Thursday, March 30, 2017

She navigates a new life as a cyborg

Scarlett Johansson stars in Ghost in the Shell, a visually stunning but flawed version of a much-admired Japanese anime series.

The makers of Ghost in the Shell, a live-action version of a story that stems from a revered 1995 anime offering by Mamoru Oshii, have spared no expense trying to move the awe needle by creating a visual environment that befits an amazingly conceived future world.

Led by director Rupert Sanders, the Shell team places their movie somewhere between reality and imagination. Those who feared that this version would somehow diminish their feeling about the achievements of the original will have their own take on the movie. I'm not a purist, so this edition didn't bother me. Besides, there' nothing to stop anyone from watching the original, which derived from a manga comic.

Now for the controversy: Some commentators have been upset by the selection of Scarlett Johansson for the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg who strives to bring evildoers to justice. An American star playing a Japanese character? Surely, this role should have gone to an Asian actress, certainly a powerful argument.

The counter argument revolves partly around commercial considerations. A big-ticket production needs a big-ticket star. Perhaps to appease critics, the character Johansson plays is referred to only as "Major." I've also read that the filmmakers explain the ethnic shift by telling us that the character who died and whose brain was transplanted into a cyborg was Japanese. Johansson's cyborg ... well ... it's a synthetic creation that has been designed to look ethnically neutral and, yes fanboys, sexy in a flesh-colored, body-clinging suit that makes Johansson appear to be naked.

But its background as much as sensuality that qualifies Johansson for the role. She played an alien in 2013's Under the Skin. She's handled action in 2014's Lucy. And she's been an entirely artificial character, as the off-screen voice of a computer operating system in Her (2014).

I don't know if it constitutes high praise, but Johansson makes a pretty good cyborg, a character who's haunted by slivers of memory from her former human life.

To the extent that the movie has intellectual concerns, they revolve around questions of what exactly makes a person human. The idea is that advanced cyborgs are inhabited by what the movie refers to as "ghosts;" i.e., the souls of humans who have been developed into entirely new creatures -- in this case under the supervision of Dr. Ouelet (French actress Juliette Binoche speaking with an American accent).

There were times when I wished that Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) would wipe away a low-impact story and simply let us wander around the city he has created, an urbanscape where giant hologram advertisements are projected from buildings, where high-rise apartments reach for the sky and the streets feel alluring and alive.

Aside from Johansson, the rest of the cast is relegated to true supporting roles. Pilou Asbaek appears as Batou, Major's loyal and totally human partner. Takeshi Kitano plays Aramaki, a human who's not to be trifled with and who has an empathy for the cyborg plight. Michael Carmen Pitt portrays Kuze, a mysterious, hooded cyborg. Peter Ferdinando has been given stand-out moments as Cutter, a sinister character who runs a company that develops robots.

Some of the human characters have been "enhanced; i.e., they've chosen to develop certain parts of themselves with cybernetic infusions, something I thought about on the ride home from a preview screening as I debated about making yet another appointment with a chiropractor about recurrent back issues.

Fair to say, though, that Ghost's overwhelming visual achievements tend to dwarf any serious consideration of what it means to be human and an action-enhanced story tends to do what a surfeit of action sequences generally do -- numb our sensibilities, a liability that, for me, was abetted by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe's trance-inducing score.

So where do I come down on this mega-production that's probably going to cement Johansson into a long-running franchise? If you want to be overwhelmed by visuals, have at it. If you're looking for a high degree of involvement in a compelling story, be a little wary. And if you want to see a perfect fusion of story and visuals, you may want to be even warier.

Poles who helped save Jews

Jessica Chastain starts in The Zookeeper's Wife, the latest big-screen drama to deal with the Holocaust.

Israel has awarded the title "Righteous Among the Nations" to more than 26,000 Gentiles, brave souls who helped save Jews during the Holocaust. To date, more Poles -- 6,620 in all -- have received this honor than individuals from any other nation, a statistic partly explained by the fact that Poland became the epicenter of Nazi efforts to annihilate Europe's Jews. Beyond that, Poland had the largest pre-war Jewish population of any country in Europe, numbering 3.5 million.

Among those honored by Israel are the characters in The Zookeeper's Wife, a movie based on a true story that was recounted in a best-selling book by author Diane Ackerman. There's an inherent pitfall in such heroic Holocaust stories, the most notable being that they can be seen as having defining power concerning a historical crime that never should be seen through a life-affirming lens. That's why overall context is so important when it comes to Holocaust dramas.

Having said that, it's also true that stories about those who risked their lives to save Jews deserve to be told, and few are more intriguing than those recounted in The Zookeeper's Wife.

Prior to the war, Warsaw's zoo was run by Antonina and Jan Zabinski. During the war, the Zabinskis managed to hide 300 Polish Jews at the zoo, using the zoo's facilities to conceal them from the Germans.

As a cover for their efforts, the Zabinskis turned the zoo into a pig farm. They convinced the Nazis that they could raise pigs to feed German soldiers. They would nourish the pigs with scraps collected from the Warsaw Ghetto. Jan made trips to the ghetto, where he covered Jews in garbage and smuggled them to safety.

