Monday, March 30, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Urban Cowboy" (1980)

Let me start by stipulating that John Travolta and Debra Winger, both terrifically talented performers, are crashingly unconvincing as a cowboy and cowgirl. They don't for a second look, talk or behave like people who grew up ridin' and ropin' on the dusty Texas plains.

Travolta's accent, in particular, is a horrid sham of generic Southern clipped consonants and bent vowels that falls just this side of Kevin Costner's Robin Hood in sheer awfulness. And Winger... well, let's just say that she looks more like she sprung from a kibbutz than a frontier claim.

But perhaps that's appropriate.

The film was directed by James Bridges from a script co-written by him and Aaron Latham, based on Latham's magazine story, "The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America's Search for True Grit." It was an exploration of the cowboy myth as it's been transposed to a modern big-city setting, with the accompanying music, clothes and other touchstones reimagined for a new generation that grew up thinking broncos were boxy trucks, not frisky ponies.

It was an era of faux cowboys trying to recreate the image of their forefathers, just as disco'd-up "country" bands were exploding on the airwaves with synthesized beats that would've made Hank Williams Sr. faint in his boots. 

In a follow-up story written 20 years later, Latham opined that "the cowboy is the only truly mythic figure that America had created so far. He comes to the fore in the culture, then he recedes for a time, but he always seems to reemerge when we're uncertain about the future."

The late 1970s and early '80s certainly qualifies for that description. After seeing America diminished by Vietnam, Watergate and polyester suits, there was an undercurrent of fear, of feeling unmoored from the nation's pioneer legacy. Men were trading in their Stetsons for hardhats to work on the ocean of oil wells scattering the state.

So Travolta's Bud is a representational figure standing amidst the crossflow of cultural sea changes. A legitimate cowboy who turns into a fake one, he leaves his tiny hometown of Spur for Houston hoping he can catch a job at the refinery where his Uncle Bob works.

Bob is a mentor and role model to Bud, a fellow cowpuncher who made it "big time" in the city with his own family and spread. Never mind that Bod's homestead is part of a crammed subdivision of cheap prefab houses with a grand backyard view of high-power electrical lines.

Bob is played by Barry Corbin, one of those actors with such a consummate authenticity and workaday solidity that he often plays figures of pastoral authority. (And, like Alec Guinness and Ossie Davis, he was always much younger than audiences imagined him to be -- he was still in his 30s when this movie came out.) He's terrific in a rather underwritten role.

The story revolves around the love-hate romance of Bud and Sissy (Winger), a local gal who lives to mix it up. She and Bud impetuously wed after barely starting to date, and a week later they've already separated. The main cause of friction, at least initially, is that she's better at riding a mechanical bull than he is, at least initially.

The robot bull is the hottest new attraction at Gilley's Club, a real-life honky-tonk where a large chunk of the movie takes place. Run by country star Mickey Gilley, who appears and sings in the movie, Gilley's is practically a supporting character, a modern-day bastardization of the Old West saloon, now splayed out across "3½ acres of prairie concrete" and complete with a dance floor, carnival games and more silliness.

One wonders if they even have whiskey behind the bar.

Other pop/country acts of the day also show up to perform, including the Charlie Daniels Band, Bonnie Raitt and Johnny Lee, whose "Lookin' for Love" became a #1 Billboard hit and helped propel the movie's soundtrack into a top seller. Many in the country music biz even mark "Urban Cowboy" as the demarcation between old-school country and new, when it became more popular but more commercialized.

"Urban Cowboy" is in essence a musical, with long stretches of the action taking place sans dialogue as music blares, rendering the entire endeavor into something of a nascent music video. (It was later turned into an unsuccessful stage musical.)

Don't forget, in 1980 Travolta's two big screen hits were "Grease" and "Saturday Night Fever," so the studios no doubt saw "Urban Cowboy" as a way to extend his run as a song-and-dance star. Of course, Bud doesn't sing in the movie, though there is one scene of him doing some impressive clogging (or "kicker dancing," as they would call it in Texas).

The heavy is Wes Hightower, played by my all-time favorite "That Guy" actor, Scott Glenn. Recently released from prison where he was a champion bullrider in the big inmate rodeo, Wes sidles into the scene at Gilley's like a shark swimming into a school of guppies. Amidst the posers and wannabes, he's a real-deal cowboy, a throwback hardcase who's always looking for a good ride and a big payday -- even if a little blood has to be spilled in the process.

