Thursday, November 16, 2017

Superheroes unite to save the world

Justice League may not be great, but it registers as OK.

When I was a kid, the only thing I liked about getting haircuts involved the well-stocked stash of comic books that the neighborhood barber kept in his establishment. I consoled myself about the discomfort of itchy hair down the back and ungodly applications of hair tonic by visiting Gotham and Metropolis or maybe even Smallville, the town where Superboy was still finding his superhero legs.

I took solace for my impending misery in Clark Kent's square-jawed righteousness as a mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet and in Batman's colorful gallery of villains -- the Penguin and Joker. I loved the blocky apartment buildings that defined the urban landscapes of the cities where these Manichean dramas unfolded.

These were comics made for the clickety-clack of typewriter keys, for Clark Kent's fedora and for the overwrought prose of melodrama: "The Batman, having lost his way on a lonely by-road, stops before a lone house to ask directions. Suddenly, from the house comes a scream of a wild beast in pain ...."*

I get no such kick from the current wave of comic-book movies, which typically contain bloated action sequences that rely heavily on CGI, so much so that the villain in League of Justice, the latest entry from DC Comics, is a CGI creation called Steppenwolf. In tones that sound as if they've been augmented to suggest sonic boom, Ciaran Hinds provides Steppenwolf's voice.

Justice League, which brings together a quintet of superheroes (Batman, Cyborg, Flash, Wonder Woman and Aquaman) can be judged decent by current standards and it certainly represents an improvement over the somber and self-serious Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).

This episode has been directed by Zack Snyder, who ceded control to screenwriter Josh Whedon when Snyder, who directed Batman v Superman, left the production to be with his family after the death of a daughter.

The resultant movie isn't nearly as dark as Batman v Superman and pretty much functions as a foundation for the next installment, as well as a lively introduction to several superheroes who are new to the big screen.

Early stages of the story involve Batman's attempts to assemble a crew to fight Steppenwolf, a villain in horned-helmet who's trying to gather three mysterious boxes so that he can unleash their power and bring about (what else?) the apocalypse.

This set-up requires the movie to do some quick backup work in the form of abbreviated origin stories for Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa).

We already know Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and, of course, Ben Affleck's Batman. Not quite as gloomy as he was in the previous movie, Affleck's aging Batman isn't exactly charismatic, either.

These early sections work well and include the usual amount of extended action, which often seems more aimed at satisfying audience appetites for noise than advancing the story.

The main problem with the movie involves its villain, an off-the-rack menace who commands minions of flying, bug-like demons who feed on fear.

Gadot, who earlier this year established Wonder Woman as one of the best comic-book franchises, acquits herself well as a member of the emerging Justice League. Equally engaging is Miller, who has been given the lion's share of the movie's wisecracks. Another welcome presence, Momoa turns Aquaman into a tattooed rogue whose attitude ranges from casual to cynical.

The story unfolds against a backdrop of doom. Since Superman's death in Batman v Superman, villainy has erupted and the world has lost its knight in shining armor. Henry Cavill, who plays Superman, is listed in the movie's credits, but I won't tell you more about how the Man of Steel figures into the story.

The movie's superheroes must hold their egos in check and unite to conquer evil; saving the world proves to big a task for any single superhero. "Stronger together" didn't quite carry Hilary Clinton to the heights she hoped to scale and it doesn't totally work for Justice League, either, but the movie has entertaining elements and enough superhero chemistry to keep the DC wheel spinning toward the next movie.
*I have this quote on a Batman comics cover and linked to it. The link didn't take and I couldn't find the source again, but you get the idea about the overheated prose.

A coming-of-age movie with smarts

Greta Gerwig makes her directorial debut with the perceptive Lady Bird.

Lady Bird was so rapturously received on the fall festival circuit that when I finally saw this enjoyable coming-of-age movie, I was slightly taken aback by a level of critical enthusiasm that, for me at least, seemed excessive. I'll put some emphasis on the word "slightly" because I did find Lady Bird entertaining and worthy, a smart movie that picks its way through a well-worn genre without engendering any of the contempt usually bred by familiarity. That's because the movie's writer/director Greta Gerwig has a singular sensibility and because Gerwig, who does not appear in the movie, seems to be mining her own adolescent memories.

I don't know how much Lady Bird adheres to Gerwig's life, but the movie has been made with the kind of affectionate observation that suggests a strong connection between this fictional account and the reality of Gerwig's teen years.

To fully appreciate what Gerwig has accomplished, it's necessary to understand what she hasn't done. She introduces but doesn't overplay the story of a teenager who suddenly becomes friends with an attractive, popular girl and, as a result, ignores her best friend, someone who'll never be Homecoming Queen.

She includes a scene in which the movie's main character -- played by the emotionally supple Saoirse Ronan -- loses her virginity and winds up disappointed, a familiar teen-movie ploy but one that's freshened by Gerwig's idiosyncratic take on the collision between romantic expectation and reality. There's even a prom, but that, too, has its own off-kilter charms.

Although it doesn't always occupy center stage, the key relationship in Lady Bird revolves around Ronan's character and her mother, a psychiatric nurse played by Laurie Metcalf. The central issue in that relationship involves a mother's accusatory view of her daughter's aspirations, a sense that Ronan's Lady Bird (the name the character has chosen for herself) might be dreaming too big and, thus, heading for inevitable disappointment.

For her part, Lady Bird wants to escape what she views as the stultifying confines of Sacramento to attend college in the sophisticated East. Her mother wants her to stay closer to home, a preference that's not only geographical but metaphorical. Mom, who lives a conventional life with her newly unemployed husband (a fine Tracy Letts), may be envious of her daughter's desire to escape the weight of obligation.

The fact that Lady Bird -- a.k.a. Christine McPherson -- attends a Catholic high school adds more flavor. Happily, Gerwig resists caricature, presenting the school's faculty with sympathetic humor. Sister Sarah Joan (an amiable Lois Smith) displays unexpected humor. Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson) runs the drama club but is subject to bouts of depression. When Father Leviatch takes a leave of absence, the junior varsity football coach (Bob Stephenson) substitutes, preparing the cast for a production of The Tempest as if he were giving a half-time pep talk to a roomful of jocks.

One of the movie's best scenes occurs when Lady Bird meets with Sister Sarah Joan to discuss her college essay. Sister Sarah observes that Lady Bird has written affectionately about Sacramento, the city she purportedly loathes. Lady Bird says that she guesses that she pays attention, and Sister Sarah comments that paying attention qualifies as a form of love.

The boys in Lady Bird's life become part of her growing-up process. Lucas Hedges, familiar from Manchester by the Sea, portrays Danny, a star of high school musicals. He becomes Lady Bird's first boyfriend, but the relationship takes a turn Lady Bird fails to anticipate.

Lady Bird later develops a relationship with Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), a teenager who seems to have watched too many James Dean movies, internalizing an alienated pose.

Nice work from Odeya Rush as a Jenna, the unbearably popular girl, and from Beanie Feldstein as Julie, Lady Bird's BFF and the total opposite of Rush's Jenna.

Gerwig, familiar as an actress from movies such as Francis Ha, has made her directorial debut with an easy touch that results in a crowd-pleasing entertainment. The best compliment I can give Lady Bird is to insist that it’s a movie about a particular teenager rather than another entry in Hollywood's endless stream of generic and often dim-witted coming-of-age movies.

Happily engaging and marked by Ronan's wit and vulnerability, Lady Bird introduces us to a young woman who's taking small and large steps on one of life's more exciting journeys: discovering herself.

McDormand bristles in 'Three Billboards'

In the town of Ebbing, Missouri, things aren't going well.
Mildred Hayes doesn't brood. After her daughter was raped and murdered on a stretch of lonely Missouri highway, Mildred ran out of patience with the local police for failing to locate a suspect and make an arrest. Mildred took matters into her own hands, renting three rundown billboards outside of her hometown of Ebbing, painting them red and advertising the fact that the police chief dropped the ball.

"Raped While Dying." "And Still No Arrests" "How Come Chief Willoughby?"
Mildred's bold move upsets the police and the townsfolk of Ebbing, Mo. But here's the thing: Mildred doesn't give a damn who she offends. She's angry, grief-stricken and intent on obtaining justice for her departed daughter.

Director Martin McDonagh's often funny third feature, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, brings the British/Irish director to the American heartland for a movie that proudly displays its wild variations in tone. Three Billboards makes its mark as a genre farrago: it's a dark comedy, a profane assault on authority figures, a diatribe about small-town hypocrisies and a comedy built around characters whose speech boils with profanities.

