Thursday, June 22, 2017

A documentary about a jazz great

Chasing Trane chronicles the life and artistry of saxophonist John Coltrane.

If you were making a documentary about jazz genius John Coltrane, you'd be tempted to find a style that matched Coltrane's musical inventiveness. That might be a mistake because genius in one form doesn't necessarily translate into genius in another.

Director John Scheinfeld (The U.S. vs. John Lennon) chose the opposite direction, and the result is a straightforward documentary that salutes Coltrane's talent without reaching high levels of distinction on its own.

Despite that, Scheinfeld's Chasing Trane stands as a worthy addition to the liturgy of jazz on film, as well as a movie that charts racial issues inextricably imbedded in Coltrane's story. He grew up in the Jim Crow South.

Coltrane died of liver cancer in 1967 at the age of 40. During his short life, Coltrane went long on accomplishment: He played saxophone with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and with his own band.

Chasing Trane reminds us of Coltrane's prodigious skills, a sense of musical creativity so expansive that he could make a jazz classic out of The Sound of Music song, My Favorite Things, a tune that easily could slip into triteness and often has. Coltrane's rendition of that tune is more than an interpretation, it's a re-invention.

Many regard Coltrane's Love Supreme album as a masterpiece of musical and spiritual creativity, as well as an affirmation: Coltrane cared more about honing his artistry than he did about audience acceptance.

In Love Supreme, Coltrane often can be heard playing with controlled frenzy, filling almost every second of a solo; it's almost as if he's racing against time, trying to leave no sound unexplored.

If you listen to Love Supreme don't ignore McCoy Tyner's piano, every bit the equal of Coltrane's sax, and I don't say that to slight drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison, who also played on what became a landmark album.

As the story unfolds, we learn about Coltrane's two marriages, the heroin addiction that he kicked and his exploration of Eastern spirituality.

Scheinfeld interviews a variety of people about Coltrane -- his children, fellow musicians (Sonny Rollins), cultural commentators (Cornel West) and fans (Bill Clinton). Yes, that Bill Clinton, the former president whose saxophone skills never prompted anyone to call him a musical genius.

I can't say that Chasing Trane is a great film, but it's a decent film about a great artist, and, as such, deserves to be seen.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

'Transformers' stomps on coherence

Another helping of chaotic action from director Michael Bay.

It's fairly common for fantasy movies to ponder the imminent destruction of the Earth and all its inhabitants. Why we need outside (often alien) help to accomplish such devastation puzzles me. We seem to be doing a pretty good job of wrecking the planet ourselves.

Still, it's no surprise that Transformers: The Last Knight again puts the planet under extreme threat. Unfortunately, the movie -- directed by Michael Bay -- misses the point: We all probably should be wondering about the durability of a culture that has now produced its fifth movie based on a line of toys.

I'd like to tell you more about Last Knight, but that won't be easy because the plot stumbles its way through a variety of set pieces that span the movie's taxing two-and-a-half hour length.

If noise were art, Bay would be the Leonardo Da Vinci of movies. He specializes in a brand of visual and aural overstatement that can turn images into a form of cinematic shrapnel.

Bay tries to expand the series' reach by beginning in the Dark Ages, a time when knights fought with heavy swords and dodged streaking fireballs that were catapulted in their direction.

Having already been trashed in another summer movie, King Arthur returns to fight off a barbarous horde. On the verge of being decimated, the Knights of the Round Table only can be saved by Merlin (Stanley Tucci). Tipsy from alcohol in this telling, the fabled magician has a staff that can summon transformers to help vanquish the forces of evil -- or some such.

Don't hold me to every detail in this review because attempting to follow a movie as scattered as Last Knight can feel discombobulating, like trying to balance your checkbook while riding a rollercoaster.

After its Medieval prolog, the movie leaps ahead 1,600 years. The Earth faces grave danger. Among other things, savior robot Optimus Prime has returned to his home planet of Cybertron to search for his maker. Once he arrives home, Prime discovers that Cybertron has fallen on hard times. According to a sorceress named Quintessa, Cybertron only can be saved by sucking the life out of Earth.

If your head doesn't hurt by now, keep reading. If you'd rather stop and do something more constructive (rearrange your sock drawer, say), you have my blessing.

As part of its metallic furor, Last Knight also tells us that the US military has declared war on all robots. Not so fast, says Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), an inventor who remains loyal to his robot allies. Cade befriends Autobots, helpful to humans, as opposed to Decepticons, not helpful to humans.

Isabela Moner plays a young woman who also loves Autobots. She becomes an occasional tag-along partner for Wahlberg's Cade. She also drops out of the movie for extended periods.

I'll spare you a guided tour of the Transformer universe. Know, though, that about half way through, Wahlberg -- more or less the movie's lead -- joins forces with a British character named Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock). She's a Medievalist who knows how to recover Merlin's staff, which holds the key to ... well ... something or other.

Did I mention that there's also a talisman with mystical properties? Talismans are always helpful in movies because just about everyone wants to get hold of one.

The movie makes room for an extended appearance by the estimable Sir Anthony Hopkins. He portrays Sir Edmund Burton, an overly demonstrative nobleman who eventually tells us that Wahlberg's character is "the last knight" of the title.

I have to admit that the movie's final act contains some decent pulp imagery involving an attack on the Earth by what looks like a giant coral reef.

Every now and again, John Turturro, a refugee from the previous movies, makes a cameo appearance from Cuba, where his character presently is located. Turturro could be the first actor ever to have to make phone calls (really) to the main plot in order to make his presence felt.

There's also a small robot that seems to be a dilapidated, trash-can cousin of R2-D2. A late-picture underwater, submarine sequence that arrives after the movie already has sunk.

Attempts at humor are so ham-handed that they're easy to spot amid all the flying debris.

Bay doesn't whip up many edge-of-the-seat moments. Maybe that's because it's difficult to generate real suspense when the series -- like this movie -- feels as if it never will end.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The hero of 'The Hero' is Sam Elliott

A veteran actor gets his shot at a lead role.
If you find Sam Elliott's wizened face intriguing, you'll love The Hero, a slender movie about an aging Western actor who has been reduced to making commercials for barbecue sauce. Director Brett Haley has given us a movie that's all Elliott all of the time -- much of it in large close-ups of the actor's face.

No matter what role he's playing, Elliott's deep, sonorous voice seems to speak only one language: cowboy. In The Hero that's almost the entire point.

Haley directed Elliott in I'll See You in My Dreams, which teamed him with Blythe Danner. This time, he casts Elliott as Lee Hayden, an actor best known for a movie called The Hero.

When he's not working -- which is most of the time -- the 71-year-old Lee hangs out with an actor (Nick Offerman) with whom he once starred in a little-seen television series. They watch Buster Keaton movies and smoke marijuana.

The screenplay, by Haley and Marc Basch, adds a few wrinkles, one serious. Early on, Lee learns that he has pancreatic cancer. Looming mortality prompts Lee to try to make amends with his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter). He hopes his ex-wife (Katharine Ross (Elliott's real-life wife) might be able to help.

Lee also begins an affair with a younger woman (Laura Prepon) he meets at the house of his dope-smoking pal. She's a stand-up comic. Prepon and Elliott work well together, although there's no particular reason for their May-December relationship, other than to add spice.

As it stands, The Hero showcases Elliott. The camera loves his face; it's almost as if Elliott's trademark of an overwhelming mustache mops up any of the script's loose ends.

It's arguable that The Hero is more about Elliott's iconic countenance than it is about the character he's playing. The Hero evidently was written specifically for Elliott, and if Haley wanted to honor the actor, he's done a good job of it.

Look, the estimable Elliott certainly deserves a lead role, and no one would argue that he's unable to carry The Hero, often on his own. He's a pleasure to watch, but a little more movie would have been welcome, too.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

'Rough Night' founders -- badly

A strong cast can't save this formulaic and unfunny comedy.

It doesn't matter that the raunchy comedy Rough Night was directed by a woman. It also doesn't matter that Rough Night employs a group of talented actresses that includes the fiercely funny Kate McKinnon.

And while we're on the subject of irrelevance, you should know that it's equally unimportant that Rough Night gives us a much-needed opportunity not take Scarlett Johansson seriously or that the movie makes no fuss about a gay theme with Zoe Kravitz and Ilana Glazer playing former lovers.

Similarly, Jillian Bell's portrayal of the gal pal who Johansson's character has outgrown since the two bonded during dissolute college days is of little consequence.

It doesn't even matter that the movie follows a well-tested formula for crass comedies.

All of these things could have made a difference had this comedy about former college classmates who gather for a bachelorette party in Miami been either perceptive or funny. Maybe, Rough Night isn't funny precisely because of its inability to get close to anything that might be called incisive.

