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Movie reviews

One of the first great movies of 2020 (with a theatrical release planned for March) is Michael Angelo Covino’s “The Climb,” an American comedy that boasts inspired filmmaking, and a white guy bromance that feels fresh. It's a jaw-dropping achievement as a directorial debut, but within the scope of all the funny movies before it that have relied on a bland point-and-shoot mentality—regardless of budget size—Covino’s film is an exhilarating anomaly, if not a wake-up call for the visual potential of heartfelt comedy. You can trace the script's characters and situations back to shaggy Sundance-promoted indies, or glossy studio comedies, and yet “The Climb” has Covino making his own mark with cinematic ambitions that promise a career worth keeping a close eye on.  

“The Climb” kicks off with a bravura opening sequence, one of many that features shots of an extensive length. Friends Mike (Michael Angelo Covino) and Kyle (Kyle Marvin) power through through a hellish passage on some European bike ride—when Mike gets a bit ahead of him, he yells back that he’s slept with Kyle’s fiancee. The two argue while Kyle tries to catch up, like brothers playing a game of tag that just got real. Covino announces his visual ambition in a major way by letting the camera roll uninterrupted throughout, filming them as they go up different hills and while bounding between various dramatic beats. Their rapport quickly achieves layers, of being abrasive and also beautifully goofy, with brilliant visual tension—Kyle huffs and puffs in the background after this life-shattering news takes even more wind out of him, and tries to catch up with Mike in the foreground so that he can, as Kyle promises, kick his ass. 

Written by Covino and Marvin, the story concerns Mike and Kyle’s friendship through different rocky chapters in their lives, and uses composed long takes to capture the immediacy of those interactions. Mike and Kyle go through numerous episodes in which you think their bond would be destroyed, as with the opening bomb that Mike drops, but their great screenplay’s deeply entrenched motivations and needs, their elasticity can prove stronger than the shocking things that happen. Covino plays a guy who proves to be extremely flawed and unlikable—a bad friend in a lot of ways, and yet the script offers a natural idea of Kyle and Mike's very complicated dynamic. 

The biggest threat in Mike’s mind to Kyle and Mike’s friendship, other than himself, is a woman named Marissa (Gayle Rankin). Kyle and Marissa announce their engagement to his family members one holiday, and it has the air of Kyle going along with something that the considerably more forceful Marissa wants to get off the list. When a depressed Mike saunters back into Kyle’s life, uncertain that Marissa loves him, the three of them make for a contentious trio who lead with their characters’ mysterious endgames. As Mike and Marissa battle over Kyle in hilarious wars of words, their performances are excellent and fully alive across the board. 

The true magic behind making an extended sequence film like this is getting the audience to forget they’re watching a scene that has been meticulously constructed, and yet maintain the emotional focus that comes with a fluid camera guiding one’s eye from one striking image to the next. “The Climb” excels at that, especially as its acting and beats establish a confident rhythm by around its third chapter. Covino’s choice to actualize sequences with continual shots (some stitched together with discernible transitions) helps the script pop with numerous funny off-hand jokes in dialogue, and ramps up excellent visual comedy (like when one shot peacefully takes us from inside a church to the outside, only for Mike to crash right into frame). You forget a shot’s length midway through because the script fosters a sense of surprise—you’re never sure how a different chapter is going to play out, or where Mike, Kyle, and Marissa will be at the start of the next one. You’re assured, however, that it will all be executed in a way that’s thrilling and charming in a way that very few comedies ever are. 

To put the specialness of “The Climb” in perspective—it’s no stretch to say that Covino’s indie-that-can beats a one-shot spectacle Sam Mendes’ “1917” at its own game. "The Climb" is accomplished in its technical ambitions without being showy, and because it is so character and dialogue-based, it forces the filmmaking to be creative with its blocking, framing, and overall rhythm, all while ensuring we always care about this wildly dramatic but very funny friendship. It’s impressive, for one, how Covino and crew can float the camera in between Kyle’s many family members at a busy Thanksgiving, or along a big patch of melting ice during a bachelor party that goes wrong. But “The Climb” is a top-tier American comedy because it can always breathlessly guide you to its next gripping heart-to-heart between two people, where the cast’s equally meticulous character work shines. 

This review was filed from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Author: Nick Allen
Posted: January 24, 2020, 9:10 pm

The entirety of Netflix's “Miss Americana” yearns to continue the feeling of how we first see mega pop star Taylor Swift—sitting cross-legged in overalls, reading from her teenage journal,and talking about different realizations she’s had about the kind of woman she wants to be. It's far removed from her sold-out shows, but only by so much. Lana Wilson's doc is engineered to appease her fans and promote Swift's self-awareness, and yet it leaves one feeling that there is still so much more to be discussed about what makes Taylor Swift who she is. 

Swift has reinvented herself many times over, and “Miss Americana” finds her before the birth of her 2019 album Lover, and after 2017’s Reputation didn’t hit as well as her previous. (There’s brief footage of her reacting to not getting any Grammy nominations for Reputation, and it’s a striking moment.) This is also around the time of when Swift became more politically involved, and against conservatives like anti-feminist Tennessee senator Marsha Blackburn and Donald Trump. The movie seeks to detail what lead to that transformation, but also makes sure to pat her on the back for getting active. 

