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.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Available for home viewing: "The Salesman"

For the few Americans fortunate enough to visit Iran, one of the most startling discoveries can be the vitality, diversity and popularity of the arts scene in cities like Tehran. Literary festivals of all sorts abound, as do most varieties of the visual arts. Granted, the government’s Islamic restrictions put the damper on all but traditional forms of dance, and public performances of vocal music by women are effectively verboten. Yet, as Bahman Ghobadi’s delightful 2009 documentary No One Knows About Persian Cats showed, pop music including punk and rap thrives in urban undergrounds, the efforts of government censors notwithstanding. Indeed, the chance to defy the regime’s thought police seems a prime motivator for many young artists and their fans.

Theater is also a lively center of cultural action. While Iran, uniquely in its region, has not only an indigenous form of traditional theater (Ta’ziyeh) but also a strong modernist descendant that includes such monumental talents as writer-director (and filmmaker) Bahram Beyzaie, Tehran also sees frequent stagings of works by playwrights including Ionesco, Beckett and Pinter. When a friend asked if it was realistic that Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-nominated The Salesman shows an Iranian company staging Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman — a play by an American Jew — I replied that such things are common, as are presentations of works by Americans such as Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and Sam Shepard.

Next to Beyzaie, Farhadi is the prominent Iranian filmmaker most associated with theater. Arriving in Tehran hoping to study cinema in college, he was instead assigned to the theater school, an apparent misfortune that he has called one of the luckiest things that ever happened to him. Studying the literature of theater — he did his dissertation on Pinter’s use of silence — he has said, taught him to write, and that skill has been integral to his career as a filmmaker. While other Iranian directors seem to reflect the influence of the Italian neorealists and other Europeans, Farhadi freely admits his admiration for films like Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire, with its fusion of cinema and the stage. The Salesman, though, marks the first time he’s ever taken us into the theater.

The meaning and importance of that move are worthy subjects for discussion, because in no sense does the film seem to be about theater. Farhadi was recently asked at a festival showing of this film if he was familiar with theater-themed Jacques Rivette films such as L’Amour Fou and Out 1, and he said he wasn’t. That makes sense, because he’s not an experimenter like Rivette. More akin to R.W. Fassbinder, he uses the language of theatrical melodrama to probe social and psychological fissures. Like all but the first two of his features, The Salesman tackles what has become his signature subject: middle-class marriage.

The film opens showing us a marriage bed — a startling image in an Iranian film. But the lighting soon signals that this bed is on a theater stage; it will be the bed of Willy and Linda Loman. Next, we are in a suburban apartment building at night where the inhabitants are screaming and running for the exits. A disaster has destroyed the structure’s foundations and among the newly homeless are Emad (Shahab Hossieni) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti). They are amateur actors playing the Lomans on the stage we’ve just witnessed, and that avocation turns out to be fortunate in one sense: one of their fellow performers generously guides them to a vacant apartment he knows about.

A spacious two-bedroom on the top floor of a building, it seems close to perfect, so they move in. Meanwhile, we see Emad in his day job teaching literature to a class of teenage boys. The key reference here will be unfamiliar to American viewers, so it’s worth unpacking. Emad is assigning the short story The Cow by Gholem-Hossein Sa’edi, a leading Persian 20th-century literary figure and political activist. After publishing the story, Sa’edi converted it to a film script that became the basis for Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow (which we glimpse in a subsequent scene), the 1969 film that legendarily launched the Iranian New Wave of the 1970s and, after the Iranian Revolution, reportedly inspired the Ayatollah Khomeini to give his blessing to the continuance of Iran’s cinema, leading to its revival and global success in the 1980s and beyond.

