Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Review: "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"

"The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" lives up to its name, a pale shadow of its vivacious 2012 predecessor about silver-haired Brits finding new life at a dilapidated hotel in India.

Of course, the filmmakers meant the title as a clever play, as young Indian entrepreneur Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) aims to open a second hotel in the course of the (overly jumbled) story. But still, a movie sequel that seems to declare itself "second best" should at least gain points for honesty.

"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" was a smart and lively dramedy from director John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love") and screenwriter Ol Parker, who return for the sequel. The basic gist was about English pensioners who find they can't afford a life of quiet ease in their home country, and decamp for the lavishly overpraised Exotic Marigold.

In the end the grimy little hotel got fixed up, as did the lives of the aging Westerners who came here expecting something, and found something quite else. All their storylines got tied up in nice little bows ... and would've stayed that way, except when your $10 million film grosses $137 million worldwide.

Sequels, unnecessary except on an accountant's ledger, become a foregone conclusion.

The main players all return, with new challenges or extensions of their old ones. Widow Evelyn (Judi Dench) is happy doing a little work for a clothing company, until they offer her a full-time job with a team to manage. Her heart's with Douglas (Bill Nighy), an amiable tour guide who split up with his wife at the end of the last movie. But in the classic quandary that befalls only movie characters, neither will simply admit their feelings until the right moment and swell of music comes along.

Persnickety spinster Muriel (Maggie Smith) is busy running the hotel with Sonny, who is soon to be wed to the lovely Sunaina (Tena Desae), if he can keep his jealousy toward an old friend and competitor in check long enough. Sonny wants to buy another nearby hotel and expand the Marigold business model ("Why not die here?"), and needs backing from an American hotel chain, for some reason.

Sonny is living in fear that the would-be partner has sent an evaluator to check out his establishment, and who should show up on his doorstep just in time but a fetching American named Guy (Richard Gere), who claims to be writing a novel by mostly has eyes for Sonny's mother (Lillete Dubey), for reasons that remain mysterious to her, and us.

"The man is so handsome, he has me urgently questioning my own sexuality!" Sonny exclaims, in a typical over-the-top bit of Indian bebop.

Other characters' troubles mostly concern matters of the heart, with former ladies man Norman (Ronald Pickup) worried that his lady friend is stepping out on him. And on-the-make Madge (Celia Imrie) has not one but two rich older Indian gentlemen ready to propose to her, yet seems to hold the most meaningful conversations with her humble driver.

"The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" is a pretty transparent attempt to capture lightning in a bottle twice. It's not a bad little flick, and with Dames Smith and Dench around there's no shortage of tart retorts and looks freighted with meaning.

But it's a retread that's tired out of the gate, a contrivance of characters we know will arrive at their fated destinations promptly at the two-hour mark. Predestined, that is, unless this one does well enough to demand a third-best iteration.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Video review: "Foxcatcher"

I admired director Bennett Miller’s first two movies, “Capote” and “Moneyball,” but I feel “Foxcatcher” is one of the more overpraised films of 2014. It’s a deeply odd exploration of a famous murder of an Olympic athlete by the scion of a super-wealthy family, an exercise in mood that eventually gets lost in its own dirge-like fog.

Steve Carell is virtually unrecognizable as John DuPont of the chemical fortune clan, who uses his riches to host the men’s Olympic wrestling team on his palatial estate, Foxcatcher Farms, during the late 1980s. He brings in Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a somewhat dim but big-hearted gold medal winner, to head things up.

DuPont is the coach of the team, at least titulary, though he actually knows very little about wrestling. He treats Mark as a combination underling/surrogate friend, someone he likes to keep around to make him feel more valuable and less lonely.

With his prosthetic nose and feral fake teeth, Carell resembles a stunted bird of prey, who knows great things are expected of him, and resents it.

Mark Ruffalo is terrific as Mark’s more accomplished brother David, whom DuPont also tries to woo into the fold. With his ambling gait and cocked head, Ruffalo seems like a great, strong, sensitive ape who knows both how to fight and how to nurture with equal aplomb.

The story is essentially the intersecting trajectories of these three men, with Mark initially bonding to DuPont as a manipulative father figure – with an unspoken undertone of sexual attraction. But later the lines of loyalty shift, with tragic results.

Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman do a wonderful job of setting up the characters and evoking a disquieting sense of dread. But they don’t really find any place to go with it, and the film ends up replaying the same emotional chords over and over again. It’s not helped by Tatum’s stilted acting juxtaposed against two top-flight talents.

Watch “Foxcatcher” for Ruffalo and Carell’s masterful performances – just don’t expect the film as a whole to win gold.

Extra features are pretty disappointing, and are the same for DVD and Blu-ray editions. Both come with a handful of deleted scenes, and a single making-of featurette, “The Story of Foxcatcher.”



