Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Review: "Hail, Caesar!"

At some point the Coen brothers are going to remember they're funny. Not this time, though.

"Hail, Caesar!" is the latest from the writer/producer/director siblings, Joel and Ethan, and the latest strikeout. It's not nearly as dour as "Inside Llewyn Davis," nor does it have the dragging sense of self-importance of the overpraised "No Country for Old Men."

But the fact that "Hail" is actually trying to be caustic and funny, and fails pretty miserably at it, perhaps makes the disappointment even more keen.

It's a daffy send-up of the Hollywood studio system circa 1950, when chiefs ran the show and stars were just playthings to be shuffled and traded like cards in a deck. It's the sort of movie in which everybody comes off looking bad -- the behind-the-scenes overlords, the dimwitted actors, the narcissistic directors, the nosy press, the whole kebab.

Even the screenwriters, who usually get portrayed as the put-upon heroes of the trade, are seen as stooges of the Communists, happily spouting Marxist theory but really desiring more of the dough and limelight for themselves.

The Coens doubtless intended this as caricature, a joke-within-a-joke about how artistic types were often viewed during the McCarthy era. Call me old fashioned, but I just don't find the Blacklist every funny.

The central character is Eddie Mannix, the fixit man for Capital Pictures. The sign on his office door says Head of Physical Production, but he really runs the studio on a day-to-day basis while the man ostensibly in charge keeps a careful remove in New York. Mannix's job is a quotidian nightmare of putting out fires, making sure the trains run on time, preventing the embarrassing stuff from getting into the press and keeping the tantrums/temptations of the stars to a manageable minimum.

Things go haywire when his biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped from the set of the Roman drama that bears the title of this film. It's Mannix' big prestige picture for the year, and soon the gossip columns have heard about the disappearance -- including rival sisters, Thora and Thessaly Thacker, both played by Tilda Swinton.

The kidnappers are... not terribly organized. They're a bunch of egghead scriptmen who bring Baird to a beatific beachside home, still in his Roman soldier get-up. They don't even bother to lock the doors, and we wonder why he doesn't simply walk up the driveway and thumb a ride back to town. But Baird is fascinated by the lefty "scientific theory" of the crew, who apparently just requisitioned it from a visiting professor. He happily chats them up, trading stories about drinking with Clark Gable, having to shave Danny Kaye's back and such.

Hanging around the periphery is Hobie Doyle, a singing cowboy star in the mold of Audie Murphy who's just been asked to change his image with a switch to erudite romantic dramas. Deliciously played by Alden Ehrenreich, Hobie is hopelessly ill-equipped for anything more than ridin' and ropin', but gamely gives it a go.

If Baird is dim, then Hobie's mind is just about pitch black. But somehow the simpleminded, earnest young star always seems to point himself in the right direction, while Mannix and his henchmen are confounded by the kidnapping.

Also turning up in bit roles -- just a scene or two apiece -- are Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Laurentz, an uppity director trying fruitlessly to whip Hobie into thespian shape; Scarlett Johansson as DeeAnna Moran, a swimsuit beauty a la Esther Williams who's more Bronx moll than angel; Jonah Hill as the ever-ready fall guy; Frances McDormand as the editing whiz toiling in her cave; and Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly-esque song-and-dance man.

Tatum shines in one of the better scenes, a homoerotic romp with a bunch of Navy sailors already missing the dames as they're about to put to sea. Kelly was light as a feather on his feet, while Tatum's tapping has a more of a lumbering quality to it, but I still appreciated the effort.

"Hail, Caesar!" is a wonderful-looking picture, photographed by Roger Deakins in the saturated colors and crisp tones of the era. The Coens seem to be having a grand old time, amusing themselves with musical numbers and other homages to Golden Age Hollywood -- while simultaneously undercutting the whole industry as trivial and silly.

It's a schizophrenic film without much narrative semblance or sense of purpose. A few bits dazzle, fool's gold for those of us who used to believe the Coens could do no wrong.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" (1983)

Released the same year as the much higher profile "The Hunger," "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" was David Bowie's own personal favorite performance of his itinerant career as a movie actor. Upon his recent death I thought I'd look up the largely forgotten film.

Bowie is indeed a mesmerizing presence in the film, which is either a Japanese film with some British actors, or a British film made by Japanese filmmakers, depending on how you look at it. His oddity is both the film's greatest strength and weakness, a World War II prisoner of war drama that is much more contemplative and fey than you usually get.

It's another example of Bowie savoring his artistic status as "the other," a stranger in a familiar land who looks at the world sideways and sees things other miss.

