Friday, August 31, 2018

“MADELINE’S MADELINE” PLUMBS THE DEPTHS OF ACTING AND COMING OF AGE


The new indie character study MADELINE’S MADELINE opens this weekend at The Music Box theater, as well as other arthouses throughout the nation, and it is not for the faint of heart. It’s an intense, intimate portrait of what it’s like to be a young and talented actress, as well as a teen caught between two passive-aggressive mother figures. The film is a snapshot of a few days in Madeline's life while she's taking an improvisational acting class. Her quest is to find the truth in her work as well as find out more about herself as well. As both actress and teen, Madeline is a girl on the brink, chock full of verve, and fraught with emotion. Madeline’s journey is both exhilarating and more than a bit disturbing. At times, it almost feels like psychological horror, and it makes this no run-of-the-mill coming of age film.

Madeline (Helena Howard) is not quite a high school senior in New York City, but she’s one with a maturity of talent that is already drawing the eye of the drama community. What makes her so exceptional? Madeline is one very open, intuitive and expressive performer. She’s strong in voice and almost dancer-like in her body movement and control. Trying to mold her into something truly remarkable is Evangeline (Mollie Parker), the director of her improv class. Evangeline’s methods are similar to Madeline’s talent. They’re big and bold too, grabbing onto the work with two fists. Evangeline is actually a bit too extroverted in her methods, regularly overstepping her bounds as both an instructor and mother figure. She wants to get under the skin of her pupils, becoming their friend, life coach, and even muse.  

Such attention is catnip to someone like Madeline who needs the petting and strokes that she’s not getting at home from her narcissist mother Regina (Miranda July). Instead, the high-strung woman badgers and bewilders her daughter with her insecure motherly style. She's so self-absorbed that when Madeline pulls a harmless prank, Regina makes her sit in the car and chew over in for a long and painful time-out. It's as excruciating for the audience to watch as it is for the young girl to sit idle in the car as her mother goes on and on with her bereavement.  

Both Evangeline and Regina are not only smothering in their manner, but they seem to be on a mission to manage Madeline's body, mind, and soul from her. Thus, who will truly lay claim to the teen? Will she be Madeline’s Madeline, or someone else's to push around and control? (Hence, the film's clever title.)

Helena Howard as Madeline.
Madeline does find a certain solace in her acting class, if only because everyone else there is a fellow traveler on a journey of self-discovery too. The young woman is able to express herself without editing there, and it emboldens her. Evangeline may push her hard but Madeline feeds off of it. Unfortunately, is ravaging her and the girl is starting to crack. 

Evangeline’s motives may be that of a teacher or a jealous has-been, and it’s to Parker’s credit as an actress that we don’t know exactly how to read her character. Madeline is unsure too, and it draws us closer into the struggles of the teen. We can see the effect all of the self-examination of acting is having on Madeline, and some of it is funny, other parts, horrifying. Watching the girl act like a cat in class, and at home, is both funny and frightening. There seems to be a very thin line between method acting and insanity within Madeline. 

In some respects, the movie could almost be interpreted as a dark comedy, a scathing indictment of the Stanislavski System of teaching acting as "emersion and using an actor’s conscious thought and will in order to activate other, less-controllable psychological processes like memory or subconscious behavior." The angst, pain, and sweat we see Evangeline pulling out of all of her actors may seem utterly ridiculous to the layman, comical in the class's deadly serious take on it all. Evangeline is the kind of earnest and dedicated teacher that the character Diana Morales from A CHORUS LINE wouldn’t like any better than Mr. Karp. 

But for anyone who thinks that acting is merely reciting lines and avoiding bumping into furniture, this film eradicates such naivete. Director Josephine Decker and co-screenwriter Donna Di Novelli have created a film that is as intense a workout for the audience as it is for those in Evangeline’s class. It’s raw and unblinking in its portrayal of the craft, at times playing like a fever dream that's chock full of hallucinatory images. 

The filmmakers put us in Madeline’s head so vividly, some in the movie theater may not be able to handle it. Her brain is a scary place. But then, who wouldn’t be a little off their rocker being forced to sleep and breathe the demands of such a teacher as Evangeline who wants her pupils to crawl on their bellies pantomiming animals, screaming vocal exercises at the top of their lungs, and extemporizing on the spot their most intimate and personal fears and histories. Acting, the film is telling in scene after painful scene, ain’t for sissies. Creation is always hard work, especially when you're working on creating yourself.

The actors all do intense and moving work, so real, so raw. Both Parker and July turn their flawed characters into people who are both repulsive and sympathetic. Their characters' fears of aging, losing relevance, and being unloved is present in all they say and do here. Each deserves Best Supporting Actress attention come awards time. 

Howard as the lead is something truly remarkable to behold. At times, her Madeline is so fierce and obnoxious, you want to look away. At other moments, she is as fragile as rice paper, and you want to reach into the screen and give her a hug. Howard's is a performance that paints in a vast palate of color, and she's not afraid of the darker ones. Rare is the young actress who can do all that she does here. It is a brave, uncompromising, and unforgettable performance. 

Helena Howard and Mollie Parker
As Evangeline works to break down all the walls around Madeline, the girl continues to get more than she bargained for. Digging so deep unleashes her darker and more dangerous impulses. Madeline starts to become volatile and moody, acting out ravaging moments of rage, sorrow, and even promiscuity. At a party at Evangeline's home, Madeline is forced to act in front of all the guests by the hostess. It shows her teacher's need to call the shots at each juncture, but is Madeline also acting when she brazenly comes onto Evangeline’s unsuspecting husband, or just trying to pay back Evangeline's bravado? The film doesn’t tell us for certain, and that makes the film all the more complex. Can we actually believe all that Madeline is doing, or is she just acting? Is she losing it, or is just being theatrical? Probably some of both.

Her terrors get dialed up when Evangeline inexplicably invites Regina to class. The envious mom delights in the limelight and it drives Madeline crazy. Is Evangeline pushing her to get her to share even more, or is she punishing her for being too talented and desperately attempting to bring her down a peg? No matter, as Madeline becomes more and more hideous in her acting out, one is reminded that Mary Shelley taught us that the true monster is always the creator, not its creation.  

Miranda July
To that point, Decker may have indeed pushed her character story into a horrifying cautionary tale about the limits of molding clay into art. It is an edgy work, full of artistry and passion, raw and unrefined, just like Madeline. It's strange, scary, funny, and moving, and perhaps the year's most fascinating mind-f**k of a film. A lot like Evangeline's class in actuality. Tread cautiously.  

