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."

Friday, July 14, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "A Quiet Passion"

New England in the mid-19th century was a literary hothouse, overgrown with wild and exotic talents. That Emily Dickinson was among the most dazzling of these is not disputable, but to say that she was obscure in her own time would exaggerate her celebrity. A handful of her poems appeared in print while she was alive (she died in 1886, at 55), but she preferred private rituals of publication, carefully writing out her verses and sewing them into booklets.

Though she had no interest in fame, Dickinson was anything but an amateur scribbler, approaching her craft with unstinting discipline and tackling mighty themes of death, time and eternity. She remains a paradoxical writer: vividly present on the page but at the same time persistently elusive. The more familiar you are with her work, the stranger she becomes.

An admirer can be forgiven for approaching A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies’s movie about Dickinson’s life, with trepidation. The literalness of film and the creaky conventions of the biopic threaten to dissolve that strangeness, to domesticate genius into likable quirkiness. But Davies, whose work often blends public history and private memory, possesses a poetic sensibility perfectly suited to his subject and a deep, idiosyncratic intuition about what might have made her tick.

To Dickinson — played in the long afternoon of her adult life by Cynthia Nixon — the enemy of poetry is obviousness. (It is a vice she finds particularly obnoxious in the work of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the reigning poet of the age.) A Quiet Passion refuses the obvious at every turn. The romantically disappointed recluse of The Belle of Amherst, William Luce’s sturdy, sentimental play, has been replaced by a prickly, funny, freethinking intellectual, whose life is less a chronicle of withdrawal from the world than a series of explosive engagements with the universe. The passion is not so quiet, really. Dickinson muses and ponders, yes, but she also seethes, scolds, teases and bursts out laughing.

Solitude is part of Dickinson’s birthright — the taste for it links her to Henry David Thoreau, another odd duck plying the waters of Massachusetts — but so are social and familial ties. The first time we see young Emily (played by Emma Bell) she is about to be kicked out of Mount Holyoke College, branded a "no-hoper" for her heterodox religious views. The description is wrong, of course. ("Hope is the thing with feathers," she would write.) Her skepticism about God was more personal than metaphysical. She didn’t doubt his existence so much as question his intentions.

In tracing the flowering of her vocation, Davies pays scrupulous attention to the milieu that fed it. Her formal education complete, Dickinson returns to Amherst to live with her parents (Keith Carradine and Joanna Bacon); her brother, Austin (Duncan Duff); and her sister, Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle). On the way, there is a trip to a concert with an uptight aunt who is disgusted by the spectacle of a woman singing and disdainful of music in general. What about hymns?, her niece asks. "Hymns are not music."

But the Protestant hymnal was the metrical trellis on which Dickinson wreathed blossoms and thorns of musical invention. A Quiet Passion suggests that the mixture of austerity and extravagance in her verse was shaped partly by an environment in which religious severity coexisted with aesthetic and intellectual experimentation. (That aunt may have disapproved of the performance, but she still went.)

This is a visually gorgeous film — full of sunlight and flowers, symmetry and ornament — that also feels refreshingly plain. The smooth, almost lyrical movement of the camera conveys lightness and gravity, much in the way that some of Dickinson’s poems do. Like her voice, it seems to have been set loose in time, to rush forward or to linger as the meaning and the meter require, to turn time itself into a series of riddles. The movie lasts for two hours, or 37 years, or the difference between now and forever, or the span of an idea.

It is dominated by a single voice: Nixon’s, reciting stanzas instead of voice-over narration and cracking impish, sometimes impious jokes with the marvelous Ehle. A novel of family life writes itself between the lines, full of memorable characters and dramatic scenes. Parents grow old and die. Austin marries and then has an affair, a transgression that enrages Emily. She and Vinnie seem to exist in precise, kinetic counterpoint, like the left and right hands of a piano étude.

Not everything is harmony. If one of the film’s threads is the existential conundrum that most directly informs Dickinson’s poetry — what it is like to live from moment to moment with the knowledge of eternity — another is the dialectic of freedom and authority that defined her life. Nixon’s Dickinson is a natural feminist, but she also naturally submits, as her siblings do, to their father’s will. When she wants to write late at night, she asks his permission, noting later that no husband would have granted it. She is submissive and rebellious in ways that defy easy summary. Like the other great American poet of her century, Walt Whitman, she contradicts herself.

