Thursday, March 23, 2017

More alien dangers from space

Entirely predictable, Life generates tension -- but not much else.

Life arrives in theaters as another Alien clone -- only like most derivative movies, it's not nearly as good as the original.

The best thing about Life may be its depictions of the crew of an international space station floating through extravehicular missions or taking care of daily tasks in the space-station's gravity-free environment. Gliding through the station's narrow corridors looks like it might be fun -- at least for 10 or so minutes.

The story follows a standard alien-on-spacecraft arc. The crew finds carbon-based life in soil samples from Mars -- or something like that. The science officer brings the simple, single-cell creature to life by feeding it glucose. What begins with wonder and awe quickly sours as this simple cellular creature develops into a predatory, octopus-like monster with a face that may remind you of the deep-space monster in Alien.

Once the monster makes its predatory intentions clear, the crew must fight for its life -- and to keep this creature away from Earth. The creature is dubbed Calvin by school children on Earth where the discovery initially is celebrated.

Director Daniel Espinosa ably turns the tension crank as he mixes two marquee names -- Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds -- with a lesser known cast, making Life an ensemble piece in which no single character really stands out. British actor Ariyon Bakari makes a bit of an impression as the station's chief science officer.

Movies such as Life can't really work if we're not repelled by the alien creature's eating habits. The monster's tentacles probe the throats of its victims as it embraces them with a combination of waving tentacles and what appear to be stingray-like wings. Someone describes the creature as a deadly mixture of muscle, brain and eye, which is pretty much what the movie tries to be -- albeit with intermittent success.

Much attention has been given to creating a credible space station, which helps with plausibility. Life offers no wild-eyed futuristic version of space travel, but takes place in the bland near-future.

Don't forget, though, it was the industrial strength cynicism of the original Alien, as well as its hideously vicious creature, that made for such a compelling experience. Life offers tension, but without much of an accompanying vision to elevate it. Gyllenhaal's character voices distaste for life on a conflict-riddled Earth, but that's about it for philosophical musing.

As the story progresses and the fatalities mount, Gyllenhaal's presence increases -- but without creating any special impact. The ship's medical officer (Rebecca Ferguson) also receives more attention.

Terror about making contact with another form of life hardly constitutes a novel story line, and the movie's conclusion proves relatively easy to outguess.

It's possible that Life will turnout to be a placeholder or maybe a warm-up act for Ridley Scott's soon-to-be-released Alien: Covenant. I was hoping for more.

Shooting up in Scotland again

A highly stylized and very loopy sequel to 1996's Trainspotting.

That fun-loving, heroin-shooting gang from Trainspotting, director Danny Boyle's 1996 stylistic plunge into down-and-out life in Edinburgh, is back for a second helping in T2 Trainspotting. In what amounts to a case of big-screen recidivism, Boyle allows echoes from the first movie to resound throughout a boisterous second helping. Boyle brings non-stop energy to a movie that attempts to create poignancy about the way childhood friendships can devolve into tattered adult lives.

A simply plot involves attempts by the group to open a high-end brothel, but the real fun of T2 consists of reuniting with familiar characters who retain substantial amounts of their old humor, uncontrollable brutalities and criminal preoccupations. These guys are all 20 years older, but not a hell of a lot wiser.

When Ewan McGregor's Mark returns to Scotland from Amsterdam, he's hardly surprised to learn that his former cronies are upset with him for having absconded with funds they all should have shared.

The movie's gallery of maladjusted men includes Mark's pals Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) and Spud (Ewen Bremner). Then there's the psychopathic Begbie (Robert Carlyle), the thuggish lout who escapes from jail to seek revenge against Mark and to reunite with a wife and son who aren't exactly overjoyed about his return. Sharing space with Begbie is like living with someone who keeps a loaded gun on the nightstand.

Part of the movie's enjoyment involves seeing how these actors have aged. Sporting a closely cropped haircut and neatly trimmed mustache, Carlyle seems to have added bulk that makes Begbie as physically threatening as ever.

Still showing traces of his youth, Simon has taken up with a Bulgarian refugee (Anjela Nedyalkova), promising her that she'll be in charge of the brothel he wants to build, euphemistically calling it a spa in what John Hodge's mildly satirical screenplay offers as an example of Edinburgh's march toward gentrification.

T2 doesn't have much on its mind, but it's buoyed by Boyle's relentlessly stylized approach, which includes flashbacks, quick cuts, freeze frames, overly saturated colors and lots of splash.