An attempt to darken the comedy -- the women accidentally kill a man they believe to be a male stripper -- isn't handled with enough wit or finesse to save the day. No Weekend at Bernie's, Rough Night arrives on screen as a painful misfire.

Any movie that resorts to cocaine snorting for one of its running gags -- as this one does -- immediately declares itself ineligible for any awards involving imagination.

Even the brilliant McKinnon, who plays an Australian visitor to the US, can't hit the necessary high notes, and the movie leaves us wondering what motivated the filmmakers to encourage McKinnon to channel her inner Naomi Watts.

Although designed as an ensemble comedy, the movie revolves around Johansson's Jess, a woman who has left her hard-partying college days behind to run for the state Senate. Once in Miami, Jess quickly sheds her sense of propriety to join what's supposed to be a fun weekend of clubbing hopping and debauchery.

Now and again, the movie offers scenes involving Jess's fiancé (Paul W. Downs). While the women are trying to be wild in Florida, Downs's character attends a sedate bachelor party. He and his buddies spend an evening at home in New York testing wines. Attendees include comedians Eric Andre, Hasan Minhaj and Bo Burnham, all mostly wasted.

Director Lucia Aniello doesn't do much to explore this bit of role reversal, and Downs's character quickly heads to Miami on a non-stop car trip involving adult diapers, stimulants and beer. Why adult diapers? So there's no need for him to make bathroom stops. A misunderstanding leads Jess's fiancé to believe his impending marriage may be endangered.

In Florida, the women stay at the upscale home of one of Jess's major donors. They also meet a couple of leering swingers played by Demi Moore and Ty Burrell.

Low on creativity, Rough Night at one point finds McKinnon's character feigning sex with the corpse that the women desperately are trying to hide. So, yes, this one tries everything, including a joke about necrophilia. Like the corpse, the joke dies. The movie isn't far behind.

No reason to open this book

The Book of Henry doesn't seem to know what kind of movie it wants to be and winds up abusing some serious issues.
Let me share several things that I hate to see in movies: 1. Loving but otherwise incompetent parents who are raising kids who are smarter than their elders. 2. Needlessly quirky touches -- say a house in the woods that a genius kid has assembled out of discarded household items. 3. Confusion about whether a movie wants to be kid friendly or adult serious.

Sadly, The Book of Henry commits all of these sins, the most grievous of which is its inability to encompass a variety of plot threads while also adding thriller elements about an ill-defined case of child abuse.

The Book of Henry isn't easy to write about without including spoilers, but parents who plan on taking kids should know that the movie includes the death of a child. If that ruins the movie for you, so be it. I'll say no more about it.

Director Colin Trevorrow, who wrote the screenplay for Jurassic World and who directed the well-received Safety Not Guaranteed, shifts from comedy to drama in ways that create an atmosphere that's shot through with improbabilities.

Absent much to say about the plot, I'll tell you about the characters. Eleven-year-old Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) lives with his single mom (Naomi Watts) and his younger brother (Jacob Tremblay) in a suburban New York town.

Mom works as a waitress. In addition to all his other talents, Henry excels at finance. He manages Mom's funds.

Not only is Henry a whiz at practical matters, he also holds his mother to a high moral standard, which he prosaically states: When others are being abused, we're obligated to intervene, Henry says.

Watts struggles to play a single mom who has turned her oldest son into a helpmate, a form of parental irresponsibility that sometimes occurs with single parents, but -- in this case -- has been carried to unbelievable extremes.

Watts's character seems to have only one friend, another waitress (Sarah Silverman), a woman who sports a large, flowery tattoo above her exposed cleavage, who may be an alcoholic and who hardly needed to be in the movie at all.

The movie's thriller component involves one of Henry's classmates (Maddie Ziegler), a girl who lives next door to Henry with her widowed stepfather (Dean Norris), who also happens to be the town's police commissioner.

In Rear-Window style, Henry observes the house next door and learns that Norris' Glenn Sickleman is abusing his stepdaughter. Henry documents his findings in a diary of sorts, the book that gives the film its title. He also authors a plan to halt the abuse.

Working from a screenplay by Gregg Hurwitz, Trevorrow fails to wring much emotion out of the story's soap-operatic elements. As a thriller, the movie comes across as absurdly twisted. Worst of all, it short-changes issues that deserve serious exploration.

Enough said.

A Kaiser in exile and a fraught love story

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany abdicated his throne in 1918, retreating to the Netherlands, where he lived in exile for another couple of decades. Adapted from the Kaiser's Last Kiss, a novel by Alan Judd, The Exception looks at the Kaiser's life during the heyday of the Third Reich, which the Kaiser evidently hated for its boorishness. A brilliant Christopher Plummer plays the Kaiser as a character reminiscent of a Tolstoy creation, an intelligent but mildly deluded ruler who never has accepted his fall from power. The story kicks off when the Nazis assign a German captain (Jai Courtney) to watch over the Kaiser and keep an eye out for spies. Courtney's Capt. Brandt evidently has been banished himself; he's on a punishment assignment for having gotten crosswise with the SS during a stint in Poland. The Kaiser surrounds himself with a small coterie of loyalists that includes a military aide (Ben Daniels) and the empress, a fine Janet McTeer. The story of a rueful monarch in exile is muddied by Capt. Brandt's infatuation with one of the kaiser's servants (Lily James). Director David Levaux focuses much of the movie on the relationship between the captain and the servant girl, a young woman who happens to be Jewish. Questions about the meaning of loyalty arise for the smitten Capt. Brandt, but the movie's emphasis on romance costs it some hard-edged credibility. Eddie Marsan appears briefly as Heinrich Himmler.

Two strange families, one bizarre movie

French director Bruno Dumont tries his hand at comedy, but Slack Bay is no ordinary laugh machine.

It's not easy to write a capsule description for a movie that includes cannibalism, serial killing, gender confusion, slapstick, romance, incest and what may be one of the most unusual jobs ever depicted on screen, carrying people across the shallows of a marshy bay. I'm not talking about a boat trip, but about a father/son team that literally picks people up and carries them across the water in their arms.

Directed by Bruno Dumont, Slack Bay takes us to the craggy coastal area of northern France in 1910. There, we meet two very strange families, the Van Peteghems (clueless and well-to-do) and the Bruforts (poor and mean-spirited).

The Van Peteghems live in a strange, fortress of a house overlooking the bay. The Van Peteghems embody all the pretensions of the supercilious upper classes. They are summer residents of the area. The Bruforts reside year-round on the poor side of town, hauling mussels from the sea and occasionally murdering an unsuspecting tourist by using an oar as a club.

The Bruforts are a sullen lot, and they make full use of their victims, chopping their bodies into small parts and munching on what might be called human tartare. Anyone for a foot? Perhaps a big toe?

As people disappear, two detectives roam the beach trying to determine what happened to those who have vanished. One is a corpulent man (Didier Despres) who wears a bowler and makes squishing sounds when he moves. His frequent falls usually result in a roll down one of the sand dunes that dot the beach. An assistant (Cyril Rigaux) accompanies his parade-float of a boss everywhere.

One of the charms, if that's the right word, of Dumont's movie is that the characters never seem to mesh. They are, in their way, a collection of lunatics, particularly the wealthy family, which is lead by a hunchback (Fabrice Luchini) who seems to have no control over his arm movements and whose mouth seems to have settled into a permanent droop. Luchini's Andre moves with the jangled grace of a swan in the midst of a seizure.

He has arrived at the seaside with his wife (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). Later, he's visited by his sister (Juliette Binoche). Binoche's character is less a human than a walking aria of self-dramatizing gestures.

The Van Peteghems live in a building they have named the Tymphonium, a structure modeled on their view of ancient Egyptian architecture.

At various times, the Van Peteghems are visited by the brother of Tedeschi's character. Christian (Jean-Luc Vincent) seems to be mentally challenged, but not enough to play the role of holy fool.

Meanwhile, the poor side of town is represented by a patriarch (Thierry Lavieville) who calls himself the Eternal and his oldest son, Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville). Ma Loute has the defiant look of a confirmed outsider.

Add to this mix a girl who dresses like a boy but who may actually be a boy, played by an actor identified only as Raph. Raph's androgynous Billie immediately is attracted to Ma Loute. She/he is thunderstruck and so is Ma Loute.

Little in this oddball world jells, but Dumont's mixture proves funny, strange and confounding, and each of the movie's mood is enhanced by the beautiful, often painterly compositions of cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines.

Dumont mostly has made serious films (Humanite and Twentnine Palms). Though dubbed a comedy, Slack Beach has a serious substrata. Issues about class rivalry and human folly underlie the movie's bizarre whimsy. Dumont has concocted a world that exists in its own bubble-like sphere, refusing to be grounded by the confines of known realities or by customary moral proprieties. His movie is all the better for it.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

'The Mummy' vanquishes Tom Cruise

A muddled helping of horror? Campy fun? Or ... maybe it's just another summer dud.

