Wednesday, July 17, 2024

OK 'Twisters' twirls into summer


Quick takes after watching Twisters, a semi-sequel to the popular 1996 blockbuster.
1. Advances in effects have made tornadoes feel more nerve-rattling than they were in 1979. But if you rewatch the 1979 movie, you may be surprised to discover that the effects don’t look hopelessly dated. The new movie's strategy: To convey and underscore tornadic ferocity in Oklahoma's tornado alley and then repeat. After that, do it again.
2. The new edition rewrites one of the original's equations, pitting greedy capitalism (a real estate company exploits tragedy by underpaying for tornado damaged homes) against do-good impulses. Good-guy storm chasers help those whose lives are destroyed by tornadoes. They also struggle to disarm lethal twisters.
3. Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt (as a divorced couple reunited in their fight against tornadoes) were a more interesting pair than Glenn Powell and Daisy Edgar-Jones. Powell plays Tyler Owens, a cowboy storm chaser from Arkansas, a subculture superstar who calls himself "The Tornado Wrangler." Powell underscores his magnetism and proves that in movies, a gleaming smile can outdo a tornado. Edgar-Jones, passable.
4. Twisters has been criticized for ignoring global warming as a contributor to increasingly powerful and more frequent tornadoes. Rising temperatures are mentioned, but, hey, this is an aspiring summer blockbuster; it wasn't written by Bill Nye, the science guy.
5. The screenplay toys with another conflict found in the original -- individual creativity vs. organizational conformity; the split allows for the introduction of underutilized supporting characters, colorful individuals who defy corporate authority, Keep an eye out for Sasha Lane and Brandon Perea.
6. If you’re familiar with the original, you’ll notice that director Lee Isaac Chung restates but tries to freshen plot points from the original. An example: A visit to Aunt Meg (Lois Smith) in the original becomes a stop at the home of Kate’s mom (Maura Tierney). I didn’t mind. 
7. Chung, widely hailed for the indie hit Minari, tries to layer a melancholic tone into the proceedings: Tornadoes can wipe out years of old-fashioned striving in an instant.
8. Some of the set pieces are great, including one in which a movie theater is destroyed, its screen ripped to shreds, thereby hinting at the destruction of theater culture or maybe trying to pit escapist thrills against the real thing, which — of course — is a little weird for a movie in which the storms are artificially created.
9. Chung doesn’t have the kind of sardonic streak that might have given the story more edge. An example: He presents a rodeo as a shining example of Americana, even though it’s disrupted by a tornado. He unabashedly celebrates the open spaces of the American heartland.
10. Do the characters have psychological resonance? Edgar-Jones’s Kate is driven by guilt over losing her significant other during an early picture prologue involving an experiment gone awry. A one-time bull rider, Tyler tells her to ride her fears, not face them. When it comes to motivation, the movie scores a meh.
11. What about the romance between Tyler and Kate? In another wrinkle, Anthony Ramos plays the chaser who lures Kate back into storm chasing but loses the love game to Powell. The movie’s love triangle is rigged; the deck is stacked against Ramos's character from the beginning.
11. Tired of this yet?
12.  Me, too.
13.  All in all, Twisters is a reasonably effective attempt at creating a summer box office storm that delivers what it promises. But a word of caution:  It’s possible to grow weary of getting pounded by tornado after tornado (I eventually did). It's possible, though, that some will see the punishing stream of tornadoes as a virtue, even if the vividly presented storms aren't  likely to boost Oklahoma tourism.