Wilson’s mostly chronological depiction of Swift’s rise goes to different chapters that even casual pop culture viewers will recognize, while offering the emotional subtext fans might not know about Swift’s many personal and public experiences. For example, Swift looks back on the incident at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, when Kanye West stormed the stage after she had won the award for “Best Female Video,” and declared that “Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time.” She talks about how the boos that followed West’s actions felt like they were for her, and how that shook her, especially in her long-held values to be nice and to be liked. 

Wilson frames Swift’s chronological rise in pop music largely as the very public story of someone who worked hard to fit into ideals for women—which created a body image insecurity that led to an eating disorder—and now seeks to not let such forces control her. The doc also touches upon the slut-shaming she has faced for her public relationships, and the damning accusation of being branded as "fake." In between all of the behind-the-scenes footage that millions of Swift fans will no doubt enjoy is a narrative of someone navigating her career in a ruthless business that, according to Swift, “puts women in an elephant graveyard when they’re 35.” She’s also, as the doc reminds us in a powerful passage, someone who did experience sexual assault, and was close to having her story silenced. Only Swift speaks about these concepts, and it’s like watching a woman trace her awareness. It becomes a bummer that this compelling approach has to fight so much against briefly amusing fan service for screen-time. 

Fan service is not an inherently bad thing, especially when a star is as charismatic as Swift. She can show a witty, loose side in candid footage, whether taken in-studio or at home. But the movie limits itself to such a narrow focus in how it challenges this pop culture titan, or her actions, and constantly touts her as the hero. In the movie’s clear intent to uphold and protect her, it only makes Swift seem even more out of reach. 

It’s easier to connect to Swift, and her life story, when she speaks transparently about a deep need for approval, and wanting to be what she calls “a good girl.” In turn, whenever Wilson can use that relatable quality, and then make us contextualize Swift’s arena concert footage as an isolated art spurned from an insecurity of not being enough, the documentary goes beyond well-intentioned hagiography. But too much of “Miss Americana” plays like we should crane our necks back and look up to one of the most popular people on the planet, and just appreciate them for reminding us that they too are human. 

This review was filed from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. 

Author: Nick Allen
Posted: January 24, 2020, 2:25 pm

Guy Ritchie's "The Gentlemen" plays like a tall tale, a yarn heard at the corner pub, filled with exaggerations and embellishments, where the storyteller expects you to pay his bar tab at the end. And maybe you won't mind doing so. The narrator here is a conniving unscrupulous private detective (redundant adjectives, perhaps) named Fletcher (Hugh Grant), who glories in all he knows about the intersecting criminal-drug-lord elements operating in England, and sets out to blackmail ... everyone ... with a screenplay he's written, where he lays it all out, naming names. Fletcher's screenplay is called "BUSH," bush, in this case, a euphemism for "marijuana," this being an incredibly complicated tale about the "turf war" in the marijuana business: everyone knows legalization is coming, and fast. The end days are nigh. The "bush" double entendre is also present, just for the chuckles factor, and gives you an idea of the overall tone.

The players on board are an American named Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), who sees an opportunity in the languishing English aristocracy, sitting in their dilapidated manors dreaming of the good old "Downton Abbey" days. Mickey swoops in and cuts deals with "the toffs" in exchange for being allowed to grow marijuana on the property. Speaking of "Downton Abbey," Mickey is married to Roz (Michelle Dockery, aka "Lady Mary" in "Downton Abbey"), a "Cockney cleopatra" (in Fletcher's words), who runs an auto body shop with only women mechanics. (More could be made of Roz and her business. It's fascinating, the glimpse we get.) Mickey loves his wife, and is ready to retire from the weed business. Two rivals emerge as potential buyers: an American Jewish billionaire (Jeremy Strong) and a Chinese-Cockney gangster named Dry Eye (Henry Golding). The wild card is Colin Farrell's "Coach," an Irish guy who runs a boxing club, who keeps insisting he's not a gangster, although he behaves consistently in gangster-ish ways. Mickey's right-hand man is Ray (Charlie Hunnan), a mild-mannered man who looks like a desk clerk until you see him in action. Then he's terrifying. The "gentlemen" of the title is clearly meant sarcastically.

How all of this fits together is almost wholly in the hands of Hugh Grant, who gives an extraordinary performance, considering the circumstances. The script, which Ritchie co-wrote with Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, plays around with all the genre tropes, but the overriding structure is Fletcher "pitching" his script—of these so-called real life events—to an increasingly horrified Ray. Fletcher is a parasite, one of those tabloid "writers" who loves to be "in" on things, who sees people and their reputations as disposable, who adores explaining how much he knows, how much he has captured with his bazooka-sized telefoto lens. This "pitch" goes on for the entirety of the film, and so as scenes unfold, with Grant narrating them, it is as though the scenes emanate from Fletcher's imagination, when in reality we are seeing what really happened. Or are we? Fletcher is far from reliable. The entire script of "The Gentlemen" is really, then, a script within a script, and this is its ace in the hole. There's always one layer between us and the characters.

I could have lived without the running jokes about "funny-sounding names" (it's "Sixteen Candles"' "Long Duk Dong" all over again), and I could have lived without the scene where a rape is threatened. The Jewish billionaire speaks in a stereotypically “gay” way (no other way to say it, he might as well be lisping), and the anti-Semitic stereotype is all over the place. Maybe that’s the point, but it's a tired point. There's much that is legitimately funny in "The Gentlemen" and much that is legitimately disturbing. These things felt motiveless and cheap.