And though A Quiet Passion is small — modest in scope, inward rather than expansive, precise in word and gesture — it contains multitudes. It opens a window into an era whose political and moral legacies are still with us, and illuminates, with a practiced portraitist’s sureness of touch, the mind of someone who lived completely in her time, knowing all the while that she would eventually escape it.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "Norman"

How you feel about Norman the character will determine how you feel about Norman the movie. He’s a complicated man, and not necessarily a likable one. A self-styled "consultant," he is whoever he needs to be at any particular moment, depending on the situation he’s trying to insinuate himself into or the person he’s trying to manipulate. Is he a shameless hustler? Or is he merely an overbearing yet well-intentioned mensch?

And yet, in Richard Gere’s deft, veteran hands, Norman Oppenheimer is consistently, completely fascinating. You may not be able to root for him, but you can’t help but feel for him. Norman —the full title of which is Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer — similarly remains gripping as it evolves from funny to sad to suspenseful. Writer/director Joseph Cedar has created a rich character within a vivid sense of place. All we can do is watch and squirm.

With his ever-present overcoat, hat and ear buds, Norman is always walking and talking, always working it. He’s warm and friendly to everyone he meets, fancying himself as a magnanimous, well-connected power broker who’s eager to introduce people to each other for their mutual benefit. Please, just let him do this one favor for you — it would be his honor. But it’s clear that no one really knows Norman, and even though Gere is on screen for nearly the entirety of the film, we realize by the end that we don’t really know Norman, either. And that’s intentional; Cedar has made him a tantalizing mystery.

What Norman is after, though, becomes achingly clear: not the money that closing a big deal would bring, but rather the prestige, something that’s more amorphous and harder to acquire. He finally achieves some semblance of the access and respect he long has sought when he befriends an Israeli diplomat named Micha Eshel (an excellent Lior Ashkenazi, who also co-starred in Cedar’s 2011 film Footnote), who’s visiting New York at a vulnerable time in his political career. A scene in which Norman follows Eshel into the Manhattan Lanvin store and helps him try on expensive suits and shoes plays like an exquisitely tense, delicate dance.

Three years later, when Eshel becomes Israel’s prime minister, he remembers his eager-to-please pal and welcomes Norman into this inner circle — to the frustration of the seasoned political aides who already occupy spots there. But as Norman begins making promises he can’t keep to friends throughout New York’s Jewish community and getting in deeper over his head, his exaggerations and outright lies come back to haunt him. Not only does he find it increasingly difficult to maintain his well-honed persona, he also finds that being near the center of power isn’t as satisfying as he’d always imagined.

It’s a classic case of being careful of what you wish for. But Gere brings such nuance to Norman’s various shadings, he constantly keeps us on edge. His final fate feels a bit anticlimactic, especially given the elaborate, expertly paced build-up that preceded it. But Gere keeps us guessing until the end, with the ultimate question lingering: Does Norman actually believe his own spin? It could go either way. Gere is expertly cast, finding a different key to his typically charismatic screen persona — one that’s larger than life, but with a jittery, buzzing undercurrent.

The supporting cast is strong, as well, especially Michael Sheen as Norman’s nephew and much-needed (if not heeded) voice of reason and Steve Buscemi as Norman’s sympathetic rabbi. Charlotte Gainsbourg brings a quietly unsettling presence as an inquisitive government worker Norman schmoozes up on a train. And Josh Charles is just withering in one scene as an affluent, influential New Yorker whose dinner party Norman makes the mistake of crashing.

You may not like Norman — and you may not want to invite him to your own dinner party — but you’d be foolish to dismiss him outright.

Not in the legendary Johnnie Cochran-F. Lee Bailey tradition

In a story written by Avi Selk of the Washington Post, Harris County (Houston) Justice of the Peace Hillary H. Green has been suspended by the Texas Supreme Court "amid accusations that she sextested in the courtroom, used her bailiff to buy drugs, hired prostitutes and once brought home marijuana seized from a defendant."

