Thursday, June 22, 2017

A documentary about a jazz great

Chasing Trane chronicles the life and artistry of saxophonist John Coltrane.

If you were making a documentary about jazz genius John Coltrane, you'd be tempted to find a style that matched Coltrane's musical inventiveness. That might be a mistake because genius in one form doesn't necessarily translate into genius in another.

Director John Scheinfeld (The U.S. vs. John Lennon) chose the opposite direction, and the result is a straightforward documentary that salutes Coltrane's talent without reaching high levels of distinction on its own.

Despite that, Scheinfeld's Chasing Trane stands as a worthy addition to the liturgy of jazz on film, as well as a movie that charts racial issues inextricably imbedded in Coltrane's story. He grew up in the Jim Crow South.

Coltrane died of liver cancer in 1967 at the age of 40. During his short life, Coltrane went long on accomplishment: He played saxophone with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and with his own band.

Chasing Trane reminds us of Coltrane's prodigious skills, a sense of musical creativity so expansive that he could make a jazz classic out of The Sound of Music song, My Favorite Things, a tune that easily could slip into triteness and often has. Coltrane's rendition of that tune is more than an interpretation, it's a re-invention.

Many regard Coltrane's Love Supreme album as a masterpiece of musical and spiritual creativity, as well as an affirmation: Coltrane cared more about honing his artistry than he did about audience acceptance.

In Love Supreme, Coltrane often can be heard playing with controlled frenzy, filling almost every second of a solo; it's almost as if he's racing against time, trying to leave no sound unexplored.

If you listen to Love Supreme don't ignore McCoy Tyner's piano, every bit the equal of Coltrane's sax, and I don't say that to slight drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison, who also played on what became a landmark album.

As the story unfolds, we learn about Coltrane's two marriages, the heroin addiction that he kicked and his exploration of Eastern spirituality.

Scheinfeld interviews a variety of people about Coltrane -- his children, fellow musicians (Sonny Rollins), cultural commentators (Cornel West) and fans (Bill Clinton). Yes, that Bill Clinton, the former president whose saxophone skills never prompted anyone to call him a musical genius.

I can't say that Chasing Trane is a great film, but it's a decent film about a great artist, and, as such, deserves to be seen.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

'Transformers' stomps on coherence

Another helping of chaotic action from director Michael Bay.

It's fairly common for fantasy movies to ponder the imminent destruction of the Earth and all its inhabitants. Why we need outside (often alien) help to accomplish such devastation puzzles me. We seem to be doing a pretty good job of wrecking the planet ourselves.

Still, it's no surprise that Transformers: The Last Knight again puts the planet under extreme threat. Unfortunately, the movie -- directed by Michael Bay -- misses the point: We all probably should be wondering about the durability of a culture that has now produced its fifth movie based on a line of toys.

I'd like to tell you more about Last Knight, but that won't be easy because the plot stumbles its way through a variety of set pieces that span the movie's taxing two-and-a-half hour length.

If noise were art, Bay would be the Leonardo Da Vinci of movies. He specializes in a brand of visual and aural overstatement that can turn images into a form of cinematic shrapnel.

Bay tries to expand the series' reach by beginning in the Dark Ages, a time when knights fought with heavy swords and dodged streaking fireballs that were catapulted in their direction.

Having already been trashed in another summer movie, King Arthur returns to fight off a barbarous horde. On the verge of being decimated, the Knights of the Round Table only can be saved by Merlin (Stanley Tucci). Tipsy from alcohol in this telling, the fabled magician has a staff that can summon transformers to help vanquish the forces of evil -- or some such.

Don't hold me to every detail in this review because attempting to follow a movie as scattered as Last Knight can feel discombobulating, like trying to balance your checkbook while riding a rollercoaster.

After its Medieval prolog, the movie leaps ahead 1,600 years. The Earth faces grave danger. Among other things, savior robot Optimus Prime has returned to his home planet of Cybertron to search for his maker. Once he arrives home, Prime discovers that Cybertron has fallen on hard times. According to a sorceress named Quintessa, Cybertron only can be saved by sucking the life out of Earth.

If your head doesn't hurt by now, keep reading. If you'd rather stop and do something more constructive (rearrange your sock drawer, say), you have my blessing.