Thursday, August 30, 2018

THE SCI-FI ADVENTURE "KIN" JUMBLES GENRES AND TONES INTO ONE MESSY MIX


The new film KIN wants to be many things: a sci-fi fantasy, a road trip comedy, a coming-of-age story, and a brutal actioner. At times, it succeeds in individually essaying all of them, but taken as a whole, the film is quite a mess. One minute it wants its audience to mourn the violent murder of a main character, and a few minutes later, laugh at how another one ineptly lies to cover up that death. The movie wants us to flinch at gang brutality, but cheer when a 14-year-old incinerates criminals with his interstellar firearm. It veers from one genre to the next, failing to find a consistent tone throughout. Painting too many colors together always achieves mud. The same goes for filmmaking. 

It’s a shame really because much of KIN is done with a sure hand. There’s a taut feeling of dread built up in the first half hour as the dynamics are established between the main characters. Blue collar dad Hal Solinsky (Dennis Quaid) has his hands full with his adopted African-American teen Eli (Myles Truitt). Eli gets into fights at school with his harassers, and he sneaks off at odd hours to collect scrap from an abandoned building to earn walking-around money. Their relationship is so strained that the child doesn’t even share the news of the alien massacre he’s discovered in the old warehouse, let alone the space man’s weapon he lifted from the carnage.

Things get worse in the house when Hal’s adult son Jimmy (Jack Reynor) returns home from a lengthy stint in prison. Before he even finishes his first home-cooked meal in over five years, the ex-con is rushing off to meet with gang leader Taylor Balik (James Franco). He owes the heavily tatted thug 60K and is coerced into robbing his old man’s work safe to settle the debt. Of course, Hal walks in on the in-progress robbery and is shot dead for his snooping. In the fracas, Jimmy takes out Balik’s brother and wounds a few of his other men and becomes a fugitive all over again. 

That first act suggests that KIN is going to be a crackling crime thriller with sci-fi overtones, but the movie quickly veers off the rails, never to fully recover. Jimmy grabs Eli, and they hit the road on the run from Balik and his gang. The older brother lies to his step-sibling, telling him they’re going to Tahoe to meet up with dad for a family vacation, and the youngster buys it all too quickly. Soon after, Jimmy is glibly serving as Eli’s tour guide through the teen’s rites of passage. They yak it up in a diner, bond overnight at a cheap motel, urinate on the side of the road together, and stop to get their jollies at a strip club.

It's been less than 2 days since Jimmy saw his dad gunned down, and he took a life himself, but it seems all that washed off his back with the morning shower. Jimmy may look like a pretty-boy hood, almost too angelic with his baby blues, but he must have hardened something fierce in jail. What other reason could there possibly be for him to tow a 14-year-old into a sleazy strip club and pay stripper Milly (Zoe Kravitz) gobs of money to flirt with both of them? That scene's tin-eared tone belies all the seriousness that has gone before it and plays as little more than a crass attempt to elicit laughs or to sex up the plot for an older audience. 

Soon, the boys' shenanigans become almost unwatchable. Not only does Eli stop the brawl Jimmy’s started in the club by hauling out his space gun and blasting away, but soon they’re off to the races with Milly as they stop to rob an underground poker game with the weapon. These hijinks are played for laughs, and the utter inappropriateness of Eli wielding such a firearm turns this into unintentional farce. The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with an intergalactic laser cannon.

Filmmaker twins Jonathan Baker and Josh Baker elicit excellent performances from Truitt and Kravitz, and she wisely underplays her “hooker with a heart of gold” cliché, but Quaid and Franco are both allowed to chew the scenery. The brothers certainly know how to create nifty special effects with the two aliens tracking Eli on hyper-speed motorcycles while using a heat-imaging alien GPS do-dad. Unfortunately, the Baker’s story takes a Baker’s dozen of ideas from a lot of obvious source material with very mixed results. There are nods to STRANGER THINGS, THE TERMINATOR, STARMAN, and MIDNIGHT RUN, not to mention a slew of other road movies in the telling, but the story never finds a singular tone to stick with. 

Studios long for quadrant films - productions that appeal to men and women, aged over and under 25 - but this movie tries to appeal to all of them by mixing up too many genres and far too many tones. KIN is much too “kiddie” for adults and way too violent to qualify as family fare. It’s flippant and smarmy, not helped by Reynor’s playing cute throughout. By the end, it even tries to become a cautionary tale as one of the aliens, played by a surprise big-name cameo, lectures Eli about destiny and honor. The ending even cynically sets up an obvious path to a sequel, but what film doesn’t want to be a franchise these days? KIN could have been a serious-minded sci-fi adventure with an emphasis on the limits of a lawless life. Instead, its most persuasive argument seems to be that crime and murder are pretty cool if you’re the one wielding the ray-gun.

Monday, August 27, 2018

"OPERATION FINALE" NOBLY BUT TEPIDLY TELLS OF THE CAPTURE OF ESCAPED NAZI ADOLF EICHMANN

Original caricature by Jeff York of Ben Kingsley and Oscar Isaac in OPERATION FINALE (copyright 2018).
The story of the capture of famed Nazi Adolf Eichmann is an inherently dramatic one. The architect of “The Final Solution,” the Third Reich plan to exterminate all the Jews during WWII, managed to escape an American prison camp after the war and migrate to Argentina. There, the fugitive thrived under the name “Ricardo Klement” for years until Jewish intelligence officers nabbed him in 1960 and took him back to Israel to stand trial for his war crimes. The moniker for that mission was “Operation Finale,” and so is the name of this new major motion picture based on those events. Like the operation itself, the film is incredibly noble, even if it fails to cut as deeply as it could.

After the war ended, Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) was a Mossad officer whose mission was to hunt down escaped Nazi’s and exterminate them with extreme prejudice. In the opening moments of the movie, he and his men find one Nazi who’s evaded capture and kill him, even though he’s not the precise culprit they were looking for. Malkin is haunted by such mistakes, not to mention the death of his sister Fruma (Rita Pauls) and her three children and the hands of SS officers during the war, and it makes him a more moral crusader. 

Despite Malkin’s aversion to all the killing as part of his job, his vocation excites him when given the opportunity to fly to Argentina to help apprehend the fugitive Eichmann. Intel reports indicate the former Nazi is hiding there in plain sight, working as a foreman at a Mercedes Benz plants. (German cars, of course.) The intel comes from an unusual source, a teen who’s dating Eichmann’s son. Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) is living in Argentina with her blind German Jew father Lothar (Peter Strauss) when she realizes that her handsome suitor Klaus (Joe Alwyn) is not only a closeted Nazi but also the son of the Nazi legend Eichmann. She bravely contacts the Israel embassy, and soon a Massad team is assembled to carry out a seize and capture mission.

Malkin joins a handful of other elite agents and even persuades his ex-girlfriend Dr. Hanna Elian (Melanie Laurent) to join them. She too is more than a little gun-shy about such kidnapping missions as her previous one turned into a debacle when her hypodermic failed to keep the prisoner sedated. Still, this is a chance to get Eichmann, so she reluctantly joins the crew despite her misgivings. Other key members of the ensuing raid include intelligence officer Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll) and lead interrogator Zvi Aharoni (Michael Aronov).

