Friday, March 24, 2017

TRIUMPH OF THE WILSON

Opening this week:

 
WilsonWoody Harrelson plays the title character in this adaptation of the 2010 graphic novel by Daniel Clowes of Ghost World fame. Wilson is long divorced and all but friendless, and it's not hard to see why—he's appallingly socially inappropriate, cheerfully making unsolicited, often bluntly insulting pronouncements to total strangers as he galumphs around Minneapolis. He lives over a karate school, in a small apartment cluttered with popular paperback novels—including, for some reason, two copies of QB VII—and alienates almost everybody he meets.

His only companion is his little dog Pepper—Umberto D is seen on a movie marquee, and Pepper looks very much like Umberto's dog Flike in that film. But when Wilson, even more emotionally adrift than usual after the death of his distant father, tries to broaden his social circle a bit, he reconnects with his ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern), a recovering addict, and their dour seventeen-year-old daughter Claire (Isabella Amara) that she gave up for adoption after leaving him. Finding himself the head of this forlorn little family unit gives him a sudden giddy, reckless euphoria.

Chaos ensues, both hilarious and painful. Hilarious because of Harrelson's delivery; he makes Wilson's unfiltered assertions rude yet bright and outgoing and friendly (not to mention that he often seems right on the money). He genuinely wants people to benefit from his perspectives, and his smiling manner suggests a congenial warmth and intimacy, as if to say ''no need to thank me."

It's painful because of his utter obliviousness, not only to the offense he gives but to his atrocious bad judgement and its consequences. The rambling story, which covers years, takes turns that are completely unpredictable, yet entirely and cringe-inducingly believable. Director Craig Johnson (of The Skeleton Twins), working from a script by Clowes, unfolds the narrative cleanly and gets strong acting not only from Harrelson but from Dern, Amara, Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines and others.

Not everything about Wilson works, even on its own cracked terms. A couple of scenes that escalate into slapstick violence seem forced and overbearing. And as it progresses, the movie seems to invite us to laugh at Wilson's intolerable behavior at the same time it's asking us to recognize his very real pain in a way that makes our laughter feel ungenerous. But even this response, though possibly unintentional, makes the film complex and interesting.



Personal ShopperBy day, our heroine Maureen works in the title capacity for a famous fashionista in Paris. Maureen’s twin brother Lewis has recently died, and so she’s taken to staying in the beautiful house he shared with his girlfriend by night, in hopes of receiving word from The Great Beyond—she’s a medium, as was he.

Eventually Maureen sees some fairly goosebump-raising ghostly manifestations, and she also starts receiving disturbing, provocative texts on her phone, and wonders if they might have a paranormal origin. Then matters take a more sinister turn.

It’s all very cool and chic and sexy and ambiguous and European. Writer-director Olivier Assayas manages to get Kristen Stewart, who plays Maureen, into some of the haute fashion items she’s been sent to fetch, and also out of them, which does no harm to the picture’s marketability.

But it should also be said that Personal Shopper transcends mere glossy glamour. Stewart comes to life here in a way that I haven’t seen from her in the past. Assayas gets past the blank, slightly slack-jawed quality she showed in the Twilight movies and finds a directness and a sullen, skittish bravery that’s quite touching. She’s in almost every scene of the picture, and she carries it convincingly.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

INALIENABLE WRIGHTSON

RIP to a true master of the macabre: the great horror and fantasy artist Berni Wrightson has passed on, at 68. Among many achievements, Wrightson is known for his superb illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1983) and as the creator (with writer Len Wein) of the DC Comics hero-monster Swamp Thing in 1972 (a character later brilliantly expanded upon by my fellow Erie-ite and pal John Totleben, in collaboration with Stephen Bissette and Alan Moore).

Obviously…

Monster-of-the-Week: …a Wrightson creation is in order, so how about…


…the lycanthrope from Cycle of the Werewolf, the Wrightson-illustrated Stephen King tale from 1983.

Friday, March 17, 2017

INTERN-AL COMBUSTION

Check out my story, on the New Times blog, about the upcoming indie film Car Dogs and the ASU "Film Spark" internship program connected to it.


