Thursday, October 20, 2016

Tom Cruise brings back Jack Reacher

An adaptation of a Lee Child novel hits the skids.

Thoroughly mediocre and heavy on standard-issue action, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back showcases a haggard looking Tom Cruise and a cast of unremarkable others in an adaptation of a Lee Child novel in which everyone approaches everything with a degree of seriousness that seems at odds with the movie's lack of freshness.

As directed by Edward Zwick, who you may recall directed Cruise in The Last Samurai, Never Go Back amounts to an unsurprising continuation of Jack's adventures as a disaffected warrior.

With an occasional flex of his ever-tightening jaw muscles, Cruise frequently shows off Reacher's fighting skills. And although Reacher is often seen running, Cruise might as well be marking time until the next Mission Impossible movie.

Reacher, who's battling villainous former military types, quickly finds himself in the company of Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Reacher springs this highly competent female officer from jail after she's falsely accused of espionage.

The two, then, are off and running.

Eventually, Reacher and Turner are joined in flight by a 15-year-old girl (Danika Yarosh), a skilled pick-pocket who acts out her teen anger with occasional bouts of kleptomania.

We're also asked to wonder whether Yarosh's Samantha might be Reacher's daughter from some long-ago dalliance, an obviously contrived question that sits atop the movie like a wilted bit of garnish.

The main villain is a ruthless assassin known as The Hunter (Patrick Heusinger), a relentless, off-the-wrack killer who shows no compunction about exercising his trade.

Made to look as if Reacher has taken several beatings, Cruise seems to be going through the motions in movie that too often feels as if it's doing precisely the same thing.

Familiarity with just about everything in Never Go Back may not breed contempt, but it puts a damper on anything resembling real excitement.

This grouchy Swede has some heart

Swedish director Hannes Holm focuses on one of the world's great grouches in A Man Called Ove, a movie that turns a gruff and demanding character into a man with a big heart -- both metaphorically and literally. Personal redemption isn't exactly a novel twist for a story, but Holm adds enough ingratiating charm to keep a familiar tale on track. Adopting what presumably is intended as an oddball storytelling technique, Holm reveals Ove's life in flashbacks that occur during the 59-year-old widower's frequent attempts at suicide. Ove slowly recovers his humanity with help from a new neighbor (Bahar Pars), a pregnant Persian immigrant woman. We also learn that Ove's late wife (Ida Engvoll in flashbacks) was a teacher known for getting the best from her students. A love story and an ode to the redemptive powers of human connection, A Man Called Ove gains gravity from Rolf Lassgard's performance as Ove, the kind of fellow who'd sever a long-term friendship over a pal's choice of a car (a Volvo over a Saab). One's exacting demands on the tiny community in which he lives shield him from feelings he has no desire to face. A Man Called Ove may not make for adventurous film viewing, but it proves a pleasant enough diversion about a man who spends most of his time being as unpleasant as possible.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Nat Turner's story hits the screen

Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation strikes a powerful chord.

After a smashing debut at last year's Sundance Film Festival, director Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation sold to Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million. Although the reviews weren't uniformly positive, the movie -- which tells the story of the 1831 slave revolt led by Nat Turner -- seemed the perfect antidote to a year that began with a mixture of commentary and protest about the inescapable whiteness of the Academy Awards.

A prestigious rollout seemed certain, and then news surfaced about a rape allegation dating back to Parker's college days at Penn State. Although he was acquitted, Parker was forced to address questions about himself rather than about his movie.

The tragedy of all this has less to do with the impact on Parker's reputation than with the possibility that news about Parker's personal history will in some way relieve audiences of responsibility for acknowledging the painful chapter of American history that the film depicts.

This is not to say that Birth of a Nation is masterpiece, but that it is a film that should be part of an important discussion. The movie's achievement not only involves the power of its story, but the way in which Parker brings us close to his characters.

In Parker's hands -- at least most of the time -- Turner is less a symbol of the fight against injustice than a living, breathing man with hopes, aspirations and a deep love for both his mother and the woman who would become his wife. He is man before he's a rebel.

Birth of a Nation underscores the humanity of those who were ravaged, but it also exposes the institutional structure that made such exploitation possible. If that's not an entirely new revelation, it bears repeating.

In telling early imagery, we see young Nat playing with the son of the white plantation owner. Their childhood friendship seems free-flowing and genuine, but we know it won't last because the white boy will grow up to "own" Nat Turner.

We quickly learn that young Nat was an exceptional child. He could read at an early age. As a result, the mistress of the Southampton, Va., plantation where Turner was enslaved (Penelope Ann Miller encouraged Nat's development. She instructed the youngster to steep himself in the Bible, the only book she deemed suitable for a person of his race.

