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Wilmington on Movies: Jurassic World

Sunday, June 14th, 2015

JURASSIC WORLD (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Colin Trevorrow, 2015

jurassic-world

Ever since Jaws made his name and fortune in 1975 Steven Spielberg has been the king of the summer movie, and his production of this weekend’s nearly-record-breaking mega-hit Jurassic World simply continues that tradition. Where would we be if we didn’t have a shark, a dinosaur, a U.F.O., or an E. T. to run from or play with or queue up for?  Even when his movies aren’t released in summer, they can feel like summery treats.

Jurassic World, in which we see novelist Michael Crichton’s all-too-real dinosaur amusement park (of the 1993 massive Spielberg hit, Jurassic Park) opened again on Isla Luba island, packed with customers (but not enough for the greedy bean-counters), and once again stocked with re-created, hatched-again dinosaurs, who once again run amok and threaten our star players and identity figures, shows the Maestro of Middlebrow America once again returning in triumph to the movie genre and the movie season he ‘s made his own. And even though he’s “only” credited as an executive producer this time around, he still seems to be the auteur of much of what we see.

It’s not the credit that gives him primacy. The people who made this third (and best) sequel to his epic 1993 summer entertainment — director-co-writer Colin Trevorrow, producers and longtime Spielberg collaborator Frank Marshall and Patrick Crowley, screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (of the new Planet of the Apes series), and director-writer Trevorrow an co-writer Derek Connelly (of Safety Not Guaranteed and a whole raft of top-notch technical people — plus some of ubiquitous Spielberg composer John Williams’ original themes, reworked and added to by Michael Giacchino — may not have all worked alongside the Jawsmeister. But it‘s safe to say that, as members of the post’70s, post-Jaws movie generations, they’ve all picked up or been saturated with his storytelling style, his rhythms, his tastes and distastes, and the whole Spielbergian gestalt, for probably all or most of their moviemaking lives. Much of the audience will be saturated with Spielbergiana too — which is probably why they’re flocking to it in near-record droves (the third best opening day in movie history).

I was pretty consistently entertained myself, even though I thought the show fell down a bit in the final big action scenes, which aren‘t quite as clean and engrossing as the rest. But overall, the picture works just fine. It’s a superior sequel and a better movie than either 1997’s not-so-good The Lost World: Jurassic Park (which Spielberg directed) or 2001‘s even-less-good Jurassic Park III (which he didn’t direct, but which he produced, as he does here). And it’s not as good as the original, which it copies sometimes slavishly — though it‘s closer in quality than we probably thought it would be. (For an unabashed tent pole movie, in which the franchise is the dinosaurs, it has a lot more heart and soul than we usually expect. One dying dinosaur, in fact, almost brings tears to your eyes.)

The latest Jurassic isn’t too original or innovative — though it’s nevertheless, again, better than some of us probably expected. But it does have the same kind of awesome special effects and believably created dinosaurs as the ‘93 movie, and, this time around they’re enhanced by IMAX and 3D and 22 years worth of improved technology. As for the script, it’s derivative, but well-constructed — and better than some reviewers give it credit for.

The movie also has a good cast, of actors and actresses who were selected for more than their looks and perceived star power, including a very attractive and engaging hero and heroine (Chris Pratt as gutsy velociraptor handler/whisperer Owen Grady and Bryce Dallas Howard as the initially somewhat nervous park manager Claire), plus a hissable villain (Vincent D’Onofrio, in full glower, as the nefarious military entrepreneur Hoskins), and a crackling supporting ensemble (Irfan Khan as nervous park owner Simon Masrani, Jake Johnson and Lauren Lupkus as chatty park techies Lowery and Vivian, dangerous inventor and vet of the original movie BD Wong as Dr. Henry Wu, and Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins as Claire‘s visiting and not-nervous-enough nephews Zach and Gray, who, of course, get lost in the park right when a rampaging Indominus Rex — a new improved, meaner and more dangerous creature that Hoskins covets for war duty — breaks free of her bonds and starts turning the whole park, with a little help from her friends, into bloody chaos.)

As for the action, the bloody chaos has gotten bloodier and more chaotic over the years — and it includes a gigantic, totally hideous sea monster who leaps out of a park tank, and, before a wildly cheering crowd, chomps and devours a hapless great white shark, which is probably around to remind us of the much-maligned Bruce the Shark in Jaws. And the same sort of things that happened in Jurassic Park — dinosaur assaults, mad chases and one terrifying encounter after another — happen once again, against a scenic backdrop of tropical vegetation, rolling hills, and incessant product placement (everything, it seems, from Starbuck’s to Verizon Wireless to Mercedes Benz). There are also numerous cross-references to the ‘93 film (but not the 1997 and 2001 sequels, whose stories have, perhaps understandably, erased from history — and one attack of swooping black-winged pterodactyls, which is an obvious homage to Hitchcock‘s The Birds. No Red Sea partings though, for the executive producer who, as a boy, called himself Steven B. DeSpielberg.

The filmmakers around him execute it all with gusto. There’s something both technologically cutting-edge and engagingly old school and nostalgic about the movie, and I don’t think very many people predisposed to enjoy it will actively dislike it. The actors connect with their material and have fun with it, and so do the technicians. The entire movie is a kind of self-referential and self-kidding action-and-horror-picture fiesta, and even though it keeps doing what we expect it to, there’s a lot of fun in watching the moviemakers pull their characters out of (or back into) the fixes they keep inventing for them. Jurassic World is about a huge expensive entertainment project that has a history and goes haywire because of greed and politics, and, to some extent, in setting it up this way, the moviemakers are making fun of themselves. And having fun doing it.

Colin Trevorrow, and his writing partner Derek Connelly, are young moviemakers, who made their mark with the Sundance hit time-travel comedy-drama Safety Not Guaranteed, and they were a good match for this movie. It’s hard to decipher what they may have added to the script written by Jaffa and Silver, but, for most of its length, up until the hectic last act, everything flows along smoothly and amusingly. The writers have fun with it. They don’t take the material over-seriously — but they take it seriously enough so that the audience doesn’t feel silly watching it, as some of us might while watching, say, San Andreas.

Speaking of politics, I think Bryce Dallas Howard’s much-dissed Claire is getting something of a bad rap by some for alleged political and fashion deficiencies. (In any case, they’re the character’s flaws and not the actress’s, who does a fine, tongue-in-cheek, yet emotional-when-it-had-to-be-job.) Claire has an antagonistic relationship (but they really like each other) with the raptor–loving Owen, who had a bad date with her once and keeps trying to put her in her place, while she frostily puts him down. She also runs around for much of the movie in high heels — an amazing achievement given the fact that‘s running from, and later battling with gigantic dinosaurs.

But she‘s no airhead. After all, she‘s managing the park — even though she takes a lot of time off to rescue her nephews. Her taste in footwear and other men may be questioned (there seems to be a class antagonism of sorts between her and Owen), as may, in the beginning, her suitability as a role model for young girls or for career women trying to cope with a sexist marketplace. But, after all, she is the park manager. And, by the end of the film, she’s practically a full-fledged action-heroine in the Ripley mode. (Or so it seems.)

I thought Claire was basically quite likeable, as was Owen, even at her most nervous and prickly, and even at his bossiest and least sensitive. And she was gorgeous. At the age of 12, which is probably the right age to see this movie, Bryce Dallas Howard in this film would have knocked me out — especially since I’ve always had a special place in my heart for redheads, especially Shirley MacLaine. Then again I‘m not saying that 12 year olds are the most politically sophisticated segment of the population. Or me either, for that matter. But I know what I like — and so does the massive audience for a Spielberg movie, even when the actors and the sharks are being eaten alive in 3D and IMAX.

Wilmington on Movies: San Andreas

Monday, June 8th, 2015

SAN ANDREAS (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Brad Peyton, 2015

sanandreas

“I never will forget…Jeanette MacDonald!

“Just to think of her gives my heart a pang!

“I’ll never forget that brave Jeanette,

“As she stood there in the ruins and sang…‘San Francisco! Open your Golden Gate….’”

From “Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall”

Hang onto your hats, catastrophe lovers. and grab  your seismographs. The entertainingly ridiculous earthquake movie San Andreas — in which that famous Fault we Angelenos dread cracks apart and sends much of Los Angeles and San Francisco crashing down into the streets, the freeways, and the ocean — and tsunamis rise and skyscrapers topple, and we’re all invited to grab our theater seat armrests and shiver and shake and scream and go “Aaaaaw!“ and laugh our heads off, as maybe thousands (no, maybe millions) of our fellow citizens are imperiled, threatened and sometimes fricasseed before our eyes…Well, that shakin’ bakin’ show has moved into the multiplexes as of last weekend and is dragging thousands, no millions, more potential victims (excuse me, movie fans) in with it.

This big dumb but sometimes amusing disaster movie — directed by Brad Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) and scripted by writer Carlton Cuse (“Lost“) — doesn’t miss an earthquake trick — except perhaps bringing back Sensurround, the theater-shaking device dreamed up by some William Castle wannabees for the 1974 big dumb disaster movie, Earthquake.

But who needs the theater to rock and roll? Instead, we get plenty of shots of the movie hero once known as The Rock (Dwayne Johnson to you), flexing his muscles and smiling his irresistible smile, and swooping to the rescue. As courageous and good-hearted helicopter search-and-rescue guy Ray Gaines, Johnson is constantly shown racing around  in his helicopter or every other vehicle he can grab or steal. to try to save his family — that would be Ray’s soon to be ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and his doting daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario), one of whom is in L. A. and one of whom is in Frisco — from the series of near ten-on-the-Richter-scale doozies triggered by that supposedly inevitable grand disaster we nervous Angelenos call The Big One.

What a guy! As the West Coast obligingly falls apart, Ever-Ready Ray outmuscles and outtsmarts and outshakes the earthquakes at every fresh disastrous moment, besides rescuing his womenfolk from the craven antics of Emma‘s odious new rich fiancé’ Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd), a cowardly skyscraper-building cad who runs away and leaves Blake  in the lurch and deservedly has a building fall on him. And, as if all that weren’t enough, Ray also finds time to benignly further the romance between Blake and her cute new plucky Brit boyfriend Ben (Hugo Johnson Burt), who latches helpfully onto Blake when Bad Daniel lets her down, working heroically to rescue her from everything, along with his nerdy smart-alecky younger brother Ollie (Art Parkinson).

Amazingly, during the entire movie, no matter where he is, Ray seems instantly able to find his wife and daughter wherever they are, and get to them, even when their Cell phones fail and the buildings crumble and collapse around them. That includes one nerve-blasting scene where Ray locates Blake, with seconds to spare. in Frisco, and he and Blake yell at each other underwater through a glass wall after the tsunami hits and the Golden Gate Bridge drops into the drink.

Meanwhile, seemingly the only seismic expert on duty during all this geological havoc, is the always reliable Paul Giamatti (an actor who never found a movie he couldn’t help), playing excitable Cal Tech earthquake-ologist Lawrence, who keeps trying to warn the West Coast (and for that matter the East Coast) about the approaching string of shakes and quakes, yelling or predicting his head off before TV cameras, and telling everyone within range to dive under tables when the quake hits — and diving under his own table (with his cute seismological colleagues), whenever a fresh tremor hits his  headquarters.

Need I tell you what happens to Century City? And Hollywood? And the freeways? And Hoover Dam?Did I say Hoover Dam? Yes, there’s a quake in Nevada too, in the movie’s first big disaster scene, and Lawrence is there when it hits, screaming his head off and warning everybody as they run past him and the dam shatters and the floodgates open. Ray is there too (in the prelude teaser disaster that suggests the movie’s inevitable  string of cliffhangers and catastrophes). Muscles flexing and smiling his irresistible smile (excuse me, I meant muscles flexing and furrowing his magnificent brow), Ray already, in that prelude, begins swooping down helpfully and heroically in his helicopter, off which he will soon be dangling to save another beautiful imperiled lady in another cliffhanger, with a car teetering over yet another catastrophe and what once again seems certain death.

Obviously our nomenclature is wrong. It is the Rock (a.k.a. Dwayne) himself who is the Big One. That certainly goes for his role in this movie, in which he does everything but put the quake in a hammerlock, crush it with body slams, and beat the living hell out of it –and in which the buildings keep falling and crumbling, and rocking and rolling, even as Ray keeps saving trapped and endangered ladies.

SPOILER ALERT

Ray’s day job, supposedly rescuing other imperiled folks during the disaster,  may  be temporarily somewhat neglected. But give the guy a break. After all, when the quakes and every last aftershock are over, and the last building has collapsed into rubble, Ray doesn’t just stand there in the ruins and sing. The first thing he says after rescuing everybody, while standing proud, and watching the sun shine gloriously over the decimated Frisco Bay area, is the inspring proclamation “Now we rebuild.” Now we rebuild? What a guy! What a helicopter! What a tsunami of spectacular CGI effects! What a city (cities)! What a dam! What a script! What an earthquake! Just to think of them gives my heart a pang.

END OF ALERT

Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, but these filmmakers left their heads. San Andreas is full of faults and it’s as preposterous as Sensurround and Smellovision put together. But I can’t honestly say I didn’t enjoy some of it. The movie never stops racing and tumbling and dodging all those falling, crashing buildings — just as Paul Giamatti never stops diving under his table and yelling at everybody to duck. I’ve been though a dozen or so earthquakes myself (they usually last less than a minute) , including Northridge, which lasted longer and put my entire book, record and VHS collections on the floor– and I can say with some authority that even the not-so-big ones aren’t any fun. But the movie often is, even though it’s still a dubious expenditure of time and money and tables.

Then again, none of those lesser quakes I went through had an opponent like Dwayne, a.k.a. the Rock — a congenial chap and a truly likeable icon who is probably better for this kind of role than the old guard of Stallone and Schwarzenegger were. He‘s a guy who can flex a muscle and furrow a brow and smile irresistibly and (thanks to CGI) dangle off a helicopter with a city falling to pieces under him, like Judy Garland could sing “San Francisco.”

It’s an absurd movie of course. You were expecting maybe Titanic?

 

 

 

Wilmington on Movies: Entourage

Sunday, June 7th, 2015

 

ENTOURAGE (Two Stars)

U.S.: Doug Ellin, 2015

Entourage-4

I never caught any of TV’s “Entourage” — the hit Hollywood-set comedy-satire about a movie star from Queens and the three hometown buddies who get dragged along (like Elvis’ Memphis Mafia) in the wake of his rise to fame and riches. But it always struck me, from its rep and reviews, as a show I might enjoy, just as the movie that‘s now been inspired by that TV series, struck me as something that might hand me a laugh or two (or even three). Which just goes to show how gullible I can be.

I can’t speak to the show, yet. But I thought the movie — which I understood going in would be politically and sexually “incorrect” — would at least also be sharp and irreverent and “inside” and funny and good-looking, and it turns out to be none or little of the above, and especially not (very) funny and not (especially) good-looking — despite having more breasts than a Perdue Chicken warehouse. And despite being shot (fuzzily) in yachts off Ibiza and all over a lot of storied Hollywood hot spots and landmarks (from Century City to Musso and Frank’s). The movie sometimes seems like a Hollywood tour bus, but without the gabby tour guide — some of whom have funnier jokes.

The original show was based on a real-life entourage: the buddies and bros of genuine movie star Mark Wahlberg. And that gang actually shows up here, along with Wahlberg, in a slightly longer star cameo than the dozens of others (Liam Neeson scowling in a car, Jon Favreau gabbing with pals, Pharrell Williams at a party, Warren Buffet being chauffeured in a studio cart, and Jessica Alba, Mike Tyson, Andrew Dice Clay, Mark Cuban and Kelsey Grammer), who pop up entertainingly, but not quite as gracefully or amusingly as the big star cameos in Robert Altman’s and Michael Tolkin’s genuinely sharp, funny and good-looking backstage Hollywood classic The Player. Wahlberg is one of the producers of both the show and the picture (which, like a smart businessman, he uses to plug Ted) and maybe if he and his crew had been on longer, or if director-writer Doug Ellin had figured a way to weave the two entourages together, the movie might have improved. But no such (fuckin’) luck.

As it is, Ellin — who also wrote the TV show and directed a half dozen or so episodes — has brought back the original entourage: Adrian Grenier as the horny young movie star Vincent Chase, Kevin Dillon as his hornier old brother and B-movie actor Johnny “Drama” Chase, Kevin Connelly as his even hornier best friend and manager Eric “E” Murphy, and Jerry Ferrara as his also pretty damned horny driver and go-fer and aide Salvatore “Turtle” Assante). Ellin has continued the twisted and lasciviously soap-operatic plotlines from where the show left off four years ago.

Also reappearing, from the show’s very dense dramatis personae, are some of the scads of women and sex partners the guys spend a lot of their time knowing or pursuing: including Emmanuelle Chriqui as Eric‘s now pregnant ex-girlfriend Sloan McQuewick, Constance Zimmer as Dana and Debi Mazar as Shauna. And, of course, the guy who reportedly wound up being the real star of the series: Chicago’s own Jeremy Piven as Vince‘s sleazy, smarmy but extremely well-dressed agent Ari Gold, who has now become a sleazy, smarmy but incredibly well-dressed studio CEO. (Perrey Reeves is also back as Mrs. Ari.) There are also some new characters, notably Billy Bob Thornton (best actor in the movie) as Texas gaziggazillionaire Carson McCredle, who is the main investor in Vince‘s latest movie, and Haley Joel Osment as Carson’s horny and also obnoxious son Travis, whom Carson sends to Hollywood to make sure his money is being spent wisely (which is like sending an accounting team of foxes to manage a henhouse). Emily Ratajkowksi plays herself, supposedly Vince‘s latest inamorata.

The new story into which all these characters, and more, and the dozens of cameos, have been shoe-horned, involves the movie in which McCredle has invested and in which Vince is starring and also, on his insistence, directing, and which Ari, despite understandable qualms, gets for him — and on which Vince has already run over budget. It’s a $100 million-and-counting contempo-action-disco-horror movie called “Hyde,” which seems like a sure-fire stinker, but which, bad as it sounds (and, in a few quick clips we see, bad as it seems to be), winds up being…

SPOILER ALERT

“awesome” according to studio head Ari, as well as a critical sensation and a mountainous box office hit.

END OF SPOILER

Having the guys do a cruddy-sounding project like Hyde actually strikes me as a potentially funny idea, but only if Hyde actually were the cruddy-sounding and derivative mess it portends. Yet part of the problem with the movie, as many have noted, is that it’s as much a wish-fulfillment fantasy as it is a dark satire. The movie laughs at these guys, but it’s still always rooting for them to win, jerks as they may be, even at the expense of what might be some funny scenes and seriously funny jokes.

Back in Hollywood’s Golden Age, even hampered by the Production Code, the best comedy writers were often more than ready to take potshots at their own studios. Writers like Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, or Ben Hecht could cheerfully bite off the hands that fed them, in classics of backstage satire and expose’ like Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Sturges’ Sullivan‘s Travels and Hecht’s hilarious, neglected Woman of Sin, the last episode of the 1952 Actors and Sin — in which the director-writer’s daughter Jenny played a 9-year-old who becomes a best-selling pirate romance novelist and the script-writing sensation of Hollywood.

That great comedian-scriptwriter W. C. Fields wielded a similar anti-studio scalpel in his late, acidulous classics The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, and in more recent times we’ve had The Player, Steve Martin’s Bowfinger, Barry Levinson and David Mamet and Hilary Henkel’s Wag the Dog and the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, all of which scathingly and sometimes hilariously sent up new and old Hollywood. These very knowing writers knew when and where to cross the line and either stick in the knife or indulge the audience’s dreams (you might argue that Sturges was even adopting the studio‘s viewpoint in Sullivan‘s Travels) — just as Comden and Green and Kelly and Donen knew it and did it in that greatest of all Hollywood satires, and warmest of all Hollywood valentines, Singin’ in the Rain — which fulfilled as many wishes as it skewered phonies.

Entourage isn’t as sure of itself, and that’s part of why it isn’t as funny. The movie’s comedy would be a lot sharper, if more of it came at the expense of these guys, instead of at the expense of everybody else around them. (That’s less true of Ari and Johnny “Drama,” who are more comic characters than the others are.) It would be funnier if we could laugh more often at the guys‘ ineptitude and dubious moviemaking and their inability to keep their cool in a crisis, if we didn‘t have the feeling that they, and the writer behind them, were bragging about their zooming careers and sexual conquests.

