Thursday, May 25, 2017

This 'Pirates' tells a cluttered tale

The approach in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales: Load up on effects.

Nobody has directed better Pirates of the Caribbean movies than Gore Verbinski. Verbinski, who took charge of three Pirate voyages beginning in 2003, has a flair for visual comedy that enlivened the Pirates movies he brought to the screen.

But we're now on the fifth Pirates movie and directing chores for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales have been assumed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, the duo that directed Kon-Tiki, the story of Thor Heyerdahl, the explorer who made a 4,300-mile crossing of the Pacific on a raft.

In this mega-production, Ronning and Sandberg succumb to the temptation to pump up the volume as they showcase Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow and Geoffrey Rush's Captain Hector Barbossa, two portraits that show their wear.

The directors bolster familiar performances with a new crew that includes a ghastly looking villain who has lost an ample portion of his head, Javier Bardem's Captain Salazar. We also meet two new young actors (Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario).

Before I tell you anything else, let me confess that if I never saw Jack Sparrow again my life would in no way feel depleted, and even the movie's addition of a father/son and father/daughter dynamic didn't do much to enrich a summer entertainment that overdoses on effects. These include a rickety ship with a hull that opens to swallow its victims whole, ghost sharks, ghost pirates and a parting of the sea that might make Moses do a double take.

A plot that has been stuffed like a Thanksgiving Turkey finds British naval officers chasing young Thwaites's Henry, who is searching for Jack Sparrow and trying to lift the curse that separated him from his father. The Brits also pursue Scodelario's character, an astronomer who believes she knows how to locate Poseidon's much-sought-after Trident.

Thwaites Henry and Scodelario's Carina are the movie's love interests, but their romance hardly makes the pulse beat faster. She resists; he persists. We've seen it all before.

And yes, that's Paul McCartney who appears behind a great, bushy beard in a fleeting cameo.

Bardem's Salazar circles the movie in search of revenge against Jack Sparrow, the pirate responsible for sinking Salazar's ship when he was a respectable Spanish sea captain -- or some such. Salazar winds up as captain of a ghost ship.

Ronning and Sandberg tend to flood the plot with waves of effects, gliding camera moves and lots of shtick from Depp.

Nearly every moment of this edition is served to the accompaniment of Geoff Zanelli's unavoidable score, which struck me as an attempt to add momentum and meaning to events that might not carry much weight on their own.

Having said all that, it also should be noted that Dead Men Tell No Tales probably manufactures enough verve to satisfy audiences that can't get enough of this stuff.

If you've managed to set sale without these Pirates until now, Ronning and Sandberg provide little reason to change your behavior. But fans will turn out -- if only to continue the game of ranking the Pirates movies from best to worst. And, no, I doubt whether the game is over.

He watches life evolve without him

Brian Cranston stars in Wakefield, the story of a father and husband who withdraws from his life.

A capsule summary of Wakefield suggests that it's mildly miraculous that the movie ever got made. Here's a movie that takes place almost entirely inside of one man's head. That man, evidently at wit's end with his repetitive suburban life, suddenly deserts his job and family.

A night spent in his garage attic after a late arrival home turns into months as Howard Wakefield observes activities in his home through a window in the room where his family has been storing its junk. Howard becomes an observer of his wife and two daughters, and his thoughts serve as a narration for a movie about a selfish character who becomes a dubious spokesman for upper-middle-class men who hate their lives.

Never mind that Howard is a successful partner in a Manhattan law firm or that his wife, Diana, is beautiful or that his twin daughters seem to be growing up without any real problems. Howard is fed up with his marriage, but -- at the same time -- lacks the guts to tell his wife that he wants out.

If anyone but Brian Cranston were playing Howard, the movie might have been unwatchable. But Cranston takes us inside Howard's mind, allowing us to see what's happening in the house through Howard's often jaundiced, sometimes sarcastic point of view. Howard tries to make us conspirators in an act of unparalleled irresponsibility.

