Friday, June 23, 2017

PLUMMER'S CRACKLESS

Opening this week:


The ExceptionHas any actor since Paul Newman aged as well as Christopher Plummer? He seems to get more majestic-looking every year, and he has more wry, mischievous charm now than he did as a young man, by quite a large margin.

Having played the aged, gulled Tolstoy in 2009’s The Last Station, he now plays another washed-up historical figure, Kaiser Wilhelm II, in this roiling yarn, the feature debut of Brit stage director David Leveaux. Based on Alan Judd’s novel The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, it’s set near the beginning of WWII in the Netherlands, where Wilhelm has been living in comfortable exile with his wife, the Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer), feeding ducks, chopping wood and brooding over the loss of, you know, WWI and his throne.


The Nazis, who have just invaded the Netherlands, loathe and mistrust the Kaiser, but aren’t quite ready to eliminate a relic for whom the German people retain a fondness. So they send a young SS Captain, Brandt (Jai Courtney), disgraced by an earlier act of conscience, on the dead-end assignment of guarding the old man against the possibility—a long shot, he’s sure—of an assassination attempt.

As he glumly enters the Kaiser’s manse, Brandt catches sight of a darkly beautiful housemaid, Mieke (Lily James). She catches sight of him right back, and the two immediately develop one of those unspoken sexual passions that arise so conveniently in tales of this sort. As their intimacy increases and he learns, among other secrets, that Mieke is Jewish, Brandt’s already tenuous loyalty to the Reich is tested.

For stretches The Exception seems like potent moral drama, and for other stretches it seems outrageous, on the borderline of camp, like a sanitized prequel to The Night Porter. Either way, though, it’s a tense thriller. I found myself caring for these people whether their plight was plausible or not.

All of the acting is strong, from the intelligent hunk Courtney to James with her angry erotic avidity to McTeer’s pitiful Princess to Ben Daniels as Wilhelm’s sad, loyal aide to Mark Dexter as a vexed Gestapo man. But the anchor is Plummer, as the handsome, irrelevantly regal old Wilhelm, trying without success to mask his bitterness and guilt behind a rueful, chuckling humor.

Indeed, the only performance quite as vivid as Plummer’s comes from Eddie Marsan in the small role of Himmler, who drops by with a proposal for the Kaiser. The ever-resourceful Marsan’s portrait is deeply repellent and terrifying—a murmuring, milquetoast monster.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

FURST PRINCIPLES

Another sad pop-culture farewell this week: RIP to Stephen Furst, immortal as "Flounder" in Animal House but also remembered for his regular roles on St. Elsewhere and Babylon 5. So...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...I had considered here his memorable performance in a key role (the title role, really) in the neglected 1980 horror movie The Unseen...



...but his character, terrifying (and also peculiarly likable) though he is, doesn't really qualify as a "monster," at least not in the sense I use it here. Instead...



...here's a Zarg, from an episode of Babylon 5.

Friday, June 16, 2017

TRIUMPH OF THE GILL, 'PAC MENTALITY

Opening this week:


47 Meters Down--Sisters Kate (Claire Holt) and Lisa (Mandy Moore) are on vacation in Mexico. Lisa has recently been dumped, and wants to post pictures online that will make her ex jealous, so she lets the more adventurous Kate talk her into diving in a shark cage.

You can guess how this works out. The winch and crane break off from the decrepit-looking old boat, and the cage plunges to the title depth, where it comes to rest on the ocean floor. The scruffy captain (Matthew Modine) tells the sisters by radio to stay put, as swimming to the surface would risk the bends, always assuming they weren't devoured on the way up by the various great white sharks covetously cruising around the cage. Help, he assures them, is on the way.

It need hardly be said that the rescue operation does not go smoothly. Claustrophobic terror, in the manner of 2010's Buried, and grueling survival measures ensue. As with last year's shark siege melodrama The Shallows, an unseemly amount of the movie consists of women keening in panic and pain.