Monday, March 2, 2015

Reeling Backward: "King and Country" (1964)

"King & Country" is a very harsh and bleak anti-war film that's been largely relegated to the cinematic dustbin of history, despite being very well-regarded at the time -- enough to earn four BAFTA Awards nominations (the British equivalent of the Oscars), including Best Picture.

Tom Courtenay gives a top-drawer performance as a dimwitted soldier on trial for his life for deserting the trenches during World War I, and Dirk Bogarde is also quite good  as the officious officer charged with defending him. Narratively and thematically it's very similar to Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory," though not nearly as well known.

I think what makes the film stand out is the way it was shot by director Joseph Losey and cinematographer Denys Coop. It was really ahead of its time in terms of cutting away from the actors to show other imagery while they're talking, especially still photographs, to illustrate what's going through their heads.

For instance, when Private Arthur Hamp (Courtenay) is speaking about some of the horrible things he's seen on the front, the picture will cut away to an image of a dead soldier half-buried in the mud, or equally disturbing pictures. Losey will often accompany it with a slow zoom in or zoom out on the photo, a technique that Ken Burns would become known for in his documentaries decades later.

These visual switches will somtimes occur in the middle of a scene, without preamble; I'm guessing audiences in 1964 were confused at first at what was going on. But including these harrowing visuals lends the actors' words additional power beyond what their own faces could show.

The film opens with a long, slow tracking close-up along a statue and facade that terrifically relates the grime and muck that typified WWI fighting. Following the twists of limbs, weapons and rocky outcroppings gives an immediacy to events long ago and helps set the stage.

"King and Country" is also a damp movie, quite literally: I'm not sure if it ceases raining during the entire course of the movie. Everything is filthy and caked with mud; the men live in moldy dugouts and caves covered with tin sheeting. Pools of filthy water surround the men at all times, as if rendering them castaways on some alien planetscape.

Story-wise the movie is pretty straightforward. Hamp abandoned his post and began walking aimlessly, and nearly made it to a disembarkation point on the western coast of France before he was captured. He claims to have been barely aware of his actions, other than he wanted to get away from the sound of artillery fire and go home. Though we soon learn he doesn't even have a home; his wife and her mother, who dared him to enlist in the war, have since abandoned him.

Now he's on trial for desertion, and seems not to understand that he could well be executed if found guilty. After three years he's one of the most seasoned soldiers in his unit, and Hamp imagines this legacy will protect him. Maybe he'll get some prison time, he reckons.

Captain Hargreaves (Bogarde) does not exactly have a sterling reputation among the soldiers for his abilities as a military defense advocate. A group of Hamp's fellow grunts act as a sort of Greek chorus, hanging around the periphery of the trial and commenting upon the events. They even perform their own mock version of the tribunal, with a lowly rat -- beaten out of the rotting belly of a dead horse -- standing in as their former comrade.

At first openly hostile to Hamp, Hargreaves eventually comes to sympathize with the young soldier and mounts a stirring defense of him. It's all a sham, of course. The presiding colonel can barely be bothered to pay attention, and when he does speak it's to undermine Hargreaves' case.

An effective cross-examination of the unit's doctor (Leo McKern) reveals him to be a pompous ass who believes any soldiers complaining of shell shock are malingerers, and his prescription for virtually every case is a dose of "No. 9" -- aka laxatives.

I also appreciated James Villiers as Captain Midgley, the prosecutor who seems very detached and unemotional, occasionally standing up to a great height to leer over the witnesses like some great bird of prey.

Since the officers participating in the trial are all from the same unit, many of them share quarters and interact with each other on a day-to-day basis. So there's an additional farcical sense to the trial, as in between sessions they decamp to their bunks to share meals and cleverly insult each other in that oh-so-British way.

At one point Hamp's commanding officer, Webb (Barry Foster), who had described him as an excellent soldier, complains to Midgley about turning the screws on him during his own appearance as a witness. But it's in a good-natured, bantering way, and it's pretty clear that Webb won't be terribly upset about whatever happens to Hamp. (Indeed, he's later put in charge of the firing squad as "punishment" for defending Hamp in his testimony.)

I admired "King & Country" more than I enjoyed it. It's a well-acted drama, beautifully bleak visually and made with great craftsmanship. It's so unrelenting in its dour message -- war is bad; war is dehumanizing -- that it ends up holding no surprises for us. Hamp's martyrdom carries less power than it should precisely because it is so inevitable. Evan Jones wrote the screenplay based on a play by John Wilson and a novel by James Lansdale Hodgson.

The filmmakers would have done better to give us a little more hope for Hamp.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Video review: "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1"

So once again, a big fantasy/science fiction book-to-film franchise is coming to a close, and has decided to split up the last novel into two movies. We’ve seen it a bunch of times now, from “Twilight” to “Harry Potter,” and invariably the penultimate movie winds up being rather a bore, stuffed with exposition that will only pay off in the final flick.