Although he has always been very very good, something exciting has been happening with Hugh Grant in the last couple of years. As he's moved into another age bracket, and out of affable self-deprecating Leading Man status, a formidable character actor has risen. As a character actor, his options broaden, and Grant has been taking full advantage. The one-two punch of "Paddington 2" and "A Very English Scandal"—coming out in the same year—is a perfect example. Grant was using all of these other acting muscles he normally hadn't been asked to use, and it has been thrilling to watch. And he's thrilling here, in a role which is mostly, let's face it, exposition. It's one long monologue. But you're riveted by him.

There's one moment where he puts his hand on Hunnam's knee, realizes it's an unwelcome touch, that he's been busted at inappropriate groping, and he then goes into this wild pop-eyed, "Oopsie #sorrynotsorry" facial expression. It had me on the floor. It's my favorite kind of humor, character-based, behavior-based. Because Grant is so singularly entertaining, and so broad (and yet connected) in his characterization and line readings ("There'll be blood and fucking feathers everywhere, darling," he croons with relish), he acts as his own gravitational force. Mickey Pearson may be the lead, but it's Fletcher who gets the last word.

Author: Sheila O'Malley
Posted: January 24, 2020, 2:20 pm

If "The Turning” leaves you screaming, it’ll probably be out of frustration over its abrupt, unsatisfying ending and not the actual frights that precede it.

This latest version of Henry James’ classic, oft-adapted novella “The Turn of the Screw” gets a grunge makeover, radiating style and mood in the hands of director Floria Sigismondi. The music video veteran—whose clips for Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” and Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” are just a couple of prime examples in her lengthy filmography—creates an unsettling vibe that’s quickly and deeply immersive. The James source material, which most notably has been adapted as 1961’s “The Innocents” starring Deborah Kerr, is straight-up Gothic horror. Its setting is a chilly, sprawling mansion where things go bump in the night, windows and doors slam shut on their own and whispers down dusty hallways eventually turn to screams.

Clearly, nothing good will happen here, despite the elegant trappings. But the imagery eventually grows repetitive—you can only see so many skittering spiders and severed doll heads—and the talented supporting performers reach a limit as to what they can convey about their characters in the script from “The Conjuring” writers Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes. Then there’s that ending, which feels like a sudden shriek, and a shrug.

Initially, though, Mackenzie Davis is full of optimism as Kate, a kindergarten teacher excited about her new job as a live-in instructor and governess for a young orphan. (This is an extremely different nannying gig than the one Davis had in “Tully.”) The setting has been updated to the somber spring of 1994, as we see from television coverage of Kurt Cobain’s death, but Kate is nothing but upbeat. “I’m going from 25 screaming kids to one little girl,” she tells her skeptical roommate. “How hard could it be?”

But once Kate arrives at the foreboding estate, she soon realizes she has more to deal with than her precocious charge, the sunny second-grader Flora (“The Florida Project” star Brooklynn Prince). She also must contend (and compete for authority) with the home’s longtime housekeeper, the angular and antagonistic Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten). Soon, Flora’s arrogant teenage brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard of “Stranger Things”), shows up unexpectedly from boarding school with some secrets of his own. And eventually, the legend of what happened to Flora’s previous teacher, as well as the riding instructor with whom Miles had forged a strong bond, comes into sharper focus.

Sigismondi, with just her second feature following the 2010 rock biopic “The Runaways,” establishes Kate’s feeling of isolation early and often, shooting her from a distance on the estate grounds, her bright, red coat providing a striking contrast with the home’s cold, gray facade. It’s a perpetually cloudy place, where a leisurely stroll past the koi pond or a horseback ride in the woods are opportunities for dread rather than joy. Cinematographer David Ungaro works deftly within the many creepy corners of the cavernous estate—hidden hallways, an abandoned sewing room, a garishly wallpapered bathroom—all of which hint at a deeply rooted evil that never truly materializes. And the dark strings of composer Nathan Barr’s score are a key factor in putting us on edge.

Davis, meanwhile, convincingly suggests her character’s descent into madness; whether the origin is internal or the result of her surroundings is the film’s ultimate question. You can see her growing more frail and frazzled each morning after yet another restless night. It’s a physically and emotionally demanding role, and Davis is up for every challenge. The look on her face as Kate begins to realize exactly what she’s gotten herself into—and can’t get out of for a variety of reasons—is quietly chilling. Prince provides an eerily spritely presence without a trace of child-actor cuteness, and Wolfhard continues to display his versatility with this surly and subversive portrayal.

“The Turning” suggests the devastation that can linger as a result of childhood trauma, and its players seem game to go deeper, but ultimately the film only scratches the surface of this thorny subject.

Author: Christy Lemire
Posted: January 24, 2020, 2:20 pm

The new French voodoo/gothic drama “Zombi Child” is mostly satisfying, but also a little frustrating because of its creators’ walking-on-shells sensitivity. Written and directed by Bertrand Bonello (“Nocturama,” “House of Tolerance”), “Zombi Child” definitely feels like the kind of movie whose creators might defend its existence by noting that “the film is thoroughly and precisely documented” (as Bonello does in the movie’s press notes). After all, “Zombi Child” is a multi-generational cautionary tale that’s focused on Haitian voodoo and the way that its seen with a mix of fascination and skepticism by a new generation of young Frenchwomen, including Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), a Haitian schoolgirl whose family’s ties to voodoo culture are somewhat explained throughout the movie, but never fully demystified.