But 47 Meters Down, directed by Johannes Roberts, is better than The Shallows. It doesn't have Blake Lively and her impressive all-but-one-woman-show appeal, and it doesn't have a scene-stealing seagull, but it also isn't marred by a ridiculously corny, over-the-top action picture finale. It feels plausible. Moore and Holt are touching in their sisterly support of each other, and in their guileless delivery of the simple, declarative lines: "I'm so scared!" "The shark almost got me!"

The special effects are preferable, too. The great whites, with their disconsolate, thuggish faces, come across a little more convincingly than Blake Lively's enemy in The Shallows. But only a little more. 47 Meters Down is watchable, even ingenious at times. But in the end, it lands alongside The Shallows in the same large category: Shark Movies That Just Aren't Jaws.



All Eyez on Me--The role of Tupac Shakur in this biopic is played by a newcomer named Demetrius Shipp, Jr. While Shipp's features don't quite have Shakur's weirdly Old-Masters-like beauty, the resemblance is nonetheless striking, and he's a relaxed, natural actor with a likable manner. It's a creditable debut in what could easily have seemed like a no-win role.

He's no Tupac, however. He has none of the rapper's electrically vivid presence and magnetism. But maybe that was asking too much. Under the circumstances, it's an achievement simply that he doesn't disgrace himself, that he maintains the audience's sympathy.

The movie, directed by Benny Boom, is a conventional show-biz chronicle history of the short, prolific career and appallingly violence-filled life of Shakur, who was murdered in Las Vegas in 1996 at the age of 25. We get his unstable childhood among the Black Panthers, his turbulent but intense bond with his mother Alfeni (the terrific Danai Gurira), his scary youth in Baltimore and Oakland, his early success with Digital Underground, his rise as a solo artist and movie star, the rape charge, the prison term, the partnering with Suge Knight and Death Row Records, the feud with Biggie, and so forth.

The movie doesn't quite sanitize Shakur; his amusement at Knight's brutality to others, for instance, is chilling. Still, through it all, he is depicted as, to quote one of his favorite writers, a man more sinned against than sinning. I'm not remotely qualified to say if this is fair or not, I can only say that All Eyez on Me, though possibly a hair overlong, is absorbing and enjoyable on its own terms. And the music on the soundtrack, both of Shakur and others, demonstrates how anemic is most of the stuff that currently passes for hip-hop on the radio.

Shakur was a furiously angry young man. He was also a smashingly talented, riveting performer, and the evidence of his few film roles suggests that he could have become a great movie actor as well. Because he died young, he's fixed, like James Dean, in tragic radiance. But who knows if he would have kept it?

On the other hand, who cares? Had he survived, he would be pushing 50. Maybe he would have sold out and become happy; he might be on his twelfth season in the cast of Law and Order by now. Or he might have kept his social anger but found a way to channel it productively. Or a little of both. Any of the above would be better than what happened.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

AUF WIEDERSEHEN, DE FLEDERMAUS MENSCH

RIP to the wonderful, deadpan Adam West, passed on at the surprising age of 88, older, somehow, than he seemed. I never met him, even though I was, oddly, in the same movie as him: The Best Movie Ever Made, aka Battle for the Planet of Cheese, Chris Lamont and Steve Bencich's soul-stirring epic of 1994. I played some sort of galactic big-shot, and West appeared very briefly as himself, shamelessly plugging his memoir Back to the Batcave.

West was, also, among my first heroes when I was very small, watching Batman in its original run. The character's virtuousness was absurd, but also unmistakably appealing, and I aspired to it; as glamorous as the show's bizarre, obsessive villains were, The Caped Crusader's primly civic-minded gestalt was curiously preferable to them, and the enthusiastic pedantry of West's line readings had a lot to do with this.

Anyway...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...in West's honor, this week the nod goes to...



...the "Neosaurus," a dubious genus of dinosaur that Egghead (Vincent Price) plans to hatch in the Batman episode "How to Hatch a Dinosaur."