Instead, they’re presented as all-around winners, who get in a lot of crazy, sexy scrapes. The movie becomes a kind of lewd Thank Your Lucky Stars or a sex-crazed It‘s a Great Feeling — and, in those two all-star Warner Bros. ‘40s shows, both Eddie Cantor and Jack Carson were far more willing to seemingly trash themselves and joke about their images for laughs. Entourage has its moments, but a lot of it feels like being swaggered and slobbered over by a boastful drunk whose stories aren’t a tenth as funny as he thinks. It’s as if the Entourage crew got to do a 100 million dollar remake of “Springtime for Hitler,” and this time, they got not only got the same implausible box office smash that original producers Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom managed back in 1968, but they also won the Pulitzer Prize, 17 Oscars (including sound editing), plus the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and then married (and cheated on) every hottie this side of the Hollywood sign. And topped it off with cocktails at Michael’s and a yacht race to Ibiza. I’m just kidding of course.

 

Wilmington on Movies: The Apu Trilogy

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

THE APU TRILOGY (Four Stars)
Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road)
Aparajito (Unvanquished)
The World of Apu

India: Satyajit Ray, 1955. 1956-57, 1959

Pather Panchali (1955 India) Directed by Satyajit Ray Shown: Subir Bannerjee

1. The Trilogy

Some great movies not only retain all their brilliance as you and they grow older, but actually improve—becoming even better, taking on added luster. One such classic, now nearing the end of its run at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles, is the Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece The Apu Trilogy, a matchlessly moving and beautiful  portrayal of an impoverished family’s struggles to survive in the country and city life of early twentieth century India, and of the later life and troubles of their young boy, Apu. Based on a pair of autobiographical novels by famed Bengali writer Bibhutibmushan Bandyopadhyay, the trilogy is one of cinema’s deepest and most poignant renderings of the lives of simple people living hard lives in harsh yet sometimes beautiful surroundings. It is a triumph of domestic drama and of poetic realism—an imperishable treasure.

The Apu Trilogy, both as a single work and in its three separate parts—Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956-57) and The World of Apu (1959)—is a profound cinematic portrait of the anguish and joys of ordinary lives, so convincing and so heartbreakingly sad, that, as very few movies can, it tends to change your view of the world as you see it. As you follow the film’s central character Apu in his path from childhood (Subir Bannerjee in Pather Panchali) to boyhood (Smaran Ghosal in Aparajito) to manhood (Soumitra Chatterjee in The World of Apu)—and as you watch the everyday routines and travails of his bookish and slightly foolish father Harithar Ray (Kanu Bannerjee), his overworked, dedicated and sometimes overly harsh mother Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee), his playful and adventurous older sister Durga (Uma Das Gupta), his  lovely and doomed young bride Aparna (Sharmila Tagore), and, above all, Apu’s elderly, frail, but ebullient old “Auntie” Indir Thakrun (played by that truly sublime actress Chunibala Devi) — these people, and many others in the Trilogy, may  become indelible faces in your own personal memory-gallery as well.

The film, as much as any that I’ve seen in decades of watching movies, becomes an overwhelming experience. It stays with you, always: a work of art in the same vein and genre and of the same high quality as John Ford’s Depression America masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath and Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist Italian classic Bicycle Thieves (both among Ray‘s inspirations for his own films). In some ways, it is superior to either of them. Now, playing on a limited run at Los Angeles’ preeminent arthouse, the Landmark Nuart Theater, the complete trilogy seems to me easily one of the supreme film achievements, and one of the great artistic achievements of any kind, made in the twentieth century. If that sounds like excessive praise (and to some people, it will be), all I can say is, put my love of these movies (and especially of Pather Panchali) to the test. See for yourself.

2. The Actress

The Apu Trilogy takes place in the Bengali countryside in the early twentieth century, and (the last two parts) in the cities — and it revolves around a family that, though unrelated to Ray, bears the director’s surname. These fictional Rays live in a small village, in a crumbling ancestral house with a sun-dappled courtyard, where the mother, Sarbojaya (wearing a near constant frown) toils endlessly to keep them fed and clothed and afloat, while the father Harithar (with his frequent silly smiles) writes plays and literary works in a pseudo-classical style while vainly dreaming of dramatic success with local troupes of traveling players. The Rays have two children: the mischievous Durga, who regularly loots a nearby orchard (once owned by her father and perhaps cheated away from him) for fresh fruit — and small, lively Apu, who, like his father, becomes enamored of the theatre and make-believe.

Then there is the Trilogy’s greatest character and performance, and one of the finest performances in the whole history of the cinema: Chunibala Devi as the Rays’ elderly Auntie, Indir Thakrun. Crotchety yet plucky, her face seamed with wrinkles (Chunibala was in her 80s when she made the movie), Indir spends much of her days in the courtyard, reminiscing, clutching her torn, threadbare shawl around her bony shoulders, smiling her radiant gap-toothed smile, trying to be useful, and thankfully gobbling down the fruit Durga steals for her. Occasionally, at night, we hear her reciting, with theatrical gusto, old Indian stories of demons and witches, or singing little songs, mournful yet jaunty (and perhaps the source of the film‘s title, which translates as “Song of the Little Road“), with plaintive verses about poverty and death.

The character of Auntie may sound like fodder for indulgent sentimentality. But one thing we should note about Auntie Indir is that dazzling if nearly toothless smile of hers, shining in the face of most difficulties, and also the ways that, despite her fragile body and advanced age, she regularly tries to help out and be useful: to try to mediate family or neighborhood disputes, to support the children, to sing and entertain. All the while, she also tries to ingratiate herself with her angry cousin Sarbojaya — who seems to dislike and resent the old lady, and to regard her as an albatross inflicted on them all by her husband‘s family.

But for me, Auntie Indir is more than a lonely, well-meaning, sometimes ill-treated old woman. She is, in a way, especially as Chunibala plays her, a symbol of the artist, or of the outsider who longs for a family. (The real-life Chunibala in her 70s and 80s, lived in one of Calcutta’s most notorious red light districts.) In one of her many unforgettable scenes, we hear Auntie performing after nightfall, reciting (with surprising strength and intensity), that little playlet about demons and singing her plaintive song of inevitable poverty and death.

Auntie’s song, for me at least, is a higher work of art than Harithar’s derivative plays, or the bombastic and florid performances of a hack melodrama by the hammy traveling troupe whom young Apu sees. To Sarbojaya, Auntie is simply a troublesome old woman, a drain on their meager finances. To the children, and maybe to us as well, she is a magical creature, a human symbol of the ephemeral beauties of life and love and the need for humanity and kindness set against a brutal world.

She is also a simple old woman, and a brave victim, facing death and the end, with moving equanimity. What finally happens to Auntie, in one of the most devastating scenes in all of the cinema, is so said, and so terrible, and hurts so much to watch, that when I saw the film again on DVD for this review, I had to turn it off and wait a while before playing that sequence and seeing again the last awful confrontation I knew was coming—and what leads up to it, and what follows it.

The episode starts simply: seemingly an unimportant family quarrel that will pass, like many we have already watched in the film. Auntie, who has been complaining about her torn and threadbare shawl for most of the movie, and has been promised a replacement by Harithar (who never brings her one), is given a brand new striped shawl by her other relatives, which she happily wears as she returns home — a gift that unfortunately angers Sarbojaya and leads to an argument in which the younger woman, sick of her own endless toil and perhaps a little jealous of Auntie‘s present, tells the old woman to leave and to stay from now on with her other relatives — something that the fiercely proud Indir has done before. So Auntie gathers up her meager bundle of belongings and goes — her long-sought gift having backfired on her so lamentably.

This time however, she comes back to the Rays’ home later, hobbling on her staff, her bright new shawl draped around her shoulders, looking fatigued and terribly old, and tells her longtime housemate Sarbojaya that she isn’t feeling well and would like to spend her last days in her ancestral home. Sarbojaya, who is sitting and working away alone in the yard — in a cruel gesture that will haunt the rest of the movie and indeed the whole trilogy — refuses and tells her to leave. Spent and quiet, Auntie Indir asks to sit for a while, and then, after only a few moments, asks for some water. Sarbojaya tells her to help herself. And, as she does, Auntie looks at her cousin’s wife, catches her eye and smiles tenderly, hoping perhaps that Sarbojaya will relent and let her stay. When she realizes that won’t happen, her smile—the last of her life—vanishes.

Auntie Indir takes her bowl, sips the water, and then, hunched over and trying to be helpful as always, pours what’s left onto a small plant in the yard. She rises, hobbles away toward the entrance, stops and takes a last look back. Sarbojaya avoids her eyes. Then Auntie departs. The next time we see her close up, she will be seated in the forest, against a tree, eyes closed, dying — while Durga and Apu, at play, discover her and, unaware of her sickness and exile, sneak up to her and try to play with her, reaching toward their beloved Auntie as she topples over.

For some viewers, definitely including me, it will be impossible to watch that devastating final leave-taking, one of the saddest scenes in all of the cinema, and not to weep, and to hope, against all sane and reasonable expectations, that this time, somehow, the film and this scene will end differently, that somehow this time Sarbojaya will relent, and let the old lady come home and rest a while and die in the only home she has known for most of her life, in the courtyard where she always sat, with the family she has tried, in her small yet loving way, to help and to entertain and to be a part of.

That scene, which all by itself makes the movie immortal, does not come from the original novel, where Auntie dies much earlier, in a crowd — but instead was created by Ray for his screenplay, or for the notes and storyboards he used in lieu of a script. Brilliant, unsparing, yet deeply compassionate, it changes the way we look at Apu’s mother, who might otherwise, in the next film, Aparajito, seem an overly sentimental figure, as she sacrifices herself repeatedly for her son Apu. And it demonstrates perfectly Ray’s genius as a film poet, and the humanist power of his storytelling, his brilliance as an artist of life at its hardest, bleakest and most heart-breaking. It shows also the incomparable acting genius of Chunibala Devi — who is so perfect in this role that many people who see the film may mistakenly believe she was not an actress at all, but just some picturesque old lady Ray found in the street, whom he let play herself. She was actually a veteran stage actress with many credits, who had made two other movies, in the ‘30s, and then retired from the screen, only to be coaxed back by Ray.

Chunibala was 80 when Ray began shooting Pather Panchali, on a miniscule budget with a cast composed of mostly amateurs and first-timers. It took Ray three years to make the picture, including one hiatus of more than a year to raise more money when the budget dried up. And the old lady and the other actors stayed with him and his dream project all that time. She died at 83, in 1955, the year the film was released in theatres. (Posthumously, she won a Best Actress award at the Manila Film Festival.)

Chunibala did however see her performance on screen. Ray brought a print of Pather Panchali to her house when it was cut and finished, and projected it for her. He has said that it was a miracle, and one that saved the film, that Devi was able to live all the way to the end of the three year shoot — and to complete her performance so flawlessly, so magnificently. To be a great actor is to be able to transmogrify yourself, on stage or screen, into another creature or human being — and Chunibala‘s performance as Auntie Indir is a work of actor’s art as beautiful and tragic as anything the cinema ever gave us.

3. The Filmmaker

Sadly, The Apu Trilogy is a masterpiece that the mass public in America (and even, to some extent. In India), has mostly ignored, and that many film specialists tend to skip or ignore as well. Everyone who knows movies well knows that they should see it—its reputation is towering—but many avoid it anyway. (To his rare discredit, that brilliant and usually reliable cineaste and cinephile Francois Truffaut is said to have skipped the film at its first Cannes Film Festival showing, reputedely saying that he didn’t want to watch a picture where people ate with their hands.) The Nuart’s run, which is the local premiere of the restored version of all three pictures — painstakingly reassembled decades after the original negative was destroyed by fire —  is a  film event that should not be missed by anyone who claims to be a cinephile. To love movies, yet to have missed The Apu Trilogy, is akin to saying that you  love theater but have never seen a play by Shakespeare, or that you love literature, but have never read a novel by Tolstoy or Dickens, or that you love great music yet have never listened to anything by Bach, Beethoven or Mozart. It is an imperishable treasure — and so is Chunibala Devi as Auntie Indir.

Satyajit Ray, who deserves to be ranked with the greats of his profession — Renoir, Ford, Welles, Kurosawa, Bergman, Ozu, Hitchcock, Fellini, Tarkovsky, Scorsese, Ophuls, Lang, Chaplin, Hawks and  other giants of world cinema — was a relatively young man, an artist and a professional book illustrator, when he first read the book “Pather Panchali.” He was assigned to do the illustrations for the Signet edition of the book, and after reading it, he pledged himself (though he had no film experience and was not in the industry), to try to make a movie of the novel. He was encouraged by the great French director Jean Renoir, whom Ray assisted on Renoir‘s now classic Indian-set film The River. And, watching De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves in London, Ray decided it would be possible to make the picture as De Sica made his — with real-life locations and a largely amateur cast. (Chunibala was one of the film’s few professionals). His collaborators included a young first time cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, a young production designer, Bansi Chandragupta (they both later became mainstays of the Indian film industry), and, for the film’s hauntingly beautiful score, the master Indian musician and sitarist Ravi Shankar, who went on to compose, for Ray, the scores of the last two films of The Apu Trilogy as well.

Ray‘s powerful visual gifts as an artist (he wrote and story-boarded the entire film) and his high literary taste and talent illuminate both Pather Panchali and the rest of The Trilogy. The three pictures are masterpieces of black-and-white filmmaking, as well as matchless classics of screen writing, screen acting and screen direction — an astonishing feat for a young man making his first movie. But there were far more than the usual difficulties on the shoot. Ray and his collaborators had to be on call constantly while he kept raising money for the production — with the meager budget constantly drying up. (At one point there was a year-long hiatus in the shooting.) But the film, on its release, became an international critical sensation, and it deserves to be.

At the time, India’s filmmaking industry — dominated by the kind of likably corny and absurd musical/romance/action movies we now call “Bollywood” — was an international critical joke. Ray’s Pather Panchali, which premiered at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (which also provided some of the finishing funds) changed all that. Like Kurosawa‘s Rashomon for Japan, or Zhang Yimou‘s Red Sorghum for China, Pather Panchali put its country and its creator on the world critical map. And Ray –who went on to make more than 30 other features, and many prize-winners (including both of the Apu sequels) — remains, for me, India’s greatest film creator and its most important movie artist. For me also, Chunibala Devi remains India‘s greatest film actress and an eternal treasure of the cinema.

The rest of the Apu Trilogy — the later two films Aparajito and The World of Apu — follow Apu though adolescence and manhood, college, marriage, further tragedy and final redemption, with incidents as real and harrowing, if not quite as moving, as the ones in Pather Panchali. These pictures are full of sadness too, a lot of it revolving around what happens to Sarbojaya, Apu‘s mother. But the ending of the trilogy, the very last shot of Apu and his little boy, is not sad. It is instead, one of the most hopeful and exultant resolutions in all of the classic world cinema.

Apu is ultimately not a false movie hero, or a handsome matinee idol — though Soumitra Chatterjee, who played the adult Apu, became Ray’s regular star and one of the most famous and highly-regarded Indian movie actors. Chatterjee’s work in The Apu Trilogy as an artist and writer from a humble background, shines above everything else he’s done, and that includes a number of other Ray films that have also become inarguable classics — like Devi (which means “Goddess”) and Charulata and Days and Nights in the Forest.

Still, in a way, Ray never surpassed the Trilogy, or Pather Panchali — though to complain about  that ranking would be like lamenting the fact that Orson Welles never surpassed Citizen Kane. Ray’s movie, and the complete trilogy, were true labors of love, and they have remained true classics. Satyajit Ray, the young amateur cineaste who worked so hard and so well to achieve his dream, ultimately changed the face of Indian cinema by making the film of Pather Panchali as he wanted to, or as he was able to. To do that, he needed miracles. But life sometime gives us miracles — and life gave one of them to Satyajit Ray. It gave him the old lady in the shawl who smiles and then stops, and sips water from her bowl, and walks away from her home, forever — tired old Auntie Indir, played by the actress named Chunibala Devi.

Wilmington on Movies: Poltergeist / When Marnie Was There

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

POLTERGEIST (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Gil Kenan, 2015

poltergeist

One thing you can say in favor of the latest Poltergeist is that at least nobody in it gets tortured, hideously maimed, eviscerated, eaten, or chopped to screaming bits. Children may take their parents to this picture, without fear of nightmares.

Also, the details of the Poltergeist’s spooky story aren’t revealed to us on a cell-phone movie camera found flushed down a toilet or buried in the local cemetery. There is a cemetery, or half-a-cem etery, in the movie, and there’s also much of the original family plot—about a typical nice suburban family moving into an untypically haunted house and apparently triggering a battle among these beleaguered folks and the Ghostbusters they hire, and the rampaging poltergeists (“noisy ghosts” in German), who are prowling around the closets, the shadowy corridors, the TV sets, and anywhere else you can stick a Steadicam or a handheld camera.

This show borrows the old story and characters, but updates the plot from the early ‘80s, an era of relative prosperity, to right now—a time when jobs are few, money tight and horrors plentiful. One victim of this limping economy is the Bowen family. Papa Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell), who has lost his job (as a TV director?), is hunting new ones, and has, somewhat rashly, decided to buy a house while he does. Mama Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), also somewhat rashly, is trying to become a writer. The kids, uprooted and uneasy, save for sunny little Maddy (Kennedi Clements), find themselves bedeviled by a closet full of seemingly haunted and sinister toys (including a particularly evil-looking clown), by a mysterious, threatening, seemingly haunted tree, by haunted kitchen utensils, a haunted electric drill, and by a haunted TV set, which we’ll all probably recall from the 1982 movie. Soon all (haunted) hell breaks loose — and everybody is scurrying around, including the furniture.

The Poltergeist gang have, it seems, kidnapped Madison (aka Maddy), the adorable little girl of the family, and whisked her off to PoltergeistLand and hidden her in the TV set, probably somewhere between the shopping channels and the reruns of CHIPs. Can anyone rescue her? Have they paid their cable bill? And, just to cover all possibilities, why don’t the Bowens keep looking for her above ground or outside the TV at the same time? (One can almost hear Sam Rockwell, in an outtake, yelling: “No Goddammit! My daughter’s in that goddam TV set, and I damned well know it! Haven’t you seen all those ads, for crissake? Now leave me alone, you goddam morons.“)

Despite the updated backgrounds and modernized details, this is all pretty much like the original 1982 Poltergeist, which Steven Spielberg (as writer, producer and, many say, uncredited co-director) made just before he made E. T. (as director). It’s one of his most personal films, even though Tobe Hooper, director of the genuinely terrifying 1974 Texas Chain Saw Massacre, signed it alone.

E. T. and Poltergeist were released within a week of each other, in the summer of ‘82, and both were huge hits (E. T. holding for a while, the all-time box office record). Both have remained classics of mainline-movie fantasy from the ‘80s, that era of often dumb shows for serial moviegoers, but also of a few triumphs. And both are, in different ways, unrepeatable—though, while there will probably never be another E. T., or even an “E. T. II,” there were a couple of mediocre Poltergeist sequels flung at us in 1986 and 1988 by people who should have known better. In these days of endlessly recycled, rekindled, regurgitated and recopied movie horrors, a Poltergeist reboot may be foolhardy, but inevitable.

If you’ve seen it before, you’ll probably remember most of it. If you haven’t seen it, you‘ll probably remember it anyway, from all the movies that have copied it. If you don’t watch horror movies and you wandered into the theatre under the delusion that you were catching a horse movie called Coltergeist, or a movie about a lovable village dunce named Doltergeist, you may be in for a bad moment or two — especially when Maddy gets sucked into the TV set and the cameraman is attacked by the haunted drill and the clown starts prowling around, leering like Bozo on absinthe.

It’s not a total loss. There are even some pretty good things in it — including a shivery special effect or two and snappy, hip performances by the actors who play the suburban parents Eric (Rockwell) and Amy Bowen (DeWitt) and okay ones by the guys who play the poltergeist experts, de-haunting specialist Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams) and TV reality show ghost-rouster Corrigan Burke (Jared Harris). The kid actors aren’t bad: 6-year-old Kennedi Clements (as Madison), as a cutie, and teenager Saxon Sharbino (as Kendra) as a phone-hogging teen-aged pain. The middle kid, Kyle Catlett as convincingly nervous Griffin, outperforms them, and occasionally the adults. The direction, by Gil Kenan (Monster House, City of Ember) has some flair, and the tech stuff is, as usual, suitably spooky and ultra-techy. The screenplay was written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, and I think it’s safe to say he won’t get another Pulitzer Prize for this—though the film does have better dialogue than most current horror movies. Which, of course, isn’t hard.

WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE (Three and a Half Stars)
Japan-U.S.: Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2014

Beautiful beyond words, heartbreakingly sad, and as lushly romantic as a night in the magical forests of our childhood dreams, When Marnie Was There may be (we hope it isn’t) the swan song for one of the cinema’s great treasure troves: The superb Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli. If it is, it’s a lovely coda and a fitting last chorus. But pray that it isn’t.

Run for decades by the sensei (master) himself, the recently retired Hayao Miyazaki, Ghibli was responsible for some of the greatest hand-drawn animated features in cinema history (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl‘s Moving Castle) — most of them directed by Miyazaki, but a few (like Marnie and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) directed by his colleagues Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Isao Takahata. Yonebayashi is the maker of both Marnie and the equally lovely and moving The Secret World of Arrietty.

If you love old-fashioned animation, here is something you must see: perhaps a last example of one of the most beautifully imagined and meticulously fashioned feature cartoons of the old style. Based on a somewhat homoerotic girl’s novel by the British writer Joan Robinson, it‘s about the deathless friendship of two little 12-year-olds, brunette Anna and radiant blonde Marnie (voiced in the English language version by Hailee Steinfeld and Kiernan Shipka), who meet and become best friends in an apparently haunted mansion on the marshlands of the countryside of Hokkaido, a northern island of Japan.

Anna is a young artist who is alienated from and bullied by her schoolmates in the city of Sapporo, and is sent to the countryside one summer to rest and recover. There. she discovers Marnie, peering down from a window in a seemingly deserted mansion that is only reachable with a rowboat or during low tide. And there, Anna bonds with a girl who may not exist, at least in the real world.

Yonebayashi and his colleagues—including co-writers Keiko Niwa and Masashi Ando (also an animation director)—imbue Anna‘s and Marnie‘s milieu with both fairytale splendor and realistic grace. Their entrancing film follows Anna in her childhood past, picks her up again in the present (when she‘s grown up), switches back and forth, and endows her whole story with a spectral, supernatural, glistening beauty of the kind one imagines Alfred Hitchcock would have wanted for his own long-planned romantic ghost story: an adaptation of James M. Barrie‘s play “Mary Rose” that was his (unrealized) dream project for decades.

There are two versions of When Marnie Was There available from its US distributor GKIDS (one hopes they will both be on the eventual DVD release): the original Japanese language release and the English language version, released to theatres here with Steinfeld, Shipka and other Hollywood actors like Kathy Bates, John C. Reilly, Ellen Burstyn and Geena Davis. Some aficionados will want to watch both; some may content themselves with either the original or the Americanized second one. Either way, they will be seeing one of the most visually beautiful, mesmerizing and graphically stunning movies of the year: a hand-made masterpiece from one of Japan’s greatest (and hopefully not yet lost) film factories and traditions. (In Japanese with subtitles and in English, dubbed.)

Wilmington on Movies: Tomorrowland

Sunday, May 24th, 2015

birdlandTOMORROWLAND (Three Stars)

U. S.: Brad Bird, 2015

To Morrow (Fragment: A Railroad Lament).

 

I started on a journey, about a year ago,

To a little town called Morrow in the state of O-hio.

I’ve never been much of a traveler and I really didn’t know

That Morrow was the hardest place I’d ever tried to go.

 

So I went down to the station for my tickets and applied

For tips regarding Morrow, not expecting to be guyed.

Said I: “My friend, I’d like to go to Morrow, and return

“No later than tomorrow, for I haven’t time to burn.”

 

Says he to me. “Now let me see, if I have heard you right:

“You’d like to go to Morrow, and return tomorrow night.

“You should have gone to Morrow yesterday, and back today,

“For the train today to Morrow is a mile upon its way.”

 

Says I: “My friend, it seems to me you’re talking though your hat.

“There is a place called Morrow on the line, now tell me that.”

“There is,” said he, “But take from me a quiet little tip:

“The train today to Morrow is a fourteen hour trip…”

 

“The train today to Morrow leaves today at 8:35.

“At half-past-ten tomorrow is the time it should arrive

“So the train today to Morrow, if the schedule is right:

Today it goes to Morrow, and returns tomorrow night……”

 

Lew Sully, arranged (mostly) by Bob Gibson, courtesy of The Kingston Trio.

 

1. Yesterday

Watching Tomorrowland –a great big film hunk of love and optimism and confusion from the Walt Disney Studio — you sometimes get the idea that director-writer Brad Bird and company are trying not just to create a new movie but maybe to found a new movement; Dianetics for Disneyphiles, or Pessimists Anonymous or Worldmakers. (Just kidding.)

I liked the show, or at least parts of it. But there’s something undeniably preachy and predictable about Tomorrowland — even though it’s an incredibly well-made picture, bursting with the usual Disney high grade talent, loaded with laudable ambitions and extraordinary technique, and packed with correct politics, directorial flair and top-chop acting by some very engaging, very attractive players. (The movie’s ensemble is headed by George Clooney, the British comic Hugh Laurie and two terrific young actresses, Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy, both of whom are younger than Tina Fey or Amy Poehler, at their snarkiest, would have wished on Clooney). It‘s also loaded with good intentions: those good intentions, as Robin Wood once cracked, with which we understand the road to hell to be paved. I was rooting for the movie from the early scenes on, which is, of course, a sure sign that it wasn’t quite working.

Tomorrowland doesn’t lead you to Hell — you‘ll find that elsewhere in the multiplex, especially in the theatres showing found footage horror movies, car-crash-a-thons and some of the more bourgeois romantic comedies. But it may be stuck in a kind of Purgatory of sermons and special effects. Bird’s story, which he co-wrote with Damon Lindelof of “Lost,“ is set first in the ‘60s, and then 45 years or so later (just about now). It revolves around those two girls, Casey and Athena, and a one-time prodigy kid inventor, Frank Walker, played by an actor, Thomas Robinson, who would have fit right in on the original TV “Leave it to Beaver,“ and who grows up to be an old grouchy recluse (Clooney, who is strenuously unsmiley in the last half of the movie).

2. Today

In our current decade, Frank is rousted out of his hermit’s lair — packed with inventions nobody ever bought and books nobody is reading any more — and persuaded (after some well-groomed but murderous robots disguised as cops burn his house down) to undertake a curious expedition: to find the storied Tomorrowland. His on-the-road companions: a bouncy, smart teenager named Casey Newton (Robertson) and a mysterious little girl with a beguiling British accent named Athena (Cassidy), who met Frank back in the 1964 World’s Fair, and hasn’t aged a minute since. Casey lives with her dad Eddie (Tim McGraw), a nice guy NASA employee who‘s been laid off. Athena hangs around, then and now, with people like Hugh Laurie as Governor Nix, which is either a nickname for Richard Nixon, or some apt moniker for the ultimate negativist.

We first meet Casey at her Spielbergishly suburban home. We first met Athena at the 1964 world’s fair, where Frank discovered Tomorrowland — introduced by the Sherman Brothers’ maddening little ditty “It’s a Small World.” Tomorrowland, of course is one of the four theme parks that were combined in the original Anaheim super-theme park Disneyland (it was also the name of a segment on the ‘50s TV show “Disneyland,” hosted by Walt). The others, in case you forgot, are Adventureland, Fantasyland and Frontierland — with a pristine early 1900s Main Street, complete with ice cream parlor and a silent movie house showing Charlie Chaplin movies (at least they did when I was there last), a street that was the all-American nostalgia entranceway into the four parks and the whole wonderful Magic Kingdom.

But isn’t a little strange to treat Tomorrowland as if it were El Dorado? These two Spielbergishly spunky kids, along with grumpy Frank/George, who needs a shave, have discovered a sort of alternate universe in the place, which boasts a spectacular variety of futuristic rides and hangouts and knockout visual effects, and which Casey can reach by pressing a little Tomorrow pin she‘s picked up — a talisman that then zips her in and out of the place and its world and the waving wheat-fields outside, without a ticket or a pass. (Let’s hope word on these pins doesn’t get around and bankrupt Disneyland.) The girls are eager to see more — just as we‘re relatively eager to see them see it.

So the three Amigos take off together, pursued by those evil robot kind-of-Matrix cops (so evil they actually kill real cops), bantering away (and nobody, of course, banters like Clooney), to ride, boldly ride, in search of Tomorrowland. They arrive just in time to save the world. (Did I forget the Spoiler Alert? Sorry.) As I said, I was rooting for them.

3. Tomorrow

Tomorrowland the movie is a technical marvel, full of moving sidewalks and futuristic cityscapes and electronic super-gizmos and almost everything else you’d want to see if you were a prodigy kid inventor in 1964 who stumbled into a time warp, and met the Big Crush of your life, or at lest of your boyhood. It’s also probably one of the most optimistic and fervently good-hearted movies around right now, saturated with a faith in the future and a liberal idealism that come just this side of clanging you over the head and handing you a petition. Remember those flashing “Author’s Message” signs that budding screenwriter Woody Allen inserted into 1965’s What’s New, Pussycat?? A few of them would fit right into Tomorrowland, especially in its climactic “Hey Kids, Let’s Put on the Future!“ scene with Frank, Casey and the youngsters gathered around them who’ll make the new world.

Unabashed liberal George Clooney has taken a little heat in some reviews for stuff like this: for what some pundits choose to see as his malign ultra-liberal influence on the movie — as if Clooney were some kind of Johnny Appleseed of the Hollywood Left, or as if Bird hadn’t put out messages pretty much like this into his other pictures as well. It didn’t bother me, because my politics are somewhat the same as Clooney’s, and here as elsewhere he’s one of those effortlessly ingratiating actors whom you mostly don’t mind getting proselytized to by. Anyway, I doubt that he rewrote Bird’s and Lindelof’s script to give himself a sermon or two, and President Obama and Michelle don’t show up here, as they just did (via archival trickery) in Pitch Perfect 2. But it is (perfectly) true that Tomorrowland could use a few less speeches and good intentions and a few more snazzy inventions and spectacular set-pieces and many more memorable characters.

What sense does it make to spend all that money and energy on the setting for a movie, and expend so much less on imagining the people who live or hang out there? In the middle of the show, Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn show up as Hugo and Ursula, the weirdo salesgeeks at an overflowing pop culture shop called Blast from the Past, and when the script almost immediately rubbed them out, and then 86’d some character actor cops as well, I felt cheated.

A lack of characters and unforgettable small roles is one of the movie’s big problems and one of the script‘s big holes. The writers seem to be spending all their energy on setting off the technological whizbangery of Tomorrowland, and relatively neglecting to imagine the fictional people who actually live there, or the people our three amigos will meet along the way — which is rather like basing a movie on the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower (which makes a guest appearance here) and neglecting to populate them, or skimping on writing some more dialogue for the actors to say against those spectacular backdrops. As it is, even though there are hundreds of people in the ultimate Tomorrowland cast and crew list (the end-credits offer another sea of names and participants: enough, it almost seems, to swing a small gubernatorial election), they‘re mostly nameless walk-ons, or too quickly killed off, like hapless Hugo and unlucky Ursula.

Brad Bird became a star animation director (for The Iron Giant, Ratatouille and The Incredibles), before becoming a star live action director (with Tom Cruise’s last Mission Impossible), and he was so successful (financially and artistically) with all those shows, that maybe everybody figured this one was an unblockable slam dunk. But, despite all those magnificent effects and those visuals, and the small city of people employed to put it all together — or the fact that the film becomes such a passionate advocate of education. youthful invention and innovation, and the unleashing of dreamers and their dreams everywhere — Tomorrowland drags more, and is more obvious, and less delightful and just plain less entertaining than Bird’s other major outings. Not, I hasten to add, because of any shortcomings in Clooney and his two very gifted and mucho charming girl chums in the bantering, wisecrack, speechifying, or chemistry departments. They’re all just fine — although Clooney could use a shave. (Doesn’t Brad Pitt complain?)

To me, it seemed largely the fault of that old culprit and usual suspect these days, the script, which seemed to be in better than good hands, with both Brad Bird and “Lost‘s“ Lindelof, and may be better than a lot of what rolls down the chute these days, but still seems deficient dramatically and comedically. Perhaps everybody was lulled by anticipating those dynamite effects and visuals, and by figuring that the wondrous technology could dig them out of any hole that opened up under them. AUTHOR’S MESSAGE! AUTHORS MESSAGE! But you need people to fill up a theme park, and also, most of the time, to tell a good story in the movies. And, as a great man, dream-weaver and inventor named Disney (or his songwriters) once said, “It’s a small, small world.” END OF MESSAGE. END OF MESSAGE.

 

Wilmington on Movies: Pitch Perfect 2 / Pitch Perfect

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

PITCH PERFECT 2 (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Elizabeth Banks, 2015

Any movie sequel that starts out by having its costar moon the President of the United States and the First Lady at Lincoln Center obviously doesn’t suffer from a lack of self-confidence. And I guess you could say that the massive box-office receipts for Pitch Perfect 2 last weekend — when this sequel to the hit 2012 a capella musical comedy out-grossed  Mad Max: Glory Road (in its first week) — prove that confidence was justified.

I didn’t like it as much as the first myself, but that’s mostly because it’s a typical sequel, and typical sequels almost always suffer from too much déjà vu and too little real spark and invention — which is what the first Pitch had even when it was drowning in clichés. A second go-round for Brilliant Beca (Anna Kendrick), bad mouth Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson the mooner), driven Chloe (Brittany Snow), feisty Cynthia (Ester Dean), Audrey (Anna Camp) and all the other sprightly members of the Barden University Bellas — with more songs, more groups, more gags and more girl power — Pitch 2 obviously didn’t disappoint either its faithful fans or hordes of newcomers. And I think we can safely anticipate an eventual Pitch Perfect Trilogy, in which the Barden Bellas may even get a few politicians and world leaders to moon them.

The aforementioned tush exposure scene occurs right when the Bellas — who’ve apparently been winning ICCA a capella contests ever since Beca’s stellar Freshman year and introduction to the group back in 2012, — seem to be secure in their maximum moment of triumph, performing before the Prez at Lincoln Center, when Fat Amy lets too much of it hang out. And her fat faux pas allows the tight-ass dean of Barden (Bryant Banks) to banish them from the next competition, right when things seemed rosy and a prospective new Bella — Hailee Steinfeld as the sparkly Emily — has arrived on campus.

Disgrace is nothing new to the Bellas, of course. They began the last movie trying to survive a projectile vomit incident, during performance, again by the irrepressible Fat Amy, who can probably be counted on for something even more embarrassing in the now inevitable Pitch Perfect 3. So, the Bellas hunker down, get some new songs and some new arrangements and (some of them) some new flames, and they hurl themselves into an international a capella competition which no Yanks have ever won and which is regularly taken by an obnoxious German team called Das Sound Machine, headed by the supremely arrogant and evil-looking diva, the Kommissar (Birgitte Hjort Sorenson) — who looks like the kind of singer/dancer/actress Ingmar Bergman might have hired for a Swedish stage version of “Cabaret.”

The other competing or at least present groups include that inevitable bad-boy band, the Treblemakers — the Bellas’ nemeses from the last movie — plus such red hot harmonic aggregations as The Cantasticos, The Singboks, the Pentatonix, the Filharmonics, and more, including, so help me, a rump group from The Green Bay Packers, moonlighting as song and dance footballers in the tradition of the 1985 Chicago Bears and their immortal showstopper “The Super Bowl Shuffle.”

So the Bellas plunge into melodic combat once again and once again they appear to be underdogs. But music hath charms, and so do Beca and Fat Amy. The play list for their grand tour and showdown (or, at least, for this movie) includes such evergreens as “Doo Wop,” “We Got the World,” “Poison,” “Cups,” “Insane in the Brain,” “Bootylicious,” “Lady Marmalade” (“Voulez-vous couchez avec Moi?”), “Wrecking Crew,” “Bang Bang,” “Any Way You Want It” and that immortal song, worthy of Schubert, “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty.” (Not since “Abbey Road” has there been a lineup like that. They wish.)

In the main subplot, which has Beca seeking a recording career with a Svengali-like music boss played by Keegan-Michael Key, Snoop Dogg shows up and fuzzies a peachy nostalgia duet with Beca on a “Play a Simple Melody”-style mashup of “Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland” (Snoop) and “Here Comes Santa Claus“ (Beca). Romance is supplied by the liked of former nemesis Bumper (Adam DeVine), The Breakfast Club fan Jesse (Skylar Austin), and, in a weird way, Birgitte’s Kommissar. Zillions gather to cheer on their faves. Lights wave. Hearts pound. Booties shake). In a stunning surprise, the competition is finally won by…..

SPOILER ALERT

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing a medley of The Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and — you guessed it — “Shake (Shake, Shake, Shake) Your Booty!” (Just kidding.)

END OF ALERT

As the competition heats up, so does the movie. Among its many celebrity guests, cheering the Bellas on, are Jimmy Kimmel, and the hosts and judges of American Idol, The View, Morning Joe and The Today Show. All of this is brought to us with another snide and sneering running commentary supplied by that snide and sneering pair, John Michael Higgins and his equally snide and sneering cohort, Elizabeth Banks. Banks also (once again) co produced the show and this time, directed it as well. And she’s pretty good, especially when she’s helming herself and Higgins, snidely sneering. And snarky.

There was such a lot of fuss over Rebel Wilson and Fat Amy in the first movie, that maybe Anna Kendrick didn’t get as much credit as she deserved. But she richly deserves it. After all, she is the star and she is a super-talented pitch perfect top-notcher. So let’s give the gal her due. Yay! You go girl! (Again.) And give our regards to Snoop.

Anyway (you want it), I must admit I liked this (now) franchise series better when it wasn’t a franchise, and they didn’t have eighty zillion guest stars and when they actually were — like the original Beca-led Bellas — an underdog. You can be more forgiving when someone or some movie is coming from behind. But writer Kay Cannon, back again to provide snappier quips than movies like this can usually muster, makes sure the Bellas, and especially Fat Amy and Beca, have amusing stuff to say as well as hot songs to sing. After all, the musicals of the old classic Hollywood days (at least the ones that weren’t translated from Broadway) often spouted a lot of clichés and silly stuff too, and we often forgave them.

Now, even though there’s a lot of the above (c. and s.s.) here, I was glad that Pitch Perfect 2, like the big-grossing or well-regarded recent musicals Chicago, Frozen, Les Miserables, and Into the Woods, and others, have signaled a seeming change — and that the movie musical, which had seemed a largely moribund genre ever since the ‘70s, could come roaring back like this. Maybe, some day, some how, somewhere, we’ll see the day when we get a lot more musicals, and more masterpieces like Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris and On the Town and Top Hat and Swing Time and The Band Wagon and Meet Me in St. Louis and The Red Shoes and High Society and Gentleman Prefer Blondes and Cabaret and The Wizard of Oz and Footlight Parade and West Side Story and A Hard Day‘s Night. For that, I’ll put up with a zillion other choruses of “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty.”

Well, maybe two. ________________________________________________________________________________

 

PITCH PERFECT (Three Stars)

U.S.: Jason Moore, 2012

In the mood for an all-out, unflinching movie musical comedy about college boys and girl a cappella groups? Want to watch (and hear) a bunch of enthusiastic unaccompanied singers slugging it out in something called the ICCA (International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella), with unaccompanied (sort of) renditions of songs like Whip It, Turn the Beat Around, Like a Virgin, and We Came to Smash in a Black Tuxedo? Want to watch (and hear) a movie where star Anna Kendrick does a Psycho shower scene parody, while playing a tattooed, ear-pierced mash-up Freshman queen named Beca who joins a failing a cappella group called the Bellas and is pursued by a persistent Freshman boy singer called Jesse (Skylar Astin) — a sweetheart of a guy who thinks the world’s most moving movie (and one of the five best-scored) is The Breakfast Club? Have you been waiting around and hoping for something like this? I didn’t think so. Serious little devil, aren’t you?

Well, as Rebel Wilson’s character Fat Amy might say, never judge a book (or a song) by its cover, even if the book is a boxed encyclopedia (sort of like Amy). Defying all reasonable expectations, Pitch Perfect (whose title is one of the most overused descriptions in movie criticism) turns out to be a cute, smart, funny show, well-directed (by Jason Moore), well-acted (by Kendrick, Wilson and a cast of dozens), well-sung (there are lots of songs and they’re usually fun) and (this is a shock) well-written. Pitch Perfect is full of clichés of course. But it also has a lot of surprisingly sharp wisecracks and snappy dialogue — courtesy of 30 Rock writer Kay Cannon, and maybe of actresses like Wilson and Kendrick, riffing.