When Turner matured, he became a preacher who offered solace to his fellow sufferers; he also offered a means for the owner of the by-then-faltering plantation (Armie Hammer) to enrich himself.

At the suggestion of a white preacher, Hammer's Samuel Turner "rented'' Nat to others as a kind of novelty, a black preacher who could convince the enslaved that a better world awaited them in the next life. The white hope was that those who were enslaved would put aside any notions of a better life in this go-round.

Played by Parker with a watchful gaze, Turner learns to negotiate plantation perils. At one point, he persuades Hammer's Samuel Turner to purchase a teen-age slave that had caught his eye. Cherry (Aja Naomi King) later becomes Nat's wife, a relationship the movie makes clear was held in little respect by many slavehoders.

Of course, the movie must show the brutalities that led to Nat Turner's revolt. These include rapes of black women, a horrible attack on a black slave who goes on a hunger strike and many other indignities.

Hammer's Samuel is depicted as one of the kinder slave holders, but even he can't resist a vigorous defense of the status quo when he learns that Nat has baptized a white man, an act considered scandalous.

Nat receives a severe whipping for bringing a white man to faith. Soon after, he rebels, leading his small band in a killing rampage that results in the deaths of some 55 whites.

Parker spares us some of the hard-core butchery of Turner's revolt, but gives us enough to suggest the level of fury that had been unleashed among those who had been so ceaselessly oppressed.

By the end, Parker can't resist sacralizing Turner's death. Turner was caught, hanged, and -- in this version of the story -- he triumphs over his cruel surroundings, presumably with a vision of divine justice that serves as both his vindication and an act of transcendence.

Third-act hagiography aside, the most most interesting achievement in the script by Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin* involves its depiction of the daily horrors of slavery.

Birth of a Nation takes its title from D.W. Griffith's silent, 1915 Civil War epic, a movie justly deemed racist for its demeaning depiction of blacks and for taking a lionizing approach to the Ku Klux Klan. The impacted ironies in Parker's choice of a title presumably were intended.

Following 12 Years A Slave, this Birth of a Nation adds to the small but significant list of movies that are trying to come to grips with a painful and shameful part of the American past.

As such, it's a powerful drama about a man driven by a burning faith that demanded that he call those who oppressed him into the severest of accounts.

I won't argue with those who choose not to see the movie because of Parker's personal history. I also won't argue with those who find fault with an imperfect movie. I will, however, argue with those who think that we don't need more movies that expose the evils of slavery. We do.

*Celestin, a roommate of Parker in college, initially was convicted of the rape charges, but the case was later dropped on appeal. I won't belabor a complicated story here. Look up Parker and Celestin, and you'll find no shortage of stories and commentaries about what has become a topic of national conversation about sexual assaults on campus.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

'Miss Peregrine' runs a cluttered home

Tim Burton tries his hand a weird YA novel.

The YA novel, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, seems a perfect vehicle for director Tim Burton, whose ability to blend effects, story and mood tilts toward the dark and perverse without sacrificing something we might call general appeal.

With movies such as Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and Corpse Bride, Burton has developed a following based on his distinctive style and a willingness to dip into the dark side of his palette.

Considering all that, Miss Peregrine should have been a slam-dunk.

But for reasons having to do with a glut of plot and the somewhat confusing creation of an alternate reality, Burton's adaptation of Ransom Riggs' 2013 novel proves only fitfully engaging.

Burton mounts a variety of captivating images -- from scary monsters to moments frozen in time to a floating girl who wears weighted shoes to keep herself earthbound.

At times, Burton seems to have been inspired by the Quay brothers, whose work with stop-motion animation surpasses almost all other cinematic peculiarities.

The story finds young Jake (Asa Butterfield) mourning his grandfather (Terrence Stamp). Just before his death, Grandpa instructed his grandson to travel to Wales to locate Miss Pergerine's School for Peculiar Children: Put anther way, Grandpa sends Jake on a destiny-defining journey.

After consultation with a child psychologist (Allison Janey), Jake's parents (Kim Dickens and Chris O'Dowd) decide that Dad should take the boy to Wales.

Once in Wales, Jake finds Miss Peregrine's school in ruins, destroyed by a direct hit from a German bomb during World War II.

But as he rummages through the bombed-out rubble, Jake begins to see the peculiar children of the movie's title. Eventually, he time travels back to the day the school was bombed.