Also, check out the March issue of Phoenix Magazine...


...for my "Four Corners" column on Valley steakhouses; it's on page 134, or here.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

TUSKMASTER

Your Humble Narrator wasn't able to get to the screening of Disney's new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, opening this week, but in its honor...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's give the nod to this cool, warthog-ish looking incarnation of the Beast, played by George C. Scott...



...opposite the undeniable Beauty of his real-life wife Trish Van Devere, in a 1976 Hallmark Hall of Fame production of the tale...


I saw it at the time, and remember it being pretty good.

Friday, March 10, 2017

THERE'S AN APE FOR THAT

Opening this week: 

 
Kong: Skull IslandIn 1973, just as the U.S. is bugging out of Vietnam, the Military-Industrial Complex mounts a secret but really obnoxiously intrusive expedition, via a swarm of helicopters, to the title island. Within minutes of arriving, the invaders find themselves getting the crap very justifiably beaten out of them by the title resident.

The survivors of the initial attack then squabble and try to regroup, and to survive further attacks by this skyscraper-sized primate as well as other gargantuan abominations. Notable among these are the “skull-crawlers,” a species of voracious reptiles that resemble two-legged monitor lizards with squalid, skull-like heads. The party also encounters human natives, and an American airman stranded there since WWII.

The original 1933 King Kong is my favorite movie, and giant monsters have been cinematic comfort food for me since I was a small child. So when I tell you that it’s been a while since I’ve had this much fun at a movie, I’ll understand if you take it with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, it’s been a while since I’ve had this much fun at a movie, and many people around me at the screening seemed to have the same response.

American popular moviemaking has been on a bit of a roll recently—two weeks ago we had the chiller Get Out, last week brought us Logan, and this week we get this boldly preposterous saga. It would be great if we could count on entertainment at that level every weekend.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts stages monster action with a true Brobdingnagian grandeur, and he and the special effects folks offer us a Kong who is brooding, irritable and lovable. Part of the pleasure of the movie is that he’s so much more sympathetic than the human visitors that one feels little compunction about wholeheartedly rooting for him.

There’s a tongue-in-cheek nerviness to the script, and the cast is full of character vets that can handle it. The supporting soldiers and researches are forgettable monster fodder, and the nominal hero and heroine, Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson, seem to have been cast for their ability to look great in t-shirts. But John Goodman, as the contractor leading the search, and Samuel L. Jackson as the Army Colonel who goes all Captain Ahab toward Kong, and John C. Reilly as the marooned pilot, ensure that the movie isn’t just an empty spectacle devoid of personality.

Kong: Skull Island is not, I suppose, a movie of particularly mature or wholesome sensibility. But it can’t fairly be called dumb, either—it’s made with skill, wit and imagination, and it has moments that could be called magical. 

 
The Ottoman LieutenantCall the title character Ismail, a dashing young Turk in the Ottoman army. He's played by a Dutch actor named Michiel Huisman, previously unfamiliar to me but very appealing. Our heroine, played by the Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar, is Lillie, a high-minded nurse from Philadelphia who goes to work in a clinic in Anatolia in the early days of World War I. She and Ismail fall in love, even though he's a Muslim and she's a Christian, even though the dull doctor at the clinic (Josh Hartnett) also loves her, and even though the Armenian Christians she cares for are in big trouble from the Turks.

This star-crossed interfaith romance tries to be sexy and swoony in the manner of a check-out line romance novel of the old school. The direction is by that excellent journeyman Joseph Ruben, who back in the '80s made three classic thrillers in a row: Dreamscape, The Stepfather and True Believer. The poor fellow hasn't been able to get a script worthy of his abilities since, but that doesn't stop him from bringing the best out of what he has to work with, like efficiently staging some exciting action scenes here, or from capitalizing on the expansive scenery.

Ben Kingsley easily nails his few scenes as another American doctor with whom Lillie bonds, a sick and bereaved man who labors on in spite of despairing doubt that life has any meaning. But crisp direction and a strong supporting turn can only take the movie so far, especially when there may be an unspoken agenda beyond the mild love story.

