Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Wilson (2017) * * *

Wilson Movie Review

Directed by:  Craig Johnson

Starring:  Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Cheryl Hines, Isabella Amara, Judy Greer

I don't know what to make of Wilson's title character, played by Woody Harrelson, who to his credit manages to evoke sympathy for a person who is frankly all over the map.    In one scene is a pushy codger with clearly no respect for other people's privacy and boundaries.    In another, he is a sentimental lonely guy just looking for love.     The movie doesn't successfully reconcile who Wilson is, but that doesn't make the movie bad.     Wilson is all elbows until he (and the movie) isn't anymore, but it keeps us watching keenly, so it must be doing something right.

(Disclaimer:  Wilson is not in any way related to the volleyball in Cast Away).    Instead, he is a lonely middle-aged Minnesotan who lives in an apartment above a karate studio.    There are piles of books everywhere.    A maid would want hazard pay to clean Wilson's place.    He spends his days walking his dog and sitting at stranger's tables at a corner café when other tables are vacant.     Wilson is looking for a human connection, I guess, but he clearly does not see he is being inappropriate.    I was thinking I was going to be in for a long movie, but Wilson soon curtails this desperate behavior after coming into contact with his former flame Pippi (Dern), a recovering drug addict trying to eke out a living as a waitress.

Pippi informs Wilson that she gave birth to his child (which he thought was aborted) 17 years ago and gave her up for adoption.    Wilson and Pippi track the girl down, who lives with affluent parents in a Minnesota suburb.     Her name is Claire (Amara), who is bullied for being overweight and has adopted a gothic look almost by default.     Wilson and Pippi soon reconnect with her, much to Wilson's joy and Pippi's more muted pleasure.     Claire kind of, sort of takes to Wilson and soon they go places as a "family".   

I won't give away what happens to Wilson, Pippi, and Claire, except to say their visit to Pippi's snooty sister's home for a weekend ends very, very badly.    Wilson throughout maintains a peppy, if uneven tone, even though its characters are clearly sad cases.     The only character who can even begin to experience happiness is Shelly (Greer), a professional dog walker who takes Wilson in much like she would a stray.    Dealing with Wilson daily may be a cure for that happiness.

The tall, thin Dern remains one of the most intriguing actresses around.     Her Pippi is ambivalent about having Wilson suddenly back in her life.     She wears this ambivalence on her face in ever-changing expressions ranging from puzzlement to wonderment.    There are moments in which she may actually allow herself to be happy, except she seems to know disaster lurks around the corner if you hang with Wilson long enough.    

Wilson is not a movie that understands what it wants us to feel about Wilson.    It gambles on Harrelson's charm to carry us into places we wouldn't normally follow, and it succeeds mostly.    The ending turns sentimental on a dime and represents a swerve in direction, but oddly we find ourselves happy for Wilson, who found a way to stumble onto contentment for the first time in his life.     Maybe now he will stop sitting next to strangers on trains and bombarding them with questions.  


Monday, March 27, 2017

CHIPS (2017) * *

CHiPS Movie Review

Directed by:  Dax Shepard

Starring:  Dax Shepard, Michael Pena, Vincent D'Onofrio, Kristen Bell, Jessica McNamee, Adam Brody, Maya Rudolph, Rosa Salazar

CHIPS is yet another adaptation of a 1970s TV show.    I'm eagerly awaiting WKRP in Cincinnati, but it isn't in the works to my knowledge.     These movies are hit and miss.    When they hit, like with Starsky & Hutch (2004), they create comedy gold.    When they miss, like CHIPS, they scatter a few chuckles, but ultimately fade from memory about ten minutes after leaving the theater.

Written and directed by Dax Shepard, who also plays one of the two leads, CHIPS is content with eventually taking the low road and ratcheting up the gross-out humor.     The humor, even by gross-out standards, is gruesome.     One character has three fingers shot off and the other evades a hail of gunfire to retrieve them.    Another scene fulfills the quota of homoerotic humor present in many comedies these days, in which Ponch's (Pena) mouth accidentally comes into contact with Jon's (Shepard) genitals.     I won't explain how this comes to pass, but it is contrived to say the least.

The plot itself is a flimsy excuse to showcase unexciting chases, explosions, and gunplay.    Many of the up-close shots of the motorcycle riders are shot in something similar to Queasi-Cam.     This is a distracting style choice.     I felt like I was watching a Jackass episode at times.     CHIPS also wastes Shepard and Pena, leaving them to lean heavily on their likability to carry the day.    It nearly does in some spots.     We feel sympathy for Jon, a former pro motorcyclist who has had 23 surgeries for various cycling injuries.    He joins the California Highway Patrol in hopes of winning back the love and respect of his cold, estranged wife (Bell), who makes Jon stay in the guest house while she openly carries on a relationship with another guy.     Jon is a wreck physically and not entirely bright, but is allowed to join the force on a probationary basis.