Much of “Zombi Child” isn’t even directly about Mélissa or her heritage; instead, Bonello usually treats her as the subject of unsettling fascination for Fanny (Louise Labéque), a lovesick and very fair teenager who’s also obsessed with the memory of her boyfriend Pablo (Sayyid El Alami). In that sense, the slow, semi-naturalistic process by which we learn about Fanny’s intentions—she wants to use voodoo to get closer to Pablo—says a lot about “Zombi Child.” It’s a horror-drama that draws inspiration from earlier genre touchstones like “White Zombie,” “I Walked With a Zombie,” and “The Serpent and The Rainbow.” It’s also very much about its creators’ self-conscious outsider’s view of the eerie beauty and material reality of voodoo, which is itself still an outsider culture in France and beyond.

Plot isn’t really the thing in “Zombi Child,” since the movie is explicitly about a disjointed “subterranean history” of events, as Fanny and Mélissa’s 19th century history teacher (Patrick Boucheron) explains during an introductory lecture. In this monologue, we’re told that the concept of history as a progress narrative is suspect given how exclusive that organizing principle is. Are stories or events that don’t fit these narratives any less authentic? “Zombi Child” is, in some ways, an attempt to answer that question with a counter-narrative about an unidentified Haitian man (Mackenson Bijou) who, in 1962, was buried alive by white colonists, and brought back to life as an undead zombi slave. This man’s connection with Mélissa is unclear for a while, but there is obviously something between them, just as there’s an undefined, but powerful kind of attraction between Fanny and Mélissa. Fanny wants something from Mélissa given her association with voodoo, like when Mélissa recites René Depestre’s Cap’tain Zombi poem during an initiation ceremony for Fanny’s literary sorority. But it’s hard to tell how these two narrative threads are related until later on in the movie.

Thankfully, following Bonello’s disjointed story is never boring thanks to his and his collaborator’s knack for dramatizing the romantic, but callow aspects of Fanny and Mélissa’s angsty teenage lives. “Zombi Child” is obviously not a run-of-the-mill teen drama, but it’s still satisfying for the mix of empathy, fascination, and mild critical distance that Bonello uses to depict Fanny and Mélissa’s otherwise inaccessible world of sisterly bonding and schoolyard daydreaming. Many scenes in “Zombi Child” end without much dramatic fanfare; some scenes end right after some narratively inconsequential detail is used to paint a fuller picture of Fanny and Mélissa’s boarding school-life. So while Fanny’s online keyword-searches for information on “voodoo possession” and priestess-like “mambos” may not be typical, but they are presented in a refreshingly matter-of-fact way.

Bonello often resists the temptation to criticize his young protagonists’ too harshly. He lets their contradictory and sometimes fickle behavior speak for them, as when Fanny’s friends (all white) try to decide if Mélissa is “cool” or “weird” before they wonder aloud if a boy is genuinely attractive or only “fake sexy.” Soon after that, they all sing a French rap song with lyrics like "I hate cops ‘cause cops hate what we are,” "only my crew knows who I am,” and "this ain't love, I just want your ass.” Bonello’s young heroines are, in that sense, allowed to be young without being condemned too harshly for it.

Then again, Bonello’s general preference for keeping several key plot points ambiguous is ultimately what makes “Zombi Child” a good, but not great story about counter-culture, as it’s experienced by members of a dominant culture. As involving and genuinely exciting as much of Bonello’s frank teen drama may be, it only says so much about who gets to write history, and what their motives are. I like “Zombi Child” for its frank, seductive depiction of clashing cultures, as well as the care and reverence that Bonello brings to the direction and lighting of his movie’s Haiti-set scenes. I just wish there was more to the movie than what’s presented on-screen.

Author: Simon Abrams
Posted: January 24, 2020, 2:20 pm

Even if you are an enthusiastic follower of the work of Chinese director Jia Zhangke, you may want to bone up on some Chinese history before seeing “I Wish I Knew,” a documentary he made in 2010 which is only now being released here. The director is known for deliberate, pointed examinations of life in various parts of China over different periods, generally ending up in the present day or even in the future (as in his 2015 picture “Mountains May Depart”).

Made between his sublime “24 City” (2008) and his angry, violent 2013 “A Touch of Sin,’ “I Wish I Knew” takes its title from the American songbook standard, here heard as sung by U.S. crooner Dick Haymes, while a group of contemporary Shanghai senior citizens are seen dancing to it. But that’s the only piece of Western music heard in the movie. Except for a stray reference here and there to individuals emigrating to the U.S., the movie stays in Shanghai. This is in a respect out of necessity: the movie was actually commissioned by the Shanghai Expo for screening there. It shows how far the filmmaker had come in terms of acceptance that he was hired for this; his early features, independently financed, were invariably banned or at least shadow-banned by the government for their frankness about the conditions of its contemporary characters.