Frances McDormand receives showcase space from McDonagh as Mildred, a woman who spreads her venom the way bees pollinate flowers -- liberally. No one is spared: not the terminally ill Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), not Mildred's son (Lucas Hedges), not her former husband (John Hawkes), an unreliable fellow who left her for a 19-year-old (Samara Weaving), and certainly not police officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dim-bulb of a cop with a vicious streak and a reputation for racism.

The British born McDonagh (In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths) occasionally seems to be straining to hit notes of political incorrectness as he reveals the blatant homophobia and racism of some of his characters. But touching moments and genuine expressions of feeling also turn up as characters are brought face-to-face with their humanity -- often under terrible circumstances.

Whatever its ambitions, Three Billboards derives its charge to McDormand; Mildred is so furiously committed to her own truth that she doesn't hesitate to provoke, even tossing the local priest out of her home. Of course, Mildred's language proves significantly less polite than a simple invitation for the priest to leave.

The movie's intemperate characters sometimes soften: A bit of homespun wisdom emerges from an unlikely source or a touch of decency is expressed by a character such as Rockwell's Dixon, a comic-book-reading cop who may be too stupid to know how thoroughly reprehensible he can be.

To keep everything slightly off balance, McDonagh sometimes mixes brutal and tender sentiments in the same scene. His approach creates ragged edges, but, like his main character, McDonagh may not care. Three Billboards takes its cues from McDormand, who infuses Mildred with uncompromising strength, the kind that allows a formidable woman to go toe-to-toe with any man and strike fear into his trembling heart. She marches to her own drummer and is more than ready to knock down anyone who stands in her way.

Three Vietnam veterans take to the road

Richard Linklater's Last Flag Flying , a moderately successful mix of humor, sorrow and the bonds of brotherhood.

In director Richard Linklater's Last Flag Flying, three Vietnam veterans reunite for a sad task. One of them has lost a son in Iraq. The mission: To bury a young Marine.

Two former Marines are played by Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne. Steve Carell 's Larry Shepherd -- nicknamed Doc -- served as medic in the Navy and wound up alongside Cranston and Fishburne's characters in the heat of Vietnam combat.

Last Flag Flying is based on novelist Darryl Ponicsan's sequel to The Last Detail, which was made into a 1973 movie starring Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and Otis Young. Ponicsan co-authored the screenplay for Last Flag with Linklater, and the movie has some (but not all) of Last Detail's comic bite.

It's 2003: The movie's principals may have thought that their war-time experiences were safely locked in the vaults of the past, but their journey forces them to come to grips with their war-time behavior as well as with the nature of the sacrifices all young men make when they go off to war.

Low key and steeped in the kind of naturalism Linklater favors, the director's moderately affecting look at the deep-rooted impact of war begins when Doc tracks down Cranston's Sal Nealon, a boisterous fellow who owns a Norfolk, Va., bar where he seems to drink as much as he sells. The two then set out to find Fishburne's Richard Mueller, a tightly wound former Marine who has tried to push the war and his wild youth out of his consciousness. He has become a reverend.

Doc, who was dishonorably discharged from the Navy, is younger than the others and going through a particularly bad patch. Not only has son been killed in action, but he recently lost his wife to cancer. Doc refers to his Bad Conduct Discharge (BCD) as a Better Career Decision, but it's clear that the military made Doc something of a goat. Doc has not had an easy time of it, but somehow has avoided trapping himself behind bars of bitterness.

Questions arise about how Doc's son died. The Marines want to enshrine the young man as a hero, but the details of the young man's death turn out to be more horrific than heroic.

When Doc learns the truth, he refuses to have his son buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Despite the urging of a Marine colonel (Yul Vazquez), Doc won't allow the Marines to propagandize his son's death. He insists on burying the boy in his hometown of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Military protocol requires that the young man's body be accompanied to its resting place. J. Quinton Johnson plays the young Marine assigned to this grim task: He joins the three older men as they make their way north from Delaware, where they have traveled to pick up the body.

As is the case with any road movie, the personalities of the men emerge as the trip unfolds: Cranston's Sal is happily boorish; Fishburne's Mueller has given up drink and tried to live a life of serenity and prayer, but you get the feeling that his newfound propriety can't entirely protect him from his past. "Doc" proves the quietest of the trio, a man whose soul droops with the weight of grief and regret. Doc found stability and peace in family life -- but, now, even that has been taken from him.

There's plenty of bickering as the men move toward the movie's sad finale, and some of the screenplay's bits feel labored: Sal's attempts to bring his compatriots into the 21st Century by buying them cell phones, for example.

Linklater mutes any political messaging. By the end, he makes it clear that these men aren't interested in honor or even patriotism. They claim a devotion to the Marine Corps, but what they really seem to cherish is their relationship to one another, bonds forged by a shared experience none of them ever will fully digest and which always will threaten to consume them. Still, like the Dude in The Big Lebowski, they abide -- psychic wounds and all.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Kenneth Branagh rides the Orient Express

Branagh directs and stars in Murder on the Orient Express, but his version of the 1934 Agatha Christie novel seldom clicks.

I'd be lying if I told you that I recall every detail of director Sidney Lumet's 1974 hit Murder on the Orient Express, but I do remember that the movie was fun. Albert Finney appeared as the great Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, heading an all-star cast that included Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud and Sean Connery.

The trouble with Kenneth Branagh's new version, which stars Branagh as Poirot, is that the movie can't wring enough enjoyment out of the journey from Istanbul to Calais -- not for the train's passengers and, more importantly, for us.

Murder on the Orient Express mostly serves to showcase Branagh's turn as Poirot in his version of Agatha Christie's classic 1934 mystery, and, no, Branagh isn’t as good as Finney.

Before the preview screening of Orient Express, I wondered why Branagh had bothered to remake it. After the movie concluded, I could find no special reason for him to have taken another go at material that also has yielded a 2001 TV movie in which Alfred Molina portrayed Poirot.

In this latest outing, Branagh upstages a hefty cast, which includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacoby, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr. Johnny Depp signs on, as well.

Branagh tries to provide visual bang for the buck with exterior shots of the mountains across which the train speeds, an avalanche that derails the engine, and even a few scenes outside of the train. The drama’s resolution takes place in a tunnel where the suspects are lined up at a long table as if they were about to stage a news conference.

I tired of Branagh's Poirot, particularly given the movie’s monotonous structure: Poirot interviews suspects (i.e., the supporting cast) one after another, each appearing in perfunctory fashion as if Branagh is following a time table rather than a script.

Nothing, of course, is as it seems, but Branagh doesn't optimize the participation of a strong cast. Only Pfeiffer comes close to receiving her own small showcase. Mostly, the supporting characters fail to generate keen interest.

For those who haven't read Christie's novel or seen the 1974 movie, there's no point spoiling the mystery, although it's worth noting that lots of attention seems to have gone into the movie's production design, creating the illusion that we're on a most opulent journey.

When Poirot finally solves the mystery, the movie hits its stride, but much of Orient Express proves a snooze-worthy ride in the company of a morally insistent detective who so values balance that he only eats eggs of precisely the same size.

If the light from your mobile device weren't likely to disrupt the experience of others, I'd suggest that this is one journey on which you might consider bringing a book -- perhaps something by Agatha Christie.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Thor returns to the screen with a wink

Thor Ragnarok has humor (nice), battles (who cares?), and some appealing supporting characters (welcome).

If you've been worrying about the fate of the beleaguered population of Asgardia, you've even more reason to fret now that the residents of that peaceable realm face a dire threat in Thor: Ragnarok, the latest big-screen entry from (who else?) Marvel Comics.

There's even more about which one can fret in this latest Marvel entry. It's possible, for example, to fear that Hela (sister of Thor and daughter of Odin) might seize control of Asgardia and begin her malicious rule.

Actually, you needn't worry about any of that because there's nothing much at stake in the amiable Thor Ragnarok aside from the future of the Thor franchise -- and that's pretty much assured anyway.

Hela, by the way, is brought to life by Cate Blanchett who has been outfitted with a piece of headwear that sprouts what look like antlers when Hela's fury rushes to the surface.

Blanchett's Hela, by the way, must not be trifled with. We know this because she's also known as "the goddess of death," a description that probably doesn't help her on intergalactic dating sites.

Should you find Hela too serious, perhaps you'll be amused to see Chris Hemsworth (as Thor) try to function without his trademark hammer as his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) alternates between the roles of ally and foe in the battle to save Asgardia. The banter between Thor and Loki constitutes one of the movie's high points, and the two actors navigate the screenplay's sillier waters with old-pro ease.

New Zealand director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilder People) attempts (often successfully) to leaven the proceedings with humor. Even detractors may be forced to acknowledge that Waititi imbues the proceedings with a level of self-mockery that, at the very least, demonstrates that he's aware that the fate of one more Marvel Comics franchise may not be essential to the continuation of our fragile species.