As the team arrives in Argentina, screenwriter Matthew Orton and director Chris Weitz ensure the mission starts with crackling tension and verve. The intelligence officers make a brazenly bold move in employing Sylvia to help them positively ID Eichmann, and the young woman bravely walks into the lion’s den. She visits the home of Klaus while agents wait outside, cameras ready, hoping to get a glimpse of Eichmann. She manages to lure both her boyfriend and his father out of the house, and you fear for her discovery every second of the best scene in the film. 

Unfortunately, there isn’t a scene that comes close to matching it afterward. The tension percolates along at a decent boil, but the actions never seem to genuinely touch the hem of danger again. Even worse, what appeared to be the climax of the film in the trailer – the moment they snatch Eichmann – plays out smack dab in the middle of the narrative. Malkin and his team grab the bespectacled man on the road upon his return home from work, but the scene gets wholly rushed. Before they barely make eye contact, Malkin is wrestling Eichmann to the ground. They roll around in the ditch as Malkin tries to keep Eichmann from screaming for help, but the fight doesn’t seem nearly visceral enough. Then eyeglasses are lost, syringes are dropped (Again, Hanna?), and scuffle noises arouse the suspicions of Eichmann’s wife Vera (Greta Scacchi). Yet, it’s all gone in a flash, and it becomes the first of the film’s significant miscalculations. 

A director like Brian De Palma would’ve utilized ultra-slow-motion in such a scene, maximizing every blink of the eyes as Malkin calmly approached Eichmann on that road before his attack. One like Martin Scorsese would’ve made that fight in the ditch so vicious that both men would be wholly shaken by it, not to mention the trembling audience in the Cineplex. But Weitz, he shoots it all far too matter-of-fact, almost as if it’s an 80’s TV-movie. His direction is competent, but never truly elevates the material.

Once the intelligence agents have Eichmann in their safehouse, the drama merely putters along. The team has to sit and wait while Israel and El Al Airlines (the Israel carrier) piddle around with the politics of timing to get them out of Argentina. That means the officers have a lot of time to get to know their prisoner, but not enough comes of it. Malkin is portrayed as an earnest social justice warrior, willing to try new things to extract a signature needed from Eichmann on documentation, but the rest of the agents are ciphers.

Nick Kroll brought a wry sense to every scene he had in a similar role in the moving LOVING two years ago, but the script never makes hay of his comic skills. Even stranger is that Weitz, the director of the modern comedy classic AMERICAN PIE, would let such an opportunity slip. Laurent’s character does little except fulfilling “the girl role,” as she stands around with precious little to do. There’s not even any heat exhibited between her and the equally attractive Isaac. Even Aronov gets only a few scant lines to convey his wily interrogator and seems mostly distinguished by the fact that the actor looks too much like Kingsley.

As for Sir Ben, he brings all the haughty dignity to his devil as you’d expect, making the most of the few times he gets to actually speak. When he expresses sympathy to Malkin about the history of Fruma, Kingsley subtly lets us see the machinations of his evil mind as he stores it to be used later to his advantage. When that moment arrives, with Eichmann taunting Malkin, the cat and mouse way this whole movie could’ve gone becomes readily apparent, but Orton’s script is too reverential to history and also arms’ length from creating such necessary onscreen dramatics. 

The climax attempts to turn the team’s escape to the airport with the Nazi’s in hot pursuit into a breathless chase like that in ARGO, but it feels like a rip-off. If the filmmakers here were going to borrow a page from any other film's playbook, they should’ve taken a look at 70’s Nazi-themed potboilers like MARATHON MAN and THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. The themes of WWII were never treated casually there, but those movies popped with verve and vitriol. (Alexandre Desplat’s score tries to emulate that feel, but his hyperbolic score doesn’t match the rest of the soft material here.) OPERATION FINALE may be admirable and noble, but so are the documentaries on A & E. This one needed to be more than just a good history lesson. It needed to be a great thriller.  

Monday, August 20, 2018

BACK TO SCHOOL WITH TWO FILMS ABOUT EDUCATION TRYING TO MAKE THE GRADE

Original caricature by Jeff York of Chloe Grace Moretz in THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST.
(copyright 2018)

It’s back-to-school time and, not surprisingly, there are a couple of new movies in theaters that deal with the theme of education. One passes assuredly, while the other utterly fails. Of course, neither can hold a candle to the sublime achievement that Bo Burnham’s film EIGHTH GRADE is, and it’s still playing in theaters. However, here's the report card on these two new ones with similar themes. 

THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST

There are two big releases about the dangers of “gay convergence” therapy due this year. Director Joel Edgerton’s BOY ERASED comes out this fall and boasts the star power of Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. Director Desiree Akhavan's film THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST, written with Cecilia Fruegiuele, opened on August 3rd with little fanfare, but it did manage to pull off a surprise win of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this past winter. It stars Chloe Grace Moretz in a subtle and calculating performance that will likely be forgotten come awards-time, but it may be her finest performance to date, this side of "Hit Girl" in 2010's KICK-ASS.

Moretz plays the title character, and Cameron's story takes place in Montana, circa 1993. As the film starts, the comely teen is bored with her boyfriend Jamie (Dalton Harrod). They're all but sleepwalking through the rituals and forced machinations of their high school prom. During a dance with her friend Coley (Quinn Shepherd), it's clear that Cameron's romantic leanings lie with her. Soon, they’re trysting in Jamie’s car, when he discovers them, and it turns into a community scandal for Cameron.

Her religious aunt Ruth (Kerry Butler), who has taken over her parenting, completely freaks out and soon is packing Cameron away to a remote gay conversion therapy center called God’s Promise. There, the teen will join other kids with similar stories, and they'll all be schooled by Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.) and Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle). Rick used to be a homosexual himself and urges them to give it to God's righteous plan for men to be men and women to be women. Marsh's motivations aren't spelled out, and it's a wise choice for the filmmakers to keep this tough cookie so enigmatic.

Akhavan and Fruegiule’s script surrounds Cameron with a small group of teens, each of whom has their own approach to surviving the camp. Helen (Melanie Ehrlich) earnestly gives the conversion therapy her all, feeling great shame for lusting after a fellow soprano in her church choir back home. Mark (Owen Campbell) is nervous about each move he makes at the camp, fearing his strict father's instructions to "be more masculine." Jane (Sasha Lane) is too-cool-for-school and regards all of it in her arms' length manner. Adam (Forrest Goodluck) sticks close by, breaking the rules where he can. He keeps his hair bushy, much to the irritation of the controlling Marsh, and sneaks away with Jane to smoke marijuana. 

Chloe Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck in the film.
Cameron’s roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs), a Vikings football-obsessed lesbian, tries too hard to fit in, but it's a strain on her. As soon as she meets Cam, she is all but smitten with her. Erin is boyish and is apparently attracted to the lush feminity of the new girl. Kudos to the filmmakers here for reckoning that Moretz conveys sexuality readily on-camera and running with it. This is not one of the virginal characters Moretz has often played, but a knowing young woman. 

