Sunday, August 6, 2017

"An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power"


An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power is going to convince exactly zero climate-change deniers that their position is wrong, and it may convince a few people that they should become evangelists for former Vice President Al Gore's impassioned endeavors, but first and foremost, An Inconvenient Sequel should be a good movie, and the problem is it's not.

Because it's not particularly good, An Inconvenient Sequel will be even more vulnerable to attacks from the right than it would have if it had been as incendiary, bold and committed as An Inconvenient Truth, the Oscar-winning film from 2006 that became a flashpoint for awareness of global warming.

The response to An Inconvenient Truth was both alarming and sadly telling -- rather than acknowledge the detailed and convincing scientific evidence Gore presented in his elaborate PowerPoint presentation, opponents began denying the facts, leading us, well, to where we are now in the world: If you don't like the information you're getting, just flat-out deny it.  The success of An Inconvenient Truth, as well as more liberal-leaning documentaries from filmmakers like Michael Moore, resulted in a slew of cinematic responses, especially from arch-conservative Dinesh D'Souza, which took opinions and half-truths and distorted them into the form and shape of a "documentary."

So, the real challenge for An Inconvenient Sequel is to find a way to offset those quasi-documentaries and present compelling information in a way that is so incontrovertible that it can't be denied, while acknowledging the rise of conservative opinion-oriented commentaries that are presented as facts.  If An Inconvenient Truth was a small stepping stone on the way to our facts-versus-"facts" society, how would its sequel remark upon the role it played?

The answer is: It doesn't -- and it fails, sometimes stupendously, in the challenge to create a new, less partisan view of climate change, to win over the skeptics and showcase the way the earth has been changing in the last decade alone.

An Inconvenient Sequel certainly does present chilling, often downright depressing, evidence.  The scientific data along with the eyewitness video of weather-based calamities combine to sobering effect.  If the film focused on those elements, it would be a winner, a worthy follow-up to the eye-opening original.

Instead, An Inconvenient Sequel ends up being near-hagiography of Al Gore.  This is a movie made for people who see Gore as an innocent victim whose still-stunning loss of the presidency is something they'll never quite get over, who still believe we should have had eight years of President Gore and are still bitter about it.  An Inconvenient Sequel commits the tactical error of not making climate change the subject but of making Al Gore the subject.

In one galvanizing sequence, Gore visits Miami and sees the city overwhelmed by water that local politicians admit has only one source: sea-level rise.  He wades around in rubber rain boots while city officials express understandable shock at how quickly the predictions from the first film have come true.  But instead of adding to our understanding of the problem, the cause and the solution, An Inconvenient Sequel spends the next 10 minutes getting ready for a presentation, being interviewed by media, and proving how indefatigable he is.

I've no doubt that Al Gore is committed.  I've little doubt he is sincere that he does not want to be a politician anymore --though the movie more than hints that maybe he's still got it in him.  And in its most effective moments, An Inconvenient Sequel left me with little doubt about the benefits of solar energy.  (Though highly ineffective as a movie, An Inconvenient Sequel is a tremendous, and shameless, infomercial for Solar City.)

But it also left me thinking that it was all a huge wasted opportunity.  While it's interesting, and illuminating, to learn the details of the machinations behind the Paris accord, it's disconcerting that a movie theoretically 10 years in the making misses its chance to comment on climate-change deniers.  The original film was filled with scientific evidence, but this film makes no effort at all to attack the pseudo-science of skeptics.

More than a few times in An Inconvenient Sequel, Gore expresses regret that despite his efforts there is still a great deal of opposition, that despite the facts there are too many people who want to believe opinion.  Yet, An Inconvenient Sequel does far too little to undermine the deniers, much less to convert them to his way of thinking.  An Inconvenient Sequel is made for those who already believe.  That's a shame.

Viewed Aug. 5, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, July 29, 2017



You don't watch Dunkirk as much as you witness it.  There is no way Christopher Nolan's film can be called anything less than impressive.  It is a tremendous technical achievement, a film that is staggeringly well put-together.

But as a film, Dunkirk is a little like Titanic if the movie began and ended in the last reel and cut out all the stuff about Jack and Rose.  It's like Star Wars if the Death Star battle went on for two hours and did away with the plot.

In that way, Dunkirk is an apotheosis of big-budget cinema: an important, commercially successful filmmaker has convinced a studio to release a filmmaking experiment, one that does away with conventional notions of storytelling and character development in favor of editing, sound mixing and mise-en-scène.

There are recognizable actors in the film (Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance) but they aren't given the opportunity to blossom into characters.  Tom Hardy spends almost all of his screen time mumbling behind a face mask (a Batman in-joke?), while the younger cast members are interchangeable, as if Nolan intended for the audience to be confused about who's who.

Even dialogue is treated as disposable -- there are long, long scenes in Dunkirk where the characters are speaking but their words are vaguely incomprehensible.  Nolan, perhaps, wanted to extend the you-are-there gut-punch of Dunkirk to these scenes, to place the viewer into the midst of battle so fully that there's constant confusion that is not helped by only occasionally being able to hear what others are saying.

The end result is that Dunkirk is only intermittently engaging as a drama, even while it is almost always fascinating to watch as a piece of filmmaking.  As almost every article about the film makes a point of relating right up front, Dunkirk was shot on 65-millimeter film and in 65-millimeter IMAX by a director who refuses to allow cell phones on his sets, and the very fact that we know those things and they get reported explains quite a bit about the film as a whole: this is, first and foremost, a technical achievement.

Directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese built their careers upon crafting jaw-dropping sequences that defined their films -- think of the boxing scenes in Raging Bull, the shark attack in Jaws or the shower scene in Psycho.  The indelible marks of those tightly constructed moments resonated through the entire film -- and through entire careers.  Nolan takes that one step further and creates in Dunkirk a full-length sequence.  Every shot matters, every moment is impeccably constructed.

But when the whole film is "the moment," how do you know what the moment means?  Dunkirk begins and ends mid-scene, with little connective tissue.  It has a terrific construct of telling the movie from three different chronological perspectives, but that proves to be as much a technical feat as anything else.  There's really no reason to tell the story this way, except that it is a wonderful trick.

Every moment of Dunkirk is like a tightly wound gear that's ready to spring.  Even Hans Zimmer's score keeps pulsing and pulsing and pulsing but never quite reaching a crescendo: Like the movie itself, it's all just very loud.

The pity of all of that is that buried within the technological marvel of the movie is a stirring and heartbreaking story.  For all it gains in visceral impact (which is a lot), Dunkirk loses in humanity.  Leaving the audience simultaneously exhausted by its relentless intensity and perplexed by its insistence on telling its tale in ways that are neither linear nor conventional, Dunkirk fully engages -- even overwhelms -- the senses, just not the emotions.

