Monday, July 24, 2017

In Theaters: DUNKIRK (2017)

(US - 2017)

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Joachim ten Haaf, Matthew Marsh, Damien Bonnard, Will Attenborough, Bill Milner, voice of Michael Caine. (PG-13, 106 mins)

Christopher Nolan's painstakingly-constructed DUNKIRK brings a harrowing you-are-there immediacy to the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk with an intensity that plays like a feature-length version of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN's opening sequence at Normandy. At 106 minutes, it's Nolan's shortest film since his 1998 pre-MEMENTO debut FOLLOWING, but it never feels less than epic in its presentation and its ambition. One of the few true purists left among A-list filmmakers, Nolan uses the barest minimum of CGI in DUNKIRK, instead going the classic route, shooting on film--mostly with IMAX cameras--with real extras, real locations, real ships, and real planes. For those who don't spend a lot of time watching old movies where such things were more commonplace, the difference is immediately, staggeringly obvious. There's a tangible sense of reality to the aerial shots and the long/wide shots up and down the beach, filled with thousands of extras as British soldiers waiting to be rescued that would've been compromised if done digitally. Nolan's approach to the film stands as proof that no matter how far CGI has progressed (WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is the current standard-bearer as far as fantasy cinema goes), when it comes to recreations of historical events such as this WWII story, the old ways remain the most effective.

There's a scene very late in the 1980 gangster classic THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY where British mob boss Bob Hoskins, trying to sever his ties with gangland past, chews out his New York Mafia partners for backing out of a business deal over fears that his criminal empire will interfere with their legit interests. "Us British," he explains, "We're used to a bit more vitality, imagination, touch of the Dunkirk spirit, know what I mean?" The Dunkirk spirit is present throughout, as Nolan presents three intercut narratives over the course of DUNKIRK: "The Mole," takes place one week before the evacuation; "The Sea" takes place one day before; and "The Air" one hour before. Of course, all three eventually come together, and while it may seem gimmicky, it's in line with Nolan's recurrent motif of playing with time elements (so important to MEMENTO, INCEPTION, and INTERSTELLAR). It works beautifully, with imagery in one tying into and complementing something going on in another, and with occasional characters popping up in other sections as the threads begin to overlap. It's not confusing at all, and it's becoming one of the things that make Christopher Nolan films so unique. "The Mole" focuses on young soldiers Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and later, Alex (One Direction's Harry Styles, who's surprisingly solid in his dramatic acting debut) at Dunkirk, where 400,000 mostly British soldiers are waiting to be evacuated after German forces have pushed them to the edge of the town, making them sitting ducks for German air raids. "The Sea" follows mild-mannered Dawson (BRIDGE OF SPIES Oscar-winner Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter's shy, introverted friend George (Barry Keoghan) as they take Dawson's boat out to sea, joining other civilians and Navy-commandeered private vessels on a dangerous mission to Dunkirk to rescue their officers. "The Air" centers on two Spitfire pilots--Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden)--left on their own after the squad leader is shot down, heading to Dunkirk to take out German planes, with Collins forced to land on the water and Farrier playing guessing games with his fuel after his gauge is damaged in a skirmish.

Nolan presents the stories in a clinical, matter-of-fact fashion. There's very little in the way of personal backstories of the characters (one emotional bit involving Dawson's reasons for partaking int he rescue are mentioned almost as an afterthought), with everything taking place in the moment. While it's debatable whether this leaves a cold chilliness to the human element, it works in the context of DUNKIRK because nothing matters but the evacuation. That doesn't mean there aren't powerful moments for some of the characters, whether it's outcast George going along in order to feel good about contributing to the war effort; or a shell-shocked sole survivor of a U-Boat attack (Cillian Murphy) picked up by Dawson; or the sympathetic Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) demonstrating true leadership in making sure every last soldier is evacuated from the beach. Nolan doesn't engage in jingoism or over-the-top chest-thumping here. The word "Nazi" is never said and German officers are never seen, and if this were made back in the '60s, it would be one of the very few WWII movies with no role for Karl-Otto Alberty. This is a nuts-and-bolts chronicle of the triumph of the human spirit, of a nation pulling together to do what it needs to do, even if it means civilians putting their lives at risk. With very little in the way of dialogue--Nolan's script was only 76 pages long--the film relies on visuals and sound design to tell its story, whether it's the constant, repetitive Hans Zimmer cues with a subtle clock ticking audible in the mix almost constantly, Hoyte van Hotema's cinematography showcasing the vast forever of the sea and the beach, and the terrifying, deafening shriek of German planes as they fly overhead, DUNKIRK transports the audience to another time and place. It also exists in a less divisive time when everyone did their part, and it's only fitting that it's made in such an old-school fashion. A defiant and very welcome "they don't make 'em like they used to anymore" exercise, DUNKIRK establishes Nolan as arguably the best commercial filmmaker working today, at this point boasting an almost Kubrick-ian track record of consistent high quality (the exception being the Nolan-produced sci-fi dud TRANSCENDENCE, which he had the sense to turn over to cinematographer-turned-debuting director Wally Pfister) and one of the few auteurs of his caliber doing everything humanly possible to preserve the classical notion of cinema as it's always been known.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

In Theaters/On VOD: FIRST KILL (2017)

(US/UK - 2017)

Directed by Steven C. Miller. Written by Nick Gordon. Cast: Hayden Christensen, Bruce Willis, Gethin Anthony, Megan Leonard, Tyler Jon Olson, Shea Buckner, Ty Shelton, Will Demeo, Deb Girdley, Magi Avila, Christine Dye. (R, 101 mins)