As part of its metallic furor, Last Knight also tells us that the US military has declared war on all robots. Not so fast, says Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), an inventor who remains loyal to his robot allies. Cade befriends Autobots, helpful to humans, as opposed to Decepticons, not helpful to humans.

Isabela Moner plays a young woman who also loves Autobots. She becomes an occasional tag-along partner for Wahlberg's Cade. She also drops out of the movie for extended periods.

I'll spare you a guided tour of the Transformer universe. Know, though, that about half way through, Wahlberg -- more or less the movie's lead -- joins forces with a British character named Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock). She's a Medievalist who knows how to recover Merlin's staff, which holds the key to ... well ... something or other.

Did I mention that there's also a talisman with mystical properties? Talismans are always helpful in movies because just about everyone wants to get hold of one.

The movie makes room for an extended appearance by the estimable Sir Anthony Hopkins. He portrays Sir Edmund Burton, an overly demonstrative nobleman who eventually tells us that Wahlberg's character is "the last knight" of the title.

I have to admit that the movie's final act contains some decent pulp imagery involving an attack on the Earth by what looks like a giant coral reef.

Every now and again, John Turturro, a refugee from the previous movies, makes a cameo appearance from Cuba, where his character presently is located. Turturro could be the first actor ever to have to make phone calls (really) to the main plot in order to make his presence felt.

There's also a small robot that seems to be a dilapidated, trash-can cousin of R2-D2. A late-picture underwater, submarine sequence that arrives after the movie already has sunk.

Attempts at humor are so ham-handed that they're easy to spot amid all the flying debris.

Bay doesn't whip up many edge-of-the-seat moments. Maybe that's because it's difficult to generate real suspense when the series -- like this movie -- feels as if it never will end.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The hero of 'The Hero' is Sam Elliott

A veteran actor gets his shot at a lead role.
If you find Sam Elliott's wizened face intriguing, you'll love The Hero, a slender movie about an aging Western actor who has been reduced to making commercials for barbecue sauce. Director Brett Haley has given us a movie that's all Elliott all of the time -- much of it in large close-ups of the actor's face.

No matter what role he's playing, Elliott's deep, sonorous voice seems to speak only one language: cowboy. In The Hero that's almost the entire point.

Haley directed Elliott in I'll See You in My Dreams, which teamed him with Blythe Danner. This time, he casts Elliott as Lee Hayden, an actor best known for a movie called The Hero.

When he's not working -- which is most of the time -- the 71-year-old Lee hangs out with an actor (Nick Offerman) with whom he once starred in a little-seen television series. They watch Buster Keaton movies and smoke marijuana.

The screenplay, by Haley and Marc Basch, adds a few wrinkles, one serious. Early on, Lee learns that he has pancreatic cancer. Looming mortality prompts Lee to try to make amends with his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter). He hopes his ex-wife (Katharine Ross (Elliott's real-life wife) might be able to help.

Lee also begins an affair with a younger woman (Laura Prepon) he meets at the house of his dope-smoking pal. She's a stand-up comic. Prepon and Elliott work well together, although there's no particular reason for their May-December relationship, other than to add spice.

As it stands, The Hero showcases Elliott. The camera loves his face; it's almost as if Elliott's trademark of an overwhelming mustache mops up any of the script's loose ends.

It's arguable that The Hero is more about Elliott's iconic countenance than it is about the character he's playing. The Hero evidently was written specifically for Elliott, and if Haley wanted to honor the actor, he's done a good job of it.

Look, the estimable Elliott certainly deserves a lead role, and no one would argue that he's unable to carry The Hero, often on his own. He's a pleasure to watch, but a little more movie would have been welcome, too.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

'Rough Night' founders -- badly

A strong cast can't save this formulaic and unfunny comedy.

It doesn't matter that the raunchy comedy Rough Night was directed by a woman. It also doesn't matter that Rough Night employs a group of talented actresses that includes the fiercely funny Kate McKinnon.

And while we're on the subject of irrelevance, you should know that it's equally unimportant that Rough Night gives us a much-needed opportunity not take Scarlett Johansson seriously or that the movie makes no fuss about a gay theme with Zoe Kravitz and Ilana Glazer playing former lovers.

