Sunday, April 30, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Assassin's Creed"

Assassin's Creed is a movie based on a game franchise where you jump around in period dress (the setting depends on which game you're playing) climb buildings and murder people. Unlike the actual video game, Assassin's Creed isn't ridiculous and fun, but rather ridiculous and turgid. This is the fundamental disconnect that most video games (except maybe Mortal Kombat, Super Mario Brothers: The Movie and Street Fighter) run into: there's no way to translate the hands-on action of a video game to the silver screen, so many video game adaptations either have no plot, or get bogged down in blase set-up.

Still, why is there so much pensive info-dump talk-talk-talk in Assassin's Creed about the modern-day Knights Templar, and their quest to eradicate global violence using an elaborate virtual reality work program — and yet nothing beyond the basic premise makes sense? Who choreographed these dull, repetitive fight scenes? And why are supporting cast members like Jeremy Irons and Charlotte Rampling skulking listlessly in the corner while poor Michael K. Williams eagerly awaits a good line or two? (He never gets one.) If anybody had a spark of inspiration when they made Assassin's Creed, it certainly doesn't show.

There's a prisoner named Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender) and he lives in the not-too-distant future. He's sentenced to death and then abducted by a shadowy group (The Templars) that want Cal because of his, uh, DNA. Hang on, let me go back a step: The Templars have a virtual reality machine called the Animus, and it sends people back in time so that they can see the world through their ancestors' eyes. This information is useful to the Templars because apparently they need information to find the location of the Apple of Eden, a device (not a fruit) that can be used to eliminate human free will. Also, Cal's ancestor is a member of a counter-revolutionary group called the Assassin's Creed, a group of killers who opposed the Templars' dogmatic quest to dominate the world by hiding the Apple from th …

Long story short: Cal's got information that the Templars need and is apparently too dumb to smell a set-up when he sees it. The same is true of Sofia (Marion Cotillard), Cal's handler, and the daughter of Templar leader Rikkin (Jeremy Irons). Cal's got daddy issues, and this drives him to help the Templars for a spell. Also, apparently the machine gives him the magical ability to learn the martial arts skills that his ancestor Aguilar inherited (apparently this is explained better in the video games, but not much better).

So: some guy time-travels, learns kung fu, tries to destroy human free will because he's angsty, and then inevitably rebels against the church people who hire him. I say "some guy" because nothing really feels important in Assassin's Creed except everyone's vain attempts at making endless (and fundamentally silly) exposition be taken seriously. So many conversations feel interminable because solemnity takes priority over dynamic storytelling. Characters talk in hushed whispers about the hyper-convoluted methods they use to realize their poorly-hidden agendas.

And the viewer, in the meantime, constantly stays ahead of the characters because nobody is smart or thoughtful enough to be thinking: "Hey, maybe I'm being manipulated by a shadowy organization run by people who want to eradicate free will." Or, "Hmmm, maybe I should help a group of people find something as important-sounding as the Apple of Eden." These characters don't seem real because all they do is dispense narrative information, and move the plot along by inches. Oh, they also occasionally fight, but never in a compelling way. The camera thankfully does not skimp on action in these scenes, but the drab, schematic choreography makes you wish they did.

Still, there is one scene where the filmmakers hint at why they wanted to make Assassin's Creed into a movie: Cal is shown a room where non-compliant Animus test subjects are prematurely aged and/or go blind (this is also poorly explained in the movie). Suddenly, the film makes more sense: Is this a Zardoz homage? Zardoz is a campy, visionary 1974 science-fiction film where Sean Connery plays a rebellious brute who tries to destroy the Tabernacle, a futuristic repository for all of of humanity's culture. The Zardoz connection is strong in this scene since it features a menagerie full of "Renegades," non-compliant misfits who simply asked too many questions. For a moment, Assassin's Creed looks like it's about to get interesting. That moment does not last, however, since the filmmakers are more concerned with storytelling mechanics than in the story they're telling. Gamers may enjoy Assassin's Creed, but everyone else's patience will be tested.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

"Liberals have to quit trying to win over Trump voters with facts"

Available for home viewing: "Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them"

Ah, distractions. Be it with junk food or Netflix binges, many are craving safe havens away from post-election fallout these days. But what we really need are the right distractions, ones that lift spirits, engage minds, delight eyes and don’t pander to our baser instincts, including those alarming posts that dribble down social media feeds, stirring up unease about the future.

Perhaps a fable embellished with fantasy trappings that’s spun off from the Harry Potter universe. One that touches upon such issues as the inherent danger of outing a magical community to an intolerant public while No-Majs, the Americanized term for Muggles, are equally distrusted by wizards and witches. Some young people are forced to suppress their very natures by those who inflict physical and psychological harm upon them. Not to mention that a strange deadly force has been somehow unleashed, leaving mass destruction and fear in its wake.

OK, that doesn’t sound like that much fun, does it?

But what if I tell you that J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which dips into the dark side fairly regularly, is at its best when it serves as a more exotic version of all those cute puppy and kitten antics that fill your Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts? Instead of dogs sporting holiday attire or cats falling off kitchen counters, you can go "aww" when a naughty Niffler, a mole-duck-billed platypus hybrid, goes on a crime spree while greedily stuffing gobs of shiny objects such as coins and gems into its belly pouch. Or when a majestic giant Thunderbird, destined to live in the wilds of Arizona, spreads its eagle-like wings. Maybe a teeny leafy twig-like critter known as a Bowtruckle, reminiscent of a shrunken Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, is more your style. There’s also an amorous Erumpent, a big-butt cross between a hippo and an elephant, who causes a ruckus at a zoo. That this expansive menagerie and more are able to fit into the best piece of enchanted traveling luggage in a movie since Mary Poppins' bottomless carpet bag is a welcome bonus.

Besides, who better to conjure an entertaining yet relevant remedy for our nation’s unsettled state of mind but Rowling? It was her unfettered fertile imagination that afforded moviegoers comfort and joy in the aftermath of 9/11 with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the first of eight big-screen installments based on her mega-selling book series about the exploits of a boy wizard. Yes, there was a monstrous, near-unbeatable evil afoot throughout the franchise. But there was also abundant goodness, profound wisdom and selfless decency to be discovered amongst the wand-waving denizens of Hogwarts Academy of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Now, 15 years later — and not a moment too soon — arrives this ambitious first entry in a quintet of promised film adventures, directed with more whimsical panache than usual by Harry Potter stalwart David Yates. Rowling’s debut as a screenwriter is inspired by a same-named, catalog-style textbook that is supposed to be the work of a "magizoologist" and Hogwarts alum named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne in eccentric shy-guy mode). Prediction: I expect this endearingly clumsy oddball guardian of endangered magical creatures might just become a spokes symbol for animal rescue groups, even if he keeps on having to recapture them after they escape from his suitcase.

Instead of the contemporary academic setting with pubescent schoolkids and imperious wizened professors, the focus is on Newt and his John Candy-class roly-poly sidekick and No-Maj, Jacob (Dan Fogler, a onetime Tony winner and victim of too many dumb bro-coms who buoyantly fulfills his duty as our civilian surrogate). They soon join forces with a pair of sibling spell casters — plucky Tina (Katherine Waterston), an ex-investigator for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA for short), and flirtatious Queenie (Alison Sudol), a mind-reading flapper — who both would do Samantha from Bewitched proud with their magic-enabled kitchen skills.

The action is rooted in a make-believe New York City during the Roaring Twenties, a period of prosperity and hedonistic pursuits but also repression and intolerance that took such forms as Prohibition and the rise of the KKK. These more frightening impulses of the era materialize in such metaphorical figures such as a puritanical witch-hating Carrie Nation type (Samantha Morton, scowling all the way) who rails against the use of magic to her impressionable young charges. Meanwhile, Colin Farrell glowers as the head of MECUSA security who totes a few secrets up his sleeve and we learn there is the powerful dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald has gone into hiding after causing chaos in Europe.