The latest installment in Lionsgate/Grindstone's landmark "Bruce Willis Phones In His Performance From His Hotel Room" series offers a bit of a stretch for Bruno. He's out and about in this one, sitting in a police cruiser, strolling through town while some extras gawk at him, and walking through the woods, but on several occasions, the former actor demonstrates his seething contempt for both his craft and his colleagues, going full Seagal by being clumsily doubled for shots in which he simply couldn't be bothered to stick around. For instance, in a scene where he's seated in a diner and he's joined by someone, it's Willis in the close-ups, but when there's a cut to an over-the-shoulder shot of the actor who's in the booth across from him, Willis is doubled from the back by a bald stand-in with a narrower head and ears that stick out, almost as if director Steven C. Miller (who previously tolerated Willis' lack of commitment to EXTRACTION and MARAUDERS) is passive-aggressively calling out the star's laziness. It gets even worse later on, when Willis is holding a gun on someone, threatening to shoot them, and in close-up, moves to point the gun down and to his left. Cut to the person he's about to shoot, and Willis' Fake Shemp is pointing the gun at the person from behind and to the right, his face obscured by a tree trunk. Is Miller even trying to match these shots after Willis leaves? There's even a few shots of the back of the double's head with dialogue and it's not even Willis' voice. There's no way Willis spends more than a day or two on these VOD trifles, but they can't even Facetime him or get him on speaker and have him say a couple of rewritten lines after he's gone?

It probably took me longer to write the above paragraph than it did for Willis to shoot his scenes for FIRST KILL. As far as forgettable VOD thrillers go, it's hardly the worst of its kind, but that's far from an endorsement. Miller seemed to be heading in the right direction with the surprisingly OK MARAUDERS, which was good despite the presence of Coast Hard. MARAUDERS had an inspired performance by Christopher Meloni to help it rise above the norm for these things, but all FIRST KILL has is Hayden Christensen, whose bland, blank persona has worked in his favor in SHATTERED GLASS and nothing else. Christensen is Will Beeman, a Wall Street broker who decides to get away for some bonding time with wife Laura (Megan Leonard) and bullied 11-year-old son Danny (Ty Shelton). Heading back to his rural hometown of Granville, OH (where this was shot, about 30 miles outside of Columbus) to stay with his Aunt Dottie (Deb Girdler), Will thinks teaching Danny how to use a rifle and taking him on a deer hunt will toughen him up. All's going well until they witness an argument between two men about the location of a bag of money that ends up with one being shot. The other sees Danny and starts shooting, prompting Will to kill him in self defense. The first man is still breathing, so Will takes him back to the cabin where nurse (conveniently enough) Laura removes the bullet and stitches him up. The injured man--wanted bank robber Levi Barrett (Gethin Anthony, best known as Renly Baratheon on GAME OF THRONES and as Charles Manson on AQUARIUS)--is so grateful that he takes Danny hostage, instigating a chain of events that finds Will playing along and helping Levi recover the money if it means keeping Danny safe, all under the watchful eye of Granville police chief Howell (Willis), who, per the script and presumably Willis' contract, exists on the periphery of the story most of the way, appearing periodically to remind the viewer of two things: 1) that Howell has a personal stake in recovering the money that goes beyond the duties of his job, and 2) that Bruce Willis is still in the movie.

FIRST KILL owes a bit to Bruce Beresford's THE CONTRACT, a 2007 Bulgaria-shot DTV thriller where John Cusack and his son are camping and end up tangling with a government-contracted killer played by a slumming Morgan Freeman. But its primary influence seems to be Clint Eastwood's 1993 drama A PERFECT WORLD, where Clint played a sheriff pursuing fugitive Kevin Costner, who bonds with a little boy he's taken hostage. Much effort is made to show that Levi is not a bad guy--after all, he's using the money to pay for medical care for his girlfriend's terminally ill mother. He also lets Danny play violent video games that his parents won't allow, and the shy, introverted child feels more at ease around Levi than he does living up to the expectations of his well-meaning but hard-driving dad. Christensen doesn't exactly sell it well when he's shown as the top power player at a bustling Wall Street office where he's barking orders at underlings and asking "Was the meeting with the Saudis today?" FIRST KILL doesn't offer any surprises as far as plot developments go--it's shown too early that Willis' Howell is up to something when he quietly tells his deputy "We may have a problem," though that's hard to tell if it's related to the script or if Miller caught Willis telling an actor whose name he likely never bothered to learn that he's upset about still being on the set. FIRST KILL is never dull and it isn't awful, but it's dumb (nice convenient placement of the four-wheelers for the chase scene) and the very definition of perfunctory, and it's brought down a notch by Willis' utter disinterest. You've crossed the line into Seagal territory when your double is laughably obvious. The only time that's acceptable is if an actor died during production and it's out of tragic necessity to complete the movie and pay respect to the late actor. Here, it's just done to keep Willis from being inconvenienced. The climax involves an emboldened Danny pointing a gun at Howell. It's tough to stage a face-off when one of the actors isn't even there, but I guess young Ty Shelton learned something about dealing with the demands of spoiled actors on his first movie. Hey kid, maybe someday you'll actually meet Bruce Willis and you can remind him you were in a movie together.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Retro Review: STAR CRYSTAL (1986)

(US - 1986)

Written and directed by Lance Lindsay. Cast: C. Jutson Campbell, Faye Bolt, John Smith, Taylor Kingsley, Marcia Linn, Emily Longstreth, Eric Moseng, Lance Bruckner, Charles Linza, voice of The Gling. (R, 94 mins)

There was no shortage of blatant ALIEN ripoffs throughout the 1980s--GALAXY OF TERROR, FORBIDDEN WORLD, and HORROR PLANET are but a few--but none were quite as bizarre as STAR CRYSTAL, released by the second, post-Roger Corman incarnation of New World Pictures in the spring of 1986. Inexplicably shown in multiplexes and first-run theaters, STAR CRYSTAL looks like a student film that somehow got picked up for nationwide distribution. Perhaps New World thought they had another DARK STAR on their hands. In the early '70s, USC students John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon got funding to expand their student film project to feature length, and when it was released in 1974, the sci-fi spoof became a cult classic that put both filmmakers on the map. That was decidedly not the case with STAR CRYSTAL, which was just released on Blu-ray (!) by Kino Lorber. The only extra is a trailer, but STAR CRYSTAL's backstory is likely an interesting one that probably warranted telling, because for better or worse--mostly worse--there's never been anything quite like it.