Trainspotting was seen as a breakthrough film. T2 lacks the electrifying juice or novelty of its predecessor, but it's enjoyable in a loopy way -- even if it is an exercise in superfluity. Credit Boyle with specializing in upbeat movies about downbeat lives.

If you're looking for a better movie about what happens when former pals reunite, try Donald Cried, a comic indie set in Rhode Island during a bleak winter. A Wall Street banker (Jesse Wakeman) returns to his hometown after his grandmother passes away. Wakeman's Peter has the misfortune of losing his wallet on the bus trip he took to his desolate destination. The subsequent lack of funds forces Peter to hook up with an old high school buddy (Kris Avedisian). Avedisian, who also co-wrote and directed, plays Donald, a character who manages to be both innocent and offensive at the same time. Avedisian's Donald is the high school guy who was tolerated by his buddies, who always tried to keep him at arm's length. Inadvertently abrasive in nearly everything he does, the shaggy, ill-kempt Donald never seems to have left his high-school self behind. Wakeman and Avedisian play off one another in ways that are funny, nervy and realistic. Avedisian's Donald is a wounded soul who nonetheless retains his pluck, and that makes Donald Cried a weirdly bracing comedy about the clash between those who want to leave their hometown behind and those who never will escape its hold.

I didn't buy 'Personal Shopper'

Kristin Stewart reunites with director Olivier Assayas for a ghost story.

Director Olivier Assayas worked with Kristen Stewart in the well-received Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), the story of a young woman working as a personal assistant to a famous actress (Juliette Binoche). Now, Assayas has reunited with Stewart for Personal Shopper, a movie that does its best to defy description.

Assayas tries to combine various genre elements, most notably those of a ghost story, those of a philosophical thriller and those pertaining to the portrait of a grief-stricken character at loose ends.

Stewart's Maureen is haunted by grief after the death of her twin brother, Lewis, a young man with whom she shared a heart defect and with whom she made a pact. Brother and sister agreed that whoever died first would contact the other from the great beyond. We're told that both Maureen and her brother were mediums.

Stewart's Maureen lives in Paris where she works as a personal shopper for an apparently famous model (Nora von Waldstatten). Maureen, who doesn't seem to fit into Paris or perhaps into any known surroundings, travels around the city on her motor scooter. She's looking for items that might please her mostly unappreciative boss.

Sometimes, Maureen tries on her boss' clothes, something she's not supposed to do. Assayas treats these clothes-swapping incidents as if Maureen's violating a taboo, reinforcing the idea by having Maureen masturbate in her absent boss's bed.

Maureen also spends time at the house where her brother passed away. She encounters various noises, but not getting a clear message from the next world, although Assays shows us a computer generated shimmer that we assume is the late Lewis's ghost.

Once in a while, Maureen Skypes with her boyfriend (Ty Olwin), a young man who's working in cybersecurity in London.

More importantly, she begins receiving text messages (well-handled by Assayas over the course of 20 minutes) from an unidentified man who seems to know her every move. The ghost? A stalker? Someone menacing? Someone helpful?

Stewart plays an unhappy 27-year-old woman of frustratingly spare expression. That makes her a perfect match for Assayas's maddeningly spare approach. He's big on showing us glossy interiors, but doesn't seem all that interested in human interiors.

Say this, though, Stewart manages to look entirely of the moment even when her character is bored.

Assayas steadfastly refuses to define his movie, which isn't made any clearer by the addition of a brutal murder. You can take all this as irritatingly or provocatively French, depending on your taste.

I don't mind ambiguity, but there's a difference between ambiguity and vagueness. For me, Personal Shopper blurred the line. Put another way: Personal Shopper feels arty and pretentious, but left me unsure about what its pretensions even were.

People, people who eat people

If you're thinking about becoming a veterinarian, you'll want to avoid this school.

Part grotesque curiosity, part horror film and part cautionary tale linking cannibalism, sex and carnivorous behavior, the Belgian/French movie Raw marks a debut in which director Julia Ducournau delivers a blood-stained calling card you won't soon forget.

That's a good thing if you put a premium on shocking imagery presented with an eye that understands how to compose and light a bone-chilling image and not such a good thing if you're a squeamish viewer with an aversion to gore, even when wrapped in a surpassingly stylish package.

The movie tells the story of Justine (Garance Marillier), a young woman who enrolls in a veterinary college to pursue what those around her recognize as her superior talent for the profession. But this is no ordinary school. The students must endure a week of hard-partying and hazing that includes chowing down on a piece of raw rabbit kidney.