And what’s her defense attorney’s shrewd plan to dispute these charges?

If you believe Selk’s account, and there’s no legitimate reason to doubt it, defense attorney Chip Babcock’s counter argument is The Texas Supremes should not have taken this action because voters have "overwhelmingly re-elected Green … ‘She’s very popular in the precinct’."

I bet she is — especially among those she sextested and those she brought drugs from.

Available soon for home viewing

Buster’s Mal Heart **½ Directed by Sarah Adina Smith. A family man's chance encounter with a conspiracy-obsessed drifter leaves him on the run from the police and an impending event known as The Inversion. This movie is about the making of a madman. It also aspires, with less success, to philosophically query the void at the center of modern life and Christianity’s failure to fill it.

Free Fire ** Directed by Ben Wheatley. In 1978 Boston, a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two gangs turns into a shootout and a game of survival. This 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.

Kong: Skull Island **½ Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. A team of scientists explore an uncharted island in the Pacific, venturing into the domain of the mighty Kong, and must fight to escape. As a big-budget B-grade monster movie, rhis 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, it is less successful.

The Promise *½ Directed by Terry George. Set during the last days of the Ottoman Empire, the film follows a love triangle among Michael, a brilliant medical student, the beautiful and sophisticated Ana, and Chris, a renowned American journalist based in Paris. This is a big, barren wartime romance that approaches the Armenian genocide with too much calculation and not nearly enough heat.

Tommy’s Honour *½ Directed by Jason Connery. An intimate tale of the real-life founders of the modern game of golf. The performances are desultory, the musical score bullying and the drama — aside from the game-changing placement of inconvenient shrubbery — is as predictable as one of the character’s steadily sprouting beard.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "A United Kingdom"

For a movie about two people who loved each other so deeply, they risked losing everything to be together — their families, homes, even their countries — A United Kingdom plays it frustratingly safe.

Based on the true story of the former king of Botswana and the British woman whose marriage in the late 1940s caused an international uproar, A United Kingdom is restrained to a fault. Director Amma Asante hits all the notes you’d expect in tastefully artful fashion. She has gifted, gorgeous actors in stars David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. And she has an undeniably inspiring story to tell.

A United Kingdom is well made and well-intentioned. But Asante is also saddled with a script from Guy Hibbert that spells out everything for the audience and oversimplifies its theoretically complex characters. Oyelowo’s Seretse Khama was exiled from his homeland — then known as Bechuanaland, a British protectorate — for long stretches of time for following his heart. He also angered and alienated his uncle (Vusi Kunene), who raised him as his own son, for bringing home a white woman to serve as their people’s queen.

Similarly, Pike’s Ruth Williams became a pariah herself, drawing the ire of her closed-minded father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) for marrying a black man. At the same time, the poor citizens of Bechuanaland didn’t exactly welcome this elegant foreigner with open arms. And since the British government wouldn’t allow Khama to return home because of the burgeoning, beastly apartheid in neighboring South Africa, Ruth was forced to spend her pregnancy alone. She gave birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter, without him at a rural hospital.

It’s all dramatic stuff, full of rich and complicated emotions. But as they’re depicted here, Khama and Ruth are singularly virtuous. Sure, they shed a few tears. Khama shoves a bunch of papers off a desk in a brief moment of rage. But individually, they both have a knack for saying the most poignant, uplifting thing at just the right moment. And while Oyelowo and Pike share a nice chemistry, especially during the couple’s courtship, it’s never one that indicates the sort of deep passion that must have driven these figures’ real-life sacrifice.

Their early days together provide a warm spark at the start, though, and they’re among the film’s finest. Khama and Ruth meet at a dance in 1947 London; he’s a thoughtful law student, she’s a vivacious clerk. The energetic pacing of this section, as they share a love of dancing and jazz albums, provides a great sense of the giddiness they felt in discovering each other.

But duty calls in the form of a letter from Khama’s uncle, informing him that his studies abroad have prepared him well and it’s now time for him to come home and lead his people. Only he doesn’t want to do it alone: He brings Ruth with him as his bride, an intimate decision with worldwide repercussions that neither of them could have predicted. (Asante, working with cinematographer Sam McCurdy, provides a striking and sumptuous contrast between the foggy chill of England and the sunny sprawl of Africa.)