Little is known about the driving forces behind STAR CRYSTAL: writer/director Lance Lindsay and producer/editor/ special effects makeup artist/second unit director Eric Woster, who also shares story credit with Lindsay. Born in 1958, Woster broke into the business in the early '80s as part of the Cheech & Chong crew (he's credited as Tommy Chong's assistant on CHEECH & CHONG'S NICE DREAMS, THINGS ARE TOUGH ALL OVER, and STILL SMOKIN') and would eventually serve as the cinematographer on Chong's 1990 solo comedy FAR OUT MAN. After that, writer-director-star Woster began work on a horror film called SANDMAN which featured an unusual cast including Chong's wife Shelby, Stuart Whitman, Robert Wuhl, Dedee Pfeiffer, Gailard Sartain, Rose Marie, and Morey Amsterdam. On the last day of shooting on February 15, 1992, Woster died suddenly at the age of 33. Google searches reveal internet gossip suggesting suicide but those who knew him said he was born with a heart condition and his heart simply stopped beating. SANDMAN--not to be confused with J.R. Bookwalter's 1995 film THE SANDMAN or anything related to Neil Gaiman--is listed as a 1993 film on IMDb but doesn't appear to have ever been officially released, though IMDb and Letterboxd reviews magically exist. Lindsay's career is even more of a footnote: after debuting with STAR CRYSTAL, he wrote and directed the low-budget, straight-to-video 1990 thriller REAL BULLETS, which featured one-and-done would-be action star John Gazarian and several STAR CRYSTAL alumni, as well as a real actor in Martin Landau, coming off of two consecutive Oscar nominations for Francis Ford Coppola's TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM (1988) and Woody Allen's CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989) and yet still somehow reduced to appearing in a film by the director of STAR CRYSTAL. Lindsay has yet to make another film after REAL BULLETS and other than a supporting role in QUIET FIRE, a straight-to-video 1991 obscurity directed by and starring Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (best known as WELCOME BACK KOTTER's Freddie "Boom Boom" Washington), he completely fell off the face of the earth.

That leaves STAR CRYSTAL as the sole testament to the lunatic vision of Lance Lindsay and Eric Woster. Because so little is known about them and that, with one exception, the cast either went on to REAL BULLETS or nothing else at all, the famous crack from the MST3K skewering of MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE may also apply here: every frame of this movie looks like someone's last known photograph. The only cast member who had any semblance of a career post-STAR CRYSTAL is Emily Longstreth, and even hers didn't last long: the same year as STAR CRYSTAL, she had a supporting role in PRETTY IN PINK and the lead in the post-nuke sci-fi outing WIRED TO KILL, but she's best-known for co-starring as Kevin Bacon's girlfriend in Christopher Guest's 1989 comedy THE BIG PICTURE. Despite the film's critical acclaim, Columbia buried it, generating zero momentum for the appealing Longstreth, and she was out of movies by 1991 (her last credit is 1994's CONFESSIONS OF A HITMAN, which was shelved for three years). It goes without saying that nobody's career was advanced in any way by STAR CRYSTAL, which kicks off with an incredibly clunky opening as some space explorers on Mars find an egg and bring it aboard their ship. It hatches, revealing some strange crystal formation with some kind of lifeform inside. The tiny creature kills several crew members and the rest die when oxygen supply depletes. Their shuttle returns to its base, a space station that's destroyed in some kind of cataclysmic event, but not before five people manage to escape on the shuttle that just returned, embarking on an 18-month trip back to Earth and unaware that there's an alien stowaway onboard.

That cumbersome set-up takes up nearly 20 minutes, with Lindsay padding the running time and dawdling by establishing several characters (including a scientist played by Longstreth) only to kill them off almost instantly. The next 50 or so minutes are your standard ALIEN knockoff, with the quintet of irritating crew members--all of them awful actors--slaughtered one by one by the growing creature, which has somehow hacked into the ship's computer (named "Bernice") and is not only controlling the shuttle, but absorbing all of the information from the hard drive. To describe STAR CRYSTAL's plot is an exercise in futility, and for about 75 of its 93 minutes, it's amateurish, embarrassing, and borderline unwatchable. The story makes no sense, the acting is painfully bad, the logistical design of the ship is a Kafka-esque nightmare of inconvenience (the crew needs to crawl on their hands and knees through some narrow, tube-like shaft to get anywhere), the interior of the space station looks a hotel, visible text on computer screens are riddled with typos (some gems include "Artic" for Arctic and "Judisum" for Judaism), and there's several ill-advised attempts at humor, like hero Roger Campbell (played by one C. Jutson Campbell) making Campbell's soup and using a grating, faux-Jimmy Durante voice to tell colleague and disinterested love interest Dr. Adrian Kimberly (Faye Bolt) a story about his great-grandfather founding the legendary soup company.