Waititi's also makes nice use of a supporting cast that includes Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, a valiant warrior woman who drinks too much, and Mark Ruffalo, who -- in this edition -- turns up as Bruce Banner after having spent several years in captivity as his CGI alter ego, The Hulk.

The triumph of Hulk over his Banner self has something to do with the evil Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum in a one-armed golden cloak). The Grandmaster presides over the planet Sakaar, where he runs an in-house battle between unwitting invaders and his captive champion, the Hulk.

Many Marvel movies depends heavily on the ability of the director to make us overlook their plots, a task you may wish to regard as dramatic accessorizing. In this regard, you'll meet Korg, a creature who looks as if he were made of rocks. Korg (voice by Waititi) is very strong but speaks softly in a signature scene in which he commiserates with Thor over the loss of his mighty hammer.

At one point, Thor also loses his hair -- or at least his long locks are trimmed, making him look like a very buffed businessman who has spent too much time at the company gym, a comic-book Sampson.

OK, so not all the joke are great. At one point, Valkyrie helps Thor escape through something the film inelegantly calls the Devil's Anus, a passageway linking two of the movie's worlds.

You'll also find spaceships, combat and a constellation of jokes, as well as a story in which Karl Urban portrays Skurge, a character who's recruited (more or less against his will) into Hela's evil orbit.

And, yes, Anthony Hopkins shows up (at least briefly) as Odin, although in this outing, Odin has more to do with establishing the plot than with participating in its development.

Parts of Ragnarok slog more than they soar, but Thor Ragnarok offers a bit of fun, and if we must have more Marvel movies (and we have little choice in the matter), we need more directors like Waititi, good-humored souls who refuses to be over-awed by the prospect of steering a movie into blockbuster terrain.

Better, I suppose, than the previous two Thor movies, Ragnarok nonetheless resembles a mirage; it allures, amuses and appeases before quickly receding into the dim recesses of memory.

At this point, you may be asking a pertinent question. What the hell is Ragnarok? I think it has something to do with a Norse prophecy about impending catastrophe.

The movie itself is no catastrophe thanks in part to Hemsworth who gives one of his more likable performances. Besides, it's difficult to hate any movie that allows Blanchett to chew the movie's abundant and not always impressive scenery -- archly, of course.

Childhood longing in 'Wonderstruck'

Director Todd Haynes takes on a serious structural challenge and sometimes meets it.

Based on a novel by Brian Selznick, Haynes's Wonderstruck tells parallel stories that evoke deeply human concerns, namely our ability to deal with loss and accept consolation. At its best, Wonderstruck showcases Haynes's ability to mix melancholy and nostalgia without succumbing to either. His movie can have the feeling of something dreamt.

One of Haynes's stories takes place in 1977 shortly after the death of a 12-year-old boy's mother. Once orphaned, Ben (Oakes Fegley) discovers a book called Wonderstruck among his late mother’s possessions. The book evidently was purchased at a New York City book store. A neatly placed bookmark suggests that Ben's father, a man the boy knows nothing about, gave the book to his mother (Michelle Williams in brief flashbacks).

Just as Ben dials the store to see if he can locate his dad, he's struck by lightning. As a result of the shock, Ben loses his hearing.

After a brief stay in the hospital in his home state of Minnesota, Ben sneaks away and hops a bus to New York City to continue the search for his father.

The movie's parallel story takes place in 1927 and involves a deaf 12-year-old girl (Millicent Simmonds) who, like Ben, heads for New York City. Simmonds' Rose tries to reunite with her mother, a star of silent films.

Cinematographer Ed Lachman shoots the 1977 segments in color; those in 1927 are shot in black and white.

While Haynes tries to get the feel of this parallel structure, the movie remains wobbly, but there’s little question that Wonderstruck aims to become a seriously lyrical helping of film. It succeeds in fits and starts.

Because much of the movie involves children, the child performers assume unusual importance. Simmonds, who’s actually deaf, acquits herself beautifully. But a lengthy scene in which Ben spends time with his new friend Jamie (Jaden Michael) in New York’s Museum of Natural History over-taxes both young actors and also stops the movie's flow.

When it’s working, we get hints of what Wonderstruck might have been: the 70s funk that Haynes finds in Manhattan’s streets; the melodramatic recreation of a silent film called Daughter of the Storm, and scenes in which Simmonds’ dazzled character arrives in New York City, having run away from Hoboken and a stern father (James Urbaniak) who clearly has no love for her.

Haynes couples a sense of childhood longing with notions about the importance of collecting items from the past, which explains why much of the movie takes place in museums. Toward the end, we even see a miniature model of New York City in a museum at the Queens, N.Y. site of the 1964 World’s Fair. The movie also includes a lengthy flashback that makes use of models and puppets to fill in some of the story's gaps.

Point of view shots that show us the world as seen but not heard by those who are deaf are intriguing, although they might have been even more effective had Haynes dropped Carter Burwell’s sometimes syrupy score.

Wonderstruck highlights its characters' need to acknowledge and get past painful loss without giving up on the mysterious wonder of existence.

Early on, young Ben reads a tone-setting Oscar Wilde quote his mother has pasted on her office wall. “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
The idea that distant heavens lend awesome perspective to the shocking meagerness of our lives certainly carries weight, but in Wonderstruck the message can be more stated than felt. Enchantment is only half achieved.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Veterans marred by combat

A straightforward look at the difficulties of returning home from war.

The problems depicted in Thank You For Your Service should be familiar to anyone who has followed news coverage about the plight of veterans returning from Iraq: high suicide rates, an over-taxed VA, crippling cases of PTSD, limited job prospects and other issues related to re-entering civilian life. I've read that the percentage of soldiers who incur psychological damage after deployment in contemporary war zones ranges from 20 to 30 percent.

Familiarity aside, director Jason Hall (who wrote the screenplay for American Sniper) dramatizes the problems facing veterans in mostly effective ways, focusing on three soldiers returning from Iraq in 2008 (Miles Teller, Beulah Koale and Joe Cole).

The actors are playing lower-middle-class guys whose lives have been radically altered by the intensity of their war-time experiences. Tiller's Adam has difficulty re-connecting with his wife (Haley Bennett) and two kids. Cole's Joe arrives home to discover that his fiancee has abandoned him, leaving him in a state of disconsolate confusion. Kaole's Tausolo Aieti -- a.k.a. "Solo" -- suffers from memory loss and sudden eruptions of violence that ultimately affect his relationship with his wife (Keisha Castle-Hughes).

Emotionally disturbed and mentally addled, Solo becomes involved with an older veteran (Omar J. Dorsey), a drug dealer whose efforts to exploit Solo pull the movie off track, but who also adds another generation of disaffection to the story.

Although these men are combat-tested, they're not too proud to ask for help from a VA that is often too burdened to provide it. The movie, which pretty much skirts political issues, doesn't rail against the VA: The folks who work for the VA are simply overwhelmed by numbers.

A combat incident that saddles Teller's character with guilt weaves through the movie; it's seen in flashback toward the end when Adam meets with the widow (Amy Schumer) of a soldier whose death has become a principal source of Adam's guilt. Equally moving is a scene in which Adam travels from Kansas to Arkansas to meet with Emory (Scott Haze), a debilitated soldier for whom Adam also feels responsible.

Playing a take-charge sergeant, Teller gives the movie's main performance, but he strips his work of any trace of show-boating, something that's true for the entire cast.

Based on a 2013 book by David Finkel, Thank You For Your Service stands as an illustrative example of the kind of fighting that begins once soldiers return home from war: Too often, the battle they wind up waging is with themselves.

Satire sinks in Clooney's 'Suburbicon'

Finding the right tone for dark comedy might be one of the most difficult things for a director to achieve. Case in point, Suburbicon, a mangled George Clooney-directed comedy about the nightmares that bubble beneath the surface of America's suburban dream.

Set during the 1950s in the fictional community of Suburbicon, Clooney's movie struggles (but ultimately fails) to link a story about family hypocrisy and horror to the racism that pervades a carefully designed community that has been marketed as a mid-century utopia.

The story focuses on a family in which Matt Damon plays Gardner Lodge, a father who contrives with his sister-in-law (Julianne Moore) to murder his wife (also Moore), a woman confined to a wheelchair after an automobile accident.

To carry out his foul plan, Lodge hires a couple of thugs (Glenn Flesher and Alex Hassell) to invade his home. Gardner's six-year-old son Nicky (Noah Jupe) functions as the movie's innocent witness to the horrible deeds that unfold around him, and, at times, your heart aches for this tormented young actor. What's he doing in movie that treats his character so cruelly?

