Sunday, August 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 18, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Gifted"

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

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

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

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

Available soon for home viewing

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

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

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Kong Skull Island"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Available for home viewing: "Colossal"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Available soon for home viewing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Available now for home viewing: "Song to Song"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Available soon for home viewing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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