On screen, Jessica Chastain plays Antonina Zabinski, a woman with a special affinity for animals. Johan Heldenbergh portrays her husband, Jan.

For reasons that may have more to do with international marketing than with historical authenticity, everyone in Zookeeper's Wife speaks English, employing a variety of accents with Eastern European flavor, an approach that already compromises the material.

It should also be noted that Chastain is a wonderful actress, but there are many fine Polish actresses who easily could have tackled this material.

Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) opens the movie with an idyllic passage in which we learn that the zoo functions as Antonina's Edenic paradise. She makes her morning rounds on a bicycle while a baby camel trots happily behind her. A couple of more clicks in the direction of cuteness and we'd be talking Dr. Dolittle.

It doesn't take long for the Germans to begin bombing the zoo as part of its invasion of Warsaw. Animals die, and Antonina, Jan and their young son (Timothy Radford) are terrorized.

Daniel Bruhl plays a Nazi zoologist who arranges for some of the zoo's best animals to be shipped to Germany for genetic experimentation. German soldiers shoot the rest.

Bruhl's character flirts with Antonina, who tries to keep his interest alive while warding off his most flagrant advances; she knows that this zoologist -- sort of an animal-oriented Mengele -- must think of her as an ally if she's going to continue her life-saving efforts.

Caro's treatment of ghetto life and of the Polish home army remains sketchy and not entirely satisfying.

The script has been tailored to showcase Chastain, who gives a credible performance. Portraying the character who does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to saving Jews, Heldenbergh mostly is asked to look grave. Bruhl's SS zoologist manages a neat trick: He's bland and menacing at the same time.

The Jews in the story become little more than props used to support Antonina's gentle heroism, although the story of a Jewish girl who's raped by German soldiers proves harrowing.

In all, The Zookeeper's Wife is a medium-grade drama that has been given the look and feel of a prestige offering.

If you want to see a remarkably shaded and far more agonizing story about the interaction between Poles and Jews during the war, try Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness, a movie that offers nuances and hard-core realities that Caro's effort doesn't begin to approach.

Can the wounds of war ever heal?

Director Francois Ozon's Frantz examines grief in the aftermath of World War I.

Whenever I thought director Francois Ozon's new movie about coping with grief after World War I was being a little too explicit, Ozon introduced something that changed my mind: a plot development, a character revelation or an unexpected nuance.

In telling a story that takes place before the wounds of war have begun to heal, Ozon (Under the Sand and Swimming Pool) draws us into the world of his characters and into ourselves, posing a question that should make for much post-movie debate. What would we do if we found ourselves dealing with the same situation as Ozon's characters?

Using black and white and vivid color to contrast times of unbearable grief and fleeting forgetfulness, Ozon renders a beautifully subtle surface that masks the agonies that lie beneath.

Anna (Paula Beer) is a young German woman who lost her fiancé (Anton von Lucke) during the war. Anna now lives with her late fiance's parents (Ernst Stotzner and Marie Gruber). Most of the movie takes place in a small German town where the scars of war aren't readily visible, but where no one has begun to move on.

Each day Anna visits the grave of her beloved fiancé, Frantz. She's wearing her grief like armor against the world: A local from the town (Johann von Bulow ) wants to court her, but Anna avoids relationships. Besides, von Bulow's Kreutz comes across as a bit of a creep.

The daily lives of Anna and the dead man's parents are interrupted when a French soldier (Pierre Niney) arrives in town. He, too, visits the grave of the fallen Frantz. Ultimately, he begins to associate with Anna and with Frantz's parents. He tells them that he and the late Frantz met in Paris before the war. They shared cultural interests, became friends, but were separated when the fighting broke out.

Ozon raises questions that heighten involvement in the story. Were Frantz and Niney's Adrien lovers? Had Frantz hidden this part of himself from both his fiancé and his parents? What precisely was the connection between Frantz and Adrien?

No fair telling more, but know that the drama unfolds against a backdrop of residual German resentment toward the French. Frantz's father initially greets the visitor with undisguised hostility. But Frantz's mother, desperate to learn about her son's life as a student in France, wants to hear what Adrien has to say.

Slowly, Anna begins to awaken. She may even be developing a romantic interest in Frantz, a situation that raises eyebrows among her neighbors, who can't accept the humiliations of defeat.

Eventually, Adrien departs for Paris. After a time, Anna follows, and we expect that these two will console each other; both have experienced what they view as the pointless carnage of war.

I won't tell you about the obstacles Anna and Adrien face, although you'll surely consider one of the major ones as you speculate about what you're watching.

Directed with welcome sensitivity, Frantz might have borrowed a title from director Mike Leigh. Secrets and Lies would have been appropriate, and those familiar with cinema will recognize that Ozon and his writing collaborator, Philippe Piazzo, have reworked Ernst Lubitsch's 1932 drama, Broken Lullaby. But it's not necessary to know anything about the film's predecessor to appreciate what Ozon and his fine cast have accomplished.

They've taken us deep into the lives of characters who live in the past, but whose emotions still feel painfully alive.

