. No such guidance will be sought this time around, however, as just two words serve to describe Bekmambetov's race: incompetent and incoherent. Although the race runs about 10 minutes, roughly the same length as in the previous two films, so much is missing: the introduction of the other drivers and racing teams, the frantic attempts to rescue injured racers from the track, the systematic tipping of the metal fish to mark the laps. Instead, you gets lots of computer-generated gravel and dirt in your face courtesy of 3D, and the preponderance of tight shots and paucity of wide views provide a poor overall picture of the action, eliminating a sense of continuity, spatial relationships and suspense from what's supposed to be a breathtaking set-piece. Couldn't anyone on the creative team see the problem? The only fresh and original shot in the entire sequence involves a horse that ends up in the stands.

With the payoff sequence such a complete bust, all that's left to look forward to, if you can even put it that way, is how the director will present Jesus' arrest, march to Calvary and crucifixion. The answer is quite peremptorily, although it must be granted that at least here the Nazarene is given a face and a voice (Rodrigo Santoro); in the previous features, his face was coyly not shown nor his voice heard.

As was the 1959 version, the new film was based at Rome's Cinecitta Studios, with location work mostly done in Italy. Visually, it's on the grubby side, its compositions imprecise, the editing far too busy (hardly any shot in the chariot race lasts more than two or three seconds). None of the performances particularly register. As for the score, let's just say that the reputation of the late, great Miklos Rozsa, who composed the extraordinary music for the Wyler version, has just been strongly reinforced.


Other new releases this week
Hooligan’s Sparrow *** Against considerable odds, director Nanfu Wang managed to smuggle the various media out of China and back to her New York base where she adroitly edited it into a quietly powerful first feature about the untapped potential for bearing witness in our social media-driven society.
Equity **½ The one problem with this film is that it is too low-key to fully draw a viewer in. The chiaroscuro lighting and thrumming mood music build tension slowly and surely, but never enough to make you inch forward on the couch. Just a smidgeon of Gordon Gekko bombast might kick things up a notch.
Disorder **½ For all of Alice Winocour’s obvious skill behind the camera, too much of this film about haves and have-nots bogs down in ill-defined motivations and credulity-straining plot turns.
Shelley **½ After a strong start, the film becomes frustratingly vague in the middle, before rebounding with a finale that makes the implicit menace more explicit.
Brother Nature ** Has its amusing moments providing a showcase that tends toward the formulaic and the predictable.
I am Not a Serial Killer ** The film meanders, and the climax descends into campy fantasy worthy of any ‘80s B-movie, but Max Records as the troubled teen is quietly winning.
Kampai! For the Love of SakeUnfortunately, this documentary is more cheerleading than informative, concentrating largely on personality profiles of three figures — two of them Westerners — obsessed with the Japanese rice wine.

RATINGS
**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

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