Monday, July 15, 2024

'Longlegs': A horror promise unfulfilled


    Longlegs opened on Friday, June 12, mostly to laudatory reviews. I was eager to see it. I hoped that I'd find something I've been patiently awaiting, a great horror movie.
    As it turned out, Longlegs puzzled me: It's well-crafted, and brimming with dread-provoking atmosphere. On top of that, a wild-ass performance from Nicolas Cage (who else?) as the movie's title character provides added appeal.
     Under a ton of make-up and sporting a gray wig that makes him look like an aging hag, Cage's voice travels the upper registers as he plays a suspected serial killer. His wild fairy-tale solo plays against a chorus of gloom, almost a sideshow to the main event.
   Longlegs has been compared to Silence of the Lambs, probably because its story centers on Lee Harker (Maika Monroe), a fledgling FBI agent  assigned by her boss (Blair Underwood) to catch a prolific serial killer.
   The killer makes life-sized dolls that become one of his calling cards. Longlegs also leaves notes with strange lettering, one of several suggestions that demonic influences may be at play.
    For her part, Harper has unexplained psychic powers that link her to Longlegs.
    Director Oz Perkins (I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House) and cinematographer Nico Aguilar shroud the Seattle area in darkness, dropping hints that the story is unfolding during the 1990s. A pay phone and photos of Bill Clinton on the walls of government offices establish the period.
    The atmospherics are strong, but Perkins gives the movie's grim realism a supernatural gloss that dilutes rather than enhances its eerie power.
    The supporting cast doesn't have much to do, but Alicia Witt has an unsettling turn as Harker's mom, a woman who seems to be on the edge of a breakdown -- or maybe already has taken the plunge.
      Perkins primes us for a high-impact finale but devotes the movie's ending to an extended and far-fetched rationale for the evil we've seen. Less explanation would have said more.
       I'll avoid spoilers and say only that the ending didn't fulfill the promise of the build-up. For me, Longlegs stumbled before it crossed the finish line. By leaving too little mystery for us to unravel, the movie outsmarts itself.

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

A romcom mashup that sputters


   Fly me to the moon or so goes the lyric. On second thought, if it means sitting through the mashup of romcom moves, intrigue, and satire that's being peddled in the new comedy Fly Me to the Moon, I'll happily remain on Earth.  
  Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum star in roles that seem intended to evoke memories of the comedies of yesteryear -- updated with a dose of conspiratorial thinking on the part of screenwriters Keenan Flynn, Rose Gilroy, Bill Kirstein, and director Greg Berlanti.
  Fly Me to the Moon isn't meant to be taken too seriously, but it often feels slight, and inconsequential, a big-screen bauble hasn't been polished enough to shine.
  Johansson plays Kelly Jones, an unscrupulous marketer who's recruited by a shadowy government agent (Woody Harrelson) to help sell the public on NASA's Apollo 11 mission, which, in 1969, landed the first humans on the moon.
  As the Apollo launch chief stationed in Cocoa Beach, Fla., Channing's Cole Harris resists efforts to commercialize the mission. He gradually yields, accepting   the idea that putting astronauts on cereal boxes will help provide much-needed support for NASA funding.
   The movie attributes Cole's all-business attitude to the seriousness of the task and to a past tragedy. He was the launch director of Apollo 1, which resulted in the deaths of three astronauts.
   Harrelson's Moe Berkus has more in mind than elevating NASA's popularity. He involves Kelly in a scheme to set up a faux moon landing that he plans to televise regardless of what the real astronauts accomplish. Berkus refuses to risk losing what he views as an ideological battle with the Soviets.
   Blather about a faked moon landing isn't new, but little of the movie's maneuvering passes the credibility test, and the romance between Kelly and Cole poses no threat to the likes of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert or any of the other great romcom pairings.
   At the same time, a lively Johansson brings plenty of verve to a role that allows her to employ a variety of accents. Channing's character, on the other hand, seems to have been written in ways that minimize some of the actor's strengths, notably charm and good humor.
    The supporting cast adds little. Anna Garcia portrays Kelly's assistant, and Jim Rash plays the deluded director Kelly hires to fake the moon landing. A frustrated director of commercials, Rash's character is waiting for Hollywood to recognize his brilliance.
   The movie wastes Ray Romano as a NASA engineer and the movie's resident sadsack.
    The Apollo astronauts, of course, reached the moon. This one? If not a case of crash and burn, its overlong two-hours and 11 minutes hardly rocket to new heights.