Viewed July 29, 2017 -- Chinese Theater


Sunday, July 23, 2017

"War for the Planet of the Apes"


This is not your standard summer blockbuster, even by Planet of the Apes standards.  Fifty years after Franklin J. Schaffner's first classic, but comparatively hokey, movie comes this long, careful blend of action-thriller and neo-Western, an Apes movie that is no longer fun.

Note that I didn't say this Apes movie wasn't good -- it is, very good.  But the little jolt of amusement that has always been part of Planet of the Apes is all but gone.  This is a serious, solemn movie, with stakes about as high as they get: the fate of humanity.

Of course, the "rebooted" Planet of the Apes films have been flirting with that idea from the beginning, especially in the first movie, 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which ends with the global spread of a super-virus.  In the second film, that virus has wiped out most of the planet, and the "apes" who were the unwitting source of the disease -- you may recall that they had been exposed to a virus that was used to deliver an experimental drug that magnified their intelligence by astonishing factors -- fought against both man and themselves in a struggle to determine who would rule the world.

This time around, simian leader Caesar -- played once more with ferocious intensity by Andy Serkis -- is in hiding, under constant attack by human soldiers who want to wipe out the apes, who pose a grave existential threat to the remaining homo sapiens.  Human soldiers have become more violent, and among their ranks are "donkeys," apes who, for a multitude of reasons, fight alongside man against Caesar and his super-intelligent ape-soldiers.

War for the Planet of the Apes opens with an extraordinary battle, shot with deliberate precision by director Matt Reeves.  This is a gorgeous movie, overflowing with craftsmanship.  If Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the second film in this series, seemed more like the plot-weary CGI clash of apes and man that I always feared the series would be, War for the Planet of the Apes wisely course corrects.  The story here is about the apes, who are struggling for their own survival.  (Once again, some of them speak using sign language, and some of them, particularly Caesar, speak with a command of the English language that would impress most native speakers.  It's one of those just-get-over-it leaps of faith the film assumes won't bother you; mostly, it doesn't.)

Just as Caesar and his followers are getting ready to leave their home in the forests of Northern California for a desert to the east, they're brutally attacked by a band of solidiers led by Col. McGullough (Woody Harrelson), who has seen way too many movies about the Vietnam war.  McGullough kills Caesar's wife and son -- and the war turns personal.

It's interesting that in a movie filled with animated characters, the most cartoonish are the humans.  McGullough and his army are the movie's weakest point, and as Caesar, Maurice (an orangutan, whose expressiveness remains one of the series' high points), Luca (a gorilla) and Rocket (a chimpanzee) search for the Colonel it becomes rather astonishing just how much we care about the apes and how meaningless the humans are.

Caesar and his band stumble across two important new characters, a funny and charming chimp named Bad Ape (tremendously well-played by Steve Zahn) and a little girl who the apes name Nova, and whose inability to speak proves to be a major plot point.  Bad Ape knows the soldiers are headed north to the California border, but doesn't know exactly why, and when they arrive Caesar finds that McGullough has captured and enslaved all of Caesar's followers.

The first 90 minutes of War for the Planet of the Apes movies at a brisk pace, and its wintry, High Sierra setting proves unexpectedly alluring, as does a rich and evocative score by Michael Giacchino.  But then War for the Planet of the Apes turns into a bit of a slog as it becomes a POW movie that proves the filmmakers probably watched too many old films when designing this one.  Just as it should be reaching its high point of tension, War for the Planet of the Apes flags.  The scenes between Caesar and McGullough, while well-played, go on far too long, and the climactic conflagration comes too late.

The film's final moments recall the culmination of Battlestar Galactica, another science-fiction story about a battle between humans and a race they created, and lead more or less directly into the 1968 original -- with about 2,000 years to play with.  That means War for the Planet of the Apes may not be the last of the new Apes movies.  In a way, that's a shame.  The film wraps up the saga of Caesar, who was just a baby in the first film and here is the wisest elder of all the apes, and brings the story nicely full circle.

Despite its faults, and its rather bleak view of humans as small-minded, violent and leaning toward fascist tendencies, War for the Planet of the Apes is a good movie -- and a perfect note on which to end its story.

Viewed July 22, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, July 8, 2017

"The Little Hours"


It takes about ten minutes to read the first story of the third day of Boccaccio's The Decameron, which I know not because I was a mediocre literature major but because I Googled it and read the story after seeing The Little Hours.

A quick recap for those of you, who like me, weren't paying enough attention in school -- The Decameron is a collection of stories, and the one on which The Little Hours is based says, basically, nuns are women, and women like sex as much as men, so just because they wear habits doesn't mean nuns are any less randy than anyone else.

As far as movie ideas go, it doesn't really jump out at you, but here it is anyway, and The Little Hours is endlessly amused by putting some pretty fine comic actors in medieval religious attire and letting them have at it.

The result is a bit like a bunch of graduate students in literature got together and made their version of Smokey and the Bandit.  They think it's absolutely hilarious.  You can practically see them cracking up just before and after the cameras roll.  It's a little surprising The Little Hours doesn't have a blooper reel running over the credits, the kind where Dom De Luise takes off his toupee and Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson can't stop giggling.

The trouble is, they're not actually being nearly as funny as they think they are, and the audience isn't really in on whatever the joke is.  There's really only one big joke in The Little Hours, which is that the three nuns at the center of the story talk in modern dialect and use the F-word a lot.  A lot.  Because nothing is funnier than a nun with foul mouth.

They're also horny nuns, living in a secluded convent in Tuscany.  One day, in a convoluted story that slogs on and proves Einstein was right by making 20 minutes feel like two hours, a hot guy named Masetto (Dave Franco) shows up in their midst, and the nuns, who are played by Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie and Kate Micucci, all decide they want to have sex with him.  (Well, one of them, the goofy-eyed one played by Micucci, actually decides she wants to have sex with the other nuns.)

There could be something crazy and farcical about the movie, but it's a listless sort of slog.  The actors all seem to be doing their own thing, none of them really connects with each other, especially not John C. Reilly as a priest who helps Molly Shannon (completely wasted here) manage the convent.

Little vignettes happen, and the way they're stitched together gives the movie the feeling of having been a bunch of improvised days on the set that someone assembled into a loose semblance of a plot. The only time anything ever gets close to the level of humor that the filmmakers must have thought they were achieving is when Fred Armisen shows up as a dumbstruck bishop who can't believe the stories he hears about what goes on in the convent.  He strikes the farcical tone the rest of the movie should have hit.

The poster for The Little Hours cites a real review from The Catholic League that calls it "trash, pure trash."  If only that were true.  Trash would have been a lot of fun.  The Little Hours is mostly kind of a bore.

Viewed July 8, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

"Baby Driver"


Baby Driver crackles with the fire and energy of something new and completely unexpected, a dizzying combination of crime thriller and musical, a pairing that shouldn't work but succeeds at almost every level.

Writer-director Edgar Wright balances his film precariously on a high wire between inspiration and insanity, and keeps it beautifully tilted toward the former with an audacious mix of cinematic genres that makes Baby Driver such a shocking surprise.