All of this is periodically interrupted by shots of a crystal housing a shapeless, one-eyed lifeform that oozes goo and wheezes like the Blob with a bad chest cold. But this creature grows, and when it reaches full maturity, suddenly resembles E.T. crossed with a gelatinous turtle, creating the illusion of an extraterrestrial Mitch McConnell, albeit slightly more likable. It's here that STAR CRYSTAL decides to carve its own path in the crowded ALIEN ripoff scene, and the people who most likely walked out of the theater before the final act really deprived themselves of some joy. No spoilers here, but with its sudden empathy for humanity and the understanding that's reached between the two surviving crew members and the alien--named "Gar"--STAR CRYSTAL establishes itself as the MAC AND ME of ALIEN knockoffs, almost resembling some kind of bizarre MR. SHOW sketch, which makes it a must-see. Unfortunately, that means enduring the first 75 minutes, but part of me thinks this whole movie is some kind of elaborate, Andy Kaufman-esque prank on the part of everyone involved (the closing credits boast "Filmed entirely in space"). You'll also have the closing credits song "Crystal of a Star"--performed by Stefani Christopherson, best known for being the voice of Daphne on the first season of SCOOBY-DOO back in 1970--stuck in your head for a week. It's too bad Kino didn't track down any of the film's surviving cast and crew because STAR CRYSTAL is the kind of WTF? bad movie classic in the vein of recent DVD/Blu-ray unearthings like NIGHTMARE WEEKEND, THE EXECUTIONER PART II and R.O.T.O.R. that's ready-made for a midnight movie resurrection. And that Gar is just adorable.

STAR CRYSTAL opening in Toledo, OH on 5/23/1986, for some reason

Monday, July 17, 2017


(US - 2017)

Directed by Matt Reeves. Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves. Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer, Michael Adamthwaite, Amiah Miller, Aleks Paunovic, Sara Canning, Ty Olsson, Max Lloyd-Jones, Devyn Dalton, Gabriel Chavarria, Lauro Chartrand. (PG-13, 140 mins)

Following 2011's RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and 2014's DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the rebooted series reaches its pinnacle with WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, and it's the best genre trilogy to come down the pike since Christopher Nolan's DARK KNIGHT saga. It's really hard to convey what a stunning achievement WAR is in terms of Weta's CGI and motion capture work on star Andy Serkis and the rest of the actors playing apes. It was impressive in RISE, better in DAWN, and now it looks so natural that you forget they're visual effects. It helps that Serkis, the king of motion capture (LORD OF THE RINGS, KING KONG), has been able to create a well-drawn and very "human" character in terms of his performance as ape leader Caesar, which runs the gamut of emotions throughout WAR and regardless of the CGI work, it is Serkis acting and it's a performance so good that it may be a game-changer as far as motion capture performances getting some award recognition. The same creative personnel from DAWN returns here--director/co-writer Matt Reeves (CLOVERFIELD) and co-writer Mark Bomback--and though the new trilogy works beautifully on its own, much effort is made to put the three new films, particularly WAR, in the circular context of the original franchise that lasted from 1968 to 1973, from Caesar's young son Cornelius to the name given to a mute supporting character to some locations replicated from 1970's BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970) and 1973's BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. The Serkis trilogy can stand on its own but for APES fans, it's very much a part of the classic series that began with the Charlton Heston-starring 1968 original, even if it's not a completely perfect fit.

Set 15 years after the "Simian Flu" of RISE and three years after DAWN ape revolt led by the vengeful Koba (Toby Kebbell), WAR opens in medias res as battle between ape and human armies is ongoing, with Caesar's tribe set up in the woods and under constant threat by the armed forces of Col. McCullough (Woody Harrelson), who employs what left of the late Koba's faction of traitorous apes--dubbed "donkeys"--to assist in the hunt for Caesar. When Caesar captures some of McCullough's soldiers and shows mercy by sending them back with a plea to simply leave the apes alone in the woods and there will be no more fighting, McCullough responds by launching a raid and killing Caesar's wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) and eldest son Blue Eyes (Max Lloyd-Jones). Sending the rest of his ape tribe off through the desert to find a new, safe settlement, Caesar goes off on his own to find and kill McCullough, but is followed and eventually joined, despite his protestations, by his voice of reason and orangutan consigliere Maurice (Karin Konoval), gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), and chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary). They're eventually joined by a mute, orphaned human girl (Amiah Miller) and comic relief zoo escapee Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), pick up McCullough's trail and find some of his dead soldiers left behind, apparently shot and killed by their commander for unknown reasons. Caesar and the others find McCullough's camp, where the rest of Caesar's tribe is being held captive, captured by the colonel's men en route to their new home. Seething with rage and warned by Maurice that he's starting to act and sound just like Koba, Caesar ends up being taken prisoner by McCullough, a despot who's gone full Col. Kurtz against the US military, worshiped by his renegade followers and forcing the apes to function as slave labor to build a wall around the camp in fear of a virus that's causing humanity to regress to an inarticulate, animal-like state while apes continue to evolve and grow more intelligent.