A mostly subdued helping of horror

Here's a horror movie with an intriguing pedigree: The Blackcoat's Daughter was directed by Osgood Perkins, son of Anthony Perkins, an actor who's still most remembered for his indelible performance as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. In addition, the film's music was written by Elvis Perkins, Osgood's brother and another of Anthony Perkins' children. Pedigree aside, Perkins' film stands as its own helping of quietly engineered horror. Blackcoat's Daughter focuses on two girls (Kiernan Shipka and Lucy Boynton) who remain at their private Catholic school during a break in which the other students have headed home. Shipka's character is the weirder of the two, a girl with a spooky affect and a look of eerie determination. (You may recognize Shipka as the girl who played Don Draper's often sullen daughter on Mad Men.) Boynton's Rose seems more normal, although she's grappling with a difficult issue: She's pregnant. Later, we meed Joan (Emma Roberts), a young woman who escapes from a mental institution and is given a ride by a married couple (James Remar and Lauren Holly) who are heading toward the school. The movie's brooding score and its somber, snow-covered images leave little doubt that something awful will happen before the film concludes. It takes time for the inevitable violence to arrive, but that's part of what makes the film effective. No sense over-praising Perkins' debut accomplishment, but this small hunk of horror shows more than enough promise to make us look forward to his next outing.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

More alien dangers from space

Entirely predictable, Life generates tension -- but not much else.

Life arrives in theaters as another Alien clone -- only like most derivative movies, it's not nearly as good as the original.

The best thing about Life may be its depictions of the crew of an international space station floating through extravehicular missions or taking care of daily tasks in the space-station's gravity-free environment. Gliding through the station's narrow corridors looks like it might be fun -- at least for 10 or so minutes.

The story follows a standard alien-on-spacecraft arc. The crew finds carbon-based life in soil samples from Mars -- or something like that. The science officer brings the simple, single-cell creature to life by feeding it glucose. What begins with wonder and awe quickly sours as this simple cellular creature develops into a predatory, octopus-like monster with a face that may remind you of the deep-space monster in Alien.

Once the monster makes its predatory intentions clear, the crew must fight for its life -- and to keep this creature away from Earth. The creature is dubbed Calvin by school children on Earth where the discovery initially is celebrated.

Director Daniel Espinosa ably turns the tension crank as he mixes two marquee names -- Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds -- with a lesser known cast, making Life an ensemble piece in which no single character really stands out. British actor Ariyon Bakari makes a bit of an impression as the station's chief science officer.

Movies such as Life can't really work if we're not repelled by the alien creature's eating habits. The monster's tentacles probe the throats of its victims as it embraces them with a combination of waving tentacles and what appear to be stingray-like wings. Someone describes the creature as a deadly mixture of muscle, brain and eye, which is pretty much what the movie tries to be -- albeit with intermittent success.

Much attention has been given to creating a credible space station, which helps with plausibility. Life offers no wild-eyed futuristic version of space travel, but takes place in the bland near-future.

Don't forget, though, it was the industrial strength cynicism of the original Alien, as well as its hideously vicious creature, that made for such a compelling experience. Life offers tension, but without much of an accompanying vision to elevate it. Gyllenhaal's character voices distaste for life on a conflict-riddled Earth, but that's about it for philosophical musing.

As the story progresses and the fatalities mount, Gyllenhaal's presence increases -- but without creating any special impact. The ship's medical officer (Rebecca Ferguson) also receives more attention.

Terror about making contact with another form of life hardly constitutes a novel story line, and the movie's conclusion proves relatively easy to outguess.

It's possible that Life will turnout to be a placeholder or maybe a warm-up act for Ridley Scott's soon-to-be-released Alien: Covenant. I was hoping for more.

Shooting up in Scotland again

A highly stylized and very loopy sequel to 1996's Trainspotting.

That fun-loving, heroin-shooting gang from Trainspotting, director Danny Boyle's 1996 stylistic plunge into down-and-out life in Edinburgh, is back for a second helping in T2 Trainspotting. In what amounts to a case of big-screen recidivism, Boyle allows echoes from the first movie to resound throughout a boisterous second helping. Boyle brings non-stop energy to a movie that attempts to create poignancy about the way childhood friendships can devolve into tattered adult lives.

A simply plot involves attempts by the group to open a high-end brothel, but the real fun of T2 consists of reuniting with familiar characters who retain substantial amounts of their old humor, uncontrollable brutalities and criminal preoccupations. These guys are all 20 years older, but not a hell of a lot wiser.

When Ewan McGregor's Mark returns to Scotland from Amsterdam, he's hardly surprised to learn that his former cronies are upset with him for having absconded with funds they all should have shared.

The movie's gallery of maladjusted men includes Mark's pals Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) and Spud (Ewen Bremner). Then there's the psychopathic Begbie (Robert Carlyle), the thuggish lout who escapes from jail to seek revenge against Mark and to reunite with a wife and son who aren't exactly overjoyed about his return. Sharing space with Begbie is like living with someone who keeps a loaded gun on the nightstand.

Part of the movie's enjoyment involves seeing how these actors have aged. Sporting a closely cropped haircut and neatly trimmed mustache, Carlyle seems to have added bulk that makes Begbie as physically threatening as ever.

Still showing traces of his youth, Simon has taken up with a Bulgarian refugee (Anjela Nedyalkova), promising her that she'll be in charge of the brothel he wants to build, euphemistically calling it a spa in what John Hodge's mildly satirical screenplay offers as an example of Edinburgh's march toward gentrification.