The most obvious thing you realize watching the film, of course, is that Bowie's Maj. "Strafer" Jack Celliers is not the main character. It's Lt. Col. John Lawrence, played by Tom Conti.

Celliers is an almost ethereal presence who arrives at the POW camp during the second act and shakes things up, especially the young Japanese commander, Captain Yonoi, who becomes convinced the beautiful blond New Zealander is an "evil spirit."

What he's really experiencing is a latent sexual attraction, though he tries hard to exorcise it nonetheless.

The homoerotic aspect of "Mr. Lawrence" is not exactly in your face. Neither Celliers or Lawrence ever have any overt romantic encounter, either with each other or the Japanese, though Lawrence does form a strange sort of relationship with Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano) that alternates between warmth and brutality. Celliers, for his part, seems to float above normal mortal interactions.

There is a depiction of homosexuality, though, between a Korean guard and a Dutch prisoner (Alistair Browning) that causes much dismay to the Japanese. It's treated as if the guard raped the Dutchman, but it's pretty clearly suggested that it was a mutual encounter that went far beyond just fleeting fleshy exchanges. When the guard is forced to commit seppuku, ritual suicide through disembowelment, the POW bites off his tongue and swallows it, so they both die moments apart in a star-crossed affair.

Still, I think the attraction between Yonoi and Celliers is there, even if it is a bit one-sided. When Celliers wants to extract the maximum amount of embarrassment from the Japanese commander, he does so by embracing him and kissing him once on each cheek, European style. Yonoi is so overcome with shame that he moves to slay Celliers with his sword on the spot, but falls back in a swoon instead, unable to destroy that which he loves.

The physical appearance of Yonoi is highly stylized; he has a rather gender-bending aspect to his look and mannerisms -- while Bowie, known for decades for his fluid sense of masculinity, comes across rather butch (for him, anyway). Yonoi seems to be wearing makeup that accentuates his eyes and mouth. He's as slender as a boy, and speaks English with an extremely pronounced lisp.

(Indeed, one of the film's unfortunate drawbacks is a lack of subtitles for the Japanese actors, even on the Criterion Collection DVD I watched. Their speech is often very hard to comprehend.)

Yonoi is played by musician/actor Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also composed the music for the film, which I greatly enjoyed. I have a fondness for 1980s films with contemporary synthesized scores, usually by American or British pop bands of the day. Sakamoto's music is a compelling mix of Eastern and Western sounds, and comments upon the action without dominating it.

Interestingly, Sakamoto also wrote another version of the main theme that includes lyrics. The title, "Forbidden Colours," I think pretty convincingly puts the final nail in the coffin on the discussion about the homoeroticism of the film. If that's not enough, then the lyrics offer another: "Learning to cope with feelings aroused in me/My hands in the soil, buried inside of myself/My love wears forbidden colours/My life believes in you once again."

Sakamoto released this as a single, sung by David Sylvian. If you'll watch the music video, you can see the pretty obvious attempt to mimic Bowie's sound as well as his look of that era, blond pompadour and sleek suit. One wonders why they didn't simply recruit the star to do the song, too -- though that is a much more modern habit.

(Watching the movie, the feminized man/boy portrayal of the Japanese POW commander reminded me very much of the one in 2014's "Unbroken." It now seems clear to me that director Angelina Jolie must have been influenced by this film. The actor in that film, Miyavi, is also a composer/actor hybrid.)

Conti gets the majority of the screen time, as the sensitive Lawrence, who was the odd one among the POWs until Celliers came along. Fluent in Japanese and a resident there before the war, he is much more capable of negotiating with their captors than the senior officer in charge, Hicksley (Jack Thompson), who seems to spend most of his time worried that Yonoi will usurp his position in favor of Lawrence, or later Celliers.

Director Nagisa Oshima ("In the Realm of the Senses") wrote the screenplay along with Paul Mayersberg, who collaborated with Bowie on "The Man Who Fell to Earth." They were working from the writings of Laurens van der Post, which were influenced by his own experiences as a WWII POW, especially the book "The Seed and the Sower," which includes sections with both Lawrence and Celliers as the main character. In the book the prisoners struggle to understand their Japanese captors and vice versa, but the sexual attraction angle is not there.

(van der Post is an intriguing figure in his own right, an Afrikaner who became a prominent adviser and friend to British politicians and royalty -- a close friend of Prince Charles, he was Prince William's godfather. After his death a whole bunch of nasty stuff came out, including that he fathered a child by a 14-year-old girl who was in his charge.)