In a better world, The Mummy would be wrapped in linens, placed in a sarcophagus and buried in an obscure location where it would be unable to knock on thousands of multiplex doors.

Even with Universal's history with mummy movies, something the studio revisited with several Brendan Fraser efforts, this edition never becomes a fitting member of the comic book/fantasy universe that dominates so much of the movie landscape.

Trace elements from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Night of the Living Dead, the customary booming effects and a lead performance from Tom Cruise aren't enough to elevate a badly muddled effort. The Mummy hits screens having been embalmed of logic with a story that begins by linking the Crusades to ancient Egypt.

In some of its scenes, The Mummy travels to London to unleash torrents of mayhem, prompting thoughts about how that recently battered city deserved a better break.

Cruise plays a soldier who seems to use his time in Iraq as an excuse to steal antiquities. During a burst of heavy fighting, Cruise's Nick Morton and his pal Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) discover a tomb that contains the mummy of evil Egyptian princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella).

An Egyptologist (Annabelle Wallis) who happens to be wandering around Iraq immediately recognizes the importance of the find, and the mummy is carted away to Britain.

Asking whether the 5,000-year-old Ahmanet will spring to life is like wondering whether temperatures in the desert are prone to rising at midday. You shouldn't have to ask.

Six credited writers are unable to make sense or add much winking humor to a movie that doesn't seem to understand that its only pathway to success involves an indulgence in camp.

And forget about horror. The Mummy is no more scary than the average amusement park fun house.

Now in the midst of all this, we learn that everything involving the mummy is being orchestrated by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe). Crowe's Jekyll, who takes injections to keep his Hyde side at bay, arrives in the movie like a visitor from another planet -- or at least another movie and his doesn't look as if it could be any better than the one we're watching.

The movie's best creative touch: The risen mummy has four eyeballs, which -- perhaps -- means that mummies don't need special glasses to watch 3D movies like ... well ... The Mummy.

I can't say that I've loved every movie that Tom Cruise has made, but I've never seen him give a performance quite this unconvincing. Perhaps Cruise was trying to be funny or perhaps he, like the movie, couldn't find the right tone for a story that tries to present Ahmanet as a seductress for the dark side. She inhabits Nick's mind, causes him to have visions and makes him seem as addled as the movie itself.

Whatever prompted Cruise's performance, a murky script makes The Mummy his mission impossible for the summer of 2017. Do I need to ask you to pardon the pun?

Director Alex Kurtzman serves up plenty of mediocre action as he staggers to a conclusion that suggests that sequels loom, as well as other movies from what Universal is calling its Dark Universe series, films based on rights the company owns. Maybe Universal's other monsters will fare better.

As for The Mummy, the only appropriate conclusion might be: Let the dead continue to slumber. Please.

A family fights for survival

It Comes at Night serves up a slice of narrowly focused, end-of-the-world horror -- minus a ton of gore.

Sometimes a movie benefits from a willingness not to be specific about something that, on its face, seems of paramount importance.

Director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha) bravely refuses to define the threat that endangers his characters in It Comes at Night. That bit of restraint determines almost everything else about his movie -- both in terms of its strengths and weaknesses.

All we know is that something unseen and mysterious has caused people to contract a highly contagious disease that inflicts terrible suffering and always proves fatal.

Faced with this mass contagion, Dad (Joel Edgerton), Mom (Carmen Ejogo) and their 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) have withdrawn to an isolated cabin in a woods. They've sealed their home which features a corridor leading to a red door, the only way in or out.

Set in the midst of what appears to be an end-of-the-world scenario, It Comes at Night makes wise use of its limitations, focusing on how people respond to a situation that's fraught with fear and peril.

The family does its best to protect itself from danger. When family members leave their cabin, gas masks give them an ominous, alien look. Inside, they try to keep their environment as impenetrable as possible.

Early on, the family confronts an intruder (Christopher Abbott). As it turns out, Abbott's character also has a family. He offers to share food in return for shelter and water. After plenty of initial doubts, Edgerton's Paul agrees to join forces with a new family, which also includes a wife (Riley Keough) and a child (Griffin Robert Faulkner). None of them has yet to contract the sickness.

Harrison gives the film's best performance, ably reflecting the disoriented quality that accompanies what seems to have been the family's sudden retreat from everyday life, as well as the gloomy acknowledgment that the future must be bleak.

It doesn't help that Travis also is haunted by what he sees in the movie's opening scene, the mercy killing of the family's grandfather (David Pendelton), an early victim of the unidentified "sickness," a malady that causes those who suffer to breathe unevenly and break out in festering sores.

For all its virtues, It Comes at Night also makes us realize that this kind of concentrated, hot-house approach to filmmaking can hamper the way characters are deepened or a film's themes are enriched.

Still, most of the performances click. Behind a thick beard, Edgerton does pared-down work in his second interracial relationship movie since Loving, and Abbott conveys an understanding of the harrowing difficulties involved in negotiating an impossible situation. The script shortchanges Ejogo, as well as any potential racial issues.

If there's real horror here, it has less to do with jolts and gore than with the realization that under extreme conditions, mistrust can become an essential, if double-edged, survival tool. That's a truly scary idea -- and one that seems to fit the precarious moment in which we currently find ourselves.

A decent man faces a crushing system

I, Daniel Blake , director Ken Loach's latest issue-oriented movie, deftly makes its point..

Among filmmakers, British director Ken Loach remains unique in his steadfast commitment to socially relevant film-making. For half a century, Loach, who's now 80, has directed films about the kinds of marginalized people who seldom find their way to the screen.

In I, Daniel Blake, Loach continues to focus on the tribulations of people struggling with forces beyond their control -- in this case, issues involving failing health and diminished opportunities to earn a living.

Daniel Blake, the movie's main character, works as a carpenter until a heart attack keeps him from seeking employment. Much of the movie involves Daniel's efforts to obtain support from the state.

Loach chronicles Daniel's frustrating dealings with social services personnel and with the Internet, a common enough bit of technology about which he knows little. Misguided social workers keep telling him to go on-line to fill out forms.

At one point, a clueless government employee orders Daniel to produce a resume, a meaningless task for someone who knows how to demonstrate his skills only by doing what he's done for all of his adult life; i.e., building things.

Loach makes Daniel (Dave Johns) a sympathetic figure, a decent man who's sensitive to the plight of others. Daniel befriends a young woman (Hayley Squires) he meets at a welfare office. Daniel uses his meager resources to help buy food for her kids. He also repairs her rundown apartment. He's helping, but he's also affirming something that he badly needs: to feel useful.

Guided by his commitment to realism, Loach resists adding the kind of uplift that might be found in a less sobering film, which is not to say that Loach wallows in thick neorealist mud. Daniel can feel desperate, but the film does not.

Besides being a clear-eyed statement about the failures of institutions designed to help people such as Daniel, we also find Loach's love of ordinary people and his abiding empathy for their daily struggles. That shouldn't be an extraordinary accomplishment, but sadly not many filmmakers are as skilled as Loach in putting such struggles at the center of their movies.

A Marine bonds with her dog

On screen, the real-life story of Megan Leavey proves deeply affecting.

Megan Leavey can be categorized as a story about a woman and her beloved dog -- only with a major difference. The woman is Megan Leavey, a Marine and the dog is Rex, a bomb-sniffing German Shepherd trained to perform in combat. The relationship between this young woman and the dog she trains saves them both.

We first meet Leavey (Kate Mara) as a disaffected young woman living in upstate New York with her hectoring mother (Edie Falco) and stepfather (Will Patton) Leavey's life isn't going well. Her best friend died from a drug overdose. She's directionless.

Absent any other plan and facing increasing desperation, Leavey joins the Marine Corps, where she winds up working with a K9 unit -- first as punishment and later as a committed choice.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish) takes us through Leavey's basic training and also introduces us to the world of military dog training. She then travels with Leavey and Rex to Iraq and deals with what happens to them after both are injured by an IED.

Scenes in Iraq have plenty of tension, but offer freshness because they focus on something we haven't much seen in movies, a woman working in a dangerous combat zone.

In Iraq, Leavey also forges a friendship with a fellow trainer, an appealing Ramon Rodriguez, who later becomes a love interest for Leavey, a plot thread that feels a bit superfluous.

Common has a nice turn as Gunny Martin, the Marine in charge of the dog-training unit in the US.

Cowperthwaite loads up on subject matter: She deals with combat and post-combat stress, as well as with the growing bond between trainer and dog.

The movie makes no attempt to raise political issues, although it tries to present a realistic portrait of life in the military and of Leavey's post-war struggles.

Mara brings vulnerability and toughness to the role, but the movie isn't without false notes.