If that sounds like a lot of ground to cover, it is. There are plot points that rush by without being fully explained and characters who will hopefully become more fleshed out in later installments. As is all too common in blockbusters lately, violence primarily takes the form of destruction of urban landscapes. If you’ve seen one major metropolitan thoroughfare gutted like a fish and spilling forth with chunks of asphalt rubble, you have seen them all. But the actual period re-creation and production design of a Jazz Age Big Apple is quite the accomplishment. I especially enjoyed the foray into a hidden wizard-friendly speakeasy with a sassy elfin blues singer where Newt attempts to strike a bargain with the establishment’s owner, a shady goblin named Gnarlack played via motion-capture by well-cast Ron Perlman.

As with most complicated narratives, it is best to simply sit back at some point and enjoy the ride. You will quickly know if you feel the Potter magic if you smile when a snippet of Hedwig’s Theme — named for Harry’s owl — is heard early on the soundtrack or if you suddenly sit up when the name "Lestrange" is mentioned. As Fogler’s Jacob says after learning his memory of all the incredible feats he's witnessed will be erased for his own protection, "I don’t got the brains to make this up." However, Rowling definitely does. Let’s hope subsequent chapters of the Fantastic Beasts story are even better.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Available for home viewing: "A Monster Calls"

I have come to the realization that a lot of individuals seem to have been under the impression — maybe because of the title combined with the fact that director J.A. Bayona made The Orphanage — that this is a straight-up genre film, a conventional monster movie. Boy, are they going to be surprised if they decided to watch A Monster Calls, which is in fact a metaphorical allegory of childhood, illness, death, and grief. And an often very powerful film.

Based on a novel by Patrick Ness, who also wrote the screenplay (the book itself was initially conceived as an idea by the late writer Siobhan Dowd, who is also credited in the film), A Monster Calls brings viewers into the ramshackle British household of young Conor and his unnamed mother. Their residence looks out onto a church and graveyard that seem guarded by a giant yew tree. Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a restless, shy, bullied kid who’s an ardent daydreamer, artist — and inchoate monster-movie lover — dreams one night of the tree breaking apart, and yielding a giant man of wood. Tree-men and like figures have deep roots (sorry) in Anglo mythology, but the monster who invades Conor’s dreams — whose insides are animated by terrifying, never-ebbing flames — belongs to Conor alone. Speaking in intimidating intonations supplied by Liam Neeson, the monster informs Conor that he is going to appear to him to tell him three stories. And once the monster’s stories are done, he will command of Conor the kid’s own story, and an ultimate attendant truth that only Conor can articulate.

This situation would seem challenging under the best of circumstances. Of course, the movie understands that the situation wouldn’t arise at all under the best of circumstances. Conor’s mother, a young woman herself, played by Felicity Jones, is direly ill, and has been for some time. She’s a one-time artist who put aside her dreams once Conor was born. The boy’s father, Toby Kebbell, has a whole other life in Los Angeles now. Conor’s grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is a stern intimidating figure who on the outset seems entirely disagreeable. We don’t know it at first, but we suspect it: all the adults in Conor’s family, however well-intentioned, are lying to him. His visits from his tree frenemy help him to reckon with that, albeit in an unconventional way.

When the monster calls, his tendrils wrap around the furniture in Conor’s bedroom, and these tendrils themselves seem to grip the boy as the monster tells fables of kings and queens that end in frustrating paradox, confusing Conor. The boy and his beloved mom have moments of respite, enjoying a 16mm print of the 1933 King Kong together, with Mom telling Conor it was a favorite of his late grandfather, who was the only person who could get Grandma to lighten up. These casually dropped bits of history become crucial as the film digs deeper and deeper into the realities of Conor’s situation and the parables of the fantastic figure who helps him deal with that situation, despite Conor’s furious opposition.

This is a very unusual picture, whether you’re viewing as an adult or a teen, but it’s not unprecedented. It has some genuine affinities with the 1986 Labyrinth, in which Jennifer Connelly confronted a looming transition from girlhood to womanhood via a fantasy realm ruled by an elfin David Bowie. In that film, as in this one, a close examination of the characters’ family photos yields useful clues as to what’s really going on. But A Monster Calls is putting its young protagonist through a much tougher transition process, and as such the visions, and the challenges, are more wrenching and terrifying.

While the giant tree monster — in many scenes an actual animatronic creation, in the Kong tradition — is a formidable, fantastic effect, and the design and animation of his tales is first-rate, there are portions of the movie that are frenetically over-directed. Bayona’s a formidable talent, and he’s not out to discombobulate his audience in the manner of Michael Bay, but there are times when he’s trying to do too much at once. The story also has some speed bumps. Too many movies nowadays depicting bullying among young people fall back on a very lazy audience-pleasing trick. That is, to have the victim get so mad he’s just not going to take it anymore, and he gives the bully a good walloping. Never mind that this isn’t how it works in real life, but the scene doesn’t actually line up with the idea the tree monster wants to impart to Conor. That the buildup to the confrontation partakes in some peculiar possible gay-panic tension doesn’t so much provide thematic enrichment as it does muddy the waters. (The aftermath of the incident does, however, give Bayona the opportunity to feature Geraldine Chaplin in a cameo role, so that’s welcome.)

But once A Monster Calls settles in for its wrenching climax, and the revelation of Conor’s "truth," it becomes both heart-squeezing and philosophically provocative. That the movie is beautiful to look at is a given, if you know Bayona’s prior films, but sometimes it gets you in that department when you’re least expecting it. A conversation between Conor and his grandmother during a rainy drive to the hospital, when the car is stopped for a passing train, is framed in beautiful autumnal running colors outside their car windows (the director of photography is Öscar Faura, who has worked with Bayona on all his features); it’s not only visually breathtaking but emotionally consonant and resonant. Despite its shortcomings, there are things about this film that are hard to shake; the movie’s ultimate wisdom and overarching compassion make it very likely that you won’t want to shake them, after all.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Available for home viewing: "La La Land"

La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s much-anticipated follow-up to his stunning 2014 feature debut, Whiplash, illustrates the magic that can result when a director is fully committed to a vision. Chazelle doesn’t just want to tell a story (although he does). He doesn’t just want to enrapture the viewer (which he also does). And he doesn’t want to rely on nostalgia to make his story work (although it plays a big part in the overall experience). La La Land isn’t just the best made-for-the-screen musical in a very long time, it’s arguably the best (non-animated) cinematic musical of any kind since 1986’s delightful Little Shop of Horrors. Yes, it’s more vibrant than Chicago, more heartfelt than Les Miserables, and more successfully staged than a chorus of other contenders.

To make La La Land, Chazelle has turned back the clock. The style, approach, camerawork, color palette, and viewpoint are all straight out of the 1950s. The lead actors, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, can frequently be caught channeling Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Ginger Rogers. Chazelle and his cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, love long takes and perhaps none is more ambitious than the opening one — a musical number on a jammed freeway, where drivers exit their cars and use singing and dancing as an antidote to road rage. The filmmakers’ love of the Golden Age Musicals emerges most forcefully in numbers like this but it permeates every frame of La La Land. With the exception of a few profane utterances (probably incorporated to avoid the worrisomely tame "PG" rating), there’s not an element in this film that couldn’t have been found in something made in 1952. The setting is modern day but the feel is old-fashioned (and that’s not in any way a bad thing).

Chazelle doesn’t only love classic musicals, he loves jazz. That much was clear from Whiplash but he makes doubly sure we know it here. The male main character is a frustrated jazz musician and a key aspect of the plot involves his passing on his love of music to his leading lady. Chazelle isn’t shy when it comes to exposing the viewer to all types of jazz — from the classic style that evocates the greats to the commercially viable modern variation used to attract a younger generation. John Legend comes along for the ride as a spokesperson for the latter. When it comes to addressing the tension between the two camps, Chazelle avoids condescension as Legend brutally lays out some hard truths about why "die hards" are killing jazz by holding tight to the great men of the past rather than innovating for the future.

La La Land is divided into five acts that follow the progression of the seasons — Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter. Although it starts out trading on our memories of old musicals, it eventually gains its own identity. Thematically, there’s nothing groundbreaking here. It’s a boy-meets-girl, boy-and-girl-fall-in love, boy-loses-girl kind of story that reminds us that following a dream demands a price. La La Land is a fairy tale but it has a realistic edge. Instead of embracing the "happily ever after" ending in which all things are possible, La La Land uses a kind of inverted It’s a Wonderful Life to show how things might have been in another film.