First seen wearing a ridiculous see-through mesh shirt that shows off Glenn's signature chiseled torso, Wes easily sets Bud to shame with his prowess on the mechanical bull, then starts making smiling eyes at Sissy. They scuffle, Bud has his drunken rear end handed to him, and before you know it Sissy is shacked up with Wes in a trailer out back of Gilley's, and Bud has decamped to the arms of Pam (Madolyn Smith), a rich city girl who likes to slum it with cowboys.

The story wobbles this way and that, with a whole lot of behavior and music for music's sake. At 132 minutes the movie is at least a half-hour too long. And certain events have an obligatory feel, such as a sudden tragedy and the build-up to the big bullriding competition worth a $5,000 purse (about $15k in today's dollars).

Still, the film has its memorable moments, such as Winger's sexy slo-mo bull ride, her limbs splayed across the mechanical animal like a white trash Diana prancing with the satyrs. With her liquid, soulful eyes and cantankerous stubbornness, she's the best thing about the movie.

I can't finish this essay without discussing the violence against women depicted. Sissy gets smacked around pretty hard by both Bud and Wes, though the former at least apologizes for it after the fact. Disturbingly, in both cases it's presented as something women just have to put up with if they take up with a guy in a 10-gallon hat.

"Urban Cowboy" isn't a standout piece of filmmaking, but it did launch a bunch of careers, and helped change the tide of country music, whether for good or ill. It's one of those movies that stands as a totem representing a time and place; there are worst inscriptions on cinematic tombstones.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Video review: "Interstellar"

Some people were fascinated by “Interstellar,” Christopher Nolan’s ruminative space adventure, while others were simply bewildered. Count me as both.

The film, which Nolan directed and co-wrote, is at once very science-heavy and dreamy. It uses the mechanics of space exploration to tell a humanist tale about parents and children, reaching for the stars versus keeping your head on the ground, and other big-think topics.

Matthew McConaughey plays an engineer/pilot who’s been grounded by an ecosystem disaster that’s destroying all of mankind’s crops. The human race will eventually starve. He’s offered a chance to lead a last-ditch mission to find a way to save the species by traveling through a wormhole to distant galaxies.

It seems other astronauts were dispatched on similar trips years ago and never returned. So it’s a high-risk/high-reward situation.

Anne Hathaway is the doubting Thomas co-pilot, while Jessica Chastain plays McConaughey’s daughter. If the age difference between Chastain and McConaughey doesn’t sound plausible, that’s because in different parts of space time can flow much faster – meaning years pass by while they’re dawdling on a lonely planet.

The visual majesty of how Nolan and his crew depict inter-dimensional travel is just mind-blowing. I wish I could say the same about the soundscape, which in a typically Nolan-like way with a thrumming musical score by Hans Zimmer, makes it very hard to make out dialogue at times. You may remember having similar difficulty understanding Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises.”

(Of course, now you can just turn on subtitles during those hard-to-decipher scenes to see what McConaughey was really saying. I’m taking bets on whether it was actually anything substantive, or if he was just muttering something about Earth chicks getting older while he stays the same.)

In the end it’s just well-crafted sound and fury signifying not much, but “Interstellar” is certainly never boring.

The film is being released with a host of goodies, though you’ll have to pay for the Blu-ray edition to get any of them: the DVD comes with exactly nothing.

Extras include interviews with the cast and crew reflecting on the filmmaking experience, and a ton of making-of featurettes touching on virtually every aspect of production. This includes the real science behind space travel, shooting in Iceland to replicate a desolate planet, concept art and much more.



Thursday, March 26, 2015

Review: "Get Hard"

"Get Hard" wins zero points for originality, or subtlety. It's basically a rip-off of "Trading Places," with Will Ferrell as the snooty-yet-decent rich white guy who gets wised up to the hard knocks of life by a wiseacre black man, Kevin Hart, who pretends that he's more ghetto than he really is.

This comedy relies on multitudes of stereotypes, homophobic fears about prison rape, and a heaping helping of just plain old raunch to get its laughs. Yet get its laughs it does.

This is the sort of movie that you roar with laughter at, then feel ashamed about it afterward.

Ferrell plays James King, a young(ish) master of the universe who's about to move from being really rich to disgustingly rich. It's basically the line between people who have cavernous homes with servants around 24/7 and those who own their islands.

James has just been made partner at Wealthrop Fund Management, Los Angeles' top investment firm, and he's marrying the daughter (Alison Brie) of the CEO (Craig T. Nelson) to boot. He treats those around him as chattel, not out of innate meanness but just because that's the world he was brought up in. It's the 1 percent of the 1 percent, where you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps ... with help of $8 million in seed money from your daddy.