Pena is Ponch, an FBI agent assigned undercover to the patrol to smoke out corrupt cops who run a drug smuggling operation.     The rogue unit is led by Ray (D'Onofrio), whose own son is addicted to heroin, which lends a certain gravitas to the proceedings.     It is too bad the movie doesn't choose to flesh out this duality and instead keeps making jokes about Ponch's sex addiction.   Is it just easier to default to crude humor than it is to create funny situations out of characters?    CHIPS believes yes and it suffers because of this choice.  

It is a pity because the movie has an energetic first half, while the second half bogs itself down and goes on autopilot.     The movie follows the formula of new partners' initial dislike, followed by a truce, and then becoming friends (only after a fight which nearly ends their friendship just as it's getting started).     Like mostly everything else in CHIPS, this is done by rote also. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Old Fashioned (2015) * 1/2

Old Fashioned Movie Review

Directed by:  Rik Swartzwelder

Starring:  Elizabeth Anne Roberts, Rik Swartzwelder, Lejon Woods, Tyler Hollinger, Dorothy Silver

Amber (Roberts) deserves better than to be in any sort of relationship with Clay (Swartzwelder), a hostile, monosyllabic dullard who was once that college frat guy who videotaped drunk girls and seduced them.     We see tame flashbacks of the former Clay, who apparently could have been the next Joe Francis (of Girls Gone Wild infamy) had he not decided to reject this life and settle in rural Ohio to run an antique shop.    An understandable choice for Clay, who found Jesus, or in his words to Amber:  "He found me,"    One problem with Clay is that words exit his lips so reluctantly you would think he is being charged by each syllable uttered.    He is maddening.  

Old Fashioned is both the name of Clay's antique shop and a taut description of his views on dating.    Actually, old fashioned isn't even an apt description of those views.    They are frankly unrealistic in any era.    Amber comes into Clay's life after she runs low on gas driving through town and decides to set up shop there.    This is by design, as it turns out.    She was once in a loveless marriage when she was younger and now stays in places long enough to fill up a jar with gas money so she can move on to the next town,    She rents an apartment from Clay above his shop and finds it peculiar that he won't enter the place; preferring to stand outside the screen door.     She asks him why.   He says he doesn't want to be in a room with any woman who isn't his wife.   Fair enough, although Clay isn't married.    This intrigues Amber instead of causing a giant red flag to pop up in her pretty little head.   Especially when she has Clay come by to repair the stove and she is forced to stand outside in the cold covered by a blanket.   Swell guy.    Amber sabotages various other appliances just to see him again when he comes to repair them.    She is a glutton for punishment.

To the movie's credit, other people actually see that this behavior is odd.    I understand it is based on Clay's spiritual beliefs and he is entitled to them.    I feel he is serving an extreme penance for his past and not allowing himself to be alone with a woman in a room is his version of a cold shower.   If he wants to put himself through this misery, who am I to condemn him for it?    At least he isn't whipping himself like the homicidal monk in The DaVinci Code.  

Amber is forced to conform to Clay a lot more than she should have to just to get a date.    Clay doesn't believe in kissing either until he is married.     It is possible to kiss your date or girlfriend on the lips and still be a good Christian, no?    No one else in the movie kisses anyone else on the lips either.    Clay's views aren't old fashioned or even romantic.   They are an example of Clay's extreme personality.    He once was a lecherous Lothario and now his moral pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that I couldn't accept it.     Surely there are other single men in town which are far less work.  

But wide-eyed, expressive Amber finds herself falling for Clay, whose idea of a date is to have them visit a spiritual adviser and testing her compatibility with him by reading questions from a book.    If poor Amber gives the wrong answer, will Clay dump her?   All of this pressure for so little reward.   I think of the Kinks' Come Dancing, in which the lyric goes, "He'd end up blowing all his wages for the week.   All for a cuddle and a peck on the cheek."  

Old Fashioned is a scenic, well photographed film with plenty of enticing, quiet rural scenery.   But writer-director Swartzwelder should have found someone else to play the male lead.    He and Roberts have zero chemistry.    Swartzwelder is a man of few words and even fewer expressions.     He either glares, looks stone-faced, or occasionally smiles with a half-grin as if there is no more where that came from.    Roberts is far more enjoyable to watch than Swartzwelder.    She invests Amber with at least some personality and depth, while Clay remains a guy whose sullen body language suggests what a burden all of this falling in love stuff is.   He will eventually fall for her, but he fights it while kicking and screaming every step of the way.