T2 doesn't have much on its mind, but it's buoyed by Boyle's relentlessly stylized approach, which includes flashbacks, quick cuts, freeze frames, overly saturated colors and lots of splash.

Trainspotting was seen as a breakthrough film. T2 lacks the electrifying juice or novelty of its predecessor, but it's enjoyable in a loopy way -- even if it is an exercise in superfluity. Credit Boyle with specializing in upbeat movies about downbeat lives.

If you're looking for a better movie about what happens when former pals reunite, try Donald Cried, a comic indie set in Rhode Island during a bleak winter. A Wall Street banker (Jesse Wakeman) returns to his hometown after his grandmother passes away. Wakeman's Peter has the misfortune of losing his wallet on the bus trip he took to his desolate destination. The subsequent lack of funds forces Peter to hook up with an old high school buddy (Kris Avedisian). Avedisian, who also co-wrote and directed, plays Donald, a character who manages to be both innocent and offensive at the same time. Avedisian's Donald is the high school guy who was tolerated by his buddies, who always tried to keep him at arm's length. Inadvertently abrasive in nearly everything he does, the shaggy, ill-kempt Donald never seems to have left his high-school self behind. Wakeman and Avedisian play off one another in ways that are funny, nervy and realistic. Avedisian's Donald is a wounded soul who nonetheless retains his pluck, and that makes Donald Cried a weirdly bracing comedy about the clash between those who want to leave their hometown behind and those who never will escape its hold.

I didn't buy 'Personal Shopper'

Kristin Stewart reunites with director Olivier Assayas for a ghost story.

Director Olivier Assayas worked with Kristen Stewart in the well-received Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), the story of a young woman working as a personal assistant to a famous actress (Juliette Binoche). Now, Assayas has reunited with Stewart for Personal Shopper, a movie that does its best to defy description.

Assayas tries to combine various genre elements, most notably those of a ghost story, those of a philosophical thriller and those pertaining to the portrait of a grief-stricken character at loose ends.

Stewart's Maureen is haunted by grief after the death of her twin brother, Lewis, a young man with whom she shared a heart defect and with whom she made a pact. Brother and sister agreed that whoever died first would contact the other from the great beyond. We're told that both Maureen and her brother were mediums.

Stewart's Maureen lives in Paris where she works as a personal shopper for an apparently famous model (Nora von Waldstatten). Maureen, who doesn't seem to fit into Paris or perhaps into any known surroundings, travels around the city on her motor scooter. She's looking for items that might please her mostly unappreciative boss.

Sometimes, Maureen tries on her boss' clothes, something she's not supposed to do. Assayas treats these clothes-swapping incidents as if Maureen's violating a taboo, reinforcing the idea by having Maureen masturbate in her absent boss's bed.

Maureen also spends time at the house where her brother passed away. She encounters various noises, but not getting a clear message from the next world, although Assays shows us a computer generated shimmer that we assume is the late Lewis's ghost.

Once in a while, Maureen Skypes with her boyfriend (Ty Olwin), a young man who's working in cybersecurity in London.

More importantly, she begins receiving text messages (well-handled by Assayas over the course of 20 minutes) from an unidentified man who seems to know her every move. The ghost? A stalker? Someone menacing? Someone helpful?

Stewart plays an unhappy 27-year-old woman of frustratingly spare expression. That makes her a perfect match for Assayas's maddeningly spare approach. He's big on showing us glossy interiors, but doesn't seem all that interested in human interiors.

Say this, though, Stewart manages to look entirely of the moment even when her character is bored.

Assayas steadfastly refuses to define his movie, which isn't made any clearer by the addition of a brutal murder. You can take all this as irritatingly or provocatively French, depending on your taste.

I don't mind ambiguity, but there's a difference between ambiguity and vagueness. For me, Personal Shopper blurred the line. Put another way: Personal Shopper feels arty and pretentious, but left me unsure about what its pretensions even were.

People, people who eat people

If you're thinking about becoming a veterinarian, you'll want to avoid this school.

Part grotesque curiosity, part horror film and part cautionary tale linking cannibalism, sex and carnivorous behavior, the Belgian/French movie Raw marks a debut in which director Julia Ducournau delivers a blood-stained calling card you won't soon forget.

That's a good thing if you put a premium on shocking imagery presented with an eye that understands how to compose and light a bone-chilling image and not such a good thing if you're a squeamish viewer with an aversion to gore, even when wrapped in a surpassingly stylish package.

The movie tells the story of Justine (Garance Marillier), a young woman who enrolls in a veterinary college to pursue what those around her recognize as her superior talent for the profession. But this is no ordinary school. The students must endure a week of hard-partying and hazing that includes chowing down on a piece of raw rabbit kidney.

This bit of culinary torment poses a particular challenge for Justine who has been raised by her parents as a staunch vegetarian. Justine immediately develops an awful rash from her exposure to meat. The taste of flesh also arouses a cannibalistic urge that Justine will find difficult to resist. Be warned.

As it turns out, Justine's sister (Ella Rumpf) already is enrolled in the school. The relationship between the sisters allows Ducournau to explore issues connected to sibling rivalry. Rumpf's character seems intent on indoctrinating Justine into the repulsive behavior that they share.