Similarly, Jillian Bell's portrayal of the gal pal who Johansson's character has outgrown since the two bonded during dissolute college days is of little consequence.

It doesn't even matter that the movie follows a well-tested formula for crass comedies.

All of these things could have made a difference had this comedy about former college classmates who gather for a bachelorette party in Miami been either perceptive or funny. Maybe, Rough Night isn't funny precisely because of its inability to get close to anything that might be called incisive.

An attempt to darken the comedy -- the women accidentally kill a man they believe to be a male stripper -- isn't handled with enough wit or finesse to save the day. No Weekend at Bernie's, Rough Night arrives on screen as a painful misfire.

Any movie that resorts to cocaine snorting for one of its running gags -- as this one does -- immediately declares itself ineligible for any awards involving imagination.

Even the brilliant McKinnon, who plays an Australian visitor to the US, can't hit the necessary high notes, and the movie leaves us wondering what motivated the filmmakers to encourage McKinnon to channel her inner Naomi Watts.

Although designed as an ensemble comedy, the movie revolves around Johansson's Jess, a woman who has left her hard-partying college days behind to run for the state Senate. Once in Miami, Jess quickly sheds her sense of propriety to join what's supposed to be a fun weekend of clubbing hopping and debauchery.

Now and again, the movie offers scenes involving Jess's fiancé (Paul W. Downs). While the women are trying to be wild in Florida, Downs's character attends a sedate bachelor party. He and his buddies spend an evening at home in New York testing wines. Attendees include comedians Eric Andre, Hasan Minhaj and Bo Burnham, all mostly wasted.

Director Lucia Aniello doesn't do much to explore this bit of role reversal, and Downs's character quickly heads to Miami on a non-stop car trip involving adult diapers, stimulants and beer. Why adult diapers? So there's no need for him to make bathroom stops. A misunderstanding leads Jess's fiancé to believe his impending marriage may be endangered.

In Florida, the women stay at the upscale home of one of Jess's major donors. They also meet a couple of leering swingers played by Demi Moore and Ty Burrell.

Low on creativity, Rough Night at one point finds McKinnon's character feigning sex with the corpse that the women desperately are trying to hide. So, yes, this one tries everything, including a joke about necrophilia. Like the corpse, the joke dies. The movie isn't far behind.

No reason to open this book

The Book of Henry doesn't seem to know what kind of movie it wants to be and winds up abusing some serious issues.
Let me share several things that I hate to see in movies: 1. Loving but otherwise incompetent parents who are raising kids who are smarter than their elders. 2. Needlessly quirky touches -- say a house in the woods that a genius kid has assembled out of discarded household items. 3. Confusion about whether a movie wants to be kid friendly or adult serious.

Sadly, The Book of Henry commits all of these sins, the most grievous of which is its inability to encompass a variety of plot threads while also adding thriller elements about an ill-defined case of child abuse.

The Book of Henry isn't easy to write about without including spoilers, but parents who plan on taking kids should know that the movie includes the death of a child. If that ruins the movie for you, so be it. I'll say no more about it.

Director Colin Trevorrow, who wrote the screenplay for Jurassic World and who directed the well-received Safety Not Guaranteed, shifts from comedy to drama in ways that create an atmosphere that's shot through with improbabilities.

Absent much to say about the plot, I'll tell you about the characters. Eleven-year-old Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) lives with his single mom (Naomi Watts) and his younger brother (Jacob Tremblay) in a suburban New York town.

Mom works as a waitress. In addition to all his other talents, Henry excels at finance. He manages Mom's funds.

Not only is Henry a whiz at practical matters, he also holds his mother to a high moral standard, which he prosaically states: When others are being abused, we're obligated to intervene, Henry says.

Watts struggles to play a single mom who has turned her oldest son into a helpmate, a form of parental irresponsibility that sometimes occurs with single parents, but -- in this case -- has been carried to unbelievable extremes.

Watts's character seems to have only one friend, another waitress (Sarah Silverman), a woman who sports a large, flowery tattoo above her exposed cleavage, who may be an alcoholic and who hardly needed to be in the movie at all.

The movie's thriller component involves one of Henry's classmates (Maddie Ziegler), a girl who lives next door to Henry with her widowed stepfather (Dean Norris), who also happens to be the town's police commissioner.

