Thursday, April 19, 2018

She feels pretty but Is she funny?

Amy Schumer's latest misses the mark.

Amy Schumer's I Feel Pretty springs from a potentially fertile comic premise. A young woman who thinks that she’s hopelessly unattractive hits her head and suddenly believes that she has become beautiful.

Filled with newfound confidence, this woman -- Schumer’s Renee -- begins behaving as she always imagined a beautiful woman would. In Schumer's hands, Renee’s behavior as a newly anointed beauty brims with comic exaggeration and border-line obnoxiousness.

Still, Renee begins to take control of her life. She aggressively flirts with a man at the dry cleaners. She goes after a less obscure job in the cosmetics company that employees her. She's having the time of her life.

So is Renee a little crazy? Not exactly. When she looks in the mirror, she sees herself as gorgeous. Everyone else, of course, sees the same old Renee.

In case you haven't already guessed, the moral is that women should be happy to be themselves. More, they should be proud to be themselves.

And in case you missed the message -- obvious from the start -- the movie provides Renee with an end-of-picture speech in which she hits it directly on the nose.

To reach its foregone conclusion, the story follows the blossoming Renee as she becomes the highly-visible receptionist for her company. Predictably, Renee also offers the company CEO (Michelle Williams) advice about how to market a new “diffusion” line of products, which is supposed to help the company reach shoppers in the economy’s less affluent realms.

For me, Williams provides I Feel Pretty’s only real surprise: She's funny as an executive who can't reconcile her girlish voice with her corporate status.

The movie's formula requires that Renee also find love; it arrives in the form of an ordinary guy played by Rory Scovel. Scovel’s character acts as if he’s impressed by Renee’s unabashed boldness, displayed when she enters a bikini contest at Coney Island, adapting her street clothes for the occasion.

Renee also has gal pals (Busy Philipps and Aidy Bryant), women she treats badly once she believes that she’s acquired the looks of a model.

Not only does I Feel Pretty score low on credibility, but the writing/directing team of Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein lobs a softball; I Feel Pretty has little or no bite when it comes to criticizing the cosmetics industry, media-generated standards of beauty or much else for that matter.

A man lives a nightmare

Director Lynne Ramsay obtains a frightening performance from Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here.

Director Lynne Ramsay never has been one to comprise the brutality and dark vision of the films she makes. It’s almost as if Ramsay (Ratcacher, Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin) dreams her films, and Ramsay’s dreams tend to be nightmarish.

Adapted from a 2013 novella by Jonathan Ames, Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here hangs a series of unnerving sequences on a conventional spine: A hit man accepts a mission in which he must save a teenage girl from a life of child prostitution. As is sometimes the case with dark fables, You Were Never Really Here shows no great interest either in by-the-book expressions of plot or character development.

Instead, Ramsay takes the viewer on a visual journey in which standard elements are more suggested than spelled out. Early on, we see an image of a man with a plastic bag over his head. Are we watching a murder? A suicide? Some weird act of erotic asphyxiation?

The answer: None of the above. Later, we learn that we've witnessed the re-enactment of a bizarre childhood ritual on the part of Joe, the movie’s strange and scary main character, rendered with brute physicality by Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix seems to have enlarged himself to a point where we half wonder whether he has borrowed Gerard Depardieu’s body to play a bulky hitman who specializes in beating his prey with ball-peen hammers.

Hidden behind a thick beard, Phoenix turns the near silent Joe into the movie’s essential mystery. Using quickly inserted images, Ramsay lets us know that Joe was an abused child and a traumatized former Marine. Neither of those facts -- if that's what they can be called -- explains much about Joe, a character we’re presumably meant to accept as an existential expression of the ways in which brutality and a sense of righteousness can turn an individual psyche into a war zone.

Joe's profile hovers halfway between that of a serial killer and a fierce defender of abused girls.

Everything about Joe speaks of brooding obscurity. He lives with his aging mother (Judith Roberts) in a ratty apartment. He has no friends. He tries to smash the demons that feed on him, assaultive images that explode inside his head with the force of detonated grenades.

If you're looking for a social dimension, I suppose it’s possible to take Joe as a manifestation of the worst of a corrupted society, almost a socially induced mutation.

In that regard, Joe evokes memories of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, and the movie’s story, like Scorsese's dark masterwork, also dips into the political life of New York City. A New York state senator (Alex Manette) who wants to run for governor hires Joe to rescue his 13-year-old daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a ring of sex traffickers.

The movie’s conflation of politics and seamy degeneracy isn’t fully explored and the plot unfolds in somewhat muddled fashion. One presumes that little about You Were Never Really Here should be taken literally. Put another way, if you examine the developments in You Were Never Really Here, they don't always make sense. But Ramsay’s visual style sustains an atmosphere of suggested terror, punctuated by vivid imagery from cinematographer Tom Townsend.

An example: At one point, we see Joe underwater in the midst of a suicide attempt, floating silently toward oblivion.

There are also moments that challenge — perhaps too self-consciously — expectation and are meant to add splashes of weird humor. After a violent episode, Joe lies on the floor with one of his dying victims. They sing along to I’ve Never Been to Me, which happens to be playing on the radio.

In one of the movie’s most gripping sequences, security cameras record Joe going about his awful business, hammering away at anyone who has had the misfortune of seeing him at work.

Watching You Were Never Really Here, I couldn’t help marveling at the combination of daring and commitment it must have taken to make a film such as this, one that has little interest in reassuring an audience. If You Were Never Really Here is a nightmare, it’s one from which Ramsey doesn’t seem to want us to awaken.

She's greatly aided in her efforts by a score from Jonny Greenwood, perhaps the most innovate movie composer working today.

A nagging question, of course, arises: Why are we watching this? What edification can be drawn from this gleaming, alienated work? Ramsey, you should know, does not employ her considerable skills in the pursuit of visual pleasure; her aesthetics derive from trying to live inside the emotional worlds of her characters.

Let's say the jury is out on what all of this means. Maybe Ramsey has delivered a movie that’s more sketch than fully developed canvas, that she’s wandering in this territory without a map. I guess you could say that’s both courageous and crazy. And that description pretty much describes You Were Never Really Here for me -- at least until I see it again.

A softer movie for Isabelle Huppert

Isabelle Huppert never quite allows us to penetrate the enigmatic challenge she presents with almost every character she plays. Huppert never ingratiates herself or her characters with audiences. Her expressions suggest mystery, something about an indistinct but important past. Generally, Huppert's mixture of self-possession and depth work to create signature performances, but they don't quite fit Huppert's new movie, Souvenir, a trifle of a romance that teams Huppert with French star Kevin Azais. Huppert plays Liliane, a woman living a dreary life in which she goes to work each day at a pate factory. Antiseptic and lifeless, the factory looks as if it could have been lifted from a satirical riff about food that has lost its power to nourish. Routine dominates Liliane's life: Go to work. Take the bus home. Watch quiz shows. Change arrives when Huppert's character meets a new employee at work. An aspiring young boxer, Azais's Jean recognizes Liliane as a former contestant who sang on popular television talent show that attracted national attention. Jean draws a reluctant Liliane back into the show-business fray. Director Bavo Defurne does little to turn the movie into anything more than a pleasant diversion -- the kind of movie in which not much comes as a surprise but we hardly care. When Liliane tells the much younger Jean that their relationship could never possibly work out, you can bet that, after a few beats, a committed embrace will follow.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

'Rampage' offers little that's fresh

Dwayne Johnson's charms are lost in a routine thriller based on gene-editing.

Movies long have made room for those who can establish a personality on screen, but might not be at home at The Old Vic. During his heyday, no one went to Arnold Schwarzenegger movies expecting Arnold to rival the DeNiros and Pacinos of the world. They went because Arnold was ... well ... reliably Arnold.

Same goes for Dwayne Johnson, a movie star who projects smiling affability better than he projects sneering toughness. Unfortunately, in Rampage — a movie derived from a video game dating to the 1980s — Johnson is upstaged by a trio of monsters and not especially original ones at that.

A movie that riffs on the dangers of genetic editing, Rampage suffers from its own mismatched cinematic DNA. At times, the movie plays like juvenile fare aimed at 12-year-olds. At other times, it opts for unabashed sentiment. And at still other times, it tries to cash in its monster chips by having a giant crocodile, a giant flying wolf, and a giant gorilla attempt to reduce Chicago to the kind of rubble that routinely has been strewn across the streets of countless predecessor movies.

This time out, Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a primatologist who once challenged poachers to befriend and save a rare albino gorilla he subsequently named George. Davis transported George from his African home to a San Diego wildlife facility, taught the gorilla how to communicate by signing and convinced George that he and those who cared for him were valued members of the gorilla's “troop.”