Marillier does a fine job showing the stress experienced by a young woman who's trying to come to grips with urges she didn't know she had -- and, in this case, which isolate her from nearly everyone. Her gay roommate (Rabah Nait Oufella) becomes a witness to her evolution.

I did plenty of grimacing during Raw, which also contains an unexpected lesson in primary color mixing. As part of the hazing, Justine has her body painted blue and is forced to make love to a male student whose body has been painted yellow. They're not allowed to leave the room until they both turn green, and if you can watch Justine sampling her first finger without cringing, you've got a stronger stomach than I.

I'm not sure that Raw entirely keeps its allegorical promise, but I don't want to dismiss Docournau's talent, which is substantial if not yet fully realized in the script she wrote.

Making adept use of the veterinary school environment, Ducournau immerses us in a world in which the students are oblivious to the macabre sights around them. We're in a world gone mad, and without much by way of relief. No wonder the students party so ferociously. It's as if they want to throb their way out of the misery of the animals they dissect and treat -- and possibly out of their own desperation.

Another loner living on the margins

Based on graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, Wilson gives Woody Harrelson a much-deserved chance to carry a movie. Harrelson plays the title character, a loner who's part misanthrope and part zhlub, a guy whose rebellious streak has extended long past its expiration date. Wilson qualifies as one of those marginal figures that sometimes make it to the pop-cultural center ring, something on the order of Harvey Pekar, who became the subject of the movie American Splendor -- except Pekar actually did something: He wrote comics about his life. Wilson doesn't seem to do anything, aside from hang around his cluttered apartment and strike up inappropriate conversations with strangers. Evidently on his own since his marriage dissolved 17 years ago, Wilson seems to have nothing going for him. Mildly funny and ultimately able to find some pathos, Wilson nonetheless proves a dull entry into the world of downbeat literature that Clowes helped create with Ghost World, which became a movie 16 years ago. Despite its repetitive feel, the movie deals with a variety of events: the death of Wilson's father, Wilson's reunion with his ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern), and the discovery that Pippi gave their infant daughter up for adoption. Wilson thought the baby had been aborted. As Wilson tries to worm his way back into Pippi's life, they drop in on Pippi's sister (Cheryl Hines), a visit that erupts into an implausibly brutal fight. Wilson and Pippi's weekend with their biological daughter, whom they track down at Wilson's insistence, results in Wilson's imprisonment for kidnapping. That's a lot of plot for a movie that doesn't feel as if it's going anywhere. Judy Greer becomes a late-picture love interest as the movie reaches its mildly sunny conclusion. A bearded Harrelson gives himself over to the role, holding the movie together with a shambling walk and hints of Wilson's decency. It couldn't have been an easy task because Wilson isn't the most intriguing of characters. Director Craig Johnson (Skeleton Twins) fully enters Wilson's world, but never really convinces us that it's worth joining him.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

'Beauty and the Beast:' One more time

Disney's reprise of its 1991 animated hit should please old fans and make some new ones.

The idea that love can break the spell of a powerful curse sounds as familiar to us as fairy tales themselves. In the case of Beauty and the Beast -- as imagined by Disney in a new live action version of its 1991 animated edition -- the Beast, a callous prince who has been cursed by a haggard old woman, must find love before the last petal drops off a rose kept in his dank castle. Absent such a love, the Beast and a gaggle of courtiers who've been turned into inanimate objects forever will be doomed to their cursed fates.

Disney's lavish remake its 26-year-old animated classic, Beauty and the Beastt, created little by way of anticipatory excitement for me. I'm no fan of remakes that take advantage of advances in digital technology just to wow us, in this case with talking versions of a clock, a teapot, a candelabra and a feather duster. And, yes, these digitally created do-dads probably show more personality than some of the story's human characters.

Having said that, this version -- starring Emma Watson (Beauty), Dan Stevens (Beast) and directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) -- has enough whimsy and amusement to satisfy those who also will be buoyed by reprises of the Alan Menken/Tim Rice musical numbers -- with a couple of new additions.

Much of the credit for the movie's engaging collection of talking bric-a-brac goes to the actors who supplied the voice work: Emma Thompson voices Mrs. Potts, the teacup; Stanley Tucci gives life to as Maestro Cadenza, a harpsichord; Gugu Mbatha-Raw adds her vocal prowess to Plumette, the feather duster. The voice behind Cogsworth, the clock, belongs to Ian McKellen; and Ewan McGregor can be heard as Lumiere, a dashing candelabra.

Condon spices things up with references to Busby Berkeley, a ton of production design, a major investment in costumes and a generally capable cast that includes Luke Evans as the impossibly conceited and ultimately duplicitous Gaston and Josh Gad as his loyal sidekick LeFou.

You've probably read that Disney has made LeFou a gay character. That may be daring for a Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, but nothing in this upbeat entertainment seems designed to take the glow off the movie's mass-appeal luster.

The film even neuters the Beast, who has been given a leonine countenance -- with horns and bad teeth added for the sake of fright. This Beast makes threats on which he fails to deliver, and isn't quite as self-assured in his menace as you might expect.