In the prom scene in the car with Coley, and in a flashback showing how she first made love with her friend, Cameron is thrilled with the feelings she's having and doesn't shirt away from exuding her passions. No shrinking violet is she, and part of the intrigue of the film is in how Cameron will skirt around the conversion exercises to be true to herself. The savvy young lady plays along with the counselors just enough to escape their ire, all the while angling for ways to get out from under their oppressive thumbs. 

If anything, Cameron may be too crafty for the good of the story. She seems to be two steps ahead of most everyone throughout, be they student or teacher. Cameron's wise too, never becoming too chatty or wearing her emotions blatantly on her sleeve. Instead, most everything she does is played close to the vest as she is definitely the smartest person in the room. Moretz seems to relish in taking her time to react to those whom the actress is playing off too. She and Akhavan let Cameron tell the audience with her eyes what she thinks before she speaks, and often her true feelings don't match her calculating words. It’s particularly useful when the teen goes toe-to-toe with the commanding Marsh. Marsh thinks she's the master chess player but is almost always outmatched.

Emily Skeggs.
Cameron may be a smart cookie, but she’s not arrogant. Instead, the girl exudes empathy to friend and foe alike. After a lustful Erin wiles her way into Cameron’s bed and immediately pulls away after they orgasm together, the more experienced girl doesn’t put her down. Instead, Cameron expresses compassion for the guilty Erin. The same happens after a catastrophe at school shakes the core beliefs of Reverend Rick. Cameron shrewdly points out that he’s as lost as those he’s trying to convert, “making it up as they go along,” but she’s not vicious about it. She comforts him more than he was supposed to for her.

Throughout THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST, the story zigs where most would zag. The teens, by and large, aren't all that lost, and those like Cam and Jane act mature and crafty at every turn. The film never shouts, is deliberately paced, and confidently lobbies for the LGBTQ community without ever sermonizing. If there is any fault in the movie, it’s that Cameron, Jane and a few of the others exhibit too much control in their comings and goings. The film may have missed an opportunity to remind us of the caste system where children don't have the rights as adults, and could not come and go nearly as smoothly as they do here. Kids gain access to all parts of the complex, Cameron jogs alone everywhere and even exercises with Erin without adult supervision. They feed themselves in the mess hall too. Would they genuinely have that much access and independence? 

Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to show that these kids are not a mess and do not need to be trifled with on any level. That’s an understandable choice to show the audience that being gay is far from a sin, but at times, such conviction undercuts the drama. Cameron never seems to be backed into a corner, and her loneliest moments are of the kind that most teens would feel away from home. Cameron walks into the camp knowing exactly who she is and determines rather quickly that no one is going to screw with that awareness. It may not be the best for character arcs, but it sure gives a hearty middle finger to those who try to use Christianity to suffer the children.


DOWN A DARK HALL 

Horror movies that place surly teen girls in suspect schools are as old as the genre itself.  Rodrigo Cortes’ DOWN A DARK HALL doesn’t even try to live up to classics like Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA (1977) or cult classics like Graeme Revell’s THE CRAFT (1996). Hell, it barely can hold a flickering candle to the 1973 TV-movie SATAN’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS. What exactly it’s trying to do remains a mystery even after seeing it. Its story is incoherent. Accomplished stars like Uma Thurman, AnnaSophia Robb, and Isabelle Fuhrman have thinly written characters to play. And despite a lot of money being sunk into a ginormous, Gothic mansion setting, most of the film fails to bring any of its interiors to genuinely terrifying life. Instead, the whole movie is shot so darkly, it begs the question if the production was limited in such sets. The less light, the less we see of how little is really there. Sadly, that could be a metaphor for the entire venture.

The film starts, as these films always do, with the heroine being introduced as a misunderstood troublemaker. Kit Gordy (Robb) may have started an errant fire, but she’s no arsonist, as she pleads to the authorities. Still, to avoid jail time, she’s carted off to a unique educational institution that will straighten out her penchant for mischief. 

Soon, her parents are driving Kit to this new school and once there, they all discover that it looks like Wayne Manor crossed with Disney's Haunted Mansion. Kit, with her bright, strawberry blonde hair meets the raven-do'ed Madame Duret (Uma Thurman) and her truculent assistant Mrs. Olonsky (Rebecca Front). Thurman's headmistress struggles with a haughty,  unconvincing European accent throughout, but she's trying to have fun at least. Thurman's performance is just this side of camp, and one wonders if she took the role as a chance to stretch or maybe it was the best thing she was offered last year. 

Kit also meets the rest of the teaching staff and takes an instant shine to Jules (Noah Silver), Duret's hunky son. He's the private school's music teacher, and before you could play four bars of Rachmaninoff, he's giving Kit the bedroom eyes as her soon-to-be love interest.

Uma Thurman in the film.
The next day, the rest of the bad girls arrive, and they're accompanied by more attitude than luggage. Veronica (Victoria Moroles) is all surly lines and furrowed brow, but at least she has some personality. Ashley, Sierra, and Izzy (played respectively by Taylor Russell, Rosie Day, and Fuhrman) seem mostly distinguishable by their hair color. It’s a real shame that the film couldn’t make better use out of Fuhrman. She was incredible in the 2009 horror film ESTHER and deserves shrewder offerings than such an under-baked role as here. Even her character’s name suggests little thought - it’s her own name! 

As the girls start their studies, Madame Duret espouses gobbledygook about one's purpose and claiming your talent, but it’s malarky. Soon, each of the girls will excel in just one of their classes - Izzy shows brilliance in math, Ashley is a whiz at prose, and  Kit displays the talent of a piano virtuoso. Not too shabby for a girl who gave it up after only a couple years' worth of lesson as a child. 

The fervor in which the students quickly became A students in their chosen fields is shot with energy and panache by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. His camera swirls around them, tracking left and right as they show off their talents. It’s an apt metaphor for their unbridled enthusiasm at discovering something that gives them purpose, but soon it seems that the script doesn't really know what to do with these girls. Their characters go from distinguishable by hair color to only identifiable by their individual talents.  

Before the reveal as to how these girls suddenly are such prodigies, the film wastes a lot of time chasing down dark hallways and false scares and other distractions. There’s some sort of demon creature haunting the place, but what is he and what's his motivation? The film could've used such time to build characters, but everyone is two-dimensional at best, and we never become genuinely invested in anyone. 

Even when students and teachers eat together each night, there's precious little dialogue that would illuminate any of those in the school. Instead, what little chattiness present is covered by Madame Duret as he jabbers on cryptically about commitment to craft. She sounds like a dull, college pamphlet at times, not someone who should be threatening and terrifying, as the evil woman running this awful place. Thurman barely suggests the menace that one of her eyebrows arching did in her two KILL BILL films. Maybe she realized the script is a dog, no matter how much she was paid to do it.

