Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Star Trek that emphasizes speed

Director Justin Lin takes over the reins from J.J. Abrams and as Star Trek continues to explore the final frontier.

Toward the end of Star Trek Beyond, Captain James T. Kirk tells his principal adversary that change is a necessary component of life. It's difficult to say more without plunging into spoiler terrain, but it's worth pointing out that Kirk could have been directing his remark to the Star Trek faithful. Expect a few changes.

The biggest change in Star Trek Beyond involves the person at the helm. Justin Lin takes over from J.J. Abrams, who remains as a producer. It should surprise no one that Lin, best known for Fast & Furious movies, gravitates toward action. He loads (perhaps even overloads) Beyond with noise, flying debris, and over-edited battle sequences.

At the same time, Lin makes sure that the characters are well-served. Kirk (Chris Pine) begins the movie with a case of space fatigue. He's not sure he wants to continue as Captain of the Enterprise.

Spock (Zachary Quinto) also contemplates a life change. As a result, his relationship with Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana) has hit a snag.

The rest of the crew remains reliably familiar: Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Scotty (Simon Pegg) all do their part.

You've probably read that this episode reveals that Sulu is gay with a husband and child, information Lin presents in an off-handed way that suggests we're in a version of the future in which sexual orientation has ceased being a talking point.

Lin wisely includes references to the original Mr. Spock, perhaps to acknowledge the actor who played him. Leonard Nimoy died last year.Star Trek Beyond, by the way, is dedicated to both Nimoy and Yelchin, who was killed in a freak auto accident earlier this year.

New additions also can be found. Besides the reptilian-looking Krall (Idris Elba) -- the villain of the piece -- we meet Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). She's an alien woman who joins the Star Trek team in its effort to prevent the destruction of Yorktown, a massive Federation space station that Lin explores with swooping, dizzying camera moves.

The screenplay by Pegg and Doug Jung seems based on something we might call "the speed principle." Move quickly and few will notice plot holes or fret about the fact that a rescue oriented story wears a bit thin.

But sci-fi precision never has never been Star Trek's strong suit. Ethical questions usually take precedence. Although such questions are raised, they now seem to peek out from behind the movie's many action set pieces.

Put another way, Beyond isn't the most contemplative version of Star Trek, although it has its compensations: A couple of moments involving old-fashioned rock music should bring a smile to most faces.

At a Wednesday night showing -- the movie began at 10 p.m. -- the crowd seemed especially to enjoy the interchanges between Spock and Bones (a scene-stealing Karl Urban). Such scenes wisely reiterate or poke fun at the recognizable traits that define Star Trek characters: Spock's deadpan commitment to logic or Bones' sniping humor, for example.

So back to the beginning. This edition attempts to reprise what's familiar about the series while also giving it new energy. Change, but not so much that we forget that we're watching a Star Trek movie.

I'm not a fanboy, so I don't know how Star Trek stalwarts will receive this new edition. In my estimation, Beyond whizzes by without damaging the franchise, while also providing a couple of inspired bits and firing retro rockets of nostalgia in ways that feel like true expressions of affection.

Lin even finds a way to work a motorcycle into the story, but don't fret Star Trek purists: Lin hasn't propelled Fast & Furious's Vin Diesel into the final frontier. Some things remain sacred.



A reason to be afraid of the dark

Lights Out efficiently delivers the expected shocks.
Swedish filmmaker David F. Sandberg makes his feature debut by expanding his award winning short, Lights Out. If you want to get a feel for the scare tactics used in this minimalist hunk of horror, you can watch Sandberg's short on You Tube. The idea is simple: Turn out the lights and a threatening but ill-defined monster appears. To get beyond the jump scares of the short, Sandberg and writer Eric Heisserer add a rudimentary story: A young woman (Teresa Palmer) rescues her 10-year-old half brother (Gabriel Bateman) from the home of their disturbed mother (Maria Bello). Mom's mental issues -- she was once committed to an asylum -- lend a patina of psychology to a movie that consciously toys with the audience, and expects the audience to recognize and appreciate the manipulation. That's part of the fun. Because it's only partially seen, the shadowy monster (Alicia Vela-Bailey) proves plenty eerie. If you want to make something more out of Lights Out, you could talk about the inner darkness that haunts Bello's character, extending to everyone she touches. But mostly, Lights Out offers 81 minutes worth of scares without really penetrate nightmare terrain. One caution: A shocking finale proposes a solution for destroying the monster that no therapist would endorse.