Director Robin Swicord, who also wrote the screenplay for Wakefield, uses flashbacks at times and eventually allows Howard to leave the house. His appearance degenerates: Starting as a competent looking executive, he morphs into a bearded bum, leaving his attic perch only when he must do some scavaging. He claims to feel a new-found freedom.

Wakefield takes a big risk: We're watching Howard watch the movie of the life he abandoned as he spews a stream of dialog that sounds as if it were lifted from a novel. At times, you wonder whether we should be reading Howard's story, not watching it.

As Howard's wife, Jennifer Garner does her best to define the stages of Diana's adjustment to Howard's disappearance: Grief and panic gradually give way to acceptance.

We also learn that during his marriage, Howard was prone to express unwarranted jealousy to his wife, even when she was doing little more than being sociable at parties.

I suppose the irony of all this is that if Howard saw himself as superfluous before his vanishing act, his disappearance only serves to reinforce his conclusion.

Perhaps it's best to think of Wakefield as an experimental movie with an A-list cast. The experiment proves only partially successful, perhaps because it's difficult not to be a little too aware of the pitfalls such a solipsistic story faces and the strategies Swicord uses to overcome them.

Daring to plan for a wedding

An Israeli movie overcomes its high-concept premise.

Michal, an Orthodox Jewish woman living in Jerusalem, has everything aligned for her wedding. She's arranged for the hall, selected the menu for the reception and purchased her gown. She's missing only one thing: A groom.

That's the premise of director Rama Burshtein's The Wedding Plan, a slightly cracked romantic comedy; i.e., one without a male protagonist. Yes, that sounds like high-concept nonsense, but the movie transcends such confining boundaries, probably because of Burshtein's good-humored affection for the characters who populate her story.

Most of the movie centers on 32-year-old Michal (Noa Koler). As Koler's Michal puts it: She's sick of being the guest at Shabbat dinners. She wants to be the wife who does the inviting.

For Michal, romance may be important, but marriage also represents a way for her to make the most authentic connection to the world she inhabits.

Early on, Michal is about to be married. When her fiancé (Erez Drigues) tells her that he doesn't love her, Michal's plan crumbles. The prospective groom is willing to honor his commitment, but a dejected Michal doesn't want to marry someone who approaches the pending nuptials with nothing more than resignation.

Burshtein then contrives to give Michal three weeks to find a husband, and, no, I'm not telling you what happens.

As the story unfolds, Burshtein, herself an Orthodox Jew, provides Michal with an opportunity to pursue a more secular relationship, but it becomes clear that Michal won't be able to live with a marriage that challenges the beliefs and practices with which she's been raised -- even if her pursuer, perhaps improbably, is an Israeli rock star (Oz Zehav).

Michal also goes on arranged dates as she looks for eligible candidates. She receives support from her single friend Feggie (Ronny Merhavi) and from her sister (Dafi Alpern), who seems to be in the midst of her own perpetually rocky marriage.

It takes a while to realize that Wedding Plan wants to take a lighthearted, down-to-Earth approach to faith. Michal tests her's by planning to go through with a wedding; her determination serves as a source of inspiration and bemusement to the quizzical owner of the hall (Amos Tamam) she has rented.

Koler is at once emotionally open, calculating and uncertain as the movie tests Michal's resolve, but she's willing to put her faith on the line.

It's almost as if she's saying to the Deity, "Hey, if you want me to live in a certain way, I'll do my part, but it would be nice if you helped."

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Few laughs wash ashore in 'Baywatch'

Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron are lifeguards in a movie that never convinces that it has any reason to exist.

Why anyone wanted to turn a beach-boob-and-muscle TV series into a movie is beyond me. But that didn't stop director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses and Identity Thief) from taking on the challenge of creating a big-screen version of Baywatch.

In its new version, the always buffed Dwayne Johnson teams with an equally buffed Zac Efron to create a movie that tries to parody something that already looked like parody, a lame bit of 1990s TV that developed a following among those who liked pecs, peek-a-boo bathing suits and unblemished skin.