Its opening sequence alone is worth savoring, a daring bank robbery set to a propulsive rock song that getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) uses to fuel his escape.  It's like watching the kind of music video they don't make anymore, but with impossible-to-believe stunts and adrenaline-pumping action.  But this isn't even the most impressive sequence in the film's first few minutes, because it gives way to a stunningly conceived, intricately choreographed title scene that shows the main character doing little more than walking down the street ... but with such dazzling moves that it belongs in a musical.

Baby is just a kid in his early 20s, but he's already got a long history that involves dead parents, a foster father (CJ Jones) and a big debt to pay off to an Atlanta criminal (Kevin Spacey) who has a penchant for daring robberies and even more daring getaways.  That's why he has turned to Baby, whose own fascination with cars is inextricably intertwined with his love of music.  He's always listening to something -- he doesn't just have playlists, he has entire iPods for different moods.  There's a reason he listens to music all the time, one that is integral to the plot of Baby Driver, but to give it away would be borderline treasonous -- this is a movie audiences are best left to discover for themselves.

As the plot thickens with an assortment of criminals -- including some really sleazy characters played by Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm and Elza Gonzalez -- Baby meets a waitress (Lily James) who senses that the boy's mysterious job as a "driver" is turning him into a bad boy when he really only wants to be good.  That's one of the most engaging conceits in Baby Driver: No matter how much Baby keeps getting pushed into a life of crime, he resists.

But he can't completely ignore the heavy-handed urgings of his less-than-savory associates, and that conflict propels the film's plot while music -- an endlessly inventive array of songs and tracks -- propel its action and its visuals.

There's a moment when Baby Driver threatens to lose what made it special and devolve into a standard crime thriller, but director Wright catches it just before it falls and pushes it back onto that high wire to find a climax that's as heart-stopping and as engaging as the rest of the movie, even when it turns to over-the-top violence that feels excessive yet entirely earned.  Its good-guy-versus-bad-guy showdown strains under its excessiveness -- it's the one bit of the film that needs scaling back -- but it never breaks.

Elgort is one of the biggest reasons why.  As the peach-fuzz-faced Baby of the title, he's the beating heart of the film, and he's dazzling in a role that's alternately showy and low-key.  Baby doesn't say much, but he almost always knows exactly what he's doing.  Elgort is charming and in command of the complex role, especially in his flirtation scenes with James as his love interest and his tender moments with Jones as a deaf-mute father figure who loves the boy desperately.

Baby Driver begins with a sly intent to excite our senses but finishes with an emotionally resonant flourish.  Everything Wright has learned from a life of loving and making movies he puts to impressive use in Baby Driver, which uses an extraordinary array of cinematic tricks to convey both plot and character.  The movie tells its story in such a breezy fashion, and makes it look so incredibly easy, that it seems a bit of a shock to get to the end of the film and find that it resonates not just on a visceral level but an emotional one.  Crime thrillers aren't generally known for having complex, meaningful characters, yet Baby Driver delivers exactly that: In Baby it finds a hero who's a real rarity in an age of instant sequels -- he's a character we'd like to see again; Baby Driver leaves you wishing you knew what happens after the credits roll.

That's a rare feat for any film, but then, few movies are as inventive, daring and downright appealing as this.

Viewed July 4, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks




Of course "trigger warnings," the controversial labels designed to let sensitive audiences know that the content they are about to read, watch or hear might upset them, are silly ideas.  Works of art, even the most commercial, are designed to elicit a reaction.  Trigger warnings strip away the wonder and joy of discovery.

But if I've ever seen any film that might make the case for a trigger warning, Okja is it.  Visually captivating and meticulously crafted, Okja manipulates emotions with a skill that borders on alarming.  In wild and weird ways, it combines tender and quiet moments of beauty and grace with vicious satire and explosive, violent anger.

In a boisterous opening scene brimming with crazed energy that director Bong Joon Ho uses in flashy ways throughout the film, Okja sets up a simple story: sometime in the future, a profit-hungry company led by loony, megalomaniacal Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) develops a way to feed the world cheaply by creating a genetically modified "super-pig."  It sends 26 of these pigs all around the world for local farmers to raise, and after a decade the company will recall them all to determine the best ways to create even more of the massive, meat-laden animals that, its scientists say, can help end hunger.

For 10 years, one of those super-pigs, a female named Okja, has lived in the mountains of South Korea, where a sweet young girl named Mija (An Seo Hyun) has raised the beast with tender love and friendship.  Like Elliott and E.T., they are inseparable, until the day Mirando's henchmen come to take the creature back to meet its fate.

The team of researchers sent to retrieve the pig includes hyperactive TV personality Dr. Johnny Wilcox, played by Jake Gyllenhaal as an ethically compromised Steve Irwin on crystal meth.  While Mija's grandfather distracts her, Wilcox and his cronies take Okja -- and when Mija finds out, she sets off on a mission to Seoul to find and rescue her friend.  During an extraordinary, hair-raising truck chase through the narrow Seoul streets and highways, in which Okja escapes, Mija meets the Animal Liberation Front, a ragtag group of radicals (led by Paul Dano) who believe the nefarious Mirando and Co. are up to no good.  

As a visual and action spectacle, Okja delivers, and Mija is a captivating heroine cut from the same cloth as a Spielbergian child hero from the 1980s.  With the help of the ALF, she discovers the grim fate that awaits Okja, and Okja the film becomes a painful, borderline unwatchable treatise against the consumption of red meat and the industry that sells us food.

This is where Okja runs into its biggest problems, as it sets up the greedy captialists and sell-outs behind the big "super-pig" experiment as cartoonish buffoons.  The stark reality of what they're doing doesn't match the silliness of their presentation.  Swinton is extraordinary as both flighty, lightweight Lucy Mirando and her no-nonsense twin Nancy; she's the kind of actress who knows how to plant nightmares in the minds of both children and adults.  But what to make of the cavalier way she throws around profanity?  The bad guys in Okja toss out F-bomb like confetti at a parade, a tonally harsh contrast to the childlike wonder of much of the film.

It turns out Okja is not at all meant for children.  When Mija and the ALF uncover what happens behind the scenes at Mirando's company, the revelation is graphic and disturbing, and once the film moves a step in that painful direction, it doesn't seem capable of stopping.  The climax is almost sadistic in the way it seems to revel in blood-soaked violence.

Yet Okja remains riveting -- despite the ways in which it taunts us to avert our eyes.  Even while I was captivated by the story, though, I had to wonder about its intentions: Is it trying to tell a grand adventure or is the goal to repulse its viewers from eating meat?  Is it meant to be a satire about the blood-stained hands of capitalists or is it meant to be a touching story about the bond of friendship?

Okja is never quite able to resolve its inconsistencies.  And yet there are elements of the film that are genuinely remarkable, including a chase sequence that is one of the few that has ever truly made me gasp.  It's a fantastically well-made film that is frequently splendid to watch.  But not everyone will be able to make it through -- certainly not children, who would seem at first glance to be one of its primary audiences, if it weren't for the profanity and the blood.