Clay has a friend named Dave (Jones), who lives with his longtime girlfriend and their child.    His other friend is Brad (Hollinger), who is a radio shock jock who rants about his love life in misogynistic ways for all to hear.    The odd thing is, whenever someone turns on the radio, no matter what time of day it is, Brad's show is being broadcast.    Do they run repeats constantly on that station?     And nobody seems to own a cell phone, although to be fair it is possible the movie takes place in the 80's or early '90's.   

The movie moves slowly, staving off the inevitable conclusion as long as possible.     Romances are sometimes by definition a cliche and predictable.    In some cases, this is part of the charm.     Old Fashioned attempts to paint a faith-based viewpoint onto romance.     This isn't an unworthy idea.     The movie will likely be enjoyed by its target audience.   But my argument with faith-based movies remains the same:   Why not make a film which wholly seeks to include other potential audiences instead of simply trying to preach to the converted?     Wouldn't even the target audience think it is a little odd that Clay signed his last name to a love letter?    

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Before I Fall (2017) * * 1/2

Before I Fall Movie Review

Directed by:  Ry Russo Young

Starring:  Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage, Elena Kampouris, Logan Miller, Jennifer Beals

Before I Fall is dead serious, young adult version of Groundhog Day.  This sounds like an odd fit, but most of the movie works.     Most of it.    The finale soured me.    The heroine may have righted things for herself in some metaphysical way, but I'm not so sure she didn't damage the girl she was trying to help worse.     The actions of the heroine are so extreme that we reject it.    And the poor girl she was supposed to save may now have to live with guilt on top of her other problems.    You will see what I mean.

Here is what leads up to the ending:   A popular high school girl named Samantha (Deutch) wakes up on February 12 to a lovey-dovey text from her boyfriend and proceeds to go about her day in customary fashion.     She barely acknowledges her parents and younger sister on the way out the door and her best friend Lindsay (Halston) drives her and two other popular girls to school.      This is to be a big day in Samantha's life.     She intends to lose her virginity to her boyfriend, who can't even be bothered to sit with her at lunch, while fending off the obvious affections of Kent (Miller) who loved her since grade school.    

The popular girls make life miserable for a plain Jane outsider named Juliet (Kampouris) with public shaming and name calling.     Well, Lindsay, the de facto leader of the clique, does most of the shaming for reasons made clear later.    The rest follow along, even though Samantha's heart may not exactly be into hurting Juliet.    At a party later that night, Juliet unexpectedly shows up and is promptly humiliated by the girls.     During the ride home, the girls are in a horrific roll-over accident.    Samantha then wakes up in her bed on February 12 again, awoken by the same text from her boyfriend and the same song.    She is convinced she had a bad dream, until she soon understands she is reliving February 12 all over again, while everyone else isn't.    

No one in Before I Fall has apparently seen or heard of Groundhog Day.    I was able to even put aside the plot similarities, including the fact that both Groundhog Day and Before I Fall has their respective protagonists reliving a February day.    Why February?    Is there a cosmic reason for this?    Before I Fall is based on a novel, so maybe the novel's writer has some insight which I'm not aware of, nor do I necessarily care to find out.     In order to allow the film to move forward, the viewer has to put Groundhog Day out of his mind.     I did and I was able to reasonably enjoy the movie.   Of course Before I Fall is preposterous by nature, but the suspension of disbelief is no more than watching other films in which the time/space continuum is broken. 

Deutch is a fresh-faced actress who provides us with a sympathetic Samantha.    We begin to understand that reliving the same day for Samantha represents a cosmic penance for failing to be her better self.     She fell into the role of follower to Lindsay and would rather be part of a popular clique for the wrong reasons than alone for the right ones.    The universe is punishing her for this, while in Groundhog Day, Bill Murray's Phil underwent the same fate because he was such a prick to everybody.    I'm reminded of Woody Allen's lament about the possibility of reliving your life as penance in the afterlife: "Great, that means I'm going to have to sit through the Ice Capades again."

As the day repeats itself, Samantha's feelings towards her dilemma are similar to five stages of grief.     Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression, and then Acceptance.    She learns the truth about Lindsay, Juliet, Kent, etc. and soon understands her fate is linked to Juliet, the bullied girl.     Up until then, I was intrigued by Before I Fall, but then it steps wrong.    The resolution does Juliet no favors, while it gets Samantha off the hook and I suppose we are supposed to be happy for her.     Although I don't see how we can be.    Again, you'll see what I mean.    I hate to sound so vague.     Besides not hearing of Groundhog Day, Samantha has obviously never heard of Yogi Berra either.     It would be priceless for her to say, "I think I'm experiencing deja vu all over again,"  