Mixing hard bodies with a soft-headed mystery involving drugs and real estate, Baywatch is neither funny nor tense enough to drive the movie to whatever destination it may have been trying to reach.

Despite a few attempts at self-referential hipness (cameos from David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson among them), the movie's humor mostly dips as low as the bikinis the Baywatch women wear.

Johnson's Mitch runs the Baywatch lifeguard squad like a military unit; he insists that the lifeguards devote themselves to protecting a stretch of Florida beach as if it were Fort Knox.

As part of a PR ploy, Mitch is forced to hire a disgraced Olympic medalist (Efron) who begins the movie as a kind of selfish outlier but (here's a surprise) eventually accepts the group ethos.

To further fulfill the demands of contemporary comedy, the movie adds the obligatory nerdy guy to its muscular mix. Jon Bass plays Ronnie, a guy who's accepted as a lifeguard trainee because he has "heart." The movie's first big joke involves Ronnie, an erection and a beach chair with slats. It's not the last penis joke, either.

Despite his bean-bag physique, Ronnie seems to catch the eye of a bombshell, run-in-slow-mo lifeguard played by Kelly Rohrbach.

Priyanka Chopra who plays Victoria, the villain of the piece, a woman with murderous plans to acquire every bit of real estate in the bay area.

A local cop (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) wonders why a group of lifeguards are getting themselves involved in crime. You may share his consternation, but then it's probably not fair to expect a Baywatch movie to make much sense.

About three-quarters of the way through, the script finds a way to sideline Johnson and allow Efron to dominate the proceedings, a major mistake.

Forget the movie's amped-up ocean rescues: Someone was needed to rescue a screenplay that should have been beached.

If you're looking for a movie that has some laughs and effectively deals with the idiocy of bygone TV shows, try Mindhorn, a British comedy available on Netflix. It actually manages to find some laughs in telling the story of a washed-up TV hero who's asked to help solve a real-life murder

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Ridley Scott again unleashes monsters

The creator of the original Alien delivers an accomplished helping of sci-fi and horror -- but some of the thrill is gone.

Everyone who's old enough, probably remembers their first viewing of Alien , the Ridley Scott-directed movie that in 1979 landed a direct hit to the pit of the stomach. Besides being a masterclass exercise in generating tension, Alien also helped temper the optimistic buoyancy of movies such as 1977's Close Encounters of a Third Kind. Scott brought cynicism and dread to the galaxy, offering a view of space that was industrialized, gritty and full of terrifying dangers.

James Cameron's Aliens added booming urgency and scale to the groundwork Scott had done. And, of course, there were two additional movies, neither of which found quite the same purchase in the pop-cultural landscape or should we say "spacescape?"

Scott again picks up his creature cudgels with Alien: Covenant, a sequel to his 2012 Prometheus, as well as a prequel to Alien.

In Prometheus, Scott played with big ideas and made his most memorable character an android played by Michael Fassbender, who gave his synthetic creation traces of scalding wit. Unfortunately, the serious talk in Prometheus sometimes clashed with the action Scott may have felt compelled to deliver.

Set in 2104, Alien: Covenant isn't exactly free of ideas, either. They're laid out in the movie's chilly opening -- a conversation between an android (Fassbender) and his maker (Guy Pearce). The two discuss the nature of creation and the ability of a creation to surpass its creator. The android sounds an eerie note that suggests the inherent inferiority of human life. "You will die. I will not,'' says the robot.

Little in Scott's movie matches the ominous elegance of this prolog which takes place in a large white room that looks as if it might have been inspired by Stanley Kubrick's 2001.

But ideas eventually fall prey to the expected shocks in which newly designed horrific looking creatures burst from backs or chests or latch onto the faces of their victims.

The story involves a space ship named Covenant, which is being run by an android named David. The crew has been put into deep-space sleep as the ship heads toward a distant planet with some 20,000 colonists on board. The implication: Humans must leave a fully exploited Earth.