“I Wish I Knew” is not a conventional celebration of Shanghai, however. The filmmaker mixes at-length reminiscences with older residents with contemplative, beautifully framed views of sections of the municipality, taking in both its urban sprawl and some of the more distinguished details of its architecture. Often walking through these settings is Tao Zhao, the incredible actor who has been consistently featured in Jia’s films since 2000’s ”Platform” and whose work in 2018’s “Ash Is The Purest White” was a highlight of the last decade in cinema.

The stories feature gangster and revolutionaries, accidental stumblings into high finance and tragic losses of love. There’s a good deal of material on Shanghai’s film history. The Taiwan film master Hao Hsiao-Hsien appears, discussing his 1998 masterpiece “Flowers of Shanghai,” set in that city in the 19th century. He recalls a fruitless search for locations and atmosphere in then-contemporary Shanghai, and being overwhelmed by the ever-changing city. He wound up doing the whole film on sound stages. Rebecca Pan, who acted in that movie, also appears, and is shown as she was seen in Wong Kar Wei’s “Days of Being Wild.” The movie mixes interview footage with archival footage, but there’s no news footage of unrest, which shouldn’t be a mystery given the state-run media. Instead, the anecdotes are given context or ironic commentary through glimpses of propaganda movies or snippets of government-approved pop culture. But if you don’t have a firm grip on 20th century Shanghai history, a lot of this will be lost on you. And I’ll admit, I wasn’t exactly nodding in recognition of all the allusions throughout, myself.

In the last 15 minutes, some younger Shanghai residents chime in, including the actor and director Han Han, but the film seems far less engaged by them. This particular cinematic boat prefers to be borne back ceaselessly into the past, which as we know is another country unto itself. Even without access to all that it references, “I Wish I Knew” functions as an admirable cinematic tone poem about a place and its times. 

Author: Glenn Kenny
Posted: January 24, 2020, 2:19 pm

“The Last Full Measure” covers the 1999 battle to obtain the Medal of Honor for deceased Air Force Airman William Pitsenbarger. Killed in combat in one of the bloodiest missions of the Vietnam War, Pitsenbarger saved many lives but was awarded what his family and the men he saved and served with considered a lesser commendation. We’re told that of the thousands of vets who have received the “MOH,” as the characters here call it, only 18 of them hailed from the USAF. Pitsenbarger was not even supposed to be on the ground; he was in a chopper with his fellow airmen airlifting the wounded until the company below lost their medic. After assisting the wounded on the ground, Pitsenbarger defies an order to return to his aircraft, opting instead to seal his fate by engaging in combat to cover the remaining company men.

Writer/director Todd Robinson spins this tale of heroism with a lot of purple sentiment but surprisingly little of the jingoism expected from a film like this. Instead, “The Last Full Measure” spends much of its runtime examining postwar post-traumatic stress disorder and the survivor’s guilt that accompanies it. Running underneath this is a subtly rendered current of anger over the way veterans are treated once they come home. These ideas are presented by a cast of well-seasoned actors who help the film survive its occasionally clunky dialogue. In fact, one of the film’s bigger pleasures is listening to these thespians plow through their numerous monologues. Their performances are the film's saving grace.

Sensing that his film might sink to more maudlin depths, Robinson presents an audience stand-in who represents the level of cynicism needed to balance out his story. Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan) is three months away from losing his current cushy government position due to the resignation of a higher-up. To keep him busy until then, his boss Carlton Stanton (Bradley Whitford) assigns him the case brought up by Tulley (William Hurt), the airman who sent Pitsenbarger into the jungle on the day he died. Stanton thinks Tulley’s request will die on the vine—upgrades of medals were practically unheard of in the military—and even if it has staying power, the government will prolong any actions well past Huffman’s tenure. Huffman treats the job with some disdain, but Tulley is not only persistent, he’s wily. He earns an ally in Stanton’s boss by presenting his case at a mens’ room urinal. In one of the few scenes of humor, Tulley offers up a handshake while the other guy is quite obviously indisposed.

Hurt is the first of several familiar faces “The Last Full Measure” pulls out like aces from a stacked deck. Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd show up as Pitsenbarger’s parents Frank and Alice, and the men he saved are well played in their present-day incarnations by Ed Harris, John Savage, Samuel L. Jackson and Peter Fonda in one of his last roles. Each is given a flashback sequence and some of that aforementioned ripe dialogue. I began to tire of the flashbacks—they’re not bad, they’re just repetitive and would have been more effective presented as one major set-piece rather than interspersed throughout for unnecessary suspense—but my interest in those monologues never waned.

In his few scenes, Fonda is especially good. His Jimmy Burr is a still-traumatized man who has slept during the day for 32 years due to his unshakeable fear of the night. His protective wife Donna (Amy Madigan) sees right through Huffman’s insincerity when he comes to interview Jimmy, warning him that this vet does not suffer fools gladly. Jimmy Burr is the type of character who can easily be overplayed, but Fonda finds the right note between stoicism and madness that is truly haunting. Burr punctuates every sentence he speaks to Huffman with “sir,” and the way he says it hovers somewhere between an affectation and a threat. He even sells one of the movie’s pulpiest lines with gusto: After Huffman asks if Burr’s gun is loaded, and receiving a demonstration of the affirmative, Burr yells “an unloaded gun is just a stick!”