You don’t need much imagination to know that an evil corporation driven by a greedy executive (Malin Akerman) and her PR-oriented brother (Jake Lacy) are eager to use genetics to accumulate as many ill-gotten gains as possible.

After their company's deep-space genetic experiment crashes to earth during a brief prologue, George and two other creatures are exposed to canisters containing a horrible pathogen that will mix but not match their genetic makeup. The creatures become bigger and more aggressive, prompting a military response, which gives the movie a reason to drop in on a command center from time-to-time. Movies such as this need command centers, even when they're inhabited by misguided military men.

Tension presumably is meant to arise from fretting about poor George's future. Will George, a harmless prankster by nature, eventually return to his human-loving self?

Before that can happen, George must escape captivity so that he can trample his away across the country as the movie builds toward a finale in which George goes full Kong and climbs a Chicago skyscraper.

Early on, Johnson’s character acquires a sidekick (Naomi Harris), a genetic researcher who once worked for the evil corporation and holds the key to developing an antidote that will restore the creatures to their less dangerous state.

Rampage can’t totally accept its own destructive impulses. Late in the picture, Johnson is called upon to deliver a line in which Davis must proclaim to a charging crocodile that he’s had his fill of its mindless cruelty. Davis employs the “MF” word, but the final part of the expression is muffled, perhaps to keep the movie within what might be called “family-oriented bounds.”

Directed by Brad Johnson, who previously directed Johnson in San Andreas, Rampage isn't the first movie to toy with the dangers of genetic experimentation and it surely won't be the last. But Rampage is so far from qualifying as a best of its breed that a movie such as Jurassic Park looks like a doctoral dissertation by comparison. Enough said.

Alberto Giacometti's 'Final Portrait'

Director Stanley Tucci obtains a memorable performance from Geoffrey Rush as artist Alberto Giacometti.
Common wisdom has it that a good deal of creative work is done by people when they’re not trying to do anything especially creative. Having labored over something, an artist may be on the verge of abandoning a project. The same frustrated artist then takes a walk or sees a movie or simply sets the problem aside for a while. Suddenly, it’s apparent what must be done and the work continues with confidence and conviction.

Or maybe some artists, as is the case with some people, are impossible totally to understand.

Director Stanley Tucci, flirts with this possibility in A Final Portrait, an intimate look at Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti at time when he's working on a portrait of James Lord]. The location: Paris. The year: 1964.

That’s it. That's the movie. It’s enough.

Geoffrey Rush, who resembles Giacometti, portrays the artist near the end of his career. Rush's Giacometti often seems distracted from the task at hand, and it's possible that the artist wasn't trying to find his creative mojo but rather was more interested in spending time with a prostitute (Clemence Poesy) who had captured his fancy or just getting drunk.

Sometimes, Giacometti leaves a bemused Lord in mid-pose while he fiddles with a piece of sculpture that has nothing to do with Lord's portrait.

This approach obviously arouses Lord’s curiosity and tests his patience.

As played by Armie Hammer, Lord mostly endures Giacometti’s eccentricities. He allows himself to begin a process that he expects to take an afternoon but which drags on for weeks with no end in sight.

Tellingly, Giacometti never explains himself to Lord. He puffs his cigarette, curses, rejects something he has done and perhaps stalks off in a fit of anger, probably at himself. Is he dissolute or is he waiting for the brush stroke that will inspire rather than disgust him?

So goes the movie with the exception of a few additional characters. Sylvie Testud portrays Annette, Giacometti’s wife. She supports him, although her husband's dalliances, financial irresponsibility, and massive neediness tax her emotional endurance.

Tony Shalhoub, who worked with Tucci on Big Night, portrays Giacometti’s brother; he’s sympathetic to Lord’s ordeal but knows enough not to involve himself in his brother’s tempestuous moods.

Last seen in Call Me By Your Name, Hammer has the movie's most thankless job: He's playing the artist's subject, but he's not the subject of the movie.

Lord, by the way, later wrote a book about Giacometti, whose cluttered studio seems deprived of both heat and comfort. Lord's patience eventually was rewarded.

It takes conviction to make a film such as Final Portrait and Tucci deserves credit for trying to peer into the world of an artist at the moment of creation. He also allows Rush the freedom to present himself as a man who already had achieved fame in the art world and who had succeeded in making himself the center of a life that required enormous artistic preoccupation, apparently leaving little room for anyone else.

A game not worth playing

In horror movies, youth seldom seems a blessing. You know the drill: Something happens (perhaps an occult event) and one-by-one, young folks meet with some sort of horrific end. Blumhouse's Truth or Dare tries to freshen the formula by having a group of college seniors play a lethal game of truth or dare. During spring break in Mexico, these California college bubbleheads encounter an unleashed demon that brings death to those who fail to tell the truth or complete a dare. The haunted game follows the crew back to California where things become increasingly serious. Truth or dare challenges are posed to this unappealing lot (a hunk, an arrogant pre-med student, a gay student, a blonde sorority type, etc.) by someone the demon temporarily possesses. The face of each challenger suddenly changes, transformed by an eerie, fun-house mirror smile that's supposed to creep us out. The real problem when it comes to movies such as Blumhouse's Truth Dare involves summoning new forms of creativity to show the ways in which victims are dispatched. One example: The jerk of the group falls off a pool table after chickening out on a dare that required him to expose himself in a crowded barroom. He hits his head and dies. He's gone. For us, the game continues -- not a good thing.

Two boys flee Nazis in France

Although it involves French Jews and World War II, A Bag of Marbles registers as an involving but minor addition to the Holocaust canon. Directed by Christian Duguay from a 1973 autobiographical novel by Joseph Joffo, this French import plays like a lavishly produced boys’ adventure -- albeit one centered on evading Nazis that would dispatch two brothers to German death factories. A backdrop of anti-Semitism and fear gives the movie an extra boost: The brothers constantly are on guard against revealing their identities. A Bag of Marbles is not without sentiment, but it sounds enough realistic notes to keep from losing focus, and the movie’s young stars (Dorian Le Clech and Batyste Fleurial) are never less than convincing. The brothers meet with both kindness and danger after their father, a barber played by Patrick Bruel, tells them the family must split up in order to travel south without detection. Bruel’s character hopes that the family, which also includes a mother and two older brothers, will be reunited in Nice, safer than Paris at the time. At one point, the brothers are aided by a priest who must convince a skeptical German officer that the boys have been duly baptized. Joseph, really the movie’s main character, eventually takes up residence with the family of a Nazi collaborator. The collaborator doesn't know Joseph is Jewish. A Bag of Marbles includes little graphic footage of the kind that can appear in many films with Holocaust connections, but it does show what it’s like to become a stranger in one’s own country simply because of the group into which one happened to be born: The movie shows us, with some success, what it might have been like to be a child facing such sustained horror.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Jon Hamm anchors a thriller set in Beirut

An intricately plotted thriller set in the roiling heart of the Middle East during the 1980s, Beirut delivers much of what we expect from movies that dip into volatile political situations -- a discernible pulse and an atmosphere rife with intrigue. Jon Hamm anchors the movie as Mason Skiles, an able US negotiator whose life falls apart when his Lebanese wife (Leila Bekhti) is murdered during a terrorist attack. Not surprisingly, the attack undermines Mason's faith in nearly everything, particularly because the murderous assault on Mason's beautiful Beirut home resulted from an act of beneficence. Living in Lebanon in 1972 - prior to the country's descent into civil strife and violence -- Mason and his wife had taken a 13-year-old orphan (Yoav Sadian Rosenberg into their home. As it turns out, the boy’s older brother (Hicham Ouraqa) led the terrorist attack in which Mason's wife died. The screenplay by Tony Gilroy (the Bourne movies) reveals all of this in a jittery prologue and then leaps ahead 10 years, the time just prior to Israel’s war in Lebanon. By this time, Mason has returned to the US where he works as a small-potatoes negotiator and tries to drink away his pain. He’s pulled back into the Middle Eastern fray when he’s asked to return to Lebanon to negotiate the release of a former pal and CIA agent (Mark Pellegrino) who has been captured by the PLO. Meanwhile, the adult Karim (Idir Chender) has become an active terrorist working with the PLO. Reluctantly dragged back to shattered Beirut, Mason finds himself in the company of a supporting US crew of characters played by Dean Norris, Shea Whigham and Rosamund Pike. Each of these characters has an agenda that may have little to do with saving a valued CIA agent but which adds a cynical gloss to the story. Hamm’s predictable transition from drunk to a man in command of his skills may not be entirely credible, but his bestubbled presence helps keep the film on track. Although Beirut probably sometimes confuses complexity of plot with insight, director Brad Anderson (The Machinist) keeps the story moving. Beirut is never anything less than watchable, even if it's ultimately short on thematic clout.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Yikes! A truly effective chiller

In A Quiet Place, you'll find both shock and horror.
Movies have taken us to hundreds of shattered worlds in which people suffer in the aftermath of a great catastrophe. A Quiet Place falls into that hoary category but brings a startling new effectiveness to the genre.