'Equals' adds up to boredom

Welcome to another dystopian future. Although it surely wasn't intended, director Drake Doremus' Equals goes a long way toward providing an effective cure for insomnia. A deeply boring romance between two characters who live in a futuristic society where emotions are suppressed for the good of something called "the Collective," Equals suffers from a pervasive lack of verve. In the movie's world, people aren't supposed to touch. Humans still propagate, but conception has been turned into a chore. Not everyone in this society has managed to stamp out feeling, though. Some have been diagnosed with SOS (Switched On Syndrome). Most SOS people eventually are eliminated, but a few pretend to abide by The Collective's norms. They're called "hiders." Nicholas Hoult plays a diagnosed victim of SOS who falls for a "hider" portrayed by Kristen Stewart. Let's just say that their love affair plumbs new depths of listlessness. Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver offer minimal support as two additional "hiders," those who fake the numbed-out look that their society requires. Doremus floods the screen with whites (interiors and clothing), a choice that only adds to the monotony. Some end-of-picture suspense ignites a small spark, but, by then, it's too late. Rigor mortis already has set in.

Discovering a bold new voice in cinema ---- and a bold older voice in the world of music

An 11-year-old boxes, dances and holds the center of a movie.

Almost every image in The Fits, a movie about an 11-year-old girl who spends her time hanging out a Cincinnati recreation center, proves oddly evocative.

Put another way, this striking debut feature from director Anna Rose Holmer can't be accused of following anyone else's map. And if it's not always clear exactly what Holmer is after, she deserves credit for pulling us into an environment that feels both real and otherworldly at the same time.

The Fits focuses on Toni (Royalty Hightower), a girl who attends the recreation center with her older brother (Da'Sean Minor), a kid who spends most of his time boxing. Toni works out with the boxers, but she's increasingly drawn to a competitive dance team called The Lionesses.

When Toni joins the Lionesses, she meets Beezy (Alexis Neblett), another newbie. Beezy's outgoing personality contrasts with Toni's reticence. Toni's an observer, the outsider whose silence suggests superior knowledge. Toni fits no mold, and Hightower is the kind of kid you can't take your eyes off.

The dancers span what appears to be a fairly broad age range -- from pre-adolescent to high school -- and their movements tend toward rhythmic frenzy.

For reasons that never are fully explained, some of the girls begin having fits. They convulse, their bodies quaking in trance-like states. The effects seem to wear off, but the practice environment remains unsettled. After a while, a few of the girls say they want to have one of these fits.

Much of what Holmer has in mind involves the gender roles that Toni examines. She pierces her ears. Later, she removes the earrings. She tries nail polish, but eventually scrapes it off. She never entirely forsakes the boys' world of boxing, which she enters as the other girls watch through windows in the gym doors.

We presume that these girls are talking about the boys in the way adolescent girls do. That kind of chatter doesn't interest Toni, who looks for an identity all her own.

I can't say I totally understood The Fits, but I found Holmer's movie absorbing in its fierce insularity. Besides, The Fits speaks in a voice that's too distinctive to ignore.

AND SPEAKING OF DISTINCTIVE VOICES

Frank Zappa has been dead for more than 22 years, but his name still evokes memories of an idiosyncratic musician who never hesitated to speak his mind. Director Thorsten Schutte gives us a taste of what was on that mind with Eat That Question, Frank Zappa in His Own Words, a new documentary that assembles performances, rehearsal footage and parts of interviews Zappa gave over the course of his career. Although Zappa says he doesn't entirely trust the interview process, he's surprisingly forthcoming with those who got a chance to talk to him. This is true whether he's discussing his political views, his contempt for the business of music or his dedication to musical exploration. Schutte doesn't shortchange the furor that arose around some of Zappa's supposedly obscene lyrics, but he goes deeper than that, offering a portrait of a composer who stood his ground and, in so doing, spoke out for art, culture, and freedom of expression.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Women vs. ghosts, no winners

If you thought a female version of Ghostbusters would save the summer, think again.

For some time now, a stream of on-line scorn has been directed at the new Ghostbusters, which attempts to reboot the 1984 original with women in the principal roles.

A confession: I don't regard the original, which starred Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd and Ernie Hudson, as an inviolable work or even a great movie. And in a time of remakes, do-overs and sequels, a Ghostbusters reboot should do little to denigrate anyone's pop-cultural sacred cows.

So, no, the idea of the movie doesn't bother me in the least. The movie? Truth be told, it didn't bother me, either, but it also didn't make me laugh enough to enthuse over it.

As a special-effects driven comedy, the 2016 edition of Ghostbusters can't scare up enough yucks to haunt a closet, a problem that should come as a surprise to those who believe that Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon are capable of brilliant comic work.