“The Hunter Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” – now there’s a mouthful – is no exception.

Mercifully shorter than its predecessors, “Mockingjay” nonetheless has a much lower thrills-to-doldrums ratio, with really only one major action sequence to carry the momentum. The rest of the time, it’s Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) adjusting to her new life in the underground fortress of the militaristic District 13, epicenter of the rebellion against the evil Capitol and President Snow.

As the story opens, Katniss has been rescued from the gladiator-style Hunger Games, in which comely teenagers battle to the death as entertainment and as a way to subjugate the Districts. But her partner and ersatz lover Peta (Josh Hutcherson) remains in the hands of Snow. This section of the story covers the rising battle of propaganda between the two sides, with Katniss enlisted as the symbol of the revolt.

She’s not fully accepted by the District 13 folks, particularly the cunning president, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). Luckily there are a few familiar faces, including Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to offer counsel and prodding.

What’s made Katniss a compelling character in the other movies is that she’s a doer who takes a stand and then acts upon it – sometimes impulsively and disastrously, but always with genuine resolve. Here, she’s relegated to reacting and talking, and it makes for one dull parade.

Whatever I might think of the movie, it’s being released on video with a handsome set of bonus features.

These include a feature-length commentary track; nine deleted scenes; a tribute to Hoffman; music video and featurette; and “The Mockingjay Lives: The Making of Mockingjay – Part 1,” an eight-part feature-length documentary on the making of the film. All told, extras run to five hours of material.



Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: "Focus"

"Focus," a new crime caper/romance starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie, is smart and sexy as hell ... for a little while, at least. Like the confidence men and women it depicts, it's good at the short game but stretches too far for the long con, and falls short.

The first and last thirds are borderline dazzling, as Nicky (Smith) and Jess (Robbie) pull off a variety of scams, heists and outright pilfering. The middle section, though, drags us down so much that it sucks vital juices from the remainder.

Will Smith is playing the classic Will Smith character -- skilled, smart and cooler than thou. Nicky is the son and grandson of legendary con men, and is making quite a mark of his own. What's interesting about this depiction is that, rather than the classic lone wolf, Nicky is the leader of a team of dozens of thieves who get together for a variety of small scores, and then disperse.

Brennan Brown and Adrian Martinez play his chief lieutenants, and the closest thing to friends a guy like Nicky allows himself to have. Martinez steals many a scene with his droll delivery and sexualized quips.

The early section is about them working New Orleans in the week leading up to the Super Bowl. They lift watches right off your wrist, nab wallets or pocketbooks, use your credit cards to run up merchandise that they then sell online and pocket the cash. These scenes are much like a well-coordinated ballet, which writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa ably stage.

But then... the girl walks in. Dames usually mark the commencement of troubles in these types of movies, and Jess is no exception. A budding thief, she takes instruction from Nicky, becomes his pupil, partner and lover, and it becomes a contest to see who's putting one over on who.

Unless of course -- they actually love each other???

Nicky teaches the art of distraction, getting to know your marks and being able to persuade anyone of anything. "You get their focus, you take whatever you want," he says. He goes on to prove his skills in an elaborate ruse that seems like a complete disaster, until it isn't.

After a hiatus of three years, for reasons I'll not spoil, the pair finds themselves together again in Buenos Aires, with both having their eye on the same mark: Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), a fabulously wealthy and arrogant race car team owner.

Nicky has been hired to pretend to sell his fuel consumption algorithm -- a classic nonsensical MacGuffin -- to his chief competitor. But Garriga's stern security chief, Owens (Gerald McRaney), suspects that something is up. Jess, meanwhile, claims to have gone straight and is simply dating Garriga -- probably for just his money, but in her line that's considered legit.

Robbie and Smith have some real sizzle onscreen, especially as we're forced to guess how much of their steamy romance is pure smokescreen.

(I do feel compelled to point out their 22-year age difference. Smith's young stud-on-the-make days are dwindling, but he seems determined to milk out every ounce.)

"Focus" has got plenty of head-jerking plot twists, surprises and double-takes. Its squishy center, though, robs the film of too much momentum.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review: "Mr. Turner"

Mike Leigh is one of the few filmmakers today who deserves the title auteur, since he writes and directs movies that are always a clear representation of his own singular vision. He’s one of a kind.

Usually Leigh has focused on the unlabored grace of modern British working class characters, but for “Mr. Turner” he reaches back to tell the tale of one of the 19th century’s greatest painters, J.M.W. Turner.

Leigh goes for a very atypical approach to the biopic genre, insomuch as I’m not sure that term even still applies. It’s a portrait of the artist told almost entirely through the lens of his craft – how he went about his work, how he felt about it, how others reacted to it and how that affected him.