The film is very engaging in spurts, and then seems to drift away into moony musings without a whole of narrative coherence. The best/worst example is when Lawrence and Celliers make an aborted escape attempt and are put into neighboring cells, presumably awaiting execution, and share life stories. Lawrence's is merely an anecdote about a brief love affair before the war.

Celliers' recollection turns into an entire flashback sequence about his boyhood, particularly his relationship with his angelic younger brother (James Malcolm). In the first of two sequences, Celliers defends the lad against some bullies who were mad that he mocked their off-key singing in church. He bears their blows without complaint, but grows angered at his brother for fetching the parish priest to save him.

In the second part, Celliers is a BMOC at their boarding school and fails to save his brother from the ritual hazing given to new students. The boy is carried about and made to undress, revealing that he has a mild hunchback. I guess the idea is that Celliers could've spared him this shame but chose not to, for reasons that are entirely unclear. Further compounding the confusion is that another actor of about age 12 plays Celliers in the earlier sequence, while Bowie himself takes over the character in the second -- even though the same performer plays the brother both times.

I think Oshima and Mayersberg did a poor adaptation of van der Post's book, keeping in bits they felt compelled to while layering in a bunch of stuff about forbidden love that doesn't fit with the rest of the material. They either should've been more faithful to the novel, or much less so.

Still, it's an often compelling film, with disquieting themes of alienation, love and humanism co-existing in an uneasy alliance. I can't quite agree with David Bowie that it's his best role in a movie -- that probably belongs to "The Man Who Fell to Earth" -- but it's certainly a worthy turn.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Video review: "Bridge of Spies"

In such an outstanding year for movies, "Bridge of Spies" is the sort of film that tends to get overlooked. It doesn't have a flashy subject, or the hot new thing as a star or director, and it's a historical piece about an embarrassing Cold War event that many people would just as soon forget.

It got an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, but I don't think anyone considers it a serious contender. Nor should it be, but it's a very good picture that deserves some attention on video.

Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer from Brooklyn who finds himself thrown into the kettle of geopolitical politics. First it's being selected to represent Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Ryland, in a wry performance that got its own Oscar nod), basically because nobody else wants the job. He tries his hardest -- which annoys some of his colleagues -- and convinces the government not to execute Abel since they might need him someday.

Someday arrives a few years later when American pilot Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union in the infamous U-2 incident and held prisoner. Donovan is sent to Berlin to negotiate an exchange, Abel for Powers, but in the overheated era of nuclear standoff, the government can't officially acknowledge his role as their representative.

He's essentially freelancing it with his rear end exposed, making daily trips across the Berlin Wall with briefcase in hand to haggle with a bizarre array of Russians and Germans. Complicating things, the East Germans have captured an American student on trumped-up spying changes. Donovan takes it upon himself to free him too: "Two for one" is his mantra.

It's a potboiler political thriller, more about the threat of violence and dire consequences than the actual depiction of them. Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriters Matt Charman, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen turn the screws at just the right pressure, with Hanks spectacular as always as the well-meaning everyman thrust into extraordinary circumstances.

Bonus features are OK, though Spielberg shows his typical disregard for filmmaker commentary tracks. There are four making-of mini-documentaries: "Berlin 1961: Re-creating The Divide," "U-2 Spy Plane," "Spy Swap: Looking Back On The Final Act" and "A Case Of The Cold War: Bridge of Spies."



Thursday, January 28, 2016

Review: "Kung Fu Panda 3"

I was not a fan of “Kung Fu Panda 2.” It seemed like an indulgent sequel made for the sake of having a sequel (not to mention critic-proof box office $$$). I enjoyed being able to brag that I’d never walked out of a movie or fallen asleep during one; after “Panda 2,” I could no longer assert the latter.

So I’m happy to report “Kung Fu Panda 3” is a return to joyous form. Perhaps because it’s been nearly five years since the last one, the filmmakers took a little time to figure out what they wanted to do on a third go-round. Here Po (Jack Black), the tubby bear who became the unlikely choice to hold the mantle of the mighty and beneficent Dragon Warrior, gets to rediscover his roots and find his true inner panda.

If you’ll recall (I didn’t), at the end of “2” we see an older panda in a remote mountain village having a transcendent moment: “My son is alive!” Now the old man turns up in Po’s village looking for him, voiced agreeably by Bryan Cranston. Of course, because these movies are comedies first, the two don’t recognize each other -- despite being the only pandas around.

Needless to say, the reunion gets happier from there. Though not for Po’s goose adoptive dad (emotively voiced by James Hong), who feels threatened by a competing paternal figure. Especially when Po decamps to the hidden panda village to learn the secret of controlling his ch’i.