In Rear-Window style, Henry observes the house next door and learns that Norris' Glenn Sickleman is abusing his stepdaughter. Henry documents his findings in a diary of sorts, the book that gives the film its title. He also authors a plan to halt the abuse.

Working from a screenplay by Gregg Hurwitz, Trevorrow fails to wring much emotion out of the story's soap-operatic elements. As a thriller, the movie comes across as absurdly twisted. Worst of all, it short-changes issues that deserve serious exploration.

Enough said.

A Kaiser in exile and a fraught love story

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany abdicated his throne in 1918, retreating to the Netherlands, where he lived in exile for another couple of decades. Adapted from the Kaiser's Last Kiss, a novel by Alan Judd, The Exception looks at the Kaiser's life during the heyday of the Third Reich, which the Kaiser evidently hated for its boorishness. A brilliant Christopher Plummer plays the Kaiser as a character reminiscent of a Tolstoy creation, an intelligent but mildly deluded ruler who never has accepted his fall from power. The story kicks off when the Nazis assign a German captain (Jai Courtney) to watch over the Kaiser and keep an eye out for spies. Courtney's Capt. Brandt evidently has been banished himself; he's on a punishment assignment for having gotten crosswise with the SS during a stint in Poland. The Kaiser surrounds himself with a small coterie of loyalists that includes a military aide (Ben Daniels) and the empress, a fine Janet McTeer. The story of a rueful monarch in exile is muddied by Capt. Brandt's infatuation with one of the kaiser's servants (Lily James). Director David Levaux focuses much of the movie on the relationship between the captain and the servant girl, a young woman who happens to be Jewish. Questions about the meaning of loyalty arise for the smitten Capt. Brandt, but the movie's emphasis on romance costs it some hard-edged credibility. Eddie Marsan appears briefly as Heinrich Himmler.

Two strange families, one bizarre movie

French director Bruno Dumont tries his hand at comedy, but Slack Bay is no ordinary laugh machine.

It's not easy to write a capsule description for a movie that includes cannibalism, serial killing, gender confusion, slapstick, romance, incest and what may be one of the most unusual jobs ever depicted on screen, carrying people across the shallows of a marshy bay. I'm not talking about a boat trip, but about a father/son team that literally picks people up and carries them across the water in their arms.

Directed by Bruno Dumont, Slack Bay takes us to the craggy coastal area of northern France in 1910. There, we meet two very strange families, the Van Peteghems (clueless and well-to-do) and the Bruforts (poor and mean-spirited).

The Van Peteghems live in a strange, fortress of a house overlooking the bay. The Van Peteghems embody all the pretensions of the supercilious upper classes. They are summer residents of the area. The Bruforts reside year-round on the poor side of town, hauling mussels from the sea and occasionally murdering an unsuspecting tourist by using an oar as a club.

The Bruforts are a sullen lot, and they make full use of their victims, chopping their bodies into small parts and munching on what might be called human tartare. Anyone for a foot? Perhaps a big toe?

As people disappear, two detectives roam the beach trying to determine what happened to those who have vanished. One is a corpulent man (Didier Despres) who wears a bowler and makes squishing sounds when he moves. His frequent falls usually result in a roll down one of the sand dunes that dot the beach. An assistant (Cyril Rigaux) accompanies his parade-float of a boss everywhere.

One of the charms, if that's the right word, of Dumont's movie is that the characters never seem to mesh. They are, in their way, a collection of lunatics, particularly the wealthy family, which is lead by a hunchback (Fabrice Luchini) who seems to have no control over his arm movements and whose mouth seems to have settled into a permanent droop. Luchini's Andre moves with the jangled grace of a swan in the midst of a seizure.

He has arrived at the seaside with his wife (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). Later, he's visited by his sister (Juliette Binoche). Binoche's character is less a human than a walking aria of self-dramatizing gestures.

The Van Peteghems live in a building they have named the Tymphonium, a structure modeled on their view of ancient Egyptian architecture.

At various times, the Van Peteghems are visited by the brother of Tedeschi's character. Christian (Jean-Luc Vincent) seems to be mentally challenged, but not enough to play the role of holy fool.