Leavey, who ran into trouble when she tried to adopt Rex (played in the movie by a dog named Varco), sought help rom New York Senator Chuck Schumer. It would have been better not to show Schumer than to have him portrayed -- even briefly -- by an actor (Andrew Masset) who looks nothing like him. Moreover, each of the movie's several acts could have benefited from some trimming.

Still, the relationship between trainer and dog proves moving. The story of Leavey and Rex gets to you -- at least, it did to me.

Megan Leavey may not be the deepest movie you'll see this year, but it definitely shows that animals can play a major role in making people more human.

Friday, June 2, 2017

A cartoonist struggles with grief

Comedian Demetri Martin plays a New York-based cartoonist who makes a trip to LA in the new movie, Dean. Martin also directed this slender tale about a young man who's having difficulty coping with the recent loss of his mother. Martin mostly focuses on Dean, an illustrator whose journey to LA is prompted by a job offer from a "hot" new ad agency. Dean's bullshit meter is far too sensitive to fall for a ton of LA optimism, but he decides to hang around LA with his pal Eric (Rory Scovel). Dean soon meets an appealing young woman (Gillian Jacobs). He's smitten. Meanwhile, Dean's father (Kevin Kline) also attempts to put his life back together. In scenes that parallel what's happening in LA, Dean's New York father begins dating the real estate agent (Mary Steenburgen) he hires to sell the family home. Neither Kline's character nor Martin's Dean handles loss particularly well, but Dad seems to be doing a better job of it. He's more honest about his inability to move on. Martin shows us some of Dean's work, simple stick-figure drawings that are ... well ... simple stick-figure drawings. Mildly amusing and nicely acted by the supporting players, Dean nonetheless doesn't feel like a big-screen breakthrough for Martin, who doesn't dig deeply enough into the movie's most interesting element: undigested grief.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

It wasn't Churchill's finest hour

Brian Cox excels but Churchill falters.
Brian Cox excels in Churchill, a movie that reduces a large historical figure to an egotistical, guilt-ridden older man who believes plans for the D-Day landing of 1944 are entirely misguided and will result in needless death.

As characterized in this truncated character study, Churchill resists ceding leadership to Allied military commanders -- notably Eisenhower and Montgomery -- who planned the Normandy invasion that ultimately brought the war in Europe to a close.

An aging Churchill refuses to accept a role as Britain's principal figurehead, a once towering leader whose main function involves buoying the spirit of war-weary Britain.

In this version, Churchill drinks too much, treats subordinates cruelly and refuses to listen to his devoted but pragmatically oriented wife (Amanda Richardson). She realizes that Churchill is past his prime.

For his part, Churchill worries that the landing at Normandy will mirror World War I events at Gallipoli in which some 56,000 soldiers died and for which Churchill felt a personal responsibility. He had helped engineer what became a disastrous mission.

Mad Men's John Slattery portrays Eisenhower, Julian Wadham appears as Montgomery, and James Purefoy has a touching moment as King George VI, who's called upon to back Churchill down from a plan to be present during the invasion.

The movie probably would have benefited from a little more ambition and a lot more scope -- and that goes for the way the movie approaches Churchill, as well.

As it stands, director Jonathan Teplitzky has made a minor entry into the cinematic literature of the war. It's a bit like having only one chapter of what should have been a multi-volume endeavor.

An artist vs a crushing bureaucracy

The last film from a revered Polish director.

Afterimage is the final film from Polish director Andrzej Wajda, who died in October of last year. In this final cinematic outing, Wajda returns to the period of Soviet oppression in Poland by focusing on the declining years of artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski. Strzeminski, a painter who lost and arm and a leg during World War I, continued to work and teach until the government made his life impossible.

Strzeminski supported socialist revolution, but eventually found himself at odds with apparatchiks in the Polish bureaucracy. Influenced by Moscow, Polish Communists insisted that art adhere to the principals of Soviet Realism. Strzeminski was too much of an individualist to follow any such propagandistic model.

We meet Strzeminski, played by Boguslaw Linda, at a time when he is estranged from his wife, the sculptor Katarzyna Kobro. He receives help from his 12-year-old daughter (Bronislawa Zamachowska), a girl who doesn't entirely know what to make of a father who barely looks up from his work when she arrives at his apartment with food.

For his part, Strzeminski believes that every artist must express and defend a unique vision. We don't see much of Strzeminski's vibrantly colored work, but Linda's performance fully captures Strzeminski's devotion to art and to his students while also chronicling the increasing desperation faced by an artist who is having the life choked out of him.

At one point, an art supply store refuses to sell Strzeminski paint because he lacks the proper, government-approved credential. He's forced into a series of demeaning jobs, including painting oversized posters of Stalin. If all that weren't enough torment, Strezeminski contracts a fatal case of tuberculosis.

American audiences may not know much about Strzeminski's art, but Wajda seems less interested in celebrating the artist's work than in focusing on the torments that were inflicted on artists who refused to allow their work to become a tool of the state.

Strzeminski is offered many opportunities to sell-out and make his life easier. But even when he's close to starvation, he won't submit.

That's the film in a nutshell, and it underscores Wajda's lifelong commitment to showing what it means to go against party lines. As such, Afterimage becomes a fitting capstone to a remarkable career that spanned from the 1950s into the 21st Century.*

*If you're interested in revisiting Wajda's films, you may wish to seek out Kanal (1956), Ashes and Diamonds (1958), Man of Marble (1978), Man of Iron (1981) and Danton (1983).

David Lynch at work in his studio

You could devote a considerable part of a lifetime trying to understand David Lynch, the artist and director whose cinematic creations include Eraser Head, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. Lynch's movies are known for their alluring beauty, alarming images, and cryptic layers that seem to seep from Lynch's unfiltered subconscious. The new documentary -- David Lynch: An Art Life -- may not answer every question you might raise about Lynch, who's now 71. But the movie shows how Lynch spends much of his time in Los Angeles. Shot mostly in Lynch's studio, the film finds Lynch at work on various paintings while he talks about his life in revealing chunks selected from interviews conducted by the filmmakers. Directors Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm offer glimpses of Lynch's work, supplementing views of art with personal material from the Lynch family album. So if you want to watch Lynch smoke cigarettes, apply paint and affix various substances to canvases, this might be your only chance. And, of course, everything the directors show is set against Lynch's homespun affect, which -- despite his constant cigarette smoking -- has a small-town quality that seems instantly at odds with the images that spring from his mind. At times, you'll think that you understand the origin of this or that theme or even a specific image from Lynch's film work. But The Art Life spends relatively little time on Lynch's filmography, opting instead for the quiet of a cluttered studio. In a review of a 2014 Philadelphia show of Lynch's paintings, New York Times art critic Ken Johnson posed a relevant question. Is Lynch's work on canvas as compelling as his work in film. Johnson voted "no," and I'm inclined to agree, although Lynch himself makes no claims to any special status in the art world. Still, the documentary's title and its views of Lynch at work suggest the kind of absorption in the moment of creation that might just define Lynch's deepest pleasure and his keenest aspiration.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

She fights for world peace

Gal Gadot and Chris Pine click in an enjoyable Wonder Woman.

It has epic scale, unforced humor, genuine star chemistry and, of course, a female main character. We're talking about Wonder Woman, an enjoyable new addition to the endless stream of comic-book movies that have seized the popular culture, holding it in a sometimes suffocating grip.

But Wonder Woman is a DC Comics movie with an important difference. Because Wonder Woman's main character can be naive about the nature of the humans she encounters, the movie freely can substitute innocence and conviction for hard-bitten cynicism.

In the hands of director Patty Jenkins (Monster), Wonder Woman introduces us to a character with roots in Greek mythology. From an island where Amazon warrior women train to the cratered battlefields of World War I, Wonder Woman makes it clear that Princess Diana, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, has but one objective: bringing peace to the world.

Early on, we learn that the Amazons have conflicting ideas about Diana's destiny. Diana's mother (Connie Nielsen) wants to protect her daughter from the violent life. Diana's aunt (Robin Wright) insists that the girl learn the arts of combat.

Scenes on the all-women island march to a mythic cadence that allows for introduction of the Amazon women's approach to life and for exploration of their relationship to the gods.

Life on the island mostly seems happy until the real world intrudes. A pilot crashes into the ocean off the island's coast. Diana, who has never seen a man before, rushes to the rescue. Pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is being chased by Germans who know that he's a spy who has stolen vital information from the German high command.

Diana eventually leaves her island paradise with Steve: She believes it is her duty to end the slaughter of World War I, something she plans to accomplish by slaying Ares, the god of war. Diana doesn't care that her plan may seem wacky to everyone else. Diana's view: Men only make war when they fall under the evil influence of Ares, rogue son of Zeus.

We know that Diana will be up to the task because we've already seen her spin in the air in captivating slo-mo. We also know that she has powers even she doesn't fully understand.