Reeves and Bomback structure WAR in a way that initially reminds you of LOGAN, with its use of western tropes and motifs in a completely different genre. As Caesar and the other venture on horseback through the wilderness in search of McCullough, it's hard not to imagine you're in a classic western. But the tyranny of McCullough and his God complex also brings to mind APOCALYPSE NOW, with Harrelson's shaved head and a couple of shots that mimic Marlon Brando lounging around in Kurtz's shadowy, sweaty lair (there's also some graffiti in an underground tunnel that reads "Ape-pocalypse Now!"). And by the final act, it turns into a de facto jailbreak movie, with Caesar leading a revolt from within McCullough's prison camp with help from the motley crew of companions led by Maurice, who have patiently been waiting from a distance for the right time to strike. While Harrelson's colonel is a monster, there's efforts made to humanize him and show how and why he's become what he is, and for a few brief moments, the audience, and even Caesar, might sympathize with him. There's certainly parallels to be drawn with both figures (fortunately, we're spared a McCullough "We're not so different...you and I" speech), especially with Caesar's tunnelvision focus on revenge putting his entire ape clan in jeopardy, and indeed, their cold response to him when he gets thrown into the prison camp is proof that they blame their predicament on his abandoning them. But this is Serkis' show from start to finish. It's a masterful, commanding performance that takes the actor through every conceivable state of mind, complete with a devastating yet necessary end result. It's a beautifully made film, with stunning imagery that owes a debt to the surreal journey upriver in APOCALYPSE NOW to the one-way journey to madness of AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is proof that summer blockbuster sequels can still be intelligent, imaginative, moving, and slyly subversive (I doubt the presence of a power-mad, dictatorial, would-be king ordering the building of a wall is coincidental) and that CGI imagery can indeed look completely natural with some care and attention. It's just about as great a PLANET OF THE APES movie as the 1968 original and maybe even better than 1972's CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, and it's the new standard-bearer of what the possibilities can be with CGI and motion capture. An instant classic and one of 2017's best.

Before-and-after motion capture of Karin Konoval as Maurice,
 Terry Notary as Rocket, Andy Serkis as Caesar,
and MichaelAdamthwaite as Luca

Saturday, July 15, 2017

On Netflix: TO THE BONE (2017)

(Italy/US - 2017)

Written and directed by Marti Noxon. Cast: Lily Collins, Keanu Reeves, Carrie Preston, Lili Taylor, Alex Sharp, Liana Liberato, Brooke Smith, Leslie Bibb, Kathryn Prescott, Ciara Quinn Bravo, Maya Eshet, Lindsey McDowell, Retta, Joanna Sanchez, Alanna Ubach. (Unrated, 107 mins)

Anyone who's known someone suffering from anorexia nervosa will instantly recognize Ellen, the pale, gaunt, 20-year-old woman played by Lily Collins in the Netflix Original film TO THE BONE. You'll spot the body language, the posture, the hiding under oversized, baggy clothing, the way she moves her food around her plate rather than eating it. You've heard all the things Ellen says to those concerned about her: "I'm maintaining." "Nothing bad's gonna happen." "I've got it under control." And in your struggle to comprehend just what this person you care about is doing to themselves, you'll recognize the frustration of Ellen's younger half-sister Kelly (Liana Liberato) when she bluntly says "I don't really get it, you know? Just...eat!" because you've said those same words. The makers of TO THE BONE come from that place: Collins (Phil's daughter) battled an eating disorder in her teens, and writer/director Marti Noxon (a veteran TV writer and producer best known for her work on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, ANGEL, GLEE, and most recently, CODE BLACK) spent most of her teens and 20s in and out of hospitals being treated for anorexia (when she was 17, Noxon weighed 70 lbs and was cast as Jennifer Jason Leigh's body double in the 1981 made-for-TV anorexia drama THE BEST LITTLE GIRL IN THE WORLD. Noxon based a lot of TO THE BONE on her own experiences and in partnership with Collins, the the film really nails the psychology, the struggle, the frustration and the anger felt by all parties and the effect it has on family relationships and friendships.

In terms of Ellen and her psyche, TO THE BONE walks the walk--Noxon doesn't shy away from unpleasantries, whether it's her bruised spine from her obsessive, excessive sit-ups, the fact that she can't remember when she last menstruated, or the fur-like hair sprouting in unusual places as her emaciated body goes in defense mode and begins eating muscle in an effort to maintain itself.  But almost everywhere else, it's a by-the-numbers melodrama that's just about on the level of a disease-of-the-week TV-movie that these days would air on Lifetime. The supporting characters are a predictable collection of superficially diverse caricatures, whether it's Ellen's harping stepmother Susan (Carrie Preston), who constantly makes excuses for the perpetual absence of her father, who's often-mentioned but never seen; her rustic, luddite mother Judy (Lili Taylor), who suffered from post-partum depression before outing herself and leaving her husband when Ellen was young (Moxon took this directly from her own bio); the girls in a group home in which she's committed to a six-week treatment program, including pregnant bulimic Megan (Leslie Bibb), whose miscarriage will be called by any seasoned moviegoer the moment she's introduced; the lone male in the therapy program, British ballet dancer Luke (Alex Sharp, who won a Tony for the 2015 Broadway production of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME), who's combating anorexia and the possibility of his career ending over a knee injury, but whose most notable traits seem to be his wacky eccentricity and that he's extremely British.

There's also Keanu Reeves, who's starting to look completely lost in any movie whose title doesn't contain the words "John" and/or "Wick," as Dr. William Beckham, the kind of renegade, patchy-bearded, outside-the-box therapist that only exists in movies, with his edgy propensity for bluntly telling it like it is largely limited to his saying "fuck" a lot. TO THE BONE is sympathetic to its heroine while in no way glamorizing her or her condition in a world where impressionable young girls watching might get the wrong idea. But at the same time, TO THE BONE doesn't go far enough. This should be a harrowing, disturbing film that's hard to watch but far too often, it settles for being a quirky, YA indie about eating disorders that never misses an opportunity to play to convention and character tropes, from Ellen's tentative romance with Luke all the way to its vague yet assumed happy ending. Never is that quirkiness spotlighted more than in an already much-discussed scene late in the film that Noxon draws from a real-life experience that was obviously powerful for her but it just doesn't play onscreen. Collins, who did lose weight under medical supervision but was assisted in her performance by some effective makeup and occasional obvious insert shots from body doubles, really sells the state of Ellen's (rechristened "Eli" in therapy, as part of forming a new identity) condition, and for viewers of a certain younger age, TO THE BONE could very well become a classic for its generation and the kind of movie that will likely be shown in schools for years to come. And to give them the credit due, Noxon and Collins completely captured--with almost frightening accuracy--everything about a close friend I lost to an on-again/off-again, 25-year battle with anorexia that took finally took its toll in April 2017. I saw her in Collins' portrayal and in regards to just the depiction of Ellen, it's a degree of realism so high that anyone who has lived it--either as someone with an ED or someone close to them--will immediately "get" it. It's everything else about TO THE BONE that's just not up to that level.