This bit of culinary torment poses a particular challenge for Justine who has been raised by her parents as a staunch vegetarian. Justine immediately develops an awful rash from her exposure to meat. The taste of flesh also arouses a cannibalistic urge that Justine will find difficult to resist. Be warned.

As it turns out, Justine's sister (Ella Rumpf) already is enrolled in the school. The relationship between the sisters allows Ducournau to explore issues connected to sibling rivalry. Rumpf's character seems intent on indoctrinating Justine into the repulsive behavior that they share.

Marillier does a fine job showing the stress experienced by a young woman who's trying to come to grips with urges she didn't know she had -- and, in this case, which isolate her from nearly everyone. Her gay roommate (Rabah Nait Oufella) becomes a witness to her evolution.

I did plenty of grimacing during Raw, which also contains an unexpected lesson in primary color mixing. As part of the hazing, Justine has her body painted blue and is forced to make love to a male student whose body has been painted yellow. They're not allowed to leave the room until they both turn green, and if you can watch Justine sampling her first finger without cringing, you've got a stronger stomach than I.

I'm not sure that Raw entirely keeps its allegorical promise, but I don't want to dismiss Docournau's talent, which is substantial if not yet fully realized in the script she wrote.

Making adept use of the veterinary school environment, Ducournau immerses us in a world in which the students are oblivious to the macabre sights around them. We're in a world gone mad, and without much by way of relief. No wonder the students party so ferociously. It's as if they want to throb their way out of the misery of the animals they dissect and treat -- and possibly out of their own desperation.





Another loner living on the margins

Based on graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, Wilson gives Woody Harrelson a much-deserved chance to carry a movie. Harrelson plays the title character, a loner who's part misanthrope and part zhlub, a guy whose rebellious streak has extended long past its expiration date. Wilson qualifies as one of those marginal figures that sometimes make it to the pop-cultural center ring, something on the order of Harvey Pekar, who became the subject of the movie American Splendor -- except Pekar actually did something: He wrote comics about his life. Wilson doesn't seem to do anything, aside from hang around his cluttered apartment and strike up inappropriate conversations with strangers. Evidently on his own since his marriage dissolved 17 years ago, Wilson seems to have nothing going for him. Mildly funny and ultimately able to find some pathos, Wilson nonetheless proves a dull entry into the world of downbeat literature that Clowes helped create with Ghost World, which became a movie 16 years ago. Despite its repetitive feel, the movie deals with a variety of events: the death of Wilson's father, Wilson's reunion with his ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern), and the discovery that Pippi gave their infant daughter up for adoption. Wilson thought the baby had been aborted. As Wilson tries to worm his way back into Pippi's life, they drop in on Pippi's sister (Cheryl Hines), a visit that erupts into an implausibly brutal fight. Wilson and Pippi's weekend with their biological daughter, whom they track down at Wilson's insistence, results in Wilson's imprisonment for kidnapping. That's a lot of plot for a movie that doesn't feel as if it's going anywhere. Judy Greer becomes a late-picture love interest as the movie reaches its mildly sunny conclusion. A bearded Harrelson gives himself over to the role, holding the movie together with a shambling walk and hints of Wilson's decency. It couldn't have been an easy task because Wilson isn't the most intriguing of characters. Director Craig Johnson (Skeleton Twins) fully enters Wilson's world, but never really convinces us that it's worth joining him.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

'Beauty and the Beast:' One more time

Disney's reprise of its 1991 animated hit should please old fans and make some new ones.

The idea that love can break the spell of a powerful curse sounds as familiar to us as fairy tales themselves. In the case of Beauty and the Beast -- as imagined by Disney in a new live action version of its 1991 animated edition -- the Beast, a callous prince who has been cursed by a haggard old woman, must find love before the last petal drops off a rose kept in his dank castle. Absent such a love, the Beast and a gaggle of courtiers who've been turned into inanimate objects forever will be doomed to their cursed fates.

Disney's lavish remake its 26-year-old animated classic, Beauty and the Beastt, created little by way of anticipatory excitement for me. I'm no fan of remakes that take advantage of advances in digital technology just to wow us, in this case with talking versions of a clock, a teapot, a candelabra and a feather duster. And, yes, these digitally created do-dads probably show more personality than some of the story's human characters.

Having said that, this version -- starring Emma Watson (Beauty), Dan Stevens (Beast) and directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) -- has enough whimsy and amusement to satisfy those who also will be buoyed by reprises of the Alan Menken/Tim Rice musical numbers -- with a couple of new additions.