So, be warned: Okja might touch your heart deeply.  It also might just leave you nauseous.

Viewed July 3, 2017 -- Netflix

Monday, June 26, 2017

"The Big Sick"


Film titles can mean a lot.  Consider Terms of Endearment, a movie about a mother and daughter learning about each other through the ups and downs of their lives.  It's not called Cancer Daughter, which is probably for the best.  Million Dollar Baby works a lot better than The Paralyzed Boxer.

But The Big Sick puts its big second-act plot twist right there in the title for all to see, which is odd indeed because the first half of the movie -- which is a  charming culture-clash rom-com that takes a little bit of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and mixes it with Judd Apatow slacker heart -- does not even begin to hint at the "big sick" of the title.

For an hour, The Big Sick is about an ethnic protagonist who falls in love outside of his accepted mother-approved cultural boundaries.  The non-ethnic love interest, of course, doesn't really get the weird things the foreigner says and does, the restrictions placed on love by a well-meaning but non-America-conforming family.  There's even a big moment in which the romantic lead pleads with the family to understand that love does not always look the same across borders.

One of the ways The Big Sick twists that formula is by turning the protagonist into a male, a Pakistani who pursues a blond-haired American girl to the horror of his family.  These sweet and shiny elements of The Big Sick work well, even if they hold no surprises.  The mother is overbearing, the father understands the needs of the heart, there's a sibling who follows the rules.

One of the running gags in the film is how the family gathers for a weekly meal in their suburban Chicago home, exactly the kind that WASP-y Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore owned in Ordinary People, and just as they are getting to dessert the doorbell rings.  It's always a prospective suitor for the beleaguered son, who cannot bring himself to come out to his parents about his attraction toward non-Pakistanis.

This is tried-and-true stuff, and it works in The Big Sick because star Kumail Nanjiani is undeniably engaging.  Nanjiani based the film on his own life story, and wrote it with his wife Emily V. Gordon, who is the fair-skinned, blonde-haired American who shows up at a comedy club one day where Nanjiani is doing his act.  They meet, they have sex, they make plans never to see each other again -- and, naturally, they fall in love.  The movie might be based on real life, but it's got an unmistakably Hollywood gloss on it; Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan as Emily are sweet, good-looking, clever and among the most adorable people in the world.

Nanjiani's thin voice and clever (but quite safe) sense of humor is matched by Kazan's wavering temperament.  They both seem awkward in their own skin, a sense of dislocation the filmmakers were probably going for.  But their wispiness also proves to be troublesome when the movie hits the brakes and makes a sharp but not unexpected (there's that title again!) turn toward maudlin.

Emily contracts a mysterious illness, which if it weren't finally named as a rare disorder might bear some striking resemblances to Ali McGraw Disease, in which a young, pretty girl is unfairly and melodramatically struck down in her prime.  Emily ends up in the hospital just a day or so after Kumail breaks up with her.  The juxtaposition of their angry and resentful break-up provides the contrast for the rest of the film, as Kumail comes to meet Emily's anxious, demonstrative parents (played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter).

The second half of the movie becomes more about Kumail's relationship with the mother and the father.  It's good as far as drama goes, and Hunter, as always, raises the quality bar even higher.  Her presence lights up The Big Sick and provides a sense of purpose and drive that the younger actors never quite find.  If The Big Sick had focused entirely on Kumail's response to the crisis, it might have been unbearable -- the spark Nanjiani has on screen with Kazan diminishes in the film's second half, and his dramatic breakdown feels substantially less weighty on screen than perhaps it was in real life.

That doesn't mean The Big Sick isn't affecting -- it most certainly is, and has some timely and well-considered things to say (and ways to say them) about race relations and the world of white-on-brown suspicion in which we live.  The Big Sick also pulls off at least one seemingly impossible task: It offers up a joke about 9/11 that is not only painfully funny but manages not to be tasteless.  As for its its moments of mist-eyed melancholy, The Big Sick earns them fairly, even if it finds them a little harder to play and a little less satisfying than its romantic-comedy core.

Viewed June 25, 2017 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Saturday, June 3, 2017

"Wonder Woman"


Considering its title, Wonder Woman seems oddly uncomfortable with putting a female superhero front and center.  Its final title sequence, for instance, is the only place in the movie where the word "woman" appears on-screen, and even that is in relatively small print compared with a stylized "WW" that serves as the film's logo (see the poster above, which emulates what's in the movie).

Strange. To use the political buzzword, "optics" matter, so it's equally fascinating and disconcerting that throughout much of its running time, Wonder Woman (the pitch-perfect Gal Gadot) herself doesn't even seem to be the hero of her own film -- she's frequently trailing Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who joins up with a couple of other male sidekicks to defeat the male nominal villain and the male supervillain, though to be fair there's also a female villain, who is disfigured and says comparatively little.

Could I just be too touchy or politically correct about this?  Well, maybe, but Superman, Iron Man, Spider-Man and Batman all stand on their own, they don't have women explaining key plot points, helping them understand what's going on, and taking them where they need to go.  The men in those films know what to do, even though none of them (well, maybe Superman) are as naturally heroic and physically daunting as Wonder Woman.  Think about it: They all need at least full-body tights if not impenetrable body armor to do their deeds -- Wonder Woman's barely got anything on, and to me the point of that is that she's naturally extraordinary, she needs no help.

That's certainly the point of the first third of Wonder Woman, which is one of the more well-told and visually rich "origin" sequences of any of the latest wave of superhero movies.   The daughter of the Queen of the Amazons on a lush, invisible island, Diana grows up in a harmonious society that seems entirely peaceful even though its only real function seems to be to train warriors.  It's an all-female society, and the film skirts some of the more obvious questions about their everyday life while simply avoiding others.  It's campy, silly fun that winks at itself more than a little bit -- something the rest of the movie would have been well to do.

Diana's mother, Queen Hipplolyta, doesn't want her daughter to become a warrior, which frustrates the young woman until finally, the queen relents -- but only if Diana will train harder and become better than any other Amazon.  It's about that time that Steve Trevor shows up as his German WWI airplane (don't worry, he's an old-fashioned American good guy) crashes through the invisible barrier.  Long story short, he reveals to Diana that the world is engaged in war, and she vows to leave the island to help it.

Their voyage to Western civilization is the movie's best sequence, a warm, funny, tender sequence directed by Patty Jenkins in a long take that lets the actors sparkle and the writing shine, and even though it takes place at night it's the brightest spot in Wonder Woman.  The highest possible praise is that, thanks to this scene, Wonder Woman comes, for just a brief moment, close to the never-again-matched superhero heights of Richard Donner's 1978 Superman.

The scene with Diana and Steve in the boat is everything you hope Wonder Woman to be, a pause in the action suffused with personality and humanity, and the movie even follows it up with a clever and funny scene in which Diana tries on early 20th century women's clothes.  It's Gadot, particularly, who makes the movie's colorful, playful first half work so well.

