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

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.


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.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Oscar looms. Who will win?

Maybe it's me. Or maybe it's the mind-disrupting flood of daily news out of Washington. Maybe it's the skepticism induced by shifting concerns that Hollywood never entirely addresses -- from #OscarsSoWhite to #metoo to #NeverAgain. Or maybe it's the fact that most of the major Oscar-nominated movies qualify as niche efforts, films that either do or could turn up at film festivals, events where Academy Awards once were considered irrelevant in discussions of film art. Or maybe it's the fact that we're all suffering from awards fatigue, already having indulged in the Critics' Choice Awards, the Golden Globes and all the awards given by the industry's various craft unions and guilds -- actors, directors, editors, producers, etc.

Over the years, I've written about the diminishing impact of the Academy Awards and I have no desire to rehash old observations about the dizzying growth of entertainment options that compete with movies or the way celebrity over-exposure has taken much of the thrill out of seeing the stars come out for an evening of high style.

Still, it's the Oscars and the name still evokes nostalgic memories of movie primacy, even as we wonder about the future of big-screen entertainment. And for all the commentary about the ascendance of great and important TV, I wonder if there's an actor or director alive who'd trade an Oscar for an Emmy if given the choice.

But enough of all that.

Among other things, the arrival of Oscar means it's time to make a few predictions, and, as usual, I'll throw in my two cents, which happens to be a little more than I think most Oscar predictions are worth.

So, for what it's worth here are my picks, along with selections of what might happen if I'm wrong.

Best Picture
Lots of observers see this as a too-close-to-call race between Shape of Water and Three Billboards. Wouldn't it be great if vote splitting pushed Get Out to the front of the line?
Will win: I lean toward Shape of Water, but the late ascendance of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri makes the race the most difficult to predict.
Best Actress
Will win: Francis McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Possible upset: Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Best Actor
Will win: Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Oldman's strongest oppposition: Timothee Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name
Best supporting actress
Will win: Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Janney's strongest opposition: Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Best Supporting Actor
Will win: Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Rockwell's strongest opposition: Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Best director
Will Win: Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
Biggest possibility for an upset: Jordan Peel, Get Out
Best Original Screenplay
Will win: Get Out
Equally strong: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
This is a category that's worth special note as Oscar's evening unfolds. If Three Billboards wins best original screenplay, it may signal that the movie has a real chance to take home best picture.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Will win: Call Me By Your Name
Possible upset: Mudbound
Will win: Blade Runner 2049
In the running: Dunkirk
Animated Feature
Will win: Coco
Possible upset: None
Foreign Language Film
Will win: A Fantastic Woman
Possible upset: The Insult
Will Win: Icarus
In contention: Faces Places
As of this writing, weather forecasters are predicting a cold wet evening in Los Angeles for Oscar Sunday. I encourage one and all (myself included) to resist all attempts at metaphor-making.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Do we need a 'Death Wish' reboot?

Bad timing and plain old badness should put the newly minted edition of Death Wish on ice.
It has been roughly 44 years since the release of the original Death Wish, a vengeful bloodbath of a movie that played on widespread fears about urban violence. Charles Bronson starred as a vigilante who "made death wishes come true" for a variety of sneering miscreants.

When the movie was released, Vincent Canby, then the principal film critic of the New York Times, wrote this: "It's a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers."

Roger Ebert awarded the movie three stars, crediting it for creating "eerie fascination" but also pointing out that Death Wish was "propaganda for private gun ownership and a call to vigilante justice."*

Now comes director Eli Roth's remake starring Bruce Willis. Roth moves the story from New York to Chicago and converts the movie's vigilante from an architect to a surgeon. He also loses anything you might call "eerie fascination" or any other qualities that might be called redeeming.

For those who are unfamiliar with this hoary revenge-fest, it goes like this. A physician and his wife (Elizabeth Shue) are living a happy life in Evanston, Ill. when their home is burglarized by three thugs, a crime that results in the death of the doctor's wife. The family's teenage daughter (Camila Morrone) is also wounded. She winds up in a coma.

Willis' Paul Kersey and his brother (Vincent D'Onofrio) are, of course, inconsolable. Kersey was at work at the time of the burglary, and, therefore, believes he failed in his manly duties to protect home, hearth, and -- of course -- the women in his life.

A couple of Chicago detectives (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise) are sure they'll catch the killers, but the wheels of justice don't seem to be turning fast enough for Kersey, who -- in this mildly updated 21st century edition -- even visits a therapist.

Frustrated and grief-stricken, Kersey decides to pick up a gun. His actions earn him a nickname: He's the Chicago Grim Reaper, a man who kills only those who deserve punishment. Among the Reaper's victims, an inner-city drug dealer who goes by the name of Ice Cream Man.

Instead of creating sickening urban exploitation, Roth treats audiences to an equally dubious helping of what might be deemed "gun fun," sometimes adding comic spin to the movie's abundant violence. Presumably, we're meant to find visceral satisfaction in Kersey's forays into the night as he dons a hoodie and takes justice into his own hands. Of course, he also hopes to find his wife's killers.

Roth, who has directed horror movies such as Cabin Fever and Hostel, needs no introduction to gore and he dishes out plenty of it, including a gruesome torture sequence in which (spoiler alert) Dr. Kersey slices open a miscreant's sciatic nerve.

Only violently expressed vengeance seems to snap Kersey out of his grief and depression. His vengeful rampage makes him feel better, and his behavior lights up talk radio airwaves as callers are encouraged to debate whether he's a "zero or a hero."