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Bride Wars (2009) * *

Directed by:  Gary Winick
Starring:  Kate Hudson, Anne Hathaway, Steve Howey, Chris Pratt, Candice Bergen, Kristen Johnston, John Pankow
What did we really expect from Bride Wars anyway?    We know the story arc:   Lifelong friends turn into spiteful, vengeful enemies when each books her respective wedding on the same day.    They do nasty, mean things to each other in order to undermine the upcoming nuptials, only to reconcile at the eleventh hour with a forced happy ending.    The girls seemingly have amnesia and forget all about the horrible pranks they perpetrated on each other in the previous weeks. 
I'm not saying such comedies can't work.    Sometimes a little nastiness and poor taste can be funny, but Bride Wars is content on following its formula and amusing itself as the girls mess up each other's hair and tans.    Its two leads are enormously appealing:  Anne Hathaway is an Oscar winner, while Kate Hudson was an Oscar nominee for Almost Famous in what seems like a lifetime ago.    I'm not sure she has been in a good movie since.    
A little background:   Hathaway and Hudson play Emma and Liv, who are lifelong friends engaged at the same time.    They both dream of holding their weddings in June at the Plaza in New York.    They visit the Plaza's wedding coordinator (Bergen), who erroneously books their weddings at the same time on the same day, so they are not able to act as each other's maid (or matron) of-honor.    Neither woman wants to postpone her wedding, so it's on.    The fact that they go from friends to bitter enemies over this makes me wonder how strong their friendship was to begin with.
Emma sends Liv chocolates which she can't stop eating, thus causing her to gain five pounds and screw up how well she fits into her Vera Wang wedding dress.    "You don't have Vera Wang altered to fit you.   You alter yourself to fit Vera Wang," Liv tells her hapless fiancé (Howey), who people may know as Kevin from Shameless.     Emma's fiancée (Pratt)  is equally hapless, wondering what happened to the Emma he fell in love with years ago.    The grooms don't seem to have lives of their own or opinions.    They don't even seem to care about the whole booking error thing, so they stand idly by and watch the girls make each other miserable.
Liv gains revenge on Emma by messing with her spray tan settings which causes Emma to walk around looking like one of Willy Wonka's oompa loompas.     In 2009, this might have been slightly amusing.    Fast forward to 2016 and orange skin doesn't cause anyone to look twice.    Donald Trump conducted his whole Presidential campaign with this bizarre orange hue to his skin and no one flinched.     Emma messes with Liv's hair appointment to make her hair blue.    It doesn't much matter if anyone is keeping score.    The plot will neatly rectify itself and all is forgotten and forgiven in the final act.   
Bride Wars isn't going to win any points for originality.    That doesn't mean it has to be so preordained.     It isn't challenging or inspiring, but is more of a lark for all involved.     Gary Winick directed the intelligent, touching Jennifer Garner comedy 13 Going on 30 in 2004.    He took a formula and cared enough to stretch it so we can actually care about it.    In Bride Wars, he doesn't stretch much and the results are just too pat for us to think about it once the ending credits roll.  

Monday, March 20, 2017

Captain Fantastic (2016) * 1/2

Captain Fantastic Movie Review

Directed by:  Matt Ross

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Ann Dowd, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Annalise Basso, Trin Miller, Steve Zahn, Kathryn Hahn, Charlie Shotwell

No, Captain Fantastic is not another movie from the oversaturated Marvel Universe.    If I were to assign a nickname to Ben Cash, the patriarch of this film, it would more like Super Smug or Captain Pretentious.    Or just plain Boring Jerk.     Ben lives with his six children in the Pacific Northwest woods and way, way off the grid.    They don't live in a house in the woods, but small tents.    They kill wildlife for food and the oldest child Bodevan (MacKay) apparently completed a rite of passage by slicing a deer's throat.    His reward?    His father rubs blood on his face and utters something about a boy becoming a man.    This is the film's opening scene and I felt icky and uncomfortable with the Cash family already.    While eating all natural foods and promoting reading isn't a bad thing, I think having the kids fight each other in order to promote self-defense might be.    Especially when one of the kids is stabbed, which elicits a "Defend yourself better" response from Ben.    Swell guy.    

The Cash clan only becomes more insufferable as the movie wears on.    Did I mention the film takes place in the present day and not in the 1800s when living off the land was more of a necessity?    In a world with amazing technological advancements, the Cash's smugly reject such things in favor of "sticking it to the man" and reading philosophy thrust upon them by the old man.    Make no mistake.    Ben is not a guy who promotes free thinking and healthy arguments among his family.    He is more of a dictator.    When one of his children expresses his opinion that the family should celebrate Christmas instead of "Noam Chomsky Day", Ben invites the boy to make an argument, but you can tell by the rest of the family's body language that they were all ready to verbally pounce on the outnumbered child.    Who is Noam Chomsky?    He is the famed writer and philosopher who espouses about...wait, I may need to revisit his Wikipedia page to recall exactly what he wrote about.   In Captain Fantastic, he is the patron saint of this family.    They celebrate his birthday with gifts and a cake.   Give me a break.