But when Wonder Woman gets down to action, something disappointing happens.  The movie takes on the desaturated, downbeat look of its DC Comics predecessors -- this being 21st century moviemaking, Wonder Woman can't have its own story, it must tie in to every other DC Comics film, both in story strands and in tone.  Around the midway mark, Wonder Woman becomes like all the rest, losing its unique feel and wonderful tone, replacing Gadot with a digital equivalent who can leap and run and move in ways that defy physics.

When the CG Wonder Woman takes over, Gadot's own energy seems to flag, especially in the too-many moments where she looks into Steve Trevor's eyes and seems to lose some of her strength.  She becomes reliant on him, and though Wonder Woman does finally realize this tactical error, it does so too late in the story, and its course-correction efforts don't quite work.  No matter what justification it uses for putting the man in the traditional role of the hero, that's still exactly what Wonder Woman does.

Yes, Wonder Woman herself does some spectacular things, and ultimately has to do battle with the two baddies (played by Danny Huston and David Thewlis), but she's only half of the equation, and when she finally does save the day the end result something happens that turns the ending unexpectedly dour and disappointing, and it's something that's hard to imagine happening to her male superhero counterparts.

Maybe it's just intended to add richness and depth to the character, and that's a fair argument, but it's a little perplexing, too, not because Wonder Woman can't have feelings but because Wonder Woman finds the beating, living heart that almost every other superhero movie has been missing, then squeezes the life out of it until the film behaves like all the rest.

There will be a sequel, not just because that's in the nature of superhero stories but because studio finances dictate it, and when that happens perhaps Wonder Woman can be both a wonder and a woman -- one who, like her forebears, needs nothing more than her wristbands, her lasso, her shield and herself, certainly not a man by her side helping her through it all.

Viewed June 3, 2017 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Monday, May 29, 2017

"Alien: Covenant"


There isn't a single moment of fear or dread in Alien: Covenant, which is just one of the many ways it is barely a distant echo of the original 1979 terror-in-space movie and its 1986 teeth-jangling sequel.  There isn't even a moment of any real surprise or discovery, just a lot of visual references to those original movies and an uncomfortable continuation of a story begun in the plodding Prometheus.

Prometheus, if you forgot, and it would be easy to forget, is a film that finally answers the never-really-asked questions of how the mysterious alien spaceship from that very first film ended up on the planet.  The explanation had to do with a race of giant humanoids who wanted to create things like the gods but ended up creating the alien, or something like that.  It's not flippant to say I don't remember: I don't.  A lot has happened in five years that distracted me from keeping the plot details of a quasi-Alien prequel at the top of my mind.  Frequently, I don't make it to the grocery store without forgetting half of the things I came for, so recalling the names and functions of all the characters from a middling movie made five years ago is beyond my mental capacity.  That's what I get for being middle-aged.

If I didn't much care for Prometheus, then why see Alien: Covenant?  Maybe it's like Barack Obama said: Hope.  One look at that long, sleek black head and those dripping teeth and you think about Ripley fighting off marauding hordes of them while carrying Newt through that about-to-explode building, and you think about how scary that first Alien movie was, and you think, "I've got to give this another chance."

Or, maybe it was just social-media peer pressure, insisting I forget about Prometheus (believe me, I've tried my best) and also the Alien vs. Predator movies, which I've thankfully never seen except in snippets on some FXXXXJr. channel at 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon, and about Alien 3 (which gave us David Fincher, so it's not all bad) and also about the one with Winona Ryder.  Maybe I just got too carried away with the prospect, at long last, of another proper Alien movie directed by Ridley Scott.

Then, even before the first scene finished, most of that goodwill got jettisoned into space just like the Alien always seems to do, and by the end of the first 30 minutes the rest of it was gone, too, but I stayed on to the end, hoping and hoping and hoping something would be different.

The first scene is a joyless one, in which David (Michael Fassbender), the android from Prometheus, talks to his creator in a moment, we come to realize, that takes place many years in the past.  Then we meet the crew of the Covenant, a spaceship that is en route (for reasons never explained or even hinted at) to a distant planet to colonize it with 2,000 humans and 1,200 embryos, and apparently absolutely no training at all in science or exploration.

After the Covenant has a deep-space accident, the ship receives a static-filled distress call that -- really, as much as you may think so, I am not making any of this up to make it sound worse than it is -- the cowboy-hat-wearing Southerner named "Tennessee" instantly interprets as ... wait for it ... John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads.  What that means, of course, is that the crew decides right then and there that they've got to investigate, which maybe they might not have done so quickly if it had been a different 1970s artist.  Would Neil Diamond be so fondly remembered in 200 years?  Absent a crew member with big hair and eyeliner, would the Covenant have just floated right by a transmission emitted to the beat of a KISS song?

As any team of highly trained scientists would do, they decide they're going to scrap the mission they've all been training decades for and go ahead and just land on that new planet because, well, they're lazy.  (No, seriously, one of the crew members says something like, "Dang, we don't wanna get back in those sleep pods, we're bored already.")  So, without doing a shred of scouting, without donning any sort of protective gear -- not even the kind eighth-graders have to wear in chemistry labs -- and with absolutely no knowledge of this new planet whatsoever, they pay a visit.

Remember in the first Alien when John Hurt and Veronica Cartwright put on those amazing-looking but cumbersome spacesuits to investigate the source of the beacon?   Remember how the rest of the crew wouldn't let them in after the face-hugger burst out of that egg and latched itself to poor John Hurt?  Yeah, well, none of that happens here.  The crew of the Covenant puts on some L.L. Bean gear and starts walking around the planet they know nothing about.  One of them even -- no, I swear I am not making this up -- stops to pee and have a cigarette.

Bad stuff happens.  It gets worse when the really idiotic pilot of the landing ship decides to one of the blood-spitting, fast-dying crew members back on board, then accidentally blows up the ship when the alien bursts out of him.  So, the rest of the crew, wearing some fleece-lined corduroy outdoor jackets, is left behind.  Another one of them is infected, too, and just when you hope these really stupid people will be trapped on the planet forever, the lights will come up and the credits will roll just to be kind and save everyone from having to sit through the rest of the movie, you realize: This isn't even halfway over.

So, if you're still reading this, let me ask you a question: Have you ever heard the "brick joke," which begins with a guy building a house and realizing he has one too many bricks and throwing the last one over his shoulder, which appears to be the dumbest punchline ever, then the joke-teller tells one or two seemingly unrelated jokes, then the final one has a punchline that is something like: "The brick from the very first joke!"

Well, that's Alien: Covenant.  Because who should pop out of the middle of the wilderness but David, the humanoid robot from Prometheus and this film's prologue, who proceeds to take Alien: Covenant in a most distracting direction as he uncomfortably flirts with himself (in the guise of Walter, the Covenant's shipboard robot, also played by Fassbender) and starts spouting off some philosophies about being able to create life.  He also talks a lot about the lead character of Prometheus, and if you don't remember who that is or why she was important, Alien: Covenant isn't going to help you.