Chazelle requires tremendous range from his leads. They have to sing (which they do well enough) and dance (which they do better than well enough). They have to be able to handle drama and comedy. And they have to strike sparks when they look into each other’s eyes, hold hands during a movie, or kiss. These are adept actors (both are past Oscar nominees, both were nominated for these roles and Stone won) but in this tale, chemistry is as important as acting, and there’s no deficiency there. And, although there are times when Gosling and Stone’s singing is found wanting, they occasionally surprise. (After an uncertain start, Stone nails Audition.) Chazelle has opted not to go the Marnie Nixon route, allowing his actors to do their own vocal stunt work, favoring authenticity over polish. (This is one area in which his approach is decidedly unlike that of his 1950s predecessors.)

When we first encounter Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Gosling), they are trapped in the opening traffic jam, although neither participates in the song-and-dance block party. Their lives, like their cars, are crawling along. Their dreams seem far away, perhaps unattainable. Sebastian wants to open a jazz club but he’s trapped playing Christmas carols on a piano in a high-end restaurant for a grouchy J.K. Simmons. Mia is one of many — a wannabe actress who is forced to work as a barista to make ends meet while waiting for elusive audition calls and even more elusive call-backs. These two are getting nowhere fast until they meet. It takes three times before things click. As summer arrives, they’re in love but, as with the seasons, the height of warmth augurs the start of a predictable decline.

La La Land offers moments of unabashed euphoria but it’s never saccharine. That’s the key to its appeal — it allows us to dance with the characters but never feels manipulative. Its dramatic moments are more genuine than is often the case in musicals. Chazelle is as interested in developing a compelling, character-based romance as he is in selling soundtracks. And, although not all the songs are instantly memorable, at least two of them (Mia’s theme, Audition, and Sebastian’s theme, City of Stars) linger. They aren’t generic songs that get lost in a miasma of same-sounding tunes. There are five or six original compositions (music by Justin Hurwitz; lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), none of which fall into the "instantly forgotten" category.

It seems the end of every calendar year brings a new musical or two to theaters. Many of these are well-produced, masterfully choreographed, and impeccably staged. None of Hollywood’s recent offerings has lifted me up with the potency and grace of La La Land, one of the season’s most effervescent samples of pure entertainment.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Remembering Jonathan Demme

I am terribly saddened about the news concerning the passing of director Jonathan Demme who died this morning in New York City from esophageal cancer and complications from heart disease, During a 13-year period that stretched from 1980 to 1993, I’m not sure there was a filmmaker who could match him. Just consider these titles: Melvin and Howard (1980); Swing Shift (1984) featuring Christine Lahti’s breakout, Oscar-nominated performance; Stop Making Sense (1984), the best rock music documentary ever (I rank it above The Last Waltz, because Waltz was edited out of sequence and featured added, staged — thus non-documentary — footage, as well as Woodstock, which glamorized what, anyone who attended will tell you, was a natural disaster); Something Wild (1986, a tour-de-force from Melanie Griffith and one of the best, if not the best, debut performances ever from Ray Liotta); Swimming to Cambodia (1987); Married to the Mob (1988) and then the two films that sealed the deal, The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Philadelphia (1993).

He seemed to slide into the shadows after that, although I thought his remake of The Manchurian Candidate in 2004, while not great, was far superior to most remakes and much better than I expected it to be. Then he completely, albeit briefly, emerged from the shadows in 2008 with the wonderful Rachel Getting Married, which, in effect, was Demme telling the world "In case you think I no longer have what it takes, then take this."

No one ever slipped from the end of a film to its credits better than Demme did here in Something Wild.

Ray Liotta stealing scenes in Something Wild.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Allied"

Ever since Saving Private Ryan ushered in heretofore unheard-of levels of gruesome and graphic detail to its World War II combat sequences, pretty much every WWII film that has been produced since then, right up to the recent Hacksaw Ridge, has gone to great lengths to stress the horrors of combat and its intense physical and psychological pressures. (Yes, Inglourious Basterds was a significant exception to this rule but I think we can all agree that strict historical fidelity was not high on that film’s agenda.) That is all well and good but would Hollywood ever again produce the kind of WWII movie that they used to make back in the day — the kind that mixed together action, politics, drama, humor and romance as enacted by impossibly glamorous movie stars? Allied, the latest film from Robert Zemeckis, is just that kind of film.

While it may not quite be the modern-day Casablanca, it is nevertheless a grandly entertaining stab at old-fashioned storytelling (albeit with levels of sex, violence and profanity that they could never have gotten away with back in the day) buoyed by smart and stylish filmmaking, a good performance by Brad Pitt and an even better one from Marion Cotillard.

As the film opens in 1942, Pitt's Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan parachutes into North Africa and makes his way to Casablanca. His mission is to assassinate the German ambassador with the help of Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard), a French Resistance fighter who will be posing as his wife and who has gotten herself into the good graces of the local Nazi bigwigs. Over the course of the next few days, they prepare themselves for the mission while trying to establish themselves as a loving married couple so as not to arouse any suspicion. Something does get aroused between the two of them despite their professional attitudes, culminating in one of the more intriguingly staged love scenes of recent memory. With that out of the way, they complete their mission in an equally spectacular manner. During their escape, Max asks Marianne to return to London with him so that they can get married.

The story picks up a year later with Max and Marianne married and living in London with their infant daughter in as much bliss as one could possibly hope for during wartime. That all comes to an abrupt end when he is called into headquarters and informed by an officious S.O.E. official (Simon McBurney) that there's evidence suggesting that the real Marianne Beausejour was killed a couple of years earlier and that his wife is actually a German spy. Max cannot believe this but the evidence, while not quite conclusive, is fairly damning. To settle the question once and for all, he is ordered to leave some fake information lying around where she can find it — if it turns up in the next intercepted German communique, she is guilty. If she does turn out to be a spy, Max is required to kill her. If he refuses or tries to tip her off, it will lead to his execution as well. To make matters even more discomfiting, not only is Max not allowed to investigate on his own during the three days it will take to get the potentially damning evidence, he has to go on with Marianne and pretend everything is normal.

Allied boldly wears its influences on its impeccably tailored sleeves — not just Casablanca (though the two films not only share a key location but also include a key scene involving the song La Marseillaise and a climactic moment set at an airport) but any number of wartime dramas that one might find in regular rotation on TCM and several Alfred Hitchcock thrillers to boot. But Allied is not merely a pastiche of elements cribbed from other, better sources. The film was written by Steven Knight, whose previous credits include such smart adult-oriented thrillers as Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, and he gives viewers an intelligent and twisty story that generally plays fair with them and keeps them guessing the truth about Marianne without ever getting too contrived or convoluted (though it does contain perhaps one more red herring than it can properly digest). Zemeckis, making his first foray into WWII territory since co-writing the screenplay to the cult favorite 1941, is, of course, justly famous for making films that push the envelope in terms of technology. While he does pull off a couple of technical tour de forces (such as Marianne giving birth during an air raid and a wild house party being interrupted by another air attack), he reminds us that he can generate just as much suspense and excitement with nothing more than a couple of people in a room together.

Because of his technical prowess, it's easy to forget that Zemeckis is also very good in getting strong performances out of his actors. Over the years, he has elicited great work from the likes of Kurt Russell (Used Cars), Kathleen Turner (Romancing the Stone), Bob Hoskins (who should have received an Oscar for his work in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump and Cast Away) and Denzel Washington (Flight), to name a few — and this is once again the case with Allied. Making his third appearance in a WWII saga (following Inglourious Basterds and Fury), Pitt is very good as Max. He's appropriately debonair in the early scenes (James Bond himself would look upon his parachuting style with envy) and convincingly anguished later on when tormented by the idea that he is being betrayed by the woman he loves. For her part, Cotillard is pretty amazing as Marianne, bringing such depth to her characterization that we become as enraptured with her as Max is even though we are just as confused as he is in regards to her identity and intentions. She keeps us guessing throughout and the result is another knockout performance from one of the strongest actresses working today.