Jenkins has lots of fun with scenes in London where our super-heroine confronts the peculiar demands of life among ordinary humans. These include suggestions that Diana wear dresses rather than her regular outfit, which boasts a Wonder Woman tiara, a cape, an armored bustier and short shorts.

Diana also carries a shield, a sword and a glowing Lasso of Truth, not exactly routine accoutrements on the streets of London, circa 1918.

Steve rounds up a colorful crew to accompany Diana to the front. Steve's cohorts include a guy who knows how to work the angles in any situation (Said Taghmaoui), a Native American scout (Eugene Brave Rock) and a sharp-shooter (Ewen Bremner) with a lilting singing voice.

We also meet a British politician who says he wants to negotiate an armistice (David Thewlis) and a secretary (Lucy Davis) who works for Steve and adds plenty of spark.

Villainy arrives courtesy of German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his hideous chemist colleague (Elena Anaya), a woman whose ability to develop lethal gasses has earned her an appropriate nickname: "Doctor Poison."

Gadot claims star status, handling the title-character with charm, sincerity, finesse and a look that exudes beauty and good health. It also doesn't hurt that she and Pine seem to have figured out the intricacies that make for good comic and romantic chemistry or that, at various times, Diana offers crowd-pleasing insistence on her total independence from male authority. It's something she takes for granted.

Those who crave action will find plenty of it: from the training grounds of Diana's island home to the trenches of World War I to a finale that's loaded with the clangor of the customary effects. Wouldn't it have been amazing had Diana, who speaks dozens of languages, been allowed to resolve the movie's problems with more brain than super-power brawn?

Oh well, what can we expect from a movie in which Diana lifts a tank and tosses it as if weighed little more than a Frisbee? Wonder Woman is, after all, a comic-book movie -- and it earns a place among the best of them.

Giving life to the newly dead

As a regular reader of New York Times obituaries, I was keenly interested in director Vanessa Gould's Obit, a documentary about the journalists who write obituaries for the Times and the department in which they toil. The journalists you'll meet are smart, dedicated and thoughtful about their work. The key to the Times's approach: Obits are written for the Times only when they have news value. That could mean a subject accomplished something unusual, achieved fame, became notorious or was a person of demonstrable historical importance. Much of the commentary comes from Bruce Weber (shown above), who talks about his approach, his anxieties (fear of mistakes) and the pressures of writing on deadline. Equally important, Gould asks the Times's obit team to discuss how decisions are made about the amount of attention any noteworthy death receives. Will it appear on Page 1? Will it be referred to with a headline and capsule description on Page 1? Will it lead the obituary section or be placed in a secondary position? Interviews are enriched with clips and photos from the various lives under discussion. If you're an avid newspaper reader, you won't want to miss this informative and entertaining documentary -- and you'll come away with a good feeling for those who labor to bring eloquence and information to the passing parade of lives that helped define their times.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

This 'Pirates' tells a cluttered tale

The approach in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales: Load up on effects.

Nobody has directed better Pirates of the Caribbean movies than Gore Verbinski. Verbinski, who took charge of three Pirate voyages beginning in 2003, has a flair for visual comedy that enlivened the Pirates movies he brought to the screen.

But we're now on the fifth Pirates movie and directing chores for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales have been assumed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, the duo that directed Kon-Tiki, the story of Thor Heyerdahl, the explorer who made a 4,300-mile crossing of the Pacific on a raft.

In this mega-production, Ronning and Sandberg succumb to the temptation to pump up the volume as they showcase Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow and Geoffrey Rush's Captain Hector Barbossa, two portraits that show their wear.

The directors bolster familiar performances with a new crew that includes a ghastly looking villain who has lost an ample portion of his head, Javier Bardem's Captain Salazar. We also meet two new young actors (Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario).

Before I tell you anything else, let me confess that if I never saw Jack Sparrow again my life would in no way feel depleted, and even the movie's addition of a father/son and father/daughter dynamic didn't do much to enrich a summer entertainment that overdoses on effects. These include a rickety ship with a hull that opens to swallow its victims whole, ghost sharks, ghost pirates and a parting of the sea that might make Moses do a double take.

A plot that has been stuffed like a Thanksgiving Turkey finds British naval officers chasing young Thwaites's Henry, who is searching for Jack Sparrow and trying to lift the curse that separated him from his father. The Brits also pursue Scodelario's character, an astronomer who believes she knows how to locate Poseidon's much-sought-after Trident.

Thwaites Henry and Scodelario's Carina are the movie's love interests, but their romance hardly makes the pulse beat faster. She resists; he persists. We've seen it all before.

And yes, that's Paul McCartney who appears behind a great, bushy beard in a fleeting cameo.

Bardem's Salazar circles the movie in search of revenge against Jack Sparrow, the pirate responsible for sinking Salazar's ship when he was a respectable Spanish sea captain -- or some such. Salazar winds up as captain of a ghost ship.

Ronning and Sandberg tend to flood the plot with waves of effects, gliding camera moves and lots of shtick from Depp.

Nearly every moment of this edition is served to the accompaniment of Geoff Zanelli's unavoidable score, which struck me as an attempt to add momentum and meaning to events that might not carry much weight on their own.

Having said all that, it also should be noted that Dead Men Tell No Tales probably manufactures enough verve to satisfy audiences that can't get enough of this stuff.

If you've managed to set sale without these Pirates until now, Ronning and Sandberg provide little reason to change your behavior. But fans will turn out -- if only to continue the game of ranking the Pirates movies from best to worst. And, no, I doubt whether the game is over.

He watches life evolve without him

Brian Cranston stars in Wakefield, the story of a father and husband who withdraws from his life.

A capsule summary of Wakefield suggests that it's mildly miraculous that the movie ever got made. Here's a movie that takes place almost entirely inside of one man's head. That man, evidently at wit's end with his repetitive suburban life, suddenly deserts his job and family.

A night spent in his garage attic after a late arrival home turns into months as Howard Wakefield observes activities in his home through a window in the room where his family has been storing its junk. Howard becomes an observer of his wife and two daughters, and his thoughts serve as a narration for a movie about a selfish character who becomes a dubious spokesman for upper-middle-class men who hate their lives.

Never mind that Howard is a successful partner in a Manhattan law firm or that his wife, Diana, is beautiful or that his twin daughters seem to be growing up without any real problems. Howard is fed up with his marriage, but -- at the same time -- lacks the guts to tell his wife that he wants out.

If anyone but Brian Cranston were playing Howard, the movie might have been unwatchable. But Cranston takes us inside Howard's mind, allowing us to see what's happening in the house through Howard's often jaundiced, sometimes sarcastic point of view. Howard tries to make us conspirators in an act of unparalleled irresponsibility.

Director Robin Swicord, who also wrote the screenplay for Wakefield, uses flashbacks at times and eventually allows Howard to leave the house. His appearance degenerates: Starting as a competent looking executive, he morphs into a bearded bum, leaving his attic perch only when he must do some scavaging. He claims to feel a new-found freedom.

Wakefield takes a big risk: We're watching Howard watch the movie of the life he abandoned as he spews a stream of dialog that sounds as if it were lifted from a novel. At times, you wonder whether we should be reading Howard's story, not watching it.

As Howard's wife, Jennifer Garner does her best to define the stages of Diana's adjustment to Howard's disappearance: Grief and panic gradually give way to acceptance.

We also learn that during his marriage, Howard was prone to express unwarranted jealousy to his wife, even when she was doing little more than being sociable at parties.

I suppose the irony of all this is that if Howard saw himself as superfluous before his vanishing act, his disappearance only serves to reinforce his conclusion.

Perhaps it's best to think of Wakefield as an experimental movie with an A-list cast. The experiment proves only partially successful, perhaps because it's difficult not to be a little too aware of the pitfalls such a solipsistic story faces and the strategies Swicord uses to overcome them.

Daring to plan for a wedding

An Israeli movie overcomes its high-concept premise.

Michal, an Orthodox Jewish woman living in Jerusalem, has everything aligned for her wedding. She's arranged for the hall, selected the menu for the reception and purchased her gown. She's missing only one thing: A groom.

That's the premise of director Rama Burshtein's The Wedding Plan, a slightly cracked romantic comedy; i.e., one without a male protagonist. Yes, that sounds like high-concept nonsense, but the movie transcends such confining boundaries, probably because of Burshtein's good-humored affection for the characters who populate her story.

Most of the movie centers on 32-year-old Michal (Noa Koler). As Koler's Michal puts it: She's sick of being the guest at Shabbat dinners. She wants to be the wife who does the inviting.

For Michal, romance may be important, but marriage also represents a way for her to make the most authentic connection to the world she inhabits.

Early on, Michal is about to be married. When her fiancé (Erez Drigues) tells her that he doesn't love her, Michal's plan crumbles. The prospective groom is willing to honor his commitment, but a dejected Michal doesn't want to marry someone who approaches the pending nuptials with nothing more than resignation.