Directed, co-written by and co-starring John Krasinski, A Quiet Place teams Krasinski with his real-life wife Emily Blunt. Together they conduct an exercise in terror and suspense that proves riveting.

Krasinski knows how to deliver jolts, but for once, they're not inflicted on stupid characters who do things that no sane person would attempt, an obligatory trip into a darkened basement, for example. Put another way: the premise may be outlandish but the human behavior in A Quiet Place proves credible enough to ward off groans.

That’s not to say that you won’t find things with which to quibble. It is to say that Krasinski has enough command over the material to create a steady stream of shock and horror.

We’re in a time that looks very much like the present. The difference: Giant bug-like creatures have appeared (the movie wisely doesn’t give the creatures a backstory) and are busy wiping out humanity.

The twist — and it’s just here that the movie acquires much of its power — involves the nature of these monsters. Their form — partially glimpsed at first — suggests vaguely human and distinct monster characteristics. Their gaping mouths can deliver Alien bites, and they move with amazing speed.

These monsters also are blind, locating their prey by following sounds with ears that evidently function with radar-like precision.

That means everyone in the movie must remain silent or be eaten alive. The quiet works to enhance the suspense.

As parents living on a farm in upstate New York, Krasinski and Blunt play characters intensely devoted to protecting their two surviving children (Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe). Because Simmonds' character is deaf, the family knows how to sign. This may give them a leg up on the monsters; the parents and kids can communicate without speaking. (Subtitles translate the signed dialogue.)

Krasinski builds his movie around a couple of major set pieces. In one of them, Blunt’s pregnant character goes into labor under the most harrowing circumstances imaginable. In another, Jupe's character falls into a silo, nearly suffocating under the weight of the stored grain.

The cast members do a good job conveying anxiety and fear and there are touches that make you wince -- albeit in ways that are both contrived and harrowing. At one point, Blunt’s character steps on a nail. Our stomachs tighten because the last thing she can do is cry out in pain.

A Quiet Place may be a little short of emotional and thematic resonance but Krasinski doesn’t shortchange the kind of moments that may find you tightly gripping the arms of your seat. A Quiet Place is the kind of movie that can cause a stir in audiences as everyone jumps, winces and exhales in unison. Enjoy.

In 'Blockers,' parents are the joke

A gross-out comedy in which young women occasionally display good judgment -- or the movie's idea of it.
Teen gross-out comedies have become a staple of popular culture, usually tempering their worst (or as some would have it “best”) instincts with last-minute infusions of sentiment.

Directed by a woman, Blockers proves the mildest of exceptions to the rule. The story centers on three young women who pledge to lose their virginity on prom night. Their parents get wind of the plan and decide to do everything in their power to keep their daughters from losing their innocence.

Of course, the kids are more mature than expected and the adults are too stupid to realize that innocence and virtue aren't necessarily related to sexual behavior. So goes the contrivance that, as much as the obligatory gross-out jokes, links the movie to the contemporary teen genre.

The three high school seniors (Kathryn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan, and Gideon Aldon want to have a good time, but ultimately approach their project in generally sensible ways. One of the young women even acknowledges her gayness before the night is done.

The adults bear the brunt of the movie's jokes.

Made wary by her own early sexual experiences, one of the girl’s moms (Leslie Mann) can’t help but see the worst outcome if her daughter has sex. Mann’s character is joined by a ludicrously uptight father (John Cena) who works as a coach and another dad (Ike Barinholtz) who hasn’t had much contact with his daughter, but who tries to sound a more reasonable note.

Cena's character, a man with a buzz cut and a head that looks as if it had been carved from granite, looks like a parodic version of a movie superhero that never quite got off the drawing board.

Comedies such as Blockers need set pieces that are intended to create both laughs and post-movie talk. The biggest of these super-gross-outs involves a scene in which Cena’s character follows his daughter to a prom-night party.

In order to fit in, Cena's character is goaded into engaging in an activity that has all the earmarks of something you wouldn’t want to try at home or anywhere else for that matter: It’s called "butt chugging," an activity that needs no further elaboration.

Director Kay Cannon (author of the Pitch Perfect screenplays), working from a screenplay by Brian and Jim Kehoe, also serves up a scene involving projectile vomiting. You'll find a couple of silly sex farce moments between a horn-dog of a dad (Gary Cole) and his equally lusty wife (Gina Gershon).

A comic veteran, Mann knows how to handle this kind of material, and movies such as Blockers usually manage to find an audience -- even when, as is the case here, they're hit-and-miss affairs. Besides, every generation needs a gross-out extravaganza to call its own. Is there any real point in objecting?



The wild journey of a Japanese woman

Zany, ridiculous, tragic, ever so slightly uplifting. Each of those adjectives could describe Oh Lucy! a film about a Japanese woman whose life has slipped into an anonymous rut. Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) works in a nondescript office. She’s in her 40s and her life is going nowhere. Enter Setsuko's niece (Shiori Kutsuna), who says she must sell the remaining portion of an English course in which she's enrolled. Kutsuna's Mika needs the money and her isolated aunt might benefit from some social contact. It doesn't take long for Mika to take off for America with the English teacher (Josh Hartnett). Should Setsuko have known she was being played? Of course. The teacher -- known as John -- works in a spare room at a massage parlor/brothel, resorting to methods so weird they would have tipped off all but the most gullible of students. John insists that Setsuko wear a curly blonde wig, gives her a western name (Lucy) and punctuates routine English phrases with hi-fives and hugs. Another student (Yoji Yakusho) has been given an equally improbable name. He's Tom. Setsuko isn't entirely a dupe; she senses that there might be something exciting in this bizarre English class. Deprived of physical contact, she also likes the hugs. As ridiculous as it is, the blonde wig alerts her to a neglected side of herself and she decides to go with it despite warnings. Mika's mother (Kaho Minami) already had cautioned that helping the young woman would lead to no good. After being duped, Setsuko takes off for the US in search of Mika -- first in Los Angeles and then in San Diego. She’s not happy that Mika’s mother joins her on the trip. In LA, the sisters locate Hartnett's character who says Mika has left him. He joins the search. That sounds like a ton of plot, but Oh Lucy!, derived from a short film the director previously made, is a slender movie that offers plenty of comic pleasure before writer/director Atsuko Hirayanagi pulls off an abrupt shift in tone and the movie puts comedy in its rearview mirror. Within a small frame, Hirayanagi manages to say something about the consequences of desperation and the enmity that can develop between sisters. Led by a Terajima -- who wisely keeps Setsuko's motivations vague -- an able cast creates a genre-defying movie that takes us deep into the kind of life that normally would go unseen.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

A mournful World War I story

A young officer mixes with hardened vets in Journey's End.

As time passes, World War I seems to have lost its grip on the popular imagination. The ill-named "War to End All Wars" shouldn't be forgotten, which is one of the reasons Journey’s End -- a World War I drama based on a 1928 play by R.C. Sherriff -- makes a welcome contribution to cinema’s inexhaustible canon of films about the horrors of war.

Director Saul Dibb puts us in the midst of the trench warfare that defined World War I. Claustrophobic as life in the trenches and sometimes constricted by its theatrical origins, Journey’s End nonetheless arrives as a mournful depiction of loss, particularly among young soldiers who had little idea what the war would do to them.

The movie centers on Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a young officer who arrives at the front asking to be assigned to the company of a former school chum Capt. Stanhope (Sam Claflin). A man he views as a mentor, Stanhope also is engaged to Raleigh's sister.

By the time Raleigh arrives in the trenches, Stanhope has left the reality of the home-front far behind. He has been shocked into cynicism about the nature of warfare. Naive and eager, Raleigh doesn’t receive the hoped-for welcome from a man who can’t seem to drink enough alcohol to quiet his sense of fear, anxiety, and hopelessness.

The year: 1918 and the British soldiers are playing a waiting game as the Germans prepare to launch a major spring offensive.

Stanhope wants little to do with the wide-eyed Raleigh, who’s taken under wing by Lieutenant Osborne (a terrific Paul Bettany), a former school teacher who doesn't seem to have been crushed by the mud, boredom, and apprehension of a war that required harrowing night patrols and in which men could be gunned down even before they could even leave their trenches. The other soldiers refer to Bettany's character as "Uncle."

Journey’s End won’t unseat Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory as one of the great World War I films, but the performances are strong and, the movie proves sorrowful and moving, a reminder that many of the men who fight are destined to become bodies strewn across ravaged landscapes that hardly seem worth the trouble.