Allied is one of those movies in which everything clicks in such a precise and effective manner — including top-notch contributions from the likes of composer Alan Silvestri, cinematographer Don Burgess and costume designer Joanna Johnston — part of the fun in watching it is in seeing all of the various pieces coming together in such a seemingly effortless manner. It is a lovely homage to the kind of entertainment that Hollywood used to put out in the day without breaking a sweat, while still strong and sure enough to work on viewers who have never seen any of the films to which it pays tribute.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Fences"

Every payday, garbage collector Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) holds court in the backyard of the Pittsburgh home he shares with his wife, Rose (Viola Davis) and their son, Cory (Jovan Adepo). By Troy’s side are his two best friends, Bono (Stephen Henderson), the co-worker he’s known for decades, and a bottle of gin, which Troy has also known for decades. Both are very good listeners, and there’s nothing Troy enjoys more than a captive audience. When his tales spin too wildly into fiction — at one point, Troy reminisces about wrestling with Death itself — Rose steps outside to playfully call him on his nonsense. Troy cuddles with her, tossing the raunchiest dialogue he has to offer in her direction. As the evening progresses, Troy is sometimes joined by his eldest son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), who borrows money, or his disabled war veteran brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), who has just moved from Troy’s home in a defiant display of his independence. Life is a series of routines culminating in death. Every payday brings Troy Maxson closer to his wrestling partner.

This repeated scenario forms the basis of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Fences. 29 years after its Broadway premiere, Fences arrives as a film courtesy of a screenplay by the late playwright himself. With two Pulitzer Prizes and his 10-play magnum opus, The Pittsburgh Cycle, (of which Fences is the sixth work), Wilson takes his rightful place alongside Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams as one of the greatest American playwrights. The focus of Wilson’s cycle is African-American life across the entire 20th century, with each play taking place in a particular decade. Fences is set in the 1950s, but the timeframe does not date the material. Its universal themes supersede any of its societal details, though based on last year’s election cycle, viewers may be stunned to discover that the American working class is more than just Midwestern and white.

Wilson’s plays are rich, poetic, wordy affairs tinged with music, the magical nature of myth, and symbolic elements that work extremely well as live theater. Since theater is an intimate medium, the consensus on translating plays to screen is to "open up" the play, which quite often destroys the natural fabric of the work. The masterful thing about Denzel Washington’s direction here is that he doesn’t exactly open up the play. Instead, he opens up the visual frame around the players. He and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen use the entire screen to occasionally dwarf the characters inside the backyard setting where much of the film takes place. At other times, tight framing gives an air of claustrophobia that’s almost suffocating. Throughout, there’s clear evidence that careful thought has been put into the quiet visual architecture of this film; there are several visual motifs that support the themes in Wilson’s words, and not once does a character seem to be in the wrong spot. For example, a scene between Bono and Troy, where Bono warns Troy of impending ruination, places the actors in the bottom right of the frame while rubble and an empty field symbolically take up most of the screen.

Most importantly, Washington as director knows that the biggest star in this film is its writing. When a film has actors this committed to speaking their lines, to the point where it seems they are turning themselves inside out with anguish, the camera is always exactly where it needs to be — it is with them, listening as intently as we at home are. This type of direction is a lost art nowadays, evoking a prior time when masters like Billy Wilder and Sidney Lumet plied their trades. In fact, it was Wilder who eschewed the notion that ostentatious, flashy direction was what made for great drama, saying that if "something were said to be well-directed, that is proof that it is not." Washington understands this, and Fences is much more powerful for his devotion to his actors’ craft. When Viola Davis is showing you how hard her heart is breaking, the camera doesn’t need to be competing for your attention.

Fences imports most of the cast of its Tony-winning 2010 revival (which I haven’t seen). In addition to Washington and Davis, who won Tonys for lead acting, Henderson, Hornby and Williamson also reprise their roles. Their familiarity with the characters translates into a slew of excellent performances. Williamson has the trickiest role: his war-damaged Gabriel is the play’s most theatric and symbolic character. A man with a metal plate in his head, whose government disability check allowed Troy to buy his house, Gabriel thinks he’s the messenger of God described as a trumpet player in many Negro spirituals. Williamson humanizes this character by playing his delusions without mockery. He believes in his convictions, and as the last scene of the film indicates, he might not be wrong.

Wilson’s common theme of legacy fuels Fences in the guise of Troy’s relationship with Cory. Cory has the opportunity to get a college scholarship for his football skills, but Troy is against this primarily because of his own failed sports dreams. Troy was a great baseball player in the Negro Leagues, but this was well before Jackie Robinson (whom Troy despises), so Troy never realized his dreams of major league glory. It’s not lost on us that Troy is denied success in what is commonly called "America’s Pastime"; baseball serves as the perfect metaphor for the American Dream. Like the America of Troy’s time, it was segregated and demanded that blacks knew their place. For most fathers, knowing their son wishes to follow in his footsteps would be a happy occasion, especially in sports and even more so if one’s legacy might be extended or surpassed. Yet Troy’s brutal pig-headedness drives an irredeemable wedge between the two. In his big confrontation scene, newcomer Adepo goes toe-to-toe with his scene-stealing director and almost upstages him.

As Troy, Washington has a role tailor-made for all his "Denzel"-isms. Whereas Troy’s brilliant originator, James Earl Jones, kept an open vein of terror flowing through his performance, Washington smothers his dark side with a charm that’s as sticky as flypaper. He makes it easy to see why Rose would fall for him — and stay with him besides the obvious reason that society demanded a woman have a husband. Fences gives Troy mountains of dialogue to climb, and the fast-talking Washington leaps over it, catering it to his familiar manner of speaking. Troy’s use of the N-word is particularly of interest. That Troy would say the word is not surprising for the timeframe, but Washington spins it differently depending on the recipient. With Bono, it’s a term of endearment, which Bono returns just as easily. But in the famous speech that takes up Act 1, Scene 3, when Troy levels it at Cory ("N--ger, as long as you in my house, you put a 'Sir' on the end of it when you talk to me"), he hurls it with the fury of a klansman.

Not to be outdone, Davis brings her own arsenal of tricks. Nobody cries onscreen like Davis, and if that clip near the end of the above trailer affected you, you should be advised that the actual scene is a lot longer and even more devastating. It’s so painful, it’s almost unwatchable. In fact, anyone who had a strict taskmaster as a parent will find parts of Fences unendurable. But Davis’s Rose is the film’s barometer, measuring how much we can put up with Troy. She loves him, and she does much to soften his rough edges even when she’s pointing out how wrong he is. But once he breaks his contract with her, all bets are off. Troy may be meaner, but a nuclear warhead couldn’t melt the ice covering Davis’s delivery of the line "you a womanless man" to Troy.

Fences is a film about how our environment shapes us, and how, no matter how noble their intentions, our parents can’t help but mess us up in some fashion, just as their parents had done for them. This is our legacy as humans. Either we indoctrinate ourselves against that which we saw as wrong with our parents, or we catch their disease and we pass it on. Washington’s visual repetition of crosses throughout the film, either on the wall or in the chain Rose wears around her neck, is a reminder of another father-son story. This notion is in the script too: perhaps the most brutally honest thing Rose tells Cory near the film’s end is that he’s just like Troy. Especially after Cory’s speech about how he tried so hard to remove Troy’s terrifying influence from his soul. Cory’s acceptance of this truth, represented in his co-opting of the song Troy used to sing, is as heartbreaking as it is beautiful. Whether we want it or not, this is our legacy.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Live By Night"

Some mediocre movies just don’t make sense; you can never understand why they went into production in the first place. The script was clearly a mess when someone bought it, it was never going to be profitable, and no one involved had the skill to pull it off. Why did they even bother?

Live by Night makes total sense. On paper, it seems like a can’t-fail proposition. Not only is director Ben Affleck coming off a Best Picture Oscar for his last directorial effort, Argo, but he started his already-impressive directorial career with an adaptation of a novel by the same author of the source material, Dennis Lehane, who not only penned Gone Baby Gone but Mystic River, Shutter Island, and others. The cast is talented from top to bottom, including Oscar winners and charismatic actresses to play opposite Affleck. The sprawling gangster story was given more than enough budget to pull it off, and even landed a release date that typically coincides with awards attention. So, the key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much "Why did they bother?" as "What went wrong?"