Burshtein then contrives to give Michal three weeks to find a husband, and, no, I'm not telling you what happens.

As the story unfolds, Burshtein, herself an Orthodox Jew, provides Michal with an opportunity to pursue a more secular relationship, but it becomes clear that Michal won't be able to live with a marriage that challenges the beliefs and practices with which she's been raised -- even if her pursuer, perhaps improbably, is an Israeli rock star (Oz Zehav).

Michal also goes on arranged dates as she looks for eligible candidates. She receives support from her single friend Feggie (Ronny Merhavi) and from her sister (Dafi Alpern), who seems to be in the midst of her own perpetually rocky marriage.

It takes a while to realize that Wedding Plan wants to take a lighthearted, down-to-Earth approach to faith. Michal tests her's by planning to go through with a wedding; her determination serves as a source of inspiration and bemusement to the quizzical owner of the hall (Amos Tamam) she has rented.

Koler is at once emotionally open, calculating and uncertain as the movie tests Michal's resolve, but she's willing to put her faith on the line.

It's almost as if she's saying to the Deity, "Hey, if you want me to live in a certain way, I'll do my part, but it would be nice if you helped."

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Few laughs wash ashore in 'Baywatch'

Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron are lifeguards in a movie that never convinces that it has any reason to exist.

Why anyone wanted to turn a beach-boob-and-muscle TV series into a movie is beyond me. But that didn't stop director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses and Identity Thief) from taking on the challenge of creating a big-screen version of Baywatch.

In its new version, the always buffed Dwayne Johnson teams with an equally buffed Zac Efron to create a movie that tries to parody something that already looked like parody, a lame bit of 1990s TV that developed a following among those who liked pecs, peek-a-boo bathing suits and unblemished skin.

Mixing hard bodies with a soft-headed mystery involving drugs and real estate, Baywatch is neither funny nor tense enough to drive the movie to whatever destination it may have been trying to reach.

Despite a few attempts at self-referential hipness (cameos from David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson among them), the movie's humor mostly dips as low as the bikinis the Baywatch women wear.

Johnson's Mitch runs the Baywatch lifeguard squad like a military unit; he insists that the lifeguards devote themselves to protecting a stretch of Florida beach as if it were Fort Knox.

As part of a PR ploy, Mitch is forced to hire a disgraced Olympic medalist (Efron) who begins the movie as a kind of selfish outlier but (here's a surprise) eventually accepts the group ethos.

To further fulfill the demands of contemporary comedy, the movie adds the obligatory nerdy guy to its muscular mix. Jon Bass plays Ronnie, a guy who's accepted as a lifeguard trainee because he has "heart." The movie's first big joke involves Ronnie, an erection and a beach chair with slats. It's not the last penis joke, either.

Despite his bean-bag physique, Ronnie seems to catch the eye of a bombshell, run-in-slow-mo lifeguard played by Kelly Rohrbach.

Priyanka Chopra who plays Victoria, the villain of the piece, a woman with murderous plans to acquire every bit of real estate in the bay area.

A local cop (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) wonders why a group of lifeguards are getting themselves involved in crime. You may share his consternation, but then it's probably not fair to expect a Baywatch movie to make much sense.

About three-quarters of the way through, the script finds a way to sideline Johnson and allow Efron to dominate the proceedings, a major mistake.

Forget the movie's amped-up ocean rescues: Someone was needed to rescue a screenplay that should have been beached.

If you're looking for a movie that has some laughs and effectively deals with the idiocy of bygone TV shows, try Mindhorn, a British comedy available on Netflix. It actually manages to find some laughs in telling the story of a washed-up TV hero who's asked to help solve a real-life murder

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Ridley Scott again unleashes monsters

The creator of the original Alien delivers an accomplished helping of sci-fi and horror -- but some of the thrill is gone.

Everyone who's old enough, probably remembers their first viewing of Alien , the Ridley Scott-directed movie that in 1979 landed a direct hit to the pit of the stomach. Besides being a masterclass exercise in generating tension, Alien also helped temper the optimistic buoyancy of movies such as 1977's Close Encounters of a Third Kind. Scott brought cynicism and dread to the galaxy, offering a view of space that was industrialized, gritty and full of terrifying dangers.

James Cameron's Aliens added booming urgency and scale to the groundwork Scott had done. And, of course, there were two additional movies, neither of which found quite the same purchase in the pop-cultural landscape or should we say "spacescape?"

Scott again picks up his creature cudgels with Alien: Covenant, a sequel to his 2012 Prometheus, as well as a prequel to Alien.

In Prometheus, Scott played with big ideas and made his most memorable character an android played by Michael Fassbender, who gave his synthetic creation traces of scalding wit. Unfortunately, the serious talk in Prometheus sometimes clashed with the action Scott may have felt compelled to deliver.

Set in 2104, Alien: Covenant isn't exactly free of ideas, either. They're laid out in the movie's chilly opening -- a conversation between an android (Fassbender) and his maker (Guy Pearce). The two discuss the nature of creation and the ability of a creation to surpass its creator. The android sounds an eerie note that suggests the inherent inferiority of human life. "You will die. I will not,'' says the robot.

Little in Scott's movie matches the ominous elegance of this prolog which takes place in a large white room that looks as if it might have been inspired by Stanley Kubrick's 2001.

But ideas eventually fall prey to the expected shocks in which newly designed horrific looking creatures burst from backs or chests or latch onto the faces of their victims.

The story involves a space ship named Covenant, which is being run by an android named David. The crew has been put into deep-space sleep as the ship heads toward a distant planet with some 20,000 colonists on board. The implication: Humans must leave a fully exploited Earth.

The plan goes awry when a space storm awakens the crew, which almost immediately faces a temptation that we know will lead to trouble. A signal -- John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads -- emanates from a planet that's closer than the ship's original destination. Could years be shaved from the Covenant's planned seven-year journey by finding a closer and apparently habitable planet?

Katherine Waterston plays a crew member who loses her husband, the ship's captain, during the sudden reawakening. Another officer (Billy Crudup) assumes command of the small crew, which includes Danny McBride, Demian Bichir and Carmen Ejogo.

It gives you some idea about the effort that goes into characterization to know that McBride's character is called Tennessee. He wears a cowboy hat. Do you need (or want) to know anything more?

Nowhere near as memorable as the original Alien crew, this group of voyagers winds up buffeted by a conflict between Waterston's evidence-based character and a man more inclined to take things on faith (Crudup).

Additional conflict arises between two robots, both ably played by Fassbender: the android of the prologue -- named David -- and a later model named Walter. David proves the more mission-oriented to the two. Having absorbed what he needs from humankind, the sinister Walter sees no reason for keeping people around.

Scott spends significant amounts of time on the planet that the Covenant reaches, thus sacrificing the extreme claustrophobia that turned the first movie into a white-knuckle masterpiece.

Not surprisingly, the movie's peripherals are all expertly handled by the veteran Scott and his crew: from the look of the spacecraft to the idyllic surface of a planet where the crew encounters monsters capable of working their way into human bodies in a variety of ways.

Alien: Covenant arrives wrapped in a convincing package. For some, that will be enough, but for those who regard the original Alien as a breakthrough movie, it's difficult not to see Alien: Covenant as a slightly depleted helping of a once stunning pop-cultural landmark, something like a well-made TV series that continues to entertain even after it has lost much of its juice.

Was he a contender or a pretender?

Liev Schreiber scores a knock-out in a so-so boxing picture about Chuck Wepner, the reputed real Rocky Balboa.

If I were considering making a movie about Chuck Wepner, the obscure New Jersey boxer who rose to sudden prominence when he fought Muhammad Ali in 1975, the last person I'd think of to play Wepner would be Liev Schreiber. Wepner was a hulk of a man whose native Bayonne left him with a raspy Jersey accent. Schreiber, on the other hand, has one of the most melodic and precise voices in show business.

But something about Wepner evidently caught Schreiber's fancy because he not only stars as Wepner in the new movie Chuck but serves as one of the movie's producers.

Schreiber knew what he was doing. His portrayal of Wepner, a boxer who was treated as the Rodney Dangerfield of boxing (no respect) is spot-on. Wepner was dubbed "the Bayonne bleeder," not exactly a moniker to strike fear in the hearts of opponents.

Schreiber ably captures the struggle that marked much of Wepner's life: He wanted to be somebody important -- not just a guy many regarded as a Bayonne-based club fighter.

For Wepner, a loss to Ali became a triumph as well as the reputed inspiration for Sylvester Stallone's Rocky. Wepner made it all the way to the fight's 15th round before Ali finished him off. Most sports people thought Wepner wouldn't survive three rounds.

Wepner became a kind of fill-in fight for Ali after the champ's fabled Rumble In the Jungle with George Foreman. But Wepner, who actually had a respectable pro record, became one of the few men ever to knock Ali down, landing The Greatest on his butt in round nine.