Living with that knowledge takes its toll on men of Company C and — as it should — on us.

Sheriff's play, by the way, was adapted for the screen in 1930 by director James Whale (Frankenstein), but the story is worth repeating and Dibbs does it well.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Trying to conquer a virtual world

Steven Spielberg brings plenty of visual spark to Ready Player One. The story? Less than spectacular.
In Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ready Player One -- Ernest Cline’s popular 2011 novel -- almost everyone obsesses about virtual reality.

Why are so many in need of so much escapism? Because the movie takes place in the dystopian year of 1945 and reality sucks: Suffering from all manner of deprivation, folks are forced to live in the Stacks, trailers piled atop one another in tenement fashion.

Not surprisingly, the downtrodden residents of Columbus, Ohio -- the movie's main real-world setting -- don headgear and special gloves as they try to experience excitement through personal avatars that travel around a virtual universe known as the Oasis.

The book has major fans and I'm guessing that they'll mostly enjoy Spielberg's movie.

Speaking for myself, I’d put it this way. In Ready Player One, the side trips are significantly more rewarding than the main story, which puts a youthful resident of Columbus (Tye Sheridan) in the middle of a high-stakes video game inside the Oasis.

Sheridan's Wade Watts -- make that his avatar Parzival -- sifts through clues as he searches for three keys. Should Parzival acquire all three, Wade will inherit ownership of the Oasis, thus saving everyone's favorite synthetic playground from the clutches of IOI, an evil corporation that wants to monetize the Oasis experience. A greedy corporate shark (Ben Mendelsohn) runs IOI.

I should point out that these side trips really are the point of a movie that tells a story that never seems all that momentous. Minute-by-minute, the stakes in Ready Player One feel significantly higher than what happens at the end of the movie's 140 minutes.

It’s also possible to look at Ready Player One as Spielberg's chance to command a broad swath of the pre-summer market. Visually sophisticated and full of invention, the movie harkens back to one of Spielberg’s career sweet spots: the 1980s.

Conveniently, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) -- the man who designed the Oasis -- was deeply immersed in ‘80s popular culture, so much so that he loaded his virtual creation with references to it. You'll find nods to Back to the Future, The Shining (one of the movie’s best and most amusing set pieces), Duran Duran and … oh, well … you get the idea. There's lots of '80s stuff.

When the story kicks off, Rylance's Halliday, who set up the game in the first place, has been dead for five years. A skilled Oasis gamer, Wade wants to own the Oasis, not just for himself but for all who would resist IOI's insidious corporate intrusion into everyone's personal headspace.

Inside the Oasis, Wade meets Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a sexy, spunky avatar who immediately captures his heart. He also has other virtual allies, notably the gruff but inventive Aech, a giant-sized man who looks like he wandered into the movie from a Marvel Comic.

Some of the movie's action is fun, notably an early-picture car race that Spielberg mounts with tipsy fury. Imagine speeding along a road when the road suddenly comes to an abrupt end or when King Kong leaps off a building and tries to crush your vehicle.

For me, Ready Player One's third — and needlessly protracted final act — took a bit of the gleam off the movie’s virtual shine. Spielberg brings real life and virtual reality together. Real-life gamers must meet people they've known only as avatars. All of this builds toward massive battles as Wade seeks his triumph. Really? Noisy battles are the best the movie can do?

As difficult as it must have been to create Ready Player One's teeming visual environment, it’s also true that the movie lacks the sophisticated spin of the best sci-fi, something that couldn’t be said of Spielberg’s work in A.I. or Minority Report.

In the end, Ready Player One predictably endorses reality over virtual fantasy, although almost nothing about the movie suggests that anyone involved with this massive project really believes that.

Obviously, Spielberg is no slouch when it comes to handling gigantic projects. He keeps the action coherent, jams images with information without getting lost in them and propels his characters through the movie's effects.

So enjoy the side trips for as long as you can. This is one movie in which the ride definitely beats arrival at the final destination.

Wes Anderson's distinctive 'Isle of Dogs'

Stop-action animation, a great voice cast, and strangely insular atmospherics make the director's latest appealing.

I’m not a total fan of Wes Anderson, the director whose work includes The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom and The Darjeeling Express). But there’s no arguing that Anderson is one of the few directors working today who follows his imagination wherever it leads him. To enjoy his movies, you must accept his apparent unwillingness to curb his idiosyncrasies or to tailor his work to popular expectation. You must accept -- and perhaps even welcome -- what feels like the willed insularity of Anderson's world.

In Isle of Dogs — Anderson’s latest — the director employs stop-action animation to create a story in which a Japanese mayor banishes all the dogs in his city to an island where the city dumps its trash.

Every dog lover will recognize this as a horrible situation and Anderson doesn’t shrink from the inherent sadness of a society so cruel that it condemns a species that has done nothing to deserve being ostracized.

The city's authoritarian Mayor Kobayashi (voice by Kunichi Nomura) -- a lover of cats -- takes a sadistic approach to an epidemic of dog flu that turns once faithful companions into health hazards. Totally committed to his own power, Kobayashi refuses to change his mind even when a researcher develops a serum that will cure every flu-carrying pooch.

Although it feels all of a piece, Isle of Dogs is a linguistic mash-up. The abandoned dogs speak English and the Japanese characters speak Japanese (no subtitles). There's also an American exchange student who, of course, speaks English. A reporter for a high school newspaper, she crusades to topple Kobayashi's rule.

The animation is impeccable and creative — from doggie expressions to cityscapes to the forlorn trash heaps where the abandoned dogs roam. You'll also find outstanding voice work from Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, Greta Gerwig and more.

Cranston’s mangy Chief may be the most distinctive of the dogs. A stray who doesn’t believe in trying to please humans, Chief warns others that he's not afraid to bite.

Sometimes when I watch an animated movie I can’t help trying to visualize the human actor behind the animated character.
Cranston’s voice is unmistakable, but — for the most part — I forgot about who might be doing the voice work and immersed myself in the visual environment Anderson and his team so ably create.

Anderson bows to Japanese film culture — often in humorous ways. At one point, for example, he employs a bit of the score from Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai as a wry commentary on the action.

I wouldn't call Isle of Dogs a kids' movie, although it centers on 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin), a boy who steals a small plane, crashes on Trash Island and winds up helping to rebuild a bridge between dogs and humans.

One question seems unavoidable: Does Anderson’s movie have a seriously deep meaning? Is it an allegory or simply another display of Anderson's eccentricity?

I’m not sure where I stand on the question, an uncertainty about Anderson's work that has bothered me before. But I also find his artistic expressions personal and intriguing, full of small touches that can be as pleasing as the film’s overall design.

Toward the end of the movie, a dog and his new family are served heaping bowls of red meat, something of an apology from the previously abusive humans. Each puppy gets the same food -- only in tiny bowls. I’m not entirely sure why this detail made me smile. Perhaps because it’s emblematic of Anderson's approach, placing irresistible bits of minutiae against backdrops that seem to have been created with something that might be called "cockeyed control."

Thursday, March 22, 2018

'Pacific Rim' sequel fails to rise

A new group battles to save the Earth, but this sequel offers little reason to cheer.

In the summer of 2013, director Guillermo del Toro scored at the box office with Pacific Rim, a movie that introduced audiences to Jaegers, gigantic robot-like creations that stomped through the nation's multiplexes. Jaegers were deployed against the Kaiju. In case you need reminding, the Kaiju were genetically engineered amphibious monsters that arrived on Earth through a portal in the Pacific Ocean — or something like that.

What proved winning about Pacific Rim had less to do with plot or even with its high-stakes battles than with the sheer scale at which Del Toro allowed his imagination to take over the screen.

As just about everyone knows by now, del Toro reigned in the scope of his imagination to make The Shape of Water, a smaller movie but a wise career choice. The Shape of Water won a best-picture Oscar and Del Toro took home the Oscar for best director.

Now comes Pacific Rim Uprising, the inevitable sequel to the first installment. Del Toro remains as one of the film’s gaggle of producers (14 in all) but directing chores have been taken over by Steven S. DeKnight, whose previous directing experience mostly involves TV work.

In DeKnight’s hands, the franchise becomes little more than a collection of cacophonous battle sequences that already have evoked apt comparisons with the Transformer movies. A preview audience seemed to include more kids than I expected. It's possible that 12-year-olds will be Uprising's bread and butter.

A short reaction: Enormous Jaegers guided by pilots who operate inside the robots' heads, giant sea monsters that make a late-picture appearance and a cast that’s subordinated to a flood of effects mark a movie that stomps hard but can't shake loose from the deadening bonds of repetition.