McKinnon outdoes her comic compatriots, but this quartet gets slimed by the overblown scale of the production.

Adding Chris Hemsworth as a sexy but dumb receptionist was an interesting comic idea in gender reversal, but one that's beaten to death before the original Ghostbusters gang begins to turn up in dutifully placed cameos.

The wittiest cameo belongs to the late Harold Ramis, who appears as a bust on a mantel in the background of an early scene.

As for the rest: There's plenty of green slime and a few chuckles, but mostly the movie wastes an opportunity to bring four gifted comic actresses together for what should have been one of summer's surefire bets.

Director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) might have been in the unenviable position of having to keep fans of the original happy and make a refreshing new comedy.

Plot? Yeah, there's a semblance of one, but who really cares? I can't imagine you'll shiver because of Neil Casey, who plays Rowan, a creep with evil plans.

The movie's idea of feminist assertion arrives in the form of an online barb one of the characters shares with her colleagues. "Ain't no bitches gonna bust no ghosts."

Ghostbusters, of course, is meant to challenge that notion as its quartet of ghost fighters aims ray-spewing devices at a series of phantoms.

But the movie is too mired in blockbuster sensibilities to say much of anything. And if it has little to say and too few laughs, what exactly is the point?

Still, I guess Ghostbusters can be considered a form of progress. Why should only men be able to make silly, bloated comedies?

'Captain Fantastic' and the 'Wilderpeople'

In a way, Captain Fantastic is something of a throwback, a movie that hinges on a slightly dated conflict between a father's fierce countercultural commitments and widely recognized mainstream proprieties.

Forget the title, Captain Fantastic has nothing to do with comic book heroism; it's the story of an intelligent survivalist (Viggo Mortensen) and his six children. Mortensen's Ben believes that, as a parent, he's obligated to remove his children from the corrupting influences of a society driven mad by soul-destroying capitalism.

Ben is so committed to his views that he has substituted the celebration of Noam Chomsky's birthday for Christmas. Yes, it's OK to laugh, but Ben believes in the moral necessity of his choices.

The always intelligent Mortensen, adept at suggesting more than scripts often contain, imbues Ben with edgy smarts and stern conviction. He can be loving and a bit scary.

The movie opens with a bloody coming-of-age ritual involving a hunt, but it quickly becomes clear that Ben isn't neglecting the intellectual side of his kids' growth: They're home-schooled in literature, science and philosophy, and are encouraged to defend any position they take.

Ben also subjects his brood to physical challenges that he calls "training." These exercises can include dangerous rock climbing expeditions and exhausting uphill runs.

It shouldn't be surprising that Ben's kids have unconventional names: Bodevan (George MacKay) is the oldest, a teen-ager who's beginning to wonder if he's missing something. Encouraged by his mother, Bodevan secretly has applied to some of the nation's most elite colleges.

As for the rest of the brood, I could tell you the kids who play the family, but instead I'll give you a few of the character names: Nai, Zaja, Vestry, Kielyr and Relian, a countercultural roll call if ever there were one.

Simply hanging around the forest with a bunch of kids might not be particularly interesting. Something major must happen, and it does. Mom, who's off being treated for severe depression, commits suicide.

Mom's parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) blame Ben for ruining their daughter's life. They ban him from the funeral, the Christian burial Langella's Jack insists on. Mom, we learn, wanted to be cremated.

Urged on by his kids, Ben loads everyone into the rundown bus the family uses for transportation and attends the funeral.

En route, the family stops at the home of an aunt and uncle (Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn) who are understandably concerned about the way in which Ben raises his children.

Credit writer/director Matt Ross with setting up some amusing situations, most notably one in which Bodevan meets a girl at a campsite and decides that his first kiss provides sufficient reason to propose marriage.

The point, of course, is that these kids have little idea about how to operate in socially oriented situations.

Not all of Ben's judgments seem particularly smart. During a celebration of Noam Chomsky Day, Ben gives his six-year-old daughter a copy of The Joy of Sex. Why burden the kid with unnecessary inhibitions?

While traveling, Dad and the kids stage an operation in which they steal food from a supermarket. Ben has taught them that they're entitled to free food from a system that's designed to exploit them.

Not surprisingly, the family runs into a conflict with Langella's Jack, who wants to take custody of the kids. Jack believes that some of Ben's child-rearing methods are abusive. If you think about it, he has a point, but the movie doesn't take that point seriously enough.