Director Philippe Falardeau (The Good Lie and Monsieur Lazhar) sets Wepner's story against the well-defined Jersey backdrop that bred Wepner and his pal John (Jim Gaffigan). The two men drink, snort cocaine and party hard enough to ruin Wepner's marriage to his wife Phyliss (a terrific Elisabeth Moss).

Wepner later meets Linda (Naomi Watts), the woman credited with helping him straighten out his life after a stint in the slammer. Wepner was busted for cocaine possession about 10 years after his championship bout.

Additional support is provided by Ron Perlman, as Wepner's manager, and Michael Rapaport as Wepner's disapproving brother. Rapaport's John hated the way the increasingly dissolute Wepner treated his daughter. Wepner always seemed to be seeking public adulation rather than accepting the love of those closest to him.

Perhaps in an effort to distinguish his movie from Hollywood's large boxing-movie card, Falardeau puts the big fight in the middle of the movie, devoting most of the Chuck's post-fight story to Wepner's precipitous, self-induced decline.

At one point, Wepner meets Sylvester Stallone. I had trouble buying Morgan Spector as Stallone; Pooch Hall makes a more credible Ali, but these are minor distractions in a movie in which every actor works overtime trying to capture his or her inner Jersey.

None of this is to say that Chuck makes it through its 98-minute running time without being bloodied. We've seen too many movies about the way lives were ruined by drugs during the 1980s. We've also seen too many movies about the way a boxer reaches a peak and then squanders any success he might have achieved. The great distinction with Wepner is that his stature derived from a loss.

The movie also belabors Wepner's obsession with movies. His favorite: 1962's Requiem for a Heavyweight, which starred Anthony Quinn as Louis "Mountain'' Rivera, a down-and-out pug who spent his time clinging to a dream about what he could have been. When Rocky becomes a smash, Wepner totally identifies himself with the movie, so much so that he thinks he deserves congratulations when Rocky wins an Oscar for best picture.

Wepner's delusions are meant to be sad, but by now, we've seen so many boxing films that chart rises, declines and redemptions that the scenario feels played out, almost to the point where there's not enough film to support its many fine performances.

Still, Schreiber's knock-out work may be enough to carry you through the movie, and Moss, familiar from TV's Mad Men, again proves that she's one of the most capable actresses around. Her Phyliss is not a woman to be messed with.

So, a reserved endorsement for Chuck. Like its main character, the movie stumbles and lumbers, but manages to survive.

A girl in a bubble falls in love

Amandla Stenberg played Rue in The Hunger Games, an adaptation of a popular piece of YA fiction. In Everything, Everything, Stenberg returns to the YA universe, this time in a less-than-credible story about an 18-year-old who suffers from an immune deficiency so severe it has made her allergic to nearly everything. Stenberg's Maddie lives in a fairly luxurious bubble. She shares a sealed, modern home with her mother (Anika Toni Rose), a physician. When new folks move next door, young Olly (Nick Robinson)tries to break through Maddie's hermetic shields. Taken with Olly, Maddie wants out of the house in which she's spent her whole life. She's eager to pursue her first love interest. Not surprisingly Maddie's mother objects: Having already lost her husband and a son in an automobile accident, Mom can't abide losing another child. Director Stella Meghie understands how to showcase two appealing young actors, but the movie gets worse, the more you think about it. Based on a well-received novel by Nicola Yoon, Everything, Everything may satisfy its teen audience, but it translates to the screen as YA fluff with major plot holes. And in this romantic fantasy, an isolated girl sports a surprisingly large and trendy wardrobe for a kid who never leaves the house.

Married, but philandering

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts are fine, but the characters in The Lovers aren't drawn with enough vigor.

Like an overdose of maple syrup, a lush musical score flows over The Lovers, a laid-back look at a marriage gone stale. Yuk.

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts play the movie's principal roles, a husband and wife whose marriage has gone well past its expiration date. Despite that, neither character seems able to shake free.

Both Winger and Letts appear game for either a comic look at withered love or a serious drama about a husband and his disillusioned wife, both of whom are involved in extramarital affairs. Director Azazel Jacobs seems to split the difference. He alternates between one affair and the other without lighting any real fire, and The Lovers feels wan.

Winger's Mary has become involved with a writer (Aidan Gillen) who wants a more serious relationship. Same goes for the dancer (Melora Walters) with whom Letts' Michael is having an affair. She, too, craves a "relationship" that involves more than sex.

To keep things running smoothly, Mary and Michael have promised their respective lovers that they will resolve issues in their marriage and move on -- just as soon as the couple's son (Tyler Ross) finishes a visit during a break from college. This visit provides the catalyst that upsets the status quo and forces the story off dead center.

Winger ably portrays an unsatisfied woman who also struggles with a conflicted conscience, and Letts does his part as a husband whose philandering seems to have a longer history than his wife's. But few scenes reach a boiling point, and Jacobs, who also wrote the screenplay, focuses his energy on two characters who aren't as interesting as the situation in which they find themselves -- and that's not all that intriguing, either.

The actors, especially Winger, keep The Lovers watchable, but ultimately can't give it memorable life.

Poetry and pain in a New England life

Cynthia Nixon joins director Terence Davies for A Quiet Passion, a movie about Emily Dickinson.
During her lifetime, only a few of Emily Dickinson's poems were published. Most of Dickinson's work received attention after her death in 1886. For most of her 55 years, Dickinson led what most would regard as an isolated life, which makes her a fine subject for director Terence Davies, a filmmaker who understands the mournful qualities of lives tormented by big questions.

The best of Davies' work (Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes) survive as personal masterpieces, cinematic constructions haunted by the sadness of once-vibrant lives lost to the obliterating mists of history. In A Quiet Passion, Davies brings a meticulous awareness to the story of a poet who spent her final years living in isolation in her native Massachusetts.

No one who's familiar with Davies' work will be surprised that there's an alarming quiet in Davies' new film, a sense of how life was lived before the intrusion of the contemporary noise which inundates and distracts us. That silence can be taken as a ferociously empty backdrop against which lives rattle on, some -- like Dickinson's -- with an acute awareness of their finite nature.

Early on, we meet Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) as a student at Mount Holyoke College, where she's immersed in a severe religious environment that ill-suited her exploratory mind. When her father (Keith Carradine) comes to retrieve her with her brother (Duncan Duff) and sister (Jennifer Ehle), Dickinson couldn't be happier. She wryly confesses that such a severe dose of evangelism has made her ill.

Upon returning home, Dickinson asks her father if he would object if she wrote during the quiet of night. He agrees. She begins her engagement with her life's work.

Dickinson charted a deep course, indulging her preoccupation with the frailties of the body and with life's ultimate destination, the grave. "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,'' is one of the Dickinson poems you might want to read as an accompaniment to Davies' movie, which -- of course -- offers bits and pieces of other Dickinson poems.

Much of the movie involves domestic scenes in Dickinson's home: arguments with her father when she refuses to attend church, entreaties by her sister Lavinia to open her heart to living, disapproval of her brother Austin's affair, and her relationship with Austin's wife (Jodhi May). Dickinson also becomes infatuated with a married pastor (Eric Loren) whose wife (Simone Milsdochter) seems to have one quality: reproach.

Early scenes receive a comic lift from the bumptious hypocrisy of Dickinson's aunt (Annette Badland), who writes bad poetry. Dickinson's mother (Joanna Bacon) remains emotionally distant from the affairs of the household.

We also meet Emily's demonstrative friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a woman who has little use for the rules of society but who ultimately submits to social pressures that require her to marry.

At one point, Davies creates an interlude about the Civil War, the violent tragedy that raged during Dickinson's time. He does this by showing photos from Gettysburg and Antietam.

As much as anything, A Quiet Passion makes us feel the aching emptiness of the present, and the movie unfolds with the resonance of a deliberate footfall on a hardwood floor.

Nixon creates a Dickinson who's fiercely independent and yet enmeshed in the life of her family. Eventually, she retreats to her room and, for the most part, remains there.

I can't say that I wasn't a trifle bored at times, but Davies seeks to enlighten us about the incongruities of the period: The quest for transcendence set against the starched rigors of parlor life, for example. A Quiet Passion isn't for every taste, but like Dickinson, Davies always goes his own way, an increasingly estimable quality in today's cinema of formula and cant.