That’s the Chinese word for the energy source for all living things, which according to legend the pandas used to heal the sick and wounded -- in between downing mountains of food. (Think “The Force,” but with dumplings.)

They need a master of ch’i because there’s a new baddie on the horizon: Kai, a power-mad bull who was banished to the spirit realm 500 years ago by Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), the turtle kung fu master who first anointed Po. Snortingly voiced by J.K. Simmons, Kai has found a way back to the mortal world by stealing the ch’i of Oogway and the other masters.

Other familiar characters return, notably the Ferocious Five (now simply called The Five): stern Tigress (Angelina Jolie), wisecracking Mantis (Seth Rogen), as well as Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan) and Crane (David Cross), whose personalities sort of get pushed to the sides. Wise-but-crotchety Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and his pupils try to make a stand against Kai, but like the others get their spirit absorbed by him and turned into jade zombies, which Po quickly dubs “jombies.”

Directed by Jennifer Yuh and Alessandro Carloni from a screenplay by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger – who have been script men for all three films -- “Kung Fu Panda 3” has the same nice mix of martial arts action, humor and tugging emotions as the first movie.

For instance, one of the running jokes is that Kai announces himself wherever he goes as this infamous world-conquering destroyer, but nobody’s ever heard of him. And, of course, there are plenty of bits about Po’s fellow pandas being self-indulgent feasters and slackers -- they prefer rolling down hills to walking.

When Po sees even the little pandas putting away the grub he quips, “I’ve always felt like I wasn’t eating up to my full potential.”

This is one of those animated flicks intended for kids but with enough cleverness and little flourishes to keep the adults fully engaged, too.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Review: Oscar-nominated short films -- live action

Ave Maria

Five nuns in the West Bank are enjoying their evening meal in proscribed silence when trouble comes knocking -- literally. A family of Jews has crashed their car into their statue of the Virgin and need help. They're a stereotypical group of fast-talking folks who trade insults freely. The man blames his mother and her incontinence for the crash, which has come on the cusp of Shabbat, when Jews are not allowed to operate modern machinery. His wife hectors him mercilessly, and the elderly woman screams at them both. The nuns must break their vow of silence in order to offer help... reluctantly, at least at first. A funny and wry take on a volatile part of the world.


Just a stunning and powerful portrait of the Kosovo war from the perspective of two boys. Albanians living largely among Serbs, Oki (Andi Bajgora) and Petrit (Lum Veseli) must negotiate a difficult daily landscape of unclear loyalties. Their mountain landscape is gorgeous but often inhospitable. Petrit, big and bluff, takes to selling drugs to the Serbian soldiers. Oki, who has just bought a treasured bike after saving for a year, is doubtful of their trustworthiness. Things come to a head in a way filled with tragedy, and hopefulness. Writer/director Jamie Donoughue clearly has a future.


Matthew Needham is terrific as Greenwood, a young British man with a crippling stutter. He has long observant soliloquies inside his head -- narrated by Needham in a sonorous baritone -- but can barely communicate with the outside world. "Reclusive typography invisible to the naked eye, communication skills of an infant, excels in the art of self-pity." He's even learning sign language in order to avoid talking. Greenwood's been carrying on a six-month online relationship with a woman, Ellie (Chloe Pirrie), but when she comes to town and wants to speak face-to-face, he jumps down a rabbit hole of self-doubt. The ending's a little pat, but writer/director Benjamin Cleary understands character dynamics in tightly bookended spaces.

Alles Wird Gut (Everything Will Be OK)

In this disturbing drama from Germany, a divorced father picks up his 8-year-old daughter for a visitation trip. He seems normal and kind, but there are little signs of unease. Like the way the man fails to acknowledge the mother and stepfather. His dowdy little car contrasted to their sleek black BMW. The way he tells the girl to not speak around other adults as he goes about some errands – including obtaining an emergency passport for her. We know where this is heading, and are unsettled. This film can be very hard to watch, and deliberately so, but it’s well worth the time and emotional investment. The actors, Simon Schwarz and Julia Pointner, are just so heartbreaking and true.

Day One

An Arab woman, Feda (Layla Alizada), joins U.S. forces in Afghanistan as an interpreter in what will be the most momentous first day on the job imaginable. Her unit goes to arrest a suspected bomb-maker (Alain Washnevsky) but the man’s wife (Alexia Pearl) goes into labor. The baby is stuck in a breech birth, and since a man cannot touch her it is up to Feda to save the child and mother. Harrowing, intense and emotional, it’s a terrific single act of anguish. Director Henry Hughes, who co-wrote the story with Dawn DeVoe, carefully apportions the suspense and empathy.