If any proof is required of what a trouper West was, in this episode he had to authoritatively utter the line: "You know your Neosauruses well, Robin. Peanut butter sandwiches it is!"

Friday, June 9, 2017

SHE'S WITH THE BANDAGE

Opening this week:



The MummyAfter the usual Universal logo at the start of this movie, we're shown a second, spooky logo informing us that it's part of the "Dark Universe." This seems to be the studio's attempt to start its own franchise-crossing brand in the style of DC or Marvel, drawing on its peerless stable of iconic monsters.

This is fair enough, considering that, with its multi-monster free-for-alls of the '40s like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and House of Dracula, Universal was overlapping its properties before anyone else. There are fun possibilities in the "Dark Universe" notion, but it's off to an inauspicious start with this first salvo, no less than the fourth film to go by the title The Mummy.

While last week's big opening involved a female superhero, this week's has a female monster, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), a lethal Egyptian princess who made a deal with Set for power, committed a bunch of murders, and got mummified and buried alive, far from Egypt, for her trouble. Centuries later, two fortune hunters (Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson) from the U.S. military and an English archaeologist (Annabelle Wallis) find her tomb in Iraq, and, like any self-respecting cultural imperialists, promptly schlep her sarcophagus to England. The desiccated deadly damsel is of course awakened, and starts causing trouble, with the idea of making Cruise her Set-possesed consort.

This movie, directed by Alex Kurtzman, starts out really badly. Even setting aside how unsavory it feels to try to make raffish buddy-picture heroes out of archaeological profiteers in present-day Iraq, the attempt to create a jocular rapport between Cruise and Johnson falls embarrassingly flat on its own terms. And the attempt to generate a roguish romantic tension between Cruise and Wallis plays no better. Hope and Crosby and Dorothy Lamour these people aren't; they don't even rise to the level of Dick Foran, Wallace Ford and Peggy Moran in The Mummy's Hand, from Universal in 1940.

I make these comparisons, by which Cruise et al suffer, not to be ungenerous but because almost everything in this expensive, elaborately-produced movie feels like a hyped-up, computer-enhanced version of something from a cheaper, less elaborate, better old movie. One minute you're reminded of Valerie Leon in Blood From the Mummy's Tomb, and the next of the crows from the Omen flicks, and then of the zombie shockers, and then of Renfield's rat army in Dracula, and then of Griffin Dunne's chatty putrefying ghost in An American Werewolf in London, and so on. But this effect doesn't make this Mummy a gripping repurposing of these tropes—it makes you want to go home and watch the movies of which it reminds you.

The Mummy gets a little more engaging, at least for a while, when it gets to England and Ahmanet starts reeling around sucking the life-force out of hapless victims, because it's more of a conventional monster picture. But pretty soon she and Cruise are detained in an underground complex run by a mysterious scientist (Russell Crowe), and more gratuitous plot twists are piled on. Presumably this is in service of establishing the "Dark Universe" mythos for future films, but mostly it just dilutes whatever momentum the story was starting to develop.

None of these complaints would amount to much, of course, if The Mummy could lay claim to any true scariness. But there isn't one scene in which I can recall being drawn into any authentic, atmospheric dread—as with Alien: Covenant a few weeks ago, everything's too virtual, to insubstantial, too lacking in tactility.

It should be said, though, that the closest the movie gets to any genuine chills is in the performance of  Sofia Boutella as the lithe, malignant, slyly smiling Ahmanet. Boutella was probably the best thing about last year's Star Trek: Beyond, and she's definitely the best thing about this movie.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

MOUTH TO HAND

Check out the June issue of Phoenix Magazine...


...for my "Four Corners" column on Back-East-style dining this summer for grounded snowbirds. It's on the stands now, or you can read it here.

Universal's new version of The Mummy opens this weekend. The movie shares elements with the 1971 Hammer schocker Blood From the Mummy's Tomb, so...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's give the nod to the severed, but still busy, hand from that movie...