Friday, July 14, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: THEIR FINEST (2017) and DRONE (2017)

(UK/Sweden - 2017)

It's overlong, mostly predictable and hampered somewhat by a third act plot development that rivals 47 METERS DOWN in terms of unnecessary cruelty, but THEIR FINEST is an enjoyably old-fashioned "war at home" WWII saga that became a small word-of-mouth art house hit in the spring. In London in 1940, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) thinks she's getting a secretarial job with the Ministry of Information's film division. With most of the men called up as the war escalates, she's actually been hired as a screenwriter after department head Roger Swain (Richard E. Grant) was impressed with some comics she wrote for a newspaper in the absence of the regular writers who were off fighting. Teaming with in-house scribe Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), Catrin's job is to come up with inspiring scripts for movies to keep the British citizens' spirits lifted amidst constant air raids and concerns, as Swain puts it, "that there won't even be any theaters left to show them." Catrin is drawn to the story of twin sisters Lily and Rose Starling (Lily and Francesca Knight) who have found a certain degree of local fame for taking their father's boat, the Nancy Starling, to rescue soldiers at Dunkirk. The sisters have embellished the story significantly, as the Ministry eventually discovers that they tried to go to Dunkirk, but their engine broke down and they were towed back before they even left British waters. It's got too much crowd-pleasing potential to dismiss, so Catrin and Tom are instructed to fictionalize it, and to also add an authoritative male figure--a drunk uncle played by aging thespian Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy)--because no one will believe that two young women took a boat to Dunkirk.

Directed by Lone Scherfig (AN EDUCATION) and adapted from Lissa Evans' 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by veteran British TV writer Gaby Chiappe (HOLBY CITY, EASTENDERS, LARK RISE TO CANDLEFORD), THEIR FINEST is definitely a "they don't make 'em like they used to" kind of movie, at times playing like one of Woody Allen's period comedies, mostly pleasant and anchored by an appealing performance from Arterton. THEIR FINEST does a nice job of presenting a woman's struggle in a male-dominated job market (of course, she makes less money than her male colleagues), and her duties inevitably lead to the expected resentment of her artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston), who has no money coming in and can no longer serve because of a leg injury sustained in the Spanish Civil War a few years earlier. There's also some timeless jabs at the eternal struggle between artists and the powers that be, with the filmmakers forced by the Secretary of War (Jeremy Irons) to cast American soldier and Eagle Squadron hero Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy) to appeal to the US, even though he can't act and there were no Americans at Dunkirk. It's Arterton's film, but the scene-stealer is the always-outstanding Nighy, whose Hilliard is a pompous, past-his-prime egotist humbled by the sacrifices made by those around him and eager to do his part by helping Lundbeck hone his acting chops, even talking his agent down from demanding more money and better accommodations because the plucky, can-do spirit of those around him have inspired him to such a degree. It's a warm and at times touching performance that again demonstrates why Nighy is one of our great character actors. THEIR FINEST is a film that's impossible to dislike even if it's rather slight when it's all said and done, and that late-film story development is jarring but in a way that somewhat negatively impacts the film as it sets it up for some ham-fisted sentimentality near the end. (R, 117 mins)

(US/Canada - 2017)

A potentially interesting, politically-driven thriller, DRONE gets derailed when the filmmakers decide to make it overwrought and polemical, with its antagonist basically wearing a light that flashes "MESSAGE!" In Renton, WA, Neil Westin (Sean Bean) claims to be an IT troubleshooter for a software corporation. Unbeknownst to his wife Ellen (Mary McCormack) and 16-year-old son Shane (Maxwell Haynes), he's actually a CIA contractor who's part of a secret program that employs civilian drone pilots to drop bombs on suspected terrorists in the Middle East from the cozy confines of suburban Seattle, but a recent security leak threatens to expose the entire operation. Meanwhile, Imir Shaw (Patrick Sabongui) has arrived from Pakistan and leaves at least one dead body in his wake in his surveillance of the Westin family, including trailing an adulterous Ellen to a motel with a younger co-worker (Bradley Stryker) who wants to take their fling to a more serious level. Neil's also dealing with the recent passing of his Alzheimer's stricken father and can't find the words to write his eulogy when Imir shows up in his driveway under the guise of buying Neil's father's sailboat. Neil invites him in and as they discuss the boat and get to know each other, Ellen arrives home and they ask Imir to stay for dinner. As Imir starts slowly doling out his backstory, culminating in the revelation that it's the one-year anniversary of his wife and daughter being collateral damage in a US drone strike, it finally dawns on Neil that his dinner guest knows his real job and intends to avenge the death of his family by destroying Neil's.