This part of the movie is a direct sequel to Prometheus, giving way, finally, to a third section that deals with the surviving crew's escape from the planet.  But at that point it had lost me.  The sheer stupidity of its main characters coupled with its inscrutable, endless references to Prometheus left me in a state that a science-fiction-horror-thriller should never leave its audience: bored.  I didn't care what happened to the crew, and I didn't care if I never see another Alien movie again.

Except Alien and Aliens.  At least we have those.  Forever.

Viewed May 29, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, May 27, 2017

"Berlin Syndrome"


Bleak, despairing, hopeless, shocking, disturbing, Berlin Syndrome is a vicious and intense film, an assault on the senses that tells an excruciating story but does it so impressively that it transcends its horror-thriller genre much in the way Hitchcock did with Psycho.

It might seem overly gracious to evoke the great director and one of his greatest accomplishments, but in Berlin Syndrome, director Cate Shortland takes a nasty little piece of storytelling and raises it to the level of serious filmmaking.  There's a lot to admire, but for many viewers there will also be a lot to abhor about Berlin Syndrome, in which Shortland walks right up to the boundary of acceptability and pushes on it as hard as she can without crossing over.

Last year, an execrable, inexcusable piece of trash called Don't Breathe tried to create a similar sense of dread but failed in every possible way, and while there's no comparison, it's worth noting how easily Berlin Syndrome could have been like that wretched, stinking piece of cinematic waste.  Almost nothing about Berlin Syndrome is, on the surface, at least, appealing, yet the final result is nerve-wracking, mind-bendingly tense and, if you can stand the brutality, very much worth seeing.

It begins with Clare, played by the astonishingly good Teresa Palmer, a dislocated, unhappy Australian tourist who wanders the streets of Berlin with the sort of detached melancholy that imbued Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.  She is neither a tourist nor an ex-patriate, she is a wanderer.  Just before leaving town, she runs into Andi (Max Riemelt), a handsome and gregarious local who charms Clare with his not-quite-perfect English and his frank assessment of the photographs she takes.

Clare, he insists, misunderstands his city by romanticizing its tortured, unhappy past.  Andi is just old enough to have known a divided Berlin and to have seen the effect that isolation and detachment had not just on the East but on the psyche of the entire population.  They have a daylong flirtation, then Clare tells Andi she's leaving town.

But she doesn't.  She finds him in a book shop, they admire Klimt's "Woman in Gold" painting, the one that was stolen away by the Nazis.  Andi takes her home.  Something doesn't feel right about it, but they sleep together anyway, and the next day Clare discovers that she can't leave Andi's apartment, which is tucked away in a desolate building.

Once-charming Andi has taken her captive, and Berlin Syndrome turns into both a vicious psychodrama and a twisted thriller.  Its script, by Shaun Grant, based on a novel by Melanie Joosten, creates two vividly conceived characters in Clare and Andi, and though we learn infinitely more about his violently unhinged persona than hers, Palmer and Riemelt are both compelling.  Rimelt's psychopathic calm produces a screen villain who genuinely belongs in the ranks of Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter.  Palmer, on the other hand, is given a difficult task: Convey Clare's shock and anguish, her psychological despair, and a troubling descent into a state of acceptance -- while never losing our sympathy.

Berlin Syndrome is the horror version of the Oscar-winning Room, and though its horror-movie leanings prevent it from being taken as seriously as that harrowing drama that doesn't diminish its effectiveness.  This is a brutal, violent movie -- though its on-screen bloodshed is limited to just two tough-to-watch scenes, the psychological torture is even more disturbing.

But it's also a film that, should you make it through to the end (and I wouldn't blame you if you didn't) is not one you'll easily forget.  Berlin Syndrome puts the audience through a similar plight as its lead character: You want to hate every moment, but as much as you try it holds you in a shocked, fascinated, terrified thrall.

Viewed May 27, 2017 -- Arclight Hollywood


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"Star Wars" at 40

Five years ago, the collective critical (and audience) raspberry that greeted John Carter led me to think about what kind of reaction the original Star Wars might have faced if it had been released today.  Somehow, this essay became the single-most read item I've posted on my blog to date -- so as Star Wars turns 40, it seemed appropriate to run it again.  

Bear in mind, the below is fully imaginary and in no way reflects my own view of Star Wars.

By the way, for anyone not well-versed in Star Wars lore, that little factoid at the end of the first paragraph is actually true.  Star Wars opened in just 32 theaters on May 25, 1977, not because it was a brilliant stroke of marketing genius, but because that's how many theaters were willing to play it.

** of *****

If robots who talk with fussy British accents, men in gorilla suits and endless laser-gun fights are your thing, then by all means give Star Wars a try, but don’t say you weren’t properly warned.  It’s a movie with such lousy buzz that even exhibitors who got advance screenings wouldn’t book it into their theaters.

To help defray undoubted losses on the reported $10 million budget – that’s twice the cost of an average movie these days – Fox finally managed to dump this bloated Saturday-matinee kiddie feature into a measly 32 screens on Memorial Day, a holiday better known for quick vacations than spending time in the dark.  At this rate, Fox will take whatever it can get, though its executives were smart enough to sell the rights away to writer-director George Lucas, who showed so much promise with the vastly superior, smarter American Graffiti.

In Star Wars, no-name actors (the biggest marquee name is Debbie Reynolds’ daughter) do their best to recite the kind of dialogue that might have already seemed dated when Buster Crabbe used it in the ‘30s.  They’re joined by some pained-looking, senior-citizen British names like Alec Guinness and, briefly, Peter Cushing, who ostensibly lend an air of credibility to the otherwise brainless goings-on, which have all been done before in Western and war movies -- for a fraction of the cost.

It’s a shame, really, because there are some nice touches, including truly groundbreaking special-effects work and a rousing score by John Williams that cribs more than a bit from Holst’s The Planets, but otherwise enlivens the ridiculously and unnecessarily convoluted plot.

See if you can keep up with me here: In another galaxy “a long time ago” (how’s that for originality?), an Imperialist government is waging a “civil war,” though exactly who is fighting who and why is never even addressed.  Note to the young director: If you’re going to use the word “war” in your title, you might do the audience the courtesy of explaining what the war is all about.

All we know for sure is the bad guys are so bad that the chief villain, the awkwardly named Darth Vader (yes, it’s that kind of a B-movie – and the hero’s last name is Skywalker), traipses around wearing black … with a cloak, no less.  He’s built a death ray that can blow up entire planets, so take that, Mr. Khruschev.  Someone has stolen the plans for the space station and hidden them inside a robot with instructions to deliver them to an old man on a planet that’s entirely made out of desert.