Much of the credit for the movie's engaging collection of talking bric-a-brac goes to the actors who supplied the voice work: Emma Thompson voices Mrs. Potts, the teacup; Stanley Tucci gives life to as Maestro Cadenza, a harpsichord; Gugu Mbatha-Raw adds her vocal prowess to Plumette, the feather duster. The voice behind Cogsworth, the clock, belongs to Ian McKellen; and Ewan McGregor can be heard as Lumiere, a dashing candelabra.

Condon spices things up with references to Busby Berkeley, a ton of production design, a major investment in costumes and a generally capable cast that includes Luke Evans as the impossibly conceited and ultimately duplicitous Gaston and Josh Gad as his loyal sidekick LeFou.

You've probably read that Disney has made LeFou a gay character. That may be daring for a Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, but nothing in this upbeat entertainment seems designed to take the glow off the movie's mass-appeal luster.

The film even neuters the Beast, who has been given a leonine countenance -- with horns and bad teeth added for the sake of fright. This Beast makes threats on which he fails to deliver, and isn't quite as self-assured in his menace as you might expect.

Still, he's softened by Beauty, and by the end, it's difficult to say that anyone would mind if the Beast remained a beast rather than returning to his more Disnified form as a devilishly handsome prince.

In a nice touch, Beauty and the Beast begin their rapprochement when Belle (Beauty) discovers that the Beast has a well-stocked library. She's an avid reader, evidently the only one in the tiny village she and her father (Kevin Kline) call home.

There have, of course, been numerous versions of this 18th century tale from Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Velqleneuve, including Jean Cocteau's landmark 1946 version, but classic stories seem capable of enduring as many retellings as anyone possibly could desire.

This one opts for a visual razzle-dazzle that plays against Watson's plucky but somewhat ordinary Belle. I wouldn't say that Condon and company achieve perfection, but they've provided a lively, entertaining version of Disney's animated entry from the 1990s.

If we were going to have another Beauty and the Beast, I'm not sure what more we could have justifiably asked or expected.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

For Kong, it's tough being king

Kong: Skull Island introduces many monstrous sights. It's fun, even if the movie ultimately exhausts itself.

Some movies live in a world beyond ordinary standards, so much so that they liberate us from the need to parse or pick at what we were watching. Kong: Skull Island ought to have such a free-wheeling feel -- and much of the time, it does.

Deriving from the 1933 classic, Kong: Skull Island offers a new take on Hollywood's greatest ape, the thrust of which I'll leave you to discover in a theater, but know that Skull Island bursts with giddily presented carnage, much of it presented against a jukebox full of throwback rock by groups ranging from the Jefferson Airplane to Creedence Clearwater Survival.

For at least half of its 118-minute running time, Kong has some real hop to it, and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts isn't shy about putting his cards on the table. A Japanese and American solider square off in a mano-a-mano World War II prologue that dispenses with any suspense about when we'll see the towering ape. We meet Kong before the opening credits are done.

The movie turns the rest of those credits into a flickering newsreel, leaping through successive decades before landing in 1973.

Quickly, and without much time for reflection (a mercy, I think), the story swings into action. John Goodman plays a man who obtains government funding so that he can map an uncharted island.

From Washington, we're off the Vietnam to round up a crew. A disaffected Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) takes charge; he's looking for a mission that offers compensation for a war that he believes should have been won. Packard and his subordinate (Toby Kebbell) gather other disaffected troopers, and join the trip to Skull Island.

Tom Hiddleston plays a tracker who's also recruited for the mission, along with a war-hardened photographer (Brie Larson).

With echoes of Apocalypse Now ringing in our ears, we're headed for Skull Island, which happens to be surrounded by a ferocious and possibly impenetrable storm system. If the movie's adventurers were even mildly sane, they would have abandoned any effort to penetrate the storm with helicopters. But sanity isn't the point here. Instead, unbridled mania prevails, which perhaps explains the presence of a jiggling Nixon bobblehead on one of the helicopters.

After the screening, someone pointed out to me that the number of helicopters inexplicably increased once the choppers took off from the ship that's carrying them to Skull Island.

Continuity aside, the helicopters make it through the storm only to be confronted by Kong, who has little interest in allowing them into his kingdom. He begins swatting choppers out of the sky as if they were pesky mosquitos.

If you're looking for proof that we live in an age of overload, you'll find ample evidence in the rest of the movie. As it turns out, Kong isn't the only dangerous creature on the island. The worst foes are reptilian monsters with forked tongues, hearty appetites and the ability to reawaken any tremors still lingering in audiences from Jurassic Park.