Joel and Ethan Coen are listed among the film's writers, and traces of the Coens' work reveal themselves as the story unfolds. Clooney and Grant Heslov also take writing credits, but the overall result is a hodgepodge that Clooney can't unify. Worse yet, Clooney plays some of the movie straight. The result: scenes that feel as if they were lifted from a low-grade thriller.

The harassment of Suburbicon's African-American family (Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke, and Tony Espinosa) supposedly was inspired by a real-life, 1957 case in which William and Daisy Myers were subjected to terrible race-based abuse in Levittown, Pennsylvania. Suburbicon's easy-target approach to racism consists mostly of showing sneering expressions of hatred by the supposedly upright residents of Suburbicon.

Moreover, a baseball-related friendship between Nicky and the African-American kid next door (Espinosa) sees like a transparent effort to add symbolic and emotional resonance.

The only actor who finds precisely the right tone for Suburbicon is Oscar Isaac, who shows up midway through as an insurance claims investigator with his own sleazy agenda.

The cast does its best to keep the story tracking, but scenes that are intended to be funny don't produce the expected laughs and the satirical point (Lodge is the real menace, not the town's only African-American family) doesn't resonate the way it should.

Maybe Clooney wanted to expand a small story about the underbelly of suburban life by offering a sidebar about the racism that underlies America's shining facade. Whatever he was thinking, he mostly missed the mark.

An intriguing start, but where's the payoff?

Another strange movie from the director of The Lobster.

A skilled surgeon and his anesthesiologist walk down a hospital hallway after performing open-heart surgery. Rather than talk about the operation they’ve just performed, they exchange banalities about their high-priced wristwatches. Later the surgeon, meets with a young man and gives him a gift, an expensive watch. The conversations in these two scenes are conducted without benefit of inflection or emphasis. For all the color the actors bring to their dialogue, they might as well be reciting grocery lists.

In these scenarios, relationships and motivations become blank slates, and we -- the audience -- labor to comprehend the meaning of everything we see.

Are these doctors so insensitive that they can talk about nothing more than the quality of their watches? And what is the relationship of the physician to the young man we've just seen? Could the young man be a son from some now-dissolved marriage? Is this meeting about something stranger than an awkward reunion?

All of this occurs in the opening moments of director Yorgos Lanthimos's The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a revenge saga played out in an atmosphere of provocative obfuscation. Lanthimos, who directed the much-admired but often cryptic The Lobster (2016), has proven himself a master at holding an audience in what might be called "active suspension," a state of heightened attentiveness in which much is suggested but little is clarified.

I'm a partisan of this approach to filmmaking, the kind in which images, music, and performance continually force us to look for meaning. But such filmmaking also can prove risky. Often, it can't be maintained for a two-hour running time. Eventually, the filmmaker must get down to business and create some sort of plot.

It's at this pivotal point that Lanthimos's effort begins to crumble, and we face the slow dawning of an unfortunate realization; the keenness of observation Lanthimos has demanded of us may not yield the hoped-for payoff.

Any actor who works with Lanthimos must adapt to the director's style, something in the way that actors who appear in a David Mamet production must submit to the loaded cadences in which Mamet's characters speak.

In that regard, the actors in The Killing of a Sacred Deer do admirable work. Colin Farrell plays Steven Murphy, heart surgeon and wristwatch enthusiast. Nicole Kidman portrays his wife, Anna, an eye doctor. The Murphy's have two children: Kim (Raffey Cassidy), a teenager, and Bob (Sunny Suljic), a long-haired boy with a near-angelic look.

The mysterious young man mentioned earlier (Barry Keoghan) mixes politeness and threat, a cross between Eddie Haskell, the obnoxiously polite kid on Leave it to Beaver, and serial killer Ted Bundy.

Alicia Silverstone shows up briefly as Martin's mother, a woman who hopes Steven will assuage her loneliness by becoming her lover. Martin eggs her on in this delusion.

Now, if you don't want to know anything more, I suggest you stop here. At the risk of introducing spoilers, I must tell you that Martin poses an increasingly grave danger to the Murphy family. It seems that Martin's father died after Steven operated on the ailing man. Martin blames Steven and aims to settle the score. He informs Steven that if the good doctor doesn't kill either his wife or one of his children, each will become ill and die. How Martin intends to fulfill this malignant promise remains a mystery.

Dipping into Greek mythology and who knows what else, Lanthimos deftly keeps us inside his bubble of suspense, sometimes nudging us toward the comic absurdity of Steven's situation. The security of an affluent family suddenly is threatened, which means -- of course -- that it had no real security in the first place.

Farrell's bushy beard seems to throw his face into a perpetual scowl. Kidman manages to be a credible denizen of Lanthimos's strangely concocted world. Before Steven and Anna make love, Anna sprawls across the bed in her underwear, lies perfectly still and invites Steven to proceed by uttering the least romantic words ever heard in a sex scene; i.e., "general anesthesia." Sex becomes an operation, and Anna seems to be saying, "Have at it. I won't feel a thing."

The movie's best performance belongs to Keoghan who has the capacity simultaneously to alarm and reassure; Martin's twisted sincerity makes it seem as if perfect logic supports the young man's insane plan.

If you want to enlarge your interpretation of the movie, you can view the story as a stage in which karmic forces clash: Steven must be punished for being a successful doctor who may once have been negligent. Or maybe he's being punished for living an affluent life in the movie's unnamed city or for cutting himself off from his emotions or ... You can fill in your own blanks.

Whatever Lanthimos wants to say falls prey to the fact that the movie becomes less intriguing as it goes on, so much so that the denouement of Lanthimos's drama feels abstract and remote rather than shockingly tragic.

Augmented by the cool tones of cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis's lighting, Killing of a Sacred Deer evokes depths it's unable to plumb. In the end, the movie may amount to little more than a complex expression of a familiar adage: Payback's a bitch.

Fair enough, but this could be a case in which a movie's cruelty doesn't hurt enough because its creators can't entirely solve the problem of making the conceptional battle between an arrogant doctor and the evil he arouses into something that comes screaming to life. Lanthimos may have been defeated by his own considerable artistic impulses: Putting a movie under “general anesthesia” risks not being able to rouse it again.

All I see is ... well ... boredom

Murky and unsatisfying, All I See Is You stars Blake Lively as Gina, a woman who's blinded in a childhood automobile accident. Director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland) uses Gina's blindness as an excuse to compile a series of distracting point of view shots. He shows us what Gina can see (blurs of white light) or, on occasion, what she imagines: an orgy. Gina, who lives in Bangkok with her husband (Jason Clarke), regains her sight after a physician (Danny Huston) performs corneal transplant surgery on her. As Gina gains more independence, Clarke's James becomes increasingly uneasy. The only question: How long will it take Gina to realize that James wants Gina to be entirely reliant on him? Forster and co-writer Sean Conway toy with notions about what we see, what we think we see and what we are willing to see. But this listless semi-plunge into the world of perverse psychology fails to generate enough energy to arrive at any real thematic destination. Settings in Bangkok, where James works in the insurance business, create mild interest, as do the Spanish locations the couple visits. But even a side trip to a live sex show in Barcelona adds little by way of spice to a movie that fizzles as psychological drama. Blame over-stylized visuals, an under-nourished story, and performances that suffer from the movie’s lack of focus.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

A heartbreaking ode to childhood

I can't think of a movie that better captures the evanescent joy and freedom of childhood than The Florida Project, a movie set in a run-down motel in Orland, Fla., the kind of place where residents always are one small step away from homelessness. Joy and freedom, yes, but no matter how much fun these kids have, we know they're hanging on by a thread.

Not coincidentally, the movie takes place near Disney World, an attraction dedicated to an entirely different view of childhood and family than the one the movie so keenly observes. Also not coincidentally -- but definitely ironically -- the motel in which much of the story takes place is called The Magic Castle. Nothing about The Magic Castle, a dump coated with purple paint, seems either magical or noble.

If you're interested in knowing how certain effects in movies are achieved, a bit of on-line research usually can lead you to answers. But I don't know if it's possible to explain how director Sean Baker (Tangerine) obtained the performances that make The Florida Project so convincing and special, particularly from the kids who populate his movie.

Six-year-old Moonee, rendered in an irrepressibly energetic performance by Brooklynn Prince, provides the movie with its centerpiece. Moonee seems to be enjoying a summer away from school with two friends: Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Cotta's Jancey lives with her grandmother in the nearby and equally bereft Futureland Inn.

These are not kids who are sent to summer camps, chauffeured from one enriching activity to another or otherwise sheltered from the harsh realities of a junk-food life in a place where most of the residents have little chance for brighter futures.