There is some typical biographical stuff – his colleagues, his lovers, his poor health – but everything is filtered through the art he created. This is a man who literally lived to paint.

Rather than depicting Turner as a child or young man, showing us his formative years and then having other actors take over the part as the decades go by, “Mr. Turner” begins with him already in his middle years and an established talent, and follows him for the last two decades or so of his life. The latter portion of the film is largely taken up with his transition from traditional marine landscape artistry to more abstract styles that served as an important precursor to Impressionism.

The main appeal of “Mr. Turner” is watching Timothy Spall in the title role. You probably recognize Spall from lots of supporting parts over the years, including the “Harry Potter” flicks. He’s shortish and agreeably homely and thus got pegged as a character actor, meaning he doesn’t get many leading roles (outside of Mike Leigh movies, anyway).

Spall plays Turner as a cantankerous carbuncle of a man, a self-described “gargoyle” who tramps around England with his stocky gait and impertinently puffed-out lower lip, an easel, canvas and paints perpetually tucked under his arm. He relishes his role as the “difficult artist,” using it to keep people at a distance – preferably outside his front door – so he could concentrate on his painting.

Spall emotes largely through a series of grunts and grumbles, and a few words spat out here and there with evident reluctance. Turner only really seems to come out of his shell among other artists, enjoying back-slapping and sparring with other esteemed painters at the Royal Academy of Art.

In one of many startling depictions in the movie, the artists are shown altering their paintings after they’ve already been hung for exhibit. Most people think of art as something that is begun, toiled over and then finished, but this film portrays them as inveterate tinkerers who always think a work can be improved.

Turner continues to dabble with one painting of a sea storm until it becomes a formless, but powerful, wave of hues. He continues this aesthetic with a painting of a locomotive, a landscape, and so on. The queen herself tut-tuts at this style, and soon Turner is being dismissed as having lost his mind, or at least his eyesight.

Watching Turner interact with his canvas is thrilling. He brushes, he dabs, he scrapes, he even spits into the paint and works it around with his knobby thumb to get the desired effect. Leigh gives us the artist completely transported by the creative act.

Turner’s interactions with other people, though, are stiff and labored, and these scenes tend to carry that same aspect. Turner has two grown daughters he barely acknowledges, and a live-in servant (Dorothy Atkinson) he ill-uses, in more ways than one.

At one point he falls for a rather plain widow (Marion Bailey) in a seaside town where he often goes to make sketches, and soon he’s living a double life there, known locally as “Mr. Booth.” The scene of their first sharing of intimacy has great power, in which each acknowledges the beautiful spirit the other has residing behind an ordinary fleshy fa├žade.

But their relationship remains in stasis, never evolving beyond that one moment – unlike his art, which goes through a dramatic transformation.

In a sense, “Mr. Turner” is the purest sort of portrait of the artist, concerned much more with the art he created than the person behind it. We’re left with a clear vision of the legacy J.M.W. Turner bequeathed to us. But the man himself remains blurred and indistinct.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Video review: "Whiplash"

As I’m writing this, the Academy Awards ceremony has not yet happened, but by the time you’re reading it J.K. Simmons will mostly likely have claimed the Oscar for best supporting actor. He deserves it. Possibly writer/director Damien Chazelle has picked up his own golden statuette for adapted screenplay, based on his own short film. Again, highly warranted.

“Whiplash” was the best film of 2014, the harrowing tale of a promising young musician and the conductor who both inspires and degrades him. It’s the sort of movie that sticks in your craw, needling your soul long after you’ve seen it.

Miles Teller plays Andrew Neyman, an understudy drummer at the country’s finest music conservatory. He’s thrilled when the powerful head conductor chooses him to play in the top jazz band. But Lawrence Fletcher (Simmons) commences a cycle of abuse and psychological torture against the young prodigy.

He screams, he spits, he throws things – even slaps the boy around in the name of keeping proper time. Then, when Andrew starts to crumble under this tidal wave of intimidation, Fletcher mocks him as “one of those single-tear people.”

He does this, Fletcher says, to make Andrew a better musician. And there’s no denying the lad pushes himself to the limits of his ability as a result. But as he comes to resemble his tormentor more and more, we’re forced to ask ourselves what the price of ambition is.

“Whiplash” is a searing character study that raises challenging questions we’d maybe rather not ask ourselves.

Video extras are excellent. The DVD contains a feature length commentary track featuring Chazelle and Simmons – I always feel these are best when at least some of the principle actors are involved. There’s also an interview feature from the Toronto International Film Festival featuring both men plus Teller.

The Blu-ray version also has a deleted scene with commentary, interviews with famous drummers discussing their craft, as well as Chazelle’s original short film with commentary.

Movie: A
Extras: B-plus

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