Thursday, July 4, 2024

A porn star's bumpy road to fame


   At one point in the movie MaXXXine, a porn star (Mia Goth) seeking crossover fame as a horror movie queen,  tries to evade a slimy private investigator (Kevin Bacon). To avoid her pursuer, Goth's Maxine seeks refuge inside the famous Psycho house on the Universal Studios lot.
   Mark the Psycho house as one of many movie references in the third installment of director Ti West's horror trilogy, which began in 2022 with X and Pearl
   West primes us to see Norman Bates, or a facsimile, pose a frightening new danger, but he purposefully undermines the suspense he creates. Once inside, all we see is the wooden scaffolding that keeps the house from collapsing. 
     We're behind the facade, a strategy West repeatedly employs as he plays with horror and movie tropes from the 1980s. The result ranges from smartly mounted jests to self-conscious displays of pop-cultural savvy.
    MaXXXine feels like an ambitious movie that can't quite shed enough of its genre skin to emerge as something startlingly fresh, even as West works to expose the seaminess behind Hollywood’s bright lights.
     The movie's casting probably broadens its reach. Employing a southern accent that makes his words sound as if they've been dipped in grease, Bacon scores as PI John Labat. 
     The rest of the cast includes Giancarlo Esposito, as  Teddy Night, Maxine's unscrupulous agent. Two homicide detectives (Bobby Cannavale and Michelle Monaghan) figure in the plot. Elizabeth Debicki portrays the ambitious director of the crossover horror movie Maxine hopes will make her a star. Of course, it's a sequel. 
     Then there's Goth, who has staked out impressive territory in three of these movies, most notably in Pearl, the best of the trilogy. 
    Goth plays the only character who survived the first movie, which saw a group of young filmmakers trying to break into the biz by making a porno. Post X, Maxine  traveled to Hollywood where she made a mark in the adult-film world.
     Goth's performance embodies one of West's central observations; those who don't wish to become monsters shouldn't aspire to stardom. The movie never forgets that Maxine's past is bathed in the first movie’s bloodshed. Her freckled face looks innocent, until it curdles into an expression of monstrous ambition.
        Although it’s difficult to take seriously amid all of West’s showmanship, a story emerges. During the 1980s, a real-life serial killer called The Night Stalker terrified Los Angeles. News footage tells us about this horrific chapter of LA history, which West uses as a springboard to put Maxine in danger.  More can't be said without spoilers.
     West's movies have become known for adding layers of meaning that elevate them from the usual Hollywood gore ghetto -- while also not abandoning major plasma flows.
    The gore in MaXXXine slashes and smashes its way onto the screen like exclamation points.
     The movie's conclusion struck me as more risible than chilling; it's followed by a needless epilogue that restates the movie's ideas.
      It's also arguable that the parade of movie allusions gets out of hand.  West even finds a way to put a bandage on the nose of Bacon's PI. We're clued to remember Jack Nicholson's Jake Gittes, the detective who discovered Los Angeles's dark side in Chinatown.
     Chinatown (1974), of course, was not an '80s movie, but West uses the reference to draw thematic connections to his LA foray -- the story that festers beneath the surface, the lowdown.
      Garish, glitzy, and gruesome, MaXXXine can’t outdo its predecessors. Still, if you’re a fan of the first two movies, West gives you no particular reason to avoid the trilogy’s semi-successful finale.
       Oh, I almost forgot an important question: Is  MaXXXine scary and creepy enough to haunt you once you leave the theater? I don't think so.

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Kevin Costner’s Western has its virtues