Meanwhile, the poor side of town is represented by a patriarch (Thierry Lavieville) who calls himself the Eternal and his oldest son, Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville). Ma Loute has the defiant look of a confirmed outsider.

Add to this mix a girl who dresses like a boy but who may actually be a boy, played by an actor identified only as Raph. Raph's androgynous Billie immediately is attracted to Ma Loute. She/he is thunderstruck and so is Ma Loute.

Little in this oddball world jells, but Dumont's mixture proves funny, strange and confounding, and each of the movie's mood is enhanced by the beautiful, often painterly compositions of cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines.

Dumont mostly has made serious films (Humanite and Twentnine Palms). Though dubbed a comedy, Slack Beach has a serious substrata. Issues about class rivalry and human folly underlie the movie's bizarre whimsy. Dumont has concocted a world that exists in its own bubble-like sphere, refusing to be grounded by the confines of known realities or by customary moral proprieties. His movie is all the better for it.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

'The Mummy' vanquishes Tom Cruise

A muddled helping of horror? Campy fun? Or ... maybe it's just another summer dud.

In a better world, The Mummy would be wrapped in linens, placed in a sarcophagus and buried in an obscure location where it would be unable to knock on thousands of multiplex doors.

Even with Universal's history with mummy movies, something the studio revisited with several Brendan Fraser efforts, this edition never becomes a fitting member of the comic book/fantasy universe that dominates so much of the movie landscape.

Trace elements from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Night of the Living Dead, the customary booming effects and a lead performance from Tom Cruise aren't enough to elevate a badly muddled effort. The Mummy hits screens having been embalmed of logic with a story that begins by linking the Crusades to ancient Egypt.

In some of its scenes, The Mummy travels to London to unleash torrents of mayhem, prompting thoughts about how that recently battered city deserved a better break.

Cruise plays a soldier who seems to use his time in Iraq as an excuse to steal antiquities. During a burst of heavy fighting, Cruise's Nick Morton and his pal Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) discover a tomb that contains the mummy of evil Egyptian princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella).

An Egyptologist (Annabelle Wallis) who happens to be wandering around Iraq immediately recognizes the importance of the find, and the mummy is carted away to Britain.

Asking whether the 5,000-year-old Ahmanet will spring to life is like wondering whether temperatures in the desert are prone to rising at midday. You shouldn't have to ask.

Six credited writers are unable to make sense or add much winking humor to a movie that doesn't seem to understand that its only pathway to success involves an indulgence in camp.

And forget about horror. The Mummy is no more scary than the average amusement park fun house.

Now in the midst of all this, we learn that everything involving the mummy is being orchestrated by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe). Crowe's Jekyll, who takes injections to keep his Hyde side at bay, arrives in the movie like a visitor from another planet -- or at least another movie and his doesn't look as if it could be any better than the one we're watching.

The movie's best creative touch: The risen mummy has four eyeballs, which -- perhaps -- means that mummies don't need special glasses to watch 3D movies like ... well ... The Mummy.

I can't say that I've loved every movie that Tom Cruise has made, but I've never seen him give a performance quite this unconvincing. Perhaps Cruise was trying to be funny or perhaps he, like the movie, couldn't find the right tone for a story that tries to present Ahmanet as a seductress for the dark side. She inhabits Nick's mind, causes him to have visions and makes him seem as addled as the movie itself.

Whatever prompted Cruise's performance, a murky script makes The Mummy his mission impossible for the summer of 2017. Do I need to ask you to pardon the pun?

Director Alex Kurtzman serves up plenty of mediocre action as he staggers to a conclusion that suggests that sequels loom, as well as other movies from what Universal is calling its Dark Universe series, films based on rights the company owns. Maybe Universal's other monsters will fare better.

As for The Mummy, the only appropriate conclusion might be: Let the dead continue to slumber. Please.

A family fights for survival

It Comes at Night serves up a slice of narrowly focused, end-of-the-world horror -- minus a ton of gore.

Sometimes a movie benefits from a willingness not to be specific about something that, on its face, seems of paramount importance.

Director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha) bravely refuses to define the threat that endangers his characters in It Comes at Night. That bit of restraint determines almost everything else about his movie -- both in terms of its strengths and weaknesses.

All we know is that something unseen and mysterious has caused people to contract a highly contagious disease that inflicts terrible suffering and always proves fatal.

