Friday, January 13, 2017

WHAT THE TRUCK?

Opening in the Valley this weekend: 


Monster TrucksDrilling deep in North Dakota, an oil company dredges up three slimy tentacled creatures from an underground sea. Two are captured by the company, but a sweet-faced third escapes and makes friends with a frustrated local “teen” mechanic named Tripp (26-year-old Lucas Till) who dubs him “Creech” and uses his tentacles as the motive power for his beloved engine-less truck.

“It’s like the truck is a wheelchair for him,” says the pretty “teen” girl (27-year-old Jane Levy) who likes Tripp. “No,” replies the empowerment-minded Tripp, “It’s like he’s the engine for my truck.”

In short, this family film of long-delayed release is in the lead, so far this year, for literal-mindedness: Monster Trucks is about trucks powered by monsters. I suppose it’s another example, akin to the Transformers or Cars, of the child’s impulse to anthropomorphize beloved inanimate icons of power, like a truck or a gun.

Even so, it’s not every day you see a kid movie quite this weird. The oddity doesn’t derive just from the laboriousness of the premise, nor from the mixed bag of name players in the cast—Rob Lowe, Danny Glover, Thomas Lennon, Amy Ryan, Barry Pepper, Frank Whaley. It’s also in the tension between the movie’s Trump-demographic setting and interests—rural white folks, souped-up trucks, a hero named like one of Sarah Palin’s kids—and the values implied by its environmentalism, its corporate villains and its general generosity of spirit.

This eccentricity left me unable to dislike Monster Trucks, though it’s corny and silly. In its visual style and its John Williams-ish music, it has the feel of a throwback, like a Spielberg knockoff from the ‘80s, and the audience with whom I saw it responded to it happily. 


20th Century WomenDespite the title—strange to think it now applies to a period piece—this film is a male coming-of-age story. The setting is Santa Barbara in 1979, where Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) lives with his chain-smoking single mom Dorothea (Annette Bening). After a safety scare, Dorothea nervily asks two young women to assist in raising Jamie.

One is teenage Julie (Elle Fanning), a troubled promiscuous neighbor who regularly sneaks over and shares a bed with Jamie but infuriatingly won’t let him touch her—she likes him too much. The other is older Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a purple-haired hipster and cancer survivor who introduces Jamie to the local punk scene. Also around is William (Billy Crudup), a mystical-minded handyman.

The writer-director is Mike Mills, drawing upon his own childhood for inspiration. His style is economical, showing a debt at times to Godfrey Reggio’s fast-motion visions (the film includes a clip from Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi). There’s plenty of high comedy, as when Jamie gets beat up by another kid over a disagreement about the necessity of “clitoral stimulation”—Bening’s facial takes in reaction to this explanation are classic.

Indeed, for all the excellence of Gerwig, Fanning, Crudup and Zumann, Bening is the knockout here. Dizzy with love for Jamie and the terror it breeds, grimacing with the effort not to say anything that alienates him, Dorothea may be the most magnificent, deeply funny, soulful creation of Bening’s career.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

QUITE A CREECH

With the family film Monster Trucks opening tomorrow, the choice…

Monster-of-the-Week: …seems obvious: Creech, the slimy tentacled pal of the teen hero…


Here’s Creech as depicted in some of the kid’s activity pages...


 
…to be found on the movie’s facebook page.

Friday, January 6, 2017

IT IS ROCKET SCIENCE

Opening today:


Hidden FiguresWe tend to think of NASA as part of the “New Frontier” and “Camelot” and the general unembarrassed optimistic idealism we associate, accurately or not, with the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. So it’s a slight jolt to realize that the space program, at least in its early days (then NACA, or the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics), was segregated.

It was, of course, decades before there were female or nonwhite astronauts, but in at least one facility, the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, the segregation was overt. A pool of female African-American “computers”—the term was applied to humans who performed complicated mathematical functions in those days—was relegated to a separate building and separate restrooms on the Langley campus until at least 1958.

This drama focuses on Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), who, among many other career achievements, calculated flight trajectories for John Glenn’s first orbital Mercury mission in 1962. It also depicts Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), the de facto supervisor of the department, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who became an aerospace engineer.