Captain Fantastic remains watchable because of Mortensen, who convinced me that Ben was an ideologue, a tyrant with his kids (for their own good, of course) but also a loving father who eventually must decide whether he has the right to make some of the choices he's forced on his children.

To the extent that the movie leaves you to ponder what's really best for Ben's kids, it's a worthwhile and somewhat offbeat addition of this year's movie run.

But it's also true that the most interesting character in the movie only appears on screen in Ben's daydreams. Mom evidently developed strong reservations about the family's search for self-sufficiency. Perhaps because of his stubborn commitment to what he viewed as his high ideals, Dad couldn't hear her.

To me, the most convincing thing about Captain Fantastic was Mom's depression, which may not be what Ross most wanted anyone to take away from his movie.


A BETTER MOVIE ABOUT A KID IN THE WOODS

If you're looking for a quirkier and more entertaining movie about a kid who learns to be self-sufficient, you may want to try A Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a New Zealand-based story from director Taika Waititi. The thoroughly engaging Julian Dennison plays Ricky, a Maori kid who's been bounced from foster home to foster home until he lands with a couple (Sam Neill and Rachel House) with a home at the edge of the bush. House's Paula breaks through Ricky's emotional barriers, but Neill's Hec keeps the boy at gruff remove. The twist arrives when Paula, who've we've seen kill a wild boar armed only with a knife, suddenly dies. The newly widowed Hec wants to return the boy to the social services system, but Ricky has other ideas. Ricky runs away, and when Hec finds him, they both begin a months long trek through the bush that eventually attracts the attention of law enforcement, social services workers and the press. Waititi, who wrote the screenplay based on a book by Barry Crump, keeps us off guard throughout. Dennison plays an overweight kid who is not instantly engaging, but whose spunk and temperament quickly win us over. Unrecognizable behind a bushy beard, Neill perfectly balances Hec's curiosity about the boy, his reluctance to become emotionally involved and his outlier sensibilities. In all, A Hunt for the Wilderpeople emerges as one of summer's most refreshing entertainments.

Nuns victimized by war

"All's well that end's well."

You may want to put that well-worn bromide aside after watching The Innocents, a drama about life in an austere Polish nunnery in 1945.

French director Anne Fontaine gives her movie an optimistic finale, but it goes against the grain of what has been an appropriately disturbing look at the lingering impacts of war.

Seen mostly through the eyes of a French doctor (Lou de Laage), The Innocents tells the story of nuns whose faith has been shaken by brutal war-time realities. Marauding Russian soldiers not only put Hitler's troops on the run; they raped most of the nuns, leaving many of them pregnant.

A few of these cloistered women had had worldly experiences prior to entering the convent; many were virgins whose commitment to being unsullied brides of Christ was a cornerstone of their lives.

The gifted Polish actress Agata Kulesza, last seen playing "Red" Wanda in Ida, portrays the Reverend Mother who runs the convent. The Reverend Mother worries that if word about the pregnancies leaks to the surrounding community, the convent's reputation will be irrevocably compromised.

Agata Buzek portrays the Reverend Mother's second in command, a woman had experience with men before entering the convent, and who seems more compassionate than the Reverend Mother about the suffering of her sisters.

Most of the movie involves the ways in which de Laage's character tries to help the nuns, who know little about giving birth -- or anything else for that matter. Some of the nuns are so unworldly, they don't even know that they're pregnant.

De Laage's Mathilde Beaulieu does not share the faith of the nuns, but empathizes with them as women in need of assistance. She's also having a somewhat perfunctory affair with a Jewish physician (Vincent Macaigne) who also has been stationed at the post-war Polish front. She eventually enlists his help in giving birth to the babies.

In deliberate and piercing fashion, Fontaine allows moral questions to emerge; the characters must grapple with them as best they can. There are no easy answers, and Fontaine doesn't try to manufacture any.

So back to my opening remarks. Though based on actual events, the movie offers an ending that feels too encouraging for a drama that has been so grimly focused -- or maybe the ending arrives too abruptly to feel like anything more than an add-on meant to discourage complete pessimism.

Whatever the reason, Fontaine's attempt provide a moment of redemption proves less convincing than her portrayal of the horrors that preceded it.

Those horrors serve as a necessary reminder that the terrors of war don't end when the shooting stops and that responsibility for dealing with them are burdens that many are forced to carry.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Penetrating the cocaine cartel

Bryan Cranston plays an undercover agent in The Infiltrator, a teeming drama about the drug war in the 1980s.

Set during the 1980s, The Infiltrator tells the story of an undercover US Customs agent who helps crack a vast money-laundering scheme connected to Pablo Escobar and the Medellin drug cartel.