In IMAX 3D, Kong oozes the tropical density of an island where just about every living thing is over-sized and predatory, and the human characters, if these stick figures can be called that, are simply prey.

Did I mention that our adventurers have three days to accomplish their mission and reach the rendezvous point at which they'll be rescued? Yes, the proverbial clock ticks as loudly as the gunfire on the soundtrack.

To further spice the proceedings, the story introduces us to a World War II vet (John C. Reilly) from the movie's prologue. Reilly's character has been stranded on the island for almost 30 years. He's gone a bit whacky after living among a group of locals with a preference for heavily applied mud make-up.

In addition to battling the beasts -- a task that produces enough gore to slime the entire state of Maine -- the adventurers must decide whether to follow the vengeance-hungry approach of Jackson's character or just get the hell off the island.

For his part, Jackson glowers with so much furious conviction you half expect he might be reading one of Skull Island's more negative reviews.

Burdened by bloat, Kong: Skull Island can't help but generate some battle fatigue -- not only for its human and creature combatants, but for an audience. That's another way of saying that if you over-inflate a B-movie, it just might blow up in your face.

And in a digitally enhanced world, you'll notice that the actors are asked to spend a lot of time gaping at sights that had to be filled in long after they'd left the scene, not many dinosaurs being available via calls to central casting.

Minimal acting opportunities not withstanding, it might have been nice to care a little about whether any of these characters were destined to become something more than monster food.

Oh well, perhaps there's justice after all. At one point, a beast throws up the head of a man it has devoured. These creatures may be difficult to kill, but take heart: It's evidently easy to give them indigestion.

No fresh message in 'The Last Word'

At one point in The Last Word, the camera lingers on a wall of photographs showing Shirley MacLaine at various stages of her life, one of them reminiscent of the impish look MacLaine brought to Billy Wilder's The Apartment. The photos are supposed to be images of from the life of the character MacLaine's playing, but the moment offers an opportunity to reflect on a career that's worthy of celebration. I can't think of anything else I'd want to celebrate about The Last Word, a sentimental comedy about an embittered older woman (MacLaine) who enlists a young newspaper reporter (Amanda Seyfried) to write her obituary. MacLaine's Harriet wants to maintain control of her image, even in death. When a cranky older woman meets a plucky younger woman, it's a safe bet that formula will prevail. By the end, the older woman will have become lovable, and the younger woman will have taken a step toward maturity. Director Mark Pellington can't conceal the movie's many contrivances. The worst of these involves Harriet's decision to soften her image by mentoring a young black girl from the projects (AnnJewel Lee Dixon). Harriet thinks such a relationship will look good in her obituary. Mentor or not, Harriet never shows any interest in understanding the girl's environment, and Dixon is saddled with dialogue that goes heavy on unbecoming F-bombs. In scene-after-scene, Pellington struggles to make us chuckle as he wends his way toward the mush-pit of sentiment that constitutes the movie's finale. It's a bit sad to see MacLaine trying to breathe life into low-grade material that has about as much interest in the realities of aging as Paul Ryan has in lobbying for a statue of Karl Marx on the National Mall.

LGBTQ kids of color find a home

Kiki, a documentary that visits the ballroom scene in Harlem's gay and transgender community, has been called an heir to the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, which explored the drag-ball scene in Harlem in the 1980s. Some 27 years later, Kiki immerses us in what's called the New York City House Scene, a loose collection of organizations that provide community for gay and transsexual young people of color and emphasize dance competitions. The Houses become an outlet for marginalized people, some rejected by their families, some unable to find jobs, some who have taken up sex work and some who have been subjected to brutalities of the streets. As Swedish director Sara Jordeno explores the various activities leading to competitions (disciplined rehearsing among them) she also listens to the stories of young people struggling to express their own realities. The film tries to give a rounded picture of the participants in various "balls." At one point, we meet a loving mother who has accepted her son, although her husband couldn't. Jordeno allows her camera to linger on close-ups of the faces of these young people. It's as if she's asking us to study them, to see past the surface. Many of those interviewed share stories that speak to growing up in environments where acceptance may have been difficult to find. That background explains why the Houses and balls matter: They serve as an outlet for creativity and pain, yes, but also as safe spaces. Given the current emphasis on the rights of transgender people, Kiki -- filmed over a two-year period -- probably acquires additional importance. Skipping orientation and outside commentary, Jordeno jumps into a scene that provides more than a place for highly stylized Vogue dancing and outre costumes. To those in it, it's also a home.