It's not surprising that at one point, the kids badly damage an abandoned property or that each of them becomes vulnerable to dangers that Baker doesn't always follow to the most harrowing extremes. What would be the point? Things are bad enough for these kids without piling on.

Moonee lives with her mother (a terrific Bria Vinaite), a young woman who tries to cobble together a life. Vinaite's Halley perpetually runs out of money and we fear that she'll never get a grip on how to be a responsible adult, much less a mother. But -- and here's where the movie shines -- it's equally clear that no matter how unprepared for motherhood Halley is at 22, she loves Moonee. She can be a playmate and a friend to her daughter, but she can't be the adult in the room, probably because in one way or another her early life mirrored Moonee's.

A world-weary custodian named Bobby (an excellent Willem Dafoe) presides over the motel. Bobby collects rent, enforces rules and tries to maintain a semblance of order. Dafoe portrays a sympathetic man who has seen almost every manner of hardship befall the denizens of this shabby world, often more than once. When he tries to help, he knows that he's bucking a tide of bad luck and despair.

The achievement of cinematographer Alexis Zabe must be acknowledged; his images can be lustrous and beautiful without shortchanging the seedy environment in which Moonee and Halley spend their time, occasionally trying to get a taste of the good life. When Moonee has a chance her to eat a real meal, her face practically erupts with delight.

Sometimes, there's less need to rattle on about exceptional movies than when we deal those that are mediocre. That may be the case with The Florida Project, a movie that concludes with a scene catapults Moonee into a world of promise and fantasy.

I won't say anything more about the movie's final shot, but everything that precedes it tells us that Baker knows better. Rude awakenings loom in Moonee's world of dreams. And that's what accounts for the sadness beneath every moment of euphoria in The Florida Project: Fantasies may buoy our spirits, but they also can curdle into the most devastating of lies.

He refused to be bed ridden

Robin Cavendish spent 36 years of his life paralyzed from polio, a disease he contracted while working in Kenya in the 1950s. Breathe, a new movie starring Andrew Garfield and marking the directorial debut of actor Andy Serkis, turns Cavendish's story into a life-affirming celebration. It may sound odd for a movie about a paralyzed man, but Serkis (The Lord of the Rings and the Planet of the Apes movies), has made a sometimes giddy, feel-good movie -- and, as a result, Breathe never feels entirely credible. Early on, the movie focuses on Cavendish's relationship with Diana (Claire Foy), the love of his life. The two meet, marry and head to Kenya. When the stricken Cavendish is brought back to England, he initially wishes for nothing more than to die. He has no desire to spend his life attached to a breathing machine. For an active adventurous man, life had lost its meaning. Diana, who by this time is pregnant, eventually brings her husband out of his funk and the rest of the movie charts the ways in which Cavendish struggles to lead a meaningful life. With the help of an inventor (Hugh Bonneville), Cavendish labors to escape his bedroom, an ambition that led to the invention of a mobile wheelchair with a built-in breathing machine. For those who are unable to breathe on their own, life becomes a new kind of adventure, one dependent on a continuous flow of electricity and, ultimately, on others. Displaying a preternatural helping of good humor, Garfield gives a spirited performance as Cavendish, no small feat considering he's limited to working with his face and voice. Serkis delivers moments of interest, but the movie eventually becomes mawkish with a conclusion that proves touching -- if not heartbreaking. If Breathe advances a view that's anything close to the truth, Cavendish probably wouldn't have wanted it any other way, but Breathe might have benefited from a little less burnish and a lot more soul searching.

A farewell to Harry Dean Stanton

If you're interested in deep questions about life and death, you probably can do better than Lucky, a movie that's devoted to watching a man in his 90s -- played by the late Harry Dean Stanton -- consider the fate that awaits him. An atheist who doesn't believe either in the soul or heavenly immortality, Stanton's Lucky is left to smoke cigarettes, drink his daily Bloody Mary and peer into the terrifying void that awaits him. Lucky perfectly fits a parched New Mexican setting in which Stanton's collapsing face seems as natural as an aging cactus -- and just as prickly. Lucky doesn't seem to care much about anything, although he's able to summon enough anger to deliver a diatribe against a local lawyer who's helping another senior citizen (David Lynch) with his estate planning. In one of the script's awkwardly quirky touches, Lynch's character says he wants to leave everything to his best pal, a tortoise that recently escaped into the desert. Members of the supporting cast (Tom Skerritt and Ed Begley Jr, for example) have their moments, but this is Stanton's show. His Lucky comes off as a World War II vet who still recalls the horrors of conflict and who, as his doctor (Begley) says, qualifies as something of a miracle, having never moderated any of his health-threatening habits. Lucky should satisfy those who crave one last go-round with Stanton, who died in September at the age of 91. Directed by actor John Carroll Lynch, Lucky serves as an ode to Harry Dean, an actor who made a career out of playing men who never seemed to give a damn what anyone thought of them, a trait that made the actor admirable to audiences grown weary of ingratiating performances and celebrity polish.

When life becomes one big wave

In the surfing subculture, Laird Hamilton remains a star. Director Rory Kennedy's documentary -- Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton -- tells Hamilton's story, tracing the surfer's life from a difficult, rebellious childhood to a lifetime of tackling big waves. We're talking the kind of gigantic swells that most of us would prefer to watch from the safety of shore. Kennedy understands that nothing will top the movie's surfing footage and she offers enough of it to produce the expected gasps. Hamilton, who's now 52, is widely recognized as an innovator in surfing, and Kennedy is careful to show that there's discipline involved in his search for excellence, not to mention a flood of injuries that might have retired others to the nearest sofa. Hamilton, who has his detractors, has taken stabs at other activities -- a badly received 1987 surfing movie called North Shore and a bit of modeling, for example. But nothing ever replaced surfing, an activity that required him to develop what he calls "a relationship with fear." None of this is to say that Hamilton has no life away from his surfboard; Kennedy spends time with professional volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, the woman who has been Hamilton's wife for the last 20 years. She tells us that their marriage has had its "bumpy periods," but also says that when Laird arrives home, he's present. At almost two hours, the movie feels a trifle long, including a section on a video venture that Hamilton and his partners launched and which eventually dissolved in a wake of bad feelings. But Take Every Wave emerges as an intriguing study of a man who has organized his life around a highly concentrated passion that continues to propel him in his search for new and challenging waves to ride.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Thurgood Marshall, young attorney

Not a bio-pic, Marshall concentrates on a single, racially charged case.

Chadwick Boseman has made a specialty out of playing historical figures. He began with Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), followed with James Brown in Get On Up (2014), and now tries his hand at Thurgood Marshall in Marshall.

A cautionary note: Marshall isn't really a bio-pic about the man who became the country's first African-American Supreme Court Justice. Rather than taking a sweeping look at Marshall's amazing life and career, the movie focuses on a single case that took place in the early 1940s when Marshall worked as the NAACP's only lawyer.

Law books in tow, Marshall traveled the country defending African Americans whom the NAACP believed to be innocent, men who were on trial only because of their race.

Directed by Reginald Hudlin and written by civil rights attorney Michael Koskoff with his son Jacob, Marshall deals with a racially tainted judicial system -- not in the Jim Crow South but in Bridgeport, Conn.

The case in point involves sex. An African-American limo driver (Sterling K. Brown) is accused of having raped and attempted to murder his employer's socialite wife (Kate Hudson).

As an out-of-town lawyer dispatched by the NAACP, Marshall needs a local attorney to act as the "official" counsel for the defendant. Enter Josh Gad as Sam Friedman, an insurance lawyer who's suddenly thrust into the limelight in a case for which he's ill-prepared.

The trial judge (James Cromwell) rules that only Friedman can speak during the trail. The 33-year-old Marshall acts as Friedman's coach and strategist, often scrawling notes as he sits next to the silent defendant. Friedman never before has argued a criminal case.

Hudlin relies heavily on the evolving relationship between Marshall and Friedman to supplement the judicial proceedings. Self-assured, brilliant and even a bit arrogant, Marshall always seems to know exactly what he's doing as he represents those accused of crimes, knowing that every move he makes also subjects the NAACP to possible scorn.

Friedman slowly comes to share Marshall's convictions, initially fearing that association with a racially explosive case -- which he's more or less dragged into -- will ruin his business and tarnish his reputation.

The movie eventually takes the familiar form of a courtroom drama, which Hudlin handles in a straightforward fashion that would be right at home on a TV series; he interrupts the proceedings with recreations of the accounts of those who offer key testimony, notably Hudson's Mrs. Strubing and Brown's Joseph Spell, two people with widely divergent versions of what really happened.