The plan goes awry when a space storm awakens the crew, which almost immediately faces a temptation that we know will lead to trouble. A signal -- John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads -- emanates from a planet that's closer than the ship's original destination. Could years be shaved from the Covenant's planned seven-year journey by finding a closer and apparently habitable planet?

Katherine Waterston plays a crew member who loses her husband, the ship's captain, during the sudden reawakening. Another officer (Billy Crudup) assumes command of the small crew, which includes Danny McBride, Demian Bichir and Carmen Ejogo.

It gives you some idea about the effort that goes into characterization to know that McBride's character is called Tennessee. He wears a cowboy hat. Do you need (or want) to know anything more?

Nowhere near as memorable as the original Alien crew, this group of voyagers winds up buffeted by a conflict between Waterston's evidence-based character and a man more inclined to take things on faith (Crudup).

Additional conflict arises between two robots, both ably played by Fassbender: the android of the prologue -- named David -- and a later model named Walter. David proves the more mission-oriented to the two. Having absorbed what he needs from humankind, the sinister Walter sees no reason for keeping people around.

Scott spends significant amounts of time on the planet that the Covenant reaches, thus sacrificing the extreme claustrophobia that turned the first movie into a white-knuckle masterpiece.

Not surprisingly, the movie's peripherals are all expertly handled by the veteran Scott and his crew: from the look of the spacecraft to the idyllic surface of a planet where the crew encounters monsters capable of working their way into human bodies in a variety of ways.

Alien: Covenant arrives wrapped in a convincing package. For some, that will be enough, but for those who regard the original Alien as a breakthrough movie, it's difficult not to see Alien: Covenant as a slightly depleted helping of a once stunning pop-cultural landmark, something like a well-made TV series that continues to entertain even after it has lost much of its juice.

Was he a contender or a pretender?

Liev Schreiber scores a knock-out in a so-so boxing picture about Chuck Wepner, the reputed real Rocky Balboa.

If I were considering making a movie about Chuck Wepner, the obscure New Jersey boxer who rose to sudden prominence when he fought Muhammad Ali in 1975, the last person I'd think of to play Wepner would be Liev Schreiber. Wepner was a hulk of a man whose native Bayonne left him with a raspy Jersey accent. Schreiber, on the other hand, has one of the most melodic and precise voices in show business.

But something about Wepner evidently caught Schreiber's fancy because he not only stars as Wepner in the new movie Chuck but serves as one of the movie's producers.

Schreiber knew what he was doing. His portrayal of Wepner, a boxer who was treated as the Rodney Dangerfield of boxing (no respect) is spot-on. Wepner was dubbed "the Bayonne bleeder," not exactly a moniker to strike fear in the hearts of opponents.

Schreiber ably captures the struggle that marked much of Wepner's life: He wanted to be somebody important -- not just a guy many regarded as a Bayonne-based club fighter.

For Wepner, a loss to Ali became a triumph as well as the reputed inspiration for Sylvester Stallone's Rocky. Wepner made it all the way to the fight's 15th round before Ali finished him off. Most sports people thought Wepner wouldn't survive three rounds.

Wepner became a kind of fill-in fight for Ali after the champ's fabled Rumble In the Jungle with George Foreman. But Wepner, who actually had a respectable pro record, became one of the few men ever to knock Ali down, landing The Greatest on his butt in round nine.

Director Philippe Falardeau (The Good Lie and Monsieur Lazhar) sets Wepner's story against the well-defined Jersey backdrop that bred Wepner and his pal John (Jim Gaffigan). The two men drink, snort cocaine and party hard enough to ruin Wepner's marriage to his wife Phyliss (a terrific Elisabeth Moss).

Wepner later meets Linda (Naomi Watts), the woman credited with helping him straighten out his life after a stint in the slammer. Wepner was busted for cocaine possession about 10 years after his championship bout.