So unfortunately, if you skip Pitch Perfect — and it sometimes deserves to be skipped — you‘ll be missing all the bouncy a cappella scenes, which even survive a projectile vomit gag or two. And you’ll miss the girl group-boy group battle to Toni Basil‘s “Mickey” and Madonna‘s “Like a Virgin,” and all of Wilson’s one-liners, including the already immortal zinger where Fat Amy says she invented her nickname herself so “twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back.” And you’ll miss Fat Amy too, one of the raunchiest, most amusing, let-it-all-hang-out characters in any recent movie.

You‘ll miss the smart-ass contest commentary delivered (to what and to whom?) by chatty announcers John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks (who also produced the movie). And you‘ll miss the scene — a heart render really — where Anna Kendrick’s character Beca watches (on the computer) Judd Nelson at the end of The Breakfast Club pumping his fist to the Simple Minds song “Don’t You Forget About Me,” and she can’t hold back the tears. Finally, you’ll miss all the aca-jokes, where Amy and others take the prefix “aca” (from a cappella) and stick it into every other word or phrase they can — like “aca-mazing” and “aca-stonishing” and “aca-demic“ and “aca-mon, give me a break.“

In short, you’ll miss the best Movie of its kind since, I don’t know, Bring It On. Or maybe The Breakfast Club. But that didn’t have any a cappella, did it?

The movie is based not on what you’d expect — a few nights’ worth of old DVDs — but on the non-fiction book “Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate a cappella Glory,” by Mickey Rapkin, which gives the actual lowdown on these kind of contests and probably should have been made into a concert documentary itself and maybe will be. So even though this show is corny and predictable, it speaks (and sings) with some authority, even when Higgins and Banks are doing the aca-commentary.

The story is simple and unoriginal and could have been really bad. Cool little Beca (played very coolly by Kendrick) wants to go away to college. But her professor dad, Dr. Mitchell (John Benjamin Hickey), wants her to go to his school, Barden, for at least a year and he wants her to participate in Barden school activities (ac-activities), which will eventually include the Bellas. Said Bellas, led by tight ac-assed boss Bella Aubrey (Anna Camp) and fervent Chloe (Brittany Snow) are trying to recover from a disgraceful aca-ICCA competition, which was climaxed by that projectile-vomiting, and they’re recruiting new talent, which includes both Beca and Fat Amy.

There’s also a nasty, over-competitive boys group called The Treblemakers, creating disharmony, led by the obnoxious Bumper (Adam Devine), but also including persistent nice guy and Breakfast Club lover Jesse. The girls sing and have spats. The boys sing and sneer. Somebody gets hired for an L. A recording session. The girls find themselves. The contest is on. In a stunning surprise, the ICCA competition is its won by…..

SPOILER ALERT

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing Pat Benatar‘s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” (No, just kidding.)

END OF ALERT

Well, we don’t go to these movies for the stories, do we? Anyway, Pitch Perfect made me laugh and I liked the music, and that, after all, has been the fundamental appeal of most teen-oriented movie musicals since Babes in Arms — except that nobody here is as good as Judy Garland or Mickey Rooney. (That‘s okay: Nobody in Babes in Arms, not even Rooney, is funnier than Rebel Wilson.)

Jason Moore, who directed Broadway’s “Avenue Q,” keeps things zipping along. Writer Cannon (or should we say writer Aca-nnon) keeps the badinage popping. The choreography, by Ac-Aakomon “A.J.“ Jones, is nifty, as is the music by Christophe Beck and Mark Kilian. The only objections I have to the singing or the song selection (which includes Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.“ and Ace of Base‘s “The Sign“) are that they used Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are” and not Billy Joel’s — and also that they completely ignored that semi-a cappella masterpiece “Runaround Sue by” Dion. (“Hurt! Hurt!…Well, I shoulda known it from the very start! This girl will leave me with a broken heart! So if you don’t want to cry like I do, Keep away from Runaround Sue!” )

How can you pass up a chance like that? But maybe the song is too misogynistic, even though it‘s a doo-wop masterpiece. And Sue or no Sue, this show is entertaining. The cast is delightful, a lot of the time. Anna Kendrick, well, she’s a sugarplum, tattooed or not, in or out of the shower. You go, girl! Yay! As for Rebel Wilson, she‘s Bitch Perfect: a sugar-cantaloupe, an encyclopedia of wit and wildness and avoirdupois. This woman deserves an Aca-demy Award for sass. Take that, you twig bitches.

 

Wilmington on Movies: Mad Max: Fury Road

Monday, May 18th, 2015

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (Four Stars)

U.S.-Australia: George Miller, 2015

FURY ROAD

1. Overdrive

Head-banging, car-crashing action movies with minimal dialogue and maximum carnage may make a lot of money, but they’ve also gotten (deservedly) a bad odor for some film-lovers, including, sometimes, me. George Miller’s sequel-and-a-half Mad Max: Fury Road though, demonstrates how to make those seeming clichés work, how to rev that engine up again. It shows us that almost any movie genre can sometimes produce a masterpiece — even if you have to create a whole world and then blast it apart to make it.

In Fury Road, the world, at least the one that most of us live in, has definitely been blown apart, or rotted away. But somehow, Miller, his astonishing crew and his highly gifted acting company make that wreckage seem marvelous, terrific, crazily beautiful. The fourth film in Miller’s “Mad Max” series — which began back in 1979, with a low-budget scruffily exciting Australian action movie starring the then-unknown Mel Gibson as Max — Fury Road is the most elaborate, the most expensive (more than 150 million dollars), the most thrill-packed and the most gloriously mad of all the Maxes: a non-stop hell-on-wheels super-thriller that virtually consists of one long, wild and violent chase through the Australian (actually Namibian) desert.

The film is not just another sequel, but a donnybrook on wheels in which a mob of grotesque, insanely vicious, post-Apocalyptic bad guys and fascist creeps pursues Max (now played by Britisher Tom Hardy of Bronson and Locke), along with five runaway brides and their kick-ass female general Furiosa (played in what will surely be one of her defining roles by Charlize Theron).

Furiosa, or the Imperator Furiosa as she‘s also known, is a lady Road Warrior who’s trying to rescue the five women, one of whom is pregnant, from their slaveringly evil buffoon Alpha captors and make it back to a matriarchal refuge run by an all-female society, the Vuvalini (Joy Smithers, Antoinette Kellerman, Melita Jurisic, Gillian Jones and others), located somewhere in the sunburnt wilderness that our water-starved and natural-resource-bereft world has become after the bomb or global warming or whatever the Hell happened.

Furiosa is the female counterpart of Mad Max, and, in those two intentionally iconic roles, Theron and Hardy generate the chemistry of a bottle of nitroglycerin, hurled and exploding. At first the two seem to hate each other, get under each other‘s skin. They’re one of the ultimate feuding motion picture couples, expressing themselves through fierce combat and slashing insult. But, like all great movie couples, or anti-couples, they grow on each other. And on us.

Both of them are refugees and outlaws, fleeing from a bloody awful tyrant warlord in a mask, and armor, riding the hood of a couple of Cadillacs lashed together. This is the hideously amused and amusing fiend, the Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keats-Byrne, who was the memorably grotesque Toecutter in the very first Mad Max). Joe is chasing the Imperator, Max and company, with a troupe of vicious Hitlerjugend-style War Boys and his two villainous sons: the iron-muscled man-mountain Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones) and the eerie childlike Corpus Colossus (Quentin Kenihan). Also backing the dictatorship: the People Eater (John Howard), boss of the area’s fuel-producing center Gas Town, and the local munitions manufacturer, The Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter);

The source of Immortan Joe’s power, and that of his oddball kill-crazy despot sons is a huge mountainous water reservoir called The Citadel, located in the scorching desert (The Wasteland), whose inhabitants they have turned into chattels and serfs, and whose women have become their unwilling sex slaves and breeders. As Max (at first Immortan‘s prisoner, then his nemesis), and Furiosa and her Furiosa Five (and also a war boy turned romantic sidekick named Nux, played by Nicholas Hoult), hurtle their way through the Wasteland, the Immortan‘s army is only part of the gauntlet of weird and wonderful menaces they have to outsmart and outrun: a high-speed rogue‘s gallery that includes the soaring Polecats, acrobatic warriors who swing from one racing vehicle to another on flexible poles (played by actor-gymnasts from Canada’s renowned Cirque de Soleil); the underground Buzzard Tribe who rise terrifyingly out of the depths of the desert, and the Rock Riders, who lurk and ambush from the canyon rims above.

All these colorful and stone-murderous foes show their scurvy faces or zoom along behind our anti-hero and heroines as they plunge through the Wasteland (a kind of comic book Monument Valley, shot in the Namib desert in West Africa), the gals on their mammoth War Rig (fashioned, or so the press notes explain, from a Czech Tatra, a Chev Fleetmaster, and a six-wheel-drive 18-wheel truck.) and Max occasionally on his Interceptor, the high speed vehicle (made from a 1974 black Ford Falcon coupe) he’s had (in various incarnations), since the beginning. What transpires, stretching over most of the two hours it takes Miller’s story (co-written with Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris) to race by, is probably the single most amazing movie car-chase since the great old silent movie days when D. W. Griffith used to race the train in Intolerance.

Most of the great movies, including Intolerance, can be translated or translated back into novels, plays or other literary works — even if that wasn’t what they were to begin with. Not so Mad Max: Fury Road. In fact, if all this sounds a lot like a wildly magnified and over-elaborated comic book or video game — well, that’s obviously part of Miller’s intention, as well as part of the current Road Warrior saga’s post-movie agenda.

It’s also strangely enough, part of what makes it great. That someone can take what is essentially a comic book/video game scenario and cram it so full of color and detail and back-story and raise it to such operatic heights and such loony grandeur is impressive in itself — though that’s what been intended and sort of happening (not this well) in some other comic book super-hero or action movies.

None of them are as good, or as well-made, or as  mind-blowingly exciting, as Mad Max: Fury Road.

2. Dead Stop

Mad Max, of course, isn’t a super-hero. He’s a lot more like Clint Eastwood‘s bounty-hunting wanderer in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: a pulp or movie genre hero with a human, vulnerable dimension, carried to mesmerizing extremes. In playing him, Hardy doesn’t show too much of Mel Gibson’s matinee idol qualities in the role. He’s tougher, bluffer, maybe a bit more virile, and he doesn’t quite have the bedroom eyes that made Gibson (before his meltdown and PR problems), attractive to both male and female audiences. This Mad Max, like Daniel Craig’s James Bond, is less sexy than tough — though his toughness doesn‘t make him immune to the pain and torture the villains dish out. That hardcase demeanor and non-seductiveness might be the reason Fury Road seems to tip so much toward Theron’s Furiosa, whose shaven head and burning eyes make her, paradoxically, look like more of a classic action hero. Or a non-classic action heroine. And definitely a sexy one.

 

That sense of human vulnerability is heightened here by the way Fury Road was shot — mostly with actual vehicles and gadgets and people doing actual stunts, and with much less CGI or special effects work than we‘ve become accustomed to. As it is, the slam bang achievements of the movie’s second unit director and stunt co-ordinator Guy Norris, whose association with Miller began with stunt work in 1981’s The Road Warrior, is also one of Fury’s great plusses, as is the gorgeous sun-splashed cinematography of veteran cinematographer John Seale and the super-orchestral score by the movie’s rock ’n roll composer Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL — much better, more Bernard Herrmannish and more ambitious here than he was with the action score for Run All Night.

 

All of this is woven together expertly by George Miller, who has been working on this project for a couple of decades, starting back during a time when he could have cast Gibson, and whose persistence suggests one of those grand, obsessive projects that often don’t get made and sometimes make emotional wrecks out of their creators. Mad Max: Fury Road not only took twenty years to prepare and complete. (Miller wasn’t exclusively devoted to it during that time.) It was mapped out with over 3,500 storyboards (by Miller and others), thousands of workers and actors and collaborators, and no less than 150 drivable vehicles — resulting in 400 hours of footage, assembled and cut down expertly by Miller’s longtime editor (and wife), Margaret Sixel.

Considering all the problems and logistics, it’s a movie that shouldn’t work this well, but does, and a movie that takes what usually seems wrong and excessive in our pictures today — the excessive violence, the endless car-chases and crashes, the near absence of dialogue and the limitations on humanity, interaction, and psychological depth — and somehow makes it right. It gives us human depth where most shows of its type just give us another comic book or video game, inflated to preposterous proportions.

And after all that, Pitch Perfect 2 outgrossed it this weekend. As Furiosa might say: Never underestimate the power of a woman, or of women. Anyway, there will be another Mad Max, they say, and one hopes it won’t take twenty years and another 150 million to make (though in the latter case, it probably will), and that it cooks and blazes and roars along like this one. If the world is going to end, it might as well look this good when it does. It might as well be George Miller and Margaret Sixel and Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron that rev it up and show us the death throes. They grow on you.

 

Wilmington On Movies: Maggie

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Maggie (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Henry Hobson, 2015

maggie

Arnold Schwarzenegger hasn’t made many movies you could describe as art films, and that may be one of the reasons his new picture, Maggie, seems like such an anomaly. It’s at least half of an art film — an attempt at a sensitive genre piece that‘s also a horror show with brains. Written by a one-time NASA engineer named John Scott 3, it’s a dramatic portrait, with realistically drawn characters, of a heartland rural American family disintegrating into fear and grief in the wake of a zombie epidemic that has turned the country into a bleak hell of marauding monsters – one of which is Maggie Vogel (Abigail Breslin of Little Mary Sunshine). Maggie is one of the victims of the plague: a stricken, infected 16 year old, and the daughter of a solid citizen and good-hearted Joe named Mitch Vogel, the role played by Schwarzenegger.

His Mitch is not a bad performance, and it’s the kind of off-type casting that the former megastar should try more often. Schwarzenegger plays Mitch as a gentle farmer and family man with a soft beard — a quiet, anguished, heart-torn, ordinary man so pummeled by the horrors into which has world has descended that he seems drained and wounded, with all the visible tears and hysteria squeezed out of him. There’s none of the cocky ferocity that the old Schwarzenegger displayed in his ‘80s-’90s superstar heyday — though this is a world that could certainly use a Terminator.

His daughter Maggie is in the early stages of a “turn” — a transformation into a full-blown zombie — and its explained to us that it takes several months to complete the metamorphosis after the original infection. In the interim, the zombies-to-be like Maggie are rounded up, held in hospitals and detention camps, and finally executed before they can complete the change.

When we first see Mitch, he’s traveling to a detention center, to rescue Maggie and take her home, an exception for which he at first needs and gets a doctor‘s permission. Schwarzenegger is playing a self-described Everyman here, but there’s a bit of the old ‘80’s Ubermensch too. Mitch refuses to accept the inevitable. He clings to a hope that has no foundation, and that Maggie herself (played with scarred intensity by Breslin) has let slip away from her. For the rest of the movie, we see that inevitable coming closer and closer, with everyone around Mitch — his wife Caroline (Joely Richardson) , his neighbors, local lawmen and authorities — pulling him toward the dreadful decision he refuses to make. Tormented beyond reason, Mitch not only is forced to endure the death of a loved one by fatal disease, but has to personally prepare for her annihilation as well.

There is no humor in the movie Maggie, no lightness of touch or compensating irony. It’s not only a serious film, but a deadly serious film — deadly in several senses, not all of them admirable. Director Henry Hobson, making a creditable feature debut, has named his main cinematic and visual influence in the picture as Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life), one of the most serious, and poetic, of all American directors, and one of the last models you’d expect to see for a zombie movie. But you can see touches and flashes of Malick often in the scenes of waving grain fields, rustic family farm houses, a horizon that seems to be beckoning you on, and that huge vault-like over-arching sky.

The movie is one of the grayest and most cheerless I’ve seen recently, gray and cheerless and sunless in the way American movies often become when they’re envisioning the apocalypse and what follows it. And Schwarzenegger’s and Breslin‘s performances are gray and post-apocalyptic too. It’s almost as if Mitch were turning as well as Maggie, infected by the sense of blight and death and hopelessness that shrouds almost every scene, nudged along toward the inescapable dread that’s swallowing them all up. Richardson as Mitch’s wife and Maggie‘s stepmother Caroline, seems less infected. She‘s in some ways a typical American mother, typically protective. But she gives up on Maggie far sooner, fleeing to another farm with their other children. Father and daughter meanwhile, enact a kind of horrific love story, in which both of them watch their world die and both of them seem doomed to become (different kinds of) the walking dead.

I admired the film’s ambition more than I liked its result. Maggie comes from a script that’s been on the Hollywood Black List of the best unproduced screenplays around town. But it’s not the masterpiece or quasi-masterpiece that might imply, and the finished movie, unless it was severely altered or cut, doesn‘t seem to warrant that high praise. Certainly everyone involved — including cinematographer Lukas Ettlin and production designer Gabor Norman as well as Hobson and the actors — is giving their best, working hard to generate the horrendous darkness and the shiver of lost grace the movie needs. But their effort is a little too apparent, too obviously metaphoric. If you compare Maggie to most of the crud that comes out these days, including cruddy zombie movies, it seems somewhat better than the norm. But that “somewhat” is crucial. I kept expecting a killer scene between Mitch and Maggie, one that played devastatingly with their past happiness and present grief, and in which he reached out to the daughter of his memories and had to confront the daughter of today and dying flesh, but it never quite came. Or if it did, I didn’t recognize it.

There’s been so many movies in recent years that imagine the end of the world, or almost the end, that it seems we (audience and filmmakers) have become infected too, poisoned with overwhelming despair and pessimism about what lies ahead. It’s as if our popular storytellers, obsessed with superheroes, yearned for a real ubermenschen (the kind Schwarzenegger once played), to stave off the inevitable. Of all these movies, Maggie is one of the most despairing. But that genuine despair it reflects and the sensitivity with which a lot of it is made, doesn’t necessarily alleviate or redeem the dreariness into which it often descends.

The entire genre of zombie movies, which peaked early in 1969 with the first Night of the Living Dead, is like a horror-movie equivalent of the ‘60s Theatre of the Absurd, with Beckett’s tramps waiting for a Godot that might well be the gatekeeper of the end of the world, and Ionesco’s stampeding people turning into rhinoceri that might well be marching zombies. That’s why the attempt at a mixture of horror and realism in Maggie doesn’t quite work, The quasi-realism and cheesy throb of absurdity of George Romero’s part-comic zombie sagas plays better and, I would argue, even affects you more deeply.

I‘m not saying this movie doesn’t work or couldn’t; Scott’s script strikes me as a potentially very good one, that needed more development, more daring. And, in the end, whatever I think, everyone involved here deserves credit for trying something different, for approaching their work with a heartfelt sincerity and high aspiration horror movies usually eschew. But, just as a zombie needs people to munch on, this movie about love and terror needs even more heart to chew on. Its dead need to walk before they can run; its living need to connect with each other and with the dead souls around them. They need more humanity and more awfulness. And that includes Arnold the one-time ubermensch.

 

Wilmington on Movies: Hot Pursuit

Friday, May 8th, 2015

HOT PURSUIT (Two Stars)

U.S.: Anne Fletcher, 2015

HotPursuit

Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergera play two gals on the run in South Texas in the new movie Hot Pursuit: Reese is a diminutive fussbudget blonde by-the-book cop named Cooper and Sofia is a statuesque sexpot drug cartel wife named Daniella Riva. And they’re so much better than the movie itself that you wonder if the two costars might be deliberately outshining their own vehicle. Watching this nitwit show (as Todd McCarthy accurately described it), I wouldn’t put it past them.

The movie is just as lousy as almost everyone says it is, though remarkably enough it looks pretty good — thanks to its picturesque stars, to director Anne Fletcher and to what must have been a crack production team. Fletcher, an ex-choreographer who‘s also directed The Proposal and The Guilt Trip, knows how to move people around a set, and her energetic costars Reese and Sofia know how to let themselves be moved — and if you didn’t have to follow the plot or listen to the dialogue or try to make sense of the damned thing, Hot Pursuit might seem almost okay.

But unfortunately the show has a script (by David Feeney and John Quaintance) — a particularly senseless one that makes cliché-ridden hash out of some of the ideas in that classic road-buddy chase comedy Midnight Run (with its great buddy-buddy bickering chemistry by Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin). Lacking the kind of jokes and dialogue scriptwriter George Gallo supplied director Martin Brest for Midnight Run, Witherspoon and Vergera (and Fletcher) have to try to redeem the awful screenplay they’ve gotten. And, if sheer energy and chutzpah and willingness to make fun of yourself could do the trick, they might have made it.