That's not to say that the cast doesn’t work hard. John Boyega, familiar from the latest round of Star Wars movies, appears as Jake Pentecost, the son of the Idris Elba character from the first edition. A renegade from the Pan Pacific Defense Corps that a decade ago fought the Kaiju, Jake makes his living salvaging parts from Jaegers that were discarded after the war that shook the first movie.

Jake is joined by a sidekick, Amara (Cailee Spaeny), an orphaned teenager who has built her own Jaeger and who is recruited to train as a Defense Corps pilot. Naturally, Jake is coaxed back into the Defense Corps where he engages in manly banter with his former co-pilot (Scott Eastwood) as they fulfill their assignment, training a new generation of Jaeger pilots.

Never mind the Chinese corporation that wants to create automated Jaegers that don't need pilots.

Spaeny conveys the required spunk. Boyega projects plenty of gruff magnetism. But there's more smash-and-crash than acting as the movie moves toward a climax in which a crew of teenage Defense Corps recruits must save the world, a task that can’t be accomplished without destroying large parts of Tokyo.

It's possible that Pacific Rim will click with audiences impatient for an early helping of summer, and, of course, it's set up for another sequel. Maybe Boyega and company can find a more engagingly novel third helping.

In Israel, pain without comfort

Foxtrot devastates as it looks at a family dealing with loss..

Sometimes, the buzzing sound of a doorbell changes everything.

Of course, it’s never the doorbell, really, but the chain of events that led to the announcement that someone was at the door -- in some cases, bringing bad news.

In the Israeli movie Foxtrot, the doorbell heralds the worst news. A couple living in Tel Aviv learns that their son, who’s serving in the military, has been killed in action.

The young man’s mother (Sarah Adler), the woman who answered the doorbell, passes out. She sees men in uniform and instantly knows why they've come. The young man's father (Lior Ashkenazi) refuses to reveal much, but he's clearly cooking up some angry, wounded stew that makes him compelling even though we don’t totally understand his reactions.

Sensing his pain, the man's dog draws closer and -- perhaps not understanding the depth of the man's tortured agony -- tries to nuzzle him. He kicks the dog. Hard. He'll allow himself no comforting touch.

After as painful an opening as any film you’ll see, Foxtrot director Samuel Maoz divides his film into three acts, each of which feels slightly abstracted from the ordinary flow of life, an approach that sometimes makes Foxtrot feel overly studied but which also tends to intensify each agonizing moment.

Maoz (Lebanon) creates an environment that feels self-contained but in which personal pain and guilt are stalked by Israel’s embattled political life, which largely and effectively remains off screen.

After a deeply unsettling look at how Ashkenazi’s Michael tries to cope (or not) with his son’s death, the Feldman family receives some shocking news. The Jonathan Feldman who was killed in action wasn’t their son after all. He was another young soldier with the same name. So sorry.

This news brings relief but also rage for Michael, who has been put through stress that connects him to the time of his own military service, memories he managed to push away with the successful life he's built as an architect.

The film then leaves Tel Aviv to introduce us to young Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray), a soldier who’s serving at a checkpoint that’s far removed from any active combat. Jonathan and three fellow soldiers try to fight boredom, mud, and rain as they stop the occasional car full of Palestinians or allow a lone camel to plod indifferently on its way.

It’s best not to describe what happens at the checkpoint, although you’d have to be awfully naive to think that these men will escape their situation without violence.

Whether we're in the modern apartment where Michael and his wife live or the strange outpost where the men take shelter in an empty shipping container that’s sinking inexorably into the softening earth, we’re in the company of characters immersed in a world of pain that leaves them mostly defenseless.

By the movie’s final act, the carefully organized, tastefully modern apartment of the film’s opening has turned into a chaotic mess, as have the lives of Michael and his wife Dafna. Ironies have quietly accumulated, the most potent of them only to be revealed later.

The meaning of the movie’s title becomes increasingly and devastatingly clear.

The box step of the foxtrot puts a dancer through prescribed motions and then takes that same dancer back to the spot where he or she started. The dance becomes a metaphor for futility.

In that sense, the Maoz’s eerily powerful movie follows people who are stuck in an insoluble and painfully absurd existential crisis.

One step forward. One sidestep. One step backward. Another step sideward. Everyone has moved. No one has gone anywhere. If the title hadn’t already been taken, the movie might have been called “No Exit.”

A victim or is she really insane?

Claire Foy plays a woman institutionalized against her will in Unsane. Steven Soderbergh directs.

Filmed with iPhones by director Steven Soderbergh and built around a powerhouse performance by Claire Foy, Unsane offers moments that shock, unsettle and work on your nerves. And in playing a woman who's put through a physical and emotional wringer, Foy wipes out all memories of the dignity and composure she projected as Queen Elizabeth in The Crown.

Unsane also boasts a bit of head-spinning substance: The movie makes us wonder how we might go about defending our sanity if we suddenly were institutionalized, having mistakenly -- or so we believed -- been identified as a danger to ourselves and others.

Foy plays Sawyer Valentini, a banking analyst who's trying to establish herself in a new city. As the story develops, Sawyer is tested at the deepest levels. Unsane hardly qualifies as a small classic, but the movie wouldn't work at all if Foy had failed to communicate a sense of vulnerability and, just as important, a potential for violence.

After a disturbing incident with a man she picks up at a bar, Sawyer decides to see a counselor. She's fearful of being followed by a stalker. Why someone as capable as Sawyer would seek psychological help at an institution rather than in a more traditional setting -- the privacy of a psychiatrist’s office, for example -- never is made clear, one of several tests of the story's credibility.

An intake officer decides that because Sawyer has thought — albeit tenuously — about suicide, she should be admitted on a 24-hour-hold. Sawyer signs a few papers thinking that she’s signing up for counseling. Without realizing what she's done, she ascents to her own commitment.

The more Sawyer aggressively protests, the more the attendants believe she really needs help. After a few violent outbursts, Sawyer's 24-hour hold is extended to seven days. Her mother (Amy Irving) is sympathetic, but can't obtain Sawyer's release.

Unsane functions on at least two levels. The first involves a social dimension: Is this institution committing people against their will in order to collect insurance money? When such monies run out, the supposedly insane suddenly become sane again. Mental health care becomes a profit-oriented scam.

On a second level, the movie pushes Sawyer to wonder whether she really might be insane. If all the people around you seem to be insane — why else would you find yourself in their company?

Working from a screenplay by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, Soderbergh effectively keeps us wondering about Sawyer for quite some time.

The story takes a turn toward horror when a new attendant (Joshua Leonard) shows up at the hospital. Sawyer accuses the attendant of being the man who stalked her in Boston, forcing her to move to Pennsylvania to escape his reach.

No one believes Sawyer, who finds only one ally inside the institution. Nate (Jay Pharoah), a man who has been committed for opiate addiction, has managed to smuggle in a cell phone which he shares with Sawyer.

Initially, Soderbergh’s use of iPhones gives the movie’s images an off-kilter feel that creates a mood of disconnection from the ordinary. Overall, though, I’m not sure there was a great deal of gain in making the movie this way — unless it was to keep costs to a minimum.

Despite some plot leaps that are difficult to swallow and a reveal that arrives too early, there’s enough in Unsane to keep it watchable, providing you don’t mind a surrender to horror-movie ploys before Soderbergh calls it quits.

I don't imagine that Unsane will be a major box-office performer, but it serves as a clear announcement that Foy is more than a regal presence. As Sawyer, she’s vulnerable, frightening and assertive. Her performance goes a long way toward saving a movie that isn’t always able to resist its less imaginative impulses.

Vipers in the Soviet hierarchy

Laughs, terror, and dramatic punch mingle in The Death of Stalin.

I can’t think of another movie exactly like The Death of Stalin, which is part of the reason this movie feels so unsettlingly original. Best known for creating HBO’s Veep, director Armando Iannucci gives us a movie in which farcical, dramatic, and satirical elements bump into one another with collision force. If The Death of Stalin ultimately qualifies as a comedy, it's one that refuses to allow us to drop our guards.

If you want an indication of just how daring Iannucci has been, consider this: He has cast Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev. Now, if you were to make a list of actors who might play the table-pounding former head of the Soviet Union, I doubt whether Buscemi’s name would have crossed your mind.

As it turns out, Buscemi does an impressive job portraying an aide to Stalin who eventually rose to a top position in the post-Stalin Soviet Union. Buscemi's wily Khrushchev has a sardonic streak that makes it clear that he's not about to be out-maneuvered.

The movie begins when Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) dies at the age of 74, after an evening of gathering his top staff to watch an American western, a ritual they've endured many times before. After his evening with cronies and alone in his room, Stalin drops to the floor. He has just read a note wishing him dead that was sent by a favored Soviet concert pianist (Olga Kurylenko).