Live by Night is the story of the rise of a relatively low-level mobster named Joe Coughlin (Affleck) during Prohibition. Sorta. Kinda. We’ll get to how this epic story on the page lacked an interesting enough protagonist for the screen later. For now, know that Coughlin is on the rise in Boston, aided a bit by his cop father (Brendan Gleeson, great even in what amounts to basically a one-scene role) and in love with local mob boss Albert White’s (Robert Glenister) squeeze Emma (Sienna Miller). After ripping off a few poker games, Joe decides he’s going to rob a bank and run away with Emma, but Albert gets wind of it and double crosses poor Joe, nearly killing him.

Coughlin runs to Florida, but he’s not done with the criminal underworld. In fact, he’s reporting back to White’s Italian nemesis, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), and essentially building an empire in Ybor, where he’s taken over the rum trade. In doing so, he meets a girl named Graciela (Zoe Saldana, who does a lot with a little) and comes to a gentleman’s agreement with local lawman Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper), who lets him do what he needs to as long as he stays in the right geographical boundaries. While in Florida, Coughlin runs afoul of the Ku Klux Klan, and meets Figgis’ daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning), who will play a major role in whether or not this northerner builds a casino set to open just as Prohibition ends.

Crime epics — such as Lehane’s book — that cross state lines and years of plot require a confident hand with an artistic vision to guide them to the big screen. Affleck simply doesn’t seem to have much passion for the material. His previous directorial efforts displayed a sense of urgency that’s lacking here. Whatever faults you may find in his other three films, they had momentum, especially nail-biting works like The Town and Argo. Live by Night is almost stunningly momentum-less. It often plods from plot point to plot point. Some scenes go on far too long, especially in the final act when Affleck is trying to wring emotion from a script that doesn't have it, while others feel truncated in the editing room. The pacing is just off here, which keeps us from being engaged or immersed in the world.

Another key element that curtails immersion is a lack of grit. There’s no sweat or dirt in this world. Everything looks too finely tailored and the violence and sex lacks any sort of real pain or heat. It’s not as egregious as some recent dress-up movies (I’m looking at you, American Pastoral) but never once does it feel like we’re being transported in place or time. It’s a backlot with a costume budget and a design team who should have been told to scuff a floor or fray a hem here or there.

The real tragedy is that there are moments and performances that work. Gleeson, Miller, Fanning, Saldana, Cooper — this is one heck of a cast that Affleck and his producers have assembled, and they find nice little notes to hit every now and then. It’s a movie with effective scenes and character choices, they’re just not linked together in any way that makes them entertaining or emotionally resonant as a whole.

Which brings me to the final and really the biggest problem of Live by Night. Lehane wrote an epic novel that includes Prohibition, Irish & Italian mobs, racism, religious fanaticism, addiction, and much more, taking place over years of American history. The film version doesn’t feel like it has any of that kind of ambitious scope. It is the story of a dude who got in a couple shoot-outs and made some money off rum, a footnote in the history of cinematic mob stories. Maybe the real question that no one ever answered should have been "Why should we care?"

Friday, April 21, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Sing"

Sing, the final major animated film that was released theatrically in 2016, can be described using six words: great soundtrack, generic story and artwork. After enjoying Disney/Pixar’s strong animated slate during last year (Zootopia, Finding Dory, Moana) with Focus’ Kubo and the Two Strings arguably an even better experience, it’s hard to see Sing as more than an enjoyable toss-in at the end. With its strong pop tune-saturated soundtrack (songs spanning more than 60 years), the film stands poised to make plenty of money on iTunes but whether it will have a major home viewing impact remains to be seen. The film will probably be more popular with younger audiences than older ones — a distinct change-of-pace from 2016’s other top animated contenders.

As with Zootopia, Sing is set in a world where anthropomorphic animals take the place of human beings (there’s not a person to be seen), although less thought is put into the cultural and societal impacts of the inter-species mixing and matching. Thematically, the movie falls back on standard, positive ideals like "follow your dreams" and "friends are important." Although it’s hard to criticize an animated movie for embracing such child-friendly conceits, it nevertheless feels a little shallow. Most of Sing’s creative energy was invested in the musical numbers and, fortunately, that’s where it shines. But the film really can’t go toe-to-toe with heavyweights Zootopia, Moana, Dory or even the little-seen but superior Kubo.

The central figure in this all-animal ensemble is the koala Buster Moon (voice of Matthew McConaughey), a theater director trying to regain his mojo before the bank repossesses his theater. For his last-ditch effort, he decides to stage a singing competition. Although the top prize is supposed to be $1,000, a clerical error adds a couple of zeroes and Buster finds himself in even bigger financial straits than before. The generous sum attracts talent from far and wide: Mike (Seth MacFarlane), a sleazy mouse with a voice like Frank Sinatra; Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), a stay-at-home mom to two dozen piglets; Ash (Scarlett Johansson), a punk rock porcupine with a desire to escape out of her philandering boyfriend’s shadow; Johnny (Taron Egerton), a gorilla who has trouble balancing singing with his job as a driver for his bank robbing father; Meena (Tori Kelly), a teenage elephant with acute stage fright; and Gunter (Nick Kroll), a flamboyant pig who’s equal parts Liberace and Lady Gaga.

Visually, the movie offers enough to avoid being compared to a TV cartoon but it’s considerably behind all of 2016’s high-end competition (except the exceedingly uninspired most recent Ice Age sequel). Nothing about the look of Sing stands out. The voice cast is high profile, with A-listers McConaughey (also in Kubo), Witherspoon, and Johansson headlining a troupe that co-stars MacFarlane, John C. Reilly, and Egerton. All of the actors do their own singing which, in most cases, proves to be a plus.

Nearly all of the purported 80-plus songs featured in Sing (many of which are accorded only a few seconds of screen time) are pop hits of the past and present. There’s only one new high-profile composition: the Stevie Wonder/Ariana Grande duet, Faith. There’s an unintentional tribute — Kelly’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah takes on greater depth now that the singer/songwriter has died. Other notable songs re-sung by members of the cast include MacFarlane’s Sinatra-trio (My Way, Come Fly with Me, Fly Me to the Moon); Witherspoon doing Taylor Swift (Shake it Off), Katy Perry (Firework), and Survivor (Eye of the Tiger); McConaughey’s rather bizarre interpretation of Call Me Maybe; Nick Kroll going Gaga with Bad Romance; and Egerton crooning Sam Smith’s Stay with Me. Also getting some screen time are classic recordings by (among others) The Spencer Davis Group (Gimme Some Lovin’) and Christopher Cross (Ride Like the Wind).

Sing is undeniably an audience-pleaser — an almost sure-fire guarantee for an optimistic movie about a bunch of down-on-their-luck losers following their dreams, finding themselves, and triumphing. It’s a solid home viewing option for families in search of something to do during the weekend or the beginning of summer vacation from school. As enjoyable as it is, however, it’s hard to imagine Sing getting much attention after its initial availability for home viewing. This isn’t the kind of animated film likely to remembered five or 10 years from now. It’s an ephemeral pleasure but a pleasure nonetheless.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Available for home viewing: "The Founder"

The Founder is mesmerized by its hero, McDonald’s chain founder Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), but horrified by how he built his empire. That kind of ambivalence is great; in fact it’s a hallmark of good drama. But there are too many moments when The Founder becomes a business-drama variant of that war film problem identified by Francois Truffaut: it’s hard to make a truly anti-war film because war is inherently cinematic, and when you show it, people get swept up in the action anyway.

The bloodshed in the business drama is (usually) figurative, but the conflict is still thrilling, and so a lot of films about business end up grappling with Truffaut's war movie problem. Glengarry Glen Ross, Wall Street, Wolf of Wall Street, Boiler Room and the like are filled with the kinds of people you'd cross a room to avoid, yet you hear their lines quoted by businesspeople and b-school students as inspirational texts, probably because it's more fun to identify with the bastard who gets things done than the people who suffer from his actions. Ray Kroc is a local Chamber of Commerce version of Gordon Gekko. Keaton plays him with such laser-beam focus that even when the movie is appalled by Ray's shady maneuvers, it still leans on his every word.