Jackson is also very good here as Takoda. Like Fonda, he walks a fine line of menace without going over the top. At first antagonistic toward Huffman, Takoda gradually warms to him once he realizes that this may be the last chance for cancer-stricken Frank to see his son earn the MOH before he dies. Takoda and Frank share a scene of quiet power where the former, in a state of guilt-stricken grief over a specific battle incident, calls the latter and can’t bring himself to speak. This is apparently a common occurrence. “Did he say anything?” asks Alice. “He never does,” replies Frank. Takoda and Tulley most strongly represent the film’s examination of survivor’s guilt and both are given scenes that reflect their anguish.

You may have noticed that I’ve said very little about William Pitsenbarger. “The Last Full Measure” misses the opportunity to flesh him out, to give us more insight into who he was. As played by Jeremy Irvine, he is certainly heroic and the actor’s good looks and affable manner serve as a form of cinematic character shorthand for someone for whom we should root. But he’s mostly defined by the tales told by everyone else and as such remains a mystery held at arms length. This may have been Robinson’s intention, to keep him a bit enigmatic as a form of respect, but I wish I could have spent more time hearing from Pitsenbarger directly. Without that, he feels like a ghost haunting his own story.

Author: Odie Henderson
Posted: January 24, 2020, 2:19 pm

According to IMDb, the seemingly inexhaustible Nicolas Cage has no fewer than six additional movies in various stages of production that are currently scheduled for release in 2020, ranging from high-profile studio outings to the kind of demented head-scratchers that he somehow manages to sniff out in the manner of a pig finding truffles. And yet, none of these films may be able to top his latest effort, "Color Out of Space," in terms of sheer nuttiness. Considering that the film takes its inspiration from one of the most famous short stories by the legendarily weird H.P. Lovecraft, and was directed and co-written by Richard Stanley (making his first stab at narrative filmmaking since being fired from his remake of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” after only a few days of shooting), there was very little chance that it was every going to be just another run-of-the-mill project. However, the addition of Cage to the already heady cinematic brew definitively puts it over the top, making it the kind of cult movie nirvana that was its apparent destiny from the moment the cameras started rolling.

The film centers on the Gardner family, who have recently left the hustle and bustle of the city for a more bucolic life in a remote house near a lake in the deep woods of Massachusetts. While father Nathan (Cage) is gung-ho about becoming a farmer and raising alpacas (“the animal of the future”) despite no discernible talent for either, wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) is preoccupied with recovering from a recent mastectomy, eldest son Benny (Brendan Meyer) is off getting stoned most of the time, teen daughter Lavinia (Madeline Arthur) vents her annoyance at the move by dabbling in the black arts with her paperback copy of “The Necronomicon” and young son Jack (Julian Hilliard) more often than not simply gets lost in the shuffle. The Gardners are not crazy or hostile in any way, but it also becomes quickly obvious that their isolation has begun to drive them all a bit batty. 

That weirdness escalates one night when the sky turns an almost indescribable shade of fuchsia, and a meteorite crashes into their front yard. Although the meteorite itself soon crumbles away, strange things begin happening in its wake. A batch of new and heretofore unseen flowers begin blooming while Nathan’s tomato crop comes in weeks ahead of schedule; the family’s phones, computers, and televisions are constantly being distorted by waves of static that render them all but useless. The Gardners themselves begin exhibiting signs of strange behavior as well: Nathan begins acting daffier than usual, flying off into rages at the drop of the hat; a seemingly dazed Theresa chops off the tops of a couple of her fingers while cutting carrots; Jack is constantly staring and whistling at a well that he claims contains a “friend.” Before long, everything in the area begins mutating in indescribable ways, and while Benny and Lavinia recognize what is happening around them, even they appear to be powerless to escape the grip of whatever is behind everything.

The stories of H.P. Lovecraft have inspired, directly or otherwise, any number of films over the years but with very few exceptions (chiefly Stuart Gordon’s cult classics “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond”), most of them have not been especially good. In most cases, the problem is that Lovecraft’s stories tended to focus on indescribable horrors and much of the impact for the reader came from taking the vague hints that he did parcel out and then picturing it in their own minds, where their imaginations had no limitations or budgetary restrictions. To successfully adapt one of his works, a filmmaker needs either an unlimited budget to try to bring his horrors fully to life, or the kind of unlimited imagination that allows them to take Lovecraft’s suggestions and go off in their own unusual directions. When these requirements are missing, the results can be fairly dire, as anyone who saw “The Curse,” a dire low-budget 1987 adaptation of Color of Outer Space, can attest.

In this case, the film works because it is clear that Stanley is not only working on the same wavelength as Lovecraft was when he wrote the original story, but has managed to transform the author’s decidedly purple prose into cinematic terms. Take the titular color, for example. In the original story, it is never properly described to us other than being of a shade never before seen on the typical color spectrum. That sort of non-description description can work on the page but isn’t especially helpful as a guide for someone who has to bring it to life. Stanley proves himself to be up to the challenge, and hits upon a wild color scheme that honors Lovecraft’s intentions by bathing everything in a genuinely otherworldly tinge. Not content to rest there, he builds upon that weirdness with an equally vivid soundscape, including a creepily effective score by Colin Stetson. Stetson's score shifts levels of reality in aural terms and conjure up the kind of terrors that are even harder to shake than the numerous and undeniably eye-popping physical mutations on display.