Ironically, though, as the stakes get higher, A United Kingdom becomes less engaging. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that the British government officials wielding their power to keep the Khamas apart are depicted in such a one-dimensionally villainous manner. One of them is played by Tom Felton — Draco Malfoy himself — who was afforded more character development throughout the series.

The battle between good and evil is so obvious, it’s almost boring. These guys mercifully refrain from twirling their mustaches, but they do sip sherry as a comical reflection of their condescension and cruel authority.

Oyelowo can deliver a speech with a potent mix of fire and earnestness, though, as we also saw in his magnificent work in Selma. Pike shows once again that she’s capable of both vulnerability and fierce feminine strength. And in A United Kingdom, we get just enough glimmers of these actors’ prowess to wish we were watching them in a better movie.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Available soon for home viewing

American Fable *½ Directed by Anne Hamilton. When 11-year-old Gitty (Peyton Kennedy) discovers that her beloved father is hiding a wealthy man in her family's silo in order to save their struggling farm, she is forced to choose between saving the man's life or protecting her family from the consequences of their actions. It has a nice opening for a movie that spirals into nonsense.

The Fate and the Furious **½ Directed by F. Gary Gray. A mysterious woman seduces Dom into the world of terrorism and a betrayal of those closest to him. Zoom, crash, repeat with squealing, burning and flaming tires — it’s all predictably absurd and sel-mocking, and often a giggle when not a total yawn.

The Lost City of Z **½ Directed by James Gray. A true-life drama, centering on British explorer Col. Percival Fawcett, who disappeared while searching for a mysterious city in the Amazon in the 1920s. The ending is muddled as an unsuccessful attempt is made to provide closure to a story that, if told frankly, shouldn’t have one.

Norman *** Directed by Joseph Cedar. Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) is a small time operator who befriends a young politician at a low point in his life. Three years later, when the politician becomes an influential world leader, Norman's life dramatically changes for better and worse. In Gere’s deft, veteran hands, Oppenheimer is consistently, completely fascinating. You may not be able to root for him, but you can’t help but feel for him.

A Quiet Passion **** Directed by Terence Davies. The story of American poet Emily Dickinson from her early days as a young schoolgirl to her later years as a reclusive, unrecognized artist. Davies, whose work often blends public history and private memory, possesses a poetic sensibility perfectly suited to his subject and a deep, idiosyncratic intuition about what might have made Dickinson tick.

Smurfs: The Lost Village ** Directed by Kelly Asbury. A mysterious map sets Smurfette and her friends Brainy, Clumsy and Hefty on a race through the Forbidden Forest leading to the discovery of the biggest secret in Smurf history. While it may not be better or more entertaining, the acknowledgment that it is aiming solely for the kiddie audience this time around at least makes it slightly more palatable than its predecessors.

Spark: A Space Tale ½* Directed by Aaron Woodley. Spark, a teenage monkey and his friends, Chunk and Vix, are on a mission to regain Planet Bana, a kingdom overtaken by the evil overlord Zhong. An utterly lifeless and profoundly unoriginal animated effort that is desperately lacking the very thing in its title.

Their Finest *** Directed by Lone Scherfig. A former secretary, newly appointed as a scriptwriter for propaganda films, joins the cast and crew of a major production while the Blitz rages around them. Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard is never less than splendid.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "T2 Trainspotting"

If you long for the gritty charms of mid-‘90s indie cinema in general and Trainspotting specifically, T2 Trainspotting gives you exactly that. And by "exactly," I really do mean "exactly."

Danny Boyle’s sequel to his generation-defining 1996 film offers more of the same, for better and for worse. An opportunity to wallow in grimy nostalgia seems to be its sole purpose. It is an absolute rehash, complete with visual cues, bits of dialogue, blasts of music and even snippets of clips from the original 1996 film woven into the modern-day action.