Additional support is provided by Ron Perlman, as Wepner's manager, and Michael Rapaport as Wepner's disapproving brother. Rapaport's John hated the way the increasingly dissolute Wepner treated his daughter. Wepner always seemed to be seeking public adulation rather than accepting the love of those closest to him.

Perhaps in an effort to distinguish his movie from Hollywood's large boxing-movie card, Falardeau puts the big fight in the middle of the movie, devoting most of the Chuck's post-fight story to Wepner's precipitous, self-induced decline.

At one point, Wepner meets Sylvester Stallone. I had trouble buying Morgan Spector as Stallone; Pooch Hall makes a more credible Ali, but these are minor distractions in a movie in which every actor works overtime trying to capture his or her inner Jersey.

None of this is to say that Chuck makes it through its 98-minute running time without being bloodied. We've seen too many movies about the way lives were ruined by drugs during the 1980s. We've also seen too many movies about the way a boxer reaches a peak and then squanders any success he might have achieved. The great distinction with Wepner is that his stature derived from a loss.

The movie also belabors Wepner's obsession with movies. His favorite: 1962's Requiem for a Heavyweight, which starred Anthony Quinn as Louis "Mountain'' Rivera, a down-and-out pug who spent his time clinging to a dream about what he could have been. When Rocky becomes a smash, Wepner totally identifies himself with the movie, so much so that he thinks he deserves congratulations when Rocky wins an Oscar for best picture.

Wepner's delusions are meant to be sad, but by now, we've seen so many boxing films that chart rises, declines and redemptions that the scenario feels played out, almost to the point where there's not enough film to support its many fine performances.

Still, Schreiber's knock-out work may be enough to carry you through the movie, and Moss, familiar from TV's Mad Men, again proves that she's one of the most capable actresses around. Her Phyliss is not a woman to be messed with.

So, a reserved endorsement for Chuck. Like its main character, the movie stumbles and lumbers, but manages to survive.

A girl in a bubble falls in love

Amandla Stenberg played Rue in The Hunger Games, an adaptation of a popular piece of YA fiction. In Everything, Everything, Stenberg returns to the YA universe, this time in a less-than-credible story about an 18-year-old who suffers from an immune deficiency so severe it has made her allergic to nearly everything. Stenberg's Maddie lives in a fairly luxurious bubble. She shares a sealed, modern home with her mother (Anika Toni Rose), a physician. When new folks move next door, young Olly (Nick Robinson)tries to break through Maddie's hermetic shields. Taken with Olly, Maddie wants out of the house in which she's spent her whole life. She's eager to pursue her first love interest. Not surprisingly Maddie's mother objects: Having already lost her husband and a son in an automobile accident, Mom can't abide losing another child. Director Stella Meghie understands how to showcase two appealing young actors, but the movie gets worse, the more you think about it. Based on a well-received novel by Nicola Yoon, Everything, Everything may satisfy its teen audience, but it translates to the screen as YA fluff with major plot holes. And in this romantic fantasy, an isolated girl sports a surprisingly large and trendy wardrobe for a kid who never leaves the house.

Married, but philandering

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts are fine, but the characters in The Lovers aren't drawn with enough vigor.

Like an overdose of maple syrup, a lush musical score flows over The Lovers, a laid-back look at a marriage gone stale. Yuk.

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts play the movie's principal roles, a husband and wife whose marriage has gone well past its expiration date. Despite that, neither character seems able to shake free.

Both Winger and Letts appear game for either a comic look at withered love or a serious drama about a husband and his disillusioned wife, both of whom are involved in extramarital affairs. Director Azazel Jacobs seems to split the difference. He alternates between one affair and the other without lighting any real fire, and The Lovers feels wan.

Winger's Mary has become involved with a writer (Aidan Gillen) who wants a more serious relationship. Same goes for the dancer (Melora Walters) with whom Letts' Michael is having an affair. She, too, craves a "relationship" that involves more than sex.