By the last 30 minutes, director Cortez pulls out all the stops, clogging his frame with scores of ghosts, a hellacious fire, and more blathering by the desperate Duret. Yet dark halls, Gothic mansions, and ghosts milling about do not a horror movie make. They are window dressing. Where's the cogent, meaningful story? There isn't one, and unfortunately, this one flunks out quite spectacularly. 

Monday, August 13, 2018

FILMMAKER SPIKE LEE'S "BLACKKKLANSMAN" BRILLIANTLY INDICTS THE PAST AND PRESENT

Original caricature by Jeff York of the main cast in BLACKKKLANSMAN. (copyright 2018)

All period pieces comment on the present. Spike Lee’s new film BLACKKKLANSMAN, about a couple of undercover cops infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado Springs in 1972, not only indicts bigotry in America 40 years ago but the continued presence of white nationalism on our national stage. For good measure, Lee also tosses in some deft jabs at film history, ridiculing the heralded position still given to D.W. Griffith’s THE BIRTH OF A NATION and its heroic portrayal of the Klan. He calls out the bigotry, sexism, and caste systems that have plagued this nation since its inception, drawing a direct line to such hostilities still existing today and thriving in the Trump era. It’s one of the most searing and political films ever made. It’s also a hell of a good time at the movies and one of 2018’s very best.

The story of Ron Stallworth would almost feel made up if it weren’t true. In the early 70’s, the rookie policeman was assigned to go undercover at a Stokely Carmichael rally to ensure that the black population attending wasn’t getting any ideas about breaking the law from the former Black Panther. Carmichael, who changed his name to Kwame Ture to reflect his African “rebirth,” inspired the gathered crowd to strive for their rights and demand social justice. Afterward, Stallworth was a changed man, feeling like a social warrior, one who decided to use his vocation to make a difference as well.

In the story, Stallworth (a drolly underplaying John David Washington) happens upon a recruitment ad for the Ku Klux Klan in the local paper. He decides to call up the local KKK chapter to inquire about why they're cultivating new members. Is it for something nefarious, akin to something like their lynching crimes of the past? Remarkably, Walter (Ryan Eggold), the Klan member he talks to on the phone, believes Stallworth is white. Thus, he invites him to his home to attend a social get-together with other Klan members. Realizing that this might be their chance to destroy such a vicious hate group from the inside, Stallworth and his colleagues at the police station began to plot an undercover operation.  

There's a problem though because Stallworth gave Walter his real name on the phone. Obviously, he cannot show up to the meeting, so instead, the team tasks white detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, drolly underplaying as well) with impersonating Stallworth.  Quickly, Zimmerman endears himself into the group, and soon is attending every kind of gathering with them, from barbecues to shooting practice out at a range where caricatured black figures are the targets. 

It is both chilling and hilarious how Zimmerman pulls off the charade, but director Lee never lets us forget the danger present at every single meeting. The KKK members may be rubes and half-wits, but they’re armed and dangerous, looking for a fight. Zimmerman could easily slip up at any moment, and Lee expertly ratchets up such tension in every scene.  

Stallworth remains close, surveilling from nearby and risking exposure too. Meanwhile, he's also becoming more and more involved with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the black student leader he met at the rally. Their relationship isn’t exactly “boy meets girl,” more like “cop meets activist,” as they spend most of their ‘dates’ discussing racism, sexism, and the caste system keeping both blacks and women down throughout the nation. Stallworth also hides his cop identity from her as she is not a fan of the boys in blue after seeing their mistreatment of those in her neighborhood.

As Zimmerman gets in deeper and deeper with the Klan, the taut and laser-focused script by Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, and Kevin Wilmott, not only increases the stakes but imbues the plotting with pointed societal commentary. Zimmerman realizes he’d be in the Klan crosshairs not only if they knew he was a cop, but also if they realized that he was Jewish. Klansman Felix (Jasper Paakkonen) is openly hostile towards him at all times, but he also keeps his equally bigoted wife Connie (Ashlie Atherton) down too. And it's apparent that economic hardships are fueling a lot of the KKK's anger.  

Lee makes sure we see the pictures of then-president Richard Nixon appearing on the walls at Klan gatherings too. Trump wasn't the first president to enable hatred based on his appeal to the baser feelings of disgruntled white men. Nixon ramped up a “Southern Strategy” which played on the white population’s fear of blacks and other people of color, and it helped ensure Nixon's victories at the ballot box. 

Still, this is never a strident history lesson. Instead, Lee ensures that the human comedy of it all keeps us laughing throughout. When Stallworth initiates contact with KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) over the phone, their conversations are comic gems. Stallworth is trying his damnedest to probe for information about assassinations or car bombings, but Duke chats him up like they are BFF’s. When Stallworth is assigned to be Duke’s bodyguard when he comes to town to preside over the initiation of new members, it almost plays as pure farce. And yet, it happened, along with Duke showing "The Birth of a Nation" to his appreciative Klan members at the ceremony too.

Lee’s always been terrific with actors, and here his entire cast does superlative work. (If there is any justice, BLACKKKLANSMAN will be up for a SAG Best Ensemble Award come January.) Not only do Washington and Driver do superb work, but Harrier demonstrates a calm power that is palpable onscreen. Grace manages to make Duke both a buffoon and a monster, often in the same moment. And in one scene that cuts right to the bone, veteran performer Harry Belafonte shows up as black activist Jerome Turner to tell the student body the true story of the lynching of Jesse Washington in 1916. It is a shattering scene.   

BLACKKKLANSMAN was shrewdly released this past weekend on the one-year anniversary of the Alt-Right march in Charlottesville, VA, and Lee replays some of the horrific scenes of those KKK members, Neo-Nazis, and White Nationalists fighting with protestors. He also doesn’t flinch from showing Heather Heyer and others being mowed down by Neo-Nazi James Alex Fields Jr. either. What’s past is indeed prologue, and Lee not only shows how so little has changed, but he has the daring to show the actual dead bodies when so many politically correct cable news stations won’t anymore. 

With this fantastic film, Lee is holding up a mirror to society and asking what is wrong with us? Why do we tolerate such hate? Why do we let social media enable the Alt-Right and their alternative facts? How does the POTUS find admirable people amongst Neo-Nazis and KKK members? We are a nation of immigrants, people of mixed nationalities. America should be well past the events told in this film, but because we aren’t, it's here to remind us all. It's all the more incredible for being so entertaining while doing so. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

10 BETTER WAYS THAT THE ACADEMY AWARDS CAN BE SMART AND IMPROVE THEIR TV RATINGS


As someone who writes film reviews, hosts a movie podcast and has been doing this movie blog for eight years, I have to chime in on the idiotic moves that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced today. In their efforts to curtail the declining ratings of their Academy Awards telecasts over the last few years, AMPAS president John Bailey and CEO Dawn Hudson announced three decisions today that sadly, will not do the trick. In fact, one is barely a half measure, while the other two are new tacts that will do egregious harm.