...adapted from Bram Stoker's The Jewel of Seven Stars and featuring the not-unfetching Valerie Leon as the resurrected Egyptian princess.

Friday, June 2, 2017

I AM WHAT I AMAZON

Opening this week:


Wonder WomanDC's pioneering superheroine finally takes the lead in a feature film with this lavish origin story, set in the World War I era. The title character, Diana by name, has grown from a feisty little girl into the impressive adult form of Gal Gadot on the secret, hidden island of the Amazons, under the watchful eye of her Mom Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Against Hippolyta's wishes, she's secretly trained as a warrior by her aunt, Antiobe (Robin Wright, sporting an accent to vaguely match Nielsen's and Gadot's).

One day Diana rescues daredevil American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who happens upon the island while escaping from the Germans. She's appalled when she learns of the ubiquity of war in the outside world, and she's convinced it's the malicious work of Ares the war god. She decides, again over Mom's objections, to let Trevor take her to the Front in Europe, where she plans to identify Ares, kick the crap out of him, and end war on Earth once and for all. She's not ambitious or anything.

With Trevor, she travels first to London and then, with a ragtag group of ethnically mixed sidekicks, to Belgium, and learns that shutting down war isn't as simple as it ought to be. She also runs afoul of various villains, among them a scarred chemist known as Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya, masked much as she was in Almodovar's superb The Skin I Live In).

Setting this movie during WWI, rather than having Wonder Woman battling the Nazis as she was originally created to do (the character debuted in the comics in 1941), initially seemed wrong to me, and there were moments where the dialogue and other details seemed off, period-wise. I'd guess that, among other reasons, the filmmakers wanted Diana to enter civilization at an even less emancipated time for her gender; they wanted her to encounter corsets and petticoats. They may also have wanted less familiar, less easily loath-able bad guys than the Nazis, so as to spread around the blame for warmongering more equitably among all humankind.

In any case, as the movie progressed my resistance to it quickly wore off. Wonder Woman isn't quite as slick as last year's Dr. Strange, but it's more touching, and like Dr. Strange, it's a non-facetious superhero flick that it's possible to wholeheartedly enjoy, almost from beginning to end. The movie is colorful and playful, even sunny at times, but better still there's a lack of cynicism to it, an openhearted, unembarrassed sense of decency and heroism that's highly gratifying after years of self-consciously "dark" comic-book sagas.

This tone is reflected in the warmth and emotional directness of Gadot's performance—she has a quick throwaway scene involving an ice cream cone that made me fall in love with her. The lack of coyness between her and Pine's Trevor is likewise refreshing. They don't tediously bicker or one-up each other.

Diana is so preoccupied with her mission that she barely seems to notice how she scandalizes the male authority figures she meets, ignoring their shock at her outspokenness as if it's too unimportant to acknowledge. And when she expresses disbelief at the matter-of-fact acceptance of war, she doesn't seem infantile, because director Patty Jenkins and the writers (Allan Heinberg among other hands) have structured the story so that we see our own civilization from her point of view.

The filmmakers grapple, while staying within a conventional template for this kind of movie, with the persistent limitation of superhero stories: The tendency to reduce all conflicts to a climactic brawl. That they don't prevail—the movie does indeed climax with a brawl, and one that's of questionable relevance to the vexing problem of the human tendency to make war not love—doesn't make the attempt any less honorable. 

Also opening in the Valley this week...


...is the historical drama Churchill, with the great Brian Cox playing the title role. I had the chance to chat with director Jonathan Teplitzky; you can read my interview on the New Times blog.

And Sunday evening at FilmBar Phoenix...



...is a showing of The Quiet Earth, the 1985 sci-fi classic from New Zealand, with an introduction and Q&A by co-writer and co-producer Sam Pillsbury. You can read my short article on this memorable flick on the Phoenix Magazine blog.