  In a perceptive article in Variety, critic Owen Gleiberman assessed the lackluster opening weekend of Kevin Costner's Horizon: An American Saga -- Chapter 1,  $11 million for a three-hour Western that cost $100 million to make. Chapter 1 is only the first part of what Costner conceives of as a four-part movie. Chapter 2 releases in August.
     Not a fan of the movie, Gleiberman likened Horizon to fare we might see on TV, calling it  "the seedbed for a miniseries." Although he admired Costner's courage and commitment (the actor/director spent a reported $38 million of his own money on the production), Gleiberman went on to say that the movie teaches the following lesson:
       "Don't turn movies into television."
       Initial box office returns appear to be proving Gleiberman right. 
       But Costner's gamble on the form was interesting and perhaps justified. Audiences, after all, have grown accustomed to watching lengthy novelistic series on small screens; it's reasonable to think they might embrace the form if it were successfully transposed to the big screen.
        Or maybe not. Most miniseries are presented in digestible one-hour segments. Pause buttons allow for bathroom breaks, and concessions are no further away than the refrigerator.
         So, a quick Q&A on Horizons.
         Q. Did it deserve to be widely panned, as it was after premiering at last May's Cannes Film Festival?
          A. No. We've all seen plenty of catastrophes on the big screen. Horizons isn't one of them.
          Q. Are some of the criticisms of the movie justifiable?
          A. Of course.
          Q. Is Horizon a commercial folly -- considering cost and possible returns?
          A. Not my concern.
          Q. Can you summarize your reaction?
           A. Horizon held my interest, kept me from looking at my watch, and included enough tension to build a series of mostly involving mini-dramas.
         Beyond that, Horizon proves adventurous -- albeit not always in expected ways.
      The movie, or more accurately, its form tends toward abstraction. I don't mean to suggest that those who see the movie won't be watching gritty characters who operate in realistic settings. Nothing about Horizon feels avant-garde. 
       I'm talking about the way Costner breaks his Western opus into chunks. Presumably, upon the movie's completion, all these fragments will cohere in ways that justify the "American Saga" part of the movie's title. Perhaps we'll emerge with a comprehensive picture of the forces that helped shape the American West with all its rawness, fiber, decency, and deceit.
      I agree with those who've pointed out that it's difficult to watch Horizon without thinking about Costner's treatment of Native Americans. He did, after all, direct Dances With Wolves, widely hailed for recognizing a Native American perspective.
      One of Costner's most gruesome scenes occurs early and involves Apaches. A band of warriors attack a settlement, ravaging those they view as invaders of their land.
      Although the movie's Apache attack could have been lifted from an older, less sensitive era of moviemaking, Costner -- who wrote the screenplay with Jon Baird -- adds nuance by including a scene in which an aging chief warns the Apache warrior (Owen Crow Shoe) who led the assault that he's fighting a losing battle. 
    A later raid on a peaceful Native American village provides an example of bloody white brutality: Greedy marauders collect scalps for money.
    The movie's structure might be called partially successful. Like clumsy couples on a dance floor, the episodes in Horizon sometimes bump abruptly into one another. Some episodes are better (and more compelling) than others, and I sometimes forgot characters by the time they reappeared.
      It's also possible that the movie has been overpopulated with characters. A mother (Sienna Miller) and her daughter (Georgia MacPhail) survive the early-picture Apache attack. Soldiers (Danny Huston and Sam Worthington) help depict the cavalry as  incapable of protecting so much open terrain. 
      After roughly an hour, Costner appears as Hayes Ellison, and the movie takes on a more conventional Western tone. A hard-bitten horse trader, Ellison kills the brother of an outlaw who's then intent on revenge. In the process, Ellison becomes the protector of a flirtatious prostitute (Abbey Lee) who has taken charge of another woman's two-year-old boy.
     That's a lot for one movie, and I haven't even mentioned Matthew Van Meyden (Luke Wilson), the leader of a wagon train that becomes another source of small dramas, one involving a tender-foot Brit and his wife.
      But the overriding theme seems to be the settlement of the West, which the movie sees less as a matter of cowboy grit or settler pluck than as a wave of history breaking across the land, leaving plenty of carnage in its wake. 
     When the movie opens in 1859, a nameless white man and his assistant are seen surveying a remote patch of land. Two Native Americans observe, and a point is made in schematic form: The untamed West is about to be carved into discreet chunks of property. 
      I suppose we should be uneasy about judging a movie that has yet to finish. It's also possible that "good" -- how I'd describe Chapter 1 -- might not be enough for a movie with so much epic ambition.
      Still, in my view, Costner does more than enough to get us to the next chapter. Horizon gives us a version of the West that stems from Costner's knowledge of the genre. The movie often matches the seriousness of its intentions, and Costner doesn't indulge in mythologizing romanticism or cynical deconstruction. The movie acquires its forward motion from the broadness of its sweep.
      I hope the remaining chapters of Horizon  -- unlike this installment -- will be made available to critics in every market before their release. Chapter 1 was not screened for critics in my city.
    So to get back to where we started... Sure, the opening weekend was far from glorious, but it's possible that by the time he's done, Costner will have made a movie that will look quite different.
     What some now see as a misbegotten labor of love may, in time, be viewed as a laudable achievement. After the first helping, Costner left me rooting for the latter.