He soon learns that Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), the school's head mistress, has the ability to stop time by creating time loops. Moments prior to the German bombing, Miss Peregrine stops the clock, and the day again repeats. Her charges are saved, although they're suspended in time. They never age another day.

For emotional heft, the movie focuses on the developing relationship between Jake and Emma (Ella Purnell), the girl who floats. He also meets Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), a kid who knows how to give life to expired creatures.

There's also an invisible kid and a girl who has a mouth with sharp predatory teeth on the back of her head; at times, the movie feels like an off-kilter take on X-Men, a story about young people who are heroic precisely because they don't fit into any mold.

Burton embeds all of this in a jargon-heavy screenplay that requires those unfamiliar with the novel to master a new vocabulary. An example: Ymbrynes, of which Miss Peregrine is one, can create time loops. You'll also find monsters called Hollowgasts -- or some such.

By the end, a new villain surfaces, Samuel L. Jackson's Barron, a creature known as a wight; i.e., a Hollowgast that can assume human form after devouring lots of eyeballs plucked from peculiar children.

And, yes, I gave Google a workout to catch up.

No stranger to over-the-top menacing, Jackson does what's expected of him. Butterfield doesn't bring much by way of expression to his role; and it falls to Purnell's Emma to make the biggest impression.

Not surprisingly, all of the actors are a bit outdone by the movie's copious effects.

Finding the story less than compelling, I drifted from scene-to-scene, wondering how Burton achieved some of the movie's more impressive images and trying to decipher the screenplay's murky references to the Holocaust.

What I didn't do was emerge with a coherent feeling about a movie that doesn't seem to have an entirely coherent feeling about itself. Miss Peregrine felt like movie I'd just as soon thumb-through as watch.

A teen-age queen of the chess board

Director Mira Nair tells the unlikely true story of chess champion from Kampala.
 Set in the slums of Uganda, Queen of Katwe tells the story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a teen-ager who becomes a junior chess champion.

Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding and Salaam Bombay!) has made a formulaic, against-all-odds story but manages to freshen it by focusing on a game not often associated with sports movies and by her commitment to showing life among the impoverished folks struggling to survive outside of the capital city of Kampala.

Nair supplements the work of a young and appealing cast with work from two seasoned performers. Lupita Nyong'o portrays Naku Harriet, a widowed mother whose energies are devoted mostly to eking out a living. Whatever doesn't fall under that heading can seem superfluous to Harriet, and that includes her daughter's chess abilities.

Wyong'o is joined by David Oyelowo, as an earnest fellow who runs the church-oriented youth center where Phiona learns to play chess. Oyelowo's character eventually must decide whether his job as a youth counselor is temporary or represents a true calling.

Oyelowo's Robert Katende becomes Phiona's mentor, and begins to act as liaison between Phiona and the mother who -- at least initially -- can't understand how chess will help her daughter endure the rigors of a hardscrabble life.

Phiona and her chess-playing cohorts from the neighborhood become the movie's underdogs. And we root for them when Robert bucks the odds by enrolling his charges in a chess tournament usually reserved for well-off kids who attend a private school.

Watching Nalwanga's confidence grow as she embraces her gift for developing complex strategies at the chess board might be reward enough for any movie, but Queen of Katwe not only has us pulling for a kid with a great gift, but for everything she represents to the people who surround her.

Like most good sports movies, it's undergirded by hope.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Seven take another ride

Denzel Washington leads a diverse troupe of rogues in a remake of The Magnificent Seven.
 The late John Huston, a director with a resume that commands respect, once confessed to bemusement about Hollywood's approach to remakes. Why remake movies that worked, Huston asked? Why not have another go at movies that didn't make the cut? Maybe a fresh eye could figure out what went wrong.

Director Antoine Fuqua didn't follow Huston's advice. Instead, he tried his luck at an emphatic but not entirely stirring version of The Magnificent Seven in which Denzel Washington, who teamed with Fuqua on Training Day, took the role Yule Brynner played in the 1960 original.

Fuqua brings plenty of style to the project, but the movie's magnificent seven -- rogues who sign on to help protect defenseless farmers from a ruthless robber baron (Peter Sarsgaard) -- tend to be sketches rather than well-drawn characters.

As a result, the movie is only moderately successful in its attempts to write a rousing ode to brutal men who find redemption by helping to protect the helpless.

This version of the Seven story has been ethnically diversified for contemporary audiences. In addition to Washington's Chisolm, we meet a knife-throwing Asian (Byung-hun Lee), a cigar-chomping Mexican (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), an outcast Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier), a former marksman (Ethan Hawke) for the Confederacy, a bearish loner (Vincent D'Onofrio) and a tag-along novice (Luke Grimes).