For starters, the Academy leadership is determined to get the show down to a three-hour running time. One could argue that Hollywood's biggest night is worthy of a three to four-hour presentation. Nonetheless, if the Academy hierarchy seems to believe that the length of the broadcast is a major issue, they are wholly wrong. It isn't the time of the show, it's the time wasted during it. Run a smarter ship, and it automatically becomes tighter.

The Academy also announced today that they will be taking a page from CBS’s telecast of the Tony Awards each year and relegate some awards to be given out during commercial breaks. Most likely, this would be categories deemed of lesser interest to the public like the documentary, live action, and animated shorts. The idea would be that those awards, and perhaps a technical one or two like sound editing and sound mixing, would be taken out of the main program and edited down to then be shown sometime during the telecast. A truncated version of the winners’ speeches would be all the viewing public at home would see. If you’ve seen how these awards are handled at the Tony’s, you know that it means TV audiences would likely hear but a single line from a winner’s speech. That seems like quite an insult, no?

Oh, and just wait until the unions come to understand their below-the-line winners’ time in the sun will be relegated to a single “thank you” line in a montage with other winners deemed less worthy. Why would the Academy want to alienate so many of their branches? But folks, that's exactly what they'd be doing. It's called cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Third, and sure to be the most controversial, is the announcement this AM that the Academy will hand out a new Oscar, one that honors “outstanding achievement in popular filmmaking” as they described it. Of course, in the typically half-baked way that the Academy has approached trying to fix their broadcast for decades, the leadership hasn’t determined exactly how this award will be determined yet. It could be via some sort of popular vote from movie audiences, or perhaps the voting Academy membership itself. How the list of potential nominees will be determined or what exactly constitutes “outstanding achievement in popular filmmaking" will likely be as tricky to discern as judging a Best Director or Best Actress. The fact is, it’s all a popularity contest in one way or another, so what does that award do to add to the Academy's credibility?

This new award sounds like something from the insipid People’s Choice Awards, where more often than not, they honor mediocrity over merit. It's average, but at least it's popular, seems to be that award show's motto. No matter how you slice it, this new Academy prize comes off as nothing more than a consolation prize, akin to the kind of trophies every kid gets for participating in soccer on a Saturday afternoon. Just as Syndrome in THE INCREDIBLES said, "When everyone's super, no one will be."

The Academy continues to fear backlash for ignoring box office bonanzas when it comes to their trophies. They worry that megahits like BLACK PANTHER or AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR will be overlooked as Best Picture nominees and they're overcompensating. But who would want such a low-tiered Oscar? The awards may be often way too political, or even outrageously wrong in some of their selections, but at least the categories aren't an utter sham. This category of a favorite pop entertainment is not about artistic merit, and therefore should be bagged before another week goes by.

And what would determine the criteria for a nominee in such a category anyway? What would decide it? The studios? The box office? (Great, now a movie like TRANSFORMERS can win an Oscar!) Would the award be determined by RottenTomatoes.com scores? Imagine hearing that as a determining factor in the intro on the telecast. Or a poll, or call-in voting like on DANCING WITH THE STARS? Is that what the Academy really wants? If the AMPAS thinks they have a PR problem now, just wait till that occurs at a ceremony.

The ludicrous thing about all this is that the Oscars are the grand master of all awards shows, and don't need to be so damned insecure. Yet, here they are chasing their tales, acting like they are pretenders to the throne. Why imitate lesser awards shows? The Oscars can be both modern and increasingly relevant without resorting to such insipid measures as creating frivolous awards or truncating their honors and honorees. In fact, there are easily 10 rather savvy solutions to better the whole shebang. (And yes, I’m sending this to the Academy as well.)

ELIMINATE THE CLIP MONTAGES

If the Academy wants to trim the show, they could quickly get it under three hours, and perhaps even down to two, by excising all the wasted time the show fritters away. Start by cutting the clip montages, usually a hodgepodge of an effort to salute the history of film. Why? The Academy should be merely honoring the best of a single year and not 100 years of historical motion pictures. It's irrelevant and takes way too much time.

ELIMINATE THE DANCE NUMBERS

At almost every Oscars telecast for the last 20 years, there has been some version of an interpretative dance that strains to represent the year in movies. They are almost always laughably awful and have nothing to do with those films nominated. Eliminate those numbers as well because they aren't particularly entertaining anyway. Doing so will easily lop another 10-15 minutes off the running time.

ELIMINATE THE BEST SONG CATEGORY

It’s still embarrassing that the Academy continues to have a Best Song category. Most of the nominees tend to be songs played over a film’s end credits and that is not technically a song from a movie as the award is supposed to honor. And while it made sense that LA LA LAND scored three of the five best song nominations two years back, the fact is there are not enough musically-inclined movies with such integrated songs to warrant the award. So dump it, Academy, or at the very least, drop the performances on the show of the nominated songs if you keep that category. That will trim at least another 20 minutes from the show as well. 

CUT THE BEST PICTURE NOMINEES BACK TO FIVE

When THE DARK KNIGHT and WALL-E failed to secure Best Picture nominations in the Oscar nominations of 2009, the Academy overcompensated by pushing the amount of films that could be nominated for Best Picture up to 10 the following year. Since that time, the Academy has voted between 7-10 nominees for the top category, but the number is never consistent, and a lot of popular entertainments still are overlooked. The fact is, five films are plenty. Plus, the movies that score a Best Picture nomination and a Best Director nomination are the only ones in the running for the top prize anyway, so what do 7-10 nominees really add to the equation? The Oscars should mean more by honoring less, so they should return to the list of five superior films. That will up their prestige factor, make the contest easier to contain, and cut oodles of time needed to show that many clips of all those movies. 

STOP THE LONG INTRO'S AND WRETCHED REPARTEE

The host introduces presenters for an award. They take a long walk out to present. All that is meaningless and takes a ton of time. If you’re presenting on the Oscars, you should be a big enough name to just have your name announced. And the forced banter between the celebs is usually awkward and amateurish. Shuck it all.

STOP PLAYING OFF THE WINNERS

The dumbest thing the Academy has done for decades is play off winners during their speeches or threaten to if they go on too long. Good God, what are we watching the show for if not to see those called exalt in their time in the winner’s circle? And who thought that 45 seconds was time enough? Yet, that's why so many winners race through their acceptance speeches and that makes the entirety of the affair look classless and haphazard. Let the winners speak. Believe me, if the band doesn't cut them off, most winners won't go beyond two minutes of "Thank you's" anyway. 

STOP BEING OVERLY P.C. ABOUT OVERSIGHTS

Should THE DARK KNIGHT have gotten more Academy due? Probably. Should comedies get as much recognition as dramas? Of course, every actor will tell you comedy is harder to do. Why didn’t Amy Adams get a Best Actress nomination for ARRIVAL? Who knows? The point is the Academy is going to overlook a lot of those worthy of recognition, but that’s how awards go. Why should the Academy feel the need to keep apologizing for their oversights? No one else does. The AMPAS has already added a ton of younger members, so that's a great help. Stop while you're ahead, Oscar. 