Before Stalin expires, we learn that he keeps a list of those he plans to kill — usually for capricious reasons or perhaps for no reason at all. The head of Stalin’s secret police Lavrenti Beria (a frightening Simon Russell Beale) executed (pun intended) Stalin’s orders with a particularly perverse relish. Beria was feared — not only by ordinary folks but by those in Stalin’s inner circle.

Iannucci obtains fine work from the actors who play members of Stalin’s coterie, a group that has been cowed into ceaseless expressions of admiration.

Michael Palin appears as Vyacheslav Molotov, a major Bolshevik figure who unwittingly managed to find his way onto Stalin’s feared hit list. Jason Isaacs has a wonderfully robust turn as Georgy Zhukov, a swaggering Red Army officer with a major World War II record. Jeffrey Tambor appears as Georgy Malenkov, an indecisive “yes” man who succeeds Stalin and who, like a frightened dog, keeps sniffing the air to see if something dangerous might be approaching.

Based on graphic novels by Fabien Nury and Theirry Robin, the movie brims with scorching dialog as the vipers try to navigate the choppy waters of intrigue that begin to roil after Stalin’s death.

It’s never certain which of these men will emerge from the conspiratorial muck. Gradually, it becomes clear that Khrushchev might out-maneuver the rest of the group. He reacts against the worst of Stalin’s excesses, favoring a modicum of reform by freeing political prisoners and putting an end to the hated hit list.

The clash between Khrushchev and Beria takes the form of an epic piece of internecine warfare; Khrushchev's no saint, but Beria's barbarous cruelty and child molestation stand as the corrupted core of Stalin’s insidious regime.

At one point, Stalin’s flustered daughter (Andrea Riseborough) arrives to add an element of hysteria. She’s followed by the entry of Stalin’s massively deluded son (Rupert Friend).

I’ve seen quotes describing The Death of Stalin as hilarious. I didn’t find it hilarious, although much of it is funny.

More importantly, The Death of Stalin is marked by an acute trenchancy, a look at men attempting to fill a sudden power vacuum in ways that illustrate the darker side of their ambitions. It makes us laugh, yes, but this is one comedy that's deadly serious.

A return visit to Andy Goldsworthy

Director Thomas Riedelsheimer, whose Rivers and Tides introduced many viewers to the art of Andy Goldsworthy, revisits Goldsworthy some 16 years after the first movie. Those familiar with Rivers and Tides know that Riedelsheimer made a movie that was instructive about Goldsworthy’s art: His sculptures are designed to disappear as environmental forces (everything from erosion to wind) work on them. Beautifully filmed, Rivers and Tides itself became a captivating example of cinematic art. At first, I wondered why Riedelsheimer would want to return to a subject he’d already so successfully explored. But a few minutes into the film told me that Riedlesheimer was right to give Goldsworthy a cinematic encore. After the death of his former wife and as he steps into his sixties, Goldsworthy has become more reflective. Leaning into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy feels like a twilight look at Goldsworthy. That's not to say that the artist's productivity has in any way diminished. Much of the film takes place on Goldsworthy’s farm in Scotland, which means that his sculpture and his personality often are rooted to a single place and the intimacy he feels with its contours. The fall of a tree, for example, becomes an event that not only unleashes Goldsworthy’s creativity but puts him in touch with the inexorable passage of time and life. These days, Goldsworthy also travels, working on projects in US and Brazil that seem to have more permanence than Goldsworthy’s work in natural surroundings. He also visits urban areas, where he connects to the human presence that can be felt on every street corner. At times, Goldsworthy's daughter Holly joins him as a helper. I can’t say that Leaning into the Wind is either as revealing or as transportive as Rivers and Tides, but it’s full of stirring images. At 61, Goldsworthy seems more keenly aware than ever that the impressions we make are destined to vanish. Still, acknowledging the sad inevitability of our fates doesn’t mean we can’t strive to make our endeavors profound and beautiful.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Fun sours in formulaic 'Tomb Raider'

Alicia Vikander takes over the role of Lara Croft in a movie that can't resist formula.

“Shoot him, Lara. We can’t let him get to Himiko.”
If this line of dialogue from Tomb Raider doesn’t arouse ripples of excitement for you, you may not be a candidate for the latest attempt to turn a video game into something more than an over-amped funhouse of formulaic plotting and so-so effects.

When the line was uttered by one of the movie's characters, I couldn’t help wishing that the Bill Murray of the Ghostbusters era were around to add a wry and preposterous comment. Murray would have known what to say about Himiko, a departed Japanese queen also known as the Mother of Death. Open her tomb and the entire world will be doomed.

The main suspense about this edition: Can Alicia Vikander replace Angela Jolie as Lara Croft, the intrepid tomb raider? Small in stature but buffed to the max, Vikander put me in mind of a gym-obsessed Tinkerbell who's motivated by a mixture of iron-willed determination, preternatural leaping ability and a growing commitment to combat evil.

Early on, I thought Tomb Raider — which has been directed by Roar Uthaug, the Norwegian filmmaker who brought us The Wave -- might be fun. And it is -- until the movie reaches the island where the notorious, 2000-year-old Himiko has been entombed.

The movie opens in the UK where Uthaug stages a nifty bike chase through the streets of East London. An independent spirit, Lara refuses to inherit the Croft fortune. She'd rather work as a bicycle courier.

Too bad Lara is stuck with the Croft heritage. Lara's father Richard Croft (Dominic West) left home to find the mythic tomb in the Pacific. Lara grew up with a mentor (Kristen Scott Thomas). Scott Thomas doesn't have much to do in this edition but she looks as if someone dipped her in white powder, denying her even rudimentary hints of a complexion.

It has been seven years since Richard launched his island adventure. He is presumed dead.

After a few plot manipulations, Lara -- not one to accept conventional wisdom -- decides to retrace her father's steps in hopes of finding dear old Dad alive on the island.

To achieve her goal, Lara travels to Hong Kong where she hooks up with Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), the son of the captain who guided Richard to the island where some terrible -- but as yet unknown -- evil might be unearthed.

After raging seas wreck Lu's small boat, Lara and Lu are stranded on the island where they're taken prisoner by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), a slave-driver who claims to have killed Lara’s dad. Vogel has been searching for the tomb of Queen Himiko ever since. It's roughly at this point that the movie's fun begins to sour.

I’m not sure whether Tomb Raider can match the popularity of the 2001 edition of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider although it’s probably better than the 2003 sequel, Lara Croft, The Cradle of Life.

Tomb Raider leaves little doubt that it's meant to function as an origins story, setting up what the filmmakers clearly hope will be a healthy franchise life.

We’ll see about that: In the meantime, know that Tomb Raider pits Lara against fiendish foes, a storm-tossed sea, a towering waterfall and other dangers which confront her as the script by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons goes through genre motions that ultimately can’t totally mask the story’s hollow origins.

In short: Uthaug and Vikander can’t make good on the promise of vibrant early scenes. By the end, enjoyment has been overrun by formula -- at least it was by me.

A recreation of a daring Israeli raid

7 Days in Entebbe isn't a bad movie, but it doesn't dig deep enough to be memorable.

In 1976, Israel launched Operation Thunderbolt, a daring raid in which a small group of IDF soldiers rescued 102 Israelis who had been passengers on an Air France plane that was hijacked by two Germans and two Palestinians.

7 Days in Entebbe, a movie about the hijacking and subsequent Israeli action, arrives nearly 42 years after an event that riveted world attention. Daniel Bruhl and Rosamund Pike headline the cast as German radicals who initially thought they were leading the charge but who quickly were surpassed by Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The Palestinians took charge once the plane arrived in Uganda, after a refueling stop in Benghazi, Libya. Once in Entebbe, hostages were housed in a decaying airport terminal that was no longer in use.

Movies such as 7 Days raise an obvious but unavoidable question. Why are we being asked to look at an event that since has been eclipsed by so many other events involving terrorist actions that put innocent civilians in harm's way? In part, the question can be answered with one sentence: Such events are inherently exciting and suspenseful.

But for a movie to succeed, it must get beyond that surface and dig deeper? As directed by Jose Padilha, 7 Days fails to function as more than a cinematic outline, offering quick looks into the motivation of the story's various players.

No stranger to tough, action-oriented movies, Padilha directed the Netflix series Narcos and made Bus 174, a documentary about hostages trapped on a bus in Rio. He also directed Elite Squad, a compelling Brazilian police drama. In 2014, Padilha tried his hand at a Hollywood reboot, a much-derided version of RoboCop .

7 Days emphasizes the importance of the moment at which the hijackers separated Jews from the non-Jews, evoking memories of Holocaust selections in the minds of the Jewish passengers and among the Israeli public.

The highest levels of the Israeli government also took note of the separate treatment of Jews as issues pertaining to saving the hostages were debated. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) and Defense Minister Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) took different sides.