Washington, Hawke and D'Onofrio receive the most attention; the others are reduced to embodiments of their skill sets. Good with knives. Not-to-be-messed, etc.

Washington's performance consists mostly of stoic minimalism. Dressed in black, he's the all-business member of the team. Perhaps that's why it falls to D'Onofrio's Jack Horn to sound the movie's theme: No man can ask for more than to serve his fellows in the company of men he respects.

Early on, Fuqua seems to be embracing genre cliches with gleeful relish. He has some fun with the scenes in which Washington's character rounds up the crew that will protect the decent people of the embattled town of Rose Creek.

Initially reluctant to get involved, Washington's Chisolm eventually responds to a request from a plucky woman (Haley Bennett) whose husband was gunned down in cold blood by Sarsgaard's Bogue. Bogue's capitalistic interests clash with the homespun agrarian virtues of the townsfolk.

Oddly, the movie begins to lose steam with its first gunfight, and the massive final battle sacrifices realism to non-stop pyrotechnics, including a vicious hail of bullets launched from a Gatling Gun that Bogue brings to the fight.

Cliches aren't necessarily a bad thing in a movie such as this, but by the time Washington straddles his horse as he fires one impossibly precise shot after another, the cliches have become ... well .... cliches.

Mauro Fiore's cinematography provides one of the movie's biggest pleasures: spacious landscapes, weathered faces, galloping horses. Even the town of Rose Creek -- though typically portrayed -- adds a welcome familiarity to Fuqua's Western adventure.

And the villain? Eli Wallach's Calvera from the original was more convincing than Sarsgaard's blandly ruthless capitalist. The endangered Mexican peasant farmers of Sturges's movie, of course, have given way to Rose Creek's predominantly white-bread population.

Composer Elmer Bernstein's trademark theme from Sturges's movie, hinted at throughout, provides a stirring coda for a drama that could have used that kind of punctuation throughout.

The Magnificent Seven isn't a bad movie, but there's something wrong when a movie's end credits feel more spirited than the scenes that immediately precede it.

And, no, neither the 2016 edition nor Sturges's movie surpasses the real inspiration for both films, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954), a true masterpiece.

The vicious side of college life

 Fraternity hazing may be an easy target, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't become the subject of a cautionary tale about uncontrolled cruelty on college campuses. Director Andrew Neel's Goat is just such a movie. Neel begins his story when local thugs attack a high school senior (Ben Schnetzer), beating him almost senseless. Time passes and Schnetzer's Brad heals, but he heads for his first year in college with a lingering case of post-traumatic stress. Neel contrasts the random cruelty Brad suffered in his hometown with the organized humiliations orchestrated by the fraternity Brad pledges. Brad's older brother (Nick Jonas) -- a senior at the same school -- urges his brother to join the frat. The promise, of course, is that friendship and social acceptance will follow the demeaning rigors of Hell Week. Increasingly, Neel focuses the drama on Jonas's Brett, a young man who begins to understand that his fraternity brothers are crossing the line between acceptable rites of initiation and behavior that -- in other contexts -- might qualify as criminal. Goat doesn't take us any place we haven't been before, but its message bears repeating. Neel and his young cast skillfully handle events that are intended to repulse -- and do. Consider Goat an antidote to recent hard-partying, frat-boy comedies such as 2014's Neighbors. Goat's not about college fun; it's about the torture some will endure in order not to feel socially ostracized.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Oliver Stone tackles Snowden's story

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance clicks, but Snowden doesn't reach powerhouse levels.

Oliver Stone's Snowden turns out to be a reasonably straightforward procedural about a young man who drank lots of patriotic Kool-Aid before learning that it gave him moral indigestion. We are, of course, talking about Edward Snowden, whose explosive 2013 leak of classified information exposed a mass NSA surveillance operation that included ordinary US citizens.

Now resident in Moscow, Snowden has become one more figure around which Americans can divide. Some view him as a hero who did his country a great public service. Others see him as a traitor.

By the end of Snowden, it's clear that Stone wants to place Snowden on the heroic side of the ledger, even including him in a final series of images.

Whatever you think of him, Snowden hardly projects the personality of a calculating villain intent on damaging his country, something we already learned from Citizenfour, director Laura Poitras's Academy Award winning documentary about how Snowden leaked his information to the press and, subsequently, to the world.

The talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays Snowden as a one-and-done whistleblower; he captures Snowden's persistence and intelligence, and charts his course from an apparently conservative patriot to a man at odds with his own government.