The movie takes the stance that Ben is doing right by his family, while the kids' extended family such as uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents represent greed and commercialism because they play video games and live on golf courses.     As the film opens, Ben's wife Leslie is institutionalized for manic depression and eventually kills herself, which leads to absolutely no emotional reaction whatsoever from Ben.    He tells his children bluntly, "She finally did it."   Sweet guy.    Leslie's will expresses her desire to be cremated and have her remains flushed down a public toilet.    Her father (Langella) opts for a traditional funeral.     So, Ben gathers up his kids in the family bus and travels to New Mexico to hijack the body so it could be disposed of according to Leslie's wishes.     The icky meter just jumped into the red. 

Ben's brother and sister-in-law (Hahn and Zahn) feel, not unseasonably,  Ben's way of life is borderline abusive to his children.     Ben's retort is to have his youngest daughter explain the Bill of Rights to them.    Their points are valid, however, because in a scene in which Bodevan finds himself in the company of a girl he likes, he has no idea how to act on his feelings in a healthy way.    Bodevan goes behind his father's back to apply to top schools and is accepted to all of them.    He laments to the old man that he is not able to function in the real world.     "If it isn't in a book, I don't know anything about it," he tells Ben, who is upset over his son lying to him.    

One of the many disturbing scenes (and there are many in this film) involves Ben faking a heart attack in a supermarket so his kids can shoplift unabated.    This is a plan this group has executed before apparently.     He justifies this as a healthy expression of grief, but he is actually prepping them to be criminals.     The movie never reconciles these dualities in Ben.    Mortensen received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role here.    I suppose he is to be commended for tackling such a role.    It is a case in which I need to separate the character from the performance.    The character is unlikable, while Mortensen plays the role convincingly.    I have more of a problem with how the character was written and how the movie sees him than I did with Mortensen's acting.     I admired the performances here, especially Langella, Hahn, and Zahn as grieving family members who have to reconcile their feelings for their loved one while dealing with Ben's inappropriate actions.    The father wants custody of the grandchildren.    I can't say I blame him.    He isn't being unreasonable.    He simply cares about the welfare of his grandchildren.     

Ben eventually sees the error of his ways...sort of.    But then the movie lets him off the hook anyway.    The final scene made me cringe because Ben actually sighs in discontent even though things seem to work out ok for him.     He doesn't deserve to have a happy ending, but he does anyhow and he still isn't happy.    The scene in which Leslie's body is dug up and then cremated while the family sings an acoustic version of  "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses is among the creepiest scenes I've ever witnessed.     Living in a house instead of on the forest floor is not selling out or giving into to crass conformity.    It is actually safer and healthier.    The movie never tells us exactly how the family handles the Pacific Northwest woods in the winter.    Or whether they defecate in the woods like bears.   Thank God. 


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Kong: Skull Island (2017) * * *

Kong: Skull Island Movie Review

Directed by:  Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Starring:  Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, John C. Reilly, Brie Larson, Shea Wigham, John Ortiz

Hollywood revisits the remote island where Kong and an assortment of giant prehistoric animals only wish to fight among themselves for island superiority.    They have their own natural order of things, with Kong as the head honcho and the rest scrambling to usurp him.    The last thing they desire is for humans to arrive with their automatic weapons and bombs to wreak havoc, but they do just that in Kong: Skull Island, which is a fun B-movie headed by an A-list cast.    We've seen these types of movies before on Saturday afternoons growing up, but here it is revisited with some substance and some political satire peppered in at key moments.

The opening line uttered by John Goodman draws a knowing laugh.    I won't spoil it for you, but it is a telling example of the aforementioned satire.    Goodman and his assistant want money and resources to explore Skull Island, which remains unknown to most of the civilized world.    The film takes place in 1973 in the days of the U.S. officially beginning its withdrawal from Vietnam.    This doesn't make as many people happy in this film as one would think, especially army lifers such as Col. Packard (Jackson), who is put in charge of the mission to Skull Island and is upset that there isn't any more war to fight.    Then again, he isn't expecting to see an ape as tall as a skyscraper either.