To keep things running smoothly, Mary and Michael have promised their respective lovers that they will resolve issues in their marriage and move on -- just as soon as the couple's son (Tyler Ross) finishes a visit during a break from college. This visit provides the catalyst that upsets the status quo and forces the story off dead center.

Winger ably portrays an unsatisfied woman who also struggles with a conflicted conscience, and Letts does his part as a husband whose philandering seems to have a longer history than his wife's. But few scenes reach a boiling point, and Jacobs, who also wrote the screenplay, focuses his energy on two characters who aren't as interesting as the situation in which they find themselves -- and that's not all that intriguing, either.

The actors, especially Winger, keep The Lovers watchable, but ultimately can't give it memorable life.

Poetry and pain in a New England life

Cynthia Nixon joins director Terence Davies for A Quiet Passion, a movie about Emily Dickinson.
During her lifetime, only a few of Emily Dickinson's poems were published. Most of Dickinson's work received attention after her death in 1886. For most of her 55 years, Dickinson led what most would regard as an isolated life, which makes her a fine subject for director Terence Davies, a filmmaker who understands the mournful qualities of lives tormented by big questions.

The best of Davies' work (Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes) survive as personal masterpieces, cinematic constructions haunted by the sadness of once-vibrant lives lost to the obliterating mists of history. In A Quiet Passion, Davies brings a meticulous awareness to the story of a poet who spent her final years living in isolation in her native Massachusetts.

No one who's familiar with Davies' work will be surprised that there's an alarming quiet in Davies' new film, a sense of how life was lived before the intrusion of the contemporary noise which inundates and distracts us. That silence can be taken as a ferociously empty backdrop against which lives rattle on, some -- like Dickinson's -- with an acute awareness of their finite nature.

Early on, we meet Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) as a student at Mount Holyoke College, where she's immersed in a severe religious environment that ill-suited her exploratory mind. When her father (Keith Carradine) comes to retrieve her with her brother (Duncan Duff) and sister (Jennifer Ehle), Dickinson couldn't be happier. She wryly confesses that such a severe dose of evangelism has made her ill.

Upon returning home, Dickinson asks her father if he would object if she wrote during the quiet of night. He agrees. She begins her engagement with her life's work.

Dickinson charted a deep course, indulging her preoccupation with the frailties of the body and with life's ultimate destination, the grave. "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,'' is one of the Dickinson poems you might want to read as an accompaniment to Davies' movie, which -- of course -- offers bits and pieces of other Dickinson poems.

Much of the movie involves domestic scenes in Dickinson's home: arguments with her father when she refuses to attend church, entreaties by her sister Lavinia to open her heart to living, disapproval of her brother Austin's affair, and her relationship with Austin's wife (Jodhi May). Dickinson also becomes infatuated with a married pastor (Eric Loren) whose wife (Simone Milsdochter) seems to have one quality: reproach.

Early scenes receive a comic lift from the bumptious hypocrisy of Dickinson's aunt (Annette Badland), who writes bad poetry. Dickinson's mother (Joanna Bacon) remains emotionally distant from the affairs of the household.

We also meet Emily's demonstrative friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a woman who has little use for the rules of society but who ultimately submits to social pressures that require her to marry.

At one point, Davies creates an interlude about the Civil War, the violent tragedy that raged during Dickinson's time. He does this by showing photos from Gettysburg and Antietam.

As much as anything, A Quiet Passion makes us feel the aching emptiness of the present, and the movie unfolds with the resonance of a deliberate footfall on a hardwood floor.

Nixon creates a Dickinson who's fiercely independent and yet enmeshed in the life of her family. Eventually, she retreats to her room and, for the most part, remains there.

I can't say that I wasn't a trifle bored at times, but Davies seeks to enlighten us about the incongruities of the period: The quest for transcendence set against the starched rigors of parlor life, for example. A Quiet Passion isn't for every taste, but like Dickinson, Davies always goes his own way, an increasingly estimable quality in today's cinema of formula and cant.