The director, St. Vincent’s Theodore Melfi, working from a script he wrote with Allison Schroeder (based, in turn, on Margot Lee Shetterley’s nonfiction book) seems to have compressed and conflated the chronology of events here for dramatic convenience, but he gets across the essentials of this remarkable story, another in the seemingly bottomless supply of belatedly-told instances of American achievement by women and minorities, in the face of outrageous intolerance. The style is standard inspirational uplift, and the characterizations aren’t deep, but the cast—the three leads and also Kevin Costner as the Langley big boss—are vibrant enough to fill in the blanks.

The bright primary-color cinematography and the midcentury period detail are parts of what make this cinematically inconsequential movie so pleasant. Another part, I confess, is the glamour of the lead actresses—I know we’re supposed to be celebrating their intellectual and social triumphs, but as they scurry around in their pencil skirts and glasses, they also show a lot of nerd chic.

A Monster CallsEnglish adolescent Conor (Lewis MacDougall) lives in a lovely old country house with his adored, cancer-afflicted young mother (Felicity Jones). One night, after he and his mom have watched King Kong together, Conor receives a visit at his bedroom window from a monster; an enormous anthropomorphic tree, something like the green man of myth, who speaks in the rumbling tones of Liam Neeson.

Over the course of the film, The Monster tells Conor three odd stories of elusive meaning, something like Sufi parables, insisting that when he is done with his three, Conor must tell him a fourth story. Eventually he tells The Monster his story and, as with the end of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, his own agonized, guilty secret is revealed.

This film, directed by J.A. Bayona, is based on the much-honored 2011 children’s novel by Patrick Ness, which was based, in turn, on an idea and some notes by the late writer Siobhan Dowd. It’s a poignant, handsomely-made piece of work, with beautiful animated sequences (illustrating The Monster’s stories) and fine acting, not only by MacDougall and Jones but by Toby Kebbell as Conor’s absentee dad and Sigourney Weaver as his stern, terrified grandmother. It’s also nice to see Geraldine Chaplin, in a small but effective role as an authority figure at Conor’s school.

Above all, it has a memorable presence in the great creaking, rustling, uprooted Monster. The special effects depicting him are lovely, and it’s nice to hear that urgently authoritative Neeson voice used for something other than threatening bad guys in lurid action movies.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

LIST PUMP

Time for that annual list of the movies that, at this particular highly subjective moment, seem like my ten favorites of the year: 


Moonlight—This naturalistic coming-of-age story from director Barry Jenkins about an African-American kid in Miami’s Liberty City and his subsumed sexual identity, among other struggles, inspires a litany of adjectives: Heartbreaking, harrowing, tender, beautiful, thoroughly original.

Manchester by the Sea—There’s an unbearable tragedy at the center of this New England drama, but as usual writer-director Kenneth Lonergan seems incapable of hitting a false note, the long-underrated Casey Affleck is superb in the lead, and Michelle Williams is unforgettable in her big scene.


Florence Foster Jenkins—Heaping praise on Meryl Streep started getting old three decades ago, but when she keeps offering up beguilingly silly work like this portrait of the Manhattan wannabe soprano, what else can you do? Hugh Grant is also at his best in this, as is supporting player Simon Helberg and director Stephen Frears. 

The Eagle Huntress—Whether or not it strictly qualifies as a documentary, Otto Bell’s chronicle, full of engaging non-actors using their real names, of a Mongolian Kazakh teenage girl breaking into the traditionally male field of eagle hunting is one-of-a-kind and exhilarating.

Paterson—Jim Jarmusch’s New Jersey idyll, about a week in the life of a bus driver and contentedly unknown poet, is suspiciously rose-colored in its view of the heartsease of an artist with a working life. But it’s such a serene fantasy, and Adam Driver is so sweet in the lead, that you’re likely to be drawn in.


Hell or High Water—This tight, pissed-off, grimly funny Texas noir features maybe the best use of the “cop about to retire” cliché ever. The four leads are outstanding: Chris Pine as a desperate small-potatoes bank robber, Ben Foster as his cheerfully nihilistic brother and partner, and Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham as the Texas Rangers hunting them.

Loving—A hushed, restrained, moving portrait of the people behind 1967’s famous Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision, which declared interracial marriage a constitutional right. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga are quietly superb in the leads.