Sisterhood in an Italian asylum

She charts a rebellious course
In Like Crazy, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi plays a woman who has been committed to a mental institution, but never drops the hauteur that she brings with her. For Tedeschi's Beatrice, the institution resembles a family estate over which she (not the doctors or nurses) presides. Director Paolo Virzi also introduces us to Donatella (Micaela Ramazzotti), a new patient who initially resists Beatrice's guidance, but who eventually falls under the older woman's spell. Viewers may not be able to resist comparisons to Thelma & Louise, a better picture about two women on a journey toward independence. Like Crazy eventually provides Beatrice and Donatella with an opportunity to escape the institution; they have adventures as the screenplay hints at a dark secret that torments Donatella. The two actresses keep the movie percolating, but the delusional Beatrice becomes a handful for everyone she encounters -- and that includes an audience that may find her incessant chatter a bit much. Virzi doesn't seem to solve the movie's problem; i.e., defining a line between mad and sane behavior. Instead, he opts for a tale of sisterhood marked by intermittent charm and an always refreshing dash of Cuckoo's Nest rebellion.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Schumer and Hawn stumble in the jungle

Formula tramples fun in this early summer comedy.

It has been 15 years since Goldie Hawn appeared in a movie. Maybe she should have waited a bit longer instead of hitching her star to Snatched, a comedy that teams her with Amy Schumer. Hawn, who has made her share of successful comedies, this time appears in a formula job that elevates raunch in the service of yuks that are few and far between -- at least for me.

Widely regarded as one of the funnier comics on the planet, Schumer received lots of praise for Trainwreck, a 2015 comedy that she wrote and which Judd Apatow directed. But Schumer didn't write Snatched. That job fell to Katie Dippold, whose credits include the recent Ghostbusters movie (not good) and The Heat (better).

Here, Dippold, with a forgettable assist from director Jonathan Levine (The Night Before and Warm Bodies), provides a platform to showcase Schumer's willingness to go raunchy in ways that become a form of feminist assertion -- and, at least in the past, have hit paydirt.

Schumer plays Emily, a young woman who loses both her job and her boyfriend in the movie's opening scenes. To make matters worse, Emily is stuck with two tickets to Ecuador, a country she planned to visit with the boyfriend who decided he could do better.

Unable to persuade any friend to accompany her to Ecuador, Emily coerces her reluctant mother (Hawn) into joining her for an adventure. Emily also has a brother (Ike Barinholtz), an emotionally hampered adult who still lives with his mother and who's unable to leave the house. Why? Because he's the comedy's demonstrably (and annoyingly) neurotic character -- as opposed to Emily, a character defined by her self-absorption.

Once in Ecuador, Emily is lured into a trap that results in mother and daughter being kidnapped. During the course of their prolonged escape, Emily manages to put a spear through someone's throat for what she insists should be seen as an "accidental murder." She also must rid herself of a colossally sized tape worm that's extracted from her mouth by a couple of locals who lure the bug from her by dangling a hunk of meat in front of Emily's face, perhaps the movie's biggest laugh.

Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack appear in roles that could have added welcome strangeness had they been around more. Their rough-and-ready characters eventually try to rescue Emily and her Mom.

Fairness compels me to tell you that a preview audience reacted more favorably to the movie than I did, but for me, the movie's few random chuckles were matched by a significantly larger number of scowls as I watched two talented women sweat their way through the Amazon.

Lock, stock and a smokin' hot sword

King Arthur gets the Guy Ritchie treatment -- and suffers for it.

In King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, director Guy Ritchie goes medieval on us, and the result is bleary-eyed, loud and full of summer-movie bluster.

Ritchie, who broke onto the international film scene with his kinetic gangster epic, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and who brought us a couple of big-ticket Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey Jr., goes further back in history, but, unfortunately, brings his adrenalized sensibilities along with him.

These emerging Knights of the Round Table talk with cockney-inflected accents as Ritchie tells an origins story about how King Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) came to lead his kingdom. In this version, a young Arthur escapes slaughter by an evil king wannabe named Vortigern (Jude Law). Vortigern robs Arthur of his throne by killing the boy's father (Eric Bana), an actor who amazingly manages to look composed in the midst of all the visual chaos.

Raised in a brothel as a child of the streets, Arthur's story begins in earnest when he pulls Excalibur, his father's sword, from the rock where it has been embedded for most of the young man's life. Arthur's feat is accompanied by an oops. Once Vortigern knows where the real heir to throne is, he sees only one option: Arthur must be killed.

Meanwhile, a multi-cultural band of comrades -- notably Djimon Hounsou's Bedivere and Tom Wu's George -- goad a reluctant Arthur toward his destiny.

Ritchie heaves shards of Arthur's story at us in ways that add confusion to a narrative that seems to have been invented to support a variety of booming set pieces. In one of them, Arthur visits the Dark Lands to fight bats and rats as part of his inner journey; i.e., before he can triumph, Arthur must remember the murder of his mother and father at the hands of Law's evil Vortigern.

In many respects, Ritchie's approach to the Arthurian legend owes more to Marvel Comics than it does to English mythology. One difference: It's not Arthur who has super powers, but his sword. Arthur must learn to wield this glowing weapon throughout the course of a cluttered, 126-minute running time.

The movie's editing style seems to have been inspired by the desire to inflict a thousand cuts on any given moment. Accompanied by Daniel Pemberton's pounding score, the movie barrels its way through action sequences that produce more frenzy than coherence.

When Arthur swings his sword, the movie slows down as if it's showing us the way an athlete enters what some call "the zone." Arthur perceives everything in slow motion, vanquishing foe after foe with an ease he barely remembers when the carnage stops, and the movie renews its double-time pacing.

Arthur's attempts to impress with scale are obvious from the outset: The movie's opening -- a prolog, really -- offers displays of carnage featuring mammoth creatures that resemble the kind of elephants that might appear as floats if a Thanksgiving parade were run by Satanists.

Hunnam takes a step back after his work in The Lost of City Z, which made room for subtlety. Think Crimson Peak and Pacific Rim, in which Hunnam also appeared. But in fairness to Hunnam, a set of leather pants, a buffed torso, and a street-wise attitude do not a character make.

Looking as if he's reprising the most malicious moments of the character he played in HBO's The Young Pope, Law supplies the expected hiss/boo helping of murderous villainy.

Astrid Berges-Frisbey adds a feminine touch as The Mage, some sort of magical character who helps Arthur realize his role this teeming fantasy world.

I suppose Ritchie deserves some credit for trying not to genuflect at the feet of a well-worn legend, but he drags the story of Arthur into the dirt and never allows it to shake off the mud.

Ritchie batters an estimable story, and, I'm afraid, it winds up beating him to a pulp.

Serial killers in Australia's Perth

Director Ben Young has skills, but has he applied them to the right subject?

Generally speaking, criticism has more to do with "how" than with "what;" i.e., subject matter often proves less relevant to reviewers than the effectiveness with which that subject is handled. Sometimes, though, subject matter becomes an unavoidable part of formulating an informed opinion.

I thought about this while watching Hounds of Love, an Australian thriller in which a normal-looking couple from Perth abducts and kills young women. Set during the 1980s, the movie has been praised for director Ben Young's discretion. For the most part, Young keeps the movie's torture and violence off screen.

Fair enough, but directorial restraint doesn't mean that the crimes of fictional couple John and Evelyn White aren't felt. At several points, I found myself asking why I was watching. Was there anything to be gained from a such an uncomfortable experience, no matter how well executed by a director who's mounting his first feature?

For me, there were gains, but I'd have to classify them as secondary to my overall concern.

For example, I'd cite the performance of Emma Booth, the actress who plays Evelyn White. Booth's Evelyn wriggles under the thumb of John (Stephen Curry), her control freak of a husband. At times, she feels sympathy for the couple's victims, and for her, abduction of young women can have a double edge, particularly if John is sexually attracted to one of their victims.

The movie, also written by Young, centers on a familiar question. Can the victim, a teen-ager played by Ashleigh Cummings, create enough tension between husband and wife to survive her ordeal?

Cummings' Viki, a 17-year-old whose parents are in the midst of a divorce, defies her mother (Susie Porter) by sneaking out of the house at night to attend a party. The Whites, who are on the prowl, pass by Viki in their car and offer a ride. They seem nice enough, but it's already clear that Viki will be in for a rough ride. She'll end up drugged and bound to a bed, abused and terrorized by these two apparently friendly suburbanites.

It quickly becomes apparent that a mixture of torture and terror fuels the eroticism between Evelyn and John. They're sexually excited by their foul deeds.

Those who see the movie needn't know much more, although it should be noted that Young amps up tension without too much fuss as he allows his imagination to wander from his apparent inspiration: the real-life story of David and Catherine Birnie, a Perth couple who kidnapped and mutilated four young women during the 1980s.

Young begins by allowing his camera voyeuristically to scan the bodies of young women playing ball in a schoolyard. It's only later that we realize we're being exposed to the killers' point-of-view, but these opening images make it clear that Young aims to undermine any sense of ease viewers may feel.

By the end, Hounds of Love has taken on the trappings of a conventional thriller, but I found myself still struggling with the question that bothered me throughout. I guess I wish that Young, who clearly has skills, had tried his hand at something more thematically rewarding than a teen-ager's torment at the hands of a murderous pervert and his cowed partner.