Review: Oscar-nominated short films -- Animation

Sanjay’s Super Team


This terrific short from Walt Disney showcases one of their rising animation stars, Sanjay Patel, who directed “Sanjay’s Super Team” based on his own childhood as an Indian-American. Obsessed with super-heroes and TV, he at first does not heed his father’s call to Hindu prayers. Then in a daydream he manages to morph the three primary protectors of the faith with super-powered beings who do battle with a shadowy villain. It’s a lovely commentary on melding traditional spiritual outlooks with modern technology, and entertaining to boot.

World of Tomorrow

Writer/director Don Hertzfeldt was previously nominated in this same category 15 years ago, so hopefully his persistence will pay off. It might just with this trenchantly funny/depressing look into the future of one little Earth girl, Emily, told in deceptively simple stick figure drawings. She is contacted by her third-generation clone from hundreds of years into the future, who shows how people in the future live through the collected memories of their forebears in the “Outernet,” a Matrix-like neural landscape of the mind. Clone Emily tells tales of her life, such as falling in love with a moon rock and later an alien hatchling, and a clone named David created with no brain so he could reside in a museum for patrons to watch him age. “Now is the envy of all of the dead,” she instructs Emily Prime, who’s too young and giddily cheerful to grasp any of it. It’s the blackest of humor, but glows with imagination.


An impressive-looking bit of animation, created essentially by a single person (Richard Williams), manages to shock and disturb but fails to find any deeper meaning in its spare 8 minutes. We open with beautiful pastel pencil drawings of nature, bees pollinating and such, and then a butterfly flies past four warriors seemingly stuck out of time. They slash and rend each other horribly – gosh knows how many red pencils Williams used up – for little purpose that we can divine. Aesthetically wonderful, but detached from any kind of narrative or moral sensibility.

Bear Story

Just a lovely and heartbreaking piece from Chile, beautifully told in a combination of computer-generated and simulated stop-motion animation. A tired old bear works as a street barker selling visions into his amazing little mechanical diorama, which relates the tale of his life through herky-jerky metal figures and scenes. He is separated from his family during the Pinochet dictatorship and forced to perform in a degrading circus act, tottering around on a tricycle while juggling balls. Then one day a new daredevil act offers a chance of escape and reuniting – or so he hopes. Gorgeously made and full of pathos.

We Can’t Live Without Cosmos

During the Cold War, two Soviet cosmonauts train hard to be selected for the space program, but find plenty of time for play and whimsy, too. Their oddball antics are frowned upon, but their diligence is rewarded and they get the chance to ride a rocket. But only one can be launched at a time, and the possibility of disaster and separation looms. Told in simplistic cartoony animation with clean lines, it’s an engaging portrait of friendship amidst a sterile militaristic setting. Just because we reach for the stars doesn’t mean we have to forfeit our humanity.

Additional (non-nominated) films in program:
“If I Was God”
“The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse”
“The Loneliest Spotlight”
“Catch It”

Trailer BEAR STORY / HISTORIA DE UN OSO from Punkrobot Studio on Vimeo.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Video review: "A Brilliant Young Mind"

Asa Butterfield shines in this earnest drama about a super-smart British kid whose math skills far outpace his social ones. Nathan is an autistic lad who gets a chance to join his country’s team on the international math Olympiad. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime, perhaps the entryway to the highest tiers of academia, but his shy manner and trouble relating with other teens also makes it a forbidding challenge.

First-time feature film director Morgan Matthews and screenwriter James Graham show their inexperience, layering in too many supporting characters and tertiary storylines. It’s not these background players are uninteresting – exactly the opposite, in fact.

For instance, Rafe Spall as Nathan’s mentor, a former Olympiad now battling multiple sclerosis, is so compelling that he steals too much of the spotlight from the main character. He almost needs his own movie. Then the filmmakers have the teacher start a romance with Mathan’s mum, played by the great Sally Hawkins, which just comes across as distracting and even creepy.

Still, the film finds its footing once Nathan and his team arrives in China, where they begin a friendly contest of wills with the home team. The boy tries to incorporate himself with his teammates but struggles, especially with the strong-willed Luke (Jake Davies). Meanwhile, Zhang Mei (Jo Yang) of the Chinese team offers her friendship … and perhaps something more, which Nathan is wholly unequipped to deal with.

“A Brilliant Young Mind” is a flawed but worthy cinematic effort. Too many movies nowadays give us lazy stories and unoriginal characters. Here’s a film that tries to do too much.

Alas, the film is being released on video without bonus features of any kind.