Stanley also manages to work the film’s additional otherworldly element—Cage's performance—organically into the material, without losing any of its total strangeness in the process. For fans of oddball cinema, a Cage-Stanley collaboration is the stuff dreams are made of. In that respect, it does not disappoint. Obviously, once things go crazy in the second half, Cage brings out the weirdness full force (even randomly employing the wheeling vocal tic that he used decades earlier in “Vampire’s Kiss”). But what is interesting is that, instead of making Nathan into a completely normal guy who does an immediate 180 as a result of the strange occurrences, he and Stanley instead see him as a guy who is already a bit off right from the start, albeit in endearingly oddball ways. As a result of his work in these early scenes, there is an unexpected degree of poignance that he brings to the proceedings later on even as things go fully gonzo.

The chief problem with “Color Out of Space” is that, at nearly two full hours, it is a little too much of a good thing at times, with some plot elements—chiefly one involving potentially shady dealings by the town’s mayor (Q’orianka Kilcher)—that could have easily been jettisoned. For the most part, however, the film is the kind of audacious and deliriously messed-up work that fans of Stanley, Cage, and cult cinema have been rooting for ever since the existence of the project became known. Both as an effective cinematic translation of Lovecraft’s particular literary skills, and as a freakout of the first order with sights and sounds that will not be easily forgotten, this is one of those films that I suspect is going to grow in significance and popularity in due time. Hopefully it will serve as just the first of many collaborations between Stanley and Cage, two decidedly kindred artistic spirits.

Author: Peter Sobczynski
Posted: January 23, 2020, 1:34 pm

An unfaithful wife is murdered -- or maybe not. A successful writer commits suicide -- or maybe not. Nothing is certain here, not even the central character's name. The narrator who opens the film just says, "Let's call him Henry." A mysterious manuscript may hold clues in the markings in pen on some of its pages. Perhaps the text itself has some clues the author did not realize. A man who hires a private detective to find a missing person is himself is followed by a stranger with a limp. A trial reveals a secret affair as a possible motive for murder. 

"Intrigo: Death of an Author" is the first of three twisty thrillers based on a collection of stories by Scandinavian mystery author Håkan Nesser, all directed by Daniel Alfredson (“The Girl Who Played with Fire,” “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest”). With stories of mysteries nesting inside each other, their parallels and connections only gradually revealed, and one big question never answered, it might suggest a noir-ish setting, inky, rain-soaked streets illuminated by dim, flickering street lights. But this story is brightly lit, with pristine, screen-saver-perfect scenes on a remote Greek Island and in the Swiss Alps. Even scenes in what could be a dank, musty library are warmly inviting and when the main character has a temporary assignment in a new city, his sublet is the stylish apartment of an architect. Instead of a film noir setting with exteriors giving us a visual depiction of dark secrets and betrayals, this one shows us that even the clearest sunlight may not reveal everything we want to know.  

After a brief opening image of what may be someone drowning, a heavy object chained to his leg, we see a man with a backpack (Benno Fürmann) walking along the rocky shore of a Greek island toward the only structure, a beautiful, airy home. An unseen female narrator describes the inherent human duality between civilization and the "parts of our brain that belong to our reptile ancestors. Although we convinced ourselves that hate, revenge, and nemesis belong to the past, our ancient ancestors' blood still runs in our veins whether we like it or not." 

He introduces himself as Henry to the occupant of the house, a successful novelist named Alex Henderson (Ben Kingsley), who genially says he likes being in a lighthouse where he can guide people but "if they get too close, I turn the light off." He agrees to let "Henry" read aloud from his draft novel about a married couple named David and Eva who are on vacation in the Alps when she tells him that she is leaving him for another man, and is pregnant with her lover's child. 

As "Henry" reads, we see the story unfold, with Fürmann playing David as well. Alex quickly realizes that it is a true story and that "Henry" is in fact David. As the story continues, David decides to murder Eva (Tuva Novotny) by disabling her car's brakes. Alex gets interested, even excited, when David begins to suspect that Eva is not dead after all, and has found a new life somewhere else. "Did it fill you with angst or relief?" Alex asks. 

A new assignment gives David a chance to see if he can track Eva down. David is not a novelist but a translator. He has already translated two books by a popular Scandinavian author named Rein, who has recently committed suicide by drowning but whose body, like Eva's, has never been found. He left behind just one copy of a posthumous manuscript, and David agrees to translate it if the publisher will let him do it in Rein's home town, which is where he thinks he will find Eva. Some unusual markings in the manuscript appear to be clues Rein wanted someone to find. David thinks they may reveal secrets about Rein's death. He hires a detective to find Eva and pieces together the clues in the book to solve that mystery himself. The process of translation, which he does one chapter at a time, never reading ahead, is itself a kind of decoding. 

And yet the clear, strong light we see in nearly every scene is in sharp contrast to the curiously muted energy of the characters. A narrator describes feelings of anguish and obsession, but we see little of that reflected in their expressions or voices. David's publisher quotes a newspaper article about Rein: "What do we actually know about our next of kin and their deepest motives?" This film tells us that the gulf between what we want to know and what we can know may never be illuminated. 