One of those underlings he occasionally hobnobs with is Darnell (Hart), who owns Hollywood Luxury Bubbles, the low-rent car wash company that services the chic fleet of James and company. Darnell needs a $30,000 loan to launch his own storefront and get his family out of a crappy neighborhood, but James would rather dispense condescending advice than startup money.

When James is arrested and convicted of securities fraud, however, he's forced to reevaluate his priorities. The silver spooner is facing 10 years of hard time in maximum security -- "I'm going to be attending San Quentin," is how he puts it in his fey way. Petrified by the prospect of becoming the target of gay sexual overtures, he hires Darnell to toughen him up before his stint begins.

Darnell is actually a striving family man with an adorable wife and daughter (Edwina Findley Dickerson and Ariana Neal, respectively) who wears khakis and has never had so much as a parking ticket in his life. But if the rich white dude is willing to shower him with money, he's happy to act the gangster. He gets by through borrowing the plot of "Boyz in the Hood" for his own life story, and copping tips from his cousin Russell (T.I.), who really is a scary gangbanger.

Things go from there, with the two bonding over Darnell's concocted training regimen, which includes turning James' mansion into a simulated lockdown, with his servants acting as his oppressors. (They are only too happy to comply with the play-acting.) James learns about "mad dog face," shivs and "keistering" any necessary contraband.

At various points they infiltrate a white supremacist gang and a gay hangout, since Darnell surmises that because James is so hopeless at self-defense, he either needs to recruit someone to protect him or, ah, learn how to be a people-pleaser.

Directed by rookie Etan Cohen, who also wrote the screenplay with Jay Martel and Ian Roberts, "Get Hard" is a gleefully un-politically correct comedy that doggedly pursues humor no matter what dark crevice in which it may hide. Ferrell and Hart do amiable variations of their familiar character types, and share good onscreen chemistry and comedic timing.

You may cringe while watching this movie, but it'll be with a smile on your lips.

Review: "Home"

"If my face is recognized, I am 100 percent popular for being arrested!"

So says Oh, the friendly little alien who looks like a purple (most of the time) land octopus with an oversized mouth and sounds like Yoda after he's received a touch of New Age philosophy and mild brain damage, not necessarily in that order.

He's the star of "Home," the new animated film from DreamWorks, which like Oh himself is agreeable enough so long as he doesn't overstay his welcome. A natural screw-up, the running joke is that Oh is the unwitting outcast of his people, whose groaning exclamations whenever he shows up lend him his name.

(The audience starts out the movie resenting them for their intolerance, but by the movie's end we gain a little sympathy.)

Oh is voiced by Jim Parsons, who is the star of the immensely popular TV comedy "The Big Bang Theory," which is about a gaggle of nerd friends and is right up my alley, except for the fact I've never seen it. My understanding is that he plays a guy who has trouble fitting in with normal humans, so obviously this role is right up his alley.

Parsons gives Oh a wonderfully high yodel-y voice with the stiff speech patterns of the Boov, who all sound like they learned English via American television commercials translated to Japanese and back again. They're simultaneously very precise and borderline incoherent.

A delightful quirk is that the Boov literally can't control their emotional displays. Their bodies tend to reflect everything they're feeling, like changing colors (red is happy; green means they're lying) or having their squiggly little ear/horn thingees go crazy.

Wait'll you see what effect Earth music has on them.

The Boov spend their lives on the run -- literally. They've been fleeing for years from the Gorg, a fearsome species who resemble the creatures from the "Alien" movies wearing death metal rock 'n' roll grab.

Under the underwhelming-yet-overconfident leadership of their leader, Captain Smek -- terrifically voiced by Steve Martin -- they have relocated from planet to planet escaping the Gorg. With the Boov, cowardice is complimented as a virtue. Risk-taking is discouraged.

And now they want to make Earth their new hideout. Of course, that means the humans will all have to be relocated -- in a benevolent, non-threatening way, of course.

The Boov employ a fantastic technology that revolves around bubbles, which they use for everything from transportation to defense and getting rid of any human objects they don't understand, which are floated up into the air in clusters. Thus, a giant floating ball of toilets becomes a commonplace sight.

After everyone else is moved to Boov-planned communities in Australia, a young girl who escaped their notice is determined to find her mom. Gratuity Tucci -- a great name made even better by its nickname, Tip -- is a smart and sassy kid voiced by Rihanna, who manages a passable tween tone.