Still, he's softened by Beauty, and by the end, it's difficult to say that anyone would mind if the Beast remained a beast rather than returning to his more Disnified form as a devilishly handsome prince.

In a nice touch, Beauty and the Beast begin their rapprochement when Belle (Beauty) discovers that the Beast has a well-stocked library. She's an avid reader, evidently the only one in the tiny village she and her father (Kevin Kline) call home.

There have, of course, been numerous versions of this 18th century tale from Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Velqleneuve, including Jean Cocteau's landmark 1946 version, but classic stories seem capable of enduring as many retellings as anyone possibly could desire.

This one opts for a visual razzle-dazzle that plays against Watson's plucky but somewhat ordinary Belle. I wouldn't say that Condon and company achieve perfection, but they've provided a lively, entertaining version of Disney's animated entry from the 1990s.

If we were going to have another Beauty and the Beast, I'm not sure what more we could have justifiably asked or expected.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

For Kong, it's tough being king

Kong: Skull Island introduces many monstrous sights. It's fun, even if the movie ultimately exhausts itself.

Some movies live in a world beyond ordinary standards, so much so that they liberate us from the need to parse or pick at what we were watching. Kong: Skull Island ought to have such a free-wheeling feel -- and much of the time, it does.

Deriving from the 1933 classic, Kong: Skull Island offers a new take on Hollywood's greatest ape, the thrust of which I'll leave you to discover in a theater, but know that Skull Island bursts with giddily presented carnage, much of it presented against a jukebox full of throwback rock by groups ranging from the Jefferson Airplane to Creedence Clearwater Survival.

For at least half of its 118-minute running time, Kong has some real hop to it, and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts isn't shy about putting his cards on the table. A Japanese and American solider square off in a mano-a-mano World War II prologue that dispenses with any suspense about when we'll see the towering ape. We meet Kong before the opening credits are done.

The movie turns the rest of those credits into a flickering newsreel, leaping through successive decades before landing in 1973.

Quickly, and without much time for reflection (a mercy, I think), the story swings into action. John Goodman plays a man who obtains government funding so that he can map an uncharted island.

From Washington, we're off the Vietnam to round up a crew. A disaffected Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) takes charge; he's looking for a mission that offers compensation for a war that he believes should have been won. Packard and his subordinate (Toby Kebbell) gather other disaffected troopers, and join the trip to Skull Island.

Tom Hiddleston plays a tracker who's also recruited for the mission, along with a war-hardened photographer (Brie Larson).

With echoes of Apocalypse Now ringing in our ears, we're headed for Skull Island, which happens to be surrounded by a ferocious and possibly impenetrable storm system. If the movie's adventurers were even mildly sane, they would have abandoned any effort to penetrate the storm with helicopters. But sanity isn't the point here. Instead, unbridled mania prevails, which perhaps explains the presence of a jiggling Nixon bobblehead on one of the helicopters.

After the screening, someone pointed out to me that the number of helicopters inexplicably increased once the choppers took off from the ship that's carrying them to Skull Island.

Continuity aside, the helicopters make it through the storm only to be confronted by Kong, who has little interest in allowing them into his kingdom. He begins swatting choppers out of the sky as if they were pesky mosquitos.

If you're looking for proof that we live in an age of overload, you'll find ample evidence in the rest of the movie. As it turns out, Kong isn't the only dangerous creature on the island. The worst foes are reptilian monsters with forked tongues, hearty appetites and the ability to reawaken any tremors still lingering in audiences from Jurassic Park.

In IMAX 3D, Kong oozes the tropical density of an island where just about every living thing is over-sized and predatory, and the human characters, if these stick figures can be called that, are simply prey.

Did I mention that our adventurers have three days to accomplish their mission and reach the rendezvous point at which they'll be rescued? Yes, the proverbial clock ticks as loudly as the gunfire on the soundtrack.

To further spice the proceedings, the story introduces us to a World War II vet (John C. Reilly) from the movie's prologue. Reilly's character has been stranded on the island for almost 30 years. He's gone a bit whacky after living among a group of locals with a preference for heavily applied mud make-up.

In addition to battling the beasts -- a task that produces enough gore to slime the entire state of Maine -- the adventurers must decide whether to follow the vengeance-hungry approach of Jackson's character or just get the hell off the island.

For his part, Jackson glowers with so much furious conviction you half expect he might be reading one of Skull Island's more negative reviews.

Burdened by bloat, Kong: Skull Island can't help but generate some battle fatigue -- not only for its human and creature combatants, but for an audience. That's another way of saying that if you over-inflate a B-movie, it just might blow up in your face.

And in a digitally enhanced world, you'll notice that the actors are asked to spend a lot of time gaping at sights that had to be filled in long after they'd left the scene, not many dinosaurs being available via calls to central casting.

Minimal acting opportunities not withstanding, it might have been nice to care a little about whether any of these characters were destined to become something more than monster food.

Oh well, perhaps there's justice after all. At one point, a beast throws up the head of a man it has devoured. These creatures may be difficult to kill, but take heart: It's evidently easy to give them indigestion.