Faced with this mass contagion, Dad (Joel Edgerton), Mom (Carmen Ejogo) and their 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) have withdrawn to an isolated cabin in a woods. They've sealed their home which features a corridor leading to a red door, the only way in or out.

Set in the midst of what appears to be an end-of-the-world scenario, It Comes at Night makes wise use of its limitations, focusing on how people respond to a situation that's fraught with fear and peril.

The family does its best to protect itself from danger. When family members leave their cabin, gas masks give them an ominous, alien look. Inside, they try to keep their environment as impenetrable as possible.

Early on, the family confronts an intruder (Christopher Abbott). As it turns out, Abbott's character also has a family. He offers to share food in return for shelter and water. After plenty of initial doubts, Edgerton's Paul agrees to join forces with a new family, which also includes a wife (Riley Keough) and a child (Griffin Robert Faulkner). None of them has yet to contract the sickness.

Harrison gives the film's best performance, ably reflecting the disoriented quality that accompanies what seems to have been the family's sudden retreat from everyday life, as well as the gloomy acknowledgment that the future must be bleak.

It doesn't help that Travis also is haunted by what he sees in the movie's opening scene, the mercy killing of the family's grandfather (David Pendelton), an early victim of the unidentified "sickness," a malady that causes those who suffer to breathe unevenly and break out in festering sores.

For all its virtues, It Comes at Night also makes us realize that this kind of concentrated, hot-house approach to filmmaking can hamper the way characters are deepened or a film's themes are enriched.

Still, most of the performances click. Behind a thick beard, Edgerton does pared-down work in his second interracial relationship movie since Loving, and Abbott conveys an understanding of the harrowing difficulties involved in negotiating an impossible situation. The script shortchanges Ejogo, as well as any potential racial issues.

If there's real horror here, it has less to do with jolts and gore than with the realization that under extreme conditions, mistrust can become an essential, if double-edged, survival tool. That's a truly scary idea -- and one that seems to fit the precarious moment in which we currently find ourselves.

A decent man faces a crushing system

I, Daniel Blake , director Ken Loach's latest issue-oriented movie, deftly makes its point..

Among filmmakers, British director Ken Loach remains unique in his steadfast commitment to socially relevant film-making. For half a century, Loach, who's now 80, has directed films about the kinds of marginalized people who seldom find their way to the screen.

In I, Daniel Blake, Loach continues to focus on the tribulations of people struggling with forces beyond their control -- in this case, issues involving failing health and diminished opportunities to earn a living.

Daniel Blake, the movie's main character, works as a carpenter until a heart attack keeps him from seeking employment. Much of the movie involves Daniel's efforts to obtain support from the state.

Loach chronicles Daniel's frustrating dealings with social services personnel and with the Internet, a common enough bit of technology about which he knows little. Misguided social workers keep telling him to go on-line to fill out forms.

At one point, a clueless government employee orders Daniel to produce a resume, a meaningless task for someone who knows how to demonstrate his skills only by doing what he's done for all of his adult life; i.e., building things.

Loach makes Daniel (Dave Johns) a sympathetic figure, a decent man who's sensitive to the plight of others. Daniel befriends a young woman (Hayley Squires) he meets at a welfare office. Daniel uses his meager resources to help buy food for her kids. He also repairs her rundown apartment. He's helping, but he's also affirming something that he badly needs: to feel useful.

Guided by his commitment to realism, Loach resists adding the kind of uplift that might be found in a less sobering film, which is not to say that Loach wallows in thick neorealist mud. Daniel can feel desperate, but the film does not.

Besides being a clear-eyed statement about the failures of institutions designed to help people such as Daniel, we also find Loach's love of ordinary people and his abiding empathy for their daily struggles. That shouldn't be an extraordinary accomplishment, but sadly not many filmmakers are as skilled as Loach in putting such struggles at the center of their movies.

A Marine bonds with her dog

On screen, the real-life story of Megan Leavey proves deeply affecting.

Megan Leavey can be categorized as a story about a woman and her beloved dog -- only with a major difference. The woman is Megan Leavey, a Marine and the dog is Rex, a bomb-sniffing German Shepherd trained to perform in combat. The relationship between this young woman and the dog she trains saves them both.