Oh commits another one of his classic mistakes: accidentally sending a housewarming party invite to all the cosmos, including the Gorg. Soon he's on the run from his angry own, has joined forces with Tip and they are set up for that classic film storytelling device, the road trip. Though theirs takes place mostly in the air, as Oh turns Tip's mom's car into a hovercraft using Slurpee power.

Directed by Tim Johnson from a screenplay by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, based on a book by Adam Rex, "Home" is heavy on the goofy action and funny critters, though it doesn't have the emotional pull of other recent animated gems. The life-lessons stuff is ladled in haphazardly and rather unconvincingly -- "be who you are" is the basic, banal point.

It's a fun flick that the whole family can enjoy, while wishing it had set its sights a bit higher.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Review: "The Barber"

Scott Glenn is hardly a household name, but he's long been one of my favorite actors. With his taut gaze, sharp-featured face, stoic demeanor and rangy physique, Glenn is the sort of actor's actor who could play a cowboy, an astronaut, a lawyer, just about anything -- and has.

Often when I'm reading a book with a distinctive male character, I unconsciously summon the image and sound of Glenn to personify him. It can even happen more than once in the same novel. Reading Stephen King's "The Stand," I instantly pictured main protagonist Stu Redman as him. But then when I came across the exploits of antichrist-like Randall Flagg, aka "the Walking Dude," I realized that his darkling smile would be ideally suited on Glenn's face, too.

Actors with that sort of malleable screen persona tend not to get cast in many leading roles, and now that Glenn is in his 70s his recent work has been almost entirely in supporting parts -- often playing the villain or the wise old master who tutors the hero, as in the new television version of "Daredevil."

So I was glad to hear about "The Barber," a psychological thriller in which Glenn stars. It's being released in a few theaters nationwide and on video on demand this week. Even if you're not the sort, like me, who'd watch pretty much anything Glenn was in, it's a well-made film with some nice performances and some clever twists of the plot.

He plays Eugene Van Wingerdt, an amiable older man living in an amiable small town in the Midwest, Moraine. It's a picture-pretty place with a main drag of handsome stores, one of which is Gene's barber shop. There he plies his trade, admonishes his young apprentice, Luis (Max Arciniega), not to swear so much, and pals around with the chief of police (Stephen Tobolowsky, another standout veteran character actor).

Then a scruffy young man named John (Chris Coy) comes to town, muttering something about all the girls Gene killed long ago. It seems that Gene, then known as Frank Visser, was the main suspect in a rash of 17 serial killings in which young women were abducted and buried alive. He was released for lack of evidence, pulled up stakes and moved to Moraine for a fresh start 20 years ago.

It's soon revealed that John is the son of the Chicago detective who pursued Visser all those years ago, eventually putting a bullet in his own head over his inability to catch the murderer, who repeatedly called to taunt him about not saving the latest victim. A cop himself, John is determined to catch the guy his father couldn't, by pretending to be a fellow killer looking for a mentor.

Director Basel Owies and screenwriter Max Enscoe adroitly play around with the audience's expectations, first giving us a picture of an innocent man who really was the victim of an overzealous police investigation. Gene walks around with a stooped, stiff-ambled gait, is a regular church-goer and quiet pillar of the community.

"A man's appearance should always show self-respect, not self-importance," Gene opines, like a seer of the Norman Rockwell set.

But the mask slips, revealing a calculating oldster with a bird-of-prey mien who clearly has something to hide. Is Gene really the serial killer, or is he just leading John on in a lame attempt for attention and companionship in his declining years? The way he talks about young girls as "yummies" or "birdies" who tempt his inner demons certainly gives us pause.

But Glenn's grizzled poker face has no tells, so we're left puzzling.

The two men begin a strange sort of tutelage, in which Gene prepares tests for John, and imparts little tricks to put others at ease -- like offering a girl a ride, and looking at your watch when she hesitates so she'll think you're in a hurry.

The film is a little fat in the middle, with a few too many subplots and extraneous characters -- such as Audrey (Kristen Hager), a fellow cop from Chicago who turns up just in time to throw a gear in the works. She's merely a damsel waiting for her distress to appear.

The heart of the movie is Gene and John feeling each other out, like two wary wolves unsure of the other's true intent. It's a twist on the old cop-and-killer game that's a cut above, with Scott Glenn portraying a man adept at blending in as either the hunter or the prey.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Video review: "The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies"

With the final film in the “Hobbit” trilogy, the Tolkien train has finally rumbled to its last cinematic stop -- assuming, that is, that director Peter Jackson & Co. aren’t intending to turn the barely readable “The Silmarillion” into a 57-part television series.