No fresh message in 'The Last Word'

At one point in The Last Word, the camera lingers on a wall of photographs showing Shirley MacLaine at various stages of her life, one of them reminiscent of the impish look MacLaine brought to Billy Wilder's The Apartment. The photos are supposed to be images of from the life of the character MacLaine's playing, but the moment offers an opportunity to reflect on a career that's worthy of celebration. I can't think of anything else I'd want to celebrate about The Last Word, a sentimental comedy about an embittered older woman (MacLaine) who enlists a young newspaper reporter (Amanda Seyfried) to write her obituary. MacLaine's Harriet wants to maintain control of her image, even in death. When a cranky older woman meets a plucky younger woman, it's a safe bet that formula will prevail. By the end, the older woman will have become lovable, and the younger woman will have taken a step toward maturity. Director Mark Pellington can't conceal the movie's many contrivances. The worst of these involves Harriet's decision to soften her image by mentoring a young black girl from the projects (AnnJewel Lee Dixon). Harriet thinks such a relationship will look good in her obituary. Mentor or not, Harriet never shows any interest in understanding the girl's environment, and Dixon is saddled with dialogue that goes heavy on unbecoming F-bombs. In scene-after-scene, Pellington struggles to make us chuckle as he wends his way toward the mush-pit of sentiment that constitutes the movie's finale. It's a bit sad to see MacLaine trying to breathe life into low-grade material that has about as much interest in the realities of aging as Paul Ryan has in lobbying for a statue of Karl Marx on the National Mall.

LGBTQ kids of color find a home

Kiki, a documentary that visits the ballroom scene in Harlem's gay and transgender community, has been called an heir to the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, which explored the drag-ball scene in Harlem in the 1980s. Some 27 years later, Kiki immerses us in what's called the New York City House Scene, a loose collection of organizations that provide community for gay and transsexual young people of color and emphasize dance competitions. The Houses become an outlet for marginalized people, some rejected by their families, some unable to find jobs, some who have taken up sex work and some who have been subjected to brutalities of the streets. As Swedish director Sara Jordeno explores the various activities leading to competitions (disciplined rehearsing among them) she also listens to the stories of young people struggling to express their own realities. The film tries to give a rounded picture of the participants in various "balls." At one point, we meet a loving mother who has accepted her son, although her husband couldn't. Jordeno allows her camera to linger on close-ups of the faces of these young people. It's as if she's asking us to study them, to see past the surface. Many of those interviewed share stories that speak to growing up in environments where acceptance may have been difficult to find. That background explains why the Houses and balls matter: They serve as an outlet for creativity and pain, yes, but also as safe spaces. Given the current emphasis on the rights of transgender people, Kiki -- filmed over a two-year period -- probably acquires additional importance. Skipping orientation and outside commentary, Jordeno jumps into a scene that provides more than a place for highly stylized Vogue dancing and outre costumes. To those in it, it's also a home.

Digging up minefields in Denmark

Land of Mine tells the story of a tough Danish sergeant who leads a small group of German prisoners in a mine-clearing operation.

Land of Mine, Denmark's entry in the recent Oscar race for best foreign-language film,* derives from the meeting of two historical facts. As Germany began to exhaust its resources toward the end of World War II, German soldiers tended to become younger and younger. Secondly, once the war ended, Denmark forced a variety of German soldiers, stragglers and prisoners, to clear the country's beachheads of mines, a task that resulted in death for many Germans.

Director Martin Zandvliet's first feature generates plenty of tension, much of it resulting from watching German attempts to defuse mines along an isolated strip of Danish beach.

Had that been the movie's only tension, Land of Mine might have degenerated into a white-knuckle, cinematic exercise. But Land of Mine has more in mind; it's also about the way the desire for revenge, prompted by justifiable anger, can distort people's values.

In the case of the Danish sergeant who takes charge of 12 German prisoners, the taste for vengeance is almost palpable: Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller) brims with the anger that stems from the five years in which the Germans occupied his home country. At the movie's outset, Rasmussen brutally beats a German prisoner, urging this already vanquished soldier to get out of Denmark.

As a Danish soldier, Rasmussen hardly needs reminding about German brutality, even though his nation fared better than most occupied countries during the war.

As his bomb-clearing assignment progresses, Rasmussen begins to develop some sympathy for his German charges, who are housed in a shack on the beach and mostly deprived of food. Rasmussen's empathy stems from the fact that these "soldiers" are really boys -- or at the most young men. Moreover, they're not shown to have any political views. They all want to return home, and begin picking up the pieces of their lives.

The impression we get from the movie is that these Germans, some of whom may have been toddlers when Hitler began his rise to power, are also victims, much in the way Rasmussen comes to see them. Rasmussen shifts his hard-line views despite the fact that his commanding officer (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) believes that no punishment of German soldiers should be viewed as too severe.

Why care about these young soldiers? Did Germany care about the people of Denmark? Or any of the other countries it occupied, for that matter? And wasn't it German soldiers who planted the mines on the beach in the first place, part of a misguided expectation about where Allied forces would land?

Clearly, we're not supposed to agree with Folsgaard's emotionally hardened character: The point, I suppose, is that war can wring the feelings out of just about anyone. If there's a moral here, it might be this: Sometimes a simple recognition of humanity ought to transcend the color of uniforms, particularly after the violence stops.