But here, what we get is a ludicrous mish-mash and an amazingly silly, fiasco of a buddy-buddy comedy thriller. If the title Hot Pursuit sounds familiar, that’s because it was already used for a 1987 road comedy with the younger John Cusack and a pretty good cast (including Ben Stiller and his father Jerry) and another script that wasn’t very good or very original or worth doing. This show isn’t very good (or original) or worth doing either, and if it didn’t have Witherspoon and Vergara goosing it up at every possible turn of the road, it would probably be barely watchable.

As it is, Hot Pursuit begins with its only good comic idea: a montage of scenes in the back seat of Cooper’s dad’s car, a sequence in which she grows up as she talks to various perps, including a baritone transsexual hooker. We soon learn that Cooper’s dad was a San Antonio cop, loved by all, and that his daughter, who wants to live up to his tradition of police excellence, has joined the San Antonio PD and become its laughing stock.

This SAPD ignominy is thanks to one of the worst comedy ideas in the movie, far more typical of the stuff the show will be spewing at us for the next hour and a half or so. In it, nervous cop Cooper, confronting a bunch of unruly local kids, hears one of them gabbing about riding shot gun, mistakes this for a reference to an actual shotgun, mistakes her own fire-gun for a taser, hastily pulls it out, and sets the poor kid on fire. If you’re capable of laughing at that gag, or at least not groaning (or gagging) at it, you may have a good time at Hot Pursuit — which has plenty more where that came from. If not, you may have to resort to counting all the bad gags in the show to put yourself to sleep. I wouldn’t put it past you.

Soon the rest of the sorry plot kicks in, along with costar Vergera (the linguistically acrobatic Latina star of TV‘s Modern Family), babbling away like Ricky Ricardo. (Cooper may her Lucy.). Officer Cooper, trying to redeem herself, has been assigned, by the suspiciously tolerant Capt. Emmett (John Carrol Lynch) to accompany Daniella and fellow officer Jackson (Richard T. Jones) and Daniella’s mob accountant husband Felipe (Vincent Laresca) to the trial, in Dallas, of cocaine cartel boss Vicente Cortez (Joaquin Cosio), with Felipe as the star witness.

For no reason I could discern, the Riva Manions seems to be unguarded — or at least very lightly guarded — despite the fact that all previous star witnesses against Cortez have been pretty quickly whacked. Nor does Daniella, babbling away while packing a suitcase full of shoes, seem especially worried. But when Cooper and Jackson show up, they are immediately joined by two sets of gunmen, who kill most of the people around, including Felipe, Cooper’s partner and some of the gunmen themelves, and send Cooper and Daniella off on a mad ride in Daniella‘s red Cadillac to Dallas, pursued (hotly) by more gangsters, and by crooked (and straight) cops.

Along the way, they run into several Southern-fried comic imbeciles, a whole tour bus full of laughing screeching oldsters, the movie‘s love interest (which turns out to be Robert Kazinsky as a parolee with a pickup truck, an ankle bracelet monitor and a deer costume) and more bad jokes (by everybody) and frantic mile-a-minute cross-talk (by the costars) than you would have thought humanly possible. Was any of it improvised? I wouldn’t put it past them.

Reese Witherspoon has been excellent at comedy elsewhere, especially when she played, wonderfully, the ruthless school presidential candidate in that terrific Alexander Payne comedy Election. And she was so good in her last movie (Wild), and it was such a worthy project, that you may wonder what she’s doing in a picture like this, that requires her to jabber away constantly with costar Sofia (who can out-jabber her any day of the week), as well as get her fanny stuck in a bathroom window while trying to escape some of those crooked cops, to ingest what seems about a ton of cocaine after a truck-car crash, to submit to endless jokes about her height (while Vergara submits to endless jokes about her age), to run around in that deer costume (supposedly disguised), to be constantly upstaged by her co-star’s bosom, and to behave throughout like a cross between Betty Hutton, Don Knotts, and the entire cast of Hee Haw. One thing’s for sure: she has the guts of a bandit. (See below.)

Director Fletcher’s last road comedy, The Guilt Trip, which was just slightly better than this one, involved Barbra Streisand, Seth Rogen, more bad jokes and a lot of process shots. This one has lots of location and stunt work (and worse jokes), as well as an hommage to that amiable director, car-chase expert and stunt man supreme Hal Needham and his 1977 car and truck chase classic Smokey and the Bandit. (See above.) Just like Needham, Fletcher, or her producers (which include both Witherspoon and Vergara), runs outtakes of the cast’s bloopers over the end-credits. Since Smokey and the Bandit was director Needham’s only really good movie (at least of the ones I’ve seen), the outtakes and bloopers quickly became the best thing about his later pictures, and reviewers began singling them out for ironic praise.

It would be tempting to say that the outtakes and bloopers are the best things about Hot Pursuit too — but, in fact, they aren’t very good, or very funny, either. Maybe they were phony outtakes. Or maybe the whole damned movie was a blooper. I wouldn’t put it past them.

Wilmington on Movies: Welcome to Me

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

WELCOME TO ME (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Shira Piven, 2015

welcome-to-me

For any of you who may have caught the Kristin Wiig comedy, Welcome to Me—a generally well-reviewed, well-regarded satire-farce-dramedy-sendup in which Ms. Wiig plays a lottery winner who buys her own TV show—and found the picture puzzlingly laughless: Hey, I sympathize. I didn’t laugh much either, except at a couple of reaction shots from Joan Cusack—who’s funny as ever as an exasperated TV infomercial producer working for Wiig‘s oddball lottery winner Alice Klieg.

I say this though as someone who likes Kristen Wiig’s work very much, and has laughed mightily both at her own top film (as writer-star), Bridesmaids, and also laughed a lot at Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. the top comedy of two of the Welcome producers here, Will Ferrell and his off-screen buddy and collaborator Adam McKay—who is also the husband of Welcome to Me‘s director, stage and comedy vet Shira Piven.

Indeed, the fact that all these certifiable funny people—along with Ms. Cusack, James Marsden, Wes Bentley and other C. F. P.s—couldn’t get more than a wisp of a chuckle out of me this time began to bother me. Others are laughing. Whence? Wherefore? What was I missing?

The premise seemed promising. Writer Eliot Laurence has imagined a playfully nutty turnabout in which Wiig as Alice—a single, TV-loving ex-animal shelter worker, who’s on disability payments, and is being treated for borderline personality disorder by an unsmilingly bemused psychiatrist named Moffat (Robbins)—wins $86 million in a lottery and decides to move out of her scruffy apartment (into a Palm Desert casino hotel), stop taking her meds, and hook up with that aforementioned TV company which she hires (for a cool 15 million) to produce a show called “Welcome to Me“—in which Alice will direct and write and star as, well, Alice. (Or Alice’s idea of Alice.)

At each of Alice’s shows, in a dinky little studio, as Joan Cusack’s Deb grimaces away—along with other appalled but cooperative producers and crew people, including the estimable Jennifer Jason Leigh as unhappy producer Dawn—Alice will make a grand entrance. She will waft in, to the paltry studio audience‘s instantaneous applause, on a swan boat (just like Ludwig of Bavaria), whereupon she will proceed on the drab set to have discussions with guests on the problems of Alice, be advised by experts or pseudo-experts on how Alice can lead a better life, and prepare peculiar dishes from Alice‘s own Favorite Recipes.

Eventually, she will present a series of playlets and sketches, written and directed by Alice, in which a troupe of actors will play Alice and her various nemeses (such as all the little girls who were nasty to her in school), and enact all those painful and embarrassing moments that helped make Alice what she is today—someone who won a lottery and has $86 million to throw around, witlessly. We can only surmise that those nasty little nemeses who may tune into the show while wasting their days, are mighty damned sorry they weren’t nicer to Alice way back when. Money talks or, in this case, babbles.

The production company, run by the Ruskin Brothers, glib Rich (James Marsden) and susceptible Gabe—(Wes Bentley)—seems delighted to take on this magnum opus of Alice iconography, even though Alice is a hard taskmaster and her ideas, which she has somehow derived from the show of her idol, Oprah Winfrey, are unfailingly ridiculous (like the swan and the playlets), or stomach-turningly tasteless (like the onscreen pet-neutering she also recreates). Soon, defying all logic, she has surprisingly high ratings, pseudo-intellectual defenders (interviewers like Thomas Mann’s Rainer who write papers on how Alice plays with race and gender), and also Gabe in the sack. But unfortunately, life and TV and this movie move on. Even 86 million can’t last forever.

All that sounds funny enough, or potentially funny. But unfortunately, Welcome to Me seems to suffer from personality disorder too: an inability to tell all these potentially funny jokes with the joyous buffoonery that would make them ignite on screen—say, to explode with some of the wild devilish relish that an old-fashioned make-‘em-laugh comedian like Red Skelton put into his classic media satire: the ‘40s mock radio commercial for “Guzzler’s Gin.” (“Smooth! Smooth!”)

The sets, instead of being amusingly dull and drab, seemed to me just dull and drab. The skits, instead of being entertainingly ludicrous, seemed just ludicrous. The direction, instead of being wittily deadpan, seemed just deadpan. And Alice‘s adventures, instead of being hilariously painful, often seemed just painful.

I had a good friend and editor once who was fond of saying, about colleagues of ours who’d had what we both considered inexplicable and largely undeserved success, that they’d “won the lottery.“ At its least funny, Welcome to Me seemed to me like a movie that had won the lottery—or actually, a script that had won the lottery, and that had broken the artistic bank. Welcome to Me, as written, didn’t deserve this good a cast.

It’s a shame. Kristen Wiig is one movie actress who can make pain and angst both believable and funny, and she’s been more adventurous and off-center in choosing her roles and her movies than her fellow cast-mate Melissa McCarthy since their Bridesmaids breakthrough. Yet while most of McCarthy’s post-Bridesmaids roles have been predictably clichéd and excessive (Guzzler‘s Gin-style without the finesse or the writing), Wiig’s have been not-always-amusingly weird (Guzzler‘s Gin without the gin). Welcome to Me is the weirdest of them. I wish it were the funniest too. But I guess, for me, the lottery hasn’t paid off, the Swan Boat doesn’t stop here anymore, and we‘re all out of Gin. Smooth!

 

 

Wilmington on Movies: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Monday, May 4th, 2015

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (Three and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Joss Whedon, 2015

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

A man named Corleone walks into an Italian tailor’s shop one sunny day on Mulberry Street in Little Italy, and lays some badly torn wedding pants on the counter. The tailor, whose name is Rossellini, looks at the pants, frowns and says “Euripides?” Mr. Corleone answers “Eumenides!“

The little boy sitting in the corner while this happened, reading the latest copy of Superman, was named Martin Scorsese. He grew up to be a movie-loving priest whose favorite movie was Kiss of Death and whose favorite actor was Richard Widmark. Years later, that same beloved priest was killed in the crossfire when they rubbed out Crazy Joey Gallo at Umberto’s Clam House. Father Marty’s last words were “Euripides? Eumenides!”

Nobody could understand what the hell he meant.

What should I say about Avengers: Age of Ultron? Is it too much of a good thing? Maybe. But consider the possibilities that stretched before it, as well as all the doors that were already closed when all the deals were struck.

It’s a big studio blockbuster sequel, but it’s not half-bad. It’s pretty damned good in fact. Movies, we know, can make use of almost all the other arts—cramming in so much that they can potentially become a kind of super-art, an amalgam of literature, drama, the visual arts, music, comics, rock ’n roll, the other popular or lively arts, the kitchen sink, Greek tragedy and more. They can also be one of the most wasteful of all forms—a media slumgullion that sometimes runs amok and goes over the edge, yet whose very prodigality can carry its own crazy exhilaration, nutty humor, sleazy grandeur and spectacular beauty. That, as somebody said (I think it was Aeschylus), is entertainment.

Take Avengers: Age of Ultron, the monolithic blockbuster du jour, the latest super-duper-hero movie leviathan from the world-makers at Marvel. I’m of two minds about it, both of them divided. Though it’s making a mint, there are probably, certainly, better ways, artistically speaking, to spend 250 million dollars than to have shot the whole wad on this show alone. We’re not talking business here, you understand. But I’m reasonably sure that you could have taken the same budget and fashioned at least 25 possibly better pictures (perhaps even the equivalents of Citizen Kane and The Godfather and La Dolce Vita and Seven Samurai and Fanny and Alexander and Vertigo and The Searchers and The Rules of the Game), using all that loot, and all those actors, and all that technology, employed by writer-directors as good as (or better than) the Avengers’ helmsman Joss Whedon—or preferably, some peers of Orson Welles and his ilk.

But that doesn’t mean the gargantuan entertainment given birth by the Avengers’ moolah and machinery, isn’t a relatively smashing success, on its own crash-bang-thank-you-clang terms—or that the vast not-just-fan-boy world-wide audience waiting to see it from here to Bangkok and Paris and Timbuktu, won’t be mightily pleased at the result. They will. They’re the target. Deal with it, cinephiles. This is what the system is geared up to produce right now, and that it will produce, and keep on producing, until Hell freezes over in glorious IMAX and super-3D. Or, preferably, until the system expands its boundaries and widens its agendas and gets as intellectually ambitious as it is now ambitious technically and financially, as adept at creating something artistically rich and beautiful that explores the human condition (pardon my pretensions), as it is right now in creating fantasy worlds with comic book characters and then blowing them apart.

If you love cinema in this age of big studio tent pole behemoths, and if you write about them, you simply have to try to help create a climate and open up arenas for the other kinds of movies, and that other kind of audience as well: an audience somewhat older, and brighter and better-read and more intellectually adventurous and more emotionally open—an audience that, in fact, Avengers writer-director Joss Whedon seems to be trying to reach here, at least some of the time. Especially when this (pop and classic) cultural magpie of a moviemaker—whose last feature was a low budget black-and-white version of Shakespeare’s wordy, witty masterpiece “Much Ado About Nothing”—makes quick allusions to or quotes from a whole crazy quilt multiplicity of sources that include Eugene O‘Neill and Nietzsche and Neville Chamberlain (“Peace in our time”) and Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (“I’ve got no strings”) and Jesus Christ (“Upon this rock…”).

The two Avengers are not the kind of shows I usually yearn to see. Instead, I’d like to see budgets and resources like that (or half that, or a twentieth that) put in the hands of moviemakers like Welles and Bergman and Coppola and Kurosawa. Because, as Lord Acton once said, big budgets tend to corrupt and absolutely big budgets corrupt absolutely.

That goes for the Marvel mythos too, of which the Avenger movies—2012’s The Avengers (also by Whedon) and the current Avengers: Age of Ultron—are currently the capstones. Money or love of money is not always the root of all evil, but it is the root of a lot of banality, and Ultron, good as a lot of it is, doesn’t entirely escape that banality, or that evil.

In the last installment of this jam-packed series, a culminating Marvelwork, the nefariously tricky Loki (Tom Hiddleston) battled his old nemesis, hammer-flinging, blonde-tressed Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in another of those endless attempts by various movie super-villains to destroy the world. And Thor foiled him, with the help of an all-star superhero lineup that included such costumed crime-busters as Iron Man/whose not so secret identity is Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey, Jr.), the volatile mean green Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), that straightest arrow Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the sultry super-lady Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), the impeccable War Machine/Iron Man crony James Rhodes (a whiff of Don Cheadle), speed demon Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), and the bunch’s mostly off-screen recruiter and coach, surly Nick Fury, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Samuel L. Jackson with some of his most formidable scowls).

Marvel brought them altogether in 2012 (after a series of teasers in their other movies) with the fervor and showmanship of rock promoters assembling a new Woodstock. And now everyone returns, except bad guy Loki. In his place, as the show’s head heavy, The Marvelites have hired a dandy new villain: an insolent black-metallic super-robot named, you guessed it, Ultron, and played with really villainous and malevolent relish and a demonic sense of fun by James Spader.

The movie alternates between those old formula elaborate action scenes, and a more than usual allotment of counter-balancing humor and drama. (For my money, they could use even more.) So we get, after the usual James Bondish opening action salvo—which has Captain America and his pals duking it out in some place called Sokovia with Nazi madman Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann, the good German of Polanski’s great The Pianist)—quieter scenes with Tony and Bruce trading quips, while Tony unwisely invents a peace-keeping device, which morphs into the even madder and more tyrannical and more super-villainous Ultron, who unfortunately works under the teasingly plausible assumption that if you eliminate humankind, you will also eliminate war. True, but…

There are various battles in the usual cities in chaos and aflame, and the usual street chase, and a rest stop for the crew at Hawkeye’s country retreat where everybody chops wood and has home-cooked meals, and Hawkeye’s stalwart spouse (Linda Cardellini) utters that deathless line (I’m sure you’ve already heard or read it), “You know I totally support your Avenging,“ (Couldn’t she also say “Darling, on your way back from this days’ Avenging, could you pick up an Apocalypse for the kids?”) And eventually, a chunk of Earth gets ripped from its Earthly moorings and flung into space, where there are more battles, and more sneering from Ultron, and the usual fight to save Earth from mass destruction (and, in this case, acid Ultronic zingers)—a fight-to-the-death whose outcome the Spoiler Alert Patrol dictates I must keep as secret as all the secret identities of the Avengers. Shhhhh. Let me offer one reveal though, as they say: You won’t be unpleasantly surprised. (Or necessarily pleasantly surprised either.)

So much for the plot. If it seems familiar, that’s definitely the intention. This is a familiar show, with some innovations. What’s good about the movie, or at least somewhat refreshingly different, is the higher ratio of halfway clever dramatic and comic scenes (like Thor’s barroom hammer game with his colleagues) to the fights and chases and potential destructions of man (and woman) kind. Whedon obviously knows what we all know, or think we know: that the constant pummeling into submission of audiences at the usual super-action movie, though it will satisfy the gazillions of people who love movies like this, can get repetitive and predictable and turn off some of the less comics-crazy moviegoers as well. Besides, why hire a cast as good as this, and not give them more interesting things to say and do? How can you be credibly human in the rest stops, if the story is too incredibly super-human when the rest is over and the world is being annihilated?

So Whedon has salted in more snappy lines and more love scenes (Hulk and Black Widow and Hawkeye and Mrs. Hawkeye) and added lots of badinage (and hopefully, goodinage too) (sorry), and given Downey and Ruffalo some snappy stuff to say. (They know what to do with it.) And he has arranged for Spader to walk off with a lot of the movie by having him play (via voice-over and action-capture) one of the snazziest bad guys in many a dark moon, Ultron the Ultra-Cad.

Spader was once one of the best nasty movie rich kids ever—he set the mold for youthful suburban arrogance in teen-shows like Pretty in Pink or L. A. expose’s like Less Than Zero. Now, in his 50s, he’s taken out a patent on older brands of villainy, and here on a different, more drastic and dangerous (and funnier) kind of villain. Instead of misadvising suburban schmos like Andrew McCarthy, he’s out to razz and scoff at our entire planet and misadvise and destroy us all. Spader, who deserves an encore of some kind for his work here, does all this heavy lifting with an effortless sneering panache worthy of a cross between James Earl Jones’s haughty voicing of Darth Vader, Brit badmouth Simon Cowell’s venting of his fancy dan smart-assery on the old “American Idol,” and the rambles and rumbles of Lucifer, Jr., the Voice of Doom on a Honeymoon from Hell. Bravo. It almost makes me wish I’d shown more prescience and given Spader and Downey more enthusiastic notices back in 1985, when I first reviewed them, I believe (for the L. A. Times) in Tuff Turf, and was nicer (I believe) to Jack Mack and The Heart Attack. Who knew?

All of the Avengers get their little moments here, and there are some fairly nifty movie newcomers like Marvelites Vision, a.k.a. Jarvis (the estimable Paul Bettany), and the Maximoff Twins, Pietro and Wanda, a.k.a. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen). They’ll be familiar, of course, to people with big comics collections, or with the right movie press books. There’s even a cameo by Marvel’s great begetter, and one of this movie’s executive producers, the magnificent speech balloon bard Stan Lee, from whence all this (or a lot of it) came, and his cameo is longer (and wordier) than any of Hitchcock’s.

Joss Whedon, the being behind (to borrow a super-noun) this movie behemoth, the inventive artist who gave us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and the black-and-white Much Ado About Nothing (whose title is not necessarily his comment on his current occupation), acquits himself admirably, along with his thousands of collaborators, and he leaves the series honorably, if in slightly better shape himself than his Ultron. As they say, you can only end the world so many times, before the real-life non-supermen take over and maybe really end it.

This is a movie whose main assets are its smarts and the genius of the system and lotsa, lotsa dough and talented people, and those are the main assets of a lot of Hollywood classics. As for the action scenes and special effects, all the raison d’etre and razzle-dazzle that obviously consumed a lot of time, money, blood, sweat and tears here, as well as inspiring a huge hulking hunk of the list on the movies typically endless end-titles, I‘m, uh, speechless. But, hell, you see one of these (the action scenes or the end-titles), you’ve seen them all. At least it seems that way.