Meanwhile, a young boy finds the robot and gets hunted down by the bad guys while he learns about an ancient religion from an old neighbor, and together off the two go to hire a solider of fortune to help them get the robot back to where it belongs – and, of course, wouldn’t you know it, they stumble right into the path of the war, where they become unlikely heroes and save the day.  

If you’re exhausted reading that, just wait until you see Star Wars – though, given the utter lack of faith theater owners and Fox seem to have in it, it will be quite a feat if you do see it, outside of a 10 a.m. show some Saturday.  Star Wars may be just fine for the kids, but they’re not the audience that matters to Hollywood, and really Star Wars is just a small pit stop on the way to the summer’s most eagerly awaited films for grown-ups, like A Bridge Too FarThe Deep and Fox’s lavish The Other Side of Midnight.

But Star Wars is worthy of attention not only because of its exorbitant budget and what it says about the gambles involved with selecting and making films – but also because there are a few gems buried in this breathlessly paced nonsense, like the aforementioned score and the uncanny ability of Alec Guinness to speak lines like, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine” with a straight face.

Particularly uncritical children may enjoy it; for adults, it’s a loud, crashing bore, an ill-advised attempt to transfer the undeniable charms of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon into a big-screen, mega-budgeted spectacle.

Perhaps the low point of a film rife with them is the big cross between a bear and a dog, played by a man in a fur suit.  Just how unsophisticated did Lucas think his audience would be?

Star Wars will come and go quickly, so if you really want to try to make sense of its byzantine plot (communicated at the start by a visually impressive, endlessly wordy “introduction” that scrolls up the screen), you’d better check it out while you can; with such few theaters in the entire country playing it, it will have closed and moved on to smaller markets within the next couple of weeks.  Just don't say I didn't try to warn you.

Without doubt, Star Wars isn’t entirely unworthy – any movie that features American Graffiti’s Harrison Ford  shouting “yahoo!” can’t be all bad – but for those who prefer even a sprinkling of substance to their movie entertainment, this is one surround-sound "spectacle" you can skip.

Almost everything in this barely released, barely marketed mess of a movie has been done before, more cheaply and with infinitely greater charm and memorability.  For some, Star Wars may prove a decent momentary diversion (best to check your brain at the theater door) before we get on to the meat of the summer.

Lucas has said he created Star Wars as a throwback and homage to the kinds of movies he grew up with.  Sorry, Mr. Lucas, everything you’ve put up on screen has been done before – using 99.5% less money – and been done better. I liked Star Wars a lot more the first time they did it, back when it was called Buck Rogers.   

Monday, May 15, 2017

"Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2"


When the first Guardians of the Galaxy was released three years ago, the experience seemed to me something like eating at McDonald's, albeit without the cinematic equivalent of food shaming that someone who eats at McDonald's (yeah, guilty as charged) frequently experiences.

Now here's the second Guardians of the Galaxy, which does nothing at all, for better or worse, to change my first impression.  A Big Mac you eat tomorrow will taste exactly like the one you had a few months ago and exactly like the one you'll eat again at some point -- and in the same fashion Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is pretty much a replay of the first.  In the same way each hamburger comes with maybe a little bit more or less Secret Sauce, and the bun might be toasted just a little differently, there are some variations between this film and the last, but the point of both is to give you precisely the experience you paid to have.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has same pros and cons, the same good points and bad points, the same laughs and groans, the same basic overall thrust as the first.  If you're one of the Marvel faithful, you'll have a fantastic time and might find many reasons that Vol 2 is better than the first.  For those of us who are generally less than entranced by Marvel Studios films will find, rather surprisingly, that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 to be more entertaining, more enjoyable, less reliant knowing the "canon" than other Marvel movies.

That doesn't mean, though, that it's an entirely standalone film.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, like so many sequels, dispenses with any need to explain itself, its characters or its story -- you either know what you're getting into or you don't, and if you don't, the movie's not going to be of any help.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is mostly made for the legion of fans who have seen the first film over and over and over, which means that its first 20 minutes or so are just about incomprehensible to casual viewers.

And while those first moments end up being critical to following along as the story progresses, it turns out the story is much less important to enjoying the show as you might expect.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is something like the equivalent of a TV sitcom from before the days of Netflix-style "propulsive serialization," when you could turn on the show and grab a few chuckles even if you didn't entirely understand the story or the characters.

All you need to know is that this ragtag bunch of heroes argue and bicker and make a lot of pop-culture in-jokes, and that Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) kind of have a thing for each other, that big hulking Drax (Dave Bautista) and Rocket the Racoon (Bradley Cooper) are the wisecrackers, and that little Baby Groot (credited to Vin Diesel, which seems kind of strange) is adorable and vaguely dumb.

They run into a variety of people, some good, some bad, and some of dubious intention, and just like you don't ask what the story is when you stumble on to Season 4, Episode 16 of Three's Company, you don't ask it here, either.  Just go with it or don't.  Even if you try to resist, you'll find -- sorry to mix sci-fi franchses -- that it's futile.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a merry time filler, a total lark that cost a bewildering amount of money to create but that will be pleasing to those with an inclination.

Throughout, though, I wondered at what point the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" will become boring to audiences.  So far, it's shown very little sign of waning, but like the Star Wars movies is there a point at which such a tightly constructed "universe" will become repetitive and dull?  How awful it would be if every single story we were told on film -- from a black-and-white independent film to a drama with Meryl Streep to a musical extravaganza -- were required to stick within the same constraints of storytelling.  The point of filmmaking, is used to seem to me, is to be able to envision any sort of story, to find a connection with an audience by introducing them to a life or a world they didn't know existed.

That's most certainly not the case with Marvel films or with most studio "franchises" these days.  Reflexivity and self-adulation seems to be the point, the narrower and more condensed a film's point of view can be, the better -- audiences seem mostly to want what they've seen before, rather than what they haven't.

That dark and dismal thought kept entering my mind even as I was giggling at many of the jokes in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which is exactly the movie audiences wanted to see, not more and not less.

Viewed May 14, 2017 -- AMC Burbank 16


Saturday, May 13, 2017

"The Lovers"


Their house looks like all the others, and so, Mary and Michael have come to realize, do their lives.  Not that they would ever go to a party, but if they did and they were asked how they met, they might look at each other quizzically and wonder why they can't remember that detail.

But their tidy, beige home with its tidy earth-toned furniture isn't where we first meet either of them, because they try to spend as little time there as they can.  Mary is having an affair with a vaguely handsome writer, and she gets a little giddy because it's forbidden.  Michael is having an affair with a vaguely pretty ballet teacher, and he gets a little giddy because it's forbidden.

During the day, each of them escapes a drab, cubicle-bound existence to spend time with a lover. It's quite likely Mary has figured out Michael's affair, and vice-versa, but neither one of them has an inclination to say anything because of that beige house and earth-toned life.  Both of them are sure of one thing: As soon as their son comes home from college to visit, they are going to reveal their secret lives to the family and start anew.