In The Cow, when an impoverished village loses its one cow, its owner goes insane, mooing and eating flowers as he imagines himself to be his beloved animal. "How does a man turn into a cow?" one of Emad’s students asks. ("Look in the mirror," another cracks, provoking laughter.) The question, it turns out, prefigures what happens in The Salesman, even as the scene also suggests a correlation between the tragic protagonists of The Cow and Death of a Salesman. Emad names the Miller work when a student asks what play he’s rehearsing. He asks the students if they know it; none do. (That many educated adults in Iran undoubtedly would know the play points toward a divide more generational than national: While adults worldwide have grown up in cultures that value literary tradition, young people are more preoccupied with video games and phones.)

One night, Rana is taking a shower when the apartment’s buzzer sounds. Thinking it’s Emad, she buzzes him in and returns to the shower. Soon we are in a hospital, where a frantic Emad sees his wife getting stitches in her head, badly injured. As he pieces together what happened, it seems an intruder came upon Rana in the shower, there was a struggle, glass was broken that cut her and left the intruder fleeing with bloodied feet. Neighbors heard the commotion, found Rana and got her to the hospital. She tells Emad she doesn’t want the police involved as she doesn’t want to tell the story again.

In pursuing his own investigation, Emad finds out that their apartment’s previous tenant was a prostitute. It seems that the intruder wasn’t a random stranger but a client thinking he was joining her in the shower for some action (he even left some money in the bedroom). Putting the pieces together, Emad first vents his anger on the fellow actor who turned him on to the apartment, snarling improvised insults at him during Death of a Salesman. But as this guy is obviously guiltless, the wounded husband becomes more and more obsessed with finding the real guilty party.

The previous film that took Farhadi to the Oscars was A Separation. This one could be called A Violation. Rana seems to make shaky but real progress in her recovery, even if her return to the stage entails difficulties: she can’t complete one performance because she says the eyes of one man in the audience remind her of the intruder’s. Increasingly, though, it seems the harshest violation was of Emad — his self-worth, his ego, his manhood.

Some descriptions of The Salesman call it a thriller, suggesting a Hollywood-style suspense film. It’s not. It’s a psychological and moral drama about how one man’s anger and damaged self-image drive him to the brink of destroying the very thing he ostensibly most wants to protect: his marriage. Yet Farhadi’s stylistic proclivities remind us that he is the most Hollywood-influenced of major Iranian directors. While the shower scene here is just as crucial as (if far less explicit than) the one in Psycho, Farhadi’s depictions of people ascending or descending stairs recall Hitchcock’s, just as his way of moving through rooms (usually shot in smooth hand-held by cinematographer Hossein Jafarian) evokes Kazan’s sinuous, stage-influenced sense of mise-en-scène.

Kazan’s example may also be felt in the film’s strong, finely tuned performances. Though the first post-revolutionary Iranian films to gain international attention often used non-actors, Farhadi’s recent films have derived much of their precision and power from the skills of accomplished film and stage actors. Here, Hosseini’s work as Emad anchors the film with its deceptively casual gravity: precisely because he’s so modern and hip-urban in demeanor, it’s hard to imagine that this guy can collapse into primal vindictiveness, but so he does. Bringing out Rana’s combination of disorientation and underlying decency, Alidoosti shows why she’s become one of Iran’s leading young actresses. Some equally fine performances occur in secondary parts, including ones that come to the fore in the film’s tensely suspenseful final act.

When A Separation capped its global success by becoming the first Iranian film to win an Oscar, Farhadi effectively became an international director, a fact he implicitly acknowledged by making his next film, The Past, in France. With The Salesman, he returns not only to Iran but to some deeply Iranian themes, examining an atavistic tendency even in the most modern-seeming men and pitting that against the compassionate humanism at the core of both secular and religious thought in Iran. At the same time, the film finds Farhadi now inhabiting a strangely transnational place in cinema, one where bridging Gholem-Hossein Sa’edi and Arthur Miller is more a playful, aspirational gesture than a purposeful strategy. As impressive as the dramatic facility of The Salesman is, it lacks any real urgency or sense of daring, as if a night in the theater (or cinema) was not supposed to signify outside its walls.