Hey, as someone said (I think it was Ingmar Bergman), it’s only a movie. Meanwhile, congrats to Spader and Downey and all the tuff turfs they endured on the way to the top. Or, as Lord Action (no sic), I think it was, said: “Blockbusters corrupt, and absolute blockbusters corrupt absolutely.” Who needs another Citizen Kane anyway? Or another Dolce Vita? Or a filmmaking Euripides? (Eumenides!) As for another Godfather, well, they can do it on TV. And don’t think I’m being sarcastic.

You know guys, I totally support your Avenging.

 

Wlmington on Movies: Black Souls

Friday, April 24th, 2015

BLACK SOULS ( Four Stars)

Italy: Francesco Munzi, 2014

blacksouls

Dark, stark and bleak, and filled with a foreboding sense of impending disaster, Francesco Munzi’s Black Souls is an anti-romantic Italian mob drama — a great brooding powerhouse of a film that reminds you of violent mob classics like The Godfather and Goodfellas, and more recent Italian crime gems like Gomorrah, only to veer off into a shocking climax that’s more reminiscent in tone and impact of a Greek tragedy.

Adapted from the novel by Gioacchino Criaco, it’s a potent piece of crime-film-work. Munzi’s tale of three brothers, the Carbones of Calabria — whose family business and focus has evolved from goat farming in the mountain villages of Southern Italy, to membership in the local Calabrian mob, the ’ndrangheta, and into the more lucrative but dangerous profession of cocaine smuggling in Milan — has an almost mesmerizing force, a sinister visual poetry, the icy grip of a true thriller. There’s an almost swooning inevitability about the destruction that begins to overtake and swallow up these characters from the very first scenes, and one watches them struggle with a sense of unavoidable angst and heart-rending fitness.

Gradually, as Munzi shows the blood feuds that ultimately carry everyone away, we see the Carbone family fall apart: genial, glad-handing mob boss Luigi (Marco Leonardo), who wants everyone to love him (or, failing that, to respect him), Luigi‘s quieter, more sober mob-business-manager brother Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta), who wants the numbers to add up and any murderous business clashes to be avoided, and, most tragic of all, their non-criminal brother, goat farmer Luciana (Fabrizio Ferracane), who wants no part of his family’s illegal success —  and his hot-headed, hedonistic 20-year-old  son Leo (Giuseppe Fumo), who does. As the story unfolds, Munzi (The Rest of the Night) and his co-writers Fabrizio Ruggirellio and Maurizio Braucci  immerse us in the long-held, meticulous traditions of their world (or of their separate worlds), and of their women, including Rocco‘s chic Northern Italian wife Valeria (Barbora Bobulova) and Luciano’s traditionalist country wife Antonia (Anna Ferruzzo). They then reveal how all that can  collapse as well.

Munzi tells their story not with the hot-blooded operatic fervor we expect elsewhere, but with  a mixture of quiet realism, dirge-like melancholy and low-key intensity — and with a simmering tension that always reminds you of the violence that lies just underneath the semblance of family bonds and feeling that supposedly unites all these Carbones. There’s scant romanticism here, and little wild humor — and no one will, like Leo, want to live this life after seeing what happens. That’s true of the Mafia masterpieces of Coppola and Scorsese as well. But it’s doubly true here — in this more classic, less sensational rendering of the wages of sin and death.

Munzi is not as brilliant a filmmaker as Coppola or Scorsese  — or, probably, as his Italian colleague Matteo Garrone of Gomorrah. But he’s damned good. He knows how to create characters and the world they live in. Leonardi’s glad-handing mob boss Luigi, Mazzotta’s professorial Rocco and Ferracane’s pent-up, furious village patriarch Luciano make almost as powerful, if not quite as memorable a brotherly trio as Michael, Sonny and Fredo in The Godfather.  But Munzi is building on past mob movie tropes and archetypes, not simply recapitulating them. The darkness of the Carbones’ world catches you almost as inexorably as its best predecessors. And, after hopping on the crazed rollercoasters of many modern crime and action shows, it’s refreshing to see a violent movie that makes sense, with characters that seem not just impossibly good or incredibly evil or wildly unlikely, but richly, fallibly, terrifyingly human. (In Italian, with subtitles.)

In Los Angeles, in Landmark’s Nuart Theatre. Also in Landmark Theatres across the country.

Wilmington on Movies: True Story

Monday, April 20th, 2015

TRUE STORY (Three Stars)
U.S.: Rupert Goold, 2015

franco-hill

Truth may not always be stranger than fiction, but it sometimes seems to sell better —  even though that “truth” may be ambivalent  and the reporting questionable. True Story, a true crime movie drama which has some very good scenes and performances, and also some that are disturbingly dubious, supplies a couple of juicy fact-based roles for real-life buddies Jonah Hill and James Franco — and both of them dive right in, taking over the screen joyously, both when they’re together and sometimes when they aren’t. That doesn’t mean that the movie is entirely or even largely satisfying. It’s not, though the two lead actors give it everything they can.

Hill, a born second banana with the face (sometimes) of a hooked fish, plays Michael Finkel (who also co-wrote True Story and wrote the book on which the movie is based). Finkel, a name you may know, was a New York Times free-lance journalist, who made up a character for one of his Times magazine stories, got fired and then tries to redeem himself with a  big story that drops into his lap back in his heartland home.

Opposite him, Franco, a born sexually ambiguous movie heartthrob who was once typecast as James Dean, here assumes the persona of  Christian Longo, a mysteriously grinning chap who’s on trial for murdering his wife and children, and who briefly assumed Finkel’s identity which fleeing from the law in Mexico. Longo calls Finkel his favorite writer and contacts him, while he’s in stir in his ugly orange jail uniform. The sharply acted encounters between the accused killer and the disgraced newsman take place in a chilly meeting room that looks like an ante-room to some drained white Purgatory.

Both these characters are real people, given their real names, and both of the actors (who last appeared together, hilariously playing “themselves,“ in Seth Rogen’s apocalyptic comedy a clef This is the End) are fine, especially Franco — who really should be forgiven by his Boo Squad for that subversively bad performance as a recent Oscar host. (Franco’s old Pineapple Express turn as a genial pothead alone should wipe it out.)

The movie begins with  a weirdly poetic view of a teddy bear and his little girl owner (one of the children that Longo has allegedly killed), dropping down into a suitcase that will then be abandoned underwater — then shifts to scenes of Finkel’s professional downfall in the great cold offices of the New York Times. It is after going home to Montana, and intellectual girlfriend Jill (Felicity Jones) that Finkel finds out about Longo, who declared himself  the writer‘s biggest fan, after which Michael visits him in prison — accepting Longo‘s offer of an exclusive story (which the accused killer claims will clear him), and commencing a bizarre friendship. In that friendship or collaboration or dark union, Longo is a smilingly charismatic anti-hero/maybe villain and Finkel is his chubby, wary, angst-ridden Boswell.

Both these characters are real people, given their real names, and both of the actors (who last appeared together, hilariously playing “themselves,“ in Seth Rogen’s apocalyptic comedy a clef This is the End) are fine, especially Franco — who really should be forgiven by his Boo Squad for that subversively bad performance as a recent Oscar host. (Franco’s old Pineapple Express turn as a genial pothead alone should wipe those bad memories out.)

True Story itself is directed and co-written with  an arty polish, gleam and intelligence, and occasionally with real impact, by Rupert Goold, an admired British stage and TV director, who’s done some well-regarded Shakespeare (a “Macbeth” and a “Richard II“), and here does very well by his audience (most of the time), and by his actors, if not their real-life counterparts, while telling a tale full of largely off-screen sound and fury, signifying…“something?”

Like last year‘s Foxcatcher, which was also a true crime drama about a buddy-buddy relationship and a shocking and sometimes mystifying crime, True Story keeps its story and often its characters somewhat opaque, even when one of them gives us all a big fat wink. Part of the reason for that reticence is the bloodiness and awfulness of the crime itself, as well as the not-sympathetic view of things generated by  the filmmakers and actors. Longo’s wife and little daughters were killed and then dumped, and other family members are convinced that he did it, while Finkel, who needs Longo for his redemption book, is, perhaps understandably, not so sure. Is it because he has a lucrative book project in the offing? Is it because he’d like to give a zinger to the Gray Lady? Or is it because the chillingly self-confident Longo, with his cold-blooded charm, all but seduces him in their meetings?

Hill makes Finkel someone believably guarded and anxious, as occasionally self-serving and self-destructive as he is self-aggrandizing, ambitious and gifted. Franco makes Longo both creepy and seductive, a possible monster pulling his possible pigeon (Finkel) down into a dark whirlpool of possible pathologies and lies. Two sometimes consummate actors, they both always seem real — though “seems” is relative and so is “real. And so is “True Story.”

There haven’t been very many really good films lately, ever since the Oscars were over — except for Olivier Assayas’ brilliant backstage drama Clouds of Sils Maria, with Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, and also the powerful minimalist Israeli courtroom picture Gett — and so the good parts of  Goold’s show are welcome, even if the film as a whole is a bit unsatisfying. Maybe the fact that Finkel was so intimately involved in its creation was both a blessing and a curse; it’s hard not to see prongs of self-justification poking through the personal narratives of this story’s anxious exiled protagonist (Finkel) and cool imprisoned antagonist (Longo).

SPOILER ALERT

True or not, the good parts of this movie make up for it. Goold is a better than good director, though, as with Foxcatcher, one wants a little more resolution and explanation than this movie gives.  True Story though, is very often rescued by its intelligence and by its two lead actors, Hill and Franco, who always give us something interesting to watch. Hill, with his customary subtly goofy humanity, shows us the darker side of journalism. Franco, with an eerie smile, shows us the darker side of families, life and death.

END OF SPOILER

And True Story itself shows us that truth, or what people call truth, is often ambiguous, sometimes mutable, occasionally dangerous and always subject to revision.

Wilmington on Movies: Ex Machina

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

EX MACHINA (Three Stars)
U.S.: Alex Garland, 2015

ex-machina

We’re in something of a golden age for movie science fiction — or a gold-plated one at least — and Ex Machina is a good example how that genre can be worked and reworked by a bright filmmaker who knows the form and how to play with it. The movie marks the feature directorial debut of the brainy, taboo-shattering novelist-screenwriter Alex Garland (he wrote the scripts for Danny Boyle’s  28 Days Later, Sunshine, and the novel from which Danny Boyle made The Beach) and here, he gives us a chamber horror story, a cyber-punk robot story and a classy-looking sexual nightmare that will amuse and even mesmerize some audiences and irritate others. I was amused and irritated myself, by turns. But, all in all, I’m happy to see someone trying to make something deeper and more challenging: a science fiction plot that doesn’t depend on explosions and car wrecks and gun battles, but on a few interesting characters and ideas. It’s also nice that audiences can respond so strongly to those characters and ideas.

Indeed, the characters are what engage us first. Almost all of Garland’s movie takes place in a high tech hideaway housing four “people“: the secret estate and household of a wealthy, inventive and apparently reclusive company CEO — Oscar Isaac as Nathan Bateman, a sort of Steve Jobs-ian philosopher-tycoon-visionary. Bateman has invited one of his young employees, Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), who’s the winner of a trumped-up contest, to spend a week with him in his isolated home, allegedly to learn how the upper echelon of his company lives and works.

That’s a crock. Actually, Bateman is a manipulative inventor-bossman, and Caleb is there to take part in an experimental project Bateman has dreamed up, involving a humanoid robot that Bateman has fashioned in the shape and highly disturbing bod of a sexy, very human-looking young charmer named Ava (Alicia Vikander). In a variation of the Turing Test that Benedict Cumberbatch’s luckless Alan Turing invented in The Imitation Game, Caleb has to determine whether his robot/android/whatever can actually think, or whether she‘s just mimicking the humans around her. This is the big question that artificial life and science fiction robots and androids often pose in science fiction, from Karel Capek‘s “R.U.R.” to  Lester del Rey’s sentimental, romantic “Helen O’Loy,” to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, to HAL 9000 in Kubrick’s 2001, to the replicants in Blade Runner, to the lost little boy in Spielberg and Kubrick‘s underrated A. I.

Ex Machina is a familiar movie nightmare, but it‘s also a kind of sex comedy, in a kind of  Carnal Knowledge mode. Two bright young men — Caleb, the sensitive nerdy techno-guy employee and Bateman the entertainingly arrogant and self-confident  stud — form part of a triangle (in this case an inter-species triangle) with Ava — or possibly part of a quartet with Nathan’s eye-catching, quiet  housekeeper, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno).  Like Art Garfunkel’s Sandy and Jack Nicholson’s Jonathan in Carnal Knowledge, Caleb and Bateman are the mismatched buddies, one of whom is good with women — or at least good at seducing them or inventing them (Bateman), while the other is a naïve romantic who falls in love too easily (Caleb). We can guess very early, I think, that Caleb will fall for Ava, and become disaffected in some way from Nathan. What’s going on in the head of Ava, and also of Kyoko, are part of Ex Machina’s mysterious subtext.

Ex Machina takes the sort of plot premise that might be used to trigger a flood of sex scenes in a soft-core porno movie, and tries to use them instead to trigger shivers and speculation in this science fiction horror film, in which humans are seduced by sexy robots and thinly repressed violence is always poking through the sheets.  Like Spike Jonze‘s Her, it‘s partly a sex fantasy where Ava seems (at least at first), a kind of ultimate love toy, and the men are high tech playboys.  There’s even a pseudo-feminist twist, in which the erstwhile dolls may strike back.

The story is not bad, though it could have been better. It could, for example have been something closer to the shattering Blade Runner (which was adapted from Philip Dick’s marvelous “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”) or to Alfred Bester’s great android shocker “Fondly Fahrenheit.” It’s a long step down from either, though one of the best things in the movie is the way it looks. Bateman’s playhouse, thanks to production designer Mark Digby and cinematographer Rob Hardy, has the compelling layout and austere veneer of something by  Kubrick (the space ship in 2001 maybe); fit dwelling place for two brainiacs and their robot girlfriend.

The other highlight of the film — which at least is  smart entertainment — is the memorable performance of Oscar Isaac. As Bateman, Isaac charges up the movie the way the younger Nicholson and Al Pacino used to zing up their shows and electrify their audiences. Isaac, who was brilliant as the Dylanesque folk singer in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Lewyn Davies, is brilliant here too, in a different kind of role. His Davis, unlike tycoon Bateman, was an outsider and misfit and a Dave Van Ronkian exemplar of left wing urban folk balladry in the early ‘60s. (The movie, by the way, would have been better if the Coens hadn’t somewhat mysteriously downplayed the whole political angle.)

Isaac as Bateman, while just as self-centered as Davis was, is a rich success where Davis was a poor failure. He’s a cockily arrogant business guy where Davis was a somewhat nasty, egotist artist who liked to push around people, not just robots. It’s a magnetic performance in the way those early movie-stealing turns by Nicholson or Pacino or De Niro or Brando were. Bateman is both attractive and somewhat repellent and dangerous, and he dominates the movie even when he’s not around.

Domhnall Gleeson is his opposite. He’s the son of that great Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, but where his father is a consummate movie roughneck, Domhnall is sensitive and a little dreamy. Nevertheless, his part isn’t written as well as Isaac’s, so he can’t make the same kind of vivid, vigorous  impression. Even so, the younger Gleeson provides contrast, as Garfunkel did to Nicholson in Carnal Knowledge, or as Jean-Louis Trintignant’s shy passenger  did to Vittorio Gassmann’s brash driver  in Il Sorpasso (The Easy Life). A contrast not only to Bateman, but to the lithe and subtly menacing Vikander as Ava the robot.

Ava and Kyoko are played very well by Vikander and Mizuno, and it’s probably not their fault that Garland never really solves the problem of making femme fatale Ava at the same time believably mechanical and believably human — and that he keeps us guessing about which side is in the ascendant.  Is the movie sexist, as a few critics have suggested?  That’s certainly not what Garland intended. He’s as fascinated by robots/androids here as he was by the zombies in 28 Days Later, and in a way, he’s on Ava’s side, or thinks he is. But, while the movie didn’t really move me, and Ava didn’t really win me over, they certainly got to lots of other watchers, probably both male and female. Ex Machina has generated mostly wonderful reviews, and it’s drawn a larger-than-average art house/indie audience. If it didn’t exactly please me — that’s probably because it wasn’t either A. I., Blade Runner or Fondly Fahrenheit. And because Ava wasn’t a femme fatale Hal.

 

 

FURIOUS SEVEN (Three Stars)

U.S.: James Wan, 2015

Furious Seven and movies like it are, in some ways, the face of cinema today. I don’t say that with a smile on my face.

One day, in the not-too-distant future, when we’ve finally used up all our planet’s available fossil fuels, and when muscle cars, or sports cars, or cars of any kind and class, and the combustion engines themselves, are things of the past — and when the movies about those autos and their fast and furious drivers (or at least the few muscle car flicks left) survive only in museums or whatever is around then to preserve old popular media and vintage entertainment in that far off, peculiar future — then we’ll maybe look on movies like Furious Seven, with the right blend of shock and awe and nostalgia. And maybe we won’t.

Now, it’s not museums but multiplexes that are the proper arenas for the insanely over-the-top bill of car chases and collisions and mano-a-mano fights that are the modus operandi of movies like Furious Seven and all its furiously preposterous predecessors — the  latest of the fast and fiery car-crashing mega-hits filling up zillions of theaters in our own auto-erotic age: with their barmy visions of gas-powered vehicular monoliths soaring heavenward and earthward and diving off cliffs — visions that may, in the future,  seem relics and mementoes of an odd, incredible, almost unimaginable past —  in films that may seem relics of a vanished age too.

What will our descendants — who by then may be riding around in ox-carts, thanks to our own prodigal gas-guzzling centuries of waste — think of these spectacles? How will they mentally process these muscle car crash-a-thons? Will the movies seem not just ubiquitous multi-zillion-budgeted epics of speed and destruction  – drawing vast world-wide audiences in the age of Pedal-to-the-Metal, but the crazy nightmares of some long-vanished culture — some weird shit that somebody dreamed up and made out of CGI, after too many intoxicants, while centuries hence their descendants are condemned in real life to a fried planet, or to the beast and buggy stables, or the super-skateboards, or the Human Internet, or the Telekinetic Express, or whatever they then use to get around in the future, when all the oil is finally gone.

In any case, when they get a load of “Furious Seven” — and its super-powered sports cars and racing cars  driving off cliffs and bailing out of planes and crashing and taking flight through one Abu Dhabi skyscraper after another — and when they take a gander at all the other bizarre airborne car fantasies that their moviemaking ancestors dreamed up for those vehicular marvels (fantasy flying Aston Martins and Dodge Chargers and Chrysler minivans) to do in their stunt sessions, they may not believe their eyes or brains. And that’s the whole point, of course.

Maybe, in a barmy way, the future audience will secretly buy it. Maybe they’ll think that’s what cars and life were really like. Maybe that’s what they’ll think drivers really did. Maybe they’ll dream of bringing back the golden age of car-chase movies and mayhem. Nah. I’m kidding of course. But…

“Furious Seven” is the seventh of the series that began in 2001 with the Vin Diesel-Paul Walker rebel-racers crash-a-thon, “The Fast and the Furious” — and that has been getting faster and more furious, and more expensive, and more lucrative, and more ludicrous (or Ludacris) ever since. I don’t like the series all that much, and I had my problems with this one too — though it’s my favorite of all of these shows, partly because of the presence of  the new villain (Jason Statham), and of Kurt Russell as an ultra-smart-ass  government official called “Mr. Nobody,” and a bit more because of the sheer loco preposterousness of all the car-chase, car-race scenes — which are, of course, always preposterous, but not always, it seemed,  so much as they are here — and even more because of this movie’s surprisingly and genuinely moving ending: a fond farewell and tribute to Walker, who died in a car-crash in November, 2013, and becomes the subject of a heartfelt mood-shift that succeeds, smashingly..

Walker, a smiling good-looking surfer-blonde  type, has been playing the ex-undercover-cop Brian O’Conner — opposite Diesel as the dour, bald, and hard-driving outlaw racer Dominic Toretto — since the beginning, back in 2001. He died with only about half of his part here on film. And it was the unenviable assignment of new director James Wan, helmer of the hip gory horror movies Saw and The Conjuring (who took over direction from Justin Lin, who did the last four of them) to somehow disguise the fact that Walker was not physically present for many of his scenes. (He was CGIed, dubbed and replaced for some of them by other actors, including his two brothers, Caleb and Cody CGI). In any case, the fictional Brian was not intended at first to say the goodbyes that most of us will think must be coming.