Along for the ride are Conrad (Hiddleston), a mercenary former British soldier; Mason Weaver (Larson), a very attractive photojournalist, and an assortment of soldiers itching to go on one more mission before returning to the uncertainty of peacetime.    Upon arrival on the island, which includes detonating bombs ostensibly for geological purposes, the battalion encounters the mighty, gigantic Kong, who naturally doesn't take kindly to these visitors whose first instinct is to shoot at him,  

Many die.    Some will live.   Along the way, the group of survivors encounters an American pilot (Reilly) marooned on the island since his plane was shot down late during World War II.    He is an avid Cubs fan, asking excitedly if the Cubs finally won the World Series.    Sadly, he would have to wait until 2016 to witness that, assuming he was even still alive by then.    Reilly is the most interesting human in the movie.    He has been separated from his wife and child for almost thirty years, so we hope he is at least one of the survivors who gets to go home.   The other characters are not exactly fleshed out.    Even so, the actors are pros and do their best to make something of them,

The humans escape one giant monster after another,    One group led by Jackson wants to destroy Kong while the group led by Hiddleston wants to save him.    Kong himself learns, in a way, to show sympathy and some love for the humans that help him.    The visual effects do not appear to be pure CGI, so some of the action is believable.    Laws of physics aren't bent or broken in the action scenes. This is refreshing in these days of CGI overload that assaults your senses relentlessly.    Kong: Skull Island is like a throwback to a kinder, gentler science fiction film.     The resolution of Reilly's fate at the film's end shows the movie has a heart too.    How many monster movies can you say that about?  

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Brubaker (1980) * *

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Directed by:  Stuart Rosenberg

Starring:  Robert Redford, Yaphet Kotto, David Keith, Morgan Freeman, Matt Clark, Jane Alexander, Murray Hamilton

Robert Redford won a Best Director Oscar for the powerful and visceral Ordinary People in 1980.    He starred in Brubaker that same year, which could have easily been titled "Mr. Smith Goes to Prison".     Redford plays Henry Brubaker, the new warden at a rural Arkansas prison rife with corruption and rot.    The place is falling apart.    There are no guards, just prisoners who receive time off their sentences for keeping the other prisoners in line.    The reduced sentences are motivation enough for these prisoners to do their jobs, but naturally they are part of the corruption and perhaps murder that takes place within the prison's walls.  

Brubaker is a one-dimensional, rigid idealist who tries in vain to clean things up despite resistance from the very prison board that hired him.    The board isn't as interested in making the prison effective at recidivism as it is about making money.     The movie saw ahead to the times in which prisons came under private ownership and more or less became cash cows for the owners at the expense of the prisoners.     Brubaker believes in upping prisoner morale more than money, which causes clashes with the board's ideology.    

The movie never becomes stirring.    It is flat; lumbering from one disconnected scene to the next.    It never gathers momentum and we don't much care in the end when the prisoners salute the outgoing Brubaker with slowly growing applause.     It is an upbeat ending the movie hasn't earned, so we have little to be happy about.     The do-gooder is cast aside in favor of keeping the status quo.    What does the temporary prisoner uprising mean in the long run?    Not a lot.   

Brubaker, with its Oscar-nominated script by W.D. Richter, had potential to be a powerful look at prison corruption.    Or is it more of a "water is wet" story?; in which evil practices are uncovered much to no one's surprise.     Redford, with his natural star power, makes Henry Brubaker potentially more interesting than he actually is.     Brubaker pushes back against the corrupt establishment with only middling results for the prison and for us.   

As the movie opens, Brubaker (showing dedication to his job that goes well beyond reasonable expectations) enters the prison undercover as a prisoner to study the conditions there.     He soon reveals himself as the new warden and promises sweeping changes.     The prisoners in charge, including those played by Matt Clark and Yaphet Kotto, look at Brubaker likes he's crazy.     Brubaker's plan for change spins off in so many directions that we lose track of his strategy.    What is his plan?     Are we watching a movie or Donald Trump's presidency here?  

The characters played by Kotto and Keith, both prisoners who side with the warden, have moments where they express multiple dimensions.     If they were allowed to be fleshed out more, they could have provided a challenging dynamic.    But the movie focuses squarely on the warden himself.    Brubaker is written as an unbending instrument of change and morality.    He finds he is in the wrong profession to improve conditions from within.    But because he is so unyielding, he doesn't emerge as a real human being.    He is more of a symbol of ultimate good.    He is also kind of a bore.    As is the movie that bears his name. 

American Pastoral (2016) * * *

American Pastoral Movie Review

Directed by:  Ewan McGregor

Starring:  Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Peter Riegert, David Strathairn, Rupert Evans, Valorie Curry

American Pastoral taps into a universal parental fear of losing your child.   Seymour "Swede" Levov (McGregor) runs a successful glove manufacturing plant and seemingly has it all.    Then his stuttering teenage daughter Merry (Fanning) becomes swept up too fervently into the 60s civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movement.     She isn't your normal definition of teenage rebellion.     Her passion leads to planting a bomb in a local gas station, which explodes and kills the station owner.     Merry soon vanishes as the FBI lurks, leaving Swede and his wife Dawn (Connelly) to pick up the pieces.    How did it all go wrong?    The Levovs are well-off, respected in the community, and now they are known as the family with a bomber for a daughter.   