As written by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler), directed by John Lee Hancock (The Rookie) and acted by Keaton, Kroc at first seems a riff on Death of a Salesman hero Willy Loman, or one of the real estate strivers in Glengarry Glen Ross who say they can't close deals because the leads are weak. We see him cold-calling restaurant owners and trying to sell them mixers out of the trunk of his car, then returning home to get pep talks from his wife Ethel (Laura Dern). By the end of the tale, he’s become the Charles Foster Kane of hamburgers — a bland megalomaniac surrounded by enablers and worshipers, ruling a corporation that he built by exploiting the optimism and trust of McDonald’s originators Richard and Maurice McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), who were bought out at a too-low price and robbed of future royalties after accepting a handshake agreement that Kroc never honored.

The film’s depiction of the McDonald brothers is devastating, far and away the strongest thing in The Founder. Every stop on their road to ruin is flagged and catalogued, from their decision to let Kroc expand into other states to their capitulation to production and profit-making ideas that they fear will turn the restaurant from a profitable but self-contained labor of love into a purveyor of unfrozen beef patties and powdered shakes. The movie does such a good job of showing the brothers’ bond as a relationship founded on can-do spirit that when Kroc enters the picture, lavishing praise on their idea for a "fast food" restaurant with an assembly line service model, you can see why they’d quit resisting his vision of a centralized franchise.

Up until to the point where documents get signed and large sums start changing hands, the film treats Kroc as a sad sack chasing one last shot at redemption, so we’re not surprised that the McDonald brothers would see that in him as well, and be moved to make his fairy tale (and theirs — they failed to build their own chain) come true. (Offerman and Lynch, two of the best character actors alive, top themselves here; each has several close-ups so filled with betrayal and regret that even the film seems awed by their power.)

Siegel’s script treats Kroc as the embodiment of a certain way of looking at American business values: smiley-faced positive, forever treating capitalism as a pure virtue that does so much good for society that its casualties are unimportant. On the road, Kroc repeats inspirational phrases he memorized from a self-help record. He believes in them as a cleric believes in a sacred text. His conversations with other characters are filled with formulations that you might hear from the mouth of a cult leader. They’re bold and startling but also self-serving and cynical, as when he tells the brothers that he wants the McDonald’s logo to be as ubiquitous as the American flag and the cross: "The new American church … Feeding bodies, feeding souls."

And yet despite his blatant opportunism, Kroc sees himself as an idealist and myth-maker, not a huckster. He’s not a knowingly evil person. But there’s a void at his center — which, The Founder suggests, might be as much a requirement for legendary business success as the persistence that Kroc's self-help record keeps praising. (An especially deft screenwriting touch: Kroc, who claims the McDonalds’ brothers’ food service concepts as his own and ultimately steals their name, is shown repeating the "persistence" speech in a business award speech without attribution.)

Unfortunately, The Founder often articulates its ideas in a tedious way, by having its characters deliver reams of exposition (some of it aided by documentary footage and old photos) in place of real conversations. The first third of the film is so thick with slide-show storytelling that it plays like a celebratory video that could be screened at a convention of McDonald’s franchisees. The film also has such trouble integrating the business story with Kroc’s tumultuous personal life — he divorced Ethel for a younger woman named Joan (Linda Cardellini) — that its women end up being defined by their level of support for Kroc’s vision. The McDonald brothers are secondary characters, too, but they’re fleshed out as individuals. You can picture their lives apart from (and before) Kroc. That’s not the case with Ethel (a wet blanket, despite Dern's best efforts) or Joan (who likens Kroc to Alexander the Great not as a warning but as a compliment).

Had The Founder focused solely on Kroc’s relationship with the McDonald brothers, it might have been one of the great intimate, sour character studies of recent times. All the stuff with Kroc on the road acting like a beleaguered Jack Lemmon character and the scenes with his first wife nagging him and second-guessing him feel like attempts to will a three-dimensional, somewhat sympathetic biography into existence, even though the material resists it. The nagging suspicion that the filmmakers could not help but succumb to the charisma of Ray Kroc (or Michael Keaton?) lingers through the final stretch of The Founder, which tries to visualize a hypnotic emotional void in the spirit of Raging Bull or There Will Be Blood without laying the proper groundwork for it. (This film could have been titled There Will Be Beef.)

Still, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about The Founder a lot since seeing it again last night. It's possible that a sharper, bleaker, more articulate film might not have resonated as strongly as this messy, self-canceling one. It's an ad that becomes a warning before circling around and becoming another, darker kind of advertisement, and one of the most intriguing and surprising things about The Founder is that, in the end, it seems vaguely ashamed of itself for letting this happen. Kroc steals the movie from Hancock and Siegel just like he stole McDonald's from the McDonald brothers. I guess you could say it stole my objections, too. I finished watching it with a bad taste in my mouth, but I couldn’t help but think about heading down the street for a Quarter Pounder with cheese and a vanilla shake. And I don’t even patronize McDonald’s.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Why revisit this?

Lady Gaga

Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotto
I imagine there are many fans who know the relationship between the two persons pictured above — they are actually the same person.

I bring this up because of the questions I have surrounding a remake of A Star is Born that is apparently in pre-production for possible release in the fall of 2018 starring Bradley Cooper in the role played by Fredric March in 1937, James Mason in 1954 and Kris Kristofferson 1976; and Lady Gaga in the part played respectively by Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand.

My first question is why are the studios dragging out this woeful tale of a fading alcoholic star falling in love with and promoting the career of a rising star?. The first two films involved an alcoholic actor coming to the aid of an aspiring actress. In the 1976 version, the principals were singers. The ‘37 film was a nice soap opera, the ‘54 version actually turned out to be an excellent film. But the ‘76 version was a disaster (even though it is, as far as I know, the only feature film in which I make a brief on-screen appearance). The new version, which Cooper is also directing, appears to be following in the footsteps of the ‘76 remake. Where the filmmakers of the ‘76 film staged their own rock concert in Tempe, Ariz., to film certain scenes, Cooper shot his concert footage during Coachella. Not only that, this basic storyline was handled expertly in the fairly recent The Artist. There is absolutely no need to inflict this same tale on the public one more time.

The second question is why in heaven’s name is Lady Gaga insisting she be billed in the film as Stefani Germanotta? It comes across as an ego thing — "I’m appearing under my real name, or at least my real first and last names, because I want to be taken seriously as a film artist."

Sure. Fine, Whatever.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga filming "A Star Is Born"

You’ve got mail

I’ve been retired and living in Central Texas, just south of Austin, for two and a half years now and, as a former working journalist, I, of course, subscribe to the nearest major daily newspaper, which, in my case, is the Austin American-Statesman. During that time I’ve been amazed by some of the clueless dolts who purportedly write letters they hope will appear in the newspaper’s editorial page. I can no longer stand it and felt the need to respond to some of these fools.

Today’s winning letter comes from someone who identified himself as Charles Mistretta of Austin. Charles writes:

"I saw an interesting movie recently set in West Texas, Hell or High Water. Good enough to get Jeff Bridges an Academy Award nomination for best actor in a supporting role, similar to the one he got for The Last Picture Show.

"My pain comes from the fact that my beloved West Texas was portrayed by New Mexico. What’s wrong with filming Texas movies in Texas? Shame on those responsible for this travesty. Might as well film Alamo movies in California!"

Or film Boston priests movies in Toronto, which, incidentally, is actually where the Academy Award winning Spotlight was filmed. I wonder if Mistretta knows that all the Johnny Weismüller Tarzan movies were filmed exclusively on Hollywood sound stages. Or that most of Lawrence of Arabia was filmed in Spain.

But, perhaps Mistretta is only concerned with movies supposedly set in "my beloved West Texas." So I have to wonder how he feels about the fact that neither the majority of No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood, two other recent films purportedly set in West Texas, were not shot in this state.

Filming locations are chosen based on a number of factors more important than "is this exactly the place where action is supposed to take place, according to the script?". Chief among them is budget (and, as a corollary to that, does the state in which you are filming provide competitive tax subsidies). Most filming location decisions are based on the costs of filming, the production expenses involved in the various location alternatives. The second most important factor is convenience (Will it be easy for the cast and crew to reach the shooting location each day? What are the obstacles that might be encountered? Transportation requirements, supply needs). Local laws and regulations, especially when it comes to the ease of obtaining filming permits, also play major roles in determining where films will be shot..