How can you take a movie that was intended at the start to be an entertainingly ridiculous, an action-bromance with a few laughs and a sermon or two, and swerve it into seriousness and sadness at the end?

You take it seriously. And sadly. Furious Seven (a title Wan took from what I assume must be one of his favorite films, Akira Kurosawa’s The Magnificent Seven) has been retooled of course. It has that new heavy: Jason Statham as the scowling  sadist Deckard Shaw, a mean ex-Special Ops guy out for revenge against Dom’s team, the boys (and girls) who put his brother Owen (Luke Evans) into the hospital, before Deckard puts Owen and all his fellow patients and doctors into  the Fiery Beyond.

Not content with one massacre, Deckard starts killing off members of Dom‘s “family,” until Dom and his guys (and gals) take umbrage and are recruited by Russell’s Mr. Nobody (I’d forgotten how great Russell was as Nick Frescia, the wise acre L. A. cop with the Pat Reilly haircut in Bob Towne‘s Tequila Sunrise; here, I remembered). Their assignment: to go after Deckard and his  psycho cohort, fiendish war lord Mose Jakanda (Dimon Hounsou), in order to rescue  gorgeous ace hacker Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), who has invented a program called God‘s Eye, which can find anyone, anywhere.

Back for the ride, making up the family, in addition to Brian and Dom, are some more vets: Dom’s fierce amnesiac lady Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), and Brian’s staunch wife (and Dom’s sister) Mia (Jordana Brewster), and the comedy team of blowhard Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and tech whiz straight man Tej  (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges). And, despite being confined to a hospital and an arm-cast for most of the movie, Fast Five latecomer Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson).

The automotive antics this time include a wacko scene where the crew bail out of a plane flying over Azerbaijani and the Caucasus Mountains, soaring down without parachutes (except for the jump-shy Roman) and landing, amazingly, on a twisting road in the middle of a thick forest, after which they try to rescue Ramsey on an insanely perilous mountain way, surviving one cliff-hanger after another (including a teeter-totter tribute to The Italian Job).

There‘s another of those ridiculous chases though city streets (L. A. this time), in which in heroes (and heroines) and villains pursue and shoot at each other in a town that seems unprotected by police and every traffic law was made to be broken. Here, Dom and Deckard even stage a head-on collision, walk away unhurt and intact,  and nobody, especially the police, tries  to interfere. And, as if somebody somehow remembered the absurdity of it all, screen-writer Chris Morgan (who’s been around since The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the third in the series) has the cops finally show up, late, and the “vehicular war” exploding all over is at least mentioned on the TV news.

So this seven part saga, which began on L. A.’s mean streets, back in 2001, in director Rob Cohen‘s and writer Gary Scott Thompson’s inflation of the chickie run in James Dean’s immortal Rebel Without a Cause (a much better movie, with a tenth of the action), and has since been around the world (including the show’s itinerary of  L. A. and Azerbaijan and Abu Dhabi), gives us the flying car business as usual: unbelievable car stunts, unbelievably done, interrupted by some folderol from Roman and Tej and some bromance schmaltz from Dom and Brian and some road pulchritude  from Letty and Ashley.

But this movie tries to maintain enough gravitas to be believable when the cast and crew, and especially Diesel’s Dom salute their fallen friend. They do, believably, which says something about how you make good movies that we remember for their people as much as, or more than for the crashes and the cliffhangers.

Wilmington on Movies: The Salvation

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

THE SALVATION (Three Stars)

U.S.-Danish: Kristian Levring, 2015

The movie Western is a durable genre that has sometimes fallen on hard times. But that genre gets a powerful reworking from a couple of knowledgeable foreigners—not-so-gloomy Danes Kristian Levring (director-writer) and co-screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen—in the  Go-Eastwood-Young-Man revenge shocker The Salvation.

The reviews for this sometimes mesmerizing oddity have been mixed (mostly good). But it’s an  often terrific show, lyrical, explosive and idiosyncratic — a Danish horse opera set in the American wild old west in the post-Civil War early 1870s, shot mostly in South Africa, and starring Danish superstar Mads Mikkelsen (The Hunt, Casino Royale). Mikkelsen is good at heroes and villains and men in-between, and here he plays a persecuted hero forced to act like an outlaw: robbed of his family, brutalized by bastards, beaten, left for dead and hell-bent for revenge.

The movie reminds you of a lot of others: the Eastwood-Leone “Dollars” Trilogy, High Plains Drifter and High Noon, to name a few. But that’s not really a shortcoming. You always get the sense that Levring and Jensen are enjoying themselves, making this movie as much (or more) for love as money. The scenery, which deliberately recalls the barren desertscapes of John Ford’s Monument Valley, is overpowering and stark and gorgeous, the atmosphere tense and menacing, the characters pungently alive.

As the beleaguered protagonist Jon, traveling West with his family, Mikkelsen gives a magnetic performance. And so do Mikael Persbrandt as his stalwart brother Peter, Eva Green as Madelaine (a beautiful, scarred, mute badgirl/goodgirl), Jonathan Pryce as Keane, a weasely and corrupt mayor and undertaker, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as  Delarue, a  bad and  vicious, yet very slick, leader of a gang of psycho gunslingers — depraved killers who almost make the Clanton Gang look like Mouseketeers.

Once the bread-and-butter mainstay genre of the American film industry, the movie western has undergone an evolution since its heyday, and you can see a lot of that change in The Salvation. What was once a practically sure-fire moneymaker — from the early days of William S. Hart to the later era of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood —  has more recently become an exoticized art film market aimed at smaller, more demanding audiences of film buffs and genre devotees. That’s what happens here. It’s a Western for Western-lovers, or worshippers from afar. One man’s (or woman’s) archetype is another’s stereotype.

The story begins with the introduction — back in the 1870s — of Jon (Mikkelsen), his beautiful wife Maria (Nanna Oland  Fabricius) and their lovable young son Kresten (Take Lars Bjarke), all about to be plunged into a nightmare.  Soon after the opening shots, Marie and son are tormented and killed  by two maniacs from Delarue’s  sadistic gang (including Delarue‘s brother) — and when Jon and Peter find and kill the killers (which in this violent milieu, seems the least they can do), they immediately win the lead spot on Delarue’s shit list.

To make matters worse, the brothers discover that the local townspeople, cowed by the gang, will offer no help or refuge. (Best of the townspeople is an old woman turned hostage,  who defies the tyrant for a few moments, and then is shot down to die like a dog.) The rest of The Salvation, which details Jon’s and Peter’s battle against Delarue and his gang,  is full of scenes and lines and moments you’ve seen and heard before, but not always this well-done, or this strikingly set and shot, or  acted with such colorful intensity.

The influences are obvious:  Levring and Jensen recycle the familiar but well-loved routines of Western master John Ford (and his many followers and borrowers, notably Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway and Anthony Mann),  with their moral quests and the spectacular  arid majesty of Monument Valley — the site of Ford classics like Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Searchers. Then we get the operatic sights and sounds of spaghetti western king Sergio Leone,  with his  gunfight symphonies and revenge librettos (in the Dollars Trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West.)  Zinnemann’s High Noon  (still a classic despite Hawks’ dislike of it) is recalled for its social messages and  its suspenseful condemnation of a town too cowardly to stand up for justice. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is remembered for its gallery of peckerwoods and its virtuoso violence. Finally we get some nods to Eastwood for  his mystical/archetypal  scenarios about dastardly villains and loners triumphant — especially Unforgiven and High Plains Drifter, whose ramshackle town seems to be replicated in Levring and Jensen‘s slapped-together-looking Black Creek. There are even some side views at other genre classics like Shane, The Westerner. Johnny Guitar and Seven Men from Now.

Because of this elaborate string of references, we pretty much know what’s going to happen: Delarue will become more and more of a monster and a menace. The climactic showdown between him and Jon and whoever else is left, will assume greater and greater weight. And the townspeople of Black Creek, like the citizens of  High Noon, — from the Blacklist era, when  its blacklist victim screenwriter (Carl Foreman) wrote it — will simply stand, or hide, and watch and wait for High Noon — with its ticking clocks moving inexorably toward noon, the time of the showdown. Eventually, we  feel the loneliness and desolation that also washes over Kane and later over Mikkelsen’s Jon. And despair mixed with exhilaration is what Salvation’s filmmakers want us to feel.

I love Westerns — the good ones that is — though I’m more dubious and less forgiving about the modern  urbanized street westerns that have in large measure, replaced them. That genre has a few masterpieces — Dirty Harry and The French Connection and Bullitt among them —  but it‘s not up to its wild west predecessors. Nevertheless, The Salvation is clearly done by filmmakers who love Westerns like I do, and it’s’ one of the best post Leone, post-Eastwood neo-westerns.

Since Eastwood passed 70, and stopped acting as much, Mikkelsen may be the best actor in the world for parts like this. His simmering quietude and hurt-looking stares serve this movie well. So do the wordless reactions of that equally dangerous heroine Madelaine, played by Eva Green, and the Gorge Clooneyesque good looks and ruthless, slick  immorality of Morgan. It matters little that we’ve seen characters like these (and the others) before. Their very familiarity is a good part of what lets us enjoy them — just as the basic familiarity of much of the best Ford and Leone propels us enjoyably into those fantasies as well.

The blend of visual scenic beauty and dramatic violence (the cinematography is by Jens Schlosser), which are also integral to the Kurosawa samurai classics), was always one of the Western’s main attractions, and the modern revisionist way we now tend to look at Western American history (especially the history of the Native Americans) is part of what, perhaps understandably,  killed a lot of these movies off.  There have been some good Westerns (The Coen Brothers’ True Grit) in the past few decades, as well as some ridiculous ones (Cowboys and Aliens, Depp’s Lone Ranger). But the full-scale revival we might have liked never happened. Moviemakers can still make some good ones though, and this film and True Grit show how — though some critics will still see clichés where we’d prefer archetypes.  As for the great years of the Hollywood movie Western — of Ford, Hawks, Mann, Leone and Eastwood — I guess, in large measure, they went that-a-way.

Wilmington on Movies: Run All Night

Monday, March 16th, 2015

RUN ALL NIGHT (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Jaume Collet-Serra, 2015.

Why doesn’t Liam Neeson make movies today like Schindler’s List or Michael Collins?

In any case, Liam Neeson’s late-career blossoming as a fatherly, soulful  action star– which commenced with the genuinely absurd, if genuinely exciting melodrama Taken — continues apace with the not quite as absurd and  somewhat more exciting Run All Night   — a movie with lots of people getting killed (many of them by Neeson‘s screen character), and lots of explosions, car-chases and gunfights, raging all around and about New York City. All this carnage is sometimes skillfully done by director Jaume Collet-Serra and his gang, and sometimes movingly executed by Neeson,  an actor who gives these crash-a-thons and killfests more soulfulness, and more fatherliness,  than they really deserve.

This time out, Neeson plays Jimmy Conlon, a drunken, melancholy  and timeworn hit man, nicknamed “The Gravedigger,” whose life has fallen to pieces, and who tells us his story, while seemingly dying in the woods on Christmas Day, with his would-be killer lurking nearby. “I’ve done some terrible things in my life,“ whispers Catholic Jimmy, yearning for expiation and last rites, “Things for which I cannot be forgiven.”  But he’ll try — and his final race toward damnation and redemption begins sixteen hours earlier, after being humiliated in a bar and at a Christmas party (where he played a very bad Santa) by an awful young man named Danny Maguire (Boyd Holbrook), who was the son of his only remaining friend, ex-boyhood pal, lifelong employer , and now rich and famous (and perhaps soon to be retired) mobster Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris).

Jimmy runs afoul of Shawn, by killing his worthless but nonetheless well-loved son Danny, who unwisely tries to involve Shawn with some reckless Albanian heroin dealers (an offer Shawn, like Don Corleone, refuses). The Albanians (from whom Danny has already been paid his finder’s fee and spent it) are then unwisely massacred by the impetuous youth, who then tries to kill the limo  driver who witnessed these murders, a driver who turns out to be Jimmy’s only son, Michael (Joel Kinnaman).

Unfortunately for everybody, Danny is right in Michael’s father’s gunsight when he tries to kill Michael. And soon father Jimmy and son  (a straight arrow who hates his father‘s profession)– are being pursued by Shawn, his gang, the cops — especially the bad-tempered Detective Harding (Vincent D’Onofrio) who has been after Shawn and Jimmy for decades — Shawn’s new favored hit man Andrew Price (Common), and what seems to be half the boroughs of New York and half the mountains in Albania.

An oddity in Brad Ingelsby‘s script: It was Jimmy who killed Danny, blowing him away just as he’s about to shoot Michael. But it’s Michael whom Shawn has designated as the main victim, to be followed by Jimmy, of course, but only after Jimmy knows that his own son has been killed. Why didn’t writer Ingelsby and director Jaume Collet-Serra (who also helmed Neeson in the even more implausible Unknown and Non-Stop) simply have Michael be the one who, in self defense, killed Danny?

In any case, Jimmy, who hasn’t been much of a father up to now (Michael complains that he was always leaving guns around the house) is now the only man in New York, it seems who can keep Michael alive — pursued as he is by crooks, cops, killers and various other bad and good people with or without guns — including Bruce McGill (who once played Hemingway and also one of the Delta House boys and here is Shawn‘s consigliere) and a haggard-looking Nick Nolte (as Jimmy‘s brother), reciting a few lines for which we hope he was very well paid.

While the Spanish-born Collet-Serra covers all the action by zipping from one location to another via sped-up helicopter shots and zooms, the filmmakers liven up the night by staging a fire in a housing project (home of another potential witness, a kid named “Legs” Banks (Aubrey Joseph)) — and also a police car chase, a race through a night-drenched train yard and many, many gunfights. All this is apparently remembered by Jimmy (including of course everything he saw and also everything he didn‘t see, including what happened in the empty room where the fire started), or maybe watched by some helicopter-borne priest granting absolution to everybody fit for it, or likeliest of all, by God himself , seated at His heavenly computer, banging away at a list of all the sins, venial and mortal and otherwise, being committed in Jimmy’s last 16 hours as — this man alone finally employing his deadly talents for good instead of evil — he wends his soulful, fatherly way   the soulful, fatherly yet bloody climax we know is coming. And to Purgatory. Or wherever.

 

I must say I liked all this better than the other Collet-Serra  nightmares and the Luc Besson shoot-‘em-ups Neeson has been shooting, mostly because Jimmy Conlon and Shawn Maguire are more interesting characters than Takwn‘s Superdad. Ed Harris’s flair for wounded stares has rarely been as well-deployed.

So. Why can’t Liam make movies today like Schindler’s List or Michael Collins — movies where his heroic stature would pay off in more than car-chases and gunfights and clichés, endlessly repeated?   The basic absurdity of these stories — the notion that Neeson’s Jimmy is capable of battling it out all night with what seems a small army of bad guys —  is on nutty display here too. And as the absurdity ante is upped, and things get loonier and loonier, it’s only the actors, Nolte’s squib role  included, who keep things whipping along.

There are certainly better Irish hit man thrillers than this one — Mike Hodges’ (not very well-reviewed) A Prayer for the Dying, for example. In that movie, Mickey Rourke had the Neeson part and Neeson had a  supporting role,  and since then, a lot of blood has gone under the bridge. Run All Night, a movie derived from other movies, is entertaining enough. But we’d be better served  if this talented cast and company were expending their energies on, say, a brilliant script like F. L. Green’s for the 1947 Carol Reed I.R.A. man-on-the-run masterpiece Odd Man Out. There an immense schism between a movie like Odd Man Out and a movie like Run All Night, and unfortunately that bridge isn’t crossed often enough.

Wilmington on Movies: Fifty Shades of Grey

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY (Two Stars)
U.S.: Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2015

Based on the wildly popular bestseller by E. L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey takes what sometimes seems a teenager’s view of S&M, and turns it into erotic kitsch for so-called grownups. The movie, co-written and co-produced by James, asks us to play voyeur to a couple of good-looking bores — a virginal college literature major named Anastasia Steele (played by Dakota Johnson) and a billionaire businessman and S&M enthusiast named Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan).  They meet, they stare at each other, they get hot, they go back to his place, they meet again (and again) and Mr. Grey (after a while) starts talking up his expertise with dominants and submissives and whips and clamps and other tools of the trade. Eventually, he  shows Anastasia his secret little chamber of sin and spanking. She’s impressed. Or is she?

Are we having fun yet? Will we ever? The movie strikes me as ridiculous, yet huge audiences, predominantly (and maybe submissively) female, seem to be fascinated with it. Why? Other than lots of money  (Grey’s main asset), and faces and bods that suggest an underwear ad (her main asset and, to some extent,  his), it’s hard to see what either of them (the characters, that is) have to offer anybody, including each other. Their conversations are a snore, their erotic games are a joke, their lovemaking is sleekly and slickly photographed but passionless and bloodless. Both of them (together or separately) seemed to me about as exciting as a roomful of sedated Chihuahuas.

Mine seems a minority view, though  — among the first week’s general movie audiences, if not  among critics and reviewers, who seem generally unseduced. Despite that critical resistance,  this mega-box-office movie has been raking in the cash (at least until the word got around) — which means that the material rang somebody’s bell. Why and how, to me, remains a mystery. The love scenes are forgettable, and so are the dialogue scenes, and so are the whips and bondage items. The movie is sometimes funny, but it’s hard to tell whether the humor is partly intentional, partly unintentional, or maybe some sort of nervous reaction to the potentially spicy subject matter. James tries to make a few of the Marquis de Sade’s favorite pastimes look cool, but as far as I’m concerned the real Marquis had funnier gags.

Most of the show is a long tease about an erotic  persuasion, interspersed with glossy displays of lifestyles of the rich and famous.  It all begins to unfold like some crazy bastardization of a classic woman’s gothic novel — Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” say,  with no housekeeper and a few kinks.

Anastasia, or Ana as we’ll call her, has agreed to sub on a college paper gig ceded by her constantly smirking but unfortunately flu-ridden gal-pal Kate (Eloise Mumford). So Ana takes on the plum job of interviewing the hot young billionaire, or maybe gazillionaire, Christian Grey, played pensively by the earnestly fancy-pants young British actor Jamie Dornan — whose character  proves to have fancier pants than her wildest fantasies.

Understandably, as she enters his sky-high office, Anastasia is nervous. She even trips  She’s rattled, but Mr. Grey is cool as a cucumber. She asks revealing questions, professes her fealty to the novels of Thomas Hardy — a writer who rarely met a happy ending he liked, unless it was Under the Greenwood Tree. As they talk, the bookless Grey eyes her meaningfully.

Soon, he is popping up in stores and restaurants to follow (stalk?) her, and pick fights with seeming rivals. His ultra-confident moves (which don’t quite jibe with the actor Jamie Dornan’s more fragile appearance) suggest that he is not only kin to the Marquis de Sade but to Donald Trump, and perhaps to Donald Duck as well — or at least to Donald’s rich uncle, Scrooge McDuck, suddenly become generous. Grey starts showering Ana with riches, almost like Scrooge diving into the sea of coins in his money bin. He takes her to expensive parties, gives her an expensive car, takes her up, up and away in his private helicopter, wines and dines her (expensively), and behaves as if no expense were too expensive.  All the while, he drops little hints about how he got turned on to the wonderful world of S & M. (A friend of his mother’s, he says,  “instructed” him — not too expensively, we hope.).

If you’re a cynic, or at least a half-cynic, you might suspect James of indulging in wealthy-lover fantasies along with the movie’s well-advertised dominant-submissive sex dreams. Would Ana be willing to play Grey’s abusive games, if he were only a humble millionaire? James’ own literary idol, we should note, is Stephenie Meyer, queen of lucrative vampire fantasies — and a writer I can‘t read either.

Anyway, we see Grey trying with the persistence of a mosquito to persuade her to come into his red-walled torture chamber (or as he whimsically describes it, “my  playroom”) for  lovemaking sessions that, he explains, won’t involve emotion, tenderness, relationships, love in the conventional sense, or even a full night together in bed.  Instead, Grey seems to be trying to bribe, or even buy her. Eventually, Ms. James and her somewhat more reticent director, Sam-Taylor Johnson (who made the engaging John Lennon Liverpool bio-pic, “Nowhere Boy”)  give us the piece de iresistance: choreographed lecherous romps, whippings and lusty spankings spiced with the kind of dull sappy or smarty pants conversation you’d expect from  a lousy book you bought, against your better judgment, in an airport kiosk — thereby eating up the valuable time you might have more enjoyably spent with Tolstoy, Proust, Dickens, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, or even Elmore Leonard and P. G. Wodehouse, As for me, I haven’t read the book, and frankly, wild dominatrixes couldn’t drag me to giving it a try.