Death Wish has less to say about the agony of grief than about the supposed thrill of rapid gunfire. Moreover, a DYI attempt at dispensing justice by a well-educated white man seems especially tin-eared in the post-Trayvon Martin era. Add Parkland and a heated national conversation about guns and who should wield them, and the movie becomes even more reprehensible.

I'm not sure we ever needed a Death Wish reboot, but we sure as hell don't need one now.

*Thanks to Rotten Tomatoes for the ability to quickly check reviews on older movies.

'Red Sparrow' doesn't fly high

Jennifer Lawrence takes up the role of a Russian spy.
Those damn Russians will stop at nothing when it comes to advancing their cause.

No, we're not talking about interference in the last presidential election, but about the spycraft that tends to shape relations between Russia and the rest of the world.

Of course, we're also talking about a movie in which the Russians have invented a special spy-training agency that teaches men and women the fine arts of seduction and manipulation. Humiliation and intimidation are used to turn female students into "whores" for the Motherland, wiping out any traces of propriety or pity.

Those who make it out of the program are called Sparrows.

The aptly titled Red Sparrow stars Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika Egorova, who -- at the movie's outset -- is an acclaimed star of the Bolshoi ballet. Dominika’s career comes to an abrupt end when her leg is broken by a clumsy dance partner during a performance.

Eager to preserve her Bolshoi privileges — mostly for the sake of her ailing mother — Dominika follows the advice of her sleazy uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), a man who happens to be a part of the Russian intelligence establishment. Without knowing exactly what's involved, Dominika agrees to be trained as a Sparrow.

Working with director Francis Lawrence, who directed Lawrence in a couple of Hunger Games movies, Lawrence (Jennifer, that is) has no trouble portraying a powerful woman who learns to walk the fine line between convincing her superiors that she’s all in with the Sparrow program and trying to preserve some of her personal integrity.

That’s no easy task considering she’s working for a branch of the intelligence service that believes her body belongs to the state.

Added to the mix are an American CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) who offers Dominika a way out of her complicated predicament, Dominika’s hardened instructor in Sparrow World (Charlotte Rampling), another Russian intelligence agency big-wig (Jeremy Irons) and the head of Russian intelligence (an under-utilized Ciaran Hinds).

Much has been written about Lawrence’s nude scene, which reveals most (but not all) of an actress who certainly has the charisma and smarts to carry a movie that’s presumably trying to attain franchise status. Lawrence creates a bold, sexy character who's also capable of calculated bursts of fury.

Unfortunatley, Lawrence isn't enough to save the day. A convoluted plot, boiled down from a novel by Jason Matthews, results in an often murky spy drama enriched by a variety of locations — from Moscow to Budapest.

The movie attempts a somewhat tepid romance between Edgerton’s CIA man, a character who finds himself on the outs with the CIA after he blows his cover protecting a source. Edgerton gives a muted performance that dampens any sparks that could have enlivened his relationship with Dominika. p>
The movie's atmosphere isn’t one defined by virtue. Many of the characters are advancing personal agendas, notably, an American traitor portrayed by Mary-Louise Parker who has possession of floppy discs that both the Russians and Americans are eager to get their hands on.

There’s no point dwelling on a plot that generates too little suspense, but it should be noted that Red Sparrow includes a brutal scene of torture which many will find difficult to watch.

Downbeat and doom-struck, Red Sparrow doesn’t reflect the kind of intricate intelligence that defines spy movies adapted, say, from the work of author John LeCarre nor does it offer the brash pleasures of overstated action we associate with movies with blockbuster aspirations.

The result: A medium-grade thriller that relies on Lawrence and a reliable cast, but which comes off as watered-down and more than a bit weary.

A child goes missing, a society is revealed

A couple in the Russian movie Loveless proves profoundly neglectful.
No one who sees the Russian movie Loveless will find the title misleading.

Director Andrey Zvyaginstev (Leviathan) skillfully paints a powerful portrait of characters for whom self-interest trumps everything — even the welfare of a child.

Full of chilly winter images, Loveless tells the story of two warring parents (Alexey Rozin and Maryana Spivak), a husband and wife so preoccupied with their own lives that they’ve become indifferent to the life of Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), their 12-year-old son. Early on we see the boy standing in a darkened corner of his parents' Moscow apartment; he cries as they engage in a vituperative battle.

Not long after this painful night, the boy goes missing.

But Loveless isn’t so much about the search for the boy as it is about the lives of two people who clearly never should have been parents in the first place. Rozin’s Borris worries that his boss, a staunch Christian, will fire him if he learns about Borris’ impending divorce.

For her part, Spivak’s Zhenya alternates between fury at her estranged husband and involvement in a relationship with a new lover (Andris Keisha), a guy who seems to have a bit of money and who expresses no interest in her role as a mother.

Boris, too, has taken up another relationship. He’s already gotten a woman named Masha (Marina Vasilyeva) pregnant. She's pushing for all his attention.

Zvyaginstev, who allows images to linger to the breaking point, seems less interested in making a police procedural — the police eventually become involved in the search for the boy — than in creating a grim picture of society in which values have dangerously eroded.

The fate of poor Alyosha makes itself felt in nearly every frame of Loveless — even when the movie's focus is elsewhere. That's part of why Zvyaginstev succeeds in indicting not only two horrible parents but the society whose values — or lack of them — produced such terrible neglect.

For the record: Loveless earned a spot as one of this year’s five nominees for a foreign-language Oscar.