Rabin knew he had to do something but wasn’t entirely sure that he should dismiss the possibility of negotiating with the Palestinians, something that went against Israeli policy forbidding talks with terrorists. Perez favored military action.

At one point, Uganda's Idi Amin (nicely played by Nonso Anozie) gets involved. He’s able to persuade the Palestinians to release the French hostages.

Padilha’s strangest decision involves the use of the Batsheva Dance Company which does a jarring musical version of Echad Mi Yodea (Who Knows One), a song usually sung at Passover seders. Staged by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, the dance -- seen in rehearsals and eventually in a performance -- proves compelling but because it opens the movie, it tends to upstage the rest of the story and it's never entirely clear why Padihla includes it.

To justify the dance sequence, the screenplay must introduce a superfluous tangent, a relationship between a dancer and one of the Israeli soldiers on the Entebbe raid.

Whatever Padihla was attempting to accomplish, he winds up looking a bit ridiculous when he alternates between a performance of the dance and the movie's climactic end-of-picture rescue.

There’s not much by way of character development among the crew and passengers, aside from a crew member (Denis Menochet) who tries to reason with Bruhl’s character, a publisher of radical books who already has his doubts about the role he’s chosen for himself as a German who may be called upon to kill Jews. The screenplay assigns Bruhl's character a role in saving the lives of the Jewish passengers.

Even Pike’s character, a Baader-Meinhof veteran and the more hardened of the two Germans, eventually admits she might have made a wrong choice.

Padilha knows how to give a realistic pulse to action, and the movie offers an important footnote at the end. Yonatan Netanyahu (Angel Bonanni), the only Israeli soldier to die in the raid, was the brother of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s current prime minister.

Eventually, the movie tells us that if peace ever is to be achieved, Israel must swallow hard and negotiate. 7 Days in Entebbe does little to make that conclusion feel like more than a faint hope, an afterthought rather than a genuine expression of conviction.

Hedy Lamarr, great beauty and inventor

In the 1949 movie Samson and Delilah, Victor Mature (as Samson) told Hedy Lamarr (as Delilah) that her kiss had the sting of death. It was Lamarr's great beauty that made the line mildly plausible, even amid the melodramatic pomposity of a Cecil B. DeMille picture. Lamarr could be both irresistible and dangerous, a woman who knew how to use her beauty as a trap.

Of course, the great irony is that Lamarr, more than others, saw her beauty as a trap. She wanted to break through that trap -- and she found ways to escape the imprisonment of her image.

Director Alexandra Dean's Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story doesn't shortchange Lamarr's career but also focuses on other aspects of Lamarr's fascinating, often tumultuous life.

Not only was actress Lamarr one of the most beautiful women in the world, she -- along with avant-garde composer George Antheil -- invented a radio guidance system used by Allied forces to track torpedos during World War II. The system was based on frequency hopping, something that's still used in Bluetooth and WiFi -- or at least represented a necessary step in the development of these ubiquitous technologies.

Lamarr arrived in Hollywood in the 1930s, having already created a stir with her appearance in an erotic Czech film called Ecstasy (1933). In that movie, Lamarr — then known by her birth name, Hedwig Kiesler -- appeared naked. She also defied convention by faking an orgasm on screen. Actually, the movie's director obtained the illusion by hovering off camera and poking Lamarr with a pin.

Despite her notorious reputation (or maybe because of it), Lamarr began appearing in Hollywood movies: She immediately established herself as one Hollywood's great beauties, making films with stars such as Charles Boyer, Clark Gable, and Jimmy Stewart.

When the cameras weren't rolling, Lamarr found time to be married and divorced six times.

Sadly, Lamarr’s life eventually took a downward turn. She wound up living in New York City, a recluse whose face looked nearly deformed by a surfeit of plastic surgery. One wonders why this woman who felt caged by her beauty worked so hard to maintain it, but like many complicated figures, Lamarr was not without contradictions.

Credit Dean with having made an entertaining, informative documentary about a woman whose life never was anything less than intriguing.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

An uneven 'Gringo' founders

The movie features a surprising comic turn from David Oyelowo as a mid-level executive with the world's worst luck.

Another exercise in cynical comedy with a violent streak, Gringo includes at least one element we haven't seen before: A Nigerian businessman nicely played by David Oyelowo struggles to establish himself in a less-than-honorable segment of the US economy.

Overall, though, Gringo seems stuck in a genre rut that’s too familiar to any strike strong chords.

It doesn’t help that Gringo's purposefully convoluted plot revolves around a medical marijuana pill that a variety of different folks are trying to use for ill-gotten gains or that the screenplay involves the kind of strained cleverness that allows for apparently unrelated characters to crisscross.

It’s enjoyable to watch Oyelowo, still best known for having portrayed Martin Luther King in Selma, play a beaten-down chump who has piled up some major debt. His immigrant character, who believes in following rules, makes a perfect target for his scheming bosses at a Chicago-based pharmaceutical company, a duo played by Joel Edgerton and Charlize Theron.

As the story — most of which takes place in Juarez, Mexico — unfolds, director Nash Edgerton — Joel’s brother — introduces a variety of supposedly colorful characters, some of them outright duds. I'm thinking of a couple (Harry Treadaway and Amanda Seyfried) that works in a guitar shop. These two more or less stumble into the plot as does a predictably ruthless Mexican drug lord (Carlos Corona) known as The Black Panther.

Edgerton and Theron fulfill the movie’s dueling viper quotient with Theron giving her all as a woman for whom cunning, calculation, and profane insults come as easily as breathing. At one point -- presumably to show how callous her character can be -- the screenplay has Theron's Elaine do an impression of a deaf woman trying to speak. A line is crossed: An attempt to be funny makes you wince.

Also on board, Thandie Newton as the wife of Oyelowo’s beleaguered Harold, a woman whose infidelity constitutes a case of dramatic piling on.

But that’s the deal. Nothing goes right for poor Harold as the movie puts him through a half-serious, half-comic wringer that includes the arrival of the brother (Sharlto Copley) of Edgerton's character, a supposedly reformed mercenary who we first meet trying to straighten out his crooked life by doing volunteer work in earthquake-stricken Haiti.

Amusing in spurts, Gringo is easily shrugged off, probably because little about it seems plausible or pointed.

Two helpings of genre

'THE CURED:' A ZOMBIE FILM WITH MORE THAN BITE
I'm sick of zombies, so it tells you something that I found The Cured to be a surprisingly effective movie based on a reasonably intelligent screenplay. My positive reaction also may have something to do with the fact that the movie takes place in Ireland and features a strong cast. Here's the set-up: A strange virus has turned many ordinary Irish men and women into vicious flesh eaters. Much damage has been done, but a cure has been developed. Many of those who were attacking their fellow citizens again have achieved normality. There are three catches: First, those cured of this terrible virus remember the havoc they wreaked. Second, some 25 remaining sufferers -- all locked in a secure facility -- have proven resistant to the cure. Third, those who never were infected are brutally prejudiced against those who were. Early on, Senan (Sam Keeley), a cured man, is released from quarantine and taken in by his sister-in-law (Ellen Page), a woman who lost her husband in an attack and who now lives with her young son. The movie may strike some as an allegory about AIDS or some other terrible affliction that produces both physical suffering and social stigma. Director David Freyne creates a chilly atmosphere as he sharpens a conflict between Senan and one of his newly released quarantine buddies (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor). It may be far from perfect, but The Cured has more on its mind than grit and gore. It also benefits from a cast that knows how to make us feel as if what we're watching is grounded in a world populated by real people.

'MIDNIGHTERS' HINGES ON ISSUES OF TRUST

A couple drives down a lonely wooded road on New Year's Eve. If you've ever seen a horror movie or a thriller, you know that it won't be long before this husband and wife will hit something and their lives will change course. Of course, husband and wife, who've been drinking a bit, slam into a man who's standing in the middle of the road, as if waiting to be hit. From that point on, it seems as if Midnighters will be another horror movie about a dead person who refuses to stay dead. But director Julius Ramsay's debut feature proves more ambitious. The movie becomes a story about eroding trust among a group of characters whose troubles begin when they agree to cover up the accident that kicks off the movie. Lindsey (Alex Essoe) and Jeff (Dylan McTee) bumble their way through the initial cover-up. When Lindsey's younger sister (Perla Haney-Jardine) shows up, the script adds another layer of complication. The plot (and alas some brutal violence) thickens when a man identifying himself as a detective (Ward Horton) arrives, presumably to pose routine questions about the accident. The story seems an excuse to create a situation in which abundant betrayals either can be threatened or unleashed. The screenplay was written by the director's brother, Alston, who once worked as a speechwriter for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. I wish Midnighters hadn't gone quite so far with a couple of torture scenes, but -- all in all -- the movie qualifies as a promising first feature.