If the book is (probably) lousy, the movie is (indubitably) lousy, despite its drop-dead movie good looks — and I watched it with increasing amazement. At first, it seemed vaguely promising. In images that might have been fashioned for a Special Edition of Vogue, we get the Boy-Meets-Girl Boy-Whips-Girl scenario with the luscious Anastasia bidding virginity (of several sorts) goodbye. It’s played with good comic timing and amazing sincerity by the pretty Ms. Johnson, the granddaughter of blonde and beautiful Hitchcockian lead Tippi Hedren, and the daughter of that pulchritudinous couple Don Johnson (“Miami Vice”) and Melanie Griffith (“Body Double“). Ah, we think (maybe), this is what contemporary romantic bestseller literary movies are all about! Showing beautiful people in beautiful surroundings doing stupid things and making love for world-class cinematographers! All the while being brilliant and beautiful and awesomely rich!  And finding time to read Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen, or to say they did.

If we think the show will be enjoyably silly fun, we’re kidding ourselves. But it is pretty silly. Mr. Dornan, who looked to me like Tony Goldwyn on a slow day, reportedly insisted while negotiating his “Shades of Grey” contract, that his penis never be shown during the course of the picture — for which display of artistic integrity and penile discretion, we are all, I guess,  in his debt.

As the plot thickens, that elusive organ of Mr. Grey’s is indeed nowhere to be seen, not even in instances when its appearance might seem, at least in some measure, dramatically justified. The slim and limber Ms. Johnson, on the other hand, apparently put fewer exclusive strictures on walk-ons by what Terry Southern used to call  the furpie or the honeypot (or, as some have suggested, those of her possible body double) — which may explain why Ms. Johnson has received excellent notices from nearly everybody and Mr. Dornan got mixed ones.

To continue the culinary metaphor, no other honey pots or cucumbers — or, as D. H. Lawrence used to call them, John Thomases and Lady Janes — are visible anywhere, anytime. That may also be why the estimable supporting cast, which includes the usually excellent Marcia Gay Harden as Christian’s sophisticated mother and the equally fine Jennifer Ehle as Anastasia’s, has been largely ignored, beyond an occasional critical reminder that Ms. Ehle once played that most literate of literary heroines Elizabeth Bennett in the most highly regarded film adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice:” the BBC miniseries, with Colin Firth. As Darcy. Who kept his salami in the wrapper as well.

I mention these literary tidbits because the movie uses them too, dropping the names of Jane Austen, and Thomas Hardy, and suggesting both Ana and Grey are familiar with them  (as a lit major, Ana would naturally know them, and Dickens as well). Although, not only is there not a book (or very few) anywhere to be seen in Grey’s posh domain (which also seems to lack CD‘s and DVDs, as well as personalizing touches of any kind), but, unless I was getting woozy, there were also none, or few, in the domicile of Ana, a lit major. Has S. & M. robbed them of the desire to read? Or even to watch movies?

As you watch this and ponder, you can almost feel the movie rotting and pulping your mind into the kind of brainless pallid Twilight gumbo that too many airport bestseller novels these days, and too many of  the movies made from them,  try to sell us. So maybe you read the damned thing (Ana’s persistent motto, after all, is said to be “Holy Crap!“) and watch Ms. Taylor-Johnson’s movie, and feel like an idiot, while the people who wrote and published the book and filmed or financed the movie, chortle all the way to the bank. And maybe later in red-walled playrooms or their rough equivalents while they whip the (holy) crap out of each other.

Anyway, a confession. I have not read E. L. James’  first novel — nor the second and the third. Nor probably  will I ever dive into these comic guidebooks, unless the airport is inundated by a tidal wave and the only choice of reading matter remaining is between the Fifty Shades of Grey, a ghosted autobiography of the Koch Brothers, or a how-to book, complete with illustrations by disgraced “painter” Walter Keane, about masochistic cookery as practiced by the inmates of the Asylum at Charleston under the direction of the Marquis De Sade, assisted by  SpongeBob SquarePants.

Why? Well, far too many critics I’ve read have faint-praised the Shades of Grey screenplay of Kelly Marcel (and Ms. James and others) by pronouncing it better than the book. And, if the book is indeed worse than this, I would rather play an endless game of strip pinochle with a troupe of circus fleas and their trainers, while lolling in a pile of lint and consuming pot after pot of stale mustard. I’m sorry, but Ms. James, who has sold literally zillions of books (far more than, in her lifetime, poor plain Jane Austen ever did), and inspired a movie that drew hordes of customers, like lemmings plunging over the cliff (at least the first week), certainly doesn’t need my puny purchase of  her sterling literary endeavor to balance her already swollen bank account. Nor does this movie or its unreticent heroine and modest hero need my validation. As a great (or any way, expensive) writer once said, “Holy crap!”

Wilmington on DVDs: A Christmas Carol (1951)

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
(Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (Two Discs) (Four Stars)
U.K.: Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951 (VCI Entertainment)
Almost everyone’s favorite nominee for best of the many film adaptations of Charles Dickens‘ Yuletide classic  A Christmas Carol, is this 1951 cinematic gem — sometimes called Scrooge, sometimes called A Christmas Carol, directed by the  underrated Brian Desmond Hurst, and scripted by the equally underrated Noel Langley.
This beautifully made 1951 Christmas Carol stars the juicily eloquent and sometimes underrated comic actor Alastair Sim as the pathologically stingy Ebenezer Scrooge — the mean, miserly London businessman who considers Christmas a humbug. And Sim is supported by an excellent cast: the fantastic Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley, the touching Mervyn Johns and Hermione Baddeley as Mr. and Mrs. Bob Cratchit, George Cole as young Ebenezer, Patrick Macnee as the young Marley; Brian Worth as Scrooge’s ebullient nephew Fred, and Peter Bull (who played the Russian ambassador DeSadesky in Dr. Strangelove) as both the film‘s narrator and one of the nastier businessman in a film full of them.
In fact, Sim/Scrooge’s cold-blooded anti-poverty program (“Are there no jails? Are there no workhouses?”) suggests he might be a popular candidate in the current, more conservative fringes of the Republican Party.Why, though, is this film so well-loved — especially since it’s a story we all know, and have seen or heard or maybe even dreamed up from the gut after “an indigestible piece of meat” ourselves? For one thing, this is a “Christmas Carol” made by first-rate filmmakers who obviously loved doing it, loved both Dickens and his work. Hurst and his screenwriter, Noel Langley truly respect their source, and they capture a lot of Dickens‘ comic-dramatic-fantastic virtuosity, his unrivalled flair for character and his storytelling genius, with skill and relish.
Both these filmmakers were highly literate: Hurst closed his career with a splendid 1962 adaptation of J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, shot in Ireland, and Langley, besides supplying witty lines for the Judy Garland Wizard of Oz, wrote and directed another (more neglected) classic Dickens film, 1953’s The Pickwick Papers. starring James Hayter.  Both that Playboy and that Pickwick are undervalued, and they deserve revivals. But neither will ever be as loved as this Carol. I’ve never met any movie buff who didn’t treasure or admire this film, and I never expect to.
Scrooge, (AKA A Christmas Carol), Alastair Sim, Mervyn Johns, 1951 Premium Poster
Perhaps critics and movie lovers treasure it because they can see how deftly Hurst and Langley have resisted the obvious temptations of the material. This is the one of the most faithful of all “Christmas Carol”adaptations and also one of the least sentimental, one of the most stylishly crafted and one of the more psychologically acute. It’s beyond question a film for adults more than for children, which is almost never how “A Christmas Carol” is played.
When the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Michael Dolan) and Christmas Present (Francis De Wolff, decked out like a plum pudding) show up on a horrific, dark Christmas Eve (it’s black as pitch outside even when it should be afternoon) to escort Scrooge though his sad, frustrated past and his greedy, cheerless present, they’re almost like a team of Freudian (Jungian? Scroogian?) psychiatrists covered with mistletoe, digging into the roots of Scrooge’s neuroses and compulsions. (That’s always been the modus operandi of Scrooge’s Ghosts, never more so though than here.)
The movie is shot by the neglected near-genius cinematographer (later a prolific director), C. M. Pennington-Richards, whose other great cinematographic job was for documentarian Humphrey Jennings in Jennings’ WW2 masterpiece Fires Were Started. Pennington-Richards’ crystalline blacks and whites and his persistent angle shots often remind you irresistibly of Gregg Toland‘s deep focus marvels in Citizen Kane or the gorgeous monochromes of the ‘40s David Lean Dickens adaptations Great Expectations and Oliver Twist). A Christmas Carol looks stunning throughout, and it also has a stunning, sometimes near symphonic score by Richard Addinsell, who wrote the famous “Warsaw Concerto” for another Hurst film (Dangerous Moonlight) and who here makes great, emotion-drenching use of the poignant Christmas hymn “Silent Night” and the dark blood-chilling folk ballad “Barbara Allen.” (If Scrooge could have listened to his own sound track, he would have known immediately that his hard, cold heart didn’t stand a chance.)
A Christmas Carol, shot at the very height of the prime film noir period, looks like noir and feels like noir. (So, at the end, does that other great Christmas movie inspired by “A Christmas Carol,” Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.) And it has what are usually film noir politics: unabashedly Labor Party and New Deal (as Dickens probably would have been had he lived in our time). The acting is expert, deliciously British and delightfully (but never annoyingly) exaggerated. The good and morally decent characters, like the Cratchits, or the youthful Scrooge’s big-gearted boss, Fezziwig (Jack Warner) are mild or jovial but never saccharine. (Not even Tiny Tim, as played by the frighteningly named child actor Glyn Tearman.)
The bad characters, like Sim‘s Scrooge (giggling and sneering and casting baleful looks), Hordern as Marley (with his doleful warnings and his magnificently agonized and deranged wails) and narrator Bull (an even colder-blooded financier than Scrooge) are devilish, mean, icy, keenly melodramatic and sometimes deservedly tormented. Indeed both Sim and Hordern became so identified with the parts of Scrooge and Marley that they both repeated them as voice actors for the Oscar-winning 1971 cartoon Christmas Carol by Richard Williams.
Alastair Sim was an academic and an elocution exert; he had melancholy eyes and an evil smile and a gift for playing men who know too much and are rather annoyed at the silliness of the world. His diction was shatteringly perfect, and it’s the foundation of his comic style, along with those baleful eyes. (I’ve always thought Alec Guinness, who won Sim’s spot in the early ‘50s as Britain’s leading comic movie actor — Peter Sellers later succeeded Guinness — was sending Sim up a little as the Professor in The Ladykillers.) As Scrooge, Sim seems at first to be the smartest man in any room, even when he’s putting down and insulting good people, even in his awful cynicism and his sickening greediness.
That intelligence and some hints of humanity are among the reasons the movie affects us so deeply, especially after we see the young Scrooge, who loved good, selfless women — like his sister Fan (Carol Marsh) and his fiancée Alice (Rona Anderson) — and appreciated kind bosses, like the eventually ruined Fezziwig, but who decided that the world was itself so mean and grasping that it would screw him unless he screwed it first.
When Sim’s Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning to discover that he still has a chance, that he can still be a good human being and help instead of hurt people, he dissolves into wild capering jigs and cascades of loony giggles that are the exact opposite of the cold money-grubbing snake of a man we saw at first: the skinflint who thought Christmas and Christmas-lovers were humbugs. And this new man is, the movie is clear in telling us, the true Scrooge, who has been buried under false creeds of greed and exploitation all these years. (They were his dreams after all.) The fact that Hurst and Langley’s and Sim’s Christmas Carol so successfully avoids the usual sentimentality and the sugar plum visions and candy cane philosophy, while telling us this story that a lot of us want so much to believe, the fact that it’s so scary and smart as well as sweet, is part of what makes the 1951 Christmas Carol so powerful, and so beloved a classic.
Sim’s transcendence in this role, and the movie’s transcendence in the Dickens cinema canon, are not without irony. Lionel Barrymore, in many ways, owned the part of Scrooge for all his many years of annual radio performances of “A Christmas Carol.” (They went on through the ‘50s, and I heard them as a child.) But he missed out on MGM‘s mediocre 1938 movie version (which he might have rescued) because, in 1938, Barrymore had already suffered the inhury that confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his career. (Reginald Owen played the film part, decently but not memorably.) So it was Sim, otherwise best known for the WW2 home front thriller Green for Danger, and various darkish comedies (from The Belles of St. Trinian’s to The Ruling Class) who became the Scrooge of all Scrooges, just as the film is deservedly ranked as the Christmas Carol of all Christmas Carols.
If you‘ve never seen it on Christmas, it’s a bit like never having seen It’s a Wonderful Life or Meet Me In St. Louis. But this time the eggnog is a little spiked, the tale a little darker. And more truthful, more penetrating. It‘s amazing, in fact, how modern this story and its message, and particularly Scrooge’s philosophy, now seem. Greed? Business? Save the rich? Eat the poor? Are there no jails? Are there no workhouses? Bah, humbug!
And, lest we forget, God bless us, every one.
Extras: Both Blu-ray and DVD versions, in 4 x 3 and 16 x 9; Commentary by George Cole; English and American release trailers.

Wilmington on Movies: Foxcatcher

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

FOXCATCHERFOXCATCHER 

Three and a Half Stars

U.S.: Bennett Miller, 2014

When a movie comedian goes dramatic, the results can be devastating—as Steve Carell proves again in Foxcatcher.

Remember Alec Guinness as stiff-upper-lipped Col. Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai? Or the late, great Robin Williams as the unorthodox teacher in The Dead Poets Society? That special gift that a top comic actor usually possesses in abundance — knowing how to hit the audience’s funny bone, how to make sport of all the flaws, foibles and vulnerable humanity of their roles —  can be  invaluable when or if a movie  starts turning those laughs inside out. An expert movie comedy actor — a Chaplin, a Peter Sellers, a Takeshi Kitano, a Woody Allen, a Bill Murray, or the Steve Carell of The 40-Year Old Virgin and of  TV’s “The Office” — can  convey the dark side as well as the lighter ones, play successfully for trauma and tears as well as for laughter.

That’s what happens in director Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, a dark, mostly unfunny film in which Carell plays John du Pont of the Pennsylvania du Ponts. It’s a plum role. John was an obsessed wrestling hobbyist and Olympic sports fan, and the somewhat demented scion of the fabulously wealthy du Pont family (of Du Pont chemical industries) — a man who became intensely and dangerously entangled with two highly gifted wrestler-brothers and Olympic athletes from the Midwest, Dave and Mark Schultz (played memorably by Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum).

The Schultzes were crack athletes and top-of-the-list  wrestlers, and both of them were Olympic gold medal winners in 1984. Du Pont was not an athlete at all, though he was obviously infatuated with wrestlers and wrestling — especially the Schultz Brothers. But John fancied himself a “coach,” and he used his bountiful money to become a benefactor of the Olympics and the Schultzes, and to lure  Mark (and eventually Dave) to  his posh Pennsylvania farm, called Foxcatcher. There, in his private state-of-the-art wrestling compound and gymnasium,  he flattered the Schultz boys, wrestled with them, bossed them around, and (first Mark, then both of them) got them to move in to Foxcatcher with him — to spearhead a wrestling team and train and work out for the upcoming 1988 Seoul, South Korea Olympics, supposedly under his “tutelage.”

That’s the role that erstwhile funny man Carell is playing, and playing very well — as are Ruffalo and Tatum with their parts.  Foxcatcher, one of the most fascinating and unsettling of all sports movies, probes the psychology of these three as deftly and effectively as it reproduces the routines and regimen of wrestling itself. Miller and his actors — and his script writers (E. Max Frye and Daniel Futterman, who wrote Miller’s Capote) — get under the skins of these real-life characters, and under our skins as well.

In Moneyball, Bennett Miller showed how effectively he could make a realistic, psychologically and sociologically rich sports picture, and he showed in Capote — which won an Oscar for the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman — how good he is at charting obsessions and revealing eccentric protagonists, or in providing the right kind of arena for smart actors like Tatum, Ruffalo and Carell. All three of them, to cop a cliché, nail their parts, but du Pont is the plum role — a man so self-deceiving, so obviously in love with Mark, and so obviously shattered by his inability to control the younger, more attractive guy (or to be the father figure Mark’s older brother Dave is), that we can practically see his psyche crumbling before our eyes.

John tries. And he gets part of what he wants, almost. He flatters Mark, plays at being a coach, delivers clichéd “inspirational” speeches that seem to have been cribbed from Reader‘s Digest, and even slaps Mark around like an angry papa. By indulging in his Olympic fantasies, he’d like to break free of the domination (and the bad opinion) of his formidable, wheelchair-bound mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave, superb as usual), who detests wrestling and lavishes her own affection on the thoroughbred horses in her stables. And he does, almost. He’d also like the Schultz brothers to be his “sons,“ to be under his thumb — something that John almost accomplishes at first with Mark (who is dazzled at his first sight of Foxcatcher, and the world of wealth and privilege to which he‘s brought from scrappy, small town Wisconsin), but that he never can manage with the savvier, more self-confident Dave. Watching all this are du Pont’s loyal employees Jack (Anthony Michael Hall) and Henry Beck (Guy Boyd), and later, Dave‘s wife Nancy (Sienna Miller). All of them we suspect, can guess what’s going on, but are powerless to try to stop the approaching emotional train wreck.

Nobody (at least nobody that we see) interferes with du Pont, or tries to counsel him on the foolishness, derangement and  the destructiveness of his behavior (which includes a cocaine habit) — probably because du Pont, the princeling of the long-lived chemical and gunpowder company, has too much money and power to mess with. He’s almost impregnable. Carell, with great subtlety, paints the kinks of this spoiled rich kid and athletic wannabe, lost in his homoerotic fantasy of comrades-in-sport (and so socially awkward that his mother had to pay for his boyhood playmate), and shows how and why he can’t get what he wants — and why, when he can‘t, he cracks.

Steve Carell is a master of playing uptight, or sexually repressed, or self-deceiving characters. Here he plays a man so uptight and so repressed, and so filled with inchoate longing and twisted, tormenting sexuality that, bad as his behavior is, you almost can’t help feeling a little sorry for him. Almost. Carell plays du Pont also as a creepy rich bully, an awkward man faking athleticism, a strangely distant faker, masquerading as a fairy godfather —  with a dry gray face and a dry gray voice and a wary, infatuated stare that envelops his victims in a dry, gray, phony-fatherly embrace. As he peers up through the swamp of his self-delusion, John’s eyes have a deadpan humorless intensity that  almost makes your spine prickle. So besotted is Carell’s du Pont with his sense of entitlement and with the spurious role of sports daddy that he‘s assigned himself (unforgettably, in a slanted sports documentary, starring himself and Mark, that he commissions and watches at a crucial point),  that, toward  the climax of the movie and of the end of du Pont’s peculiar road, he seems to be disintegrating, crumbling into dry gray ash.

The film Foxcatcher sometimes has a dry, gray, sunless look about it too — even though cinematographer Greig Fraser and production designed Jess Gonchor deliberately bring in richer colors and a more sensuous palette when  Mark flies from Wisconsin to Foxcatcher. But it’s packed with thoughtful writing and good acting. Carell is excellent, and if he gets the Oscar Best Actor nomination some pundits are predicting for him, he’ll have richly deserved it. Tatum and Ruffalo are excellent too. They’ve obviously worked hard to master the wrestling moves and routines that the parts require and the air of expertise that both the Schultzes had. (The real-life Dave was inducted later in the wrestling hall of fame). They’ve also mastered their human qualities and the special relationship between them — and between both of them and their would-be mentor/tormentor.

Carell’s du Pont may be lost in his own little world, his painstakingly constructed fantasy role of the benevolent fatherly coach of Foxcatcher, but Tatum‘s Mark, with his hunky shambling gait and James Dean-ish mixed-up-kid stares,  is lost in another world too — in the fantasies of acceptance and validation that du Pont and Foxcatcher seem to be offering him. And Dave, the most level-headed and straight-thinking and sensible of the trio somehow can’t elude du  Pont either — and the edge that du Pont’s riches and social position confer, and the catastrophe awaiting them. As all three of them grapple and hug and play and fight and wrestle with each other, in Foxcatcher’s plush environs, you can almost start to sink into those multiple fantasies too. Almost.