"What’s the point?" you might wonder. "Why now?" And you might still wonder that after spending two more hours with Renton, Sick Boy and the rest of Edinburgh lads, who are now 20 years older and not much wiser. Boyle can make any kind of film in the world that he wants — and he has with 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours and Steve Jobs. This is a director who has made his name by taking risks. By revisiting Trainspotting, Boyle is playing it strangely safe. His signature visual verve is there; it’s the narrative drive that’s missing.

The clunkily titled T2 Trainspotting is in constant forward motion, though, which also makes it similar to its predecessor. It even begins with Ewan McGregor’s character, Mark Renton, running again. Only this time, he’s on the treadmill at the gym, not trying to escape the law. The script from returning screenwriter John Hodge, working from Irvine Welsh’s novels Porno and Trainspotting, contrives to send Renton back to his old, working-class neighborhood in Scotland from Amsterdam.

He’s been living a respectable life since making off with the 16,000 pounds he stole from his buddies after their big heroin deal at the end of the first film. The blurry, sun-dappled sight of a scrawny, young Renton walking across a bridge with a duffel bag full of money in his hand and a smile on his face is one of the many key images Boyle reinvigorates here. Working with his frequent cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, and editor, Jon Harris, he also recreates the tricky combination of shocking visuals and playful pacing that made Trainspotting such an original, thrilling breath of dirty air.

The other characters haven’t changed much, either. Renton has beefed up and cleaned up, reinventing himself in another country and keeping far away from the drug that had such a complete and hypnotic hold on him and his friends. But Jonny Lee Miller’s towheaded, troublemaking Sick Boy now runs the family pub, which is more rundown than ever and not nearly as popular as it used to be. The sweet and simple Spud (Ewen Bremner) remains hooked on smack, and is so depressed and destitute that he’s in the process of trying to kill himself when Renton stops by to say hello. And Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is as volatile and violent as ever, having spent time in prison and now trying to reconnect with the son he barely knows by dragging him into a life of crime. Of all his friends, Begbie is the most dangerously angry about Renton’s long-ago betrayal.

Basically, T2 consists of Renton bouncing around between these supporting characters, as well as Sick Boy’s Bulgarian girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold who has dreams of helping Sick Boy turn the pub into a brothel. She essentially exists so that when Renton does a cringe-inducing, contemporary version of his "Choose Life" monologue from the start of the original Trainspotting, he has someone to listen to him this time. The scene is a prime example of how T2 manages to establish a familiar, rhythmic patter, yet still feel lazy.

The pacing overall is erratic, though, which is not the sort of comment one usually would make about a Boyle film. T2 certainly has its moments and some callbacks that’ll make you smile — the sight of McGregor in a filthy men’s bathroom, for example, or the iconic drum beat at the start of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life. And McGregor and Miller share a warm, spry chemistry, despite (or perhaps because of) the bitter friction that now defines their characters’ relationship. Meanwhile, an all-too brief appearance by Kelly Macdonald comes out of nowhere and feels like a missed opportunity. The former underage party girl has become an uptight corporate lawyer, which seems like a rather facile condemnation of society as a whole.

But the movie never really finds a cultural groove or a political voice. The sight of Renton standing awkwardly in his childhood bedroom, still covered with train wallpaper and seemingly untouched in 20 years, feels emblematic of the entire endeavor. Just because you can go home again doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "Saban's Power Rangers"

"Ai-yi-yi-yi-yi!," says Alpha 5, the robot sidekick to Zordon, in Saban’s Power Rangers uttering his signature exclamation. Alpha 5 (voiced by Bill Hader) is not the only holdover in this slick repackaging of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the shrill and unfathomably popular 1990s Fox Kids’ series (adapted by Haim Saban from a Japanese TV show) about teenage superheroes in color-coded costumes. But Hader’s dialed-down take reflects the movie’s tempered refinement of the original.

Saban’s Power Rangers, plotted by a small army of writers and directed by Dean Israelite, jumps right into an origin story. Zordon (Bryan Cranston) is a protector of humanity who centuries ago led a team of Rangers destroyed by the dastardly Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks). Now, after lying dormant for centuries, she and Zordon are revived, and Zordon, who lives trapped in a vast wall monitor, must recruit a new crew to fight her.