We first meet Leavey (Kate Mara) as a disaffected young woman living in upstate New York with her hectoring mother (Edie Falco) and stepfather (Will Patton) Leavey's life isn't going well. Her best friend died from a drug overdose. She's directionless.

Absent any other plan and facing increasing desperation, Leavey joins the Marine Corps, where she winds up working with a K9 unit -- first as punishment and later as a committed choice.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish) takes us through Leavey's basic training and also introduces us to the world of military dog training. She then travels with Leavey and Rex to Iraq and deals with what happens to them after both are injured by an IED.

Scenes in Iraq have plenty of tension, but offer freshness because they focus on something we haven't much seen in movies, a woman working in a dangerous combat zone.

In Iraq, Leavey also forges a friendship with a fellow trainer, an appealing Ramon Rodriguez, who later becomes a love interest for Leavey, a plot thread that feels a bit superfluous.

Common has a nice turn as Gunny Martin, the Marine in charge of the dog-training unit in the US.

Cowperthwaite loads up on subject matter: She deals with combat and post-combat stress, as well as with the growing bond between trainer and dog.

The movie makes no attempt to raise political issues, although it tries to present a realistic portrait of life in the military and of Leavey's post-war struggles.

Mara brings vulnerability and toughness to the role, but the movie isn't without false notes.

Leavey, who ran into trouble when she tried to adopt Rex (played in the movie by a dog named Varco), sought help rom New York Senator Chuck Schumer. It would have been better not to show Schumer than to have him portrayed -- even briefly -- by an actor (Andrew Masset) who looks nothing like him. Moreover, each of the movie's several acts could have benefited from some trimming.

Still, the relationship between trainer and dog proves moving. The story of Leavey and Rex gets to you -- at least, it did to me.

Megan Leavey may not be the deepest movie you'll see this year, but it definitely shows that animals can play a major role in making people more human.

Friday, June 2, 2017

A cartoonist struggles with grief

Comedian Demetri Martin plays a New York-based cartoonist who makes a trip to LA in the new movie, Dean. Martin also directed this slender tale about a young man who's having difficulty coping with the recent loss of his mother. Martin mostly focuses on Dean, an illustrator whose journey to LA is prompted by a job offer from a "hot" new ad agency. Dean's bullshit meter is far too sensitive to fall for a ton of LA optimism, but he decides to hang around LA with his pal Eric (Rory Scovel). Dean soon meets an appealing young woman (Gillian Jacobs). He's smitten. Meanwhile, Dean's father (Kevin Kline) also attempts to put his life back together. In scenes that parallel what's happening in LA, Dean's New York father begins dating the real estate agent (Mary Steenburgen) he hires to sell the family home. Neither Kline's character nor Martin's Dean handles loss particularly well, but Dad seems to be doing a better job of it. He's more honest about his inability to move on. Martin shows us some of Dean's work, simple stick-figure drawings that are ... well ... simple stick-figure drawings. Mildly amusing and nicely acted by the supporting players, Dean nonetheless doesn't feel like a big-screen breakthrough for Martin, who doesn't dig deeply enough into the movie's most interesting element: undigested grief.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

It wasn't Churchill's finest hour

Brian Cox excels but Churchill falters.
Brian Cox excels in Churchill, a movie that reduces a large historical figure to an egotistical, guilt-ridden older man who believes plans for the D-Day landing of 1944 are entirely misguided and will result in needless death.

As characterized in this truncated character study, Churchill resists ceding leadership to Allied military commanders -- notably Eisenhower and Montgomery -- who planned the Normandy invasion that ultimately brought the war in Europe to a close.

An aging Churchill refuses to accept a role as Britain's principal figurehead, a once towering leader whose main function involves buoying the spirit of war-weary Britain.

In this version, Churchill drinks too much, treats subordinates cruelly and refuses to listen to his devoted but pragmatically oriented wife (Amanda Richardson). She realizes that Churchill is past his prime.

For his part, Churchill worries that the landing at Normandy will mirror World War I events at Gallipoli in which some 56,000 soldiers died and for which Churchill felt a personal responsibility. He had helped engineer what became a disastrous mission.