Director/co-writer Jason Bourque, a veteran of numerous Lifetime movies, takes entirely too long to generate any suspense with DRONE. Imir doesn't even make his intent known to the Westins until the last 15 minutes, and the bulk of the film feels like a long dinner sequence in a play. The film shows its cards too soon in establishing Imir as a threat and doesn't really explore the moral complexities of Neil's job. He doesn't seem to feel one way or another about it, though his decidedly non-PC colleague Gary (Joel David Moore) serves as a mouthpiece for intolerance with his labeling drone casualties as "dune coons." Subtlety is a foreign concept to DRONE, and it's not helped by an ineffective, mannered performance by Bean, who's usually a sure thing but here, he's using a forced, overdone American accent that completely undermines anything he might've been able to do with this character. A subplot about Neil's distance from his late father and Shane getting close to his grandfather in his final days adds nothing, due in large part because Haynes is a terrible actor. McCormack and Sabongui do what they can with paper-thin characters, and even when it finally gets going at the very end, Bourque still can't resist tacking on a final scene of clunky political commentary. DRONE isn't nearly as obnoxious in its pontificating as say, THE CRASH, another thriller from earlier this year that got tripped up in political preaching and also featured McCormack, but it's still not really worth anyone's time. (Unrated, 90 mins)

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: SONG TO SONG (2017) and SALT AND FIRE (2017)

(US - 2017)

After taking 20 years off between 1978's DAYS OF HEAVEN and 1998's THE THIN RED LINE, Terrence Malick's directorial output in the 2010s is coming at a furious pace that rivals Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood. Counting the 40-minute IMAX film VOYAGE OF TIME, SONG TO SONG is his sixth movie of this decade, and the final part of a loose trilogy that began with 2013's TO THE WONDER and 2016's KNIGHT OF CUPS. Shot back-to-back with KNIGHT OF CUPS way back in 2012 and endlessly tinkered with by its maker, SONG TO SONG takes the first-world ennui of CUPS' self-absorbed Los Angeles navel-gazers and moves them to the hipster mecca of Austin, TX for maximum insufferability. Any hopes of Malick turning this into his own version of NASHVILLE are dashed the moment the film begins and it's the same kind of pained, whispered, emo journal entry voiceover by a dull ensemble of ciphers played by actors who, for some reason, still want to say they were in a Malick movie. If there's a central character--none of them are referred to by name--it's Faye (Rooney Mara), a waify aspiring musician who's seen onstage with a band a couple of times and seems to be friends with Patti Smith (as herself), but we never really see her working on music or practicing with the rest of the band. Faye's involved with Cook (Michael Fassbender), who's some kind of music industry A&R asshole (I guess), and BV (Ryan Gosling), another aspiring musician who doesn't seem to do much playing or songwriting and, like everyone in this film, appears to have significant disposable income. Faye drifts between both men, and during some downtime, the psychologically abusive Cook hooks up with teacher-turned-diner waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman), and even coerces Rhonda and Faye to join him in a threesome. Faye also gets involved with Parisian transplant Zoey (Berenice Marlohe) and BV with Amanda (Cate Blanchett), while almost everyone gets their turn at center stage for some of Malick's signature vacuous ruminations of the privileged and aimless.  To wit:

  • "I thought we could roll and tumble. Live from song to song. Kiss to kiss."
  • "I love the pain. It feels like life."
  • "I'm low. I'm like the mud."
  • "Foolish me. Devil." 
  • "I was once like you. To think what I once was. What I am now."
  • "I played with the flame of life." 
  • "I feel like we're so...connected. I can't really understand. It's like..."
  • "The world built a fence around you. How do you get through?  Connect?" 
  • "You burn me. Who are you?"
  • "I need to go back and start over."

Malick should've taken that last sentiment to heart. Like KNIGHT OF CUPS, SONG TO SONG shows the revered filmmaker continuing his ongoing descent into self-parody. This does not look like the work of a 73-year-old auteur who's been making movies for 45 years. If this same movie was presented by a film school student, it would be dismissed as self-indulgent, adolescent drivel. But Malick's defenders continue to give him a pass and insist that his detractors--a contingent of former acolytes that's growing with each new Malick journey up his own ass--just can't grasp the level of genius that's being gifted to them. Bullshit. Malick was poised to stake his claim as the Greatest American Filmmaker when Stanley Kubrick died, and brilliant films like 2005's THE NEW WORLD and 2011's THE TREE OF LIFE certainly made a strong case for his inheriting the title. But over the course of TO THE WONDER, KNIGHT OF CUPS, and now SONG TO SONG, Malick has offered enough evidence to suggest that the emperor has no clothes, and rather than the new Kubrick, he's really just the American Jean-Luc Godard, another filmmaking legend who's abandoned any semblance of narrative cohesion and for whom any negative criticism is strictly verboten. Malick goes into these films with no clear vision, instead hoping it comes together in post with the help of eight (!) credited editors. And, as was the case with WONDER and CUPS, a ton of name actors got cut out of the film when Malick decided they weren't needed, among them Christian Bale, Benicio del Toro, Haley Bennett (THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN), Boyd Holbrook (LOGAN), and Angela Bettis (MAY), along with artists Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes, and Arcade Fire (when asked about this film in a 2013 interview after shooting wrapped, even Fassbender said he wasn't sure if he'd end up being in it). Iggy Pop and John Lydon turn up in SONG TO SONG, along with Smith, who gives the film one of its few legitimately worthwhile dramatic moments when she fondly speaks of her late husband, MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith. Alternating between wide-angle and fish-eye lenses and often using GoPro cameras to maximize the faux-experimental aura, Malick and renowned cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki did some extensive shooting at the 2012 Austin City Limits and Fun Fun Fun fests, which gave Fassbender a chance to wrestle with Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea and let Malick waste some screen time on that. For all the impact that the Austin events brought to the film, Malick may as well have shot scenes at that year's Gathering of the Juggalos. Holly Hunter turns up briefly as Rhonda's mom and Val Kilmer does a walk-through as a wildman rock star, onstage with the Black Lips at the Fun Fun Fun fest, cutting off clumps of his hair with a Bowie knife and chainsawing an amp during a live show while yelling "I got some uranium!" Malick would've had a significantly more entertaining movie if he'd just followed Kilmer around and filmed him being weird for two hours.