Gone are the antiseptic characterizations of the Morphin days; "We’re all screw-ups," says Jason (Dacre Montgomery), a.k.a. the Red Ranger, a fallen football star. Kimberly (Naomi Scott), the Pink Ranger, is a guilt-ridden former mean girl; the sullen Trini (Becky G), Yellow, is sorting out her sexual orientation; Zack (Ludi Lin), Black, tends his ailing mother in a mobile home. Billy (R J Cyler, the funniest, most talented fresh face here), Blue, is a timid savant "on the spectrum," he says.

They share a Matrix-like discovery of their powers, conferred by mysterious colored coins, and come across Zordon and Alpha 5’s underground chamber, where destiny — and a requisite training montage — awaits. Banks chews scenery as Rita while her monstrous minion devours the Rangers’ California hometown. When the Rangers engage in Transformers-lite mayhem, an intriguing group portrait collapses into generic pyrotechnics, the dialogue running from "Bring it on!" to "Let’s do this!"

Saban’s Power Rangers may surpass the original, but for what lesson? The value of teamwork? More likely, of a franchise payoff.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "Before I Fall"

It takes a mediocre movie like Before I Fall to illustrate how brilliant Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day is. Founded on the same premise, the movies show the variances that can result from different approaches. Groundhog Day uses comedy and wit to buffer its existential angst and cosmic sense of karma. Before I Fall, on the other hand, adopts an oh-so-serious tone and resorts to awkward melodrama to get the point across.

It’s Valentine’s Day and high school senior Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch) is doomed to live it repeatedly until she does whatever it is that Fate has decreed she must do to move on. It begins with her waking up to a song on her iPhone (not, by the way, I’ve Got You, Babe — the movie doesn’t have that sort of referential sense of humor) and ends with her dying in a car accident. Except, instead of waking up at the Pearly Gates, she returns to the beginning of the day with her memories intact. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. After acclimating, Sam varies things a little — dumping her three Queen Bee friends (Halston Sage, Medalion Rahimi, Cynthy Wu), trying to hook up with a "nicer" boy, etc. She eventually figures out that getting out of the loop involves doing something related to outcast Juliet Sykes (Elena Kampouris), but what?

The kind of repetition necessary to Before I Fall’s narrative is not only inherently non-cinematic but potentially deadly to the movie. Who wants to see the same scene presented over and over again with only small variations? And, although it’s unfair to compare Bill Murray to Zoey Deutch, a case can be made that Murray’s performance keeps Groundhog Day from slipping into the rut that derails Before I Fall. For her part, although Deutch (most recently seen as Bryan Cranston’s daughter/James Franco’s lover in Why Him?) is appealing, she’s too old for the part. Halston Sage (in the "best friend" role), who’s actually a year older than Deutch, seems more age-appropriate for a high school student. Both are viewed as "up and coming" actresses and will likely appear in more impressive projects than this one in the near future.

The saccharine message of "savor every moment" is driven home with sledgehammer-like subtlety. Director Ry Russo-Young’s unwillingness to give the audience even a scintilla of credit (a sentiment I can fully understand) results in not only a voiceover that emphasizes the moral but a final act that embodies it. Somehow, Groundhog Day is able to convey something similar without it becoming obvious or intrusive. Is it fair to catalog all the times when the Ramis film does things better than this one? Possibly not, considering that Before I Fall has been fine-tuned for viewers who have probably never heard of Groundhog Day, much less seen it. This movie is intended for girls between the ages of 10 and 16 and anyone outside that demographic is likely to have issues with parts of the script (or, in my case, pretty much the entire thing).

To be fair, there are occasional moments that succeed dramatically. These are typically the quieter, less histrionic ones. I appreciated the scenes between Sam and Kent (Logan Miller), the prototypical "nice guy" trapped in the friendzone. There’s also something elegant about the way the movie ends. Overall, however, the lack of a compelling narrative thrust and inability to maintain an internal consistency about how the time loop works condemn this film to a fall from which it can’t recover.

Chris Paul’s latest technical foul

Now I’m hearing Houston Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni rarely, if ever, plans to have James Harden and Chris Paul on the court at the same time. That one will be the substitute for the other.