Mad Men's John Slattery portrays Eisenhower, Julian Wadham appears as Montgomery, and James Purefoy has a touching moment as King George VI, who's called upon to back Churchill down from a plan to be present during the invasion.

The movie probably would have benefited from a little more ambition and a lot more scope -- and that goes for the way the movie approaches Churchill, as well.

As it stands, director Jonathan Teplitzky has made a minor entry into the cinematic literature of the war. It's a bit like having only one chapter of what should have been a multi-volume endeavor.

An artist vs a crushing bureaucracy

The last film from a revered Polish director.

Afterimage is the final film from Polish director Andrzej Wajda, who died in October of last year. In this final cinematic outing, Wajda returns to the period of Soviet oppression in Poland by focusing on the declining years of artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski. Strzeminski, a painter who lost and arm and a leg during World War I, continued to work and teach until the government made his life impossible.

Strzeminski supported socialist revolution, but eventually found himself at odds with apparatchiks in the Polish bureaucracy. Influenced by Moscow, Polish Communists insisted that art adhere to the principals of Soviet Realism. Strzeminski was too much of an individualist to follow any such propagandistic model.

We meet Strzeminski, played by Boguslaw Linda, at a time when he is estranged from his wife, the sculptor Katarzyna Kobro. He receives help from his 12-year-old daughter (Bronislawa Zamachowska), a girl who doesn't entirely know what to make of a father who barely looks up from his work when she arrives at his apartment with food.

For his part, Strzeminski believes that every artist must express and defend a unique vision. We don't see much of Strzeminski's vibrantly colored work, but Linda's performance fully captures Strzeminski's devotion to art and to his students while also chronicling the increasing desperation faced by an artist who is having the life choked out of him.

At one point, an art supply store refuses to sell Strzeminski paint because he lacks the proper, government-approved credential. He's forced into a series of demeaning jobs, including painting oversized posters of Stalin. If all that weren't enough torment, Strezeminski contracts a fatal case of tuberculosis.

American audiences may not know much about Strzeminski's art, but Wajda seems less interested in celebrating the artist's work than in focusing on the torments that were inflicted on artists who refused to allow their work to become a tool of the state.

Strzeminski is offered many opportunities to sell-out and make his life easier. But even when he's close to starvation, he won't submit.

That's the film in a nutshell, and it underscores Wajda's lifelong commitment to showing what it means to go against party lines. As such, Afterimage becomes a fitting capstone to a remarkable career that spanned from the 1950s into the 21st Century.*

*If you're interested in revisiting Wajda's films, you may wish to seek out Kanal (1956), Ashes and Diamonds (1958), Man of Marble (1978), Man of Iron (1981) and Danton (1983).

David Lynch at work in his studio

You could devote a considerable part of a lifetime trying to understand David Lynch, the artist and director whose cinematic creations include Eraser Head, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. Lynch's movies are known for their alluring beauty, alarming images, and cryptic layers that seem to seep from Lynch's unfiltered subconscious. The new documentary -- David Lynch: An Art Life -- may not answer every question you might raise about Lynch, who's now 71. But the movie shows how Lynch spends much of his time in Los Angeles. Shot mostly in Lynch's studio, the film finds Lynch at work on various paintings while he talks about his life in revealing chunks selected from interviews conducted by the filmmakers. Directors Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm offer glimpses of Lynch's work, supplementing views of art with personal material from the Lynch family album. So if you want to watch Lynch smoke cigarettes, apply paint and affix various substances to canvases, this might be your only chance. And, of course, everything the directors show is set against Lynch's homespun affect, which -- despite his constant cigarette smoking -- has a small-town quality that seems instantly at odds with the images that spring from his mind. At times, you'll think that you understand the origin of this or that theme or even a specific image from Lynch's film work. But The Art Life spends relatively little time on Lynch's filmography, opting instead for the quiet of a cluttered studio. In a review of a 2014 Philadelphia show of Lynch's paintings, New York Times art critic Ken Johnson posed a relevant question. Is Lynch's work on canvas as compelling as his work in film. Johnson voted "no," and I'm inclined to agree, although Lynch himself makes no claims to any special status in the art world. Still, the documentary's title and its views of Lynch at work suggest the kind of absorption in the moment of creation that might just define Lynch's deepest pleasure and his keenest aspiration.