Time passes without leads.     A mysterious girl named Rita Cohen (Curry) appears and may hold the key to Merry's whereabouts.    Rita is not above seduction and extortion to manipulate a desperate Swede, who only wants to locate his long-missing daughter.    The dilemma remains:   Even if Merry is found, she still has to face the music for the bombing and life for the Levovs will never be the same again.    It is as if Swede and Dawn lost their daughter both literally and figuratively.    Swede never gives up hope, while Dawn descends into madness and a spiritual rebirth which may or may not include Swede in her plans. 

Directed by McGregor, American Pastoral compartmentalizes the 60s two biggest movements into the Levov's story.    We see how these movements exacerbated the family issues which lurked under the surface of a seemingly happy household.     Dawn and Swede take Merry to a therapist, who suggests Merry's stutter is based on psychological issues more than physiological ones.     The Levovs scoff at the notion, but time soon proves the therapist right.     They don't know how close to the truth the therapist is.

The film opens in 1996 with a family friend named Nathan (Straithairn) acting as narrator to us about Swede's greatness as a high school athlete and World War II hero.    Nathan couldn't imagine anything but happiness and success for Swede.     He marries former Miss New Jersey Dawn, who wins the approval of Swede's cantankerous father Lou (Riegert), who is forever exasperating his family with his strong opinions.     "What did I say?" is Lou's defiant, default attitude after once again offending someone with his bull-in-a-china shop verbosity.     Subtlety isn't his strong suit.    

American Pastoral, based on a Philip Roth novel, isn't easy material to shoehorn into formula.    It is mostly dark, with small glimmers of hope that only serve to be snatched away.     McGregor makes a sympathetic father who can't grasp how his daughter slipped through his fingers.     Any parent can relate to that dreaded time when our children begin thinking they know than we do.     In some cases, they are right.     In other cases, like with Merry, they are wrong with dangerous consequences.  

The stylistic device of Nathan's narration is mostly awkward and unnecessary.     We don't need Nathan to expound upon the wasted greatness of the blessed Swede.    Is this even the point of the story?    It's as if Nathan is narrating an entirely different tale while another one unfolds in front of us.    Despite this, McGregor moves the drama along well with a sure hand, even though this is his directorial debut.    Because American Pastoral covers ground which any family can relate to, we are drawn in.     We know the story won't end well, but the only question becomes how much the Levovs will lose in all of this.   

We witness Merry's innocence disappear behind rebellion and then anger and violence.    Swede only wants his daughter to return, but the fact that we won't know who exactly Merry is now casts a pall over everything.        I did not read the 1997 novel in which this film was adapted.     Critical reviews have been harsh, mostly because the movie doesn't live up to the novel.      I don't know.   I found
American Pastoral is its own way quite effective and powerful.     Maybe not reading the novel first is a blessing in disguise to a moviegoer like myself. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Logan (2017) * *

Logan Movie Review

Directed by:  James Mangold

Starring:  Hugh Jackman, Dafne Keen, Patrick Stewart, Richard E. Grant, Stephen Merchant, Boyd Holbrook, Eriq La Salle

Hugh Jackman says this is his last go-around as the miserable, monosyllabic, snarky Wolverine, the movie superhero to which most people would most identify him.    I'm sure he'll miss the paychecks, but not necessarily the heavy baggage he must haul around as this relentlessly sad superhero.    He is immortal and his weapon of choice are blades which protrude from his knuckles, but if there is a man to whom death would be a sweet relief, it is Wolverine.    

The movie isn't called Wolverine 3, but Logan, which is the Wolverine's real name.    The title suggests we will somehow delve deeper into the character and find some hidden dimensions.     I'm afraid that isn't the case.    Logan puts us through another two plus hours of, well, Logan.    As the movie opens in the near future, Logan is hiding out as a limo driver who looks to be about ten seconds away from cursing out his clients.     He keeps the very, very old and ill Professor Charles Xavier (Stewart) hidden away in an abandoned refinery (I think) in the Mexican desert.     Guarding Professor X, who suffers greatly and has seizures which can stop anyone within a five-mile radius in his tracks, is the albino Caliban (Merchant).   

Logan is saving money to buy a boat and spend the rest of his (and Professor X's) days at sea, but the world has other plans.     He is tracked down by a nurse whose patient is a 6-year old mutant who also has blades protruding from her knuckles and a nasty, surly disposition.     As Professor X points out, "Does she remind you of anyone?"   Logan reluctantly agrees to take the girl, named Laura (Keen) to Eden, where she can be reunited with other genetically created mutants who were bred to be future killing machines.     Laura is being tracked by the relentless Pierce (Holbrook), who travels with a caravan of ominous black trucks that only seems to appear in movies.    We see numerous shots of the caravan slowly creeping up on wherever Logan and company are hiding out.    How much does it cost to keep those vehicles fueled?    How often do they have to stop for gas?