In this version of the Snowden story, Zachary Quinto appears as single-minded Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald; Tom Wilkinson breathes a bit more life into Ewan MacAskill, another Guardian journalist; and Mellisa Leo plays Poitras as a filmmaker who tries not to add to Snowden's already huge pile of problems.

For the most part, these characters remain underdeveloped, but Stone uses scenes in the Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden and the journalists were ensconced to punctuate a story that traces Snowden's development from a solider (he enlisted after 9/11, but was discharged after he both broke legs) to a rising star in the nation's intelligence apparatus.

Rhys Ifans brings suggestions of evil to the role of Corbin O'Brain, a fictional CIA character who hires Snowden. The young man's intelligence impresses O'Brain, partly because hje believes that the future of warfare isn't on battlefields but in rooms full of tech wizards who know how to hack and protect data.

A teleconferencing scene in which O'Brain confronts Snowden about a violation of CIA rules finds O'Brain towering over the young man on a huge screen, and, I'm afraid, serves as an example of Stone's fondness for overstatement, which he mostly keeps in check here -- unless, of course, you believe there could be more sides to the Snowden story.

Nicolas Cage shows up as a jaded CIA cryptographer Snowden meets during his training; Cage's character later reappears to add an exclamation point of approval to Snowden's decision to fight the power.

Perhaps to keep Snowden from turning into a vaguely fictionalized version of Poitras's documentary, Stone focuses much attention on the relationship between Snowden and girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).

Stone captures the tension that ripples through a relationship in which one of the partners (Snowden) never can talk about his day at the office.

The screenplay by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald sometimes resorts to position-paper dialogue, and the movie lacks the dense intrigue of Stone's JFK or the undertow of rank corruption that filtered through Stone's Nixon.

I suppose that's another way of saying that a certain thinness keeps Snowden from feeling like a major statement about the ways in which the government may have violated the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects individual privacy.

The story often benefits from Stone's ability to create momentum, but if Stone wanted to shake us to the core about the perils of a government that's using security as a pretext to widen its control over us, I don't know that he gets the job done.

Perhaps Snowden isn't an epic enough character around which to build a powerhouse drama. As Snowden himself might attest, it's the debate he hoped to foster that matters, not him.

She's back -- and she's pregnant

Renee Zellweger reprises her role as Bridget Jones. The results are decidedly mixed.

I don't know about you, but I haven't breathlessly been awaiting another Bridget Jones movie, although I have missed Renee Zellweger's presence on the big screen. Zellweger hasn't appeared in a movie in six years.

I suppose it was inevitable that Zellweger would return to movie action by reprising her role as a British woman who first stole hearts in 2001's Bridget Jones's Diary (good) and followed with 2004's Bridget Jones, The Edge of Reason (not so wonderful).

These days, Bridget works as a TV news producer. Even with an established career, she's still wondering whether her life ever totally will jell. On the night of her 43rd birthday, she ponders the question in her apartment -- alone and in PJs.

The movie quickly introduces the men in Bridget's life: two of them.

As a reluctant attendee at a music festival, Bridget meets Jack (Patrick Dempsey), a billionaire who has made his fortune in the computer-dating business. For Jack, romance can be reducible to algorithms.

Bridget also reacquaints herself with the charmingly diffident Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), one of her flames from the first two movies.

Bridget sleeps with both men, becomes pregnant and then agonizes about which of her lovers might be the father of the expected child.

Director Sharon Maguire, who also directed the first movie, isn't working in subtle mode. Laughs are derived from bits such as the one in which Bridget falls face forward into the mud that has turned the outdoor musical festival into a swamp.

Lots of ink has been spilled about Zellweger's appearance. I won't spill any more, but this edition of Bridget Jones finds everyone looking a bit long in the tooth for a supposedly rollicking rom-com.

Perhaps because he was busy acting his age in Florence Foster Jenkins, Hugh Grant is absent from this edition -- although the screenplay finds ways in which to refer to his character.

Emma Thompson, Gemma Jones and Jim Broadbent turn up in generally negligible roles.

Some of the comedy involving Bridget's job is border-line smart. She feeds questions to an on-air personality played by Sarah Solemani, a woman who takes a far more pragmatic approach to romance than Bridget.

And, yes, the movie finds ways to add a culminating spasm of physical comedy, the unavoidable scene in which Bridget's water breaks. She's hurried to the hospital in the company of both men in her life: They struggle to carry her crumpling body through the hospital's revolving door.

I probably should report that a largely female preview audience found the movie a good deal funnier than I did, but I also must confess to a deep lack of concern about whether Bridget Jones's Baby bombs or booms, except to fret that a whopping success just might breed more such strained efforts.