(Shhh… don’t give them ideas.)

I’ve appreciated the scope and splendor of this 13-year enterprise to turn one of my most beloved literary touchstones into movies that have been, by and large, magical. But if I could give a two-word review of “The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies,” it would be “too much.”

There are too many secondary characters and side plots, most of them greatly expanded from things barely whispered at in author J.R.R. Tolkien’s slender tome -- or simply invented out of whole cloth by the filmmakers.

As you can guess from the title, the tale of a band of dwarves trying to reclaim their mountain kingdom from a dragon usurper ends with a massive war wherein the various races of Middle-earth squabble over the spoils. Humble hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is literally caught in the middle, and his choices have an outsized effect on the course of history.

Other key players include Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), heir to the dwarven throne and ensorcelled by the foul magic of the dragon’s gold; Gandalf (Ian McKellen), wise wizard and counselor to the adventurers; Bard (Luke Evans), the stout warrior who brings down the beast; Thranduil (Lee Pace), the headstrong elven monarch; Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Thranduil’s son and carryover from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy; Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a totally invented and unnecessary female elf warrior; and Azog (Manu Bunnett), the fearsome albino orc leader.

The battle scenes are epic in scope, but the gentle story of a hobbit’s journey there and back again gets swallowed.

Bonus features consist of five making-of featurettes: “Recruiting the Five Armies,” “Completing Middle-earth,” “The Last Goodbye: Behind the Scenes,” “The Last Goodbye Music Video” and “New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth, Part 3.”

As with the previous two movies, in a few months they will release a special extended version of “The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies” with an expanded cut of the film and better extras. Though what they could possibly add to this overstuffed meal, I can’t imagine.



Thursday, March 19, 2015

Review: "The Divergent Series: Insurgent"

I liked "Divergent" more than the first movie in the "Hunger Games" trilogy, and its sequel is a step up from that other franchise's sequel, too.

(This despite the goofy, long-winded title. What, did they really think if they just released it as "Insurgent" that people wouldn't know what it's about?)

Based on the YA books by Veronica Roth, "The Divergent Series: Insurgent" continues the story of young rebel Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), the "chosen one" seemingly destined to overthrow the tyrannical regime that rules a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Set hundreds of years in the future in a dilapidated Chicago, where remnants of skyscrapers rise like great eroded sand castles, the people have been divided up into five factions based on their personality and attributes.

Tris was revealed to be divergent, meaning she carries traits of several factions, and thus is marked for death by Jeanine (Kate Winselt), chief of the intellectuals, Erudite. Tris had chosen the Dauntless clan, attracted by the soldier caste's embrace of adventure. She was assisted in her journey from wallflower to warrior by Four (Theo James), her trainer-cum-lover, who turned out to be divergent, too.

When last we left things, the rebels had uncovered a scheme by Erudite to wipe out the ruling faction, Abnegation, after Tris and her crew stormed their HQ. Now they're hiding out with the peace-loving Amity (led by Octavia Spencer).

Tris, now sporting a chic short haircut and a guilty conscience, is obsessed with killing Jeanine and ending the war before it's gone too far.

(Of course, she had an opportunity to do that in the last movie and settled for just impaling Winslet's hand with a knife. Shoulda coulda.)

Anyway, things continue apace with an effort to unite the other factions against the oppressors. Tris becomes a reluctant symbol of that movement -- much like Katniss does in HG.

Director Robert Schwentke and screenwriting trio Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback keep things moving along at an agreeable pace, never making the mistake of letting the talkie character scenes slow the proceedings down for long.

Things get a little trippy in the second half, with more simulated missions designed to break Tris' will, and a mysterious box which purportedly contains all of life's answers. This results in some very Matrix-y moments, such as Tris chasing a building containing her imperiled mother that's both flying and on fire.

Also turning up are Naomi Watts as Four's long-lost, and not particularly loved, mother; Peter (Miles Teller), a former Dauntless comrade who takes special delight in tormenting Tris over her failings; and Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Tris' prevaricating brother, who previously trained with the Erudites and still holds some affinity for their Machiavellian ethos.

(Woodley and Elgort have since starred as a star-crossed couple in "The Fault in Our Stars," so it's a little weird now to watch them as sibling antagonists.)

This isn't the most original material in the world -- at times the movie feels like "Hunger Games" spliced with "Inception" and "The Matrix," with a little "X-Men" xenophobia tossed in, too. But "The Divergent Series: Insurgent" is both a bit of fun and a little bit dangerous. It's like a cute, surly boy from the suburbs.

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