The life of an undercover agent consists of dodges and duplicity. He or she must establish real connections with criminals before turning the tables on them.

That's not a new story, but with Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) playing undercover cop Robert Mazur, The Infiltrator has a strong center.

Mazur won the trust of major cocaine dealers by posing as Bob Musella, a businessman with money-laundering expertise and ties to the New York mob. Musella made money for big-time drug czars, but also recorded their conversations with equipment hidden inside his expensive brief case.

Watching this kind of movie affords a double pleasure. On one level, The Infiltrator relates a story about a cop who's trying to bring down bad guys. Ably directed by Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) -- the movie benefits from constant tension because, at any moment, Mazur could be exposed.

On another level, there's voyeuristic kick to be found in the milieu that Mazur penetrates. It's a world in which the top guys no longer get their hands dirty, but which also is populated by lots of scary people who do.

According to the movie, which is based on a true story, Musella convinces kingpins with obscene amounts of cocaine cash that he'll invest their loot in small companies that are entirely legitimate. He also involves one the world's biggest banks in his operations.

The movie brings up some of the same issues as Donnie Brasco; i.e., the pain that's felt when undercover cops finally complete their work. They're putting people behind bars who trusted them, some of whom they've even grown to like.

It's also challenging to go deep undercover, and still be a devoted father and husband.

While dining in a restaurant with his real wife (Juliet Aubrey), Mazur's undercover world intrudes: An underworld associate unexpectedly shows up. To preserve his cover, Mazur humiliates an unsuspecting waiter. His behavior shocks both his wife and us, and serves as a sobering reminder of the problems faced by those who live two lives.

Furman surrounds Cranston with a terrific supporting cast. John Leguizamo gives another live-wire performance as a savvy informant. Benjamin Bratt, in his best big-screen work yet, plays Roberto Alcaino, an all-business Escobar henchman with charm to burn, culinary talent and an ability to savor the pleasures of the moment. He's cocaine royalty.

The DEA even gives Mazur a fake fiancee (Diane Kruger), a woman who's on her first undercover assignment and who turns out to be surprisingly good at her work.

And when Musella and his faux fiancee socialize with Alcaino and his wife, you get a feeling for the combination of loyalty and largesse that seduces people into the drug business.

A whispering mobster in a white suit (Yul Vazquez) becomes one of the movie's scarier characters, a man of variable sexual appetites who likes to be regarded as too dangerous to be trifled with.

Amy Ryan shows up now and again as Mazur's boss, a tough woman who seems to have been deprived of the gene for empathy.

At 60, Cranston may be a trifle old for the part, but he's especially adept at showing the discomfort Mazur feels in playing a role in which missteps can be fatal.

Mazur, whose work actually took five years to complete, probably should already have given up the chase when the movie begins. He knows that he should be home with his wife and kids, but he wants to catch bad guys. Still, he's not crazy enough to be immune to fear.

In all, the movie does a fine job of showing the perils of undercover work. The closer one gets to the quarry, the more likely the chances for success and the greater the letdown when the ruse finally must be abandoned and fake alliances are betrayed. So goes the complex plight of the undercover cop: He's the hero who can feel like a heel -- and Cranston never lets us forget it.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

'Pets' with a cartoon kick

The Secret Life of Pets asks a question that's rich in both comic and dramatic potential. When owners leave their pets behind and head off to work, what do those lonely animals do? The team behind Despicable Me and Minions answers the questions in ways that turn The Secret Life of Pets into a jaunty series of cartoon-like episodes. Here's what happens: A terrier named Max (voice by Louis C.K.) lives a wonderful existence with an owner who loves him and whom he adores. Max's life is upset when his owner introduces a new pet into Max's environment, a large, floppy dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Instant antagonists, Max and Duke are nonetheless destined to form a lasting bond. They do this by escaping into the streets of Manhattan, where they meet Snowball (Kevin Hart), a rambunctious rabbit who leads a movement aimed at liberating all animals from the humiliations of domestication. Additional characters include a rather large cat (Lake Bell) and a Pomeranian (Jenny Slate). Secret Life builds toward an action-oriented finale that no doubt will appeal to younger audiences, but struck me as a tad charmless. I don't know if Secret Life of Pets will knock Finding Dory off its box-office pedestal -- it probably will -- but both movies feature work from Albert Brooks, who, in this case, provides the voice of a hawk. I'm not sure that's a step up from the fish to which Brooks gave voice in Finding Dory, but I look forward to the time when he gets back to being human.