GIVE OUT AN OSCAR FOR BEST STUNT WORK

Want to honor the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or those action films that rake in the dough at home and abroad? Don't give out a popularity award. Simply honor such films with an incredibly worthy Academy Award for Best Stunt Work. SAG gives out a Stunt Ensemble Award for both film and TV each year, so why not the Academy? And if you want to see five superb nominees every year, don't look to the Best Song category. Look to a Best Stunt Work category. Why this year alone, the Academy could easily nominate the incredible stunt work evident in films like MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, BLACK PANTHER, TOMB RAIDER, ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, ADRIFT, REVENGE, and DEADPOOL 2. An award for stunt coordination is long overdue. 

HIRE MORE OF-THE-MOMENT HOSTS

The Academy is too timid when it comes to picking hosts. How many times have they relied on the Jimmy’s, Billy’s, Ellen’s, Steve's, and Whoopi’s? Over and over again. They all did fine, but wouldn't it behoove the show to pick someone new to keep things fresher? The host needs to be more of the moment, on that cutting edge, a person who leads the trend rather than follow it. At the last Oscars, Tiffany Haddish and Mya Rudolph killed it when they presented. So, why can’t the Academy seize on such moments and let them host? The Oscars should have invited the utterly hilarious Ryan Reynolds to host two years ago when DEADPOOL became a phenomenon. They could’ve and should've invited Jack Black or Will Ferrell to host any time in the last 15 years too. Look, when the Golden Globes are savvier in picking inspired and edgier hosts like Ricky Gervais, or Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, you know the Academy needs to break out of its comfort zone. 

CUT THE PRE-SHOW & ADD THAT TIME TO THE REAL SHOW

If viewers want to watch all the red carpet pre-show, they can turn on E! or the TV Guide Channel. ABC need not waste time with their truncated and painfully shallow version of the fashion analysis. Give that 30 minutes to the main show, and this thing could start at 7 and be done by 9.

These are not huge challenges for the Academy to implement. They're smart, long overdue, painfully obvious, and they could help dial up the show's cool factor as well as the Academy's credibility. Does the AMPAS even know their brand anymore? Sometimes I wonder. The leadership needs to get out of its bubble. If not, they'll continue to screw things up, and boy, did they step in it this morning with these awful "solutions."

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

“DOG DAYS” UNLEASHES THE WARM FUZZIES


Oh, what Richard Curtis unleashed on the world in 2003. After the wild success of LOVE, ACTUALLY, the writer/director’s multi-storied holiday rom-com inspired all kinds of imitators. Director Garry Marshall alone mined three lesser holidays in VALENTINE'S DAY, NEW YEAR'S EVE and MOTHER'S DAY. Now director Ken Marino has ditched the holiday backdrop but continued the multiple storylines in his latest film entitled DOG DAYS. Each of the five stories centers around a dog, and like its canine characters, the film is scruffy, noisy, and adorable while being scruffy and noisy. It’s as shameless as all the close-ups of puppy dog eyes eliciting “Aww’s” from the audience, but most of it works, well, like a dog. 

Each of the five stories is a love story, of course, but not just regarding the affection humans have for the dogs in their life. Two concern traditional “boy meets girl” scenarios, with dogs serving as Cupid, but the other three wisely delve into exploring non-romantic relationships. Man-child Dax (Adam Pally) falls for the big, mischievous mutt owned by his sister and her husband (Jessica St. Clair, Thomas Lennon) when he’s asked to babysit while they adjust to parenting newborn twins. Grace and Kurt (Eva Longoria and Rob Corddry) find a lost pug that helps them bond with the timid Amelia (Elizabeth Caro) that they’ve adopted. And looking for that lost pug helps its elderly owner Walter (Ron Cephas Jones) bond with pizza delivery boy Tyler (Finn Wolfhard) assisting him in the search. 

Screenwriters Elissa Matsueda and Erica Oyama give all five stories the same weight, and it’s refreshing to see that the friendship between Walter and Tyler is played as emotionally and essential as the two romances. Even those two traditional couplings avoid a lot of the cliched tropes from the genre. In the courtship between morning TV host Elizabeth (Nina Dobrev) and ex-footballer Jimmy Johnston (Tone Bell), the problem isn’t a reluctant male but a self-sabotaging female. Tara (Vanessa Hudgens) may pine for a handsome vet (Michael Cassidy) as nerdy dog shelter owner Garrett (Jon Bass) pines for her, but she’s not clueless, nor immune to the latter’s charms. 

Despite avoiding many clichés, Matsueda and Oyama do love their obvious dog gags too, ticking them off with relish. Watching dogs wreck parties, hump hapless adults, and fart in their owner’s faces was already old hat when the BEETHOVEN series trotted them out in the early 90’s. They’re better writers when they explore fresher territory woven into their stories. Walter is written with lots of nuance and dimension, and Marino wisely lets Cephas Jones take his time with his lines, never rushing an emotion. A lot of time and attention is given to explaining dog issues too, like the dangers of chocolate and the delicate skull of a Chihuahua. The film is also one big commercial for adoption, but it’s the galvanizing plot device between Tara and Garrett, so it works well in the narrative. 

Director Marino is a veteran comic performer too, and that helps him coax good performances out of his cast, particularly those cast against type. Corddry plays a sensitive father and husband here, rather than the shallow cad he so often essays, and he’s terrific playing straighter. Likewise, Eva Longoria excels playing his insecure wife, a character a thousand miles from the confident chanteuses she’s brought to vivid life on DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and TELENOVELA. Marino also ensures secondary characters register strongly as well. The all-knowing makeup artist (Jessica Lowe) drops funny bon mots in every scene she’s in, and the overzealous weather girl (Phoebe Neidhardt) will be recognizable to anyone who’s ever turned on local TV in the Los Angeles market. (Someone, please give scene-stealer Neidhardt a lead role in something soon. She’s a comer!) 

Marino also hits the big moments right throughout, be they the comedic highlights or the dramatic ones. Tara happens to live in the same apartment building as Dax, one of the ways the stories cross over, and when she thinks he’s a serial killer and maces him, it earns the biggest laughs in the film. She not only sprays far too much in his eyes but ends up back-spraying herself. Watching Hudgens and Pally writhe in agony is utterly hilarious, and we in the audience feel their pain. Marino also lingers on Garrett’s loneliness, and it draws us to him. A lot of directors would leave such reaction shots on the cutting room floor, but not here. Marino tries to deepen the characters wherever he can, perhaps realizing that such moments make the types they’re playing come off more realistically. 