It's also nice to see Malick has entered his "pervy old man" phase, with lingering, leering shots of Mara and Marlohe caressing each other, Zoey kissing Faye's hand while she masturbates, and Cook in bed with two nude escorts in what looks like an outtake from the harrowing Fassbender sex addiction drama SHAME. It's easy to assume from his last few films that Malick has forgotten how people really communicate and interact and maybe doesn't get out much anymore, and from the looks of some of the more sordid scenes in SONG TO SONG, he's apparently just discovered Cinemax. It's possible that Malick is putting a stop to this myopic nonsense with his next film, the German-set WWII drama RADEGUND, due out later this year. It stars (for now) August Diehl, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz, and the late Michael Nyqvist, and by all accounts, it's actually Malick doing a commercial film with a straightforward narrative. It's about time, because SONG TO SONG is a fucking embarrassment. (R, 129 mins)

(Germany/US/Mexico/France/UK - 2017)

A companion piece of sorts to his 2016 Netflix documentary INTO THE INFERNO (which was shot second but released first), SALT AND FIRE provides further evidence that, much like his 1970s New German Cinema contemporary Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog's strengths no longer lie in narrative filmmaking.  A visionary German auteur and one of cinema's most beloved eccentric raconteurs, Herzog is a tireless workaholic whose curiosity of all subjects has led him to create some of the most captivating documentaries of the modern era, including 2005's GRIZZLY MAN, 2007's ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, and 2010's CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS. He once made brilliant, groundbreaking dramas like 1972's AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD and 1982's FITZCARRALDO, but after his superb 2006 Vietnam POW drama RESCUE DAWN, his gonzo 2009 reimagining of BAD LIEUTENANT, and his experimental 2010 misfire (though it has its admirers) MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE?, Herzog's most recent forays into scripted cinema have fallen flat: his Nicole Kidman-headlined historical epic QUEEN OF THE DESERT took four years to get released in the US in April 2017, the same day as the shot-in-2015 SALT AND FIRE. MY SON, MY SON was bad, but SALT AND FIRE is easily the worst Herzog film I've seen, a deadening, ponderous slog with muddled, ham-fisted admonishments about environmental issues and filled with characters who never once speak like human beings who know how to interact with one another. Much of the dialogue sounds like stuff Herzog would've written for himself to narrate in a documentary and honestly, it would play significantly better coming out of his mouth instead of a monotone, somnambulant Michael Shannon, one of the great character actors around but who's having a really off day here. Imagine the curiously soothing tone of Herzog uttering such musings as "Truth is the only daughter of time," "Here lies a monster on the verge of waking," or "The noblest place for a man to die is the place he dies the deadest," and you've got a movie. But when those same lines are mumbled by Shannon, they sound like the pretentious ramblings of the world's most depressed Bond villain.

As SALT AND FIRE opens, scientist Dr. Laura Sommerfeld (Veronica Ferres) is on a UN fact-finding mission in South America with two colleagues--horndog Italian Dr. Fabio Cavani (Gael Garcia Bernal) and stoical German Dr. Arnold Meier (Volker Zack Michalowski)--to look into an impending ecological disaster at the Diablo Blanco salt flats (played by Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni). They're left at an abandoned airport and abducted by armed, masked men and taken to an undisclosed location where Sommerfeld is granted an audience with mastermind Matt Riley (Shannon), the CEO of a mysterious corporation known as "The Consortium." While Cavani and Meier are sidelined in the shitter for the rest of the film after secretly being given a powerful laxative (one of the film's several ill-advised attempts at levity; c'mon, Herzog...you're better than poop jokes), Riley and his chief associate Krauss (theoretical physicist Jonathan Krauss as himself) take Sommerfeld into the middle of the Diablo Blanco, where Riley informs her that a lake that was there just a few decades ago is gone and that expanding Diablo Blanco threatens to reactivate a long-dormant volcano that could obliterate mankind ("It could be 20,000 years or it could be 20...but it will happen"). After confessing that it was his company's unethical, careless practices that brought this certain disaster on the world, he abandons her in the desert with two blind children, for whom she quickly adapts to the situation to be a protective mother figure while trying to ascertain the exact of Riley's actions. Ferres and Shannon aren't given characters to play but rather, talking points to recite, with Shannon's Riley coming off as particularly hectoring in a way that borders on mansplaining, considering Ferres' Sommerfeld is the top ecology expert in her field. Popular German actress Ferres delivers her lines in a stilted, halting way that sounds like she looped them in post-production, while Shannon comes off as so lifeless that you might think Herzog pulled a HEART OF GLASS on him. SALT AND FIRE is anti-entertainment of the highest order, a film that opens as a straightforward hostage drama and flirts with becoming a disaster movie before turning into an overbearing, finger-wagging lecture, and finally, an examination of a career woman finding her true inner self when, like the volcano, her long-dormant maternal instincts are reawakened (it's mentioned that Sommerfeld has a estranged daughter who's in the custody of her ex), along with signs of a budding romance with her kidnapper. It speaks to how random and disjointed SALT AND FIRE is that it's no less than three movies before it finally settles on being a fourth with a clumsy attempt to link motherhood with nurturing Mother Earth, a metaphor that's so ineptly handled by Herzog that it comes off as a passive-aggressive, context-free rebuking of the life choices of a world-renowned science professor that also has her succumbing to the charms (?) of her creepy, morose abductor. Herzog's rarely been as wrong-headed as he is here--he should've just made a documentary about the Salar de Uyuni salt flat and everything would've turned out better for everyone. (Unrated, 98 mins, also streaming on Netflix)