Hudlin seasons the movie with snippets from Marshall's non-courtroom life. He travels so much that he spends only limited amounts of time his wife (Keesha Sharp). The couple desperately wants to have a child. In what amounts to dramatic name dropping, Marshall meets with poet Langston Hughes (Jussie Smollett) and novelist Zora Neale Hurston (Rozonda "Chili" Thomas) in a Harlem night club.

Boseman, who'll next star in the Marvel Comics adventure Black Panther, brings steady conviction and sly humor to the role of Marshall. Although his character functions as the lead attorney for the defendant, Gad mostly defers to Boseman. Gad plays a middle-class Jew who slowly sees the civil rights light.

The writers may have felt that the case -- which involves race relations and sex -- would be entirely compelling, but Marshall sometimes seems bound by period-piece trappings and routine genre tropes that make the movie feel less exceptional than its title character might lead you to expect.

Still, Marshall's story -- even part of it -- remains a worthy subject: The influence of race on American criminal justice remains a hot-button issue and Marshall understands that the way some cases unfold has more to do with white perceptions, particularly about black men having sex with white women, than with facts, a condition that's still very much a part of our national tragedy.

Jackie Chan hits a somber note

The Foreigner pits Chan's character against a former IRA man played by Pierce Brosnan.
No one has made martial arts feel more joyous than Jackie Chan. Throughout his long movie career, Chan has been involved in some of the most intricately brilliant fight scenes ever filmed, many of them choreographed in ways that tip over into physical comedy.

One assumes that the always likable Chan, now 63 and perhaps past the point where he wants to risk more injuries, may not be able to continue at the bruising pace he once set. So it's hardly surprising to see Chan taking another tack in director Martin Campbell's The Foreigner, an adaptation of an insensitively named 1995 Stephen Leather novel called The Chinaman.

In The Foreigner, Chan's work takes a somber, determined turn as he plays a London father whose daughter is killed during a bombing by a group that identifies itself as a new incarnation of the IRA. Having given up his career as a hitman, Chan's Quan Ngoc Minh resumes action, setting out to avenge his daughter. Quan's mission of revenge brings him into the orbit of a former IRA man now serving in the government, Pierce Brosnan's Liam Hennessy.

Quan believes that Brosnan's character knows who's responsible for the London bombing. Having gotten nowhere with British counterintelligence agents, Quan insists that Hennessy name names. If the law won't provide justice, Quan will get it for himself.

It takes time for Chan to reveal his character's lethal side. Quan bows when he meets people and generally presents himself as an obscure restaurateur who runs a London takeaway joint. Few know that Quan was raised in Vietnam, where he was trained by US special forces. As a result, Quan knows how to build bombs and kick butt. He can commit to a mission with unrelenting persistence.

Quan heads to Belfast, following Hennessy to his country estate. There, Quan steadily raises the ante by setting off a series of increasingly powerful explosions. Meanwhile, Hennessy must deal with his angry wife (Orla Brady), the British government bureaucracy and a variety of other problems, including the ire of an IRA man who believes Hennessy has sold out men who once were his bothers in arms.

Chan vanishes for long stretches as Hennessy's intrigue-laden story moves toward center stage.

Campbell treats the material more as a political thriller than a martial arts display, and the whole package winds up as a hard-boiled entertainment that's not afraid to strike at point-blank range even if it doesn't quite manage to earn credit as more than another darkly hued movie shot through with the customary bitter undercurrents.

The man who was Deep Throat

Mark Felt takes us inside the world of the FBI during the days of Watergate.

Although an FBI investigation into matters involving White House personnel can be related to today's headlines, Mark Felt: the Man Who Brought Down the White House feels a bit dated and remote. In telling the story of Mark Felt, the man better known as Watergate's Deep Throat, the movie attempts to take us inside the FBI during the time when Felt began talking to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.

Working from Felt's 2006 memoir, director Peter Landesman wraps his story in so much seriousness he might as well be preparing to enshrine it in a museum. For all its portent and heaviness, Landesman's movie about the messy work of saving the republic feels more like a weighty footnote than a main event.

As the title suggests, Felt -- whose identity was kept secret until 2005 -- occupies the movie's center. Felt, we learn, was passed over for the top FBI job when Herbert Hoover died. Despite the slight, associate director Felt insisted that he remained loyal to the agency.

As the movie tells it, he became a whistleblower because he refused to see the FBI compromised as investigations into the Watergate burglary began to heat up. He wanted to defend the integrity of an agency that wasn't supposed to be tarnished by political considerations. And maybe he was also furious and hurt about not getting the job for which he spent much of his adult life preparing.

Looking gaunt and severe, Liam Neeson plays Felt as a lawman accustomed to maintaining a stony front. A father estranged from a daughter who has been won over by the counterculture, Felt quietly endures his wife's (an underused Diane Lane) drinking and dissatisfactions, and he soon finds himself at odds with interim FBI director L. Patrick Gray (Martin Csokas).

An outsider to the ranks of law enforcement, Gray is put in the job to be a Nixon ally in the FBI after Hoover's death. Felt also finds himself at odds with FBI agent Bill Sullivan (Tom Sizemore), a guy who doesn't mind bending the rules and who becomes Gray's top assistant.

Scenes in which Felt interacts with fellow agents -- some of whom respected and feared him -- make us feel as if we're piercing FBI walls of secrecy, but that's not enough to elevate the movie to the level of importance to which it must have aspired.

Michael C. Hall has a nice turn as White House counsel John Dean, and Bruce Greenwood turns up as a journalist with whom Felt confided before he established a secret relationship with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.

For the most part, Landesman places the film squarely on Neeson's shoulders, using the actor's statuesque presence as a key to setting a somber tone. Nothing wrong with that, but this gloomy earnestness seems to be Mark Felt's only tone. The movie sticks to it as doggedly as Felt adheres to his desire to protect the FBI from concerns that he insists are irrelevant to law enforcement.

Mark Felt leans heavily toward portraying Felt as an American hero -- perhaps with the mud of accommodation on his shoes, but a hero nonetheless.

The movie tells us that in addition to his Watergate efforts, Felt was involved in dubious FBI efforts to find members of the Weather Underground. Felt was found guilty, but eventually was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan. This part of Felt's story plays like an afterthought. Besides, Felt remains noble to the end, refusing to pass any blame to subordinates.

There's no question that Felt was at the heart of events that shook the nation -- but Mark Felt wears its solemnity of purpose like a straight jacket, something that can't be said about All the President's Men, still the best Watergate movie of all.

The incredible story of 'Wonder Woman'

A movie that tells the surprising story of how a comic book superhero was born.

In its early days, the comic-book version of Wonder Woman included homoerotic imagery, ample amounts of bondage, and other quasi-erotic suggestions that were later purged from the adventures of the world's most famous female superhero.

I confess to knowing little about Wonder Woman's origins, so I was doubly intrigued by Professor Marston & the Wonder Women, the story of how the Wonder Woman character originated in 1941. If you want to be totally surprised by the answer, stop reading now, but I'm confident you'll be interested to learn the odd path that brought this now-familiar character to realization.

In Professor Marston and the Wonder Women -- based on real events -- writer/director Angela Robinson tells the story of Wonder Woman with inclusions of lesbian and straight sex, a long-standing threesome, and a living situation that was provocatively unconventional during the '40s and '50s. Hell, it would be provocative even today.

Limited only by its small-movie look and straightforward style, Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman treats Wonder Woman creator Professor Marston -- actually Dr. William Moulton Marston -- and the two women in his life as a springboard from which to advance an argument about tolerance for those who choose to live outside the parameters of traditional marriage.

The movie also becomes an ode to the early days of contemporary feminism, but even at its most didactic, Professor Marston remains an intriguing look at the offbeat story behind Wonder Woman.

Early on, we meet Dr. Marston (Luke Evans), a respected psychologist. When the movie opens, Marston and his psychologist wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) are trying to invent a lie detector. The year: 1928.

Hall's Elizabeth rails against a system that marginalizes her work as a psychologist because she's a woman. Obviously brilliant, the rueful Elizabeth hates being ignored by a male-dominated academic establishment.

The emotional complexity of the story begins to take shape when Marston, who teaches at Radcliffe College, enlists the help of a promising and attractive undergraduate (Bella Heathcote). At the time, Radcliffe functioned as the women's arm of the then all-male Harvard University.

In a startlingly frank exchange, Elizabeth tells Heathcote's Olive that she should stay out of bed (not the words she uses) with her husband. But eventually, it becomes clear that Olive's crush is not for the charismatic professor, who is attracted to Olive, but for Elizabeth.