Author: Nell Minow
Posted: January 17, 2020, 3:22 pm

You would have to be a darn fool to believe that Sony thought it had a good movie in “Bad Boys For Life.” It’s being released smack dab in the middle of the cinematic wasteland that is January, the month where bad movies go to die with little fanfare, never to be heard from again. Hell, even that Fresh Pigeon of Bel-Air cartoon, “Spies in Disguise,” got released during Oscar season. Certainly you’d expect a little more release-date love for the third entry of a hit franchise that stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as reckless cops armed with comedic banter and oodles of collateral damage. After all, its predecessors were released in April and July, respectively, and were both directed by Michael Bay. Bay’s conspicuous absence added to my suspicions that there was little studio faith in this feature.

Surprisingly, “Bad Boys For Life” is nowhere near as bad as its opening day schedule would indicate. It is the best of the three films, offering in some odd ways a corrective to the prior installments. Unlike the original, this one finds some depth in its female characters; unlike the second, it’s not an exceptionally vile mishmash of “Freebie and the Bean” and “Scarface” whose running time felt approximately 600 hours long. This time, Detectives Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) and Mike Lowery (Will Smith) are more mindful of how much collateral damage they do, even if the latter must be constantly reminded to temper his carnage. I didn’t buy this “kinder, gentler Bad Boys” shtick for one minute, but that doesn’t mean I was bored. When the climax starts laying telenovela-level melodrama atop the explosions and gunplay while openly cannibalizing ideas from “Gemini Man,” I had to admire the audacity of those choices.

The film opens with that speeding Porsche sequence from the trailer, with Mike and Marcus employing their usual disregard for innocents while engaging in what looks like the pursuit of the latest Miami criminal. Turns out all the stunts are in service to getting Marcus to the hospital for the birth of his granddaughter. Now a grandfather—or a “Pop-Pop” as he calls himself—Marcus re-evaluates his law enforcement career. Unlike his hothead partner, he has a wife and family and wants to spend more time with them rather than the hundreds of criminals he’s been shooting. In the words of a far better buddy cop picture, Marcus realizes he’s “getting too old for this shit.” Mike tries to change his mind.

Meanwhile, something is brewing in Mexico, and I literally mean “brewing.” A self-proclaimed bruja named Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo) executes a gruesome, “Silence of the Lambs”-style prison breakout, reuniting with her son Armando (Jacob Scipio). It’s all part of a plan to murder the people who put Isabel in prison and her husband in the grave. One of those unlucky folks is Det. Lowery, whom Isabel commands her son to kill last “so he can suffer.” Castillo plays her role with maximum toughness, so much so that I wish she’d just gone after her enemies herself, but that whole witch character trait had me worried that “Bad Boys for Life” was going to embarrassingly do for brujería what Steven Seagal’s “Marked for Death” did for voodoo.

Armando executes his mother’s wishes and enemies while clad in motorcycle gear straight out of “Gemini Man.” He violates her order of operations, however, going after Mike first. The sequences following this attack attempt to imbue the film with some real emotional stakes, and credit must be given to Lawrence for reminding us that he can convincingly navigate dramatic scenes. Screenwriters Chris Bremner, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan use this plot development to sneakily insert a reason for the aforementioned minimization of collateral damage in the action scenes, though rest assured, there’s still enough violence for a rather hard-R rating.

Followers of the series will find a few Easter eggs hidden throughout. My audience laughed heartily at one that, unfortunately, reminded me of one of the worst scenes in “Bad Boys II.” Despite the 25-year span between this film and the original, several cast members also return. In addition to Smith and Lawrence, the always-welcome Joe Pantoliano is back as Captain Howard, the screaming police chief whose agita is exacerbated by the recklessness of his best cops. He’s very funny, as is Lawrence, who finds some fresh notes in the screen persona he’s been playing since he debuted in “House Party.”

Lest I forget that, like so many other recent action movies featuring older stars, this movie gives us a crew of new-fangled youths whose knowledge of computers bumps heads with the more hands-on approach of their elders. Here, it’s AMMO, a new unit run by Mike’s old flame Rita (Paola Nuñez) and featuring Vanessa Hudgens from “High School Musical” and “Spring Breakers.” Their use of drones and hacking is mocked by the old school police officers, so it’s only a matter of time before AMMO is forced to use actual ammo to get their jobs done. While AMMO prepares for battle, Rita and Mike generate some believable rom-com sparks.

Perhaps the only surprise in “Bad Boys For Life” is its desire to embroil us in an emotional stake for Mike and Marcus. Not in the superficial, buddy-buddy, bromantic way you’d expect, but in a sincerely earnest way that is kind of off-putting when you remember how Bay’s films avoided any semblance of warmth. Dare I say that directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah steal a page from the “old man’s lament” playbook that buoyed "Pain and Glory" and “The Irishman,” and that Smith and Lawrence do their best to try and pull it off. I had a “too much, too little, too late” reaction to these attempts to fully humanize Mike and Marcus, but your mileage may vary here. If nothing else, I appreciated the attempt.

What I didn’t appreciate was the ridiculous, Marvel-style post-credits sequence that sets up a potential “Bad Boys 4: The Return of Thanos” or something like that. What about all that talk of “one last time” between Mike and Marcus? We didn’t need this time, let alone the next. But I digress. While I’m marginally not recommending this one, I’ll let you in on a little secret: If this were on cable at 3am, I’d watch the hell out of it.

Author: Odie Henderson
Posted: January 17, 2020, 12:55 pm