'Wrinkle' neither folds nor soars

Visually abundant adaptation of popular novel falls short on wonder..
A New York Times article about the 90th edition of the Academy Awards referred to director Ava DuVernay (13th, Selma) as “one of Hollywood’s most aggressive advocates for diversity.” It only takes a few minutes of the big-screen adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time to know that DuVernay has no qualms about putting her convictions on screen.

A somewhat scattered, effects-laden adaptation of a popular novel by Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time stands as both an adventure fantasy and an overdue helping of diverse casting. Its story sends the child of an interracial couple into alternate universes along with her adopted brother and a white teenage boy.

That’s not to say that A Wrinkle in Time takes diversity as its theme. Like many of the Disney movies that precede it, Wrinkle is an ode to the importance of family, as well as a recasting of a typical hero’s journey.

The movie’s main character — a brainy 13-year-old named Meg (Storm Reid) — faces many tests as she tries to establish herself as a warrior for the light; i.e., all that is good in the universe.

DuVernay has said that her movie primarily aims at 12-year-olds and those able to get into a 12-year-old state of mind. As someone for whom 12 barely exists as a memory, I found the movie to be an elaborate helping of children’s theater that proved wanting at the point when it's supposed to reach its emotional crescendo and a little too vague about what constitutes evil in the movie’s visually abundant universe.

I also found the cosmology depicted in A Wrinkle in Time a bit confusing but that may not matter to young audiences willing to go with flow in order to enjoy the movie's various odd sights: a beach where a character who embodies evil (Michael Pena) turns up or a strange cave-like place that's home to Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis), a character whose name explains his outlook.

Though it brims with varied settings and costumes, the core of A Wrinkle in Time hinges on a simplistic binary battle between the light and the dark, evil being represented by a spidery looking creation that resembles an ink blot.

Three other-worldly beings serve as guides for young Meg’s journey, which involves something called a “tesseract.” As best as I could discern — and with help from Wikipedia — the tesseract is a phenomenon that creates folds in the fabric of space and time, allowing Meg and her companions to travel through the fifth dimension.

These guides are women with (what else?) special powers. Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) can turn herself into what looks like a giant green leaf that carries the movie’s adventurers like a magic carpet. Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) is a walking Bartlett’s book of quotations; she dispenses the wisdom of others. Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) seems to materialize out of nothing.

When we first meet Mrs. Which, she’s clad in silver and as tall as one of those balloons in a holiday parade, looming large over everyone else, a visual choice that mirrors Winfrey’s status in the real-life world of media.

Meg’s interplanetary journey is motivated by a devastating loss. Her father (Chris Pine) has been missing for four years as the result of a quest to explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy. Meg was left to make do with her mom (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe).

Meg journeys into other worlds to locate her scientist father and bring him home because, as we long ago learned from the The Wizard of Oz, no matter how intoxicating alternate realities can be, there’s no place like home.

Levi Miller portrays Calvin O’Keefe, a popular teenager who joins outcast Meg on her trippy pursuits, but his character doesn't seem to have much of a role beyond adding someone with whom younger boys may identify.

First seen in Twelve Years A Slave, Reid provides the movie with a solid center. Initially annoying, McCabe’s Charles Wallace grew on me, particularly when his body was taken over by the IT, a disembodied evil that turns him from a brainiac into a painiac.

The movie’s production team does a good job creating wavy wrinkles in time as Meg travels in the fifth dimension, and the movie certainly doesn't lack for other forms of visual invention. My favorite: a rigidly conformist suburban community where every kid stands in a driveway bouncing a beach ball in unison, a twisted idea of playtime.

I suppose the best fantasies create a sense of wonder that Wrinkle in Time can't quite achieve. It's probably not the keenest of critical insights or the heartiest of endorsements, but after a preview screening and a little reflection, I'd say the movie qualifies as "OK." I'd be lying if I didn't say I was hoping for more.

Monday, March 5, 2018

An Oscar night with few surprises

For its 90th anniversary, the Academy Awards showcased an unusually diverse crop of films in an evening that unfolded in utterly predictable fashion.

Marked mostly by an evenness of tone and few memorable displays of personality, the ceremonies took place on one of the most unfortunately garish sets ever. I read that the LA Times had reported that the set was designed to look like the inside of a geode. Question: Why in a year that was supposed to celebrate openness why did Hollywood choose the inside of a rock as its set? Answer: Perhaps because it afforded an opportunity to build a 10-ton proscenium arch made from 45 million crystals.

As for the show …

Jimmy Kimmel opened the proceedings with a relaxed, well-delivered monologue that may not have killed but was funny enough. Kimmel didn’t do much after that, aside from adding a distracting bit in which he took a bunch of stars to a nearby theater to hand out goodies to an audience that was watching a preview showing of director Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time.

For a moment, Kimmel's stunt gave the Oscars a ridiculous game show aura. I don’t know about you, but my list of things I’d hoped never to see includes Lupita Nyong’O handing out Red Vines.

The excursion outside the Dolby Theater wasn't the only game-show-like flare. Kimmel did another bit in which the Oscar recipient who delivered the shortest acceptance speech would receive a Jet Ski. Helen Mirren rode the Jet Ski onto the stage. Oh dignity, where art thou?

References to dreamers, #TimesUp and calls for inclusion were accompanied by a tribute to military-themed movies, a transparent attempt to show that Hollywood isn’t totally full of left-leaning liberals who have no idea what happens in mainstream America.

In the days leading up to the Oscars, prognosticators were calling the best-picture race too-close-to-call, a near dead heat between The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

In the end, Shape of Water won the Oscar for best picture. The movie won four Oscars in all, including best director for Guillermo Del Toro. Del Toro, who grew up in Mexico, proudly and pointedly called himself "an immigrant" in his acceptance speech.

The evening perked up quite a bit with Frances McDormand’s acceptance speech after she took the Oscar for best performance by a lead actress for her work in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

After the customary thanks, McDormand set her Oscar on the stage floor and wound up for what felt like it would be a scolding from a principal at a school assembly. Instead, she asked every female nominee to stand. She not only called for more diversity in movie-making but insisted on it.

McDormand probably also sent viewers to Google to look up the two words with which she ended her speech: “inclusion rider." She was calling for additions to contracts that mandate gender and racial diversity.

Three Billboards, which had both avid supporters and angry detractors, had to content itself with acting Oscars for McDormand, and for Sam Rockwell, who won in the best supporting actor category.

Allison Janney won the best-supporting-actress Oscar for playing Tonya Harding's mother in I, Tonya. Janney began her speech with a memorable first line: "I did all by myself." Of course, she immediately made amends, continuing with the obligatory list of people she needed to thank.

Ashley Judd, Salma Hayek and Annabella Sciorra — three women who have gone public with their accusations of Harvey Weinstein's sexual misconduct — called for more diversity in film.

This year’s awards seemed to follow a something-for-everyone arc:

-- Many were hoping Get Out would win best picture; it didn't but it did win best original screenplay for writer/director Jordan Peele.

-- Phantom Thread won an Oscar for best costumes.

-- Dunkirk took some technical awards (best editing, best sound editing, and best sound mixing) but couldn’t work its way to the top in the major categories.

-- James Ivory’s adapted screenplay for Call Me By Your Name was recognized, making the 89-year-old screenwriter the oldest person ever to receive an Oscar.

-- Darkest Hour not only netted a best actor Oscar for Gary Oldman -- unrecognizable as Winston Churchill -- but for the folks who did Oldman's phenomenal make-up.

-- No one should have been surprised that A Fantastic Woman, a Chilean movie about a transgender woman who fought with the family of her late lover, took the award for the best foreign-language film. Its victory had been widely predicted.

Lady Bird, an early-season darling that began the evening with five nominations including best picture, went home empty-handed, as did another best-picture nominee, The Post.

I wasn't unhappy that Icarus, which helped call attention to the Russian doping scandal, won an Oscar for best documentary, but I really wanted to see 89-year-old Agnes Varda (Faces Places) give an acceptance speech.

I agree with those who watched the show and suggested that Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph, two of this year's presenters, should be frontrunners to host next year's show.

After last year's fiasco, it probably made sense to have Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announce the best-picture winner. You could almost hear the show's producers calling, "Faye. Warren. Come home. All is forgiven."
I don’t know how many people saw the Oscar shorts programs, but those who did may have been a little surprised to see Kobe Bryant holding an Oscar for Dear Basketball, a self-serving animated short about his love of the game.

During the Oscars, Wesley Morris, who writes for the New York Times, perceptively tweeted: “Kobe Bryant has an Oscar. And Stanley Kubrick does not.”

Oh well, who said anything about Hollywood makes sense?
A complete list of winners can be found in today's edition of Variety.