Where Marino isn’t as successful is in ensuring that his performers refrain from straining for laughs here and there. Dobrev seems liberated by getting to play such a high-strung character, but her Elizabeth is far too shrill at times. She inches into harpy territory, and it’s questionable whether her TV host would still have a job after the numerous faux pas’ she commits on air including profanity, bullying, and harrumphing off stage during a live broadcast. Lennon can earn laughs without moving a muscle, but his caricatured newbie dad seems to belong in another movie. Even Hudgens pushes her pluck at times harming her otherwise engaging portrayal.

The dog characters are often relegated to the background more than they should be too. Only the mutt Dax is taking care of receives screen time equal to his human costar. Still, even with such mistakes, it’s a miracle that none of the storylines turn too maudlin. One dog is very old, and you can see where the conclusion of his story is coming from the get-go, but it’s not milked the way some filmmakers would have. Instead, Marino earns tears with his subtle direction in that climactic scene. He also immediately follows it up with one of the movie’s bigger laughs as a veterinary assistant tries to help alleviate the pet owner’s grief.  

A lot of DOG DAYS is pitched too big and bright, at times taking on a sitcom flavor. It perhaps could have used some more edge, like other work that Marino, Matsueda, and Oyama have listed on their IMDB pages, specifically BURNING LOVE or CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL. Yet, DOG DAYS could have been hopeless treacle, like so many of those other LOVE, ACTUALLY imitators. This one manages to make you laugh quite a bit, cry a little, and feel warm fuzzies throughout. And it does so without having to resort once to maligning cats. For a movie about dogs, that’s a minor miracle, as are the modest but vivid pleasures on display in this affectionate comedy.

Friday, August 3, 2018

DISNEY'S "CHRISTOPHER ROBIN" IS A CHARMER FOR ALL AGES


Walt Disney Pictures has done an agile job turning their vault of animated films into live-action updates. CINDERELLA, THE JUNGLE BOOK and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST are just three of the cartoon classics that made the transition successfully over the past decade. And while some may have assumed they were done merely for commerce or to keep the equities alive, the films managed to bring something genuinely worthwhile to their narratives. Lily James’ Cinderella was far more feminist, the CGI-created animals in Mowgli's jungle were breathtakingly real, and the Beast and even Gaston got enhanced backstories. Now, WINNIE THE POOH is updated similarly, and it turns the human character of Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) into a grown man experiencing a mid-life crisis. The ever-so-serious businessman he’s become needs to get in touch with his inner child, and who better to help than his plush playmates from youth?

Here, Robin is an overworked executive toiling in the luggage department of the Winslow Company, a mammoth corporation in the heart of London. His division isn’t making their numbers, and his boss Giles Winslow, Jr. (Mark Gatiss, so slippery he should come with a hazard sign) wants Robin to make cuts in staffing. Robin is beloved by his crew, and rightfully so, as he treats them as equals and friends. Unfortunately, his preoccupation with his career, and trying to avoid sending them to the unemployment line, leads him to ignore his home life. His absence and distraction are not lost on his long-suffering wife Evelyn (a plucky Hayley Atwell) and adorable daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). As they venture off to the cottage for a weekend jaunt, Robin stays home trying to figure out how to cut 20% out of his department’s operating budget.

At first, focusing on such a stiff of an adult conjures up the misbegotten plot of the Steven Spielberg-directed HOOK from 1991. That film too chronicled a grown-up man who needed to get his priorities straight, but the overproduction of Neverland and the story's erratic tone sunk it. The direction of CHRISTOPHER ROBIN by Marc Forster is more muted, presenting a much quieter and reflective tale. McGregor never strains in his part the way Robin Williams did playing the grown Peter and his nuanced performance keeps us on his side. Throughout, Forster's film remains a small, intimate character study despite the special effects of creating all of author A.A. Milne’s menagerie. It may take place in a beautifully recreated 1950's London, but the story stays exceptionally close to its cast of characters.


That’s saying a lot, considering that the majority of the cast are stuffed animals and forest creatures. Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger, Kanga, Roo, Owl, and Rabbit are all here, all magically brought to life through CGI. These special effects are wholly believable and aren't overly articulated. Pooh moves with limited mobility, as a teddy bear would versus a real cub. The same goes for the rest of the plush toys. Their seams are showing, and they all look slightly dirty and bedraggled just like toys that saw a lot of play.  

The characters of Kanga, Roo, Owl, and Rabbit are played as genuine animals, but they have the cartoonish look that Disney gave them in the original animated shorts back in the 1960’s. Blending them together and making it all work is tricky, but director Foster does a splendid job of giving them and their surroundings a fantasy feel. The forest is more enchanted than realistic, what with its bending treehouses and perfect sunsets. That allows elevated disbelief and visually, it plays spectacularly. 

The vocal performances behind the critters are vital too, and they are all exceptional. The legendary Jim Cummings continues to do incredible voice work, recreating the original sounds of Pooh (Sterling Holloway) and Tigger (Paul Winchell) while giving the characters a ton of his own wry spin too. If anything, his skills as a dramatic actor make them seem even more complicated. Brad Garrett makes for an even better Eeyore than the original Ralph Wright. Nick Mohammed as Piglet, Peter Capaldi as Rabbit, Sophie Okonedo as Kanga, Sarah Sheen as Roo, and Toby Jones as Owl voice their characters with flair as well.

Oddly, the human characters, despite McGregor’s Christopher Robin, come off as not entirely three-dimensional. Atwell’s part is underwritten, though she breathes charm and depth into it nonetheless. Gatiss is sublime at portraying corporate villainy, but his role is almost as much a caricature as the original Pooh cartoons. Carmichael’s Madeline is mostly a put-upon child, and when she finally gets to interact with the wondrous creatures, the story hurls her into a belabored car chase with them through London as she races to Winslow’s corporate offices to help her dad keep his job. The script by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, and Allison Schroeder, with the story by Greg Brooker and Mark Steven Johnson, is less successful when it labors to be an adventure film like that.  They’re far better bringing the quieter moments to life, be it Pooh enjoying his honey or McGregor struggling to crawl through the narrow door of the teddy bear’s treehouse. 

Forster was smart to let Matthias Koenigswieser’s camera linger on the faces of his cast, especially the subtle movements of Pooh and Eeyore who share the lion’s share of screen time with McGregor. The little shifts in the creature's eye movements, mouth curling, and brow-furrowing imbue them with more humanity than most of the human characters in the story. 

Granted, there's some heavy-handedness here. You’ll see the lessons about leisure time being as crucial as billable hours coming a mile away, but in an economy that still doesn’t feel like it’s helping the working stiffs as much as the elites, it plays as a timely and necessary message. CHRISTOPHER ROBIN also ends up being a strong advocate of keeping families intact,  be it human or otherwise, and that plays exceptionally well given this summer’s disgrace down at the Southern border. Mostly, this film works as ideal family entertainment, a genre that grows rarer and rarer at the Cineplex. It wears its heart on its sleeve and in this cynical world, that's as sweet as honey.