With its insipid dialogue and nagging, generically epic music, The Ottoman Lieutenant comes off as trite but watchable and harmless enough, on the surface. It would be remiss, however, not to note that the film, a Turkish-backed production, is grotesquely evasive about the Armenian Genocide that started in 1915, in which about a million and a half people perished.

The movie doesn't exactly deny the event, but it treats it obliquely, in bland passages from Lillie's narration like "the Ottomans took measures to stamp out the Armenian rebels, and the Armenians fought back," or "...some Armenian men were taken from their homes and conscripted to serve in the Ottoman army, while the round-up of Armenian women, children and the elderly had begun..." She never quite spits out what those "measures" were, or what the people were being rounded up for.

It's true that we're shown a small number of Ottoman soldiers massacring some Armenians on a country road. But there's no sense of the scope and sanction of the horror from this scene, the real point of which is that our valiant hero Ismail intercedes on the Armenians' behalf.

To be fair, this probably isn't much more outrageously disingenuous than, say, the classic John Ford epics are toward the real-life genocides of the American West. Still, behind all of The Ottoman Lieutenant's pieties and platitudes and tender longings and noble sacrifices, it's hard to miss a distinct whiff of whitewash.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

COVER VERSION

With Kong: Skull Island opening this weekend…

Monster-of-the-Week: …it only seems right to acknowledge one of the greatest pop-culture monsters of all time, so how about…


…this rendering of the Eighth Wonder of the World by the great Frank Frazetta, on the cover of this 1976 paperback edition of the 1932 Delos Lovelace novelization of the original movie. It was reprinted in 2005…



…by The Modern Library. I wonder if it was the first novelization ever to have that distinction?

Friday, March 3, 2017

EXIT CLAWS

Opening this week: 


Logan The Marvel superhero Wolverine, a Canadian mutant with regenerative powers verging on invincibility and long, claw-like blades he can distend from his knuckles, has been around in the comics since the ‘70s. He’s been played in the movies by Hugh Jackman since 2000, and this latest, which goes by his walking-around name of Logan, is said to be Jackman’s last.

This one finds Logan, haggard and careworn, working anonymously as a chauffer in a U.S./Mexico border town and supporting the dementia-afflicted Professor X (Patrick Stewart). The two men become guardians of Laura (Dafne Keen), a little girl with mutant powers remarkably similar to Logan’s, right down to the claws and the tendency to use them. Soon they’re all on the run from corporate forces led by a drawlingly evil security chief (Boyd Holbrook) and a mad scientist (Richard E. Grant).

The director is James Mangold, who previously helmed The Wolverine in 2013, and whose earlier movies include the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma and 1997’s High Noon-ish police drama Cop Land. His work often shows the influence of the classic westerns—the underdog facing powerful enemies with moral rectitude on his side. With Logan, Mangold overtly indentifies his hero with the title character in Shane, but he also infuses a strong, even heavy-handed streak of religious allegory into the story—this is Shane meets The Last Temptation of Christ. With extendable claws.

Mangold creates an atmosphere of dusty, ochre-toned defeat, and the actors match it. Jackman may never have done better work onscreen than this portrait of grudging, exhausted compassion, and Stewart’s enfeebled warmth is touching. Both have a rapport with silent, spooky Dafne Keen. Among the supporting cast, both Stephen Merchant as Caliban, a sort of mutant-bloodhound who has become Professor X’s caregiver, and Elizabeth Rodriguez as a desperate nurse add to the movie’s tragic flavor.

As with the other Wolverine flicks, I greatly enjoyed this gritty, gripping, melancholy chase picture, even though I was never a devotee of these comics. Be forewarned, though: With severed limbs and heads and bloody shootings and impaled henchmen from beginning to end, Logan is probably the most gory superhero movie I’ve ever seen (though I missed last year’s notorious Deadpool).

Despite this splatter, I was prepared to appreciate any superhero flick that didn’t climax with a bunch of skyscrapers collapsing into rubble, not to mention any movie that closes with Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around,” in its entirety, under the end credits. With superhero flicks, one should never assume anything is final, but if this truly is Jackman’s farewell to the role, than Cash gives him the perfect swansong.