And then things get even more complicated. Olive must acknowledge that she has sexual and love interests in both Marston and his wife, a situation that eventually leads to the formation of a bounds-breaking family.

Both Evans and Hall acquit themselves well, but Heathcote gives the most surprising performance. She takes Olive from a somewhat innocent student to a full and often eager participant in the socio-sexual experiment that, at least in Dr. Marston's view, constitutes a brave attempt to liberate women and teach men to respect them.

To be honest, I had difficulty determining whether the movie bought Marston's line or regarded it as something he invented to excuse his sexual cravings. Maybe both things are true, but Evans does a solid job of showing that Marston keeps up a principled front no matter what unfolds.

To tell its story, the film employs a framing device in which the head of the Child Study Association of America (Connie Britton) questions Marston about the corrupting influences of Wonder Woman on the nation's youth.

We also see the moment at which Wonder Woman was born. After Marston develops a relationship with Greenwich Village porn merchant (JJ Field), he tries to involve both women in bondage. During their initial session, Olive dons a tiara, a silver burlesque costume, and boots. Marston has an "ah-ha" moment. Suddenly, he sees Wonder Woman standing where just a few moments earlier only Olive could be found.

Marston, Elizabeth, and Olive lived together for some time and took responsibility for raising children born to both women. The movie deals with the difficulties that manifested both inside and outside such a relationship. Things didn't always go smoothly.

Although it can be taken as a somewhat subdued manifesto for sexual and female liberation, the main reason to see Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is simpler: It may not be a great film, but it sure has one hell of a story to tell.

Living inside van Gogh's paintings

Loving Vincent can't find a story equal to the artist who inspired the movie.
It's easy to see why festivals gobbled up Loving Vincent, an animated work that tells the story of artist Vincent van Gogh in the style of the master's paintings. Tactile and throbbing with energy, the movie's images seem intended to allow viewers to take a vicarious journey inside van Gogh's world.

The story of how the movie was made is impressive. Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman hired 125 painters to take us into the surroundings of van Gogh's later years, if someone who died at the age of 37 can be said to have had later years. To obtain the motion that animates the story, some 64,450 oil paintings were created.

The directors first filmed live actors, using that footage as source material for the movie's many painters. I've read that every second of film required 12 hand-painted frames to bring us into the cafes and rooms van Gogh made famous.

Nothing if not ambitious, Loving Vincent uses actors to give voice to characters familiar to those who've seen van Gogh's work -- and who hasn't? Among the van Gogh subjects who have made it into the movie: postman Joseph Roulin (Chris O'Dowd), Doctor Gachet and his daughter Marguerite (Jerome Flynn and Saorise Ronan). Van Gogh, who appears sporadically, is voiced by Robert Gulaczyk.

Clearly a labor-intensive affair, making Loving Vincent required big-time dedication and the movie easily could have resulted in folly. Loving Vincent is no disaster, but it's not quite the triumph that its subject deserves.

Many reasons: To begin with, the movie's painting proves inconsistent, perhaps an inevitable result of using hundreds of artists.

That, however, wouldn't have mattered had the story lived up to the stature of the artist. Kobiela and Welchman try to wrap the story in mystery. After van Gogh's death, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) is dispatched from Arles by his postman father to deliver a letter Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in Paris, but never mailed.

As the story unfolds, the initially skeptical Armand becomes increasingly sympathetic to van Gogh; in particular, he wants to know more about van Gogh's death.

Questions about whether van Gogh killed himself or was murdered don't do enough to add intrigue to a movie that covers mostly familiar ground about one of the world's most recognizable artists.

As various characters recall their dealings with the artist, the movie switches to black-and-white renderings of episodes from the painter's life, some of which look more photographic than painted.

In sum, Loving Vincent might be deemed a noble failure that some will wish to see me merely because of love for van Gogh or because the endeavor certainly qualifies as daring. But it's equally true that little in Loving Vincent proves as illuminating as van Gogh's work itself.

Besides, isn't adding motion to van Gogh's painting a prime example of gilding the lily. Van Gogh's work already reflects a reeling, explosive sense of energy that hardly needed a booster shot from the movies.

Father and son tackle the wilderness

Walking Out revolves around a view of manhood that's steeped in the self-sufficiency of men who brave the rugged mountains of Montana, hunting for elk and living out an ethos built around a relationship to the mountains and its wildlife. The story: Fourteen-year-old David (Josh Wiggins), who lives in Texas with his mother, makes his annual visit to his father Cal (Matt Bomer) in Montana. Cal and David hike into the mountains so that David can snare his first elk, a metaphor for his coming-of-age. Working from a story by David Quammen, directors Alex and Andrew J. Smith deliver a metaphorical tale about fathers and sons and how their roles can shift as circumstances change. The relationship between Cal and his father (Bill Pullman) are seen in flashbacks that add a multi-generational touch. Not surprisingly, Cal and David run into trouble in the mountains and the movie becomes a stark survival tale -- albeit one that tries not to overplay its hand. The story's poignancy stems from the knowledge that fathers and sons never really know one another. In sum: a medium-impact survival story set against the grandeur of forbidding and beautiful surroundings.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A visually rich return to the future

What's real and what's not? Blade Runner 2049 wants to know, but it may cause some head scratching..
I'm not one of those people who consult director Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) for philosophical guidance. I liked the movie well enough when I first saw it, but haven't joined the cult of enthusiasts who make regular return visits, often followed by heated debates about what, in the movie, should be taken as real and what shouldn't.

But there's no question that Scott's movie -- based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep -- set the pace for a lot of the dystopian sci-fi that followed in the wake of Blade Runner's noir-flavored foray into a dangerously decaying Los Angeles.

Now comes Blade Runner 2049, set some 30 years after the original. If you're looking for a beautifully realized vision of the world as the filmmakers think it might exist several decades from now, this new edition -- directed by Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) -- works hard to provide it.

Major credit accrues to cinematographer Roger Deakins, who makes ample use of yellow and orange hues to create a world that feels as if its enveloped in poisonous smog. Breathe at your own risk.

The desiccated landscapes of the movie's early going tell us that the world has been drained of its richness, its abundance having been exploited to the point where even a dead tree has become something a novelty. Technology may hold sway, but the Earth has become infertile.

We also learn, from opening title cards, that replicants -- genetically engineered creatures that are indistinguishable from humans -- are designed to be safe and servile. But Blade Runners, those who hunt down and "retire" replicants, still operate, searching for older replicants that had the audacity to make a case for replicant self-determination.

Prior to a screening, publicists read a statement asking critics not to reveal plot points and other surprises. OK, I'm not going to talk much about the plot except to say that it's not always easy to follow the one concocted by writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. I'd say that 2049 wants to be a deep-thinking detective story with a replicant hunter named K (Ryan Gosling) sent on a quest to ...

I won't say more, except to note that replicant-related peril puts the entire structure of the society Villeneuve depicts at issue.

Among the film's creations, you'll find Joi (Ana de Armas), an electronically produced holographic woman that adores K and offers no resistance when it comes to fulfilling her role as a fantasy. You'll also see Jared Leto as the head of a company that produces replicants in a performance that's too transparently spectral and weird. Leto's Wallace is served by a ruthless woman (Sylvia Hoeks) who's all business -- and bad business at that.

Even icier than she is on House of Cards, Robin Wright portrays the LAPD big-wig to whom K reports.

Gosling punctuates a purposefully inexpressive performance with small inflections, and -- if you've read anything about the movie -- you know that Harrison Ford returns as Deckard, only in a more worn-out version. The replicant hunter of the first movie evidently has been in hiding for the last 30 years, taking up residence in an abandoned Las Vegas casino where he can watch holographic Elvis projections and we can ponder a few similarities to the work of Stanley Kubrick.

The movie, which has its longueurs, perks up considerably when Ford arrives. I should tell you, though, that most of the time, I found myself in a state in which I seemed to be floating through the story, not really caring where it was going as I awaited the next intriguing bit of visual invention.

In his positive Hollywood Reporter review of 2049, Todd McCarthy astutely pointed out that the "style and tone" of 2049 owes more to Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker) than to Scott's original. McCarthy's observation is correct but I wonder whether this approach -- creating an almost expanded sense of time -- doesn't deprive the picture of narrative interest while threatening to turn 2049 into a massive art project with a vision that exists more to be dissected than actually lived in. Food is now produced synthetically. As in the original, cars fly. High tech paraphernalia can be found even in the seedy tenement in which K lives. The ravages of climate change create snowfall in Los Angeles. When Leto's Wallace presides over a room in which a platform is surrounded by water that splays ripples of reflection across walls.