At first, Logan is very reticent to be Laura's protector, but considering how well she can handle herself in the fight scenes, should she be Logan's protector?    Logan is aging, drinks a lot, and heals a lot more slowly than he used to in his younger days.    He must spend half the movie passed out while recuperating from his injuries.     The budding father figure/daughter relationship between Logan and Laura is supposed to tug at the heartstrings, but it follows the same formula as countless others you've seen before.     Hostility gives way to guarded truce which then gives way to respect then sacrificial love.    The trouble is, we just don't buy it.     Logan never seems to grow into someone who gives us a warm and fuzzy feeling, so when he finally does we scarcely believe it.     He becomes this guy because the script tells him to right about now.

Logan is the first R-rated entry from the Marvel Universe and it is sufficiently bloody and violent.    Heads are decapitated.    Bodies are stabbed repeatedly and viciously by the blades of Logan, Laura, and an evil Logan 2.0 created Dr. Rice (Grant), who also created the mutants which escaped from the same lab as Laura.   Other bodies are impaled on sharp objects.     It is all kind of a depressing slog.   It is a pity that Logan/Wolverine doesn't match the charisma that Jackman naturally oozes.     Jackman is capable of so much more and now he is finally giving the Wolverine a permanent rest.    Will it hurt his box office drawing power?    Possibly.    Logan plays just like its title character, as a franchise that is so, so ready to move on. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

The World According to Garp (1982) * * * 1/2

Image result for world according to garp picture

Directed by:  George Roy Hill

Starring:  Robin Williams, Mary Beth Hurt, Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Mark Soper, Swoosie Kurtz

I can't actually say what The World According to Garp is about.    I know it flows effortlessly between one scene to the next; chronicling the strange life of T. S. Garp (Williams).   Garp is the result of a one-time union between Garp's nurse mother Jenny Fields (Close) and a comatose technical sergeant in a VA hospital.    Jenny wanted a child and not a husband, so she mounted the practically lifeless body of the soldier (one part still had life in it) and conceived her son Garp.     After a conception like that, are we at all surprised at the wacky, random things that happen in Garp's life?  

The World According to Garp is the kind of movie in which a plane flies into a suburban house by sheer happenstance and Garp tells his wife Helen (Hurt), "We'll be safe here."    His rationale?    What are the odds that another plane would hit the house again?     Garp encounters many close calls on his life in this movie.    The adventure is how he goes from Point A to B to C and the people he meets along the way.    Without getting into specifics, Garp marries, has children, becomes a writer who is overshadowed by his mother's fame when she writes a bestseller, befriends a transsexual named Roberta (Lithgow) who used to play pro football, writes a bestseller himself which angers a society of women who purposely cut out their tongues in sympathy for a rape victim, and has a car accident in which a guy loses his penis.    I'm sure there are more odd coincidences and self-contained sequences which seemingly come from nowhere, but in this world, it all fits.

What exactly is the payoff of the scene in which Garp confronts a truck driver who continually blows through a stop sign in front of his house?     It is dealt with and never mentioned again.     You can ask that about many tangents this movie goes on, of which there are many.     Through it all, though, we are fascinated.     Probably because we know something bizarre or wonderful may happen in the next scene.     Or the scene after that.   

Garp is Williams' second feature film and instead of relying on his frantic stand-up persona, Williams plays Garp as grounded, bemused, and wide-eyed.     He embraces the craziness of his life, loves his family and friends, and comes back for more when life deals him a crappy hand.     It is a good acting choice for Williams, who could have easily transformed into "funny" Robin Williams and break the fragile spell the movie casts.     Glenn Close and John Lithgow, both Oscar-nominated for their roles here, play memorable people with their own unique takes on sexuality.    Jenny seems mostly asexual, while Roberta learns to become a woman while still somewhat trapped in a large man's body.   Both are kind, caring, and love Garp, providing him the support system he needs to work through life.

Mary Beth Hurt's performance was not as lauded, but is no less remarkable.    She is as grounded as Garp, but more practical and perhaps a little colder.    She doesn't seem to recognize how crazy being Mrs. Garp will be.    Williams and Hurt create a believable couple.    You may be reading this review and wonder what the hell the point of this movie is.     I've seen it several times and each time I ask myself, "What was that all about?"    However, I also tell myself how engrossed I was and how almost hypnotically watchable the movie is.      Director George Roy Hill (The Sting) does a tricky thing here.    He takes unfilmable material (based on the book by John Irving) and makes it lively, tragic, random, and funny.    I may not even be explaining my feelings towards the film in a way that makes any sense, but seek the movie out and watch it.     What you get out of it is up to you.