Dr. Strange—Of this year’s big-studio blockbusters, this origin story for Marvel’s cheeky metaphysician may have been the most enjoyable. Benedict Cumberbatch is just right in the title role, Tilda Swinton is a delight as The Ancient One, and the production is polished and impressive. 



Star Trek: Beyond—On the other hand, this latest entry in the rebooted Trek franchise was also a lot of fun. It will never replace the original for me, but on its own terms, it’s pretty rollicking.

Morris From America—Another coming-of-age tale, this one a bit lighter: the hero is a 13-year-old aspiring American rapper stuck in Germany with his single father. Markees Christmas and Craig Robinson are terrific as son and father.

Here are some others I’m not sorry I saw: Christine (excellent but painfully depressing), De Palma (made me want to watch a bunch of his movies), Miss Hokusai (Japanese historical anime; would have made the Top Ten but imdb says it’s a 2015 movie), The Edge of Seventeen, Fences, Zootopia, Don’t Breathe, Love & Friendship, Rogue One, Sully, Trolls, The Love Witch, Max Rose, The Hollars, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, City of Gold, Queen of Katwe, Anthropoid, Bad Santa 2, The Bronze, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Lobster, Green Room, The Jungle Book, The Shallows, Hidden Figures, Finding Dory,  Life, Animated and the maligned new version of Ghostbusters.

Also, A Monster Calls, which opens tomorrow. So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to the title character of the 2011 book upon which that movie is based, seen here…

 
…as rendered in the award-winning illustrations of Jim Kay.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

YA BIG SLUG

RIP to the brilliant and funny Carrie Fisher, departed too soon at 60, and to her mesmerizingly talented mother Debbie Reynolds, who shockingly followed her just one day later, at 84.

In their honor… 

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to Jabba the Hutt, the slimy invertebrate who mistakenly supposed he could enslave Fisher's Princess Leia Organa in 1983’s Return of the Jedi


Sunday, December 25, 2016

ALL OF PITTSBURGH'S A STAGE

Merry Christmas everybody! Here’s part of what Santa brought you: 


FencesDenzel Washington directed and stars in this filming of August Wilson’s 1983 Tony and Pulitzer winning drama. He plays Troy Maxson, an African-American garbageman in 1950s Pittsburgh with a soul full of unresolved fury.

A superb baseball player as a youth, he was too old to make The Bigs by the time Jackie Robinson had broken through. He resents both his older son, a musician, and his younger son, a high school football star, for pursuing their dreams. Preemptively certain that the racist deck will be stacked against him—or maybe just envious—he works to scuttle the younger kid’s prospects of playing college ball. Troy is also keeping a wounding secret from his beloved, long-suffering wife Rose (Viola Davis) which leads to further heartache.

Working from a screen adaptation that Wilson completed before his death (reportedly with an uncredited rewrite by Tony Kushner), Washington doesn’t try to conceal the material’s theatrical origins. He only expands the locations a little from the play’s back-yard setting, and he certainly doesn’t tone down the heightened language and acting style. And as is often the case with movies made from one-set, small-ensemble plays, this was a shrewd move—the result is a highly satisfying focus on masterly performances.

There is fine work from the supporting cast, notably Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brain-damaged brother, Russell Hornsby as the elder and Jovan Adepo as the younger son and Saniyya Sidney as Troy’s youngest child. Stephen McKinley Henderson is particularly solid as Troy’s devoted, worried friend.

But they’re all secondary to Washington and Davis, who played the roles opposite each other on Broadway in 2010, and who clearly haven’t lost their rapport. They’re able to get across the ways in which grief and bitterness can become so ingrained in a person—or a marriage—that it can coexist quite comfortably with humor, civility, even affection.

Though polished and skillful, this movie is in no way groundbreaking as cinema, and it’s maybe a hair longer than it needs to be. But it’s a chance to watch, quite simply, two of the greatest actors in America, in their prime, in roles worthy of their abilities. The quiet, steady intensity of the stars makes Fences, at its best, almost hypnotic.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

AND TO ALL A GOOD FRIGHT

Merry Christmas, everybody. Here…

Monster-of-the-Week: …is Santa Godzilla, comin’ to town:


This guy needs no reindeer, you’ll notice.