That's another way of saying, Villeneuve doesn't give us much reason to connect emotionally to much of anything in 2049.
I suppose 2049 serves up plenty of fodder for those who wish to philosophize about what's real and what isn't or to ruminate on how artificial intelligence changes our ideas about what it means to be human. But after the movie's sometimes taxing, 164-minute running time, I found that other more immediately pressing needs required attention.

Struggling to survive -- the movie, that is

Idris Elba and Kate Winslet are stranded in the mountains. In this case brrr is bad.

I've been searching what's left of my movie-saturated brain trying to find something (anything, really) positive to say about The Mountain Between Us, a survival adventure starring Kate Winslet and Idris Elba and directed by Hany Abu-Assad, the Dutch/Palestinian director who gave us two Oscar-nominated works, Paradise Now and Omar.

It's not an easy task, but I came up with two things, and I'll share them before I proceed to tell you that The Mountain Between Us qualifies as a major disappointment, a movie that shatters credibility before shifting gears and making an ill-advised turn from formulaic adventure to formulaic romance.

So about those positives: To begin with, it's a pleasure to see the gifted Elba in a lead role as an accomplished man, in this case, a neurosurgeon who's trying to get to reach a patient in need of his skills.

Another positive? Fair to say that Abu-Assad does a decent job with the plane crash that strands the movie's two principals near the film's beginning.

OK, I'm out of positives. Now for the negative side of the ledger:

Winslet plays Alex Martin, a photographer with war-time experience. When the movie opens, Alex is trying to reach Denver for her wedding, scheduled to take place the next day. She's frustrated when she learns that all flights have been canceled because of bad weather. She notices that another passenger -- Elba's Ben Bass -- faces the same problem and proposes that they join forces, hire a private plane and remain on schedule.

Having described the movie as a survivalist adventure, you already know that the plane goes down in the forbidding mountains of northern Utah. This, after the pilot (Beau Bridges) has a stroke while flying, never a good.

Alex, Ben and Walter's dog, an animal that Abu-Assan occasionally uses for inappropriately cute reaction shots, survive.

If you're going to get into this wilderness ordeal, you'll have to forgive some inconsistencies. At one point, Ben suddenly turns up with a nice pair of hiking boots. A small matter, but you can search for others on your own.

Initially, Ben and Alex argue about the best course of action. He's prone to logical thinking: She's more willing to follow her instincts. Should they stay with the plane or try to walk to safety, a difficult proposition because Alex's leg is broken and neither of them has a clue where they are or how far they might have to travel in to reach a point of survival?

Neither Winslet nor Elba need any selling when it comes to acting ability, but they're not well served by inane dialogue, an obviously stated moral (stronger together) and a late picture, eye-rolling conversion to romance that throws us into a whole other genre.

Adapting a novel by Charles Martin, screenwriters J. Mills Goodloe and Chris Weitz move through plot points like a hiker negotiating deep drifts without the benefit of snowshoes. As is the case with many movies, this one may have begun as someone's labor of love; it turned out to be ... well ... just laborious.

Spending time in the library

Thank God for Frederick Wiseman, the documentary filmmaker who makes films that proceed without benefit of any orienting narrative, quick cuts or agitated attempts to inject drama into scenes that unfold in real time. Wiseman's latest -- Ex Libris: The New York Public Library -- goes on for nearly three hours and I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that I found some of it tedious, particularly scenes in which library staff talk about the institution's digital future and its attempts to retain relevance. The way technology has impacted libraries is, of course, tremendously important, but I hated staff meetings when I had to attend them and watching someone else's proves no less enervating. But that's a price I willingly paid for allowing Wiseman to open the doors to an institution known to the world for its Fifth Avenue and 42 Street branch, the one with the staircase guarded by two lion sculptures on pedestals. Wiseman takes us through that branch of the library and some of its less recognizable outposts. Watching Ex Libris isn't like taking a guided tour; it's more like being given a pass to go anywhere in the library, accumulating impressions and drawing whatever conclusions we wish to draw -- if any. For me, Ex Libris was at its most involving when Wiseman takes us to Q&A sessions with such notables as musician Elvis Costello or authors Ta-Nehisi Coates and Richard Dawkins. Wiseman also shows us that the library has a social dimension, conducting after-school programs, for example. Don't be misled by the fact that I've offered only a short review of Wiseman's 197-minute movie. By no means take that as a suggestion that Ex Libris should be dismissed. Like many of Wiseman's other films -- most recently In Jackson Heights (2015) -- Ex Libris functions as a kind of time-capsule document, something that could be viewed years from now by those who want to understand something about the way institutions functioned in our tumultuous times, in this case, trying to keep pace with change while remaining faithful to its overall mission.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

A fight for equality or more hype?

Emma Stone and Steve Carell star in Battle of the Sexes, a movie about the much-heralded match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.

Battle of the Sexes -- the story of the much-hyped 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs -- isn't exactly a good movie, but it contains interesting work around the fringes.

Bill Pullman, to take one example, steeps his performance in a fully vested sense of privilege as Jack Kramer, a former tennis champ and executive director of the Association of Tennis Professionals. A staunch opponent of the idea that women and men tennis players should earn equal money, Pullman's Kramer stood at the head of the tennis establishment.

Pullman effortlessly imbues every ounce of his performance with an ingrained belief: Women never could equal men on the tennis court. I don't know what the real Kramer was like, but Pullman has been asked to embody the sexist beliefs of a sport that was male-dominated in the 1970s, and he uses the opportunity to deliver a character who has no idea that he's confusing prejudice with fact.

Another fine -- but also minor performance -- in Battle of the Sexes belongs to Elizabeth Shue, who plays Riggs's wife, Priscilla. The scene in which Priscilla dissolves their marriage becomes an exquisite rendering of decisiveness from a woman who understands that Riggs, a compulsive gambler, never will provide the stability she needs. Priscilla tells Riggs the marriage is over with a sense of dignity, authority, and love that's stunning in its compassion.

In line with Shue's performance, the movie treats endangered marriages with a kindness that's quite unusual. Prior to the big match, King's marriage is being tested. She begins a lesbian relationship with her hairdresser. King's husband (Austin Stowell) tries to weather the storm, holding his emotions in check.

It also should be noted that Sarah Silverman has a nice turn as Gladys Heldman, the savvy woman who helped organize and find funding for the women's tour that King and others started.

I know. I haven't said a word about the big match that the movie presents as a pivotal moment in the evolution of the women's movement. I also haven't mentioned that Emma Stone does a credible job as King, although I found myself constantly evaluating her against whatever memories I have of the real person.

With a set of crooked false teeth, Carrel gives an interesting spin to Riggs's life, making him a man whose chauvinism becomes shtick. At the time of the match, Riggs was 55; King was 29. Solely on the basis of his gender, Riggs tried to sell the idea that an aging male tennis star could beat a vibrant young woman with an exceptionally strong game. Riggs, of course, couldn't conquer the difference caused by age, even with a gargantuan supply of vitamin supplements.

You don't get the sense that Riggs totally believed in his chauvinistic rants. He was trying to sell tickets and provide himself with a big payday. For him, the match was an opportunity to put himself into the center ring of a circus -- until, of course, the moment when he realized that he couldn't beat King.

For King the stakes are higher: She wants to prove that women should be treated equally by the tennis authorities. Earlier in the movie, she leads a revolt in which women players withdraw from high-profile tournaments and create their own tour. The issue: equal pay.

Much of the movie (too much, I'd say) is taken up by the budding relationship between King and her hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough). At the time, any hint of gayness would have destroyed King's career, so she was forced to walk a thin line between her emotional needs and her public image.

In part, the movie is hampered by its structure. Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine) alternate between Riggs and King, a stylistic choice that's equivalent to putting a net between two parts of the narrative and, then, shifting from one side to the other. As a result, Battle of the Sexes can feel as though it's moving sideways instead of gaining forward momentum.

Faris and Dayton do a decent job with the big event, which took place in Houston's Astrodome. The surrounding hoopla almost overwhelmed the actual match, which King won easily.

During the match, the directors show us shots of women rooting for King and middle-aged men looking disconsolate as they realize that their avatar was headed for defeat.

Granted the '70s were a tumultuous time for male/female relations. I know. I was there. But the guys I knew at the time thought the King/Riggs spectacle had less to do with gender barriers than with hype: I didn't take the match seriously enough even to watch the ABC telecast of it.

Working from a script by Simon Beaufoy, the directors must have realized that they had loaded their plates, picking a subject that touches on gay emergence, marital woes, shifting cultural norms, the inflated atmosphere that can surround sports and the desire of some to cash in on all of the above. Faris and Dayton never quite find a tone to encompass the chaos that not only rocked the culture but impacted individual lives.

Put another way, this is one tennis movie that could have used more topspin.