But as they head toward this fixed-date destiny, something happens.  Affairs, it turns out, work both ways, and Mary and Michael start to realize that they can cheat on their secret lovers with ... each other.  And they can like it.  Their own marriage becomes something vaguely dangerous, something mildly passionate.

The Lovers is a small movie about small lives, but treats the predicament of a frumpy, sedate middle-aged couple with respect, humor and a rather stunning amount of style.  Director Azael Jacobs has that sharp-edged independent spirit, but brings a dark, shimmering hue to the film, both visually and audibly, through a lush and striking score by Mandy Hoffman, which provides a rich, flowing counterpart to the stillness of the movie and its characters -- they may be stuck in their lives, but the film's grand music takes them soaring in a way their own hearts can't express.

It's an odd film, not for all tastes, with a strange pace that is as morose as Mary and Michael to begin with, but builds and builds into a third act that brings an unexpected emotional suspense along with an ending that proves to be a clever surprise.

As Mary, Debra Winger makes a welcome return to the big screen in a rare kind of role -- not at all glamorous but hinting at a secret aspiration to passion, a return to the kind of life she hoped for but never got.  Winger finds a delicate middle-ground for Mary that's somewhere between exhaustion and optimism.

Tracy Letts, best known as the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of August: Osage County, is Michael, Mary's fair-haired, big-bellied and droopy husband who is as surprised as she is that he's still stuck in the cubicle, still paying the mortgage, still coasting along.  He seems more drab as a character until a third-act revelation that thoroughly reframes his character -- and hers, too.

He drops the minor bombshell on the girlfriend of his visiting son, who imagines, rightly, that his father is a philanderer but has never considered his mother as anything but the put-upon spouse.   Tyler Ross is angst-ridden and angry as the son, and he's fine, as is Jessica Sula as his curious girlfriend.  The only real trouble spot among the actors is Melora Walters as Michael's fidgety, anxious, emotionally frail girlfriend.  If it's easy to see why Mary might have fallen for her more soulful writer (Aiden Gillen), it's downright impossible to know what Michael sees in a woman who comes across as emotionally needy and vindictive.

Yet maybe that's the point.  Maybe we can't possibly know what they could see in other people, much less in each other -- because, The Lovers discovers, they don't really know themselves.  The Lovers is a clever reminder that Tolstoy was only half right: Yes, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but Mary and Michael make you wonder: Is any family, or any couple, really ever completely happy?  Isn't marriage mostly a struggle to make it through the difficult moments and find a way toward a kind of self-centered form of happiness?

The path toward that sort of happiness twists and turns in unusual ways. The lovers in The Lovers do their best to navigate it, difficult and hazardous as it may be.

Viewed May 13, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, April 22, 2017

"Beauty and the Beast"


Any commentary that I -- or anyone -- could offer up about Disney Beauty and the Beast, as the poster calls it, is rendered entirely irrelevant by the film's $1 billion box-office take, $463 million of which (so far) has come from the United States.

In less than six weeks, Disney Beauty and the Beast has become the 10th highest-grossing film of all time at the U.S. box office, which is precisely the result Disney, the company and the brand, had in mind.  Disney Beauty and the Beast is a marvelous wonder of brand management.

Whether it's any good is completely beside the point, but, in fact, it's neither as awful as it might have been nor anywhere near as good as it could have been.  Back in the late 1970s, there was a musical act called "Beatlemania," which billed itself with the phrase: "Not the Beatles, but an incredible simulation."  That about sums up Disney Beauty and the Beast, particularly for anyone with fond memories of Disney's animated 1991 original, which is just about anyone who will see this version.

Watching it is akin to watching a very expensive cover band: It's amusing and reminds you of what you loved about the real thing, but it's impossible to say if it's good or bad.  That's not the reason it exists.

The biggest difference between Disney Beauty and the Beast and Disney's first Beauty and the Beast is that the animated version version runs about 45 minutes shorter, and is frankly all the better for it.  The original's screenplay by Linda Woolverton is a miracle of economical storytelling, wasting not a single minute even when it pauses for songs.

The live-action version pads the core story with an elaborate history for the Beast, an even more elaborate and detailed backstory for Belle, and a lot of digressions, plus several new songs that bring the movie to a screeching halt.  They miss the wittiness, melancholy and insight of the original songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, and one of them a song Belle sings about her mother's death from the Black Plague is barely more than a few lines of sung dialogue.  It's not entirely clear why the filmmakers felt that a side story about the Black Plague would be a good addition to Beauty and the Beast, but there it is.

Nor does it make a lot of sense, except from the standpoint of campaigning for an Oscar at the end of the year, that the additional songs aren't the weak-but-better additions from the Broadway show, though underscore music from those numbers plays frequently.

The production design is overstuffed with rococo frills and gilding, a little of which goes a very long way, especially when it comes to the look of the enchanted creatures like Cogsworth the Clock and Lumiere the Candlestick, whose facial features are hard to recognize and even harder to love.  Veteran actors like Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth) and even, fleetingly, Stanley Tucci as a piano-player-turned-piano make precious little impression.

So, that's the bad stuff, along with the Disney versions' ever-problematic timeline (at one point in this version, it appears the Beast's castle is about a two-minute horse ride from Belle's village.)  The middling stuff mostly revolves around Emma Watson as Belle, who seems too modern and self-aware as a character and too stiff and self-conscious as an actress.  Despite her years growing up on the set of Harry Potter movies, she doesn't seem to have quite mastered the fine art of looking at things that aren't there, so her gaze is mostly fixed in the middle distance, never focused on any one thing in particular.

The movie overuses digital effects to the point of distraction, making the same mistake that so many science-fiction and action films make: It does things because it can, not because it should.  Far too many characters, moments and scenes look entirely artificial.  On top of that, much of the movie is set at night, with a climactic battle bereft of color and more dimly lit than comfortable.

But then there's the good stuff, and there's more of it than I expected, beginning with two strong male performances -- no small irony in a movie primarily produced for young girls.  Luke Evans makes a great Gaston, and if he's mostly, like the rest of the cast, emulating the original animation, he does it with great flair and humor, playing down the physical and playing up the vain.  Likewise, Stevens is convincing and touching as the Beast.  Even though much of the Beast's physical presence seems digitally enhanced or even created, Stevens imbues the Beast a genuine warmth and depth.

But finally, and just when everything seemed hopeless, the film blooms to life for its final moments, and can't be dulled even by the dark-to-the-point-of-squinting battle-scene climax and the weirdly unfunny physical humor with the enchanted objects.  Disney Beauty and the Beast nails its final moments with pitch-perfect charm in a ballroom sequence that is one of the rare moments when the live-action version outdoes the animated one.  It's a great scene, one that sends the audience out on a sugar-and-magic-induced high.

Despite its admittedly wonderful final moments, Disney Beauty and the Beast isn't Disney's Beauty and the Beast, but it is quite a simulation.  "Incredible" is an entirely subjective word.

Viewed April 22, 2017 -- AMC Burbank