When you step very far back and look at it, this strategy sort of makes sense, although it seems so completely wacky that if one team has a pair of superstars, they never share time on the court. But in this case, Harden and Paul are essentially the same player, just in different skins. Both are notorious ball hogs. Harden let the NBA in personal time of possession this past season and Paul was seventh on that list. That’s why D’Antoni’s strategy makes sense. Basketball is a game of keep-away from the other team, but not from teammates.

Which is why Paul’s insistence that the Los Angeles Clippers trade him to the Rockets baffles me. OK, I get it that Harden is Paul’s best buddy. I also get it that Paul, at 32, is slightly more than four years older than Harden and may be looking at ways to max out his playing career. But LeBron James is a year older than Paul and the last time I looked he was still the best player in the NBA.

Then there’s the fact that by abandoning the Los Angeles Clippers, Paul left $50 million on the table. 50 million freaking dollars. It must be nice to be in a position to be able to say "Hey, what’s 50 million dollars when I can hang out in Houston, which is actually the same city as Los Angeles except with all the fun removed, with my best buddy?"

Look, he didn’t do it to win a ring. Perhaps someone with the Rockets whispered into Paul’s ear that Houston will be able to rent Paul George for the upcoming season. But if Paul plays for anyone other than Indiana this season I think it’s more than likely that team will be the Celtics.

Besides, the hurdle to pass in the Western Conference of the NBA is the Golden State Warriors and Chris Paul subbing for James Harden doesn’t come close to matching the Warriors’ Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Dramont Greene, Klay Thompson, et al. Not even close.

For the last couple of years, the Clippers offense was pretty simple to diagnose It was either Paul or J.J. Redick shooting threes or Paul heaving an Ally-oop to either Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan. And Paul was especially gifted at the latter. Who’s he going to heave to with the Rockets?

There was speculation around the league that the San Antonio Spurs were going to actively court Paul once he became a free agent. Agreed, it was smart for the Clippers to trade Paul before the free agency period started — at least they got something in return in a trade deal. But the word was Houston was where Paul wanted to go all along. I just don’t get it. San Antonio seems, to me, at least, to be a much better fit. Tony Parker’s best days are behind him — he’s 35 after all and lost a considerable amount of court time last season to injury. And, with the Spurs, Paul could find a lot more wide open shots, especially if he’s sharing the court with the likes of Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, David Lee and Danny Green. And the mind boggles at all the Ally-oop possibilities Paul would have with the Spurs.

Would Paul going to the Spurs put San Antonio on the same plateau as Golden State? Personally, I don’t think so, but a lot of learned voices will argue quite convincingly that they were on the same level last year until Zaza Pachulia stepped on Leonard’s foot and knocked him out of the playoffs.

And, like it or not, whether it’s fair or not, the truth is the legacy of any NBA player or coach is measured strictly by the number of championship rings in his possession. Earlier in the day Phil Jackson was dismissed as president of the New York Knicks, ending a three-season tenure in which the Knicks compiled a wretched won-loss record of 80-166 and were a franchise worse 16-65 in 2014-15. That’s horrible, That’s worse than horrible. However, I guarantee you the first paragraph of Jackson’s obit will refer to him as "an NBA legend" who won 11 NBA championships, six with the Chicago Bulls than five more with the Los Angeles Lakers. I think it’s unfair, unwise and frankly impossible to compare basketball players of one era with players of another. However, Michael Jordan is considered the greatest professional basketball player ever. Why? Six championship rings.

And, like it or not, whether it's fair or not, Chris Paul’s basketball legacy is as a failure. Why? Because he could never take the Clippers beyond the second round of the conference playoffs. And I don’t see his prospects for success in attaining a championship getting any better with Houston.

But, then, maybe I’m just under-estimating the value of friendship.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

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

Quit smoking, dammit

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

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

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Available soon for home viewing

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Jonah Hill has really lost weight

Enough said.

Available now for home viewing: "Life"

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Donald Trump's cameo in Woody Allen movie

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

Available for home viewing: "Get Out"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 23, 2017

Available for home viewing: "The Lego Batman Movie"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Available for home viewing: "The Space Between Us"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Fifty Shades Darker"

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

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

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

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

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

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