Whatever its attempts at deep thematic digging, it's the interaction between Rasmussen and his ragtag crew of mine-defusers that keeps the movie percolating, and, as you'll recall from Zero Dark Thirty, disarming bombs remains a great source of heightened tension -- both on-screen and off.

But mines aren't all that need disarming once the fighting concludes. Land of Mines seems to want to tell us that when a war ends, another deeply buried mine also must be defused: hatred of the other.

*This year's winner, the Iranian film, The Salesman.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Wolverine's darkest journey yet

Logan admirably argues against unearned comic book kicks.

For reviewers, the threat of overstatement always looms. Safe to say, though, that Logan -- which appears to be the final installment of the Wolverine series -- is one of the darkest comic book movies yet, a plunge into personal crisis for a mutant who has grown weary of clawing his way through endless opposition.

Existential fatigue aside, Hugh Jackman's Wolverine still creates enough gruesome sights to make more squeamish audience members wince. Still, both literally and metaphorically, a depressed and nearly forlorn Wolverine has grown sick of himself and of the world.

I wonder, too, whether this addition to the Marvel Comics' inexhaustible repertoire isn't itself a kind of death wish for the exhausted comic-book genre -- or at least as close as a big-ticket movie can get to one. Inescapable whiffs of mortality and decay outweigh any suggestion that a new generation of mutants will continue the good fight.

Whatever his objectives, director James Mangold (Wolverine, 3:10 to Yuma and Walk the Line) boldly examines the gulf between comic book reality and life. In the world of comic books, superheroes seldom die, and even if they do, they somehow manage to resurrect themselves for the next installment. Not so in world Logan currently inhabits.

Bearded and looking as if he's been given a terminal diagnosis, Jackman introduces us to a Wolverine who's drowning his sorrows in alcohol and who, in the movie's opening, only reluctantly takes on a group of thugs who are vandalizing the limo that he's driving while trying to live out his days on society's frayed edge.

Mangold, who contributed to the screenplay, begins his story in 2029, a time when the fabled X-men have been scattered, their ranks depleted. Despite his best efforts to remain isolated, Wolverine finds himself looking after 11-year-old Laura (Dafne Keen), a girl who has been engineered to battle foes by a shady operation based in Mexico and run by the evil Dr. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant).

OK, the desire to weaponize mutants isn't exactly fresh, but it's serviceable enough to keep Logan on its grim path.

Laura escaped Mexico in the company of her nurse (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a woman who wants to save the girl from those who would satisfy their lethal ambitions by turning her into a killing machine, a task for which she's been given Wolverine-like, retractable claws.

Laura believes that she can find refuge with other mutants in North Dakota, where she'll other mutants supposedly live. A skeptical Wolverine accompanies on her journey.

Perhaps drawing inspiration from the ever-growing slate of dystopian movies, Mangold creates a shabby world that's not immune from the ravages of aging, punctuating the dark mood with well-conceived action set pieces that don't skimp on vividly displayed brutality. Being clawed by Wolverine does not lead to pretty outcomes.

Wolverine and Laura are joined on their trek by Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who has reached the age of 90 and who suffers from fits that, quite literally, shake the world around him. If he fails to take his medication, Charles convulses, creating tremors that rival a small earthquake.

When Logan's out trying to earn money, an embittered Caliban (Stephen Merchant), a mutant with tracking powers, watches over Charles who's living in a fallen water tower on an abandoned Mexican farm. It's Wolverine's job to supply Charles with the expensive medication that controls his seizures.

Jackman and Stewart play off each other nicely, and Keen more than holds her own as a wild child whose temper never should be aroused.

The movie's conclusion doesn't quite match its buildup, but Jackman and Mangold catch you up in the Logan's forbidding moods, making the movie one of the most gripping Marvel-inspired movies yet.

A invitation you may want to refuse

If Table 19 were a pilot for a TV sitcom -- which tells you something about the level of the humor in this dismal comedy -- it might not survive 20 minutes of a meeting on whether to the project deserves a green light. Despite the presence of the usually lively Anna Kendrick, director Jeffrey Blitz can't animate a screenplay by Jay and Mark Duplass. Either the director wasn't up to what the Duplass's were trying to achieve (an off-kilter mixture of comedy and seriousness) or the material wasn't up to snuff. Either way, Table 19 winds up falling flat on its face. A wedding comedy about those assigned to the worst table at a reception, Table 19 casts Kendrick as the former best friend of the bride who was banished from maid-of-honor duties when the bride's brother (Wyatt Russell) dumped her. The rest of the table includes June Squibb, whom you'll remember from Nebraska, as a pot-smoking former nanny to the bride. Also on board: Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson, as an Ohio couple with marital issues; Tony Revolori (of Grand Budapest Hotel), as a horny teen who's in constant phone touch with his nagging mother; and Walter (Stephen Merchant), a geeky embezzler who's the father-of-the-bride's disgraced nephew. Before service at Table 19, where all the principals are seated, concludes, Blitz has introduced terminal cancer, marital discord, and slapstick involving the wedding cake. The movie opens with Kendrick's distraught Eloise agonizing over whether to attend the wedding or send regrets. I think you know where I stand vis-a-vis accepting an invitation to this anemic affair.