Mistretta needs to simply get over it. Hell or High Water is an outstanding work of fiction. It’s make believe. Filmmaking is all about make believe. Accept that fact and then just sit back and enjoy.

On the other hand, I’m glad that Charles Mistretta of Austin lives such a carefree life that his major concern is where Hell or High Water was filmed. It must be nice.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Our last Easter on earth?

Available for home viewing: "Passengers"

It’s lonely out in space, Elton John was able to observe as far back as 1972. Jim Preston, the character played by Chris Pratt in Passengers, learns this truth in a hard way. Jim is in a hibernation pod on the spaceship Avalon, headed from Earth to a colony planet called Homestead II, when the ship (which looks like a hybrid of a couple of crafts from 2001: A Space Odyssey embraced by a helix) goes through a meteor shower. This jars the craft, and causes his hibernation pod to open. A little while after awakening, and enjoying the amenities of the giant ship — it carries 5,000 passengers to help colonize the new world, and is fully stocked for a four-month period during which the sleepers are awake to get acclimated to their soon-to-be-home — he realizes something terrible has happened. He was awakened after only 30 years in space, and the Avalon won’t get to Homestead II for another 89 years.

This freaks Jim out a bit. He does have one friend on the ship, an android bartender, Arthur, played by Michael Sheen. But Jim, an engineer, is not particularly bookish — had his character been more like that of Burgess Meredith in that Twilight Zone episode about the last man on Earth and a library, we would not have a movie here — so he runs out of high-tech things to amuse himself with over the course of a year. He drinks too much. Grows a beard. (Or, rather, Pratt is fitted with a very unconvincing beard, full Kurt Russell in The Thing, and it doesn’t suit the actor, at all.) And then he develops a crush on another sleeper, one who looks just like Jennifer Lawrence, and is played, appropriately enough, by Jennifer Lawrence. He learns about her — her name is Aurora Lane, she’s a writer, nobody in her life has ever noticed that her name sounds like that of a thoroughfare — dreams about her, and eventually makes a very ill-advised decision. He wakes her up.

He makes it look like an accident, he commiserates with her as she freaks out, and he cultivates their friendship. As Humbert Humbert once noted of a protégé of his, "you see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go." Nevertheless, the movie is a little coy about developing their romance. But then again, the movie is always a little coy where it’s customary to be a little coy, just as it hits the most predictable beats while hammering its way to a conclusion that’s as egregiously contrived and corny as it is predictable.

This movie is directed by Morten Tyldum, who made 2014’s prestige picture The Imitation Game, and its direction is even more dutiful and personality-free than that of the Alan Turing biopic. The movie has a remarkably lumbering pace. The cliché-laden script — during one conversation with Aurora, Jim says "Can’t slogans be true?" which I reckon must be something screenwriter Jon Spaihts has asked in his own actual life — demands, of course, that Aurora learn of Jim’s deception. She does, and this was the point in the film when I felt compelled to push the details button on my blu-ray remote, and I was shocked to see I was only an hour into this 116-minute opus.

Despite their individual charms as performers, Pratt and Lawrence have very questionable chemistry. No matter how buff Pratt gets, his performing mode has an ineradicable "which way did he go, George?" haplessness to it, but that haplessness has some entitled bro notes as well. This makes Jim’s heinous action — "You murdered me," an indignant Aurora screams at him, and she’s completely right — play even more despicably than had Jim been played by any actor with a genuinely creepy aura.

It gets worse. As their romance was blossoming, the ship’s systems had, unbeknownst to them, been failing. Things get really bad just as another figure, a casting choice that I’d like to think was a tribute to Paul W.A. Anderson’s Event Horizon but is probably just a coincidence, turns up to give some advice on fixing the craft’s nuclear core, and other stuff. "We’re stranded on a sinking ship," Aurora observes, but the pair engages in all manner of Mr. Fix It derring do, complete with explosive bolts flying around and various sacrifices being proposed, made, and then rescinded by filmmakers committed to nothing more than letting Aurora and Jim have the very best make-up sex ever.

The movie’s production design is polished to the point of looking chintzy, and the special effects — well, let’s just say as elaborate as the movie’s zero-gravity sequence is (it involves an entire swimming pool’s water rising out of it’s enclosure, wowie-zowie), it reminded me of how much better 2001 did it. And I’m not even going to discuss, in detail at least, the elephant in the ideological room that Passengers inhabits, which is its spectacular sexism. The coeval to which is the movie’s sadistic requirement that Lawrence’s character swallow what’s been done to her by way of Pratt’s character proving himself "worthy." Even if you believe in forgiveness, the way this movie stacks the deck to get to that place is, well, unforgivable.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Time well spent with Bette Davis and Dick Cavett

Available for home viewing: "Lion"


Sometimes, it is said, truth is stranger than fiction. And, as director Garth Davis has perhaps discovered, filming such truths can be more difficult than filming fiction. Lion, based on the autobiographical tale of Saroo Brierley, tells of the author’s amazing journey from being lost at age 5 on the streets of Calcutta, more than a thousand miles from home, to his return journey as an adult to discover the place and people he left behind. By turns sad, frightening, and inspirational, the movie is impeded only by the difficulty of bridging the 25-year span between segments and accepting the older lead (Dev Patel) as a replacement for his younger self (Sunny Pawar).

Lion begins in a small village in India circa 1990 where a young boy, Saroo (Sunny Pawar), works with his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), to complete chores that will help their mother, Kamla (Pryanka Bose), put a little more food on the table. One day, Guddu tells Saroo that he will be traveling by train to a distant city to find work. Despite his young age, Saroo insists that he comes along. His stubbornness is such that Guddu eventually relents but, along the way, the two brothers become separated and Saroo eventually disembarks in Calcutta not knowing where he is, how to speak the language, or the name of the village he has come from. Fortune smiles on the confused and frightened young boy — he is eventually adopted by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), and grows up with only dim memories of his biological mother and siblings. A quarter-century later, an adult Saroo (Dev Patel), uses Google Earth to research his past and make the decision to seek out his birthplace and contact any surviving relatives. More than anything, he hopes to be reunited with his mother and Guddu.

Lion’s first half, which focuses on the young Saroo, is exceptionally well done. Davis effectively captures the boy’s fear and confusion at being separated from his brother then stranded in a strange country where he understands nothing, can’t speak the language and doesn’t know the culture. Non-professionally trained actor Pawar (who doesn’t speak English) conveys the essence of a child’s view of this big, frightening world.

The film loses traction when it shifts to the modern day. Although there’s nothing wrong with Patel’s portrayal, there’s a disconnect between his interpretation of Saroo and Pawar’s. Admittedly, 25 years have passed, but it’s difficult for the viewer to accept these two actors as playing the same person. And, although Saroo’s trek back to the town of his birth is critical to finishing the film’s narrative arc, the character is less interesting as an adult than as a child and the story lacks the intensity evident during the first segment. Rooney Mara’s role as Saroo’s girlfriend, Lucy, is superfluous. She’s intended to illustrate the success he has achieved in assimilating and provide a "sounding board" for him but the part seems shoehorned in.

Although Mara is a poor fit for the storyline, the same can’t be said of Kidman, who puts aside her Hollywood stardom to take on a small, unglamorous role. This isn’t a flashy part but Kidman was drawn to the story and the real Sue Brierley (whom she plays) endorsed the Australian-raised actress to be her cinematic doppelganger. Although some of the key actors in Khandwa and Calcutta are professional, many are not. In the final scene, for example, there are no hired extras. Everyone is an actual resident of the area.

For Davis, the producers, and the cast, telling the story has been a passion. The documentary footage that closes the film was shot by Davis for a 60 Minutes special detailing Saroo’s life. Patel immersed himself in the history of his character in order to be better able to play him. And the production team refused to move the setting from Australia to America to acquire the support of a major studio (and the associated money). Lion represents a commitment from those involved and, flaws aside, it’s an amazing tale of resilience and determination.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Collateral Beauty"

Grief is a prevalent theme in recent movies. Such diverse titles as Manchester by the Sea, Jackie and Arrival come at the difficult topic from wildly different angles — personal, political and otherworldly. But they all manage to justify their use of dead loved ones as a generator of not just emotion, but of understanding about what happens in the aftermath of such great loss.

Now along comes Collateral Beauty to spoil it all by milking bereavement for shoddy bromides and cheap tears. Not that this knockoff Hallmark special doesn’t go out of its way to camouflage its ill-conceived intentions as well as the considerable debt it owes to such seasonal chestnuts as A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. Director David Frankel (canine cry-a-thon Marley & Me) and writer Allan Loeb (the scribe behind such DVD bargain-bin dwellers as Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, The Dilemma and Rock of Ages) provide plenty of fancy window dressing, including a stellar cast and a fantasy Manhattan festooned with twinkly Christmas lights, pine limbs and dirt-free curbside snow.

Call me cynical but I always get suspicious when an acting ensemble feels incredibly star-stacked. It’s a sure sign of over-compensation. Consider that Collateral Beauty features two Oscar winners (Kate Winslet and Helen Mirren), three Oscar nominees (Will Smith, Keira Knightley and Edward Norton) and a Golden Globe nominee, as well as an Oscar contender (Naomie Harris of Moonlight) in a pear tree. Even such second-tier players as Michael Peña and Ann Dowd carry some considerable cachet.

Sometimes, I just hate it when I am right.

Let’s start at the beginning. There is the Will Smith that we know and love, with that dazzling smile and oodles of manly self-confidence. He is rallying the troops at his successful ad agency by asking the pseudo-profound question, "What is your why?" I would respond, "What is the what?" But his character Howard, instead, says, "Time, love and death. These three things connect every single human being on Earth. We long for love. We wish we had more time. And we fear death." Deep, right? Wrong.

OK, then. It is three years later, and Howard is a shell of a man, alone, silent and empty after the death of his 6-year-old daughter from a rare disease. He spends his days in his office constructing elaborate mazes using a platoon of domino tiles, only to knock them all down in one fell swoop and start over (at this point, "Warning: Metaphor Ahead" should flash onscreen). At night, in his monk-like apartment, he writes bitter diatribes railing at Time, Love and Death, and then actually mails these notes to their subjects, complete with stamps but no address.

His business partners, played by Winslet, Norton and Peña, are understandably nervous because Howard was the charismatic force driving the agency and is the majority shareholder. With sliding profits, they want to buy him out, but he refuses to discuss such details in his withdrawn state. Norton is so concerned that he hires a private investigator (Dowd) to spy on Howard, and she manages to retrieve his three notes from a mailbox, illegalities be damned.

Then, magically, Norton stumbles upon a solution when he is taken with an attractive young woman auditioning for an ad (Knightley) and decides to follow her across the street to a theater. There, he finds her rehearsing a play with a young man (Jacob Latimore) and an older white-haired lady (Mirren) and decides, hey, let me hire you three to act as the human incarnations of Time, Love and Death, and make Howard completely nuts so we can prove he is unstable and save our company. Mirren, who remains relatively unscathed despite being forced into sassy senior mode, has second thoughts. In one of the more timely asides in the script, she asks if Norton’s character wants the trio to "gaslight" Howard. But as desperate thespians are wont to do, they all agree so they can fund their play.

Of course, it isn’t as simple as that, considering how much attention is paid to the personal travails facing divorced dad Norton, childless workaholic Winslet and a cough-riddled Peña as well. By the time Howard starts opening up to a grief counselor (Harris), who also lost a daughter to disease, there is a growing sense that funny business is afoot and not in a good way. Sure, there are up-to-date references to hard-to-get Hamilton tickets and Norton jokingly observes, "Now they have CSI: Cleveland?" to his dementia-suffering mother while watching TV. But these asides are simply distractions from what appalling twists lie in wait.

I don’t remember witnessing a film in a long time that managed to so completely and utterly collapse into crass garbage in its last few minutes while abusing what little goodwill it has. Sort of the way a shaky line of dominoes can tumble down in a flash. Forget Collateral Beauty, whatever that means. This is "Collateral Schmaltz," the kind that has the power to close rather than open your heart as you finish watching it while the terribly named OneRepublic ballad, Let’s Hurt Tonight, provides ending music.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Toni Erdmann"

There are a fair number of well-regarded films about the link between a father and a young daughter: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Paper Moon, My Girl, Fly Away Home, Eve’s Bayou and Beasts of the Southern Wild, to name a few.

But rarer is the memorable movie that portrays a dad and his adult daughter: On Golden Pond, both versions of Father of the Bride, Coyote Ugly, maybe Chinatown and Taken if you stretch matters a bit. That’s about all that immediately come to mind. I am no Freud, either Sigmund or Anna, but my guess is there exists something more complex, if distancing, about the older male parent-grown female child dynamic that perhaps makes it difficult to successfully translate onscreen.

Not for Maren Ade, the abundantly talented writer and director of Toni Erdmann, Germany’s official submission for a foreign language film Oscar. She fully embraces the inherent awkwardness of a testy emotional bond and tackles it to the ground, all the while mining it for heartfelt humor without the all-too-common safety net of predictability found in big-budget Hollywood fare.

There are several advantages that Ade has at her disposal, in addition to her gender and having a father, which greatly benefit this deceptively shaggy though expertly assembled ramble about generational conflict and caring. The plot sounds simple enough: Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a lonely senior divorced father prone to pulling childish pranks and assuming invented personas, decides to stalk Ines (Sandra Hüller), his career-obsessed 30-something consultant daughter, in Bucharest as she tries to pull off an important contract extension with an oil company. But there is so much more going on than just that.

One of the several attributes that elevates Toni Erdmann, named after Winfried’s most frequent persona, is how believably the actors sink themselves into their roles. Few movie fans in this country — including me — probably have seen either lead before and therefore they appear here baggage-free. Also, Ade has been allowed to make a relationship comedy that runs for an epic-sized 162 minutes. That gives the characters abundant breathing room to slowly yet steadily evolve before our eyes. It also provides the action a chance to percolate to a point around the two-hour mark where audiences will find themselves in a state of constant surprise. Much has been written about the climactic brunch sequence and how Ines performs an aggressively committed rendition of a pop music classic, but it’s better to discover these laugh-igniting highlights for yourself while sitting at home with family and/or friends.

However, my two viewings of the film did provide a slightly different and deeper appreciation. At first, I was more intent on the clash of personalities. Winfried is a kind of Teutonic Baloo the Bear in human form who treats life as a role-playing lark. He also feels the need to save his daughter from herself by showing her that there is more beyond just sealing the deal. Ines, meanwhile, is constantly struggling to prove herself on the job against a phalanx of male colleagues who regularly second-guess and underestimate her. Ade, to her credit, doesn’t simply coat her with an ice queen veneer although Ines does have her flaws. She can’t summon much empathy for those employees who would be laid off if her efficiency plan that involves outsourcing is put in place. She also is a control freak who can’t simply let go and enjoy herself, as shown in a scene when she stomps out of an unsatisfactory massage session, or seeks brief relief through drink, drug use and an odd sexual interlude.

But her saving grace is how Ines mostly tolerates her goofy pop as best she can while he mingles among her colleagues and says and does ridiculous things — such as renting a Hummer limo for himself or posing as an ambassador from Germany. He knows how to get under her skin, like when he tells others that he has had to hire a substitute daughter. She, on the other hand, wishes her father would make better use of his time as she sternly snaps, "Do you have any plans in life other than slipping fart cushions under people?" He denies he has a fart cushion. But, by this point, we know he will soon acquire one.

The second time around with Toni Erdmann, however, I looked at both Winfried and Ines a different way and came to the conclusion that she is definitely her father’s daughter. If he is always pretending to be someone else, as if in a perpetual one-man show, Ines is also an impersonator in many cases, such as when she must feign interest in shopping with a client’s wife. He wears a ratty wig, a garish suit and silly false teeth. She, on the other hand, costumes herself in minimalist office attire and rehearses a presentation as if she were putting on a play. The sad thing is, the people she hopes to impress are more taken by her father, despite his silly idiosyncrasies, than they are by her. It is partly sexism, but also because Ines doesn’t believe in herself and Winfried couldn’t care less what anyone thinks except for her.

There isn’t exactly a happy ending, but there is a satisfying one thanks to a sweet-sad scene near the end that suggests that Ines has learned to at least appreciate her father’s "make ‘em laugh" point of view of the world. And that, in this case, is progress.